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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes it rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa.


When we first meet Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the loose living nightclub manager is pursuing hedonistic pleasure with reckless abandon. Considered an indirect member of the criminal Bujayev family, he tries to keep his nose clean while avoiding confrontations with his cop relatives. Brother Joseph (Mark Walhberg) is one of New York City’s finest, and dad Burt (Robert Duvall) is a well respected captain. They’ve always viewed Bobby as a black sheep, from his choice of girlfriend – skanky Puerto Rican party girl Amanda (Eva Mendez) to the decision to change his last name from ‘Grusinsky’ to ‘Green’. Still, the man has his inroads with the mob, and so when his kin comes calling for a favor (Joseph wants to put the pinch on Russian dope dealer – and Bujayev nephew - Vadim Nezhinski) – Bobby tries to help. The resulting mess puts his father and brother in harms way, and threatens his comfortable, if morally ambiguous, place between right and wrong.


In a world where movies like State of Grace, Carlito’s Way, The Departed, Eastern Promises, and other dark double crossing mafia dramas didn’t exist, We Own the Night might have worked. Indeed, it offers exceptional performances, a twisty, complicated script, and lots of subjective scope. From the massive opening sequence inside the multi-story El Caribe nightclub, to the last act firefight along the New York/New Jersey shoreline, this is a movie that understands the need for impressive backdrops. It even provides a potent action scene or two, as when a wet and rainy day turns into a life or death car chase between our players. There is palpable urban grit, a real sense of a city under siege. Why Gray chose to set the film in the mid ‘80s remains a mystery, however. Aside from a few shots of post-disco decadence, the era is not really important.


Yet that minor detail perfectly illustrates We Own the Night’s main failing. Several times throughout the course of this otherwise average thriller, we find ourselves wondering about the artistic and narrative choices being made. For example, the Grusinsky family seems like your typical blue collar clique. They embrace each other with a weariness born out of the immigrant experience. But there’s very little insight into their interpersonal problems. It appears to be as simple as “be a policeman” or “be an enemy”. Neither Duvall nor Phoenix have a moment that fully describes their distance from each other, while Walhberg appears pissed off as a matter of implied birthright. We get ancillary comments from the personal peanut gallery (when did Toma’s Tony Mussante get so old?) but the lack of an actual anchor keeps us from really getting to know these men.


The same goes for the Bujayevs. Sure, Gray needs to maintain a certain level of secrecy in order to get his last act reveals to work, but aside from a kind hearted momma earnestly shoveling food toward Bobby, we get no firm indication of how they interact. Unlike Cronenberg’s Promises, which this film had the unfortunate luck of following, We Own the Night never allows us behind the scenes of the inner working of the Russians. Even supposed heavy Vadim Nezhinski supplies a kind of villainy in name only. He’s intimidating, and appears capable of some substantive cruelty, but he’s not the threat we need in this type of thriller. He’s more of a look than a legitimate enemy. And since the storyline centers on dope – not something more enigmatic like white slavery or influence peddling – the routine aspects of such an approach become all the more apparent.


Thankfully, the acting saves this sagging excuse for a crime flick. Phoenix has the much more difficult role here, and he brings a nice believable balance between duty and disinterest. We feel his need to be accepted, to be part of a group that appreciates him for what he is, not what he can be. Similarly, Duvall delivers on what is, in essence, a thankless icon role. As the dad who’s demanding to a fault, he gives good paternalism. But there are times, as when violence threatens his sons, where he turns off the machismo and lets his feelings show. Wahlberg, sadly, is a waste. While trying to play tough, and then troubled, he comes across as weak and wimpy. Gone is the chest-thumping bravura of The Departed. In its place is a weird wounded quality that never quite provides a sense of dimension. With Eva Mendez taking back everything good she did in Ghost Rider (she is insignificant here) and Danny Hock delivering a star-making turn as Bobby buddy Louis, it is safe to say that We Own the Night is as mixed in its performances as it is in its messages.


Indeed, Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts. With limited amounts of blood, a real attempt to have events play out in some manner of insular, unidentifiable logic, and the persistent problem of witnessing characters do things that are no longer new or novel, James Gray ends up providing further proof that, as a meaningful marketplace of invention, Tinsel Town is trapped in an endless cycle of sameness – and its not just the redux fueling the reputation. At this point in the artform, certain genres need a well deserved rest. The mafia may still grab the culture’s attention, but as We Own the Night illustrates, the window of viability has narrowed significantly.



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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. So Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.


Most films with this much quality and caliber behind them usually find ways to reach a kind of creative convergence. Like the movie it’s most akin to – Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Verdict – there’s a strange subjective synchronicity that occurs. Everything blends – the acting, the script, the direction, the art design, the subplots, the supporting players, even the seemingly insignificant sequences - to propel us from point A to point B on a cushion of able aesthetic air. Michael Clayton doesn’t contain this. Instead, it’s an overwritten work that reaches beyond its corporate intrigue basics to address issues both metaphysical and downright meaningless. The immense amount of aptitude inherent in everyone involved is a huge benevolent barricade to overcome. But first time feature filmmaker Tony Gilroy (responsible for the coolly kinetic scripts for the Bourne franchise) lets tangents and unnecessary histrionics mar what would otherwise be a winning awards season home run.


Our plot begins in the middle, with the title character (played with angst driven darkness by a great George Clooney) locked in mid-meltdown. The high level New York law firm, where he works as a ‘fixer’ – read: solver of the unsolvable problems - has been involved in a massive class action civil suit for the last six years. They represent the corrupt chemical firm U/North, a faceless international agricultural conglom that’s accused of poisoning the people of small farms all throughout the United States. Thanks to the maverick decisions of senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) however, the pre-litigation process has dragged on and on, providing lots of billable hours. One day, the man loses his mind, stripping naked in the middle of a deposition and spewing semi-psychotic rhetoric. Even with his history of manic depression, Clayton recognizes something is significantly wrong. The crackup calls into question the firm’s ability to represent their client, and this causes U/North’s in-house council (Tilda Swinton) to panic. She calls in her own group of ‘maintenance’ men, who have much deadlier ways of dealing with this kind of concern.


From that description alone, Michael Clayton appears masterful. It has the look of legitimate Oscar bait, from its muted cinematography and sweeping compositional grandeur to the moments of individual nuance, as when Swinton’s stressed out witch sweats through her clothes during a bathroom panic attack. Yet combating those stylistic strategies is dialogue that’s dripping with freshly scribbled insignificance, rants meant to sound formidable but end up appearing rather surreal. Since we don’t meet Wilkinson’s eccentric attorney until he’s already swung over to the demented dark side, we have little to compare against his ever present speechifying. There’s no balance to his nuttiness, no way of seeing beyond the bare ass brimstone caught on tape. While he’s an intriguing catalyst for all that will come, he’s hollow as the center of self-righteous indignation.


Clooney is much better at metering out morality while avoiding its ethical sting. When we first meet Clayton, he’s in the midst of a hit and run jam. Setting right a priggish client who expects miracles instead of a visit from the police, we get the standard reactionary riot act. But then Gilroy gives Clooney an additional moment, a chance to give this jerk a definitive dressing down that underscores his overall dissatisfaction with his job. Like a superhero for screw-ups, Clayton is an overworked wizard, and the procedural aspects of his job would make a stellar suspense flick in their own right. But our screenwriting savant can’t leave well enough alone. He has to pile on the problems – gambling, indebtedness, bad business sense, a drug addled brother, pain in the butt ex, seldom seen son, and a glum, unforgiving family. By the time our lead discovers the cabal plotting against him, we sense its purpose could come from a dozen different interpersonal directions.


Oddly enough, it’s the supporting parts that help keep things in check. Sydney Pollack plays a partner with a combination of tenacity and culpability. He recognizes how crooked his firm is, but also senses that things haven’t reached John Grisham territory – at least not yet. Michael O’Keefe is excellent as the asshole that sees through everyone while compelled to hurl those harmful glass house stones, and Sean Cullen is cool if cranky as Michael’s less than understanding cop sibling. Since they appear only briefly and must make their impact immediately, Gilroy doesn’t goof around. He keeps these ancillary facets tight and direct. It’s in stark contrast to one of the movie’s more disturbing subplots – the fact that Wilkinson’s character appears to be indirectly seducing the teenage sister of one of the plaintiffs.  While it may be nothing more than a case of insanity fueled white knighthood, there is a creepy, near pedophilic vibe to the material that makes us uncomfortable.


Besides, Michael Clayton doesn’t really need to go and push those buttons. It’s already overstocked with far too many possible dramatics. It doesn’t have to expand into faulty fringe elements or disturbing depravity. But Gilroy trips up and gives in to the temptation to expand whenever the magnifying muse calls, and the story starts to unravel about halfway through. All the late night cellphone calls and dirt digging may seem suspenseful, but when placed aside a man who screams about saving innocence, our corporate counsel with hitmen on her speed dial, and a protagonist who will play all sides against each other to complete the mandatory last act comeuppance, it becomes ambiguous. Maybe post-millennial audiences will respond to a movie that appears incapable of maintaining a single, strong focus. They’re probably used to such ADD styled situations from their own personal plight.


Still, Michael Clayton does offer some entertainment heft. It anticipates our expectations and prepares an answer in advance. It sees human foibles as badges of honor, and views the standard business model as an evil means to an always criminal ends. As a main man crush, Clooney could cobble together a series of scenes based on the phone book and viewers would still find him imminently fascinating. It’s to Gilroy’s good fortune that he agreed to hop on board. Without him, this otherwise fractured non-noir would turn tumbleweed and simply blow away. Everything here adds up to a wonderful mainstream achievement. Sadly, there’s very little art or its mastery to be found.



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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007

Advertisers appear to be salivating at the prospects of sending ads to individuals’ cell phones, and they are hoping to bait the hook for consumers by promising that ads will subsidize the cell phones and make them free to use. So having private and personal conversations brought to you by Nike and Starbucks and Miller Lite may not be too far off. As a non-cell-phone user, I can only speculate as to how annoying this will be, though I’d be much more likely to use a cell phone if I didn’t have to decode the arcane service plans to get one. I don’t need the “convenience” of being always accessible so badly that I’m willing to feel perpetually ripped off by roaming charges and binding contracts and other hidden fees to have it. I’ve always had difficulty wrapping my mind around the monthly minutes model and the other price discrimination techniques in play with cell phones, and I still can’t fathom why text messages are so costly. Maybe when they are supported by ads the way many email services are, that will change.


The advantages to marketers of cell-phone ads are self-evident: The cell phone tracks where you are and allows for the ultimate in contextual ad placement. This is why Google is trying to get in on the action. It also compiles data on what are interested in and what sort of people you talk to, and if they are linked in as well, what they are interested in and so on. The cell phone network that marketers could tap into is much like the social networks mapped out on MySpace and Facebook, only much more useful—much less fictional, and intimately connected with one’s actual conduct in the material world. And because the medium is so personal, the ads can be personalized to the most extreme degree without the danger of alienating those not in the target audience. Presumably, some consumers will find such finely targeted ads useful rather than intrusive. They will want to, for example, know what marketers want them to think of the various retail outlets they might happen to be passing at any given moment.


Tyler Cowen, however, suspects that people probably don’t want ads invading the inner sanctum of their phone.


Most people tolerate ads in their TV and radio shows, and indeed most of cable has evolved into an ad-supported medium. [But] many viewers turn on the TV or radio to dull their senses and simply to hear voices or see faces.  Those who want more buy HBO and TiVo.  In contrast, we call on the cell phone to feel in control of a situation (am I too influenced by my experience of a teenage stepdaughter?).  The last thing the caller wants is to have that feeling of control interrupted by…lack of control.


I don’t know that people would experience ads directly at them personally as a loss of control, though; they may find it flattering—“Just imagine, these huge megacorporations have gone to the trouble of getting to know me and my habits personally.” A small minority will be utterly creeped out by the thought of all this invasive surveillance, but others will feel the same thrill that reality-TV participants must feel when they know lots of people are watching. Advertising may keep lonely people company, and who is more lonely than the person addicted to checking a cell phone for updates?


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007

In an interview I did a decade ago, composer David Behrman said: “As far as machines being the enemy, I’m convinced that technology is amoral. Whether it’s a force for good or evil or neither depends on who is doing what with it and for what reason.”  I came back to that after I read a Christian Science Monitor article about the power and limits of Facebook.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.


Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.


No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.


The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.


Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.


As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.


Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.


Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.


This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.


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