Monday, May 05, 2008

Movies watched, March 23-April 12, 2008

Snow Angels, David Gordon Green, 2008

Snow Angels’ journey from book to film is rather interesting. David Gordon Green had initially written the script in 2003 for another director; the project was scrapped, then revisited several years later, this time with Green directing as well. The book, though I haven’t read it, is narrated by the teenage protagonist Arthur Parkinson, but as a grown man looking back on a rather painful time in his life—as his parents were divorcing, which also coincided with an incident involving his former babysitter. It’s one of those novels where the first-person narrator is omniscient, commenting on scenes and conversations he couldn’t have been privy to. In order to translate the story to the screen, the structure is altered so that it occurs in the present, from the perspectives of both Arthur and the aforementioned babysitter, Annie. Arthur and Annie are brought together in their current lives by working together at a Chinese restaurant, which might seem somewhat arbitrary as a plot device, but it doesn’t feel that way, especially considering that they eventually become linked in another, more unfortunate sense as well. (For more on the adaptation process, see Bookforum’s article, available here.

The film is framed by a rather uncoordinated marching band practice on a snowy field. The coach’s corny reprimanding speech is interrupted by the sounds of two gunshots in the distance—we are then presented with the series of events that culminated in said gunshots. In addition to the marching band, it also starts with several brief scenes depicting wintry small town life—picking up the newspaper, pumping gas, and so on. These scenes are echoed later in the film, and while they’re the same, shot-for-shot, they somehow feel different. They don’t have that same innocence, or neutrality, but are marked with what has happened, possessing a kind of weariness, an impression of trudging along through one’s routine even in the midst of tragedy.

Annie has recently separated from her emotionally unstable husband, Glenn. A recovering alcoholic who thinks he’s found God, Glenn is extremely attached to Annie, seemingly unable to function without her (they’ve been together since high school). He tried to kill himself when she left him, and though he claims he’s better now, his behavior is nonetheless erratic. Annie, on the other hand, seems much more together, at least on the surface—one can’t imagine why she’s still in this crappy little town—but her flaws are gradually revealed.

Annie and Glenn have joint custody of their four-year-old daughter, Tara, which forces them together on a weekly basis. Towards the beginning of the film, Glenn forgets to bring the stuffed rabbit he’d bought for Tara; he mutters “you forgot the rabbit” at various points throughout the film, this seemingly innocuous string of words transforming into a symbol for all of his failures and shortcomings. Every time he utters the phrase, it generates an almost tangible feeling of anguish; one can’t help cringing.

While we do get a bit of emotional relief in the scenes depicting Arthur’s and Lila’s burgeoning romance, the film mainly fluctuates between merely everyday depressing to soul-numbingly bleak, its conclusion rendering the viewer more or less speechless. It’s devastating to watch, its effects on my frame of mind lingering for hours after the credits rolled. This movie ruined a beautiful, sunny afternoon, although I don’t regret seeing it at all—I might recommend, however, that one watch it at night, so as not to carry its feelings of despair with them for too long before sleeping it off.

Snow Angels bears the same level of emotional intensity as David Gordon Green’s previous films—so it’ll be interesting to see his next movie, Pineapple Express, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad fame. I’m definitely curious to find out how the stoner comedy hit of the summer will look when filtered through Green’s directorial lens.

Halloween, Rob Zombie, 2007

The problem with most remakes of already great films is that they bring nothing new to the plate, serving no purpose other than to make money, and perhaps to introduce a new generation to an unknown classic. Thus, I had actually been looking forward to this movie as, working from John Carpenter’s advice to Rob Zombie that he “make it his own”, it contains original material delving deeper into Michael Myers’ past and psychology, exploring the root of his psychopathy, what drives him to kill—not so much a remake as a reimagining.

Unfortunately, what Zombie comes up with is boring and unoriginal. In this new scenario, the whole Myers household is screwed up. Michael’s mother is a stripper, his sister Judith is a slutty dresser (perhaps a stripper in the making), and his mother’s boyfriend is just kind of gross—he makes a pass at Judith at the breakfast table, and otherwise seems to be a worthless sponge on the Myers’ already meager funds. In addition to his stereotypically bad home life, Michael is picked on by school bullies—thus he snaps and kills the bullies, and his family, and anyone else who does or says anything mean to him.

That Michael’s upbringing was troubled seems the clichéd way of thinking, as if he were a Columbine case taken to the extreme. The film would have been much creepier if his family was seemingly normal and wholesome, that his violent tendencies were unexplainable, at least in a clearcut manner. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone whose mom is a stripper becomes a violent psychopath.

Zombie also attempts to develop the origin behind Michael’s face mask. Here, Michael becomes generally obsessed with masks while in the mental hospital, fashioning hundreds of them out of papier mache and newspaper, kind of like a bizarre version of a therapeutic arts and crafts project. He says he doesn’t want to show his face because it’s ugly—which, like the bad home life, seems like a clichéd, oversimplified explanation. I wish there weren’t so much analysis behind his wearing of masks—he finds one, he puts it on. End of story. Debra Hill, co-writer and producer of the original film, explains that the “idea was to make him almost humorless, faceless—this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not.” The idea stemmed not from an attempt at character-development but at creating a creepy, unsettling visual element, of which there is a paucity here. The way to make a film truly terrifying lies in the craft of filmmaking itself—use of sound, setting, visuals, and camera angles and movements. Then there’s the fact that making Michael seem more human ruins the mystery behind the character—part of the horror is that we don’t understand him, or how he came to be this way, and perhaps we shouldn’t. Basically, this was a very misguided, though possibly well-meaning, effort.

Coffy, Jack Hill, 1973
Foxy Brown, Jack Hill, 1974

Coffy is a sexy black nurse who seeks vengeance when her younger sister becomes involved with drugs and is sold contaminated heroin. Foxy Brown is a sexy black woman who seeks vengeance when her government agent boyfriend is shot down by gangsters.

There’s a good reason why the plots of these two films are so similar: Foxy Brown was initially intended as a sequel to Coffy (titled Burn, Coffy, Burn!), but at the last minute the studio decided that they didn’t want it to be a sequel after all. The character’s name was changed, and the script no longer revealed where she worked, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same character, if not the same movie—at the very least, the same basic premise.

Both Coffy and Foxy find themselves immersed in the seedy criminal underworld, taking out drug dealers and pimps, mobsters and crooked cops. It seems that in the realms of these films, there’s no such thing as an honest politician (except for Foxy’s dead boyfriend)—everyone is making deals with the mob, taking bribes, and turning a blind eye to drug trafficking and prostitution.

Coffy/Foxy is a resourceful and quick-witted lady, willing to use her body to lure criminals in and trick them into letting their guard down. In Coffy, she pretends to come onto one of the cops who are holding her hostage. Just as they’re about to do the deed, she grabs a bobby pin hidden in her afro—in a previous scene, she’d found it on the ground in the shack she was locked inside, sharpening it on a piece of stone—and stabs the cop in the neck in order to escape. And in Foxy Brown, she goes undercover as a high-class call girl in order to get to those responsible for her boyfriend’s death.

Despite her violent tendencies (and hey, she’s driven to these actions by the brutality of the world around her), she’s an appealing character, sticking up for the little guy, and sticking it to the crooks and thugs who plague our society. As Foxy says, vigilante justice is “as American as apple pie.”

While for the most part serving as pure entertainment, the films also touch on themes of racial and social injustice. For instance, Link’s lament over the plight of the black man: “I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football hero, and too ugly to be elected mayor...I just get so full of ambition. Now you tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition.” His character isn’t really all that sympathetic though, as in addition to directing his ambition toward dealing coke, he turns in his own sister, who just happens to be our heroine, Foxy Brown. Luckily, Foxy is not a force to be reckoned with—as Link says, “that’s my sister, baby, and she’s a whole lotta woman.”

Charley Varrick, Don Siegel, 1973

Charley Varrick opens with a bank robbery committed by masked men, some of whom don’t make it out alive. When the robbers, led by Charley Varrick—played by Walter Matthau, who on the surface seems an odd choice for the role, but it works beautifully—check out their loot, they find that they’ve made off with a lot more money than they’d expected to, a good sign that they’ve inadvertently knocked off a mafia-run bank. And if you have something of theirs, the mob doesn’t stop looking for you until you’re dead.

The remainder of the film addresses the process of dealing with this debacle. Varrick wants to play it safe and wait a few years before they even touch the money; his rather unwise partner, the weaselly Harman Sullivan, is itching to spend it, and insists that he’s not afraid of a bunch of gangsters. Throughout the film, up until the climax—which involves a memorable chase scene between a car and a cropduster plane—we’re convinced that Charley’s made a terrible mistake, that he’s been too trusting and fallen prey to some dishonest people—even more dishonest than he is—but in the end, his casual gum-chewing demeanor prevails. And one begins to wonder, to question whether the information we’ve been given can be believed—did Charley survive by the skin of his teeth, or was it all carefully planned to happen exactly as it did?