Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: King of the Hill (1993)

Keep your mind away from Mike Judge for a moment and think Depression-era drama, starring a kid. Think Soderbergh’s first foray into eye-blasting color saturation, and return to really sweaty photography. Think the closest thing to American neo-realism a few steps back from 10 Items or Less. Think heavy character interaction without much of a plot to give them a structure to dance about in a jangly fashion. You’re here.

We watch a series of months in this kid Aaron’s life. He’s a good older brother, he stands up to bullies and excels in school, makes friends easily, rows with the Irish street cop… all in all he seems like a goodun in spite of fucking up in seldom-yet-major ways, some latent anarchism there, perhaps a type that will grow into one of them annoying artests. You know the kind, they write a book about their life years later and deny that they're proud of the crimes they got away with. Still, I can’t help but like him a little, thanks to Jesse Bradford’s performance… he’s the guy from Clockstoppers…

So, these series of events that happen alter his life like sudden jerks on a wheel but don’t have too lasting an impression on his life, (meaning “the movie,” I’m sure the character will remember that they happened). Aaron finds a dead body, almost crashes a car into a bunch of kids playing stickball, is trapped in all of his white lies at once, sees his mother off to a sanitarium, sees his brother off on a bus to granmama’s, watches a friend get arrested, almost starves to death, almost gets kicked out of his home, etc. etc. Until the film ends with the main players still alive, having learned… something…

Alternate title: Things That Happen Without Cohesion. Soderbergh might not have known what he was making, but it’s more likely that he relates to the material more than any of us ever will. This happens to filmmakers sometimes, and worst case scenario is a film that feels like a waste of time. Muddling it further is Cliff Martinez, a far cry from the Alice he will be in Traffic; he needs to ease up on the score a little.

For all intents and purposes, it’s the same film as Kafka: an individual as a tragic casualty in a world lorded by sinister figures in positions of authority, but played for whimsy from the eyes of a child. Then stuffed with nostalgia. Like all this shit already happened. You heard me, the eyes, damn you.

And like Kafka, this thing doesn’t have a region 1 DVD release. I have to settle for this VHS screener’s copy I stumbled across years ago. In an attempt to market it to these people and ease them into what they are about to experience, there are some blurbs on the back (in place of a plot description). One reads, “A thinking man’s Home Alone.” … I don’t think that’s what it is…


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Kafka (1991)

This type of project has failed before. Hammett, also about a famous writer embroiled in a real mystery that somehow mirrors his fictional work, was an incredible misfire in all respects. Seriously, watch that fucking thing some time, try to comprehend its plot underneath all that inept directing and editing. Jesus. And that had two acclaimed directors working on it! How do you fuck that up?!

Oh, but not this, though. Sorry. This movie is awesome.

Lem Dobbs’s script reads like a test run for his later work, Dark City. It’s all about the ill-equipped Individual against a sinister, enslaving System perpetrating a bafflingly large experiment against The People. Unlike John Murdoch, Franz Kafka spends most of the movie ambivalent to the plot, skirting authoritarian and revolutionary alike and wanting nothing more than to be left alone. Much of the film’s action is Kafka suddenly involved in a chase, or an investigation he wants no part of, or as subject to an expository meeting. It is perhaps twenty minutes before the end of the film when he decides to man up and affect something.

Stylistically, the gulf between Kafka and Sex, Lies and Videotape is vast. Filmed in black & white (mostly) in Prague, Soderbergh creates an oppressive mood with dark alleyways that mirror the corridors of bureaucratic offices, and I suspect more than once directly referencing Orson Welles’s The Trial. Where Sex, Lies had a gritty, voyeuristic feel, this is like being trapped in an expressionist painting, shadows so sharp they'll cut ya.

If you didn’t love Jeremy Irons before (what’s wrong with you?), at least love him here. His standing performance alone carries the film beautifully, but his narration cracks with a strain that indicates a body supporting a monsterous, infinitely ancient world kept at bay from the mind. Plus I would totally be gay for that deep-ass voice of his.

It’s an incredibly smart story with incredibly smart casting and directing, the absolute ideal Second Project. Of Soderbergh’s, it’s the only one that vilifies a strong government rather than a strong corporation, and champions an individual for his own benefit and not one for the promise of social gain. It's also one of his best films.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

I can't imagine someone making a debut this way nowadays. It would either be a schlocky horror film with lots of tits or an abrasive, hard-to-see Dogme 95 film. Not many left would throw all of their budget into making a low-budget drama looking as understated as possible, the mantra "cast over equipment, cast over equipment!"

Peter Gallagher (John) is cheating on his wife Andy McDowell (Anne) with her sister Laura San Giacomo (Cynthia, and mmmm… mmhmmhmm…), when James Spader (Graham) comes along and disrupts their lives with his unusual method of masturbating. He is to marriage what Visitor Q is to family without that goddamn brick.

And that's pretty much it for the duration. It’s a thin premise that by appearance, only offers up future opportunities for sex-fucking. How else would you explain it to an investor? A man who films women merely talking about sex, not engaging in it, and this has the power to wake people out of an unhappy relationship. No sooner does Graham arrive than the affair falls apart and Anne finds out the truth without direct involvement on his part.

I suppose this isn’t entirely inaccurate in terms of how people actually operate within these situations. Sometimes the simple act of verbally confronting a habit is enough to spin people out of it. And Graham demonstrates an ease about sexuality that makes the other characters envious; even Cynthia, who is the movie’s slut. It’s only at the climax when Anne hijacks the moral high ground against Graham, just in case anyone thinks the film is saying that women should allow men to film them.

The climax, speaking of, is cumbersome. It sort of debases the truth manifest in the camera lens. Graham is made an actual person again. With a literal interpretation, it all seems too easy. The variant complexities of the characters fit into one another like a jigsaw. Cynthia goes and does art shit, John is left without a hole to fuck/cheat on and possibly declining status at work, which leaves Graham and Anne with each other.

It’s not an entirely satisfactory ending, but… it’s adequate, we’ll say. In spite of it, the story works. It doesn’t betray its internal logic and the filmmaking style doesn’t overtly attempt pretense with over-stylized bullshit, which one could argue permeates Soderbergh’s later work to a distracting degree.