Monday, July 12, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

Cache (2005)
Michael Haneke occasionally makes great films, despite himself — even with his occasional disdain for his audience (sometimes that's the entire point). But, if one of his films can stand on their own as a piece of entertainment, it's gotta be Cache.
Stripped of its social commentary of Hollywood's blood-thirsty schadenfreude, Haneke's best known film Funny Games still works as a horror film, albeit an unconventional one.
Stripped of its political commentary and meditations on guilt, Cache ("Hidden" in English) largely works as a suspense thriller. For the first two acts, Cache slowly unnerves its audience, as a middle-aged couple receives VHS tapes in the mail showing the outside of their home, occasionally accompanied by a childlike drawing. Theories about who might be sending the threatening postage tear at the fabric of their marriage, their relationship with their son, and eventually bring to light a secret from the husband's childhood. The secret functions as a metaphor for a 1970s massacre of Algerian civilians in Paris that has largely been swept under the rug in history books. Though by the final act, Haneke lets his thematic convictions take hold, and he disregards the conventional plot arc, leaving viewers waiting for an eventually unrealized conclusion. Because, as Haneke says in the DVD extras, the who-done-it plot, in the end, doesn't make a yarn of difference to the ultimate meaning of his film.

As a conversation starter and brain igniter, Haneke always wins. His ending is more than open-ended, it's not a predictably "unHollywood ending," where things happen just in the exact opposite way they would here. It's a purposeful statement about national and personal guilt, wrapped in a "suspense" package (though by American standards a very slow and deliberate one). But, the greatest role Haneke has yet to play is that of fully-formed story teller and point-maker at the same time. Note: The White Ribbon, Haneke's lastest, sits on my desk, and I'll be watching that soon, so we'll see if he's changed at all. A-
eXistenZ (1999)
I watched this after the's "Scenic Routes" feature focused on the film's "gristle gun" scene. Jude Law is a body guard assigned to escort virtual-reality-game designer Jennifer Jason Leigh into one of her own creations to track down a virus — planted by a rival corporation — designed to infecting and kill her invention from the inside. This is a David Cronenberg film, so the video game consoles are organic in nature, not plastic, are disgusting as hell and require a little body mutilation to communicate/integrate with, via an umbilical chord-like connection. In said Gristle-Gun scene, Law and Leigh are in an Asian restaurant (inside the game). Law orders the special, which is a plate of disgusting sea creatures unlike anything we'd ever eat. He begins methodically eating the mess, slowly discovering that the bones and gristle fits together into a gun that shoots teeth. It's an amazing scene. But like the rest of the film, it's only momentarily brilliant — one amazing idea tied to the next via laborious pseudo-techno jargon and stilted exposition. Philip K. Dick-worthy reality mind-fucks in the film's final act nearly redeem a ramshackle story. Oh yeah, throughout the film Cronenberg uses various characters as mouth pieces to espouse his various ham-fisted rants against video gaming and their reality-eschewing properties. No matter how prescient  Cronenberg often is, it's almost always clunky here. C+

Shutter Island (2010)
Some of the most enjoyable entertainment occurs when a "serious" artist has some fun and jumps in the genre mud pits. Marten Scorcese does exactly that here with Shutter Island, taking his Oscar-worthy chops and creating a pitch-perfect thriller. Shutter Island is Marty's first foray into pulpy genre film-making since Cape Fear, and he knocks the fucker out of the park. In turns suspenseful, tragic, terrifying, but most of all entertaining, he even manages to maneuver the twist that you don't want to be the twist, and makes it work. In a lessor director's hands, this could have been a cliched mess. A

Crazy Heart (2009)
Like the The Wrestler in 2008, Crazy Heart jumps in at the rock-bottom moment most overwrought biopics crawl to at about the two-hour mark, this is the part shortly after Johnny Cash falls down on stage and everyone writes him off, or when Jake Lamotta is fat and telling bad one liners at dive bars. Jeff bridges brings us in at the vortex of the downward spiral, and accomplishes the essential trick: making us care about a heartless bastard and his hopeful redemption. Lots of good original music and performances, too. B+

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