Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Grey (2011) 3 of 4

** moderate spoilers **

Liam Neeson is close to a Western star for recent decades, based on films not quite Westerns: Ethan Frome (1993), Rob Roy (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), Kingdom of Heaven (2005).  The underrated Seraphim Falls (2006), also with Pierce Brosnan, might be Neeson's only literal visit to the genre.  (He's also in the parody A Million Ways to Die in the West.)

In The Grey he's Ottway, salaried killer of wolves for an oil company in the Arctic.  We'll learn he's lost his wife, which has made life an onerous duty.  He describes the oil crew he's protecting: "ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes" (compare Deadwood and The Hateful Eight).  As in John Carpenter's The Thing, men are a dangerous subculture to be exiled at 30-below.

As a company plane takes off, the karma's bad, as in Alien.  A nervous roughneck can't shut up, blurting the plane may crash: the trigger sin.  It crashes.  The good news: they have a wolf expert, as Ottway takes leadership of the dwindling group, informing them wolves have a 30-mile "kill radius."  The bad news: they have no way of knowing where's the den.

The Grey is a neat trick, a hit film about death.  While downbeat, it's an exciting, inventive thriller, with spectacular action as the men deal with wolves, weather, and unforgiving terrain.  The wolves are CGI, and not fully believable, but as in Frozen (2010), they're mostly off-screen.  The British Columbia locations are thrilling; evidently, the actors and crew endured bitter cold.

It's an open question what the title refers to: grey wolves, presumably (although these as often appear brown or black).  The weather is grey.  The characters face death, a grey zone shielding mystery.  Finally, most of the men are white: if "grey," they're fading, becoming historical.

It's implied the plane crashes because delayed by workers acting up and complaining (a supervisor says "You guys are fucking this up").  Sometimes, we allow a narrative to say what's taboo, thus we've lately seen many film-narrative plane crashes, and many widowers: the dead (missing) wife (or child) represents a line ending.  Unlike Stagecoach and The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Grey presents an afflicted band without women.  Unlike The Searchers or Open Range, this alpha male isn't protecting a settlement: he fights for his own survival, because it's-what-you-do, even when there's nothing decent left to protect.  Even when the wolf is at the door. 

** dedicated to the memory of Roger Ebert, who praised The Grey 15 months before his passing in 2013 **

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Not of This Earth (1957) 3 of 4

not of this earth 
** spoiler warning **

In a society based on assimilation, infiltrators need only learn language and behaviors, but terror unfulfilled eventually yields to laughter.  As the paranoid decade cracked a smile, Hollywood sci-fi enjoyed its first golden moment: 1956's Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, and 1958's The Blob, The Fly, and I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

Garland posing for Corman's Gunslinger
Unlike those, Roger Corman's original Not of This Earth is overtly comic.  It settles an alien vampire in Southern California, his predatory habits escaping notice of suburbanites working their own angles.  They include teens with their insistent slang (a new phenomenon, meriting extended notice).  Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna's script is witty and inventive, yielding a hybrid of The Outer Limits ("The Duplicate Man," maybe) and Mad Magazine.

The alien passing as businessman "Paul Johnson" (Paul Birch) has the power to cloud men's minds.  His easiest mark is the 40ish blood-bank doctor; later, a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (Dick Miller) provides lunch: as paperbacks and magazine articles warned, (aging) corporate men were at risk of dehumanization.  Stalwart resistance comes from the margins: a free-spirit chaffeur (Jonathan Haze), a motorcycle cop and his love interest, nurse-with-moxie Nadine Storey (Beverly Garland).

Garland was a pistol, and the droll center of the movie.  Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia notes Garland's career was "hampered by frequent confrontations with producers and the press"; collating with her persona, she had a backbone before fashionable.  In any case, Garland is more alive than anyone else (there's a pall over Johnson), and credible as alien fighter: she's used to deflecting predators.

There's inherent humor in a beautiful woman, e.g., the only thing creepier than an old man advancing on a beauty is one (like Johnson) who refrains completely.  He hires Nadine, charging her with "seeing to it I do not expire" -- he always talks that way.

His troubled planet is Davanna.  Like the ottoman Dick Van Dyke tripped over, "divan" could suggest a xenophobia of objects.  As in The Invaders a decade later, these aliens are collectivists who literalize pejoratives: anemic, bloodless, dead-eyed, death-warmed-over.  Their quasi-vampirism has scientific causes, as in I Am Legend (published 1954).  Finally, like the Vidians in Star Trek: Voyager, the Davannans will sacrifice others to save themselves from disease. 

Nadine isn't quite a final girl, requiring male assistance to survive.  Old weird Johnson's mission is evaluating humans for "pasturing," i.e. as livestock (compare Daybreakers), with transport to Davanna, evidently, via a mirror frame outfitted with ping-pong balls.  The enthralled Nadine is the beta-test, but the cop runs Johnson into a ravine and fiery death.  The tag seems to tease a never-made sequel.  Not of This Earth was remade in 1988 (with Traci Lords) and 1995; it's past time for another.     


  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gangs of New York (2002) 2.5 of 4

** minor spoilers only **

I see good and bad here, much of it stemming from Martin Scorsese's status as Hollywood elder.  The bad news: at the end, candles are placed on the dead after the draft riots, so survivors can identify loved ones.  The problem: the scene is lit such that candles wouldn't be necessary (on the DVD).  Judging from Scorsese's progressively impersonal output, he's lost the will to defy industry SOP.  Gangs of New York mostly ignores the overcrowding, debilitation, vermin and stench that prevailed in slums of the era (if not today's).

At the same time, Scorsese had the pull to deliver a star-filled epic about an historical period usually avoided (even so, the film was shot in Rome, with both Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly taking reduced salaries).  The ethnic and regional divisions of the 19th century remain, thus the appeal of the Western, which skirts the issues, and Civil War films that flirt with "Lost Cause" Confederate nostalgia.

While it may simplify local history,
Gangs of New York implies a disturbing truth: at one time in America, white supremacy was inclusive, it was multiculturalism.  (The film gestures anti-racism, but partly for our sensibilities.)

Divisions between Euro-American groups threatened to tear New York City -- tear the nation -- apart.  The U.S. stayed united by exalting whiteness (as do Lost Cause movies).  Of course, American racism held other benefits, especially free or cheap labor.  Today, white supremacy as national identity seems pathological, like losing weight by smoking cigarettes.  Still, it's our history, its legacy unresolved.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Red Planet (2000) 1.5 of 4

** spoiler warning  **

best sequence: landing on Mars, with air bags
I've always heard this was a stinker, but as a sci-fi fan couldn't help car-wreck curiosity.  Red Planet is one of those movies so poorly sewn together, the subtext is evident while watching, as if the screenwriters did a nude scene.

Red Planet is a "deal movie," crossed with a feminist take on white males as the problem-population-at-millennium.  The movie opens with clunky narration from mission leader Carrie-Anne Moss -- who is she talking to? -- sound techs should avoid cosmic echo when the actor speaks colloquially, as in "we were kidding ourselves" and "gonna."

It seems Earth is dying of pollution etc., so a motley crew goes to Mars to check on automated terraforming.  Behind the green veil, the movie is an overlong, indecisive PSA on sexual harassment.  Tom Sizemore jokes about being king of Mars and making Moss queen, his repartee landing like a boulder.  Then again, confining five men with the statuesque Moss is a moral hazard.  Val Kilmer corners her as she exits the shower, then fails to pull the trigger; later, facing mortality, he says (by radio) he should've kissed her, and she quietly agrees.  No wonder the human race is dying.

The five guys are shipwrecked on the ginger orb, soon to be stalked by AMEE (pronounced "Amy"), a homicidal robot evoking the days of The Black Hole and Saturn 3 for viewers of a certain age.  On the mothership, as it were, Ms. Moss spends much of the movie thinking her misbehaving boys are dead, and increasingly, she's correct.  Terence Stamp (as a scientist, nevertheless spiritual) is the first to cash his check.  Future Mentalist Simon Baker, a weasel here, responds to feelings of inadequacy by knocking Benjamin Bratt off a cliff.  Later, Baker's character himself succumbs to guilt-related misadventure.

I mentioned it's a deal movie: Red Planet seems to originate in an alternate universe where  Hollywood is autocratic socialist state.  In alt-Hollywood, no one wants to work with Val Kilmer or Tom Sizemore, but as Party Members they're entitled to stardom until retirement.  Thus, this perfunctory (Red-themed) sci-fi with younger stars paying dues, and a Brit (Stamp) playing Latin for global buzz.

Sizemore is supposed to be the scientist blind-to-the-dangers, so he gets killed, when a new lifeform uses his body as a hatchery.  Unfortunately, Kilmer's character survives the end of the film.  Mars now has oxygen, but it's infested with carnivorous CGI locusts, which means someone was readying Red Planet 2.

Fortunately, there are better films set on the fourth planet, including Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Last Days on Mars.  Even Mission to Mars (also from 2000) is watchable.  (I haven't yet seen John Carter or The Martian.)     

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Business of Strangers (2001) 2 of 4

** this post contains major spoilers **

I watched this expecting "In the Company of Women," but it lacks the scandalous energy that made Neil LaBute's debut worth watching.  The two leads are good, but the characters cliche (actually, they describe each other as such).  Stockard Channing is Julie, a veteran exec who's had to eat (extra) shit in a man's world.  Recently promoted to CEO, her personal life's a desert.  On a business trip she bonds with young counterpart Paula (Julia Stiles), an underemployed cynic who messes with people, compulsively.

Julia Stiles, edgy as ever

The third character is a plot device: a handsome headhunter (Fred Weller, star of LaBute's The Shape of Things) hired by Julie.  Paula tells Julie that in college, he date-raped her friend (in a later version, Paula herself).  Over drinks, the vengeful women roofie the man, then leave him half-naked in a deserted area of the hotel, slurs marking his body.  The ironic sting: on waking he's bemused, and assumes a wild night.

In the Company of Men sustained interest with gratuitously cruel behavior, and reappraisal of who's been damaged, but The Business of Strangers teases wild behavior that's more of a postmodern prank. A twist ending indicates the rape never happened, further obscuring the point: is it that capitalism destroys ethics? -- age before gender? -- hotels need better security?

Or perhaps triviality itself: that in a male-dominated (pop) culture, the actions of women diminish.  Maybe so, but as presented here it's thin and stagey for a feature film.  Writer-director Patrick Stettner made just one subsequent feature, The Night Listener (2006).

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dark Water (2005) 3 of 4

** review contains moderate spoilers **

acclimating to the new place (Jennifer Connelly) 
Dark Water came and went in theaters and merits only 5.6 on Imdb.  Maybe after The Ring and The Grudge we no longer found running water terrifying.  Maybe it got lost amid other female-led horrors (The Others, The Skeleton Key, The Orphanage, Black Swan).  Maybe it triggered premonitions of the housing collapse.  Certainly, a J-horror remake suggests more jump-scares than provided by an atmospheric, literary ghost story.

Ethereal Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays the mother of a little girl, surviving acrimonious divorce from Dougray Scott.  Hard-up and emotionally raw, Connelly's character is checkmated to an (understandably) affordable high-rise on Roosevelt Island: it's not much of a spoiler that this Brutalist monstrosity is haunted.  New York City's lesser islands are useful for showing evil comfortably hidden at the heart of civilization, as in The French Connection and Don't Say a Word.

Connelly projects wary intelligence as well as anyone, and so is often cast in fantastic films: she grounds anything.  At first she assumes strange occurrences are a custody plot, but she's haunted by a familiar stranger.

As a horror film, Dark Water is more muffled than The Ring or Mama.  Child abuse is involved, but most of it off-screen.  Still I found the film difficult to watch because it's so sad.  Vulnerable mom and daughter are shunted to new, oppressive surroundings and met with coldness, despite a sympathetic lawyer played by Tim Roth (someday he'll get that American accent).  Other familiar faces: John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, and Pete Postlewaite.

Many of us are one paycheck away from disaster.  Dark Water is social horror, dramatizing the companion truth that for many women, a messy break-up means the same bottom line.  Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road) justifies this remake of the Japanese film, both based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

Planet of the Apes (1968) 4 of 4

** this review contains spoilers (for one of the most-spoiled films) **

In the 1960s, the rules known as political correctness were in process, which makes some of the classic films of the era problematic for today's hypersensitive viewers.  For example: the original Planet of the Apes, one of the best films of the decade.

As Eric Greene establishes in his book Planet of the Apes as American Myth, this first film was less specifically racial than the series would become.  It begins with Taylor's (Charlton Heston) cynical, timely wish for something "better than man."  Unfortunately for him (and like co-star Roddy McDowall in the Twilight Zone episode of the same name), he finds that "people are alike all over" -- even when they're apes.

The film arguably satirizes liberals of its time: the apes are hairy, wear leather and live in commune-like villages.  Though divided by species and corresponding behavior (gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan), all disdain humans, who therefore parallel old-line conservatives, with both (considered) bypassed by evolution.  

"You may not like what you find." 

Greene's book, brilliant as it is at times, is an index of how far we've fallen since 1968.  He ties himself in knots trying to lift the films and counter their dim view of humanity.  A good leftist and multiracial in heritage, Greene feels white people are almost entirely to blame (and not just historically), with reverse racism a (suburban) legend.  He answers white paranoia with equally far-fetched, utopian multiculturalism.

The recent Planet of the Apes reboot (Rise and Dawn) is similarly contorted. Rise wasn't bad, but Dawn is pointless: whereas the original films have no real heroes, Dawn founders as good and bad people interact with good and bad apes.  With the satire muddied, we might wonder why we're watching apes in the first place.  I suspect these neo-Apes films exist because younger viewers realize there's something of value in the originals, but prefer softened versions.

Fantasy is a natural for race themes; both racial tensions and fantasy concern our attraction to/fear of the other.  The early 20th century had tales of lost worlds and races culminating in King Kong (1933), viewed by some as an allegory of slavery.  Ralph Ellison answered H.G. Wells by claiming "the invisible man" as metaphor for the black experience.  If the original Apes film-cycle equates black people with apes, it's only because the white imagination has always done the same.  The fiction of speaking apes allows an interrogation of racial anxieties.  Given approaching white minority, perhaps a film will reverse the scheme.  (Some might enjoy seeing the current president as an orangutan, orange comb-over included.)

Planet of the Apes opened 3 April 1968, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I'm not sure I've read a review that mentions this, probably because it might be misunderstood, but it must have made the transgressive film an especially dislocating experience.

As the narrative begins, the desiccated corpse of the human crew's sole female implies -- it's over.  The white -- uh, human race is over.  Taylor shouldn't mind, given his cynicism, but the story will reduce him to Biblical grief.

"She was going to be the new Eve."
Over the five-film series, it's revealed the ape power structure doesn't disbelieve human intelligence, they just want to cover it up.  This branches into struggles over evolution, speech, and literacy (both ape and human).  All of it seems to prefigure the furor over Barack Obama being "articulate" and then the "birther" conspiracy-thought.  With Obama's intelligence unavoidable, the matter of legitimacy got bumped to matters of birth and record-keeping.  Some think of the original film as embarrassing artifact.  It could've been made yesterday, if we had the courage of Arthur Jacobs, Franklin Schaffner, Michael Wilson, Rod Serling, Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter.

The above-named were over 40 in 1968.  Baby Boomers were more optimistic, but motivated by the fact every generation drifts back to the norms of that prior: we become our parents.  For Boomers, this meant intolerable hypocrisy.  Even as the Civil Rights Movement seemed to triumph, white Americans fled en masse to the (white) suburbs, and American men were sent to fight in a seemingly insignificant Asian country.

At home, a rebellious generation attempted to blow up the timeline with sex-drugs-rock-n-roll (and to a lesser extent, with bombs).  It didn't work, they had kids, and bent to whisper: "When you grow up you're going to make the world such a better place."  Making the world better means change, and so the new apes films must be different from the originals.  It feels like change.