Thursday, October 30, 2014

Funny Games (2007) 3 of 4

** Entire review contains SPOILERS**

This is a home-invasion movie with a pedigree: it's Michael Haneke's own remake of his Austrian film of 1997.  Haneke is a world-renowned, confrontational director known for such films as The Piano Teacher, Cache, and The White Ribbon.
In this U.S. version, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George, a well-off couple embarking on a lakeside holiday with their young son.  The vacation turns into a nightmare, when their home is invaded by two nihilistic, sadistic, white-gloved bastards calling themselves Peter and Paul.  As the two nominal villains destroy the lives of this family, the film indicts the audience for watching, even breaking the fourth wall at times.
This may sound sophomoric in description, but it's done with so much craft and conviction that it's tough to dismiss the film (if you're the type of person who'd sit down to watch in the first place).  I was most reminded of Natural Born Killers, but I think it's more effective: NBK game me a headache, while Funny Games makes its points because it's enjoyable.  And while there have now been a number of movies that examine why we watch horror and violence (Videodrome, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Scream), well -- we keep watching violent movies, don't we?

The sequence I'll spotlight is Ann's forced disrobing.  Naomi Watts is an attractive woman, and when the captors work the conversation around to her figure, I felt warm anticipation (in my defense, noone had been killed at this point).  I wondered how far this would go, how hot it would get.  Would she show her tits?  I hope they show her getting undressed.  I'm glad the kid has a bag over his head so we can concentrate on the sexy stuff for a while.
Well, it wasn't sexy.  We don't see her strip, and although she spends much of the film in bra and panties, I wasn't titillated, in fact it was pretty awful to see her victimized.  The filmmakers effectively pull the rug here: for example, the panties are boyish and functional,a kind no one would describe as "lingerie."  It's simply pathetic.
Before I get too self-congratulatory, I do recommend this film about two pricks who beat, maim, and slaughter an innocent family.
If nothing else, it's a conversation starter.  The killers repeatedly break the fourth wall, asking our opinion of the events, and there's even a scene when Ann gets the upper hand, only for one of the criminals to pick up the remote and rewind the entire scene so it can play out differently.

The scene on the boat is even more confusing, but I think the two are talking about themselves as if they are fictional characters.  Funny Games isn't as densely packed as Donnie Darko, but like that film it plays with fiction vs. reality.
As for the gloves, we're reminded of mimes or waiters, but a few days later I made an association more fitting, considering Haneke's an Americaphobe: Mickey Mouse.
To me, the meaning of the film is there in the first scene as the family drives into the mountains, playing trivia concerning classical music.  Suddenly the music changes to punk as the title pops onto the screen in big red letters: "FUNNY GAMES."  This is what you paid for!  You came for mayhem, not to see a nice family doing nice things.
I believe it's also asking why: Why do these people have beautiful lives while others are starving or being tortured or wanting for medical care in other parts of the world?  There's an element of random chance that they are in these circumstances and not those, and given that fact, chance can also put them suddenly into hell, and it does.  The boy killers mockingly claim childhood abuse to "explain" their actions, but it's more likely they've spent too much time pondering the unfairness of life and have jumped off an ethical cliff.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Moon (2009) 2 of 4

**Spoiler section marked**

I'm 50 years old, and for me the golden of s.f. movies was the 1980s.  This helps to explain why I'm not too excited by most of the newer s.f. movies, although Tom Cruise has been making some good ones, and I like many of the viral horror films, with their s.f. elements.
As for Moon, I can only class it with other recent, tersely-titled films with protagonists stuck somewhere near the Earth, forced to break out of their stupor if they're going to get back to and/or save the day: Wall-E, Gravity, Elysium, Oblivion,  These movies are OK if you don't mind the science fiction serving as frame for the old message about letting life be an adventure or you'll sink in a rut etc.

** SPOILER Section **

Moon is quieter than those films, with little action, instead leaning of the wan charm of  Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a corporate caretaker of an otherwise-automated mining base (which looks a lot like Moonbase Alpha of Space: 1999).  The film is well-titled, because sad Sam spends most of the film mooning and moping around, yearning to get back to his wife and daughter on Earth.  What he learns as the plot unfolds is that it's later than he thinks: he's a clone, his wife is dead and the company has hundreds of other Sam clones in storage.  Sam's a spare part.
Ultimately, the only person Sam has to talk to is a newer version of himself. The newer Sam can't avoid the truth that he's a clone, which makes him more of a hard-ass.  This sets up an "odd couple" dynamic.  There's also GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the station's robot, surprisingly helpful to Sam as he defends his rights.

** END Spoiler Section**

The names underline this is Sam's wake-up call: Bell runs the Sarang station.  Fine, but the whole thing seems undernourished to me, without much edge for a story about an existential crisis.  Also, I'm not buying this shuffling non-conformist in charge of a high-value moon station.  Reportedly, the character is partly inspired by the Bruce Dern's character in Silent Running (who's also referenced by a clip in the recent Mama, another tale of loneliness and exploitation), but that film is set farther into the future, so it's more believable that space technology might be left in the hands of a grumpy oddball.
But also: have you seen  Silent Running?  Like Elysium, it's a film that got applause for its message. (As movies, yech.)
As for Moon, it's not so bad, but from the positive reviews I expected more.  We're in an age of lowered expectations for science fiction movies, which probably makes sense with space exploration stalled, warfare grinding on as we try to sort the impact of the Internet and globalization: we have less patience for visions of different futures.  The best we can do is tales of working stiffs in spacesuits, trying to get home.

Friday, October 24, 2014

1408 (2007) 1.5 of 4

I tend to high opinions of movies based on Stephen King, when they get widely praised -- The Dead Zone, Misery, The Green Mile -- and sometimes even when they don't, as with The Shining, Cujo, Dolores Claiborne, and The Mist.  However, this one seemed a gimmicky spook-show to me, with little more inventiveness than the numeric title that suggests just another line in the King's inventory.

** spoilers below **

John Cusack plays a cynical writer who makes a decent living with his non-fiction books that review supposedly haunted places.  He's a hardcore skeptic, giving just enough credence to the paranormal to keep his readers coming back (at a poorly attended book signing, he concedes the "air is thick" at some of these sites).  Mike Enslin is a drinker who looks down on his own readers, but by now Cusack can play the sardonic, media-savvy character in his sleep.
It's maybe halfway through when we learn why Enslin is half an asshole: his kid died of cancer.  We also know that he had a difficult father, the basis of a poor-selling novel written and published in another lifetime ... but this father thread doesn't really pay off.

"1408" is a never-rented room at a once-prestigious Manhattan hotel, The Dolphin.  Enslin's publisher (Tony Shalhoub) applies legal pressure using a "little-known civil rights law" (shades of the housing collapse per Fox News) and Enslin ignores the advice of the hotel's elegant manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who tells him of the hundreds of deaths, natural and otherwise, in that room.  Once inside, the writer's cockiness is shattered by all manner of weird shit: visions, temperature swings, attacks by ghosts and corpses, apparent time travel, etc.  The room won't let him leave, and the clock radio keeps playing "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters.  Like Olin said, "it's an evil-fucking-room."

These haunts are worth a few scares and chills, being well-mounted with some good special effects, but I found myself not caring: I didn't like Enslin enough to root for him, nor dislike him enough to feel he deserves what's happening to him.  The filmmakers must've been ambivalent, too, because they made a shaggy-dog story that doesn't so much end as -- stop.  The film implies that dad can join daughter in a better place, but that's ambiguous.

Unless I missed something, we also never find out who sent Enslin the postcard warning him about Room 1408, so that's another loose hair, and so is the similarity of his surname to that of the S.L.J. character: Enslin, Olin.  What's in those names?  E-i-e-i-o?  Count me out.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003) 3 of 4

Sometimes we have to act before we realize something that we should have realized before, or before we get an idea.
Starting this blog makes me realize that I just don't have time to write full reviews of every movie I see, not and finish the other writing I want to do.  In some cases, a few notes are going to have to suffice.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is an uncompromising crime film set in London.  I use that word "uncompromising" too much, but it's warranted here: this film may not hate its audience, but it's not going to do you any favors.
This movie took some getting used to.  The photography is nicely gritty, but I found the direction oddly functional and simple, almost TV-style.  Finally, I realized that it's a 70s-retro style, by an older director (Mike Hodges) who made his name in that decade. I suspect its partly autobiographical, with the wounded main character -- he's coming to grips with his younger brother's suicide -- something of a stand-in for the director, who's had a fascinating but checkered career.
The movie is written by Hodges's contemporary Trevor Preston, and I imagine them saying, we may be two old bastards, but we're the old bastards that can make this film.

** remainder contains moderate spoilers **

About half-hour in, there's a shocking scene and I stopped watching, finding the film seamy and unpleasant.  I intended to give up on the movie, but there's something sincere and honest about it, and I had to come back the next day and finish it.  I don't think it's a great film, but it's got a rawness about pain and grief that can't be easily dismissed. Just don't expect a fun time, or Tarantino touches.  This is more of a slap-in-the-face film, with fine acting and its own pacing.
It also doesn't bother with a lot of exposition, which made me realize how used I am to movies that hold my hand -- for example, we never find out Charlotte Rampling's relationship to Clive Owen.  I suspect she's his mother, but I may be wrong; the synopsis I saw called her his ex-girlfriend.  What do you think?
Some will crab about the ending: I think he lied about his intentions because he suspected her phone was tapped, and it was.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers **

For decades, I've heard of this movie as a (minor) classic.  Perhaps I should have suspected from the intriguing but rather precious title that the film would be very dry and British.  It's suspenseful, but it's just as invested in establishing social and psychological value, in not being seen as trading in the same exploitation as the main characters.  It flatters its audience -- it's the opposite of those films that implicate us for enjoying violence, crime, and cruelty.  Watching it, it struck me as being so careful and bloodless that it threatens to dry up and blow away.
It shares a lot of qualities with the crime and horror films of the early 1960s: beautiful black-and-white, the emphasis on sound (you can hear every rustle), the linking of rural life and abnormal psychology.  As such, it's the mild-mannered British relative to such films as Psycho, In Cold Blood, and The Haunting.  
It's about a middle-aged couple, both of them failures.  Myra's never gotten over the still-birth of her son, Arthur.  She's become a "medium," making money supposedly communicating with the dead.  Of course, this occupation buttresses her self-comforting belief that she's still in contact with her dead son, Arthur.
The film deserves credit for defying one of the strongest temptations to the filmmaker: it centers on a truly homely woman.  As played by actress Kim Stanley, Myra is a strong-willed woman who hasn't had much luck.  She admits that she married asthmatic milquetoast Billy (Richard Attenborough) because "You're weak, and you needed me."  She's had too much pain, and she'll do anything to avoid more.
They need money, so she's hatched a plot to get rich by kidnapping a little girl from a local school.  They will then arrange to offer her services as a medium to the parents of the girl.  It's fascinating that the plan is actually well-planned and well-executed, except for centering on a fantasy, the idea that the parents and police won't immediately suspect them of being the kidnappers.  They do, of course, and it's only a matter of time before the law closes in.  
So, it's a pretty good film, but I found it dated, more of a curio than a classic.  It will probably be liked best by people who avoid violent, disturbing, and horrifying films.  For anyone else, the film's portrayal of a suspenseful kidnapping while also exonerating its audience is quaint.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Hunter (2011) 2.5 of 4

mostly synopsis:
This one bears some plot similarities to the Matt Damon film Promised Land (which I haven't seen).  Willem Dafoe plays a professional hunter who's hired by a big-money corporation to venture into the wilds of Tasmania, an island off southeast Australia, to find the last Tasmanian tiger -- not for environmental reasons, but for industrial profit -- the tiger is said to excrete a unique toxin which may have great value.  The tiger is said to be extinct, but Martin (Dafoe) finds the task even harder than it sounds: he's renting a room from a depressed mom with kids, their husband/father having disappeared in the woods.  The local loggers may have killed this man, and they threaten Martin, telling him "Greenies" aren't welcome.  Since his mission is secret, Martin makes no attempt to correct the misperception, and indeed he becomes sympathetic both to the Lucy and her kids and their neo-hippie friends.  Trying to avoid the loggers, Martin settles into a rhythm: two weeks in the forest, then a few days back at the house.  He helps Lucy get better, getting her off the pills brought by her supposed friend Jack (Sam Neill).  We'll learn that Jack is trying to play all sides.  Martin tries to avoid taking sides, but that becomes impossible.  He finds the husband's remains and belongings, and later is himself assaulted by another, younger hunter hired by the corporation to replace him.  At gunpoint, Martin agrees to lead the new man to the tiger den he's found, but guides him into a steel trap, then shoots him.  Martin returns to the settlement to find Lucy and her daughter have died in a fire, probably set by the man he's shot.  Martin decides there's only one way to end all this madness: he goes to the den, waits, and kills the last of the Tasmanian tigers.  Martin weeps over the dead creature, then calls his boss and tells him, "What you want is gone forever."  Martin then goes to find Lucy's son, presumably to adopt him.

mostly review:
Another downbeat film about endings and grief: we get a lot of these in the millenium.  A good film, mainly for its interesting plot and for the effective casting of Dafoe and location filming in Tasmania.  The drama is more questionable -- if we care, it's because of the situation: jobs and environment threatened, a loved one missing, the mysterious involvement of corporations, etc.  In some ways, the film is reminiscent of the TV serial Lost: the South Pacific setting, the mysteries, the answers found in a primeval cave with a spring (the site of the tiger's den).  Of course, this film pays off its story more than Lost.
There is one memorable moment of character drama, when Lucy awakes from her depressed slumber.  She hears Bruce Springsteen playing and sees that the power's back on in the house, wanders outside and assumes the man celebrating with her kids is her returning husband.  Of course, and as we know, it's really Martin.  A potentially devastating moment, but it's really a throwaway here, this movie has more global issues on its mind.
The music bears comment.  Martin prefers classical music, whereas the dead husband had speakers in the trees, planning to have idyllic concerts for all of the locals.  He had "too many ideas," says Lucy.  The only other thing we know about him was that he, too, was probably working for the corporation, looking for the tiger.  So the fact that Martin plays classical records indicates he is an older type of man, a classical man, and lacking the distraction of naive utopianism, and other modernisms.  He's the man to sort out this situation.  He's also a man of few words, who keeps his own counsel.  This is not a film that's impressed with people who voice their political views.  It is a film about actions, not words.
Some will find it too solemn, too poker-faced, but I thought it worked on its own terms, an eco-fable that doesn't trust liberals any more than conservatives.    

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Brave One (2007) 3 of 4

mostly synopsis:
Jodie Foster returns to her familiar persona, the victim taking back power. Erica Bain is a radio talker engaged to David (Naveen Andrews). The loving couple take an ill-advised walk in Central Park (entering by the Strangers Gate), are viciously attacked. David is killed, Erica is in a coma for weeks. Trying to carry on, Erica visits a gun shop, is told she can't buy a gun without a license and a waiting period. "I won't survive 30 days," she tells the owner. Outside the store, Erica is approached by a man who ends up selling her a black market handgun. Erica will get much use out of this handgun: first in a small food store, when she shoots a gunman who's shot the cashier, his opponent in a custody battle. Next is a subway shooting in which Erica virtually re-creates the Bernhard Goetz incident of , shooting two aggressive black men. Erica also rescues a young, kidnapped prostitute from the back seat of her captor's car: this one goes all wrong, the girl gets hit by the man's car. Erica finds most of this shockingly easy: several times, she says to noone in particular "why did you let me do it?" Each time she acts violently, she knows more intimately how acceptable violence can be in her society. Her boss (Mary Steenburgen) makes her take calls, in keeping with the more tabloid, but successful tone of her radio show. Erica is disgusted by most of the callers. Meanwhile, Erica is getting to know Det. Mercer (Terrence Howard), who's investigating her shootings. He doesn't know it's her, of course, but something intrigues him: he's a fan of her show, and he's fascinated that she's been able to "pull things together." Erica corrects him: you don't pull things together after a trauma like that. You just carry on, but you're a different person, you'll never be who you were. Mercer gets suspicious because a subway witness mentions a blonde woman. Also, there's the killing of businessman and gangster Morrow, the criminal Mercer most wanted to bring down. We know Erica did it, although she paid the price with an injured arm, and easily could have died, but instead she managed to back Morrow off the top of his own parking garage. Mercer puts a trace on the call he got from Erica that night -- she was on Roosevelt Island, the same as Morrow. Mercer tells Erica that he won't let anyone, even his best friend, commit crimes. As for the vigilante: "One more piece of evidence, and she goes down." Erica can't stop, though, in fact she passes up the chance to ID one of the thugs that killed her man: she'd rather take care of him herself. Using her recovered engagement ring, she tracks him down, killing two more men, but he gets the jump on her. Mercer finally catches up, holds the criminal at gunpoint, then switches guns with Erica so she can shoot him without paying a price. Erica hesitates, takes her vengeance. Mercer then forces her to shoot him (non-fatally), to support the story Mercer will tell. Erica leaves, struggling to find her way out of the maze-like housing project.

mostly review: 
First and last, The Brave One is a deconstruction or demythification of most vigilante movies, including superhero movies.  Specifically, this is a revision of Batman.  There are a number of embedded reference to Batman: the name Bain (Bane); the dank, gothic New York locations, full of menace Erica had ignored before; the vigilante's uneasy alliance with police officers; Erica's t-shirt, with its abstract but bat-like print; Erica's habit of changing her appearance, her clothes, after each violence.  At one point, someone asks "Who the hell are you?" and you half-expect ... but no, she merely says, "I'm nobody," as the movie undercuts vigilante heroics.
I liked the way that Erica, though the title character and a rapidly-evolving badass, isn't necessarily so good at what she's doing: she gets nervous and makes mistakes, almost getting Chloe killed.
Before asking Erica to identify herself, Chloe asks "Is this still America?"  I thought this was one of the film's few missteps, too on the nose.  More subtle is the implication of the vigilante's name: "I am Erica Bain" easily bends to "I am America's bane," and even "I am the bane of America in error."  There's also a link, intentional or not, to the DiCaprio character in Inception, when the aging Erica waxes poetic (on her radio show) about how we'll need to construct "artificial cities to house our memories."
This is one of those films that aims to be both a mass-market genre piece and a smart subversion of the genre and its values.  It succeeds on both fronts, but with this type of film, I always feel a sense of loss, of compromises made (as opposed to say Taxi Driver, which doesn't give a f*** who sees it), but the compromises here are tolerable.  The compensations are vast: the huge star power of both Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard (mercifully, Howard doesn't attempt a New York accent; Tim Roth gave a game try in Arbitrage, but it was distracting), beautiful cinematography, and the professionally invisible direction of Neil Jordan.
The film's flaw came into focus while listening to extras, in which Foster says that Erica's actions are definitely wrong.  That may be, but I'm not sure I got that from the picture: I really had no problem with what Erica did.  This is not a young woman, she's just had her heart ripped out by goons who felt like being animals.  She feels her life is over, and she is afraid, so she buys a gun (illegally, but she might have gotten a legal one a month later).  I felt no grief over those she killed, they were all deadbeats and the world's better off without them.  If the film really wanted us to question vigilantism, she should have had at least one innocent victim, but I didn't notice any.
So yeah, maybe the film wants to have it both ways.  But at least it's made very plain that Erica is unbalanced and traumatized, and will be for any forseeable future.  Unlike Batman, she is not acting in a quasi-official capacity, except during the climax when Mercer collaborates with her, presumably to finish her trail of revenge.

Monday, October 6, 2014

And Soon the Darkness (1970) 3.5 of 4

mostly synopsis: 
Two English girls, brunette Jane (Pamela Franklin) and blonde Cathy, are bicycling through the French countryside. True to type, Jane wants to stick to the plan and is happy just seeing the countryside, while impulsive Cathy is bored and wants some excitement. These differences boil over into an argument, and the girls split up, with Cathy sunning herself by the roadside while Jane pedals on. Probably thinking of the tall, "dishy" Frenchman they noticed at a cafe, Cathy hangs up her underwear on the trees, as if drying them. Later, she takes them down, creeped out by the silence, feeling watched. Meanwhile, Jane cools down and circles back, but is unable to find her friend. She does find Paul, the Frenchman, and he helps her look. Paul ultimately claims to be law enforcement, based in Paris and on a working holiday. He's curious about the murder of a pretty girl in the vicinity several years back, unsolved. Jane had also heard about this murder from a local, middle-aged couple, the LaSalles. Mrs. Lasalle tried to warn Jane away, despite the language barrier. This film expertly ratchets up the suspense -- like Jane, we suspect there's a killer of women on the prowl, but who is it? Is it Paul, handsome but temperamental? Is it a local, like the grouchy Mr. LaSalle? Two other suspects present themselves: a man deaf since the war, and an oddball too, and finally the local constable who shows up to help. Jane becomes more and more sure it's Paul who's the killer. He acted strange when they encountered him, following them but not speaking. He's presented no evidence that he's with law enforcement. Jane barricades herself in the deaf man's rural house, and must remain very silent when Paul tries to get in. Paul then does get in, smashing a window, but Jane eludes him, even when she's shocked by the discovery of Cathy in the closet -- Cathy's corpse, that is. Finally, Paul spots Jane outside, chases her. Jane eludes him, then hides behind a tree; when Paul approaches, she smashes him with a rock repeatedly, and he collapses. Relieved, Jane runs to the constable, embraces him. He holds her, but then his hand wanders down, across her butt and into her back pocket: he's the killer! He starts to assault Jane, but Paul lurches into the frame and shoots the constable. Jane is safe, we assume. We see two more young women bicycle into the region, sure of a pleasant holiday ...

mostly review:
This is a very tight little thriller; some might call it a Hitchcock imitation, but it's a fine one. My only complaint is that the score is too much at times, too melodramatic for such a spare, merciless little film. The score indicates someone didn't quite have faith in the film. Still, this is a must see for horror and thriller buffs. For me, it succeeded brilliantly at keeping me in suspense and at using red herrings to put me in Jane's shoes: I did not know who the killer was. As with John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me!, the protagonist is a woman surrounded by men, and she has no idea whom to trust. These films communicate something about what it's like to be female. And Soon the Darkness deserves to be better known; I'd class it with other cult films of the era: Carpenter's, Spielberg's Duel, and Richard Franklin's Road Games. As such, it's also a stepping-stone toward Mad Max and imitators.
It was directed by Robert Fuest and co-written by Brian Clemens, both of whom are known for the U.K. series The Avengers. Fuest also directed the Dr. Phibes movies, with Vincent Price; this film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality you might expect. Clemens was in his prime, soon to have his own TV series, Thriller, and to write another cult film shot mostly outdoors, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. His writing partner on this film was Terry Nation, the driving force behind much of the best U.K. televised science fiction of the 1960s through the early 1980s.
 The Hitchcockian touches include close-ups of ordinary object (such as Cathy's portable radio); the wide, charged framing of shots of the country fields, reminiscent of North by Northwest; the games with identity, and Jane's confusion over whom to fear; and the mixture of sexuality and misogyny that motivates the killer. Made in 1970, by and for a younger generation, the film goes a bit further than most of Hitchcock: Cathy is frankly randy, and Jane throws up, although daintily off-screen.
The film was shot mostly on location, and it's beautiful to look at. Cute Pamela Franklin seems to have a cult following based largely on this performance. She's an early final girl. This film was far ahead of its time in wedding rural horror (fear of throwbacks or weirdos out in the sticks) to a sort of pre-slasher plot (although the killer seemingly doesn't use blades). If it had been remade in 1990 or 2000, that might have caused a stir, but the eventual 2010 remake, which I haven't seen, was probably behind the curve, following such fundamentally similar, if more graphic films as High Tension, Eden Lake, and many others.