Monday, December 28, 2015

Europa Report (2013) 2 of 4

** minor spoilers only **

This is a found-footage sci-fi film, with a good cast (including Sharlto Copley and Embeth Davidtz), about a manned voyage to the titular moon of Jupiter, in search of life in the solar system.  The film's main boast is its genuine knowledge and love of science, which informs every moment of a slow-burn thriller.  The characters are believable as adventuring scientists, with relatively little of the sexual and relationship gamesmanship you might expect. 

The main problem is that the story could've been covered in about an hour.  The only reason this international co-production is 90 minutes is our definition of a feature film, and perhaps the lack of an Outer Limits-like show to play host.  The film attempts to keep things moving with lots of special effects, mostly via the various screens in the spaceship.  This provides a dense visual look, often using split-screen, but the film's budget is too low for the CGI to really work.   

Europa Report is a close call.  The story has a remarkable resolution which convinced me the film's  an agnostic tract designed to upend the Bible (or religion) as a frame of reference.  I haven't researched that suspicion, but the imdb page describes a U.S.-Russia-China co-production, a provocative combination.  Also, science popularizer (and skeptic of religion) Neil deGrasse Tyson is seen briefly on a video (he says he wants to "go ice fishing" on Europa).

In any case, such deep thoughts are fair game for a smart film.     

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spider-Man 3 (2007) 2.5 of 4

** contains spoilers **

I've never been a superhero fan, but then how much do you need to know: he's Spider-Man, he swings from buildings, saves damsels, beats up bad guys.  Does whatever a spider can -- except repulse women.  (And that helps us understand why he's a role model to nerds.)         

In this episode: Peter takes Mary Jane to Central Park, spinning a web so they can lie suspended and look up at the stars, just like young men in love have done for ages after being bitten by a radioactive spider.  You know this can't last, and sure enough, some black goo crawls off a just-landed meteorite and makes its way to Peter, who becomes the superhero equivalent of Jerry Lewis's lothario persona in The Nutty Professor (this represents Peter's already inflated ego: he can't muster empathy when Mary Jane gets her first negative review, then gets canned from her Broadway gig).

This installment's middle-aged supervillain (cinema supervillains are always old enough to be the superhero's Dad) is Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman, who can hide easily because, well, he turns into sand.  This allows some impressive effects scenes.  I expected some kind of redemption for Sandman, whose life of crime started with a need for money for his sick daughter, but the movie seems to lose interest.  There may be a parallel with Obamacare.
Eventually, Spidey reconciles with his frenemy Harry, a.k.a. Green Goblin (James Franco), and together they defeat the bad guys, including sleazy photog Eddie (Topher Grace), who's been zapped by the black goo and is having a great time being his own dark side, a.k.a. Venom.  There's a nice little message to the effect that you always have a choice in life, meteorite or no meteorite.

This is the last Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, and feels like a lark.  With Maguire, Topher Grace, and James Franco, this movie really had its eye on young females, especially the ones who like slight, non-threatening white guys.  As for me, I hope to finally remember that Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are two different people. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 3 of 4

** this review (especially where noted) has spoilers on the original Planet of the Apes movie-cycle **

In the mid 1980s, I started taking notes on each film viewed.  I have no record of a review of this film, which means I just saw it for the first time in at least 30 years.  It's better than I thought. 

The Planet of the Apes franchise is of course science fiction, so it's all speculative.  Still, this film is clearly offered as a possible future: the characters even discuss whether they can prevent the apocalyptic timeline portrayed in the earlier films.  The story is also framed with a speech by "the Lawgiver" (John Huston), speaking some centuries in the future.  Since the film asserts the possibility of changing the timeline, this frame emphasizes that the characters have choices, that their choices will influence the future, even centuries down the line.   

Battle is the only Apes film in which apes and humans coexist in peace, although that peace doesn't last.  The apes are still led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who led the slave revolt in Conquest.  Caesar has created a utopian community of apes and humans, although the apes are dominant.  Although war has killed most of the Earth's population, the idyllic community is sheltered among rolling green hills evocative of Tolkien's Hobbiton, or the legendary Arcadia. 

The premise and setting are inspired, and the film has an eerie charge.  Battle is, I think, significantly better than Conquest, which is just a dutiful recounting of the inevitable ape takeover.  Like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conquest is an in-between sequel that never establishes it's own identity.  Also, Fox was uncomfortable with the disturbing ending to Conquest (inspired by the Watts riots); they demanded it be softened with Caesar's promise of mercy for the subjugated humans. 

Although the original ending has been restored on the DVD, we should remember that Battle is a sequel to the softened version of Conquest, thus it starts with an uneasy peace between apes and humans. 

Making a high-profile film series that allegorically addressed the racial tensions of the U.S. took its toll on the filmmakers.  Screenwriter Paul Dehn had to quit Battle for health reasons, and his story was altered.  For example, the new scripters excised Dehn's idea that the apes deliberately deprived humans of their ability to speak (thus the mute humans in Planet of the Apes).  Both Dehn and producer Arthur Jacobs, the prime mover behind the franchise, died within three years of Battle's release.   

Like Conquest, Battle was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson spent the 1960s making blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, Taras Bulba.  In the early 1970s, he sobered up, and was looking for a meaningful challenge, and found it in the Apes franchise.  I suspect Thompson was deeply shaken by the shocked reaction to the violent end of Conquest, evidence his dazed quote  about the changed ending:  "It was a copout, but a copout I was fully in favor of." 

** severe spoilers ahead **

I believe this recent stress caused Battle's greatest flaw, action scenes that pull their punches.  The plot turns on the death of Caesar's son when a gorilla chops the branch the youth is standing on.  Unfortunately, the scene is ridiculous as filmed, as we're asked to believe that a young, healthy chimpanzee would die from a fall of about 15 feet.  It doesn't work at all.  Similar flaws plague the climactic battle.  This attack by a human clan on the ape village looks hokey, with a small number of human soldiers, and the continual re-use of the same exploding treehouse. 

Still, the film holds up well as an unsettling, alternate-reality variation on the Blaxploitation genre.  Although not the best of the series, it retains some potency at a point when most movie-series are scraping bottom.  Then and now, Battle for the Planet of the Apes confronts the viewer, because of course, we are the ones deciding possible futures.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Invasion (2007) 2 of 4

** contains increasingly severe spoilers, as noted **

This is the fourth film based on the 1955 Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers.  The first two (and better two) were both called Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The third was Abel Ferrara's 1992 Body Snatchers, which has its defenders.  I suspect this 2007 version will also become a cult favorite, especially if a director's cut is ever released.

The Invasion is also one of a series of fantasy remakes that fortified Nicole Kidman's bank account (The Stepford Wives, Bewitched).  Kidman plays a D.C. psychiatrist named Carol Bennell.  Her best friend and maybe-boyfriend is Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig).  Much of the drama stems from Carol's efforts to reunite with her son Oliver, who's been taken to Baltimore by his father, Tucker, during a public-health crisis.

The main problem for the filmmakers is the familiarity of the subject matter, which is not confined to the four credited adaptions but encompasses the entire viral-horror subgenre.  The Invasion fails to distinguish itself, but it has a nice, chilly feel, and tries hard to provide the subtext essential to this kind of parable.

** moderate spoilers ahead **

The film shows an America guilty of divisions: just as Carol has split from her ex-husband, and her patient (Veronica Cartwright, also in the 1978 film) has a "volatile" relationship with her husband, so the broader nation is divided: when the space shuttle crashes, the story dominates the various cable news channels, reminding us of a modern U.S. that's united only by crisis.  (Listen closely and you'll hear a theory that the crash was intentional, which suggests that at least one astronaut was trying to save the nation from possession by alien spores.)

There are repeated references to psychiatric medications.  The filmmakers seem to have a grudge against Clonazepam (they carefully avoid the more familiar brand-name, Klonopin), although why Carol grabs an extra supply when she needs to stay awake is unclear.  Carol prescribes freely, even for little Ollie, who's having nightmares.  The suggestion is that we're using stopgap measures such as medications instead of resolving real problems. 

The most outspoken person in the film is a Russian diplomat who declares civilization a lie to distract from our competitive, animal natures.  Gently sparring with Carol, he asks if there's "a pill to make me see the world as you Americans do."  Carol contends that humans are still evolving, referring him to the work of renowned psychologists. 

This is the first of the four versions to be directed by a non-American, but if Oliver Hirschbiegel (he's German) was compensating by including a namesake in the story, it wasn't enough: he was replaced in post-production by the Wachowskis (The Matrix), who added lots of action, making the film into something a 21st century studio could understand.  The real problem here is not the direction or tone, though (or even that it was preceded by the 2005-06 series called Invasion), but that the film doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. 

** severe spoilers ahead **

One of the reasons for the success of the 1978 film by Philip Kaufman was that W.D. Richter's script cannily updated the tale with the trends of hedonism and pop psychology.  Arguably, the U.S. hasn't changed much since 1978, so there's less inspiration for a new film to draw on.  The exception is the increasing death-grip of our political correctness, which The Invasion lacks the nerve to mention.  Like its characters, this film is openly ambivalent about a collectivist world in which strong emotion is outlawed, and where peace breaks out all over (according to featured news reports).

Or maybe this is the point?  Maybe the non-American actors and director were trying to subvert a cherished text of American subversion?  Fair enough as a goal, but it doesn't seem to work here. 

Carol's ambivalence is signaled not just by her medicating but by her choice of Ben, a smooth Brit who doesn't change all that much once possessed by aliens.  Near the end, an exhausted Carol almost gives in, but continues fighting once the pod-people make clear her son, who's immune, won't be allowed to survive.  Maybe Carol has also seen the earlier films in this franchise, so like the audience, when told not to drop her guard or go to sleep, she's tempted to reply, "What, again?" 


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Jane Eyre (1943) 3 of 4

Cathy and Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights
** Spoilers ahead **

This is a 65-year-old film that adapts a 165-year-old book, so viewing it by political correctness is like kicking a cripple down a flight of stairs.  Alas, to avoid so doing requires more restraint than I presently have at my disposal.

(I haven't read the book or seen the other films, so this is based on the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre.)

For much of the film, brooding Rochester psychologically tortures steadfast Jane, tantalizing her affections without telling her she can ever be more than a servant to him, and repeatedly testing her loyalty.  And I suppose it's true to life -- Rochester is rough with Jane without being an outright bastard -- I hear the ladies like that sort of thing.  Note however that the modern-set parallel that comes to mind is downright sadomasochistic, Secretary.
The racial element comes in via Rochester's locked-away, long-gone-mad wife, Bertha.  In a hushed, horrified tone, Rochester finally explains that when young, Bertha had no "chastity or temperance"; apparently, this means she went on quite the mattress tour of Spanishtown, Jamaica.  To a mid-century, white audience, the implications of this summation would've been unmistakable: she was such a slut that she slept with darkies and went crazy.  And the church said, "Amen." 

(In the book, Bertha is a Creole, half-black and half-European.  I don't think this is mentioned in the film, but even if it is my reading stands.  Rochester's life has been tainted by sexual association with blacks.)

Again, we must remember that this is fiction from long ago.  It makes the film difficult, however, because the plot hinges on the unseen wife, and the fact that her story is almost too terrible to speak aloud.  Back then, marriage really was "til death," and considered sacred; Bertha's behavior was from Hell.  Her very existence threatens to destroy Rochester.

The last line of the film reminds us again of race.  The recovered Rochester is now happily married to Jane, and they have a newborn son, and Rochester can see "the boy had inherited his own eyes as they once were, large, brilliant and black" (Joan Fontaine reads this narration in a tone of swelling  triumph).  I believe the line signifies that the power of blackness is back where it belongs, deep within a white male, under his control.

Jane Austen Society, Brooklyn, 2012

The oddest thing about the film is an extra, "The Men Behind Jane Eyre," in which friends of the director, Robert Stevenson, compare him favorably as a director to Orson Welles, his male lead in this film.  They base their argument on the fact that Stevenson's films, which include lots of Disney live-action like Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, have been seen by far more people than have seen those of Welles. 

Well OK: we all have our favorites, directors we feel deserve more attention.  Still, these testimonials are given with a remarkable mix of guilt, bitterness, and smugness, as if Stevenson had been burned-at-the-stake by some past generation of pretentious cineastes.  I would link this doc with Puff Daddy's self-comparison to Picasso and Steven Spielberg's hamfisted runs at immortality (Falling Skies: most awkward Paley Center panel ever) as signs of the corporate takeover of planet Earth.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) 2.5 of 4

** this post has spoilers on the first four films in the (original) Planet of the Apes series **

I find the first three films in this series easier to watch than the last two.  I've been putting them off, and now that I've seen this one again, I think I know where the series went wrong. 

Of course, the Planet of the Apes cycle turns the social and political tensions of the Vietnam era into  provocative science fiction.  In the first three films, we learn that this ape-planet is Earth of the far future; then we see the planet destroyed; then we see two intelligent apes escape back in time, destined to start the ascendance of the apes in the first place.

Each of these films creates its own identity.  Planet of the Apes is an elaborately-produced, groundbreaking, black-humored science fiction parable with an all-time twist at the end.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes is more of a comic-book movie, driven by shock value and visual ideas, including the franchise's apocalypse chic.  Escape from the Planet of the Apes makes the drama more domestic, emphasizing satire and comedy of manners. 

As it becomes a more specific parallel to race relations in the U.S., the series makes the delayed confession it was humanity's own fault they lost control of their planet.   As Conquest opens, we see Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the lone intelligent ape in the near-future, separated from his kind protector (Ricardo Montalban) and left to the cruelty of human slavers.  By the midpoint of Conquest, the viewer fully sympathizes with the apes. 

The humans, led by Governor Breck (Don Taylor), are cowardly, deceitful, and cruel, having made their once-pets into a new slave class.  Even McDonald, Breck's black deputy, ultimately gives up on mitigating extremes and helps Caesar.  As we side with the apes, the air leaks out of the series, because there's no further need for the thorny metaphors of social sci-fi.  The movie may be an accurate depiction of human nature (and white guilt), but now it's just another underdog story about battle tactics.

Given the above, the film still works pretty well, making great use of futuristic, found locations (apparently Century City in L.A.), and night shoots.  The cast does what they can with schematic material; I found myself wishing an Oscar nomination for Roddy McDowall, who all but carries the film, and from behind a mask.  J. Lee Thompson directs well, but missed the mark by not having the apes use their unique abilities in battle: why not find a location with handholds and have the apes descend on the human troops?   And while it's nice to see the original, downbeat ending restored, it still lacks irony, previously the hallmark of the series.

In retrospect, I feel the white creators of Conquest took the easy way out, siding with a fictional slave revolt.  In reality, separatists such as the Black Panthers were soon suppressed by American security, using some of the dirtiest tactics in national history, and the legal system resorted to tortured compromises such as Affirmative Action and school busing.  Race relations bogged down into a tug-of-war, part of the broader struggle known as political polarization.

It's fascinating that this intelligent film series ran out of challenging ideas at the same time Americans settled into their indefinite stalemate. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Bank (2001) 2 of 4

It's not every day that you see a movie described as a Capraesque thriller, but that describes this Australian film.  Unfortunately the combined skill on hand isn't enough to mix oil and water. 

David Wenham stars as Jim, a mysterious math genius who goes to work for Anthony Lapaglia's bank.  (Ozy LaPaglia plays an American, proving again that world actors play American  better than the reverse.)  The plot has a speculative element, as tyro Jim has invented a computer program that can predict the stock market.  Jim also dates a beautiful bank employee, and much of the suspense involves who'll blink first, or at all, as they scheme to fill their pockets. 

** spoilers ahead **

This pre-Recession movie seems prescient in its tale of Type-A's feeding off market corrections, and it gets no argument here on its anti-bank agenda.  Some will enjoy the wish-fulfillment, David vs. Goliath aspect.  Unfortunately, instead of letting us guess along, as a good thriller does, the movie is simply coy, withholding information until it wants us to have it (the dull title reflects the same posture).  This script needed better directing than it gets from Robert Connolly, and perhaps better editing. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Vinyan (2008) 1.5 of 4

** this post contains spoilers **

Director-writer Fabrice du Welz is better known for Calvaire, which I haven't seen, but I'm certain it's better than Vinyan

This movie plays like a combination of Don't Look Now and Lord of the Flies, but isn't as interesting as that sounds.  It's a slow burn that never goes much of anywhere, except to show how the loss of a child can be financially ruinous as well as grievous.

Vinyan contains horror elements, namely some hallucinatory shots of wretched orphans of the 2004 tsunami.  It plays more like a drama, but there's little tension: it starts with misery and grief and goes down from there.  It's a pretty-looking wallow in a quagmire.  Emmanuelle Beart remains very easy on the eyes, and some will say the same of Rufus Sewell.   The film is set and filmed in Southeast Asia, in gray and green tones, and the plot gives nods to Apocalypse Now (or at least Tropic Thunder).  

Dead Snow (2009) 2 of 4

The usual group of young people voluntarily isolate themselves, the better to be victimized by whatever lurks in the shadows, in this case a battalion of Nazis-turned-zombies.  This Norwegian film is self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, and there are a few funny moments, but the movie is basically a platform for the makeup, costumes (the Nazis had an undeniable flair for the visual), and gore gags.  All of this is moderately impressive for young filmmakers, but the whole thing has a late-to-the-party feeling; there's little here that wasn't done for The Evil Dead several decades ago.

** mild spoilers ahead **

There's a striking scene in which a middle-aged hiker smokes a cigarette while dressing down the youngsters, explaining they have no idea the horrors that exist in this world.  Otherwise, however, the film has nothing much to say about Nazis or how to combat them.  The film is about Nazi zombies simply because there had not yet been a (good) Nazi zombie movie. 

** severe spoiler ahead **

EDIT 18 August 2015: After writing, I realized the above is incorrect.  The lone survivor  (final boy?), Martin, realizes the Nazis want their stolen loot returned, however runs into more trouble because he forgot the recovered coin in his pocket.  This represents the way white people tend to benefit from, and be tainted by, the legacy of bigotry and imperialism, even if we're neither directly involved nor aware of it: we're against oppression, but we're carrying the profits in our pockets.  The name may be a reference to high-ranking Nazi Martin Bormann. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

an American crime, American denial

** NOTE: this post concerns an especially disturbing subject. **

** this themed post includes some mild-to-moderate spoilers **

A few days ago I was sitting in a restaurant, and a woman walked in carrying a tote that read, "Trust Women."  This woman was white, about 60, tall and impressive, a latter-day hippie with long white hair and an air that she was enjoying a good, prosperous time in her life.  She also had what I've come to think of as the religious gleam in her eye. 
The religious gleam doesn't require a belief in traditional religions, only the confidence that one is on the side of God or truth, and that God or truth is by one's side, too.  It is a vaguely fanatical confidence that anyone who disagrees is bad, sad, or sadly confused.
I've seen this gleam on lots of "positive thinkers," such as non-fiction meliorist Malcolm Gladwell, and mystical film-director Terence Malick. 

As you can guess by now, I was not thrilled by the restaurant lady's tote-slogan.  It makes no sense to me: I know from experience that women are no better than men, prone to all the virtues and temptations as the rest of us.  (Men are more violent, but if you think that makes them morally worse, that's your own bias.  Some of the worst crimes and abuses are non-violent.)

Like the rest of us, women should be judged on their behavior, their statements fact-checked with the same rigor as anyone else's.  If the tote was specifically a reference to allegations of rape or other abuse, I disagree there as well.  Unfortunately, some women make false allegations.  If it's an attempt to balance out misogynist messages, it's too direct to do any good since most people dislike being patronized. 

The tote and the gleam go together.  The virtue of the slogan isn't that it's rational, but that it brings pleasure to those who agree, and pain to the rest, and so creates a little bit of heaven and hell right here on Earth.  And this ties in with my belief that modern feminism is a religion. 

An essential part of any religion is mystery.  In less charitable terms, a religion must demand the adherents believe in something that makes no sense, that appears to be nonsense, otherwise it wouldn't require faith, and the supposed religion wouldn't be a religion.  (At least Christianity admits this: 1st Conrinthians 1:17-20).  And so Scientologists don't keep the faith despite the stuff about being possessed by aliens, they keep the faith because of the stuff about being possessed by aliens.

I am not anti-religion, nor do I think that religion should be kept separate from other areas of life, because that's impossible.  Any strong belief wants to become a religion, and this tendency can only be managed, never extinguished.  If it's not managed, it will eventually poison the well and the true believers will do evil, because they're intoxicated. 
Perhaps this is why Hillary Clinton seems to think she's above the law and above the rules: she's a Democrat-woman-feminist-survivor, therefore she should be able to do whatever she considers best.  She'll probably be our next president, swept to office by voters intoxicated on religious feminism.

I believe that modern feminism has gone badly astray, especially in the United States where the culture has always tended toward dogma.  U.S. Americans also tend to profile people, and our profile of women is that they are civilizing-sexy-angels, and in recent years we've added that they are badass-scientist-entrepeneurs.  (If you disagree, try this test: what type of people do you visualize when I say "American women"?)
I indicated that women are as bad as men; this includes child abuse, including physical and sexual abuse.  I'm not talking specifically about all the teachers sleeping with their teen students, although that's bad enough, I'm talking about little kids too.  If you search for information on sexual abuse committed by women, you get articles from Britain and Canada.  Apparently, this isn't a problem in the U.S. 
Like any other social reality, this denial shows up at the movies.  Monster-mothers figure in some older U.S. movies, including Roger Corman's Bloody Mama, the notorious The Baby, and Carrie, but those films came out of the early 1970s when American confidence (hubris) was scraping bottom.  Since then, U.S. films about women who mess with kids are usually ticketed for obscurity: Mother's Boys with Jamie Lee Curtis, Loverboy with Kyra Sedgwick. 

EDIT, 19 July 2015: I should mention two better-known films that tried to sweeten with black humor.  To Die For (1995), with Nicole Kidman and by maverick director Gus Van Sant, was not a hit but did respectably.  Mommie Dearest (1981) arguably sabotaged itself by being so ridiculous it's now enjoyed as camp.  Compare the Casey Anthony protesters, who directed such hatred at the accused that her (indeterminate) failings as a mother seem more unusual than they are.

This is less so in other, less momist territories.  Bad Boy Bubby and Animal Kingdom are Australian films; in the latter, as in Bloody Mama, the matriarch of a crime family has emotional incest, at least, with her sons.  (Things are almost that bad in the current U.S. series Bates Motel.)  Mum and Dad (2008), about a horribly abusive family, is British.  Advocate and the biopic Karla (with Laura Prepon) are Canadian, and the satiric Parents (1989) was a U.S.-Canada production. 

In 1965, 16-year old Sylvia Likens was held captive, tortured, and murdered by an Indiana woman.  This story was finally told in two films that may have cancelled each other out, both debuting 2007: An American Crime with Ellen Page and Catherine Keener, and The Girl Next Door, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum.  Despite high imdb ratings (7.4 and 6.7, respectively), these movies are obscure, but even the titles remind us that such crimes aren't that unusual.   What is unusual is that the facts were established, and the perpetrator brought to justice, especially unusual when the criminal is a female.   
Lately, there have been a few other brave exceptions to U.S. denial, so maybe things are getting better:  Precious, The Killer Inside Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  These films are a refreshing change from Hollywood-feminist Oscar-bait, films that use convoluted plots (even if true) to indicate that women don't abuse kids, such as Agnes of God, A Cry in the Dark, and The Good Mother

Despite getting the most attention, I found Precious to be heavyhanded, although its heart is in the right place.  The Killer Inside Me is surely destined for cult-legendary status, if you can stand the extreme violence.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower may be the  best of the three, a bittersweet story of friendship and recovery, including the battle to overcome denial to recover memories, the truth of what happened.  Without turning away from life's oceanic sadness, it's a plea for self-acceptance, its very title defying the American injunction that we're all superheroes. 



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Monster's Ball (2001) 1.5 of 4

EDIT 21 June, 2015: I wrote this review before knowing much about the recent madness in Charleston, S.C.  I apologize for the poor timing, especially to anyone who's read before this edit.  (I'm 50, and the realities of digital media don't come easily to me; I tend to forget how easy it is to edit the blog, for example.) 
These remain my views on the film, but right now they are trivial at best. 

The sitcom 30 Rock once did an episode in which Tracy Morgan's character made a "serious" movie, a piece of  autobiographical Oscar-bait about his troubled childhood.  This way-over-the-top film-within-a-film seemed to be a parody of the then-current movie Precious, the biopic about a young black woman who's been horribly abused for years.  Though I was a fan of 30 Rock at the time, I remember thinking the parody unkind. 
Precious was directed by Lee Daniels, who'd already co-produced Monster's Ball, and would go on to the current TV hit Empire.   Now that I've seen both those films, I can see exactly where 30 Rock was coming from.  At least Precious was apparently based on a true story, whereas Monster's Ball is just shameless manipulation, piling on misfortunes as if terrified we'll stop taking it seriously. 

Lee Daniels also put his name in front of The Butler.  All of these movies and more (The Help, 42) seem best suited for suburban white people, for guilt mitigation.  These movies do everything but take my hand and say, "Now you hush, chile.  Ain't nothin' to be afeared of , 'cause black folk is jus' folk, jus' like you."

** major spoilers ahead **

Monster's Ball was showered with awards, but to me this just proves again that certain topics paralyze the critical faculties: the Holocaust, race in America.  It's the story of a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who falls in love with Halle Berry, after helping to execute Halle's ex-husband (Sean Combs), who'd abused her.  The guard had a racist upbringing, but fortunately both of their sons die violent deaths (within days of each other), which is quite an ice-breaker, and before you know it we get some admittedly steamy, interracial sex scenes. 

So yes, this is an interracial love story.  Barely.  It seems to me that a racist redneck finding redemption in the arms of Halle Berry is like the person who claims they can't be anti-Semitic because they love Jesus.
Then again, this movie was made in 2001, when we were all more innocent.   


Monday, June 8, 2015

Blue Ruin (2013) 3 of 4

In my review of A Horrible Way to Die, I suggested that movie may actually be about the death of a culture.  The same is true of Blue Ruin, another violent film about dysfunction, grief, and death.  Blue Ruin is a crime drama, not a horror film, but the films are cousins.

Speaking of cousins, Blue Ruin is another film about hillbillies.  I suspect that such films are part of our attempt to come to grips that white people have their cultures, too, and we tend to cling to them with the same morbid pride as anyone else.  The title presumably refers to the main character's car, but it also describes the man, and maybe the Blue Ridge Mountains, at or near where the movie was filmed.
I haven't seen The World Made Straight, which is set in an Appalachian town still haunted by a Civil War massacre, nor Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a horror-comedy that reverses stereotypes.  For a history lesson, there's the modest but sincere Chris Cooper film Pharaoh's Army, set in Civil War-era Kentucky.  Blue Ruin is probably a notch down from the high-water Winter's Bone, but it's still a good film. 
** moderate spoilers ahead **
The protagonist is Dwight, whose parents were killed when he was a kid.  He's never recovered.  At one point, his sister says that she could forgive him if he were sick, "but you're not sick, you're weak."  If you discuss the film after, you'll be discussing whether you agree with her or not. 
Like The Brave One, Blue Ruin attempts to show us what Batman would be like if he were a real person: he'd be a mess, even more of a mess than Nolan's Dark Knight.   

EDIT, 21 March 2016: I eventually realized, the film can also be compared to Hamlet.  Further, the word "hamlet" can refer to a small settlement of under 100 people, and is sometimes used of the Appalachians.  The common factor: modernity is leagues away. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Quarantine (2008) 3.5 of 4

** this review contains only minor spoilers **

I liked this better than the original, but I deserve cinephile credit: I saw [REC] first.  That film came out in 2007, Spain's entry in the viral-horror pandemic.  It's a good film, but some of the dark humor seemed to get lost in translation.  Also, [REC] involves Satanism, whereas the remake is more secular, if far from divine.

I believe that most horror films include a behavior that draws punishment on a moral level, even if it seems to be peripheral.  For example: in Night of the Living Dead, Johnny clowns in the cemetery, a sacred place (I believe it's a Sunday, which makes it worse).  In the world of the film and in the viewer's subconscious, the zombie mayhem is punishment for a world that has forgotten respect.  Johnny is the first to die.

In Quarantine, the trigger is a little tougher to spot, because the protagonists are an impressive group of people: a perky TV-show host (Jennifer Morrison), her loyal cameraman, and a group of firemen, the subject of the show.  In the U.S., any city's firemen are known as that town's bravest; for example, Boston's firefighters are "Boston's bravest."

Of course, this is essentially true anywhere: we admire firefighters and other first responders.  In both [REC] and Quarantine, the heroic characters discover and interact with a group of variously reclusive, self-involved people.  Instead of a wealth gap, these movies portray an enormous socialization gap, an abyss. 


Dark Water (2005) 3 0f 4

After various iterations of The Ring, The Grudge, and One Missed Call, we may assume filmmakers have exhausted the fright potential of running water and long-haired females.  Still, I’d also recommend Dark Water, a literary horror flick that sets the freaky water effects against domestic tragedy.  (Note: Ring-master Hideo Nakata had a hand in Dark Water’s screenplay.)

Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays the mom to a little girl, both trying to survive an acrimonious divorce from husband/dad Dougray Scott.  Connelly’s character falls through cracks and into a creepy (but affordable) high rise on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.  The Brutalist monstrosity is haunted (shocker), although Connelly worries as much about retaining custody.   
(Connelly has quietly assembled a formidable sci-fi/horror resume, including The Rocketeer and Dark City, and collaborations with Dario Argento, The Hulk, and the neo-Klaatu.)

** moderate spoiler ahead **

             Despite moments of dread, Dark Water is relatively muffled compared to, say, The Ring or Session 9.  It seems to actually care about its characters, as opposed to something like The Grudge.  Child abuse is a theme, but the worst acts occur before the movie begins: the movie is about the grip of the past, and it's profoundly sad.  Both mother and daughter are achingly vulnerable, met mostly with greed and indifference, despite a sympathetic lawyer played by Tim Roth (other familiar faces: John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, and Pete Postlewaite).

** end spoiler ** 

            The cliché is that most 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 has the same result.  Credit for this mix of fright and empathy is shared by Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and the makers of the original Japanese film, which was based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Zodiac (2007) 4 of 4

** this review contains mild-to-moderate spoilers **

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac killer of the 1960s and 1970s looms large in the history of serial killers partly because he was never brought to justice.  I almost wrote that they never caught Zodiac, but that's misleading.  As David Fincher's superb fictionalization explains, investigators concluded multiple times that Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer.  They just couldn't make it stick. 

It's odd how recent films set in the 1970s seem as evocative of the era as films made in the 1970s: The Virgin Suicides, Boogie Nights, Frost/Nixon, The Runaways, The Lovely Bones, The Ice Storm.  The 1970s fascinate us with their mix of decadence and innocence (these people must have a kind of innocence, to wear those styles).

Zodiac is both matter-of-fact and frightening.  Impeccably mounted and detailed, it's enthralling, even at almost three hours.  In addition to other pitch-black serial killer films, it reminded of both Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City

The film is based on the book by Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the newspaper cartoonist who became obsessed with the case, starting with his friendship with a cavalier crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.).  The third investigator profoundly affected by the case was detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).  Some of the principals are listed as consultants in the end credits. 

As much as violence, the criminal known as Zodiac craves attention: he claims murders he didn't commit and sends coded messages to the media and the cops.  Graysmith explains that the code is very basic, not hard to crack.  A nerdy, soft-spoken man, Graysmith haltingly tells interviewers about his love of books and puzzles.  This is a major theme of the film, what all concerned have in common: killer, pursuers, filmmakers and intended audience, we all love puzzles.

The way these characters are brought together by puzzles and mysteries dovetails with Fincher's usual theme of male loneliness.  Fincher's films follow conflict and behavior stemming from two facts: men get lonely and alienated, men are not supposed to admit to these feelings.

As with Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, we can't entirely separate ourselves from the sadistic killer because after all, we sought out the movie.  I may not kill someone, but I thrill to a good serial killer movie, even one with lines of dialogue like the following, directed to a winsome young mom (Ione Skye): "Before I kill you I'm going to throw your baby out the window."  (If that sounds comical written down, it's not funny at all in the movie.)

Zodiac portrays the killer as a loser: a lonely, hulking man; a repressed, self-hating homosexual who keeps squirrels for pets.  Still, we are left with the chilling probability that he won the game he started: Allen spent time in prison for child molestation, and was questioned by Toschi, but was never arrested or charged with the Zodiac killings.  He helped inspire the string of holiday-based slasher movies of ensuing years, and today, we still debate the media's proper role in reporting violent crime. 

Again like Jack the Ripper, Zodiac craved attention, which is why a film can be fact-based: he gave us the information.  We can only speculate about the more discreet predators that operate on our rural byways or down our pleasant side streets.   


Friday, February 20, 2015

going broke: the war on terrorism in U.S. films

I also wrote this piece, on other aspects of war-on-terrorism films:

** this post contains spoilers on multiple films **

If you believe commercial films are a reliable cultural index, it didn't take long before we knew we were lied to regarding 9/11 and/or the "war on terror."  The evidence: a matched-zeitgeist-pair from 2005, both of them about airplanes in trouble (but both also careful to avoid a too-soon plane crash). 

In Flightplan, what seems a supernatural mystery comes down to a greedy air marshal, who explains things to star Jodie Foster: "That's what authority means, people believe what I tell them to believe."  (Ouch.)  In Red Eye, the title flight really is menaced by swarthy terrorists, however the main villain is a white mercenary, and the terrorists have been baited by a recklessly macho Homeland Security honcho. 

Both of these made money, but of course they weren't realistic depictions of the war on terrorism.  That would wait for the likes of Green Zone, with Matt Damon as a WMD expert who goes rogue to find out the truth: that we'd been badly misled about supposed WMD's, out of a lust for war in Iraq and the expected spoils.  Watching the extras for Green Zone, it's clear that the principles were coached to lead with the word "thriller."  That's an accurate word, but the political agenda sent audiences elsewhere.  Despite a high profile, Green Zone struggled to crack $30 million in the U.S. 

Most of the above paragraph can also be applied to The Hurt Locker, the winner of a Best Picture Oscar.  Jeremy Renner's character also slips his leash in Baghdad, although in his case it's as much adrenaline addiction as a quest for truth.  Again, high profile did not become high grosses. 

Traitor is even more political than Green Zone, giving us Don Cheadle as an apparent terrorist who is actually a deep-cover agent for the U.S.  As with many undercover operatives, Cheadle's character starts to sympathize with his purported comrades; at one point he charges that the main difference between the insurgents and U.S. forces is the darkness of the skin of their victims. 

I found Traitor to be a deeply thoughtful and satisfying political thriller, which was a surprise given that it sank like a pebble at the box office (I'm pretty sure I learned about the film at least a year after its release).  Apparently, Traitor made $22 million in the U.S., presumably doing better in urban markets thanks to Cheadle's presence.  In any case, the obscurity of this worthy film underlines our deep discomfort with analysis of our current wars. 

This brings me to American Sniper, the one war film that seems to have brought (most of) us together.  Clint Eastwood's enthralling, moving film is experiential, carefully avoiding politics: it's a soldier's story.  Some liberals complain the film ties the war in Iraq to 9/11, but they're wrong, the film makes no such connection: it portrays our soldiers as being motivated by 9/11, which is accurate.  Not everyone is a deep thinker or a student of history, and some people possess both patriotism and the courage to defend their country.  American Sniper invites Americans to feel some gratitude and pride for our soldiers, regardless of politics. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Horrible Way to Die (2010) 3 of 4

** this review has no major spoilers **

Like the previously-reviewed A Teacher, this makes good use of hi-def video as a (vaguely creepy) window into the troubled, naval-gazing lives of middle-class Americans.  In these clinical films, it's as if the characters are being observed by alien anthropologists.
A Horrible Way to Die is a horror film involving a serial killer, but much of it plays out as a downbeat drama.  I'm tempted to call the film misandrist, but I won't, because its view of women isn't exactly rosy, in fact it portrays a U.S. where malaise and personal dysfunction have reached apocalyptic levels. (I suspect the title applies not just to particular characters, but to a society or culture.)
I like the bit when an AA member talks about murders that happened to take place outside a bar, saying "nothing good ever comes from drinking," as if the victims had it coming.  A lack of community can be as deadly as any addiction.   
The film is made by two up-and-comers in horror, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who've also collaborated on V/H/S and You're Next.  The film is boldly scored with deep, mournful strings.  The filmmakers also deserve credit for knowing to end the film once they've played their cards. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) 3.5 of 4

** this review has no spoilers **

I've always liked science fiction, and I've noticed that many of the best s.f. narratives involve religion, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, and the works of Ursula K. LeGuin.  I think the reason this makes a good combination is that religion and science tend to be antithetical, in competition.  Just as religion has its prophets, science explores the future through science fiction.  The inclusion of its opposite injects dramatic tension into the science fiction genre, and prevents it from being sterile and abstract.

The reason I bring this up is because I find that many of the richest English-language films include themes of race and racism.  This makes sense, because the doctrine of white supremacy is stubbornly central to Anglo-American culture. That culture wants everyone to assimilate to its presumed superiority, and when someone can't or won't do so, it creates a dramatic tension that is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

For me, it's not so much that these films include racial themes as that all of the other films carefully exclude them.  Themes of race enrich works as varied as The Searchers, The Shining, Blade Runner, Jackie Brown, The Sopranos, and (again) Battlestar Galactica.  

So you know where I'm coming from when I review this film noir, set in the 1940s, with the twist that the detective is a black man.  Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, and Don Cheadle star in Carl Franklin's adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel, which sadly failed at the box office and thus left unfilmed the remainder of Mosley's Easy Rawlins books.  If you were a moviegoer in Fall 1995 and didn't go see this movie, shame on you (and me).

Devil in a Blue Dress gives us a black male hero in the late 1940s, without minimizing the racism such a man would confront.  This is a film that could've been made decades before if Hollywood existed in a bigotry-free zone; in that sense it's cousin to Far From Heaven, but peppier than that art-house entry.  This is an honest film, but it's also smooth, steamy, beautiful, bracing, jazzy and witty.

Aside from my recommendation, I'll only add that there's a very sexy scene in this film, one that deserves to be ranked with those in Body Heat, The Big Easy, and Out of Sight.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Black Water (2007) 4 of 4

** this review is free of spoilers **

This Australian thriller begins with text that tells us that the populations of both humans and saltwater crocodiles are increasing in northern Australia.  We're also told the movie is based on a true story, which is fine, but it also works fine as a revenge-of-nature film.

This theme with a long history in Australia, going back at least to 1978's Long Weekend.  The revenge-of-nature subgenre could be seen as anti-Tarzan movies, and Black Water especially so, with characters clinging to tree limbs that are never more than a few meters above the still, opaque waters.
It's set almost entirely in a saltwater swamp, an alien environment for almost everyone on the planet.  This is stunning use of hi-def photography: watching this film, you feel like you're there, which in this case is vastly preferable to being there.

There's good acting here (though if you're not Australian, mate, you might be tempted to use the English subtitles), but this is not a character study: it's a nail-biting thriller about a group of people who suddenly, unexpectedly find themselves fighting for life.  It reminded me of two films: Jaws, and The Wages of Fear.  That's high praise, and I do think Black Water deserves more attention than it's gotten.  Even with the Ozy accents, if Hollywood still remembered how to market its product this film could've had a decent run in U.S. theatres.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Killer Inside Me (2010) 3 of 4

** this review has no major spoilers **

In David Mamet's House of Games, Joe Mantegna's con-artist character explains that term: it's not that the "con artist" instills confidence, it's that he puts his confidence in you, and you feel honor-bound to reciprocate.  Granted this is a professional liar speaking, but he nevertheless has a point, one that helps explain how the protagonist of The Killer Inside Me stays out of jail.

This noirish crime film is an adaptation of the novel by Jim Thompson, previously filmed in 1976.  It flopped at the box office, but expect it to be a cult film in the future.  It will be loved and hated for the same reason: an unblinking look at psychopathic violence, so extreme that you don't know whether to laugh or cry -- or press "stop."  (By the way, that word is often misunderstood: a psychopath is someone who has no conscience but is able to pass as normal.  Norman Bates is a psychopath, so is Hannibal Lector; Tony Soprano is not, because everybody knows where he's coming from.)

Edit, 31 Jan. 2019: er, no.  According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula (YouTube interview), the difference is that psychopaths are born, not made, with sociopaths being the opposite.  Both are dangerous, but sociopaths are more likely to hold a steady job.  Thus, Norman, Tony and most comparable characters (including TKIM's) are implied sociopaths: we're given the genesis, to some degree.

As with I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, I was tempted to give up on TKIM, and if I'd been in a movie theater (remember those?) I may've walked out.  In both cases, the level of craft and conviction pulled me back to the narrative.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Machinist (2004) 2 of 4

** this review contains mild spoilers **

In the extras, actor Michael Ironside says that Christian Bale "did what he had to do" by losing 60 pounds, thus exposing his rib cage, for the title role in this film.  And I said back to the screen, "No, he didn't have to.  We all could have done without -- the movie's not that good."  This is not Raging Bull (for which Robert Deniro transformed himself, getting into fighting form and then getting fat for the epilogue).

Look, everybody wants to be a legend, and Christian Bale just might get there.  But no matter how impressive Bale's dedication, this is just a shaggy-dog parable, the type of story The Twilight Zone used to complete in 24 minutes but it takes 101 minutes of your precious time.  For me, it never escapes the shadows cast by any number of millennial strange-trips, including Dark City, Identity, and Bale's own American Psycho.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) 2 of 4

I think we can say that the bloom is off the rose for The X-Files.  It's so hard for popular celebrities, whether they be content creators or Sarah Palin, to keep it real instead of just drawing water from the same well.

** spoilers ahead **

I was never a regular viewer of the series, so I recently watched the best-reviewed episodes from Season 1, which is the only reason I know this second movie is a remake of the episode "Beyond the Sea": In both stories, a convicted felon claims to have psychic visions that can help solve certain missing-persons cases.  In both stories, we never find out for sure if he's telling the truth, or if his information comes from collaboration with (other) criminals, although Mulder, as always, "wants to believe."
Brad Dourif, "Beyond the Sea"
"Beyond the Sea" is a riff on existentialism and doubt.  I've never been interested in philosophy or ontology, but the episode was OK.  The movie is a faithful remake, and since it's the same franchise: what's the point?  The first X-Files film was also more of a remake than a progression.

Billy Connolly, I Want to Believe
This film tries very, very hard for gravitas: instead of a murderer, the "psychic" in I Want to Believe  is a pedophile priest.; Dr. Scully is distracted by planning the treatment of a boy with cancer; Mulder and Scully are finally lovers, but drifting apart; and as always, Mulder is estranged from the F.B.I.
And you thought science fiction and horror couldn't be adult drama.

** spoilers over **
There's nothing terrible about this film: the plot tracks fairly well and the franchise stays up to date (to our age of "torture porn") by including some truly disgusting, gory content relating to unauthorized organ transplants.  The problem is that none of it seems sincere.  None of it works.

The one demographic that may welcome this film is middle-aged women who complain that men get to look "more distinguished" as they look older.  Gillian Anderson's looking good here, David Duchovny is downright haggard.
Time to cancel funding for the X-Files for good this time.