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.