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.