Monday, September 13, 2010

[Film Review] The Brood

Or, David Cronenberg Presents: MurderBabies.

Cronenberg was pegged early on as a horror director, albeit a director of horror films that didn't fit well in the genre as it had been established up to that point. A lot of this was due to his interest in particularly visceral horror, especially that which affects the body from within rather than from without. Even before I'd seen anything he'd directed, I knew him by reputation as a director of horror in which the monsters aren't any kind of external force but rather come from within, in the most literal way. (That the title of his first feature film is, well, They Came From Within is telling.)

This unorthodox approach to the genre is buttressed by Cronenberg's total lack of interest in traditional monsters, which gives him quite a lot of freedom from audience expectation. He uses this elbowroom effectively, not so much to build tension or work towards scares as to keep us just as in the dark as his characters regarding where their mutations and physical reconfigurations will take them. Though we can be sure that it'll be somewhere revoltingly squishy and biological, we're never quite sure where a given story will end up, since we've got no map of previous similar experiences to compare it to. This liberty is one of his most powerful tools, a good narrative trick to involve his audience in the story, since he's not adept at creating characters who are nuanced enough for us to identify with.

That his monsters are just as human as their victims suits this inversion of the normal horror structure of an external threat challenging a community or individuals. Cronenberg's insistence on portraying his characters as well-rounded, if not deep, also means that there aren't any faultless protagonists or entirely diabolical antagonists. The conflicts here aren't those of entropy versus order as per the horror standard, but rather evolution versus stasis, which makes for a much more ambiguous arena for his ideas to do battle in.

The Brood, then, is a bit of an outlier in his body of work. The protagonist experiences only external threats and doesn't experience any kind of transfiguration as a result of encountering those threats. The primary antagonist isn't show going through much of a transformation, either, though the way that the movie gradually reveals what she's been all along acts as a kind of narrative surrogate for such a transoformation. Mostly, though, Samantha Eggar's portrayal as Nola leaves quite a bit to be desired, as she's an antagonist who can only be empathized with on the most abstract of levels, and not through the fault of being rendered inhuman due to her transformation. Though her primary motivation of reuniting her family and convincing them to love her unconditionally is easy to relate to, Eggar chews through the role with so much vehemence that it's hard to imagine her as anything other than a murderous shrew.

Cronenberg is certainly a director whose main strength is his ideas, but his execution often isn't up to the task of making those ideas come to life. Here, that's most evident in the brood themselves, which should be a terrifying personification of blind rage but instead end up being nothing more than attack-midgets armed with a variety of improvised weapons. Though they act as a fine visual metaphor for the way that domestic violence is often passed down through a generational cycle, particularly in the way that their dress mimics that of Frank and Nola's daughter, there's nothing particularly frightening about them in a more immediate fashion.

The presence of the brood is also made problematic by the way in which the thematic conflict of evolution versus stasis is presented as so unequivocally in favor of stasis as a favorable force. Though Dr. Raglan's other patients don't commit murder by proxy or lapse into messianic delusions, they also aren't shown to be able to produce anything other than self-defilement through the application of Raglan's psychoplasmic techniques, and there isn't a single case in the film of those techniques producing any results in the realm of psychiatric therapy. All of his patients are demonstrably just as crazy as they were before they began treatment, with frequent Cronenberg collaborator Robert Silverman portraying an especially zany/fun version of the demented character he's often called upon to play.

A shift toward more immediate altruism near the end of the film sheds more light onto Dr. Raglan's character, which had seemed pretty one-dimensionally Evil Scientist up until that point, but the arc of the story finds itself in a strange cul-de-sac after revealing just how strongly it presents evolution as a threatening force. Though the pattern of familial abuse is shown to have originated prior to the advent of psychoplasmics, use of that radical superscience is shown to be no cure for that traditional social ill. In fact, the very nuclear family unit that's shown to be the source of Nola's rage in the first place is only reinforced by the ending of the film, with the final shot serving as a reminder that this is a conflict which seemingly has no resolution. That lack of easy answers, or perhaps any answers, is also emblematic of Cronenberg's work, in which conflicts which may initially appear to be resolved are shown to be fractal in nature, whose resolutions are elusive at best.

A special note needs to be made about the trailer for the film, which is amazingly hyperbolic. As noted previously, there wasn't really anything scary so much as thought-provoking about The Brood, but the trailer takes a different tack entirely. I'm fine with this kind of misleading approach, as "The movie that will make you consider whether or not domestic abuse is unavoidably hereditary" doesn't make for much of a dramatic voiceover. But, still, the wannabe-ominous narration intoning how the film will send my brain reeling from the most terrifying images of terrible terror ever recorded, while onscreen we see nothing more than a box of Shreddies being knocked onto the kitchen floor, was just too rich to believe. I'm glad I didn't watch the trailer before the movie itself, but I highly recommend checking it out after you watch the feature as a quick but marvelously potent shot of unintentional humor.

(This review was cross-posted to Cinema Viewfinder's Cronenberg Blogathon.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

[Film Review] Thirst

A couple of the guys from my gaming group also happen to be cinephiles of the exploitation/psychotronic variety, and the sum total of their collective knowledge base is frankly intimidating. I worry sometimes that they'll get sick of me trying to wring information out of their brains, or the way that I've been known to tag along at their heels like a lost puppy, testing them to find if there's some obscure little film that they've not heard of and failing again, and again, and again...but they're good enough people not to show any annoyance that they might be feeling.

Bryan White, one half of this unstoppable juggernaut, runs an exploitation blog called Cinema Suicide that you're probably already familiar with, and if not, I'm offering you the perfect opportunity to absolve yourself of that sin. The amount of science that he drops on unsung micro-genres that I've often never even heard of is profound, and his writing style is a kind of two-fisted action prose that wouldn't understand the taking of prisoners if you explained it with charts and graphs. He was good enough to host my review of Thirst on the site, so follow this link over there and then settle in for a master class in awesome trash.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

[Film Review] Spartan

Spartan is a spy movie of the kind all too rare, that which prizes intelligence over spectacle and tactical chutzpah over gadgetry and kung fu. That the agents here fumble their assignments far more often than they complete them successfully adds a further spin to the story, which starts out with so many standard tropes that I was worried that the next couple of hours were going to be straight-up genre rehash. Instead, the narrative moves us through that familiar territory just long enough for us to get comfortable with what we think is going to happen next and then begins throwing so many curveballs that we completely empathize with a protagonist who begins to doubt everything around him.

Val Kilmer didn't quite sell me on his character, though he was only off by a degree or two. He plays haunted very well, of course, but in scenes where he's supposed to be intimidating and bullish, he just seemed to be talking faster and louder than he does elsewhere rather than exerting a greater presence. Thankfully, there aren't a lot of these scenes, and he nails the difficult task of conveying his character's unwilling transformation from self-described drone to a person forced to take agency into his own hands. That he manages to do so without making major changes to the outward demeanor of his character, but rather by hinting at what that demeanor is an inward reaction to, is a pretty fantastic trick to pull off.

The film keeps things moving at a brisk pace, not slowing a bit to explain what's happening, either in terms of plot or social setting. Though it's unlikely that Mamet assumed that his audience would be familiar with the working techniques of Secret Service actions, it's mighty refreshing to watch characters who don't need to tell each other things that they already know as a way of clueing in the audience. More than that, though, not getting bogged down in operational or hierarchical details helps to give the story a more universal quality, the importance of which becomes more and more clear as the film progresses.

There are plenty of tasty bits of the particulars of tradecraft, but we're spared the kind of elaborate flash-forward-with-voiceover sequences that tend to characterize this sort of skullduggery in films that have less respect for their audiences. Instead, we get to see the kinds of unglamorous but critical actions that James Bond never has to bother with, presented without a lot of flash. Mamet's workmanlike camerawork serves him in good stead here, acting as a visual reminder that this sort of subterfuge is second nature to the people in this subculture rather than anything for them to get particularly excited about.

That's not to say that it's all brush passes, cut-outs and false flag ops at the expense of any action sequences. There are action scenes, very well-crafted, which punctuate the more talky and political intriguey plot arcs with just the right amount of frequency. These aren't the extended setpieces of a Bourne or Mission: Impossible film, though. Mamet keeps the gunplay on a scale small and fast enough that we can't help but wince at every gunshot. Every single shootout is an ambush rather than a firefight, and every bullet is potentially lethal, which perfectly suits the film's unstated conceit that safety is nothing more than another lie that we tell ourselves so that we can get on with our lives. The principal characters in the movie know this, which is why they're so terse and objective-oriented. Being so aware of just how quickly life can end leaves them no time for argumentation or angst.

The various characters serving the Secret Service act as slight variations on the theme of personal sacrifice to ideology, though interestingly, we never learn why any of them have chosen such dangerous lifepaths. That suits me, as I'm happy to file that under "trusting the audience" rather than needing to hear yet another speech about god, country and flag. There's just one wrinkle to that, though, which is that the only truly mercenary character in the film seems to be just as ready to die for the mission as any of the more obviously indoctrinated characters. There are any number of fanwank explanations for his readiness to die - we never even learn his name, let alone why he's willing to risk his life for an operation that he's got zero personal stake in - but it does undermine the theme of soldiering for a cause, at least a bit.

The final question, which the film never answers directly, is the meaning of the title. There are a few throwaway references to it in one scene, but whether or not the opinions expressed are those of the characters or those of the film are left ambiguous. Certainly, the idea of the Spartan warrior, whose life is devoted to his (or her, as the film is happy to point out) cause and has no meaning outside of that devotion, is central to most of the characters depicted. We get only glimpses of the lives of characters who live in normal society, who are presented as little more than a very thin justification for the quiet wars that the primary characters wage. Our protagonist is shown to have a double life, but it's one with no personal meaning to him, nothing more than an temporary escape from the front as a means of rest. In his interactions with the townspeople who know him only as a mostly-absent businessman, we see that he's entirely unable to connect with them. Though he expresses some self-derision at how easy it is for his secret identity to be penetrated, it's clear that what he really feels is relief at having a reason to be drawn back into the fray.

That good fight is the only thing he knows now, and whether or not he's able to remember why he started fighting is left an open-ended question. What complete dedication to a cause means, and what its (sometimes surprising) consequences are, is the central question of the film. But because it's so densely populated with fanatics who can no longer comprehend such a concept as a "normal life," Spartan excellently takes apart the assumptions of the Cold Warrior genre, pushing its audience to question why they haven't experienced the same revelations about the hollowness of that kind of politically-generated conflict which its protagonist is forced to confront. It's very much in the vein of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, updated for an era even less sure of the rightness of its own causes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Film Review] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Two of the guys from my boardgaming group and I were talking about Riki-Oh and Ninja Scroll, and how the plots of those movies are really just excuses for their protagonists to fight a bunch of differently-gimmicked opponents, yet manage to be kind of mystifying at the same time. As one of my pals put it, there's no real plot to speak of, but there are a stultifying number of events.

Two days later, when my wife asked me if I wanted to go see Scott Pilgrim, I kind of assumed that I'd be seeing the same kind of movie. I haven't read any of the books, but from the trailer I knew that there were going to be seven boss battles, and that seemed like a lot to string together and still have time for anything more than the barest excuse for connective tissue. In retrospect, I was such a fool to have thought that Edgar Wright might fail me so spectacularly.

Instead, Wright made yet another romantic comedy that I didn't realize was a romantic comedy until after I was finished watching it. Neither half of that sentence should be read as a criticism. Though Wright doesn't seem interested in projects that aren't rom-coms, he mostly ignores the form and tropes of the genre and instead sticks to its most basic idea - a romance of some kind between two lead characters which is stymied and complicated by their own hangups and issues as well as wacky circumstances outside their control, which circumstances at some point get used by our plucky protagonists in order to fix their personal problems. That those circumstances tend to be more outsized than is standard for the genre is absolutely to Wright's credit, given how badly the normal formula needs some new ideas pumped into it.

Michael Cera does his normal Michael Cera thing, although the character of Scott calls for him to replace Cera's normal shyness with selfishness. If you're familiar with his usual onscreen persona, this probably means you already know whether or not you're going to find the character funny or annoying, but Cera does pull out an unexpected emotional beat: righteous fury. It only happens twice in the movie, as most of the time Scott displays his anger as petulance rather than wide-eyed rage, but Cera surprised me by totally selling me on Scott's triumphant anger those few times that the character worked his way up to it.

Not all of the jokes work, but the film is edited so sharply and proceeds at such a breakneck pace that you won't have time to dwell on the ones that didn't make you laugh. So much of the material is exhilaratingly funny that the few bits that don't work are mostly welcome as a quick break for the facial muscles, anyway. There's a particularly great device that the story uses just enough to not become tiresome, whereby a character will make an absurd statement about the world which works as a sarcastic commentary on another character but is later revealed to be an actual piece of the setting. Since none of what's going on here is explained, that technique serves as a novel way to turn humor into worldbuilding.

The action is good adrenaline-pumping stuff, and though the videogame style of the fights does make them feel a bit light, that ultimately works in the film's favor. It's not particularly visceral stuff, which is fine, since the model here is River City Ransom rather than Thrill Kill. Keeping the tone light by adding helpful onomatopoeic captions to the blows and avoiding the splatter that characterized Wright's previous two films works because the fights happen for a reason, and effectively removing the physical danger from these confrontations focuses our attention on the emotional stakes that fuel the motivation for the throwdowns in the first place.

Scott Pilgrim isn't doing well in theaters, which is a shame. Is it targeted at too specific a niche? I can remember when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out and was greeted by rapturous reviews from an arthouse crowd who probably didn't normally care much for wu xia/kung fu stuff, and that film certainly seemed to rely more heavily on knowledge of genre expectations to achieve its story than Scott Pilgrim relies on video game tropes. There are a lot of little Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, obviously, but there were definitely little nods that I recognized happening but didn't understand the full import of, yet that ignorance didn't harm the film for me at all. It may also have suffered from a paradoxical lack of overt exoticism, especially in its opening scenes. By assuming that what we are seeing is a somewhat stylized but mostly normal depiction of our real world, some viewers may have been irrevocably thrown for a loop when the weirdness began. If the film had been set in an fantasy land or even another real-world culture or historical setting, I'm betting that the supernormal elements would have gone down a lot more smoothly.

Monday, August 9, 2010

[Film Review] Up

A year before I graduated from college, my mom noticed that a mole I'd had on my cheek since birth had become a distinctly greenish tinge. I was all for letting it continue to mutate, in hopes of developing superpowers or at least enough of a hideous appearance that I'd have an excuse to pursue a career in supervillainy, but she insisted that I get it removed before I was no longer covered under her health insurance as a student. The dermatologist explained that he wouldn't be able to use the normal freeze-and-scrape method because the mole's roots were too deep under my skin, so instead he applied a local anesthetic and then cut it out by hand. While he was doing that, I still had enough sensation in my cheek to be able to feel the scalpel slicing through the flesh of my face and the subsequent stitching together of the incision, but those sensations were weirdly heightened by the lack of any accompanying pain. Up is the emotional equivalent of that experience. It's a bizarre but intriguing sensation to watch one's emotions be manipulated, and see it happening and understand how it's being done, and yet still be overwhelmed by that tidal pull.

Technically, the animation is very nearly perfect. The visual textures are nothing short of astonishing, so dense as to nearly invoke a sight/touch synaesthesia. The protagonist, especially, looks more like a puppet than anything conjured on a Mac workstation, perhaps a long-lost cousin to Statler and Waldorf. Light is also so lovingly rendered as to be nearly palpable, so much so that it's easy to forget that none of what's on the screen is actually a tangible presence in the world. The greatest feat that Up accomplishes is its ability to present images that are cartoonish and exaggerated, but to deliver them so convincingly that once the movie has ended, it's the real world that looks slightly out of true, designed with no sense of credible aesthetic sense.

The dialogue is as polished as everything else in the movie, but the characters are so expressive and the environments so calculated for effect that the voice acting is essentially superfluous. The voice actors do a great job of conveying text and subtext, but since there aren't any surprises in the dialogue, it feels like its inclusion was more a matter of habit than any kind of artistic necessity.

Up suffers from a close relative of a common film malady, that of the opening scene so powerful that it overshadows the rest of a movie which isn't ever able to rise to that level of intensity again. Here it's not the opening scene, but the one immediately succeeding it, which raises the bar for itself just a bit too high. After a scene of the protagonist as a child, there's a montage which shows him falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, marrying her, growing old with her, and then sitting alone at her funeral. It's a fiercely emotional sequence in which we're shown the outline of a wonderful person who's then abruptly snatched from us, and the rest of the story feels pale and predictable afterward.

Which isn't to say that it's not well-crafted. The narrative is honed and polished and sleek, obviously the product of much loving effort, but this precision works against itself. There isn't a single scene here in which we get the faintest hint of spontaneity, and there isn't room to breathe between any of the perfectly-crafted lines of dialogue, facial expressions and body language. That machine-like relentlessness possesses a kind of cold beauty, but it's the perfectly symmetrical beauty of an ant or robot, something so singularly devoted to its purpose that you can't help but admire it at the same time that you realize you couldn't possibly empathize with it.

The story arc is so smooth and flawless that there's nothing to grab onto, and though my emotional responses to every scene played out exactly how their creators calculated, the rigidity of that same craft made those responses feel strangely mechanical. (It's very likely that the amazing quality of the visuals and the starkly streamlined story have a direct relationship with each other. Based on how beautiful the film is, it must have taken many, many work-hours to produce, and that work would have needed to be thrown away if some deviation from the script had occurred while recording the voice acting. Hence, that acting needed to be extensively worked out beforehand, leaving little or no room for improvisation or even tonal differences on the part of the voice actors. Or maybe my speculations are entirely wrong. Note: Since this review went live, I have been informed by people who work in the animation industry that these speculations are, in fact, entirely wrong. Standard Pixar practice is to record the voice acting before work begins on the animation.) This tendency to treat the story with such exactitude strips away what should be an organic experience, making Up feel like the dance of simulacra much more than its animation ever does.

[Animation "Review"] Monstrous Wildlife

I don't normally review shorts, mainly because I don't know how to - they generally don't have enough going on for me to wax pseudo-intellectual about, and it should be clear by now that I got into this here reviewing game for the opportunities for chin-strokage.

I'll make an exception for "Monstrous Wildlife," because it's beautiful and made me laugh out loud and has a fun soundtrack and makes me want to watch Tremors again. I don't have anything insightful to say about it, but maybe if it generates enough traffic, Frank Robnik will fashion more entries in a series that's got a ton of potential.

Monstrous Wildlife can be viewed here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

[Book Review] The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson likes writing smart, capable characters who aren't interested in spending time languishing in self-doubt or worrying about what makes themselves tick. They're not often the military or cultural or political movers and shakers in the worlds he creates, but they're the motivational forces in their own lives. To support the confident, forward-thinking worldviews of his characters, Stephenson's style is witty and conversational, never opting for dry exposition when a winking exaggeration would be funnier. Sometimes his characters, generally thin to be begin with, become lost under all that cleverness, but The Diamond Age is so much fun to read that it's hard to blame him for that. It's an engaging style in which to tell tales of characters who are leading interesting lives, both in a biographical sense and in that of the traditional Chinese curse.

That these same interesting people are necessary for the continued progress of society is the central theme of the novel. The book's setting underscores that by setting up different "phyles," each in conflict with the others as competing social organisms. These tribes are based around ideology and culture rather than birthright and ethnicity, thus allowing the book to sidestep any worries about racial politics in favor of opening a debate about whether or not some cultures are inherently better, or at least inherently better suited for survival, than others. The notion of government has been replaced by these tribes, but since the tribes largely serve the same purposes as governments, this mostly just means that cultural institutions are bound together by ideology rather than geography.

The plot is bifurcated, following the lives of a nanotech engineer who builds the quasi-sentient book of the novel's subtitle and an impoverished young girl who accidentally ends up with a copy of said book. That book is designed to create the previously-mentioned interesting people in a world that its commissioner fears is becoming too staid as a result of the ubiquity of nanotechnology. (Given all the goings-on in the background, that fear seems completely unfounded, but it does serve as a means of egress from one social stratum to another, allowing us to get a view of many of the disparate phyles which populate the setting.) Stephenson is a creator of intensely memorable scenes, but the connective tissue between those scenes is often atrophied and sometimes entirely absent. As a result, individual episodes have their own internal rise and fall, but the overall plot wanders quite a bit rather than following any internal structure. Those meanderings are often quizzical in their intent, as the book has a tendency to cut away at strange times and peek in on other plotlines which possess much less urgency, but they're also quite light-footed and don't dwell on any one focus for long, with the result that their rapid-fire progression makes up for the lack of any coherent overall arc.

By keeping the pacing brisk and giving its characters a lot to do, The Diamond Age distracts us from the fact that there's not a lot going on inside the heads of these people. Major revelations and psychological reconfigurations are given no more narrative attention than mundane details, and major shifts in character identity are treated almost summarily. It's obvious that Stephenson simply isn't interested in spending a lot of time having his characters agonize over their traumas and triumphs, and rather than force himself to write about a topic which he doesn't care about, he gives his readers enough information for them to at least understand his characters, if not actually empathize with what they're experiencing. How closely your own interests coincide with Stephenson's will dictate whether you think this approach to characterization is lazy or graceful.

The reactionary gender politics the characters display are a bit rough to read, though at least they're not based on any kind of statement about the innate inferiority of women but rather on the mores of the two dominant cultures we spend time with. It is a bit puzzling as to why these cultures were chosen by their progenitors as the ones which they should hearken back to, given that both of them historically imploded under the weight of the very virtues that their neo-iterative versions emulate. It's not much of an imaginative stretch to envision that a group of people would idolize an earlier culture so strongly as to ignore its flaws or assume that they won't fall prey to them, though, so this is a completely forgivable bit of worldbuilding.

The Diamond Age foregrounds pervasive nanotech as a way to examine what the basis of value is in a culture in which material goods no longer have any commercial worth. Though nanotech has made the production of standardized goods into a nearly free proposition, it hasn't effected enough of a singularity event to have abolished economics completely, so there are still socioeconomic strata in and outside of the various phyles. What has become more valuable than diamonds is the ability to innovate, an aptitude tied directly to the capacity for critical thought. The novel posits through its characters that critical thinking is earned via hard experience, particularly traumatic experience. This theme doesn't ever get in the way of the story, but rather runs throughout it as a means of both relaying setting information and relating the media-saturated world of the novel to our own. That tendency is reflected in the book's other higher-order concerns as well: though a lot of high-octane ideas get tossed around, none of them are allowed to overwhelm the sheer entertainment value of reading the text for its own sake.