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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

[Film Review] Inception

I do my best to avoid seeing trailers these days, because so many of them ruin the entire story of the film that they're advertising. There aren't many trailers that don't give away something that I'd rather have been surprised by in the theater. There are exceptions to this recent trend, but these are so few and far between that I can name them right off the top of my head:

The District 9 trailer made it look as though it would be a full-on mockumentary, rather than a traditional narrative with some mockumentary sequences. The promotional materials for Inglorious Basterds were very clear that it was going to be Tarantino's version of the Dirty Dozen, but it turned out to be something very different and much better. A Serious Man's trailer, well, that was just confusing enough to be a kind of thematic indication of what the movie would be like without giving away any of its details. The last really great series of trailers that I remember were the ones for the first Matrix film, which treated us to all kinds of eye-popping imagery but didn't ruin any of the surprises of the film itself.

Most trailers are far too honest for their own good. The best ones lie to us, by omission if not commission, leaving intact the experiential joy of being surprised. So though I'd seen the teaser trailer for Inception, which is intentionally very vague in terms of what the movie is actually about, I'd deliberately avoided watching the standard trailer for fear that some crucial bit of data would lodge in my brain before the movie had begun and inadvertently ruin some aspect of the film for me. It would be very difficult to discuss any aspect of Inception without spoiling something, and this is definitely a movie best viewed with no foreknowledge whatsoever. If you haven't seen it yet, but think you might want to, stop reading and go see it. It's stunning, and even if you don't end up liking the movie, you'll be glad that you watched it on a screen measured in "stories tall" rather than "inches across."

Christopher Nolan is everyone's darling at the moment, because he's the best director working in Hollywood when it comes to creating big-budget spectacle which is supported by very capable storytelling, all of which is accompanied by thematic underpinnings that actually have some heft. His non-Batman films are also constructed as puzzles for the audience to unravel, employing frayed (and sometimes disintegrated) narrative arcs and unreliable narrators to keep audiences engaged in the effort to decipher the fictional cryptograms they're presented with. His protagonists are frequently unsure of anything other than their commitment to the core obsessions which drive them, sometimes to the point of losing sight of the reality that caused those fixations to develop in the first place.

It's not at all surprising, then, that he'd want to make a film that centers on the malleability of dreams and the shifting uncertainties that accompany them, as navigated by a character compelled to find whatever truths he can in all those layers of subterfuge and outright deceit. What is surprising, at least during the initial viewing, is just how mundane those dreams turn out to be. While there are a few effects-laden scenes in which physics is treated as a set of suggestions rather than as unbreakable laws, there's a distinct lack of the kind of surreality that often characterizes actual dream logic. The scenes which are explicitly set in dreams mostly follow normal action film physics, meaning that they fit in well with other high-budget summer blockbusters.

This begins to make sense once the film makes its intentions clear: there are going to be so many potential jumping-off points for where reality meets dreamspace that the audience isn't going to be given any clear signals for when the characters are in a dream or not. By avoiding the use of standard film vocabulary for dream sequences (fog machine, midget, soft focus), Inception makes it impossible to know where its action is taking place. This is a film determined to spawn fan theories, and keeping its cinematography even-handed is the best way to allow the maximal number of those theories to maintain their potential viability.

Its mythology is similarly built to confound, starting off with what seems to be a fairly simple set of rules but soon enough circling around to modify those rules and eventually even contradict them. That the film never gives more than a passing nod to the mechanics of how any of the action onscreen is occurring is another sly obfuscation, leaving open the question of whether what we see is a simple narrative shortcut necessary to keep the pacing on track or a clue as to the nature of the characters' fluctuating realities.

Hans Zimmer's phenomenal score does an excellent job of supporting the thesis (well, theses) of the film while also succeeding on its own merits. As one perceptive viewer noticed, there's an extremely tidy trick that Zimmer pulls by using a honed-down sample from a bit of the source music which acts as a major plot point in the film. Being someone with an abiding interest in sample-based music, particularly the kind that embraces the alteration of samples rather than limiting their deployment to the use of strict cut-and-paste techniques, this fiendishly clever use of sampling (or extrapolation, as the case may have been) was incredibly toothsome. So far as I can recall, this is the most well-integrated piece of film scoring that I've ever seen, one which not only powerfully advances the mood of the story but also provides more clues to the puzzle which the film methodically lays out for us.

Nolan's use of repeated phrases and imagery, common to all his oeuvre as a way to suture together narrative strands, here does double-duty as the kind of intuitive feeling that we often get in dreams that we've been here before, had these conversations in the past, and followed courses of action whose consequences we already know. Though that use of repetition here invokes that exact feeling of deja vu, it doesn't overshadow the authority of the characters' choices or psychological states, with the odd result that the plot manages to feel simultaneously preordained and spontaneous.

Inception's final shot neatly encapsulates the primary argument of the movie, and was stunning enough in its emotional impact that there was an audience-wide gasp at the theater I saw it in. It's an extremely deft bit of sleight-of-hand which doesn't answer the questions raised by the rest of the film so much as force the viewer to begin reconsidering the entire reason that those questions are being asked in the first place. In a film which might well be an extended metaphor for the process of filmmaking, it's a very elegant feat to turn to the audience as the credits begin to roll and show them exactly how the previous two and a half hours weren't about the characters on screen at all, but rather the experience of having viewed the film itself.

Monday, July 19, 2010

[Film Review] The House of the Devil

Somewhere during the conception of The House of the Devil, Ti West must have decided that simply setting his mash note to the horror films of the late '70s or early '80s in the time period which saw their genesis wasn't enough. Such an approach wouldn't hew closely enough to his vision of the perfectly distilled apotheosis of those films, so he went a step further and created a film which looks like it might be a lost artifact from that era. Employing the film grain, title techniques and stilted dialogue structure which characterize those movies, all these techniques are thankfully employed for something other than raw nostalgia.

What's most incredible about this movie is that it blatantly tells us what it's going to do and then proceeds to do it, but we're still amazed when it happens. This is a movie with a very particular title, which opens with a title card explaining that what we're about to see is based on unexplained events surrounding Satanic cults. When Tom Noonan shows up, acting creepy and evasive, we already know what we're in for. The fascinating interplay between Noonan's intimidating physiology and almost absurdly gentle voice has been so often played to unsettling effect that we know as soon as he appears what his role in the proceedings is going to be. These obvious telegraphs are played out to their fullest extent to inculcate paranoia in the classic Ira Levin sense, in which we can't help but interpret even the most innocent gesture in anything other than the most damning light.

House's filmic vocabulary leans heavily on that of its "contemporaries," especially in its use of camera zoom rather than camera dolly. Its editing is also quite blunt, at least until the later stages of the film, when the protagonist enters the titular house. At that point, the film takes an utterly brilliant turn that follows its initially quiet departure from its forebears, signifying that what we're about to see is a much more delicate visual telling of the story whose beats are ingrained in its audience's marrow.

I don't want to scrutinize too closely here, since House definitely deserves a close reading analysis in the future, but the shift that happens so subtly is that the film moves from a strict focus on mise en scene to instead employ the most brilliant use of framing that I've yet seen in a horror film. That transformation perfectly mirrors the gradual change from the visual techniques that characterize those early slasher films, in which POV shots of the killer and unseen monsters behind the back of the characters were centered on screen, to the films of today, in which our anxiety is engaged by what's just offscreen instead of what we can actually see. The torture porn films that have been the mainstay of horror for the last decade or so rely heavily on this use of framing, but with little payoff, whereas House uses that framing as a way to create a psychological negative space that's much more effective than any number of jump scares.

House goes for a slow burn. It doesn't stop at refusing to have a very low body count, and instead goes so far as to eschew deploying almost any kind of overt scares whatsoever. That's the heart of the fantastic trick that it manages to accomplish: by playing directly into the fact that it knows its audience knows that something horrible is going to happen any second now, any second now, but refusing to give that tension any kind of release, it makes its audience do all the work in getting to the point where even the smallest deviation from the norm is terrifying. And then it doubles down on that audacious achievement by not giving us even that smallest deviation, instead keeping everything we see completely normal for a frankly amazing amount of time. For most of the movie, everything is fine, which we all know means that everything is secretly horrible, but there's no overt confirmation of that latter perception.

The score works to this end, being mostly comprised of a magnificently detuned piano which plonks out very short sequences of notes to emphasize just how little we're seeing happen onscreen. Occasionally, small string suites swell quietly in the background, but it's not until the frenetic climax of the film that the music really makes itself known. When it does so, it takes control of the film, switching its role from supporting the lack of action onscreen to driving it, a perfect switch that emphasizes just how drastically the tonal shift of the story has taken root.

House takes an almost entirely lifeless, worn-down narrative form and uses the very tiredness of its genre trappings to carve out a new exploration of why that narrative gained popularity in the first place, as well as using its tropes as the launching point to raise questions about themes that its progenitors never would have bothered to tackle. This is that very rarest breed of horror film, the kind that not only succeeds at creating a palpable atmosphere of dread, but then goes on to utilize that emotion to explore something greater than the sum of its parts. The closest parallel I can think of in terms of the sheer proficiency of its craft is Session 9, and anyone who's interested in horror film as something more than a simple series of onscreen bloodbaths would do very well to seek this movie out.

This review was written as a contribution to Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club, a regular feature on the Final Girl horror film blog, an excellent blog which you should start reading if you're not already.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

[Film Review] Predators

Predators is smart about one thing: it doesn't bother to weigh most of its characters down with names, because it knows that we're not going to care. Instead of attaching signifiers that we're immediately going to forget in lieu of our mental tags of Tough Guy, Sniper Lady, Big Gun Dude and the like, it skips past the middleman and just starts calling them by those tags. I imagine that at some point in the process of drafting the script, the scene in which the two protagonists finally proclaim their names to each other was meant to be a triumphant revelation, a moment in which we finally see these dirty soldiers transcend their baser natures and become fully human for the first time since we were introduced to them. In its final form on screen, the exchange instead plays out as an afterthought, one of the many nods to Aliens which hasn't earned its own weight. Thankfully, the movie is also smart enough to not be bothered by that lack of heft, instead embracing its stupidity with cheerful aplomb.

This is a very dumb movie, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. That guy you used to go drinking with in college, the one who wasn't all that bright but knew better than to take himself seriously and was always a blast to hang out with as a result? Predators is that guy. It doesn't waste any time announcing its intentions in this regard, kickstarting with a sequence of some guy falling out of the sky and yelling a lot, blasting through his punishing landing, slamming the title card on screen briefly and then revving up the minigun. This is somewhere higher on the antiexposition-o-meter than standard in media res, brushing away all those details like setting and character as completely unnecessary. It acts as a kind of mission statement for the movie, which is curious in that Nimrod Antal's first film, Kontroll, also opens with a similarly upfront short scene in which the tone of the film to follow is introduced. I haven't seen Armored or Vacancy, the two other films Antal has directed, but now I wonder if they also feature tenor-setting mini-prologues of this kind.

There are a lot of unselfconscious throwbacks to the '80s Predator on display here, rather like the people creating this movie wanted to put all of that xenomorph-related nonsense behind them as if it had never happened. These callbacks don't play out the same way that they did in their earlier iteration; it's not spoiling anything to say that Schwarzenegger's beefcake-based endgame gambit from the original is no longer enough to defeat the alien menaces from another galaxy, for example. The score particularly stands out as merrily awful, heavy-handed enough to make sure that we can't help but know The Hero Has Arrived, You Should Be Wowed, and so on. It's been a while since I've seen the original, but the music here sure sounds like it pays heavy tribute to the music from the original film, if it wasn't lifted entirely from it.

Predators knows that it's got to hit all the items on the action/sci-fi checklist, but it also knows that it doesn't have to slavishly follow the playbook on how those scenes play out. So of course there's the inevitable ammo-counting scene, but here we skip past even the brilliant shortcut that Rodriguez came up with in Planet Terror ("How much ammo do we have left?" "Not enough.") to bypass the fetishistic pointlessness of this scene. Instead, here the scene acts as a reminder that guns fire bullets, a reminder that's actually kind of hilarious given that those same guns don't seem to need ammo throughout the rest of the movie. There's just enough of this twisting of the end of any given formula scene that the audience isn't ever quite sure whether Hollywood tradition will be followed or abandoned during a given sequence, which isn't quite the same thing as smart writing, but at least serves as a discount means of keeping attention focused on what would otherwise be a completely color-by-numbers plot.

There's less intra-group conflict here than is normal for the kind of movie in which a bunch of alpha-personality strangers are thrown into a high-stress situation and forced to work as a group in order to survive. Aside from a few squabbles, the humans here work together quite well and look after each other in times of danger, in spite of a general verbal agreement amongst themselves that they really don't care about one another. There are two excellent exchanges in which Convict Guy is played for humor, which are immediately followed up by disturbing disclosures of just how wrong it is to laugh along with him. Both of these are lampshaded by the obvious discomfort that the Hapless Doctor feels about the people he's found himself surrounded by, and the low-grade animosity these characters feel towards each other is reinforced by the growly complaints of the Tough Guy Leader as he finds himself reluctantly helping the people he supposedly doesn't care about.

The one overt exception to the ill-defined dislike that each character feels for the others is the only female character in the film, the Sniper Lady whom the film obviously wants to depict as tough and capable but who comes across as a confirmation of the stereotypes women normally portray in action films. She's the only character here with any real compassion, and while that trait is normally a positive one, it doesn't make much sense to ascribe that characteristic to a combat veteran whose specialty is killing individual targets in a manner that's mechanically intimate enough that it should trigger any feelings of empathy that she possesses. She also needs to be rescued almost as many times as the Hapless Doctor, which doesn't jibe well with her background as a battle-hardened warrior who's an expert at operating on her own. This portrayal is unfortunate, as action films could really use better representation of women, and Predators would have been a perfect vehicle for that, given that all of the characters except one could easily have been of either sex. Had there been another female character, these indications of weakness on the part of Sniper Lady could have been written off as being traits specific to her character rather than women in general, but since she's forced to shoulder the burden of representing her entire gender, it's difficult to avoid drawing some unpleasant conclusions about the film's attitudes towards women.

The highlight of the movie is definitely Laurence Fishburne's turn as a long-term survivor who's gone Colonel Kurtz in a big way. Fishburne obviously had a great time chewing the scenery in that utterly over the top mode that's only called for in action films which don't care at all about character, but which celebrate the barely-held-together looniness of that particular character type when he does appear. Fishburne's character represents an interesting alternative direction that the movie could have taken, one in which gunfire and stuntmen might have played a less prominent role, but I respect that Predators stays true to the brief that it set out to accomplish. By keeping its goals humble, it avoids stumbling over any potential pitfalls that might have marred its otherwise purist approach to action film methodology. It's not going to illuminate any hidden facets of the human condition which were heretofore uncharted, but it's a solid piece of mindless entertainment which throws just enough curveballs to keep even genre-savvy audiences alert for what unexpected turns might come next.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

[Film Review] High Noon

I'm prejudiced against old movies. Even the ones that are hugely influential and have seeped so far into the cultural unconscious that they seem familiar even upon a first viewing have to fight with my instinctive inclination to giggle at the silliness of the acting on display. A friend of mine has a theory that acting, at least in film, wasn't invented until the 1970s, and I tend to agree with her. I can't help but be distracted by wondering how much of the melodramatic vocal tonality and body language is due to the overly formalized acting style of the time and how much of it reflects how people actually acted. I assume that the former trumps the latter, but being continually drawn back to the film as an historical artifact rather than a living work of art is always draws me away from any other themes that a film might be exploring, with the end result that an older film needs to be very, very good for it to resonate with me.

High Noon was supposed to be one of those films. It's widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever filmed, if not the best, though I'm not sure how anyone could seriously make that latter claim in the years since Unforgiven's release. It held up pretty well to my giggle resistance, largely due to the choice to keep the camera on Gary Cooper for most of the length of the running time, who manages to lend a fair bit of gravitas to a role that sorely needs it.

Cooper plays Marshall Will Kane, an old sheriff who's set to marry and then retire from the lawman business. Just after his wedding, he finds out that an outlaw whom he'd put in jail years before is returning to town, and that several of that outlaw's gang plan on meeting him to help him seek revenege against Kane. After briefly considering leaving town, Kane decides that he can't live with running away from his old duties and returns, assuming that he'll have the aid of the townsfolk whose peace and prosperity he was directly responsible for establishing. Upon his return, he finds that no one wants to help him, and that the residents of town have come to the conclusion that it's indirectly Kane's fault that the gang is coming to town at all. The arc of the narrative mainly consists of Kane attempting and failing to enlist the aid of men whom he had counted as friends, all of whom come up with excuses as to why they won't help him. Some of those excuses are better than others, but to the increasingly desperate Kane, the motivations behind why he's being abandoned become less and less important as the titular confrontation looms nearer.

Cooper does an excellent job with his role, though not all of the other actors in the film managed to create quite such a timeless performance. The amount of laugh-worthy anti-acting was pretty low, though much of that was concentrated in the character of Lloyd Bridges' deputy, who not only overacted in every scene he was in but was also unforutnate enough to be cast to portray an character much younger than he was. It took me a while to figure out that his character was supposed to be very young, and that the comments other characters made about him being brash and impulsive in his youth weren't some kind of weird insult but were instead attempts at conveying an informed attribute.

High Noon must have been exceptional at the time of its release for the realistic way that it protrays violence, particularly in the big shootout which is the climax of the story. In spite of all of the information we've been told about what an amazing sheriff Kane is, he doesn't shoot the guns out of his opponents' hands or draw on them so quickly that they don't have a chance to return fire. Instead, he runs away a lot, makes good use of cover, and relies on tactical awareness much more than a myth-sized ability to fire his pistol. The shootout here isn't anything out of a Bourne film, but grounding it somewhere nearer to reality than contemporary Westerns gives it a weight that intensifies the tension of the sequence and vindicates the anxiety that the film has been building towards.

The overall feel of the film is that it uses the trappings of a Western in order to tell a very different kind of story than most Westerns, that it's more of a morality play (albeit one updated for a post-religious culture) in Western drag than a tale of how the West was won. It deftly employs a standard Western trope, that of an imminent confrontation between law and the arrival of violent chaos, and then fragments that setup to explore what happens to the society which has established itself as civilized when it's suddenly threatened. Kane isn't quite the warrior who's too savage to exist peacefully once his war has been won, but he's close enough to an embodiment of that theme of barbarism versus civilization that the townsfolk are clearly uncomfortable with him when he refuses to leave them. Though Kane is undoubtedly the film's protagonist, he's as much a vehicle for us to see the varying reactions of the townsfolk to impending danger as he is a character for us to sympathize with. This is most clear in the centerpiece of the film, an extended town-wide debate which takes place in a church, in which a number of different responses to Kane's plea for help are trotted out by various social strata of the town, all of them revealing more about the person uttering them than their supposed attitude toward their former protector and the forces of lawlessness he's committed himself to battling.

Kane's final act, after the climax of the film, opened the door to the much less heroic Westerns which would follow High Noon, entire subgenres of work which used that last shot as a stepping board to examine more subtle gradations of human emotion. It's not at all surprising that John Wayne decreed this movie un-American, as it uses what should have been a very cut-and-dried narrative form to suckerpunch audiences into examining assumptions which had been hallowed by decades of traditional Western stories. For that alone, Westerns owe this film a huge debt of gratitude.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

[Television Review] Dollhouse

Dollhouse is about a mysterious company that produces a single product: people. More specifically, the Rossum Corporation produces bespoke personalities grafted onto mindblanked people who may or may not have volunteered to put themselves into this situation. For a steep price, clients can hire these tailor-made people, whether that be for a night of sex, a weekend of whitewater rafting, or a high-end art heist. Some of the drones are beginning to remember bits and pieces of their engagements and occasional chunks of memory from their former selves, however, and there's a disgraced FBI agent who's attempting to track down the location of the Dollhouse as well, ensuring that there are plenty of complications piled onto an already complicated premise.

This is a show that I really should like. It's a Joss Whedon creation, and I tend to appreciate his work. It's well-written, dark without being overly depressing, paced well and competently shot. It centers on one of my favorite subjects, the malleability of the psyche and how identity might be more fluid than we generally give it credit for. All of these ingredients should cook up to something that I find irresistible. Why, then, do I find it so hard to care about the show?

I'd like to blame Eliza Dushku, who's utterly unconvincing as someone who's a walking receptacle for modular personalities. I can't do that in good conscience, though, because I assumed that this would be the case long before I began watching the show. She's never been a good actor before, and I didn't have any reason to think that she'd bother to start being one now. I also had no idea accepting the informed attribute that she is, in fact, acting like a different person every week, rather than acting like the same one with a few different mannerisms. Though it would've been great if the lead had been capable of pulling off the daunting task of having to play a character who completely disappears into a different persona each week, but still retains traces of the initial personality, it wasn't particularly problematic to me that she wasn't.

A lot of the reason I found it hard to engage with Dollhouse was that so much of it felt like a retread of Whedon's other television work. The dialogue mostly maintains Whedon's slightly too clever but still funny/insightful modality, though it's definitely played down here from the heights it reached in Buffy and Firefly. Some of the characters resemble characters from earlier shows. For example, Topher, obviously the favorite character in the writers' room as he's their chance to show off their most clever lines of dialogue, is basically Wash minus compassion plus intelligence. The relationship web of the employees of the Dollhouse mimics that of Buffy's scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity and the professors of Xaviar Institute (while Whedon was writing them, anyway), not in its particulars but in the familial sense of how the characters relate to each other. Not every group of people who spend time together acts as a surrogate family, and while that social structure worked well for the previous Whedon projects, it falls on its face here.

The first half-dozen episodes are heavily episodic and play out like an updated Quantum Leap, with Echo being thrust into various situations in which she's needed to figure out what's really going on and then save some people, often from themselves. As the season progresses from there, it becomes more and more serialized, with the penultimate episode being entirely dependent on previous episodes. The final episode of the season, available on the DVD set but never aired on television, is an intriguing flashforward to an apocalyptic future that follows directly from the events of prior episodes. This was definitely the best episode of the season, which is probably not coincidental with the fact that it only features the main characters of the regular season in cameo roles.

For a show that's all about characters whose personalities are chunks of data injected into empty hosts, there's not much exploration of the theme of identity. There's a total lack of any kind of sciencey explanation for how the personality mapping and rewrites work, which would be fine if they worked consistently. Coherent mythology has never been Mutant Enemy's strong suit, but in its other productions, that tendency toward making up rules on the fly could be overlooked, as it didn't matter to the character-based storytelling how fast the ships travel or what exactly a demon is. In Dollhouse, though, the tech is the characters, and shortchanging its plausibility by failing to adhere to any set of rules disrupts the characters themselves.

The primary theme foregrounded across the season is that of violence towards women, rather than being anything to do with shifting identities. But rather than tackle this topic in any meaningful way, the shows sticks with "men will abuse women when given power over them" and doesn't go any deeper than that. A lot of the problem is that the abusers we see are generally characters-of-the-week, so they don't get enough screen time to be fleshed out in any way that allows for an actual examination of why men who have power over women abuse them. As a result, we end up getting the worst of both worlds with this ugly choice of topic: all the squick-inducing abuse and violence, but none of the avenues of potential discussion to explore why they occur. I very much doubt that it's intentional, but that pairing gives all the brutality on display an almost pornographic tone. I don't take issue with art which deals with weighty, uncomfortable subjects - those are the motifs that I tend towards - but it's a clear failure on Dollhouse's part that it presents the salacious without any follow-up.

Reading back through it, this review has been mostly negative, but I want to stress that I don't think that the show is bad. It was entertaining enough while I was watching it, but it was too forgettable and loosely built for me to have been excited about what would happen in subsequent episodes, and I've got no desire to go back and re-watch any of it. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high for it after the unalloyed genius of Firefly, which leads me to think that audiences less familiar with Whedon's pet obsessions would likely find Dollhouse much more engaging than die-hard fans. It was an diverting season of television that wasn't ever able to quite plumb the depths of its own themes, but I'll certainly be giving the second season a try in hope that it will live up to the abundant untapped potential lying just under the surface of this material.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

[Film Review] Superbad

The DVD menus of Superbad are possibly the most honest that I've seen. They don't show stills or short clips from the movie itself, like many such menus do, or feature snippets of dialogue, or simply sit there inert. Instead, they present a parade of childish drawings of penises in various styles, situations and outfits, while the silhouette of Michael Cera dances to an amazingly amateurish funk track. It's not so much that this is entertaining, but it does serve as a perfect non-spoilery encapsulation of the movie you're about to watch. Well, the music on the menus is misleading, since the music in the film itself is great.

After the title sequence, which is more dancing silhouettes, Superbad launches headfirst into its mission: getting deep inside the sex-obsessed heads of high school boys. There's no sense of dramatic build in the first act. Instead we are dumped with total immediacy into a conversation about the best porn site to subscribe to in college, followed by a discussion about how much better the world would be if erections were celebrated rather than scorned. This kind of all-at-once immersion is difficult to pull off, but Jonah Hill and Michael Cera make it work largely by making it feel like the world that they inhabit has always been there, rather than being something made up for a movie.

The film does an excellent job of capturing and conveying the uneasy mix of arrogance and emotional fragility that comprises the life of a high school boy. It also manages to actually out-raunch actual high school boys, a feat not to be taken lightly. Most of the humor, though, comes from deliberately misused vocabulary and awkward phraseology. For a teen sex comedy, there are remarkably few attempts at physical comedy, and those aren't given nearly as much screen time as the hilarious dialogue. There's also not as much sitcom tension, characters finding themselves in situations that are inevitably going to result in their public humiliation, as in many comedies. Most of the setups that seem as though they're going to end in embarrassment for our protagonists instead take an unexpected turn and conclude with them being inadvertently, accidentally awesome. Rather than indulging in the thick sludge of schadenfreude that fuels many comedies, it's obvious that these characters are well-loved in spite of their goofs.

There's some nicely messy worldbuilding here. In most films, but especially in comedies, the setting often comes across as weirdly hermetic, a sealed environment in which every character tic is guaranteed to have some explanation or knock-on effect later in the film. This is understandable, as film narratives are necessarily tightly plotted and details of character and setting are too precious to be thrown away, but Superbad's courage in rejecting that set of assumptions creates the sense that these characters really are moving through a larger world than just what we see on screen. There are conflicts which we never get an to see the full resolution of, characters who are clearly intent on following their own paths but who only drift through the periphery of the plot onscreen, and mysteries for which we never get an explanation. This profusion of loose ends would be refreshing in any movie, but it's especially welcome here, as it resonates so well with the theme of our protagonists entering new, foreign territories for which they have no maps. That this new world is exponentially larger than the relatively sealed environs of the high school society which they're preparing to leave is deftly underscored by the many references to the earlier experiences of these characters and the familiarity which they have with each other.

There's a fair bit of bros-before-hoes subtext running through the movie, as the protagonists find themselves in many desperate situations which could have been avoided, had they stuck by each others' sides rather than chasing after girls. This is reinforced not so much by Seth's lamentations to that effect as it is by the world outside the characters' control, culminating in a two-pronged climax which only reinforces this theme. Thankfully, an unexpected epilogue adroitly undermines this mentality, suggesting that the change these characters have been fighting so hard to avoid is actually the only way they're going to be able to survive in the world of adults, and that such a world isn't nearly as dreadful as they'd been assuming.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[Film Review] Pandorum

With a name like Pandorum, you can't help but wonder what the title refers to even before the movie begins. It's probably name of the ship, right? No, the ship is named Elysium, as the opening blocks of text inform the audience. Okay, well, there are obviously going to be monstrous baddies prowling the shadows, so maybe that's the name of their species? No, the creatures aren't ever given a name. A mysterious cargo of some kind? A computer virus that infected the ship's computers and caused them to fail? The corporation that funded the ship and probably isn't acting in the protagonists' best interests? Nope, nope and nope, respectively. We aren't forced to wait long to find out what exactly pandorum is, but it's so hard to believe once it's revealed, through a clumsy as-you-know-bob conversational infodump, that it seems like it must be the setup for a twist. Pandorum, you see, is Space Madness. It is, in fact, the very purest form of space madness, a potent blend of hallucinations and paranoia that inevitably leads its sufferers to murder their friends, all without any kind of cause or explanation. I was expecting one of the characters to begin gnawing on a bar of soap at any moment.

The story follows a pair of crew members who wake up from their hypersleep pods suffering from intense amnesia, unable to remember much more than their names and their training. The plot of the film consists of these two characters exploring the decaying confines of the ship, dredging up their memories of where they are and what they're supposed to be doing, and realizing just how hazardous the situation in which they've found themselves is. Aside from the amnesia, a reasonably clever device which allows the film to present information to the audience in a somewhat more palatable form than is often the case in sci-fi film, this is all stuff you've seen before if you're bothering to watch this movie. Where Pandorum manages to succeed is in using these well-worn elements to create a foundational springboard from which to launch its own ideas, which are new enough (in filmic form, anyway) to carry their own weight. Even the monsters on the ship are eventually given a better reason to exist than those in Alien ("make a guess, because we're not going to tell you") or Event Horizon ("magic!"), the two most obvious precursors to what's on offer here.

The creatures here are look a lot like the genestealer hybrids from the Warhammer 40,000verse, with a light sprinkling of some elements from Giger's designs for the xenomorph in Alien. They look rather silly once they're shown fully illuminated, but the film is smart enough to keep them out of plain sight for as long as possible, presenting them instead as disturbingly off-kilter silhouettes moving through shadow and half-light. In spite of their somewhat unimpressive looks, there's a definite sense of visceral menace to them, a deadliness made all the more potent by the tight confines and poorly lit environments in which they and their prey are trapped.

The scenes of the monsters chasing our protagonists are effective in building a sense of tension and danger, but ultimately the creatures' deadliness creates some issues of believability. Without venturing too deeply into spoiler territory, there are other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship (which shouldn't come as much surprise since there are always other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship in this kind of story). What's problematic is that the creatures hunting those survivors are so lethal and outnumber the humans so greatly, and the survivors are so poorly equipped to deal with them, that it's difficult to believe that these people could have survived for any appreciable length of time.

These and a few other niggling concerns regarding the worldbuilding are just nitpicks, though, as the explanations behind what's actually going on in the ship, why the monsters are there and where they've come from, and why all the major characters are afflicted with omnipresent amnesia are surprisingly solid. The final act of the film is the strongest, as multiple revelations follow each other in quick succession, upping the stakes for the characters involved and broadening the scope from the standard question of who will survive and what will be left of them into something more profound. Pandorum even manages to pull off the difficult trick of using the obvious reveal of what seems to be at stake, which is given away during the first scene, to obfuscate the most important piece of information, which the film keeps squirreled away until its climax.

The score of Pandorum is well-composed, if mostly uninspired and generic. There are bits of it which sound a lot like the faux-metal of Clint Mansell's compositions for the Doom film score, and other cues which tend toward the abstract electronic minor-key soundscapes found in a lot of recent horror films. What's funny about the score isn't the music itself, which holds up well enough outside the context of the movie, but the way it's used in the film. It almost seems as though whoever edited the score into the movie wasn't paying any attention to what was happening onscreen at any given time, as there are quite a few loud action cues which play during moments of sneaky exploration and quiet conversation. As early as the camera crawl over the exterior of the ship which opens the film, the music begins pounding away in spite of a lack of any exciting action onscreen. It's probable that the editors were attempting to add a sense of urgency to the more restrained sequences of the film, but these moments of disconnect between image and sound come across as the filmmakers trying just a bit too hard.

That sums up the film quite well, actually: it's better than it has any right to be, and mostly succeeds in spite of hewing slightly too closely to its influences and being a bit impaired by too much earnestness, though it doesn't quite manage to achieve the genius of its forebears. I've got high hopes that the folks behind this movie will hone their craft with a bit of time, though, and will definitely be keeping an eye on any future projects they're involved in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

[Film Review] Get Crazy

A human-sized, sentient marijuana joint. A villain who names a mouse after his enemies and then feeds it to his pet snake. A talking penis. Lou Reed playing the role of Bob Dylan. An alien drug dealer whose wares have supernatural properties. A Henry Rollins/Iggy Pop analogue who's impervious to bullets. A men's bathroom so flooded that a shark patrols its waters. What do all these have to do with the attempts of the plucky backstage crew of the Saturn Theater to put on the best damn New Year's Eve show that the venue has ever seen, and at the same time save it from a grasping industrialist who wants to tear it down to make way for office space? I can't come up with a coherent answer to that, but the sting of admitting my lack of insight is salved by the fact that the people who made Get Crazy probably can't, either.

I'm not sure when "spunky kids need to raise money to save their favorite place from corporate evil" first became codified in the Hollywood storytelling book, though I recall first seeing it in the mid-80s. But from the easygoing way that the cast of Get Crazy launches themselves into it, as if they only need to semaphore its high points for the audience to understand where the story is going to go, I can't help but suspect that this particular plot had already been institutionalized by 1983, the year it was released. This bare nod towards narrative structure works entirely in the movie's favor, since this is a pure species of rock and roll film, in which plot exists only as a vehicle for hijinks. And the hijinks here come thick and fast.

The scriptwriting and production process for this movie were obviously loads of fun. The amount of positivity in the room at any given time couldn't have been any less than stratospheric, since it's pretty clear that every time someone came up with an idea, any idea at all, the rest of the room didn't just agree to it but instead high-fived each other, did a little dance, and chopped off another line of blow on the mirror. The results of this unrestrained enthusiasm are as hit-and-miss as you'd expect. There are some genuinely funny lines of dialogue, but these are invariably followed up by clumsy attempts at slapstick which, even if they might've been funny way back when, haven't aged well in the post-America's Funniest Home Videos era.

The rules of the world here are straight out of Chuck Jones, so that characters who get blown up, run over by motorcycles, or pushed out of airplanes suffer no more than wardrobe damage and liberal applications of makeup. This fits in well with the general tone of the movie, which embraces its wacky surreality so ardently that it's impossible not to get carried along, even when that same bigger-louder-goofier aesthetic reaches groan-inducing levels of camp. It's obvious that the exuberance of the producers was shared completely by the cast, who are fearless here in their pursuit of Real Ultimate Kooky.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the long-striding, codpieced figure of Malcolm McDowell, who triumphantly steals every second of every scene that he's in. He plays Reggie Wanker, a kind of Platonic ideal of rock stardom. Weirdly, he's the only character who really goes through any kind of personal arc, moving from jaded to despondent to re-invested in his craft. There isn't much of any reason given for the first change, as once again the audience is supposed to be familiar enough with this kind of story that Get Crazy assumes that everyone will be able to fill in the blanks, but the last leg of Wanker's personal journey comes courtesy of the magical drugs of Electric Larry, an alien who looks like he's just stepped into the Saturn Theater while on a break from doing some intergalactic bounty hunting in any number of nameless '80s horror movies. Contrary to his appearance, he turns out to be one of the good guys, whose amazing extraterrestrial substances are capable of solving any difficulty.

Get Crazy sports a refreshingly pro-drug message of the kind that's very rare in film. Usually films deploy drug use as a shorthand way of letting its audience know that a given character is at least somewhat of a scumbag, even if the movie isn't an anti-drug platform along the lines of Requiem For a Dream. Here, in contrast, virtually every major obstacle that arises in the path of the Saturn's crew is solved by the timely application of one chemical or another, be that super-speed to get the sets for the show designed in record time, super-LSD to get the villain's spy to chill out enough that he switches teams to side with the good guys, or super-cocaine to get the many many members of the band Nada to keep themselves from self-destructing in boredom.

I caught a screening of Get Crazy at our local Sub Rosa Drive-In, where one of the organizers explained that the movie is out of print due to its sound masters being lost. As a result, it may take a bit of effort to track down a copy for viewing, given that it's never been released on DVD. Whether or not it's worth it for you to embark on such an endeavor should be obvious from what you've read here - there aren't a lot of surprises in Get Crazy, but on the upside it completely fulfills its own mission and certainly does what it says on the tin.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

[Film Review] Iron Man 2

The makers of Iron Man 2 decided not to go with a subtitle, but if they had, they could've chosen Echoes. Or Reflections. Or, maybe more in keeping with the rest of the movie, Super-Gloss Mirror Finish. As you can see from where I'm going with this, there's a lot of iterative doubling in Iron Man 2, all of it serving as a very tasty way to put together a sequel that actually has a reason to exist beyond asses-in-seats.

Virtually every major character in the movie is set up as a kind of what-if version of Tony Stark. Superhero stories are largely about what we would do if we had cool powers and the will to ignore the laws of the land, so it makes great sense for a sequel to explore other versions of the protagonist by using side characters as surrogates without sullying the integrity of the character we came to know in the first movie.

There's a character who embodies Tony as military-compliant. Rhodey, Stark's military buddy and tactical conscience, is thankfully given more to do in here than he had in the first film. Rhodey is still the most heavy-handed character in the franchise, a tendency taken to its logical-yet-annoying extreme when he first puts on one of Stark's suits to break up a party that Tony is throwing. Granted, the scene does an excellent job of creating the feeling that a drunken, power-armored Stark is about to make a huge mistake which will cost people their lives, but Rhodey acts in ways that aren't much safer. While this helps to establish Rhodey as the man Stark would be if he were disciplined enough to want to follow orders rather than write his own, it also felt a whole lot like Movie Logic, as Rhodey can't quite seem to figure out his motivation here.

Don Cheadle takes over for the role that Terrence Howard filled in Iron Man, and though no one is likely to notice it, Cheadle quietly pulls off the best acting in the movie. He manages to play Howard playing Rhodey, replicating Howard's verbal and physical mannerisms completely, while also managing to slip effortlessly into the verbal give-and-take that Howard seemed to have some difficulties with. There are some great character moments between Cheadle and Downey Jr., particularly during the climax, when the audience is reminded just how much fun it might be to pilot a personalized flying tank once you've worked through your angst at the consequences of doing so.

There's a version of Tony that explores what he'd be if he were less competent and, coincidentally or not, ethically bankrupt. Justin Hammer wants so hard to be as smart and capable and shmoove with the ladies as Stark that it's tough not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him, even when he's being a totally immoral scumbag. Being so comparatively pathetic keeps him out of the realm of mustache-twirling villains and puts him closer to being someone with whom the audience can empathize. He's not an everyman - the only character in the entire Iron Manverse who comes close to that label is Happy the chaffeur - but keeping one of the two antagonists grounded in mundanity helps to emphasize that this isn't a narrative about good and evil so much as it's one about conflicting agendas. That's a nice improvement on the first movie, which attempted a similar feat but failed due to its villains being, well, totally villainous rather than simply possessed of an opposing set of goals to the protagonist.

Sam Rockwell wears "slimy, somewhat desperate sleazebag" very well. He sells Hammer's inadequacy and arrogance at the same time, managing to pull off the latter at the same time that he makes it obvious that Hammer doesn't realize just how much he's compensating for a lack he can't recognize in himself. In every scene in which he's matching wills with other characters, which is every scene in which he's talking to anyone other than his personal toady, he's entirely incapable of getting his way and just as incapable of understanding why that is. It's not a super-nuanced performance, but Rockwell clearly has fun with it without needing to wink at the audience.

There's a third character who shows us how Tony would be if he hadn't been born with so much privilege and, definitely not coincidentally, in a country other than the United States. Iron Man 2 isn't as blatant about its exploration of the theme of America-as-world-cop as the first film was, but through the character of Ivan Vanko we get to see that Stark's proclamations about the ease with which he has ensured United States supremacy on the world stage aren't as true as he claims, even beyond the personal difficulties that he's experiencing as a result of his stint as Iron Man. Thankfully, we don't get any simple answers to the questions raised here, and the ramifications of what Stark is doing continue to ripple outwards. For every problem he solves, he creates at least two more, a principle which Vanko is more than happy to embody. Vanko's role here neatly buttresses that of Stark's father, both of whom serve to show that Stark's world extends beyond charisma and racecars and supermodels, despite how much he'd prefer it otherwise.

Mickey Rourke is pitch-perfect as Vanko, making what should be a completely ridiculous character seem like the most naturalistic person on screen. The secret to this is his choice to eschew any kind of theatricality; we only get to see small hints of what's going on under the surface, a display of emotional control that's much more frightening than any amount of bombast would have been. It's easy to believe in the methodical, elaborate plans for revenge which he eventually unveils. Rourke also injects a few lighter moments into the character, particularly with the restrained smiles he shows when other characters are trying to intimidate him. Really, after this, it seemed like the most obvious move in the world to cast Rourke as a supervillain, something which should've happened much sooner than it did.

The characters from the first film haven't changed much here, and the overall narrative feels like another story arc in a continuing series, neatly picking up where the last episode left off and moving the characters through different relationships with each other in a mostly organic fashion. That makes sense for a comic book movie. What's interesting is how little the rest of the movie follows comic book tropes.

War Machine, Whiplash and Black Widow are never referred to by those names. Iron Man is only referred to as such for the purpose of using the weight of that name to manipulate people and the press. Very little of the plot revolves around anything to do with hidden identities, and when it does, it doesn't matter much to the protagonist. We don't even see Iron Man doing anything heroic until near the end of the film. The theme of how much being a superhero costs the person behind the mask is important for a good chunk of the film, but here it sidesteps the usual focus on how having a secret identity affects the hero's personal relationships and skips straight to the physical cost, something which most superhero stories gloss over. All of this shifting of focus does a good job underscoring that the Iron Man of this movie franchise isn't like other superheros, in that he inhabits a larger world than most heroes and has a more troubled role in that world. He's more super-soldier than Superman, the kind of hyper-deterrent that Watchmen tried to make of Dr. Manhattan and failed, in spite of seeing just how godlike the scope of the latter's power is. Iron Man is the more believable protector-cum-superweapon, precisely because we see how the aftereffects of his actions affect the world rather than zooming in on his superpowers themselves.

All in all, Iron Man 2 succeeds at hitting virtually every target it aims for. It's an action movie that keeps the scenes between its action sequences at least as much fun as the 'splosions, a comedy that keeps its pacing tight between its dramatic beats, and a special effects fest that bursts with charisma and fun writing. It's not quite as perfect as its predecessor, which is still the finest example of the straight-ahead superhero film that's yet been produced, but it works its additions to the franchise into the story without needing much in the way of dull exposition or Movie Logic. It's not trying to be momentous or literary, but there's just enough pain under Stark's metal helmet to keep the character compelling in the face of all the lighthearted banter and robot action.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

[Book Review] Tell-All

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk, stinks.

Well, my copy does, anyway. I bought it as a preorder before Palahniuk's first stop on his book tour. When I got it home after the signing event, I noticed that it smelled like old women, but it wasn't until I actually opened it and started reading it that I realized just how potent the stink was. Apparently, Palahniuk hosed down all the preorders with Chanel No. 5 before handing them out, a move that's cute in its intent and annoying in its consequences. That phrase mostly sums up the novel, neatly enough.

Tell-All is narrated by Hazie Coogan, personal life assistant to Katherine Kenton, an obvious stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor (striking violent eyes, massive fame for headlining scores of films, roster of husbands that reads like the end credits of a big-budget movie in terms of both star power and sheer volume). Or, well, Hazie isn't Kenton's personal assistant, as Hazie keeps reminding the reader throughout the book. What role she actually plays in Kenton's life is more nebulous than that, expressed in a series of metaphors that make it clear that Hazie thinks that she's the power behind the throne of Kenton's fame.

Whether or not she's doing a good job of surreptitiously managing that fame is open to question, though. Katherine's career has completely stalled out, and the only social contact she has is attending dinner parties thrown by similarly antiquated relics of a bygone age, punctuated by humiliating lifetime award presentations in which the presenters invariably attempt to use Katherine's fame to catapult themselves into the public eye.

The novel's plot, appropriately enough, follows the classic Hollywood three-act formula. The first act sets up the dysfunctional but stable domestic relationship between Hazie and Katherine, and the second act introduces a dynamic disequilibrium into that relationship in the form of Webster Carlton Westward III, a young suitor who thrusts himself into Katherine's life with questionable motives for so doing. The novel climaxes in the third act in a bloody finale that traces parallels between the ridiculous Broadway show that Katherine finds herself cast as the lead of and the collapse of the sort-of love triangle between the three principals.

The second act suffers heavily from playing out like an aggressively formulaic television show, which makes less than perfect sense, given the lack of any mention of Katherine being involved in television. Repetition has always been one of Palahniuk's favored stylistic tools, and it's one that he usually employs to slowly reveal secrets of the personal mysteries that are his other hallmark. The problem here is that the mysteries are entirely transparent and the repetition grates rather than charms.

That latter shift is largely due to the nature of Hazie's character. Unlike Palahniuk's other narrators, Hazie is relatively articulate, which has the adverse effect of denying Palahniuk the chance to use the deliberately misused diction and abused syntax that characterize his other novels. That cuts away the weird allure of his usual voice, leaving us with only the tiny cultural and personal insights that he normally interweaves into his lists of gruesome and weird factoids. All of those are quite thin on the ground here, though, meaning that there's not much meat on the bone.

There's also a twist towards the end of the book, but it reads as less than half-hearted in its execution and its impact. Not only should it be obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention to Hazie's tics long before it's revealed, when the reveal arrives, it seems bored with itself. Hazie herself describes it as heavy-handed, something that only a hack would bother to include in the story, given its obviousness.

It's not all awful. Palahniuk still has a great talent for humor that shades from dark to black, and he gets particularly good comic mileage out of employing the atrociously florid language of romance novels in the self-aggrandizing book Webster Carlton Westward III writes. Unfortunately, those bits of genuine humor are mostly buried beneath stylistic excess that doesn't support even the 179 pages that this story is stretched out over.