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.