Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Knife in the Water

It's about an hour into the film before the wife asks her husband the obvious question: why did he bring along the handsome young hitchhiker for a day on their private boat?

That's the question driving the plot of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962), his feature film debut. Andrzej (Leon Nymczyk), a wealthy journalist, and his wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are driving to their private boat to spend a day and night out on a lake. From the start, it's obvious this is not a loving marriage. They both stare at the road in silence and only interact when he criticizes her driving until she pulls over to switch spots. They're literally thrown off course by a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz), who stands in the middle of the road to snag a ride and almost causes a crash. Although angered, Andrzej lets (actually orders might be more accurate) the young man to ride along, and when they reach the dock, he further goads him into coming aboard the boat for the trip. That's when this "psychological menage-a-trois" begins.

Knife in the Water is about power and one-upmanship. Andrzej is an experienced sailor, goes about the various tasks with ease, and he has no problem ordering the stranger around. As he puts it, with two men on a boat, one must be captain. The unnamed hitchhiker, still a student, doesn't appreciate the condescending treatment and defies his host every chance he gets. His one advantage is the knife he brought. Meanwhile, Krystyna enjoys playing the men off each other, and it's clear there is some sort of mutual attraction between her and the hitchhiker.

Polanksi keeps everything tight and limited. The action is limited to three character, the dialogue is sparse, and the setting is confined to one boat once they reach it, and as a result, the film manages to be both claustrophobic and isolated. This is reflected with many triangular shots of two characters in close ups while the third is in the sometimes distant background.

While the plot described above could have functioned as a straight up thriller, the tension is laced in the mundane aspects of being on a boat: steering, hoisting the sail, washing the deck, passing time with games, etc. The suspense builds watching the characters trying to control and defy each other. When settling in for the night, the two men race to see who can finish blowing up air mattresses: Andrzej with a pump and the hitchhiker with his breath. Every action carries substantial depth.

Andrzej and the young man also represent different natures. Andrzej embodies dominion and control through his wealth and sailing. The young man defends his love of hiking and walking, which makes a free spirit who isn't tied down by anything. With these two, it's understandable Krystyna would resent her husband and take an interest in the stranger.

While psychologically fascinating, Knife in the Water does not generate much emotional resonance because all three characters are unlikeable. Andrzej is pompous and tyrannical, the hitchhiker prone to childish tantrums, and Krystyna is manipulative. That doesn't make them uninteresting, just unsympathetic. But really, Polanski's direction is the star of this film anyway.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002),the first film in Korean director Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy (followed by Oldboy which is outstanding and Lady Vengeance which I have not seen), starts off slow and mundane but builds effectively into an intense, violent revenge shocker in which Park tests out some of the concepts he would put to better use in Oldboy.

Spoiler alert: I'll do my best conceal surprises, but the structure of the film might reveal some of the plot twists just by my summarizing it.

Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf-mute former art student working to pay for his sister's (Ji-Eun Lim) kidney transplant after he learns his own is not compatible. When he gets laid off, he makes a deal with black marketeers for a suitable organ, but the exchange leaves him without the money to pay for her operation. With his girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Doona Bae), Ryu kidnaps his ex-boss's daughter for ransom. But things go terribly wrong, and soon, both Ryu and his Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song) are seeking revenge: Ryu against the black marketers and Park against Ryu.

Sympathy takes a long time to get going with its plot, and even then, I was confused because I didn't remember all the characters' names. I didn't catch Ryu's name until the film was almost half over, and I kept confusing his sister with his girlfriend. Park is also not much of a figure until the second half, and then he becomes one of the main characters. The first hour could have trimmed thirty minutes to get things moving.

But once things reach the second hour, boy do they pick up. Chan-wook Park films many of the violent scenes both in long shots takes with no cuts. While we are spared up-close, explicit details, we see quite plainly the brutality of one character getting his head smashed with a baseball bat and similar killings. In other instances, Park places the viewer in the midst of the acts, creating disorientation while simultaneously allowing the viewer to feel the impact of the various blows. One character is stabbed by four thugs, and each jab elicits a wince. Make no mistake; this is a bloody picture. A punctured neck artery results in a geyser of blood.

The point Park is making is how violence and retribution came appear in seemingly normal people. Ryu is not a bloodthirsty kidnapper; he's a desperate brother, and he tries to minimize harm. The father is a businessman who means well, loves his daughter, and winds up descending into savagery and torture after what happens to her. Revenge, instead of providing closure and peace, leads to more pain.

Park also works in some sardonic humor. The black marketeers buy an ice cream cake to use the box to transport organs in. Ryu has trouble getting the little girl to cry so he can take her picture for the ransom note. They may not be laugh out loud hysterical, but they generate some wry smiles.

I think of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as a dry run for Oldboy, and as the first in the series, it is effective. It's slow to get going and rough around the edges, but once it gets going, look out.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explains his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded as the coming together of three forces in the world. "Hot" refers to global warming and the assorted environmental problems that go with it. "Flat" refers to the rise of the middle class in places such as India and China living like the American middle class and advances in technology linking nations and populations more than ever. "Crowded" refers to overpopulation and the strain on resources this brings. Friedman argues the United States, to reassert its status in the world and overcome economic and environmental issues, needs a green revolution from the people, business, and government. Otherwise, we'll struggle to live in a world increasingly hot, flat, and crowded.

The United States must get off oil. In addition to environmental harm caused by emitting carbon into atmosphere or damaging wildlife by drilling, the U.S. is indirectly funding its own enemies in the War on Terror. Billions of dollars in oil money go to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and that ends up in the hands of radical Jihadists. With the amount of money they receive, these groups go into poor Muslim regions, usually where there are lots of angry, unemployed young men, to build mosques to preach radical Islam and provide these young men food, shelter, and other essentials in return for loyalty. By weaning ourselves off foreign oil, the U.S. can cut off a major source of terrorist funding. Also, oil money also props up petro-dictators by giving them more funding to secure their base, build up their army, and suppress their people. Friedman advocates for some form of carbon or gas tax to encourage conservation and other means of energy. In one of the book's best points, he argues we are already paying a tax on cheap oil, but instead of the U.S. Treasury receiving it, the money is going to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries.

Friedman also criticizes the American energy infrastructure as inefficient and built to accommodate increasing power usage without incentives for conservation or development of clean renewables. The oil and coal industries, in particular, rely on billions in subsidies and tax credits from the government to keep oil and coal cheap, and they have the influence to lobby against similar advantages for solar, wind, and other energies. To Friedman, this is not free market capitalism; it is one industry propped up by the government. Friedman also argues green energy will be the dominant marketplace of the 21st century, with only those countries taking the lead in renewables being the ones to get advantages. Even China, long criticised for lax environmental policy, is striving to catch up in this field while the U.S. as a whole remains uncommitted to green energy and conservation.

Many businesses, scientific enterprises, and other green entities are cited by Friedman as examples of green development and innovation. My favorite is how a branch in the army known as the "Green Hawks" found that reducing their reliance on diesel fuel in Iraq left soldiers less vulnerable to enemy bombs (less need to send trucks loaded with fuel out in the open), reduced their energy consumption by seventy percent (saving money), and endeared them with the local populace (they had energy left over to share). Similar projects are planned for military all over Iraq and Afghanistan. The key thing, Friedman says, is that once people see green energy as an opportunity rather than a burden, the floodgates for innovation and consumption will open. Less money on energy means more money for other aspects of a business.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is both uplifting and depressing. It's encouraging to read about this bubble of innovation and technology just waiting to swell up under the right conditions, but it's frustrating to read about the various wasted opportunities over the past forty years (Carter placed money in renewable research, but that was overturned by Regan when the price of oil fell in the eighties). Currently, less than one percent of money in the U.S. energy industry goes to research and development (other industries devote 8-10 percent). From an environmental, national security, and business standpoint, Friedman effectively calls for a green energy revolution in America, and while it won't be without sacrifice, the risks of doing nothing are too high. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Jacket

The Jacket (2005) tries to be this generation's Jacob's Ladder (1990), and while it has a lot going for it, including some interesting ideas and quality performances, it doesn't match the latter's effectiveness or hallucinatory weirdness.

Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is a Gulf War Vet suffering from amnesia as the result of a near-fatal head wound in Iraq. After an ambiguous incident in 1992 results in a dead cop, Jack is sentenced to Alpine Grove Mental Hospital, where he undergoes a controversial treatment by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) in which he is restrained by straight jacket, heavily drugged, and locked in a morgue chamber for several hours. In total darkness, he has visions of going to the year 2007, where he learns from Jackie Price (Kiera Knightley), who he met when she was a little girl, he will soon die from blunt head trauma. With knowledge of his impending fate, Jack traverses both time frames to alter his destiny.

Jacob's Ladder and The Jacket both feature shell-shocked war veterans (Tim Robbins played a Vietnam Vet in the former) who begin questioning what's real and what's not. Altered states of perception and drug use play roles as well, but Jacob's Ladder was intricately complex, frightening, and involving. Tim Robbins didn't know what to believe, kept waking up in different realities, and was surrounded by demon-like creatures threatening him every step of the way. Adrien Brody, after figuring out the gist of his situation, adapts too easily, finds people too accepting of his explanations (If a mental patient told you to use electric shock on a child because he learned in the future it cures his condition, would you immediately try it?), and winds up in a plot that wouldn't have been out of place in a more dramatic Back to the Future.

To continue with the Jacob's Ladder comparison, we never strayed far from Robbins' perspective, so we shared his confusion and terror. Here, there are too many scenes involving the supporting characters establishing what the reality is and losing any sense of menace and paranoia. Dr. Becker is setup like a mad scientist with evil designs, but the truth is more banal than that. Too often, the film feels safe because the danger is absent.

Furthermore, the threat of the cocooning treatment gets dropped about halfway through. At the start, when Jack is first put in, he is manhandled, drugged, restrained, and locked away in darkness, and those initial instances are intense and claustrophobic. When he learns what happens in the chamber, Jack attempts to get locked in, negating its threat and mystery. Questions about how this treatment allows time travel and how Becker thinks this helps his patients are never addressed.

This is a shame because The Jacket has a lot going for it. Daniel Craig's character has a line about television being able to soothe the troubled mind, and that's a great ironic line. The film opens with night vision footage of the war in Iraq intercut with press conferences of President George H.W. Bush and top brass, and later, Jack says the future is not much different from the past. Considering both time periods have a Bush in the White House and a war in Iraq, the line gets a laugh. Director John Maybury seems to being going for a comment on the American nation's psyche as fragmented and disoriented. No progress is being made just as no progress is made with Jack's treatment. Even Jackie is going nowhere. Her mother was an alcoholic, and now, she's a working poor waitress with no future. Past traumas can destroy the future.

The Jacket makes me want to revisit Jacob's Ladder more than anything. That film took chances, but this one resorts to tired storylines about using future knowledge to undo the past. Instead of being paranoid, The Jacket is safe.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blood Simple

Here in Cleveland, the temperature has been hovering around 90 degrees, so I thought I'd revisit a film in which the heated, humid atmosphere is just as important as the plot: the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple (1984).

Filled with neon lights, dark shadows, buzzing fans, cigarette smoke, mosquitoes, and an incinerator, Blood Simple is a taut, sweat-inducing neo-noir about murder, stolen money, mistaken identities, double crosses, revenge, and paranoia. The frame itself just seems to breathe heat, with burning reds and muggy skies.

When Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner in rural Texas, learns his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of his bartenders (John Getz), he hires a seedy private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill them. Needless to say, things don't go according to plan, and that's all I will say.

The term "blood simple" comes from the Dashell Hammett novel Red Harvest, describing the confused and frightened state of mind people are often in after a violent episode, particularly if they've killed someone. In the film, the four central characters all miscalculate, read the situation wrong, and make mistakes that become fatal. That's not to say they're stupid; they just don't possess the knowledge the audience does.

The genius of Blood Simple is how the Coens keep the viewer informed to generate suspense. I think Hitchcock said tell the audience everything and let them get worried about it. That's advice the Coens have taken to heart. Most film noirs work by sticking with the detective and learning things as he does (think Phillip Marlowe), so we share the mystery and discovery with them. Here, we are privy to information the characters are not. We know who killed who, who left what behind, and where all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

Meanwhile, the characters only have fragments of the truth. They find a dead body and assume who did it but are wrong. That misinformation forces them to take even more drastic and immoral actions, not realizing they're digging themselves into deeper trouble. That's not to say there aren't any surprises or twists. Sometimes, the characters react in ways we didn't anticipate, and sometimes, those we thought were dead are not.

The most unpredictable character in the bunch is the private eye, played with sleazy relish by Walsh. The Coens love to play with genre conventions, and this is no different. Whereas many noirs have cool, big-city detectives as their heroes, the P.I. here is a fat, sweaty, Southern slob who tells crude anecdotes and calls taking photos of the lovers in a motel room a "fringe benefit." In his pale yellow suit and cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette as flies buzz around his face, he's as menacing as he is comical.

Blood Simple marked the feature film debut of the Coens, and what a way to announce their arrival. Even here, they show themselves to be unconventional masters of their craft. While they would go on to better films and dabble in other genres, this was an excellent sign of things to come.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness

Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is an author who combines the cosmic terror of H.P. Lovecraft with the commercial appeal of Stephen King. Writing about slimy monsters from beyond the known universe, Cane is the century's most widely read author. But his work affects his less stable readers, leading to an epidemic of paranoid schizophrenia. For his new novel, In the Mouth of Madness, his fans are literally rioting in the street.

But Cane has disappeared before delivering his manuscript. His publisher (Charlton Heston) wants the book because it's a huge cash cow, so he brings in John Trent (Sam Neil). Trent, a freelance insurance investigator who specializes in debunking fraudulent claims, suspects a scam. But his investigation leads him to Hobb's End, a town in New Hampshire that only exists in Cane's writing. That's where the line between fantasy and reality blurs, which spells bad news for Trent and the human race.

Although not based on any specific story of Lovecraft, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994) has the hallmark of many of his stories. It begins in an insane asylum, with a crazed Trent telling his experiences to a skeptical psychiatrist (David Warner). It's set in a small New England town where the protagonist undergoes a journey where the horrors he encounters drive him mad. Most significantly, the film concerns the Old Ones.

In Lovecraft lore, the Old Ones are a race of monstrous beings beyond description driven from our universe into another realm, where they bide their time until they can return. On occasion, individual humans encounter them, but the sight of any of these creatures is so horrific, they drive a man insane. This is what Cane writes about, and he's so good at it, his readers believe "All those slimy things trying to get back in" are real. As more people lose their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality, the Old Ones gain the power to return. Cane's new novel is the harbinger of the apocalypse.

In the Mouth of the Madness (the movie) is about mass hysteria and how quickly it can spread. The "mouth of madness" is word-of-mouth; Cane's popularity spreads from his books and turns into fanatical obsession. The media play their part, too. Harglow publishes Cane's work even though he knows its effects on people because he makes millions, although he won't read the books himself. There's the news media, showing footage of riots of television and discussing on the radio outbreaks of unexplained violence, contributing to a context of fear and panic.

Cane's power of public's belief in his work allows him to become a god. He even calls his book the "new Bible." His material is pulp horror, but people's belief gives it power, not the ideas themselves. As one character says, "A reality is just what we tell each other it is. The sane and insane can easily switch places." That is the frightening aspect of the movie. Any idea, no matter how crazy or delusional, can gain power if enough people believe it (Just look at the Twilight craze). Cane's words take on a life of their own. Another character puts a shotgun to his head because "He wrote me this way."

One can't help but be reminded of the social unrest gripping America today. Think about Sarah Palin's Facebook comments about "death panels" and how that threw much of America into a frenzy about the health care bill, even though the bill contained nothing about forced terminations or such government panels. Also, look at the Tea Party movement, TV pundits, talk show radio hosts, people showing up at Presidential speeches with firearms, and the spread of radical Islam, and I can't help but think Carpenter was once again ahead of his time.

The creature effects are done by KNB, and we get a wide variety of monsters with tentacles, claws, and slime. While some are obviously rubber, they're not your garden variety man-in-a-suit, and we only catch glimpses of them, so those moments are effective. The moment Cane tears open a door in reality to let the Old Ones pour forth is a particularly virtuoso sequence.

In the Mouth of Madness is one of Carpenter's most ambitious and layered works. Forget Michael Myers, here, ideas are really scary. Mass hysteria and fanatical beliefs are far more powerful than a lunatic with a knife. At one point, Trent says to Cane, "God's not supposed to be a hack horror writer." Note to Scientologists: God shouldn't be a hack sci fi writer, either.

Monday, June 14, 2010

War of Necessity, War of Choice

War of Necessity, War of Choice is a memoir by Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and he describes his experience serving in both Bush administrations in the run ups to their respective Iraq Wars. Haass asserts that while both wars share some superficial similarities, the two conflicts represent different foreign policy philosophies and illustrate how different presidents and administrations can reach different decisions. Haass ultimately concludes the first Iraq War in 1990-1991 was a war of necessity for United States, but the second Iraq War is a war of choice. Overall, Haass provides engaging insight into how the U.S. ended up going to war to Iraq twice in a twelve-year period.

Haass calls the first Iraq War a limited, traditional conflict intended to stop Saddam Hussein's aggression. The goal was to liberate Kuwait, preserve the security of Saudi Arabia, and prevent Iraq from becoming the dominant state in the Middle East. The United States used overwhelming force, gathered multilateral support, and attacked after twelve United Nations Security Council resolutions failed to deter Hussein.

The second war, Haass states, was and is a much more ambitious operation, designed to transform not only Iraq but the entire region into something democratic. While Haass identifies Hussein as an imminent threat in 1990, he asserts the Iraqi dictator was not an immediate threat to U.S. interests in 2003 (although there was reason to take steps against him). Thus, the attack was a preventative war, not a preemptive one, which gets into legal and international conditions regarding justification. The U.S. launched its attack after one U.N. Security Council resolution, convinced support for a second could not be raised. This left the U.S. in a more unilateral position, carrying the brunt of the work. Instead of overwhelming the enemy, the U.S. military used limited numbers, and this created security problems in the months following the fall of Saddam's regime.

Haass discussed other differences, but I think these were fundamental ones that illustrated how things in the second war managed to go wrong. The initial planning processes didn't seem to well thought out. The Bush (43) administration settled on war from the onset and gave little consideration to else.

Haass makes a great case that the first war was essential. Not only did Iraq invade Kuwait and threaten Saudi Arabia, this was viewed as the first big crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to let such aggression go unchecked, the U.S. and U.N. risked losing the credibility, which might have led to more aggression from other states. In addition, if Iraq became the dominant force in the Middle East, it could destabilize the region, threaten to Israel, and disrupt oil supplies.

What I took most from the book is just how complicated foreign policy really is. As Haass illustrates, every decision and action has implications around the world. One example is how the first Bush administration waited until after a meeting with Saudi officials to announce troops were being deployed there, so it wouldn't appear to the rest of the U.S. wasn't forcing itself on Saudi Arabia and acting like the aggressor. Perception really is a great factor in international politics, and the administration was always careful not to let Saddam look like a hero in the eyes of the Arab world.

The most intriguing aspect to me was the fatigue factor, which I've never really considered. Higher-ups in the government during crises often work eighteen to twenty-hour (or more) days seven days a week for months on end, and that kind of physical and mental exhaustion leads to mistakes and poor decision-making. Haass works in some personal background to illustrate this kind of commitment; he had to miss his honeymoon to go overseas during the buildup to Operation: Desert Storm.

Whereas Haass observed diverse thinking in the first Bush administration, he said he found the second to be more in solidarity in its thinking and less to discussion. In addition to the loss of life and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Haass notes the biggest loss by going into Iraq was that diverted attention, if not resources, from other foreign policy issues: Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran.

War of Necessity, War of Choice offers a detailed and inside into the decision-making process of the executive branch in regards to foreign policy and offers examination of both Iraq Wars, including strategies, decisions, mistakes, reasons, and lessons. Haass manages to relate the complexities and pressures of such a high level job. It's a compelling, informative read.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Why, one official wonders. What motivates young West Germans to continually support the Red Army Faction (RAF), the radical left-wing group responsible for several terrorist attacks across the country?

"A myth," replies Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the law enforcement leader tasked with combating terrorism in West Germany.

Perception versus reality is one conflict at the center of Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), based on the book by Stefan Aust. To a large segment of the West German population, the radicals in the RAF are noble revolutionaries resisting the efforts of a fascist right wing government, and it's why, even after members rob banks, shoot government officials, and plant bombs in cities, many disaffected university students and others continued to support the group. The violence is quite graphic, sudden, and shocking. It's not a clean affair.

That's not to say the group is without reasons. Most are opposed to the presence of American military bases in West Germany to conduct the war in Vietnam, which they are also against, but they feel unable to partake in peaceful action. The film opens with a student demonstration against the Iranian Shah's visit being crushed by police. Unarmed students are bashed, beaten, and chased down by officers on horseback and arrested, and when the students are attacked by pro-Shah demonstrators, the police stand by and watch. Later, pro-Communist leader Rudy Dutschke is gunned down in the streets shortly after a speech. It's important to note the film is set in the first generation after World War II, and to many of the students, events such as these feel like a return to fascism. Even Herold notes the oppressive methods of the state are fueling further rebellion.

The Baader Meinhof Complex takes place in the late 1960s into the mid-seventies and chronicles how the RAF was formed, operated, eliminated, and replaced by more radical organizations. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the aggressive leader of the group, and Ulricke Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is an intellectual journalist supporting the students' cause who eventually abandons her children and joins the underground group. I don't know how much of the movie is historically accurate, but it does paint a fascinating picture of a chaotic time in world history. Not only is West Germany shaken by riots and protests when the movie begins, the Vietnam War still rages, the 1967 War between Israel and the Arab states is on, and social unrest is ongoing in Mexico, Bolivia, and Czechoslovakia (the use of real news footage for such montages is effective).

The movie asks about what pushes an individual to action over talk. At the onset, Meinhof is a respected journalist with a family who writes columns supporting the students. However, the other group members often deride contributions. One asks her, "Do you think your theoretical masturbation can do anything?" To them, the government is not listening or changing. So at a key moment, Meinhoff goes out an open window, her point of no return. Only action will make a statement, and to the RAF, terrorism is equated with political action. So when several members are in jail, they win public sympathy to get moved out of solitary confinement, so they can plan more violence for members outside the walls to carry out.

The Baader Meinhof Complex certainly looks and feels like the period, and there is some fascinating historical and social discussion to be had, but it feels packed with too many characters and going-ons that it's very easy to get lost and confused. Several players are introduced and shuffled off before they register. New characters are brought in late in the film, and the established ones get left out. While this contributes to the idea of continuous and escalating violence, it keeps the characters from being anything other than basic.

Others feel shortchanged. Meinhof could have been the focus of the entire film, but aspects of her character, such as her decision to abandon her children, are never addressed. Similarly, we never see what makes Baader tick. He's always raving about the injustices of government, but he seems to be someone who goes against any sort of authority not his own.

The movie contains a lot of thrilling and shocking scenes and socio-political history, but it feels empty. We're just watching events unfold. As a history lesson, it's compelling. As drama, it's lacking.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I auditioned for a play in college with a speech from this movie. Needless to say, I didn't get the part. Soliloquies about the joys of cannibalism probably aren't what theatre directors look for from potential actors.

Ravenous (1999) is a hard movie to classify but not a hard one to enjoy. Set at an Army Outpost in the 1840s Sierra Nevada's, Ravenous incorporates cannibalism, slashers, vampire tropes, and the Manifest Destiny to create a film as funny as it ghastly. Director Antonia Bird blends several familiar story elements to craft a rather unique and gory film that is a horror thriller, dark comedy, and period piece.

Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a "hero" of the Mexican-American War, is assigned to Fort Spencer, an isolated, bottom-of-the-rung winter outpost in the mountains. Under the command of Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the unit includes perpetually stoned Cleaves (David Arquette), a drunk major, two Indians ("They came with the place."), a gung-ho brute and a wimpy religious type. Things are tedious but quiet, until the arrival of Calhoun (Robert Carlyle). Calhoun, near death and ragged, relates how his group became lost in the wilderness during a blizzard and resorted to eating each other when they ran out of food. When he reveals there may be survivors still in danger, Hart leads a party to the cave Calhoun says they last were. But what they find, they're completely unprepared for.

The film's tone is apparent right from the opening with a quote by Nietzsche about how he who fights with monsters must look to himself lest he becomes one. That is immediately followed by a quote from Anonymous: "Eat me." Soon, the American flag fills the screen as corny patriotic music plays in the background.

Bird uses the cannibalism angle to reflect the history of American conquest. In this film, those who eat another man's flesh absorb his strength and spirit and gain virility and increased stamina. However, the more a cannibal eats, the more he desires and the more insane he becomes to satiate his hunger. This Wendigo legend is explained by the Indians, which makes sense. The Native Americans witnessed their land and lifestyle get devoured by settlers, who always took more and more land. Also, the Mexican-American War was a conflict which saw the United States absorb a significant part of Mexico. Later in the film, the main villain outlines his plans to feed off of travelers passing through the fort on their way to California for the Gold Rush, fulfilling Manifest Destiny, the dream of a coast-to-coast America. The country is already consuming all it can, and as the villain says, "We merely follow."

Ravenous can be split in half. The first half applies to the summary above. It's a wonky comedy with some chilling moments and moves at a fast pace. Except for Boyd, every character is something of a loon, and much of the humor comes from the world-weary but amiable Hart's comments ("Knox used to be a veterinarian, so he plays doctor. My advice is don't get sick."). It's also unpredictable, and it comes to a head when one character reveals his true nature at the cave. The second half gets a little darker after more of the fun characters are killed off, and the pace flags a little bit as Boyd falls into a "boy who cried wolf" subplot while the cannibals take over Fort Spencer. Still, I like the touch of the villains getting slicker at this stage, covering up their savage nature with fancier clothing and slicked back hair and drinking wine, sort of like how textbooks clean up unsavory aspects of American history. The humor is used for foreshadowing and dark irony more so in this half. Knox, unaware he's addressing the cannibal, asks if he needs help making a stew, and the villain replies darkly, "Perhaps later you can contribute."

The movie is bloody and gory, and the atmosphere feels suitably grimy and cold. Brian J. Wright of Cavalcade of Schlock noted the blood here feels more tangible than in other movies, really sticky and thick, and I agree. Perhaps the most disgusting moment is the opening feast where a group of officers eat some rather undercooked steak while Boyd thinks about his war experience (I should note both Bird and Pearce are vegetarians). I should also give props to the music by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. Like the movie, it's unconventional, incorporating a more Western style of music in place of traditional horror stock. It contrasts nicely with the dark material as when Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) gets chased, and the music kicks into this zinger that feels like a cross between Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies. But the music gets intense when it needs to, such as the search in the cave.

Ravenous is a lot of things, and rather than canceling each other, it somehow works. It's well made and well acted (particularly by Jones and Carlyle), and it's unconventional. The following line of dialogue should determine whether it's suitable for your taste:

"It's lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Director David Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the fragility of flesh. Who can forget Jeff Goldblum's mutation in 1986's The Fly, his body falling apart after a disastrous scientific experiment merged him with the title insect? In Rabid (1977), we see Cronenberg has always sought to transform the human body into a battleground of horror, and here, he offers a contemporary vampire story that reworks the mythos into an elaborate AIDS metaphor.

Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) are involved in a horrific crash while riding a motorcycle. While Hart emerges bruised but relatively unscathed, Rose is caught under the vehicle and severely burned, her internal organs damaged beyond repair. Taken to the clinic of Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), she is subjected to an experimental form of plastic surgery, which saves her life but with an unintended side effect. She develops a fissure under her arm through which she needs to feed on human blood. Her victims, likewise, turn into rabid, bloodthirsty crazies, and soon, Montreal is under martial law to control an outbreak.

Although Rabid predates the emergence of AIDS in the public eye by several years, it's not hard to see parallels. A pathogen spreads through blood, infecting everyone it comes into contact with, and Cronenberg really drives home the sexual element. When moving in on her victims, Rose is very much a seductive being. When feeding, her mannerisms are orgasmic, complete with withering and moaning as she holds the various men (and one woman) in a tight embrace. Afterward, she cradles them like a lover, petting their hair and appearing at ease. Rose's condition bears similarity to drug addiction. When she and her victims go without blood, they shake violently and sweat profusely like heroin addicts in withdrawal.

Rabid also demonstrates effectively how no one is safe from infection. Dr. Keloid is set up almost as Van Helsing character, the one who will use science to contain the vampirism, but Keloid is infected by Rose early in the proceedings. In the film's best and most unsettling scene, he goes rabid while reattaching a woman's ear during plastic surgery, asking for scissors from a nurse, and then slicing off her finger when she hands him a pair. Like AIDS, this disease doesn't care about your status, wealth, gender, or job. Anyone can get it.

The AIDS connection also relates to where Cronenberg stages the attacks: hospital room, hot tub, truck stop, subway, and other locations which have connotations of being unclean, ripe with potential infections, and places where illicit sex occurs. For example, the attack in hot tub is overtly homoerotic because it is against Rose's only female victim (make your own jokes about truck stops).

Cronenberg also displays his fascination for flesh and its fallibilities. When we first see Rose, she's wearing full-bodied leather and a helmet, illustrating just how delicate the human form is because this is the level of protection it requires. The effort of doctors to counter the weakness of the body leads to the outbreak in the first place, and even before the mayhem begins, several patients wander around the clinic with bandages from multiple plastic surgeries. The human body is ultimately a weak entity that crumbles under pressure and rebels against the mind's desires.

Since this is early, low-budget Cronenberg, the acting is often wooden and amateurish, and the special effects are shlock. The script can't decide if Rose is aware of the harm she's causing, and while Chambers is fine in the role, her character is little more than a plot device; there's no sense of how she feels about her condition, and no one else really stands out. As a result, not much is frightening because there's a lack of character identification.

But Cronenberg infuses a lot of craft and invention, and it's rewarding to see how he approached his trademark themes at this point in his career. It's easy to tell at this point he was a talent on the rise. Now, he's making Oscar contenders with Viggo Mortenson and has abandoned the slimy tentacles, crazed infected, mutant flies, and whatever the hell was going on in Videodrome. So while Rabid is not one of his masterpieces, it's an interesting early look.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Burn This Book

Burn This Book is a collection of eleven essays by eleven writers (including the book's editor's Toni Morrison) about the importance of the written word, and after reading it this week, I feel obliged to respond. This isn't a review of the book, but I will say it's a worthwhile read for any kind of writer because it offers several intriguing philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and what the goals of a writer should be, and at 113 pages, it's a brisk read.

Many writers describe writing as an interior act, a manner of self expression and discovery. John Updike says a writer begins with a personal truth, building his or her experiences before becoming a writer and then putting them down on paper. This is why he believes so many writers' best works are their first because they began with that personal truth and slowly moved away from it. Since writers write their own truths, their impact is limited because not everyone shares those truths. As Russel Banks states, "The novelists speaks to no one but himself." Banks further notes very few novels in American history have initiated massive, immediate social change. Updike says the betterment of humanity and changes to society are not the driving motivation of most writers.

This raises an important point by Morrison in the first chapter: if writing is indeed an inherently selfish act, primarily for the benefit of the writer, why are writers among the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes? Orhan Pamuk discusses briefly the 1980 coup in Turkey in which thousands of people were arrested, but it was writers who were most persecuted.

British essayist Pico Iyer describes a trishaw driver named Maung-Maung living under the oppresive military regime in Burma. Iyer's wrote of Maung-Maung's life and hopes of owning a business and getting an education, which led to Iyer's banishment from Burma. If he shows up, he'll be arrested at the airport, where his picture hangs. After many years, Iyer somehow managed to receive a letter from Maung-Maung, describing what he's been up to. This communication, in a country in which modern communication is controlled, is Maung-Maung's only way of reaching out. As Iyer puts it, "We are the only freedom he knows."

That one little bit of communication represents Maung-Maung's efforts to resist the efforts of the state to dehumanize him. This little bit of self expression sustained his hopes that the outside world contains a better life for himself and his family. Being able to put those thoughts down on paper may be only a minor rebellion against the government and won't do much to alter the social order, but it's enough to give Maung-Maung hope and allow him to remain defiant. That's the danger of writing to fascist regimes: writing offers people a taste of freedom and individuality. It's not what's being written so much that it is written. If 1984 taught us that the ultimate state seeks to crush individuality, then writing teaches us how to keep it alive because it allows self expression.

A single writer expressing his or her truth to the world is not threat to a corrupt regime, but a population of millions with the freedom to express themselves in such a way is. To allow one person the freedom to be a writer is to allow all people the freedom to express themselves, and with self expression, they cannot be controlled. Pamuk says, "The joy of freely saying whatever we want to say is inextricably linked with human dignity." In essence, writing isn't just a freedom. Writing is freedom.

I found the most intriguing essay to be by Ed Park, who discusses a book called The Cheese Stands Alone. The main character is interrogated in some sort of psychological iterview with time gaps such as "three-second gap" or "ten-second gap" in the narrative, and Park models his essay after that portion of the book. In the book, a kid learns his entire life and history has been fabricated; nothing he was raised to believe is true, and Park calls it one of the most paranoid books he ever read. The novel follows the kid as he discovers little inconsistencies as he slowly unravels the mystery. I had never heard of this book before, but now I'm interested.

Ironically, this book, which is about obtaining forbidden knowledge, was banned at a Florida school because a grandmother complained to the superintendent about the book had "bad language" and advanced "humanism and behaviorism." Even though parents had signed permission slips, a minority of people were able to force their view of morality.

Book banning never fails to anger me. In high school, my class read a letter by Kurt Vonnegut to a school district that had thrown Slaughterhouse Five in a furnace after they banned it. Granted, I probably would have discovered Vonnegut on my own eventually, but reading about that incident inspired me ask for Slaughterhouse Five for my birthday, and in the years since, I've read several of Vonnegut's works. But still, telling me I can't read something is going to make me read it. No question.

I took a Media Law class as a junior in college and did a report about the Video Nasties, a group of horror movies in the late seventies/early eighties banned in Great Britain because it was believed they corrupted the youth. There were some 72 films on the list, and maybe ten were any good. The rest were complete dreck: awful directing, writing, acting, etc. Now most are available because the values of the time have changed. These movies, which otherwise would have been forgotten by audiences, can now market themselves as being so horrific, they were once banned. There are so many good horror movies out there that don't get attention, it irritates when bad ones do.

My favorite quote in the book came from South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who said, "[B]ecause I was a writer...I became a witness to the unspoken in my society." That's as good as any explanation for being a writer as I've ever heard or read.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Land of the Dead

In the last two posts, we've examined Dennis Hopper as a chainsaw-wielding Texas Ranger and a drug-addled gangster, but now it's time for his most terrifying incarnation:

Nose-picking Republican.

Hopper plays Kaufman, a snaky CEO who has created Fiddler's Green, a sanctuary in a world overrun by zombies. For those with money and class, they live in luxury, protected by a private army to indulge in excess and be oblivious to the outside world. For those who can't get in, they huddle at the base of this skyscraper in poverty.

That's why Cholo (John Leguizamo) wants in. A mercenary scavenger who ventures outside the city to forage for supplies, Cholo thinks he's saved enough money to buy his way in. But when Kaufman rejects him, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning, a heavily armored vehicle equipped with rockets and machine guns, and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green unless he's paid off. Rather than "negotiate with terrorists," Kaufman taps Riley (Simon Baker), another scavenger, to recover Dead Reckoning and stop Cholo. Meanwhile, a zombie known as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is showing signs of intelligence. After a human raid kills several of his brethren, Big Daddy leads a zombie horde onto the city, drawn by the lights of Fiddler's Green.

After a twenty years, director George Romero returns with his fourth entry in his Dead series, Land of the Dead. It marks his only studio zombie film, giving him the highest budget he's had for a zombie movie, and he uses it to craft his epic, although it stumbles in places.

Whereas the previous entries were confined to one location and group of characters, Land involves several factions venturing across a city (Toronto standing in for Pittsburgh). The scope Romero achieves is impressive. The crumbling urban wasteland of the film suggests a modern Escape from New York with zombies (this connection was reinforced when Romero stated John Carpenter wanted to score the film). Everything looks grungy and industrial.

On the downside, the limited scenarios of the previous films allowed for a greater degree of focus. Land runs a little over 90 minutes, and as a result, many elements feel truncated. Riley's search for Dead Reckoning is resolved with a convenient homing device, and his seizing it occurs after a few minutes of dialogue and a quick scuffle. That's a cheat. Another group, an angry rabble seeking to overthrow Kaufman led by Mulligan (Bruce McFee), hardly figures in at all. Likewise, when the zombies inevitably attack the city and Fiddler's Green, it occurs too quickly and easily. While I can buy zombies taking over a skyscraper, it feels rushed to fit in the last twenty minutes.

Still, there is a leanness to the proceedings, and Romero hints at fascinating back stories. Many people have criticized the film's insistence people would still find value in money in a post-apocalyptic world, but Charlie (Robert Joy), Riley's sidekick, says something about how such things are that way everywhere. When Cholo makes his demands to Kaufman, his crew looks confused and upset, indicating they weren't aware this was Cholo's plan. Little stuff like that is sprinkled throughout the film, and it gives most characters a way to stand out.

But the film's biggest problem is its inability to generate much terror and suspense. Most of the primary characters hardly interact with the zombies. If I'm not mistaken, Riley is only threatened by them on one occasion, and Cholo's group hunkers down in Dead Reckoning unbothered. Most zombies attacks occur against anonymous soldiers, and while those are gory and exciting, they're not particularly scary.

This is related to Romero's decision to make zombies smarter and sympathetic. This also drew criticism, but I think it makes sense. Big Daddy is an extension of the previous African American characters in the series. Ben, Peter, and John all displayed levelheadedness, resolve, and leadership in their respective films, and Big Daddy is the next progression. For a zombie, he's smart, displaying basic problem solving and leadership skills and weapons use. He has the clearest vision, heading straight for Fiddler's Green while the humans are running around absorbed in their conflicts or blinded by greed.

The zombies are still shambling, rotting corpses (excellent effects by KNB Effects, although the CGI is weak), and they're becoming more dangerous. The humans have become complacent since they're relatively safe, treating the zombies like jokes by hanging them upside down for target practice and using them games. This comes back on bite them on the ass (literally).

The best scene in the movie is when Big Daddy leads his ghouls out of the river unopposed by either the cold or humans. The shot is creepy, dark, full of dread, and apocalyptic. If the opening raid in the outlying towns sparked Big Daddy's attack, this is the blowback landing on home shores. Ignoring the problem and walling themselves off from the world have failed. In another great shot, Big Daddy and his bunch shatter the glass entrance to Fiddler's Green , destroying the residents' illusion of safety. I think Romero missed an opportunity not having Big Daddy use the elevator to get to Kaufman. It would have furthered the evolution aspect, although the confrontation in the parking lot is satisfying.

Romero made a studio film, and he got benefits and drawbacks from that arrangement. Land has the best acting and largest scope of the series, and Romero manages to work in commentary about human nature and society, and the zombies look great and are examined in unique ways. But the script feels rushed and contrived, particularly in the second half, and the interesting characters are hardly ever in danger. A compromised work but an interesting one.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Blue Velvet

Going into Blue Velvet, director David Lynch's career was on the ropes. Although Eraserhead was a cult hit and The Elephant Man earned Oscar nominations for best picture and director, Lynch had turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi in favor of an adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, which turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. With Blue Velvet, not only did Lynch rebound, he nabbed his second Oscar nomination and retained his status an important filmmaker.

Blue Velvet is both Lynch's most accessible and least accessible film. Compared to the strangeness of Eraserhead and the elliptical, dream-like plotting of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., the storyline is linear and easier to follow. There are familiar elements to latch on to: detective story, suburbia, gangsters. Yet, it is his most challenging film because of the subject matter: rape, drug use, sadomasochism, kidnapping, voyeurism and violence against women.

Make no mistake, this is a difficult movie to watch, and that made it one of the most talked about films of 1986. Siskel and Ebert had one of their most famous disagreements on their show about it. Siskel called the film "challenging, shocking, and mesmerizing," but Ebert found the treatment of actress Isabella Rossellini degrading and said the scenes of suburban satire turned the whole enterprise into a cheap joke.

On to the plot. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college visiting his father in the hospital when he finds a severed human ear in a lot. Since the town of Lumberton is a squeaky clean, postcard suburbia, this discovery is unsettling to the say the least. Working with Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of the detective he takes the ear to, Jeffrey is determined to figure out the mystery. The investigation leads him to Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), a night club singer, and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a drug-sniffing gangster and sexual fiend, and soon, Jeffrey is pulled deep into the depraved world lurking beneath the cozy exterior of Lumberton.

I'm a sucker for movies in which happy-go lucky surfaces shield deep rot and corruption, and Blue Velvet is no exception. This is encapsulated in the opening scene: white picket fences, blooming roses, trimmed grass, the fire truck going by with firemen waving at the camera. The design of the cars and houses looks straight out of Leave it to Beaver and other 1950s sitcoms. Then, the unease sets in. A man collapses from a heart attack while watering his yard, the stream of water left in a very phallic position. A toddler stumbles nearby unattended. The camera zooms into the blades of grass to reveal festering beetles. Appearances cannot be believed.

Into this world, Lynch inserts elements of film noir, including dark cinematography (lots of shadows and distorted angles), gangsters, mystery, and a femme fatale. The film noirs of the 1940s often dealt with nasty, immoral characters, although codes and standards of the time prevented them from being as visceral or explicit as Lynch is. If the daylight suburban scenes are fantasy, then the nighttime gangster scenes are nightmare. This contrast exposes the suburban element as an artifice; the depravity is the real Lumberton.

Appearance versus reality is not limited to setting. When he first sees Dorothy, Jeffrey believes her to be involved in murder, and when she catches him in her closet, she threatens him with a knife and forces him to strip naked. When Frank arrives, Jeffrey is told to hide in the closet, and he learns Dorothy is really the victim: her husband and son have been kidnapped by Frank, and he keeps her as his slave to rape and beat. This arrangement is further warped because she has been so degraded by Frank, she's masochistic.

In a career comprised of many heavies ranging from stellar (Speed) to laughable (Super Mario Bros.), Dennis Hopper has never been more frightening or intense than as Frank. He's something of an overgrown child with a disgusting, violent sexual appetite he must indulge. He swears, drinks, sniffs gas during sex, beats women, and destroys everyone he comes into contact with. In another movie, this performance might be over-the-top, but here, the behavior is matched by his actions. How he acts and speaks is backed up by what he does. Few movie villains are allowed so derangement.

Credit must also be given Rossellini. Not only is she called upon to be put through the wringer in ways not many actresses would be willing, she captures all the dimensions of her character: mysterious, seductive, vulnerable, traumatized, and dangerous. Similarly, MacLachlan and Dern are perfect as the all-American youths finding themselves in over their heads.

Of course, this being a Lynch film, there's weird stuff everywhere. One scene, in which Frank and his gang take Jeffrey on a joyride, has a heavily made-up, stoned pimp played by Dean Stockwell lip syncing Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" with a lighting fixture for a microphone while another gang member (Brad Dourif) dances with a snake. Curiously, Stockwell's is the only character not intimidated by Frank; they almost seem like equals. The scene carries an air of menace because, even though Dorothy is allowed to visit her son here, the brief reunion occurs behind closed doors (denying the audience a moment of comfort), and she can be heard shouting. Although nowhere as violent or graphic as other scenes, this scene is one of the most unsettling.

Although violent and filled with difficult subject matter, Blue Velvet is Lynch's masterpiece. It's challenging, shocking, and mesmerizing in portraying the seedy underbelly of society and how sex and violence are linked together and ingrained in human nature. I guess I agree with Siskel.