Saturday, April 23, 2011

Harry Brown

Take 2008's Gran Torino, replace Clint Eastwood with Michael Caine, shift the location from Detroit to London, remove the racial tensions, emphasize the vigilantism, and you get 2009's Harry Brown, directed by Daniel Barber.

Harry Brown (Michael Caine), a retired Marine who saw combat in Northern Ireland, lives alone in a rundown part of London where youth gangs deal drugs out in the open, people are regularly brutalized, and police are nowhere to be found. On the way to see his dying wife, Harry, too afraid to pass through the gang-controlled tunnel, takes the long route to the hospital, and by the time he gets there, she's already died. Later, his friend Leonard (David Bradley) is beaten to death by thugs. Police inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) visits Harry and tells him because Leonard was carrying a bayonet, the youths who killed him can argue self-defense, assuming the case ever reaches trial. Distressed and angered, Harry takes matters into his own hands.

Harry Brown and Gran Torino would certainly make for a most fascinating double bill. Although the premise of both films is essentially identical - a widowed war veteran pushed to the breaking point by the urban gangs of his dilapidated neighborhood after those he cares about are harmed - their approaches couldn't be more dissimilar. In Gran Torino, Eastwood, in a self-directed performance as Walt Kowalski, plays off his tough guy persona and through his often humorous interactions with his Hmong neighbors, transforms from a gruff, bitter racist into a more caring individual, albeit one who's still a bad ass. You expect him to go Dirty Harry on the gang, but his final resolution subverts that expectation in an unexpected yet satisfying manner.

In Harry Brown, Michael Caine plays the eponymous character as more or less an average guy. There's little of the suave actor we've seen in so many roles, and Harry Brown's world is grimmer, darker, and bleaker. Whereas Walt comes out his lonely shell over the course of the movie and gains a surrogate family, Harry becomes increasingly isolated. His only child is long dead, his comatose wife dies, and his only friend is murdered. This is a man who loses everything he holds dear. Unlike Walt, Harry's efforts are rougher-around-the-edges. While he relies on his former Marine training, his efforts don't always go smoothly, and often, he's lucky just to survive his encounters. As the film progresses, his methods become more and more violent.

Another key difference is the nature of the gangs. While the gang in Gran Torino is a decidedly ethnic ghetto group, the gang in Harry Brown is comprised of aimless, immoral punks. As Harry says, when he fought in Northern Ireland, it was against people with a cause; to the gangs, violence is entertainment. Police are hardly a factor in Eastwood's film, but here, they illustrate their impotence. Walt takes action because it's in his nature. Harry takes action because the country he fought for and believes in has abandoned him.

Caine is excellent. He buries himself in the role, and while you believe his resolve, you're just as convinced he's playing an old man with emphysema. The locations feel authentic: dirty, grimy, and dank. The violence is often sudden, shocking, and quite graphic.

Harry Brown is a grim affair, almost despondent about the state of the world and how the innocent caught up in crime and forced into action. It certainly stands on its own as more than the British Gran Torino.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Inferno

A lot of what I said about Dario Argento's Suspiria can also be applied to his followup Inferno (1980): stunning visuals, moody pulsing music, wonderful sense of style, and a surreal, dream-like atmosphere. Unfortunately, unlike Suspiria, Inferno just didn't work for me.

I think there was kind of a plot, something to do with an American college student (Leigh McCloskey) in Rome returning to New York after his sister (Irene Miracle) sends a strange letter about finding a book that describes the domains of three witches and their wicked ambitions and how she thinks her apartment is one of their covens. Weird people pop up, people disappear, people die, and I struggle to follow anything that's happening from scene to scene.

Inferno opens up in a spell-binding manner with the sister going into the basement of a creepy building and descending through a hole that leads to a flooded ballroom. The sequence is simultaneously creepy and beautiful. There are several other set pieces that approach that level of artistry and unease, particularly during the climax when the brother confronts the witch as the building burns, and several of the deaths are gory and nasty.

But without any sort of narrative to follow, I struggled throughout the film to care. Suspiria made little logical sense, but the lead character played by Jessica Harper was something of an anchor to hold on to. She seemed relatively normal, an innocent American girl caught up in a strange land (Germany), so everything that was weird to her was weird to us. Plus, we stuck with her for more of the film, and as a result, we followed her as she became drawn into the macabre underbelly of her dance academy.

Here, we don't even get that. There is no one here to even superficially identify with. Ostensibly, the brother is the main character, but we jump from so many figures, and their actions and what happens to them just feels random. Nightmare logic is one thing, but this seems to operate on no logic. As it is, weird stuff happens, and occasionally, someone gets killed.

Maybe I'm just too hung up on plot and character. Argento is really on top of his craft here as a director, and the film is truly stunning just to look at and absorb. It plays like a collection of freaky paintings come to life. I would like to see it again just for those elements, but I felt no emotional investment to anything that happened.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How To Train Your Dragon

I must be on a string of firsts because having just done my first Tim Burton movie, I'm now reviewing my first animated feature: How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

A 3-D family film, HtTYD tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the small and somewhat weak son of Viking warrior Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Their village is regularly attacked by dragons. Hiccup wants to fight, but his father relegates him to blacksmith duty away from the battlefield. One night, Hiccup sneaks off and shoots down a Night Fury, said to be the most fearsome and mysterious of dragons. Finding it injured in the forest and nowhere near as vicious, Hiccup can't bring himself to kill it. Soon, he's nursing the dragon back to health and learning to fly with him, even dubbing the creature Toothless. Meanwhile, Stoick decides the boy is ready to fight and sends him to train with Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson) to learn how to kill their sworn enemies.

Charming and delightful with some impressive visual, action, and flight scenes is the best I can think to describe HtTYD. I liked how there are many different types of dragons with different traits and abilities. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is not overly sappy and sentimental, and I genuinely enjoyed watching Hiccup learn about dragons through his interactions with Toothless and then apply it to his combat training, i.e. where to scratch a dragon to make it fall asleep like a puppy. Rather than just a cute creature his heart warms to, there's a unique sense of discovery and evolution between the two.

The plot and characters are nothing to write home about. The performances are energetic, and Ferguson is pretty funny while Butler is suitably gruff playing off his image from 300, but the characterization is fairly straightforward and bare bones. The plot - boy raised to hate the other side learns about them and challenges what he's been told - has been done a hundred times, and the token romance between Hiccup and Viking girl Astrid (America Ferrara) just seems dropped in. Then there's sanitation of violence. Despite being told hundreds of Vikings and thousands of dragons have been killed over the years, we see very few violent consequences (the joke is the village is old, but the houses are new), though I must credit the film for having one major character permanently scarred.

Still, I enjoyed HtTYD. It's fun, and you can certainly do worse. If Ronnie James Dio has taught us anything, it's that dragons are awesome.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

John Dies At The End

I first heard of John Dies At the End (2008) when I learned director Don Coscarelli intended to make a movie out of it. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Charley loaned me the book and told me it was awesome. After reading it, I'm now excited for the coming adaptation.

Take the cosmic terror of H.P. Lovecraft, work in the paranormal methodology of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, throw in the pop culture references and post-modern, smart-ass slackerdom of Kevin Smith, mix in the insanity of Mad Magazine, and you get John Dies At the End. Somehow how these radically different elements don't detract from each other; they create a uniquely blended narrative that is scary, awe-inspiring, hilarious, bizarre, low brow, juvenile, and never once boring or uninteresting.

Written by David Wong (the alter ego of Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin), John Dies At the End is a first-person account by video store clerk Wong describing how he and his best friend John, who can't hold a job, got caught up in a multidimensional invasion and conspiracy after coming into contact with a drug known as Soy Sauce. The drug enables them to see and encounter creatures and other beings from other worlds, which is a better side effect than what most users get (being horribly eviscerated and reduced to a pool of blood and guts). They encounter everything from meat monsters, possessed humans, carnivorous slugs, portals to hell, invisible monsters, ghosts, demons, time travel, and a host of other oddities while displaying little more ambition than getting drunk.

Despite what the title indicates, John is not the main character; he's the sidekick who is completely oblivious to the seriousness of the events around him. Well, that's a bit unfair. He's like the sci-fi action movie version of Randall from Clerks. John seems to perfectly understand and accept everything but treats it all as just another distraction from video games, drinking beer, and getting laid. I should note John has a strong obsession talking about and boasting of his male member. For those that thought The Call of Cthulu did not have enough dick jokes, this is the book for you. He gets on David's nerves quite a bit and has a tendency to drag him into trouble, but he's always there for him.

The humor is way out there, but I was unsurprised how unnerving parts of the book managed to be. One aspect that chills me is the notion of people who get sucked into a shadow vortex and end up erased from existence. It's not enough they die; they never exist. Other times, when the reality itself seems to crumble and be reorganized by nefarious means, it comes off as suitably paranoid and tense.

A novel such as this runs the risk of becoming too weird and chaotic to make much sense, but Wong (Pargin) keeps it gripping and somehow juggles all the pieces. Anyone who's seen Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep should instantly understand Coscarelli is the perfect director for this one and be excited too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beetlejuice

I just realized I've yet to review a Tim Burton movie, so I figured I'd write about my favorite film of his: Beetlejuice (1988). It's one of those offbeat little movies where everything just comes together, every element is in place, and the result is a movie I can watch anytime and still enjoy immensely. It has all of Burton's hallmarks: surreal world and set design, bizarre characters, a touch of darkness, music by Danny Elfman, and a certain sense of wonder and humor.

Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), a happy but boring couple, are confined to their home for an unspecified time following their deaths in a sudden car crash. Death is not too bad until their cozy little house is purchased by a New York family, the Deetzes: Charles (Jeffrey Jones), the overworked father looking to relax, Delia (Catherine O'Hara), the artistic yet tacky stepmother, and Lydia (Winona Ryder), the gloomy Gothic daughter. Also around is Otho (Glenn Shadix), Delia's rotund, pretentious little minion and interior designer. The Deetzes proceed to completely remodel the house. As ghosts, Adam and Barbara do their best to scare them off, but their efforts fail. Desperate, they turn to Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed "Bio-Exorcist," but the perverted poltergeist may be more trouble than he's worth.

The plot really isn't the important part; it's really there to link a series of gags about the afterlife. Burton's accomplishment is to present life after death not only as macabre and morbid but also mundane. Those who have passed on receive The Handbook for the Recently Deceased ("This thing reads like stereo instructions!"), ghosts have their own caseworkers (Sylvia Sydney plays the Maitland's liaison Juno in a droll performance), the afterlife has a waiting room and bureaucracy, and the ghosts really just want to, uh, live quietly and peacefully in their former home.

When the Deetzes arrive, Adam and Barbara resort to scare tactics that are ghoulish and pitiful. Adam rips off his head, and Barbara yanks her face off, but they can't be seen by the living and are ignored. Later, they cut holes in sheets and moan, but this attempt is dismissed by Lydia and unnoticed by Charles and Delia. When Lydia tells her family the ghosts won't appear because the dinner party they tried to scare instead had fun, Delia sardonically notes, "They're dead. It's a little late to be neurotic."

Then, there's Keaton as Beetlejuice. Nothing I type can give this performance justice. Unrecognizable under layers of crusty makeup and firing out lines at 100 miles per hour, Keaton steals the show. He's such an off-the-wall character: living in a miniature model cemetery, eating insects, immediately laying a lip lock on Barbara when he meets the Maitlands, appearing in different costumes each time we see him, reading the obituary section like a classified ad, transforming into a giant snake, spreading mischief, and hitting on any female he encounters.

The special effects and set design are ambitious: dark, surreal, warped, vivid, and creative. It's an effective and convincing presentation of the afterlife: doors that open into different realms, assorted dead folks depicted as they died, sculptures coming to life, hallways and other architecture enlarging and changing shape, and morphing ghosts and creatures. It actually can be pretty freaking and morbid at times, but Burton and production designer Bo Welch manage to retain the undercurrent of humor.

I'm struggling not give not to give away all the best jokes and scenes, but I think I've already spoiled some, so I better stop. Bottom line: Beetlejuice is a wonderful, creative, and hilarious movie. It's dark and strange, but I don't expect anything less from Tim Burton.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Wicker Man (1973)

I've heard many times that the most compelling villains are those convinced of the validity of their actions. One-dimensional brutes who their twirl mustaches and cackle maniacally about their wickedness are hard to take seriously. What makes the original version of The Wicker Man (1973) so unsettling is the seriousness in which it treats the Paganism and human sacrifice in the material. The religious overtones are not there merely as spooky window dressing; they establish the reality of the film.

Prim, proper, prudish police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on Summerisle, an island off the coast of Scotland, after receiving an anonymous tip about a missing girl. The deeply Christian Howie is appalled by the Pagan beliefs and practices of the residents and their leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee): the people pray to Celtic gods, churches are in ruins, children learn about the glories of the phallic symbol, couples have sex out in the open, and the innkeeper's daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) tries to seduce the virginal Howie. At first, the villagers deny the missing girl exists, but Howie soon discovers they're lying. He comes to believe the girl has been chosen as a human sacrifice to ensure a successful summer harvest.

At the movies heart, as scholar John Kenneth Muir has noted, is a clash of cultures: Christian and Pagan. As played by Woodward, Howie is a staunch, self-righteous man who stumbles into a lifestyle he doesn't know or understand and immediately judges himself and his beliefs to be superior. That arrogance gets him in trouble.

For the villagers, Paganism isn't a gimmick but a lifestyle. We see their ceremonies, their school lessons, their music, and their houses. The movie opens with a thanks to Lord Summerisle for his help with the film, and the film does have a documentary feel to it. We see how these Pagans live, learn how they developed their belief system, and observe how they seem considerably more free and happy than Howie. These aren't men in black hats and capes; they're men, women, and children of all ages who have accepted how they live as normal. Their sincerity and devotion to beliefs right or wrong - the movie offers no concrete that anything they believe is true - is creepy. They're not inhuman monsters; they're quaint country folk.

Lord Summerisle is an admitted heathen (not an "unenlightened one," he notes), but he is cultured and sophisticated. With Lee, one expects a violent, blood-dripping-from-fangs performance as he did so often as Dracula, but he always acts - or appears to act - as calm and reasonable.

I should also credit the movie's music. Horror and music go hand-in-hand, but I can't think of any film that uses musical numbers to create unease and dread. The early bar scene with the patrons carousing over beer is ominous, the seduction scene with Willow singing through the walls of Howie's room is like an alluring siren's song, and the weird, almost folksy tunes of the Pagan ceremonies reinforce the strangeness of the culture. Having characters sing often drag a movie down, but here, it makes sense and adds atmosphere.

The Wicker Man is an unusually effective thriller. There are no stalking slashers, undead zombies, blood-sucking vampires, or deranged serial killers. There are only people and their beliefs, and that's frightening.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Adaptation

Adaptation: the way living things change and evolve to their surrounding environments and circumstances, and a work that has been transplanted from medium to another.

Many books have been called "unfilmable." Whether the scope is too large to condense into a single motion picture without sacrificing essential elements, most of the action occurs inside the characters' heads, or the material just doesn't lend itself to a visual form, some books are better left as books.

That is the problem facing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage). Having agreed to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), he's stuck trying to dramatize flowers while remaining true to the non-fiction book. Sure, there's charismatic, redneck horticulturalist John Laroche (Chris Cooper in an Oscar-winning role) at the center of the book, but he's not enough to sustain an entire film. Desperate, Charlie descends into neurosis while his twin brother Donald (also Cage) tries breaking into the screenwriting business himself with a formulaic serial killer story.

Charlie Kaufman is a real-life screenwriter (writer of Being John Malkovich), but his brother Donald is not real. Susan Orlean is a real author of a real book called The Orchid Thief. Even screenwriting guru Robert McKee turns up played by Brian Cox. So Kaufman, the actual writer of Adaptation (along with his imaginary brother Donald), has written a movie about his own efforts to adapt a book to a screenplay. I'm getting confused just writing about it (and I called Big Trouble in Little China weird).

As my opening paragraph alluded to, there are various levels of adaptation. There are two writers attempting to adapt a story. Not only do we see Charlie adapt the book, we jump through time and watch Susan in the process of adapting LaRoche's life to a book. Then we observe both writers adapting to life; Charlie, by reading his words, grows somewhat attracted to Susan, although he's never met her and is unable to talk with women anyway. Susan, bored and unhappy with her marriage, develops affection for the rugged, authentic, if somewhat delusional Laroche. Then, there are the flowers themselves, the orchids at the center of the book that Charlie struggles to dramatize. They live off trees and other plants but aren't necessarily parasites. They're just adapting to their environment.

Laroche himself in more complex than my description implies. Certainly, his plan to use American Indians to harvest the orchids from state reserves within ancestral land to avoid prosecution and clone the flowers is certainly comical in its complexity and in context utterly plausible. But we dig deep into his history as well and learn how he's adapting from one interest to another and recovering from a family tragedy.

Adaptation
is certainly an offbeat and original movie, and it's often quite funny, particularly when it dives inside Charlie's head and the writing process. I don't how much of the movie is actually how the real-life Kaufman feels about writing, but it feels authentic. At times I got lost and befuddled, but I sense there was method to the madness.