Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ordinary People

In 1980, Robert Redford' s adaptation of Judith Guest's novel Ordinary People beat out Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and David Lynch's Elephant Man for the best picture Oscar, and it's widely regarded as one of the biggest blunders by the Academy Awards. Raging Bull is regarded as the greatest film of the decade while some of the shine has started to wear off Ordinary People. Well, I've never seen Ordinary People the movie, but I have read the book, so that's what I'm going to write about.

On the surface, the Jarretts have everything they need to live a happy, upper-middle class life. Calvin and Beth have been married for more than 20 years. He's a successful attorney, and she's a consummate homemaker. But tragedy has exposed the cracks in the family. Their eldest son Buck has drowned in boating accident, and their younger son Conrad, plagued by survivor's guilt and depression, attempted suicide. Now out of a mental health treatment center, Conrad is seeing a therapist, Dr. Berger.

Few events can shake the foundations of a family like the loss of one its members. The novel illustrates how the remaining members - father, mother, and brother - confront or don't front that harsh truth. Conrad, who always lived in Buck's shadow, is trying to readjust to normal life: high school, swim team, girls, etc. But he feels alienated from friends and family. He's most at odds with Beth, who he feels loved Buck more than him. Beth grows colder and more absorbed with her routine: vacations, bridge, the social circle of the neighborhood, and how the family appears to others. Calvin tries to play the peacemaker between Beth and Conrad, but he doesn't know the right thing to do or so. Ultimately, he feels completely powerless to help his family.

Ordinary People alternates each chapter between the viewpoints of Conrad and Calvin. There are very few physical descriptions of what the characters look like or what their surroundings are like. There are a few key points - i.e. the scars on Conrad's wrists - but for the most part, the plot and characterizations unfold through inner monologues and exterior conversations. The characters are so absorbed in their own internal dramas, the rest of the world almost feels unimportant. I thought it was a curious omission on Guest's part not to include any chapters from Beth's perspective, but considering she's presented as someone who doesn't reflect much on her own feelings, I suppose the novel's structure reinforces that aspect.

At its most basic, Ordinary People about its characters' emotions and how they come to grip with them. It's about ordinary people confronted by sheer trauma and trying to move on with their lives, and that's something I think everyone can relate to.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Event Horizon

Combining elements of Alien, The Shining, and Hellraiser, Event Horizon (1997) boasts impressive production design and special effects, a first-rate cast of character actors, and a number of creepy, gross-out moments, but ultimately, the film never really goes anywhere. After all the built-up promise for something really mind-blowing, the film eventually becomes a violent action piece in which one character goes crazy and starts killing the others.

Seven years after mysteriously disappearing, the spaceship the Event Horizon has appeared near Neptune in the year 2047. The crew of the spaceship Lewis & Clark are sent on a rescue (the crew includes Laurence Fishburne as captain, Joely Richardson, Sean Pertwee, Jason Isaacs, and Kathleen Quinlan). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Sam Neil), the scientist who designed the Event Horizon to be able to open black holes to travel anywhere in the universe instantaneously. They find the crew of the Event Horizon dead and mutilated. The ship, in its maiden voyage through a black hole, traveled somewhere evil and brought something back.

There seem to be two camps regarding Event Horizon: those who hate it and say it made no sense and those who love it and say the people who didn't like it just didn't understand it. I'm somewhere in the middle. Characters are thin, but the actors do well with them, particularly Neil; they feel like an actual starship crew (even if they require layman's term to understand the physics behind the Event Horizon).

The film wisely hints at the horror the Event Horizon is capable of: one of eternal torment and damnation. The interiors of the ship are suitably Gothic and macabre. I liked the recording of the Event Horizon's, with the voice speaking in Latin intermixed with the sound of chaos; that was creepy. The shots of outer space are up there with those from Alien in terms of creating a feeling of lonely isolation and vulnerability.

Unfortunately, once the movie introduces the idea of a black hole as a gateway to hell, it doesn't do much with it. The characters begin hallucinating in obvious manners (family back home, dead comrades, etc.), and since the characters don't have much development, instead of being haunting, these visions function as cheap shocks. Then one character - I won't say who, but you can guess from the plot summary - becomes possessed or goes crazy and starts picking off the others in gruesome ways. After an effective build up, the films spends most of the second half spinning its wheels until its get to this point.

In the end, Event Horizon is an ambitious but empty thrill ride. It's derivative to a degree, but it's creepy and tense when it needs to be. It effectively balances the sci-fi and horror genres and features first-class production values and cast, but I kept waiting for it to take me somewhere I had never been before.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Ever notice when you're watching a slasher movie, the same elements reappear? The windows won't open, the cars won't start, and the bodies of the heroine's dead friends pop out in extremely convenient locations to scare her. Can anyone picture Jason Voorhies or Michael Myers rigging little touches like? Why go to all the trouble if they just want to kill everyone? Well, apparently, they have more in mind.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) shows us the method to their madness. What we've longed believed were contrived formulas was actually elaborate, carefully plotted plans. The killers spend weeks, even months following their intended targets, cataloging every behavior, so when the night of horror arrives, they foresee every possible action and plan everything accordingly. Those of you who consider Jason a mindless brute are mistaken.

Presented as a fake documentary shot by grad students, Behind the Mask introduces us to Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a young man who looks at Freddy, Jason, and Mike not as psychos but idols. He wants his name to be just as infamous and feared. To gain notoriety, he invites Taylor (Angela Goethals) and her cameramen Doug (Ben Pace) and Todd (Britain Spellings) to observe his preparations and reveal the history and role of slashers in the world.

Behind the Mask has a lot of fun with the conventions of the slasher genre. Leslie explains his plans less like a demented psychopath and more like a charming prankster putting together a haunted house for Halloween. He's seen nailing windows shut, rigging axes and other tools to break after one use, and elaborating on the Freudian subtext inherent in these plots. We meet his mentor Eugene (Scott Wilson), an old pro to the slasher game who talks about Jason, Mike, and Freddy like they were drinking buddies. Leslie even makes friends with the camera crew; they always have this unstated belief this is all a lark. He can't be serious about killing these teenagers, right?

There are a few hints of the darkness beneath the surface. Leslie gets angry and physical when the crew tries to speak with his intended target, and they're warned by Leslie's "Ahab," Doc Halloran (Robert Englund made to look Dr. Loomis from Halloween) that Leslie is not who he says he is.

About an hour into the movie, the subjective viewpoint is dropped when Taylor decides they can't stand by and let the slaughter occur. Behind the Mask becomes a rather effective horror piece in its own right. Leslie, no longer the joking showman we've seen for an hour, has flipped a switch and is an emotionless, silent killer. We've been prepped by Leslie about how exactly his night will unfold and are expecting it to play out like a laundry list of genre cliches. Instead, the film subverts our expectations by having them occur differently than we expected them.

Behind the Mask works as a satire of the slasher genre as well as a superior modern example of the form. It toys with the archetypes and finds news to exploit them. Horror fans, whether fans of slashers or not, will find much to enjoy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Demolition Man

Dystopian sci-fi literature and cinema are less about exploring the future so much as they are about examining contemporary problems, offering warnings of where society might be headed if things continue the way they are. Demolition Man (1993) works the same way by taking the political correctness of the nineties to its logical conclusion, postulating a future in which crime has been eliminated, everyone is a naive, passive moron, and then dropping into this world two gruff, untamed men from the 20th century.

After finally catching the psychotic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), LAPD detective John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is convicted for the deaths of 30 hostages Phoenix kept in the building that blew up during the effort to catch him, and Spartan is sentenced to the cryo-prison, where he will be frozen in suspended animation. In 2042, Los Angeles is now San Angles, and Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing but escapes, killing three people in the process. Society has become completely docile; no murders have happened in years, and the police find themselves completely ill-prepared for Phoenix's rampage. They release Spartan, the only man whoever caught Phoenix, and reinstate him to the force.

Demolition Man is essentially Brave New World re-envisioned as a Sylvester Stallone action movie. This is a future where everything that is bad for you is outlawed: smoking, cholesterol, salt, contact sports, swearing, etc. Everything is dumbed down and controlled. People refer to each other by first and last name, mindlessly listen to old commercial jingles, and obey every word of their leader, Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), who Phoenix describes best as an "evil Mr. Rogers." They do not engage in any physical contact no handshakes, and sex is now a simulated Virtual Reality experience; Spartan protests, "This is what you call love?!"

Most of the movie's fun involves the politically incorrect Stallone and Snipes creating all sorts of havoc in this world. Even Denis Leary pops in as an underground revolutionary with what can only be described as a glorious rant about how he wants to indulge in all the bad behavior that is forbidden.

Being a Stallone movie, Demolition Man features the usual array of shootouts, explosions, chases, and fights we expect from a Stallone, but they are handled with flair. On a positive note, Stallone is not in Rambo mode, gunning down men by the hundreds and mumbling. His presence enhances the satire by playing off his screen persona. Spartan - the tough, no-nonsense, I-don't-have-time-for-procedure cop that Stallone could have played in a more straight action movie - is frequently befuddled, frustrated, confused, curious, and angered by what the world has become, and he's constantly at odds with it and rebelling in his own way. After discovering that swearing is illegal and toilet paper has been replaced by the three sea shells (don't ask, it's never explained), Spartan walks up to the machine that issues the fines, calmly issues a stream of vulgarities at it, and then returns to the bathroom.

Maybe it's not all it could have been given the premise, but Demolition Man works as a fun, engaging sci-fi action satire. As the movie goes on, the action tends to dominate and not all aspects of this futuristic society are explored or explained, but I like it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West

It would be simplistic to label Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as just a western. Sure, you have the outlaws, the gunslingers, the railroad baron, the harsh land, the sweaty close-ups, the buzzing flies, and so many of other tropes of the genre, but the film is so much more. It's a western, but it's also a commentary on the western. It's a revenge thriller. It's a love triangle. It's an opera, backed by arguably Ennio Morricone's finest score. Most importantly, it's about the end of the Old West through the arrival of the railroad and the encroachment by civilization.

The plot of Once Upon a Time in the West centers on three men and one woman. Frank (Henry Fonda) is a hired killer, a cold-blooded man who slaughters a family to allow his boss, a railroad tycoon, to seize the land; Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is the honorable gang leader framed for the murders; Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is a stranger, an expert but mysterious gunfighter who has a vendetta against Frank; and Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is the widow of the murdered landowner and a former prostitute. The fates of these four people, and others, are linked to each other and the expansion of the railroad.

Let's start with the score. After all, that's what Leone and Morricone did. The music was recorded before filming, and the on-screen action was choreographed and synchronized to it (as they call it in animation, Mickey Mousing). Each character has their own theme: Harmonica has a a bluesy, haunting harmonica; Frank a blistering, fierce guitar; Cheyenne a twangy, folksy banjo; and Jill a wordless, elegiac female vocal. I'm not exaggerating when I call the film an opera. You could listen to just the entire score, along with the atmospheric ambiance, and still follow all the emotions.

The settings are majestic, big, bold, and beautiful. Leone filmed in Spain, Italy, Utah and Arizona's Monument Valley, and he seamlessly makes it look like the Old West. It never fails to look epic or sweeping. Leone packs the film with his trademark violence and showdowns; it's brutal, exciting, suspenseful, and stylized. More than any other action filmmaker, Leone understood the importance of buildup and payoff, dragging the tension out as far as possible. Better to have one shot mean something after ten minutes of buildup rather than a thousand shots that mean nothing.

The story is about the arrival of the railroad. The railroad means civilization, which means no more room for gunfighters such as Cheyenne and Frank. Frank in particular has spent years killing others with impunity, and Harmonica is the past returning to tilt the scales of justice. Frank considers becoming a more ruthless and destructive creature, a businessman, before resigning himself to his destiny as a gunman. All the death and violence of the Old West will no longer be tolerated, and those who live that way are doomed to fade away.

There are a hundred more things I could say about Once Upon a Time in the West, but it's a film that's meant to be experienced, not told about. It really shows a master at his craft with all the resources he needs to fulfill his vision. This is Leone's masterpiece.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quiet Chaos

Grief is a universal emotion. No matter your nationality, gender, job, or any other defining trait, at some point in our lives, we all confront the fact loved ones die. While the emotion is the same, how that grief expresses itself differs by person. Some may sink into depression, others turn to rage, and others become numb with shock. But some suppress their sorrow; they bury it and become absorbed with other aspects of their lives.

That is the response Pietro Paladini, the protagonist of Italian author Sandro Veronesi's 2005 novel Quiet Chaos (the version I read was translated by Michael F. Moore). The novel begins with him and his brother Carlo rescuing two women from drowning after a day of surfing. They return to their beach house to find Pietro's fiance Lara dead. Although they were merely days away from being married, Pietro and Lara have a 10-year-old daughter, Claudia, and months after Lara's death, Pietro is seeing her off on her first day of school. He winds up spending the whole outside her school, away from the chaos his job and his company's impending merger, and it allows him to put his own grief on hold. The days turn into months, and he remains outside the school. Soon, others venture to Pietro - co-workers, bosses, his sister-in-law, his brother - to unload their own problems on him.

Written in a first-person perspective from Pietro's point of view, the plot acts more like a series of vignettes in which Pietro interacts with all these characters rather than any overarching narrative. He discusses his history with them, describes how they look, and analyzes his conversations with them. It doesn't sound exciting (especially given that the location hardly changes), but Pietro is a fairly insightful character with an ironic sense of humor.

Just staying inside Pietro's thoughts and seeing how the others relate to him is pretty compelling. He's not very emotive; his manner is rather straightforward, and he's fairly passive for a protagonist. After all, the other character go to him, but it seems to be strategy on Veronesi's part. This is a man who has just suffered a loss, and in a sea of troubles and turmoil in his life, he has retreated emotionally and literally into this quiet little oasis that is constantly invaded by others seeking to offload their anxieties onto someone else. Ultimately, the novel concludes when Pietro realizes he must confront his own and his daughter's grief and leave the bubble he's created.

Quiet Chaos is a thoughtful, compelling book that explores the complexities and contradictions of one man's relationships. It's something I would like to read again sometime.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Castle Freak

When I was in high school, I tried writing a story in which vampires inhabited the tunnels of Vietnam. I never got anywhere satisfactory with it, and years later, when discussing the idea with my college screenwriting professor, he told me something I've never forgotten: no matter what I dreamed up with vampires and ghouls, it would never be as terrifying as anything that really happened over there. A similar thought crossed my mind as I watched Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak (1995).

Castle Freak, inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Outsider," deals explicitly with such topics as child abuse, alcoholism, marital strife, and parental guilt over the death of a child, but this serious undertone never really feels compatible with the rest of the movie. The result is an otherwise effective B-level monster picture turns into a rather depressing affair.

The Reilly family - recovering alcoholic John (Jeffrey Combs), his wife Susan (Barbara Crampton), and their blind daughter Rachel (Jessica Dollarhide) - inherits a castle in Italy belonging to a long-lost relative of John's. They move into the castle until they can sell it and its assets off. Nine months prior, a drunk John caused a car crash that killed their son J.J. and blinded Rebecca. John hopes they can start over, but Susan cannot forgive him. But in the castle's dungeon, Georgio (Jonatha Fuller), the believed-to-be-dead son of the castle's duchess, lives. For 40 years, he has been tortured and mutilated by his mother because his father abandoned them, which drove her mad. With his mother dead, Georgio gets his first taste of freedom just as the Reillys move in.

Gordon's other Lovecraft adaptations - Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon - all showed a strong sense of black humor. Mad scientists, wild experiments, ravenous zombies, creatures from another dimension, and a cult of mutant fish people fall clearly into the realm of fantasy, and Gordon dealt with those subjects with droll assuredness. But child abuse is all too real. The notion of a child horribly abused by his mother for more than 40 years as revenge against her husband, turning the child into a deformed monster, is not fun; it's horrible, not horrifying.

The genre material surrounding the story works well. The makeup and creature design of Georgio are grotesque and unsettling, and Fuller's performance makes it convincing. He moves in a very off-kilter, inhuman manner. All the actors in the family give it their best, particularly Combs. Making the daughter blind was a nice touch; I'm surprised more thrillers don't explore that potential (i.e. not seeing the monster right in front her). The castle itself has some nice atmosphere, long halls and high shadows.

The best horror movies work because they explore deeper issues. Castle Freak tries to do that, but it doesn't succeed. The horror elements work on a B-movie level, but the underlying drama and themes are just unpleasant. In the end, the film's not as entertaining as the title would indicate.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Inside Job

In his 2007 documentary No End in Sight, filmmaker Charles Ferguson chronicled the failures and mistakes made by high-ranking government and military officials during the early days of the Iraq occupation and how that led to catastrophe. In his 2010 documentary Inside Job, Ferguson turns that same critical approach and methodology onto Wall Street, and the result is a film that is sobering, infuriating, shocking, and troubling.

The 2008 global economic crisis resulted in the loss of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, brought the world to the brink of financial chaos, and destroyed countless lives. Three years later, not one bank CEO or president has been convicted of any crimes despite strong evidence most of the financial industry's most prominent firms and companies knowingly and willingly perpetuated the crash. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury Department, and other government entities responsible for regulating the industry were/are embedded with former bank bigwigs, gutted by an extensive campaign of deregulation, or ignoring all the warning signs of impending calamity.

Ferguson interviews many familiar faces: Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, George Soros, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (prior to his recent legal troubles), and Paul Volcker. We also get some foreign finance ministers, watchdogs, private citizens, and others telling their stories. There's a sizable list of people who refused comment: Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and the various CEOs of Goldman-Sachs, AIG, CitiGroup, and other firms. Ferguson incorporates a lot of stock footage, news reports, graphs, and highlighted documents, and through all this, he effectively conveys the information needed to understand why things went bust.

Long story short: in the 1980s, deregulation became the buzz word, and the financial industry grew larger, more powerful, and more influential. By the 1990s, new technology allowed for more complex and riskier investments that weren't covered by regulation. Efforts to fill the vacuum with new laws were defeated or watered down. Banks and investment firms began selling investments they knew to be bad, but by betting against them, they stood to profit hugely while their clients and the public were left holding the bag. In the short-term, CEOs walked away with millions, and long-term, their companies went bankrupt. These companies were so large and felt on the global economy, the government stepped in with bailouts, and it was back to business as usual.

The most disheartening aspect of the film is how many of those individuals at the center of the crash remain in influential positions today, continuing to push for policies that made them and their supporters rich while bankrupting the nation. Ferguson also covers two lesser known aspects of Wall Street. First, many of these top traders use company money on prostitutes and drugs, often writing both off as a company expense; it's just another example of how self-absorbed and immoral these men are. Second, a number of economic academics at places such as Harvard and Colombia who write "objective" papers praising the soundness of certain companies and their strategies are often on their payroll.

If you want to understand why the economy is in the state it's in, Inside Job is the movie to watch. It will make you angry. Narrator Matt Damon concludes the film with a call to action, but at this point, after seeing just how entrenched Wall Street has become, what can be done?

Monday, September 12, 2011

[Rec] 2

Ever since the massive success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), many horror films have featured the subjective, first-person perspective. When done right, the technique gives a film a grainy, authentic feel; it brings the horror closer to home. When done wrong, it can be hokey and contrived, turning into a cheap gimmick. Among the fright flicks to be presented in such a style are Diary of the Dead, The Zombies Diaries, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Cloverfield, and more.

One of the better such films to emerge in recent years was [Rec] (2007), a Spanish zombie flick later remade for American audiences as Quarantine (2008). The original follows a TV newswoman, her cameraman, some firefighters, and other assorted folks trapped in an apartment building infested with zombies. It was nasty, raw, and effective. [Rec]2 (2009) captures some of the same mood, atmosphere, and scares as its predecessor, but ultimately, it's not as effective.

Picking up immediately where the original left off, [Rec]2 begins with a SWAT team, equipped with shoulder-mounted cameras (a la Aliens' colonial marines), preparing to go into the infected building. Their mission: escort health minister Dr. Owen (Jonathon Mellor) inside while he collects documents and a critical blood sample. Soon enough, things go to hell. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers sneak inside, following a firefighter and a man whose family is still in the building. Wouldn't you know it? They have a digital camera, too.

For those who haven't seen the original, we discover by the end that what we thought was a virus was actually demonic possession (an angle Quarantine dropped). The Vatican was experimenting with a possessed girl, and through her blood, the demon spread. The sequel expands on this element. Dr. Owen is really a priest. When confronted by one of the infected, he holds out a crucifix, and the monster halts in its tracks. In an intense cross between an exorcism and police interrogation, Owen uses the crucifix to get the demon to speak. Later, the characters enter some sort of netherworld realm that only appears when the lights are off (good thing for night vision). Some people have said this aspect is hard to swallow, but I think it's effective. It distinguishes the movie from other zombie flicks.

The subjective camera contains a lot of the shaky-cam, distorted effects audiences have grown accustomed to. When the characters grappled with the infected, it's up close and in-your-face. It's hard to follow at times, sometimes to the film's benefit (who got away from that scruffle?) and other times to the film's detriment (what just happened?), but overall, it's intense.

The film's problem is it doesn't cover a lot of new ground. [Rec] works as a stand-alone feature; the sequel feels like an attempt to continue a franchise (additional sequels have been announced). Worse, no character makes much of an impression. The SWAT officers are interchangeable, and the teens fall into stereotypical shrillness. In fact, the entire presence of the teenagers feels contrived and distracting.

Also, this film's ending does not match the power of the original's. Some spoilers, but I really don't like the surprise villain reveal here. For one thing, it changes the established rules of possession (Why does this person not have bloodshot eyes and a decrepit appearance? Where did that demon slug come from?). Secondly, and this is a common problem with surprise-ending villains, why not kill the other characters at any number of earlier opportunities? Unlike the original shocking ending, with the lead being dragged into darkness, this ends with a shotgun blast and some talking. So much for not showing the face of the devil.

I probably sound harsh, and I suppose I am. The ingredients were there for this to be just as good as the original, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. [Rec]2 stands as an intense, scary thrill ride itself, but it's overshadowed by its predecessor.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Prince of Darkness

Evil has always been characterized an element of the human heart. As creatures of free will, we choose whether to act good or bad, and those actions are judged on social, moral, and personal standards. But what if evil was more than just an idea? What if evil was a tangible, physical entity, as real as the atom and just as influential?

That is the premise of John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987), the second of his "Apocalyptic Trilogy" (the other two being The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). After a string of big-budget, Hollywood fare, Carpenter returns to low-budget horror with this Gothic, claustrophobic thriller that turns the concept of evil on its head and re-envisions the traditional science-vs-religion conflict through the prism of quantum physics. While the film doesn't quite match the ideas it puts forth, it's still something of a minor masterpiece.

A mysterious canister of swirling green fluid is unearthed beneath an inner-city Los Angeles church, along with a journal describing a forgotten Catholic sect known as the Brotherhood of Sleep that guarded the canister's secrets. The priest who makes this discovery (Donald Pleasance) is so shaken, he enlists quantum physicist Howard Byrack (Victor Wong) to study the findings. Byrack brings a team of graduate students and other scientists with the priest hoping they will prove scientifically the true nature of the canister's contents. The contents not only threaten to rewrite 2000 years of Christian history and destroy the world, it has awoken.

Generally, we look to science to explain how the universe works and to religion for the purpose behind it. Prince of Darkness postulates, however, that there are limits to scientific understanding and that tenants of religion are false. Logic and common sense, we're told, break down on the subatomic level, and while our realty is built on order and light, perhaps there is another realm built on darkness and chaos. That is the threat of the titular entity. We learn the green fluid in the canister is actually Satan, and Satan wants to bring his father, the Anti-God, back from the dark side. Good and evil, reinterpreted as matter and anti-matter.

The chaos Satan and the Anti-God are reflected in violations of logic that occur in the narrative's events: insects moving with defined purpose, demonic possession, the dead returning to life, liquid dripping up to the ceiling, and psychokinesis. The film contains an additional number of nifty ideas, including mirrors as the gateways to the dark side and dreams that are actually messages from the future. The last item gives the film's ending a haunting ambiguity.

Most of this is explored well enough. Unfortunately, the ideas fall by the wayside in the second half when the green fluid begins spraying into people's mouths and transforming them into mindless zombies. This aspect feels pedestrian compared to the premise because it turns an examination of science, faith, and reality into a violent climax in which people hit each other with two-by-fours and bricks. Thankfully, it is handled very well by Carpenter; his controlled pacing and use of shocking imagery are more than compelling. He gets you to jump a number of times, even if the way the possessed spray liquid into other people's mouths looks ridiculous.

Prince of Darkness could also have done to lose a few characters. None really stand out, except as new victims. Even reliable horror actors like Pleasance and Wong don't distinguish themselves. Still, I admire the bold, ambitious ideas Carpenter (who wrote the script under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass and did the pulsing score) tries to explore. They're the kind of ideas that if you really think about them, they chill you.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Ghost Writer

I first saw director Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010) on an airplane travelling back from England. At the time, I intended to review it but decided, given Polanski's talent for composition, I needed to see to it again in a more fitting manner (i.e. on a screen that wasn't smaller than my head). Long story short, I finally saw it again this weekend, but does it hold up as well as I remember it? For the most part, yes. There are a few nagging plot details, but overall, The Ghost Writer is an effective, slow-burn thriller in which tension is generated by character revelations and probing mystery.

A ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the first ghost writer drowns. The writer, whose name we never learn, meets Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), a cold woman resentful of having always played the politician's spouse, and Lang's assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), with whom it's implied he's having an affair. Soon after the ghost writer arrives at Lang's estate on a New England island, Lang is charged by international court for war crimes. The ghost writer delves into the project, uncovering secrets about Lang's past as well casting suspicion on the death of his predecessor.

Throughout the film, McGregor's character is referred to only as the "Ghost." On one hand, he's Lang's ghost writer, and on the other, he's the replacement for the dead ghost writer. Considering what he learns and how that information puts him in danger, he pretty much is a dead man walking. By taking on the job, he brings to life the secrets of a dead man and reveals the past, very much what ghosts embody. The film is a ghost story without the supernatural element.

Polanski has always instilled his films with distinctive atmosphere, and The Ghost Writer is no exception. Lang's home is at once modern - hi-tech security, televisions, cars, sleek, very resort-like - and gothic - gloomy, gray, cold, and isolated. The weather is always dank and wet, and everything looks bleak. This type of physical setting is a perfect backdrop for a plot about political machinations and family betrayals. The ghost, a relative innocent with no interest in politics, can only feel trapped and despair.

The Ghost Writer bears a number of parallels to real life. Lang is essentially Tony Blair, a charismatic British politician with perhaps uncomfortably close ties to the U.S. government. When he's charged with war crimes - including the waterboarding of terrorist suspects - his aides encourage a photo-op with the secretary of state, a dead ringer for Condoleezza Rice. Even the fact he can't return to Britain lest he be arrested on sight is reminiscent of Polanski's own legal situation in America. Meanwhile, Ruth's cold demeanor and the influence she exerts on her husband's politics bares a resemblance to Hillary Clinton. This gives the conspiracy aspects a fair degree of plausibility, although at times (like the aforementioned secretary of state) it's a little too much.

There are a few plot holes along the way, and maybe the film is a little too topical to have much staying power, but a number of standout performances, particularly by Brosnan and Williams, overshadow the flaws. While The Ghost Writer is not a masterpiece from Polanski, it's thrilling and entertaining throughout.