Monday, December 31, 2012

War Horse

War Horse (2011), directed by Steven Spielberg, marks a rare cinematic endeavor: a film set in World War I. Yes, some of the all-time great movies have been about this war (All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory), but compared to other major conflicts of the 20th century, especially World War II and the Vietnam War, the number of films about the war is relatively small. There are a few reasons for this, I think: U.S. involvement was limited until the end (American audiences can be a bit impatient with movies not about Americans), other wars still hold some degree of moral justification (WWI seems to be the last war governments were able to justify blatant imperial ambition with blind patriotism), and the very nature of the fighting itself. For most of the war, it was two sides dug in and not giving or taking much ground.

Spielberg seems to grasp these challenges. Based on a book and play, War Horse follows the events of World War I with a horse as the unifying character. No, it doesn't talk like Mr. Ed or have voiceover narration like in Black Beauty, but by linking several different characters and locations through the horse, Spielberg is able to convey the huge scope of the war, from the early days of patriotic fervor to the grueling trench warfare to the wearied relief that marked the end of the fighting. Less important is the horse and more important is how it affects those who come in contact with it and how the war impacts everyone and everything.

In Devon, England, farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a thoroughbred horse instead of a work horse, much to his wife Rose's (Emily Watson) dismay, but his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has admired the horse since its birth. He trains it and names it Joey. When the harvest fails, Ted sells the horse to the British Army as war with Germany is declared. Joey is first shipped off with Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). When Nicholls is killed, Joey spends the rest of the war passing through various owners across the battle lines: a pair of young German brothers (Leonard Carow and David Kross) in the army, a Frenchman (Niels Arestrup)and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), and a German private (Nicholas Bro). Meanwhile, Albert has enlisted and is part of a massive campaign on the Western Front.

Inevitably, since this is a Spielberg movie, Joey and Albert will be re-united in a big emotional scene, but the movie is less a linear narrative and more of a series of short stories as the various players interact with Joey, who eventually becomes known as the "Miracle Horse." It's through the horse's experiences that we witness the war. The early scenes of patriotism and glory are shattered in the first big battle as Captain Nicholls rides Joey in a cavalry charge across a grassy, sun-lit field into an enemy encampment at the edge of a forest. In a stunning visual, the German machine positions open fire and instead of showing the men being cut down, Spielberg elects to represent the slaughter with dozens of now rider-less horses leaping over the German positions (quite a few steeds are killed in the crossfire, too). As the war progresses, the environment itself seems to become poisoned, the sun remains hidden by dark clouds, and the lush green fields are replaced by filthy trenches lined with corpses, broken equipment, and barbed wire. It might not be Saving Private Ryan levels of violent or gory, but War Horse competently captures just how brutal, frightening, and demoralizing war is.

In the midst of all this suffering and turmoil, basic dignity and love survive. There is the German soldier who uses Joey to escape the army with his brother to protect him from a young death. At one point, Joey becomes trapped in barbed wire in No Man's Land, and one soldier from each side goes to help get him get free, both Germans and British silently agreeing not to fire on each other (in a funny shot, the two soldiers call for wire cutters and several pairs are tossed over the top). The French grandfather does his best to protect his granddaughter from hardship, letting her keep Joey when she finds him and later trying to buy him back at an auction after the war.

As I've indicated already, War Horse is a movie of amazing scope, and it's complemented by some amazing cinematography by Janusz Kaminski that's simply gorgeous and sweeping. It's certainly a great picture just to look at and simply take in. On the down side, this is a movie of big moments and sequences, and as a result, characters are drawn in the most basic of traits; it's hard to get emotionally invested in any of them because so many of them are out of the picture before too long. Spielberg being Spielberg also gives in to his tendency to pile on the bright-eyed sentimentality when a little understatement would have been better served.

In the end, War Horse encapsulates both Spielberg the artist who makes a gritty war drama and Spielberg the popular entertainer who tugs at the heart strings, and for the most part, he succeeds at both.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Straight Story

The Straight Story (1999) refers to the story of a man named Alvin Straight who drove 300 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin in a John Deere tractor to visit his ailing brother, but the title could also be considered a promise from director David Lynch. Lynch, the master of weird and surreal who has specializes in labyrinth, dream-like plotting and freakish depravity on film, seems to be saying to the audience this movie is not going to be like that; this is going to be an honest, straightforward, and simple account of a man's journey and the people he meets along the way.

Alvin Straight (an Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth) lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa, when he receives a phone call that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, not in the best of health either, resolves to see him before it's too late, but because of his bad eyesight, he cannot drive a car, and Rose is mildly retarded and no good behind a wheel either. Eventually, Alvin hitches a trailer to his lawn mower and begins his slow, steady trek across the state.

If there were ever two entities I would have never expected to work together, it would be David Lynch and Disney, but it happened with The Straight Story. In essence, this a road movie, much of the plot is driven by the various stops along they way, but it is a sweet, simple tale. The journey is challenging and potentially dangerous to say the least, but there aren't any creeps or criminals along the way. Rated G, the movie contains no violence, foul language, or even people that could be classified as bad or immoral. Plenty of characters question Alvin's trip, but there aren't any false conflicts or efforts to stop or discourage him. The strangers he meets all in their own way help him along, even the hysterical woman who hits a deer and drives off; Alvin takes the event in stride, fixing the antlers on his trailer and eating some of the meat. In movies like Blue Velvet and TV shows like Twin Peaks, Lynch finds corruption and evil hidden among seemingly perfect suburban facades, but in The Straight Story there is no rot beneath the surface, and that's a refreshing change of pace.

In his own words, Alvin is a stubborn old fool who has seen everything life can throw at a person. We learn he's a widower and a veteran of World War II still bothered by his experiences there. While he accepts help from time to time, he's steadfast in his determined self-reliance. When told by his doctor he needs to use a walker and quit smoking, he merely gets another cane and continues to smoke cigars. At this point of his life, he's come to far along to change who he is, but now with a possible end to it all just around the corner, he wants to make peace with his brother. "My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but I'm trying to put that behind me," Alvin says. "And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I'm not too late."

Being a Lynch movie , there remains some weirdness, although nothing dark or grotesque. The aforementioned woman who hit the deer claims she can't avoid crashing into them on the same stretch of road, and there are the bickering mechanic twins, but most of the different episodes along the way have a simple poignancy: a pregnant runaway that Alvin tells about the importance of family, a fellow veteran of the war also haunted by his experience, and the priest near the end who in a way hears Alvin's confession. At one point, Alvin finds himself being passed by a mass of cyclists in a cross-country race, and he makes camp with them that night. They ask what's the worst part about being old, and he says remembering when you were young. If you spend too much time regretting and thinking about the past, life will pass you by, and you're left all alone.

The cinematography by Freddie Francis is gorgeous. There are so many beautiful shots of the farmland country and small towns Alvin passes through. Also excellent is the music by composer Angelo Badalamenti. I'm not sure what attracted Lynch to this material or what inspired to film it, but I'm glad he did.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a rare bird. Remakes are huge business, but I can't recall another instance of a director remaking his own movie. Sure, there are plenty of remakes overseen or produced by the director of the original (Wes Craven seems to be overseeing his own cottage industry),  George Lucas seems to endlessly re-tinker and re-release Star Wars, George Sluzier directed the watered-down Americanized version of his own The Vanishing, but Alfred Hitchcock might very well be the only major director to redo an earlier effort so literally (unless one counts Howard Hawks retooling Rio Bravo as El Dorado and Rio Lobo).

This new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, based on the 1934 version with the same title, retains the same basic setup and narrative development, but the details have been changed. Instead of a British couple whose daughter is kidnapped in Switzerland, the newer version centers on an American couple (Hitchcock's regular leading man James Stewart and Doris Day) whose son is kidnapped. In both movies, the kidnapped child is used as leverage on the parents to guarantee their silence about an assassination plot in London.

Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart), his wife Jo (Day), and son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are vacationing in Morocco when they're helped out of a potentially tense situation by a friendly Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin). The next day, they witness Bernard, now wearing brown face makeup, being murdered, but before he dies, he whispers something in Ben's ear. Before the McKenna's realize it, Hank has been kidnapped by what they was a kindly English couple, the Draytons (Bernard Miles and Brenda De Manzie). With the cryptic information they have, the McKennas fly to London, caught between the police who demand to have it and the conspirators who threaten to kill Hank if they talk to the police.

Hitchcock was famous for his use of humor, but curiously, that element is not on display here. Perhaps Hitchcock believed that given the subject matter - an abducted child - it might have been inappropriate (not that that hasn't stopped him before). The movie's only humor is an inside joke with composer Bernard Herman appearing as himself to conduct a symphony in Albert Hall for the musically-charged climax and the denouement involving some very patient dinner guests. The emphasis here seems to be more on the family in peril.

What Hitchcock does really well is convey a sense of paranoia and distrust outside of one's own country. When visiting a foreign land where you don't speak the language, it's very easy to find yourself uneasy and unsure of what to do or who to go to when trouble occurs. Not helping the McKennas is Jo's fame as a retired Broadway performer. How do you remain anonymous and hidden when people recognize your face? Hitchcock plays on this uncertainty of reality with a number of deceptive images and revelations: Bernard appears to be threatening but turns out to be a heroic spy, the friendly Draytons are really terrorists, the assassins hide out in a church as a priest and staff, and the name thought to refer to a person turns out to be a church.You can't always believe what you see; first impressions can be wrong.

Hitchcock favored the man-wrongfully-accused trope, the innocent man on the run for the crime he didn't commit who would more often than not find help with a woman along for the ride, but in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the formula is shaken up a bit. The heroes aren't accused of any crime that drives the plot, but they are on their own with no help from the police. In addition, more so for Hitckcock, the wife, despite being setup as the standard flimsy, turns out to be the more heroic one.

Jimmy Stewart, at his usual "aw shucks" charming, is an open book to strangers. Ben practically tells his life story to Bernard and where they'll be staying, and it is Jo who eyes the Frenchman with suspicious and correctly notes he hasn't reciprocated with any info about himself. She's the one who notices the Drayons when they begin eying the McKennas. When Hank is kidnapped, Ben initially keeps the knowledge to himself and refuses to tell Jo until after she's taken a sedative. It looks like he's the one who's going to take charge, demand answers, and find their son, but for the longest time, he's ineffectual. It's Jo who realizes the name given to them by Bernard is not a person but a church, and it's Jo who is present at the assassination attempt and the one to be involved with stopping it. Ben, trying to force his way through to warn the intended target, is rebuffed and denied entry. Motherly love outweighs manly pride.

The assassination attempt occurs at Albert Hall during a performance by a symphony orchestra, and we're present when the villains discuss that when the cymbals clash, the gunshot will ring out. It's a mostly dialogue-free sequence as the music builds in intensity and the movie cuts back ad forth between Jo, the killer, the target, and the man with the cymbals. The framing gets tighter and tighter on Jo's face, the gun, and the cymbals until ... Credit must be given to both the editing and Day's performance. A good reason the scene works so well is how well she conveys how frightened and desperate she is.

The orchestra scene is a masterful sequence, and really, nothing else in the movie could top it. Unfortunately, it occurs with another 30 minutes to go with the kidnapping still to be resolved. The scenes in the embassy and the sneaking around just don't have the same energy or power. Also hurting the movie is the lack of a great villain. By their nature, the villains are somewhat anonymous, but the original film had Peter Lorre revealed as the mastermind. Here, there's no equivalent.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Paths of Glory

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the jury deliberates for quite a long time before delivering a guilty verdict against Tom Robinson. In Paths of Glory (1957), we go immediately from Colonel Dax's (Kirk Douglas) impassioned closing defense to the firing squad going over preparations the night before the scheduled execution. Unlike Mockingbird, there was never a hope for acquittal or even any promise of long-term change. The corrupt system remains in place, and people continue to suffer.

Widely regarded as director Stanley Kubrick's first masterwork, Paths of Glory is a scathing indictment against the corrupt, cynical officer establishment of the military, in which the privileged elite live in luxury and mistreat the common soldier as merely a pawn in the never-ending pursuit of advancement and prestige. From the harrowing hell fire of the battlefield to the twisted, self-serving cover-up of a kangaroo military court, we witness the absolute lowest humanity has to offer.

World War I. The Western Front is locked in a stalemate. Following a disastrous and ill-advised assault against a heavily fortified German position known as the Ant Hill, French General Mireau (George Macready), to save face and protect a promised promotion from his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), orders the court martial of three low-ranking soldiers for cowardice under penalty of death. Defending the men is their commanding officer Colonel Dax (Douglas), and the only hope he has winning their acquittal is to prove the attack itself was impossible.

Watching Paths of Glory again, I was reminded of another work: Catch-22 Like Joseph Heller's novel, Paths of Glory is a portrayal of a military bureaucracy taken to the extreme, but while Catch-22 is satirical and absurd, Kubrick's movie (based on a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb) is stark and nightmarish. When Dax protests the attack was impossible, Mireau snaps that if it was impossible, the only proof would be the men's dead bodies. Broulard also notes later on that shooting a man now and then is an effective way to maintain discipline. "There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than watching someone else die." Only someone so insulated from suffering, so oblivious to the lives of those under his command, could be so dismissive of other human beings.

Kubrick draws a clear line between the officers who lead and the men who fight. The generals live luxurious splendor, wining and dining a chateau far away from the front line, and holding fancy dinner balls while casually agreeing that a casualty rate of 65 percent is an acceptable loss. Early on, Mireau visits the trenches to observe the Ant Hill as a group of wounded soldiers pass by, unseen by their commander; to Mireau, the Ant Hill is a distant goal that means another star on his uniform while the price in taking it can be ignored. To his men, the Ant Hill is certain death. Later, Broulard all but admits to Dax the attack was doomed to fail and high command knew it, but to keep up appearances with the government, media, and folks back home, some action had to be taken to appease them. Meanwhile, the common soldiers live in filthy conditions under a constant threat of gunfire and bombardment without support or relief, their lives short and terrifying.

The assault on the Ant Hill is horrifying in the loss of life depicted. The scene begins with a tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches as his men stand ready to go over the top, nervously huddled together while explosions grow closer and more frequent, the tension building up. The men swarm out across the open, muddy "No Man's Land" as machine guns and artillery cut them down by the dozens. Kubrick follows the combat from a long shot of the mass of soldiers intercut with shots of the men scrambling through  the mud and barbed wire, As the agonizing sequence continues, the film cuts to Dax's point-of-view to show they haven't even made it half way across.

Although he later developed a style known for its epic size, scope, and import, the Kubrick on display in Paths of Glory is tighter and more economical. Less than 90 minutes long, the film doesn't have a wasted moment and contains a number of subplots that all tie together: the artillery commander ordered by Mireau to bombard the French positions when they don't advance, the condemned Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) who witnessed a superior's cowardice and misconduct on a previous mission, and the backstabbing and jockeying for position of the high-ranking officers. With what would become his trademark cold, dark logic, Kubrick sees them all through to their sad, inevitable ends.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Stuff

Film, perhaps more than any other art form, is collaborative, and the history of cinema is packed with some of the most memorable, lucrative, and challenging of creative partnerships: Bergman and von Sydow, Herzog and Kinski, Kurosawa and Mifune, Cohen and Moriarty. Okay, maybe that last pairing is not held in as high of esteem as the others, but for genre fans, the teaming of writer-director Larry Cohen and actor Michael Moriarty resulted in its fair share of quirky, low-budget pieces, most notably in Q the Winged Serpent in 1982 and their episode of Masters of Horror, "Pick Me Up."

The Stuff was the second movie birthed from this pairing, following in the footsteps of Q. If you found ancient Aztec gods making a nest in the Chrysler building silly, wait until you get a taste of this one: killer dessert. Once again, Cohen packs in his trademark dark humor, social commentary, and quirky characterizations into a b-grade movie monster, and once again, he is ably supported by another fine performance from the inimitable Moriarty.

Former FBI agent David "Mo" Rutherford (Moriarty) is hired by ice cream executives to investigate a new, top-selling dessert sensation known as the Stuff that has customers seemingly addicted. "Enough is never enough" as the ads declare. Along the way, Mo romances Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the advertising specialist who came up with the Stuff's marketing campaign, and teams up with "Chocolate Chip" Charlie (Garrett Morris), whose company was bought out from under him. They soon discover the Stuff is actually alive and taking over the minds and bodies of those who eat it, and it wants to spread.

This is a very silly, schlocky movie; I mean come on, killer dessert? It doesn't sound nearly as threatening as say a masked slasher, an alien from outer space, or even a flying lizard. The effects are low-budget and not particularly convincing. Even after just watching the movie, I'm still unsure about the nature of the Stuff itself: clearly it's addictive and alive, but we never learn much more about it like where it came from. Cohen's editing and staging are often a bit haphazard; certain shots and even plot developments seem to be missing from the final cut. By the third act, Cohen brings in a right-wing militia led by Paul Sorvino out of nowhere to attack the Stuff's factory and resolve everything.

But remember that scene in Apocalypse Now in which Chef asks the soldiers on the helicopter why they were sitting on their helmets, and they tell him it's so they "don't get (their) balls blown off?" He laughs, and then after thinking about it for a bit, he takes his helmet off and promptly puts it between his legs. That's the reaction I had watching The Stuff. Sure the idea of killer ice cream is transparently silly, but the notion of a corporation selling a product they know to be dangerous and addictive is certainly one no one has any trouble believing. Would the Stuff really be that much worse than cigarettes or Happy Meals?

Cohen takes shots at rampant consumerism and marketing, sprinkling in a number of glitzy, cheesy commercials for the Stuff throughout the movie (featuring the likes of Abe Vigoda and the "Where's the beef?" lady). Supermarkets become stocked with the Stuff, shops of it open up next door to McDonald's and Burger King, and families replace everything in their refrigerators with it. And why not? It's great tasting, low in calories, and all natural. The Stuff is just the latest pop culture food craze.

Moriarty is great. In Q, he played a nervous low-life with a taste of power for the first time in his life. Here, he's a deadpan good-ole boy, acting like the fool to conceal a sharp mind. "Nobody's as dumb as I look," he says. Later, when another character throws up in his car after eating shaving cream to make it look like he was eating the Stuff, Mo consoles him by saying, "Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while." Nothing fazes this guy.

There are also a number of nicely paranoid elements of the movie. It's only too believable that the FDA would approve for sale a product whose effects and ingredients they don't know. There's also a subplot reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars involving a young boy (Scott Bloom), who knows the danger of the Stuff but whose family becomes addicted to it and pressures him to "be a member of the family again." And in the probably the most believable bit, after the threat of the Stuff is exposed and Mo confronts the company's owner, the owner has the audacity to announce the next line of products: the Taste, now with only 12 percent Stuff, just enough to keep people coming back for more. Now, that's scary.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cop Land

My college screenwriting professor once used Rocky as an example of how to write a likeable protagonist and illustrate his/her goals and what he/she does to accomplish them. After the lesson, he said the only way to make Rocky better would have been for Sylvester Stallone to have died in a tragic car accident after making it, so he could have been remembered as the next Orson Welles instead of a roided-up meathead fighting robots from Russia (my professor admitted he stopped following the Rocky series once they had Rocky win the re-match with Apollo). 

Stallone spent a better part of the 80s and 90s appearing in a lot standard action fair and blockbuster franchises, but it was Cop Land (1997) that saw him successfully return to more serious, dramatic acting. Instead of a toned and chiseled Rambo, Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small New Jersey town just across the river from New York City. Like Rocky Balboa, Freddy is an underdog; he always wanted to be a big-city cop, but an accident in his youth left him deaf in one ear. Now middle-aged and big around the waist, he can only stare longingly across the river and hero-worship the New York police officers who have made their home in his town.

Things get dicey after the nephew of a well-connected New York, Ray (Harvey Keitel), shoots a pair of black youths on a bridge and then seemingly jumps to his death into the river. Another officer (Robert Patrick) attempts to plant a gun on the dead youths, but he's seen by one of the paramedics doing so. An Internal Affairs officer, Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), arrives to investigate the affair, and he wants Freddy to assist him, but Ray is the one who helped Freddy get a job in law enforcement.

That is the plot at its most fundamental level. There's also the woman (Annabella Sciorra) that Freddy loves. She is the person he saved from drowning all those years ago in the incident that cost him his hearing, but she's married to another New York cop (Peter Berg), and that cop is in turn having an affair with Ray's wife (Cathy Moriarty). Another cop's (Ray Liotta) house mysteriously burns down, killing his girlfriend in the process, and he seems to have a cocaine problem. There's also some important background relating to both the mafia and the New York police union. 

Cop Land's central problem is how it tries to tie everything together in under two hours, and as result, some of these plot threads feel shortchanged. It's a lot to keep track of, and some of the details get jumbled at times. Tilden disappointingly only has a few big scenes while Moriarty's character, who has this interesting ambiguity about what she might know and how she puts up with her husband, has very little screen time. Janeane Garofolo shows up as sheriff's deputy, professional, by the books, and is put off when Freddy allows Ray and a cohort to get away with speeding, but at the end, when he resolves to seriously investigate, out of the blue she announces she wants a transfer and "doesn't want any part of this." This also leads to the movie's great miscalculation in how it resolves everything. At the end, the standard action movie shootout takes place, all the right people are dead or arrested, and TV news narration ties up everything in a neat little bow. For a movie with so much intrigue and complexity leading up to the climax, it's a disappointingly straightforward ending.

What works for the movie are its performances. Stallone, for most of the movie, swallows his action-hero pride and effectively plays this downtrodden, naive wannabe who means well but isn't as bright or as skilled as he would like to be. The arc of this character - his gradual realization of the corruption right from him and his longing for Sciorra's character - make up the heart of the movie, but the best performance belongs to Keitel. Affectionately known as "Uncle Ray," he plays a great two-faced character, seemingly benevolent but hiding anger and calculation; if he likes you, he'll calmly explain why you have him all wrong. and you'll believe him. If you get on his bad side or no longer suit his purposes, he'll give you a severe tongue lashing and have you silenced. Also very good are De Niro and Liotta playing characters whose agendas and loyalties you're not entirely sure of.

Cop Land either needs to be longer to flesh out the ancillary characters or it needs to be shorter to keep focus squarely on Freddy and Ray. I would go with longer. There's so much complexity and intrigue, and the characters are so interesting, I wanted more of them. It's not all it could have been, but through the strength of its performances, Cop Land a solid recommendation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dark City

Dark City (1998), directed by Alex Proyas (of The Crow and Knowing fame), was a rare treat for me. By the time I watch a given movie, I've usually been exposed to all sorts of trailers, commercials, clips, and reviews for it, but that was not the case for Dark City. I don't remember how, but I managed to hear how good the movie was without knowing a single thing about it except it was sci-fi and presumably set in a dark city. What a joy it was to discover this movie, to not know where it was going, and to genuinely be surprised by the plot developments and wowed by impressive special effects. Be warned, it might best for anyone who has not seen it to do so first before reading this post because I am going to discuss spoilers (I was also lucky to see the director's cut. The theatrical version opens with unnecessary narration that spells out everything).

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a hotel bath tub with no memory of who he is, a strange syringe on the floor, and a dead woman in the next room. A call from a nervous man claiming to be a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) warns him to get out of there, which he does, just as a menacing group of tall, pale men arrive on the scene. A detective (William Hurt) believes Murdoch to be the serial killer butchering prostitutes in their nameless city, although Murdoch's wife Emma, a singer (Jennifer Connelly), refuses to believe the man she loves is a murderer. Meanwhile, beneath the city, its true leaders plot to stop Murdoch before he can interfere with their plans.

On the surface, Dark City appears to be a traditional film noir. Everyone drives classic automobiles, the men wear fedoras and trench coats, the architecture and clothing seem lifted directly from the 1940s, and the characters constantly drink and smoke so the air feels saturated with vice. Proyas films the movie so that everything feels just a little distorted and off-kilter. The world of film noir is just a little darker, a little shadier, and it should be; one character points he can't remember the last time he saw the sun.

That little fact, along with other things, should alert viewers that things aren't all what they seem. The group targeting Murdoch, the Strangers as they come to be known as, aren't human. Tall, thin, pale, bald, they use the bodies of human dead and possess psychic abilities that enable them to manipulate time, space, and matter. They have collected human specimens, stolen their memories, and use them to experiment and study what it means to have a soul.

The question of what it means to be human has driven many a science fiction parable, including Metropolis and Blade Runner, movies that Dark City has been clearly inspired by visually and thematically. What is it that makes us human? Dark City offers a number of answers: our free will, our ability to love, and the collective and individual experiences that make up our memories. The Strangers, who share a group mindset, look, and thought, mix and match memories with different people to see how they behave, and it's no surprise the one man who proves to be a threat to them is the one who consciously and subconsciously is able to assert his own will and refuse the role assigned to him.

The special effects are top-notch. Doors appear in walls, entire buildings are grown and shifted in place, and a number of characters fly. Unlike The Matrix, which came out a year later, Dark City has very few action scenes and shootouts, but it generates vast, unforgettable, and dark imagery: the subterranean chamber of the Strangers, the sight of the entire city "shut down" as the Strangers do their work transporting memories, the vast, imposing cityscape that dominates the screen, and what the characters eventually discover lies beyond the walls of the city.

One of the recurring images of Dark City is the spiral.The dead victims has them carved on their bodies, and another police detective obsessively draws them after learning the truth about the city. Spirals have often been used in movies to denote insanity and paranoia among those who feel trapped; similarly, the path of a spiral remains fixed, so that no matter how many turns one makes, he or she always ends up at the same point. The Strangers, in their quest to understand humans, try to chart their destinies, not knowing that it humanity's ability to choose, to jump off the predetermined path, that makes it unique.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Killshot

Writer Elmore Leonard has written a large number of books and screenplays, but he's probably best known for such works as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which was turned into the Tarantino movie Jackie Brown. I've heard many great things about Leonard over the years and was always curious to check his stuff out. One day, at a library book sale, I found Killshot (1989), Leonard's novel about a married couple who go into hiding to escape a pair of crooks, and decided to take the plunge.

Killshot, at its core, is about two couples. The first is comprised of Armand "Blackbird" Degas, a professional and calm Mafia hitman, and Richie Nix, a tough-talking low-life convict who dreams of robbing a bank in every state. They meet when Richie tries to steal Armand's car, but Armand quickly seizes the upper hand, and Richie, impressed by the older man's experience and skill, tells he's "just the guy he's looking for." Richie has a scheme to extort money from a real estate business, and Armand, who knows a good score when sees one, joins in.

That leads to our second couple: Wayne and Carmen Colson. Wayne is a blue-collar iron worker while Carmen is a real estate agent working for the same company Armand and Richie target. She convinces Wayne to come to the office to interview for a job there, and while he's sitting at the boss's desk and wearing a suit, the criminals show up and mistake Wayne for the boss. They try to push him into paying up, but Wayne, with some quick thinking and the help of a sleever bar, fights the pair off and even throws Richie through a second story window. As a result, the Colsons become a target; Richie wants revenge for the humiliation while Armand, having just completed an assignment, knows witnesses who can identify him need to be eliminated.

Less than 300 pages long, Killshot is a brisk read, and the plot is rather simple. The premise hints it could be a chase story, focusing on action as the bad guys chase the main characters and try to kill him, but Leonard is not interested in action as much as he is in the characters. The focus of the novel is not who wants to kill who and how they're going to do it but rather how these people are going to behave. Much of the book is devoted to exchanges among the respective couples as they try to figure ways out of their situations.

The relationship between Armand and Richie is one of the grizzled, old veteran and the cocky, young upstart. Armand is the thinker; he betrays little emotion and carefully considers all his actions, and he frequently gets frustrated and angry at Richie for his recklessness. Richie is prone to shoot first and not even think about questions. He's a boastful loudmouth and transparently dangerous. Armand is more in control, but Richie gives no thought to consequences. One of the interesting conceits of the novel is toying the line about which of the two men is more dangerous. Richie is so unpredictable that you never know what he's going to do, but Armand does everything with a purpose and knows how to position himself. It's the veteran with nothing to prove and the rookie with everything to prove.

As for the Colsons, Wayne and Carmen are happily married. They have a grown son in the navy, and their lifestyle is comfortable. We learn early on that Carmen's mother didn't approve of the marriage, she too knowing what it's like being married to an ironworker. But, as the story progresses, tension emerges between the two. Wayne antagonizes the police and other law enforcement officials assigned to their case while Carmen continually warns him not to mistreat the people who are there to protect them.  He also has a habit of dismissing or marginalizing her concerns, whether it's about being found by Armand and Richie, helping her mother, or the overly-friend U.S. marshal who tries putting the moves on her. While she fears for their lives, he enjoys the work he finds in St. Louis when they relocate. Whatever's wrong, in his mind, he'll take care of it. It's expected of this type of story that Wayne will emerge as the hero of the piece: a gruff, straightforward, handsome man who makes an honest living. In fact, he wipes the floor with the killers in their confrontation. But it is Carman, when she winds up in trouble, who must take action and use her wits to get out of a deadly spot. But will she be able to take the shot when brute force is called?

Curiously, both pairs also have something of an interloper between the relationships. Richie and Armand hide out at the home of Donna's, Richie's older, Elvis-obsesses girlfriend and a former corrections officer. Eventually, she starts making eyes at Armand and tells him she's afraid of Richie. Meanwhile, Carmen is harassed by Ferris Britton, a US marshal who doesn't mind letting himself into their safe house while Wayne is away. His aggressiveness drives Carmen to return to mother's place, not knowing the killers are waiting, thus setting up the climax.

Leonard doesn't pile on the action, but when violence does occur, it's a sudden, nasty, and unexpected outburst. For example,when Richie trails Wayne to convenience store to take him out, he robs the place and shoots the teenaged clerk just for the heck of it. There aren't any prolonged shootouts, standoffs, or sieges to pump things up. The characters who hold guns hold power, and at any second, it can all be over with one deadly shot.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Vampire's Kiss

Oh, Nicolas Cage. Where would we be without you? Well, there would be fewer bad movies out there, but would that make the world a better place? The unintentional laughs induced from his remake of The Wicker Man alone prove Cage has done some good, even if not in the way he intended.

The general wisdom of Nicolas Cage seems to be after starring in a number of good-to-great movies (Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas) and Hollywood action blockbusters (The Rock, Con Air), he became less picky about his projects, churning embarrassing and over-the-top performances in the likes of Ghost Rider, the aforementioned Wicker Man, Knowing, and Season of the Witch. Looking back on Vampire's Kiss (1988), it's apparent this development in Cage's career is not a surprise.

Vampire's Kiss seemingly tries to be the Hollywood yuppie's answer to Martin, a low-budget thriller from Night of the Living Dead director George Romero. Like Martin, Vampire's Kiss concerns itself with a man who may or may not be a vampire. In this case, that would be Peter Loew (Cage), a publishing executive who becomes convinced of his vampirism after a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals) bites him on the neck during a one-night stand, and ultimately this destroys his life. Like Martin, there is ambiguity about whether he really is a vampire or whether it's some kind of psycho-sexual neurosis. Even the endings of the two movies are the same in that being a human or a vampire wouldn't have changed what happens.

Martin was an effective and atmospheric character study and could be read on multiple thematic levels: economic class struggle, Old-World hysteria, superstition versus reason, adolescent angst, family oppression, religious hypocrisy, loneliness, addiction, illusion versus reality. Vampire's Kiss had potential to reach similar subtext. I see dramatic, satirical and horror potential in the premise of a high-powered New York yuppie who spends his days berating his staff and his nights seducing women becoming convinced he's vampire. Instead, it's a very silly, haphazard, and clumsy comedy.

I call Vampire's Kiss a comedy because I don't know of any other category to label it as. It's not scary. It's not thrilling, exciting, or dramatic, but by "virtue" of its star, the film becomes quite silly. This is by far the most baffling performance I've ever seen of Nicolas Cage. First of all, he talks with this weird, obviously fake accent. Imagine a Saturday Night Live skit that called for a deliberately bad Shakespearean dialect, and you get the idea. Cage is constantly mugging for the camera, furrowing his eyebrows, bugging his eyes out, jumping onto desks, chasing after people, and screaming randomly. This might have been effective if the movie built to it - i.e. present him as reasonably normal and gradually make him more manic as the narrative progresses - but he's like this even before being bitten. Watching a disturbed person murder and rape people (as Loew does) because he thinks he's a vampire could be chilling, but after being convinced he's one of the undead, Loew buys a set of plastic fangs and runs around the streets crying out "I'm a vampire! I'm a vampire!" It'd be sad if it wasn't so funny.  

So the movie fails as a dark satire of yuppies and as a serious thriller, but it's also rather uncomfortable at times. Peter is especially cruel to one of his secretaries, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), who he threatens on numerous occasions for failing to find an important contract in the company files. Watching  what Alva goes through is like watching another, more serious movie. She's really upset, threatened by, and afraid of her boss. He more or less terrorizes and tortures to where she fears for her life but feels pressured about losing a much-needed job, and it culminates to where he assaults her. Watching Nicolas overact is hysterical, but watching this poor women being tormented is just awful.

Maybe with a different actor, someone who could convincingly portray a "master of the universe" type who loses it (James Spader, maybe), Vampire's Kiss might have worked as a chilling, disturbing, and insightful descent into insanity. But that would mean giving up the real-life insanity and bizarro acting of Nicholas Cage,and isn't that why we go to the movies in the first place? To watch someone who is uncomfortably funny?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mean Creek

Discussing Mean Creek (2004) is a bit of a challenge for me. It came highly recommended from another movie buff who emphasized that I avoid reading any plot summaries. Seeing the movie myself, I can agree that trying to summarize the film or give someone else an idea of what it's about would necessitate divulging certain developments that occur fairly far into the running time. The best I can do is say I will try not spoil anything, but if anything, Mean Creek is more about its characters and their behavior than the intricacies of its plot, so maybe I'm more worried about it than I should be.

Mean Creek could be described as a cross between Stand by Me and Deliverance. One day, Sam (Rory Culkin) gets beat up by middle school bully George (Josh Peck). Sam turns to his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) to help get back at George, and they enlist Rocky's friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) in a scheme to lure George on a rafting trip in the woods where they can humiliate him. Along for ride but initially not privy to the group's ulterior plan is Millie (Carly Schroeder), Sam's girlfriend. The plan eventually sets in motion, but then, things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Growing up, at best, can be a time of discovery, learning, and innocence, but as we all know, it can also be a time of cruelty, shame, and resentment. Too often, children and teenagers can act as wrong as adults, but unlike adults who should know better, kids can be unknowingly horrible to each other or at the very least oblivious to the hurt they cause. The best we can hope for is they be good most of the time and eventually grow out of the bad behavior.  Bullying is currently a hot topic in the news these days, but as the movie, shows it's not always a black-and-white scenario.

Mean Creek is a movie in which all the characters are both victims and perpetrators of mean acts. George certainly fits the category of bully. The film opens with him beating up Sam for touching his camera, bruising up his face pretty badly. He's big, loud, obnoxious, and self-centered, and we're told how he has been held back in school and hurt others apart from Sam. But then we also see at times he's like an overgrown puppy eager to please. Invited along on what he's told is Sam's birthday celebration, he brings him a gift and seems to be trying to get along. His father is apparently not in the picture (we only meet his mother), and we also learn he has some sort of learning disability (I believe it's dyslexia, but it's never stated explicitly). Nothing really excuses his behavior, but he is drawn more complexly than one would expect, and I certainly felt sorry for him. Even if things hadn't gotten wrong, the planned revenge against him would have crossed the line.

That complexity extends to the other characters, and it becomes apparent he's not the only bully figure. Marty, who is always knocking Clyde for having two gay dads, is only along for the trip as an excuse to humiliate someone he considers lesser than him. When the group decides to call off the prank, he's the only who refuses and in fact forces them to a point of no return. He drinks and smokes and always seem angry, but he too is a victim of bullying; his older brother is especially mean to him, and he's especially sensitive to talk about his father, who committed suicide. He and his brother live in a squalid trailer, and school is a less attractive option than shooting empty liquor bottles.

Even the ostensibly "good" characters have a nasty streak to them. Millie, when she learns the group's plan, is appalled and pressures to Sam to call it off, which he does. But when Marty tries to force the prank through, it is Millie who relents first when George continues to act abrasive and vulgar. Unlike George, who it could be argued doesn't know better, Millie clearly understands the cruelty she partakes in, and it's a chilling moment when she tells Marty to continue with a game of Truth or Dare to initiate the plan. It's one thing to defend the well-meaning, slow-witted fat kid who's a little rough around the edges, but when he tries peeking up your skirt with his camera, tells dirty jokes, and acts like a pig, suddenly a little payback doesn't seem so bad.

I said the movie reminded me of Deliverance (characters discovery shocking truths about themselves whilst on a rural river trip) and Stand by Me (kids in the woods making life discoveries), but in retrospect, it also draws a little from Lord of the Flies in presenting a world in which children and teenagers act without adult supervision. There is not one significant adult character in Mean Creek, and there is no effective authority stopping any of these kids from bad behavior. No teacher or principal intervenes on George's bullying, the loss of a father has surely scarred Marty to the point he takes it out on others, and no parent is ever shown keeping tabs on their kids or monitoring their activity. Without some sort of moral guidance, these teens learn the hard way about actions and consequences.

Written and directed by first-time director Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek is not a thriller but a powerful and haunting drama. The performances by all the young actors (who actually look the age of the characters they portray) work extremely well, and Estes does an excellent job of capturing both these kids day-to-day lives at home and school as well as their fateful trip on the river and its fallout. It's really effective.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Strangers

The home, ideally a place of safety, comfort, and stability, and yet far too often, a home does not offer any of these assurances. Consider real-life occurrences of domestic violence, burglaries, and break-ins, and it's disquieting to realize just how vulnerable we can be in our own homes. It is this fear that The Strangers (2008) exploits. The story of a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) terrorized by a trio of masked maniacs one night, The Strangers is a competent enough nail-biter and piece of domestic suspense with a few standout sequences and an atmosphere of creepy unease, but it is hampered by a couple of notable flaws and lack of staying power.

The film opens with James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) arriving at an isolated summer house of his family's, and it's clear from the get-go there's trouble between them. Later, it becomes apparent he asked he asked her to marry him, and she said no, although we don't witness that particular incident. After a while, the masked psychopaths arrive and start messing with them, and from there, it's a deadly game of cat-and-mouse until the end.

That's all the plot there is. The Strangers is as straightforward as a thriller can get: one location, a small number of actors, and a single scenario. We never learn who the strangers are or see them without their masks on. Their motives are never explained; we only get a few hints that this is some sort thing they have done before, and it's pretty clear they enjoy tormenting people. Evil is just out there.

The fundamental challenge of this scenario is how easily it can become repetitious. There's only so many ways to depict such a small number of people being terrorized in a house before the suspense is replaced by tediousness or introducing more characters or elaborating and expanding the plot. It's a fine balance between maintaining the simplistic purity of the setup and stretching it beyond the breaking point. For the most part, The Strangers is successful on this front, although by the last 20 minutes or so, it starts to run out of juice. The early interactions between Kristen (while James is away for the time being) and the villains are the best. Before they try breaking in, the masked people simply spook her, announcing with little clues they have been in the house when she wasn't looking : a cellphone missing, the smoke detector left on the floor now neatly placed on a chair, etc.

The appearance of the first masked figure is reminiscent of Leatherface's entrance in the original The Texas Chain saw Massacre. No, he doesn't bash anyone over the head with a meat cleaver, but there is similarly no introduction or buildup. He's just suddenly there, in the house behind Kristen as she stands at the kitchen table. When she turns back, he's gone. Soon after, we get an effective jump scare at the window.

As I said, the movie begins to flag in the last third. Partly that's due to the limitations of the plot I outlined above, but also because the initial mystery of the strangers just becomes disappointingly vague. When they arrived, their agenda could have been anything and interest is piqued, but when we see what they do at the end, one wonders why they didn't do that at any number of opportunities. There's something to be said for evil not needing a reason to commit evil, but here, the movie felt like it was going to build to some kind of revelation. I'm not asking for a twist ending, but seeing what they do is not as scary as wondering what they might do. Not giving them a motive, rather than commenting on the randomness of evil, felt more like a way to prolong the movie's running length.

The movie's other problem, to be honest, is its leads. Speedman and Tyler are a little bland, a little too Hollywood, to really invoke a sense of "this could be you." The early scenes of their spat might have been interesting, but ultimately, when the creepy stuff begins, it's gone by the wayside. There's a potentially neat idea about these two people, ostensibly in love, not really knowing each other as well as they thought they did and being forced to confront that reality. That could have fit nicely in with a movie of the "Savage Cinema" genre, like in Straw Dogs, Deliverance, or The Last House on the Left. Even the back of the DVD case says Kristen and James are driven beyond what they thought themselves capable of to survive, but that really doesn't really occur in The Strangers. There's no sense broken taboos or committing extreme violence to survive and what impact it has on so-called "civilized" people.

I should also note The Strangers is remarkably similar to a 2006 French film called Them, also about a young couple in an isolated house being terrorized by a group of unknown assailants. I'm not accusing it of being a rip-off, a remake, or plagiarizing (so many horror movies borrow similar premises and ideas, after all), but The Strangers feels a little more polished and safer in comparison. Despite claiming to be based on a true story (which it's not), The Strangers never feels like more than a movie. Entertaining and suspenseful throughout, but it doesn't shake you to the core.

Attack the Block

I didn't have high of hopes for Attack the Block (2011). For one thing, the concept sounds like obvious schtick - outer space versus the inner city - and the DVD cover brought to mind the rather weak The Watch starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn that came out earlier this year or some other low-rent Men in Black ripoff. Thankfully, Attack the Block manages to succeed as a mostly serious sci-action thriller with humor that doesn't feel forced and characters that actually behave like real people instead of goofy stereotypes.

Set in London, Attack the Block opens on Bonfire Night when a gang of teenagers - leader Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Biggz (Simon Howard) - mug a nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker).  Something then falls out of the sky, which turns out to be an alien creature the boys chase and kill. They parade the alien around and take it to drug dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping, but before long, more aliens start appearing, only these beasts are bigger and nastier than the first, and the group must fight and flee to stay alive.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block avoids the temptation to condescend and mock the material, and instead, it's played mostly straight. The aliens aren't too complicated, essentially just big, black, furry bear-like creatures with glowing blue fangs and no eyes, but they work. Most of them appear to computer-generated, but Cornish doesn't over expose them. There are a lot of chase scenes in which we only catch glimpses of the aliens or only see them from across a great distance, so they were never glaringly fake. Up close, they get pretty mean, ripping out throats and leaving behind bloody, bloody messes.

The humor comes organically from the character and also because the movie spends most of the first act teasing the boys' expectations. With the alien corpse, they think it's their ticket to fame and fortune and act the way you would expect a bunch of teenage boys who just found an alien would act. The movie also takes its time building to the actual alien invasion, allowing the boys to think they only have to deal with one alien, and when more arrive, they think it too will be a pushover. Are they in for a surprise.

There's also a fair degree of post-modern self-awareness that's pretty funny. One character notes that when word gets out about the invasion, London will be swarming with the army, tanks, helicopters, and all that "28 Days Later shit." When they are in danger, they don't discount and deflate the tension; they take the threat seriously, but they do get in some jokes. One character wants to alert someone else with his cellphone but only has enough charge left for one text, and he complains how trying to explain an alien invasion in one text might be a bit much. When the group winds up at Sam's apartment, she threatens to call the police, and Pest says she should probably call the Ghostbusters instead.

Attack the Block has some dwell-drawn characterization, at more than what you would expect in a genre film. Moses, the gang leader, begins the film as a thief, mugger, and soon-to-be drug dealer who, as the film unfolds, evolves into a strong, capable leader and protector. The others, too, get little moments to show they're more than simple monster movie fodder. Biggz, while hiding in a dumpster, calls his mother and without overplaying it, tells he loves her and will be good from now on. Pest gets a moment where he somewhat scolds Sam because her boyfriend, she says, is in Ghana helping children. "Why can't he help the children in Britain?" We even see these kids mourn their fallen friends. How often do you see that in an alien invasion movie?

The movie's not perfect. I didn't much care for the subplot involving two younger boys who want to join the gang and hunt aliens. They felt a little too obviously comical (although, admittedly, how that story line pays off is fun). It also takes a little while to figure who the main five characters are and to differentiate them' it's been difficult because often they're all wearing hoods and face coverings. And the movie is disappointingly vague about the invasion itself. Is it going on all over London? Are they attacking because of some pheromone on some people, out of revenge for the first creature's death, or were they going to invade all along? Are the police aware of what's going and covering up, or are they in the dark about the aliens?

Oh well, those sort of questions ultimately don't matter. At its most basic, Attack the Block is about a group of characters working together to survive an extraterrestrial threat, and it's much more exciting and well crafted than I expected. I expected a joke but got something much better.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale is best known as the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but in between those two classics, he directed The Invisible Man (1933) based on the novel by H.G. Wells. At its heart, the film is about the corrupting influence of power and a how man acts when he believes he is immune from consequences, but as we see, it's only so long before a man's character catches up with him, even if nobody can see him.

A mysterious tenant (Claude Rains) has rented a room at the Lions Head Inn in the English country side. His face remains hidden by bandages and a pair of black sunglasses, and he is always working on some sort of chemistry experiments. His odd and disruptive behavior angers the locals, and when the police arrive to arrest him, he pulls off the bandages to reveal nothing there. We eventually learn his name is Jack Griffin, a brilliant scientist who experimented with chemicals to make himself invisible, but the side effects include insanity and megalomania, and Griffin can't reverse the effects. Soon, he goes on a murderous rampage, believing himself to be beyond morality.

For a movie made nearly 80 years ago, The Invisible Man contains remarkably ambitious special effects, and for this part, modern audiences should be able to accept them. Granted there are a few minor flaws, but overall, Whale really sells the invisible man aspect, using several little tricks and visual guides to suggest the mad man's presence: empty clothing shaped like a man, a pair of pants running down a road, a bicycle riding by itself, people getting shoved and tossed around, etc. The moment Griffin unmasks, peeling away the layers of bandages to reveal the emptiness beneath the visage (both physically and morally), is a classic moment. There's always that sense he could be anywhere, ready to strike. In addition to sneaking up on people, Griffin also causes chaos in other ways that make him a terrifying mass murderer. At one point, he kills a railroad worker and then flips the tricks, causing a train full of people to crash. He also knocks several people to their deaths off cliffs.

Helping the film tremendously is the performance of Claude Rains. I don't know how often he was under the bandages for the physical parts, but his voice alone is enough to carry the role: obsessive, ruthless, maniacal, dangerous, pompous, and yet containing a great intelligence and malicious sense of humor. "The drugs I took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet," he declares. He also says, "Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies; power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon's frightened of me, frightened to death!" Like Freddy Kruger years later, Griffin is a man who enjoys instilling terror in people. During the aforementioned pants scene, a terrified woman runs away screaming as he sings, "Here we go gathering nuts in May."

That dark humor works very well. Other more broadly comic scenes involving the bumbling police and the innkeeper's wife not so much, mainly due to such campy and shrill performances that are irritating and distracting. The invisible man story is also one of the hardest to do because strict adherence to logic can push the tone into unintended silliness. For example, we're expected to believe Griffin is able to run around naked in the middle of winter. But these are mostly nitpicks in an otherwise effective chiller, fitting nicely with Whale's other masterpieces.

The Fog (1980)

John Carpenter must have surely been tempted by the success of Halloween (1978) to follow with something similar, but he chose this moody, atmospheric supernatural piece instead. Drawing on the styles of both Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, The Fog (1980) concerns itself with a shipload of vengeful ghosts who return from the grave to seek vengeance on the coastal town that killed them 100 years prior, using the fog, which the townsfolk had used to lure them to their deaths, as their vehicle of revenge. The Fog is something of an overlooked entry in Carpenter's horror filmography, having been made between Halloween and The Thing, but it's an effective, rich, and old-fashioned ghost story.

The cast who make up the small town of Antonio Bay is a who's who of actors who have worked prominently in the genre and/or with Carpenter regularly. If there is a central character, it's probably Adrienne Barbeau (then Mrs. John Carpenter) as radio DJ Stevie Wayne, who has a young son. There's also Hal Holbrook as Father Malone, Tom Atkins as fisherman Nick Castle, Jamie Lee Curtis as hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley, her mother Janet Leigh as Kathy Williams a fisherman's wife and organizer of the town's 100th anniversary celebration, Nancy Loomis as her assistant, Charles Cyphers as weatherman Dan O'Bannon, and Darwin Joston as pathologist Dr. Phibes.The characters are barely drawn with more than the most basic traits, but the cast give them life, and most importantly they feel like real people in this town. Their collective story is that of a town under siege.

There's very little actual plot in The Fog. The film proceeds at a relaxed pace, beginning with a ghost story around the campfire by a sailor played by John Houseman setting the tone for what's to follow. We then go through various locales throughout the town as unexplained occurrences happen: payphones all ringing at once, car alarms going off for no reason, items in a grocery store shaking and falling off the shelves, and windows spontaneously breaking. It's an eerie and foreboding sequence. By this point, we've learned the story of Captain Blake and the doomed sailors and how it is whispered they return at the "witching hour" (midnight to 1 a.m.), but we haven't learned about the town's culpability in their deaths. We see all these strange things happen and know something supernatural is going on, but at this point, the threat is unmentioned and only hinted at.

From there, the movie cuts between different groups of characters - Stevie Wayne, Nick and Elizabeth, and Mrs. Williams and her assistant - as they encounter different aspects of Antonio Bay's history and the curse of the ghosts until finally they meet during the climax at the town's church to fight off the marauding spirits that are attacking through the fog that has blanketed the town. The exception is Stevie, who remains at her post to warn others of the threat until the ghosts come looking for her.

The ghosts themselves are never seen straight on, always shadowy outlines embedded in the fog. The only close shots we get of them are usually of a hand or two smashing through a window or door or clutching a hook or sword. However, Carpenter is much more effective in creating tension from the environment. Stevie Wayne broadcasts her show from a lighthouse, and we see shots of her driving through wide opens fields and walking perilously down a flight of stairs near cliffs to get there; it's effective at generating a sense of isolation and loneliness. Nick and Elizabeth go looking for a missing ship out to sea, and the ocean has this alienating, slightly threatening touch to it. It's these touches, along with the hints of the supernatural, that give The Fog a spooky feel.

Carpenter also is able to use irony to underscore his trademark anti-authority streak. This cozy little community, we learn, is built on lies and murder, and the church was complicit. During the town's celebration, Mrs. Williams gives a speech about how they work to keep the spirit of their founders alive. Little does she know how accurate and wrong she is

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Mummy (1932)

Of the classic Universal lineup of monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man - the mummy might be the hardest to get right or at least find new things for him to do. Whereas the others can be moved and dropped into a number of different roles, it's really hard to conceive of the mummy outside of Egypt coming to life and attacking those who have defiled his tomb.

But still, there's something inherent about the mummy that gives him iconic status. The full-body bandages covering a now hideous and decayed form, the lumbering gait with the arms outstretched, his often tragic background (usually a high priest who fell in love with the Pharoah's wife or daughter and was punished for it), his gruesome mummification (buried alive and cursed in afterlife), his desire for his reincarnated love, and his vengeance on defilers give him enough to be counted among the aforementioned greats.

We get a good deal of this in the original Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff. The film opens in Egypt in 1921 where an archeological expedition disturbs his tomb causing him to awaken, drive an assistant mad, and disappear with an ancient scroll. He returns in 1932 as Ardeth Bay, a distinguished-looking but sinister man who shows another expedition where to find the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-amon. When she's unearthed and taken to a Cairo museum, Bay takes steps to reincarnate his lost love into the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a half-Egyptian, half-British woman.

Watching The Mummy is frustrating because it feels like a condensed version of a longer, much more elaborate story. The opening expedition, the only time the mummy is presented as the classic bandaged figure, is only about five minutes long while the search and discovery of the other tomb feels rushed and over before you know it. Even the mummy's tomb is already found and his body unearthed by the time the movie begins. We don't witness how the mummy becomes reincarnated as Ardeth Bay. One of  the concepts I liked from The Mummy remake of the nineties was how the mummy restored himself to life (sucking dry the lifeforce of those who opened his casket), but here it goes unexplained.

The movie's main problem is how much its narrative draws on the previous year's Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Hell, even a good part of the cast returns playing the same roles, including David Manners as a Jonathan Harker type and Edward Van Sloan as this movie's Van Helsing. There's a piece of religious iconography that repels the monster's power. Bay, like Dracula, uses hypnotic powers to control people, particularly Helen to make her his. Both the mummy and Dracula are creatures who have lived past death for a long time, albeit Dracula continuously for hundreds of years, and the mummy is awakened after thousands. The Mummy also shares many of the same flaws with Dracula: the stagy and dated performances, the tendency to tell rather than show, the incredibly slow pace (only 73 minutes long but feels much longer), and how the tone feels more like melodrama than horror.

The movie's ace in the hole is Boris Karloff, or maybe more accurately, his face. With his dark sunken eyes, piercing stare, and heavily wrinkled cheeks, he has a haunting and memorable presence. His performance, along with his imposing manner, lends the movie a great eeriness and dignity. Unlike Legosi, Karloff is more restrained and less of a predator; the character's passion for his lost love cannot be dismissed, and that suitably makes him more tragic. Plus, he towers over everyone else on screen, establishing his threat and power.

Director Karl Freund, the famed cinematographer of Metropolis and Dracula, generates a number of atmospheric set pieces. The mummy's reanimation is well done, and Bay's religious chambers are fittingly ornate. The makeup on the mummy is creepy and nicely decayed, and it holds up better than other aspects of the film; too bad we get so little of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

Looking back on director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, there's a clear tonal trajectory. The Evil Dead begins the series with a straight-up, grueling, and atmospheric horror experience while Army of Darkness concludes it as the demonic slapstick child of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Jason and the Argonauts. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) falls appropriately in the middle of this shift. Equal parts splatter horror movie and slapstick comedy, it's the kind of movie you'd get if blended the sensibilities of Dawn of the Dead with The Three Stooges, equally adept at making you laugh and squirm.

The Chin himself Bruce Campbell returns as our hapless hero Ash. Once again, he and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) arrive at the isolated cabin in the woods, and it isn't long before an ominous tape recording of passages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis (the Book of the Dead) releases some dark spirits that possess Linda and try to drive Ash crazy and kill him. Soon, other doomed folks arrive at the cabin: the owner's daughter (Sarah Berry), her boyfriend (Richard Domeier), a redneck (Dan Hicks), and his girlfriend (Kassi Wesley). The forces of the Necronomicon whittle the cast down until eventually Ash must take charge, minus a hand but plus a chainsaw, to send the demons back from whence they came.

Name a type of graphic violence, and it likely appears in Evil Dead 2. We get dismemberment, decapitation, stabbing, chopping, shootings, and the splattering and spraying of all sorts of blood, guts, limbs, skin, slime, drool, and other unidentifiable fluids and substances. Don't look for subtly here; the M.O. of the film is why do anything when you can do it with gallons of blood. The level of excess pushes a scenario nestled firmly in the horror genre over-the-top into parody. It's a comedy disguised as horror movie (or more appropriately, a horror movie possessed by a comedy).

Raimi works in several gags that were clearly inspired by the Three Stooges. Ash stomps on the head of one deadite, causing its eye to shoot out of its socket through the air and into the screaming mouth of another character. Early on, the possessed, decapitated head of Linda attacks Ash, biting down on his hand, and he runs around screaming trying to get it off. Later, Ash's right hand is possessed by the demons, and the rebellious appendage tortures our hero by punching him, smashing plates over his head, and causing all sorts of pain. Ash's solution? Lop it off and affix a chainsaw to the bloody stump. That doesn't stop the hand from continuing to cause trouble.

The evil demonic forces are also good for laughs. Yes, they're dangerous, but they also enjoy tormenting poor Ash and being assholes about it. Ash, trying to pull himself together, looks into a mirror and says everything's fine, only for his reflection to lunge out of the glass and say, "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound like fine?" The evil also possesses inanimate objects, leading to a sequence in which a deer head on the wall, a rocking chair, a lamp, and other items begin laughing at Ash until he joins in. 

There are other cast members, but this is really the Bruce Campbell show. He's on his own for much of the first half of the movie, and he carries it. Unlike the first movie, in which he was a panicked victim, and the third, in which he becomes a comic book styled hero with no shortage of one-liners, Ash is pretty much a normal guy driven mad until he can take no more. Everything that happens is an excuse to see Campbell get beaten up and thrown around; it's a very physical role, but he maintains comic timing and sarcasm throughout. While not quite the ass-kicker he'd become in Army of Darkness, he's well on his way. Groovy.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tremors

Tremors (1990) is  a movie to cherish. I'm not saying that because it's the scariest monster ever made or because the creature effects are the most inventive or even because it's the funniest comedy horror produced. It is to be treasured because it balances on a narrow line few genre films are able to straddle; it works as an effective and exciting monster movie for kids while having a strong enough sense of humor and a charismatic cast to endear it to the older crowd. Simply put, Tremors is fun.

Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward respectively) are handymen in the small desert town of Perfection, Nev. The very day they decide to ditch town and move on to bigger prospects, strange things start happening. The town drunk is found on an electrical tower dead of dehydration, a farmer and his flock of sheep are slaughtered, and before long, the way out of the valley is cut off, trapping everyone from outside help. Val and Earl, along with seismology graduate student Rhonda (Finn Carter) soon discover giant, subterranean worm-like creatures are responsible, and they're heading straight for Perfection.

Twenty-two years, Tremors is a franchise that has grown to include two straight-to-video sequels, a prequel, and even a TV series. Along with the concept of graboids (the name a shop owner played by Victor Wong bestows upon them before becoming lunch) and the town of Perfection, we witness the creatures become scuttling ground critters and flying threats and back to worms again over the course of the series. Looking back, it's easy to forget just how fresh and energetic the original was. There's a genuine sense of discovery and mystery as our heroes find evidence of the monsters' rampage and are perplexed by the lack of explanation: what would keep a man up on a tower for three days to die of thirst, what could eat a farmer and entire flock of sheep, what's strong enough to bury a car, and why would it do? The clues just pile on, our heroes learn a little more about the danger with each encounter, and finally, the creatures literally burst on screen.

For the most of the movie, the graboids are kept off-screen, mostly suggested by their snake-like tongues poking and squirming out of the dirt or by their manipulation of objects as they move (most notably a line fence posts being knocked over as they chase Val and Earl and various dust clouds). In a sense, Tremors is a goofier, lighter land version of Jaws. Unlike other monster movies, most of Tremors is set during the day and out in the open, so while there is not much claustrophobia, we do get an effective sense of isolation in the middle of the desert.

The film also has fun with the graboids' method of attack. They hunt by sound and get people from under the ground, so climbing up on a rock or building will keep you safe. It's like an extreme version of the kids' game quicksand. Or if you remember to freeze and not make a sound while on dirt, they won't be able to find you. The methods the characters use to stay safe are a blast: pole-vaulting, tossing rocks, and even tossing out lit dynamite tied to a rope like they were fishing.

A large part of why the movie works so well is its cast. Bacon and Ward are excellent as the squabbling, not-always-too-bright duo of Val and Earl. Instead of being disbelieving skeptics, they embrace the graboid phenomenon, talking about these monsters as their ticket to the big time, provided they don't get eaten first, but when they chips are down, they take charge and save the day. They play off each other great and have some really funny lines and exchanges.

       - "Damn it, Valentine! I'm older and I'm wiser."
          "Yeah, well, you're half right."

       - "You ever seen anything like this before?"
         "Oh, yeah, Earl, we all knew about 'em. We just didn't tell you."

       - "Must be a million of them!"
         "Nope, just one."

Of course, you can't mention Tremors without mentioning Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as Burt and Heather Gummer, the resident gun nut survivalists. They play their roles so straight they're hilarious, and they give new meaning to the phrase "home defense" when one of the monsters bursts through their basement. Carter is also good as Rhonda. She's got the kind of thankless task of Val's love interest, but she has some fun with the scientist part, having to come up with explanations on the fly. Plus, she thankfully doesn't fit the stereotypical Hollywood leading lady mold. I also liked Victor Wong as the sneaky store owner Walter. Upon finding Val and Earl have caught a mysterious snake creature, he says, "I'll give you boys $5 for it."

Tremors has its share of blood and slime, but most of it comes from the graboids (there's a hilarious bit involving a blown graboid's guts raining down on people). The deaths themselves aren't too graphic apart from the characters pulled into the ground, a simple yet creepy notion. There's some profanity, but only one f-bomb. If anything, Tremors is a good introduction to the genre for younger audiences: not too scary, a good balance of excitement and laughs, and an education of how the small town under siege by monsters is done right. For the older crowd and people like me who grew up watching it on TV, Tremors remains something to feel affectionate toward.