Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Earth

The best science fiction is about more than aliens, monsters, explosions, and special effects. At its heart, the best of the genre offers intriguing ideas about where humanity might be heading and how it might apply to our daily lives. Another Earth (2011) presents some neat possibilities about how people might react to the discovery of a new, earth-like planet which seemingly has a duplicate everyone on it. However, the movie uses that scenario more a backdrop than as its focus,  concentrating more on the personal drama of its two central characters.

Another Earth is the story of guilt and regret. If there is another planet out there that is exactly like earth populated by doubles of ourselves, have they made the same life decisions as us? Maybe they chose a different path and ended up in a better position than us. Those are questions Rhoda (Brit Marling) has. The night Earth 2 is discovered, the same night she was accepted into MIT, she crashed her car into another vehicle, killing the wife and son of Yale Music Professor John Burroughs (William Mapother). Years later, having served her time in prison, she's working as a high school janitor, still haunted by her mistake. When a company offers passage to Earth 2 to the winner of an essay contest, Rhoda looks to the sky.

Many sci fi stories often begin with a simple premise: what if. What if aliens landed on earth?  What if scientists developed a portal to another dimension? That question is not unique to science fiction; it's something people ask themselves all the time. What if I had gone to this college instead of that school? What if I took that job overseas? What if I had told that special someone how I really felt long ago? What if I hadn't been drinking that night? Another Earth, at its most basic level, is about personal regret filtered through the science fiction.

Rhoda, we see, reaches out to John and tries to better his life. We sense her guilt and believe she wants to do the right thing, whatever that is, but she doesn't know. Their relationship evolves from cautiously professional (she arrives at his house and claims to be a maid with a cleaning service) to friendship and eventually romance. Still, her life is one of sorrow and remorse; her world has grown colder, darker, and less promising. As she notes in her essay, the explorers of the New World were often people living on the edge - convicts, orphans, outcasts, etc. - who saw sailing across the Atlantic, journeying into the unknown in the hope of something better.

Another Earth is more of an indy drama with a sci fi background. I would have liked more examination of Earth 2. The film teases intriguing possibilities about journeying into space and meeting your own personal double, but it doesn't explore those ideas much, spending more time on the relationship between Rhoda and John. In fact, it probably wouldn't have taken much of a rewrite to completely drop the entire Earth 2 aspect and just concentrate on the drama. Still, I was engaged for the entire picture, the performances by Marling and Mapother were good, and director Mike Cahill with his first feature (apart from a documentary) demonstrates he might be a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.



Wednesday, May 23, 2012

V for Vendetta

I remember seeing the trailers for "V for Vendetta" back when I was in high school. I was not familiar with the source material written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd; all I knew was this looked like the most amazing movie ever, and for the first time, I made a conscious decision to avoid any pre-release hype, refrained from reading any review, and vowed to go in cold. To have as pure of an experience watching it as I could was my goal, and as I've become more tuned in to Internet coverage of movies, that's becoming increasingly harder.

When I finally saw the movie, I thought it was excellent. Hugo Weaving, whose face remained hidden behind the Guy Fawkes mask, was brilliant as the titular V, the action scenes were splendidly well done, the themes about government control and security versus individuality and freedom timely, the look and atmosphere appropriately dystopian, and John Hurt as the dictator Adam Sutler was really good (as he always is).

Years later, I've found myself drawn to comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer). When I was little, I read some of my dad's old Spider-Man and MAD Magazine issues, but I lost interest in the medium, focusing more on the cartoons and movies they inspired. I guess my problem at the time was how the stories were often fragmented and scattered across a number of issues, and without a local comic book shop to frequent, it was hard to focus and remain involved. All I found were holes. Recently, my interest has returned, and I'm just realizing how bold, visually and narratively, some comic book's writers and artists are.

The comic is very similar to the movie: the masked terrorist V recruits a young woman named Evey whilst defying the totalitarian government controlling Great Britain in the future. As in the movie, V represents anarchy, chaos, and freedom, the personification of individual will against all-encompassing conformity. He collects and reads banned books, listens to banned music, and his actions are laced with a dark sense of irony and justice.

Unlike the movie V, comic book V is less of an upstanding good guy. Yes, he stands for freedom and justice and takes on a corrupt government, but he is more vicious and less dashing. In the movie, when he addresses the nation and tells them they are responsible for electing evil leaders, he comes off as understanding, patiently explaining their mistakes and calling for appropriate action. In the comic, he sings a patronizing and mocking song, treating the citizenry with scorn and derision for being so stupid. The movie V acts as if he's pulling off the biggest lark in history while the comic book V is driven by rage.

Evey is also different between the two media. In the movie, as played by Natalie Portman, she is employed, stable, and reasonably comfortable if displeased with the way things are, but in the comic, she's a 16-year-old factory worker driven by poverty into prostitution. The effect is the same either way -the complacent is shaken to see the world as it really is - but the comic is a grimmer presentation.

That's really the biggest difference I saw from reading the graphic novel. The source material is darker, more desperate, and more twisted. The movie's universe looks very much like today's world, but the comic world is more desolate and blacker. While the movie ends on a note of triumph and promise of a better future, the comic offers no clear-cut resolution nor hints that things will be better. Sure, some of its more evil characters are dead, but now society is spiraling into chaos,  and we're not sure if the people will band together to restore order and freedom, install a worse dictatorship, or be engulfed by violence.

The comic also contains more subplots and a few different characters than the movie. There is no Sutler, only Adam Susan. Instead of a Big Brother face broadcast on giant television screens, he is behind-the-scenes as "The Leader," and he falls in love with computer system that helps him run the government. This madness on his part suggest the suffocating power that entails totalitarian fascist. Inspector Finch is present, still trying to do his job and help maintain order by pursuing V, although his comic version looks nothing like actor Stephen Rea. He delves into desperate depravity to nab his quarry. Other members of the government are present, scheming and clawing their way to the top of the power structure, although I must admit to having some difficulty keeping track of all the players.

I guess you could say the movie is a streamlined version of the comic book. That doesn't mean it's any less interesting or challenging, but it's clear the stories of each are suited for their chosen medium. If you liked the movie, the comic is worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Batman (1989)

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) laments when his crimes are overshadowed by the Caped Crusader's heroics. "Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!" The irony of the line is how the Joker and his antics upstage Batman (Michael Keaton) throughout the movie. The Joker is colorful, gets all the good lines and gags, and undergoes a transformation from gangster Jack Napier to the scarred, psychotic, cackling Clown Prince of Crime.

Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne are an enigma, both to the audience and the other characters. The police don't know what to make of him and try to arrest him. A reporter  seeks him out, and the criminal underworld is afraid of him, not knowing if he's man or monster. A man of the shadows, he is a bubble of barely restrained psychosis. Bruce Wayne can only find an identity and purpose when he dons the cape and cowl and becomes Batman. He is a determined outsider who refuses to allow anyone past his defenses. When Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the photographer who loves Bruce Wayne, tries to see past the mask, he turns away. Their encounter ends when he steals the photographs she took of him.

The clash of these two damaged psyches is at the center of Tim Burton's Batman (1989), a visually splendid and psychologically fascinating look at the hero and terror of gloomy Gotham City but not without its flaws. While certainly the best Batman movie of the four films in the series produced in the eighties and nineties, it's not everything it could have been.

The same problem that would befall Batman Returns can be found here: Batman is essentially a supporting character in his own movie. This is really the story of the Joker, where he came from, what made him what he is, and how Batman deals with him. Thankfully, Joker is the only main villain, so we do get some more scenes with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but they feel more disjointed and less developed, although Keaton does what he can to make them work, really conveying a detached nervousness and slight paranoia.

Another problem that would return in Batman Returns is Batman kills people. If there is one element to his character that I always admired, it's his refusal to take a life. No matter what the criminals do, Batman will not (not cannot) cross that line. Otherwise, he'll start down a path to where he's no different from them. Plus, by making Joker the murderer of his parents, it turns one man's crusade against evil and injustice into a simple case of revenge. Batman also blows up a factory, presumably taking out dozens of henchmen, which seems so out of character.

Burton also spends much of the first part of the film establishing a number of important characters, some from the comics and some not: Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), and the reporter Alexander Knox (Wuhl), but they're seemingly forgotten about by the film's end. Even Vicki Vale goes from a determined photographer to a swooning damsel in distress. That seems like it's by design rather than oversight. By the end, it comes back to Joker and Batman.

Still, it must be said, but the Joker is extremely entertaining. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Nicholson is essentially playing himself as the Joker, but unlike Schwarzenegger, his  persona is a perfect fit for the character. Nicholson has always had a devilish charisma and wicked fiendishness, and that allows him to craft a psychotic yet funny villain. He gleefully does some pretty freaky and outlandish things, whether it's destroying art at a museum or killing people with his laughing gas, and it works both at establishing him as a threat and generating laughs. As Heath Ledger would later portray in The Dark Knight, the Joker is about creating anarchy and chaos while laughing the world. Ledger would play that for that terror while Nicholson goes for darkly funny, and since he dominates so much of the movie, it's worth watching just for him.

In contrast, Batman is about order. We see him do what he can to stop crime, but sometimes, he only makes it worse or is too late. A family is mugged outside a theater before he can act, and his efforts to apprehend Jack Napier results in the creation of a much more dangerous foe. Wherea Joker makes people laugh (just before killing them), Batman frightens them.

The look Burton creates in the film is astounding, something of a Gothic cross between comic book, film noir, and grand opera. It's dark and edgy throughout, but it brightens up on occasion. The score by Danny Elfman is iconic, and I'll even admit to enjoying the contributions by Prince. Still, I don't think they delved deep into the character of Batman.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Two Evil Eyes

If nothing else, Two Evil Eyes (1990) provides an interesting contrast between the styles of two modern horror masters. Conceived as anthology in tribute of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes features two one-hour stories: "The Facts of the Case of Mr. Valdemar" adapted by George Romero and "The Black Cat" adapted by Dario Argento. Reportedly, John Carpenter and Wes Craven were originally supposed to have their own segments, but scheduling and budget concerns put the kibosh on that arrangement (What would that movie have been called? Four Lethal Limbs?).

In Romero's tale, a dying millionaire (Bingo O'Malley) is hypnotized by his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and her doctor lover (Ramy Zada) into signing away his fortune, but he dies before everything falls into place. However, his spirit remains trapped in his corpse. Romero previously approached this type of material in his much superior Creepshow, his tribute to the EC comics of the 1950s which also inspired Tales from the Crypt. 

"The Facts of the Case of Mr. Valdemar" feels like an extended outtake or episode from Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt. It's a story of just desserts in which the wicked and the greedy confront supernatural punishment from beyond the grave for their sins. Even most of the cast is comprised of Creepshow veterans (Barbeau, O'Malley, E.G. Marshall as a lawyer, and Tom Atkins as a cop). Unlike Creepshow, Romero does not use the comic book-style cinematography and set design to give the story some color, resorting to a more traditional presentation. Apart from Valdemar's talking corpse in the freezer (done with splendid effect by Tom Savini), very little horror happens until the last 10 minutes or so when Valdemar gets up and starts chasing people. Before that, it's a lot of scheming by rather nasty and unlikeable people.

The original Poe story is a neat little piece but doesn't really offer much beyond a man kept alive beyond death under hypnosis; it's a scientific experiment that turns terrifying for a quick shock ending. Romero does a nice job of expanding the tale beyond that with its adultery and embezzlement subplot. There's some nice atmosphere, and Savini's effects are great, but one can't shake the feeling of been-there, done-that. The horror elements are minimal, and  the energy level is decidedly low. This probably would have worked better at 30 minutes in length instead of nearly an hour.

In Argento's tale, a crime scene photographer (Harvey Keitel) goes progressively mad after his wife (Madeleine Potter) brings a stray cat into their home. Unlike Romero's rather straightforward and story-centric episode, Argento's film is filled with surreal and stylistic touches. If Romero is more interested in being literal, Argento has fun blurring the line between what's real and what's fantasy. As Keitel's Usher  descends into murder and insanity, Argento keeps us on edge about what really happened and what Usher thinks happened, most notably in a dream sequence with a nasty resolution.

Although it follows the rough narrative outline of Poe's story, "The Black Cat" contains numerous allusions to other works of Poe, using Usher's crime scene photography to bring in scenes straight out of "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Berenice," and "The Fall of the House of Usher." The film is also true to the graphic violence of Poe's tale, both against the cat and its human characters. Animal lovers will surely be horrified watching Keitel perform all sorts of atrocities against his feline nemesis. In an inspired touched fitting Argento, Keitel uses his violent tendencies for art, using death to create.

Argento includes a number of standout point-of-view camera angles, including the razor-sharp pendulum slicing through its dead victim and handheld shots of the cat's viewpoints. As characteristic of Argento, the graphic violence is beautifully staged and contains striking images, particular one shot of a murder victim submerging in a bathtub as the water becomes dark red. Helping immensely is an intense performance by Keitel, who's obsessive derangement is often darkly funny. When his wife accuses him of killing the cat, he screeches, "It's a fucking cat! Meow! Meow!"

Overall, Two Evil Eyes is the not finest hour of either director, but for their fans, it's certainly worth a watch. For such collaboration of macabre minds, you'd expect something truly mind-blowing, but as it is, it's merely serviceable.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Christine

In real life, cars can be involved in some pretty terrifying situations, like a drunk driver or a fatal accident. In movies, car chases have long been the staple of the action genre and have been in some of cinema's most thrilling moments. But cars themselves are not scary. They're only as dangerous as the people driving them, and unfortunately for John Carpenter's Christine (1983),  no one is behind the wheel.

Based on a novel by Stephen King, Christine is the story of high school nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and how he purchases and restores a 1958 red Plymouth Fury known as Christine that has a mind of its own, going after anyone who gets between "her" and Arnie. Stephen King has written a number of stories about inanimate objects that come to life and wreak havoc on people including "The Mangler," about a possessed industrial laundry press machine, and even in Maximum Overdrive, his sole directorial effort which was about rampaging trucks. As a species, humanity places great trust and reliance on technology and machines to make our lives easier and keep us alive. It certainly is a rather harrowing thought to consider what might happen if the machines developed awareness and decided they didn't want to obey us anymore.

However, this is an idea that usually works better in print than on film. As readers, we can imbue appliances with personalities and other traits with our imagination, and we can convince ourselves of the threat. Filmmakers work in a literal medium; what you see in the frame is what you get. While reading "The Mangler," for example, we can look beyond the machine and see the demon shining through. In the film adaptation, all we're seeing is an industrial laundry machine and no amount of camera angles, shadows, or other techniques can get us to look beyond that.

Even in the source material, Christine's horror came not from the car itself but rather the spirit of its previous owner, Roland LeBay. Somehow, his ghost became tied to his beloved vehicle, and there are times when the characters could swear they saw him in the rear-view mirror or sitting next to them out of the corner of their eye. Lebay, we learn, was a nasty piece of work, angry at the world and everyone, and his rage remained with the car. This aspect was dropped from film, and I remember reading somewhere it had to do with An American Werewolf in London using a similar idea at the time with the main character being visited by the bloodied ghosts of his victims. Whatever the reason behind that decision, all we're left with is the car, and even when she's covered with flames and running over the school bullies that vandalized her, Christine just isn't that frightening. The only people likely to be scared are classic car enthusiasts as they watch all sorts of destruction and damage being inflicted on Christine throughout the film.

However, Christine works better than The Mangler because it does have a more intriguing underlying story. This is essentially the story of Arnie's obsessive love, and as he restores the car, Arnie transforms from a wimp to someone more confident. His attitude changes, and he becomes cocky and arrogant, troubling his parents, best friend Dennis (John Stockwell), and new girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul).  Arnie is essentially a slave to his first love, willing to sacrifice anything and everything for it, until gradually it consumes him, the fury of Roland LeBay engulfing him. It's an effective characterization that had the filmmakers abandoned the evil, self-driving car aspect of the story and focused exclusively on Arnie's metamorphosis, they might have been more successful.

The special effects are impressive, especially when Christine repair herself, and a number of classic rock and roll songs are used for darkly humorous effect [example, Dennis unsuccessfully tries sneaking into the car, and its radio plays "Keep A-Knockin' (but You Can't Come In)"]. But when a director of Carpenter's caliber is at the helm, you expect some genuine thrills, and sadly, that's what Christine lacks.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Batman Returns

In some ways, Batman Returns (1992) is much harder to review than its sequels Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. It towers over them in terms of quality, the performances are more effective, the psychological implications more fascinating, and the special effects and set design are dark, cool and mysterious and not dominated by overblown, glitzy neon. Yet, the flaws are more frustrating because they are affixed to an otherwise superior movie, and it probably wouldn't have taken much to address those issues. Oh well.

Crooked businessman Max Shrek (Christopher Walken) hatches a scheme to build a giant power plant to drain Gotham City of its power when he's blackmailed by The Penguin (Danny DeVito), a grotesque crime boss raised by penguins after his parents dumped him in the sewer as a baby. Shrek convinces the Penguin to run for mayor and in a masterstroke of public relations, generates public sympathy for him. Meanwhile, Shrek's secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) discovers her boss's scheme and is tossed out a window to her death. Resurrected, she becomes the vengeful Catwoman, a schizophrenic leather-clad whip expert and gymnast. Catwoman and Penguin eventually team up in a plot to frame and kill Batman (Michael Keaton) at the same time Bruce Wayne and Selina develop an attraction for each other.

My main beef with Batman Returns is reflected in the plot summary: too little Batman. The Caped Crusader has maybe five minutes of screen time in the first 40 minutes or so (in a two-hour movie). He's almost incidental to the rest of the movie, popping up whenever it's convenient for the story. This is not a knock against Keaton; I've always felt he was the best live-action Batman and Bruce Wayne, bringing a lot of low-key menace to Batman and twitchy neurosis to Wayne, but he's given little to do here.

There are other touches that had they been done by Joel Schumacher instead of Tim Burton, I think they would be more widely criticized: the Penguin drives around on a little motorized duck mobile, Selina Kyle goes from mousy secretary to Catwoman by being licked and bitten by a swarm of stray cats after falling out of a tall building, Penguin goes rather quickly from subterranean troglodyte in the public's eye to rabble-rousing candidate, and even much of the Penguin's back story (raised by sewer penguins as a baby yet speaks rather eloquently) and ultimate plan against Gotham (an army of missile-toting penguins) is a bit silly. Also, I didn't care for the Max Shreck character. Walken does his usual weird performance, but his scenes take up too much time, and his power plant scheme just kind of evaporates by the end without mention.

Much better are the other villains. DeVito is perfect as Penguin, this angry, grotty little man who has always been the outsider. He finally gets a chance to be accepted by the people who feared and  rejected him, and when it becomes clear he'll never be taken back, he retaliates with a cruel fury. His story is actually rather sad. Pfeiffer is also great, seductive and dangerous like a comic book femme fatale. Her back-and-forth flirtation with Batman and the mutual attraction between the two works splendidly. Like the actors later in the series, DeVito and Pfeiffer are over-the-top and playing their roles broadly, but their performances are contained within the psychologies of their characters. It's not just being cartoonishly evil for the sake of it.

Perhaps it's best to consider Batman Returns a comic book fairy tale. The Christmas setting gives an almost Dickens-like atmosphere, and Burton's direction gives everything a nice Gothic, film noir feeling. Batman Returns could probably be seen as something of the class struggle between rich and poor, more specifically how the upper class creates monsters of reckoning. We witness two monsters created: Penguin, rejected by his rich parents who can't accept that their son is different, and Catwoman, killed by her boss to cover up his crime. They both re-emerge with vendettas.

We also see the legacy parents leave their children and how it can create dysfunctional individuals. There's Batman, inspired to be a super hero after watching his parents get gunned down. Penguin, rejected by his parents, is goaded by Shrek to "reclaim his birthright" and seeks to make others suffer as he has. Penguin's later plot is achieved when all the parents of the children he tries to kidnap are away partying. Catwoman, based on a couple of nagging messages on her answering machines, has a domineering mother she wants to break off from; what better way to show your not mommy's little girl anymore than to don skin tight black leather, blow up a department store, and flirt with a mysterious man in black? Even Shrek is concerned about his son. The power plant, he declares, will be the legacy he leaves Chip (future Leatherface Andrew Bryniarski) and in a rare moment of humanity volunteers to take his son's place when Penguin vows to kill him.

There's a recurring theme with masks. In a nice touch, Bruce Wayne arrives at masquerade hosted by Shrek without a mask, a subtle reminder that Wayne is the disguise and Batman the true identity. Batman and Catwoman express a desire toward unmasking to each other and finding the people beneath the facade, and when Batman does so, it's a bittersweet moment because as touching as it is, Catwoman, the schizophrenic, doesn't know who she is anymore. Penguin, a spiteful and vengeful person, hides his true agenda from the public with a mask of humility and later righteousness, and Shrek, called the "Santa Clause" of Gotham City for his contributions to the city, is really a corrupt, power-hungry monster himself.

Batman Returns contains much more thematic richness and compelling villains than its successors, but there are a few things holding it back. Batman does not figure into the proceedings enough, and the plot is overcrowded to a degree. Maybe if the story had been streamlined and given more focus to Batman, it would have turned out better. Still what works works really well.