Sunday, January 20, 2013

Chiller

In my review of Deadly Blessing, I wrote that director Wes Craven could be a hit-or-miss filmmaker, either making something superb like A Nightmare on Elm Street or dreck like Deadly Friend. Unfortunately, Chiller (1985), a made-for-TV thriller, falls right on its ass in the latter category. While it contains some potentially interesting thematic ideas common throughout Craven's oeuvre, Chiller is mostly a weak, visually static enterprise.

Miles Creighton (Michael Beck) has been cryogenically frozen for ten years when his containment unit malfunctions, and he's thawed out. Fortunately, the condition that killed him is now treatable, much to the delight of his mother Marion (Beatrice Straight), who sees it all as a miracle (what was she waiting for if the cure was available?). But something seems off about Miles. When he returns to his late father's company, he cruelly fires the family friend who kept it running in his absence and orders the company to halt any charitable contributions; anything that isn't making money must go, he decrees. Before long, Revered Penny (Paul Sorvino), the family's pastor, becomes convinced that Miles has returned from the afterlife without his soul, but Marion refuses to believe her son might be evil.

Only in the eighties, I suppose, could a man return from the grave not as a zombie but something even more terrifying: a corporate yuppie, ruthlessly squeezing profit out of anything he can and stomping on anyone who gets in his way. At one point, Miles taunts Reverend Penny by telling him there's no afterlife, no heavenly choirs or angels, so the only thing to do is to live it up while you're alive. Craven seems to be taking a shot at the indulgent "greed is good" generation of the eighties, but he also would go on to explore this territory much more successfully in The People Under the Stairs. That movie would have inbred, psycho cannibals and mutants literally devouring the impoverished, but Miles is not so much a monster as he is an emotionless businessman; nothing he does is really all that scary, and compared to Craven's other output, it all feels watered down for the networks.

Craven also returns to territory he explored in A Nightmare on Elm Street: the sins of the father. In Nightmare, the parent vigilantes who killed Freddy Kruger live in denial about what they've done, and it's up to their children  to "wake up" to the threat if they're going to survive. In Chiller, Marion is in complete denial about Miles' new behavior, coming up with a different rationalizations each time someone tries to tell her the truth. She's an enabler. However, Nightmare also had the strong, resourceful character of Nancy Thompson who sought the truth about Kruger, but here, there isn't any particularly strong protagonist to root for.

The movie also glosses over several potentially interesting story elements. It's never firmly established why Miles becomes evil; has he really lost his soul, is he telling the truth about being dead and wanting to indulge himself, or is he possessed by some force that's using his body? The last item is not even hinted at, but it might have been a chance for the movie to push itself into more ghoulish territory. The cryogenic angle is dropped as soon as Miles is thawed out and revived, which is really the only thing separating this story from any other bland, TV soap opera. What would it really be like to wake up after ten years on ice to find the world left you behind?

Most disappointing of all is Craven's direction. There's no style or tension, the imagery looks flat and uninteresting, and the pace drags. There's nothing on screen to suggest any passion for this project. This one leaves me cold.

The Prophecy

"Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?"

So asks our protagonist Thomas Daggett at one point during The Prophecy (1995). Later, as if to prove this point, our villain Gabriel says, "I'm an angel. I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls, and from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why."

Between these two quotes, one can grasp The Prophecy's style and appeal. Equal parts police procedural and apocalyptic thriller, the film is simultaneously grandiose and subtle in its scope, using characters and dialogue to suggest nothing less than a Biblical war in Heaven as the battle extends to Earth and humanity gets drawn into the conflict. Horror movies often work best when they suggest absolute terror and awe, a concept understood by The Prophecy's helmer, writer-director Gregory Widen.

Los Angeles detective Thomas Daggett (Elias Koteas), who almost became a priest, investigates the death of a man found with no eyes and both male and female reproductive organs (among other discrepancies about his body). Daggett's search takes him to a desert town in Arizona where a pair of angels, Gabriel (Christopher Walken) and Simon (Eric Stoltz), seek the darkest soul in existence that could turn the tide of a second war in Heaven prophesied in a long-lost chapter in the Book of Revelations. The soul ends up in the body of a young American Indian girl named Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder), making her the target of Gabriel, who has launched the war out of jealousy and resentment that God has put mankind in His grace over angels. Daggett and Mary's teacher (Virginia Madsen) struggle to protect her when they're approached by an unexpected ally: Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen), who's not keen on having Gabriel become a competitor.

With a subject matter and themes about angels, faith, wars in heaven, and fire and brimstone, The Prophecy threatens to veer off into campy excess and pretense, but the performers really go a long way to selling it and making it captivating. One of the criticisms I've had against Christopher Walken is how rarely he seems to act. In a lot of movies, he just seems to be playing some variation of the kooky Christopher Walken persona, but The Prophecy actually affords him the opportunity to act, and he hits it out of the park. Yes, he's still weird, but it makes sense here because he's playing a being that in many ways is superior to man (whom he refers to as "talking monkeys."). He makes a number of larger-than-life pronouncements (see above) and maintains a soft-spoken menace. He also has a cheeky sense of humor, taunting the human characters on a number of occasions and reanimating the dead to serve him because he hasn't learned how to drive. This really is one of his best roles.

Stealing the show in the third act is Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer. He's chilling and threatening and yet strangely magnetic and alluring. Like Gabriel, he shares no affection for mankind ("God is love. I don't love you."), but helping them suits his purposes. Every time he's on screen, you're just waiting for him to strike like the loathsome serpent he is. Also very good is Eric Stoltz as Simon. Stoltz is normally a low-key, subdued actor, but he's holds his own with Walken as a presence here. He's initially presented as ambiguously threatening with an unknown agenda, and it's only gradually we realize he's on our side. Of the remaining leads, Koteas and Madsen do all right, but they're greatly overshadowed by the angels and really don't have to do much except play catch-up.

The horror presented in The Prophecy is one of suggestion: what will happen if Gabriel succeeds in taking the dark soul? The implications of what he has in store for mankind are eerie as are the not-so veiled threats Lucifer offers about what happens after death. Next to these supernatural beings, humans are completely at their mercy, and we're left wondering just what these fallen angels are capable of. Widen also works in some stunning imagery: the skeleton of an angel in the desert, Gabriel causing the corpse of an underling to ignite, and visions of angels being slaughtered. Disappointingly, this is the only feature Widen directed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Black Death

My hopes weren't high when I saw the DVD cover and read the plot summary of Black Death (2010). Sure, it stars the great Sean Bean, but it looked like the lower-budget version of the Nicolas Cage vehicle Season of the Witch, which was also about knights dealing with reports of witchcraft and wasn't that good. Imagine my surprise and delight to find that Black Death proved to be a serious, thoughtful, and dramatic movie about religious persecution and zealotry, more in kinship with The Wicker Man (the original) and The Seventh Seal.

Directed by Christopher Smith and written by Dario Poloni, Black Death is set during the first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in England, and the population has been decimated. Entire villages have been wiped out, and many people, believing the plague to be God's punishment, have turned to fanaticism. One of the most devout is Ulric (Sean Bean), a warrior appointed by the church to journey to a village where a necromancer is reported to be operating. To guide his band of soldiers, Ulrich recruits Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk from an abbey who hopes to find the woman he loves (Kimberley Nixon). The trip proves to be dangerous and costly, but when the reach the village, they find all is not as it seems.

Although the setting and plot (along with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones actor Sean Bean in the mix) seem to promise a fantasy picture, Black Death is much more grounded in gritty realism. The atmosphere is stark and cold. We witness firsthand the gruesome effects the plague has on its victims (bulbous protrusions on the neck and armpit areas) and the piles of bodies on the outskirts of afflicted villages. The action scenes of the men in combat with swords, spears, and battle axes are not exciting, swashbuckling set-pieces but instead are gruesome, personal, messy, and chaotic; these are people fighting for their lives. Similarly, the obstacles the men encounter don't feel like staged contrivances but are more authentic incidents: a lynch mob trying to kill a suspected witch, flagellants, bandits, and a companion infected with the plague.

The last item illustrates how effective Black Death is. In other virus movies, the infected teammate hides his condition until the most inopportune times for the heroes. Here, the others realize their friend is infected when he coughs up blood and they find the swelling on his neck. Osmund agrees to give him Last Rites, and afterward, Wolfstan (John Lynch) walks right up to him and drives a knife in his heart, no big farewell or overblown scene. Just something that needed to be done.

The movie turns on its head when the survivors of Ulric's group reach the village and find the people there living happily and safely, unspoiled by the pestilence in the land around them, but before too long, it becomes a battle of wills between two sets of believers: the Christian men who have arrived with weapons and the Pagans who have rejected Christianity. In an ironic twist, the witch hunters find themselves the persecuted, condemned to the same violent rituals they long subjected to others. All this time, we the audience are waiting for a demonstration of the necromancer's power and the supernatural, and we seem to get it at first, but in end, neither Christianity nor Paganism offer much salvation or mercy. Both belief systems  resort to fear, intimidation, and cruelty when it suits their followers while the plaque is the great equalizer.

The characterization was much stronger than I had anticipated. Osmund is torn between his duty to his faith and his love while trying to reconcile the death around him and insisting the plague is not punishment by God; the movie is essentially his awakening to the horrors and darkness of the world, and the final scenes go a long way to showing that. Ulric could have easily been a fire-breathing fanatic, but Bean calmly underplays him; he believes firmly what he does, treating it more as a burden than a crusade, although Osmund's abbot (David Warner) is right when he says Ulric is dangerous. I also liked the depiction of the men in Ulric's party as more than red shirts or stereotypes. I particularly liked the silent Ivo (Tygo Gernandt), whom we're told had his tongue cut out when captured by the French and he refused to talk, and the gruff, bloodthirsty Mold (Johnny Harris) who's actually an OK guy once you get past the violence.

Black Death demonstrates how a movie doesn't always need ghosts, witches, or monsters to be chilling. Man's beliefs and his actions can truly be frightening by themselves, especially in the face of certain, merciless death.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Glengarry Glen Ross

An early detail in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), an adaptation of the play by David Mamet, never fails to get a smile from me. From the downtown offices of company owners Mitch and Murray arrives Blake (Alec Baldwin), a slick, high-powered salesman who unleashes a profane tirade against a group of employees (Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin) to humiliate and motivate them. Dave Moss (Harris) rolls his eyes and mouths off, so Blake gets in his face.

"You see this watch?" Blake asks. "That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much you make?" I chuckle when I think of that amount: $970,000. Granted, that's a lot of money and probably more than I'll ever see in my life, but I would expect a wheeler and dealer like Blake to be making millions. It gets me thinking. Richard Fuld, the last chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, received $484 million in salary and bonuses between 2000 and 2008 when the financial giant went bankrupt. In testimony before Congress, he defended that compensation while saying he accepted "full responsibility" for the company's downfall. Say what you will about Blake, but at least he seems good at his job. It just goes to show that the corporate environment of greed and corruption depicted in Glengarry Glen Ross has not only survived the 20 years since the movie's release, it has flourished.

But greed and corruption are not the only traits on display in Glengarry Glen Ross. What's also tangible is the pathetic desperation of these salesmen. These are men who will do and say anything to make a sale, and that includes lying and stealing. There aren't any murders depicted in the story, but killing isn't really necessary here; these men's souls have already been destroyed by their jobs.

In a Chicago real estate office, the salesmen are down in the dumps. Only Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is on a streak while the rest - Moss, Shelly Levine (Lemmon), and George Aaronow (Arkin) - are barely scraping by. Levine, in particular, is pitiful, a once great salesman now at his nadir. When Blake arrives for his pep talk, he announces the new month's sale prizes: first prize is a new car, and second prize is a set of steak knives. Everyone else will be fired. Blake also brings with him the new prime leads, which are then locked in the office of office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) because Blake says giving them to these losers would be throwing them away. While Roma works a sale on a potential client (Jonathan Pryce) and Levine practically begs Williamson for some of the new leads, Moss tries to convince Aaronow to break into the office and steal the leads.

The title of Glengarry Glen Ross refers to two sets of properties for the salesmen sell, but another effective name for the movie could have been "The Weak and the Greedy." Of all the salesmen, only Aaronow comes close to being a decent human being, but he's a total puff ball and pushover. At times, we feel sorry for Levine; he often looks like a man ready to break down and cry, and he makes frequent references to his hospitalized daughter, but whenever he gets any sort of power or success, he rubs it in people's faces and becomes as big of a prick as Roma, whose success also allows him to be a conniving jerk. When his client comes to the office the day after closing the sale, Roma blatantly lies to his face and does his best to confuse the poor man. You also feel a bit bad for Williamson, a guy just trying to his job, and these salesmen treat him like crap, calling him a glorified "secretary," but he takes joy in watching this bunch being humiliated.

Since this is based on a play, the movie is limited in locations. Most of the action takes place in the same real estate office, although there a few scenes at a Chinese restaurant, a diner, a potential client's house, and inside some cars. Director James Foley uses a lot of crosscutting between closeups, allowing the actors the room and time to showcase Mamet's trademark vulgar, staccato dialogue. For a movie with no action, special effects, or even female characters (a few wives and daughters are mentioned but never seen in this place where Blake says it requires "brass balls" to sell), the tension, drama, and even some dark humor remain palpable.

Under the trivia section of the Internet Movie Database, it's listed that the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross referred to the movie as "Death of a Fucking Salesman," and that's a good way to look at it. Like the Arthur Miller play, it's about salesmen trying to get ahead in their profession, but instead of a sad tragedy about the failure of the American Dream, it's an in-your-face rage about its perversion.