Sunday, March 31, 2013

Come and See

With a title like that, Come and See (1985) seems to be inviting its audience to witness firsthand, from the ground level, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II. It has the hallmarks of a war movie, but the end result feels less like a war movie and more like a depiction of the apocalypse. In fact, according to the Internet Movie Database, the title itself comes from the Book Revelations in the Bible:

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

That passage refers to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and what will be brought about upon the world with his arrival, but that description could also be used to describe what occurs in Come and See. Over the course of the film, we witness the misery suffering of the people of Belorussia as the Nazi war machine overtakes the land, massacre the inhabitants, and leave only destitution and despair for those who survive. It tempting to portray war as an epic, titanic struggle between good and evil with a sense of adventure and action, but to really be caught up in conflict is to be engulfed in unending hardship and pain.

After finding a buried rifle, young Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) leaves his home, including his mother and younger sisters, to join the partisans who are resisting the German occupation of Belarussia in 1943. That's the beginning of his odyssey through the war zone as he is left behind by his unit (and forced to trade boots with an older fighter); meets up with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a girl about his age; finds himself in the middle of a paratrooper attack; tries to return to his family; ends up with some refugees, and is trapped in a village when the Germans take it over.

With a plot summary like that, Come and See could have been presented as a coming-of-age story about who boy who learns to be a hero and a man, but this is not a movie about heroics, patriotism, or honor and dignity in the face of the horrors of war and human cruelty. Women and children are rounded up to be executed, a woman is thrown into the back of a truck to be gang-raped, and in one agonizingly long sequence, an entire village is herded into a church that is then set on fire. Unlike other movies, like say Schindler's List which showed the human spirit surviving in the face of indescribable evil, Come and See offers no hope, no growth, and no relief from the atrocities and conflict it depicts. It is one of the bleakest, most depressing, and harrowing movies I've ever encountered. It's not meant to be watched but experienced.

Come and See is built on the texture of the human face. There are numerous closeups of the characters that depict just how terrified, confused, exhausted, and dirty they are. Director Elem Klimov utilizes a number of unbroken, extended takes, effectively trapping the viewer with the characters. Florya, essentially a well-meaning innocent at the onset, bears witness to numerous acts of evil and cruelty, and the experience emotionally and mentally breaks him, and we see this on his face but especially in his eyes. By the end, though he survives, he looks like a completely different person, his spirit and humanity effectively destroyed.

There's a contradiction at the heart of Come and See. One one hand, it's a very grim and gritty motion picture; at times, it feels like a documentary. Filmed on location, very little about it suggests a crisp, professional aesthetic, but it also feels hallucinatory and surreal at other times. The closest point of comparison I can think of is Apocalypse Now;  you're so buried in the chaos and reality, the bizarreness feels real. To watch this movie is to view a time when it seemed like the world really was ending.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods

Remember the opening scenes of Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead? In both movies, the characters drive on long, lonesome roads as ominous music plays, establishing a creepy atmosphere and indicating just how far off the beaten-track from civilizations these folks are when the shit hits the fan.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), like the aforementioned titles, concerns a group of people trapped in an isolated house as ghouls pound on the doors and windows trying to get in, and like those titles, there is a sequence of our protagonists driving through a long, lonesome road as ominous music plays. But unlike those other movies, that's not our opening scene.

Our opening scene here is of two government bureaucrats in white shirts and ties (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) shooting the breeze while discussing preparations for some unnamed operation. Immediately, I'm paying attention. What kind of low-budget horror knockoff opens with a pair of recognizable characters actors in a scene that really doesn't seem to match the scenario the title promises?

Of course, The Cabin in the Woods is not just some low-budget horror knockoff. It's a clever, graphic, and highly entertaining sendup of low-budget horror knockoffs, the modern torture porn craze, slasher movies, and zombies movies that is frequently funny while also possessing a clever plot, a sense of mystery, and even some exciting action, surprises, and scares. I imagine this working strongly with both the horror crowd, who will laugh at the jokes and satire, and the mainstream crowd, who should laugh and jump. It's The Princess Bride of horror.

The initial plot is typical for the genre. A bunch of good-looking teens decide to spend the weekend alone in some isolated cabin when they find something in the basement that unleashes bloody-thirsty zombies that kill and dismember them one-by-one. The twist here this time is how the government (or some other unnamed organization with that kind of power) is coordinating the whole thing behind the scenes. They plant clues and little guideposts for the kids to stumble upon and manipulate their reactions. The cabin itself is bugged with microphones and cameras and even rigged to release chemicals to make the kids act the right way (like say, pheromones that will make the blonde girl act especially horny, so she and her boyfriend will wander off from the others).

Why they are doing this I'll leave for you to find out on your own, but what I appreciated about Cabin in the Woods is how it doesn't spell out everything right away or cheat the audience. In a way, it makes me think of what H.P. Lovecraft might have written if he were still alive today in the time of global conspiracies, the cynical corporation, and the Patriot Act. In its own way, it's rather creepy and at the same time awe-inspiring. The monster effects on the assorted zombies and ghouls is well done (though at times too much CGI is used), and there are plenty of nasty deaths along the way, especially at the end when all hell breaks loose (without spoiling too much, there's a great "Oh, shit!"moment involving several elevator doors that open simultaneously).

The humor in The Cabin in the Woods comes from how the narrative plays with the conventions of the genre and its stereotypes. Most slashers have the stock characters - the alpha male, the stoner, the bimbo, the virgin, etc. - but here, the teens start as fairly likeable and thoughtful, and it's only through outside manipulation that they unknowingly fill their assigned roles.

More laughs are provided by the both the cynicism and desperation of the behind-the-scenes technicians and operators who conspire to trap the teens. Early on, they have an office pool for what threat or monster the kids will be facing, and Whitford laments when a merman is not selected (be careful what you wish for in these movies). Characters continuously find the tables being turned on them, and you never know what to expect.

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who directs), The Cabin in the Woods is in some ways a compatible piece to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Both play with the conventions of the horror genre by pulling back the curtain to illustrate why the characters behave the way they do and the scenarios play out as they do, and by the end, both reveal themselves as effective, modern genre films in their own right. Once the wind has been taken out of the sales of convention, the audience doesn't know what to expect, and that's when they're susceptible to a good fright flick.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Baseketball

I can have fun imagining what a slapstick sports parody in the vein of Airplane! or The Naked Gun would be like had one come out in the eighties. Leslie Neilson could have been the grizzled manager, Robert Hays the worn-out veteran looking for a comeback, Val Kilmer the hot-rod upstart, Robert Stack a rival coach, and George Kennedy the befuddled team owner. And of course, it would have been made by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, the filmmaking team of Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker that made those movies, and it would have made fun of all those sports formulas the same way these guys had made fun of disaster movies, cop movies, spy thrillers, and action movies.

Fast forward to the nineties (or even to today), and I can picture Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, really sticking it to professional sports. There probably would have been a musical number or two, but these guys would have been merciless in satirizing spoiled athletes, the inanity of media coverage, the hypocrisy prevalent in much of it, and the celebrity culture around it (in fact, they've done so in a number of South Park episodes).

Baseketball (1998) is a would-be hybrid of the styles of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker and the Parker-Stone, utilizing an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, buckshot mania of Airplane! and the foul-mouthed, in-your-face, raunchy sensibilities of South Park. David Zucker directs while Stone and Parker star. Unfortunately, Baseketball is neither as funny and as saturated with jokes as those older films nor as sharp, satirical, or relevant as Parker and Stone's other work they actually wrote and produced (which is not the case here). When you get down to it, Baseketball is quite lame and unfunny.

Childhood friends Cooper (Parker) and Remer (Stone) invent a new sport on the spot at a party, baseketball, which as the name implies is a cross between basketball and baseball. It soon catches on, and the boys go pro with billionaire Ted Denzlow (Ernest Borgnine). The ideals of the league are high: everybody gets paid the same, players can't get traded, and teams can't relocate. Coop and Remer eventually have a falling out over Jenna (Yasmine Bleeth), the head of a children's foundation, while ruthless businessman Baxter Cain (Robert Vaughn) aims to change the rules of the game to maximize owner profit.

There's really not a whole lot to say about Baseketball. It's crude, vulgar, stupid, and after awhile, just tedious. The game itself doesn't have much in the way of variety. All the guys do is shoot hoops while their opponents make goofy faces or say gross things to get them to miss. This is kind of funny at first, but it never takes off and becomes hilarious; the gags quickly become tired, and the obvious route to a joke is taken every time.

There are also long stretches throughout the movie away from the sport, but even these aren't very lively. A trip to the hospital to visit a sick fan (a kid who is very irritating) feels like a rehash of Leslie Neilson's escapades with O.J. Simpson in The Naked Gun, but instead of building one joke after another, the scene just goes on with wacky things happening and not much payoff. Or when Coop flies to Calcutta and sees all the sports merchandise is made by children in a factory, and the only attempted joke in this sequence is how Indian hard hats are shaped like turbans.

The idea of satirizing sports and/or sports movies is a good one, but nothing is really done with it here. Occasionally, there are moments worthy of a chuckle - a football team riverboat dancing, teams selling the naming rights of their stadiums, Remer having a crony run the bases for him - but there are some long, empty stretches. Most jokes fall into the realm of four-letter words, peeing, farting, ball shots, and gross-out gags that aren't really gags.

Parker and Stone do all right. They must thank their lucky stars they didn't write this, but considering how much animation they do, I wouldn't mind seeing them attempt another live-action film with a better script. Vaughn looks bored and contributes nothing. Borgnine is out of the picture after maybe five minutes of screen time, and the only memorably thing he does is randomly sing "I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt." Bleeth and the other female star, Jenny McCarthy, merely take up space every time they show up. There are the usual number of cameos that go along with this type of movie, but they aren't funny either.

This is one of those movies where everything is thrown against the wall, but nothing really sticks. The plot is a free-for-all, but instead of comic anarchy, it's a dull mess.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Melancholia

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has inspired a lot of controversy, both in his work and about himself. I've never weighed in on it because I had yet to see any of his movies, but I was interested in seeing them. Having seen Melancholia (2011), his unflinching look at depression, family, and misery in the face of the apocalypse, I can safely say that whether you like the film or not, it will generate discussion about its ideas. It offers no easy answers and no comfort to its audience, but it is exceptionally well crafted, bravely acted, and haunting.

The film is divided into two parts. The first, titled "Justine," concerns itself with the wedding celebration of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and the reception being held at the estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who have paid for the wedding. Despite trying to put on a happy face, Justine is severely depressed to the point that both the ceremonies of the day and her relationships with the guests - her divorced parents, sour mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and carefree father Dexter (John Hurt), and boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) - are irreparably damaged. Part two, "Claire," jumps ahead to where Justine's misery has left her nearly catatonic. Claire tries to care for her, but she grows despondent as a planet called "Melancholia" hurtles toward earth, threatening the annihilation of all life.

For a movie about the end of the world, Melancholia doesn't concern itself with any grand scale or sense of mass destruction. There are no special effects of buildings crumbling, cars exploding, rioting, hellfire raining down, scientists explaining what's going on, or heroes rising to save the day. Melancholia the planet begins as a tiny dot in the sky that gradually grows larger and larger until its destiny arrives. The end approaches, and the movie limits its focus to a small group of people at one location as their personal dramas play out against the backdrop of oblivion. The film opens with a stunning sequence of abstract beauty depicting the inevitable end with a series of symbolic, almost-frozen shots of Justine, Claire, and Claire's young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), together and in separate frames, intercut with a depiction of the two planets colliding. Once the narrative begins, the film adopts a mostly handheld perspective that includes a lot of jarring jump cuts and is just as personal and unstable as the characters it captures.

Many films that depict depression do so in a superficial manner (i.e. eating ice cream while watching a romantic movie) that is easily solvable (i.e. finding that special someone by the end). Here, it's gut-wrenching and paralyzing. Pains are taken to illustrate everything Justine is grateful for, including a wealthy family and a loving, caring husband, but her misery is a merciless chasm, a draining and debilitating force that offers no respite and only grows in power, not unlike a certain galactic phenomena threatening the world.

There's not a bad performance in the film. I've never been a Kirsten Dunst fan, but this is probably her best work. Gainsbourg is also really good as the long-suffering sister who wants to help but can lose her patience ("Sometimes, I hate you."). I also like seeing Sutherland act, rather than play a variation of Jack Bauer; he's set up as the strong, reassuring voice of reason and science, but we eventually learn how much of a false front that is. In a nice touch, Udo Kier plays the insulted wedding planner who humorously refuses to look at Justine after she "ruined [his] wedding."

Melancholia is more than two hours long, and while it is absorbing and challenging, it is not entertaining. It's painful, awkward, and forceful and revels in harsh truths. It's not always subtle in tone or meaning, but then again, a slap to the face usually isn't.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Robin Hood (2010)

One of the common criticisms I remember reading about Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was the casting of Orlando Bloom as the protagonist, Balian de Ibelin, defender of Jerusalem and its people. I thought he did fine, but when an actor best known for playing a pretty-boy elf rubs shoulders with the likes of Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Edward Norton, he will probably look out of place to some people in the audience. Scott must have agreed on some level because in his next historic epic, Robin Hood (2010), he re-teamed with the rugged actor who took him to box-office and Oscar glory in Gladiator, Russell Crowe, to play Sherwood's favorite socialist archer.

It might be more accurate to label this version of Robin Hood a prequel rather than a re-imagining. We see how a common archer in King Richard's army, Robin Longstride (Crowe), deserts with his cohorts shortly after the king is killed in France and winds up taking the identity of a fallen Nottingham knight as he returns to England, where he continues the ruse at the insistence of the man's father, Lord Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and the reluctance of his widow, Lady Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, Prince John (Oscar Isaac) becomes King John, imposing harsh taxes on an already-impoverished populace bled dry by years of foreign campaigning, using his trusted advisor Godfrey (Mark Strong) to carry out his orders but not realizing Godfrey is a French double agent using harsh methods to divide the country in preparation for an invasion by King Phillip.

Like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood has a plot built on political and economic intrigue surrounding the throne and the plight of the common man punctuated by large-scale battles of armies clashing on horseback and fortified cities being stormed. The main difference, of course, is that Robin Hood is set in the fields, forests, and cities of England and not Jerusalem and its surrounding deserts. These similarities with Scott's previous work, along with other epics such as Braveheart and combined with the already familiar elements of the Robin Hood tale, are what keep Robin Hood from being as rousing as it could have been.

Let me just say Robin Hood is not a bad movie. Like the movie's mentioned, the visual and production elements of the film are astounding. The period details are convincing, the scenery is beautiful, and the action scenes, though dominated by a shaky camera and furiously-cut editing that sometimes make them hard to follow, are exciting. It's more than two-and-a-half hours long, and I was absorbed for most of it and impressed by many of the performances.

But while complicated politics and loyalties work in a historical movie about two religions and numerous factions jostling for control of the Holy Land, those same elements feel more bogged down when applied to a more mythical and heroic story like Robin Hood, and the result is a more muddled storyline. On a fundamental level, should the audience really care if England's tyrant is deposed by a French one? King John is a weak, ineffectual ruler, but he's not really the villain. The Sheriff of Nottingham is here and played by Matthew Macfadyen, but his screen time is limited and mostly played for laughs. The real villain here is Godfrey, but he's not as nasty as Alan Rickman's sheriff if Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and because he's an underling of King Phillip, who only has a couple of scenes, he feels less like a calculating mastermind and more like a tool for a much greater nemesis who never shows up.

Crowe is fine as hero and leader of men, but he's not really Robin Hood; he's Maximus Wallace with a bow and arrow (though to be fair, he is more convincing in the role than Kevin Costner was in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Consider a scene where he interrogates a French soldier by firing arrows around him to scare him. I can picture Errol Flynn doing something similar, but he would have been playful, clearly never intending to hit the man (at least clearly to the audience). Crowe's Robin actually nails the guy's hand to a wall with an arrow. This Robin Hood is darker, more brooding, and intense; he's a soldier, not a swashbuckler.

The rest of the cast is mixed. Blanchett is good as Lady Marian, and I liked how her relationship with Robin develops. She comes to gradually respect and even love the man pretending to be her husband when she sees he really does care for the common people. The best performance is von Sydow as the aged, blind Lord Loxley; at first he seems crazy, but his appearance hides a sharp mind. His best moment comes when he is confronted by the man who killed his son, and his grief is palpable. Of the merry men, only Mark Addy as the beekeeping Friar Tuck stands out; the rest - Little John, Alan A'Dayle, and Will Scarlet - are fun when they're on screen, but at this point in the Robin Hood mythos, they aren't all that important. William Hurt is wasted as William Marshall, a lord loyal to King Richard who doesn't do much except look stern, and Eileen Atkins as Eleanor, mother of Richard and John, knows the politicking of kingdoms but is all but forgotten about by the end.

Friday, March 15, 2013

This is Spinal Tap

When I first watched This is Spinal Tap (1984) many years ago, in high school or middle school, I didn't get it, not thinking it was as funny as its reputation had led me to believe, and yet, over the years, I found myself constantly referring to it and being reminded of it. Maybe I wasn't into music enough at the time and couldn't understand exactly what the movie was targeting. Now, as a huge heavy metal fan, I can recognize and appreciate all the little inside jokes, accurate details, and how dead-on it was.

Spinal Tap is the name of the fictitious heavy metal band that is chronicled in This is Spinal Tap. Director Rob Reiner plays Marty DiBergi, a filmmaker fascinated by one of the loudest bands to come of England, Spinal Tap. He follows the band on its U.S. tour to promote its latest album, "Smell the Glove" and interviews the various members: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tuffnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Along the way, concerts are cancelled, equipment malfunctions, an intruding girlfriend forces her way in, the manager quits, and the members fight with each other.

The feature film debut of director Rob Reiner, who would go on to make the likes of Stand by Me and The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap is regarded as one of the most successful of mockumentaries. A mockumentary is fictional movie that takes the form of a documentary; characters address the camera, the cameramen are acknowledged, interviews are given, the film presents itself as factual, etc. So convincing was This Spinal Tap in this regard that apparently many people believed it was genuine and the band was real, according to the trivia section of the Internet Movie Database; even Ozzy Osbourne apparently didn't laugh when he saw it because he was convinced of its authenticity.

This pseudo-authenticity (if that's a real term) is key to why the movie works as well as it does. There are some real out-there, silly aspects of Spinal Tap (the drummers apparently have a tendency to spontaneously combust on stage), but because the movie is filtered through a subjective documentary lens, the contrast between the more serious, believable elements and the clearly exaggerated portions serves to accentuate and increase the humor. When the pods containing the band members fails to open, the dimensions of the group's Stonehenge stage piece come in wrong (based on an actual Black Sabbath tour mishap), and the album cover's sexist image is replaced with all black (is this where Metallica got it's idea for the Black Album?), it's funnier because it seems genuine and unplanned. The music is played for laughs, but it's actually catchy, filled with intentionally dumb lyrics, and certainly representing of the style of the time.

Even though the members of Spinal Tap are played by a trio of well-known actors, they look and sound like a real rock group, and it's uncanny: the makeup, the eyeliner, the hair, the spandex (Derek Smalls wears bondage gear that resembles a similar outfit worn by Anvil's Steve "Lips" Kudlow), the spoiled behavior, and the idiotic delusions of greatness. These are guys who have had so much success that now as it's fading, they can't imagine being without it, so they continue on, even as they become laughingstocks reduced to playing as opening acts for puppet shows.

Looking back on This is Spinal Tap, it actually seems rather tame compared to some real acts that followed. Heavy metal has often been taken too seriously by some of its denizens in a way that is easy to be unintentionally funny, but this was made before the advent of reality television (with the likes of Bret Michaels' Rock of Love and Celebrity Rehab), the controversies of Marilyn Manson, and the rise of grunge, alternative, and pop music effectively killing of the mainstream popularity of this genre. This is Spinal Tap was satirical for its time, but over years, it looks more and more like a prophecy of what was to come. If a sequel is ever made, I can imagine the boys attempting an unplugged hip-hop album and winding up on Oprah.