Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Primeval

How many good killer alligator/crocodile movies are there? There's Alligator, directed by Lewis Teague and written by John Sayles. Then there's ... Well, Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive wasn't bad, though any lessons he might have learned from that experience must have been forgotten by the time he made Crocodile. Oh, and the end to Adaptation (I've heard good things about Rogue and Black Water but have not seen them yet).

Ok, this is not a reputable subgenre of the nature-run-amok movies. Maybe we've seen so much real footage of gators and crocs chomping down on zebras and wildebeests on the Discovery Channel, seeing a (usually) fake-looking gator or croc eating horror movie victims just doesn't match that same natural power and ferocity. Or maybe too many of these movies are cheap-o productions, put together with limited skill or competence.

Previews for Primeval (2007) seemed to downplay the inclusion of a crocodile as its animal on the prowl. A voice tells us that in a remote part of the world, the world's "most prolific serial killer" remains at large and has killed over 300 people. Of course, Primeval is not a serial killer movie, but the surprising thing is how it's barely a killer crocodile movie either. Part creature feature, part political statement, and part action movie, Primeval is, sadly, mostly bad.

After a U.N. worker is killed by a giant crocodile while an investigating a mass grave in Burundi, an American news crew is sent to locate and capture the infamous croc. The crew includes disgraced producer Tim (Dominic Purcell), eager reporter Aviva (Brooke Langton), cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones), wildlife expert Matt (Gideon Emery), and their  guide Jacob (Jurgen Prochnow). Once in the bush, not only do they have to deal with the giant, man-eating crocodile, they become targets of a local warlord after Steven videotapes him executing villagers.

Gustave is the name given to the crocodile, and apparently, he's a real African crocodile. Hence why the movie can claim it's based on a true story. Reportedly, Gustave is 20 feet long and weighs about a ton, and he could be around 100 years old. Because he is a confirmed man-eater (though how many he's killed cannot be confirmed), Gustave has attained a mythical status in that region of African. There was also a PBS documentary produced in 2004 about a failed attempt to capture the creature.

I have not seen this documentary, but I am curious to learn more about Gustave because this movie sure as hell didn't teach me anything about this crocodile other than it lives in Africa, is massive, and eats people. The attacks by Gustave in the movie are shot in a way that makes them incomprehensible to follow, and the creature itself, even in the brief glimpses of it we're allowed, fails to convince as anything more than a shoddy special effect.  Plus, the beast itself is often away for long stretches in which the threat comes from the thuggish militia of the warlord Little Gustave, resulting in chases and shootouts, but even these scenes are poorly put together.

At its heart, Primeval tries to make an interesting social critique. In a country ravaged by genocide and civil war, the Western World is only there for the freakshow aspect of the crocodile and even then because it killed one white person (meanwhile hundreds of African victims are ignored). Our nominal hero Tim is only there because his last story blew up on him while do-gooder Aviva thinks the assignment is her ticket to advancement (she also arrogantly, if you ask me, saves a dog that villagers left out as an offering for Gustave, but she doesn't say a word about how a small child was killed the day before). Meanwhile, Steven is a loudmouth jackass, the Ugly American. The crocodile to them is a hot story, entertainment; to the people who live there, it's the thing they live in fear of every day, a source of terror and misery. The downside of this strategy is that it renders our protagonists wholly unsympathetic, and that's fatal in a horror movie.

The other interesting conceit of the movie is the explanation of Gustav. He became a blood-thirsty man-eater from eating the corpses dumped into the river, the victims of Little Gustave and the civil war. True evil stems from man and breeds an uncontrollable monster. Of course, including both threats diminishes one and trivializes the other. If this is a rampage monster movie, why include a heady issue like genocide, a real-life horror a crocodile can't compete with? If it's a political commentary, why include a B-grade monster movie with it?

Primeval is trying to please too many masters. It wants to be a killer crocodile movie, a political statement, and an action movie, but unfortunately, two of these elements fail miserably. Maybe, if Gustave had only been an urban legend, the excuse to get these characters to Africa, and the action toned down to something more plausible, the movie might have made a searing social commentary about American arrogance and the nature of human cruelty. Instead, it's a mess.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Piranha 3D

A remake of Piranha is doing something right when the first victim of the titular killer fish is Richard Dreyfuss singing the same sea shanty he sung in Jaws (and even drinking the same beer!). That same remake is probably doing something wrong when I find myself growing bored with all the scenes of hapless human victims being shredded into Scooby snack-sized bits.

The original Piranha was made in 1978. Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante, it was a silly but effective parody of the then-recent Jaws (reportedly even Steven Spielberg enjoyed it). Piranha II: The Spawning came out in 1981 and was the directorial debut of none other than James Cameron, though he would claim that honor belongs to The Terminator (Wouldn't you?). For this rather slight series, that's actually a fair amount of behind-of-scenes talent it was able to include.

Piranha 3D (2010), which is a remake and not a second sequel the title implies (there seemed to be a rule in the '80s that all the third parts in a franchise had to be in 3D), was directed by Alexandre Aja, the French horror director of High Tension and another remake, The Hills Have Eyes. Those earlier pictures of his were grim, graphic, and shocking, and High Tension in particular showcased a willingness to shatter taboos and decorum while maintaining the ability to generate tension and suspense. The point is the tone of Aja's previous movies did not to me suggest a director who would be interested in making a movie this kitschy and tongue-in-cheek; this is the kind of juvenile shtick I'd expect from Eli Roth, who turns up here as the MC of a wet t-shirt contest and gets decapitated by a boat (I'm sure he enjoyed that).

All right, on with the plot, as if you cretins care. It's spring break in the town of Lake Victoria, Ariz., and thousands of drunk, horny people have descended upon the popular vacation destination. Sheriff Julie Forester (Elizabeth Shue) tries to keep order with her deputy, Fallon (Ving Rhames, who apparently has made remakes his thing), while ordering her 17-year-old son Jake (Steven R. McQueen, Steve McQueen's grandson) to babysit his younger siblings. However, he gets recruited to be a tour guide for Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), a pornographer looking to shoot his next video at Lake Victoria. Meanwhile, an earthquake has opened a fissure in the bottom of the lake, unleashing a swarm of prehistoric, carnivorous piranha that soon turn everything into one big smorgasbord, and Christopher Lloyd turns up as a kooky marine biologist who explains everything we need to know about these fish.

Piranha 3D promises and delivers two things: boobs and blood, and there is a plethora of both. There is no shortage of women in bikinis, women in bikini taking their tops off, or women in bikinis getting devoured by swarms of hungry fish. Don't worry, plenty of guys getting munched too; most of them were chauvinistic pigs and jerks, like the idiot who tries to drive his boat out of the feeding frenzy by going right through people in the water and ends up getting knocked in himself. The plentiful gore is quite nasty and disgusting; had the effects been more realistic, instead of obviously fake, it might have been hard to watch.

The movie's tone is tongue in cheek. The piranhas themselves aren't particular photorealistic but have a fitting cartoon, aggressive design. The aforementioned wet t-shirt contest carries the moniker "Dying to Get Wet," characters always find stupid ways to fall into the water to their deaths, and Lloyd plays his part as a cross between Doc. Brown and Rev. Jim. The little sister also gets some funny smart-ass lines when she calls it like she sees it.

All of this is fun for a while, but I found myself tiring of it around the hour mark. There's only so many ways a person can fall into the water to be devoured by a swarm of angry fish before it becomes repetitive, and while some of the characters are fun, most of them are just too bland, serving mostly as meat on the hook or being the uninteresting romantic couple. Movies like Tremors and the original Piranha have a sense of buildup, mystery, and discovery. Here, we in the audience know from the start what the threat is, and the characters are playing catch up.

I did like Shue as the sheriff, getting the Roy Scheider role as the level-headed responsible one, and Rhames, though only in a couple of scenes, gets a great moment worthy of Bruce Campbell when he yanks an engine off a motor boat and uses it to cut down the incoming piranha swarm. As the porn maker, O'Connell is mixed; with lines like "It's never cheating if it's with another chick" (directed to the underage girl he's trying to get into his movie), the character is so shamelessly self-absorbed he goes back and forth between entertaining and irritating.

At least his death is a fitting one. His legs reduced to bloody skeletal bits, he laments, "They took my penis!" Cut to an underwater shot of the severed member floating just before a hungry fish swoops in and munches on it.

Is that something you wish to see for yourself? Only you can answer that question.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Frailty

"Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof," said Kahlil Gibran. St. Thomas Aquinas said, ""To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." In Frailty (2001) our narrator says near the start, "Sometimes, truth defies reason."

Most of the time, faith is seen as a virtue. To have faith in someone or something means you can trust and rely upon them. The nature of faith implies that devoutness will be rewarded in some way. In Frailty, directed by first-time director Bill Paxton, faith is not seen as righteous value but a twisted obedience to something evil.

Frailty contains two narrative tracks. In the present, Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) tells FBI Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) that his brother Adam is the Hand of God serial killer who has been terrorizing Texas. As Fenton takes Doyle to where he says Adam has buried the bodies, he tells Doyle about his childhood where one night in 1979, his widowed father (Bill Paxton) told his sons that God had chosen the Meiks family to fight the demons walking the earth. However, the demons are disguised as humans, and when dad begins dragging people hog-tied back to the family shed to butcher with an ax, Fenton realizes his father has gone crazy while Adam devoutly believes they're now a family of superheroes.

Recently, there's been controversy surrounding the decision of Rolling Stone magazine to publish on its front cover a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Some have argued that gave the suspected terrorist exactly what he wanted: attention and the rock-star treatment while being insensitive to the bombing victims. Others, including Slate magazine, have argued that while the image is shocking and exploitive, it also subverts our expectations of a terrorist. Not a "monster ... a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know," writes Mark Joseph Stern for Slate.

We can argue all day whether Rolling Stone was right or wrong in its judgment, but in Frailty, a similar approach, albeit in a fictional thriller setting, proves to be effectively unsettling. As played by Paxton, Mr. Meiks is not a fire-and-brimstone, raving caricature who condemns the unrighteous nor is he a sadistic monster who gets off on all the killing. He's presented as a genuine, loving, even sweet family man who believes to the core of his being in what he's doing, and yet what he does is horrific. To compound it, he encourages (or as Fenton says "brainwashes") his sons into doing likewise, and that legacy impacts the boys well into their adult years. Faith in one's actions not only can convince you to commit evil but to also get others to do likewise.

The violence in Frailty is brutal but not explicit. Much of it occurs just out-of-frame and is implied, so there's little splatter. The only blood I recall seeing is in the form of stains of clothing and hands. The murders themselves are hard to watch. Demon or not, the people Mr. Meiks has kidnapped and tied up stare up in wide-eyed terror, their mouths taped shut and their arms and legs, and all they can do is watch as the blade comes down. Another disturbing sequence occurs when the father locks Fenton in a dark cellar for days on end and only allows him one cup of water a day in an effort to get his son to find the faith. He loves his son, but his faith turns this loving father into a child abuser and a murderer.

That's the other element of the movie that keeps it from being just a freak show about a family of violent weirdos; they are first and foremost a family, and as they go about their gruesome deeds, we watch that bond disintegrate. The father's mission turns one son against hi and turns the other into a fanatic. The only time Dad refuses to act on a message from above is when he says he's been told that Fenton is demon, and rather than kill his boy, he tries to get him to see the light. Meanwhile, Adam gets slightly jealous Dad devotes time to the disobedient son. From a theological standpoint, it's almost a modern spin on the story of Abraham and Isaac with an allusion to the Prodigal Son.

Performances are good throughout, especially by Paxton. Paxton has played a lot of asshole characters (Hudson in Aliens, the car salesman in True Lies), but he convinces as a loving man with a terrible burden. McConaughey is appropriately mysterious; you know he's got a few secrets. Special props to the kids playing the young Fenton and Adam; they acquit themselves nicely.

For a first-time director, Paxton does a pretty good job. The narrative is balanced well between the two time periods, and it's simple enough to keep track of, and the plot contains a couple of twists and surprises along the way; let's just say our narrator is probably not 100 percent reliable. We witness some visions of angels and whatnot, but except for one instance, it's ambiguous enough that we're not sure if we're seeing genuine messages from God or hallucinations. What's chilling is the certainty with which the devout believe.

The Crow

The Crow (1994), an adaptation of the comic book by James O'Barr, will always be remembered for the tragedy that occurred during its production. Star Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was killed when he was accidentally shot while filming his character's own murder scene. Most of the movie was complete, and filming was eventually completed with the aid of a stand-in and special effects. Sitting down to watch the movie for the first time, I questioned whether I'd be able to appreciate the movie on its own terms despite that dark cloud. The answer is a resounding yes.

On October 30, a day in Detroit now known as Devil's Night because of an annual crime spree, rock star Eric Draven (Lee) is murdered, and his fiancĂ© Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) is raped and later dies from the brutality she sustains; they were due to be married the next day. One year later, a crow lands on Draven's headstone and resurrects him. After pulling himself from out of the ground, Draven, guided by the crow, sets out on a path of vengeance against the thugs who murdered him and his love. Along the way, he encounters friends from his life, including Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a skateboarding girl neglected by her junky mother, and Sgt. Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), a cop. Eventually, Draven ends up on a collision course with crime boss Top Dollar (Michael Wincott).

Directed by Alex Proyas, who would go to make Dark City, The Crow is a melancholy film, even without knowledge of the real-life tragedy. Detroit here is a city of misery and suffering, a place where it's always raining, the streets and buildings are filmed with filth, and the people who populate it are either total scum criminals or victims crushed by it all. This is a city where at a bar known as The Pit, the villains drink shots by swallowing bullets with their liquor. The first of the city reveals a desolate urban landscape rocked by fires that it looks like hell on earth.

Though the movie falls into the realm of action and martial arts, it also incorporates elements of the horror genre, particularly the early German Expressionism films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. The characters exist almost entirely in a world of shadow, a darkness that matches their souls. Draven, with his face painted white in the style of a porcelain harlequin mask, is literally a phantom from the beyond the grave while Topdollar, with his long hair and formal dress, looks and acts in a way that makes me think of a modern-day Dracula, just so calmly assured of his power and casual about violence; their final encounter atop a church, in a storm surrounded by gargoyles, is appropriately gothic and moody.

While The Crow has an atmosphere of doom and gloom that would depress Tim Burton, it also contains a highly-charged kinetic streak and energy. The action scenes are exciting and varied, and Proyas includes a number of flashbacks showing Draven in happier times. The flashbacks are rapidly cut and filmed with a constantly moving camera and colors, a powerful contrast to the sad, black present.

Plot-wise, The Crow proves disappointingly straightforward. Early on, I anticipated a build to some mind-blowing revelation about why Eric and Shelly were murdered and that Draven's revenge would include him making this discovery, but the narrative boils down to something bad must be avenged. Later, the villains get the idea of killing the crow to eliminate Draven's invincibility (any new wounds he gets rapidly heal); they shoot the bird, seemingly killing it, but it emerges all right later yet Draven becomes susceptible to injury. Ultimately, this is a movie more about its aesthetics and style than its plot.

On the acting front, Lee is a commanding presence, much of his performance built on silent movement and poise, although he does get some evocative dialogue, even quoting Poe's "The Rave" at one point. "Little things used to mean so much to Shelly- I used to think they were kind of trivial. Believe me, nothing is trivial," he says. Wincott is a solid villain, nicely balancing dark humor with menace and carrying it all on his distinctive, resonant voice while Hudson is the voice of reason, the normal perspective for the audience to see things through.

The Crow is an evocative, exciting, and visually unforgettable experience, and at times, it becomes almost poetic: Draven fighting out of his grave, finding himself in his old apartment, weeping at his love's headstone, etc. It's a sad movie, both for events in and out of the picture, but it's thrilling nonetheless.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Swamp Thing

I've always had a soft spot for Swamp Thing. I remember watching both the cartoon (which featured a bastardized version of the Trogg's "Wild Thing" as the theme song) and even a few episodes of the live-action TV show. Plus, the character himself offers a lot of cool possibilities; at its heart, the big green guy is a cross-pollination of the superhero and monster genres, and that makes him stand out from other comic book figures like Superman or Batman. I've also enjoyed his arch-nemesis: Dr. Arcane, who in his quest for immortality creates an army of mutant "Un-Men."

Swamp Thing (1982) is the first movie adaptation of the comic, and it is written and directed by renowned horror master Wes Craven. Essentially it's an origin story. Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is working in the swamp on a formula that would create a plant/animal hybrid able to survive extreme environments. Just as he makes a breakthrough, the lab is stormed by men led by Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan), who kills Alec's sister Linda. In the process, Holland is covered with his formula and set aflame. Diving into the swamp, Holland's body combines with the lifeforms, transforming him into Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), a creature of immense strength that challenges Arcane's diabolical scheme while trying to protect government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau).

In the comics, Swamp Thing is a being that can transfer his consciousness into any plant matter and construct it into a body for himself. He can also control plant life and regrow any damaged body parts. In the film, Swamp Thing is a man in a rubber suit and a rather unconvincing one at that. Craven, the horror specialist, early on keeps Swamp Thing limited to long-distant shots and short, quick glimpses of a hand reaching out of the water to yank the unwary, but since this is our hero, we see more and more of him as the movie goes on, and the more we see him, the less convincing he appears. Aside from one scene where he regrows a cut-off arm after reaching into the sunlight, Swamp Thing really doesn't demonstrate much of his comic book version's powers, and the result is less Swamp Thing and more soggy, green Big Foot. Most of the time, the green guy is grabbing Arcane's dopey henchmen and tossing them around like a pro wrestler.

The sad thing is the Swamp Thing costume makes for the most convincing creature in the movie. Near the end, Arcane tests the same formula on an unwitting subordinate who promptly shrinks into a mutant midget. Arcane himself drinks the formula after being told by Swamp Thing the secret of the formula is that it makes you more of what you are; not only does this seem like a very stupid move for a supposed genius, the resulting monster is a laughably fake pig-dog combination. Swamp Thing's face at least allows for eye and mouth movement, but Arcane's can't even offer that much, and the climactic battle between monsters is lame. The movie could have used some of the more freakish Un-Men like the Patchwork Man or Crassus.

If only the creature effects were the only flaws of the movie, but regrettably, Swamp Thing's plot is an undercooked mess. Instead of exploring Swamp Thing character - what he is, how he's adapted to his new state of being, what he wants to accomplish - the movie descends into a series of repetitive chase scenes: Cable gets chased by Arcane's goons, Swamp Thing saves her, rinse and repeat. Too much time is wasted on chases that go nowhere. At least Craven makes good use of the swamp location, highlighting its duel nature: full of great beauty and immense danger, a place full of life that man would poison for his own ends.

While the central creature effects and plot of Swamp Thing are a bust, the film does possess a quirky charm that makes it enjoyable. Although he's only in the first 25 minutes, Wise is really good as the driven scientist Holland, and it's a disappointment he's gone so quickly. Frankly, I've never seen a movie scientist like him. Most brilliant scientists in the movies are insane villains like Arcane or socially inept nerds like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Holland is, well, cool; he aggressively begins hitting on Cable when she shows up and doesn't back down from confrontation. I wouldn't have minded seeing an entire movie just about this character, even without the part when he turns into a monster.

And as much as I've harped on his makeup, Dick Durock is actually quite good as Swamp Thing. More famous as a stuntman, he projects a quiet sadness and even a sense of humor. His romance with Cable has a certain gentleness and sweetness to it. It's no surprise Durock would return as Swamp Thing in both the sequel and subsequent TV series. Cable, as a character, is a mix-bag. Sometimes, she holds her own and is as tough as any soldier, but by the end, she falls into the damsel-in-distress mode.

Jourdan here is a fun villain straight out of James Bond, quoting Nietzsche and going on about how brilliant he is, although Arcane is too vague. We know he wants immortality, but the movie never explains who he is (in the comics, he was a scientist and magician with the power to raise and control the dead): is he a scientist, a crime boss, a mercenary captain, a terrorist? And for a guy the U.S. believes to be dead, what's he doing with such a luxurious mansion so close to an isolated government laboratory? Horror fans will recognize David Hess of Last House on the Left fame as Arcane's lieutenant Ferret. In some ways, he's channeling his more infamous villain Krug, but he still got a fair amount of leering, sexual menace and a sadistic streak that make him effective. Also good is Jude (Reggie Batts), a black boy who works at an isolated gas station and helps out Cable and always has a quick line; when Cable tells him not to be afraid when Arcane's men arrive, he replies, "You better say that to somebody whose desk you ain't hiding behind."

Swamp Thing has been talked about frequently the last few years as the subject for a new cinematic adventure, with directors such as Vincenzo Natali and Guillermo del Toro expressing interest in using the character, and that's something I can get behind. Craven's movie is entertaining enough, but it's nowhere near what it could have been.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tombstone

If there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of watching movies, it's this: famed lawman, gunfighters, soldiers, warriors, cops, detectives, and other action hero types are never more likely to draw trouble than when they try to retire to a nice, quiet life with their families. They might as well be sending personal invitations to every bad guy in the universe to come and mess with them. My advice to any action heroes out there would be to neglect your families; they may resent you for it, but a happy family means a doomed family (at least in the movies).

Tombstone (1993), which dramatizes famed Western lawman Wyatt Earp's attempt to settle down until he's drawn into conflict with the notorious gang The Cowboys, had a troubled production. Writer Kevin Jarre was fired as director and replaced with George P. Cosmatos (although subsequent reports and interviews indicate star Kurt Russell may have been the actual director), the script was dramatically curtailed, entire scenes and subplots were eliminated, and filming ran behind schedule.

The difficult circumstances of the filming clearly had an impact on the final project. Running a little over two hours long, the movie feels longer than it really is. Characters come and go and are often forgotten about for long stretches, and it can be a bit taxing trying to keep track of everyone. One gets the impression the filmmakers were shooting for a grand epic and had to settle for an action movie in Western garb. Still, thanks to some stellar performances and handsome production design, Tombstone proves to be an engaging if frustrating picture.

Following his retirement as a lawman in Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Russell) travels to Tombstone, Ariz. with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to settle down and become a businessman. It's in Tombstone he's reunited with his old friend "Doc" Holliday (Val Kilmer), a gunfighter with a quick wit and faster gun who's dying of tuberculosis. The Earps quickly start making money, but Tombstone is under the control of The Cowboys, a ruthless gang we first see when they massacre a Mexican wedding party. The gang's members include leader Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang). Eventually, Morgan and Virgil, feeling so guilty at the hardship inflicted on the townsfolk, become marshals, and before too long, Wyatt himself is putting the badge back on for an all-out war with The Cowboys, including a shootout at the O.K. Corral.

That's the plot in a nutshell and a fraction of the cast. There's also Wyatt Earp's romance with an actress (Dana Delany), although he tries to resist her advances because he's already married to Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), an opium addict. There's also Billy Bob Thorton as a boorish card dealer, Thomas Haden Church as a member of The Cowboys, Terry O'Quinn as Tombstone's mayor, Charlton Heston as a helpful rancher, Michael Rooker as a reformed member of the gang, and others. It gets pretty crowded, and some of the actors, Rooker and Billy Zane as a traveling actor in particular, feel as if most of their parts ended up on the cutting room floor.

The film's other chief problem is that the nominal climax - the Shootout at the O.K. Corral - occurs about half way through the film. The subsequent encounters between Earp and The Cowboys feel rushed and anti-climactic, with two redundant action montages showing Earp and his group on the hunt. The Cowboys, despite the presence of top-notch performers, lack a standout, charismatic leader the movie can build a final confrontation to. Curly Bill and Ringo are initially set up as the big, bad heavies, but their final fates are somewhat disappointing and brushed off. In short, The Cowboys never feel they're as much of a threat to Earp and Doc as they should be.

What is good about Tombstone and what makes the movie very good are the performances; there isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Russell is the stalwart man of honor and decency who can't help but get involved despite his efforts not to (we first see him whipping a man for doing likewise to a horse). The best performance without a doubt is Kilmer. The relationship between Earp and Holliday is without a doubt the heart of the film, and there is poignancy when Holliday says he rides with the lawman because Earp is one of the only true friends he has. Holliday, despite his terminal condition, is sharper, faster, and more daring than anyone else in the room, and it's a hoot watching him take down, verbally or otherwise, anyone who thinks they can challenge him.

The movie also depicts the myth making of Wyatt Earp. In their first scene, The Cowboys are warned by a Mexican priest that Death will come for on horseback, straight out of the book of Revelations. Later, Earp lets one of the outlaws go to spread the warning that he is Death and coming for them. When we first meet Earp, he is a man uncomfortable with his reputation and trying to return to an anonymous, private life. In fact, prior to the O.K. Corral, he says he's only shot one man, and it's the kind of deed that haunts a man. This normal man is lost when Earp marches into a gunfight with his brothers and Holliday and when he strides out into the open under a hail of bullets, emerging unscathed. In short, the first half of the movie is Earp the man; the second is Earp the legend.

Frankly, it's the character moments that make Tombstone stand out. Yes, there are plenty of shootouts and violent confrontations, but the most satisfying element is watching how these people push and test each other under pressure. If nothing else, the movie proves to be one of the greatest ensemble of mustaches ever committed to film.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Brood

The Brood (1979) is probably the first movie to demonstrate director David Cronenberg's affinity for the weird. Sure, he had directed They Came from Within and Rabid by this point, and those had showcased his early talent and some of his body horror fascination; the former featured a parasitic slug that turned its victims into murderous, sex-crazed maniacs, and the latter featured a woman spreading a virus by drinking the blood of men she seduced, but at their most basic, their stories resembled a zombie plot and vampire plot respectively (albeit with some modern updates). However, The Brood, I think, is the first time Cronenberg gave us something truly out-there and original.

Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) runs the Somafree Institute where he practices a form of psychiatric therapy known as psychoplasmics in which patient are encouraged to release their suppressed anger through physical manifestations on their bodies. This is demonstrated when we see one patient, during an on-stage treatment, lets out his anger against his father and reveals sores all over his body. When Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) picks up his daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds) from the clinic, where her mother and Frank's ex-wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is undergoing treatment, he discovers bruises and other injuries on her back. Frank suspects Nola has beaten their daughter, but he is blocked from seeing Nola by Raglan. Frank tries to investigate the Somafree Institute to build a case against Raglan, but at the same time, strange, deformed, dwarf-like children begin murdering the people in Nola's life who have caused her pain, including her mother and father.

Like much of Cronenberg's filmography, The Brood proceeds slowly, building only gradually to its genre elements (Mick Garris, on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, compared the movie a "snowball of horror" that builds). Frank's desire to protect his daughter against any threat - whether her mother or her mother's other "children" - is relatable, and we see how battered emotionally and physically Candace is by her parents' conflict. Even the grandparents, who we learn abused and ignored the abuse of Nola, are presented as flawed, damaged, and complicated people; both feel guilt over what they did or didn't do for their daughter. The beginning doesn't feel like a horror movie and instead concentrates on the family dynamics and the relationships between the characters, but by the time we get to the end where Frank confronts Nola and the truth behind the brood is revealed in a shocking and grotesque revelation, we're deeply invested in what happens and what it means.  Cronenberg's movies often demonstrate the ability to go beyond surface shocks and to use the violence, gore, and scares to represent a deeper thematic meaning: the monsters are made flesh by the very real flaws of the humans.

Families and the bonds between parent and child are meant to be built on love and support, but in The Brood, Cronenberg paints the nuclear family as a harmful and even dangerous entity, one built on shame, guilt, abuse, neglect, and anger. In a form of cinematic psychoplasmics, Cronenberg physically manifests these negative traits of the family in the form of literal monsters. Those deformed children, we learn, are literally the children of Nola's rage, brought to life and driven by her anger at those around her; she has repressed all those emotions her whole life, and Raglan is now encouraging her to release them in the most horrifying and literal of manners. The Brood is the horror of allegory.

Because the drama of the characters feels real, the horror elements are that much more effective, and Cronenberg crafts some adroit, palpable images. Like many of the best monster movies, the creatures are mostly suggested and kept off-screen except quick flashes during attacks. After killing the grandmother, one of the creatures is shown obscured through the rails of a staircase leaving behind bloodied handprints. Sure, they're a bit hokey once we get good looks at them, but bunch them together in their colored winter coats, give them blunt objects, and the chance to gang up on the little girl or whoever else gets in their way, and their threat is felt.