10 February 2016

The Imitation Game (2014)

As The Imitation Game opens, Benedict Cumberbatch, in deeply engaging form here, asks that a particular kind of attention be paid to what he is going to say to avoid missing something. Twice he asks you to pay attention. There are interlocking and singularly common qualities germane to life as an academic that are seen as peculiar by almost everyone else in life: intensity of focus to the exclusion of all else, and the lighting fast connections between the 'global' and the 'local' (to use my urban planning terminology as apt metaphor) that occur in constantly oscillating fashion within the minds of those whose job it is to think. Often when these tendencies appear in a character, they are portrayed in slightly or exaggeratedly freakish fashion, and this is one of those movies. However, it is also a film concerned with different types of attention, and to that end I am a huge fan.

Thus I fought off my two year long urge to dismiss this film as only 'Oscar bait' and satisfied my need for a  break from the intensely particular talents of Benedict Cumberbach. I swear he is the acting equivalent of an intensely rich flourless chocolate cake - the first slender slice is delightful, but one needs time, days between slices or the taste loses its surprising, satisfying attraction. Anyway, I first re-watched the intriguing but extra-faulty/fake version of Turing's story, Enigma (2001). Yes, I own a copy of the film, it sits on a shelf with my copy of Proof (2005) and Sphere (1998) and Contact (1997) in a section I should just label "Films That Make Science Seem Sassy." Often overly melodramatic, Enigma features a Dougray Scott guilty here of scenery chewing only slightly less hammy than his villain role in Mission Impossible II (2000). Enigma nonetheless features Kate Winslet in a lovely turn as a code-breaker extraordinaire who had the misfortune to be born female and brilliant in the 1930s. In retrospect this film fails to provide not only the truth of what happened at Bletchly Park involving breaking Enigma code, it also fails to provide a narrative that one can become emotionally invested in.

Not so for The Imitation Game. The reviews I have read seem to believe the film avoids complicating the true character of Turing in favor of narrative brevity and neatness, and this is certainly the case in most studio biopics, but seems less true here. Additionally, and most interesting for me is the usually astute Dana Stevens over at Slate whose review accuses the film of neglecting to do things which it does in fact do, and of treating the audience like remedial learners when in fact I felt that it demands that one stay checked in, attention wise, or miss things. And we're back to paying attention.

What makes this film stand out to me is that it was not comfortable, as some films are, with showing what the code-breakers were doing out of context. Their work and conversations are juxtaposed with scenes of soldiers and citizens missing limbs, people packed deep under ground subject to the flickering uncertainty of tunnel lights, ships destroyed at sea, a woman scraping the bottom of a large pot for one more taste of food. Hollywood fare is the worst about beating one over the head with an idea, so it was nice that the film only featured one scene focused on the fallout from their actions while often filling the screen with images of carnage. Shortly after breaking the Enigma code, a member of the team realizes that his brother will probably die as part of an attack on a convoy of British ships full of civilians, and begs in tears for the team to chance revealing that they have broken Enigma to save his brother. This they cannot do, and the revelation of why is disclosed perhaps too quickly for some, but it becomes clear here and as the movie continues that there is a high human toll to winning the war. This is a delicate balance all films of this kind must strike between comment and display, showing and telling. Without commentary to couch stakes, perhaps some missed that the movie is aware of them.

Attention. I began this review touching upon the way mental life functions for an academic, and this is the way in which to critique what the film is doing. For example, this film does portray Turing as perhaps on the spectrum somewhere around Aspergers - are most brilliant people on the spectrum, or does mental brilliance appear similar to Aspergers? But if one were to view the events through is perspective instead of those in the film who critique him as strange, judge, slap, and abuse him, the film takes on a different resonance. Perhaps in real life Turing was far more jovial and engaging, but the film wants to make clear the isolation attendant upon seeing clearly where others do not. Early on the team is breaking for lunch one afternoon and attempts to lure him from his work, but his singular focus renders his answers to their questions stilted, brusque and ultimately silly. We are then left with the back of Turing's head and the laughter of the departing team. This is a man different from most and for whom no one has made allowances. An apt critique of the film would consider the frequency with which he is set up as the butt of a joke without any recourse to why he acts as he does.

For example, in talking to the Commander of the program, he is chastised for his brusque demeanor, demand for resources, and insistence that he knows what to do to break the code. Its as if Turing is the only person in the war effort not allowed to feel the pressures of a need to break the code and act on it quickly. Its a moment that overshadows the entirety of the film, an oddly anti-intellectual bent that tints almost everything that occurs. When the Commander tells him he is no longer in university and wars are won through chain of command, its a moment that feels out of joint. I do not doubt that such moments do occur, but even accounting for the hindsight of knowing that Turing was successful, this brush off of the ideas of what even he the Commander had declared a prodigal talent, feels odd. Doesn't he want to win the war? It is almost as if the characters within the film itself were part of who Turing was asking to pay attention in the beginning and only the always stellar Mark Strong's MI6 Menzies agent appears to be doing as asked.

Again later, in his relationship with Joan Clarke there is the need to pay attention and Joan does not. I have to admit, I have not cared for a Keira Knightly performance since Love Actually- the last time she seemed not to be constantly posturing, posing, and nearly imploding (her cheeks at least) with her own self importance. However, this acting behavior of hers seems right for Joan, the at once brilliant and charming but equally provincial, uninspired, and anti-empathetic sole woman of the group. After a visit from the MI6 agent Menzies, Turing approaches Joan. He is in fear for how many secrets and lies are floating around beyond his control - variables unmoored and unpredictable, a nightmare for a mathematician - and how they might cause her harm. His care for her is clear as he suggests she go back home and find another fianceé - it had only been a situation of convenience so his suggestion feels less coo-coo.

Joan's proposal is that they go ahead and get married since most married couples are not so well matched of mind and caring about each other as they are, even if he is gay. Here in a final effort to get her to go home, in almost cliché form, Turing says he does not care for her and never has. She slaps him and says everyone is right, he is a monster! While I am completely on board with her telling him that this work is the most important she will do in life and she's not leaving, this is not the first time when Joan is needlessly cruel to Turing, and that feels unnecessary. Perhaps Knightly's performance is to blame and in more capable hands these exchanges would have taken on less shrill and more nuanced tones. But if you pay attention, there is no shaking the fact that Turing is attuned to a lot more than those around him suspect and is less narcissistic than focused on the task at hand.

And luckily the film does allow Turing to learn from those around him a bit more of the social nuances and behaviors that lubricate interactions. And with Joan's help in her less biting moments, he lets the team in and their collaboration is what finally completes the machine. Could the film have taken more time to describe how the machine functions and how Turing et. al. worked through the problems of adapting the Polish machine to the purposes of Britain's need to break Enigma? Sure. But as Screen Junkies made clear, too much math in a serious movie can become comedic fodder and dislodge one from the fantasy. I usually view films of this kind as the entertaining wikipedia summary version of a story where you then seek out the full book-length story later, and at the end I immediately did research to see what was Turing's contribution to mathematics and how his work was applicable to the development of computers.

Finally, I have read reviews where they complained of the film playing down his actual actions as a gay man at the time. In reality, Alan Turing openly but unsuccessfully came on to men, told his co-workers that he was gay, participated in the Bletchly Park Pride Parade, etc. However, I found it refreshing for him to be portrayed as gay without the perhaps 'authentic' but needlessly flashy show. Somehow it naturalized the idea of him being 'born this way' in the way that the sexual orientation of straight folks is naturalized. There is a scene of his integrity being compromised by the Soviet spy because the threat of exposure for a gay man would mean a prison sentence, and one could critique the film for too neatly solving this problem via MI6 awareness of the spy. The threat of exposure is only allowed to hover for a few minutes before being swept away and replaced by what the film feels is his more important return to work- statistically fighting to win the war by letting many die.

Yes, his being gay is why he was persecuted, investigated, convicted, and forced to take freakin' estrogen injections for a damned year! But, if as argued by some scholars of Turing's life his being gay wasn't all the doom and gloom that Hodges 1983 biography and the film portrays and that is assumed to be the real life case and cause for his suicide - if he even did commit suicide - then this film does a fairly good job of making Turing's attraction to men just another element of the brilliant mathematician he was. Is this a film about a brilliant math professor or a man persecuted for being gay in 1950s Britain? Perhaps Imitation Game was never going to be successful at showing both sides and there is a film out there that is only his personal life, training for marathons and dating.

This review is not a celebration of Imitation Game as a perfect or great "biopic film," especially since this one is fatally flawed if you are seeking the truth of Alan Turing's life. Instead this is a celebration of a somber but keen portrayal of both the quality of life for a singularly brilliant mathematical mind that others fail to give the benefit of the doubt because he's a bit strange, and what great injustice is made possible by his status as a gay man in times of overt prosecution.

23 May 2013

World War Z (2013) - Film Review

Thank God for brothers who are as die-hard-cinephile as their sisters, because thanks to mine, not only did I get to see Brad Pitt in the flesh - in Hoboken, NJ of all places! - but I got to experience an advance screening of World War Z (2013) last night, and what an experience it was! Visceral  Fast, Transformative, Terrifying... This is not the Zombie films of old, but an evolution and a challenge that felt welcome and freaking Fun!

Besides my brother and I, groups of people on either side of us in the theatre had read and loved the novel World War Z by Max Brooks - an amazingly engaging, horrifying post-apocalyptic zombie yarn tucked perfectly into a searing theorization of zombies' socio-political effects. For example, what might North Korea's extreme isolation mean for their response to a zombie holocaust? What about Israel's response - how would a country accustomed to being surrounded by threats respond? For us, the film had a tough task. Films of books have both the potential to remind us why the book was amazing and let us down by failing to provide the same thrill and engagement, especially if they drift too far from their source material.

Fortunately, Brad Pitt's summer tentpole does not let fans down! World War Z is not the same as Max Brooks' novel and some of the differences are fundamental. However, rest assured fellow fans of the novel (especially if you understand/keep in mind that films have different constraints/allowances than books), because with these changes comes a welcome speed and thrill ride aspect that only benefits those expectations. If one is to differ from a film's novel origins, then this is how you do it!

For those who have not read the novel, the film will still please and become a summer film to measure others against. World War Z adds the warm human heart that made the novel stick to the visual zip and grandeur of film to breathe life (*ba-dum-tshh*) into what could have been a long-winded plod, but instead is gripping. With more Yay! than So-so. transferences, the film brings over the novel's tone without getting lost in the subtext. In other words, we have the Walking Dead TV show for our deeply meditative, slow-burn take on human response to zombies, this is a film, and should behave as such.

Beginning with the necessary establishing family moments that make clear who we are rooting for and why, the film wisely does not force us to dwell with Gerry (Brad Pitt), his wife and two daughters in their suburban Philadelphia home for long. Delivering the first jolt a few minutes in, World War Z does not let you rest easy until credits roll. Here zombies are the result of an infection, and as such the dead act as infectious agents with transmission as primary goal. This means we get a zombie populace rendered deeply creepy not simply by their vicious difference from living humans, but by their actions which resemble swarms of insect or animal life; or on a biological level, by actions similar to viral/bacterial contagion within a living host.

Moving between a U.S. Navy flotilla, America, Korea, Israel and Wales, the film's strength lies in a temporal and visual relentlessness that mimics what a real world zombie apocalypse would do to our fragile social/global stability. Yes, one must suspend disbelief as Gerry's U.N. investigator survives one catastrophe/perilous situation after another in his pursuit of a cure for the plague - including a scene on a plane that must be seen to experience the gut-punch of its effect. But the spectacle encourages a welcome suspension of disbelief if my own and the audience's enthused audible responses and applause at the end can be counted.

One of the only things noted by my brother - who said this film easily rivals 28 Days Later - as a surprise is that there was precious little blood for a zombie flick. Yes, World War Z establishes a distinct difference from past zombie fare in both the infection's intent inside of hosts and a difference in transmission-to-zombie time. However, for horror fans weaned on diets of Romero's, Boyle's and other director's bloody good, good and bloody zombie romps, one cannot but feel a slight sense of, well, of being cheated. If an arm is lopped off or a crowbar is embedded in a human skull or any of the body's major veins or arteries is punctured, There Will Be Blood! Yet World War Z is a strangely anemic affair, as if the shipment of red food coloring and corn-syrup intended for filming got sent to Istanbul instead of Israel and they decided to excise it completely as a production element!

In all fairness, the film's omission of blood works narratively to build suspense and tension in more than one instance, and in those cases Marc Forster's decisions have a clear and lovely dramatic heft that sets the film apart from zombie movies less concerned with story and craft than with dumping on fake blood to mask their flaws. But for those horror movie and zombie fans like my brother and myself, it may be a surprise to witness everyone, especially Gerry's U.N. dude, running around with such clean clothes.

I don't want to disclose much more since it is ages until the film actually comes out and I hate spoilers as much if  not more than the next person, but suffice it to say thrilling, terrifying and fun are the key words I think of, and that is exactly what you want from a summer zombie popcorn flick.


25 February 2013

Melancholia (2011)

Was I the only one who saw this film and thought that, not only is the entire debacle a hallucination brought on by the condition after which the film is named, but additionally, the hallucinatory and delusional state had caused Justine (Kirsten Dunst in the first role I have liked her in since she got to make out with Brad Pitt in Interview With The Vampire!) to kill off many members of her own family?? How could everyone else have missed this? Must have been so caught up in the film's visual beauty that they missed the dismal and depressing fact that the film is at base a recounting of a melancholic incident in the life of a bi-polar woman. Even if we put aside the idea of Justine having killed off many of her own family members, as a hallucination, the film holds up pretty well when one considers Justine is the first to see the approaching planet that will end all life on earth.

There is little of plot to recount: its the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels good about anything! The film opens with a couple on their wedding day limousine, unable to navigate the twisty road from ceremony to reception - in a visual metaphor one finds it impossible to miss! Consequently, they leave the limo and proceed on foot to a lavish reception where the family drama unleashed on unsuspecting guests strikes the bride so forcefully that she falls into the depressive phase of her frequent manic to depressive swings. Her response to the stresses of a toxic mother is understandable for a bi-polar sufferer, she is self-destructive. She has sex outside on the golf course, with her dress still on, with some lackey brought to the wedding by her boss. And I suppose this indiscretion is supposed to make clear or acceptable why her family respond to her with such hostility??

For example, as a Lars Von Trier film, the other people's responses are freakishly enacted, but the most bizarre is her new spouse (played with a shocking degree of muted banality by Alexander Skarsgarde, best known as the passionate fire/ice vampire on True Blood). This paragon of determination and commitment, frustrated that Justine will not have sex with him immediately after the reception and passive-aggressively angry that she does not display enough excitement over his purchase of apple orchards to make her happy, packs up his things and Leaves Her!! Yes, while still in wedding attire, he leaves her - so, 'until death do us part' really meant, 'until I get mildly annoyed by your long-battled bout with mental illness.'

His departure, her father's refusal to recognize and attempt to alleviate the stress she feels when she begs him to stay and speak with her, and being fired from her job precipitate an ambiguous amount of time before we meet up with Justine again, and this is why the film's hallucinatory effect feels most keen. Not only is Justine the first to see the planet's appearance in the sky - how meaningful that a wedding day is connected to the end of all life by a giant blue planet! - but the planet's approach follows her descent/depression.

If depression feels as if doom and disaster lie just around every corner and nothing is going to turn out well, then what better way to show that then by having a planet headed straight for the earth. Suddenly, Justine perks up! With the approach of the apocalypse she is revived and alert, whereas when we see her again post wedding, she has to be helped to stand up as her sister attempts to have her take a bath. It is either the most cynical or the most perverse wish-fulfillment that this film celebrates - at least with lovely visuals - the realization of the depressive mindset that the end is nigh.

Thus, as a hallucination it works very well. If the train-wreck wedding took place, then it would make sense that Justine's mind would create a way out of the pain through the destruction of everyone. After the wedding she doesn't stew in her apartment and then show up at her sister's house. In reality, she lapses into an irretrievable depression that appears to her like the end of the world.

Ultimately I found it hard to find the spark in this film that had everyone so excited about it when it came out. If you either mute the film after the first beautiful ten minutes or so, or continue playing music over the muted film, then perhaps I see why people were so pleased. Otherwise, it feels far too dark a vision, too stark an end for either the clinically depressed or bi-polar person. I don't necessarily need redemption and hollywood endings, but I also do not need total annihilation.

14 February 2013

Nurse Betty (2000)

The plot reads like any of a possible many cheesy and hackneyed neo-noir flicks: two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), one on his final job, follow the sole witness and wife (Renee Zellweger) of the man (Aaron Eckhart as a character you can hate completely) they just killed over drug deal gone bad. The wife flees cross country from Kansas to California with the drugs/drug money in the trunk of her car, and creates a new life for herself. However, this summary fails to consider the wondrous, unusual, and utterly candid film that Neil LaBute has made. Wildly beyond any attempts to categorize it, the film flaunts the tenets of all the genres in which it dips: crime drama, film noir, buddy comedy, road flick, etc... and in the course of its execution, it creates a stirring and deeply compelling group of characters.

And that is perhaps the best description of this film, a character study. The two hit men are played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as a counter to the bumbling antics of previous cinematic buddy duos. As the hit man in training, Rock is uncouth and acts as the uncut, glassy-rock looking lump to Freeman's polished, gleaming engagement ring. His comedic schtick should be odd or at least off putting, but instead balanced with the malice of their actions, it acts as demonstration of one of LaBute's main fascinations: how evil and morally corrupt motivations can hide in even the most beguiling and banal seeming packages. Not to say that Rock's performance is banal, instead it crackles and clicks with Freeman's in marvelous fashion. LaBute represented the same slant of human nature in the criminally underrated, and unfairly/viciously maligned The Shape of Things (2003).

This banal quality of evil is carried over into Freeman's performance, and is beautifully contrasted with Zellweger's. And as Ebert highlights so wonderfully in his review, it is the complementary trajectory of Freeman and Zellweger's characters that makes the film work so well. Zellweger's Betty is launched involuntarily into fantasy by violence, Freeman's hitman is launched into fantasy voluntarily by his life of violence. But there is more to what the film is doing than just the two of them joined in dreamy fantasy. Freeman's aging, evil, but compellingly disassociated hit man is believable paired with Rock's comedic impatience, but it feels more interesting still when considered as contrast to Betty.

As a character study this film is concerned with more than fantasy. It is playing with our ideas about evil and people's responses to evil when it is thrown into the lives of those who do not regularly encounter it. What happens when one confronts the limits of one's own ability to tolerate horror? What does fantasy do for those confronting the unimaginable? There are all sorts of ideas in our social and legal world about "appropriate" responses to certain situations, and psychology will tell you what people should do given a particular stimuli. However, what LaBute does so well in this film is show how the unpredictability of existence is actually more the norm than what legal and psychological parlance tells us. What do we hear more about, the bizarre "you could not make this up" type of crimes, or the horrific crimes that unfold exactly as we are told by Law & Order they should?

And it is this contrast, between fantasy and violence, between death and the sublime, as filtered through the magnificent, nuanced performances of the characters. It is these shifting, precarious roles that make this the sort of film that, every time I see it, I find myself again surprised by how quickly and tightly it pulls me in, while simultaneously repelling me from the violence of the two hit men and the resort to madness taken by our heroine. If given the time and consideration, this is the type of film to teach you more about yourself than you realize based on your responses to what you see the character's seeing, and what you sense the characters feeling.

Battleship (2012)

As a Black woman in America, overeducated in the ways that visual culture functions and malfunctions in its representation of folks at the margins of social constructivist power, I often find myself at odds with movies and TV that are hostile to me and full of stereotypes. In an extra cruel twist of fate, I am also the atypical "chick" in that I love me some college football (and the Steelers, for reasons of marriage), college basketball (and the Knicks/Celtics for reasons of Anthony and Rondo respectively), and action movies full of explosions and fights and strong staple characters of American cinema. I am probably the only woman who was ecstatic that her husband bought her the boxed set of Bruce Willis' Die Hard films - yippy kay yay!

All this means that I love my summer-blow 'em up-blockbusters as much as Cary Fukunaga's stunning update to Jane Eyre (2011) and the equally challenging and beautiful work of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991). However, my Summer Blockbusters do not always love me, and the Transformers flicks are a key example. This is not a review of those films, but in summary, whenever I happen upon Michael Bay's frenzied creepy robots, I am left feeling not just alienated but assaulted. See, when I see a movie, you don't always have to absolutely be speaking to a diverse audience and trying to make sure I'm excited to see it, but please don't slap me around while I'm paying you approximately $16-$20 and have to sit in seats with gum on the bottom and sticky soda on the armrests!!

As brief summary, the first and especially the second Transformers films not only take a huge dump on people of other races and ethnicities - see character's talking about John Tuturo's "jew 'fro," the whiny, cowardly hispanic roommate, and comments made by Dargis at the NYTimes - they also hate women. Women get the shaft via the main character's mom portrayed as whiny, bothersome, and silly/stupid in disturbing ways, and Megan Fox's exposed skin and comments to the press about Bay's objectification of her body. And none of this mentions the fact that Bay introduces two robot/car characters in the second film that have voices with obvious African American cadence and tone, they are bumbling fools, like a modern day minstrel show, and at one particularly low point for the entire history of cinema, they admit that they cannot help the humans with some technology related to their home-world because They Cannot Read! This is not to suggest that overt pandering is an expected or desired guiding impulse, but at least an effort Not to make a movie with hundreds of entries listed at TVTropes.org is definitely welcome.

I include this lengthy introduction and comment because of my very low expectations going into seeing Battleship (2012), and because of so many reviewers insistance on comparing the two films and two directors in a way I find both unfair and without reflection on the ways in which they differ. Even the review over at Moira, where I often refer to check out his thoughts on Sci-Fi flicks, gets it wrong because, unlike Transformers 2 (2009), Berg's film did not leave me feeling dirty and pissed off about hours in my life I will never have back again. This is because Peter Berg's Battleship, rather than being a shoddy imitation of Transformers or Transformers on water, is instead what Transformers should have been had Michael Bay not been the dreadful filmmaker that Trey Stone and Matt Parker take so much delight in skewering! Berg's film makes an effort to be inclusive and appealing to a broad range of people without dulling the action and cheesy fun.

The film bears little resemblance to the board game, and instead features your standard, obligatory, and typical summer movie characters and plot of aliens fighting a rag tag group of underdog humans who somehow triumph over their superior technological and strength capacities to save planet Earth. Set in Hawaii, the beautiful location no doubt at least offers many viewers a surrogate-vacation, albeit one full of angry aliens and people dying after being run over by giant sentient bocce balls. There are the standard scenes of guy/girl-meet-cute, alien/human-meet-scary, the death of characters to give other characters perspective, comic relief characters, and people running around stating what they are doing and projecting their ideas onto the audience so we know what we are supposed to think and feel at all times.

I haven't included a true plot summary because it's not really necessary. I am Not arguing that Battleship is a fabulous film or even a staple of anyone's DVD collection. It is a goofy, fun movie full of plot holes, missing motivations, and stupid actions. (For example, why isn't the first action taken by those left inside the impenetrable bubble to destroy the thing creating the bubble?!!! Aim Only for the giant bubble creating platforms people!!) However, Battleship presents us with differences from Bay's dreck that are worth noting. As noted by Ebert, in one of the more balanced reviews of the film, the co-captain of humanity's salvation is Japanese due to plot contrivance and probable market-research about capturing Asian markets. But this casting of one of Thor's right hand men also allows for a dissolution of lingering nasty feelings about Pearl Harbor associated with the Japanese attack. Instead of fighting each other, here Japan and America redirect the hostilities into fighting the aliens.

Additionally, our hero Lt. Hooper's main ally in charging out to fight the aliens is none other than petty officer Raikes, played by Rihanna. The government may have only recently decided to allow women to fight in combat positions, but in Berg's world, no one is better able to assist our main man than Barbadian pop songstress (and bum--magnet) Rihanna. She is on the gun in the boat with Hooper sent out to first meet the alien vessel, and seems to be the only one other than his brother able to rag on Hooper while on duty. When a soldier is injured, Hooper sends two men to take him to the infirmary, and keeps Raikes with him to continue searching the ship for alien invaders. Whether or not her prominence and casting was a callous choice aimed at pulling in young viewers who are already into her music, the choice of placing a Black woman so prominently in battling the alien forces warmed the cockles of my heart. As did the overall multi-colored array of characters on the ship including native Hawaiians.

Now, Raikes is not perfect. Occupying a pseudo-butch role that admittedly leaves no room for understanding her 1) as often the sole woman amongst men on a U.S. navel vessel and 2) apparently the only woman good enough to join the men in the U.S. versus Japan soccer match that is part of the naval camp meeting activities, the character of Raikes nonetheless fires the key shot to wipe out the aliens before they can 'phone home.' And more than once Raikes channels Uhuru in her ability to operate the ships controls when the men cannot - for the geeky viewers among us. More should be said of Rihanna's performance, existing as it does in an often asexual and angry-black-woman zone I am inclined to be frustrated with the limits of, and I might say more in another post, but for now let us say that the filmmakers could have chosen to put someone like Hooper's love interest Sam in this role and instead they chose someone completely different than what Bay's choice would have been and that makes me happy!

Berg also differs from Bay when it comes to said love interest. Played by Sports Illustrated model Brooklyn Decker, this role does not offer her much too do, and yet what it does offer her does not require she be a virtually naked, whiny niny waiting to be saved or run next to the hero as arm candy. Unlike in Bay's claptrap, Decker's Sam is not filmed with her back arched and butt cheeks pushed toward the camera in titillating sex-object fashion. Sam first appears in a belly barring shirt, but hey, this is Hawaii after all and everyone is sweating and hot. Later, working with a Wounded Warrior as his physical therapist, she is clothed, professional, and obviously aware of being pretty but that is secondary to being active in helping the veteran get stronger while eluding/foiling alien aims. She does not whine about needing to be saved, and does not dither more than a second or two when on the line briefly with fiancee Hooper about blowing up an antenna. She does not even mention the personal and romantic connection between the two when discussing his assistance with the veteran and the scientist, and when on the phone with him it is he who calls her "baby" before they are disconnected. Moreover, and most exciting, is a key scene towards the end where, when they need a good driver to take out the alien antenna, it is Sam who is enlisted to drive the jeep over deep ruts and flying off inclines. This felt especially keen for me, a freakin' phenomenal driver who was razzed by a man last week about the fact that a man should be driving me around. Sigh.

Finally, unlike the Bay films that create worlds without much nuance and without any ideas other than his own allegedly 16year old boy's perspective, this film actively includes veterans (although in some scenes there were actors mixed in as well) and Wounded Warriors. As a film involving the navy, one might expect the nod to the old guard - even Under Siege (1996), amongst the topless woman and witty one-liners, snuck in a third act nod that Berg repeats in Battleship. However, the difference here is one of ability. The key man of the group whose job is to delay the transmission of the alien's request for help from home, is real life Iraq war vet Colonel Gregory D. Gadson who lost his legs below the knee. In the film, he navigates steep hills and battles with  aliens in Iron Man suits, all while standing on/wearing prosthetic legs! Ragging on Sam that his grandmother or his dog could climb a hill they're ascending - his dog happens to be dead - Colonel Gadson brings a welcome gravity and depth to a role that could have been a throwaway. Combined with an early montage of veterans with prosthetic limbs, Berg has gone out of his way to highlight the payments made in flesh and blood by real life vets while celebrating the fictional glory of Navy-men battling aliens.

This review may perhaps be the most computer "ink" spilled in analyzing a film that most critics and viewers despised, but it is necessary. Transformers 1, 2... movies have done a world of harm to many of the people Bay would like to entice to see them (even as Transformers' creators give us a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black by firing Megan Fox over the least damaging and most insipid of her statements about the film making process). And people they want to see their movies include those like me who adore all forms of film, will pay for the big screen and communally charged environment that a theatre creates, and if I enjoy it, I will encourage others to go see a movie. Peter Berg was clearly inspired by Hasbro's Transformers films, but whether it was working on Friday Night Lights or appearing in The Last Seduction (1994) or one of the other projects he has worked on in between, with Battleship, Berg as done something better and different than Bay.

I did not pay to see Battleship in theaters, but I did pay to see both Transformers 1 & 2. I even stayed all the way through the second film - although a friend said she, her husband, and her 10 year old nephew left after about an hour because of how deeply offensive it was. But if I could go back in time, I would gladly pay the cost of both of those films to see Battleship instead.

14 November 2012

The Crazies (2010)

A pitchfork dripping blood, being dragged across linoleum floors while one of our film's stars lies struggling, strapped to a hospital bed, automatically sends shivers down one's spine. But the true creepy effects arise through a fusing of the visual scare elements and the subliminal suggested revisions to the original flick.

I've seen this movie twice and then one partial time by now and each time I'm struck by how disturbing and isolating the film feels. But I knew I needed to review it when first the Houston Chronicle and then even NPR offered reviews that felt to be missing something key to why the film is an effective post-modern horror flick.

The basic premise remains from the 1973 George Romero original: a small town's people begin losing their minds due to the government's whoopsy! of dispersing a chemical via accidental plane crash that incites horrible violent tendencies in folks. Now, I must admit I have not seen the original, but that feels unnecessary given the claims as to why this remake is not as good as the original. But first, the breakdown.

In this version the local sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant in a convincingly understated performance) and his wife Judy, the local doctor (Radha Mitchell, less memorable here than her determined mother in Silent Hill and not quite believable as the town doctor), are challenged to respond when people of the town begin engaging in seriously evil behavior. A father burns down his house with his wife and child locked inside. Then when put in jail, he begins to alter physically so that I would have refused to occupy the same building, let alone try to touch him when he appears to have died, as the loyal deputy (Joe Anderson) does, nearly losing his arm.

In this and other scenes Anderson seems to have slipped on set from another movie, such is the nuanced quality of his performance. Since the government's rhabdoviridae prototype virus appears to exacerbate existing elements of violence within each afflicted subject's character, and the onset of tendencies can be subtle, its exciting that we are given so much screen time with Anderson's deputy as a possible infected subject. What this means is that, if one is not cynical about the probability of the deputy being infected, you are given a wonderfully creepy and insidious performance of a normally controlled and honorable man teetering on the brink. Could you ditch your best friend and longtime partner if you suspected him of becoming ill and therefore violent? When would you know it was too late? Can one hold onto oneself despite chemical interference? It may help highlight his performance that no one else is given this arc, so he can establish its parameters, but he does so to such wonderful effect, you don't really need anyone else.

But enough about the sole great performance! As expected things spiral out of control, people become more and more violent, who is and who isn't infected by the plane's chemicals is anyone's guess, and our named folks are on the run for their lives. The government comes in, makes a mess of things, and...


...then decides the best move is to use a device that appears thermobaric, or nuclear - but couldn't really be unless the government wanted to then justify Hiroshima style fatalities and cancer rates in nearby towns/cities - to wipe the "problem" off the face of the earth.

The aforementioned reviewers' problems with the film seem to be due to its deviation from Romero's hallowed original - which apparently had a lot to say about the 1970's moment. For example, NPR says:
"Romero was particularly adept in this regard, and his 1973 small-town epidemic thriller, The Crazies, touched on biological warfare, the bureaucratic ineptitude of government in crisis situations, and the breakdown of social rules in a widespread panic. ...instead of putting us in the middle of the authorities' disaster-management effort — a potential gold mine of material for post-Sept. 11 and post-Katrina America — Eisner hands us a faceless, two-dimensional occupying force. And rather than attempting to get inside the mentality of a town put on lockdown, he assumes a few mobs breaking through fences will suffice."

The first problem with this assessment of the newer film is that it is assuming that context is ahistorical. In the 70's moment of uncovering government corruption and having recently weaned off of daily doses of Viet Nam's graphic horror, Romero's approach seems well warranted. Of course he would take us through these steps of seeing government ineptitude and inside the minds of local townsfolk. However, our 2000s moment is different. In the post-Katrina world we know the government will not be coming to rescue you - instead the government will wait weeks to get water to the Superdome and tell you nothing!

Additionally, we are living in the media-infused post-Rwanda world of neighbors hacking their neighbors to death for no good reason, or at least not one that anyone who accesses the audio files or witness testimony online can understand. And if you ask the doomsday preppers, The Monsters Arrived on Maple Street a long, long time ago, so everyone's the enemy! The age of profound confusion that the neighbor down the street was actually a psycho and you never suspected - "He was such a nice, quite man!" - has passed.

In our current moment, we don't need the 70's model of movie panic with well clarified motives. We know that motives are often insufficient or absent altogether, and wouldn't help you reconcile yourself to the events you witnessed if you had them blinking in neon ten feet high. This feeling comes through in the film's attention to moments when a character's lack of control is at once expected but still alarmingly unpredictable. For example, the character's reasons could be as simple as poor Deputy Russell who's mental slippage is so perceptible as to even be frightening to him! "I'm not right, am I?", he asks of the Sheriff, and we sympathize with him not only because he is one of the main characters, but because in this day and age, one frequently feels "I must be Crazy because I do not understand the world!"

Instead of believing we can see and know all the stages of government discussion and neighborly impulses, we feel isolated from the government's processes (yay, Patriot Act!) that make everyone a villain or criminal - just ask the TSA! - but do not make clear why. And the 2010 film does a good job of steeping the viewer in that feeling of confusion, unease, isolation, disruption, and ultimate (but not constant) hopelessness. For example, there is a scene when David and Judy are stopping by their house to get supplies before getting out of town, and Judy begins taking her towels off the line in the yard. As David stops her, she declares despondently, "This is our home. This is where we were going to raise our children." Later, when trying to soothe her that its going to be ok, Judy snaps, shouting at him, "It is not going to be Ok, nothing is going to be Ok!!"(Slight paraphrasing here) The effect of those lines is to connect with the Current general societal feeling of disruption beyond one's control or comprehension. The post-modern moment is one of perpetual dislocation and honey, this film taps into that big time!

Secondly, the reviewers ignore what the film IS doing for our current moment and time, accusing it of having nothing to say (I'm softening the possible ferocity of my attack of the Houston reviewer who actually says Romero had a lot to critique but that Eisner had nothing on his mind when making the movie - ouch!). In a scene where a fellow towns person advises the sheriff to get out of town because, "Its not worth the hassle.", the Sheriff admonishes him, "By hassle are you referring to Judy, my wife is not worth the hassle? I'm going back into town and leave you to think about why I can't leave my wife and you can leave yours." (slight paraphrasing) In this thrown off scene, instead of script-writing attempting a cheap/cheesy joke, we are given a peek into the return of the Me-Decade in our reality TV land where one can openly complain about your spouse, go to therapy with your spouse, or swap them out with another one for the home TV viewing population's entertainment! In this moment it is ok to declare your wife a disposable commodity you would prefer not to retrieve.

Additionally, in the scene of a government van observing towns-folk after contamination, we are not seeing a film that assumes the government forgot about the plane crash. The film gives us multiple shots of the town and individual people from the perspective of a spy plane or spy satellite with often unintelligible government chatter over the image - the decisions that affect people but which they are not privy to the discussion of. In Eisner's use of perspective and observation of effects by government, we are seeing the history of government experimentation on its citizenry. We are also seeing the calculated nature of bureaucratic decision making by government, where "the few" can be sacrificed for "the many" - at least as perceived by filmmakers in their movies: The Rock (1996), Under Siege (1992), Outbreak (1995), etc.... It is then easy to believe the government would write off the town altogether and move on to the next possibly affected locale.

All of this is to say that a film must be considered in its own context, and considering the popular cultural field as well. If you do, then this film has a lot more going on. I am not saying its brilliant or perfect in any way - I wanted to strangle both Judy and David when they inexplicably decided to split up right near the end - the only reason being so they would each have to evade/fight crazies alone!! However, a less fetishized take on the original and a careful attention paid to the newer one, brings a whole lot more nuance to light.

28 July 2012

The Descent (2005)

This movie was highly educational for me: I learned that in order for a film to be truly terrifying, I must identify with at least some of the behaviors/actions of the characters. With these requirements in mind, The Descent was not a scary film at all.

Why spelunking appeals to so many people is as deep a mystery to me as why mosquitos or flying cockroaches exist. And if someone says "well there is a thrill to it," I say: If I want to feel the thrill of taking my life in my hands and exploring my boundaries, I can wear an oversized coat, large fake gold earrings, and a giant handbag to Macy's on 34th street! But I digress. Suffice to say, I cannot be terrified of encountering creatures I would never meet since I'm not going to jump in a random hole out in the woods.

However, Claustrophobia and Gynephobia do figure into my psyche, and to that end the film is freakin' scary!

The Plot: A group of "friends" go out for a day of "bonding" while diving deep into an allegorical Vagina in the woods. Upon wriggling through the extremely narrow Birth Canal into the cavern's Womb, they find they cannot go back due to a vaginal-mesh, I mean, due to a cave-in. Upon going forward seeking egress, they encounter giant allegorical Semen that pick them off and consume the women one by one - so with full bellies, the Semen can stay alive and reproduce more little monster Semen.
There's even a giant bloody pool that one chick must hide in temporarily from the semen - thank god she's on the rag or she might have little monster babies! And once she rises from the maxi pad, I mean, the pool, all red and slimy, we know she's bad ass and not to be messed with! This chick is bloody angry.

Less Judgmentally: Upon descending into a cavern on a spelunking trip, a group of female friends cause a cave-in and cannot exit the way they entered. Pushing onward, they discover a race of carnivorous, melanin-challenged "humans" living deep in the earth who are blind, but have heightened smell and hearing, which helps them track down and kill the women one by one.

ARRGHH, WARNING: There be Spoilers Ahead!!

The film's adventure is a trip of redemption for Sarah (Shauna McDonald) whose child has recently died, but features the usual cast of female characters: the ambitious, type-A leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who's aggressive nature feels at once catty, needy, and dismissive; the granola girl, the peace-maker, etc, etc. The important thing to note is that driven leader Juno has also had an affair with the husband of clearly telegraphed "Final Girl" Sarah!! No one really discusses the affair outright, in the way that women passive-agressively remain "friends" after doing truly horrid things to each other, but it becomes a key issue towards the end of the movie in what I DID find a really scary scene.

The others have all gone the way of tv dinners, and of course our Final Girl is still around, but the other lingering survivor is Juno. Juno is physically fit, athletic, resourceful, quick on her feet, and capable at defense. When these two are in the midst of successfully battling the monsters, Sarah suddenly takes one of those climbing/spelunking axe-type things and plunges it into the back of Juno's calf! This move of course cripples her, and leaves her as food for the nasty, toothy critters. Yes, sleeping with someone's husband is a terrible thing to do, but a crime punishable by Death?! Really?!!

I found this the most scary not because it seemed impossible for a woman to do this, but because it seems very possible! I also found this most scary not because I have ever slept with a friend's husband (or ever could/would), and not because I believe what Juno did was not terrible, but because of the comments the film seems to be making about women's friendships, behaviors, attitudes, and predispositions in general! Women are so vicious, illogical, and emotionally unstable that they would doom their own lives by taking out another compadre in the fight against vicious, carnivorous beasts deep in a cave in the earth?? Ok. So this is why I have so few female friends!

If one were to psychologically, allegorically consider the film, then we have moved from female sexuality being merely scary on its own, over to any sort of strong female, or female bonding, or female attempt to venture beyond the domestic sphere as being so terrifying it is something to avoid at all costs.

Now, of course I know that the basis of horror is often facing evil in unexpected places, whether the cabin in the woods, the ship at sea, the foreign country, etc. However, for a group of women to delve into a giant "womb" and upon "gestation," each find certain death due to either their inability or unwillingness to help each other survive, well that feels unnecessary. And running from slimy, white men who seek to rip you open and consume you is pretty close to a cautionary tale against pregnancy if I ever saw one.

And these points don't even touch on the fact that Juno, the husband stealing uber-Bitch, is played by hot, ethnically, racially mysterious, but obviously Other/Of Color actress Mendoza! All the other chicks are Caucasian. Sigh.

That said, I know there are plenty of folks who did find this film great and terrifying on the merits of the basic story and the portrayal of claustrophobic monster-battle alone. All I know is that after Sarah's idiotic, homicidal act I was very happy to be watching the British version (or "unrated" version) the first time I saw this film!

Genre: A-
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance: B- (always the hot, horny minority chick taking white girl's men)
Visuals/Audio: B-
Gender Rep: A- (its an all female review, but sole dude mentioned cheated on wife with her best friend)
Narrative: C

Overall Gut: B- / C