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...

WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW!

...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

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Warning: This is not the film for you if the thought of an eyeball's CGI trajectory from socket toward camera is beyond the tolerance level for your stomach to handle. However, if you can tolerate this and other rather gory images, and get beyond them to see the (dare I say it?) beautifully textured visual landscape director Ryƻhei Kitamura has created, then you are in for a real treat.



The film's deeply disturbing, horrifying premise is a somewhat typical descent into an atypical hell for the unwary White male who lets his curiosity and desire for fame carry him away. Vegan photographer Leon (the ever intense, engaging, and slightly menacing Bradley Cooper) is set on capturing more gritty images of the city in order to gain a coveted showing in the elite gallery of Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), herself a slightly creepy chick. To this end, he spends more late-night hours hanging out in the film's anonymous mega-metropolis subway system than anyone would find smart. This angers and causes problems in his relationship with Maya (an effective Leslie Bibb) who is  oddly and annoyingly unwilling to believe anything he says, even when it involves ongoing serial killing. 


On one photographic evening foray, he witnesses and photographs a man (Vinnie Jones) who we learn is a maniac of particular viciousness and brutality, who turns the train's passengers/victims into cleanly shorn swinging buffets for some unknown reason. One can imagine the negatives of following and photographing a serial killer. 


Ultimately if the film suffers from anything its too little attention. The color palate and photographic angles alone merit at least one viewing. Stark, hospital grade stainless steel subway seats and simple opening and closing doors mark a descent into evil and act as a cautionary tale for those unobservant on their late night commute. No one will win any oscars for acting, but set design alone deserves a nod, forget about the filming of a fight scene where the camera goes in and out of the subway car as it rockets along, giving the viewer impossible to see but thrilling perspective.


Other reviewers have claimed the final third of the film, where the reasons for both the murders and Leon's behavior feel ridiculous, but no more so than any other horror film. I felt that Leon's behavior suddenly felt less nutty by the end, and the horror of why the killer was butchering people felt better than other serial killer's reasons. As a city dweller, and frequent late-night party girl, I was frequently frightened by the notion of being killed on the way home, and yet challenged to consider the fact that the system too often doesn't believe the most extreme stories until too late.


Genre: A truly terrifying
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance: D albeit with a quite small cast, so....
Visuals/Audio: B+
Gender Rep: B+
Narrative: C


Overall Gut: B-

27 June 2012

The Grey (2011)

For what turned out to be a trip deep, deep into the heart of existential malaise and hopelessly dangerous travel, this film sure did not tell the truth in its trailers! Throwing Liam Neeson's face on an adventure film poster these days assures the viewer that one will see @$$ kicking justice, feel vindicated parental authority, and hear the warm, gruff brogue that makes it all so soothing, despite the bloodshed. However, upon sitting down, delayed I know, but excited nonetheless, to see this film recently, I found myself deeply disappointed... and then struck by possible revelation!

The studio pitch is perfectly clear in my mind, the director said "My movie is Alive meets Dances With Wolves meets horror movie conventions, with Liam Neeson!" and the studio said "Here's the check!"  A plane full of oil rig workers, on their way to Anchorage from a remote drilling site for a little R&R, crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Only seven survive, one of whom is Ottoway (Neeson), paid by the oil company to keep the wildlife from killing the oil workers with his sharpshooting skills and knowledge of nature. We witness his take-down of a rapidly advancing wolf on a pack of, I'm sorry, on a group of oil workers almost immediately, so we know he's good at his job.  Splice in shots of a now seemingly absent, beloved wife as she and Ottoway lie reclining on snowy white sheets (keep this in mind...), a scene of Ottoway's aborted suicide attempt, and we are primed for a redemption story!

However, on first viewing, the film breaks the sacred contract with American film history and American film audiences and seems to have lost the last twenty minutes of film! For better or worse, the narrative need for faulty characters to be redeemed, for the wrong to be made at least partially right, has carried us forward through cinematic history. From our very foundational American myths, there is the rugged man (and women too, since about 1979) of Adventure Movies who encounters challenge, rises to meet them, succeeds, and goes on to either tell the tale into his old age or have more adventures to come. Yes, some stodgy film critics or pretentious scholars may claim this impulse to break with "tradition" (that of giving the audience an ending that does not involve complete annihilation) as being great, and proving some cinematic verve or unique spirit. But this is not surrealist French cinema attempting re-define genre. It is a Liam Neeson action film!

Thus, when we encounter Ottoway and his team of stereotypes, um, I mean, characters, we think we know what is coming. There is some blurriness to who one or two of the men are, but at root we have the father desperate to get home to family (Dermot Mulroney), the annoying jabber-mouth who talks to cover stress and expresses the strain everyone feels (Joe Anderson, much better in Across the Universe), the Token (Nonso Anozie), the criminal (Frank Grillo), and then a slightly odd character who can only be thought of as Conscious due to a role he plays towards the end of the film (Joe Anderson - I think my father perfectly described him as the DNA splicing of John Ritter and Mark Wahlberg).

The sequence of who is attacked and torn apart by wolves follows no seemingly predictable pattern, and one feels little care for the men beyond the usual bets about who will be the "Final Girl" and how amazingly beautiful, stark, scary, and mesmerizing the scenery is all at the same time. And that is one thing not to be upset about, the film is simply stunning in its depiction of the bitter frosty quality of the Alaskan wilderness, and its simultaneous sublime enchantment. Time is not spent/wasted lovingly caressing tree branches, this isn't a Malick film after all! But we'll say more attention is given to the background than to the men's faces.

ARRRGGG MATEYS--> WARNING, THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!*
(*Read no further if you want to see the movie and be surprised....)

But lovely scenery cannot distract one from the fact that this film managed to inspire feelings of depression and disgust similar to what I felt after seeing Requiem For a Dream - and that is a film about the debilitating, deadly, horrible effects of drug use!! And I'm not the only one to feel this way, as Ebert also makes clear, this is not a pleasant film. The main problem is that upon having one of their number attacked and killed by wolves, the group agrees to the Worst Possible idea (Ottoway proposes it) based on flimsy ideas: to leave the protective cover of the plane's fuselage - remaining in two large pieces by the way - to trek out toward some trees a good mile to a half mile away since they might be in the vicinity of the wolves' den and they might be able to move away from the den if they go to the woods. Oh, and there is a random assertion that the oil company will absolutely not look for them for long, will only send out one or two planes, and may not come their way at all.

Now, only one of the men opposes this idea openly and no one listens to him. And to be clear, at the plane wreckage we are shown: a few trees nearby, long metal pieces (that they use to batter away wolves from Ottoway at one point) - ie weapons, protection from the violent winds, and a defensible metal structure with only two openings they could surely bolster and reinforce. And I'm am the farthest thing from a defender of corporate behavior, but I think that in this current moment the technology is such that, based on the plane being a bit larger than a "puddle jumper" and the presumable regularity of the route, the company can probably figure out where abouts they went down, and will not take the endless weeks (months?) suffered by the Uruguayan soccer team in the 1970s. Additionally, although perhaps difficult to get started, setting a tree on fire nearby themselves would have the double benefit of keeping the wolves away and sending smoke high, high into the sky in an area with no other fires around!

Therefore, the decision to leave the plane feels downright idiotic and a slap in the viewers face considering the above, and there was much pseudo-interactive yelling at the screen about it. None of the events that come to pass - death by being torn apart by wolves, death by falling from a 90degree angle against a tree and then falling 100 feet breaking branches to the ground, death by pulmonary embolism/freezing to death, death by drowning, death by giving up... - would have happened if they had stayed at the plane!

Thus the depressing turn of events is rendered even more so when you realize that No One Makes It Out Alive!! That's right folks, he may have a very particular set of skills, but not even Ottoway makes it out alive! For his end, after he lets the Runner Up die by drowning, he engages in a bout of self-pitying yelling at God to give him a sign and a reason to care, believe, keep going, whatever. When no lightening strikes and the helicopter the movies have programmed us to expect fails to materialize, he gets up and keeps walking only to... Walk right into a Wolf Den! Seeing the head wolf tell the others to stand down cause Ottoway is His, Neeson tapes broken bottles to one hand and a knife to the other hand, then the wolf lunges at him and Roll Credits. Sigh.

Now, after much hateful spilling of vitriol on the film for its shameful assault both on our expectations of Liam Neeson's awesomeness and on the sacred movie myth of survival against all odds, I began looking around for others as depressed as myself with then ending and found possible redemption in one line from a Slant Magazine review. While I disagree with most of  Cataldo's laudatory review, I found sudden possibility in this line:
"[Ottoway] who starts off the film with an abortive suicide attempt. The rest of it plays out almost as if he succeeded..."

Perhaps its the instinctive drive towards the redemptive inculcated by so many movies, perhaps its the narrative habit learned from studying literature, or maybe there is that magic of what is Really Going On at work within this seemingly empty tableau of human male ineptitude in the face of nature.  What I now believe is going on pivots on all of Ottoway's reflecting back on those times in bed with his wife and his awakending after the plane crash. 

We know by the end of the film that his wife has not left him, but has died, so laying on those snowy white sheets with her as she died of some unnamed illness also foreshadows his own laying on the white sheet of snow. Ottoway also states at one point that he was raised by an Irish Catholic father, hence suicide would have been a mortal sin punishable by eternal damnation. Well what is better damnation than for a man who's job entails protecting men from harm to be incapable of doing so? He awakens after the crash alone in a field of white with snow blowing wildly around him, and he must walk a dozen yards or so to look down on the plane wreckage. If you believe that the religious tenants of his faith will structure his afterlife, then the whole movie is the result of Ottoway's suicide the night before the flight. And his hell is one in which every decision he makes causes the death of more men - leaving the ship being the worst and most important. 
 
Additionally, it is suggested that the random assemblage of survivors represent different pieces of who Ottoway is as well. The nervous but communicative man (who incidentally was the only one arguing for staying with the plane) dies first, out in the open, as the men begin to rely more on physical endurance and less on logic and reason. The Token, sick and coughing constantly, is the memory of his ailing wife who eventually succumbs to disease/cold, and who he is unable to save. The family man dies next by failing to survive his 'leap of faith' across a freakishly deep and broad gorge - his tether a patchwork of clothing pieces from each man, failing to hold him aloft, and allowing him to fall and be eaten by wolves.

We were particularly angry in watching the movie that the Hispanic criminal character simply gives up, and sits down to die after being so strong and determined the entire film. But his death makes sense if he represents the fighter part of Ottoway; the part that wanted to survive and gave up the night before by killing himself. If the criminal is his fighting spirit, then the rest makes much more sense. They even have the same first name: John. 

The next to last man dies by drowning, but only because his foot is stuck in a very easily handled way, but Ottoway does not duck his head under water and pull the man's foot out! So simple, this baptism gone horribly wrong, wherein to just dive under water (he's already soaked wet) and remove his foot from the crack between two rocks - but he doesn't. And just before falling into the water the man confides that he saw Ottoway contemplating suicide the night before and recognized the look in his eyes after seeing it in the criminal man's eyes when he sat down to die a few moments before. He asks Ottoway about the look, and prods him, almost as if he were his Conscious and the final obstacle to Ottoway's end... And his name is Peter by the way. Yes, like St. Peter who stands at the proverbial pearly gates and decides who gets in or not. 

Finally, Ottoway's idea to strike out across the wide open, unprotected, dangerously exposed to the elements and wolves idea is also absolutely sensible if this is a man who had planned to and I believe did commit suicide. One could say that since he was suicidal, his choices may be simply attributable to this fact and not some freaky trip through his own Jacob's Ladder of terror. But, as a man responsible for the survival of others and well versed, presumably, in the survival needs for the region, his decision to leave the craft and offhanded remarks about the company failing to find them is more easily read as part of his punishing afterlife trip than as shamefully poor character development. Bad decisions in life lead to bad decisions in death - now that's narrative structure and character development I can get behind!

So Ottoway could not and was not destined to save the men since he did not save himself the night before. His final showdown with the lead wolf, a supernaturally massive black (of course) beast, also makes sense in this case. A number of reviewers remarked on the fact that the wolves are freakishly large and seeming to enjoy some human levels of reasoning and logic. But if they too are part of Ottoway's hellish punishment, if they are truly the Hounds of Hell, then their stalking and slaughter of these men, these pieces of Ottoway, makes more sense. As does the wolves' decision at the end to treat Ottoway not as a man or prey item, like they treated did the other men, but as another wolf that the current leader of the pack must fight for ultimate supremacy. Then the end is a fight of good versus evil cloaked as a battle of man versus beast. It is really about a Ottoway versus his demons made flesh in the body of these supernaturally ever-present wolves that have wiped out all that represents him and his life. 

Thus the film does not wish to maim our sensibilities by confronting us with the impossibility of survival against all odds every time (even though it may due us humans good to consider death as a possibility occasionally, and act like we have common sense). Instead, the film functions as a meditation on what one man endures because of his lost faith in life, in himself, and in his God after the death of his wife. Far less judgmental than I am perhaps making it seem, but heavy on the meditation. And in this vein, the film is actually pretty fabulous to consider.



Genre: C   (as adventure, its only ok)
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance: B-
Visuals/Audio: B+
Gender Rep: D-
    (only women were dying in flashback or dying as stewardesses)
Narrative: B+    

Overall, Gut Says:  B

14 June 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Somewhere in the middle of this film I found myself with a few tears flowing down my cheeks due to the lucious tableaux of small but sturdy folk encircling a funereal pyre in a mythic, magical, mystical forest, combined with the sound of a Capella singing of Celtic mourning hymns - I call them hymns because the tone took me to my Black Baptist church upbringing, when elderly women would break into spontaneous song. I suppose I can call the film its own sort of hymn since Snow White and the Huntsman completes the impossible task of being at once a spiritually engaging meditation on good versus evil and a wonderful summer adventure flick whose well known/worn concerns are here rendered as newly feminist and communal.

To explain further, this is not your mother's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In this version of events, we meet a spunky Snow whose greatest virtue is not her beauty - although that is noted by many - but her compassionate and warm heart. Whether taking in a bird whose wing needs mending, or accepting with grace and reserve the woman her father, the king, has decided to marry a year after the tragic death of her mother. Chalk this film up as another reminder of why I never yearn for "days of old" when death usually came with unknown cause, and with even greater frequency! But I digress.

Rupert Sanders reveals himself to be a filmmaker whose eye for visuals binds a seminal story like this one in a new but still understood fashion. Thus the drops of blood from Snow's mother's hand that hit the snow after she pricks her finger (on the rose bush that blooms mysteriously in winter) are as beautiful as the the scene itself - calling to mind the banked nature of winter filled with promise. Yet this moment that inspires her choice of name, when touched so earnestly by Sander's camera, calls up its own irony and sets Snow White among the Apples and Kal-El's of today's naming culture. If it wasn't iconic, how many of us would believe the name patently ridiculous? However, the current moment is called to mind when we consider characters.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, I mean, the Huntsman, shakes off some of his self-righteous fury and replaces it with drunken self-righteous fury. To wit, he does display greater depth than he had to as the demi-god forced to take holiday on Earth in Thor (2011). But I find myself still waiting to see what else he is capable of when not in period costume immersed in a character of such firmly rooted history. That said, as a widower in a land without hope for a future, his performance offers a stoic and at times touching grounding in the immediate presence of loss that would have been missing and missed otherwise.

As our modern Snow White, who is imprisoned for a decade and must lead an army against the evil queen to retake her throne, we have Kristen Stewart. Stewart does a far better job here at conveying emotional complexity and acting chops than in her more famous forays into werewolf/vampire love triangles, although that might not be saying much. I found myself surprised and curious if it was Chris Hemsworth's effective, if at times confused seeming turn as the titular Huntsman that drew out this performance from Stewart - who thankfully did none of the repetitive blinking that stands in for responsive emoting in the Twilight movies! (Not that I don't Love that pulpy gothic blather for its own quirks.) The two of them together, if not really giving off the sparks we are meant to feel between them, do give off the glow of comrades on a common mission and with the common goal of redemption and purpose.

Of course the One To Watch is Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravena, who oozes a deceit that requests no apologies - although a brief back-story is shoe-horned in for those who may feel need to understand her pain. Sanders' affection for the queen is clear when, as Stewart trudges through yet another dirty swamp in her tattered dress, Ravena slips from one delectable scene and outfit to the next. At one moment nude save her crown and completely covered in milk the consistency of Elmer's Glue, Theron's performance seems to show off the settings, giving them more depth, rather than the other way around. Colleen Atwood's gorgeous costumes - sure to earn her another well deserved nomination unless the Academy members are watching the film while inhaling some of that glue Ravena was drenched in, and get distracted - offer no shortage of eye candy.

But the film's strength lies in the movement from castle to forest where I doubted my eyes at first, and then thought the filmmakers had found little people who looked exactly like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. Only to discover some magical trickery was afoot as they were all simply made to appear small compared to Stewart and Hemsworth. The scenes Snow and the Huntsman spent around forest fires with the "seven dwarfs" could have devolved into hammy, cheesy mockery. But instead, even with limited exposition, the wonderful actors infuse their characters with a humanity that draws the audience in, and you care about them. Hence the scenes where they sing become less hokey repetitions of 'high-ho" and are instead immediately elegiac and bewitching.

In other words, like a hymn the scenes stir the soul through sound and sight, but possesses a message about the complexity of their relationship to each other and to what Snow represents. When the dwarfs give their allegiance to Snow as the rightful queen who can save the kingdom, and agree to follow her into battle, we're again reminded that we're not in Kansas, err, Disney anymore. As an antidote to the spate of silly fare directed at young girls, full of the concerns of boys and clothes, the film triumphs. Snow's princess is both innocent and tough, capable of carving a three inch trench from forehead to chin in the face of the lecherous brother of the queen, and bringing a thirty foot tall bridge Troll to a sweetly submissive state by the force of her good will alone.

And despite having the unfortunate designation of Evil Queen, Theron's Ravena is a woman full of the unyielding desire for her own way and the desire for a beauty that she knows (even in medieval times) can ensure one's comfort and success in life. Such commentary is often cloaked in fairy tales, whose moral imperitives were either shoved in or the story altered for them to fit. But here, they are revealed and then subverted by the fact that both women desire to rule, and the preference only goes to the one who seems to show greater care for folks in her kingdom.

In other words, although Ravena must answer for the evil she does, and she does engage in a lot of vile acts, her punishment feels less an argument that the purity of Snow is preferable to her evil than a suggestion that any woman who rules must needs combine her desire to rule with attention to crops and prosperity as well, or be drummed out by the locals! In this way, Snow's rule is the better since her view of the best kingdom possible is one wherein community and the good of all comes first. And because she doesn't regularly suck the very youth out of random neighborhood girls to keep herself young.

Community comes even before her own desires, as becomes clear towards the end. One could call it a cheap, cheesy attempt to cash in on the "love triangle" trope running rampant through films and books aimed at youngsters, but the "choice" between her childhood friend William - a forgettable and sad Sam Claflin who suffers from being unable to rescue Snow as a child, and showing up after the Hunk, I mean, the Huntsman - and the Huntsman is about the impossibility of a queen finding a man both suitable to the drawing room, the bedroom, and the battlefield, who won't one day try to take over her throne! Ravena too rules alone after murdering Snow's father, and both women evoke Cate Blanchet's Queen Catherine forced to rule alone if she would have her own will actually prevail.

Overall, the feminist depth I happily gleaned from the viewing was unnecessary to the group of small children and adolescents there with their parents and the greater crowd of old and young Harlem movie go-ers who, in typical New York City fashion, shouted at the screen "She showed that b#*ch what was up!" as Snow's good triumphed over evil, and laughed good naturedly at the shenanigans of the dwarfs letting in Snow's army by sneaking in the castle and opening the gates. A film that will entrance old and young with its beauty and offer young girls a nice alternative to being a vampire or werewolf's meal/plaything.

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Genre - A-
  (as fairy tale action/adventure, its far better than most!)
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance - C+
  (some children of different hues and ethnicities at a remote village, otherwise, even magical lands are again for Whites only)
Visuals/Audio - A
Gender Rep - A+
   (for women re-framing what it means to be princess and in charge!)
Narrative - B+
Leaving Theater, Gut Said - B+/A

OVERALL GRADE: A-

13 June 2012

Prometheus (2012)

The Greek myth of Prometheus involves a superior and powerful being who, out of compassion and the desire to generously give to his creation, gives fire to mankind, and is punished by his fellow powerful being "colleagues." His punishment is the daily violent consumption of his liver by an eagle - the liver grows back each day. With these images and ideas in mind - that of a god creating a creature both wonderful and violent, and giving a force both destructive and beneficial to that creature, and being punished for it - one cannot help but be enraptured by the questions, and there are many, many questions, raised by Ridley Scott's entrancing film.

Beginning with our interstellar Prometheus' voluntary self-annihilation at Victoria Falls, which allows mankind to exist by dispersing his DNA through the water, the film revolves around questions of sacrifice, consequence, compassion, and how they structure relations between people. The film begins with the discovery by academics of Scottish cave paintings similar to those found all over the world with large beings standing next to people, and a representation of a specific group of planets far, far away. These scholars of, seemingly all ancient cultures - Noomi Rapace and a sadly forgettable turn from Logan Marshall-Green - conclude that these alien engineers are suggesting we humans go visit them. As invitations to visit go, this one is probably the most vague and least well explicated or elaborated, but as one character says, they're running on faith - and hoping we'll follow them on some faith too.

From there the film smartly moves into space, which serves as a blank slate on which to project the crew's desires, both mundane and spiritual. As usual, Ridley Scott's fastidious attention to the environment in which he places his characters can be so lovely as to overshadow them. As is the case with our Ripley/Sigorney Weaver surrogate this time around, Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw. Between the child-like, tinny, inconsequential quality of her voice and a dour, flat aura/demeanor that persists even when she is supposed to be happy, the world Scott wraps around Dr. Shaw is frequently more interesting to consider than she is! And unfortunately, even with the cotton stuffing of a similar haircut and tendency toward survivalist intelligence, her performance falls far, far short of filling Ripley's shoes. The sparks of fire that Rapace exhibited at times in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011), and which seared her performance into people's minds in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) are missing here completely, and I left feeling her current It-Girl status to be undeserved (and hopefully short-lived) if it lacks the vulnerability, reserve, complexity and power that made Weaver's Ripley someone to cheer for. In other words, Elizabeth was the one character I was supposed to care about most but cared about least. 

As the movie's titular heroine this would make one think the film suffers, but not as much since Scott has filled the other roles with actors of singular grace and nuance notably: Charlize Theron as the ambiguously motivated and alluringly sibilant Weyland Company representative, Idris Elba as the ship's aloof but humane captain, and Michael Fassbender in a benignly vicious role as the ship's android robot, David. The texture and tone of Fassbender's performance nearly deserves a review all its own, and is thrilling considering that, in what one can only assume to be a nod to the original film, at one point he is still emotionally compelling as a disembodied head! Overall his performance is so wonderful because he perfectly reflects - in gesture, facial tic, vocal modulation - the subliminal questioning about consequence and humanity that the film is obsessed with. For example, when preparing for arrival, as the only sentient "being" awake on the ship, David evokes a creepy voyeurism tinged/satiated by longing with very few spoken lines or movements. His performance fills one with wonder at the complexity of what it means to be human as reflected in what we project onto/into our creations.

After the perfunctory but necessary opening, we arrive on the planet LV-223, and in somewhat haphazard fashion at a site with ancient alien "buildings" - the first place you fly over has alien construction on it, really? Despite the revolutionary quality of this discovery, and despite the fact that he is supposed to be a brilliant Ph.D./scholar (who spends his life in remote locations, for long hours, plying small brushes in delicate strokes, seeking the bits of history that once assembled reveal a larger picture), Marshall-Green's Dr. Charlie Holloway acts like a frat boy on holiday. Understandably insisting on visiting the amazing discovery regardless of there only being six hours of remaining daylight, upon entering the system of tunnels and chambers, he quickly sours on the discovery when live alien beings do not immediately reveal themselves. Holloway turns to calling the central chamber with the massive stone head from the promo posters "just another tomb" without investigating even a fraction as superficially as the others (who, incidentally, are collecting a perfectly preserved alien Engineer's head and checking out massive oozing canisters within twenty feet of him). And so disappointed, he takes no samples/specimens, takes no notes, and spends precious time on an alien world getting drunk and laid on the ship. Holloway's further indulgence in downright brutish and insensitive treatment of android David for being a robot feels a bit ham-fisted, sloppy and odd as a way to keep the audience from caring for him too deeply, since we fully expect in a Ridley Scott film to care about those whose lives are lost. Thankfully, the character's unexpected, unusual, and unprofessional behavior is given little screen time, and the wonderful performances of the other characters dominate.

As is to be expected, the film is one of those where folks are picked off one by one, and since poor Ripley's 1979/2122 Nostromo crew is unaware of the history of the planet when they stop by to answer a distress beacon, we know none of them will make it home. This film is less concerned with making us care about all of the crew than the first film was, but the encounters between human and planetary "wildlife" makes up a bit for this. The creature effects are beyond amazing, and I was happy to see H.R. Giger's delicious manipulation of human reproductive and other body parts again brought to bear on the alien life. What also became clear is that, whether planned or not, the symbolism used in creating Alien's body makes sense considering the same superior beings who created us also created the Alien - albeit very indirectly, accidentally, and against their will. But I won't ruin the fun by saying more... Suffice it to say that more than one scene had the audience, and me as well, groaning out loud over not just the death of a character, but the appearance of the critter that killed them!

The action sequences are both awe-inspiring and lovely as the crew discovers planet LV-223 to be less cradle of the alien Engineers' civilization and more Area 51/1950's New Mexico desert. But the real thrill comes from the realization that each character's actions are constantly pushing and pulling at what the cost of sacrifice is, whether the sacrifice is one's body, one's life, one's dignity, or one's ultimate desires. In other words, obvious ideas about 'what it means to be human' aside, the film's strength lies in the other ideas it plays with. Ridley Scott's film glows with its ability to make the environment itself an active force compelling choice and suggesting that sacrifice is often as much about the human as it is about the "alien" - ie, the tension between that which is presumably us and that which is profoundly Not us/is hostile to us.

A bit esoteric a viewing lens, and maybe reading too much? Perhaps. But the unexpected depth and beauty of the film's play with the ideas of compassion and sacrifice made me less annoyed by 1) the  number of unanswered central questions and 2) the obviousness of inevitable sequels suggested by the end of the film. By managing to raise similar, but more complex questions than the first Alien, fans of the terrifying and the brainy are both sure to be satisfied, and excited for what Scott has planned next.

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Genre - A+
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance - C+
Visuals/Audio - A
Gender Rep - B
Narrative - B+
Gut Says - A
OVERALL GRADE: A-