Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some Enchanted Evening

There's something appealing about a shamelessly over-the-top movie. If Orphan (2009, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra) has failings--and it does--shame is not one of them. It pursues its perversities and violent set-pieces with a startling (and frankly refreshing) single mindedness into which questions about propriety and taste never enter the equation. It's kind of brilliant that way. If it weren't so crazily stupid at points during its running time, it might even be some kind of crackpot masterpiece. You know what you're in for in the first five minutes, when an overhead shot of pregnant Vera Farmiga in a wheelchair gives way to a LOT of blood. It earns its "R" rating right off the bat, by suggesting awful things involving a woman's reproductive organs and process. But that's only the beginning. Things REALLY get fun when the title character enters the scene, adopted by our unfortunate parents (Famiga and Peter Sarsgaard). There's something a little bit odd about Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian girl who is scarily bright, oddly mature, and scarily manipulative. Bad things happen to people who cross her. As evil children go, she's world class. The film then proceeds to skirt right up to our culture's taboos about depictions of children. There's a twist at the end of this movie, and it's a good one. The filmmakers disguise their intent with deft sleight of hand. But there are strange plot holes, too, as if they thought up their set-pieces without considering how they played in terms of internal consistency. Along the way, you have a chilly, Cronenberg-esque production that uses its genre conceits to test their characters to destruction, showing every crack that appears in loving detail. The performances are mostly very good, especially the child actors (one of whom is deaf), but the dark family secrets seem occasionally banal. It's not a GREAT movie. Hell, it might not even be a good movie. But it is a FUN movie, the kind where you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if the filmmakers are going to take the next step suggested by their plot. Mostly they do.

There's a certain amount of deja vu involved with Richard Matheson's novel, Hell House, and the movie version, retitled The Legend of Hell House (1973, directed by John Hough). At its core, it has the same plot as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, in which a quartet of ghost-busting investigators move in to a famously haunted house and take its measure. It even casts some of its characters in identical archetypal roles: The Scientist and the weak-willed Medium. The two stories are like shadow companions. Dark reflections of one another. But there's a key, difference. The Haunting of Hill House (and the film version from 1964) is an elegant, even delicate, instrument meant to strike deep chords on the intellect. Its object is terror. Hell House has no qualms against punching the audience in the gut. Its appeal is more visceral, its object tending more towards "horror" than "terror." In any event, the film version of The Legend of Hell House, like the book itself, is a minor classic, and suggests that the best way to adapt Matheson is to let Matheson himself do the adapting. The filmmakers have added a wonderfully dreary atmosphere to the film, from the brooding, fog-bound mansion to the weird, electronic score. When you're dealing with a haunted house movie, the mood is the key. The performers are up to the material and take it seriously. This is Roddy McDowell's movie, for the most part, even though top-billed Pamela Franklin is fine as the weak link in the chain.

The premise behind Enchanted (2007, directed by Kevin Lima) is as clever as it is goofy. It postulates a Disney fairy tale character thrust into the "real" environment of New York City, where "happily ever after" doesn't exist. This premise provides a framework for an agreeable send-up of Disney films and a terrific showcase for star-on-the-rise Amy Adams as our wayward heroine. When there are no woodland creatures about to do her bidding, she engages the wildlife that IS available in the form of rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. When confronted by insoluble relationship problems, she bursts into song (bringing the street musicians in Central Park along with her in a show-stopper). It's all utterly charming, and I confess to being more or less on board for most of the running time. It finally trips itself up at the end, when it lapses into self-aware deconstruction rather than clever send-up, and the live action version of the evil queen, played by Susan Sarandon, looks more than a little bit like a refugee from a fetish ball. Still and all, it was fun for a while, and Amy Adams is a force of nature. Fun.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Alone Against Tomorrow

It's been a long, long time since I saw a science fiction movie that engaged the intellect rather than the viscera, so imagine my surprise at the nuts and bolts hard science and intellectual rigor in Moon (2009, directed by Duncan Jones). It's not a deep, philosophical film along the lines of a 2001 or a Solaris, but neither is it a whiz bang entertainment. Like its central character, it's a blue collar kind of science fiction, of the sort once practiced by the writers in John Campbell's Astounding, salted with a bit of Philip K. Dick. It has an intimate scale--it really has two characters, and they're more or less trapped in a microcosm--but the devil is in the details. It poses some interesting questions about work, exploitation, identity, and loneliness.

The story concerns a mining tech on the far side of the moon, whose job is to keep vast strip-miners looking for helium-3 running. Helium-3 is necessary for cheap fusion driving the economy back home on Earth (this is actually fairly sound scientific extrapolation; helium-3 is real, as is its role in the fusion reaction that fuels the sun). Our hero, Sam Bell, is nearing the end of his three year stint on the moon. His only company is GERTY, the station's computer, and taped messages from home. He's beginning to come unglued. He's seeing things. On a trip out to service one of the mining rigs, he sees a ghostly image in the churning moondust, and wrecks his rover. When he awakens in the station's infirmary, things have changed slightly, and he finds that GERTY isn't as cooperative as he would like. There's something waiting for him out at the wrecked rig, and more than that I shall not say. It's best to discover the film on its own terms.

I'm not going to claim that this is a great film. It's NOT a great film. But it is a very good film, and it makes most of what's in the current science fiction film firmament look very, very bad by the mere fact of its good qualities. First and foremost, it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. It assumes that the audience knows something about science, that the audience cares about the existential problem it poses for its hero, and that the audience can follow its plot. There are special effects in the film, but they are modest. As a matter of production design, this is a very good-looking film, taking its cues from any number of 1970s-era science fiction films. The film it most resembles to my eye is Silent Running, which shares its solitary protagonist doing a dirty job (and rebelling against that job), but it's better than that movie. That it accomplishes its effects on a modest five million dollar budget is a bit of a miracle, but it shows how the economies of scale on special effects have come down. The film's combination of model work and CGI creates a very plausible environment for the story. The film goes back to the "used future" look of those seventies films, and it's entirely convincing.

The thing that makes the movie tick, however, is Sam Rockwell, who plays the lead. He's given a difficult role that essentially devolves into a one-man play in which he goes through several stark character transformations. He holds the camera through the whole movie. It's a rare science fiction film that's a showcase for an actor, but this film is such a beast. Kevin Spacey gets the unenviable role of GERTY, with it's echoes of Hal-9000.

One other thing the film gets right is that it's creepy as hell. The cold, futuristic environment clashes mightily with the disintegrating intellect of its hero, and the film incorporates a couple of images that are as haunting as anything you'll find in a ghost story. This is a deep well of alienation, and that carries a powerful kick. Maybe it has more in common with Solaris than I thought.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Spidey Agonistes

This was another light week for me. Apart from continuing on with Dexter and The X-Files, this is what I saw:

By the time I made it to the end of this week's re-viewing of Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man (2002), all I could think was: "This is better than I remembered it being." Oh, I still hate the film's conception of the Green Goblin, and I think the special effects are pretty dodgy, but on the whole, it gets most things right, including the primal guilt involved with Spidey's origin story and his subsequent pathological need for expiation of that guilt. I see more of Raimi's personality in this movie than I remembered, too, including some shots that seem to me like they were originally planned for Darkman. And I still like the cast, especially the ensemble at The Daily Bugle. One of these days, someone will notice that you could build an entire film around these characters--especially J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. No superheroes required. This is what I originally said about the movie back in 2002.

Spider-Man 2 (2004) is a better film, but it doesn't seem to be holding up in my head as well as the first film. Raimi lets his sadistic qualities get the better of him, and heaps the misery on poor Peter Parker like he heaped abuse on Ash in the Evil Dead movies. This leads the film to occasional passages that are maudlin, and the Spidey as messiah imagery at the end of the el train sequence is a bit much to take. But where the first film really stumbled with its villain, this one gets it spot on. Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus is a marvel (pardon the pun), and you can see the manic glee Raimi must have felt when filming him in the re-emergence of the gonzo style the director is known for.

Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie (2000) has it's pleasures--most of them provided by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but it seems a bit unambitious in retrospect. Part of this is the result of a skinflint studio doing things on the cheap, but part of it is built into the material. How does one distill a thirty year soap opera into a 90 minute movie? Not easily. It's a miracle that the thing is watchable. My interest in these movies is really an interest in that most engaging of megalomaniacs, Magneto, who is possibly the most complicated evil mastermind comics have ever produced. The gleam in Ian McKellen's eye as he assays the role is a big part of this film's watchability. I laid out most of my gripes about this film when it originally appeared, and I don't really have much to add.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sucking at the Glass Teat

This was a light week for me. Apart from re-watching Up (this time in 3-D, which added nothing to the movie but a needless distraction), I've mainly been watching stuff from television.

I went into Tobe Hooper's first entry for The Masters of Horror series with a healthy dose of skepticism. I'd heard bad things about it and Hooper is notoriously hit or miss. Would it be the same director who made The Toolbox Murders (which I loved) or Mortuary (which was awful)? It turns out that it was neither. It was the Hooper of the 1970s. Dance of the Dead was gritty, unpleasant, and shocking, a film that trades in humanity at its very worst, one that doesn't reassure the audience and one that damn sure doesn't cater to the expectations of horror fans. If I didn't know that this was based on a Richard Matheson story, I doubt I would have guessed it. It plays in the territory of the splatterpunks, and is more in the sensibility of Matheson's son, Richard Christian (who wrote the screenplay for this). It's all about violating taboos. It's about the corruption inherent in the traditional family, it's about the notion that there actually ARE things worse than death. Although this presents Robert Englund as a kind of ringmaster, and gives him a salacious patter as, perhaps, a sop to the unrelieved grimness of the rest of the story, what humor he provides is of a particularly hard boiled and nasty variety. Of the episodes by the major "masters" assembled by the show, this one is probably my favorite.

Back in the late 90s, just before the advent of DVD, Fox issued The X-Files on VHS. They didn't issue whole seasons. Rather, they issued half-season that they assured viewers were specifically selected by Chris Carter as the best of the show. I remember a lot of grumbling from fans--myself included--over this decision--but it turns out they knew what they were doing. I'm revisiting the first season right now, and almost invariably, the ones omitted in that first video offering weren't very good. And the ones that they DID offer, WERE very good. Some observations:

My favorite episodes from the first season are "Ice" and "Eve." "Ice" is a crackerjack homage to The Thing with some nasty little alien ice worms. Eve is driven by a memorable performance by Harriet Sansom Harris as multiple clones. Both episodes seem more cinematic than some of the lesser episodes surrounding them. They also explore their ideas more rigorously. Of the "mythology" episodes, I'm partial to "The Erlenmeyer Flask," which hints at the innovation the series would pursue later by providing a drastic pivot on which to redirect the character of Dana Scully. Unlike most characters in television series, Scully undergoes dramatic changes as the series progressed, and this episode provides the jumping off point for that.

The costumers started to subtly alter Gillian Anderson's wardrobe about mid-season towards a more stylish look.

The reversal of gender roles is also very interesting, with the male half of the team, Mulder, being entirely credulous of weird phenomena, and the female half, Scully, being the skeptic. Mulder is also palpably the more emotional of the two. This corresponds to interesting character developments later in the series, though those aren't even hinted at in the first season.

The dichotomy between the "good" episodes and the "bad" episodes is an interesting case study in the changing nature of television series. The bad episodes tended to resemble older television--in particular Carter's acknowledged role model, Kolchack: The Night Stalker--while the good episodes tend to point the way towards the more novelistic television series that would follow (Lost or The Sopranos, for instance). This second approach also shows the lingering influence of Twin Peaks, something exacerbated by the presence of Twin Peaks-alum David Duchovny. For the most part The X-Files feels like a transitional entity, one poised between eras.