28 August 2007

SERVICE INTERRUPTION

My brain has been pretty well fried this summer (damn you, Jason Voorhees!), and something that I wouldn't have thought possible has happened: I don't really want to see any movies right now. Besides, I assume that nobody actually cares what I have to say about War or The Nanny Diaries, both of which I could probably review sight-unseen anyway.

The point being: I'll be back on Saturday to wrap up the Summer of Blood. 'Til then, you're on your own.

26 August 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AND WE DROWN

In 1994, one year after dragging Jason Voorhees out of retirement for a film that violated the spirit of an entire franchise and sank like a stone at the box office, the good folks at New Line decided it would be a great idea to do the same thing for Freddy Krueger. But where Jason Goes to Hell was a miserable exercise in crapping all over series continuity, the seventh Nightmare movie was something far beyond a mere franchise film or even a mere genre film. Wes Craven's New Nightmare is perhaps the first and certainly the greatest of all post-modern horror films and one of the most successfully self-referential films of all time; it is nothing less than the of slasher movies.

Wes Craven was a mere two years off of starting the late-'90s glut of post-modernism off in earnest with Scream when he came up with a beautifully elegant solution to the two most intractable problems involved with trying to make a new Nightmare in 1994: Freddy Kruger was dead as dead could conceivably be, and Freddy Krueger hadn't been even a tiny bit scary or threatening for three straight films. Without completely violating the storyline of the franchise (a storyline that Craven hated and found totally incoherent), there could be no legitimate way to make another film (not that legitimacy ever stopped a slasher film), and so Craven simply took the film out of the franchise storyline, having stumbled upon one of those questions that makes geniuses different from you and I:

What does Freddy Krueger think of the Nightmare on Elm Street films?

As revealed about two-fifths into New Nightmare, here is Craven's new mythology: an ancient unnamed dream demon exists that can never be destroyed, only imprisoned; and the only way of imprisoning it is for an imaginative storyteller to create a new allegory about the demon (Methinks that Wes Craven was really impressed by Neil Gaiman's Sandman). It can escape, however, if the story is forgotten, or if it becomes so familiar as to lose its impact, or if it becomes watered-down with increasingly cartoonish sequels that turn the demon into a sort of murderous stand-up comedian.

And that, according to Craven, is exactly what happened after he turned his chronic nightmares into the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1981. And by "according to Craven," I really do mean, "according to Craven, who speaks those words in the film, in the role of 'Wes Craven,'" director of a new Nightmare." This film, you see, takes place in Los Angeles in 1993, and it is the story of how "Craven" found himself plagued by bad dreams after the dream demon escaped with the whoring-out of the Nightmare franchise, and more importantly how "Heather Langenkamp" comes to be the only living person who can help him trap the demon once more inside the Kruger shell, by acting once more in the role that gave her the small fame she ever once enjoyed, even as it essentially drove her out of professional film acting.

(Okay, what follows is going to get kind of weird if I don't set out the ground rules: "Heather" and "Wes" and "Robert," and so forth, refer to the characters in the movie; "Langenkamp" and "Craven" and "Englund" are the actors/writers/other of Wes Craven's New Nightmare.)

Way back when I reviewed the first film, I mentioned that there was a good reason that Heather Langenkamp didn't have much of a career afterwards, despite being one of the best actresses in the history of the slasher film. Here's that reason: in the late 1980s, she found herself with a stalker who liked to pretend sometimes that he was Freddy Kruger. Langenkamp was justifiably freaked out by this, and so she retreated from the movies into the much less noticeable world of network television, and the classic sitcom Just the Ten of Us.

With her permission, Craven wrote that situation into the script, and it's hard to imagine New Nightmare working without it. As many before me have observed, the great majority of filmgoers who know Heather Langenkamp at all know her for only one character, making her something like the Falconetti of horror: whereas Jamie Lee Curtis, to name another slasher heroine who is altogether perfect in that role, is now famous for many things and so the experience of watching Halloween is going to necessarily remind us of the many fine performances Curtis has given in the years since. By contrast, Langenkamp is ever and only Nancy. New Nightmare is aware of that, and by giving Heather a backstory which is true, and which reminds us that we only know of the actress in her role of Freddy Krueger's great antagonist, the film manages to blur the line between performer and character (more than having Langenkamp play "herself" already blurs it) in a way that make the film and its plot far more compelling than would otherwise have been the case.

In a similar vein, Robert Englund is someone that we mostly only recognise when he's wearing latex and razor-tipped glove, and the frequent sight of him wandering around with a receding hairline and purple sunglasses and a goofy smile is uncanny as hell. Because Englund, unlike the many faces of Jason Voorhees, is recognizable through the make-up, and there's just something wrong about a man who likes kinda like Freddy and sounds kinda like Freddy consorting with Heather like they're best friends. It's creepier than anything in the last two films.

The plot: Heather is married to a very nice man named Chase Porter (David Newsom), an effects artist, and they have a very sweet boy named Dylan (Miko Hughes) who would have been conceived just about one year after the first Nightmare was in theaters. Heather has been having uncomfortably Krueger-ridden nightmares of late, which she has tended to blame upon the stalker who has recently re-entered her life, and the inexplicable chronic earthquakes plaguing Los Angeles haven't been helping.

Indeed, Freddy Krueger seems to be turning up everywhere in Heather's life right now: to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first film, she's invited on Sam Rubin's crappy entertainment news show (God, that dude), where she is not terribly pleased by the audience full of kids in Freddy costume, or by Robert's appearance in full Freddy regalia. And on the way home from that dreary affair, she takes a meeting in the office of New Line Cinema's CEO, Bob Shaye (he turns out to be a really good actor, oddly enough, after two decent cameos in The Dream Master and Freddy's Dead), where in honor of the studio's debt to the Nightmare franchise, he has paintings and books and statuettes of Freddy lining every imaginable surface.

Bob has what he thinks to be some really exciting news: Wes has been having Freddy nightmares lately, and just like he did in the early '80s, he's turned it into a script, with the (theoretically deceased) Nancy Thompson back in the lead. Heather doesn't take more than a moment to turn it down, but she is extremely curious about the nature of Wes's dreams, and Bob's accidental admission that Chase has been designing the new Freddy glove.

All the crap going on in her life has been more than enough to shake her up pretty badly, so when Dylan starts to talk about the bad man with the claws, and going into what look like epileptic seizures, Heather calls Chase on his film set and demands that he make the three-hour drive home NOW, although that will get him back well after night falls.

Back he drives, and he has a hard time keeping awake, and eventually he drives the car right off the road. The four razor-sharp fingers that burst through his car seat and into his chest probably have a bit to do with that, and when Heather gets the news, she immediately tears off for the morgue, where her husband, killed in a horribly mangled car accident, shows only one sign of violence: four parallel gashes down his abdomen. At this point, Heather knows that one of two things is happening: either she is succumbing to her family's history of insanity, or the character of Freddy Krueger, heretofore fictional, has bullied his way into the real world.

And with that, I will stop the plot recap, for what happens is awfully similar to the first six movies, and in some very particular ways. Many of the setpieces in New Nightmare - and sometimes just shots or lines of dialogue - are transparent recreations of scenes from earlier in the series. It's not just clever self-reference, either (although there's plenty of that throughout the movie, starting with the fact that Heather's entire social circle seems to be comprised of Nightmare actors); it's a not-too-subtle jab at the generally anemic scares in the original versions. After all, this film quite frankly admits that Freddy Krueger was no longer a scary character on any level, and that his antics were more theatrical than horrifying. It's another way for this film to reinforce its superiority over the others, or at least the increased menace of its central figure, if it can recreate these dispassionate setpieces in a darker, more frightening vocabulary.

Towards the end of the film, Heather finally confronts the Freddy demon in a combination hellscape/dream sequence, and there she finds a copy of the script for Wes Craven's New Nightmare, detailing everything that has happened to her up to that moment, and showing her what is going to happen until the story ends. In what at first appeared to me as a rare example of true slasher movie stupidity, she reads the exact page that she's on, and is horrified to see a directive paragraph explaining that she's reading the screenplay and it is horrifying her, instead of skipping ahead to see what Freddy is doing and thereby keeping ahead of him. But then I realised that for Heather to look ahead would be to alter the course of what was going on (that is, if the script said, "Freddy jumps out and cuts Nancy's arm off," she would be expecting it, and her arm wouldn't be cut off), and hence the screenplay would no longer belong to the film that we are watching, instead functioning entirely within the film. Instead, like Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. - pretty much exactly like it, in fact - the primacy of the script that we the audience recognise being constructed by characters in the film takes precedence over their self-determination, because they are after all not people, but characters in a script, even if - again exactly like Adaptation. - they are based on real-life characters. If anything, New Nightmare commits more fully than Adaptation. to this theme because it permits its characters to see and hold the actual script, and to interact with it, and still be incapable of transcending their character-ness. In fact, whereas Adaptation. raises the question of how much wiggle room the characters have in their story by giving the third act over the the fictional Donald Kaufman, it is not deterministic. New Nightmare, like Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author is completely deterministic: the characters learn they are characters and cannot cease to behave as their writer set it down. I want to be very clear that I did not just say that Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a better-written film than Adaptation., suffering as it does from some odds and ends that don't function on a strictly narrative level. But damn me if it isn't close.

Fun fact: I only made the realisation about Heather's function-as-character in the middle of writing the phrase about "slasher movie stupidity" and everything that followed was essentially written on the fly and directly opposed to what I expected to be arguing. Making this post itself an example of post-modern deterministic writing.

At the very end of the film, Heather kills "Freddy," thereby re-establishing the allegory in which Nancy kills Freddy - or is it actually Nancy who kills Freddy? - and she returns with her son to find, clutched in her arms, a copy of Wes's script with a handwritten note thanking her for playing Nancy again. Dylan asks what she's holding, and she responds "a story," and begins to read from the very first scene, which was the very first scene here. Then the screen fades and the title appears for the first time: Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Not, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It is a story about its own writing, and its writer appears in it; it is a story about its own performance, and so the actors are mostly playing themselves; it is a story about its own telling, and so it ends exactly where it began, and what happens when Heather and Dylan reach the end, and Heather reads about herself reading is a question that we could ponder, or we could smack ourselves and remember that it won't ever happen, because Heather only does what the script tells her to do and the script says that we should fade to black before she ever reaches that point in the reading. In the world of the film, Freddy is trapped again because the story will never end, and in our world, Freddy is trapped because the story stops, and this time for good. New Nightmare made essentially no money, and there was hence no eighth film, but I'm not certain that New Line ever expected such a thing, and I'm positive that Craven meant for this to put a full stop on things. As hard as it is to take a punning clown seriously, it's much harder to take seriously a figure whose existence is so conclusively proven to be a narrative construct; after all, we tell children, "it's just a story" to make them less scared.

But I don't think that Craven wants "it's a story" to mean that that the story isn't therefore important. If anything, this script proves just how important stories are: they are how we understand and live in the world around us, how we control it and how we are guided by it. If I may, I'd like to give the last word to another man who knew a thing or two about storytelling, the British author G.K. Chesterton:
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
Body Count: Four, or five if we count the demon masquerading as Freddy Krueger, but of course we should not, for it isn't "dead," it's just been imprisoned once more by Wes Craven's writing...which specific "Wes Craven" is an exercise best left to the individual. And now I've gone and over-thought it.

Also, one stuffed animal that evidenced more personality and character than nine-tenths of the actors in the Friday the 13th decalogue.

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

25 August 2007

NO, MESSRS. ROGEN AND GOLDBERG...SUPERGOOD

It's semi-common knowledge that I didn't "attend" "high school" in the usually meaningful sense of those words. It is true that I come from home-schooling,* but I cannot help it.

Because of this particular quirk, which if anything makes me stronger - yes it is a STRENGTH and not a FAILING, god-damn your eyes - I'm not any sort of target audience member for high school movies, be they comedies or dramas or even (ick) slashers. That doesn't mean I don't like them, sometimes, just that I like them as I like the pre-WWII Japanese silent cinema or the Weimar avant-garde, a document of a society fundamentally alien to me.

Still, I know good filmmaking when I see it, and I'm also quite capable of responding to the emotional truths celebrated by societies fundamentally alien to me, and thus have I been found to regard films from American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused as something like masterpieces. It's no shame upon the new Apatow Collective project Superbad that it isn't quite up to those lofty standards; indeed, I mean it to be praise that Superbad is good enough to call those films to mind in the first place.

If I had gone to high school, I'd probably regard this as a marvelous evocation of those heady times at the end of things: two life-long best friends, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) have a long day's journey into night when chance, or fate, puts them in the position of designated alcohol-gatherers for the two young women whom they have been quietly lusting after for what seems like ages. Of course nothing goes properly, and the afternoon and evening of their quest brings them from one misadventure to another. All comic of course; and all raunchy, or at least vulgar, thanks to Seth's apparently bottomless affection for the word "pussy."

(On the other hand, Superbad's nearly two hour running time contains less vulgarity and unspeakable obscenity than I've been known to unload during a single particularly competitive Mario Kart race, so it's best I not judge.)

There's a level on which this is surely a personal and true story for the writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (there's a whole mythology around the story's gestation for a decade that you can find anywhere on the internet, so I won't belabor it), but that's neither as obvious nor, frankly, as interesting as how the project fits into the burgeoning Judd Apatow house style, though his only role here was as producer. For good or ill, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin hang heavy over Superbad, and while I'm sure a better, stronger critic would resist the urge to compare the three, I am weak, and I also enjoy finding patterns in arbitrary places. Now, director Greg Mottola, a veteran (like Michael Cera) of the thrice-renownéd Greatest TV Series Yt Shall Ever Be, Arrested Development, is certainly a fine craftsman, but his function as auteur of the present film is far less significant than Apatow's as producer, or the writers' or the actors' or the music supervisor's who came up with all of the '70s R&B tunes that give the project its peculiar feeling of contemporary nostalgia. It's a film whose every detail fixes it firmly in the mid-aughts, and yet it feels like a wildly anachronistic time capsule. This is, of course, a significant part of its off-kilter charm.

So, Apatowfilmsk: boys of all ages turning into men, via sex and/or sexuality, while the boys around them remain steadfast and unmaturing. Women are given the facsimiles of personality instead of actual personalities. The frank homoeroticism that underpins essentially all male-male interactions is shown in all its awkward glory.

Knocked Up and Virgin were both extraordinary comedies, so it's not terrible if Superbad is a little less so. Virgin remains the funniest by far of the three, thanks in no small measure to Steve Carell and Catherine Keener (bless them, but the Judd Apatow Stock Company are not the best "actors," qua acting) and Knocked Up - to my damn home-schooled eyes, anyway - is surely the most emotionally rich, for all its masculine-centricity. Where Superbad excels is in the depiction of male bond pairs - certainly not unexplored cinematic territory, but done very well here, and a stark contrast to Apatow's one-man shows.

Very much as it was the case with Knocked Up, I find myself reflecting not upon the hilarity (of which there is more than enough here), but upon how desperately sad so much of the film is behind the booze and boob jokes. At heart, it is a story of two intimately connected men whose friendship is not sexual, but is clearly shown (particularly in the decidedly tragic final trio of shots) to be more valuable than any sexual relationship, and how the process of growing up requires that relationship to end. I say "men" and "male," but I'm not certain that it's a particularly gendered theme - oh, without doubt the story is gendered, and in places it shades into the chauvinistic if not quite the misogynistic - rather than being something that we all undergo in big ways and small over and over again through life. People come and are important and then they aren't any more. In friendships as well as in sex, that truth never feels particularly nice, and it doesn't take a high-school mise en scène to explore that truth, that's just one of the places that it's most inevitable.

At this point I shall recite to myself a few times, "it's a comedy," and reiterate that I laughed hard and often, and often hard. It's as good a cast as you could hope for - Cera is, AND THIS IS A STATEMENT OF HARD FACT, the funniest actor under the age of 30 in America right now, but Hill holds his own, and the debuting Christopher Mintz-Plasse as their supremely geeky third wheel is nothing short of awe-inspiring in his symphonic performance of a one-note role. Bill Hader, who has been in things, and Seth Rogen himself are wonderful as the two worst cops in history. But these are all subjective things; comedy is damn near impossible to quantify.

It suffers, as did Apatow's films, from excessive running time, leading me to once again wish I was God and could make a rule that comedies can't be more than 100 minutes long, ever. And the specifics of the plot are familiar enough, and honestly, deterministic enough, that it's hard to be engaged with the story in the same way that Knocked Up worked as a relationship drama. Plus the girls, as written and played, pretty much suck as characters.

But whatever, it made me laugh, and it's the last gasp of the summer. And a fine summer film at that, unable to decide if it takes place in May or October (listen close for the line about pumpkins), but always full of the cool energy of a summer's day in those glorious years when summer meant freedom from work and responsibility. It's a diversion, and a damn smart one, and a damn funny one.

8/10

22 August 2007

INDIE DEPENDANT

I made a huge mistake in judging the chipper little indie comedy Rocket Science from its marketing campaign. See, based on that, I assumed it desperately wanted to be Little Miss Sunshine, and while I'm sure the distributor would love if that turned out to be the case, that simplification is a gross disservice to the ambitions and intentions of the filmmaking team.

Having seen the film, I can much more wisely claim that Rocket Science desperately wants to be Rushmore. With the narration from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Which nobody can blame it for: Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are both awfully good. So even though Rocket Science almost always feels rather uncomfortably familiar, at least it has the good taste to steal from movies that I, for one, enjoy watching quite a lot.

Besides, it's not nearly so precious as those films. Here's the story: high school student (the year is left annoyingly vague, but it's freshman or sophomore) Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) has a terrible stuttering problem and subsequent social anxiety. In a scene that feels a bit more contrived than one might hope for, he's scouted for the debate team by the loopy Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a fast-talking Machiavelli who is convinced that she can turn him into an award-winner given enough time. Meanwhile, various quirky bodies revolve around Hal, making his none-too-pleasant life even weirder than it needs to be: his newly-divorced parents (Lisbeth Bartlett and Denis O'Hare); a tyrannical older brother (Vincent Piazza) who insists on referring to Hal using only girl's names; his mother's new boyfriend (Steve Park), the father of Hal's best friend (Aaron Yoo, who I'm extremely sad that I was instantly able to identify as "that guy from Disturbia); a sexually precocious young sociopath (Josh Kay), whose parent's play the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" on cello and piano, for no reason other than so that every review of the film will make reference to that fact.

The plot that emerges from this massive pit of character traits is generally free of the stickier types of sentimentality that plague indie films, although it is surely not free of contrivance: long before the point that Hal decides to sing during debates as a way to combat his stutter, the characters have largely abandoned "realistic" behavior. Not that this is a particular flaw, of course; it's just one of those things that it's best to observe and then ignore. With contrivance, in this instance, there is no story, and without story there is no film.

A much more important consideration, anyway, is whether or not the film is amusing, or if it's just ill-tempered and nasty, and my answer for that is a brilliantly helpful, "both...kind of." For you see Rocket Science is one of those cringey-funny movies, or it would be if it were actually funny. It's probably better to call it "wry." Hal suffers, often, and it's as likely to be the capricious whims of fate causing his suffering as his own hubristic actions. But because he is mostly sympathetic, we're not usually laughing at him in the "god, look at that horrible specimen of humanity" way. Instead, it's more likely to raise a thin-lipped smile of bittersweet recognition that yes, sometimes life does those things, and yes, that is sometimes how we would like to respond to it.

Because of this, the film isn't really laugh-out-loud hilarious - much too painful for that - but it's not supposed to be, I'd wager. It's good-natured, and there are plenty of lines that individually possess great (and occasionally laugh-out-loud great) dry wit, but the whole thing is kind of maudlin, although not so much that you could get away with calling it anything other than a "comedy."

It takes two people to make this work without turning into a joyless exercise in smug hipster irony, and those people are writer-director Jeffery Blitz and Reece Thompson. For Blitz, making his fiction debut five years after his much-beloved documentary Spellbound (which I still haven't seen, although I'm sure there are many interesting points of comparison between the two films), this is a deeply personal story, based in fact on his own adolescent problems with stuttering. This, I suppose, is why the story never drifts into the more assaulting humor that turns so many similar films sour. It's quite obvious that he loves Hal, and he wants us to love Hal, and that basic decency keeps the film watchable even at its most embarrassing.

As for Thompson, he is an extraordinary find. This is functionally his first film (after a tiny role in that actorly masterpiece Dreamcatcher, and a spear-carrying role in the deathless SuperBabies), and he pwns it, if you'll pardon my fr3nch. The characters in the film are uniformly grotesques, and for the most part they are played as such, but Thompson keeps something...I do not know...it would be far too much to say that he's charismatic, but he is very sweet and endearing, even when he's behaving like a deranged jackass.

All in all, there's not a lot of "there" here; although I respect the film in its refusal to sugar-coat, that has itself become fairly de rigeur among trendy dark indie comedies. There is no nice way to say this: I've seen this before, and you've probably seen this before, and while that doesn't make it "bad," it sure as hell makes it "uninteresting."

6/10

20 August 2007

INVASION OF THE BODY...ACHES

The 1956 film was a product of its time; for it studied the stifling effects of conformity.

The 1978 film was a product of its time; for it wallowed in the paranoia of a culture that refused to trust anyone.

The 1993 film was a product of its time; for it thrashed about in the identity crisis of the post-slasher horror film, and the confusion of military America.

And now, we have The Invasion, an adaption of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers for 2007, and it is a product of its time; for it assumes that the audience has the intelligence and attention span of a 12-year-old jacked up on caffeine.

Before I begin, I want to reply to myself: yesterday I published a great long study of the first three versions of the film, and despite expending the most words on Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers, I had the fewest nice things to say about it, and the least sensible understanding of how it fit into its era. Something important happened to me between writing that review and now, and that is that I saw the new film, and seeing how badly the same themes could be mangled (for the 1993 and 2007 iterations of the story are much closer to each other than either is to the first two) made me freshly appreciate how delicately Ferrara et al worked in their study of how America deals with its military power in a post-Cold War world, especially when that military power gets used in the Middle East.

Because The Invasion, although it does some things awfully well, assumes that you are an idiot. You, personally, and you need to have everything spelled out for you in unmistakably precise detail. It certainly can't be accused of having no ideas, like some summer movies, but as things stand I'm quite confident in saying that this film takes the prize for the most condescending film of 2007 so far.

In this iteration of the story, we follow Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), a psychiatrist with a maddeningly adorable son,* Oliver (Jackson Bond). As the story opens, something has caused the Space Shuttle Patriot (remember that kids, it's the only time that the theme is expressed quietly) to crash land, and it doesn't take the Centers for Disease Control, as embodied by Carol's ex-husband and Oliver's father Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), whose last name I demand be an homage to Philip Kaufman, director of the 1978 film, to discover that some kind of virus has come down with the shuttle.

Although the target audience for this film probably isn't aware that other versions of the story exist, to say nothing of having seen those versions, it doesn't take an encyclopedic knowledge of the previous films to figure out that something is awfully wrong with that virus, when it seems to take over a bevy of people, including Tucker, but that's skipping ahead. First we need to see all sorts of business involving Carol and her son, Carol and her job (including a paranoid woman played by the cinema's great Paranoid Woman, Veronica Cartwright, a veteran of the 1978 iteration), and Carol and Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), her across-the-street neighbor and best friend and future lover. One particular scene that eats up a great deal of running time, or at least feels like it does, involves Ben taking Carol to a state dinner at the home of the Bellicecs, two delightful old Czech people, where Carol has a conversation with Andrei Cartoonisk-Rooshian (Rogers Rees, who is better than this. And the character's real name is Yorish). What follows is one of the most ham-handed, artlessly literal moments of thematic exposition of the year, if not the decade, although it would be hyperbole to go further than that. Anyway, here's the gist of their endless conversation: the Russian says that people are mostly nasty. Carol demures. The Russian suggests that the only way that peace will ever be achieved is if humans stop being human - if they lose their emotions and passions. Carol pouts. The Russian says, "Get it? When the alien virus replaces us all with emotionless clones, we'll achieve world harmony, but is it worth the cost? Isn't it better to be awful animals that kill each other but are honest about it?" Carol tosses her hair and giggles.

You know, the earlier films weren't exactly "subtle," but they had nothing on this. This is just obscene. And the film keeps! coming! back! to the same idea, always presented as clumsily: whether the lengthy scene in which CNN and Fox News report on how everywhere from North Korea to Gaza to Baghdad is laying down arms and singing "Kumbaya." And the ending - MY GOD, the ending - but I'll get there.

The sad thing is that this could have been a kind of okay film, and maybe even a good one, although it's pretty much impossible to tell. The original director, Oliver Hirschbiegel apparently turned in such a bummer of a movie (if you can believe such a thing of the director of that effervescent, Hitler-themed crowd pleaser Downfall) and so Warner Bros. hired the Wachowski Brothers to "fix" it, and they tossed it at their protégé James McTeigue, and what's left is a complete mishmash of bland action mixed with effectively scary action mixed with decent character moments mixed with cloying character moments.

And a happy ending. You expect it, and indeed the original novel had a happy ending, but you don't have to like it, and you surely don't have to think that it fits (for one thing, it absolutely ruins Nicole Kidman's very best scene by showing that her actions in that moment don't matter).

Every generation gets the Body Snatchers it deserves, I said yesterday, and ours not only treats us like idiots, it assumes we don't want to be scared. Or rather, it makes one colossally awful change to the basic framework of the story that completely torpedoes the uncanny effect of the original(s). Virus, remember? The "pod people" in this film are just sick, in an illness that is compared to both the flu and the cold. And more importantly, they aren't clones. Previously, the story worked because if you fell asleep and turned into one of Them, it wasn't "you" turning into "them" at all - it was a precise replica of your body and your memories, but it wasn't you. You were dead and gone. I assume at least part of this change was made as a sop to less-inane bad science, and perhaps to avoid plot holes like the giant one at the climax of the 1956 film, where a character is "snatched" in complete defiance of that film's rules. But it cheapens this film awfully. You never feel the raw terror of annihilation here, only the inconvenience of a malevolent fit of the sniffles.

There are plenty of well-constructed scenes throughout, with a genuinely threatening tone; one of the directors (I want it to be Hirschbiegel) hit upon a series of jarring flash-forwards to keep us disoriented and off-balance; and the overqualified cast is pretty convincing even if they're not playing recognisable humans (in particular, Kidman hasn't been this interesting to watch in years. Make your own joke). But it all adds up to an insulting movie, a boring movie, a bad movie, and I find myself thinking that by the fourth trip, the well has run dry. Time to rape a different classic sci-fi corpse, boys.

4/10

19 August 2007

DANGEROUS INVASIONS

With Olivier Hirschbiegel James McTeigue Warner Bros.' film The Invasion fresh in theaters, the world now has a startling four cinematic versions of Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. So it seemed like a perfect time to sit down with the new film's three forebears, and explore just what it is that makes such a famously supple work, easily bent to changing social concerns and the various stylistic tendencies of some very different directors. And perhaps along the way, we'll notice the none-too-slow drift of the science fiction genre from a thoughtful, immaculately intelligent game for philosophers to a noisy summertime money magnet. Ah, Progress!

Don Siegel is one of the great American auteurs that nobody ever really thinks about. Partly, I suppose this is because his most famous film is Pauline Kael's favorite fascist cop movie, Dirty Harry, and nobody really wants to be a Dirty Harry apologist.

That doesn't change the fact that Siegel left behind him a pretty damn solid body of work, linked perhaps more by theme than by technique, but still unmistakably the product of a man with a consistent worldview: the highest respect reserved for the rugged individuals who buck the system, whatever "bucking the system" means in a given context.

It's my contention that this belief is at the core of the notoriously tetchy politics of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film made well into Siegel's career but probably his first work that still carries any sort of reputation. By this point it's not anything other than a cliché to observe that science fiction in the 1950s was more obsessed with social commentary than at perhaps any other point in the genre's history, and even within that context, the original Invasion is pretty unsubtly allegorical; but what the hell that allegory means, exactly, is the subject of much debate.

I hope you're familiar with at least the raw outline of the plot: a bucolic California town is suffering from what an epidemic, as more and more residents of the tight-knit community become convinced, to the point of near-insanity, that their friends and loved ones aren't who they seem to be. At first, the Sensible People (embodied in this version by Dr. Miles Bennell) scoff at this paranoia, but it becomes obvious that something is not quite right in the world, and then it becomes obvious that "something" in this case means "large alien seed pods that turn into clones of human beings with all the memories but none of the emotions intact."

Broadly, there are two ways that this has been read: the pods are Communists, which fits the plot specifics well, or the pods are McCarthyists, which fits the film's general snarky tone against suburban Americana well (for the record, Siegel claimed that he intended no such themes, which proves once again that artists can't interpret their own work). Some people argue that it's about "both," which is almost what I believe; but I'm happier saying that it's about "neither."

Instead, I think it's a cautionary tale about letting people do your thinking for you: in other words, an anti-conformity tale, and while that includes both anti-Communist and anti-anti-Communist themes, it includes a whole lot more than that, too. It's easy to lack back on the 1950s from our lofty historical perspective, and feel haughty about our comparative sophistication: we are not such white-bread milquetoasts! We are not afraid of our own shadows! Etc.

Like everything else, the truth is much more interesting than that. Sure, there was a lot of stress on "normal American living" in the 1950s (when isn't there?), but there were plenty of people bent on mocking that mentality (when aren't there?).

All great horror...and yes, I recognise the danger of starting a sentence with "all great" anything...all great horror starts by showing us a peaceful, even ideal situation, into which a terrible, destructive, alien force intrudes, destroying the peacefulness. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is surely a great horror film. The first 25 of its 80 minutes are dedicated to nothing but the establishment of the wonderful little small town where everybody knows everybody else, and the remainder is focused on watching that wonderful little small town die.

By focusing on the fragility of the idealised suburban life, the film argues against the simple mentality of "I will do what other people think is right" that leads to all authoritarianism, and was such an important part of the appearance, if not the reality, of the post-war era. There's no particular conservative or socialist bent to any of that: it's a film about not letting other people do your thinking, period.

So much for theme.

The film qua the film is extraordinary, one of the very best sci-fi/horror pictures of one of that genre's best decades. Its 80 minutes are essentially flawless: by the standards of cheapo b-pictures, that's not a particularly short running time, but it seems impossibly brief to the modern eye, and the film absolutely flies past, without a single moment of fat. Although there's not much plot in the early going, the attention paid to character and setting is extremely efficient and valuable. The film has a very quiet sarcasm about it, that bleeds into its later themes, in which the "perfect" face of the community hides secrets and lies: my particular favorite moment is the smiling use of "a trip to Reno" as a euphemism for divorce, in a society that views such things as unmentionable.

Once the plot kicks in, the ride begins in earnest, and although most of what happens is just a variation on two people hiding and running, it's extraordinarily exciting and even frightening (which is not a word that you get to use about '50s horror, like, ever). This is where Siegel and his under-appreciated talents come into play. He's a great director of tension, which is an odd thing to say, but the ability to drag a moment out for its maximum effect without killing the scene's momentum is quite rare.

Most of the tension in Invasion comes from the simple matter of not quite knowing where things are, which in turn comes from a lighting scheme that bears a strong debt to the contemporaneous films noirs. Really, it's almost barbarically simple: in the early part of the movie, there are many bright outdoorsy scenes, and later on there are almost nothing but night scenes, and even the interiors are usually lit so as to make the shadows just as prevalent as the patches of light. The dark is dangerous in film, and in Invasion the dark is everywhere, around and ultimately inside our homes. This is made all the stronger by the connection between sleeping and death: it's only when you sleep that the pods can take over your body, and this turns perhaps the most intimate and personal of all human actions into the most dangerous. This is smashingly effective horror, turning those things that give us strength - home and community - into deadly traps.

Which is ordinarily where I'd leave things, but I have to say a word in praise of Kevin McCarthy, a character actor of no particular notice who plays Dr. Bennell. The '50s were a decade of square jaws and manly heroes, almost comically, so, and McCarthy is frankly, a little soft and schlubby. Of course, he's got more movie-star good looks than 90% of the real world, but that's still pretty dull-looking by Hollywood standards. Because of that, he is a more believable Everyman than just about any hero I can think of from any other film of the same era, and when paired with a mostly good performance - he's not so good at doing anything but the paranoia, but given how important that is, especially in the rather bleak final five minutes, it doesn't feel like too big of a liability that he can't do the love story so much - he stands out as one of the most believably human protagonists of any 1950s b-movie I can name.

* * * * *

In the 1950s, people were paranoid about the Commies, the bomb, their neighbors, whatever. In the 1970s, they were just paranoid. After Watergate essentially destroyed any chance that a whole generation of Americans would ever trust their government, the decade witnessed a cycle of movies whose entire theme consisted mostly of "they're trying to get you. Who? Doesn't matter."

At the same time, the American cinema witnessed an explosion of remake fever: not so dire as our current decade, perhaps, but it's still pretty shocking to witness the A-list classics that got do-overs around the turn of the '80s.

So it was really a perfect time to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And under the hand of up-and-coming director Philip Kaufman, it turned out to be, if not quite as great as its predecessor, still a pretty damn fine genre picture for its day.

First things first: it's not steeped in politics, and whether that is a good thing or not, I will leave to the conscience of the individual. It is, however, unmistakably and utterly a '70s film: from the casting of Donald Sutherland in brown suits as the hero, to the fixation on self-help gurus, no-one could ever mistake this as being a product of any other time.

Perhaps the chief distinction between the two films - and one that certainly reflects their different eras - is that the 1978 Invasion is no longer set in a quiet community on the edge of nowhere. The original small-town "everybody knows your name" mentality was very much a part of the pre-Vietnam American mindset, and by the end of the Me Decade, it would have come across as hopelessly quaint. Instead, the 1978 film takes place in the bustling city of San Francisco.

It's hard to over-emphasise how important this shift is to the relative differences between the two films. The 1956 film drew most if not all of its horror from the suggestion that the people we've known and trusted our entire lives can turn on us just like that, and the comforting places that we've always loved do not offer us even a hint of protection when we're up against the wall. 22 years later, the remake takes a look at the new cosmopolitan world that so many either lived in or aspired to, with its concomitant loss of neighborly affection, and proposes that this urban isolation leaves us abandoned in times of need.

Given that seismic shift, the plot actually follows the original fairly closely: Bennell, now given the first name Matthew (Sutherland) is a public health inspector now, but he still spends the first portion of the movie slowly noticing that a lot of the people around him are convinced that their nearest and dearest are different, so different as to hardly count as the same person. He still poohs this idea until he witnesses a half-formed clone with his own eyes, and by that point, half the people he would ordinarily turn to for help have already been snatched. All that's left is to gather the few people he can trust and get as far from the city as possible - a distant cry from the original, where "the city" was looked to as the only hope for salvation.

Your twist can only be so shocking when you've titled a film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the 1956 film gamely attempted to make us wonder what the hell was going on right up until Bennell saw a half-formed "corpse" lying on his friends' pool table. In the 1978 version, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter do something that is really quite elemental, and yet hardly ever happens in any remake I can name offhand: they assume that we've seen the original, and that we therefore know what's going on. It's so extraordinarily simple and idea, and yet such a useful one, that you have to wonder why more filmmakers haven't tried it.

Thus it takes literally seconds until the new film confesses that it's a film about aliens: the opening credits take place over a montage of gelatinous bubbles floating through space and landing on earth plants, where they bloom into two-inch long pods with pink flowers. This sequence isn't "scary" in even the slightest degree, but the mere fact that we're aware of what these bubbles portend gives it a tension that rivals anything in the first film.

It's no insult to say that Kaufman's directorial style is meditative, by which I mean, he allows moments to linger on without anything much happening. He does a lot of that in Invasion, starting right here at the credits sequence, and the effect is typically unnerving: while Siegel made his film terrifying by never letting up, Kaufman makes his terrifying by filling it full of "breathing room," moments that allow the audience and the characters to stop and think about what's going on. If it's not as viscerally frightening as the original, it's more existential, and this is a good thing: if it worked exactly the same way that the first movie did, there would be no reason for it to exist. By changing the "mode" of the horror, Kaufman justifies his film's existence far more than most remakes ever do.

In a way, the 1978 Invasion is more effective than the original, for the simple reason that our contemporary world is are generally more like the late-70s than the mid-'50s. Therefore, the concerns expressed in the movie are closer to our own concerns: both films have a scene in which one of the pod people tries to convince the hero to stop resisting, using a twisted kind of logic and appeal to the fears of the Zeitgeist: in the first, that appeal is couched in terms of "be with us again, be a part of your community like you know is right," while in the second, it's much more like, "you don't need to be alone any more. We will all be together, in a way that you've always hoped for." The remake is concerned with the way that society does not always allow for the communal wholeness that the small town in the original took for granted.

The ending, too, is perhaps a bit more modern; the '70s, we could argue, were the most nihilistic decade for cinema in American history, and that is a major part of the film's conclusion. In the 1956 film, a frame narrative instituted at the studio's demand takes away the bitterest part of the ending, but still provides no real hope; the end of the film turns out to be the end of the first act of our fight against the seemingly unstoppable alien force. There's a sense of, "now it's time to fight," and while the film offers no hint at all that we'll be successful or not, the feeling all humanity being in it together speaks of the can-do '50s in a way that we're no longer completely familiar with. In contrast, the remake ends with a strong implication that the war ended before it really began: the last moment of the film is a completely unexpected and completely devastating twist. The last line of the original is "It's an emergency!"; the last line of the remake is a scream of terror.

* * * * *

Here's what happened between 1956 and 1978: John Kennedy's assassination, the war in Vietnam, and Watergate. Here's what happened between 1978 and 1993: Jason Voorhees.

At any rate, that was my first thought at the opening of Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers, as it became obvious that our hero for this entry was going to be a seventeen-year-old girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar). I'm not sure which of the post-slasher tropes is more annoying: that we can no longer have a horror film with an adult protagonist, or that girls always have androgynous names (and in Marti's case, an androgynous costume for the first couple scenes, that made it hard for me to tell, initially, that the undeniably lovely Ms. Anwar was in fact a woman).

The good thing about this intro, though, was that it immediately reset my expectations. Once I realized that this adaptation was going to be just another early-nineties horror flick, it made the stark tumble in quality much easier to bear. Ultimately, given how many changes this film makes to the story, it's almost - almost! - possible to view this film on its own terms, not as a remake of a brace of masterpieces, but as an occasionally successful horror film that might feel like a particularly well-made Sci Fi Channel original, if that station had been producing original movies in 1993.

In this outing, Marti is the daughter of Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an EPA official visiting a military base somewhere in the South to investigate toxic chemicals that may or may not be contaminating a nearby river. Along for the three-month project are Steve's wife Carol (Meg Tilly) and their son, Marti's half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy).

At roughly the same moment, Marti makes a psychotic new best friend in Jenn Platt (Christine Elise), while Steve makes a new adversary in Jenn's father, General Platt (R. Lee Ermey, playing to the cheap seats). Life on the military base sure does seem kind of crappy for everybody!

Especially when Andy goes to daycare for the first time. In the film's second-best moment, the attendant has all the children finger-painting, and she asks the kids to raise their pictures up so she can see them. Every single child has painted a virtually identical snarl of bright red with a green shape in the middle, except for Andy, who looks around with rather pronounced dread. This scene takes place mostly in one hand-held shot that pans across the row of identical paintings, and it's better than scary: it's creepy. Damn creepy. The insistent musical score doesn't help out much, but it also doesn't hurt.

Meanwhile: Steve meets Major Collins (Forest Whitaker), the base psychiatrist, who asks vague questions about the psychological ramifications of the chemicals: could they make somebody hallucinate that their loved ones aren't who they seem to be? Steve downplays this connection, and it's actually kind of neat to see a genre film like this one have such a major plot thread that absolutely fails to connect back to the main conflict. Life is like that sometimes.

In fact, the precise manner in which the alien pods arrive is never quite addressed in this film, but Ferrara and his cadre of writers seem to playing the same game that Kaufman did - you know what's happening, why should we spell it out for you? - and it works almost as well here. Anyway, things get creepy, Marti meets the hot helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth), and as Andy gets more and more freaked out about what's going on, he walks on on his mother's dried-out body, just in time to see it collapse into a pile of dust as she steps out of the closet, naked, without any expression on her face (awesomely, the end credits note: "Body double for Meg: Jennifer").

I was a little disappointed to see that this film lacked the now-traditional discovery of a featureless, unformed human body, jumping straight into the "holy shit!" moment, but you know what? I've seen that moment twice now. And fair is fair, the action part of this film is pretty good, all things considered. It takes something like 35 minutes to get here, out of 87, and most of that opening act is deadly dull "I'm a sad teen" angsty crap. But from the moment that Meg Tilly looks at the boy with a teeny tiny smile, the film generally works more than it fails. Oh, there's plenty of teen angst to come, a lot of it centered in the hugely problematic love story between the girl and the (presumably significantly older) helicopter pilot. That doesn't take away from the scenes that work, often surprising well. It's worth pointing out that neither of the first two films actually show us the domestic scenes in which the humans start to realise that something is very wrong, and Body Snatchers finally gets around to doing just that, using Tilly's natural weirdness to dynamite effect.

It's also around this point that the film reminds us that it was made during the Gore Age. In the film's third-best moment, Marti is drifting off to sleep in a bubble bath, when a pod hidden in the ceiling tiles above starts to drop tendrils down to her face. They snake around into her nose and ears and all over her face, and then we're treated to some rather discomfiting shots of an alien plant womb, and the human-shaped "fetus" forming inside. It's sexualized horror in a manner that the films had previously not attempted to tap into, and it works. It was at this point that I felt particularly annoyed that I had never seen any of Ferrara's films before: this is surely not a good entry point, and I was deeply curious to see whether this oh-so-Cronenbergian scene was typical of his style.

The customary running around happens, and it's not nearly as tense as in the first two movies, and there's only one reason I can come up with: the characters aren't as good. Not just the heroes, but pretty much everyone around them in the first two, were sympathetic or at least understandable humans, and watching them turn to robotic clones was genuinely horrifying. Here, nobody's death "takes," because nobody feels real, and it's hard to work up too much anxiety over the fates of our cardboard protagonists.

That said, there are a few scenes that are pretty unnerving: certainly, the moment where Marti decided on essentially no evidence that Steve is a pod person and shoots him is startling in a great way, although the film immediately demonstrates that, oh wait, he is, and that takes the sting away. That's got nothing on a scene later on: Marti and Tim have figured out that if they don't show any emotion, the clones won't notice them, and they are slowly making their way to a helicopter when they meet Jenn. She whispers to Marti that Andy was looking for her, and without breaking her stride, Marti takes a step...another...and a third...then she turns and asks, "where is he," and Jenn screams to the other pods that there are two humans. It's a brilliantly tense moment that humanises Marti in a way that the rest of the film never even approaches, and it's the emotional highlight of the film, and its best single moment.

Without giving away any more plot, I think it's worthe mentioning that this film has a much more ambiguous ending than the previous films, almost annoyingly so, and it works a little too hard to make sure we're not completely bummed out as we leave the theater (contrast the 1978 film, whose objective seemed to be to send us straight to a bottle of vodka). I've noticed elsewhere that horror films started getting "nice" around the mid-'80s, and this is surely a relic of that tendency.

So, to sum up: how is this a film of its age, après the first two? Well, it's paranoid about the military and only the military (first US screening: 28 January, 1994. Debut of The X-Files: 10 September, 1993). Really, most of its cultural specificity comes because of the very particular time it was made in the evolution of its genre. It's a teen horror film with grown-up violence, and just enough clever plotting to stay out of the slasher pits, and that combination dates it just as much as Don Siegel's invocation of the Reds dates his film. Body Snatchers doesn't have a lot to tell us, but it's just close enough to scary, and it has just enough well-observed details in amidst the clichéd dreck, that it's a good bit of fun. It's not terribly smart, but it's entertaining in its flashiness, and that means it's just the remake that the 1990s deserved.

18 August 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HUMAN VOICES WAKE US


Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep?
To the very toes he is terrified,
Because the ground gives way under him,
And the dream begins...

-Friedrich Nietzche,
The first epigraph to Freddy's Dead

Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.
-Freddy Krueger,
The second epigraph to Freddy's Dead

Aw, fuck.
-Me
1989: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child puked its way in and out of theaters and made practically no money. Realizing that they had a dead shark on their hands, Robert Shaye and the good folks at New Line decided to drive a final stake in the franchise's heart (much as the same studio would shortly do with their newly acquired Friday the 13th rights), going so far as to title the sixth film Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

By this point, we know better than to think that "final" means a goddamn thing, and I'll bet they knew it in 1991, but that didn't keep the film from turning a tidy profit, if nothing to build a massive film series around. No question why that should be the case: after all, as the advertising screamed: "They saved the best for last!"

I suppose that might be true for some definition of "best," that is completely unconnected to issues of quality.

We open: a map of the United States, showing us that the much-storied town of Springwood is located in Ohio. At long last, something that's been bothering me for the whole series is explained. See, I've heard that Wes Craven based the town in the first film on Wheaton, Illinois, where he earned his undergraduate degree. But in A Nightmare on Elm Street, we see beautiful palm trees in Springwood, and I happen to know for a fact that there aren't any palm trees in Wheaton. But it's been in Ohio, all along! That makes a lot more sense!

We also learn that it's the year 2001, and every child in Springwood has died: except for one...

That one is a young man whose name we never learn, but he is credited as John Doe (Shon Greenblatt). As the film opens on the dark streets of the town, Freddy (still Robert Englund, his self-loathing a bit less palpable than in The Dream Child) is taunting John, first with a deeply needless Wizard of Oz parody, and then with all sorts of crazy dream wackiness that feels kind of like a Tex Avery cartoon, particularly the moment when he drives a bus into the teen, who sticks there comically against the windshield. You have no idea how much I wish I was making this up. Some business ensues that I can only honestly describe as "zany," with all the soul-rotting awfulness that implies, and eventually John is thrown bodily out of the dream world onto a sunny street, leaving a human-shaped hole in the nightmare Springwood. I'm still not making things up. Freddy shouts, "Good doggy. Now fetch!" as John smacks his head against a rock, earning himself a good case of amnesia.

If I were hosting a Freddy's Dead drinking game, the rule would be, "after every batshit crazy setpiece, finish your drink." You would now be finishing your first drink.

It's not altogether clear what happens next, but eventually John is far away from Springwood, and in police custody; he is remaindered into the custody of Dr. Kelly (Yaphet Kotto, who can't really call this a skeleton in his closet, I don't think) and social worker Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane, Billy Zane's sister, who in the same year co-starred as Colin Firth's love interest in Femme Fatale. I will not tell anyone what opinion to hold on this matter). Dr. Kelly, we find, is a sort of dream therapist, and if that seems like a direct rip-off of Dream Warriors, don't worry: this film so utterly strip-mines the Nightmare series that this first infraction hardly even registers by the time we're done. For the record, Maggie is suffering from recurring nightmares about a little blonde girl. When this is explained, it will be exactly the explanation that you will already have figured out roughly thirty minutes earlier.

The other ne'er-do-wells are Tracy (Lezlie Dean), Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan) and Spencer (Breckin Meyer, who also doesn't really get to call this a skeleton, as it was almost certainly his career peak), who between them have one character trait: Carlos is a pothead. Also, Meyer was actually sixteen at the time of shooting, which makes Spencer the first character I've seen all summer being played by an actor who was, if anything, younger than the role required.

Maggie takes an interest in John, because somebody has to and it damn sure isn't the audience. Chiefly, she is interested in his insistence that something bad will happen if he falls asleep (he can't remember what), and his collection of newspaper clippings that describe killings in a small town that John remembers as "Springwood," particularly one photo that shows a water tower Maggie recognizes from her dream.

Road trip! Maggie and John drive to Springwood, the interchangeable teens stowing along, and when they arrive, here was my first thought: "Looks like somebody enjoys Twin Peaks! For Springwood has very much the surface-level feeling of that show, as effected by a creative team that had no particular idea what they were doing. But that's not much of an observation. I only bring it up because one of the characters would actually repeat it, when he was being menaced by a strange pair of sub-Lynchian crazy people who weren't sure why their children were missing. These crazies, for the record, were played by Roseanne and Tom Arnold, and I think that neither of them can really call this a skeleton, either.

Maggie and John go looking for clues while the other three suck the air out of the film in an ill-advised series of comic scenes. The two people who matter find that the insane adults left in Springwood have vague hints about Freddy Krueger, his life and where he came from, and of particular help is a scrapbook of news clippings, one that boldly declares "4 Dead in Ohio," perhaps the most shockingly unfunny Easter egg-type gag that I have ever, ever seen.

Eventually, the three bozos end up at 1428 Elm Street (well, duh), and Freddy pops up to do his baroque "In ur dreemz, stalkin your kidz" routine, and the sequences here are so incredibly strange that I simply must stand in amazement. First, given the rules set up the previous five films, they don't make a damn bit of sense - apparently Freddy can work in the real world as much as he damn well pleases now. Perhaps Springwood has become his kingdom, or something. It's not at all clear. But given that the series began from the elemental terror of wondering, "what if that dark figure we all have in our bad dreams could actually kill us?" it's a bit perplexing that in this, the final true entry in the franchise, Freddy should no longer be a dream killer, but instead some sort of poltergeist of surrealism.

The deaths - particularly Carlos's - are strange, with an alienating combination of unfunny humor and unscary horror. True of every film since the third, of course, but in this case they're so oddly cartoonish: Carlos dies because Freddy turns his hearing aid (oh, right, there was a bit of character somethin' somethin' involving Carlos being deaf in one hear because his father abused him) into a super-powered bug, and then explodes the boy's head by making loud noises, including dropping pins on the ground and scratching a blackboard.

It was here that I decided that Freddy's Dead was Dada, and that made it a bit easier to make it through to the end.

There's plenty more ka-razy left in the movie, and I think if I recapped it all I would start to weep blood, so let's step back a bit: this is one bizarre-ass movie. I'm not joking about Dada, I really found myself wondering if the only explanation for that scene - and others, including Johnny Depp's cameo as a drug PSA spokesman (hm...still not a good skeleton), or the "FreddyVision" pot hallucination set to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" - was that the director was trying to play a trick on...somebody. I don't really know who.

Since I brought her up, a word about director/scenarist Rachel Talalay. After various production team duties earlier in the series, she made her directorial debut with this project, and was in no particular way memorable or worth talking about. Like so many slasher filmmakers. So why bring her up at all? Because in 16 films this summer, she is the first woman director I've run into. Honestly, you'd never be able to tell. But it seemed only right to bring it up.

Like the rest of the series, Freddy's Dead had the decency to try to shake things up a little bit, and besides the fucked-up decision to set the action in the first year of the new millennium (and then making not the slightest effort to make it look like anything other than 1991), this film does something that I'm sure people were more excited about then than now: the Freddy Krueger back-story, in which we learn that he has a child (whose identity is not nearly so hard to figure out as the filmmakers wanted), and that he was abused in youth (the local children apparently chanted "son of a hundred maniacs!" at him. Charming, but it's "bastard son of a hundred maniacs"). Why? Humanising Freddy Krueger, serial slayer of children, wasn't actually necessary. But there he is, getting whipped by his daddy, in a cameo appearance by Alice Cooper, who probably could call this film a skeleton, although I'm sure doesn't. Most annoyingly, we find that three worm gods, the dream demons or something, came to him as he burned to death to offer him immortality if he would stalk people in their nightmares. This is the sort of moment for which a quizzically cocked head, the letters "WTF?" falling silently from one's lips, was invented.

Dada, yo.

It makes less sense than any preceding Nightmare film, which takes a bit of doing, although it's so out-and-out crazy that it's at least a little bit more entertaining than some of them. Plus, where The Dream Child was just straight-up bad, Freddy's Dad has a few flashes of "so bad it's good" brilliance; I particularly savored Shon Greenblatt, who couldn't act if the fate of all humanity rested on it. I've seen too many Friday the 13th girls who were cast solely because of their willingness to pad around without clothes on to call it "the worst performance ever," so let's settle for "the worst performance of the series."

Still, here at the end of things, I'm a lot sadder than I was at any point in the Jasoniad. At its aesthetic peak, that series was well-composed shots built around rancid characters and non-existent plot. The Nightmare films, at their best, were really damn good, and to see them devolve to the level of worm gods and Twin Peaks rip-offs and Freddy the Killer Stand-Up Comedian is just plain demoralizing.

Still, I'll give it this: it was a ride. Jason Goes to Hell had a similar level of narrative insanity - I'll never get to say "Pamela Voorhees, Queen of the Dark Arts of Necromancy/camp assistant" again, so let me enjoy this moment - but it sucked, just like its nine brothers. Freddy's Dead took enough energy to keep up with that even though it wasn't worth any effort, at least it was more diverting than boring. Yeah, in the same way that a car wreck is diverting; but you take what you can get with slashers. Besides, in all its lunacy, the series never felt like boilerplate. Every boneheaded mistake was honest, and every success was original. As the credits begin, we're treated to a montage of short clips from all six films, and I was struck by how many good moments (Heather Langenkamp) scattered in with the crap (the fire-pissing dog). And to be honest, I felt just a little bittersweet, knowing that the series was effectively over, something I never once felt during my F13 adventure.

Then I remembered that "final" doesn't mean a goddamn thing. And then I was just pissed off.

Body Count: Three humans, and let's go ahead and count Freddy himself for the fourth. I mean, come on, it's right there in the title!

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

A CATECHISM

Q: What is Rush Hour 3?
A: It is the third film in a series telling of the unlikely pairing of LAPD detective James Carter and Hong Kong inspector Lee.

Q: Who plays Detective Carter?
A: Chris Tucker.

Q:What is the manner of Chris Tucker's acting style in terms of his recitation of dialogue, his physical movement, and his nonverbal expression of emotion?
A: Loud and spastic.

Q: What does Rush Hour 3 prove about $25 million?
A: It proves that $25 million does not buy a good, or even bearable performance.

Q: And who plays Inspector Lee?
A: Jackie Chan.

Q: What is the manner of Jackie Chan's acting style?
A: A combination of poorly-enunciated English and comic martial arts.

Q: Is the poorly-enunciated English meant to be comic?
A: Yes.

Q: Is it comic?
A: No.

Q: Are Chan's comic martial arts skills as virtuosic as they have been elsewhere in his career?
A: No.

Q: Why?
A: Chan is now over 50 years old, and he is no longer capable of performing such elaborate and dangerous stunts as he once did.

Q: Are there other reasons?
A: The director is awful.

Q: Who is the director?
A: Brett Ratner?

Q: Why is he awful?
A: I don't know. I assume because he is in film only for the money, and not for the love of the art.

Q: No, what about him is awful?
A: He uses a consistent style that tends to make the action sequences less interesting, by reducing them to short takes which almost all use the same medium-length shots that do not give us a good sense of the physical location of the fight, or of the fighters' relationships to each other, and the frequent cutting tends to make the fights seem much choppier and less fluid. The overall effect is of something being made for television, not the cinema.

Q: What are the other awful things that he does?
A: He uses jokey musical cues frequently. He uses jokey reaction shots frequently. He permits Chris Tucker to ad-lib unfunny jokes.

Q: What is the plot of Rush Hour 3?
A: Immaterial.

Q: Is it well-plotted?
A: It is not well-plotted. It brings the two characters together in a contrived way, sets them on a series of arbitrary events that only occur because they are necessary to advance the story, and it ends abruptly, without resolving most of its central tensions.

Q: Is it otherwise well-written?
A: It is not otherwise well-written. It is casually racist and the dialogue is all completely artificial.

Q: Are there any entertaining action setpieces?
A: No, there are very few setpieces and they are not entertaining.

Q: Oh, right, because of Brett Ratner.
A: That's right.

Q: What normally fine actors are in this film whose presence can be explained only by their desire for a paycheck, and who therefore embarrass themselves completely?
A: Philip Baker Hall, Max von Sydow and Roman Polanski.

Q: Is Philip Baker Hall credited?
A: No.

Q: Good for him. Who does he play?
A: The LAPD police captain that he also played in Rush Hour.

Q: Who does Max von Sydow play?
A: The villain.

Q: Is that meant to be a twist?
A: Yes.

Q: Is it a twist?
A: No.

Q: Why?
A: Because he is Max von Sydow.

Q: Is Roman Polanski actually an actor?
A: Well, he is acting here.

Q: Who does he play?
A: A French police detective.

Q: Does he embarrass himself the most of anyone?
A: Yes.

Q: What does he do that is so embarrassing?
A: The first of this two scenes ends with the implication that he is going to stick his finger up Chris Tucker's ass.

Q: Christ.
A: No kidding.

Q: Is it possible that this is the worst major release of the summer?
A: It is surely possible.

Q: Is it easily the worst major release of the summer?
A: Summer ain't over yet.

2/10

17 August 2007

PUNKED

Some movies are great because they are subtle things, crafted with the precision of a Swiss watch, wielding the visual language of film with supernatural fluidity

And some movies are great like a punch in the solar plexus is great.

This Is England is a movie like a punch to the solar plexus.

Writer-director Shane Meadows's semi-autobiography is the story of an 11-year-old boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) who joins up with a group of skinheads in an English coastal town in 1983, with the country still smarting from the Falklands War, the death of punk rock, and the unwelcome (to a certain segment of society) influx of non-white immigrants.

It is said that the most specific stories are also the most universal, and it's hard to think of a recent screen story more specific than this one. Meadows based much of the material in the film off of his own youth in a skinhead gang, and the personal truth coming out of the material is obvious: in Shaun's pie-eyed worship of the gang's leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun), his twisty flirtation with the half-again-as-old Smelly (Chanel Cresswell), and his unthinking devotion to the white nationalist Combo (Stephen Graham). It looks like 1983 in simply uncanny detail, giving not the slightest hint that we're looking at production design.

None of that keeps the film from being overwhelmingly, even unbearably honest and relatable. Most of us were never like Shaun, but Shaun is such a perfectly-realized character that we have an almost intimate knowledge of his life and what he observes there. And even though he is just a kid, his story - rather, the ramifications of his story - comes across as a howl of frustration and pain from an entire country that spent most of the 20th Century getting kicked to the curb in one way or another, only to watch its one brief attempt at visceral release get swallowed up in the arch-conservative Thatcher administration.

The arc of youth culture in England in the '70s through the '90s - punk, post-punk, and all that comes after - is extremely familiar or at least easy enough to read about, so I choose not to dwell on it here, except to note that it was a youth culture whose embrace of faux-nihilism and violent posturing was miles beyond anything that Americans ever witnessed on a similar scale, and This Is England is flawless both as a document of one small moment of that culture, and as an exploration of the dark implications of its excesses. When Shaun comes to the gang, it is as a new member of a laid-back family, all the better to boost the boy's fragile self-esteem, and fill the hole that his father's death in the Falklands left behind. The slow and somehow inexorable transition from letting off steam by vandalising abandoned flats, to scrawling racist slogans on walls and stealing from the local Pakistani-run newsstand that makes up most of the film is horrifying, but ultimately expected. People who pretend to be hooligans run the risk of becoming hooligans.

There's a raw directness about the film, which despite several stylistic flourishes in the editing and a final scene that rather disastrously cribs from The 400 Blows (which rather lacks this film's strong political statement), is shot with the in-your-face language of a cinéma vérité documentary: indifferent attention paid to focus, frequent hand-held shots, intrusive close-ups. It's aggressive and frequently ugly; but it's the sort of cinematic ugliness that is justified by squalid subject matter. I haven't wanted to use this phrase, but it's basically punk filmmaking: artless, but that very artlessness is tied to the youthful anger that makes up so much of the film's matter.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, or the next thing to it, and that's another part of the directness. In particular, Thomas Turgoose is an exceptional find; he was himself (and I imagine still is) pretty much a little bastard, in constant trouble and banned from acting in his school's plays. So perhaps he's just playing himself; but that doesn't cover the range of subtlety across his performance. Shaun is a soft and weak child much of the time, and it often seems that he's equally likely to punch something or break out crying. Which is to say, he is an 11-year-old boy, but it's always amazing to see a movie child who feels like a real young person.

The first scene in the movie stresses Shaun's comparatively innocent side: he wakes up on the last day of school wearing nothing but underpants, and we're given a full look at his soft, pasty boy's body, with pudgy thighs and a slightly flabby stomach. It's an image that lingers over the rest of the film: with that sort of first impression, the tough performance that he puts on through the film comes across as faintly ridiculous.

It's this early stress on Shaun's boyishness that keeps us from ever accepting that he understands what he's doing, whether it's mostly harmless or distinctly evil. Perhaps we even want to protect him, a little bit; the one thing we never quite do is identify with him. We're not given his unbiased perspective on things, and shouldn't be; it's this discord between what our narrator sees and what we understand about it that makes the film a particularly uncomfortable study of the transition from callow youth to enlightened adult, the place where solipsistic anger at the world turns into righteous indignation.

9/10

15 August 2007

HEY, IT'S JUST LIKE SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, BUT WITH...

...Pride and Prejudice!

After playing two punishingly thankless roles - the less interesting wife in Brokeback Mountain and the foil for Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada - I imagine that Becoming Jane was meant to be a sort of coming-out party for Anne Hathaway, and insofar as she gets a major role without upstaging co-stars, I suppose that's exactly what it is.

Now, I know that the right thing to do is praise Miss Hathaway in all her button cuteness and good cheer and uncanny resemblance to a real-life Disney heroine (as indeed I did once upon a time: "one of the rare actresses who comes across as friendly and appealing without having to work for it" I said, and for that movie, it was true). Instead, I'm going to take a slightly different approach, and suggest that the Brooklyn-born 24-year-old is not nearly as incongruous in the role of a young woman of modest family in England during the Napoleonic Wars as you might have expected her to be, given that the scale for Americans with bad British accents bottoms out somewhere around Kevin Costner. But she still kind of sucks, and the movie she's in kind of sucks, too.

Here are the facts: Jane Austen, author of the beloved Pride and Prejudice, and five other books that nobody ever really talks about so they clearly don't matter even though two of them are arguably better, began writing at a young age, refused to publish until an advanced age, never married and apparently never came close. In the summer of 1796, Austen enjoyed a flirtation with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, an Irish law student, and when she began her second long work of fiction, she based the annoyingly famous Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in part upon this flirtation.

Taking its cue from this brief summer romance, Becoming Jane posits that Austen's life in that year was a virtual carbon copy of the events of Pride and Prejudice; or rather, a carbon copy of Pride & Prejudice, the 2005 film whose influence couldn't be more oppressive here if the filmmakers had simply taken that Keira Knightley vehicle and re-dubbed it, Tiger Lily-style. We have the same fixation on mud, analogous scenes filmed in essentially identical ways (the dance sequences are particularly egregious examples of this). Or, simply, this.

Of course, it's a slightly grubbier Pride & Prejudice, with slightly grubbier stars: Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen, James Cromwell as Reverend Austen, Maggie Smith as the "Maggie Smith character" (a sharp-tongued elderly woman who sits imperiously; compare the "Judi Dench character" of the other film, a sharp-tongued elderly woman who paces imperiously). All of these performers are fine - they kind of have to be, it's who they are. At any rate, all of them gratuitously out-act Hathaway, and they sound like real Brits, to boot.

Lefroy is played by James McAvoy, who spent last weekend shooting a movie roughly 4 blocks from my apartment, at exactly the same time that I was a forty minute train-ride away watching Becoming Jane. I felt you should all have a chance to enjoy that irony the way I did. Anyway, McAvoy is pretty much awesome at this point and surely [title of next film] is going to make him a star. Meanwhile, he has to be the poor man's Mr. Darcy, against an actress too charming to avoid stealing his spotlight, but not nearly comfortable enough in her character to give him anything interesting to work from.

I think the worst thing of all - worse than the rip-off factor, worse than Hathaway's empty eyes, worse than the mirthless television-quality direction that the television veteran Julian Jarrold brings to bear on the proceedings - is that Becoming Jane continues the trend of people who claim to love Pride and Prejudice failing entirely to understand what it's about. Austen was a satirist, not a romantic, and her books had an ironic approach to "let's all fall in love and get married!" that current pop culture totally ignores. But I want to keep that knife sharp for right now - I'll need it later. Instead, let me just sum up: Jane Austen did not live the life of Elizabeth Bennett, but even if she had, there was no reason to be this bland in presenting it. 4/10


...Tartuffe!

I don't mind admitting, being an American makes Molière seem better than it actually is, for two reasons: first, most of us haven't read any of his plays, or at most just The Misanthrope (I do not exempt myself), and second, the film is in French. Let's be honest, foreign-language movies tend to get a free pass: it's a lot easier to forgive strained dialogue if it's in subtitles, and who can really tell how good or bad the performances are, anyway?

That said, I don't believe anybody exists who could watch Molière and think to themselves, "that was a fine work of cinema, was that."

I don't know Tartuffe so I'm not sure how much of what follows is from the play (although I assume it's somewhere between Becoming Jane, "tell the exact same story only about the author" and Shakespeare in Love, "there was this blonde chick while he was writing Romeo and Juliet"): in 1645, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), stage name "Molière," gets hisself into some terrible financial trouble, threatening the closure of his theater. Help comes in the form of M Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), an eccentric and very rich businessman, who offers to pay the actor's debt in exchange for acting lessons, all the better to impress a wealthy, intellectual widow (the frighteningly pretty Lidivine Sagnier). In order to keep this plot secret from Mme Jourdain (Laura Morante), Molière disguises himself as a clergyman named Tartuffe, falls in love with his patron's wife, and extremely traditional farce ensues.

It's all reasonably amusing, but in that very intellectualized sense of "funny," where you're not laughing out loud so much as nodding at the goings-on and thinking, "this situation is amusing convoluted. It brings good humor to me." In which respect it's a fairly honest adaptation of Molière, really. Director Laurent Tirard is a profoundly unimaginative man, and there's not a single moment that you haven't already seen in a different, better period film, but at least the energy remains high, compared to something as lugubrious as e.g. Becoming Jane. That one is a farce and one is a romance probably has something to do with that.

I also wonder if that goes at least part of the way to explaining how entirely false the story is. It's not just that, like Shakespeare in Love, it tells a story without any historic basis, it gets some very specific facts completely wrong, chief among them being that Tartuffe premiered in 1664, and not 1658 as the movie suggests.

It is, though, at least a little bit invested in the creative impulse, and the ways that life experiences drive art. Unlike the Austen film, which really has no goal in mind other than leeching off of the audience's affection for the source material, Molière makes a good faith effort to demonstrate how Poquelin's desire for artistic fame reflects upon the details of his life. As to the question, "is that effort succesful," well no, it really isn't. The film is very much just a farce, when all is said and done, and a very mannered farce. It makes one of the great comic authors of all time a wee bit boring, to be completely honest, and that's a curious sort of success that I think we'd all much rather be without, n'est-ce pas? 6/10