Thursday, January 31, 2008

Untraceable (2008)

I'm glad to have seen this, if for no other reason than because now I know what it looks like when you make a torture porn movie that grandmothers can enjoy. It's Hostel meets Under the Tuscan Sun*, and the audience I saw it with lapped it up.

The premise is clever: a psycho launches a website showing a victim being slowly killed. The more hits the website gets, the faster the murder proceeds. Meanwhile, Diane Lane and her FBI partners investigate and bemoan their inability to stop the maniac.

It's a concept that could have been taken a number of different ways, and the route taken by director Gregory Hoblit is revealing of the differences between 'horror' and 'suspense thrillers' targeted at mainstream audiences - and that just because a movie decides to be 'respectable' doesn't mean that it's actually a quality piece of work.

So here's what you do if you have a torture porn-script but you want to expand your demographic base beyond the youth market: Hire a sensitive, yet tough actress for the leading role a la Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs; keep the gore and the violence (that's what people are there for) but tone them down; make most of the movie's victims men to avoid the stain of sexist exploitation; add in a lot of gently hypocritical handwringing about how violence in the media is corrupt and debasing to take away the residual guilt in the audience's mind about being there, with a few backhanded political swipes at such foolish ideas as "Net Neutrality" and preventing NSA supercomputers from spying on American citizens; and above all, keep the production values up high, with strong cinematography and art direction, to keep the audience from realizing that they're still watching your standard scummy torture movie.

The result is a movie that entertains but doesn't have anything substantive to say, that raises interesting points about violence online and in the media but uses them hypocritically or for simple shock value. I can't say I was offended by the movie, but honestly, I would have preferred if the filmmakers were a little more imaginative and a little less interested in making a movie that would climax with the cathartic death-wish glee of seeing a tough woman blow away a demented young man. It's too easy. I want to make a time machine and bring '70s-era Larry Cohen or Brian DePalma to make this movie the right way. Oh well.

* I call first dibs on this for a pitch. Don Murphy, you know how to reach me.

Monday, January 28, 2008

My 2008 Sundance Film Festival

I had never been to Sundance before, but a pair of my friends had shorts in the festival this year so this last weekend I went, for what could only be considered a teaser spoonful to the larger festival's double-decker cone.

Apparently all the important people, plus also Jeff Wells, had already left town making for a ski resort that was still crowded but not horrendously so, or so I was told. I was expecting a cozy, cool town like Telluride but I should have known better - Park City is closer to Aspen or Vail in Colorado, very upscale and trendy.

The first film that I saw was Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore, based on a true story about an unhealthy family of plastics heirs over the course of a few decades from the '40s to the '70s. It's not very good, featuring a half-baked script, a lack of restraint from Moore, and bland, stagy direction. The point of the film was obviously to represent a claustrophobic, overly familiar relationship between Moore and her young, cultured gay son, played by Eddie Redmayne, but the film never gets a handle on the world of its characters and never explains what point the filmmakers are going after beyond a simplistic freakshow. It wants to be Tennessee Williams, but it can't even manage to get up to the level of Jerry Springer.

After that my friend Dave Park and I were thwarted in our plan to get into a shorts program (we didn't get the ticketing procedure) and a Spanish time-travel movie (one seat shy after being on the waitlist). After we went to the closing night party, which felt like a prom, we made it to one more shorts program.

The first big surprise was that there wasn't a single film that was embarrasingly bad, as there has been in every other shorts program I've ever been to. The next, smaller surprise was that the one film in the group to receive an 'honorable mention' from the festival was the most obnoxiously quirky, Sundancey film of the bunch, called "Aquarium". Dysfunctional teens, quirky subcultures, vague stabs at deeper psychology, cute Wes Anderson stylistics, it had it all. My friend John Magary's film "The Second Line" benefitted from being shown on the big screen, which magnified its production design and settings (post-Katrina New Orleans) and deepened the tragedy of the story.

Finally the next morning, we miraculously woke up in time for a 10am screening of Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero's latest. This is yet another of the many video/reality/verite movies that are coming out now, alongside Cloverfield, Redacted, Children of Men, and their like, a 'first-person' zombie movie captured by a film student shooting at the same time that a zombie outbreak occurs. While Romero keeps hitting some of the same notes he's been hitting for the last forty years (the devaluation of human life, the collapse of the social order) his obsessions are just as relevant in the Iraq era as they were in the Vietnam era, and more importantly, he hasn't lost his sense of fun. Plenty of filmmakers critique their own practices through self-reflexive techniques and turning the camera back on the audience, but only Romero would also feature a zombie with exploding eyeballs and a half-mute Amish character. It's a smart, fun movie.

And that was it, after getting out of town just as another snowstorm was set to hit. I hope to go back again for a longer period of time, hopefully with a film of my own as the whims of the programming gods dictate.

Friday, January 25, 2008

All the President's Men (1976) & Zodiac (2007)

A double feature I had been wanting to see since first seeing last year's Zodiac, but I finally got around to it after picking up the director's cut DVD not long ago.
I had seen All the President's Men a long time ago during my initial (pre-film school) pass through The Greatest Movies Ever Made, and I was left underwhelmed. It's a movie that assumes a certain degree of knowledge of 1970s politics (how many people today can tell you who Ed Muskie was?) and the Watergate mess and if you aren't up on those basic details, as years ago I wasn't, you're probably lost. The reason I could recognize that it's a successful movie this time around was that, even though I knew how it ended (SPOILER: they get Nixon) and even though I had seen it before, I was still thoroughly gripped. Alan Pakula's direction, the performances from Redford and Hoffman, and the subtle work from cinematographer Gordon Willis and composer David Shire all come together masterfully.

The weakness of the movie, though, is that I don't think it really has much to say beyond its presentation of the procedure of working as an investigative reporter under demanding circumstances. The only subtext underlying this movie that I can figure out is the demands and rewards of hard work, coupled with a sense of the complexity and confusing realities of the world of political journalism, in which truth is out there, waiting to be pried out of taciturn witnesses. But Pakula's other '70s thrillers (Klute and The Parallax View) both had more to say about the corruption underlying the mindset of America in this era, interrogating the values that led to Watergate and beyond. Ironically, the movie most directly about Watergate is also the one least about its underlying substance and meaning to American history.

Zodiac was obviously made as David Fincher's tribute to the Pakula thrillers of the '70s, from hiring David Shire to write the score all the way down to the placement of the title card in the lower left-hand corner of the screen; and his movie is even more thematically ambitious, about not just the string of murders that panicked the San Francisco Bay area for a decade but about their ontological relevance, and the difficulty of searching for truth even in an 'information age'. I know that all sounds insufferably pretentious, but that's what the critics were raving about last year when it was released, and it's true - up to a point. Fincher gets into the nitty-gritty of what a police investigation was like in this era and in the process, reminds us of what life was like before the internet, before cell phones, when even a medium-sized California city's police department didn't have fax machines yet.

It's no small achievement to make an entertaining movie from a string of scenes of ordinary white guys talking to each other about humdrum facts, like who lived where in 1966 and person X talking to person Y about a conversation they had with person Z in 1971, but Fincher makes it all flow and work, which is great, and the movie is funny and creepy in ways that the more staid All the President's Men never manages. In particular, we have great performances from Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal, not so much) and excellent work from Harris Savides and Shire. The problem with Fincher's movie, though, is that it appears that one of his goals is to rattle us with a multiplicity of options as to the identity of the Zodiac killer, and in the process rattle us with an epistemological quandary (I'm sorry, still horribly pretentious) as to how certain we can ever be of anything - and then he resolves the question with a fairly unambiguous answer, with a suspect labelled pretty clearly as the guilty party.

I'm all in favor of undermining an audience's accepted beliefs, from the garish attacks of Bunuel to the more subtle tricks of Douglas Sirk all the way to modern masters of subversion like Paul Verhoeven, but that's not really what Fincher pulls off. For my money, the most entertaining movie about a radically destabilized, totally unknowable crime was Oliver Stone's JFK, who went on to make a pseudo-sequel in the form of Nixon, who fell with Watergate. And with that segue, I end my reviews.

All the President's Men: 7/10
Zodiac: 8/10

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

As Robert Altman said, the death of an old man is not a tragedy; not so with a young man just at the beginning of what seemed to be a brilliant career.

I had been aware of Heath Ledger as an actor for a long time in mediocre movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and The Patriot before I realized what he was capable of with his strong performance in Monster's Ball, and then even more with his amazing performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, which I would agree is one of the finest film performances in this decade.

What his performances had in common was an extreme commitment to the focussed internal lives of his characters, almost to a fault (as with his completely committed, over-the-top performance in Terry Gilliam's Brothers Grimm) His performance as Ennis is quiet, withdrawn, repressed, but Ledger's commitment to his character's thoughts and feelings is so total that we never have a doubt as to what's going on inside of him, the struggles raging within this quiet, unhappy man. It's a terrific piece of work that will, sadly, be Ledger's legacy.

Best wishes to his friends and family.

PS: I don't think the incessant TV coverage was as obnoxious as when something happens to Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, but there was at least one moment of perfect crystallized awfulness that I watched earlier, on the TV Guide network, when one of their people made the segue, "He plays the Joker in next year's Batman sequel, but there was no laughing today..." Good lord.

The Worst Movies of 2007

I'll get to the Oscars shortly, but first, in response to the Razzies, here's my list of the worst movies of 2007:
Also, for the record, here's my list of the ten worst movies of last year:

10. Smokin' Aces: A bizarre mishmash and miscalculation from Joe Carnahan.

9. In the Valley of Elah: Paul Haggis's lastest was less obviously annoying than Crash, but just as pedantic and condescending.

8. 300: This homophobic and xenophobic screed was partially redeemed by its cutting-edge visuals.

7. Finishing the Game: The inevitable crappy successor to the great Christopher Guest movies of the last several years.

6. Norbit: Eddie Murphy's bare id, revealed for all the world to see as pathetically self-loathing and misanthropic.

5. The Hitcher: Your standard pointless horror remake, jazzed up by pointlessly beautiful cinematography from a music-video director.

4. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem: Your standard pointless sci-fi sequel, crudded up by dismal filmmaking and muddy cinematography.

3. The Reaping: This year's entry in the religious horror movie sweepstakes, which are always about proving the existence of God through fear and terror.

2. Saw IV: Lazy and badly made all the way around.

1. Severe Visibility: Nobody saw this 9/11 conspiracy movie, which is as it should be.

Hopefully I'll see fewer awful movies in 2008, although Cloverfield is an early contender for next year's list.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Razzies

The flip side of the Oscars are worth paying attention to, even if they have an obnoxious, sneering quality too often - for example, the most notorious Razzie winner, Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, is not really a bad movie - it's a trashy art film, which is the next worst thing, apparently.

Anyway, I've seen two movies nominated for 'Worst Movie': I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and Norbit. Chuck & Larry is a clumsy movie, and since it's on a sensitive topic it opens itself more easily to ridicule, but like all Adam Sandler movies it's essentially good-hearted, and nicely progressive in its own meathead way. Norbit, on the other hand, is a horrible movie, full of Eddie Murphy's self-loathing and unredeemed misanthropy. The ironic thing is that, within the rancid structure of the movie, Murphy gives a pretty brilliant comic performance, better than his Academy-Award nominated performance in Dreamgirls.

Meanwhile, this attention makes me want to see I Know Who Killed Me - it sounds like it could be this year's The Wicker Man. And on that note...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hostel Part II (2007)

I'm watching this for the second time since it was released last Spring amidst much hatred and gloating over its box-office underperformance, and you know what? This is a good movie, maybe even a better movie on a second viewing than it was on a first.

I don't have a problem with people who aren't horror movie fans (people who can't see the gore for the trees, as it were) not liking this movie or movies like it, but I have a big problem with anyone smearing horror fans in general as subhuman, as the enemies of this movie did last Spring; or not recognizing that, all other factors being the same, that this is an above-average, well-crafted, intelligent piece of filmmaking. That the miserable and unredeemable Saw sequels could make so much more money than this movie is frustrating. That this movie also made less than The Reaping, The Hills Have Eyes II, and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem is depressing.

I'll have more to say about the virtues and flaws of this particular movie later when my ire goes down, but for now let me say that whereas your typical dumb horror movie is about the simple, formulaic presentation of gore and pain, Eli Roth's movies, this one especially, is about complicating our response to such things, delivering the gore and uncomfortable victims in ways that we haven't seen before with, yes, emotional complexity and wit.

More to come.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield (2008)

A.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Douchebags.

It's not often that a movie combines so many elements that I love with so many elements that I absolutely hate, but this is one of them. And it's frustrating to see a movie with such potential ruined by a shortage of imagination and lazy and cheap filmmaking choices.

What I like about this movie is the essential concept of a monster movie shot in that Blair Witch/United 93 style, handheld, in real time, without experts or political leaders or the usual puffery. That's why I thought United 93 was the best movie of 2006: because it successfully replicated that feeling of in-the-moment existential terror with an undercurrent of genuine compassion and humanity. Plus, it's just fun to see urban metropolises being destroyed by rampaging monsters, especially ones that look like they came from the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft, and without any real sense of closure or explanation or rationalization.

The downside is that this great concept has been turned to garbage by the filmmakers' insistence on populating the movie with spoiled, whiny, upwardly-mobile idiots whom we meet in an interminable party sequence. Once the monster attack starts, they proceed on a stalker's mission to track down an estranged girlfriend in defiance of all recognizable human behavior. Maybe this could have worked with better screenwriting, casting, performances, and direction, but I feel like the concept is rancid at its core. To go back to my comparison with United 93, or with Children of Men, those are films that succeed because they aren't solely about their principle characters or plot but rather are about the worlds in which they take place, complex universes populated by a breadth of messy, lovable humanity struggling against extreme circumstances. Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams have narrowed their focus to look only at a small, vapid group of people struggling with nothing more interesting than a high school crush.

It's just a pathetic waste of a good idea, made the more annoying by the fact that it's guaranteed to make a lot of money, and our national character gets a little more insular and self-absorbed as a result. There's just nothing genuine about this movie beyond the fanboyish, fetishistic destruction, no sense of real emotion beyond the pretense of a trite 'live every day like it's your last' message. It's a movie made by people with small hearts and smaller minds for an audience interested in sensation unburdened by significance.

PS: I also feel bad for Chris Mulkey, who was apparently considered to be so unrecognizable of an actor that he could be stuck in this movie without being distracting.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

(Another movie I'm late to the table with, but here you go.)

Significance is a dangerous thing, and while it's a necessary component to art, in the wrong quantity it can also be deadly. Charlie Wilson's War, for example. It has, as it's raison d'etre, the goal of providing a partial look at how America helped to support the rise of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. All well and good, the movie follows an almost classically Hollywood structure in which a rogue is transformed into an idealist and ultimately succeeds in a David vs. Goliath manner against superior forces - in this case, both the Soviet Army and the U.S. government's own sluggishness.

The problem is that, even though this movie is well-written by Aaron Sorkin and expertly performed by a terrific cast, the inherent structure of the final product is designed to ultimately squeeze all the life out of the film in order to deliver the desired message. Charlie Wilson is an interesting character, a colorful, womanizing boozehound who yet manages to get things done out of patriotism, pragmatism, and a subtle idealism. Too bad this movie is just tangentially about him, and primarily about how his triumph in defeating the Soviets was overshadowed by his inability to find funding for foreign aid to Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet empire. Aaron Sorkin's work seems to have focused on delivering the complex exposition required to make this story make sense and not on real thematic depth or complexity. A more interesting movie would have been about the deeper issues this movie raises about the American national condition, our clumsiness coupled with our idealism, which has been managed successfully by such other movies as The Good Shepherd or Oliver Stone's Nixon.

Anyway, Sorkin delivers some great scenes and dialogue, Hanks is his usual charming self, but Julia Roberts is miscast; her part should have been played by an older character actress. Philip Seymour Hoffman however, is terrific, shining in a supporting role in a way that his lead role in The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead didn't let him.

In the end this is a smart movie with some good scenes, but watching it I couldn't help but feel the urgency on the part of the filmmakers to rush through the movie in order to arrive at their point, which while worth making, is also not exactly a recipe for lasting art.

Monday, January 14, 2008

I Am Legend (2007)

I know that everyone saw this last month when the movie made most of its crapload of cash, but I just caught up with it on Sunday.

Basically, it's a good movie, better than I expected from the director of Constantine, except for two major elements: the bland, rubbery CGI monsters and the awkward intrusion of the same deity who so clumsily saved the world from aliens in Signs. The bulk of the movie is a pared-down, gripping creation of a post-human New York City in which the only survivors of a killer virus are Will Smith and his dog. The movie has the good sense to understand that with the right movie star, an audience will be sufficiently gripped to merely watch a character go about their unusual daily routine in extraordinary circumstances, as with Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And like that movie, what's most important in the bulk of I Am Legend is the emotion boiling underneath Will Smith's controlled exterior, the sadness and despair and loneliness. It's good to see a big, expensive Hollywood movie willing to spend most of its time with a single character and his emotions.

Unfortunately, eventually the plot has to kick in and the movie gets pretty dumb as it transitions from character drama to action modes. In Richard Matheson's original story, the bad guys were a society of vampires that Robert Neville stalked every night in a quest to restore the normal order of things. Here they're downgraded to a pack of slavering CGI albinos, who not only aren't very interesting, but they're not scary. Attention Hollywood: CGI, especially bad rubbery CGI, is never scary. Actual actors in makeup can be scary (see: the 28 Days/Weeks Later movies) and considering that so much of this movie is given over to photo-realistic CGI effects of ruined New York, it's a shame that they took the 'safe' route when it came to the monster effects.

Meanwhile, on the God front, I know that some people appreciate big mainstream movies with spiritual messages, but come on, people: the screenwriterly contrivances of this movie are pretty cheap, and I'm not a fan of confusing pattern-recognition for the existence of God. After I watched this movie I rewatched my DVD of 2006's Children of Men, which feels like a much more strongly spiritually complex and rewarding look at how we cope with the end of the world. But that was one of the best movies of that year, so it's okay for I Am Legend to be merely a good blockbuster from last year.

I Am Legend: 7/10
Children of Men: 9/10

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Best Lists, part 1

I've been putting off writing a year-end list of my favorite movies of the year until I had a chance to catch up with a few more titles, but today seemed like a good day to get the ball rolling a little bit. For starters, here's a list of the ten best old movies that I saw in 2007 that I had never seen before, in chronological order:

A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1936): This Jean Renoir film is only about 40 minutes long and unavailable on DVD, but it feels like an influential touchstone, a lyrical look at a single day in the summer on a country getaway leavened with an undercurrent of class issues and emotional weight, as only Renoir could manage.

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944): Preston Sturges could do no wrong and it's amazing that this satire on hero worship was made while the war was still in full swing.

THE BAND WAGON (1953): Not as iconic as its MGM sibling Singin' in the Rain but full of Vincente Minnelli's color and style and featuring an amazing duet between Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955): This is one of Bergman's early, funny films, featuring an earthy farcical love triangle amidst the typical musings on the meaninglessness of life.

JIGOKU (1960): An amazing Japanese horror film virtually screaming to be remade, in which a string of horrible characters are introduced, killed off, and then sent to hell for the movie's last third.

BECKET (1964): Great performances from Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton anchor this medieval drama of friendship and betrayal.

(1975): This was the best film to be screened at Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse festival this last March and April, a blue-collar epic of truck driving and interstate corruption packed with entertainment value.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977): A lyrical, semi-experimental look at a subject the movies typically ignore, an ordinary working-class life. Good stuff.

STROSZEK (1977): Herzog's coming-to-America drama is surreal and grounded at the same time in heartbreak and humor, I can't believe I hadn't seen this one before.

LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997): The original version of Rescue Dawn, and a stranger film with a broader scope, including not just Dieter Dengler's Southeast Asian adventures but his life growing up in wartorn Germany and how his life continued in America. As interesting as the same events were dramatized in Rescue Dawn, it was more fascinating to see them narrated by the man they really happened to.

Also, a pair of booby prizes to two notably bad movies I saw this year: SKIDOO (1968), Otto Preminger's acid-trip movie which desperately wants to be counter-cultural but pretty much fails; and ELVES (1990), one of the stranger post-Gremlins monster movies I've seen, featuring Dan Haggerty and a Nazi cabal. Try this on for size:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

McCain on Letterman

He's pro-life, corporatist, anti-gay rights, and has all the rest of the standard Republican problems, but this is a good example of why I like John McCain better than his rivals:

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The caucuses and primaries

There are many pundits who know much more about all of this than I do, so I'll keep this brief and try not to regurgitate too much of what they're all saying.

My favorite Presidential candidate has been John Edwards, who's pretty much a long-shot at this point, which is too bad. On the plus side, I would be fine to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and I think they'd both be decent, if not ideal, Presidents who would go a long ways towards rebuilding this country's sense of pride and direction after seven years of arrogance and divisiveness. Also, I think the fact that the primary season will continue on at least until the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday races is a good thing - the idea of an early coronation rubs me the wrong way, it certainly didn't help John Kerry four years ago, and I think both Clinton and Obama could use the pressures of a real primary race to improve themselves. Obama, who won his only statewide Illinois race in a cakewalk in 2004, needs more experience in running a national race and more experience in pushing back against attacks and mudslinging. Clinton needs to learn how to present herself in a way that doesn't reinforce her negative qualities. Regarding Hillary's 'choking up' moment the other day, it was probably a good idea - voters who saw it as a calculated performance weren't going to vote for her in the first place, and voters on the fence regarding her personality issues may have been given the nudge they needed to decide it was okay to vote for her after all.

Somewhere in the future, someone will make a movie about a tough female national politician similar to Hillary Clinton, and it'll be a thousand times more interesting than Commander in Chief, getting to the unique difficulties faced by powerful and ambitious women and how they're perceived in our modern world, where even Pakistan can have a female leader before America. There's something strange about the fact that a candidate's laugh and cleavage and emotional outbursts get as much attention as what they think of the trade deficit.

On the Republican side, I have mixed feelings. I'm glad to see McCain beat Mitt Romney, who I consider to be an absolute phony who'll say and do anything to win a race, and because McCain is the only Republican running who I have any respect for whatsoever - especially on issues like immigration and torture, and because he's a pragmatist instead of an ideologue. On the other hand, since McCain is probably the most electable Republican in a national race, I'd prefer for the ultimate nominee to be Romney or Huckabee, who should both be more easily beatable.

I'm also glad the focus is finally gone from the fringe candidates like Tancredo, Paul, and Kucinich. I'm not a fan of any of them.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is an exuberant young director, but also a firm classicist, and the tension between these two modes is apparent in Atonement, for better and worse. His last film, 2005's Pride & Prejudice, was a literary adaptation rescued from staidness by an infusion of fluid steadicam usage and strong performances. It was a good match between old-fashioned material and a hungry young director.

Now in Atonement, Wright is working with a significantly more complex story from the novel by Ian McEwan, but within a similar genre - the early-20th century costume drama, instead of the 19th century costume drama. Once again, Wright gives his material a jolt of style - a feverish green dress on Keira Knightley, strong and focused cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, and the newest entry in the 'super-cool steadicam shot' contest, a lengthy romp around Dunkirk Beach surveying the assembled British Army preparing to abandon the continent on the eve of the fall of France in 1940 (take that, Alfonso Cuaron!)

The thing is - what exactly does a five-minute steadicam shot of Dunkirk have to do with an adolescent girl's overactive imagination and (later) guilty conscience? While it's a fascinating and technically superb shot, I don't see that the tableaux belongs in this movie, in the same way that the long, unbroken battlefield shots in Children of Men did, to establish the world of that movie. Wright's sense of style serves his movie in other places, especially the delicately lit, sexy-scary love scene between Knightley and James McAvoy that triggers young Briony's feverish imagination. But in other places Wright's sense of proportion, and of serving the story and its themes, are unbalanced.

This leaves us with a good, not great movie that I enjoyed but only up to a point. Add to that the ending (SPOILERS!) which has been made out to be a major plot twist but which seems to me to be fairly minor (it only changes our appreciation of one scene and the dialogue-free epilogue, right?) and we have a movie where Wright did his best but may have been outmatched by his complex source material. That said, I still look forward to his next project because any director who approaches this kind of movie with as much boldness as he has can be excused for falling a little short.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Carrier (1988)

I have a thing for bad movies. I like to dig around through the VHS bins at video stores for titles I've never heard of that look interesting, to find movies with unexpected images, performances, juxtapositions that other, more well-behaved movies might not feature. Most of the time this means awful viewing experiences like Cannibal Campout, but every so often there'll be a movie that makes the whole process worthwhile, and such a movie is The Carrier.

Apparently shot in Michigan on a super-low budget and released on video in 1988, this one is an oddball gem, a true indie movie with a great premise. In an idyllic small town, apparently set in some idealized Capra-esque past, an outcast young man is attacked one night by a bigfoot-looking monster (what the townspeople casually refer to as "The Black Thing") in his remote shack. The creature infects Jake with a unique disease, to which he is immune: any object he touches is immediately and permanently infected, deadly to the touch. Contact with one of these objects and a person or animal immediately begins to dissolve and melt away. What this means is that fifteen minutes in, an old man is killed by a copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Soon the entire town is in a panic as doors, mirrors, mailboxes, and even trees are deadly to the touch.

From this point, the movie develops in allegorical directions, but not in obvious directions. The townspeople wrap themselves in protective layers of plastic and veils, giving the movie a perverse, micro-budget Road Warrior look and perversely hiding most of the cast's faces. The town, isolated and scared, splits into two rival clans who soon are fighting over the newest valuable resource: cats, which are used to test for infectious objects. This means that there's an amazing, completely straight-faced scene where the leader of one of the warring clans, wrapped in garbage bags, screams, "CATS OR DEATH!!!" as a battle cry, and chaos ensues.

The movie obviously has an uphill battle to climb, with a tiny budget stretched out to cover a pretty ambitious storyline and a shortage of good characterizations. But the movie does have the good sense to play its absurdity with a straight face, as in the above battle scene and throughout. Another web review called it a cross between Twin Peaks and Romero's The Crazies and that's about right. For anyone interested in oddball cinema, it's a must-see. I'll try and capture some images and post them here so everyone can see how weird this little movie is.