Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Goes Around Comes Around: LOOPER


Time travel is tricky for both characters and filmmakers, a gambit filled with potential plot holes, paradoxes and butterfly effects well known to anyone even glancingly familiar with this sci-fi subgenre. These kinds of movies generally litter their runtime with unanswerable questions. With Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson (he of the great high school noir film Brick) has given the time travel picture a jolt of smart intensity, embracing the concept by making unanswerable philosophical time travel questions into an advantage. It joins the classics of the subgenre (from Chris Marker’s La Jetée to Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, from Shane Carruth’s Primer to James Cameron’s Terminator series) as a film that, rather than getting overwhelmed by a need to explain and explain, simply uses its time travel rules, at once utterly simple and dizzyingly complex, in the service of a great story.

Johnson knows that great science fiction starts not just with world-building or dazzling effects, although Looper does both very well, but with ground-level characters, recognizable personalities who happen to find themselves in fantastical scenarios. Take for instance the man who will be both protagonist and antagonist in this film, sometimes even at the same time. His name is Joe. He kills people for a living. More accurately, he kills people from the future. The year is 2044 and although time travel has yet to be invented, it will be soon enough. In 2074, time travel is illegal and thus only used by a crime syndicate for the sole purpose of disposing bodies. That’s where Joe and his co-workers come in.

Known as Loopers, their job is to take their guns out to the middle of nowhere, kill the future people, and collect a paycheck until the time comes that their future employers decide to “close the loop,” forcing them into retirement by killing their future selves. It’s a complicated conceit that plays out with stunning simplicity, effortlessly explained and immediately the stuff of high stakes when the time comes for Joe to close his loop. He finds himself caught off guard by his older self, who fights back and escapes. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) is now on the run from his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with makeup and prosthetics that convincingly creates an approximation of young Willis) and both are forced to flee their fellow Loopers (Jeff Daniels, Garret Dillahunt, and Noah Segan among them) who are determined to set the future straight by closing up this temporal loose end.

By the time this happens, the world of the film feels sturdy, convincing. High-tech embellishments create a world that feels almost like our own, close enough to recognize, advanced enough to feel foreign. The characters are all world-weary men, doing a messy job with professionalism. This new wrinkle in their day-to-day grind of violence by day and hard partying by night is treated with a tired tension, an urgency that is both intense and unsurprising. Something like this was bound to happen. Indeed, we’ve seen that it has at least once, but that time clean up was relatively easy. Both Joes are hard to catch. The older Joe roams the cityscape – Johnson imagines a future with both hoverbikes and pervasive homelessness – on a mission to change his fate. The younger Joe hides out with a tough farm woman (Emily Blunt) and her little boy (the adorable Pierce Gagnon).

At first, I thought I had the film pinned down as simply a fantastic man-on-the-run picture with sci-fi influences, a sort of doubled, time-shifting version of The Fugitive. But suddenly, the movie slips away and grows deeper, darker, sadder, and more beautiful. To even suggest the shape the story takes from here would be a disservice to you, reader. This is most definitely a film that plays even better with a joyful sense of discovery. Let me just say that the film finds surprising, upsetting, exciting, and rather moving ways to circle its main thematic concerns about what makes a person become the person they will ultimately be. This is a thriller with plenty of gunplay, chase scenes, cold-blooded murder (most shockingly of total innocents), and seamless special effects, but Johnson treats these developments with a weight and seriousness.  The performances are completely convincing and, through the characters and the style, which is flashy and distinct without once overwhelming the driving story, the film feels grounded in a way that many films of its ilk don’t. Looper contains notes of deep darkness that are treated without sensationalism. Here, violence hurts. Injuries have consequences. Scars linger.

This film thrillingly skirts past all the usual pitfalls and creates an exciting and cohesive film that is violent and cynical, but romantic and humanistic as well. Johnson embraces these apparent contradictions to follow loops of plot to the kind of climax that feels at once startling and wholly inevitable. Looking back on its entirety, it’s easy to see how fully and neatly Johnson has led us to this point. This ingeniously structured movie, neat and tidy by the end, is skillfully complex, a movie that operates from a set of rules that seem fully thought through, inhabiting a world rather than using it as narratively convenient. With Steve Yedlin’s warm yet precise cinematography of great pictorial beauty, from the steel-and-concrete, graffiti-covered streets of downtown to the dusty fields of farmland, recalling the casual gracefulness in the down-to-earth sci-fi of early Spielberg, it’s a story of imagination and emotion set against a detailed futuristic environment that feels detailed in compelling ways that nonetheless remain in the background with minimal fuss. This is a world, not merely a stage.

And on this stage, inner conflict exploded outwards. The central drama of the film is nothing less than a man fighting to become a better man by changing his circumstances, an older man literally drawn into combat with his younger self. There’s a tense, funny scene between the two versions in a diner that brings new meaning to the phrase “talking to yourself.” Whether one realizes it or not, each second takes a person away from the person one is now and towards the person one will become. For Joe, time travel has brought this process into sharp focus. Both versions have a chance to regard the entirety of his life to date and decide how best to get out of this situation with their life (and maybe even the world) better off. But is this even possible with outside forces and circumstances crushing in on them (him)?

Johnson patiently complicates the scenario, sketching details of plot with camera moves that silently reveal new information and shot compositions that cement tension and power dynamics. He off-handedly introduces concepts that will come roaring back into focus later. Here is a movie about fate that feels inevitable but vibrant, a movie about choices that feels carefully designed. Like all the best time travel movies, when it ended I felt the pleasant confusion that made me want to see it again, to diagram the timelines and figure out what, in the end, remains real and what has been cancelled out. Best of all, I felt confident that I very well could do just that. Looper is a film so emotionally engaged and technologically accomplished, so confident in the rules of its universe, that there’s a feeling that its implications resonate far beyond any given frame, beyond the focus of this particular story. Johnson has created the rare film that seems to expand.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

All Rise for the Honorable Judge: DREDD


Whither the recycled-food robot? He roamed Mega City, the post-apocalyptic metropolis in Judge Dredd, the otherwise terrible 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation of the cult comic. His sole duty was mechanically reciting his great sales pitch: “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment. And okay for you.” Irresistible. Such levity would be much welcome, if entirely out of place, in this new iteration of the Judge. The approach this time around is signaled by the new title: Dredd. Shorter, simpler, it’s a blunt, violent, grimy smear of an action movie. Director Pete Travis, working with Danny Boyle regulars screenwriter Alex Garland and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, creates a brute-force sci-fi thriller, a confined, claustrophobic din that pounds forward with an ugly relentless energy.

The conceit of this fascist futurist pessimism involves the law officers of this concrete wasteland of high-tech weaponry and low-tech social unrest. They’re known as judges, but really they serve as judge, jury, and executioner. They wear tight leather suits with dull gold badges and heavy helmets with dark shaded visors that obscure the eyes entirely, the better to fix a gaze unknowable at their impending victims while fiddling with voice-activated guns that can shoot all manner of projectiles. They’re basically Robocop without the winning personality.

Our hero, such as he is, is known as Judge Dredd, of course. He’s played by Karl Urban who, after playing charismatic supporting characters in all sorts of sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters from The Lord of the Rings to Star Trek, uses his leading role to speak all of his lines in a growly monotone. Even when he gets to utter the character’s famous tagline, such as it is, his line reading of “I am the law!” feels strangely underplayed. Still, he fills the suit and seems menacing enough, I suppose. The plot concerns one day in the life of this futuristic lawman. He’s given the task of letting a pretty young psychic (Olivia Thirlby) tag along. She applied to be a Judge, but failed the exam by only three points. Why a psychic would fail an exam is beyond me, but that’s the case. Anyways, the higher-ups give her the opportunity to go out judging with Dredd and see if she can perform in the field.

It’s a bad day for that. A routine drug bust in a 200-stories-high slum goes horribly wrong when the tough gang leader who runs the building (Lena Headey) decides she’d rather not have her drug-dealing operation discovered. She puts the tenement-turned-headquarters in lockdown and orders her underlings to kill her some judges. When this happens, the psychic asks Dredd “What’s going on?” You think she of all people would know. If you saw the action film The Raid: Redemption earlier this year, you’ll recognize the broad strokes of this movie. The two movies are built upon essentially the same shootout-up-and-down-a-skyscraper structure, although this time around there are way more future guns and little to no martial arts.

The movie’s best visual trick is the representation of the high offered by the gang’s future-drug. It’s called Slo-Mo and makes the user feel like time has slowed to a crawl. Travis and Mantle use it as an almost clever riff on modern action filmmaking’s love of using slow motion to amp up would-be super-cool moments. When a character plummets from a large height and falls very slowly for a very long time, it’s a funny little visual flourish. Unfortunately, that’s the best the film has to offer. The rest of the time, it’s just running and gunning in ways that quickly grow tiresome. Rather than using the plot’s confinement to the advantage of the fight choreography, the whole thing grows dimmer and uglier as it goes along. The violence is amped up beyond all reason, especially when it spills out in grotesque slow motion splatters. The terse characters grow only more uncommunicative and monosyllabic finding less and less time for their flat exposition and unworkable one-liners.

Now, I’ve never read the original comic books about Judge Dredd, but based on the evidence of two films now, maybe he just doesn’t work cinematically. The world is interesting, a wasteland of brutality and mutation that’s held barely in check by a brutal police state. And yet Dredd himself comes across as such a dud. He’s a bland action figure posing his way through feats of elaborate CGI violence and destruction. Stallone’s version was too goofy and nonsensical. This time around it’s way too dour, with monotone simplicity taking the place of narrative interest and characterization of more than the barest kind. The concept screams for propulsion, but at its core this movie’s all about slowing things down and taking it to its lowest possible levels of simplicity. It should work far better than it does.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Anti-Moneyball: TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE


A sturdy Hollywood drama, Trouble with the Curve is glossy and serviceable, even if it is utterly predictable every single step of the way. It’s a relatively good-natured anti-Moneyball, focusing on the value of hearing the crack of the bat and the thwack of the catch over tabulating stats. But you are mistaken if you thought a top-notch cast featuring Clint Eastwood as an elderly baseball scout and Amy Adams as his concerned daughter, as well as Justin Timberlake as a young scout and John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, and Robert Patrick as the guys back at the home office, would be able to elevate this material beyond simple American-pastime sentimentality and a schematic plotline that seems to be always pretending to have found surprises when it’s really only flatly arrived at the same old clichés.

Eastwood’s doing a cantankerous-old-guy routine that’s almost too broad, but rings true. When he falls going up ballpark steps he hops up and snarls at concerned passerby “Haven’t you ever seen a man trip before?” Adams, as his daughter, learns from one of his co-workers, a family friend (Goodman), about her father’s failing eyesight and his stubborn refusal to admit it to his employers. Despite being up for a big promotion at her law firm, she flies into town to spend some time with him as he scouts a promising high school ballplayer (Joe Massingill). She ends up slyly helping him with his job, being his eyes where he can’t quite see. It’s not often a film looks so warmly on a father-daughter relationship so, even though their relationship is certainly strained in some ways, it’s nice to see.

Their relationship is one of familiarity, of unspoken affection and needling expectations from both ends. They’re facing similar professional problems – rooms of suits debating their fates – and there’s a nice parallel in the way they both don’t quite want to admit how much each needs the other. It’s pleasant and forms a loose core of emotional truth around which the film can spin its lazy sentimentality, coasting on the charms of the cast even as it wobbles through a half-convincing romantic subplot (why else do you think Timberlake’s hanging around?) and brief looks into the arrogance of the player being scouted. Hey, something has to fill out the run time, although an out-of-place revelation that involves a flashback intercut with a young Eastwood played by footage of Eastwood himself in Dirty Harry is the only inclusion that feels just plain wrong. Otherwise, it's a film that's constantly reaching predictable moments and playing them with a surprising lack of energy.

First-time director Robert Lorenz (he produced many of Eastwood’s directorial efforts over the last couple of decades) takes first-time screenwriter Randy Brown’s low-key low-stakes writing and executes it professionally. Unfortunately, it’s the storytelling equivalent of a bunt. Wouldn’t it be more impressive to swing for the fences? Of course it would. But this isn’t a movie that’s built to hit it out of the park, not with every scene playing as a flat stepping stone to the next predictable plot point. There’s nothing much that can be done when everyone involved is playing it so safe. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the work the filmmakers and the cast are doing; it’s that there’s nothing particularly lively, compelling or memorable about the story and characters at its core.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Neighborly Concern: THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET


The House at the End of the Street starts out by introducing materials so standard that I found myself wondering if the movie could possibly be heading to such conventional territory. Oh, just you wait. The opening scenes introduce us to a single mother (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) as they move into a new house in a new town. They get the new place for cheap on account of the neighbors, who, four years ago, were murdered by their young daughter. The girl went missing that same night and now the only one living in the big empty house is their justifiably morose son (Max Thieriot). The poor kid’s avoided by the townspeople who monger rumors about his long gone sister and generally behave rather badly when the topic of the boy comes up at, say, a welcome-to-the-neighborhood picnic.

The eerie house with a mysterious history causing mild discomfort for new neighbors isn’t exactly new territory. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit, I suppose, that the whole thing ends up operating at a reasonably workable level. The script from David Loucka (based on a story concept by Jonathan Mostow) has some fun playing around with audience sympathies. Thieriot’s troubled guy is understandable for a while; it’s the townspeople who are generally awful. For once, all the foreboding and ominous red flags seems to point away from the guy who’d be the suspicious creep in many a horror flick.

The first half of the movie may be mostly unpolished exposition spoken half-naturally, but the actors are likable and talented enough to make it all seem more or less convincing and soon enough the situation grows enough mild interest that it doesn’t seem so bad. What’s too bad is that the movie doesn’t seem too good, either. There’s a lot of talent here, but the film never finds a good reason to make much use of it. Lawrence is called on mostly to wear a tight white T-shirt. (Hey, there are worse reasons to see a movie.) Shue gets to act intensely concerned about her daughter and the boy next door, but not concerned enough to stop the plot in its tracks. Everyone is suspicious, but there’s really not all that much to be leery about for a while.

Because of the movie’s sometimes agonizing scarcity of imagination, the whole thing starts to feel like a watchable bore. There’s not a whole lot of suspense happening for a very long time as the film sets off a long fuse of characterization and build up that’d work better if the flimsy material could rise higher than the actors can take it alone. The bulk of the film is only a notch or two scarier than what you’d find on the Disney Channel during October as we patiently wait for Big Secrets to be revealed. Director Mark Tonderai turns in the one of most stylistically generic horror movies in recent memory, bland PG-13 Hollywood slickness that leans on the crutch of sudden orchestration anytime something vaguely suspenseful is occurring. By the time it goes through a couple of genuinely surprising (well, it got me, at least) twists, it’s all too self-serious to go off the rails properly.

And these twists to which I refer are certainly a little nutty. I won’t spoil them here, because you just might have the TV on in the background one day a few years from now and this movie will come on and you won’t have enough willpower to change the channel so you’ll just let it play out while you, I don’t know, fold laundry or something. Anyways, the twists are silly and they undo a lot of what little I found of interest in the first half of the picture, but the actors are on board to sell them. Tonderai treats it all so reverently, so tactfully, and with such restraint that the effect is more or less negated. By the time the material grows dark and weird and a little predictable, but still functionally dangerous and tense simply through the sheer will of talented performers, it’s basically a moot point. The movie completely trades in what little I was enjoying for a badly executed climactic sequence derived from a jumble of influences from (mostly) better movies without even the slightest intention of enjoying itself.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Free Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow: THE MASTER


Paul Thomas Anderson opens The Master with a long, hypnotic shot of churning waters, a rippling disturbance in calm, blue ocean, the wake of an unseen ship. This image – an image repeated a few more times throughout the film – proves to be a fitting one for two reasons. First, the hypnotic nature of the opening shot leads us into a film about a deeply disturbed World War II veteran who falls into a cult in its early stages of creation and propagation, a kind of slow, enveloping hypnosis. Second, the shot signals a main thematic preoccupation of the film concerning the wake of psychological damage damaged people can leave behind them as they travel through life, a ripple of destruction a person can create, knowingly or unknowingly, for those who come in contact with him.

The two damaged men at the heart of this film are that disoriented veteran stumbling through the scar tissue of conflict in such a way that he can’t convincingly fit into post-war American society and the cult leader who takes him in and attempts to indoctrinate him into The Cause. Freddie, the veteran (Joaquin Phoenix), has emotional pain and exhibits erratic behavior, the roots of which stretch deep into his past. His family has a history of alcoholism and mental instability. As the film begins, we see him sitting on a beach, away from his fellow Navy crewmembers. He’s hacking at coconuts with a machete, molesting a sandcastle woman, and creating makeshift, surely poisonous, booze out of a suspect concoction of beverages and chemicals. Years pass, as do opportunities for jobs and relationships, until he meets Lancaster Dodd, The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Freddie, fleeing the latest group of people enraged at his drunken, inscrutable unpredictability, stows away about The Master’s ship. Lancaster knows a lost soul when he sees one. Freddie is, after all, a possible convert. Lancaster, a man who has a professorial snake-oil salesman charm, introduces himself matter-of-factly as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher…” This would be a laugh line if it weren’t so frightening how fully he believes it and how ready Freddie is to believe it too. Lancaster offers the poor man a place to stay in this growing family of followers so long as he agrees to help out and submit to emotionally distressing “processing,” absorbing, torturous New Age psychological interrogation. And so The Master has found himself a new subject.

Anderson’s film moves elliptically through time, tracking the relationship between The Master and Freddie as the cult grows in power and is on the receiving end of heated questions from contentious outsiders and brave insiders alike. Vivid supporting characters include Dodd’s sharp-tongued, deceptively matronly wife (Amy Adams), supportive son-in-law (Rami Malek) and disillusioned son (Jesse Plemons), as well as several followers and defenders (including a small role for the always wonderful Laura Dern). But Anderson is not interested in simply charting the rise of this fringe group loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard’s early-1950’s group that became Scientology. Though the film has the epic sweep of Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Magnolia, sprawling, virtuosic period pieces, it plays out with the squirmy, uncomfortable intimacy of his ugly-beautiful introverted rom com (of sorts) Punch Drunk Love.

This is what he was doing in his last film, the instantly, toweringly essential There Will Be Blood, but here he’s working with a narrower emotional range. It doesn’t climb to the same emotional heights and precise blending of intimate and epic. This is an epic of mental interiors. The production design from David Crank and Jack Fisk captures the time and place with a precision that appears effortless and seamless. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography, in rich, stunning, and rare 65mm, sketches detailed shots that play out in long, meticulously composed takes with locked down angles that occasionally move with a sudden, fluid force. This is an attractively rendered production of emotional ugliness with a focus on both the high minded philosophy and psychology behind these men and the base instincts, dirty jokes and bodily functions that mark them as ultimately only human. Anderson marshals considerable craftsmanship in his capturing of incredible performances from two clashing characters who appear to be complete opposites, but are nonetheless continually drawn together by their shared perplexing, fascinating, mesmerizing intensity of opacity.

Phoenix has a twisted, sickly demeanor here, a way of standing half-hunched, moving with a drunken, hesitantly feral quality to his gait. He twists his face into a confused crumple of painful-looking wrinkles and glowering, deep, penetrating stares. He’s a man burying himself in his physicality. Hoffman, in contrast, has the gregarious regal comportment of a man completely sure in his own certitude. Even when directly confronted about his fanciful dogma that one character close to him admits is “[made up] as he goes along,” he’s fiercely defensive, cruel even to those who admire him the most. It’s easy to see him as a deluded monster, but Anderson and Hoffman create a far more sympathetic portrait than mere damnation. Without exploring this man’s background, we can see what draws people in and what is utterly convincing about his methodology. He pulls in seekers, those yearning for purpose, and gives them the comfort of certainty, no matter the psychological cost.

This is a strong work of filmmaking, a work in which each and every aspect is fine tuned and polished to perfection. But unlike Anderson’s earlier films, exuberant, inviting works, even at their most difficult or foreboding, this one left me on the outside looking in. The film is so perfectly closed off, it’s difficult to find a satisfactory entry into its dense psychological thicket of characterization and detail. Perhaps the key image is one that finds Freddie and Lancaster in neighboring jail cells, framed with a barred window between them and a wall of bars between them and the camera. Freddie thrashes against the confinement. Lancaster sits patiently, stewing in his anger. Throughout the film, despite their connection, they’re unable to ever truly reach each other and we in the audience can only watch from a distance as they struggle to get there no matter the cost to those in their wake.

Boys in Blue: END OF WATCH


In many ways a fairly standard cop movie, End of Watch follows two Los Angeles policemen through harrowing shifts in South Central, cutting glimpses into their personal lives between the episodic job-centric moments. That’s not a whole lot more than what you’d get on, say, an episode of the far-too-little-seen TNT show Southland, but this film differentiates itself by being violent and aesthetically muddy. It starts with the pretense that what we’re seeing is shot on consumer-grade video by the two men as part of one’s night school project. That’s dropped soon enough, though, hopping into conventional wobbly-cam style that still jumps into subjective shaking footage from time to time. The weaving, spinning camerawork charges right into every dangerous situation, moments that are filled with dread as sudden bloody messes can crop up around every corner.

Written and directed by David Ayer (he wrote Antoine Fuqua’s electrifying cop thriller Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar), this film sticks to a ground level point of view. It’s narrow, filled with characters that are barely more than cliché on the page, but this visceral B-movie burrows into the chemistry between the two leads in a satisfyingly casual way. It’s convincing and occasionally riveting. The two cops at the center of it all are played with nice commitment from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who joke with each other commiserate about women, and tense up heading off on a new call. Ayer’s writing and the actor’s total ease in their roles leads to an absorbing sense of what it must be like to go to work each day not knowing if you’ll have a dull day of office hijinks and hanging out with a friend or if you’ll be in a situation where you’ll be wondering about the next horrible thing you’ll be witnessing.

It all seems scary and tense to me, but as two cops driving every day through rough neighborhoods, they’re kind of used to it. Though there are drive-by shootings, missing kids, fires, murders, and cops and criminals alike jostling for turf, this is essentially a hang out movie. We follow Gyllenhaal and Peña as they drive around, the camera sitting on the dashboard, pointing back at the two of them. They talk and joke and drive, waiting for the next call to action. They’re funny without being overwritten, flawed in relatable, human ways without becoming fascist monsters, crooked cops, or overzealous frat boy policemen. They’re just two ambitious, but unhurried, guys trying to do their jobs. They have fun being with each other, but they take their jobs seriously.

When they’re not working, we see their personal lives. Gyllenhaal’s sweet on his latest girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) while Peña and his wife (Natalie Martinez) are getting ready for the birth of their first child. There’s an instantly sympathetic portrait of duty and matter-of-fact romance in these scenes, a sense that these men are as committed to their relationships at home as they are to their relationships on the job. In addition to strong performances from the leads and their significant others, the film is much benefited by a supporting cast of co-workers (Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, David Harbour, and Cody Horn among them) that can quickly sketch in professionalism and world-weary banter that helps makes this world feel grounded. There’s a sense of reality to the way these characters behave and interact for which all the handheld camerawork in the world can’t substitute.

Unfortunately, Ayer stumbles on his way to a conclusion. Though entertaining and involving throughout, the episodic nature with discrete, unrelated moment police business, eschews a natural endpoint. Creating one can’t help but feel forced. Ayer has threaded throughout the picture a severely malnourished parallel story about dehumanized gang members who scowl and rant in Spanglish and glower at authority. Unlike the kindness with which the leads are drawn and the sympathy with which the somewhat-clichéd supporting characters are fleshed out, these criminals are cut-and-dried bad to the bone. It makes for a sense of dread that imbues the film’s final moments with white-knuckle sensation, but the visceral moment feels a little empty. It’s the emptiness of a promising movie ending in a conventional shootout.

That’s indicative of the whole experience, though. Ayer has created a film content to do routine things competently rather than stake out new territory of its own, serving up cop movie cliché with slight shadings through tense vignettes and capable acting. The film is often effective and affecting despite considerable drawbacks. It’s more emotion and sensation than pure narrative (which has a distinct feeling of been-there-done-that about it) and either way it’s grubbily told, but it’s narrow, small-scale approach and focused performances keep it from falling apart too much.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Slimed in Space: THE GREEN SLIME


There’s a moment in The Green Slime, a 1969 B-movie of fascinatingly eclectic provenance (more on that later), when our heroes, a group of scientists and space explorers, run into a bunch of flailing monsters at the other end of a corridor on an orbiting space station. We see the goofy green space beasts, with their cold, unblinking eyes, bubbly skin, and velvety tentacles that are so obviously costumes – well-created costumes, but obviously created costumes nonetheless. Then we get the reverse shot of our shocked and determined human heroes. The shot pushes in with a forceful oomph that was entirely unexpected and made me perk up a bit. To look at them, these cheesy monsters are so the opposite of frightening and yet this little jolt of filmmaking energy still managed to give my heartbeat a little jump.

That little zoom is just one moment indicative of the larger picture. This silly movie – and, oh boy, is it a silly movie – is so well made, with such unexpected energy and commitment, that it’s hard not to get kind of won over by the whole thing. I knew I was in for a treat when the opening scenes of an asteroid heading for earth and the men and women out to stop it, determined people furiously dialing knobs in a massive blinking control room that looked like a cross between NASA headquarters and a cast-off Star Trek set, fades into a neat-o guitar lick and the sweet, sweet sounds of late-60s rock blasts us into the opening credits. It's a theme song titled, naturally, “Green Slime.” It’s halfway between hokey and awesome, and I definitely have listened to it several times in the days since I first watched the movie. And it was written by Charles Fox, a man who would later write the theme song for the Wonder Woman TV show and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

That’s just the first of many strange bedfellows in this movie’s creation. The script was credited to Ivan Reiner, Bill Finger (a DC comics writer), Tom Rowe, and Charles Sinclair (who wrote for Adam West’s Batman). The whole thing was bankrolled by MGM, but the producers, having had success making similar genre schlock, trusted the making of Green Slime to Japan’s Toei Company. The all-American cast (plus the Italian leading lady) flew out to Japan where the production was directed by young local filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku. (He went on to direct the Japanese-language half of 1970’s Pearl Harbor docudrama Tora! Tora! Tora! and 2000’s Battle Royale, a violent contemporary cult classic). So you can see that it’s a fascinatingly odd collection of talent concocting this movie. No wonder the results are so compellingly strange.

The plot of the movie involves the aforementioned space station’s crew successfully saving Earth from the certain doom of asteroid collision only to find themselves infiltrated by a green slime that eventually becomes the goofy green monsters I was telling you about. (The original, beautifully pulpy, posters screamed, “The Green Slime are coming!”) The whole thing is brightly lit and goofily performed. The cast, definitely not a big star among them, includes veteran TV actor Robert Horton, B-movie veteran Richard Jaeckel, and Luciana Paluzzi, a former Bond girl in a time when that was still a small club. They give performances that gain a kind of stiff pulp poetry at times. (Consider the following exchange. Analyst: “It’s coming too fast!” General: “We’ll just have to move faster!”) Other times the film is swallowed up by awkward staging and disjointed line readings filled with the kind of weird pauses that scream to be filled in by Tom Servo. (That’s exactly what happens in Mystery Science Theater 3000’s rare pilot episode.)

Just ten years later Ridley Scott would bring us Alien, another movie about an outer space crew battling a slimy monster through the halls of their ship. It’s an all-time masterpiece of sci-fi horror, justifiably iconic. I wouldn’t make the same argument for The Green Slime, which is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. But what does that even mean, really? It’s no Alien, but it’s still a mostly watchable movie that’s worth laughing at and with, an enjoyable jolt of B-movie pleasure that’s entirely earned by energetic low-budget filmmaking. Its DNA can certainly be found, intentionally or not (probably not), in Alien and beyond (like in Event Horizon or Armageddon). It’s at or near the pinnacle of cheapo effects, like a discounted 50’s monster movie injected with borrowed cool 60’s style. (The Blob…. In Space! And also with go-go dancers.) Given it’s timing, coming after that initial wave of post-WWII monster flicks both here and abroad, I do wonder if Fukasaku was having a bit of a knowing goof with this particular picture. He’s clearly a talented filmmaker and it shows here and elsewhere. Maybe he was being a jokey subcontractor for MGM, tweaking the genre from within. Either way he ended up with a film of some minor notability, if only for its layers of oddness and liveliness.

The Green Slime is available on DVD through Warner Archive.

This post is a part of The Camp & Cult Blogathon running through September 28 under the watchful eyes of She Blogged By Night. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Insert Coins to Continue: RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION


After five movies in ten years, Paul W.S. Anderson has these Resident Evil movies down to some sort of science. Each installment, of which he’s written and directed three, moves forward with constant motion, but little movement. The plot advances just enough to be called a movie, ending with nothing more than the promise of more. Based on a similarly long-lasting video game series, the movies eschew resolution of any kind at every turn as they tell the futuristic, action-packed sci-fi horror story of Alice (Milla Jovovich), a superwoman of sorts who again and again runs afoul of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. This company has unleashed an apocalyptic virus onto the world, a virus that creates all kind of shuffling zombies and slimy creatures. Not exactly undead, these zombies can operate weapons and heavy machinery and have sharp, snaky tendrils that slide out of their mouths in place of normal teeth and tongues. They’re creepy obstacles for Alice to mow down in acrobatic ways.

Each of these movies starts concurrent with the end of the one prior, which you think would be a problem for someone like me who can barely remember the four that come before Resident Evil: Retribution, the latest in the series. It’s not. The opening here is striking. It’s an elaborate action sequence running backwards in slow motion over the credits, breaking down hyperactive continuity into an abstraction of physical movement. Before you think that Anderson’s gone fully aesthetically experimental on us, he treats us to a longwinded monologue in which Alice explains the continuity of all that has come before. Does it help familiarize a non-fan like me? Maybe. It helped me remember that once Alice punched a zombie dog. That was something.

But enough about the past. This movie is in a constant state of present tense, a whirl of narrative conceits that double in on themselves. It’s a game inside a deus ex machina inside a dream inside a clone’s implanted memories inside an experiment inside a chase sequence. Anderson finds moments of unexpected visual pleasures, symmetry of light and shadow, of color and blank white space, of bold geometric shapes and expressive splashes of CGI viscera. He’s pushing the movie into an abstract sense of chaotic movement, layering the screen with digital readouts, picture in picture, and side-scrolling nonsense. The plot that contains all this finds Alice trapped in an underwater bunker in which Umbrella continues to test the virus in recreated cityscapes like convincing replicas of Time Square, a Moscow thoroughfare, a Tokyo intersection, and a slice of suburban sprawl.

Her escape finds her constantly on the move, collecting allies (Boris Kodjoe, Bingbing Lie, and Kevin Durand among them) and enemies (like Michelle Rodriguez and Sienna Guillory). As the characters move through each environment, annotated by Umbrella’s menacing computer that scans a green schematic of the sprawling bunker’s architecture, it’s clear that the movie functions as a video game. In each new space, the computer unleashes hordes of faceless zombies and monsters for the heroes to fight past on their way to the flesh-and-blood villains who are the ultimate final foes. Each environment cleared of obstacles, they literally move to the next level, working their way through tasks of increasing difficulty as they try to fight their way to safety. In a series that last time included coin-shower aftermaths of injuries, this new entry is the fullest expression of the material’s video roots.

Maybe that explains why the series is perpetually running in place. There’s no need for any variation beyond weaponry and creatures when the characters can just show up, fight, and leave the plot dangling until next time. Press pause. Reboot. Play the levels again. I like Anderson’s style here. He makes the movie all about nonstop action expressed through interchangeable physical details, textures of colored lights and foggy debris fields. Anderson’s visual imagination is notable, but that’s not quite enough to make this a satisfying movie. The film grows monotonous and deadening, a series of repetitive sequences in a series that is endlessly repeating itself.

The one glimmer of humanity here, cribbed from James Cameron’s Aliens, is the addition of a little girl for Alice to protect. It’s a thin compelling thread that makes the movie probably the best of this particular bunch by a slim margin, but even this is undercut. There’s a telling scene late in the movie in which Alice stumbles into a massive warehouse of clones containing hundreds of copies of many of the franchise’s characters. No matter the outcome of this game, we can play this again and again and again with new expansion packs and new character options. Maybe with Resident Evil 6, Anderson can win a higher score.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In and Out of Love: CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER


Rather than being lousy and dull all the way through, Celeste and Jesse Forever has the unfortunate disappointment-enhancer of seeming rather promising at the start. The central joke of the film is a funny one. Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are best friends, cozily intimate, and giggle their way through countless in-jokes. The problem? They’ve been divorced for six months. That’s a good joke and a fine reverse-rom-com riff, but if you wait around for director Lee Toland Krieger to expand upon that promising nugget, you’ll be waiting a long time. This is a mopey relationship movie about characters dealing with real problems in a film that is content to use them in schematic and dispiriting ways.

Celeste is a successful publicist and author while Jesse is an artistic layabout. She still cares about him, but would really like him out of the house. When he meets a girl and does just that, she’s hurt. There’s real emotion here, but it’s bleached away by all the predictable storytelling machinations from which the film initially seemed to be turning away. There are plot developments that, though I understood why the screenwriting handbook would need them to happen, feel wrong, feel too disruptive to the gentle character work that Jones and Samberg are up to here.

Jones, so good on the essential sitcom Parks & Recreation, co-wrote the movie with Will McCormack (who turns up in a small, likable role as a pot dealer/relationship guru), and together they’ve written themselves some interesting roles. There’s also room around the margins for delightful-in-theory roles for a solid ensemble that includes Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, and Elijah Wood. They’re all likable screen presences that aren’t given enough time or good material to make much of an impact. This is a movie about the leads and Jones and Samberg are perhaps too good at selling their chemistry, since the ultimate breakdown of the relationship is only partially and haltingly convincing.

Most unfortunately, Jones and McCormack didn’t write a movie that can capitalize on these characters and the promising setup. At first I was straining to like the film, but as it meandered its way to an unsatisfying conclusion, I just couldn’t keep my enthusiasm from wandering away. Krieger shoots the film in a routine loose way that does the slack plotting no favors, occasionally indulging in visual beauty – a shot of fireworks was rather lovely, if pointless – that only serves to reveal just how empty the whole thing ultimately is. The film coasts on the charms of its cast and the strength of its concept far further than that will actually take it.
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