Archive for March 2008

American Zombie

March 28, 2008

Ever wonder what kind of people work the wolf-hour shifts at convenience stores? Back in 1980, Dennis Etchison satisfied that particular curiosity with his classic short story “The Late Shift,” in which night-shift cashiers were revealed to be the undead; they could make change, and they could only say “Please. Sorry. Thank you.”

Ivan (Austin Basis), one of the zombies profiled in Grace Lee’s fine mockumentary American Zombie, is considerably more eloquent, though still not quite Gore Vidal. Ivan, too, works in a convenience store, setting up the hot-dog rotisserie and bringing home any past-expiration food (“I try to eat as much preservatives as possible,” he says). American Zombie establishes three specific types of zombie: the aggressive ones, such as you might see in a George Romero film; low-functioning zombies, who shuffle and moan and are stuck in mindless menial jobs; and high-functioning zombies, who have retained most of their mental facilities. They’re still dead, though. Their flesh is rotting, and many of them ingest or inject some blue fluid (formaldehyde?), possibly to stall complete cellular breakdown. They tend not to remember how they died, which may be a blessing or a curse.

American Zombie may sound like a one-joke, one-note spoof. It isn’t, and to illustrate the difference, let me sidetrack for a second. Back in 2005, The Daily Show‘s Ed Helms did a three-part series of short skits called Zombie-American. Helms played Glen, a chatty zombie who wanted us to know that despite his decomposition and his culinary preferences, he was really just like you and me. Zombie-American is funny on a sketch level — it’s something you would’ve expected to see Helms do on a Halloween episode of The Daily Show — but it doesn’t delve too deeply into its subject; it wastes much of its last third on gags about how much Glen the zombie sucks at basketball. American Zombie is a whole other animal.

Grace Lee was previously best known for 2005’s The Grace Lee Project, in which the Korean-American documentarian went around finding lots of other people who shared her name. My guess is that she’s about to become a lot better-known for American Zombie, and not just because of the surefire comedy-horror angle. The script by Lee and Rebecca Sonnenshine is packed with convincing detail. When we visit the offices of ZAG — the Zombie Advocacy Group — there are various Altmanesque overheards, like “They can’t call you a brain-eater. That’s harassment.” ZAG’s leader is Joel (Al Vicente), pronounced “Yoel,” a very high-functioning zombie who tirelessly looks after the growing undead community in Los Angeles. Joel natters on, huffy and easily offended, like a zombie Adam Goldberg.

Other than perhaps Grace Lee (and maybe not even then, if you’re unfamiliar with her past work), there are no familiar faces in the movie, adding greatly to its verisimilitude. And the actors, including Suzy Nakamura as the sadly delusional Judy and Jane Edith Wilson as the artsy Lisa, make their zombies just human enough to gain our sympathy yet just strange enough to mark them as something other than human. The entire cast, really, seems filled out with people who effortlessly put their roles across. Nobody hams it up; when a scientist explains the zombie virus and how it works and how it spreads, it’s matter-of-fact and believable — she could be explaining the common cold.

American Zombie works on several levels of satire. What would a large city like Los Angeles do with a zombie population steadily approaching five digits? There are various mechanisms in place; Lee and Sonnenshine have really thought it through, right down to the psychologists who help zombies like Lisa access their rage over their violent deaths, the holistic medicine specialists who remove maggots from festering wounds, the private detectives hired by grieving families to move among the undead to track down any sons or daughters or parents who might’ve become one of them. I particularly enjoyed the minister who encourages zombies to join his bible study group, since Christianity has unique things to say to them — “Jesus was the original zombie,” he says. (Actually, that would be Lazarus, but never mind.)

Like the best satire, the movie saves its sharpest barbs for itself and its makers. Lee, playing herself, teams up with John Solomon to create a documentary portrait of this thriving, misunderstood community. Lee doesn’t want to do it at first, but once she’s in it, she’s committed to telling the truth. So is John, but he’s more interested in finding out what the zombies are hiding. What’s the deal with the blue fluid? What’s in the zombies’ fridges? And what’s this Live Dead thing, a three-day zombies-only event? What goes on there? Lee and Solomon and their small crew eventually gain access to Live Dead, and the movie turns disorienting and eventually creepy. There are obvious nods to The Blair Witch Project in the Live Dead footage, except that Lee actually manages to scare us. The scene in which a human crooner named Maude (Kasi Brown) favors the zombie crowd with a morbid tune, while the crew’s camera and sound equipment are almost too far away to pick up anything, is a startlingly Lynchian moment.

I’ve seen a couple of complaints about the movie. One concerns its length, and I suppose it feels a bit long in the middle (it’s only 91 minutes, though), though scene for scene I wouldn’t know what to cut out. The other is about the ending, which some have taken as a betrayal of characters we’ve been made to care about — but to me, that complaint just testifies to how well said characters are written and played. Lee’s satire is often affectionate, but in the end, she takes her gentle gloves off. The high-functioning zombies, it turns out, are savvy enough to manipulate the media, which, typified by Grace and her crew, are eager to paint a benevolent picture and ignore the danger signs. The zombies aren’t meant to symbolize minorities in real-life society. This is a horror movie, and in horror movies things suck and get worse and don’t care if you feel bad about that. I love horror and always love to welcome talented, intelligent filmmakers into the genre, but in this case I kind of hope Grace Lee is done with horror. Based on what she does with American Zombie, I want to see what she can do with other subjects, other genres. If she wants to turn her attention to other horror concepts, though, I won’t complain.

Stop-Loss

March 28, 2008

Kimberly Peirce, who directed one of 1999’s best films with Boys Don’t Cry, seems to have a thing about androgyny leaning a bit towards masculinity. Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and now the young soldiers in her belated new film, Stop-Loss, are rangy yet fragile-looking, capable of violence yet susceptible to it. If ever there was a director to bring Alexander the Great to the big screen (not likely since Oliver Stone made such a botch of it), Peirce would be the one. This lesbian filmmaker treats gender off-handedly, and her male characters — the non-psychotic ones, anyway — are handled sympathetically, even tenderly. The men in Stop-Loss are screwed up, wounded, haunted, hapless but never ridiculous.

Stop-Loss deals with an under-acknowledged reality of military service: the “backdoor draft” that obliges certain soldiers to return to combat even after their tour is done. The stop-loss policy has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, and it has been employed under George H.W. Bush (during the Gulf War) and under Clinton. A soldier who is “stop-lossed” back to Iraq in the current conflict, though, finds him/herself re-recruited into a war that was never formally declared by Congress. It doesn’t matter, though; a soldier’s contract states that he or she may be involuntarily cycled back into action. Ironically, the better a soldier is, the more likely he or she will be judged “essential to the national security of the United States.”

Of the three soldiers profiled in Stop-Loss, two are willing to go back to Iraq, and one — Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) — wants to stay home in Brazos, Texas. Brandon has had enough of killing, enough of seeing his buddies torn to shreds. He returns home with his childhood friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves among civilians: they get drunk, they get into idiotic fights. Steve wants a career in the Army; Tommy seems addicted to the adrenaline of combat, the one thing he might be good at. Peirce, who wrote the script with the novelist Mark Richard (who appears alongside Laurie Metcalf in a poignant scene), establishes Brazos as a home worth returning to; she respects the rural way of living and relaxing. The sadness of the stateside segments is that Tommy and Steve no longer quite belong home.

The movie is not as hard-hitting as I imagine many critics would like it to be. It stays mostly apolitical and pro-troops, and it paints in broad, familiar strokes. Peirce, whose brother served in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to make a simple film accessible to young viewers (MTV Films co-produced it), who won’t have seen post-war films like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, or even Born on the Fourth of July. (There are now people old enough for military service who weren’t even born yet when Born on the Fourth came out. No comment.) Peirce wants to perform a public service. But she isn’t a public servant, and her artistry gets in the way. A hack director might’ve been better at putting across the melodramatic peaks and lows of the narrative; Peirce works best with muted shades of melancholy and regret. When Brandon resists being stop-lossed and goes on the run, Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) goes with him, and Stop-Loss becomes a rather depressed road movie, exploring the paranoid world of stop-lossed AWOL soldiers living day to day in shabby, nondescript motel rooms.

The concept of the violent war vet who can’t shut off his fight-or-flee instinct at home is, I suppose, factual, but decades of movies have laid a blanket of must over it. Peirce takes some of the oldness out of it by focusing on the irrationality of soldiers torn between their duties to their country and to their loved ones. Ryan Phillippe is about as expressive as Peirce can make him, which isn’t much; the film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who claims ownership of it when his Tommy pauses drunkenly at a diamond-store window, then tosses a beer bottle through it, as if that seemed to him the only sensible thing to do. Peirce brings out the violent joys and passions and soul-sickness of her delicate characters. Stop-Loss isn’t much as a narrative, but it does herald the return of a singular voice that’s been silent for far too long.

Horton Hears a Who

March 14, 2008

Carol Burnett, who turns 75 next month, is in strong, scary voice as the Sour Kangaroo in the new computer-animated Horton Hears a Who. Her Kangaroo, small-minded and intolerant, sounds a bit like the recently infamous homophobe Sally Kern, only without the Arkansas twang. Other than that, I’m not sure how much political significance we should ascribe to this tale, which began as a Dr. Seuss book in 1951 and was adapted by Seuss and Chuck Jones as a TV cartoon in 1970. The pro-life movement took up the story’s refrain “A person’s a person no matter how small” (over Seuss’s objections), while the Kangaroo’s cohorts the Wickersham Brothers have been read as Seuss’s slap at Joe McCarthy. A story that can mean anything you want it to mean usually wasn’t meant to mean anything.

The relevance Horton may have today is that someone hearing tiny voices no one else can hear isn’t necessarily crazy. In fact, such people most often produce enduring entertainment; Dr. Seuss himself, cheerfully rattling on for over fifty years in anapestic tetrameter, probably heard his share of Whos, to say nothing of Grinches, Loraxes, Ooblecks, Yooks and Zooks. The hideous live-action adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat reduced Seuss’s vibrant world to a speck of dust, but Horton plucks it up and rests it safely in its proper place. A bit too much on the frenetic side, the movie is nonetheless colorful and diverting, with a merciful lack of scatalogical humor or other depredations that would set the good doctor’s corpse spinning.

As the Grinch, Jim Carrey had to push his comedic will through pounds of latex; as the voice of Horton, he comes through with considerably more purity — Horton has even been rendered with Carrey’s heavy eyebrows and puckish smirk. Horton discovers an entire world inside a speck of dust, which sounds like he’s ready to ride the bus with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, but never mind. The Kangaroo finds Horton’s claims dangerous. The Whos, who exist happily if uneasily on the speck, try to impress upon Horton the importance of a stable homeland — stop hopping around, you fool, and put us on a sunflower or something. The Kangaroo places various obstacles in Horton’s path, such as a mean but not terribly bright vulture and a pack of monkeys.

A first-time directing effort by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, who got their start in various capacities on several Pixar films, Horton teems with hip vocal talent ranging from CBS anchorman Charles Osgood (as the narrator) to Laraine Newman to, seemingly, half the Judd Apatow stable (Steve Carell as Whoville’s mayor, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill), and, once again, the husband-and-wife comedy assassins Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. The movie is awash in personality, especially with such unaccountably funny characters as Katie, a little yellow fluffball that hovers and says things like “In my world, everyone’s a pony, and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies.” Sounds like Steve Martin on a good night.

My favorite Seuss feature film remains 1953’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, so Horton takes second place by default, simply by virtue of not being dreck like the Grinch and Cat movies. Seuss’s widow Audrey Geisel is a producer here, too, so we must assume it has the doctor’s blessing once removed (she sensibly stayed away from Grinch and Cat). As we watch Horton and the hapless Mayor of Whoville on their tandem missions to convince their peers of each other’s existence, we realize we’re seeing the old story of communication updated to the can-you-hear-me-now age. This Horton is about allowing ourselves to acknowledge and be moved by people, or perhaps concepts, we never even knew existed. Horton and the Mayor are happy to discover each other. Others are content to stay ignorant and unimaginative. When the movie comes out on DVD, someone should send Sally Kern a copy.

Doomsday

March 14, 2008

Horror fans may want to see Doomsday to check out the new film by Neil Marshall, director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent. I did, too, but about twenty minutes into it I decided to pretend it was a long-lost mid-’80s film Marshall had dusted off and put his name on. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially for aficionados of cheesy post-apocalyptic fare. Doomsday has it all: a deadly virus, a laconic hero (in the shapely form of Rhona Mitra), a mission with a short deadline, a cadre of savages who take their sartorial cues from the Sex Pistols, and a lengthy desert auto chase. Like Dog Soldiers, similarly a stew of genres Marshall loves, Doomsday is a place for Marshall to try on various hats.

In this case, he also worships at the altar of John Carpenter (Escape from New York) and George Miller (the Mad Max films). If you’ve been craving a new Snake Plissken movie or a new Mad Max adventure, only with a Kate Beckinsale lookalike in the lead, Doomsday is what you need. The strongly Carpenter-esque synth score, occasionally interrupted by ‘80s Brit-pop (I particularly enjoyed hearing Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” in the midst of the climactic chase), seals the deal. Some will be offended at the appropriations, but Carpenter and Miller aren’t making this sort of bash any more, and Marshall does it with verve and a clear love of the material.

I don’t know whether Rhona Mitra has a future in movies that require her to, y’know, act, but here she has the right hard-bitten vibe as Major Eden Sinclair, who as a girl escaped the Reaper Virus that consumed Scotland. Now, in 2035, Scotland is walled off and the virus has gotten a foothold in London. Eden is sent over the wall into the hot zone in search of a cure; it’s really more of a P.R. move than an honorable mission. Eden takes a few soldiers in with her, and immediately meets a mob of armed goons who were too young to be in The Road Warrior and have been overcompensating ever since. Their leader is a gnashing, mohawked psycho named Sol (Craig Conway), who looks almost placid next to his girlfriend Viper (the striking-looking stuntwoman Lee-Anne Liebenberg).

Eden’s trials don’t end with the ersatz Road Warriors; there is still Malcolm McDowell to contend with. Something unsettling is happening to McDowell’s nose as he ages, but he’s still in fine ominous voice as the embittered Dr. Kane, who turned his back on society when the wall went up and has ensconced himself in a castle along with a severe band of medievalists. (One especially amusing shot tells us Dr. Kane hasn’t bothered to remove a “Gift Shop” sign from the castle exterior.) Arrows fly, blood spurts, and we aren’t yet even into the car chase, which features, among other things, a severed head placed back onto its body in what I can only describe as a sentimental touch. In its gleeful determination to shoehorn in everything Neil Marshall has always wanted to put on film, Doomsday reminded me of Sam Raimi’s shoot-the-works cult favorite Army of Darkness. The only thing missing is Bruce Campbell, though Doomsday does have Bob Hoskins, snarling avuncularly as usual.

The line between homage and rip-off can be a thin and subtle one. We should also remember that there is nothing new under the sun, that Marshall’s masters Carpenter and Miller did their fair share of reworking earlier material, too. We only think to denounce something as derivative or outright theft if we didn’t enjoy it in the first place. But I had a fine time at Doomsday. It took me right back to the early days of VCRs, when I was a teenager and probably discovering all those grungy sci-fi-horror flicks at about the same time that Marshall was (he’s a month older than I am). Doomsday is, I think, a far more fun tribute to grindhouse than Grindhouse was; if someone at Rogue Pictures is smart, they’ll make the DVD packaging look like an old Vestron or Wizard videocassette. Complete with misleading cover art assuring you that Rhona Mitra gets naked (she doesn’t).

Funny Games (2008)

March 14, 2008

In 1998, Michael Haneke polarized critics and art-house audiences with his Austrian film Funny Games. Now he has made the same movie — literally, beat for beat and almost shot for shot (some angles do differ) — with an English-speaking cast. Is there a point to this? Sure.

The original film used a home-invasion scenario to suss out the audience’s pet expectations from a movie. Those expectations were surgically removed one by one. Haneke always wanted to make Funny Games for an American audience, but he couldn’t pull the financing together. Now he has, and the two versions of the film differ ever so subtly. For one thing, in the 1998 film, the affluent couple (Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe) are introduced in their car, playing guessing games with classical music — who’s the composer and who performed it? It’s somehow easier to accept an Austrian couple doing this than an American couple, and the Austrian couple wouldn’t necessarily have to be rich — Austria, after all, is the country that produced Haydn, Handel, Mahler, and Mozart. An Austrian audience wouldn’t find their knowledge of classical music all that unusual. But when Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the same game at the start of Funny Games US, they unavoidably come off as elitists. Probably liberal elitists. Rich liberal elitists. The deck is stacked against them from the beginning.

In the language of such films, the milquetoast golfer husband might find it in himself to meet violence with violence, like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. Or the wife would use her smarts to triumph, like Jodie Foster in Panic Room. Haneke isn’t speaking that language. In this meta-narrative, the situation doesn’t exist to bring out anyone’s heroism. The two white-clad evil angels (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who terrorize Watts, Roth and their young son (Devon Gearhart) are like jaded gods or aliens who’ve landed in this gated community for the sole purpose of examining human fear and pain in extremis. This isn’t the first family these two have tormented, and it won’t be the last. Watching Funny Games US after having seen the original rewards you with some chilling insights you might miss the first time around; when we first meet Paul (Pitt), the brains of the two, he’s in the company of a rather subdued man. Earlier, when Watts and Roth are driving past their neighbors, the folks are acting a bit odd. A little too tentative, too quiet. The neighbors, of course, are standing outside with Paul and his sheepish cohort Peter (Corbet). Whatever horrors the neighbors have already undergone or been threatened with are left to our imagination.

A filmmaker can say things about his movie, but the film itself might rudely contradict him. Haneke has always talked up Funny Games as a sour but necessary tonic for a benumbed audience. Theoretically, the film confronts us with our own responses to violent entertainment. This may be what Haneke thinks the film does, or would like to think it does. But in reality the audience responds most readily to the sadists. Pitt and Corbet are more attractive than the original duo (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), and the jokes are more colloquial and their meaning isn’t filtered through subtitles (interestingly, Lodge Kerrigan was the script consultant). There’s more tension when the sadists are around, more drama. Concurrently, we enjoy the suffering of the victims because that suffering is so precisely and skillfully acted (in both versions), drenched in the sort of painful realism we don’t often see in movies. This Funny Games also looks ravishing at all times (in stark contrast to the grainy-video look of the Austrian version), courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji. What was once grubby and DIY, something like Haneke’s previous Benny’s Video, is now sleek and heartless, like mid-period Kubrick.

So I don’t believe what Haneke says his film is about. The film doesn’t believe it either. It got away from him, both times, and did what it wanted to do, as art is known to do. Organically, it’s a revenge flick without the revenge, using our bloodlust to lubricate a larger statement about art versus entertainment. A newcomer to Funny Games will sit through all the terror and pain as long as it’s understood that a comeuppance is in store. When there isn’t one — in fact, all attempts are either thwarted or rudely withdrawn — the film flirts with existential pointlessness. And that’s not what we want from a story. Well, what do we want from a story? If we just want to see what we want to see, why do we bother with anything new at all?

In any event, I do believe there’s a point to Funny Games, and there’s a point to remaking it so exactly. The first version arrived as sort of a one-off, best viewed in the context of Haneke’s other early work. The remake arrives at a time when we seek closure of some sort — the end of the war in Iraq, or the end of so much else that’s gone terribly wrong. But there is no clear end on the horizon, simply more suffering and more trauma. We crave cultural triumphalism as comfort food — stories with clearcut good guys and bad guys, with the bad guys roundly defeated. Haneke, who hails from a country that actually got annexed into Nazi Germany, knows the world doesn’t work that way. “Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell. “Who controls the present controls the past.” The quote lends added weight to the much-maligned remote-control scene, in which one of the evil angels controls the past, present, and future. At heart, Funny Games is about the totalitarianism of cinema itself.

With the simplest of premises — which, by the way, works frighteningly well as a thriller without resorting to the old tired jumps and stings — the movie exposes the creative fascism at the core of any narrative, in which people are moved about like so many pawns for obscure purposes somehow agreed upon thousands of years ago. Funny Games kills movies and kills itself.

10,000 B.C.

March 7, 2008

A lot of movies these days spawn video games (and vice versa). I have a feeling 10,000 BC should’ve skipped the movie stage and gone right to the video game. There are, as far as I can tell, no plans yet to adapt the film for Wii or PlayStation 3 or Xbox, but there should be. It’d probably be a fun quest game, with lots to enjoy and laugh at along the way.

You’d play as D’Leh, the brave mammoth hunter chosen by the fates to deliver his tribe from slavery at the hands of a technologically advanced warrior tribe. Your character would look like a white Rastafarian and sound like Steven Strait, so he’d be kind of wimpy and none too plausible as the game’s hero. You’d start by hunting a mammoth, of course, which is easier than you’d think: just hold a spear up and wait for the mammoth to charge at you. Realistically, you’d get stomped, as would happen in any decent movie, but that’s not going to happen this early in a video game.

Later, your sweetheart Evolet gets kidnapped by the evil warriors. In a good movie about prehistoric times, Evolet wouldn’t have eyeliner and look like Camilla Belle. But this is a video game, where female characters are frequently unrealistically gorgeous, shapely, and scantily clad. So Evolet is allowed to be as cute as a button, though all the other women in sight are rather dowdy. Following the progress of you and Evolet is an old wise woman named Old Mother. Every once in a while, there’s a cut scene in which she quivers and moans whenever things are going badly. You’ll want to hit the X button to skip past these scenes, of course. They serve only to interrupt the action.

Oh, yes, there’s action! You get to dodge phorusrhacids (or “terror birds”) and fight various warriors and get a saber-toothed tiger out of a trap. The tiger will, of course, return later and defend you from a suspicious African tribe, letting them know that you’re not just any hunter-gatherer; you’re down with sabertooths, man. So you join forces with them and other tribes who have seen their women and children kidnapped by the evil warriors, and together you journey to the warlord’s vast city. How vast? So vast, they need mammoths to help build it. This is ridiculous, of course, but it’s one of those goofy-fun video games (especially considering some of the dialogue), so you roll with it. If this were in a movie, you’d laugh it off the screen.

Eventually the big boss battle comes up, and this is where the game sort of punks out. All you have to do is throw a spear at the warlord. He dies. All of his followers freak out. You save the day. Evolet gets killed but not really, and you live happily ever after, at least until the next video game comes out. It’s a pretty linear and predictable storyline, but that’s what makes it a fun play, a good time-waster.

Video games aren’t movies, and movies aren’t video games; they’re separate media, which is why so many video games based on movies suck and why so many movies based on video games suck. A movie based on 10,000 BC, for instance, would be one of the stupidest and most boring films of the year.


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