Archive for March 2009

Monsters Vs. Aliens

March 29, 2009

monsters-vs-aliens-posterThe title Monsters Vs. Aliens promises retro fun beyond what any movie could deliver, though the actual film by that title tries hard enough. We get lots of aliens — actually, one alien cloned a bunch of times — but only five monsters; those wanting to see the screen packed with an army of homegrown creatures battling extraterrestrials will leave disappointed. In the movie, Area 51 is a vast secret holding area for monsters captured over the decades; there must be more beasties in there than the few we meet. Maybe they’re saving some for the sequel.

The monsters we do get, though, are pretty amusing, all inspired by absurd creature features of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s Dr. Cockroach (voice by Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist who, like David Hedison in The Fly, emerges from an experiment with insectoid limbs and head. There’s B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a brainless blob. There’s the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a tip of the fin to Creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s Insectosaurus, a massive mutated grub not unlike Mothra. Finally, there’s Susan (Reese Witherspoon), a bride-to-be who gets hit with a meteorite and turns into a fifty-foot woman. (I also appreciated the nod to The Amazing Colossal Man in a bit with a giant syringe.)

I don’t know whether the directors, Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2), or the platoon of credited writers grew up on monster and alien flicks. What I do know is that there’s a difference between a movie driven by obsession and a movie that kind of coasts on a neat premise, and Monsters Vs. Aliens is definitely the latter. I had a good enough time at it, but someone like Tim Burton (whose Mars Attacks is a goofy underrated classic) or Guillermo del Toro (who you can tell loves monsters so much it hurts him) would’ve brought the kind of ripe madness that helps a tribute like this endure. Monsters Vs. Aliens gets most of its fuel from the witty characterizations, which is good, but also from references that have nothing to do with monsters or aliens, like Dance Dance Revolution or the Beverly Hills Cop theme song, which are just jokes thrown in for contemporary parents and will date the movie.

A terrific sequence unfolds on a traffic-congested bridge, with terrified drivers caught between the heroic monsters and a giant one-eyed robot. It feels like a demo reel; nothing else really captures the scale or excitement a movie like this should pack, especially with today’s technology. Meanwhile, we spend too much time hearing about Susan’s fretful relationship with her selfish weatherman fiancé (Paul Rudd), who before Susan’s transformation thinks she’ll be thrilled that their honeymoon will be not in Paris but in … Fresno. (I chortled at that, having spent a week in Fresno, where someone was murdered a block from where I was staying.) The hip voice cast, which includes Stephen Colbert voicing a president who looks like Bruce Campbell, is entertaining enough, though only Hugh Laurie as Dr. Cockroach really seems to understand what kind of movie he’s in — or what kind of movie he should be in.

Monsters Vs. Aliens is a fine rainy-Sunday diversion, but if you want real monster and alien fun, hit up Netflix and rent some of the classics that inspired it. When the evil alien proclaims “Destroy all monsters!” I nodded and thought “Yeah, I really need to watch Destroy All Monsters again.”

Knowing

March 23, 2009

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What would you do if you knew the world was going to end soon? Me, I’d probably get royally drunk, give Never Mind the Bollocks one last spin, and see how much of Infinite Jest I could get through before armageddon dropped. In the solemnly ludicrous Knowing, Nicolas Cage drives around frantically, down country roads and through chaotic city streets (nobody tries to carjack him). Cage’s almost-love-interest (Rose Byrne) has announced that she’s heading for some caves she knows from childhood, to wait out the apocalypse. That’s when the movie momentarily becomes brilliant on the same level as The Wicker Man, wherein Cage so infamously screamed “Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!!” Here, Cage bellows into his cell phone, “THE CAVES WON’T SAVE US! NOTHING WILL SAVE US!”

I persist in feeling great affection for Nicolas Cage, who can really sell a line like that without any trace of awareness of how goofy he sounds. Many have questioned what happened to the Cage who took risks and won an Oscar. My theory is that, at this point, Cage looks for scripts that pose challenges — like unsayable dialogue or patently stupid situations that would destroy a lesser actor. Cage is having fun, even if the audience isn’t. Knowing casts him as John Koestler, a professor of astrophysics who engages in the old debate between determinism (things happen for a reason) and randomness (things just happen). Since his wife died, John leans towards randomness, perhaps because he can’t bear to conceive of a greater universal reason that he now has to raise his son by himself.

The boy happens across a page of scrawled numbers, buried in a time capsule fifty years ago. The numbers appear to predict every major disaster of the past five decades, and there are still three number sets whose prophecies haven’t come true yet. This is an excuse for director Alex Proyas, an old hand at empty visual flash (see The Crow and Dark City), to haul out a few big kaboom sequences, and they’re pretty nifty as far as these things go. There’s no poetry or horror in the carnage, but Proyas does manage to catch a you-are-there vibe without sacrificing the readable mechanics of the destruction.

Unfortunately, the movie gets nutty in its second half (probably the same half that will endear the film to its inevitable cult fans). Mysterious “whispering” men keep turning up, looking like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. John follows the numerical clues all around — what can “EE” written backwards mean? — and the movie begins to seem like a cross between The Da Vinci Code and your standard sci-fi apocalypto. Cage gets to scream about the caves, and the narrative collapses into ominous visual effects. Knowing tries for profundity, a difficult proposition after it’s tickled us with mass death; I felt offended rather than awed or moved. At the end, we all filed out looking depressed. Is this the sort of “escapism” Summit Entertainment wants to offer a fearful and demoralized audience right now?

The Last House on the Left (2009)

March 15, 2009

poster_last_house_on_the_left2009I almost feel sorry for young horror fans. In my day, a lot of the slasher movies weren’t exactly original, but at least they weren’t remakes of the previous generation’s slasher films. In the last few years, ‘70s and ‘80s horror has been strip-mined, yielding rehashes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and even My Bloody Valentine. It was only a matter of time before they got around to Wes Craven’s notorious Last House on the Left. Mind you, Craven’s film was itself an unofficial grindhouse remake of The Virgin Spring by none other than Ingmar Bergman. Last House was also remade unofficially a few years back as the ineptly grotesque Chaos. To be generous to the new, official remake, compared to Chaos it’s The Virgin Spring.

What it’s not is a crude shocker on the level of Craven’s film, which I guess can now sport the clichéd motto “often imitated, never duplicated.” Craven’s 1972 original retains considerable power, which is inextricably connected to its faults. There’s that goofball “comic relief” subplot with the two idiot cops, for instance. But that’s better than no comic relief at all, which is what we get in the new version. There’s no goofiness, no personality. The movie is grim yet studio-slick, with recognizable B-list actors like Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter as the parents of ill-fated Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton, swimming like a fish again after Aquamarine), who along with a friend gets abducted and tormented by a quartet of lowlifes led by escaped criminal Krug (Garrett Dillahunt).

The anguish out in the woods, as Krug and company take their wrath out on the two teenage girls, is blandly staged; the cartoonish sadism is gone, replaced by a workmanlike cruelty. No longer a loutish demon who pops a child’s balloon for a laugh, this movie’s Krug keeps his eyes on the bottom line — he isn’t a hippie freak run amok, like David Hess in Craven’s film. Yet the plot still keeps Krug’s bisexual moll Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and his remorseful son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), and the fourth, most vicious of the lot, Frank (Aaron Paul), is now Krug’s brother. But the hippies-vs.-square-generation subtext of the 1972 film is lost. It’s no longer a ripped-from-’70s-headlines exploitation of teenage and parental fears alike; it’s just an impersonal Saturday-night revenge flick, of the sort that Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) eviscerated and made irrelevant.

Indeed, when the killers (as implausibly as ever) wind up at the parents’ vacation home, this Last House turns into the anti-Funny Games, with supposedly cathartic counter-viciousness against the criminals that now, because of the loss of the earlier sadism, seems almost disproportionate. There’s a glimmer of class resentment, mostly on the part of Sadie, who snarls about rich kids “with silver spoons up their asses” and remarks to Mari’s mother, “How many homes do you have?” But if director Dennis Iliadis (yet another foreign horror director lured to Remake City, USA) and writers Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth intend this to be a have-nots-vs.-haves thriller to reflect the current economy, that isn’t followed through. There was no particular reason for this story to be told again, except for Rogue Pictures to throw its hat into the remake ring. My question is, What classic American horror films from today will Hollywood remake twenty or thirty years from now? There haven’t been many. Kids today don’t know what they’re missing, unless they hit up Netflix.

Sunshine Cleaning

March 13, 2009

Women have looked after the dead for centuries. In Ancient Greece, they were entrusted with everything from preparing the body to post-burial visitations. So it feels natural, in Sunshine Cleaning, for two sisters to perform purification rites on gory crime scenes. Something about this morose but moving indie film feels primal. Who knows better than women the linkage of blood and pain and life?

Rose (Amy Adams) starts out cleaning hotel rooms. Her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) can’t even hold a waitressing job. Rose hears from her cop lover (Steve Zahn), a high-school sweetheart who ended up marrying someone else, that there’s a lot of money in crime-scene clean-up. The sisters throw themselves into the job without much thought or preparation. Gradually, they learn about things like proper biohazard disposal (you don’t leave a bloody mattress in a dumpster).

Written and directed by women (Megan Holley and Christine Jeffs, respectively), Sunshine Cleaning is a strongly female film, attending to emotional connections that would elude male filmmakers. There’s also no callow man-bashing, even towards the philandering cop. The sisters’ dad (Alan Arkin), an old-school salesman, is viewed fondly; he had to raise them alone, after their mother killed herself. Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is having trouble at school, but this seems to be more a function of boredom and restless intelligence than of any disorder; when the principal starts talking meds, Rose starts thinking private school.

Rose is the optimist of the piece, starting each day with a Post-It in her mirror that sounds like Beck’s ironic mantra in “Loser” (“I’m a driver, I’m a winner/Things are gonna change, I can feel it”). Norah, though, is the one who seeks out the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a woman who committed suicide; a tentative friendship, bordering on flirtation, blooms out of this. Adams and Blunt are a smooth unit; these sisters know each other’s internal fractures as well as they know their own. Outwardly, Norah is the screw-up of the two, tattooed and snarly, but also sensitive and more deeply scarred; she was too young when her mother died, and doesn’t really remember her. All the sisters have is the hope of randomly catching their mom’s bit part in a TV movie.

More sobering than laugh-out-loud funny, Sunshine Cleaning gives full weight to the impact of death without rubbing our faces in the crime scenes. A suicide that kicks the movie off is viewed contemptuously and callously by the male cops, but we see that it’s just their way of coping with it day in and day out. The sisters clean up the vestiges of death, trying to restore some semblance of normalcy. Neither of these responses is really equal to the finality and emotional wreckage of death, but then what is? The movie respects those who struggle with hardship, right down to the friendly one-armed clerk at the biocleaner store (Clifton Collins Jr.). That hardship is life as much as death.

Watchmen

March 7, 2009

watchmen-final-posterFull disclosure: I’m a fan of Watchmen, the groundbreaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. I’ve read it dozens of times since it came out over two decades ago; I know it like I know my own face. That said, I tried to go into the new movie version as blank as possible — to bring neither high hopes nor cynicism, to give it a shot as its own beast. What I found was a strange and gorgeous beast indeed, not without problems, a mesmerizing epic folly of the sort hardly anyone attempts any more. It is absolutely sick with ambition, each frame jammed with detail and eye candy. I know that Alan Moore has disowned it — disowned the very idea of it — but I don’t have the heart to join him.

The spine of this epic is a murder mystery. We’re in an alternate 1985, where superheroes are real, or were until they were outlawed years ago. One of them, a retired black-ops spook named Edward Blake, or the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has been thrown out of his high-rise window. Who did it? Another masked avenger, the stubbornly unretired Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects a conspiracy to do away with costumed heroes. His thesis is met with skepticism by Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the former Nite Owl, now softly and nostalgically retired; Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), or Ozymandias, now an immensely prosperous corporate bigwig; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who used to be physicist Jon Osterman before a lab accident turned him into a glowing blue superman with godlike powers.

I didn’t expect much from director Zack Snyder, who made the passable but hollow Dawn of the Dead remake and the oafish 300 (to be fair, the oafishness was transcribed more or less intact from the Frank Miller graphic novel). But his work on Watchmen, while perhaps not “visionary” as the ads claim, has the feverish quality of obsession. Like Peter Jackson with King Kong, Snyder has undertaken this massive effort with a mix of geek gratitude and the privilege that comes with having made gobs of money on past films. Often, the result is refreshingly soothing; many scenes, driven by dialogue or exposition, have a confident echo-chamber quietude only found in big movies that aren’t afraid of losing your attention. (The young audience I sat with remained hushed throughout.)

Clearly no expense has been spared (except in the old-age-makeup department); this story ranges from Rorschach’s filthy street gutters to the splendor of Mars, where Dr. Manhattan transports former lover Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) to discuss why he may or may not be interested in saving the world from almost-certain nuclear holocaust. Each stop on this journey is lovingly rendered and detailed, with some full-fledged dramatic performances to match. Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is a right-wing mad dog deformed by childhood abuse, full of sadness as well as rage; Patrick Wilson gives us a Nite Owl made flabby by enforced rest but eager to get back into the game. And for the second time in a Zack Snyder film, Matt Frewer turns up in a small but indelible turn as a man with a bitter acceptance of his impending painful death. Others aren’t so fortunate; when one character says “I’m not a comic-book villain” — well, to paraphrase Rob Rodi’s Comics Journal review of the original Watchmen, all I could think was, he sure acts like one.

The mood here is paranoia and dread, spiked with the exultation and disgust of gory — sometimes extremely gory — battle. Watchmen is not your father’s superhero-team flick, unless your father was collecting the original series back in 1986. There’s always something going on; much of it made me wince (Rorschach’s brutality isn’t slowed down a bit when he’s briefly sent to prison), some of it made me cringe (of the actors who’ll get a career bump from this film, the inexpressive Malin Akerman will probably get left out), none of it made me bored. I called it a folly: it’s deeply problematic at times; Snyder’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. But at least he has reached, and has not disgraced himself or the book. (Which, by the way, remains intact on shelves everywhere, so the changes didn’t bother me.)

The only true tragedy would be if this film and The Dark Knight — like the original Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the ’80s, conceived as grand statements and summings-up on the subject of the superhero — led not to the medium moving on from caped crusaders but to a bunch of grim, gritty superhero ripoffs, which is what happened in comics.


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