Archive for September 2004

The Forgotten

September 24, 2004

“Paramnesia,” a psychiatric term bandied about in The Forgotten, is more or less the reverse of amnesia — you “remember” things that didn’t happen, suffering from the delusion that fantasies are real. I find myself wishing for a spot of paramnesia just now; I wish I could remember the last 91 minutes as a well-spent time at the movies. The Forgotten could then live on in my memory as either a plausible thriller grounded in reality, or a wildly implausible thriller that’s at least fun to watch. But who wants to see — or remember — a wildly implausible thriller that’s also grim and humorless?

Director Joseph Ruben used to have a lot more fun at work. The witty horror-fantasy Dreamscape (1985) was his entry into the mainstream, and The Stepfather (1987) was some kind of dark-comic classic. Then he appeared to decide he wanted to make blandly uninvolving thrillers about threats to the family. The dull abusive-husband hit Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and the rancid Bad Seed rewrite The Good Son (1994) displayed depressing evidence of a quirky filmmaker whose wit had deserted him, and now The Forgotten, Ruben’s first film in five years, begins with the grief of a mother (Julianne Moore) whose nine-year-old son died in an airplane crash. Where the movie goes from there is worthy of the wacky Ruben of Dreamscape, except it’s all taken deadly seriously.

Moore’s memories of her son are challenged one by one — an altered photo here, an empty scrapbook there. Everyone around her, including baffled husband Anthony Edwards and patient shrink Gary Sinise, remembers nothing about her son; they insist that he never existed and that Moore suffers from, yes, paramnesia. But she knows they’re wrong, you see; she knows. If, as Roger Ebert suggested, the movie had left it ambiguous whether Moore was insane, we might’ve had a worthwhile mind-blower here. But since Moore is the star, and this is a $42 million major-studio film, we can’t be allowed to doubt the heroine, or ourselves, for even a minute.

The plot clutters itself with standard paranoid clichés — the shadowy agents stalking Moore, the good cop (Alfre Woodard) who suspects that Moore is on to something (and who turns out to serve no purpose in the plot at all), and a blank-faced man (Linus Roache), named only “A Friendly Man” in the credits, who turns up every so often, looking most unfriendly. Moore finds another parent (Dominic West) whose daughter died in the plane crash; he has forgotten her, but has turned to the bottle to blot out … something. Eventually he believes Moore, and the two go on the run, sleeping together in motels without much sexual tension and improbably avoiding (and in one case, capturing) agents who presumably are trained for this sort of thing. West’s character is a former hockey player, but the script doesn’t even have the wit to show him body-checking one of the agents into a wall.

Is the mystery explained? Oh, yes. A Friendly Man pops up again, like the paper-clip guy in Microsoft Word, to tell you everything you need to know. Some characters are abruptly vacuumed high into the air, as if aborted from the screenplay once they’ve outlived their usefulness (actually, going to the movies would be more fun if more films did this — half the cast of Sky Captain could get sucked into the ozone within the first reel); other characters are simply, no pun intended, forgotten, like the kindly neighbor woman (Jessica Hecht) who tells Moore “We should hang out more!” but then vanishes from the film after one other scene. Maybe she just really, really didn’t want to hang out.

By the end, everything is set right, as in Ruben’s other nuclear-family thrillers. I was reminded of another horror film concerning a mother surrounded by people who said she was nuts but who were actually conspiring against her; that movie was Rosemary’s Baby, which ended on an altogether more chilling note of mother-child reunion. Of course, the difference is that Rosemary’s Baby is still regarded as a classic 25 years later, whereas The Forgotten will most certainly live up to its title.

Shaun of the Dead

September 24, 2004

The zombie film is ripe for comedy — how could it not be? All those shambling, moaning corpses, drooling vacantly as they pursue living flesh, then slurping intestines with a gourmand’s brio. The genre’s modern-day innovator George Romero understood its inherent farcical qualities perfectly well; in his seminal Night of the Living Dead, we find a guy on TV summing up the zombie epidemic with “Ah, they’re dead — they’re all messed up,” and in 1979’s Dawn of the Dead more than a few walking dead literally catch pies in the kisser. Even in a grim rip-off like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie there’s the well-loved underwater face-off between a zombie and a shark (guess who wins).

Edgar Wright (director and co-writer) and Simon Pegg (co-writer and star) understand just as well, and the film they have wrought, Shaun of the Dead (already a big hit in Britain), is not only a loving, teasing homage to the Romero Dead films. It’s also a superb zombie film in its own right, its humor always grounded in character reality and those characters’ plausible reactions to extraordinary circumstances. Wright and Pegg, like John Landis in An American Werewolf in London, first give us funny, recognizable human beings, and then let loose the wolves and flesh-eaters. Horror fans will devour it whole, but the squeamish or easily-spooked shouldn’t avoid it; it’s also a superb comedy in its own right.

The eponymous Shaun (Pegg) lives in a cluttered London flat with childhood buddy turned slacker roomie Ed (Nick Frost, hilarious even when his sometimes-thick accent baffles American ears). Shaun toils in an appliance store; at age 29 he’s settled for whatever life hands him, as long as he can go to his favorite pub at the end of the day and get sloshed with Ed. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is sick of waiting for him to grow up. For about the first reel, Shaun deals with the various mundane aggravations of his life, with odd things always happening in the backgrounds of shots. That Shaun and his self-absorbed friends — including aspiring actress Dianne (Lucy Davis) and her wimpola boyfriend David (Dylan Moran) — would ignore the growing evidence of the undead is perfectly credible. “Panic on the streets of London,” sings Morrissey on the telly in one scene. Well, not quite yet.

Soon enough the infection spreads, literally into Shaun and Ed’s back yard — a forlorn zombie woman they take for a drunk. Other zombies quickly join her, and the two slackers decide on the ideal place for holing up — not a shopping mall, but their favorite pub. Along for the ride are Liz, Dianne, David, and Shaun’s sweetly oblivious mum (Penelope Wilton, the best mom in horror movies since Mimi Rogers in Ginger Snaps). What follows hews closer to gut-wrench than to belly-laugh, though our heroes remain riotous in their consistency; when the power comes back on, and everyone is straining to keep quiet to hide from the zombies outside, Ed does something spectacularly stupid yet absolutely in character. The writing is so sharp that nothing anyone does rings false, even when a newly zombified character reaches out with a mottled claw to … turn off an offending stereo.

I picture George Romero howling with glee at Shaun of the Dead (the American ads carry his enthusiastic blurb), maybe because the movie so successfully continues his legacy. Romero’s films are uniquely American, and Shaun of the Dead is inconceivable anywhere but London, where survivors take stock of the situation over Guinness and crisps. But the movie is far from a Mel Brooks-style lampoon; it takes the rules seriously (even when ribbing them) and isn’t afraid to nudge the audience into true horror or even pathos when the story calls for either. In spirit, it’s far closer to Romero’s vision than last spring’s dull Dawn of the Dead remake. It knows when to play for laughs and when to play for keeps.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

September 17, 2004

There’s pulp and then there’s bad pulp, and the extravagantly dull Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is like an old comic book that deservedly turned gray with neglect in someone’s basement. The movie is obviously a labor of love, but what it loves isn’t the old adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s — it’s the idea of them. Sky Captain is a fussy abstract ode to an ancient mode of storytelling, in which our heroes went from one death-defying encounter to another. But it genuflects so heavily and self-consciously to other movies that it never becomes its own movie. If there’s any sensibility within the film other than a voracious geeky adoration of cliffhangers, I wasn’t able to locate it.

Giant robots lay waste to much of New York, under the bidding of a remote madman named Totenkopf. This diabolical villain is killing off the world’s top scientists. Why? To get rid of the competition, I guess. Anyway, ace fighter pilot Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) is called in to save the day. His scientific-tinkerer buddy Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) has just been kidnapped by the robots, and his former flame Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of those spunky reporters you meet only in ’30s movies, insinuates herself into the quest because she wants to get the Big Story. If she’d read the script, though, she’d realize there is none.

The backstory of Sky Captain is more compelling than anything on the screen. Writer/director Kerry Conran wanted to make this movie for years; he showed a six-minute demo reel to producer Jon Avnet, who set about securing a cast of actors willing to perform on huge soundstages and in front of green screens, to which computer-generated sets would later be added. But the passion it must’ve taken to get this project off the ground is nowhere evident in the film itself. I’d love to respond to Sky Captain as an idiosyncratic vision adoringly crafted by a guy who’s smitten with ’30s culture, but the finished product is very much a product — cold, bland, as soulless as anything else rolling off the Hollywood assembly line.

Kerry Conran might be able to concoct a pastiche in a computer, but he isn’t a director. The elaborate action set-pieces in Sky Captain have all the grace of a pile of pots and pans tumbling downstairs, and about as much visual interest. (Would it have killed Conran to sprinkle some color here and there? If you want to make a black-and-white movie, make one; don’t make some fashionably desaturated, ostentatiously dreary mish-mash.) The movie has about a hundred climaxes, which cancels out whatever force any one sequence might have. Things blow up all the time; gray airplanes roar ear-splittingly over gray buildings.

And Conran is most decidedly not a writer. It’s no compliment to say that he may be another George Lucas. But Lucas, in the original Star Wars, went to Tunisia and sweated in the sand, and had all those sets built (this was before he went back and tinkered with them on a Mac, of course). Star Wars has a clunky tactility that Sky Captain can’t get near. And the other Lucas pulp pastiche that Conran strains to duplicate, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was directed by Steven Spielberg, who knows how to pace and angle an action sequence for maximum adrenaline, and written by Lawrence Kasdan, who got some honest, resentful sparks going between Indiana Jones and his former flame, Marion Ravenwood.

Star Wars and Raiders, the two obvious comparison points, were equally head-over-heels in love with the old serials. But Lucas and Spielberg didn’t take those oldies all that seriously (it wasn’t until later that the dual weight of profits and fan worship compelled Lucas to treat Star Wars as a deathless reiteration of Joseph Campbell). Their pastiches were served with an affectionate wink. Sky Captain reads like an homage from a generation once removed — Conran digs that old stuff, but he only gets the surface, which is why the movie devotes itself more to its look than to anything that might engage an audience, like character or story.

Like many another geek dream, too, Sky Captain is resolutely sexless; how do you hire Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed fighter pilot (paging Dr. Freud!) and then maroon her with no one to seduce? Few directors have quite known what to do with Jolie, who may be too hot for most directors to handle, but Conran just uses her for her Tomb Raider accent and smug insouciance. It’s as if she’s being punished for her bad-girl attractiveness; the movie seems to have eyes only for Polly Perkins, who’s all about capturing a perfect image with the last two shots in her camera. That, at least, Conran can identify with: Screen out everything except visuals.

A Dirty Shame

September 17, 2004

John Waters had never made a movie about sex before A Dirty Shame, and in a way, he still hasn’t. Waters’ great theme isn’t shock but obsession — the single-minded pursuit of something, whether fame or murder or filmmaking itself. In A Dirty Shame, half the citizens of a sedate Baltimore neighborhood are driven to indulge their sexual ids after suffering accidental concussions. It’s as if the knock on the head wiped their personalities of any inhibitions, and suddenly even the foliage takes on suggestive shapes. Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a prudish wife and mother, takes a whack on the noggin and turns into a nympho desperately seeking cunnilingus. Soon she’s drawn into a local cult of sex addicts, led by the guru-like Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who seems to be kin to the character in Kinsey who’d tried everything at least once.

Some of this is rather like two David Cronenberg films smashed together — his feature debut Shivers, in which parasites rendered an elite community sexually insane, and 1996’s Crash, in which car-crash fetishists were guided by an outsider guru. Waters, of course, works his own side of the street. Like all his previous movies, A Dirty Shame is gloriously tacky, smitten with the aesthetics of bad taste (in his adoring hands, bad taste becomes good taste). We meet an impressive variety of fetishists — an adult baby, a trio of gay “bears,” a dirt fetishist, a wet-and-messy fetishist. (I did wonder why he didn’t get around to perhaps the most laughable of all fetishes — “furries,” who dress up like fuzzy animals and have sex.) All of these fixations, naturally, are real; Waters, who explored foot-stomping in Polyester and teabagging in Pecker, is no stranger to weird turn-ons. However wary he may be of some of these predilections, he presents them all nonjudgmentally; as long as consenting adults are involved and no one’s getting hurt, who is he to judge?

As usual, Waters doesn’t give us characters so much as collections of quirks. Sylvia’s daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), who strips under the name Ursula Udders, boasts the biggest set of breasts this side of Chesty Morgan. Sylvia’s forbidding mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) runs the convenience store she and her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) work at; Big Ethel is the type of censorious prude Waters has clashed with time and again in his forty years of filmmaking. Waters regular Mink Stole turns up as another prude, a self-identified “neuter,” and it’s the sort of role she seems to specialize in when acting in her longtime friend’s later films — she’s often made up to look like exactly the sort of pinched-faced woman who would’ve despised Mink Stole in Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble. The freewheeling odyssey among perverts recalls Flamingos, still Waters’ most notorious work, though it has things on its mind other than shock.

Truly, the film could be about obsessive stamp collectors or model-railroad buffs, and except for the homegrown legion of decency that seeks to stamp out the libertines, it wouldn’t be much different. Waters is not really all that interested in sex; we certainly hear much more about it than we actually see. Pornographic in rhetoric but not in content, A Dirty Shame is like a month’s worth of Howard Stern radio shows given a John Waters spin. The fetishists in the film seem to enjoy talking about their turn-ons much more than actually carrying them out. And even towards the end, when everything falls apart and the streets are full of frisky bears and adult babies, the people seem to get off mostly because they’re scandalizing the prudes. The characters are driven by tunnel vision, not by their libidoes. Once they’ve been concussed, nothing exists in their world except whatever floats their boat.

Waters has made a resolutely unsexy sex comedy, but he hasn’t left out the comedy. The soundtrack is loaded with crackling old sex songs, from “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts” to “The Pussy Cat Song” — novelty singles from a time when you couldn’t say “fuck” and double entendres had to do the heavy lifting. Ray-Ray’s great mission in the movie is to find the one sex act nobody has committed yet, and it’s typical of Waters that the act, when finally discovered, owes more to slapstick than to porno. Waters also has perhaps his best lead since Divine in Tracey Ullman, that impish chameleon who gets far too little film work. Sylvia goes in and out of sex addiction, flipping from prude to nympho and back again, and Ullman, in her sweetly sane way, keeps us grounded in Sylvia’s insanity.

It was inevitable for Ullman and Waters to get together, since Waters did a famous guest shot on The Simpsons, which began life as a short toon on The Tracey Ullman Show. The movie has gotten burdened with a ludicrous NC-17 rating, which limits its distribution in theaters and video stores, and critics have been savage to it. It would be a dirty shame indeed if this collaboration between two giggly, like-minded back-of-the-classroom pranksters missed out on the wider audience it deserves.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

September 10, 2004

Look: I am far from a cinema snob. I seem to recall saying nice things about Jason X, Anchorman, and other appeals to the base corners of our nature. And I know when to scale down expectations, such as when approaching a horror film based on a video game. The first Resident Evil film (2002), which I recently caught up with on DVD, was dumb as a box of hair but a serviceable Saturday-night beer-and-pizza flick. It certainly didn’t hold a candle to the zombie films of George Romero (who was once slated to direct it), but it moved well enough, and in Milla Jovovich it had a heroine not unpleasant to regard. Resident Evil made money, so now we have Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which doesn’t even hold a candle to Resident Evil. George Romero could direct a birthday-party home video scarier than this.

Not that I expected groundbreaking horror. You go to a Resident Evil flick for the action — specifically, Milla Jovovich vs. zombies. Problem number one: Milla doesn’t really get into the game until halfway into the proceedings. For the first half, we’re following a motley crew of survivors who’ve been locked into Raccoon City with hundreds of zombies — two super-special cops (Raz Adoti and the comely nonactress Sienna Guillory, who plays video game holdover Jill Valentine), a comic-relief black guy (Mike Epps), and a whiny TV reporter (Sandrine Holt). Presumably other humans are kicking around the quarantined city, too, but they must be hiding really well.

Just when things are looking bleak for our four default heroes inside a church — which has become a haven for three vicious mutants with tongues long enough to make Gene Simmons insecure — in rides Milla, on a motorcycle, through a stained-glass window. She dispatches one of the mutants, I think, by entangling it in the flying motorcycle and shooting at the gas tank. Which brings us to problem number two: You can never be quite sure what’s going on. In The Five Obstructions, filmmaker Lars von Trier challenges his mentor to remake a short film in a variety of ways, including one variation in which each shot is only half a second long. RE:A‘s director Alexander Witt (a former second-unit director) and his trigger-happy editors must’ve taken their inspiration from that challenge.

So the action — what we’re there for — is incomprehensible, and the story — what we’re not there for — even more so. At least the first Resident Evil took a minimalist video game structure, with its characters proceeding through identifiable levels. Here, the overdue plot motor kicks in when a brainiac (Jared Harris) offers Milla and the gang a way out of Raccoon City in exchange for rescuing his daughter. They’re on a timetable, too, because the city is due to be nuked by government/military/corporate powers (in this film there’s hardly a difference) at sunrise. So we enter the Escape from New York level of the game, complete with a towering nemesis, appropriately named Project Nemesis, who looks like a cross between Swamp Thing and Eddie, the crazed critter on all those Iron Maiden album covers.

Milla faces off against Swamp Eddie on orders from the bad guys, with the editors working overtime to convince you that a 115-pound former model can wipe the floor with a genetically-engineered hulk. (We’ve just seen her take out a dozen armed guards, but she apparently can’t take out the four or so guards forcing her to fight Swamp Eddie.) The zombie dogs from the first film return briefly, in a pathetic swipe from Jurassic Park‘s raptors-in-the-kitchen scene. The brainiac’s little girl may or may not be the human prototype for the taunting holographic girl in the first movie; the sequel never stops to tell us.

At least Resident Evil paired Milla with Michelle Rodriguez, who brought her sullen Latina brio to the party. This film brings in Jill Valentine, apparently quite a popular character among fans of the game, and though Sienna Guillory looks just like her, it would’ve been nice if the filmmakers had eschewed physical similarity in favor of an actress who can act (not to mention one who’s even faintly plausible as a tough cop). The movie also doesn’t care about the millions of lives lost in Raccoon City as long as our heroes get out unscathed and ensure yet another sequel. And, yes, the ending leaves things wide open for a Resident Evil: Post-Apocalypse, or whatever they wind up calling it.

Vanity Fair

September 1, 2004

How do you take a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” and make a movie with the tagline “A Heroine Will Rise”? Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair provides the answer: badly. William Makepeace Thackeray, generally described as a cheerfully acerbic social satirist, did not, I think, set out to inspire an uplifting rags-to-riches piece of eye candy; his Vanity Fair survives due to its power as social reportage and portraiture, and also, probably, his winking narrative voice. The novel ends thusly: “Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Well, how do you end a Reese Witherspoon movie on that note?

One character in the movie Vanity Fair is allowed Thackerayan qualities — the Marquess of Steyne, played by Gabriel Byrne with such glowering, mordant disdain for the hollow society he was born into that Byrne almost seems to be speaking for the author. And the Marquess does get to ask, perhaps rhetorically, “Which of us is happy in this world?” Nobody, really, except Becky Sharp (Witherspoon), whose up-and-down navigation of the social ladder is the movie’s chief focus. One needs a scorecard to keep track of Becky’s various conquests, not to mention the people who function as satellites around her sphere; the script scarcely bothers to fill in the blanks, and late in the game we receive one of those forlorn titles, “12 Years Later — In Germany.” Germany? Twelve years later? Huh? Shouldn’t Reese at least have a few extra wrinkles?

The Witherspoon of perhaps eight years ago — she who enthusiastically headlined such confrontational indies as Freeway and Election — could easily have handled a Vanity Fair true to Thackeray. But here we have the post-Legally Blonde Reese, who appears to have airbrushed any flint or perversity out of her official Hollywood head shot. Her Becky is charming enough, and easy on the eyes while draped in Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s elegant costumes. But the Becky of this movie is a good-hearted blank who pits herself against the snobs and wins, to the supposed delight of the audience, when the moral should be more like the computer’s dictum in WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.” (Yes, I enjoy being perhaps the only Vanity Fair reviewer to reference WarGames.)

The director Mira Nair has run hot and cold with me; I enjoyed her Mississippi Masala, hooted at her Kama Sutra, and missed her Monsoon Wedding and Hysterical Blindness (for HBO). Much has been made of the factoid that both Nair and Thackeray were born in India, and the film does wake up belatedly when some belly dancers (led by our Reese) take the stage — although no movie should be allowed to get to the hour-and-forty-five-minute mark and then have a character announce “The entertainment is about to begin,” which raises the question of where it’s been hiding for the last 105 minutes. Anyway, Vanity Fair has about as much to do with India as Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle does, and Nair just doesn’t have the temperament to tell a story in which her heroine’s ambitions are rendered hollow. She’s very much into the whole grrl-power Bend It Like Beckham thing, which is nice but not Thackeray, who was not nice.

Anyone nursing a sore butt from Vanity Fair would do well to go back to 1975 via DVD time-travel and look up Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, also from a Thackeray novel; Kubrick decidedly shared Thackeray’s acidic point of view. Regarded at the time as an overdesigned yawner, it holds up today as an elaborate joke — a three-hour epic with a completely useless non-hero at its center. Lest I sound sexist, I would nominate Lina Wertmuller — whose Seven Beauties remains, for me, the greatest film ever crafted by feminine hands — as a director whose vision would have coexisted peacefully with Thackeray’s. As it is, the Vanity Fair we have received is merely the Oscar bait of the moment, ending not with doubts about attaining desire but with an image of Reese Witherspoon astride a happy elephant. Yay! England sucks and India is cool! Well, except for that troublesome caste system, of course.2