Friday, January 26, 2007

The House Between: Meet Bill & Travis!

It's Friday again and that means another "clip" from my online series, The House Between gets posted on the blog today.

The clip I'm showing here is also from the premiere episode, "Arrived." This moment in the show occurs shortly after last week's segment. Our hero, Astrid (Kim Breeding) has already encountered Arlo (Jim Blanton), the strange young man in the kitchen, and by testing the doors and windows, discovered she is a captive in this mysterious old unusual means.

In this bit, Astrid has just gone upstairs after speaking with Arlo, hoping to meet the other folks trapped in the house. She does so. First off, there's Bill T. Clark a "one step at a time" kind of guy played by Tony Mercer. He's a methodical scientist, one who, by his careful observations, deepens the mystery for Astrid.

Then, as the clip continues, you'll be introduced to one troublesome Travis Crabtree, played by Lee Hansen. Like Arlo downstairs, Travis is a "loki" character in the series; one who is always making mischief and trouble for the other denizens of "the house between."

But you'll see that for yourself...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Dark Water (2005)

This is yet another Americanized remake of a Japanese horror film; in the spirit of The Ring, The Grudge and Pulse (which I reviewed on the blog last week). Like those remakes, Dark Water is also rated PG-13; which - if you'll forgive the expression, means "watered" down horror.

Yet Dark Water, which stars Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia Williams, is, perhaps a notch or two better than the average genre remake (it's certainly better than the worst of this lot, which for my money is the unnecessary sequel, Ring 2). Tallying it all up, I enjoyed Dark Water more than the flawed Pulse, for instance, if not as much as The Ring. It's not jump-out-of-your-seat scary in the sense you may expect, however. The film's power is not necessarily in the "jolts" or "shocks" but rather in the oblique little touches, and the world of perpetual rainfall and urban isolation it confidently and adroitly forges. The characters are all compelling too, and in general, they speak with distinction and verisimilitude. You don't find those qualities in horror films every day, so they're worth mentioning.

The film's greatest asset? Dark Water boasts a lugubrious mood, what a friend of mine ters "an atmosphere of dread." In other words, the whole enterprise feels ominous and unsettling and vaguely surreal. I guess if you're not that into nuances however, I could see how someone might rate it as "boring" rather than "moody." The film requires you bring a degree of patience along with your popcorn and soda.

Like The Ring - again - Dark Water is the story of a single Mom (Connelly) and her "haunted' child, in this case a little girl named Cecilia or Ceci, for short. The haunting comes about under the auspices of another "wronged" child (like The Grudge and The Ring...), also a little girl with long black hair. In this case it is a little specter named Natasha, who happens to haunt a shitty apartment building in New York. The first time you see a water tower on the roof of the film's central location, that squalid apartment building on Roosevelt Island, you'll be able to guess every detail of the story. At least I did. That's clearly to the film's detriment.

The film suffers from several narrative implausibilities too. The first is that Jennifer Connelly plays a recent divorcee. Her husband cheated on her, and frankly I have a hard time believing any guy in the universe would cheat on Jennifer Connelly. Go ahead, inform me, please, what out-of-this-world mistress would possibly be preferable to Jennifer Connelly? The second implausibility is that a conscientious mother, like Dahlia, would continuously permit her precious, psychologically fragile daughter Ceci sleep under a nasty ceiling leak every night. One that oozes black water and threatens to explode all the time. Jeez, just move the bed, would you?

But whatever. Those are actually somewhat minor complaints. What the film accomplishes, it accomplishes very well, and that's a good thing. The best aspect of the film involves the sequence which establishes the geography of the yucky apartment building, a would-be utopia built in 1976 and which now is Exhibit A of contemporary urban blight. The color palette of the film is a sort of puke gray-green, and every corner of this building looks authentically sleazy. The elevator is a nightmare (and there's a scary scene as odd denizens hurtle briefly into view while it moves from floor to floor...), and don't get me started on the laundry room in the basement. Jeez.

But instead of merely recording for us the details of the nasty apartment, I truly enjoyed how the film takes the time and energy to establish the upbeat but utterly immoral character of the apartment landlord/manager, played by the incomparable John C. Reilly. He gives Dahlia and Ceci their first peek at the apartment, and it's a great scene because of his performance. He euphemistically terms a fold-down kitchen table a "country kitchen!" and raves about the "dual use" space; meaning that the bedroom and the living room are actually one in the same. And then he patronizingly talks to Ceci in a kind of sing-songy voice that's really grating. Yet his tour of the apartment is practically mesmerizing. In turns it's creepy, amusing, and infuriating. Recommendation to filmmakers: if you have an exposition-heavy sequence, get John C. Reilly to vet it.

The film's second strength is Connelly herself, playing a tragic golden-heart; a lost soul who was abandoned by her mother at a young age (which we see in an unnecessary flashback...); an event she shares in common with Natasha, the apartment ghost and Ceci's new not-so-invisible friend. Accordingly, much of this film involves an understanding of what it means to be a good parent. What things to give up, what things to fight for. What things to sacrifice. Dahlia's character arc is touching - heartbreaking even - and Connelly is quite good in a meaty, affecting part.

And did I mention Tim Roth in the quirky role of an eccentric lawyer who works out of his car instead of an office? He also elevates the familiar material to a higher-than-expected plateau. I imagine good actors like John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, and Pete Postelthwaite (playing a gruff handyman...) were attracted to the script because of these unique, well-drawn characters, all of whom possess individual voices. They aren't cookie-cutter roles like you might expect.

So Dark Water is well-cast and never less-than-gorgeously shot. My biggest reservation about the film is just that the premise is entirely and tiresomely predictable. We've been down this rainy alley before, many times in fact, and no matter how desperate Dahlia is, I just don't buy that she would remain in an apartment with a giant leak in the ceiling. I admire the performances in the film; I respect that it isn't exploitative. I like the "dark mood" and note with appreciation how the leitmotif of water recurs. I just wouldn't recommend you watch Dark Water unless you're wide awake, because - depending on point of view - it's either hypnotic or sleep inducing.

I'm feeling generous today. I'll say it's hypnotic. Ask me again tomorrow, however, and my answer might be that the film is a little drawn out. Like (Japanese...) water torture.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starship Troopers (1997)

How should I put this? There are people who "get" Paul Verhoeven's "space warfare" epic from the nineties, Starship Troopers. And then people who...don't. In the camp of those who don't are those folks who often complain about the callow cast, the tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, and the sometimes hard-to-swallow tactics adopted by the futuristic infantry in the war against the vicious Arachnids, the "bugs."

Those who do get Starship Troopers tend to see it for what it actually is: a stunningly prescient warning against blossoming totalitarianism on a future Earth run by neo-fascists; one that lays raw the fallacy behind the concept of blind nationalism (or blind patriotism...). Starship Troopers also exposes the primary tools of a totalitarian state hoping to control the minds of its cowed populace: a state of never-ending war (and thus fear...), and propaganda films.

This pointed subtext, laced with satirical humor, is the same brand that director Paul Verhoeven brought to another science fiction masterpiece, RoboCop (1987), only in that instance, he was working to a different end: revealing what could happen in a future America where corporations have run wild and the government has willingly bent over for them.

No doubt there are better and more tense "serious" space warfare movies than Starship Troopers (Aliens [1986] for instance), just as there are better superhero movies than RoboCop, yet I don't know that there's ever been a more layered or pointed film in this genre. Some critics mistake Starship Troopers for a stupid, special effects adventure, when in fact, it lampoons stupid, special effects adventures.

Let's re-count some of the plot details here. In a not-too-distant future where "[military] service guarantees citizenship," a totalitarian government rules what seems a prosperous, globally-connected Earth. In propaganda films such as the aptly titled "Why We Fight," the government informs the people who their enemies are, in this instance giant arachnid "bugs" from the distant planet Klendathu. The planet is termed "a bug planet," an "ugly planet," (not unlike the Middle East, perhaps?) And the bugs are successfully demonized in every school system and class room, even Biology (where dissections of this enemy occur regularly...). Young students are informed that the bugs have "no intelligence" and that they are evil. This is convenient, isn't it? I mean, you can't engage in "negotiations" or diplomacy with a giant bug, right? You just bomb 'em out of existence...

So when the bugs seemingly launch a pre-emptive strike on Earth, hurtling an asteroid into Buenos Aires, the propaganda machine carried by the government-owned and sanctioned media, called the Federal Network, goes into over drive. The same populace that believed bugs are "stupid" are now also asked to believe that these dumb bugs launched a pre-emptive, and successful, surgical attack against Earth. This notion captures perfectly the irrationality of fear-mongering as government policy. The bugs are either stupid or clever...but they can't be both simultaneously. Tellingly, the government actually prefers having it both ways. Anything to demonize the enemy and keep a state of war going forever, right? How do the bugs hurtle a meteor at Earth since they possess no technology, no spaceships, no instrumentation? Why do the bugs launch a first strike against humanity? The movie version of Starship Troopers is canny in the way it doesn't explain either notion. Neither does government propaganda. The populace is only informed "what it needs to know" to thirst for the blood of the enemy. They killed our people, and now our vengeance shall be righteous. And bloody.

The important thing here is that a sneak attack, real or conspiratorial, is the pre-text that the government in Starship Troopers utilizes to launch an invasion of Bug territory at Klendathu. The AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone, kind of like Iraq's former no-fly zone...) is violated by the human race. Notice again that this isn't a defensive war launched by Earth; rather an offensive spearhead deep into Arachnid territory. The battle doesn't even occur in neutral territory. Nope, it's in bug territory. I suppose the troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?

Okay, okay, I know some reader is out there saying, "Muir, you lily-livered leftist pacifist surrender monkey, shouldn't we fight the evil bugs?" The answer is, of course we should. My point is simply that a "surprise" attack (alleged or real...) is just the pretext a fascist government needs to keep the war machine oiled and continuing...eternally. I'm not saying Earth should bow before the bugs anymore than I'd say America should bow before terrorists. What I'm saying is that in both cases, the "war" against a real enemy fits into the pre-existing agenda of a dedicated political ideology. (Ever heard of the Project For The New American Century)? See the distinction?

All right, back to the movie. We can tell from Starship Troopers that Earth has become a fascist state not just by a vast propagandistic Federal Network that controls all the news broadcasts, but from the propaganda films produced by the government. In describing a "WORLD THAT WORKS," a govt. propaganda film shows kindly soldiers handing out guns and bullets - like they're candy - to smiling civilian children in a suburban neighborhood. The military is seen here as a kind of helpful big brother; the first recourse when there's a crisis. Again, forget diplomacy please. If there's trouble, send in the soldiers first. I'm reminded, for some reason, of that chilling picture from Easter 2000, when armed, bullet-proof-vested soldiers broke into a Miami house to seize that child, Elian Gonzalez. Kind of scary, isn't it? The thought that men in goggles and machine guns can burst into your home and take children on government orders. Here, the goal in these films is to make such men seem "friendly." Like protectors, not oppressors.

Another propaganda film is called "CRIME AND PUNISHMENT" and it informs us that a convicted criminal is arrested, tried and executed in one day. Swift justice? Or too-swift justice? In a fascist society, all dissenters are called "criminals" and dispatched with quickly. Lest the government be threatened by fact.

Other propaganda films in the movie are called "Know Your Foe," (which shows the torture of a Brain Bug...), "Do Your Part" (which dramatizes in brilliant and funny imagery how kids are programmed at an early age to despise all insect life...) and "Countdown to Victory," which assures the scared masses at home that no matter how many soldiers die in the field of battle (308,000 die at the Klendathu encounter alone...), their country is winning. VICTORIOUS! Facts - and reality - be damned. Just stay (the bloody...) course.

So, what Verhoeven has done here, in very dynamic and memorable terms, is make the protagonists of his unique film - the starship troopers - part and parcel of a really despicable, controlling, fascist society. They are cogs in a fascist machine, and these Federal Network "commericals" dotting the film make us aware of that fact. Again and again.

But that's not the only clue. The other obvious "tell" in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven is making a statement about the perils of blind nationalism comes from the wardrobe, the costumes. Just look at the uniform Doogie Howser wears as he enters the battleship near the end of the film. The black leather. The hat. The trench coat. Look at all familiar? Whom does he resemble, this representative of Earth's "military intelligence" division? There's no doubt: he looks precisely like a Nazi, and that's the overwhelming metaphor here. Of course, Nazis were fascists, but also masters of propaganda, so it's a strong allusion.

As for the cast? Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Casper Van Dien and the like have been disparaged many times and in many places as callow and insipid clothes-horses and WB-clones. Indeed. I think this is exactly right. In fact, I think that's why they were cast in the first place. Not a one of these protagonists seems very smart. Not a one of them has any depth. Let alone perspective or insight. Yet these are exactly the kind of people a fascist society would want to see populate its citizenry. Callow folks who don't question orders or the "way things are." Who gladly take orders and are easily riled to violence. So even down to casting, I believe Verhoeven has pulled a fast one on his audience. What happens, one might ask, after a century of a Lindsay Lohan/Britney Spears culture? I submit you end up with physically beautiful nincompoops. Village idiots all...just like the characters in this film. They're tan, gorgeous, physically fit, and without a single important thought in their daft heads. At least, from the government's standpoint, they're easy to control.

As for the attack tactics dramatize in the film, well, it's true, the Earth mobile infantry seems pretty lame and ineffective. The men and women of these forces stand around and form circles - with over sized machine guns - and blast away (wasting ammo...) at the indestructible bugs. It's not subtle, but this is surely another way of indicating that to the fascist overlords, the common man - the grunt - means absolutely nothing. "Support the troops!," yeah right! By the end of the film, the government is recruiting 12 year old kids!!!! But just study in the film how the military tactics are totally ineffective, and how the battle plans are utter failures. These kids - in their fiery patriotism - are nothing more than cannon fodder. No one mourns them or their sacrifice. They're tools in carrying out an agenda, and that's it. Useful props.

Watching Starship Troopers this week, on its tenth anniversary nearly, it's almost eerie to consider how America has taken a quasi-fascist turn since 9/11. Almost everything that's happened to America, Starship Troopers accurately predicted. The sneak attack of 9/11 is like the sneak attack on Buenos Aires, and also serves as the endlessly recited impetus to launch an invasion of "enemy" territory, Iraq. I also saw in this film, embedded journalists (like Geraldo Rivera on Fox News!) cheering for the military and government on the battlefield, journalistic objectivity be damned. Why, there was even a reference to another bugaboo of our day: one character comments that there should be a "law" against recruiting "soldiers" on school campuses. Well - ahem - this battle is raging in courts all across our country today, as the Iraq effort requires more and more fodder, especially now for this "surge" designed to curb sectarian violence.

And propaganda from the government? Well, remember how the Bush Administration released a medicare commercial designed to look like a news broadcast ("This is Karen Ryan reporting...")? You don't need a paranoid bent to "read" Starship Troopers like this today. You just have to be living in the reality-based world.

Almost a decade ago, the science fiction cinema gave us a warning about the slippery slope to totalitarianism. It was in the form of a silly, special-effects laden, gory outer space movie, and I guess it was all too easy to ignore.

Not so today.

Monday, January 22, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Stealth (2005)

Firefox (1982), a Clint Eastwood movie about a high-tech jet that Clint must steal from Russia (during the Cold War) is one of my favorite movies from the 1980s. I love the aerial dog fights and I love the high-octane suspense (especially in the scene wherein Clint realizes he must "think" in Russian to control the difficult-to-maneuver plane).

So, with nostalgia looming large in my heart, I put Stealth, a 2005 action film about another high-tech jet plane, into my Netflix queue, and waited with bated breath for it to arrive. Kathryn rolled her eyes when she saw I had rented it. She knew what we were in for.

But hey, I didn't need the movie to be a classic. I didn't need it to be great, even. I just wanted a tense adventure, and some big-time aerial destruction, convincingly rendered. I still remember seeing the trailer for the film, which - if I remember it right - seemed to indicate that a plane equipped with artificial intelligence was barreling down on one of our major cities here in the U.S. and that it was up to three hot dog pilots to stop it before it could drop off a nuclear payload.

That sounds like a cool story, doesn't it? I think so...

Nothing like that happens in Stealth. Bummer. Big time bummer.

Stealth is set "the near future" when the Navy is testing a "new program" and "experimental technology," the film's opening card reveals. This new program as it turns out, is something called E.D.I. (Extreme Deep Invader), an attack plane that is, well, smart. Smarter than the screenwriter, anyway. E.D.I. boasts artificial intelligence and so can react faster than any human pilot in a crisis, even those three hot dogs I mentioned above, here played by Jamie Foxx, smoking-hot Jessica Biel (she can ride my tail anytime...), and Josh Lucas.

These pilots, who fly cool looking "talon" fighters (hey, He-Man also flew talon fighters!!!), are suspicious of their new computerized wing-man, and sure enough, they have just cause. Before long things go wrong. HORRIBLY WRONG. E.D.I. learns all the wrong lessons from the pilots, particularly the headstrong Lucas, and goes rogue on a mission in Tajikistan to take out a warlord with WMD. In the process, he chalks up some big time collateral damage. Oopsy.

All this set-up got my blood pumping, particularly the scene set in Thailand with Jessica Biel in a blue bikini. Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Stealth. So anyway, the first half of the movie smells of three-day-old Michael Bay, but still, it's good in that cheesy Hollywood way. You just know E.D.I. is gonna go nuts and there's gonna be trouble in the air. Admittedly, the movie provides some incredible and impressive special effects. For instance, there's an amazing shot, a zoom from Earth orbit right down the surface with the planet, to a castle rampart where an evil terrorist is standing. If this isn't what CGI was designed for, I don't know what is.

Then there's the absolutely harrowing and nutty scene in which Biel must eject from her damaged talon fighter, and - under a disintegrating parachute - is always just inches away from flaming metal debris. Yikes.

This is all to the good. No doubt. But then things take a turn. A wrong turn. Let me give you the set-up. Biel is downed in North Korea, on her own. And Jamie Foxx has been killed in a great, moving scene involving aerial combat with E.D.I. Now, it's up to the last airborne pilot, Lucas, to bring in E.D.I. (which isn't barreling towards an American city with a nuclear payload at all...that's just a trailer gimmick).

So what happens? Well, in the last act, the evil plane, E.D.I. develops a "human" conscience and joins forces with Josh Lucas's character to rescue Jessica Biel and take down the evil General played by Sam Shepard.

What the hell?

I don't know that I've ever seen a more lame third act than this movie's. Why make this movie if - in the end - you're not going to pit human instinct and cunning against machine prowess for one glorious fight in the air? Why set up Lucas as the ultimate pilot bad ass, and put him in conflict with the newest evil technology...and then cop out on the final battle? Why make E.D.I. a "tragic" good guy?

In the movie's last scene, E.D.I. even obligingly commits suicide. Allowing a North Korean helicopter to blow him up. I have to admit, this scene made me laugh, because the hackneyed, menacing "North Korean"-sounding music on the soundtrack reminded me of Team America: World Police. I kept expecting a Kim-Jong IL puppet to show up.

By the end of the movie, I was righteously pissed. All Stealth had to do to merit a good review from this writer was deliver a climax that built on the action-adventure achievements of the first half of the film. It would have been a rip-roaring (albeit lame-brained...) actioner. It would have been a guilty pleasure that made me smirk and smile. Don't we all have movies we enjoy that are just this dumb?

But no. We can't have that. Instead, we get this lame-ass ending.

And don't even get me started on the scene that rips off H.A.L. in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember in the Kubrick classic how, when the astronauts conspired in the pod, HAL could actually read their lips? Stealth has the audacity to steal that scene here. I'm sure the writer would call it an homage...but let's call a spade a spade. It's a frigging rip-off.

My main question after watching Stealth: If some screenwriter somewhere was smart enough to crib a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, why wasn't he also smart enough to crib the aerial climax of Firefox? Or, for goodness sake, even Top Gun? Or Iron Eagle?

My last question: What the hell is Jamie Foxx doing in this shit? Isn't this the first movie he made after Ray?