Saturday, July 12, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 10,000 BC

"Some truths do not survive the ages," admonishes the gravel-voiced narrator (Omar Sharif) of 10,000 BC, the first film of 2008 to cross the two-hundred million dollar mark. "Only time can teach us what is true and what is legend," the same narrator also pointedly suggests.

You think he's trying to tell us something?

These words are, essentially, director Roland Emmerich's attempt to inoculate himself and his production from carping film critics who complain that his prehistoric film - a heroic love poem - is historically inaccurate. Good luck with that one, Roland. Let me know how that works out for you...

Even with the opening disclaimer, it is extraordinarily difficult to deny that this film is amazingly, recklessly, wantonly, brazenly inaccurate. Sorry.

For instance, the film's events (a journey across several continents, it seems...) takes place in 10,000 BC, yet the main protagonist, D'Lea (Steven Strait) ends up battling Egyptian slavers on the plains of Giza (by the Nile), against the backdrop of the Sphinx of Giza, and the Great Pyramids (under construction....)

Now Roland, my friend, the Pyramids were likely constructed sometime between 2589 and 2566 BC. And the Sphinx? Perhaps around 1400 BC. Is D'Lea secretly using a Stone Age D'Lorean to time travel?

D'Lea's village is also attacked by Egyptian warlords on horseback, but the domestication of horses for man's use likely did not occur until somewhere around 5000 BC, right? And the use of sailing ships (deployed by Egyptians here too) likely occurred somewhere around 4000 BC. Jeez.

Still, give the film some plaudits. In depicting the opening of the Mesolithic Age, 10,000 BC does capture some of the events we understand to have occurred at that time: the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth, for example, and the alleged extinction of the still-controversial "brother of man, homo floresiensis (here depicted as a possibly psychic Old Mother). 10,000 BC also dramatizes the glacier melts of approximately 9600 BC, when many lands in Europe became more habitable. 10,000 BC? 9600 BC? What's a few hundred years between friends?

And, I must point out in defense of 10,000 BC, that the goofy stupidity of the film itself is matched, in large part, by the arrogance of swaggering mainstream film critics, who chose not to complain about these (myriad...) historical accuracies but instead laughed and savaged the film because the cavemen like D'Lea and his kin spoke modern English. (Tee hee. Tee fucking hee). I mean, that's a fair criticism?

Let's examine that. What language did the Ancient Romans of Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) speak? (Hint: Perfect English). What did the Ancient Spartans of 300 speak? (Hint, same thing). What do the extra-terrestrial Romulans of Star Trek speak? (Ditto!). What do Nazis speak in most war movies? Russians? What do historical Americans speak in most period pieces? In Westerns and so forth? Yep, modern English. If mainstream critics feel that cave men speaking English in a movie designed for English-speaking audiences is a disqualifier in terms of quality, then legitimate criticism has devolved to the Mesolithic era along with Emmerich's storytelling abilities.

There are plenty of reasons to deride 10,000 BC -- and boy do I mean plenty -- but the fact that stars Steven Strait and Camilla Belle speak our language is surely not one of them. My primary problem with the film is that it is unremittingly dull, emotionally flat, and over-long. The whole thing just feels empty to me, perhaps because the primary characters seem to possess no inner life or individual spirit. We watch them suffer; we watch them perform heroic acts, we watch them speak of "love," yet somehow we don't truly feel their pain or enjoy their triumphs. There's something emotionally-remote about 10,000 BC; something that prevents the viewer from taking firm interest even in the love story.

I've tried to pinpoint my problems with the film in terms of specifics, and here's what I've come up with: As a thinking viewer, I had a difficult time suspending disbelief when the cave-men encountered the Pyramids, and found the slaves lorded over by someone who was -- apparently -- a fugitive from technologically-advanced Atlantis. It sort of reminds of me of funny old time travel TV shows where the writers felt they had to shoehorn every major historical event of the 1930s into an episode set in 1933. You know what I mean? If you miraculously ended up in 1933, what are the chances you would meet a young Hitler, bump into Clark Gable, and dodge a stockbroker falling out of his window during the stock market crash? If you were lucky (very lucky...), you might encounter one of the three. 10,000 BC simply tries too hard to shoe-horn in thousands of years of human history when it isn't necessary (witness the brilliant Quest for Fire [1982] ).

The scope of the story should have been scaled back. Why not just tell the story of D'Lea's people; of the end of "nomadism" and the beginning of agriculturalism? Why not tell the story of survival when the environment changed so rapidly, and the glaciers melted (sort of a Day Before Yesterday)?

You know, before 10,000 BC was over, I was certain D'Lea would unearth a stargate in the sand and meet James Spader and that kid from The Crying Game...

But all that's just really my own intellectual masturbation. (Ewww). I mean, Gladiator is completely inaccurate in terms of the fate of historical figures and governments (Rome became a Republic again after Commodus was killed in the gladiator ring by a slave?! -- oh, I didn't realize...), and yet I find the Scott film an emotionally-involving effort, rich with human interest. So clearly, we can overlook questions of historical accuracy when we want to, can't we? So the matter must simply be that the characters here aren't interesting or dynamic enough to hold the screen in 10,000 BC.

Also, I found the special effects distracting. The early portions of the film make extensive (and I mean EXTENSIVE) use of green screen in moments that wouldn't seem to require such visual gymnastics. The production company shot the film in Namibia, New Zealand and Thailand, so what's the deal with all the overt studio fakery? I wonder if some footage was damaged or something. Whatever the cause, some of the green screen shots in the film's quieter moments (dialogue scenes for instance), I found jarring, risible and easily detectable.

The CGI in 10,000 BC is highly variable too. The first appearance of a Woolly Mammoth herd is ultra-impressive, but the stampede is terrible. The saber-tooth tiger (of the poster) is terribly fake in detail and movement. Again, I hasten to add that bad special effects aren't an automatic disqualifier for me in terms of liking/not liking a film, so the fault is elsewhere. These things wouldn't seem so important if we *felt* the story along with the characters.

Watching the film, I felt for much of the running time that 10,000 BC was a pale (very pale...) imitation of Conan the Barbarian (1982), only with no Conan in the picture. Just imagine how dull that would be...and you might get a sense of why this movie fails. It attempts to tell us a "legend" of a "great hero" but D'Lea is just... D'ull.

And also, the rules of this world are not carefully established by the screenwriters or by Emmerich. Is the Atlantean a god from another planet? Is the Old Mother legitimately psychic? Is there magic in the world (suggested by Evolet's miraculous third-act resurrection and the fulfillment of a long-held prophecy), or not? The film never settles on an approach or single vision. Is this prehistoric adventure or magical prehistoric fantasy?


Also, the film's other major deficit is the total lack of self-awareness and humor. Humor is an essential quality in the human equation. It existed in caveman times, just as it exists now. Humor is a coping mechanism; it is a catharsis. Yet in addition to being very flat, 10,000 BC is very, very dour and serious. A moment or two of humor might have made D'Lea's long journey a bit more bearable.

10,000 BC received reviews much more cruel and savage than it deserved. By no means is this a good film, and by no means do I recommend you see it, but jeez -- it received worse reviews than The Love Guru did!!! I found the film dull, lugubrious and inaccurate, but is it the worst thing I've ever seen? Not by a long shot. It's not even the worst thing I've seen this year. The film isn't good or exciting, but nor is it offensive, so I don't really comprehend the derisive hostility towards it. Hollywood has a long history, after all, of making historically inaccurate, silly caveman movies. A lot of people I know cherish those films. A lot of people I know would rush to the theater just to see a silly caveman movie...

I will say this, ultimately, for 10,000 BC: your enjoyment of it may vary entirely on your actual (or mental) age. If this film came out in 1979, aired on the 4:30 PM movie, and I was ten years old...I would have absolutely loved it. There's a great chase scene with giant ostriches (or "Terror Birds"), pitting man against prehistoric monster, and were I an unjaded kid, I would have really, really dug it.

But by the same token, once the mammoth stampede ended; once the saber-tooth tiger was tamed, once the terror birds turned the fleeing cave-men into lunch, I think -- even as a child -- I would have found the rest of the film really, really boring.

Where's Raquel Welch and her fur bikini when you need her?

Friday, July 11, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Ruins (2008)

The choking, encroaching terror of the low budget The Ruins (2008) is all about two relevant War on Terror Age issues: American narcissism and American xenophobia. Which, I suppose, are actually two heads of the same fire-breathing dragon.

Based on the gripping 2006 novel by Scott Smith (which was given to me by a film teacher here in Charlotte), The Ruins concerns four robust American tourists in their early twenties who unwisely stray from the beaten path on a vacation to Mexico and end up as tasty fodder for malevolent, possibly sentient carnivorous vines in an out-of-the-way Mayan temple.

They can't escape this "wrong turn" locale because heavily-armed locals with itchy trigger fingers have staked out a camp below the ruins, salted the earth around the temple, and "quarantined" the strangers so the infected folks cannot carry the unstoppable weeds out of the jungle (where the murderous plants would, likely, take over the world in no time...).

The narcissism comes into play when the vapid American youngsters (played well by Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashemore and Laura Ramsey) choose to stay atop the questionable sanctuary of the temple rather than engage the locals based purely on their iron-clad belief that "Four Americans on vacation don't just disappear." Haven't they seen Hostel?

But seriously, they expect technology (like cell phones...) to save them. They expect rescuers either from the local hotel or airline to come for them in a scant day's time when the obvious though unpleasant answer to their dilemma (and one vindicated in the film's remarkable climax) is that one of the Americans must make a sacrifice for the common good; for the others to survive. Despite Hurricane Katrina and the bungled rescue efforts there, this truth seems like a truly foreign concept to the indulged, entitled twenty-something characters of The Ruins, save for Tucker's doctor-in-training, Jeff. Early on, for instance, when Amy (Malone) is asked to help the injured guide, a German hunk named Mathias (Joe Anderson), she blanches, showing little empathy for the injured man. She finally helps, but only grudgingly. Twelve hours earlier, she was practically begging the same man (Mathias) to bone her.


The xenophobia suffuses the film in terms of both narrative and location. This is one of those "Americans Abroad" horror films (like Beyond Evil [1980] or The House Where Evil Dwells [1982]), in which arrogant Westerners blunder into a frightening situation with no understanding of local customs or even the local language.

True to this genre convention, "the foreigners" in The Ruins are depicted as physically ugly (particularly the brutal leader) and of the "shoot first, ask questions later" variety. They can't be negotiated with, and the leader even kills one of his own (a child...) when there is the slightest danger of infection. The overt brutality, the lack of intelligent dialogue and the apparent lack of morality (the murder of children...) initially makes these characters seem more frightening and primitive than the entitled tech-savvy Americans. One of the facets I appreciate most about the film, however, is that -- though undeniably brutal -- these locals actually serve a higher moral purpose; one beyond the sight of the callow tourists. They are saving their country (and likely our country...) from the monstrous, spreading vines, but the "selfish" tourists, unable to see past their own miserable predicament, don't see or understand the danger they could pose by carrying back the plants to other communities. And thus, we've come full circle: from narcissism to xenophobia and back to narcissism.

Shot for eight million dollars, which today constitutes an extremely low budget, The Ruins is a film that - like the monster weeds themselves - grows on you inch-by-inch. The first ten minutes are legitimately god awful as we're introduced in clunky, over-familiar fashion to four interchangeable American youngsters on holiday. They hang out at the pool, hang out on the beach, get drunk, fuck around, and for about ten minutes you might be forgiven for thinking you're in a a Friday the 13th movie, One where you actually want the teens to die because they're so bloody unlikeable. I had heard good things about the film, director Carter Smith's first, and was desperately explaining that to my unimpressed wife, Kathryn, as the film meandered superficially through a boring first act.

And yet, the longer the film went on, the better it got, and again, I began to sense the method behind the madness. The four American tourists (particularly Jeff, I'd say) go through a fascinating (if dreadful) "awakening" in the film as they come to terms with where they are and what fate they are facing. That arc of discovery would be mitigated, especially Jeff's heroic valediction, had the film not charted the relative superficiality of the characters to begin with. I can see that on retrospect; it certainly isn't clear on initial viewing. I would think there would be a more artful way to establish this, but perhaps not.

However, once the film settles down at the Mayan pyramid, The Ruins begins to work its invidious, malicious magic on you. The film rarely leaves a single, suffocating location -- the top of the pyramid -- save for two or three absolutely harrowing sojourns into a very dark, vine encrusted chamber deep below the apex. There, the female characters haplessly go in search of what they believe is a ringing cell phone. What they actually find is nothing short of nightmarish. You'll jump out of your skin, in particular, during one scene involving a vibrating flower and Amy's approach to it.

An aura of claustrophobia and entrapment, one almost as powerful as that featured in The Descent (2006) develops quickly following that spine-tingling moment, and before long you realize the characters are effectively surrounded and that their situation is entirely hopeless...unless someone takes a bullet for the team.

Unexpectedly, if quite happily, The Ruins rapidly transforms itself from shallow teen slasher-wannabe into a seventies-style "savage" cinema-style film -- one legitimately along the lines of the original The Hills Have Eyes (1977). It's a film in which the characters must perform absolutely desperate, and horrifying (and extremely...) gory acts to survive. There is a double "amateur surgery" amputation sequence here, and it is one of the nastiest, meanest, most agonizing and torture-some scene I've witnessed in a horror film of recent vintage. And if that doesn't discomfort you, it is followed by a prolonged self-mutilation sequence (involving a small, blunt hunting knife...) that will turn your stomach and set your nerves jangling. Smith's camera doesn't flinch; doesn't pull back, during any of this horror and in a few compositions (particularly one involving Ramsey standing clueless in a pool of her own blood), you can almost feel the naughty, taboo-breaking vibe of an early Craven or early Hooper.

I should really single out Ramsey here (though Tucker is quite good too.) You start out the film thinking Ramsey is a mildly capable young actress (albeit with an incredibly hot body), but Ramsey's progression from vapid youngster to tortured, insane, self-mutilating murderess is quite the accomplishment. Her performance as Stacy is thoroughly convincing without being artificial or histrionic, and again, I'm reminded of The Hills Have Eyes and in particular, the under-appreciated Susan Lanier. Both women are underestimated by audiences, I think, because of their good looks and demeanor (dumb blonds?), but both deliver searing, raw performances in their respective horrors. I'm more shocked to see such a thing in a film today, but seriously, Ramsey is great here in a role that requires her to slowly but dramatically go insane.

There are some missteps in The Ruins, no doubt. Critics were (naturally) quick to pick up on them, and in general, I won't quibble with those assessments. For instance, if attacked by monstrous vines, why not burn the fuckers? We see the youngsters of The Ruins armed with torches for a while, but nothing comes of it. Also, why not throw the legless, spinal-injury case a bone and move him away from the nearby man-eating bushes, since he can't do it by himself? (or oppositely, use him as fodder to make good an escape...).

Still, in the age of really bad horror remakes such as When a Stranger Calls and The Hitcher, beggars can't be choosers. With almost surgical precision, The Ruins proves itself an absolutely terrifying and involving film, one that deploys "jolt" scares, effective gore make-up, and suffocating claustrophobia to powerful effect. Most of all, the film ultimately states something positive about the American character. When the characters here realize what they are facing, they finally leave behind their well-honed sense of entitlement and act in a manner that is both heroic and moral. A sleeping giant has awakened (even if the wake-up is ultimately in vain), and I feel this is true of Americans of any generation. We like a life of leisure, but when forced to fight, we're damn well going to fight, even if it's no longer our first instinct.

I deliberately compare the climax of The Ruins to The Hills Have Eyes, because it is about, like that seventies film, leaving behind everything you care about, everything you cherish (even decorum...), to survive, or to see that someone you love survives. In The Hills Have Eyes, the "white bread" Carters had to blow up their own trailer (a mobile sanctuary and symbol of society) to defeat cannibals in the desert. They had to marshal the corpse of the family matriarch - their Mom! -- as a decoy, even, to win the day. In The Ruins, the blood of a dead friend likewise becomes a handy weapon in the Darwinian battle. And, in another bow to seventies savage cinema, The Ruins ends with Jena Malone making like an utterly mad Marilyn Burns in the denouement of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Ruins has good instincts to go with these resonant images and for that reason, I suppose I give it the benefit of the doubt despite some difficult-to-deny rough patches. If in the end, The Ruins isn't quite a Hostel or a Descent, it is still a scarily entertaining (and effective) horror film of modern vintage.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Muir to appear on Sy Fy Radio

Hey everybody, good news here: I'm going to be a guest on Sy Fy Radio next Wednesday night, July 16th, 2008 to discuss my online series, The House Between with talk show host and Sy Fy guru (and editor-in-chief), Michael Hinman. You can listen in on the show by following this link. I'll post a reminder again next week as we get closer to the show.

And hey -- you know what I'm going to say, right? -- don't forget to keep voting for The House Between as the "best web production" in the 2008 Sy Fy Genre Awards. You can find the ballot by clicking on the Twlight Zone-style icon in the upper right hand side of the frame
here. You can vote every day through July 25, so get cracking! (And thanks...)