Saturday, August 09, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008)

To paraphrase a famous political player of the 1990s, there's nothing wrong with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls that can't be fixed by what's right with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.

The fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is a charming and thrilling throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series. In fact, it serves up in almost identical proportion the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek silliness that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable, care-free and memorable cinematic rides.
Our story commences in 1957 (twenty-two years after the adventure of Raiders) with a beautifully-mounted drag race on a stretch of isolated desert highway, as a caravan of vehicles heads to Hanger 51, the predecessor, of course, to legendary Area 51. To the viewer's surprise, this caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact, one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hanger 51 (a repository of such items, we see...), the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones. When he first see him (after a splendid and highly cinematic build-up involving a fedora-ed shadow playing across a car door), Indy looks a little more white-haired than the last time we encountered him...but otherwise virtually the same. Yep, Dr. Jones is as rugged, as laconic, and as fast-on-the-draw as ever. Ready with either a snarky quip ("I Like Ike," he tells one Russian) or a whip, he's still got what it takes....as he quickly proves.

After this initial sequence -- one which leads the audience inside the mysterious warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was sealed away in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the film's action never lets up. There are motorcycle chases, atomic blasts, army ants, a few terse comments on McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and then a quest (involving Saucermen from Mars, or thereabouts...) for a mythical Golden Kingdom hidden in the jungles of Peru.

Along the way, Indy meets Mutt Williams, the son he never knew he had (the ubiquitous Shia Le Beouf) and encounters the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), looking more radiant than ever. There's a great moment when Marion and Indy are captured, and she asks him if there have been "other women" over the years. In a retort worthy of any classic film romance starring Humphrey Bogart, Indy replies - with a gleam in his eyes - that yes, indeed there were other women...

But they all had one problem: "They weren't you."

If that moment doesn't melt your heart, then this just isn't the movie for you. The Dark Knight is showing in the next auditorium and may be more to your liking.

Because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull genuflects to our past - and to our traditions - in a very deliberate and specific way. Not just the past in terms of American history; but in terms of American cinema and movie techniques too. For instance, I detected the deliberate homage to The Naked Jungle (1954) in a march of man-eating marabunta. In the film's central premise, and a bit of production design, I sensed resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). I n Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there were traces of teen films like Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953). The detonation of an atomic bomb, and Indy's much-too-easy survival of a nuclear blast (with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out) also alludes to such "educational" films as 1952's absurd Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. So one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.

But make no mistake, the movie is also made highly rousing by Spielberg's buoyant neo-classical direction. He's not working to deep artistic purpose here, but dammit if he doesn't know exactly how to shoot and assemble this sort of film with perfect pitch.

Watch, for instance, how Spielberg has mastered the art of the revelatory pull-back (deployed twice in the film). Look at the way he blocks actors Ford, Allen, Shia, John Hurt, and Ray Winstone (playing a double, possibly triple agent...) in one subterranean shot; so that they pop-up crisply across the frame, all at once -- a moment that (deliberately) becomes funny because of the staging. In a lesser hand, this opportunity would have been missed. Here, it's a visual joke that lightens the moment. The whole movie positively snaps like that; with a heightened air of self confidence that is, frankly, indomitable, and allows the movie to squeak over the occasional gap in logic or storytelling. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls -- like the previous pictures in the franchise -- sucks you in with it's breezy good nature. It walks up to the line of camp, then retreats, almost like a recurring dance step. You'd have to be a real scrooge to deride a film so guileless, so pure of heart.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls has already proved a huge success (it's already in the top 25-grossing films of all time...), but there has indeed been much more vocal fan criticism of this Indiana Jones entry than the others; and I suggest that's simply a sign of these times (and the influence of the Internet) more than it is an accurate reflection on the quality of Crystal Skulls. You remember that saying from Thomas Wolfe, don't you? "You can't go home again?" What that means - literally - is that you can't go back to the past.

In other words, your home -- where you grew up -- may be exactly the same after you grow up; it's you that's changed. And I suggest strongly that this is the case for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. Before I saw the film, for instance, I re-watched the earlier entries and I have to say, this one fits the rest of the series like a glove, despite a shift from the 1930s to the Cold War 1950s.

I know this isn't a popular theory to hold, but I learned that the same fact is pretty much true of the often-reviled Star Wars prequels. I watched all six films in that franchise (in series order, eps 1 - 6) in one weekend and found that all were of roughly the same quality and mood. The six films had the same distinctive strengths...and the same terrible flaws. Those who don't think that's the case...well, I respectfully suggest they undergo this exercise. Because the only true difference is in how you hold these movies in your memory...whether from your innocent and impressionable youth or from more cynical adulthood; whether experiencing the films as a knock-out surprise, or rather with twenty years of pent-up expectations. I'm not being superior here; I used to deride Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but after watching all six Star Wars films together, virtually all of my comparative criticisms didn't really hold water. Return of the Jedi is just as stagey and superficial as Attack of the Clones; Revenge of the Sith is just as majestic and tragic as Empire Strikes Back. Seriously.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls? Ditto. It boasts the same strengths and the same weaknesses as other series entries. If you liked those, there's no legitimate reason not to like this one. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides, enthusiastic entertaining machines that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls too. So I'm baffled why people are picking nits this time around.

Example: I've heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade? No...Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business today. Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989; but today's audiences and critics -- weaned on dark, angsty genre efforts like The Dark Knight -- have forgotten how to recognize the rules of that game. There's nothing dark, cynical, empty, ugly or de-humanizing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. It doesn't have a post-911 mind-set. The hero doesn't resort to the same nasty tactics as the villain. There's nothing gritty or realistic anywhere in the film. Instead, like the other entries in the franchises, this Indiana Jones harks back to the more theatrical, artificial approach of its source material. Naturalism isn't the point. At all. Never was.

Indeed, I've read critical and fan comments that note with derision, for instance, how here Indiana Jones survives a harrowing trip down three waterfalls virtually unscathed...and how his survival simply isn't very...realistic. I've read critics complain about how, in this film, Indiana Jones hides in a lead refrigerator and survives a nuclear blast, and how that isn't very realistic either. "Nuked the fridge" and all.

To such critics and complainers I offer this delicate reminder: Indiana Jones fell out of a plane in a rubber raft, rode that raft down a steep mountainside, plunged over a waterfall in it, and then survived roaring rapids to wash ashore in exactly the place he was needed...in Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom (1984). I would like to remind those critics that Indiana Jones strapped himself (by bullwhip!) to a submarine, and apparently held his breath for hours -- while said submarine was submerged -- during a journey to a secret island in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What on earth would lead you to this movie expecting realism? Once again this summer, it seems that the critics and fans are gazing at a movie with entirely the wrong set of expectations.

Don't get me wrong. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't the greatest adventure movie ever made or anything like that. I'm making no high-minded claims for the film as a brilliant work of art. On the contrary, what I'm saying is that Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fulfills, practically to a tee, the criteria of this sturdy and much-loved franchise. It engages Indiana Jones in a stirring, mysterious adventure. It pits him against hissable villains and reunites him with a romantic lead. It concerns the use and misuse of great "power" (a theme we see also with Belloq, Mola Ram and Donovan in the other series entries), and it pays homage -- as knowledgeable pastiche -- to a certain film brand of yesteryear (Cold War B movies of the 1950s). It also happens to be in the running, for me, anyway, as the most fun film of the summer (neck and neck with Iron Man). There are deeper, more intimate films that I loved (X-Files); and there are meaner, noisier ones more in tune with our times (The Dark Knight), but Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't stale like a tomb, like you might expect of a third-sequel. It's a breath of fresh air. Take it all in with an open heart and you'll walk out feeling giddy, young, happy...and likely humming John Williams' stirring anthem.

Sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Cruising (1980)

Our sophomore (and Google-delayed...) entry in my Friedkin Friday celebration of director William Friedkin brings us to a controversial -- and highly bracing -- cinematic effort called Cruising. This uneasy, deeply unsettling police procedural (which disappeared quickly from theaters in 1980...) is one of Friedkin's most notorious and much-derided films; one that - now shorn of Reagan Era controversy - has only recently been excavated and re-evaluated by some critics. It deserves the re-evaluation because the film doesn't just "cruise" the world it investigates, it inhabits that world...and it makes us inhabit it too. Whether you like it or not, this film is deeply immersive and involving, and so, in the final analysis, it should be judged a success.

Based on a 1970 novel by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, the movie's narrative involves a series of brutal homicides in the Big Apple's gay S&M/leather scene, and a police officer named Burns (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to investigate the monstrous crimes. The film itself establishes that this particular life-style is not "in the mainstream of gay life" but rather a subset, a so-called "world unto itself."

Despite this ready distinction spelled out in the film's screenplay, New York City's gay community at the time was very worried about how it would be presented in Friedkin's film. The Village Voice feared Friedkin would create "the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen," and admonished activists to scuttle the filmmaking in any way they could. Protesters wielded mirrors to interfere with lighting; and even fired air horns during exterior shooting to render sequences unusable. Several hundred gay rights activists marched in the East Village, hoping to convince Mayor Koch to sever ties to Friedkin and his production.

While some forces in the community mobilized to stop Friedkin, others supported his work. Forever the documentarian, Friedkin insisted that his film depict the specifics of the leather/S&M scene accurately, and he wrangled support from such fetish bars as Mine Shaft, The Cockpit, and Anvil. He was able to shoot lengthy sequences at those real locations, and film real patrons as "extras." The people -- and the behavior -- you see dramatized in the film is thus reasonably authentic. Nothing is staged or phony -- not costumes; not the crowds, not even "Police Night" -- and that fact alone injects Cruising with a high degree of "you are there" immediacy.

You may not always want to watch what goes on in these bars; but you won't be easily able to turn away from the male-on-male bacchanalia either. Friedkin has assured that fact with his trademark attention to detail and fine understanding of film grammar. For "Cruising" is not merely the title of the film, it's the act that we - as viewers (or tourists...) -- are asked to undertake in engaging the narrative.

Friedkin makes this link between us and the leather bar patrons virtually unavoidable by staging a number of first-person-subjective P.O.V. shots in which the "cruisers" walk by us -- slow down -- gaze at the camera, and size us up. It's actually rather intimidating, truth be told, but the point is established visually about what these patrons desire; what they seek; and how they covet it. One of the reasons I go to see films (or queue films, these days...) is to experience some aspect of the world that is alien to me. On these grounds, Cruising certainly satisfies, even if there is some deeply uncomfortable (and predatory...) aspect about the rampant sexuality on display here. It leads one to consider male sexuality; and especially male sexuality in the total absence of female sexuality. I discussed these subjective P.O.V. shots with Kathryn, wondering if they were overdone and exaggerated, and asked her if she thought that men looked at women this way too -- this brazenly -- and she said yes. Absolutely. All the time.

Another way that Cruising lives up to the title is by exposing the viewers to "the regulars" of this urban leather scene. Watch the movie closely -- very closely -- and you will begin to detect familiar faces amidst the pack. The regulars. The people who appear more than once, in more than one guise, and in more than one location. As critic Bob Stephens wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle: "Cruising is not only a hunt within a hunt, but a film that is obsessed with entrances and exits. It's a movie with a vast undercurrent of restlessness, of people looking for a satiating experience, looking anywhere, everywhere. Men constantly go in and out of erotic clubs, tunnels in the park, rented rooms, private booths in porn shops and, in the officer's case, the inadequate refuge of his girlfriend's apartment."

He's right, and the important thing for the movie is that it is the same group of men doing that seeking (Burns included). Sometimes they are revealed in flash cuts, or sometimes depicted in long shots; or often even in shadows during impenetrable night. Yet after a time, your eyes seek out these familiar men, wondering if they are suspects or simply innocents...but recognizing them nonetheless. Friedkin, in populating his crowd scenes with a series of familiar faces, has truly taken his audience cruising with him. In other words, he's training our eyes to work in the same fashion as these men's eyes work. Amidst the blaring punk rock, the leather gear and the predatory looks, our eyes covet a safe harbor. We are hunting. That's the very thing that the killer trades on; the risky hunt, the search for something dangerous...but with somebody who is safe.

The result of Friedkin's impressive and rigorous charting of this world is, in the words of critic Nathan Lee, "a film that is a heady, horny flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. Filmed in such legendary bars as the Ramrod, Anvil, Mine Shaft, and Eagle's Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises), Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms."

After that colorful and graphic description, you will likely know whether this film is your cup of tea or not, right? Yet in fairness, Cruising is more than that. It is also a fascinating mystery, a thriller in the "undercover cop" milieu, and an Orphean journey into a Dionyson underworld of wild sexual ritual that is both exceptionally drawn and very, very tense. In part, this sense of anxiety arises because the film has landed Steve Burns (Al Pacino) in a strange world where he is alone and without help of any kind. As the screenplay puts it: he's "up a creek without a paddle" and has nowhere to turn.

In an early scene, Burns is called into the police chief's (Paul Sorvino's) office and asked some very slap-in-the-face questions, some very personal questions. "Have you ever had your cock sucked by another man?" "Ever been porked?" Why Burns readily takes this particular undercover assignment (an open-ended assignment in the leather community that could essentially last forever...) is another question all together, and the answer to that mystery is one that the film only teases; but never fully articulates.

For instance, Burns warns his girlfriend (Karen Allen) "there's a lot about me you don't know," an indicator that - perhaps - just perhaps - Burns may already be inclined towards the very lifestyle he's been assigned to investigate. In fact, a case could be made that there are two killers at work simultaneously in Cruising: the one that Pacino is hunting (a murderous man who has deep-seated "father issues" and who stabs his homosexual victims...), and also the one who is dumping severed body parts in the East River. The film establishes early on that these murderers have a very different m.o., but a harried metropolitan police department (anticipating the Democratic National Convention...) is too busy, too overwhelmed, to differentiate between them. Many critics who first screened the film in 1980 did not even realize that there is a high probability of two killers at work; and lumped all the film's murders under one umbrella; under one culprit (just like the police). I submit, however, that there are two murderers at work in the film; and at work in the S&M community.

And one of them may very well be Pacino's character, Burns.

My evidence? First, the film establishes at some length how Burns resembles many of the men being murdered (like he is trying to stamp out himself and his unacceptable urges...). In fact, the very reason Burns gets this assignment in the first place is because of his distinct physical resemblance to the victims. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Burns gay friend, an aspiring playwright portrayed by Don Scardino (a gay man who is not a sadomasochist by the way...) is found brutally murdered at the film's climax. Ask yourself after watching the film: who killed him and why? And why exactly did a worked-up Burns go to Scardino's apartment and get into an entirely unnecessarily scuffle with his volatile partner (James Remar)? In asking these questions, one begins to peel back the deeper, more subtle levels of the enigmatic narrative; the story within a story.

Many reviewers have complained that the character of Burns' is the film's biggest drawback; and that his motives and concerns remain elusive, opaque. For me, that's one of the key components making Cruising a great film. As viewers, we never understand Burns' ready involvement in this case; nor do we comprehend some of his actions and reactions. In the novel, Burns was rather definitively a bigot; but not so here (at least not visibly...). Instead, Pacino plays Burns as something of a question-mark, a man who is apparently a ready traveler (note the scene in the hotel where cops bust in on him...) but who - unbeknownst to us - may already have selected his destination. I believe this ambiguous approach was the right tack for Friedkin to adopt because it's so much better dramatically if our tour-guide isn't an entirely known quantity; with one foot in this world and one foot outside it. If he were totally immersed in the leather scene (to our knowledge) we might have a hard time identifying with Burns. As it stands, we can watch the whole film following Burns, and still wonder if he is guilty of murder when the film ends.

Watch Cruising closely, and you will see one particularly crucial shot repeated. It's a long exterior shot, set at night, that consists of a man in a leather jacket (who could be Pacino - or who might not be...) making his way into a leather bar. The first time the shot appears, this man goes into a bar alone and his entrance occurs immediately following a shot of corrupt policeman forcing sexual favors from two gay street walkers. There is an explicit connection between the two shots. Friedkin pans from the patrol car where the crime is taking place, to a shot of that mystery man walking into the bar. The second time (and final time) the shot occurs, it is very near the end of the film; after the murderer has been caught; the crimes solved. But make no mistake: it's the same man; going back to the same bar. Why show him again?

This is perhaps the most important shot in the film, even if we do not know who precisely that figure is. If he's Pacino/Burns, then we must assume Burns is the second killer, and that his "cruising" of the sadomasochistic scene began long before his involvement in the official case. On the other hand if this figure is the second killer - and a stranger to us - then he is still free - and free to kill - after the investigation has been officially closed.

More than likely, this figure's specific identity is unimportant. Rather he serves as a symbol; a symbol of the danger that lurks when repression, fear, and self-hatred become inseparable mingled with rampant sexual desire. Friedkin and his team could not have known it at the time, but danger of another form (not homicidal) certainly became manifest around this very sub-culture just a few short years after Cruising, when AIDS decimated the community. It is unearthly and strange and very scary how this film seems to foreshadow that tragedy; how it seems to knowingly portray a dark, sad, cynical and empty world on the verge of annihilation. For make no mistake, there is no real love or sense of connection here. Something else is being sought...

Critics have been harsh. "This is a thoroughly unpleasant film," wrote critic James Kendrick for the Q Network Entertainment Portal. "For anyone of any sexual orientation who takes pride in fidelity, the scenes that take place in S&M bars bearing such enticing names as "The Cockpit" and "Ramrod" are positively repulsive. One can see why some of the mainstream gay critics in 1980 were horrified that a large segment of the population would see this film and incorrectly assume that all homosexuals behave in this manner."

Honestly, he's correct in one sense. Cruising can be quite unpleasant and ugly at times. The unfettered, raw male sexuality here...isn't pretty. But as Kendrick himself also notes, this "leather" lifestyle did exist and does exist. And Friedkin's work shouldn't be reviewed on the basis of how people misperceived the movie. Cruising is never homophobic, and in fact takes special care not to appear anti-gay at all. "I didn't come onto this job to shitcan guys just because they are gay," Burns notes at one point. Also, there's the notation I made mention of earlier, when Sorvino establishes this is clearly not "the mainstream" of gay culture. Artists can't be held accountable for how people receive their art; only for their intention in creating the art, I submit.

In creating his "art" in this fashion, Friedkin was making a point, no doubt. He was accurately depicting this world (down to the music in the clubs), and if it is judged ugly by those dwelling outside of it -- so be it. He was observing; and letting us decide what to make of it. He leaves us to decide the "why" of it. This even-handed approach goes right to the core of the film. Is Burns just a good cop investigating a crime? Or is there an underneath here?

Cruising has been interpreted in many ways, which speaks volumes about Friedkin's skill at creating a meaningful work of art. Some critics believe that it attempts to forge a connection, a link, between gays and homicidal behavior (an interpretation I reject); some people believe it is about the repressed gay desire lurking inside a straight man (certainly a possibility; especially given the presence of the subplot with Allen); and some see it as merely a layered murder mystery set in the world of leather bars. I tend to see a more global argument here about where our society was in 1980. I believe Friedkin is actually commenting on how fearful the straight world is of open displays of homosexuality. Look at the headlines in the film which blare "Homo Killer on the Prowl," or the hatred for gays demonstrated by the corrupt cops. The story of a homosexual boy rejected by his father and who turns to murder...is a tragedy about society's lack of acceptance; not homosexuality's intrinsic acceptability or unacceptability. I think Friedkin was saying that a society that excludes, shuns and denigrates people can create in the occasional invidividual a self-hatred and self-loathing so powerful it can turn dangerous.

See the movie and decide for yourself...

Next week's Friedkin Friday entry: Sorcerer (1977)


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: P2 (2007)

The creative team behind High Tension (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes remake (2006) brings us a claustrophobic little horror thriller in P2, a sturdy if uninspired 2007 film set entirely inside a subterranean parking deck (in the Big Apple) on Christmas Eve.

I need to review High Tension here on the blog soon, because - depending on my whimsy, I suppose - It's either an utterly brilliant exercise in technique and misdirection or an utterly noble failure with a seriously wrong-headed third act. Maybe I should review it twice, once from each perspective, though the film has risen in my estimation over time. I keep going back to it in my head, which means it must have something working for it.

I bring all this up because P2 is rather unlikely to spawn the same sort of uneasy, uncertain feelings. It's a good horror show; but ultimately a predictable horror show. It's intense and scary (and ultra-gory) at times and makes good use of the central location, but the effort never rises to the level of mad (or maddening...) genius of High Tension. Instead the film is exciting to watch; easy to forget.

P2 concerns a workaholic named Angela (Rachel Nichols), a businesswoman having a very, very bad day. A drunk co-worker named Jim just sexually harassed her at the Christmas party, and now she's stuck working late on Christmas Eve. There are some lovely shots of Angela at her desk early in the film, with the dim blue light of a computer screen coloring her porcelain skin. Yes, indeed, she's having a "blue Christmas," and the clear impression given is of a woman who spends more time on the job than enjoying life. Angela's skin is so white, one can guess she doesn't see the sun much.

Things go from bad to worse when Angela is the last person to leave the building and discovers that her car won't start. She gets a jump-start from Tom (Wes Bentley) the parking deck security guard, but it doesn't work. He apologizes and she brushes him off. She calls a cab, but the taxi leaves Angela stranded when she can't unlock her building's front gate. Cell phone? No service.

Yep. One of those days...

The first act of P2 is nicely constructed to create a burgeoning sense of harried (if not high...) tension in the viewer. Angela has an armful of Christmas bags and gifts wherever she goes, and these holiday affectations are like an albatross around the character's neck, dragging her down as she ping-pongs from elevator to lobby to parking deck and back. You get agitated just watching her carry around all that glittery stuff. Her very persona -- dragged down by the weight of the gifts - conjures images of the hectic Christmas season. Rushing. Family waiting. That kind of thing.

And while we're thinking about how Angela is going to be late, and how her sister is going to give her shit for it, things get worse again. That security guy, Tom, is actually a lunatic, turns out. He abducts Angela, changes her clothes, puts lipstick on her, and chains her to a table so she'll share Christmas dinner with him and his dog, Rocky. He's even thoughtfully provided her a gift for the occasion: he's tied up co-worker Jim downstairs, on one of the lower parking levels, so the harasser can "pay" for his transgression. What follows is a yuletide disemboweling.

The remainder of the film is a concentrated -- and very bloody -- battle of the wills, not to mention a battle of the sexes, as Angela and Tom compete for the upper hand against the backdrop of the vast, isolating parking deck. Tom is insistent and wants to be Angela's friend. Angela just wants to escape from the psycho. In charting this very personal combat, P2 deploys some common tools of the slasher paradigm including such gimmicks as "the car won't start," and "the dog jump." Yet overall this film is more like a serial killer film of 1990s vintage than an old school slasher. What that means, essentially, is that much time is spent here with crazy Tom shouting at Angela and tormenting her with his mealy-mouthed apologies and psychotic desires.

The nice thing about slasher is they don't talk too much...

The loquacious Tom finds time to tell Angela how lonely he is; ask Angela why they can't be friends, and even perform a little Elvis number to the tune of "Blue Christmas." Bentley pulls off the role, but talking psychos these days are a dime a dozen, and Tom doesn't really stand out from the nasty pack. He's anti-social, but sort of tiresome. He's an irritant all right (like a neighbor who doesn't know when to leave you alone), but is ultimately more pitiable than frightening. Watching this delicate interpersonal ballet of violence, I realized what P2 was truly missing was a more fully developed subtext (like a lot of horrors made today). For instance, I kept thinking about how Angela is a business person and upwardly mobile, and how Thomas...isn't. I thought about how he might feel resentment that she is such a success...and again, he isn't. That kind of resentment might explain his repeated attempts at domination, but there's much less of that psychology in the film than there should be. P2 is a very competent exercise in horror techniques, in other words, but not a very deep or meaningful one.

Still, there's some ingenuity on display here. There's a great scene involving an elevator, Angela and a fire hose, for instance. It goes in a direction you likely haven't seen before. The ending is also pretty good in terms of visuals, a snow-bound cleansing and ascent from concrete underworld into welcoming daylight. Bottom line: the movie is enjoyable as an experience (maybe a B- overall?) but not strong enough to earn the distinction of being a great (or even debatably great...) genre film. You've see all the elements of P2 before (think David Fincher's Panic Room [2002] meets Wes Craven's Red Eye [2006]). My recommendation is that you see High Tension again instead, because love it or hate it, it makes you think. P2 is a horror movie that will never trouble your sleep (or brain).

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Truth is Out There...

Entertainment Weekly has a fascinating post today from Whitney Pastorek about X-Files: I Want to Believe and the rising tide of critics and fans who have been defending this quality movie from the ludicrous and mean-spirited reviews it's been facing.

Here's a snippet:

...I sure as hell have been shocked by the dismissive, occasionally vicious beating it's taken from critics. My hometown Houston Chronicle, for example, gave it one star and called it "stupid, lackadaisical and schlocky." My mother, on the other hand, walked into an H-Town multiplex on Wednesday, and walked out calling the movie "wonderful."

So, what's going on? Are my mother and I just that stupid, lackadaisical and shlocky when it comes to our taste in movies? I'd like to think that's not true. And there are complimentary, thoughtful reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert, Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek, and John Kenneth Muir to reassure me we're not crazy. More likely, I think this introspective little movie fell victim to a number of traps...

Frankly, I find this increasingly vocal (and publicized...) push back against the so-called critical consensus a fascinating thing. My own suspicion is that there are a number of folks writing today (and "counted" by Rotten Tomatoes as legitimate film critics) who boast very little understanding of film as art, film history, or even film techniques. The only thing they actually review are their own prejudices and expectations. People should object to ignorant, ill-informed reviews.

I sincerely hope the push back is the beginning of a trend...

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Runaway (1984)

It's always a little disheartening when you recall a film from your youth as "cool" and then go back to watch it as an adult and find out that is, well...supremely dopey.

Alas, that's very much the case with Runaway, a "near future" thriller from the year 1984. I was fourteen when I first saw it on VHS (thanks to a local video store called Currys)...and, well, I loved it at the time. I was hoping I'd feel the same way as an adult, so I put it in my Netflix queue and screened it last night. Big mistake...

On a very superficial level, Runaway still appears credible. The movie is written and directed by one of my favorite authors, Michael Crichton. It stars a sexy Kirstie Alley (before she got weird...) And snarling rock icon Gene Simmons portrays the hissible villain, a criminal mastermind named Luthor. A no-nonsense Tom Selleck is our stalwart protagonist -- a brave cop named Ramsey -- who is assigned to a Metro "runaway" division tasked with wrangling out-of-control domestic robots. The film's plot also concerns a new (and impressive) type of bullet that operates like a guided missile, hunting victims by turning corners, banking, pivoting and so forth, thus permitting bullet P.O.V. sequences: Raimi-esque steadicam shots of elaborate and impressive construct.

Sounds like it should be a pretty good action movie? Right?

Well, hold your horses, because it isn't. Instead, this thriller is a risible amalgamation of every cop movie cliche you've ever seen, with hackneyed situations, off-the-shelf characters, and not-so-good performances (Simmons is especially bad). Worst of all, perhaps, is the underwhelming production design, which appears to indicate a future world that looks exactly like the 1980s, except that America has integrated (mostly-clunky) robots for agriculture, domestic use and so on. Let me be clear about this: there have been no other detectable advances in car design, home design, fashion, mass media or anything else. Nope, it's exactly Reagan's America...only with runaway robots. And if you think about it, that makes no sense whatsoever. If there's an advance in one technological field of study (like, take for example...robotics!), then those advances usually affect other fields too. Not so in Runaway.

The underlying premise is also wobbly. If robot escapes (not to mention robot homicide attempts) are so prevalent in this "future" society that urban police departments have added a "runaway" unit to track them down...then there's a pretty big problem in the culture, no? Yet nobody in the film acts as though this were an urgent situation that needed better understanding. It's just work-a-day cop-on-the-beat stuff. Oops, another robot picked up a kitchen knife and murdered a family...

Personally, I'd be pretty honked that robots had been integrated so thoroughly into society (preparing meals, farming, etc.) before they were safety-tested. Why do so many robots malfunction? The movie never answers that question. Oh sure, there's business about a chip made my Simmons that turns robots murderous, but that doesn't explain the existence of Runaway police divisions. Again, cops wouldn't create a new department unless this were a pretty big problem, even before criminal masterminds like Luthor. Runaway just never wants to ask the questions that a film like this should: are the robots sentient? Do they boast a will and "mind" beyond that which their human masters understand? I realize that addressing such issues would be a different movie all together, but you can't introduce a society with "runaway" robots and then not explain why so many robots are running away, right?

Runaway is also loaded down with the stale conventions of the 1980s cop-thriller format. Selleck reports to a character (played by G.W. Bailey) that Roger Ebert amusingly termed "the wrong-headed superior." You know the type. He's the policeman higher-up who is always mad, always makes the wrong decision, and always has it in for the good cop. You've seen him in a million movies by now. The wrong-headed superior is always stupid, and, well, wrong-headed, just to provide some artificial tension in the proceedings. And Bailey's character is epically wrong-headed in Runaway. His best advice: use a police psychic to catch Gene Simmons and his acid-spitting spider robots. Great. Because we all know how effective psychics are at...tracking robots.

But there's more. Besides the wrong-headed police superior (cliche # 1), there's Ramsey's tragic back story. His wife died in a car accident, leaving him widowed with a young son to raise by himself (cliche # 2). Ramsey also boasts a character flaw: a bad case of vertigo (cliche # 3). Years earlier, he pursued a bad guy to a building under construction, but let the villain go because of his fear of heights. Wouldn't you know it, Runaway's climax occurs -- wait for it! -- on the roof of a building under construction so Ramsey can conquer his fear (cliche # 4). And did I mention that Ramsey is breaking in a new partner whom he is romantically attracted to (Cynthia Rhodes) (cliche # 5)? Or that he has an African-American sidekick (cliche # 6)? Or That Luthor turns his pursuit around, abducts Ramsey's son, and makes this a deadly game of cat & mouse (cliche # 7)? The script is so by-the-numbers, so utterly...stock, that I just have to assume that the often-brilliant Michael Crichton was having a bad day.

Even the technological stuff here -- which should have been a slam dunk given Crichton's participation -- is laughable. One high-tech police device (a hovering camera) is unfortunately termed..."a floater." After it is introduced, we are treated to three minutes or so of embarrassing dialogue between Selleck and a pesky TV reporter discussing getting his "floater" on television. This is a moment tailor-made for the wise crackers at Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I did enjoy the scene in which Kirstie Alley's character -- a bad girl -- is forced to strip one garment at a time as Selleck scans her body for "bugs." A smoking-hot Alley has to take off her blouse and her bra. But even this fun sequence is riddled with utter stupidity. Selleck doesn't check Alley's purse for bugs while making her undress. Nope. He makes her strip down to almost nothing...but lets her pocketbook get away. (I think i know where his mind was.) Anyway, I'll give you exactly one guess where the bug turns out to be during an ensuing chase sequence. (This was the moment, by the way, that Kathryn checked out of the film. "The bug's in the purse," she growled as she headed off to bed.)

Watching Runaway, I felt bad for Tom Selleck, who makes a serviceable lead even when vetting stale material. This is a guy who was nearly Indiana Jones, but instead ending up in movies like High Road to China, Lassiter...and Runaway. This was a guy who almost wore a fedora and carried a bull whip, but ended up chasing his own...floaters.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Things to Come (1936)

One of the pioneering "fathers of science fiction," author H.G. Wells (1866-1946) published a visionary chronicle of the future in 1933 entitled The Shape of Things to Come.

As fascism rose across a continent like a dark tide, as economic depression savaged our nation, this stirring, creative (and fictional) account of world events from 1933 to 2100 offered the detailed imaginings of a committed Anti-Marxist socialist; one who accurately predicted many elements of our world today.

In his fictional account of "things to come," author Wells foresaw weapons of mass destruction (chemical "air torpedoes"), submarine-based missiles, the rise of Warlord-ism, the Blitz (and ensuing destruction of London), World War II, the invasion of Poland, "surgical" missile strikes, and much more.

Wells also envisioned other events: a world war lasting for thirty years, followed by a deadly plague ("The Wandering Sickness"), and then, the rise of a World State...and the end of nationalism.

In his future world, Wells' benevolent dictatorship eliminated not merely nationalism (and nation states), but organized religion. His conquering regime controlled the survivors of the human race through advanced technology, particularly mass transportation (planes). This World State also included the idea of advancement in society by intellectual merit, not by family name (like, say Bush?), class, or wealth. Finally, Wells saw the overthrow of the dictatorial World State after a hundred years...and a new age of technological progress beyond.

Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies collaborated with Wells to bring this startling, prophetic vision of man's future to the silver screen in 1936. The film, Things to Come, has earned the title "classic" as well as the descriptor "visionary," and rightly so. It is one of the genre's earliest and most awe-inspiring masterpieces, not to mention a special-effects stunner. I first saw it when I was a teenager- -- cut up for commercial television -- and have read about it in probably every science fiction film book in history. It's an important, landmark film in terms of genre, in terms of content, and also in terms of special effects technology.

Things to Come's central plot is divided into three portions or Ages. There is the pre-War Age (set in 1936). There is the immediate aftermath of War (set in 1966-1967) and the beginning of the World State, and then a future Age of Progress (set in 2036).

Each of these three sections is centered in a fictionalized version of London called "Everytown." And, to one extent or another, each passage also revolves around one family countenancing the inexorable winds of change; the Cabal family. This personal, identifiable element of family makes the film a sort of "generational" tale, and more easily approachable in terms of narrative. Raymond Massey stars as John Cabal in the first two portions of the film; and as leader Oswald Cabal in the Age of Progress section.

Our story commences in Everytown on Christmas Eve, 1936. John Cabal is a pessimistic brooder who believes war is inevitable, and worse, that it is impending. His friends and family members, including a young doctor, Harding, don't want to see war "mess things up," and resist the idea of war's inevitability. Cabal mulls over man's nature with grim fortitude. "We must end war. Or war will end us," he states.

Soon after this introduction to the characters, Things to Come depicts a happy Everytown by nightfall, at least until a truck with a white placard bearing the legend WAR SCARE appears in the background of a frame, in plain sight. In this portion of the film, we get a rapid-fire montage of several such war-themed placards until - still on Christmas Eve - war breaks out. Cabal was right...nothing could stop the conflagration of destruction. That very night, Everytown is bombed from the air in scenes eerily reminiscent of the Blitz (though they were shot years before...).

Before our eyes, we see a local cinema explode and crumble, a sign that the age of man's technology and leisure is at an end. As destruction rains from the sky, Menzies cuts to an image of a young blond boy - no more than ten years old, perhaps - wearing a soldier's helmet. The child -- apparently knowing what is to come -- begins to march like a "real" soldier. After a few seconds of lingering on this image, Menzies superimposes new images (silhouettes, actually...) of adult soldiers on the march; juxtaposing play and reality; indicating that even the young will be conscripted into the never ending conflict. And indeed they are: the war lasts for a generation. In 1960, it ends....but only because so few people are left.

Worse, pestilence follows. In the burned out city of Everytown ("a cursed ruin of a town," as one character describes it) in 1966, a disease called the Wandering Sickness takes hold. Those who contract the illness are shot on sight. By 1967 half the human race is extinguished, and society attempts to re-build...in vain.

Everytown, for instance, comes under the corrupt leadership of "The Boss" (or "The Chief") played by Ralph Richardson, a warlord who quickly launches a new military offensive against neighbors called The Hill People. Since there is no longer radio, cinema or even newspapers, The Chief sees his propaganda scrawled crudely on a board displayed before the ruins of City Hall. On this board, the Chief promises "victorious peace" after the Hill People are conquered. But winning the war isn't easy, and the Chief knows what he needs to win: working airplanes. His chief engineer, Richard Gordon, can't promise him anything. "We shall never get in the air again," he laments. "Flying is finished."

Yes, it appears to be a Dark Age for mankind as Everytown runs short on medical supplies (where Dr. Harding -- much older -- serves as the local physician), and where knowledge of aeronautics and machinery seems ready to slip away forever...

But then, one day -- out of the clear blue sky -- a highly-advanced plane arrives in Everytown. The pilot is a gray-haired John Cabal, making a homecoming of sorts. He now serves in "Wings over the World," an organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to restoring trade and civilization to the area of the Mediterranean. Cabal's mission is also to stop "petty dictators" and bring an end to independent, sovereign states...the end of Nationalism. The Chief naturally resists, and has Cabal arrested and thrown in jail.

In a short time, however, Wings over the World arrives in force (in giant flying fortresses -- another prophetic idea from Wells), and bombs Everytown with the harmless "Gas of Peace." There is only one casualty in the attack: the Chief himself, who conveniently has suffered a heart attack. "He's dead and his world died with him," opines Cabal without pity, as the black-suited members of Wings over the World descend on Everytown by parachute. "Now...for a new life for mankind."

After a lengthy interlude during which vast machines building an advanced underground city, we skip ahead to the subterranean Everytown of 2036. Oswald Cabal is the leader of the city now (grandchild of John), but faces an insurrection from anti-progressives (conservatives?) who fear that progress has gone too far; that technology is out-of-control and once again threatening the safety and peace of man. Exhibit A in their argument is the vast Space Gun -- a giant device that is primed to "fire" a rocket to the moon. Cabal plans to send his daughter, Katherine, and her boyfriend, there, to prove that human progress is unstoppable, limitless.

"We demand a rest," argues the leader of the anti-progressives on a giant, city-size view screen (seen by thousands of citizens). "The purpose of life is happy living!" Cabal doesn't hinder the speech (a fact which promises a world of free speech and free expression, at least...). Instead, he trusts that his people will be wise about the future. "They'll have to hear him," says Cabal. "They'll have to hear him and make of it what they can..."

In the end, progress marches on, and the rocket is fired into space. Gazing out into space via a telescope, Cabal debates the future of the human race with an anxious friend, one who sympathizes with the anti-progressive movement. Is mankind ever to stop moving forward? What comes after the moon? After the stars? At this interrogative, Cabal deplores the "ugly spectacle of waste" that represented warfare in the twentieth century, and says that progress, technology and wisdom -- the push into the future -- has made "danger and death worthwhile" and that the human adventure is only beginning. Mankind he believes, must "go on; conquest after conquest." The choice is as simple as "all the universe or nothing."

The film ends with a stirring, dramatic question from Oswald Cabal to his friend (and to us, in the audience.) "Which shall it be?"

That's a good and highly relevant question in these turbulent times of terrorism and warfare. The element I admire most about Things to Come is this pervasive. thorough and committed anti-war message. It seems to me that Wells, Korda and Menzies get this element precisely right.

What could mankind do -- what could we accomplish -- if we didn't squander our blood, our youth, our treasure, and our science on killing, on war? The sky - nay the stars themselves - would be the limit.

I absolutely believe this is accurate, and often point out that every citizen in America could have had free health care for the last several years with the money we have wasted fighting the Iraq War. (And by the way -- Iraqis already have universal health care It's good enough for them, but not us, apparently.) And better yet -- nobody would have died. This is just one real life example of how war destroys or severely limits man's progress and opportunity.

Wells also (rightly) predicted that for every advance in science that man forges, there is blow back; a counter-movement of men who want to take us "back" to an earlier era; who desire to believe in old superstitions and myth rather than utilize science to scale new heights. We see it now in the anti-intellectual movement that flourishes in this country today.
Nor is it difficult to understand why Wells has targeted nationalism and religion for extinction in his utopia of the future. As long as we divide ourselves into little teams (Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, liberals, conservatives, gays, straights, Marvel, DC, etc.) he believes we won't work together for the common good. It's not enough, apparently, that we're all human beings, or all citizens of planet Earth. Look, for example, at what nationalism has done to America in the last eight years. We Americans were so mad (and so scared...) after being attacked on September 11th that we angrily...invaded the wrong country. And we did so largely on the basis of patriotic arguments. Oopsy...

Yet what I find deeply troubling about Things to Come is this Wellesian notion of a World dictatorship - benevolent or otherwise. Look at the scenes in the film featuring The Wings over the World air men -- strangely faceless and identical -- swarming through Everytown in their spiffy black uniforms. This is just another face of fascism, isn't it? These men arrive, utilize weapons (even the harmless "gas of peace" is technically a weapon...), and then impose their will on the citizenry using superior technology. Now, these men would tell you they are doing what's best for mankind. But I would argue that's the same point every dictator in history has likely made. Who knows what's best for mankind? Who chooses? The point, I suppose, is that human beings should be free to choose for themselves how they live; not have a particular ideology - even progress - forced down their throats. Or am I wrong? Do we need a strong man to point us to the light?

Whatever the eventual form, Things to Come is spot on, I suggest, with this prediction of a World State. In our world, however, I believe it is likely to be a corporate world state, not a socialist one. There are steps being taken towards that today, and frankly, it frightens me...a lot. Also, though I sympathize with Wells, I believe his socialist sympathies made him misunderstand human nature. Here's an example: In his vision, man reaches the moon in 2036, after a uniform World State is in charge; after nationalism is long dead. In our world, by explicit contrast, it was nationalism -- the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- that spurred the space race. We made it to the moon in 1969, because of the need to compete; the need to beat Russia, right? So I can see both sides of the nationalism debate. It can be good (moon landing) or bad (Iraq War), I suppose. But just let me make this point: as far back as Athens and Sparta, nation states competed...and the competition brought about great art, great science and great literature, no?

Things to Come is a brilliant film filled with fascinating ideas, but some do clearly border on the simplistic. Cabal is ruthless...but well-intentioned. What if another man in that position was not so well-intentioned? That is a question that Wells doesn't get around to answering here. (It's the same question, by the way, that Dark Knight ignores).

Technology-wise, this film features extraordinary miniatures and blends them deftly with live-action sequences. The views of the Everytown cityscape of 2036 remain breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Some of the miniature war footage (of tanks rolling across barren wastelands) is virtually indistinguishable from stock footage. The aerial footage also appears remarkably real. This is amazing for a film released seventy-two years ago. It is ironic, however: Things to Come imagined a world where technological devices would become vast, colossal; in the real world, we've experienced a revolution of miniaturization instead.

Finally, the last moments of the film will remain with you, along with Cabal's probing question. The universe? Or nothing? Which shall it be? More importantly, if it's the universe, how do we find our way to that future? Benevolent dictatorship? United Federation of Planets? Global free trade?

Anyone?