Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six More Days to Halloween...

In honor of Halloween (my favorite holiday, couldn't you guess?), let's play "Name The Horror Movie." Guest blogger Joseph Maddrey has provided these beautiful color photographs of horror movie locales as they are today (all photos copyright Joe Maddrey), and written a few clues about each location. These first three below are pretty easy. But tomorrow's are more difficult. And the next day's, even more so. Let's start...

(bonus points if you can identify the filming location as well as the movie title...)

#1 This is one of the most famous houses in horror history, though it’s changed quite a bit over the years. A young boy murdered his sister here in 1963.

Afterwards, the house was abandoned and later moved down the street. With a sunny new paint job, it now sits right next door to the hardware store where that same killer – 15 years later – adopted a new look and started killing again.

#2 This house is hardly in a rough neighborhood, but at one time it had bars on the windows. Back then, it was home to a single mother and her daughter. The mother had a bit of a drinking problem and the daughter… well, she had her own problems.

One night, the daughter started a fire in the basement. When the smoke cleared, her mother was dead. Or was she?

#3 This little suburban paradise is rumored to be haunted.

Paranormal researchers from a nearby university proposed that the little girl who lived there was the cause of some psychokinetic events.

But local legend offers another explanation for the strange activities: The house was built on an old burial ground.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Speed Racer (2008)

The Wachowski Brothers -- inscrutable auteurs of The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) -- deliberately shy away from high-profile promotional venues and Hollywood publicity. In essence, these enigmatic filmmakers let their cinematic work speak for itself.

With that tenet in mind, it's fair to state that their latest endeavor, Speed Racer (2008), says a lot.

Actually, it speaks volumes if you just "listen" (a leitmotif in the film).

Underneath a raging, roiling, hyper-real surface, Speed Racer determinedly concerns the art of "tuning out the noise" -- whether it be visual or audio. The film rotates on the important act of listening to a centered inner self; a personal self that can maintain focus -- amidst deafening cultural chaos -- on big philosophical ideas like individualism, corporatism, and even secular humanist optimism: the belief that a single individual can understand and control the objective world.

From the creators of The Matrix, I would expect no less.

In proffering and expressing these notions, the Wachowski Brothers have accomplished something of a miracle. They've created one of the contemporary cinema's wildest and most daring avant-garde entertainments, a modernist master's thesis on wheels.

Or, to put another way, Speed Racer is poetry in 100 mph.

Yet the Wachowski's have also produced a film that has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted by tuned-out film critics who can only reflexively lump in the dynamic, hyper-kinetic Speed Racer with idling, brain-dead TV-to-film adaptations like The Dukes of Hazzard or Starsky & Hutch.

To make this egregious error, however, is to willfully ignore the technical and narrative ingenuity of the Wachowskis. They've pulled a fast one on the audience and the critical establishment, in the process vetting a wolf in sheep's clothing. For Speed Racer -- sold to cynical audiences as a hyped-up commodity and rolled out like the newest "it" product -- is actually a rejection of mass culture under the guise of mass culture itself. It appears to be one thing (Godzilla [1998], Lost in Space [1998], The Wild, Wild West [1999], Planet of the Apes [2001]), but is actually a blazing critique of the very thing it so deliberately apes.

Modernism, lest we forget, is all about the fragmenting and re-ordering of the human experience with new science, and that's what Speed Racer concerns both in form and content: a glittering re-shaping of the tired, conventional film landscape with innovative technology (particularly in the digital realm).

In terms of visual presentation (or formalism), the Wachoswki brothers dynamically "layer" objects and characters over a variety of action-sequences and fantasy landscapes throughout the film. Green screen technology is utilized extensively to optically achieve this end, projecting our stalwart heroes (and our hissable villains) in stylized close-ups while, behind them, all of time and space unfolds like a sensory highway.

Through careful use of this technique, we in the audience are privy [visually] to the characters' innermost thoughts and memories. Thus the film fragments itself, leaping back and forward in time at the snap of a finger, boldly expressing personal, interior, emotional constructs like they are but upcoming road signs. As far as I know, nothing this audacious has ever been attempted on so grand a scale before, least of all in a movie designed to be a blockbuster.

Narratively, the directors fracture the customary (and tiresome) three-act story structure in just the way that the extensive use of green screen annihilates the long-accepted boundaries of the rectangular film frame. Form reflects content. One minute we're in the past and present simultaneously; in another we're just in the past, and so on. Speed Racer renders conventional film tools, especially flashbacks....utterly obsolete.

This is reality on speed: the film commences with toe-tapping, pencil-rattling kineticism and never gazes back in the rear view mirror to see if we're following along. While we're locked up by the restraining seat-belts of our conditioned expectations, Speed Racer rockets us willy-nilly into the tunnels of the past, across the bridges of the present, and then accelerates into future victories and defeats. It's all a breathtaking tour, a total obliteration of one hundred years of prescribed film decorum.

Where a traditional film cuts... Speed Racer virtually "bursts" (literally popping from the cockpit of one speeding car to another with no visible break in the film's continuity).

Where a traditional film dissolves or fades...Speed Racer "assimilates" past and present in multi-level, always-in-motion green screen composites without end.

Modernism as a philosophy is played out in the film in other ways too. For instance, in modernism there's the distinct separation of man and machine. In this regard, please take notice of how the Royalton "jackals" and "headhunters" deploy a wide variety of scientific tricks/machinery like spear hooks and "battery boosters" to win races, while Speed Racer's ultimate victory results from his listening to his inner voice and heart. Machines can build a car in 36 hours. Human hands can do it in 32.

Speed Racer also evidences modernism's admirable faith in the real, a faith in something authentic beyond the accepted media representation of "a thing." The film constantly presents (and then critiques) the overriding views of the mainstream press/media, whether in the celebrity personalities of the various racers, in the critical commentary provided by caustic talking head race announcers (pundits?), in hyperbolic National Enquirer-style magazine covers that blithely ignore the truth of a situation (Is Speed Racer Dirty Too? or thereabouts...), and in the ostentatious, seductive world of big business and big money.

At one point, the film crosscuts explicitly between the decadent parties of the rich corporate raiders (replete with ice sculptures and gourmet, designer foods...) with the home-made, PBJ sandwiches of the Racer family. It's surface "cultural" values versus "authentic" family values, and Speed Racer makes no accommodations in this anti-business message. The evil Royalton (who scarily resembles political writer Christopher Hitchens...) informs Speed that "all that matters is money" and rants about the "unassailable might of money." He believes that people can be bought and sold, and that justice is merely another "commodity" to be purchased and dispensed. He struts like Alexander the Great before an enormous stock ticker -- astride the business world -- and in some sense this character forecasts the greed and corruption we see in the Financial Crash of 2008.

Speed (Emile Hirsch), by purposeful contrast, is the real deal. He incorporates the true moral values of his supportive family. Of Sparky, who is all about "loyalty." Of his Mom (Susan Sarandon), who watches her son race and sees not dollar signs, but a boy who "makes art." Of Pops (John Goodman), who is steadfast and idealistic, someone who believes that "you can drive a car and change the world" and that the Grand Prix could never - ever - be fixed.

In the end, as Speed faces his final challenge in the Grand Prix, he siphons strength from these "interior" voices, from the support of all those who love them. he has listened, and so he incorporates their views and their beliefs into one final push of the win the race. The corrupt, ostensibly powerful Royalton is left alone at this juncture, with no allies...looking for a government bailout, perhaps? He has no inner core, no decency, no morality to fall back on. In the end, even the previously-supportive media turns on him, offering a headline (or epitaph) which reads: "Cheaters Never Prosper." At least not in fantasy films like Speed Racer.

There will be those who watch Speed Racer and note with derision that it is not realistic. This is true, but realism is not the point. At all. Instead, Speed Racer is the modern equivalent of fare like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's often whimsical, it's quite exaggerated (in the style of the anime 1960s series), it boasts a touch of the macabre; and it's not "real" by any conceivable definition. Instead, Speed Racer is a film wearing post-modernist clothes as a commercial ruse, but incorporating the morally sound, beating heart of modernism instead (synonymous with individualism, synonymous with intention of purpose, synonymous with depth; with art vs. capitalism instincts). If you're seeking realism; this isn't your movie. If you're seeking a terrific family film, Speed Racer is right up your alley, because it can be enjoyed on simple narrative terms (as a movie about a kid racing cars...) by children, and as an exquisite exercise in modernism by discerning adults.

Speed Racer
is also highly self-reflexive. It is a modernist critique of the post-modern form it apes (a big budget commercial product; a movie of a popular old TV show re-imagined for the 21st century...) It is about the "art" of making films, versus the "business" of making films. It's about the reasons to create art; as opposed to the reasons for creating commerce. Young Speed Racer is metaphorically the filmmaker who is "in it" for his own reasons, for love of the game. Royalton is metaphorically the cynical studio head counting beans...dedicated only to profit.

Amazingly, Speed Racer even incorporates a trenchant criticism of film reviewers by including all those talking head announcers in the mix. One of them callously and pompously claims early in the proceedings that race night is "his night." Meaning that he puts himself above the event in terms of importance; he puts his wit, his amusement above the importance of the thing actually being described (the race in the film; a movie in real life). Racer X's advice to Speed that a "car is a living, breathing thing...all you have to do is listen," is the Wachowski Brothers -- burned by absurd, contradictory, self-important critical reaction to their Matrix sequels, perhaps -- reaching out to the audience. This is their message: a movie is a living, breathing's not a product. All you have do is listen. And watch. Attentively.

I'm not qualified to comment on Speed Racer as adaptation of the original anime series, because I have only a passing familiarity with the franchise. I only watched scattered episodes a few times over the decades. And then, not with a critical eye. Perhaps the film utterly misses the mark in that regard. I just don't know. You'll have to find other reviews if you want that particular information.

I can only tell you -- in my capacity as an objective film critic -- that this non-conformist, optimistic film is revolutionary in form; inspiring in content, and human to the core. The "noise" in the film we must escape is the sound and fury of Fuji, the Casa Cristo Classic ("The Crucible"), the Molten Ice Caves, and the Grand Prix 91. In life, the sound and fury we must escape is that of big business relentlessly selling us a product, or critics telling us to hate something they don't understand and no have no interest in understanding. But if you can tune out all that digitally-created noise in the movie (and all the hype and bad reviews in life...), you may find yourself in the same boat as young Speed Racer himself: concentrating on important things. Like family, honor, decency, loyalty and love.

Yes, the race courses in the film are intentionally over-the-top and in purposeful defiance of gravity and physics, but the human story underneath is the value worth seeking. Gravity and physics aren't important to Speed or the Mach 5, because man is separate from machine, and -- in a strict interpretation of modernism -- man controls the machine (and objective reality) himself. They must bend to him, never the opposite. Maybe that explanation will satisfy some who found the film too unbelievable to tolerate.

And adding further to the believability factor here, the Wachowskis made some wise, careful choices in casting. Susan Sarandon walks into one scene (set in Speed's bedroom) and grounds the entire movie with her empathy, with her heart, and with her admonition of love and admiration for her son. The same goes for John Goodman, in his scenes. There's nothing mechanical, empty or cynical the performances, and that's another reason I don't see this film as many others did; as merely an endless, empty video game.

Simultaneously a film of big ideas and a shining peek into the future of film technology, Speed Racer didn't deserve to fail at the box office. But then, as the film itself cogently makes note: "Since when did winning become so important?"

Friday, October 24, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir

"On one hand, gleaming spaceships, cyborgs, laser guns, aliens, robots, monsters and far-off planets..."

"On the other, dark forbidding streets, private eyes, elegant femme fatales, psychopaths and mysterious murders..."

- From the preface of Paul Meehan's comprehensive genre study, Tech-Noir (2008).

Sadly, I just don't have the time to read every review copy that publishers send my way here in Muir-ville. But every now and then a fascinating book title, a concept, a description, or even an introductory passage will cross my desk and jump out at me, requiring some serious attention.

That's precisely what occurred with Paul Meehan's compelling and well-researched monograph, Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir (McFarland, 2008). This book captivated me and I've been thinking about it on and off since I began reading it last week.

This book adopts the long view of genre history, and charts the ascent of the science-fiction noir from the days of German Expressionism in the 1920s to the modern age of such films as Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999) and even I, Robot (2004).

After explaining how the 1930s and World War II environment originally gave rise to film noir in America (in terms of film-style and thematic narrative), Meehan explains in detail how many familiar noir archetypes (private eyes, femme fatale, Sydney Greenstreet-type villains, a bustling city backdrop...) have been co-opted and resuscitated by the science fiction genre. I must confess, I had considered this notion occasionally (in terms of Dark City and Gattaca, particularly), but Meehan does an admirable job of exposing just how deep the bond between film noir and science fiction actually runs.

The naked [American] city of the 20th century, whose "mean streets" were once dominated by the likes of con-men, thieves, murderers, hookers, informants, immigrants, spies and vulture-like aristocrats, has been replaced in the new format with a populace that instead includes, in Meehan's words: "alien vampires, homicidal androids, teched-out hackers, assassins dressed as Jesus Christ, Men in Black, fluid metal Terminators, decadent genetic designers, psychopathic scientists and extraterrestrial femme fatales."

Meehan also writes" "As strange and exotic as this technological Mordor may seem, it is but an echo of another world, the DNA mutation of a template of reality created in a far distant time and place, in the nation of America in the first half of the previous century."

Thus Sil in Species (1995) emerges as the ultimate evolution of the femme fatale: sex with this dame is literally fatal.

Thus Sean Connery's morally ambiguous sheriff in Outland (1981) is the heir of morally ambiguous private dicks like Sam Spade of Phillip Marlowe.

Thus the noir hero's investigation (ultimately a quest which takes him to a new reckoning of self....) -- a journey so important to an understanding of works like Chinatown or Angel Heart -- becomes the search for personal identity in films like The Matrix (Neo is the One...) or Dark City.

This rabbit hole goes much deeper than is initially apparent. The frequent film noir plot gimmick of "amnesia" (seen in such efforts as Somewhere in the Night [1946]), Shadow on the Wall [1950] and Mirage [1966]) is reinterpreted to include deliberately "erased" memories in the tech-noir thrillers Total Recall (1990) and Paycheck (2003).

The "locked room" mystery of film noirs like Dangerous Crossing (1953) get re-booted in modern thrillers such as I, Robot (2004).

The mistaken identity chestnut, so vital in Strange Impersonation (1947), re-surfaces in The 6th Day (2000) and others.

Meehan writes convincingly and authoritatively about the previously unexcavated tech noir genre (a term coined by James Cameron in 1984's The Terminator). In particular, I enjoyed the author's detailed discussion of the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson; and how their works have proven especially influential in the modern cinema.

Throughout the book, Meehan does something else of import too. He re-contextualizes films we all know well (and some we don't...); films such as Escape from New York, Existenz, The Fury, The Cell, Hollow Man, Impostor, The Island, Runaway, Robocop, Strange Days, Solaris, Timecop and Twelve Monkeys. Now I need to see them all again, considering the ways they "evolve" film noir.

By my personal reckoning, a really good film reference book is one in which you can tap into on the author's enthusiasm and passion for his subject matter; one which makes you want to re-visit the films he describes based on his new, and original take on them. If that's the benchmark, Meehan has exceeded it with Tech-Noir. The author doesn't "do" stupid capsule reviews; he doesn't give unnecessary binary (thumbs up/thumbs down) assessments of the works in question. Critically, he isn't caught up in some arbitrary received wisdom on these movies. Instead -- focused like a laser beam -- Meehan looks at the ways in which a wide variety of science fiction films fit perfectly his definition of tech noir, this strange hybrid of genres. I'd like to see Meehan next tackle the fusion of the horror genre and the film noir; a book that could include films like Angel Heart, Lord of Illusions, and, of course, Psycho.

You can order Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir at Amazon. Or from McFarland here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Cure"

In something of a switcheroo, this week's installment of Fringe, "The Cure," plays more like an episode of Chris Carter's late, lamented Millennium (1996-1999) than of Chris Carter's The X-Files. Well, I guess that's what passes for originality on network television these days...

In "The Cure," our heroes, the Bishops (Walter and Peter) and FBI agent Olivia Dunham, investigate the strange case of a woman in Milford, Massachusetts who has been mysteriously but effectively "weaponized;" her brain transformed into a microwave generator that can "fry" innocent bystanders around her (meaning that their eyes bleed out...). The behind-the-scenes culprit is a nefarious physician working for INTREPUS, a giant pharmaceutical company (and competitor to Massive Dynamic). When a second woman is kidnapped and time starts to run out, Peter (Joshua Jackson) makes a Faustian bargain with Blair Brown's character, Nina Sharpe, and helps Olivia bring down the evil doctor with a God complex.

Meanwhile, Olivia also reveals -- rather unbelievably -- that she is being stalked by her own variation of Frank Black's Polaroid Killer (a serial killer who kept mailing photographs of Frank's family to him at his new address in Seattle.) In Olivia's case, the stalker is an abusive stepfather whom she shot several years before. Now, every year, the recovered stepfather sends her a birthday card reminding her he's still "out there." Yep. Because he cares enough to send the very creepiest.

First, this subplot is highly derivative of Millennium, right down to the coda which finds Olivia unexpectedly receiving the suspicious "card" or "mail" slipped under her front door.

Secondly, the background story that Olivia describes to Peter (about her stepfather...and shooting him...) is rather unbelievable. An incident of this nature this would have likely disqualified Olivia for consideration as an FBI agent. Not merely has she committed a crime (shooting someone several times...), but she's quite obviously become psychologically-scarred about it; or at the very least erratic. I found it even more unbelievable that her swarthy buddy in the FBI knew all about her stepfather's birthday cards, and jokes about it with her. about an investigation instead?

This hackneyed bit of character "development" feels uncomfortably like a plot point added late in the creative process; one meant to drum up some meager human interest in Olivia, since she is the series' dullest character. Actually, the element I found most interesting about this week's Fringe is that the preview for upcoming shows only revealed a single image of Olivia Dunham, and very briefly (she was almost unrecognizable too, wearing a surgical mask). Instead, this entire coming attraction focused on the increasingly amusing banter between Peter and Walter. 

As for the rest of "The Cure" it plays rather like a second-rate hybrid of several Millennium episodes. We have the human test subjects in an experiment here, familiar from such episodes such as the first season's "Walkabout" and the second season's "Sense and Anti-Sense," plus the gory, bloody demises of "The Time is Now." The Pattern this week is much more Millennium Group than Syndicate, involving an organization acquiring "cures" to diseases for some hidden agenda.

I'll end this review on a positive notation: Dr. Bishop doesn't have all the answers this week!  Fringe's rigid formula is broken in "The Cure" when Dr. Bishop admits he's never seen anything like this "weapon" before. He never worked on a case involving it, and he has no deus ex machina device standing at the ready to combat it. What a relief! Also, on the positive side, the banter between Peter and Walter is, as I noted above, growing increasingly amusing. Dr. Bishop vets some funny material this week about recreational drugs being "entertaining" and an off-the-wall reference to sexual bondage. Peter's reaction to the latter is pretty damn funny.

If Fringe is to survive, the approach to take going forward is precisely the one that "The Cure's" coming attraction adopted: minimize Olivia and play-up the quirky father/son Bishop relationship.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Trading Card Close-up #12: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If Adventure has a trading card...

In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's 1930s-style cliffhanger/serial pastiche, Raiders of the Lost Ark, took the box-office by storm.

The blockbuster (and critically-acclaimed) film generated not only three successful sequels over the years (and decades), it also spawned a cottage industry of merchandise: from action-figures and novelizations to the inevitable set of trading cards.

On that last front, Topps produced a nifty bunch of eighty-eight Raiders of the Lost Ark "bubblegum" cards.

These cards depicted the characters and action scenes from the film, and rather successfully captured the movie's sense of wacky adventure with their exciting, slightly-campy captions (like "The Mysterious Medallion," "Our Heroes...Doomed?" "Marion Holds Off The Enemy!" and "Marion in a Jam!" among others...).

The cards were actually kind of pretty too, decked out with a forest-green backgrounds, the photos themselves surrounded by brackets of...hissing snakes.

Why did it have to be snakes?

Anyway, each pack of ten Raiders cards came in an illustrated brown wrapper, and there was a stick of (hard) gum included.

The first few cards in the Topps set introduced the Raiders "starring" characters. Card # 2, for instance, featured "Indiana Jones - Freelance Adventurer." On the back of the card -- inside a red and yellow drawing meant to represent the Ark of the Covenant -- you could read the equivalent of Indy's personal stats:

"His name is Indiana Jones, and danger is his business. So is archaeology. "Indy" travels the world in search of priceless historical artifacts, braving treacherous men and ferocious creatures, armed only with his bullwhip, his gun and his inordinate resourcefulness. He is a completely modern hero, and yet his adventures are as timeless as the ancient pyramids of Egypt."

I'll tell you what: only a real man like Indy can be described as possessing an "inordinate" sized resourcefulness, if you get my drift. Marion's card terms her "beautiful" and "spirited." Sounds like 1930s pulp writing, no?

Many of the other cards featured "pieces" of a long Raiders synopsis. On the back of "Where There's Smoke, There's Indy" (card # 67), for instance, the legend reads:

Finally, with the Flying Wing moving in a tight circle, its propellers cut the giant German airplane mechanic down to size! As explosions rock the sandy plains of Tanis, Indy and Marion make their way back to the Nazis' archaeological dig to consider their next move..."

Why go over virtually each visual in the film in such laborious detail? Well, remember -- this was the era before DVD; before VHS even. These story re-caps on trading cards were an important way for kids like me to re-live their favorite big screen adventures.

Today -- surprise, surprise -- I still own these trading cards (and cherish 'em). In fact, just looking at them here makes me want to watch Raiders all over again (for the hundredth time or so...)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 32: Blue Thunder (1983)

COMIC BOOK FLASHBACK #13: Blade Runner (1982; Marvel)

In October of 1982, Marvel Comics released "the official comics adaptation of the hit film" Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. Setting aside the crazy marketing hyperbole (because Blade Runner was not a hit film at all on release in the summer of 1982...), I've always found this two-issue adaptation of the tech noir classic to be one of Marvel's finest movie-to-comic efforts.

Adapted by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon, the comic version of Blade Runner evidences an unusually high-degree of fidelity to the film's visuals If you've seen Blade Runner (and I assume you have...), you understand immediately why that's so important. Blade Runner creates a distinctive mood and texture through its imaginative (yet wholly believable) visualizations of a future "dark city."

Just ponder Blade Runner for a minute, and your mind will fill with indelible images of incessant rain; neon signs, vast "talking" billboards on the sides of incredible skyscrapers, flying cars and the like. From the gleaming, smoking cityscape of the future, to the palatial penthouse of the Tyrell Building, Blade Runner proves itself one of the most visually unique and accomplished science fiction efforts in the cinema's history. Marvel seems to get that; it takes precious few liberties with the film's aura or production design.

One pertinent example: Marvel is the outfit that could never quite get the look of William Shatner's Captain Kirk right in Star Trek; but the artists here do a bang-up job of making Rick Deckard look exactly like Harrison Ford. Indeed, all of the likenesses to the cast are eerily, commendably good.

A good comic-book adaptation of a film doesn't just live and die by the visuals, but also by the way it successfully opens up a story we've experienced already; thus showing audiences something familiar and different at the same time. Here, again, I find Blade Runner quite an achievement. For instance, during one of the film's exposition-heavy early scenes (involving Deckard and his boss, Bryant), the comic-book actually cuts to images of the information/data Bryant is relating about the escaped Replicants.

When Bryant describes Roy Batty's history ("They used Roy Batty in every off world conflict in the last three years. He'd flown Gypsy ships with the Russians at Tannhauser Gate and been with the squadron of Night Timers in the wars near Jupiter..."), we see frames of burning spaceships, in planetary orbit.

It's just one more way to open up Blade Runner's world, but a powerful one. I remember when I first saw the film thinking about the incessant advertisements (carried on blimps...) for life "off world." That idea carried such import for me: who would stay behind in this overpopulated, nihilistic world? And what kind of life did the "off world" promise? Well, obviously someone at Marvel thought about that too, and inserted this nice little explanatory frame about Batty's outer space exploits as a "super soldier."

On the downside, the Marvel comic includes the theatrical version's hammy voice-over narration (though it reads better on the page than it did on the screen), as well as the sort-of-unbelievable ending sequence featuring Deckard and Rachel heading off to a natural northwestern paradise (really left-over stock footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining [1980]).

So far, Marvel hasn't offered an official adaptation of the "director's cut," so don't expect any unicorns...

Big Mac: The Final Frontier

Sunday, October 19, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Femme Fatale (2002)

Though hammered relentlessly by mainstream critics and shunned by general audiences on release, director Brian De Palma's 2002 thriller, Femme Fatale, must, on retrospect, rank as one of the and most underrated and under appreciated films of this decade. This movie is a mind-blowing trip; an outrageous and dazzling mystery in which all the "clues" are right in our face...if only we understand them.

Pivoting (nay, spinning...) upon familiar De Palma obsessions including mistaken identity, doppelgangers, and voyeurism, Femme Fatale is a dizzying, transcendent endeavor preoccupied with the way we see things; about the ways our eyes judge, interpret and misinterpret even that which seems - at first glance - crystal clear.

for example, an icy blond woman viewed from a distance in an upstairs apartment may appear, in a heartbeat, threatened by a man brandishing a gun. Or given a little more information, maybe she's actually purchasing the gun from that man. First impressions are not always correct. Or are they? This is the kind of cryptic moment Femme Fatale presents us again and again; ones in which our initial interpretation must be re-considered and re-evaluated.

Actually, come to think of it, every facet of the multi-layered Femme Fatale encourages the act of "seeing double;" or rather, interpreting double. That's why we get a plethora of split screen shots (the same scene, "viewed" from different perspectives); that's we get a daring, third-act re-boot. That's why we see a Parisian avenue both as "real" and -- in exacting detail -- as a work of art. Even the title lends itself to two distinct meanings.

In the traditional Barbara Stanwyck/Double Indemnity (1944) definition, a femme fatale is a dangerous siren, an alluring seductress out to lead a (usually hapless) man to ruin. But did you know that the French word femme fatale (meaning "deadly woman") may also refer to a woman who is herself trapped? One who is the victim in a scheme; not the victimizer. Throughout this film, both interpretations of femme fatale eventually cross our orbit and we reel with the possibilities.

The film's protagonist, Laure Ashe (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) may be viewed as either a woman manipulating those men around her, including photographer Nicolos Bardo (Antonio Banderas) and the diplomat, Ambassador Watts (Peter Coyote); or rather as a woman trapped in an ever-narrowing cage: one attempting to outrun the vicious criminals she once double-crossed on a daring caper in the year 2001.

How we view femme fatale Laure Ashe (and how others view her) is crucial to an understanding of this film, and De Palma - ever the master of visualization - makes certain that our glimpses of her nature, are -- to put it mildly -- diverse (not to mention ambiguous). In one instance, we view Laure from behind the opaque glass of a bathroom stall, where she makes love to a "mark" during a caper. In another, we watch Laure in long shot, conducting secret business, via the distancing eye of a camera's telephoto lens. When we first view Laure, in fact, it is her reflection (her opposite) we see displayed on a television set; one not coincidentally broadcasting the classic film noir Double Indemnity. At other times, we see Laure through the water of a fish tank, and this view is "murky.

In many of these cases, De Palma is simultaneously revealing Laure to us and hiding Laure from us. In the bathroom stall love scene (in which a sexually androgynous Laure seduces a gorgeous female model), for instance, we almost don't get to the scene's most important question: what is glass and what is diamond? Like a masterful magician, De Palma misdirects our attention...right before our lying eyes. Or, as critic Charles Taylor wrote in Salon:

"De Palma has been making movies for 40 years now, and he's never stopped developing and transforming his favorite devices -- split screen, slow motion, cameras that prowl the sets in long, unbroken shots. The confidence he has long shown has only deepened with each new movie. He has mastered the assurance that is the true mark of sophisticated moviemaking. In "Femme Fatale" De Palma is comparable to the sly prankster Luis Buñuel proved himself to be in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
De Palma makes a joke of our gullibility and gets us to laugh at how easy it is to be suckered -- and how much fun it is."

Femme Fatale commences with an audacious jewelry heist at Cannes (following a brief scene with Laure luxuriating in a hotel room, watching Double Indemnity). Pretending to be a photographer, Laure seduces a gorgeous, mostly-naked model wearing a ten million dollar diamond bauble. But then, Laure double-crosses her criminal associates, and attempts to escape Europe with her ill-gotten loot. Along her escape route, Laure ends up in the home of a doppelganger, a woman whose husband and daughter have tragically died. Luxuriating in a glittering bath, Laure watches -- spellbound -- as her grieving "double" kills herself
. Seizing an opportunity, Laure steals the dead woman's identity and flies to America, where she soon becomes the wife of Ambassador Watts. Laure's seamy past only re-surfaces when she returns to Francein the year 2008, and a down-on-his-luck photographer, Nicolos exposes her to the public; snapping a photograph of the ambassador's wife that permits Laure's old associates from the diamond heist to hunt her down and exact bloody revenge after seven years.

But the plot's greatest conceit is a third-act surprise which reveals that every element of the narrative following Laure's bath at the home of her doppelganger is - simply - a prophetic dream. In this "dream" (or nightmare) version of events we see first, Laure cannot escape the trap she has found herself locked inside. Like a caged, desperate animal, she attempts to blackmail her husband (Watts); she kills Nicolos, her blackmail victim, and finally ends up thrown off a bridge by her former associates....murdered.

Awake from this startling and disturbing dream (one which takes up a large percentage of the film's running time...), Laure is suddenly and remarkably gifted an opportunity to escape this fate trap by changing one single incident: rescuing her mourning doppelganger from suicide. That one act alone will alter the entire chain of events in the dream and free this femme fatale from a purgatory of her own making. This one act will set an entirely new destiny in motion; and we see that destiny play out in Femme Fatale's audacious, violent and bravura finale.

For some, this central plot element -- a prophetic dream that plays as real while we watch it -- may be a bridge too far. Yet, on close inspection, one can detect how De Palma has prepared us for it. Much of the film's dialogue involves the idea of dreams walking alongside "reality." For instance, in her hotel room at film's commencement, Laure's corrupt associate slaps her across the face and shouts "Are you high? Then stop dreaming, bitch!" This moment establishes that -- even as Laure watches Double Indemnity -- our heroine is somehow in touch with (or linked with) the dream world.

Later, as Laure prepares to take a bath in the home of the grieving widow, we hear a television advertisement playing in the background. "Wouldn't you like to have a crystal ball and see how things are turn out?" The ad asks, rather pointedly. This is, indeed, Laure's burning question: how can she escape the trap she has set for herself (by stealing the diamonds and double-crossing her associates)?

This purposeful dialogue prepares us for the "bait and switch" aspects of Femme Fatale (going from reality to prophetic dream and back to reality), and De Palma has crafted a movie in which the visuals cannily underline the idea of "two tracks" of life (dream and reality). His split screens accomplish this task (of two views at once) and so we're back to my definition of a good movie: one in which visual form echoes narrative content.

But the leitmotif of the dream is also valuable, because it shows us, as Laure states at one point, that life can be either "sugar" or "vinegar." Life can be good...or life can be bad; fate can be happy...or fate can be tragic (as it is for Laure's doppelganger). Accordingly, De Palma -- in accordance with his career-long obsession on double vision and double interpretation -- depicts both the vinegar (the dark path...) and the sugar (the light path...) here. Some audiences and critics likely believed this (the dream) was a gimmick; but De Palma's approach is careful, consistent and smart.

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed High Tension (2005) here on the blog, another film with a "twist" at the end, and I complained that it did not play fair with audiences. Here's why: that Alexandre Aja film attempted to convince us (the audience) that the Final Girl and the Serial Killer were one in the same person. That they shared a splintered psyche as well as a physical form. Meaning that it was the Final Girl who committed all the murders, and so forth. Yet, that explanation seemed to fly in the face of the film's clear facts as depicted for us (for instance, that the killer and the Final Girl clearly arrived at the scene of the crime in separate vehicle; that one victim was chained in the killer's truck which -- if you believed the twist -- never actually existed).

By contrast, I argue that Femme Fatale does play fair with the audience because De Palma visually "sections off" the dream sequence from the rest of the film, essentially book-ending the events of the dream with a definite end and a definite beginning. There's no reason for guess work, it's all clear. The dream begins with a certain sequence: Laure sinking down in the tub, as the film cuts to a clock showing the time: approximately 3:35 pm. At the end of the dream, the same sequence repeats, and we see the clock again, still showing approximately 3:35 pm. See? No fuss, no muss.

This book-ending of the dream in this fashion (the shots of the clock showing approximately the same time) allows audiences to understand that the events of the first-act heist (before the bath tub scene) are "real" and that everything after the bath-tub scene (the third act...) are also real.

The dream, in much the same manner as De Palma's frequent split-screen views, is thus a glimpse at "another track" of fate. Furthermore, Laure specifically acts on knowledge from the dream to change fate; to change her destiny. Nothing she does after the dream is contradictory or confusing, and we are not left asking "how did she get from here to there? Where did she get a gun? How did she meet, for example, Nicolas?" No -- on the contrary -- we are led to understand that the dream served a didactic purpose. That Laure will live the next seven years for real this time, with knowledge of that nightmare ("wouldn't you like to have a crystal ball?") to make better decisions.

The dialogue I mentioned above has prepared us here; De Palma's repetition of shots (the bath; the clock) has similarly prepared us. Sure, we were tricked initially (in watching the "dream" and believing it real), but that's as it should be: we're fooled (or tricked...) throughout the film into believing that something false is real (like the scene with Laure purchasing a gun; or the scene in which diamonds either are/or are not replaced by glass substitutes). The dream "trick" fits in with the central leitmotif of Femme Fatale: two interpretations; two views of reality, and our lying eyes unable to determine easily what is truth and what is not.

There about a dozen reasons to admire Femme Fatale as a stirring work of film art (not to mention as lurid entertainment). Beyond that which I've noted above (the double vision/double interpretation leitmotif), there's the opening sequence heist (cut dramatically to Maurice Ravel's Bolero) which is a masterwork of film technique; a sustained build-up of tension with a brilliant and cathartic crescendo. This is an example of why I love De Palma: he's a virtuoso with the camera.

Also, Rebecca Romjin -- wasted as nothing but a hot body in the popular X-Men franchise films -- gives an eye-popping, multi-layered performance in this film, skillfully adopting a number of interconnected identities (from clever Laure to grieving doppelganger; from lesbian seductress to sexy stripper; from femme fatale as victim to femme fatale as victimizer.). Yet despite her amazing portrayals, surely it is De Palma who is the real"star" here. The director has finally given the age-old film noir format a new and original twist. He's accomplished the seemingly impossible here : created an optimistic example of the format; one in which we can awake from the pervasive darkness to a more sunlit and hopeful world; one in which the multitudinous traps set by fate can be avoided or side-stepped. One in which dark destiny is not written in stone.

Like most film noirs, Femme Fatale is an erotic, cynical, cruel, and enigmatic crime drama; but unlike most of its brethren, here that ominous world is the "dream," not the depressing, pessimistic reality. I said from the outset of this review that Femme Fatale is "transcendent," and that's the case because De Palma - by visualizing two "parallel" worlds -- depicts how one good deed (saving a woman from suicide) can have a domino effect on the very foundation of reality, progressively knocking down the darkness and letting in the light, a little at a time. Laure starts out as Barbara Stanwyck, but by film's end, she is on the side of the angels. Thus Femme Fatale is about redemption.

Even the character archetypes we believed locked forever in stone --the femme fatale of the title -- can change; can grow; can mature. At least if Brian De Palma has anything to say about it.