Saturday, March 14, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Let The Right One In (2008)

The vampire coming-of-age movie Let The Right One In (2008) begins and ends with snow. Incessant, bleak, snow. Falling against a backdrop of impenetrable night.

At first blush, the snow seems beautiful, but on closer reckoning you see it for what it is: a blanket of cold despair, covering everything, raining down. Endlessly down.
Welcome to Oskar's (Kåre Hedebrant) universe. He's a twelve-year old boy living in a depressing apartment complex in blue collar Stockholm. Oskar's skin complexion is as alabaster white as the never ending snow, and his life is as relentlessly bleak, his chilly personality as mysteriously opaque.

Oskar's mother doesn't want him around, at least not when something good is playing on TV. And Oskar lives away from his father, who drinks too much...and may prefer to be with his gay lover than with his only son.

Sensitive and highly intelligent, Oskar misses his Dad terribly, something we realize when the boy momentarily grasps his father's jacket and inhales his dad's scent as though it's some long lost treasure, a nostalgic remembrance of better times.

At school, Oskar's
classroom lessons seem to dwell on the dark side. A policeman lectures to the class about drugs, but the officer lingers lasciviously on murder, as though it something tantalizing and romantic.

Even more troubling, a group of pre-adolescent thugs make Oskar's life a perpetual misery, bullying him every day and making him "squeal like a pig." The bullying isn't typical playground behavior crosses the line into real violence and sadism. Oskar keeps a knife on hand for self-defense, but so far has not been able to "hit back," to retaliate.

Oskar copes with his lot the best he can. He "reads a lot" and maintains a thick scrapbook of true crime incidents. "A senseless massacre in Beirut," and "No Survivors in Arab Massacre" are the headlines that have captured his attention and found favor amongst his mementos.

A mysterious figure, Eli (Lina Leandersson) also captures his attention.

She's another 12-year old (or thereabouts...), and she appears in Oskar's snowy apartment courtyard one night, atop a jungle jim as though some delicate bird of prey. Although Eli informs Oskar that she is not actually a girl at all, and that they can't be friends, a close relationship ensues. Eli urges Oskar to fight back against his tormentors at school, and Oskar accepts Eli for who she is.

And who she is, or who she happens to a vampire. Oskar processes and accepts this fact without question, without even blinking. In a world of divorce, loneliness, bullies, massacres and murder, why shouldn't there be vampires too?
Let the Right One In is a genre movie by way of Ingmar Bergman. It's a contemplative, deliberately-paced meditation on loneliness, adolescence, friendship and adulthood. In terms of approach, the film by director Tomas Alfredson de-romanticizes the vampire genre to an extreme degree, one not seen, perhaps, since George A. Romero's Martin in 1976.

The murders in the film are messy and ugly as the rest of Oskar's world. Eli laps blood up hungrily off a dirty floor at one point, and her "guardian" (a possible pedophile...) attempts one botched murder after another to procure her the nourishment she requires nightly. When he fails, he disfigures himself with acid so he can't be traced back to Eli.

And now and then, when we catch random glimpses of Eli, she appears either physically mutilated, or extremely old.

Ugliness and more ugliness...

Oskar and Eli are two lost souls, alienated from their society, who find each other and help each other get through the harshness of life the best they can. So when Eli states "I must be gone and live, or stay and die," some part of Oskar sympathizes with her declaration. He knows that he can't remain in gloomy Stockholm because the oppressive snow, cold, and empty emotional life modeled by his unhappy parents will smother and kill him as surely as will the "dead" adult society which heartlessly stalks and hunts Eli, the unacceptable predator in its midst.

The choice is simple, really. "Stay in the courtyard" as Oskar's mother demands, or take a chance and "let the right one in" to his life and try to find some measure of happiness with Eli.

An indictment of an adult world which fails children on every level, Let the Right One In depicts how two adolescents might build an intimate connection, even in the most difficult circumstances. They do so based on a mutual understanding of the things their lives lack: companionship, tenderness, security, and so forth.

After Eli's guardian, Hakan (Per Ragnar) fails to provide for Eli, she says "You were supposed to help me. Do I really need to take care of myself?" The answer, at first, is yes...until Oskar comes along. Once he's in the picture, the children will be able to take care of each other. They even develop a secret language, learning Morse Code so they can converse through walls...and, helpfully, through crates/coffins.

I shouldn't give the impression that the film ends happy. That wouldn't be true to the universe established by the filmmakers. Certainly, the bullies get their violent comeuppance (in a splendidly and innovatively-executed sequence involving a swimming pool and a camera positioned underwater...). And yeah, Oskar and Eli have grown a connection together, but really...what future do they have? What future can they possibly have together? Oskar will grow up...and Eli won't. Which will leave Oskar with the heartbreaking choice of either leaving Eli behind or becoming...the next Hakan. Not a happy or romantic option, to be certain. The "realities" of adulthood, the ones which destroyed Oskar's parents, will seek him out too. In time.

No, the Eli/Oskar friendship is merely a temporary respite against the snow, the warmth of a fire that burns bright, but will fade to cinders all too soon. Maybe, suggests Let the Right One In, that's the best humans can ultimately hope for. A temporary shelter...before the next blizzard buries us as again in alienation and isolation, ugliness and violence.

So by all means, Let the Right One In to your life. But also Let the Right One Stay. Eli and Oskar have just begun to weather the storm of adulthood. Even though, for right now, they have each won't be an easy journey.

The snow still falls...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Director's Notes: "Switched"

What would it really feel like to walk around in someone else's shoes for a time?

What it would be like for a man to be...a woman? Or vice versa?

That concept is at the core of this week's House Between episode, "Switched."

Much like the ideas underlining "Addicted," the story behind 3.4 "Switched" goes all the way back to the second season of The House Between.

In particular, there was the possibility that, because of our shooting schedule in 2007, we would have time to shoot an eighth "bonus" episode. I had put out a call for stories, and gotten great and inventive responses from Jim Blanton ("Separated"), Bobby Schweizer ("Populated"), Joe Maddrey ("Caged") and also composer Mateo Latosa, who devised the story concept underlining "Switched."

Ultimately we shot my "Distressed" as the bonus season two episode (2.6), and Mateo's "Switched" got tabled until season three. Till now.

As you can probably guess from the title, this tale involves...a switch. Or many switches, as the case may be. Specifically, I'm referring to "Body Switches" the likes of which you would see in Star Trek's classic "Turnabout Intruder," wherein Captain Kirk and Janet Lester trade corporeal forms. Other sci-fi series have also played with this genre convention over the years, from The X-Files ("Dreamland") to Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("This Year's Girl"/"Who Are You?")

Still, I mostly had in mind Star Trek, and to that end I designed special visual effects to specifically resemble "Turnabout Intruder," arranged some Trek-style rock-the-boat moments, (when the camera tilts and everybody sways...) and had Mateo compose an incredible Trekkish musical cue for the teaser climax. I feel giddy every time I hear that's awesome.

But despite these deliberate tributes to a favorite and beloved sci-fi series, I also wanted to make certain that "Switched" carried some real heft and meaning behind the switches, much like we used the alternate universe tale ("Separated") to excavate unseen facets of our characters. So here, the body switch concept has lasting repercussions...ones that lead us right into the final two episodes of The House Between ("Exposed" and "Resolved.")

To the cast's everlasting credit, every single actor threw themselves into their performances, collaborated, worked hard, and did a fantastic job. If Bill, Theresa, Arlo, Brick, Travis and Astrid had to walk in one another's shoes for "Switched," than Tony, Alicia, Jim, Craig, Lee and Kim had to do the same. God, I love these guys!

Tonally, "Switched" is entirely different from anything we've ever done on The House Between. This has been a season of ambition...for better or worse. Every story has been quite different from the last, from setting up almost a new pilot with "Devoured" to going deep into character in "Addicted" to crafting a horror movie for "Scared" to the catharsis and transformational nature of "Switched."

Only you -- the viewer -- can tell me how we did, ultimately. But I do know this: I'm exceedingly proud of the cast for going in "Switched" where they've never gone before...and where they weren't always comfortable or safe going. They are truly a spectacular and talented bunch.

"Switched" premieres tomorrow!"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

CULT TV MOVIE REVIEW: Night Slaves (1970)

Night Slaves (1970) may just be the dullest, cheesiest, most deeply silly TV movie of the seventies. And remember, I've seen Killdozer. It's a long, difficult slog through 75-minutes of ridiculous melodrama.

Directed by Ted Post, Night Slaves (written by the late, great Jerry Sohl) depicts the emotional journey of a man named Clay Howard (James Franciscus). He is disenchanted with his hot wife, Marjorie (Lee Grant), who is having an illicit affair with Clay's lawyer, Matt Russell.

One day, Clay is involved in a car accident and must undergo emergency surgery. The doctors implant a metal plate in his skull during the operation (though -- miraculously - they don't have to shave his head to do so...). Afterwards, Clay's surgeon recommends a vacation, one with "no pressure at all."

So Clay and Marjorie head off together to not-very-scenic Eldrid, California, a dusty old town that advertises itself as "a bit of the Old West." Translation: it's a studio back lot.

Clay soon notices that everyone in Eldrid is suspiciously sleepy, much like the audience of Night Slaves. He soon learns the reason.

By night, the townspeople including - dear god! - Sheriff Leslie Nielsen, turn into hypnotized zombies and are "herded like sheep" onto trucks and transported out of town to perform menial tasks for Noel (Andrew Prine), an alien life form who has taken the human form of the village idiot. Noel's space craft suffered "internal damage" while in flight and now Noel steals "four hours a night" from his human servants.

And here I thought Wal-Mart had atrocious labor practices...

Because of the metal plate lodged conveniently in his head, Clay is immune to Noel's dictatorial work orders. Instead, he falls immediately in love with the alien leader's only crew member, a naive technician named Nailil (Trish Sterling). Nailil shows Clay her damaged spaceship, as well as a selective invisible force field which she can pass through, but which Clay cannot. It blankets the town and prevents egress during the nightly work shift.

Even though they've just met -- and for a grand total of maybe an hour -- Clay and Nailil fall madly in love with each other. So when Noel's spacecraft plans to lift-off at 5:30 am one morning, Clay means to shed his Earthly form and be on board it...

Flaccidly paced, directed and performed, Night Slaves is an extremely tepid interspecies romance. Personally, I'll take combatants/would-be-lovers Angie Dickinson and Lloyd Bridges in Love War over Franciscus and Sterling here. They share no chemistry and it's not even remotely believable that the cynical Clay, so "unhappy on the treadmill" would drop his defenses in a mysterious town long enough to fall in love alien. With the central romance generating no feeling whatsoever, Night Slaves is simply unconvincing.

I'm not totally clear on the details of Noel and his alien nature, either. He says he comes from a "psychokinetic race," one of "pure mind." He has taken human form to oversee the laborers, but his spaceship is clearly corporeal in nature, which baffles me. I mean, he needs humans to do metal work for him. Now explain to me why a formless alien would build a ship he can't repair himself? It sure is lucky he happened by Earth, a third-world sweatshop for free labor, I guess...

More importantly, without any corporeal form, how do Noel and Nailil actually fly their dinky white space ship? Don't they have to push buttons?

And would a 20th century man -- especially an attractive, athletic sort like James Franciscus - really want to surrender physicality to be forever with a "pure mind?" I mean, you can't have intercourse if you have no body to do it with. And Trish Sterling's character is super hot in the body department, but not much in the "pure mind" category, if you catch my drift.

Devoid of interesting locations, special effects, make-up or production values of any and all variety, Night Slaves is a laborious waste of time. When the climax arrives and Nailil and Clay run together through a meadow and embrace each other in slow motion, it descends to total camp.

"I'm sorry you were subjected to all this," Neil the alien declares near Night Slaves' finale.

Apology accepted.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Another Glimpse of The Final Frontier

So, while everyone was out seeing Watchmen this weekend, I was at home editing (madly...) the fourth episode of The House Between's third season. .But -- even with my brain in an editing program -- I knew there was a new Star Trek trailer burning up the old Internets.

So, after having watched the new trailer about a gazillion times, here are my thoughts:

1. The more I see of the Abrams re-imagination, the more sold I am on Pine as Kirk. And conversely (and rather unexpectedly...) the less sold I am on Quinto as Spock. For one thing, Pine has a good voice for Kirk. Quinto for Spock? Not so much.

2. It looks like the plot is going to involve Star Trek's version of the Death Star, a "doomsday"-type weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. Now, we've seen planet killers on Star Trek before (V'Ger, the Genesis Device, the "ribbon"/nexus, Nomad, Spinrad's "Doomsday Machine" and the space amoeba of "Immunity Syndrome" to name just a few...), so I hope this isn't too much of a retread. Then again, if this universe's Kirk is going to quickly develop some captain credentials with Starfleet and the Federation government, saving an entire planet is a good start, no?

3. Not even a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. Boo. Come on, J.J....throw the longtime fans a bone.

4. The moment when Kirk takes the center seat of the U.S.S. Enterprise for the first time gives me goosebumps. If I get that feeling from a trailer -- and without it being Shatner -- then the movie must be doing something right. On the other hand, maybe it's just the portentous score...

5. "Fire everything!" Well, this re-boot is really going for the throat in terms of action, isn't it? Which, honestly is the way to sell a very expensive outer space movie to the masses. Even Gene Roddenberry had to sell Star Trek as an action-vehicle to NBC back in 1966 when he crafted the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Of course, Star Trek is also supposed to be valuable social commentary, and this trailer reveals nothing of that franchise aspect. Will it be present, or is this a Star Trek simply going to be eye candy, not brain candy?

6. "James T. Kirk was a great man. But that was another life." That's a line of dialogue that should have been avoided at all costs, especially if Pine proves disappointing in the role of a lifetime.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Gray Hour"

Our Favorite Active, Echo (Eliza Dushku), goes on an "engagement" imprinted as a master-thief in this week's Dollhouse, titled "Gray Hour." The job involves stolen art, and a secret vault rendered penetrable for a brief span by a security update 'gray hour.'

Unfortunately for Echo and her fellow thieves, a mysterious cellphone transmission from Alpha -- a remote wipe -- transforms her back into innocent, skill-less Echo in mid-assignment
. Which means that Topher, De Witt and Sierra at the Dollhouse facility must scramble to rescue Echo from the locked vault before security guards capture her.

In her "blank slate" persona, Echo is understandably confused to find herself far from the safety the Dollhouse womb, and Topher reports that she might undergo "extreme sensory overload," meaning Echo could become either passive or "Carrie at the prom."

Unfortunately, Echo doesn't really go either way, and the episode -- to adopt the lingo of the writers themselves -- becomes "one giant anticlimax."

"Gray Hour" features a terrific plot device (an Active wiped in mid-assignment), hints at the capabilities of the season's "big bad," Alpha (who has apparently developed technology far beyond even Topher's genius level...), and offers some interesting background information about the Actives, particularly that -- even wiped of memories -- they possess "instinctual survival tools," meaning that the strong will flock to the strong, and so forth.

There are many such good concepts at work on this series, and even underscoring this very episode of how come I don't like it better? Especially four episodes in?

Perhaps the answer rests with the dramatis personae: the characters -- usually Joss Whedon's strong suit. But Ballard (Penikott) is a cliche -- the dogged cop. De Witt (Williams) is a cold fish, and, if not a villain, at least playing her cards so close to the vest that we can't read her. And Topher (Kranz) is glib, arrogant, irritating and over-the-top. However -- most critically -- in terms of Sierra and Echo, it is extremely difficult to sympathize or identify with a blank-slate.

Dushku is a good actress. Perhaps even a remarkable one. To the extent that she manages to exude shades of Echo's "core" personality from week-to-week while "imprinted" with different characters is a testament to her talent. But it's simply not enough to make a viewing of Dollhouse feel...I don't know...intimate. Instead, the series feels distancing, not inviting...which makes it the exact opposite of Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Since there are no compelling characters to undertake this journey with, there's some kind of emotional void marring Dollhouse. That void gets filled with action scenes that aren't that well-staged, quips that aren't that funny, or philosophy that is tantalizing...but also maddening, since it is tossed out in the form of minuscule bread crumbs.

I'm still being patient, and I still detect the glorious potential of the series. I love the idea that an individual maintains some sense of identity or self-awareness, even without memories...but I just really, really want to see the execution of the episodes improve.

A lot.

An episode shouldn't feel like a "giant anti-climax." If you hint at "Carrie at the prom," you better deliver Carrie at the prom. And if Echo as a "blank slate" is so helpless that she can't handle herself in a crisis...why are we following her? Why is she an interesting heroine? Why is she worthy of our time and attention?

I hope we find out. Soon.