Friday, March 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

This 2008 "adaptation" (meaning "re-imagination") of Jules Verne's long-lived literary wonder Journey to the Center of the Earth opens with a big fake CGI bug depicted in extreme close-up.

This shot is followed quickly by gliimpses of a big fake CGI tyrannosaur chasing a hapless human.

And this moment is followed, alas, by a big fake CGI shot of a gigantic, volcanic fissure, as the unlucky human attempts to navigate it.

We go from these hideous, artificial-looking (3-D?) special effects moments to something worse. A cutesie-poo montage of balding star Brendan Fraser, as he makes silly faces in his bathroom mirror.

Yep, that's why I want to see a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth: to see Brendan Fraser doing shtick while brushing his teeth...

It was during this ridiculous and unnecessarily "comic" scene (just moments into the movie...) that I realized Jules Verne must be spinning in his grave.

As I'm spinning in irritation and disappointment.

I know, I know. There will be readers who castigate me for disliking a movie that was "made for children." My only answer to that is that children enjoy good movies too, and this re-invention of Journey doesn't fit the bill. It's 100% crap.

By comparison, the 1959 adaptation starring James Mason (my review here) was a family film suitable for children, but also a supreme cinematic entertainment; one that took the premise, characters and adventure seriously. It had a brain, a heart and a sense of curiosity. The new Journey has only...set-pieces and Hollywood shmaltz.

This Journey to the Center of the Earth tells the story of down-on-his luck vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser), whose brother Max disappeared ten years earlier while trying to prove the existence of "volcanic tubes" leading to the center of the Earth. When Max's teenage son Sean comes to stay with Trevor for a week, they uncover Max's journal...written in the margins of a paperback copy of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. With the help of a hottie mountain guide, Hannah (Anita Briem) in Iceland, Max and Trevor embark on a journey...guess where?

Like most blockbusters made today, Journey to the Center of the Earth's problems begin with the script. In this case, the screenplay is juvenile, unserious, over-the-top in terms of sentimentaility, and pedantic. Even a ten year old viewer may wonder at the coincidences the writers stack up like piles of tyrannosaur poop. Most significantly, that vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser) discovers his dead brother's journal on the exact same day that the seismic readings in Iceland would permit for a journey to the center of the Earth. Talk about lucky...these readings allegedly match just once a decade!

Or how about the fact that 13-year old Sean gets cell phone reception on the ocean at the center of the Earth? I can't even get cell-phone reception in my parent's neighborhood, and it's not hundreds of meters beneath the surface last time I checked.

Some of these trespasses would be less obvious, or perhaps even forgiven, if the film looked great. But it doesn't. This Journey to the Center of the Earth is bright and colorful, but every new set-piece looks like a gaudy amusement park ride. There's a ridiculous mine-car sequence (shades of Temple of Doom...) that actually adopts the angles and look of a roller coaster ride. And don't even get me started on the scene in which Trevor and Sean pick up sticks and begin batting flying fish like baseballs (this, after a dialogue exchange about going to batting cages early in the film...).

And because a film these days isn't a success if it doesn't generate a franchise, Journey to the Center of the Earth ends with a brazen bid for a sequel...pointing to Atlantis as the next adventure location. Argh!

This movie irks me on so many levels I can hardly begin to enunciate them all. Let me just focus on the gall...the gall of the creators. To craft a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth -- and yet not make it an adaptation of that great work -- can only be described as supreme hubris. The creators happily took the name and a central idea (a journey beneath the Earth) and left out everything else. That's tantamount to fraud.

This would be like going to see a film entitled Star Wars only to learn that a character in the film is reading a paperback novel called Star Wars but you won't actually be seeing Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or any other characters associated with Star Wars. Instead, the movie will just adopt a few of Star Wars' great concepts...and title.

It's troublesome that the book title would be re-used here for a "new" story, but even more galling that the writers thought they could craft a better story with the title Journey to the Center of the Earth than Jules Verne did.

If you're looking for evidence of how dinosaurs, fantasy and dopey comedy don't mix, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a perfect example. And it proves, pretty conclusively I assert, why the new Land of the Lost is going to be terrible. Because as bad as Brendan Fraser is in this film, he's still an infinitely more appropriate lead than Will Ferrell.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 70: Mercy Point (1998-1999)

Created by Trey Callaway, Milo Frank and David Simkin, the futuristic science fiction medical-drama Mercy Point was basically Star Trek meets M*A*S*H, a sci-fi narrative concerning surgeons with hands like Gods...but feet of clay.

These surgeons and physicians of the far-flung year 2249 AD, much like the wartime emergency medics of the Korean War era 4077, also had to contend with their unconventional location: in this case, a space station near Jericho Colony (population: 50,000) and lodged inside the mysterious realm of outer space called The Sahartic Divide.

Mercy Point -- a deep space medical facility -- was sometimes known as "the first stop for anything coming into the [solar] system and the last stop for anything leaving."

Mercy Point Hospital was governed by the interfering, bureaucratic ISC (Inter-Species Council), and administrated by chief-of-staff De Milla (Joe Spano). But the talk of the sector was talented alien physiologist Grote Maxwell (Joe Morton), a brilliant doctor whose ingenuity and inventive solutions to problems made him a local legend. Maxwell was born to poor gas miners, and his mother died of lunar pneumonia when he was just fifteen years old. Maxwell had not talked to his father and siblings for years, as the series began, and in fact, was searching the sector to locate them and repair the breach.

The lovely and committed Dr. Haylen Breslauer (Maria Del Mar) served as Mercy Point's no-nonsense director of medicine. Lonely but caring, Haylen began to develop romantic inclinations towards Grote Maxwell as the series developed. She also had to contend with her half-sister, Dru (Alexandra Wilson), who was assigned to the facility as a Mercy Point resident in the first episode of the series, "New Arrivals." Haylen had spent much of her adult life bailing the irresponsible Dru out of problems, so she wasn't exactly pleased to see her little sister arrive on the front-lines of the final frontier. She was one tough boss too...

Meanwhile, Dru had a lot to prove, both to to herself and to her big sister. As an irresponsible youth, Dru Breslauer had bottomed out on 'Crobes (an insidious, addictive microbial symbiotic life-form known for granting humans a "high" before causing cramps, dementia and eventually death...). After a friend died during a 'Crobes overdose experience, Dru turned her life around, got into medical school and turned her life around. She also developed a relationship with another Mercy Point doctor...

...C.J. Jurado (Brian McNamara), the adventurous, womanizing director of "extra-vehicular medicine" on the station, which meant that he would often take jaunts to damaged spaceships in futuristic ambulances called "med crafts." As the series opened, C.J. was dating a by-the-book military officer, Kim Salisar (Salli Richardson), but the unexpected arrival of Dru Breslauer threw the relationship into chaos. C.J. seemed to be a character always headed for trouble. In the unaired, 25-minute pilot, for instance, he was decapitated while searching for a shuttle's black box and had to be "re-capitated" by Grote. In the actual series, C.J. combated a murderous alien in an airlock in "No Mercy," and was wounded and nearly killed. In "Battle Scars," those wounds nearly led C.J.'s brain to sink into his spine, but he was saved by an experimental procedure at the last minute.

Mercy Point's resident alien was Dr. Batung (Jordan Lund), a lizard-like alien constrained to a kind of wheel-chair device since the gravity on his home world was vastly different. Batung -- a tailed, tentacled creature -- did not understand human beings well and was known for being haughty and difficult. As Mercy Point's Spock, Maya or Worf, Batung would sometimes offer inscrutable Shenn wisdom. One such nugget was "the greatest of competition is always within ourselves," from "Last Resort."

The last major character on UPN's short-lived series was ANI (Android Nursing Interface), a gorgeous nurse and "Simbot" played by the gorgeous Julia Pennington. The other nurses were jealous of the perfect ANI, but she didn't seem to mind, as her programming didn't allow her to recognize sarcasm, jealousy or other negative emotions. In the first episode, "New Arrivals," it was ANI who held the key to curing a deadly computer virus that had leapt out of computers and begun to infect human brains.

Recurring characters included Dr. Rema Cook (Gay Thomas), a psychologist who undergoes a brief bout of on-screen horniness with a much-younger paramedic (not that there's anything wrong with that...) and Nagnam (Haig Sutherland), a friendly alien orderly who is utilized mostly as comic-relief.

Mercy Point
ran for just seven hour-long episodes in 1998-1999, and the various stories involved, by and large, diseases and cures that involved the integration of alien and human communities. Dru had to detox a teenage 'Crobe addict (called a 'skeezer') without parental consent in "Battle Scars." A dying alien historian named Jeel shared an experimental blood transfusion with a sick human boy named Clayton Kelly (suffering from "Thalanemia") in "Last Resort," and so forth.

Overall, the approach was serious and somber, but not saccharine. Although the series waded into the emotional conventions of life-and-death medical dramas, it was also "true," in a sense, because a last-minute cure was not always found. A teenage gymnast had to deal with the (permanent) loss of her legs in one episode. A teenage boy who dreamed of being a writer died of his disease in another story. Another episode saw a threatened fetus removed from a pregnant mother (with a weak heart...) and transferred for the duration of the pregnancy into an exterior, artificial womb device. In one tale, a pilot died after a magnetic storm on her ship, and her husband was able to relive her final moments through a memory sub-plot involving a young paramedic who was plagued by a perpetual erection after sexual intercourse with an illegal pleasurebot.

Where Mercy Point also succeeded was in taking the conventions and ideas of the medical drama and transferring them to deep space, with a futuristic bent. For instance, the station was equipped with a talking computer named Hip (after Hippocrates...), who could verbalize a patient prognosis after a quick scan (and holographic display of internal organs.) The doctors "scrubbed" in sonic decontaminators, utilized laser scalpels and could put patients in cryo-stasis while they puzzled after a cure. When the situation warranted it, the doctors would operate in Zero-Gravity surgical theatres, replace broken limbs with "bio-prosthetics" and even perform "mem-prints," memory downloads from dying patients. In some situations, holographic technology was utilized to bring in family members for consults and last goodbyes with patients on the space station. One story even involved a parasitic alien who was a "viral bomb." If surgery was not successful, "pyro-cleansing" would occur, meaning that the alien -- and the doctor (Dru) - would be incinerated to prevent contamination.

During its short time on the air, Mercy Point even featured a mini-story arc of sorts. Over the course of three episodes ("Second Chances," "No Mercy" and "Battle Scars"), someone was murdering alien patients on the station, and Dr. Maxwell was framed and investigated for the crimes. During the emergency, the station was segregated into human and alien sections, and the "great experiment" of Mercy Point nearly came to an end. The real culprit was an alien who was upset with the idea of human influence on his species and the notion of integration. Since Mercy Point represented the "integration of humans with aliens," and since Maxwell represented Mercy Point, the plan was to discredit him.

The sci-fi series also featured some nice attempts at continuity. Dru's history with the 'Crobes came up in episode four, "Second Chances," and the de-tox of the future-goth kid happened two episodes later. Also, a disease called HSS (Home Sickness Syndrome) reared its head in several episodes ("Last Resort" and "Battle Scars".) Series creators were clearly attempting to build a new but detailed universe from the ground-up, and on some fronts, were rather successful in doing so.

In one episode, Mercy Point Hospital is described as a "fish bowl," and that's good shorthand for the areas where the series tends to fail. Sometimes, you feel like you're watching a fishbowl. The sets are claustrophobic and you never really get a chance to visit with these doctors during their off-duty hours to get a more thorough sense of who they are outside the job. Space is vast, but Mercy Point had the tendency to feel cooped up. Even additional establishing shots of the station, visiting ships or speeding med crafts would alleviate this problem, but all the effects shots on the show are oddly truncated. You never even get a really good, prolonged look at the exterior of the facility. Footage from Starship Troopers (1997) is utilized in the unaired pilot, which also featured John De Lancie in the Joe Spano role.

Some critics also complained about the "soap opera plotting" of Mercy Point in 1998 yet - oddly - the same critics today laud Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) for the inclusion of the same soap opera elements (like substance abuse, family rivalries, and inter-crew romances/break-ups...). Others worried that the show was in danger of becoming "The Disease of the Space," a complaint which may have had some legitimacy, especially if the series had continued longer.

Mercy Point wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the short-lived series deserves some credit for the breadth of its ambition (not to mention the good performances by Morton, Del Mar and others...). I mean, this is an outer space series airing in the Age of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Babylon 5 and there is not an honorable warrior race or space battle to be found anywhere. There's little by way of tiresome Empire-building/politicking sub-plots either. Taken as simply M*A*S*H in Space, Mercy Point was certainly a unique and intriguing experiment. It's far less insular and therefore far more approachable than 1990s era Star Trek. Which means, at times, Mercy Point is just what the doctor ordered...

The series in not currently available on DVD.

Monday, March 16, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

There's an old saying in Hollywood warning actors not to work with animals or children.

If you happen to find yourself in a vintage 1970s-era horror film, however, you should amend that proverb a bit. May I suggest: don't piss off animals or children?
Because they will have vengeance, and there will be blood....

Case in point, the rather remarkable Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), a tense, Spanish-made genre gem. Like all great films (and great horror films) Who Can Kill A Child? reveals something important about the times in which it was crafted, a context which also gave rise to other child-centric horrors such as It's Alive (1973), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976).

As David Frum, the notable conservative scholar wrote in How We Got Here, The 70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better of Worse): " It's hard to remember an era when American popular culture was as nervous of children as in the 1970s." (page 106).

Frum further points out that the number of births dropped to its lowest level since the Great Depression in the year 1974. This was despite the fact that the baby boomer generation -- a huge generation -- was now of child-bearing age.

So what the hell was occurring in America during the 1970s to turn innocent children into icons of fear, anxiety and terror? Well, a recession and gas/energy shortage made children an expensive proposition, to start with. Plus, there was the contentious war for sexual equality (characterized by the controversy around the Equal Rights Amendment...). One front in that war concerned reproductive rights. The latest salvo was the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court

Also -- especially where horror movies are concerned -- it is virtually impossible to separate the idea of "children" from the idea of "tomorrow." Kids are an explicit and recognizable representation of the future...our shared legacy. If something terrible happens to the children, the future becomes grim. If the children turn evil, again our outlook is desperate. If the children happen to turn against adults for a valid reason, then we have failed totally, and our civilization is doomed.

These notions are at play in the unsettling Who Can Kill A Child?, which depicts a British married couple, biologist Tom (Lewis Fiander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), as they countenance true horror. The couple decides to take a vacation on the remote island of Almanzora, a place where "very few tourists ever go." It's a four hour boat ride from the mainland to Almanzora, and though the island "certainly looks peaceful," nothing could be further from the truth.

At first the island appears deserted, but before long, Tom and Evelyn learn from a shattered, lone survivor that all the adults are dead. Worse, the islanders were killed by their maniacal children; tykes who suddenly and inexplicably turned homicidal a night earlier. Before long, Tom and Evelyn are fighting for their lives as roving bands of murderous children block their escape route at every turn.

"Its as though they thought we - the adults - were their enemies," Tom realizes (a bit too late...).

On Almanzora, Tom witnesses a multitude of horrors, all while protecting his expectant wife. He sees a violent pinata game involving an elderly man strung up by his feet, a circle of giggling children, and a sharp sickle. He also sees the grisly aftermath of several massacres, including a beating death, and a vaguely sexual attack inside the island church. Finally, Tom and Evelyn -- now going into labor -- take their final refuge in a police station. The children arm themselves, and Tom finds a machine gun....

He's left with an unenviable choice. For...who can kill a child? Another important question: if our children rebel against us, could we, would we and should we fight back? As the film's climax reminds the viewer, making the terror identifiable, "There are lots of children in the world..."
Who Can Kill A Child? is the sort of horror film that gets under your skin through stealthy but effective means. It opens like a routine travelogue, as we follow Tom and Evelyn through the apparently mundane experience of their foreign vacation. The hotel at Benavis is booked, so they're sent to a house in the "old part of the city." They settle in, get directions to the beach, and then purchase rolls of film. That night, Tom and Evelyn enjoy fireworks and share an intimate (and well-written) discussion about Fellini, death, and the future in their rented bedroom. Nothing earth shattering at all...just ominously normal and "human." These moments establish the characters as real, but not in heavy-handed or soap opera fashion. It simply feels like we've gone abroad with them for a few days. Tom and Evelyn are likable and easy to relate to, a fact which serves the movie well.

Once we reach the island with Tom and Evelyn, the horror mounts. In little, clever bursts at first. For instance, there's a portentous moment early on (before the nature of the children is revealed...) in which Tom sees a little boy fishing on a pier. Tom tries to peek under the lid of the boy's fishing basket to see what he's caught, but the boy won't permit it. He shoots Tom a murderous, aggressive look. We never actually find out what's under that lid, but the moment is disturbing, and your imagination takes flight.

Other moments are crafted with more than a modicum of skill. There's an absolutely brilliant shot featured deep in the third act, an awe-inspiring reveal over one character's shoulder and a background mountaintop populated by "watching," unnoticed children. The move in question is a simple camera pivot, but one perfectly executed.

Or notice the manner in which the camera doesn't move at all during a critical juncture, as a central character slips slowly and inexorably out of lower right-hand corner frame for the last time, making the death all the more significant and powerful. And the director appropriately moves to hand-held, immediate camera-work during the siege in the police station, which ramps up the anxiety.

When Who Can Kill a Child's narrative calls for bluntness, we get that too, with shocking and egregious results. Late in the film, Tom is confronted with a barricade of children, three or four rows deep. They won't budge and just stand there, smiling at him. After a moment's hesitation, Tom opens fire with a machine gun, bloodying and murdering his youthful opponents. The gun fire is like a slap in the face...we're not used to such screen violence leveraged against children.

Even that spiky moment is superseded by a final, high-speed, nail-biting confrontation on a pier, with an attempted escape in a row boat. Children launch an ambush from the pier, jumping off and attacking Tom in the boat with ferocity and velocity. He frigging beats them back with a wood board, a knife, and any other weapon he can find, and the movie doesn't shy away from revealing the bloody results of the massacre.

Of course, I don't encourage violence or even the depiction of violence against children, but horror should be about the shattering of societal taboos and movie decorum. And horror is also - indeed - about nightmare scenarios rendered real, and asking the viewer to identify with "what it would be like" to face them. Who Can Kill a Child is both taboo-shattering, and identification-provoking, and by my reckoning that makes it a great bit of genre cinema. You'll be shocked at what you witness, yet at the same time, you may want to slap Evelyn silly when she refuses to reckon with the "reality" of the situation that the children on the island are homicidal.

The film's ending is comparable to Night of the Living Dead, with a slow-to-adjust society failing to understand the nature of the enemy and making a bad mistake. In a strange way, the movie is also a kind of "revenge of nature flick," like Day of the Animals or Hitchcock's The Birds...only with kids instead of animals. And of course, it's harder to shoot down a giggling child than a grizzly bear or pecking bird, right?

Who Can Kill a Child? is not perfect. The film mis-steps badly by opening with a nine minute, documentary "atrocity reel" about real crimes committed against children across the globe. We see starving children in Africa, murdered children in Pakistan, and young victims of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. These scenes are true and appalling and powerful, but I question their necessity in a horror film. They start the movie off with a gruesome, unnecessary heaviness, which, in some senses, undercut the very ordinariness of the travelogue and the slow-escalation of horror that follows. Essentially, they make the movie less effective because they telegraph the point of the narrative before the very narrative has begun.

The images in the mini-doc are powerful, but unnecessary. The director makes his point (about the world's cruelty to children...) without them all-together. In the body of the film proper, Evelyn sees footage on a camera shop TV of children dying in the Philippines. A shop owner says "the world is crazy. In the end, the ones who always suffer are the children." Message transmitted and received. The graphic imagery at the beginning is therefore just heavy-handed overkill.

Also, non-horror fans might rightly complain that Tom and Evelyn have apparently been born without the gene that allows them to sense the warning signs of incipient danger. This is something horror aficionados (like myself), willingly accept...because what fun would it be if Tom and Evelyn did recognize the danger and abandoned the island in their boat before the horror escalated? Horror fans will willingly (and happily) suspend disbelief, but non-genre fans may be screaming at the film's characters to get off the island NOW!!!.
Who Can Kill A Child? also shares much in common with the Children of the Corn franchises of the 1980s and 1990s, yet I should be absolutely clear: it's also a better-made scary movie than any one of them (even the '84 original). After watching this film, you may even want to amend a second proverb.

Forget "never trust anyone over 30." How about, "never trust anyone under 12?"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "True Believer"

Now that's more like it!

"True Believer" is an engaging, tense and intriguing installment of Joss Whedon's young series Dollhouse. It's also a vast improvement over last week's tedious "Gray Hour."

In this episode, our Active protagonist, Echo (Dushku) infiltrates a creepy fundamentalist cult (The Children of the Temple...) in Pleasant, Arizona. The twist in the tale, as it were is that Echo doesn't realize she's an infiltrator. Instead, she is an authentic "true believer," a blind religious fundamentalist who believes that she has experienced a revelatory vision of cult leader Jonas Sparrow...when it's really just an imprint.

Echo (as Esther Carpenter) is unaware that her unseeing eyes are actually miniature cameras and that she is recording images (for ATF agents...) of everyone she encounters in the cult compound.

Even better, there's a twist mid-episode concerning Echo's sight, one she misperceives as a "real" miracle.

I don't want to spoil the many surprises, but like "Target," this episode of Dollhouse packs more twists and turns into an hour than might rightly be expected or hoped for. Your assumptions about characters and events keep changing and the result is a fun, roller-coaster of a show.

I also feel that this is the first episode in a while in which Joss Whedon has remembered that it isn't the plot that's important to viewers hoping to connect with the series, but the characters and their mysterious natures. Here, several characters back at the Dollhouse (in a B story...) reveal tantalizing new shades. Victor, for instance, experiences a so-called "man reaction" (read: erection) while in proximity to Sierra in the communal shower. This is troublesome because in the "Doll" state, Actives are supposed to be total innocents. Another troublesome fact is that someone inside The Dollhouse is deliberately (and violently...) working against Echo. And, the last shot of the episode tells us that Echo knows it. Or at least senses it...

I also enjoyed the intellectual subtext of "True Believer." Echo visits a compound of smiling, empty-headed cult members who lack "will." The members of the cult are Sparrow's puppets; his pawns.

And how, exactly, is that unlike the Dolls at the dollhouse? They too are beings without will, to be manipulated by others. In each place (the cult and the Dollhouse), the blank slate is cherished as a return to innocence, a "new beginning," a return to the "Garden," to put it in religious terms. But what we're really talking about here is layers of control.

Fascinating stuff, and a legitimate, interesting comparison (and critique).

Next week's Dollhouse is the segment that's supposed to blow the lid off the series' mytharc and really kick the show into high gear. I'm crossing my fingers that's the case.

Can't wait...