Friday, March 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carriers (2009)

"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper," wrote modernist poet T.S. Eliot in 1925, not long after World War I.

I couldn't get that famous passage from The Hollow Men out of my mind while screening Carriers, one of the bleakest and most emotionally-wrenching end-of-the-world thrillers I've seen since the age of The Day After (1983), Testament (1983) or Threads (1984).

Those films all arose out of the Cold War and the pervasive fear of a nuclear winter during the Age of Ronald Reagan (who insisted, wrongly, that a submarine's nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch, and famously joked about bombing Russia in "five minutes" on an open mic).

In keeping with these modern times, however, and with the rise of the H1N1 flu, Carriers has updated the specifics of the global apocalypse.

This time, it is a terrible pandemic that has wiped out most of the world's population. Billions have died, gas is scarce, the Federal government is absent, medical science has all but surrendered, and the uninfected are left to carry on in a kind of moral abyss.

At one point during the film, we see a normal suburban town in middle-western America, or what's left of it. A truck marked "Bio hazard" and packed with human remains is abandoned on the side of the road, garbage is strewn everywhere across the avenue (as infrastructure fails...) and homes have been spray-marked in code by authorities, just like we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It's a grim portrait of collapse.

Carriers stars Chris Pine (Star Trek [2009]) as Brian and Lou Taylor Pucci as his brother, Danny. These siblings are a study in opposites. Brian is tough, brutal and adheres mercilessly to a set of rules. These are: avoid the infected at all cost, disinfect anything that was touched by the infected, and most importantly, "the sick are already dead." Danny, nicknamed "Ivy League" by Brian is a well-meaning intellectual without a cutthroat bone in his body. He is Brian's conscience when needs be, but he also hides behind Brian, who does the dirty work for his little brother.

As the film opens, these brothers are making an end run across America's back roads. Their destination is Turtle Beach in the Gulf of Mexico, where they hope to settle until the disease dies out. They are traveling with Brian's girlfriend, Bobby (Piper Perabo) and a girl they rescued at a "McMansion," Kate (Emily Van Camp).

The best-laid plans of these siblings fall apart, however, when they encounter a desperate man, Frank (Christopher Meloni), and his eight-year old girl, Jodie (Kiernan Shipka), who is infected with the disease. Frank informs the travelers that he has heard of a new CDC center in a close-by town that may possess a vaccine. He is desperate to get his daughter to that cure. Brian simply wants to appropriate Frank and Jodie's car and continue on their way to Turtle Beach, but Danny insists that they help out. So they help out, and events begin to snowball...

The remainder of Carriers involves the moral choices that these brothers must forge in the face of apocalypses both biological and personal. Early on, the film depicts a quick encounter with a murderous redneck, who shoots down an American Asian. The murderer ties a sign around the corpse's neck that reads "Chinks Brought It." So yes, the Tea Baggers and their nativist beliefs have survived the apocalypse too. They're well-armed (The 2nd Amendment Lives!), drive their pick-up trucks on patrol, and have graduated from shouting "Baby Killer" to cold-blooded murder.

But Carriers isn't a movie about politics, it is a movie about moral choices. Simply put, the "rules" that Brian so assiduously lives by are not quite as intractable when applied to those he loves, or even to himself. It's easy to say "the sick are already dead" when your lover is healthy, or you are healthy. But when those you love are sick, clarity is gone. As humans, we cling irrationally to things like hope.

The early portion of Carriers belongs to Meloni, who delivers a raw, understated and unforgettable performance. Frank does everything he can to save his sick little girl, and, in the end, is left with no options. He deals with his daughter's mortality in a way that will break your heart; by being , simply-- until the bitter end -- "Daddy" to his child.

There's a shot here that will remain in your psyche long after the film has ended: Frank walking in foreground, Jodie in his arms, while Brian, Danny and the girls drive away in abject cowardice (in the background), abandoning the man and his child. The car peels out in the distance, and Frank is fully aware of it...but he focuses, laser-like on the child in his arms, never looking back, never breaking composure. Instead, he asks Jodie to sing a particular song that he likes; as if they are the only two people in the entire world. She starts to sing it in that little, innocent, childish voice, and that's the last we see of Frank and Jodie in the film. But if you are a parent, trust me, you'll return to that image in your slumber.

If the early part of Carriers belongs to Meloni, then the last act certainly belongs to Chris Pine, who demonstrates here (as he did in Star Trek) that he is an actor of interesting and unusual dimensions. At first, his Brian is arrogant and cruel, but as the movie goes on you see another side of the character. He is the one who makes hard decision after hard decision...for his brother. In fact, Brian's final, irreversible, aggressive decision may play to some in the audience as selfish and desperate, but I propose the opposite. It's his final gift to his brother; the last bit of toughening-up he can give to a kid who is constitutionally unequipped to live in this sad new world.

Again and again, Carriers asks the audience to consider the moral dimensions of the actions we see undertaken by Brian, Danny, Bobby and Kate. At one point, Bobby commits an absolutely immoral act, but does so after trying to save Jodie's life. Still, she hides the fact that she may be contaminated, and in this particular world, that's absolutely tantamount to committing murder. She jeopardizes everybody by clinging to irrational beliefs about the disease, and about her own mortality.

We also encounter that Tea Bagger, still eager to kill someone who looks different and place blame, despite the fact that blame, at this point, is certainly immaterial. In one town, Brian and his group also encounter a doctor from the CDC, one who makes an absolutely brutal-seeming choice regarding the dying children under his care. But even here, the film is honest. "Sometimes choosing life is just choosing a more painful form of death," he tells Frank. Not a happy message, but not an untrue one, either.

In another harrowing scene, two male survivors decide to abduct the girls (Bobby and Kate) for their own personal "use," but do so as easily as Brian acquires gasoline from passing travelers. In this world, people are simply another resource to be exploited. We see it happen again and again.

Carriers evidences some visual acumen, too. The movie opens with shaky home movies of Danny and Brian as youngsters. They play at Turtle Beach, feeding seagulls and running in the surf. The camera pans up to the sky and then we transition literally, into an upside down view of the world as it is now, as topsy-turvy a place as you could imagine. The image itself tells us how wrong things have become.

Directors Alex and David Pastor also have an eye for expressing irony. At an abandoned high school, a classroom has been converted into an emergency medical ward, but all the trappings of the classroom are still there. Namely, a banner over the chalkboard which reads "Career Day: Your Future Depends on It." In this new world, the banner is absolutely meaningless, and worse, a painful reminder of what has been lost.

Perhaps what I found most compelling about Carriers is that it is entirely devoid of typical Hollywood bullshit. There's no last act miracles for these characters; there's no sudden reversal of fortune for the world; there's no mock heroics to save the day. When beloved characters -- and children -- get the disease, they die. The film never succumbs to schmaltz or sentimentality. Instead, it ends with a simple and devastating admission: that Danny, sans Brian, will now spend the remainder of his days "alone." There's nothing to look forward to anymore.

In Carriers, the world is really falling apart a piece at a time, leaving only "places" like Turtle Beach, but no people there to comment on them. The silence in and of itself is devastating. Many apocalypse movies (zombie apocalypse movies particularly) are noisy, busy and crowded, so that you don't think about what's lost; instead you just think about staying ahead of the drooling hordes. Carriers looks into the abyss, and there are no distractions from the view.

So, no, Carriers isn't spectacular, it isn't pacey...but it is elegiac. "It's a beautiful day," says Bobby (paraphrased) "but it shouldn't be a beautiful day." Mankind is ending with a whimper, and the Earth is still spinning along. The sun is still shining...

Above all, Carriers makes you wonder how you would behave in such a situation. As a Father. As a brother. As a human being. Would you cling to your sense of morality in a crisis, or just act, to utilize the movie's most dynamic visual metaphor, as a vicious dog feeding off the corpses of the dead?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp (1930 - 2010)

Only a week or so after losing the talented Peter Graves, another great cult-TV actor who became famous in the 1960s has passed away; this time the incomparable Robert Culp.

Culp is perhaps most well-known -- also like Graves -- for his lead role on a popular espionage series, I Spy (1965-1968), for which he was nominated for an Emmy as best actor. His co-star was Bill Cosby.

But Culp is also beloved to Generation X'ers like myself for his role as the surly but heroic F.B.I. agent Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero (1982-1983).

In that ABC series, he joined William Katt and Connie Sellecca to form a heroic, funny, charming triumvirate. On Hero, Maxwell often talked about "the scenario," a catchphrase for the mission of the week. Also, Maxwell often goaded the reluctant superhero Ralph (Katt) into action by telling him "this is the one the suit was meant for." Despite the repetition of these remarks week-to-week, episode-to-episode, Culp always made them feel fresh, and more than that...funny.

In addition to starring on The Greatest American Hero, Culp also wrote episodes of the superhero series, including season two's "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell" (April 28, 1982) and the third season installment, "Vanity, Says the Preacher."

Culp also guest-starred in two of the greatest episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1964) ever produced. First, there was "The Architects of Fear," about a dedicated scientist and pacifist (Culp) who altered his very biology to appear as an invading alien (a Thetan) and thus unite the warring factions of Earth. In Harlan Ellison's "Demon with a Glass Hand," Robert Culp played Trent, a man with the power to save the future...if only he could remember who he was.

Culp also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He even appeared in one of the finest horror pilots ever produced, Gene Roddenberry's spooky Spectre (1977). Outside of the genre, Robert Culp starred in the theatrical box office hit, Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice (1969).

I've always admired Culp's approach to creating his memorable characters. Even when he played a straight-up hero, like Bill Maxwell or Kelly Robinson, Culp always gifted those personalities with his strong sense of humanity. This vision included fallibility, temper, attitude and a core of decency. Mr. Culp will be sorely missed, but his range and talent is preserved in his fine performances.

Tonight, I think I'm going to watch "Architects of Fear" again...

The Cult-TV Faces of: John Colicos

John Colicos (1928 - 2000) gave the genre several beloved and terrific cult-tv performances over the decades, usually of the villainous variety. Can you name the series and the episodes of these five frames?

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Homage to a Vanished Loved One: The Vanishing (1988) vs. The Vanishing (1993)

Almost two decades ago, Dutch film director George Sluizer was afforded a rare opportunity.

In short, he directed the same cinematic thriller twice: first the original Spoorloos or The Vanishing (released in America in 1991), and then the Americanized 1993 remake, also titled The Vanishing and starring Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges.

Sluizer's first version of the material was met with widespread hosannas, the second with hostility and brickbats.

Yet both of Sluizer's films depict, in broad strokes, the same tale. The Vanishing is the chilling story of a beautiful young woman who disappears without a trace at a gas station, and the obsessed boyfriend desperate to learn what became of her.
In fact, this boyfriend spends three years in search of the missing woman.

Another prominent character in both films is the perpetrator of the crime, a self-professed "sociopath," at least in the Dutch version. He is a strange bird too: both a perfectionist and, paradoxically, a bit hapless. In the third act of both motion pictures, this madman offers the hero a tantalizing " chance to find out everything." To retrace, literally, the steps of the missing woman. But it's a trap...

Both movie versions of The Vanishing are also based on the 1984 Tim Krabbe novel, The Golden Egg, but the importance of that strange and poetic title is evident only in the superior Dutch film.

There, early in the proceedings, the not-yet-missing woman, Saskia (Johannah Ter Steege) explains to her boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets) that she has recently experienced "another nightmare."

In that nightmare, Saskia dreamed that she was trapped in a golden egg flying through space for all eternity. And worse, she envisioned Rex in a golden egg of his own, but separated from her. If you've seen the Dutch version of the film, you understand the import of this imagery; and what the "golden egg" actually represents. To say that it symbolizes something horrific is to underestimate wildly.

The original Spoorloos, a film liberated entirely from American commercial concerns, treads deeply into symbolism, and utilizes film grammar to visually buttress the narrative's main points. The opening shot of the original, for instance, is of great import. It's a long, lingering look at a stick bug clinging to a tree. The bug is camouflaged, and is the same brown color as the tree branch. On first, cursory glance, it could be mistaken for being an outcropping of the tree itself.

What this image represents is that the stick bug is like something else (the tree), and can pass as something else (again, the tree), but, significantly, it is not something else. It is unique. After watching the film, the viewer comes to understand that this image pertains to the most important quality of Saskia's heartless abductor, Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). He is a sociopath -- a man without feelings of empathy for other humans beings -- yet he functions in French society both as a teacher and a family man. It is that last descriptor, "family man," that enables Saskia to trust Lemorne on the eve of her kidnapping. She "sees" Lemorne, but does not sense or understand what he truly is. And what is he? In more ways than one, he's a reflection of the stick-bug. His "hiding"-in-plain-sight status mirror's the bug's similar status. Lemorne lives among men, but he is a monster, a breed apart.

Another finely-crafted composition early in the Dutch gilm also highlights a sense of ominous foreboding. Rex and Saskia's car has run out of gas in a long, dark tunnel. Rex leaves Saskia in the pitch-black tunnel and walks for more gas. When he returns, she is not at the car, but at the far lip of the tunnel instead.

In other words, Saskia is in the white (day)light at the end of the tunnel, a figure half-discerned. We understand visually then, that the movie is foreshadowing her approach death. She is literally in the light at the end of the tunnel, a common descriptor for "death" in many circles, and sure enough, at film's climax, we see this evocative framing recur. Rex travels the same terrifying miles as Saskia and upon his final disposition detects Saskia in the light at the end of the tunnel again. This time, he is joining her in death.

The Dutch version of The Vanishing also charts the similarities and differences between Rex and Lemorne's personalities. Both men are obsessive to the point of dysfunction, and both are determined to battle -- to the death -- the hand that they presume Destiny has dealt them.

Lemorne has learned from childhood that to feel special, he must push limits. This means he is willing to make dangerous leaps, literally, and test his very nature. If he is capable of heroism (and "capable of rash gestures"), he wonders, is he also capable of great evil? His abduction and handling of Saskia is his answer to that question. In the film, we see him rehearse his planned abduction repeatedly, even testing his own pulse rate to see if it spikes during the personal violence and tense confrontation of the kidnapping.

Similarly, Rex is overtly obsessed with Saskia and her fate. In part, this may be because in the moments before they separated, he promised he would never abandon her. That seems to be the very thing Rex can't let go of; his vow never to leave Saskia. If he slips into a new life with his girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), he is not a man of his word, and he understands that.

Like Lemorne, Rex seems to rehearse his own personal (imagined) moment of truth; in this case the decision whether to "not know" and perhaps let Saskia to live, or to "know" and, in the process, let Saskia die. Rex's need to know the truth ultimately drives him to act heroically (again, rashly, per the vocabulary of the movie), and he sets himself up to learn his beloved's fate. But the act is rash: it is not her life at stake this time, it is his.

The original The Vanishing ends with one of the most harrowing, panic-inducing scenes ever put to celluloid, an end to "uncertainty" for Rex, no doubt, but also a reflection of the Golden Egg nightmare introduced by Saskia. In a truly horrifying moment, Rex -- with his last breath on this Earth -- defiantly shouts out his own name for the Heavens to hear; a desperate, last attempt to assert his identity before going under, to the Hades constructed for him by the unfeeling Lemorne.

Featuring very little by way of traditional music, the Dutch The Vanishing is icy, precise, gripping and surprising. Rex's final destination is shocking and grotesque. One facet of the film that remains so fascinating is the fact that Sluizer doesn't attempt to cloak the identity of Saskia's abductor from the audience. On the contrary, he exposes Lemorne early -- and fully -- so that the audience can balance hero against villain; sanity against insanity; empathy against emptiness. The Vanishing also concerns the way people make assumptions about other people, and whether emotion colors those assumptions, for better or worse. Shorn of emotions, Lemorne pursues his ruthless game. Confused by emotions, Rex plunges headlong into his grim destiny, all while believing he is going against the grain.

Is it Predestined that a Man Should Die? The Vanishing, American-style

While crafting his remake of The Vanishing for American audiences, there must have been a point at which director Sluizer was asked -- in the style of his dramatis personae -- if it was predestined that this movie should tell the exact same story as the original film.

Having told his story once one way, was it necessary to tell it the same way again?
Commercial interests would demand, for instance, that the hero survive and the villain face punishment (and even death).

This time around, the characters involved in the action are the boyfriend, Jeff (Sutherland), the abducted girlfriend, Diane (Bullock) and the perverse abductor, Barney (Bridges).

But more importantly, the American version of The Vanishing adds a great deal of weight to the character of Jeff's new girlfriend, Rita (Travis). A kind of sullen, bump-on-a-log in the Dutch version, this upgraded girlfriend character of the remake is far more assertive and domineering. In fact, she's downright egotistical. While spying on Jeff, Rita tries to crack his computer password and, for some reason, she thinks it could be her own name. Now here's a man obsessed with the disappearance of his previous girlfriend -- to the point that he's been asked to write a book about the experience of losing her -- and this woman thinks she's password-worthy material?

At another juncture, Rita dresses up as the missing Diane to make a point to Jeff, which is not merely insensitive, but downright cruel. Thus in this version of the material, we have a third important personality to balance out the emotional (Jeff) and the emotionless (Barney). And importantly, this character, Rita, also battles the memory of Diane as strongly as she comes to battle Barney.

Consider, in weighing the success of the remake, that in the original film, we have no idea how Rex and Lieneke get together. In fact, it's impossible to imagine the sullen, internally-driven character, Rex, actually initiating a romantic relationship with another woman. It never seems remotely plausible. Here, the remake goes to great lengths to show audience how and why Rita enters Jeff's life. This is a new and critical element, at least in terms of narrative and theme.

And ultimately, it is this human connection that saves Jeff. Rita weaves for him the fate he can't weave for himself. She resorts to kidnapping, violence, lies and more to do so. He seems incapable of all these things. The upshot: we get is a meditation on the fact that in life there are hedgehogs and foxes. Jeff is a hedgehog; Rita is a fox. And that's why she beats Barney at his own game. Looking at this along class lines is illuminating too: Jeff is a well-to-do white collar man. Rita is a blue-collar woman: a waitress at a small diner. But goddammit, she's going to stand by her man (sorry, Tammy Wynette...) and keep him safe. Even from his own worst, self-destructive instincts.

What critics complained about in regards to the American The Vanishing is the fact that the remake subtracted the "perfect ending" from its equation. That's not all it subtracted, to put it bluntly. Also gone is the golden egg dream, and the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel sequence. The reason for these deletions is simple: Jeff survives, and is reunited with Rita. He does not rejoin Diane in death and therefore the tunnel shot and the golden egg reference carry no currency. Instead, Sluizer finds a different thematic angle in his remake. This Vanishing is more specifically about ego than its predecessor.

Consider, the assertive Rita is so driven by ego that she won't let Jeff go, even though he is obsessed with Diane. She mocks, cajoles, and eventually goes all out to win Jeff back -- rescuing him from the brink of death in the process.

Similarly, the malevolent Barney is driven wholly by ego. Unlike in the original film, this sociopath does not attempt to contact Jeff until Jeff has already stopped searching for Diane (at Rita's demand, no less). Barney cannot live with the fact that the one person connected with his "act of evil" may let it go and his genius might go unexplained, unacknowledged. Barney feels he is powerful and worthwhile only so long as he can control and dominate Jeff's mind. "Your obsession is my weapon," he tells Jeff, "I provided the material; you built the cage." Without that obsession, Barney is just another loser, and that's something his ego cannot tolerate.

Finally, look at Jeff. He too is driven by ego. Barney recognizes this fact, and that's how, in this version, he gets Jeff to drink the drugged coffee. "Who is Jeff Harriman if he's not the guy looking for Diane?" He asks. And yes, that's a question of ego. Jeff has defined himself by his obsession, and without it he has "no job, no money, no love, no peace of mind."

There's a sweep of the inevitable in the Dutch The Vanishing. We don't know how it's going to end, but we know that Rex is bound for trouble. The American The Vanishing features more overt violence, a more conventional conclusion, and it forsakes that aura of inevitability for an ending that is, well, determinedly not...pre-destined. But there's no reason why this ending is not valid, given Rita's tenacious character/ego in the remake. Here, Jeff gets to "know" (discovering the fate of Diane) and he gets to live. In retrospect, that isn't so horrible, is it?

Especially since we already have one version of the film in which this isn't the case. If we consider the remake as a film about ego, then it is Rita, not Barney (and certainly not Jeff) who comes out on top. She gets everything she wants: namely a devoted man, (of a higher station, so-to-speak) and one no longer distracted by the ghost of Diane.

I suppose this argument comes back to an important question about the nature of remakes. Are they supposed to be literal translations of previous films, or are they permitted to play around in the terrain of the originals, and draw different conclusions from them?

It's entirely possible that Sluizer could not have made a remake that critics approved of, even if he had slavishly re-shot, angle for angle, his original film. In that case, perhaps the critics would have noted that the remake offered nothing new.

In the final analysis, Sluizer has given us two distinct, parallel versions of the same terrifying story. The Dutch film is undeniably a work of art, a masterpiece in every sense, about human nature. The American version is a solid thriller, and probably about as good as the studio system and process of committee filmmaking would permit in 1993. There's a difference in quality, yes, between versions of The Vanishing, but perhaps it is not one so wide as many would have you believe.