Wednesday, September 30, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Shikoku (1999)

"Do a person's feelings...have to die with them?"

- Sayori, in Shikoku (1999)

This Japanese film by director Shunichi Nagasaki is one of the few post-Ringu horrors that hasn't yet been remade and repackaged in America.

And that's probably a good thing, since Shikoku doesn't trade so much on shocks and suspense as it does powerful human emotions, loneliness and longing. Make no mistake, Shikoku is a frightening genre film in many ways; but it focuses very intently (and grimly) on the meaning of death; and the things that death can take away from those left behind; those still living.

Shikoku depicts the tale of lovely, timid Hinako (Natsukara Yui), a girl who moved away from the island of Shikoku as a child, leaving behind two best friends: a boy named Fumiya (Tsutsui Michitaka), and the object of his affections, Sayori (Kuriyama Chiyaki), a girl with extraordinary powers as a spiritual medium. Like all women in the Hiura family, Sayori is able to let the dead speak through her, and in one horrifying session, a boy inhabits the young girl and tells his grieving parents "I want to get out of here." "Here" being a reference to the Land of the Dead.

Hinako returns to Shikoku as an adult, only to learn that Sayori drowned some years the age of sixteen. Fumiya has never been the same since her death, and nor has Sayori's obsessed mother, the last in a long line of priestesses serving on the island. In fact, Sayori's grieving mother has undertaken a strange quest: she is visiting all 88 shrines on the island sixteen times, but in the "reverse" order of the ritual. As Hinako and Fumiya soon discover (from an unpublished, secret book called The Ancient History of Shikoku...), this backwards pilgrimage can transform the island into the Land of the Dead. In fact, in a forested valley, there may be a cave leading to "Yomi," the underworld.

Hinako and Fumiya grow intimate as they learn more about the opening of the doorway to the dead; and there's an amazing scene in the second act in which Fumiya describes to Hinako the depth of his love for Sayori, even though she is long gone. Will he ever really love anyone else? Is he "ruined," because of his early loss? Can he love Hinako the same way that he loves Sayori? This scene is filled with deep, honest emotions, yet never mawkish. It's restrained, and yet the words are heart-wrenching and heart-felt. American movies don't often let characters talk this way; and if they do, it seems corny, or forced. But after this fascinating scene, we realize that Shikoku is a love triangle. Though one point of the triangle is dead and gone, in some senses she still wields the most power.

And then, inevitably, the doorway to the Land of the Dead opens, and Fumiya makes a fateful choice between the living and the dead. His selection is shocking, but right given his character's situation and the undying power of love.

Shikoku eschews flashy pyrotechnics and culminates with a surprise: a long, in-depth conversation between a dead girl, Sayori, and the two friends she left behind on this mortal coil. She's sort of delusional in her "dead state." Sayori believes that she and Fumiya can still have children and carry on the family line. But of course, that's impossible. And Sayori -- very much like the resurrected individuals of Pet Sematary (1989) -- has only one gift remaining that she can endow upon the mortal friends. Death.

There's a real, heart-felt, human dimension to Shikoku that remains incredibly appealing and intriguing. Death brings out different instincts in people. Some deny it. Some grieve it. And some people just categorically refuse to accept death. But, there are consequences, we are told, to changing the natural order of things, and some of those consequences play out in the film.

To provide a crude comparison, Shikoku is like Ghost (1990) without all the sentimental New Age crap. Unlike Ghost, this film doesn't aim to satisfy us merely with the belief that "we take the love with us" to the after life. Instead it asks questions about regret and fate. It pauses long enough for the dead to ask questions of the living. Like "Why did I have to be the one who never got to grow up?"

These are the questions of our mortal existence; of human tragedy, and Shikoku dwells on them. It cannot, however, answer these questions since the great unknown must remain...unknown. But the film is atmospheric and dread-filled because it gazes at the mystery of the beyond; at one intersection of the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Shikoku is a beautifully-realized horror film. At times, a hand-held camera makes us actually feel a part of the land. This is especially so in the case of the river where Hinako almost dies; and where Sayori drowns. These shots are almost always filmed from water level, so it's as though we're up to our necks in it; drowning too. In other scenes, after Sayori has returned from the dead (arising through a small pool of water...), the water always seems to be reflecting upon her person; whether she is actually in it or not. Shunichi Nagasaki is also crafty in the way he shoots the Sayori specter: He shows her eyes and face very infrequently; Sayori seems ever-present...but distant to us. Often, she is turned away with her back to the camera; or appears on her knees (below camera level), preserving the mystery of a returnee from the grave. One line in the film tells the audience that "the newly dead come stand by your bed," and a shiver-invoking scene puts that line to the test.

At the end of Shikoku, Hinako is informed that she will be the one "who lives." She thus leaves Shikoku, gazing back at the mountain which might just be the gateway to another world.

But after everything Shikoku shows us and reveals to us, it's not relief the audience feels at her survival. On the contrary, it feels as though Hinako is the one who has been left behind. Her demons, like Fumiya's, will continue to haunt her. Especially if love survives the grave.

Monday, September 28, 2009

TV REVIEW: FlashForward (2009): "No More Good Days"

FlashForward -- a new series from executive producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer -- might more accurately have been titled "FlashBack."

While watching the catastrophic events of this new series unfold, the careful TV watcher will experience a distinct sense of deja vu for the ghosts of TV series past, notably ABC's powerhouse Lost, and the canceled ABC series The Nine.

Like Lost, Flashforward opens in media res, with utter pandemonium. A series of diverse characters (like, say, the passengers on a crashed plane...) awake to find themselves injured, confused and populating a vast disaster area. Only here it's urban. Sirens blare, cars are overturned. Someone is on fire. And a kangaroo (substituting for an out-of-place polar bear?) hops down a busy metropolitan avenue.

The presentation is similar to Lost too: immediacy-provoking shaky-cam and all. And yet, it's undeniable that these shots of a chaotic Los Angeles freeway (and skyline) resonate in this day and age: they are epic in scope and presentation, and successfully remind one of the stomach-wrenching terror of 9/11. In one impressive and horrifying shot, a helicopter hits a skyscraper, balloons into flame, and then careens down to the top of a smaller building. Where it explodes.

Clearly, no expense was spared.

Another reference to Lost also arrives early: a billboard for Oceanic Airlines is visible in the background of one shot. If you're awake, you can't miss it, and I guess that's the point. I can hear the announcer now: "If you like Lost, you'll love FlashForward!" Now, I don't mind homage, but this represents craven corporate synergy here. Marketing embedded as drama. It's sort of insulting.

Like the late, lamented The Nine, FlashForward introduces a variety of dissimilar characters going about their normal, daily lives when something traumatic and totally unexpected occurs to them. In The Nine, it was a hostage situation in a bank that affected the dramatis personae. Suddenly, life was scrambled, relationships were re-shuffled, fates were altered, and the experience "changed everything."

In FlashForward, we get a vaguely sci-fi variation on the format: a sudden global black-out -- replete with premonitions -- lasts for two minutes-and-seventeen seconds and is the catalyst for a whole new direction in life. A doctor planning suicide suddenly glimpses his future and realizes it's not his destiny to die now. An FBI agent (Joseph Fiennes) who has given up drinking sees an image of himself off the wagon...drunk. His wife, yet another doctor, sees herself in a passionate relationship with another man. Her marriage is apparently over. See? Suddenly, all of life is up for grabs...

The nagging feeling that you've seen all this before is heightened, alas, by FlashForward's insistence on hammering home the episode's salient points ad nauseum. A TV news report flat-out states (with accompanying images of destroyed European capitols...) that the black-out was worldwide. But then, a stranger watching the broadcast notes, "my God, it's the whole world!" Then, after the commercial break, Fiennes' Benford tells us again that the black-out affected the whole planet. Without exaggeration, the episode reminds us six or seven times in the first hour that the phenomenon was worldwide, just so we don't miss the obvious.

Much information is transmitted in this ham-handed, unskilled fashion, for those in the audience with attention-deficient disorder, I guess. For instance, Benford's wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger), experiences a vision of her "future lover." We see that mysterious future lover in a vision, in profile...and get a good look. Then, that mystery man appears in the present, and the episode swoops around to get a profile. The camera move triggers our memory, as does the man's physical appearance. We recognize him immediately, but that's not sufficient for FlashForward. Nope, the episode cuts back to the same vision footage we just saw, just to make sure the audience "gets" that it's the same guy.

During the commercial breaks too, the over-caffeinated voice-over announcer aggressively reminds the viewership of everything that just happened three seconds ago. Was that kangaroo -- gasp -- a clue? What is the importance of the date of the flash-forward (April 29, 2010)? There's nothing like attempting solve a mystery in which the clues have been spoon-fed to you with the subtlety of a game-show announcer calling down the next contestant.

The significance of the date April 29, 2010? Let me hazard a guess. Why, that just happens to be a Thursday night! The night of FlashForward's season finale! How convenient! In the book by Robert Sawyer, by point of contrast, the flash forward was twenty-years or so into the future, not a mere six months. I guess the makers of FlashForward are hedging their bets...

And well they should. This program is pitched so low that the creators must assume the general TV audience now consists entirely of cabbage. My concern: if they think we can't understand that the black-out was world wide, how on Earth do they think they can explain quantum theory, strange matter and the other esoteric aspects of Sawyer's novel to us?

Now, just the other day, I posted a quote by Jean-Luc Godard in which he noted that it's not where you take things from that's important, it's where you go with them. Given that philosophy, I don't mind all that much that FlashForward steals some thunder from The Nine (which nobody but me watched anyway...) or the popular Lost. Imitation is the name of the game in television more often than not. What I find much more troubling is the mind-numbing lack of subtlety on display here. This show doesn't trust the audience to pay attention at all.

As annoying as this "telegraph-and-repeat EVERYTHING" approach turns out to be, I still found aspects of FlashForward tantalizing. One character, Demetri (John Cho), experiences no vision during the black-out, and assumes that this can only mean one thing. That he has no future. That in six months, he'll be dead. Now that's a terrific wrinkle in the formula. In the episodes ahead, Demetri may literally be fighting for his life.

And, of course, underlying everything here is the exact same (fascinating) debate that informed the movie Knowing (2009): free will versus determinism. Can the future be changed? Does knowledge of the future, in fact, automatically change the future? These are fascinating notions and can make for some great TV drama. I also found the last few shots of FlashForward's pilot absolutely chilling. One man on Earth, it seems, did not black out at all. Does this mean he's not human? Immune? Protected? What? That's a very intriguing mystery, no doubt.

But I still don't have much confidence, at least not yet, that the writers of FlashForward are going to approach these concepts and mysteries in anything approaching an intelligent fashion. In some ways, FlashForward gives me deja vu for one other TV program: Brannon Braga's Threshold (2005). That alien-invasion series exhibited a great premise but by the second episode the execution of that premise had gone straight down the toilet. The whole thing lasted six or seven episodes, as I recall.

I bet Braga's hoping we all don't flash back to that traumatic experience.

Friday, September 25, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sisters (1973)

"It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to."

- Jean-Luc Godard

Watching Brian De Palma's Sisters (1973) today, it's easy to detect the reasons why the director has so widely been touted as "the Next Alfred Hitchcock." His first thriller is perhaps the most inspired homage to the master's Psycho ever created (at least until the same director's Dressed to Kill in 1980).

First and foremost, the "Janet Leigh" trick (the notion that a lead character should expire early on in the proceedings...) is transferred successfully here. Also, in Sisters a surprise twist involving identity resonates and interacts meaningfully with Psycho's climax. Plus, De Palma shares another important trait with Hitchcock: a love of gallows humor. And for all the brutal, crotch-stabbing violence of Sisters, the film exhibits that wicked and subversive sense of black humor.

Yet De Palma's genius is revealed not so much in his multitudinous contextual references to the canon of Hitchcock (including Vertigo and Rear Window), but rather in the dramatic and clever manner by which he fractures the film's imagery. In other words -- in Godard's words -- it's not where De Palma gets his ideas from, but where he goes with those ideas. Here De Palma's purpose is entirely his own: to express, finally, a splintered mind/splintered sense of reality in the language of film grammar, thereby replicating the explicit content of his narrative.

In his Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Horror Films, author Darrell Moore opined that Sisters is "Brian De Palma's best film" because it "has humor and gore and is adept at balancing the two." (Crowne Publishers, 1983, page 125). Entertainment Weekly noted that Sisters' "final half hour set in a rural Bedlam is particularly bent" and that the frilm remains a "strange and scruffy piece of work." (Ty Burr, "Hitchcraft, January 15, 1993, page 56). Both reviews are accurate, and get right to the spirit of the film: a journey into schizophrenia that is simultaneously terrifying and absurd. The thriller even has the audacity to culminate with a bit of social commentary on the role of women in American society in the early part of the disco decade.

We Can't Discuss it Now. A Man is Bleeding to Death

Inspired by a Life Magazine article about the Russian Siamese twins Masha and Dasha, Sisters tells the story of a gorgeous model named Danielle (Margot Kidder), who appears on the local New York TV game show, Peeping Toms (think: The Dating Game) and then goes out to dinner with the winning contestant, Phillip Wood.

But Danielle's bizarre ex-husband, Emile (William Finley) stalks Danielle to the restaurant and makes a scene there. Concerned, Phillip escorts Danielle home to Staten Island. And though her crazy husband stands watch outside their apartment, they spend the night together.

The next morning, Phillip is brutally killed after hearing Danielle speak to her (unseen) sister, Dominique. The murder (which occurs on Danielle's birthday...) is witnessed by plucky investigative reporter, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), from her own apartment. The police don't believe Grace's story of homicide because she wrote an expose about the police that the force considered anti-cop. Grace investigates on her own, drawn into a bizarre story of co-joined siblings, a mysterious mental institute, and the shocking truth behind Dominique and Danielle. We learn that Danielle never learned "to accept" the death of her twin Danielle, and, furthermore, that she "kept her alive" in her mind so as to deal with the guilt of having been the twin to survive a surgical separation. Sexual experiences with men (like Philip or Emile) represent the catalyst that awakens the Dominique side -- the murderous side -- of Danielle's tortured mind.

Torn Asunder By Split Screens

In 1976, Brian De Palma staged the climactic scenes of Carrie utilizing split screens. There, in a scene set at the high school prom, he crafted a visual cause-and-effect relationship with opposing freeze frames. In one frame, Carrie (Spacek) would gaze at something, a target. In another, simultaneous frame, her psi energy would generate explosions or fire.

In Sisters, De Palma's purpose is different, but no less powerful. First, he deploys the split screen to ease the audience through a transition from one protagonist to another. He thus finds a new way of "doing" Hitchcock; of expressing the essence of the "Janet Leigh Trick."

As Philip lays dying in Danielle's apartment, the frame is split. On one side (and filmed from inside the window), the audience sees Philip desperately seeking help as he dies. On the other side of the frame, in a different screen, viewers see from outside the window that another character is witnessing this bloody demise. It's the reverse angle, essentially. As Phillip -- current surrogate for the audience -- dies bloodily, Grace Collier, new protagonist, is introduced. It's a visual passing of the torch, a way to get from Janet Leigh, essentially, to Vera Miles, without the connecting, seconed-act presence of Martin Balsam. Instead, the switch in protagonists is expressed instantly, within the confines of a fractured composition. The effect: the audience feels "torn" (or splintered, like Danielle). The object of our interest and sympathy passes violently away and we are shocked. Simultaneously, our curiosity is aroused by the new presence in the film.

De Palma also paints a picture of contrasts with his split screens in Sisters. In one sequence, Grace Collier and unhelpful detectives are seen arguing in the downstairs lobby on one half-of-the-screen as the bloody clean-up of Philip's homicide in Apartment 3R is depicted on the other screen. Here "time" is the notion held in common between competing, simultaneous images. One image reveals time squandered as the police delay Grace Collier. The other image (of Danielle and her husband, Emile, hiding the murder..) reveals time used meaningfully. The effect generated here is suspense: we want to scream at the police to move faster, to do something, because we can see the progress of the cover-up. Again, we are asked to integrate or balance competing feelings: a sense of wanting Danielle to be caught against a sense of wishing Danielle not be caught. De Palma's splintered composition permits and actually encourages both impulses.

In it's totality, Sisters involves a severe psychotic split. Danielle's damaged mind has "split" so as to accommodate two distinct, individual (and competitive...) personalities: hers and Dominique's. Her schizophrenic nature is reflected in De Palma's pervasive use of the split screen; and the impact of this split is revealed, in narrative terms by the myriad thematic allusions to Psycho. There too, Norman was two people: himself and his mother; an innocent and a guilty party. One individual seemed to be two in Psycho, but in Sisters the idea of doubling/twinning/splitting is carried to new heights thanks to the technique of the split screen editing. Even our ears, too, in Sisters are tuned to "register" Psycho thanks to Bernard Herrmann's score, but the visual imagination here goes brawnily beyond Hitchcock's considerable triumphs. Psycho tricked us (brilliantly), Sisters "splits" and divides our attention, mirroring the psychosis of Danielle/Dominique. Now, I'm not arguing that Sisters is a better film than Psycho (it isn't...); only that De Palma goes someplace new with the familiar building blocks of Psycho.

Sometimes There Are No Solutions: Order Not Restored in Sisters

Again, it's not where you get things from, it's where you go with them. And in Sisters, De Palma ultimately travels to a destination that Hitchcock might not have imagined.

In Hitchcockian cinema, order is almost universally, dogmatically restored. The static, lengthy, psycho-babble coda of Psycho proves this hypothesis, at least to a large extent. It slowed down the film's pace, it was mostly unnecessary in terms of understanding the narrative, and it ended a pioneering film on a placid, peaceful note, instead of with a jarring shock.

Contrarily, as the lead-in back to normal life outside the movie theater, this coda was just perfect. It was what the doctor might have ordered in 1960: reassuring, easily understandable, and rational to the point of being pedantic. Audiences would not leave the theater feeling debauched after Psycho, because that very important sense of decorum or order had been restored.

By contrast, De Palma apparently has zero qualms about leaving the audience to return to daily life unsettled. Consequently, he leaves his protagonist, Grace "hypnotized" at the end of the film. She even states that there have been no murders (a result of Emile's intervention). Now remember, this is the dogged reporter who has spent the entire film screaming to the heavens, Cassandra-like, that murders are afoot. Yet the film ends with Grace completely muddled.

This development, I believe, reflects two things. The first is De Palma's sense of humor: I think it strikes him as funny to undercut the protagonist we have followed for much of the picture. But more importantly, Grace's sad state at the finale is representative of De Palma's anti-establishment streak. Grace is a single-woman who, in the course of her profession, takes on entrenched male power in the form of the city police force. While reporting Philip's murders on the phone, Grace notes to irritated cops, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Detective, but I have to write it the way I see it. Sometimes the police are wrong." Grace has thus had the audacity to question the status-quo, the order of the establishment, and thus spends the entire film scorned and disbelieved, a deliberate reflection, perhaps of Nixon's "Silent Majority," (circa 1969) viewpoint. The "Silent Majority" was a law-and-order, right-wing demographic that the conservative president saw as loyally backing American institutions, such as the police...often at the expense of the individual liberties. Unmarried, liberated and liberal, Grace is treated rather shabbily by conservative male authority figures in Sisters, a clear reflection of the turbulent times.

What is the viewer to take away from this conclusion? Perhaps that Grace is now as schizophrenic and mentally damaged as another woman treated badly by the same cadre of men: tragic Danielle.

De Palma once stated, of Hitchcock: "He is the one who distilled the essence of film. He`s like Webster. It`s all there. I`ve used a lot of his grammar."

Indeed, and in Sisters, De Palma uses that grammar to write a completely new sentence, one that is "split" into several modes: social commentary, suspense and black comedy. It's not that De Palma actually outdoes Hitchcock (you can't do outdo grammar...); it's that -- again and again -- he's written the next chapters in the great American thriller.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Shock of the New?

So...I received a pleasant reader e-mail this morning from a fellow who had read my bio at "Meet the Horror Bloggers" and insisted that in terms of my movie reviews, I tend to like old movies and dislike anything and everything new. His point was that nostalgia was the quality that seemed to most impact my perception of a movie. He then asked me my opinion on this.

Not to be defensive or anything, but I politely disagreed with the reader's assertation. Still, the question has nagged at me, and it got me thinking over the last few hours. Could the reader be right? Do I hate everything new?

Well, a little research, a little counting and -- Voila! -- I've arrived at an interesting tally. For these purposes, I'm defining everything circa the years 2000 - 2009 as "New." I also counted movies that I was sort of on the fence about (such as Midnight Meat Train or Spider-Man 3) as "negative reviews," just to be sure I didn't game the system to arrive at the answer I sought.

Here are the results, based on my blog reviews: It's just about even money. So, you may agree with my conclusions, or you may disagree with them, but it's not accurate to state that, overall, I dislike "new" movies.


Positive Reviews (2000 - 2009)

1. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
2. Star Trek (2009)
3. Knowing (2009)
4. Religulous (2009)
5. The Ruins (2008)
6. The Strangers (2008)
7. Quantum of Solace (2008)
8. Splinter (2008)
9. Cloverfield (2008)
10. Speed Racer (2008)
11. Wall-E (2008)
12. Iron Man (2008)
13. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008)
14. Let the Right One In (2008)
15. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
16. X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
17. The Orphanage (2007)
18. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
19. 300 (2007)
20. Sunshine (2007)
21. Rogue (2007)
22. Vacancy (2007)
23. Primeval (2007)
24. [REC] (2007)
25. Superman Returns (2006)
26. Casino Royale (2006)
27. The Host (2007)
28. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
29. Hostel (2005)
30. King Kong (2005)
31. Dark Water (2005)
32. Silent Hill (2006)
33. Slither (2006)
34. The Descent (2006)
35. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
36. The Aristocrats (2005)
37. United 93 (2006)
38. Serenity (2005)
39. District B13 (2004)
40. Last Exit (2003)
41. Femme Fatale (2002)
42. Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2002)
43. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)
44. Mission to Mars (2000)

Negative Reviews:

1. A Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
2. My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)
3. Friday the 13th (2009)
4. Fanboys (2008)
5. Midnight Meat Train (2008)
6. Twilight (2008)
7. Righteous Kill (2008)
8. Mirrors (2008)
9. Death Race (2008)
10. Wanted (2008)
11. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
12. Diary of the Dead (2008)
13. 10,000 BC (2008)
14. Mirrors (2008)
15. The Eye (2008)
16. One Missed Call (2008)
17. Skinwalkers (2007)
18. Hatchet (2007)
19. P2 (2007)
20. AVP - Requiem (2007)
21. Hostel Part II (2007)
22. Transformers (2007)
23. 30 Days of Night (2007)
24. The Hitcher (2007)
25. Halloween (2007)
26. The Messengers (2007)
27. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
28. The Omen 666 (2006)
29. The Wicker Man (2006)
30. An American Haunting (2006)
31. Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning (2006)
32. Doom (2006)
33. Stay Alive (2006)
34. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
35. X3 (2006)
36 Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)
37. When a Stranger Calls (2006)
38. The Cave (2006)
39. Feast (2005)
40. The Fog (2005)
41. Blade: Trinity (2004

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meet the Horror Bloggers meets...Me!

One of the best professional experiences I've had in the last year or so is my membership in The League of Tana Tea Drinkers, a cadre of highly-dedicated, highly-talented horror bloggers. I've discovered many amazing blogs through this association, and encountered some great writing, and some remarkable thinking about the genre too.

Iloz Zoc, the founder of the League, and an outstanding blogger himself, has been running a series called "Meet the Horror Bloggers" for the last few weeks, posting biographies of some of these intrepid bloggers. I've read them all with avid interest since, as a critic, I believe context is vitally important to understanding literature, film, television...everything, really. Reading this blog series, you get that invaluable context behind many blogger perspectives, and it's made for fascinating reading.

Anyway, today Iloz Zoc posted the last entry of the series, I believe, and it happens to be my bio. Here's a snippet:

It was a Saturday in 1975, and close to Halloween. As dusk approached, my parents sat me down in front of the TV and, in particular, an episode of a new series called Space: 1999. The episode airing that night was titled “Dragon’s Domain” and it concerned a malevolent, tentacled Cyclops entrapping and devouring hapless astronauts in a Sargasso Sea of derelict spaceships. In an image I’ve never forgotten, this howling, spitting monster regurgitated the astronauts’ steaming, desiccated bones onto the spaceship deck. The episode was one part 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and one part precursor to Alien (1979). But the direction of this five year old boy’s life was set in stone during those 50 minutes.

By the time I was in sixth grade, a viewing of Tobe Hooper’s intense The Funhouse (1981) at a girlfriend’s Friday night movie rental party – a big thing in those days -- deepened my obsession with the horror genre. The film terrified me on a level I had never before experienced (or even imagined, frankly…), but I survived it. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about the nerve-tingling experience of being really frightened by a film, or about the specific details of Hooper’s grisly narrative. I wanted to know more, to understand more, and most importantly, to talk endlessly about the experience and what it had meant to me. Many of my friends thought I was nuts."

You can read the rest of the piece
here, and I hope it provides some context for regular readers of this blog too. I want to thank Iloz Zoc for including me in the series, and for running the series in the first place. It's been indispensable.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't Tell Them What You Saw: Les Diaboliques (1955) vs. Diabolique (1996)

There are plenty of good reasons why H.G Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) tops many "best films ever made" lists, even today. Filmed in spare, expressive black-and-white and dominated by fragile characters who might euphemistically be termed "dissolute," Clouzot's venture suggested -- or at least paved the way -- for elements of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Both film classics obsess on images of decay and death, and both successfully "trick" the first-time audience about character motivations and the ultimate direction of the narrative.

Les Diaboliques -- a title roughly translated as "The Devils" -- is set almost entirely at the Delassalle Boarding School, a campus almost in ruins from disrepair and neglect. The headmaster is the sadistic Miguel (Paul Meurisse), a man who grew up in poverty and who, in adulthood, clutches tightly to his wealth...which all arises from his wife, a former nun named Christina (Véra Clouzot). Miguel refers to Christina in not-so-loving fashion as his "little ruin," a pointed contrast, perhaps, to his big ruin...the school itself. Christina is unhappy that Miguel is so miserly that -- though they are rich -- they "live like poor people."

Miguel is also fooling around with a teacher at Delassalle, the sexy femme fatale, Nicole Horner, played by the smoldering Simone Signoret. But this is no ordinary adulterous love affair. For one thing, Christina is aware of the affair, and as the film starts, helps Nicole tend to her black eye...a result of Miguel's abuse. "The legal wife consoling the mistress?," another teacher at the school asks with astonishment.

Apparently so.

Together, Christina and Nicole plot to murder the evil Miguel, first by poisoning him, then by drowning him in a bathtub at Nicole's house in Noirt. The strategy is to transport the corpse (in a large basket) back to the campus, where it can be dumped in secret. But the murder plot goes awry, and Miguel's corpse goes missing after Nicole and Christina dispose of it in the school's filthy swimming pool.

This development is troublesome for several reasons, not the least because Christina suffers from a terrible heart condition, and the slightest bit of anxiety -- or terror -- could kill her. She is allowed "no emotions. No vexations," according to her doctor. But then, a little boy reports that he saw the headmaster alive...and the terror builds and builds until the unbearably suspenseful denouement.

Les Diaboliques qualifies as a film noir in part because of the overwhelming aura of hopelessness that blankets the movie. Poor, wounded Christina can never escape her husband...even after his demise. Secondly, the film's subject matter, a little bit police procedural, a lit bit mystery, makes it entirely simpatico with traditional noir values. Most important, perhaps, is the moral quandary the film exquisitely expresses. Christina is a nun who believes that "divorce is a deadly sin," and yet she knowingly participates in a murder attempt. Christina a keeps a shrine to her namesake, Christ, in her apartment with Miguel, but again...murder? It's the only way for her to keep the school...and her money. But does the retaining of material wealth justify killing even a really, really bad person? Though she dreams of ridding herself of Miguel, Christina fully understands the cost to her soul. "We are monsters," she laments, "I don't like monsters."

There's also a powerful sexual undercurrent here. Les Diaboliques is packed with innuendo, particularly during an early scene in which the dominating, abusive Miguel urges the saintly Christina to "swallow" her food, and she almost gags on the mouthful. Not to mention, of course, the hint of a lesbian attraction between the apparent partners in crime, Christina and Nicole.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Les Diaboliques is also clearly part horror film. In the film's scariest and most-oft imitated scene, we witness Miguel rise from the dead -- in a bath tub -- his eyes transformed into white, unseeing orbs. This shocking, macabre moment is echoed in the film's enigmatic climax, which some critics have complained rather strenuously about. It suggests that another character has also returned from the grave, at least according to the testimony of a naughty little boy.

I have always maintained that the second "resurrection" might be real (as opposed to the first resurrection...) and not just the case of a schoolboy telling tall tales. On the contrary, there could be a haunting at the school. Why? The explicit subject matter of the film has been the cost "after death," -- to the soul itself -- of moral turpitude. And with all the Christ imagery in evidence here, the idea of resurrection is thus very much in play. The terrible act that comprises film's startling finale clearly demands retribution; even beyond-the-grave-style retribution. Christina's important statement that she has become a monster might even be interpreted literally. So I view the ending as being at least ambiguous, and thus totally consistent with the preceding narrative.

Deftly directed and entirely anxiety-provoking, Les Diaboliques is one of those films in which form reflects content to an admirable degree. The movie is dominated by images of water, of drowning. The film opens with rain splattering in a puddle on hard, broken pavement, our first indication of the "storm" coming. Miguel's (false) death occurs in a bath-tub. And then, of course, there's the swimming pool -- a much larger bath tub of sorts -- and the climactic return to a bath tub in Christina's apartment. This pervasive water imagery serves, I believe, to remind audiences that it is actually Christina who is drowning here. The whole world is closing around her, in a deluge of deceit and treachery.

"He'll Never Hurt Us Again:" Or "It's Men. Testosterone. They Should Put It In Bombs."

In 1996, director Jeremiah Chechik made an extremely literal remake of Diabolique, excising the criticized hint-of-the-supernatural of the original coda and substituting a contemporary, nineties, "Year of the Woman"-style, feminist context. Here, the narrative more plainly concerned a cycle of domestic violence; of men abusing women; and abusing wives.

Even more so, the film consciously reflected the lurid, tabloid culture of the Clinton Era -- the decade that gave our nation celebrities such as Amy Fisher, and the aptly-named Lorena Bobbitt.) The three-ring white-trash circus known as The Jerry Springer Show even makes a cameo appearance in the film (playing on a television in the background.) The message: attempted murder has become the language of the culture.

In the updated film, the story is very much the same as before. A murderous love triangle between headmaster Guy Baran (Chazz Palminteri), ex-nun Mia (Isabella Adjani), and man-eater Nicole Horner (Sharon Stone) ends...badly.
The "swallow" innuendo returns in this remake too, but is much more on-the-nose since Guy actually says "swallow it for once in your life," to his put-upon spouse.
But otherwise, there are long spells in which Diabolique is actually a line-for-line regurgitation of the 1955 film, only in (much less-effective) color. By contrast, Nicole's garish wardrobe in this version represents a brilliant, resonant touch: she's dressed like a white-trash cougar, contextualizing the character as part-and-parcel of the Jerry Springer Culture. Stone is terrific as heir to Signoret, playing a snapping, sarcastic femme fatale who apparently lives by the proverb, "the tongue is like a sharp knife; it kills without drawing blood." When another character reminds the smoking Nicole that second-hand smoke kills, Stone quips, "Yeah, but not reliably," and then stalks off. Ouch.

Where the two versions of Diaboliques diverge is in characterization, and in climactic action. The first film featured a rumpled detective investigating the disappearance of Miguel. He was a retired commissioner named Alfred Fichet, and he didn't really accomplish much in terms of his investigation. In keeping with the film's hopeless tenor, he arrested the guilty parties only after the the third-act, tragic death.
The remake of Diabolique pulls an early "Starbuck" on us (Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff..) and changes the old man into a woman named Shirley Vogel, played by Kathy Bates. In this case, Shirley is a rather butch, rather crass, rather cynical cancer survivor. Like her predecessor, she also stumbles upon a crime in progress, but because the climactic violence is perpetrated against a male (and a nasty one at that...), Shirley lets it go rather an apprehending the guilty parties. She just shrugs her shoulders and joins the conspiracy: three women "survivors" allied against one monster of a man.

The nineties Diabolique involves a triangle, of course, but this time Nicole is the wild card and, in many ways, the film's protagonist. In the original film, she sided against poor Christina. In the remake, this is no longer the case. Nicole regrets her treatment of the saintly Mia, and joins her in murdering Guy. Critics, including Roger Ebert, absolutely hated this ending, feeling that it utilized the conventions of the slasher film in a gimmicky, cheap way. While the new Diabolique is clearly not in the same league as the original film, I argue that the re-interpreted ending actually works in context of the 1990s.
Early in the film, Nicole and Mia drown Guy, but it's a trick; Nicole and Guy are actually in on a plan together (only Mia doesn't know it.) The swimming-pool scuffle that ends the modern remake is staged, in close visual fashion, as a deliberate repeat of that earlier drowning...only in the pool this time. And here, finally, Nicole actually comes through; actually works with Mia. She actually gets her hands dirty.

In the earlier bathtub drowning, Mia noted to Nicole that she didn't seem upset by the execution of a cold-blooded, hands-on murder. This was so -- as we learn later -- because there was no real murder occurring. Nicole was playing at being a murderess, and the victim (Guy) wasn't really dead.
But if you study the swimming pool battle, it's clear that this time around, Nicole is absolutely shaken, mortified, by the battle. The confident facade of the femme fatale has finally dropped, and Nicole has embraced, at long last, her sisterhood in abuse and degradation, Mia. She's finally turned her venom in the appropriate direction: towards Guy.
It's no coincidence, either, that this Diabolique removes the relevant discussion of Miguel/Guy's poor upbringing. Exculpatory evidence is not presented, so-to-speak. This "Guy" is a person to be hated and despised, with no ameliorating humanity. And even his name, "Guy," reminds us of his offending sex. Why, this version even suggests the cad was having an affair with a third woman (whom he paid to have an abortion...), thus justifying Nicole's switching teams at the last moment. The subtext of this film: Guy -- like many an abusive man -- had it coming.

While it's abundantly clear that the nineties Diabolique will never make a list of "100 best films of all time," it could very well make a list of "100 Best Remakes" of all time, especially given Hollywood's blazing pace for recycling old material. The re-made Diabolique might rightly land somewhere in the high-twenties or low-thirties of such a tally. It would certainly place well behind Invasion of the Body Snatchers or John Carpenter's The Thing, and yet light years ahead of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), or the 2009 Friday the 13th. But at the very least, I can assert that this remake attempts to speak relevantly to American culture in the 1990s, rather than just blindly echoing the moves of a great, timeless film.
It's also enlightening to consider how each film ends. Clouzot's 1950s Les Diaboliques ends with legal justice, but moral tragedy. The 1990s Diabolique ends with an illegal murder, but a murder that is morally justified. Take your pick: which ending is "happier?" And what does each ending say about the society (and time period) that fashioned it?

Friday, September 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mission to Mars (2000)

"If you talk to these astronauts, and we spent a lot of time with them - I mean, it's "the last frontier." And it's completely devoid of the hellish corruption that I represent in a lot of my movies. So it's a kind of beautiful thing, and a departure for me. It gets weary to be so cynical all the time. And this is one area where you don't find cynicism."

- Director Brian De Palma excavates the Romantic subtext of Mission to Mars (2000), (Brian De Palma: Interviews; Bill Fentum, University of Mississippi Press, 2002, page 170.)

Lost in the 2000 - 2001 shuffle of competing Hollywood Mars movies -- including titles such as Red Planet (2000) and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) -- Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars remains a genre film that many people don't seem to remember very clearly. Or with much admiration.

Film critics savaged it, finding it difficult to comprehend that firebrand Brian De Palma -- mastermind of the blazing Scarface (1983) and the subversive Blow Out (1981) -- was behind it. Why? Well the quotation excerpted at the top of this review provides some indication. Mission to Mars is a film entirely eschewing corruption, cynicism and other earthbound traits of human impropriety or misbehavior, thus making it entirely out-of-step with the kind of movies that have been popular since the "Dark Age" of genre entertainment commenced in the 1990s.

In short, Mission to Mars is a movie about the sky we reach for; not the mud on our feet that tethers us to Earth.

An Invitation? Mission to Mars and The Romantic Movement

De Palma cleverly revised and contextualized 1920s-era American history in The Untouchables (1987) so as to engage in heroic myth-making on a grand scale. This was a response to the fact that America was a young country in global terms, without the supporting bedrock myths of older, more established nations. Thus Eliot Ness became an updated cowboy, an avenging white knight bringing justice to the "wild west" of Chicago. Al Capone was similarly transformed from thug and crook into a corrupt tyrant on par with Mussolini.

With Mission to Mars, De Palma undertakes a similarly bold task. Specifically, the director here fashions a flat-out Romantic space adventure; one that -- in the accepted style of that genre -- emphasizes human feelings, imagination and intuition, and which culminates in an emotionally satisfying, uplifting and transcendental climax.

In broad terms, Mission to Mars involves brave, selfless, futuristic heroes on a romantic quest to tame Mars and cope with the final frontier. They discover at the end of that journey nothing less than the ultimate human knowledge. Sure, there be monsters here (a seemingly-sentient Martian tornado rears and coils its head like a mythical dragon...) but the monsters of the film are all technological in nature, not psychological.

A brief refresher: Romanticism is a movement in philosophy, art and literature that lasted roughly from the 1790s through the 1850s. A response to the Age of Enlightenment, Romanticism championed the human imagination and human intuition over the intellectual, or science-based (read: technological). Romantic works of art also frequently explored national and ethnic origins, favored spontaneity and curiosity as human qualities, recommended a solitary life away from rules and boundaries, and often featured some form of spiritual awakening. A caveat: that spiritual awakening was often anti-establishment in execution; evidencing a revulsion of religion, for example.

Mission to Mars fulfills virtually all of those criteria, thus accurately meriting the descriptor of "romantic." Let's take them one at a time. First, consider the very heroic, very noble astronauts in the film. After dutifully making mission plans and adhering to technical protocols, they adjust on the fly when confronted with disaster again and again. Ingenuity -- not reliance on tech -- is definitely the order of the day. Plain and simple: these guys (and gal) survive on their wits.

When a micro-meteorite (another technological "monster") breaches the hull of the astronauts' ship and they can't pinpoint the origin of a deadly air leak, astronaut Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) has a brainstorm. Using a futuristic soda container, he sprays the liquid inside a zero-gravity chamber to "seek out" the location of the breach. Similarly, when the ship's engine explodes, mission commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) improvises, suggesting a dangerous unplanned EVA and rendezvous with another ship in Mars orbit.

And again, after his team is murdered by a Martian "security system" at the Face on Mars on the mesas of Cydonia, Mars 1 commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) spontaneously improvises his survival shelter, creating a delicate ecosystem and balance of life (in coordination with oxygen-providing plants). Even the ultimate solution of the alien puzzle -- which requires a signal be sent to the Face on Mars using human DNA -- is reached under the auspices of human intuition; by McConnell's sudden flash of inspiration. This insight is visualized by De Palma using the technique of the flashback (one involving candy/M & Ms, of all things). Going even further, McConnell reached this solution after consulting with Luke, a man who lived on Mars alone for almost a year, and thus fits the Romantic ideal of leading a "solitary life" away from society and its accepted boundaries.

Cumulatively, it's not that Mission to Mars is anti-science; it's that the astronauts primarily rely on their human instincts to weather the various storms they encounter. Technology is a useful tool and assistant in a pinch, but not dependable to solve a crisis. A (technological) radar sweep of the Face on Mars is what activates the alien security system and kills the Mars 1 crew in the first place. The computers on the ship fail at a critical point, and the engines are left damaged...undetected. When not guided by human, romantic qualities (ingenuity, instinct, spontaneity, inspiration), technology can be very deadly, the film reminds us.

I also noted above that Romantic works of art often involve "national" or "ethnic" origins, and Mission to Mars again fits the bill, with the slight variation that it is actually a "global" origin revealed here. The astronauts on Mars are grouped (by the Martian sentinel) as citizens of a planet; not merely an ethnic group, or people of a single country. The astronauts discover the Face on Mars, and when they travel inside the vast alien structure, learn that Martians seeded life on Earth. That, in the words of the film: "They're us. We're them." Humanity originated...on Mars. The journey to Mars has thus been a journey of self-discovery, not just a visit to another world. We learn, at long last, where we came from. Who we are.

And in this discovery, we find a specific rejection of traditional religious values. It was not God who created Man in his own image, as superstition would have it, but the ancient Martians. If "God" is responsible in other words, then "God" is surely an alien. Thus Mission to Mars entirely subtracts the divine from the human equation, and lauds the ingenuity and curiosity of mortal, ephemeral, natural beings.

At the conclusion of Mission to Mars, Jim (Sinise) undergoes the spiritual awakening we would expect from a film of Romantic quality. He experiences an extraordinary epiphany -- which we share, thanks to De Palma's clever use of the montage -- in which the characters looks back across the entire sweep and movement of his life. He sees that every instant, every choice, every decision has led him to this moment on Mars; this moment of awaking. Of awareness. He sees images of his dead wife (Kim Delaney); and remembers her instinctive, emotional belief that "the universe is not chaos; it's connection," that "life reaches out to life." This is the revelation that has led man to Mars; that once led the Martians to seed Earth; and which will lead -- in the transcendental finale -- to Jim's journey to another galaxy.

From start to finish, Mission to Mars fits the mold of Romantic literature and philosophy. Yet for many critics, the virtuous, unblemished adventure of Mission to Mars was apparently a bridge too far, and they greeted the non-cynical Mission to Mars with...cynicism.

Writing for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote of the astronaut lead characters: "The director, Brian De Palma, catches them in noble profile so often that you wonder when the commemorative coins are going to be issued."

The critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, after opening his review with a snarky joke about NASA's real-life Mars mission failure, goes on to write: "We're supposed to share the characters' awe at the wonder of the universe, but more likely the audience will wonder whatever were the filmmakers thinking."

Variety cut to the chase and simply called the film "highfalutin."

Reading these snippets, it's abundantly clear that these (and other) reviewers were unwilling to approach Mission to Mars with even the smallest sense of innocence or astonishment. Yet if they can't understand why astronauts are heroic and noble; if they can't feel some sense of wonder at a splendidly-visualized expedition to Mars and an emotional revelation about mankind's prehistoric origin, then something is missing in them; not in De Palma's movie.

How exactly has a Romantic mission of space exploration become something "highfalutin" and not an opportunity to feel...child-like? Did critics even try to meet the movie Mission to Mars on the terms it set out for itself? Or is innocence as extinct as the film's ancient Martians?

Judging by reactions, Mission to Mars remains out-of-step with the entertainment of the 2000s. It's the Romantic response to an age of cynicism, and technology dominating humanity. The film's dialogue, esprit-de-corps and emotionality -- all part and parcel of Romanticism -- were interpreted by cynics in the audience as being simply "corny," or "cheesy." We have forgotten, it seems, how to take a film at face value. When confronted with honesty and sincerity in our entertainment, we recoil and try to act superior to it. We mock it, instead of legitimately countenancing and feeling it. I submit this is what happened with Mission to Mars.

Hello Beautiful: Some Couples Dance. Some Couples Go To Mars

No discussion of a De Palma film is really ever complete without a mention of the set-pieces the director so ably stages. In Mission to Mars, he creates another dazzling one: the EVA from the destroyed spaceship and the tragic attempt to rendezvous with the REMO, a re-supply module.

Here, four astronauts -- with nothing to hold onto but each other (another canny visualize of the film's Romantic motifs...) -- traverse the emptiness of space and attempt not merely to survive; but to rescue their friend on the surface (Luke) below. Woody Blake makes a heroic but dangerous maneuver to save his wife and his comrades. He manages to attach a tether to the REMO, but then overshoots the ship himself...and begins a long slow drift into the atmosphere of Mars...where he will burn up. Space affords no second chances.

The special effects are rendered with great beauty, accuracy and precision in this sequence, and they reflect the perspective of a director who understands what good framing can mean. For an uncomfortably long period, man and wife stare at each other across a relatively small and yet entirely un-traversable gap; on opposite sides of the composition. They are lost to one another, able to communicate and see...but not able to touch. It's...agonizing. When it becomes plain to Blake that his wife, Terri (Connie Nielson) is going to die attempting to save him, he commits the ultimate act of chivalry (another Romantic quality?) He removes his helmet, thus killing himself and stopping any doomed-to-failure rescue attempts. In his final gesture, however, there is no terror, no fear. Only acceptance.

Throughout this scene, De Palma's unsettled, dizzying camera captures all this orbital action with a sort of vertigo-inducing intensity. It's a very convincing depiction of man in space, and more to the point, terrifying...even to passive spectators. The scene successfully posits the idea of humans as small, adrift creatures in the vast cosmos; which is just the right touch for a second act crisis; before man's place in the universe is discovered and affirmed in the third act.

Some of the earlier characters scenes between Terri and Woody even forecast this sad end. There's a "dance" sequence in zero gravity on the spaceship early in the film, and it establishes their sense of human "connection," before space tears ultimately the couple apart. A number of critics complained about the tenor of these character-building, romantic scenes, but remember, this is supposed to be a film without cynicism. De Palma does portray the astronauts in operatic, noble terms, black-and-white...because that's how the heroes of a Romantic drama should be portrayed. The director is just adhering to the form, but again, it was mistaken as "cheesy" or "sappy" or "syrupy."

Mission to Mars
also shows-off some typical De Palma flourishes. In the "camera lies 24 times a seconds" category, he starts the movie with a wicked, tricky opening shot. It's a view of wide-open, magnificent sky as a single rocket ascends to the Heavens...only to burst open and rain confetti down on a backyard barbecue in Texas. Yep, it's just a toy...

Later, the camera tricks us again, showing us the imposing mesa on Mars and leading us to believe it might be the source of water. In fact, it is the Face on Mars -- an alien structure -- buried under rock and dust. One discovery has been mistaken for another. The crew has acted on hubris and made a mistake. They assumed they were the only intelligent life on the planet.

The critical viewer may also pick-up on the fact that Mission to Mars -- perhaps more than any other De Palma film, relies on the first-person subjective point of view at critical points in the narrative, especially during the last act. This occurs so that De Palma can reel us -- the audience -- into the spiritual climax. His P.O.V. shots, which position the camera amongst the astronauts, remind us that we too are team members sharing this transcendental adventure. We are part of the journey.

If Mission to Mars has any real failing, it is a failing in special effects technology. The spacecraft action and the landscapes on Mars remain positively stunning, but the depiction of the Martian Being in the film's denouement leaves something to be desired. (And that single tear may be gilding the lily, even for a film of the Romantic school). The alien appearance does not hold up particularly well in 2009, alas. I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Blu-ray last week (review to come soon...!) and the live-action animatronic aliens featured in that Spielberg film -- produced over 30 years ago -- hold up far better than the CGI E.T. in Mission to Mars, created just eight years ago. This is very much a case in which a director is undercut by the vicissitudes (and advancements) of technology.

Mission to Mars
features a number of De-Palma trade-mark tributes (to Kubrick, to Cameron, to Spielberg, to Clarke, even to Byron Haskin), but in some critical, entirely beneficial way, this is one of De Palma's most direct, simple efforts. The meta-textual stuff is simply not that important here; and it plays second fiddle to the film's Romantic depiction of astronauts and the space pioneer milieu.

In Mission to Mars, De Palma created an inspiring film about the breadth of human imagination and ingenuity. It's also a film about how -- as a culture -- we have seemingly lost the will and capacity to do the hard work of reaching for the stars. How, as a people, we have stopped dreaming about the next horizon (a fault not shared by the film's Woody, who wears a necklace of a "Flash Gordon" spaceship around his neck as a reminder of the fantasies that guide him). We'd rather see a film about brooding heroes vetting black-hearted vengeance against despicable terrorists than one that imagines that the sky really is the limit.

And the critical reaction to the film only serves to prove De Palma's point. He might as well have been speaking Klingon. No one really wanted to look at the mode he was operating in here, or why it matters so much to an understanding (and appreciation) of Mission to Mars.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Best Year Ever!

Well, it's happened. According to my stats page, in 2009 Reflections on Film and Television has already surpassed the total number of readers for the year 2008! And with three-and-a-half-months still to go.

Every year since I began it in April of 2005, this site has shown solid growth, but not quite on this scale...and I owe it all to you folks, the readers.

And the icing on the cake: an educational blog "hub" (concerning online degrees...) today also tagged Reflections on Film and Television as one of the "Top 100 Film Studies Blogs," alongside such greats as Reverse Shot, and Senses of Cinema.

You like me! You really like me!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Film Books From McFarland

Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek

Studying the Star Trek myth from the original 1960s series to the 2009 franchise-reboot film, this book challenges frequent accusations that the Star Trek saga refuses to represent queer sexuality. Arguing that Star Trek speaks to queer audiences through subtle yet provocative allegorical narratives, the analysis pays close attention to representations of gender, race, and sexuality to develop an understanding of the franchise’s queer sensibility. Topics include the 1960s original’s deconstruction of the male gaze and the traditional assumptions of male visual mastery; constructions of femininity in Star Trek: Voyager, particularly in the relationship between Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine; and the ways in which Star Trek: Enterprise’s adoption of neoconservative politics may have led to its commercial and aesthetic failure.

The Films of Audie Murphy

This work not only traces Audie Murphy’s life as a film actor (from Beyond Glory, 1948, to A Time for Dying, 1971) but also provides a biography that runs from his birth to his three years in the army, winning every possible combat medal including the Congressional Medal of Honor—and from his Hollywood debut at James Cagney’s invitation to his final dramatic decline, gambling his fortunes away, becoming involved in violent episodes, and dying in a plane crash in 1971.

Each of the 49 film entries gives full credits, including casts, characters, crew, date of release, location, and cost, backgrounds for directors and main players, and comments and anecdotes from interviews with Murphy’s colleagues. Critical reviews are quoted and the work is richly illustrated with film stills and private photographs.

Since his rise to fame in the television series 21 Jump Street in 1987 and his subsequent transition to film acting, Johnny Depp has received constant criticism for his choice of roles—at least until his popular turn in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. This book aims to reveal the ways in which Depp’s choices of film roles, though often considered eccentric, allowed him to develop into the representative film actor of his time. It organizes all of Depp’s films chronologically, narrating in the process his transition from underestimated teenage pretty boy to bona fide Hollywood hotshot. Along the way, the book addresses Depp’s relationship to earlier film actors, especially to Marlon Brando and the silent comics; the influence of Depp’s androgynous sexuality on both his choice of roles and his acting; and his relationships with directors Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.

Cyborgs, Sant
a Claus and Satan

In the three decades since the first SF film produced for television—1968’s Shadow on the Land—nearly 600 films initially released to television have had science fiction, fantasy, or horror themes. Featuring superheroes, monsters, time travel, and magic, these films range from the phenomenal to the forgettable, from low-budget to blockbuster.

Information on all such American releases from 1968 through 1998 is collected here. Each entry includes cast and credits, a plot synopsis, qualitative commentary, and notes of interest on aspects of the film. Appendices provide a list of other films that include some science fiction, horror, or fantasy elements; a film chronology; and a guide to alternate titles.

Monday, September 14, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #91: At The Movies (1982 - 1986)

Today, I review the reviewers.

The subject of this ninety-first cult-tv flashback is At The Movies: the syndicated 1980s-era film review program that introduced many TV viewers to the late Gene Siskel, critic for The Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, film critic of The Chicago Sun-Times.

In the New York area, At The Movies was broadcast on WPIX, channel 11, and usually aired around 7:00 pm on Saturdays...right before I often headed out with friends to catch a new release. And the recommendations of these TV critics always carried considerable weight in my film selection process.

Siskel and Ebert had already hosted the PBS predecessor, Sneak Previews, prior to this Tribune-sponsored variation on the format. And in 1986, the duo moved on again, this time to Disney. Two inferior critics, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, manned their stations on At The Movies and the show drifted into silliness and pop-culture irrelevancy before merciful cancellation.

The format of At the Movies was simple. After a cheeky opening sequence which found Ebert and Siskel sneaking into the balcony of a movie theater, a short clip of a new movie played on the big silver screen before them (and positioned between them in the frame). Then, following the preview, we'd switch to the reverse angle -- facing the balcony -- as Siskel and Ebert introduced each other. I always felt that last bit of business was a nice, gracious (and original) touch in what was clearly a competitive partnership. To their credit, Ebert and Siskel never choked on each other's names or credentials...

Then, in the course of a fast-talking, high-spirited, ceaselessly-amusing half-hour, the two critics reviewed four new releases, assessing them, finally, with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The series occasionally featured a fun segment with "Aroma the Skunk," the show's mascot (a critter who always sat next to Ebert, for some reason...). This led into a spirited discussion of "The Stinker of the Week."

Sometimes, the critics even turned their gaze to new "home video" releases, and I recall one installment of At The Movies in which the duo discussed the 20th anniversary release of "The Cage," the original Star Trek pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Other movie critics -- not to mention several textbooks on film criticism -- have been notably rough on Siskel and Ebert over the years. An Introduction to Film Criticism (Longman Inc., 1989) dismissed the duo as a "Laurel and Hardy imitation" and noted that their reviews were "as shallow as the average review in a daily newspaper; simply the unsupported opinions of the reviewers," (pages 17-18).

With respect to the authors of this book -- an otherwise outstanding study of critical approaches to narrative film -- I disagree. While it is true that Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies reduced film criticism to a simple (but useful) binary decision of thumbs up/thumbs down, it's also critical to make note of the medium in which they toiled. In fact, their program devoted more time to discussing film as an art form than any other weekly program in television history. Of course, the drawback of the TV format is time, and that should also be acknowledged in film books too. In the freewheeling blog format here, for instance, I can write about a movie until I'm blue in the face, but that's simply not the case in television. In a half-hour span, how many films can be debated in depth, especially once you throw in commercials, plus several clips of each film described?

To ameliorate this concern, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked fast, working in as much detail and analysis as was humanly possible. And they often devoted entire half-hours to a single relevant subject, so they could go into deeper detail. I remember an episode on the Star Wars trilogy (following the premiere of Return of the Jedi), another on the films of Woody Allen, and a third about the durability of the James Bond franchise. I remember that the critics also devoted one episode to sequels ("The Stinkers of 1983") and another one to reporting on screen violence. Again, there was simply nowhere else on TV you could go to find this in-depth perspective on modern film.

I would also argue that Siskel and Ebert, on At the Movies, traveled well beyond the basics, and well beyond simple "unsupported opinions." In their review of Gremlins (1984), they got down to the satirical aspects of Joe Dante's initiative, and even the palette of the film, which lampooned Norman Rockwell's vision of America. In their review of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) they noted -- before just about anyone else did, I think -- Spielberg's drift towards on-the-nose sentimentality. Their review of Ghostbusters (1984) brought up relevant comparisons between Bill Murray and Groucho Marx. And in that review of "The Cage" that I mentioned above, they were able to contextualize the episode's narrative (about the dangerous, numbing nature of illusion as "narcotic") to the mid-1960s drug culture.

I was in the sixth grade when I first started watching At the Movies, and I had never, ever, seen anybody, anywhere discuss films with this degree of specificity; in these contextual and historical terms. Within the obvious constraints of TV programming, Siskel and Ebert thus managed to provide a kind of weekly history lesson in cinema. They brought up films I had never heard of, and films I would never have sought out without their guidance. I watched a few old clips of the series again on You Tube this week -- after not seeing At the Movies in years -- and once more, I found myself sucked in by the passion and charm of these guys. Even today, their motormouth reviews are packed with interesting insights.

When I began watching At The Movies, I preferred Gene Siskel to Roger Ebert. He was so acerbic, and had this funny manner of rearing his head back -- almost like a lion -- and then leaning forward when he was about to score a point. He seemed a bit more camera-savvy than his sparring partner, and could really land the zingers.

But then I began reading Roger Ebert's movie yearbooks in 1987 (and purchased every new edition of the book through 1996...) and found that my tastes more closely aligned with his. Roger Ebert also seemed much more fair-minded, I soon realized. He often recognized and acknowledged the artistry of a film, even he didn't necessarily approve of the subject matter on personal terms (he championed Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, for instance.) I also began to grow more frustrated with Siskel over the years because I felt that his personal biases sometimes prevented him from recognizing a good film. He gave a "thumbs down" to James Cameron's Aliens (1986) because the film put a child, Newt, in harms way. I never felt that was a valid criticism, even as a kid. As I like to say, how would Gene Siskel have judged the movie had the aliens -- vicious, slobbering beasts -- treated the child with kid gloves? Of course, that would have been silly and unrealistic, and a good critic like Siskel would have noted that terrible lapse in tone and realism. Yet the critic had put Aliens in a box from which the film could not escape; from which it could not achieve a good review. No doubt I've done the same during my writing career, but I do try hard to remember this example.

Ultimately, I came away from At the Movies preferring Ebert. I always liked how -- when the camera turned to him -- he would absently straighten out his cardigan and then almost imperceptibly glide forward in his chair, towards the a wise philosopher sharing wisdom with his best student in the spirit of knowledge, not arrogance or superiority. To this day, I make Ebert's blog a regular stop. He's the only film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and just recently he was judged America's most trusted pundit. Still, it's a crying shame there's no "Collected Criticism of Gene Siskel" available in print ten years after the man's death. Ultimately, it was the discovery of Ebert on the book store shelves that drew to me to his manner of thinking; to his reasonable tone, fair-mindedness and consistent standards. But Siskel remains an important enough figure in the annals of film criticism that someone ought to assemble a collection of his reviews in print, and contextualize his work.

As I noted above, At the Movies went on sans Siskel and Ebert, but without these guys at the helm it was almost a self-parody, just two critics bitching over movies they didn't like, with no clear understanding of the standards applied. I watched the new crew a few times and found the enterprise...embarrassing.

I attended the University of Richmond in 1988, and watching television wasn't really an option or concern for me at that point, so I didn't keep up with the new Siskel and Ebert series very closely. Then I got married, and moved into my own writing career, and only occasionally saw Siskel and Ebert's show again in the later 1990s. However, I was very upset to learn that Gene Siskel had passed away in 1999, and tuned back in a few times to watch the new sparring partner, Richard Roeper. I had no problems with Roeper as a film critic or on-screen personality, but felt that the magic was gone; that nobody really challenged Ebert the way Siskel did. Siskel made Ebert better; and Ebert made Siskel better. Perhaps it was the spirit of competition, perhaps it was friendship, perhaps it was just chemistry...but their partnership worked. It worked so well, in fact, that filmmakers have gone out of their way to acknowledge (or attack) the duo. The 1987 film Willow featured a two-headed dragon named Sissbert, for instance. And the dreadful Godzilla of 1998 featured a New York Mayor Ebert and his assistant, Gene. And who can forget, Carpenter's They Live (1988), which revealed Siskel and Ebert to be insidious alien invaders?!

At the Movies, more so than Sneak Previews or the 1990s version of the series also reminds me of a special and cherished time in my own life. The movies reviewed on the program in those years are ones that I recall with nostalgia and affection, whether they were actually that great or not. Ghostbusters (1984), Aliens (1986), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Fright Night (1985), The Right Stuff (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984), Gremlins (1984), Dune (1984), Starman (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and so on. This was the period of dueling James Bonds (Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again in 1983), Woody Allen on blazing ascent as a serious filmmaker (Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days), and more. So for me, this cult tv flashback isn't just about remembering the good times watching Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies, it's about the movies that informed by teenage years.

You can view some clips from At The Movies -- and Siskel and Ebert at their talkative best -- below. If you watch closely, you may find yourself perched on the edge of your seat, opening your mouth to add a comment, chuckling a little bit, and nodding your head in agreement. Even if you don't agree with the reviews, the most important and lasting gift of At The Movies is that it fostered a passion for film in the TV generation; my generation. Approve of what Siskel and Ebert had to say or disagree vehemently with their conclusions, you can't deny their passion or their energy. They were good critics, and they gave us great television.

So until next time, we'll see you...At The Movies.

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