Friday, March 25, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)

"Stay away! The movie sucks! STAY AWAY!!!"

Shock and awe

"What's the title of this movie?" "Battlefield: Los Angeles." "What's it about?" "Don't know. I think about Los Angeles."

"Those meteorites?" "Yes." "There aliens in them?" "Yep." "I've seen this before--War of the Worlds. Isn't that plagiarism?" "That's for books--this is a movie."

"That a Marine unit? Looks like they're on maneuvers." "No, they're evacuating civilians." "Look, rubble and dead bodies. Thought this was Los Angeles--looks more like Afghanistan." "I think that's what it's meant to look like." "Why?" "Don't know--trying to make the movie relevant?" "Why don't they do the movie in Afghanistan?" "Because people wouldn't care if it's Afghanistan, but would care if it's Los Angeles." "But there's no war in Los Angeles." "It's a movie, not a documentary."

"Then why does it look like a documentary?" "Hm?" "Camera's shaking all the time, like in a documentary." "It's meant to look like a documentary." "I thought it wasn't a documentary." "It isn't, just meant to look like one." "Well, why make it look like one when it isn't one?" "I don't know. To make it more real?"

"But it isn't real." "They're only trying to make it look real." "Do they want to make it real or don't they?" "They don't want to make it real, only make it look real." "I'm confused." "I'm trying to watch--quiet, will you?"

"You sure those are aliens?" "Huh?" "Well...the Marines wear camouflage armor, the aliens wear camouflage--whatever. The Marines carry automatic weapons, the aliens carry automatic weapons. The Marines depend on air cover, the aliens depend on air cover. Seems to me the Marines are just fighting alien versions of themselves, only dripping Vaseline and wearing elevator shoes." "What do you expect from an alien--two hearts and a big mouth, riding a phone booth?" "They could at least use alien tech." "Well, if they use tech that's too alien, then game over--the Marines lose. We can't have that." "Why not? Wouldn't that be more, well, plausible? If the aliens have tech alien enough to cross deep space they probably have tech alien enough to conquer Earth." "This is a movie--it doesn't have to be plausible."

"Why's that soldier upset?" "He's accused of letting that other soldier's brother die." "Did he?" "What?" "Let the soldier's brother die?" "Don't know--they're just talking about it." "Don't they have more important things to do than talk--like getting out of there?" "Don't know, didn't write the dialogue." "First time they stop to really talk about anything, and it's about something that happened a long time ago?" "Hush, trying to listen." "What for? The conversation we're having is probably funnier. And I'm not even trying to be funny." "Shut up." "Bet they made up that stuff about killing the soldier's brother. Just so they can stop to talk about something." "Shut up!"

"Wait a minute--are these the same Marines?" "Yeah. Why?" "Didn't they blow up a drone with a grenade and a gas station earlier?" "They did." "Didn't they fight on a freeway, and blow up a bus?" "Yep." "Weren't they supposed to bug out with the civilians?" "Yep." "So why are they trying to blow up the command center? Haven't they done enough?" "Well, they found the command center, I suppose they didn't want to waste time attacking it." "They should be leaving that to some other team." "Well, they're not." "Why not? What I hear about Marines, they're all about teamwork, not--what did the lieutenant call it?--the 'John Wayne stuff.'" "It's the movies--Marines in movies are all about John Wayne."

"I remember watching some of John Wayne's movies--he wasn't always about attacking alone either, at least not in the good ones. He believed in teamwork too." "Maybe the moviemakers were only copying what they thought John Wayne did." "I don't think they've seen a lot of John Wayne movies." "Shush!"

"Is that it? Movie's over?" "Yep."

"Can I talk about the ending now?" "I guess." "That's a dumb ending." "Why?" "One missile--boom! All the big alien tech gone. Is it that easy to stop an alien invasion?" "Don't know, never tried." "It's like Star Wars--'Oh, we've built this Death Star, it can blow up planets, has impenetrable force fields, and can launch thousands of ships and all, but we've left a tiny butthole open for you to ram in a a nice long photon torpedo in and blow the whole thing up.'" "Proton torpedo." "Whatever."

"Some dumb endings aren't too bad--in Independence Day they downloaded a virus from an Apple to an alien computer. I didn't even know Apple was compatible with alien computers." "it isn't." "Didn't think so."

"Independence Day was at least funny. And sometimes fun. Didn't like it much, but compared to this movie it's a trip to Disneyland." "Uh huh." "And I don't like Disneyland." "Uh huh."

"Remember District 9?' Didn't like that either, but at least it had a few interesting ideas--like comparing real aliens to illegal aliens. That was funny, and true, too." "Uh huh."

"As alien invasions go, this one's pretty lame. Not as whacked or original as The Adventures of Bukaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. And the heroes--can't tell them apart, except one guy looked like a psycho--" "Aaron Eckhart." "--and one was a woman. None of them were anything like the Doctor."

"Now, the Doctor, he cool. He's dealt with dozens of alien invasions." "Uh huh." "He'd step out of his TARDIS, pull out his sonic screwdriver, make everything all right." "Hm." "Wouldn't even fire a shot--he makes it a point not to use guns and violence." "Uh huh." "And he's very funny." "Yep."

"The classic alien invasions are best--War of the Worlds, Last and First Men." "Hm." "Don't mean movies, either--they've been telling alien invasion stories since at least 1898. After over a hundred years worth of practice, you'd think people might at least get it right." "Uh huh."

"Next time, I get to pick the movie, all right? Something mature and sophisticated, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.'" "Sure." "Need something to give my mind a real exercise." "Anything you say."

Firs published in Businessworld, 3.17.11

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)

Leapin' lizards!

Rango starts with a witty little setup; a chameleon (Johnny Depp) living as a pet in a glass tank, immersed in a world of make-believe largely of his own doing--as host and impresario to his own endless talk show complete with busty beauty (a headless Barbie doll), dependable comic sidekick (a windup plastic fish) and guest (a dead cricket). The tiny rectangular world looks startlingly like a parody of the standard-issue digital animated feature: brightly colored sets, plasticized props, a sense of crude airlessness and artificiality complete with pop-culture references to entertain the adults accompanying their children (cough cough--Dreamworks--cough--Pixar--cough cough cough). Then the tank bounces out the station wagon's rear window to smash on the sunbaked asphalt, and suddenly we're in the middle of the Arizona desert. No, not Oz, not quite--but not Kansas, either.

Suddenly boundaries are shattered. This is digital animation not quite like what you've seen before, where cacti stoop over cracked clay, salt flats glow an unearthly pearl white, and desert dunes trail a veil of dust (they resemble a group of friends suffering collective dandruff). Verbinski, who in his previous movies (the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, the Ringu remake) strove mightily--sometimes too mightily--to be visually distinctive achieves the real thing here, in the carefully rendered textures of dried grass, splintered wood, and wind-weathered rock (it probably helped that cinematographer Roger Deakins--who shot the Coen brothers' westerns No Country for Old Men and True Grit--acted as consultant). Almost for the organic detailing alone the movie is worth seeing, as an example of what digital is capable of nowadays (as opposed to the antiseptic look inside the terrarium).

The plot is the hoariest imaginable: a rancher's daughter (Isla Fisher) is in danger of losing her property due to lack of water when the chameleon strides in, adopts the name Rango, and with the blessings of mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of sheriff. Rango's first official act is to lead a posse after the gang of moles that have carried off the town's entire water supply (a massive five-gallon plastic jug). From classic melodrama cliches (a rancher's daughter in trouble; a new sheriff and his posse; a gang committing a daring robbery) the movie without batting an eye two-steps into Chinatown territory, throwing water hoarding and a land development scheme into the mix for good measure.

Rango and his posse manage to steal back the water jug, now mounted as a covered wagon, only to be chased by the robber gang in a delirious mishmash of Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Stagecoach and The Road Warrior, complete with the latter picture's ironic punchline. The rest of the movie falls back on the Chinatown plot, to the tune of composer Hans Zimmer's Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western music.

So far so ho-hum. But there's a genuine streak of dementia here starting with Rango himself, who seems not so much liberated as unleashed by his glass-tank birth, his developmental growth finished off by a long walk through steak-broiling heat so when he finally walks into a saloon (Western cliche-speak for "asking for trouble") he faces down a mangy bunch of hecklers by whipping up a story where he killed seven desperate criminal brothers with a single bullet (did I mention elements of the Brothers Grimm?). Rango starts out as an unrealized character--as pet chameleon he didn't even have a name--but as lonely wanderer on the verge of becoming legend he seizes on a classic maxim of the Wild West (you're only as impressive as your press releases), and pumps his do-it-yourself identity to larger-than-life-size by channeling the spirit of Mark Twain, easily the greatest tall-tale-spinner of them all (at one point Rango claims to be brother to the monstrous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), and explains the relationship thusly: "my mother had an active social life"). Perhaps not the most original character ever created but God is in the details, and there's something about these particular details, plonked down in this setting (American being the land of the self-made (and self-promoting); the West being the source of many a tall tale; the very desert giving rise to endless mirages and illusions) that somehow helps sell his character as something fairly fresh and persuasive, if not actually compelling.

Never liked Verbinski; thought his Ringu remake was a cloddish version of Hideo Nakata's subtle original, thought the success of his Pirates of the Caribbean pictures was largely due to Johnny Depp's inspired improvisations, but for some strange, bizarre reason--perhaps the strangest and most bizarre in this strange, bizarre film--he's spot on in this production, his frenetic cartoonish moviemaking the perfect pace and tone for telling this particular story. Rango wields a humor at the same time cruder ("I found a spinal column in my fecal matter once") and more sophisticated ("you should have that looked at")--more unmistakably, refreshingly, exuberantly adult--than Pixar would ever dare allow to sully their kid-friendly movies. Kudos to Verbinski then, for making the best animated feature of the year to date, an inspiredly chaotic breakout from the limited terrarium of American digital animation.

First published in Businessworld, 3.10.11

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

Banksy's big score (or: 'Anyone can be Banksy')

So what's Exit Through the Gift Shop all about?

"Banksy delivers a surprisingly wry, analytical essay-film that starts out being about the DIY impulse, then becomes about what makes an artist great, and not a well-meaning wannabe." Noel Murray, The A.V. Club.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sparkling documentary in which we can't trust that anything in it is true. And yet you would never call it a hoax." Richard Nilsen, The Arizona Republic.

"Exit could be a new subgenre: the prankumentary." Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times. 

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, 2009)

Toilet humor

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six's movie has been touted as "100% medically accurate" and as "the most disturbing film ever made." That's too much of a challenge for any cinephile to resist; for the record Six succeeds, more or less. 

The premise is so old-fashioned it's almost laughable: two ditzy American girls on a road trip across Europe. Their car breaks down in the middle of a German wood (And why not a German wood? Six must have chosen deliberately, for the Brothers Grimm connotation: remember that Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in a similar forest, and oh what horrors awaited them). The girls abandon the car, hike through the dark, and come upon the ultramodern residence of one Dr. Heiter (the improbably named Dieter Laser).

We met Heiter earlier, rifle in hand while he quietly stalked a truck driver squatting beside a tree (significantly, the driver has to defecate). One look at this tall silent cadaver with the hollowed-out cheeks and laser-beam glare and you know he's up to no good--but the girls only want to use a phone call a tow truck; they don't care about glares, laser-beam or otherwise, much to their misfortune.

Time to cut the coy act. Thanks to the internet, the accompanying buzz, and Six's cunning marketing campaign, we are all pretty much aware of what Heiter has in store for them: to be part of a Frankenstein inspired daisy-chain of three connected humans. Intervening teeth uprooted, alimentary canal stitched directly to gullet, skin grafts connecting cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek, and (the one detail that told me Six actually put some serious thought into this) ligaments in the kneecaps sliced, so the subjects are unable to straighten their legs and stand.

Behold! The Human Centipede: First Sequence.

Six builds on the sense of dread one feels having to sit and watch, all too aware of what's to come. Well, he tries to build; unfortunately he's too successful casting the two American ditzes--the girls' voices grate on one's ears, and drastically take away from the atmosphere of the opening sequences. The actresses fare much better when their characters are captured and drugged, their mouths stitched shut; forced to act exclusively through eyes and body language they become far more eloquent.

Six employs the David Cronenberg glide: a camera smoothly moving back and forth, side to side, creating a sense of menace and dread while gazing steadily upon the horrors presented (that's Cronenberg's stratagem, basically--stare straight at the creature and forget to blink). He leavens the proceedings with Takashi Miike-type humor--before surgery, for example, Heiter explains the procedure to his victims through a dead-serious slideshow involving the most hilariously cartoonish sketches (see sample above) I've ever seen (one girl stares, horrified--at what's in store for her, or at the unspeakably crude drawings?). 

A significant source of that humor is Laser himself--a veteran of both TV and film who has been acting since the '60s, Laser literally threw himself into the role, shaping the character, adding much of the details (he believed Heiter would regard the centipede as a pet, and would not be shy, for example, to swim naked before it) and creating much of the doctor's dialogue. Forget Jesse Franco, Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Kurt Russell or Colin Firth, fine performances they may have given--this is the performance of the year, in my book, fully deserving of a Gold Doorstop as any.

Six's characters (a German doctor, two American tourists, a Japanese man) incarnate the main antagonists of World War 2, reportedly to suggest an allegory on fascism (interesting that no mention is made of the Dutch). But perhaps the movie's true source of inspiration and most likely ancestor (he even has the required M.D.) is even older: H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Like Heiter, Moreau is a megalomaniac; like Heiter, Moreau's work is a parody of The Book of Genesis--the creation, through pain and suffering, of a new life form. Unlike Heiter, Moreau works in the opposite direction, taking various animals and surgically shaping them to resemble man. Moreau's is the older goal--that of creating a likeness of our form and, by extension, of God's; Heiter, it seems, mostly wants a docile pet that will fetch his paper. If there's anything more here to motivate the man, it's possibly the pleasure of exercising a power not unlike God's, on a creature with abilities far below Man's.

Moreau's ambitions seem infinitely more perverse: to parody the evolution of man, and even of his society (the Beast Folk's Law being a kind of burlesque of the Ten Commandments). The horror comes from how close Moreau actually comes to succeeding in certain aspects while falling short in others--the Beast Folk's Law, for example, include recognizably human aspirations (to refrain from violence; to act properly; to believe they can be more than what they are), while still addressing the Folk's bestial nature (to walk upright not on all fours, to drink water without bending down).

By novel's end Wells achieves what all great science fiction writers aspire to achieve, a total inversion of the conventional point of view. The hero escapes to civilization, only to realize that he's just as uneasy there as he ever was with the Beast Folk; Moreau's eponymous island is less a location than an inescapable state of mind.

Six's movie is a startling original; he gives the picture a creeping intensity which is sustained for most of its ninety-minute running time, inviting comparison to other 'torture-porn' movies (unlike, say, Eli Roth, Six does more with less, evoking images of elaborate group sex gone horribly wrong, or twisted Nazi experiments gone horribly right). As an exercise in physically distorting the human form, I can't think of a more vivid recent example outside of Cronenberg himself (who in his recent work--A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007)--appears to have shifted towards a more inward, more psychological focus).

But it just doesn't hold a candle to Wells' disturbing classic--and, I'm guessing, to a film adaptation that can truly translate its horror to the screen. That hasn't quite happened--Erle C. Kenton came closest to capturing the atmosphere and dread, while Charles Laughton came closest to creating a memorable Moreau in the 1933 Island of Lost Souls. Gerardo De Leon did remarkably well with almost no money in the 1959 Terror is a Man (the laughably tiny budget meant De Leon could only present one creature), injecting just the faintest suggestion of compassion, even love, into the story (the less said about the 1977 and 1996 productions, the better). But a version that can balance modern-day explicitness with the novel's evocative power--that I think could surpass Six's movie.

First published in Businessworld, 2.24.11