Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster

 

Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica (read The Dork Report review) was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.


Official movie site: www.objectifiedfilm.com

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

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Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Colors movie poster

 

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society (read The Dork Report review) and Boyz N the Hood (read The Dork Report review), which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in ColorsSean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag(tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in ColorsRobert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton – read The Dork Report review) as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.


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This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar movie poster

 

Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with marines (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.

If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascension on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & filmmaker Dave McKean rightly opined on Twitter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This Dork Reporter happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.


Official site: www.avatarmovie.com

Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.

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Homicide

Homicide movie poster

 

Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by the crook Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross (read The Dork Report review), Spartan, and Redbelt (read The Dork Report review) all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.


Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans

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The Impostors

The Impostors movie poster

 

Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors (1998) is without a doubt one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression. Baldly composed as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, it has the feel of a filmed stage play like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off (1992) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The production values may be frankly rather cheap, but it turns its budget into a virtue as the same sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect, and finally as the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. Refreshingly, The Impostors is an affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Olive Platt and Stanley Tucci in The Impostors“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype of modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere. An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. One could argue that what Arthur and Maurice want, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism.

Lili Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). A great many others would achieve greater fame later: Alison Janney (The West Wing), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Michael Emmerson (Lost), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor – read The Dork Report review). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous (but still funny) skit.

Sadly, The Impostors was not nearly as much of a critical or commercial success as Tucci and Scott’s acclaimed Big Night (1996), which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Tucci has only directed two films since (Joe Gould’s Secret in 2000 and Blind Date in 2008). Let’s hope he and Big Night co-director Scott conspire again soon in the future.


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The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Invasion movie poster

 

Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’ The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Similarly, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie. One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer – read The Dork Report review) to write new scenes to be directed by their protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta – read The Dork Report review). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionDo you ever get the feeling that you’re in a terrible movie…?

After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.

One of the Wachowski’s late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.

The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and The Wachowski Brothers’ reduction to the lowest common denominator. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion“Our world is a better world”

A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodríguez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today? Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.


Official movie site: http://theinvasionmovie.warnerbros.com/

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The Pod People Film Festival: The Faculty

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Faculty movie poster

 

We interrupt this retrospective look at the four official feature film adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers with a kind of bonus track, a remake in all but name, Robert Rodríguez’s The Faculty.

It may be a touch campy, but hugely entertaining. All four official versions are deadly serious, so it’s refreshing for The Faculty to play the concept for laughs. Rodríguez isn’t known for restraint, but most of the fun is likely attributable to Kevin Williamson, the writer of Scream, one of the most influential movies of the 1990s. Yes, I’m prepared to back that claim up: it was one of the first mainstream movies to be overtly Postmodern, and not in a stuffy college literature seminar sense, but one that found lowbrow thrills & chills from a highbrow intellectual perspective over the horror genre. That is, Scream was both a knowing satire of the horror movie genre, in which its own characters knowingly commented upon the events that befell them with all the knowledge that comes from being movie geeks well-versed in horror movie cliches, but was also simultaneously an actual functioning horror movie itself. Other 1990s movies along those lines were Wild Things (one of the sexiest, twistiest noirs ever made), Starship Troopers (a hilariously bleak vision of a fascistic world inherited by children), and even Shakespeare in Love’s playful plays-within-plays-within-a-movie (read The Dork Report review).

faculty_2.jpgThere’s be no more tears… in gym class

A prologue introduces us to the namesake faculty, from which the great (and sexy) Bebe Neuwirth checks out early, or at least seems to. The adult cast is wonderful overall, even though some parts are little more than cameos. Robert Patrick brings all of his ruthless Terminator T-1000 steeliness to Coach Willis (like Dr. David Kibner – Leonard Nimoy – in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a villain both before and after the invasion), the glamorous Famke Janssen is an improbably mousy loner, Jon Stewart as a sympathetic science teacher, and Salma Hayek is hilarious in her brief appearance as Nurse Rosa Harper. On the downside, fat slob Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews.com notoriety also haunts the faculty room (this was 1998, after all).

We finally meet the kids in a montage set to a cover version of Pink Floyd’s infamous antiauthoritarian anthem Another Brick in the Wall Part II, with onscreen text resembling Gerald Scarfe’s scrawled lettering on the original The Wall album sleeve. They’re a next-generation Breakfast Club comprised of every key high school demographic: goth loner Stokely (Clea DuVall), hot ice queen Delilah (Jordana Brewster), meathead athlete Stan (Shawn Hatosy), bad boy Zeke (Josh Hartnett), meek nerd Casey (Elijah Wood), and sweetness-and-light Southern belle Marybeth (Laura Harris).

faculty_1.jpgThis meeting of The Breakfast Club II is called to order

Zeke is a slacker genius with an awful haircut that hasn’t dated well. He has deliberately failed out in order to relive the glory of his senior year within the safe bubble of being Big Man on Campus. He peddles a powdered narcotic (actually mostly caffeine), drives a fast car, and makes the girls swoon. But underneath it all is an intellect missing an aim or purpose. Good for him, then, that an alien invasion gives him the opportunity to step up.

Troubled goth girl Stokely disguises herself as a lesbian to avoid human contact. One wonders why, then, she’s not hassled by the school’s other lesbians. Like cuddly misfit Allison (Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club (1985), Stokely eventually conforms to straight-girl norms by dressing in pink and dating the jock. DuVall is said to be gay or bisexual, so I wonder how she felt about playing such a cop-out character. But this oddly conservative moment aside, the character is the key to the Postmodern, metafictional nature of the movie. Stokely is a science fiction fan that explicitly references Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (but not any of the movies). In fact, she disparages the book, claiming it’s a poor ripoff of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

All Body Snatcher movies to date featured sentient brussels sprouts that create evil duplicates of humans, destroyed the originals, all with the aim of bringing a form of peace and harmony: a uniform society in lockstep synchronicity. But these pod aliens are more overtly evil. These aquatic parasites that temporarily take over bodies are no emotionless drones, but are actually remarkably lusty. They clearly relish the sublimation of the students, and stage a football game like a Nazi Party rally.

All of which begs the question, if the aliens are like unleashed, uninhibited versions of our own ids, what’s the difference between them and, say, a high school kid hopped up on hormones? As one of them aptly puts it, “I’m not an alien, I’m just discontent.”


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The Pod People Film Festival: Body Snatchers (1993)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Body Snatchers movie poster

 

Yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers might seem an odd project for iconoclast director Abel Ferrara, known for gritty urban crime sagas centered around profoundly compromised protagonists. In stark contrast, the lead in Ferrara’s most conventional movie is a good-natured teenage girl, a world apart from the crazed Harvey Keitel of Bad Lieutenant or Christopher Walken of King of New York. Marti’s (Gabrielle Anwar) biggest problems are a nomadic lifestyle, a moody little brother, and a new stepmother.

This version of the bodysnatchers story sheds “Invasion” from the title, which is strange considering it ought to be the key word for a movie focused on the U.S. military, at home not long after the first Gulf War (a conflict thought to be resolved at the time). With America at peace and a Democrat in office, Body Snatchers was probably one of the first mainstream feature films to directly mention the conflict, along with Courage Under Fire (1996) — David O. Russell’s ruthless satire Three Kings being still some ways off. Abbreviating the title was a missed opportunity to play with the ambiguity between a military confirmed as professional, government-sanctioned invaders, and an extraterrestrial force that easily infiltrates them. But don’t worry, the word “Invasion” would be picked up again for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 abomination starring Nicole Kidman.

Gabrielle Anwar in Body SnatchersGabrielle, sweetie, you should know better than to take a bath during a horror movie…

On home soil, an Alabama army base under the command of General Platt (who else but R. Lee Ermey?) must suffer the indignity of bending over for The Environmental Protection Agency as it investigates the army’s storage of chemical weapons. The sympathetic Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) reports increasing cases of mental illness in his infirmary (paranoia, fear of sleep, etc.). He suspects the toxic chemicals, making it impossible to miss the allusion to the controversial Gulf War Syndrome.

Marti falls in love with helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth), so bland and flat that it’s hard to tell if he’s a pod person (to be charitable, maybe this was a deliberate casting call, meant to keep the audience guessing). She is befriended by Platt’s punk daughter Jenn (Christine Elise), a refreshing dose of nonconformism among the rank and file – indeed her rebelliousness serves as a canary in the coal mine to measure the progress of the invasion. We genuinely feel for Marti’s little brother Andy (Reilly Murphy, a rare child actor that does not annoy) as he senses his school playmates are “bad” and witnesses his stepmother (Meg Tilly) die firsthand. Incidentally, Tilly’s performance as the pod-stepmother is excellently weird.

Meg Tilly in Body Snatchers“Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ’cause there’s no one like you left.”

Like Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of the same material, Ferrara indulges in the gore and female nudity de rigueur to the horror genre. Marti disrobes for a very close encounter with groping alien tendrils in a bathtub, and later runs through an infirmary full of gross, half-formed pod people. The very pretty Anwar is so convincingly young-looking that her unexpected nude scenes make one feel decidedly uncomfortable.

In all three versions of the story so far, a pod person delivers some variation of the following warning to human resistors: there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and there’s no one else left like you. So why do the pod people always work so hard to chase down the few remaining humans? On the evidence of Body Snatchers, they’re still very easily defeated, and the climactic ending is something of a dud.

The infected army base plots to distributes pods to other bases, and eventually amass an armed force capable to taking over the world. But Marti and Tim manage to blow up the base and as entire convoy with just one helicopter. Why was it fully armed during peacetime, anyway? The first film ended with humans just beginning to mobilize against the invaders. The second ended with humanity totally overswept. Now the third ends with us winning. How will Nicole Kidman fare in Invasion? Tune in after our next review, an interlude to look at Robert Rodríguez’ enjoyable homage The Faculty, to find out…


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The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 movie poster

 

Philip Kaufman’s re-imagining of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic paranoid nightmare Invasion of the Body Snatchers immediately signals its uniqueness with a strange and beautifully abstract opening sequence. Psychedelic spores float off the surface of an alien planet, traverse through outer space, and fall to Earth as gelatinous rain. A glimpse of a newspaper headline describes a simultaneous epidemic of “spider webbing,” an ominous portent of what turns out to be the desiccated remains of the invaders’ victims.

Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a pitiless health inspector pining after his excitable colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). When her slob dentist boyfriend suddenly starts wearing suits and loses interest in televised sports, she becomes convinced a little too quickly that he’s an impostor, and leaps from there to even grander notions of an alien conspiracy. But, being a lab worker at the Department of Health, and the type that keeps a greenhouse in her bedroom, perhaps she is after all eminently qualified to identify malevolent walking and talking plants bent on world domination.

Leonard Nimoy in Invasion of the Body SnatchersLeonard Nimoy would like to encourage you to stop sleeping around. There will be no more tears.

The original film imagined a subversive alien invasion of suburbia. In conservative small-town America, or at least the fantasy thereof seen in movies, everybody knows everybody else’s business. This remake takes place in the liberal urban setting of San Francisco, where relationship networks are fractured into neighborhoods, socioeconomic classes, and cliques. As our current fears of avian and swine flus attest, infections spread faster where humans congregate in tight spaces: schools, slums, public transportation, etc. The aliens in the original plotted a slow takeover of American’s already homogenous heartland, while their cousins here target our population centers for maximum shock and awe. Still, some secrecy is required at first, and the creatures prove themselves adept at subterfuge.

The greatest deceiver is self-help pop shrink Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). It’s a crying shame we haven’t gotten to see Nimoy play more roles like this in his career – by which I mean anything other than Spock. Far from a San Fran free-love liberal, Dr. Kibner is actually a conservative reactionary, decrying the ease with which modern couples mate and part. He believes modern society as a whole is suffering from a fear of responsibility and commitment. Sadly, out of everyone we meet, he was arguably already a pod person all along (we never find out for sure when he his body was snatched). The most interesting facet of the film for me is the irrelevance of whether Kibner was a type of alien advance guard writing books espousing pod philosophy. I believe the point is that he represents a human viewpoint already sympathetic to the invading veggies: one that longs for a return to conservative values and like behavior. But why is Kibner wearing an archery guard on one hand? That’s just a weird affectation.

Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body SnatchersOMG! Look out for the trolley!

Easter eggs include cameos by Don Siegel as a sinister taxi driver and the original’s star Kevin McCarthy reprising his crazed rant “They’re here already! You’re next!” A young Jeff Goldblum brings all his quirk to bear as neurotic poet Jack Bellicec. His wife Nancy is played by Veronica Cartwright, reprising essentially the same shrieky, panicky performance she delivered in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The original film was a a thinly veiled metaphor for the McCarthyism of the period. In the late 1970s, the same story works just as well at the tail end of a dying sexual and cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. After the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, people may have sensed the coming conservatism and conformity (in other words, Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe and bonfires of the vanities) of the 1980s.

This Invasion of the Body Snatchers is largely a psychological horror film, but features at least one true gross-out sequence in which the alien growth process is explicitly depicted. Matthew aborts his own budding duplicate with a garden hoe (a wholly appropriate weapon for sentient vegetables). The original film avoided detailing the process, possibly to elude questions that couldn’t be addressed without violating standards of decency (What happens to the original bodies? Why aren’t newborn pod people naked? Now we know – hey, look! Brooke Adams’ breasts!). Gore aside, the one truly unsettling image is a glimpse of a body snatching gone awry: a dog with a human face, an accidental hybrid being created when Matthew interrupts the process of an alien taking over a hobo with a pet doggie.

But what Kaufman’s version is chiefly known for is its bleak, bleak ending, in total contrast with the faint hint of hope that closes the original. The baton wouldn’t be picked up again for another 15 years, when Abel Ferrara transposed the action to the obedient, conformist, oppressive world of the military in the tersely titled Body Snatchers.


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The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 movie poster

 

For a pulpy 1950s horror flick relating the strange tale of an invasion of giant brussels sprouts, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a startlingly gory, paranoid nightmare positively loaded with political subtext. Its themes of identity, mistrust, and subversion have remained relevant and influential for decades, inspiring three official remakes and even left-field homages like Robert Rodríguez’ high school melodrama The Faculty. Not only has “pod people” entered the lexicon, its screenplay is highly quotable (“They’re here already! You’re next!”) and sometimes even rather poetic: “There’ll be no more tears.”

The movie can be a bit frustrating to modern science fiction aficionados used to high pseudo-scientific detail. The aliens’ life cycle seems illogical and not fully thought-through, to the extent that it harms the plot. It seems a victim simply must be in proximity to an alien pod for it to begin to grow into your shape. We also learn that a pod absorbs its host’s memories when it sleeps, but we see Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) duplicated after falling asleep alone in a cave devoid of any visible pods. What happens to the original bodies? How do the pod-born duplicates wind up wearing the host’s clothes? Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake is more clear on the process, with the added benefit of allowing for more explicit gore and female nudity to tart things up a bit. The 2007 remake Invasion solves these problems by sidestepping the issue entirely, featuring a breed of aliens that literally invade your body – a mild condition which is, it turns out, curable. Ask your doctor, or better yet, date one!

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersEat your brussels sprouts! Or you’re next!

As Matthew Dessem points out in his analysis of The Blob for the Criterion Contraption, certain 1950s horror and sci-fi movies beg to be interpreted as metaphors for key atomic age issues: Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Blob among them. But these monsters look just like us. So let’s give it a shot. Interpretation one: the movie manifests a generalized fear of a homogenized American culture. A pod person is discovered in an intermediary state, totally devoid of individual characteristics like a mannequin. Perhaps America’s fabled melting pot, brought to an absurd conclusion, could result in a dead-end monoculture of of uniform religion, politics, and behavior. Interpretation two: the story is a thinly veiled metaphor for McCarthyism, the contemporary Red Scare that envisaged insidious Communist sleeper cells already among us, threatening to undo American churches, families, private wealth, and government. In either interpretation, the invaders are convinced their systems of belief are correct, and honestly believe they are helping us by absorbing us into their ranks.

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersPod person in the corner pocket.

The premise may be deliciously cynical, but the movie does end on a possible note of hope. Our hero Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) manages to reach some uninfected human authority figures, and corroborating evidence helps him convince them to mobilize against the threat. But does this call to action come too late? From the perspective of 2009, America looks increasingly polarized and partisan. If the pod people are already here, which side are they on? As Sarah Palin might say, the Real America? I’m sure they only want to help.


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