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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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie poster

 

After writing and directing three prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that Star Wars godfather George Lucas opted out of directing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi back in the 1980s. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Executive Producer.

For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they probably weren’t.

Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter in Star Wars: The Clone WarsAnakin trains a young propellerhead

However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley – the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.

The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions. That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.

The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles. A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This Dork Reporter grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.

Tom Kane in Star Wars: The Clone WarsYoda’s looking more “kitten” than “turtle” today

The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.

Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that messing with the canonical heroes generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos? Or to be cynical, he may always utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.

One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.


Official movie site: www.starwars.com/theclonewars

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 movie poster

 

If the least one expects of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it merely fulfill the promise of its title, then please move right along, for the earth stands still only a few moments. It is, however, a far bigger production than the 1951 original directed by Robert Wise (read The Dork Report review), even accounting for the inflation of filmmaking technology and audience expectation for spectacle. As if to overcompensate for the original’s now admittedly amusing implausibilities and the silly giant robot and flying saucer, it tries too hard to impress with too many unconnected ideas and excessive hustle and bustle. It’s even rather inappropriately macho, with more unconvincing digital helicopters and military hardware than a typical Michael Bay movie. At least it’s much, much better than the disastrous Invasion (the third official remake of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers).

It does get off to a good start with a prologue in which a lone mountain climber (Keanu Reeves) discovers a glowing orb in 1928 India. The sequence is mysterious and interesting, but ultimately unimportant to the plot. We later learn that the orb was an alien probe that copied the climber’s DNA, from which to grow a surrogate body for the alien Klaatu (Reeves again) decades later. Even the most basic plausibility is violated as humans dissect his alien body without biosuits or any kind of quarantine at all. One wonders if earlier drafts of the screenplay involved Klaatu’s captors initially misidentifying him as a missing person from 1928. A missed opportunity would be a scene in which the aged original adventurer comes face-to-face with an alien mimicking his youthful self. But as it stands, this whole subplot acts as a distraction. The original movie simply presented the alien as humanoid (if a little unusually tall and angular) and that was enough. The notion of a alien being reborn in a new body is interesting but an unnecessary complication, one that only raises questions unrelated to the central themes. Klaatu is lucky his template was the handsome Reeves (at one point, he steals a schlumpy guy’s suit and it fits as if it were tailored for him). Supposedly this body is human, but he exerts superpowers including the transmutation of electricity into some kind of sketchily-described life force. In this respect, the original is better; Klaatu outwardly looks like us, period, end of story. Isn’t that enough? Another extraneous idea, superfluous to the core story: Klaatu’s giant omnipotent robot companion Gort is now comprised of a swarm of nanobots. Why have both a giant robot and itsy-bitsy nanobots? Pick one idea and run with it.

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood StillKeanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first we must fulfill another genre cliche. The Day the Earth Stood Still lines up after the likes of The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Deep Impact, Watchmen, and Cloverfield (the list goes on, and on…) to take another stab at decimating poor New York City. When humanity detects an unidentified object set to strike Manhattan, Dr. Michael Grainer (Man Men’s Jon Hamm) assembles a crack team of diverse experts including astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) to fly around in black helicopters and gawp helplessly at all the special effects. Luckily, for the moment at least, the object turns about to be a spacecraft. In 1951, alien emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) went to Washington like Mr. Smith. In 2008, this Klaatu figures the place to make a grand entrance is Manhattan’s Central Park (never mind that the United Nations headquarters is on the East Side). Fans of computer-generated destruction of the sort in which Roland Emmerich traffics will be pleased to see Central Park forcibly landscaped before the movie is over. During the final climax in the Park, I’m pretty sure the principals hide under the exact same bridge as the survivors at the end of Cloverfield.

Like the original, it’s credited as being based on the 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Its cinematic touchstones include The Brother From Another Planet and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it shares a critically flawed plot element with the more recent Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). In the latter, mortal heroine Silk Spectre must convince Dr. Manhattan, an ambivalent nonhuman that couldn’t care less, to save the world. Klaatu arrives on Earth to receive the report of an earlier agent, who confirms humans are self destructive by nature. That’s enough for Klaatu to begin to purge the planet, but the agent goes on and tries to impress upon him human’s complexity. Klaatu is unswayed. Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith) try to do the same and succeed just as Silk Spectre did, but in both cases the audience can’t quite understand how their arguments go through to superior beings one step away from godhood. Because she’s pretty, and her kid whines so much that Klaatu caved in just to shut him the hell up? Personally, if I was an alien judging humanity, and I met such an insanely annoying kid, I would purge the planet too. The movie would merit at least one more Dork Report star if the kid hadn’t been in it.

Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood StillJennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Jennifer Connelly is sadly wasted, again. As in Ang Lee’s otherwise underrated Hulk, she’s relegated to second-billing below the computer effects. The great Kathy Bates fares even worse in a role anyone could have played. As for the legendary John Cleese’s cameo as a mad scientist, I assume the idea was to cast a slightly kooky personality with a British accent to project intelligence to dumb American audiences. But the formerly manic Cleese has mellowed out so much in his later years that they could have just cast any old Brit.

The original Day the Earth Stood Still was quite obviously a Cold War parable, if a little muddled in its particulars. This version skirts the politics of war, choosing instead to recast the basic premise as an eco-parable. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Happening (read The Dork Report review), New York’s Central Park is ground zero for an ecological catastrophe. Part of Klaatu’s mission is to save samples of the Earth’s biosphere, which the Secretary of Defense (Bates) explicitly equates to the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark.

Wikipedia notes the film was a largely green production, in which the crew recycled or donated props and costumes, and utilized a central intranet to reduce paper waste. But within the story itself, for an alien concerned about cleaning up the Earth, Klaatu is quite content to ride back and forth from Manhattan to New Jersey in a gas-guzzling SUV (the manufacturer of which no doubt provided product placement).

Finally, some questions: exactly how much of the world is decimated in the end? How does Klaatu expect humanity to clean up the planet when he’s already destroyed most of the infrastructure? Imagine all the homelessness, starvation, chaos, rioting, and looting that must be dealt with before any government could even begin to think about ozone holes or carbon collection. Also, Klaatu’s species has the technology to disintegrate all manmade materials on an entire planet, but he totally dismisses out of hand the idea of cleaning up our pollution for us, or at least lending us the technology? The original Klaatu had more faith in humanity.


Official movie site: www.dtessmovie.com

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The International

The International movie poster

 

The International is a disappointment coming from Tom Tykwer, director of the kinetic classic Run Lola Run, the mystical The Princess & The Warrior, and the lunatic, perverse Perfume. The International is by far his most conventional in subject matter, and lacking his energy and spirit. It especially suffers in comparison to its closest contemporary rivals in the globe-trotting action/suspense field, Jason Bourne and James Bond.

Eric Singer’s original screenplay unravels the sort of paranoid conspiracy theory that only exists in fiction, but in fact is based on an actual scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which collapsed in 1991. But the fictionalized story makes use of ridiculous contrivances that reduce a massive international investigation down to a two-handed operation involving disgraced Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan District Attorney (and MILF) Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in The InternationalFor the love of God, will somebody please tell me where Tykwer hid the camera?!

Speaking of, The International is a true waste of Watts’ talent (watch Mulholland Drive and Funny Games for a primer). A potentially shocking moment comes when her character is hit by a car. Not to sound bloodthirsty, but it might have been very interesting for her character to make an untimely exit from the movie, a la Julianne Moore in Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) and Janet Leigh in Psycho. But she escapes with just an arm brace, with as little impact on the plot as on her body.

Clive Owen in The InternationalToy Guggenheim… toy Guggenheim…

The International’s best purpose is perhaps as porn for those with an architectural fetish. Much has been made of the production’s recreation of New York’s Guggenheim Museum interior on a European soundstage. But the extended firefight sequence is disappointing and clumsy. Michael Mann is often credited for being the master of such sequences, and for good reason. He utilizes his total command of space in Heat’s street shootout and Collateral’s nightclub battle. You never forget where all the characters are in relation to each other and the surrounding architecture. Likewise Paul Greengrass’ work in The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. But The International’s grand shootout is a senseless jumble, and even the total number of assailants seems to wildly fluctuate. First there are two… no, four… no, eight! And the last two are right above you… no, wait, they’re loitering on the ground floor. A mess.


Official movie site: www.everybodypays.com

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Quarantine

Quarantine movie poster

 

Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.

Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review) features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.

Scott Percival in Quarantineground floor, coming up

In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.

Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protégé, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?

Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.

Jennifer Carpenter in QuarantineIn true horror movie fashion, Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) sheds layers of clothing throughout her ordeal

While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.

Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.

What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?

A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (read The Dork Report review). Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.

In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness (read The Dork Report review). In contrast, the sublime Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.


Official movie site: www.ContainTheTruth.com

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Religulous

Religulous movie poster

 

Standup comedian and occasional b-movie star Bill Maher remade himself into a satirical political pundit on the cable TV shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the conventional wisdom after 9/11 and correctly stated that one thing the perpetrators were not were cowards. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly fired by Comedy Central. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to crossover from the gutter of comedy to mainstream political punditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even further, from heckler to actual political participant.

But Maher was not content to stop there. His latest incarnation is, for better or worse, the popular face of a growing movement against organized religion. Unlike the rational scientist Richard Dawkins (mostly rational, that is; his recent statements against children’s fantasy literature like Harry Potter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a censor) and the even more strident Christopher Hitchens, Maher uses comedy and outright mockery to advance the cause of atheism in the sometimes disturbingly theocratic American society. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religulous is really what atheists need to combat the encroachment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to liberals, so too may Maher be to atheists everywhere: is he really the best spokesperson?

Bill Maher in ReligulousA Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

Religulous teams Maher with director Larry Charles, also responsible for the high-concept low art Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the fauxmentary end of the continuum, Religulous skirts with being an actual documentary but stops short of pretensions to impartiality. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy territory like the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky (a temple to the denial of basic science that would be hilarious were it not such an astounding celebration of willful ignorance), and the Truckers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used subterfuge to gain access, but the finished film is open about their deception. The filmmakers openly brag over such stunts by proudly including footage of the Holy Land Experience’s publicist freaking out at the presence of a bunch of godless liberals armed with a camera. All of this attitude is actually not necessary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his interviewees to simply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intolerant ignoramuses do with great gusto).

My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satirical editorial juxtaposition that on at least one occasion is outright racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old biblical movies, easy to mock the nauseatingly confused “former homosexual” Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries with snippets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claiming to be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African American preacher Pastor Jeremiah Cummings’ gold jewelry as “bling” and intercuts footage of a comically stereotypical pimp. Wescott is obviously in deep denial, and Cummings and Miranda are despicable crooks out for nothing but their own profit, but such cheapshots are uncalled for.

Bill Maher in ReligulousAnd on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

In the midst of all this fervent madness, it’s somewhat surprising that the Catholic Church and even the Vatican itself come across as the most enlightened. Maher is kicked out of the Vatican proper, but meets with the supremely sane and rational Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny science or celebrate ignorance. Maher also strikes interview gold with the hilariously outspoken former Vatican scholar Father Reginald Foster.

The plot thickens! Maher does not actually self-identify as an atheist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.

Whether Maher positions himself as an atheist or merely a crusader against oppressive organized religion, he takes a kind of gleeful pride in it. Smug atheists can be just as insufferable as holier-than-thou theists. Even before becoming a self-appointed voice against religion, Maher had become somewhat infamous for louche behavior (dating and sometimes marrying strippers, frequenting the Playboy Mansion, etc.). His outspoken opinions and tabloid-ready behavior probably don’t help theists take him seriously. I imagine most fundamentalists picture atheists as being like Maher: proud, condescending, and shirking of the responsibility of religious-derived morals (in other words, not having hell to motivate them to not sin). What I think believers need to understand is many people arrive at atheism only after protracted periods of difficult soul searching, and aren’t necessarily smug about it.

Religulous may be preaching to the converted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pressure on those that would oppress and exploit others by claiming to have the ear of God.


Official movie site: www.religulousmovie.net

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Orifices in Place of Faces: The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

Flaming Lips Christmas on Mars poster

 

The Flaming Lips are an odd band to have achieved mainstream success. After years of noncommercial psychedelic art-rock experimentation like the four-disc Zaireeka (1997), they broke through to mass appeal with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). The latter features the finest existential love song to ever become the official rock song of Oklahoma:

Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
     — Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne in Christmas on MarsThe Alien Super-Being gets great reception

The Lips also have more ambition than most of their contemporaries when it comes to the audiovisual aspects of a rock group’s responsibilities. They were inspired by how some of their forebears did more than contract third parties to film them live in concert or to direct hagiographic documentaries. The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine), The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia), and Pink Floyd (The Wall) all made feature films that deserve to be considered among their canonical audio-only discography. As Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told Pitchfork:

we’d always talked about how the Flaming Lips should have a movie, like the Ramones have a movie, or the Beatles. Not in a pretentious way, just like, “Yeah! We should have a movie!” We thought, “Well, why not? We’ll just sort of make one and see what happens.”

They began talking up Christmas of Mars years ago, and the longer the delay, the greater the legend. It was rumored to be either an expensive folly on the scale of Axl Rose’s album Chinese Democracy (in production for 14 years for a budget of $13 million) or an elaborate meta joke. But in fact, the Lips did in all seriousness work on the project off and on for about seven years. They produced the whole thing in their stomping grounds of Oklahoma City, mostly around Coyne’s own home. For better or for worse, it’s entirely their vision, written and co-directed by Coyne, with Bradley Beesley (who directed several of the band’s music videos) and George Salisbury.

Surely Coyne & co. must have been familiar with the infamous b-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (in the public domain and a free download). The spectacularly awful movie was hilariously massacred on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991 and by Cinematic Titanic in 2008. Like this ignoble predecessor, Christmas on Mars is saddled with long sequences of bad dialogue delivered poorly by amateur actors. Even cameos by the Lips’ pals Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg are really awkward.

Partly inspired by the psychedelia of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review), Christmas on Mars actually owes more to the blue-collar atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The humans in Christmas on Mars are ordinary people in an extraordinary locale, struggling to survive. One year prior, humanity has established a dilapidated space station on Mars. Worse, the crew members are slowly going mad and suffering hallucinations. As they conclude, man is not meant to live in space. The sole purpose of the colony, other than constantly repairing its decaying infrastructure, seems to be to support a test-tube baby due on midnight, Christmas Eve. The only woman on the station lives in a bubble, feeding the baby through a tube grafted into her belly.

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd in Christmas on MarsThe Lips discretely invite you to enhance your viewing experience in whatever manner you choose

Major Syrtis (Lips member Steven Drozd) has taken it upon himself to organize a Christmas Pageant to raise morale. He is in fact partially responsible for their current predicament, as he apparently sacrificed storage space to cart some Christmas accoutrements to Mars, a decision that has near-fatal consequences for the colony. The colony’s only source for happiness is very nearly ruined when his chosen Santa commits suicide. The Alien Super-Being (Coyne) lands nearby in a spherical spacecraft, which conveniently shrinks to a size suitable to be swallowed until he needs it again. Even though Coyne wrote the script, and is quite a talker if the DVD’s bonus interviews are to be judged, the role he assigned himself has no dialogue. He fills Santa’s shoes and repairs both Syrtis’s busted snow machine and the colony itself. He saves Christmas and allows the baby to be born.

Far more interesting are the beautiful optical special effects (at least, I assume they’re optical – if they actually are digital, they’re uncommonly beautiful). Some of the abstract psychedelia was so freaky I feared it might burn out my aging television. Most curious is the strange preoccupation with vaginal imagery. The Alien Super-Being passes in and out of his spaceship through a vaginal portal. Syrtis hallucinates a visiting spaceman with a pulsating vagina for a face, and later dreams of an entire marching band with similar orifices in place of faces (say that ten times quickly).

A pre-movie sequence advises viewers to have sex, smoke pot, or just do whatever they like while watching the movie. This boring Dork Reporter dared to disobey these instructions and simply watched it alone at home, stone cold sober. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect Christmas on Mars is one of those things best experienced in an altered state.


Official movie site: www.flaminglips.com/content/film

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Australia

australia.jpg

 

Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the Dork Report guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La Bohème on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.

Australia’s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).

Nicole Kidman in AustraliaBlast it! This war is a spot of bother.

She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters, so extraordinarily androgynous that I had to keep reminding myself he was not a girl). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.

Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging (most especially by Kidman, of whom I am swiftly tiring, although I was never really a hater) and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).

Hugh Jackman in AustraliaCrikey! Get along, little wallabies!

Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).

All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.

The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.


Official movie site: www.AustraliaMovie.com

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Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited movie poster

 

Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a voraciously ambitious only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen (read The Dork Report review).

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedMy loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires;I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those others we desperately wish to be

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him. We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”

Julia Flyte, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedDrinking is not a hobby, Sebastian.

Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead. But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have ensured the final generation of the family, and leave the desirous manse to no one.


Official movie site: www.bridesheadrevisited-themovie.com

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Blindness

Blindness movie poster

 

Director Fernando Meirelles has examined desperate pressure cookers City of God) and institutional corruption (The Constant Gardener) before. Blindness proves perfect to meld both themes, with a science fiction twist imagining the downfall of civilization itself.

Blindness is part of a special subset of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization nightmare. Whereas the typical entry works by introducing a disrupting element into the status quo (typically a monster), a few instead subtract one fundamental fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is simple: flip one switch, and watch civilization fall in short order. In Children of Men (read The Dork Report review), humanity becomes infertile. In the Happening (read The Dork Report review), the biosphere starts pumping out poison. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet suddenly die off. In innumerable zombie flicks (read The Dork Report’s George A. Romero Zombie Cycle), death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coincidence that at least two members of the Blindness cast already have relevant experience on their résumés: Julianne Moore in Children of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.

Julianne Moore in Blindness“The only thing more terrifying than blindness is being the only one who can see.”

All of these stories bleed over into the genre realms of science fiction and horror. Blindness, however, is based on the magical realist (if it’s accurate for me to call it that) novel by José Saramago. The novel is set in a generic city, featuring unnamed characters (the movie, filmed in São Paulo, Brazil, effectively preserves both conceits – I didn’t notice until the credits rolled that the characters did not have names). Without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zaramago posits a highly contagious “White Blindness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affecting everyone but one random woman. The movie’s explanation is a far more literal highly communicable disease, diagnosed for the audience by the unnamed opthamologist “Doctor” (Mark Ruffalo). By sheer coincidence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune. The obvious challenge for the filmmakers is how to render a prose story about blindness into the most visual storytelling medium of all. Cinematographer César Charlone (who also shot City of God and The Constant Gardener) meets the challenge by creating stunning visuals which paradoxically obscure. The picture frequently flares into a burned-out whiteness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the characters find themselves living as the safety net of society collapses.

The story brutally details a basically pessimistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inherent greed and avarice make a catastrophic situation worse. The very first victim of the disease is immediately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as automobiles are shortly to become the most futile of valuables to steal). As the blindness disease spreads, the authorities (represented by The Minister of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by Sandra Oh) attempt to contain the infected in isolation wards, a weak euphemism for concentration camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely written but implausibly eloquent monologue, “the disease was immune to bureaucracy.”

Dany Glover in Blindness“I know that part inside you with no name, and that’s who we are, right?”

The infected are made up of characters from many cultural and economic backgrounds, much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two opposing societies coalesce around two very different natural leaders. The Doctor and his Wife create a fragile but functioning democracy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael García Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploiting their few resources for short-term base pleasures. Inevitably, the two fledgling states go to war, as much out of ideology as for want of resources. As the ward denizens’ circumstances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a punishing experience to watch (an imitative fallacy). In terms of depictions of violence, it is no less explicit than, say, Children of Men, but wholly lacks that superior film’s dark wit and essential thread of hope. Whereas Children of Men had no real villain (Luke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was actually more of a Che Guevarra-type revolutionary), there is little or no subtlety of character in Blindness’ wholly evil bad guys. Would the central allegory be more interesting to ponder if the villains were not so unambiguously monstrous? Even I Am Legend dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like monsters possessed crude intelligence, a will to live, and empathy for their own kind.

The fragile community in the wards disintegrates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amazingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the prisoners discover the doors have actually been left open. If anything, the world outside has become worse off than the pressure cooker in which they were imprisoned. After a harrowing trip through the devastated city, they experience one fleeting moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. Afterwards, they set up an eden in the Doctor and his Wife’s former home, like a less-satiric version of the fortified suburban shopping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review). The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended family embraces her as their “leader with vision.”


Official movie site: http://blindness-themovie.com/

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