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/

Buy the novel or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

x-files_i_want_to_believe.jpg

 

The first X-Files feature film Fight the Future (1998) was so tightly bound to the complex mythology of the original television series that it was mostly incomprehensible to anyone not already a deeply committed fan. I myself had only seen the odd episode over the years, and as such could barely follow what was going on. This unexpected sequel, belatedly coming about six years after the conclusion of the series and a full decade after the last feature film, is a standalone adventure almost entirely decoupled from the series’ unifying story arc: all that jazz involving an invasion of body-snatching aliens collaborating with the government, all of which may or may not have something to do with sticky black goo.

David Duchovny in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveDon’t eat the yellow snow

Freed of the weight of years of continuity allows this new film to dig into the true core of the series: the relationship between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). These are two people who not only deserve each other (their idea of pillow talk is to discuss toxicology reports) but are actually each other’s yin and yang. Their believer / skeptic dynamic fueled the addictive science fiction aspects of the show, but also the sexual tension that helped make it a hit. They each need each other in order to not self-destruct.

Scully, a know-it-all redhead like a grown-up Hermione Granger, is every geek boy’s crush. In the intervening years, she has voluntarily left the FBI to toil without reward as a doctor at the aptly-named hospital Our Lady of Sorrows. As a pragmatic woman who does not operate on faith, a Catholic Church-operated institution is the last place she ought to be. Her counterpart Mulder, since last we’ve seen him, has become the stereotypical bearded recluse. Without the mediating influence of Scully, it’s clear he’s only a few cranky letters to the editor away from becoming the next Unibomber.

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveScully is, as usual, the life of the party

Meanwhile, next-generation FBI Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) investigates the alleged visions of a convicted pedophile Father Joseph Crissman (played against type by wacky comedian Billy Connolly). Needing agents with a certain expertise in the weird, she gets the old X-Files band back together. In an unfortunately dropped subplot, it’s evident she crushes on an endearingly oblivious Mulder. In fact, her entire character is unfortunately dropped too soon – dropped down an elevator shaft, that is. Sorry for the snarky spoiler, there, folks.

The plot is a mélange of hot buttons ripped from the headlines, Law & Order style. Ticking the boxes, we have lung cancer, gay marriage, Catholic church pedophilia (the murderer turns out to be the husband of a grown altar boy that the Father buggered years ago), stem cells (Scully attempts to cure a boy’s rare brain disease with research she cunningly finds via Google), grotesque scientific experiments (a plot point refers to an actual Cold-War era Russian experiment that has been making the rounds on the internet recently involving artificially sustaining a dog’s severed head). To top it all off, the movie also features cinema’s most extreme sex change operation since The Silence of the Lambs.

Amanda Peet in The X-Files: I Want to BelieveSpecial Agent Dakota Whitney has an appointment with an elevator shaft

The X-Files: I Want to Believe was poorly reviewed, and worse, a commercial failure (although, granted, much of the latter was the fault of opening opposite Batman: The Dark Knight – read The Dork Report review). The most radical innovation to the X-Files formula is the new version of the famous theme music by electronica outfit UNKLE, so perhaps audiences and critics wanted something new. But it’s an enjoyable film, largely because it’s not without some humor, and against all odds, features a happy ending for the long-suffering couple.

A note on the DVD: I watched the “Extended Version” cut, so I can’t comment on how significantly it may differ from the theatrical version. Among the bonus features is an interesting featurette in which Chris Carter discusses the “green production” for the movie (the use of hybrid cars, recycling of set materials, etc.), and how he abhors the waste that typically goes into television and movie production. An anti-smoking public service ad is included on the DVD, making one wonder if the recurring theme of lung cancer in the plot was grafted on or an organic component to the plot.


Official movie site: www.xfiles.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002 movie poster

 

As a huge title card reads immediately at the end of the film, Solaris was “written for the screen and directed by Steven Soderbergh.” This Dork Reporter is a huge admirer, but that seemed a bit egotistical even to me. Perhaps an overenthusiastic end-credits designer is to blame? Or maybe the studio wanted to capture some more of that lucrative Ocean’s Eleven magic by playing up the Soderbergh/Clooney brand?

But writing and directing credits, however many feet tall, barely begin to describe Soderbergh’s role. For this and many of his other films, he serves as his own Director of Photography (and even physical camera operator) under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and also as editor under the name Mary Ann Bernard. So, obviously, Soderbergh is one of the few mainstream filmmakers with the luxury of near-total control over his films. Like Kubrick, he produces, writes, directs, operates the camera, and edits. But while Kubrick was a control freak (in the best sense), the modest Soderbergh is lauded as being more collaborative and especially as a sensitive director of actors.

George Clooney in SolarisPaging Dr. Ross, to the O.R., stat!

The DVD edition includes an excellent commentary track of Soderbergh in conversation with co-producer James Cameron, the original director attached to the project. Soderbergh asks Cameron what he thought of how he approached the material. Cameron points out that Soderbergh took a more “internal” approach than he would have, and both agree in good humor that Cameron would have included more car chases. More than Soderbergh’s grand total of zero, anyway.

Depending on how you count, Soderbergh has only directed two remakes: Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris (The Limey was a kind of homage or mash-up remix of the English crime classics Point Blank and Get Carter). The source material of the Polish novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem has proven a rich mine for cinema. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed the original adaptation in 1972 (read The Dork Report review) as the Eurasian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review). The basic concept also drove films as diverse as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (which is horrible but has uncommonly spectacular special effects and art direction) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Soderbergh’s version of Solaris is credited as being based more on the original novel the 1972 film, with barely a mention of Tarkovsky even in the DVD commentary track. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection edition of the original Solaris, Phillip Lopate states that Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s interpretation, and was looking forward to what he expected to be a more faithful translation by Soderbergh.

Natascha McElhone in SolarisNatascha McElhone doesn’t like the looks of this tanning booth

Solaris is set at an unspecified point in the future, distant enough for humanity to have perfected the technology to leave the solar system. Kelvin (George Clooney) is a shrink who is himself deeply emotionally damaged. Indeed, the theme of both this and the original film could be summed up as “physician heal thyself.” We first see him hosting a group therapy session for survivors of an unspecified tragedy. Since the movie was released in 2002, it’s possible this was intended as an analogy to a 9/11-like event. But judging by how every scene set on Earth is drenched in darkness and persistent rain, perhaps there was some kind of ecological catastrophe.

Single and with no family, Kelvin is an ideal candidate for a solo trip to investigate mysterious goings-on in a space station orbiting the distant gas giant Solaris (pay attention for the brief cameo by John Cho as a governmental emissary). Unlike Tarkovski’s extremely leisurely pace, this version wastes no time; Kelvin’s boots are on the space station less than 10 minutes into the film. This is the point where any readers wary of spoilers ought to stop reading.

Kelvin encounters Snow (Jeremy Davies, supremely well-cast), a man understandably gone stir-crazy from being cooped up on a haunted space station. But it becomes clear that he himself may be one of the forces doing the haunting. Evidently, the planet Solaris somehow draws upon the strongest emotional resonances in visitors’ brains and manifests them as living beings. These incarnations are most decidedly not a blessing for anyone. For Clooney, it’s an echo of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone); for the captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), it’s a copy of the son he left behind on earth; for Snow, it’s… another version of himself. The “Snow” that Clooney meets is, in effect, his own ghost; he killed his own creator within seconds of his birth. The faux Snow’s weird behavior is not that of a man gone mad but of a not totally fully-formed human bluffing his way through unfamiliar human interaction. One has to wonder what kind of man is so alone or self-obsessed that the most important person encoded in his emotional memories is himself.

Natascha McElhone and George Clooney in SolarisThe Solaris crew rehearses its big technobabble scene

Kelvin and Rheya originally bonded over the Dylan Thomas verse “and death shall have no dominion,” but the emotionally fragile woman committed suicide after he left her. Tortured by the renewed presence of her in his life, and the perplexing puzzle of Snow’s doppelgänger, he begins to question his own existence: is he someone else’s ghost? But he doesn’t take the question to the next logical step: is there anyone in the world with enough emotional investment in him to cause him to haunt them?

Solaris is both Soderbergh and Clooney’s first and only science fiction. It was marketed with a misleading poster suggesting a romance while obscuring any hint of science fiction. It is admittedly kind of funny to see Clooney in a spacesuit, especially when he was relatively early in his career as a movie actor (after years in television sitcoms and dramas). One can’t imagine Clooney’s Hollywood ancestor Cary Grant appearing in a space opera. But Solaris tries to have it both ways: to be somehow above science fiction but still be overloaded with enough pseudo-scientific technobabble to fill several Star Trek epics. The sensitive, emotional tone of the film is shattered as soon as scientist Gordon (Viola Davis) starts lecturing the audience about proton beams breaking up fields of Higgs Particles (or something along those lines). Such technobabble cheapens the premise. Indeed, the talky screenplay makes everything too explicit and concrete, especially compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which says so much more with so many fewer words.


Official movie site: www.solaristhemovie.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)

Solaris 1972 movie poster

 

The opening credits of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 film Solaris state it is “based on the science fiction by Stanislaw Lem.” It’s perhaps telling that the term “science fiction” is used in place of simply “novel.” This faint hint of apology may hint at a lack of respect for the original Polish novel or the entire science fiction genre as serious literature. A similar ambivalence echoes decades later in the advertising campaign of director Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, emphasizing the romantic melodrama over the fantastic, futuristic setting.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report Review) had arrived only a few years before Solaris, and was by a long shot the most serious stab at intellectual, literary science fiction cinema yet filmed. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection DVD edition of Solaris, Phillip Lopate outlines three ways Tarkovky wished to distance his film from Kubrick’s. He found 2001: A Space Odyssey “cold and sterile,” and set out to infuse his own science fiction with “passionate human drama.” Unlike its predecessor’s gleaming high-technology, Tarkovsky built run-down and filthy sets for the space station, and found futuristic earthbound locations in the contemporary cars and architecture of Japan. Finally, Lopate points out that Solaris shares more themes with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo than 2001, namely, “the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.”

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin sees dead people

The links between the two films go beyond the thematic into the political; Solaris is frequently cited as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it ought to be viewed in the context of the Cold War. 2001: A Space Odyssey preceded actual manned moon landings, the US’ most definitive victory in the space race. Kubrick’s visuals were so effective that they spawned the still-simmering rumor that the moon landings were falsified using footage directed by Kubrick. But before all this, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed like a threat or promise made to the USSR: saying, in effect, that the US is going to be first in space and the first to make first contact with alien intelligence.

So in this context, it’s hard not to interpret Solaris as at least partly a propaganda countershot. It too illustrates how the society of its makers and audience also have the brainpower and resources to extend their empire into space. But most unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky and co-writer Fridrikh Gorenshtein never allude to politics or even mention the names of other countries. Kubrick’s film envisions no end to the Cold War, even at least thirty years into the future. Kubrick’s vision of the future is actually a wicked satire, showing how little he expects humanity to evolve despite significant technological advances. His future humans still engage in petty squabbles and apocalyptic brinksmanship in the face of a potentially paradigm-shifting revelation: the discovery of definitive evidence of alien intelligence in a manufactured monolith buried on Earth’s moon. The US scientists and government officials investigating the monolith seem unmoved by the powerful notion of alien contact, and instead hold boring boardroom meetings and pose for photographs. In stark contrast, Tarkovsky’s Solaris has no sense of humor at all, about anything. Perhaps the most significant trait Solaris shares with Kubrick is a penchant for long takes. As Lopate also notes in his Criterion essay, atypically for a Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky favored long takes over Eisensteinian montage.

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin inspects the ductwork

In this vision of the future, the Soviet Union operates a scientific research station in orbit over the ocean planet Solaris. An entire school of study called Solaristics has sprung up around the study of the ocean’s peculiar properties. Astronaut Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) returns to Earth with controversial claims that the Solaris ocean somehow creates physical manifestations of landscapes and monstrous creatures on the planet’s fluid surface. Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), still stationed at Solaris, sends for his old friend, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Berton, haunted and prematurely aged by his experiences, visits Kelvin at his father’s home in an attempt to warn him about what he is surely to experience, but Kelvin rudely dismisses him. We later learn the source of Kelvin’s misanthropy: his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide after he left her some years before.

Kelvin arrives at Solaris to discover that Gibarian has already committed suicide. The strange manifestations Berton reported on the Solaris oceans are also occurring on board. Every surviving scientist still aboard the space station is haunted by “guests,” their euphemism for the apparitions that, as best they can determine, are somehow culled from their most emotionally intense memories. In due course, Kelvin’s dead wife reincarnates in a confused, partially-formed state. She is dazed and doesn’t quite understand who she is or why she is there, and doesn’t “remember” that she is dead. When she tries to undress, she discovers her dress is completely sewn shut; Kelvin’s imperfect memories of her apparently don’t include buttons ‘n’ zips. Kelvin also experiences feverish nightmares in which he confuses Hari with his long-dead mother.

Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaristhe twice-doomed Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk)

In a kind of filmed suicide note, Gibarian tells Kelvin the manifestations have “something to do with conscience,” indicating that the common origin of every guest is that they are each the primary object of guilt in an individual’s mind. Gibarian asks Kelvin “did you see her yet?” suggesting that he sent for him because he correctly predicted Kelvin’s guest would be his dead wife Hari. The presence of Gibarian’s guest (a little girl) was evidently for him an intolerable curse, but perhaps he imagines it would be a gift for Kelvin to have Hari back. But the whole situation begs the question: if the authorities know about the manifestations, why would they agree to send such a psychologically damaged man as Kelvin?

When Kelvin attempts to leave Hari alone in his quarters, the not-quite-human creature manages to smash through the doorway in pursuit. She instinctively doesn’t want to be left alone, but can’t explain why. A suitable science fiction explanation might be that she somehow senses that she may literally dematerialize when Kelvin’s brain is not within proximity. Or her newly-formed mind may be suffering echoes of what the “real” Hari felt when she committed suicide after Kelvin left her. What if Kelvin becomes comfortable living with this reincarnation of Hari, and his guilt for the original woman’s death lessens… will her reincarnation then disappear?

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin at home in Mother Russia

An observation: like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (read The Dork Report review), Solaris uses a mixture of black & white and color film. For most of the first hour, black & white footage initially signifies either film clips or teleconferencing (note that the film correctly predicts widescreen HDTV monitors and webconferencing in the future). But later sequences appear in black and white, without internal justification: first as Berton drives dejectedly back into the city (filmed in the alien landscapes of Japan), and later as Kelvin locks himself in his cabin on Solaris. To confuse the matter still further, Kelvin brings a home movie with him from Earth, which is in color! I don’t have a theory to explain these logical discrepancies; I’m just pointing them out.

I’m surprised to find to find that I did not like the film as much as my first viewing almost a decade ago. Solaris is as talky and overwritten as its ostensible model 2001: A Space Odyssey is elegantly quiet. Totally self-serious and humorless, its three-hour running time is frankly a little trying on the patience. In his 1977 appreciation of the film reprinted in the Criterion edition booklet, Akira Kurosawa reports he was stunned by the expense when he visited the set, equivalent to 600,000,000 yen at the time. But he defends the significant length of the early scenes set on Earth, which he interprets to be intended to instill nostalgia for Kelvin leaving nature behind forever. Indeed, the time spent on Earth in the early parts of the film does prefigure a significant homecoming at the end, when Kelvin seems to return to a dreamlike vision of his father’s house. The formerly lush and moving natural scenery landscape is now wasted and frostbit. It rains inside as well as out, suggesting a kind of baptism or rebirth in the waters of Solaris.


Must Read: Solaris by Phillip Lopate

Must Read: the Organic Mechanic review by Adam Harvey

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Happening

The Happening movie poster

 

The Happening is the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies that depict attacks of one sort (terrorist) or another (alien) upon New York City. A mysterious mass hysteria strikes the idyllic Bethesda Terrace (a place I walk through several times a week) in Manhattan’s Central Park, and quickly fans out to the entire city. What is later referred to as “the event” or “the happening” (the latter a term popularized by hippies, I believe) appears to be some kind of airborne toxin that causes every human being within range to calmly and passively commit suicide. Speaking as a New Yorker that lived through 9/11, this opening sequence pushes fewer emotional buttons than, say Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review), which was explicitly analogous to post-9/11 New York as Godzilla was to post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. But it’s impossible to not be shaken by the charged image of office workers willingly jumping to their deaths from skyscrapers.

Having ticked the disaster movie genre box of “wholesale massacre in Manhattan,” writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan abandons New York for the remainder of the movie and transfers the action to his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia, PA. High school teachers Eliot (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) catch wind (so to speak) of the event, and presciently make plans to take the next Amtrak train out of 30th Street Station with their families. Eliot is experiencing some friction in his marriage with Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and warns Julian that she may be acting “weird.” It’s up to the viewer to decide if he’s talking about the character Alma or the actress Zooey, whose eyes and face were truly made for the movies but whose eccentric line readings are indeed “weird.”

Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The HappeningBeautiful downtown Filbert, PA

The train halts on the way from Philly to Harrisburg, stranding the occupants in the middle of nowhere — which is to say, the real-life small town Filbert, PA. Science teacher Eliot berates himself “be scientific, douchebag!” and uses logic to deduce the facts from the bits of evidence he’s picked up along the way: his hunch is that they are not experiencing a terrorist chemical attack, but rather that the earth’s biosphere is releasing a fatal toxin targeted to areas heavily populated by humans. They set off on foot in small groups into the kind of beautiful rolling fields where Shyamalan set his earlier parable The Village (read The Dork Report review).

They come across a for-sale “Model Home”, a giant McMansion full of artificial goodies. The perfect dream home is actually in no way a refuge: there is no food or shelter, and it only serves as a lure to other groups less enlightened than they; the mere arrival of even one more fellow traveller could boost the local population to a point where the plants may attack. Here The film’s first hint of humor appears: Eliot notices a giant indoor plant eerily looming in a corner. He attempts to negotiate with it for the future of humanity, until he realizes that it too is plastic. The artificial model home is a blunt metaphor for humanity’s disposable consumerism and impact upon the environment.

The HappeningManhattan is destroyed for the 4,937th time by Hollywood

At this point, The Happening becomes a different movie, a better one, receiving a much-needed injection of Shyamalan’s characteristic wit and masterful use of horror and suspense tropes: creepy shadows half glimpsed through window slats, batty old lady (Betty Buckley) with creepy dolls in her bed, etc. But overall it’s uncharacteristically clumsy. His best films (for my money: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) are plotted so tight you couldn’t remove a single frame without harming them.

It’s unfortunately overwritten with pages and pages of poor dialogue, including this unintentional howler featured in the trailer: note Marky Mark’s impeccable grammar upon being told his Amtrak train has lost contact: “With whom?” Julian also states with odd formality that his wife is travelling separately to “the town of Princeton.” To be charitable, perhaps Shyamalan figured high school teachers might habitually speak clearly with correct grammar.

John Leguizamo and Mark Wahlberg in The HappeningDo we have time for a cheesesteak and some Antie Anne’s before our train to nowhere?

There’s too strong a reliance on fake television news broadcasts to convey exposition (a device only resorted to once or twice in Signs), even concluding the film with a talking head scientist explaining the takeaway message for the slower members of the audience: “we’re threatening the planet.” Watch The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable again and see how much Shyamalan at his best is able to communicate without dialogue. How much would Unbreakable have sucked if Bruce Willis’ character had openly mused about how he was turning into Superman?

Significantly for a director known for working in the horror & suspense genres (fantasy, too, if you count the execrable misstep The Lady in the Water – read The Dork Report review), The Happening is Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie. As if to live up to its horror film billing, the narrative frequently pauses for conspicuously gory set-pieces: a woman stabs herself with a knitting needle, a man sets a lawn mower to run over himself, etc. The brief episodes of gore contrast with what must have been the major challenge for his story: to visualize something inherently invisible: a wind-born toxin. Shyamalan signals an oncoming attack with gusts of wind. Which is, of course, preposterous because plants don’t cause wind (if my memory of elementary school science is correct, the wind starts from the motions of the tides). The characters outrunning wind is about as preposterous as the advancing killer frost in Roland Emmerich’s environmental disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Zooey Deschanel and Marky Mark Wahlberg in The HappeningZooey Deschanel and Marky Mark Wahlberg peek around the corner for the next plot twist

The film’s environmental issues first appear with a faint flavor of creationism in an early scene set in Eliot’s classroom. He believes there are aspects of nature we may never truly understand, although science may slap an explanation on them in retrospect. But “just a theory” is the language of anti-intellectual creationists who wish to discount evolution. In Shyamalan’s hindu worldview, does an act of nature equal an act of god? Is the earth being malicious, defensive, or both? The planet may not be acting with conscious intelligence, but rather as a mere reaction to stimuli; a kind of thinning of the herds.

As was the case with the 2003 blackout in the northeast, Shyamalan was correct in observing that everyone’s first theory in any post 9/11 calamity would be that it’s a terrorist attack. But it’s pretty much established very early that the culprits are the plants. This pretty much drains the suspense out of the picture, and I actually wished for one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings. It does seem hugely wimpy compared the ruthless and unsparing The Mist (read The Dork Report review). If Shyamalan had had the guts to go for a bleak ending like writer/director Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation, The Happening might have been better received and perhaps remembered as one of his best.


Official movie site: www.thehappeningmovie.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Mist

The Mist

 

Has writer/director Frank Darabont been weighed down by the heavy legacy of his first feature film? The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular movies ever made, if not quite (yet?) accepted into the canon (read The Dork Report review). The Mist, after The Green Mile, is Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, so far only having made only one feature not derived from a King work. After two prison yarns (one set very much in the real world, the other with a dash of the supernatural), Darabont now turns to one of King’s more characteristically gruesome horror tales.

King writes at great length about classic horror movies in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and The Mist squarely fits into one kind of classic b-movie structure. We open in a seemingly bucolic lakeside town with simmering tensions between local residents and wealthier weekenders summering in lovely lakeside homes. A mysterious, mostly unseen, and definitely hostile alien force traps a random assortment of local personalities in a supermarket. The horror works best before we actually see any evidence of the supernatural; for example, a character bolts into the store, full of nervous but not yet terrified citizens, crying the simultaneously eerie and hilarious line “There’s something in the mist!” For home viewers, a big reveal was spoiled right in the DVD menus: one of the adversaries is a very biblical swarm of giant beastly locusts.

The MistThey’re heeeeeeere…

Like virtually every zombie movie ever made, a cross-section of society is trapped in a confined location, under siege by unstoppable forces. The microcosm includes representatives of all the usual suspects, including a top New York City lawyer (because we all know NYC sharks are more venal than the regular kind) Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a couple of good ol’ boys, the town cutie pie, a few handsome young lads from the nearby military base, and the resident looney fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The Mist is not above another classic horror movie cliche: the virginal good girl kisses a boy and dies horribly in the very next scene. The heroes that arise are, of course, unlikely: a grocery bagger (an interesting character with a lot left up to us to fill in: he’s not a young man, and he’s got brains and skills, so how did he end up in such a dead-end job?) and a relatively wealthy artist David (an outsider to the town, viewed as elitist).

We first see “our hero” (more on that later) David (Thomas Jane) in the very first shot. He’s an illustrator of movie posters: I spotted three shout-outs to genre movies both actual and potential: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Stephen King’s own Dark Tower. He’s a macho, badass painter, using the back of his own hand as a palette, and bitching about studios cobbling together cheap posters in Photoshop.

Speaking of craven movie studios, sometimes studios whitewash action and horror movies to cater to more lucrative PG-13 audiences (like Blade III: Trinity, extraordinarily lame & tame compared to Guillermo Del Toro’s outrageously gory Blade II – vampire autopsy, anyone?). The Mist is one of the few R-rated horror movies I’ve seen that might have been better with less gore and profanity. Most especially the profanity – I’m certainly guilty of salty language in my own vocabulary, but the overall F-bomb count in The Mist is so absurdly high that it almost seems as if the filmmakers were deliberately striving for a record.

The MistPlay misty for me?

Overall, I’d have to say I really did not care for the movie, finding it overwritten. At numerous points, characters explicate the plot, elapsed time, and character arcs – to paraphrase an example: “It’s only been two days, and Mrs. Carmody has already turned everybody against us… in only two days!” It’s also too reliant on CG gore for a story than depends on the horror of the unseen (also where M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise great Signs falls down). But the best bits of the movie are squeezed between the CG set pieces, and the entire affair is redeemed by an utterly astonishing ending. Although I normally don’t concern myself with spoilers on The Dork Report, it would be cruel of me to reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, it’s impossible to imagine how a script this bleak was financed and distributed (by Dimension Films). I also wish I had seen the movie in theaters so I could see firsthand how an average audience would react to such an ending. The big downer at the end of Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) did not go over well, to say the least, and The Mist makes that one look positively wimpy.

Like Signs and Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, The Mist depicts a massive alien invasion from the perspective of regular folk, as opposed to the global view taken by movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. But The Mist has a truer ending than any of these examples. The core theme is of the roles people assume under extreme duress. Their illusions about themselves are amplified and they believe their own myth. Just as the fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody compensates for a lifetime of exile from healthy human interaction by elevating herself into a demagogue (I’m reminded of the characterization of the young Adolf Hitler in the movie Max, as he first finds the mass adulation he desires as he rallies a crowd into a racist frenzy), David falls all too well into the role of hero; he never complains when people turn to him for strength and leadership. The so-called “hicks” that fight him in the beginning of the film were right; he does think he’s smarter than everybody else. In movies, he’s exactly the kind of guy other characters automatically defer to in dire situations: So-and-so’s dying of third degree burns? Tell David! What do we do next? Ask David!

The utter demolition of the stock hero character type is so surprisingly strong that it’s practically subversive. I had thought Postmodern genre films had petered out after their late-90s golden age of Scream, Starship Troopers, and Wild Things. But The Mist is a new entry in the Postmodern genre cycle, in the sense that it comments critically upon the horror movie genre, and yet still actually is a horror movie. The Mist may be a monster movie, but it’s not about a Thing, an Alien, or a Creature from the Black Lagoon; it reveals the standard hero character to be a kind of monster himself.


Official movie site: www.themist-movie.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Dark City (Director’s Cut)

Dark City

 

I recall Dark City being one of my favorite films of 1998, and I would have rated it quite highly had I been keeping score at the time. Dark City is a bold science fiction film noir most obviously indebted to Blade Runner, but also to Dork Report favorites Brazil (especially the sequences of buildings sprouting up out of the ground), Metropolis, M, and City of Lost Children (read The Dork Report review). In each of these films, a protagonist survives in a hostile, often nameless dystopian city, often with the suspicion that his depressing existence is somehow not real. Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer’s screenplay explores the same flavor of paranoid schizophrenia that also figures in the literature of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.

Dark City was overshadowed at the box office by Titanic like all its contemporaries, but like its later oddball distant cousin Donnie Darko, its extended lifecycle included becoming a cult hit on DVD. In the meanwhile, director Alex Proyas further raised his bankability with later commercial success I, Robot. So for Dark City’s tenth anniversary, New Line Cinema financed Proyas’ completion of a Director’s Cut for a special edition DVD. Watching it for the first time since 1998, it all nevertheless seemed familiar to this Dork Reporter, who found it difficult to spot anything new from memory.

Dark CityThe worst loo in The City

DVD bonus features are dryly referred to by movie studio home entertainment executives as “value-added content.” Repurposed electronic press kits typically feature filmmakers congratulating themselves on how wonderful a film they’ve made and how brilliant all their colleagues were. In contrast, the Dark City DVD squeezes in an interesting and fairly candid feature-length documentary on the making of the film and its impact upon numerous philosophers and film critics. No less a marquee booster than St. Roger Ebert praises the film and contributes and entire commentary track. Ebert has long championed the film, even including it among his series of Great Movies. Among other excellent insights, he points out it predated the similarly-themed The Matrix by over a year.

Proyas describes his Director’s Cut as “more complete,” and blames the audience testing process for New Line Cinema pressuring him to add an explanatory voiceover. As he put it, the process undermined his confidence as a filmmaker and thus compromised the film. As was the case with the 2007 reissue of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Proyas has now removed the opening narration, spit-polished the special effects, and extended some scenes.

Dark CityHappy Birthday, Mr. Murdoch

The filmmakers relate their amusing struggles with the MPAA. Shown a relatively inoffensive cut of the film, they nevertheless wanted to give it an “R” rating, the best rationale they could give being its overall weirdness. So, faced with receiving an R no matter what, the filmmakers actually decided to add more nudity and violence. But there is still no profanity in this antiseptic universe. Dark City is a film noir of the sort where even hookers say things like “Aw, shoot.”

Of the cast, only Rufus Sewell participates in the documentary. He’s nothing like I would have expected; actually kind of goofy and animated, in direct contrast to his moody seriousness in the role. Kiefer Sutherland overeggs his performance with a limp, facial deformity, and speech defect. His character is a remorseful collaborator that turns on his masters, interesting enough without all the actorly accouterments. Jennifer Connelly is as luminously beautiful as ever in Dark City, but seemed a bit more… how do I put this politely… soft than usual. Was she pregnant at the time? A striking shot of Connelly standing on the end of a pier matches my memory of a similar shot in Requiem for a Dream.


Official movie site: www.darkcity.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk

 

The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term, I believe was originally coined in the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars. Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.

Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.

The Incredible HulkNORTON SMASH!!!

This Dork Reporter fully realizes his is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at ‘The Hulk’ and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.

With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CG is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.

The Incredible HulkIt’s showtime at The Apollo

Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.

Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this Dork Reporter hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.


Must read: Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Incredible Hulk as told to him by… The Hulk (spotted on Kottke.org)

Official movie site: www.theincrediblehulk.net

The Omega Man

The Omega Man movie poster

 

Now that’s a good intro: Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) cruises through an empty city with the top down. It’s eerie, but he seems happy, grooving to jazz from his onboard 8-track cassette deck. But suddenly! Screech! Ka-pow! He brakes, produces a machine gun and fires at a fleeting humanoid silhouette. A striking montage follows of a desolated, deserted city.

Heston was once known as a liberal, and here his character entertains an interracial romance (with afro-licious Rosalind Cash) no more common in movies now than it was in 1971. Unfortunately, it’s now impossible to take Heston seriously, thanks to Phil Hartman’s classic mockery on Saturday Night Live and to Heston’s own Alzheimer’s-fueled descent into right-wing senility.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManAl Gore can take my gun from my cold, dead hands

Interestingly, Heston’s oeuvre is dominated by dystopian sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, The Ωmega Man, and Soylent Green form a trilogy of apocalyptic despair. Remakes of Apes (by Tim Burton) and Ωmega (Wil Smith’s I Am Legend) made him nearly obsolete even before he died. Can Soylent Green (which is, incidentally, much better than its reputation suggests) be far behind?

Compared to the bestial vampires that populate I Am Legend, the creatures in The Ωmega Man are an intelligent, religous cult. They don’t attack Neville with technology (like, say, shoot him) simply because they choose not to.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManIs the last man on earth man enough?

As for entertainment in a time before VHS, the last man alive on earth is stuck with whatever happened to be in the theaters at the time; he screens the concert film Woodstock over and over. As for The Ωmega Man’s own music, the orchestral jazz pop score is not just outdated, but bizarrely inappropriate.

The crucifixion pose at the end is a bit much. I didn’t expect much subtlety, but that’s laying it on a bit thick.


Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

AVP:R – Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem

 

Ridley Scott’s original Alien is one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and a personal favorite of this Dork Reporter, who makes no apologies. Its art direction and visual aesthetic were so far ahead of their time that pretty much only the haircuts have dated, but the real keys to its longevity are its brains and depth of substance. No doubt there have since been dozens of dissertations on its gender themes and often overtly sexualized imagery designed by biomechanical artist H.R. Giger. Once you realize the portal to the crashed spacecraft is a giant vagina and the Alien’s head is an erect penis, you will never be able to un-see it.

But Alien’s most unfortunate legacy is that it has forever melded the science fiction and horror genres in moviegoers expectations. Aside from the odd exceptions to the rule ranging from the parable-for-all-ages E.T. to the gut-wrenching social critique Children of Men, we now can’t have a horror film without a rubbery alien or a sci-fi film without eviscerations and gore.

Worst of all, the Alien franchise has been cursed with diminishing returns. Probably but not necessarily by design, James Cameron’s vapid sequel Aliens completely drained the core themes and subtexts from the original in favor of the mere spectacle of spaceships and bullets. Subsequent sequels achieved the rare feats of being by far the worst films of two extraordinarily talented directors: David Fincher’s compromised Alien3 (the only installment with the traditional numeral in the title) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre-but-not-in-a-good-way Alien: Resurrection.

Part of the problem is that there can be only a limited set of variations on the core premise. The original Alien found the right recipe on its first try: lone but nearly invincible creature vs. unarmed bunch of humans in claustrophobic environment = teh awesome. Most sequels multiplied the number of aliens only to find that their collective dramatic impact was lessened when all it took was a futuristic Colonial Space Marine’s rifle to dispatch one.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemNope, I just see two dudes in rubber suits

Meanwhile, the less ambitious Predator franchise managed to only rack up a meager two installments. Perhaps their lesser appeal is attributable to what the Alien films got right; the “aliens” are not intelligent members of a society like the Predators, whose entire culture is based upton the concept of hunting for sport. Aliens are instinctual beasts that live to eat and (especially) to breed, so savage and animalistic that their species doesn’t even have a name.

The two spent properties found a new life together in the unholy crossover marriage “Alien vs. Predator” that began as comics and video games. Inevitably, they found their way back to cinemas as Hollywood attempted to reboot the cash flow with the first Alien vs. Predator film in 2004. But this “new” series has already run out of variations on the core premise in only its second installment.

Believe it or not, AVP:R is the first Alien film set not only in the present day, but also actually on Earth. This time around we have a single Predator vs multiple aliens, with a variety of helpless human bystanders caught in the crossfire. Basically, the Predators screw up and accidentally seed Earth with a batch of aliens they had intended to breed as hunting stock. A lone Predator, perhaps fancying himself a sort of space age Mr. Fixit, attempts to whitewash his colleagues’ mess. He’s no sympathetic hero, however, for he doesn’t hesitate to take the pelt of a human as a trophy when the opportunity arises.

To go back to the aforementioned variety of helpless human bystanders: any decent screenwriter or producer (or, hell, anyone who’s seen a couple of movies) should have realized that there are three problems with this scenario: “variety,” “helpless,” and “bystanders.” The huge cast of human characters all remain underdeveloped. The lamest thread involves a bunch of so-called teenagers, obviously written by a screenwriter that was never actually a teenager. The only recognizable face (to this Dork Reporter, at least) is Reiko Aylesworth from 24, miscast as an Army soldier on leave. Her only purposes in the story seem to be to instruct the audience that guns work better if you shout while shooting, and to have someone on hand who might plausibly know how to fly a helicopter.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemMandible with care

AVP:R is so divorced from the six prior Alien films that there are only two tenuous continuity threads to link them. A Mrs. Yutani appears, presumably of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that, in the future, has the secret agenda of locating more aliens as it strip mines the galaxy for fossil fuels. But perhaps the one true link to the original Alien film from 1979 is a sequence involving a chick stripping down to her skivvies. In the original, the truly badass Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deservedly kicks back her heels and gets ready for a suspended-animation nap in her undies, but here all we get is a bland “hottie” stripping for her unlikely dweeb crush (an incidence of nerd wish-fulfillment that speaks volumes as to the maturity and life experiences of the filmmakers).

What should have been another major screenwriting red flag is the hugely unsatisfying ending. When the Predator, the closest thing the film has to a hero or protagonist, finally closes in on his prey, they go at it looking for all the world like two pro wrestlers in rubber suits. And then immediately… they’re both obliterated by a nuke. A small handful of the humans are only barely proactive and manage to survive untraumatized despite having watched all their families and loved ones killed.

So why do I keep punishing myself by watching each Alien sequel? I don’t ever again expect something as multilayered as the original Alien, but I do keep thinking that these kinds of movies are supposed to be at best entertaining and at worst a little fun, and yet they always turn out torturously awful. AVP:R’s best quality is its brisk 86 minute running time, even in its unrated extended DVD cut.


Official movie site: www.avp-r.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.