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Kicking the Tweets
Thursday
Apr072011

Enter the Void (2009)

Youth is Wasted on the Wasted

You should understand this about me:  I'm a square.  I've been drunk exactly twice, and the closest I ever came to getting high was eating a sixteenth of a pot brownie four years ago.  This may explain my fascination with movies about drugs.

Stoner comedies never did much for me.  Better put, I don't appreciate the ease with which some filmmakers seem to make movies aimed at the stoner demographic.  Films like Paul and the first half of Knocked Up rely heavily on showing people (or aliens) getting high as a substitute for actual humor or insight.  It's the comedy of recognition instead of the comedy of comedy.

But give me a solid acid-trip or hard-core-drug-abuse movie and I'm all yours.  Two of my favorite, most uplifting movies are Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream (in 2000, I left the Evanston Century theatre with a huge smile on my face after having experienced Darren Aronofsky's first and last great film).  I don't revel in real-life misery, but the experience of an artist capturing the soul-mutilating, bleak freedom of entropy gives me greater joy than watching the most uplifting Pixar film.  Perhaps it's because 85% of all movies are easy garbage (even the great ones, to an extent), that I'm drawn to the rush of seeing Scottish junkies and New Jersey street hustlers pimp out their friends for smack.  You may call basking in the dregs of humanity a sickness, but I call it a deep-sea dive into the superficial--a treasure hunt for something real.

Which brings me to Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, a drug movie that makes both Trainspotting and Requiem look like Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it's a seriously dark test of patience and nerves that I absolutely love.  With this movie, Noe makes a laughing-stock of all those unimaginative Americans who believe Christopher Nolan is the rightful heir to Stanley Kubrick's legacy because he directed a mediocre Batman sequel and a summer blockbuster that was about as challenging as the maze on a box of Dots.  Enter the Void is 2001: A Space Odyssey for a generation whose final frontier is the mind, and whose vessel of choice is a charred glass pipe.

The film is shot completely from the perspective of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young low-level American drug dealer living in Tokyo.  We open on he and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) looking up at the night sky from Oscar's balcony.  They chit-chat for a few minutes. Then Linda leaves to go dance at a local strip club, and Oscar settles into a chair and fires up a pipe of the mind-altering drug DMT.  He leaves his body and ascends into a beautiful world that I can best describe as an organic kaleidoscope of exploding stars.  In the middle of his trip, he gets a phone call from Victor (Olly Alexander), his partner in small-time narcotics. Victor needs Oscar to meet him at a club called The Void with a sizable stash.

Oscar's friend Alex (Cyril Roy) walks with him to the club.  On the way, Alex explains the finer points of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which posits that when a person dies, their spirit re-lives the most significant parts of its life before being re-incarnated.  Oscar doesn't take much stock in this theory--or any theory for that matter, because he's blitzed out of his skull.

It's important to note that when Gaspar Noe does first-person perspective, he fully commits to it--sometimes detracting from his audience's enjoyment of the film.  We are in Oscar's head and can hear his muffled, boozy half-thoughts.  Noe's camera shutters every few seconds as Oscar blinks; sometimes imperceptibly, but often with such obviousness that we become self-conscious of our own eye movements.  The first twenty minutes of Enter the Void are literally hard to watch--and this is before the nasty stuff gets under way.

Alex waits outside the club while Oscar goes in to find his friend.  Before Oscar can sit down, Victor yells, "I'm sorry", and a team of Japanese cops bursts onto the floor.  Oscar runs to the men's room and locks himself in a stall.  His attempts to flush his pills down the toilet fail, so he resorts to yelling that he has a gun.  The commotion outside goes quiet for a moment.  Then Oscar's chest explodes, and he falls to the filthy floor dead.

Oscar's mind once again leaves is body, this time as an omniscient, hovering set of unblinking eyes. From here, the movie becomes a sort of Junkie Christmas Carol, as he floats from one reality to the next; sometimes dropping in on Victor's troubled home life; sometimes visiting and re-visiting the horrific childhood car accident that killed his parents and forced he and Linda to grow up in separate foster homes; consistent on his journey, though, are the lovely, bizarre portals of transition where his mind becomes one with sink drains and stove burners.  It sounds corny, but by giving the same weight to wallpaper texture as to a consciousness-transfer whereby Oscar briefly inhabits the mind of Linda's boss as he fucks her in the back room of his club, Noe drives home his point about the arbitrary significance we assign everything in our universe:  There's just as much electricity and life happening in a light bulb as in coitus.

Oscar's death trip unravels his life story.  We learn more about he and Linda, and even Alex, to an extent.  There's no great message about childhood trauma being an excuse for a depraved adult lifestyle; in fact, Enter the Void is free of judgment.  Death silences Oscar's inner monologue.  He has no thoughts or thoughts about his thoughts.  He is a spectator in a jumbled cosmic slide show of his life, and it's entirely up to us to comment on the tragedy of what happened to him and his family; to judge the wisdom of some crucial decisions; and, ultimately, to find the sweet origins of a life gone completely wrong.

Enter the Void is an expression of man's full potential, from greatest love to lowest hatred.  And Noe wraps this Valentine to the spirit in a big, crazy, red ribbon of tenderness, shocking violence, heartbreak and transcendent joy.  You probably won't believe me when I say that a film that showcases a clinical, squirm-enducing abortion ends with an uplifting, life-affirming message of hope, but it's true. And I wouldn't be surprised is Noe unleashed this movie as a dare to his audience to tough it out.

I should mention that as cinematic dares go, things don't get much prettier than Enter the Void. Benoit Debie's camerawork will keep you guessing from frame one, and the CG effects Noe's team uses are (sneaking out on a limb here) the best I've ever seen.  There's a terrific Fincher-esque quality to the movie where the POV snakes along glowing buildings and through light fixtures, up into the sky and into the cabin of an airplane with the fluid, seamless motion of a documentary.  The frequent trips to the aforementioned kaleidoscope realities are so convincing that my logical brain knew the effects were probably accomplished on a Mac, but my heart wanted to believe that Noe had discovered other worlds under a super-microscope that he edited into his crazy movie.

Not everyone will see Enter the Void, but everyone should.  It's a great discussion piece.  It's also a revolution in filmmaking and proof that mainstream American directors lack the imagination and conviction of their European counterparts.  And if you're a big ol' chicken like me, it's also the safest way to get high.  Best yet, the euphoria lasts for days.

Wednesday
Apr062011

Insidious (2011)

An Exorcise in Homage

Here's another gem that came across my Inbox last night.  I have no idea if it's real, but it's damned compelling--which is more than I can say for Insidious.  I've seen the movie, and have no desire to waste energy on a review.  Please accept this e-mail as a poor substitute.

I discovered your site about three months ago, while Google-ing articles about kids kicking seats on airplanes (I travel alot and was looking for tips on how to deal with these evil little dwarfs).  I rarely agree with your reviews because I think you're pretty elitist in your point of views and too often let your brain get in the way of your gut when it comes to watching some pretty awesome movies.

But...

You do seem to be gaining some pull in the industry, believe it or not--which is why I wanted to fill you in on some of the behind-the-scenes dirt behind Insidious.  I worked as Second Assistant to the First Associate P.A. on the movie, and I've gotta tell ya: I don't know how this thing ever got green lit, much less out the door and into the number three box office slot opening weekend.

The first thing you need to know is that composer Joseph Bishara is taking Alliance Entertainment, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell to court (I know this, 'cause my friend Kyle polishes Joe's cymbals).  Joe alleges that the filmmakers deliberately denied him a co-screenwriting credit, even though everyone had agreed that Insidious would be an entirely new kind of horror movie where the score was even more responsible for the story than the guy who created the characters.

I remember early script meetings where Wan and Whannel would be slumped at the far end of the table popping Pepto because the studio was constantly yelling at them for the lack of genuine scares in the screenplay and storyboards.  The big gripe was that market research had shown that audiences were tired of modern ghost movie cliches like eerie children scribbling strange, violent pictures; menacing voices crackling over faint radios/monitors; and ghosts dressed in old-fashioned clothing popping out of the dark with wide, insane smiles.  The director and writer were going crazy, mumbling about not having had an original idea in years and crying into their coffee.

All that changed when Joe showed up one morning with a duffel bag full of stainless steel cookware.  He stood up on a chair and yelled "Seize the day" before hurtling three saucepots at the wall.

"The movies," he said in a thick Hungarian accent (funny, 'cause he's from Anaheim), "is as much an auditory medium as it is a visual one."

"If you want your theatre audience to shit their pants, all you have to do is fill the soundtrack with noises like this..."

(He hurled an unwashed collander past producer Oren Peli's head, which crashed with room-shaking reverberation.)

"...every three to five minutes, and Voila! Instant scary blockbuster!"  To drive his point home, Joe jumped down and began circling the table, beating two skillet lids together like a haywire wind-up monkey.  He tripped, though, and one of the lids flew into the pair of overhead projectors silently screening Poltergeist and Wes Craven's New Nightmare on the east wall.  My intern friend Lars got knocked on the head pretty badly, and had to stop transcribing the movies into Whannell's laptop just long enough to get a Band-Aid.

It was a nutty idea, but everyone signed off on it.  I remember Whannell and Wan being so relieved by this new development that they stopped coming to the script meetings (I later found out they spent the rest of pre-production shopping for cars and indoor swimming pools).

The whole thing with Joe is minor, though, compared to the controversy surrounding the design of the movie's demon.  My cousin Ashley tends bar at the Shoehorn Tavern, where a lot of the crew unwound every night; and she told me that the art directors, Jennifer and Thomas Spence were regulars; they'd get really hammered and yell at people about how they'd wasted so many years and so much money on art school just to be told by some fifteen-year-old junior executive that the monster in Insidious should look like the love-child of Darth Maul and Freddy Krueger, grafted onto the body of Pumpkinhead.  I hear they'd planned to sue Alliance as well, but there's some law about filing papers from rehab...

Oh, and did you hear that Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne almost walked off the movie?  Apparently, they were really excited when they signed on to play the parents of a "haunted" little boy because they were huge fans of Paranormal Activity and the first Saw (Insidious is the brainchild of those films' creators).  But halfway into filming, there were rumblings that Whannell had mistakenly given Wilson script pages from Poltergeist 2: The Other Side, and later on told Byrne that the reason her characters' other two children disappear from the movie halfway through is because Joe had exceeded the production's music budget ("Nothing says 'terrifying' like the sound of a Martha Stewart Dutch Oven shattering against concrete!"), and the studio had to make up the cost elsewhere.

(You can see the results of these problems on film: Notice Wilson's persistent look of confusion from about the half-hour mark on, as well as Byrne's constantly looking around for something important.)

And!  Hot off the presses is talk of another lawsuit!  The estate of Zelda Rubinstein, the creepy little actress who played the psychic in Poltergeist (she died last year) is apparently going after Alliance and actress Lin Shaye.  My roommate Cesar, who validates Legal's parking in Lot "C", says their claim is that Shaye's part in Insidious is so similar to Rubinstein's role that their case is a slam dunk.

It's true: In the movie, she shows up to help this poor family retrieve their kid, who's been sucked into the astral plane by malevolent forces.  She brings along some nerdy assistants who rig the house with cameras and supernatural-detection equipment (Wan puts his stamp on the material by dressing Shaye's lackeys like Geek Squad clerks).  Rumor has it that Alliance is willing to settle quietly, with a "Special Thanks" credit on the May 15th blu-ray, as well as a 0.05% royalty on all Insidious Red Box rentals.  But we'll see...

Sorry if you were looking forward to something scary and original.  Like Wilson and Byrne, I thought Paranormal Activity and the first Saw were pretty brilliant horror movies--so much so that I chose to work on Insidious instead of Yogi Bear 2: Grin 'n Bear It.  My mistake.  It's clear that this is just a cheap cash-in that doesn't even rise to the level of Wan's far-superior Dead Silence (though I'm not sure if I actually dug that movie or just Donnie Wahlberg's part in it).

By they way, it's totally cool for you to put this up on your site: There were fifty of us assistants in these meetings at any given time.  Hell, by the end of shooting, it was only assistants and lighting crew, making dirty shadow puppets on the wall of the creepy-living-room set.

If you use this, please call me Carol Anne.

Monday
Apr042011

Source Code (2011)

We've Only Got Eight Minutes to Save the World

The trailer for Source Code made the film look like a cross between two movies I loathe, Inception and Groundhog Day (yes, I'm the one guy on the planet who doesn't appreciate Harold Ramis' classic comedy).  But in the middle of last week, I found out Duncan Jones directed it--a fact that guaranteed I'd see this in the theatre.

Jones' first movie was 2009's ethics-in-space movie, Moon, in which Sam Rockwell played a the sole caretaker of a lunar mining facility suffering from a very unique identity crisis.  On a nothing budget, Jones made a gorgeous and personal piece of science fiction that pretty much nobody saw.  Fortunately, one of those nobodies recognized Jones' talent and gave him a larger, more public sandbox to play in:  Working from a script by Ben Ripley, the director has made Source Code into one of the best films of the year.

The story centers on Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an army pilot shot down in Afghanistan who mysteriously wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago.  He believes he may still be dreaming, but something is off.  Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the attractive woman sitting across from him keeps calling him "Shawn", and he can't remember anything past being in a helicopter and taking fire (the Dyson Airblade hand dryer in the men's room and the full-service Dunkin Donuts at the back of the train were my clues that Colter was living in an alternate universe, but I digress).

Colter paces the train frantically for a few minutes until a bomb explodes, killing everyone on-board.

He wakes up again in a dark, freezing tomb made of computer monitors, blinking lights and cables. He's harnessed to a chair and it takes him a few minutes to realize someone is talking to him.  On on of the screens, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) sits at a desk in a control room and reads mental acuity tests aloud to re-set his memory.  Colter learns that he's part of a top-secret government project that allows soldiers to re-live the last eight minutes of a terrorist attack through the mind of one of the victims.  He was sent to the train in the body of a school teacher in order to learn the identity of the bomber and prevent a second attack.

Goodwin and her team send Colter back to the train several times so that he can narrow down the suspects.  With each visit, Colter gathers more clues for his mission as well as pieces of how he got drafted for the mission and who's behind it.  He also experiments with "what if" scenarios, like getting Christina off the train at on of its stops in order to save her--but the result is always the same: The train explodes and he and Christina die (strangely, even the seemingly set-in-stone details of Colter's awakenings are different almost every time; sometimes his jacket is on, sometimes it's off; sometimes Christina is leaning forward talking him out of his dream state, sometimes she's reclined in her seat).

Back in his wire cocoon, Colter engages the project's leader, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who explains that what he's doing isn't really time travel because there's no way to affect the future by altering the events of something that has already happened; the train incident, referred to as "source code", is an unalterable fact; all Colter is doing is playing around with a locked destiny that he can vary with his mind but not affect in reality.  It's confusing and fascinating and, as we learn, possibly untrue.

It would be unfair of me to reveal more, so I'll focus on the non-story elements that make Source Code a must-see.  Let's begin with Gyllenhaal.  I was a big fan of his early on, with Donnie Darko being one of my favorite films.  Like Source Code, that movie placed the actor at the center of a universe constantly folding in on itself; Gyllenhaal has a great everyman quality (when he's not playing video game heroes) that crosses deer-in-the-headlights naivete with a snarky charm that sometimes peeks out from behind his lack of self-assuredness; his wobbly disposition is typically undone by an obsession of some kind, whether it's tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, hiding his sexuality from the world in Brokeback Mountain, or looking for a bomb in this movie.  All of these seemingly conflicting qualities make for performances that are at once silly, grounded and intense--which is the best way I can describe Source Code.

I'd also like to give props to Monaghan--or, more specifically to the casting agent who decided she'd be perfect for this movie.  As we saw in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she's capable of playing the confident girl-next-door-with-a-secret, and that serves her well here.  Source Code is as much about Colter trying to figure out what his relationship to Christina is as it is his hunting a terrorist.  Monaghan has a terrific poker face: We're never sure if she's a pawn, a player, or something else, and when we find out just how well she and Colter know each other, it's a mind-blowing couple of seconds that underscores the actress' abilities.

Of course, a good deal of the movie's success falls to Jones and Ripley.  It's either a credit to the screenwriter or a delicious bit of cosmic intervention that Source Code feels like it could be a prequel to Moon.  These talents just go together.  I can't be sure how much of the visual style was laid out in the script, but Jones fuses the standard action movie setups with comic-book framing and Hitchcock timing. During Colter's first few forays into the source code, I almost couldn't stand the tension: Sitting in the theatre, I didn't know if the director was playing out his eight-minute windows in real-time or not, leaving zero frame of reference for how long Colter had to find his next clue.  The tension eases up later on, as the movie's focus shifts from nabbing the mastermind to Colter's taking back control of his destiny.  And it's a tribute to the creators that both sections are equally thrilling--one on a visceral level, the other on an electrically cerebral plane that I haven't experienced in quite awhile.

The movie isn't a slam-dunk, though, and a lot of that has to do with the ending.  Actually, there are three endings.  The first is tremendously satisfying, if not a bit corny.  The second is kind of sweet, but not all that necessary.  The third is a whopper of a mind-fuck that you'll either accept, reject, or, like me, accept grudgingly.  Not to put too fine a point on this for people who haven't seen the film, but the first ending is "A Stop at Willoughby"; the second is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"; and the third is Quantum Leap.  I understand that Jones and Ripley were simply playing out their scenario to its logical conclusion, but Source Code is so full of illogic that they could have simply quit while they were ahead and still rested easy in the knowledge that they'd made a fine film.

Typically, I hate illogical movies.  But what sets this one apart is the fact that it kept me guessing as to what big reveals I'd be treated to at the end.  By the time I figured out that only half of my questions would be answered, the screen had faded to black.  This isn't the kind of thriller where characters do stupid things in order to keep the plot moving; Source Code is driven by a web of theories and realities so complex that I'm not sure if the people who devised it even knew what was going on (much like Donnie Darko); but in these rare cases, good acting, direction and forward momentum can delay analysis until at least the trip to the parking lot--which is more than I can say for most films of this kind, whose mechanics are so transparent that I spend more time looking for seams in the CG than wondering what will happen next.

Duncan Jones has delivered a spectacular second feature that demands and commands audience attention; it's a smart, exciting movie that I'll surely pine for during the imminent, brain-damaged summer blockbuster season.

Sunday
Apr032011

Hop (2011)

It was a Good Friday

I'm sick of kids' movies that rely on easy, dated pop-cultural references to keep parents awake while their children zone out to zany, colorful nonsense.  I'm appalled by writers who use kick-to-the-nuts jokes and characters saying "awkward" out the sides of their mouths during tense situations to garner cheap laughs instead of taking the time to write real jokes for well-rounded characters.  And I'm absolutely through with animated features using music from Kill Bill and/or Pulp Fiction to indicate that a fight is about to break out.  Sitting through the trailers for Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil and Rio the other night, I wanted to kill myself.

Fortunately, Hop is nothing like what I've just described.

Yes, it's true: I'm about to recommend this movie.

I was nervous going in, for all the reasons listed above.  The previews made Tim Hill's family comedy look like an Alvin and the Chipmunks rip-off, with Annoying Brit Cad du Jour Russell Brand voicing a slacker Easter Bunny.  But Hill and screenwriters Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch have created a genuinely funny film that parents and kids can enjoy without needing too many pop culture Cliff's Notes. Hop is neither Shrek awful nor Pixar profound; rather, it belongs in the same harmless-fun-and-lessons category as the Muppet movies.

James Marsden stars as Fred O'Hare, a directionless suburbanite still living at home with his disapproving parents (Gary Cole and Elizabeth Perkins) and over-achieving adopted grade-schooler sister, Alex (Tiffany Espensen).  His other sister, Sam (Kaley Cuoco), desperate to help him find his way, sets Fred up with a job interview at a video game company and the keys to her vacationing boss's mansion.  On his way to the new digs, he almost runs over E.B. (Brand), the runaway twenty-something heir to the title of Easter Bunny.  The wisecracking rabbit left his father's (Hugh Laurie) Wonka-like candy-eggs-and-Peeps factory on Easter Island to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous drummer in Hollywood.  Gradually, he and Fred bond over their parental issues and a desire to do something cool with their lives.

I was relieved to see that a good deal of Hop was spent on this story, and not the cute but superfluous Easter Island sub-plot.  When E.B.'s Dad learns that his son has gone missing, he sends a team of highly-trained spies called The Pink Berets to retrieve him.  The factory's second-in-command, a gruff chick foreman named Carlos (Hank Azaria), schemes to lead his fellow chick workers in a revolt against their bunny employers and seize the power of Easter to...um, seize the power of Easter, I guess.  Like I said, this part of the movie doesn't work that well, and, fortunately, it wasn't too intrusive.

The best moments in Hop involve E.B. getting into mischief and Fred struggling to keep up with him--but not losing his shit when he can't.  Most of the gags and situations have been played out in similar movies.  But what makes this incarnation fresh is the way the characters react to the predicaments they find themselves in.  In a lesser film, the scene in which E.B. sneaks into a recording studio during Fred's job interview and winds up playing drums with The Blind Boys of Alabama would have ended with a madcap chase involving an overweight security guard and an explosion of toppled drums and cymbals.  Here, he just jams with the band in a sweet and rockin' interlude.  Later, when Fred tells E.B. he didn't get the job, he doesn't make a flustered, funny-face show of things; he shrugs it off with a "wasn't meant to be" attitude and continues circling want ads in the paper.

Soon, E.B. learns of an open audition for Hasselhoff Knows Talent, a variety show in downtown L.A. He and Fred attend, and the drum-whiz rabbit is a hit.  David Hasselhoff personally invites E.B. to be on the show (one of the film's quirkier running jokes is that despite Fred's attempts to hide the magical, talking rabbit, no one who learns his secret seems to notice or care).  Ahead of the big night, though, The Pink Berets kidnap Fred from the mansion by mistake, and E.B. must leave his dream behind to return home and face his dad.  This leads to Hop's bad, fifteen-minute climax, in which Carlos turns on E.B.'s Dad and mutates into a hulking chickster-bunny using a mystical egg-sceptre.

When I say the climax is bad, I don't mean to disparage it on a technical level--or even, really, a storytelling level.  I understand the conventional wisdom that necessitates villains and spectacular climaxes in all movies targeted at children; and the one in Hop is alright.  The effects are really well done, and I loved the Easter factory's design, gadgetry and majesty.  But to me, the most compelling part of the story was left hanging on the mansion's couch, at the end of a cute training montage; you see, in parallel to E.B.'s drumming ambitions, Fred decides that what he'd most like to do in the world is become the new Easter Bunny (there are no rules, apparently, that the job-holder must be an actual rabbit, which speaks volumes to the universe's role as an equal-opportunity employer).  It's an unofficial nod to the terrific Art Carney Twilight Zone episode "Night of the Meek"--with a different mythical gift-giver as the hero--and I hated being ripped away from it to watch a pretty uninteresting foregone-conclusion battle between good and evil.

Hop has other problems, to. The gooey reconciliation-with-dad ending felt rushed, and I attribute that to shoehorning the aforementioned fight.  I also spent way too much time wondering how the hell old Fred is supposed to be.  In a flashback, we see him as a kid (at age eight, I'd guess).  The rest of the film takes place 20 years later, meaning Fred is almost thirty and living at home after having lost the one job he'd ever held--it's disconcerting because James Marsden is almost forty, and has played adults in way too many movies for me to buy him as whatever age he's supposed to be with this hapless disposition.  But I blocked that stuff out after awhile, and just focused on him as an earnest guy looking for a job; it was tough, but I managed.

I've shit on the Carlos sub-plot already, but allow me to return for one last squirt.  Hank Azaria needs to stop with the "funny" Spanish accent.  Yes, he's very good at doing European voices, but rarely does he say anything with them that isn't meant to be humorous simply because he's talking with an accent. There's a weird undercurrent of racism in Hop, where the (literally) yellow labor force is denied upward mobility by the proper English management; I suppose the only things keeping the Easter Island operation from being a sweatshop are the good intentions of E.B.'s dad, and the fact that chicks don't actually sweat.  But Carlos is a caricature rather than a character, and I was put off by his Chicken Guevara coup--mostly because of the accent, but also because of the script, which sees Fred and E.B. "saving the day" by essentially putting the workers back in their place (worse yet, the subjugated chicks seemed to be really happy about pulling the magical egg chariot).

But the screenplay glosses over these minor issues with a steady stream of surprises.  I'm not talking about the over-flowing-with-bubbles Jacuzzi or the real-life-rabbit-posing-as-a-stuffed-animal bits.  What got me was the handling of two key characters, Sam and Hasselhoff.  From the trailers, I'd expected Sam to be Fred's love interest; that a good amount of screen time would be eaten up with his attempts to woo her; and her not seeing that he's Mr. Wonderful compared to her current douche-y boyfriend (etc., etc., etc.).  By making Sam Fred's sister, the creators relieve a lot of the bullshit tension these movies rely on and build a great sibling relationship for the audience to connect with.  They also avoid the pitfall of making the relationship an antagonistic one, which I appreciated.

David Hasselhoff turns in another stellar cameo in a children's movie. The first, 2004's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (which Hill wrote), featured the actor in full-on cheese mode with a bizarre tribute to his Baywatch character.  Seven years later, The Hoff is best known as a judge on TV's America's Got Talent; so of course he plays a hot-shot reality-show judge.  I'd assumed that his part would either be relegated to one scene or that he'd turn out to be a villain--dangling the bunny's rock dreams in front of him while secretly tipping off government scientists to come get the talking rabbit.  It's shtick I've seen a hundred times in a hundred movies starring a hundred has-beens.  But Hasselhoff plays a really nice guy in Hop--he's full of himself, sure, but he's a good dude who helps E.B. make a very important life choice. Aside from a wholly unnecessary and rather flat Knight Rider reference, Hasselhoff plays a real character here, instead of just relying on his reputation as a pop icon to coast his way to the bank.

Something else I wasn't expecting was the treatment of Easter as the new Christmas.  Really, Hop is a holiday movie without the snow.  Don't worry, my dear Atheist friends: There's not a single mention of the risen Christ in this bizarre romp, but we do get a shout-out to 4000-year-old traditions (Pagans rejoice!).  In other words, if you're looking for spiritual messages, you can find them in the story about a dad asking his son to sacrifice the rest of his life in order to make the world happy; if that's totally not your scene, there's more Hugh Hefner (seriously) than "Hallelujah" here, so don't be afraid.

Had I done my research and learned about Hop's pedigree before going to see it, I could have saved myself a lot of undue dread.  In addition to the SpongeBob connection, two of the three writers worked on last year's smash, Despicable Me, a movie that I loved half of.  Hill and company know their audience--not just the kids but the adults who used to be kids; the ones starving for modern entertainment that matches the Warner Brothers classics and/or Spielberg-ian coming-of-age films of their youth.  Hop doesn't quite get there, but it's different enough, generally non-offensive enough, and certainly warm enough to expose kids to without worrying that they'll become bored or cynical.  There was a hearty round of applause at the end of the screening I attended--much of it coming from enthusiastic little hands. 

Friday
Apr012011

Knowing (2008)

Buy the Numbers

Much has been written about the Hollywood anomaly known as Nicolas Cage.  Like Gary Busey, he's an Oscar-winning former golden child who abandoned a career of meaty, interesting performances and used his reputation to coast through a decade-and-a-half of mostly ham-fisted crap (unlike Busey, Cage doesn't have the benefit of an auto-accident-induced brain injury to explain the turn).  What's so unique about Cage is that he's pretty much the same guy in every film now, but depending on the quality of the project--or, more to the point, the "Cage-iness" of the character he plays in the project--his modern films sometimes surpass the wackily sub-par (Season of the Witch) and enter genius territory (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

Then there's Alex ProyasKnowing, a movie both enhanced and crippled by Cage's involvement. At a glance, the story is ridiculous: MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) discovers that a sheet of paper his son brings home from an unearthed time capsule contains the date, location, and body count of every major catastrophe of the last fifty years.  There are a few items on the list that have yet to occur, allowing Knowing to turn into a disaster-porn version of National Treasure.

Proyas and screenwriters Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White throw in a deceased wife for Cage and his son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), to mourn in the midst of the world-ending freakishness--kind of like Signs, without the hydrophobic aliens.  Yes, there are also aliens in this movie, but instead of the traditional bug-eyed "grays", they're humanoids whose ideas about Earth fashion were apparently informed by Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner.  This creepy, silent pack of trench-coat-wearing loboto-noids stalk John and Caleb throughout the film, and it's not until the end that we figure out why.  For the most part, they're just creepy hors d'oeuvres meant to keep us snacking during the few scenes when stuff isn't blowing up spectacularly.

Confidently navigating this melange of sci-fi movie clichés is Cage, who plays Wistful, Rage-fueled Alcoholic like nobody's business.  He imbues John with wisdom, regret and curiosity in a handful of scenes and somehow manages not to undo all that good work by screaming into cell phones and throwing back whiskey like he's still researching Leaving Las Vegas.  Both modes are equally effective, but the fact that he keeps flipping the switch casts a slightly camp shadow over the whole affair.  He's not helped by co-star Canterbury, who has to be one of the worst child actors to ever stink up a major motion picture.  I'm only going by this performance, mind you, but, Jesus, is this kid bad.  Imagine Charlie Brown with a bedwetting problem and an inability to remember lines, and you'll come close to understanding the stiffness falling out of your screen every time he slouches into frame (I'm not willing to throw down the Jake Lloyd gauntlet just yet, but my arm's definitely getting twitchy).

I can't be sure whether it was Cage's influence or the filmmakers', but this uneven-acting bug even infects the usually reliable Rose Byrne, who plays Diana Wayland, the daughter of the girl who wrote the prophetic paper as a child.  Byrne has two modes here: Skeptical Mother and Hysterical Mother.  One is funny; one is hilarious, and I'll leave it to you to decide which is which--my jury's still deliberating.  I get why her character is the way she is, but if the actress had dialed the frenzy back a bit instead of succumbing to it, we might have had at least one wholly sympathetic character instead of a handful of half-likeable ones.

"Well, Ian, when planes start falling from the sky and subway trains go off the rails, killing hundreds of people in bursts of fire, blood, and metal, let's see how you react!"

Fair enough.  I'll grant that there's a lot of awful stuff that happens in Knowing that would probably freak me out, were they to actually occur.  And Proyas shines in his depiction of unimaginably tragic events. But the amazing effects work and sound design are offset by goofy shit, like John stumbling through fresh plane wreckage like he's looking for an empty coke stall or Diana's theatrical screaming and convulsing as the aliens drive away with her daughter and Chandler.  Again, maybe people will really be like that at the end of days, but Knowing's vision of the future is less like Armageddon and more like an improv class.

Does this sound like a negative review?  Reading it over, yeah, it kind of does.  But I won't take back a word of it, even though I really enjoyed this film.  Though not entirely original, I dug the sci-fi and disaster elements.  Though packed with weird acting choices, I appreciated Cage and Canterbury's father/son chemistry; especially in their last scene together--which, because it didn't involve a lot of talking, allowed me to concentrate on wiping away some tears.  I even got into the aliens' ultimate objective, which has been this movie's most contentious point.  You can look at the final scene as a hokey religious metaphor, or you can look at it as a brilliant bit of cultural reverse-engineering (forgive me as I tiptoe around a spoiler).  On first viewing, I was in the former camp; the second time around, I saw things a little differently--and I'll cop to that having something to do, I think, with the fact that I'm a dad now.

Is Knowing an inconsistent, big-budget mess?  Sure.  But it has enough compelling nuggets of science fiction to elevate it above the usual studio garbage, and I'd bet that's why Cage got involved.  This is a quirky movie that is alternately serious and impossible to take seriously, but it stands by its convictions and doesn't care whether or not you prefer conventional, happy endings.  In this way, Knowing is not just a movie starring Nicolas Cage, it's Nicolas Cage: The Movie.