Events

 

Kicking the Tweets
Search
Wednesday
Feb082012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Origin of the Spaces

Like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film I've seen numerous times, but my perception of it with each viewing. Does my brain molt abnormally fast? Or is there another explanation for the fact that, only two days ago, I realized Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) didn't die on the moon?

The diehard Stanley Kubrick fans among you are likely shouting at your screens right now, "Of course he didn't die on the moon, you idiot! Were you even paying attention?"

Yes, but to the wrong things, apparently.

Let's back up.

I revisit 2001 every few years, mostly to recalibrate where I'm at, mentally and spiritually. I remember watching it for the first time on cable back in high school, and flipping channels during what seemed like the interminable "Stargate" sequence towards the end of the film. Astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman's (Keir Dullea) journey through the outer reaches of time, space, and reality lasts just over nine minutes, but to a kid lacking the attention span to finish A Catcher in the Rye, it seemed like forty.* Years later, watching a restored, 70mm presentation at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, I marveled at the artistry and innovation of what Kubrick had surely intended to be an all-encompassing, big-screen feat--and wasn't bored for a second.

I may have lost some of you. Some folks avoid the "Classic, Big, Important" movies because pop culture has not only robbed us of their significance through parody, but also tarred them as dull, pretentious epics (See also Citizen Kane**). If you've never seen this film, I urge you to either wait until it hits an art-house theatre near you or find a friend with the largest, blu-ray-enabled TV you can find and give it a try. In the meantime, here's a little back-story for incentive.

The film begins at the dawn of man and follows two rival groups of apes as they lounge, forage, and fight over a watering hole. One morning, a tall, black monolith appears in one of the camps and bestows the spark of intelligence on those who touch it. Soon, apes are fashioning weapons from the bones of felled animals and asserting dominance in the world's first act of artificial murder.

Fast-forward several million years, circa 1999, when humans have evolved enough to build lunar colonies serviced by commercial spacecraft. The aforementioned Dr. Floyd is dispatched to a moon base to oversee the excavation of a top-secret discovery: another monolith. When he and several other officials enter the site--which has been dug out, sealed off, and lit for maximum observation--the alien slab emits a piercing noise that causes everyone to scream inside their helmets.

Because the second half of the film picks up eighteen months later, with a different cast of characters, I'd assumed that the moon mission was lost. But, no, Floyd pops up again towards the end, addressing the crew of the ship via recording and talking about events subsequent to his encounter with the monolith. In my (weak) defense, the scene in which Floyd re-appears is so strange and intense, that I guess I missed just who it was on that monitor.***

But there I go, leading you through another narrative Stargate. Let's rewind again:

2001's second half involves a five-man mission to Jupiter. Doctors Bowman and Poole (Gary Lockwood) are the only two crew members awake for the duration of the years-long trip; their survey team sleeps in suspended animation. The men are joined by supercomputer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the pinnacle of human technology--a machine so smart, so perfect, that it has never made an error.

Bowman and Poole are somewhat uneasy about their lives being in the hands of a machine while several million miles from home. But Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke keep that notion an eerie undercurrent in the men's early scenes. I'd never picked up on this before, but neither character directly addresses one another until HAL begins to malfunction. Despite sharing several, long scenes--even ones in which they're sitting right next to each other, watching television on what may as well be iPads--their isolation is absolute.

It's a chilling comment on man's over-reliance on technology, as well as a very forward-thinking look at the death of human interaction in the face of overwhelming convenience--if one doesn't need people to fill one's needs, one doesn't need people at all (look no further than Facebook to see how people have stopped talking to each other and begun talking to machines who transmit versions of their friends' personalities).

But, yes, HAL goes haywire. Whether this is due to alien interference (the ship runs into another monolith near Jupiter) or a newfound self-awareness causing its artificial intelligence to break with sanity (or both)--the film is unclear. I do know that Bowman must fight to shut the computer down, which means venturing into its giant, red brain--where he's treated to a really creepy song. It's here that Floyd re-emerges, and where I stopped paying attention to the monitor addressing Bowman to focus on his strange, desperate task. 2001's last half-hour is famously oblique, particularly after this scene, when the monolith opens up a portal to alien realms.

I've heard that Bowman's fate is explained a bit more thoroughly in Clarke's novel, but I prefer the film's ambiguity. The best way for Kubrick to present these big ideas is to speak to the audience in a bizarre, visual language that it's not yet advanced enough to understand. Just as one wouldn't expect an ant to understand iTunes, Kubrick teases us in a way that suggests film scholars will spend millennia decoding a very deliberate and sensible master plan.

2001: A Space Odyssey deserves all the praise it gets, and is more than worth your time. It's from a different era, though, and anyone expecting a whiz-bang space opera should definitely dial back their expectations (for starters, get ready for epic, elegant classical music in lieu of explosions). This is a film about evolution, after all, and we all know that evolution is slow--slow, but fascinating and insightful. The text, subtext, and sub-subtext presented here are more thrilling than a hundred Avatar sequels. Though, unlike that movie and its ilk, this one's worth revisiting and thinking about.

*I've long since finished Salinger's book, a favorite.

**For a genuinely boring, pretentious epic, see The Tree of Life.

***Truth be told, after all these years, I'm kind of bummed that he lived.

Saturday
Feb042012

Chronicle (2012)

If I Go Crazy, Then Will You Still Call me "Superman"?

Though both genres have run their entertainment value into the ground, we still find ourselves awash in found-footage and superhero movies. Iron Man 2 blew and Thor was a snore, but studio wisdom holds that stuffing The Avengers with even more magical muscle-men will inherently make their adventures worthwhile. And though I liked The Last Exorcism and the last Paranormal Activity movie, I'm not chomping at the bit to see what happens next in these spooky, shaky-cam epics.

So, what could be worse than the found-footage superhero movie, Chronicle?

The more appropriate question is, what could be better? Just as The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen swooped in to save a zombified comic-book industry in 1986, director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis have created a thrilling, touching adventure story that both comments on and elevates the genres in which they dabble.

The film stars Dane DeHaan as Andrew, a lonely Seattle teen who suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic, ex-firefighter dad (Michael Kelly). The family lives hand-to-mouth, as the old man scrapes together every penny of disability to pay for his dying wife's medication--as well as his own chemical therapy of choice, beer. Andrew gathers enough cash to buy an old video camera, which he uses to document his terrible home life and the humiliations he endures as a high school outcast.

One night, he and his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), attend a barn party. Towards the end of the evening, Matt and class-president-front-runner Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover a hole in the ground; they goad Andrew into exploring it with his camera, and soon the boys find themselves face to face with a glowing alien artifact. We see black tentacles peel off its crystal spikes before interference causes the camera to short out. The footage picks up three weeks later in Matt's back yard, capturing a series of telekinesis tests that the boys have devised for their newfound superhuman abilities.

As you might expect, the teens don't handle their powers well. What begins as showing off for one another progresses to playing pranks on unsuspecting shoppers at the local mall, and ends with Matt having to establish rules for how the group uses their godlike strengths. Andrew has the hardest time with this, as his powers have done nothing to enhance his social skills or prospects at getting out of his house without bruises. Unlike Matt and Steve, who were gifted in several areas before their encounter with the cosmic rock, Andrew still feels out of place and almost entitled to abuse--despite his ability to, say, separate a spider into its component elements in mid-air.

Going further would spoil the joy of discovering Chronicle for yourself. This movie gets so much right that others get wrong, and it's a delight watching Trank and Landis deftly sidestep obvious pitfalls. One of the most common charges leveled against found-footage movies is that regular people simply don't make a habit of filming everything--especially when their lives are in danger. Right off the bat, the creators establish Andrew as an odd bird, a freak who insists on getting everything on film--possibly because he's seen too many found-footage movies.

I also like that there are significant time lapses here. The three weeks between the alien encounter and the boys' tests are lost because Andrew's first camera was destroyed, and it took him awhile to find a suitable replacement. Later, Matt's classmate and severe crush, Ashley (Casey Letter), pops up with her own camera--which she uses to document major senior-year events. She, too, is always filming as a way of improving her skills, leading to not only a cool dueling-cameras motif, but also a relief from Alex's point of view. Chronicle breathes as the filmmakers allow their story to take shape over several months, rather than condensing the action into an unrealistic time frame.

More importantly, the movie is a compelling character study way before people start moving things with their minds. We feel not only sorry for Andrew, but hopeful that he'll either stand up to his father or strike out on his own with his dignity intact. His is a classic case of power corrupting the innocent, and we watch in horror and sadness as his rage finds its voice, which becomes a scream. This is what George Lucas should have aimed for with Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. Too bad a couple of young film geeks accomplished in eighty minutes what he couldn't in six hours.

At the heart of the film's success is its terrific cast. DeHaan is mesmerizing as Andrew. He turns the stock Columbine-kid archetype into a fully fleshed-out young man with deep problems. As his friends-in-powers, Jordan and Russell create complex, likable contrasts. Matt is the soulful genius who doesn't want to be seen as a nerd, and Steve is the most popular kid in school, who got that way by being a genuinely nice guy. I believed this strange and beautiful relationship, thanks to Landis' keen insight into the sometimes awkward but adamantium-strong bonds that bring teenagers together. The way they bicker, laugh, and confide in one another isn't easy melodrama or comic-book-movie hackery; it's the real thing.

My only gripe with Chronicle--and it's not necessarily a fair one--is that some of the special effects are downright dodgy. The levitating objects, in particular, are rendered with weird, conspicuous shadows that pull them right out of the frame and the audience right out of some pretty key moments. Had the film been endowed with a much larger budget, I'm sure these wouldn't have been a problem.

On the plus side, the scenes in which the boys fly are simply amazing. My dizziness and fluttered stomach were enough to convince me that 3D is a money-sucking joke. Trank, cinematographer Matthew Jensen, and the digital effects team create a wonderful, weightless experience that I don't think I've ever experienced before in a non-IMAX movie. I can only imagine Zach Snyder seeing this and subsequently pulling the plug on his new Superman film--or at least going back to the effects drawing board.

Speaking of Supes, it's a wonder Fox didn't get sued by Warner Brothers (DC Comics' parent company). Chronicle is the best non-Superman Superman origin story I've seen, and the parallels are undeniable. Beginning with the look of the alien artifact (a dead ringer for the craft that bought baby Kal-El to Earth in Richard Donner's film adaptation) and ending with a closing shot that is a metaphorical (and nearly literal) Fortress of Solitude, Trank and Landis sneak lots of perhaps unintentional references into their mythos. Indeed, Andrew is essentially Lex Luthor by way of Carrie White, with a dash of Superman's origin for flavor.

None of this matters, though. I appreciate a good influence bouillabaisse, as long as it's compelling and the result at least feels original. That's definitely the case here. If you've just about given up on capes and camcorders, I urge you to give Chronicle a try. I have little interest in a sequel or further attempts to tweak this genre hybrid, but the movie surprised me immensely--truly a superhuman feat for the ages.

Note: The one minor trap that Trank and Landis don't escape is the question of who found and edited their characters' footage. So far, the only such movie I've seen successfully address this issue is Cloverfield.

Douchebag Question: For those of you who've seen Chronicle--is it me, or does DeHaan look uncannily like Chloe Moretz in some scenes? It's all about the lips...

Thursday
Feb022012

Alien (Director's Cut, 1979)

The Perfect Organism

"I admire its purity."

This line from doomed science officer Ash (Ian Holm) sums up my love for Ridley Scott's Alien. It's easy to forget, thirty-three years and numerous sub-par sequels later, how great the original is--not just as science fiction or horror, but as a narratively minimalist, Orwellian nightmare.

Alien is the rare, wonderful movie that one can revisit again and again, and find new things to enjoy each time. I first saw it at age ten, and was obsessed with the chest-bursting penis-monster that grew into a sleek, humanoid giant. I rewound the VHS tape and froze it during key scenes to get a better look at the mysterious creature (my parents wouldn't purchase Fangoria until much later, so jumpy freeze-frames became my horror magazines).

In my late teens, I discovered John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and other directors who slipped big ideas and bigger human drama into films that I would have found over-long and boring years before. Watching Alien after The Searchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey is as great an eye-opener as a young cinephile can have, and I picked up on themes in Dan O'Bannon's screenplay that I hadn't considered before.

For instance, I'd never understood why Scott spent so much time establishing the Nostromo, the city-sized deep-space mining vessel whose return to Earth is interrupted by a distress beacon on an uncharted planet. For ten-year-old me, Alien could have been cut in half, with all the long corridor shots and scenes of people gathering canisters excised in favor of more eviscerations. I didn't realize the great pains the filmmakers took to tell us about this universe's bleak future; this movie takes place in the shadows of previous sci-fi space epics. The Nostromo isn't part of the Empire's fleet, or Bowman's space program--it's a creaky, grime-caked rig manned by an unwitting, expendable crew. With the exception of three lines of dialogue, none of this information is explained--it's shown.

As an adult, the film speaks to my greater (but still limited) knowledge of business and politics. The ship's creepy master computer, MOTHER, is the ultra-corporate version of 1984's Big Brother. It issues orders and subtly controls the crew's behavior (not only waking them up from their months-long sleep to investigate the beacon, but also working in concert with Ash, the manipulative, covert android who acts as the arms of MOTHER's blinking-lights-on-a-panel brain). The unholy reach of military/industrial interests is far more frightening and interesting to me now than the monster of the film's title.

Of course, there are a dozen other levels on which to enjoy the film. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character may not have invented the Survivor Girl archetype in horror movies, but she became the template for women who begin tough and then get tougher when faced with an unstoppable killing machine (unlike, say, Jamie Lee Curtis' character in Halloween, who started out soft and kind of dopey before growing up during one, long night of terror).

The rest of the cast is terrific, too, with distinct personalities that make them interesting to watch way before the monster shows up. Sure, Veronica Cartwright's shrill whining is a bit much to take. But in the scene where ship captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) navigates the Nostromo's hot, claustrophobic air ducts, her screaming melds perfectly with Jerry Goldsmith's heart-pounding score and Jim Shields' high-pitched pulse sounds to create a unique, primal dread that culminates in one of cinema's great jump-scares.

My latest revelation is the masterful work of Alien's art and production design team. This week, I watched the movie for probably the fifteenth time, but seeing the blu-ray image presented on a new, sixty-inch plasma television (sadly, not mine), I felt like I'd never seen it before. Keep in mind, I've caught the original version and the director's cut on the big screen; neither experience comes close to seeing it in a friend's cramped apartment. The level of detail that Michael Seymour and Roger Christian put into making the Nostromo and the derelict spaceship its crew discovers on the planet is breathtaking. From the smudged white walls of the dining quarters, to the wet, fossilized egg chamber where we first meet the alien, to the ornate bowels of the ship where Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) meets his grisly end, every inch of this movie is a high-def marvel.

Especially in the scene I just described, Scott and his crew make great use of the monster's natural camouflage. H.R. Giger's alien design looks like an organic robot, and blends naturally with a ship that has gone so far to pot that it looks like renal failure with afterburners. The director has since disowned the Director's Cut due to pacing issues, but I consider it essential viewing for all first-timers. The big draw, of course, is the missing egg-chamber scene at the climax, but for me the greatest surprise is a brief insert of the creature dangling from the ceiling as Brett looks for Ripley's missing cat. We get several shots of the room and dark passageways, but after a two-second cut-away to the alien, it's impossible to watch the rest of the movie without seeing its weird attributes everywhere.

It's a shame that, with the exception of James Cameron's sequel, no one has been able to expand on O'Bannon and Scott's mythology without devolving into over-the-top gore and dumb action. It's as if the people charged with following up the classic only took away a ten-year-old's lessons--less build-up, more exploding chests and heads. But it's a testament to Alien's greatness that the Xeroxing of its formula has done nothing to tarnish the film's impact. If anything, my reaction to most of the follow-ups has been, "I'd rather just watch Alien again".

Which, invariably, I do. And it's an amazing, new movie every time.

Note: Speaking of Dan O'Bannon, if you've never seen Dark Star, you owe it to yourself to check it out. He wrote the wacky sci-fi comedy, which is not only a low-budget Dr. Strangelove in Space, it's also John Carpenter's first film and the seed for Alien.

Tuesday
Jan312012

The Master of Disguise (2002)

Blow Gabba Gabba

I haven’t seen this many bad decisions since my internship at Planned Parenthood. Is that any way to kick off a commemorative, tenth-anniversary review of Dana Carvey's smash, The Master of Disguise? You betcha! This movie is at once horrible, heart-warming and oddly hilarious--just like a well-phrased abortion joke.

Right now, you're probably asking, "What's wrong with Ian today?"

For starters, I watched The Master of Disguise at 4am. For finishers, I didn't stop. Eighty minutes of fart gags, impressions that were twenty years old when this ten-year-old movie came out, and a lead actor whose grating Italian accent makes the Jersey Shore cast seem like ambassadorial candidates is more than enough to make someone a little testy--which reminds me of a gag from this movie involving (stand back) cheese balls and a mini-sausage.

The "movie" stars Carvey as Pistachio Disguisey, a socially awkward waiter whose dad is a retired spy. Fabbrizio Disguisey (James Brolin) gave up his life of intrigue back in the 70s so that he could raise his son in peace with his lovely, cooking-obsessed wife (Edie McClurg). Decades later, an evil mastermind named Devlin Bowman (Brent Spiner) kidnaps Pistachio's parents and forces the old man to use his famous powers of impersonation to steal priceless artifacts.

Pistachio learns of his rubber-faced destiny from Grandfather Disguisey (Harold Gould), who shows up to...

 

 

 

Can we just pretend I filled in the space above with details I'm desperate to forget?

Thanks. I owe you. Big time.

Look, the only way to watch The Master of Disguise is as a toddler's movie. Through that lens, it becomes a seemingly harmless Disney Channel Original--save for some bizarre sexual harassment involving Pistachio's comely assistant, Jennifer (Jennifer Esposito, the only actor who transcends the material enough to be tolerable). I also question the wisdom of Carvey and co-writer Harris Goldberg including a Tony Montana disguise. Even if new-century toddlers have been raised on Scarface, don't they deserve a better impression than this? I won't even touch the Bo Derek gag that opens the movie.*

It's as if Carvey and director Perry Andelin Blake wanted to make the next Spy Kids, but with an innocent, adult doofus as the hero instead of actual kids. As we've seen in countless "Gotta-do-one-for-my-children" vanity projects (Inspector Gadget, The Pacifier, The Spy Next Door), this is rarely a good idea. Yet, the movie looks great--like a high-def Sesame Street where striking set designers were scabbed by stoned Muppets. I guess the filmmakers wanted to give adults some shiny objects to follow, since the screenplay is devoid of helping hands for anyone over the age of five.

Sorry if this is too much of an obvious, fish-in-a-barrel review. I just expect more from kids' movies than this lame attempt at...whatever it is these folks attempted. Children aren't stupid.** They want to be engaged and entertained just like adults do, and it's a shame that every film directed their way isn't infused with as much imagination, smarts, and wonder as the classics most of us were weaned on. They say that not every movie can be a classic, to which I wonder aloud, "Why not?"

The answer, of course, is not only blowing in the wind (sorry), it's the fact that risky ideas are expensive. Running jokes about flatulence stick nicely to figurative and literal walls, and it is only by the grace of Pixar that kids today have a fighting chance. I don't know if I can end on a pithy point, or if I've even arrived at one. For that I ask your forgiveness and understanding.

I did, after all, just finish watching The Master of Disguise.

*Okay, I lied. I'm gonna touch it. Here's a tip to aspiring screenwriters from a former aspiring screenwriter who now critiques working screenwriters from a place that is not at all bitter (ahem): Don't step on your own lame visual gag with a line of voice-over that's kind of funny.

We see Bo Derek running in slow-motion from a gang of bad guys, essentially recreating her iconic image from Blake Edwards' 10. The fact that Bo Derek is pretty much known for that one thing makes this the laziest joke in a movie brimming with them--it's like crafting an edgy Michael Jordan bit involving a basketball.

Anyway, the frame freezes as Grandfather Disguisey informs us that "Bo" is actually Fabbrizio, "Thats-a my son." It's worth maybe half a chuckle--precisely one-third of the film's actual laughs.

**Mostly.

Monday
Jan302012

Trespass (2011)

The Last Foreclosure on the Left

Here's a fun little wrench for you keepers of the Nicolas Cage Career Trajectory Scorecard. I've long believed that his body of work can be neatly divided between "serious" films, in which he trades on his star-making, quirky intensity, and bat-shit B-movies whose sole reason for existing boils down to a young director's desire to hang out with Nic Cage and the actor's need to support a mean fossil-buying habit. But in Joel Schumacher's record-shattering 2011 flop, Trespass, Cage proves the mantra he asserted in Ghost Rider: he's the only one who can walk in both worlds.

For the first half of this movie, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Karl Gajdusek's story of an affluent family enduring a home invasion is a by-the-numbers thriller, sure, but nothing suggests that the film would enjoy the quickest theatre-to-home-video cycle in American box office history.*

Cage plays Kyle Miller, a diamond broker on the verge of a very important deal. He's so obsessed that he blows past his wife, Sarah (Nicole Kidman), and daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato), in the middle of a fight over whether the teen can go to a party. Shortly after Kyle has closed the deal and Sarah has cleaned up the dinner she ate alone, Avery sneaks out of the family's expansive, state-of-the-art house. Within minutes, a team of cops shows up, asking to speak to Kyle about some robberies in the area.

No points for guessing that the "cops" are a team of armed thieves who've come to steal diamonds, cash, and, in the case of hunky criminal, Jonah (Cam Gigandet), Sarah's heart. Jonah, we learn, was the security technician who wired the Miller's home; while on the job, he became quite smitten with the bored housewife, and sees this heist as his chance to knock off the competition and start a new, carefree life.

Though this mid-movie revelation counts as a spoiler, I'm fine leaving it right out in the open for all to see. It's just one of Trespass's approximately four-thousand surprises, and will likely get swept under your memory rug with all the others. The movie falls to pieces as Schumacher and Gajdusek introduce a double-cross that morphs into a triple-cross--which becomes a quadruple-cross, and on and on and on. There are more crosses in this movie than in the last twelve exorcism pictures I've seen, and the effect is one of quick-setting apathy.

The only two things keeping this convoluted plot afloat are superb acting by Cage, Kidman, and Ben Mendelsohn as Elias, the thieves' tough-as-nails leader,** and several hilarious but captivating scenes in which characters monologue like there's no tomorrow--even though I'm pretty sure that, were this situation real, such monologue-ing would lead to a few characters not having tomorrows. I was fascinated by Kyle's argument as to why handing over the diamonds to a bunch of amateurs was a dumb idea, but all that information gummed up the characters' mouths worse than if Kevin Smith had scripted Shoot 'Em Up.

More interesting to me was Cage playing an off-brand-oatmeal Bernie Madoff-type. When he flips his lid on the invaders the contrast is as delicious as it is ridiculous. For her part, Kidman is mostly asked to mope, cry, scream, and run. But she does so in sufficiently movie-star fashion. I didn't believe her as a homemaker, but I did buy her as Nicole Kidman trying to survive an assault by low-lives--which, in this case, is just splitting hairs. She fares better than the other female adult in the cast, Jordana Spiro, whose turn as Elias' stoned, crazy girlfriend/accomplice served only to give me flashbacks to the Last House on the Left remake (a movie I enjoyed unironically).

The film gets some points for trying, but loses too many in other areas to the whole package seriously. Once the revelations start hitting the fan, it becomes impossible to overlook the seams in Schumacher's sketchy directing (take a shot every time the camera makes a blurry rolling motion, accompanied by a whooshing sound). I get the feeling that everyone involved thought they were making a tight, psychological thriller--as opposed to a Nic Cage Paycheck Special. The movie's theme of lies and the recession are legit-movie fodder, but when coupled with cumbersome Wikipedia dialogue and character twists that are more soapy than suspenseful, Trespass strays way too far into places it doesn't belong.

Trivia: Talk about poor money-management: the movie cost $35 million to make, but grossed only $25,000 (yep, that's thousand) during its cameo appearance in theatres.

*Eighteen days, a handy defeat for the previous title-holder, From Justin to Kelly, which held on for just under a month.

**OR IS HE?!