Friday, April 27, 2012

Movie Review: "The Cabin in the Woods" by David Pretty

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess up front that I am Joss Whedon's bitch. 

Honestly, it wasn't always that way.  Back in the late 90's my infinitely smarter half tried in vain to get me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Every time I'd glance over and catch a glimpse of Sarah Michelle Gellar wrestling with some guy wearing a facial appliance, I'd turn my nose up and say something snobbish like: "Honestly, why do you insist on watching such puerile nonsense?"

Then I'd turn back to the infinitely more mature pursuit of playing Warcraft.  Not World of Warcraft, mind you, just plain ol' vanilla Warcraft.     

Eventually a co-worker forced me to watch the pilot episode of Buffy à la Alex in Clockwork Orange.  Just as I was about to give up on it, the gloriously bitchy Cordelia Chase (played by the appropriately named Charisma Carpenter) appeared from out of nowhere, took one look at dowdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and said "Nice dress, Willow.  It's good to know you've seen the softer side of Sears".

I was working for Sears at the time.  I was also instantly converted.  

Ever since my epiphany I've worshipped without pause at the altar of all things Whedon.  Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Fray, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: I've devoured every one of the man's table scraps ravenously.   

So, needless to say, this review probably won't be the most objective thing that I've ever written.  Nevertheless, I'll do my best not to gush like an overheated fanboy.

Sooooo...the plot.  A detailed synopsis presents the first of many sticky wickets.  How can I lay the groundwork for this review without spoiling the film like a bag of milk left on a radiator for a week?

Okay, well...let's see.  Cabin In The Woods is about a the...woods?  

Sorry, I got nuthin'.  If there are gonna be spoilers, I'd rather they come from an officially sanctioned source like the film's theatrical trailer.  To the blissfully sheltered I say unto thee: tread carefully.

So, basically, five college students venture out to the set of The Evil Dead for a presumptive weekend of partying and casual sex.  Naturally, once they get out there, one of them finds an old diary and reads a creepy passage in Latin out loud.  This seems to rouse some terrible evil from its slumber which then proceeds to stalk and kill the interlopers one by one.  As the story unfolds, however, we begin to suspect that there's more to this age-old pantomime then meets the eye.

To reveal any more of the plot would go against the Geneva Convention's tenants concerning spoiler douchebaggery.  Honestly, the less you know about the film going into it the better.  In fact, if you're currently in possession of some sort of time-displacement device I'd heartily recommend that you go back to the point just before you watched that trailer.   

Yeah, sorry 'bout that BTW.   

Some critics believe that the film's marketing campaign reveals too much of the mystery.  I concede this point somewhat, but I also suspect that if the producers hadn't shown at least some of their hand, they'd probably have organ donors like this slack-jawed troglodyte threatening to sue them for false advertising.  

If Whedon and company had gone with a promotional campaign that only painted the film as your run-of-the-mill slasher flick, it might have been disastrous.  Discriminating movie-goers would have written the movie off as hopelessly derivative and morons who actually like hopelessly derivative would have suffered an allergic reaction to all of that pesky and confusing originality on display.

If I thought that most people out there weren't supremely stupid I certainly would have preferred a more subtle trailer that mainly showcased the murderdeathkill cabin-based hi jinx with a couple of minor tells thrown in that might only became obvious upon repeat viewings.  Hell, I think that a single glance at the fucking poster is enough to convey that something is askew here.  But unfortunately, most people have the IQ of a piece of furniture, such as the two mouth-breathers sitting behind me in the theatre who had to talk themselves through the movie as if they were coming down from a bad acid trip.

As if the trailer isn't revealing enough, the film actually kicks off with an incongruously banal conversation between two bored office workers (played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  Still nattering on about the challenges of child-proofing a kitchen, they emerge from their innocuous-looking break room into what appears to be a top-secret research facility.  After they're joined by a clip-board armed Amy Acker in full-on sexy scientist mode, we know that our expectations for a straight-up slasher film are going to be seriously fucked with.

This is made comically apparent when the previous scene jarringly throws to a Grindhouse-style title card and an animated credit sequence rife with dripping blood and ominous imagery.  The transition is done without any warning whatsoever and had me giggling like a kid on Christmas morning.

Screenwriting tag-team Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon then proceed to tear apart genre conventions like toddlers attacking a wall of Lego.  The "jock" gives academic advice, the "bimbo" is pre-med, the "virgin" may or may not adhere to the traditional definition of chaste and the "stoner" proves to be the most insightful character in the film.

All of this serves to sustain the viewer as Goddard and Whedon gamely trot out an entire cavalcade of scary movie clichés.  The characters encounter a creepy old gas station attendant who serves up dire warnings like a backwoods Greek chorus.  Their final destination "isn't worthy of global positioning".  The cabin itself looks Club Med for Deadites.

Almost immediately, dark machinations begin to nudge the characters towards archetypal behavior.  Curt (Chris Hemsworth) morphs into a meat-headed alpha male and Jules (Anna Hutchison) breaks the knob off the Slut-O-Meter by making out with a stuffed wolf's head (?).  Even when things start to go south, Curt's initial impulse to stick together is nullified by some intangible force.

Curt: This isn't right.
Holden: What? What's the matter?
Curt: This isn't right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.
Holden: Yeah. Yeah, good idea.
Marty: Really!?! 

The film then cuts back and forth between the drama going on at the cabin and the machinations happening behind the scenes.  Eventually the resilient survivors (as well as the gobsmacked audience) piece together what's going on just moments before all hell breaks loose.  Literally.     

Long-time Whedon collaborator Drew Goddard does a fantastic job in his feature-length directorial debut.  His set-ups feature dynamic motion, giving the film tremendous verve.  Many of his shots are framed in smothering levels of darkness, producing a genuine feeling of impending doom.  He also exploits the depth of frame, gleefully dropping things half-glimpsed into the background.  I particularly liked his juxtaposition between the ghoulish office party and Dana's life or death struggle being played out in the background like an ESPN highlight reel. 

And this is perhaps the film's greatest achievement.  Whereas a movie like From Dusk Til Dawn unsuccessfully tried to boilerplate horror and crime dramas together, Cabin's bait-and-switch ending actually works.  After the script trots out all of the threadbare old tropes the gleefully insane detour provided by the final reel is downright cathartic.  And even though the film pulls the equivalent of a tonal half-loop, it still manages to be more thrilling then disjointed.

In the past Whedon's more flippant, cheeky or self-referential lines have needlessly taken the piss out of dramatic moments, but for the most part the dialogue here is just plain clever.  I love it when Hadley re-assures Lin that "We know what we're doing. We have it written down somewhere" and when Marty, the film's unlikely source of wisdom, opines: "Society needs to crumble. We're all just too chicken shit to let it".  All of the character's voices are clarion, unique, and well-tailored.

Although some of the actors seem a bit long in the tooth to play college kids, this also feels strangely traditional.  Kristen Connelly's Dana is like a combination of Felicia Day and Amy Steel from Friday the 13'th Part 2.  Wilting and retiring at first, Kristen is able to display a convincing will of instinct after shit starts to get (un)real.  She even manages to capably sell Dana's turn towards pragmatic ruthlessness in the final act.

Some of the actors are essentially required to perform dual roles.  Initially self-assured, charismatic and noble, a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth has to switch gears at the mid-way point and play Curt as an addle-brained, nerd-baiting, walking gonad.  Then, after her new hair color kicks in (you'll understand when you see it), previous Power Ranger Anna Hutchison's disposition as Jules goes from effervescent and sunny to the equivalent of a cat in heat.  Despite this jarring turn, her performance is self-assured and effectively wanton.

Like the love child of Owen Wilson and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, Fran Kranz practically steals every scene as the perpetually-baked Marty.  Whereas cinematic proponents of the chronic traditionally get their mellow harshed by premature death, Marty is fortified somewhat by his habit.  I love how the script actively rewards his open mind and creeping paranoia.  Through it all, Kranz brings Marty to vivid life with deft touches of humor, amusing vocal quirks and stoop-shouldered slacker charm.

Speaking of scene-stealers, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are respectively fantastic as put-upon administrative drones Gary and Steve.  I know that I'm supposed to regard them as villainous, but between the smart script and their wonderfully nuanced performances these guys become nearly as compelling and complicated as the leads.  With their Umbrella-Corporation-by-way-of-Dilbert approach to the job, you start to forget about whether or not the ends justify the means and begin to feel sorry for the poor shlubs.

Of the main cast, only Jesse Williams as Holden seems to be a non-entity.  Tim de Zarn, on the other hand is authentically grizzled and memorably loopy as the conference-call-phobic Mordecai.   Die hard fans of the Whendonverse will also enjoy seeing the persistently charming Amy Acker as Wendy Lin and Tom Lenk as the tightly-wound intern Ronald.

When the lid of Pandora's box finally gets blown off of its hinges, the quality of the resulting CGI definitely betrays the film's modest means.  But when you stop to consider just how much Goddard and Whedon managed to accomplish with a paltry $12 million dollars, I can't help but convert this jeer to a cheer.  Yes, some of the digital effects look a tad cartoony, but all of the gloriously practical costumes, makeup, creature suits and prosthetics make Cabin in the Woods a genuine love letter to classic horror fromage.

The only thing I can't shake quite so easily is the distinct impression that huge chunks of the film's lore  make absolutely no sense and Whedon's just trying to pull a fast one on us.  I can't get specific without ruining the movie's trade secrets, but after you finish watching Cabin in the Woods, I'd challenge you to pause for a moment and reconcile everything that you've just seen.  Frankly, I still have no idea why the artifice itself had to be so ridiculously elaborate.

Even in fantasy films there has to be a certain internal logic otherwise everything starts to feel inconsequential.  Although Cabin's central conspiracy has a certain don't ask/don't tell quality, it's pretty high testimony that the illusion stays intact even after everything flies off the rails.  Despite how exponentially insane the rapid-fire action and revelations become, Whedon and Goddard are always there to hold up a flash card with the word "MYTHOS" written on it and regain our buy-in.  Indeed, pulpy, Lovecraftian tentacles run very deep here.  

Despite the muddy waters of the premise, Cabin in the Words shouldn't be mistaken for just another  vapid horror movie with a loopy twist.  For one, the film is viciously critical of those among us who manipulate our seemingly disposable youth into shedding their own blood to maintain the status quo.  Just take a look at our resource-fueled modern wars and the median age of those who perish in them and you'll begin to see Cabin's supposedly low-brow parable in a completely different light.

In doing so, Whedon and Goddard redefine the sometimes inexplicable horror movie passion play as more then just a string of tired old cliches.  It's actually a ritual.

And frankly I can't think of a more profound statement to attribute to such an unfairly maligned genre.

 Tilt: up.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Movie Review: "Titanic" by David Pretty

In 1997 James Cameron's Titanic tapped into a simmering undercurrent of public fascination and turned the fabled sinking into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.  Like every other theater denizen back then I quickly earmarked the film as a must-see after witnessing the arresting trailer... 

Like so many others at the time, I saw the film multiple times in the theater and was initially quite impressed by the level of authenticity, the lavish production design and the sheer spectacle of it all.  But with each subsequent viewing, I began to regard certain aspects of the film as the cinematic equivalent of one of those hideously tasteless inflatable Titanic play slides:

For the benefit of the four or five people on the planet who haven't already seen Titanic, it tells the story of vagabond artiste Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) who wins a dream ticket on the ill-fated ship in a high-stakes poker game.  While slumming with the rest of the riff-raff, he spies lovely Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and is promptly smitten.  As it turns out, Rose's ten dollar name is pretty much all that remains of her family's squandered fortunes.  As such, she's been pledged to wed Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) son of a rich steel tycoon and, coincidentally, a son of a bitch. 

Facing a life of quiet desperation, Rose nearly hurls herself off the back of the ship but Jack intervenes.  Despite the insurmountable class divide between the two, Rose is intrigued by Jack's free-spirited and artistic ways.  Naturally, Rose's family doesn't take too kindly to this budding relationship and do whatever they can to keep them apart.  In the end, fate, not human intervention will have the greatest impact on their lives. 

Bookending this Shakespearean romance is a present-day sub-plot involving a mercenary treasure-hunter named Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) who's attempting to recover a priceless necklace from Titanic called "The Heart of the Ocean".  When Lovett discovers that Rose is still alive and the necklace belonged to her, a meeting between them is hastily arranged.  Rose's recollections serve as an extended flashback and throughout the course of the film we see how all of this plays out after the "unsinkable" Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to founder.
Despite the fact that CGI was still in its infancy in 1997 (having been pioneered four years earlier with Jurassic Park), the first few shots of the digitally reconstituted Titanic are still pretty breathtaking.  Sure, some of the effects look a bit dodgy by today's standards (witness the cartoonish "crew members" walking around on deck in the wide shots) but overall the images have retained much of their impact.  

Cameron's direction and Russell Carpenter's cinematography are pretty impressive.  The sweeping shots of the Titanic at full steam have all the grandeur one might expect.  The "real party" sequence in Third Class is alive with manic energy and culminates with a fun P.O.V. shot with Jack and Rose spinning out of control.  When Rose attempts to liberate Jack from his handcuffs without freeing him from his hands, Cameron manages to wring a nearly impossible amount of suspense out of the scene.

Unfortunately, the director's fail safe bag of contemporary action movie trickery begins to bleed into the film and damage the illusion of authenticity.  First there's an extended foot-chase to showcase what Cameron's construction teams have wrought by His Royal Decree.  Later there's a completely pointless running gun battle that comes off like an obligatory action beat.

By the end of it, Cameron completely throws subtlety out the porthole and gives us Jack and Rose running away from a tidal wave in slow-motion.  He then cheapens the tension of another scene with inexplicable strobe lighting and a clanging, percussive musical score that worked fine Aliens but really doesn't belong in what should be a reasonably sober period piece.

Cameron is notorious for his attention to detail and Titanic is no exception.  Witness the impeccable wardrobe, the authentic White Star Line props, the hellish engine room, the grand staircase set and the opulent dining room.  Even the most jaded viewer has to admit that Cameron spared no expense in faithfully recreating vast tracts of the fabled ship.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the characters who populate his film.  Ethnic stereotypes like Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) are about as deep as Chef Luigi in The Simpsons.  Beyond the accent, we know that Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) is Irish because he says things like "arse" and "boyo".  I've also harbored a deep suspicion that "Olaf" and "Sven" are the only two Swedish names that Cameron knows.

Even prominent historical characters get a short shift.  Jonathan Hyde's size-obsessed Bruce Ismay is depicted as an ignorant ("Freud? Is he a passenger?"), egotistical dandy who mindlessly drives the Titanic onward and then surreptitiously slinks into one of the lifeboats like a cat burglar.  Call me crazy, but I don't buy for a second that this real-life historical figure was ever so one-dimensionally villainous.

More examples abound.  The otherwise awesome David Warner plays Spicer Lovejoy, perhaps the most ironically named character in cinema history.  Although Warner is an incredibly accomplished actor, here he's relegated to playing a boring, stone-faced ogre.  In a performance that would be more at home in Judgment at Nuremberg, Jonathan Phillips's sweaty and twitchy Officer Lightoller apparently under fills the lifeboats just for the hell of it.

Honestly, there very little nuance or subtlety here.  Characters are either beatific and cultured or unrepentantly cuntish.  Not surprisingly, Cameron breaks this down according to class divide.  Yes, I know that there were probably a slew of real-life examples to support this, but the way in which the first class passengers say and do things just to get viewers to hiss and boo them is insultingly puerile. 

For example, Rose's bloodless (s)mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) is constantly baiting the audience with a veritable checklist of utilitarian rich bitch lines like "Charmed I'm sure", "The purpose of university is for a woman to find a husband" and "Will the lifeboats be seated according to class?  I hope they're not too crowded."  As a character, Ruth really has no reason to say these things except to draw the ire of an indignant audience with a superiority complex.

Billy Zane's Cal Hockley fares even worse.  Even though it would be in his own best interest to feign interest in art in order to pacify Rose, he constantly says acerbic, assholish things like "Picasso?  He won't amount to a thing!"  As if that doesn't get the easily-manipulated masses feeling self-righteous, Cal then matter-of-factly states that the "better half" won't die on the boat and then follows this up by using an innocent child as a life preserver.  Despite Zane's proficient and gung-ho interpretation of the material, it's no surprise to me to me that he became eternally typecast as the prototypical douchebag.

There are whole tracts of dialogue that are just a shade or two above something found in a George Lucas script.  Lines range from wince-inducing to tin-eared to laughably anachronistic.  Some of the more amusing examples include:
  •  "Are you ready to go back to Titanic?"  Honestly, Bill Paxton deserved an Oscar for keeping a straight face while delivering that particular howler. 
  • "God himself could not sink this ship!" declares Cal at one point.  Honestly, would a supposedly religious dude in 1912 ever say something so sacrilegious?  Not to mention foreshadowy?  
  •  "We don't have lice, we're Americans!"  'Nuff said. 
  • "Hey, can I bum a smoke?"  I wonder if DeCaprio had to ask Cameron if he could drop Jack's reference to Lovejoy as "dude"?  
  • "She was a one-legged prostitute."  I really wish Jack had went on to say: "See?  There's the kick-stand!"
  • "You unimaginable bastard" probably looked a lot better on paper then it did being uttered by what's supposed to be, in theory, a real human being.   
The lackadaisical infection of contemporary dialogue also taints the romance at the core of the story.  I'm willing to accept the film's premise that two people from opposite ends of the then-intractable social spectrum could fall in love, but the speed in which Rose dispenses with twenty years worth of  manners and social brainwashing is a conceit that I just can't forgive.  In fact, her only scene of indignation comes after Jack asks her if she loves Cal. 

The next thing we know she's hawking loogies over the side of the ship, flashing the middle finger, posing nekkid for an impromptu life drawing class and getting pounded below deck (in more ways then one).  This last miss-step is Cameron's most egregious.  Although the entire "sketch" scene is highly improbable within itself (given the downright prudish post-Victorian attitudes towards nudity back then), the sequence as it stands is super-charged with sensuality.  This could have have been the perfect consummation for the pair, but then Cameron has to go and ruin it by having Jack and Rose turn a Model T into a Turkish Bathhouse.  Honestly, if I didn't know any better I'd swear this was a post-screen-test pick-up.           

Mercifully, the holes in Titanic are nearly patched up by a cast of incredibly talented actors.  Kathy Bates is a delight as the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown.  Bernard "Theoden" Hill is a study of Zen calm and constrained wisdom as Captain E.J. Smith.   Finally, Victor Garber is fantastic as Thomas Andrews, the ship's engineer.  Soft spoken, contrite and humble, the character becomes a supremely tragedy figure when the Titanic's fatal flaw becomes apparent.   

And sorry, guys, no matter how much you like to rag on DiCaprio, he gives a strong, gregarious and charismatic performance here, even succeeding in the nigh-impossible task of selling the script's hokier lines.  Kate Winslet is his more-then-perfect match.  She's winsome, plucky, sympathetic and, more importantly, she can even deliver clunkers like "Put your hands on me, Jack" with gravitas.

The sinking of the ship itself brings me back to the bouncy castle photo and my final criticism of the film.  The gratuitous shots of passengers luging down the full length of the deck or caroming off the propellers and capstans like human Plinko chips is pretty fucking tasteless.  Cameron could easily have implied this with a few well-timed cuts but instead his camera lingers on these ghoulish sights like a hyperactive twelve year old frying bugs underneath a magnifying glass.  Sadly, I can still recall the unintentional laughter in the theater, a natural by-product for such a tonally bizarre and surreal sight.

Bottom line: I really wish that Cameron had applied the same obsessive-compulsive attention to detail towards making his directorial style, characters and dialogue dovetail with the historical setting.   In being so lax, Titanic became the ersatz blueprint for even more aggegious cinematic affronts to real-life historical events (such as the truly irredeemable Pearl Harbor).  At least Titanic is well-acted, competently directed and functions as an expertly (de)constructed piece of entertainment.

But having said that, with each subsequent viewing of Titanic it feels more and more as if Cameron snagged a bunch of modern-day actors, dressed them up in period clothes and then set them loose on the equivalent of his own inflatable bouncy castle.

      Tilt: down. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

T.V. Review: "Being Human" (U.K.) Series One-Three

Hullo, Supernaturalists!

I don't know about the rest of you guys but personally I'm sick to death of friggin' vampires, werewolves and demons.  Especially neutered, mopey, glittery tossers who neither bite nor bang things.  Mercifully, screenwriter Toby Whithouse has come to the rescue with Being Human, a palate-cleansing flat-mate horror comedy with genuine bite.

Here's a promo for the show just to lay some groundwork...

The first episode introduces us to George (Russell Tovey), a milquetoast male nurse who's come down with an acute case of lycanthropy after an unfortunate hiking trip in Scotland.  He's friends with Mitchell (Aiden Turner) a one-hundred year old Irish vampire who works as an orderly in the same hospital.  Despite their afflictions, both men do whatever they can to retain some semblance of their humanity.  George attempts to isolate himself during "that time of the month" and Mitchell fights to stay on the wagon and refrain from drinking blood.

When the two of them move into a new house together they discover that it's haunted by Annie (Lenora Critchlow) a beautiful young ghost struggling with denial issues.  Because of their supernatural natures, both Mitchell and George have no problem seeing Annie,  who seems relieved to finally have some company who can interact with her.

Together these three unlikely roommates do what they can to fit into normal society, but their task isn't easy.  Annie discovers a terrible truth surrounding her mysterious demise.  George's tentative attempts at romance are undermined by his brutal alter-ego.  Undead enablers incessantly try to undermine Mitchell's attempts to go straight for their own nefarious purposes. 

The cast is wonderful.  Jug-eared Russell Tovey plays George to sad-sacked perfection.  Although the character occasionally lapses precariously into emo territory I'm willing to forgive this somewhat.  After all, if you experienced an agonizing flesh-and-bone-rending transformation every month which threatened the lives of your loved ones you'd probably be cranky too.  We see this played out in his tentative relationship with Nina (Sinead Keenan), a feisty nurse who's concealing her own inner demons.

Lenora Crichlow plays Annie as charmingly naive and immature.  Although she's sometimes ruled by her emotions and is occasionally undone by blind trust, we also soon see that it's not wise to cross her, especially where it concerns her new found allies.  Over the course of twenty-two episodes Annie experiences considerable growth and change.  She starts out as a sheltered, cloying and somewhat helpless waif but after some fortuitous encounters with fellow spirits Gilbert (Alex Price) and Sykes (Bryan Dick) she becomes considerably more self-reliant.  

The only character that I find somewhat conventional is Mitchell.  This isn't a slight against actor Aiden Turner who's appropriately intense and compelling to watch, it's just that we've seen the whole "tortured vampire" shtick done to death.  Mercifully the show gives this tired concept a refreshing spin by really exploring the concept of vampirism as drug addiction.  Mitchell's day-to-day struggle with "sobriety" is documented with such realism that I'm willing to forgive the fingerless gloves and occasional histrionics.  

Its minimalist budget and matter of fact production design really gives Being Human an authentic quality rarely matched by American television.  Setting the first two Series in quirky-yet-workaday Bristol was a minor stroke of genius.  The house shared by the three protagonists is a run-down dive with dirt marks on the light switches.  The minor characters and background performers actually resemble real people and not precious, rarefied mannequins.

The limited budget also forces the show runners to get creative.  The special effects team does an incredible job depicting the painful  early stages of George's transformation, conjuring up shades of David Naughton in American Werewolf in London.  Knowing that audience imagination is more powerful then anything they can possibly depict on screen, the producers initially limit full-body shots of the final stage werewolf suit to quick cuts, shadows and silhouette.  

This is born out when the producers are forced to show George in final lupine form at the climax of the first Series.  As expected, the full-scale costume looks a tad hokey, but certainly nothing worse then what we've seen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or in Ginger Snaps.  I'm pleased to report that the suit improves dramatically in the Second and Third series, eventually coming to resemble a cross between the werewolves  in The Howling and Dog Soldiers. 

The show's world-building continues to deepen and mature in Series Two and Three.  Mitchell's diabolical sire Herrick (played with cool menace by Jason Watkins) is taken out through unconventional means, but comes back to sow seeds of dissent.  Nina is injured in a tragic accident, causing George to justify his feelings of isolationism.  Even after unraveling the mystery surrounding her own demise, Annie isn't given the option to cross over to the afterlife.  Despite finding new purpose in her paranormal state, she's victimized by a secretive religious sect who end up forcing the issue.

Whithouse and company certainly don't mind fucking around with conventions and audience expectations.  The writers have no compunction doing truly horrendous things to their characters.  Also, since it's the BBC, they often blindside us with unexpected and shocking burst of sex and/or violence.  Honestly, it's the perfect antidote to conventional North American television which comes across as sterile, non-threatening and paint-by-numbers in comparison.   

Tonally the show is gloriously all over the map.  Episodes have dealt with such dark topics as sexual assault ("Tully"), pedophilia ("The Black Day") torture ("Long Live the King") and even mass murder ("Damage").  The writers also betray their coal-black sense of humor by conjuring up such memorable characters as the zombified slag Sasha in "Type 4" and the Hargreaves from "Adam's Family", who turn out to be rich, degenerate swingers who conveniently keep blood-bag gimps trussed up in their dungeon. 

Above all, every Series finale episode I've watched thus far has been a nail-biter.  The gloriously anarchic Series One capper featured George pitting his inner wolf against the Big Bad, resulting in collateral damage.  The final episode of Series Two is even more intense, with George and Nina on the verge of "scientific" sacrifice, Annie ghost-busted against her will and Mitchell going completely bat-shit insane.  Unable to match the frantic climax of Season Two, the writers go for a more intimate and emotional conclusion for Series Three that makes good on its promise to irrevocably change the face of Being Human forever.  

Despite having to navigate around conventional pitfalls and occasionally lapsing into melodrama, Being Human is a very brave, very smart and very engaging show. I'd love to watch its American counterpart just to see how much it misses the point.

   Tilt: up.  


Friday, April 6, 2012

Movie Review "The Matrix" by David Pretty

When I first saw The Matrix over ten years ago I was overjoyed that the sci-fi pantheon had finally received a new and particularly thrilling inductee.  Indeed, the film is still inordinately smart, action-packed and in many ways the high water mark of visual storytelling.

Then something interesting happened.  After a chance encounter many years later with what I now refer to as "alternative media" I actually experienced an epiphany not unlike what Neo goes though after swallowing the red pill and diving down the rabbit hole.  As a result, I've since come to view The Matrix as more then just a superficial, though admittedly well-done, sci-fi time-killer.  It has loads to say about the current state of the human condition and I firmly believe that it's one of the most important films made in the past twenty years.

For all of you under-rock dwellers out there, the story follows the awakening of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a respectable software developer who seeks answers to nagging questions under the hacker guise of "Neo".  Sensing that there's something seriously askew in the world, he seeks out the only custodian of the truth: a mysterious hacker prophet/cyber terrorist named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne).

Just prior this fateful meeting, Anderson is menaced by men-in-black style federal agents, led by the cold and measured Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving).  In a particulalrly harrowing scene, Anderson is tortured by the agents who implant a bio-mechanical tracking bug in his body.  When he wakes up safe and sound in own bed sometime later, he's able to write off the whole experience as a particularly nightmarish dream.

But when Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) unexpectedly shows, Neo is quickly forced to come to grips witht he fact that electronic tracking is the least of his worries.  The scenes that follow between Neo and Morpheus really encapsulate the film's thematic parable and is well-represented by the following chilling exchange of dialogue:

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere.  It is all around us.  Even now, in this very room.  You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television.  You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes.  It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage.  Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch.  A prison for your mind...

I've since come to equate Neo's reawakening to my own experience.  Like Neo, I was convinced that there was something terribly wrong with the world but I just couldn't put my finger on it.  Suspecting that the mainstream, corporate-controlled media was concealing something from all of us, I began to do my own independent research and stumbled upon the world of alternative media.  It quickly became my own personal Morpheus, revealing the world for what is truly is.

When Neo is reborn into the real, physical world later on, we get the following rife-with-analogy exchange:

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: You've never used them before.

I could relate.  How often can you say that a film actually had a life-altering effect on you?  I feel churlish just giving it a star rating and urging folks to re-watch it with the rich subtext firmly in mind. 

And that's what makes The Matrix so brilliant.  It's a perfect parable for the world at face value and it invites the viewer to tear back the edifice and look at what's concealed just below the surface.  It reminds us that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered.  We just need to follow the White Rabbit to it's inevitable conclusion.

The Matrix is a visual treat and a truly cinematic experience.  In addition to pioneering the concept of "bullet time" (which has been blatantly cribbed by every movie and video game since 1999) the shot compositions are wildly inventive, highly stylized and reminiscent of a comic book.  The film's production design is also top notch.   The elaborate sets and machanical antagonists display Moebius-like levels of surface detail and really make for a convincing illusion.

The color palate of the machine is constantly on display.  The Wachowski's use this to great effect to drive home just how much technology has permeated our culture.  After all, we now live in a day and age when the latest techy toy is often characterized as "sexy".  Everything looks appropriately cold, antiseptic and dour.  Even the fabric tunics worn by the Nebuchadnezzar crew reminds the viewer of medieval chain mail.

Some people gripe about the workmanlike and robotic dialogue.  Frankly I think it was brilliant to have the protagonists speak like shut-ins.  I take it as an insightful commentary on how face-to-face interactions are swiftly being replaced by impersonal email and text messages and causing all of us to become more and more socially inept.

The performances have become so iconic that they're still the subject of parody and tribute.  Reeves, oft-maligned for being stilted, is perfectly at home in Neo's skin and convincingly completes his character arc.  Fishburne's Morpheus is everything you need a mentor to be: self-assured, Zen-calm and authoritative.  Carrie-Ann Moss makes for an unconventional love interest but I challenge anyone else to think of a more appropriate choice for the role of Trinity.  In fact, one of the exciting things about the Matrix universe is that a thirty year old, healthily proportioned woman with short, raven-black hair can be immortalized as a sex symbol.

Of course, the skin-tight leather outfit certainly helped.

The action set pieces are beautifully mounted and augmented by the rule-shattering milieu.  The lobby gunfight sequence rivals the best of John Woo's Hong Kong action films and the kung-fu/wire work never fails to impart a giddy thrill in the viewer.  The Wachowski's also managed to throw an original visual curve ball at us in the form of "bullet time".  I have to admit: the first time I saw Trinity suspend reality and punt a cop across the room or witness Neo perform a power-limbo while evading a hail of flying lead, my brain exploded and leaked out of my right ear.

The Matrix is a brilliant concept perfectly realized. You can enjoy the film on a completely visceral level but after all the spent shells and high-octane action I'd invite all of you to revisit it again with the state of our own world in mind.

You'll find that this slick sci-fi actioner has a lot to say about the state of human existence in a technology-soaked, invisibly regimented, completely apathetic modern age.