Monday, September 30, 2013

Movie Review: "A Scanner Darkly" by David Pretty

The imaginative works of Philip K. Dick can often identified by several key elements, namely the tenuous authority of law enforcement as well as the intangible nature of self-identity, memories and experience, especially where it relates to drug abuse and/or mental instability. Sometimes these concepts and themes are virtually impossible to port over into the language of cinema. For example, after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I'm convinced that Blade Runner would have been a complete and total train wreck if Ridley Scott and his screenwriters had adapted the book verbatim.  

A Scanner Darkly tries to be more faithful to the original source material and it actually suffers as a result. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of interesting things going on in this picture, I just think that the average shmoe will likely spend more time trying to puzzle out what's the heck's going on versus pondering the weighty ramifications inherent in the author's original story.

A more balanced adaptation of Dick's work, such as Minority Report, gives the audience plenty of deep thoughts to grapple with but also provides a few opportunities to process what we've seen thus far and adapt to the ever-changing landscape. A Scanner Darkly offers precious few moments of reprieve. 

The film posits yet another dystopian future, this one awash with a highly-addictive psychotropic drug called "Substance D". In reaction to this epidemic, the government has installed a virtually-omniscient surveillance system and a pervasive web of informants and undercover agents.

One such agent is Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) who's been tasked to root out suppliers and pushers by infiltrating the local drug scene. He soon finds himself embedded with two tweaky addicts named James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and eventually he begins to slip into their world of experimentation and addiction.

Added to this are several parallel subplots involving Bob's law enforcement alter ego, a suspect friend who's trying to turn informant, his asexual relationship with a seemingly-incongruous cocaine addict named Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and a deeper plunge into addiction which begins with euphoria but then quickly deteriorates into hallucinations, lapses in judgement and acute paranoia. This leads to a twist resolution when the real reason for Bob's assignment comes to light, leaving the audience to ponder whether or not the ends justify the means.

Here's my main issue with the film: I actually had to do some research in order to come up with that disjointed plot summary. I have no problem applying a bit of guesswork to what I'm watching, especially when you consider just how lazy modern audiences in are when it comes to having everything spelled out for them. Having said that, I was constantly forced to make assumptions about things that should have been implicit right from the get-go.

Now I can understand director Richard Linklater's desire to keep things ethereal in order to drive home feelings of disorientation, but if you feel completely rudderless right from the start, it's hard to get invested in what's happening. Granted some of these distractions are niggling, such as how the "scramble suits" offer no practical purpose in drug enforcement whatsoever and only seem to exist to justify the twist ending. But then there are some serious "WTF?!?" moments, like when Arctor is diagnosed by police scientists as mentally damaged yet he's sent right back into active duty. Granted this is eventually addressed somewhat but mysteries should always make a movie more compulsively watchable instead of frustrating and maddening. Indeed, A Scanner Darkly often feels like the cinematic equivalent of a game of keep-away.

Much hay has been made of the film's modern Ralph Bakshi visual style. Linklater probably opted for animation in order to effectively realize the trippy, drug-related sequences but while I was watching A Scanner Darkly I was constantly reminded of certain anime films in which the palette is more compelling than the "lost in translation" storyline. In a truly great film these elements are collaborative, not competitive.  

Despite the film's central issues, the performances are all universally stellar. Even animated, Robert Downey Jr. exhibits his characteristic natural genius and his physical effort alone makes the film worth watching. Not only does he invest the already-great dialogue with plenty of subtleties, his ability to inject some much-needed comedy relief into this relentlessly dark script is most welcome. Rotoscoped or not, this is a fine addition to his on-screen pantheon.  

Also of note is Woody Harrelson's gonzo turn as Ernie, a mid-stage "Substance D" user who's odd behavior falls somewhere between Barris and the downright-psychotic Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). Even Keanu Reeves, who I've criticized in the past, acquits himself quite nicely as our unfortunate protagonist. Collectively, the housemates are the most darkly comedic and dysfunctional group I've seen on film in recent memory. They're all completely paranoid, trying to narc and/or spy on one another while still retaining an odd solidarity in the face of external threats.

Although the film-maker's motivations were sincere, brilliance on the printed page doesn't always translate into compelling cinema. Perhaps I'll revisit the film some day and it'll flow a bit better. Until then I have to describe A Scanner Darkly as an honest, committed and complicated little effort, diluted somewhat by an overtly-literal adaptation of the original literary source.

    Tilt: up.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Movie Review "Moon" by David Pretty

WANTED: more genuine sci-fi movies like Moon and less pointless, shitty remakes of CGI-choked action flicks like Total Recall.

In the not-too-distant-future, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) serves as the lone human overseer at the Lunar Industries Moon base Sarang where he monitors the automated harvesting of helium-3. Given the fact that his only companion is an administrative robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and communications from Earth are spotty at best, Sam can't wait for the end of his three year contract so he can go home to his beautiful wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and his three-year-old daughter Eve.

But just weeks prior to his departure, Sam begins to experience fleeting hallucinations centered around a teenaged girl. During a recovery mission, Sam experiences a particularly vivid episode and wrecks his moon rover. He's rendered unconscious during the accident and wakes up in the base infirmary, apparently rescued via mysterious circumstances by GERTY.

As Sam fights to return to active duty, things take a decidedly mind-bending turn. GERTY refuses to let him leave the base and Sam is forced to use subterfuge in order to revisit the scene of his accident. when he finally gets back out there he discovers to his horror, that he never left the crash site after all.

Moon is everything that good sci-fi should be. It posits an intriguing and very believable scenario about our immediate future. Even better, the script tangles with the sort of hefty issues that the human race will eventually be forced to contend with at some point in time. To divulge any more about the plot will be criminal; just suffice to say that Moon asks a lot of tough questions about work/life balance, scientific and corporate ethics and the transient definition of self-perception.   

The film's production design looks vintage but feels progressive. The interior sets are practical, aesthetically neutral and just sterile enough to convey feelings of isolation. Having said that, everything feels used, grungy and lived-in, evoking shades of such sci-fi classics as Outland. The costumes and space suits are also flawlessly authentic, clearly paying homage to the classic design work of Ron Cobb and John Mollo. Sci-fi has a sordid and incestuous history of visual thievery, so I was quite surprised when the ceiling-mounted A.I unit GERTY proved to be a wildly original design.   

All of the exterior shots are equally glorious. Bill Pearson, who supervised the model work on Alien, gives a the moon rovers and harvester vehicles a highly realistic look. The Sarang Moon base itself was realized as a massive miniatures set which could be filmed from any angle. I still maintain that these hyper-detailed miniatures look ten times more realistic then any digital illusion ever could. Even though the effects are completely convincing, there's also oddly quaint and retro quality about it, placing the film in such rarefied company as Space: 1999 and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Director Duncan Jones documents the deliberately-paced script with expert timing while cinematographer Gary Shaw expertly does justice to the production's visual panoply. The sparse soundtrack provided by Clint Mansell is also note-perfect, augmenting the subconscious aural mood of the film without being invasive. All of these elements provide a unique synergy that serves to heighten the film's hefty emotional impact.  

The film is also anchored by some truly memorable performances. Kevin Spacey does a fantastic job voicing GERTIE. By evoking his best HAL impersonation, we're kept guessing right up to the very end as to where the robot's loyalties lie. Dominique McElligott only has a few fleeting scenes, but she makes enough of a  lasting impression to justify Sam's obsession with getting home. Young Robin Chalk also doesn't get a lot to do but her one pivotal video conference with Sam is sure to hit even the most jaded viewer directly in the feels.  

Above all, the movie becomes something truly transcendent thanks to a brave and bold showing by Sam Rockwell. The Academy's snobby hate-on for genre films really pisses me off because Rockwell should have been nominated for an Oscar, especially when you consider the myriad of physical and mental states that he had to shepherd Sam through. Arguably he could have been slightly more gregarious and/or boisterous during the film's climax, but his approach is still well within the wheelhouse of the film's reserved tone.

I often marvel at metamorphic actors vanish effortlessly into a different roles like a chameleon. Here, Rockwell's does one better, embodying different incarnations of Sam often within the same scene! In fact he's so good that if I didn't know any better I'd say that the producers pulled a fast one and subbed in an occasional look-a-like. Rockwell does everything in his power to make Bell's degeneration as painful and harrowing as possible. So much so that I often found myself getting genuinely pissed off at the fictional shadowy forces that stamped him with such a horrible expiry date.

Thought-provoking, socially-conscious imaginative fiction has really become something of a theatrical white elephant lately so when films like Moon surface, we really need to champion it. I hereby call upon all true sci-fi nerds within the range of my signal to seek out this tremendous little film and sing its praises from every digital rooftop at your disposal.

Who knows, one day maybe we'll see a new Golden Age of sci-fi.    

          Tilt: up.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Movie Review: "There Are Monsters" by David Pretty

*** Special Atlantic Film Festival Sneak Peak Review ***

As I've said before: "independent horror...can (often) be counted on to smash expectations and venture to dark places where studio films often fear to tread. Unfortunately, you also run the risk of trudging through some pretty amateurish shlock."

For example, Karen Lam's Stained is good indie horror film. There Are Monsters, unfortunately, leans more towards the latter category.  

Here's the vastly superior short film that the feature-length version sprang from:

The story follows four film students who undertake a weekend road trip in order to procure promotional interviews for their patron college. Along the way, they begin to experience a series of increasingly odd events. Lone figures are glimpsed standing around in the background, often facing walls or staring out into space. The contents of a stoic elementary kid's lunchbox looks vaguely Lovecraftian. Kristin Langille's character has a bizarre encounter with two spaced-out, lipstick-obsessed twins in a gas station washroom.

Writer / director Jay Dahl then proceeds to plant a slew of possible explanations as why this may be happening. Does it have something to do with an off-the-rails hadron collider experiment in Switzerland? Is it a mass outbreak of Capgras Syndrome, which provokes acute paranoia and hallucinations in the afflicted? Is it some sort of Cronenberg-style body parasite? A good, old-fashioned alien invasion, mayhaps? The audience is encouraged to take their pick since the script itself is completely non-committal.   

Regardless, more disjointed oddities continue to pile up. Kristen Langille has another run-in, this time with a fraudulently friendly, Joker-faced convenience store clerk. Matt Amyotte's character gets the wits scared out of him by a girl who does her best lamprey impersonation. During their final interview at a dental office, a young patient begs to be rescued from her pod-person dad, who also displays a disconcerting talent for surreal facial contortion. Eventually this leads to betrayal, endless scenes of running and vast tracts of nausea-inducing "found footage".  

The Coast has already said that There Are Monsters will "scare the tar" out of you. The program guide for the Atlantic Film Festival gushes that it "may be the scariest movie to ever come out of the East Coast".  Both of those claims may be true; assuming that the viewer hasn't seen another horror movie since 1998. As it stands, There Are Monsters lifts liberally from The Blair Witch Project (1999), REC (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), and the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Oh, and about a hojillion other movies in which weirdos don creepy masks in order to scare the shit out of people.
After a fantastic opening grabber, an evocative title sequence, some highly-atmospheric establishing shots and a chorus of dissonant and eerie musical tones, I was firmly on board. But then things started to go downhill almost immediately, mainly due to the ill-advised decision to shoot the movie "shaky-cam" style. The Last Broadcast and Blair Witch got a pass for this back in 1998-99, merely because they were the first flicks to do so. But now, when directors employ this technique, it's often because they're trying to conceal a low budget and/or an abbreviated shooting schedule.

Then Dahl goes a step worse and pads the film with painfully protracted stretches of people running with cameras, cameras lying on their side cranking away at abstract and out of focus images or, even worse, pitch-black darkness. Now, I'm willing to forgive this to a certain extent, since the camerawork should be chaotic during moments of panic and terror, but it's notably bad here. To the point where even quiet scenes of conversation look like crap.   

This is particularly galling after you've just been told that these people are supposed to be graduate film students! You'd think that, at the very least, they'd be capable of keeping their subject matter in frame and in focus for more then two fucking seconds. Jesus Christ, I have 90's-era, VHS road trip videos that are more watchable than this!

Although there are a few effective scenes in the film, they just left me pining for their original inspirations. The camera phone flashlight gag is pretty intense, but it pales in comparison to the protracted, infrared terror at the climax of REC. The facial morphing is cool, but Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" video was more engaging, not to mention eighty-five minutes shorter. And while it's always eerie to see people wearing creepy masks, it's already been done plenty of times before in The Shining, Saw, V/H/S, The Wicker Man, Donnie Darko, Motel Hell, The Strangers, The Orphanage, You're Next, Trick r' Treat and a slew of other movies.

But what makes many of those films superior is the unbearable amount of suspense and dread they manage to generate and sustain throughout their run times. Even though the bank scene and the assault on Matt Amyotte's car is genuinely squirm-inducing, any terror manufactured during these moments is often quashed by a poorly-gauged one-liner. Up until recently, Dahl's been known mainly for comedy so maybe it's a case of "old habits die hard". Unfortunately, in a horror movie, cheap laughs can be tonal suicide, letting the audience off the (meat) hook prematurely. 

I actually love movies that don't spell out every little detail and actually leave things open for audience interpretation. Unfortunately, There Are Monsters goes to hell with the joke, serving up massive plot holes big enough for Optimus Prime to drive through. Is this some sort of plague? An invasion? A metaphysical, scientific or cosmic fuck up? Is the condition passed on by the polyps glimpsed in the kid's lunch box or barfed up by the bank clerk? Or do they assimilate people via good, old-fashioned consumption like we see later on?

What little narrative we get scarcely makes sense. If the creatures are strong enough to rip a car door off of its hinges, then how do the characters manage to survive multiple encounters with them? Ah, yes, that part is pitch dark and we can't see anything.

Wait, kids, there's more! Do the creatures wear masks just because they know that us humans find them scary? Why do some of the creatures have control over their facial features and other don't? If their end game is to take over the world, they why do they keep going through the motions long after everyone  has been assimilated?  And why the fuck does the paranoid water bottle girl risk getting on a public bus after she's already been established as someone who's clearly in the know? Just to tack on an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style ending, I suppose.

Look, there's nothing wrong with coming up with a few scary set pieces and then building a story around it, but Dahl seems to have skipped the whole "story" part of that equation. If a script is so vague and nebulous that it provides absolutely no information, no context and no closure, then the audience is going to tune out. Lord knows I did; this is the first movie I've seen in a long time which had me checking the time and pondering an early departure.    

Bless the actors, they did what they could with this wafer-thin material. I'm seriously hoping that most of the dialogue was improvised on set, since most of the lines boil down to shouting "Man, that was fuckin' weird!" over and over again. Matt Amyotte is great as the film's resident acerbic asshole / scaredy cat and his terror during the car attack sequence is genuine and contagious. Evoking scruffy shades of Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, Jason Daley is also gloriously frenetic, quirky and weaselly.

Guy Germaine and Kristin Langille also do terror very, very well, even if I had a hard time buying them as collegiate-aged friends with a history. I actually had to stifle a bit of a snicker during the scene in which when their matching, homemade, fabric-marker childhood soccer club t-shirts were revealed. This was followed by a moment of cold sweats as the actors tried their best sell this hackneyed concept and the accompanying "theme song". Things get even more wince-inducing when you realize that this clunky plot device exists merely to pay off the film's obligatory nihilistic ending.

Stephen King once posited that horror is the genre of choice for many first time feature directors because its "an easy lay". If that's the case then the found footage / shaky cam sub genre is an even cheaper date. I'm guessing that Dahl employed this approach, not because it was the best way to tell a story, but because the film could be shot and then cobbled together a bit easier that way. Plus, you really can't beat a style that comes with the built-in rebuttal of "Welp, that's just the nature of the beast" whenever someone says that your movie is a chore to watch.

I'm not saying that there wasn't a genuine, concerted effort to bring this movie to completion. I'm just saying that if you're gonna sink five years into making a horror movie, why not use what little time and money you have to come up with something that's genuinely innovative and original? Andrei Tarkovsky produced the sci-fi classic Stalker under similar conditions and, more recently, Bruce MacDonald delivered in spades with Pontypool.    

In stark contrast to those films, There Are Monsters is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of the duplicated creatures in the film: a difficult-to-watch, photocopied pastiche of elements cribbed from vastly superior sources.

  Tilt: down.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Movie Review: "Fantastic Mr. Fox" by David Pretty

In the tradition of Coraline and A Nightmare Before Christmas, Fantastic Mr. Fox elevates the age-old Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation into a truly magical and original viewing experience.

Based on Roald Dahl's children's novel of the same name, the story begins with the titular Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) swearing to his ever-patient and suddenly-with-cub wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) that he's done with the risky enterprise of barn-raiding. True to his word, when Fox becomes a dad again he starts a new career as a newspaper columnist, invests in some real estate, and then does his best to fly straight.

Unfortunately the call of the wild is a strong one, and when he's tempted by the nearby holdings of three rich and despotic farmers, he enlists the help of Kylie Sven Opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and his capable young nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) to raid their wares. Unwilling to let this brazen theft slide, their human foes immediately declare war on Fox and the entire surrounding countryside.

This movie is pure, unadulterated fun. First off, the character designs are infused with a wealth of personality and unique mannerisms. This dovetails nicely with the film's ample voice talent. Jason Schwartzman is particularly good as Fox's petulant son Ash, Bill Murray is delightful as legal council Clive Badger and Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon seems to be having a blast as crazed farmer Franklin Bean.

The characters come to life in one beautiful miniature set after another and there are so many throw-away visual details the film practically begs for repeat viewing. In fact, the movie is so jammed-packed with creative verve it's downright hypnotic. The unorthodox animation, great line readings and Wes Anderson's quirky eye all add up to one of the funniest flicks I've seen in recent memory, animation or otherwise.

In the hands of a lesser director, this could have been a frivolous and disposable kiddie flick, but with Anderson at the helm, it transcends expectations and becomes something entertaining for viewers of all ages. Anderson cleverly applies some of his best techniques from previous efforts, including the criminally-underrated Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. His brilliant use of music, witty chapter titles and nigh-obsessive fascination with cut-away views all add up to a unique comedy confection.

Fantastic Mr. Fox stands at the apex of a charming and unique sub-category of animation. I highly recommend this film to anyone who reads this and, personally, I can't wait to see it again. 

Tilt: up.