Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last House on the Right

For all their hatred of communism, American right-wingers tend to have a rather Stalinist view of art. If a film or song or book or television show doesn't ratify their beliefs, it's crap. I understand that the liberal hegemony of the entertainment industry is probably annoying for them, but living in a constant state of outrage over liberal brainwashing in mainstream media must be truly exhausting. It also leads them to write really embarrassing lists of "politically correct" pieces of popular culture, like bloated pile of man-dough John Hawkins did for Intent on providing his fellow teabaggers with inspiring Halloween viewing, Hawkins has furnished a list of the top ten "conservative" horror films to enjoy during the season of the witch.

Hawkins shows himself to be a cinematic illiterate before he even gets into the list, writing that "there are almost no truly 'conservative' horror flicks." Now, if he means that there aren't a lot of horror films that feature a pointed critique of the estate tax, he's right, but in tone and structure, horror is by far the most reactionary film genre going. Almost every horror film features some terrifying external threat that cannot be reasoned with by pointy-headed intellectuals (or understood by pointy-headed scientists, if it's a supernatural evil), and must be destroyed by the naked and merciless application of violence at the hands of a steely-eyed lawman, a pious virgin, or a man of the cloth. Along the way, drug-users and/or the sexually active suffer painful and deserved deaths. If it weren't for that commie George Romero, Hawkins claim would seem completely incoherent.

Some of the entries are indisputable; pretty much any horror movie with a some variation of the word "exorcism" in the title, like the two Hawkins mentions, The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, can reasonably be construed as "conservative," in that they affirm the existence of Satan and, by extension, God, while also affirming the value of traditional beliefs and values.

A couple of Hawkins' suggestions are downright headscratching. The Fog? Silence of the Lambs? Apparently, there's something inherently conservative about fighting ghost pirates and serial killers. Choosing The Mist seems really odd considering that the main human antagonist is a hysterical holy-roller who whips up religious fervor and hatred in an effort to appease God with a blood sacrifice. Hawkins choses David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone due to it's depiction of "a deranged politician and the man who was willing to stop at nothing to to try to stop him from launching a nuclear war." Let's take the Wayback machine to the mid-80s, do a headcount of politicians and pundits seemingly eager to kickstart World War Three, and see how what party they're from. Hell, the right wing nearly revolted against Reagan for starting arms reduction talks with Gorbachev instead of more mindless nuclear saber rattling. If John Hawkins wants to place a bet that Greg Stilson wasn't a Republican, I'll give him great odds. And yet the real howler is Reanimator. I didn't know that movement conservatives were keen to watch a disembodied zombie head go down on a naked woman strapped to a table.

The schizophrenic attitude of conservatives to the federal government is displayed by two recent movies endorsed by Hawkins, Cloverfield and Quarantine. About Cloverfield Hawkins writes, "the military was in the thick of the action, bravely fighting against the Cloverfield monster and handling the situation the best way they could." Regarding Quarantine, he writes "when zombies infected with super-rabies are trying to kill you and the government shows up, count on them to to stand outside, picking their noses and trying to figure out what to do, while you struggle for survival. It's a timely and true message: Don't count on your government in a crisis." Unless, of course, it's the military, which, for some inscrutable reason known only to the acolytes of Reagan, doesn't count as the government. Bear in mind that the "government" forces in both of these cases react to the crisis in basically the same way: they isolate the affected area and write off everyone still alive within it. The only difference is that the very sight of the gun-toting manly men of the US military give conservatives instawood. It makes you think we could have fully socialized medicine in this country tomorrow if they just had the government-paid doctors wear camoflauge and carry M-4 rifles.

The crown jewel of the list, though, is the last film: The Tripper. I haven't seen this movie, because it's a straight-to-DVD slasher film directed by David Arquette, but according to John Hawkins, it's a GREAT conservative horror movie. Why? Because, in Hawkins' deathless prose, it features the "sweet, sweet joy of watching a guy in a Ronald Reagan mask taking an ax to dirty, drug addled hippies." Hawkins seems aware that the movie is supposed to be a joke at the expense of conservatives, but he doesn't care because the mere sight of a pseudo-Reagan murdering hippies is enough to send in off into a rich, vivid fantasy of bloody vengeance wreaked on those with the temerity to wear their hair too long. Hawkins calls it a "horror" film, but the way he talks about it, The Tripper might best be described as one of the top ten conservative porn films.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

When evaluating Spike Jonze's long-awaited film adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children's book Where the Wild Things Are, one thing needs to be stipulated from the jump: this is not a kid's movie. It's not that that 'wild things,' which are a nifty combination of Henson-studios designed costumes with CGI facial expressions, are too scary for kids, it's that they're too neurotic. Angst features much more prominently than wild rumpusing because this is a movie about growing up, from the perspective of grown-ups, featuring themes and insights that kids, mired in the same state of hyperactive narcissism as the protagonist, Max, are largely incapable of appreciating.

So, the question becomes: does Where the Wild Things Are work as a movie for adults, about kids? By that metric, Wild Things succeeds brilliantly. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers mine the scant source material to create an effective allegory about the process of growing up, of recognizing the fragile and finite nature of the world, of discovering self-awareness and empathy. Jonze evokes the overwhelming emotions and exuberance of childhood with a kinetic, low-angle camera and channels the vaugely apocalyptic feeling kids have as they come into awareness of entropy with a crisp, autumnal visual pallete. Most impressively, Jonze and Eggers fill over an hour of screentime with Max cavorting with the Wild Things that manages to have a forward narrative momentum without succumbing to obvious plot mechanics.

The chilly late-fall environment of Max's wild island, with dead trees and dusty arroyos, mirrors the generally cold feeling of the movie itself. Max's relationship with the wild things, led by the mercurial Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), is a constant clash of personalities, with hurt feelings and resentment far outweighing moments of unbridled childlike joy. It's in his vain attempts to rule as King of the Wild Things, who represent different facets of his own hyperactive, frustrated pre-adolescent personality, that Max discovers just how his childish antics appear to the people like his exasperated mother (played by Catherine Keener). The visuals are stunning, the explication of difficult-to-convey notions like empathy and self-awareness is deft, but the film occasionally feels brittle. It's appropriate given the direction Jonze and company have taken the material, but there's something vaguely offputting about a bunch of navel-gazing adults hijacking a children's classic in an effort to examine the fleeting grace of their own childhoods. And yet, a Where the Wild Things Are adaptation aimed squarely at kids would probably have featured more rapping badgers and fart noises, and everyone should be happy that a brilliant piece of children' s literature was spared such a fate. Jonze and Eggers may have rendered Where the Wild Things Are somewhat inaccessible to a generation of children raised on the book, but at least they take Sendak's work seriously enough to engage with it as art, and not an easy way for parents to distract their kids for a few hours.

Paranormal Activity

As readers of this blog, all six of you, know, I love it when two movies with the same basic premise come out within months of each other. Such occasions allow for an illuminating glimpse at the zeitgeist (ZEITGEIST!) as well as the chance to contrast and compare film techniques and sensibilities. Now, on the heels of Sam Raimi's triumphant return to splatstick horror, Drag Me To Hell, comes another movie about a young woman stalked by a soul-hungry demon while her skeptical boyfriend tries to use science to fathom the unfathomable. Oren Peli's micro-budget scare-fest Paranormal Activity offers a useful contrast with Raimi's movie. Drag Me To Hell relies on a hysterically over-the-top tone and an escalating series of operatic shocks and gross-out gags, while Paranormal Activity uses Blair Witch-style first person video cameras and cheap practical effects. As a consequence, Drag Me To Hell is relentlessly entertaining, frequently hilarious, but never really scary, unlike Paranormal Activity, which creates a mood of gut-churning dread that deepens as the movie progresses, culminating in a series of wrenching, upsetting shocks.

The story is simple: Kate and Micah are an upwardly mobile twentysomething couple in a nice condo in San Diego. They've been experiencing weird sounds at night, so Micah, like a good consumer and media-addict, buys a digital camera to record what happens and examine it. The film alternates between shots of the couple's bedroom at night, with the camera on a tripod recording an escalating series of unnervingly realistic apparitions, and footage of Kate and Micah freaking out and arguing during the day. The arguments have that same true-to-life, improvisational edge as The Blair Witch Project, but the characters never come close to being as unpleasant and inarticulate as those jagoffs. They're relatable and likable and their relationship has a welcome degree of texture. Also, the sterile suburban surroundings and Micah's technofetishism raise the issue of how people raised in a secular world would attempt to deal with forces beyond scientific understanding.

More than anything, Paranormal Activity shows how important it is for a horror film to create a sense of palpable reality for it to be truly frightening. The cheap gimmicks that most horror films use to generate tension; an overbearing score, predictable fake-out scares, disorienting camera moves, only serve to disperse tension. They remind the viewer that they're watching a movie, that the people in danger are just actors, that the threat is wholley imaginary. Movies that succeed at creating real moments of unease and fear, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Descent, and now Paranormal Activity, do so by making the audience forget that they're in a movie theater. There's a place in the horror universe for gleeful gore-fests and exercises in blood-camp, but the only way to really scare the shit out of a group of strangers sitting in the dark is by making them feel the fear of the protagonists, and the only way to do that is to make the protagonists, and their world, feel as real to the viewer as the person sitting next to them.

The Invention of Lying

In many ways, Ricky Gervais' directorial debut is remarkably unassuming. The direction is sit-com flat, the setting is clearly some small town in Manitoba with generous tax credits for filmmakers, and nothing flashy gets in the way of Gervais' extremely inventive comedic premise: a world where people did not possess the ability to tell a lie. For the first hour or so, Lying takes this premise and mines it for bucket after bucket of gold comedy nuggets. Watching people bluntly tell each other exactly what their thinking is endlessly amusing, and the humor becomes even sharper and more satirically pointed when Ricky Gervais' schlubby everyman discovers that he, alone in the world, has the power to say things that aren't true. Gervais uses his new power to gain wealth, fame, and, in the film's most inspired sequence, invent the concept of religion.

It's amazing, then, that a film so seemingly intent on keeping the focus on its comedic premise could feature the single most disastrous, painful, poorly conceived romantic subplot in the history of cinema. The second half of the movie comes to a miserable crawl as Gervais attempts to woo Jennifer Garner, a woman who he dated before his transformation who has bluntly told him that she doesn't find him attractive enough to have a relationship with. The plotting is mind-numbingly familiar (it's spoiling nothing to reveal that at one point, Gervais has to stop a wedding!?!), the scenes of a heart-broken Gervais moping around are glacial and unfunny, and the object of Gervais' affection is a vacuous, superficial void. Her insistence on an attractive mate (so as to create genetically advantageous offspring) is taken to be a manifestation of her unchangeable honesty, but the world of the movie contains intangible qualities such as love and humor, and Gervais' love seems completely unwarranted, especially since she acts more than anything like a lazily-programmed robot. The only reason Gervais could possible want her is that Garner is attractive, and Gervais projects positive qualities onto this person who shows no evidence of possessing them. It's the sort of unthinking misogyny that one would hope an incisive comic mind like Gervais would be immune to. One thing The Invention of Lying teaches us is that the sharpest male mind is no match for Botoxed lips and a tight butt.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


In most zombie movies that don't go directly to DVD, the zombies themselves carry some kind of metaphorical weight. Zombies can stand for burgeoning youth disenchantment, mass consumer culture, or the world's permanent underclass, and that's just in George Romero movies. Even Zack Snyder's vapid remake of Dawn of the Dead had some post-9/11 resonance, with endless hordes of zombies standing in for a seemingly unstoppable flow of worldwide anti-American extremism. Then there's Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland, where the zombies exist almost entirely to provide life lessons to a skittish young nerd played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg learns to let go of his fears and embrace love, with pivotal scenes taking place at an amusement park. Zombieland is basically last year's coming-of-age movie Adventureland with zombies instead of 80s rock. Such a description may not sound promising, but Zombieland offers so many clever touches, such a smartly constructed screenplay, and a Jesse Eisenberg-portrayed protagonist who is vastly less annoying. Plus, it's amazing how much one's enjoyment of a film increases when Kristen Stewart is replaced by a gun-toting Woody Harrelson and thousands of ravenous zombies.

Zombieland starts in a post-apocalyptic world where a souped-up version of Mad Cow Disease has rendered most of the world's inhabitants into cannibalistic freaks. An intimate voice-over narration introduces a young college student and his idiosyncratic rules for surviving in the new zombie world order. Along the way, he hooks up with a psycho redneck played by Woody Harrelson who is having entirely too much fun creatively annihilating zombies, and a couple of sisters/con artists played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. Eisenberg is a prototypical awkward fraidy cat in the Michael Cera mold. The zombie apocalypse gives him the chance to shed some of his phobias and hang-ups and take the risk of falling in love.

The whole set-up is remarkably light on zombies for most of the run time, much heavier on comic and romantic interplay between the characters. It's a bold choice that could have backfired horrendously among zombie-crazed genre fans, but it works impressively well. Part of the reason for that is Eisenberg's voice over, which allows for digressions and flash-backs that keep the proceedings kinetic, even in the absence of forward narrative momentum. Also, the snappy repartee is genuinely snappy, thanks to zippy lines and lived-in performances, especially by Woody Harrelson, who perfectly embodies the guy everyone would want by their side in the event of a zombie uprising, even if he's a bit...intense. Keeping the zombies at bay for long periods also means that when swarms of zombies finally do show up for the obligatory bullet-spraying climax, it's a welcome treat, rather than a rote adherence to formula.

Zombieland shows the enduring appeal of the zombie movie: they're basically blank, drooling, bloodthirsty lumps for a filmmaker to mold to their whim. Zom-Rom-Com has proven to be a durable and reliably entertaining subset of the genre.