Father & Son (2014 film)

Last night I went to a showing of Father & Son, a film by The Deka Brothers. Full disclosure: the Deka brothers live around the corner from me and I took care of their dog while they were away filming, so that’s my admission of a lack of journalistic integrity right there — report me to the authorities if you feel you must.

The genre is ‘horror’ and the story involves greed, exorcism, selling hope to the desperate and souls — all in 39 minutes. It was produced and filmed in Detroit. 39 minutes is a tough sell for a film of this type — it’s probably too long for most competitions but too short to be distributed as a feature. The Dekas might like to eventually expand it into a feature legnth film.

I enjoyed it a great deal; the cinematography and effects were fantastic. Although it is a modest budget film, it does not look like one.

father & Son

Too much cake (or watching “Pacific Rim” 2013)

pacific rimAnnie indulged me by accompanying me to see “Pacific Rim” (the film by Guillermo Del Toro) at the theater the other night. Why I wanted to see Pacific Rim was simple:  dinosaurs fighting robots. But when the film was over, I left the theater feeling overstuffed — as if I had eaten too much cake. Sometimes you get exactly what you think you want and you end up feeling kind of sick at the end.

Pacific Rim is a film by Guillermo Del Toro where giant monsters (known as ‘Kaiju’) periodically crawl up out of a fissure/portal to another world in the bottom of the pacific ocean and attack coastal cities, much like Godzilla did in 1954. In order to defend themselves, the humans construct giant robots called ‘Jaegers’ which are piloted by pairs of humans who need to establish some kind of ‘mind bond’ with one another. The humans discover that the kaiju are being sent by aliens who are intent on taking over the earth. The pace and ferocity of the kaiju attacks increase and a smaller number of robots and robot pilot teams have to fight harder than ever to stem the tide. Idras Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), Ron Perleman (from just about anything) and that good looking guy who plays “Jacks” on Sons of Anarchy are in this movie along with a lot of other people.

Everything in ‘Pacific Rim’ is huge and loud and colorful and complicated. Hong Kong (where much of the action takes place) looks like the city from ‘Blade Runner’ with flashing billboards, lots of umbrellas and Asian people crowding around street vendors in narrow, dangerous streets. When the kaiju battle the robots, cargo ships get used as baseball bats, they knock over buildings like drunken men in a bar fight might knock over tables and chairs and the humans just need to scramble to get out of the way and hope the robot kills the kaiju before the city is completely destroyed. It is Greco-Roman wrestling and martial arts on a grand scale — each second of battle is accompanied by noisy, anarchic, glorious destruction.

I wanted to like it; I really did. I grew up on shows like ‘Ultraman’ and ‘Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.’ I loved the ‘Kaiju’ movies where actors in rubber dinosaur suits stomped on cars, knocked over buildings, waded through the ocean like it was a kiddy pool and swatted planes out of the sky. So why was I underwhelmed by ‘Pacific Rim’?

I suspect the biggest part of the problem is that I am no longer 9 years old. As a young sprat, I probably had an inexhaustible appetite for seeing cities get destroyed and screaming commuters running away in fear as the army, once again tasked with the impossible job of fighting Godzilla, rolls in to get squashed and stomped on until the monster gets bored and wades off into the ocean to sleep beneath the waves for another couple of years. The ‘kaiju’ movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies did not benefit from modern digital imaging; everything was done with models. You could usually see the fishing line that the toy airplanes were strung from as they buzzed around Godzilla’s head like mosquitoes.  The ‘tanks’ which fired countless artillery shells at the monsters were clearly toy models. When Godzilla grabbed a commuter train in his mouth like bulldog grabbing a string of sausages, you could see that it was a model train. They would then cut to a crowd of Japanese salary men and housewives shrieking in terror and running for their lives. Like many children, I had a fascination with things that were very large and very small. Much of my fascination with Godzilla was probably based on the fact that I knew exactly how the illusion was created, and, dammit, it looked like a lot of fun. What kid wouldn’t like a movie that looked like the adults had made it with toys, fireworks and elaborate models of tall buildings? As an adult, I can imagine that I might watch Godzilla movies with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I doubt I could muster up the same level of enthusiasm if I had been an adult when I first saw those films on TV so many years ago.

In ‘Pacific Rim,’ on the other hand, the elaborate (and often visually overwhelming) effects didn’t make me think that the film makers were playing with scale as much. If memory serves, when Ishiro Honda made ‘Godzilla’ in 1954, he frequently placed the camera at a low angle… the camera was down there with the toy tanks as they rolled up to fire at Godzilla. The camera then switched to Godzilla’s point of view where he looked down at these tiny, annoying vehicles that were shooting at him.   Godzilla, like King Kong, was sometimes seen looking through windows at the tiny humans hiding inside. The director was always reminding us of the size of the monster. In ‘Pacific Rim,’ thanks to modern technology, the camera circles the action like a fly buzzing around the room. A lot is gained (the ship that one of the robots uses as a club really looks like a ship — it doesn’t look like a 1/72 scale model ship) and stuff is always exploding, flying around, shattering or getting squashed, but something in the experience of watching a film about a very large monster that makes humans insignificantly small and weak is lost — when the kaiju and the robots of ‘Pacific Rim’  wrestle and punch each other, the crumbling buildings and squishing cars seem much more incidental, like the furniture in a room that gets knocked around while two normal sized humans are fighting. Although ‘Pacific Rim’ has better special effects, I didn’t find myself as aware of the scale of the monsters and robots, perhaps because our vantage point is not moored to the human scale that Honda attempted to covey in his much less technically sophisticated 1954 film.

The ‘story’ isn’t much. The human robot pilots have conflicts with one another. Indifferent government bureaucrats have cut robot funding in order to funnel all of the money into some government contractor’s ‘Kaiju wall’ bamboozle project (and we see a Kaiju promptly burst through the wall in Sydney, Australia — clearly walls are not going to keep the Kaiju out). Idras Elba/Stringer Bell is slowly dieing because he was the pilot of one of the earliest Jaeger robots and was exposed to too much radiation. ‘Jacks’ from “Sons of Anarchy” (I don’t remember his real or his Pacific Rim name) redeems himself and falls in love with an Asian woman who helps him pilot one of the robots to victory. There is some badly explained and not entirely clear sub-plot where a scientist geek discovers that he can ‘mind meld’ with the brains of the kaiju much like the robot pilots ‘mind meld’ with each other in order to control their giant machines. Ron Perleman steals the show as a blackmarket dealer in kaiju body parts who dresses like a 19th century pimp with golden armored shoes and has a fondness for butterfly knives. Even though these actors were entertaining, none of the human part of the movie was interesting enough to make me want to care.

Everyone and his brother/sister has probably seen this already. If you haven’t, it is worth seeing on the big screen simply because, well, it is such a goddamn spectacle that would probably lose too much if viewed on the small screen at home. Del Toro spent a gajillion dollars making this thing; if you want the full effect of all that CGI, you will probably have to go to the theater. If you go, bring a child along; they will enjoy it much more than you will and perhaps you can catch a ‘contact high’ off of that child’s enthusiasm.

Harryhausen R.I.P.

Ray Harryhausen, animator and special-effects artist, died the other day at the ripe old age of 92. I’m sad to see him go, but 92 is a pretty good run, so maybe he was ready to go. “Jason & The Argonauts” was the best damn thing I ever saw in the movies (skeleton fight!) and I’d rather watch it or King Kong than Star Wars or Avatar.

I don’t have anything profound to say about Harryhausen. This New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik is much better than anything I could write, anyway.

A few years ago I got this book on The Art of Ray Harryhausen by Tony Dalton – lots of great illustrations… and you get to see Harryhausen’s drawings where he figured out how the different critters should look. Reccomended.

Hell (2011)

OK, last night I watched a movie that was so unforgivably bad (The Dark Night Rises (2012)), that, like mouthwash after eating something bad, I needed another film to get the incoherent mess of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ from my brain. Netflix served up ‘Hell’ (2011); which is a good mix of movies like Frontiers and The Road served up in an understated form; the perfect antidote to that bloated Batman mess; thanks very much to Director Roland Emmerich for this one; do yourself a favor and watch it.

‘Hell’ is a German post-apocalypse film that is set in a Europe of the not-too-distant future… even though I know a bit of German, I assumed that the title, ‘Hell,’ was a reference to ‘Hell’ as in where the devil lives; as I was watching, it hadn’t occurred to me that ‘hell’ is also the German word for ‘light’ or ‘bright.’* In this dystopian future, solar flares and/or atmospheric decay have caused the sun to become so bright that the trees and grass have died, the ecosystem has collapsed and a few survivors scavenge precious commodities like gasoline, food and water.  ‘Hell’ is a film with a very small scope; we see the desolation through the eyes of Maria as she accompanies her younger sister Leonie and Phillip across a desiccated and sun-drenched Europe, trying to get Phillip’s dying Volvo station wagon (armored across the windows with bits of chain link and protected from the sun with paper taped over the windows) to the mountains, where, it is rumored, there might still be water.

The interiors of the car and the buildings that the characters shelter in are dark, dry and dusty; when the actors step outside, it is so bright they have to wrap themselves like bedouins for protection from the intense sun.  They can hardly see and the film image is massively overexposed. This simple narrative device is surprisingly effective; ‘Hell’ is one of those movies that works because of what it doesn’t show you rather than what it does. The film is brutal and violent but not gory; most of the violence takes place off screen. What makes the film effectively disturbing is the psychological distress that the characters are experiencing which is never stated outright, only hinted at. Young Leonie teases Maria over her sexual relationship with Phillip. Maria clearly wishes Phillip were a bit more emotionally stable, but it looks like sex is one of the few bargaining chips she has left; the car and most of the things in it obviously belong to him. Phillip, meanwhile, is clearly ready to snap and the more psychologically strong Maria is trying to get him to hold it together because his car and protection are the best hope that she and her sister have. The three stop at an abandoned gas station where they encounter another man, Tom, who is initially hostile, but Tom offers gasoline, mechanical expertise and the impression of being slightly less unbalanced than Phillip.  Tom makes a deal to help keep the car running in exchange for passage, food and water. The characters are constantly at odds with one another; they look and act like they are down to their last physically and psychologically.

Our little band of survivors are attacked; the car is stolen and Leonie is abducted. Maria and Phillip manage to get the car back, but the ‘fight’ with the bandits is extremely chaotic and they lose track of Tom in the process. ‘Hell’ is an interesting film because of what it doesn’t show us… during their raid on the bandit’s camp, we spend the whole time with Maria in the car as she tries to start it. All we see are brief glimpses of action occurring outside the car’s masked windows — we are as uninformed of the status of current events as Maria is. Suddenly Phillip leaps into the back seat and shouts that she needs to start driving, NOW.  As they pull away, one of the bandits attempts to drag Phillip from the car. Phillip manages to fight him off, but his ankle is broken as the car door gets slammed shut by a tree as they drive away. Maria wants to go back for Leonie and Tom; Phillip wants to just drive on, pointing out that they have no other realistic options. The strength of this film is that although as watchers we want them to go back and succeed at a daring rescue, within the realm described by the film itself, that does seem like suicide. Earlier in the film, as Tom and Phillip are a short distance away siphoning gasoline out of a crashed car, Leonie urges Maria to just get in the car and drive away. After those words are said, we can see Maria is thinking about it.  The drama of Hell isn’t in choreographed fight scenes or special effects — it’s in Maria attempting to make difficult choices and all about asking things like, “What should someone in a hopeless situation do to survive?” and “When loyalty and empathy decrease your chances for survival, should you discard them?”

Maria does manage to rescue at least some of her comrades from the ‘bandits’ (who are actually another group of survivors with very different plans), but the film’s resolution is ambiguous and anything but hopeful. I think the interesting (if bleak) story that the film makers told with very limited means, especially in an age of unbelieveably expensive films that are incoherent, boring and stupid (ahem – “The Dark Night Rises” – cough), make this worth watching — and the woman who plays Maria, especially, does a great job. I give it five out of five severed heads — I know that’s a high rating, but seeing it within hours of “The Dark Knight Rises” felt like ‘Hell’ was a film maker’s lesson in the ‘right way to do it.’

*This is not the only foreign film whose name has a double meaning in English; there is also a Bollywood film involving sex, money, jealousy and murder called ‘Jism‘ leading to the obviously ribald jokes (‘Jism’ apparently means ‘the body’ in Hindi).

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Danger: 75% of people will probably hate this movie. I learned the hard way, when I took a date to see Gilliam’s “Brazil” and I sat enraptured throughout the film while she sat there hating it, that some people just don’t like the movies I like. Read my review and agree or disagree if you like, but if you plop down the cash to see ‘Cloud Atlas’ and hate it, don’t come crying to me.
Top row: 3 different roles for Halle Berry.  Bottom row: 3 different roles for Tom Hanks.

I think that the fact that I am still thinking about the movie, ‘Cloud Atlas’ almost two weeks after I went to see it is a good sign. The film is (apparently loosely) based on the controversial novel by David Mitchell (how it compares to the novel I can’t say; I haven’t read it) which wraps the threads of six different stories around each other.  These threads range from the story of an 18th century clerk/lawyer coming to the realization that slavery is immoral to a reporter in the 1970s who thinks that all is not right at a nuclear power facility, onwards to the life of a clone/slave in future Korea becoming self aware to a dystopian future in which primitives and  a representative of a technologically advanced minority speak in nearly incomprehensible pidgin-English that makes Burgess’ “Nadsat” from Clockwork Orange seem transparent in comparison.

“Cloud Atlas” is a 3 ½ hour long film that is so big it needed 3 directors; Lana and Adam Wachowski (The Matrix, etc.) and Tom Twika (Run Lola Run). And not all of it is good. But the good far outweighs the bad and I found myself wanting to talk with Annie about what the film meant after we left the theatre rather than just talking about how expensive it was or if it would do well at the box office. The author of the book upon which ‘Cloud Atlas’ was based said that as he was writing the book, he felt a little sad because, in his opinion, the book he was writing would be ‘impossible’ to translate into a film. The six different stories of the novel are told using six different literary forms. Adam Ewing, the 18th century clerk, tells his story in the form of a diary; Frobisher, the composer of ‘Cloud Atlas’, tells his story in a series of letters, another part of the book is written in the style of a genre detective novel, etc., and the author plays these different literary forms off of each other; the same characters appear in different parts of the different stories in different ways. The investigative reporter listens to a recording of ‘Cloud Atlas’ even as she is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Sixsmith, a physicist who was lovers with Frobisher (the composer of Cloud Atlas). Frobisher is reading the travelogue of Adam Ewing, the clerk whose story started the film.  There are other cross references within the film (both visual and narrative) that Annie tells me were a part of the novel.

One of the nice things about ‘Cloud Atlas’ is that it seems to be a novel that flirts with the concept of reincarnation without getting excessively maudlin or new-age/mystical about it.  There are just threads that follow from one story to another, allowing the viewer to draw the connections from one story to the next rather than forcing them. And the film uses the same actors to play different characters in the different stories without ever making an attempt to explain this — Tom Hanks plays the sinister doctor who is slowly poisoning Adam Ewing in the 18th century and the primitive goatherd who befriends a researcher from a more advanced group of survivors in dystopian future earth later in the film. No direct link is made other than we, as viewers, know that both parts are played by Hanks. There was a recurring birthmark shaped vaguely like a shooting star that appears and reappears on some of the characters (I thought this was heavy handed and don’t know if it appeared in the book or not), but, for the most part, the directors used a pretty light hand, implying the connection between the different characters and stories rather than stating them outright.

There were some things that didn’t work. The makeup job on Hugh Grant, in which they used prosthetic cheeks and a nose to try to make him look like a jowly old man, resulted in something that didn’t look human (he looked more like Gollum’s cousin who had just crawled out from under a rock and put on some Cabana wear). The dialogue in the latter part of the film, where Hanks and Berry converse in a futuristic pidgin English, is just too hard to understand; Annie said the meaning was easier to infer when you saw it on the page. And there were a few bits that were just a little too sentimental for my taste. But I think the director’s choice to transform the same actors into different characters made this otherwise impossible movie work. I think the parallels of experience by different people in different situations and different times which the film makers managed to evoke by using the same actors throughout the film made perfect sense to me when the film was over, even though there does not seem to be any way to describe it without making it sound contrived or gimmicky.

World War Z (part 2)

Do zombies have ‘swarm consciousness’ like ants or bees?

The other day I posted a bit about the World War Z movie and how much I was looking forward to it.  Since posting, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about the movie from people who think its going to suck, which made me wonder if a) do I have really crappy taste or b) did we all see the same preview?

A lot of the negative comments about the movie focus on the fact that it doesn’t resemble the book that much.  People really liked the book and thought that the movie should be more like it… but I just can’t see a series of vignettes of different people talking about the zombie-pocalypse like a Ken Burns documentary really working as a Hollywood movie.  I think that using the ‘World War Z’ book title is misleading, but I didn’t like the book that much (I liked Brook’s tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Survival Guide” much more). If I had been a bigger fan of the book, I would be more upset about the World War Z movie bearing only a superficial resemblance to the World War Z book.

One of the things I didn’t like about the book was that many of the characters from different parts of the world who were all relating how they spent the ‘Zombie Wars’ didn’t seem ‘different’ enough in voice in the book. It just kept me from buying the premise. Maybe writing a book from 100 different points of view is an impossible task — I don’t know if another writer could have carried it off, either, and I certainly like the concept, but Brooks’ prose just didn’t work for me.  I also found some of the characters were too close to stereotype for me to buy them.. the Japanese otaku who, faced with the end of the world, becomes a master of the samurai sword, for example. It just didn’t ring true for me. I don’t know if that is a failure of imagination by me as a reader or a result of failure by Brooks as a writer. I loved “Zombie Survival Guide.” I just found portions of “World War Z” a bit flat and melodramatic.  I seem to be in the minority in that opinion (my friend Jon C., whose opinion on all things writing I respect, loved Brooks’ WWZ book, so there you go).

I’ve mentioned it before, but if I had to recommend only one book of zombie genre fiction, it would have to be ‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead (although, based on how much I enjoyed Zone One, I plan to), but Whitehead’s novel was more effective because he kept the scope pretty narrow. Everything is told from a single protagonist’s point of view, even though he is just one man with PTSD in the army of ‘zombie clean-up crews’ that have been formed since the zombie apocalypse. As opposed to World War Z, Whitehead shows the emotions in his characters rather than tells — an important distinction that made it a lot more enjoyable for me to read.

It’s been a couple years since I read World War Z, so I probably don’t remember the book well enough to write an in-depth review, but I do remember parts where some of the different narrators described the zombies just moving forward relentlessly, in a swarm.  There was one battle described in (I think) India where the military retreated across a deep ravine and blew up the bridge behind them, and then just watched in horror as the zombies just started to pour over the cliff like a waterfall, slowly filling up the ravine, which was one image from the book I really found effective… and that’s what the exploding swarms of bodies in the preview made me recall. A similar ‘zombie surge’ figures prominently in the end of Whitehead’s “Zone One.”  Zombie surges are perhaps becoming all the rage in the genre. Maybe that’s what helps make zombies scary again… by this point, everyone knows you can defeat them by shooting them in the head and evade them by closing the gate of a chain link fence, but what if there are so many of the living dead, swarming like ants, that you know you can’t kill them fast enough to keep yourself safe and they will press and pile up against any barrier until they knock it down through sheer numbers? Maybe it’s the idea of all of these humans having lost their humanity that fascinates us — people are starting to say that the zombie genre is played out; I think it still has some mileage left in it yet.

World War Z and Zombie Fantasy

I previously mentioned the Max Brooks books, World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide, on this blog. I just found out that the World War Z movie (starring Brad Pitt) will be out in July 2013. My friend Jon C. has been so excited to see this that I wonder if he will be able to stand having to wait that long? I also wonder if I’ll be able to convince Annie to see it with me?  She hates scary movies.

The preview looks like it was inspired by Brook’s book rather than a straight translation to film, mostly because the book is really just a series of anecdotes from different people in different countries following the zombie plague — recollections of people in China who saw the first outbreak contrasted with stories from Frenchmen who exterminated zombies in the catacombs beneath Paris, for example.  It looks like the film makers stitched the different vignettes together with Pitt as a central character; he apparently is some sort of U.N. crisis specialist who is jetting around the world while they try to deal with the whole ‘Z’ situation. Hopefully Pitt is better at his job than that  Brownie guy from FEMA was during Katrina.

The preview doesn’t tell me much, but, wow, rivers of people surging forward instead of the usual shuffling hordes of rotted zombies is a welcome change… it looks like this film might manage to make zombies scary again! With ‘The Walking Dead’ on T.V. and movies like this coming out, zombie fans are getting a lot of entertainment.  What makes us love this zombie stuff so much?

I have a theory. I think one of the things people love about zombie movies is that these films allow us to imagine ‘killing’ people without moral consequences. I remember hearing about how the rationalist, Rene Descartes, used to say that animals didn’t feel pain; he claimed that if a dog howls after you kick it, the ‘pain response’ of the dog was of no more significance than a squeaking of a wheel on a cart. I have no doubt that Descartes was wrong; I believe animals do feel pain, but maybe Descartes was actually seeking to excuse how horribly people treat animals by saying that it didn’t matter. And maybe that’s part of the appeal of the zombie fantasy. Descartes statements about animals have (thankfully) been mostly discredited and Hollywood has discovered that Americans actually don’t like to watch people killing animals (just ask artist Tom Otterness; he was videotaped shooting a dog in way back in 1977 as an ‘art project’ and a lot of people (including me) still think he’s a douche).  We hate to see animals getting killed, but we do like to watch people killing other people (well, at least simulated versions of people killing other people).  One of the advantages of ‘deactivating’ a zombie is that it is not potentially immoral in the same way that shooting another human in the head might be immoral simply because you are not actually ‘killing’ the zombie; it is supposedly already dead. In fact, by ‘deactivating’ the zombie, you are performing a public service since that zombie will just wander around trying to infect other humans, right?

I think another reason that the ‘zombie apocalypse’ has common appeal is that most of us live fairly trammeled lives in which we travel back and forth between work, home, school, etc., and little that we do in our day to day lives has much significance.  Whatever else one might say about a world in which the social order has been destroyed, zombies shuffle or surge up and down the streets while the survivors seek to live just another day (or even another few moments), at least it wouldn’t be boring. Romero had his zombies shuffling up and down the escalators of a shopping mall, and the appeal of that image probably said a lot about how many members of the audience felt like they were not really living, either.  The survivors, on the other hand, need to be quick and clever and resourceful. The irony is that in television shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ the priciple characters spend a lot of time saying how horrible life after the zombie event is — they are always on the run, dirty, hungry, scared and afraid of losing their humanity — but I can’t help thinking they will also never have to sit in traffic or listen to a mind numbingly boring sales pitch/teacher’s lecture/sermon/power point presentation again.  The zombie apocalypse takes away a lot, but, at least in it’s fantasy form, it appears to give a lot too — bursts of adrenaline as we try to outrun the shuffling hordes, a ‘first person shooter’ experience that would be more immersive than any video game and the chance to remake yourself in a brave new world where the old social order has been swept away and the population is defined in one of three ways: dead, undead and still living. Basejumping and other more pedestrian thrill seeker activities pale in comparison.