Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nope, nothing wrong here.

This is an entry in Steve Carlson's Killer Animal Blogathon at Our Science is Too Tight.

When asked to name his favorite adaptation of his work, Stephen King frequently cites, alongside more prestigious films like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, 1983's Cujo, based on his book about a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a Maine housewife and her 3-year-old son. Released at the start of a decade-long glut of movies of varying quality based on King's work (John Carpenter's Christine and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone were released the same year), Cujo might seem like an arbitrary choice, especially over films by Cronenberg, De Palma and Kubrick. King seems to value Cujo for its lack of an auteur's signature, and for its simplicity, describing it (I'm paraphrasing as I can't find the quote) as a machine that batters the audience mercilessly. Indeed, Cujo is a well-done B movie that succeeds in its modest ambitions. And if that sounds patronizing, I don't mean it that way at all - sometimes I just want to watch a movie that will make me jump when it says "boo," and at this Cujo succeeds admirably.

Director Lewis Teague's version of King's fictional Maine hamlet Castle Rock is very much located in the wondrous 80's-cinema version of small-town life commonly known as Spielbergiana, and not just because E.T.'s Dee Wallace plays a mom in Cujo as well. The film opens with a bucolic scene of the happy, uninfected dog bounding after a rabbit, accompanied by Charles Bernstein's magical John Williams-esque score. When Cujo, poking his nose down a rabbit hole, is bitten by a rabid bat who'd been sleeping in an underground cave, Cujo establishes the same understanding of reality familiar from E.T. and Poltergeist - that magic and mystery, both good and evil, exist just underneath the surface of everyday life. The first half of King's book focuses on the troubled marriage of Donna and Vic Trenton (Wallace and Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and Donna's affair with local hunk Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). The infidelity plot is given less time in the movie; while the book suggests (rather heavy-handedly) that Cujo is fated to teach this family a lesson, in the movie is just a random bad thing happening to basically good people. There's no moral lesson to be learned, just the reminder to appreciate family and the simple things in life because one never knows when one will be attacked by a killer dog.

The back story is also condensed, presumably, because the filmmakers are eager to get to the action. With Vic out of town on business, Donna and son Tad (Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their stalled Pinto at the end of a very rural route. Cujo has already killed his owner, mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), and Donna has to find a way out of the situation before heatstroke and dehydration take her son's life. Teague and cinematographer Jan De Bont (who would later direct Speed and Twister) make excellent use of the claustrophobic setting, and they are aided greatly by the team of effects artists. While Cujo's analog effects aren't seamless, they're quite impressive considering they're pretty much a combination of hand puppets, a guy in a St. Bernard suit and several wet dogs; you more or less believe that Cujo is beating the hell out of Donna's Pinto. The most important elements for suspension of disbelief, however, are the performances; luckily, Pintauro is a believably frightened little boy and Wallace (as in E.T., The Howling and numerous other genre favorites), brings an emotional authenticity to the character that goes above and beyond the character as written. When Donna, caked in dirt, sweat and blood, fights back against Cujo to save her son, Wallace displays a kind of primal warrior mama ferocity that is surprisingly compelling.*

The ending of Cujo deviates from King's book (spoilers ahead). While Tad finally dies of dehydration in the novel's closing pages, he is spared in the movie. While I normally hate it when downbeat endings in literature are made crowd-pleasing when brought to the screen, here I think it is the right choice. While horror stories, which are about upending life as we know it (as George Romero is fond of saying, "upsetting the apple cart"), are often more effective when they do not restore order in the end, Tad's death makes the events of the previous 300 pages meaningless, making it an uncharacteristically nihilistic book for King. The restoration of order at the end of the movie is more appropriate to the story; the movie freeze-frames at the moment the family reunites and all is well in Spielbergiana once again. Like the faulty red dye in Sharp Cereal, Cujo gives a good scare but nobody is really hurt.

*Sidenote: I coincidentally saw Dee Wallace at the Rock and Shock horror convention in Worcester this weekend; she was warm, friendly and endearingly eccentric. I particularly liked her story about being asked by Rob Zombie to voice one of three sexy she-devils in the animated The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. She told Zombie, "I'll only do it if I can be the one with the biggest tits."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do.

"It's quite possible that I'm your third man girl
But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son
And right now you could care less about me
But soon enough you will care, by the time I'm done"

- The White Stripes, "Ball and Biscuit"

The already-famous opening scene of The Social Network is the most hilariously brutal cinematic breakup since Happiness, opening mid-conversation as Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) lectures his date, Erica (Rooney Mara) about the importance of joining a final club. Zuckerberg is a genius who apparently knows little to nothing about how to relate to women and possibly people in general. As he jumps several conversational tracks at once with little concern for having an actual conversation with poor Erica, it seems that either Mark is completely oblivious to his date as a separate person or, worse, his verbal gymnastics are a painfully misguided attempt to wow her with his intellectual prowess. Erica finally cannot take it anymore, and calmly eviscerates Mark's pretensions, informing him that "You're going to be successful, and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole." The ironic suggestion that the most popular social networking site in the world is the invention of a guy who cannot relate to others is at the heart of The Social Network, a film preoccupied with the paradoxical/symbiotic relationship between technology's rapidly evolving role in facilitating communication and my generation's growing tendency towards (preference for?) social isolation. For anyone who has recently found themselves in a room of flesh-and-blood people talking at length about things other people wrote on Facebook and had to repress the urge to scream, The Social Network is frighteningly prescient.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay (based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Merzrich) jumps back and forth effortlessly between the rapid chain of events that led to the creation of Facebook and Zuckerberg testifying in two different lawsuits filed by classmates - twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Arnie Hammer), and Mark's best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), respectively. While the courtroom format is a familiar one (the Sorkin-penned A Few Good Men but one example), Sorkin and director David Fincher are less interested in deciding whether Zuckerberg truly stole Facebook from the Winklevi or broke his contract with Eduardo than in observing their brilliant but often inscrutable protagonist. Mark's bitter, post-breakup creation of Facemash - a Harvard variation of - is crosscut with shots of implausibly attractive coeds literally bussed into a party hosted by one of the most exclusive final clubs at Harvard. It's the chip on his shoulder at having been rejected by women and the WASP elite that starts him on the path to Facebook and his destiny. Later, when co-founder Eduardo is focused on ways to monetize Facebook, Zuckerberg is preoccupied with protecting the site's "cool" status and everything that implies; while Mark is almost always the smartest person in the room, the motivations behind his billion-dollar creation are stunningly adolescent and regressive. Eisenberg is terrific as Zuckerberg, convincing as he coldly demonstrates his intellectual superiority while subtly hinting at the tremendous insecurity barely masked by Mark's smug facade.

It's the pursuit of "cool," that obscure object of desire, that leads Mark to Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), famous in geek circles as one of the founders of Napster. Timberlake is perfect as a Gen Y Mephistopheles, tantalizing Mark with talk of Facebook's billion-dollar potential - Parker is venal, paranoid and ultimately sort of sad, able to provide a Machiavellian path to the future but lacking in any understanding or interest in what, ultimately, the future means. Many have noted/complained that The Social Network doesn't seem very interested in Facebook itself, but I think it's Zuckerberg's relationship with Parker and the damage it does to one of his few ties with humanity that indirectly comments on our relationship with Facebook. Scrolling down my Facebook wall, I might encounter one friend's open letter to President Obama; below that, another friend posting pictures of her child being cute; below that, thinly veiled sexual banter between a friend and her new boyfriend; below that, a heated debate on whether simulated necrophilia is protected by the First Amendment; below that, Farmville. Facebook makes all of us performer and audience to everyone else we know, but it has no inherent meaning besides what we bring to it; it's banal and possibly nihilistic and, like any ubiquitious internet creation, its ultimate meaning is a mystery even as its role and influence in our lives grows every day (the entire course of my life has been drastically altered because of YouTube - I know of what I speak). So it's more than just a witty in-joke that Mark's internet alias is TylerDurden - Zuckerberg is perhaps the ultimate rebel without a clue and the embodiment of the clever, vacant core of Geek Chic.

Putting aside my Jonathan Edwards impression for one moment, whether The Social Network actually intends to raise any of the issues it has provoked in discussion of the film, it succeeds completely on the basis of being a wonderfully entertaining and engaging movie. Sorkin's typically sharp-witted writing has, in the hands of other directors, turned out stagey and unconvincing in the final product; Fincher, however, proves to be the ideal director for Sorkin, his penchant for visual symmetry and technical perfection matching Sorkin's own obsessive precision and rendering the whole thing less show-offy than a logical representation of their obsessive subject scored to a coldly perfect soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (perhaps it is, as Walter Chaw suggested, "an asshole movie about an asshole"). Fincher's exacting direction also results in excellent work from his cast of relative newcomers - Garfield is heartbreaking as the one nice guy in the movie, Hammer is hilarious and weirdly endearing (and there are two of him), and Mara is so terrific in her three short scenes that I'm ready to forgive her for that abysmal Nightmare on Elm Street remake. At its best, The Social Network suggests a 21st century version of a Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond collaboration, films which were also very much of their zeitgeist yet captured something timeless. It's remarkable that the inevitable Facebook movie, which could and logically should have been instantly dated and completely ephemeral, could well prove to be one of the first classic movies of the new decade.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: James Frazier on Burn After Reading

When I reviewed “Burn After Reading” upon release, I rewarded it a 3.5 out of 5. I wrote “‘Burn After Reading,’ the latest film from the Coen Brothers, is a dark comedy and spy farce that unfolds like a chemical reaction, its plot elements combining, mixing, then igniting briefly before fizzing out.” I got it right until that last part.

“Burn After Reading” is a quintessential example of those films that work like a stick of dynamite with a long fuse, sitting there gently for a while until they explode in utter brilliance. I’m willing to forgive myself (and anyone else) for not catching the genius the first time around; the Coen Brothers’ assemble a script whose characters are all unlikeable, narcissistic buffoons, cast them with A-list talent, and unleashes them into a labyrinthine plot that mixes pathetic infidelity, meaningless espionage, and one bizarre home-made masturbatory implement. It’s a version of what Roger Ebert deemed the Idiot Plot, only the Coens intended for their characters to be as moronic as possible. The brothers, off a career high from the enormous critical and commercial success of “No Country For Old Men,” exhibit a fearless willingness to tell the story they want to. Not many auteurs would employ Brad Pitt as a dimwitted gym trainer that meets a shockingly unceremonious demise halfway through their story, but it’s that kind of nerve that makes their work go beyond unconventional and into the realm of subversive.

Detractors are prone to accusing the film of existing without meaning to its action, themselves accidentally tapping into the theme: that life’s a mess, nothing adds up to much, and we can all play the role of the fool. The closing dialogue between two confounded CIA observers sums it up:

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I'm fucked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it's, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.

Life’s hilarious like that, sometimes.

- James Frazier

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: Final Round

And the winner:

"[Children of Men] inspires genuine hope even in the bleakest of possible futures... Cuaron just made a huge leap from a great up-and-coming director to one of the most important voices in cinema today." - me

"Cuaron, like Kubrick in his later films, plunges the audience into the world of the film without pausing for exposition or character development, and it's a lot to handle on the first viewing. Heck, it's tempting just to groove on the film's visual design the first time around- with its production design combining crumbling cities with cutting edge technology and its cinematography which is both luminous and hardscrabble, this is the supreme technical achievement of last year. But as overwhelming an experience as Children of Men can be, it never once loses the audience, a credit to Owen's rock-solid presence and especially the visionary direction of Cuaron. In the end, Children of Men is a hopeful film, one in which life doesn't merely endure, but prevails." - Paul Clark

"A convincingly imagined dystopia and filmmaking that's both staggeringly virtuosic and emotionally involving. All this and early King Crimson on the soundtrack." - Glenn Kenny

"Cuaron fulfills the promise of futuristic fiction; characters do not wear strange costumes or visit the moon, and the cities are not plastic hallucinations, but look just like today, except tired and shabby. Here is certainly a world ending not with a bang but a whimper, and the film serves as a cautionary warning. The only thing we will have to fear in the future, we learn, is the past itself. Our past. Ourselves."
- Roger Ebert

"The miracle of Cuarón's films is that he presents the sanctity of our feelings for our children in ways as rugged, terrifying, and unsentimental as childhood. Children of Men is about a lot of things, including a sense of wonder in ourselves: how we're able to persevere in the face of our own mortality if we're just given (reminded of?) a cause worth fighting for." - Walter Chaw

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: Round 6

With his latest film having been killed by Scientology, maybe P.T. is due for a victory?

Punch-Drunk Love (11)
Kill Bill vol. 2 (8)

Children of Men (12)

Inglourious Basterds (6)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: Round 5 - QT vs PT (milk vs. shakes)

Punch-Drunk Love (10)
Up (5)

Kill Bill vol. 2 (8)

The Royal Tenenbaums (5)

Children of Men (8)

WALL*E (5)

Inglourious Basterds (7)

There Will Be Blood (6)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: Round 4

Sadly, this round's parings don't really inspire any clever titles (Ed Asner vs. Stephen Tobolowsky was considered but seemed like too much of a reach). However, the pairs of directors and, in one case, a much-loved studio that have made it thus far give hope for more cleverness in the future. Unless PT, QT and Pixar are due to get knocked down a peg or two...

Punch-Drunk Love (11)

Mulholland Drive (9)

Up (9)
Memento (7)

Kill Bill vol. 2 (9)
Spirited Away (7)

The Royal Tenenbaums (11)
Pan's Labyrinth (5)

Children of Men (12)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (3)

WALL*E/There Will Be Blood (tie - 8 each)

Inglourious Basterds (12)
Yi Yi (6)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: Round 3 - Chihiro vs. Ofelia

9/10 Edit - By some misbegotten stroke of the delete button, two of the pairings seem to have been omitted. So if you haven't voted on Spirited Away/Pan's Labyrinth, Ratatouille/The Royal Tenenbaums or Jesse James/WALL*E, please do. My apologies to Messrs. Miyazaki, Del Toro, Bird, Anderson, Dominik and Stanton.

Punch-Drunk Love (10)
Dancer in the Dark (2)

Mulholland Drive (8)
Dogville (5)

Up (7)
No Country For Old Men (6)

Memento (7)
American Splendor (6)

Kill Bill vol. 2 (11)
I'm Not There (2)

Spirited Away/Pan's Labyrinth (tie - 2 each)

The Royal Tenenbaums (3)
Ratatouille (1)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford/WALL-E (tie - 2 each)

Children of Men (10)
25th Hour (2)

There Will Be Blood (8)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (5)

Inglourious Basterds (8)
28 Days Later (5)

Yi Yi (6)
Happy-Go-Lucky (2)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Battle of the Aughts Round 2 - Spike Lee vs. Spike Lee

Note: Happy-Go-Lucky, which received the most votes out of any non-winner last round, returns to fill out an odd number of winners.

Punch-Drunk Love (9)
In the Mood For Love (6)

Dancer in the Dark (8)
Pulse (2)

Mulholland Drive (8)
The New World (4)

Dogville (8)
Jackass Number Two (1)

Up (10)
Flight of the Red Balloon (1)

No Country For Old Men (12)
American Psycho (1)

Memento (10)
Primer (2)

American Splendor (5)
8 Women (4)

Kill Bill vol. 2 (10)
Almost Famous (4)

I'm Not There (5)
A Prairie Home Companion (3)

Spirited Away (8)
Y tu mamá también (4)

Pan's Labyrinth (7)
No Direction Home (3)

Ratatouille (5)
Sideways (4)

The Royal Tenenbaums (9)
Amélie (3)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (7)
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (0)

WALL*E (8)
Before Sunset (3)

25th Hour (5)
Before Sunset (4)

Children of Men (8)
The Dark Knight (3)

There Will Be Blood (11)
Zodiac (2)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (8)
Beau Travail (1)

Inglourious Basterds (9)
Time Out (1)

Yi Yi (4)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (3)

28 Days Later/Happy-Go-Lucky (tie - 4 each)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Battle of the Aughts: FYC - Star Trek

"I like to have fun when I go to the movies. I don't really notice the lighting or how a shot is framed until the second or third viewing. I want to be engaged with the characters and story first and foremost. Otherwise why go to the movies? Star Trek is why I go to the movies. After 10 movies and numerous t.v. shows, J.J. Abrams manages to reinvent Star Trek without losing its spirit. In every moment I feel the spirit of what Gene Roddenberry created. Every character is perfectly cast, from Captain Pike to Scotty. These actors bring the essence of the original characters without turning them into a parody, which could have easily happened. I am truly engaged with these people and care about their outcome.

"If that wasn't enough, the sets are amazing. They are grand without distracting me from the story. The ships are massive and complex, with beautiful lines. They're not the boxy models of yesteryear. They are smooth and sexy. They are impressive and truly makes me feel as if I'm in the future. The worlds are real but distinct. The action is also well balanced with the regular banter scenes. Its perfectly paced and truly an adventure. A joyful journey from beginning to end." - Annabelle Proulx

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Battle of the Aughts Round 1 - Spock vs. Frodo

I matched up the films in round 1 randomly, which makes the super-geeky titular battle much funnier. I'm happy that there are a number of offbeat pairs below - everyone who sent me their top 10 helped make this a very eclectic contest. Thanks, guys. Each round will last approximately 72 96 hours. I can't wait to see how it all pans out.
In the Mood For Love (5 votes)
Happy-Go-Lucky (4)

Punch-Drunk Love (10)
A Christmas Tale (0)

Pulse (4)
Reprise (0)

Dancer in the Dark (8)
Half Nelson (0)

The New World (8)
Run, Fatboy, Run (2)

Mulholland Drive (10)
Irreversible (1)

Jackass Number Two (4)
The Consequences of Love (1)

Dogville (5)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1)

Flight of the Red Balloon (3)
Electric Dragon 80.000 V (1)

Up (6)
Silent Light (1)

American Psycho/Primer (tie - 3 each)

No Country For Old Men (10)
Talk to Her (1)

Memento (8)
Secretary (4)

8 Women (4)
Shotgun Stories (1)
American Splendor (5)
In Praise of Love (1)

Almost Famous (4)
Blissfully Yours (1)

Kill Bill vol. 2
Synecdoche, New York (4)

A Prairie Home Companion (5)
Running on Karma (0)

I'm Not There/Y tu mama tambien (tie -3)

Spirited Away (4)
Hamlet (1)

No Direction Home (2)
The Best of Youth (0)

Pan's Labyrinth (5)

Adaptation (4)

Sideways (3)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2)

Ratatouille (5)
Exiled (0)

The Royal Tenenbaums (7)
Waking Life (2)

Amelie (5)
Gerry (2)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (4)
The Devil's Rejects (2)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2)
Old Joy (1)

Before Sunset (4)
Zombieland (3)

WALL*E (6)
24 Hour Party People (2)

Inside Man (4)
Audition (3)

Children of Men (9)
Burn After Reading (1)

The Dark Knight (4)
The Son (2)

Zodiac (7)
In the Bedroom (2)

There Will Be Blood (5)
Bad Santa (3)

Beau Travail (1)
Survive Style 5+ (0)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (8)
The Brown Bunny (1)

Inglourious Basterds (8)
The World (0)

Time Out (2)
Black Hawk Down (0)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (5)
Star Trek (4)

Yi Yi (3)
Southland Tales (0)

28 Days Later (6)
The Aura (0)