Friday, September 21, 2007

Review :: Eastern Promises

(It's almost impossible to talk about this film intelligently or at any length without mentioning at least some essential plot-points. While I've tried to keep it spoiler free, it does touch upon at least one major plot element but you've probably already heard about it if you've heard anything at all about the film. Anyway, just thought I'd warn you.)

Transformation of the human body and mind has always been the grand theme of the David Cronenberg oeuvre. In films like Videodrome or The Fly and in most of his early genre films (the so-called "venereal" horror films), Cronenberg used the shocking metaphors that the genre offered him to explore his own ideas about the relationship of the body and the mind, a dichotomy that Cronenberg ultimately rejects. However, in his more mature films like Dead Ringers, Spider and A History of Violence, Cronenberg put aside the effective though ultimately clumsy metaphors of the horror genre and began to shift his focus from mutation to psychology. His sensibilities and obsessions have remained the same, though: the creation or alteration of human identity. With Eastern Promises, his latest foray into the human mind, Cronenberg continues to obsess over the question of identity and creates another minor masterpiece of philosophy and violence, two elements that seem to fit together oddly and beautifully in his films.

When a young Russian prostitute dies while giving birth in a London hospital, Anna (Naomi Watts) attempts to use the girl's diary to identify her in order to deliver the newborn child to the girl's relatives. She discovers that the girl worked for the vory v zakone, a particularly notorious Russian crime organization, and that both the diary and the baby pose a threat to the organization's boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Meanwhile, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, delivering another nearly perfect performance) is rising through the vory ranks and earning the right to full inclusion in the crime syndicate. The intersection of Anna and Nikolai forces certain confrontations and transformations that will change and threaten everyone involved.

In any film, perception is identity; that is, a character is who he is perceived to be. As in A History of Violence, perception and identity in Eastern Promises is revealed and transformed both through the suffering and inflicting of violence. This tension of vulnerability and violence forms the film's essential matrix of identity and the its centerpiece - the scene you've heard about if you've heard anything about the film - is a savage and perhaps perfect image of that tension: in the sweaty and steaming isolation of a bathhouse, Nikolai is savagely attacked by rival mobsters and must fight for his life using the most brutal and immediate means possible - all while being completely naked. It is perhaps one of the most audacious and exhilarating scenes in movie history for a long while, as both Cronenberg and Mortensen lay it all on the line. But the scene is far from exploitive or shocking for shock's sake; it is a near-perfect rendering of the Cronenberg sensibility and an absolute marvel to behold. Besides being its strongest moment, the scene is the film's pivot. The encounter forces Nikolai to reevaluate his position and, ultimately, forces him to transform, or perhaps simply to reveal to us, who he really is. This distinction of transformation and revelation is ultimately artificial, though, since even if Nikolai himself has known who he was, we the audience have not. Identity is perception, and changing how we perceive a character changes the character.

There are only a few living directors who really excite me: David Lynch, Werner Herzog, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and, yes, David Cronenberg (that all of these directors have had, or will have, films out this year only means that this is a great year for film). These are the auteurs, the artists and philosophers pushing the medium as far as it will go. Cronenberg isn't for everyone. His methodical style and somewhat stilted dialogue often turns people away from his films. Questions of artifice don't generally bother me, however, since I see Cronenberg, and all these directors for that matter, as being involved in concerns so much greater than the realistic portrayal of human conversation. They are driven by idiosyncratic obsessions rather than box office returns. Eastern Promises is poetry and philosophy wrapped in a pulsing tissue of human violence. So while it might not suit the tastes of everyone, if you are looking for an intelligent thriller that is almost laughably unconcerned with meeting conventional expectations, than look no further than Eastern Promises.

Experto crede: very strongly recommended for Cronenberg fans and anyone looking for an intelligent thriller.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review :: Dexter: The First Season

(I've been meaning to write this for a while but every time I started I got scared. It's intimidating to write about something truly great and I really wanted to do the series justice. With season two looming just overheard, though, I figured if I was going to write something about it than it was now or never so I finally gathered my thoughts about the series and wrote them down.)

Last year, Showtime produced one of the most interesting and daring television series ever. Dexter, based on the Jeff Lindsay novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter and starring Michael C. Hall as the eponymous character, is a twelve episode serialized crime drama that focuses upon one Dexter Morgan, a Miami police department forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis - and a serial killer.

Unable to feel human emotion and experiencing irrepressible urges to kill since he was very young, Dexter (the almost too talented Michael C. Hall) was guided and shaped by Harry Morgan (the stalwart James Remar), the cop and adoptive father who rescued the damaged child from a crime scene; Harry taught him to channel his impulses and to blend in with normal society, to hide the monster in plain sight. Recognizing Dexter for what he was, and loving him nonetheless, Harry conditioned his murderous adopted son to target only the worst of society - the murderers and rapists who, for whatever reason, had escaped society's more conventional forms of punishment. As the series begins, the now adult Dexter has been comfortably living two lives, as both man and monster, as a member of society and as the flaw within it. But a bizarre encounter with another serial killer threatens to shatter his ideas of identity and forces him to confront who and what he really is.

No other series on television has embraced irony as a narrative device as much as Dexter has. The stories are pitch black and often hilarious and yet bloody as hell and still, strangely, oddly comforting. Dexter, murderous and monstrous and yet distressingly charming, is a postmodern and disillusioned (which I guess is what postmodernity really amounts to) take on the vigilante super-hero. However, unlike a Clark Kent or a Bruce Wayne, Dexter lacks a sense of morality, justice or even vengeance. He simply enjoys killing - it's his compulsion and he makes no apologies and suffers no guilt. That he kills other murderers is simply a protective measure: these criminal victims are less likely to be missed than, say, the average housewife. No one really misses the dregs of society. It's a sly and unsettling take on postmodern ethics and morality, in which one only acts decently or lawfully as a self-protective measure.

And yet, amidst all the carnage, Dexter is just like us. If, like myself, you are inclined to look for deeper and symbolic meanings in a story, you might begin to suspect that Dexter is really just an average guy and like all people he is just searching for meaning and identity. The very fact that he is so cut off from everyone else forces us, especially on a visceral level, to identify with him. He's just trying to make sense of himself and the world in which he lives. Dexter exposes the everyday rituals and pleasantries of society makes them look uncomfortable and alien; as the show subtly detaches us from our own surroundings we realize that much of our social conditioning is just that... conditioning: an artificial superstructure of rituals and niceties imposed upon human behaviour, maybe for the good of humanity and maybe not. As the series progresses, this is the question Dexter will eventually face: do these artificial impositions of morality and banal ritual in fact make us more human or are we most human when we give into our darkest urges and desires.

It used to be that television was just the "small screen" and that real philosophy and poetry, at least in the realm of the motion picture, was reserved for the "big screen," for the cinema. In the last few years, though, television has experienced a sort of Golden Age and you are now more likely to find true art on cable than in the movie theater. In the world of television art, Dexter, at least for the moment and in my opinion, represents the absolute height of art and wit. If that were not hyperbolic enough for you than let me say this (and I'm being perfectly serious when I say this): Dexter is the greatest thing to happen to television since Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which was the greatest thing since The X-Files, which was the greatest thing since Twin Peaks, which was the greatest thing to ever happen to television. Seriously, if you are looking for intelligent and challenging television, than go watch Dexter. You won't be disappointed.

Dexter: The First Season is now available on DVD. Season two begins airing on Showtime on September 30.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review :: 3:10 to Yuma

I haven't had much interest or faith in the modern western-movie. Even Clint Eastwood's famous and much beloved deconstruction of the wild west left my mostly bored. In fact, if pressed on the issue, I'd probably say the western died after Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone's true wild west masterpiece and the western that made almost every single western after it an exercise in superfluity and derivation, with the possible exception of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Since Leone and his coterie of stark and mythic figures rode off, and especially in our modern takes on the genre, westerns have become burdened with an almost morbid fixation on psychological motivations and moral imperatives, both of which twist characters and propel them forward, often against the own wishes. Heroes, and perhaps more often anti-heroes, are tortured by their convictions and lead to extreme circumstances that somehow, in the end, justify or prove that they were Men. So often, however, these stories feel contrived, disingenuous or just plain clumsy. Cinematic verve and pure entertainment has been sucked from the western, leaving us with an incarnation of a once-great genre that now pales in comparison to its former self.

While managing to be quite entertaining, at least up until it's ridiculous and improbable ending, 3:10 to Yuma I think falls prey to these pitfalls. Similar to the much better The Proposition from two years ago, 3:10 to Yuma is more concerned with being an introspective character study than a gunslinging action film, which would be fine if it were done honestly. But while all the characters' actions and decisions made sense and felt real in The Proposition, even in the most extreme of circumstances, they feel slightly contrived and too convenient here, especially in the last act when the bullets start flying. When notorious outlaw and glorified serial killer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, Dan Evans (Christian Bale, who isn't nearly as believable or effective as he is normally) is among those recruited to fend off Wade's gang and escort the famed outlaw to the 3:10 to Yuma, a prison train. Along the way to the train, Wade develops a fondness, or at least a grudging respect, for Evans, a relationship which in the end both vindicates the Evans character and, for some unknown and contrived reason, brings out a touch of goodness in the Wade character.

3:10 to Yuma only works as a character study and honestly I think that's all it wants to be. However, it is surprisingly uninteresting and ineffective for a movie so focused on character development and psychological drama. Evans is an earnest and moral character trying to instruct his dismissive and unimpressed son on the ways of being a man; Wade is a sadistic killer and a leader of a pack of even more sadistic killers. They are both unfortunately rather one-note up until the end when, without much warning, Wade demonstrates that he's not as bad as everyone thinks he is. But this is baffling. Several of Wade's actions in the last act, and one particularly bloody one at the very end, just do not make any sense, especially given the level of sadism and callousness that he demonstrates throughout most of the film. If the film is trying to suggest that the goodness of Evans overcame the evilness of Wade, it is doing so in a very contrived and clumsy manner, since nothing ever happens between them that would justify a friendship; if it's trying to say Wade wasn't actually as evil as he appeared, it is glossing over the vicious nature of many of Wade's crimes. What makes any character drama effective is the believability of actions and decisions and, ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma fails to convince in this area. Perhaps in 1957, when the original 3:10 to Yuma was released (the film is a remake, after all), this rather contrived treatment of morality might have made sense; here, though, it just feels silly and fails to capture the psychological complexity of good and evil natures.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

And So it Begins... Again

And now, time for some satire and some cynicism...

With the summer weather just beginning to turn, giving itself over to a slow and casual and not unpleasant death, the once calm and pleasant campus lurches back into violent, shuddering life; the lighting having struck, the switch having been thrown, the flesh is once again animated and Dr. Frankenstein's monster, that ghastly assembly of once dead parts now newly given form and meaning, comes back into pulsing, glorious life! Yes, that's right: school is back in session at the University of Saskatchewan, my not so beloved but at the moment necessary institution of higher learning. All around, in every nook and cranny, filling every hall and hemorrhaging riotously off of every walkway and well beaten path, clotting about in sanguine clumps that are desperate for identity and validation, are people, an endless barrage of sweating and shouting people who seem to have no business in the supposedly dignified and hallowed halls of the Academy; they are a swirling mass that staggers and reels about, fueled by a seemingly endless supply of excitement, liberation, anxiety and more than a little alcohol. God bless Welcome Week! The new flesh swaggers and lurks, uncertain of what's really going on and yet trying to enjoy the madness of what they no doubt still think of more as a National Lampoon's comic fantasy than as a regular life. For now, the new flesh revels and celebrates. Soon, though, much sooner than they may now realize, these vibrating mobs will be reduced to lonely huddling clumps, their once great organs slowly dissected into their constituent parts, anatomized, the individual pieces peeled off and left to twitch and scurry by themselves back and forth from class to library to class to study session. But this autopsy is regenerative; this dissection is restorative. For here, alone and finally enjoying some privacy, here in the quiet hours of the library, in the late night lamp-light reading, in the contemplative and introspective life of growing self-awareness and critical thought, here is the real meaning of the University, the heart of education. Not in the quivering, sweating flesh of self-indulgence and hysteria, but in the still, quiet hours in which you can hear the voices of God, of reason and education and, perhaps the most unlikely of all, of yourself. So enjoy your badly played outdoor concerts and your beer gardens for now, but know that University is about more, so much more, than getting laid, getting high, getting drunk or getting lost. It is about understanding and self-awareness. Know thyself, nosce te ipsum, and find time to think privately and intensely. Flee the insane mob if you must and retreat into some quiet corner of some dimly light diner or coffee shop. The University is, or at least should be, about mature thought and it is hard, exceedingly hard, to think for yourself in the midst of a crowd.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Review :: Halloween (2007)

I think Rob Zombie fancies himself a bit of a Hollywood renegade, a genre auteur bravely recapturing a bygone true horror aesthetic. And maybe he is. His previous efforts, the ambitious but far too campy schlock-horror flick House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and the ultra-violent hillbilly torture/road trip flick The Devil's Rejects (2005), both tried to recapture the gritty and blood-soaked idioms of a pre-mainstream horror genre, the sub-culture that created films like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Zombie's filmography demonstrates both the heights and the pitfalls of being too obviously self-conscious: House of 1000 Corpses was a self-referential mess; The Devil's Rejects came close to macabre genius. Zombie obviously has talent and the amount of growth he demonstrated between his first and second films left me almost giddy with excitement.

Enter Halloween, Rob Zombie's third film and a remake of the John Carpenter slasher. Part grindhouse exploitation and part horror slasher, Halloween is unfortunately a very mixed bag. Why Zombie felt the need to update a classic instead of develop his own property is unclear, especially since he frustratingly dedicates himself whole-heartedly neither to the source material not to his own reinterpretation of it. What we get instead is a movie that sometimes feels like the cutting edge of modern horror, a la the so called "torture porn" sub-genre, and sometimes like a derivative and almost anachronistic rip-off. Halloween works best when Zombie ignore the source material and tries to make a movie that no longer resembles the original. Unfortunately, other an an almost too long prologue/first act which tries to explain the childhood factors that created the legendary slasher Michael Myers and other than an added plot element that clumsily explains Michael's motives after he escapes, Zombie does not alter the story all that much and ends up making a rather conflicted film that seems at odds with itself. Most of his "updates" are really just added brutality and sexuality. And let me tell you, Rob Zombie's Halloween is a very brutal and very uncomfortably sexualized film.

Not like this is anything new. The combination of death and sex has always meant that horror and exploitation films flirt with outright misogyny. Zombie, aware of what's preceded him, is I think trying to be sly and comment on this particular feature of the genre. Unfortunately, his use of horror conventions is not so much ironic as it is troublingly sincere. The men in the movie are dispatched efficiently but the girls, often naked or mostly so, dies in protracted and bloody fashion. If Zombie is winking at us, he is going so with the straightest of faces. If this is irony, it is exploitive and clumsy irony. Maybe Zombie should take notes from fellow splat-packer Eli Roth, who has a much more developed sense of irony, on how to properly kill girls in a movie without offending everyone in the theater.

But as far as most genre fans are concerned, blood and sex is all they want in a horror flick. Going into them, I can't say I have much hope for these films even though the genre fan in me demands that I see them anyway. In the end, Halloween will not make much of a splash and will probably disappear rather quickly, as it likely should. Hopefully, Rob Zombie himself will not turn out to have been a one hit wonder. Maybe his next flick will be better. Here's hoping. After all, it's so hard to be a self-respecting horror fan and we need as many good directors as we can get.

Experto crede: not recommended for anyone except those die-hard fans who, like me, never learn from their mistakes.