Saturday, July 24, 2010

#88: Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, 1999)


Maybe I sound like an angry old man bemoaning the state of the world because he no longer keeps up with it, but something bad happened to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking in the first decade of this new century. This badness didn't originate in the 2000s and is really an amalgam of all kinds of cultural influences and changes that aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves (French New Wave, 1970s auteurist cinema, Pop Art, 1980s and 1990s blockbusters, music videos, television, commercials, video games, the Internet). This synthesis of influences, combined with an influx of producers, studio chiefs, and actors with little knowledge of film history (audiences, too) and a move from director-as-auteur to producer-as-auteur and director-as-ringmaster, has led to a crippling uniformity of visual style (dizzyingly quick cuts, zero character development, spatial incoherence, lack of structure, bloated running times, overloaded special effects, every scene a climax, no space for an audience to ever look at anything). This style is often compared to video games, but most video games use the physical, visual space of their landscapes in competent, coherent ways. Instead, Hollywood films are trying to compete with video games by bombarding an audience with enough stimuli to kill a miniature pony. The Stage 5 cancer proliferation of remakes and big-screen versions of television franchises and the return of the unnecessary, screen-dimming 1950s gimmick 3D aren't signs that these fuckers have run out of ideas. They're signs that these fuckers never had any ideas to begin with. (Aside #1: This is a Hollywood era in which Christopher Nolan is regarded as an important director, but do any movies make less visual sense than his two Batman adaptations? I'm disappointed at all the interest my friends have taken in Inception, which I admittedly have yet to see, but, seriously, the guy can't film an action sequence to save his ass. Did he learn how after The Dark Knight? Would you learn how if no one cared except for a small army of film lovers like me? Yeah. Me, either. Crotchety get off my lawn fogeyisms again, maybe, but I just wish the general audience cared more about film history, visual space, and structure than bombardment of spectacle and flattery of preconceived expectations. Give yourselves more credit, people. You can handle it. Most of you deserve it. I like this recent quote from a critic I'm not particularly a fan of, Salon's Stephanie Zacharek: "If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing.") (Aside #2: To prove that this isn't just fogeyism on my part, I want to say that there are amazing films being made in the present by people in Iran, Japan, France, Spain, South Africa, right here in the USA, etc., that are consistently overlooked by most of the people going to Inception. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, my blaming of Hollywood and its audience.)

All this complaining is a long way of introducing a review of a fairly routine yet satisfying ghost story filmed in the final year of the final decade so far in which mainstream American films made any kind of visual sense (noting, of course, the handful of exceptions every year, mostly comedies, that don't whack you in the face with a Bedazzled 2x4 for 2.5 hours). Stir of Echoes is a film with a lot of cliches and a lot of flaws, but it's also a finely told, smartly directed, empathetically acted scary horror/thriller with a real sense of place. The film seems like it was written at one of those Screenwriting 101 seminars, but ghost stories are a breed of subgenre that can thrive within their tropes and revel in the late-night campfire tale qualities of their conventions. There are really only a few ghost stories, anyway. Ghosts are usually a) haunting the person who did them wrong, b) haunting the person who can reveal their mysteries and save them from limbo, or c) haunting anyone who stops by because they want to stir up some shit and/or get revenge. Stir of Echoes concerns itself with the second option.

Kevin Bacon (Oracle of Bacon number: zero) stars as Tom, a lineman (not a Wichita lineman) in Chicago still holding on to his dreams of rock stardom (or at least punk rock cult stardom). He and his wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), are very close, but she's the practical one who keeps everything together. They have a son, Jake (Zachary David Cope), who, in an unfortunately timed coincidence, sees (and hears) dead people. (This movie was in development and filmed about the same time as The Sixth Sense and was based on a Richard Matheson novel that predated Shyamalan's movie by many years, but Stir of Echoes still suffered an undeserved copycat reputation that hurt it at the box office.) Maggie has an unfortunately written bohemian sister, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), who is working on becoming a licensed hypnotherapist. I like Douglas a lot as an actress, but she's saddled with what my wife calls the "Joan Cusack role" here. She's the kooky, eccentric sister who has to deliver undeliverable lines like the following, upon learning that Maggie is pregnant: "So, she's six weeks pregnant. That means the baby's due in... April, May... June. Gemini. That's cool. Einstein was a Gemini. So's that Scottish gal from Garbage." Ugh. Douglas does the best she can with a part that's a collection of screenwriter tics. (Screenwriters, why does the neighbor, sister, and/or best friend character always have to be kooky?) Fortunately, the rest of the cast is much more developed and interesting. Anyway, at a neighborhood party, Tom tells Lisa to hypnotize him, she does, and bad shit starts to go down in the following days. Tom begins hallucinating a ghostly teenage girl, starts to realize Jake's imaginary friend may not be imaginary after all, and goes quickly insane. For some reason, he starts drinking gallons of orange juice every day. Don't ask me why. The rest of the movie concerns Tom's efforts to solve the mystery of the ghost girl and his wife's efforts to keep the family together.

Writer/director David Koepp is one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood and much in demand, especially by Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma. His writing credits include Bad Influence, Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and the recent Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code sequels. As a writer/director, he also made the Stephen King adaptation Secret Window and the Ricky Gervais comedy Ghost Town. Despite his primary career as a writer, his work on Stir of Echoes is stronger in the directorial department. The story is your basic Hollywood three-act structure, and a lot of what's supposed to happen in these kinds of stories happens. Aside from a terrible soundtrack of late-'90s corporate alternative schmucks (Moist, Dishwalla, etc.), Koepp does a fine job telling this story visually and aurally, avoiding heavy-handed stylization, quick cuts, and flashy tricks. He shoots on location in a real Chicago neighborhood, even though the film mostly takes place in a few locations and could easily have been shot in a studio. Location voodoo is a real thing, and I love it when people shoot on location. Bacon, Erbe, and Cope are convincing playing a family, and Erbe has a rare horror movie mother role that isn't just mothering, running, screaming, and receiving protection from the husband. The film's climax is a bit overblown, neat, and pat, and a Beth Orton musical montage in the penultimate scene pushes the cheese factor too far (I like some Beth Orton songs, but any music with lyrics at a film's conclusion can topple what's been carefully built). However, the film's final scene redeems the climax with a nice little creepy, unsettling jolt. I like this movie.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

#87: The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)


When I first saw this film about 11 years ago, I appreciated it as a much better than average variation on the generic slasher template. Seeing it for a second time last night, my appreciation only increased. Making the crazed killer a step-parent with a Reagan '80s/'50s sitcom idea of family values resonated with me in a general way on that first viewing. Since then, however, my parents split up, my dad remarried, and my mom let her boyfriend move in with her. Now, the idea of a step-parent as a homicidal maniac resonates with me in a very specific way. Yes, the movie is still a satire of generic media-generated idyllic family values, but the daughter doesn't like this guy long before she realizes he's nuts, and that's what's going to give this movie its staying power. Newly divorced or widowed middle-aged people make bad relationship decisions, I'm talking borderline retarded, and the kids tend to see this pretty clearly.

Seeing it clearly here is teenage girl Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Her father has been dead for a year, and her mother Susan (Shelley Hack) has remarried Hugh Beaumont-type Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn). Stephanie is close to her mother, but she sees through Blake's Father Knows Best veneer right away. The audience does, too, but that's mostly because we've seen the aftermath of Blake's most recent massacre during the opening moments of the film. Blake moves to small, all-American towns, ingratiates himself with widowed women with children, tries to live life like a Saturday Evening Post cover, and flips his wig when real life intrudes. He then massacres the family, changes his appearance through wigs, colored contacts, glasses or the lack thereof, and facial hair or the lack thereof, and hits a new town and a new widow.
The movie includes a lot of stereotypical genre tropes, including a climax that sees all the principal characters in a room together, a gratuitous shower scene (I'm not really complaining, but there's no reason for it other than T&A), and the Halloween he's dead/he's not dead after all stalk-and-slash chase. However, Joseph Ruben's direction and the performances of the solid cast kick this one several notches above most slasher flicks. O'Quinn, veteran character actor who most people know from the inexplicably popular TV show Lost (I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I think that show is a gigantic piece of shit) plays this guy so well. The character could slip so easily into caricature or over-the-top mega-insanity, but O'Quinn plays him as an almost tragic figure, a guy who believes in the generic, all-American family ideal so much that the pressure is quietly imploding within him while he tightly keeps the lid on the exterior image. You almost feel sorry for the guy. The only moment of real satisfaction he shows in the film is when he watches a rerun of Mr. Ed. Otherwise, you see a man under an insane amount of self-imposed pressure. He's truly scary when the veneer occasionally cracks and the psychopath comes out, and truly funny, too. It's hard to imagine any other actor playing this role.

I also need to mention Steve Shellen in his role as the brother of one of O'Quinn's murdered widows. He's on a crusade to track down his sister's killer, and his character's role is mostly expository and unintentionally funny. Every move he makes is unnecessarily frantic and intense, particularly during one of the funniest library research scenes ever made. Too much of this guy could have seriously damaged the film, but a little of him is pretty entertaining.
Ruben, a master craftsman who's made both big-budget Hollywood vehicles and independent cult classics, presents this material in a matter-of-fact but artful way that calls to mind guys like Don Siegel. He avoids shots that call attention to themselves while subtly framing the action and moving the camera in intelligent, visually distinctive ways. He avoids most generic horror camera setups and gives the audience a lot of space to really look at this movie. It's a good-looking movie that fills the space of its budget nicely. I wish I had the words to describe it in more technical terms, but my vague adjectives will have to do.
I haven't seen many of Ruben's films, but he's admired by a lot of sharp film writers, including New York Times DVD columnist and former Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr. His credits include the sci-fi movie Dreamscape (a favorite of mine as a little kid), cheerleadersploitation film The Pom-Pom Girls, '70s roadtrip cult classic Joyride, pretty awful James Woods/Robert Downey Jr. lawyer movie True Believer, and Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy.

The Stepfather's screenwriter, Donald Westlake, was a renowned mystery novelist and one of only two men to win the Edgar Award in three separate categories; novel, short story, and screenplay (his Jim Thompson adaptation, The Grifters, for director Stephen Frears). In addition to novels and screenplays under his own name, he also wrote books under 13 pseudonyms. Films made from his novels include John Boorman's Point Blank, The Hot Rock, The Outfit, and Payback, and, very loosely, Jean-Luc Godard's Made in USA. He died on vacation in Mexico in 2008.
The Stepfather was stupidly remade last year with a cast of blandly attractive nobodies and bombed, but its release prompted a DVD release of the original film, so some good came from bad.