Saturday, November 24, 2007

#26: Deep Rising (Stephen Sommers, 1998)

I normally hate the shorthand comparisons lazy critics make, particularly X-meets-Y. (It's Schindler's List meets Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium! On acid! With a twist of lime!) However, the blurb on the video box for Deep Rising sums it up perfectly: Die Hard meets Aliens meets Titanic. In addition, the Han Solo character has been added to the mix. This delightful concoction, when consumed, results in really, really stupid fun. Maybe my limited blockbuster intake makes me appreciate something like Deep Rising more than if I watched these jams all the time. Nevertheless, Stephen Sommers has directed a fast food bacon double cheeseburger of a movie. And I like fast food bacon double cheeseburgers, even though they will one day kill me. This movie is a non-stop procession of cliches, but they're good cliches, and the pacing never flags. Sommers has the good sense to leave out the dumb stuff, and to leave in the super-dumb stuff. For example, he discards everything in Titanic except for the awesomeness of the ship and what happens when it sinks. (Incidentally, Sommers gives the ship the fantastic name Argonautica and the even more fantastic motto "Good times forever.")He keeps all the good stuff from Aliens but has the good sense to cast someone other than Paul Reiser in the Paul Reiser role. He realizes that casting Treat Williams as an action hero is ludicrous, so all the self-deprecating one-liners are hilariously unhilarious (e.g. "Now what?" "This is turning out to be one hell of a day," "Cut me some slack," "I'm working too hard," "Jeez Louise," etc.) These lines are delivered the way Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger deliver their one-liners. Kevin J. O'Connor plays the Bill Paxton "game over, man" role. O'Connor starred in Candy Mountain. I mention that only because Candy Mountain is a great movie that everyone should see. It has nothing whatsoever to do with this post. The sea monsters are pretty exciting, but I will always believe that CGI looks like shit. It doesn't matter too much in this case. A half-digested man gets to melt in front of our eyes. The villains are a Rainbow Coalition of pirate mercenaries, multi-culturally plundering the world, one enormous cruise ship at a time. Stuff blows up. A ski-doo is propelled in mid-air. Giant mutant octopi in the South China Sea fuck shit up. I am putting my journalism degree to good use. Treat Williams! Argonautica! Good times forever! Whoo!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

#25: Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)

After the ridiculousness of the last four films on this list, I'm glad to see an honest-to-god good film represented. Without denying the goofy-assed entertainment value of Dead of Night, The Dead Pit, Dead Waters, and Death Machine, I prefer the well-acted, visually distinctive, intelligent, and creepily unsettling Deathdream. I saw a television news report a few weeks ago purporting to analyze the recent spate of mainstream Iraq war movies and concluding that it is just too soon for audiences to deal with films critical of our involvement in the War on Terror (or George W. Bush's War of Terror, if, like me, you prefer Borat's name for it). Like any other mainstream news report about film, it assumed that star-studded Hollywood extravaganzas were the only game in town, and ignored the numerous documentaries, foreign films, and TV movies like Joe Dante's Homecoming, released before Paul Haggis noticed there was a war going on. Maybe audiences are staying away from In the Valley of Elah because it's a toothless mediocrity, not because it's "too soon." Too soon, too soon. Should we wait until it's no longer a problem? That's what the networks support. Most filmmakers waited until the late 1970s and 1980s to make any films about the failure of Vietnam. Bob Clark filmed his independent horror movie, Deathdream, while U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, and its release date and subject matter coincided with the troops' return home and their difficulties re-assimilating to an American culture with which they felt disconnected.
Deathdream is about a family of four (mother, father, daughter, son) struggling with the son's tour of duty in Vietnam. One night, they get the news that the son has been killed. The mother refuses to believe it and says the son has been protected by her prayers and is still alive. One early morning a few weeks later, the son hitchhikes into town and shows up on the doorstep, very much alive. Or is he? The family's joy quickly turns to fear, mistrust, and internal squabbling when their son's behavior grows increasingly bizarre. He exhibits only three emotional states: zombie-like listlessness, cold and biting sarcasm, and violent intensity. He's also developed the unfortunate habit of murdering people, withdrawing their blood with a syringe, and shooting up with the blood. Granted, if he doesn't do this, his skin rots and his eyes turn yellow, but his father is understandably dismayed, while his mother lives in a fantasy world of denial and his sister is caught in the middle.
The excellent performances and non-flashy cinematic style keep this film grounded in reality, making it even creepier. It's bizarre how plausible this film seems. John Marley and Lynn Carlin play the father and mother, reprising their roles as a troubled married couple from John Cassavetes' Faces (I probably haven't mentioned this anywhere, but I love John Cassavetes' films). Newcomer Richard Backus plays the son, Andy. He ended up working on a bunch of forgettable television movies and series and hasn't acted since 1992, which is a shame. He now writes soap operas. He's just right in this role, beating out a young Christopher Walken for the part, and perfectly captures a character who is intelligent, sympathetic, frightening, intense, subtle, monstrous, mysterious, confused, and tortured all at once. It's a tall order playing a combination zombie/vampire/existentially tortured, thinking, feeling human being, but Backus pulls it off without a shred of overkill. He's got a wicked smile and a way of using his eyebrows and the corners of his eyes as punctuation marks for his character's blackly sarcastic responses to questions that make his performance so memorable. The late Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas, Porky's, A Christmas Story, and, um, Karate Dog, directs with a focus on human beings and their environment, not flashy stylistics or repetitive stalk-and-slash killings (though there is some gore, with early makeup effects by Tom Savini, who had just returned from Vietnam).

The film sets up a generation gap between the father, a WWII vet, and his son. He can't understand why his son is so different. I saw this generational conflict in my hometown as a child. My grandfather's WWII experience was traumatic for him, but he returned with his identity intact, and the knowledge that he was on the winning side of a war that seemed inevitable and clearly defined. The Vietnam vets seemed more fucked-up, confused, defeated, and self-destructive. My grandfather and his fellow WWII vets were hardly free from war-related psychological disturbance (specifically, my grandfather's drinking too much and his almost frighteningly angry response to depictions of violence on TV and in the movies) , but the Vietnam vets seemed more depressed, self-loathing, and behaviorally confused.
I have been spending most of this post discussing Deathdream's depiction of Vietnam vets, but the film fits many situations, including the disconnect between anyone who has been away from home for a while and his or her family, the college student visiting for the holidays in a home that no longer feels like home, a drug addict unable to connect with his old life, and the change in family dynamics after a death. Like the great poets DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince once said, "Parents just don't understand." Ain't it the truth?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Happy Halloween -- The Photo-Essay -- The List

Someone left a comment wondering which movies some of the stills were from, so here's the rundown:
1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
3. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
4. Audition (Takashi Miike)
5. Halloween (John Carpenter)
6. Sisters (Brian de Palma)
7. Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju)
8. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
10.The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)
11. Dracula (Tod Browning)
12. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)
13. Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
14. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg)
15. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
16. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey)
17. Repulsion (Roman Polanski)
18. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper)
19. It's Alive (Larry Cohen)
20. Freaks (Tod Browning)
21. It's a Good Life (Joe Dante's segment from "Twilight Zone: The Movie")
22. Pecos Bush Meets the Phantom of the Bono (the American people)
23. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
24. Alien (Ridley Scott)
25. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero)
26. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
27. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
28. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
29. Suspiria (Dario Argento)
30. Deliverance (John Boorman)
31. Zombie (Lucio Fulci)