Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion / **** (PG-13)

G.K.: Garrison Keillor
Yolanda Johnson: Meryl Streep
Guy Noir: Kevin Klein
Lola Johnson: Lindsay Lohan
Rhoda Johnson: Lily Tomlin
Dusty: Woody Harrelson
Lefty: John C. Reilly
Molly: Maya Rudolph
Dangerous Woman: Virginia Madsen
Axeman: Tommy Lee Jones

Picturehouse presents a film directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaBeznik, based on the radio program hosted by Garrison Keillor. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for risqué humor).

“It was the Mid West, where they think if they ignore bad news, it will just go away.”

Guy Noir speaks these words in “A Prairie Home Companion”, the final film of director Robert Altman, one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers ever to mold cinema into an art form. The quote is an observational joke that, like most of Altman’s work, captures a subtle truism of human nature existing on a level many are aware of but never articulate.

Altman made plenty of controversial films, with large casts and a distinctive style of overlapping dialogue and storylines. “A Prairie Home Companion” differs only in that it is devoid of controversy. This is a warm, loving film of songs and humor that in retrospect will seem like a fond farewell from a director who excelled at observing the human spirit and celebrated it with his unique vision.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is based on the nationally syndicated National Public Radio show of the same name that broadcasts each week from Minnesota. Hosted by Garrison Keillor, the long-running radio show tells the bemused tales of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon and runs like an old fashioned radio review, focusing on the characters who live in and drift through the town with anecdotes and songs. Keillor co-wrote the screenplay and stars as himself in the film.

The film is a fictionalized account of the radio program’s final show. (In reality, it is still going strong and probably will for as long as Keillor is around to produce it). As those words spoken by Guy Noir near the beginning of the picture suggest, the cast of the radio program do their best to approach this final show as if it were any other. This lends a simplicity to the events which contrasts with most of Altman’s convoluted character weavings.

The large cast includes an eclectic mix of Hollywood talent. Kevin Kline (“The Pink Panther”) plays Noir as gumshoe narrator and the show’s head of security. Lily Tomlin (“I Heart Huckabees”) and Meryl Streep (“The Devil Wears Prada”) play singing sisters reflecting upon their life long careers, and Lindsay Lohan (“Mean Girls”) is Streep’s bookish daughter, who gets a chance to debut her singing talents in the show’s final moments. Woody Harrelson (“North Country”) and John C. Reilly (“Talladega Nights”) are a couple of very funny crooning cowboys. And Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph is the show’s put-upon pregnant stage manager.

Altman injects some of his dark twang into the proceedings when one of the cast members (the great western character actor L.Q. Jones) passes away in his dressing room after his final performance. The character of the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”) plays into this storyline and proves more necessary than she is dangerous. She also helps bring closure to how the cast feels about The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones, “Men in Black”), who represents the theater’s parent company responsible for pulling the plug on the show.

Despite these more direct references to death, the film is a pleasant requiem for this family of professional performers. It’s an intimate look at the performances and the backstage choreography involved in creating this unique show. There are some wonderful musical moments that can just be appreciated for what they are, and the rest really serves those performances more than anything else.

While I doubt Altman planned for “A Prairie Home Companion” to be his swan song, he could not have chosen a more fitting project. Yes, people in the Mid West really do deal with bad news by ignoring it and hoping it will vanish, and the death of Altman last week at the age of 81 is bad news that undoubtedly will not go away, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. Like the best stories from Lake Wobegon, however, his films, will undoubtedly be with us for untold years to come; Altman, after all, was one of the greatest filmmakers to ever bless the screen with his vision.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #7: Summary

Club Dread (2004) **
The Wicker Man (1973) ***½
Lady Vengeance (2006) ***½
The Eye (2002) **½
The Elephant Man (1980) ****
Doom (2005) **
Hard Candy (2006) ****
Dark Water (2005) **
BloodRayne (2006) ½*
The Omen (2006) ***½
Mark of the Vampire (1935) ***
Stay (2005) ***
Poltergeist (1982) ***½
Ginger Snaps (2001) ***½
November (2005) ***
The Forgotten (2004) *½
The Skeleton Key (2005) ***
Slither (2006) ***
Sleepy Hollow (1999) ***½
Silent Hill (2006) **
House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) **
The Fog (2005) **
The Hills Have Eyes (2006) **
High Tension (2003) ***

It has been almost a month since Horrorfest 2006 came to a close. It has been a difficult month for me, but I am still looking back fondly on this year set of films. I have written in detail about each and every film of the fest save two. Those two were the fairly lack luster remakes of two classic films originally made by two classic horror director’s. Rupert Wainwright’s remake of John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and Alexandre Aja’s update of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” each expand upon the reasoning and detail behind these horror originals but fail to deliver the relevance that made these stories more compelling in their initial incarnations.

The original “Fog” was a ghost story warning about the dangers of forgetting the past and how things came to be. The remake fills in a great amount of detail about that past of the ghosts which invade the sea coast town in the story. This makes their story so specific that any parallels to current or even past issues in our history become less relevant to the movie and therefore less effective as good storytelling. It is a mistake to make the people who became these ghost lepers, making it difficult to relate to their injustice for a modern audience.

Aja directed the successful festival entry “High Tension” and brings the same brand of brutality to “The Hills Have Eyes”. He also provides an incredibly tenacious hero to his Hollywood debut, as he did with his French hit, but the point against our dependency on nuclear energy has been lost since the original film debuted in the late 70s. What Aja provides here is a gruesome look at senseless brutality, but not much else.

Despite a few other disappointments like these, I was much more pleased with this year’s Horrorfest than I expected to be. My main goal this year was to clear out a bunch of titles from my Netflix queue that I hadn’t gotten to over the past couple of years. With a schedule of what had basically been rejected entries and the fact that I got started about a week and a half later than usual, my expectations for a month of incredible filmmaking was not high. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the films this year.

As is the norm, the two best films I saw this year were not strictly horror films, but “The Elephant Man” and “Hard Candy” are both films any movie lover should take a look at. After 24 films of a very dark nature, however, I was quite glad to return to a regularized variety of films; and since my back injury, I have really had a chance to just overload on a great many classics. I think Turner Classic Movies has been my most frequented channel since being incapacitated.

This year’s Horrorfest seemed to inspire more people to suggest movies for my future Horrorfests than in the past. This gave me an idea for Horrorfest 2007, a readers’ request Horrorfest. I have already added “The Devil’s Rejects”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Dead End”, Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf”, and the 2006 release “The Descent” to my Netflix queue for next year’s Horrorfest. Although, considering the praise I’ve read for “The Descent” I will probably try to look at it before the end of the year so I can place it on my Best of 2006 list if it deserves it.

So I will be taking requests all year long for next year’s Horrorfest. If you’ve seen a horror film that you think must be seen to be believed, let me know. Or even if it isn’t strictly a horror film, but you feel it embraces horrific aspects, pass it on. I’ll add them all to my list and Horrorfest 2007 could be the best Horrorfest yet.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #6: Women, pt. 2: The Heroine

From Ripley in “Alien” to Laurie Strode in the original “Halloween”, strong women have always been the primary focus of horror films. Is it because women are more vulnerable? Is it because women have a higher threshold for pain? Certainly the aspect of the female as mother has played a part in many a horror plot. “Rosemary’s Baby” comes to mind, or “Friday, the 13th”. Even the latter films of the “Alien” series turn both Ripley and the monster into mother figures, but the connection of the female spirit seems to be rooted even beyond their role as creators of life. The horror heroine seems to be some sort of primal scream for the female psychology. A sort of opposing reaction to the notion that the female is the weaker of our species. Four of this year’s Horrorfest films take this heroine notion of the strong female and turn it on its head.

“BloodRayne” is a vampire story set in medieval times. Instead of just being a victim, the heroine here not only is being chased by the vampires, but is one herself. Rayne is a special kind of vampire known as a dhampir, half-human/half vampire, and could be the key to destroying the vampire plague that threatens to take over the world.

Unfortunately, that is about as long as I can stand to write seriously about this joke of a film. Based on a video game, this movie plays like it was made by a bunch of D&D nerds who are so obsessed with the game that they actually dress up in costumes and act it out.

The truly sad thing is that it is cast with actual acting talents, whose presence suggest these are not the people you want to bet on in a celebrity poker tournament. Rayne is played by Kristanna Loken, who apparently was not informed that her debut performance as the third Terminator did not actually require her to act. The film also inexplicably contains performances by Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Billy Zane and Meatloaf. Only Zane seems to be aware of the film’s inherent awfulness and plays it as if he wants you to know he knows. Meatloaf seems to think this is Shakespeare considering the earnestness with which he approaches his brief role. And Madsen brings a whole new definition to the phrase “phoning it in.”

Perhaps even more inexplicable than the presence of capable actors in this sad excuse to spend money is the fact that after the story has finished the filmmakers felt it was necessary to recap every shot of blood and gore from throughout the film, including a shot of Loken drinking blood out of a chalice repeated four or five times.

In “November”, a much better film than “BloodRayne”, Courtney Cox plays a photographer trying to deal with the loss of her boyfriend during a convenience store robbery. She begins to remember things about the evening of the shooting that bring into question exactly what her role in the incident was and even her own memory of their relationship before his death.

“November” is one of those thrillers where the order of events it not necessarily what it seems because the facts the audience is privy to are dependent on the fact that we are subject to the heroine’s perception. After a while it becomes clear the photographer has altered her perception of events as she begins to remember the night of her boyfriend’s death differently when a photo of the convenience store from that night shows up in some of her work.

Like “Stay”, another movie I watched earlier during Horrorfest, “November” plays like an extended version of an episode of “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone”. In fact the two movies are pretty much the exact same story. “Stay” is the trippier “Outer Limits” version, while “November” is the more analytical “Twilight Zone” approach.

The major difference between the two films is that “November”’s protagonist is female. I think this counterbalances this version’s more diagnostic approach to the material. Cox’s performance is more emotion driven, while the structure of the film is more dogmatic, as opposed to “Stay” where the male leads try to figure out what is going on using logic, while the film itself is very esoteric.

The female protagonist in “The Skeleton Key”, played by Kate Hudson, is also trying to figure out events that have already happened. Not something that has happened in her past, however, but what may have happened to a man (John Hurt) living on an old southern plantation with only his wife (Gena Rowlands). The old man has entered a non-responsive yet conscious state after he supposedly fell in the attic of this mansion. Kate Hudson’s med-student/ care provider begins to suspect something more sinister when she discovers a hidden room in the attic that was once occupied by slave servants who practiced the magic art of Hoodoo.

Hudson’s character plays against the emotional female stereotype and approaches her investigation into this Hoodoo magic with a great deal of skepticism, expecting a logical and scientific explanation for all the strange occurrences in the old mansion. The filmmakers get a good deal of mileage out of reversing this gender stereotype, which plays heavily into the actual plot of the story as well as much of the misdirection of the mystery for the characters. I was surprised at how effective the twists worked in this horror/thriller, which could have easily been a fairly standard turn of formulaic devices.

Now, when it comes to plot twists, few films can out do the French horror flick “High Tension”. The eventual twist was something that I could have predicted very early on in the film, however, the story so quickly wraps you up in its messy terror that any presumptions are soon forgotten.

Two women, Alexa and Marie, are traveling to the French countryside to visit Alexa’s parents. Their get away hits a horrific bump when a serial killer breaks into the rural farmhouse and kills the entire family. The killer takes Alexa hostage while Marie narrowly avoids detection and follows the kidnapper.

Director and co-writer Alexandre Aja does a wonderful job of putting Marie into situations that leave her no other way to deal with her circumstance than by just tagging along. There are two wonderful sequences, one at the farmhouse and one at a convenience store, where the killer seems to be about to catch her and she must trick him into believing she is not there. Later, when the plot twist is revealed, the narrow escapes have a different resonance that still makes sense. Only a shot of the killer at the beginning of the film, before the girls arrive at the farmhouse, makes little sense once the truth is revealed. However, considering what the truth is, it is possible to rationalize many reasons for the killer’s actions.

“High Tension” plays heavily on the stereotypes of women in horror films, utilizing and contrasting both the notion of the fragility of the female and the woman as kick ass heroine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Flushed Away / *** (PG)

Roddy: Hugh Jackman
Rita: Kate Winslet
The Toad: Ian McKellen
Le Frog: Jean Reno
Whitey: Bill Nighy
Spike: Andy Serkis

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell. Written by Fell and Peter Lord and Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Chris Lloyd & Joe Keenan and Will Davies. Running time: 84 min. Rated PG (for crude humor and some language).

As a dad, you find yourself attending films you would never even consider watching on your own. I am a fan of animation and would attend more “family” fare than your average, non-parent filmgoer; but my five year-old picks some movies that would make most adults feel they had lost 90 minutes that they’ll never get back. Every once and a while, though, one of those unappealing children’s concepts turns out to be a real treasure.

When I first saw the previews of “Flushed Away”, I thought perhaps the minds at Aardman Animation had sold out to the Hollywood establishment in a misguided attempt to enter the mainstream animation business. The small British animation studio is famous for producing the award winning Claymation shorts and features “Creature Comforts” and the “Wallace & Gromit” adventures. “Flushed Away” marks the studio’s first foray in to the overly popular CGI animation format.

Although the animation is computer generated, it is done in a style that replicates right down to the character design the studio’s trademark Claymation style. At first, I couldn’t understand the point of making a CGI film look like a stop motion animation one. On top of that, it was a story about a pet rat that gets flushed into the London sewer system, not the most promising of set-ups.

I was wrong. “Flushed Away” is an ambitious, fun, rawkus adventure, filled with clever jokes, charming characters and a vitality that is informed by the stop motion style, yet probably took much less time and money to produce with computer technology.

Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”) is a high society pet rat living the high life. When his family goes away, his affluent life is interrupted by an intruder rat named Sid (Shane Richie, BBC’s “French and Saunders”). Sid is a rat of a more vulgar nature who knows the difference between a toilet and a Jacuzzi; when Roddy tries to trick him into the toilet bowl, Sid turns the tables and flushes Roddy away.

Roddy discovers a new world in the sewers where rats and some less savory amphibians have built their own society which mirrors the London of above. Roddy finds himself in trouble early, mixed up in a confrontation between a boat captain named Rita (Kate Winslet, “Finding Neverland”) and the nefarious underlord The Toad (Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”). At first Roddy clashes with Rita and just wants to get back to his posh life, but he eventually joins forces with her to stop The Toad’s plans to flood the rats out of Sewer London.

Description doesn’t begin to hint at the joy with which all this is presented. Directors David Bowers and Sam Fell have assembled a team of animators that infuse their pixels with life and energy and a particular knack for bringing out even the minutest details in the forefront and background of each and every frame.

The stop motion technique is replicated right down to the ever so slight jump in action from one frame to the next and the cartoon retains that intangible spark of life that is so unique to stop motion. Every smile and smirk of the characters is felt by the audience as if it were a true physical occurrence rather than some computer virtual reality.

The filmmakers of both Aardman and DreamWorks retain their particular gifts for richly layered humor. The screaming and singing slugs never fail to inspire a guffaw and a knee slap. The filmmakers continue their studios’ and the format’s history of filling their story with a great number of referential jokes, spoofing a great many popular films from the James Bond and Indiana Jones franchises to “Star Wars”, and even very adult fare like “Apocalypse Now”.

The most impressive feat of this film, however, seems to be the vitality of the vocal performances. I can’t remember an animated film that so connected its vocal performances with a real sense of life in the characters. Jackman and Winslet are spry in their vocal treatment and Ian McKellen and Jean Reno (“The Da Vinci Code”), as an assassin known as Le Frog, ooze contempt for the other characters in every period, pause and syllable of their speech. You can just feel the how much fun it must have been for these actors to report to the sound studio each day.

And that’s appropriate because the point is this movie is a whole lot of fun. It has chases, rubies and a large family with comical characters that live on a perpetually rocking boat. It has maniacal plots and World Cup Soccer, fiendish doomsday devices and jocular villains, romance and witty, witty comedy. “Flushed Away” is simply a fantastic time at the movies.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report # 5: Monsters

Monsters have long since been a staple in horror. Films in particular have iconized a number of monsters, most notably the Universal Studios monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. It wouldn’t be a Horrorfest without several films in which monsters took the focus. This year was no disappointment.

Along the lines of iconic monsters, Tim Burton gave us a look at one of America’s classic ones back in 1999 with his filmed version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with the abridged title “Sleepy Hollow”. In it very little of the original tale remains, but the monster of The Headless Horseman is envisioned with more charm and thought than ever before.

The casting of Christopher Walken as The Horseman, like any role the man seems to take on, is a stroke of genius on director Tim Burton’s part. But like any Burton/Depp collaboration, it is Johnny Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane that makes this movie such a delight. Transforming Crane from a bookish school teacher into a bold, yet still bookish, innovator of police investigation is a great example of how Burton takes this classic tale and transcends the source material to make it all his own. Horror flicks are not supposed to be this fun, but I am so glad this one is; and that it is one of my wife’s very favorite films means that I get to watch it just about every year.

One of the classic horror monsters is the Wolf Man. Our filmmaking friends to the north had an epiphany a few years ago when the Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” redefined the werewolf flick for the modern teenager.

Werewolves have always been represented by younger people to parallel the sometimes difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Teen Wolf” are some obvious examples of this, but “Ginger Snaps” gives the notion a fresh take with its subversively pricked lines of dialogue and a very direct parallel to the female reproductive cycle.

Ginger and Bridget are sisters that find themselves outcasts in high school and each running late in getting their period. After a sudden werewolf attack, Ginger suddenly becomes aware of her feminine wiles. She finds her fortunes turn toward popularity, all the while slowly turning into a werewolf herself. Unfortunately, a simple plot description cannot hint at the level of cleverness and droll humor with which this all comes to pass.

As droll humor goes, it has been a while since a horror flick has reached for the knee slapping level of comedy that “Slither” does. Coming across as a sort of “Critters” meets “Night of the Living Dead”, “Slither” makes great use of its star’s ability to play against all movie hero stereotypes.

Nathan Fillion, who didn’t rise to as much fame as he deserved as the captain in the underrated FOX sci-fi series “Firefly”, plays the sheriff of a small town where a meteor lands one evening. The slimy creature contained within this meteor projects itself into a host body which then goes on a feeding frenzy and turns into some sort of slug-like being and then…. Well, really this space slaughter monster has a very intricately detailed life cycle, so I’ll just tell you that eventually it turns the town’s people into flesh-eating zombies.

“Slither” is certainly unique in the way it combines action oriented comedy with some of the most gruesome gross-out horror I’ve witnessed. These two extremes could threaten to cancel each other out and become some sort of gore fest that neither frightens nor humors, but Fillion is so adept at the dry humor of a hero that only knows the motions and not the actual practice of being a hero that he holds the whole mess together.

As gross-out horror goes, however, Rob Zombie either raised or lowered the bar (depending on how you look at it) with his feature film directorial debut “House of 1,000 Corpses”. While this is more of a serial killing family flick in the vein of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it does contain a number of monsters which come into play at the end of the picture, including the infamous Doctor Satan who acts as a catalyst for the poor group of over curious young victims.

I very much enjoyed some of the oddball characters found in this film, which at most points resembles some sort of traveling freak show than an actual movie with a plot, hero or villain. The character of Captain Spalding, played by actor Sid Haig, was the most appealing presence in the movie.

I believe the charisma of some of the more “normal” (a very relative term when speaking of a Rob Zombie production) serial killers is why his follow up feature “The Devils Rejects” has been more widely accepted by critics and audiences alike; but this first feature really starts to fall apart when the last remaining victims find themselves thrown into an unhinted at underworld where these strange grotesque killer monsters reside. These monsters seem to exist merely for their shock value than any other reason. In fact by the end of the film, even slasher movie reasoning seems to have been thrown to the wind.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers / **** (R)

John “Doc” Bradley: Ryan Phillippe
Rene Gagnon: Jesse Bradford
Ira Hayes: Adam Beach
Keyes Beech: John Benjamin Hickey
Bud Gerber: John Slattery
Mike Strank: Barry Pepper
Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski: Jamie Bell
Hank Hansen: Paul Walker
Colonel Chandler Johnson: Robert Patrick
Captain Severance: Neal McDonough

Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. present a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Running time: 132 min. Rated R (for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language).

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about relatives who were in World War II. Both of us are movie buffs, and we remembered a scene from the 1999 David Lynch film “The Straight Story” in which two elderly veterans of that war meet in a bar half a century later and express how painful it is to remember that time in their lives and how no one could understand what they’d been through. We both agreed that in our experience with our own family members, no other scene had ever hit the nail so squarely on the head about that war’s survivors.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is based on the third person memoir written by James Bradley and Ron Powers about the men who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where that iconic picture of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi was taken. Bradley’s own grandfather John Bradley was the Navy medic in the picture and one of three men who survived long enough to be brought back to the States for a war bonds tour that helped save the U.S. from losing the war.

When I first heard of this production, I was both excited and surprised because it marked the first ever collaboration between my two favorite current American filmmakers, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. The two are pretty much polar opposites as directors, but they match up well together with Eastwood directing and Spielberg producing this war epic. I don’t think one could have made this film without the other.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is really like two different films put together into one. The Battle of Iwo Jima itself is a spectacular war piece. Spielberg and the special effects team go to great lengths to show the magnitude of the U.S. forces sent to take this tiny island of rock between the U.S. controlled Marinas Islands and the Japanese mainland. The landing on the beach, with its black sulfuric sands, acts as a kind of mirror to Spielberg’s own opening to “Saving Private Ryan” with its depiction of the shore landing at Normandy.
It is immediately clear that we were fighting a very different war in the Pacific than the European Theater presented in that film. Instead of the soldiers being mowed down before they even reached the shore, the Japanese allowed the first line well onto the island before engaging in attack because of the way they were entrenched into the island itself with a series of secret tunnels.

Eastwood’s straight forward approach is not wasted in the battle sequences, however.
With Spielberg providing the spectacular details, Eastwood allows Iwo Jima a stark quality that is reflected in its barren landscape. There are none of the “glamorous” Hollywood style shots of soldiers having cinematic moments that many accused “Private Ryan” of exploiting for emotional effect. There is a deliberate confusion to the sequence of events on the island and to the fate of the soldiers that marks the grit of Eastwood more so than the polish of Spielberg. The breaking of linear storytelling allows Eastwood to keep the tension of the action high despite the fact that the audience knows which soldiers make it home.

Eastwood’s strengths as a director are more clearly seen in his depiction of the 7th War Bonds tour three of the soldiers find themselves on while their buddies continue to fight and die overseas. When that famous flag raising photo captures the nation’s attention, the government comes looking for the men in the photo. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, TV’s “The West Wing”), a runner for the beach base rather than a frontline soldier, claims to have been in the photo and is the only soldier willing to name all of the other men in it. John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, “Gosford Park”) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, “Windtalkers”) are the only other surviving members of the photo.

Eastwood’s gift for intimate character based drama drives the story of these soldiers turned public relations men. Gagnon is a natural for the role of spokesman. Hayes cannot handle being called a hero for merely “[trying] not to get shot.” Doc must act as the tour’s peace keeper while trying to deal with the hell he has been through himself.

Eastwood has a subtle way of letting the audience experience the inner turmoil of these characters. You can feel Hayes’s anguish, delivered more with tears than words by Beach, in a scene where he hugs one of the mothers of the men from the picture who did not survive the battle. During the same scene, Doc must lie to one of the mothers who was told her son was there, when he had actually raised an earlier flag, not the one seen in the picture.

That the flag pictured is not the original is fairly well known today. At the time, however, it was a thorny issue because the perception that it was not the original flag gave the somewhat mistaken impression that the photo was staged. This brings to mind a great many issues about the state of war in our country today. The press in the film jump like vultures on the notion that the picture may have been set up, while the government holds firm that it was the first flag to be raised on Iwo Jima. This idea that the first report of that photo was the truth was a major factor in the success of that 7th War Bonds tour and the primary reason the U.S. did not have to retreat from the Pacific Theater. This leads to a complicated question: should we perhaps be less quick to question the choices our government makes during war, or should our government perhaps realize that our relationship with the media and the way wee get news is much different than it was in 1945?

This politicized debate, however, does not seem to be the point of this picture. Eastwood makes it very clear the telling of this story is meant to be a tribute to the soldiers who fought for their country, both the idealized version of their tale and the actual story. He intercuts both stories together throughout the film even though the bonds tour happened after the Battle of Iwo Jima, which lasted another 35 days after that famous photo was snapped.

The story of these three soldiers and their fellow Marines from that battle was not something that merely existed in some chronology of the war, but was something they, like the two old men in “The Straight Story”, continued to live with for the rest of their lives. Their story is something we all live with to this day. Their efforts for our country, both the reality and the fiction, deserve tribute and reflection; for both have shaped this country and our lives.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #4: Women, pt. 1: The Mother

In my years of being a horror fan, it has not been hard to notice that for the most part horror films utilize a female protagonist. I think there is more than one reason for this, since there is more than one type of female hero to be found in the horror genre. One such protagonist often found in horror movies is The Mother.

This could be because the mother is the protector of the children. The barrier between the innocence of childhood and the difficulties of adult life. It could be because children themselves, in their unreigned, nature are closer to the chaos that feeds evil and the mother acts as a barrier in the other direction, protecting the world from the child. That’s a concept I will be talked to in the bed about. Or perhaps the mother as the bringer of life is the greatest weapon against that “undiscovered country” many of us fear so much.

I have watched four films involving mothers over the past two weeks of this year’s Horrorfest. Three involved a mother searching for a lost child. Ask a mother and they’ll tell you there is nothing in the world scarier. And one involved a child looking for her mother.

“Poltergeist” was the only one of these three that was successful. As part of my monthly film society screenings, I revisited this movie which I feel could be categorized as a forgotten classic. With a screenplay by Hollywood’s most popular director, Steven Spielberg, under the direction of the Spielberg picked Tobe Hooper, of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame; “Poltergeist” anticipates the J-horror ghost story craze by twenty years.

The central relationship in the story is between the mother of a suburban family (JoBeth Williams) and the youngest daughter, who is first contacted by unknown forces through the television set and later is consumed by the house itself into a netherworld that occupies a parallel space. In one of the film’s most spectacular sequences the mother uses a rope to enter the netherworld so she can snatch her daughter and be pulled back out.

The production is a surprisingly effective blend of Spielberg’s flash and polishes and Hooper’s shocks and disgustipations. The two create many lasting horror images that people who saw it as children still remember vividly and answer many horror related questions, like why no kid should ever keep a toy clown in his room, why it is good that cable helped to do away with the airing of the National Anthem at the end of broadcasting each night, and why you should never eat chicken with the lights off. They also taught me how to tell whether a lightning storm was coming or going.

One big disappointment was the video game-based horror flick “Silent Hill”. This film also is filled with many disturbing horror moments, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect with those disturbing images and the real story at hand. I am not familiar with the video game, but from the film I suppose it involves searching for your lost daughter in the ghost town of Silent Hill, where the coal from under this mining town still burns from a massive fire that claimed most of its citizens (yet somehow left the buildings standing with only a few seared spots). It snows ash from the perpetually burning sublevels, and is infested with mutants from hell(?) that you must maneuver through to find your daughter.

Or maybe the daughter is even a construct of the screenplay. I don’t know, but it seems the setting is from a video game and the story is from a horror film. The story may be a little too much to go into in the limited space I have here, but the production design is impressive to say the least. Despite the disconnect created from the video game translation there are many memorable images, such as the burning ember children, and the cone head with the giant sword. The mood is beyond creepy from the moment the mother (Radha Mitchell) enters Silent Hill. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the ambivalent ending, however, which is not really justified by the action of the story.

“The Forgotten”, on the other hand, could have used a little of that ambivalence, because the explanation the filmmakers came up with for the action of its story is utterly ludicrous and stupid. Let me reiterate that last part. It was stupid. Stoopid. Stupid. I won’t ruin that explanation for any poor souls who might want to watch the movie; but trust me, it is stupid.

The story involves a mother (Julianne Moore), whose son died when the plane he and other children were taking to a summer camp went down. The action begins well after the tragedy, and the mother is in therapy to deal with the loss. Then one day all her memoirs of her boy disappear. She accuses her husband trying to force her to move on and he tells her the boy never lived, he was a miscarriage. Her therapist backs up her husband’s story. Soon even her husband doesn’t remember her. But this denial of her own memories by others only leads her to the conclusion that her son is not actually dead at all. Perhaps there was no plane crash.

Yes, it sounds absurd, but this is not the stupid part. All this is very well done. It is creepy. There are conspiracies involving the government. There seem to be some supernatural forces at work. And although it is hard to relate to the mother’s bond with her child because he was already gone before the story started, you want to know just where the truth really lies.

I don’t know if screenwriter Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon”) just wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t get out, or if he just started with the explanation, damn the fact that no story written around it could justify it. I can’t believe this story ever got green lit, let alone read without anybody slapping him in the face with contempt and firmly stating, “No! No! Bad!”

“Dark Water” on the other hand is a nice try to replicate the J-horror phenom with a Hollywood remake. It is a moody, dank, damp, dark ghost story about a recently divorced mother (Jennifer Connelly) who moves her daughter to Roosevelt Island (a small island located on the east side of Manhattan where the 59th Street Bridge crosses over into Queens) while in a custody battle with her ex-husband (Dougray Scott). I can’t imagine the real life residents of Roosevelt Island are too pleased with the depiction of their isolated mini-city in this film. It does not look like a great place to live.

There is a water issue in the apartment they move to which originates from the apartment above. Apparently there may be a little girl who still lives up there after both her parents left her. And the water seems to be constantly running.

There are some good performances by Connelly, Scott, Tim Roth, and John C. Reilly here, but the action is played more like a full on drama than a horror flick. It is good that the producers tried to avoid the typical Hollywood thrashing of this remake by hiring award winning Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and gathering a cast with some real acting chops, but the scares come too late in the film for the audience to care anymore. That is if any of them are still awake after the slow pace of the story.