Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Insidious (James Wan, 2010)

Screenwriter Leigh Whannel and director James Wan became Hollywood's go to names in the horror genre by being the team behind the first Saw film. The series went on to be the eight hundred pound horror gorilla of the pre-Halloween release weekend. For seven years, Saw dominated the box office heading into every single Halloween.

Whatever one may feel about the series, the original film was definitely something new, original and unusual when it was released. It was also pretty damned good. I enjoyed that first film thoroughly. It was well made, the performances were strong enough to push past some of the more ridiculous elements, the story was engaging and the concept was interesting. I jumped off the band wagon after the third film was released, because it was clear they weren't going to be able to maintain or return to the quality of the first film.

The Saw series was unceremoniously knocked from it's pedestal as the King of Halloween horror by Paranormal Activity. Orin Peli came out of nowhere with his small haunted house opus. It was an extremely successful exercise in suspense and stream lined, budget film making. It was also one of the most fun and awesome theater going experiences I've had since I was a little kid. My love for that original film is no secret, and the sequel may have been a better film than the first, even if it lost a little of the magic of the buzz that had surrounded the first film and helped create such an intoxicating audience experience.

Insidious brings these three new hopes for the horror genre together, with Whannel writing, Wan directing and Peli producing. It doesn't quite live up to the promise that might suggest to some people, but this isn't an altogether unsuccessful endeavor either. It's basically, a fun, silly, even somewhat scary film that recalls the tone of some of the fun, lesser appreciated supernatural horror films of the seventies, and attempts to take some of the tropes of a few of the sub-genres, mash them together and add in some new pieces. There are a number of things in the film that work really well, and some things that don't, but these three set out to do something a little different, and though they succeeded in doing that much, they weren't able to completely pull it together.

The film begins with a young family moving into a new home. Rose Byrne (recently of the very funny Bridesmaids) plays the young mother struggling to find time to work on her songwriting in between taking care of three young children and running a household. Patrick Wilson (who starred opposite Ellen Page in the phenomenal Hard Candy, number twenty on the list of my favorite films of the last decade, and a film I can't suggest emphatically enough) plays the father. The film starts out with a pretty standard haunted house set-up, that's definitely effective in it's execution. It succeeds in creating good suspense and giving the viewer a sense of dread about what's going to be around the next corner or how things will escalate next. It employs some great jump scares at it gets rolling and since I have no objection to a well placed and well executed jump scare, I found it not only effective, but fun and a good way to get the audience engaged, while setting up their expectations for what the rest of the film is going to be. They're not "fake scares" either, they are germane to the story and the narrative, instead of being a broom falling out of a closet, a camping jumping into frame or some other cheap crap. I was honestly shocked at how well the film started out.

When the film reaches the point in every haunted house film where one of the characters (Rose Byrne, in this case) begins demanding that they get out of the house, it succeeds in doing something different and subverting the expectations of any person who is well versed in the haunted house genre. Quickly following the films subversion of our expectations, it changes track pretty radically, and becomes a completely different film than the first act suggests it will be. I'm not giving anything away by saying that this isn't a conventional haunted house movie and is tied to another variety of horror sub-genre, because the trailer basically gives that all away. The trailer didn't give away the whole kit and caboodle, so I wasn't completely prepared for where the film went and it kept me guessing for a few minutes, which is to it's credit. Lynne Shaye (sister of former New Line Studio head, Robert Shaye and is a horror genre veteran who is always entertaining) shows up as a medium, and is fun as hell to watch. There's what begins as a typical scéance scene that manages to do some different, interesting things, one of which is just weird, creepy and almost kind of funny, but isn't really funny either.

Following the scĂ©ance scene, the film changes track yet again, this time morphing into another sub-genre that basically fits under the larger umbrella of horror. This is where the film suffers somewhat from the ambition of the film makers. It was unexpected, and it was ambitious, but it didn't hold up as well as the first two acts of the film. Visually, it's inconsistent. Some of it is striking and engaging. Some of it is extremely bland. The third act narrative also suffers from a lack of focus. It makes sense overall, but it's lacking in some details. They're not necessarily details that have to come from the script, but could instead use some of the visual dead spots to help flesh it out or even the sound design, which was extremely well done in the first two acts. It also introduces a new character/story element that has real potential, but because it's already the third act of the film, there's just not enough there to grab onto. It doesn't so much feel shoehorned in as it does under developed. There's a good story there, and probably a whole other, fun and interesting horror film.  

It's always disappointing when a film loses it's steam or gets on the wrong track during it's third act. An underwhelming ending can ruin a film in so many different ways, it's not even worth attempting a short list. With Insidious, the last half of the third act definitely doesn't live up to either what the first two acts establish in a narrative sense or in the degree of quality. It doesn't necessarily ruin the film though. What works in the first two acts worked well enough for me to enjoy it anyway. I essentially walked away from it feeling like it was a fun horror film, that couldn't quite live up to it's own grand ambitions.

I may have felt a little more antipathy toward this film if I'd paid full price for a theater showing, but as a Netflix Blu-ray, it was definitely worth the time. It's not something I'm going to be in a rush to pick up on BR, though I might not pass it up if it were to show up in a $5 dollar DVD bargain bin.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

Nicholas Winding Refn has already proven himself one of the most auspicious film makers of his generation. His debut film Pusher, chronicled a period in the life of a long time, small fish drug dealer in Copenhagen. Like much of the subject matter Refn seems to have a preference for, there's nothing necessarily groundbreaking, original or unusual about it. The unusual part of his films is in the actual fabric of how he tells a story, and Pusher was the introduction to his atmospheric, moody film making. The two subsequent films in the Pusher trilogy examine Copenhagen's drug world from two other characters perspectives. These films were extremely popular in Europe, and gained him some recognition from people in the U.S. film industry.

The first time the majority of us heard the name Nicholas Winding Refn, it was because of a little film called Bronson (my original review), based on the autobiographies of a man who legally changed his name to Charles Bronson, and is notorious for being the most violent prisoner in the whole of the United Kingdom. It's also the movie that introduced most of us to Tom Hardy (now one of the busiest and most sought after actors in Hollywood), whose performance was like a high speed freight train trampling the audience psyche. The film succeeded not only in being perversely and thoroughly entertaining, but also in conveying the psychology of a truly bizarre and unusual individual. It proved Refn wasn't afraid to reach beyond audience expectations of what they should see.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

I was not sure what to think going into Steven Soderbergh's latest film. I think Traffic was a really enjoyable film, that suffers slightly from the level of it's ambition. It was performed and directed beautifully, but by trying to cover almost every possible angle through which one could possibly see the War on Drugs, it was just too much, and one or two of the story lines ended up seeming underdeveloped, and therefore, unnecessary. It's the kind of mistake or problem I like to see a film make. I'd rather see a film be overly ambitious and fall short some than be exceedingly successful in it's mediocrity. So, I've always given Traffic the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, Traffic isn't the only film Soderbergh has made. There were those three little movies with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, Oceans something or Seas something. There was also the first movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape, which in it's own weird way prophesied the coming of reality television, the video blog and other bits and pieces of contemporary culture. Soderbergh has made a ton of small independent films as well, even since he's become the kind of director who can get Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon on the phone anytime he wants and can get studios to give him large sums of money to make his films. He's taken the "I make one for me and then I make one for them" model of a director's career to a new level. There's no question that the guy is incredibly talented, but I was a little bit worried that Contagion, a drama dealing with the outbreak of a hypothetical virus and examining society's reaction from almost every conceivable perspective might suffer from some of the same failings that Traffic did. I wasn't prepared to cut him quite as much slack this time either, since it's ground he's already covered.

Contagion is a solid thriller/drama, all around. The direction, performances, cinematography, and score are all very good. My only complaint about the film is essentially that the stories of many of the people we follow could be entire films in themselves. I think that given the scope of this film, the writing is very good overall, and the thing is, I want to see more of it. The best example I have is Jude Law's character. He plays a blogger who is on top of the contagion from it's first public appearance. It's an interesting character and his motivations aren't completely clear at all times. There are definitely some questions about why he's doing or saying certain things, etc. But what we see of the character by the end of the film makes sense, and fits very well in the world they've crafted within the film, which does in many ways mirror our own world very well. The thing is, I want to see an entire film about that character. I want to know how he's gotten to be who he is at the beginning of the film and see him take the entire journey to where we see him at the end of the film. In a way, I think that would have been more interesting than the small disparate pieces we get by taking such an overarching approach to the story.

Lawrence Fishburne plays the head of the CDC, and I have to say, it's great to see Lawrence Fishburne playing something that doesn't in the slightest resemble Morpheus from The Matrix. He's a phenomenal actor and for a little while there, any character that had any shade of Morpheus was getting thrown at him. This character is most definitely not the super-guru Morpheus was, and it gives Fishburne the chance to flex some of the more subtle, emotionally mature muscles that roles like that denied him. I'd even like to see an entire film focused solely on his character. What exactly does it mean to be the head of the CDC in the midst of a major pandemic? What toll does that take on a person, what strengths does it give them? There's a whole lot there that I think could be really interesting, especially in the hands of someone like Fishburne. He does a great job, and his character is one of the centerpieces of the film, but it still doesn't really convey the toll it's taking on him, personally, and by the end of the film, it's clear there is going to be one.

The one I'd probably most like to see though is an entire film dedicated to Matt Damon's character. He plays a father and husband whose wife returns from a trip to Hong Kong, complains of not feeling well, and within a few hours goes from having flu like symptoms to being dead. He ends up being immune, but the daughter that is left with him might not be, and the rest of Damon's storyline is about what he's doing to try and keep his daughter safe, etc. Soderbergh doesn't make the film extremely graphic, but there is some stuff in there that is pretty disturbing not because it's graphic in nature, but because of how true it rings and what it really suggests about society and the nature of humanity in general.

In the end, when I think about the film, that's really the only thing about it that seems to fall short at all, but at the same time, it was a little flat for me. I'm attributing that sense of it being a little flat to the fact that by going for such a widespread perspective, the film doesn't give the audience enough time with any of the particular characters to really develop a connection with them. I do recognize that by making a film like this, that's something a film maker decides to do. I don't think it detracts from the degree to which the audience is invested in the urgency of the story.

I think my main criticism of this film could have less to do with the actual film than with the overall media environment into which it's thrown. Contagion successfully attempts to establish a level of realism that is one of it's biggest strengths and possibly it's ultimate downfall. Given that we're living in an age of constant media bombardment and that the entirety of our media is preoccupied with disaster and death and that nearly everything, whether deservedly or not is presented to us as being overwhelmingly urgent, I don't know that anyone could make a film about this subject matter, steeped in the degree of realism that this one is and have it be as emotionally and psychologically effective as it probably should be.

If I really consider the possibility of a contagious disease something like the one depicted in the film were to crop up somewhere and start taking the kind of effect it would, I almost think the majority of the country and probably the world would be both terrified and completely numb to it at the same time. In the film, the societal consequences of the virus are relatively dire. I somehow just don't think we'd get upset enough about it for that to happen. Mind you, it's not that I think it wouldn't be a big enough deal to get upset about, I just think we've spent so many years now with one dire emergency (real or manufactured) after another that we'd more or less just kind of see the news coverage and say, "Meh. That sucks." Sure, we'd take precautions, wearing masks and gloves, washing our hands much more often etc., but all in all, I think we'd probably just keep going to work, buying sport utility vehicles, and living our daily routines as much as was possible.

I'm not saying that cooler heads would prevail either. I'm just more or less saying that Americans have lost the capacity to know when to freak out when we should. It's not even that we've lost the capacity to freak out altogether, because I don't believe that either. I'm more or less saying that we tend to freak out about stuff that has no real meaning and in the end, doesn't really matter, and when there are things that have consequences, have real meaning and do matter, we tend to get overwhelmed and just go about our routine, hoping someone will take care of it. I also can't really be completely convinced that there wouldn't be an overwhelming percentage of our "leaders," be they political, social, economic or religious who wouldn't see something like this as a golden opportunity to cement their positions as "men/women of the people" for the foreseeable. I mean, let's be honest here, there would be a whole rash of religious figures coming out of the woodwork to say a contagion like the one depicted in the film is punishment from God for a whole grab bag of sins and iniquities, which is almost a subliminal suggestion to those people who believe those charlatans that we all deserve to die. I don't think people who on some level believe they deserve to die are going to get quite as upset about something like what the film presents as they probably should, and in this country, that is not a small number.

So, the degree of realism the film achieves might actually work against it. At least it did for me. One of the most disturbing sequences I've seen in a film in a long time took place in another film dealing with an "infection" of the populace. In Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy's character Jim wakes up in a hospital after England has been ravaged by an infection. When he stumbles out of the hospital, the streets of London are utterly deserted. That was deeply disturbing to me. A huge, silent London. It wasn't realistic (as many people have pointed out), because given the nature of the infection depicted in that film, there would have had to have been bodies all over the place. But there weren't. There were no bodies, no people, no animals, nothing, just London, one of the world's great city's, completely silent and utterly deserted. That disturbed me. There are a few scenes in Contagion which touch on the idea that people wouldn't be going on, so there were nearly empty streets etc., but nothing in this film was quite as effective as that one moment in 28 Days Later. I know they are completely different films with completely different objectives, but I'm suggesting this because Danny Boyle's choice (in part due to budget constraints) to step away from the steely realism much of the rest of his film relied on worked perfectly and helped create a really iconic moment. Contagion, because of the degree of realism it chains itself to never produces any moments like that, and really, much as I imagine a real world would react to the situation it presents, becomes a well produced, technically strong film which doesn't really suffer any gaping holes in it's quality, but is still more or less forgettable. If it were the real world, and we were struck with a contagion like this one, chances are very good that within fifteen years, it would be forgotten in every way except for science textbooks, lecture halls, the occasional news cast and the private pains of people who'd lost loved ones. I'd go so far as to say that in our actual real world, it wouldn't take long at all before a great many people were using the entire incident as a way to create an entire industry of more panic, more urgency, misplaced blame and accusations in order to enrich themselves.

In truth, I guess what I'm more or less saying is that as bleak a situation as Contagion suggests, the real world is an even bleaker, darker place, and the film suffers because it glosses over that. And in that, it's unfortunately extremely standard.