Saturday, August 02, 2008

Spam A Lot?

So yesterday was interesting. Blogger tagged hundreds of legitimate blogs (including mine) as "spam" and locked users out of their blogs, pending a review. If the blogger didn't request an appeal/review, the blog would be deleted in 20 days, according to the message. Unfortunately, no time frame was given for how long a review would take. It was very much a case of guilty until proven innocent.

The experience was little bit like returning home from a hard day at work and discovering that someone had changed all the locks on your house, and that your keys didn't work. This event also reminded me -- like a slap in the face -- how fragile "free speech" really is. With a flip of a switch, Google/Blogger can take us all down. Very creepy.

Some users saw political conspiracies here...I just saw a huge glitch and a massive malfunction. The whole thing was resolved (for my blog) in approximately 24 hours. In the scheme of things, that's not long to go without blogging or access to blogging. What the problem was -- in all honesty -- was that there was ZERO acknowledgment from Blogger until late in the day yesterday, approximately 6:00 pm or so, that they had made a mistake and were looking into the problem. They had locked my blog at 10:00 pm the previous night. Eighteen hours is a long time to go without hearing a peep. That's a long time to sit and stew and ask for help...with no answer. It was the uncertainty that was the big issue for me

For others it was more serious. On the Blogger Help Group page, I saw some of the more troubling repercussions. There were blogs involved in contests and giveaways that couldn't make important announcements in a timely fashion. There were other blogs hosting big events, that needed to provide directions to reporters and others in the field. There was even a five day workshop that couldn't use the blog on the last day of that (paid for) seminar. For me, I couldn't get to Friedkin Friday, which I hated, but I didn't suffer nearly as much as some others. The big scare for me was the lack of communication, and the idea that my blog -- two and a half years of hard work -- could be deleted in 20 days.

My response was that I posted a shadow blog at Wordpress; and imported all my posts there... replete with images. The lesson: silence from blogger - bad! Back-ups: good! Anyway, back to work...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Allure of Evil in Horror

The League of Tana Tea Drinkers -- an organization created to "acknowledge, foster, and support thoughtful, articulate, and creative blogs built on an appreciation of the horror and sci-horror genre," -- has a new Unity Blog posted. The subject this time is a fascinating and timely one: the "allure of evil."

As a contributing member, I've got my own thoughts on the subject, which you'll find in the
group post here. Specifically, I've written about how the allure of evil is connected with the promise of redemption. I use as my example the character of Riddick (from Pitch Black).

Here's my piece, but please check out all the contributions:

Why are modern audiences, and more specifically, genre aficionados, fascinated with Evil? There are likely as many reasons for this ongoing viewer attraction with “The Dark Side” as there are prominent examples of Alluring Evil populating our movie and TV screens.

Gazing at popular genre films and television, we might pinpoint one answer to this dilemma, or at least one clue. Perhaps the allure of evil resides entirely in the possibility of redemption.

After all, redemption is a ubiquitous notion. From Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977) to TV vampire icons like Barnabas Collins, Angel and Nick Knight, attentive viewers have watched with obsessed fascination as Evil with a capital “E” has been transformed into Good, usually by the pure of heart. Whether it is the love of a son that transforms Evil (as in Vader’s case), the love of a Chosen One (in Angel’s situation), or even a serial killer’s love of justice (suggested in Showtime’s Dexter), the tale of redemption (and sometimes simply the quest for redemption) is one that doesn’t appear to grow tiresome. On the contrary, this is a genre convention we enjoy seeing repeated.

The Cenobite leader Pinhead, for example, faced with a “greater” evil in the person of Dr. Channard, intervenes to help final girl Kristy, and sees his humanity restored (albeit very briefly…) in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988). Mafioso Michael Corleone searches desperately for a way out of his life of crime, attempting to become legitimate in the eyes of Big Business and Big Religion (the Vatican), but fails…rather epically, in Godfather Part III (1990). Soldier villain May Day (Grace Jones) renounces evil and sacrifices her life to save others in A View to a Kill (1985) and on and on the list goes.

Sometimes it actually seems that the more reprehensible a character, the more viewers enjoy experiencing the often arduous process of redemption. Case in point: Richard P. Riddick (Vin Diesel), the muscle-bound, gravel-voiced anti-hero of David Twohy’s futuristic film noir, Pitch Black (2000). This man’s heart is black as night. His eyes are literally steely. His psyche consists as much of animal instinct as evolved thought (the reason, perhaps, he remains restive and calculating even in cryo-sleep). He has all but conquered physical pain, in one instance dislocating both his shoulders to escape imprisonment. Like many representatives of evil in the media, Riddick seems simultaneously sub-human and super-human.

This gripping futuristic film depicts Riddick amongst the survivors of a harrowing spaceship crash as they reckon not only with an inhospitable desert planet far from the commercial space lanes, but also with the environment’s indigenous population: carnivorous, flying dragons that hunt by night (by the millions…) and are very, very hungry.

When a long-lasting eclipse grants these flying demons dominion, the human survivors reluctantly turn to the outcast of their bunch to see them through the crisis. That man – that brute -- is Riddick. He is well-acquainted with the dark, you see, and the only man with the vision to face it and fight it.

Yet by any conventional human definition, Riddick is “Evil.” He is a committed lawbreaker (an escaped convict and murderer of a space pilot, by his own admission). His very presence provokes fear in others. Why? Well he’s a bad-ass who might just “skull fuck you in your sleep.”

But there’s more.

Riddick also fulfills other crucial components of the descriptor “Evil.” For instance, he is willfully profane. He angrily rails against faith and informs an Imam “I absolutely believe in God. And I hate the fucker.”

Riddick, sharing a character trait with Old Scratch himself, is also a consummate seducer. Near the film’s climax, when he has reached an escape skiff, Riddick attempts to convince the young captain, Fry (Radha Mitchell) to abandon the other stranded survivors. He compliments her strong survival instinct, noting that he appreciates that quality “in a woman.” Then he plays to her weakness. “No one is going to blame you. Save yourself.” He says soothingly, almost mockingly. Along with Fry, we in the audience weigh Riddick’s words. There’s a ruthless logic to his suggestion. A basis for reasonable agreement.

Survival of the fittest and all…

But something inside -- whether conscience, remorse, decency, or perhaps all of the above--won’t allow Fry to abandon the others; to join Riddick in his sociopathic ways. So instead, Fry decides to change him. And that’s where the journey to redemption begins in earnest.

Ultimately, Riddick can be embraced by us decent folk because in him is that all-important seed, that opportunity, for change. This evil character unexpectedly and rather tragically rejoins the human race during Pitch Black’s finale when Fry risks (and loses…) her life to save him from the monsters. That heroic, unselfish act changes Riddick in ways he can’t even begin to understand. Insert Christ metaphor of your choice here…

“Not for me!” Riddick shouts angrily, flabbergasted and angry that Fry has--in essence--re-activated his conscience. He doesn’t want the redemption, but it finds him nonetheless. He feels unworthy of it; he doesn’t want it.

After his escape from the planet, a chastened Riddick finally tells another survivor (a child named Jack) that “Riddick died somewhere on the planet,” an indicator that his heart has indeed been changed; that he has undergone a transformation analogous to one suggested by writer Tennessee Williams. That “Hell is yourself” and “the only redemption” occurs when a “person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.” That’s what Fry did for Riddick; that’s what Riddick subsequently does for the remaining survivors of the crash.

Finally, I should make note that Pitch Black’s tag line states “Fight Evil with Evil.” Not "Beat Evil with Evil."

Because, in the final analysis, it is not Evil that ultimately wins in Twohy’s film; but rather nobility and heroism (Fry’s). Consequently, Riddick’s journey from sociopath and scoundrel to redeemed human being is one that viewers can wholeheartedly approve of. We can all countenance Evil if it pays the price for sinning; if it spies an ugly reflection in the mirror and joins the rest of us in recoiling at the sight. Riddick has finally turned those shining eyes on himself, and emerged, at long last, from the dark.

At least until the sequel.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: When Worlds Collide (1951)

Even back in 1951, I suppose studio marketers knew how to sell expensive blockbuster movies. "The greatest shock of all time is...when worlds collide!" shouted the theatrical trailer for this classic science fiction disaster flick.

"This may not happen for a million years," suggested another enthusiastic tag-line, "but now you'll see what could happen...when worlds collide!"

The end of all life on Earth never looked so exciting. Pass the popcorn...

Based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, this George Pal production (adapted by Sydney Boehm) of When Worlds Collide opens with a tight zoom-in on a copy of The Holy Bible itself. A page flips open (apparently of its own volition...) and we see this anxiety-provoking Scriptural quote: "And God looked upon the Earth and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth..."

This foreboding excerpt, which leads up to the passage about Noah and the Great Flood, is the core underpinning of this early genre disaster film, since the central narrative involves desperate scientists constructing a "Noah's Ark" rocket ship that can save forty-four human beings before worlds collide.

The story proper begins when a scientist working at a South African observatory, Dr. Hendron (Larry Keating), determines that two space bodies are approaching Earth quite quickly and will wreak total and utter havoc in the solar system. The first body, a planet called Zyra, will cause massive earthquakes, 100 ft. tidal waves and other disasters (which necessitates a major evacuation of coastal cities the globe over). But the second-part of the one-two punch is even worse: the heavenly body called Bellus will actually collide with our mother planet, totally obliterating it.

As Dr. Hendron puts it, "If my calculations prove to be correct, this could be the most frightening discovery of all time!"

Unluckily for mankind, Hendron's calculations do prove correct, and he attempts to convince the United Nations that construction must begin immediately on an "ark" to carry away (to passing Zyra) some of Earth's population. The United Nations (particularly the Russkies - remember this movie came out during the Cold War), scoff at the notion of a double collision, and refuse to help.

The United States Congress also refuses to participate in the construction of the escape/colony vessel, leaving Hendron to seek assistance from the private sector. He find it there: two wealthy entrepreneurs give everything they own to make the ark a reality The third financier, Stanton (John Hoyt) isn't so magnanimous, however: he'll provide the remaining funds needed, but only if he gets a berth on the rocket; and only if he gets to choose the passenger list. Hendron agrees to the first condition, not the second, but a desperate Stanton folds.

The movie depicts the construction of the space ark (which we see in various stages of completion) and an elaborate mountainside "launch track" which will facilitate escape velocity. As the scientists toil, and gravely count down the days till the twin catastrophes of Zyra and Bellus (which we see marked on calendars in insert shots), there's also a personal drama to focus on. Hendron's beautiful daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush) had been planning to marry a noble physician named Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), but has now fallen in love with the rakish pilot, David Randall (Richard Derr). David doesn't believe he has the right to be one of the "saved" because he feels he has nothing to contribute to a new society. Not to get too symbolic here, but I enjoyed how the film balanced the dilemmas of these three earthly bodies (David, Tony and Joyce) against the disasters befalling the triangle of heavenly bodies (Earth, Zyra and Bellus).

Eventually, Zyra passes by Earth orbit, and the massive disasters occur (to the strains of Leith Stevens' impressive, ominous musical compositions). There's some good footage of New York City getting flooded, skyscrapers half-submerged in roiling water. And, there's even a fantastic shot of the Big Apple in apparently open sea; tall buildings standing amidst cap-sized ocean liners. The latter vista reminded me of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), but I was impressed that speical effects from fifty-seven years ago still hold up so well.

In the last act, the triangle is resolved, there's a noble sacrifice (because Zyra should be for "young people"), and the Earth gets vaporized. Don't panic! The ark makes it to Zyra -- a paradise of green valleys and sunshine -- just in time for a happy fade out. David and Joyce walk off the spaceship together, gazing into a bright future...

Running a scant 82 minutes long, When Worlds Collide is a rip-roaring yarn, and doesn't let itself get bogged down in pesky details. For instance, if Zyra is moving through the solar system so quickly, past Earth and likely past the long will it be habitable for the new settlers?

Also, I found it utterly bizarre that the vast majority of the Earth's population (which will not be saved...) just obligingly experiences the so-called "hour of doom" without rioting or committing some other venal misbehavior. I would suspect that society would fracture and break apart with public knowledge of the impending disaster, not hold together with such admirable nobility and restraint.

Also, the fact that everywhere - across the planet - man reacts nobly to the disaster, deeply undercuts the opening Scripture. I mean, if man is corrupt and worthy of destruction (save for a lucky few Chosen People), how come he responds so well to the end of the Earth? In fact, the only people who respond badly to the Ark's departure are the 556 or so scientists and technicians working on the Ark Project, the ones who aren't chosen in the lottery drawing to ride to Zyra. Again, this seems counter-intuitive. I would figure the scientists and technicians would be much more intellectually accepting of their lot.

There's much talk (by Stanton) of "the law of the jungle" in terms of how humans will react upon learning of the end of the world, but according to When Worlds Collide, it's only the scientific community that goes off the rails. Weird.

What may remain most fascinating about When Worlds Collide today is the manner in which it depicts the early 1950s in American culture. Truman was still President, but the Eisenhower Age was about to commence when the film was released. After years of being in power, the New Deal Democrats were about to hand over the reigns to laissez-faire Republicans. Accordingly, this film works in a jab at the Russians (and at the UN). It also features slap against bureaucracy and government assistance by plugging for entrepreneurs. Similarly, the film seems to ascribe some moral failures on the part of the people for the impending cosmic crisis. What corruption, exactly, are the people being blamed for? What made God angry?

Although the original film is a sort of prehistoric Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998) or Day After Tomorrow (2004), When Worlds Collide is nonetheless on the remake path for 2010.

X Marked The Blog


It's been a roller-coaster here for the last thirty-six hours as thousands (and I mean thousands...) of readers "found" my review of X-Files: I Want to Believe and linked to it across the Internet in forums, on blogs and so forth. At one point late yesterday afternoon, I feared this site (particularly comments section) was going to crash from all the activity. Watching my statistics counter in real time was unreal: clusters of readers were all hitting at once. Amazing!

From the bottom of my heart, I'd like to thank everyone who commented on my review; and also the dozens of X-Philes who private e-mailed me to share their thoughts on the review. Judging from how polite, decent, thoughtful and organized this bunch is, I'd wager The X-Files has a lot of life left in it.

In fact, there was only one comment I had to reject in the whole vast slew -- and it came from a hater of the film (and the franchise) who used unnecessary and inappropriate language. Even the X-Files fan who didn't like the movie (which is his or her right, naturally...) spoke eloquently and respectfully here.

Regarding the movie, I stand behind my review fully, and will add this additional thought: once international box office figures are tallied, DVD purchases and rentals are factored in, and a cable TV sale is made...there's little doubt this film will have been judged a financial success. History shows us that even when an franchise entry doesn't become an "instant hit," that doesn't mean the franchise is over. Back in 1997, things looked pretty grim for a hero named Batman, didn't they? Look where that franchise is today.

In terms of this blog, I'm back to work today, and I hope that some of the thousands of visitors who came here for the purpose of reading the X-Files review will stick around, explore the archives. and become regular readers. X-Philes might want to start with my retrospective of the classic episode "Home."

Again, my appreciation.

John K. Muir

Monday, July 28, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

Belief isn't easy to come by these days. But - despite most reviews - I still believe in The X-Files.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this new film (sub-titled I Want to Believe) arises not from the stars (or the production itself), but from ourselves, and -- specifically -- our expectations.

Based on the savage reviews proliferating on the web and in print, audiences and critics apparently desired a Wrath of Khan, when what they actually get is...The Search for Spock.

In other words, X-Files: I Want to Believe is a more intimate, cerebral adventure than it is a "big event" summer movie. There are virtually no optical special effects in this movie. I could detect no (or very little) CGI. There are few action sequences.

There is little violence of any kind, actually (I don't believe a single gun is fired...). Mulder and Scully never even carry fire-arms, as far as I can detect. And there are no explosions whatsoever.

All the fireworks, rather...are purely human; emotional. Accordingly, the climax is one that relies on the specific nuances of human interaction and relationships, not fights, chases, or gun-fire. The film's success hinges on such old--fashioned elements as atmosphere and mood. A wintry, oppressive location -- West Virginia -- is practically a supporting character here, and the build-up of real suspense is generated through effective use of solid film techniques such as cross-cutting. This is good work, beautifully photographed; it's merely out-of-step with the kind of movies being offered in our cineplexes today.

Honestly, I Want to Believe's greatest failing has nothing to do with what it is; but rather what it is not; what people apparently "wanted" to believe about the form it would take.

One of The X-Files' trademark phrases was "Resist or Serve" and I remembered that catchphrase with bemusement while I watched I Want to Believe. The new movie daringly resists formula and classification. It flouts expectation, and what I've detected so far in the criticism of the film is a total unwillingness to engage with what the movie actually is about. I suppose if a movie isn't exactly like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, or Dark Knight, well...critics don't know what to make of it.

Audiences apparently feel the same way: the film opened in fourth place this weekend and grossed a disappointing ten million dollars (roughly the same opening week haul of Serenity in 2005). Yet The X-Files I Want to Believe was made cheaply - at under thirty five million dollars. Just a bit of history: that's what it cost, or thereabouts, to make Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. Almost twenty years ago. At the very least, Carter and his team were frugal...and that fact may be a saving grace for the franchise. Which - reviews to the contrary - has a lot of life and energy left in it. It's only a "dull" or "boring" movie (as critics assert), if you choose not to engage with it.

I Want to Believe picks up six years after the finale of the popular Fox series (which ended in 2002). Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are living together in a small but comfortable house, and Mulder has grown a beard and pretty much retreated from the world. Despite the fact he knows his sister is dead, Mulder has not given up searching for "the truth" about what happened to her. Meanwhile, Scully is a successful medical doctor at a Catholic hospital and enmeshed in the treatment of a very sick little boy; one with a terminal illness.

It's a quiet, relatively "normal" life for the most part; a normality that is shattered when the FBI solicits Mulder's help in solving a new and urgent "X-File" (in return for a pardon...). An F.B.I. agent named Monica Bannon has disappeared in the snows of gloomy West Virginia, and a fallen priest named Father Joe (Billy Connolly) claims to be experiencing psychic visions related to her case. In fact, he leads a team of FBI searchers to a burial ground of body parts in a vast, foreboding ice field (a beautifully-filmed, tense sequence).

But Father Joe may not be part because of his past. He's a convicted pedophile, you see. Mulder and Scully each boast a different perspective on Father Joe (naturally...), and their viewpoints are so contradictory that these opinions threaten to fracture their (now longstanding...) emotional relationship. This case revives Mulder's obsessive, brooding nature; and it reminds Scully of the darkness she has sought to escape.

So...what is The X-Files: I Want to Believe really about? In a deep, meaningful way, it concerns the concept of redemption. I don't mean that the movie pays lip service to the notion of redemption as that concept currently exists in the superficial popular culture lexicon (see: Angel). There's nothing comfortable or easy about how this film portrays the central moral dilemma. The crimes Father Joe committed against the innocent are utterly monstrous, as Scully rightly points out. Father Joe knows that society will never forgive him, but wonders if God can do so.

And here's where things get....murky. Father Joe castrated himself at age 26 in order to "kill" the horrible, seething appetite that led him to commit such crimes. And now, Father Joe chooses to live in a group home for pedophiles, one where sex offenders live in shame and police each other's behavior. It is a sort of Hell on Earth to live amongst such scum, especially for a Man of God. Are these signs he has changed?

And, of course, Father Joe claims he is experiencing psychic visions about that missing FBI agent, and wants to help the police find her. Is he to be trusted? Would the Divine empower a man like Father Joe with second sight? If his visions are real, are they from God? The Devil? Or is he just an accomplice in Monica's capture...?

The underlying moral quandary is this: What great "right" can undo a great "wrong?" In the fantastic and noble tradition of The X-Files, Scully and Mulder view Father Joe and his predicament in radically different ways. The series always concerned the opposing viewpoints of these two characters, and how their beliefs (and biases) shaped their perception of reality. It's the same thing here. Scully believes Father Joe is a depraved attention-seeking monster, that his visions are a hoax and a cry for attention. Mulder wants to believe that men like Father Joe can change, that redemption is possible, and that Father Joe's psychic visions are legitimate.

Pretty serious stuff. No summer movie featuring a convicted pedophile in a central role is ever going to find popularity in America. That's a fact. We go to movies to escape, generally, not to engage and this may simply be one bridge too far for mass audiences. Father Joe's inclusion and role in the story is a courageous (perhaps even self-destructive) choice on the part of writers Spotnitz and Carter because the film's central dilemma makes audiences confront the idea of real redemption in a very tangible, very challenging, very realistic way.

It is easy to forgive someone who seems heroic; someone who is beautiful; or someone who had an excuse for what he did. But what about forgiving someone for committing the worst crime (a crime against a child...) imaginable? I'm not saying you should forgive; that anyone should forgive. However, if you are not willing to forgive Father Joe, there are repercussions to that decision. The biggest one is that you can't say you believe in redemption, can you? If you don't let "good works" account for something in the cosmic tally of morality, you can't claim you believe in forgiveness, either. Nor can you claim to be a Christian, because forgiveness is the very crucible -- the beating heart -- of Christianity. I'm not condoning any particular interpretation....just commenting on the moral implications of this film. It will challenge your beliefs, and force you to evaluate what you think when the decision "to forgive" is not easy; not superficial.

I still can't believe a mainstream film (and a franchise film; and a sequel, for god's sake...) tread so deeply (and bravely) into this unsettling territory, but I'm glad it did. The X-Files: I Want to Believe effectively holds a mirror up to all those who claim belief in Christ's teachings yet actually thrive on hate and draconian notions of punishment and morality. In doing so, it comments explicitly on our times; an epoch when religion is often used to codify hatred of "the other" in our society (and in other societies). This paradigm - this Father Joe Dilemma - is true to everything The X-Files has always been about.

The mystery concerning the severed body parts (and the agent's disappearance) has apparently disappointed some critics and viewers too, but it is also very true to The X-Files' history. The series has always concerned our two world-views (belief vs. skepticism/Mulder vs. Scully) vetting mysterious "horror stories" and in the process giving them new life and energy. Spontaneous combustion, demonic possession, ESP, vampires, werewolves, succubi, golems, out-of-body experiences, and other old concepts in the genre were always re-purposed for the show to incorporate the latest advances in paranormal and medical literature and study. I Want to Believe explicitly continues that tradition with a plot concerning organ transplants, stem cell research, and a cadre of outlaw (Russian...) scientists playing Frankenstein. Is it ridiculous? a man who turns into a giant green superhero when he's angry also ridiculous? Is a man with a leather fetish wearing a black bat suit ridiculous? You may find the specifics of this X-File on the verge of ludicrous (one critic compared it to They Saved Hitler's Brain), but again, the tradition of taking hoary "monster"/horror chestnuts and granting them new (intelligent...) life is a long-standing facet of Chris Carter's creation. The franchise has been around for fifteen years now; so you likely have already decided whether or not this kind of thing works for you.

There's another aspect of I Want to Believe that works surprisingly well. It too has been ridiculed by reviewers. It's a brief comment said - oddly enough - by Father Joe. He urges Scully not to "give up" at a critical point, yet - as he himself readily admits - he has no reason to have said it to her. "Don't give up" may seem like an easy platitude (gee, like "with great power comes great responsibility?"), but it is actually kind of touching here; a short-hand for much good material. Especially when played between Mulder and Scully. In Duchovny and Anderson's deft hands, "don't give up" is one lover's comment to another in the face of hardship, past hurts and regret. Scully can't give up on the boy whom she is treating now because of the little boy (William) she once gave up on. And balanced against the Mulder/Scully relationship is a man (Callum Keith Rennie) -- a villain -- who steadfastly refuses to "give up" on the life of his lover...and goes to extreme (and really, really radical...) means to see that his lover survives. One plot is played against the other, and I found the balance elegant and touching, not cheesy.

Another theme here is the "burying" or cleansing of the past. The criminals responsible for Bannon's abduction attempt to bury the past (and their crimes) in the ice. Mulder hopes to cleanse his past too (if he just saves this one woman, he will have made up for failing his sister all those years ago). Scully, by saving her patient believes she can be cleansed of her guilt over William. But along comes Father Joe - a man with a past anyone would want to hide - who instead focuses on digging up the past (digging in the ice, in the snow, literally). Things keep coming to the surface. Things that must be dealt with.

The violent scenes in this film are tense, and make surprisingly strong use of a snowplow as a weapon. The bleak locale and the hidden secrets there keeps you alert, looking for clues amidst the ubiquitous falling snow. The location reflects the dark heart of the characters, and the final moment (post-credits) is a splendid (if brief...) catharsis; a release from the blinding white snow of Somerset, WV. More emotionally touching than exciting; more moody and lugubrious than spectacular, more contemplative than action-packed, more dark and foreboding than shocking, this is an uneasy, unsettling X-Files movie in which the truth isn't "out there" but rather "in here" - in us. In the endless mysteries of the human heart and human behavior.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: One Missed Call (2008)

"What will it sound like when you die?" asks the tag-line for One Missed Call, a PG-13 remake of the 2003 Takashi Miike film (and an adaptation of the novel by Yasushi Akimoto).

The answer: snoring...
Forget one missed call, this movie is one missed opportunity: a flat, formulaic cliche-fest that resurrects all the elements you've seen already in the other, seemingly-endless string of Japanese remakes (The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, and Pulse leap immediately to mind).

See if this premise sounds familiar: a little girl and mother with a tragic history are at the root of a supernatural mystery involving the "haunting" of cell phones in contemporary America. Everyone in a particular calling circle (in this case, attractive young adults of both sexes...) thus receive phone calls from the future, specifying the exact time and date of their horrible deaths. This voice mail also comes replete with a recording of what said death will sound like, not to mention a creepy ring-tone. And the ring-tone is truly creepy, I'll give the movie that...

Our heroine and final girl is Beth Raymond (fetching Shannyn Sossamon), a psych student conveniently studying the "the post-trauma child." She begins to lose several friends (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Azura Skye) to the killer from beyond the grave. Beth and police detective Jack Andrews (a slumming-it Edward Burns) must investigate the crimes fast because Beth has received one of the fateful voice mails herself, and will die in hours if the mystery is not solved. (Wait...wasn't that the climax of The Ring?)

As much as this movie bored me, I must admit that I truly dig the underlying theme behind many of these Japanese remakes. It's the idea (as I noted in my very first blog...) of the mass media or modern technology as bogeyman. Each of these films features a kind of "viral" murder campaign, one often (as in the case of The Ring, Pulse and One Missed Call) carried out under the auspices of our modern conveniences and tools, whether videotape, the Internet or cell phones. This is a terrific and unsettling concept because there's a deep underlying suspicion of these new technologies in our contemporary society. Just yesterday, for instance, a new study came out linking cell phones and cancer, so these Japanese films and their remakes are definitely tapping into a 21st century vibe of anxiety. The idea that you can catch something (like, say, apathy...) from modern mainstream entertainment or cable news is also a powerful one vetted by these films. You watch too long and you do die inside. I look forward to the inevitable horror film involving death by Internet social network: Face(book) of Death.
The problem with One Missed Call is that we've seen all these elements so many times now that there are no surprises. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least, ennui. Technology pinpointing time of death? Check, seen it in The Ring. A loosely connected web of hot young victims loosely connected by their use of damaging technology? Check, seen it in Pulse. A mother-child evil dynamic? Check, seen it in The Ring and Dark Water. A curse that can't be stopped, and that even circles round for the final girl? Check, seen it in The Ring and The Grudge. A cop investigates? (The Grudge). A curse appears to have passed without the obligatory death, only to claim a different victim than you expected, one who happens to look like (or actually is) Edward Burns? (The Ring).

Without exaggeration, this movie doesn't serve up even one twist on this hackneyed material. If the characters proved especially interesting, or the horror especially egregious and graphic, the tired plot might pass muster. But the protagonists are off-the-shelf and the horror is restrained by the PG-13 rating. The fiilm is also short (87 minutes or so), and the editing appears botched -- like a lot of stuff was trimmed before release. For instance, the great Ray Wise shows up with important flourish in a dynamic supporting role (as a host of the reality series American Miracles) but then disappears from the film without a trace. Where did he go? Jason Beghe (Monkey Shines) also shows up as a charlatan exorcist, but his role is also strangely truncated, and his ultimate fate is not depicted or even commented on.

My biggest complaint with One Missed Call, however, is that the film does not play by any coherent set of rules. In the first scene, for instance, we witness a brutal supernatural attack on a lovely African-American woman near her back-yard fish pond. After she is drowned, an innocent bystander -- her cat -- is also attacked, choked and drowned in a punchy "sting-in-the-tail" moment. As we learn later in the film, however, the only people (or life forms, we presume....) who can be killed by the caller from beyond the grave are those who have received personal voice mails.

So how do you explain the cat's murder? Does it own a cell phone too? Did the feline receive a voice message saying it would be throttled to death at precisely 3:03 pm or some such thing? This is a moment that is staged and executed beautifully as a jolt-scare, but which - upon reflection - makes absolutely no sense and worse, violates all the rules the film attempts to lay down. The thing about these horror movies: they need to make narrative sense; they need to establish rules and stick to them, so that - as the audience - we understand who is in jeopardy, when they are in jeopardy and why they are in jeopardy. It is then necessary for the filmmaker to "play" with those rules to surprise us; but they can't break the rules all together, or it's just...chaos.

The end of the film, which appropriates the climax of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) by the way, is another astonishing rule breaker. The evil is vanquished, dragged back to Hell we presume, by the custodian that Beth has freed from an abandoned hospital (the child's mother...). In one shot, we see the ghostly maternal force ripping the evil tyke right out of our dimension. Wow! Almost the very next shot, however, is a close-up of a cell-phone dialing itself, indicating that the evil child is now seeking out a further victim. So which is it, movie? Is the evil gone? Or is the evil still on the loose? This is one of the most ham-handed and abrupt transitions from climax to sequel set-up I've seen in some time. This movie tries to have it both ways, and neither way works.

I don't want to give the impression that One Missed Call is the worst movie ever made or anything. It boasts a few authentic scares, particularly in the moments involving a surgical theatre and a vent shaft leading into a hospital basement (though even here, I was reminded of the superior Silent Hill). It's just that it's dull and lacking invention. There's absolutely no reason to see One Missed Call because the same type of story is more competently dramatized (in ascending order of their quality): Dark Water, Pulse, The Grudge and The Ring.
So see one of those instead and make this one missed movie.