Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Classic Series: Alien

Amid the deplorable, third-rate horror films that come out on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) seems as fresh and foreign as its title character. Here is a truly frightening film that’s not afraid to take its time. Not only does a good chunk of time pass before any character dies, but several minutes go by before anyone even speaks. The tension and atmosphere build slowly, resulting in a mature masterpiece that more filmmakers should take pointers from.

Set in the future, Alien opens with the mining ship Nostromo returning from a successful mission. Halfway back to Earth, the ship’s computer awakens the small crew (five men, two women) from hypersleep after receiving a broadcast of unknown origin. The crew traces the signal to a wrecked ship on a small planet and sets down to investigate. A small alien creature attacks one of the crew members, bonding itself to his face, and the other crew members lead the victim back to Nostromo. The “facehugger” alien unexpectedly detaches and dies; its victim seems to be fine, but after a much more vicious alien bursts from inside the victim’s chest, the other crew members realize that none of them will be safe while the alien lives.

As far as science fiction films go, Alien has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than with typical sci-fi fare. Long scenes go by with very little dialogue, and overall atmosphere matters more than plot. The opening shots show us the vast emptiness of space and the long, abandoned corridors of Nostromo. Before the human crew awakens, we see what they don’t; a haunting vision of space as a silent, desolate wilderness. I recently saw a gorgeous print of Alien at a local theater, and as the camera moved about the deserted Nostromo early on, audience members seemed very nervous. We’ve been trained by traditional horror films to distrust silences and expect creatures to jump out and scare us, but the initial terror of Alien is more mature in nature: there isn’t anything there at all. The crew awakens to an empty, quiet world in which they are completely alone.

When the crew does appear, they look and sound like normal people. Most horror films are populated with good-looking teenagers who mistakingly wander into some creepy place to have sex. The people of Alien are adults, and they look more like construction workers than movie heroes. Yet again, Alien stands above other films by presenting a simple, believable cast. The characters look about the way you would expect for people on a mining ship to look; they’re typical, garden-variety folks. The cast features great talent; Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and Ian Holm have all become accomplished veterans in the years since Alien, but the other three performers are just as strong. We believe that these are real people caught up in a nightmarish situation.

The alien itself is one of cinema’s great, iconic monsters. The image of the alien is now fairly well-known: the elongated head, the wet, glistening skin, the mouth within the mouth. It’s worth remembering, though, that audiences first went to the theater with no knowledge of the alien’s appearance, and the film used that in its favor. At every turn, we’re given something new to be afraid of. Our first glimpse of alien life is the large egg. The egg produces the facehugger. The facehugger lays an egg in a man’s stomach, and that egg hatches a small, frightening creature with very sharp teeth. The next time we see the alien, it has grown rapidly to the size of an adult man. We never get a really good look at the alien, and the glimpses we do get are creepy as hell. Ridley Scott remembered the oldest and most often-forgot trick in the book: the power of the unseen. I don’t know if Alfred Hitchcock saw Alien before he died in 1980, but I think he would have enjoyed it.

Science Fiction and Horror are two of the least respected genres of cinema, and with good reason; more B-movies have come from those two corners of the film industry than any others, but when a film from one or both of these genres gets everything right, it can be spellbinding and powerful. The sequels became increasingly action-oriented, and therefore less interesting, but the original Alien remains a champion of both Sci-Fi and Horror. Thirty years after its initial release, Alien still wields the power to transfix and frighten. It’s every bit as creepy, chilling, and exceptional as it ever was.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a very strange movie, and whether or not you enjoy it, you won’t be able to deny that fact. I had no hopes for the project when I first heard it announced (a live-action movie based on a beloved picture book is a tough sell), but then came the masterfully edited trailer that set the Internet aflame with high hopes. The film feels kind of like an extended version of that trailer, and all things considered, it’s pretty good. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I do admire Jonze’s vision, and I think it’s a far better picture than most other filmmakers would have made.

The film loosely follows the children’s book of the same name by Maurice Sendak; if you haven’t read it, do so before seeing the film. It will take you all of two minutes. A young boy named Max (played by Max Records) runs around the house causing a ruckus. After disrespecting his mother and yelling, “I’ll eat you up!”, Max runs out of the house, climbs into a small boat, and sails to a land where tall, furry creatures live together in the woods (as an interesting side-note, I don’t think the term “wild things” is ever used in the film). At first, the creatures try to eat Max, but he convinces them to make him their king, promising to fix all of their problems. Max soon learns that even in a fantasy world, you can’t always have everything that you want, nor can you always give it to others.

The most notable triumph of Where the Wild Things Are is its visual aesthetic. It would have been so easy and tempting to throw gobs of computer-generated effects at this movie, but Spike Jonze took the exact opposite approach. The land of the Wild Things looks completely normal, because it was shot in normal locations. Sure, it has a wide variety of terrain; woods, deserts, beaches, etc., but none of the elements look otherworldly. Then, there are the Wild Things themselves. Some of their facial expressions seem to be digitally enhanced, but that’s it; for the most part, they’re brought to life by actors in costumes.

In this age of digitally-rendered hysteria, the Wild Things look almost magical. During the ten minutes or so where Max first encounters the Wild Things and sneaks into their camp late at night, I was completely entranced, and I imagine that little kids will be, too. The creatures look absolutely real, and that’s not to say that they look like anything you would encounter in our real world. When I was a young boy, running around in the woods using my imagination, I never imagined anything that looked like most CG movie creatures. I always imagined tangible, living beings that I could grab hold of and wrap my arms around. The look and feel of this movie took me back to those childhood days, and that is a real feat.

The movie takes itself very seriously. All of the characters’ problems, no matter how silly, are handled as though they’re very significant. The Wild Things speak with normal human voices, instead of gravelly, monster ones, and the main Wild Thing who befriends Max is a male named Carol (James Gandolfini). Carol can be a good friend, but when he loses his temper, you don’t want to be around; actually, for James Gandolfini, playing Carol probably wasn’t too far a cry from playing Tony Soprano. There were several times where I thought the film took itself too seriously. I know it wanted to use its fantasy story to address real-world problems, but it would have benefitted from fewer somber moments and more old-fashioned fun.

The main struggle in adapting such a short book to film is deciding how to fill up the rest of the time. The original Wild Things book contains a sparse ten sentences. While the movie does a good job filling time with light plot elements and long, virtually silent shots, the story and the characters just aren’t all that compelling, making Wild Things more of an experience than a rewarding journey. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adpatation) has a real flair for quirky, art-house type cinema, and I think he was the right choice for this project. He obviously has tremendous respect for the original material, and grounding the movie in realism was a great choice.

I saw Where the Wild Things Are on its opening weekend, and most of the people in the theater were adults; I’m not surprised. People have long spoken fondly of the book, associating it with the best parts of childhood. I think children will be captivated by the film early on, but their attention may wane as the film unfolds. Where the Wild Things Are carries a fairly dark tone, some uneven pacing, and a thin story, but it’s a triumph of atmosphere and style. In its best moments, Where the Wild Things Are reminds us of the magical ups and downs of youth, and that’s more than I had anticipated.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language.

Where the Wild Things Are follows in the tradition of most great children’s movies, in that it’s a bit creepy. Children may be frightened at times, but I think most will be fine. There’s not much to worry about in the way of objectionable content, but some kids may lose interest in the film’s latter-half as the tone and themes are geared more towards adults.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Classic Series: Toy Story

In its own way, Toy Story is as important to film history as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Before Walt Disney released Snow White in 1937, industry insiders referred to the project as “Disney’s Folly,” refusing to believe that a cartoon could hold anyone’s attention for the length of a feature film. In 1995, Pixar Animation faced similar accusations. Computer animation was new and interesting, but could it really be successfully harnessed for a feature? Pixar answered all skeptics with one of the greatest, most endearing animated films ever made.

Toy Story confirms what every child already knows to be true, which is that when no one is around, toys come to life and move about the house. In this case, the toys all belong to a boy named Andy, and Andy’s favorite toy is Woody (Tom Hanks), an old-fashioned cowboy doll, complete with pull-string. The toys get nervous during Andy’s birthday party, afraid of being replaced by cooler, more modern toys. Woody does his best to keep everyone calm, only to become jealous himself of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a new toy who believes himself to be an actual Space Ranger.

The storytellers at Pixar chose the perfect subject matter for their first feature film. Computer animation has a certain unnatural look to it, and whenever computer-animated humans are intended to look real, they often come off as creepy. So, the fact that most of the characters in Toy Story are made of plastic works in the film’s favor. Computer animation has come so far since 1995, yet Toy Story’s visuals continue to impress; tiny details on the toys like plastic ridges and trademark symbols are especially remarkable.

Animation can take us places that live action can’t, and because of that, I’m usually disappointed whenever animation remains grounded and traditional. Toy Story wastes no time in seizing its full potential. During the opening credits, we get great shots from Woody’s point of view as Andy plays with him all over the house, and once the birthday party is underway, Woody sends a squadron of plastic army men on a breathtaking reconnaissance mission. It’s funny to see green-plastic paratroopers leaping from the banister, but it’s actually exciting, too. This brilliant action sequence comes early in the film, assuring us that we’re in for a special experience.

Even more impressive than the animation is the story itself. Because of its original premise and strong character development, Toy Story would still have worked as a hand-drawn film or even as a comic book. Walking out of the theater, my father and I didn’t jump into a discussion about the visuals. We knew we had witnessed the future of animation, but we couldn’t stop talking about the characters. Woody and Buzz Lightyear quickly earned familiarity across pop culture, along with Buzz’s catchphrase: “To Infinity and Beyond!” People connected with Toy Story, and they still do; it reminds us of our childhood. It’s hilarious, and it’s surprisingly heartfelt. Every time I see it, I get completely caught up in the situations, and I find myself actually caring about these toys.

Very few movies ace one of the industry’s toughest tests: appealing across both age and cultural gaps. Pixar repeats this miracle time after time and makes it look easy, but if it really were easy, other studios would do it. In the years following Toy Story, other filmmakers thought computer animation was a magic formula, as though any kids’ film could be computer animated and become successful. The more mediocre films that came out, the better Pixar looked.

Beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney experienced an animation renaissance, but around the mid-to-late-nineties, the quality of Disney’s hand-drawn films began to slip. As Disney’s traditionally-animated movies declined in quality, Pixar partnered with Disney and kept the magic alive. From Toy Story onward, Pixar held the torch of top-notch family entertainment higher than ever, churning out one masterpiece after another. In the early days, Walt Disney believed so firmly in the power of animation that he actually went into debt to complete Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and that level of passion and commitment is apparent in Pixar’s work.

Later this year, Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, its first hand-drawn feature in over five years. I have high hopes for the film, because I believe in the power of hand-drawn animation. However, no matter what cinematic techniques are used, story matters most; Snow White taught us that in 1937, and Toy Story will always be remembered as the film that set that precedent again for a new generation. Many computer animated films have been made and will be made in the future, but I’m so very glad that Toy Story was first.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Informant!

The Informant! is a strange portrayal of a strange man, and it works. It succeeds as many things: an undercover cop story, an awkward, quirky comedy, and an inside look at the life of a criminal. Based mostly on a true story (the film’s opening “true story” disclaimer had the audience chuckling before the credits even rolled), the events portrayed in The Informant! made national news between 1995 and 2006. However, if you go into this movie, as I did, with no knowledge of the story or its outcome, the plot is delightfully difficult to predict. It won’t pick you up or put you down in any big way; it's just a quiet, peculiar, very good movie.

Matt Damon plays Marc Whitacre, a high-ranking executive at ADM, a grain and oil-processing conglomerate. His thoughts guide us along, which are mostly funny, random tidbits that have nothing to do with the action at hand. Under pressure from his wife, Whitacre goes to the FBI and gives information on a global price-fixing scam, becoming the highest-ranking executive to ever be a whistleblower. Now working undercover for the FBI, the odd, scatterbrained Whitacre goes back to work, in over his head and trying desperately to keep his secrets straight.

Damon disappears into the role of Mark Whitacre; halfway through the film, I tried to imagine Damon as Jason Bourne, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around those two being the same actor. Whitacre is nervous and awkward: the last person you’d want going into a meeting with a recording device in his briefcase. There’s a good deal of humor surrounding Whitacre, but it’s very muted and realistic. If you knew this guy in real life, you wouldn’t bust out laughing at every turn; you’d probably just chuckle on the inside. That’s how the humor in the movie is, and it helps place you in the story.

What makes The Informant! so fascinating is the uncertain identity of the title character. The degree to which Whitacre himself is responsible for the criminal activity he’s reporting is constantly in question, thanks to a fantastic script. As one character says late in the film, “It’s very difficult to tell when Mr. Whitacre is telling the truth.” Another character accuses him of being bi-polar, and in light of his random narrations throughout the picture, it seems very possible. The script puts us on unlikely sides of situations, so that as the story unfolds, we’re as suspicious of being lied to as everyone else. The Informant! reveals information gradually, keeping Mark Whitacre a mystery, right to the end.

The Informant! reminded me of Shattered Glass (2003), a largely-overlooked, but very strong, true story about a dishonest journalist. The biggest difference between the two is the ever-present humor. Even in its heaviest moments, The Informant! stays light, thanks to fun music and amusing anecdotes sprinkled throughout. As a director, Steven Soderbergh’s filmography grows more eclectic with each passing year; your odds are good of finding at least one Soderbergh title in every section of your local video store. I usually have strong feelings about his movies, one way or the other, and I’m glad to say that The Informant! is most definitely a winner: a quirky, unique character study, impressive on all fronts.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language.

The language in The Informant! isn’t overly heavy or pervasive, but the standard four-letter words do make enough appearances to warrant an R rating. The plot itself would likely confuse/bore younger viewers. Watch the trailer to get a good feel for the humor and pacing.