Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nope, nothing wrong here.

This is an entry in Steve Carlson's Killer Animal Blogathon at Our Science is Too Tight.

When asked to name his favorite adaptation of his work, Stephen King frequently cites, alongside more prestigious films like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, 1983's Cujo, based on his book about a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a Maine housewife and her 3-year-old son. Released at the start of a decade-long glut of movies of varying quality based on King's work (John Carpenter's Christine and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone were released the same year), Cujo might seem like an arbitrary choice, especially over films by Cronenberg, De Palma and Kubrick. King seems to value Cujo for its lack of an auteur's signature, and for its simplicity, describing it (I'm paraphrasing as I can't find the quote) as a machine that batters the audience mercilessly. Indeed, Cujo is a well-done B movie that succeeds in its modest ambitions. And if that sounds patronizing, I don't mean it that way at all - sometimes I just want to watch a movie that will make me jump when it says "boo," and at this Cujo succeeds admirably.

Director Lewis Teague's version of King's fictional Maine hamlet Castle Rock is very much located in the wondrous 80's-cinema version of small-town life commonly known as Spielbergiana, and not just because E.T.'s Dee Wallace plays a mom in Cujo as well. The film opens with a bucolic scene of the happy, uninfected dog bounding after a rabbit, accompanied by Charles Bernstein's magical John Williams-esque score. When Cujo, poking his nose down a rabbit hole, is bitten by a rabid bat who'd been sleeping in an underground cave, Cujo establishes the same understanding of reality familiar from E.T. and Poltergeist - that magic and mystery, both good and evil, exist just underneath the surface of everyday life. The first half of King's book focuses on the troubled marriage of Donna and Vic Trenton (Wallace and Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and Donna's affair with local hunk Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). The infidelity plot is given less time in the movie; while the book suggests (rather heavy-handedly) that Cujo is fated to teach this family a lesson, in the movie is just a random bad thing happening to basically good people. There's no moral lesson to be learned, just the reminder to appreciate family and the simple things in life because one never knows when one will be attacked by a killer dog.

The back story is also condensed, presumably, because the filmmakers are eager to get to the action. With Vic out of town on business, Donna and son Tad (Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their stalled Pinto at the end of a very rural route. Cujo has already killed his owner, mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), and Donna has to find a way out of the situation before heatstroke and dehydration take her son's life. Teague and cinematographer Jan De Bont (who would later direct Speed and Twister) make excellent use of the claustrophobic setting, and they are aided greatly by the team of effects artists. While Cujo's analog effects aren't seamless, they're quite impressive considering they're pretty much a combination of hand puppets, a guy in a St. Bernard suit and several wet dogs; you more or less believe that Cujo is beating the hell out of Donna's Pinto. The most important elements for suspension of disbelief, however, are the performances; luckily, Pintauro is a believably frightened little boy and Wallace (as in E.T., The Howling and numerous other genre favorites), brings an emotional authenticity to the character that goes above and beyond the character as written. When Donna, caked in dirt, sweat and blood, fights back against Cujo to save her son, Wallace displays a kind of primal warrior mama ferocity that is surprisingly compelling.*

The ending of Cujo deviates from King's book (spoilers ahead). While Tad finally dies of dehydration in the novel's closing pages, he is spared in the movie. While I normally hate it when downbeat endings in literature are made crowd-pleasing when brought to the screen, here I think it is the right choice. While horror stories, which are about upending life as we know it (as George Romero is fond of saying, "upsetting the apple cart"), are often more effective when they do not restore order in the end, Tad's death makes the events of the previous 300 pages meaningless, making it an uncharacteristically nihilistic book for King. The restoration of order at the end of the movie is more appropriate to the story; the movie freeze-frames at the moment the family reunites and all is well in Spielbergiana once again. Like the faulty red dye in Sharp Cereal, Cujo gives a good scare but nobody is really hurt.

*Sidenote: I coincidentally saw Dee Wallace at the Rock and Shock horror convention in Worcester this weekend; she was warm, friendly and endearingly eccentric. I particularly liked her story about being asked by Rob Zombie to voice one of three sexy she-devils in the animated The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. She told Zombie, "I'll only do it if I can be the one with the biggest tits."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do.

"It's quite possible that I'm your third man girl
But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son
And right now you could care less about me
But soon enough you will care, by the time I'm done"

- The White Stripes, "Ball and Biscuit"

The already-famous opening scene of The Social Network is the most hilariously brutal cinematic breakup since Happiness, opening mid-conversation as Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) lectures his date, Erica (Rooney Mara) about the importance of joining a final club. Zuckerberg is a genius who apparently knows little to nothing about how to relate to women and possibly people in general. As he jumps several conversational tracks at once with little concern for having an actual conversation with poor Erica, it seems that either Mark is completely oblivious to his date as a separate person or, worse, his verbal gymnastics are a painfully misguided attempt to wow her with his intellectual prowess. Erica finally cannot take it anymore, and calmly eviscerates Mark's pretensions, informing him that "You're going to be successful, and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole." The ironic suggestion that the most popular social networking site in the world is the invention of a guy who cannot relate to others is at the heart of The Social Network, a film preoccupied with the paradoxical/symbiotic relationship between technology's rapidly evolving role in facilitating communication and my generation's growing tendency towards (preference for?) social isolation. For anyone who has recently found themselves in a room of flesh-and-blood people talking at length about things other people wrote on Facebook and had to repress the urge to scream, The Social Network is frighteningly prescient.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay (based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Merzrich) jumps back and forth effortlessly between the rapid chain of events that led to the creation of Facebook and Zuckerberg testifying in two different lawsuits filed by classmates - twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Arnie Hammer), and Mark's best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), respectively. While the courtroom format is a familiar one (the Sorkin-penned A Few Good Men but one example), Sorkin and director David Fincher are less interested in deciding whether Zuckerberg truly stole Facebook from the Winklevi or broke his contract with Eduardo than in observing their brilliant but often inscrutable protagonist. Mark's bitter, post-breakup creation of Facemash - a Harvard variation of - is crosscut with shots of implausibly attractive coeds literally bussed into a party hosted by one of the most exclusive final clubs at Harvard. It's the chip on his shoulder at having been rejected by women and the WASP elite that starts him on the path to Facebook and his destiny. Later, when co-founder Eduardo is focused on ways to monetize Facebook, Zuckerberg is preoccupied with protecting the site's "cool" status and everything that implies; while Mark is almost always the smartest person in the room, the motivations behind his billion-dollar creation are stunningly adolescent and regressive. Eisenberg is terrific as Zuckerberg, convincing as he coldly demonstrates his intellectual superiority while subtly hinting at the tremendous insecurity barely masked by Mark's smug facade.

It's the pursuit of "cool," that obscure object of desire, that leads Mark to Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), famous in geek circles as one of the founders of Napster. Timberlake is perfect as a Gen Y Mephistopheles, tantalizing Mark with talk of Facebook's billion-dollar potential - Parker is venal, paranoid and ultimately sort of sad, able to provide a Machiavellian path to the future but lacking in any understanding or interest in what, ultimately, the future means. Many have noted/complained that The Social Network doesn't seem very interested in Facebook itself, but I think it's Zuckerberg's relationship with Parker and the damage it does to one of his few ties with humanity that indirectly comments on our relationship with Facebook. Scrolling down my Facebook wall, I might encounter one friend's open letter to President Obama; below that, another friend posting pictures of her child being cute; below that, thinly veiled sexual banter between a friend and her new boyfriend; below that, a heated debate on whether simulated necrophilia is protected by the First Amendment; below that, Farmville. Facebook makes all of us performer and audience to everyone else we know, but it has no inherent meaning besides what we bring to it; it's banal and possibly nihilistic and, like any ubiquitious internet creation, its ultimate meaning is a mystery even as its role and influence in our lives grows every day (the entire course of my life has been drastically altered because of YouTube - I know of what I speak). So it's more than just a witty in-joke that Mark's internet alias is TylerDurden - Zuckerberg is perhaps the ultimate rebel without a clue and the embodiment of the clever, vacant core of Geek Chic.

Putting aside my Jonathan Edwards impression for one moment, whether The Social Network actually intends to raise any of the issues it has provoked in discussion of the film, it succeeds completely on the basis of being a wonderfully entertaining and engaging movie. Sorkin's typically sharp-witted writing has, in the hands of other directors, turned out stagey and unconvincing in the final product; Fincher, however, proves to be the ideal director for Sorkin, his penchant for visual symmetry and technical perfection matching Sorkin's own obsessive precision and rendering the whole thing less show-offy than a logical representation of their obsessive subject scored to a coldly perfect soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (perhaps it is, as Walter Chaw suggested, "an asshole movie about an asshole"). Fincher's exacting direction also results in excellent work from his cast of relative newcomers - Garfield is heartbreaking as the one nice guy in the movie, Hammer is hilarious and weirdly endearing (and there are two of him), and Mara is so terrific in her three short scenes that I'm ready to forgive her for that abysmal Nightmare on Elm Street remake. At its best, The Social Network suggests a 21st century version of a Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond collaboration, films which were also very much of their zeitgeist yet captured something timeless. It's remarkable that the inevitable Facebook movie, which could and logically should have been instantly dated and completely ephemeral, could well prove to be one of the first classic movies of the new decade.