Friday, September 30, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #31 - Hans Beckert

Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of suggestion. A story about a manhunt for a child murderer, Lang's film never shows us any details of the murders. Instead, haunting symbolic images - a stray ball, a balloon caught between telephone lines - leave us to imagine the worst. And we don't get a full look at killer Hans Beckert until halfway through the movie - his threatening presence as he stalks his prey is intimated by shadows, glimpses of a shoulder and his creepy, persistent whistling of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Creating as much menace through his absence from the frame as with his presence, Beckert is a very unsettling cinematic phantom that proves there's truth to the cliche that what we don't see can be as frightening as what we do see.

Much of M is focused on the process of police, civilians and the criminal underground working to catch the killer, and today's procedural dramas, from Zodiac to the many CSIs and Law and Orders, owe a debt to Lang. When the vigilante mob catches up to Beckert, his mock trial presents a cynical view of our collective thirst for vengeance. As M was made during the rise of Nazi Germany (Lang would flee for France a few years later before ending up in Hollywood), the film's distrust of mob mentality is hardly surprising. As Beckert pleads his case to his "court," claiming that he cannot change his nature, the character becomes more human and more frightening for his pathetic submission to his terrible nature.

Peter Lorre is fantastic as Beckert; the childlike eyes and high-pitched voice that would serve him well in films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and, later, Roger Corman's Poe adaptations are used to chilling effect here. When his gaze is fixed on a child, Lorre is able to communicate volumes about the monster beneath his deceptively benign surface and the unspeakable urges that drive him. And though Grieg has become a huge cliche in horror movie trailers, it has never been as effective.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rise of the Transforming Penguins: Part II - What I Saw On My Summer Vacation

This summer went by far too quickly. That isn't a complaint; actually, it was the best summer I can remember. After a hectic couple of years, I was finally able to relax and have a lot of fun with my family. This is why I missed writing more about summer movies as they were released; of course, it didn't help that the movies themselves were such a blur. Both the good and bad movies arrived, received a ton of press, and were on their way to the Wal-Mart bargain bin in a few weeks, replaced by the next big thing. Even the record-breaking final Harry Potter movie was gone from most of the local multiplexes by Labor Day. What little there was to say about the summer blockbusters had already been said many times over by the time I got a chance to see them. Now that things have slowed down and before the fall movie season kicks into high gear, I'll try to recap my impressions of the summer.

In May, my girlfriend Jen and I ventured to the Milford Drive-In for the one-two sucker punch of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Thor. On Stranger Tides was the worst kind of blockbuster sequel, a completely soulless machine desperately trying to keep alive a series that ran out of interesting ideas two movies ago. The previous sequels were equally pointless, but they were at least mildly interesting thanks to director Gore Verbinski's knack for appropriately epic images and grandiose setpieces. Thanks to Oscar-nominated hack Rob Marshall, On Stranger Tides looks and feels like a half-assed TV show, just like his other movies (it's stunning that this guy is a huge Bob Fosse fan). The plot is instantly forgettable and the "humor" rests entirely on the mistaken notion that Johnny Depp is inherently hilarious as Captain Jack Sparrow - in order for the character to work, he needs a real movie to subvert, not a 140-minute sketch designed to worship him. It was painful that On Stranger Tides made a billion dollars, and worse that so many of my friends gave it a pass solely because of their affection for Depp. Stop being enablers, guys.

Thor wasn't nearly as bad, but I was sort of baffled about its glowing reviews. It's half epic CGI-loaded kitschfest - Flash Gordon without the irony - and half fish-out-of-water comedy that worked better in Star Trek IV. Director Kenneth Branagh could have made this work - most of his movies, good or not, are kind of campy. But it also has to set up the Avengers movie, meaning it stops in its tracks for lots of dull exposition about SHIELD (it's good to be Clark Gregg right now). Honestly, Jen slept through most of it and I nodded off for a good portion of the middle. It was still a fun night - it was the drive-in, after all - but it's not a good sign when the tall evergreens behind the screen become more compelling to look at than the feature.

As far as comic book movies go, X-Men: First Class was much more successful. The biggest surprise of the Matthew Vaughn-helmed prequel was how much fun it is - even at their best, X-Men and X2 had a weighty self-importance (or a self-important weightiness?) that kept me from completely loving them. The dumbed-down X3 certainly wasn't preferable, but First Class is fueled by a healthy appreciation for pulp, from the sick reveal of Nazi villain Kevin Bacon's office to the snazzy retro production design to the appropriation of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the backdrop for a mutant origin story. The cast is strong, particularly Michael Fassbender as a young, angry Magneto on his way to becoming the mutant freedom fighter played by Ian McKellan. There's a cameo that ranks among the all-time best. And how can I not love a movie where (SPOILER) Kevin Bacon can absorb energy? (END SPOILER)

One of the movies I was most looking forward to was Super 8, J.J. Abrams' homage to Spielberg's '70s/'80s aesthetic. The trailer promised a throwback to the magic of E.T., Close Encounters and Joe Dante's Explorers. And it hits that sweet spot in the relationship between young protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) and his dad (Kyle Chandler) as they struggle with the loss of Joe's mother, and in Joe and his friends' quest to finish their no-budget zombie movie. The relationships between the kids are handled sensitively and believably, and it made me nostalgic for my childhood friends and our own earnest attempts to realize our dreams. The movie's not quite the classic it wants to be, mostly because the extraterrestrial aspects of the story never quite cohere with the kids' emotional journey (as E.T. does so beautifully). But it's still a lot of fun, and the scene where Joe and the girl he's smitten with (Elle Fanning) run lines for the zombie movie takes on unexpected emotional resonance.

Probably the biggest shock of the summer is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon wasn't completely terrible. The limitation of the 3D cameras force Michael Bay to tone down his ADD-spectacular editing style and design actual shots with a purpose. The result is some surprisingly striking images and one of the few 3D movies to justify the extra dimension (the others being Avatar and Piranha). Of course, the movie's still coked-up, obnoxious, crass and frequently stupid. But Bay traded the previous movie's Minstrelbots for a bronzed John Malkovich, so on the whole it's an improvement. Now let us never speak of it again.

Then there's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (or, as one local theatre's marquee called it, Harry Potter 2), which I heard more than one person my age describe as the defining movie experience of our generation. The midnight screening I attended certainly felt like geek Woodstock, and it was exciting to have that collective experience with a rapt audience. It's been hard to write about the Harry Potter series without repeating myself because the movies are so consistent - well-crafted prose with occasional moments of poetry (The Prisoner of Azkaban , Order of the Phoenix and the Nick Cave scene in Deathly Hallows: Part I remain the highlights). I was happy they left in Mrs. Weasley's best line, and genuinely moved by Snape's memories and Harry's meeting with the spirits of his family and teachers (both book and film series can be read as a gradual acceptance of the inevitable loss of all of our mentors). It may not be the defining movie of my generation, but it's easy to see why the boy wizard's speaks to grown-ups as much as kids.

If there's one thing that was disappointing this summer, it was the relative lack of solid counter-programming. There was The Tree of Life, a movie I've already argued about and will write about in greater detail once I can wrap my head around it. And Midnight in Paris, which I sadly missed. And Bridesmaids (which I wrote about here) was of course fantastic (I haven't seen The Hangover: Part II, and I hope it's better than I've heard). I thought One Day would be a nice, light romantic alternative, but it was surprisingly crappy. The biggest problem is Dexter (Jim Sturgess), the prick who is best friends with Emma (Anne Hathaway). As they engage in a 20-year will-they-or-won't-they, Dexter proved to be such a repugnant character, so completely devoid of any attractive or redeeming qualities, that I couldn't figure out why Emma would want to spend 15 minutes with the guy, let alone spending decades of her life pining for him. Hathaway's all-around loveliness can't save One Day from the couple's lack of chemistry, a gimmicky structure that thinks it's more clever than it is and a painfully cliched ending that renders the whole movie nihilistic (and not in a good way). Oh well, at least I have Hathaway as Catwoman to look forward to.

Besides The Tree of Life and Bridesmaids, the two best movies of the season were both late-summer surprises. After the brutal disappointment of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake, I tried not to get too excited for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I had nothing to worry about, as the Rupert Wyatt-directed prequel is everything I wanted it to be and more. James Franco stars as a terrible scientist who injects apes with genius genes in order to find a cure for Alzheimer's, completely fails at finding a cure and creates awful consequences for humanity in the process. As his pal Cesar, a super-smart chimp whose cruel mistreatment by humans motivates him to organize the ape uprising, Andy Serkis gives his best motion capture performance yet. The effects wizards at WETA do an outstanding job of making Cesar and his fellow revolutionaries believable characters. But what's terrific about the movie is that the effects and action setpieces are completely at the service of the story. The movie has a solid screenplay that intelligently engages with the "oppressed minority" subtext that made the original movies so great. By the end of the movie, you're actively rooting for the apes to beat the bejesus out of the humans; in an age of empty CGI spectacle, it's startling to be this moved by completely artificial characters. Here's hoping for a sequel - Viva la Revolucion!

I was also uncertain about Fright Night - I'm very fond of the original, and the remake's trailer was very iffy. Luckily, writer Marti Noxon and director Craig Gillespie remain expand upon the themes that made the original so memorable. Here, vampire-next-door Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is a sexy, charismatic threat to teenage nerd Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin). It's no coincidence that Charlie is a virgin; Jerry, who threatens to seduce and corrupt Charlie's out-of-his-league girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), would be Charlie's worst nightmare even if he wasn't a vampire. The movie understands the anxieties of geeky teenage boys all too well; Jerry's monologue about his girlfriend's "scent" is one of Ferrell's and best moments; he's sleazy and horny and clearly having a ball throughout the movie. The script is clever, David Tennant (the former Doctor Who) is hilarious as a Criss Angel-esque "dark magician," the desert atmosphere of the Las Vegas setting is very effective and there are a handful of great "Boo!" moments. Fright Night died quickly at the box office, so here's hoping it eventually finds the audience it deserves.

The most fun I've had at the movies this year, hands down, have been the times Jen and I have taken the kids with us. Luna and Tom's first trip to the movies was in July, to see Winnie the Pooh, and it was the perfect choice. It's a wonderful throwback to the classic Disney shorts, and Tom sat, popcorn in hand, eyes glued to the screen the entire time. Luna was just as interested with the theatre itself, and spent much of the movie checking out the vast, cavernous auditorium. Their second trip was a bargain matinee of Mr. Popper's Penguins, and while they weren't as into that one, Tom is now very interested in penguins - Happy Feet has joined the daily rotation with other favorites like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Toy Story, Spider-Man and Tron: Legacy (both kids are fascinated at the concept of travelling INSIDE the computer).

Luna's tastes are a bit more sophisticated - she asks me to save episodes of Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm to watch with her. But she's not too mature to enjoy childish things - my best memories of the summer are the time spent at the playground, the awed look on their faces when Toot and Puddle visited the local library, our first trip to the beach and the near-religious experience Luna had at her first carnival. And when we recently took them to see The Lion King, they were both riveted. Everything I love about movies can be summed up in the moment, as the lights came up, when Luna exclaimed, "That was great!"