Thursday, January 26, 2006

Does Any of This Need to Be Done on the Airplane? : RED EYE (2005)

With the exception of the first two Scream films, Mr. Wes Craven has never made a film I admire or can recommend as "good." With Red Eye, his track record remains unchanged.

I love when thrillers of all stripe are as unbelievable and outlandish as their makers can dream them to be. I believe we all do. That's the startling theme of Brian De Palma's most brilliant meta-thrillers. That's why Hitchcock noted that his films are "slices of cake," not "slices of life": not only are they perfect entertainments, but they don't mirror reality. We don't criticize North by Northwest as ridiculous only because it posits itself as ridiculous. This is why David Fincher's The Game kind of works for me, but Panic Room doesn't. Invite careful examination of your narrative reality, and the average dope can tear apart the plot of any thriller. The trick is to not invite that questioning.

Spoilings Ahoy!

Post-9/11 security fails utterly,
where only a plucky girl succeeds, in Red Eye!

So Red Eye concerns Rachel McAdams as Lisa Risert, head desk clerk at a hotel, who finds herself trapped on a plane next to Mr. Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, still handsome, but now inexplicably terrible). Rippner gives her a damned-if-you-do choice: either his henchman kills her dad (Brian Cox on ultra-casual day), or she assists in a plot to kill the Homeland Security chief. As their lives hang in the balance, Dad pads around the house in sweatpants, watches TV and makes the occasional attempt at American accent ("Your room hasn't bean touched"), while the HS chief edges ever nearer his hotel room death trap!

Ladies and gentlemen, how can our wide-eyed and dull heroine figure into this terrorist plot? By phoning the hotel from the plane, and having the victim moved to a different hotel room. That's the choice: make a phone call possibly resulting in the death of a near stranger, or have your father tortured and murdered. This takes Lisa hours and hours of deliberation.

In his review of The Hearse (1980), Roger Ebert talks about "The Idiot Plot," which only works if every character involved is a moron. Red Eye only works if screenwriter Carl Ellsworth is a moron. Not only does Red Eye not even offer bullshit-thriller explanations for its plot contrivances, not only does it beg dozens of questions of the average viewer, but it is as if these problems never occurred to anyone involved.

Riddle me this, Messrs. Ellsworth and Craven: What kind of plan is this?!

Nothing in the terrorist conspiracy plan makes sense, from execution to result. The end-product of the crime is to execute the Homeland Security chief by blowing apart his hotel room with a missile. As a political move, this makes no sense - the Homeland Security chief will simply be replaced. As an of terror it's enormously expensive and not-terrifying. The symbolic gesture is nowhere near as security-shaking for Americans as the 9/11 attacks, which only involved investment in a couple of flight lessons and the price of a boxcutter.

The attack consists of blowing apart a hotel room. This involves the complex smuggling of a surely-expensive missile, the off-chance of the target being in his room, and the success of the A Plot's room-switcheroo. Why the assassins cannot simply explode the entire building with domestic ingredient bomb, as real terrorists are wont to do, is not addressed.

But honestly, Red Eye's political assassination is an excuse to justify the story taking place on the airplane. The movie wants to play off our stranger-phobia. The real question isn't "what if the life of the Homeland Security chief were in your hands?" but "what if the cute guy you met at the airport were a killer?" It's hard to reconcile the close-quarters human plane drama with the far-flung political terror nonsense, either in emotional or story logic terms.

Red Eye draws attention to its own shoddy plotting by trying to play up the security paranoia of post-9/11 airport culture. The central gimmick is that Rippner is threatening Lisa in the middle of a packed airplane. Let us accept for a moment that international terrorists find it feasible to hire a domestic hitman to follow a hotel employee for weeks at a time to get personal information about her, so that he can charm her in an airport lounge... rather than just blowing up the target's car or something. It's supposed to be tense that there are a hundred people around, but no one Lisa can turn to for assistance. Instead, it leaves one wondering why this course of action is the most logical for Rippner.

All he needs is a telephone. Given the appalling security of this airline, it should have taken two minutes to grab Lisa in the parking lot, jam a knife in her ribs, and force her to make a phone call. Or indeed kidnap her. Or indeed have some other woman call the hotel, pretending to be Lisa. Does any of this really need to be done on the airplane?

As dopey as all this is, there's something far more wrong with Red Eye. And it's the thing the film seems most proud of, and so far as I can tell by informal conversation, the element most admired by Red Eye defenders: the character of Lisa Risert.

I'm going to seriously "spoil" the end of the picture here, but I think this needs to be addressed. Red Eye desperately wants to be in the genre-subversive female empowerment vein of Alien or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

First of all, the history of female empowerment in mysteries, thrillers, and horror films is richer and far longer than popularly given credit. From Nancy Drew to Susperia to Carrie to Kill Bill, the fantastique is loaded with heroines who survive specifically by the grace of their feminine cunning.

Secondly, I want to propose a more deeply subversive reading of the thriller genre and its nutty cousin, the slasher picture, in which the endless peril, abuse, death and general trouble faced by female characters is caused by destructive elements male sexuality and/or power. This isn't the time or place to get too detailed, but in brief, if you want to be critical of (or simply honest about) this dynamic, you have to show it in action. It may take an articulated feminist mission statement like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for this to be explicitly understood. But this tension is present in interesting ways - be they sophisticated or naive - in everything from Rear Window to Halloween. I'm not claiming these are feminist works, I'm proposing that their gender schematics have possible unexplored nuances.

Red Eye presents an exceptionally irritating character in Lisa, a woman the screenplay tries very hard to sell as a young woman super-competent and preternaturally adept at her career. Unfortunately, while being a hotel desk clerk is certainly stressful, there is not much thrill to be had in watching someone breeze through rudimentary customer service tasks. Look, the job just isn't that hard. A hilarious early scene has Lisa on the phone with a nervous newbie desk clerk, talking her through a difficult transaction. It plays like a brain-numbing version of the death-bed composing scenes of Amadeus.

Hawkeye Pierce's most frequent surgical lesson is put to new use
in Mr. Craven's Eye Am Curious (Red)

All this is just innocently silly, and on par with the rest of the movie -- the appalling and hollow "flirty" dialogue that falls out of McAdams and Murphy's mouths in the aiport lounge is less Meet Cute than Meet Retarded, and when a character is stabbed in the throat with a pen, he does not shed a drop of blood, and spends the next half hour running and fighting non-stop. But it's also the first brick in Lisa's seriously fumbled character arc.

In a third act backstory revelation, we learn that Lisa's ambition is a symptom of (overcompensating? Coping?) having previously been raped at knifepoint. So the arc will be that she goes from victim to digging deep in her self-reliance flightbag, save the Homeland Security chief, and her Pops, and kill the bad guy. The film has in no way earned Lisa's victimization story, but that's the idea. But no. No, Red Eye gives us a woman who goes from being a rape victim to... being rescued by her dad.

But Red Eye makes very clear what point it's attempting to make about its heroine, and promptly fails to bear out that mission. Which is kind of a singular achievement, in its own way.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"David Wanted the Feeling That You Were Completely Fucked": Forty Reasons Why ALIEN 3 Sucks

At this point in David Fincher's career, with his thematic concerns and recognizable technique firmly in place, it is tempting to return to Alien 3 (1992) for reevaluation. In common complaint/ explanation for box office failure, the film is too dark and mean-spirited (or in frequent dismissive misnomer, "nihilistic") for popular tastes, or bucks the expectations of franchise fans. I feel those explanations are passive-aggressive judgments that indicate the movie is too sophisticated for the multiplex set who ate up the precedingAliens. And I think they're wrong.

I understand the impulse of any Fincher fan capable of complex grappling with Se7en and Fight Club, to retroactively apply what they've found to Alien 3. For all of those films' grim images and storylines fraught with destruction, Se7en is ultimately meditative about our violent world, and filled with hope, and Fight Club a jet black sick joke satire. They're difficult works because their protagonists spend the majority of the running time with their brains at thematic odds with Fincher's ultimate messages. But Alien 3 is not Se7en in embryonic form; Alien 3 is just a bloody mess.

There are a multitude of reasons why this happened, long explanations of how it happened, and a hundred reasons the defensive can give about why none of this is David Fincher's fault. Those stories aren't of concern in the below list. I don't care whose fault it is.

Most terrifying place is jail? A giant fan? Oh, oh, you're trying to imply "Earth," aren't you? Ha ha. You wish.

1. Creature redesign

The idea is that the Alien partially replicates the anatomy of its host is not one that tickles me particularly in the first place. Because a) it's the idea of The Thing, b) it's a latter-day rule-rewrite. The first two films have bipedal monsters, but no concrete explanation that they've somehow absorbed human DNA. The idea doesn't particularly make sense, and these guys are complicated enough anyway. So when the Alien sucks up some rottweiler DNA, it's both confusing and a disappointing bad design. Part of what works for the original Giger design is the recognizable human elements poking through the biomechanics and ectoplasm.

2. Nothing happens

Until the grand finale, the essential plot is repeated wholesale from Alien. Just as James Cameron is proud that his sequel expanded the story, character, world and logically extended the narrative from the first film, so should Alien 3 be a little ashamed that it collapses back into the smothering Ten Little Indians-in-space story of Alien. There's a bunch of people trapped in dark hallways, and they get killed despite their best efforts. Any illusion that Ripley's character arc does anything but leapfrog backwards is strictly motion-control.

3. Nihilism confuses series themes

I suppose when people call Alien 3 "nihilistic," they're referring to the ending. No one says it about the other films, which are just as much about slaughtering every character one by one. It must be that Alien lets a cute orange cat live. This isn't the time to discuss a reading of Ripley's sacrifice at the end of Alien 3, but whether you consider it bleakly beautiful and noble, or a cynical last-ditch compromise, it confuses the issue of Ripley's survivor instinct. There's a point being made in Alien and Aliens about Ripley's singular ability to survive the creatures, a point about the character, the nature of female resilience, and sheer blue-collar gutsiness. If self-sacrifice were ever an option for Ripley, she could've simply blown-up her escape pod at the end of Alien. She could've told Newt to haul Bishop into the Sulaco and get off the platform while she distracted the Queen with a power loader scuffle. But Ripley doesn't do those things. But she is awfully eager to jump into a fire-pit in Alien 3 before exhausting all other options.

4. Newt autopsy

Even after nine seasons of "X-Files," and nightly "Forensic Files" viewing, Newt's autopsy is particularly unpleasantly staged. The physical and psychic ickiness of a nude child being cut open would be fine the scene were there to drive home Ripley's cool determination to confront the Alien at all personal cost. Instead it seems like a cruel joke on the character. Take that, Rips.

5. Alien life-cycle...

... altered and confused. So where do Queens come from? How do they plant their babies in chests? Because I don't see any huge facehugger finger welts on Ripley's face.

6. EEV scan hides SFX

There is very cool special-effects work somewhere behind the fake-o video noise on the medical scan of Ripley's torso. Somewhere in there is a little puppet of a baby Alien Queen. One presumes anyhow, that is what freaks out Ripley and Aaron on the monitor. But you know what? If I didn't know already, I couldn't tell you that.

7. Where's the acid blood?

The most giddily retarded idea about the Alien is that it has acid blood. It's also the most ripe with possibility for interesting ways to damage bodies, objects, and sets. Maybe I'm just overly infatuated with Alien: Resurrection, which is obsessed with the acid blood. And maybe the acid doesn't matter as much without the threat of it "eating through the hull." But Alien 3 seems to hate the acid blood.

8. Clemens' secret

Ripley finds a sort-of friend with the sort-of nice prison doctor, not because they have any chemistry, but he's the only non-fanatic or person with any conversational skills on the planet. So why is he so twitchy when asked why he's on Fiorina 161? If you guessed "he's a prisoner," blue-ribbon dumbbell screenwriting machine points for you. But can you guess why he's a prisoner? If you even bother to guess, the joke's on you. It doesn't matter, and isn't terribly interesting after all the build-up. Nor does it enrich his character. Nor does it enrich Ripley's character that she still trusts Clemens after learning of his crime. It's not like she has much choice.

9. "Religion"

A big, presumably Symbolic idea of the prison world is that the convicts have all become monk-like religious converts. The film is astute enough to make this manifest in costume design; the men are shaved bald and wearing heavy robes for diegetic and metaphorical reasons. Unfortunately the nature of this religion is neither spelled out, nor tied-up with the story in literal or figurative ways. You can't just stick a big cross made of junk on the planet's surface and expect us to do the symbolic work for you.

10. Dillon's speech

In a magnificent eyeball-roller of a scene, Charles S. Dutton's Dillon gives a top-of-his-lungs pep talk to his fellow prisoners. It's the kind of locker room team pump-up nonsense that could've easily been in less tasteful writers' first drafts of Alien or Aliens. "You're all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin' knees, begging? I ain't much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothing! So I say fuck that thing! Let's fight it!" Indeed. That Alien never gave him anything. So fuck it. Who would think a mere ex-thug murderer contained such eloquent and passionate speech in his reformed criminal heart? No wonder these men look to him as a leader. Let's fight it!

11. Toxic waste room = no payoff

Please tell me in detail about the place where you can trap the Alien, including the room's history, and set up an elaborate plan, and then follow through on none of these things.

12. The Warrior and the Queen

It's a scary moment, and a great trailer clip, when the Alien sticks its face in Ripley's and hisses. Then it runs away. Because, you see, Ripley has a baby Queen inside her. Instead of letting the most precious of chestbursters be carried around by a woman who wants to destroy it, mightn't the Alien wish to cocoon the host to prevent damage to Her Royal Slimeness? It's not unheard-of protocol to cocoon rooms full of colonists simply to host regular hoppy Aliens. And judging by their behavior in Aliens, warriors will do anything, including self-sacrifice, to protect the Queen... unless, stipulates Alien 3, she hasn't popped out yet.

13. "I can't do it myself" : Ripley pusses out

I don't believe there's anything Ripley can't will herself to do, including kill herself if necessary. If she can't, it's because there's still another way out. The situation doesn't seem particularly more dire in the middle of the film than at the finale: the Company is coming either way. So. I say we fight it!

14. Last survivor

Part of the Ripley Thing is - er, was- that she's literally the last man standing in the face of interplanetary rape-menace in Alien, and fights all comers and homewreckers (also literally) to reconstruct a figurative family in Aliens. She fights forces which attack the heart (and chest!) of female values and not only stops them, but comes out on top. In Alien 3 she sacrifices herself that she may a) kill her metaphorical baby and b) let a sole ex-convict escape from Hell. This doesn't resonate; it thuds.

15. "I am a murderer and rapist of women": Dillon's arc

Dillon doesn't change in any appreciable way. Seismic character shifts are not a requirement of good drama by any means, though I think the film is trying hard to indicate Dillon's moved from asshole to saint. Certainly his selfless sacrifice is the inspiration for Ripley's a few minutes later. If anything, his bone-headed tough-love spirituality is vindicated... which is out of place in Fincher's larger body of work, and this secular series. As Miss Haley Mills says in Pollyanna, "he sure does sermonize somethin' fierce!" But so far as I can tell, the other prisoners listen to him because he will beat them up with a pipe if they do not.

16. Ugly without poetry

There's an undeniable effort to make the movie look like... something. To make it look dirty, wet, rusty, gooey, uncomfortable and hazy. But the same adjective list can be hauled out again for Se7en, which is beautiful, and for a whole host of stylish films outside Fincher's oeuvre, not least of all Alien. There's no grandeur, even in the large sets. There's no eccentric, interesting detail in the small sets. The only attractive element of the generally lusterluss photography is the color-coding of the chilly blue morgue, orange fan shaft and red furnaces, but it can't save the uninspired designs.

17. Alien-cam

It's disappointing to see what the world looks like through the Alien's eyes, but we do repeatedly in the final "leadworks trap" chase sequences. It's a demystifying idea of a mythic monster, and besides, the silly image distortion may indicate the beast sees less clearly than humans. The spinning Steadicam perspective could be a woozy thrill in another context, but we should not peer through the eyes this most unknowable of creatures. Especially since they don't appear to have eyes.

18. Leadworks trap: What? Who? Where?

The entirety of Panic Room plays like an apology or penance for the theoretical action climax of Alien 3. It's possible to watch the sequence and think you've seen the same screaming bald guy run down the same hallway five times. The later film is obsessed with making sure we know measurements, comprehend spatial relationships, and technical details of room layout all so that we may confirm that the outrageous suspense gimmicks are playing by the meticulously established rules. Alien 3 can't bother to show us a blueprint.

19. Underused Postlethwaite

Pete Postlethwaite plays one of a dozen identifying-mark-less inmates. If you'd told me it was possible to make matinee action junk so bland even Postlethwaite wouldn't make an impression, I'd direct you to The Lost World to prove you wrong. Zero opportunities for one of the best character actors alive to do anything weird, funny or memorable.

20. Only interesting characters wasted early

Problems with Clemens' backstory aside, he and Warden Andrews are the closest the film musters to believably shaded characters. This is mostly due to Brian Glover's funny performance as Andrews and Clemens being the only inmate who does more than scream or grumble. Andrews is wasted in an early surprise attack that boils down to a failed jump-scare gag. I suppose Clemens' early demise is intended as a variation on the Psycho-style shocking death. The secret of why this works for Psycho is that you end up following the most darkly appealing character after you lose your surrogate. In Alien 3 there's no one you'll want to spend time with.

21. Ripley's loooong gestation

Just me, or do these things take longer to incubate as the series progresses? Kane was only awake for a few minutes before he blew blood and Maypo all over the breakfast table, and he was in bad shape before that. But here Ripley is running around all day with occasional indigestion pains.

22. "This is a maximum security prison, and you have no weapons of any kind?"

I've got to share Ripley's disbelief here. It's a "cool" what-if plot conceit, battling Aliens without firepower, but best save it for another story. Another story not set in a place that would most certainly have weapons.

23. Bishop didn't wake them up?

I'll suspend my disbelief and assume that somehow, at some point at the end of Aliens, the Queen got inside the Sulaco for a minute and squirted out a couple eggs. Or whatever. I'm a little stumped as to why some monitoring system in Bishop or the flight computer didn't alert the crew and shake them out of hypersleep the very second the motion detectors picked up lifeforms. Or does Wayland-Yutani program computers to kindly smooth over all plot holes?

24. Golic disappears

One of the prisoners is driven mad by witnessing Alien attacks and is taken, wounded and gibbering, to the infirmary. Then he disappears from the movie. The studio-apology extended cut does explain this by restoring a goofy subplot which also pays off the toxic waste room. The point I'm trying to make isn't that the demented-Golic-frees-captured-Alien plot was crucial or well written. It's that the story was carelessly excised, leaving all the set-ups still clinging to the rest of the film. Then Data runs in and tells the reporter they saw an octopus.

25. Fury 161 back-story: What?

So it's a prison planet. But it's also a leadworks. But then they decided to close the leadworks. But they let some guys stay on it. Because you gotta have some guys looking after your closed-down leadworks! So it's a maximum security prison where a warden and assistant are paid full wages to look after 25 prisoners, and expenses are covered for semi-regular supply ships to fly out. Because that is money very well spent instead of moving a handful of prisoners out of the abandoned factory and into a real prison.

26. Hicks is dead. Let's fuck!

I'm sure the logic here is that any of us, after having been through so much exhausting adventure and prolonged isolation as Ripley, would need to get laid. That much is true. Problem is, the last exhausting adventure she went through was coping with the loss of the last man with whom she connected. Your personal take on if Hicks and Ripley relationship is your business, but my feeling is: it's the kind of thing where you know you're going to be in love in a month, as soon as shit calms down. Promiscuity and/or self-destructiveness is not an infrequent part of the mourning process. Kieslowski's Blue is partly a poetic, lump-in-throat examination of this phenomenon. I do not get the feeling Alien 3 has any psychology so complicated in mind. Besides the bad-taste disrespectful timing for Ripley, as the only successful literal sex in the first three films, it pales in compare to the clever and sweet metaphorical sex scene in Aliens. If you missed it, it's the one where Hicks shows Ripley how to handle his pulse rifle.

27. Shh! There's an alien. Don't tell anyone!

Ripley may be soured on warning people about the Alien after suffering Steve-McQueen-in-The-Blob Syndrome in Aliens. But it's different when you're locked up in a building with the monster. So why she needs to beat around the bush even after making friends with kindly Dr. Clemens, I cannot tell you.

28. Outrunning the beast

I heard this kid saying once that if he made an Alien movie, the first rule would be if a human and an Alien were on screen together? That human was dead meat. No chance of survival. You don't see an Alien and live.

That's a dorky way to put it, but... he was right.

29. So isn't the queen alive?

Aliens can float around in space without dying. They can be coated in molten lead and live. Please tell me why we should think the chestburster queen is successfully killed in Ripley's lava swan-dive?

30. Missed opportunity: repressed sexuality

Someone had the twisted good taste to hire H.R. Giger to design a creepy-sexual monster (O'Bannon and Scott will both take credit, but O'Bannon not taking credit is like Alien 5: Jonesy's Story: ain't gonna happen). And by the end of Alien: Resurrection, Whedon and Jeunet have the smarts to let Ripley tongue-kiss the monster and roll around on the Queen's giant slimy labia. So where, in this entry about men isolated from women, where the only sexuality on display is a mercy-fuck and a near rape, is any semblance of the Alien as a psychosexual metaphor? It's unfair to judge a film for what it doesn't even attempt to do, but it seems the story is halfway to acknowledging this idea, and chickens out.

31. Tell me one thing about any of these guys

What are David and Troy like? Do you even recognize those men from their names? How does William feel about Ripley's presence on Fiorina? The first film was notoriously brief in the character department, but I can tell you the Nostromo crew's names, funny things they did, how they feel about other specific crew members, and how they fit into the ship's social dynamic. Over the course of incarceration, the Fiorinans have developed no dynamic except that Dillon is a blowhard.

32. Opticals all suck

Moaning about special effects is normally dullard's film criticism, but the image compositing is really distracting here. Did they forget to light the puppet like it was running through the same dark hallway as the guy two steps ahead? It's slipshod matte work on objects that are otherwise moving in a convincing manner.

33. Boring set design

Corridor. Corridor. School nurse office. Cafeteria. Junkyard. They're boring locations - surely they would've worked in that abandoned warehouse that features in all low-budget cops and robbers pictures if they could have. Alien, after returning from the jaw-dropping derelict ship, is mostly set in corridors, kitchens and medical labs. But from the padded womby Mother computer chamber to the dining room that suggests an operating theatre, to that strange cathedral filled with nothing but a jungle of hanging chains and dripping water, the first film proves there are ways to make everyday settings beautiful, striking, or at worst interesting. Alien 3 certainly has a lot of corridors. I think. I'm not positive, because they all look like the same corridor.

34. Fire trap: no payoff

There are scenes - excitingly different, but linked by nature - in the first two films, where firepower is assembled (Dallas with flamethrower, Colonial Marines with guns), Aliens are hunted, and humans are ambushed. In those scenes, the humans fail because "superior firepower" ain't enough if you can't see where the monster is coming from. Thematically, it's a matter of learning to master those dark spaces and traps and use them as intuitively as the thing you fear, and use single-function tools in a nontraditional manner; mastery and cleverness which Ripley is eventually able to achieve. In 3, the trap to use noxious fire chemicals to lure the Alien down the correct corridors fails because some idiot drops a match.

It's funny, I would normally like a film set in a universe so capricious. However, I want some kind of narrative and thematic development (and yes, yes, series continuity), not repeated rug-pulling.

35. We want facehuggers!

Might just be that James Cameron seemed as fascinated by facehuggers as Jeunet is by acid blood, and they don't want to overdose us on the little guys. This movie does everything possible to avoid showing us any huggies, though.

36. Less gore is more in THIS?

Everything from little girls to cute dogs get their torsos ripped apart in Alien 3. So why does Fincher occasionally cut away from some deaths? Variety? Look, as long as you're doing Slaughter High in a space prison, you might as well give us the stylish death scenes that are the lifeblood (and have the high-style potential) of the slasher genre.

37. Rape! Now we're pals

As attempted rape scenes go, Alien's moments during Ash's meltdown wherein he tries to mouth-sodomize Ripley with a rolled-up girlie magazine are scarier, more bizarre and somehow more on the money. Alien 3 has Ripley getting jumped in the rainy junkyard, which is kind of a metaphor for the movie. At least she gets saved by burly black fellows both times, in a rare nod to series unity. The problem is, I don't buy that Ripley would give two figs about any of these people after this incident.

The beasts close in on Ripley: but who is worse? The Alien, or the company that wants it for a weapon?! WHO IS WORSE? WHO? WHO? NOOOOO!

38. Quit wandering around, you!

Nobody in this movie wants her running around, but for unexplained plot-necessary reasons, everyone refuses to take any steps to confine Ripley! Not the Aliens, not even a prison warden, whose only job is to imprison people. Instead Warden Andrews screams at her not to leave the doctor's office, and she pouts.

39. Look, show the shark, or don't show the shark

Alien makes the choice to keep its main creature's shocking visage in the shadows, for maximum impact of its rare appearances. Alien: Resurrection makes the choice that, as Mr. Jeunet has said, we all know what the Alien looks like; the mystery is gone. You might just as well show it, and let yourself make a more balls-out "monster movie." Similar to the film's sometimes-graphic, sometimes-coy gore, the Aliens are variously revealed like some big secret, and shown in full light for entire action sequences.

40. Title

The only series title with a numeric tag, 3 is a nothing title, and looks foolish next to three other cleverly named films. At least, given the boring possibilities, the logo designers came up with ane eye-catching, numeral-decreasing way to typeset the title on an absolute stunner of a poster. And really, it doesn't make you flinch like Alien Vs. Predator, huh?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Monster Kid in Heaven: KING KONG (2005)

Plot: Adventuring filmmakers find a giant gorilla on an island. The gorilla falls in love with a blonde girl. Then they take the gorilla to New York.

Spoilers: This happens in the first scene!

For me, the most moving moment in Peter Jackson's overflowing remake of King Kong is when a search-party of wayward sailors are shaken off a mossy log by the giant gorilla... and then it cuts to the survivors on the floor of the canyon where they have fallen. Any kid worth his weight in issues of Famous Monsters will feel his toes curling, and whisper a breathless "Omigod, they're gonna do the Spider Pit scene!"

It's a scene notoriously deleted long ago from the 1933 film, and the footage likely destroyed. The unclear reasons (it either slowed down the picture or was so horrific it stopped the movie cold), promise of unseen Willis O'Brien animation, and tantalizing surviving stills have made the scene legendary in monster enthusiast circles. Heartrending to me, was knowing that Jackson has dreamed about this scene since he was 12, and now he gets to make it happen. Now King Kong has a Spider Pit scene. And this time around, the director certainly does not care about slowing down the picture in the name of 12-year-old thrills.

King Kong '05 looks at King Kong '33 with favorite-movie reverence, with the bottomless, awed, muddled, perfect-making memory of countless childhood viewings, and mythologizes every frame. This Kong barely plays like a normal movie. It's weird and overwrought, it's obsessed and hyperbolic, and most confounding, the movie is both a feverish nightmare and religiously respectful. Take a moment in the film in which Carl Denham (Jack Black) drops the now-unneeded map to an island into the sea. It doesn't matter what happens to the map. There is no real reason to show salt water soaking into the paper before it floats into the drink, lost forever. But because he's been fetishizing every Kong prop for decades, Peter Jackson wonders what happens to that map. There is no pressing practical reason for the original 100-minute cracking adventure tale to be hyperextended to more than three hours. But if you busted open that shaggy Kiwi head, this syrupy, love-addled King Kong, a lifetime in the making, is the dream that would pour out. Very few of us are allowed to expound on our favorite movie for 3-plus and have others to sit and watch. This is self-indulgence in the most wonderful sense. "Self-indulgent" barely covers Kong.

There is a lot of talk of Destiny early in this film, nowhere to be found in the Cooper movie. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) gets an inexplicable far-away look in her eye as Denham briefs her on the overseas acting position she is about to take. She launches into a trance-state monologue about her predestination to love and lose. Frankly, this has nothing to do with the latent themes of the story. King Kong was never a meditation on the nature of fate. Ann's strange speech is there because every moment of this story is of Biblical import to Jackson. Likewise, I grinned through a drawn-out scene where Denham reveals the name of Skull Island as Jack Driscoll (now a playwright, Adrien Brody) types each letter in sloooo-mo. It's portentous (in the weighty, foreboding sense) to no one but Kong fans.

Naomi Watts meets King Kong in "King Kong Movie"

"What happens to the map?" is basically how Jackson's King Kong works. If the Map previously had one minute of back-story, it now has 5. Every plot point, character, and tiny element of the '33 film is hoisted up, isolated, and subjected to questioning. Everything is expanded, inflated, deepened, widened, sexed-up or made scarier. Below are the questions, and my assessments of the answers.

"What if we really felt the Depression? / What if we knew Ann better?"

The story opens with a great metaphor for, er, itself. Or, rather, a shorthand reminder of the joys of escapist entertainment: after swiftly establishing the misery of poverty (a guy eats garbage!), we meet Ann Darrow as she performs an old-timey vaudeville number (albeit in a dumpy theater).

A fast and thick series of vignettes about Ann's failing theater revue may seem like padded-out back-story. A cheat, order that we'll feel something besides instinctual woman-in-peril panic when dinosaurs threaten her? No: Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are determined that the Character Arc Payoff is the most unbreakable of screenwriting rules. Not only will her vaudeville clowning skills come in handy, but so will her starry-eyed love-hate relationship with "high art." Most tellingly, Ann is given an artist father-figure, the troupe manager losing his failing theater to foreclosure. Please pay close attention to how all the men in Ann's life - "nice" or not - are ineffectual, destructive, casually cruel, indecisive, whiny, arrogant, or vain, and all failures or churls. None of them can protect her.

Naomi Watts, glowing like she's lit from inside, plays Ann Darrow with a deep yearning - for success, for artistic fulfillment, for romance, for poetry, for economic relief. She's a cryin' on the inside kind of clown. Fay Wray's Darrow was sweet and naive, and a blank enough slate to project yourself into the hairy paw, but that's about it.

There is a secret locked into all the characters in King Kong '05, which unites them all. They all badly want something romantic, and they will have it within sight for a few glittering moments, and then they will lose it.

"What if Jack Driscoll convincingly fell in love with Ann?"

See, in Kong Mark I, Driscoll constantly tells Ann how much he hates women, until apropos of nothing he announces "Say! I think I love you!" The first step to remedy this is obviously to change Driscoll from a drippy sailor into a New York playwright.

Adrien Brody, as a de-politicized Barton Fink, is a more convincing match for a depressed actress than Bruce Cabot's abrasive and unlikable seaman in Kong '33. Don't worry, folks: there will be no shortage of sailors in Kong '05. Besides, it's fun to see theoretically smart people as action movie heroes (see under Dr. Jones). However, it's unclear if the terrible passages of Driscoll's work we hear are supposed to be hackwork, or the best the screenplay can muster.

Though it is not the story the impatient 12-year-old wants, Ann and Jack's burgeoning relationship is astutely observed: two smart people trying hard to impress each other, trying to convey their feelings cleverly, but too stupid to just say how they feel. His creative pursuits and intellectualism are Driscoll's prime motivators. Your desires and ambitions will be your triumph and undoing in Kong, and Driscoll's draw him into Denham's movie production, draw him and Ann together. To woo the blonde actress, the writer gives her compliments on her performance in Denham's movie, and re-writes scenes for her, and drafts an entire play as an Ann Darrow vehicle. So Jack sits in a little cage in the hold of the Venture, like a captive animal, trapped by his own erudition. The competition, however can not only sweep her off her feet, but hoist her to the top of the city. So much for the theater.

"What the hell kind of movie is Carl Denham making?!"

Observation: movies are generally untruthful about how movies are made, because it's hard work. The moviemaking portrayed in Kong '33 is ridiculous: Denham's plan is to go on location on with one actor, no script, props, or crew, and shoot whatever he finds. In the meantime he busies himself by shooting bizarre screen tests of Ann looking at the sky and screaming. Perhaps this isn't too far off from how Cooper made his middling nature documentary Grass, but it's nonsense for a narrative film.

So Jackson's movie gives Denham a film crew and another actor (Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter, a serviceably funny pompous stereotype). Since the production is portrayed as equally ridiculous by having Ann and Baxter performing the goofiest flirtation dialog from the original film (it's the only gentle ribbing Jackson gives Cooper, and very welcome), it probably cancels out the effort. The cast and crew of Denham's movie are just more people to get chased by dinosaurs.

"What if we knew and cared about the Venture crew before they die?"

Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) is now rugged, handsome and German instead of twerpy and British. Driscoll's replacement first mate is Evan Parke as the deadly serious, curiously didactic Mr. Hayes. Hayes has a troubled orphan charge, Jimmy (Jamie Bell, sans tutu), a character last seen in The Matrix Revolutions, where he was more honestly named "The Kid."

Sadly, while there is a Chinese fellow onboard, but he is not funny like in the original. Instead, Andy Serkis plays Lumpy the cook, making a Popeye face the whole time, and theoretically serving as less offensive comic relief. He's not as funny as that Chinaman in '33 though. The crew as a whole behaves more reasonably (i.e. - balking at everything Denham demands) than in the '33 film, but ends up in the same situation. Does this make it more, or less fun when monsters smash them?

Both performances are sincere, but the story thread regarding Hayes and Jimmy, which rarely intersects with the Kong story is very strange. Hayes protects the wayward boy, and is teaching him to be a responsible, well-rounded man. On one hand this hackneyed subplot simply stops halfway through the movie after being payed a lot of baffling attention. On the other hand, it seems so very much like Hayes and Jimmy are in their own movie that it's interesting to consider: what if you think you're in a story about being a father-figure to an orphan, and suddenly there's a goddamn giant gorilla in front of you?

In a startling scene, Jimmy and Hayes discuss Heart of Darkness, which the boy is reading for the first time. Hayes knows it all too well, and recites a section from memory. Heart of Darkness, frankly, has nothing to do with King Kong. It might have something to do with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, though. The parallel is labored; the recitation of a long passage by a tough-mug sailor is unlikely. Only Hayes' thematic assessment of Heart of Darkness - regarding why we pursue our own fears - makes any sense, and that is less an explanation of why the Venture is at Skull Island than of why audiences see horror films. Kong is, of course, about the human love of globetrotting adventure, not of our mettle-testing inward pursuit of our own dark corners.

Heart of Glow-in-the-Darkness?! What?!

"It's not an adventure story, is it?" asks Jimmy (Jamie Bell). And Hayes says "No, Jimmy. It's not." I can't deny that is a chilling moment, a boy realizing the soul-deep potential of art. The scene doesn't work perfectly for me because it seems to be one of several grand statements about the narrative itself, but Kong a) already has its allegorical parallel of choice - "Beauty and the Beast" - and literary inspiration up the banana-hole (from Adventures in Equatorial Africa to Tarzan novels), and there's no need to superimpose another if it only partly fits; and b) Kong itself is already a metaphor of infinite possibility.

If there is any way to argue that Kong is not an adventure story, it's because it is a love story. (Shh: It is an adventure story!)

"What if Kong were actually scary?"
And more importantly,
"What if you love Kong because you actually know him?"

A friend of mine says "E.T. is 80 minutes of making you love E.T., 10 minutes of making you think E.T. is going to die, and 3 minutes of telling you E.T. is okay."

Kong '33 works a little differently than E.T.. Why do we even like Kong when he is dying? Somewhere a Monster Kid is sad every time Christopher Lee gets shoved into a shaft of sunlight, but why do we cry when Kong dies? Is it because an innocent animal has been hurt for acts for which he can't be held responsible? Is it because we recognize that we do stupid, destructive things for love, too? Those are nice ideas. But I don't think they're in the text, and I don't think it's how people actually watch King Kong.

What gets me is when Kong touches his chest, and looks at the blood on his hand. Ain't nobody in the house remembering that guy is a gorilla at that moment. You have been hurt and confused and felt lonely, misunderstood and under attack. And I don't know a metaphor for this in the movies more simple, primal, and strange.

But for the rest of Kong '33, the ape is scary. Objectively, he's just acting like an ape, but hey: the Alien is just acting like an alien. It's part of what makes the finale so magical, that we suddenly empathize with a character that has so terrified us. For me, the most frightening part of the original is a scene in New York after Ann and Jack have fled the rampaging Kong, and run up into their hotel room. Suddenly Kong peeks in the window, and I jump about 5 feet off the chair. There is no logical way or reason Kong could have found Ann in this window. The film's power is in its dream-logic and kid-rule storytelling.

***B o n u s w e i r d n e s s ! - Here is a review by a woman who seems to think Andy Serkis wore "a gorilla suit with digitally manipulated facial expressions"! ***

Jackson's Kong, motion captured and mime-performed by Andy Serkis is the most beautiful computer generated creature in the art's brief history. Serkis' performance is meticulous, complex and fantastic - but that's what everyone is generally saying. What Serkis and his tech support do specifically is balance observed, naturalistic animal behavior with stylized character work, and that is the toughest balancing act in animation. Kong's size, power, superior intelligence have also chemically reacted with his isolation to made him petulant, impatient, and prone to outburst. It's a great idea for a character, someone with a sensitive heart and a longing for companionship, but whose physical realities make it too easy to indulge base instincts to take, destroy, and show off.

He's all like, "Do me, baby!" Grow up, Kong!

That's what works. What doesn't is that in a non-stop effort to make audiences like the character, Kong ends up defanged. A consequence of reinstating the gloriously nasty Spider Pit is that Kong doesn't kill as many people by knocking them off the log. In a rare sequence not expanded from the original, after breaking through the Skull Island wall, Tall Dark And Gruesome is not allowed to put natives in his mouth or smoosh them with his foot. Kong scouring the streets of New York for his lost blonde is transformed into a comic sequence (he repeatedly nabs the wrong dame) and gone is the disturbing shot of a woman flailing and screaming as she plummets to the crowd below. Likewise, instead of decimating the elevated train, Kong walks past it without batting a 5-foot eyelash.

It's crass to imply this problem could be fixed if Kong killed more people. It's an equation that can't be balanced. If we understand Kong too deeply, we won't be afraid him. The best that can be done is to keep his power and menace in the forefront, and avoid preciousness. You wanna make a monster movie, don't have the monster take his date ice-skating. Er. Well. Um.

"What if instead of falling into the ocean, Jack rescues Ann and they glide down from Kong's cliff top on a giant bat?"

Uh... Why did those bats start attacking Kong, anyway? Regarding dinosaurs and monsters:

This is the most rip-snorting, crazy-ass, sugar-cereal-and-Chiller-Theater addled monster rally since Destroy All Monsters! Because it's some sort of respectable "classic," it's easy to forget how madcap pulpy and bizarre Kong '33 gets, as a building-sized gorilla (that's weird enough) fights a Tyrannosaurus, largely with wrestling moves ("What?!" shouts Selznick, goggling at the script. "What do you mean?!"). So for sheer invention, Willis O'Brien has Jackson's arms pinned.

Kong basically slaps other animals for 3 hours.

But Kong '05 knows a secret that few modern action pictures remember: it's funny and breathless when the situation just gets worse, and worse, and worse and oh-shit-what-now? worse. And it's a tough trick, as you have to be smart enough to invent surprising and clever ways for gags to multiply and problems to mount exponentially. Exemplary in Kong '05 is the pumped-up "V-Rex" battle, which is simultaneously the most giddy and most precisely constructed set piece. The first thrill for Kong fans is realizing it'll be simian-vs.-entire-dinosaur-pack. And from there the game is on, with a whirl of gags built around plausible/possible physics (dinosaurs suspended in vines!), character behavior (they have better things to worry about, but keep trying to eat Ann!), geography and space, and audience expectation. The fight builds steam with hare-brained mechanical perfection, like a great Tex Avery cartoon. Don't worry. It all ends with a character behavioral joke courtesy of Willis O'Brien.

"What if the film analysts essays of the past 70 years regarding Kong and Ann's dynamic were not subtext but text?"

My high school girlfriend had this enormous golden retriever, named Indi, which she doted upon. One day we were in the park, and she got a mouthful of water from a drinking fountain, and started spitting it into the dog's mouth. I felt myself getting jealous, and asked "why am I feeling this way?" And I realize: she might love me, but she'll never love me like she does that dog.

On one amazing episode of "The Sopranos," ("Employee of the Month"), Dr. Melfi finally understands the uncomfortable truth about why she continues treating a domineering, violent thug who desires her: he'll be there if you need him. You see what I'm getting at?

I'm reading a lot of critics saying that Ann and Kong, they have a "mutual respect," or she understands him like as a wild animal worthy of high regard. I'm calling "bullshit." Ann Darrow falls in love with Kong in this film, and she doesn't fall in love with Jack Driscoll. Because one is a scrawny writer, and one is a big strong man who can protect her from a world that's trying to beat her down. All the artists in her life have failed her, endangered her, or been corrupt. When Jack shows up after the finale, he may carry Ann down from the tower as Kong carried her up, but it's not fooling anybody.

I'm ambivalent about how this makes me feel. But I don't think it's dishonest. It's how people are.

"Why do people go along with Carl Denham's plans?"

The most common fan complaint has been over the perceived reworking of the Denham character. It's easily the most interesting character in Kong, after the big gent himself, and I say: Jack Black's Carl Denham is not too far removed from Robert Armstrong's. It's essentially the same character plus ironic distance. Consider, after all, how much of the original dialog has been retained.

I propose that the slight reworking that makes Denham a showbiz huckster instead of the most successful filmmaker in Hollywood is multipurpose. A) Successful filmmakers have vast resources in compare to a man running from his financers, thus ratcheting up the stakes for the film crew. B) View Kong '33 and try to figure out why these sailors, actors, reporters - anybody - will have any part of Denham's dangerous, absurd plans. Kong '05 solves this slight logic-gap by having Denham lie and trick people into doing what he wants. C) Scoundrels, dreamers and inept artists are more fun to follow than blowhard movie princes. It seems the problem is that while Jack Black starts the character's arc as a lovable ne'er-do-well, but the singular drive of his passion, amoral methods and self-destructive streak are gradually revealed to have grand-scale repercussions.

That more unsavory implications of Denham's behavior are made explicit in Jackson's film doesn't "make him the villain." Everything in Kong '33 is Denham's fault as well; the film just doesn't judge him for it.

And maybe I just like Denham because I relate to him. It's how I feel about Daffy Duck: morally imperfect characters with recognizable drives are easier for me to love than heroes. Denham's final judgment, by beleaguered assistant Colin Hanks, is a touch too on the nose, but for me also the most shattering moment of character observation: "Carl has the unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves." That's my biggest gut-punch moment in Kong. Jackson, Boyens and Walsh don't demonize Denham. They understand his tragedy. Carl Denham, at first seems to cling to his movie camera even while being chased by a flood of brontosaurus, even while wiping off the blood of his film crew, because he needs money. But it's not that, it's something else. Carl Denham loves the movies. Denham's the only one to recognize where the misguided pursuit of beauty has gotten everyone in the film. It's why the last line is Denham's, has to be, must be. The last line isn't Denham denying blame: it is his acceptance of what he's done.

Denham loves the movies.

Like Capt. Englehorn loves the sea.

Like Jack Driscoll loves theater.

Like Hayes loves Conrad's prose.

Like Peter Jackson loves King Kong.

Like Ann and Kong love each other.

And for a minute, he had her in his hand. And then, like a sunset, it all slipped over the skyline, and was gone.

I miss there being a huge mountain shaped like a skull on Skull Island. Because it was cool how Kong lived in one of the eye sockets.