Back from the Future Entry: Dorian Gray (2009)

In all, I think this adaptation was definitely watchable–as I mentioned, the costumes are great, the supporting cast perfect and Barnes does a marvelous job commanding every frame he’s in, but overall it doesn’t feel terribly imaginative–as a horror film it is far too light, as a thriller it has no suspense, and it’s very dark and violent for a costume drama.

YES HAVE SOME

If you haven’t heard of the most recent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s best known work, then it’s probably because you aren’t spending your spare time stalking hot British men like Ben Barnes.

Having said that, yes, there is more to the movie than Barnes’s well-dressed hotness.

He gets naked, too.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of those plum stories that I think most actors hope to be a part of–which is a double-edged sword, because only the young, hot actors can hope to even read for the part. And forget poor guys like Ray Winstone–unless there’s a special production aimed only at bears, it’s kind of a restrictive choice.

You need an actor who isn’t just hot, but beautiful. Someone who is both handsome and timeless, who you could imagine springing from a painting by Waterhouse or Caravaggio.

You need someone young. Someone who is on the edge of that perfect balance of beauty and maturity, whose face isn’t yet marred by the mileage of age.

You need someone who is both innocent and cruel.

This last is crucial – many actors excel at doing one or the other, but not both. Especially depending on how the production handles the character of Dorian, who himself is more of a blank canvas than a fleshed-out character: a Dorian who is too cruel is too clearcut a villain, when at least part of the story paints him as victim, too.

I wish Dorian Gray had been a more energetic entry to the canon of adaptations; the costumes and sets are beautiful, and the cast of seasoned veterans (and newcomer Barnes) play the story well, but overall the movie feels a little restricted; as if they hadnt’ quite dared to take more risks than those of the story. Colin Firth as the world-weary, wicked Henry Wotten is perfect,  and Ben Chaplin as Basil Hallward is another bit of inspired casting.

Can you spot what's wrong with this picture?

Of course the whole of the movie is Barnes’s performance as Gray–a young man whose childhood was marred by abuse and tragedy, and who has only just come to London after inheriting his Grandfather’s estate upon the old man’s death.

Immediately he is taken in and groomed by Wotten to be a high society type, and begins down a road of guilt and excess that would have put  Iggy Pop and most of the Rolling Stones to shame.

The eponymous portrait, painted by Basil and unwittingly cursed by Wotten, bears the marks of this life of excess, depicting both the physical damage of so much sadistic partying, and the mental damage of Gray’s cruelty.

What’s interesting is that the filmmakers made a massive mistake in interpreting Gray’s motivations, here– they assumed that because he bears no indications of his life of excess on his body, he is ‘free of consequence.’ He’s described in their making-of featurette as a kind of proto-American Psycho, a sociopath in the making.

Barnes, however, doesn’t really play Gray that way. He plays him more as someone who doesn’t realize his impact on others, rather than someone who doesn’t care about them. He’s young and naive, and as he becomes more and more evil certainly more selfish and sadistic, but it never seems as if he’s intentionally setting out to ruin other people’s lives. In a more capable filmmaker’s hands, he might have recalled John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, the definitive object when it comes to depicting Rolling Whoremongery, but he comes off as more like a very young version of same, and then later creates his own character as an arch, jaded libertine with the face of an angel. Towards the end of the film he’s very much aware of the ruinous effect he’s had on others, and even attempts to steer people away from himself to preserve them.

In all, I think this adaptation was definitely watchable–as I mentioned, the costumes are great, the supporting cast perfect and Barnes does a marvelous job commanding every frame he’s in, but overall it doesn’t feel terribly imaginative–as a horror film it is far too light, as a thriller it has no suspense, and it’s very dark and violent for a costume drama.

Seriously, how could they just change his eyes like that? They're so striking!

I can’t help imagining what this might have been in the hands of Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) or even Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), or maybe someone like Danny Boyle; there’s a lot of gay subtext that was barely touched on, and my overall impression of the film was that it was very dimly-lit and nobody had too good a time.

Which, you know, the whole point was to make his languid life of pleasure look COOL.

 

In a Nutshell: The Mythology of Veronica Mars

To wit: much of the show is about class warfare, about have and have-not. But if you think about it, the Greek/Roman mythology angle can be applied to this dynamic as well: The haves, the O9ers as they’re called because they live in the super-affluent 90909 zip code, are also the Gods. The gods of the Greek/Roman mythos were not bastions of goodness and honor; they were selfish, childish, and not above entertaining themselves by antagonizing and torturing mortals. The have-nots represent the beleaguered mortals, ever powerless in the face of the haves’ money and influence.

I’m stewing on a much longer entry about Veronica Mars Seasons 1-3, which I just finished watching for the first time, but thought I’d just mention this about the Mars use of mythology. There’ll be spoilers, if you’re trying to avoid them before watching the series.

I noticed (like everyone else) the use of mythological names and places–Veronica Mars, who lives in Neptune, drives a Saturn, and occasionally wanders into the River Styx. I especially liked their little nod to the Greek story cycle by having someone watching Clash of the Titans, a childhood favorite of mine starring Harry Hamlin (who plays action superstar Aaron Echolls).

But there are more layers than just the obvious ones.

To wit: much of the show is about class warfare, about have and have-not. But if you think about it, the Greek/Roman mythology angle can be applied to this dynamic as well: The haves, the O9ers as they’re called because they live in the super-affluent 90909 zip code, are also the Gods. The gods of the Greek/Roman mythos were not bastions of goodness and honor; they were selfish, childish, and not above entertaining themselves by antagonizing and torturing mortals. The have-nots represent the beleaguered mortals, ever powerless in the face of the haves’ money and influence.

'And after the lightning bolts come the unkind status updates on Facebook! Alcmene is totally a whore!'

That much of the comparison is obvious, but where does Veronica herself fit in?

Since Veronica moves in both worlds, she represents the cthonic heroes: Perseus, Theseus, Heracles, Bellerophon. Chthonic heroes were more earthly gods, and were often people who were half-god or were elevated to the status of deities; if you’re at all familiar with the old myths you know that part of an Olympian’s daily routine was impregnating mortals–just after the morning wine and olive buffet.

These half-gods were usually the ones who stuck up for mortals: who else would? (A fun example of this is the old Hercules: The Legendary Journeys show, all of which is available on Netflix. It starred Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst, and was a hoot most of the time)

Add 50 lbs, a stupid haircut and an oversized Xfiles tshirt, and it's me in high school!

Enter Veronica Mars, whose name is a derivation from Berenice, which is Latin for ‘She who brings victory.’ In the context of the show, that’s just brilliant right there.

Veronica enjoys some status when her father is Sheriff, making her partly one of the haves, but after he is stripped of his office and becomes a PI she becomes an outsider, a former-have who is no longer welcome among either group.

In my world, Mars and Bunk from 'The Wire' solve mysteries in Miami or New Orleans while wearing straw fedoras and linen suits.

Keith Mars himself is no one’s idea of a god of war, at least not Kratos–short, bald,  and generally good-natured, he can nonetheless throw down when necessary. Somewhere in the film world, there’s a ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mug with his name on it, and rightfully so. (A sidenote, if Veronica had just fessed up to her Dad more often, her life would have been simpler and thus less television-worthy).

And while there are probably more salient points to the whole mythology angle of Veronica Mars, I think I’ll leave today’s entry at that. It really is a fun show–the funny thing is, you can’t put your finger on why it’s so good, I mean nothing about it particularly sticks out. Possibly because every aspect of the show is that interesting and well-done. The subtle California Noir aspect of the show is one of my favorite things about it, and it’s done well without hitting you over the head. Like many other people, I wasn’t that into the 3rd season, probably because it was so uneven and the new intro didn’t do it any favors, but I still watched and enjoyed it.

All three seasons are available on Instant Watch.

Grown Up Horror: Below

Below, which opened in like, no theaters in 2002, was written by Darren Aronofsky and directed by David Twohy, so its pedigree is pretty well established just from their involvement. The characterizations are spot on, the writing snappy, and the situations introduced nothing short of terrifying, on a conceptual level.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

A few years ago, an English friend and I were exchanging comments on my personal blog about something or other when he brought up an interesting point: if you watch American films about World War 2, you’d think the US won the war single-handedly.

Which means when you say ‘World War’ it sounds kind of like the US was up against the rest of Earth. It sounds that way if you watch The History Channel, if you talk to a Greatest Generationer, or to my dad.

Below, a horror movie taking place on an American U-boat, presents a more ecumenical grasp of the US’s involvement in the war, while delivering some pretty decent scares along the way.

The film begins with a group of shipwreck survivors floating in a rubber raft; a small plane flies over, but the plane is low on fuel and can’t stop to pick them up. The plane relays the raft’s location to an American Uboat crew on patrol nearby, who immediately change course, though they are hesitant because of the presence of Germans nearby.

The survivors were aboard a British hospital ship torpedoed by a German sub, and are the only ones alive of the 300 or so medical staff and patients. Olivia Williams , best known for her role in Rushmore and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse TV series, plays Claire, one of the survivors, and the fact that there is now a woman on board complicates an already complicated situation.

Now in the film there comes a narrative shift–we come into the movie thinking our protagonist is Odell, the sharp young officer who can recite the submariner’s motto in Latin or perhaps Captian Brice, a career Navy man played aptly by Bruce Greenwood. An ugly incident concerning the third survivor of the British shipwreck and Captain Brice leads Claire to realize that Brice is only ‘acting’ Captain, filling in for Captain Winters, whose mysterious death Claire sets out to investigate once things begin going hinky on the sub.

And let me say, a WW2 sub is no place for things to go hinky. Not at all.

Besides being a decent murder mystery and atmospheric horror, the sub itself triggers a very special form of claustrophobia–fear of being trapped in a small space where one will run out of oxygen and die. Everything is horribly, horribly analogue, reflecting the reality of the very slim margin of error on board a Uboat. Especially since the survival of the crew hinges on someone understanding the importance of Checking Their Work and remembering to Carry The Goddamn One. To wit: Not only did a crew have to keep track of their own movements to know where the hell they were, they had to keep track of enemy Uboats in order to be able to guess where the latter were so they didn’t just blunder across each other’s path. And they did anyway, since all the Germans had to do to screw up one’s plans was slightly change course.

Plus, if your engine doesn’t run smoothly you may wind up a adrift a few hundred feet below the surface, with no way to get back up. You could try and go out the hatch, and die in the first few seconds from either drowning or hypothermia. Plus there’s no way you can hold your breath long enough to swim the 600 feet. Plus you might get the bends, unless that’s only for scuba divers. Plus there are eight hundred billion other things that can go wrong so it’s a wonder any submarine crews survived the war, at least according to my own semi-hysterical calculations. And that’s just what can happen WITHOUT running into the enemy!

"What do you mean, 'forgot to carry the one?' DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT GERMAN WATER LOOKS LIKE AS OPPOSED TO ENGLISH?"

The rest of the cast is comprised of capable character actors–some of which are playing against type with pretty interesting results. Nick Chinlund, who usually plays sleazebags, is the tough and reliable Engineering Chief, Zach Galifiniakis plays a nerd fascinated with ghosts and the supernatural who reads his ‘Tales from the Vault’ type comics to the rest of the crew as entertainment, and Holt McCallany, best known from his small role in Fight Club or Alien 3, plays man’s man and yoyo enthusiast Loomis, an alpha consigned to beta status. Jason Flemyng, from approximately any English movie with special effects or action scenes, puts in a memorable turn as Stumbo, a scumbaggy fellow with a penchant for tasteless jokes involving dead bodies.

Below, which opened in like, no theaters in 2002, was written by Darren Aronofsky and directed by David Twohy, so its pedigree is pretty well established just from their involvement. The characterizations are spot on, the writing snappy, and the situations introduced nothing short of terrifying, on a conceptual level.

This is definitely one to add to your Instant Watch queue, a great film for a dinner party or date night. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

So I watched this; I dunno, it was all right Review: Suspect Zero

Anyway, the story unfolds like a well-creased grocery list that’s been living in your pocket for a few days. There are some great scenes, and Kingsley ultimately carries the weight of the film while Eckhardt, who is serviceable, takes the film to be Srs Bznss instead of a Se7en knockoff. Carrie-Anne Moss runs around and does–something, I don’t remember what she was there for. Something.

Every time I sit down to watch a movie, I am conscious of how long the film is, sometimes down to the minute. The reason is because unless I’m doing something else, those minutes are time out of my life I will never get back. Do I expect every film I see to be worth 106 minutes’ worth of my time here on earth? Nope. I watch some bullshit too–looking into my queueueu is looking into seething madness. Kurosawa’s Rashomon rubs shoulders with Beverly Hills Chihuahua. A BBC nature program about the different meteorological regions of China and their native wildlife sits next to Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep. Gremlins 2 brings me a different kind of delight from Who’s Harry Crumb?, but both still delight me.

The point I’m getting to with all this rambling is that every film is a gamble, and your time is at stake. Some gambles are major windfalls for the mind, and in some, the house wins.

In Suspect Zero, a crime thriller starring Aaron Eckhardt,  Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Ann Moss and directed by Elias Merhige (he was redoing his bathroom that year), the house definitely won.

So here's the poster. It's all right, I guess.

I do not hate this film. I do not think it was a waste of time, or that it should be fired into the sun or any other example of internet film critic hypobole. I just don’t get what happened.

I suspect that Merhige, while he made the film, was either excited to be making a Hollywood crime thriller or wrestling with a choking case of self-loathing because he was making a Hollywood crime thriller. There’s a strange vibe of self-doubt saturating the film that has nothign to do with the story; I can’t even describe it except that it’s there, and it’s palpable.

The story is at least passable: an FBI agent who’s been transferred to a lesser field office because of something in his past is tracking a series of murders he believes to be connected, despite the fact that there is nothing to connect them. It turns out he’s tracking a serial killer who targets other serial killers, and kills them in new and creative ways so there is no pattern–the idea being that the FBI will only catch onto a serial killer’s existence if there is a pattern. Say, a guy who sets fire to his victims and then hits them with a car. There’s a pattern, so the FBI acknowledges a serial killer is responsible.  If a guy gets his head bashed in behind a gas station, and another just gets shot, and another gets skinned to death or something, the assumption would be three different perpetrators.

The movie starts out well–Ben Kingsley sits down at a table across from a restaurant supply salesman at an isolated truckstop and begins telling the man all the gruesome things he does to people, then showing pictures. Kingsley is incapable of losing his dignity–probably because he is always self-aware of the caliber of what he’s appearing in, be it Gandhi or Bloodrayne. He also seems to be one of those fortunate people who never get tied to bad movies. If you say ‘there’s a new video game movie coming out and Uwe Boll is involved’ sphincters immediately clench and oceans of vitriol roar forth onto the internet. Say the same thing about Kingsley and you get ‘Huh. That might be good.’ The man is bulletproof. Probably because he has a sense of humor about himself, from his appearance on The Sopranos (“Heyyy, guys. . .”) to his audition for Michael Bay’s Transformers 3.

Anyway, the story unfolds like a well-creased grocery list that’s been living in your pocket for a few days. There are some great scenes, and Kingsley ultimately carries the weight of the film while Eckhardt, who is serviceable,  takes the film to be Srs Bznss instead of a Se7en knockoff. Carrie-Anne Moss runs around and does–something, I don’t remember what she was there for. Something.

If you’re just looking for something to watch and are more comfortable watching films with famous actors in them (I’m guilty of that–Oh! So and so’s in this, well I’ll give it a whirl!) then you could do worse than watching Suspect Zero.

Also it has this guy, who is awesome, so it has that going for it.

Suspect Zero is available for viewing on Instant Watch. You know, if you’re interested.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

In another universe or dimension, Werner Herzog’s remake would have made a truly amazing horror film; in certain communities, I would hazard, the unfolding events are more terrifying than any vampire, alien or zombie.

Think about it: An unhinged, drug-addled cop with a gambling problem and a predilection for shaking down citizens for drugs, who steals from the evidence locker, terrorizes the powerless and ignores rules he doesn’t like. This character is essentially a boogieman of the ghetto, a story the disenfranchised and economically/racially oppressed tell their children to keep them from a life of crime. ‘Drop out of school, or steal a car, and Officer McDonaugh will get you!’

In one scene, McDonaugh shows up at someone’s house (I honestly don’t remember the context) and proceeds to smoke weed in the man’s bedroom with uniformed officers waiting outside. The former rambles a terrifying and unhinged theory on life, the universe and everything after sending out the other officers so he can ‘be alone’ with the frightened suspect, even offering him a hit.  The fellow is being coerced into giving up information, with the veiled threat that McDonaugh will plant the very weed he’s smoking on the man once he’s being arrested.

This plays into the general populace’s ambivalence about The Thin Blue Line: we all want to believe in Office Friendly, but movies and TV have convinced us that at their worst cops are a sadistic brotherhood who viciously protect their own, and at their best are brave men and women who secretly daydream about vigilantism after years of witnessing horror.

Perhaps that is the entire reason the film (ostensibly a remake except for the fact that Herzog insists it isn’t) is set in New Orleans, a city whose pre-Katrina police force was legendary for being the most corrupt in the United States. McDonaugh’s actions certainly have consequences, and the descending steps of his downward spiral are less news to his peers and colleagues than cuneiform. But we aren’t interested in seeing him punished for his misdeeds; after all, it’s more than clear the character’s life is punishment enough.

Nicholas Cage’s performance has been widely discussed and praised; indeed, the story and other characters take a backseat to McDonaugh’s unraveling, and really aren’t missed. In one scene, a slowly closing door reveals him lying in wait for an old woman and her nurse in order to interrogate them. His eyes are wide and unblinking, his clothes and hair disheveled as he hasn’t showered, slept or eaten in days. As he menaces them from behind the door, struggling not to let the effects of the heroin he accidentally snorted get to him, while running an electric shaver over his face. Never has an act of self-maintenance seemed so menacing, so cold, and so hilarious at the same time.

Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.

Upon my viewing I found a monster much more terrifying than any of the paltry CG threats crowding the big screen these days. Dirty cops rank somewhere above ghosts and below flesh-eating bacteria on my ‘Nightmares’ hierarchy.