Friday, April 29, 2011


James Wan is one of the most talented grindhouse directors working today, but he’d be a lot better off if he’d quit ripping off the classics. The climax of his last film, the neo-Charlie Bronson revenge flick Death Sentence, was a shameless plundering of Taxi Driver; at one point, the hero actually shoots the fingers off the bad guy, just before taking a bullet to the neck and falling on a couch. Similarly, his new haunted-house horror movie, Insidious, plays splendidly for the first hour or so, before it becomes a virtual remake of Poltergeist. If he cuts the cutesy film-student referencing, Wan just might make a genre masterpiece of his own.

Until that happens, Insidious will suffice. I’d been dying to see this since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, when fanboys were buzzing about how the creators of Saw – Wan and his frequent collaborator, actor/writer Leigh Whannell – had made another horror classic. The first half of Insidious certainly delivers on that promise. It’s about a yuppie couple (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) whose young son goes into an inexplicable coma; right around the same time, things start to go bump in the night.

Like Dead Silence, Wan’s other post-Saw horror film, Insidious is skimpy on the gory effects. (It’s rated PG-13.) Instead, we get the old scary-looking-day-players-popping-out-of-the-dark routine, as the soundtrack practically screams at us to jump out of our seats. Wan is a master of this sort of thing; even Dead Silence, generally regarded as a misfire by fans and critics (and dismissed by its makers as the product of studio interference), had me cowering in my seat in fright.

The movie pretty much falls apart when a team of parapsychologists shows up to investigate the disturbances. As Carol J. Clover notes in her essential book on the genre, Men, Women and Chainsaws, task-force teams of psychics have been a horror-movie staple since 1963’s The Haunting. It doesn’t help that the team in Insidious precisely mirrors the one in Poltergeist: two male techies, who defer to an all-seeing female psychic (gamely played here by Lin Shaye). The scene where the psychics communicate with the spirits is dynamically staged and might seem original… if you haven’t seen J.A. Bayona’s vastly superior The Orphanage.

Insidious has a bad habit of getting our hopes up and then crushing them. A drawing of a red-faced demon in the comatose boy’s bedroom is wicked scary, but when we actually meet the devil he looks a lot like Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace. (The demon in Drag Me to Hell – Lamia – is infinitely more terrifying; there's a good example of a director showing just enough and then wisely leaving the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.) Like Event Horizon and The Ninth Gate, Insidious promises a glimpse at a hellish parallel world and then never quite delivers on that promise. We end up feeling cheated out of a more complete movie, even though it must be said the filmmakers have accomplished a great deal on a paltry $1.5 million budget.

When I could tell what was going on (I have a tendency to whip off my glasses during the scarier parts of horror movies, rendering the screen a complete blur), I thoroughly enjoyed the opening stretch of Insidious. It’s perhaps notable that the film’s best-directed scene is also its most original: a frightening scene with a playful child, which reveals that it isn’t the house that’s haunted but its occupants. Wan should stick to original material next time; a filmmaker this bloody talented deserves nothing less.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back to the Past, Part II

By all accounts, 2011 has been a disastrous year for Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis. The Walt Disney Company shuttered his movie studio, ImageMovers Digital, and pulled the plug on his dream project, a 3D update of the classic Beatles animated movie, Yellow Submarine. To top it all off, his latest “mocap” movie, Mars Needs Moms (directed by Simon Wells and produced by Zemeckis), is one of the biggest flops of all time. Sheesh!

For me, this is the best thing that could have ever happened to Zemeckis. You see, I want to watch a Robert Zemeckis Film, and there hasn’t been a new Robert Zemeckis Film for almost 12 years now. The last one was Cast Away, released back in good old 1955 – oops, I mean 2000. Since then, Zemeckis’ filmography has consisted entirely of mocap movies, which involve taking perfectly capable real-life actors and using computer animation to make them look like zombies carved out of wood. Zemeckis needs to discontinue this dead-end obsession with mocap post-haste and get back to his roots: live-action, baby.

So how did we get here? How did one of Hollywood’s most popular whiz kids, who made some of the most beloved movies of the last three decades (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), end up getting bitch-slapped by Disney and derided by fans? (“Wasting his talents for 10 years straight now” is typical of the user comments on his IMDb page.)

Here’s the story of how Zemeckis came to make his first mocap movie. Tom Hanks gave him a copy of the 1985 children’s book, The Polar Express. Inspired by Chris Van Allsburg’s beautiful paintings, the director set about trying to find a way to bring those paintings to life. He met with Ken Ralston, his special-effects go-to guy since Back to the Future, and they decided the best solution would be an animation technique known as motion capture. The filmmakers successfully brought Van Allsburg’s paintings to the big screen, but the audience saw something Zemeckis apparently didn’t: in mocap movies, the characters look downright creepy. They remind me of something Clint Eastwood’s secret service agent said about John Malkovich’s would-be assassin in the 1993 thriller In the Line of Fire: “The eyes are dead. You can always tell a person by their eyes.”

Zemeckis has been in denial about this fundamental flaw for years now. Around the time Polar Express came out, he sat down for an hour-long discussion with Charlie Rose, during which the following extraordinary exchange took place:

CR: Eye color. Can you show eye color?
RZ: Oh yeah.
CR: So eyes is not a problem?
RZ: Eyes is not a problem.

You’re wrong, Zemeckis. Eyes is a fucking problem. This is like Cinematography 101: “The eyes are the window to the soul.” No soul = no movie.

After Polar Express, Zemeckis could have acknowledged mocap’s limitations and moved on. But he’s become positively obsessed with it, and I think I know why. On the DVD commentary track for I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Zemickis’ directorial debut), he confesses that the thing that most excited him about that movie was recreating the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, by using lookalike actors and clever camera angles. It’s the same creative impulse that put Bob Hoskins in the same scenes as a cartoon rabbit, and allowed Tom Hanks to share the screen with John F. Kennedy. More than any other filmmaker working today, Zemeckis is enthralled by the technical process, the building-castles-in-the-sand quality of making movies. For him, the complete control that mocap provides must be like the ultimate sandbox.

For years, I held out hope that the technology would advance to the point where Zemeckis could have his cake and eat it, too. But Mars Needs Moms – released a full seven years after Polar Express – is the worst mocap movie ever. (In FX years, seven is a lifetime.) It’s about a boy who sets off for the Red Planet after his mom is kidnapped by aliens. That story makes no sense in mocap, because the mother in this movie is a nightmarish pod person straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This kid should be RELIEVED his pod mommy is gone.

Of the three mocap movies that Zemeckis has directed, Beowulf is my favorite. The script is by far the best the director has had to work with in the mocap years, benefitting greatly from Neil Gaiman’s love of the English language (“The sea is my mother; she would never take me back to her murky womb!”). The movie is exceptionally well cast, even though it’s a little dispiriting to see actors as great as Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich robbed of their vitality. There’s also a lot to like about Polar Express, if only because it serves up a wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s deeply embedded in American popular culture: a magical trip to the North Pole, followed by a chance meeting with Santa Claus. But A Christmas Carol is a disaster; here, Zemeckis made the mistake of assuming we could actually feel affection for these inhuman automatons, and by this point his obsession with Christmas bordered on self-parody.

The mocap years haven’t been a total washout, but do any of these movies come even close to the level of Back to the Future? Could Zemeckis ever reach those heights with mocap? True believers often cite James Cameron’s Avatar as an example of the technique’s potential. Ah, but we’re not really seeing people in the mocap scenes in Avatar, are we? We’re seeing aliens and earthling avatars. That context makes up for the technique’s not-quite-human aesthetic.

Zemeckis’ passion for FX has always been one of the coolest things about him. His mocap movies are an extension of the modern digital wave that began with Cameron’s Abyss and captured the imagination of the world with films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Zemeckis contributed some of the most dramatically rewarding and technically astonishing films of that era, but he’s simply gone too far; his mocap movies are like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels on steroids. There’s gotta be a happy medium between the totality of mocap and, say, Werner Herzog hiring a bunch of Peruvian laborers to pull a 300-ton steamship over a hill for a key scene in Fitzcarraldo. Herzog may have been insane (I think he probably was; decide for yourself by watching Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams), but the spectacular results are up on the screen. What does Zemeckis have to show for his obsession, which has swallowed up nearly a dozen years of his professional life? For his far-out cinematic feat, Herzog dubbed himself “Conquistador of the Useless.” That’s exactly what Zemeckis has become: Conquistador of the Useless.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Back to the Past

Wilson, Cast Away (2000)

Jodie Foster, Contact (1997)

Robin Wright, Forrest Gump (1994)

Bob Hoskins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future (1985)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Quote of the day, 04/12/2011

William: I'm glad you were home.
Lester Bangs: I'm always home. I'm uncool.
William: Me, too.
Lester Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.

Monday, April 4, 2011


In Paul, Greg Motolla’s new high-concept alien comedy, Seth Rogen plays a wisecracking, pot-smoking visitor from the Andromeda galaxy. If that premise sounds terrible, then you’ll probably want to steer clear. Your enjoyment of this movie is almost entirely dependent on whether you like its star’s personality, though I can’t imagine any science-fiction fan not having at least a little bit of fun.

The film reunites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the dynamic British duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. They play Graeme and Clive, two aging fanboys who embark on a tour of the U.S. after attending Comic Con. The script – co-written by Pegg and Frost, former roommates who grew up loving Star Wars – is an affectionate skewering of comic-book culture. There’s an air of self-parody to the Ewok T-shirts and geeky film references.

The adventure begins when Graeme and Clive meet Paul, an alien visitor who’s just escaped from the U.S. government after decades of captivity. The extraterrestrial has Rogen’s distinctive, laidback-stoner voice, but the big guy is never physically in the movie; this is a completely digital creation, like Gollum and Jar-Jar Binks. Actor Joe Lo Truglio studied tapes of Rogen and delivered the lines on set, and then Rogen recorded the dialogue in post-production. The effect is like seeing a Seth Rogen performance while never actually seeing Seth Rogen.

If Paul looks a little, uh, familiar – little green dude, big eyes, bald head – it’s because, as the alien explains, “the human race has been drip-fed images of my face on lunchboxes and T-shirts in case our species meet you don’t have a spaz attack.” This concept – that Paul has had a hand, Forrest Gump-style, in the shaping of post-war American history – gives the filmmakers a license to tickle our funny bone. Paul claims he came up with the idea for E.T. and Agent Mulder of The X-Files, and says the weed he gets from the Pentagon killed Dylan…

Graeme: Bob Dylan isn’t dead!
Paul: *knowing smile* Isn’t he?

I was surprised by the degree to which the filmmakers got me emotionally involved. Paul is not only funny, he’s endearing; his eyes make a cute little squishy sound when he blinks. Mottola, Pegg and Frost embrace Spielbergian sentimentality, and they mostly get away with it, even though David Arnold’s music lays it on a bit thick for my taste. There's a healthy dose of subversiveness to go along with the sentiment. This is the second British invasion comedy in recent years to take an explicitly pro-atheist stance. The other is The Invention of Lying, and if that film isn’t as well made as Paul, it’s equally astonishing and audacious.

Paul has the power to transfer all his knowledge of the universe just by reaching out and touching someone. This ability comes in handy when he meets Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a creationist who believes the Earth is 4,000 years old. (She wears a T-shirt depicting Jesus shooting Charles Darwin in the head.) Ruth has the most complex character arc in the movie, and Wiig makes the most of it; she brings genuine poignancy to the moment near the end of the film when Ruth tells Paul, “You didn’t frighten me, you freed me.”

Sci-fi fans will have a lot of fun picking out references to Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Back to the Future, and even those who don’t enjoy Rogen’s performance (for the record, I like the guy just fine) will have plenty to appreciate in the acting department. Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad, Adventureland) is one of our greatest directors of ensemble comedies, and he’s surrounded his digitally rendered main character with a cast of likeable performers – including Bill Hader, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch and Blythe Danner. You gotta love the moment when Danner’s character, seeing that her farm is being destroyed in a fire, cries out, “My weed!”