Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day Halloween Catch Up or, Body Snatching Fido Severance Vacancy Supernatural

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Halloween exists in my world merely as a good excuse to watch scary movies. Usually I sync up the Netflix queue and program a little mini marathon, stay up too late, drink too much and generally have a good time with a mix of new and old movies. This year though, the drinks came early, the movie started late and I was asleep after only one film -- the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a rare case where the remake outshines the original and a film that evokes, even better than All the President's Men or Parallax View, the wounded, paranoid post-Nixon American psyche. It certainly helps that the movie is filled with note-perfect Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum performances, and features a scene in a mud bathhouse that still is absolutely transfixing, but you had Philip Kaufman at the helm coming into realization of the great powers he had, just before the brilliant Wanderers and All the Right Stuff (what a great run of films). Perhaps the greatest, most effective tool in creating two hours of creeping dread is the wondrously deranged, atonal score from first-timer Denny Zeitlin -- a set of music so amazing that Zeitlin never made another score afterward. Or as IMDb puts it: "Was so worn out by the work he put into Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), on which he worked over four weeks worth of 20-hour days, that he vowed that he would never write another film score. Because of the accolades and praise that the highly unusual and innovative score received, he was given many offers to do many more film scores, but he refused them all." And so began the movie career of Phillip Glass.

I've seen the original a number of times and Abel Ferrara's oddly luke warm 1993 version more than once, but have not seen the recent Nicole Kidman vehicle. This story really works in the 50s and 70s due to the political climate of the US. Sci-fi and horror excel at taking a mirror to society and skewing their fears to create metaphors ripe for storytelling. Here you have the story of society being overtaken by pod people. You wake up one day to find your loved ones suddenly soulless -- they look the same but are now just cogs in the machine. For a story so rooted in paranoia, 1993 is quite possibly the worst year to remake Body Snatchers. But 2007, right smack in the middle of the second term of the Bush years, should have been the sweet spot for another updated winner. Yet I've heard nothing but mildly negative things, but I'm guessing this is the exact kind of movie that will show up on one of the Encore channels soon, so I'm sure I'll get a chance to check in on this missed opportunity soon.

In the meantime, I have a couple of Netflix rentals sitting next to the tv that have been waiting patiently for me, as well as some space on the DVR to free up, so let's pop open a breakfast beer, say a silent toast to John McCain and dig in. Updates will follow.

Fido

Fido was a film I'd first heard of back at the Boston Independent Film Fest a couple years back. And true to it's buzz at the time, it features a surprisingly effective performance from Billy Connolly as the titular zombie. It's the late 50's/early 60's and a radioactive fog has settled in which causes the dead to come back to life. Actually, the question of whether or not these zombies should be considered dead or alive is a central question to Fido. See, after the Zombie War, ZomCom, a corporation dedicated to controlling the zombie menace, has discovered a way to neutralize a zombies natural urges to eat people by attaching a collar around their necks. This of course leads to the rich buying zombies to be their servants and forcing them to performing manual labor jobs like being the door man, the milk man, the paper boy, etc.

So when a wealthy ZomCom security agent moves to town with his family, Mrs. Robinson (Carrie Anne Moss) decides to buy her family their first zombie so as to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. Everyone else has one. But Mr. Robinson (Dylan Baker) had to kill his own father during the Zombie War, and when his son Timmy and Mrs. Robinson start to get a bit too attached to their charmingly faithful zombie (Timmy names him Fido before a game of fetch turns sour) an already dysfunctional family starts to break at the seams.

Fido isn't really a horror movie -- there certainly aren't any scares to be had. There is a bit of blood and severed body parts, which is standard with any movie featuring zombies, but it's a pretty straightforward satire and one that looses much of it's bite midway through. There's a lot of fun to be had as the movie sets up it's world a we see kids being taught about zombies and learning how to shoot for the brain, not the heart at their school shooting range; men with Zombie War PTSD; Tim Blake Nelson as a skeevy neighbor who uses his teenage girl zombie for unconventional purposes and how the elderly aren't to be trusted since they can drop dead at any moment and awaken zombified (or as one of the many funny commercials puts it, "Help my grandfather's fallen and he's gotten back up!"). But the story is essentially a very sweet one which both hurts it and helps it. Billy Connelly gives a remarkable performance almost entirely through his eyes and body language. He's always been a reliably good actor whenever he pops up, but here he's transcendent and really steals the movie by making such a warm and lovable zombie. If they could have left the rather dull plot of Fido being taken away from the family by ZomCom and the last third of the movie and found a better way to create drama rather than grinding away at the joke of having a zombie in the place of Lassie and aiming too squarely for the heartstrings, we could have had a much sharper satire about the evils and downfall of a society that only works to provide itself with more creature comforts.

Severance

Here we have your old fashioned running through the woods being chased by a guy with a flame thrower horror movie. And not a bad one at that. Being a modern horror film, a 2006 British one, it does have a health dose of humor in the mix. We have the sales team from a global weapons corporation going to the countryside in Hungary for a team building weekend only to end up in the laps of some pissed off ex-soldiers with a bad case of shell shock. Actually these two movies have had an unsuspected bit of irony for Veteran's Day viewing.

It's a well made movie, a bit of a shaky start but once it gets the characters to the main location -- a classic cabin in the woods scenario, it plays with conventions and expectations in refreshingly clever ways. There are enough twists and surprises, gore and laughs to keep fans of the genre entertained and even though there's some gruesome moments, it's handled with a pretty light touch so you don't feel like you're being subjected to Hostel 3. Which reminds me, what I did enjoy with Severance was that the filmmakers actually put some work into creating characters that you could like and not want to see offed. British actor Danny Dryer plays a lovable pot smoking, mushroom eating bloke who at first seems a bit forced into the movie (there always has to be the stoner dude, right?) but he, along with a few other characters, actually manage to grow on you and therefore give the movie the suspense it needs. the story is pretty tight too, with a lot of bait and switch and details laid down in the first half that really pay off in the second. It's not a new classic or anything but for a pretty tired genre it is a welcome entry.

I don't know if I'll get to the last movie today, Vacancy. I got some soup I gotta make and the day is passing by a lot quicker than expected. We'll see...

Supernatural

You know what, instead let's talk briefly about something of high quality that I'm familiar with, Supernatural. Now that Mad Men is over for the foreseeable future, Supernatural may indeed be my most anticipated weekly hour long show. If you've ever enjoyed Buffy or Angel, X-Files or Night Stalker or any variation on the monster of the week formula, you owe yourself a favor to watch Supernatural. The short summary of the show is two brother who've gotten the torch passed down by their father to travel the country in a badass black Chevy Impala and keep the things that go bump in the night from going bump in the night. Not only is it regularly pretty fuckin' freaky, it's also funny, absorbing and does a great job of working with and continuously developing it's main characters of Sam and Dean Winchester as well as the unique world in which they live in.

The strength of any good sci-fi show is how well the world it's presenting is crafted. There are legions of sci-fi fans out there that will reward your show if you can fully realized, rich world to get lost in on a weekly basis. Even if your show is as shitty as Heroes, kudos can come your way if you create an interesting mythology which is something Supernatural has expertly developed in it's 3+ seasons and it's why each season seems to get better and better. And unlike Heroes, Supernatural has some good writers/producers like Massachusetts own Ben Edlund creating suspenseful stories and offering smart, witty dialog rather than plodding plots and groan inducing exposition-only blather. Oh, and the show often has Kim Manners directing -- one of the best directors from the X-Files series.

My favorite thing about Supernatural may be it's ability to perfectly juggle the monster-of-the-week stories with the larger season-long story arcs and the character development. A common technique this season has been wrapping up the weekly monster story around the 45 minute mark and taking the last 5 or so minutes of air time to deliver a usually bittersweet coda (something that Fringe is using to good effect, though that show has yet to shake off its 1st season jitters) that touches upon Sam and Dean's role in the upcoming apocalypse and Dean's lingering side effects of spending a few months in hell. All these supernatural elements are treated with an amazingly balanced use of deadpan matter-of-factness and often hilarious what-the-fuckery -- equal parts seriousness and playfulness.

A large part of the shows success is due to the actor who plays Dean Winchester, Jensen Ackles (the shorter one). At first I thought he was simply another WB pretty boy, but I've found him to be one of the best actors on basic broadcast TV. He's funny as hell, has some of the best timing of any actor on TV, and did a pretty good job at convincing me that he'd just climbed out of his own grave at the beginning of this fourth season. Jared Padalecki as Sam Winchester isn't bad either, he's more the straight man in the Dean and Sam relationship, I've grown fond of him in a way, and he and Jensen have certainly gotten down some of the best chemistry of any show out there right now.

Or maybe I just have a thing for shows where the average guy or girl gets stuck with the burden of preventing the apocalypse. It's a juicy premise and it's a joy watching the Winchester brothers deal with this issue every week. At any rate, until Lost gets back, this is the place to be for smart, suspenseful, spooky television. So stop thinking the WB is a dead zone for entertainment already.

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