Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

I never miss a Coen brothers movie. Which isn't to say that my reaction to them all is the same. Besides not provoking the same reactions at the time, often the reactions change over time and repeated viewings.

Befuddled bemusement, for example, followed The Big Lebowski. But over repeated viewings it has become one of my favorite movies of all time. No Country For Old Men also took multiple viewings to fully figure out, though for entirely different reasons. O Brother! Where Art Thou? was enchanting and remains so. Even Blood Simple was sort of amazing, resurrecting these long-out-of-fashion zooms and giving us a plot that the lead character ultimately didn't understand.

I've maintained that the Coen's have different styles of films, which sort of forces my hand with this one: Where does it fit? Comedy? Tragedy? Comedy of the darker sort?

I'll be damned if I know.

I laughed. A lot. At the same time, the entire film is remarkably poignant and—well, it's a sort of modern retelling of the Book of Job—or maybe a preface to Job?—set in the Midwest in the '60s. (1965-1967, given the appearance of "F-Troop".)

Our hero is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor who's up for tenure. He's got a series of minor nuisances—a disgruntled student, snotty kids, and a loser uncle who makes home life difficult. And as we watch, Larry's life goes slowly to hell.

Larry's a decent sort. He's passionate about the physics he teaches, and about the math behind the physics, although as a wise man once said, there are no answers there. (Something Larry himself must face as he tries to find reasons for his worsening predicament.)

The Coens are always lauded for cleverness, but often also labeled as "cold". I don't agree, necessarily, but I see the point. This movie probably remind me most, at least superficially, of The Man Who Wasn't There. Except that where Billy Bob Thornton's barber character was metaphorically non-existent and challenging to care about, Larry seems to be strongly guided by a desire to do the right thing.

Where Thornton barber's misfortunes might evoke a sort of wry smile that tweaks your sense of injustice, you just really wish Larry could catch a break. And it's quite a roller-coaster ride. You don't get any easy answers. In fact, the final scenes suggest you may have had the wrong questions all along.

In the telling, of course, you have amazing camerawork by the amazing Roger Deakins. The palette for the movie is the gawdawful, drab '60s avocado greens and mustard yellows, and the whole thing strongly evokes the faded, crappy Kodachrome you'd see on all those late-night movies-till-dawn programs ca. 1980.

But wow. Amazing stuff. Every shot communicates. It'd be worth seeing again just to see what the various angles and compositions were saying. And then again to try to figure out how all those ugly colors and styles make such an aesthetically pleasing movie.

The Gopnik family itself seems both vaguely familiar and not immediately identifiable, actor Michel Stuhlbarg (Larry) has been a few things, but for the actors playing his wife, daughter and son, this their first roles.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a sort of "Who's Jew": Richard Kind as poor uncle Arthur, George Wyner, Adam Arkin, Michael Lerner, even Fyvush Finkel as a dybbuk (maybe).

Yes, about that dybbuk. The movie opens with a story about a man who's helped during a snowstorm by a beloved rabbi. Which would be a blessing, if the rabbi hadn't died years ago. Because the rabbi did, in fact the man has invited a dybbuk into his home. Which is quite a curse.

But did the rabbi die? Is it really a dybbuk? The ambiguity there may, in fact, be the key to the whole movie. What are blessings and what are curses? Is it always known?

I liked the movie more and more as it went on, I think for its peculiar empathy. Even when Larry does something wrong, you feel for him. There's no judgment there. He's human. And it has stayed with me all week.

I started thinking as I left that this may be the best movie of the year, better than my previous champ The Brothers Bloom. I can't see it getting the attention No Country did: There's a strong spiritual undercurrent, about Man's relationship to God, and as dark as it is, there's something life-affirming about it, where Hollywood seems to prefer nihilism.

The Boy liked it very much, though he missed a lot of the Biblical imagery. He was puzzling out the meaning of the dybbuk though, after I had sort of forgotten it.

I wouldn't call it a dark comedy, though. As a lover of dark comedies, this felt entirely different to me—perhaps way too much reality. I don't know. But I'd recommend it on a lot of different levels.

Crash Blossom's Revenge

"Oh, look, it's a kid's free day at the zoo!"
"What a great idea! Now we can enjoy the zoo without all those little brats running around screaming!"
"..."
"..."
"..."
"Oh, it means kids get in free, doesn't it."
"..."
"That's good, too."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tickling Leo

If there's one thing that movies have taught me, one secret mystery that has been revealed to me, over and over through celluloid magic, it's this:

Genocide is bad.

Time-and-again, Hollywood's superior moral compass steers away from life's most treacherous pitfalls. Just the other day, I was thinking of wiping out the Ainu but I remembered some important (if sometimes confusing) lessons recent movies had taught me.

"But Blake!" you cry, "What about Reds and Che and all those movies celebrating revolution that resulted in, or even immediately involved mass murder!"

"Well, that's democide," I reply smugly. "The jury's still out on democide. No consensus there."

"But genocide was also a big part of the Soviet regime, too!"

"Shut up," I explain.

I digress. And exaggerate. Because today's movie, Tickling Leo, is really a low-budget effort without much of Hollywood about it. It's the story of Zak Pikler, who goes with his girlfriend Delphina to visit his estranged father upon hearing that he's not quite right. Upon arriving, he finds out that his father is not well. In fact, he's losing his mind.

Sure, we've seen it before. A lot. But have we seen it with WWII-surviving Jews? (Actually, I sort of think we have.)

Anyway, while Zak is estranged from his father Warren, Warren is, in turn estranged from his father Emil (Eli Wallach at 94, folks). As it turns out, Emil had to make a hard choice during WWII that Warren never understood, and Warren carried this anger through by renouncing his faith and not raising his son in the church—and further excoriating his non-Jewish wife when she tries to expose him to a little of it.

Delphina obviously has a passing interest in resolving this conflict, though there's not a whole lot she can do, other than insisting Zak act like a civil human being.

I asked the boy afterward what he thought and he said:

"It was a very good example of its genre."
"What did you think its genre was?"
"Depressing."

But, in fact, it's not a depressing movie, which is quite a feat, given the subject matter. Movies like this—I mean both Alzheimer's movies and Holocaust movies—can tend to wallow. (Helloooo, The Notebook!)

It's traditional film-making for the most part. Not a lot of shaky-cam. A few scenes are too darkly lit for what appears to budgetary reasons rather than artistic ones. But overall, the solid acting and writing makes for something that doesn't feel uncomfortably low budget.

And it manages to weave a thread of optimism in it, which I tend to favor.

Still, it's a niche.

Intriguingly enough, our next movie would also be steeped in Jewish-themed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Burn Dem Bunnies

To show what a terrible person I am, I'm highlighting this story of burning bunnies: here. And confessing, it makes me giggle.

To understand why I think it's funny, you'd have to be in my head. But if I can, I'll draw a picture.

It's also the juxtaposition of something that's presented in such a horrible way (burning bunnies?) but is actually so ridiculous as to be suspect. I mean, really, how much fuel can you get from bunnies? I know Sweden's a low-population country, but it's also a damn cold one. You'd probably have to burn ten bunnies an hour just to stave off hypothermia.

Now, if you read the article, there's a distinct scolding going on there at well. The photo caption, for example, reads "Many of the bunnies used for biofuel were once pets, a pest control worker said."

Ahhh, now we get to the meat of it. As it were.

This is somebody official obliquely scolding people for abandoning pets by threatening them with a horrible death. (You have to kill animals if you care about them, apparently.) Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd seriously challenge whether the investment of energy used in hunting, shooting, skinning/gutting/whatever, rendering the fat, turning the fat to bio-diesel can be recouped significantly by said diesel.

But some of you more science-minded guys can put me some knowledge here if I'm wrong.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Paranormal Activity: Return of the Old, Dark House

The Boy and I snuck in a Saturday Matinee in the hopes of seeing Paranormal Activity while avoiding—well, let's be honest, the public, who can't really be trusted to shut up and actually watch a movie these days. Particularly, since one of our last horror outings (The Orphan) had taken place in a theater full of rowdy teenagers, we'd hoped an early Saturday show would be mostly empty.

It wasn't, unfortunately. But the audience was quiet, leading me to suspect that alcohol plays a factor in teen jerkiness, maybe more than the teen part even.

This movie, the brain child of writer/director/former video game programmer Oren Peli is actually nothing more than a classic Old, Dark House story. Which means, seriously, a bad audience will ruin it for you.

This movie has one of the slowest buildups for a horror movie I've seen in a long time. Well, for a good horror movie. The movie is absent any gore whatsoever—you've seen worse on "Law and Order". The horrors, very literally, are bumps in the night.

Actually, those are some of the more overt horrors. A couple of others are a door that moves about six inches, and one of the characters just standing there.

You get the idea. It's all in the telling. Oh! And sleepwalking! I haven't seen sleepwalking used to be scary since, what, 1943's I Walked With A Zombie?

The story is that Katie and Micah have been living together with a bit of poltergeist phenomenon. It's been getting worse and rattling Katie, so she calls in a psychic. In this interview, we come to understand the Katie's been having this problem most of her life. The psychic decides that it's not your average restless spirit, but a demon, and he doesn't do demons. Call the local demonologist.

Against this backdrop, the glib, cocky Micah goes through a number of changes. Katie, of course, believes and is very respectful of her demon while Micah goes from thinking on the one hand that it's all silly and psychics are worthless, to being excited about the prospect of catching interesting film footage and actually stirring stuff up.

And while this is all hand-held video, for good stretches the camera is mounted, meaning much less of the shakes.

It's actually got a very real feel to it, much more so than Blair Witch, and if Zombieland is a sort of low budget, the budget for this movie is said to be eleven thousand dollars. Most of the chills are ghost-story type things, such as a door opening slightly or a sheet billowing, but there are some interesting footfalls and a bit of special effects at the ending, too. It's all lightly done, though.

Adding to it is that Micah and Kate (the actors' real names) have a very real look to them. Kate is "Hollywood fat" which is to say, not fat at all, but probably fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than they'll let her be if she's in anything else. (Remember how skinny Heather Donahue got after "Witch". Scarier than the movie.)

Anyway, rather realistically and conveniently, her boyfriend tends to leer a bit when he's got the camera on her. A little less realistically is that she wears bras to bed. (I guess not unheard of, but it reminded me a bit of Megan McCain's just lying around the house picture.) A couple of other things like that sort of caught my eye. (Like, why don't they change sides in bed? Well, the camera shots are better that way and it probably wouldn't make any difference story-wise. Still, that's what I would've done.)

But when you're picking nits at this level, you've got yourself a solid picture.

Couldn't figure out why it was rated R when it was over. I guess there was some swearing? (I don't usually notice.) But I'd guess it was more that that's what the filmmakers wanted. PG-13 would've been more than adequate. It had an "R" feel, though.

I like "house" movies; always have. But this is an especially good one.

The Boy was less impressed. You could say we were flipped on this and Zombieland. I liked the slow buildup, he thought it was too slow. Also, Zombieland is more lighthearted, whereas this movie gets more and more serious every passing scene, despite a lot of humor.

Nonetheless, not only were people quiet during this movie, most stayed quiet well after the final scene, not really sure if it was over. Even the people who decided it was over left quietly. Pretty amazing, really.

Movie Review: Zombieland

Using the template established by 28 Days Later, and bouncing off a little Shaun of the Dead, the new movie Zombieland gives us a fun-filled romp across a zombie-filled American West.

What more do you need, really?

Well, if you're The Boy, a lot more. I had a hard time getting him to see this one. The potential for stupid was huge, and director Fleischer, along with writers Reese and Wernick, don't have a big dossier. I kind of blanked on Woody Harrelson—whom he actually knows from a bunch of movies at this point—and while I remembered Jesse Eisenberg from Adventureland, I had forgotten that Emma Stone was his love interest in that movie, as well. Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine rounds out the core cast.

But he doesn't usually go see movies because of the actors anyway.

But I persuaded him and he loved it. It's a brisk movie, just an hour-and-a-half which is pretty solidly plotted, and mostly pretty light for a post-apocalyptic movie. It dispenses with a number of the genre traditions set up by Romero's Night of the Living Dead to good end. It's not real scary, despite a few good shocks in the beginning, but it is massively gory.

Possibly the goriest I've seen this year. Possibly the goriest last year, too.

The gore is very sincerely done and well-executed. For a relatively low-budget movie, it does a very convincing job of gore-spewing and head-smashing and so on.

If you're squeamish, in other words, steer clear.

Anyway, the plot basically concerns Eisenberg as an unlikely survivor who crosses path with the more macho Harrelson as they journey to their respective homes. Harrelson's character likes to call everyone by their home town, so Eisenberg becomes Columbus, while he's Tallahassee. Stone and Breslin are Witchita and Little Rock, respectively.

Columbus, formerly a shut-in, has managed to survive by compiling a simple list of rules he always follows. Things like strapping on the seatbelt and being extra-cautious of bathrooms—the latter being a virtual zombie movie cliché. These give the movie a nice start, funny and in good contrast with Tallahassee's more ad hoc style of engagement.

This is mostly dropped in the middle of the movie which may or may not have been a good idea. It resurfaces again toward the end. I have to say, even at ninety minutes, I actually thought the end of act 2 and the beginning of act 3 was kind of a drag.

The movie is really well plotted up to this point. There's a gag bit in the middle which is hilarious but seems to end the movie's drive.

Still it all ends well enough, and there were a lot of ending clichés avoided as well. Where Shaun of the Dead ends with an excellent (but very standard) zombie beatdown, this stays true to it's own feel, which is nice.

I'm being vague about details because a lot of the delight of this movie comes from its originality, and the light character arcs which manage to be pretty good despite being very light.

If you can get past the (over the top) gore, you can have yourself a good time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Race Against Time

As the struggle to increase state control over health care continues, it occurs to me that this is a race against time.

Sure, this is often been framed as a race against time, in the sense that Obama needs to spend his political capital as fast as he can before the impact of his actual actions (or inaction) start to deplete it.

But there's another race against time: The more time passes, the harder and harder it gets to pretend that "Well, Europe does this, and they're all just swell as can be!"

'cause, of course, they're not. Right now, Americans (on the whole) would not tolerate the sort of care that Canadians and British receive. The French system is supposedly top notch, but of course it's in the red to the tune about 10% of its total budget, can't be decreased, and so of course will only increase.

On top of that, you have the constant double-digit unemployment and the sometimes staggering poverty levels of western Europe.

Even the middle-class in, say, Scandinavian countries, which are often heralded as blissful blonde paradises, can't (for example) go to lunch routinely. It's a significant expense. Not surprising, when you consider how much a Big Mac costs. Not surprisingly, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are in the top 5 of the Big Mac Index.

I haven't been able to validate the $8.99 footlong sub at Subway, talked about in that PJTV video, but most things are taxed to death. I once sent a Dutch pal a $20 computer game because it was $70 in his country.

Last time we voted down government medicine was 15 years ago. And it was tabled for all that time, and all that time the countries that had government medicine have only gotten more in debt. 15 from now, some of them (at least) will be bankrupt, and that will be the least of their problems, one suspects.

So, if we can win this battle, that might end the argument for the century.

It'll come back, of course. Tyranny always comes back in one form or another. All we can do is fight it off every single time.

Eternal vigilance.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Wages (and Prices) Of Sin

The beauty of the Apocalypse is that it comes in so many flavors, to appeal to so many people. Ya gotcher Rapture, your Ragnarok, your Mayan 2012, and of course such modern classics as nuclear holocaust, zombie-or-zombie-like contagion, overpopulation or just good old famine. Something for everyone to enjoy.

But, of course, the end of the world is more likely to come in a more banal way, or at least always has in the past. Which brings us to Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, a book written 30 years ago, in the wake of Nixon's (et al.) disastrous experiments with wage and price controls.

Schuettinger and Butler show us the decline of great civilizations that followed those civilization's "elite" tampering with the free market. From Hammurabi and the Pharaohs to the Soviets and Weimar, the drives are similar and the results always the same.

Despite this, these "experiments" are repeated over and over again. Keep that in mind next time you talk to someone calling himself a "progressive".

Seems like the only truly progressive idea is that man should be free to govern his own affairs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Introducing A New Series: Idiot with a Pencil

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I have come into possession of a scanner and have dug up some of my general idiocy from the dusty confines of the Casa Maelstrom archives.

I am not, by any definition an artist, but am an idiot, and I do love to draw. The kids seem to enjoy it as a group activity, and The Boy had an elaborate game he called "Paper Wars" where we would draw various monsters and do sort-of kindergarten "Magic: The Gathering". (The Flower is really starting to impress me with her drawings.)

Anyway, I thought I'd present this self-portrait from about five years ago.


OK, that's actually from How to Draw Monsters, Weirdoes & Aliens, but the resemblance is uncanny!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: The Invention Of Lying

Imagine a world where no one lied. That there was no concept of lying, even. That all manners of fictions, deceits, imaginations and cons simply did not exist, and so neither did protections against them. Then imagine one man suddenly developed the ability to lie.

Or, don't imagine it and go see the new Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying instead.

Or, maybe don't go see it.

The Boy said it was good though he thought it could've been funnier. Then the next day he said it was kind of depressing.

It's interesting. The premise posits a drab world—modern day but rather colorless—and presumes the most cynical values of "truth". After all, one can say any number of true things at any time. One doesn't have to pick the most hurtful truth. But that wouldn't be nearly as funny.

It's a fragile premise: As if we could get to this point without imagination. But even allowing for that, as if we could get to this point without the concept of differing in opinion or just simply being wrong. Survival would be unpossible.

OK, we're playing for laughs here. And it's sort of funny seeing the world without euphemism, though actually not as funny as it should have been. (I felt like I could think of a dozen funny opportunities missed.) Part of this premise seems to be that there's an agreed upon truth, and no one can deviate from it.

So, our hero (Gervais) is a homely loser who will never amount to anything—because he's a homely loser who won't amount to anything. We see him on a date with Jennifer Garner, who states flatly that she's out of his league and, even though she likes him, they're not "genetic matches"—as if that were a term with some sense to it.

In his darkest hour, something in his brain goes off, and he is able to lie to get himself out of a jam. And for a moment, it looks as though he's going to pull a Groundhog Day, using his power for self-indulgence until he hits rock bottom and comes out the other side. I was grateful they avoided this plot—though Gervais could certainly pull it off—because that was sort of the plot of Ghost Town.

Gervais is most emphatically not a jerk here. He's a nice guy who's been labeled a loser and believes that label (because he has no choice but to do so). He quickly turns his ability to lie to try to help others. (Not that he isn't plenty self-serving.) He brings his loser pals CK Louis and the suicidal Jonah Hill along for the ride, just for example.

The movie's turning point is very possibly its downfall. In one of the most touching scenes I've seen all year, Gervais sits with his mother as she dies.

I'm going to do a little SPOILER here, so beware if you want to be surprised. I wasn't surprised in the least, because the "twist" here had occurred to me about five times before it happened.

You've been warned. You probably should check out of this review now if you want to view this movie in a pristine state.

OK, so Gervais' mother (the lovely Fionnula Flanagan, whose name I spelled right without looking it up!) is dying and sobbing hysterically because that's the end and she'll cease to exist for all eternity, so to make her feel better, he invents Heaven. This makes her happy but increases the complications for him, since the staff overhears him and wants to know more.

Cue Life of Brian style intrigue.

Hugely touching scene. But now the movie's stepped in it. Truth is now materialism. And Gervais is then required to invent religion. But he does a piss-poor job at it, taking a micromanagement view of God that confuses everyone and gets them worked up.

Now, it's perfectly plausible that Gervais' character would do a poor job. But there was no reason for him to invent The Man In the Sky in the first place. No reason, in fact, that he would think of such a thing. All he had to do was invent the soul. Which makes the whole thing comes off rather anti-religion, atheist and working on the assumption that materialism is truth.

Then all of the "helpful lies" start falling apart, too. At first, we're given a world where no one is happy because there are no lies. Then we're given a world where no one is happy because of lies.

Well, a world where no one is happy isn't very funny. And all the guest-stars in the world (Jason Bateman as a smiling doctor who is completely unmoved by death, Rob Lowe as Gervais' genetically superior rival, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender, Ed Norton as a cop, etc.) can only buoy it a little.

I've never had any opinions of Jennifer Garner in her early years but her work here and in Juno has really impressed me. (Though I do think she's kind of goofy looking. Is that just me?) At the same time, a scene with her and Lowe just lies there (as it were).

It all comes off a little clunky, and the sharp veer into what are rather heavy matters of truth and reality, ends up bringing the whole movie down to a limping pace. Kind of depressing, as The Boy says, and ultimately saying what about Man and humanity?

We can't be happy if we only believe the truth, and we can't be happy if we believe in lies, but we can be happy if we can fool everyone else with our lies?

I mean, it's a comedy, right? It probably didn't mean to be profound at all. But if not, it should have trod a lighter path.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Miracle Mile

Here's a kind of obscure movie that wasn't out long enough for me to see back in the '80s. It perfectly captures the Reagan-era atomic annihilation paranoia which, interestingly enough, seemed to peak at the end of the Cold War.

The press reveled in presenting Reagan as an amiable dunce with an itchy trigger finger which, curiously, never took effect. They and their Democratic masters called him the Teflon President. They tried to smear him and were frustrated by their failure. (It is hard to understand, really, the Press spoke with one voice back then that can scarcely be imagined now. But the economy was going gangbusters and that pretty much determines popular success or failure, I think.)

This had two effects. One was, they perhaps bizarrely gave Reagan a kind of credibility with the Communists that scared them into bankrupting themselves. But the more obvious one was that they scared the bejeesus out of the West, giving rise to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives like at no other time in history. Possibly at a time when they were least like to happen.

So let us look at this 1988—no, really, the wall would come down the next year—nuclear war film, which stars a bunch of TV luminaries, like Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Denise Crosby and Mykelti Williamson, as well as cult favorites O-lan Jones, John Agar and Jenette Goldstein, to say nothing of a cameo by actor/director Peter Berg.

The story goes that trombonist Harry (Edwards) and waitress Julie (Winningham) meet each other at the museum, but due to a stray cigarette and some sleepy pills, Anthony ends up missing a late-night date with her. This puts him at his date location at 4:00AM in the heart of the Miracle Mile district.

While waiting outside Johnny's Diner, the phone rings, but it's not Julie, it's some guy in a nuclear silo trying to reach his dad. He's distraught because, apparently, he's been ordered to launch.

Now, Anthony has about an hour and fifteen minutes to live, and he ends up trying to convince others in the coffee shop that it's for real, and they've got to get out of the city. But as they're in progress, he decides he has to get off—he has to go get Julie.

So it's sort of a surreal love story.

Why the movie works (for me) is the surreality that attends this adventure. The love-at-first-sight-turning-to-boning-on-second-date. The bird that carts off the cigarette. The possums that fall from the tree. The transvestite. The 1988 cell phone. The cop covered in gasoline who shoots her gun. The old couple that refuses to talk to each other till the day they die. The helipad search for vitamins. The eerily lit all-night gym. The rioting. The elevator make-out.

All in an area I had lived in for a couple of years. Not Miracle Mile—I didn't have that kind of money. But I knew Johnnies. (I didn't eat there; I was more a Norm's guy. But I'm pretty sure that they didn't have the Bob's Big Boy-style giant dude with twirling hamburgers.) The Fairfax district (where the museum is) still looks basically the same, and I visit the museum and other sights occasionally. So there's a little of the Volcano-type thing that appeals to me, too.

Some people just think it's all stupid. I don't know: None of us really knows how we or anyone else would act in that circumstance. I think a little weirdness is in order, frankly. Some say this movie was originally meant to be part of "The Twilight Zone" movie which, I suppose, wouldn't have fit any better or worse than John Landis' entry, though Vic Morrow might still be alive.

If there's a moral to this week's entry, it's that a lot of people, even into 1988, months before the wall came down, thought the end was nigh. In the next few years, nuclear apocalypse movies would take a big hit. (Even though an unstable Russia may have been far more dangerous than a decaying USSR.)

Now, while people still worry about nuclear bombs, they worry a lot less about total nuclear annihilation. Which goes to show you that sometimes it really is darkest before the dawn.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Movie Review: Pandorum

We're coming out of lean times as far as moviegoing goes. As August winds down and well into September, typically the dregs of the season are released: Summer films that everyone thinks will flop, Award-season films that won't win any awards, horror movies that can't compete at Halloween, and so on.

That means that an occasional breakout success cleans up—it has no serious competition—though we haven't seen that this year. But it's a challenge for the regular moviegoer.

From this bleak desert we wandered into Pandorum, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi old-dark-house road-trip monster movie, starring Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid.

The story is simple, but perhaps I shouldn't describe too much. Basically Payton and Bower (Quaid and Foster, respectively) wake up on their way to a distant world, but with no memory of who they are or what their mission is. OK, no need to panic since memory loss is a side-effect of hypersleep—but a little more disturbing when they realized they weren't woken up by the previous shift. And the power is down. And they can't get out of their sleep area.

That's the sci-fi and old-dark-house part.

Shortly thereafter, they find the ship overrun by monsters. That's the monster movie part.

Foster realizes he has to get to the reactor and restart it before it shuts down for good, and he finds some other awoken folks to accompany him: Road Trip!

And, oh, the movie starts with a series of rather grim statements about earth in the upcoming years, then goes to a picture of a crew on the bridge of the ship receiving a message from earth that says "You're the last of us." So, yeah, you can figure out the post-Apocalyptic part.

In fact, there are a couple of "reveals" like that later on in the movie where you're thinking, "OK, not shocking since you showed that in the first fifteen minutes," but this is well-directed and acted to the point where you sort of empathize for the characters: They didn't know it. (Came in late to the movie, as it were.)

This sort of evokes Moon though without the shoestring budget. It still feels kind of cheap but—I don't know, is $40M cheap these days? Kind of seems like a lot to spend on a movie with no hot stars and no promotion/marketing budget. I hadn't even heard of this film.

It also saves its minimal corporate bashing for the beginning of the movie. There are intimations that corporations are behind all the world's problems, but nothing to get hung up on.

As I mentioned, a lot of the reveals aren't very revealing. And a lot of the tension I felt came from worrying they were going to screw the whole thing up. The titular Pandorum is, like, the "space willies". So there's a lot of question about who is crazy and who isn't, and it has a big impact on how you perceive the story.

You might even, at the end, wonder if the whole thing's a hallucination. But that's reaching.

The boy proclaimed it very, very good, and particularly because the ending didn't suck.

Sci-Old Dark House movies (Alien, Event Horizon, Sunshine) very often end badly. This looked like it was going to take one of those bad endings. About six times, actually. And one of the resolutions was sort of disappointing.

But overall, the spooky stuff works pretty well, the action works pretty well, the adventure works pretty well—though it's all a bit familiar by now—and the plot (also well-worn) plays the right balance of tension and gratuitously-twisty-ending to come out in a satisfying fashion, which is rare.

Foster is good, Quaid is...Quaid, the other supporting actors are quite good, though most of the notice is going to go to Antje Traue, who's like a German Kate Beckinsale with curves.

In short, this was a pleasant little surprise of a movie, I mean, if you don't rule out cannibalism, monsters, murder, insanity and treachery from your "pleasant surprise" entertainment.

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