Two Movie Reviews
Happy birthday, frenchpony!!!
(I know you weren't around yesterday on your actual birthday, so hopefully you'll get my belated wishes!)
We've actually seen four movies recently, but I find it impossible to review comedies, and two of the four were comedies. Funny movies seem too...personal somehow. A lot of what is funny (or not) to a person depends on their experiences, and what I find funny as a twenty-four-year-old recent college graduate and liberal who likes to write and play with Elves is going to be very different from what a fifty-four-year-old male banker and Republican who likes golf and wine thinks is funny. And I'm no good at analyzing what makes comedy work or not. So I decided to leave those two movies alone.
For the record, they were Talladega Nights and Accepted. I liked Accepted the best--but naturally, having graduated from college recently and getting ready to go back, this "college comedy" genre appeals to me. (Never mind that I do tend to have a crude sense of humor.) Talladega Nights was pretty good too--probably the best that Will Ferrell has put out in a while, imho--but yet he doesn't make me laugh like he did on Saturday Night Live. I don't know why. He was my favorite on there, but most of his movies simply aren't that funny.
I give Accepted 3.33 E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four, and Talladega Nights gets 2.75, both of which are fairly good scores.
Naturally, the two that I am going to fully review are horror/suspense movies. Pretend to be shocked.
Both reviews may contain spoiler stuff, so tread with care if you are planning to see these movies and want to be completely surprised.
The Night Listener
Starring Robin Williams, The Night Listener starts with a burned-out writer and radio personality who receives a manuscript of a book to read. The author of the manuscript is a teenaged boy named Pete Logand who was violently abused sexually in a child pornography ring and subsequently infected with HIV. He is now dying of a lung infection, and the book is his memoir.
It is so gripping that Gabriel (Williams) telephones the boy--now living with a foster mother named Donna--and strikes up a deep friendship with him. Eventually, clues come together that make Gabriel begin to believe that Pete might not be real but rather a "character" created by Donna for attention. Gabriel strikes out to find out the truth behind Pete and Donna and this awful story that has gripped him so.
The build-up in this movie is very well done and the tension is palpable. I found my attention glued to the action as more and more clues are revealed, wanting to believe--as did Gabriel--that Pete was real, holding on to each shred of hope only to have it torn away. The characters are believable and surprisingly well written, I thought. Donna gives off a definite "wacko" vibe, yet I wanted to believe her. I really did. I wanted Pete to be real.
But...the ending disapppointed me.
After all of the tension and build-up, the climactic scene is over in what feels like thirty seconds, and the audience is left hanging and waiting for what will happen next. Surely we will learn the truth. But no, Gabriel goes back to his hometown, back to his radio show, and tells the story to his listeners. (It is, in fact, based on true events.) And...that's it.
I felt like the movie was trying to hang the success of the climax on the characters and the chemistry between them, but it didn't quite work for me. After the tension created in the first hour, the climactic scene was not really much more intense than some of the scenes leading up to it. I honestly believed it was just another encounter between Gabriel and Donna that was building to some larger action.
On one hand, I am pleased to see a movie for once where not a single gun was waved, there were no explosions, and no high-speed car chases. But I think that the ending has to be in proportion with the meat-'n'-taters of the story, and when the most exciting parts of the movie are in the middle, the ending feels like a failure.
As I said, I loved the characters, the first three-fourths was wonderful...but the ending bombed. So I have to give it a disappointed two E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four.
I am putting this part outside the cut for the benefit of my sister, since I don't know if she reads my movie reviews:
Do not see The Wicker Man. It includes as its premise an idea that--given your phobia--will cause you to not sleep well at night. If you want to know more, you can read the review, but I am keeping spoiler stuff under the cut.
But for the same reason that I told you not to see Silent Hill, you'll probably want to skip this one too.
~Your Loving Sister
The Wicker Man
The movie begins when Officer Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage) finds himself along the roadside trying to help a mother and her bratty daughter. When the daughter tosses a doll into the street, Malus goes to retrieve it and causes a tractor trailer to crash into the car, which explodes before Malus can rescue the strange little girl.
Although Malus is commended for his work, he falls victim to a pseudo-post-traumatic stress disorder (the reason for the "pseudo" I will explain shortly), including vivid visual hallucinations. At the same time, he receives a letter from an ex-fiancee who ran off shortly before their wedding. She is now living in an island commune, has a daughter...and the daughter has disappeared.
And we have our movie's premise: Malus will go to the island of Summersisle to help his old lover retrieve her daughter.
I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time. It is a remake of a 1973 original (starring Christopher Lee, for you Tolkienites out there) and looked to have a good deal of promise. However, it is rated PG-13, and my feelings on PG-13 horror movies are...complicated.
I'm going to indulge this idea for a moment, since I believe that it influences the effectiveness of this movie in places, as it often does, although I do have to say that I found the movie surprisingly graphic and dark. (Those of you who know me know that this is not a complaint.)
I tend to cringe when I see a horror movie billed as "PG-13." Generally, what this translates to me is that all of the edges have been rubbed off in order to attract a high-school audience and the big bucks that comes with it. PG-13 horror movies tend to be foolishly euphemistic and bland (not to mention the fact that sitting in a theater with a gaggle of squealing high schoolers trying not to pee their pants is about as much fun as spending two hours sitting on an active yellowjacket's nest).
Earlier this year, the movie An American Haunting was released. It was rated PG-13. The crux of the movie was that the poltergeist activity was being created by a sexually abused teenaged girl. Now anyone who has ever tried to write a story about sexual abuse and rape knows that it is very hard to confine to a PG-13 audience. The result was an almost laughable amount of euphemism, aimed over the heads of the high schoolers but designed to make sense to the older crowd. The ending was weak as a result, like watered-down beer: perhaps safer for kids but virtually without effect.
I had my suspicions about The Wicker Man because of its rating. A story that explores the darkest corners of humanity does not conform well to a rating meant to entice a puerile and teenaged audience, at least in the majority of my experiences. Few of these movies are truly scary and tend to rely on jump-out-and-go-boo tactics that past reviews have revealed that I despise.
I did enjoy this movie...to a degree. The suspense was nicely done, and I really had no idea what was going to happen. I was as keen on looking for clues as Malus, at trying to decipher the strange society in which he found himself. I was intrigued.
But there are a few points that really grated on me and took away some of the efficiency of this movie, imho.
- First: If you are going to build part of your plot around a psychological disorder, do yourself the favor of doing an hour's worth of research. Start with an abnormal psychology textbook. Check out the DSM-IV from the library. Heck, even check Wikipedia or Google for links to support groups or sites that may give you facts--rather than sensationalism or myths--about the disorder in question.
I realize that I approach movies differently than a general audience. My degree is in biopsychology and human services psychology; my undergraduate work concentrated mostly on addiction treatment and post-traumatic stress disorder in childhood victims of political violence. PTSD is a relatively new disorder, "discovered" after the Vietnam War when veterans began showing remarkably similar symptoms and behaviors after returning from war. Most people know little to nothing about PTSD, but I don't think that that removes a writer's obligation to stick to facts rather than sensationalism.
PTSD does not cause visual hallucinations. The use of visual hallucinations in movies, actually, has become a pet peeve of mine and has ruined many a good movie that might otherwise provide a realistic and human portrayal of what it is to live with a psychological disorder. Visual hallucinations except when the subject is under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance (i.e. LSD) or has a brain disorder (i.e. a brain tumor) do not occur as part of psychological disorders. Even schizophrenia--the paranoid type of which is often categorized by the presence of hallucinations--does not involve visual hallucinations. Auditory, yes. Tactile, yes. But not visual.
The extent of visual hallucinations experienced by Malus would be laughable to someone who has had even a basic course in abnormal psychology. PTSD is characterized by a variety of anxiety and avoidance behaviors. A person with PTSD may have trouble sleeping or may think constantly on the traumatic event. A person with PTSD has a more sensitive startle reflex. A person with PTSD does not hallucinate, and especially not visually. Any type of hallucinations are indicative or either an organic brain disorder, substance abuse, or psychosis, all of which would probably involve extensive medical evaluation and certainly turning in one's firearm and being put on medical retirement.
- Aside from the terrible factual inaccuracies, the hallucinations do not even serve a purpose in the story. Throughout the movie, Malus has flashbacks that seemingly reveal connections to what is occurring on Summersisle. For one, the little girl blown up in the car looks exactly the same as the little girl (Rowan) who is missing on the island. Presumably, the two are connected, and I eagerly anticipated discovering the connection between the strange events on Summersisle and the accident, which could not possibly have been linked in any obvious sense.
But...nothing. There is apparently no connection. Perhaps Malus is a psychic. But even that (shoddy) explanation falls through when the viewer comes to the realization that Rowan was never the character in danger at all. (It is also revealed about midway through the movie that Malus is Rowan's father. Well, duh. I saw that one coming as soon as his ex's letter mentioned a daughter.) Perhaps the idea of a strong father-daughter connection where he senses her danger combines itself somehow with the trauma of the accident...maybe that could work. It would be a stretch, yes. But certainly better than what we get.
My feelings are that the writer had hoped that by showing Malus's continued regret and trauma over the accident, the viewer would feel sympathy for his character. This is so unbelievably shallow. I won't sympathize with a guy simply because he has a made-up mental illness.
- On a positive note (because the movie was an enjoyable hour-and-a-half for me, despite my problems with it), I thought that Nicholas Cage did bring his character to life in his very realistic reaction to what he interpreted as his daughter's imminent demise. There was no cool, collected cop filled to the brim with clever one-liners. No, he screamed and raged and his hair fell in his face, and he even used the f-word. In a PG-13 movie. But it was realistic, how a father in such a situation would probably actually behave.
- And then we come to the PG-13 issue....
I was quite surprised that the movie so graphically depicted a man being burned alive inside a large wicker man. No, there was no peeling and bubbling flesh (a la Silent Hill, which was rated R) but there were several uncomfortable minutes of pleading and screaming while the viewer wonders how Malus is going to get himself out of such a predicament...and he doesn't. This could have easily been a clean cut-away or--again--the cheesy one-liners and deathbed (wicker man?) speeches, but it was a pretty honest portrayal of hysteria. I was impressed.
But there was some PG-13ness too. To further cripple poor Malus, before hoisting him to his doom inside a large funeral pyre--whilst still alive--both his legs were broken. But rather than show the legs being broken in Misery-style, we get a scene of Malus being carried in a sling to the wicker man with the sounds and dialogue from the previous scene dubbed over it. (I am sure that there is a fancy film word for this, but alas, I know remarkably little about film, though I critique the hell out of it.) There is a squicky crack and then an "Ahhh! My leg!!!" I don't think that anyone with a sledge taken to his leg screams, "Ahhh! My leg!!!" Yes, we get the point. But...it felt PG-13. Part of the effectiveness of this scene, I thought, centered on showing the lack of humanity of the executors and making a final stab at finding empathy and pity for poor Malus. I thought that Nicholas Cage did his part for this. But the heartless coldness required of the Summersisle people was missing. It just felt cheesy. It felt PG-13.
Personally, I think that if you are going to go so far as to write a movie about a crazed religious cult burning a man alive, you should not be afraid to show the audience all that that entails. If you expect us to sit through it, then don't wimp out on the reality of it.
- Honestly, movies with fanaticism at their core are beginning to wear on me. I suspect that this trend is largely due to current events, where fanatics of various religious and moral persuasions threaten human life on a disturbingly regular basis, but I've yet to be impressed by the treatment of this topic in the horror genre. (In terms of regular films, Paradise Now and Downfall do a spectacular job of this, I think.) And I think that horror audiences deserve a little credit for intelligence. (I am tempted--but will not indulge--into a rant about how the crux of horror, really, is one of intelligence, of understanding and exploiting the roots of fear to create a reaction in the audience.) While it was perhaps a relief that nutjob Christians were not the culprit in this movie (instead a neo-Pagan matriarchal society built around the idea of a beehive), the movie still did little to explore fanaticism aside from its ease of use as a convenient culprit. After all, all rationale people hate fanatics. And just like a killer earthquake or a vicious man-eating shark or a demonic possession, they lack humanity. All rationale people know this...right?
Not really. Given the breadth of fanaticism in history and now in current events, I think it's safe to say that it is a part of humanity, and showing how such radical ideas could evolve in one's own backyard--in you or me even?--is the true horror in such a subject.
- I did like the ending. Now, it is the next pretty face set to nab a human sacrifice, much as Malus's fiancee Willow had done. And we sit beside her in a bar as she works her magic...but we have reason to doubt that she might not go through with it. That Malus's violent death may have reached her. That she might be human. And that is the beginning of really understanding fanaticism, I think.
I initially groaned at how implicative the ending seemed to be of a sequel. (Though I honestly don't believe that there will be one.) But perhaps there should be one: One that sets aside sensationalist misconceptions of mental illness and plot threads that seemingly disappear to give the society in which such a travesty could be allowed to occur a more profound treatment, rather than shuffling it into a suddenly cool and convenient role as a villain.