January 30, 2011

Erin Brockovich

Seeing Between the Lines. Movies that are "based on a true story" should never be evaluated for their historical accuracy, but as narrative, fictional accounts with a whimsical attachment to an event which happened to take place in real life. We've seen this to be true with the reaction to The Social Network, as people portrayed in the movie have come out and said that much of it was a fabrication on the part of the writer and the director. We may never get to the truth with all the angles confronting us incessantly, so as moviegoers and critics we ought to consider the importance of the movie and not the event that studios are capitalizing on in an effort to generate more revenue. "Based on a true story" is, after all, nothing more than a marketing ploy.

With that out of the way, I want to take a look back at Erin Brockovich (2000), the movie that gave Julia Roberts an Oscar for her performance as an abrasive single mother who used her looks and her gutsy personality to take aim at a corrupt corporation. Apparently, PG&E was poisoning the wells of a small town and lying to the residents about it, and only a woman who'd been on the short of end of the stick as many times as Erin Brockovich could do them justice. She corners a lawyer named Ed Masri (Albert Finney) into giving her a job after he fails to deliver for her in court. Erin is the epitome of the down-on-her-luck American single mother who has a perfect figure and an unshakably tenacious spirit. The movie is perhaps ludicrous, but Julia Roberts's performance is so much fun you can hardly fault it.

 In 2000, critics were mourning the death of American Cinema. They do that a lot. I've done it too. Erin Brockovich isn't the type of movie that typically attracts Academy Award attention, but if memory serves, it seemed like people were pulling for Roberts because this was the best role she might ever get, or rather, the most important role she might ever get. It was more important if not pop-culturally less significant than Pretty Woman, and far more memorable than just about anything she'd done in the 10 years between that film and this one.

And indeed, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Susannah Grant have fashioned an entertaining movie. It has a noirish feel to it that inflates the mystery/thriller/courtroom drama aspects of the plot (it is really none of these genres but it seems that Soderbergh wanted to lend that kind of feel to the movie as a means of maintaining the audience's interest). Erin Brockovich is a good movie, a finely crafted piece of entertainment, and yet it's incredibly calculated. Every emotional reaction has been anticipated by the makers. There's a repetitive buildup where Erin encounters crummy, sleazy, or even ignoble characters and then unleashes her witty, profanity-laced speechifying upon them, and then they generally back down meekly--shocked into coercion by the high-heel-adorned hooker from Pretty Woman with an infant clutched under one arm and sunglasses perched over a nest of thick auburn hair. Her entire demeanor seems to say, "watch out...beauty, brains and bad-ass travel in these shoes, and you will be stepped on."

But in the intervals, when Roberts is reacting to what's going onscreen, you wonder if there's really anything beneath Erin Brockovich. It's a movie that has a richly layered crust but nothing inside at its core but gushy emotionalism. We have clear-cut villains (evil corporate executives in business suits...one of whom reminds you of Mark Zuckerberg in his youthful awkwardness) and clear-cut victims (moms and kids who have been ravaged by poisonous, cancer-causing water), and a heroine who will cut the balls off anyone in her way. Of course it's a fun and enticing mythology, but you wish that beneath the surface there was an underlying richness to which the exterior could have been fastened, pinned down as though a real and truly organic tale was unfolding.

Perhaps this is harping, but it's worth considering, especially for movies that flaunt their "based on a true story" subject matter. This one made the real Erin Brockovich a star, and made its star an Oscar-winner, but does seeing beneath the lines make everything else seem hollow and cheap?

With Aaron Eckhart and Marg Helgenberger. The moody, arresting music was composed by Thomas Newman.

January 22, 2011

Night of the Creeps

Movie Imposters. Did you know that January is the month when studios dump the crummy movies onto an unsuspecting public gorged on holiday food and a glut of "important" Oscar-bait? Perusing the roster at my local multiplex confirmed this with such dazzling prospects as Season of the Witch, The Dilemma, Country Strong, No Strings Attached, and The Green Hornet (which looks like it might be the best time among this selection). After that, it's leftovers from 2010, and isn't 2010 old news already?

Shall we go back, then, to 1986? Where in Night of the Creeps, a pair of less-than-smooth college buddies accidentally unleashes an alien parasite that turns people into incubators so that it can reproduce itself by the hundreds. The slimy alien-thing looks like a slug (if you saw Slither, that movie most assuredly borrowed from this one), and it slithers across the ground at a remarkable pace. The movie, directed and written by Fred Dekker, is essentially grabbing as many B horror movie plot elements, throwing them against the ceiling, and seeing what sticks. There's the tormented detective (played by Tom Atkins) whose high school sweetheart was chopped into pieces by an axe murderer in 1959. He's apparently still bothered by the 27-year-old case that happened when he was barely two weeks with a badge, and now he thinks that the axe murderer may have been "regenerated" by those slug things, which have the affect of turning their human subjects into zombies (until they leave their host for another). There's the fraternity-sorority drama that has been the basis for a number of horror movies in the 1970s and 1980s (and has informed plenty of non-horror plots as well). Jumping back to the detective's story, there's the homicidal maniac on the loose plot.

Dekker's script, frankly, tries too hard to be an homage, and tries even harder to be self-aware so as to outsmart its audience. Fortunately there are moments when Dekker forgets himself and allows us to simply have a good time at his movie. After all, it's the kind of flick you would watch late at night for a good laugh, so it shouldn't require too much from a filmmaker in terms of plot development. Dekker smothers his dialogue with corny lines and obvious statements such as, "this is like a bad B movie." Atkins has most of the crummiest lines. For some reason Dekker or perhaps Atkins thought it would be funny to have the detective call everyone he meets by some cartoonish character name. He also makes liberal use of the catch phrase, "thrill me," which isn't bad as dumb catch phrases go, but it gets overused.

Night of the Creeps is keenly aware of all the important and not-so-important movies of its genre of choice, and of course the pleasure--or the hoped-for pleasure--is in seeing what the cast and crew will do with that. How will they manipulate our knowledge of Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and every other piece of horror schtick which the movie has set out to alternately canonize and lampoon? The problem is, it gets so repetitive that audiences may grow bored. You're waiting for something truly uncanny to happen, but (perhaps because of budgetary constraints), the movie relies chiefly on its perceived cheekiness (and its only marginally appealing cast) to stretch out the plot until the big finale where the frat brothers are turned into the walking dead and head to the Beta house to "pick up their dates."

What is ultimately going on in Night of the Creeps is that, rather than being a commentary on society, it's a commentary on moviemaking and movie love. The hosts (i.e. the humans whose brains become incubators for the slugs) are the various plots of horror movies that have been made and made money over the years. The little slithering alien slugs are inside them, incubating, reproducing, until they tear through the flesh and the bone and escape so that they can create imitations of the original. After all, this is Dekker's love letter to his favorite horror movies, and he's not very subtle in giving characters names like Cronenberg, Romero, and Carpenter (even the college is called Corman University). Dekker wants to pay tribute, and while it's not a total washout, Night of the Creeps is firsthand documentation of the tension between trying to be original and trying to imitate for the sake of imitation. It tries to do something a little out of the ordinary, but then doubles back in fear that it might go against the current "masters" of the horror movie. With Jason Lively, Jill Whitlow, Steve Marshall, Allan Kayser, Dick Morris, and Suzanne Snyder.

January 01, 2011

Night of the Comet

As the world is less than two years away from a complete apocalyptic breakdown, I thought it apt to start 2011 off with my favorite end-of-the-world flick. In Night of the Comet (1984), Regina and Samantha Belmont are sisters in the San Fernando Valley who are left behind after a comet passes through the earth's atmosphere and turns most of the population into dust. A few people that were partially exposed to the comet are rapidly degenerating--they've been turned into really pissed off zombies while their bodies disintegrate at a slower rate than people who were directly exposed. Reggie and her sister, we find out, were in the right kind of building structure (steel) to avoid any exposure, so they're hunky dory and can enjoy their newfound freedom roaming the streets of L.A. (provided they carry semi-automatic weapons to ward off unwanted zombie attacks). Reggie utters the incredibly bad line, "the Mac 17 was practically designed for housewives." I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, but it smacks of one of those great bad movie lines that you can't help tossing around in conversation.

Night of the Comet is a 1950s movie set in the 1980s. Or rather, it's a 1980s movie that was made by people who grew up on the cheesy science fiction flicks from the 1950s. Actually, it's one of the purest forms of movie-making I've ever seen. It's completely contrived. The artificiality is what gives it its charm. The movie isn't scary--there aren't even enough zombies in it to pose a serious threat, especially since the ghouls have a rapidly approaching expiration date. The only real threat comes from a sinister cadre of scientists who were partially exposed to the comet and are looking for clean blood to extract a serum. But the valley girls, played by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, are so disaffected and deadpan that we're not really all that bothered by the movie's superficial apocalypse.

Writer-director Thom Eberhardt has tongue firmly in cheek. The 1980s seemed to be marked by movies with too much sentiment and movies that were just too smart for it. Night of the Comet might fall into the second category but for its ending, which tries to establish Stewart as the new mother figure, set to repopulate the earth with a brawny Latino, Hector (Robert Beltran), who they meet at a radio station. (They're hoping to find a sign of normalcy but they discover the deejay's voice is only a recording). Hector is pretty much the only eligible bachelor left in L.A. Fortunately for Reggie he's a gentleman.

The movie's soundtrack--populated by lusciously synthesized rock anthems and a wonderfully campy score by David Richard Campbell--is heavenly in its 80sness. The movie is all flaws if you're turned off by the 80sness, but if you're into that, you find so many pleasures in Night of the Comet that it feels like the reckless pursuit of a good time. Stewart is a remarkably plucky actress who carries the film well, and Maroney works as the sidekick, who's less classically beautiful but has more of an attitude. There's a terribly constructed fight scene between Samantha and her step-mom (played by Sharon Farrell) which results in Samantha being decked by her, and it's certainly the worst staging in the movie. On the other hand, there's a wonderfully fluid scene of Reggie riding home on a motorcycle with the downtown skyline filling the background and an orange hue permeating the entire environment. It's residue from the comet, or something like that. It has a terrific effect, and it's the kind of contrivance I'm talking about that makes Night of the Comet either a delight or a dud, depending on your taste.

The movie has light touches of socio-political commentary. So light that they really don't say that much at all. It tries to repeat on George Romero's consumerist satire in Dawn of the Dead. The girls are accosted by zombie stock boys while trying on clothes at the mall, and they destroy the department store in a gunfight that's more like a music video (it's set to another of those anthemic 80s rock songs the movie is so fond of). The scientists are really just relics of society, still floundering, struggling to maintain control over the youth of America, who have been given the keys to the car, the jet, the office, and the mansion, and told, "the adults are dead, so you can party for the rest of your life." I think that's the real appeal of this movie. And the budding romance seems more obligatory than anything. But Stewart and Beltran make it work--you could see them going on a date in normal circumstances if they had actually met under such circumstances. It doesn't matter much for me, because my critical senses always manage to become intoxicated by this silly movie. 

With genre favorites Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis (as the leaders of the group of eggheads bent on their own survival, no matter the cost), as well as Michael Bowen in a small part as Reggie's pre-comet boyfriend.