Monday, November 28, 2011

The Artist (2011)

The Artist
Dir. Michel Hazanavicius

4 out of 5

In a holiday movie season packed with nostalgic appeals to cinematic days gone by, The Artist stands out as a particularly dedicated pastiche: a story about the rapid decline of silent movies told sans dialogue. It rolls back movie technology to circa 1927 - before widescreen, before color, before sound - and yet feels like a fresh and immediately familiar expression of Hollywood's constant death-rebirth cycle. Borrowing liberally from classics like Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born, director Michel Hazanavicius charts the opposing trajectories of matinee idol Jean Dujardin, who refuses to accept how "talkies" have revolutionized his profession, and spunky starlet Berenice Bejo, who rapidly ascends from background hoofer in one of Dujardin's silent films to the new leading lady of the sound age.

As with any successful homage, Hazanavicius must delicately balance historical fidelity with more modern (i.e. darker) methods of storytelling. Dujardin and Bejo make a dashing pair throughout the five flirtatious years that follow their initial meeting at a lavish movie premiere, even as it comes at a great cost in the long, slow decline of Dujardin's acting career and the strain on his already shaky marriage. The depths of his despair are unexpected in a film this glamorous and sentimental. Decades of gritty realism and moral equivocation may have inured audiences to the highs and lows of old-fashioned melodrama, but here is a movie that brings it all back with blow after crushing blow. It would, at least, explain the inordinate number of cute dog reaction shots.

The Artist is by no means a gloomy film - ultimately, it's a crowd-pleaser and an airy confection with plenty of wry humor positioned to undercut the heavier emotional moments. Dujardin and Bejo both have a natural physical charm that easily garners them sympathy without having to say a word (John Goodman also delivers a great supporting performance as a harrumphing studio exec). The film tends to stall whenever Hazanavicius must add a barrage of intertitles to keep the plot moving forward, but Ludovic Bource's zippy Jazz Age score quickly puts things back on track. Though ultimately leaning on a series of contrivances and twists that wouldn't fly in most other films, The Artist endears itself by letting the audience know not to take it too seriously, lest that spoil the fun.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo (2011)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

4.5 out of 5

There aren't many family films that provide insight into the nascent French cinema of the 19th century, but then again there aren't many directors with a love of film history as deep as Martin Scorsese's. His new film,
Hugo, tells the story of the titular Parisian orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the rafters of a bustling train station, secretly maintaining its many mechanical clocks with the skills he honed alongside his late father (Jude Law). A tinkerer by nature, he watches with fascination the clockwork precision of the world below him, filled with its many creatures of habit, and is compelled to intervene when something seems awry. Such is the case with the grumpy toy booth proprietor Georges (Ben Kingsley), whose curmudgeonly exterior conceals a deep sadness that is unexpectedly triggered when he finds Butterfield with detailed sketches of a mysterious metal automaton.

Hugo whirrs along like a well-oiled machine as it delves into the backstories of Butterfield and Kingsley, bridged by the latter's goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), an adventuresome girl with a novelist's passion for peeling back the emotional layers of complicated human beings. With tenderness she mediates a halting relationship between the boy forced to grow up quickly and the man who acts as stubborn and selfish as a child. The struggle for sympathy permeates the film, often manifesting in romance. It is Paris, after all, where even the glowering station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) threatening to ship Butterfield to the orphanage has a soft spot for the shopgirl at the flower stand.

First and foremost, however,
Hugo is enamored with the alchemy of cinema. Scorsese has created a gorgeous valentine to the movies and a compelling investigation of the medium's unique ability to visualize dreams. Using the simplest magic tricks, we learn, the early masters replicated scenes previously confined to the imagination. The fact that Hugo is a digitally-shot movie offered in 3D (I saw the non-enhanced version) creates some ironic dissonance in its overall effect. The film's too-conspicuous visual gags are like little cacophonies in an otherwise sweet and elegant chorale of the senses. Like most films, Hugo would not be possible without the technology and the know-how to make it run, but it would also break down without the heart and keen affection that drives even the most meticulous among us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets
Dir. James Bobin

3.5 out of 5

Avowed Muppet superfan Jason Segel takes the reigns of the beloved Jim Henson characters in The Muppets, an ingratiating film that nonetheless struggles to surmount the high expectations cultivated by a rapturous promotional campaign and its own interjections of self-importance. Co-writer and producer Segel stars as Gary, a full-grown man who happens to be the brother of Walter, a creature who is Muppet in appearance but human in acculturation. After a lifetime spent idolizing Kermit and the gang, the siblings embark on a Muppet-centric tour of Los Angeles with Segel's under-appreciated sweetheart (Amy Adams) when they learn that greedy oil executive Chris Cooper plans to demolish the troupe's old studio and theater. Segel and Walter then scramble to reunite the Muppets, all long removed from their glory days, in a last-ditch attempt to save their legacy.

One thing that the movie largely manages to avoid is any mention, directly or indirectly, of Henson's legacy. The getting-the-band-back-together structure of the movie's first half never succeeds in showing what makes these characters worth summoning again, and often uses tone-deaf and strangely violent methods to extract the Muppets from their post-showbiz occupations (Fozzie Bear's fate as a seedy casino performer is particularly off-key). The integration of Walter into the cast is also an stumbling block. While he performs his intended function as a symbol for maturation and finding one's place in the world, he also represents Segel's Muppetized ego. Walter is often thrust into the curious role of Muppet savior that, however inadvertently, seems to suggest that Segel has filled the same role in the real world.

The good news is that there are still plenty of reasons to be proud of The Muppets. The movie really hits its stride when the Muppets stage a telethon to raise the money that will fend off Cooper's hostile takeover, a brilliantly-staged homage to the Muppet Show of the late 1970s that harks back to that program's wholesome brand of comedic mayhem. The movie is also successful in blending old Muppet standbys - celebrity cameos, misdirection gags - with some fresh and surprising elements. Of the latter, the original songs by Flight of the Conchords troubadour Bret McKenzie stand out, reaching an apex with the trans-species ballad "Man or Muppet?" Such self-deprecating humor has always been the foundation of the Muppets' appeal, and the filmmakers realize this in the nick of time. After enduring plenty of over-enthusiastic posturing early on, I was beyond delighted when The Muppets was willing to settle for putting a smile on my face.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method
Dir. David Cronenberg

3.5 out of 5

For a man who
helped shape many of the 20th century's philosophical underpinnings, Carl Jung seems forever destined to stand in the long cultural shadow of Sigmund Freud. Even though Jung's modern contributions to the field of psychoanalysis - among them, the archetype and the collective unconscious - eventually had a sweeping effect on a discipline born of Freud's 19th-century model of Victorian repression, few people discuss individuation with the same zeal and amusement as, say, hidden phallic symbolism. A Dangerous Method shows us, to some extent, the great influence that Jung would have on human psychology. But it also manages to be a sort of validation of Freud's cultural supremacy, with director David Cronenberg mining Jung's private life for intelligent and racy examples of the mind's inevitable willingness to succumb to its darkest and deepest desires.

Portraying Jung during his initial rise to prominence throughout the early 20th century, Michael Fassbender is a model of restraint, maintaining an idyllic psychological institution in the Swiss countryside and an oddly platonic relationship with his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon). His interest is piqued by a new patient, an unstable Russian heiress (a game Keira Knightley), on whom he employs the then-radical "talking cure," teasing out details of her past in intimate conversation until she gradually admits that her mental issues are being caused by the suppression of her masochistic sexual desires. Faster than you can say "physical therapy," they conduct a torrid affair that inspires Knightley to begin her own psychiatric training and informs the ideas that bring Jung to Freud's attention as a rising young colleague and potential rival for supremacy in the field.

The rhythm of the story is classically Cronenberg. Lurid temptation doesn't merely loom, it waits expectantly for its cue and slides in between intense discussions of psychological import; it's the kind of movie where academic insights are often reinforced by a brief, thorough spanking.
A Dangerous Method gets too obvious at times, particularly in the scenes that feature Viggo Mortensen as Freud, who plays him as a highfalutin, cigar-chomping, dream-interpreting patriarch. It's a portrayal that owes a lot to the fantastical celebrities of Midnight in Paris, especially as Cronenberg positions him as the film's scheming villain. It's heavily implied, for example, that Mortensen sends a debauched, cocaine-addicted colleague (Vincent Cassel) to Fassbender's retreat to convince the stoic psychiatrist to unleash his repressed lust for Knightley. Fassbender keeps the film from veering too far into camp territory, however, with a quiet, smoldering torment that belies the theatricality and lurid sex appeal of the goings-on around him: a deadpan re-affirmation of Jung's hard-won pragmatism being outmatched by Freud's intellectual fireworks show.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar (2011)
Dir. Clint Eastwood

3 out of 5

J. Edgar has a novel solution for the predictable arcs and narrative doldrums of the typical biopic: make stuff up! Following the life story of infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) all the way into the swirling vortex of rumors about his alleged homosexuality and transvestism, the film traffics in the kind of salacious gossip that Hoover himself would've relished. And while it's not unusual for director Clint Eastwood to bludgeon audiences with his melodramatic takes on hot-button issues, his collaboration with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seems to have given him a sort of feisty vigor that extends all the way to presenting hearsay and intuition as the cold hard truth. All of this is to say that J. Edgar is at least an engrossing, sometimes surprising film, if not a particularly elegant or stylish one.

Of course, J. Edgar also possesses many of the hallmarks of a staid period piece. A frame story presents DiCaprio dictating his memoirs to a rotating cast of assistants, detailing his single-minded opposition to political radicalism as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice to his forming the Bureau of Investigation (the formal predecessor to the FBI) and its agents into modern-day Knights Templar, a new breed of professional and scientific law enforcement to combat the equally new and professional breed of American criminal. All of this is juxtaposed clumsily with Hoover's attempts to consolidate his power in the COINTELPRO era of the 1960s, bugging the hotel rooms of civil rights leaders and sparring with a skeptical Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). Toss in the aforementioned business of his personal life - mostly concerning his longtime companion and colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who gets saddled with terrible old man makeup that turns him into the long-lost cousin of Sloth from The Goonies) and his domineering mother (Judi Dench) - and you get a movie that frequently loses any sort of momentum in a jumble of temporal and tonal whiplash.

It's hard for any film to be accused of lacking magnetism when it features a commanding DiCaprio performance, and the hot mess of a narrative allows him to draw from the same free-ranging obsessive reservoir he tapped as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. The problem is that Eastwood, while a competent filmmaker, is no Scorsese. He takes pride in J. Edgar as a broadly imagined Hollywood biopic garnished with a little gayness. It captures all of Hoover's omnipotent lifeforce but none of his subtlety; far too much of the film operates out in the open and on a singular historical level. Better is Eastwood's suggestion, presented near the end of the movie, that Hoover's own mantle of cultish patriotism and paranoia was seized by the last president he served under: Richard Nixon. Now they would have made quite the pair.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011)
Dir. Bill Condon

2 out of 5

So...this wasn't supposed to happen. When the attendant informed me that the film I had paid to see,
Immortals, would not be screened due to a projector malfunction, a little improvisation was necessary to salvage my planned double feature. As it turns out, Breaking Dawn is a pretty decent compromise when you are not sure exactly what you want from a movie. Or rather, what you want from a bad movie - it manages to be confusing, exasperating, boring, and batshit crazy over the course of two montage-filled hours.

Breaking Dawn is not for laypeople. Numerous feuds from the previous films in the Twilight series have spilled into this one, distracting from the pure nuptial porn that is the wedding of wan damsel-in-perpetual-distress Kristen Stewart and moony vampire Robert Pattinson. The union has ruffled plenty of feathers, mostly due to Stewart's decision to turn vampire after the honeymoon. (Can you imagine that first Thanksgiving? 'Hi Dad, no turkey for me, I'm an immortal killing machine now!') After they're hitched, Stewart and Pattinson share an awkward lovemaking sesh that they discuss afterward in a manner that makes it seem somehow both revelatory and regrettable; bigger problems emerge when they discover that Stewart is carrying a half-human, half-vampire fetus that will slowly kill her as she brings it to term. Oh, and various factions are convinced that this child is some sort of Antichrist that endangers all human life across the Pacific Northwest.

For such an ambitious mashup of Harlequin romance and hardcore body horror (the birthing sequence is the most disturbing thing I've seen since Human Centipede 2), Breaking Dawn's pace is still pretty torpid, slowly churning its way through numerous personal epiphanies and earnest conversations. These are rather transparent stalling tactics to ensure that there's enough material for Part 2, though it's also entirely possible that Stephanie Meyer's novel contains too much insanity for just one film. Ludicrous and dopey, Twilight's number one priority has always been satiating its ardent fans' appetites for chaste, politically regressive romances with shirtless were-beasts and fleshy, golden-eyed vampires. By going completely off the deep end, however, it pulls off a truly shocking feat - making a loony, excessively complex pro-life fantasy mildly entertaining for the non-initiated.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wide Angle: Sitcoms and Intelligent Design

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

Warning: minor spoilers ahead for Community and The Big Bang Theory

If only the strong survive in the Darwinian world of broadcast TV, then NBC’s Community is a delicate protozoa chugging along on little more than hope and mitochondrial proteins. The network’s recent decision to place the show on midseason hiatus is interpreted by many as a prelude to a cancellation. This, of course, has triggered a frenzy among Community’s fervent cult of superfans.

I don’t blame them. In an unprecedented era of television resurrection,1 a pre-emptive strike is the best strategy. Neither do I blame NBC – Community is one of the lowest-rated programs on a network where the bar for success is comparatively low. This is not so surprising when you consider the show’s propensity for massive shifts in its tone, its themes, and its character dynamics not just from season to season, but episode to episode. One week it’s a farcical re-enactment of Goodfellas; the next it’s about refusing to play pool in gym shorts. From a survival standpoint, Community has been foolishly reckless in refusing to adhere to traditional modes of TV storytelling.

For a show to reach the channel-surfing tribes seeking the uncomplicated apotheosis of comedic creation, it’s better to resemble a crowd-pleasing hit like The Big Bang Theory. The formulaic CBS sitcom continues to thrive in its fifth season, sometimes pulling in ratings that are five times better than Community’s. What fascinates me, however, are the foundational similarities between the two programs and how, despite this, they represent two completely opposite philosophies of televisual excellence.

Both Community and Big Bang are what I would call “assimilationist” sitcoms. American television has a long history of programming comedies that satisfy viewer curiosity about different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups. It’s not a straight line from Norman Lear and MTM Productions to, say, The George Lopez Show, but it seems like it’s easier for us to countenance diversity when it’s making us laugh.

The two shows in question here are not about anything so lofty as promoting racial understanding, but they both concern groups of societal misfits struggling to find individual acceptance. The people we are assimilating are no longer of a differing color or creed or national origin. We’ve done that heavy lifting already. Community and especially Big Bang are all about pursuing a new cultural goal: assimilating the geeks.2

At least Big Bang is a show that used to be about geek assimilation, back when it centered on the impractical social and romantic desires of Leonard (Johnny Galecki) who was almost like a single dad in the way he doted on his brilliant, socially awkward roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons). Today Big Bang is practically the Sheldon Show. Sitcoms are frequently retooled to take advantage of a breakout character’s unexpected appeal, but Sheldon’s mojo is derived from a strange mixture of the audience’s adoration and ridicule.

To wit, here are some recent Sheldon plots from the currently-airing fifth season: Sheldon lacks the guile to execute a successful Halloween prank; Sheldon finds it exasperating to comfort a female colleague (whose sexual propositions are frankly and tactlessly rejected); Sheldon is hysterically afraid of a bird then extremely possessive when he adopts it as his pet. This is the incredible thing about The Big Bang Theory. The less evolutionary potential it has displayed, the more successful it has become.

Community, on the other hand, has a fetish for refusing its cast the privilege of reaching any emotional plateaus or developmental stasis. Where Big Bang is an unending treadmill of interchangeable jokes and behaviors – a gag machine rooted in the precise design of its deity-like creators – Community is a stellar example of punctuated equilibrium in a TV show. The members of the Greendale gang may never fully abandon their identifying strengths and weaknesses, but in two-plus seasons have gradually subsumed them to forge a cohesive social unit in an atmosphere of intense social pressure.

This difference in ideology is most evident in how Community treats its own Sheldon, the aloof, pop culture-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi). Some critics have suggested that Sheldon is the first TV character to positively portray a person with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological condition on the autism spectrum. But Abed, while displaying very Sheldon-like behavior at times, would represent a much more well-rounded depiction of the disorder.3 His childlike repudiation of complex social interactions also has a disturbing side; last spring an entire episode was devoted to his prodding the assimilation-skeptic Jeff (Joel McHale) into a deep and meaningful conversation by staging an elaborate re-creation of the film My Dinner with Andre.

It’s important to note that I don’t view these differences as a conflict between “smart” and “dumb” comedy. The more accurate comparison is one of order and disorder. While its creative hook was initially an appeal to assimilationist desires, The Big Bang Theory has always been a fine-tuned universe where as the geeks are, so shall the geeks always be. Community was built for experimentation, finding excitement in the margin for error that accompanies messy human discovery. Leonard will always just roll his eyes at Sheldon, but Jeff and Abed may very well achieve a mutual understanding someday.

The reality of evolution is that some species will inevitably fail, unfit for their environment despite possessing certain special or unique qualities. Community was destined to scrap and struggle and collapse in a euphoric heap. The surprise is not that it may soon be canceled, but that it has lasted this long in the first place. Big Bang instead consolidated its position by refusing to budge from a time-tested, almost innate roadmap for long-term survival.

I don’t think this dichotomy is set in stone, though. Ambitious, risk-taking sitcoms like Community can still be encouraged on network TV. Much like the mammalian ancestor that crawled out of the primordial ooze, the odds are stacked against its success. But it can still succeed, however briefly. It can even survive long enough to flourish - these 50-65 episodes should be enough proof that intelligent design in television is, after all, just a theory.

1 7th Heaven, Jericho, Friday Night Lights, Damages, Medium, Scrubs, and the unkillable monster that is Family Guy, just to name some successes.

2 “Geek,” not “nerd.” Semantics are important to distinguish between willfully eccentric successes/strivers and amusingly contemptible losers/outsiders. Jerry Seinfeld was a geek. George Costanza was a nerd.

3 In this respect, The Big Bang Theory is to Community as The Jeffersons was to The Cosby Show.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Dir. Lars Von Trier

4 out of 5

The sumptuous tableaux that form the prologue of Melancholia serve as a kind of anti-spoiler warning. Lars Von Trier's last film, Antichrist, had an opening sequence that precipitated the ensuing horror and disgust without really anticipating how far he was willing to go. Here, he leaves even more to the imagination, stringing an awe-inspiring trail of breadcrumbs that are revisited in a more humanistic - even banal - fashion. It's an unexpected emotional apex that belies the close-up examination of depression that comprises the rest of the movie. Half mordant comedy of manners, half apocalyptic drama, Melancholia has almost all the humor, heart, and hopelessness you could want in a caustic valentine to the frailty of feelings.

Kirsten Dunst stars as a restless bride struggling to enjoy her wedding reception on the rambling country estate of older sister Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film's first half; later, the high-strung Gainsbourg freaks out
as an ostensibly harmless planetoid named Melancholia passes perilously close to Earth while a visiting Dunst seems to grow less despondent as Armageddon approaches. (Note to future scientists: do not name harmless planetoids after states of crippling emotional distress.) The two women are chips off the same passive-aggressive block - even if Dunst somehow avoided inheriting the accent of screen parents John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling - but they both have a kind of savvy that eludes Gainsbourg's dismissive husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and Dunst's impotent new spouse (a hilariously cuckolded Alexander Skarsgard). Their bond is a complex potion of pain and camaraderie that allows them to face even certain death together. When Gainsbourg says "Sometimes I hate you so much" to Dunst, it's just an old sibling code that means something like "I need you so much it makes me feel helpless."

The diptych structure favors the wedding portion of the movie, full of color and character in a way that just isn't possible with the ticking doomsday clock of the latter portion. But, boy, does Melancholia end with a bang. The message seems to be that sadness and worry can be beneficial when expressed at the appropriate time and place, but harmful when repressed and internalized for too long. Which is, like, duh, but Von Trier articulates this all with an artistic and sympathetic eye (he reportedly suffers from sporadic bouts of depression) that makes the end of the world feel like poetic justice for the human race's optimistic hubris. Above all, though, Melancholia asserts that there's nothing to fear but loneliness: even if you're going down with the ship, you'll be better off with all hands on deck.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss
Dir. Werner Herzog

4 out of 5

In just the past decade of an amazingly prolific career, Werner Herzog has taken audiences to some of the least accessible places on the planet: the depths of Chauvet Cave, the ice pack of Antarctica, the mindspace of Nicolas Cage. So it's telling when Herzog chooses to title this film Into the Abyss, as it is primarily about the thin line between life and death in a culture that still affirms the value of some lives through the taking of others. Abyss centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two Texas men convicted of triple homicide in 2001, the gruesome decrescendo of what was initially nothing more than a botched car theft. One received a life sentence and the other was shipped to Death Row. Predictably, they disagree on most of the particulars of their case, from their roles in the crime to their sentencing.

Though Herzog states his opposition to capital punishment early on, the film is driven by his innate intellectual curiosity rather than a specific political agenda. He approaches the case from all possible angles, interviewing law enforcement officials and the victims' family members, as well as Burkett's addled, incarcerated father and a dissuaded former captain of an infamously productive "death house" in the Texas penal system. Together they compose the two sides of this story - one of simple facts and one of complex truth.

In a way, this reflects the dualistic personality of the film's director (though he never appears onscreen, Herzog has a constant presence as a prodding interrogator). His intimidating Teutonic countenance is quickly undercut by his disarming playfulness time and again, almost to the point of losing focus. Once he spots a loose thread, no matter how unimportant, Herzog just can't help but pull it. But his digressions into topics like a prison chaplain's encounters with wildlife on a golf course or the mysterious pregnancy of Burkett's legal advocate-turned-wife leaven an otherwise bleak and depressing tale. He seems to be pointing at some of the absurdities of living a life condemned by jury or by circumstance and reveling in the little miracles that do arise (such as an ex-con who obliquely knew Perry and Burkett overcoming his illiteracy). These are the times - and there are plenty of them, thank goodness - when Abyss unexpectedly taps the well of humanity adjacent to the ever-present, gaping maw of death.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jump Cuts: Psycho, The Fog, Dead Ringers

Full reviews aren't right for all films - movies that seem past the point of timely comment, movies I can't find an interesting angle on, movies I just don't feel like explicating. Some are better off with bite-size opinionating. I call them "Jump Cuts." In this edition: my Halloween screenings cup runneth over.

Psycho (1960)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

4 out of 5

Psycho may have lost much of its ability to shock through cultural saturation via clip shows and parodies (not to mention relaxed standards governing movie violence), but Alfred Hitchcock's stab(!) at cheap grindhouse thrills still manages to terrify over 50 years later. This, in spite of the fact that the film devotes a lot of time to the humdrum procedural side of cracking the criminal mind. Yet keeping Anthony Perkins' creepy Norman Bates offscreen is as integral to his spooky mystique as his piercing gaze and his straightforward declarations about the joys of taxidermy. It's a minor miracle that Janet Leigh's ineptitude as a law-breaker doesn't telegraph Hitchcock's true intentions, but she's never meant to be a femme fatale in the classic sense. Psycho is the work of a slumming suspense sophisticate encouraging brand confusion by lending his luscious visual aesthetic to a dime novel story. There's a fastidiousness to this film that trumps its inherently freewheeling, trashy nature, a curious disconnect that somehow makes everything seem more unsettling than it should.

The Fog (1980)

Dir. John Carpenter

2 out of 5

Janet Leigh also pops up in distracting form in The Fog, John Carpenter's maritime ghost story featuring vengeful spirits that float in on eerie luminescent fog to terrorize the small coastal town of Antonio Bay. The film never delivers on the promise of its setup, hampered by glacial pacing despite a running time less than 90 minutes and the ineffective use of a large ensemble featuring Leigh, Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins (whose icky onscreen romance with Curtis is tossed in with casual disregard for the fact that he is twice her age). Their non-interaction enhances the movie's claustrophoic sense of isolation but, on the other hand, also speaks to its general lack of cohesion. Hal Holbrook delivers a wonderfully batty performance as the priest who figures out the fog-monsters' motives, but it's not the best sign when the bar on a slasher's tension level is set early by monologues from elderly authority figures. Sandwiched between two stone-cold classics in the Carpenter canon (Halloween and The Thing), The Fog feels distinctly like a great conductor cracking his knuckles between movements.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Dir. David Cronenberg

3.5 out of 5

Identical twin gynocologists - both played by Jeremy Irons - enjoy playing the old switcheroo in their professional and private lives in Dead Ringers. Based partially on a true story, the film portrays the most twisted of fealties and determines that not much separates loyalty and addiction. Irons is terrific in his dual role, though one is markedly meatier than the other - the meeker of the twins, Beverly, who unwisely continues a romance with a pill-popping actress with a rare reproductive deformity (Genevieve Bujold) that was initiated and quickly discarded by his more confident, sharkish brother. Usually the organic scare-monger, director and co-writer David Cronenberg goes for deeper psychological chills here. Still, the best bits are derived from his trademarks - nightmarish transformations, kinky romance, and the horrors wrought upon the human body by technology (a delusional Irons has an amusingly dispassionate sculptor make him a set of grotesque gynocological tools "for use on mutant women"). Cronenberg doesn't see much value in developing the world around Irons as secondary characters hover offscreen until they are needed to advance his psychosis. But maybe we can just attribute that to the poisonous narcissism inherent in the concept of the doppelgänger. Once you spend too much time with yourself, no one else can possibly compare - and no one else is to blame if things get messy.