Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dr. Criddle's Top Ten of 2008

The general consensus seems to be that 2008 wasn't quite as strong a cinematic year as 2007, with the incredible one-two punch of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, as well as well as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Once, Zodiac and I'm Not There, among others. However, what seemed to truly categorize '07 year's finest films was how filmmakers injected a lyrical, art film sensibility into such well-worn genres as the police procedural, the celebrity biopic, the musical and the western. The tradition seemed to continue in '08, as films about superheroes, urban vigilantes, robots, vampires, and even pro wrestlers astonished audiences with their unexpected soulfulness. If any kind of theme categorizes 2008's films, it's the profundity of pulp, as the pictures that superficially appear to be more user-friendly proved infinitely more rewarding than the "important" films. So, without further ado, I present my personal top 10 of 2008:

1) Let the Right One In

Few outside of hardcore horror buffs saw this marvelous little picture - the David to Twilight's Goliath - which is a real shame. It's a horror film that is really the day-to-day hell adolescents go through, and is the best film of that nature since Ginger Snaps, maybe even since Carrie. Director Thomas Alfredson doesn't short-change genre fans - the film delivers in spades such beloved cliches as blood dribbling from lily-white lips, attacks in the shadows, cats that hiss in the presence of the vampire characters, and bodies that spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. However, at the real heart of the picture is the delicately rendered love story between two young outcasts: Oskar, a viciously bullied 12-year-old boy, and Eli, his mysterious new next-door neighbor whom he only sees around when the sun goes down. From her, he gains the courage to stand up to those who push him around, and from him, she recieves love for who she is as opposed to fear for what she is. It's a refreshingly morally ambiguous tale and a profound character study of such quiet and subdued power that drew me in, and by the end, had me beaming from ear to ear in spite of myself.

2) The Wrestler

If you'd have told me five years ago that I would have been brought to tears by a Botox-addled, lime green tights-clad Mickey Rourke delivering a monologue over the top of a Guns N' Roses song, I would've probably thought you were insane. But that's exactly what happened the moment that Randy "The Ram" Robinson, about to step back into the ring, despite warnings from his doctor regarding his weakened heart, tells his girlfriend, Pam (Marisa Tomei) "The only place I get hurt is out there" - gesturing to the dressing rooms, the building lobby, and the rest of the uncaring world outside. The Wrestler shows professional wrestling for what it is - a planned-out fiasco more spectacle than sport, yes, but an incredibly physically gruelling one that abandons its older athletes to become wandering nomads in their autumn years. Rourke is utterly emotionally naked in the role - thank god Nicholas Cage turned this part down! - giving the finest performance of the year. And the fact that Axl Rose licenced the pivotal and poingant "Sweet Child of Mine" to Darren Aronosky for free almost makes me forgive him for the travesty that was Chinese Democracy.

3) In Bruges

One of the numerous wonderful films this year that was dumped onto an uncaring public in the dog days of early spring. Advertised as yet another Guy Ritchie knockoff, it is indeed closer in spirit to Waiting For Godot, if Beckett's Didi and Gogo were Irish hitmen who curse like truck drivers and really, really do not like Americans. Playwright and first-time director Martin McDonagh weaves a story that starts off deceptively simple (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's characters are told to hide out in the titular Belgian, cobblestone-paved, tourist-attracting city, after Farrell badly botches his first kill job) - but takes numerous unexpected turns, weaving an often darkly funny, sometimes heart-wrenchingly soulful tale of moral redemption, honor, brotherhood and remorse. Colin Farrell does the best work of his career here as beagled-eyed Ray, alternately swaggering and tough-talking and guilt-wracked and childlike. Brendan Gleeson is similarly exellent as his fatherly partner Ken, and Raph Fiennes injects soul and humanity into the well-worn archetype of the furious and potty-mouthed crime boss. And there's also a racist, cocaine-snorting dwarf. What's not to love?

4) The Dark Knight

For a film of this nature to even begin to live up to the ridiculous amount of hype it received from fanboys is alone remarkable, but Christopher Nolan's brilliant sequel to Batman Begins exceeded my expectations in every way. His Gotham City is not the colorful phantasmagoria we've seen in other media, but the setting for a profoundly rich, viscerally philosophical, post-9/11 detective story that just happens to feature a man in a pointy-eared mask. The star of the show, of course, is Heath Ledger's Joker, who, like Stephen King's Pennywise, is a creature seemingly born out of the moral decay of a corrupt society. With no past nor backstory, he is merely an agent of chaos, as Michael Caine says, someone who simply "wants to watch the world burn." The hype over Ledger's performance has nothing to do with his tragic and untimely death - even if the young actor had lived to be a hundred, his brilliant characterization would still be worthy of rank among the cinema's greatest villains. Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhal and Gary Oldman all do similarly strong, if considerably subtler work here. The Dark Knight is the first comic book adaptation that is truly as great as a great graphic novel, and arguably the finest superhero film ever made.

5) Synecdoche, New York

Admittedly, I only saw Synecdoche, New York once, which I'm sure is about ten or twenty times too few to fully get my's brain around it. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is as cryptic as they come, making his pervious screenwriting efforts look positively straightfortward in comparison. A film about the process of creating which mirrors 8 1/2 in its confusing but beautiful mix of dreams, fantasy, and reality, it is simultaneously self-loathing yet celebratory, cynical yet optimistic and bursting with life. Phillip Seymor Hoffman, plays theater director Caden Cotard as a man at war with himself, disgusted with himself for his masterbatory artistic aspirations while the world outside his door goes to hell. It's sometimes overreaching, sometimes pretentious, but never boring and always captivating, as Kaufman proves once again that he is one of the finest storytellers of contemporary motion pictures.

6) OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Funnier and better than all three Austin Powers films put together, this French import is one of the finest genre spoofs since the heydey of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. It is both an esquisitely detailed parody of the Cold War-era exotic-locale espionage thriller (complete with a 50's setting, rear projection screens behind cars, and a lush, Ye Olde Technicolor palette) and a pointed satire of post-colonial French arrogance and ignorance toward Muslims and Third World people. Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (aka OSS 117,) created by pulp writer Jean Bruce, became France's answer to James Bond in a series of seven poker-faced spy films in the 1960's. Michel Hazanavicius' revamping of the character as a comic buffoon is a pure stroke of genius, and as played by Jean Dujardin, he is a perfect mix of the suaveness and casual misogyney of Connery's Bond, and the stupidity and unwitting offensiveness of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. And in an age when a presidential candidate has to actually explain why his middle name is Hussein, it's a film all Americans should see, but unfortunately, most would probably not get.

7) Stuck

A contemporary b-movie by Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon, one of the modern masters of the genre. Literally ripped from the headlines (it was inspired by a female hit-and-run perputrator from Fort Worth, Texas, who got a homeless man stuck in her windshield and left him there to die,) Gordon melds this morbid supermarket tabloid fable into a sublime concotion of true-crime entertainment and blackly hilarious, fucked-up situation comedy. Mena Suvari is the corn-rowed, none-too-bright Brandi, a caregiver at a rest home for the elderly, who, driving home drunk from the club after her boss announces her consideration for a big promotion, hits the recently homeless and supurbly down-on-his-luck Stephen Rae with her car. Fearing that word of this getting out will compromise her career, she leaves him in her garage, bleeding like a stuck pig, while continuing to go about her life. Hilarity ensues. Richly human, thrilling, and even political - one of modern horror's finest autuers proves that human beings are much scarier then zombies, demons, or anything else the imagination can conjure up.

8) Gran Torino

The past couple of years have witnessed the big-screen returns of Rocky Balboa, John Rambo and Indiana Jones, but none of those pictures proved quite so memorable as Clint Eastwood's gleefully subversive, sort-of-but-not-quite dusting-off of his Dirty Harry persona. Acknowledging, as Sylvester Stallone failed to do with the messy Rambo, that the iconic action stars of yesteryear really don't gel with our oversensetive, politically correct climate, Eastwood plays Korean War vet and ex-assembly line worker Walt Kowalski as a kindered spirit to Harry Callahan, but a more nuanced and three-dimensional human being. He's a bitter, crusty, racist old bastard, and like Mickey Rourke's Ram, a relic of an earlier time who has outlived his usefulness. Though a bigot he may be, he is ultinately a good man - not a popular notion for today, and truth be told, there are few actors and directors besides Eastwood who could pull such a character off and still have the audience on his side. He's one of the few true Movie Stars we've got left, and if Gran Torino really is his last acting role, it's a goddamn shame.

9) Wall-E

While not my favorite film from the geniei at Pixar (The Incredibles is still tied with the first Toy Story for that honor) it is undeniably the most offbeat and experimental work they've ever done - who but Pixar would have the stones to mix live-action clips from Hello Dolly with robots falling in love in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? The titular droid is as instantly iconic and adorable as R2-D2 or Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running, and like Douglas Trumbull's greatly underrated film, it packs an environmentalist allegory of human responsibility. Magically blending the silent comedy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd with the lived-in sci-fi aesthetic of 2001, Star Wars and Alien, it's a rare form of children's entertainment that marries high art with Happy Meal tie-in-inspiring cuteness. It's as unpandering as a G-rated film can get, and I couldn't be happier that audiences and critics have embraced it so lovingly, even if the muleheaded Academy has refused to grant it a seat at the grownups' table.

10) Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most delightfully unabashed geeks working in the cinema today, and while Hellboy 2 may not have the dark thematic richness of his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, it is an improvement over the franchise's first installment in every way, and one of the most fun times I had in a theater all last year. The urgent-mission style pacing of the previous film is jettisoned (along, thankfully, with Rupert Evans' boring Agent Meyers) in favor of a more leisurely plot that focuses on the quirks of its monster characters. The picture boasts some of the coolest lookin' monsters in a good long while - all latex and rubber, like in the good old days. A particular highlight takes place in a Mos Eisley Cantina/Diagon Alley-ish alcove beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, which plays like Rick Baker's mad wet fever dream. The real pleasures of Hellboy 2, however, come from the main characters - Ron Perlman's tough, construction workerish but also childlike titular demon, Doug Jones' effete Gillman-type Abe Sapien, and Selma Blair's troubled psychic arsonist Liz Sherman - and the film's rhythmic pace, which makes us feel like we're one of the gang. Scenes like Hellboy and Abe's drunken sing-along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" would never have worked if not for the characters' effortless charm, which is at the heart of what makes Hellboy 2 so enjoyable.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Guilala: The Later Years

My friend Jules over at Cinematic Damnation posted this and I had to share it with fellow fans of goofy Japanese monster movies. It's been well-publicized recently that American movie stars have a habit of moonlighting in embarrassing Japanese commercials for a quick and easy buck, but who ever thought that long out-of-work Japanese rubber monsters would be doing the same over on our shores. Here, Guilala, the star of the wonderously silly 1967 debacle The X From Outer Space, can be seen plugging an American job search website.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Know I'm Human: Identity and Skepticism in The Thing

(The following was written for my Philosophy of Film class last semester. It's kind of longwinded and a wee bit dry, but for those of you who are genre fans thought I might share it with all of you. Spoilers follow if you haven't yet seen Carpenter's picture, and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?)

"I think, therefore I am," one of the most famous statements in philosophy, was the conclusion reached by René Descartes, who sought to navigate through the murk of global skepticism by finding a rock-solid foundation for what he could be utterly sure of. What's more, if I think, I know that I am human - whatever that may mean - but I cannot be so sure about anyone else. This issue is at the heart of John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 film based off of Joseph W. Campbell Jr,'s novella Who Goes There?, in which the members of an Antarctic research team are overtaken by a shape-shifting alien creature. Like Descartes, each character in the picture is forced to strip away all they know from sensory knowledge, common sense, and the relationships between them, in order to try and fight the Other within their midst.

"Body snatchers" (that is, not ghoulish Dwight Frye types who dig up consecrated burial grounds, but shape-shifting aliens and other malicious creatures who steal the identities of their human hosts) are popular antagonists in science fiction. Films such as these were especially common during the tempestuous, who-can-you-trust McCarthy-era 50's. The Red Planet stood in for the Red Menace in pictures like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, which played to packed houses of wide-eyed kids, all of whom had been warned that their best friend, their neighbor, their schoolteacher, even their mother and father could be conniving disciples of Joseph Stalin. More often than not, the setting for the beginning of an alien takeover was a Midwestern small town, making the contrast between good, decent Americans and the evil, drone-like, disguised intruders very morally black and white. Carpenter's film shows his obvious affection for this subgenre, as well as for the original adaptation of his film's source material, Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (the titular creature of which was not a shape-shifter, but still single-minded in its quest to destroy our way of life.) However, he uses these genre trappings to fuse a much more morally murky and philosophically interesting story, wherein each character is forced to adopt a Descartian outlook on life in order to survive. The ones that do survive are the ones who have matured, in a philosophical sense, and the ones who don't are either overtaken by the Thing, or killed by their teammates in a fit of confusion.

One of the main criticisms of global skepticism (at least it was a criticism of mine, when I first read Descartes in CCNY's first-year philosophy course) was why exactly should one care if one cannot fully trust one's senses? To wonder if an evil demon has created for me a false dream-state world, or if I'm plugged into a Matrix/Dark City-like computer program, or if I'm simply a brain in a vat being fed information, seems to have no bearing on my immediate situation beyond simple curiosity. Supposedly, if he exists, this evil demon wants me to be relatively happy and well-looked after, to go to college, to have two loving parents and a wonderful girlfriend, to make enough money to live off of, and not starve and suffer. What's wrong with that, even if it isn't real? The Thing, on the other hand, is only capable of a smaller illusion. Typified as a "chameleon that strikes in the dark," it is not omnipresent nor capable of mind control, only of disguise and deception. However, unlike Descartes' demon, it poses a direct and immediate threat - it kills those it imitates, and plans to steadily take over the world. (Curiously, Carpenter would later make a film much more in keeping with the hypothesis of the evil demon: 1988's They Live, in which Rowdy Roddy Piper discovers that the prison of the American classes and economic system is also an elaborate mirage, perpetrated by aliens posing as Republicans.)

As I mentioned before, the men in the film are characterized when we first meet them as philosophically immature. Though part of a science team, they are, for the most part, blue-collar types, much like the space crew of Alien. Before the arrival of the Thing in their base, we never see them working on any scientific projects, instead playing ping-pong, listening to rock music, smoking joints and watching videotaped reruns of "Let's Make a Deal." MacReady, the film's hero, is introduced drinking scotch and playing chess with a computer, and when he unexpectedly loses, he dumps his drink into the inner wiring, proclaiming it a "cheatin' bitch." Since MacReady is played by Kurt Russell, we initially read this act as "badass" and it causes us to side with him an admirable cool guy. But it has a deeper significance, as MacReady, in the beginning of the story, is too proud to admit defeat at the hands of a non-human entity. Over the course of the picture he gains perspective and enlightenment, and his final strike against the Thing is one of noble self-sacrifice, even though he is unsure if he will be successful.

The only other survivor is Childs, who is skeptical of both the other men and the reality of the Thing itself right from the start. For a start, he calls the theories of the Thing's shape-shifting usurpation "voodoo bullshit" even after he has seen the creature gorily assimilate the station's huskies. He continues to have his doubts even as his team members are subsequently picked off When MacReady forces them all to participate in a blood test - drawing blood from each of them, then using a hot needle to determine whether the blood is simply lifeless tissue or a seperate entity with its own consciousness and nervous system - Childs insists that it "doesn't prove a thing." He has good reason too. For all he knows, MacReady could be a Thing, deliberately orchestrating the test as a smoke and mirrors act. The fact that MacReady was outside alone for an extended period of time, and that his ripped clothes were discovered in his furnace, further support this theory. Childs is singular in that he does not philosophically mature throughout the course of the film, (as several other characters, who fall victim to the Thing, also do not,) but he already has the maturity necessary for his own survival.

The other characters are fascinating in their own right. Copper, the doctor, is a compassionate man whose Kantian sense of responsibility towards others proves to be his undoing. He states the Americans' duty to go and check out the Norwegian base as a simple fact of life, even though the weather conditions would make flying the helicopter dangerous. He is assimilated by the Thing while operating on Norris. Similarly compassionate towards dogs, though not so much towards humans, is Clark, the husky expert. His quiet and withdrawn nature and his preference for the company of dogs makes him a red herring to the audience as well as the other team members. He tries to stop Childs from using a flamethrower on the dogs even though he can clearly see they are transforming into something else. Eventually, his odd behavior causes MacReady to accidentally shoot him in the heat of a Mexican standoff, though his blood test proves afterwards that he was human all along.

Bennings, the Thing's first victim, is a meteorolgist. It is apparent that he looks down his nose at many of the other members of the crew when he complains at Nauls, the station cook, to turn his music down, and when he and Norris share a knowing, "oh, look at the teacher's pet" glance when Fuchs asks to talk to MacReady in private. His position of superiority gives him the false illusion of better strategic and survival skills. Nauls, on the other hand, is relatively young and naive, and similarly trusting and compassionate in the same way Copper is. Though he masks these traits in a "cool" persona, roller-skating through the hall and playing Stevie Wonder on the boombox, when the Thing begins to claim more victims he becomes more and more like a child looking to an adult for guidance and protection. When he, Garry, and MacReady are in the catacombs, he strays too far from his mentor figure and the Thing (in the guise of Blair) claims his life.

Carpenter has long expressed his love of westerns, particularly those of Howard Hawks. Both Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing have the same overall plot arc as Rio Bravo, with a small band of men holed up inside a building, defending it from an outside intruder. Garry is the character most representative of the black and white morality of the American western - his favorite philosopher, it seems, is John Wayne. When the commotion with the Norwegians chasing the dog finds its way to their front door, and all the other men run outside, Garry crouches in the cellar and smashes the window with his six-shooter, as if the perpetrators of this disturbance were marauding Apaches. He later steps outside when the Norwegian begins frantically shooting at the camp, and pops him squarely in the head. He goes from the gut, shoots first and asks questions later. But both he and the other men know that he is an anachronism in this world, as evidenced by Windows' line "I was wondering when El Capitain was going to be able to use his pop gun," and when he reluctantly hands the weapon over to MacReady, begrudgingly acknowledging that the other man is better suited to lead. One wonders why lonely old cowboy like him signed on as part of this expedition. Probably it was that Antarctica represented the last frontier for him, the last wilderness on earth where one could still live out the fantasy of a man against the untamed land.

The Thing itself is every bit as fascinating in its nature as the men. Truly, there have been few better examples in science fiction cinema of a lifeform that fully demonstrates Frederich Nietzsche's doctrine that for living things, the will to live was secondary to the will to power. The Thing wants to become all-powerful by assimilating all non-Things it comes into contact with, and it seems that it would rather do this sooner rather than later. However, it also very wisely looks out for its own survival, and tries not to expose itself until it is forced to do so. Like the titular creature from Alien, the Thing is both intelligent and instinctive. The beast that Ian Holm's android Ash described as a "perfect creature" really can't hold a candle to Carpenter's monster. At least from a biological standpoint, it is a flawless combat machine. From the outset, we know it is more than a mindless beast, as we see it in husky form nonchalantly exploring the base, exploring every nook and cranny to better use to its advantage. Every molecule of its genetic makeup is capable of breaking away and acting as its own separate entity. When it imitates a human being or another mammal, it adopts all of their traits, down to their mannerisms, their way of speaking and acting, even their various illnesses and other quirks. Consider how, when the creature takes over Norris, who has a weak heart, it has a heart attack, and must be taken to the operating room, even though this accidentally puts the it in a tight spot it hadn't foreseen. Also consider Palmer, who had been completely overtaken by the Thing at the same time. When he delivers one of the picture's most famous one-liners at the sight of a severed head which has sprouted spidery legs and antennae, he is speaking as the Thing, completely in character as Palmer; the other men fully believe the words were uttered by the drug-addled ne'er-do-well that they all know. However, when MacReady is about to administer the test on Palmer's blood, we see a look of anticipatory terror on his (or rather its) face. It is the Thing acknowledging that it has been backed into a corner, and if it does not act fast it will be bested.

Blair, the station's senior biologist, is by far the most interesting character in the film. It is deliberately ambiguous, both to the audience and to the rest of the men, whether or not he is infected by the Thing, until the end of the film. His treatment at the hands of the other characters is key to understanding the ethics of the story. Personally, I like to believe that Blair was slowly infected by the Thing during his performance of the autopsy. It worked its way into his blood gradually, in contrast to the way that Norris and Bennings were quickly and violently assimilated. When Blair sits at the computer, calculating how long it would take to infect the whole planet if the Thing reached a civilized area, he is dreading an end of humanity that he himself is becoming a pawn in. He smashes the radio equipment, the tractor and helicopter in a John Stuart Mill-inspired act of sacrifice (both of himself and the reluctant others) to quarantine the men from the rest of the world. The symptoms of his gradual transformation are further evidenced in the scene when MacReady goes to check on him and finds him sitting on his bed with a noose tied to the ceiling. When MacReady asks if he has seen Fulchs, Blair, simply states that he is all better now, and wants to come back inside. Here, I believe that the Thing has taken over Blair almost completely, but he hasn't quite grasped the man's nuanced behavior enough to form a logical argument. He also seems comically unaware of the noose hanging beside him, suggesting that the Blair half of him contemplated suicide before the Thing half took over and decided against it.
However, in Campbell's original story, it is made clear that Blair is infected early on, and that the Thing fakes his nervous breakdown in order to be put into isolation, so that it can build its spaceship in peace. Carpenter keeps things deliberately inconclusive. It makes just as much sense that the Thing, disguised as Blair, might have destroyed the radio equipment to prevent the men from seeking help, hoping to infect all of them and then move on. If this is true, then the close-up on Blair's face as he looks at the computer is extremely chilling; a cold and calculating beast figuring out precisely how long it will take him to carry out his mission. It's a testament to Carpenter's direction and Wilford Brimley's great performance that such opaqueness was preserved, but either way, the Thing is a monster that Nietzsche would have loved - intelligent and crafty, yet utterly monomaniacal in its will to power.

There's no denying that The Thing is a seminal sci-fi picture, and the reason I think it works so well is that, while the philosophical subtext is certainly the backbone of the film, it is largely subliminal. Those who see the film, for the most part, just see an incredibly strong film about a small band of men fighting an alien creature; even the most die hard fans of the picture are often times at a loss of words to explain just why it is so great. And like all philosophy, it offers more questions than answers, leaving us to decide for ourselves what the future holds. We know as little as the characters do about the Thing's true nature, whether it will spell the end of humanity or it has been stopped. Like any great philosopher, Carpenter can only show us the evidence and then let us decide for ourselves.