Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Monday, December 09, 2013

Last Year's Masks: THE PURGE, THOR: THE DARK WORLD + ABSENTIA


Mainstream movies have become mash-ups now, their big budgets making an original thought too risky to have except in the abstract. So THE PURGE is HUNGER GAMES + HALLOWEEN divided by LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT + HOSTEL = a dystopian future that uses a mischief night-style no rules (no cops) bloody free-for-all as an excuse for wiping out the homeless, bringing population levels under control, boosting sales of home security systems, settling old grudges and/or hunting 'the most dangerous game.'  It shares HOSTEL's grim nihilistic world view that all humans are really homicidal sadists at heart, and only the rich liberals get to sit it out behind steel shutters. So far so good, but like so many good premises before it, PURGE never dares to side with the violent. It has to all boil down to a rich white noble yuppie family with a poor sweaty black man duct taped to a chair, which then leads to moralistic hand-wringing as to whether surrender him to the masked yuppie marauders outside who had him all trussed up like a pinata before he escaped down their rich street hollering for help and convincing Ethan Hawke's typically naive liberal son to open the shutters for him. The masked yuppies are pissed and so camp out on Hawke's porch demanding their man. Now, that might sound cool but why do they need to wear masks at all on a night murder is legal? And why don't they just hunt down someone else, instead of wasting precious 'Purge' hours wandering around outside like a mix of Whit Stillman preppies and the British drunks in STRAW DOGS, dressed in ur-creepy masks lifted from THE STRANGERS. And finally you're like oh brother, can't we FF to the final bloodletting? (We did).


In other words, despite a novel premise it just falls back on trite civics lessons, it all but ends with the cast wagging their fingers at you for allegedly enjoying the carnage. But unlike say FUNNY GAMES there's nothing at play behind the bourgeois pose, so the wife is a hot, willowy shoulder length hair brunette thing (Leana Headey) in perfectly-fitting white slacks that compliment her perfectly round long-stemmed burgundy wine glass, like she was ordered out of a West Elm catalog, and of course the dad is Ethan Hawke--say no more (only Linklater seems to know how to wake him)--and the nerdy liberal likes to build robot cameras on wheels, so you just know those things are going to come through in a climactic moment later on. There are some nice touches like people putting blue flowers on their porches in honor of the Purge (a kind of Christmas tree for state-sanctioned murder!) and good use of 'tick-tock momentum,' but the shots of masked figures standing silently in the dark backgrounds are by now cliche, and the plot's over-reliance on Voight-Kampf empathy test double fake-out machina climaxery is groan-inducing. FEAR tread a similar climactic territory and bravely stepped outside itself to kick gonzo bananas ass, and that movie was ten times better for the presence of Mark Wahlberg playing up the animus core of the sexual anxiety dread of it all. That film was bright enough to realize the villain needs to be the star. He only gets one night a year to make it work, and so this one night he's the fucking star not you, Ethan!! RAARRGHGHH!


And that's the kind of animus dread the film needs. If, for example, one of the liberal family members had been all keen to do some killing of their own, there might be some counter-currents to the lefty posturing; but there aren't, and sp the only character worth a damn is the main villain played with eerie grace by Rhys Wakefield (he's Australian, no surprise considering his Heath Ledger-ish psycho flair) and he's shut out of the house for most of the film, because you know, the film presumes we'd rather hang with dad than run amok on mischief night. And the idea that Hawke could outslug him in the finale is offensive.

Like so many 'weaker' versions of this story, THE PURGE confuses 'true' morality with hippie do-goodism. Ethan Hawke and writer-director James DeMonaco are trying to make an EL DORADO to go with their RIO BRAVO that was their ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 remake. Dude, you ain't never gonna touch the Carpenter or the Hawks! Carpenter's 1978 original ASSAULT was made on no money but oh, that awesome electronic score, and the realization of true morality, which is a code expressed between people via cigarettes and dwindling shell supplies not finger-wagging and hand-wringing. Dududadah... DUHdududadah... Dududdadah... DaDududaha.

THE PURGE has earned $64 million so far and cost a mere three, and so a sequel is naturally in the works. The only reason I even rented it was I'd gotten it mixed up with YOU'RE NEXT... and that's why you never let a stranger in your house (without first looking him up on imdb).


Then there's the thing with the new THOR movie, THE DARK WORLD (2013). I was excited to see Natalie Portman again because she and Chris Hemsworth had such great chemistry in the first film, but both seem drenched in bronzer, much older than the two years since the last film, and hungover. That leaves Kat Dennings to supply all the human complexity and witty patter and she steals all her scenes, deftly avoiding the bronzer's brush and committee rewrite overthink in the process. The other saving grace in DARK: the complex arc of fraternal bonding and jealousy between trickster archetype Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and adoptive brother Thor. If Hemsworth's Nordic god lacks a lot of the Valhalla character arcing he had under Kenneth Branagh's wing in the first installment (he's now weened of brashness), Hiddleston's Loki is still a fully complex and unrepentant, with extra depth awarded as he's allowed to have loved his mother and be full of equal anguish to Thor after she dies). A sublime mixture of Sex Pistols swagger and Royal Shakespeare posh, Hiddleston wakes Hemsworth from his CGI slumber in their big fraternal moments together.


Alas, Dennings and Hiddleston aren't around nearly enough and a lot of the rest of it seems coasting on fumes it stole from other films' exhaust pipes. Portman especially, clad in steampunk-meets-Renaissance Faire ensembles, posed against pretty, off-world skies and burnished gleaming CGI furniture from the Maxfield Parrish collection, looks like she's just beamed over from Lucas' Star Wars outtakes as a favor. One of the things that makes Marvel movies great is they usually don't open up with long elaborate prefaces about far-away armies battling the forces of darkness like we're supposed to be instantly invested in all that overly familiar backstory scrolling. That's the kind of thing Uwe Boll or George Lucas or Paul W.S. Anderson do, not Marvel... until now.

I'm not blaming anyone for the dull sameness --acting in all that blue screen must be like wading through a swamp. In the first film (it made my 2011 top ten!), director Kenneth Branagh kept the Shakespeare underpinnings alive and resonant below the manly muscles and CGI, but two dudes; Alan Taylor and James Gunn direct this one and together they bury those underpinnings deeper than even the zombie bard himself could reach.


That said, I've been a big fan of these Marvel films overall, the last THOR and most X-MEN (all but #3) especially, reward multiple viewings and never take themselves too seriously or lose their focus on both mythic / political / and personal levels, and keep their heroes and villains in shades of grey (unlike DC's dry civics lesson lecturing and vigilante headlines). Marvel scripts are often things of beauty, boiling vast prequels of exposition down to a few droll quips and no one is all the way hero or villain - the good guys have flaws: narcissism, drinking, insecurity, anger issues, passive aggressive relationship avoidance, and the bad guys have soft spots, stray rays of compassion, fraternal history and charisma --often all that separates them is one or two choices made along the way, the selfish vs. altruistic, a hard choice any of us could fail to make given the circumstances.

That said, THOR: THE DARK WORLD lapses into DC self-importance and narrative-deadening, with exposition of almost DA VINCI CODE-levels, and the whole aesthetic of the 'Dark Elves' looks like the filmmakers think fantasy franchises are there to combine and pilfer from rather than be inspired by. These 'elves' drive vertical tie-fighters and look like Klingon Mordor Palpatine Voldemorts with albino ponytails and masks that make them welcome at THE PURGE. Asgard looks so much like the Emerald City or Mongo in the 1980 FLASH GORDON that when it's zippy force field goes up you just know that shit must be intentional.  Still, the first THOR was made by people who understood how the mythic and personal were the same at the same time, all the time, whereas this film doesn't know what personal experience means, only what happens in other movies. Even Asgard looks different, there's less gravity-defying double sided flat earth wonder --in favor of an elaborate activated charcoal-look, as if everything was strategically petrified and bronzed. Weaponized, with trimmings, rather than in the first film, when it was merely wondrous.

From top: Emerald City, Asgard, Mongo
These "Dark Elves" only have one saving grace: their nihilistic devotion to wiping out all life in all seven dimensions, a noble pursuit reminding me a lot of how I feel when I'm super cranky and hung over and trying to take a nap while kids scream outside my window and trucks back up beep beep beep beep and car alarms go off all up and down 7th Avenue for no reason. Oh to know that some power might just shut it all down, forever. But unless you really make that clear, that kind of cranky motivation, why bother? The motivation for wanting eternal darkness has to be something we can understand, why should we consider these elves anything other than pixels or their cause anything but trite groupthink backstory? Branagh let whole scenes unfold in the first film, start to end: the men went out drinking; SHIELD got in everyone's way trying to understand and control what was going on; there were diners and a sense of place and time. Here we understand less than SHIELD did in the first film, but at least they cared. Where are they now? Why aren't they concerned with time dilation? Does ABC keeps them too busy?

Luckily there is a great finale, involving a big battle that rages across numerous dimensions and planets via holes in the aligned realms, wherein gravity disappears or fluctuates --and all the ancient monuments turn out to have been built during this same alignment to point the way to when it would happen again! Dude, that's some ancient alien shit, explaining how all these megalithic stones were moved without electricity, but they gloss right over it. Onto the big finale! It's rushed and too pleased with its CGI landscapes and steampunk landing gears and red glowing forge grenades, but the final seven plane battle is so tight that I was, there in that overly-heated theater, for just a moment, brought giddily back to the Jack Kirby-drawn and Stan Lee-scripted brain-melters of the Silver Age. And even bad Marvel is better than most. They can't all be directed by Joss Whedon, Kenneth Branagh, Jon Favreau, Bryan Singer or J.J. Abrams. Can they?

From top: Prometheus, Dark World, Potter, Absentia
Speaking of dark worlds, ABSENTIA (2010): Katie Parker and Courtney Bell are two adult but still young sisters, one of whom is pregnant in the process of declaring her husband dead after seven long years in the titular legal limbo; the younger one (Parker) comes to help with the pregnancy, this after some trouble with drugs and now she's allegedly clean. She jogs in the morning and on her route goes through a mysterious tunnel near their apartment that makes her think of Billy Goats Gruff. Turns out, well, I shan't spoil it, but the movie gets the lack of visible monster right, so the terror comes from the anxiety of not knowing entirely what we're dealing with. I saw it alone on Saturday as it just happened to be on Showtime while I was writing the first part of this post, and just listening to the great rapport between the sisters from the TV behind me lured me in. I was alone in the apartmetn and it was getting dark faster than I was prepared for, and the film ingeniously dug deep into my ancient fears, the way only BLAIR WITCH could do before.


There is a certain type of person who sees a ghost, a demon, or an alien and thinks they saw a ghost --they freak out and maybe even call the cops like cops can do anything -- and there's a type of person who, like me, sees a ghost and presumes he's hallucinating. I might have seen a dozen real ghosts, demons, aliens by now and just cited acid flashbacks, a bad flu, lack of sleep or too much of it (as in my well-documented 1991 demon visitation), and this idea is well-used in ABSENTIA: this pregnant wife's therapist has her believing that seeing her missing husband everywhere is just a sign of stress, borne of waiting out the necessary seven years in the missing person file before he can be declared legally dead so she can move on with her life. So even though we see him standing behind the shrink, and we see her see him, she pretends not to see him, presuming it a hallucination, etc. Meanwhile the sister thinks maybe there's some fifth-dimensional portal that troll insect monsters are coming through and abducting humans, but the cops can't write that up in their report, so you must be on drugs... again!

The fear of the unknown plus the excellent termite detail in the sisterly rapport missing from most interactions in DARK WORLD or THE PURGE or any other 'unknown'-courting film combine to deliver a slow simmer anxiety and Parker has this great ease with her body language and slow dawning beauty. You barely notice her at first and then suddenly wham, you're in love with her. ABSENTIA the film is the same way; it doesn't really ape any other horror movie, doesn't hold onto the familiar handrails of its genre like THE PURGE or THE DARK WORLD do. The small human scale, naturalistic low-key lighting, solid sisterly rapport, the trips to lawyer offices that underscore the legal system's inability to protect the present from the darkness, it all snaps shut behind us, leaving only a vaguely ominous two-chord score and such a successful, intense expression of the less-is-more argument it gave me a chill right down to the bone.


 I was so unnerved after the end, in fact, that once it was over I had to race through my dark living room to turn on the lights and pop in one of my 'safety net' movies, in this case my always-nearby DVD of the 1957 classic, THE BEGINNING OF THE END, to get some feeling of reassuring closure. Nothing says you're safe and sound quite like watching Peter Graves empty a tommy gun at rear-projected grasshopper. In 50's monster movies, at least, seeing is never the same as believing, and thank God.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen "The Purge," but I agree with you on recent films that have great premises but lousy executions. "Prometheus" and "Inception" were like that for me: Cool ideas that turned into corporate movie crap before it was over.

    I caught the last half of Absentia one night on TV and almost turned it off because I sort of wanted to see it from the beginning. It was good stuff, and didn't fall into Pacific Rim.

    (Oh, I now use the term "Pacific Rim" instead of saying "cliche." damn you, Guillermo!)

    ReplyDelete

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