Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Am The Super Mother Bug!

Prologue - which means....this one's long.

Frequently I have bemoaned the absolute disaster of the advertising and marketing industry. Perhaps not here, although I can't imagine that isn't true, but I have most certainly annoyed my husband and friends with my diatribe on the evils and corrosive effects of a poorly constructed ad campaign for a film. The average viewer bases their decision to see a film upon one of three factors, in order:
  1. Who's in it.
  2. How engaging/intriguing the trailer is.
  3. What friends thought after seeing it.
Personal taste governs factor one, albeit this is the reason you'll see the same faces over and over. The collective hive of the Marketing THEY know who made Them money last time. Example: Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were both offered the role of Charlie Feinman in Reign Over Me before Adam Sandler. Factor three is also mostly out of their hands, with the exception of...I don't know- THEY COULD MAKE A GOOD MOVIE.

So this leaves us with their responsibilities with factor number two. Not only does the trailer indicate the necessary information for factor one, it is meant to relay and intrigue the viewer with the basic plot. It must convey what genre of film it is, or at least get it in the ball park. And it must do all this without telling you the entire damn movie (Christ I hate when they do that) AND without completely misleading you by not remaining true to the film's nature in an attempt to "be more interesting."

This extended Prologue is merely to present a public scolding to the marketers responsible for the advertisements for "BUG." I scold them for having presented a well-made but deceiving trailer. The trailer was very intriguing and did not give away too much of the plot. It did not, however, truthfully represent the film either. Nor did it show faith in the film to stand on its own. The 'Money Men' gripped their hooks in and tried every trick they could to make bank, as a result the film barely touched theatre screens. The actors aren't big draws, but their names are known. Although, I understand a need to let people know who William Friedkin is. Unfortunately, talented as the man is, most film goers don't readily know his name. Why not mention his more recently made films, The Hunted and The Rules of Engagement? By mentioning a film that was made thirty-five years ago, certain assumptions are made, because The Exorcist brings with it an entire culture of thought. It is easy to say that the horror classic is far closer to Bug in nature than the other films-but it lays the misleading foundation that Bug is an horror film. Tsk.Tsk.

It seems, they too, did not know how/what to market Bug as:

First they send in their drone... then they find their queen.

The Rest - Warning: There are spoilers past this point

Based upon the stage play by Tracy Letts, properly adapted by him as well, Bug does not roam far from the confines of a small apartment in a run-down Oklahoma road-side Motel. Not having had the opportunity to see the play, I cannot make any comparisons, although everything I've read praises both highly and state that Letts did not stray from the original script, only filled in some gaps caused only by the restriction of a stage. From the very start of the film, Agnes White is introduced as an anaemic woman prone to abuses, enslaved by fear and severe loneliness. Agnes is a pathetic figure trapped in a beautiful woman played with depth and energetic angst by Ashley Judd. Judd is an actress often overlooked, which I feel is often due to unfitting roles. Her strength is in her embodiment of these broken women. A perfect example, and one of my favorite off-kilter films, is Eye of the Beholder( there's one to analyze).

Agnes has an abusive ex-husband newly released from prison. With no self esteem, her alcoholism and drug use are not surprising. Her best friend is a lesbian, whom she works with at a lesbian bar- also not far of a reach that she feels safest in the company of less threatening people (ie. women). So when her friend, a plot tool named RC, played forgettably by Lynn Collins, brings the sheepish and child-like Peter Evans over to party, Agnes isn't the least bit threatened by him. RC leaves them and the elevator to Hell begins its descent.

Peter is played by the hard to read Michael Shannon. This is a man I wish we'd see far more of on film...and no, I'm not referring to Friedkin's unfulfilling teases at full-frontal...although, it couldn't hurt. Shannon creates a character that, while solidly written, needed a force of nature to bring to life. Michael Shannon is that force. As I said, Peter begins timid and childlike, uncertain of Agnes but not afraid of her either. Tracy Letts' script provides some incredible dialog that, as I watched, led me to guess early on that Peter was a predator.

Peter: People can say things and make you believe anything they want.

This awkward, quiet man had a way of indicating things that not long after, Agnes would very strongly believe. He worked in the manner of a confidence man. First he told her what she needed to hear to trust him, believe in him, feel dominant. In particular, he put her in a position of sexual dominance. Agnes' diminished self-view made it easy for him to build a foundation for belief. He seems quite capable of reading Agnes, without being obvious about it, such as confiding to a stranger, who coincidentally takes advice from a Magic 8-ball, that he "picks up on things."

The first night Peter stays, but he sleeps on the floor, this visit merely a kindness extended by a lonely woman. Agnes wakes to find that Peter is gone but her ex-husband is occupying her shower. Jerry Goss is a narcissistic, psychopath; a small man with little dog syndrome played with an all too natural swagger and grin by Harry Connick Jr. Agnes' weakness and fear is very quickly reminded when he threatens and beats her, waving a vague red herring at us. Jerry rants about Agnes having ratted him out over another man. This provides a motive for Jerry or this other man to have hired Peter to mess with Agnes, but the hint is far too weak and has no leg to stand upon and is therefore quickly tossed by film and audience alike. Although it is obvious that Jerry has beaten Agnes, Peter arrives but avoids any confrontations, letting Jerry leave without a fight. This moment only adds to Peter's trust-ability; a man so passive in such a situation is never likely to be harmful. The moment leaves an impression and Agnes takes him to bed. Director William Friedkin gives us our first dose of serious weirdness at this point, with unexpected images of blood cells flowing through veins and mating insects.

When the Bugs first appear Peter displays an higher level of education, but sheepishly almost as if embarrassed by his home schooling. The lack of condescension allows Agnes to keep her guard down and instead of feeling stupid, she looks to him for guidance. At this point, I still believed that Peter was a con-man, working her for a gain, but what he stood to gain was still a mystery. What did a sad, lonely woman in the middle of Oklahoma have that he could take away?

Peter: You have a centre right? A place inside of you that's just you, that hasn't been spoiled... And I think it's really important to try and keep that space sacred. In some sense, on some level, but... sex or relationships cloud that space... or, they cloud me I guess, they make it difficult to be just me and not have to worry about... being somebody else.

Peter very nearly loses her after confessing that he'd lied to her, and spills forth a story that would make any conspiracy theorist cream themselves. Trust has been broken, but by weeping these painful truths to her through the bathroom door, his hook is complete and begs him not to leave her. As she exits the door, all the world shakes with the sudden eruption of a nearby helicopter, bright lights and terrifying noises. It would seem his lies were true and Agnes is now caught up in the running game of a government bio-test escapee.

It would seem.

The next morning- government helicopters and spotlights gone- the descent picks up speed. From the start of the film, observe every small behavior and listen to every word Peter says. One can all but list what is coming. In many ways, Bug is like Fight Club and The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game. These movies did not explode with some completely unexpected ending. If you really watch and listen, they tell you everything you need to know to make those conclusions, which is why the endings are wholly believable. Bug is the same. Watch the way Peter works the pen in his mouth throughout the beginning. He's doing more than chewing on it-next thing you know...he has to remove his tooth. The man inexplicably suffers a seizure at a moment conveniently timed with Agnes and RC's argument reaches an unsettling point. Agnes emphatically choses Peter over RC as a result. In Psychology his behavior would classify him as the Folie imposée, meaning that as a dominant figure, psychologically, he is imposing his thoughts, beliefs and behaviors on Agnes, who willfully follows. The question at this point in the film is: does Peter do this deliberately, as a con-man isolating his prey; or is this a subconscious behavior of a severely disturbed man. Everything Peter presents he "finds" or provides proof of until Agnes becomes so immersed in his world, she sees her own bugs. So deeply immersed, inevitably, she begins to find her own explanations for "what is happening to them."

Peter's story? Government engineered plant aphids feeding on their blood implanted in Peter while in the military, and he infected Agnes.That isn't the entire story, however, because that doesn't explain how Agnes' child disappeared a decade before or why the police never found him. It doesn't explain the phone calls she keeps getting with no more than a breath on the other end. It doesn't explain why Agnes' best friend has it out for Peter. No, this alone does not explain why that same friend introduced them, or why they are so perfect for each other. Oh no...only one thing explains all that.

Agnes: I am the super mother bug!

...yes Ashley....yes you are.

Tracy Letts' script is so masterfully written that the audience easily follows into the funnel that leads to the only conclusion possible. It is a downward spiral sucking you deeper and faster with each turn. Each invasion of their private space, their self-imposed prison (or hive, if you will), is an escalation. RC's attempts at salvation are unwanted because they try to impose separation when Agnes has already concluded that she cannot live without Peter; that he is the best thing that ever happened to her. Jerry's possessiveness and threats take an odd shift toward incompetent expressions of caring when he too, determines that Peter is not good for Agnes. This, unfortunately, only furthers her conclusion that Peter is perfect. When Dr. Sweet, a meticulous Brian F. O'Byrne, is introduced the entire hovel is encased in plastic and aluminum foil, and with Friedkin's always well executed use of light and sound, it becomes a surreal cocoon. The exaggerated environment, already wholly unreal, only aids in furthering the couples psychological descent until people are no longer real. Agnes and Peter, themselves, are no longer people.

Peter: I am the drone.
Agnes: I am the mother queen.

The brilliance of Bug was lost under the disappointed mantle of a mis-categorized film. Letts' script is a fucking masterpiece unto itself that even lesser skilled actors wouldn't have been able to destroy too terribly, so when coupled with the powerhouses of Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Harry Connick Jr it simply emanates in all its psychotic glory. Friedkin, while often criticized for self-indulgence, I feel brings to this exactly the type of indulgences necessary. He doesn't weigh the film down with unneeded music or jump-effects. That music used is well inserted, and aptly written by musicians on the fringes of society. He treats the actors and story like poetry, allowing the subtleties of madness to creep in until you, like Agnes, are lost in it and can't remember when things went wrong. That is truly what this is; an expository on the psychology of madness, of abuse, or dependence and dominance. In all of Bug's brilliance, it not only makes a social statement on the constructs of our society as a whole, but leaves us with the most telling statement at the end of the film. Like a punch line in a black, twisted comedy, this Helter Skelter drops us into a metaphorical hell- or perhaps gives us insight into Mr. Letts' true idea of Hell. No where else in the story are the final words spoken, and here, they preempt a dual-suicide by fire punctuating the nature of their psychosis. For truly, do they not suffer Folie à deux; quite literally, "a madness shared by two"? Note well, the order of the speakers is not accidental.

Peter: I love you.
Agnes: I love you.

I should leave you with the last words of the script, however, I know many people do not watch film credits. Oh, you missed those...? ....tsk. tsk. I think Friedkin knows this as well, which is why I made a special effort to sit and watch them and without fail, he offered up imagery I believe was intended only to further fuck with our perceptions of reality. At the very least, they leave one wondering what he meant by them. Hmmm....

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pestilence, Plagues and Madness:The Doomsday Scenario

For those who frequent my reviews, the following may seem oddly polite, especially for such a crap film. However, this review was written specifically for a magazine, which requested a less flamboyant review. I am running the review here as written only because at this time I cannot bring myself to revisit a film that killed two hours of my life- and not without some agony....and because said magazine, after saying they were running it, did not print it. No hard feelings. Business is business. It is now long after the fact. Far better movies have trumped it at the box-office, and rightly so. Enjoy....

The resonant voice of Malcolm MacDowell fills the theatre with the ominous foreboding that Vincent Price once inspired. As he tells us of a future not so unbelievable, when a pestilence spreads throughout the white faced-urban lands of Scotland, images flip like forgotten news reels across the screen. The seriousness of his tone, smoothly laid out on the realist side of melodramatic, lays down enough dates and statistics to lend credibility to the story, elevating it above the 'innocuous viral-apocalypse movie.' Director Neil Marshall borrows from the potent socio-political sci-fi films of the seventies and while he tosses violence and gore into our laps, it is done with an unforgiving emotional detachment. The film Doomsday opens with the promise of a visceral portrayal of a future that is not so difficult to imagine as for years, we've watched the scenario play out on the dark-faced villages of Africa on the daily news.

This first half hour is a sharp stab at our empathy and apathy when presented the instinctual need for self preservation. It is not a powerful portrait yet, but this first half hour shows promise of a film to follow in the ranks of post-apocalyptic classics like Mad Max, THX-1138, The Terminator, The Omega Man and Escape from New York. There is a truth of our own cruelty presented with such matter-of-factness that the salvation of a young girl almost strikes the viewer as too saccharine to be true.

Sadly all promise is lost and as one character later advises: Abandon any such hope.

The homage to the powerful sci-fi films of past does not end with a quiet nod from writer/director Marshall. The heroine's likeness to Æon Flux, complete with funky hair cut, ocular implant, attitude and sexy wit is a more noticeable point to more recent influences as well. He hints at his 'influences' with characters named for directors John Carpenter and George Miller, amidst scenarios all too reminiscent of Escape from NY, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Dawn of the Dead and even a smack in the face of 28 Days Later and Aliens. There comes a point, however, when homage crosses over into giddy fan-film, and when well-crafted story-telling becomes regurgitation into an Hollywood-formula that should theoretically be quality. Nothing regurgitated is ever quality. Any pretense at originality or deliberate scripting is quickly dropped like foul-scented soap in the shower.

Neil Marshall wrote and directed Dog Soldiers, an independent film I recommend to anyone who likes unique horror/fantasy, although one who is keen on science fiction and horror will fast spot the many references and 'borrowed treasures' from other films and sources there as well. What makes it far more tolerable in Dog Soldiers is the subtlety to which it is done. Unfortunately as his budget bloated, Marshall's grip on craftsmanship was lost.

Of the three antagonists it is hard to say who has the grandest or most absurd lair. The deep-throated Scotsman, Canaris, with a fairly vague governmental role, has your typical wall of media encased in a heavily guarded militaristic compound, your run of the mill government room of evil and doom. He however, is outfitted with an entire military at his disposal and with it such wonderful toys.

The 'Kurgan-esque' tribal king, Sol, has an amphitheatre filled with can-can dancing Scotsman, x-games motor sport racers and pole dancing punk chicks on a stage outfitted with pyrotechnics and a human-sized rotisserie with which he appeases the cannibalistic hunger of his followers. The cannibalism, of course, is necessary due to lack of food, in spite of the sea of cattle that lend themselves to a gag earlier in the film.

Our final antagonist, the lost idealist Kane, has a Scottish castle. Yes...a castle. Complete with armored knights on horses, archers, gladiatorial giants in a death pit and damsels dressed in renaissance garb. I'll allow you to ponder that a moment while reminding you that this is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film set in 2033AD.

This disjointed and weakly connected film can be easily divided into deeply contrasting parts, not unlike the evil lairs. The opening is a serious film speaking to the threats foremost on society's mind, a tribute to the storytelling methods of Marshall's heroes and idols such as HG Wells, an author who more than once wrote of the destruction of society. Then we are thrown in Thunderdome, and it is no longer about societal conflict and change, but merely the visceral blood lust of Clancy Brown wanna-bes, and an attempt to mash the pointless vulgarity of Hostel and Saw into the same film. Did I mention the Gimp?

Then with a shift of the bizarre akin to Gilliam's Time Bandits, our heroine Eden is marched toward a castle in a scene begging the declaration, “this is my boomstick!” It is after a “David crushes Goliath's skull” row in the Pit of Death, which recalls the Conan series, that a product placement is inserted with such absurdity one begins to wonder if there are commercial breaks. Eden's dead pan remark on the color of the Bentley played like a misquote of the batmobile introduction in Batman Begins.

Everything that follows that commercial break belongs in some horrible send up to The Road Warrior. The only thing left out of this final ridiculously lack-luster chase scene is the Cannonball Run crew, any level of believability and Michael Bay gushing “Awesome!” after every explosion. I've neglected to mention that during this chase scene, the flashy 2008 Bentley GT is barely able to outrun an old, rusted 1980s pony-car police cruiser. Excellent marketing boys, I'll drop $176K on one, sure thing. If Marshall was merely remarking on female drivers, I beg to argue that Sinclair's driving was about as unimpressive and dispassionate as her approach to everything else in the film. The fiery Irish lass Dierdre did a far more exciting driving job in Ronin, and with at least a little facial expression.

At the very core, the concept presented was not a new one, however Marshall attempted to make a statement. Albeit, the message came across as clearly as a political treatise written with crayons. In his representation of the break-down of society he presented us with three different social structures: the Pragmatic, “civilized” Empire; the Barbaric, urban-punk tribes; and the isolationist medieval colony. In spite of the stark superficial differences of the three groups they all exhibit the same structure, as each is ruled by a Machiavellian leader willing to exercise whatever brutality and barbarism necessary to maintain control. A fairly cynical way of saying that all governments at root are the same and all humans are barbaric no matter their level of technology or manner of dress. This very loosely made statement is quickly buried beneath the spectacle and groan-worthy scripting.

Although the cast gathered is note-worthy, (Rhona Mitra, Malcolm McDowell, Bob Hoskins, David O'Hara, Alexander Siddig) and most performed to the expectations of their role, the absolute disappointment that Doomsday presents leaves me to suggest that you forget that the excellent actors in this film were ever in this film and consider Doomsday a “Mulligan”. Because Dog Soldiers and The Descent, for what they both were, stood as a testament that Marshall has great potential, we can grant him this Mulligan as well, but any future mistakes may lead me to believe that the more money he's given the less he tries.

If you're hungry, have a piece of your friend.”

*NOTE: If confused as to how/why this film is not as bad-ass as these images may indicate, please refer to my previous essay.