Friday, December 23, 2005


Part The Second

The Brain That Wouldn't Die

This film should be retitled "The Movie That Wouldn't End". There's a high concept that makes rudimentary sense, but if you can successfully separate it from the horrible acting, the ridiculous "monster" and an ending Ray Charles could see coming, you're a better critic than I. Not worth the celluloid it's printed on; certainly not worth the bytes it would take to write a full review of it.



"What do you want me to tell you?"

"Tell her."

"You know I can't. I can't. What I have with her... is good."

"Is it real?"

"It's close enough."

One of the things I love most about "slice of life" drama (when done properly) is how the mundane intersection of individual lives becomes something fascinating. There's nothing extraordinary about the chain of events that unfolds in "Heights", which means credibility is never undermined.

"Slice of life" tends to hinge upon identification with at least one character or situation - it's not really an intellectual genre, and the plots are somewhat simplistic by default, so you have to care about these people. "Heights" succeeds in this regard because its cast is made up of sympathetic figures dealing with everyday quandaries: a secret from Jonathan's past is digging itself up, Isabel isn't happy with the sacrifices she's made for her relationship, Diana wants to experience passion but is too afraid to submit to it, and Alec is an actor who's tired of pretense. In the periphery, Peter's job assignment is interviewing his lover's ex-boyfriends, and some very unpleasant truths come to life. It's all dramatic, but not melodramatic, and that's where the movie's great strength lies: going over the top would lead to detachment. So even the climactic scenes are pared down, subtle - and they bite all the deeper for it.

There's a lot of clever maneuvering in this movie, such as the way its parallel character arcs are constructed. It's not always immediately clear how everyone connects to everyone else, but as you become more enmeshed in the web of relationships, the strands become more visible. When she first meets Alec at her audition (and learns he lives in her daughter's building), Diana says New York can be the smallest city in the world sometimes, like Two Degrees of Separation between people. She's ultimately proven right.

I like that the most significant character, in terms of the plot, never appears on-screen. Benjamin Stone is a British photographer who's connected to Diana, Peter and Jonathan - they all know who he is, they're all involved in his manipulations, but we don't even hear his voice even though he's the catalyst that sets the domino effect in motion. It's a chilling reminder that sometimes the biggest changes in our lives are caused by people outside our line of sight.

There's also some interesting symbolism at work: Jonathan and Isabel are planning a Jewish wedding, in which it's tradition for the groom to break a glass at the altar. It's supposed to signify the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but we know shattered glass can also mean destruction on a personal level - a foreshadowing of things to come.

With one exception, all the actors in "Heights" are at the top of their game. Glenn Close (Diana) and Jesse Bradford (Alec) give particularly compelling performances. The exception would be James Marsden, who comes off a bit wooden throughout the movie and never manages any significant breakthrough.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning the Big Gay Kiss; you know how sometimes, the first thing you'll know about any given movie is that two guys or two girls get intimate? Fuck the premise, fuck the actors, it's horizontal CPR that makes the press releases. Of course, I find it amusing that the kiss scene doesn't even have to be good to get attention - I'm thinking here of Colin Farrell and Dallas Roberts in "A Home At The End of the World", in which my favorite dirty Irishman basically slobbered all over the other guy's face. Oy.

But I digress; point is, yes, there's a Big Gay Kiss here. No point in me withholding names, as I have yet to see a press release regarding "Heights" that doesn't spell it out. James Marsden and Jesse Bradford make out. Bradford does well enough; Marsden looks like he's got cramps throughout the entire scene. Granted, this actually is a painful moment for Jonathan... but I swear, you'd think Bradford was knifing him in the guts or something. It certainly undercuts the scene, because this is supposed to be the moment Jonathan chooses Alec. Someone should really explain to the straight men of Hollywood that homosexuality can't be contracted through snogging. It's just a movie!

Another amusing tidbit: the actors who play Ian and Peter also played Richard and Geoffrey in the Robert Halmi remake of "The Lion In Winter"... in which Glenn Close played Queen Eleanor, their mother. Two Degrees of Separation indeed.

"Heights" is a very theatrical film, one I could easily see played out on stage. It also eschews the romantic conventions where the loss of "true love" means a dismal end for the parties involved; by the end of the movie, relationships have broken apart, but there's hope that these people can start over, find love elsewhere. Maybe that's the bittersweet answer to Alec's question - there's no opposition between what's real and what's good. Every character in this movie (with the possible exception of Diana) eventually stops pretending, and ultimately ends up in a better place for it.



This one's so quirky I honestly don't know where to begin. Maybe we should start with the background and context of the movie's release: by 1992, horror cinema was withering away. The previous year had seen the conclusion of both the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Child's Play" series. And while new movies would continue to be produced for "Halloween", "Friday the 13th" and "Hellraiser", these franchises had long since passed their prime.

The creators of "Candyman" are obviously conscious of this decline, since they do just about everything they can think of to make sure this movie wouldn't be perceived as just another slasher flick. The end result is a bit muddled.

Helen Lyle is a university student determined to write a thesis on urban legends that will set the academic world on fire. She fixates on a specific myth concerning the Candyman - the spirit of a murdered black man who stalks the Cabrini Green projects, slaying anyone who calls his name five times in front of a mirror. Obviously, Helen goes right ahead and does so just to prove her disbelief in the story. Meanwhile, her obsession with the Candyman starts to get out of hand, causing her to take some dangerous risks. And then the real thing turns up.

The angle here is that we don't know whether the Candyman is real, or if it's all in Helen's mind. Every time he turns up, she blacks out and wakes up covered in blood - we don't see what happens in the interrim. We do know she's having marital difficulties, and she knows things only the Candyman could know (ie: the location of an infant he abducted). As far as I know, this kind of unreliable protagonist is uncommon in the horror/slasher genre; we're never asked to question Nancy Thompson or Kirsty Cotton. So, if nothing else, the film succeeds in consistently establishing a central ambiguity that deviates from the norm.

However, this ambiguity is resolved and then cobbled back together: an event occurs that can only be attributed to the Candyman, thus confirming his existence. But immediately after that, Helen's sanity is again made uncertain. It derails the rest of the movie because the writer wants to have his cake and eat it too: the Candyman is real, therefore it's a slasher movie, but Helen might be imagining him, so it's a psychological thriller. By failing to commit to one or the other, it falls between the cracks.

The biggest problem is the Candyman himself. There are some intense moments scattered throughout the movie, but I don't think any of them derive from the killer. He's not scary because he's impossible to understand: unlike his predecessors, the Candyman doesn't seem to have any modus operandi at all. He just floats around Cabrini Green randomly murdering and mutilating its inhabitants. Oh, there's something about "eternalizing the legend" within the congregation, but that doesn't work as an explanation because of the paradoxical way the Candyman is depicted. If he needs the faith of his people to survive, then he's a spirit. But he sleeps, he can be wounded, and Helen ultimately kills him by stabbing him with a burning length of wood - all of which suggests he's alive. It doesn't make any kind of overall sense, so odds are you'll be too confused to be afraid of anything.

It's a pity, because "Candyman" does at least attempt to break the mold, where most of its contemporaries would be content with cookie-cutter plots and themes. But its attempts are too clumsy to merit real credit.


Saw 2

While I was quite fond of the first "Saw", warts and all, I find I'm not as willing to forgive the sequel its flaws.

In contrasting the two, it's clear that "Saw 2" adopts the "bigger and better" sequel mentality that more often than not fails to deliver. To be fair, it does get a few things right: for starters, Amanda (the junkie with the bear trap helmet from the first film) returns, providing a strong connection to the previous story. I would've preferred Adam, although he makes a dismal but unsurprising cameo when the Saw-ees stumble upon the original Bathroom of Homoerotic Death (guess Larry never made it to the phone after all). The narrative sequence has been straightened out - no more pesky "flashback-within-flashback" expository scenes.

However, these improvements come with a heavy cost: the characters are all one-dimensional cardboard stereotypes. All of them. Without a single exception. Even Jigsaw - arguably a complex figure in his own right - doesn't say anything especially new this time around. Ostensibly, this is because Leigh Whannell, writer and Scream Queen Supreme of the first movie, was only brought in to touch up director Darren Lynn Bousman's script (which was actually for another movie altogether, and later reconfigured as a "Saw" sequel). As a result, the movie's entire emphasis is on Jigsaw's fiendishly elaborate death traps, rather than the people he's tormenting. The gimmick wears thin fast, and you're hard-pressed to be moved by the horrible deaths of a bunch of nameless ciphers and one very annoying refugee from "Oz".

Like the first movie, "Saw 2" manages a nice twist ending. I don't know if I buy it - it's a character moment that falls flat because the character isn't explored sufficiently (or at all, come to think of it). I suppose it's worth seeing, but don't expect a particularly gratifying experience. The death traps are fun to watch in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way, just don't think about it too hard or the whole thing will come apart.


Next time on Dianapalooza: Paris Hilton dies screaming! If that won't bring you in, nothing will.