Thursday, 18 October 2012

Child's Play (1988)

Think about how many movies you've seen that aimed high, then didn't follow through. Got a few (thousand) in mind? Now think about how many movies you've seen that set the bar low, then cleared it beautifully. Not quite as many, right? Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988) is one of those rare movies that achieves everything it sets out to do, but doesn't really attempt much in the first place. As such, it occupies a rather Pyrrhic niche in the annals of film making, but it's still an enjoyable watch.

A perfect doll and a killer... BUT WHICH IS WHICH???
All grade-schooler Andy (Alex Vincent) wants for his birthday is a "Good Guy" doll. When his single, working mom Karen (Catherine Hicks) is able to snag one off the back of a black-market pushcart, it eases her guilt about having to work on her son's big day. She watches with all the maternal aplomb of the Virgin Mary as the talking doll (Brad Dourif) tells Andy its name -- "Chucky" -- and promises to be his friend forever. Unfortunately, Karen punches out a few hours later only to find that Andy's babysitter has been defenestrated and Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) of Chicago's finest doesn't believe Andy's "Chucky did it" alibi. The rest of the movie is horror duck-duck-goose: Norris chases Karen chases Chucky chases Andy. Once the obligatory skepticism is dispatched and everyone accepts that they've got a homicidal doll on their hands, there's a final showdown in Karen's apartment that doesn't even pretend not to be setting up the sequels.

Okay, so Child's Play is schlock. But I've seen schlock-ier schlock. The satire is dead-on; I'm just old enough to remember the pop-culture wasteland of Eighties fad toys, each with its own tie-in cartoon (my personal Kryptonite was Rainbow Brite). The acting is across-the-board decent, even when the actors are asked to stray way beyond the call of duty (and over the line of dignity). Raymond Oliver, for instance, playing Chucky's former black-magic mentor, is handed the most inanely offensive voodoo stereotype this side of Live and Let Die, but damned if he doesn't just act the living shit out of it anyway. The whole movie is like that. Its parts are so determined to be better than the whole that the whole becomes somehow elevated.

For a film that gave birth to a slasher franchise, there's surprisingly little slashing in Child's Play: I'm pretty sure the death count stopped at two (three if you count characters reincarnated over the course of the movie). Since it's already leaning towards suspense rather than horror, it might have been interesting to see the script play longer with the Andy-or-Chucky whodunnit setup. But, man, who am I kidding? This is mediocrity in its most honest form, and maybe that's a good thing. The fairest thing I can say about Child's Play is if you think you might like it, you probably will.

When you can't get Shelley Duvall....
FINAL GIRL: There's only two girls in this movie, so it's not like this was a hard-won title, but our Final Girl for Child's Play is Andy's mom Karen. I liked Karen, actually. She's a plucky, self-sufficient single parent who's able to keep her head on straight when things start going crazy (not to mention avoid the stupid romantic angle with Detective Norris that I assumed at the outset was a given). She also appears to have ripped her shapeless beige jacket straight off the back of Elizabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting. It's survival of the fittest out there in Hollywood.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Master (2012)

In The Master (2012), P. T. Anderson has made the wrong movie for the right reasons.

The reasons: Scientology's growing hold on America's entertainment elite, Anderson's gift for capturing things as they are and not as they appear to be, and the considerable talents of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie: about an hour's worth of half-baked polemic stretched over two hours and change.

Freddie Quell, ex-Navyman, is having trouble reintegrating into society after WW2. His efforts are not aided by his moonlighting as a bootlegger, brewing potions so fancifully toxic that it is a miracle he only manages to poison one character over the course of the movie. Fleeing said accidental manslaughter, Freddie falls into the retinue of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cult leader with a taste for Quell's chemical moonshine. Freddie becomes a devotee of Dodd's philosophy, known as The Cause, but proves to have too many personal demons for Dodd and his acolytes to expel. Quell returns to his empty life of womanizing, and The Cause -- which is beginning to attract the attention of skeptics as well as spiritual seekers -- relocates to England.

Anderson has created a fantastic cast of characters. His women are especially nuanced and complex by Hollywood's standards, including Laura Dern as a Cause-devoted housewife, Amy Adams as Dodd's constantly gestating spouse Peggy, Amber Childers as their ambitiously amorous daughter and Madisen Beaty as Quell's all-but-child-bride. Likewise, Anderson creates a series of haunting and poignant moments that linger with the viewer: Quell's lustful attack on a woman carved from sand, the grotesquely business-minded ideological and sexual demands Peggy places simultaneously upon her husband, Quell ripping a toilet from the wall of a small-town jail (there's a similar moment in Walk the Line: does Phoenix have a contractual clause entitling him to irreparably destroy one bathroom fixture per picture?). Yet it all goes nowhere. Anderson has laid the foundation for a masterwork and then sent it off to theatres naked. It's one thing to sit through ninety minutes of this stuff, but at over two hours, the unformed musings of even a cinematic genius grow wearisome.

Not a screenshot, but damn she's gorgeous.

Scene Stealer: Amy Ferguson is excellent as Martha, a co-worker/lover of Freddie's and a character so minor I can't even find a proper picture of her using Google image search. Martha is a department store model who parades through the aisles in the latest fashions, announcing the price to disinterested shoppers, and her malaise is evident underneath her runway poise. Hopefully next time we see Ferguson, it'll be in a role big enough to actually merit a couple early screenshots.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Hindsight is 20/20. I used to really love Anne Rice, and now I recall the teenaged summer I spent in a black broomstick skirt reading The Vampire Lestat with bemusement. Similarly, it might once have seemed appropriate to cast Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in a movie that demanded they be taken very seriously, but now all you can see when you look at them is Brangelina and the Sea Org. Finally, it might once have seemed like a good idea to re-imagine vampires as mopey navel-gazers, but we all know how wrong that can go.

Very, very wrong.
Today we're not talking about Twilight (thank god). We're talking about Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994). That means fewer sparkles, but the same amount of whiny existentialist bullshit.

"Louis... am I pretty?"
The titular interview is conducted by one Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater), who stumbles upon the palely brooding Louis (Brad Pitt), decides the dapper stranger must have an interesting life story, and plops him down in front of a tape recorder. Louis doesn't disappoint, obligingly revealing that he is a vampire and recounting his sordid tale. It mostly revolves around Louis' twisted menage a trois with his pouty sire Lestat (Tom Cruise) and their pint-sized progeny Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The three vamps are amusingly horrible to each other until Lestat is burnt extra-crispy in a New Orleans house fire and Claudia is shut outdoors by snobby European vampires to die a horrible death of lethal vampire sunburn, leaving Louis the last vampire in the ring. Malloy is very impressed by Louis's story and suggests that Louis make him the latest recipient of the honor of vampire-hood; Louis refuses, sulking out into the night and cuing a Guns and Roses cover of Sympathy for the Devil.

Half the problem with Interview With The Vampire is the casting. It's never gratingly wrong, but it's seldom more than competent. It may be a miracle of its own that Cruise didn't butcher his character, but can anyone get exciting about a performance that is just... okay? Kristen Dunst, similarly, is out of her depth here. An adult vampire trapped in a child's body, Claudia is motivated by her pent-up sensuality, but in Dunst's hands she never convinces as a frustrated adult. Claudia seems to desire Louis in exactly the same way she'd desire an ice cream sandwich or a pony. This was a Dakota Fanning role back when there was no Dakota Fanning, and Dunst just isn't up to scratch.

The other half of the problem is that this movie takes itself way too fucking seriously. Louis is a yawnworthy hero, constantly fretting over the mystery of his existence; since his moral quandaries are never resolved, they become tiresome. Lestat and Claudia's machinations are entertaining in a sort of undead soap-opera fashion, but they don't get enough narrative weight to rescue the film from its milquetoast protagonist. I also wish that more had been done with Christian Slater, who feints at having a personality in the first couple scenes but is reduced to a one-man Greek chorus by the end.

I'm not even going to take the cheap shot and be all like "well at least my generation's vampires didn't sparkle". Let's face it, that's way too fucking easy. Louis and Lestat's incessant, gratuitous posing and moping paved the way for Cullen and his ilk. It's a damn shame, because movie vamps never used to be such wimps. Where's Max Schreck when you need him?

Preparing to EAT YOUR SOUL, that's where.
Best dressed person in the room? You're darn tootin'.
SCENE STEALER: Thandie Newton as Yvette, a slave on Louis' plantation and, briefly, his reluctant confidante. Yvette gets very little screentime and mostly appears opposite undead all-powerful vampires, yet her carefully chosen words and enigmatic expressions suggest that she's probably the most interesting person in the room. I probably shouldn't hold my breath for that tie-in novel at this point.