Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie Reivew: Looker (1981)

These days most people associate the late Michael Crichton with blockbuster successes like Jurassic Park and ER. Although I enjoy his post-80’s output, my favorites will always be his directorial efforts with Looker and Runaway. Both are focused on his concerns about where technology is taking us, particularly when it runs amok. It’s hard to pick a favorite but I’d have to give Looker the edge, and it’s all the more interesting/prophetic given the advent of CGI. The film is about what might happen if computers advanced to the point that virtual actors could be produced for the advertising world, and certainly we’re just about there (if we aren’t already). Crichton posits that evil companies would take advantage, doing everything from killing actresses and models, to implanting subliminal messages in the mind of the viewer. I don’t know if anything like that has ever happened behind the scenes (let’s hope not), but luckily in the case of Looker Albert Finney is on hand to take care of the situation. Yes Albert Finney. Along for the ride is some wildly dated 80’s fashion and music, but thankfully they don’t diminish an otherwise exciting thriller.

Albert Finney plays Dr. Larry Roberts, a highly successful plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. After one of his patients, a beautiful model, dies under mysterious circumstances, he begins to look closer at a disturbing trend. Recently models have been coming in with very specific requests for adjustments that are aimed at making them “perfect.” While investigating the situation Roberts’ latest patient and potential love interest Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey), invites him to come with her to a job prep session at a company called Digital Matrix Inc. There she is subjected to a full body scan, in which her image is downloaded into a computer. Following the session she is later provided with a list of improvements to achieve the perfect look, prompting Roberts to put two and two together. Also it turns out that frequent villain James Coburn runs the company which is never a good sign. Roberts and Fairmont spend the rest of the movie in a cat and mouse game with the Digital Matrix baddies, who are planning to use the computer models to implant subliminal messages in the minds of the American consumer.

You have to hand it to Crichton, although his concepts can be at times far-fetched, there’s usually a nugget or two that are eerily on target. In the case of Looker he nailed the development that digital actors and actresses would someday become a reality. The first instance that many would likely identify as the warning shot across the bow would be Jar Jar Binks. If that wasn’t an ominous portent of things to come, I don’t know what is. Mark Hamill is noted as saying that George Lucas prefers the puppets to actors, and in some ways that attitude is understandable. After all it’s far easier to manipulate zeroes and ones than a human being with whom one must negotiate to produce a performance. Apparently James Cameron is a student of this school of thought, as he spent the past 10 years developing a technology that makes Lucas’s commitment to a human free cinema positively half-hearted. Avatar clearly shows that real-looking fake characters are more than possible. Now if they can get the voice piece down we are living the dream (or nightmare) of Looker.

Honestly I’m of two minds on whether this digital actor business is good or bad. On the surface I’m guessing most people would react negatively to the thought of traditional actors being replaced by entirely digital counterparts. I’m not a big fan of CGI to begin with, but that may be due largely to the generation in which I came of age. I like practical effects, even though I can occasionally appreciate something with a lot of computer imagery (e.g. The Matrix). Even so, given our culture’s obsession with celebrity, it’s hard to imagine we’d be willing to let go of the real actors and actresses entirely. After all what would become of the celebrity gossip shows? Would CGI models be followed around by the TMZ group in fabricated moments of spontaneity? I don’t know, but it makes for a hilarious (and sad) possibility.

Likely regardless of generational effects, I’d say folks will always prefer to have some actual human behind a performance. On the other hand, CGI holds some intriguing possibilities. I read somewhere, in relation to Avatar I believe, the idea that one could take a young image of Clint Eastwood, his voice samples, and create a perfect model to be used in films. Carrying that forward Eastwood could keep making Dirty Harry films long after he has passed on. I’m not eager to see Clint go anywhere, but it would be fantastic to be able to see new Eastwood movies well into the future! And don't even get me started with the possibilities as they relate to Steven Seagal.

Looker doesn’t just stop with pondering the simulated person idea though. It takes it things a step further by suggesting that scientific analysis could discern what images are “perfectly” appealing to the viewer. There’s a scene where Finney views a commercial while his eye movements are tracked. The results of the test show that instead of following the product, he followed the movements of the attractive model (he humorously suggests he was interested in her bathing suit). What the folks in the film are trying to do is to use the models strategically to ensure that the product is the focus. Granted the sci-fi angle also comes into play, with Crichton inserting light pulses that essentially hypnotize the viewer. That’s a bit sinister to say the least, yet there are certainly things happening in our world that could lead down such a road.

The current parallel I’m reminded of is that of Internet marketing. For example when you go to a particular site or conduct a search, thereafter you receive targeted marketing to steer you in a direction you may otherwise have missed (for better or worse). The idea is that your interests are anticipated, and to some extent stealthily cataloged. It won’t be long before this finds its way to televisions that know what you like (I’ll bet there are already sets out there that do something like this), and certainly phones have been there for a little while. I have to admit that sometimes I like it when I discover something via electronic suggestions, but there’s also something unsettling about it as well. It can probably be summed up best as a relative of privacy invasion, but with the tech boom showing no signs of slowing the trend isn’t going anywhere.

Conceptually Looker is certainly prescient and intriguing, but how is it in terms of entertainment value? This is one of those movies I have very fond memories of as a kid, in large part because I must have seen it 20 times when it ran on cable in the 80’s. It played constantly. Between it and Wolfen I was under the impression that Albert Finney did nothing but sci-fi and horror, as those were my first introduction to him! Going back and watching Looker now it’s not quite the home run it was for me at that point in my life. The pacing is a little too relaxed, and Crichton doesn’t consistently figure out how to generate suspense. That said when Looker works, it works like gangbusters. One of the iconic elements of the film is a light gun the villains use that causes victims to lose their perspective of time. So you get hit by it and wake up anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours later (allowing the villains time to ransack apartments, punch people out, or worse). This makes for some extremely cool action sequences that remain to this day unique and effective. Of particular note is a mid-film car chase where Finney and the villains are firing light guns back and forth at each other. Great stuff.

The element that’s most likely to turn most newcomers off is just how 80’s the whole affair is. The fashion, the cheesy commercials, and especially the music don’t fare so well. Even a self-avowed 80’s aficionado such as me found it at times distracting. The truth is however that this aspect isn’t in place artificially, and Crichton incorporates the dated materials in a way that is natural. In other words the cheese is contextually valid. Unfortunately it can be off-putting to those predisposed to ridicule and dismiss that sort of thing . . . and it makes it a difficult sell for fans trying to introduce it as a serious piece of serious sci-fi. The only legitimate gripe in my opinion is the title song which opens the film. It sounds like an obnoxious imitation of a bad Kim Carnes song. Interestingly the song and the score are done by Barry De Vorzon who also scored The Warriors. The electronic score works for the most part, it’s just when it veers into rock that trouble rears its head. The music is highly effective in the light gun sequences where it does a great job in building tension.

Any cult film devotee, sci-fi fan, or Crichton reader should absolutely seek out Looker. It features fine performances, and anticipates some of the technical developments that are happening in the present day (excluding light guns as far as we know). Better still are the inclusion of action sequences that are unlike any you have ever experienced, and have held up remarkably well in the 30(!) years since its release. For an outstanding double-feature I would recommend pairing it with Crichton’s almost equally as interesting Runaway, or Finney’s bizarre excursion into horror with Wolfen. You really can’t go wrong with anything on that list : )

Friday, May 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Keep (1983)

Before achieving massive success with Miami Vice, Heat, The Insider, Ali, etc., director Michael Mann dipped into the horror genre in the early 80’s with the film adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep. The novel is a vampire fantasy set in the latter days of WWII, depicting the German army’s unfortunate intersection with an epic battle between supernatural beings in a remote mountain castle in Romania. It’s a terrific book filled with well-drawn characters, a solid story, and a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. Honestly though in terms of attempting a film translation it’s a little daunting because there’s so much going on. Undeterred Mann plunged ahead and created one of the best horror films of the decade, a piece almost entirely reliant on mood vs. conventional storytelling. The film bombed at the box office and received a critical thrashing, the prevailing attitude being that The Keep was a good-looking, yet jumbled mess of a film. I agree with the first part, however must beg to differ with the second. While not a perfect film, The Keep is nevertheless a significant achievement for its era, and due to its hallucinatory vibe has maintained a timeless quality. No doubt many will disagree, but I find it to be Mann’s most fascinating work among a rather impressive set of credentials. I shall do my best to explain . . .

The Keep starts out with a motorized German regiment traveling along a dreary mountain pass in the pouring rain. From the word go there is an oppressive gloom to the film that sets the stage for what is to come. As the rain pours down loudly the electronic score by Tangerine Dream kicks in and organically blends with the ambient noise. The whole tableau has the effect of drawing one in immediately to the ethereal mood Mann is working to establish. Few movies do this as well as The Keep manages. As the convoy enters the small village that is home to the keep we feel as much an outsider as the soldiers. Our guide is a German officer named Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) who is a tough, yet sympathetic fellow. We grow to learn that he despises the Nazis, contrary to the initial stern attitude he puts forward.

The convoy pulls up to the keep, which is so monolithic that it’s hard to get an accurate impression of its size and shape. Woermann and company head inside to set up camp for the occupation of the village, and he is immediately warned off by the caretaker who explains that "no one stays" inside. This is not because it is forbidden by anyone in particular, but simply because “no one stays.” Woermann immediately picks up on the supernatural hint and is willing to have no part of it . . . even though the walls are covered with nickel crosses (to keep something in as it turns out). The crew sets up camp and no sooner does the first night fall before the trouble commences. Two soldiers think there are silver crosses and pry some loose revealing a huge chasm. In one of the most amazing visuals a “presence” rises from the chasm and attacks one of the soldiers, and we can only see the action from afar. When his companion gets a closer look he discovers that the fellow has been practically obliterated, and shortly thereafter is subjected to the same treatment.

Suspecting that the villagers are engaging in sabotage, military command sends a complement of SS soldiers to wreak havoc and get to the bottom of things. Their ruthless leader Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) immediately clashes with Woermann, who is increasingly convinced that the supernatural is in play. After harsh interrogations Kaempffer learns of a Jewish expert named Cuza (Ian McKellen) who may be able to advise him on the keep. Fortunately Cuza and his daughter are rescued as they are about to be sent to a concentration camp. Since Cuza is stricken by a crippling disease his daughter is allowed to come along as his caretaker. As he stalls for time to plan an escape for his daughter, he encounters the creature at the heart of the keep and is offered a deal with the devil of sorts. Racing to the keep to prevent catastrophe is a mysterious stranger named Glaeken (Scott Glenn) who is prepared for a final battle with the ultimate evil.

The biggest problem with The Keep resides in the fact that it tries to cram a lot of plot and too many characters into a woefully inadequate 90-minutes. The events move along at a breakneck pace, giving one little time to absorb each new development. As a result one has to be open to arriving in the middle of an existing world, and not being let in on much of the necessary details in order to enjoy the film. A recent BFI film study on Star Wars by Will Brooker makes the case the Lucas does the same sort of thing in his original trilogy. Basically the viewer is dropped into a universe with a long-running history, which is never fully explained but referenced continuously. It’s an interesting observation because this tactic is highly effective in creating the wonderful atmosphere of those films. In regards to The Keep viewers will be familiar with the historical context of WWII, but the history of Glaeken and his adversary Rasalom (Michael Carter) are not examined whatsoever. This is a major feature of the book (which is in fact also the first in a trilogy), so there’s little doubt that its absence in the film is not an accident.

With this last point in mind Mann makes an interesting choice that sends the film down a path that is make or break depending on one’s tolerance. Instead of focusing on the primary hero and villain, he chooses to focus (to the extent that there is a focus) on the peripheral characters of the soldiers and the Cuzas. The good news is that Prochnow, McKellen, Byrne and company do a great job within the limited time they are given to make an impression. Real sympathy is generated for the good guys, and the villains are all sufficiently despicable. On the other hand Glaeken and Rasalom are total question marks, as is the motive behind their conflict. All we are told is that Rasalom is evil and wants out, and Glaeken has come to destroy him. To some extent this is enough information I suppose, but let’s look at the Star Wars analogy. Imagine if 15-20 minutes of screen time was given to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, with the rest of the film devoted to the tribulations faced by C-3PO and R2-D2. It would still be cool and groundbreaking in its own way, but you couldn’t help but wonder if there was something missing. For those familiar with the original novel the answer to what is missing is abundantly clear, and to viewers The Keep just winds up being more than a little confusing.

You might be thinking to yourself that it doesn’t sound like I care too much for The Keep given these issues. Honestly the first time I saw it I was a little befuddled. I had seen previews for it and thought it looked mighty cool, so as was customary I pleaded with my parents to take me to see it. In that particular period we still saw about 50% of theatrical releases at the drive-in, and so it was with The Keep. It was on a triple bill with The Dead Zone and Uncommon Valor, and as was also customary I convinced them to stay for all three : ) So in one evening we watched a moody Michael Mann film, a Stephen King/Christopher Walken/David Cronenberg collaboration, and a war movie with RebYor: The Hunter From the FutureBrown. Quite a night. All of these were of high interest to me, but most of all The Keep. However stacked against those other films The Keep was less than thrilling and somewhat of a letdown. It had an interesting looking monster and cool visuals, but it was light on action and lacked a coherent story. What can I say, artsy horror like The Keep had a hard time competing with Stephen King and Reb Brown for my attention as a young teen. It wasn’t until years later that the tide started to turn.

I was browsing in a local bookstore sometime in the early 90’s when I happened across the novel by F. Paul Wilson. Remembering my experience with the film I wondered if perhaps the book would shed any light on what was going on with the fuzzy plot. Boy did it ever! The novel fleshes out all the characters, and gives the much needed background on Glaeken and Rasalom. Wilson even put out a sequels which formed a trilogy depicting the struggle between the two rivals over the ages. It’s a true horror epic. I ended up loving the book and it’s one of few fiction titles that I occasionally revisit now and then. It never fails to creep me out, and the characters and storytelling are outstanding. I enjoyed it so much that it sparked my interest in revisiting the film, hoping that the background from the novel would clarify what was missing during my first viewing. Being somewhat of an A/V die hard I tracked down the widescreen laserdisc for a proper screening (Mann uses the ultra widescreen ratio of 2:35:1, so watching The Keep in pan & scan is entirely unacceptable). Sadly to this day the laserdisc is still the best way to view the film outside of theatrical exhibition, as no DVD, Blu-Ray, or even Itunes release has emerged.

In any case that second viewing was quite a different experience. The same issues still remained, but with the back story in mind things were easier to follow. Furthermore my appreciation of artsy fare had increased substantially, and I was able to embrace Mann’s atmospheric approach to the material. Watching this in a darkened room one starts to feel the dank confines of the castle and the air of hopelessness that dominates the proceedings. While it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Mann had been more faithful to Wilson’s novel (one could easily imagine how this could have been adapted as the trilogy), there’s no question that he succeeded in making one of the most unique horror films of the last 30 years. It stands head and shoulders above most of the slasher fare of the 80’s, and its dreamlike quality provides an experience that few other horror films achieve (e.g. the very best of Argento, Fulci, etc.).

As an interesting aside, despite being a loser at the box office the participants mostly went on to highly successful careers. Mann, Byrne, Prochnow, and McKellen all ended up doing very well. In my mind the real casualty of The Keep is Scott Glenn. Glenn is one of the great actors of that era, and I believe The Keep is largely responsible for halting his ascent to A-list leading man. Prior to that point he had been featured in prominent supporting roles in Personal Best and Urban Cowboy, before finally getting his first lead role in John Frankenheimer’s The Challenge opposite the legendary Toshiro Mifune. That was a pretty amazing film and he followed it up with the equally awesome The Right Stuff. Kind of on a roll there. As a big-budget fantasy release The Keep should have cemented Glenn’s status. Despite the fact that he is the top-billed leading man in the film, he gets about 5 lines of dialogue and 15 minutes of screen time! Pretty unbelievable. Then the film bombs and he’s at the head of the list of participants. It’s not difficult to imagine that he didn’t instantly spring to mind thereafter when folks were seeking to cast big studio films. Glenn did (and still does) reach greatness in supporting roles (e.g. Silence of the Lambs, The Hunt for Red October, Backdraft, etc.), but he never quite made it back to the height of that moment in time. A real shame.

The good news is that The Keep is downright amazing . . . you just have to be willing to accept it on its own terms, rather than expectations of what a traditional horror narrative should be. That may be a bitter pill for fans of the book, but like any adaptation compromises are made. My hope is that one day The Keep finds its way onto a modern home video format so we can have a Fantasmo screening!

On a final note if you become a devotee of The Keep like me you’ll also want to track down the official board game(!) that was released in conjunction with the film, so you can recreate all the thrilling action and scares at home. I blogged about it on a post concerning unlikely movie board games, and it is definitely one of my faves in the lot. If you check out the image of it in the posting you'll notice it's based on "the hit" movie (yeah right). Also cool is the fact that they redid the poster image so that instead of two soldiers running toward the keep, it has the silhouette of Glaeken and Cuza's daughter in the doorway to emphasize the unlikely romantic angle.