Sunday, February 1, 2009

Movie Roundup

In the last few months I've been very impressed by two psychological thrillers, each very different from the other but both quite excellent in their attention to character. Psychological thrillers used to rely on psychology to thrill us, but the James Wan generation of directors abuse the word "psychological" just as a way to put cardboard-cutout characters into bizarre and improbable situations. I love a good cinematic mindfuck as much as the next person, but if you don't have any insight into the minds on screen getting fucked, it all seems kind of pointless and contorted in the end. (This is the way a vocal minority felt about The Usual Suspects, although I loved it.)

2008's Transsiberian, written and directed by Brad Anderson and starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer among others, is set on the cross-continental railroad of the same name, and involves heroin traffickers, marital secrets, guilt, and Ben Kingsley with a kick-ass Russian accent. 3.5 out of 4 stars from Ebert, for those who care what he thinks.

2006's Bug, adapted from some play but directed on the screen by William Friedkin, starring Ashley Judd (!) and some dude I'd never heard of named Michael Shannon, was absolutely amazing. Just a vicious, devilish, perverse, but always believable ride. I haven't often been truly frightened or horrified by a movie, but this one did it. And there's very little violence (although what little there is disturbs). Also 3.5 out of 4 stars from Ebert.

Also, I had the opportunity to see The Golden Compass on pay-per-view. This was the so-called "atheist movie" that had the characteristically open-minded and well-informed Catholics up in arms. Not surprisingly, the fans of the British series of books on which the film was based were upset that not enough of author Philip Pullman's atheist message survived the translation from page to screen.

From my point of view, I thought the film was ideologically heavy-handed, but along much more environmental lines than atheistic ones. No explicit mention is ever made of God or belief or anything else, and the metaphorical attempt to depict mankind's better nature as a physical substance -- the mysterious Dust -- seemed less like a shot at God than a shot at people who don't believe global warming is real.

The large, oppressive bureaucratic villain -- the Magisterium -- presumably was a stand-in for the Catholic Church in the books, but in the film seems like a reasonable representative of multinational oil companies. When Daniel Craig ruffles the Magisterium's feathers early in the film by presenting concrete proof of Dust's existence, I took that as a metaphor for the eventual day of reckoning in which even the staunchest climate-change denier is confronted with irrefutable proof of anthropocentric global warming.

That, plus the fact that half the film takes place in the Arctic, with Scottish-brogued CGI polar bears in armor (don't ask) playing out the intrigues of their own moribund ursine kingdom, just left me with a very "environmentaly" vibe.

I'm tempted to read the books, but it takes a lot to get me to read fiction lately. We'll see. Ebert gave the movie 4 out of 4 stars, which seems a tad generous to me; 3 seems more reasonable. I also found it interesting that, while some saw The Golden Compass as the ideological antidote to the first installment of the Narnia Chronicles (with its thinly veiled retelling of the Christ story), both films essentially fetishize youthful innocence at the expense of adulthood, knowledge, and experience, which apparently Philip Pullman found very irritating and was one of the precise things his books were trying to stamp out.

Those damn atheists are never happy.

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