D.J. Caruso’s “Disturbia” (2007) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.


Consider yourselves spoiler-warned.

Disturbia is a film that I never thought I’d watch again, yet inexplicably own on DVD. As I recall, I was on a paid internship, had few other expenses or responsibilities, and routinely went to Target and looked for brand new DVDs for films that I hadn’t seen, to purchase at full price (about $22.99 at the time). Silly, silly thing to do – but that’s the sort of weirdo (living with my parents) I was in 2007. I’ll begin this recap by saying, Disturbia is a film which both reminded me intensely of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (more on this below), and yet, managed to do a few innovative things with the formula, and genuinely impressed me at the time. Many aspects of the film have aged poorly, however, and the rest of this review will be a scene-by-scene litany of them.

Right off the bat, it is deeply unnerving to see Shia LaBeouf refer to an someone as “Pop”. He and his father (Matt Craven) share some banter while fly fishing, before the shot surges wide and we see their stand-ins hike out of a stunningly gorgeous valley. It’s lovely, and OH FUCK THEY CRASHED AND HIS DAD IS DEAD and my wife just turned and asked why I would ever watch this movie as Shia is selling the hell out of staring into his father’s dead eyes beneath the crushed hulk of a former Volvo. Seriously, whatever other snark I bring to bear on this film, the acting prowess of its leading man-boy (even as he’s delivering some truly atrocious dialogue) is genuinely beyond reproach. This is the guy who played Mutt Williams the very next year, and I honestly can’t get enough of him. Title card. It goes without saying that in the next scene, Shia will be wearing a hoodie and doing poorly in school. He gets into a serious altercation with his teacher, and ends up in front of a juvenile court judge, who sentences him to an electronic ankle bracelet for 3 months. Also, if I heard correctly, Shia’s on-screen name might actually be Kale? No, that can’t be right.

The top of the next scene is a commercial for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter on the then-new Xbox 360 – an Ubisoft game whose single-player campaign, as I recall, begins with the main character in a helicopter receiving a briefing before – in a shocking and unprecedented twist – the helicopter is shot down, but the main character survives and is forced to shoot his way out of an unexpected firefight. The game doesn’t last long, as his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) has apparently cut his Xbox Live and iTunes subscriptions to finance his incarceration. I should mention, I’m actually rather impressed that the film included the backward real-world detail that a convict under house arrest gets billed (sometimes quite exorbitantly, and by a private company) for their incarceration, precisely when they’re least in a position to be able to earn income to pay for this. This is also true of people out on bail awaiting trial, and people out on parole, and it’s one of the more shameful aspects of our prison system. Ten years ago, I might still have casually made jokes about being sent to a Turkish prison, despite not really understanding the reference. In the same breath, I would also have made jokes about not dropping the soap in an American prison, because rape as a punishment for the largest per-capita incarcerated population in the world was something I still considered funny at the time. I also cringed a bit as the judge tells Shia that he’s cutting him a break (by not sending him to juvie until he’s 21) because his parent died, because this is a break that he’s categorically and statistically more likely to get as a white kid. We only hear about the most egregious cases like Brock Turner or Ethan Couch, but it happens every day in this country – children and adults of color getting harsher sentences for the same crimes compared to their white co-offenders. I don’t joke about American prisons anymore. They’re just not as hilarious as they used to be.

Before too long, Shia (whose character name we finally see in print, and it really is Kale) goes stir crazy and starts building a Twinkie fort. Shia, my dude – I won’t call you Kale, but what did I just say about that single-player campaign, and also do you own any books? Next, in another stunning twist for a mid-2000s teen adventure film, a pretty girl in daisy dukes (Sarah Roemer) moves in next door, and the long shot appears to be framed to ensure two distinct appearances of her posterior and thigh-gap. Her face does not appear in this scene. Shia’s mind is blown as a bag of flaming dog poop is dropped on his doorstep by some neighbor kids, and he seems legitimately confused by the concept. A brief chase ensues, and Shia breaches the monitoring perimeter. He will be in handcuffs at the end of this scene, and only then will the front end of the girl next door be shown. As her family looks on in shock and confusion, she throws Shia an intense stare. She’s SMIZING, my wife remarks. “Smiling with her eyes?” I ask. Yes. This is why we’re together. Indeed, The Girl is throwing the sort of simmering look at Shia that portends the pair’s eventual awkward cinematic lovemaking, but lacks the psychic foresight to watch a similar scene in Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac and instinctively steer clear. If you’re curious what the hell I’m referring to… “3+5 Scene”. YouTube it. Prepare to be intrigued and disturbed. Then go watch the whole thing if you can handle it, because it’s awesome.

Next up, Shia uses a series of pristine lawn implements and fishing line to mark the frontiers of his kingdom. Those tools are going to be rusty as fuck by the end of this movie, and as I recall from my first viewing, this will not be the last time Shia disrespects an expensive piece of metal. Shame. There also appears to be a hedge row three feet past this line, so I’m really not sure what purpose the Line serves. 22 minutes in, we have our first genuine Rear Window moment. After briefly watching The Girl undress, Shia realizes the power of peeping, and aggressively explains it to his buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). “This is reality without the TV,” Shia actually says out loud with his mouth, and makes a few tawdry observations about the soap opera ensuing outside his door. Shia finally meets The Girl, whose name is Ashley, and she comes from The City, and I can already tell by the quality and detail of her dialogue that she will have a great deal to contribute to this narrative. He peeps on her some more later, this time with binoculars, and she seems to know it, since his window is wide open, his lamp is on, and she looks directly at him. “She can’t see you,” says Shia, “it’s too dark.” He’s wrong. There’s also an aggressively specific news report blaring in the background about a missing woman who may have been snatched by a man driving a classic car with dents on the front left fender, but that’s probably not important. He then sees his Murder-Neighbor (David Morse) pulling that exact car with that exact damage into his driveway after unloading a couple of garbage bags, each roughly the size of a human torso. Probably also not important.

The next morning, he peers through the fence and sees Murder-Neighbor (whose name is Robert Turner) murder a garden bunny, and I don’t want to dismiss this scene out of hand, as it’s emblematic of this film’s legitimately clever visual use of their suburban landscape. Rear Window took place facing what was essentially a two-dimensional apartment block – really just a vast cinema screen divided into different scenes playing out en masse, with Jimmy Stewart free to peer between them. In this film, Shia is in a house with a preternaturally awesome view of every house around it, and he not only has to run around his room and house and yard to get a proper view of everything that’s going on. The film is forced to create some elaborate visual setups in order to make all of this work, and I can scarcely imagine how difficult it was to find (or build) a housing complex that fulfilled all of these requirements. For all of the film’s superficial Hitchcockian touches, it still manages to innovate on its own terms. The bunny-murder scene is one such moment, and it turns out the three-foot gap between the monitoring boundary and the hedge row/fence forces Shia to lie on his belly and peer through a tiny gap in a fence in order to both gather information and keep his foot within his kingdom. We see his POV through the camera, and it’s quite a tense scene.

Shia and Ronnie peep on Ashley some more. Her sole outdoor activity seems to be sultry undressing – she even stands next to the pool in a bikini for an awkwardly long time and tests the water, as if expecting it to have changed substantially since she swam in it yesterday. Then she catches them, gets dressed in a matter of seconds, and comes over to confront them. And by confront, I mean hang out with. A brief, murderous exposition dump later, she has joined the Scooby Gang, which dumps out a bag of unspecified stakeout gear (“My uncle is a Type A Sociopath,” explains Ronnie), and they continue their surveillance of Murder-Neighbor. The camera pans past Ashley, who’s twirling a pen and also typing at a computer. She clicks multiple times while scrolling (which is just bad mime), then gets hungry from all the googling, and suggests they order pizza. Ronnie falls asleep holding hands with the pizza, leaving the lovebirds to Connect. Ashley changes Shia’s ringtone to something loud, obnoxious, and vaguely sexual (like all the 2007 kids were doing), and in a manner which I’m sure won’t be important later. She draws little hearts on his ankle bracelet, and he breathes heavily as she explains that her family moved out of the city because of her father’s extramarital dalliances. “City life has its temptations,” Ashley explains, because she’s a badly written noir floozy and not a person. Poor thing. At some point during this scene, Shia says the title of the movie aloud.

Suddenly, some brakes squeal next door, and Murder-Neighbor brings home a badly written floozy of his own. Ashley successfully identifies the woman’s club bracelets (making her first definite contribution to the plot), and they watch him start an awkward sexual encounter and are actually pretty mean about it, before it gets aggressive and creepy later. The next morning, Shia is making a bagel and cream cheese with a red-handled butcher knife. He shuts the fridge, and Murder-Neighbor is standing right behind it. Turns out he ran into Julie at the grocery store, and she seems a bit taken with him, even as neither of them are reacting naturally to Shia’s brandishing of a butcher knife.

“It’s a knife, what’s the difference?”, asks Shia.
“About sixty bucks at Bed Bath,” schmoozes Murder-Neighbor.

I’m going to talk briefly about David Morse in this film, because I actually quite like his acting, but I think the film couldn’t quite make up its mind as to Robert Turner’s motivation or strategy. The character is a serial killer – the Scooby Gang has him pegged correctly on that point. And Morse manages to play up that superficial, predatory charm quite well. But it’s genuinely unclear what the character is trying to accomplish from scene to scene. When Ashley is surveilling him later on at the hardware store, he hops into her car and gives her a talking-to about how much he likes his privacy, and how he’d really appreciate it if they left him alone. And for a man looking to maintain his cover and keep on murdering, the scene works great. But he also hits on her (a twenty-something playing a 17-year-old), which seems like an excellent way to keep them watching him. This will continue to be a problem throughout the rest of the film – the wild inconsistency in Murder-Neighbor’s strategy, skill, and personality. Morse does the best he can with this material (and he’s really quite an effective creep), but it’s a serious flaw in the script, even if I’m totally on his side about the butcher knife.

About an hour into the film is its very worst scene, in which it poorly attempts to continue the love story of Shia and Ashley. Ashley wants to throw a party, which Shia will be unable to attend because of his ankle bracelet. Quel dommage! Shia responds most immaturely, insulting her motives and taste in friends, then saying that she has disappointed him by being the type to conform so fast. This scene made me squirm internally, because I definitely said things that were this selfish, stupid, and condescending to girls I liked at that age. But that’s not what makes this the film’s worst scene – that’s Shia’s continuing surveillance of the party, and his possessive, jealous behavior which includes a merry prank of pointing his stereo speakers out the window and playing some obnoxious music to mess up the party next door. Ashley, rather than calling the police, storms over, and after a brief struggle over his iPod and stereo receiver, Shia tells her to wait a minute and then explains exactly why he Loves Her So Much. What ensues is a litany of thinly justified character observations he’s made by creeping on her with binoculars in her bedroom. You can read the whole damn nonsensical thing here, and it’s honestly one of the worst romantic speeches I’ve ever heard.

“That’s either the creepiest… or the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” says the girl. Literally one minute later, the party has ended, several hours have passed, and the newly merged entity known as Shiashley is furiously making out. And, I swear, Shia drops this sultry line between kisses: “Remember last night where we talked about my issues?” Meanwhile, next door, Robert drags a bloody tarp with “dead body” written on the side down some stairs, and this somehow causes the couple to peel apart and surveil him some more. And it is at roughly this point that I lost interest in painstakingly recapping the film, because honestly, it turns into a conventional slasher film from this point onward. With the exception of some poorly rendered Blair Witchery with Ronnie breaking into Murder-Neighbor’s house with a jury-rigged wireless camcorder (a pretty impressive feat of homebrew engineering in 2007), all that’s left of the film at this point is some shadows and musical jumps and hand-to-hand combat, followed by Shia stabbing the neighbor to death with a pair of garden shears to save his mother’s life. The whole sequence compounds the film’s inability to deal with Morse’s character in a consistent fashion. Where’s the urgency? All of the adults are on his side, and Shia’s about to have to go face a judge in the morning. There’s simply no reason for him to suddenly turn violent and attack all of his neighbors at once – particularly Julie, who is coming over to apologize on her son’s behalf. These violent thriller elements are seemingly less motivated by any imminent need for Murder-Neighbor to blow his cover and leave a pile of bodies in his wake, but rather by the film’s sudden need for an unearned climax and resolution. And it gets genuinely comical by the end! All of the basements of their houses are connected somehow (this is very briefly discussed earlier in the film), and the final showdown takes place in actual fucking catacombs. It’s bizarre. And feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

When I first watched this film, I was reviewing movies for the website of UW’s Rainy Dawg Radio, which I’m pleased to see still exists. I launched FilmWonk two years later, and I like to think that both my writing style and film standards have evolved since then. My tolerance for contrived romance (and disposable, useless female characters) has decreased, even as my tolerance for contrived action has remained about the same, and I’m still able to laugh about taboo subjects even if I’m a bit more aware of the implications. I’m sure that evolution will continue as I continue into middle age, but the most steady tendency that I’ve noticed in the intervening years is that I’m much less concerned with a film presenting a completely original plot – a rare thing – than I am with how well it puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Disturbia may bear a superficial resemblance to Rear Window, but that’s a premise that I can only imagine has become more relevant in an age of social media and mass surveillance (only the first of which we were aware of in 2007). If Disturbia had executed its character and thriller elements with a more consistent level of quality, I think it would be a much more memorable and relevant film today than it turned out to be. But if someone else wants to take another crack at it after ten more years, I’m in.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #5: Adam Green’s “Frozen”

Poster for "Frozen"

First we met the Devil, then we got Buried, and now, in the latest installment of this inadvertent “One-Word, One-Room” marathon, Glenn and Daniel pull on their ski boots and review Frozen, a horror film new on DVD and Blu-ray from writer/director Adam Green, starring Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, and Kevin Zegers. (19:59)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is a little cheeky.
  • Shawn Ashmore, who plays Joe Lynch, also played Bobby “Iceman” Drake in the X-Men films. There’s an awful joke in there somewhere, but it must’ve slipped our minds…
  • Stick around at the end for a blooper!

Listen above, or download: Frozen (right-click, save as)

FilmWonk Podcast: Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” – Thank heaven for little girls

Poster for "Kick-Ass".

In this episode of the FilmWonk podcast, Glenn and Daniel review Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”, starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Mark Strong. [may contain some NSFW language]

Part 1 (spoiler-free) – 14:32

Part 2 (with spoilers) – 16:39

FilmWonk (Glenn) rating: 8 out of 10
Daniel’s rating: 5 out of 10

    Show notes:

  • This episode was actually our first, which was recorded prior to our Expendables episode from last week, so I make some introductions and acknowledgments to that effect.
  • The “trusted lieutenant” whose performance I enjoyed was “Big Joe”, played by Michael Rispoli.
  • During the spoilers section, we had a minor recording glitch, and I had to reinsert the section in which we discuss Red Mist. So if the edit sounds a little awkward, sorry about that.
  • I badmouthed Michael Cera a bit… Let’s just say, I hadn’t seen Scott Pilgrim yet.
  • Correction [SPOILER]: During the spoilers section, we discuss a particular character having seen Hit-Girl kill a bunch of mobsters on video. The video in question actually shows Big Daddy killing the mobsters.
  • FilmWonk would like to thank David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley from the /Filmcast, the official podcast of slashfilm.com, for the thousands of hours of entertainment and insightful film criticism, and random asides about theater etiquette. Cheers, fellas. You inspire me.

Listen above, or download Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as)

Yôjirô Takita’s “Departures” – The ritual of mortality

Poster for "Departures".

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, Yôjirô Takita’s Departures. The film stars Masahiro Motoki as Daigo, a Tokyo cellist who finds himself out of a job after his orchestra is disbanded, and is forced to move back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He reluctantly takes a job as an encoffiner, performing a series of delicate ceremonies to prepare a recently deceased body and place it in a coffin before the family. He initially acts as an assistant, gradually learning the trade from his boss, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki).

The film initially seems to rely on a knowledge of Japanese culture, attitudes, and rituals surrounding death, and it quickly becomes evident that Daigo’s employment, while financially lucrative, is not considered remotely respectable in society. He keeps the job a secret from his wife, and is subject to constant shame by the townspeople. In the first act, the film strangely takes on the air of a quaint little after-school special. As I took stock of this seemingly contrived intolerance from my cynical American perspective, my reaction was pretty dismissive: Wow, those Japanese sure are uptight about death.

If that’s all Departures had been, my [borderline offensive] reaction would have likely remained unchanged, and I may have found the film to be a waste of time. In fact, this film – with its 131-minute runtime, ponderous themes of life and death, and frankly masturbatory poster shot (above) – seems to fit the exact formula for a film that’s likely to be seen by no one. But in spite of my initial reaction, I found myself completely drawn in by it. As the film goes on, it proves itself an adept and thoughtful exploration of the ritual of mortality, driven by some very strong performances.

We see many “prepping the dead” scenes performed in front of the families of the deceased – each one almost plays out like a short film, and the first has several unexpected comedic beats that aptly set up the tone of the film. For a film about death and mortality, Departures turns out to be surprisingly light viewing. And while showing the entirety of each death ritual for several minutes at a time may have dragged out the film, I found it to be a brave and surprisingly effective choice. Joe Hisaishi’s score is particularly striking throughout the film (and in these scenes in particular). There are a number of sequences in which the film cuts back and forth between Daigo prepping a body and playing his cello – even prodding the fourth wall a bit as the score syncs up to accompany him. It’s a shameless and slightly jarring trick, but the illusion never quite breaks, and the film’s none-too-subtle parallels between playing the cello and prepping a dead body are aptly conveyed.

It certainly helps that Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. We get the sense that Daigo’s hometown of Sakata is meant to be a bit of a dive, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenery. As Daigo preposterously plays his cello outdoors in the winter cold (a feat that would probably crack it down the middle in real life), I just couldn’t stop marveling at the wondrous backdrops and taking in the rich, flowing orchestral beats.

But as the film went on, I was struck the most by the beauty and dignity of the death rituals, and chastised myself a bit for the “after-school special” vibe with which I cast the film initially. Are the Japanese uptight about death? Certainly. But we all are, even if American culture handles it with slightly different ritualistic trappings. Daigo and Ikuei may not be well-respected, but the film effectively conveys the nobility of their profession.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Mild spoilers will follow.
I wish I could end my review here, but the fact is, Departures takes a 15-minute detour at the end that I found completely jarring and unnecessary. Much of the film’s conflict stems from Mika’s disapproval of Daigo’s profession, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that she eventually changes this opinion. While the character transformation is fairly standard, it is Ryoko Hirosue’s performance that made me completely buy it. She starts off as a devoted and loving wife – visibly bothered by their new living situation, but staying supportive. As the film goes on, the character could easily have turned shrewy, but Hirosue keeps her completely sympathetic, and her chemistry with Motoki is impressive. And then, not two minutes after that conflict is entirely and satisfactorily resolved (in front of another needlessly gorgeous outdoor backdrop)…

Someone else dies. And no, it’s not who you think, because this fresh corpse has not been around for any part of the film. We’re treated to a shocking revelation about a secondary character that comes completely out of left field, and the ensuing plotline completely abandons and undermines the well-established surrogate father/son relationship between Daigo and Ikuei (and aided by their masterful performances). The first two hours of this film felt like a complete story, but this denouement sent it completely off the rails. Much like this review, Departures would have been better off ending just a little sooner.

Uwe Boll’s “Rampage” – I never thought I’d review this

Poster for "Rampage"

The film: Postal.
The scene: A large public square.
A small-town crowd gathers before a dais holding several local celebrities and media. The film’s director, Uwe Boll, is interviewed on camera about the rumors that his films are funded by Nazi gold (which he happily confirms). Verne Troyer (best known as Mini-Me from Austin Powers) sits in a wooden high-chair and introduces the town’s latest toy sensation, the Krotchy doll. A mascot-sized version of this doll – basically a huge, anthropomorphic dick – stands proudly on the stage nearby. A paunchy man dressed as Hitler barks into a microphone that terrorists are coming. A fight breaks out between the dick-man and Boll. Several Arab stereotypes rappel down the side of an adjacent building and start firing indiscriminately into the crowd. The cops, terrorists, Nazis, dick-man, Boll, and a nearby barista all pull out guns and start shooting each other. A man in a motorized wheelchair is graphically wounded and starts rotating uncontrollably. Boll personally shoots three small children (including a happy boy holding a lollipop), and we see several lingering shots of their slow-motion blood-splatter. The director catches a bullet to the crotch, and manages to squeak out one last line before collapsing: “I hate video games…”

Thus spake Uwe Boll, that prolific and panned writer/director of an untold number of video game adaptations. I can assure you, dear reader, the scene above is not an aberration – of the three Boll films I’ve seen, not a single moment strayed from the nonsensical, immature, and patently offensive formula you see above.

Until now.

His latest outing, Rampage, is not an adaptation of a video game, but rather a story of a young man (Brendan Fletcher) who becomes dissatisfied with his life and the society he lives in, and decides to go on a killing spree. Now, please brace yourself, because my shocking admission is this – the first act of Rampage reminded me rather favorably of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Like that film (which was a loose dramatization of the Columbine shootings), Boll prefaces his explosive finale with an impressive degree of character development. While he proceeds with a fraction of Van Sant’s subtlety or narrative coherence, he still manages to effectively convey the important points about the young, disturbed man who is Bill Williamson. He hates his life. He hates his parents. He hates America, global warming, and the Iraq War. He hates the barista who made him a piss-poor macchiato. These scenes are intercut with Williamson’s video manifesto, in which explains his various beefs with America (using the same half-dozen lines of nihilistic claptrap repeated over and over). Fletcher’s performance isn’t demanding or spectacular, but it’s effectively chilling, and gives some surprising depth to the character. While this act could have used some improved editing, I can’t argue with its effectiveness, and it showed some remarkable restraint on the part of the writer/director.

Still from "Rampage"

And then the “fun” begins. Bill drives a remote-controlled van into a police station and detonates a massive bomb (which conveniently displays “GAME OVER” to the approaching cops before vaporizing them). The ensuing CGI explosion looks like something out of Independence Day, complete with the classic rear-view mirror shot as Bill peels out to avoid the massive, car-tossing fireball. He dons a glorious suit of Kevlar, pulls a pair of never-ending submachine guns, and proceeds with an epic and sadistic killing spree. Bill Williamson is the man with the plan, demonstrating ingenuity and invulnerability worthy of Jack Bauer, but for no grand purpose apart from mass murder. Perhaps it’s my massive exposure to cinematic violence speaking, but Boll actually manages to make this heinous assault on innocent life seem…cool.

And that’s how uncomfortable Rampage is. The film glamorizes violence in a way that’s really no worse than stylistic bloodbaths like Bad Boys 2, but proceeds with a disturbing level of sadism and nihilistic fervor. The film applies the logic of the “torture porn” genre to a gleeful shooting spree, rendering the audience partially complicit in the horrors to which they’re choosing to subject themselves. The juxtaposition of these themes with Boll’s over-the-top action direction is surprisingly effective. And in a sequence that could just be nonstop, mindless shooting, Boll manages to craft some remarkable moments of tension (a scene in which Bill quietly enters a crowded bingo hall was far more terrifying than any of the moments in which he just stormed into a building shooting).

The film’s ending is laughable and thematically dubious, and much of the acting and improvised dialogue was downright awful. But this was a tense and riveting film – I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, despite wanting to at several points. Is it a good film? Very nearly. And it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen from Boll.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Jerome Bixby’s “The Man From Earth” – A brilliant and audacious journey

Poster for "The Man From Earth"

Produced in 2007 from a screenplay finished on the writer’s deathbed, Jerome Bixby’s sci-fi opus The Man From Earth feels more like a play than a film. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) announces to his colleagues and friends that he’ll be moving on, but makes a surprise confession – he is immortal, and has lived for the past 14,000 years. The rest of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room, following the threads of the group’s conversation. And in a very theatrical touch, the assembled group of academics are perfectly suited to test his story. There’s Harry – a biologist (John Billingsley), Dan – an anthropologist (Tony Todd), Sandy – a historian (Annika Peterson), Art – an archaeologist (William Katt), and Edith (Ellen Crawford), a devout Christian with an unnamed specialty. As John’s story goes on, they are joined (quite expectedly) by Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), a psychologist.

I mention the character names, but these aren’t really characters anyway. They’re just filters through which the audience can analyze this man’s fantastical tale. There is even a student (Alexis Thorpe) present to ask a few simplistic questions so the professors can explain details that the group would already know. And even when the story strives for more dramatic and theatrical character moments (a confession of love, a surprise death threat, and so on), the situation never quite feels plausible, as these moments only serve to provoke new dimensions to John’s story.

But as I mention these character and narrative shortcomings, I must also say this – not a single one of them detracts from the film. David Lee Smith gives a remarkably subdued performance as John Oldman (one of many pun names he claims to have chosen over the years), the wise, humble, and pragmatic old soul. He reminded me somewhat of Doctor Who, but he feels far more authentic and human, because the film so excels at depicting the limitations of his purportedly vast knowledge and experience.

As they quiz him for every detail of the last 14,000 years, he points out that he doesn’t remember every detail any more than we can remember every moment of our childhoods. As he produces details of history, anthropology, and social and scientific advancement, they rightfully point out that he could have gleaned any of them from a textbook. But as one professor admits, it is no more possible for John to prove his story than it is for any of them to disprove it. And so the conversation goes on. He talks of love, friendship, life, and death – the one subject of which he has no more knowledge than anyone else. The film goes on to raise some startling religious themes, to the chagrin of Edith, the devout Christian… The ensuing theological discussion is easily the most provocative aspect of this film, and is quite well realized.

I don’t have much to say about the other performances, since there weren’t any other particularly strong characters. But even as a collection of variable filters for John’s conversation, the acting was solid overall. Todd, Crawford, and Riehle were superb, and Billingsley was enjoyable, albeit playing to familiar quirky territory. Annika Peterson does the best she can with some of the more contrived character moments, although her unlikely conversation with John about the nature of love is a surprisingly effective addition to the film. Katt and Thorpe don’t contribute much as skeptic and simpleton respectively, but I don’t really fault their performances, as they aren’t given much to do in the film (except make the audience wonder why a fifty-something doppelganger of James Cameron is permitted to date one of his students).

Jerome Bixby was a writer for the original “Star Trek” series, and it definitely shows here. The film’s end features Tony Todd announcing he’ll go home and “watch some ‘Star Trek’ for a little sanity”, and while it was a mildly self-indulgent reference, it does bring to mind a key difference between the two works. “Star Trek”, with its niche audience, was quite free to explore the big sci-fi ideas via alien allegory, since no one was too worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of the Tholian Empire. The Man From Earth takes on a far more daunting task – to deconstruct human history, values, and beliefs in a manner as shocking as it is insightful, and keep the audience adequately engaged to stop them squirming in their seats and fleeing the room. And it completely succeeds.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule” – Presque perdu dans la traduction*

ridicule_poster
*Almost lost in translation.

Films about pre-revolutionary France tend to share a kind of sadistic fatalism. They present a picture of boorish aristocrats too consumed in their own petty affairs to see the opposition and hatred fomenting beneath them. They’re tragic characters, but in some sense, they deserve whatever they get.

Patrice Leconte’s Academy Award nominated 1996 film Ridicule is no exception.

In the court of Louis XVI, wealth and status rule the day, but the real king is belle esprit – literally, “beautiful mind”. Belle esprit is what the aristocrats call a sharp, biting wit. They craft a perfectly brutal and entirely zero-sum situation in which the only way to advance one’s status in the court is to publicly and brilliantly humiliate another (and avoid being ridiculed oneself).

Entering the fray is Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a small-time nobleman from the Dombes province who seeks the support of the king to rid his country of the horrible swamps that kill the majority of his peasants via mosquito-borne illnesses. He meets the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an aged aristocrat whose wits are no longer sharp enough to compete in court. The Marquis takes Malavoy under his wing, teaching him the use of repartée, word games, rhyming epigrams, and other clever bits of malevolent wordplay that will bring him ever-closer to an audience with the king.

But never puns, warns the Marquis. Puns are the “death of wit”. And never laugh at your own jokes.

Malavoy takes to these rules famously, despite conflicting strategic and romantic interests in the gorgeous and cunning courtesan widow, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), and the Marquis de Bellegarde’s breathtaking and scientifically-minded daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche). He also faces opposition by Madame de Blayac’s current companion, the Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau). While the film’s hollowly-crafted love triangle is made a good deal more convincing by marvelous performances on the part of the three leads, this film’s effectiveness is made entirely by the brilliantly crafted court dialogue.

Rémi Waterhouse’s script shines in these scenes. If Aaron Sorkin wrote about old-world aristocratic politics, this is almost certainly what it would sound like. However, the film strikes a somewhat bizarre tone. It revels in the cruelty of these scenes in a fashion that is almost darkly comedic, but also feels the need to impress upon us how deeply misguided and out-of-touch these people are.

The court scenes also contain such precise and esoteric language that they raise an unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable issue that comes when bringing a film to a new language – inaccurate translation. At times, the English subtitles accurately conveyed the language, and at times they were adjusted as the scene required, such as a scene in which the characters are rhyming. However, the language would occasionally be oversimplified in a way that seemingly contributed nothing to the scene, and in some cases, completely changed the meaning of the original line.

A few examples…

French line English subtitle Actual translation
Votre place n’est pas ici. We don’t belong here. Your place is not here.
Il est moins bête qu’il semble. He’s smarter than he looks He is less dumb than he seems.
Nous sommes de la même espèce. You and I are alike. We’re of the same species.
Il ne faut pas sacrifier tout à nos destins. Our plans come first. Do not sacrifice all for our destinies.
On voyait un diable devant la croix? Have you seen a ghost? Did you see a devil before the cross?

There was an outcry back in March of this year when Magnolia Pictures mangled the subtitles of Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant Swedish vampire coming-of-age film, Let the Right One In. Having seen (and loved) the theatrical version, I promptly returned my copy of this film to Amazon when I heard the news about the faulty subtitles. It’s always a tough balancing act when deciding how to watch a film in a language you don’t know (or even a language I do know, in the case of Ridicule). If you choose the dubbed version, you get a caliber of acting typically reserved for cereal commercials, but at least you don’t have to read any subtitles. If you choose the original version, the acting is better, but you still have to contend with lazy translation. Some films, such as those of popular animators like Hiyao Miyazaki, receive solid translations and dubs with real actors. Just have to take what you can get, I suppose.

But I digress.

Ridicule is a solid film, competently shot, and feels visually authentic (with the period backdrops and costumes). It’s probably more enjoyable if you know a bit of French, but the acerbic wit and incisive jabs are delivered well enough to transcend the language barrier.

Details about Ridicule‘s ending will follow.

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Like the court scenes, the film’s ending is tonally bizarre. It introduces a duel with a character that had not appeared in any prior scene, and seems to serve only to give Malavoy some minor triumph, or at least demonstrate his hypocritically selective pride. The love story is ended in a more satisfying manner, owing largely to Mathilde’s quite believable transformation (and Judith Godrèche’s brilliant performance), but the central conflict between Malavoy and Vilecourt is not resolved in any conventional sense. Vilecourt’s antagonism is compelling, but Malavoy only ever wins a few minor skirmishes. Vilecourt’s largely self-inflicted downfall seems to suggest that in such foul and petty company, it is quite possible to be too clever for one’s own good. Or perhaps, even more simply, the longer you spend in this court, the more likely you are to pass out of favor like last year’s fashions.

Ultimately, the characters’ machinations count for very little. And given the proximity of the film’s timeframe to the Reign of Terror, it’s probably better for Malavoy that he finds himself digging through the muck alongside his peasants in the end. Any success at court would’ve gained him, at best, a half-dug canal, and at worst, a guillotine blade to the back of the neck.

But at least he met a nice young lady for his troubles.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10