Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Sad Story of a Man and His Butt

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Once upon a time, there was a talented young director from the Philly suburbs named Manoj Nellyattu Shyamalan -- but he called himself M. Night Shyamalan, because Night is a badass middle name. Back in the late 90s, nobody had ever really heard of him. Then he made his first movie, The Sixth Sense, and then everybody was talking about him. For good reason, too, because The Sixth Sense is an awesome movie. I'd say it's sometimes brilliant, in fact. It popularized a particular twist to the point where you expect it at the end of any movie that features a ghost in any way, and I won't give it away here in case you're one of the two or three humans in America for whom it has not already been spoiled, either by references in other movies, in magazines, or by that guy who tells you the end of every movie ever. It also popularized twists in general, for better or worse.

The Sixth Sense was the movie that convinced me that Bruce Willis could act. I'd seen him in Die Hard, of course, and Hudson Hawk, and some other action movies I forget, but this was the first time I'd ever seen him in such an understated role. Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who, after recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound at the hands of a former patient (Donnie Whalberg, a one-scene wonder here), finds himself estranged from his wife and hanging his future on the shoulders of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled boy who has his share of secrets. Crowe asks Cole what he wants from their time together -- and Cole tells him it's not what he wants, but what he doesn't want.

Cole's working-class mother (an excellent Toni Collette) loves him with fierce determination, but she's struggling with Cole's secrecy and his troubles at school. He's bullied constantly, he's getting in trouble for drawing disturbing and violent images during art class and even his teachers are scared of him. Mysterious lesions show up on Cole's arms, leading child services to suspect his mother of abuse, and he won't tell her who's hurting him. It's a very adult sort of fear, and Collette portrays it exceptionally well.

Crowe nearly abandons Cole when the boy tells him what's really happening. Cole is plagued by ghosts. He sees them at his high school, which used to be a courthouse where people were executed. He sees them in his house, where they scare him in the middle of the night. The dead don't realize they're dead -- and it's this which leads Crowe to help Cole come to terms with his power, rather than search for some way to get rid of it.

It's a great movie. Parts of it are just terrifying. It's one of those movies that probably seems less great if you didn't see it around the turn of the millennium, because after that, dozens of movies aped its style, parodied its most well-known line ad nauseum and borrowed its final twist over and over until it's a surprise when you see a ghost movie where it doesn't happen. It's also, as far as I know, the only horror movie that -- well, let's be honest, a horror movie will never sweep the Oscars because the Academy doesn't really care how good a movie is, but it got several nominations, which is pretty much unheard of. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress for Toni Collette, Best Supporting Actor for Cole (who's really the protagonist of the film, and Osment does a fantastic job)...obviously, it didn't win anything, and I doubt anyone expected it to, but it was a breakout for our friend Manoj.

He followed that up with another good one, 2000's Unbreakable, which also stars Bruce Willis and is also on Netflix. It was a surprising take on a genre -- comics and superheroes -- that was, at the time, obscure; remember, this was well before Iron Man busted open the doors in 2008, paved the way for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made reading comics and watching movies based on them acceptable for adults and those outside of the rather isolationist bastion of nerd culture. Then an odd thing happened, and poor Manoj began his fall from grace.

Signs, his third movie, was suspenseful and mostly pretty damn good -- but then that ending happened. Cut the last five minutes out of Signs, end it where the daughter goes upstairs, and you have a great ending that leaves the situation ambiguous. But Manoj didn't do that. It went the same way with his next movie, The Village, which I also really like, and which is also on Netflix. This one needs a scalpel taken to about ten minutes of its footage, and it's interspersed throughout, so it's kind of hard to carve this one up into something as compelling as Manoj's earlier movies. It might be the only movie where I actually stood up and yelled "FUCK YOU!" at the screen at one point. Sometime I'll have to make a viewers' guide to The Village that tells you where to fast-forward.

My sister and I decided something unfortunate had happened to Manoj, who we kind of thought of as a director who was one of us, someone to aspire to, as someone who started out making short horror movies and hit it big -- and it was cool seeing movies set in nearby Philadelphia and Bucks County. Manoj was still a talented guy, of course, but sometime between Unbreakable and Signs, his butt started talking to him. It started suggesting stuff that might work in his movies, and when he made Signs, his butt said "Hey! Manoj, let me direct the last five minutes of this thing, it'll be killer!" I wish he'd said no, but he didn't, and his butt went on to direct several scenes in The Village.

By the time Lady in the Water came out, and it was clear that Manoj's butt was doing most of the heavy lifting by that point. Like Hitchcock, he always had a little cameo in his movies. He was a doctor in The Sixth Sense, a drug dealer in Unbreakable, and so on. In Lady in the Water, he played a writer who was going to bring about a new age of world peace, and was the focus of the last quarter of the movie or so, as he's the one everyone's supposed to be protecting. Then he made The Happening (or, as it's known among my family and circle of friends, Mark Wahlberg Is The Haps), and I don't know what the happening is, exactly, but I assume it's this thing, which certainly did happen in this movie:

Then he made the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the best cartoons ever made and almost certainly one of the worst movies. For the last few years, studios have done this weird thing where they let him produce but not direct, or they let him direct but go out of their way to avoid putting his name on the movie, as if they can't decide if they want to coast on the reputation of his early films or if his later work is such an embarrassment that it's best to just keep his name out of it. Anyway, it's clear that Manoj's butt was given such editorial power over its owner that it grew large enough to eat him somehow, and it's currently all that's left of Manoj. Just a walking butt behind a camera. I don't know how it manages to write anything with just cheeks instead of hands, but "not very well" would certainly be one answer.

What is the moral of this sad tale? I don't know. "Don't listen to your butt when it wants to help you write a screenplay," maybe. I'd say it's more likely as simple as "Don't buy into your own hype." Writers hate their own work, and maybe there's a reason for that.

Maybe that's the moral, the bedtime story screenwriters tell their kids:

When someone tells you you're the next Hitchcock, don't fucking listen to them. You might end up like M. Night Shyamalan.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ladies' Night

There's this persistent thing in American society that I almost thought was basically gone for good when I overheard some people talking at work, and then later at Barnes & Noble, the same thing, and I wondered if this is really what people in general believe. You know, the old preconception that girls and women, with their overemotional ladybrains and their cooties and whatnot, are genuinely scared of horror movies and don't like them. That they are "a guy thing," along with video games, sports, comics and a bunch of other things that are not actually "guy things," whatever that even means. Well, I thought, that's obviously a load of horseshit. Who actually thinks this anymore? Do they wear letterman jackets and drive red convertibles on their way to the malt shop or something? Gee whiz, I dunno.

Anyway, my sister and I have been watching horror movies since we were bipedal. And two of the three most interesting horror movies I've seen in the last five years or so were written and directed by women. Luckily, both of them are available on Netflix, so I figured I'd do a double feature in the vain hope that one or two people who continue to beat that particular dead horse might reconsider their position and discover some of the best independent horror films around while they're at it.

(If you're wondering what the third one is, it's David Robert Mitchell's low-budget retro horror movie It Follows, which is completely terrifying and is well worth watching. It's still in theaters.)

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook will scare the crap out of you. Maybe not as much as you think it would while you're actually watching it, but it will stick with you for a long time afterward, making you jump at shadows and cross the street to avoid that gnarled tree that looks just a bit like a man in a long coat with his arms outstretched....

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is an Australian horror film that was produced for well under $3 million (for perspective, Think Like a Man Too cost about $25 million) and backed in large part by Kickstarter. It's about a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis, who you might recognize as Phryne Fisher from the mystery series Miss Phryne's Murder Mysteries) who lives with her young son Sam in a dark, creaking, gloomy suburban house. Sam is getting in trouble at school as a result of his habit of crafting surprisingly effective weapons from stuff he finds around the house. He's terrified of monsters in his closet and under his bed, and Amelia is fraying at the edges as a result of Sam's behavior.

I did the same thing for a while after I watched this.

One night, Sam finds a new book on his shelf, a pop-up book called "Mister Babadook." Mister Babadook is a friendly monster who wears a funny disguise. He knocks on your door at night and once you let him in, you'll never sleep again. Sounds fun! Sam becomes obsessed with the idea that Mister Babadook is hiding under his bed, and Amelia begins to suspect something sinister is going on when she tears the book apart -- and it shows up on her doorstep again the next day with new pages added. She finds glass in her soup. A visit from social services coincides with a sudden roach infestation. Finally the storybook monster itself manifests in a terrifying fashion, and the dynamic between mother and son is suddenly reversed.

There are a couple of ways the ending has been interpreted. Here's my two cents. (Spoilers follow.)

Nope nope nope.

The snobby critic interpretation is that Amelia is the monster. An abusive parent, nothing more. The Babadook isn't real. The other one is that the Babadook is real, and what you see in the movie is pretty much what you get. Naturally, being a horror fan, I prefer the second one, and I'll probably always take issue with the idea that monsters and ghosts and things that go bump in the night are less...worthy of your attention as a moviegoer, I suppose, if they are real.

In the case of the Babadook, I think the ending is the key to figuring out what's going on, and I have my own theories. The movie ends, more or less, happily for Amelia and Sam -- but in the creepiest way possible. You really can't get rid of the Babadook, and even if you drive it off, it will just live in your basement. The thing that really stands out for me is Sam's magic trick. He's doing this amateur magician stuff throughout the movie, and at the end, he makes a dove appear quite literally out of nowhere. The way it's shot, Amelia's reaction, there's clearly something going on here that's meant to be sinister.

My take on it is that Sam is basically a less malevolent version of that little kid from that old Twilight Zone episode who wishes people away into the cornfield when they displease him. He causes the dove to manifest, and in the same way, he also caused the book to appear and the Babadook to emerge into our reality. The specifics are beyond him, because he's five years old, but he wanted a monster his mother could believe in, one they could protect each other from -- and that is basically what he gets. The Babadook preys on, and represents, Amelia's grief over the loss of her husband, who died while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Sam. They defend each other from the monster, and in the end, they are closer to one another as a result. The Babadook is a metaphor for Amelia's sadness and frustration and rage, but it is also a real supernatural force that will always be with them because that's what the book said.

And that scares me a lot more than "Oh, she was just crazy the whole time."

Available On: Netflix.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

This is an odd one. It's not exactly meant to be frightening, though it's a vampire film. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and produced by Elijah Wood, of all people, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in Bad City, an Iranian ghost town whose only industry seems to be oil, and whose only residents are a sparse population of junkies, pimps, hobos and prostitutes. Arash (played by Arash Marandi) is a nice, handsome young man who finds himself bullied by a local pimp demanding money and increasingly frustrated with his heroin-addict father. On his way back from a party one night, he happens upon the city's most unusual resident, a lonely vampire (Sheila Vand) who spends her nights wandering Bad City, on foot or by skateboard, preying on the corrupt and cruel as well as those who simply won't be missed.

Arash and the girl form an odd relationship that isn't quite mutually romantic, as both of them are ashamed of their lives and their pasts, and neither of them really believes they can simply leave Bad City together for parts unknown. Shot in black and white, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a moody, melancholy film that reminds me quite a bit of Tim Burton -- I mean 80s and 90s Tim Burton, back before he sucked -- though there are also more than a few threads of Jarmusch and Tarantino holding it together. A few shots go on, and on, but every frame has something to say. The ending had me on the edge of my seat. It's also got a pretty amazing soundtrack.

The Oscar for Best Cat goes to....

I also have to give this movie props for not only featuring a very memorable performance by a cat, but resisting the urge to kill him. I was worried this would happen a couple of times, and I always get upset when animals, particularly cats, are killed in movies. Maybe it's that they're innocent. Maybe it's that I'm generally fond of cats and other animals, but not, as a rule, all that fond of humans. Anyway, I was glad they kept Masuka the Cat alive here and gave him billing in the credits with the human cast members, because he's as much a character as Ashad and the girl -- when you trace his path through the movie, he's really the one who brings them together, and his position in the car at the end is highly symbolic if you think about it.

For a movie with so little dialogue and so many lingering shots of scenery, people walking, people standing, there's a lot going on here. It's a pulpy noir western, a movie about an endearing, awkward friendship and dangerous love, and maybe the only tolerable vampire romance you'll ever see.

Available On: Netflix.

Trivia: Ladies are also scared of thunderstorms. Just ask Kay Jewelers!