Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007

It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages—a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.

When we first meet the deteriorating Lenny Savage, he is scribbling obscenities in feces on his barely coherent girlfriend’s bathroom walls. When she eventually dies, her family wants nothing to do with the degenerating man. A call to his kids on the East Coast sets a series of events in motion. Wendy is a single NYC writer making ends meet as a temp while hoping to land an artist’s grant. Jon is a professor at a local upstate New York college. Together, the duo travel to Arizona, gather up their failing father, and place him in a local Buffalo care facility. Wendy hates it, seeing it as a less than honorable end for her dying dad. Jon couldn’t care less. He just wants the problem solved. Both are bothered by the notion of caring for a man who abandoned them 20 year before, yet his crimes against the family seem insignificant when compared to his present state. Still, for the Savages, this backhanded reunion is bringing the past into perspective—and they really don’t like what they see.

Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense. It stands as a stoic effort, an excellent attempt at getting to the heart of the whole ‘kids caring for their parents’ problem. But with its lack of focus and frequent flights of unnecessary fancy, director Jenkins constantly corrals her ambitions. We can tell that this story strikes a nerve in the filmmaker. She fills the screen with passion, turning a pair of angst-driven artist types confronting the realities of life and death into a manifesto on humanity. But then the narrative drops in too many literary signatures—the sage Nigerian orderly, the world weary Polish girlfriend—and the film gets sidetracked. Perhaps if Jenkins had figured whose story this really is—Lenny’s, Jon’s, or Wendy’s—we’d feel a deeper emotional connection. But their father’s illness is not the catalyst we anticipate it being. Instead, The Savages marks it as part of a three act arc, and then forgets to properly finish it off.

Lenny’s plight is indeed the most intriguing element here, probably because it’s the least self-centered. Both of his children live lives of proscribed isolation, existing within a wounded world of their own creation. Wendy can’t commit, looking for a “Daddy” to substitute for the clichéd father figure she never had. Yet that only partially explains her on again, off again trysts with in-it-for-the-sex middle aged married Larry. In fact, all throughout the film, she seems more interested in one-upping her professor brother than achieving a happy parental medium. Jon is also insular, but at least he appears functional. Sure, he can’t connect, allowing a three year relationship to fizzle because of an expired visa. Yet he’s not the volatile mess the movie hints at (we hear a great deal of innuendo about the physically abusive childhood he had at the hand of his dad). In many ways, The Savages is all set up. We keep waiting for the catharsis, the moment when the old wounds finally open, seep, and then start to heal. It never comes. 

Instead, we keep circling around our characters, convinced they will provide the reveal that the material mandates. From the opening, we know that Lenny has been a distant, inattentive parent, part of a lifelong pattern in the Savage clan. And Phillip Bosco’s amazing performance provides some insight into such a horrifying history. Though his degenerative disease amplifies his anger, this is clearly one bitter, brutal man. His rage mirrors the meekness of his adult children quite well. While it would have been nice to learn of the real life horror show that occurred all those decades ago, Jenkins feels that suggestion speaks louder. It really doesn’t. Since Wendy appears flighty, not clipped, and Jon jaunts around as if this is all a matter of everyday dealings, we never really see the stereotypical signs of a life spent in the presence of a paternalistic ogre. Instead, The Savages wants to broaden the scope. It thinks we’d be more interested in watching Wendy and Jon zone out on stolen Percocet, or moderate the responses of African Americans to Al Jolson’s blackface routine from The Jazz Singer.

Eccentricity can work to lighten a dark and dire narrative, but Jenkins relies a little too openly on the odd juxtaposition to give her film the right authenticity. Jon and Wendy manage to move their father rather easily, and once in the nursing home, he becomes a kind of storytelling stopwatch. Plot points revolve around his increasing illness, and the disposability of his dilemma turns into an anticlimactic epiphany. Most families in the Savages situation have to wait a long, heartwrenching time as their loved one slowly fails and fades away. Here, it’s a Thanksgiving to Christmas cross to bear. In addition, we never really see much interaction between the trio. Jon and Wendy visit their father often, yet we only catch them when Lenny is snoozing or explosive. The siblings never discuss the problem, offering only predetermined responses to keep things settled. The best moment comes when Jon confronts his sister’s senseless desire to move their father to a ‘higher class’ facility. “There’s nothing but death in there” he shrieks, face showing the pain he obviously masks. Everything else, he points out, is just window dressing for the guilt ridden families footing the bill.

Indeed, it’s the performances that save The Savages, giving it far more weight than the script can supply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives Jon the requisite quiet side, yet you can feel a real ache within his soul. Though Jenkins tries to thwart his efforts (he has an important moment while strapped into a homemade traction device), he’s the tenderness the rest of the characters lack. Bosco again deserves praise for being both completely fearless and all but archetypal. Who he is as a man is never more important that what he symbolizes as a stigma, but we still find dimension in Lenny. Laura Linney will, perhaps, be the biggest problem for audiences. She’s a totally written wreck, a scattered screenplay invention that feels incredibly phony half the time. Her problems appear menial, a measure of a life lived in the shadow of something devastating. Yet because Jenkins has determined that the facts stay buried in the background, The Savages never opens up. Instead, it uses its earnestness and entertainment value to truck along to a nominal conclusion.

Granted, not every tale centering on the ravages of aging needs to be a grim dramatic tour de force. For ever family facing the prospect of death with clothes renting hysterics, people pass without so much as a considered whimper. Had The Savages shown us Lenny’s limited life before death finally came to call, we might feel shortchanged. We’d wonder about his family, and their apparent lack of caring. Jon’s routine remains relatively unchanged throughout the course of the film, so we gain no additional insight from following his plight. And Wendy—she’s a Woody Allen heroine without the snappy repartee. She’d be a bad story subject if only because she’s too peripheral to all that’s happening. So maybe Tamara Jenkins was right in making her movie a statement about all three. Too bad then that the final assessment is so slight. The material definitely commands something much deeper.

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Thursday, Dec 6, 2007

Have no fear, Tolkien lovers—Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences.

In this parallel place (explained as being like Earth, but with a difference) we meet our heroine in training, young Lyra Belacqua. Constantly followed by her shapeshifting ‘daemon’ Pan (nothing more than the physical incarnation of her soul), this spry orphan is the niece of university science superstar Lord Asriel. By studying something called ‘dust’, the professor has stunned the educational community with his conclusions on temporal placement and the existence of additional worlds. He’s also earned the ire of the Magisterium, an all powerful government cabal that longs for the complete control over—and the undying obedience of—the citizenry.

After her uncle heads to the realm of the ice bears, a place where he can continue his work, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter arrives at the school. She promises to take Lyra to the snowy Northern climes as well. But her motives are far more nefarious. See, our petite protagonist is the last person capable of reading the golden compass, which is actually a truth telling device known as an alethiometer. With it, she hopes to uncover the truth about Coulter, the Magisterium, and the whereabouts of her fellow children. Seems someone has been kidnapping them, and as we soon learn, the reasons are horrifying at best.

Like most mistaken attempts at grandeur, The Golden Compass thinks details can substitute for dimension. In Phillip Pullman’s picturesque predicament, lots of erroneous facts try to make up for a vague, vignette oriented narrative. Unlike true classics of the form, there is not a single overriding goal here. Our lead Lyra is not on some magical quest, nor is she leading a fellowship hoping to rid their realm of the ultimate evil. Instead, what we have here is a series of intriguing possibilities that fail to play out in any significant or satisfying manner. If this is part of New Line and director Chris Weitz’s plan, that’s all fine and well, and if all three films in the His Dark Materials series get made, perhaps this film will feel less foundational. But as a stand alone effort, something styled to entertain us now, The Golden Compass is incomplete.

Most of the problems stem from Lyra’s journey. As an audience, we need the inherent curiosity of the goal to keep us interested. We really should feel the same longing as our hero or heroine. Yet when we learn of everything involved in this story—the totalitarian Magisterium, the findings of Lord Asriel, the unique nature of the ice bears, the hideous truth about the kiddie concentration camp Bolvanger, the wicked witchiness of Mrs. Coulter—only one element stands out. In fact, a kingdom dominated by salient wildlife ends up as The Golden Compass‘s single significant reason for being. Without it, the rest of the film would feel like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T without Theodor Geisel’s gift of satire. In fact, the typical British fascination with child endangerment (Pullman is from the UK) is apparent in every kid stealing subplot here. It often feels like The City of Lost Children without a hint of Caro and Jeanet’s visual grace.

What director Chris Weitz does bring here is a sense of solemnity. He’s not out to cutesy this material, and his lends a nice level of density to some otherwise puffy points. It’s a credit to his approach that a sore thumb moment like Sam Elliot’s arrival onscreen (playing the only Southern drawling sodpounder in all of this mangled multiverse) doesn’t stick out more than it should. Additionally, the filmmaking is so fluid that we don’t even recognize that Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (as Asriel and Coulter, respectively) disappear from the narrative for huge chunks of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is much too much going on in The Golden Compass at any one given moment. Either we’re dealing with Lyra’s learning of the ambiguous alethiometer (there are one too many trips into its dust driven mechanical workings) or watching unnamed villains scheme and conspire like a veiled Vatican 2. Christian and Catholics who complain about this movie better get their targets straight. They should focus less on Pullman’s atheism and more on the lamentable lack of fun involved.

By far, the best sequences surround Ian McKellen (apparently, no fantasy film can go forward without his involvement) as the voice of exiled ice bear Iorek Byrnison. Fully aware of how to bring this kind of material to life, we really get involved in his Shakespearean tale of betrayal, loss, and redemption. From retrieving his stolen armor to regaining his rightful place in the polar community, we root for this animal outsider, and his climatic battle with the bruin that usurped his throne stands as the single best sequence in Compass‘s often overwrought running time. In fact, had Weitz found a way to streamline the story a little (his script tries to incorporate more information than a movie can successfully manage) and focus solely on Iorek, Lyra, and the discovery of Bolvanger, we’d enjoy the journey more. Weitz makes the mistake of frontloading things, trying to explain it all before the subtext and side characters are even necessary. Along with the relatively formulaic facets of the tale (guessing Lyra’s parentage is pretty easy), there’s just too much groundwork and not enough sparkle.

Still, in its limited way, The Golden Compass does engage us. The daemon element that opens the film definitely draws us in, and when we see the unbridled fury of the bigger than life bear fight, we hope the movie has made it over the introductory hump. But then the uninspired ending arrives, a cobbled together collection of happenstance, accidents, and deus ex machine broomsticking. Unlike the battles for Middle Earth, there is no splendor in this confrontation, no feeling of dignity among the defenders and amorality amongst the attackers. No, it’s just a showpiece send off, a way of getting the first part of the plot over with before jumping into the second book’s storyline. When he made The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson took all three books and conceived them as a single entity, taking aspects of each to elevate his overall concept for the films. Here, New Line and Weitz are obviously hedging their bets. The “one at a time” ideal means The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all. 

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

REDACTED (dir. Brian DePalma)

Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian De Palma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. 

The supposedly based on a true story saga focuses on four soldiers serving at a typical Iraqi checkpoint. Their day is divided up between talking about sex, serving their country, and continued conversations about carnality. One day, a tragic event befalls the troops. On top of it, a standard stop and search goes horribly wrong. Hoping to let off some steam, the frustrated men decide to head over to a previous raid site and rape the 15 year old girl who lives there—kind of payback for all the crap they’ve had to sling through recently. The crime goes haywire, and a massacre results. Threats are made. Dime is dropped. Investigations begin. All the while, we witness this pathetic display of power gone poisonous through the viewfinder of an artistically minded Private, various on site cameras, and the media reaction both local and abroad. Naturally, some if not all of the information is ‘redacted’—censored as a matter of US national security. 

So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise. Trying to be the War on Terror version of The Blair Witch Project, this media savvy screed has platoons full of potential. Like dozens of Iraq documentaries that use the new tech wired perspective of the average grunt, De Palma wants to replace polish with passion. This is one of the most ordinary movies the man has ever made—scads better than the mournful Black Dahlia, but far from the accomplished work that made him one of the ‘70s favored sons. Using his absolute hatred of the Bush policies, and marrying it to the new purview of soldiers as accidental psychos, the results barely reach their target. Instead, the simplistic cause and effect narrative is muddled by pointless sequences of non-erotic male bonding and actor overindulgence. The no-name cast is supposed to reflect the average Joe dynamic of the modern armed forces, every man in it for his own non-altruistic needs. Such an apparent eye-opener is just the first volley in what ends up being one of the more motivationally misguided anti-combat efforts in the rather limited subgenre.

Part of the problem with Redacted, and the myriad of equally ineffectual Iraq War movies released in 2007, is the decision to turn the troops into moustache twirling villains. Whether it’s In the Valley of Elah‘s involuntary serial killers, or this film’s sex and violence minded rapists, it’s rare to see the real bad guy—the Administration—taken to task. Instead, they are excused as bumbling bureaucrats (as in Rendition) or jaded, jingoistic salesman shilling for their own political gain (i.e. Lions for Lambs). But making the military the fall guy for all the incredibly incompetent decisions by this government is like blaming bullets for killing people. Someone is holding the gun—and more importantly, someone authorized the use of that weapon in a now pointless endeavor.

What these lackluster diatribes need is a clearly defined focus away from the men and women in uniform. An All the President’s Men like roasting on the lead up to 9/11 and the decision to milk fear for the fiscal security of future fossil fuels is the real horror still playing out today. That a private goes bonkers and blows up a civilian is causational collateral damage—never excusable, but more readily explainable than the whole UN/WMD presentation.

Still, we have to work with what De Palma gives us, and even then, it can’t match the fire and commitment of his similarly themed Vietnam vitriol, Casualties of War. Lacking real dramatic coherence, the sloppy sequences where future filmmaker Izzy Diaz gets his compatriots to ‘open up’ on camera are so stilted as to be taken from a community college stage play. No one seems normal—instead, they are central casting conceits of the kind of lowered induction standards joked about in the dialogue. Even worse, once we move outside the bonds of the POV material, the faux French documentary (which is stuck doing all the anti-America heavy lifting) and the Al-Jazeera approach are like Bible-thumpers in the back row. Their point is pedantic, unambiguous, and without a lick of legitimizing context. Indeed, another fallacy running through this and other films of its ilk is the lack of applicable perspective. Granted, there is no excuse for this pointless war, but to turn it into the Westernized version of the Al-Qaeda camps (that is, training grounds for prospective mindless murderers) seems to demonize an inappropriate target.

Besides, you never win an argument via extremes. Want to show the toll such mindless military meandering takes on the troops? Give us a post-tour treatise on the myriad of injuries and mental complaints registered in the last six years. Need to confirm that Iraq is destroying the moral of our soldiers? Follow one unit for an entire year, making sure to capture all the highs and lows, the deaths and the diversions that turn modern battle into the sovereignty version of a film shoot (meaning ‘hurry up and wait’). Redacted does have moments that bare this idea out. When we watch the day-to-day struggle to control the populace, maintain checkpoint readiness, prepare for possible IEDs, and basically survive the Middle Eastern environment, this film has purpose. De Palma lets his goaded guard down long enough to allow some authenticity to seep in. But once the boys decide that raping a local gal equals the ultimate test of their mired manhood, the drama dies. Instead, what we wind up with is sensationalized atrocities that never once come across as authentic or real.

In fact, the main sticking point for many will be the flippant way these jackasses extol their crimes. They threaten those in the know in full view of every surveillance camera in the camp, and when they go about their abomination, they leave enough clues behind to instantly warrant investigation (let alone foreign media outrage). Sure, De Palma tries to reshuffle the already stacked deck by showing a terrorist website that exploits children in the course of its insurgent bombing campaign, and our unapologetic fiends seem to get caught and crucified near the end. But then the film folds and asks for a new deal, showing us craven images of actual Iraqi dead that the narrative itself couldn’t be bothered to embrace. The “see, told you so” angle at the end may have some minor power (actual death on camera is cruel and soul sickening), but Redacted hasn’t earned this horror. It’s merely capitalizing on its existence to make a far more self-interested point.

Instead of heading over to the hot sands of Jordan and retrofitting their neighborhoods into simulated Iraq settings, De Palma should have spent his limited budget on a direct documentary on student apathy. Absent a draft—the great equalizer and instigator of any conflict—the ennui expressed by those who’ll wind up paying for this failed policy is staggering. It’s far more shocking than a single image in Redacted.

Redacted - Trailer

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

MIDNIGHT EAGLE (dir. Izuru Narushima)

It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.

Troubled war photographer Yuji Nishizaki has seen enough. Escaping to the mountains of the Japanese Alps, he hopes to erase from his mind the tragic memories of what he’s seen. Unfortunately, further heartbreak occurs when his wife dies, leaving him alone with a young son named Yu. Sister-in-law and magazine reporter Keiko is angry at the absentee father and takes the boy to live with her in Tokyo. Without an emotional or familial anchor, Yuji is left suffering and desperate. While on one of his lonesome retreats, he witnesses a bright flash in the sky, a crash on the side of a far off peak, and an accompanying Air Force survey. Wanting to avoid anything awful, he slinks back to his sheltered life. But when best friend Oaichi hires Yuji to shoot photos of the investigation, the jaded journalist suddenly finds himself back in harm’s way. Seems an American Stealth bomber, loaded with a rogue nuke, is lying in ruins, and if the Japanese don’t reach it in time, the atomic device is destined to wind up in the hands of the advancing enemy force.

Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived. Deliberately paced to emphasize every melodramatic moment and frequently substituting martyrdom for suspense, this intriguing if ultimately cold genre effort argues for Japan’s increasing reliance on archetypal tricks to support its spectacle. Set mostly in the frozen climes of the nation’s noted mountains, director Izuru Narushima maximizes his location, pushing the boundaries of believability in the process. Our heroes - friends Yuji and Oaichi - spend days in the bitter cold, even getting involved in firefights and battle-instigated avalanches. Yet they never once seem to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. While we get an explanation later indicating that both men have frequented these snow-covered ranges for years, such tolerances are telling. Midnight Eagle is not out to be the realistic geopolitical potboiler it promises. Instead, it will offer a passive pro-peace platform, using an unnamed enemy (North Korean is inferred) and a reckless ally (the USA has apparently reneged on a “no nuke” flyover policy) to show why Japan must lead the cause for international harmony.

It’s a solid statement, and one that works for the most part. Because he looks so world weary and haggard, actor Takao Osawa is a decent movie messenger. He’s lost so much - courage, wife, son, sanity - that his last act transformation into active participant seems totally logical. Similarly, the diminutive Yuko Takeuchi is excellent as the driven Keiko. Her scenes opposite Osawa are excellent, especially when she is deriding his lack of familial concern. In fact, Midnight Eagle works much better as an interpersonal drama than a showboating F/X actioner. We really feel the connection between the characters, and experience the emotional issues right along side them. Unfortunately, the narrative keeps interfering to bring us more War Room bravado and implied chest puffing. There are a couple of governmental insights that work, almost all involving Tatsuya Fuji’s Prime Minister. There is an especially telling scene where an aid finds the leader crumbled on a rooftop, crying. Once he’s seen, the attempt to regain his composure is memorable.

So why, exactly, is Midnight Eagle so underwhelming? It could be that we never really comprehend the hazard. Of course, nuclear annihilation has its impact - it’s a post-modern given. But there is never any real danger except from the camouflaged troop’s bullets. Typically, a Hollywood thriller would have a preemptive problem that shows us the scope and the scale of the threat at hand. Here, everything is implied. No tragic test runs on an outer island. No visualized example of the devastation predicted. Not even a clear idea of how much damage the bomb can cause (a presentation on the impending tragedy is all charts and graphs). What we need here is a figurative explosion - something to shock us into understanding the consequences at stake. It is obvious that Narushima wants to build the dread little by little, making every moment away from the problem count. Yet the sad situations with the characters occasionally sidetrack the supposed suspense by making the family more important than the fate of a nation.

Midnight Eagle is also a very claustrophobic film, the mountainside locales reduced to snowbound medium shots with very little scope. It’s a telling artistic choice, since the very rare instances where the camera does pull back take our breath away with their visual insinuation. Additionally, sequences of supposed cat and mouse play out in steps, not showcases, and we never really fear for Keiko or Yu’s well being. Instead, we recognize their role as catalyst for the last act tearjerking. This is indeed an attempted four hanky weeper, characters committing acts of noble altruism that are meant to get the waterworks flowing. Oddly, we’re left unmoved by all this exploitation. Perhaps it’s because we see through the ruse Midnight Eagle is fostering. We understand that Yuji and Oaichi must suffer, and their newfound friend in the military is programmed to die for his country. Since a certain level of predictability exists, we don’t get as caught up in the finale’s machinations as we should.

All of this leaves Midnight Eagle as a perfectly serviceable entertainment. It does reach the ditzy dizzying heights of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and rarely rates concern as a work of nail biting thrills. Still, the winter setting does provide some erroneous shivers, and the storyline is measured in such a way as to constantly keep our attention. When Hong Kong took the crime genre to heart, imbuing the dying film style with all manner of artistic and ancient tradition, it reinvented and revitalized the format. While it would be interesting so see how Japan handles the post-Godzilla disaster epic, Midnight Eagle is not out to be so grand. Instead, it’s a veiled call for calm in a world burdened by dozens of unnecessary conflicts. While the meaning is righteous, the manner of its delivery may be too sluggish for Western ADD adrenaline addicts. It’s acceptable, not epic.

Midnight Eagle - Trailer

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

THE ORPHANAGE (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)

It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.

It’s been several decades since Laura has been back to the place of her childhood - a rundown foster home that holds some decidedly mixed memories for the now middle-aged mother. She’s returned to buy the place and start her own special needs school, and she’s brought along her doctor husband and her own adopted son. While the building has a tragic history, Laura hopes she can bring a little light back to the space. Within the first couple of weeks, young Simon seems preoccupied and distant. While prone to having imaginary friends, he’s suddenly developed a flock of them. And where he used to be open and honest, he’s now secretive and aloof. As plans draw near for the facility’s Grand Opening, Laura seems haunted by a spectral old woman. This creepy visage visits the home, breaks into the property’s shed, and more or less makes a nuisance of herself. Then someone disappears. Struck by the loss, Laura must investigate the awful crone, as well as decipher where her loved one could have gone to. Suddenly, the horrid past of the orphanage comes into full view, and in order for our heroine to survive, she must face the untold terrors within.

Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out. Directed with substantial style and a fabulous flare for the moody by Spanish whiz Juan Antonio Bayona, this is appealing adult fantasy at its most enlightened. Similar to witnessing a motion picture marriage between Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro (who produced this incredible effort), the insidious tale of a foul foster home and the haunted legacy it carries is a major triumph of instinct and imagination. Bayona and his collaborator Sergio Sanchez aren’t covering new ground here. All countries have their haunted house stories, from the demonic dwellings of Italy to the spooked sanitariums of New Zealand. But The Orphanage strives to do something different. It wants to impart a clear emotional core to the film, to make all loss - be it simple or supernatural - become part of the character’s personal concerns. Thanks to some amazing performances, a gorgeously Gothic setting, a flawless sense of dread, and various artful ‘X’ factors, what we wind up with is a true terror classic, the kind of film that will only build in reputation and respect as the years pass.

It’s intriguing to see how Bayona formulates his fear. The Orphanage has bows to many macabre symbols, from the little child in the face-covering burlap sack (recalling all hooded fiends) to the moments where the paranormal parks itself directly in the path of reality (you name the ‘parallel truth’ motion picture). Requiring an endemic narrative to achieve these aims, the director gets incredibly lucky here. Sanchez sets up not one, or two, but three intriguing plot threads. We have the contemporary tale of modern family Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon. The young boy’s secret (he’s sick, and this review won’t spoil the reveal as to the nature of his disease) meshed against his mother’s memories of this mysterious mansion have a centered, present-day appeal. We feel for these people and understand their desire for a better life. This echoes the issues in the flashbacks. We learn that Laura lived during a time when the orphanage suffered a scandalous setback - several students were poisoned by a vengeful teacher, and their deaths meant the end of the hospice. That this woman suddenly thrusts herself back into Laura’s life many years later is just the first sign that things here won’t be smooth sailing.

Then there’s the main mystery. Without ruining the plot, it involves an interfamilial fight, the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend, the development of a spirit ‘game’, and the eventual disappearance of someone close to Laura’s heart. All of this plays out in jigsaw puzzle plausibility, pieces falling into place with evocative regularity. As he builds his story, Bayona evokes his producer, as well as the similarly styled works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Indeed, The Orphanage is often the most Italian looking Spanish horror film ever made. Some could call it an overall European conceit, but the fact remains that overwhelming homes with hidden secrets have long been a favorite of the Mediterranean masters. Toss in some sly dark humor, a dash of epic eeriness (the costal locale with its menacing lighthouse and shoreline play a crucial role), and some stellar performances, and you have a film that tunnels its way directly into your subconscious and begins to do battle.

Special kudos have to go out to Belen Rueda. As Laura, whose loss is further complicated by he own slipping grip on reality, she gives an incredibly soulful turn. When she’s wandering helpless through a group of potential clients, their handicapped children lost within an insular world of thoughts and troubles, the analogy is plastered all over the actress’s fragile face. As little Simon, Roger Princep avoids child actor precociousness to really get to the heart of his character’s individual concerns. He doesn’t respond well to the move, and his desire to make his imaginary friends happy has a fiendish, Exorcist like quality to it. Even Geraldine Chaplin has an amazing cameo moment when her supposed psychic powers are truly put to the test. The rest of the cast is wonderfully potent, especially the problematic Mabel Rivera (as Pilar) who frequently resembles an insane corpse. As the reason for all the paranormal portents, she makes an icky effigy. In fact, everything about Bayona’s visual style screams scary. From the tumble down home to the often hazy horizon, we appear to have stumbled directly into a ghostly gateway. 

Thankfully, Bayona and Sanchez avoid easy answers and formulaic finishes. The Orphanage is a wonderfully complex thriller that gets more and more insidious as the ending unfolds. There is more to this mystery than a whodunit and why. Instead, we get the evils of the past visited on those outside the initial foul fray, and restless spirits imposing their undead will on those arrogant enough to live among them. It all adds up to one of the best genre endings in recent years, a sad if celebratory resolution that gives us closure, comfort, and a healthy dose of the creeps. Comparisons to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth are totally appropriate. In Bayona’s mind, not all stories end with ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes, you have to suffer greatly to achieve a state of grace. Under such a philosophy, this movie was tortured from the opening frames to the final credits. It’s so elegant and exceptional that it must be the byproduct of something very bad. While it may be nothing more than a Hispanic phase of the already fading spook showing, The Orphanage stands apart. It’s as timeless as it is terrifying.

The Orphanage - Trailer

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