Monday, November 23, 2009

Radio Flyer (1992, Richard Donner & David M. Evans)

When a movie opens with Tom Hanks, and begins a flashback structure using Tom Hanks narration, my expectations are already very low. Tom Hanks has been sold to us for decades now as the modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman whose friendly face and lovably earnest persona supposedly make him as at home essentially in any movie, which is exactly the reason he has been groomed as such by studios. He's blandness personified, a mediocre comic who starred in some really unfunny comedies and increasingly precious Oscar bait designed to pull heartstrings. His oeuvre (and mediocrity co-conspirator Ron Howard's for that matter) are what Holden Caulfield railed against when describing movies which condition phonies to cry at the movies but not in real life.

This is the long way to saying that Radio Flyer is the first movie containing Tom Hanks I can stomach which didn't take place during World War II.

Awesomely, screenwriter and unofficial co-director David M. Evans debuted as the writer of the 1987 slasher movie Open House, in which Someone is killing off nubile real estate agents and followed up with a right wing 80s action movie starring Bluto. Then he got out of trash and wrote the 1993 Disney kids baseball team classic The Sandlot and a comfy career directing kidstuff pablum like Beethoven's 3rd and 4th and Ace Ventura JR. Since his middle initial actually is "Mickey" Disney recently let him direct The Sandlot 2 straight to DVD. He's still quite active, and you would be too if your Radio Flyer and Sandlot scripts sold for over a million bucks each.

I'm not sure Radio Flyer is worth a million dollars as a screenplay. Unlike The Sandlot, Evans attempts to dramatize a story about child abuse within the context of a genuinely nostalgic film about childhood which includes special effects assisted dramatizations of dreams and a illogical, metaphorical twist ending. This is a huge order and Evans' depictions of family violence are powerfully suggestive thanks to Donner's direction, who apparently was called in to replace Evans when as a first time director he couldn't handle the more elaborate sequences. The second and more unique accomplishment is the balancing of scenes between the scary side of the childhood recollection story and the happier moments of backyard discovery, invention and imagination.

Ultimately this isn't the feel good romp of The Sandlot where the young protagonist's dad was totally going to kill him if he and the rest of the Little Rascals didn't get the Babe Ruth autographed baseball back from the giant scary dog next door, nope. Young Elijah Wood, he whose eyes were born that size, is worried little Timmy from Jurassic Park Joseph Mazzello is going to get killed quite literally by their alcoholic stepdad. Donner's direction of Adam Baldwin as this nightmare authority figure starts with the old trick of hiding adult's faces in movies about children, later revealing quick glimpses and close-ups for dramatic effect. This is analogous to the role of violence throughout the film, which empathetically startles us as badly as the boys by unexpectedly erupting out of nowhere at first. When Donner lingers with doom upon Baldwin opening up another beer, there's terrible suspense in how bad the damage will be this next time around.

Lorraine Bracco is good. Did she specialize in period moms around this time?

Radio Flyer does so many things well, especially thanks to Donner's mythic widescreen compositions and strong performances by Wood and Mazzello, that I can't really fault the particulars. Some of them are just the cheesiest in the world, like the boys' loyal dog who protects them from neighorhood bullies, but Donner just shrugs and makes it work on a gut level. Even the folksy platitudinous narration by Captain Sincerity works. What's more interesting is how Evans wrote a great screenplay which was filmed into a good movie that is by definition probably too intense for the intended audience. Even if the stepdad didn't frighten kids into seeing something else, why would kids want to watch such a movie for fun? There's nothing on the poster to indicate that Elijah and his brother are playing with their Radio Flyer to escape an abusive home and even if they had, what parent wants that awkward afternoon at the movies? The only parents I can conceive wanting to take the kids are those doing it because it's good for them, or because they suspect their significant other is responsible for those strange marks and are planning after the house lights come up to ask the kids if there's something they want to share. To this effect, the producers end the film with a child abuse hotline(!) Well meaning, but inevitably uncomfortable.

The clean, innocent kiddie humor and wide-eyed wonder of Radio Flyer clearly deign the film for little kids more than anyone, yet only older and wiser children will have the emotional capacity or interest for the drama. While only making a fraction of the budget back at the box office, Donner's approach to the material has endured at least as far as the recent Where The Wild Things Are, of which director Spike Jonze cited this film as an inspiration. Wild Things has been a lot more successful in ostensible kidstuff filmmaking secretly catering to hipster "adults" who are perpetually channeling their inner infant anyways, and who are now finally the perfect audience to go back and get the most enjoyment out of Radio Flyer.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dead Air (2009, Corbin Bernsen)

In full disclosure, I got my copy of this movie from the director, Corbin Bernsen. However, I'd been planning on seeing this for probably a year after learning the star was Bill Moseley, whose performance in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 I and my friend Nick became obsessed with in high school. Unbelievably, he already had a website for his "Chop-Top" character which even more unbelievably had available an album featuring the guitar work of theatrical guitarist Buckethead entitled Cornbugs. After mailing a fan letter with my purchase order, he sent back an autographed picture and in the next couple years released a couple more CDs worth of hard-rockin' Halloween music and skits. This was prior to the second phase of his career, starring in Rob Zombie's House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects after Mr. Zombie reportedly saw him reprise his Texas Chainsaw character to host a Universal Studios horror award show. I don't know how Bernsen met him. After telling Bernsen how much I enjoyed his performance in Brian Yuzna's and how I was looking forward to this new film he'd made starring my beloved Bill, he reached deep into his magic bag of goodies and produced a screener DVD for me to keep. The only caveat was not to express my opinion until after the release date. Now here we are. If you're reading this: Thanks, Corbin! You made something a lot bolder than the mere "zombie movie" I was expecting: You made a horror movie with Muslim terrorist villains. Ho-lee Moseley.

Dead Air proves that if horror movie producers were really serious about scaring the shit out of people, they'd use terrorism. This is the most anti-terrorist horror movie made since 9/11, maybe the only one, since - I don't know if you heard about this, but the American arts community has tended to be suspect of patriotism since the 1960s. George Romero, the Pope of zombies, has consistently used them to satirize American society for so long that every genius thinks they've got a social allegory to tell through zombies, resulting in trite piffle like Fido. After 9/11, Romero changed plans from using zombies as stand-ins for the homeless (as per this 1990s Onion AV Club interview) to using them as generic Marxist revolutionaries against generic Capitalist-Fascists in a convoluted metaphorical plot. Romero has essentially become the insufferable tenured liberal college professor of horror, writing politically charged essay movies like Diary of the Dead. Yes, he sympathizes with zombies. This ceased to be original when he gave over completely to those feelings in Day Of The Dead and that was the beginning of the Return Of The Living Dead epoch of zombie movies; the end of Romero's reign. This film belongs to the 28 Days Later epoch. Iraq-occupation zombie sequel 28 weeks later and the upcoming ZMD: Zombies Of Mass Destruction (which leaves a Mulsim-American protagonist stranded amongst zombie Middle America) are the default politics against which Bernsen and Yakkel tread.

Screenwriter Kenny Yakkel does not go so far as to make the infected running persons Muslim, more trickily the zombies are American victims of bioterrorism. In every passing year since Romero's day zombies have increasingly become meat bags for mutilation gags, the type Romero's gun crazy redneck posses enjoyed. Another liberal rebuke. Every child in America will have slaughtered a thousand zombies by the age of 12, at least in videogames. The point is that Yakkel's victims are both sympathetic and to be feared, traits not one less complimentary to the other. More than the zombies the film's biggest antagonists are the same terrorists who let loose the infection, and phase two of the plan involves further incensing hatred of Muslims. You'd think setting off a bomb would be enough, yet Yakkel wants all to know he doesn't hate Muslims. Therefore his evil terrorist characters are as conscious of inflaming bigotry as an enlightened white liberal. This is a refreshingly different set of politics from the Romero orthodoxy of the genre. Oh wait, the virus was developed by Americans...but only according to the terrorist. Incorporating the clash of civilizations, Yakkel's terrorists have apparently seen zombie movies too: their zombie pandemic has an expiration date to keep from reaching the Holy Land.

Bill Moseley's role as a call-in radio show host is perfect casting, his crotchety voice is a natural fit. He's more restrained here than I've ever seen him in his long career playing geeks and psychos. The only "normal" role I can eve compare him against another zombie movie, playing the short-lived Johnny ("They're coming to get you, Barbera!") of Tom Savini's decent 1990 Night Of The Living Dead remake. Showing a different side from his usual persona, Moseley is perfectly adept at playing protagonist and takes the film through the big emotional arc of terrorism: unlike horror films which tack on the subject as a throwaway grab for greater relevance, Dead Air waits as long as possible to reveal that the victims of the attack are turning into mindless slobbering killers. This gives Moseley and the supporting cast of the radio station time to soak in the feeling all Americans have dreaded since 9/11: what about the next time? Will there be a next time? How bad could it be? I heard these questions answered in the echoes of each character's reactions: "It's real." "It finally happened." Seeing Bill's reactions as a normal person kind of shook me. His comedown from freewheeling filler of airtime to panicked citizen trying to use his airwaves to help is what embodies the dramatic weight of the film, the collective feeling of the floor dropping out from underneath. I only wish his character were a crappy morning zoo crew host so there'd be even more of a comedown. The comedown makes his character and he's very good. Bernsen's direction is skittish in the pre-crisis period but matches pace once when things get going. His handling of combat scenes on a low budget is particularly impressive. Carpenter-esque, almost.

As one tagline explains, "Terror. Horror. The Worst Of Both Worlds." Perversely, the reality which the film's depiction of Islamic terrorism is grounded makes the movie-reality acceptance of zombies a little easier and therefore scarier. In a completely blatant fashion free of metaphor or analogy, Yakkel's story ties both fears together in a way that will horrify a lot of people for lack of political correctness. Yakkel has gone so far to show his heart is in the right place - the third act reveals Westernized Muslims in danger whom Moseley's character loves and cares for - yet our culture preprograms knee jerk reaction to any film with Muslim villains and slandering this film as anti-Muslim would be a cinch. Meanwhile the supposedly countercultural genre of horror continues to be ideologically characterized by upcoming productions like Kevin Smith's Red State (just guess who the villains are in that one) and Eli Roth's reflections that his torturous Hostel films are really about the draconian Bush years. Bernsen, Yakkel and Moseley have made a horror film for the rest of us, one which could get them into real controversy and danger, and one which will be rediscovered by many during the long war. This was a lot more than I bargained for as simply a Bill Moseley fan, and I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.