Monday, December 14, 2009

Brazil (1985)

Is it coincidence or fate that Terry Gilliam's brilliant, tragicomic, anti-utopian vision of the future was filmed in the iconic year of 1984? Gilliam's film, like Orwell's book before it, is a nightmare fairy tale, decades ahead of its time, about the epic struggle of the dreamer in the modern cookie-cutter age. It's a search for love and humanity in a world of paperwork, office drones and the utter sameness of it all. Terry Gilliam has amassed an amazing body of work (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkey's, The Fisher King and the recent outstanding and misunderstood Tideland amongst others). I don't hesitate for a moment to call Brazil my favorite of them all, and I'm sure it would be in the top 5 somewhere if I ever made an all time favorites list.

So, where we once had "Big Brother" and the Ministry of Truth, we have The Ministry of Information. Where we once had Winston Smith, we have Sam Lowry. Where we once had Julia we have Jill. The similarities between the novel 1984 and the film Brazil don't end there, but I won't spoil the plot twists of either magnificent work. Brazil, with the gift of hindsight, can also be seen as the story of Terry Gilliam's film career. He's an insanely creative and talented visual artist and storyteller (a dreamer if you will) cursed by his opposing forces. He’s cursed by his own stubborn belligerence, the inevitable soulless corporate suit or two and forces of nature so god-like and personal that you can't blame him for laughing maniacally at the cosmic irony of it all. And thank god that's his reaction! A ratio of 90% humor to 10% despair within our hearts is something many of us can only aspire to. He was, of course, most recently impacted by the tragic demise of his leading man Heath Ledger while filming the upcoming Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there's the well documented failures to make his Don Quixote film (as chronicled in the amazing documentary Lost in La Mancha), the disastrous trials and tribulations surrounding Baron Munchausen and of course "The Battle of Brazil" (this is the name of the feature length documentary on the Criterion version of the film which details the epic battle Gilliam fought, and thankfully won, against Universal who tried to remove him from the project and release a more happy upbeat version of the film with about 45-50 minutes cut out of it...I've seen this version and it's Brazil minus the balls).

Back to the film though, a series of short sequences open the film and introduce the future world in question. We open on a display window populated with "modern" television screens and reflections of neon which block the view of the golden Christmas tree's stuffed in the corners. We are watching a commercial from Central Services for fancy new air ducts for the home (a visual motif throughout the film, symbolic of the endless consumer quest for things we don't really need). An explosion violently shatters the facade and the neon title card for Brazil illuminates the screen. One of the TV's is still broadcasting, a talk program that is being watched simultaneously by a man in his office. A buzzing fly upsets the man and we watch as he comically navigates the claustrophobic office trying to swat the insect. He successfully squashes the little pest who falls into a machine. The machine is spitting out arrest warrants (as we soon find out) and this simple, ever so human error causes a typo wherein a warrant is created for Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. This seemingly insignificant moment comes and goes in about 60 seconds, but its consequences are severe and immediate.

We watch as an idyllic family evening at the Buttle household is shattered by a dozen or so machine gun carrying police officers in full swat gear who come smashing through the doors, the ceiling and the windows and stuff the unfortunate Mr. Buttle into a creepy burlap sack. As a pompous official of some sort calmly and impersonally explains, Buttle "has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries". The official has the shell shocked wife sign a receipt for her husband and keeps the carbon copy as "my receipt for your receipt." This scene also introduces Jill, who lives above the Buttle's and watches the terrifying events unfolding through the freshly created hole in her floor/the Buttle's ceiling. Jill insists that a mistake has been made and there's a nice bit of irony here as two Department of Works employees (there to promptly fix the hole) laugh and reply that "we don't make mistakes" as the replacement piece they brought goes crashing down into the apartment below (measured incorrectly it seems) and they can only shake their heads and say "typical".

I mentioned my love of complex tracking shots in my Rules of Attraction piece. The two back to back shots that introduce our hero's office are not as long as the one's I discussed previously, but they are incredibly busy with people moving in and out of the shot from all directions, like so many worker bees. We meet Sam's boss, Mr Kurtzman (the always delightful Ian Holm who modern audiences will recognize most as Bilbo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings series, or the prior generation may remember him as Ash, the evil robot of the first Alien film). Kurtzman has a problem with his computer and needs his best man to fix it. His repeated shouts for the absent Sam Lowry finally bring us to our protagonist, who has overslept (Sam is played by the splendid Jonathan Pryce, who has livened the proceedings of a great many films, from Glengary Glenross to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy where he played Keira Knightley's father). More specifically, we first meet his idealized dream self, who soars through blue skies in a shiny metal suit with wings, both beautiful and splendidly cheap and homemade looking (I've seen the term "retro-futuristic" thrown around to describe the look of the sets and costumes). He hears the sound of a woman's voice calling his name in the distance and flies toward the beckoning call. He briefly kisses his angelic dream girl, gracefully weaving in and out of the fluffy white clouds, before a dreadful alarm noise rouses him back to the world of mechanical and personal failures he has grown accustomed to. This is, you see, a future where nothing works properly (while proudly insisting that it does).

As Sam arrives at the office we see a statue in the lobby the closely resembles his winged dream self. It is all too clear that, as he passes this each day, he dreams of taking flight beyond the confines of a dullard's existence, away from the all too common assembly line feeling of the grown-up world. I love all the Ministry of Information advertisements that show up here and throughout the film. They feel like the kind of creepy, satirical messages that we would see some 5 years later when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts the glasses on in John Carpenter's They Live (a guaranteed future blog entry). "Be Safe, Be Suspicious" they proclaim, "Suspicion Breeds Confidence" and "Information is the Road To Prosperity".

Jill is arriving at the office at the same time as Sam, being endlessly spun from one department to the next while trying to file a false arrest report on behalf of her neighbors, the Buttle's (anyone who's ever visited the BMV or a city courthouse will relate). We also meet Sam's old friend Jack (fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, who adds a wonderful bit of warmth that turns into a deeply sinister edge of malice as the film progresses) who chides Sam for not moving up through the ranks at the speed he should (a theme endlessly repeated by his mother and the owner of the company throughout the film). Sam briefly see's Jill's face on one of the numerous security monitors and recognizes it as the face of his dream woman. He looks around but she's already gone...

The Buttle's are the crisis of the day for Kurtzman as well, it seems. He is terrified to his core of making a mistake or attaching his name to any sort of official document in a world where paperwork is King (and he should be...VERY afraid). You see the Buttle/Tuttle discrepancy has shown up and we learn a few scenes later that Mr. Buttle has already been killed. Kurtzman takes the heat off himself by dispatching Sam to issue a refund check to Mrs. Buttle (the system's cold way of apologizing for the mistaken arrest and subsequent torture and death of the Buttle patriarch). It's an ugly terrifying regime that fancies itself a utopia, full of dazzling technological distractions and outright lies. This society has managed to use the language of corporate double speak as a replacement for the principles of the constitution, let alone basic human decency and morality. As much as Sam instinctually rails against this system, it is still all he knows in many respects and accordingly, he is surprised by Mrs. Buttle's lack of gratitude (she shouts "what have you done with his body" at him until he runs away). Sam spots Jill again and chases after her but is again, too late.

The movie from here starts merging the dream world and real world stories with increasing frequency. The obstacles, within the concrete jungle which has sprouted up in Sam's increasingly dark dream world, echo the real and metaphorical walls that are closing in around him in reality. There's a shocking revelation when Sam unmasks his dream foe and sees himself inside. Like Luke Skywalker in the Dark Side cave, Sam is battling his own lesser impulses as much as he is fighting the very real outside threats.

We also meet Public Enemy #1, Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, who, it turns out, is nothing more than a renegade heating engineer (a wonderfully wacky turn by a mustached Robert De Niro, you'll barely recognize him!). Tuttle is so bothered by the endless forms and bureaucracy of Central Services that he lives like Jason Bourne just to be able to practice his trade. As he's quickly and efficiently fixing a mechanical problem at Sam's house, a knock on the door brings us to the incompetent government counterpoints Dowser (I don't recognize this actor) and Spoor (Bob Hoskins in a brief but memorable cameo) who are responding to the original service call and are only stopped from entering Sam's apartment by his quick thinking request for a 27B-6 form (the mere mention of which causes a small seizure in Dowser who obviously has the same paperwork issues as Tuttle, without the courage to break out of the cage). I don't want to spoil the way this sub-plot plays itself out, but it leads to what may be the only real victory over "the man" in the whole film.

Sam finally accepts a promotion at work so that he can have the increased security clearance needed to find out who his dream girl really is. This leads him through a series of misadventures until he finds himself partnered with a very confused, hostile and reluctant Jill as a pair of fugitives on the run. Gilliam manipulates us brilliantly as we allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure and the hopes and dreams of our hero's futile quest. A component in this manipulation is the highly effective musical cues which are just variations on the famous Ary Barroso song "Brazil" (which is itself used briefly at the beginning of the film and once while Sam is in his car driving to the Buttle's). The same catchy melody works as a love scene, ominous looming score, action music, etc. Lyrically, the song echo's the sentiment of our lead, a dreamer longing for escape to a better place. This song has resonated within my own mind for years as has Tuttle's simple eloquent mantra that "we're all in it together". Sam sadly doesn't realize quickly enough that he's fighting the business suit wearing equivalent of Star Trek's chilling villain's "The Borg". Will Sam and Jill's blossoming love indeed conquer all? Will good triumph over evil? "Resistance is futile" my friends...or is it??

The film is consistently hilarious though as well. Terry Gilliam deeply understands the dry humor and wordplay games of the Brit's (as I alluded to earlier, he is an alum of Monty Python) but is himself an American, with the birth rite of fear and paranoia that comes with it. The impact of this story comes with the realization that the over the top, surreal, exaggerated society we're being shown is a shockingly poignant reflection of our own. There are a couple small details in an early restaurant scene that I particularly enjoy. The first is the waiter's use of numbers for items on the menu. He walks to each patron and whispers conspiratorially that "today Madame, I suggest the #1", while advising the next that "between you and I Monsieur the #11 is especially fresh". I don't know for sure, but I don't think they were doing this in real restaurants back in 1984 but it's the norm in 2009. The waiter even gets furious with Sam when he refuses to use the number instead of the actual name of the meal he wants. I clearly recall a surreal "life imitates art" moment at a Wendy's drive thru where my request for the Big Bacon Classic combo was met with a long silence and eventual reply of "Do you mean the #4 sir?". Oh yes, I apologize you fucking robot, I meant the #4, I know you're absolutely lost without knowing which button to push. The same restaurant scene, when interrupted by yet another explosion, jumps to a soot covered orchestra who collect themselves and continue playing as burn victims and first responders run around in a panic. Whether Gilliam intended this specific reference or not, the moment makes me think of the famous story about the musicians on the Titanic who graciously played on while the ship sank. That moment is kind of touching in the Titanic story but in this context it makes me laugh and think "I guess the upper crust always reacts the same to crisis and pretending it doesn't exist".

You see, George Orwell felt this kind of trouble brewing in our society back in the 1940's, Gilliam felt it still in the 80's and 25 years later it's all continued to come true. It stings to see a world where government misinformation has us fearing our friends and neighbors as potential terrorists. It stings to see humanity stamped out by lust for status. It stings to see leadership that would kill and torture just to bury a mistake, rather than admit a mistake had been made. While I still feel a sense of optimism in the age of Obama, it's too early to say whether we've stopped the cultural degeneracy or if we've merely given ourselves a better actor to sell it to us. My own inner winged dreamer hopes it's the former, but it's disturbing that this was such a real and present issue for Terry Gilliam when I was barely born into this world and so vividly true of our country and culture some 27 years later. It's troubling that these thoughts, feelings, disappointments and fears are not unique to one time and place. They are, it would seem, ingrained in the way society has developed, ingrained in how people choose to relate to each other and the tragic impulse, within the majority, to follow society's unwritten handbook on how to live.

What it also tells me is that the rebellious spirit that cries against the dying of the light is still with us and always will be! Here we are days away from 2010 and the dreamer has refused to die, I see it reflected in artists like Gilliam, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, musically with the Mars Volta or Tool or the many faces of Mike Patton. There are artists and regular Joe's worldwide, clinging to the dream. It makes me think of the dreadful cliché of what "kids these days" are like and how much better it always seems to have been "when I was growing up". One could argue that the world has gotten more dangerous perhaps and the creeps have more tools at their disposal, but the bugs have always been under the lush green lawn, the tree has always oozed sap and every town has a Lincoln Street. But we'll save that story for another day...

Grade: A++

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Somebody needs to cut Roger Avary a fat check to write and direct his next feature film. While he has not succesfully made as many films, he's right along side Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, specifically in the "filmakers who desperately need (and deserve) a wealthy sponsor" category. I also feel he's every bit as talented and has as singular a voice as his generational contemporaries David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.He has thus far had only two theatrically released films as an auteur (he has written or co-written scripts for Silent Hill and Beowulf but obviously hasn't earned enough to finance his own new film). The first was 1994's Killing Zoe, which came about between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when Tarantino's long time producer Lawrence Bender had access to a cheap bank location and asked his friend Avary if he had a script they could use to film something fast and cheap. Roger took a script he had been writing about his travels throughout Europe (he drew upon these experiences again for the amazing "Victor" section of Rules of Attraction which has also been shown as a stand alone short film called "Glitterati") and incorporated a bank robbery in Paris. The resulting film was very well received on the festival circuit (including the Prix Tres Special award at Cannes the exact same year Pulp Fiction won the Palm d'Oor). I will stop this from becoming even longer by saving an in depth look at Killing Zoe for another day but it is an outstanding and thoroughly bizarre heist film.

So yeah, I got hip to Roger Avary some 14 years ago through his work with Tarantino. They were old friends from Tarantino's video store clerk days and partnered up on several scripts (including the Tarantino scripted/Tony Scott directed True Romance and Tarantino scripted/Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers which both featured key re-writes from Avery). Ultimately, a script Avery was writing for a full length feature film, along with several unused scenes he had written for the True Romance script became a large chunk of Pulp Fiction (The Gold Watch section in particular and some key moments like the "divine intervention" scenes that had bullets miraculously missing Jules and Vincent and the accidental shooting of Marvin) for which he shared 1994's Best Original Screenplay Academy Award with QT. After Killing Zoe, it would not be until 2002 that he would get to helm another passion project, an adaptation of his artistic "soul mate" Brett Easton Ellis' novel, "The Rules of Attraction". I had read and loved the book years earlier. Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, The Informers and most famously American Psycho (all made into movies with varying degrees of success) takes an extremely nihilistic view of the world and somehow manages to infuse it with enough sincere heart and longing to get through to good natured but damaged souls like you and me.

Rules of Attraction is a very emotionally complex film. On the surface though, it's a dark comedy, it is a college sex film of sorts and it is full of self centered, entitled, rich white kids with problems. In short, not an easy topic to make a weighty film from. Avery tackles the material though with verbal flair, extreme visual cleverness and absolutely brilliant soundtrack choices. None of the characters here are entirely sympathetic. Sweet and sincere Paul Denton is arguably the most human of the bunch. Paul (as played by Ian Somerhalder who many of you will recognize as the deceased Boone character from the early seasons of LOST) along with Sean Bateman (an excellent demented turn from James Van Der Beek, obviously desperate to shed his teen idol image and be taken seriously) and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a dark beauty who has been tragically underused in dreck like One Missed Call and 40 Days and 40 Nights) form the central character trifecta that gives the film it's momentum.

We meet Lauren first, at the first of several crucial party scenes (including one in the middle of the film which features what appears to be an exact replica of the burning Wicker Man from the 70's film of the same name, itself a wonderfully demented, funny and wholly original take on the battle of the sexes). Rules of Attraction is bookended by this winter season "End of the World" party. The movie puts you off within the first 5 minutes as we watch this sad young lady emerging from a passed out drunken stupor and realizing that she's being filmed by a semi-acquaintance while being sodomized by a complete stranger, neither of whom realize she's losing her carefully guarded virginity. The gentleman pumping away pukes on her back (classy!) before the film starts literally rolling backwards, rewinding the story along with it. Avery's camera moves, in the first of many complex and brilliant tracking shots, down the hallway and down the stairs to introduce us to the demonic looking Sean (Van Der Beek) who swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels and scans the crowd like a vulture looking for the evenings plaything. Bateman is established immediately as an emotionally vacant young man and a compulsive liar (it's no coincidence as we learn in a few subtle moments that he's the brother of Patrick Bateman, the inhuman sadist and Huey Lewis superfan from Ellis's American Psycho). We finally circle back (through another time warp reverse sequence) to Paul, who is in love with Sean. We then rewind much further, over several months and seasons, to the beginning of the school year.

In addition to the numerous examples of deliberate emotional manipulation and callous abuse that these characters inflict on each other, there are also many cases of mistaken identity and misunderstood "signals". The crucial one involves the sending of perfume laden love letters that Sean Bateman receives daily and which inspire him, for the first time it seems, to seek out a loving relationship instead of the debaucherous excesses that have numbed him to the point where sex is not even physically enjoyable anymore. These characters, for all their faults, truly put their hearts on the line with devastating results. As painful as the painful moments are though, this film has light and love and humor throughout as well. It is a brilliant satire (big surprise from the writer of American Psycho who again uses the decadent 1980's as the backdrop with which he weaves his yarn) and I also feel like there are probably some deeper themes that I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. This film affects me very strongly on an emotional level of course but I feel like intellectually, there may be things going on that I haven't picked up on and interpreted as the filmaker and writer intended. That's okay though, great art, in my experience is subjective to the viewer. Everything is meaningless and yet so stuffed with passion. Everyone is cynical and yet wear their hearts on their sleeves.

I want to make special mention of a moment where cinematic technique and dynamic interpersonal chemistry meet. I've long admired the complicated tracking shots of Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas famous Copa Cabana entrance amongst others), Robert Altman (the Welles referencing opening minutes of The Player) and of course Brian DePalma (who loves tracking shots almost as much as the split screen including the amazing sequence in Raising Cain where we follow two police detectives out of an office, down a hall, into an elevator, ouf the elevator, down a series of halls and into a morgue). The one in Rules of Attraction is easily my favorite of any of them. It starts as a split screen sequence that follows Van Der Beek and Sossaman in two seperate tracking shots as they get moving early on a Saturday morning, each navigating the beautiful sun drenched campus, Sossaman even stops to smoke a joint with her lecherous professor (an excellent cameo from Eric Stoltz who partnered with Avery as the lead in Killing Zoe and memorably played the heroin dealer in Pulp Fiction, a sequence Tarantino reportedly wrote for Stoltz based on his heroin fueled sequences in Zoe). We hear Sossamon tell her roomate that she's going to class but we don't know where Van Der Beek's headed, until each character suddenly appears in the others split screen in close up. We watch both faces as they meet cute, flirt and put butterflies in your stomach with the prospect of sweet young love. The camera pulls back and pivots until the shots join together as one and we observe them, in profile staring at each other. I mentioned a moment like this in my Sydney/Hard Eight write-up and mentioned in that same piece how well Paul Thomas Anderson had captured that falling in love magic in Punch Drunk Love; this is one of those moments as well. It's a bright ray of sunshine in a tragic story and the technically stunning aspects of it are dwarfed by the potency of its emotional impact. Ripe with visual metaphor, these two lonely souls connect...for a moment anyway.

Eric Stoltz' Irish professor is just one part of the eccentric tapestry of character actors who are familiar to us; Thomas Ian Nichols from American Pie, Clifton Collins Jr. (a bit over the top here as a wild eyed drug dealer seemingly inserted for comic relief, he has done great work in films like Capote where he played the vulnerable and psychotic Perry Smith and delightfully obnoxious work in a little B-movie classic from my high school days called The Stoned Age), we get Faye Dunaway as Paul's mom and Swoosie Kurtz (Citizen Ruth and Cruel Intentions among many others) as Mrs. Jared, the mother of young Richard, who has a brief energetic, George Michael and booze fueled tryst with Paul. We even get an almost unrecognizeable Fred Savage, strung out in a pair of boxer shorts, shooting drugs into his toes and playing the clarinet while a lit cigarette sticks out of his belly button. The Wonder Years indeed Mr. Savage!

I don't reaelly want to give away the plot twists in the movie but I can tell you that it is far from formulaic. Like The Shape of Things, I feel like this film missed it's audience because of it's marketing strategy. It was sold in 30 second TV spots as a college movie comedy (I was VERY distrubed to actually find it recently listed in the "Top 25 college comedies of all time") with the hearthrob from Dawson's Creek and young starlets Kate Bosworth and Jesica Biel. So, the people who did go to see it were probably horrified at the raw nerve vulnerability and pain at it's core or just didn't get it or are so much like these characters that they somehow viewed this film as a college comedy on par with Old School or PCU. I will also tell you that I can never hear the already tragic "I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You)" song without thinking about the saddest moment in the movie (in almost any movie for that matter).

Things don't end well for anyone involved except for you the viewer, who, if you can stomach the movie, will walk away profoundly impacted by what you've just seen. Again, I can't stress enough how much I love this film and think it's an absolute masterpiece but I'd also be irresponsible to not tell you that it packs a punch. Much like Arronofsky's magnificent Requiem for a Dream or my previous spotlight film Elephant, The Rules of Attraction will cut through the fog and break your heart because of how effectively the elements of performance, music, writing and directing gel together. Rules of Attraction gets an A+ from me and I hope that the coming decade yields at least one more new vision from the tragically underutilized genius Roger Avary.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cat's Eye (1985)

Stephen King is a writer I really enjoy, arguably more for his novels than his screenplays. I’ve read only a handful but I find his style very engaging and he really knows how to keep the pages turning. I’m quite certain he’s had more film adaptations of his work than any other writer in history (with the possible exception of Shakespeare). The films are, in my experience, extremely hit or miss. The Shining and Carrie are my two favorite’s (although King apparently was so dissatisfied with that hack Stanley Kubrick’s take on his book that he decided to remake it with Steven Weber from Wings in the Nicholson role…needless to say it was the wrong call). Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye is one of a few anthology films he’s been involved in. It was his second one after the splendid original Creepshow film (which had the legendary George A Romero behind the camera instead of Cat’s Eye’s Lewis Teague who’s biggest claim to fame was another King adaptation, Cujo) and he later went on to write Creepshow 2 and apparently is at work on a Creepshow 4 as we speak. I believe it was his "Night Shift" short story collection that featured the first two of the 3 episodes in Cat’s Eye and the third he wrote especially for the young Drew Barrymore who he had just met through her work on 1984’s Firestarter (another King story if you weren’t aware). I’m actually reading one of his short story compilations at home right now that features The Langoliers (AWFUL movie, but I’m enjoying the story so far), Secret Window (GREAT movie, haven’t seen how the story compares yet) and two others (Sun Dog and The Library Policeman) that, as far as I know remain un-filmed.

The basic premise here in Cat's Eye is that these three stories are all connected by a stray cat which often plays a crucial role within the story itself and also serves to transition from one to the next. The stories are also similar in terms of a solid blend of comedy and horror elements (true of most of King’s work in my opinion).

The most compelling reason to see Cat’s Eye is the first of its three chapters, "Quitters Inc." We have James Woods in all his sleazy, smirking glory as a loving husband and father who goes to meet with a special smoking cessation company to try to kick the habit. He meets with a “doctor” named Vinny Donatti (the delightful Alan King who I mostly know from his dramatic turn in Casino but who apparently was also a famous comic once upon a time). Donatti explains that he has the ultimate program to stop smoking for good. He explains that he will have his people watching all the time, in his car, in his home, at his job, EVERYWHERE and that if they catch him, they will kidnap and torture his wife with progressing levels of punishment (cutting off fingers, electrocution, etc.) and that if that fails to work, his daughter will be next. There’s a very funny moment where he meets with another couple who “successfully” completed the program and we see the wife’s bandaged hand to demonstrate that Dr. Donatti is serious about it. I love this story first and foremost because I have had an ongoing battle with cigarette addiction for over 10 years now and I can relate. While they were too cheap to pay for the real song, I also love the ironic use of the Police classic “Every Breath You Take” during a hallucination sequence at the party (which prominently features memorable character actor James Rebhorn who has stood out in The Game, Meet The Parents and many others). I also want to mention how funny James Woods is throughout the piece, taking his energetic bundle of nerves persona a little over the top as he fights his cravings and tries to hide from Donatti’s spies and enforcers.

Each of the stories is roughly 30 minutes long. The second portion, “The Ledge” maintains the bizarre comedic thriller tone of the first and centers on a tennis pro, in love with a married woman, who gets caught by the rich, powerful husband of the woman he’s been snogging on the sly. The basic set up is that the husband is a degenerate gambler/mobster type who has decided to handle his wife’s indiscretions by presenting a wager to the young stud; if he can walk around the ledge of a building without falling off he can have “the girl, the watch and everything” (a sly comment which functions within the story but is also aimed at the actor playing the tennis pro…but we’ll get back to that). Both the leads in this section are actors that had very memorable roles in other movies, but really haven’t been in much else. Granted, I recently noticed that Kenneth McMillan (who plays the bad guy husband) has a small role in Amadeus but I have seen him 50+ times since I was a kid as the dreaded Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune (a film that is a bona fide classic in the Pritchard household and will definitely get a spotlight treatment here in the blog one of these days). Robert Hays (who appears as the tennis pro in question) most people would recognize immediately as Captain Ted Striker from the Airplane films. While it’s a bit jarring to watch Hays play a serious role (much Like Leslie Nielsen’s chilling turn in the aforementioned Creepshow) and this one is certainly the most genuinely creepy and suspenseful of the three, it’s still a breezy and enjoyable 30 minute short.

These first two sections are, as I mentioned earlier, originally short stories from King and as much as I love them both, I could see how the basic conflicts of each (overcoming addiction and overcoming fear) would be well suited to the internal dialogue that fiction writing lets breathe in a way that films can’t. It is ironic then that the one part written expressly for the film is my least favorite of the three. Don’t get me wrong, “The General” is a good closer for the film and isn’t at all bad. But if I saw the first two out of context, I’d still want to revisit them over and over, “The General” I just sort of sit through because I’m already there. The cat takes a more prominent role in this one as he is adopted by precocious youngster Drew Barrymore and her family. What the family doesn’t realize is that they already have someone (or something) living in their house, a vicious creature who lives in the walls and looks like a hybrid between a Keebler Elf and the Jigsaw mask from the Saw films. While he is a sharp dresser and has an even sharper little knife, the real danger comes when he stands on your chest and steals your breath!! Fortunately, the cat (lovingly named “The General” by Barrymore’s little girl) is there to save the child from peril. The parents, who are already reluctant to let the cat sleep in their daughter’s room, find the messy aftermath of the first cat/troll battle and decide to banish The General to the outdoors. Will the cat be able to save the little girl in time? Will we get to hear that cheesy cover band version of “Every Breath You Take” again?? The answer to both, of course, is yes. The song’s ironic repetition of “I’ll be watching you” in context with the cigarette Gestapo tactics was clever and for this portion I suppose the “Every Breath You Take” lines are used to playfully acknowledge the breath stealing mischief. I don’t remember if they managed to work this song into the middle portion but it seems to follow that darn cat everywhere!

In terms of the balance between humor and horror, I want to be clear that while there are definitely very funny parts, this is not a gore filled horror film by any means, each sequence feels more like a Twilight Zone episode (high concept and suspenseful) while being infinitely better than that dreadful Twilight Zone: The Movie anthology (and without accidentally decapitating any of the child or adult actors like John Landis did…note to Hollywood: if you’re going to plow ahead and still release a movie that cost two children and a movie star their lives, it should not be a total turd, in fact it really ought to be exceptionally good…hey get back here The Crow, this applies to you too… and don’t think you’re getting away unscathed Vampire In Brooklyn!!). I just wanted to point out that this movie has some extra bits of fun for Stephen King fans and one little inside joke for all the Robert Hays fans out there. James Woods, during his sequence is shown watching the David Cronenberg film version of King’s book The Dead Zone (another future blog film) and says “Who writes this crap?”, the cat at one point has an encounter with a St. Bernard as a shout out to Cujo, the cat nearly gets squashed by a red Plymouth Fury (nodding to Christine) and the mom in Drew Barrymore’s section is shown reading King’s “Pet Semetary”. The last little bit of obscure trivia is that line I mentioned from “The Ledge” about “the girl, the watch and everything” which is the name of a successful TV movie that starred Robert Hays back in 1980 (still fresh in King’s mind I suppose while writing this in 1984).

So, yeah this movie won’t change your life or anything but I suspect you will really enjoy it and hopefully it’s something that you’re not familiar with that can spice up your Friday night instead of renting that latest Apatow movie. Grade: B