Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you take away the guns and bloodshed and all that, war is actually pretty funny. It’s really nothing more than people dressed strangely walking funny and falling over occasionally—a surefire recipe for hilarity, really, until someone loses an eye or a couple of cities or whatever. At any rate, that seems be to the idea behind the laboriously madcap military farce of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Based on the fact that the American military once experimented with training psychic soldiers, the film posits the New Earth Army, a top-secret squad led by a burnt-out Vietnam vet who tries to teach his men to love the Earth Mother and walk through walls. This is a tantalizing hook bearing little meat, so the film transposes all of the silliness onto present-day Iraq, where a journalist discovers a former member of the group on a super-secret mission. Are the psychics searching for WMDs? Trying to blow up Saddam Hussein through the sheer power of their minds? Hoping to bring peace to Middle East by projecting their mental auras of acidhead hippie love crap? The possibilities are endless, if fairly stupid.

But then, almost anything would be preferable to the aimless semi-comedy we get instead. Hopes for an absurdist satire of the Iraq war are quickly dashed by dud gags, like the bit where two rival security companies engage in a firefight while butting in line at the local gas station. Oh, those darned paramilitaries! Will they never learn? (Cue wacky music.) Now, I’ll grant you some of the performances are fine. George Clooney is amusingly deadpan while spouting the most inexplicable nonsense, and Jeff Bridges is appreciably Dude-like (on the other hand, Ewan McGregor is Ewan McGregor—take it or leave it). But the humour has little kick for such a loaded subject. Even while scoring lazy laughs at hippie nonsense, the film still makes a comic set piece out of a squad of soldiers tripping on acid and playing with flowers, as if this were the most subversive notion in the world and not just a 40-year-old cliché. Military technology has advanced considerably in that time. One might have hoped that the American comedic arsenal had developed beyond the 1960s as well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

John Carpenter's Halloween

More than three decades later, the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween—no longer a mark of vanity, that possessive is now a necessity thanks to Rob Zombie—can still serve as a master class in the art of the slasher film. Has there ever been a more elegant encapsulation of everything insidious and compelling about that entire creepy genre? We’ve got the camera playing the role of stalker-turned-murderer, a teenage girl viciously stabbed following sex, and, in an ingenious twist, the slasher revealed to be nothing more than an emotionally stunted little boy. In a few moments, the film lays it all out for us: sex is death, and the voyeur is killer (these people wouldn’t be dying if we weren’t watching, right?). Everything is pretty obvious from that point on. You can even tell Jamie Lee Curtis’ character won’t die, just because she doesn’t have a date for the homecoming dance. If she can’t find a man who’ll kiss her, how will she find one who’ll kill her?

I sometimes wonder where this kinky, crazy sex-fear comes from, and why it appeals to teenagers in particular—is it the inevitable hormonal stew, combined with the sad knowledge that sex is essentially a kind of death, even if only of one’s childhood? Who knows? What matters is that Carpenter displays a surprisingly restrained touch (this might be the least gory slasher flick ever), and a pleasingly black humour that manifests in weird little touches like Donald Pleasence’s rogue psychiatrist interrupting his hunt for the killer in order to frighten children for fun. The film is witty yet nerve-rattling, and almost as relentless and merciless as Michaels Myers himself. Still, I find myself sometimes missing Carpenter’s characteristic social commentary and political rage, even as I admire the film’s carefully crafted, hermetically sealed world, where all of life seems to consist of a single lonesome suburban street. Depending on my mood, this is either Carpenter at his best or most inessential.