Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rentals: The Fly and Home of the Brave

Or just The Fly. The less said about Home of the Brave, the better.

Also, Fox's Blu-ray Disc prices suck. I'll probably add The Fly to my collection eventually, but the $28 it costs at Amazon is more than I'm willing to pay right now. Sadly, we're likely to see fewer sales on BDs now that they're less focused on beating HD DVD.

The Fly (1986)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray disc)

One of my first thoughts after watching David Cronenberg's version of The Fly was that it is a horror movie for adults. Not just because the stars can't exactly pass for teenagers or college kids or because the science in its science-fiction is particularly good - it isn't. The thing that elevates it above many other horror films is how introspective it is.

If The Fly were being remade today (and, for all I know, there probably is something being worked on), there would be more characters, and the human fly of the title would be killing them off, sucking their blood after he did so. That's not where Cronenberg is interested in going, though - he's more interested in examining the effect Seth Brundle's metamorphosis has on the man himself rather than painting targets on people's backs.

Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a physicist who has been working in relative solitude on teleportation for years, and has managed to transport inanimate objects, but living things get turned inside out by the process. He brags about it to Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a pretty science journalist as a means to get her back to his warehouse which serves as both lab and living space. She's fascinated, both by the science and the scientist, but when her editor and former lover (John Getz) tries to publish before she is ready and insert himself back into her life, a drunken Brundle uses himself as a test subject, and though it appears he's fixed the inversion problem, a fly that accidentally entered his teleportation pod has been fused with him at a genetic level, and as time goes on, Brundle begins to exhibit more and more insect-like traits.

Since the movie is only focusing on two or three characters, it's important that we don't get sick of them. None of the characters in The Fly are terribly complex, but they play to the performers' strengths and keep us interested. Seth Brundle is the quintessential Jeff Goldblum character - smart, but more than a bit peculiar; he's the kind of guy who'll get engrossed by a problem and not recognize that it's well past time to be concerned for his own well-being or the world around him. His jealousy of Veronica plays as coming from the same personality traits that make him a successful scientist: He sees all questions as problems to investigate and solve, which is a sure route to madness in a relationship. His positing that he is no longer Seth Brundle, but some hybrid offspring he calls "Brundlefly" means that his curiosity rather than problem-solving instincts are engaged even as the other characters react in horror at what is happening to him.

Geena Davis and John Getz aren't quite that complicated, but they do their jobs very well: Davis's Veronica is sane and beautiful enough to serve as sharp contrast to Brundle's eccentricities, but she's also got the sort of interest in the unusual to be drawn to Brundle and hold off taking action until things get really strange. Getz plays Brundle's opposite, a guy who is basically a jerk and more interested in the practical than the amazing.

The story is good and the performances are pretty decent, and that gives the film an unsettling atmosphere. That might be good enough, but Cronenberg and his special effects team (notably Brundlefly designer Chris Walas) take that air of uncertainty and make it pay off with some top-quality gore. Bones get exposed when Brundle doesn't know his own strength, and its a tough call as to whether his shedding of human characteristics or the addition of insectoid ones are more gleefully disgusting. Even some of the effects which don't stand up as well at least succeed in being unsettling for a moment or two before the urge to laugh kicks in.

The script by Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue is smart enough to not be about any one specific thing, as science fiction stories are often wont to be. There's bits about scientific hubris, abortion, stunted emotional development; Brundle's transformation can be seen as disease, aging, or the delusion that he can handle things life throws at us. Cronenberg, Goldblum, and Davis do a pretty fantastic job in making sure that we can see bits of ourselves in Seth and Veronica, but the shift to a nail-biting finale doesn't seem artificial.

Cronenberg's The Fly is one of the great horror movies, not just because it can be accurately described as "more" and smarter than most horror flicks, but because it can do all that and still be eminently watchable when the goal is quality mutilation and gore.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

Home of the Brave (1986)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray disc)

Home of the Brave was probably never going to be the first great Iraq war veteran film; it's far too eager to address that subject directly. Even if it was never going to be definitive, it would have been nice for it to at least be an average movie. Sadly, its unable to even manage those standards, no matter how good its intentions may be.

Director Irvin Winkler and his screenwriter Mark Friedman are trying to make the point that making war is often easier than handling it afterward, but probably didn't expect the quality of their film to illustrate the point. Home of the Brave opens with a fairly well-accomplished sequence where a group of Army reserve soldiers serving in Iraq are introduced and then ambushed on one of their last missions before being sent home: Characters are sketched out efficiently, the action is well-photographed, the sound adds to the tension, and the procedural details seem accurate without being confusing to those without the appropriate knowledge. Then the survivors are sent home.

And then things start to fall apart. For the characters, that's the point - P.E. teacher Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) is not only self-conscious of and hindered by her prosthetic hand, but no longer feels any connection to her boyfriend. Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) lost his best friend in Iraq and his job at home; none of the work he can find feels like it matters. Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) is angry without an outlet. And Dr. Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) is drinking when he's not clashing with his son (Sam Jones III), who has taken up an anti-war position in large part to spite his father.

That's not a terrible start, but Winkler and Friedman don't really send them anywhere from there. They've basically got these four characters, in somewhat different situations, and we cycle through them, watching Vanessa feel awkward, Tommy feel lost, Jamal feel angry, and Will feel conflicted. None of their individual stories do much to make them interesting characters rather than just avatars of how people come back from war damaged. When their paths cross, they rarely do much more than talk.

Now, they shouldn't all melt down the way one character does, but their conversations often come across as simplistic lectures to the audience. Tommy and Jamal go to a support group to hear Vietnam vets talk about how it never goes away. There's a scene where Vanessa and Tommy meet and find common ground, and as well as Biel and Presley play it, it's still all about talking to us, rather than revealing anything about them.

Sad, because it might be the best-acted scene of the movie. The rest is mostly adequate, but occasionally it gets embarrassing. A sequence with a drunk Will, for instance, allows Samuel L. Jackson to indulge his worst tendencies toward overacting. Most of the cast isn't given much to do - 50 Cent in particular - and wind up giving fairly flat performances.

I feel bad for Winkler and Friedman, as I suspect this is something they felt strongly about. But strong feelings and good intentions aren't nearly enough to make a good movie.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

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