Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fido (2006)

The Movie: A cloud of interstellar dust has hit the Earth, causing the dead to rise as ravenous, flesh-eating zombies. This triggered the Zombie Wars, where humanity was forced to fight for its survival. However, as in the “Real World,” it took a powerful corporation to save the human race.

Zomcon came up with several innovations to insure the survival of humanity. First it determined that destroying the head will also destroy the zombie, making them much easier to fight. Second, Zomcon created the perimeter fences to surround and secure the communities; keeping out any walking corpses. Finally, and most importantly, Zomcon created the zombie control collar. These collars dampen the zombies’ hunger for human flesh, rendering them docile and controllable. Thanks to Zomcon, the greatest threat to humanity is now its greatest consumer status item; and the citizens of America are able to live and thrive in Zomcon maintained utopias.

Except that it isn’t all safe. The lingering space dust ensures that any unattended corpse will quickly rise up again as a threat to the living. Outside the community, the wild zombies continue to seek a way past the defensive perimeter. From within, there is always the risk of a control collar malfunctioning, instantly causing a formerly obedient servant to revert back to a ravenous monster. Of course, there are also the non-compliant subversives who are a threat to every community. Zomcon ensures that they are rendered harmless by exiling them to the Wild Zone.

Enter our hero, Timmy Robinson (Kesun Loder); an ordinary pre-pubescent boy. However, he is just old enough to start feeling the puppy love for his new neighbor and classmate, Cindy Bottoms (Alexia Fast). Timmy is also rather intelligent and perceptive; just enough so that he can see that his world isn’t as perfect as those around him want to believe, but he lacks the maturity and world experience to categorize it. This marks him out as “the weird kid,” and generally leaves him lonely, isolated, and bullied.

His home life isn’t much better; what with his status and appearance obsessed mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, a long way from Trinity in the Matrix), and his emotionally distant, death-obsessed, zombie-phobic father (the ubiquitous Dylan Baker of the second two Spiderman movies and the Cell). Then there are strange characters in his life such as his skeevy neighbor Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson), who has an eyebrow-raising relationship with Tammy (Sonja Bennett), his hot teenage girl zombie.

But the arrival of the new neighbors is going to change the lives of Timmy and his family in more ways than one. Cindy’s father (Henry Czerny) happens to be the new Zomcon head of security for Timmy’s town. His mother, in an attempt to get in right with the new neighbors, goes against her husband’s wishes and buys the family a zombie (Billy Connolly). Timmy quickly bonds with the zombie and dubs him “Fido.”

Unfortunately, trouble starts when Fido’s collar gets damaged and he winds up eating Mrs. Henderson (Mary Black), the nasty old woman who lives across the street. Timmy’s attempt to cover it up only brings on greater problems. Mr. Bottoms, a vicious and single-minded son-of-a-bitch, is determined to find a scapegoat…

The Review:

Now, I don’t want you to think that what we did was normal or alright in any way.”
-Helen Robinson

Io Saturnalia! Merry Christmas! Happy Yule, Chanukah, Kwanza, or whatever Winter Solstice holiday you celebrate! One of the sure signs of the arrival of this time of year is the glut of feel-good family movies. Always one to put my oar into the water, for my contribution I present you with my review for Fido; a sweet, uplifting little tale of a boy and his zombie that can probably best be described as Lassie Come Home meets Dawn of the Dead.

Even though it is often labeled as such, Fido is not a horror movie; at least not of the visceral kind you find with genre horror. Instead, Fido’s horror leans toward the political. At its core, Fido is a satire. The world of the movie harkens back to an age that most people these days look upon with nostalgia and rose-colored glasses. On its surface, with a few exceptions, this world looks like the idyllic 1950s small town we see in reruns of shows like Leave it to Beaver; bright colors, consumer goods, peaceful neighborhoods and mostly well-behaved young people.

However, like actual 1950s America, there is a dark shadow to the world of Fido as well. The people who idealize this era tend to forget that it was also the time of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and a general sense of paranoia. While everybody expends their energies to keeping up an appearance of prosperity and contentment; there is still the often unvoiced fear of a Them that is out to take what they have. And bizarrely, even as it uses 1950s aesthetics, Fido also holds a mirror to post-9/11 America as well. Our Them is Islamic terrorists instead of Communists or zombies, but we continue to maintain the paranoid mindset of an outside enemy infiltrating our homes. In fact, Zomcon presents us with a great metaphor for where our society is headed (if it’s not already there); an entrenched, overly powerful corporate sector that simultaneously promises to provide us with everything we need while waving societal boogiemen in our face to scare us into not opposing them.

A lot of thought and effort went into building the society that the movie’s characters inhabit, to fascinating and terrifying effect. Guns are not only allowed at school, but their use is part of the curriculum. Old people aren’t afforded respect anymore; in fact they’re viewed as a threat, since they could potentially die and rise as a zombie at any time. And proper funerals in the world of Fido are as prohibitively costly as attending a good college is in our society. One suspects that Zomcon purposefully set it up this way. After all, zombies are now an extremely lucrative resource, despite their inherent danger; and too many proper funerals would cut into Zomcon’s profits.

Some of my favorite scenes in this movie are just shots of the world the characters live in. There are shots of sunny days in the park, complete with picnics and kids playing ball, while the household zombie carries the parasol or walks the dog. There are propagandist newsreels, which aside from the zombie content could have come right out of 1950s America. There’s a typical day at school, where the children practice with their rifles. Then there’s one of the scenes I like the best; where several zombies, under the supervision of a Zomcon minder, attempt to deliver the milk and newspapers.

As longtime readers of this blog are probably aware of, I love good characters and character development. Fortunately; in Fido, like in the original Romero zombie movies it simultaneously spoofs and pays homage to, the main focus of the movie is on the human characters. Most of the main characters are far better developed than one would expect them to be. Many of them are presented so that we first see them one way, but as the movie goes on we start to see different sides to them and get a better idea of who they are and why.

Timmy’s parents are great examples. His mom starts out looking like your typical, appearances obsessed ‘50s housewife. However, she winds up bonding with Fido as well, and becomes one of Timmy’s biggest allies in regards to him. Also, from the beginning we get some strong hints that Timmy’s father isn’t the one in charge of the family. His father, meanwhile, comes across as emotionally distant, insecure, and something of an asshole. However; as we are gradually shown, there are valid reasons for this. In fact, it eventually becomes clear that he really does love his son; and by the end Mr. Robinson actually redeems himself.

Mr. Theopolis is another great character. Our first looks at him are from the viewpoint of the rest of the community, as a somewhat sleazy degenerate. It might be noted that in most of his early appearances he comes across looking (I sincerely doubt coincidentally) like a young Huge Hefner. However, Theopolis is the first individual to notice that Timmy needs help, and immediately offers it. By the end of the movie Theopolis voluntarily winds up going above and beyond for Timmy and his family. And finally, we eventually start getting some looks at his and Tammy’s relationship that show it to be far more than what everyone thinks it is. By the end the impression is of something that is sweet and healthy, albeit still very unconventional.

The child characters don’t have quite as much range; but they're fairly simple to begin with and don’t need it. The child actors do very well; Timmy is both convincing and sympathetic, and Cindy is wonderful as the girl next door who is pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotypical girl next door. In fact, age her a decade or two and you’d have the woman of my dreams. The villain also isn’t anywhere near as complex, but he’s convincing enough. One of the things that keeps me awake at night is the knowledge that there are men exactly like him in this world.

Fido also works very well as both a satire and a black comedy. Surprisingly, it’s actually a very sweet and uplifting little movie; but the dark humor leavens it enough so that the sweetness doesn’t trigger your gag reflex. I’ve been trying to get my family to watch it for a while, but they hear “zombies” and automatically make assumptions. Sigh. Overall, Fido works as both a very fun and uplifting little movie and as a razor-sharp satire on much of what is wrong with our society.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Mask (1994)

The Movie: Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) is a decent guy with an unhappy life. He is a good man and tries to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he’s rather repressed and has a hard time standing up for himself. As a result, the world tends to use him as a combination doormat/kickball/chew toy; if it bothers to notice his existence at all.

Stanley’s life changes in a major way when a club outing with his best friend and coworker, Charlie (the late Richard Jeni), through a perfect storm of unfortunate events, becomes the worst night of his life. A brief flirtation with jumping off a bridge and ending it all lands Stanley into possession of a strange Scandinavian mask. Stanley quickly discovers that the mask has bizarre powers; that whenever he puts it on it changes him and brings out the emotions he has long repressed. Suddenly he is able to affect the world around him, stand up to those who bully him, and romance Tina (Cameron Diaz in her first starring role), the beautiful bank customer who is the woman of Stanley’s dreams.

Unfortunately, the freedom that the mask provides comes with its own set of problems. Whenever Stanley wears it, he loses restraint. When Stanley robs the bank where he works, he winds up making two enemies. One is police Detective Kellaway (Peter Riegert of Animal House), who immediately becomes suspicious of Stanley and is determined to catch him.

Worse, however, is Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene of Pulp Fiction). A vicious and ruthless gangster, Dorian has been plotting to usurp the city’s main crime boss for some time. Unfortunately, funding for his plan revolves around a robbery on Stanley’s bank; and Stanley has beaten him to the punch. It also doesn’t help matters that Tina happens to be Dorian’s girlfriend. Dorian is determined to get revenge on Stanley; and he has big plans for the mask and its powers…

The Review:

This is incredible! With these powers I could be… A SUPER HERO!!! I could fight crime, protect the innocent, WORK FOR WORLD PEACE!!! But first…"
-Stanley Ipkiss

The Mask has long occupied one of the top spots on my list of all-time favorite movies. By “long” I mean since late junior high school, almost two decades at this point. I can think of three specific reasons for why this particular movie has held my enjoyment for so long. The first and probably biggest reason is, at its core, very simple; the Mask is a wish fulfillment movie that covers pretty much every major fantasy I have ever had that I would publicly admit to. What’s more; since I have no trouble identifying with the protagonist, this film is always a major morale boost for me when I have to deal with my own personal issues.

The second major reason I enjoy this movie so much came up in fairly recent years; I find the nature of the mask itself to be particularly fascinating. What is a mask? It is an object that hides what you truly are. However, the mask of this movie’s title, though we have to call it a “mask” for lack of a better term, performs the exact opposite function. Instead of hiding an individual’s true nature, this mask drags it to the surface.

Ironically, it’s the character who emphatically does not believe in the mask’s powers who provides the exposition for what it is. Psychologist Dr. Arthur Neuman (played by actor, comedian, author and right-wing shill Ben Stine) is first seen when Stanley catches him on a television talk show discussing his new book. He explains that we all metaphorically wear masks; that people employ socially acceptable fronts to hide who they truly are and what they truly desire. Later on, after Stanley discovers that whenever he wears the item in question said masks come right off, he goes to the doctor for help. Dr. Neuman doesn’t believe Stanley’s story about the mask, but his last words to Stanley are a far greater insight about it than he will ever know. When Stanley asks advice on whether he should meet Tina as either himself or the Mask; Dr. Neuman answers “go as yourself and as the Mask, because they are both one and the same beautiful person.”

The changes wrought on the two characters who wear the mask bear this out. When Stanley Ipkiss wears the mask, he turns into something that’s a combination of the charming seducer and a character out of the cartoons he loves so much. Also, because he does have a lot of pent up anger and frustration at the rest of the world, he tends to be obnoxious and/or destructive. Stanley conjures up weird, Loony Toon-style gag items such as giant mallets and tiny horns that can shatter glass. He bounces out of windows, swallows exploding dynamite, robs the bank where he works, and generally goes out of his way to annoy people.

However, Stanley is, at heart, a good man despite his pent up frustration; and his powers and actions tend to reflect this. In general, his actions are more intended to scare and annoy than they are to actually hurt others. As an example, in my favorite scene, Stanley finds himself cornered by a huge mob of police officers. His response; he summons up music, leads them into a huge dance number, and then escapes while they are distracted having fun. There are only two scenes where he goes outside this dynamic. However, the closing battle is open-ended enough that the villain might still be alive; just somewhere else. As for Stanley’s revenge on the car mechanics who take advantage of him; can any of us say we wouldn’t do the same if we were in his place?

Jim Carrey does wonderfully as Stanley Ipkiss. In fact, while the Mask came out at a time when the thought of Carrey doing serious roles was generally considered laughable; Carrey’s acting is probably what draws me the most. He has since proved that he can do a serious role, and rather well; but I have long thought that Jim Carrey is at his best as an ordinary guy finding himself in an extraordinary situation. Most people come to the Mask to see Jim Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss’ id run amuck, and he does to great in that role; but I come to it to see Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss.

The villain, Dorian Tyrell, provides the other extreme. On the surface, Dorian is a very handsome, charming man. However, underneath he is vicious and cruel. After seeing Tyrell in action, it’s no surprise that the mask turns him into something out of a horror movie, with powers to match. Overall, I think that Greene provides us with a good villain for us to boo and cheer his downfall.

The third and final reason why I love the Mask so much is that it’s just a fun and well made movie. The rest of the cast and characters are also, overall, wonderful. This is Cameron Diaz’s first movie role, and it’s easy to why she got to where she is today. There’s also a clever little bit of role-reversal with the two female characters, where the “femme fatale” actually turns out to be a decent lady, while the “good girl” is the one who winds up stabbing Stanley in the back. Jeni provides a fun and likable character as Stanley’s best friend; Charlie obviously does care about Stanley, but he tends to be oblivious to what’s going on. Detective Kellaway and his rather clueless partner, Doyle, provide a fun humorist/straight man team. And finally there’s Milo, Stanley’s loyal dog; who is at least as intelligent as his master, and who gets to briefly wear the mask himself.

The setting for the movie is also a lot of fun. Edge City is a combination of a contemporary city and the archetypal Naked City of noir. There are lots of fun little anachronistic touches, such as Stanley’s zoot suit when he puts on the mask, that harken back to that genre. Along with that is the music; the soundtrack is big band swing, and all by itself is worth seeing this movie for.

In the end, the Mask is a fun little wish fulfillment fantasy. It has a good cast, a fun storyline, great dialogue, and a few scenes that have to be seen to be believed. I revere Jim Carry for this movie alone.