Thursday, January 7, 2010

Death Doesn't Always Equal Greatness

World's Greatest Dad (2009)
Starring: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Evan Martin
Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Here is yet another example of how much better Robin Williams functions as a dramatic actor these days. World's Greatest Dad is funny sometimes, but it is by no means a full-on comedy. Shit goes down here, and Williams' performance is a very solid one as a father put in a very strange position.

Williams plays Lance Clayton, a failed writer who winds up teaching poetry at his son's high school. Lance's life really isn't anything close to what he wishes it could be. He's written several books, but he's never been published. The woman he's dating (another faculty member named Claire) seems more interested in a fellow teacher's basketball games. His son Kyle's only desire in life is to demean him in between masturbation sessions. One night, following a date with Claire that Kyle also attended, Lance sends Kyle home while talking with Claire for awhile. Upon returning home, he discovers Kyle has inadvertently killed himself in an unusual manner.

The following scene is a good one, as we get a look at Lance's emotions and thoughts without Williams having to utter a word of dialogue. We see Lance just completely lose it, and then after a long take of his emotional outburst, we see him write Kyle's suicide note for him in attempt to create depth for his son that was simply never there. All of this takes place while Akron/Family's "You're Already Dead" reminds us that "love is simple." It's probably the most effective scene director Bobcat Goldthwait could have hoped for in such a stark moment. While Lance was perpetually disgusted with his son, this scene makes us privy to the love he felt nonetheless, and it doesn't feel forced or fake.

Upon returning to his school to resume working after a leave of absence, Lance finds that things have changed. For once, people are reading something he's written, but it isn't a book, it's Kyle's suicide note. The note became public domain, and the school's students and faculty alike begin to romanticize Kyle's life and intelligence despite not ever really knowing or liking him. Before long, Lance finds himself penning Kyle's journal, a well-written account of a tortured soul. The problem is, that tortured soul never existed. Nearly every student in the school begins to almost worship Kyle, dedicating their every move to his memory. All the girls want him post-mortem; some even carve his name into their flesh. Suddenly Lance has become a successful writer, but he has done so by using his dead son as a vessel for his work. The only person who thinks anything strange is going on is Andrew, a timid student who was Kyle's only true friend and knows none of this can be real.

World's Greatest Dad does an excellent job showing how the mirror of death often reflects a different image than we saw during life. Regardless of anything a person did while alive, death almost always washes away the negatives. The truth is, Kyle was something of a repugnant person, and no one gave a shit about him while he was alive. This is the same kid who was sent to the principal's office after shouting "that pussy isn't gonna eat itself" to a girl passing by. And yet that's not the Kyle anyone remembers. Death has turned Kyle into a saint and Lance into a martyr. Lance is left to decide whether the attention is really worth it when it comes like this. While Dad stops short of completely going for the throat, it's still a jarring film with some very dark undertones. It's funny, but in the saddest possible way. Not widely released, I hope this movie gains some backing now that it's on DVD.

I Can't See Anything

Most movies based on Stephen King's work suck. This one didn't.

The Mist (2007)
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Laurie Holden, Frances Sternhagen, Andre Braugher, Nathan Gamble
Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Horror movies have long been abusive to me. I know what's going to happen, but I just keep coming back. Shit pile after shit pile, I return to the genre with false hopes of unique and/or useful entries of work. The Mist, on top of being a horror movie, is also based on a Stephen King novella. Most adaptations of King's writing are poorly orchestrated, but The Mist manages to do a lot of things right while avoiding the obvious temptations that most movies in the genre readily give in to.

Much like any other horror effort, things start out relatively calmly. The morning after a visceral storm attacked their home, the Drayton family is in need of supplies to bandage up their dwelling. Father David (Thomas Jane) and young son Billy decide to go in to town to pick up what is needed, leaving the family's matriarch behind. Along with them for the journey is their neighbor Brent, who the family has been feuding with over property for some time. Fortunately, it looks as if the disagreements can be put aside in a mutual time of need.

Once at a local supermarket, things start getting weird. A strange mist envelops the store. A man runs in the store screaming that the mist has taken his friend. The store shakes and rattles. Needless to say, everyone inside is confused and terrified. Whatever lies in the mist is a mystery; no one in the store can see anything more than a few feet away. We get introduced to several characters here, including Ollie, a nerdy supermarket employee, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), an evangelical woman who believes this is the apocalypse, and Irene, a spunky old woman who isn't to be fucked with.

From here, things only get tougher for the store's occupants. An accident on the loading dock reveals to a select few that some sort of creatures are residing within the mist, but many of the townspeople refuse to believe it. David becomes something of a leader, trying to warn everyone of the true danger they are in, while Mrs. Carmody wars against him, telling everyone this is God's will, and that they need to pay in blood for everything to be as it should. As things worsen outside the store, things worsen inside as well. Mrs. Carmody's fire-and-brimstone sermons begin to convert others, and instead of joining hands to combat the unknown, everyone is busy fighting each other. By the film's climax, Mrs. Carmody and her followers are just as horrifying as whatever might be lurking in the distance.

The Mist threatens to get dumb early and often. We're given a group of characters that seem to embody the stereotypes we often see in this type of movie. We've got the David as the mentally-stable leader, Mrs. Carmody as the foil, Ollie as the nerd-turned-badass, and Brent as the non-believer in denial. But all of these characters are portrayed well, and their actions serve to plunge the movie into depths that horror films often don't go. The movie also wisely steers clear of trouble in terms of explaining where the mist came from. An interesting enough explanation is given, but rather than trip all over himself trying to explain it, director Frank Darabont (who also successfully tackled King's The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) has the mist's origin come from the mouth of a character who knows the truth, but doesn't know everything. Doing this enables our minds to wonder and prevents us from having to second-guess any hard science that might have been presented otherwise.

The Mist isn't just a simple monster story with jumps and screams, it examines mob mentality, religious fanaticism, and human nature. It's a reminder that in the worst of times, not everyone is genetically inclined to be a hero, and not everyone has the best or clearest of motivations. As if all of this wasn't enough, The Mist provides an ending that won't disappoint. Rather than go either of the truly traditional routes, Darabont (and King, really) opts to head down a different road entirely. If only more horror films would try the paths less traveled.