Sunday, August 06, 2006

Life With Dusty

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yeah I know, it's been a while since I've updated. Sorry; guess I've just been keeping myself busy (or lazy). So I'm making up for it with what looks to be a lengthy entry, in which I will not only pool my thoughts on two new movies---The Descent and The Night Listener---but also update readers on details about our new family pet, Dusty.

Apparently, Dusty---a shitsu---is eight years old. My family brought him home from a local animal shelter, and so far he hasn't posed any big problems for us.

Well, no big problems. The first couple of nights he was home Dusty woke my mother up on account of his constant barking: it seems as if he doesn't like to be alone at nights. He's gotten better, though (although last night was a mild aberration: as I was ready to drift into sleep, I heard him barking, and I got up and, from the top of the stairs, shushed him. He seemed to get the message).

It seems as if he hasn't been trained to, er, do his business in one place. He's pissed on two of my car tires, and he's dumped on the street a few times. One of my next door neighbors has a cocker spaniel that is trained to properly piss and poop, not just do it anywhere outdoors. I guess that's something we should try to train him to do. (We probably need some kind of pooper scooper as well; for now, we've been using plastic bags to scoop up Dusty's feces.) At least he ain't relieving himself indoors.

(Very savory material for this blog entry, I know.)

We also should probably not give in to Dusty whenever he seems to want to go outside. You know, the whole "discipline" thing (Cesar Milian, anybody?). Whenever he sees any of us and really wants to go outside, he's always lunging toward the door and jumping around and panting. And, since someone is always around, we usually satisfy him. Of course, we're not going to be able to do that all the time come September, when my bros and I are off to school.

Overall, though, he's been a nice, cute addition to the family. Maybe, in the future, I'll post some pics for you so you can all gasp in the cuteness that is Dusty. And yeah, I think we'll just keep the name. He seems to respond to it.


"From the studio that brought you Saw and Hostel," trumpets the ads for the new horror film The Descent (*** out of ****). It sets up expectations that the film doesn't entirely fulfill---much to its credit, I think. I haven't seen either Saw or Hostel, but it seems like the sadistic cruelty of both films are what attracts audiences to them: the thrill of seeing torture and violence in such graphically gory detail. In other words, celebrations of cruelty. The Descent has, it must be said, many scenes of gruesome bloodletting, mostly in the film's horrorshow second half. But the difference between this film and other torture-as-mass-entertainment "horror" films of recent years is that there actually seems to be a sense of intelligence---heck, I'd say even moral intelligence---that makes the film, at its best, genuinely scary and even frightening on a deeper level. The Descent, for all its thrill-ride jolts and frequent splashes of red, actually seems to be about something instead of just being an empty barbaric freakshow.

What's it about? The Descent is superficially about six women who decide to explore a cave and eventually find---to say the least---more than they bargained for. But I think the film is about a descent of a different sort: the descent from civilization to savagery. As these six women go deeper and deeper into this cave, they not only encounter these weird pre-human creatures who attack anything that moves (obviously, these creatures are savage from the start); the women start to distrust each other, even attack each other. One of them, in a mad rush, accidentally impales one of the cave-hunting friends and, shocked, leaves her to die; another eventually stabs that same woman in the leg and leaves her to be eaten by the creatures after discovering what she did to her friend. The Descent turns out not just to be us-against-them; some of these six women turn on each other, whether out of survival or, in the case of one of the characters, out of pure bloodlust.

That character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), provides the most interesting character trajectory in the film. At the beginning, we witness the accidental death of her husband and daughter, and we see how much it haunts her, as much as any such would haunt anyone. (Throughout the film, there are surrealistic interjections of shots of her late daughter holding a candlelit birthday cake.) A year later---when the film's titular "descent" takes place---she's still on the mend, and her friends figure that this trip is a good way to get her out of her funk. Boy, it gets her out of a funk all right---but not in the way you'd expect. There's no redemption for Sarah in director Neil Marshall's dark, dank universe: instead, by the end, she's emerging out of a bath of blood, Carrie-like, and wearing a glowering look on her face as she stares into the eyes of Juno (Natalie Mendoza)---the instigator of the trip and the one who accidentally kills her best friend---stabs her, and allows her to die. The trip from stressed-out widow to coldblooded murderer is complete; one trauma has been replaced by another.

No, I suppose the whole idea of a film detailing the descent of an otherwise normal human being into something subhuman isn't necessarily a fresh, new idea. But Roger Ebert has famously said "a movie is not about what it is about, but how it's about it." There is an eeriness and intensity to The Descent that really drives home Marshall's vision of humanity descending into inhumanity in moments of extreme stress. Its skillful, effective use of lighting and framing emphasizes the hell these characters find themselves in, and how it affects them psychologically. Nothing is stated directly; it's all beautifully and frighteningly suggested by the technique.

The first half of The Descent is probably its better half: it's the half with much less gore, instead focusing on generating suspense out of "natural" situations. One of the characters gets stuck under some rocks and must get out of the hole before the rocks collapse on her. Another situation finds our six women forced to cross a deep, dark chasm in order to get to the other side. These are genuinely nailbiting cliffhanger situations; compared to such sequences, the second half descends (pun intended) into the usual modern-day succession of gore effects.

By taking his characters seriously, however, and by taking its violence seriously, Neil Marshall manages to craft one of the creepier, better freakouts of recent years. It's a real horror film, not an exploitive gorefest (or, at least, not merely one).

(Spoiler alert) It also has, I think, one of the more ingenious uses of a horror-movie cliche I've seen in quite a while. It comes at the end, after Sarah has bloodied Juno and escaped from the cave. She rushes to her car, rides out into the road, stops on the side, barfs, and then bam! The ghost of Juno sitting next to Sarah frightens the shit out of her. A close-up of Sarah's frightened eyes, and the film cuts to black. It looks like the usual gratuitous "final scare"---and, for all I know, maybe Marshall only intended it as such.

But I prefer to see it this way: it's telling that it's Juno sitting next to Sarah in the car, not one of the other women (not the one Juno killed, whose name I can't remember offhand). It's the woman Sarah heartlessly allowed to die simply out of vengeance. Perhaps that bleak final image suggests that Sarah will have to live with what she did. Certainly she cannot claim to be a victim any longer. Morally intelligent indeed.

By the way: the U.S. version of The Descent has had its ending slightly chopped off. Apparently the heads of Lionsgate felt that the original ending was too ambiguous for us dumb audience members. If you've seen the film already, judge for yourself. (Personally, I like both.) Here's the original longer ending, thanks to Youtube:

For a more, uh, "tasteful" experience, try The Night Listener (*** out of ****), a slender but mostly intriguing little picture in which Robin Williams plays a radio storyteller named Gabriel Noone who has run out of stories to tell, and who finds one in the supposedly true story of a 14-year-old boy who was sexually molested as a child by his parents. But doubts about the story's authenticity eventually pop up and Gabriel---who really wants to believe this story, although whether out of caring for the boy or simply as fodder for his radio show the movie makes teasingly ambiguous---decides to try to visit the boy and find out for himself. What he eventually finds out ties the film to some of the recent memoir fabrication scandals, particularly the scandal surrounding the pseudonymous J.T. LeRoy with some of his memoirs. (Perhaps that required a spoiler alert.)

The Night Listener ultimately has the impact of an interesting little anecdote rather than a satisfyingly fleshed-out feature film. I was absorbed throughout, but at the end I was left a little hungry for a movie. Still, it's far from a bad one. Robin Williams still manages to hold you with his restraint and sensitivity. And if Toni Collette---who plays the blind woman who is apparently the woman taking care of the 14-year-old boy---never quite fashions the character into a convincing flesh-and-blood person, perhaps that's just as well: she's essentially an enigma anyway.

What The Night Listener adds up to, I think, is a portrait of a man who wants to believe in the reality of the stories he tells, but finds himself disappointed when the best story he's heard turns out to be a sham. Perhaps, just as Donna (Toni Collette's character) turns to making up stories in order to try to connect with people, Gabriel uses his own stories to try to connect with people: with his boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), with his listeners, etc.

As slight as The Night Listener may be, when you leave a movie wanting more, perhaps that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

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