Monday, July 10, 2006

Through a "Scanner," Trippily; "Pirates" takes no prisoners


directed by Richard Linklater
starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick just may be my favorite author I’ve never actually read. No question he’s one of Hollywood’s favorites. Any time a futuristic sci-fi film plays with the idea that one’s existence and memories may be an illusion, created and manipulated by an outside power, chances are it’s either based on a Dick novel or heavily steeped in Dickian influences. The results aren’t always particularly outstanding cinema (“Paycheck,” anyone?), but a movie containing even a trace of Dick’s core insight, no matter how altered, garbled, or diluted, is pretty much guaranteed to make you think—and that’s no small accomplishment.

“A Scanner Darkly” is no exception in this regard, though as directed by Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”), it’s memorable less for what it makes you think than what it makes you see. Like “Waking Life,” Linklater’s previous foray into animation, “Scanner” uses a technique called rotoscoping, whereby a film is first shot on digital video and then painstakingly “colored over” by the animators. The end product looks startlingly lifelike, almost “real.”—because it is real—but not quite. As such, it’s perfectly suited to a story that presents much of its fictional universe through the phantasmagoric haze of substance abuse.

For “A Scanner Darkly” operates not just as a paranoiac’s view of urban dystopia (though it’s certainly that), but as a dirge for the victims of the nightmarish end-game of drug addiction. Set “seven years from now,” the narrative takes place in a society in which everyone seems hooked on various cocktails of drugs—the most lethally addictive of which goes by the moniker “Substance D”—and everyone seems to be spying or snitching on everyone else. Government surveillance is shown rather casually to be the norm, though there are also broad hints that the real powers behind the scenes are of the global-corporate variety.

We see all this through the eyes of an undercover cop known as Fred, who doubles as an Everyguy named Bob Arctor. Anonymous to his fellow cops and even his superior officer, whose identities are all hidden from one another through the brilliant device of “scramble suits” (cloaks that reduce the wearer to a blur of constantly shifting identities, to escape detection), Fred/Bob is assigned to monitor...himself, along with his friends and fellow junkies, any of whom might have connections to someone higher up in the Substance D trafficking chain. These include Parris (Robert Downey, Jr.), a devious, fast-talking encyclopedia of misinformation, the permanently stoned Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), the furthest gone in addiction, who opens the movie with delusions of bus crawling all over him. Also floating in and out is Donna (Winona), their dealer, who’s supposed to be Bob’s girlfriend but who shows a peculiar aversion to being touched. As Fred/Bob tries to negotiate between his two lives, and as his mind begins to buckle under the destructive force of Substance D, his split identity/consciousness begins to show signs of becoming all too real. But then, what is “real” in Dick's world?

Linklater steps back and lets the story do its own work. His familiarity with rotoscoping and druggies aside, he’s not the most obvious match for the material. As a director, he taps deeply into the warmth of human connection, which one might think less than compatible with the essential chilliness of Dick’s ideas. Still, as anyone who’s seen “Waking Life” knows, Linklater has his own penchant for questioning reality, even if his dream-vision is less bleak. That said, “Scanner” is plenty bleak, and ultimately offers little hope for salvation or anything but a Pyrrhic victory for those fighting against the forces that bind them. It’s also rather bleakly funny, especially in the scenes driven by Parris’ urgent need to hear himself talk. The inconsequential, directionless conversations have a flavor vaguely reminiscent of Waiting for Godot : these are the condemned, making the time pass until something, anything happens to free them from the uncertainty of their existence. The punchline to this joke, and it’s a grim one, is that there is no escape—no certainty—except in the dissolution of one’s very being. Heavy stuff, but it’s Dickian to a D.




directed by Gore Verbinski
starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgard, others

Make no mistake: this is one silly movie. But that’s part of its charm. The same could be said of the first installment; #2 is just bigger, though not necessarily better, stuffed with even more effects and swashbuckling-for-the-sake-of-swashbuckling, and somewhat tripped up by an amazingly brash political incorrectness (involving cannibals and voodoo priestesses) and a plot that tries to be even more complicated and only ends up feeling rather rudderless and slightly muddled. Something about Davy Jones having struck a deal with Capt. Jack Sparrow years ago, under which he now lays claim to Jack’s soul, and Jack’s attempts to wiggle out of the contract by using, among others, those sweethearts of the seven seas, Will and Elizabeth. Be forewarned: it ends in a cliffhanger, obviously a shameless setup for Pirates 3. Oh yes, and you might want to steer clear of this movie if you don’t like creatures with tentacles, as they make up the majority of the baddies in “Dead Man’s Chest.”

I enjoyed Pirates round 2, even though—or perhaps because—it felt even more like a theme-park ride than the original. No one does physical comedy better than Depp, and there’s nothing like watching three men swordfighting while trying to maintain balance on a rolling waterwheel to make one realize that entertainment and realism bear an inverse ratio to one another...and thank Davy Jones for that. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride—and kids, don’t try this at home.



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