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Somebody’s watching: Reeves, animated, in A Scanner Darkly.

An Evil Within

 

By Shawn Stone

A Scanner Darkly

Directed by Richard Linklater

It’s hard to top the terrors of contemporary reality, but writer-director Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly presents an vision of “seven years from now” so awful as to give even the paranoid pause. Based on the book by Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly is a frightening vision of a government with unlimited surveillance powers and a people lost in a downward spiral of increasingly powerful drugs.

Everyone in the story is watching everyone else. Officer Fred (no last names), played by Keanu Reeves, is part of a counter-narco-terror unit in which the members wear “scramble suits” that constantly shape-shift, keeping the cops’ identities secret from even each other; Fred lives undercover as “Bob Arctor,” a drug addict, in a ramshackle California ranch house with a couple of other drug addicts, Barris (a frightening Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). They’re all strung out on a new drug, “Substance D,” which slowly destroys their minds. Bob’s girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) deals “D,” but prefers old-fashioned cocaine for her high of choice.

“Scramble suits”? No, these are not rendered in some CGI weirdness; A Scanner Darkly uses rotoscope animation, in which live-action film is digitally “painted over” to create a disorienting, animated image. The technique is suited to the material.

Linklater’s first animation/live-action hybrid, Waking Life, was mesmerizing and nauseating. The former is meant figuratively, as the film’s images were inventive, ever-changing and often beautiful; the latter term is meant literally. After 45 minutes of loopy, smearing imagery and nonstop chatter and blather, I started to feel sick. Happily, the technique has been refined—or Linklater has restrained himself—in A Scanner Darkly. The interface between live action and animation is more subtle; when the imagery is taken to extremes, it’s for a solid dramatic purpose. While the scramble suits are the most obvious example of, well, scrambled visuals, at times you’ll be stopped short by outdoor shots that don’t seem retouched at all. It’s another way of keeping the audience guessing about how much of what is being shown is “real.”

The paranoia gets wilder as the characters sink deeper into drug use. Bob/Fred is starting to slip into psychosis; the police doctors can’t—or won’t—tell him what’s really going on with his brain. Barris gets meaner and scarier; in one scene, he lets one of his compadres almost die. The fact that we can’t be sure whether this is because Barris is a sociopath or is just strung out adds to the feeling of dread. In a story filled with awful events, we know that something really terrible is going to happen.

The ending ties up all the loose ends almost too well, and has a slight hint of hope that seems strange after the crushing—if entertaining—downer that is most of the story. Still, A Scanner Darkly stays with you, its ghostly images of doomed drug addicts and faceless, fascist cops lingering like so much digital residue in your brain.

Yo-Ho-Hum

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Directed by Gore Verbinski

The nice thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is that it reunites not just the swashbuckling trio of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), noble Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and plucky Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the first Pirates movie, but also the colorful side characters who stole scenes from their more famous counterparts. First mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) is on hand to help steer the Black Pearl away from the clutches of a vengeful Davy Jones (Bill Nighy with a computer- generated, squidlike face). Ruffian deckhands Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) and Cotton (David Bailie) lend much-needed humor, particularly when providing unexpected analyses of things like the Bible or the motive behind a three-way sword fight. Most surprising is the return of Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), who is a much-changed man in this sequel.

Clearly, director Gore Verbinski knows where his bread—or, in this case, popcorn—is buttered, and he strives mightily to give us matinee-goers a lot to munch on. In this installment, Jack is on the run from Jones, and everybody, it seems, is out to get whatever’s hidden in Davy’s chest. The bad guys here are the East India Trading Company, personified by the stuffy Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander); they are consistently greedy and unchivalrous, whereas the pirates are consistently inconsistent when it comes to troubling things like motive and allegiance. Oh, and did I mention the cannibals? Or Davy’s crew of dead sailors turned mutant sea creatures? Or the kraken, Davy’s pet leviathan, which makes several thunderous appearances?

The trouble is that there’s just too much going on, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of that minor annoyance called plot. With the exception of some wonderfully executed gags reminiscent of Bugs Bunny, the movie lacks centralized interest. Toward the end, things pick up, and decisions and actions suddenly have real import. In particular, Elizabeth’s and Jack’s final scene hint at something far more intriguing than anything in the preceding two hours and 40 minutes. It makes you very eager to see Installment Three, that is, after you get over your annoyance that you’ve had to endure what is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a sandwich minus the bread and then have to wait a year to see its conclusion. Then again, perhaps we need that long to fully digest all the details of the story.

While Knightley is first-rate in a sort of Maureen O’Hara kind of way, and Bloom does his dreamy-eyed braveheart thing well enough, Depp largely squanders the interest we felt for Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Then, his unusual choices and unexpected tics made for a thoroughly enjoyable, irreverent riff on the swashbuckler image as personified by Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. Here, however, he goes too much into the campy; Depp is all big eyes and twisted grin, mincing step and swaggering pinky. Whereas Jack Sparrow had formerly been a remarkably unique characterization, in Dead Man’s Chest he comes off as pure caricature. Let’s hope that by next year, he gets his groove back.

—Laura Leon


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