Thursday, January 6, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#5) Michael Mann's THE KEEP

(All apologizes to the two or three out there who may be asking 'where was Jack's next netflix-a-thon post?' yesterday.  I did watch this film last night, and then after some house-chores intended to write the review... and my face went right smack dab on the keyboard, so it was off to bed.  If this does occur again in this month then you can probably guess why)

The Keep is a muddled lust-for-sci-fi-horror glory project that sees Michael Mann admirably trying something different from his previous film, Thief, and indeed different from almost anything else he'd do in his career.  Going into it my expectation (via the description on Netflix-instant, I had not heard of it before somewhat sadly despite liking several of Mann's films) was that it would be about Nazi ghosts, or ghosts attacking Nazis.  In a sense this is not... incorrect, but not entirely accurate either.  It's simply about a group of Nazis who go into a small Carpathain village, take cover in front of this large 'Keep' or basically a big ancient fortress, and then when one of the Nazis gets all curious at one of the not-quite crosses on the walls and opens it up, a demon is let loose.

The story has some promise, and the first act carries some of those shots and sights that make a critic jump up like a little dog barking "atmospheric! atmosphere!" which is to say there's lots of shots of fog and smoke and some beautifully composes takes on the Keep and its insides and the "fog-demon" that comes out to claim souls.  And I admired how the story was about to take off with the Nazis having to turn to a Jewish man, a Doctor Cuza (an old and then young Ian McKellan), in order to translate a bunch of too-old documents and symbols that might hold the clue to stop the demon-beast thing that is killing off everyone and, if he/it gets its last talisman, could wreak havoc on the whole world.  And I even was curious about who this weird guy, played by Scott Glenn with sometime-laserbeam eyes and a disposition like Kane in Kung-Fu, was going to do in the story to possibly stop the demon or do what-not.

Attack of the killer FOG!!

There is that hope this will be a kinda-crazy 80's horror-science-fiction piece with supernatural and gloomy overtones... but then it goes little by little off the rails.  A big part of the problem is how Michael Mann decides, using as his basis the book by F. Paul Wilson, how to dole out information and to make things so...dry...and...slow.  It's one thing to draw in a viewer by captivating locations and an interesting idea, it's another to keep things dragging with the plot, to make the characters all pretty much either unlikable or underdeveloped enough to care, and to make the demon it/himself a silly-looking thing, like a muscle-bound Skeletor.

....yup... I'll be here all week, be sure to tip your waitress...
To be kind of fair, Mann apparently had made a 3 1/2 hour cut of the film and was forced to par it down.  Whether that made any more sense, or just lagged on further on shots like the one with the boat on the water that bobs and weaves all over the place for no reason, is up to speculation.  That could account for the sometimes jagged and disjointed feeling from one scene to the next despite there mostly being cohesion to the plot.  I think that characters end up not being very interesting, or much to care about, even with the Jewish doctor played by McKellan, because they aren't given much in the way of real characterization except "oh, I was old, now I'm young, your wish is my command oh demon-man-sir-thing!" for the Doctor, and for Glenn's weird-Demon-fighter it's... I still am not sure.  Although Glenn does get a half-hot-half-totally-pointless sex scene with the female lead, probably just because they're the two leads and aren't totally unattractive.

How original!  Sex while sitting up and playing the airplane game!  Now if only it were Sting...

There are good ideas here, about morality in some part (the Jewish man has to reconcile helping the Nazis vs destorying them vs attaining everlasting youth, which is gained from the Demon sucking out the souls), and about what the Nazis are really doing there even (there's one scene of almost decent argument between Jurgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne, the latter the "badder" Nazi, about this and killing villagers and so on).  It's the execution that falls flat, and is not helped at all by the dated Tangerine Dream soundtrack- yes, the ones who also scored the theatrical cut of Ridley Scott's Legend.  And the actors, all of them have given good performances elsewhere, are let down by Mann's preference for the locations over the characters, of the mood of things, the chincy (if likably) dated special effects, not least of which in the ending that carries a quasi-Masters of the Universe feel with its crazy light sabres and lunking stunt doubles.

The power of Byrne compels you!

What could have been fixed here?  Maybe the script for starters, with dialog that ranges from acceptable to turgid, or the way actors are made to *whisper-talk* lines- you know, the kind where you have to turn the volume up to hear it right before the next scene is a GUNSHOT, darn I hate that- or, again, the preference for the exteriors, the room, than the actors themselves.  And where should the tension be in The Keep, or the logic with the villagers staying or the Nazis not calling for more backup or Glenn not taking out all of the Nazi-buggers when he can being that he's kinda invincible and all?  Not too much to be found really.  The Keep disappoints as a thriller, and doesn't scare quite enough after its initial set-up to make it really worthy as a horror film.  Maybe buffs of the actors or for Nazi dramas may find it acceptable, or those willing to take their 80's cheese with a side of fog-machine.  Or for desperate cinematographers.

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