Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gareth Edwards' Monsters: Loving the alien

Monsters is a movie of rare and surprising beauty, which is not what you'd expect to say about a movie about alien monsters called Monsters. It's not a story about a disaster so much as it's about surviving and keeping a semblance of a normal life after a disaster. Unlike Hollywood product, it doesn't bombard your senses with nonstop chaotic CG action and noise, partly because Gareth Edwards didn't have the money for that (though what he manages to put onscreen for as little money as he had was more believable to me than all of Avatar's ooo-shiny megapixels), and partly because the story was allowed to evolve naturally, without a conventional script, with talented actors building characters from story notes. This is a process that would never work under a studio. It's guerilla independent filmmaking at its purest.

It's also an example of how a story can end up working on multiple different levels even if its creator didn't mean for it to. Edwards has said in interviews that he initially just wanted to make a monster movie. Once teamed up with his actors, it became a touching story about those characters, and how they bond through their ordeal. Once he chose his location — Mexico — it added an extra layer, as an allegory about xenophobia, and America's near-hysterical fear of illegal aliens invading our borders. In one incredible shot (and Edwards himself did all the film's 200 or so FX shots, most of which are more convincing, as I said, than the trash studios inflict on us), we see a colossal concrete wall, perhaps 500 feet high, stretching across the US/Mexico border, to keep out the aliens. Not long after, we see just how well that worked.

I doubt that Edwards, a British filmmaker and veteran FX man, consciously absorbed the anti-immigration madness of the Tea Party in the interest of setting out to make a political allegory. In fact he's indicated as much. Somewhere along the way, the zeitgeist just worked its way into his movie. Stories that have real substance are rarely the ones that set out in the first place to rub your nose in a message. George Romero didn't set out with Night of the Living Dead to compose an allegory of the social unrest of the 60's, and the way Americans were suddenly viewing one another as enemies, each group out to get the other. But the subtext is there, if you want it.

In addition to all the giant-rampaging-monster movies of yore, Monsters' key influence seems to be Ridley Scott's Alien. It's easy to forget, considering that there are probably very few movie geeks today under the age of 50 who don't know exactly what the Alien looks like in every detail, that in the original classic, Scott did something remarkable: he hired the foremost macabre artist in the world to create a being of unsurpassed horror and grotesqueness, encouraged him to build that creature in loving detail with no creative restrictions — and then in the finished film, we almost never saw it.

Instead, its presence was palpably felt all through the movie from the moment it was let aboard the ship. Once the Alien was in the picture, nothing the characters would or could do for the rest of their lives (most of which were measured in hours) wasn't a direct response to its presence.

But there's a notable difference between Monsters' monsters and Giger's Alien, the creature from Cloverfield, and most of moviedom's other colossal beasts. They're not really monsters at all, simply alien creatures who've ended up someplace they don't belong, are trying to make do, and would probably be perfectly happy if the US military wasn't determined to keep shooting them with missiles and whatever else our taxes have paid for. One of the Mexican guides leading our protagonists through the Infected Zone that makes up the northern half of that country to the US border even says as much. Leave the creatures alone, they'll leave you alone. And when you pay close attention to the movie, you notice that they never, in fact, attack unless threatened.

The actual appearance of the monsters is handled sparingly, making it clear that — like Scott in Alien and classic producer Val Lewton (Cat People) — what you don't see is far scarier than what you do. We first see the monsters in a brief opening credit sequence, where they're flickery video images on televisions in the background. Off and on we see them again, just this way. A distant threat, an image on a screen on a screen.

Meanwhile, all around we see what their presence has created: a society where helicopters and fighter jets roar through the skies at all hours, where children are trained to use gas masks (to protect them not from anything the monsters do, but the weapons used against them), where the skeletons of demolished buildings loom up from the jungle. Those FX shots are often beautifully composed against grey skies or blazing sunsets, bleak and mournful. I was reminded of Tarkovsky's Stalker, the hypnotic movie based on the Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. The premise of the novel, inspired by the Tunguska event, is that there is a "Zone" considered dangerous to people where aliens once visited, and, like lazy travelers anywhere, left a bunch of trash behind. In the movie, one man leads two others on an illegal journey into the Zone, where rumor has it there exists a room where your deepest wish will be granted. (The tricky part is that your deepest wish may not really be what you think it is.) In Monsters, Edwards' Zone, with its overgrown jungles, ruined buildings, and men willing to live dangerously because what else would they do, brought to mind the densely forested and deserted landscapes of Stalker.

We're fully halfway through the movie before we experience our first full-on monster encounter. Because we've barely seen the actual creatures at all up to this point, the scene is immeasurably more suspenseful. When the monsters need to be sinister, they are. But when Edwards wants us to see their beautiful side, we get that too. The final scene is handled with extraordinary care, where Edwards carefully balances both extreme tension and a kind of lyrical sense of wonder at the same time. This is when we and the characters fully appreciate that these beings are not what we thought them to be. And if we hadn't been so stupid as to bring them back here in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Mostly, Monsters is the story of its central couple, who find themselves having to brave hostile wilderness on their own to get back home. We know they're going to fall in love, but it's okay, because as with everything else, Edwards' defies Hollywood convention. The usual formula for studio romance plots is that the couple hates each other's guts for 85 minutes until they realize in the final five minutes they can't live without each other. The couple here don't meet-cute in the usual way (to put it mildly), and during their journey, they interact pretty much as you'd imagine real people would. Again, much of the authentic quality of the performances comes from Edwards allowing the actors to improvise most of their scenes into shape. Improvisation may sound to the average person like the lazy-ass way to get out of doing proper preparatory work, but I've had the privilege of working with actors who had strong improv skills, and good improvisation can really make a scene take on a whole new life.

Sam is the daughter of some pompous American media magnate. Kaulder is a photographer working for one of his magazines. Both are in Mexico, south of the Infected Zone, and he finds himself tasked with escorting her out of the country. At first he thinks this will just be to the coast, to a ferry that will sail back to the US through the Gulf. By a stupid mistake, they end up having to travel overland. Edwards uses non-professional actors in almost every supporting role, and this adds to the realism of each scene. The unctuous official who never drops his friendly smile as he rips them off to the tune of $10,000 for passage to the border is unforgettable.

Whitney Able doesn't play Sam as a snooty rich bitch, and Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) mostly sees her as a problem he's been stuck with when he'd rather be out grabbing the shots that pay the big bucks. Because they're stuck with each other, they decide to get along. They become friends in the way people bond from a shared ordeal.

Sam wonders if Kaulder's conscience bothers him. He makes money at his job only when bad things happen. "Like a doctor?" he replies. He points out that her father's company pays him nothing for a photo of a happy, smiling child, but will pay $50,000 for one killed by a monster. Who's in the wrong there? Midway through the film we actually see a dead child. It's a scene Hollywood would have milked for all the nauseating sentiment it could muster. First we see Caulder pulling lenses out of his camera bag, and we wonder if Sam's concerns about him are warranted. But he does nothing, and covers the body up instead.

They're always thinking ahead, to getting home. "What will you do," they keep asking each other. She has a fiancee she doesn't seem especially in love with (his engagement ring is what buys the two of them passage to the border). He has a kid from a long-ago fling whom he gets to see, but doesn't get to tell "I'm your dad." The closer they get to reaching the border, the more they talk about these old lives, the farther they actually seem. Sometimes you go through an experience so profound you cannot go back to who you were.

An obvious point of comparison here would be Cloverfield, a movie that began promisingly as a satirical exercise in imagining what a Godzilla-style attack during the age of endless digital self-documentation would look like. Where Cloverfield lost me was in hurling me into this Orpheus-like journey in which the main guy desperately wants to save his girlfriend, without first doing the work necessary to make me like the guy, like the girl, or care if they reunited and rekindled their love. Monsters effortlessly made me like both its protagonists, because it never asks me for emotional responses that its story hasn't earned (mainly by never offering a scene for cheap emotional button-mashing to begin with). I did want them to get to safety, though I didn't necessarily want them to get home. I got the idea there was no more happiness for them there.

It's not a perfect movie (the ending is a little abrupt) by any means. But for a filmmaker spitting on his hands and following his vision without regard to little nuisances like a severe lack of millions of dollars, to create something so confident in its intent, and so undeniably superior in its actual results, than most bloated Hollywood gigadollar productions, I can't but love the hell out of it. It manages to be both modest and ambitious at once. Despite having the FX skills to match any studio production in eye candy, Edwards never loses sight of keeping the movie grounded in character. Most movies I see, the more I think about them, the bigger the irritating little flaws get. The more I think of Monsters, the more I want it in my permanent library, to watch again and again.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Fantastic Fest coverage: Outrage

As I type this, another year's wonderful Fantastic Fest has wound to a close. But I'll do my best to keep the groove alive over the next few days as I type up reports on some of the other films I've seen in this geekiest of weeks.

If you're a fan of Japanese cinema at all, then you know the name of Takeshi Kitano. He is perhaps the filmmaker whom fans in the west most identify with the yakuza genre, although really knowledgeable geeks will always respect the preeminence of Kenji Fukasaku first and foremost. What a lot of gaijin fans may not be aware of is Takeshi's offbeat history. He actually began his career as a wacky TV comic, the kind who would do this sort of thing...

...which I imagine the Japanese find hilarious, but which I'm sure has just topped off your WTF tanks for the whole month.

So you can imagine the surprise Takeshi's fans felt when he began his movie career with ruthless and brutal movies like Violent Cop, about a violent cop, and Boiling Point, about a thug who reaches his boiling point and pretty much decides he likes it there. In these movies, the normally madcap Takeshi morphed into a deadpan, remorseless, imperturbable, sociopathic murder machine with liquid nitrogen for blood. And yet the end result of this wave of films was that Takeshi attained an all-new level of acclaim as a master director of crime films, whose unflinching approach to stories of the meanest and lowest dregs of society brought a heightened level of realism unknown since Fukasaku's heyday.

After perfecting his vision in this genre with Sonatine and his masterpiece Fireworks, Takeshi spent several years experimenting, offering strange exercises in art-house indulgence like Dolls, a wholly bizarre surrealist autobiographical trilogy, and what turned out to be his biggest worldwide success, his reimagining of the legendary samurai epic Zatoichi. With Outrage, Takeshi has come full circle and returned to the crime/yakuza genre that made his reputation as a director.

The good news is that, directorially, Takeshi fits right back into his yakuza groove as if it were an old favorite pair of slippers. He still has his signature knack for staging scenes of violence in a way that their severity actually retains emotional impact. He knows when to be graphic onscreen and when to let something occur offscreen for our imaginations to fill in, even if the nature of the violence depicted is not especially different. He can build tension and defuse it with humor at appropriate moments. All of this is why he's been hailed as an important director in international film.

The bad news is that the story here just about the emptiest Takeshi has ever worked with, though in its insane complexity it's the closest Takeshi has ever come to the kind of story Fukasaku is known for. We are introduced to two yakuza clans, Naruse and Ikemoto. When one of Naruse's low-ranking guys commits an unintended insult against someone slightly higher up the yakuza food chain in Ikemoto's family, the situation won't stop escalating. The tip-top yakuza boss man to whom both Naruse and Ikemoto answer, known only as "Mr. Chairman," decides this is a prime opportunity to rid himself of a partnership that threatens him, and manipulates both clans into all-out war. What ensues is a festival of gangster-vs-gangster carnage in which a number of very expensive designer label suits are absolutely ruined by exploding blood squibs.

Takeshi has always preferred unconventional narratives that avoid such norms as the three-act structure, and to say he has traded in morally conflicted characters is an understatement.

But even in an unconventional narrative I usually like to see a couple of storytelling basics adhered to, whether everything else about the story — such as not having a single likable character onscreen — defies convention. It's usually good for characters to undergo what's called an arc. This is a process in writing known as character development. The events of the story impact characters' lives in significant ways, causing them to undergo major personal changes in order to deal with said events. This doesn't mean they always have to learn to be better people, and it certainly doesn't mean they always have to triumph over adversity, though that certainly is Hollywood formula in a nutshell. But seeing a human being undergoing a personal evolution through crisis is at the heart of good storytelling, period.

The outrage in Outrage is that character development was simply left out of the equation entirely. The only change these characters experience is that of going from being alive to being formerly alive. All that the script has most of them do is shoot guys until it's their turn to be shot. Only in a subplot involving the Ikemoto clan blackmailing the ambassador of some postage-stamp sized fictitious African country does the script create anything like a substantive storyline. Mostly all we see is the yakuza population of Tokyo lightening the workload of the police by depleting its own numbers. Despite some undeniably high-five-worthy moments for gunplay mavens (and one darkly funny exercise in dental torture), this does get monotonous after a while, especially as you soon lose track of who's betraying whom.

For longtime Takeshi fans, this is worth a look. But in this "return to form," as it's being hailed, the famed auteur doesn't offer very much he hasn't already done with more originality, intensity and passion.

And I'll be back with more FF wrap-up reviews soon...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fantastic Fest 2010: the first two days

Fall is here, when a young geek's fancy darkly turns to thoughts of martial arts, chainsaws, and zombie squirrels. And once again, here in Austin, the week-long Fantastic Fest arrives just in time to sate our need.

Fantastic Fest is the brainchild of Tim League and the amazing gang behind the Alamo Drafthouse cinema experience. I don't know off the top of my head how many years it's run — I think fiveish — but it really is something special and unique to look forward to as autumn, or what passes for it in central Texas, begins. Last year, I took in a number of movies, many of which I liked a great deal (Zombieland, more fun in a crowd than perhaps at home on DVD; Antichrist, which I still cannot in good conscience actually recommend to most people I know; Paranormal Activity, which, yes, totally rocked, so fuck you; the wonderful low-budget UK crime movie Down Terrace, at last getting a release in the US; the even nastier [•REC]2; the surprisingly decent UK chiller The Children), and some of which were middling to awful (The Vampire's Assistant; Romero's heartbreakingly disappointing Survival of the Dead; a half-assed low-budget UK monster movie thing called Salvage).

So far, we're two days in to this year's festival, and I've caught more screenings than I did by this time last year. I am, however, avoiding most of the big premieres that are shown downtown at the Paramount this time out. I'd love to catch the Yuen Woo Ping double-feature/tribute there tomorrow night, but it's a lot of extra money, and I think I'd like to do the ACA Bat Cruise instead — which I totally missed last year because I was seeing two shitty premieres at the Paramount.

So here's a rundown on what I've been lucky enough to catch, and I'll be posting more as the week plays out.


Golden Slumber
Here's one where I walked in completely cold, knowing nothing than it was a Japanese film, which automatically gives it a leg up in my book. It's a thriller that gradually replaces its tension with a sense of whimsy and feel-goodishness as it progresses. Yet for all that it throws logic to the winds in order to get itself to its climax, it's never less than entertaining. Our hero is a hapless young delivery man, Aoyaga, who, back when he was in college, formed a little music appreciation club with three other friends deeply into the Beatles. As the movie opens, he's meeting one of these old friends for what he thinks will be a fishing trip. It turns out that forces unknown are setting Aoyaga up to be the patsy, like Lee Harvey Oswald (the movie kind of takes for granted conspiracy theories about JFK), in a planned assassination of the Prime Minister.

The movie opens great, helped immensely by Aoyaga's likability as a meek regular dude who doesn't understand what's happening to him and just wants his life back. It starts off leading you to think you're going to get a Hitchcockian "wrong man" chase movie like North by Northwest. And you do get that. But the tone of the whole piece gradually begins to morph, from suspenseful to frequently comical. This doesn't hurt the movie, but it does underscore how the whole thing is perhaps trying to cover too much ground. The movie takes great care to contrive elaborate set-pieces surrounding Aoyaga's flight. He runs into a number of offbeat characters — including an old man in a hospital with connections to the "underground," and even a serial killer (!) who behaves more like a mischievous kid — eager to help him unravel the mystery behind who is setting him up. The script is one of those that throws out little memes at you. Little details are mentioned pertinent to the characters' earlier lives, simply so that they can be brought in at key moments in the story much later.

The screenwriters just keep throwing ideas into the mix, with the result that the movie runs a little too long (at 139 minutes). It deals thematically with everything from the way the powers that be use media manipulation to make sure the public only sees and thinks what they want, to the fleeting nature of fame and the comparative longevity of infamy, while pointedly reaffirming the value of friendship and love all the while. It's a big hodgepodge but totally watchable and delightful in its best moments, and it got a big round of applause. Glad I saw it.

Ong Bak 3
No one in the audience for this third installment of Thai superstar Tony Jaa's franchise was expecting much. But even going in with low standards, it was disappointing. It's one thing to make a formulaic martial arts movie, but it's another thing entirely to be so bound to the genre's most overused tropes that you don't even bother to rise above them and offer something that even makes a pretense of being original.

The story here is so boilerplate it might have been autocomposed by a screenwriting program. So I guess there's this evil king, and Tony Jaa is the good guy who's pissed him off, and as the movie opens, Jaa has been tortured nearly to death, which then leads us to the usual de profundis thing where he must be rescued, then spend way too much screen time healing and meditating, so that he can ultimately go and open up several 12-packs of Thai whoop-ass upon said villain.

Yeah, fine, whatever. If I cared at all about any of these characters, I guess this would matter. But the script just goes through the motions, and even the fight scenes are pretty uninspired. Since I'm not recommending you see this, I have no trouble spoiling the moment where Jaa is just plain killed outright with a spear through his heart, allowing him to suddenly do this Prince of Persia time-reversal thing and win anyway. Which seems like cheating. And I didn't understand it where he suddenly got this power from. Just bad and lazy, with too much low-rent CG, even for martial arts mavens. And to think Jaa, when he first hit the scene, was being hailed as the guy who would make us all forget there ever was a Jackie Chan. There's a little thing called charisma that got left out of the recipe, I fear.

Well. Damn. Damn!

This is the one that's been getting all manner of buzz since it premiered at Sundance, both for its audacious premise and Ryan Reynolds' award-caliber performance. I must say, whenever movies are preceded by hype, rarely do they live up to it all. Finally getting a chance to see it knowing nothing but its premise — Reynolds is an American in Iraq who's been kidnapped and buried alive — I have to say I was stunned by its execution by Reynolds and Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes.

The whole 95 minutes of the movie takes place entirely in the crude wooden casket in which Reynolds' character has been buried. Since the pure horror and claustrophobia of having this happen to you can be dealt with in fewer than five minutes, the trick with a premise like this is to compose a gripping storyline against which the hero's ordeal can unfold. And it's in delivering a tense and believable script that Buried wins.

I don't want to give anything away if I can help it. Suffice it to say that the script doesn't simply present us with a sympathetic hero in the worst of all possible situations, but it has a thing or two to say about what we're doing in Iraq, and the questionable behavior of those American corporations contracted to work in the "reconstruction" over there, who are arguably war-profiteering in the most callous possible way. And it does all that without any overt political pontificating. Some of the calls Reynolds is able to place with the cell phone left to him by his captors had the audience groaning in dismay.

If you aren't already a claustrophobe, this movie will make you one. I really can't think of a movie that has managed to sustain suspense at such a high level so consistently from beginning to end. As the movie progresses we find that there are one or two things worse about being buried alive in a coffin than that it has happened to you at all. There is even, inasmuch as such a thing can be shot within the confines of a coffin, what can be called an action sequence. If you see this, do it theatrically, because the experience simply will not be the same on DVD, or on your PC via some shitty torrent. It's an immersive film that requires a darkened auditorium, and big screen, and a horrified audience to make complete.

After the screening, Reynolds and Cortes did a light-hearted Q&A session to bring everybody down, in which we were told repeatedly how much Reynolds hated the whole shoot (and it certainly comes through in his performance).

Finally, there's one little detail of awesomeness to mention, as an illustration of just why the Alamo is the greatest thing to happen to geekdom since Princess Leia's brass bikini. Prior to the festival a contest was held online, with the four winners (all of whom turned out to be very gutsy young women) enjoying the unique experience of watching Buried while actually buried in coffins themselves. Here is the little video of that moment in history.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit my geek-fu will never match theirs.


Only caught two screenings yesterday, and blew off the Sharktopus premiere at the Paramount. Even with z-movie demigod Roger Corman and his wife in attendance, there are limits to my willingness to piss away extra money on something, however "fun" anyone wants me to think it'll be, that I know will just be pure moldy cheese. What I saw instead were:

Fire of Conscience
Hong Kong action movies, which were Totally The Thing in the 90's, have been enjoying a bit of a resurgence since Infernal Affairs kicked everyone's ass and gained international legitimacy by being remade by Martin Scorsese as the film that finally won him his overdue Oscar. What's interesting is now to see how the stylistic influence has reversed. In the 90's, it was all about American filmmakers trying to mimic the action style of John Woo. Now, we have Hong Kong filmmakers trying to mimic the style of the Bourne movies.

Dante Lam is at the forefront of the new generation of HK action directors, and I must say, he knows his way around a gun battle. He's somewhat derivative in the way he cops that shakycam shit from 24 and other obvious sources, but he definitely knows how to put an exciting picture together. I have to say this is the only movie I've ever seen in which a gunfight — in a burning building, no less — is interrupted by a childbirth. Which we get to see in some medical detail.

But in the end, for all its technical brilliance, I can't call Fire of Conscience a future HK action classic like Jackie Chan's Police Story or Woo's Hard-Boiled, because it simply trades in too many HK-specific clichés. Essentially we have the tried and true formula of betrayed brotherhood. You have two male protagonists who begin the story as allies, and who will eventually be pulled apart and end the film as bitter enemies emptying numerous clips in each other's general direction. There are heaps of the expected melodrama — characters are haunted and driven by the anguished memory of dead spouses and dying friends — and the initially confusing story finally unfolds more or less as you expect. Still, those gunfights — many of which are staged in very public places like crowded restaurants and Hong Kong's notoriously tightly packed city streets — are absolutely top notch. Give this guy Dante Lam a really original script for a crime drama, and he stands to make an international name for himself.

Zombie Roadkill
At last, a little movie that delivers exactly what it promises. What was screened was in fact the first half hour webisode of a 6-part online comedy/horror series premiering at FearNet in October.

By now we've all seen both good and bad attempts at zombie comedies, but this one not only puts a fresh spin on things — yes, roadkill is coming back to life and menacing vacationers in a national park somewhere — but wastes no time in cutting to the good stuff and offering loads of hilarious scenes and dialogue. Much of that is delivered by Thomas Haden Church as a gruff park ranger who no sooner says "Stick with me if you wanna live, kid," than he gets his arm torn off.

This is all very much in the spirit of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 (the filmmakers are not surprisingly all crew veterans of Spider-Man 3, where they got to know Church) and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. So if you enjoy the way those movies handle comedy gore, then you'll dig this too. The crowd was laughing like hell and cheering the more creative undead animal attacks — there's one whack-a-mole sequence that had everyone practically in tears — and at only 30 minutes, it was a perfect serving of sheer bloody silliness. Best of all, no CGI. All the critter effects in this movie were old school puppeteer work at its bestest. Keep an eye out for this one on FearNet for sure. How can you possibly miss a zombie critter movie directly inspired — as both writer and director confessed — by Monty Python & the Holy Grail's killer rabbit?

Wow. So, that's just the first two days. More reports to come, gang. Did I mention how much I love this festival? Well, I do. I love it like a lovey thing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The failure of Scott Pilgrim and the realities of geek cinema

I have not yet seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie that was supposed to be this summer's awesome geek sleeper hit. Neither, it seems, have a lot of people. As of this writing, Pilgrim has taken in $27.2 million in 21 days of release. In Hollywood's ideal world, this would have been its opening Friday night take alone. In contrast, the moronic spoof Vampires Suck has taken in $29.2 million in only 16 days of release, and the utter bullshit-fest Piranha 3D has taken in $20 million in 14 days, with a weekend coming up. Meaning that when it has been out for 21 days it will probably be north of $27 million too.

So why, a million websites and blogs are asking, has this ever-so-clever little opus failed to connect? People who have seen it, like our very own Gia and Ryan, have fallen bonkers-crazypants in love with it, seeing it multiple times. (Though I have read a few online reviews by fans of the graphic novel expressing the usual disappointment in how it was adapted.) Ryan has gone so far as to purchase the video game and all the books, and may well be considering taking steps to have his name legally changed to Scott Pilgrim. So among the people who are discovering it, it's striking a chord — pardon the pun.

Just what is this movie about anyway? The teaser one-sheet made it look like a rock n' roll movie. Plus it did its level best to hide star Michael Cera's face, generally not a sign of studio confidence in their product.

Why my dear friends have yet to persuade me to see the movie, and why people in general are staying away despite such great word of mouth and strong reviews, is being heatedly debated all over the interweebs as if it were the great mystery of the age. I'm going to try to cut through the chest-beating and finger pointing and try to elucidate what I think are some practical realities about this business.

Geeks just aren't that impressive a demographic.

While it has finally become socially acceptable to get your geek on, those who do so as a way of life still do not measure in anything like the kinds of numbers sufficient to support a strong counterculture. What geeks do have is an immeasurable capacity to form the kinds of enclaves in which they are the mainstream. And since a prerequisite for being a geek in the first place is a willingness to throw all shame to the winds in expressing your undiluted, obsessive love and devotion for whatever it is you're into at that moment, the levels of energy expressed at such enclaves as Comic-Con International can give non-geeks a somewhat skewed impression. Non-geeks working as studio suits think that the near-riots they see at Comic-Con are indicative of society's attitude towards their product as a whole, and they expect the world to simply be a scaled-up version of Comic-Con.

Hence the head-scratching and waves of executive job loss that erupt in the wake of such box-office disappointments as Snakes on a Plane, Aeon Flux and Scott Pilgrim. Yes, it's true there are many movies that premiere at Comic-Con that go on to be huge hits. These tend to be movies with more going on for them in a marketing sense than Scott Pilgrim had: either they're based on comic properties well-known and established for decades, like most of the Marvel and DC superhero lineup, or they're the latest in an established movie franchise like Terminator, or they feature stars far more appealing to the general public than Michael Cera.

But it's interesting how Hollywood has latched onto Comic-Con as the main event of the summer to promote its upcoming slate of wannabe-blockbuster movies. In a way Comic-Con has supplanted such established festivals as Sundance, Toronto or Cannes as the place to get the buzz going for movies (keep this in mind, as it will come up again in a minute) — and they do it without even having to show the movies! But while it's easy to get excited at the spectacle of a Comic-Con auditorium full of 5,000 geeks all going into apoplectic seizures over your teaser trailer, studios should at least have the sense to realize that 5,000 geeks are not necessarily representative of tens of millions of everyday Americans...the very people they need to spend that $100 million box office that will keep the suits their jobs.

And even among geeks, there's a lot of cynicism

Face it, we've all been burned. We've been burned by nipples on Batsuits, Nic Cage's endless collection of creepy hairpieces, and those goddamned Star Wars prequels to be wholly willing to give ourselves over to much of anything these days. Yes, I just got done talking about the excessive enthusiasm of geekitude and the circus atmosphere of Comic-Con. But Comic-Con is an event, and as such is conducive to building the sorts of mob excitement identified with fandom. I mean, what — are fans gonna not scream their little propellerheads off when Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron steps onto the stage?

But get a geek back home, let the cheering die down a little bit, and they're all too inclined to remember that all it takes is one Catwoman to take the wind out of your sails for a good while. The fact that these may be the very same geeks who were responding to Comic-Con teasers and clips by ejaculating with such force as to risk hospitalization doesn't mean the magic will still be there when the actual movie hits the mall, and the predictable round of "it sucks" whining begins to crop up on AICN. Too many times have geeks had their hopes built up, then dashed. Chickens coming home to roost and all that.

It's very likely Scott Pilgrim was just made and marketed all wrong

Remember just a moment ago when I mentioned the festival circuit? It's entirely likely that, by treating Pilgrim strictly as a comic-book, major-studio, summer-release property, and failing to glom on to the festival circuit, the studio may have seriously miscalculated. Wikipedia tells me that the only festival Pilgrim played was Toronto's Fantasia Fest. Hell, why not try to place it in TIFF? It's like it didn't even occur to them.

For all that the movie is based on graphic novels, they aren't really superhero fare in the traditional sense. There's a much more indie-flavored sensibility to the comics' humor. If the studio had devoted, say, $25 million to the production instead of $60 million, they could easily have left the source material's quirky wit intact. By allowing the movie more time to build buzz on the festival circuit, where there certainly is an audience for this stuff, they might have found themselves with a Napoleon Dynamite-style left-field hit on their hands, instead of what will undoubtedly now be known as a Scott Pilgrim-style faceplant flop. In other words, they tried to go mainstream with something that isn't really mainstream in the least, and they assumed a fan base was simply there, ready and waiting, when it wasn't. Such marketing fail has brought down movies that deserved better many times before. After all, Hollywood has never really known what to do with movies that are even the tiniest bit challenging or outside of formula. Here, they may have just been trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

So Scott Pilgrim vs. the World seems destined for cult status. In a sense, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and can serve as some comfort to its most devoted fans. (There there, Gia and Ryan, come here, have a hug.) The history of geek cinema is full of movies that were not exactly blockbusters upon their initial release, only to finally find their audience on DVD in after years. Office Space, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, John Carpenter's The Thing, the list goes on. I feel pretty confident that while Pilgrim may be a dud right now, in 20 years, people will be buying the 20th anniversary Blu-ray (or whatever HD format we have then), while Vampires Suck won't even be in print.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A New Old Post!!! Killer trees?...not really scary.

Martin posted a thing from another blog, so I am going to do the same. This was a post from my other blog from about two years ago...also there is a bonus doodle at the end.

What's Happening? (6/20/08)
So I used to be a M. Night Shyamalan fan.
This is my lil' ole review of his new film The Happening, in theaters now, and more so why I think M. Night is a hack.


I have enough journalistic integrity to actually sit and watch a movie I know I won't like before I critique it instead of writing something based on presumption and what I have heard from other people, but not enough journalistic integrity to actually pay for it.
When I started hearing about The Happening I do have to admit I was interested to a certain extent. The idea of mass suicides with no apparent explanation is admittedly a very scary thought, but it is not an original idea.
Jisatsu Saakuru (Suicide Club or Suicide Circle in English) is a film by Sion Sono, originally released in the US in 2002. A film that I stumbled upon in 2004 and immediately adored. Sharp, sadistic and in the end a real jewel of Japanese cinema, it was the first thought that popped in my head when I heard that M. Night was making a mass suicide based thriller.
So that is -10 points for unoriginality.
But I still admit I was curious.
Then the TV ads started coming out, most of them with the tag "His First R Rated Film".
I was sort of disgusted by this ploy to sensationalize his film by slapping on a R rating.
And the commercials obviously showed a lot of this mayhem and horror, people jumping off buildings, dead bodies in the streets, people about to stab themselves with blunt objects. Yeah ok, so blunt objects, in the movie there is a woman who takes out of her hair one of those chopstick hair stick thingies with the intent of stabbing herself in the jugular, but when she takes it out of her hair it is like this steel spike stiletto thing. WTF lady? Why did you have that in your hair in the first place?

A girl's gotta accessorize.

I watched the entire movie, and I am telling you all, it did not need an R rating.
By today's film standards probably a PG-13, but no way an R. And maybe you think I am jaded or that because I have seen more graphic horror that I think this film is a light weight, but there seriously was nothing constituting an R rating by today's standards. I even tried to get a hold of the MPAA to ask if a director can ask for a more severe rating than needed. I do believe this is allowed, and really is the only explanation. None of the suicides shown were that horrific or gruesome. There was barely any blood. I cannot find any reason that this film should be categorized as R rated. The most bloody/graphic of all the suicides was actually more ridiculous and cartoonish than anything else.
In one scene a member of the group that Mark Wahlberg is in at the time gets a video message on their phone from someone they know at a zoo. The video shows a man in the lion den holding his arms out to a lioness presumably trying to get her to eat him. The lioness goes for the arm and rips it off at the shoulder. The man then offers the other arm to another lioness which then rips that arm off at the shoulder. Now my response to this scene? LIONS AND ARMS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!!!
A. Lions don't rip limbs off of live prey. They would have jumped on the guy and chomped on his windpipe, but would not have torn his arms off.
B. What the hell was this guy made out of, papier maché? For god's sake people, the human body is a little bit stronger than that. His arms wouldn't have come off, he would have been pulled to the ground. And don't give me any bull about how the lion ripping in one direction and the guy pulling his own body in another would have been enough to rip his arm clean off. It may have dislocated his shoulder but his freaking arm wouldn't have come off. I mean seriously, people, it looked like something from Monty Python.

"...And then the blood goes PSSSSSSSSH in slow motion!"

Sorry I am skipping around a lot here. Anyway. So the movie starts off with the most pretentious 5 minutes of any movie I have ever seen, and I have watched a lot of Oliver Stone movies. Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher of some variety and is talking to his class about the recent phenomenon of disappearing bees.
So he asks his class to give their ideas as to why they think this could be happening. The first says disease, which Wahlberg basically shrugs off as not likely. The second student says pollution, to which Wahlberg responds with, "We're just pumping so much stuff into the environment that they are just keeling over." The third student offers up the obvious follow up of global warming which Wahlberg responds to with "Temperature goes up a fraction of a degree, they get disoriented, maybe." Then the final student comes up with this gem, "an act of nature and we'll never fully understand it," to which Wahlberg replies "Nice answer Jake!" I hate Jake and his answer BTW, "He's right, I mean, science will come up with some reason to put in the books but in the end it will be just a theory. We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding."
WHAT? What the hell kind of science class is this? The answer that isn't a real answer is the right answer? Come on now. M. Night fails at science.
My synopsis of the rest of the movie...
A lot of really one dimensional characters, which is admittedly very out of the ordinary for M. Night, who usually makes his characters very believable. With this film I didn't believe anything coming out of any character's mouth, all the acting was total ham sandwich, most importantly I didn't care what happened to anyone.
One of the most important things to being a good writer, especially in film, is being able to show the story instead of tell the story. Don't have your characters come over to the camera and say "I am scared" or "I am angry." Show their emotions through what is happening in the story.

"I am...uh...scared? Angry? Something..."

There is one part in which Zooey Deschanel is trying to comfort John Leguizamo's daughter, who is being very shy, and Zooey Deschanel says to the little girl, "I don't like to show my emotions either." Ok, a few different problems with this. A: People who have problems showing their emotions don't just bluntly state that they have this problem, especially in large groups of people and even more especially not in front of their spouses whom they do not show their emotions to. It was just, as I said, telling instead of showing. M. Night wanted us to know this little fun fact about that character so he didn't have to take the time to actually show it in a more developed way. B: If an adult was going to say something like that to a child, they would most likely use the word feelings instead of emotions. There was something going on in this film where the language just wasn't quite right. There were a lot of lines that just didn't seem very natural coming out of the actor's mouths. These sentences may have looked better on paper, but just didn't translate the same to actual speech.
Now going back for a moment to point A about Shyamalan telling the audience over showing the audience, I think this plays into another issue he has as a writer, which is underestimating the intelligence of the audience. All of his films have some element of this, but it seems to be getting worse as his career progresses. There are a lot of ideas in his films that he finds the need to shove in our faces that he would be much better off subtly hinting at, or even letting us as the audience come to our own conclusions about.
So now to the main reason I really disliked this movie, and of course it comes full circle to Shyamalan's whole environmentalist propaganda message.
The reason these people have been killing themselves without control?
Well not just trees, but all plants. Plants that are somehow sentient enough to know that it is humanity that is causing the destruction of the environment and specifically target us with their evil suicide pheromones so that we will kill ourselves in horrible scary ways!!! OOOOOOOOOO...Spooky! Or maybe not.

"Your ass is mine, humanity!"

Now I would just like to take a moment to state that I am definitely someone who believes that we are going through and even effecting a global climate change. However I think that it is kind of obnoxious and, excuse my French, up his own asshole or Shyamalan to put his opinions on the matter forth in this way. Honestly I think it even comes down to just being sloppy and obvious. I mean, yes, I understand that he is trying to make a statement about our effect on the environment in this film at large, the working title for the screenplay was even "The Green Effect," but there are better ways of putting your personal opinions forth. I think that most people who see this movie will be turned off at how obviously preachy about environmental issues it is.
But come on man, trees? really? is that the best you could come up with?
Suicide Club was so much better.

Now you get to meet Dennis De Los Muerto!


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Feelings on CG Yoda.

So here's what I think about CG Yoda...
I FUCKING HATE CG YODA! What a piece of shit!

I mean look at it...LOOK AT IT!

...that is all.

Reprint — Anatomy of a disappointment: Showtime's Masters of Horror

While we're working on getting ourselves up and running, here's a reprint from an old movie blog I had back around 2005-06, that I more or less gave up on when I launched The Atheist Experience late in 2006. I'm thinking of plucking the posts from that old blog I'm still proud of and giving them a second life here, even if their subjects are a little dated, before dropping the old blog from the 'weebs.

I'm a huge fan of horror movies, although there are precious few horror movies I actually go see. My tastes tend to run to movies that successfully surround you in a frightening, oppressive atmosphere, and creep you out via the power of suggestion — the minority of what gets made — rather than simply seeking to shock you with appalling gore — the majority. Not that I don't appreciate a good gorefest, but that sort of thing has to be done very cleverly and stylishly for me to find it anything other than cheesily exploitive. Red dye and Karo syrup cost a filmmaker nothing, thus any no-budget video hack can slap together a gore movie and call himself a filmmaker. Good horror filmmaking is like anything else: it succeeds via the filmmakers' understanding of the language of cinema and storytelling excellence. Throwing guts at me and calling yourself transgressive will usually earn you a sneer, monstrous egotist that I am!

So it was with some cautious apprehension but general optimism that I looked forward to Showtime's heavily ballyhooed series Masters of Horror, whose brief was that it would be a series to allow the finest horror directors free rein to take off the gloves and do what they do so well. That the series has not, in fact, accomplished that is a greater disappointment to me than any of the particular episodes and whatever individual flaws they might have.

As I don't want to take up hours of your time detailing every episode so far shown and going into each and every nitpick I have in anally-retentive and eye-glazing detail, I'll pick out the two episodes I was looking forward to with the greatest enthusiasm and explain my disillusionment with each. I'll start by saying that sometimes having high expectations can be a thing to lead to disappointment no matter what. But I think it's sad we live in a world where the reality of what kind of entertainment we get makes low expectations the only sensible approach.

First of these is Jenifer, directed by Italian giallo master Dario Argento. Argento is a cult director if ever one existed. Virtually unknown among the great unwashed, he is as close to a deity among the committed horror geek community as you're likely to find. His 1977 masterpiece Suspiria is an exemplar of both what he's so excellent at, and what it is that mainstream American audiences simply would not get about his approach to horror cinema. Argento is not a director known for gritty realism of the sort that American audiences demand. You'd never get a Silence of the Lambs or Se7en out of him. What Argento makes are almost horror fantasies, films that exist in an exaggerated nonreality where wide-eyed about-to-be-murder-victims run dazedly around overdecorated, garishly lit sets to the strains of pounding synthesizer-based prog-rock music, while their killers set up wildly and unnecessarily complicated means of offing them that would confuse even Rube Goldberg on a good day. His best movies are meant to play like actual nightmares; eschewing strict logic for the confusion of violence and disorientation. In Opera, the killer, obsessed with a young ingenue, forces her to watch him kill all her friends by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes so she can't close her eyelids! Why? Because it's fucked up.

Thus it is that Argento's reputation as a "master of horror" has something to do with the bloodiness of his films, to some extent. But it is principally rooted in his approach to the language of cinema. It isn't just that his films' victims meet graphic deaths. It's in how those deaths are crafted, staged, lit, shot, and edited. How they are scored and sound designed. It may be style over substance, but to Argento, that's how he gets the job done. To him, a horror film is about feeling the experience, not understanding it on an intellectual level. Like a madder version of Hitchcock, whose dictum was to "put the audience through it." Show one of Argento's movies to a friend of yours whose only experience with horror is the Friday the 13th or Elm Street franchises, and he'll whine that the blood looks fake, or that the acting is lousy (of course it is; Italian movies record no sync-sound as S.O.P., and all dialogue is ADR'ed, not necessarily by the actor who's onscreen). But the dyed-in-the-wool horror fandom revere him without exception. They understand something mainstream viewers don't.

So now the tragedy: Jenifer, the first Argento-directed work likely to reach a substantial American audience in about 25 years, sucks. And it sucks because at no time does it allow Argento an opportunity to do the kinds of things he's known for, that make him the "master of horror" that this whole series is supposed to be honoring simply by being on the air in the first place. Not once do we get one of Argento's showstopping setpieces, on a par with the famous (and revolutionary at the time) Louma crane shot from 1982's Tenebrae (in which the camera pulls away from the window of a house, goes over the roof of the house, peers in several other windows, then comes to rest in a room on the other end of the house, all in one take). Nor do we get the delerious music, although the episode is scored by the same musician from the 70's band Goblin, who scored most of Argento's classics. What we get is a thoroughly bland and predictable story about a succubus who invades the life of a police detective, to the boredom of all.

After the tragedy, the irony. I suspect Argento's trademarked excesses were kept in check mostly because of a blasé script that never created a platform for them to be displayed. But I also expect that they were kept in check by network execs and producers who feared that Argento's normal style would be too over-the-top for American TV audiences, and thus made sure he'd never be able to go as hogwild as he's capable of doing — you know, to really be Dario Argento. If so, isn't the show betraying its own intent? It reminds me of the fate of John Woo, who, after establishing a rep in the late 80's as the world's greatest and most daring action director simply by exercising no restraint in piling on where most action films held back, came to America from Hong Kong, and made the stylistically castrated yawners Hard Target and Broken Arrow, two action movies so generic in their execution there was no reason for them not to have gone straight to video. (By the time he made Face/Off, American studios were finally letting Woo do his thing, but by then the style he'd pioneered had been totally knocked off by Robert Rodriguez and gone passé. By the time Woo made M:I-2 for Tom Cruise, all the fans he'd made from The Killer and Hard Boiled had dismissed him.)

I have hopes for Argento's return to form, though. He has since announced to the orgasms of fans everywhere that he is now in prepro on Mother of Tears, the long-promised third film in his "Three Mothers" trilogy, which so far includes Suspiria and Inferno. I'm nervous about his use of American screenwriters, whom I fear may supress Argento's stylistic flourishes under a tediously explained "logical" storyline. But if said screenwriters are real fans of his, unlike the writers of Jenifer (one of whom was its star, the congenitally bland Stephen Weber), we may be in for a real comeback!

Next we come to John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, from a script by Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny (who's known for posting to AICN as "Moriarty"). Here we have a case where a true "master of horror" does, in fact, a fine job, but is let down by weak material. The episode has a neat premise: a film researcher heavily in debt and in danger of losing his theater is hired by an eccentric gazillionaire — played with gusto by the great Udo Kier, doing that decadent Eurotrash thing he's perfected since the early 70's — to track down the only existing print of an obscure film titled La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), the one screening of which at a festival in the 70's drove its audience to mass hysteria and murder.

Thus the episode bears some similarity to the plot of Carpenter's underrated 1995 horror-satire In the Mouth of Madness, which was all about the relationship between art and audience. But I had a number of immediate nitpicks with Cigarette Burns; some minor — I found the protagonist miscast, though not disastrously so — but others larger. For one thing, Carpenter has long voiced his dislike for directing lengthy, expository dialogue scenes (which he calls "thankless"), and such scenes make up about 70% of the episode. Talk, talk, and more talk, and Carpenter soldiers through it all as best he will. Some of these scenes work fairly well, in that Swan and McWeeny do come up with dialogue that builds upon the mystery they're developing surrounding this deadly film, and Carpenter has the scenes shot and lit effectively. It's almost enough to make you ignore the similarities not only to In the Mouth of Madness but also The Ring and Videodrome.

There are a couple of other scenes where Carpenter is allowed to drop a real surprise in our laps, also. Despite the overall talkiness of the script, and despite Carpenter's reputation — going back to Halloween — for preferring the power of suggestion to graphic explicitness, there's one beheading scene here that's probably the most brutal thing Carpenter's ever put to film. And it shocks not because it's so grisly, but because, in the context of what we've been watching, it's sudden and unexpected, yet it fits in logically with the story's overall premise about the effect this lost film has upon those obsessed with it.

But the biggest problem with Cigarette Burns is its facile ending. Throughout the story, I kept thinking to myself, "You know, they're building up the mystique of this lost movie to such a humongous level, I bet they'll never pay it off at the climax." And they don't. All along, we've been getting speeches about how dangerous this lost movie is, about how its equally mysterious director wanted to go beyond film narrative and assault his audiences, about how film as an art form should not be about simple escapism but a true force for changing the world, demolishing comfortable preconceptions, and just plain rocking your boat.

And then Carpenter and the script make the mistake of actually letting us see some clips from the movie in the final scene (once the protagonist has rather anticlimactically located it for Kier). And what do we get? Well, you know, garden variety shots of mayhem, violence, people in cages screaming, an angel having its wings cut off (a supernatural element to the story that is never built upon satisfyingly). All in all it looks like the kind of thing you'd see in any music video from a Scandinavian death metal band. And this kills the whole show. The function the lost movie served in the story was that of a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin, and that it should have remained. They should have never actually let us see any of it, because as long as its supposedly insanity-inducing content was allowed to exist only in our imaginations, it was a scary concept. To show it at all took that away from us, and robbed the element of the story that was its entire driving force of the force it had.

Carpenter is limited in other ways here as well. Widely known for his excellent use of the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio, here he's forced to use the standard 16:9 aspect ratio that's become the HDTV norm. So much dialogue is required to develop the story and build up the mystery surrounding the lost film that Carpenter is given little to no time to build scenes using the kind of slow-burn suspense he's employed in movies like Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness. In the end, while it's great to see Carpenter back in the saddle and masterfully directing even middling material, it's a shame that middling material was what he had to work with. If Cigarette Burns had been a feature — and it shows signs of straining to be one — Carpenter would have been able to display what a real "master of horror" is capable of. But then I bet you anything the goddamn MPAA would have never allowed him to get away with that beheading scene.