Thursday, December 31, 2009

Have A Happy New Year Folks!

Hope everyone will be having a blast tonight! I'm going to sit back for my annual viewing of Ghostbusters 2, a New Year's set film, which itself is set during the dawn of a new decade.

Back tomorrow with Dr. Who and the Daleks!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker 2009)

The Princess and the Frog is a film that is at war with itself, attempting to mix progressive politics and the Disney fairy tale formula together. The result is a confused mess of overtly mixed messages that will leave the viewer conflicted as to just what the filmmakers were thinking when they started crafting this film.

But damn if it isn’t entertaining to watch.

That’s the rub though. There are moments when I know I should feel offended by what is on screen, where I know that the film is thematically undermining itself at every point, and where Disney once again manages to misappropriate other cultures and twist them to their own ends. Yet what ends up on screen is such a visual marvel, with moments of well executed comedy and impressive acting, I managed to get sucked up in it all.

Set in New Orleans during the 1920s, The Princess and the Frog follows the story of Tiana, a hard working but meagrely paid waitress who is saving up to start her own restaurant, a dream she shared with her late father. Her ship seems to have come in when the arrival of the lazy Prince Naveen, who is looking to marry into the wealthy La Bouff family to replenish his fortunes, when Tiana is paid a massive sum to cook for a party held in Naveen’s honour. However, Naveen is transformed into a frog by local supernatural con man Dr. Facilier as part of a larger scheme to takeover New Orleans, and can only be reversed by the kiss of a princess. Through a series of misunderstandings, Naveen thinks Tiana is a princess, just at the moment her dream looks ready to slip away, and she agrees to kiss him in exchange for the money to save her bid on the property for the restaurant. Instead, it backfires and Tiana herself becomes a frog.

The Princess and the Frog could have been a typical Disney animated venture. What marks it as different is the film attempts to finally address the long standing failure to feature a black characters in the leading roles, and tackle the long criticized passivity of the female characters who end up achieving fairy tale endings by luck and circumstance. However, there are two major problems with the approach the filmmakers utilized in attempting to achieve these goals, resulting in a convoluted ideological mess.

The first problem is that the film attempts to fully maintain the Disney formula while at the same time attempting to alter it: it wants her to be a fully independent woman, yet still marry her off into a fairly tale ending. The result of trying to do both results in a strange back and forth in which Tiana is upheld for her virtues of hard work, only to be condemned for the very same virtues by “failing” to realize that she “needs” a man. And I am not kidding when I say that the film states that what she really needs is a man: there is a whole song and dance sequence about that very fact. The drive to work hard, be respected and successful at what she does is blacklisted as a want, not a need, and the whole endeavor comes off as a patronizing, paternalistic affair.

Worse is the manner in which the filmmakers attempt to deal with the fact that the era chosen to set the story in was a deeply and overtly racist time period. Instead of addressing the issue head on, it is nearly wiped from the film and instead is subsumed in class conflict instead. Now, while race and class politics frequently overlap and inform one another, they are NOT the same thing. New Orleans is not a far away land with a fictional history: it is a very real place with a very real history. While I certainly believe that no film is beholden to having to “accurately” represent history, as if it was even possible, such an oversight is massive, with the narrative working to negate the harsh history of America. This came home for me when leaving the theatre and I overheard a parent telling their child that New Orleans was “really just like that.” Again, I know that it isn’t the filmmaker’s place to consider the way parents choose to handle such discussions, but at least in acknowledging that major historical point in the film, it might have forced parents into holding a meaningful discussion with their children about the topic, rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Of course, the Disney fairy tale formula is rooted in European values and ideals, so I shouldn’t be surprised that the history of racism is glossed over. But this could have been avoided if Disney had at least set the film in modern times, or simply set the film in a fictional world. At least then it wouldn't have felt absolutely necessary to address the topic.

Yet, for all of its failings, The Princess and the Frog is a beautiful example of cell animation and its power in an era of computer animation. There are moments where I was in awe of the beautiful work on screen, including amazing sequence in which Dr. Facilier gives a demonstration of his power to Naveen. The characters are likable and well rounded for the most part, and the cast gamely comes out in top form. In fact, Kieth David is the honest to God hero of the film, transforming his villainous role as Dr. Facilier as the most entertaining part of the film.

Yet, I cannot feel right recommending the film to families with small children. Allowing older kids to see the film, maybe, but in all honesty, there is just too much complexity with regards to the film’s politics to mark this as a film for all to see.

As for Disney and its filmmakers: it is do or die time. Sitting on the fence with the kind of story you are telling is no longer an option. The time for the traditional princess fairy tale is dead, a point made quite well by your own film Enchanted (Lima 2007), a clever dig at how the traditional fairy tale stories you have told again and again are somewhat out of place now. You cannot keep relying on recycling old gender stereotypes and Eurocentric narratives to audiences and expect them to buy them. The world has changed, and it is about time you did to.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Updates: December 28th 2009

Hey everyone! Hope everyone has had a great holiday season and been living it up. With the end of 2009 fast approaching, wanted to make the following updates:

- By Wednesday, I will have review of The Princess and the Frog online. General verdict? Most bizarre mainstream film of the year.

- My intention is to see Guy Ritchie's latest tomorrow, and have it be my first review of 2010 of a new release.

-IF I can pull it off, real life commitments pending, the Dr. Who and the Daleks review will be posted Thursday night. If not, will post it Friday, hopefully before the Tennant final airs. The final of the special Doctor Who reviews will follow after the Sherlock Holmes review.

- That special Star Trek film series reviews will start midway through January, going one a week plus a regular review. Thanks to the Christmas season, expect that to include some classic Warner Brothers' gangster films, some Werner Herzog films, and the Marx Brothers!

Stay tuned folks!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Doctor Who: The Movie (Sax 1996)

(The following is the first in a series of three reviews intended to celebrate the end of the Russell T. Davis era of Doctor Who, which began in 2005 with the revival of the series. I will be looking at the three film adventures of the Doctor, one television film and two cinema features from the 1960s featuring Peter Cushing. This review looks at the 1996 TV film that is set between the classic series and current series.)

Doctor Who is a quirky little science-fiction-fantasy-horror-comedy-every-other-genre-you-can-think-of franchise. Focused on the adventures of a time and space travelling alien known only as The Doctor, Doctor Who is a series that has constantly evolved and changed over time, with radical shifts in format, tone, themes, characterization, cast, and media, while still managing to be the same series through it all. This is due to the simple fact that when it is boiled down, the premise is little more than an incredibly intelligent being managing to get himself into a variety of messy situations while travelling the galaxy and human history in his ship, the TARDIS.

Of course, a rich mythology has built up around the premise, from why his ship looks like a 1960s British Police Box, to the Doctor’s ability to cheat death by randomly transforming his dying body into a new healthy one (allowing for the fairly easy replacement of the lead actor when needed). Then there is the various threats the Doctor runs into every so often, from the Cybermen to the Daleks. Unlike American genre franchises though, like Star Trek and Star Wars, Doctor Who has never been obsessed with continuity to the point of alienating viewers, with the majority of stories being accessible without having seen the series before.

The simplicity of the series premise thus should have made a revival of the show in any medium a relatively simple task, even if a revival was a continuation of the original show which was cancelled in 1989. Cast a new Doctor, give him a new companion, write a new adventure mostly free of past references, and the production should have stood a solid chance of securing a new generation of viewers. The 1996 television film Doctor Who: The Movie, directed by Geoffrey Sax and released theatrically in some parts of the world (if internet sources are to be trusted), was an attempt to do just that, a full nine years before the 2005 revival by Russell T. Davis. The first (and so far, only) co-production of Doctor Who between the Britain and America, the movie was a high budget (for television) film that was intended as a back door pilot to launch a new Doctor Who series on American network television as well as the BBC.

(As a side note, the American network in question, oddly enough, was the totally inappropriate Fox Network, whose loud, crass identity is at total odds with the subversive, progressive nature of the program. Just try imagining the violence prone Jack Bower getting along with the near pacifist style of the Doctor, and you can start to imagine how odd the show being on Fox would have been.)

The story of Doctor Who: the Movie centers on the earlier noted concept of the Doctor being able to overcome death, known in the series as regeneration. Attempting to transfer the remains of his archenemy the Master back to their home planet, an elderly Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, reprising the role from the final years of the classic show) finds that the Master has survived in a new alien form, forcing the TARDIS to land in San Francisco on December 30th, 1999. Injured after landing in the middle of a gang fight, the Doctor is taken to the hospital where he is accidentally killed by surgeon Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), who is confused by the alien nature of his body. Regenerating into a new body (actor Paul McGann, Withnail and I) and suffering amnesia, the Doctor turns to Grace for help, while the Master, now possessing the body of a paramedic (Eric Roberts), seeks to take the Doctor’s body and remaining lives by utilizing the power source of the TARDIS, a power which threatens to destroy all of earth on the stroke of midnight, December 31st, 1999 if the Master is not stopped.

While I didn’t become a fan of Doctor Who until 2005, I was first introduced to the series in 1996 by this TV film during its original American broadcast (I live near the US boarder), working on math homework during the commercial breaks. Looking back to my original impressions of the film as well as my thoughts since becoming a fan, Doctor Who: the Movie is a fun, but frustrating experience. There is much in the film to enjoy and wonder at, yet nearly as much to question. As an introduction to Doctor Who, the film is a failure due to its execution. Considered as an adventure within the overall context of the franchise, the film is a solid but unremarkable effort.

While the premise of the film itself is sound enough to build a story around, the execution of the premise is confused. The film is frequently bogged down in unnecessary exposition, particularly the introduction to the film which mentions various elements of the series that are not relevant to the story at hand; the Daleks, Skaro, the number of lives a Time Lord is allowed, etc. Such information is dropped on the audience at such high speed that there is little time for new viewers to take it all in (reversing the problem the classic series sometimes had with stories dragging on too long), while for fans, some of the information only raises unanswered questions about the events preceding the film.

Furthermore, while Sylvester McCoy is my favourite Doctor by far, the time spent with him at the start of the film is questionable given the goals of the film. While the “death” of his Doctor is a vital story point, this could have easily been handled in flashbacks, thus allowing Paul McGann to take center stage right from the start of the story, as he should as the new Doctor. It takes immense skill to suddenly switch to a “new” character as the lead, but not enough time is spent with McCoy's Doctor for new viewers to really know or care about who he is. His screen time either needed to be reduced or expanded, and given that the film is only eighty-five minutes long, only one of these options could reasonably been considered at the time.

Adding to the film's problems is the relationship between the Master and his companion, Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso). Part of the narrative hinges on the Master manipulating Lee into believing that the Doctor is evil and the Master a wronged victim looking to set things right, but not once is any real reason given for Lee to buy into the Master’s claims. He threatens to kill Lee, freely admits to causing the deaths of others, and at no point makes any real effort to cover up who he is, and yet Lee buys into his story. The audience is left to assume that either the Master or Lee are idiots (perhaps they both are), or accept that it is shoddy scripting. I understand that the point of the Lee/Master relationship is to mirror that of the Doctor's relationship with Grace, but not enough time is spent developing this relationship to make this mirror relationship work, either dramatically or thematically.

The most aggravating aspect of the film however is the moments when the filmmakers try for broad comedy and come up short. Canada’s own disastrously unfunny comedian Will Sasso (Mad TV) appears as a morgue attendant, and proceeds to overact his way into infamy by yelling at the top of his lungs, mugging for the camera, and performing comedy shtick that was dated long before he was even born. The sound design of the film also contributes to this problem, with the occasional inclusion of “wacky” sound effects that are distracting and out of place. Doctor Who has always to some degree embraced a level of camp when it fits, but the audio track carries this a little too far.

Yet, despite these failings, when Doctor Who: the Movie works, it works brilliantly, presenting ideas and concepts that would find their way into the current series. The main hero of the production is, without question, Paul McGann, in his only televised appearance as the Doctor. More than any of his predecessors, McGann’s Doctor is a man in love with life itself, infectious in his enthusiasm for even the smallest of things, and charged up with childlike wonder. The best moment of the film is a small scene between the Doctor and Grace as he tries to recall who he is during a walk in the park. Building in his enthusiasm as he remembers a moment from his childhood, without missing a beat, the Doctor suddenly declares that the shoes he is wearing fit perfectly, much to the confusion of Grace. It is a funny and sweet moment, and makes the lack of a follow up effort from McGann a tragedy of the film’s North American ratings failure.

Also, while I was critical earlier about the Master and Lee relationship, a problem which Eric Roberts and Tso’s performances contribute to, when the writing is works, they duo do rise to the occasion. One particularly fantastic moment appears late in the film as the Master, talking to a captive Doctor, makes the absurd claim that Chang Lee is the son he never had, proceeding to give a mock fatherly kiss to Lee’s forehead. Roberts and Tso have a nice chemistry in the film, and in moments like this that allow the pair to explore the strangeness of their relationship are able to achieve a level of genuine humour the "out and out" comedy scenes lack.

Kudos must also go to director Geoffrey Sax, who turns into one of the most stylish and handsome Doctor Who stories in the entire history of the program. While it is fair to note that Sax is working with far more money that the productions that proceeded it, Sax does have a good eye for composition and camera movement, making good use of symmetrical images and subtle nods to religious iconography connected to the resurrection of Jesus Christ without slamming it over the audiences head. The scene in which the Doctor regenerates is particularly well executed, cross cutting between footage of James Whales’ Frankenstein and the Doctor’s rebirth, underlining the unnatural nature of the regeneration process.

Lastly, while writer Mathew Jacobs deserves much of the blame for the structural failings of the film, he is to be credited for crafting some of the best dialogue in the history of the series, particularly when the Doctor makes observations about humanity. Jacobs manages to keep the technobabble to a minimum and focuses instead on character, making good use of his time to forge a three dimensional characters out of Grace and the Doctor in a eighty-five minute long film.

Sadly, the failings of the film in the public memory have often outweighed the strengths, and the film for a long time was viewed as one of the final nails in the coffin for the show before 2005. McGann has continue to play the Doctor in radio plays, starting early in this decade, along with three of his predecessors, but has often gone ignored in the mainstream public, overshadowed by his predecessors and successors in the role. Yet, in this one outing, McGann proves that he is among the best and most accomplished actors to ever handle the role, equal to everyone who has come before and since.

While it is but a small consolation, Doctor Who: the Movie has held much impact on the series as it is now, from the production design to pacing. Furthermore, while for years some fans tried to discount the film from continuity, Russell T. Davis set about securing the film’s place in canon in his revival by making clear references to the film, including images and footage of McGann in episodes referencing the Doctor’s history. Furthermore, within the history of the show, McGann’s Doctor has taken on a mythic feeling that other Doctor’s lack, based upon how little we truly know about him and his history before regenerating again. While McGann's Doctor in the public consciousness is low, among fans, he is a legend.

For fans, it is a film worth watching as an important point for the series. For all others, it is something to watch once one has become familiar with the universe of the saga. If you have no intent to do so though, I must recommend against seeing the film, as a negative reaction is bound to be provoked by the sheer confusion that may come with the film’s narrative.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Updates, Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

Greetings everyone!

First up: I have not yet had a chance to go see AVATAR, despite my intentions. I hope to see it soon, but since it may not be this week (Christmas folks! CHRISTMAS!!!!!), so I am moving forward my review of Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)to take its place. The Dalek films should soon follow after.

Second, I would like to take the time to thank the owners/operators of the blog "The Violent World of Parker," dedicated to the Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) and his Parker character. Last month, they posted a link to the Payback review I did. I had no idea about this till the past few days, and just wanted to give a big thanks to them.

Third, just a reminder to all: when posting, don't be surprised when a post does not appear, as it needs to be approved first.

Lastly, I wanted to say happy holidays to all, no matter what you celebrate, be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and/or something else I am more than likely forgetting to put down, or simply don't know about. From my religious beliefs and background, I'm celebrating Christmas this Friday, hence my putting this up idiotically late, but no matter what kind or reason for celebrating you are getting up to this time of year, be safe and enjoy yourselves. And I mean be safe: I can't risk losing my small audience at all! ;)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Being There (Ashby 1979)

Being There, Hal Ashby’s 1979 comic-drama masterpiece is one of those films that have been discussed to the point that it is really hard to bring anything new to the table. From the satirical nature of the story, to Peter Seller’s brilliant performance, and to the notorious final shot, Being There is a film that has been talked to death, yet we still feel a need to try and say something about it. If that isn’t the mark of a brilliant film, what else is?

The film is the tale of a middle aged man named Chance, played by Peter Sellers, who has lived his entire life inside the confines of a wealthy man’s home, alternating between watching TV and working in the garden. He cannot write, cannot read, and only seems to be capable of imitating behavior presented on television. When the wealthy, elderly man dies, Chance is thrust out into the world for the first time, wearing the clothing of the deceased man. Through a series of, um, chance meetings, Chance ends up in the residence of Ben and Eve Rand (Melvyn Douglas and Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy couple with connections to the President of the United States, all whom mistake Chance for being a highly intelligent, warm and understanding individual instead of the near cipher that he is.

Right about here, I would start performing an analysis of the film, trying to grapple with some of its intellectual complexities. Perhaps talk about the playful biblical allusions in the film which give it an almost mythic feeling, all while discussing how the concept of the simulacra contextualizes this biblical inversion. Or maybe I could just rant about how brilliant Ashby and Sellers work is here, this being Sellers last fully completed film and Ashby’s last great (and even just plain solid) film. I could, if I wanted to, try and compare Being There to Ashby’s other works, or films of a similar nature.

However, I can’t help but feel I would be doing Being There a total disservice. This is a film built on observation and nuance, where Ashby fills every frame with small details that require the viewer to spend time diligently studying the film. While no film is objective, Ashby works hard to avoid dominating over the ideas put forth in the film with his own perspective, seeking to embody Roland Barthes’ concept of the writerly text (I hate the literary bias the term holds), where the viewer must truly work to bring meaning to the text. The film is filled to the brims with possibility, but it takes the viewer to bring it to living life.

For myself, I oddly find Being There a comforting experience. As much as the film is a critical reflection upon society and culture, I don’t feel that the film is entirely condemning of the society upon which it reflects. The world is one that simply is: for all its faults, for all its failings, it’s our (well, Western society’s) world and the one we are stuck with. Is Chance’s existence any more absurd than our own? And do we not project onto others our own thoughts, feelings and ideas? At some point in time, are we not a Chance to somebody? In that sense, the film is an acceptance of flawed humanity and miscommunication.

This is a much shorter review than I usually write, but I feel, just this one time, that my simply telling you to go see the film is the best thing I can do. Watch it with large groups; watch it with strangers; watch it with loved ones and, hell, even watch it with people you just plain dislike. When it is all done, start talking. I’m sure you’ll all have something fascinating to say.

Review to be Posted Late Tonight/Early Thur.

Sorry folks for the delay. Day job has been a bit getting in the way a bit the past few days. Will be up tonight, but might be just after midnight.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Updates for December 11th, 2009

Hey everyone! Just some updates for the future!

1. My goal is to have the Being There review done for the 16th of December. Real life has delayed my re-watching of the film, so I need to do that first.

2. My next planned review of a recent film will be James Cameron's Avatar if all goes to plan. Sadly, some of films I was hoping to see have not been playing around here, so I am kind of stuck waiting for DVD/Blu-Ray for those.

3. With Russell T. Davis and David Tennant's era of Doctor Who coming to an end on January 1st 2010, I've decided to review the three film endeavors of the Doctor in celebration: Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1967), and the 1996 TV film Doctor Who. The first two are cinema adaptations of two stories from first Doctor William Hartnell's era, with Peter Cushing playing the Doctor in the adaptations. The 1996 film is an in canon film that introduced Paul McGann as the 8th official Doctor and was intended as a back door pilot to relaunch the series with American funding. Below you will find the official trailer for Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD and a short, cheesy behind the scenes feature that originally aired to promote the TV film on (of all places) the Fox network. Let us be thankful the series never went to air and we instead managed to get the Russell T Davis official continuation, as I could only imagine Fox finding a way to ruin Doctor Who.

All I need is for my DVDs of the films to come in!

4. Last, but not least: in January, I will be doing a series of reviews looking back over all eleven Star Trek films. Hope everyone will enjoy!

And don't forget, the adventures of the Eleventh Doctor under the guidence of Steven Moffat start in 2010!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cheap (Jones 2004)

If there is one subject that cinema loves above all else, it is cinema itself. And why shouldn’t cinema have a fascination with itself? Art, commerce, industry, voyeurism, technology, ethics and politics all come together with filmmaking. Cinema has power, and it provokes both emotions and the intellect. Cinema also has the power to implicate viewers in the onscreen actions by their sheer willingness to watch the images that play out before them, a fact played with by filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Jonez.

Perhaps most notable is that cinema is, at its very core, a medium of exploitation. It exploits emotions; it exploits the conflicts between people and in society; and cinema exploits our own willingness to give ourselves over to manipulation. Of course, so do other mediums, but cinema, with its strong emphasis upon the visual and its need for collective participation, is particularly more pronounced in its exploitive capabilities, even in the most seemingly innocent of films. Bambi exploits murder of a parent for sheer emotional impact, lest we forget.
So it is no wonder that such focus is placed on the presence of violence and sex in film. Why do we partake in viewing scenes of violence? Why does one form of violence seem acceptable in a film, while another is not? Why is a murder presented in a film acceptable as long as there is no blood, while a gusher of blood may be viewed as wrong? If violence is ok, why do North American audiences have such a problem with sex? Even more unsettling, why do sex and violence seem to go together so often in films that mass audiences watch? Complex issues in need of complex thought.

This is particularly the case in the art vs. commerce debate that has existed as long as there have been film industries. Are films art, or are they product? No easy answer exists to that question. Certainly, a large number of films seek to be more than mere disposable entertainment, but often in the commercial film industry, the worst material tends to rise to the surface and succeed. Look no further than this past summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, with its sexist and racist politics being taken in by mass audiences, all the way to the top of the box office. What does it mean when we are willing to pay for such content, particularly if we are paying to see such material for sheer entertainment?

Cheap, a 2004 film from writer, director, and star Brad Jones, is a film which brings together these issues surrounding film production and film viewing and explores them in a section of the film industry which is at its most purely exploitive. Cheap is the story about a failed director in the porn industry named Jack, played by Jones himself, who in a desperate search for originality and profit turns to making snuff films, employing two women to act as his killers and using various individuals he finds on the street as his victims. Max Force (David Gobble), a low level distributor of online smut, begins distributing the films, oblivious to the very real nature of the murders taking place on camera, and believing the films to be the breakthrough he needs to rise in the industry. When Force’s own ego and exploitive nature begins to turn on Jack and his crew, it triggers a series of events darker than anything that precedes it.

In his introduction to the film on his site, Jones makes note that the film was a hard sell for his local audience and has been the only film he has directed not to turn a profit. This should be taken as a sign of artistic success, in part. Like Quentin Tarantino’s work, Cheap is a film that draws its aesthetic and subject matter from exploitation films. Unlike Tarantino’s work however, Jones’ film is not a celebration of cinema, but rather one that strips it down to its core manipulative and industrial natures. The world Jones presents the audience is one that is entirely repugnant and vile, with no sympathetic characters to be found. Everyone seems to know the game of the industry, to both be willing to exploit others, and to be exploited in turn. This is taken so far in the film that the line between the exploited and the exploiter ceases to exist. There is not even a relationship in the film that doesn’t somehow exist solely for convince and benefit of the parties involved: love and friendship do not exist here.

In exploring his subject matter, Jones makes a number of choices, which seem to be driven by both artistic and practical reasons. While I still am not a fan of shot on video filmmaking unless it is on crisper digital cameras, the approach is more fitting here than in his last film Freak Out. This is a low rent world, and the low level VHS look of the film fits perfectly. Furthermore, a choice in the masks worn by Jack’s murders is surprisingly effective rather than offensive as they evoke the history of exploitation in the fields of art and entertainment which sadly have not entirely been purged from society. Again, I’m looking at Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen here.

Perhaps the best of the choices made by Jones is the detached irony of the film. In a world this disgusting, Jones invites the audiences to clinically observe the insanity. This approach allows Jones to switch from moments of graphic (and I do mean graphic) horror to grim humour as he satirizes the mentality of the film industry and its practices. An early example is a scene where Max shows the first film Jack produces to his wife and another filmmaker: after exclaiming the “artistic” virtues of the film as an original, he immediately orders the other filmmaker to begin working on an imitation of the film in order to beat the competition. This leads to a recurring joke in which the poor filmmaker, who only knows how to direct films by following a set formula, becomes increasingly confused as he tries to copy Jack’s work.

The film isn’t perfect though. While Jones has made great strides since Freak Out on the directing and writing ends, there are a few moments where the writing is too on the nose, having character’s spell out the themes and ideas in the work rather than having the audience themselves piece it together. Another issue on this front is a story point in which one of Jack’s stars negotiates with Max Force instead of Jack himself handling the negotiations. First, the reasoning for Jack doing this is murky at best, and only seems to serve to set up a major plot point later on. Second, this causes a major plot hole: Jack sends his proxy in disguise, but we clearly see the individual sign a contract. Max could clearly figure out who the person is from this piece of information, and furthermore, if Max is bothering with contracts, he would probably realize that without a legally binding statement that allows the proxy to negotiate for Jack, such a signature would not be legally binding.

Furthermore, while the acting is far better on the whole this time around, the acting on the part of the two masked killers is distractingly stiff. Also, though Jones is hardly any guiltier of this than large budget filmmakers, neither actress seems to fit the age that the killers supposedly are.

Still, on a whole, Cheap is an unsettling but fascinating film, and one which will benefit from being distributed on the internet rather than at a multiplex where it would be burdened with commercial expectations. Still, I think I need something much, much more cheerful next. Perhaps something by, I don’t know, a Mr. Hal Ashby...

Friday, December 4, 2009

White Dog (Samuel Fuller 1982)

It has been nine years since I watched White Dog for the first and, till now, last time. Our teacher at the time had managed to find the film, which in light of the film’s history, must have been no simple task. Facing a volatile reaction to its content long before it was even seen, the film has only really ever been released in any substantial way on cable television, until Criterion, ever the rescuers of important cinema, released it on DVD this past year. Thankfully, the film is just as powerful today as it ever has been.

White Dog is a not so subtle examination of racial hatred and how society tries to combat such hatred. The story of the film follows Julie Sawyer (Kristie McNicol), a young actress living in the Hollywood Hills, who accidentally runs over a white German Sheppard one night, and takes the dog to the vet. Out of guilt, Julie keeps the dog while attempting to find the owner, but grows attached to the dog after it stops a rapist who breaks into her home. However, it soon becomes apparent that the dog is not a typical guard dog: rather, it has been trained as a white dog, dogs which are trained to specifically kill anyone with dark skin. Hoping to save the dog, Julie turns to a Hollywood animal training facility, where she is introduced to Keys (Paul Winfield), an animal trainer and black man who wants to deprogram the dog, in hopes of proving that such hatred can be removed without surgery or killing the dog outright.

Before the film was ever released, critics, without seeing the film, attacked the movie for its seemingly exploitative and potentially offensive premise. Certainly, such concerns are understandable: in lesser hands, this material could have easily taken a turn for the worst. Thankfully, the film is the product of two different cinematic talents: director and co-writer Samuel Fuller, a long beloved cult figure of cinema who directed films such as Shock Corridor (1963) and Pickup on South Street (1953), and then up-and-comer Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential (1997), working as co-screenwriter here. The material is treated with respect, and while occasionally listed as a thriller, it is rather a psychological and social drama, confronting viewers with hard questions that have no easy answers.

The drama of the film hinges on a simple question: is it possible to reform, or rather cure, an individual of racist thinking? And if the answer is no, what is to be done about those who will not, or cannot, be saved from such vile tendencies? If the film will provoke a level of shock out of a modern audience, it will not be the lurid subject matter that provokes, but rather the possible conclusions to be derived from the film in answer to those questions.

This is due in part to the nature of the main protagonists of the film. While compassionate individuals, progressive in their views and actions, they are not idealized in the film as clear cut heroes. Rather, they are flawed beings whose noble intentions are undermined by errors of judgement, obsession, and hubris, resulting in dire consequences. Furthermore, the film further adds to its complexities by acknowledging the fact that such hatred belong to people we know and, sometimes, people we even love. It is no mistake that the dog of the title heroically saves Julie from a rapist near the start of the film, adding to the unsettling nature of the revelation that the dog has been trained to kill individuals based on the colour of their skin.

If one character and actor takes total command of the film though, it is without doubt Paul Winfield as Keys, in what is arguably the best work of his career, and unfortunately the least seen. Keys is a character that is defined by the tension between his calm, collected and wise exterior and internal passion and obsession to beat back racism as an internalised ideology, driving him to take greater and greater risks. In one of the film’s most stunning scenes, we get to see Keys at his most unreserved, and Winfield delivers an immense performance without going over the top as the depths of his desires become revealed to all. Oddly enough, this film was released in the same year as another film Winfield appeared in, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyers 1982), where he plays the mild Captain Terrell and is given little to work with on screen (as great as that film is). Yet it is that performance that is more widely scene than his work in White Dog. If for no other reason, Criterion should be thanked for ensuring that this performance is not lost.

Perhaps just as vital to the film as the characters is the use of the camera in the film. The techniques employed by Fuller manage to evoke the feeling of being a participate in the events of the film, carefully observing and following the characters and events, as if eavesdropping as we are invited to peer through cages, over fences and windows, as well as through the eyes of the titular dog. The film gains a surreal edge due to this approach, complimented by the score by Ennio Morricone that is among his more haunting works.

There are flaws in the film: there are awkward lines of dialogue, mostly given to Kristie McNichol as Julie, and a moment of over the top violence that is distracting early on. Such flaws are minor in the overall scheme of the film though, and it none of its force is lost as a result. Given its ethical complexities and more honest examination of race relations and racism than most films produced in Hollywood, White Dog is highly recommended viewing and, in the spirit of the film, one that is worth showing to a younger group of students in their teens as a way of challenging their perceptions and understandings of the issues.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Paranormal Activity (Peli 2007/2009)

The masterstroke of Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli’s 2007 (but just widely released) horror film is not its use of old fashion scare techniques that leave the horror mostly to the imagination, though it certainly helps. Nor is it the premise of the film being entirely culled from “real” home video footage. It has been done before, even by horror master George A. Romero in his sub par Diary of the Dead. Thankfully, in the case of Paranormal Activity , the premise if effectively used.

No, the masterstroke of the film is the way in which it plays with the concept of possession, with the unseen demon functioning as a doppelganger of male protagonist Micah (Micah Sloat), whom we discover over the course of the film is as possessive of Katie (Katie Featherson) as the demon which has haunted her since she was eight. Katie is nothing more than a mere possession to Micah in a house full of them, demonstrating his power and status as a successful, wealthy male, and the events of the film play out a very apt dramatization of the arrogance of the generation which has wealth and technology at its finger tips.

The set up of the film is simple: Micah, in an attempt to capture evidence of Katie’s supposed haunting, convinces her to allow him to tape the mysterious events around the house on his brand new camera. As the evidence starts to mount that something is indeed haunting Katie, Micah becomes even more focused on recording the events and finding a way to rid Katie of the demon by his own methods, while Katie simply wants him to quit. All the while, the actions of the demon are getting worse, and increasingly dangerous.

For feminist film critics, particularly those who interested in the work of Laura Mulvey, Paranormal Activity is a God-send, providing perhaps one of the most complex examples of the concept of “the Gaze” in recent cinema. The viewpoint of the camera is unquestionably male, and absolutely controlling. Micah’s use of the camera reduces Katie to the position of mere subject, and his manipulation of the situation works towards negating any sense of agency Katie has over her own situation. The film subtly hints towards this early on as we learn about Micah and Katie’s life from a visiting psychic: while, not married, Micah and Katie live together in Micah’s large, well furnished house (sadly, I cannot remember what Micah's job is, though I believe it may have been a stock broker. If anyone reading this remembers, feel free to correct me). From the pool, the large screen television, to the fact that the high end camera he is using cost him “half” of his day’s wages, money for Micah is a symbol of his status as the empowered male. Katie on the other hand is a student, is looking to work as a teacher, a low paying position in the Unite States. Katie is thus reliant upon Micah and his wealth, and their conversations throughout the film in which Katie gives into Micah’s plans usually reveal a level of narcissism on Micah's part, and his sense of possession over Katie.

The irony of course is that Micah reveals much more about himself without being in the position of the subject. Despite his attempts to control and understand Katie’s situation, he is ultimately unable to do so: Katie resists the subject position, unintentionally, in that the camera is not really able to provide any real understanding of her situation and her history with the demon: we gain no real insight into why the demon is after her; mysteries about how the house she lived in as a child go unsolved; and even the horrific final scene of the film (SPOILER) in which a possessed Katie throws Micah's body at the camera is a denial of the subject position (END SPOILER). Instead, we come to know about Micah and his beliefs and ideas, witness his failings as a partner in a relationship, and his false sense of empowerment. Some of the best material in the film is when we witness Micah performing research, either coming to conclusions that the psychic had already informed him of, or mainly searching the internet for information rather than looking to any reasonable experts. Even more telling are the brief times he wishes to be on camera: he tries, and fails, at a number of points to convince Katie to engage in “extra curricular activities” with him while the camera is on. If that isn’t telling about his ego, what is?

Oddly enough, the film could easily have not been a horror film, but rather a drama about the dissolution of Micah and Katie’s relationship, with another man being in the place of the demon. While the demon may be creating the external pressure on the relationship, it is Micah’s actions which literally bring about the further terror and end the relationship in the most final of ways. Micah is fully capable of taking actions to salvage and save his relationship, the only power he really does have, and yet is only focused upon what power he does not. By the time he comes to realise this, it is too late.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg of course: the material here is far too rich to be summed up in a simple analysis/review. Of course, this is why Paranormal Activity puts most recent horror films to shame (well, recent American horror films that is). It is a film with a brain, one which actually seeks to look at some very relevant, and uncomfortable, topics about modern relationships and attitudes towards sex, class, knowledge, and the spiritual. Nor does it pander to the audience, requiring viewers to piece together the narrative and themes on their own, all at the cost of $15 000 for the entire film.

Ah yes, the infamous $15 000 cost. While I am certainly not advocating that all films cut their budgets back to nothing, Paranormal Activity’s success is something that filmmakers and studio executives should reflect upon. Here is a genre film with limited special effects and no special gimmicks, like 3D, aka the biggest-waste-of-money-in-some-time. Simple acting, writing, and directing have beeb enough to drive people into theatres to see this film. Not only that, the film utilized an effective web based strategy to have the public DEMAND to see the film for an advertising campaign. It might be time to finally ask yourselves if spending more really makes sense. From where I am sitting, the answer seems to be the one that many people including myself have been saying for years: no.

Anyways, coming up soon: a review of the notorious Sam Fuller film White Dog and Being There.