Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Drive Angry Trailer

Again, I am rooting for the next few Nic Cage films. We need insane genre pics like these...as long as they are good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dracula [The Horror of Dracula] (Fisher 1958)

(NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)

Dracula (known as The Horror of Dracula in North America) (Fisher 1958) is not an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel in a traditional sense. Rather, the Hammer Films' production is a total subversion of Stoker’s novel, parodying the underlining paranoia found in the novel about “uncontrolled” female sexuality, the loss of Western male agency, and the supposed threat of the racial “Other.” This subversion results in Dracula being less a horror film than it is a black comedy of cuckold husbands and lovers trying to secure their own feeling of sexual prowess, and in the process, explores the dysfunctional nature of heterosexual relationships within Western society.

This parody of Stoker’s concerns starts immediately as the film begins, with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) castle to act as a librarian. In the first of many major shifts from Stoker’s text, Jonathan has arrived at Castle Dracula with the full intent of killing the Count, a complete inversion from the usual opening of Harker arriving to help the Count move to London, with Dracula posing the threat to the Western world by bringing his evil into London. The Dracula of this film shows no such signs of leaving his home anytime soon, or that he wants anything from Jonathan other than for him to look after his books. This Dracula is, oddly enough, a rather domestic individual, with a single female companion as opposed to several brides, and a rather warm and friendly décor (for a castle) in the central hall. He shows no special interest in Jonathan, and seems content to just let Jonathan settle in and get to work. The worst that can be said of Dracula is that he is a little perfunctory as a host, but that is hardly a crime.

As such, Jonathan is the invading monster, not Dracula. Jonathan’s particular threat is the domestic, heterosexual home which Dracula has established, and to the phallic power of Dracula as Jonathan attempts to give Dracula‘s companion the “help“ she begs for, help which turns out to be Jonathan’s blood. The scene in which she partly succeeds is rather remarkable, shot in a manner that is not unlike a seduction, giving the scene a rich subtext, which explodes as Dracula catches this act, resulting in the first shot of Dracula in “vampire mode.” Vampirism as a metaphor for sex and sexuality has a well documented history, but with this scene director Terrance Fisher underlines it in a fairly explicit manner, as Dracula attempts to reassert his phallic power over his companion, taking her out of the room and leaving Jonathan alone.

In fact, Harker finds himself the next morning back in his bed, seemingly treated with care. So naturally, Jonathan decides the logical thing to do is to make his way into the lower levels of the home, to the tomb of Dracula and his companion, and then kill the companion. The murder is a fairly loaded moment, as Jonathan attempts to reassert his own phallic power, brought into question by falling for the companion’s charms, and is the final violation of Dracula’s own heterosexual power as Jonathan “cuckolds” him.

The visual importance of Harker’s decent into the tomb, to the castle’s very foundations adds further complexities to the already complex opening act of the film. As noted, Dracula’s home is a rather domestic site in this film, and the placement of Dracula’s tomb/bedroom at the foundation of the home, shared with his companion, acts a visual metaphor for how heterosexual coupling is the foundation for the traditional Western family structure, and by extension the social/cultural structures that flow from this foundation. Yet clearly the relationship between Dracula and his companion is a strained one, a strain where the mere presence of Jonathan is enough to break the relationship down.

It is this strain and anxiety within the heterosexual relationship that becomes the central point of the rest of the film, and the weak point which Dracula strikes at in achieving his revenge against Jonathan (as well as shoring up his wounded phallic power). Dracula’s targets are the Holmwood family, which include Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh), her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling), and most importantly, Mina’s husband Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough). It is at this point that the film becomes almost a bedroom farce, as Dracula sneaks into the Holmwood home and attacks/sleeps with Arthur’s sister and wife to the near obliviousness of Arthur and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), the seeming protector of the heterosexual relationship. But more on Van Helsing further on.

Long time Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Fisher construct the Dracula “attack” sequences in a manner that plays off of the audience’s familiarity with the Dracula legend, and furthers their probe into heterosexual anxiety. In the past, Dracula has been given the ability to hypnotize his victims, and one could assume that is what is happening in this film. Yet at no point is it suggested that Lee’s power-reduced Dracula even has the ability to hypnotise his “victims.” Instead, it is more than likely that Mina and Lucy willingly (and with great pleasure) go alone with Dracula and his escapades. Consider the looks on the women’s faces as they are confronted by Dracula: is it terror in their eye, or excitement? Why is it that Mina seems so happy after her encounters with Dracula? The brilliance of the film is that it allows the audience to take either possibility as being the case, while never actually giving any real evidence to suggest the hypnotic power of Dracula is to blame. As such, Arthur and Van Helsing’s conviction that Dracula is to solely blame comes across as them being in denial to the women’s dissatisfaction with their intended lovers, a denial likely to be shared by some of the audience.

One of the sharpest choices made in the film is how Arthur is set up as a mirror to Dracula and his failed relationship with his companion. It is not merely that Arthur’s marriage comes under threat from the sexual dynamo that is Dracula, but how the strength of Arthur’s agency and relationship with Mina is brought into question before Dracula’s arrival through one little detail: the absence of children. Mina and Arthur are a slightly older couple, and the implication is that they have been married for some time. Yet, if the point of marriage, both at the time the film was made and within the time frame the narrative takes place, the key point of marriage was for the act of procreation. We are never given a reason for the lack of children. In fact, it is easy to miss, given that Arthur and Mina spend their time looking after Arthur’s younger sister Lucy. Yet the absence of children is a striking omission, and in the absence of other answers, begins to lay the ground work for Arthur’s later impotency in the face of Dracula.

Of course, there is still the question of where Van Helsing fits into these issues of sexuality and agency. More than any other figure in the narrative, Cushing’s Van Helsing complicates and subverts Stoker’s attempts at shoring up the power of male heterosexuality. While Stoker’s Van Helsing was an elderly male helping to guide the young, virile men in the protection of “their” women, and thus maintain the “normalcy” of white, male heterosexual privilege in sexual relations, the Van Helsing of Hammer's Dracula is a powerful foe to Dracula because he is asexual. At no point are we given any indication that Van Helsing holds any interest in sex or sexual relations: he resists the female vampires that Arthur cowers from, and whom Jonathan is seduced by with ease. More importantly, we see Van Helsing living out of a well kept bachelor pad, with no sign of their ever having been a lover of any gender in his life. He is still fairly young, is highly intelligent, and as the conclusion of the film makes clear, he is a physical match for Dracula. Yet Van Helsing’s life is seemingly dedicated only to his work, and the somewhat predictable path of Van Helsing substituting for Jonathan in Lucy‘s life is never even hinted at as a possibility. Given all of this, Van Helsing is a figure who sits outside the heterosexual family dynamic, a point made clear early on when he is distrusted and ignored by the sneering Arthur: he just does not seem to belong.

Yet, like the cowboy figures who could bring civilization to the west, yet not be part of it, Van Helsing is a protector of the heterosexual lifestyle while living apart from it. Given that vampirism is connected to heterosexual desires in the film, Van Helsing’s clinical study of vampirism can be read as an understanding of human sexuality, a study which like so many others necessitates a level of detachment from the subject. Interestingly, and somewhat contradictory, if read in this manner, Van Helsing is not merely the protector of heterosexuality and male privilege, but also its destroyer as he hunts Dracula. What is more, given that Van Helsing sent Jonathan ahead to take care of Dracula at the start of the film, he is the instigator or the whole chain of events!

Given this, is it possible to read Van Helsing as the true site of horror, and thus ascribe a conservative reading of the film where the “aberrant” sexuality is the “problem” in the film? Possible, yes, but I do not believe that is what is quite going on here. Remember, the cracks in the heterosexual relationships were present before the start of the film for these characters: Van Helsing’s actions merely brought the problems to the surface, and did not cause them. In this context, Van Helsing is the bringer or light, both figuratively and, at the conclusion of the film, literally, exposing the problems at the very heart of Western social structures such as the family, upon which the rest of society is built.

He is not, however, the individual designated to solve these problems. No one is. As Dracula comes to a conclusion, we are left on an ambiguous note, with Mina “returning” both to humanity and Arthur, yet no attempt is made to resolve the complex issues raised in the film. There is no final child born, as in the Stoker novel, to suggest a supposed return to “normalcy.” Stoker’s traditional conceptions of good and evil are instead tossed out the window, and the audience is left to sort out the pieces that remain. It is this refusal to contain these issues that not only transforms Hammer’s Dracula into a subversion of Stoker’s classic work, but allows it to be a superior work to its source as well.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cinematic Dreams for 2011

Sorry for the lack of updates this month: it has been a busy time in real life, which combined with a bit of a post October writing funk has done nothing for my reviews. I plan to have at least one more up before the end of the month (and year), and should have a fresh crop ready to go in January, 2011.

Speaking of the New Year however, and the mostly miserable failings of 2010 at the cinema, I would like to take this time to go over my hopes and dreams for 2011 and beyond.

The “Death” of the Blockbuster

Well, the death of the blockbuster as the cornerstone of Hollywood’s financial game plan. In a year filled with financial and critical disappointments, it is about time Hollywood finally took notice that the blockbuster might not be the best suited to ensuring the film industry’s existence. Take a look at the past weekend’s box office, where the 150 million dollar third entry in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise opened at number one, at yet still is a disappointment. Better yet, consider film The Tourist, with what are supposedly the two biggest movie stars on the planet. A 100 million dollar plus (reported) budget, and a 17 million dollar opening. Hardly seems worth paying those two the cash, does it?
Speaking of which...

The Movie Star IS Dead. Accept It.

I am not saying that there are not actors people are willing to pay to see, but the time in which you could slap the name of a star or two above a poster and expect to sell a ton of tickets is gone. Ask yourselves this question: since Will Smith, has there really been anyone to come along whom, on almost name alone, could sell a film?

Part of the problem is the saturation of the media with supposed “stars.” Look back at the greats, from the Classic Hollywood Era till around the 1990s: Humphrey Bogart, Lauran Bacall, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and hell, even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, each has headlined at least one bomb, but at their prime, they sold tickets like nobody’s business. In each case, there was that special “something” about them, even if it was just the sheer physical spectacle of their body (in Arnold’s case). The testament to their power was when they could star in a mediocre film, or a film that was solely built around their personality, and sell tickets. No high concept or name branding to hide behind.

These days, there are plenty of “stars,” but no guarantees. Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine actor, but his biggest successes have not been sold on his name alone. George Clooney is one of the smarter stars in Hollywood, with creative and financial success. But it took the combined presence of Clooney, Brad Pitt and other big names to sell the Ocean’s Eleven series of films. And for those of you waiting to point to The Expendables as an example of movie stars still holding power, ask yourself this: if this film had only featured Stallone, and maybe even Jason Statham, instead of building itself around the combined spectacle of as many legendary (i.e. older) movie stars in one film, would it have been nearly the success it was? Also keep in mind that the film was made on a modest budget overall, and that its success is highly relative compared to the heyday of each of the film’s stars.

Adults are Your Friends. So are Low Costs.

Or rather, adult content is your friend.

Look at the following list of films from the past year: Inception; The Town; Black Swan; The King’s Speech; The Fighter. All of these are titles of adult oriented films, and all thus far have been outperforming the youth oriented films that drove the box office this year. And better yet, most of these were fairly inexpensive to produce, save the obvious exception.

Yes, I understand that youthful audiences have the most disposable income, but with the wide variety of media fighting for their attention, most are likely to be, well, fickle. And it is not JUST the youth I am talking about here; older audiences are just as guilty. Point is, it is the hardcore cinema fans, the ones who are willing to show up each week, even to see the same film again, that carry a given movie beyond week one at the box office. THAT is the audience you should be chasing.

And that audience tends to want substance.

Look, anyone who has spent any time at this site knows I love some straightforward fun, but that is all Hollywood seems to be trying for these days (and failing to achieve I might add). We need substance. I don’t care if you have to import it from another country, but please make the option available! I love Netflix, but honestly, I do want to be excited to go to a theatre once and a while. So come on Hollywood, throw us a bone. Please.

More “Mini-Majors”

Or how about a series of new, smaller studios not connected to the majors?
Part of the problem with modern Hollywood is the lack of competing studios. Even in the late 1980s, there were companies like Orion Pictures to give the majors a little bit of competition and release some odder films. These days, even New Line cinema has been absorbed into Warner Brothers, Mirimax has just managed to get out from under Disney, and the Weinstein Company has barely dodged being put out of commission. That leaves us with the majors, and their “indie” companies, if you really believe them to be separate companies.

The only new studio in recent years has been Summit Entertainment, which despite being built on the backs of the Twilight Saga, has proven itself willing to take on some projects other studios have not been willing to touch. These includ The Hurt Locker and the upcoming, financially dicey project The Beaver, which stars Mel Gibson. While hardly backing or releasing projects that are all that boundary pushing or independent, the studio is proving to be slightly riskier with its releases.

But it is still not enough. We need more studios to diversify the types of films released into general theatres, and we need more voices making it to the silver screen. Perhaps it will take a breaking apart of the currently existing majors, or a group of young upstarts, but news studios are needed to create competition. And with competition, hopefully some better films.

And those, my dear readers, are my cinematic hopes and dreams for 2011. Will they likely come true? Well, not likely in 2011, but as the next decade rolls on, I continue to live in hope that some of these will come true. And who knows? Perhaps with enough voices demanding it, we’ll get at least one or two of these to happen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

New Opinion Piece Tomorrow

Sorry for the lack of updates: life been a bit busy, combined with a bit of writer's block (aghhh!). New piece tomorrow however!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dreamscape (Ruben 1984)

What does it mean to be original? It is a question that has been asked time and again in the arts, particularly in contemporary times. In a media saturated landscape, the question is rather confusing, with so many voices, projects and ideas being tossed about at nearly the speed of thought. For many, the very concept of originality is dead, with all art considered a reworking or synthesis of old ideas and concepts into a new form.

Yet, the concept of originality remains an obsession in our culture, particularly when it comes to cinema. How often do we hear people complain that a given film is unoriginal, or similar to another idea? Putting aside that such complaints tend to miss that the very films they grant the status of being “original” are merely re-workings of other texts themselves, these complaints tend to associate the idea of being original as “superior” to the works that come later. It ignores the possibility of refinement, improvement or an alternative take on similar ideas.

Certainly, there is some merit to the lack of “originality” in modern cinema: the endless parade of remakes are a testament to Hollywood’s never ending cannibalism of its past. Yet, the vast majority of cinema is built upon cobbling ideas and concepts from elsewhere: classic Hollywood frequently adapted, “borrowed” and outright stole ideas from other media. These other media were frequently drawing from other sources and ideas themselves. Even the great William Shakespeare’s plays were frequently synthesising other works that had preceded him.

While films, at least within the commercial system, often rely on a blend of innovation and the familiar, what people respond to most often is how well a given film is executed. When a film enjoyed, the complaints about originality tend to be mild. Certainly, a brilliant premise is a great place to start, but if the execution of that premise is lacking, or even outright awful, then it matters not how strong the premise is. Likewise, a thin or well worn premise properly executed can become a magnificent film.

Which brings us to the 1984 science fiction film Dreamscape and recent comments by filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers) regarding the similarity of Christopher Nolan’s Inception to the earlier film. While Landis praised Nolan, he made sure to make clear that the film was not an original, referencing Dreamscape as having beaten Nolan to the punch by 26 years. And indeed the basic premise of the film, in which a man is able to enter the dreams of others, is similar to the premise of Inception. Furthermore, like Inception, Dreamscape’s narrative centers on the eventual invasion of the mind of an important man and the blurring of various dreams together. Yet Dreamscape is a decidedly inferior work compared to Nolan’s Inception, with its unique premise serving little purpose beyond spicing up an otherwise conventional thriller that is filled with the stock characters and situations, which are executed in a fairly tired manner.

Dreamscape focuses on the character of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid), a young psychic who is dragged into an experimental program by Dr. Novotny (Max von Sydow), who years ago studied Alex when his abilities first emerged. Novotny has created a device which allows psychics to enter the dreams of others as a form of therapy/psychoanalysis. Alex is blackmailed into helping Novotny, but he at least sees the project as a way to try and woo Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), another scientist working on the project.

The thriller side of the film is provided by Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), a high ranking head of a secret government organization and friend of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert). The President is suffering from recurring nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, and has decided to push the country towards nuclear disarmament. Blair, fearful such an approach will put the United States at risk, decides that the only course of action is to eliminate the President while he dreams. When Alex stumbles upon the plot, he is put on the run in a desperate race to save the President’s life.

The lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers is evident in nearly every frame of Dreamscape, starting with its cast of characters. For a film that involves human psychology in its very premise, the film is peopled by cartoons found in below average thrillers. Dennis Quaid is once again stuck playing a second rate Harrison Ford as Alex, the supposedly loveable cocky bastard. Quaid does his best with the material, but given how simplistic the character is, he is reduced to getting by on charm, which becomes hopeless after a certain sequence (more on that in a minute). Capshaw, Plummer and von Sydow fair no better, being stuck with the roles of the hero’s love interest, bad-for-the-hell-of-it-villain, and wise old mentor figure respectively.

The closest the film comes to dealing with the psychology of its characters is a scene in which Alex enters Jane’s dream, which quickly becomes an erotic fantasy. The scene is played for its seeming sexiness, yet the context of this “love” scene involves Alex entering Jane’s dream without her permission, evoking notions of rape. The film however chooses to ignore the implications of this scene, brushing them under the rug as quickly as possible to get on with the plot. The aftermath of these scene is doubly damaging for the film, introducing an unsettling and complicated side to the otherwise bland Alex that might have been interesting, if disturbing, to explore, only to ignore the subject while asking the audience to keep finding Alex a likeable rogue. As such, it is hard to find the film a fun romp as much as the film would like to convince the audience it is when our “hero” comes close to being an out and out sexual predator.

Speaking of the dreamscapes, these might be the most disappointing aspect of the film overall. As with everything else in the film, the dream reality is treated in as safe and standard a manner as possible, marked off from reality with extreme lighting, off kilter camera work and a far too literal correlation between the fears of characters and their realization within the dreamscape. Why is it that one patient is struggling at achieving an erection? It is because he is afraid that his wife is sleeping around, and that is just what happens in the dream. What is the weakness to the assassin sent to kill the president? Why, it just so happens to be the personal detail Alex learns early on. The imagery for snake monsters and demonic dogs is so by the book that it is astounding that the filmmakers even bothered with them, and the fairly poor effects work in achieving these visions does nothing to help combat the lack of threat found in these dream sequences.

The worst sin of the film is how it fails to integrate the various components of the film together. The science fiction, thriller and romantic sides of the story all feel as if they are distinct films forced to exist together without any thought to whether they should coexist in the same narrative. Inception manages to successfully blend the various genres it pulls from together because the film is unified in its focus on the psychology of protagonist Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose issues ultimately subsume the dream worlds he finds himself in. Dreamscape lacks any similar type of unifying principle, bouncing from scene to scene without any goal. It is as if the filmmakers had three different scripts, snipping scenes from each one and stitched them together in the most basic fashion possible. The film was written by three writers, David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (The Blob) and director Joseph Ruben, and the film shows the signs of too many hands trying to guide the final product.

Given these problems, it is hard to give Dreamscape’s “original” premise any merit given its complete lack of originality in terms of execution. Yet, What damns Dreamscape all the more is not its failings in comparison with Inception, but its failings compared to another 1984 film: Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. With that film, director Craven blends reality and the dream world to much greater impact and thematic resonance, cleverly addressing issues of abuse and the disintegration of the American family within the seemingly limited confines of the slasher genre. As such, Craven’s film still feels modern and of our times; Dreamscape feels twenty years older than it is.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

RIP Leslie Nielsen

Well, this sucks. Leslie Nielsen was huge part of my childhood thanks to the Naked Gun films and countless times Airplane aired on TV. The man was a gifted comic talent, and for many it wilol be his comedy work he shall be best remembed for. The following dialogue exchange is one of my all time favorites, from The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Mayor: Oh, and Drebin? I don't want any trouble like you had last year on the south side. Understand? That's my policy.

Frank:Yes, well when I see five weirdo's dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of a hundred people, I shoot the bastards, that's my policy.

Mayor: That was a Shakespeare in the park production of "Julius Caesar" you moron! You killed five actors. Good ones!

Oh course, he was not always known as a comic actor, starting off in "serious" films and classics such as Forbidden Planet, the film that would go on to inspire the iconic Star Trek television series.

So over the next few days, put a classic film of Nielsen, sit back, and remember the man.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Man Made Monster (Waggner 1941)

Earlier this year, I finally watched The Wolf Man, the 1941 horror classic from director George Waggner which featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. While I had some reservations about the film as a whole, it was an ambitious and striking work, thematically complex and an interesting critique of the pressures of patriarchy and traditional conceptions of masculinity.

So when I heard that there was another film from the same year directed by George Waggner with Chaney Jr. in the lead, I was excited to say the least. Unfortunately, Man Made Monster is far from the heights set by The Wolf Man. Instead of a bold an ambitious film, Man Made Monster is a poorly conceived riff on the Frankenstein story, borrowing the broad strokes of the tale and “updating” it for the pre-atomic era. The end result is a film whose sole value is as a camp classic when viewed ironically.

Man Made Monster opens with a bus crash into an electricity tower, which kills five of the six passengers. The lone survivor is Dan McCormick (Chaney Jr.), a carnival showman who comes out completely unscathed despite the high amounts of electricity. This bit of luck attracts the attention of a leading scientist named Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who working on a bio-electrical theory. Dr. Lawrence invites Dan into his home with the idea of studying Dan’s “immunity” to electricity, an offer Dan is more than happy to accept given that he is temporarily out of work. Dr. Lawrence’s colleague, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) however sees Dan as the perfect subject to test out his more extreme ideas about creating powerful electrically run beings, and sets about a clandestine set of experiments to transform Dan into one of his new electrical men

With a running time of only an hour, Man Made Monster moves at a rapid pace, and the film suffers as a result. The characterisation is rudimentary at best, with characters fitting into only the most basic of archetypes, if that. Only Chaney Jr. is given anything of real value to play in the film as Dan, the dim but loveable victim of Dr. Rigas. A scene late in the film where Dan is under psychological evaluation is given more effort from Chaney Jr. than the scene deserves, managing to bring out some legitimate pathos out of the proceedings. Atwill unfortunately does not fare near as well, with his mad scientist character existing as little more than a plot device designed to deliver poorly written exposition and even worse villainous monologues.

Blame for the shoddy writing falls on the shoulders of George Waggner himself, who wrote the film under the alias of Joseph West. While Waggner does manage to fare better in his direction of the film, Waggner the writer manages to undermine Waggner the director at numerous points thanks to the endless exposition. All too often, particularly in the final third of the film, characters stand about and deliver said exposition while watching events that we the audience are never made privy to, or even in scenes that audience is allowed to see. During the film’s climax, various characters stand around and describe what the monstrous Dan is doing rather than actually doing anything to help the situation, even though they are the characters who are supposed to be intervening.

Man Made Monster does have its charms however, a few of them legitimate. From time to time, Waggner does manage to creating some striking imagery, particularly during a montage scene showing the passage of time leading to a character’s execution date. The effects utilized to realize Dan in his monstrous state are effective, and the film does manage to have a bit of fun mocking psychoanalysis in a manner Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. However, the film is more memorable for its unintended humour, from the laughably bad science (electrical immunity? Really?) to what is perhaps one of the worst “man was not meant to play God” speeches I have heard in quite some time.

As a film likely made to fulfill a production quota, Man Made Monster is hardly the worst film to come out of the Classic Hollywood era. It is however a below average genre piece that would have been a welcome target for mockery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While hard core genre fans will likely want to see the film, anyone else interested in seeing a science gone wrong film would be best to look elsewhere.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Silent Running (Trumbull 1972)

Science fiction with an environmental theme has a dodgy track record to say the least, thanks to the fact that the issue is a politically heated one. At the best of times, you end up with films such as Wall E or Dune where the environmental commentary is present without being preachy. At the worst of times, such films are fire and brimstone sermons designed to guilt trip the audience, with the pertinent issues presented in only the most black and white of terms (see: Avatar). Most of the time, we end up with middling films or entertaining embarrassments, such as Waterworld.

So thank God for Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction mini-classic Silent Running, an environmentally themed film that forgoes being didactic in favour of being a psychological drama in which the loss of nature is symbolic for a loss of humanity. While flawed and occasionally heavy handed, the film is a complex work, with striking imagery and ideas which are held together by a magnificent performance from star Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs).

Silent Running concerns Freeman Lowell (Dern), a crewmember aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, who maintains the last remaining forests of Earth. Valley Forge also is the home of three other crewmembers, none who hold Lowell’s personal investment in preserving the forests, and are more interested in going home after 8 years in space. Having to wait until they are recalled, these three pass their time performing their jobs, lounging about, and giving Lowell grief.

This early section of the film, with its blatant Eden imagery of Lowell as a Space Age Adam, are disheartening to say the least, and leave the impression that the rest of the film to follow will be full of righteous anger and nothing else. This is only confirmed further as we are presented with several moments in which Lowell preaches to the rest of the crew about how oblivious they are to the importance of the forests, both for the spirit of mankind as well as basic survival. It is seemingly all designed to be a quick shortcut to getting the audience on Lowell’s side: he is the outsider; the other crew members treat him with contempt; and they openly wreck havoc on Lowell’s forests.

So when the orders come to destroy the forests, it is no surprise that Lowell makes a stand against the rest of the crew. At this point, it would be fair to guess that the film would follow a fairly predictable path, with Lowell courageously bucking orders by engaging in a battle of wits between himself and the crew for the rest of film. Lowell perhaps might even die in a noble, if tragic, fashion at the film’s conclusion.

Instead, Lowell kills the rest of the crew in a matter of minutes, transforming the Space Adam into Space Cain. Like Cain, Lowell becomes literally and figuratively disconnected from humanity, drifting away through space in an effort to protect his Eden and hide his crimes. And, much like Cain, Lowell discovers that his ability to preserve the forests is compromised, he is unable to solve why the last forest is dying.

This fusion of Biblical narrative, environmentalism and character study give Silent Running a surprising power, both emotionally and intellectually. Lowell’s journey is epic and mythic whilst retaining the crushing ambiguities of life, and the film provides no easy answers to the questions it raises concerning dehumanisation and the destruction of the environment. Instead, director Turnbull simply captures the weight and frustrations of the issues, refusing to allow his work to be interpreted in any one, narrow manner by providing us a future that is neither a utopia or dystopia, nor providing us a character that is strictly a saint or sinner. The film even goes as far to note that human kind on Earth has managed to survive without the forests, and that disease and poverty have been eliminated. Given this, Lowell's attitudes about the preservation of the forest are brought into question. This will likely anger the extremists on both sides of the environment debate, but for everyone else provide an engaging experience in working out the complexities of the narrative.

As noted, the film is a showcase for star Dern, who carries the film for more than two thirds by himself. Dern walks a fine line with the role, balancing the character’s arrogance and obsessive tendencies with a fragile vulnerability, and he manages to pull it off successfully. Perhaps no bigger testament to Dern’s abilities as an actor can be found than a farewell speech he delivers to one of the ships drones, which is given enough sincerity and commitment as to make the scene one of the most touching in the film, despite the fact that he is talking to what looks like a dumpster pail.

Director Turnbull, who made his directorial debut with this film, is clearly hamstrung by the film’s low budget and his own lack of experience as a director: the exterior shots of the ship are clearly models, and at times it appears as if he was unsure how to stage a scene that does not involve special effects. For the most part however, Turnbull makes the most of his limitations and captures an appropriately cold and contemplative atmosphere, allowing Lowell to be visually dominated by the environment around him, just as Lowell is emotionally and intellectually caught between past, present, and future.

The film does feature a few significant flaws though. While I hate it when films are labelled “dated,” as if it is a real criticism of a work (all films date. All things date, so why hold that against them?), the film features songs clearly written in the dying days of the counter culture movement. This would not be bad if it were not for the fact that the songs are dreadful, and engage in the type of heavy handedness avoided or critiqued in the rest of the film. While these songs are mostly kept to the clunky montage sequences, they stand out as a particular problem in the film’s final moments, as the most striking image of the film is almost undermined by the overly sentimental song playing on the soundtrack, making the image nearly laughable rather than poetic.

That final shot however is a powerful one, and encompasses the film's themes and ambiguities perfectly. While I do not wish to spoil the film’s conclusion, I would like to ask the following questions to consider after watching: how long can Lowell’s solution last? And more importantly, if it can last, what does this final shot say about the place of humanity in the future?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Season of the Witch Trailer

I want to believe that this will be good. I really do. But I am not sure I trust modern Hollywood to do period horror right. Plus, Nicolas Cage has this thing about appearing in films that sound cool, but end up being garbage.

Still, the trailer is somewhat promising. And any film with Christopher Lee is worth checking out. I just hope that director Dominic Sena is capable of making a film as solid as Kalifornia (1993), his debut film, rather than Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) his last film with Nic Cage.



Back with reviews later this week. Yes, Plural.

Monday, November 8, 2010

RED (Schwentke 2010)

While RED (Schwentke 2010) may not be a revenge film in terms of its narrative and genre, the film none-the-less offers a revenge fantasy for baby boom audience members faced with marginalization as Generation X and beyond come into power economically and politically. RED’s plot, about a group of retired CIA agents banding together to fight back against their old employer who is looking to execute them, takes every available opportunity to allow its protagonists to beat down their successors, demonstrate sexual vitality and simply prove that they are not too old live like the young. As a card carrying member of Generation Y/Next/Echo Boom/whatever-you-want-to-call-us, my reaction to RED is quite simple:

It is a hell of a fun little film.

Now, that does not mean that RED is a great film, or some sort of classic in the action genre. It is not. Nor is it necessarily better than its comic source material, a three issue mini-series by the legendary Warren Ellis. I have yet to read the series, so I cannot comment. What RED is however is a slick little piece of popcorn entertainment that would have been nice to have had available during this past summer, in order to relieve audiences of all the garbage that the studios tried to pass off as fun films (with the obvious exceptions of the great Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). RED is a film without any preconceptions of greatness: it knows is strengths and limitations with regards to the material, and the filmmakers do their best to liven up the stock characters and situations with sharper than expected writing, directing and acting.

While director Robert Schwentke’s work thus far has been rather undistinguished, with credits on films such as Flightplan (2005) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), he brings a steady hand to RED, working from a script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout). Schwentke seems to know that the best approach to the material is to simply allow the cast to carry the film and get out of their way. There are no auteur or wannabe-auteur attempts made in the film: Schwentke’s direction primarily consists of keeping the film energetic and moving a good clip, and it works. More importantly, Schwentke keeps the film relatively grounded, allowing for moments of comic action absurdity that are fantastic without turning the film into an outright fantasy of superhuman beings.

Carrying most of the film’s weight however is the cast, which provide uniformly excellent work. Lead star Bruce Willis, who earlier this year was underserved by the sub par script and direction of the buddy comedy Cop Out, gets to really flex his comedic muscles here as Frank Moses. Willis plays the role in a surprisingly vulnerable manner, downplaying the supposed “badass” coolness of Frank and instead plays up the character’s awkwardness with average life and relationships. This of course is helped in no small way by Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah, Frank’s possible romantic flame who comes to rather enjoy the dangerous situation she finds herself in. While Parker’s character is unfortunately saddled with the damsel in distress role at a certain point in the film, Parker makes the most of every scene she is in, brining a sense of spunk and joy to a character that could easily have been phoned in.

The film’s supporting cast is equally worthy of mention. Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich are given somewhat thin characters to work with, with Freeman particularly stuck playing a variation on the wise-old-man role. Both are clearly having fun onscreen however, and it is infectious. Malkovich in particular eats up every odd quirk he is given to play as Marvin, the paranoid and childlike ex-CIA agent who spent years being the subject of LSD experiments. The sight of a sad Marvin holding a stuffed pig by the tail is one of RED’s highlights, and Malkovich is given plenty of similar scene stealing moments throughout. Karl Urban as the young but not naïve agent tracking Moses is stuck playing straight man to pretty much everyone else in the film, but he once again proves that he has the charisma to be great leading man if he can ever score the right role to take him to the A-list.

However, RED’s best weapon is the duo of Helen Mirren and Brian Cox, as romantically involved agents from opposite sides of the long over Cold War. The pair’s subplot romance is almost a delightful romantic comedy onto itself, particularly in the final act of the film as the band of heroes put their final plan in motion. By this point, Cox’s character of Ivan Simanov seems vastly less interested in the grandiose nature of Frank’s plan than he is in pursuing Mirren’s Victoria with as much smooth charm as possible. Mirren meanwhile appears to relish the opportunity she has to play the most badass member of Moses’ crew, finding ways to blend flirtatious and motherly types of behaviour with the stone cold professionalism. Combined with the fact that Mirren and Cox have great chemistry, I simply would have loved for the whole film to be nothing more than a charting of their peculiar romance over the decades. A spin off film perhaps?

By the time RED comes to a close, there will likely be members of the audience saying that the filmmakers could easily have made a more substantive film dealing with the issues of an aging population and its rivalry with its offspring, and they would not be wrong. Others will likely be complaining that the film moves far away from leaner and meaner premise of Warren Ellis’ original comic. Again, I have not read the comics, though its reviews online point to it being a massively different work, and a fascinating one. Again, such complaints would not be wrong. However, both criticisms would seem to miss the fun to be had with RED, particularly given the lack of action films focused on older characters in modern filmmaking. Besides which, the film simply succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Fans of Ellis’ original comics can take one little bit of solace when it comes to the film: at least RED is not as disappointing as The Losers. Or as bad as Jonah Hex. Those are fans who really have something to complain about.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Review Tomorrow

Tomorrow shall bring the review of the 2010 action comedy RED.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Autistic Speaking Day Today!


Hello everyone!

While I am not myself autistic, I have many friends who are, and it is important that they are heard. Please check out No Stereotypes Here for more information, and please take time to listen to the experiences of people on the spectrum!

Also check out the following post: http://humainsvolants.blogspot.com/2010/11/autistics-speaking-day-jour-de-parole.html

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Morrissey 1978)

As Paul Morrissey’s 1978 comic adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles comes to a close, the pianist (Dudley Moore, Arthur) who opened the film and played the score throughout is booed off the stage and pelted with fruit. As Moore leaves the stage, a charming grin crosses his face that almost makes me want to be more positive towards the film. Almost.

On paper, The Hound of the Baskervilles sounds like a sure fire hit: a comic parody of arguably the most famous (and perhaps most filmed) Sherlock Holmes story with the great comic duo of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively, backed by a cast of some of the best British character actors available. The actual film however is major miss fire which, while still providing a number of laughs, seems to have been written with little actual interest in parodying the supposed source material. What we end up with instead is a series of sketches loosely connected by the mystery of a seemingly supernatural dog that prowls the Baskerville estate.

The film begins promisingly enough with an pre-credits sequence involving Holmes and Watson being visited by three nuns desperately wishing to know the whereabouts of a missing relic. The sequence sets a crass tone with a tired, slightly degenerate Holmes and a bafflingly idiotic-yet-enthusiastic Watson displaying little of the class and sophistication of earlier interpretations. Everything is played broad, with Sherlock displaying simplistic logic and Watson no logic at all, but given that this is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before the 1980s, it is to be expected. More importantly, the material is mostly funny, with Moore and Cook in fine form as they play off of one another.

Things continue to look upward as the main mystery is introduced with Dr. Mortimer (Terry-Thomas) requesting the help of Sherlock, only to be stuck with Watson. Once Watson arrives at the Baskerville estate though, the film begins to go off the rails as the central mystery takes a backseat to scenes that are closer to unfocused sketches, featuring increasing amounts of gross out humour. While Moore and Cook’s involvement was pretty much a guarantee that the film was never going to be aiming for the more sophisticated humour of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), endlessly urinating dogs go a bit too far in the opposite direction. The film bares more than a passing resemblance to the chaotic and scatological humour of Mike Meyer’s Austin Power sequels, and while some of the gags work, more often than not they fall flat.

The resemblance to the mixed bag sequels to Austin Powers is furthered by the film’s increasingly unfocused targets for comedy The film takes a surprisingly lengthy jab at The Exorcist that tries to hard, while a bizarre subplot involving mediums, Sherlock Holmes’ mother, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken joke only work to give the impression that no one involved with the film was particularly familiar with Doyle’s creation. Again, I will be the first to admit some of the jokes work, but in a parody of such rich material, the whole endeavour comes across like a waste. If Moore and Cook were interested in doing a series of gross out gags, why bother with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at all? An original scenario would have invited less expectations on the part of the audience, and freed the film up to take as many pot shots at other works as Moore and Cook would have liked.

When the film does work however, it works marvellously. While the subplot of Holmes’ time alone in London eventually falls apart, the early sections involving Holmes attempting to relax at a brothel manages to generate a substantial number of laughs. Better yet are some of the film’s visual gags, including Holmes reading a book titled “Guilt Without Sex” and a scene involving the sending of a Morse Code signal. And while Moore’s portrayal of Watson as an idiot Welshman likely borders on being offensive, his interaction with Kenneth Williams’ equally idiotic (and borderline offensive) “young” Henry Baskerville often manages to overcome the obviousness of the material.

The best laugh tied to The Hound of the Baskervilles is not too be found in the film itself however, but in the film’s trailer. Playing off of the traditional trailer hyperbole for an actor’s performance and the manner in which the performers of John Watson historically tend to be ignored, the trailer’s narrator announces that “Peter Cook is unforgettable as Sherlock Holmes! Dudley Moore is forgettable as, um, what’s his name?” It is a gag that shows a keen understanding of the screen history of Holmes and Watson, an understanding that would have been nice in the film proper.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Future Of Horror: Where It Stands and How We Can Change It.

My plan had been too produce enough reviews to last all of October for Halloween, but between real life work needing more attention, and watching a number of non-horror related films, my headspace has been in another place altogether. I still have been enjoying plenty of horror films as of late, and there are three films that I feel I have something to say about, but I honestly feel I need to get my head elsewhere before tackling those reviews.

However, I don’t want to turn my back on horror films just yet, as there is one topic I feel compelled to write about for sure: the state of the modern horror film. It is almost needless to say, but the last decade has been abysmal for the horror genre, thanks to the endless remakes, sequels, and just plain watered-down fare that has been offered to audiences. Yes, a number of at ambitious, interesting and/or legitimately great films were produced between 2000 and 2009, but more often than not these films were buried with small theatrical releases, or simply sent straight to video where they were unlikely to find a wider audience outside of the horror hard-core. Meanwhile, mainstream junk such as the infamous Saw series, which began in 2004 and seems likely to run until doomsday, has been sucking up theatre screens and production funds from more deserving projects.

While the obvious reason for the down spiral of horror films is the eternal quest to maximize box office revenues, less direct reasons have also been offered, from the all too real horror of September 11th, 2001 reducing the power of the horror film to scare an already terrified audience, to cultural shifts in which the monster has become seen as something to be rehabilitated rather than feared. Certainly, both of these arguments have merit, the latter being evidenced by the existence of the God awful Twilight Saga. More dubious arguments have been made for a desensitised audience, though the unsettling (and outright disgusting) premises of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede do make it hard to dismiss such claims entirely.

If we were to stop here, the immediate future of the horror film would look fairly bleak, with fans trapped between middling fair and films that are little more than journeys into human degradation with little (or no) artistic merit. Frankly, I find either option too bleak for my tastes. While there is little doubt that current trends will likely continue for some time yet, I feel that there is hope on the horizon for our beloved genre, especially if we (both audience members and filmmakers) can galvanize our support behind certain trends and projects currently on the move.

One of horror’s main obstacles of the past few years has been that the genre has been too cheap to produce whilst also being too expensive. While that statement may sound like a contradiction, it really is not. Horror films have always been rather cheap to make, which has allowed a gluttony of horror films to be produced and flood the direct to video selves at your local video stores and big chain retailers. For every Paranormal Activity, there are several gimmicky slasher films that only exist to reinforce the idea that horror is a low aiming, money grabbing genre. One of the most disheartening things I witnessed this Halloween season were just how many recent straight to video slasher films dominated the Halloween bins. While vampires and zombies may be over exposed at the moment, the twisted-serial-killer-with-a-theme monster has gone well beyond being tired. Such films need to cease being supported at both the production and at consumer ends of the spectrum, and higher aiming efforts supported.

Meanwhile, high budget Hollywood productions are tossing way too much money at making the same low budget films into large, glossy productions, a sheen that harms a film more often than it helps. While the low budget equivalents may be purely exploitative and tacky, their low budgets can also often allow for a rough and tumble energy that the big budget films lack. Large CGI spectacles rarely ever scare, and when your casts look like a group of models with perfectly made up hair, many of us cease to believe in the horror universe being attempted. For example, last I checked high school students tend to look like rather awkward kids (which is exactly what they are), not 28 year old underwear models.

Speaking of teenagers, here is another little thing we might want to collectively consider: teenagers are rarely that interesting. Yes, I know most the audience these days is twenty and under, but frankly adults are far more interesting to follow because they have a little something called life experience. Just look at the more successful horror films of the past few years: Paranormal Activity focused on a young couple, while The Last Exorcism dealt with a middle aged man with a family. Both films focus on adults with compelling histories, with adult concerns, concerns which are all the more open for transformation into horror stories. On a more practical level, adult characters simply allow for more experienced actors to take center stage, rather than placing the weight of an entire film on the shoulders of an early twenty-something who is still developing a sense of their craft. Yes, great young actors exist, but be honest, when your cast of characters is mostly made up of teenage characters, it is unlikely that the entire cast is going to be made up of top notch, or even merely adequate, actors.

Lastly, and this one is for Hollywood executives in particular, do not be afraid of the large scale horror film. While I may have earlier called for lowering the spending on low aiming slasher films, there are plenty of horror films in need of a real budget and A-level talent, talent which is ready and waiting to work on such films. Right now, myself and many other horror geeks have our hopes set on Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, a film that might just be the most ambitious horror film of the past twenty years. Del Toro has been fighting almost single-handedly to raise the bar for horror films, and a project such as this holds the possibility of opening up a whole new era of horror filmmaking if it hits. But it is going to require a level of support that are usually granted to big budget superhero films and other blockbusters.

And it will be up to us as horror fans to make sure that such a risk is justified. If we do not get out and support this kind of ambition, then we can kiss away a bright future for this genre. We need to be smart in what we choose to support, just as we ask studios to be smart with where we spend their money. I believe that we can do, and I hope that you join me in this effort.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(Ultra) Quick Reviews

Man, Life doesn't always want to cooperate now, does it?

As such, I have to delay the next review AGAIN, but to fill the gap, here are some mini reviews to fill the time.

I Sell the Dead - It is a fun film, with some genre vets to help the proceedings, but the narrative is too predictable, and the structure too loose, allowing the film to drag even with its already short running time.

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster - Its a giant monster film, and a fun one at that. If you love giant monsters, you'll dig it, if you don't, this won't change your mind.

Halloween II - the original one, not the sequel to the Rob Zombie remake. It is pretty bad, and doesn't make any sense, but there is some fun to be had with an over the top performance from Donald Pleasence.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Update on the Update

Sorry, but review has to be delayed till Tuesday due to real life reasons.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Update

New review will be up Monday, and one hopefully following on Tuesday if all works out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Blob (Russell 1988)

Years ago, I watched the original 1958 version of The Blob (Yeaworth), which features Steve McQueen as a teenager in a town where a mysterious alien substance has landed is consuming townsfolk. The film was entertaining, but I did not remember much about it afterwards, a point which has not improved with time.

As such, it is pretty much impossible to make any comparison between the original film and director Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob, which was co-written by Russell (The Mask) with Frank Darabont (The Green Mile). I doubt any stronger familiarity would either help or hinder Russell’s film though, because the 1988 version is a straightforward update of the 1950s era B-movies, paying homage to the past with a slicker (and gorier) production typical of the 1980s. The end result is a vapid-but-fun affair that seeks to do nothing more than to find the most inventive ways to see the title substance wipe out town folk and government spooks alike.

As in the original, a mysterious substance lands in a small town, and proceeds to spread across the hand of a homeless man. This event is witness by a group of teenagers, including rebel Brian (Kevin Dillon) and cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith) who take the man to a hospital. When the blob starts to move about and graphically consume its victims, the teens are not believed at first by authorities, until a group of government scientists lead by Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca) arrive to deal with the situation. Meddows knows more than he is telling, and when the truth comes out, it is up to Brian and Meg to save the day.

With a film like The Blob, the degree to which the film works is measurable only by the amount of energy an enthusiasm brought to the film by the filmmakers. Luckily for audiences, Russell and Darabont’s love for classic science fiction horror cinema is on full display in the film as they find a way to bridge the culture gap between the 1950s and 1980s. As with their contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Russell and Darabont display a nostalgic love of 1950s America, yet go a step further by injecting a sense of post-Watergate paranoia and cynicism into the film, starting with the titular monster.

(SPOILERS)

Unlike the original film, in which the mysterious substance came from space, the blob here is re-invented as an American biological weapon’s experiment gone wrong, with Dr. Meddows being more than willing to sacrifice the town in order to save their weapon. As such, the film becomes something of a mild commentary on the Cold War arms race, with the reaffirming of community values and commitment coming across as a longing for the mythic simplicity of America’s past, while understanding the need to remain vigilant for possible internal threats. Such longing is of course absurd, as the notion that life was ever simple is betrayed by history, but we are talking about a film with a giant purple substance eating people here. Besides, such political and ideological readings of the film give the impression that the film is more complex than it is.

(END SPOILERS)

While the monster may have changed since the 1950s, the reason the audience is watching any version of The Blob has not: the hope of being scared and dazzled by some hopefully solid special effects work. The film thankfully delivers on these fronts, with some clever jump scares and more than enough gory mayhem, from watching a would-be date rapist pay dearly, to a modern reinterpretation of the iconic theatre attack from the original film. The film is a practical effects fans dream, and acts as a reminder about why computer generated effects often lack the distinction and quality of something that can be shot for real.

Russell and Darabont do however remember to give attention to their characters at the same time thankfully. While the film is mostly populated by stock types, the characters are written and cast well enough that they are fleshed out more than is typical of this type of film, from a smarter than average sheriff (Jeffery DeMunn) to Kevin Dillon’s rebel who is more James Dean than Steve McQueen. Also, genre vets Paul McCrane (Robocop), Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and even Bill Moseley (TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2) are on hand to give the film a bit of charm.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that The Blob is a completely disposable film, and a minor work for all involved. Moreover, for those seeking a little substance with their horror, the film will fall completely flat and likely leave them annoyed, as a more interesting concept for the never realized sequel is teased at the film’s conclusion. However, for those looking for a fun little horror film, The Blob is worth checking out, particularly given that you will likely find the film for around five dollars. There are worse ways to spend your money.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

House (Miner 1986)


Without question, Steve Miner’s House (1986) is nothing short of being pure fun. There is such a giddy joy to the film, that it is hard not to get sucked into it and have a blast as we watch Roger Cobb (William Katt) struggle with the insanity in his life.

The problem is, I’m not sure the film should really have been a horror comedy.

The premise of House concerns Cobb, a horror writer stuck in a slump, moving back into the possibly haunted house he grew up in after his aunt commits suicide. Cobb however has been having a rough time even outside his writing career: his young son has disappeared without a trace, his actress wife has divorced him in the fallout, and he feels compelled to write about his Vietnam War experience at a time when nobody wants to read about the war. Cobb returns to the house in order to get a productive solitude to work in, but finds that the neighbours are less than helpful in this regard. Well, the neighbours, and the presence that really is haunting the house. Can Cobb figure out why the house is being haunted, or will he be driven beyond madness first?


The story of the film could have made for an interesting and thoughtful horror film, and from the material available about the film’s production, this appears to have been what the original intention was on the part of Fred Dekker, who wrote the original story. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, the audience is lead to believe this is the direction the film is going, with slight moments of black comedy. The rest of the film which follows however heads into outright comedy territory, punctuated by monsters and ghoulish imagery.

Now, I love horror comedies, with Shaun of the Dead is one of my all time favourite films, and I love comedy that is pitch black. However, black comedy and horror comedy both require a particular approach and tone that needs to be carefully walked to work overall. In the case of Shaun of the Dead, as funny as the film is, it is grounded in a very real sense of emotional distress and pain, a distress and pain which gives both the horror and the comedy weight. The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s classic that House most closely resembles in tone, is a straight up assault and parody of suburban culture and paranoia. The ’Burbs never asks the viewer to invest in the characters so much as it asks us to recognize the underlining truths buried below the insanity of the characters and situations presented.

The problem with House is that the film never manages to settle on either approach to the material. The film begins by asking us as viewers to invest in the pain of Richard Cobb, pain that is pretty understandable. When we flashback to the disappearance of Cobb’s son, it is played straight and we are allowed to witness the suffering of both Cobb and his wife; when we see Cobb return home to his empty apartment and put up a sad display over the phone to convince his ex-wife he is alright, we feel sympathy, if not empathy, for the man. That Cobb is able to be as grounded and stable as he is given his experiences is astounding, and gives his character a quite sense of heroism that is appealing and perfectly sold by Katt’s performance.


After Cobb moves into the house however, the film increasingly moves away from any sense of emotional grounding. Instead, the film turns into a deranged sitcom, with episodic situations that have hints of horror below the comedy. How else can you describe a scene in which Cobb has baby sitting duties thrust upon him whilst fighting with the dismembered parts of a demon? It is funny and enjoyable, but at the same time, the reality of the earlier portion of the film is missed. By the time the film reaches its climax and the issues of Vietnam and Cobb’s missing child come together, all of the initial emotional investment made by the viewer is long gone, and the answers to Cobb’s problems come all too easy. The film is stuck somewhere between the polar extremes of what it could have been, and in attempting both, the film ends up a diluted and middling experience.

These problems clearly rest on the shoulders of director Miner, who never seems to be able to settle on a tone and style. The material to make the film work is clearly in the script, but Miner’s direction seems to be aping various directors with little rhyme or reason. At one moment, he is evocative of classic Spielberg; at another, Joe Dante, while later still he is suddenly attempting Sam Raimi. Blending different tones together into a unified whole is a tough trick to be pulled off, and while I give Miner credit for trying, it does not change the fact that he ultimately fails.



(MAJOR SPOILERS)

The element that is perhaps most indicative of Miner’s awkward direction is the miscasting of Richard Moll in the role of Big Ben, the demon and ex-Vietnam platoon member that is haunting Cobb. While Moll’s voice and stature are imposing, his performance here is so over the top that at no point does Ben seem like a credible threat. Even in the Vietnam flashbacks, Moll mugs his way through his scenes, never coming across as anything remotely close to human. As such, when Ben returns as a rotting corpse/spirit/whatever, we never are given a reason to doubt that Cobb will come through.

(SPOILERS END)

At the end of the day, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend seeing House, when there are so many more worthwhile horror films to check out. However, I cannot also recommend avoiding the film either, as it has elements that are certainly worth seeing. Consider the film a Saturday afternoon movie: it is not bad if there is nothing else on, but nothing worth staying home for if you have more important (or fun) things to do.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Montgomery 2010)

(NOTE: this is just a small break from my Halloween Horror set of reviews. The latest review in that series is Bride of Re-Animator which was published yesterday)




For the first fifteen minutes, I thought that the filmmakers of the DC Universe Animated films had finally cracked the problems of their preceding efforts and were going to deliver an unqualified success in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Montgomery 2010). Those fifteen minutes are tense, atmospheric and present an interesting setup for a feature film, with the best design work and animation thus far in the series of films. Those fifteen minutes feel epic.

Then the rest of the damn film happens.

Ok, to be fair, the film is pretty epic throughout, the design and animation are the best the series has produced, and Lauren Montgomery’s direction is nothing short of fantastic. But after the first fifteen minutes, a series of massive missteps are made from which the film is unable to recover from, and the end result sets a whole new low for the DC Animated films.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a direct sequel to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (Liu 2009), and begins with a meteor crash in Gotham City. Batman (Kevin Conroy) discovers a ship at the heart of the crash, containing Kara (Summer Glau), Superman’s (Tim Daley) cousin. As Kara is suffering from memory loss and lacks control of her powers, she finds herself at the heart of a disagreement between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) over how to best train and protect her. However, things become even more complicated as Darkseid (Adrian Braugher), ruler of the planet Apocalypse, sets his sights on Kara to as the new leader of his army, and proceeds to kidnap her. Will the combined might of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman be enough to rescue Kara, and even if it is, will Kara even wish to be rescued?

So just how does the most promising of the DC films go wrong? As with the grand majority of films, it comes down to the script, provided here by Tab Murphy (Brother Bear, of all things), and the downfall specifically begins with a scene in Metropolis park. The scene in question involves Clark and Kara being attacked by a mysterious group we assume work for Darkseid. As we soon discover after a lengthy and destructive battle though, the attackers belong to Wonder Woman and Batman, who wish to take Kara to Paradise Island have her train amongst the Amazon Warriors.

Now, allow me to try and break down the levels of idiocy in the scene. First, as is clearly indicated in the film, Superman and Wonder Woman have known and worked with each other for years. Given this, one would assume that Wonder Woman would likely TALK TO CLARK about the issue of Kara’s lack of control over her powers, and offer to help Kara by providing training in a safe environment. Instead, we are asked to accept that Wonder Woman and Batman would jump Clark and his cousin, for the purposes of either A) kidnapping Kara or B) making a point of how out of control Kara is by forcing her to cause property damage after being overwhelmed by attackers. The reason I list two options is because the goal of the attack is never made terribly clear, but both options are idiotic and are completely out of character for both Wonder Woman and Batman. This problem is only compounded by the issue of the property damage caused in the attack, which is extensive, pointless, and comes soon after Batman complains about Kara destroying fifty thousand dollars worth of his equipment by accident. So, Batman does not care about any property that isn't his own? Oh, and don't forget that innocent people could have wandered into the park at any time during this fight, and have been injured/killed. Good work Batman and Wonder Woman.

What really makes this scene so unbelievably moronic however is that we discover shortly thereafter that the reason for Wonder Woman and Batman’s concern is that Lyla, a trusted woman on Themyscira, is having visions of what appears to be Kara’s death. So again, I ask this question: WHY ON EARTH DID WONDER WOMAN NOT SIMPLY GO TALK TO SUPERMAN ABOUT THIS? This is not a simple slip up in logic, but rather a completely idiotic scene that does much to damage the characters and the idea of them as heroic leaders amongst the rest of the DC Universe.

The rest of the film follows an equally aggravating pattern of jumping between excellent scenes and concepts to moments of mind numbing stupidity. Here is another wonderful example: after Kara is kidnapped from Themyscira, Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman decide to head to the extremely dangerous Apocalypse in order to confront Darkseid and get Kara back. Now, Wonder Woman is clearly shown to have an army of Amazon Warriors at her beck and call, so I ask, why did they not take at least a small platoon with them to Apocalypse? Given that they are warriors, and that Darkseid’s attack on the island left at least one resident dead, you would think that they would be up for the action, but apparently not. Our how about the likely crippling mental trauma caused by Darkseid’s programming of Kara? At no point does any character even address the possibility that Kara will need help recovering from her mental abuse (and yes, that is exactly what it is).

The film suffers from other writing problems as well, including haphazard and episodic plotting, fake out endings with cheap horror film jump shocks that fail to shock, and repetitious dialogue exchanges about choice and control over ones life. Hell, in the span of roughly seven minutes, we see Darkseid deliver a speech about what Kara’s life could have been with him twice. All I could think of by the time the film was over was how such a shoddy piece of writing made it through with Bruce Timm at the helm as producer. While some of the past films in the series have been below par, there is nothing remotely close to the lapses in basic storytelling logic present here. Even the problematic Superman/Batman: Public Enemies was more or less an issue of simplistic screenwriting rather than outright awful screenwriting.

What makes this all the more infuriating is that there are moments in this film that are so good that you almost want to will yourself to ignore the massive problems with the film as a whole. There are small moments of comedy that are just hysterical, including a scene in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman drop by a normal neighbourhood seeking a specific individual's help, and the stunned neighbours do their best to look in on the bizarre sight of the three heroes in a domestic setting. Funnier still is the reactions of Ma and Pa Kent to the state of their farm at the film’s conclusion. And the fight sequences are, hands down, the best ever done in a Bruce Timm produced work. All these bright moments however merely serve to highlight the bafflingly awful storytelling on display in the film.

Without question, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is the worst film to be produced thus far in the series of DC Animated films, and is utterly discouraging for what we have to look forward to with the adaptations of the acclaimed stories Batman: Year One and All Star Superman. The only, and I do mean ONLY, reason to even consider purchasing the disc is for the DC Showcase: Green Lantern short, which is nothing short of excellent. However, seeing as there is a disc that will collect all the of the DC Showcase shorts soon, it is best to keep it in mind before making that the deciding factor in purchasing Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bride of Re-Animator (Yuzna 1990)

If there is one set of themes that tends to recur in horror films above all others, its sex and sexual orientation. In classic horror films, it often appeared as subtext; in more recent horror, it has often become rather blatant. Just this month, I reviewed Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer 1936), in which the vampirism of the title character has more than a hint of homoerotic overtones, and I am sure before this month is over I will come upon a few more films in which sex and sexuality will be addressed, be it through metaphor, allegory, and/or direct discussion.
Of course, when it comes to the presence of sexual orientation issues in horror films, more often than not the films tend to be regressive and conservative in their presentations and explorations. Yes, there are plenty of films that are more progressive in discussing (an exploiting) sexuality, and the complex processes of viewer reception and identification provide a multitude of readings of even the most regressive of these films. I still believe however that it is more than fair to say that many horror films tend to try and reinforce the simplistic and wrongheaded notion of “homosexuality bad, heterosexuality good…and normal!” So thank God for the flawed-but-compelling Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Brian Yuzna’s straight to video sequel to Stuart Gordon’s 1985 classic Re-Animator. As the title indicates, Bride of Re-Animator riffs on the themes and concepts of the playful and complex Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935), a film which itself expanded and subverted the themes and concepts presented in its famed predecessor. In Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna has crafted a film in which presents almost all forms of sexuality as confused, dangerous, and destructive, with the “salvation“ from these destructive relationships and impulsive coming from an unlikely source. Oh, and the film is a darkly funny and fun blast as well.
Bride of Re-Animator picks up months after the events of the original film, with Dr. Herbert West (Jeffery Combs) and Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) making the most out of the dead bodies piling up in a Peruvian civil war. Forced back the city of Arkham in the United States as the war becomes too dangerous for them, they resume acting as Doctors at the Miskatonic University. West’s obsession with reanimating dead tissue takes on a new dimension when he decides that he can make a new life out of separate body parts, and to ensure Cain’s assistance in this new endeavour, West proposes a particular project for them to work on: creating a woman out of the heart of Dean’s lost love Meg. Things become tricky for West and Cain however as a police Lieutenant (Claude Earl Jones) intrudes in on their lives, a friend from Peru, Francesca (Fabiana Udenio, of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery [1997] fame) shows up to romance Cain, and Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart) discovers a jar of the regenerate fluid, as well as the head of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale).
The key to the film’s exploration of sexuality is the character of Dan Cain, whose romantic desires are, to say the least, confused. Dan in this film is defined by three key relationships, first and foremost among them his lost love Meg, who died in the previous film. For Dan, his love of Meg is an obsession with death itself, and when the notion of creating a woman out of the parts of others arises, his obsession takes on a further dimension of necrophilia. Heterosexual relationships thus become tied with death, and it is no coincidence that it is Dan’s desires that lead to most of the death and destruction in the film. This destructive side of heterosexuality is further supported in the “relationship” between Lt. Chapham and his re-animated wife, who spend most of the film attempting to kill one another (Chapham had already killed his wife in events preceding the film). This rebuilding of Meg thus becomes the crux of the relationship between Cain and West, and the attempt to create new life in the absence of women gives this relationship shades of a homosexuality (I say shades, because West has a distinctly asexual streak to him as well, though I shall get into that further on). When Dan early on tries to break off his work with West and leave their home, the scene is shot and performed in a manner evocative of quarrelling lovers, raging at each other one moment and speaking tenderly another about creating a new life. Granted, its new life being built out of dead body parts, but the point stands. Even their living arraignment, a home for the two of them out in the cemetery away from the rest of civilization, carries a hint of romantic domesticity about it.
Chief among these overtones of a coded homosexual relationship between the duo is West’s reactions to Dan’s third key relationship, that with Francesca, the most clearly romantic and explicitly sexual. From the start of the film till its conclusion, West is alternatively dismissive of Francesca and threatened by the risk she posses towards his relationship with Dan, a feeling that is mutual on Francesca’s part. The rivalry between the two is some of the film’s strongest material, allowing West to get in more than a few excellent deadpan one-liners (“Think with the big head Dan, not the little one.”), as well as underscoring the homoerotic subtext of West and Cain‘s relationship. While the narrative structure of the film is typical of the genre and somewhat predictable, the film plays with the audience’s expectations as to what the cause of the horror, and our salvation from said horror, lies. In turn, the film’s examination of sexuality becomes increasingly surprising and sophisticated. While the film is structured around Dan’s need to resolve his conflicting desires, this confusion becomes the instigator of the film’s horror. In turn, Dr. West becomes the source of security and stability in the face of this horror. Yes, West is obsessive, his work dangerous, and he engages in more than a little manipulation to achieve his ends, but that does not change the fact that he is the most rational and proactive character in the film. Consider: Dan is an emotional mess in the film, and it is his confusion and selfish obsession with reversing Meg’s death which places Francesca in danger. Similarly, when a cancer patient similar physically to Meg dies, Dan is too busy explaining how he see’s Meg in this woman to notice she is dieing, and makes the situation worse when he botches cutting into her chest in order to try and save her life. Chapham furthers this point as we at first meant to feel some sympathy for him given his wife’s state as a re-animated corpse, until West points out that Chapham himself killed his wife through physical abuse (leading to perhaps my favourite line of the entire film: “Dan, he’s a wife beater! Use the gun!”). As such, Dan’s claims that West is more interested in seeking out fresh meat for his experiments rather than helping patients ring hollow, particularly when we are shown evidence that directly contradicts Dan’s beliefs. When a soldier dies at the film’s beginning, West actually shows frustration at the man’s death when Dan is clearly not looking, before he decides to test his regeneration fluid on the man. Not too long after, West risks his own wellbeing to save Dan’s life, and later on still, West continues to work on saving a patient’s life after Dan’s crippled emotional state leads to her death. The worst thing that can be said of West is that he is a cold pragmatist after the fact. Given this, West and his clinical views about life and death are less horrific than the alternatives presented in the film, and from here, the film can be read as a subversive attack upon supposedly normative heterosexual relationships by revealing, in a coded manner, the destructive side of heterosexuality. However, I’m not certain that this is entirely the case, as the idea of West as being a coded homosexual does not entirely hold up. To begin with, while Dan supposedly is working with West to further the work, we are most often presented with West working alone while Dan is off doing just about everything and anything else. When the Bride of the title comes to life, and looks at Dan as its creator, West repeatedly rejects the notion of anyone else save himself as the creator, a point that is hard to argue given what we witness onscreen. If West can be read as anything, it is as asexual, with asexuality as being upheld as an ideal and infinitely less destructive form of reproduction, free of the emotional trappings of any other form of sexuality. Of course, you have probably just read everything and are asking one question, and one question alone: is the film any good? To that, I give a resounding yes, though the film does suffer from some flaws. The film is an energetic piece that occasionally oversteps its available resources as a low budget sequel, but shows great confidence in its quest to entertain. Brian Yuzna provides a solid hand as director this time out, perfectly balancing the tone of the film as a whole and giving his actors room to take center stage. Stylistically, Yuzna too often attempts to imitate his predecessor Gordon rather than attempting to imprint his own stamp on the proceedings, though this attempt at consistency with the first film is appreciated.
Given that it is a Re-Animator film, questions inevitably turn to the effects, and I am pleased to say that they work for the most part, offering some inventive stop motion work and all the gore expected of the film. Occasionally, the low budget roots do show through, from the awful flying head effect for Dr. Hill at the film’s conclusion, to the inability to even show an onscreen shooting, with a sound effect substituting for the absent practical effect. Given the low budget of the film and how much is achieved onscreen for such little money though, it is hard to fault the filmmakers for such minor flaws. The film’s greatest strength though, as it was in the first film, is Jeffery Combs as Herbert West, as he walks the fine line between deadpan seriousness and melodrama. Given the meatiest material to work with, Combs gives this role nothing less than his all, and continues to make West not only one of the most beloved horror cinema icons, but the best mad scientist character of the past thirty years. Even as other components of the film occasional failing to work as they should, Combs is always on hand to deliver another magnificently over-the-top speech or contemptuous smack down on those around him. The rest of casts’ work ranges in quality. Bruce Abbott is fine as Dan Cain, though his shifts between Dan’s different mental states are occasionally clunky and reveal his limitations as an actor, while the returning David Gale is wasted in the film, as Carl Hill really has little to do overall until the final third of the film. Fabiana Udenio is honestly given nothing to do except be shocked at what happens around her and provide gratuitous nudity, and Mel Stewart does the best he can as a plot device. Still, Bride of Re-Animator is a more than worthy sequel to the classic original, offering more than enough fun, horror and intellectual meat for film lovers despite its flaws. Will the third film, Beyond Re-Animator (Yuzna 2003) carry on this level of quality? We shall soon see.