Friday, September 24, 2010

So What is Coming Up Here on the Site?

So what is coming up here on the site?

Well, for starters, I have been working on a series of reviews to hopefully be posted at a steady rate over the course of October, all horror films, hence the lack of updates this week. The first should be posted late next week, and keep going over the course of October.

First up will be Dracula's Daughter, so see you then!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Game Boys (Jones 2008)

Let’s face it: when it comes to being a geek, there is a certain level of childishness that comes with it. We spend time focusing on the minutia of our obsessions, litter our shelves with nerdy objects and in general tend to hold onto a great fondness for our childhood loves. Growing up tends to be something of a balancing act, as we take on adult responsibility and maturity whilst still holding on to our geeky passions.

Its no wonder then that as our fellow geeks have come into being filmmakers, television producers, writers and artists, we have seen a surge of films that try and address that tension between childhood geek-dom and entering into adulthood: Free Enterprise, Clerks II, and Shaun of the Dead amongst others have explored this theme, usually organizing the conflict through the trials and tribulations of their protagonists’ romantic pursuits. In each of the mentioned films, the female partners sought become the guide and symbol of adult life, and whom our heroes must meet in maturity.

Joining this canon of films is Brad Jones fourth feature length film Game Boys. The film marks a break from Jones previous efforts Cheap, Freak Out and the yet-to-be-released-online Midnight Heat, which have all played in the exploitation film sandbox. Game Boys focuses on Scott (Jones), and old school gamer who as the film starts is dumped by his girlfriend of six months. Given that Scott is prone to drinking, his roommate and friend Ray (Alex Shryock) comes up with a plan to get Scott’s mind off of his ex: hold a video game competition/party built around (arguably) the most notorious video game in existence, Custard’s Revenge. Scott is less than enthused with the idea of the party (and the game itself), but gets onboard when he realises the event holds the opportunity to get close to Sally (Bianca Queen), a fellow classic gamer. The only problem? Getting a copy of the game itself.

Game Boys is both literally and figuratively a film of growing pains, as Scott works out his life and Jones launches into different territory for him in his feature length work. Moving away from his plot heavy horror/thrillers, Jones focuses on a narrative that is stripped down both in terms of plot and thematic complexity, a change that does lead to a few problems for the film as a whole. The looser structure of the film leads to several sequences that go on too long, most notably the montage sequences, and some important characters, including Sally, are underdeveloped while more simplistic characters such as Steve receive more screen time. And at points, the gaming dialogue goes a tad too far, working in gaming references at points when more straightforward dialogue would have worked in the film‘s favour.

However, for all the film’s flaws, Game Boys is Jones’ best film yet, showcasing a greater sense of confidence and control as a filmmaker from when he first began. As the film opens, we are introduced to Scott and Ray in a simple conversation that quickly and effectively establishes who the characters are, with a snappy rhythm built out of the performances and editing that shows none of the beginning filmmaker uncertainty in his earlier films. By the time the film launches into its excellent opening credits sequence, which between the images of classic advertisements and music clearly outlines the film’s exploration of nostalgic longing and comfort, there is no doubt that Jones knows where he is taking his audience as we wander through the classic gaming subculture, including instructional videos, back ally game dealers and gaming obsessed mothers.

At its best, Game Boys is a character focused comedy of people and places familiar to the geek set, deftly blending moments of absurdity with an understanding of the fine details of geek life. Moreover, in taking on a romantic comedy, Jones allows his innate likeability to shine through as an actor, making an effective romantic comedy lead. Luckily, in Bianca Queen, Jones has an actor of equal strength to play off of, and the chemistry between the two allows for the relationship to have an innocent sweetness despite some of the characters’ rougher edges. More uneven is Shryock, who occasionally oversteps the fine line between being a heightened character and being slightly like a cartoon, but more often than not he finds the right balance for most of his scenes.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is the way in which Jones avoids the road of showing nostalgia as being something which needs to be grown out of, and in the process avoids transforming Sally into little more than a end goal to be reached by Scott. Nostalgia here is an important part of all the characters here, and it becomes the foundation for a community. Given this, Scott’s quest is not one in which he seeks to leave behind the community, or grows out of it, but grows within it. With this, Jones manages to avoid the clich├ęs of the romantic comedy genre for the most part, and build scenes out of small moments, such as the wonderfully tender final shot of the film.

The one element of the film which does need to be addressed is the film’s most controversial plot point, that of Custard’s Revenge being the focus of the film’s narrative. While I am not going to describe what the game is about, I will say that the game is one of the most horrific and sexist games ever put to market, and its placement at the heart of an otherwise light comedy is certainly a curious choice. Within the film, Jones does go out of his way to acknowledge the game’s content and address it, partly by the volatile reactions demonstrated by some characters towards the game, and in part because the game is ultimately acknowledged as trash. Indeed, (SPOILERS) part of the point of the film’s conclusion is that the game and the contest built around it is a fruitless endeavour in and of itself, and that the sense of community built around gaming is the real core of the film. However, because the film never fully addresses the issue head on and places it to the margins, it can potentially make some audiences uncomfortable. Moreover, I do believe that the game does have a thematic point as well, but I will be the first to acknowledge that the film doesn’t nearly develop this thematically enough to be able to say that it is a defendable point. (SPOILERS END).

At the end of the day, save that one quibble, I give Game Boys a full recommendation, and it can be viewed at Jones' site here. It is a flawed film, but one that has more passion and understanding of geek culture then some films which are available. With any luck, Jones will return to feature length filmmaking again, and with any luck will once again push himself into a new direction as he develops as a filmmaker.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Opinion: Machete, Responsible Viewing and Bad Parenting

Let me take you back to 1991, when I was seven. At the time, one of the things I loved to do, and would pester my parents about doing frequently, was driving by the film theatre in a nearby city whenever we would visit, just so I could see the film posters. Oh yes, I wanted to see the films themselves as well, but going to the theatre was a rarity at that point.

One Saturday, my father for work purposes was going to his office in a nearby town, and asked if I’d join him, with the promise of stopping to see the posters afterwards. I jumped at the chance, and after sitting in his office for what felt like forever while he gathered some work together and talked to a few co-workers, we were off to the local cinema. Above and beyond all other posters, there was one I was dying to see in person in this pre- internet era: the poster for Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Now, to be honest, I had not really seen many Schwarzenegger films at that point, beyond Twins, but Terminator 2 was a film I had been pumped for ever since attending a Blue Jays game earlier in the year and seeing the trailer for the film play on the jumbo screen. That trailer was far more interesting than that particular game ever was, which ended up being the first and last professional baseball game our family ever went to. But the images from the trailer were burned into my mind: robots, morphing robots and action? I was just itching to see that film.

Of course, I never honestly expected I would get to see it: at least, not at that point. It was an R rated film, and I was under the impression that kids were not allowed in R rated films at all. So I was beyond stunned when we drove past the theatre and, instead of looking at the posters, my father announced that we were going to see Terminator 2.

What followed was one of the most memorable film going experiences of my life. From the minute the exoskeleton’s foot crushes the skull, I was in awe: this film wasn’t just awesome, it was epic. It was dark, scary, imaginative and all around badass, and I will admit to being sad as “Uncle Bob” sacrifices himself for the sake of the future. More important however is that is was a great time with my father, one of those experiences I wouldn’t trade away for anything.

Yet, I do have to look back on that as my adult self and wonder about how wise it was to take a seven year old to a hard R action film. I’m not saying it was a bad move, as I have yet to turn into some sort of violent psychopath, and I seem to have been able to process the film fairly well given my age. Credit where credit is due however: Cameron made a damn good film that, while fun, is serious and set in a world in which violence has consequences. Even as a kid, I remember realizing just how intense and frightening the sequence in the Dyson home is, and the feeling that something big was at stake. I couldn’t necessarily describe what it was in words, but an awareness none-the-less.

When/if I have a kid of my own, will I show them Terminator 2 at the same age I saw it? Likely not. I don’t think I would hold it back till they are 18, but I will likely wait till they are somewhat older. For starters, I’m likely to start them off on black and white films and television just so they can develop an appreciation for classic cinema and television before I get to more recent material, but in all honesty, I just want to be able to make sure that they are ready and capable to handle what the film throws at them.

Now, let me take you back to Saturday, September 4th, 2010. Me and my father decided to check out Machete, the latest exploitation film from Robert Rodriguez. Or rather, the latest exploitation homage/parody. The film is an absurd but fun work, an ultra violent cartoon with a real political anger at its core. It isn’t perfect, and is a little long, but we had a fun time.

What unsettled me however was that a few rows behind us in the theatre, was a woman with her young kid, who couldn’t have been more than six years old, if that. As much fun as Machete is, the film is a large scale joke, were death is laughable, sex is a farce, and any notion of “seriousness” is left far behind. it’s a film where in the opening few minutes, a woman pulls a cell phone out of a questionable place, and several brutal killings happen.

Is a six (likely five) year old kid really going to be able to properly process this film? I doubt it. Is it responsible to show this film to a kid? Not at all. An R rated film is, at some point, a right of passage for all kids, but not at that age, and certainly not just any R film when the time comes. While it might have been a mistake to have shown me Terminator 2 at the age of seven, it is a film that strongly emphasises the value of life, shows death as a painful process, and that the taking of life is not easy. Machete does none of these things, nor should it: it isn’t that kind of film. But that also means that it needs to be viewed with a good understanding of what it is.

Irresponsible parenting when it comes to what kids watch is something that bugs me. Knowing what a kid is and isn’t ready for takes effort and restraint, and yes, some sacrifice. You may not be able to watch whatever the hell you want any time you want with a kid around, or might have to pay a baby sitter. Tough, that’s part of the deal with kids if you are going to have them. More to the point though, it is a problem that extends beyond the life of your own kid, as it merely gives fuel to the fire for those who try and blame childhood violence on films, television and gaming. I like having hard R horror films and action films, and I don’t want to see future productions jeopardized because of parents who don’t know better give censors ammo.

And don’t tell me you cannot control what your kid can and cannot see. You can control what enters your own house, or where you keep your R rated material. You monitor who your kids friends are, right? Keep in contact with those kids parents? You can probably have a pretty good idea what they might be watching. Claim you cannot control the internet? Well, don’t give your young kid a personal computer.

Most importantly, take these earlier years to get your kid ready to be a responsible viewer themselves. Help them to understand what it is they watch, how to process it. Talk it over with them. Discuss key topics. Don’t just slap a film down and let them mindlessly absorb it. Get them to think! There is no better time then when they are young to start. Those films you miss will still be there later once that time with your kids is done.

So they choice is yours. Choose wisely

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Post Sunday

New post slightly delayed. It is an opinion piece rather than a review, so stay tuned!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Heavy Metal (Potterton 1981)

Let me be clear: I love a good, trashy adolescent film every so often. I make no secret my love of Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage, or of any other number of B schlock films. Even the just released trailer for Hobo With a Shotgun looks entertaining as all hell. While often regressive, politically incorrect and idiotic, these films still have a certain appeal and a sense of fun about them. Moreover, in their own odd way, they are able to tap into the undercurrents of society, even if it is doing so for purely exploitative reasons.

Then, there is Heavy Metal (Potterton 1981)

It is hard to describe just how much I hate Heavy Metal, the Canadian made science-fiction/fantasy animated anthology film. It is a film that sets the bar low, and then proceeds to fail to reach even that modest height. Worse, as it fails, it takes things I love, including science fiction, pulp fiction, animation and great Canadian talent down into the gutter with it. It is as if the filmmakers were going out of their way to try and insult the viewer of the film on every conceivable level.

Heavy Metal is based on an American magazine of the same name, which itself was based upon a French magazine, from which the American version of the magazine apparently reprinted translated material. While I have never read an issue of the magazine, its reputation among genre fans is well known, both for featuring the works of noted comic artists and writers as well as for is hyper-sexual and hyper-violent storylines and images. While I cannot say the degree to which the film reflects its source material, there is no question that the filmmakers were certainly in love with the concepts of sex and violence, as these two elements are what the film solely consists of.

So, just what is the story, or stories as it is, of this anthology film? This is the first major problem with Heavy Metal, in that there is nothing in the film that can be called a story, let alone multiple stories. Yes, stuff happens on screen, but none of it is actually contained in anything resembling a narrative. I could use a famous quote from Macbeth to describe the material and the way in which it is presented, but I don’t feel like insulting Shakespeare by sheer association at this point. Technically, the so-called stories are tied together by a device called the Loc-Nar, an orb of great power which terrorises a little girl with its grizzly tales of death and destruction, which include zombies, taxi cab drivers, stoner spaceship pilots and other things that might have been interesting if anyone had actually bothered to write a script.

At this point, allow me to quote a selection from the 2004 edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, written by Chris Baldick, about “plot“: “the pattern of events and situations in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasis relationships - usually cause and effect- between incidents and to elicit a particular kind of interest in the reader or audience…” (195).

Now, lets breakdown one of the segments in the film. We have a set up that various random mutations are happening among the population of Earth, with a respected scientist showing up at the Pentagon to give his opinion on the matter. So far, so “ok.” In the process of doing so, however, he freaks out and begins to sexually assault a stenographer. Apparently, this has something to do with the Loc-Nar, though the how and why are unclear. Oh, and this assault is played for laughs, so, now we drift into the offensive. Then a tube breaks through the roof and sucks up the scientist and the stenographer into a spaceship, where we find out the scientist is a malfunctioning android created by another robot. Why the android was placed on Earth is never explained. Then they take off, with the stenographer still with them. Then the stenographer goes off an sleeps with a robot, while two space pilots get stoned, fly their ship, and ultimately crash land. Then the stenographer agrees to marry the robot, as long as it is a Jewish ceremony.

Now, you might believe that I have just described the basic, raw story with no finesse or actual attempt at describing the plotting that the actual filmmakers provide. You would be wrong, as the film provides no actual sense of relationship between the different parts of the “story” at any time. Even the basic idea of cause an effect isn’t present, let alone more complex forms of relationships between different elements of a given tale. And I would have been satisfied with basic cause and effect; it is not as if I went into this film expecting anything more than a collection of pulp tales. And this form of “storytelling” happens throughout the entire film, including the framing narrative, as the film follows the same pattern over and over again: sex, death, sex, gore, sex, murder, more sex followed by sex, a woman riding a dragon (surprisingly, that isn’t a sex scene), followed by more death. Oh, and the Loc-Nar exploding for some reason.

Part of the film’s narrative problems likely stem from the background of the screenwriters. The duo behind this film is Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, of Stripes and Meatballs fame. Now, I dig Stripes and think the original Meatballs was fun though flawed, but how on Earth did anyone think that these two were the duo to write a sci-fi anthology film? Both Stripes and Meatballs were far from being tightly plotted films, with the scripts just setting up scenarios for Bill Murray and crew to be funny as possible in. While Heavy Metal does make attempts at comedy, most of the stories are played straight. Due to this, the limits of Blum and Goldberg’s skills as writers are revealed, as each segment comes off as little more than half baked sketches, waiting for an improve team to come in an fix them up.

The main blame doesn’t rest with the writers however: they didn’t hire themselves, and it wasn’t their decision to move forward with the script as it was. No, those responsibilities rest with producer Ivan Reitman as well as director Gerald Potterton. Why didn’t one of these two take a moment to read the script an realize what a piece of garbage it was? I don’t mean to insult the writers, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone would have thought producing the film was a good idea if the script is close to what ended up on screen. Potterton doesn’t really direct so much as he allows the film to spiral out of control, and Lord knows just what on Earth Reitman was up to during the making of the film.

Worse, these filmmakers took plenty of talented people down with them; Elmer Bernstein of Ghostbusters fame; comic greats Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, and Bernie Wrightson, who worked on the film’s design; and the cast, which includes John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy and John Vernon. Everyone here deserved better material to work with than they received, and it is a great pity to see such talents wasted on this project. With any luck, I at would hope that they were at least able to make car payments with the cheques from this film.

While the film has little in the way of saving graces, it would be wrong not to give credit where credit is due when it comes to the design of the film. While the finished film is poorly animated, the design work is fascinating and beautiful in its ugliness. Most notable however is the soundtrack, which is perhaps the best remember aspect of the film, as it features music from Journey, Sammy Hagar, and Devo amongst others. The music is a nice distraction from the rest of the film, and thankfully the soundtrack is available to be listened to apart from the film itself. The same however does not seem to be the case for Bernstein’s score, which only sparingly appears but is still quite wonderful when it is allowed to shine through.

I could end this review by calling the film adolescent trash designed for 13 year old boys, but I would like to give 13 year olds a little bit more credit than the filmmakers of Heavy Metal give them. Animation fans may want to check it out for curiosity’s sake, but everyone else would be better off with a Ralph Bashki film. And I not particularly a big Bashki fan.