Friday, December 19, 2008

Film Noir Day Four: Psychotic, Suicidal Impulses and Taxi Driver

We wrap up this session on film noir with one of my favorite questions on any exam ever. There were seven topics from which to draw two, and after Point Blank, I chose this one. At the end of today's post-o-rama, I'll share the other five roads not taken. If any of you are interested in reading more about them, I'd be happy to indulge, of feel welcome to take a stab at them yourself.

But first, the final exam question, #9:

Taxi Driver is a neo-noir descended from the 50's film noir of "psychotic action and suicidal impulse" (Schrader). Elaborate on this statement and with reference to other, similar films situate Taxi Driver as a watershed noir in the historical development of this specific tendency (between 50's and recent noir).

The “psychotic action and suicidal impulse” that marks late term noir began not with a bang but a drink, a fatal one for Frank Bigelow. 1950’s D.O.A. is the first clear example of that shift in noir from one of hopeless optimism to bleak pessimism, culminating in violence in every direction. D.O.A., like The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly introduce audiences not to hapless losers but to men with nothing left to live for but destruction, men who have no time for femme fatales or murder schemes, even if their respective films offer up both. They lay the ground for Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver despite never committing fully to the nihilistic tendency.

Frank Bigelow is a dead man when viewers meet him in D.O.A.; he arrives to report a murder, and when the detectives ask him “who”, he replies “me”. The flashback prior to Bigelow’s poisoning is an elaborate game of misdirection, leading the audience to wonder how he came to be a walking “dead man”, but the key to D.O.A. is the moment he realizes there is no cure. Bigelow runs through the streets in a panic, trying to escape at all costs his fate.

When Bigelow finally accepts his fate, his character shifts from the classic noir type to a man on a singular mission: to find out who killed him and why. The film can be maddening, because despite this suicidal approach, Bigelow is somehow unwilling to take his death sentence to its extreme. When threatened by Chester the first time, Bigelow caves in and turns himself over. It is as though the conceit of the film is not enough to support a narrative structure, so writers Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene find excuses for Bigelow to be afraid of injury, despite the glaring evidence that he WILL die no matter what he does.

The Big Heat’s Dave Bannion becomes the psychotic hero not because he himself faces death, but because Mike Lagana and Vince Stone take everything away from him. Bannion is trying by the best of his ability to clean up a system afraid of the mob, and as punishment his wife is killed in an explosion meant for him. When his superior officers tacitly refuse to apprehend the guilty parties, Bannion resigns from the force, sells his house, hides his daughter, and sets out on what appears to be a suicide mission of vengeance.

And yet Bannion is not fully psychotic or suicidal. He abandons the system and makes strides that indicate to Stone and Lagana that he is not afraid to die, but by the end of the film, he returns to the Police Force, comfortable at his desk. Only Debby, Stone’s “girl” actually dies to stop any of the corruption. Bannion’s suicidal impulse transfers to here, absolving him of any guilt. Dave Bannion gets his vengeance without any of the blood on his hands.

If the classical era of noir actually has a psychotic (and suicidal) hero, it must be Mike Hammer of Kiss Me Deadly. Not only does Hammer not seem to care who he offends (police and criminals alike), but he brazenly pushes forward when it is clear he is mentally incapable of grasping the crime he nearly ran into. Hammer appears to care about superficial things in life: the top of the line car, futuristic apartment, the secretary / girlfriend who does his bidding. If another man insults him or stands in the way, Hammer simply beats him into submission and moves on.

Kiss Me Deadly comes the closest to Taxi Driver in that the consequences of Hammer’s actions have a (literally) explosive outcome; one that, depending on which version you see, kills Hammer and his secretary in the process.

Where Taxi Driver becomes the “watershed” noir for the psychotic action and suicidal impulse lies within Travis’s inability to do anything but destroy (himself or others). Bickle is, to put it simply, a weapon without a direction to point in. His disgust with New York is exacerbated by driving all over the city at night and dealing with the very worst it has to offer. In his spare time he stews, going to porno theaters without release or stewing at home, a veritable sty of fast food and garbage.

Travis Bickle does not have a femme fatale to draw him in, so he creates two: Betsy, a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine, and Iris, a child-prostitute. His “Madonna/Whore” complex becomes the catalyst for a purpose, although in both cases it is wholly destructive. Travis alienates both women, but directs his anger at the men they represent.

Without any interest for his own well-being, Bickle pushes forward to realize his goal of being a psychopathic killer. His rage at Betsy redirected at Palantine, Travis comes to believe that his act will have major repercussions, fixing a world he has no use for (and evidently no cure for). When he fails, instead of trying to adjust his mindset, the suicidal Bickle storms into the brother where Iris stays, killing Sport, her pimp, his boss, and the john with Iris in an outburst of blood and severed limbs.

Bickle, who sustains injuries in the shoulder and the neck, fully intends to kill himself as Iris screams beside him. Her salvation was not part of his plan, if he truly had one, and a lack of ammunition is his salvation, though he clearly has no use for life. The police, storming into the aftermath of Travis’s rampage, find him “shooting” himself in the head with his finger. Bickle, the suicidal psychopath, has finally lost it.

If there is any question that the epilogue to the film, which finds Travis back in good health and lauded as a “hero”, sullies this climax, consider the final moments of Taxi Driver. Bickle, who appears back to “normal”, drops Betsy off in his taxi and drives away. He catches something in the reflection behind him, and the “normal” fa├žade drops. Adjusting the mirror, Travis sees only himself. His rehabilitation was not complete; the cycle will begin again, and next time it may not end happily.

A curious side effect of the psychotic action hero occurs less in neo-noir and more to this day in action films like The Punisher or Death Wish. The lone hero, which traces itself back to pre-noir detective films and has its own watershed moment with Dirty Harry, is a spin-off of this psychotic action and suicidal impulse. It continues to appear in neo-noir or noir pastiches like Sin City, but the current crop of post-classical directors seem to be more fascinated with revisionist takes on pre-1950s noir conventions.



And that's it for the exam. Other questions included:

3) Discuss the image and function of women in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat

4) Discuss Orson Welles' use of expressionist visual techniques in Touch of Evil, then compare the black and white noir aesthetics of Touch of Evil with the neo-expressionist use of colors and light in Taxi Driver.

5) In what ways is Chinatown a nostalgic homage to film noir? In what ways is it a revisionist neo-noir?

6) Explain why post-WWII Vienna is a particularly apt setting for the noir story of The Third Man? How does it serve to reveal and explore noir themes (male identity crisis, systemic corruption, and personal betrayal)? How does the set-piece chase sequence through the watery sewers of Vienna fucntion as a metaphor for the film's over-arching themes, and, more generally, as archetypal signifier of one of noir's most basic psychological motifs?

7) The set-piece opening sequence in Touch of Evil is famous. Explain why. Explain also why it is often considered as an exemplary utilization of cinematic techniques.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film Noir Day Three: Point Blank

Today's entry comes with a serious SPOILER warning. If you have not seen John Boorman's Point Blank, there is no point in reading this post. It discusses major plot points, one large-ish twist, and the ending of the film, as well as a possible interpretation that would ruin the first time experience of the film.

You have been warned. Continue if you a) have seen Point Blank, or b) think you'll be okay.


Question #8:

About his film Point Blank, director John Boorman said that "one should be able to imagine that this whole story of vengeance is taking place inside [Walker's] head at the moment of his death." Explain.

(note: during editing the first paragraph, which sets things up a little bit, was cut in order to fit the two page limit. I have not been able to locate the earlier draft, but this should not hinder your ability to read the essay)

Only upon viewing Point Blank a second, third or fourth time does the construction of Boorman’s first act make sense. If Walker is in fact dying, the initial flash of memories will be chaotic, even if Boorman must also catch the audience up quickly. Viewers need to learn (if not understand) that Walker and Mal are associates, and that Lynne, Walker’s wife, betrays him. In rapid succession, these jagged memories bleed together, until Walker’s imagination takes over.

As an audience, it is more convenient not to ask why Walker is not bleeding as he crawls out of Alcatraz, or how he could survive the swim (which is impossible, according to narration which accompanies his “escape”). Boorman weaves a series of disorienting sound bridges and flash forwards as Walker returns home, most notably the “footsteps” sequence, where the sound of his feet continue well after it is clear Lee Marvin is no longer walking.

The first true key that the story is happening in Walker’s mind comes the morning after he finds Lynne dead, when the abstract style of editing moves from disorienting to hallucinatory. Walker (who to this point has not spoken to anyone other than a man named Yost), washes his face off in her bathroom, and finds a bottle of perfume he broke the night before sitting on the shelf, untouched. He breaks it again, and walks back to Lynne’s room, only to find the bed empty. No sheets, no pillows, no Lynne; only a white cat.

Inside the living room, Walker opens the shades to find Yost in the driveway, but the sunlight drives him backwards, into a suddenly empty living room. Walker is alone, living in the world of his mind, reminded in flashes that this fantasy cannot continue indefinitely. By the time Stegman’s stooge arrives, the house is back as it was. Walker’s imagine is not permanent, but it is nevertheless powerful. The quest for vengeance is a personal one, yet he includes other characters, but always ones connected to Mal or Lynne.

Walker’s ability to infiltrate The Organization, for that matter, hinges on the presence of Yost, who is in fact Fairfax, the third member of the operation Mal is willing to kill to get back into. Fairfax facilitates Walker’s ability to get home, provides him with information Chris could not possibly know (the whereabouts of Brewster), and appears to have his own agenda, providing a possibility of two vengeful spirits. Fairfax, like Walker, is supposed to be “dead”, as Carter and Brewster put it.

Nowhere in Point Blank is Walker directly responsible for the death of those who wronged him: Lynne overdoses on sleeping pills, Reese falls from a penthouse suite, Carter is shot by an assassin, and Brewster is killed by Yost / Fairfax. Walker roughs up some of Carter’s men, injures Stegman, and goads Chris into trapping Carter, but he is only unintentionally involved in Carter’s fall.
At the end of the film, after a “love scene” that demonstrates Walker’s conflation of reality with fantasy (a Walker/Carter/Lynne/Chris series of rollovers in bed), Brewster brings Walker to what we assume is Alcatraz to finally get his money back. Walker obscured in shadows, watches Fairfax and the mysterious assassin kill Brewster and call out for their spectral partner.

Even as Fairfax leaves the money for Walker, he does not re-emerge. As the audience asks themselves “well, where did he go?” the camera rises to show the actual Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay. Walker went to Alcatraz, or rather, he never left.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Film Noir Day Two: High and Low Art Revisited

For today's discussion of film noir, we'll be headed back into some territory covered earlier this fall about "high" and "low" art, but from a broader perspective. Instead of making judgment calls about what qualifies, we were asked to look at how film noir exists in both categories at once.

Question 2:

According to James Naremore, "film noir occupies a liminal space somewhere between Europe and America, between high modernism and 'blood melodrama,' and between low-budget crime movies and art cinema." Illuminate this assertion using specific examples of films studied in this course.

The curious space that film noir occupies frequently straddles high and low art captured the interest of French Critics. Frequently helmed by foreign directors (often of German or Austrian descent), what Americans considered "crime pictures" were, in fact, packed with deeper meaning. They often expressed concepts familiar to European modernists, or made oblique references to psychology or literature American audiences were missing. Films like Touch of Evil borrow extensively from the camerawork of men like Fritz Lang, and of the inventiveness in European cinema. The psychological drama occurring between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity was not lost on French audiences, even as Americans fixated upon Barbra Stanwyck's blonde wig.

At the same time, the elements of low art attracted the surrealist critics in France. It was not merely the subtext of the films which fascinated them, but also the brutal violence, sometimes exaggerated, but always present. Post-classical noir continues this trend, and noir in all of its forms exists somewhere in the nebulous region which is both high and low (not coincidentally the title of Akira Kurosawa's early Japanese neo-noir).

Touch of Evil, which borrows so heavily the cinematography of European cinema is at the same time a film dwelling in sleaze. Mike and Susie Vargas, an interracial couple on the border between US and Mexico, share a kiss so explosive it kills the driver of a nearby car. The two events are not directly linked, but Welles chooses to have his first cut in a three minute take make the implicit connection between one and the other. Janet Leigh's Susie spends much of the film either being menaced by thugs or in various states of undressed. Marketing for Touch of Evil, considered to be a hallmark of high art, fixates upon the salacious aspects of Susie's kidnapping, asking "what did they do to this woman?"

Because of the scandalous nature of homosexuality at the time, a number of films in classical noir tend to skirt around the subject, making sly references or jokes about characters. It is abundantly clear now that Waldo Lydecker of Laura is a homosexual, but because of production codes, the film must maintain some ambiguity, even if it was likely evident to audiences at the time. The same can be said of Mike Lagana in The Big Heat, who is awoken by a man in a bathrobe inside his home. While noir never explicitly states the sexual preferences of these men, it does exploit the scandalous nature by making them significant characters.

Similarly, psychopaths tend to appear frequently in film noir, whether it is Chester in D.O.A. or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Chester is not merely some thug sent to rough up Frank Bigelow; he is a full on sadist who takes enjoyment beating up people, and openly challenges Bigelow to try anything with violent repercussions. And Chester is merely the henchman of a crime lord who calmly sends Bigelow to his death! Travis Bickle has a considerably slower burn, but his violent outburst at the end of Taxi Driver is more chaotic and bloody than any film in the classical era. At the same time, Martin Scorsese films his rampage and its aftermath in a unique and artful manner when compared to modern crime films.

Even when noir spends much of its time dwelling in the low end of the art spectrum, as in Kiss Me Deadly or D.O.A., it introduces novel concepts for the style. Both films deal directly with fears of radiation poisoning to different ends. A film like The Big Heat, which is unquestionably misogynistic, still contains implicit condemnations of the Nazis and gives the best character role to Debby, the smarter-than-she-acts moll of gangster Vince Stone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Film Noir Final Day One: From Noir to Neo-Noir

As promised last night, for the next few days I'll be sharing some thoughts on film noir, courtesy of the final exam for the class. Unlike the last exam, this was a better opportunity to look at the style/genre/movement in a broader context. Accordingly, I had the chance to cover a little more ground on parts of the exam and the ability to really hone in on Point Blank, something I'll share with you guys on Thursday.

To start off, we'll take Question 1, which reads thusly:

Give a brief overview of the development of post-classical or neo-noir (from Touch of Evil to the present). Isolate and explain at least three elements of neo-noir that are characteristic, yet differ from the elements of classic noir.

After Kiss Me Deadly, which French critics considered the "final" classical era noir, there exists merely a two year gap before the birth of the post-classical era, thanks to the perennially ahead-of-his-time Orson Welles. While Touch of Evil retains some of the hallmarks or noir (black and white photography, a murder mystery, and a fixation upon the "lower class"), the film begins changing elements understood to be mandatory for the style.

What Touch of Evil began was a reflexive quality towards the classical era, one that Wilder toyed with in Sunset Boulevard. The post-classical (and later "neos") are aware of the existence of classical noir and do not feel the need to adhere to any or all of the conventions which made a film "noir". There are three key distinctions between "classic" noir and "neo" noir, all linked inextricably to the first wave of "film school auteurs"; directors not of the studio system but instead products of the experience of film.

Revisionism of the past began around the same time that neo-noir truly returned to form, the 1970s. While not unique to neo-noir, it became chic to take conventions of the classical era and openly question them on film. Chinatown is perhaps the first example of post-classical noir functioning as revisionist cinema, something that became a hallmark of almost all neo-noirs.

While Chinatown takes place in the 1930s, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne's film is clearly a product of the post-Vietnam / Watergate mentality. Classical noir involved some degree of criticism towards authority figures (particularly Double Indemnity and The Big Heat), but in the end good always triumphed over evil and the balance was restored. Our hero, often the criminal, went to jail for his crime.

Post-classical noir revisionism removed any sense of "right" or "wrong" from the equation. Take Jake Gittes, a man so disillusioned that he has turned his back on the police to be a private detective sniffing around in other couples' laundry. When even Jake cannot accept the twofold crime of Noah Cross (land theft and incest), his revived idealism is again crushed. Unable to convince his old partners that Cross, a powerful member of Los Angeles' public and social society, is stealing water and his granddaughter/daughter in Chinatown, he watches helplessly while Evelyn Mulwray is gunned down. Noah Cross, rich and powerful, gets exactly what he wants. Evil is systematic, and will always triumph, for good is weak. This opened the door for future neo-noirs to revise, tweak, or even outright contradict elements of classical noir.

Touch of Evil and Chinatown also revise another key element of noir, now one so linked to neo-noir audiences come to expect it in "film noir": the "idiot" protagonist. Classical noir frequently included a protagonist down on his luck that finds himself wooed by a femme fatale and suffers the consequences. Towards the end of the classical era, characters like Dave Bannion in The Big Heat challenge this, but neo-noir often exaggerates the ineffectiveness of the lead character to extremes. While Gittes is a fine example of the protagonist who knows practically nothing from the beginning of the film to the end (and when he thinks he knows something, he is mistaken), he is merely the tip of the iceberg. Consider characters like Red Rock West's Michael Williams or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's Harry Lockhart, characters so inept that they wander from place to place, often making their predicaments worse by getting involved.

Finally, neo-noir, a product of filmmakers who studied film, is rife with elements of pastiche. It is not enough merely to revise elements of film noir; neo-noir must also continually reference films, through direct references or in subtle visual cues. Martin Scorsese continually draws on films from the past in his films, whether it is lifting images from Godard in Taxi Driver or directly referencing The Wizard of Oz or The Trial in After Hours. A film like Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat relies heavily on reminding audiences of the classic era by giving William Hurt a fedora, or the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, which lifts wholesale images from the end of The Third Man. Neo-noir must simultaneously remind us of the past, all the while revising it, often parodically.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Universe Caught Up, Gang!

One of the questions the Cap'n got all the time early in the days of dvd was "when will there be a Criterion Collection version of Cannibal! The Musical?" It was a half joke, but apparently Troma heard something similar or they just never turned off the microphones they implanted in my brain.

Much to my surprise, closer inspection of the 13th Anniversary Edition of Cannibal! was not merely some "random reissue", nor was it like the 26th Anniversary Edition of The Toxic Avenger. Cannibal! The Musical is part of the Tromasterpiece Collection, spine number 1 to be specific.

To make it abundantly clear, there's a circle with a picture of Toxie on the front and side with the number 1 on it, and the disc opens with the same image ala older Criterion discs. The Toxie picture functions as the Janus logo. How seriously is Troma taking their new "Collection"? Lloyd Kaufman recorded a new introduction for Cannibal!.

If you aren't familiar with Troma, they have a simple gimmick for every dvd: an "introduction" from Lloyd Kaufman where he sits at a desk and welcomes you to the film you're about to watch. Whenever the name of the film is mentioned, his mouth is conveniently obscured or his head is turned or something distracts you because, well, it's the exact same introduction EVERY SINGLE TIME.

But not now, it would seem. Troma heard you, Criterion fans with a sense of humor, and soon you'll have a whole new set of "spine numbers" to collect, starting with the very worthy first film from Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Oh, if you were wondering: yes, Cannibal! The Musical is just as funny now as it was then.

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I had to mention briefly the interview with X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz, if only because he blames the poor box office showing for I Want to Vomit this Movie is So Bad on the success of The Dark Knight:

"We were all a bit disappointed, we had some indication that we were in for a rough time when THE DARK KNIGHT started to become the phenomenon that it is, and breaking records. THE DARK KNIGHT is a history making film at the box office, and we came out with our little dark film a week after. It was disappointing to be sure."

So nobody went to see it because of The Dark Knight, and not because it was underwhelming and word of mouth spread that very quickly. Gotcha. Speaking of which, if anyone would like to test the merits of I Want to Believe, feel free to pick one up in the Sam's Club in Cary, which is selling it early even though they shouldn't be.

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Not knowing what to expect when I opened the David Lynch Lime Green Box, I was surprised to discover that the dvds of previously released films (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) seem to be part of the box with the consent of each studio (Paramount and MGM respectively).

I haven't had time to pop the discs in to check out if they're exactly the same (the discs all have a new "lime green" theme to them... it's easier to show you if you come over) but that's impressive. The last time something like that happened was the Stanley Kubrick boxed set, and possibly the Oliver Stone set. Studios are usually very stingy about letting someone else release their catalog titles (i.e. why there would never be a Criterion Cannibal! The Musical, Tromasterpiece nonwithstanding).

The Lime Green Box itself is very cool, although in predictably Lynchian fashion there is no guide whatsoever to the content of the discs beyond films. There is a very nice booklet of photos I hadn't seen before and an ad for his coffee, but without watching them individually, the Cap'n couldn't tell you exactly what's on the box.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I’m in my office, downloading yr Digital Copies!

Well, they aren't yours. At least anymore. The Cap'n has decided since Digital Copies have grown up a little bit since the last time he played around with them that it's time to give it another go-round.

The other principle difference this time is that since I have one of those iPod thingys what plays them videos, rendering a once moot concept somewhat interesting. Since damn near every new release now has a "Digital Copy" tacked on to it, and since the Cap'n is going on a bit of a Thanksgiving vacation (no worries kids, the blogorium will not take a similar break), it seemed like a good time to pull out various dvds and Blu Rays and slap those copies onto iTunes to put on the old iPod.

I don't know if I mentioned this when discussing Slacker Uprising or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but I was watching them on the Touch. The downside of traveling somewhere that doesn't have a Blu Ray player is that if you don't have a dvd, normally you're SOL, so the digital copy makes it easier to take things on the road.

Yes, David Lynch is right, it is fucking stupid, but I likes it anyway.

The files aren't huge so I can pack quite a few onto a 16gb Touch and still have room for music, so it's like having a portable movie player in your pocket if you want to watch something. It's also a nice way to check out something you have ambivalent feelings about but want to give another go (or a first go) which explains the sudden presence of movies like Hellboy II, The Matrix, Get Smart and (sigh) The Clone Wars on my PC. I really should've put The Incredible Hulk .. I sold it back to work so I could show it to other folks.

What I'm really doing this for is the following movies: Wall*E, Dark City, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Rambo, and The Happening. Heh heh. Yes, that does mean the UPS package finally arrived, and I'll be watching Wall*E for real real (not for play play) shortly.

The digi-copies (not to be mistaken for Bob Digi) actually look pretty good, but they are playing on a VERY tiny screen (hence the retardedness). It's sort of the opposite of having a fancy tv, but then again I can't take said fancy tv wherever I go, so thus is the trade off. Portable media at relatively small size vs living room no one wants to come to...

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By the way, The Clone Wars (so far) is every bit as insipid and lifeless as you've heard, but strangely compelling. Kind of like Attack of the Clones, but not as bad as The Phantom Menace. Mind you, I said "so far", because the Apprentice (Asoka) hasn't said much of anything and we haven't been introduced to Jabba's gay uncle (not making that up). I'm still amazed Christopher Lee and Samuel L. Jackson agreed to do this film, which is really like an extended pilot.

Of course, I did turn it off ten minutes in so I could watch Mirrormask, so take that as evidence of this Star Wars fan's ennui with the series...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blogorium Review: Kung Fu Panda

The Wu Tang and the Shaolin and... The Panda?

The Cap'n presents a quick review of a kids movie you may have forgotten about: Kung Fu Panda.

I was actually going to wait until I'd had a chance to watch Wall*E to put this review up, but since Amazon went with UPS instead of the US Postal Service, I'm shit out of luck re: watching it tonight. I should've known when I read the erratic (read: retarded) shipping pattern for my package. UPS assholes always require a signature when they arrive even if you don't want them to and their general MO is to ring the doorbell and then just leave.

Of course I was in class so I have no idea. Yet another reason why I'll a) think twice before pre-ordering on Amazon and b) never work at UPS again.

Anyway, on to Kung Fu Panda, which suddenly makes Wall*E's inevitable march towards the Oscars not so inevitable. Again, I haven't seen Wall*E, but let me say that Kung Fu Panda does something that Shrek never made me want to do, let alone any of Dreamworks Animation's other films: watch it again.

In fact, I'll probably watch Kung Fu Panda several more times in the future, because it's that good in its own right. Instead of the normal Dreamworks fare which focuses on pop culture references that instantly date the movie, Panda exists to be a gateway drug for children into the world of chop socky.

My hope is that as children grow with Kung Fu Panda, they begin following the films of Jackie Chan; first the stupid, childish ones, but then the real stuff, like Drunken Master 2. From there, they'll be ready for Enter the Dragon, Street Fighter, and anything the Shaw Brothers Studios have to offer.

Kung Fu Panda makes the martial arts fun for kids in a way that still respects the source material. Yes, there are references to other kung fu movies, but it's nice that when they selected a Mantis, a Monkey, a Crane, a Viper, and a Tiger as the "Furious Five", each creature fights that respective style. Seriously. Pull out your "Shaolin vs Wu Tang" dvds and check it out. Master Oogway, a tortoise uses a tai-ji style, and Po (the Panda in the title) fights bear style.

What's nuts is that the fight sequences are actually really good, and often not designed to be vehicles for cheap jokes. Kung Fu Panda is a kung fu film that happens to be a kids movie. The message, which isn't laid on as thick as I'd expected, is to "follow your dreams".

The story is pretty simple, per kid rules: Po (Jack Black), a panda, dreams of being more than a noodle cook, and when he's accidentally named the "Dragon Warrior", Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has to train him very quickly in order to stop escaped villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane). There are the usual "fish out of water" shenanigans, but underlying the affair is a deep respect for the martial arts and Chinese wisdom, something lacking in the average "CG Kids Film".

My hope is that people see past the advertising, which plays up the Jack Black and the cheap jokes (of which you see almost all in the trailer) and sit the tykes down over the holiday season for it. Once I've watched Wall*E, I'll be able to put them side by side (since they'll likely be the Oscar contenders this year) and weigh the relative merits, but for now I'm quite pleasantly surprised to say Pixar suddenly has viable competition this year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blogorium Review: Beyond Borders


The Cap'n is rarely an advocate of skipping class, but I sure wish I'd decided to sit out tonight's class. It wasn't necessarily the Professor's fault. He genuinely believed that the movie he'd rented was about migrant workers in Kansas. But it wasn't.

It was Beyond Borders with Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen, or as I like to call it, White Liberal Guilt: The Movie.

Watching this crap would be bad enough if I hadn't seen it, but unfortunately, I have watched Beyond Borders before (don't ask) and it was every bit as insipid, trite, poorly written and heavy handed as it was the last time. The only thing I noticed more clearly this time around is how cheap the all synthesizer score sounds, which gives the film a "made for tv" quality befitting its otherwise lackluster production values.

For those lucky enough to be out of the loop, Beyond Borders is the story of a rich white American (Jolie) who marries a British dude and then has her eyes opened to the plight of the Third World, so she goes on a travelogue (from Ethiopia to Cambodia to Chechnya) helping people and lusting after world weary Doctor Hunky (Owen).

He has a "seen it all / jaded asshole" quality and she has a "self righteous but doesn't understand how things work" attitude which make for some arguments and misunderstandings until they get it on during a rescue mission across the border to Thailand. Also, while being a Doctor, the guy is also a gunrunner and works with the CIA to assist rebel groups throughout the 80s and 90s. I am not making this shit up.

You should know you're in trouble when a movie like Rambo is more subtle about the political reality of relief efforts than Beyond Borders. Actually, it's pretty funny because Rambo takes the second act of this film and makes it more believable than Beyond Borders manages to, right down to the "villains threatening children and killing heroes" sequence.

The depth of insight goes no further than "white people help poor people but have a hard time doing it because of corruption", and by that I mean that sentence is enacted over and over again without going any further. We get African thugs, Khmer Rouge thugs, Corrupt Cambodian soldiers, ineffective Ethiopian leaders, and Chechnyan terrorists. Oh, and for good measure, a cheating husband so Jolie won't feel guilty hooking up with Owen and having his kid.

I'll spare you the howlingly bad dialogue that Clive Owen has to sell as meaningful, or descriptions of scenes where Jolie stares blankly at someone. Or the Cambodian translator who looks suspiciously Italian. It's just a terrible, terrible movie, unless you REALLY want to know why Angelina Jolie feels the need to collect so many children (on top of the ones she has herself).

Beyond Borders has exactly one thing going for it, and that's *SPOILER* the fact that Angelina Jolie is killed by a landmine in the last ten minutes. It's supposed to be very sad, I guess, but I was laughing because of how badly the film sells it. Clive Owen, being shot to pieces by the terrorists, can't seem to understand why she's standing perfectly still, and we're just waiting for the inevitable. As sick as this sounds to the one or two "normal" people who read this, I took some twisted glee in that particular explosion. No sadness filled my heart. Only relief.

The moral of the story, other than "make sure you know which movie you're renting" is to Watch Rambo Instead. It accomplishes everything Beyond Borders is trying to do, and is just as violent. Also, it's better written, directed, and scored.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

No Offense to The Carolina Theatre...

...but when you send me an email that starts "CASABLANCA AND TWISTER - with a special gift!", I'm really hoping the "special gift" is not showing Twister. Other than "they were available", I can't even begin to guess why they're showing one after the other. The Cap'n has some love in him for Casablanca, to be sure, but there's no room in his shriveled black heart for 1997's Bill Paxton / Helen Hunt disasterpiece.

It could just be me, but I'm betting not. A show of hands: how many of you saw Twister when it came out? Okay, how many of you ever saw it again? TV counts, yes. How many of you ever saw Twister, even in passing on television?

That's kind of what I thought. I welcome any defenders of the movie to light up my comments, but the Cap'n sincerely doubts he'll be seeing any. If I were to ask how many of you had seen Casablanca, I guess the numbers might be similar, but I'm going to hold on to my belief, thanks.

Speaking of which, there's nothing "low art" about Twister, if you were thinking of going that route. That's a movie with (at the time) big stars and a pretty big freaking budget directed by the guy who made Speed (also a big hit) for a major studio designed to cash in on the success of movies like Independence Day and that (forthcoming) Armageddon.

Twister with Bruce Campbell is low art, and I urge you to rent it to see exactly how "low" it can go.

---

I have to say that I'm pretty keen on watching Wall*E some time next week. Doctor Who is a big priority but I feel like I should finish Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures first as they both tie into series four.

Tropic Thunder is also of interest, as no one who's seen it seemed to dislike it. Most of them loved it, and I really appreciated the way that Rain of Madness the Hearts of Darkness to Tropic Thunder's Apocalypse Now claims that Jack Black's character got his start on Heat Vision and Jack. Even better: in the "universe" of Tropic Thunder, Heat Vision and Jack was a huge hit and not just a failed pilot you can find on YouTube*.

Needless to say that I'll be agonizing between watching these films and doing homework, and homework will probably win. Or sleep will lose. (Stupid sleep)

---

I'm glad not to be 14 or a girl. Otherwise I'd be spending all of my money on seeing Twilight 11 or 12 times in two weeks. As it is, I won't see Twilight once, and yet this is somehow not heartbreaking or ________ (insert current hip phrase used by 14 year olds).





* I linked to it once a long time ago, so you can do the work yourselves this time. I promise it's worth it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blogorium Review(s): Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk

Luckily for all of you, The Cap'n did actually have a couple of stored up reviews just in case such a day came where I was a) no longer angry about the news or b) irritated by something in the film department. In a rare show of "double featuring", I watched Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, roughly back to back not long ago.

Of the two, I'm definitely landing on the Iron Man side of things. It's hard to not want to compare Iron Man to The Dark Knight, the other "big" summer comic book movie, but I'm going to try. They're very different types of films, anchored in very different ways (which actually comes in handy when we turn to The Incredible Hulk, which tries to be darker).

I'm a casual Iron Man reader, so forgive me for not knowing the series as well or catching all of the in jokes, but I did dig the hell out of this movie. While I'd be tempted to say that it could still work with someone else in the suit, Robert Downey Jr is pitch perfect as Tony Stark and kicks the movie from "very good" into "a damn entertaining movie".

And that's what Iron Man is: entertaining. As an origin story, it covers all of the necessary ground quickly and integrates it into the narrative in such a way that things feel organic. In most "origin stories" (think Spider-Man or Batman Begins), there's a dividing line between "hero hones his skill" and "first major test from any villain". Iron Man has three pretty serious tests to the suit, punctuating the film in such a way that the "learning" process scenes in between feel necessary and not, well, "necessary".

The difference is that you're on the ride with Stark as he changes from indifferent playboy to man with a cause, and his adjustments to the suit and his technique don't feel perfunctory because "an origin story needs x, y, and z". Credit for that goes to Jon Favreau, who I felt made a surprisingly good kids film with Zathura a few years ago and is really establishing himself as a great director of summer entertainment.

The cast all seems to be having a great time, with Downey in the lead, but that shouldn't leave out Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Favreau himself who plays Stark's chauffer. What Iron Man has that few comic book movies do is the sense of enjoyment with the material, and a wonder at what unfolds onscreen. In that respect it's a lot like Superman: The Movie.

And yes, there's the Nick Fury scene at the end, setting up the whole "Avengers Initiative", a thread that continues in The Incredible Hulk. Most of the weaponry used by General Ross (William Hurt) against Bruce Banner / The Hulk (Edward Norton) comes from Stark Industries, and Robert Downey Jr makes an appearance in the film as Tony Stark. This is notable because two different studios made Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but Marvel is asserting its universe whoever finances the film.

Like I mentioned above, The Incredible Hulk is "darker" than Iron Man, by which I should say "angstier". Like Superman Returns, the film is almost slavishly devoted to the Incredible Hulk tv series, borrowing music, iconography, and even some cast members (look for Bill Bixby on a tv show and Lou Ferrigno halfway through the film). Ferrigno is also the "voice" of Norton's Hulk, and yes, that does mean he talks, not just growls.

To separate itself from Ang Lee's Hulk, the reboot has a Spider-Man 2-like opening which quickly recaps the Hulk origin story in flashes. The movie goes ahead and assumes you've either a) seen Lee's version or b) watched the tv show, so there's not a lot of time spent recapping stuff. There is a lot of staring, running, Edward Norton and William Hurt looking angsty, and Liv Tyler being menaced.

In fact, only Tim Roth seems to be having any fun with the movie, until he too is reduced to the cgi Abomination for the big brawl at the end. I'll give it to The Incredible Hulk for upping the "destruction" quotient in this second go-around, but overall the movie is narratively fractured, edited sloppily, and mostly uninterested in doing more than moping and smashing. I'm not in any hurry to watch it again, or see the "alternate opening" and deleted scenes, which Edward Norton claims are a fraction of what was cut from the film (oh boy, a longer, angstier version of The Hulk awaits...)

They do continue to set up Captain America, particularly since Roth's Emil Blonsky takes the super soldier serum to equal Hulk in power, and the aforementioned Iron Man / Avengers connection. One of the other ones I hadn't necessarily read about but wanted to address is an oblique reference to another Marvel character not mentioned by name in the film.

Early in the film, Banner is contacting someone online through encrypted chats. Banner uses the name "Mr. Green" and the person he's talking to is "Mr. Blue". What I noticed is that when Banner sends his blood sample to "Mr. Blue", the address is New York, so am I wrong in assuming that Mr. Blue is Reed Richards?

 Edit: I have no idea what the whole Fantastic Four conspiracy theory thing is still doing here. Really, I don't. I may have written this part before I finished The Incredible Hulk and simply neglected to remove it because it's pretty clear that's not what happens in the film AT ALL. Sorry to drag the rest of you down into this mire on non sequitur-dom. 
Did The Incredible Hulk sneak in a Fantastic Four reference in a way that 20th Century Fox wouldn't notice? Marvel owns the rights to The Avengers (every member) and is working on bringing films for all of them to fruition before a "team" movie (up next are Thor and Captain America). Marvel, however, does not own the screen rights to The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, The Punisher, or Spider-Man (they belong to Fox, Fox, Fox, Lionsgate, and Columbia, respectively). That's one of the big reasons you didn't see Spider-Man in either of the FF movies, even though they both operate publicly in New York, and why Kingpin will never be attacking Peter Parker or The Punisher.

The Cap'n could be way off here, but that was my hypothesis. It made sense, anyway. If I'm missing another "blue" Marvel character, feel free to catch me up. I look forward to Iron Man 2, even if the "Terrence Howard / Don Cheadle" situation confuses me a bit. If Kenneth Branagh is still involved with Thor, I'm quite curious, and the announcement of Joe Johnston on Captain America doesn't feel like a detriment. We'll see what Marvel has in store for us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Again with the "High Art" or No Art (another essay/polemic)

I promise to lay off of this for a while after this, but the Cap'n isn't quite done talking about the "critical" attitude that's pervasive throughout film. I get that there's enough "high art" out there to study for a lifetime, but I'm so tired of film professors, critics, and students telling me that "if it isn't high art, I don't see why I should bother".

This is especially obnoxious when they then choose to cite directors widely considered to make "low art" like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino or pick out one movie (like Last House on the Left) that somehow represents the "transcendence of trash cinema", which makes it okay for them to watch. This includes, but is not limited to the derisory comments made by James Naremore about Joe Bob Briggs or people who refuse to take someone like Vern seriously.

Just because they champion "low art" doesn't mean they have no credibility, or don't know what they're talking about. It's great that you're too good for The Toxic Avenger, but it doesn't make me a bad person for seeking out the good qualities while you're holding your nose.

Of course there's shit down in the lower depths; for crying out loud, I've banned the names of two directors from this blog until next year because there's nothing of merit to be found in their schlock. Some of you disagree with me, and you're welcome to hash it out if you don't mention them by name, but I don't think less of you.

In fact, many of the blogorium readers frequently disagree with me, but with the exception of The Happening, I hope few of you think less of me for mixing the occasional Taco Bell in with my Angus Barn.

What bothers me about this pervasive critical attitude is that this is the field I want to enter, to write about, and it's admittedly narrow about what you don't turn your nose up at. That bothers me, and I don't necessarily like the prospects of having to take the high road or be looked down own for the rest of my life. Especially when I think Last House of the Left is overrated*. So is Funny Games, but that's a relentlessly nihilistic slasher film critics can like because it "has something to say about violence and audience expectations".

The Cap'n, as some of you already know, borrows his moniker from The Exorcist, but I'm not going to pretend I haven't seen The Exorcist II: Heretic, Legion: The Exorcist III, and both prequels (of the followups, only Legion is any good, if you were wondering). I didn't stop at the first one because "it's the only film of merit". I'd rather not be summarily dismissed because I dare to consider the alternate versions of Payback in relation to Point Blank, even if either iteration of the remake isn't anywhere as good.

I like to think that the "low art" can have merits of its own without having to pretend it's something other than what it is. You can play in the mud and still find treasures, instead of just raining indifference while parsing the Criterion collection and wondering aloud why they'd bother releasing The Rock.

So that's my two cents. There must be some middle ground between derision for anything not canonized and the Al Adamson Collection** where people who want to write about cinema can go without fear of reproach. Help me out here, people.



* look, I understand it's supposed to be sleazy and boundary pushing, but if we're seriously going to look at early Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes is in practically every way a superior movie. Don't just drag up the old "remake of The Virgin Spring" argument, fellow students; I've heard it, and it doesn't elevate House by association...
** he of Horror of the Blood Monsters and Blazing Stewardesses fame, movies which are both too boring and too badly made to bother watching again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It’s not Just About "High Art" (an essay about The Drive-In)

Sometimes The Cap'n just has to disagree with his textbook, no matter how authoritative the source is.

In James Naremore's otherwise quite thorough book More Than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts, he devotes a portion of Chapter 4, "Low is High" to attack Joe Bob Briggs. For those of you not familiar with Briggs, he prides himself on being a fan of "low" cinema; you can find him providing commentaries for movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. He is also the author of a handful of books, including Profoundly Disturbing, Profoundly Erotic, and Joe Bob Goes to the Drive In, none of which I have read, but I'd like to.

Naremore considers him to be the very worst kind of champion for "low art", a far cry from the days of Manny Farber. In "Low is High", which is about the blending of low rent crime films and artistic criticism, Joe Bob appears as a figure of derision who "seems to be making fun of both the establishment and the Bible Belt yahoos, but in reality his cultural politics are quite safe". Naremore calls Briggs an "ersatz good old boy - a crefully contructed persona who enjoys redneck camp and who writes about a 'drive-in' culture that no longer exists (if it ever did)"(161)

I do not challenge Naremore's right to look down upon Joe Bob Briggs, and it does not surprise me that a "serious" film critic would do so. There is little toleration in the critical community for artifice or rebelliousness, so he's welcome to accuse Briggs of playing it "safe". What did raise my ire is the second half Naremore's contention, that a drive-in culture never existed, or that it is a fabrication on the part of Briggs.

Most of "Low is High" is devoted to refuting the myth that much of film noir consisted of "B" pictures interspersed with a few "A" movies. Included in that is a breakdown of the difference (both in stature and in budget) between the two kinds of movies, the history of Republic Pictures, Alliance Entertainment, and the birth of American International Pictures towards the end of the classic "noir" cycle.

It also gives me the earliest written usage of the term "grindhouse", from 1947, although Naremore points out that the movie the critic refers to a "typical" is actually a Hollywood A picture based on an Ernest Hemingway story (The Killers).

Naremore does not refute the existence of the grindhouse in large cities, but conveniently ignores the fact that smaller towns and rural areas did not typically have more than one movie theatre downtown. The local theatre would, in fact, play the "A" picture and a "B" picture with cartoons, newsreels, and short subjects. They would be extremely unlikely, however, to play the kinds of movies Briggs champions. Those films fell into the domain of the Drive-In.

I remember well into the eighties a drive-in somewhere in Raleigh called The Starlight* listed in the newspaper. I don't remember when it closed, but since we didn't have a "grindhouse" so to speak**, movies that would never play in a first run theatre or the burgeoining multiplex would show up at The Starlight.

But to actually cover the "drive-in culture" that Briggs defends and Naremore denies, we have to go back before the Cap'n was born. It brings about the crucial distinction between the drive in during its heyday and the dying days of the scene during the 80s and 90s: home video.

The reason I believe the "drive-in culture" had to exist was because there was no such thing as home video in the late seventies, and it wasn't widely available until the mid-to-late eighties for most middle class families. This didn't stop movies from being made that no Downtown movie theatre would play. The 70s is a repository for all sorts of "B" to "Z" cinema that wasn't made to go "direct to video", because such a thing didn't exist. The existence of Z Channel or HBO does not support the idea of films being made for television in the late seventies. So where did movies like I Spit On Your Grave, Robot Monster and Last House on the Left play? The Drive In!

Did "A" pictures play there too? I'm certain they did, but I bet you couldn't find Night of the Living Dead playing at the theatre next to the drugstore. In big cities, sure it probably made it to a smaller theatre or even a "grindhouse", but where that option doesn't exist, the drive-in is the logical alternative. Not to mention the ability to hang out in your car, smoke, drink, make out, or generally kick back and watch a movie.

All of this leads me to believe that there was such a thing as a "drive-in culture", if for no other reason than it would be fun to go to one every week. They offered different choices, double bills, and provided a more relaxed atmosphere than the local movie house. As the multiplex grew in stature, the option to see more than one movie clearly cut down on that angle, and the popularity of home video allowed people to enjoy movies at home in an even more relaxed atmosphere. The Grindhouse and The Drive-In faded, and are now both something of an abstraction; a memory.

James Naremore is quite right to differentiate between our conception of the "B" movie and the reality, and to shed some light on how we understand the history of some films, but I cannot agree that because one is misunderstood, the other cannot exist. There are simply too many movies produced in the era of the "B" film which serve no other purpose but to help support the "drive-in culture", whether he chooses to believe so or not.



* Please feel free to correct me, but I swear it was called The Starlight Drive In. We drove past it once or twice, and I'm almost positive that was the name.
* the closest Raleigh ever had to one was The Studio, which was technically two screens but otherwise pretty much fit the criteria

Monday, November 3, 2008

Horror Fest III, Day Two: The Orphanage

Our final movie tonight, after many a folk decided sleep was in their best interest (despite the extra hour) was The Orphanage, a bedtime story / fairytale that is in many points quite creepy. Thankfully, not creepy in the way you'd expect it to be (at least in the end), but still unnerving and occasionally enough to unsettle you.

What you don't hear as much about the film is how the story is more about dealing with loss than uncovering some kind of ghostly mystery (although there's a fair share of that too). In a lot of ways The Orphanage reminded me of Lady in White, but the crucial distinction for the former is that while it is spooky and quite suspenseful, there's also a pervasive sadness, even in moments like the psychic trance.

It's an easily recommended movie, even if you get spooked without much provocation. Watching it alone in the dark might not be ideal, but it's a fine film and well worth checking out.

For now, the Cap'n is uncertain about how long (if at all) the fest will continue into tomorrow. Unlike Summer Fest, I have schoolwork which must be attended to and looking forward to the week ahead is paramount.

After Trailer Sunday recaps our movies, I might throw up some pictures of Shecky the Halloween Skeleton, DJ Spooks, and the little red demon dude, along with a handful of other pictures (and maybe video) of the Fest. What didn't necessarily get coverage was Adam's awesome selection of alcoholic beverages and the drinking game that pushed The Happening way into the stratosphere*.

How much of The Wickeremake and Horror of the Blood Beasts we got through is another tale worth telling, but right now I'm keen on bed. Sure, the clock says 5:38, but it feels like 6:38...

Since I'm unsure about tomorrow, I'd like to go ahead and thank our Horror Fest III spooksters: Adam, Neil, Tom, Liz, Randy, Andrea, Ben, Nathan, Chris(?), Barrett, Phillippi, Riannon, Dominic, Mike, Paula, and dude who's name I forgot but he was here with the Rianimator. As always, a Horror Fest is only as much fun as the people who come to it, and I have to say it was fun.



* hint: if you're wondering why there was such an emphasis on "deez nuts" after Freddy's Dead, it had a LOT to do with The Happening drinking game...

Horror Fest III Day 2: The Most Incredible Triple Feature Ever!

Ladies and gentlemen of the blogorium, I submit to you that the Cap'n provided a one, two, three punch of awesomeness that you had to be here to fully appreciate.

We started with the Paul Lynde Halloween Special of nineteen hundred and seventy six, which finds a way of making you wish what you're seeing will end only to make it that much worse in the next scene. See, for no apparent reason, Lynde a) forgets what holiday it is, b) sings "Kids" from the Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack (with Donnie and Marie Osmond), c) is friends with Witchie Poo and The Wicked Witch of the West.

The witches give him three wishes, so Lynde becomes Big Red the Rhinestone Trucker, some sultan, and then takes the witches to a Hollywood disco, all with the help of Tim Conway, Florence Henderson, Betty White, and Kiss. For some reason Paul Lynde plays the ladies man for 2/3 rds of these wishes, which is even funnier since he's clearly not feeling it. There are also some very inappropriate jokes which I shan't repeat. And Peter Criss sings "Beth", which you think is as bad as it's gonna get, but then Florence Henderson sings, and it goes downhill from there.

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That was the warm up act for the return of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, which folks got to see a) for the first time or b) against their will.

For the Cap'n, the third time was in fact the charm, but I'll hand the blogging dutires over to one of our H-Fest goers, who has something he needs to say on the subject of nuts:

Who is the most captivating character in "Freddy's Dead: the Final Nightmare"?
Who Dropped the most F-Bombs at Horror Fest 3?
Who was the first to pass out from substance abuse?
Who was the first person to leave during the happening?
Hey, did ummm whathisname dun get atcho yesterday?
Who is the most influential figure in 20th century Kino?
...
...
...
SPOILER ALERT!
SPOILER ALERT!
...
...
...
...
Deeeeeeeeezzzzzz Nuuuuutz!


This is the Tominator here, taking over for Doctor -- Nay, Professor Murder. Seems he had a case of prostate examination on the brain. In any case, I am having a hard time digesting The Happening as being anything but a wretched, 90-minute low-brow attempt at thriller detournement. No, I can't even really justify the palpability of this movie as being a means through which it destroys or satirizes the entire oeuvre of horror-thriller. Thinking that Shitalawn had any ideas in his head relating to or borne out of knowledge of poststructural theory is absurd. This movie was simply, unabashedly, unabatedly awful. Patently disgusting. Quite possibly the worst thing I've ever seen. From the gratuitous "social commentary" that conflates worldwide human-wrought disaster with the few problems with nuclear power to the atrocious acting, despite Marky Mark's naive earnestness, The Happening can only have one thing said about it, one thing that sums up what this movie is about and what it tries to communicate:









DEEEEEEEZZZZ NUUUUUUU-UUUUUUUTTTTTZZZZZZ!!!!



Fuckin a right.

Josh takes over now. DEEZ NUTS.


For some reason (let's just say it involved a LOT of beer), that was the funniest thing ever to two of our Horror Fest attendees during Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, which if you hadn't guessed was the third part of our trifecta.

We watched it 3-D, which was AMAZING, it turns out. Right now, Horror of the Blood Monsters is playing, in 2-D unfortunately. Otherwise known as Vampire Men of the Lost Planet, it's the only movie I never actually finished. The challenge to them is to see how far they can get before it turns off. When they finally give up, I'll let them watch a real movie.

I apologize about all the nuts. They're still laughing like hyenas.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Horror Fest III Day 2: Blood Feast and Child’s Play 2

Blood Feast remains about the sleaziest horror movie you can make. Herschell Gordon Lewis is half interested in showing bad torture scenes with fake blood and even faker body parts, but let's be honest here: the focus of Blood Feast is the buxom ladies in bathing suits and underwear.

The masculine gaze is in full, perverse effect during Blood Feast, and story is a distant second. Admittedly, Lewis is working with a very low budget, and when you don't have much for effects or actors or anything else, sometimes the best defense is to aim for the male libido. The egyptian blood feast itself (or the ridiculous flashback sequence) is secondary to cheap titillation. It's similar territory to Wizard of Gore, but lacking the sadistic comedy of Two Thousand Maniacs.

All this in a scant sixty-seven minutes.

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Child's Play 2 remains the shiznit. The movie's too short for flaws to have any time to creep in, so you're free to sit back and enjoy Chucky's reign of carnage. Better still, the production values, camerawork, and score actually trick you into thinking Child's Play 2 is a higher rate film than any horror sequel has any right to be.

Think about it: Freddy's Revenge? Looks like crap. Friday the 13th Part 2? Low budget all the way. Halloween II? Well, I don't know what the hell was going on, but still pretty cheap. Child's Play 2, on the other hand, looks like a movie that the studio cared about, and that's kind of surprising considering we're talking about the sequel to a killer doll movie.

It's still awesome, and I will hear no ill spoken of it. Any time it's on tv, I'll be there. Yessir.

Horror Fest III Day 2: Blade Trinity

Before you scoff, understand that Neil had never seen Blade Trinity, save for its tv airings, which doesn't actually count as seeing the film at all. It's not a matter of the violence, but writer/director David Goyer's hodgepodge dialogue consisting of bad jokes and random profanity is pretty much lost on cable television.

The film remains as bad as it ever was; a testament to why you should never allow the writer of a series to become a first-time director with total creative control. It's not just that Ryan Reynolds is so annoying that other characters hate him as much as the audience does. It's not just that Blade really has nothing to do except hang around and ignore monologues from Natascha Lyonne, Patton Oswalt, Jessica Biel, and Kris Kristofferson. It isn't even that John Michael Higgins or Parker Posey seem to be in a much different movie than Blade Trinity.

Honestly, you can work out how dumb and ill conceived the movie is in three letters: HHH.

I'm guessing most of you (other than Cranpire) don't know who Triple H is, which is fine. This isn't a situation like The Rock where you probably know him more for his movies than the wrestling at this point. Triple H pretty much just made Blade Trinity and said "well, that's good for me". All he does in the movie other than beat Ryan Reynolds up is get angry about dick jokes and play with a vampire pomeranian*.

The big bad guy, Dracula er, Drake, is "the original vampire, and like the great white shark, he's never needed to evolve", which means Dominic Purcell from Prison Break wanders around to a RZA song sampling The Velvet Underground and beating up goth kids. Actually, that scene's pretty funny. Drake finds himself in a store that inexplicably only sells Dracula-related merchandise. I think the Count Chocula does him in, but some believe it's the Dracula vibrator. I'll let you be the judge.

Goyer also includes brilliant ideas like making random characters speak Esperanto and, to really hammer it home, includes footage from the William Shatner Esperanto epic Incubus. Of course, if you don't know what either are, this trivia is totally lost on you and Blade Trinity continues looking stupid and arbitrary.

Oh wait, it is. And I'm not even going into Jessica Biel's darkcore trip hop techno ipod mix that she kills vamps to. Seriously, if you ever thought "why didn't they make Blade 4?" aside from the Wesley Snipes being in jail thing, watch Blade Trinity. If you can make it past Triple H giving the finger to the sun two minutes in withouth laughing, this movie is for you.

This does however serve us well for the direction tonight's headed in, which is one of laughter and horror. As I'm typing this, Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast is playing in the other room, and it's going to get better from there. I am hell bent on watchin Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and Child's Play 2 before the night is out...

* see what I mean? this movie's retarded!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Horror Fest III Day 1: The Mist (in glorious black and white)

Although Mssrs Davis and White slept through various portions of The Mist (it was 3am when we started), I believe both of them enjoyed the film. Liz and Randy did as well, and I'm just going to have to disagree about the "top 4 worst ending" ever that Mr. Cranpire feels the film deserves.

Turns out that black and white really suits the film well. Not only do the dodgy cg effects look better, but the grocery store feels more claustrophobic. The mist itself becomes more oppressive when the grays are drained out; the impenetrable whiteness makes shapes in the distance all the more unnerving.

As everyone is turning in, The Orphanage will have to wait for tomorrow, but we're off to a good start. The Cap'n and friends will be back soon with more updates from the Season of the Beast.

G'nite.

Horror Fest III Day 1: Man, I wish we hadn’t seen The Ruins!

The Cap'n points his mighty finger of shame towards any and all of you who recommended The Ruins as a "must see" horror film. You can't really have an audience more ready for this kind of film, and every single one of us agree that is sucks the big one.

From the get go this movie was going in bad directions, and it never got better. To be honest, I was constantly reminded of Feast, a movie where only the idiot characters live into the second act. Unfortunately for The Ruins, it's not a horror comedy (at least intentionally).

We should've known things were bad when half way in I started complimenting the mountains in the background and not the film itself. At this time, I feel it's important to pass this on to two separate opinions. Adam watched the movie in a very particular way, and Neil has some thoughts to share as well:

Mr. Davis - So here's the sitch. A couple of moderately hot chicks hang out on some ancient temple with a guy who we will tentatively call " the HJ collector". First the guy collects an HJ from the blonde, then he unsuccessfully tries to collect a Hotel Juliet from the brunette. This pisses the blonde off. The blonde, and the HJ collector get eaten by plants, then the brunette's boyfriend gets shot by Ganja Farmers and God knows what happened to the brunette because I really stopped carring after the HJ collector died.



Mr. White - I don't remember much about The Ruins already because I was distracted by Adam's running commentary, which should tell you all you need to know about how interesting a movie it is. There were some brutal deaths, and a sad attempt at a foreign language. There was a guy who got shot in the face, and that was pretty cool. This was just another example of the tired Twentysomethings On Vacation cliche that never seems to work no matter how many times it's tried. It's not that what happens to them isn't interesting, it's just you don't care. And even though this movie is much more successful in making plants scary than say, The Crappening, that's not saying a whole lot. I've owned houseplants scarier than those. Honestly, don't worry about it, just watch Adam's version.



The Cap'n here with one final note involving an "alternate" ending. A semi-superior ending to The Ruins is on the dvd (not the theatrical ending). Instead of some dumb shot of random people walking back to the ruins, there's a graveyard scene involving a caretaker discovering the plants growing out of Jena Malone's (the brunette, non-hj giver) grave.

What's funny is not that ending, but that the grave only says "Amy" on it. No last name, no attempt at anything else, just "Amy". It's kind of silly, considering how that would've been the preferable ending, save for one lazy prop. Such a waste of a movie.

Up next: The Mist (in black and white) then The Orphanage. No sleep after that...

Horror Fest III Day 1: Triple Feature

Hey gang, the Cap'n checking in live and direct from Horror Fest III: Season of the Beast! We're taking a break to move our dead bones so I can update you on our first three features: Halloween, Faces of Death, and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, all in glorious High Definition.

Some notes from the world of 1080p:

- I'd never noticed that when Bruce Campbell is creating the chainsaw arm, you can clearly see Freddy Krueger's glove behind him in the "hero shot". You can also now see the cable holding one of the possessed actors up, which is um, unfortunate.

- Halloween does not hurt in any way from high definition. Like Evil Dead 2, there is some noticeable grain in the night scenes, but both of them look much better than I would have expected.

- I've never actually watched Halloween on Halloween, but it turns out the cliche is worth overlooking because it's great for public consumption.

- Shecky the Skeleton is the best stand up comedian ever. You should come and meet him.

And now Liz is going to tell you a little bit about Faces of Death on Blu-Ray:

If anything was ever worthy of Blue-Ray-ifiying it's Faces of Death. Playful pitbulls covered in dyed corn syrup and public park-dwelling crocs never looked so real or so ferocious...even in real life. I would write more, but I've been distracted by the aquatic giga-pet thingy on Josh's desk. Look how it dances!

Off to watch some more classics in HD, so I'll be back for more updates as they come. Honestly though, it'd be easier for you to join us. Or maybe if someone had a laptop. Still, the Cap'n aims to please his audience.

Uh oh. Someone's requesting the remake of The Wicker Man.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Horror Fest III: The Prequel!

The Cap'n is busier than carp doing whatever carp do getting ready for

HORROR FEST III: SEASON OF THE BEAST

tomorrow night, so I have to be quicker than usual. Don't get me wrong; I've really enjoyed writing these long pieces about discovering movies and "old school" vs "new school". That's definitely something I want to pursue, particularly because writing longer pieces is what The Cap'n wants to do for a living.

However, I also need to get things together for the pre-Horror Fest double feature of movies, madness, gore, trailers, and ZIM!!! on campus. I did decide on two quite suitable movies, one of which came recommended from Mssr. Ledbetter (In the Mouth of Madness) and the other Peter Jackson's Dead Alive.

Dead Alive may be the only movie that's ever made me sick to my stomach (aside from the "urine ice cream cone" scene in Jackass), and that's for the "custard" sequence alone. Not looking forward to watching that on a 40" HD tv*.

It is, however, the kind of movie you can show to the Army of Darkness set that straddles the fine line between horror and comedy, and will offset Madness for its bleak ending. The trailer reel I put together (which is really difficult if you're looking for downloadable trailers in .mov file legally) is a curious cross section that I hope they enjoy, and everyone likes ZIM!!!

---

The Cap'n did notice an interview with Paul Giamatti which indicates that not only is Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires still alive, but in the absence of Bruce, they've found a new Elvis.

Ron Perlman.

It's weird... okay, really weird, but it could be very cool. Giamatti seems genuinely enthused about the project (and this is before it's even begun filming) and Don Coscarelli is writing and directing again. Bubba Ho-Tep was kind of lightning in a bottle, but there's certainly promise for more weirdness and I for one am interested.

More interested than I am in My Name is Bruce, anyway.

---

Okay, the Cap'n has much to do before he sleeps, so I have to leave you to clean up and prepare a possible spillover from campus to AOS (aka Fest HQ) tonight. You kids be good and I'll be back with regular reports after each of our films for "DAY ONE: CLASSICS IN HD"




* not mine, though. the rc-ers, so impressed by my theoretical tv they've never seen, purchased a comparable size and type. tonight will be the first time they've ever used it, which is something of an honor for me.

Horror Fest III: Day Zero / One

Before the Cap'n goes to bed, I thought it'd be fun to share the experience of impromptu marathoniness.

In the Mouth of Madness and Dead Alive were punctuated by episodes of Invader Zim and a trailer reel I put together at HQ. (The Zim episodes, for those curious, were "Dark Harvest", "Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy", and "Room with a Moose"). While turnout wasn't ginormous, the people I thought would be there did in fact arrive and they seemed to enjoy Madness.

Dead Alive went over much better, but Dead Alive is always going to win in a heads up match with In the Mouth of Madness. I forgot how quaintly nineties Madness is in the beginning, which makes the slow burn a little harder to get into for folks who didn't see it the first time around. Once John Trent (Sam Neill) gets to Hobb's End, the movie settles in and I could tell people were starting to follow the movie. I don't think it creeped anyone out as The Haunting might have, but it did serve as a good set up piece for vintage Peter Jackson.

It turns out I might have undersold the degree of gore and generally disgusting bodily fluids in Dead Alive, because despite my warning about the custard sequence, people were still covering their eyes, turning away, or walking halfway out of the basement. Not that I blame them, and we lost a few people (mostly to exhaustion) before the movie was over. And yet, as it always does, the strange charm of the "goriest movie ever made" managed to win over people who'd only heard of it before tonight.

When I got home, Liz came over to watch 1408 as I had promised and delivered upon. Surprise, surprise: it still doesn't really hold up. The movie starts out all right, things kick into high gear when Cusack enters room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, and then it stumbles.

What I'd forgotten was just how unnecessarily long the dream sequence is, and how patently clear it is he's still in the hotel room the entire time. Worse still is another alternate ending (where he does die but his dream sequence manuscript makes it to agent Tony Shaloub) that makes the "Enslin lives" theatrical ending look almost tolerable.

I take that back, because showing the "Enslin lives" ending reminded me of how much of a cheat it is considering the steps 1408 takes to remind us there is no escaping. Of the three endings I'm still taking the "director's cut", which is at least melancholy, but by that point 1408 isn't so much looking to be redeemed as it is salvaged.

Tomorrow I'll pop something on while I'm setting stuff up, wait for Ad-Rock to get here, and the rest should arrive between 7:30 and 9 for the main attraction.

For anyone not aware, Saturday is daylight savings time, so we get an extra hour of Horror Fest, which none of you are likely to complain about.

Stay scared,

The Cap'n

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Horror Fest III: Ever Heard of These?

Horror Fest is damn near upon us! While the Cap'n has a damn good idea what he wants to show and when, I'm never against the idea of looking around for more goodies, just in case. While unloading some stuff at Ed McKay's, I dug through the horror section, which I do far less than someone like the Cap'n should, in search of titles I didn't recognize.

Watching horror movies can be a hit and miss experience, and shopping for them (particularly used) can be difficult. Odds are the titles you find are movies you have, have seen, or don't want to see (for example: there are multiple copies of The Ninth Gate, Jeepers Creepers 2, and all of the After Dark releases). Occasionally you'll find a missing piece from your collection, like The Fly II, a really not so great sequel to Cronenberg's remake but damn is it gory. Typically your eyes glaze over, but every now and then, tucked in between public domain releases of Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls*, you see something that makes you say "what the hell is this?".

I found four such titles tonight, all with a pretty good chance of either ruling or sucking, but for 5-8 bucks, it's worth a try:

1.House of the Damned - from the synopsis on the back "Architect Scott Campbell and his wife Nancy join another couple, Joseph and Lay Schillar for what promises to be a pleasant stay at an empty castle set on a secluded California hillside. Soon, however, tension mounts as... a group of ghoulish carnival circus performers who once inhabited the castle beome increasingly hostile towards their 'guests'"

Okay, so we have two normal couples, and "abandoned" castle, and circus freaks? I'm down! And lest ye think this is some bargain basement movie, it comes from 20th Century Fox circa 1963. So this is Fox attempting to rival the Corman cheapies. I have no idea who the people in the cast are, so all signs point to "hell yeah!"

2. Prom Night and Ghoulies IV - The Prom Night is exactly the one you think it is: with Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, but I didn't have a copy and it's the Alliance reissue that's at least widescreen. The more important part is that it's doubled up with Ghoulies IV! Fucking Ghoulies IV!!! I didn't know there was a Ghoulies III, let alone a fourth entry. This is madness.

I fully admit that Ghoulies IV probably sucks sweaty donkey balls, but I have to see it. Ghoulies II played during Horror Fest I and remains a guilty pleasure for the Cap'n. Plus, think of it as buying Prom Night and getting a free shitty sequel in another series.

3. The Unseen - I feel like this title is familiar, but I don't know why. It stars Barbara Bach as a TV reporter who loses her motel room during a remote report and stays at some dude's farmhouse. The farmhouse, of course, has a horrible "something living in the basement", which they of course discover. To quote the back cover "their stay soon becomes a horrific nightmare when they encounter the 'unseen'".

So it kind of sounds like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (appropriate, since it's written by Massacre's Kim Henkel) crossed with that episode of the X-Files about inbred mutants. Throw in a dash of "monster movie of your choosing" and I bet that's The Unseen. And yet, I'm interested. I could be cool, and as I said, it's rare to see a movie you haven't seen a bazillion times.

4. The Johnsons - Okay, the cover is what did it for me here.



It's some Dutch take on The Omen or The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby, mixed in with a little bit of A Nightmare on Elm Street, except instead of Satan, it's the Mahxitu Indian God Xangadix. Or something like that. The back of the dvd has some bald kid covered in blood eating what looks like human flesh. It's an Anchor Bay joint, who brought me the remarkably gross Baby Blood, so I figured "why not?"


Have any of you heard of these movies? Know anything about them? Was I very foolish, or do they sound like interesting avenues to go down? I'm always happy to find one movie I know nothing about, but four was crazy!




Finally, this is specifically for the Cranpire, but the rest of you will enjoy it too.



* just buy the criterion. it's worth the price.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Horror Fest III: Whatever Happened to the "Splat Pack"?

Yesterday, The Cap'n got into a nice discussion about what "old school" horror means with the Cranpire and the Rianimator (feel free to jump in with your two cents; it's not like the conversation is over or anything), but I posed a question in the comments that got stuck in my craw:

What exactly is the "new school"?

For those of you allergic to like, scrolling down or something, here's what I said exactly:

How would you qualify the current "school" of American horror; one dominated by horror films, homages (Hatchet, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer), deconstructions (Behind the Mask) and films about home invasion, torture, and the occasional hulking wrestler-turned-monster?

This is actually jumping ahead of where I want to go today, because I'd like to dial it back three years or so and discuss the so-called "Splat Pack", a group of directors referred to as "an emerging and collegial band of horror auteurs". At the time the article in Time appeared, many of them had big hits under their belts, and were popular with fans for bucking the conventional trend of remaking Asian horror movies that was dominating the early 21st century*.

If you don't remember who was part of the "new school" Splat Pack class, allow me to refresh your memory:

Eli Roth, Neil Marshall, Alexandre Aja, Darren Lynn Bousman, Greg McLean, James Wan, Leigh Whannel, and Rob Zombie.

Roth and Zombie you probably remember pretty well. Between them, they were responsible for House of 1000 Corpses, Cabin Fever, The Devil's Rejects, and Hostel.

Neil Marshall made Dog Soldiers and The Descent, Greg McLean directed Wolf Creek, Alexandre Aja brought us High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, and Bousman, Whannel, and Wan were responsible for the first three Saw films at the time.

We have one outright remake, one two homages to seventies horror, a French film with a seriously gory streak, a Werewolf horror-comedy, a claustrophobic film about spelunking with cave monsters, a wildly inconsistent horror comedy borrowing from The Evil Dead, and the birth of what was called "Torture Porn", both from American and Australian perspectives.

There was some serious buzz around all of these guys; they counted the likes of Takeshi Miike, Quentin Tarantino, and Tobe Hooper as mentors, and their movies were at least inventive, if not always great. Buzz was strong for the followups: Marshall's Doomsday, Roth's Hostel: Part II, Rob Zombie's Halloween, Aja's Mirrors, Wan and Whannel's Dead Silence, and the never ending Saw series.

And then all of that seemed to go away. It wasn't just that the movies were (mostly) underwhelming, but the "torture porn" stigma started getting nasty. Dead Silence was terrible (the Cap'n apologizes for ever trying to defend it), Mirrors was incomprehensible garbage, and Doomsday was less than it promised to be (the progeny of The Road Warrior and Escape from New York).

Hostel: Part II felt like Roth was treading water; yes, it had some interesting moments, but where was the giant leap forward we experienced from Cabin Fever to Hostel? Halloween remains the favorite of many, even though I feel like it fails on so many levels not only as a remake but also as a coherent film in its own right. Don't get me started on the ridiculous path Saw followed to pump out a movie every year.

Rabid fan support only really seems to exist for Zombie these days, mostly residual good will for White Zombie and The Devil's Rejects, which was light years better than House of 1000 Corpses. Despite the fact he admitted to not even having written his script for Tyrannosaurus Rex, fans are gnawing at the bit for this "ultimate badass" film. People are still begging for a Werewolf Women of the SS feature film, even though he could barely keep the premise interesting for two minutes**.

Roth was going to direct an adaptation of Stephen King's The Cell, although it looks like that's dead and buried in the wake of a movie like The Signal. His long awaited extension on Grindhouse, Trailer Trash, pops up but never seems to be going anywhere. That's a shame, because if it really is a horror / exploitation riff on The Kentucky Fried Movie, I'd be interested in seeing it. Other than Edgar Wright's Don't, Roth's Thanksgiving trailer had me the most interested to see the man get back to work.

I don't think Doomsday killed Neil Marhsall's career, but even supporters of the film like myself understand that it didn't do well, critically or commercially. When fans are more excited about a sequel to The Descent Marshall has nothing to do with, he's got a steep hill to climb.

Truth be told, I'm perfectly okay with Aja going back to the remake well for Piranha. He's promising a 3-D gorefest along the lines of Dead Alive, and if there's someone capable of delivering on that promise, it's that crazy Frog.

As I've stated openly, I haven't seen a Saw movie since the awful second part, but I do read up on the plots and I've seen enough footage online to know where the series went, and it sounds fucking stupid. Whannel, Wan, and Bousman are all off of the series now, but to be honest with you, Death Sentence didn't look very interesting and I have NO interest in Repo: The Genetic Opera.

You might have noticed that Greg McLean pretty much vanished from the equation, which is sad, because he actually made a pretty good follow up to Wolf Creek called Rogue. Most people never noticed it slide in on dvd, and those who saw the dvd cover likely mistook it for the craptacular Giant Croc movie Primeval that came out earlier this year. That's a shame, because Rogue is a much better movie than almost any of the follow ups I listed above. I'm strongly considering putting it into the Horror Fest III lineup.

I'd be remiss to leave out the negative impact of the botched Masters of Horror series, which did not include any of the directors listed above but did carry their seal of approval. Season one was shaky, with a handful of decent episodes from veterans and relative newcomers (May's Lucky McKee) but equally terrible installments from other legends of the genre and questionable choices as to who qualified as "master".

Season two was, in my opinion, and unmitigated disaster. Other than Joe Dante's shaky "Screwfly Solution" and Stuart Gordon's pretty good "The Black Cat", there's not a good one in the bunch. Contemporaries of the Splat Pack like Rob Marshall (Wrong Turn) got a shot and didn't get far. The otherwise reliable Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) brought great sound design to a turgid and predictable "Sounds Like". And don't get me started on Peter Medak's "The Washingtonians", or John Carpenter's terrible "Pro-Life" (I didn't think it could get worse than "Cigarette Burns").

The failure of watered down Fear Itself, which I didn't bother watching, pretty much left the experiment dead, and I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. It certainly didn't help the Splat Pack to be supporting such a waste of time, and that coupled with the stillborn Grindhouse experiment, they just don't seem to be the "new school" anymore.

Any thoughts? Did the rise of Platinum Dunes help the fall of the "pack"? Did you think they were overrated to begin with? Have other theories? Join me in the comments below to discuss...


* how fucking pretentious does that sound? still, it's true, so I'm sticking with it.
** gotta give the man props for being a bright spot in Nicholas Cage's filmography for one brief moment in 2007, though...