Monday, February 28, 2011

Blogorium Review: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a refreshingly good "teen" slasher film from 2006 that has, for reasons unclear to most, yet to see release in the U.S. in theatres or home video. The Weinstein Company acquired the film, released it overseas, and then sat on it, presumably indefinitely, for stateside distribution. This is a shame as its star, Amber Heard (Pineapple Express, Zombieland, Drive Angry) is on the rise, and the film itself is head and shoulders above the remake heavy, PG-13 friendly films that pass as "horror" these days.

Mandy Lane (Heard) is a junior in high school and the subject of many a high school fantasy for members of the opposite sex. Her friend Emmet (Michael Welch) seems to be resigned to his status, but when his jealous head games accidentally kill Dylan (Adam Powell), a wedge is driven between Mandy and Emmet. Nine months later, Red (Aaron Himelstein) invites Mandy to join his friends Jake (Luke Grimes), Chloe (Whitney Able), Bird (Edwin Hodge), and Marlin (Melissa Price) at his father's ranch, and Mandy, feeling lonely, agrees to join them. No sooner have they arrived than someone begins picking off the students, one by one. Is it the mysterious ranch hand Garth (Anson Mount)? A jealous Emmet? Or did Dylan really die when he jumped off the roof and missed his pool?

Aside from being a well made slasher film, one that actually builds some suspense and doesn't fixate on elaborate traps or outlandish kills, the cast is actually pretty good (what a novelty!) and doesn't grate the nerves in ways that recent teen-centered horror tends to. Every character has an arc (of sorts) that plays out during the film, one centered around a particular insecurity that is, if nothing else, a step above the slasher archetypes: stoner, jock, mysterious stranger, asshole, slut, and ethnic stereotype. Oh, and "Final Girl." Mind you, all of the characters map on to these types in a superficial level, but All the Boys Love Mandy Lane actually allows them to interact and, y'know, grow a little instead of just getting knocked off*.

There's also an efficiency in the storytelling that's refreshing: the standard "why phones don't work" or "why they don't just drive off" are handled in passing, but logical ways, and the film takes place over the course of one night in a remote location with enough space to separate the kids when egos are bruised.

What really sets the All the Boys Love Mandy Lane apart from films of its ilk (think the Sorority Row or Black Christmas or Friday the 13th remakes) is the way director Jonathan Levine and writer Jacob Forman shift the trope of "Final Girl" almost immediately. Mandy Lane is objectified before we've even been introduced to the character proper - this is the first shot of Amber Heard in the film:

The "Final Girl," a trope as old as slasher films, is almost never the subject of the male gaze, and as Mandy Lane walks down the hall of her school, she has the undivided attention of, well, all the boys, as well as some of the girls. Mandy Lane is an atypical "Final Girl"; her virginity is seen as something to be conquered by nearly every male character in the film, and each of them, regardless of the peril surrounding them, all use their best pick up line in order to have "first dibs."

Without spoiling too much, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane also deviates from the slasher formula by unequivocally identifying the killer halfway into the film, removing certain ambiguities but raising others as it moves towards an unexpected ending (even if you figure out the "twist" providing you want to call it that, the manner in which it plays out pleasantly surprised me). The very end, I suspect, is one reason that audiences are split on the film, because it takes the "Final Girl" one step further and forces you to re-evaluate the way horror audiences typically engage with their characters.

In all honesty, I have no idea when you're going to be able to see All the Boys Love Mandy Lane domestically: an import of the UK Blu Ray (all regions) and (region 2) DVD are listed on Amazon for reasonable prices, but if you're looking to rent before you buy, I don't really know how to help you. Since the film has a rather polarizing ending that I hesitate to spoil, you might want to sit patiently and keep your eyes peeled and ears open. It's worth the wait, I think.

* Members of the cast other than Amber Heard have moved on to appear in movies you would be able to see, by the way: Whitney Able is in the well received Monsters from last year; Michael Welch is, apparently, a semi-major character in the Twilight films; Edwin Hodge will be in the forthcoming remake of Red Dawn, and Luke Grimes went on to pick up a recurring role in ABC's Brothers and Sisters.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

These Are Your "Best Pictures of ____" Trailer Sunday

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/1930)

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Going My Way (1944)

Around the World in 80 Days (1957)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Annie Hall (1977)

Out of Africa (1985)

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Question Even the Cap'n Can't Answer (?)

Here's a question for the casual reader, the fan of movies who doesn't consider themselves to be a "cinephile" or a "film geek": have you ever asked one of your friends (one that does fall into the two categories listed above) what their favorite movie was, only to regret asking what you thought was a simple question after they took far too long to name one movie, or worse, went off on a rambling tangent about the impossibility to "ranking" favorite movies?

It's happened; I know it has. I've been the guilty party who sat there too long in silence, mulling over the options - do I name something that I'm sure everyone has seen, something that is both a consensus "great movie" and actually is a joy to watch? Do I go left field and name something I know you haven't seen, in a combination of "impressing you with my obscure film knowledge" and "turning you on to something you wouldn't hear of otherwise"? Do I go with a movie that has a bum rap, that most people assume is bad because they heard it from someone who heard it from someone who read a bad review? Do I go with a sentimental choice, something I can appeal to on a basic emotional level, one that doesn't need a pointless, intellectualized persuasive argument?

Let's take a look at the combination "obscure film knowledge" and "turning you on to new movies" for a second, because there's a reason that temptation exists beyond ego stroking: by the point in time someone is willing to commit to a life of film theory / history / studies, it's clear to the people around them that this goes beyond a leisurely pastime. It's a passion, a need to learn more than most audiences will ever want to know, and it changes the way that the average film-goer behaves around you. More often than not, people ask me what movies I've seen that "are really good" or "are your favorites" because they want the Cap'n to go beyond the surface level, to exercise that fanaticism in a useful manner.

At the same time, I realize how frustrating it is to walk into that potential landmine, that most irritating of conversation killers. On one hand, you want to engage your "film geek" friend in conversation in a way that stimulates their interests, but on the other, you run the risk of letting them hijack the social atmosphere by hemming and hawing, letting someone else talk, and then abruptly jump in and begin dragging everyone into their world, their way of thinking, until the inevitable lapse into relativism of "well, they're all great to me."

The film "geek" and the "cinephile" belong to an insular lot, a group used to conversing in their own shorthand, where half a film quote is enough to get the point across about an entire genre or a director's entire body of work can be summed up by turning their last name into an adjective (for example, Lynchian*). It's not that deciding on a "favorite movie" is difficult, per se, but rather that inside of our little pockets of obsession, no one ever asks that question. There is an understood (albeit shifting) canon of cinema that need not be discussed regularly, that can remain unspoken until someone raises an innocent question.

At that moment, we're forced outside of a self-perpetuated comfort zone, one that allows us the freedom of criticizing other "Best Of" lists without being held accountable to our own personal lists (and we have them, even if we don't tell each other). It's a nasty trapping of fostering and becoming reliant on our cabal of film geekery - one that I as much as anyone else is guilty of. When I put together "Five Movies" lists, I spend an agonizingly extended period of time trying to find a balance of the factors from earlier, further compounded by the fact that the Blogorium attracts both kinds of film fans.

To close this out on a constructive, positive note, and to avoid the typical relativistic quibbling that would otherwise occur, here are some of my favorite movies, in no particular order: The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Blues Brothers, Sunset Boulevard, Down by Law, The Last Detail, Night and the City, The Americanization of Emily, Blood Car, Apocalypse Now, Mary Poppins, Eraserhead, Touch of Evil, Pinocchio, The Third Man, Psycho, Moon, The Wizard of Oz, Shaun of the Dead, Dazed and Confused, Day for Night, Throne of Blood, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A History of Violence, Ghostbusters, The Virgin Spring, Murder By Death, Le Samourai, Mona Lisa, Back to the Future, Redbelt, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Taxi Driver, Miller's Crossing, and Brazil.

Am I leaving things out? Oh yeah, but so it goes. Maybe you know every movie on that list; maybe you don't. It's always nice to turn people on to new films, just as it is to be turned on to something I never knew existed, so much so that I devoted whole chunks of programming in Summer and Horror Fests solely for that purpose. But that list is a good start, if you're just curious about film, it might turn you on and tune you in to new possibilities. That's a good start.

I hope I didn't take up too much of your time. For now.

* What would Lynchian be? Oblique, disturbing, vaguely esoteric assemblages of themes and imagery designed to confound the audience and prompt them to engage in heavy discussion after the film ends.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blogorium Review: Black Swan

(Sorry to do this, but by necessity this review is going to delve into SPOILERS)

I warn you now that this review is going to discuss Black Swan in great detail; it is not a short review, because Black Swan is not the sort of film that someone would want to explore with brevity. Suffice it to say that if emotionally wrenching, relentlessly bleak, psychologically and viscerally disturbing films are up your alley, you should be buying your ticket to the film right now. Everything you've heard about Natalie Portman is true, and you will not be disappointed. Once you've finished the film, please come back and join me after the following (perfunctory) synopsis.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an up and coming dancer in a New York ballet company living with her over judgmental mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a dancer who gave up her dreams while pregnant with Nina, and who keeps her daughter in a perpetual state of adolescence. Nina pushes harder impress Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the troupe's director, who announces that star performer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is "retiring," Nina auditions for the dual roles White and Black Swan in Leroy's reworked version of Swan Lake. Thomas feels her perfectionism is ideal for the White Swan, but the emotionally unstable Nina is too reserved to embody the Black Swan, and he begins looking at Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with the company. Can Nina become both roles, and truly embody the Swan Queen, or will her neuroses get the better of her?

One cannot accuse Darren Aronofsky of subtlety, but that should not mean that Black Swan suffers from being direct in its presentation of an emotionally unstable young woman pushed well beyond a reasonable comfort zone. Black Swan is a film littered with mirror imagery, of doppelgängers, and color coded thematic shifts. The film is rich with imagery with which to interpret, although at times obvious visual metaphors appear (for example, Nina's mother always wears black, Lily always wears dark grey of light black, Thomas wears a combination of the two, and Nina begins the film wearing all white and slowly transitions to black clothing by the end of the film; you figure out what's going on there).

That being said, the film is quite reserved for the first half, only hinting at the depths of Nina's psychosis, of her repressed "state," with ambiguous visual clues in reflections - the film is quite seriously littered with mirrors, in almost every scene - but Aronofsky shows restraint early on, only going "over-the-top" in a dream sequence towards the end of the film. Everything else is designed around the physical punishment of dancing, of injuries both real and perceived, like a cracked toenail or Nina's tendency to scratch at her shoulder blades.

Her state of doubt, of the need to be "perfect" is understandable considering the environment she finds herself in - the aloof Thomas, her mother prevents doors from being locked and paints portraits of Nina as a child, the potential threat from other members of the troupe, all of whom are more bitter than supportive. It's no wonder that Beth walked into traffic when she learned that this season would be her last - Thomas left her with no negotiating tactic but the fragility of her body.

Black Swan is a bleak, unforgiving film; Aronofsky, with writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, have spectacular actors to carry out this relentlessly dark film. Natalie Portman is a sight to behold as Nina, a young woman on the cusp of stardom, wracked with doubts, perceived guilt, and a desire to be perfect at the expense of her own sanity. Portman keeps Nina's calm veneer up long enough that the audience forgets we are only watching the story from her perspective, her interpretation. She guides us along the "did we see that or didn't we" moments, along every implied contact, every askew glance, without ever allowing the audience to objectively judge Nina.

It's important to view other performances with respect to that fact that, in its construction, Black Swan is only ever about Nina. It's only how Nina sees the world, which is why so much of our introductory time with her is spent from the camera placed behind her head. Mila Kunis embraces every aspect of Lily, the temptress, the seductive siren, the glory thief, the reckless youth, and balances them all in such a way that no one side of her ever seems to be the "true" Lily (save for - perhaps - a small moment near the end of the film), but only the "Lily" that Nina sees.

Barbara Hershey is brutal as Erica Sayers, who micro-manages Nina's actions to dangerous levels, insisting on treating her like a child, cutting her nails, and emotionally blackmailing her (Erica buys Nina a cake, and when Nina panics with weight issues, her mother threatens to throw the entire cake out, saying "then it's garbage.") She critiques Nina but then hints her daughter can't handle the pressure, and when Nina lashes out - to what degree we aren't sure, as reality begins to bleed into fantasy at this point in the film - Erica collapses.

Vincent Cassel plays Thomas as imposing, as distant, and to Nina in search of "perfect," but not the perfect she seeks. His advances, suggested by nearly every other dancer, appear less as predatory and more as emotionally manipulative with Cassel - he is as dangerous to Nina as her mother, but not in the way other dancers expect. Winona Ryder doesn't make much of an impression as Beth, and she's not supposed to. Beth's actions are more important to Nina's story - Nina idolizes Beth, and steals he things in an attempt to be more like her - but Ryder has an ultimately thankless job to carry out. But none of these characters are designed to be fully realized, or even archetypal (which they are not, for the most part); they are meant to be concepts of people imposed onto human beings by Nina's psyche, like the leering old man on the subway train or her random "hook up"'s at the club with Lily.

Aronofsky does something very interesting with the staging of Swan Lake; rather than presenting the ballet as its own section (as another film I'll mention below does), he keeps the camera held tightly on Nina as she dances (and Portman, who studied ballet, is certainly doing all or almost all of it), showing us the audience, backstage, and at times, the stage from a front view. Swan Lake is only important to see as she sees it, as is in keeping with the rest of Black Swan.

I must admit that I was hesitant to see the film. After months of positive "buzz," a handful of very negative reviews swayed me by appealing to an esoteric vein of cinephilia: Black Swan had a bit of a critical backlash online because of Aronofsky's "artistic repetition" - borrowing heavily from other, less known, sources: there's a dash of Polanski's Repulsion (the often claustrophobic shot composition), a healthy dab of DePalma's Carrie (the mother daughter dynamic), more than a little bit of Sisters (Nina's "dark side" emerging during sexual encounters), and a hint of Bergman's Persona (how much of Lily is Lily and how much of her is a projection of Nina?). The elephant in the room, the "lift" cited with the most frequency, is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes.

The Red Shoes comparison comes with good reason: the films are thematically identical, narrative-ly similar stories of obsession within the world of ballet, centered around one performance that defines the ingenue, but which will bleed over into reality and destroy them. Both films break characters down into a series of triangles - in The Red Shoes, the primary example is Julian / Victoria / Boris, and in Black Swan, you can choose between Nina / Thomas / Lily, Nina / Thomas / Beth, or Nina / Erica / Lily (or Thomas, the catalyst for the Nina pushing away from her mother). Black Swan and The Red Shoes also end in remarkably similar ways, with their respective heroines "possessed" by the spirit of the ballet, and plunging to their "death"s. They are, nevertheless, very different, as I will explain.

While Black Swan is reminiscent of The Red Shoes in essence, its execution is where the films differ, and why many people (including the Cap'n) are able to shake off cries of "copycat!" Aronofsky, in a movie that sets Black Swan apart from many of its cinematic ancestors, opts to shoot a psychological thriller in the same manner he presented The Wrestler to the world: in hand-held photography, often following Natalie Portman from behind or holding closely to her face. Shots away from Nina tend to resemble candid, documentary-esque shot composition. The lighting is designed to appear natural, as though captured from actual sources (lamps, street lights, car headlights).

The artifice is stripped down, so that Nina's descent is gradual, its effects more disturbing. Aronofsky relies on digital trickery slowly but surely in the film, mostly in the films many shots of mirrors, but also on the injuries Nina endures early on - scratches, cracked toenails, tears around fingernails - the cumulative effect of which is far more unnerving than later, less subtle moments of digital manipulation (the legs in particular). Black Swan tends to go off the rails near the end - especially during the dream sequence in Nina's room - but its reckless abandon near the end is tempered by the slow build of body horror earlier on.

The visceral nature of Black Swan reminded me of another film I hesitated to include above: David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. The moments are fleeting, often misleading hints of more serious injury than actually exist, but one can draw a line from Seth Brundle removing his fingernail to Nina peeling too much loose skin from her finger (if only imagined), or another moment in a dream when something finally emerges from her shoulder blades. The "literal" transformation into the black swan during Nina's performance is, however, something I would not point out as a parallel necessarily - the moment is almost certainly within her mind, as is the dream that opens the film and the "wound" that may or may not have "killed" her at the end. The body fascination, the metamorphosis (including the webbing of toes), is nevertheless an echo of Cronenberg's "Body" period.

The other critical distinction between the two films is that The Red Shoes is a melodrama, a story of love complicating perfection, of obsession that consumes the heart and forces Victoria to choose between her love (Julian) and her passion (ballet, embodied by Boris). There is no romance in Black Swan, only obsession; Nina is utterly incapable of "letting go" of her desire not to be the best dancer, but to be perfect. Her perpetual emotional arrested development (fostered by her mother, a failed dancer) causes her to bottle up raw emotion, and her doppelgänger, the "black swan" Nina that emerges at moments of doubt, of ecstasy, ultimately consumes here. Black Swan dances around sex, but not in romantic terms; sex is a weapon in Black Swan, a tool to drive wedges between people, to unleash a primitive darkness, and more often than not, to disrupt Nina's ability to engage with others beyond a surface level.

I look back at Black Swan, only a few days after seeing it, impressed by the approach taken by Aronofsky, who could have easily embraced a wilder aesthetic in the film (as he did with The Fountain or Requiem for a Dream), but instead chose to filter a psychological study through the grounded reality of The Wrestler - of which there are a number of parallels film students might want to consider looking into, least of all being how each ends - with mostly successful results. I am not generally in awe of a film, let alone one that demands the viewer watch it again; for every clear and obvious visual metaphor, there are a half dozen or so subtle moments that merit further inspection. While Black Swan is certainly the product of fine cinematic antecedents, do not take that to mean it cannot stand on its own; I assure you, it does.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Video Daily Double to Help with Awkward Moments (for Boys)

Welcome back to a very special edition of the Video Daily Double. Today the Cap'n is going to help you young fellows through that rough period of life. I understand that Blogorium readers might be a little confused about the "birds" and the "bees," so our educational film comes to us from 1957, when they knew just how to explain what happens As Boys Grow.

Some people might tell you this is not safe for work, but you just remind them that this is educational, not offensive. And no laughing! These are the facts of life, people!!!

Join us tomorrow for a review of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which might help the young ladies...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Retro Review: The Goonies (on VHS)

Today's Retro Review is going to be a little bit different, in that I'll be reviewing the experience of watching The Goonies on VHS as much as (if not more than) the film itself. There are a handful of VCRs in the temporary headquarters for the Blogorium, and the Cap'n has been taking advantage of a large collection of cassette tapes I haven't played in years. For what it's worth, I do actually have a copy of The Goonies on Blu Ray, and it would be easy to review that, but in the spirit of this series, let's take a look at an analog version*.

The Goonies are a gang of kids that live in the "Goondocks," a neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon, consisting of Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin), his older brother Brand (Josh Brolin), "Mouth" (Corey Feldman), "Data" (Ke Huy Quan), and "Chunk" (Jeff Cohen), who are preparing for relocation as the neighborhood is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a golf course. While digging through Mikey's attic, they discover a treasure map and doubloon that point to the long lost treasure of "One Eyed Willie" a pirate from the 17th century. The boys incapacitate Brand and head out, only to find the path to treasure is blocked by booby traps, and obstacles natural and man made. Brand catches up to the boys with Andy Carmichael (Keri Green) and Stef Steinbrenner (Martha Plimpton) in tow, but they aren't the only ones searching for "One Eyed Willie"'s treasure - the Fratelli family (Ann Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Davi) are in hot pursuit, having captured "Chunk" and locking him in with the Fratelli's youngest, the monster "Sloth" (John Matsuzak).

I've always been willing to overlook The Goonies many logic lapses (and there are plenty if you try to follow the story carefully) and simply enjoy Richard Donner, Chris Columbus, and Steven Spielberg's treasure hunt for its whirlwind pacing and ability to install a sense of awe in what could be just another "kids' movie." Donner, who had previously directed The Omen and Superman and would later make The Lethal Weapon series, is an underrated visual storyteller able to make otherwise inauspicious films imminently watchable.

I'm not sure quite how to dole out the credit between Columbus (who wrote the film and would go on to direct) and Spielberg (who came up with the story and was executive producer, part of the 1985 productions that included Back to the Future, Gremlins, and Young Sherlock Holmes) but I tend to defer to Donner for recurring jokes (like the inability of any of the characters to pronounce words, responding to corrections with "that's what I said!") and a moment that can either be read as intertextual or self-reflexive (when Sloth tears his shirt open, revealing the Superman logo, as John Williams cues the theme from Donner's film).

The VHS experience changes watching The Goonies considerably: Donner shot the film in "scope" (2.35:1), and the cropping is severe. It's one thing to describe the image shift, but here's an extra from the Die Hard DVD that will show you exactly what happens, and then I'll join you on the other side to apply this to the Goonies experience.

On a well worn VHS like the copy of The Goonies I watched, the frame is not only tighter on actors, and group scenes cropped in strange ways, but the tape had a slight fading of the image towards the middle, mixed with some distortion as the magnetic tape had degraded over time. The effect can be jarring in the era of widescreen TVs and anamorphic DVDs, but there's also a sense of nostalgia that accompanies watching a tape like this, one that won't exist for much longer.

Videocassettes were the only way to watch films when I was growing up (people born five years earlier didn't even have that); laserdiscs were too expensive and DVD didn't exist until I was in high school, so if you wanted to see a movie after it left theatres, you rented it at the local video store. Sometimes they sold used tapes, sometimes a friend might be able to make an "extra" copy if you were really lucky, but for the first ten years or so of VHS, the concept of "widescreen" didn't really exist. For people who didn't live on the west coast and have Z Channel, then movies were cropped to a 4X3 format, in order to fill up the screen of standard "square" TVs. It made sense, but it did for a very long time skew the perspective of a generation raised on VHS: every film, classic or new, fit inside the square box. Cognitively, many of us never made the connection that movie screens weren't the same size and something might be missing.

I was six when The Goonies opened, and I remember seeing the film and enjoying the kid friendly narrative with a decidedly un-kid friendly execution (Donner and Columbus display a barely hidden mean streak throughout the film, with a number of moments - like the blender and Chunk's hand or the "Truffle Shuffle" - that would never make a PG film today), and until the film was released on DVD more than fifteen years later, I'd only seen the film in its "pan and scan" iteration. There was a strange familiarity watching The Goonies on videocassette, and while I knew what was missing, the framing was conscientious enough never to disrupt Donner's visual storytelling, as it has on other films I've seen.

In all honesty, as a film geek / purist / whatever, I'm not going to suggest you hunt down a VCR and VHS copy of The Goonies - for one I already know the film is polarizing among people my age, as many people can't overlook the flaws in premise or the film's many "easy out" plot holes. Back to the Future is better constructed, Gremlins balances the light and dark elements with more flair, leaving only Young Sherlock Holmes as a film The Goonies is easily more defensible than. Like Tron, I do feel it holds up better than the "haze of nostalgia" that people assume I view childhood films in, but I freely admit that advocating for The Goonies can be an uphill battle. Watch it for yourself and decide - if you like The Monster Squad, I think it's a safe bet you'll understand why I like The Goonies.

* In the spirit of full disclosure, this is not the worn out copy of The Goonies I grew up with, but a clamshell version circa 2000/01. It still had some wear on it, so that's nice to see it was still being viewed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Blogorium Review: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is a story of obsession, wrapped up in the trimmings of a good old fashioned melodrama, the kind that doesn't seem to exist any more. Nevertheless, underneath the surface of this tale of love within a ballet troupe is a much darker story, one of a need for perfection, to be legendary, the ultimately consumes its principals.

Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a young composer attending a performance by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook)'s ballet troupe, when he is shocked to discover that his instructor stole movements of his composition and passed them off as his own. Lermontov is bemused by Craster's accusations, but rather than advise revenge, he offers Julian a position as resident composer, and assigns him an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Red Shoes for the next season. During a social function, Lermontov is approached by Lady Neston (Irene Browne), who asks him to assess her niece, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an up and coming ballerina. Lermontov is unimpressed by the request, but the fiery dedication of Page to a local performance of Swan Lake sways him, and when the troupes prima ballerina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina) leaves to marry, he offers her the lead in Craster's The Red Shoes. Unfortunately for Boris, Julian and Victoria have developed a relationship of their own, something Lermontov finds antithetical to "perfection" in dance...

What has always fascinated me about The Red Shoes is the fact that Victoria, despite being the subject of the film's promotional materials, appearing on the cover of Criterion's DVD and Blu-Ray release, and generally being the focus of everyone's attention in the film, is never the central character. The film alternates between Julian Craster and Boris Lermontov - with Julian dominating the opening of the film until the focus moves almost exclusively to Boris in the second half - with Victoria appearing as the object of their dueling ideologies. Craster meets Lermontov precisely because his work was stolen, yet he then "steals" Victoria away from Boris until the maestro "steals" her back, forcing an ultimatum of love or ambition.

The film is less about romance than manipulation: Victoria Page is merely a pawn of both men, always being directed, described to, suggested to, and being forced to make life altering decisions. Her own perspective is largely ignored; there are hints that Page has doubts about her abilities, but they are generally shrugged off by Boris, Julian, and choreographer / performer Ljubov (Léonide Massine) - in one notable scene, Victoria complains that she cannot dance to the tempo Julian wrote, and he only later acquiesces and agrees to try it at her pace. Their love is discussed but swept into the background as the attention shifts toward Lermontov, who shows only disdain for his dancers leaving for "love," the ultimate corruption of potential in his mind.

A product of post-war England, The Red Shoes is a globe trotting affair, following the troupe through London, Paris, Monte Carlo, and New York (although the film was not shot in America, the other locations figure prominently into the story), and its approach is easy to mistake as "pure" melodrama - Victoria and Julian certainly appear to be the star-crossed lovers, and Boris the spurned member of their triangle, and when he wins Page back, Julian abandons his debut as a composer to try to win her back. There are moments of romance, of beautiful vistas and professions of amour, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's soft focus photography might fool one into thinking that The Red Shoes is merely a romance set to ballet.

While Shearer, Goring, and Walbrook are all riveting in their roles, the real star of The Red Shoes is the performance of the title ballet itself: a seemingly impossible, "how could a live audience see what the film audience is seeing" whirlwind of shifting imagery that showcases the talents of Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine. The performance, which is the central set piece of the film, plays out Hans Christian Anderson's tale - surrounding a young dancer who is sold a pair of red shoes and is unable to stop dancing until she dies - with transitions only possible in film, foreshadowing the rest of the film in an oblique manner.

Without spoiling the film too much, the ballet bleeds over into reality, with an ending that leaves audiences questioning what actually happened to Victoria. Did she choose her fate, or did the shoes? A visual trick carried over from the ballet sequence occurs immediately before the climax, and the ambiguity with which The Archers (Powell and Pressburger's nickname and production company) handle the film's final moments elevates The Red Shoes from a fine film to a classic, one that deftly avoids the simple classification of "melodrama." Too much is bubbling under the surface to merely take The Red Shoes at face value, and its influence on films to follow (from Martin Scorsese to Darren Aronofsky) is tangible to this day.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Trailer Sunday, Based on the Novel "Preview" by Turquiose

Red Scorpion

Gorillas in the Mist


Werewolf vs. the Yeti

Hell is a City

Day for Night

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's Never too Early to Talk About Summerfest

Some factoids about The ______ Summerfest Massacre 4:

- The Cap'n does not yet have a location to the fourth Summerfest, the home for all horror films obscure and ridiculous. Make the case for your location (preferably within driving distance for the Cap'n) and maybe I'll host it at YOUR place*!

- As it doesn't have a location, Summerfest 4 doesn't have a name yet (it was previously and may again be The Greensboro Summerfest Massacre). I also haven't honed in on a quality "sequel" name for it - Summerfest was in keeping with the Texas Chain Saw Massacre series, but that would mean this year's would be "The Next Generation," which is not only totally inappropriate but also points towards a terrible entry into the series.

I am open to suggestions for "part four" monikers, except for "In Space" because I'm saving that for Horror Fest X. The title will have an effect on the "theme" of Summerfest, so choose wisely. It doesn't have to come from a "part four" of any series (for example: Bloodlines, The Return of Michael Myers, The Dream Master, Mega Shark vs. Testicular Torsion, etc.) Actually, Cap'n Howdy vs. Giant Octopus might be a good one. We'll put up a poll of the best suggestions.

- While planning is still in the preliminary stages, I have decided on at least two "theme" nights - Blaxploitation Night and Star Trek Night.
Blaxploitation Night will include Blacula, Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, the return of Scream, Blacula, Scream, as well as any other Blaxploitation horror films the Cap'n or readers can find.

Star Trek Night is a special evening of horror or horror-related films starring former cast members of the original series. They include: Kingdom of the Spiders (William Shatner), Invasion of the Body Snatchers '78 (Leonard Nimoy), Night of the Lepus (DeForrest Kelley), and Moontrap (Walter Koenig). If you can find suitable films with James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, or George Takei, let me know.

- I am taking suggestions for all other possible Summerfest films, but reserve the right to hold out information on any possible "Trappenings" until the night we view them. If Sharktopus is sufficiently un-crappy, I may consider its inclusion into the Fest.

The Cap'n is really looking forward to this Summerfest; coming off of a very successful Horror Fest V, I'm going to carry on the momentum and provide NC with the best possible marathons of madness, horror, and oddball cult films possible. Like Horror Fest IV, I'm going to try to include readers in on the action surrounding the films, and then plan to catch you off guard with the bizarre and arcane choices.

Be Afraid... Be VERY Afraid...

* The Cap'n tries, whenever possible, to provide snackage, beverages, the films, and transportation for attendees, so don't feel there's a responsibility on your part to cover all the bases, or even any.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Few Thoughts on SyFy Channel Originals

If there's one thing the Cap'n gets more grief about from friends, it's my unwillingness to embrace the Syfy (née Sci-Fi) Channel Original films. "But you love schlock," they say, "this is the same kind of b-to-z grade crap they churned out in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, so where's the love?"

And it's true: I have no love for Syfy originals like Frankenfish, Mega Piranha, Raptor Island, S.S. Doomtrooper, Ice Spiders, and Grizzly Rage. Beyond that, I really don't like the more recent trend of "giant _____" films that are then combined into dreck like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or Dinocroc vs. Supergator (or the forthcoming Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid). I'm not even sure the latter qualify as "Syfy Originals" or if Syfy just airs them.

It is true that I enjoy low budget "thrillers" like Them! or Fiend without a Face or The Beginning of the End. All are imminently watchable, and while cheap often attempt to disguise their low budgets with imaginative monster effects and as many thrills as they can muster with a no-name cast. Attack of the Crab Monsters, a very early Roger Corman film, is still far better than it has any right to be, as does Beast from Haunted Cave. So yes, I do like vintage schlock; now allow me to explain why calling what Syfy does the same is erroneous.

The central difference between the films listed in the above paragraph (plus many, many others) and the weekly Syfy output is simple - every time I see a Syfy Original, it seems like nobody is trying at all. The films are barely competent, and not because the people involved weren't capable of doing so, but because many of them look like they're in it for a quick paycheck. I mean, who's going to see this garbage, right?

That's the impression one quickly gleans from these films, which all seem to follow a similar formula: cast one or two actors / musicians / quasi-celebrities on a career decline in lead roles, find one more B-movie icon to cast in a tiny role that requires as little work from them as possible, fill the rest of the cast out with desperate unknowns, then unleash a Toy Story 1-era CGI monster to kill them off, mostly by eating them because it requires less animation for one "gulp."

The films then pad out the cheap, uninteresting "monster" attacks with long, pointless subplots that continually separate the main characters from the action, introduce superfluous roles for truly talentless amateurs as "comic relief," then eventually get back to the monster in time for the finale, which of late consists of the main characters watching two badly animated creatures "fight" until one or both "die" - at least until the next sequel.

For example, this is exactly what happens in Dinocroc vs. Supergator, minus any recognizable cast members aside from the late David Carradine, who really seemed to be shooting his scenes at home and literally phones in most of his dialogue as the evil corporation head who had something to do with... I don't know, let's say Supergator's existence. Even he doesn't seem to care that he's in the movie, so why should I be enthused that he graced this waste of 90 minutes with his presence? Or F. Murray Abraham trying to stay involved in Blood Monkey before being killed? (Oops, SPOILER).

The Mega-whatevers vs Giant-whatsits are even more transparent in their attempts to draw audiences into interminably boring conversations and lab scenes by including "whatever happened to's" like Deborah Gibson, Lorenzo Lamas, Jaleel White, Corin Nemec, Vanessa Williams, Casper Van Dien, Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Patrick Flannery, Armand Assante, Amy Locane, Robbie Williams, Mickey Dolenz, Barry Williams, Daniel Baldwin, and Tiffany. The plots are so interchangeable that it doesn't matter how the monsters got there, let's just watch the singer of "I Think We're Alone Now" fight a giant piranha! Then they throw in Bruce Campbell, Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Daryl Hannah, John Rhys-Davies and Jeffrey Combs (or anyone else who won't say "no") to come in and give the film some "cred" for fanboys.

It's fair to note that the other big Syfy trick has been licensing sequels on the cheap, like Lake Placid 2 (and 3), Firestarter 2, Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming, House of the Dead 2, Pumpkinhead (Ashes to Ashes and Blood Feud), Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, Bats: Human Harvest, Anacondas 3 and 4, and a remake of Children of the Corn. Of the films I've sampled from that last, almost all of them had the same "we just don't care" attitude that rubs off on the audience.

Say what you will about schlock films of yesteryear, but they weren't boring. Well, some of them were boring, and a lot of those have faded into obscurity, with good reason. Horror of the Blood Monsters is a turgid, lifeless mishmash of prehistoric and vampire elements, and I can't finish it. I will happily watch The Blob though, because an effort was made to, oh, entertain audiences even as the producers sought a quick buck.

By the way, it's not as though movies with virtual unknowns and limited cgi effects can't be entertaining - Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, which has Torchwood's John Barrowman as its marquee name (nothing against Barrowman, who is great in the movie and on the show, but this did come out four years before Torchwood and I'm making a huge assumption that the average visitor to this site has seen the spin-off of the 2005 relaunch of Doctor Who). It has all of the same hallmarks of cheap "giant monster" schlock, but the film is funny, occasionally surprising, has better than expected "kills," and the best pick-up line in film history (even better than "get the butter"). Blood Car, another Blogorium favorite, has no monster but a better gimmick and My Girl's Anna Chlumsky, and it's better than any Syfy film mentioned above.

There are a handful of Syfy Originals that I've found amusing in small doses - Alien Express, Terminal Invasion, parts of Alien Apocalypse, The Man with the Screaming Brain, and Beyond Re-Animator. It's probably worth noting that almost all of them deviate from the formula listed above in one or all aspects. Alien Express, for example, has actual puppets instead of CG monsters, and even if they look goofy, it's a creative choice. Terminal Invasion makes the best of a limited location, and Alien Apocalypse tries hard (and fails miserably, if enterainingly) to tell an Planet of the Apes knock-off story. I've heard good things about Abominable from people like Dr. Murder and the Cranpire, and he also swears by Hammerhead because of the presence of William Forsythe and Jeffrey Combs.

The recent Sharktopus (with Eric Roberts) at least has the right idea with the goofy trailer and theme song, even if it looks like every other "hybrid / giant monster" movie the channel ever aired. And what is Syfy airing this week? Will it break the trend of movies the Cap'n is happier not seeing? It's - oh, something called Mega Snake. No thanks. Let me know when the execution actually meets the premise of this so-called "schlock."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Very Happening Video Daily Double

Welcome back to Video Daily Double, your new home for educational shorts and propaganda from days gone by. Today we're going to look at two important topics covered by Coronet Instructional Films, , and since one invariably leads to the other, let's begin by asking the question: Are You Popular?*

If the answer is yes, then you should know how to throw a good party, but in case you weren't sure, let's find out What Makes a Good Party.

I hope these films have been helpful, and before long you'll be a hip cat throwing swinging parties with guys and gals. Until next week!

* If the answer is no, I suggest you pay attention to the film and seek out other educational films on grooming and hygiene.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Retro Review: Out of Sight

Until Sunday night, I hadn't seen Out of Sight all the way through in at least ten years. I'm pretty sure I watched it on video after the film was released in 1998, and I know I at least started watching the DVD once or twice, coupled with the scattered TV airing over the years, but to sit down and watch Steven Soderbergh interpret Elmore Leonard was like rediscovering a favorite movie, one that slipped away into the fog of memory, just waiting to be recalled.

Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a bank robber who has a bad habit of spending time behind bars before he can spend his ill-gotten gains. While in the Glades correctional facility near Miami, Foley piggybacks on an escape attempt with the assistance of his partner in crime on the outside, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames). Their scheme goes well until a chance encounter with U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) leaves Jack and Buddy with no choice but to take her hostage. Foley is smitten with the headstrong Sisco, and her tendency to go for "bad boys" complicates their impossible attraction of cop and crook. Sisco follows Foley and Buddy from Miami to Detroit, where they're planning a home invasion with a big payoff, thanks to businessman and fellow inmate Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks). An unexpected partner emerges in the robbery, Maurice "Snoopy" Miller (Don Cheadle), a fellow inmate with a sadistic streak. Will Snoopy's involvement jeopardize the score? Will Sisco catch Jack and bring him in? More importantly, does she even want to bring him in?

Soderbergh, working with screenwriter Scott Frank (who had earlier adapted Leonard's Get Shorty and would later work on Karen Sisco, a TV spin-off about Jennifer Lopez's character) wisely eschewed with the original draft's linear narrative. Soderbergh tends to gravitate towards overlapping flashbacks, flash-forwards, and misleading bridges between the two, so Out of Sight benefits from the shift (originally done practically in order to introduce Karen Sisco earlier in the story), where information is slowly doled out as time moves backwards and forwards, finally catching the audience up on the whole story three-quarters of the way in.

I remembered to some degree about having issues with the "love scene" on first viewing: Soderbergh inter-cuts a bar scene between Sisco and Foley with future scenes of the mutual seduction in her hotel room, overlapping dialogue into the flash-forwards. Coming back to the film, it bothered me less, along with Soderbergh's use of freeze frames at strategic points in the film, often used to pause on the situation at hand, giving the audience a moment to consider what they've just seen.

Soderbergh also uses another technique he'd visit again in the future: color coding of sections in the film. Scenes in a penitentiary out west are punctuated by bright yellow jumpsuits, while the Glades correctional facility uniforms are more subdued. Miami light sources are always blown out, and the Detroit section of the film is filtered with a steely blue (except for Ripley's house, which stands out in opulence from the economically drained downtown Maurice Miller claims to run). Soderbergh used a variation in The Underneath and would separate Traffic visually and thematically two years later.

So much of Out of Sight is immediately recognizable, regardless of the length of time that passed between the first viewing and the most recent. Even with the period of time away from the film, Soderbergh and Frank's story is so well constructed that it's easy to feel as though you're visiting an old friend, reminiscing about oft-repeated stories. At the same time, the film is fresh, clever, and funnier than I remembered.

People tend to take George Clooney's status as a leading man for granted now, but when Out of Sight was released, he was very much on the "bubble" as actors go. He'd been in the spotlight on ER, but major film roles were limited to One Fine Day, The Peacemaker, and the disastrous Batman & Robin. From Dusk Til Dawn had hinted to geeks that Clooney could be more than the "Most handsome man in America," but Out of Sight paved the way for more interesting roles in Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou, and Ocean's Eleven (re-teaming with Soderbergh).

Likewise, Jennifer Lopez was probably never better than as Karen Sisco, despite the marquee role in Selena and the lurid femme fatale in Oliver Stone's U-Turn. Ving Rhames has a refreshing sense of concern as Buddy, a character that is both unflinchingly loyal yet morally conflicted about his life (a running subplot in the film involves Buddy's need to call his born-again sister to confess, often before committing a crime). Don Cheadle's Snoopy Miller is a real surprise - both comical and menacing without one compromising the other, and Albert Brooks takes a character he could play in his sleep and imbues Richard Ripley with a truly vicious streak on the outside he doesn't have in prison. He's an opportunist that you don't feel sympathy for, even in light of what happens (and almost happens) during his home invasion.

I'd forgotten about the parade of recognizable faces in the film - Luis Guzman as an escapee, Catherine Keener as Foley's ex-wife, Steve Zahn as the perpetually stoned car thief that talks too much, Dennis Farina as Karen's father, Isiah Washington as Snoopy's partner in crime, and Nancy Allen* as Ripley's housekeeper / girlfriend.

There's a small stroke of genius in carrying over Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, creating a bridge between the worlds of Jackie Brown (released the year before) and Out of Sight. Add to that a small, uncredited cameo at the end of the film by another actor who played a different character in Jackie Brown, and the intertextual elements between Tarantino's and Soderbergh's films is worth considering beyond the individual stories.

Out of Sight is, after all these years, still a fresh breath of air when so many films of the "new wave" 90s cinema seems dated and stale. It is an easy movie to overlook, to forget, but it refuses to go quietly into that good night. Believe me, that's a good thing. Revisit the film for yourself; you'll be pleasantly surprised.

* By coincidence, I somehow chose two films to watch back-to-back that feature Nancy Allen in small roles with The Last Detail and Out of Sight.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Blogorium Review: The Last Detail

Every now and then a film comes along and catches you off guard, reminding a sometimes beleaguered reviewer like the Cap'n that even simplicity can be enthralling in the right hands. Hal Ashby's The Last Detail is a character study unburdened by superfluous plot machinations, twists, or a desire to "out think" the audience. I had heard about The Last Detail, always as a second thought, of a film you hear is good but don't seem to know many people who have seen it. Over the years I've very nearly turned it on, but then decided on something else. How foolish those decisions were.

Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne (adapting Darryl Ponicsan's novel) introduce us to Navy Signalman Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate Mulhall (Otis Young), two officers assigned to escort Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk Virginia to Portsmouth New Hampshire. Meadows, a kleptomaniac, tried to lift $40 from the wrong collection box and is sentenced to 8 years in the brig with Dishonorable Discharge. "Badass" Buddusky and "Mule" Mulhall have more time than they need to get Meadows to the Naval Penitentiary, so they decide to drop him off quickly and enjoy some R&R with the remaining time off.

That is, until they start talking to Meadows - a kid too young to drink, stand up to anyone, or to have experienced life in any capacity - and Buddusky takes pity on him. "Badass," like "Mule," is a career Navy man, but unlike his partner on this "chickenshit detail" Buddusky has a wild streak, a desire to lash out whenever and wherever possible. The men decide to show Meadows the time of his life before they leave, but the kid just can't seem to loosen up.

If you've seen any "road" movie or "buddy" picture, like Rain Man or Last Holdiay, what happens next should be easy to guess - a series of episodic adventures involving bartenders, prostitutes, a visit home, attempted escapes, a brush with religion, and why not a good old fashioned fight with some Marines at a train station in Boston? Even in 1973, this would appear to be well worn territory rife for deconstructing, but Towne and Ashby instead carry us through these familiar beats by focusing on the clash of personalities: Mulhall's rebel with a sense of his place in the world, Buddusky's anti-authoritarian streak, and Meadows' blank slate.

The more Buddusky and Mulhall learn about Larry, the more clearly their differences become apparent. Meadows only joined the Navy to avoid a life of constantly being harangued for shoplifting, but he never found a purpose in the service to keep him from resorting to old tricks, and now he's about to lose his twenties to the brig. (Ironically, he discovers that he's very good at signaling during a drunken practice with Buddusky.)

Ashby wisely chooses never to leave the perspective of his three protagonists, so that every encounter with the possibility to be "wacky" in lesser hands is filtered through the jaded, foul-mouthed perspective of Meadows' escorts. Meadows picks up on a Nichiren Shoshu prayer circle, and takes to it, winning over a local girl Donna (Luana Anders) while Buddusky and Mulhall stick out like sore thumbs at a hippie / activist house party. Buddusky's antics, an attempt to prove to Larry that being a loose cannon is important even to "lifers" pushes Mulhall past the point of sympathizing with Meadows - he is, after all, their prisoner, not their pupil.

If nothing else, I heard great things about Jack Nicholson, whose Buddusky could very easily go over the top but doesn't (it provides a template of sorts for his McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), but I was unprepared for Otis Young's understated Mulhall, a slow burning character with more arc than Buddusky or Meadows. Randy Quaid (who looks like a young John Cusack in the film) is bright eyed and bushy tailed as Larry when he needs to be, but underneath is a sense of failure, of inevitability that taints his misadventures on the way up north, and there's a scene at his mother's house where Quaid is devastating without saying a word.

The Last Detail is also littered with cameos from the likes of Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill, Robocop), Michael Moriarty (Pale Rider, Q), Carol Kane (Scrooged, Trees Lounge), Clifton James (Cool Hand Luke, Live and Let Die), and a pre-Saturday Night Live appearance by Gilda Radner as one of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists.

The temptation to stray narrative-ly rears its head once or twice, and I nearly thought the film was going down a very different (if comparably predictable path), but The Last Detail is less about tricking you with twists and turns and more about staying true to the characters, right up to the end - with a coda I can almost guarantee you won't see coming, but is the perfect note to end this film on. No spare detail is wasted; no minor plot development insignificant - everything builds to a frozen picnic outside, and seemingly "cute" character moments pay off in unexpected ways.

A word of warning: The Last Detail, while a fantastic character study, is the cinematic epitome of the phrase "curse like a sailor." If you have issues with profanity, know that the script for the film sat on a shelf for three years because Robert Towne refused to remove any of the language The Last Detail is littered with. It might not go as far as a Clerks or a Pulp Fiction, but The Last Detail's verisimilitude - a hallmark of early 70s cinema - comes from its frank dialogue, and the easily offended may not want to watch it, especially with kids around. One might consider it very much to be a "guy's" movie, so bear that in mind.

To all others, seek this out immediately.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Put a Little Trailer Sunday in Your Heart

Hour of the Wolf

Donovan's Brain

Heat and Dust


The Thin Man Goes Home

Raw Meat

Meet the Feebles

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Today's Post has the Bad Taste Sheep Explosion in It.

Sorry for the lack of Blogorium content yesterday - the Cap'n does, at times, have other obligations which prevents me from watching films or continuing to discuss the latest and greatest of the day. That being said, there are actually a few things worth reporting, dear readers:

- Quite unlike normal for the Cap'n, there was a sustained debated on another social networking site about the relative merits of The Matrix vs. Dark City, the issue of artistic repetition that doesn't involve direct remake / re-imagining / re-adaptation - i.e. films like The Illusionist and The Prestige or Deep Impact and Armageddon, films with similar premises of plot devices - and whether or not The Matrix is pretentious, over-convoluted, or just silly. If I procure permission from the other discussees, this discussion might make its way to the Blogorium next week.

- The reason the discussion happened at all was a result of the Cap'n finding a number of books at a local used business, one of which is called Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Published in 1993, it focuses heavily on Baudrillard, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, David Cronenberg, William Gibson, Tron, The Terminator, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'd really love an updated edition that included Cronenberg's eXistenZ, as well as Strange Days and Dark City. Just no The Matrix. I've heard enough about how "revolutionary" that film was in my life already.

- I also picked up Scorsese on Scorsese, David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance, and Kieślowski on Kieślowski, as well as some Bergman titles, Criterion and otherwise, all with trade credit. Spending money isn't something I can (no pun intended) afford to be doing, so finding other ways - that don't involve stealing - to continue research has been an ongoing project.

- Finally, I have actually been working on a small side project, one that would allow for Rogue Commentary Tracks from the Cap'n and friends to become a more tangible reality. The following clip should be helpful. Consider it a not-quite video daily double clip.

Because I don't want to leave you with sweet nothings, here's one of the most random acts of pointless violence in the already random and incredibly violent Bad Taste, the other Peter Jackson movie nobody seems to have seen:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Follow-up Part Two: True Grit, the Coen Brothers, and the Rhetoric of Racism

(repeat of preamble: Today I thought I'd follow up on some reaction I've been getting about recent reviews / articles. Two threads have been met consistently with strong reactions - one of which I'd hoped to have closed the book one, and the other that continues to bother people I mention it to, so much so that it stopped a conversation dead the other night. )

Okay, I have been getting some serious grief for the suggestion in my True Grit review that the film - and by proxy, the Coen brothers - is "racist" towards Native Americans. Explaining what I saw and the reaction it had with a packed auditorium stopped a conversation dead in its tracks the other night. Fans of the Coen brothers - of which I consider myself and most of the people I know - are bristling at the mere mention of "racism" and the Coens in the same zip code.

I understand why, and why people are oversimplifying and thereby misinterpreting what the actual point I'm making is. I am not accusing Joel and Ethan Coen of being racist by constructing two scenes where Native Americans are clearly the butt of the joke; my problem is that they've taken their fondness for ironic detachment too far in True Grit, and it was totally lost on the crowd I saw it with. I don't make my point blindly or out of ignorance - I spent the better part of 2010 studying their films in depth and writing about the themes and undertones within, so I do feel that I have a case here, just as I feel the point is being wildly misread because of how loaded the term "racism" is.

The Coen brothers have a long history of including instances of casual racism on the part of their characters, particularly in "period" films. They consistently point out cultural norms that are outdated, often while mocking them - the KKK in O Brother Where Art Thou, the casual homophobia in The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing (not to mention the ethnic stereotyping of "wops" and "micks"), or the "Uncle Remus" of The Hudsucker Proxy. They don't always use the prevailing attitudes of the time for comic purposes; at times, like the anti-Semitic neighbor in A Serious Man who only stands up for Larry when a Korean appears to be threatening him, is used to highlight overlooked forms of outdated racism.

And yes, I'm going to continue to use the term racism, which is where the bulk of this harsh reaction comes from, because it is a wholly adequate descriptor for much of what the Coen brothers like to highlight in an ironic fashion. "Oh, look how backwards we were then, isn't that funny?" I'm sorry if the terminology makes you uncomfortable, but this is a consistent, if under-represented, thematic device used in their films. It doesn't always work for them - in fact, it fails miserably in The Ladykillers, which presents two extremes in the spectrum of "caricatures of Black America" without any clear purpose, and I truly feel that True Grit represents a massive disconnect between their devoted fans and the casual audiences that flock their films every few years.

There are casual Coen fans, the kind of audiences who appear when the brothers tap into the cultural zeitgeist (or, to be honest, tend to briefly create it) - Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and No Country for Old Men are examples of films that seem to inexplicably catch on with a wide audience, allowing the kind of success that permits films like A Serious Man, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Man Who Wasn't There to fill in the gaps for devoted Coen fans. True Grit is the latest example, and it is being met with a fairly robust audience turnout, for whatever it is Joel and Ethan tapped into this time.

True Grit is also a film that takes place in post-Civil War Arkansas, where two of the three main protagonists served for the Confederacy. Rooster Cogburn has a heated discussion with LeBoeuf about whether Cogburn's service as one of Quantrill's Raiders counts as true service to the South, but the cultural framework the Coens are presenting (coming from Charles Portis' novel) is one where casual racism abounds. They choose to direct this racism towards Native Americans in the film, in what can only be read as another example of their pointed critique of outdated norms. And that would be fine, but I sincerely feel they overestimated their audience.

As I pointed out in my earlier review, both instances are structured for comedic effect. The first is a classic set-up of two long speeches followed by an abruptly shortened one from a character no one likes. The second is an over-compensation gag where the hero reacts to someone doing something bad by punishing them, allowing the punishee to reset, and then punishing them again. If there are technical terms for these, I'd be happy to hear them, but you can find both examples in most comedies, and the second example in nearly every Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton film. They are designed and executed on film for a laugh, period. Both scenes in True Grit are constructed for laughs, period.

My discomfort came from the audience I saw the film with that howled with laughter at both "gags," completely missing that the Coen brothers were commenting on racist attitudes towards Native Americans in the film's setting. The Coens have that track record, so I must take them at precedent rather than assume they thought this was funny at face value. The audience, on the other hand, people that honestly don't have the same exposure to this thematic trend, are laughing AT the joke, and not the commentary behind the joke. The commentary behind the joke isn't funny - it's sobering.

I can't bring myself to laugh at the audience that doesn't understand what they're seeing, and are becoming complicit in racial stereotyping for reasons contrary to its inclusion in the film. Instead, I became very uneasy. The fact that the actual "joke" is lost on audiences actually implies that there is a divide between the culturally backwards masses and the witty, erudite Coen brothers "cineaste," which made me feel more self conscious. I should have been laughing at the audience for playing out culturally scripted stereotypes, but I couldn't, and that troubles me on a number of levels.

For that, I must reiterate that while I enjoy True Grit as a film, I have difficulty reconciling the intention of the filmmakers with the experience of seeing it with an audience. The Coens were presenting yet another example of racism; the audience was responding to a joke set-up, and ne'er the twain shall meet, I fear.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Today's Video Daily Double will Ensure You Stay "Death Proof"

Greetings, readers! Welcome back to another installment of Cap'n Howdy's Video Daily Double.

As mentioned last week, I'm going to move the video clips from assorted random internet ephemera towards a "short film of the week," often spotlighting educational shorts, propaganda films, or strange artifacts from days gone by.

Today's educational short comes from Walt Disney circa 1970, and is narrated by Stuntman Mike himself, Kurt Russell. You'll find that's quite appropriate, considering this is a Driver's Ed film, only without the real life crash victims (we'll look into some of those in later Video Daily Double installments).

Without further ado, for your viewing pleasure: Dad, Can I Borrow the Car?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Retro Review: Meet the Feebles

Any review of Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles ought to begin with the story of how the reviewer came to learn of its existence. Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste are in all likelihood Jackson's least seen films (the next closest is Heavenly Creatures, the bridge between his early films and The Lord of the Rings), and the fact that anyone sees them passes like a meme from viewer to viewer. The Cap'n was in high school when a friend said "you have to see this demented puppet movie. There's a rabbit that gets AIDS and screams 'Yippeeeeee! Blech!'" and then made a hideous vomiting sound.

Meet the Feebles was not an easy movie to find - to this day, it isn't available on Netflix, is incredibly rare to see at a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, and is frequently checked out without hope of return at what's left of the "Mom and Pop" chains. Outside of a major metropolitan area, you're going to have to do some serious searching for it. The DVD has its own sordid history, as I can't tell if any of the US releases are "legit" - the copy I have is out of print, looks like it was mastered from VHS, and has a half dozen unrelated trailers for softcore porn murder mysteries as "extras."

All is is my way of setting the stage for Meet the Feebles's place as one of the most viewer unfriendly, disgusting, underground examples of a "Video Nasty" as you're likely to see in the age where Battle Royale can be ordered on Blu-Ray. Seriously, it's easier to buy I Spit on Your Grave and Faces of Death in HD than it is to find an authentic release of Meet the Feebles. There's a good reason for this, and it goes back to the "yippeeee! blech!"

Meet the Feebles is Jackson's twisted take on the Muppets as told through the sleaziest soap opera imaginable. If the film was one or the other, it might not be so disturbingly revolting, but taking the sordid backstage details of a TV show and replacing the humans with cutesy puppets has never failed to increase the "gag" factor for me. The film is a comedy, and it is funny, but if you have any attachment to Jim Henson, it's going to be a rough ride. Unless of course you wanted to see puppets vomit, wallow in filth, bleed, make pornos / snuff films, or eat each other.

On the surface, it's your standard tawdry backstage melodrama: Robert (Mark Hadlow) is a new arrival to The Feebles Variety Hour, a struggling show getting its big break in twelve hours. Its star, Heidi (Danny Mulheron) is a past her prime diva who thinks she's carrying on with Bletch (Doug Wren), the boss and overall lothario. There are muckraking journalists, drug addicts, bad deals with criminals, and two-timing opportunists, as well as a stage manager with a taste for... well, I'll let you find out.

If this sounds like Soapdish, with a dash of All About Eve or any number of other "behind the scenes" pictures, it is. The difference, as I mentioned, is that instead of humans, Feebles deals with puppets, so you get things like sex scenes involving a walrus and a cat. That's the tip of the iceberg, and considering that Meet the Feebles is the bridge between Bad Taste and Dead Alive, feel free to appropriately insert Jackson's stomach-turning gore into the proceedings.

The cast is split up between actual puppets and humans in oversized puppet costumes - ala The Muppets, Sesame Street, et al - which are done well for their crude appearance on-camera. It's impossible to separate Meet the Feebles from The Muppet Show because Jackson stages a musical number at the opening of the film reminiscent of the opening of Henson's TV series, but the film quickly moves backstage into soap opera tropes, just with deliberately cutesy animals just waiting to do filthy things.

The closest thing I can compare Meet the Feebles to is the live action Saturday TV Funhouse that Comedy Central ran several years ago, and believe it or not but that's tame compared to how filthy this film is. There's a pervasive grime to Meet the Feebles, visually and thematically - I've never actually seen a "restored" print, so it's always looked grainy and damaged, but the lighting often casts against the puppets in ways I can only describe as "greasy." It's actually better if I let you find out the context of Harry the rabbit's line (mentioned above) other than it involves an STD called "The Big One" (not officially identified as AIDS in the film).

Please don't take this to mean you shouldn't watch Meet the Feebles; the film is actually rather amusing, and it is entirely possible that you won't have the same "dirty" feeling after watching the film. It is vile, but intentionally so, and you're going to be humming the songs (hopefully not singing the last of of them aloud in public, unless you want strange looks). For Peter Jackson fans this is as important to track down as Forgotten Silver in tracing his path as a director, even if it's not the easiest search. There aren't many films left that are tricky to find with good reason, but Meet the Feebles is quite unlike anything you're expecting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Follow-up Part One: Tron and Tron Legacy

Today I thought I'd follow up on some reaction I've been getting about recent reviews / articles. Two threads have been met consistently with strong reactions - one of which I'd hoped to have closed the book one, and the other that continues to bother people I mention it to, so much so that it stopped a conversation dead the other night.

Here's your warning, folks; I'm going to talk about True Grit and (hopefully for the last time this quarter) Tron / Tron Legacy. Tune out now if you like, I'll be back tomorrow with a Retro Review of Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles. For everybody who stuck around, let's jump into the controversy, starting with the more trivial of the two:

It has been rightfully pointed out that I left out two critical components of the "world" of Tron that are undeniably difficult to justify, let alone explain. The first is that if a program is fitted with an identity disc that records everything they learn - and is expanded in Tron Legacy to be everything they knew prior to that point in the case of Quorra and Kevin Flynn - why on earth would that be the EXACT same disc used to fight in the games? Sark does say that anyone who loses their identity disc is subject to immediate de-resolution, but it seems like it would be very easy to lose your disc without dying, so much so that in Tron Legacy Quorra doesn't seem to care that Flynn replaces her disc with his. I gather that the discs are like boomerangs most of the time, but isn't it a really horrible idea to combine the most important component of your being with your weapon?

The second is a "please don't think too hard about this because it doesn't make sense" plot point: the MCP brought Kevin Flynn into the Grid, but why exactly does killing the Master Control Program automatically send him back out? If one takes a moment to consider this, it's clear that the MCP controlled the laser that brought Flynn into a virtual dystopia, and dragged him in to avoid dealing with a User on their terms. Flynn jumping into the MCP's "beam" and taking advantage of his "User powers" to help Tron destroy the program would actually work against liberating him from the Grid. After all, without the MCP, the laser isn't instinctively re-create Flynn because he helped "free" the programs. The laser isn't going to do anything, because it was only on when the MCP turned it on to incorporate Flynn. There should be no way that Flynn gets out of the Grid at the end of Tron, and they conveniently switch the laser to an input / output tower in Tron Legacy so as not to have to deal with a plot point I cannot defend.

By the way, I would like to correct the assumption that I leapt to Tron's defense in order to further discredit Tron Legacy - mostly by people who hate Tron Legacy, to be fair - but that's not actually the case. I disagreed with the false equivalency that it was okay that Tron Legacy was an awfully silly movie in many ways because Tron was also silly and I was conveniently forgetting that. Not only is that not true, but it assumes that Tron, Tron Legacy, and movies like them are given carte blanche to be "not good" because they're simply meant to be "dumb, roller-coaster ride" films, like Transformers or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

There is an asinine assumption that because a film has a large budget and is marketed relentlessly that is must also be "stupid." It's as though the blockbuster releases are now not intended to be anything more than "mindless entertainment" to be consumed like cotton candy at the fair and forgotten immediately after. I don't know exactly where or when this started, although I'm inclined to jump back to 1996's Independence Day or 1999's The Mummy as key examples of what people mean when they describe "that type of movie." It likely goes back much further, but it assumes that most movies can't be clever and appeal to mass audiences at the same time.

To this I call shenanigans. Stepping aside the fact that Inception and The Dark Knight totally disprove that model, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars - which are the basis for the "blockbuster" movement - are all entertaining without being mindless. Ghostbusters is both immensely watchable and chock full of smart screenwriting. Even the action film, so maligned for being ridiculous in and of itself, produced Predator, Aliens, and Die Hard, which are actually entertaining and clever.

If the argument is that times have simply changed and that all people really want are farting CGI characters, then let's take a look at some other modern exceptions to this so-called "rule": Spider-Man 2, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Up, Batman Begins, The Incredibles, Kill Bill, The Sixth Sense, hell, even though it wasn't successful, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World disproves the concept that "big" does not equate "stupid." I'll even give 2009's Star Trek and the first Men in Black a nod, because they entertain on repeat viewings. It's not all Armageddon's and Avatar's and Alice in Wonderland's (yes, I deliberately chose "A"'s) - films with plenty of eye candy that hurt your brain if you try to apply causality and basic logic to the story.

While Tron and Tron Legacy have many silly things about them, they are at times brimming with ideas. Not always good ideas, or thought out ideas, or even ideas executed in a plausible manner, but ideas nonetheless. Tron Legacy's biggest failing is relying too heavily on future Tron films to fill in plot holes, a tactic that provides audiences with a half-cooked story that razzle dazzle can't in and of itself overcome.


The True Grit section ended up being so long that I'm going to split this article up and continue it on Thursday, after the Meet the Feebles review and Wednesday's Video Daily Double. See you then...