Friday, April 29, 2011

Blogorium Essay: Home is Where the Monster Is.

Here's a break from the norm: the Cap'n was asked to write a short piece on the subject of "home." This is what came to me:

Home is where the Monster is.

I thought long and hard about the subject of “home,” and invariably my mind wandered to horror films, as it always does. Home means something to us in horror films, mostly because the most successful fright films deal with the invasion of home. We feel safe at home, and the violation of that safety scares us more than giant lizards or killer rabbits ever could. It’s more than a nuisance, it’s terrifying. But sometimes we don’t give the monsters a fair shake. Sometimes, we’re invading their home.

Take Jason Vorhees, for example. Okay, hulking monstrosity, hockey mask, machete, and all that. He’s scary, I get that. But he only ever follows one person home, at the very beginning of Friday the 13th Part 2. The rest of the time, Vorhees tries to stay in and around Camp Crystal Lake. Summer camp is a home away from home for America’s youth, a proving group filled with absentee counselors and budding adolescence.

It’s also Jason Vorhees home. It’s the only home he knows, and every summer another gaggle of horny teenagers show up, making noise and smoking pot. Can you blame him for hacking them to pieces? Home is where the heart is, and if you’re a mongoloid without proper parents, maybe the more hearts, the merrier. Literally. The crazy old man in town did warn them, after all.

Consider also the Halloween series. Whether you’re on team Carpenter or team Zombie, Michael Myers invariably heads home after escaping the asylum. Maybe he just wants to relive old memories: Christmas mornings, playing in the back yard, or stabbing his sister to death while wearing a clown mask. Who can be sure? The important point is that even movie monsters have the same desires we do. We all want to go back home after being away for a while. The sting that home isn’t the same; that you have to make home where you find yourself, can be jarring. Thankfully, more people adapt than become homicidal maniacs.

On the other hand, there’s the curious case of Freddy Krueger. Despite what many years of sequels have wiped away, the iconic house so associated with the gloved killer isn’t actually his house. It was Nancy’s house, then Jesse’s house. Freddy didn’t just invade the dreams of Elm Street’s children – he decided to move in! This always troubled me, because Freddy has no attachment to the house. Nancy’s mother just kept his hat there, in a furnace in the basement. If that gives you “squatter’s rights,” then I need to start leaving articles of clothing everywhere I go.

Freddy is the ultimate “bad” roommate – the house was in great shape until he moved in, you can’t come home without finding something horrible around every corner, and every now and then he brings a girl home and turns her into a cockroach. Not cool, Freddy! It’s no wonder that nobody moves into 1428 Elm Street. For that matter, nobody wants to move into the Myers house either. I’ll chalk that up to a sense of cosmic propriety – we don’t want monsters stalking around our homes. It’s fair to assume they don’t want to come home and find us stalking around theirs either.

Food for thought: “home is where the monster is” can be read both ways. As the Twilight Zone taught us: sometimes we’re the monsters. Those homicidal maniacs? They just want a place to kick back and get away from the big bad world for a while. Then they’ll try to kill you.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

TV Talk: Treehouse of Horror

(note: this post covers the first ten episodes of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror. For 11-21, please refer to this entry.)

TV Talk is something the Cap'n rarely does, but for a good reason: with the exception of the first edition, I try to avoid writing about a show when there's more to come. In the case of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, I'd seen what I could see, what was available, and rather than wait another two years to put preliminary thoughts out there, I thought "why not?"

I waited until Lost was over and done with to do a post-mortem as part of a Video Daily Double, and I've heretofore hesitated talking too much about Doctor Who (in either incarnation), in part because the way the 63-89 version is released makes it very difficult to follow entire season arcs*, and the 2005-present series is still ongoing, consistently building upon itself.

That leaves me with shows that are long done with, which I a) don't remember very well (The X-Files), or b) have talked about ad nauseum (Mystery Science Theater 3000). What hasn't come up as often, it turns out, is The Simpsons.

I am both old enough to remember a time before The Simpsons and still young enough not to have understood its impact on television or, eventually, on the show itself. At the time, anyway. Now it's easy to look back and understand why I stopped watching the show around season 12, then would check in sporadically, only to eventually give up around season 17 or 18. The show just wasn't that funny anymore. A brief flirtation with The Simpsons Movie and the show's shift to HD collapsed midway through the Blu-Ray of season 20, and I'm fairly content saying that I don't watch The Simpsons anymore. They recycle their own jokes now, unironically aware of what South Park already knew: "The Simpsons did it!"

You can actually trace the downward trajectory through the first ten Treehouse of Horror's (which, oddly enough, are all called The Simpsons Halloween Special on the title card, but not on IMDB or the boxed sets). For those not familiar with the concept - in season two, The Simpsons introduced a yearly Halloween special. It was always a triptych, and they all typically involve the following: 1) a Twilight Zone redo, 2) a film parody, 3) a literary interpretation, 4) Some variety of social commentary (this happens increasingly as time goes by).

People tend to be hard on the first few seasons of The Simpsons, but the first Treehouse of Horror isn't actually all that bad: there's "Bad Dream House," a Poltergeist/Amityville homage; "Hungry are the Damned," a Simpsonized twist on "To Serve Man," and an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," wrapped around by a story of Bart and Lisa trying to scare each other.

From there on out, there are a number of great moments: send-ups of King Kong, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Fly, The Omega Man, Godzilla (kind of), and The Indestructible Man; versions of The Monkey's Paw, Frankenstein, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dragonwyck; and Twilight Zone episodes Little Girl Lost, It's a Good Life, Living Doll, Terror at 20,000 Feet, and The Little People.

What I noticed though is that there's a steady decline starting with Treehouse of Horror VII (season 8), which stands out for an otherwise pretty stellar season (Hank Scorpio, Mr. Sparkle, Larry Burns, the Insanity Pepper episode): I could have sworn the "Hugo" evil twin segment happened later in the series' run, the "Little People" segment runs out of steam, and the Bob Dole / Bill Clinton Kodos and Kang story is a non-starter. It hints at the dull-witted political commentary to come, reaching a nadir in the late 2000s with a "War of the Worlds" / Iraqi Invasion segment.

Treehouse of Horror's VIII, IX, and X are all hit and miss, but indicate a downward trend: for every "Homega Man" and "Fly vs. Fly," there's a pointless cameo by Jerry Springer or Regis Philbin (the Springer being a serious low point in the show's pop culture commentary), and things just fall apart in season 11. Again, I'm a little surprised by this because while it's nowhere in the same league as season 8, the next-to-last season of The Simpsons I watched entirely had at least given up on a semblance of plot, instead trying to out-surreal itself with each successive episode.

It turns out that when that's the case, when making Santa's Little Helper say "Chewy?" and introduce Tomacco into the mix, that a Treehouse of Horror is going to struggle in comparison. Not only is it the first time the show directly references Kodos and Kang as not fitting into the Halloween milieu (something they would continue to do from what I've seen), the segments just aren't any good. The parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer sputters to a conclusion and is more fixated on the developing "Jerkass" Homer that characterizes seasons 12-onward. "Desperately Xeeking Xena" is a dumb comic book parody that also doesn't know how to end, so it settles for random: see, Xena can't fly, but Lucy Lawless can! That's the joke! The only thing funny about the "Y2k" segment comes in retrospect: notice Mark McGwire and Mel Gibson on the "best of humanity" rocket.

After Treehouse of Horror X, I can only say I remember parts of XI and XII: I'd honestly thought "Day of the Dolphins" came sooner than it did, the Ghost Dad parody doesn't stir much other than Homer dying on a piece of broccoli twice, and I have vague memories of Pierce Brosnan as the voice of a house that hates Homer. I don't recall the Harry Potter parody at all. From there on out, I understand they've spoofed Transformers, 28 Days Later, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, The Dead Zone, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game, A.I., The Blob, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Twilight. Mmmhrm...

Believe me, I'd love to jump on them for more movie parodies, but going back and looking at it, the Bram Stoker's Dracula send-up was right after the movie came out, and they weren't wildly removed from A Nightmare on Elm Street's sequels at the time either. What I can say is that I laughed less and less from Treehouse of Horror VI to X, and I laughed quite a bit during VI. The episodes are a fine time capsule of where The Simpsons was, what the writers found amusing, and which elements were emphasized - story, character, parody, or randomness. That I haven't seen any episode, let alone a Treehouse of Horror from 2003 onward that's anywhere on the level of the first six isn't the Cap'n just being a grumpy gus - it's a demonstrable fact. Watch them for yourself and see.

* And yes, they do exist: Tom Baker's first season is one continuous story broken up into Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks, and Revenge of the Cybermen

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Video Daily Double for American Values

Greetings, patriots! Today's Video Daily Double is here to help you understand how America functions, based on our economic model, legal model, and "social controls." You'd be better off to just watch these videos on repeat, ala A Clockwork Orange, and obey. Trust me, otherwise you'll be on the wrong end of those "dirty communist" propaganda films.

On with the brainwashing educating!


Our first short, Capitalism, is an overview of the alternative to Socialism. I'm sure you've heard of that one; people throw that word around when they want to insinuate politicians hate individual freedom.

Our second short, Law and Social Controls, is here to tell you "what's right," like when places should open or close, and how social pressure will force you to conform, and that's how it works. Please don't think too carefully about the fact that the "community" has a similar root word as "communism." That's only going to give you a headache.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Retro Review: Army of Darkness

I saw an article a few weeks back perpetuating the cycle of "will Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi ever make Evil Dead 4, or will they just remake it?" where Campbell had been interviewed for something he's doing with Burn Notice and he casually mentioned that he'd read the screenplay for the ED remake. The person writing the article included some commentary about how they'll eventually "wake up" and realize that people want Evil Dead 4 and not an "idiotic redo."

The argument has been going on since a remake was announced some seven years ago, and the great "will there be an Evil Dead 4" has been kicking around since 1993's Army of Darkness, but really kicked into high gear when the director's cut arrived on DVD around 2000. This is not actually another editorial about the relative merits of ED 4 vs. ED: R, but instead will dance around elements that consistently appear in said arguments, based on the 18 year history the Cap'n has with Sam Raimi's third journey into the battle between Ash and the Deadites.

I wasn't allowed to see Army of Darkness in February of 1993, and it wasn't because the News and Observer panned the film - it was that pesky "R" rating. It was the same reason I couldn't see The Crow a year later, and why the 14 and then 15 year-old Cap'n had to wait for my Dad to "check them out" to see if they were fit for consumption*. After Dad laughed throughout Army of Darkness, he told my mother it was "too silly" to seriously corrupt my already corrupted mind**, and I was allowed to begin watching The Evil Dead films in the opposite order.

Yes, I saw Army of Darkness first; then Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn; then, eventually, The Evil Dead. I'd been aware of the other two thanks to Carbonated Video, but if you think they had trouble letting me watch the tamest, least horrific of the three, just imagine if I'd tried to rent anything from the "horror" aisle.

As I've mentioned before, horror comedies were my gateway into harder edged films of the genre, well beyond the Universal Classic Monster films that populated my youth. The violence in Evil Dead 2 is so extreme, so impossible to take seriously, it ceases to horrify and instead induces laughter.

Similarly, the blood geyser in Army of Darkness (anyone familiar with the film knows exactly what I'm talking about) became the great ice-breaker in high school - just throw on Army of Darkness in the dressing room during plays and watch as every single cast member shifts their focus from last minute line memorization to Bruce Campbell involved in skeleton-related slapstick. The film (which is honestly harmless in just about every measure you'd gauge "horror" by) was a great introduction to crazier movies, not only Raimi's other films, but Peter Jackson's gross-out trifecta of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive.

Now I've mentioned that Army of Darkness has a Director's Cut, and that it had a VHS and DVD release in '99 / 2000 (respectively), but the funny thing is that I already knew it existed well before it came out. Though I cannot recall why or how I found it, clips of the original ending were already available on the internet in 1997, albeit in postage stamp-sized Quicktime files that took hours to download on a 28.8 modem. This, coupled with the launch of BC Central - the original version of Bruce Campbell's official website - allowed the high school era Cap'n to pursue more information about the "two" Army of Darkness's.

When I say "original" version of Bruce Campbell's website, I don't mean this. That's what BC Central became (the original domain name is now up for sale, I just checked), but in the beginning, Bruce recorded .wav files that were embedded into the page and shared personal anecdotes (many of which ended up in If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor). He also had an email address to send questions to, and back in those early days of the "internet," Bruce Campbell would respond personally to your email (things were different back then, you see).

Logically, having seen the original ending where Ash oversleeps and finds himself in a post-apocalyptic London, I thought I'd be the clever fellow who emailed Bruce asking why they'd changed the ending. While the email is lost to time, I still remember what he replied:

"We didn't change it - the studio did. Cheers, Bruce Campbell"

That's all; I didn't say he wrote long responses, but he did respond, and in all fairness Bruce Campbell did answer my question, which was poorly worded to be sure.

Okay, so the Director's Cut was out there, including on a bootlegged VHS tape we had a copy of in college from a video store that no longer exists but still doesn't have to be "out-ed," and it entered the rotation with the likes of Clerks, Cannibal! The Musical, and Pecker***.

Over the last 15 years or so, I've had a copy of Army of Darkness in just about every iteration you can find: the 1996 VHS release, the Universal DVD, on Blu-Ray, and even on HD-DVD. Oh, and then there are the numerous Anchor Bay releases, of which I only didn't have the "Bootleg" edition, in part because I still had the "Limited" edition with the Theatrical and Director's Cuts. You'll find pictures of all of them scattered around this Retro Review.

With time, I've come to prioritize my Evil Dead preference in the opposite order I saw them: The Evil Dead is a relentless, disturbing, graphic horror film that I enjoy more every time I see it; Dead by Dawn is basically the same movie but with the disturbing replaced with some seriously wicked black comedy, a more enjoyable experience but hints at the direction Raimi was going in; Army of Darkness is essentially a series of one-liners with a dash of Ray Harryhausen "horror" in the guise of an adventure film. There's nothing scary about Army of Darkness, and one will find the 90% of "Ash-holes" prefer the Ash from the third film to the other two - he has the better catchphrases. I watch Army of Darkness less than the other two, but the Cap'n still appreciates its role in dragging me back into horror.

As to whether a remake or sequel happens (or, more likely, doesn't) I must admit I don't give it much thought. Drag Me to Hell was by and large as close as we're going to get to an "Evil Dead" -type film from Sam Raimi, and to be honest, I'm happier with that than a continuation of the "give me some sugar, baby" that closed out the Ash saga.

* The issue for The Crow was the "raped" part of "criminals rape and kill the hero's girlfriend before killing him." ** Long time Blogorium readers are already aware that the Cap'n had been exposed to Blade Runner, Downtown, Aliens, and Animal House at a much younger age. For that matter, they would take me with them to see the much harder "R" Alien 3 later that year...
*** Sorry, I know we had to watch more than those movies, but for the life of me I can't think of one right now and I know we DID watch Pecker at least once...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Blogorium Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

(editor's note: this review forgoes a synopsis, in the supposition that people reading a review of the seventh Harry Potter film have likely already seen the first six and have or plan to read the final book before the eighth film is released this summer. It also contains minor spoilers.)

There's really only one problem with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and it comes from the end of the title. Even at two and a half hours, after dropping as little as humanly possible from J.K. Rowling's final Potter novel, what we're looking at is half a story. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn't so much end as it does trail off with an ellipsis, a promise that "we're going to finish this, you know we're going to finish this, so bear with us that this doesn't exactly close thematically, narratively, or cinematically."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 ends very much the same way a popular television show would close out its season: the main characters in the midst of emotional catharsis, the story having recently introduced a heretofore unseen twist (in this case, what The Deathly Hallows are), and the villain discovering something that raises the stakes and significantly impacts the impending "next season." Think of season two of Lost, season three of Battlestar Galactica, season four of The X-Files or, cruelly, the never resolved second season cliffhanger of Twin Peaks. The difference here is that the Harry Potter series are films, not television, and as much as I greatly admire everything in The Deathly Hallows Part 1, its inherent lack of resolution is a caveat that can't be ignored.

With that in mind: Finally! Finally a Harry Potter movie that sticks the landing in theme AND adaptation. If it weren't for the unfortunate non-ending, this would be the perfect Harry Potter film. Even without it, director David Yates, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and the returning cast and crew nail the tone exactly. Previous Potter outings have come close: The Chamber of Secrets removed much of the "kid friendly" trappings of The Philosopher's Stone; The Prisoner of Azkaban is largely regarded as the "best" prior to Deathly Hallows, but what Alfonso Cuaron succeeded in visually shaping the world of Harry Potter, the script removed by leaving out critical elements in the story, ones that adversely affected The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince.

Personally speaking, I thought The Goblet of Fire did a better job of masking omissions than Prisoner did, and it finally introduced a serious threat to the wizarding world when Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) killed Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), a threat that moved into the background for much of Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince. It wasn't merely that Voldemort and his Death-Eaters moved into the background, remaining a threat limited mostly to the beginning and end of each film; it was that Harry could always go back to Hogwarts, under the protection of any number of wizards more powerful than he was. Even the death of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was softened a bit by the resolve of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) to destroy the remaining Horcruxes with help from Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

The Deathly Hallows sets up the stakes, the sense of impending doom, immediately: Harry watches as the Dursley's move out of Privett Drive and Hermione removes herself from her Muggle parents' memories. In an uncharacteristically grim sequence, even for the dark direction of the Potter series, Voldemort, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and the other Death Eaters torture and kill the Muggle Studies professor from Hogwarts while plotting an impending attack on Potter and their infiltration of the Ministry of Magic.

The Order of the Phoenix, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the extended Weasley family - including Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy), who is marrying Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson), based on a romance cut from The Half-Blood Prince - arrive to take Harry to safety, and like the book, Yates and Kloves maintain the danger of the impending Death Eater ambush. Not only does Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) still die, but Harry's owl, Hedwig, dies on camera. The tone is set immediately; no one is safe, anyone can die, and protection is no longer assured for the heroes, their families, or anyone else.

What I enjoyed so much about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the willingness to completely ignore Hogwarts and follow Harry, Ron, and Hermione in exile. The culture clash of our heroes wandering around London, completely out of touch with the "real" world, without any idea how to proceed forward in finding the Horcruxes, let alone destroy them. At every turn is a trap, often ones they barely escape - visits to the Ministry of Magic (including a brief appearance of Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge), the trip to Godric's Hollow, to the home of Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans), and an encounter in the forest that brings them to the home of Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs).

I'd like to mention the small touches, the unspoken character moments that deepen the atmosphere - the look on Snape's face before Voldemort kills Charity Burbage (Carolyn Pickles), the frazzled Malfoys (Isaacs, Tom Felton, and Helen McCrory), no doubt a fallout from Draco's inability to kill Dumbledore, the way that Helena Bonham Carter scales back Bellatrix Lestrange, increasing her sense of menace without the over-the-top lunacy of Order of the Phoenix. Even though they barely figure into the film, Fiennes and Rickman, and Coltrane make the most of lingering glances during group scenes. Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans make the most of two extended cameos, as does John Hurt, who hasn't been in a Harry Potter film as Mr. Ollivander since the first film (similarly, Warwick Davis switches from Professor Flitwick to return as Griphook, and Miranda Richardson has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Rita Skeeter).

More important than any of this is the three leads: Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint, who finally have the lion's share of screen time to spend together without a major visual effects set piece to swallow them up, and they rise to the occasion. Removing Harry, Ron, and Hermione from Hogwarts also takes away the "school" subplots and allows us to focus on their interpersonal relationships. People have groused about the amount of time spent in the woods (a healthy chunk of the novel, by the way), but it's essential to really galvanize our heroes and test their bonds. As much as I've enjoyed Grint, Watson, and Radcliffe before, they really come into their own outside of the presence of so many legendary British thespians.

Yates and Kloves are comfortable enough by the seventh film to let the story move along in a less lingo-heavy, over-explanatory manner. The wand battles have accurately been likened to gun fights, many of the spells go undefined, and the story of The Deathly Hallows is told in an animated interlude, not unlike the beginning of Hellboy II. It's strange that the next-to-last entry might be the easiest film for someone unfamiliar with the series to enter on - yes, you might lose some nuance, but the story is easy to follow without feeling dumb-ed down in translation. They even add depth to Kreacher and Dobby, two semi-one note digital characters from earlier films, a feat that's likely to surprise even the most ardent defenders of the "goofy" first act of The Chamber of Secrets. If you had told me in 2002 that a scene with Dobby the House Elf would have emotional heft, I think I would have laughed myself out of the room.

Which brings us back to the ending: is it appropriate for the film? Yes, in some ways. There's an argument that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 could have ended with a genuine cliffhanger (there are a few very good points in the film that might have worked, not the least of which is Godric's Hollow) instead of where it does end (that I won't spoil, but think about the book and think about the "season finale" analogy), but if you're following the plot thread of Harry, Ron, and Hermione and the discovery of The Deathly Hallows, it's as good a cut-off point as any. It's cathartic, it brings together the right characters to move forward, and the final cut away has the right kind of "oh boy, it's serious now" moment.

But it isn't really an ending; it's the promise of an actual ending in the summer of 2011. While The Half Blood Prince didn't end with Dumbledore's funeral (a fitting closing), it did at least have a denouement that ended one story while promising another to come. The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is an otherwise excellent film that doesn't quite know how to close out half of a story, so it settles for a "to be continued" without really saying so. It just stops. When you put both films together, there's a very good chance that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the finest five hours in the series; until then, we're left with half of a great film.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Traileriest Sunday Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Real Life

Dracula's Daughter

Still Walking

The Acid House

Mystic Pizza

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Saturday, April 23, 2011

So You Shouldn't Have To: Blu-Ray Edition

From time to time, I like to mention to readers that new releases on DVD or Blu-Ray are coming out that may be of interest to you. I often include the caveat that no one is paying me to say this, because it's true - no one is paying anything for this blog*. I rarely tell people not to buy something; there are instances of movies where the Cap'n says "So You Won't Have To" but that's more of a "you're curious, I'm curious, but it's better that we all don't spend time and money on this."

That said, I am strongly advocating that people avoid any and all Miramax titles coming to Blu-Ray in the new few months. Most of it isn't going to be high on your list of priorities anyway, but since a few of the titles that people might want (including From Dusk Till Dawn) are already appearing at Best Buy for $10, I can already see people I know picking up a few of them. Don't.

There's something that many people are not aware of that directly impacts what you're seeing and will be seeing over the summer. Part of the Miramax settlement after the company crashed was selling off its catalog - it's why you haven't seen Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, Jackie Brown, Good Will Hunting, Amelie**, or From Dusk Till Dawn on Blu-Ray to this point (instead, there were a handful of released after they collapsed like Clerks and No Country for Old Men, as well as earlier discs for Kill Bill and Bad Santa). Some of the films went to Lionsgate: the Scream series, and many of the "marquee" titles listed above you've been waiting for.

However, many of the Miramax / Dimension films went elsewhere: specifically, Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. Ever heard of them? Probably not, unless you're a big fan of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, 2012: Doomsday, War of the Worlds 2, or Mega Piranha. They specialize in releasing dirt cheap DVDs (and recently, Blu-Rays) of movies that straddle the line between Syfy Channel Original and knock-offs designed to capitalize on better known films.

And it turns out they got most of the horror, science fiction, thriller, and action films, including From Dusk Till Dawn, a movie I'd very much like to have on Blu-Ray. Miramax's DVD had a bunch of great extra features, including deleted scenes, a commentary, and even a full-length documentary about the film called Full Tilt Boogie. The problem is that the movie itself isn't enhanced for widescreen TVs, which wasn't an issue when it came out eleven years ago.

So what does the Echo Bridge Blu-Ray, selling at Best Buy for $9.99, have on it? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. They treated it like any of their other "get 'em out cheap" titles, took the extras away, reframed the image from 1.85:1 to 1.78:1, didn't bother remastering the film for Blu-Ray, and dumped it out there. The early reviews on Amazon are from people who bought it, and aside from the person Echo Bridge is targeting these released to (people who don't really care about extra features, subtitles, or decent picture / sound quality and don't want to pay much), the consensus is a big SKIP IT.

Halloween fans might want to also check out the write-ups on H20 (unless you also plan on buying Halloween 6), because the Echo Bridge Blu-Ray reformats the from the much wider picture 2.35:1 to 1.78:1, and drops the DVD's 5.1 surround sound for a cheaper 2.0 stereo mix. Plus none of the extras or anything listed above. Hellraiser and Children of the Corn completists should also take heed to the warnings about Echo Bridge's cut rate tactics.

Nothing here is new - all Echo Bridge releases are like this, including Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. The company doesn't really care about putting quality titles out, just cheap releases that require the bare minimum of effort before dumping them in a "bargain bin" at your local Big Box Retail Store. Most people won't even care, and I can already hear people saying "Awesome! From Dusk Till Dawn for ten bucks! Who cares that it looks like crap, it's TEN BUCKS! What did you expect?"

What do I expect? Better than that, to be damn sure. If a company doesn't really care about the product they're putting out, they just dump it out there and take your money, then I don't want anything to do with that company. For five dollars more, I can get the same DVD you mastered your Blu-Ray from, and with another disc and actual extras, and it's only going to look marginally worse.

Here's the kicker, and I want cinephiles that are saying "What are you getting so worked up for?" to think about this: after Echo Bridge dumps these out, and their license runs out, someone else will pick up the rights to these movies. Someone who will probably care more than Echo Bridge does. Lionsgate at least put some effort into the Scream Blu-Rays, and you'd better believe there's going to be a world of difference between their BD's and Echo Bridge's.

For once I don't feel like it's a pipe dream to see From Dusk Till Dawn have a Spine Number on it. Why not? If Echo Bridge could afford it, why couldn't Criterion? That's a Blu-Ray I'm willing to wait for.

* Unless you count the cost of internet, power, etc.; in which case, I am paying for it.
** You can, by the way, order Amelie from Canada's Alliance on Blu-Ray, with everything you'd find on the DVD, for a very reasonable price.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

So You Won't Have To: Scream 4

Let's put this right up on Front Street: I don't like the Scream series. I saw the first one at a $1.50 theatre with exactly the right audience of "oh shit!" and "bitch don't go in that van!"* talk-back. I saw Scream 2 at the same theatre, this time with one person who used the entire length of the drive home to rant about the numerous, insultingly stupid things that happen in that movie. By the time we got to Scream 3, I was in college, we thought it would be a fun group activity to see the series off, and one person contends to this day that we tricked him into seeing the film**.

None of the Scream movies are very good. The first one is reasonably clever but shoulders the burden for the wave of increasingly awful self-referential horror films that followed (appropriately ending with the only other reasonably good film of its ilk, the astoundingly stupid Urban Legends: Final Cut, which will make sense in a moment). The second film is brain-damaging in its stupidity, and kills off the only remotely interesting character in the film. The third Scream is borderline self-parody, including a cameo from Jay and Silent Bob, for crying out loud.

And yet, Scream 4 is worse than any of the films that came before it; an insipid, self-contradicting "fuck you" to the internet generation from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson (and Ehren Kruger, who came in to do rewrites and to remind us he wrote Scream 3). The film is ostensibly a commentary on remakes, and makes a big to-do about how this round of killings in Woodsboro follows the "new" rules of remakes, and then pretty much follows the same rules that every Scream to this point has.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro - the site of the original murders - fifteen years later, as the last stop on her book tour (conveniently also on the anniversary of the murders). Sidney's re-invented herself as a motivational survivor, much to the chagrin of faded writer Gail Riley (Courtney Cox), who is now married to Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). No sooner has Sidney arrived than Ghostface starts killing again, promising a special finish for the original "Final Girl" of the series, but not before picking off the "next generation," including Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), and film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin). Can anyone discover Ghostface's identity before it's too late?

But wait! There are plenty more red herrings characters! Maybe it's because there are too many of them. We can start with Sidney's assistant Rebecca Walters (Alison Bree)? She seems awfully excited about the PR possibilities of renewed killings. Or could it be Deputy Judy (Marley Shelton), who knew Sidney in high school and lingered in the shadows? Or maybe it's Trevor (Nico Tortorella), Jill's ex-boyfriend who seems to show up at exactly the right (or is it wrong?) time. It couldn't be Sidney's Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell), you know, sister to Sidney's dead mother, the whole impetus for Scream 1, 2, and 3, could it? Well, at least it probably isn't Detective Hoss (Adam Brody) or Deputy Perkins (Anthony Anderson***), who are assigned to protect Sidney but just don't ever seem to be around when it counts... or could it?

Scream 4 is far too bloated with characters, and I'm not even counting the cameos from the Stab movies that make up most of the film's subplot. Oh what the hell, let's go ahead and cover the big ones (SPOILERS, but who am I kidding this is a "So You Won't Have To"): Heather Graham returns via footage of Stab used in Scream 2 (but updated to include the title card "A Film By Robert Rodriguez), Lucy Hale (from a show called Pretty Little Liars... I guess the intended audience would know who this is?) and Shenae Grimes (90210 and Degrassi: The Next Generation) are part of the opening of Stab 6, which leads the way to the opening of Stab 7 with Anna Paquin (True Blood) and Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars).

Actually, I will give Craven, Williamson, and Kruger credit for the clever opening of Scream 4, which is essentially one long gag of fake reveals in the form of Stab sequels, but it peaks at the wrong point. The best part isn't the actual kickoff of the Scream kills, but the Paquin / Bell scene, which ends in such a satisfying way that even I hesitate to spoil it, knowing full and well most of you will never see the film****. It's the only smart moment in a film that endlessly name drops other horror movies but never says anything about them.

Okay, so a character says "I fucking hate Saw. Torture porn movies are stupid." That's it; that's the level of insight that Kevin Williamson is adding to the discussion. Just mentioning Final Destination by name does not mean that you're saying anything about the grand guignol horror movement of "no characters, just kills" mini-movement the series glorified. And don't get me started on the ridiculous notion that Peeping Tom, a movie that effectively killed Michael Powell's career, started the "slasher craze."

The manner it's brought up (a trick multiple choice question that doesn't include Peeping Tom), the way the killer thinks that naming the director and the year of the film means anything, or the fact that HE'S WRONG - Peeping Tom didn't start any kind of craze, even if it is an early example of the "slasher" subgenre. It's the kind of answer you'd give if you wanted to sound smart but secretly hoped nobody would call you out on because it isn't factually accurate. (The options were Psycho, Halloween, or Last House on the Left, by the way. Psycho shocked, but Halloween was the big money-maker whereas the earlier and arguably as influential Black Christmas, so I'd give the nod to Halloween based on Ghostface's narrow criteria) But I digress...

What actually ruins Scream 4 is the fact that there's nothing "new" about the film: it's the third sequel to a marginally interesting and wildly influential slasher revitalization, and while it really, REALLY wants you to think that we should approach the film by "remake" rules (anyone can die, copy the original film's set pieces but with a twist, constantly refer to the "original" and its "rules"), Scream 4 isn't even a pale retread of Scream. Yes, Craven, Williamson, and Kruger go out of their way to recreate moments from the films (the garage kill, the van surprise, the reveal of the killers, the exact same "shady boyfriend" plot line), the fact that half the time one or more character draws attention to it is grating.

At no point is this more annoying than when the killer(s) are revealed (again, I guess MASSIVE SPOILERS but who of you is really going to see Scream 4?) - and shock, surprise, it's Jill, Sidney's niece, with her accomplice Charlie. Remember the kitchen scene from Scream? They do too! Well, they call it "Stab," but you get to see it again, with minor, stupid variations, because this is a "remake." Get it??? Oh, and the twist is that they're filming the whole thing, to upload online so people can see the murders from the killer's POV. But wait, Jill wants to be famous for being the "Final Girl" this time, which means she has to kill Charlie and Sidney first, them go through a ridiculous amount of self abuse in order to make it look like she struggled (it goes on to the point of being comical).

But wait! The movie still isn't over, because Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven (and I guess uncredited Ehren Kruger) can't let this stand. They can't allow a self absorbed Gen-Z (or whatever they call themselves) to "win," even though the film has no trouble integrating every form of social media into the script, to the point that Gail Riley (nee Weathers) becomes a joke of a character in the process. They have to really stick it to this new generation, these remake obsessed little shits, and if it weren't enough that Jill becomes a totally despicable brat in the last fifteen minutes of the film, beyond even Matthew Lilliard and Skeet Ulrich in Scream, they give Sidney the final, telling, send-off line:

"You forgot the first rule of remakes, Jill - don't fuck with the original."

Oh, ha ha. How clever. But then again, Scream 4 isn't a remake - as much as it wants to breathe new life into a tired franchise, Scream 4 is just another shitty sequel, one without anything new to add after ten years being away. By dragging the first Scream into the mix, by incessantly reminding the audience of the first film innovative-ness, the trio of director and screenwriters have only managed to make another lousy knockoff of their "original," fitting, in that this is how most people remember Scream in the first place. If the sequels were bad, at least they advanced something. Even remakes try to breathe something new into the concepts. Scream 4 is the same old tired garbage; it's the Halloween 6 of the franchise - nobody asked for it, nobody needed it, and accordingly I think you all understand why I saw it So You Won't Have To.

Side Note which Could REALLY SPOIL a Movie That Isn't Scream 4: I get that one could argue that Williamson, Kruger, and Craven were trying to comment on the not-that-popular-yet-but-getting-there movement of the Final Girl turning out to be the killer, but the way Jill turns from vaguely sympathetic to totally spiteful brat at the end of the film does not this accomplish. It also doesn't add anything to the conversation that a High Tension or, say, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane does. It doesn't even do what Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 does with a similarly aged protagonist. It's really just a spiteful way to say that "kids today, they just suck!" from two (or three) generations removed. It's more "you kids get off our yard" than "wow, that's food for thought."

* Yes, that's what they said and yes, I still remember it.
** If you're wondering, no one else seems to agree that anyone was tricked and that we all knew what we were seeing, just like when we didn't see The Time Machine but bought tickets and were all gone for the length of The Time Machine in 2003.
*** See what I did there? Urban Legends: Final Cut's Anthony Anderson???

**** Okay, here it is: after Paquin goes on a rant about how much she hates horror sequels and fake out trickery, Bell, who is sitting quietly beside her, stabs her in the stomach and says "you talk to much, sit back and watch the movie." Cue the Stab 7 title card. I honestly did not see that coming, and there was some pleasant laughter from the Cap'n.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Scent of Video Daily Double is in the Air...

Good day to you all, fair readers. Today's Video Daily Double is here to help you youngsters with the pangs of young love. After all, Spring is in full swing and you need to build up the courage to ask that girl / boy you've been longing for out to the prom, or sorority social, or whatever the hell it is you do. It could be a sock hop, for all I care, I'm just trying to help for crying out loud!

Whew, sorry. The Cap'n got a little hot-headed there. That's exactly not what you want to do, or you might end up spending that special night in jail. Since we've already covered those "sensitive" anatomical topics, and I've warned you what happens if you make a harlot of yourselves, let's look into the middle ground; the more functional "how-to"'s of dating.

(You didn't seriously think today's post was going to be about marijuana, did you? Silly potheads, for some people 420 means absolutely nothing!)


Our first film, What to Do on a Date, should get you all set for the big night:

Our second film (broken into two parts), How Much Affection?, will help you understand that people are watching you and your filthy, grabby hands. You can still be a harlot without hitting the sheets, you dirty girls and boys.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Retro Review: Cabin Fever

Today the Cap'n will be looking back at a more recent film I have an interesting history with, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. As the film was partially shot in North Carolina (Mocksville, Danbury, Winston-Salem, and High Point), there was a big to-do made of its release in 2003 at The Carousel in Greensboro: the lobby was covered with camping-related paraphernalia, the insides of the candy displays tainted with bloodstains, and production stills and press information were abundant. I remember this because I saw the film with a soon-to-be roommate in a packed auditorium of gorehounds looking for their horror fix.

And they got it, in abundance: Cabin Fever is, whatever else it may strive to be, an effective and mostly disgusting horror film. In that respect, I recall being impressed with Roth's first feature length film. As I wrote in a 2003 recap:

Cabin Fever - Eli Roth learned a thing or two from Evil Dead. That's crucial to understanding the marketing behind this low budget gem. Cabin Fever is atypical of horror movies, and that bugs a lot of horror fans, but this isn't quite a scare fest. It's a genre bender, pitting the cast of a Teen Sex Comedy in a Cabin in the Woods Horror Movie. While it has problems (the movie doesn't know where to end and stumbles a bit in the final act), it's nevertheless a nice first film to build a career of off, and they marketed the shit out of this movie (when i went to see it, great steps were made to replicate set pieces, "authentic" paraphernalia, etc.) plus it doesn't look as cheap as it was to make, and there are some wonderful nods to past cheapie thrillers.

My compatriot hated the movie. In fact, he still hates the movie, for reasons I can't fault him for. After talking about Cabin Fever several times, I almost totally flipped on the mixed-to-positive review and decided that the film's weaknesses overcame its strengths. I convinced myself that the Peter Jackson blurb on the poster (and subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray releases) was hyperbolic, and that the film's seriously uneven tone rendered the whole experience moot.

But that wasn't the end for me; for whatever reason, I couldn't shake Cabin Fever, couldn't totally sell myself on the write-off, even if there are serious problems with the movie (which I promise I will actually get to in a moment). So I picked up a used rental copy from Hollywood Video (or Blockbuster, I can't recall), and watched it again. I had the same mixed reaction, and ended up selling the movie when money got tight. But then I'd see it used again somewhere when things weren't so rough. Friends began poking fun at me, asking why I'd keep buying "something you hated"? I didn't have a good answer, so I watched Cabin Fever again last night, for the first time in three or four years.

The damnedest thing is that for 90% of the film, Eli Roth made a really good horror film. Yes, it has lots of little nods to The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Burning, and Friday the 13th, but beyond that Roth has the essentials down pat in constructing a solid horror film. He sets up the stakes well, isolates the characters, provides semi-credible reasons why the college students partying in the cabin might have trouble finding help nearby, ratchets up the gore in a disturbing way, and sets the characters against each other without ever feeling forced.

What doesn't work, the other 10% (with one exception), happens either before they're introduced to the virus or after they try to get back to town. Everything in between the set-up and the closing works fine, save for the introduction of Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), a moment so atypical of the rest of the film, so reminiscent of Twin Peaks (not coincidentally, as Roth worked for David Lynch prior to Cabin Fever) right down to the specially written Angelo Badalamenti theme, that it grinds the horror to a halt.

The rest of the major issues come at critical points in setting up or resolving characters, which is why Cabin Fever leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths. I will provide a handy list, which is vaguely spoiler, although at this point in the review I'm taking it on faith you've already seen the film:

- Bert (James DeBello) and the "squirrel shooting" scene.
- The harmonica guy.
- The really fake deer.
- The lines "because they're gay," "don't be gay," and "what are you, retarded?"
- The "pancakes" kid, his dad, and the strangely effeminate store owner.
- Actually, just about everything that happens at the General Store.
- Marcy (Cerina Vincent)'s opening speech about college.
- A misleading racist joke at the beginning of the film that has a payoff at the end that, at best, feels disingenuous.

I'm torn about Grim, Eli Roth's stoner interloper that shows up right after Bert, Marcy, Paul (Rider Strong), Jeff (Joey Kern), and Karen (Jordan Ladd) show up at the cabin. On the one hand, there's nothing really funny about his stupid dog joke or the fact that he really only exists so that there's one more body for Paul to find. His dog, Doctor Mambo, could have been anybody's around the lake and the threat would be just as credible. On the other hand, I did laugh at how stupid the dog joke is (sorry, I won't spoil that one for you), and it makes up for the random and sort of pointless "bowling alley" story that Paul tells at the campfire.

The problem is that the tone of everything listed above is so incongruous with the rest of the film, so decidedly quirky, that it disrupts the horror, and not in a good way. I'm all for breaking the tension with a well placed joke (Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson do it masterfully), but the "jokes" in Cabin Fever aren't so much funny as they are really strange. They don't seem to belong in the same universe as the horror film we're watching, and their presence while audiences settle and and right before they leave do undermine the rest of the movie, which is, again, really good.

I am aware that the Blu-Ray of Cabin Fever is a director's cut, one that apparently smooths over the jagged edges of the film, and having watched it again and (mostly) enjoyed the experience, I think I'll look into that cut. While I can't find any fault in the criticisms of the Cabin Fever I saw then and again tonight, there is enough of a pretty damn good horror movie inside to keep me from dismissing it again.

Oh, by the way: while it's not apparently on the Blu-Ray, the DVD has an extra called "Chick Vision" that raises a pair of silhouetted hands over the screen during "scary" parts, and it's actually kind of fun in small doses. I don't know that I could watch the whole film that way, but it might be fun for parties.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Blogorium: Home of Second Chances

Here at the Blogorium, the Cap'n has an inexplicable tendency to give movies another chance, especially ones I didn't like the first (or sometimes second) time around. Why I'm willing to give these movies (say, House of 1000 Corpses) another shot when I'm not willing to give others (say, Twilight) a shot at all remains one of the great mysteries of our time.

Friends have pointed out that this is attributable to some masochistic streak in the Cap'n: not only can't I just let a bad movie "go," I won't let it go, returning for more and more doses of disappointment, disgust or, worst of all, boredom. And it is true that in some cases I simply can't understand why it is something clicks with so many people yet is a dud to me, and I'll try to approach the offending feature from various perspectives. The aforementioned House of 1000 Corpses is such and example: to this day I can't figure out why anyone would give something so shoddy a pass, yet almost everyone I know does. Many of them really like it, which boggles my mind further, as I can't find anything to like in that train wreck disguising itself as "homage" horror.

Last summer I found myself yet again sitting through Shit Coffin (many of you might know it by the moniker Friday the 13th the Remake) with Professor Murder because the people who don't want to outright ignore it find the moniker "Shit Coffin" to be a sign of strong emotions, ergo something they should see (The reality is that "Shit Coffin" is a perfectly reasonable name for the film, an adequate descriptor of the content therein, even if explaining why is folly. It's just easier for you to see for yourself that the film is, in fact, a "Shit Coffin").

Anyway, so as not to risk pushing the Not Safe For Work boundaries any further, there I was once again watching Platinum Dunes vomit all over a horror franchise that I counted myself a fan of, still unclear on exactly what was appealing to the people who saw this: Friday the 13th fans had nothing to go for, people vaguely aware of the films might find some cheap thrills but if they thought even half a second about the massive plot holes they'd tune out, and stoners who would overlook all of the above don't go see movies. They can't smoke in the auditorium and the drive is too much for them. I will admit that Friday the 13th the Remake has its own stupid charms, stemming from the lazy way the film is constructed, and I hate it less than Platinum Dunes' A Nightmare on Elm Street the Remake (which if you're wondering, is in fact Shit Coffin 2).

In some instances, I find that second chances work out. While it didn't with Sin City for example, I was more forgiving of The Fifth Element, a film I hated in high school (for reasons I don't quite understand) but am now glad I came back to. If I had stuck with my "I hate Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," I wouldn't have given Chamber of Secrets a shot and would accordingly have missed out on films that improved as time went on. The same can be said of The Devil's Rejects, functionally a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses (a film I hate) that I found myself pleasantly surprised to enjoy as much as I did. Interestingly, the exact same dynamic is the case with Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes - I hate the first one, but really like the second, and have tried (with no success) to "understand" why people like the earlier remake.

All of this is my way of letting you know that I'm toying with watching Cabin Fever again for tomorrow's Retro Review: Eli Roth's debut is a movie that I kind-of liked when I first saw it, talked myself out of it shortly afterward, watched again on home video, didn't really enjoy for a few particular scenes I'll highlight tomorrow, but can't shake. It's usually the first DVD / Blu-Ray to go if I need to sell something, yet I've been known to pick it up with other used DVDs if the deal is good. I realize that makes no sense, so hopefully we can work through it together tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

April Showers Bring Trailer Sundays

It Happened One Night

Night Tide

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes


Monsieur Verdoux

Ghost of Frankenstein

Queen of Blood

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Blogorium Review: Jackass 3

There is a moment in Jackass 3 (nee 3-D) when, faced with a Tee-Ball to the groin, the question is asked "Ohhhh, why do I have to be Steve-O?", which may be the prevailing theme of this fourth entry* into the Jackass saga. The Jackass crew isn't getting any younger, and the impending damage to their bodies weighs heavier on their minds than in previous outings, both televised and theatrical: more than a few stunts begin with hesitation from members about to do something stupid / decidedly dangerous, and it takes a little bit longer to bounce back from being rammed by buffalo, being kicked in the face by a football, or the aforementioned tee-ball to the junk.

Which is not to say that there isn't still a sense of relish to the proceedings: Johnny Knoxville still cackles with glee when a giant hand smacks unknowing visitors during "High Five." He seems especially pleased that "Danger" Ehren would actually be dumb enough to bring a tray full of soup into the room (and one can actually see him looking around suspiciously with the tray before he gets slammed). Steve-O seems to be having much more fun with "Beehive Tetherball" than Dave England is, in part because the former knows that panicking will only attract more of the Africanized colony. Everyone is on board with hopping around behind a plane engine, or being propelled by bungee rope off a ramp into a flimsy swimming pool (on roller skates, skateboards, boogie boards, and a wheelbarrow), and the sense of maniacal glee that comes with the Super Glue games is infectious.

While many are quick to point to Jackass as being the decline of western civilization on celluloid, I'm going to stick with the John Waters approach that they're carrying the torch of "bad taste" into the next generation. The Cap'n freely admits that Jackass is an acquired tastes, and that for most of you, any interest in today's post ended when you saw the title. Fair enough. It makes me laugh (sometimes causing people to check out what exactly I'm howling at), rarely disappoints, and periodically grosses me out. And while Jackass 3 doesn't go quite as far as the first film did on that count (I'm looking at you, "Yellow Snowcone"), there are a couple gag-out-loud moments in the film. One involves a model train set that you're better off turning away from, and the other involves Preston Lacy exercising in a suit designed to capture his sweat into a cup. You can guess where it goes from there.

Where I'd point out that Jackass is different from other nihilistic, mean-spirited, prank style "guerilla" films like Bumfights is in the sense of fraternity between the gang. Even when subjected to pain, or being the butt of someone else's practical joke, the boys are quick with a smile or to congratulate the prank-er. Lacy goes out of his way to shake the hand of the punt kicker that nails a football into his face; Steve-O, covered in feces after the "Poo Cocktail Supreme" opts to chase Johnny Knoxville and give him a hug; even Bam Margera, faced with his worst fear after falling into a pit with snakes, gives a fist bump to the snake trainer that dumped them on his head. The camaraderie between the Jackass guys keeps spirits high, even when the stunts are cruel; "Danger" Ehren's "Lamborghini Tooth Pull" wouldn't be nearly as palatable if he wasn't so excited at the prospect of doing it.

Jackass 3 looks better (by far) than any previous incarnation, largely because director Jeff Tremaine shot on high definition Phantom cameras with 3-D in mind. I can see where most of the 3-D was supposed to be, but the DVD that came from Netflix was strictly 2-Dimensional. In addition to 3-D trickery, Tremaine also used the Phantom for its high frame rate, allowing for super-clear, super-slo-mo photography, which figures prominently into the opening and closing of the film, allowing audiences to see every blow with crystal clarity (it also makes a recurring segment called "The Rocky" worthwhile).

Like Jackasses before it, the film has its share of cameos: Minnesota Vikings player Jared Allen takes Knoxville down while referee Sean William Scott winces; Spike Jonze returns for another round of "Old Lady" jokes; Will the Farter pops a balloon in Steve-O's ass from, well you can guess; singer/songwriter Will Oldham plays an animal trainer to Chris Pontius' wild gorilla to scare Phil and April Margera; Mike Judge gets back in the action by providing the voices of Beavis and Butt-Head, who introduce the film and explain the wonders of 3-D. Even Finland's The Dudeson's get involved with the boys for tree-related mayhem.

Also like the other Jackass films, there are bits that work and bits that don't: I've mentioned a number of the better gags (and intentionally left out a few really good ones) but many of the "on the street" pranks played unsuspecting folks just don't play like they used to. Jason "Wee Man" Acuña is part of a bar fight designed around "little people"; Knoxville dresses up as an old man and makes out with his "granddaughter" on a public street, and also crashes through a scooter dealership before "stealing" one of the vehicles. At this point the segments are less effective than they used to be, and tend to drag the film down from the wilder, "conceptual" stunts or endangerment. The April and Phil "gorilla" prank is a total bust, as is a much longer than it needed to be segment built around Bam peeing on everyone.

While Jackass 3.5 looms, I somehow doubt there's going to be a Jackass 4; the film certainly is the product of guys who aren't as wild as they used to be, who are far more aware of the mayhem they subject their bodies to. The film closes out on a montage during the credits of each member of the team as a child, in their first appearance on the show, and now, and it's amazing to see how young they were when Jackass premiered on MTV at the turn of the century. Set to Weezer's "Memories," which features the cast singing along, it feels like a fitting close to the series. They might not be as reckless as they were, but you can't blame the Jackass crew for giving it their best on the way out.

* Fourth including Jackass 2.5, and to be followed by Jackass 3.5, the fifth chapter. If we're including the show, then who knows what 3 qualifies as.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blogorium Review: American - The Bill Hicks Story

Today I'm looking at the new(ish) documentary about comedian / social critic / philosopher Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. Hicks remains criminally unknown by most, in part because his rise coincided with fellow Houston, Texas based comedian Sam Kinison, who I imagine almost everyone knows. Over the last 17 years, however, Hicks has been increasingly pointed to for his comedy being ahead of its time, particularly with bits involving politics, celebrity, fundamentalism, and drugs.

The documentary is told in equal parts by his family (mother Lynn, brother Steve, and sister Mary) friends, and other Houston based comedians that worked closely with Bill, as well as small doses of interviews with Hicks. Directed Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, American avoids the standard "talking head" documentary approach, only showing the interviewees briefly at the beginning and ending of the film.

Instead, Harlock and Thomas use an animated version of the "photo montage" technique, popularized in The Kid Stays in the Picture, although their approach is far more aggressive in providing "motion" and creating imagery where there was none. They often appropriate available photos of Hicks and friends Dwight Slade and Kevin Booth to generate moments discussed by the participants, like a mushroom experience which moves from the strictly biographical towards the metaphorical.

The effect can be a bit too much early in the film, but when Hicks' stand-up career begins to bear the fruit of recorded shows, that takes over by and large, with interviews becoming the connective tissue. Much to my surprise, there is a wealth of material from his early days that I'd never seen, and the footage follows him as Hicks moves from clean-cut young comic to hard drinking drug user to clean and sober social critic. The transition (much of which I confess to being ignorant of) is where fans and neophytes alike are going to benefit the most from American: The Bill Hicks Story - there's not much in the way of "famous people eulogizing Bill" that tends to accompany comedian biographies, but instead a more personal approach, an insight into the Bill Hicks offstage.

Because of the availability of his HBO Special or the Revelations show, parts of the last third of the film might be familiar territory, but what's really impressive is the footage not seen to this point; footage that was partially available in audio format, but for which no major release existed*, and I'd certainly never seen the footage Hicks and Booth made while driving to Waco, Texas during the Branch Davidian standoff. The early performances are also a revelation: here is Bill Hicks, not yet fully formed as a comedian, but still able to keep the crowd completely under his control while telling family anecdotes. Hicks' evolution over the course of his short career (16 years) was alone worth seeing the film for.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is a must-see for Hicks fans, particularly if you've already seen It's Just a Ride and his available specials. You're going to learn a great deal you probably didn't know, particularly if you (like the Cap'n) were weaned on Hicks from the albums Relentless, Arizona Bay, and Rant in E Minor. Casual viewers who have heard of Bill Hicks will also enjoy the documentary, although its overly "animated" take on the photo-montage composition (much more aggressive than The Kid Stays in the Picture) may diminish your experience a bit. American is currently available on Video On Demand, PSN, and I can only assume XBox Live, with a DVD / Blu-Ray to follow.

* I must admit that while I am aware of the Bill Hicks boxed set, the one that contains two CDs and two DVDs, I do not have it and do not know what footage is available on those discs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Video Daily Double is Easy on the Eyes

Today our very special Video Daily Double deals with our primary source of gathering information, the eyes. While we also rely on sound, smell, and taste, humanity puts a great deal of emphasis on what we can see? But how do we see what we see, and what happens if we radically alter that perception?

Hopefully today's videos will clear that up for you. Enjoy!


Our first film, How the Eye Functions, ought to be self-explanatory. If it's not, then here's a hint: It Explains How Your Eyes Function.

Our second video, Mr. LSD, tells us what we might not want to do with our eyes. After all, it's a trip we may never come back from! (SPOILER ALERT: This is an anti-drug film).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reto Review: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

When I was younger (say, eleven or twelve), I had a bit more trouble than I do watching horror films - at least the "tougher" stuff, like slasher flicks. The Cap'n did, however, devoured the Universal Classic Monster films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I still have tapes that a friend of my dad made from AMC Saturday double and triple features of those movies, and one of my favorites was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a 1943 effort that put together two of the best monsters (or, so I felt) into one film: Lon Chaney Jr.'s Lawrence Talbot (the Wolf Man) and Frankenstein's Monster (originated at Universal by Boris Karloff).

The title is actually a little misleading: for the first half of the film, the story is actually a continuation of The Wolf Man. Lawrence Talbot, dead from the silver cane blow to the head, is resurrected by the full moon thanks to grave robbers (one of whom isn't lucky enough to escape the newly transformed werewolf), and finds himself in Cardiff, Wales, four years later. Unaware that he died, Talbot begs a doctor at Queen's Hospital to lock him away, but in an attempt to verify he is who he claims to be, the Wolf Man escapes and tracks down Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya in an extended cameo), the gypsy woman whose son infected him.

Only then does the Frankenstein series enter the equation: Maleva, thinking that Dr. Frankenstein can "cure" Talbot, takes him from Wales to Vasaria (a modified version of Germany) where the Frankenstein estate is. Here, we learn that this film is functionally also a sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein, as the Doctor is already dead as a result of the fire at the end of that film. While Talbot does eventually meet Frankenstein's monster (played alternately by Bela Lugosi, stuntman Gil Perkins, and possibly Lon Chaney, Jr.), but the only "Frankenstein" he actually meets is Baroness Frankenstein (Ilona Massey).

There are little touches that I really love in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, like the way the moonlight creeps up on Talbot in the mausoleum and in Queen's Hospital, or the dread on Chaney's face during nearly every scene - the face of a man who finds solace only in death, a fate no one will assist him in achieving. The Lawrence Talbot story is enriched considerably in this film (which ought to be little more than a quick mash-up of horror monsters) because of Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance, a combination of melancholy and apprehension any time the moon is full.

I also get a kick out of the careful balance the film finds between the definitively 20th century Wolf Man (which begins with Talbot driving a car from the 30s or 40s) and the presumably 19th century Frankenstein world (the film is careful to include telephones and photographs, but hedges its bets when it comes to vehicles, sticking closely to carts and wagons whenever possible). The way that Frankenstein's monster (who is blind if you follow the Frankenstein films) takes to Talbot right away is interesting, particularly because the poster promises a fight (which you do eventually get, albeit in very small doses).

The villagers of Vasaria are actually quite clever in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and quickly find the transformed Talbot, injuring him and subsequently capturing Maleva. They also put two and two together when Dr. Mannering (Patrick Knowles) arrives in town looking for Talbot (who has disguised himself as Mr. Taylor in order to lure Baroness Frankenstein back under the pretense of selling her castle). However, at this point the film begins to buckle under its own weight, and an abrupt character shift happens for no apparent reason.

There's no good reason for Dr. Mannering to abruptly decide to ignore the requests of Talbot (to die) and of Baroness Frankenstein (to kill her father's creation) and instead say "I must see his creation at full power," but that's exactly what happens. The logic of all of the other characters is sound to one degree or the other: the townspeople are divided between trusting the strange doctor and wanting to rid their village of the monster*; the Baroness wants the creature destroyed and thinks Talbot is insane; Maleva wants to help Talbot; in fact, the monster is the only character with no motivation whatsoever, which isn't helped as the film lurches towards the inevitable smackdown between creatures.

In a manner of speaking, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man simply runs out of time, which saves it the trouble of explaining how draining electricity from Talbot would do anything (or even work) or why a super-charged Frankenstein's Monster would immediately try to drag off the Baroness (or why the Wolf Man would then try to save her). Instead, the two titans of Universal horror are allowed to throw each other around for two minutes until they both (presumably) drown and "A Universal Picture" title card comes up. The film deserves better than its ending; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is far more resourceful in blending together two horror worlds, especially in light of films like Freddy vs. Jason.

Still, I have fun putting the film on every now and then, and at least Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is 80% coherent, which is more than one can say for subsequent monster collections like House of Dracula or House of Frankenstein. It's a relic of my childhood that still holds up better than one might expect, and in its own right a sequel that almost improves on two series of horror films.

* Ultimately, the fate of both monsters is in the hands of a character taken seriously by almost no one, which is actually a clever move on the part of screenwriter Curt Siodmak.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blogorium Review: The Boogens

Good news, horror fans: The Boogens is a better-than-I-expected horror film from 1981 with some genuine suspense, sparse but effective gore, and a reliance on suggesting rather than showing. It has a very good chance of showing at Summer Fest in July, but I find it unfortunate that this diamond in the rough is so hard to find for horror fans looking for a new thrill, but if you're willing to do some digging around, you'll be rewarded for your efforts.

Miners Brian Deering (John Crawford) and Dan Ostroff (Med Flory) are re-opening a mine in Silver City, Colorad that collapsed nearly 70 years ago. With the assistance of Roger Lowrie (Jeff Harlan) and Mark Kinner (Fred McCarren), they manage to blow open the sealed off area and begin surveying the long abandoned tunnels. Meanwhile, Roger's girlfriend Jessica Ford (Anne-Marie Martin) and her best friend Trish Michaels (Rebecca Balding) are headed up to a cabin the foursome are renting for the winter, accompanied by Jessica's trouble-making dog Tiger. Unbeknownst to everyone but a crazy old man* (Jon Lormer), an ancient evil has been let loose by the explosion, and now the Boogens are free to terrorize Silver City again...

The Boogens is actually a surprisingly good horror movie, considering that it has all but vanished from public consciousness. Most of the reviews online point out how viewers weren't expecting the film to be any good at all, only to be pleasantly entertained for 95 minutes. The truth is that while I was expecting a competent horror film, The Boogens does a fine job of setting up the characters, geography, and maintains tension for much of the film, even if at the expense of some serious plot holes (see below). The cast is uniformly good, if not a little goofy, and writers David O'Malley and Bob Hunt keep the audience invested in their plight. The Boogens is also helped by the fact that the creatures themselves are a presence felt more than seen.

To the credit of director James Conway, the monsters aren't visible until the film is nearly over, which helps add tension. Before we ever see what's killing people, the miners wander into their lair, which consists of an underground pond and a pile of human bones. By never seeing the threat, The Boogens disguises its biggest weakness: the Boogens. While I am tempted to spoil it and tell you what they look like, the Cap'n has a special contest in mind for Summer Fest, so I will instead say only that when you finally see a Boogen(?) that the lack of on-screen Boogen activity is actually a blessing. Not that the actual monster in action is silly, but its design makes no sense and they aren't really that scary. Because Conway spends much of the film with shots from the monster's POV or only giving brief glimpses, The Boogens is a more effective movie for it.

At one point I wondered aloud if The Boogens was actually what the monsters were called or if it was an arbitrary decision by the filmmakers in order to have a name for the film. Fortunately, just as I asked the old man muttered "Oh no... the Boogens...." which is the one and only time anyone at all in the film identifies them by name. In fact, as the crazy old man who only speaks during one scene is the sole character in the film who has an idea they exist in the first place, there isn't actually an explanation at all for what the Boogens are - the "exposition" scene so prevalent in this kind of film is limited to "I tried to warn you.... they were in the mines and you let them out... oh no.... the Boogens..."

(Minor Spoiler) I don't want to harp too much on the plot holes, but it doesn't actually make much sense that the tunnel that leads from the mine to the cabin would suddenly be unblocked by the explosion, allowing the Boogens to travel freely between their lair and the mine. They set up the idea that there are three tunnels on the other side of the cave-in, but the entrance in the cabin is never blocked so it's not really clear why the Boogens couldn't already wander around. Perhaps I ask too much of an otherwise enjoyable film.

There is a tiny side note I'd like to point out: if anybody is still questioning The House of the Devil's approach to recreating the early 1980s, please direct yourself towards any scene taking place in the cabin or in town during The Boogens. An early sequence with Landlady Martha Chapman (Marcia Reider) opening up the cabin before the kids (?) move in is particularly reminiscent of moments in The House of the Devil (well, vice-versa, I suppose), and while The Boogens isn't necessarily an "80s" film, it certainly represents the era Ti West evokes in his 2009 film. I also give it kudos for being made in the same year as My Bloody Valentine and yet not making me think of that film once, despite the mine-centric plot.

As far as I know, The Boogens is only available on VHS, with an occasional airing on Turner Classic Movies Underground, which adds to its "obscure horror movie" status. This is a shame, as I think The Boogens would make a fine "party" movie, as it's entertaining enough not to bore a crowd and silly enough to keep you invested in the proceedings. While by no means a "classic," The Boogens is nevertheless a bright spot in the wast wilderness of forgotten horror films.

* He's identified in the credits as Greenwalt, but I challenge you to find out where that information is in the actual story.