Wednesday, May 22, 2013
John Carpenter had a rough go at it in the 1990s. From 1980 to 1988, he racked up a filmography that any sci-fi or horror director would kill to have half of: The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, They Live, Prince of Darkness, Christine, and Big Trouble in Little China. And that was following up bringing the world Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and what the hell, let's throw Elvis in there for good measure. For all intents and purposes, regardless of their box-office success, Carpenter had cemented himself as an all time genre Hall of Famer.
Which is good, because the next ten years wouldn't have anywhere close to as good a run. Because I haven't seen it in years, I'll withhold judgement on Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a movie I faintly remember enjoying, but aside from In the Mouth of Madness, you'll be hard pressed to name one of his movies that anybody really likes. There's Escape from LA, a grab-bag of terrible ideas that makes one long for the stripped down New York setting; and of course Vampires, a movie that I happen to appreciate for its trashy, "movies for guys who like movies" approach, but the Cap'n also understands that I'm in a very small minority on that one. I don't even try to defend Vampires to most Carpenter fans. But I still wouldn't consider it the low water mark of his 90s output. That distinction belongs to the disaster that is Village of the Damned.
In the small town of Midwich, California, everything is just fine. Doctor Alan Chafee (Christopher Reeve) is heading out of town for the day while his wife, Barbara (Karen Kahn) is getting ready to show a house for her realty company. Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), the school principal, is getting the fair ready for town, and her husband Frank (Michael Paré) is off to pick up the helium for the balloons. Everybody is having a nice, small town kind of day, when shadows overhead that seem to be whispering cause everyone and everything to collapse for six hours. Alan returns to find a police barricade and a line that marks where it isn't safe to cross, along with scientist Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley), who is very interested in this unexplained phenomenon. When everybody wakes up, no one seems to know what happened or why, but there have been a number of casualties (including Frank). Stranger still, many of the women in town are pregnant, and the children they give birth to are... different.
While John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, like The Thing, still credits the book as the initial source material (in this case, The Midwich Cuckoos), the original screenwriters of the 1960 version are also credited, so let's not pretend this is a page one re-adaptation. That might have helped. Hell, anything might have helped, because I'm not sure what John Carpenter was thinking with this movie. It's not just that Village of the Damned isn't a successful remake or that it was a bad idea - no, John Carpenter's Village of the Damned is a terrible movie.
Unless he was secretly trying to make a Neil LaBute / Nicolas Cage-style Wicker Man "secret" comedy, Carpenter failed in almost everything he was trying to do with Village of the Damned. Instead of being eerie, the kids are obnoxious. Instead of their actions being unsettling, they're unintentionally comical. I haven't laughed so hard when I knew I was supposed to be disturbed since 8MM, but I couldn't take Village of the Damned seriously. We're not even talking "campy" here, because it's too stupid and clumsy in its execution to really accept at face value. The shots of the children, especially when they're too young to talk, are begging you to make "yeah, that'll teach you" voices or mob style threats in children's voices. I know I shouldn't be, but Carpenter does such an awful job of making them seem menacing that there's no alternative.
Oh, and the eye glowing. I know, that's not new, but the multi-colored, not entirely clear what purpose it serves because everybody who gets it dies right up until the very end when it abruptly changes purpose. Suddenly they need it to really read your mind and not just force you to impale yourself on a broomstick or set yourself on fire. I guess it's all a matter of thinking of a brick wall very, very hard that trips their powers up. In the meantime, it's the standard "green," "orange," and "red" varieties, all of which end with an adult doing the suicide mambo so there's no clear evidence the evil alien children (SPOILER) did the deed. Even though every single adult speaks openly to each other that they know what's going on. Attaway to build suspense, Carpenter!
The parents don't help, because rather than be intimidated by the clearly alien children, they're first and only reaction is to be annoyed. That includes the preacher, played by Mark Hamill (who had recently worked with Carpenter on Body Bags), whose death scene, involving a rifle, is laughable at best. It's nothing compared to the psychic battle of wills between Christopher Reeve and his "daughter" Mara (Lindsey Haun) at the end of the film, which results in some of the most unintentionally ridiculous faces I've ever seen him make (and we're talking about the star of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace here). The scene where the children take out an entire police force, the military, and a helicopter is borderline parodic, and still I can't bring myself to believe that's actually what Carpenter was trying to do.
Village of the Damned isn't quite the nadir of Carpenter's career (that still belongs to the reigning champ, Ghost of Mars), but it's not a good movie. It's not even a "so bad it's good movie" - it's just awful. Nothing works, from the acting to the kills to the head scratching collaboration between Carpenter and Dave Davies of The Kinks. Think jangly guitars and droning synthesizers and you'll have some idea of how mismatched the pairing is. I guess the only upside is that the two main children still have careers: Thomas Dekker, who played David (the only "good" alien child) was in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Lindsey Haun had a recurring role on True Blood, so it's nice to know that John Carpenter's stupid movie didn't ruin everything. It's probably better that people remember In the Mouth of Madness and (sometimes) Vampires, because the rest of the decade was pretty much a wash for him, and the new millennium didn't get much better...
Up next: "W" is for Weekend!
Monday, May 20, 2013
There's an inconvenient truth I find myself dealing with when it comes to JJ Abrams' Star Trek movies - they are not, never were, and never will be made with Star Trek fans in mind. While the degree of "paying original fans lip service" isn't anywhere as heinous or calculating as, say the Michael Bay / Platinum Dunes model, when I hear Abrams or screenwriters Damon Lindelof (Lost) Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the Transformers trilogy) say that Star Trek: Into Darkness is a "love letter to Star Trek fans,"* I know this not to be true.
And that's okay: the 2009 re-whatever you want to call Star Trek was a breath of fresh air to a series that choked to death with the one-two punch of Nemesis and Enterprise. It was a distillation of what the average audience knew about Star Trek into an action packed, thrill a minute hero's journey that borrowed heavily from Star Wars. To be honest, it was refreshing, even if it wasn't really Star Trek. Since Star Trek is probably never going to be "Star Trek" again, I was happy enough with what they'd come up with: the adventures of an "alternate universe" original crew and Leonard Nimoy along for the ride, as needed.
I bring this up because it puts me in a strange predicament with Star Trek: Into Darkness, because when people ask me what I thought, my immediate answer is "it's pretty good." Not great, not awful, but somewhere in the high middle range. I don't think repeat viewings are going to change how I feel about the movie, because what I like about the movie (most of it) is seriously off-set by what I really, REALLY didn't like (three or four scenes).
The problem is that what would be an otherwise crackerjack adventure with the new crew of the Enterprise (on the cusp of their "five year mission") is undermined by trying to insert a very specific kind of fan service in exactly the wrong way. So if you aren't aware of the worst kept secret in the history of Abrams' misdirection, just stop right here. Don't watch any old Trek, and especially don't watch "Space Seed" or Star Trek II. There be spoilers in these here waters, and I won't be treading lightly beyond this point.
*** SERIOUSLY, IF YOU HAVEN'T MANAGED TO FIND OUT WHO BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS PLAYING YET, DO NOT CONTINUE READING***
For one, the fact that Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof did inject some political commentary into the film and in a way that's consistent with how the reboot happened, story-wise. So Nero came back from the future, destroyed most of Starfleet, destroyed Vulcan, and nearly got Earth too. Enter Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who is much more interested in defending Earth from any threats, present or future. He's even willing to go proactive, both in investing in weapons research and even pre-emptive war mongering, if need be. So he tracks down the Botany Bay and revives Khan (Cumberbatch), and uses his superior intellect to create better ships, better weapons, and to plant the seeds for war with the Klingons. Marcus doesn't trust the Klingons, so better to strike first than be caught with our pants down like when Nero arrived.
Right away they've done two very interesting things with the Star Trek mythos that make the most out of a "new" history: 1) Starfleet is a conflicted organization unsure of its place in the universe, and cooler heads are clearly not prevailing. It's a nice parallel to the post-9/11 mindset, and lest ye think I'm straining to reach that one, the film ends with a title card saluting our soldiers for the last twelve years. It never feels heavy handed or too obvious because it's a logical extension of what happened in the last movie. Rather than just move on, some of the upper echelon in Starfleet are understandably concerned about this happening again.
The second is, if you're willing to just put Space Seed aside, that they re-created Khan. They can go in any direction with him because his purpose has changed in this alternate universe. Like the new yet somewhat familiar relationships that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, et al are forging, we're no longer burdened by the Khan who tried to take the Enterprise or who ended up on Ceti Alpha V only to escape and die trying to take his revenge on Admiral Kirk. It doesn't have to happen that way. He's basically a new character who serves a different role.
Considering that the Kirk / Spock dynamic is still evolving and that Scotty has a character arc we've never really seen from the Chief Engineer before in Into Darkness, it isn't unreasonable to just take Khan and roll with him in ways we wouldn't expect. And, to some degree, they do. It's unexpected to see Kirk and Khan team up to stop Admiral Marcus and the USS Vengeance (which looks a bit like the Enterprise D crossed with the Battlestar Galactica). There's some genuine misdirection about what Khan is doing and what he wants for the first half of the film, but because his name is so recognizable, even to non-Star Trek fans, the spectre of the past kept creeping into the film, and that's where Into Star Trek: Into Darkness lost me again and again.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is in all likelihood the film held in highest regard by Star Trek fans. It may not be the most successful (that belongs to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, or as non-Trek fans call it, "the one with the whales") but you're unlikely to find a fan of the series that doesn't love it. Wrath of Khan was both a blessing and a curse for the Star Trek film franchise: it proved that Trek didn't have to be glacially paced for average moviegoers (as The Motion Picture was) and that the original series could be mined for clever extensions of stories.
The downside is that, with the exception of Star Trek IV - a movie with the cojones not to have villain but instead be about a space whale probe - every Trek movie that followed mistakenly tried to recreate the success of Khan. They're variations, to be sure, but the singular villain who takes on Kirk and company in order to do something potentially catastrophic to Starfleet / their home world / space and time / religion in general shows up in the good and the bad films to follow. The Borg Queen, Shinzon, Kruge, General Chang, and even Nero are essentially attempts to recreate Khan. While they work in different ways for their respective films, none of them come even close.
Khan casts a long shadow over Star Trek, so if you're not going to just leave him alone in the reboot universe, the best possible thing to do is at least not remind viewers that you're cribbing mercilessly from Star Trek II, especially when you happen to be making your equivalent Star Trek II. But they did, and when it happens I'm afraid that it derails Into Darkness at points when I was really enjoying the story being told.
So let's take three scenes, avoiding the shoe-horning of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) into the story - she does a fine job with the limited character she has - into the story:
1. The reveal that "John Harrison" is not actually some terrorist that Admiral Marcus sent Kirk to kill is handled, to put it mildly, badly. If it isn't evident that Cumberbatch is playing Khan when you walk in, watching him single-handedly take out a Klingon patrol and withstand a barrage of attacks from Kirk (while surrendering) should be the tip-off. It still makes sense that all of this happens because Kirk is understandably upset that "Harrison" killed Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood, whose presence will be sorely missed).
When they finally have "Harrison" behind bars, Kirk and Spock interrogate him and he reveals that his name is Khan - something that means nothing to James Kirk. However, it's meant to be a BIG reveal for the audience, which is why the camera pulls in on Cumberbatch and then holds for what feels like ten seconds so the audience can gasp. It's purely a moment for the audience and not the characters, because there's no significance for them what this means. It also doesn't work because it's so transparently a moment of "look at who it is! It's KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!! you guys!"
2. Worse still is a moment later in the film, one that desperately needed to be left on the cutting room floor. No matter how much I appreciate seeing Leonard Nimoy as Spock, when Zachary Quinto's Spock calls him on "New Vulcan" and puts it up on the viewscreen for everybody to see, what happens next is a belly flop. Nimoy is asked to skirt around an exposition dump, one that exists for no apparent reason, since what young Spock does next didn't require his older counterpart's experience at all. It's mostly a moment to remind audiences that Spock died saving the Enterprise in Star Trek II, and that Khan is very dangerous even though we're essentially dealing with a different version of the character. This brings us to...
3. The "death" scene. I'm inclined to imagine what happened in the writer's room went something like this:
"Hey, I've got an idea - let's do the 'radiation scene' in our movie, just like they did in Wrath of Khan!"
"That's a great idea! It's poignant and will really drive home the relationship between Kirk and Spock. We'll have them argue for the entire movie, and then when one dies saving the ship, it'll crystallize what their friendship really means!"
"How about this, you guys? What if, instead of Spock sacrificing himself, it's Kirk that does it? Then Kirk can tell Spock about being afraid of dying and what it means to be friends!"
"That's great! The Trek fans will NEVER see that coming!!!"
"I've got an even better idea! After Kirk dies, Spock can scream 'KHAAAAAAAAN!' And then he can chase him down and have a fist fight!"
"Whatever you guys are doing is great - but don't actually kill Kirk. Bring him back with Khan's blod or something like that - show that it brings a dead Tribble back to life or something stupid like that. I'm going to work on Star Wars - there has to be some big secret I can withhold to fuck with them for the next two years..."
The "death scene" is in Star Trek: Into Darkness specifically to remind audiences of Wrath of Khan. There's no other reason for it, and forcing it into the story when it's abundantly clear that Kirk isn't going to stay dead is no better than crass manipulation of the very fandom they claim to be writing a "love letter" to. The "death" is meaningless, rendering the point of Kirk's sacrificing comparably pointless. The first film clearly established that you can trade in on the iconic imagery of Star Trek without interrupting the flow of the story, threadbare as it may be. One thing I'd never done until Into Darkness was laugh out loud when a major character died for the "needs of the many", but it's done in this film without ever earning the relationship between Kirk and Spock.
Fortunately for Stark Trek: Into Darkness, the pace is so relentless that you just don't have much time to be bothered. Before you know it, we're off to the next setpiece (and an impressive one, at that, as the Vengeance crashes into Starfleet headquarters) and Khan, Spock, and eventually Uhura have an improbable but visually exciting fight.
But don't let that lead you to believe that it didn't linger with me, to keep me from enjoying the film as a whole. While I really liked Scotty resigning over a moral disagreement with Kirk and Spock's rationale for choosing not to deal with death emotionally, or Cumberbatch in general as Khan, it's a nagging feeling that parts of the film didn't need to be there. There's enough happening in the story, from Kirk's abandonment issues to Admiral Marcus' misguided war-mongering that we didn't need to be reminded of another, arguably better Star Trek movie. And not just those of us who represent the "Trekker / Trekkie" contingent - the average audience is done a disservice because of the insistence to adhere to a storyline the writers and director aren't beholden to any more.
I hope that wherever the third Star Trek film goes, it doesn't feel burdened to re-introduce things everybody already remembers, or if it does, that they can be integrated more consistently with the story. The five year mission begins at the end of Into Darkness, so let's see what Strange New Worlds are out there - there are plenty of great Star Trek movies we haven't already seen out there to be made...
* I must admit that I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember the actual article, but the general idea is the same.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Undefeatable falls into a category I like to call "good ass acting": you might be familiar with this, the most admired of acting styles from its many appearances in the non-sex scenes in porno. It's the kind of acting that originates from someone whose primary training came in another field - let's say, the martial arts - but who is called upon to deliver lines and carry the dramatic weight of a film, whether they can or not. Or maybe it's whether they should or not. Either way, the end result is often entertaining.
(just for clarification, when I say "good ass acting," I do not mean "good ASS acting," like you'd see in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective)
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most of the "good ass acting" in Undefeatable is a direct result of the fact that most (if not all) of the cast are or were primarily known for their fighting skills in 1993, with the notable exception of Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien), who was already a star in Hong Kong action cinema and had a string of B-movie hits in the U.S. I don't mean to insult her by saying she's probably the most naturalistic actor in the film, but it's really between her and Donna Jason (Abducted II: The Reunion).
Everybody else falls somewhere between the "wooden line delivery" and "wait, is he acting?" spectrum. It's not on the same level as, say, a Miami Connection, but I'm not exaggerating when I say the most believable scenes are when characters are fighting or practicing. Everybody in this movie, be they underground fighters, college students, or psychologists, seem to have at least rudimentary martial arts skills.
At first, it was hard to tell what the hell Undefeatable was going to be about, because before we get to Kristie and Karen's story, it seemed to be a domestic drama about a woman named Anna (Emille Davazac) and her abusive husband "Ray" (Don Niam), who moonlights (?) as a brutal "death match" fighter. At the advice of Dr. Jennifer Simmons (Jason), Anna considers leaving Ray, and ultimately decides to after he rapes her while dinner is cooking.
I hate to give a movie credit for something like this, but Undefeatable really does a great job of making a rape scene feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible, both for the victim and the audience. Yes, it SHOULD do that, because it's, well, rape, but not since Irreversible have I felt such a strong desire to fast forward to get this scene over with. Not only is it unbearably drawn out, but Ray keeps flashing back to beating a guy to death while calling Anna "Mommy." Perhaps it's a sign of how often it misses other narrative or cinematic benchmarks, but Undefeatable certainly makes you glad that only one of the many rapes that occur in the film is on-screen.
Well, with that out of the way, luckily, Anna decides to leave Ray, never to appear in the film again. Ray doesn't take to Anna leaving him so well, even though she made him dinner (salad, steak, and wine!) so he spraypaints his hair red, but that only lasts for a few scenes. Fortunately, there's also childhood trauma flashbacks, unimpressive dining room trashing, and menacing shots of checking his mail to look forward to.
Oh, and Ray begins kidnapping any woman wearing a floral print dress, whether or not they look anything like Anna, because that's how he copes. In what is arguably the silliest example this, Ray (SPOILER) kidnaps Karen while a woman who looks more like Anna than she does is hitting on him outside of a grocery store. But, he politely turns down her offer to "come to my place for a drink" so he can (DOUBLE SPOILER) kill Kristie's sister. How else would our divergent plot lines come together?
In another, mostly silly twist, Dr. Jennifer Simmons is not only Anna's psychologist but also Karen's professor, which is how Kristie gets tied up into the whole shebang. Wait, no, Ray killed her sister completely at random. THAT'S how she got tied up into it. Well, dramatic irony, I guess.
Just so we're not hanging out with uncomfortable rape man the entire time (did I mention that his name is actually "Stingray"?), Kristie takes the law into her own hands and starts beating up any underground fighter who has a style similar to the way Karen was killed. This leads to a fight on top of barrels an one using improvised construction equipment. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the fighting, but director Godfrey Ho (Bionic Ninja) - under the pseudonym "Godfrey Hall" - has a bad habit of using slow motion for parts that aren't that impressive and cutting away from the cool moves.
As fight choreography goes, there seems to be some impressive action on display, and because these are martial artists first (acting a distant second), everybody is doing their own stunts. But the shot composition and editing make many of the fight scenes look amateurish and laughable. I think I was supposed to be impressed, not chuckling.
Oh well, Undefeatable is entertaining, even if not often for its intended purpose. While line deliveries are often so wooden that I couldn't believe that was the best available take, there's a certain "can do" attitude to the film that fights hard to keep you engaged. Most of the time, it's at the very least a compliment to the awkward construction of almost every dialogue scene, which makes it kind of like the kung fu equivalent of porn. If the porn was also shot poorly with the wrong parts accentuated. Anyway, it's not often you see a cop's partner shot in the neck and his only advice to his dying friend is "breathe, dammit!"
If you've never heard of Cynthia Rothrock, and I guess I could understand how that's possible, Undefeatable probably isn't your best entry point into her filmography, but it's one you can work your way towards over a drunken weekend. Might I suggest pairing it with Tiger Claws II, featuring Expect No Mercy's Jalal Merhi?
Up next: the beginning of the end for John Carpenter...
Friday, May 17, 2013
Normally, I try to do some research about the movie I'm watching. It helps to have some context going in or when trying to relay what's happening in the film, particularly if the film doesn't make much sense. For The ABCs of Movie Masochism, I've looked at it on a case by case basis, and often it helps to give you some idea why I chose the movies I did.
But not when it comes to the 1982 "movie" Turkish Star Wars.
The only information I sought out for this film was its actual title (Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam or The Man Who Saved the World), because I knew going in that I wouldn't be watching it with subtitles. I was just going to let the film wash over me, untranslated, and see if I could figure out the story beyond its copious (and unauthorized) use of footage from Star Wars - hence its more popular online title. I had done this before with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, and was mostly able to keep up, and that movie I actually cared about.
The evil Emperor / sorcerer / villain who was (is?) on the Death Star is now also on the planet and our heroes are trying to stop him from finding... something. But first they meet an old man and a girl who has a young son. When the other people are killed by mummies and pink werewolves (or I guess just aliens, it doesn't really matter) they barely escape. There's a montage of the heroes training by karate-chopping rocks and kicking boulders until they explode, and the main hero (the one with the silver-y Eric Estrada hairdo) begins to feel a romantic attachment to the woman and her son. I guess, because the extent of their "romance" consists of the camera cutting back and forth between them, until he smirks and then she smiles. It's love, you see.
Because I don't speak Turkish let's just assume that they went to the cantina from Star Wars to start a fight and get caught by the Emperor's robots, because otherwise I'm not sure how they knew he would magically appear to taunt them and make the world turn red. The guys are split up and the main hero talks tough with the Emperor (who wants a magical brain) while the other guy is seduced by a sorceress. Like every scene in Turkish Star Wars, it ends with them fighting monsters, but this time they lose and the main hero once again finds himself in the gladiatorial battle, but with a werewolf who has tinsel on its fingertips.
Anyway, he uses his powers of off-camera trampoline jumping to defeat the wolf and once again escapes to the tomb of Jesus (and maybe Shiva, if the mural on the wall was what I thought it was) to retrieve what I'm just going to assume is the brain of Jesus and his lightning bolt sword. After he defeats two golden ninjas, he takes the sword and the brain and there's some more stolen footage from what looks like a religious epic I couldn't place (but is letterboxed where the rest of Turkish Star Wars isn't) and betrayed by his "friend" - actually a monster in disguise.
He goes to save his friend who again betrays him and takes Jesus' brain and sword to the old man, but that's the Emperor in disguise who uses the force to throw him around. Our hero saves him and the Emperor disappears, leaving the brain and sword behind, so they go find the real old man, who is dying. Then there's an explosion and the sidekick dies and the hero melts the brain and sword and uses them to create golden gauntlets. He's the man with the golden fists, ready to do battle with all of the forces of evil, conveniently waiting outside in a ravine.
With his gauntlets, golden boots, and trampoline skills, he chops monsters in half, rips their heads off, and generally makes short work of everybody, including the Emperor, who he CHOPS IN HALF. Yes, he chops him in half, and to demonstrate this, the camera shows half of his face and the rest of the screen is blocked by a piece of paper (or something to that effect). Our hero then leaves in the Millenium Falcon while the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark plays.
In fact, I really hope you like John Williams' music from Raiders of the Lost Ark, because you're going to hear it a lot during Turkish Star Wars. Whether it's the main theme, the love theme, or the music from the truck chase, the cues are re-purposed ad nausem, with only snippets of other movie scores appearing in between (I caught some from Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes and Battlestar Galactica). Strangely, there's no music from Star Wars - I guess they felt it was pushing it enough to lift entire sequences from the film, sometimes for no apparent reason.
My friends refused to watch this with me if I wouldn't watch it with subtitles, but I sincerely doubt that would have helped beyond the long, rambling prologue and maybe the speech the old man gives in a temple. It's not that Turkish Star Wars is hard to follow, per se, but so much of it is stolen from more iconic films (specifically the one in the title) that it doesn't even matter why things are happening. Nearly every sequence ends with the heroes fighting monsters, so it's not important how they got there or why. There's barely a plot and calling the characters "wafer thin" would be a gross understatement.
In the end, Turkish Star Wars is a curiosity, one that is probably more entertaining when watched in snippets online, completely devoid of context. Trying to make sense out of the last ten minutes without watching the first 80 is vastly more entertaining than sitting through the whole film, subtitles or not, and I certainly wasn't dying to find out what was actually happening when it was over.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Wes Craven's Shocker might not be the dumbest movie that I sat through during The ABCs of Movie Masochism, but it isn't for lack of effort.
Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) is Horace Pinker, a serial killer (?) who brutally murders families. He can also apparently escape unseen, even when pursued by the police, despite his noticeable limp. Meanwhile, college football wide receiver Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg, who went on to direct The Rundown*, Friday Night Lights, and Battleship) runs into the goal post during practice and develops the ability to mentally link with Pinker while dreaming. Or something. It might also be because Parker is adopted and Pinker is his real father (SPOILER FOR THE FIRST 40 MINUTES).
** Sam Scarber), assistant Pac Man (Oz: The Great and Powerful's "Theodore" Raimi), and linebacker Rhino (Richard Brooks). Pinker is electrocuted but develops the power to leap from body to body using electric pulses, or something, so he continues to hunt Parker while also killing people for kicks. Can Jonathan stop him before he becomes... um... invincible? That's also not very clear. In fact, not much about this movie makes sense, save for the reason it exists.
It's evident that Craven and Universal wanted Shocker to be the first film in a series because they don't even bother actually killing Horace Pinker off at the end. He's still ranting and raving about how Jonathan had better "never turn on a TV again!" and then the movie just ends. As you'll see below, there are a myriad of reasons that Shocker failed to kickstart a new horror franchise, the least of which is how not scary it is.
Maybe it's the incongruous heavy metal soundtrack that plays during the worst possible points, or maybe it's Mitch Pileggi's mega-acting from the first time we see him, but after the opening credits, Shocker is devoid of tension. The opening credits only really do anything because Craven is shamelessly ripping off the beginning of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Instead of making the gloves, we see someone building a television set, intercut with footage of war and various atrocities while a news reporter (John Tesh) mentions some unsolved murders. Fortunately for those who can't figure out what this has to do with a TV repairman, the guy building the TV uses a bloody knife as a screwdriver. Whew, I'm glad we cleared that up!
The cat and mouse chase scenes between Pinker and Jonathan (and there are many) are about as exciting as watching paint dry, which is all the more evident because the dream sequences lifted from Nightmare are sometimes creepy, if not at least atmospheric. So when Craven isn't ripping himself off, the movie is boring or really, really silly. Like, everybody Pinker jumps into also limps like he does, which looks really bad when a little girl does it. I guess you could say that maybe it's supposed to be funny, but I think that Craven was trying to generate suspense (and failing miserably).
What it lacks in tension, it also lacks in economy of storytelling: Shocker makes all the mistakes we now associate with comic book "origin" stories by devoting most of the film to explain how Horace Pinker becomes a supernatural villain and not enough to him being one. We spend the first thirty minutes of the movie following Jonathan and Lt. Don Parker chasing Pinker around, and the titular character doesn't even "die" until around the 40 minute mark. He doesn't realize that, as a ghost powered by electricity, that he can hide in a wall outlet until the 71 minute mark, and we're 80 minutes into Shocker before Pinker enters the television. That leaves less than 30 minutes of movie for him to go wild in.
By "go wild," I mean "go from just being a dumb movie with some weird touches" to "being one of the stupidest movies I've seen." It's almost a shame that Shocker didn't take off, because there are so many inexplicably dumb plot elements that I don't know where to begin...
There are skinned cats and black magic rituals involving Pinker hooked up with jumper cables (this is in his prison cell right before he's going to the electric chair!) and then nightmares that are also premonitions that Jonathan can use against Pinker. But wait, there's more! Jonathan's dead girlfriend goes from appearing in dreams to making a ghostly appearance to fight Pinker with the light of goodness (if it helps, think about the "time arrow" scene in Donnie Darko).
Things go from "that's just a silly idea" to "oh no, he's not going to... oh yes he is" when Craven sends Jonathan and Pinker into the television to fight. We've already seen all of the stock footage of wars and nuclear explosions, but now we have the added benefit of watching Peter Berg and Mitch Pileggi awkwardly fight as though they're IN the footage. We also finally discover why the local news broadcaster is John Tesh - they interrupt his report about the two of them fighting through the channels. Okay, it doesn't really explain why it was John Tesh (and I'm merely assuming that he was playing himself), but it happens.
And because that's not stupid enough, they also find themselves in an episode of Leave It to Beaver, an Alice Cooper video, and the movie Frankenstein, before leaping out to fight in the living room of a morbidly obese woman and her family (eating popcorn, of course) so that she can say "I've heard of audience participation but this is ridiculous!" And to top it all off, they jump back into the television to interrupt a televangelist (played by Timothy Leary) who was begging for money. Given the spiritual overtones of good defeating evil, I'm not certain why Craven felt the need to stick it to televangelists in Shocker, but since it's the second appearance in the film, I doubt it's coincidental.
While I'm talking about the stupid and / or obvious storytelling in Shocker, it's probably worth mentioning all of the electrical / water imagery in the film: Jonathan sleeps on a waterbed which is next to his TV and his vibrating chair. All three are relevant as goodness is symbolized by the water (that's how Alison contacts him after she dies, either in water or emerging from the bathroom where Pinker killed her) and the evil (obviously) by electricity, which culminates in the ridiculous scene where Jonathan's chair turns into Pinker while he's sitting on it.
Oh, and it's raining when Rhino and the rest of the football team cut the power to the town. You know, symbolism. Wes Craven is a deep dude.
I have a hard time believing that Shocker was meant to be tongue-in-cheek because it's so bad at it. The actual jokes and one-liners are obvious (for example, when Pinker bites a cop's hand, he says "finger food!") and the more absurd elements are handled in such a straightforward manner that it only increases how ridiculous they are. There's a slightly goofy tone early in the film - especially when Jonathan is at practice - but it goes away for most of the movie while the police are chasing Pinker. After he dies, the movie slowly gets weirder and weirder but maintains an earnest tone. It's hard not to watch Shocker and not be confused as to what the hell you're seeing.
Shocker's story is like comparing the first Nightmare on Elm Street to the first episode of Freddy's Nightmares, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," which is about Fred Krueger's trial and culminates in him being burned alive. It was the back story nobody needed, just like the first 2/3rds of Shocker. Appropriately, Craven (who wrote the episode in question) borrows "No More Mr. Nice Guy" for Shocker: a cover of the Alice Cooper song (by Megadeth) plays DURING the scene when Pinker is scheduled for electrocution, and then Pinker says it to Jonathan. IMDB has it listed an an "alternate title," so maybe Wes Craven felt it was a nice way to subliminally connect his new horror franchise killer to his most famous. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it didn't work.
This is not to say things didn't work out for Craven; after unsuccessfully trying to create a new franchise (not usually the best idea), he struck gold with the meta-slasher Scream and turned it into a series that people remember as well as they do A Nightmare on Elm Street. Okay, that's maybe stretching it a little, but for a certain generation he's the dude who brought you Ghostface and not Freddy. Stupid millennials.But the point is that it worked out for him and eventually (as they do with all of his movies), someone will remake Shocker. I may live to eat these words, but I find it hard to imagine that it could be any stupider than the original, which is the only reason anybody remembers Shocker in the first place.
* Featuring The Last Stand and Red Heat's Arnold Schwarzenegger
** Featuring Bullet to the Head's Sylvester Stallone.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
When I was crowd-sourcing suggestions for The ABCs of Movie Masochism, I asked for a "terrible romantic comedy" to round out the genres being covered. In jest, someone suggested Raw Deal, but I always get that movie mixed up with Red Heat, which is kind of a romantic comedy, right?
Twenty five years before he returned to the big screens with Bullet to the Head, Walter Hill (The Warriors) brought audiences another mismatched buddy cop movie with an edge, Red Heat. Watching them in (reasonably) close proximity, it's hard not to notice many similarities between the two. Yes, most "buddy cop" movies are about clashing styles between the two leads, set in an iconic city, but it's hard not to see Bullet to the Head as a "lesser than" to Red Heat. No offense to Sylvester Stallone or New Orleans, but let's take a look at what Hill brought us back in 88.
The Last Stand) plays Soviet Captain Ivan Danko, a no nonsense cop in Moscow who we meet in an undercover sting in a bath house. He burns his hand to prove some bad guys that he's no a cop, and then proceeds to beat the hell out of them outside in the snow. Because this is Arnold and you need to remind people of his indomitable prowess early on, but to Hill's credit, you know right away not to mess with this Russian. His partner is killed while trying to arrest drug dealer Viktor Rostavili (the immediately recognizable Ed O'Ross) who then flees to Chicago to avoid Danko.
When Danko's superiors send him to the windy city to pursue Vikor (with lethal force, if necessary), he's paired up with Det. Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi). Ridzik just busted a few drug dealers who were working with / for Viktor, so their cases line up, even if they clash repeatedly over cultural difference, police procedures, and detective work. Ridzik is considered something of a "loose cannon" in his own department, but Danko's blatant disregard for Miranda rights or any form of "police procedure" threatens his already tenuous standing.
I guess it's worth mentioning to people born after Red Heat came out (and I know a few of you) that once upon a time the U.S.'s number one enemy was Communist Russia (the USSR) and that the idea of teaming up a Soviet cop with an American cop was novel storytelling. Within a few years of Walter Hill filming in Moscow (true story), Mr. Gorbachev would indeed "tear down this wall" in Berlin and symbolically bring down the Iron Curtain and this would happen, and I have to wonder what Russian audiences thought when they saw their best and brightest exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, he was a big star but... really? And remember, this was three years after Swedish Dolph Lundgren played Ivan Drago, the previous example of Soviet superiority in Rocky IV.
Where was I going with that? Just an observation, I guess. I mean, if you're Walter Hill and Arnold is available, maybe you just said "what the hell." They front load it with statues of Marx and Lenin and play on how little Americans know about the Soviet Union, and then let John Belushi's brother make fun of it for the next 90 minutes.
There are a lot of (mostly unfunny) jokes told by Belushi about Soviets and communism and how that doesn't "work" for us in the United States. Danko is portrayed as almost fascistic in his pursuit of Viktor, makes fun of Belushi's 44 Magnum (including a "Who's Dirty Harry?" joke) and for some reason thinks Miranda is an actual woman... So okay, the same lame "we're different" wisecracks I groaned at during Bullet to the Head are on full display. I guess I was more lenient this time because I knew Jim Belushi wasn't going to be funny or charismatic.
(There is one kind of funny joke, when Ridzik correctly identifies how Danko likes his tea while in a diner. When Danko inquiries how he knew, he replies that he's "seen Doctor Zhivago." It was out of left field enough that I chuckled.)
Well, Red Heat is still fun, even if the jokes fall flat (maybe I just don't quite jibe with Walter Hill's sense of humor, which tends to be vaguely misogynistic - I can't keep track of how many times woman are referred to as "bitches" in the movie - and full of lame observations you'd hear in hack-y comedy routines. On the other hand, the action is pretty good and Hill manages to make a medium speed game of chicken between two buses still be tense. The gunfights are pretty good and Schwarzenegger is surprisingly convincing as a Russian.
Red Heat also has quite an impressive cast of familiar faces that keep things moving along when the tiresome "banter" between Belushi and Schwarzenegger begins to tax the patience. So in addition to Ed O'Ross (seriously, if you don't recognize his face immediately, have a look at how many movies he's in that you've probably seen), Red Heat also features Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) as the exasperated police chief, Larry Fishburne (Apocalypse Now) as a by-the-book cop looking to ruin Ridzik, Gina Gershon (Killer Joe) as Viktor's American wife, Richard Bright (The Ref) as Belushi's partner (also killed by Viktor's men), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Natural Born Killers) as the desk clerk at Danko's hotel, Mike Hagerty (Wayne's World) as Ridzik's brother-in-law, Brion James (Blade Runner) as a perp who Danko "interrogates," and Sven-Ole Thorsen (Mallrats) as Nikolai. Sorry, I don't quite remember who that was but I'm guessing it's someone Danko fights early in the movie.
I was hoping that Red Heat might have a bit more 80s cheese than it did, but if I'm comparing this to Bullet to the Head - and I sort of have to considering they're both Walter Hill movies with roughly similar premises - I'll give the edge to Red Heat. Chicago is definitely more interesting as a backdrop than New Orleans was in Bullet to the Head (they even film inside of Joliet), and Belushi at least delivers his non-stop barrage of shitty one-liners with a sense of exasperation. While I enjoy the older Stallone, he can't compete with Arnold (arguably) in his prime, and the way the bus chase ends is almost worth the price of admission. Game, set, and match to Red Heat.
Up next: Wes Craven tries to start a new horror franchise after A Nightmare on Elm Street but before Scream. Can you guess what it is? (Hint: not The Hills Have Eyes 2).
Monday, May 6, 2013
In the continuing effort to maintain a "Larry Cohen" presence on the Blogorium, it only made sense to include his 1982 film Q - The Winged Serpent (aka "Q") in The ABCs of Movie Masochism. While it may not be as well known as The Stuff or It's Alive or even just movies Cohen wrote like Maniac Cop, I thought it deserved a place in the alphabet of film reviews. Also, it starts with Q - all by itself, in fact. Take that, The Quiet Man!
Q - The Winged Serpent is often trying to hold together three separate movies together, even if they barely fit together when, in theory, they should all nicely dovetail into one story:
First is a neo-noir-ish story about a down on his luck guy named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), who really just wants to play piano in a bar but keeps getting dragged into robberies because they pay. Jimmy's convinced that he can hit the big time and then enjoy the easy life, even though it's clear to the audience - not to mention his much beleaguered girlfriend (Candy Clark) - that he's a total loser. When the heist he agrees to drive for goes south, Jimmy - who has strongarmed into joining the robbery - loses the diamonds, is hit by a car, and discovers that his lawyer won't return his calls. This, of course, after he walks to the Chrysler building to go to his office. But instead of legal representation, he runs into a security guard happy to chase him up to the top of the building...
Meanwhile, two cops who have seen it all. played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, are busting noses and talking shit to any perp who crosses their path. They get roped into investigating a series of ritualistic murders that involve the victim being skinned alive, with no apparent motive behind the killings. When Shepard (Carradine) follows a hunch to the natural history museum, he discovers that rituals much like the murders taking place around New York resemble sacrifices made to the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl.
Meanwhile meanwhile, a giant flying lizard monster is picking up people and eating them - if they're lucky - mostly at random but generally speaking if they happen to be on top of a building. It doesn't care much about subtlety, so body parts drop onto the street and freak people out. The police are convinced it's some kind of big bird or something, but Shepard begins to wonder if their "flying lizard" might be Quetzlcoatl. Could the rituals be tied to the appearance of this monster?
The answer is.... maybe? The people doing the murdering seem to think so, but the titular "Q" seems to be tooling around town whether or not the sacrifices are being committed, so I guess it's up to how you interpret the ritual's meaning. Or something. I don't think it was part of the plan for Quetzlcoatl to nest at the top of the Chrysler building, but that sure is what Jimmy Quinn finds when he's hiding out from a security guard who gives up almost immediately.
Here's where you'd think everything would tie together - see, Shepard goes to the bar where Jimmy is trying out his "piano man" routine one night, so we know they're going to cross paths again. The monster is pretty much just there to punctuate endless "investigation" scenes so that we can see Q kill a guy watching someone do push-ups or a construction worker who has his lunch stolen by the foreman - don't forget the gratudity from a topless sunbather! But seriously, what's going on with this movie?
Instead of pulling everything together, Cohen has Quinn lure two mobsters up to the top of the building to be killed by the winged serpent, then Jimmy goes home and abuses his girlfriend and eventually ends up in the police station for questioning, when he FINALLY decides to tell them that he knows what's been eating people. But only if they make a deal with him wherein he's not culpable for any crime he may have committed or ever will commit. Oh, and also money and exclusive picture rights.
Then we eventually get the police to the Chrysler building while John Shaft - er, Powell - is hunting down the ritual killer with the help of an undercover cop dressed as a mime wearing an Amadeus shirt and vest. And then *SPOILER* Q just up and eats Richard Roundtree! From what I can tell, Shepard NEVER learns this pretty important fact. That, or he's so jaded by his years on the force that the death of the one other cop he seems to get along with doesn't even faze him. It could go either way with this movie.
It all eventually comes together, probably not in the order you expect, but by that point you're wondering what the point of Q - The Winged Serpent was. It's not a monster movie, or a gritty procedural, or even much of a neo-noir. Cohen tries to make it all three, but it's one too many genres to be juggling on a low budget, and the end result isn't as much fun as you'd hope for.
There are still things to enjoy - the monster is pretty cool and used minimally for long enough that it doesn't get silly. Cohen also shoots the movie on the real streets of New York, often with what I'd like to believe was a lack of permits. The shots are quick, especially around the heist (at Neil's Diamonds), which also uses the low budget to its advantage.
Fans of Reservoir Dogs will appreciate the economy of the jewel store robbery, which is told entirely from the outside of the building, so that the audience never sees how things go wrong, only Quinn's reaction as he comes hurtling outside with a briefcase full of purloined goods. It's worth noting that he's hit by the car first, which is what causes him to lose the briefcase in the street, but Jimmy never even bothers trying to find it. He just runs to a payphone to call his lawyer. Sure, we know he's a cowardly driver who didn't want to carry a gun or go in, but not looking for the jewelry is just silly.
Q - The Winged Serpent probably has just enough going for it to recommend, and it can be entertaining in fits and spurts. There's just a lot of excess fat in the movie, and trimming it down from 93 minutes to 80 or so might have helped considerably. Still, you get to see John Shaft and Kwai Chang Caine as buddy cops and Michael Moriarty play the most unlikable protagonist you're ever going to see. Other than Candy Clark, I'm not really sure which character in this movie we're supposed to be sympathizing with. Unless it's Quetzlcoatl.
Yeah, that has to be it. Clearly Quetzlcoatl is the hero of this film. I mean, that's why it ends the way it does, right?
Up Next: a buddy cop movie from Walter Hill that's much better than Bullet to the Head. Stay tuned...
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Here's an helpful nugget for those of you who are unfamiliar with Purple Noon (Plein soleil): in addition to being able to sing the title like it's a Prince song, it's the first cinematic adaptation of a Tom Ripley novel. You might recognize said character from his other appearances on film, most notably in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wim Wender's The American Friend, or Liliana Cavani's* Ripley's Game.
Instead of Matt Damon or Dennis Hopper or John Malkovich, the Tom Ripley in René Clément (Is Paris Burning?)'s adaptation is the dashing Alain Delon (Le Samouraï). Clément wrote and directed Purple Noon five years after the publication of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and until very recently I must admit that I didn't know that it existed. But I'm glad I do now, because I had the opportunity to watch it and it's pretty damn good.
While I never did get around to watching Minghella's 1999 adaptation - think of it as a byproduct of a late 90's aversion to Matt Damon that I've long since gotten over - I did read Highsmith's novel many years ago, and remembered enough of it to notice the changes in Clément's film. For the most part, they're minor ones: a character dropped here or there, changing a few names and locations, but mostly the story is intact through the middle of the film.
The biggest changes come at the beginning and the end, one of which I'm more comfortable addressing than the other. Normally the Cap'n could care less about spoiling movies for you, but as I imagine some of you might actually want to see Purple Noon - and enjoy it, too - now that you know its background, I'll skirt cautiously around how the ending differs from the novel (and, since I looked it up, the ending of the 1999 version). Just in case.
Tom and Philippe eventually return to Mongibelo, where Greenleaf''s girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt) - who IS French (and implies will be going back to Paris later in the film) - is, living in the carefree playboy's house. Ripley is still trying to bring Philippe back to San Francisco to collect $5,000 from Greenleaf's father, but a taste of the good life gives him an idea. On a boat ride to Taorima, Italy, Ripley takes advantage of a prank gone awry to drive a wedge between Marge and Philippe, and when they're finally alone on the boat, he kills Greenleaf and buries the body at sea. Ripley - a master con artist - assumes Philippe's identity, forges letters and impersonates his victim well enough to fool Marge into thinking that her boyfriend ran away without her. Eventually, Ripley's game runs into a few hiccups as he must contend with Philippe's friends and Italian police interested in a murder of desperation.
It's been long enough since I read the book that there were still a few nice surprises, ones I can't remember whether they came from the novel or not. Philippe essentially seals his fate by exposing Ripley's plan on the boat, and once Marge demands to be left at a nearby port, he and Tom sit down and play out the logistics of murdering someone and stealing their identity, up to a fatal game of very high stakes poker. While the murder is easy, Ripley nearly takes himself out with the body, falling into the choppy waves and just barely climbing back onto the yacht (named, of course, Marge).
Delon is certainly a more handsome Tom Ripley and looks less like he'd be trying to imitate Philippe (Ronet only looks slightly older and more tanned) than simply assume his personality. I don't necessarily buy that this Tom Ripley could easily physically slip into the role - even during a scene early on where Tom is wearing his clothes and imitating his voice and hairstyle - but he strikes a more sinister figure. He simply doesn't care about anybody and will drop everything if he thinks his cover is blown, save for one exception.
This moves us towards the end of the film, so if you want to avoid SPOILERS, just go rent Purple Noon right now. Clément does downplay the homoerotic undertones of the relationship between Tom and Dickie from the novel, to the point that Ripley instead fixates on stealing Marge away from her dead lover. Of course, she doesn't know Philippe is dead, but Tom takes full advantage of being her only "link" to the man she thinks is hiding from her, and slowly he ingratiates himself into her heart. The major changes near the end have more to do with Ripley choosing Philippe's last act before "suicide" to be to will his fortune to Marge, much to the consternation of Mr. Greenleaf.
Ripley also decides to return to Mongibelo, despite having managed to clear himself of any serious suspicion from the police, solely for the purpose of wooing Marge. At first, it appears he's succeeded, but when Ripley's insistence on selling the boat of his murdered "friend" turns out to be carrying a surprise, the film takes a more conventional turn in its closing. I suppose it's fair - even for 1960, to let Tom Ripley get away rich, albeit paranoid, is too subversive for conventional cinema. As it is, Clément gets away with a lot as it is - instead of killing Freddy Miles with an ashtray, Ripley clubs him to death with a statue of the Buddha, which I can hardly imagine isn't meant to have some degree of irony attached. While there is a mystery, we suppose, it always seems so easy for Tom Ripley to stay one step ahead, and the more conventional ending serves up an ironic twist for our anti-hero. Justice is served, even if it might complicate the other Ripley stories to come.
Ah well, Purple Noon is an engaging, at times suspenseful film with beautiful cinematography and some impressive sections in small quarters (in particular, Clément uses the tiny yacht to maximum effect and creates a sense of claustrophobia even out in open water). I was amazed at how quickly the story moved for nearly two hours, and found myself caught up again, despite recalling many of the major beats. Call Purple Noon a happy discovery - rarely am I so glad to have been ignorant of cinematic adaptations, but it did mean I got a pleasant surprise out of it.
* As I mentioned in the review for The Night Porter, I didn't even realize that Cavani had directed another film about Tom Ripley when I selected Purple Noon for the list. Tenuous connections live on!