Friday, July 27, 2012

Netflix Roulette: Snow White: A Tale of Terror

I'm kind of in a dull spot for my moviegoing year. There's not much playing in easy reach right now that I want to see, let alone write about (I'll pass on the Seth McFarland teddy bear atrocity, thank you very much) and my attention at home has been diverted by the fact that Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations showed up on Netflix. So please pardon my occasional silence right now. In the mean time, I dusted off the ol' roulette wheel and hauled it down from the attic. Wheel of fortune, spin, spin, spin, tell me the movie I shall win...

Well, nothing so baroque as all that. The movie my algorithm gave me was Snow White: A Tale of Terror (directed by Michael Cohn), which went direct to video back in 1997 in spite of having Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen. (The roulette wheel apparently has a sense of humor, given that its first spin of this year gives me yet another version of Snow White, a story lately duking it out in dueling versions at the multiplexes.) This version of the story re-frames the Grimm's story as a Gothic horror story. It's an interpretation not entirely out of keeping with the original, though this film really only has a passing acquaintance with the Brothers Grimm.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dark Before Dawn

There's a principle in criticism called "The Incoherent Text" (first coined by critic Robin Wood). That principle holds that one of the dominant storytelling modes in film is one in which several conflicting ideologies are in place such that the resulting contradictions render the movie in question incoherent (and narratively null). The classic example that Wood cites is Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickell is simultaneously reviled and exalted. I couldn't help but think of Wood and the incoherent text as I watched The Dark Knight Rises (2012, directed by Christopher Nolan), which builds on the previous film's dalliances with fascism by attempting to subvert that fascism while simultaneously embracing it. Like its predecessor, it seems to have bottled something of the zeitgeist without really understanding what any of it means. Or maybe its makers just don't care.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Casualty Fridays

Bear with me on this: I have an insane desire to make a Friday the 13th sequel. This may come as a surprise to some of the people who know me and know of my longstanding dislike of the Friday the 13th movies, but I have an idea and it's one that refuses to be flushed from the drain at the bottom of my hindbrain. It goes something like this: a reporter for a big city newspaper notices a pattern to the periodic massacres at Camp Crystal Lake, and comes to town to investigate. She's stonewalled by the locals, of course, except for the hotshot new sheriff, who has only lived there for a handful of years. He's not "one of them" yet, if you catch my drift. Small towns are insular, after all. In the course of digging through old newspapers at the library and through old case files at the sheriff's office, a pattern emerges that dates back much, much farther than Jason Voorhees's unfortunate swimming accident. Jason, it seems, was chosen for his role by something that lives in the lake. He's its herald. Meanwhile, the killings have begun again, and our intrepid heroes suspect that they're building to something, something awful. The stars are right. The thing in the lake is waking up, and Crystal lake disgorges its dead, to rampage as an army of unstoppable undead murderers. The lurker in the lake then rises to devour the sun. The end.

I realize, of course, that Jason's legion of fans would never forgive me, but let's be real, here: once Jason started appearing in monster team-ups and was projected into space, there's not really a lot of essential essence to the character that can really be violated.

I'm sure that this probably makes me a bad horror fan, but I really don't like slasher movies. I say that, knowing full well that there's nuance to this statement. It's odd, too, given that I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time to become a fan of slasher movies. Halloween came out when I was 12. The main wave of the slasher movie peaked when I was 15 or sixteen. I was the prime audience for them. But somehow, they never took hold of my affections. It's not like I wasn't a fan of violent movies at the time. Not at all. I LOVED the other horror movies that came out circa 1980. It was ground zero for the new horror masters like Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero, and I loved most of their movies. Hell, I probably loved all of their movies at the time, and I still love most them. But not the slashers.

I remember watching the first Friday the 13th (1980, directed by Sean S. Cunningham) on cable (the first of the Fridays I saw in the theater was part 3). I stayed up until two in the morning to see it. This was back when HBO was squeamish about showing hard R rated movies before 10 pm, and exploitation movies like this one showed even later as a rule. I don't remember watching it with my brothers (and I certainly wouldn't have watched it with my parents). I vaguely remember staying up even later than the movie to catch the feature afterwards, which I recall being Without Warning with Jack Palance and Cameron Mitchell. I liked that movie better than Friday the 13th. It had an alien big game hunter and nasty little parasites that it threw like shuriken. Friday the 13th had a bunch of dumb kids being bumped off one after another in a replay of Halloween, only without John Carpenter's sense of style and restraint. I remember the trailers for the film, too: they played all over independent television back then, and occasionally on the network stations after the networks were shut down for the night. The trailers made the film look fantastic (even if they had a Crown International feel to them rather than a big studio look). Part of my reaction to the movie may have some element of feeling cheated by the trailer. Exploitation trailers were masters of bait and switch.

I think I may have seen the film a second time in a party atmosphere sometime in 1983. My friends at the time were big into all night horror marathons, the video revolution still being somewhat novel. My family had a VCR by then, a top loader. I remember checking out of the film and dozing. It happened sometimes during these sessions. Over the years, my memory of the film has become a fractured thing. I remembered individual images, but not the movie as a whole. I remembered Kevin Bacon getting skewered from under the bed. I remembered the shock moment at the end. I remembered the creepy old man. Not much else.

So I sat down this morning--I'm writing this on Friday, July 13, 2012--to re-watch the movie with the the preconception that it's a rotten movie. I've been badmouthing the thing for years and I needed to see for myself if I'm talking out of my ass when I do this. My younger self is an unreliable witness sometimes, and I wanted to give the movie a fair shake. I really did...

Monday, July 09, 2012

Keys to the Kingdom

I'm waiting for Wes Anderson's signature style to wear out its welcome with critics and audiences in the same way that Tim Burton's style seems to have. It's equally arch, equally precocious, and equally removed from anything approaching naturalism. Maybe it's a matter of scale. Anderson makes small, indie movies (albeit with big stars). Burton makes blockbusters. In truth, I was kind of tired of Anderson after Rushmore. And yet, there I was queuing up four times for Moonrise Kingdom (2012), not because I wanted to see it multiple times, but because my local art house kept selling out of the damned thing. It suddenly became a mission to see the film at all. Withholding it only made me more determined. I told the ticket taker that it better damned well be worth it or else I would write nasty things in my blog about them. (Not that I would do that. I love my local art house).

I'm not really sure what I think of Moonrise Kingdom. It's as arch and precocious as Anderson's other films. Perhaps moreso. But for some reason, I liked it more than I've liked his other films. Maybe it's the inclusion of Francoise Hardy on the soundtrack of a key scene. Maybe it's the way it begins and ends with a deconstruction of the music (and if you don't stay for the entire credits, you miss one of the film's signature delights along these lines). As far as writing about the film, though? Man, that's hard. I'm not entirely sure where to begin or even what angle to take.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Itsy Bitsy Spider

I was having a conversation last week about superheroes and their arch-nemeses with a friend of mine on Twitter. My friend was wondering if Black Manta was Aquaman's arch-nemesis (I believe that he is). In truth, I can't name any of Aquaman's other enemies. I only know Black Manta because he was in the Legion of Doom on Superfriends (and is prominent in the currently-running Young Justice cartoon). Coincidentally, there was a story on IO9 this week suggesting that there are really only a handful of A-list superheroes. Charlie is probably right about that, though I think she significantly undersells Wonder Woman. In any event, I began thinking that there's a correlation. Is a deep and interesting rogues gallery the hallmark of an A-list superhero? It might be. Look at Batman: by the fifth big screen episode, without repeating ANY of the previous villains, they were still populating the movie with interesting villains (Ra's Al-Gul and The Scarecrow), and they still haven't exhausted them. The same thing can be said of Spider-Man. Even throwing them at the screen three at a time, as Spider-Man 3 did, did not exhaust them. And here we are in 2012 with a rebooted franchise and they've provided one of Spidey's major villains, one that hasn't been on screen before. Spidey, it seems, is on the A-List.

Like Batman Begins before it, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) grasps an essential fact about Spider-Man: so long as you stick to the basic origin (and don't do anything egregiously stupid like hire Joel Schumacher to direct your movie), you can perform all kinds of variations on the theme. The sheer volume of material you can work with from fifty years of Spider-man stories means that you can pick and choose all sorts of elements that don't match up with other interpretations while still hewing to the canon of the character, and while still making a movie that's recognizably about the same character. This movie doesn't much resemble the Raimi movies (much), but it's still Spider-man. This is a neat trick.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Dark Knight Revisited

The third film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is due out in a couple of weeks. I thought I'd revisit my old review of the previous installment as a warm-up. This is slightly different than the version of this that ran on my old web site. I've had four years to think about this movie. I'm a bit less sanguine about it than I was at the time and at the time I already found it troubling. I'm less inclined to give The Dark Knight's political implications as much of a pass these days as I was four years ago, but I won't get into that, I guess.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Mothers and Daughters

Pixar's new film, Brave (2012, directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell) is their first with a female protagonist. It's a little disappointing that it's a "princess" movie, but these things cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so I can't blame them for doing something "safe." It's a little bit more disappointing that the movie's original writer/director, Brenda Chapman was removed from the project, but I'll not speculate as to the reasons. In one respect, though, Brave is significantly different from the traditional Disney princess movie: it's about mothers and daughters. Let's face it, Disney has an awful track record when it comes to mothers. Either they get shot by the hunters, chained up, or killed off before the movie even begins. The only significant mother figures in Disney's animated films are the wicked stepmothers, and you know how that ends. Pixar, to their credit, has signficant female characters in movies like The Incredibles (which deals tangentially with mother/daughter relationships) and Finding Nemo (though it fridges its mom character in the first five minutes). But never in the lead. They tend to be smurfettes. Brave, for all its faults, actually deals with "normal" relationships between mothers and daughters in the foreground as the driving engine of its plot, though, obviously, "normal" is a matter of degrees when you're talking about fantasy filmmaking.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ghost of a Chance

If its IMDB rating--currently at 4.8 out of 10--is any indication, John Carpenter's fanboys don't much like Ghosts of Mars (2001). Certainly, the film has been trampled by people who actually appeared in it (Ice Cube calls it "unwatchable") and it sent its director into a decade long retirement. So, yeah, it's a debacle. But is it any good? Well, I don't know that I'd go quite that far, but it's not as bad as all that. It's certainly a return to form of a type, given that its basic plot returns Carpenter to Assault on Precinct 13 and, ultimately, Rio Bravo.

The plot of the film finds badass cop Melanie Ballard dispatched with her team to escort accused murderer "Desolation" Williams to stand trial for his crimes. Melanie is actually second in command. Her superior on the team is Commander Helena Braddock. She's also paired with Sgt. Jericho Butler, a fellow badass. The other team members are rookies. Williams himself is being held at a remote mining outpost where scientists have made some kind of "significant" find. That find turns out to the "ghosts" of Mars, who are completely hostile to alien invaders. They "possess" unfortunate humans and drive them into a homicidal frenzy. Our heroes must make common cause with the prisoners in order to defend their position, then fight their way to safety...

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Dam the Torpedoes

You know the big set piece at the end of Star Wars where the rebel X-wings are trying to drop their charges in the hole on the Death Star? Exciting, right? That's a scene only one of the movie brats could have invented. Lucas, being one of the movie brats, is basically saying to a savvy audience: I've seen more movies than you have and I've absorbed all of them, because that sequence is totally a reinvention of the bouncing bomb sequences from The Dam Busters (1955, directed by Michael Anderson). I know that I'm not saying anything new here. Star Wars, after all, is cobbled together from bits and pieces from the entire history of movies. I just think it's interesting that for a short window of time, there was a generation of movie directors to whom the entire history of cinema was a vast playground. The Dam Busters is one of those very British "how we won the war" movies that has more than a little in common with Angels One Five or The Cruel Sea or (more particularly) David Lean's Breaking the Sound Barrier. It's part procedural, part men on a mission movie. It's also the 1955 British version of a special effects spectacular. There's a reason Lucas was cribbing from it. Who needs animatics and storyboards when you have whole filmed sequences from which to draw inspiration.