Sunday, December 30, 2007

Todd and the Future of Tim

this is my favorite picture of him

I hadn't realized that Sweeney Todd was rated 'R' until after I saw it, and it comes as little surprise considering the copious bloodshed. This is Tim Burton's second r-rated picture since Ed Wood, which only received that classification through Bela Lugosi's foul mouth and possibly some socially conservative jitters about cross-dressing. This is also Tim Burton's first GREAT movie since Wood. Though the uneven Mars Attacks! has many fine moments, the reluctant studio-approved auteur's output over the past 10 years has been mediocre at best. I've theorized a few reasons for this:

1) Burton's influence in bringing an animator's reality-bending sensibility to his material has been so strong that virtually every film uses "Burtonesque" art direction or cartoon physics, thanks to the ease of CGI...

2) Burton's influence in bridging the gap between what's considered kiddie or adult material - ie, Pee-Wee and Batman - helped paved the way for the perpetual adolescence of Hollywood today, with all it's wizards and superheroes...

3) The financial failure of Mars Attacks! might have scared Burton into choosing "bankable" material, like a Planet of the Apes or Willy Wonka remake, or another stop-motion film like Corpse Bride, or a Forrest Gump retread like Big Fish...these have all been pretty uninspiring, and create the impression that he's been content to work simply as a hired hand, coating the Tim Burton Touch superficially upon whatever licensed property calls for it...

In the case of Sweeney Todd, Burton has proven my third theory wrong insofar as bringing in his aesthetic (which now practically includes Johnny Depp as a given lead) and making something truly compelling. I'll admit I had the advantage of experiencing the Sweeney musical for the first time with this film, bringing no expectations to judge it against. Ordinarily I hate the type of talking/singing musical style used throughout, but it makes a world of difference with a skilled author like Stephen Sondheim behind it, and not, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Depp's performance is also something of a relief. After the zaniness of three Pirates of the Carribbean movies and the dull obviousness of his crazy take on Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd is nearly catatonic by comparison, only coming out of his shell in moments of bloodlust and vengeance. Like the character, the film itself could have been substantially camped up and thereby more family-friendly in the hands of a Ron Howard or a Joel Schumacher or any other mediocre stylist-for-hire, the type Burton was in danger of becoming.

It may be the case of a stopped watch being right twice a day, but the threshold Burton has crossed is that into truly adult material, something he began with Ed Wood and then put on hold until now. Having perfected the modern all-ages fantasy film in the first phase of his career, he ended it with Wood, a biopic based upon real persons and events, and without surreal stylization. The second phase has essentially been a regressive repetition of the first, doing fantasy material that can't possibly stand out from the glut of similar Hollywood stuff he helped promulgate. Should Burton choose to embrace the darkness that he has been unfairly accused of since the beginning of his career, and make more films dealing in the truly macabre and diabolical the way Sweeney does (not the cutesy variety seen in Corpse Bride) he could re-establish himself as an important and exciting figure in the American film scene.

On the other hand, IMDB says his next film is a feature length version of his 1984 short film Frankenweenie, so perhaps not just yet. One can hope.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Shock Treatment Assessment

The elusive follow-up to Rocky Horror. Richard O'Brien, the author of the original and crazy bald doctor in this trailer, compared the use of a new Brad and Janet without any other character holdovers (but some cast) from Rocky Horror to Gulliver's Travels and the misconception that Jonathan Swift's story ended in the land of the Lilliputians. The truth is that what began as a direct sequel to Rocky Horror had most of the songs rewritten into a new story when Tim Curry didn't want to encourage his own typecasting.

Interestingly the final iteration came when because of an actor's strike in Hollywood making location filming in Texas impossible, the story was confined to a giant soundstage in England. Since the original story concerned Brad and Janet's marital manipulation by the shadowy president of a local TV studio (and fast food empire) and his demented staff of fake doctors, game show hosts and bimbos, the story was now rewritten to take place entirely in the TV studio itself.

This results in a good premise which is disappointingly half-there and begrudgingly so, since it was unplanned. There's two small but effective details to suggest the dystopic nature of things, first the fact that the TV studio audience simply sleeps in their seats at night, and second, the way Janet and her parents seem to live on a set somewhere inside the studio building. I remember a lot of plot descriptions saying that Brad and Janet "returned" to their town of Denton "to discover it's become a giant TV studio," and that townspeople "run from their seats to the stage," as if to take turns being the audience, and the performers. Both those ideas could've helped the scattershot satire coalesce.

The basic aesthetics do the conceptual side justice. The cinematography employs lots of video-within-film, cheesy TV angles, sitcom imagery and a fake gameshow, but it never feels more compelling than the mall scene from David Byrne's True Stories, which come to think of it is one of those rare "music movies" and not a "musical."

This one certainly is, and half the songs are winners. What diminishes them all in impact tends to be their arbitrary and the story. Joe Bob Briggs pointed out the difference between "plot" and "story" when he'd quip his dismissal, "Too much plot getting in the way of the story." Musicals don't really ever have plots, even the bad ones, so the equivalent of a bad musical plot is a schizo split between what's happening to the characters, and why they sing.

For all this, however, it simply never congeals into anything but the sum of it's parts. Dame Edna has a really annoying, non-singing (thank god) but prominent role as a game show host, and the disorganized nature of everything (even by Rocky Horror's 3rd act standards) seriously impedes the ability to enjoy the whole thing start to finish. It has it's moments, and they're probably best seen separately on YouTube.

Let's just say I can see why people didn't show up in their underwear for this one.

Here's the best song, with visuals very similar to "Love For Sale" in True Stories. All the songs have the vague twinge of post-punk, which is fun. Singing about kitchen appliances is pretty damn Devo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bat-Mania update

The last post in this series, I threw down the gauntlet that Heath Ledger as the Joker might warrant further comment. He does, mainly to prove that for all the discussion of Batman as a "realistic" and serious character, the batnerd establishment is not clamoring for the next absurdly expository story about Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne. All the hype has still been about the Joker.

As an aside, let me point something out: no one cares about these movies now but the nerd establishments, and we are all nerds now. CGI fantasy films are the only films that make MONEY, and since it's infantile material to begin with and the whole family can go, they do extremely well. Cartoonist Peter Bagge illustrated the point beautifully in this Reason Magazine cartoon

The first 7 minutes of what they used to call the first reel in days when this material was relegated to the drive-in is online now. As is the official trailer.

David Goyer's stiff and lame dialogue aside, wasn't it a far more influential time for Hollywood when Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson were cast? Their casting was mainstream movie news, as opposed to today, when Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are supposed to seamlessly blend into their hermetic, nerd genuflecting world.

These are the most generic performances and dialogue imaginable. It's tailor made for an undiscriminating fan base who demand reverence to an ideal portrayal that's constantly changing. If any ac-TOR were to stand out too much, it would offend their delicate sensibilities. Hence the revisionist complaint that Jack Nicholson was too much like Jack Nicholson, and not The Joker.


Get a load of that dialogue, too:

- "So why do they call him The Joker?"

- "I hear he wears makeup"

- "Makeup?"

- "Yeah, to scare people!"

"Obviously we don't want you doin' anything with your hands, other than hanging on for dear life!"

"I guess The Joker's as crazy as they say!"

..............You know, when cornball dialogue happens in a totally artificial fantasy world, it's one thing. But when it happens in a pseudo-realistic world, that's creative self-sabotage on a deep and abiding level.

Who'd have thought THIS exchange:

"It's Japanese"

"How do you know that?"

"'Cause I bought it in Japan"

...Would come off as deft compared to the non-exchanges of Goyer (and judging from those first 7 minutes, the brothers Nolan) who makes every character say exactly what they're thinking and doing at all moments, like overlong cartoon dialogue balloons?

Who'd have thought Sam Hamm and Warren Skarren were Herman Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges by comparison?

The fact Hollywood matters less to the rest of American pop culture now as it's own entity gives pause as to why all it's most profitable ventures are recycled material from books (Lord Of The Rings, comic book movies) and children's movies, in that order. Original material is at an all-time sparseness point, since the other half of Hollywood movies now are remakes, the death of a thousand cuts for lifelong movie fans.

Keaton and Nicholson had resonance in Burton's hands for the reason he cast them to utilize their abilities as actors. Nicholson as the Joker was a straightforwardly logic casting choice of a longtime genuine talent. Keaton was Burton's choice because Michael Keaton "has that fucked-up look" (Burton) and is a great physical performer as evidenced by Beetlejuice. He and Christian Bale's approaches and 180 degrees apart. Keaton's performance is almost that of a silent film actor's whereas Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are possibly going to be growling at each other through the whole stupid thing with a lot of contrived dark-and-heavy dialogue.

Anticipation level: Low.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Funny Thing About Funny Games

I saw No Country For Old Men a few nights ago at the Lammle theater in Santa Monica. This is an excellent film which recurs the word "nihilist" in people's reviews. Bleak, yes, but nihilist, no. One could argue all noir and neo-noir is nihilist, but one would be wrong. Even Double Indemnity has a moral center in Edward G. Robinson's character - it's just that the center is off to the side.

Nihilism in films is not the dearth of likable characters or lack of a happy ending but the deliberate absence of a moral standard from the filmmakers themselves: the unashamed depiction of evil for entertainment in of itself. Even a film like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer takes pause to reflect Henry's evil, on an innocent girl who has fallen in love with him, and on himself, when he stares long and hard into his own reflection. What does he see? The truly nihilist approach doesn't bother with questions, it takes evil at superficial face value and as unironic entertainment.

Imagine my surprise when the trailer for Michael Haneke's American remake of his own Funny Games came up before the feature presentation.

Seemingly a shot for shot and word for word recreation of the original from 11 years ago. I caught it on video around that time, and was gripped by the post-modernism (not evident in this trailer) which the film finds it's center in. Without giving too much away, we eventually come to realize early on that the bad guys are aware of their existence as bad guys in a thriller film.

The satire of the film is directed outward at the audience: why did you choose to watch a film such as this? Do you hope the family lives, or dies? Is this entertainment? The film's title and it's villains self-referentialism are cleverly deconstructionist to these matters. The film is nihilist, but the plot is a Macguffin and the subject matter is really nihilism itself in films.

Well, maybe it's a little guiltier of sincere sadism than I remember.

What struck me was that Haneke's original movie preceded Saw and Hostel, sincerely nihilist horror franchises in which there are no good guys, every "victim" is capable of equally sadistic villainy, and the aesthetic function is to linger on viscera for as long as possible. The original Games cannot be classified as "torture porn" since it contains no gore or protracted violence, only paced outbursts of the latter. The rest is genuine suspense, and satirizing the anticipation of violence is the meat of the content.

I didn't realize the film was so prescient, because the M.O. of the two killers whose raison d'être is the same as the audience has more or less gone mainstream through the recent "torture porn" bubble. However many more Saw sequels they make is our best indication for how much cruder people's tastes will become before hitting rock bottom.

Then again, I've got a friend who thinks Roman-style gladiator fights and live lion feedings are going to come back in a big way.

The funny thing is, the trailer went over pretty bad with the crowd that night. One guy actually booed. Maybe seeing a child in sadistic danger is what pushes most people's final button.

Funny Games satirized a coming trend. The trailer of remake is now indistinguishable from that trend. I can understand why Haneke wanted to do it again.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Head: The Money's In, We're Made Of Tin, We're Here To Give You MORE



the clock in the sky in pounding away

there's so much to say

Last night I saw Head at The New Beverly theater, the second part of a double bill featuring Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and hosted by Edgar Wright. I'm no fan of Shaun Of The Dead and I haven't seen Hot Fuzz, but he was a perfectly amiable bloke. The REAL treat was a pre-film introduction and post-film Q&A by my favorite Monkee, Mickey Dolenz, who still looks like a kewpie doll all these years later. Snappy dresser, too.

I've seen the film before, but just as when you are high, seeing a film in a theater with an audience is the only way to see a film again for the first time. Rhino, Inc did the good service of striking up a new print. The colors were vivid and the strobe effects in the "Daddy's Song" sequence work well in a way that video can't quite capture:

God, what a beautiful film. The New Beverly played a couple trailers from other band-vehicle films of the time, all seeking to cash in on the success of A Hard Day's Night - a really wretched looking Sonny & Cher vehicle whose name escapes me, and The Beatles' own Help!. What's funny is how both of those contain imagery which appear in Head, namely a roving tank in Help! and the placement of Sonny Bono in numerous archetypical Old Hollywood scenarios - as the private eye or the gunslinger or Tarzan.

Almost half of Head depicts The Monkees running around an anonymous Hollywood studio from soundstage to soundstage, which Dolenz said was inspired by the "real" Monkees' entry into Hollywoodland, and the general lack of respect given to them by the old guard - hence scenes like the one where the bit players rush out the lunchroom when they arrive and then the lunchlady berates them.

There's also a scene where a 500 foot Victor Mature nearly crushes them beneath his feet. You know, Old Hollywood. Just like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson were dealing with. Hey! Did you know Jack Nicholson wrote Head, and that Rafelson directed it? Did you know all three of those guys can be seen onscreen, and that the money made from The Monkees TV show helped fund Easy Rider a year later?

Dolenz explained a LOT for a film which is so deliberately obtuse. For instance, the scenes of The Monkees stuck inside a black box came from their discussions of the "black boxes" of their lives - the tiny black box of the recording studio, the tiny black box of the hotel room, the tiny black box of the pre-show dressing room - all of which you can't go outside from or you're be mobbed by fans - it's just one black box to the next.

The broadest and most helpful explanation was the dichotomy between "The Monkees" of the TV show and The Monkees of Head. Whereas the TV show was a show about a fictional band, the movie was about the real performers, in caricature, but still The Monkees. The deconstruction of their image in the film isn't necessarily mean spirited, but a consideration of who they were at their time and in their milieu.

Speaking of which, the occasional shock intercutting of Vietnam footage, including that famously horrifying Viet Cong point-blank execution on the street, is nearly impossible to reconcile with the film's 'G' rating. One can only assume the newly-created MPAA didn't even bother watching the film, they just figured "Hey, it's a Monkees movie," and didn't waste their time with it. The double standards never go away, they only devolve...

Other weird bits, like the exploding Coke machine in the desert or the backwards credits, were written off by Dolenz as Jack Nicholson's stoned sense of humor. He also confirmed that the movie's ideas were collaborated upon by all of the band, and under the influence. Shockola!

I raised my hand to ask where this footage came from...

But he didn't know if it had been created for the film or found someplace else. The funniest bit of trivia he shared was that the film's title was suggested in part so that if there were a sequel, the poster could read "From the people that gave you Head." The other, more sensible explanation is that the film's episodic, looping and plotless structure lends itself to be watched at any point in time, and still be a complete experience. As in, the "HEAD" frame of a film strip. In fact, the 1968 premiere occurred at a psychadelic dance hall in which multiple moviolas were stationed to run a reel of film each, and patrons could simply wander from one to another, taking it in a bit at a time.

Dolenz, in regard to famous fans of the film over time:

"Tom Cruise doesn't like me to name-drop."

Heck, why else would "The Porpoise Song" be used in Vanilla Sky?

Eli Roth was in attendance and I think he asked that very question. That makes it the second time I've been in a room with the man, after my Troma internship a couple years back.

If you haven't seen Head, what the fuck are you waiting for? This is the most enthralling music movie (an odd non-"musical" subgenre of musical film I might dissect later) of the 60s after Hard Day's Night. It's possibly the better film, I don't know. But it's overdue for rediscovery, and if last night's crowd was any indication, it still has so much to say.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Somebody Watched Somebody's Watching Me! ME!!

Perusing Netflix, I was delighted to find that one of Carpenter's late-70s TV movies "Somebody's Watching Me!" was finally available, and I dialed that shit up post haste.

The cool Saul Bass style title sequence, and the callback payoff at the climax

1978 was a real turning point for Carpenter, and this movie came right smack dab in the center of the milieu. He hadn't yet directed Halloween, and Somebody has a TON of stylistic flourishes that precede it slightly. In the same year he'd direct another film for television, Elvis, the bio-pic that began his long and fruitful collaboration with Kurt Russell. I'm not sure if that came before or after Halloween...By the (low) standards of television movies, this is a work of genius. By the standard standards of thrillers, it's still a pretty good one. The hook is cheesy, the plot is by the numbers, and Carpenter never misses a beat. Commercial breaks would've actually IMPROVED the experience, like Steve Spielberg's TV debut Duel...which I had the PRIVILEGE of seeing for the first time in the format it was meant for: Joe Bob Briggs' Monstervision on TNT.

Somebody stars Lauren Hutton, a famously gap-toothed 70s model-turned-actress who, I swear to god, I only knew prior from the 1987 short film Gap-Toothed Women. Ironically, the gap isn't her one unattractive feature - that would be her manly lantern jaw. Co-starring is Carpenter's future wife and new member of his short-lived reparatory company, Adrienne Barbeau. She plays a lesbian, and it's treated about as undramatically as you can imagine, which fits my bill as progressive. Others would complain she doesn't have an on-screen girlfriend, and therefore Carpenter is a tool of the patriarchy, but fuck 'em, he was sensitive enough to let her light Lauren's cig.

Coming from an old school dude like Carpenter who still champions the coolness of smoking (his second-to-last Masters Of Horror was called Cigarette Burns, after all) there's no more sincere gesture of approval. Anyways, I'm making it seem like a bigger deal than it is. If anything, Adrienne's lesbianism is a plot device to emphasize Hutton's isolation in her new LA surroundings. Being a new resident to LA myself, I emphasized plenty.

Highly recommended to any Carpenter fan. Now, if they'd just release Elvis!!

And oh yeah, that shot of Hutton out the window? That's not an optical illusion, they ACTUALLY STUCK HER OUT THE WINDOW. Ho-lee-shit.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad (World) Apocalypse: Southland Tales review


Future critics may not grapple with Richard Kelly's directorial follow-up to the epochal metaphysical teen movie Donnie Darko much more than Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered. Much less discussed than Lynch's Inland Empire has been already, which uses much different locations in Los Angeles while telling a fractured narrative. Seanbaby once observed there's something appealing about a movie that just doesn't give a fuck. Inland actually gives a serious fuck about David Lynch's logic puzzles. Southland's only saving grace is that it doesn't give a fuck how ridiculous things get, as if to flip a bird continuously at the audience for their expectations: metaphysics and musical numbers as seen in Darko are here as self-parody. Sean William Scott triggers a metaphysical wormhole so gratuitous it feels like a chapter from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

Half the brains and twice the sex of Inland Empire, just as much to interpret

The casting of two penultimately "Hollywood" leads - The Rock and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for heaven's sake - and their subsequent portrayals and perils, reek of deliberate camp. A suicidal practical joke may have been played here on the studio. Seeing Jon Lovitz as a psycho cop who cold-bloodedly shoots Amy Poehler isn't quite akin to the last practical joke of this nature. That would be Russ Meyer's blaring of the 20th Century Fox theme over a graphic decapitation in 1970's Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, another movie which functions intentionally as a satire of the material itself. The Rock uses the William Shatner school of drama methods to expound conspiratorially on the space-time continuum and the fabric of the 4th dimension, amongst other things. His sole moment of action movie machismo comes from the quasi-meaningful catch phrase, "I'm a pimp...and pimps don't commit suicide," which he spouts before punching a woman to the ground. Meanwhile, Sarah Michelle Gellar is a porn star whose sex/chat/reality tv show mainly blames "nerds" for society's sexual repression. She releases an album, "Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime." These are the intentionally funny parts, and they shine unconditionally. The rest of the humor is wrapped in an oblique irony that can't quite keep up with itself.

Hostel 3: Sean William Scott Tied To A Chair

To seek the transcendent in this movie the way so many worshippers of Darko are is a fruitless effort. The Phillip K. Dick influence remains far less in use of apocalyptic time travel as a plot device (again, Sean William Scott nominally taking over the Donnie role? How could this not be Kelly's self-parody?) than the K. Dickensian world of warring technocratic and political factions engaged in bio-warfare espionage. The opening narration could be recycled for the upcoming Escape From New York remake as it overloads the audience with as many likely speculations about a societal breakdown in the near future: a shock moment bombing of Texas as the first scene of the film, further escalating wars in the Middle East, an American police state beneath the surface similar to last years' PKD adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. President Bush, who by now must have more IMDB credits than Abe Lincoln, makes his obligatory cameo later. The technique isn't going to let the movie age well. Being a prank of a movie, the immediacy is oddly effective for the grand absurdities in dialogue, plot and gratuitous violence to follow.

Moments before a Takeshii Miike style outburst of extreme gore. I kid you not.

Kelly's designs in the ultra-modern crazy fest include matriarchal Marxists made up of Saturday Night Live actors, a covert Communist Environmentalist mad scientist who dresses like a Flash Gordon villain (played by Wallace "Incon-CEIV-able!" Shawn and flanked by Booger and the little Poltergeist lady) and a slimy Homeland Security head with citywide surveillance control room who also dresses like a B-movie sci-fi Queen. It'd be misleading to call their ideological body counts the film's focus, as if it were a political film. When Kelly's sympathies seem to arise, they're with the Marxists, whose anti-Male ball tasering and subsequent high fives suggest the freewheeling quasi-political attitude of late John Waters. That is the real function of this not-too-distant-future schismatic society. Paradoxically, the lunacy takes center stage from political satire. The world of Southland exists as a familiar, exaggerated self-parody of Kelly's own preoccupation with the apocalypse and time travel. There are Biblical interstitial titles even Uwe Boll might balk at, and Justin Timberlake is a verse-spouting Iraq War veteran whose psyche, we presume, got fried there. Add a kid who turns suicidal the second he hears he's been drafted, and Kelly's thoughts are made pretty clear on that issue.


Kelly's self-referential attitude towards whatever stylistic and narrative flourishes he was honing in Darko is sometimes as torturous as M. Night Shamalyan's in this multi-million dollar frivolity with a running time that emphasizes the state of excess American culture and obliviousness with which we face the uncertain future. When the movie simply tries to be funny in earnest, it does. Few enough times to lose anyone without a hardened taste for camp excess. Towards the end of the escalating future-stupid fun (think zeppelins and floating cars) the comedy finds a sort of second wind by going the distance for truly epic proportions in faux-pretentious pointlessness. Or is it truly pointless? Either way, a classic flop is born.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Essential Slashers

The slasher sub-genre of horror got an unfair shake due to the good-film-to-bad-one ratio. The formula gimmick of a human-on-human body count using blunt instruments, favorite of all the knife, is not exactly new. It was Carpetner's Halloween that blew the roof financially on the formula, and the knock-offs were as plentiful as cheap, easily made "action" movies full of squibs and guys rolling down hills. The bare essence of a slasher is a story about a series of killings, by a serial killer. Wes Craven's Scream made an easy joke at the sub-genre's expensive, conflating all of horror with slasherdom...a joke mainly for people who would never see a horror film ordinarily. This kicked off a wave of horror in the 1990s that was marked by cheap seat-jumpers rather than scares, and a focus on hip young casts above all other considerations.

"I mean, I loved Scream. But why do you think it was the first big horror movie in years? Because at the end, everyone knows it's a big joke. They're removed from the monsters by a layer of satire."
- Lloyd Kaufman, Everything I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger

The curious thing about slashers is that for all their incompetence, they take the idea of a "scare scene" pretty seriously. Even the progressively campy Friday the 13th films, a series I loathe for having longevity in inverse proportion to the competence of the filmmaking, makes consistent efforts during the "scary" scenes to create a sense of dread.

It's time to critically consider, without identity-politics diatribes on gender, without distanced irony and derision, some good slashers - and admit that though one needs to comb through a LOT of crap to get there, there are diamonds in the rough.

Here is a proposed canon of the very best:

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Hitchcock takes a bold leap in the murder mystery/thriller genre and creates the first true slasher star, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. The son/mother oedipal bonds would be cribbed through many slasher storylines like 1980's Maniac and Friday The 13th.

Hitchcock was so offensively ahead of his time with this material that his career basically goes downhill in the print criticisim of his career - doing outright creature-feature horror like The Birds and decent but critically neglected works like Frenzy, which didn't quite poke at the gore-barrier the way Psycho's murder scenes and body count did.

When Janet Leigh dies prematurely for a leading lady, does she not inhabit the role of so much future "teen meat," as Joe Bob Briggs calls it?

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

"Still the king"

- Joe Bob Briggs

3. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

Dig James Mason on the voice-over.

Featuring future Elm Street cast member and b-movie star John Saxon, and direction from the future director of A Christmas Story, as if in penance - Bob Clark. Pre-dates Halloween in spectacular use of first-person and quasi-first person direction. Inspires a Christmas themed sub-sub genre of it's own in slasherdom.

4. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

A classic that needs little further documentation or analysis, merely eternal reverence even outside the John Carpenter canon.

5. Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

In many ways the quintessential urban slasher, Joe Spinell gives a positively Andren Scott-like performance as sickening maniac prowling real circa 1979/80 crime infested New York City locations. The subway platform chase scene is absolutely gripping, and the atmosphere is relentlessly creepy. Makeup by Tom Savini.

6. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

Tobe Hooper's particular style as an auteur isn't discussed much. Among his talents is an eye for garish color cinematography, unfortunately hard to appreciate through many washed-out prints of Texas Chainsaw. Those bad acip trip colors can also found in all his work, and The Funhouse is long overdue for critical reconsideration as a slasher story told as effectively as Texas Chainsaw. The calliope-filled musical score, played just as broadly, is eerily haunting. The titular funhouse is a deliberately cheap, shoddy and bawdy one. It plays on the sort of fears any shitty carnival creates when you're a child. Also in defiance of slasher cliche, there are no knife deaths! It also has a HUGE amount of creepy buildup like Texas Chainsaw did. Makeup by Rick Baker.

7. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Freddy's wisecracks signaled the beginning of serial killer chatter and self-awareness to the modern era of slashers, even The Toxic Avenger (released near the same date) began life in pre-production as a parody of slasher movies in the cheap and well attuned to the times aerobics club settings, with a monster mutated man to kill them one by one. To justify "the monster hero" as he's called, rather than "Toxie" or even "The Toxic Avenger" by anyone but the post-production voice-over narrator at the beginning and end. And of course, to justify the "hero" part of killing bad guys with the tagline "the first super hero from New Jersey," (emphasis mine) a superheroic title chosen in postproduction and the in-production onscreen nickname "the monster hero"Rather than innocent teenagers. they're bullies by day, thrill-killers by night as Lloyd Kaufman directs cold blooded child murder on film.

Speaking of thrill killing -

8. Henry: Portrait Of Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Tagline sez it all - He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's REAL. John McNaughton invented the "serial killer" genre overnight with this one, arguably a subgenre of the slasher genre. At it's heights, we've seen Man Bites Dog and Silence Of The Lambs. At it's lows, we've seen - or rather, haven't - Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon. They all took a page from this bad boy. There's an unforgettable scene where Henry videotapes one of his murders that has been elaborated upon endlessly in other films. Truly epochal.

9. The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)

This is the kind of thriller that Hitchcock created with Shadow Of A Doubt, then was mandated a body count by the Slasher influence. That is to say, had this not been made in the 80s, we wouldn't have had Stepfather 2: Make Room For Daddy and Stepfather 3: Father's Day in short succession.

And the modern era?

The good stuff these days includes Eli Roth's Cabin Fever and Takeshi Miike's Audition. And since you ask, I liked Hostel in spite of everything and haven't seen Hostel II but the critical (not controversy discussion) reviews have been split. It's not new stuff, either. Takeshi Miike has been able to use ultra violence in ways that do not compromise the sincerity of his materials, and making his critical reception mostly positive is that he has directed wonderful family comedies as well as the ultra violence.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Return of the Living Dead's Dying Print

The most well-rounded zombie film, in terms of scares, action, profundity and visceral visual beauty is probably George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The most critically misunderstood, but increasingly rediscovered and bleakly touching zombie film is probably Romero's Day of the Dead. But the zombie film which beat the pants off of Day with audiences that same year and essentially redefined zombie horror to this very day was Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, arguably the most entertaining zombie film and ranking second only to Dawn.

O'Bannon brought limber speed and brain-eating to zombies, as well as speech - it's telling that Romero's trilogy-closer Day contains a speaking zombie as well. To the horror genre itself, O'Bannon brought irreverent post-modern humor (the characters have seen Night of the Living Dead) long before Scream and not at the expense of the story's integrity. He used splatter slapstick in ways that only The Toxic Avenger was also attempting at the time, and without the benefit of overt camp. This is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, one of the greatest horror-comedies ever made, and one of the greatest movies of the 1980s.

Next Saturday I'll be seeing it at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, making it the third time I'll have had the privilege of the theatrical experience. Previously I've gone to screenings in New York and Toronto. Sharing the enjoyment with an audience is delightful, as there are really only two ways to feel as though you're seeing a beloved film for the first time: with others who have not, thus enabling you to feel their first time exposure by osmosis and remind yourself what that was like, and secondly, under the influence of narcotics which fog your brain well enough not to remember what happens next. There's nothing like your first time, but both of those will have to do.

In Return's case there is now an additional incentive to see the theatrical print. Both releases of the film on DVD since 2003 have had sound editing work, basically uncrucial to the experience but important for any fan who's had such details memorized since the first 20 viewings of their worn-out VHS rental copy. Oddly these edits have been made by O'Bannon himself, and I'm sorry to say, though they may have been what he initially wanted I don't think they improve the film in the least. Call it the George Lucas syndrome, though O'Bannon possesses more talent in one hair of his Southern fried beard:

Out of chronological order, and spoilers ahoy, the first group of changes had to do zombie voices. These are the talking zombies who made talking zombies famous, and their voices were all suitably weird. Unfortunately, the first talking zombie we see got his voice modulated several octaves lower than it originally was. Dig the original:

Now dig the DVD edit:

Not as much personality, huh? I guess O'Bannon thinks the lower octaves are scarier, but the "tar man" was plenty scary and funny as he was, and that voice was part of his character. The same change is made to this zombie and his famous line later on:

The original voice had a bit of Jersey accent, which is weird for a Civil War zombie. On every worn-out VHS I'd ever seen, you couldn't even notice the uniform! Appartently the Civil War zombie angle was meant to be more a part of the film - it takes place in Louisville, Kentucky - but it exists only in this shot and an old cannon seen in the "Resurrection Cemetery."

Then there's matters concerning the film's kickass West Coast punk soundtrack. Despite the enduring popularity and lasting appeal of the tunes mixed into key moments throughout the story, O'Bannon has never really expressed much an interest in this aspect of Return over the years. The bands chosen seem to have simply been what was available at the time, despite their high quality, and their inclusion may have been done mainly in tandum with the punk teenager characters than what O'Bannon felt was essential to the overall aesthetic.

In the first edit, O'Bannon moved the start of "Take a Walk" by The Tall Boys to the last seconds of this scene pictured above, which like so many others contains Howard Hawksian framing and many actors talking rapidly over each other. According to Dan's commentary on the 2003 DVD, he wanted to hear what they were saying. They're screaming about a zombie on the other side of the door, in full panic, and I think having punk music playing during this emphasises the dischord. You can still make out the gist of their dialogue, which isn't essential to the story. In the subsequent shot, the group is running from this building to the nearby cemetery, and it's at this point in the song that the soundtrack sings, all you gotta do is, GO! GO! GOOOoooo... Which is a sublime detail and one not unnoticed by other fans.

Finally and most egregious of all changes is the removal of psychobilly grandpappy Roky Erikson's "Burn The Flames" during a climactic scene in which James Karen cremates himself rather than become a zombie, even though he's a good Catholic:

O'Bannon's rationale here was that he wanted to hear Karen's death scream, but once again, you could totally hear it even with the song originally pumped in - it's a death scream, for goodness' sakes! You only hear a couple seconds of the song in the DVD versions, and it's pointless.

During all these scenes, I can only soak up the precious seconds of authenticity during the next screening, before all the remaining prints crumble into dust...if you live within 100 miles of Santa Monica, getcher ass down to the Aero this Saturday!

Also, a warning on the most recent dvd. While the anamorphic transfer looks good and a new doc has been added to the features of the 2003 dvd, the new cast commentary has the HORRIBLE hinderance about 3/4 through the running time when MGM DVD decided it was necessary to have a couple of jackass interns or PAs or parking attendents or something to come into the audio recording booth and pretend to be zombies. This consists of making shitty jokes and interrupting the actors who were actually in the movie. Eventually they leave while there's still a few minutes of movie left, but I have NEVER seen or heard such a retarded thing on any DVD.

The new cast commentary is really good otherwise, too. Who knew Beverley Randolph was basically the same as her character, Tina? I actually wanted to complain to MGM but can't find any email at their website, only a way to join their mailing list. If I could, I'd tell them to fire whosever moron idea that was and never, ever do anything like that again.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited Appeal of Wes Anderson

Three quirky character actors pray at some magic Hindu thing or other

This is a real tipping point for one of my generation's favorite auteur-type directory persons, the film that makes critics realize that the one-trick pony's one trick gets old after the third or fourth time. In his defense, he's genuinely talented. Rushmore personally moves me to this day. The Royal Tenenbaums didn't interest me in the least. The quirkiness was on overdrive, and most of the public's interest in his style peaked on it and burned out with it. Few folks went to see The Life Aquatic, which I did enjoy, but wasn't moved by.

A friend of mine pinpointed that film as the tipping point - to him, the story was a statement from Anderson regarding himself and his career. Bill Murray's character has found specialized success and acclaim, and doesn't know what to do next. I can see that for Anderson. No wonder he started doing credit card commercials afterwards.

The real tragedy of most modern auteurist directors is that they're such self-centered whiz kids who never got to grow up. A total non-talent like Quentin Tarantino makes movies about hipster references to other movies, since that's his whole life. Kevin Smith never pushed himself beyond the artistic demands of Clerks, since that film was based on his life up to that point and he let his fame prevent him from having any kind of significant life experience since then.

Anderson's best film was based on his childhood, and his subsequent films have been oblique whining about family estrangement and the pressure of talent and fame.

Darjeeling is the first Anderson film to feel completely pointless, and even makes such pointlessness a point of navigation. Owen Wilson's character has brought his two brothers together, ostensibly with vague aspirations to come together SOMEHOW. They're in India, right? Everything is spiritual and magical and something is bound to happen that will reconcile them from their familial estrangement.

Eventually we find out he wants to get them to see their mother. They do, and it resolves nothing. The mother admits to them she has no great revelation that will bring the family together, so they must express themselves without words. Cut to the actors staring at each other and smiling. Then the mother takes off the next morning, guaranteeing there will be no closure.

Earlier in the film, stranded from the titular train, Jason Schwartzman comments that it would seem meaningful if they were to hear the sound of a train whistle at the moment. It doesn't happen, and Adrian Brody says it would merely be annoying.

Ha-ha, audience. This is a movie where as little as possible happens, and if you're looking for deeper meanings you'll have to supply them yourself. Like Anderson's other movies, there will be at least 3 or 4 fake endings for you to start reaching an internal stopping point for emotional involvement to the travelogue of a story.

For instance, is there any reason the movie is in India? No more than why Bill Murray and the less talented half of Ghost World needed to traipse around Tokyo in the much more offensively gratuitous Lost In Translation. I think the directors and producers just wanted to visit those places. For the movie characters, it's simply an exotic, colorful foreign place for them to do some soul-searching and resolve their petty personal crises come the final reel. Japan and India are merely trendy places in modern Western consciousness. How orientalist can you get?

Owen Wilson's character often exhibits his ignorance by not barely knowing what certain things are called. This seems more like a defensive concession of the location's gratuitousness than making a necessary detail of it.

Even the patented eclectic soundtrack™, also a staple of Tarantino's, feels like it's running on fumes. There probably aren't nearly as many songs as the more memorable mixlists of Rushmore and even The Life Aquatic, which finally features Devo after Mark Mothersbaugh scored his previous two films - no MM score this time, though. When the songs show up, they're played within the context of the movie from Jason Shwartzman's ipod. Macbooks are also featured throughout the film by a supporting character. Can Anderson's "Think Different" spot be far behind?

Die hard Anderson fans will more likely see the formulas as assets and not liabilities. To do so is still to pigeonhole the object of your fandom as only capable of a few things. At this point I'm a bit annoyed to notice that for three consecutive films now, Anderson marks the beginning of his third act with a sudden tragedy - the death of a major character, or an unknown one, or a suicide attempt - something to hush the room and qualify the "drama" tag of the coveted comedy / drama balancing act.

Some directors are so genuinely talented that their film-world status as auteurs boxes them into repeating their public perception rather than taking chances. Wes Anderson should try to be a little less like himself, or try director other people's scripts. It's working for David Cronenberg, and both men are genuine talents unlike the tweedledee and tweedledum of Miramax, Tarantino and Smith. David Lynch, however, is a genuine GENIUS and I don't mind waiting 5 years in between his brain droppings since each one is so dense and thick with peanuts of meaning.

The Darjeeling Limited's meaning a few years from now will be that it's the film where Owen Wilson's character mentions trying to kill himself, just before the real Owen Wilson actually did.

Could've used a choreographed dance number, too.

Jan Pehechaan Ho

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Melvin works upstairs

Okay! I'm moved, I'm digging the new job, and I'm ready to get back to yammering. Before part 3 of the Post-9/11 thing, I thought you-all might like to see how my life continues to intersect with Troma in all kinds of weird ways. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Melvin Ferd himself - the 98 pound weakling who had a horrifying accident and became THE TOXIC AVENGER...

I saw "Mark Torgl" on the staff list and thought - Naw, couldn't be. Could it? But how many freakin' Torgls are there in the world? He's only around a few more weeks, so I was lucky to arrive when I did. Boy, that Alfred E. Newman mug hasn't changed a bit. And what a super nice guy to step out of his editing suite and let me take the pic!


Monday, September 10, 2007

The Toxic Avenger, based on a true story?

The Toxic Avenger was a more epochal event in 80s splatter film than Troma's subsequent groundbreaking distribution legacy or other in-house productions. It's the rare film you can actually claim is more offensive, more politically incorrect to mainstream tastes than the "worst" of it's benefactors - Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Team America: World Police, Troma's Cannibal! The Musical) Peter Jackson in his splatter period (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive) Sam Raimi (Evil Dead II, Darkman) or Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. What it brought to the heady 80s days of special effects extreme violence in horror was evidence that comedy, however lowbrow or slapstick, could work cinematically and make a Times Square grindhouse company an international reputation. The days of extreme makeup effects violence for the sake of sheer visceral disgust coupled with sadistic comedy (dry or bawdy, though Toxic Avenger is the latter) were gone as a new era began. That such wave included Cronenberg, John Carpenter's The Thing and some horror with a more distanced and genteel inclusion of humor with the scary stuff - Joe Dante's The Howling, John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. Only Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead came close, but needed the Toxic Avenger example to reach the Three Stooges antics of the sequel.

Amazingly and to the film's lasting infamy, the film's impact remains in large part for an overlooked but seldom unmentioned scene which occurs as early as possible. The film was made infamous by a laundry list of graphically grotesque or absurd ultra-violence. Unlike Troma's subsequent productions moving into the 1990s, the absurd violence occurred in a film world relatively similar to a normal, mainstream film world's depiction of reality, adding critically to actual shock value. Despite the casts of characters being drawn in the Preston Sturges archetypal mold for armies of goony looking bit part actors, their violence could become ultra-sadistic just as easily as they could mug a goofy face. Contributed to that shock value were occasional acts of violence with realistic damage, meaning that instead of a comical and gory death the death could simply be gory and explicitly cruel.

To be honest, I don't know if this dichotomy were intentional on the behalf of writer Joe Ritter and director/empressario of Troma Lloyd Kaufman. The tonal obliviousness to sadistic cartoon violence and sadistic realistic violence with cartoonish tone is what makes The Toxic Avenger still shocking today, and more so than Troma's later films of complete absurd content and action. Avenger, but for the fact there is a mutant running around while bad guys do evil in a film world where innocent bystanders are in constant, actual threat of random cruelty (never happens in Hollywood flicks), feels like it could take place in the same aesthetic of a teenage sex comedy. That tonal shift which occurs when you least expect it is so jarring to the nerve endings that the more identifiably "super hero" films which employ the feeling are at the disadvantage of not being able to hide the emergence of violence itself (Robocop and Darkman particularly.) Black shows up better on White.

To that effect, the most jarring and inventively cruel scene in the film occurs after an opening scene which would not be out of place - in fact, was a timely recreation of - a teen sex comedy of the day: a hapless nerd being picked on by bullying jocks and their girlfriends of a small town health spa / gym.

Even the film's soundtrack, a toe-tapping synth and electric guitars routine, is pitch-perfect to the innocuous pop culture of the day. Again, different from Troma's later out-and-out freaky death metal and punk music scores. It's like an elaborate ruse to the upcoming horrors, while continuing them throughout.

One of the bullies and his girlfriend leave for the locker room to fuck, and mention the fun of going hit and run driving to kill pedestrians! Say what? Less than a minute later we've cross-dissolved into the real deal...

Here, because someone on YouTube went through the trouble, are the first seven minutes - what would've been Reel 1 at the drive-in. Then, that infamous scene which follows immediately after a cross-fade.

And behold! Not for the faint of heart!

So! Did you laugh your ass off or did your blood go thin? The scene tends to strike people like a rorschach test, some laughing to prove the limits of their capacity for humor in bad taste, others rightfully moved by the flagrant combination of realistic child mutilation with 80s partytime aesthetics...

There's a tidbit of information from Lloyd Kaufman's self-analysis/promotion of Troma Everything I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger (still in print) that's always fascinated and bothered me, excerpted here:

(Speaking of The Toxic Avenger's influences):

YOU WILL BE JUDGED ON A POINT SYSTEM: In the New York Post there was an article about some kids who had gotten arrested; they were playing a game, trying to hit people with their cars, and they got a certain amount of points for every person they hit. If you smashed your car into an old woman it was worth only 2 points, but a pregnant woman was worth 15. It was such a beautiful, touching American story - one about hte triumph of humanity and love over the travails of the postindustrial world - that I knew I had to somehow incorporate it into the film.

God, do I want to read that original Post article. Were these kids "real"? To what degree? When you're actually mowing down people for fun, the sky seems the limit. Whatever happened to them? Anyone know? Kaufman's never mentioned the article elsewhere, to my knowledge. I didn't have this question stuck in my head until after interning at the New York office.

Case in point to the "Preston Sturges goes to hell" feeling of the film: the next scene is one of the bullies putting a snake down someone's shirt at the gym. Talk about tone shift shock!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Revisiting The Little Shop of Horrors

When you tell someone you like a genre, you hope they know you possess standards and understand that well over 50% of any genre is garbage. With musicals that margin may be closer to 90%. I love movie musicals, and the idea of musicals, if only because action staged to music lends itself naturally to film and editing. The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) helped cement respect for the magical exuberance of a good musical in my mind at a very young age, perhaps 5 or 6 years old. It helped that the plot was essentially horror, since even at that age I had a terminal fascination with the other genre as it both terrified and obsessed me. By the same token, I would really get into Dickens' A Christmas Carol a couple years later since although I'd never gone to church, the story of ghosts haunting an old man by bending time and space was too sweet to resist. A few years later I'd memorize the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, another great musical of the macabre.

Little Shop was made into a musical from an old movie about 20 years before it really became en vogue and the consolidated media corporations realized they could make some easy bucks by turning their most profitable film properties into musicals (The Wedding Singer, Spamalot, Sunset Boulevard, The Lion King,) and even sometimes turn those musicals back into movies again (The Producers, Hairspray, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard.) The 1960 Roger Corman movie from which the 1982 off-Broadway show, subsequent 1986 film, 2003 Broadway revival and subsequent franchising to high school drama departments all came still seems an incredibly unlikely source of inspiration today. Death Race 2000 would've been a far higher profile B-movie to adapt. What mattered was that the rights were cheaper, and a pair of up-and-coming songwriters named Alan Menken and Howard Ashman could see an actual drama behind the faustian-bargian black comedy.

Real emotional sincerity in the handling of camp material elevates work above and beyond mere spoofery if done well. I haven't seen Spamalot, the Monty Python Broadway musical. God willing, I never will. People no doubt die in the course of what little story there is, and as emotionless comic relief. Every song is no doubt a comic throwaway. That's Monty Python for you, but the problem exists in nearly every musical you hear of: it sounds like someone merely thought of something odd, or some old TV show or movie, and then slapped "THE MUSICAL" onto it as a joke in of itself. By the same token, the idea of taking a powerful piece of film drama like Sunset Boulevard or Sweet Smell of Success and expecting the high emotion to remain when characters are now SINGING their thoughts and feelings (in that awful Andrew Lloyd Webber hummed-word style, typically) is ridiculously difficult to take seriously.

The 1960 Little Shop film was and is funny in an irreverent style distinctly of it's time. Corman had three days to shoot before new industry rules would go into effect preventing producers from "buying out" an actor's performance in perpetuity (thanks Wikipedia,) and not because he'd taken a bet to make a film in that time, as he'd cleverly spin the story from then on. With no special effects save for that big paper mache plant mouth, they made a classic thanks to Corman's knack for hiring talented unknowns. Practically every Corman film from the late 50s to the late 70s includes at least one actor who would go on to Hollywood success, and in this case it's Jack Nicholson. His role is like almost everyone else's in the film: a silly character with a silly name who lasts for a single sketch-scene. In addition to his "Wilbur Force," a masochistic dental patient, we have "Siddie Shiva" the perpetually mourning Jewish mother ("sitting Shiva" is a Yiddish phrase for mourning,) "Joe Fink" and "Frank Stoolie" as a couple of Dragnet parody cops who also narrate the film's opening, "Phoebeus Farb" as a sadistic dentist, and "Burson Fouch" as a man who eats a movie about a man-eating plant, geddit? Micro budgeted, micro scheduled productions always call for sheer strength of acting and writing.

(colorized version, but better sound)

The humor is all Sweeny Todd meets Jewish vaudeville and Mad magazine, and it preserves wonderfully. At the time, Sweeny Todd hadn't yet gone from 19th century folklore to stage musical so the only precedent for a black comedy about murdering people to stay in business was the previous year's A Bucket of Blood - also written by Charles B. Griffith and directed by Corman. Though that odd black comedy subgenre would thrive under Corman and his disciples in the future (Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul, Herschel Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, Troma's Bloodsucking Freaks, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, et cetera) Corman definitely broke the mold before Sweeny and Bucket is an even funnier film than Little Shop in many regards. The ensemble cast isn't as eclectically amusing, so fortunately you have Dick Miller as anti-hero Walter Paisley, the awkward and creepy janitor who only wants to be accepted by the art-beatniks where he sweeps up. This film may be the birth of a character type who'd inhabit American independent film to this day: the total nerd. Unlike Jerry Lewis, who was a funny spaz always about to inherit a mansion or go to Africa or some such grand life-changing wackiness, Walter Paisley is a truly uncomfortable and put-upon loser. To get the beatniks' respect, he winds up with his own murder victims and covers them in plaster, creating popular avant-garde art sculptures. Of course, it all falls apart. Watch it here, it's in public domain. There's something in the uncompromising neurotic ugliness of the performance that immediately calls to mind the pre-transformed geek "Melvin Ferd" in The Toxic Avenger, or "Kevin" in Repo Man, or to use a shittier example, the eponymous Napoleon Dynamite.

"Seymour Krelboine," the protagonist of Little Shop, is much the same as Walter Paisley. He's a fuck-up, he wants to impress a sympathetic girl at his place of employment, and when a devil's bargain lands in his lap he can't resist.

"Roger and I talked over a bunch of ideas, including gluttony. The hero would be a salad chef in a restaurant who would wind up cooking customers and stuff like that, you know? We couldn't do that though because of the code at the time. So I said, “How about a man-eating plant?”, and Roger said, “Okay.” By that time, we were both drunk."

"I wrote Bucket as a satire, and then Little Shop as a farce. Different characters, different names and gags, but it was absolutely scene by scene the same structure. Both were around 64 pages, which was 64 minutes."

- Charles B. Griffith, Senses of Cinema interview

Unlike Bucket, Seymour never goes out of his way to kill anyone - the first dead body is accidental, the second is the sadistic dentist Farb so we're not supposed to feel too bad. Then Seymour's Eastern European / Yiddish boss Mr. Mushnik tricks a burglar into being eaten by the plant. And when the plant hypnotizes Seymour to go find a fourth victim, whom he still manages to kill accidentally, bumbler that he is. This makes a big difference in sympathy, and when Menkin & Ashman stripped down the story to it's essentials it made sense to keep the first victim accidental, as well as the cruel dentist whom they turned into the abusive (dentist) boyfriend of Audrey, Seymour's secret love. Whereas in the original she's just kind of there as a funny bimbo who takes to liking Seymour for his plant, their relationship and the triangle of doom between them and the plant was wisely moved to the center of focus. Seymour is more culpable for the deaths in the '82/'86 musical - first by his intent to murder the dentist allowing him negligent homicide, then tricking his boss into the plant's clutches when threatened with exposure.

So when the plant "Audrey II" finally devours Seymour's love Audrey, it's the denouement of the story before Seymour is devoured himself as he was in the original film. Then the final song is sung by the greek chorus and warns, "Don't feed the plants!" as the world's survival is now at stake against Audrey II. The fact the plant is from space in the '82 musical wasn't explained explicitly until the '86 film added a song about it. In the '60 film Seymour incredulously grew a plant by accident which gurgled commands to feed it human flesh. Seymour's downfall in the musical is also more explicitly linked to the need for success at the flower shop by making the plant manipulate his desperation to escape poverty, and the illusion Audrey won't love him without it. That's the farce element missing from Bucket of Blood and the impetus for any meaningful story between the characters.

Tragically, they changed the ending of the film version to a happy one. This subverts what was an otherwise perfect movie musical adaptation, at the time a unique endeavor, into one of the most cynical and cowardly examples of Hollywood committee-think ever.

Here's a quote from the Onion AV Club interview with the director, Muppets alum Frank Oz. After mentioning a watered-down committee-mandated ending to the Stepford Wives remake (no I haven't seen it) they ask this:

AVC: You talked about your instincts being darker, more subversive. In the original ending of Little Shop Of Horrors, apparently everyone dies. Were you surprised that you got away with filming it?
FO: No, David Geffen (stage and screen version producer - cinemachine) was very supportive of how Howard Ashman and I wanted to do the original ending. David said, "You can't do that, you can't kill your leads," but he supported us. Two years later, we killed our leads and the audience hated us for it. They loved those leads, because in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow—in a movie, they don't come out for a bow, they're dead. And the audience loved those people, and they hated us for it. It got very, very, very exceedingly low scores as a result, so we had no choice but to re-shoot it. And I believed it was the right thing to do. I was unhappy that Howard and I couldn't solve how to use a million dollars worth of great B-movie shots and footage, but we had no choice.
AVC: It's an interesting project, because the original was such a tiny little thing, and then it was turned into this giant musical.
FO: But actually, it's not a giant musical.
AVC: But it feels that way, it feels like a really, really big movie, which is a testament to your direction.
FO: I disagree. If you really look at all the big movies, like Fiddler On The Roof, My Fair Lady, Sound Of Music, etc. etc., those are big musicals with huge crane moves and wide vistas and shots. And I kept it, very on-purpose, an Off-Broadway feel. It's only one street, it's all we had.
AVC: It seems a lot bigger.
FO: It was certainly "big" compared to the original stage play, but it was an Off-Broadway thing and I tried to keep it that way.
AVC: Would it be safe to say that you preferred the original ending?
FO: It's not that I preferred the ending, no. Our job is to entertain an audience, it's not just to do it for the director. You might as well sit in a white room and look at the movie for the rest of your life—it's ridiculous. I was frustrated that I couldn't use the ending, use the special effects with the ending, that's all. I'm not happy with the happy ending and I'm not happy with the original ending, because it doesn't work out, everybody is unhappy in the theater. So there's no real answer at that point.
AVC: You want the audience to love your leads, but if you succeed at that—
FO: You have to succeed, and then once you succeed, you can't kill them. No, I take that back, if you succeed and you kill them, you've got to kill them in such a way that the audience feels satisfied—that he died for a higher cause or something like that, like the guy who jumps on a grenade and saves his buddies. That's a different kind of death, [and] we didn't have that kind of death.

Very disappointing sentiments.

The "great B-movie shots and footage" to which Oz refers were the scenes that accompanied the finale tune "Don't Feed The Plants," which when performed on stage described how the plants found their way into the households of America and continued their world takeover from there. The cast members who had been eaten also re-appear as flowers with creepy human faces, flanking Audrey II - a reference to the original film.

The '86 film extrapolates on the plants' forthcoming wave of terror (sans flower-cast) by showing them RAMPAGE THROUGH NEW YORK! This was no minor thing to be cut out - it cost MILLIONS to shoot and MILLIONS MORE to RE-SHOOT the lousy happy ending which adds insult to injury by adding in Jim "The Belush" Belushi to ask Audrey and Seymour to stop singing. And the original ending looks fantastic, a tour-de-force of 1980s puppetry and miniatures. It was also a shame to lose the song itself, which is after all the moral of the story - to use a trite phrase.

Oz's talk about "the audience" hating this ending and wanting to see the characters live refers to the test audiences for which the studio screened the rough cut without completed editing and music tracks. Was a group of paid "average joe" opinion-givers in 1986 indicative of the rest of America? Who cares? If the plant hadn't at least eaten Seymour in the original, there wouldn't even be an original 1960 film to base the musical upon.

Oz is covering up for his and the producer's cowardice by using tautological language like "our job is to entertain an audience" and "you've got to kill (the leads) in a way that the audience feels satisfied"...Did he not read the damn script before he started shooting? Of course he did, it was only when a panel of street jerks was consulted that they were afraid of losing money. And that's an absurd notion to begin with. I've heard people say a lot of stupid things about movies, but honestly have never heard "That movie has an unhappy ending? Forget it!" among them. Especially in the case of a musical.

There's the rub, that stage musical / movie dichotomy. When an actor dies a big dramatic death on stage, you can respond with thunderous applause. That would be weird during a movie screening. Oz has stated elsewhere (I think on the '86 DVD commentary) that a stage audience accepts death easier since all the actors will be back for a curtain call, and perhaps he's right, but it simply doesn't matter. A happy ending betrays the entire nature of the cautionary tale. Like changing the endings of Grimm's fairy tales to "protect" children, it simply stunts the minds of children and adults to shield them from the wisdom that comes from trauma. Ficticious trauma, at that. Allowing Seymour to get away with murder doesn't feel like a happy ending once you know of the original, it's simply a false compromise to let him have his cake and eat it too. More disturbing is that Audrey, who now survives her attack by Audrey II, gives him a pass for murdering her boyfriend and employer. I don't think her character would. It's a contrivance.

The good news to come from all this, and the inspiration for all this revisitation, is that the workprint of the original ending found it's way to YouTube. Originally included on the DVD release, the discs were recalled by Dave Geffen on the charge that he plans to finish and re-release the film with the ending intact - Hrrm. Well. Unlikely, but at least he feels guilty.

Here it is in three parts - the first clip covers Audrey's death ("Somewhere That's Green" reprise), the second Seymour's confrontation with Audrey II ("Mean Green Mother") and his death, and then the monster movie sequence of "Don't Feed The Plants."

So I must admit something. Had the original ending remained, and had I seen it as a young child, I might have been very upset. Cried, even. I might've hated it, as the audiences of America might have hated it. But I would've been the better for it, because over time, I have learned to accept an unhappy ending and even find a good "unhappy" ending more uplifting and exhilarating than the triteness of a tidy wrap-up. The main reason I would've been upset as a kid was because I'd already been coddled by this censorial impulse to make sure children and adults are unconfronted by the fact that things do not always work out. Also, the over-the-top nature of giant plants rampaging through the city kind of takes the edge off the more personal character deaths that just followed, reminding you it's only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...

Seeing the original ending today, with all it's workprint flaws - demo music, overlong editing, et all - it's a tragedy it was never finished. If Geffen wants to shell out the change to find usable color prints of those reels, tighten the cuts down and re-record the music, he could do a lot worse. As I mentioned, the 2003 Broadway revival has led to a franchising of the play to high school drama departments, and thankfully they have kept the original ending. Teenagers love an unhappy ending, are you kidding? They'd pay through the nose to see the movie version in theaters again, the story restored to its original glory.

For reference, here's the 2003 Broadway death scene...

And here's a clip from one of the many many high school musical versions! Adorable! There are a million YouTube clips of these lil' kids singin' their gosh-darn hearts out about murder, sadistic dentistry, flesh eating, and huffing Nitrous Oxide. Little Shop lives.


It pains me to say, but when the identity-politics assholes have a point, they have a point. It's more than a little embarassing to hear those mostly white high schoolers doing their best black dialects for the voice of the plant. The culpability lies either in Menkin & Ashman or the producers of the play. In the 1960 film, Charles B. Griffith voiced his creation in your basic Boris Karloff impersonation.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Dirty Harry wrap-up

So a couple months ago I finally saw "Dirty Harry," and it was rad. Then I went and saw the next three entries in the series and was let down.

The first one is so immediately gripping. Ripped from the headlines of the times (1971) there's a crazy killer with an astrological nickname on the loose in San Francisco, shooting his victims at random and sending taunting messages to the police. When Clint Eastwood shows up as "the cop who doesn't play by the rules," he's not just perfecting the model for all anti-heroic action movie cops to follow, you know he's the only man who's going to stop "Scorpio."

And Scorpio's a mean m-f. Actor named Andy Robinson does all kinds of mean, twisted stuff to make you hate him. No sympathy whatsoever to get in the way of wanting to see the guy taken down. Do movies even do that anymore, or is everything now so nuanced that Rob Zombie needs to understand Michael Myers as a disturbed child in need of help?

The script by (I presume) husband-and-wife team Harry & Rita Fink creates all these cliches before they're cliches, and they don't even SOUND like cliches even though you've heard them done a million times since: the chief of police is pissed, Harry (Dirty) is hanging onto his badge by a thread, this bad guy's a madman and we gotta negotiate, and especially - Harry can't use excessive force, leading to Scorpio's release when finally captured. The media, the city hall bureaucrats, they're all complicit with helping the madman escape Harry's long arm of justice. You know...

"He may be a madman but he's got RIGHTS, Callahan!!"

"Oh YEAH?! What about the RIGHTS of that LITTLE GIRL HE KILLED??"

It's awesome partially because neither Eastwood nor any of the actors around him have any self-consciousness about their roles and such. Not yet cliche. They weren't just trailblazing, they were doing it right the first time under the stewardship of the amazing director Don Siegel.

Giddy with entertainment I check out Magnum Force, which has a no-name director but the disctinction of a screenplay by John Milius. The inspiration for John Goodman's character Walter in The Big Lebowski, Milius bears the now-rare filmmaking personality of right-wing gun nut man's man. He did the first Conan and probably wrote that line about crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you. He definitely wrote the mini-speech from the first Harry:

" I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

The sequel has a great idea that goes nowhere. A bunch of cops are killing mobsters in cold blood using .44 magnums and of course Harry is getting the blame since everyone knows he's already half-crazy. There are some really creepy scenes of cops entering public places or pulling guys over on the freeway and then just blowing everyone away, including any bystanders the mobsters happen to be with.

Then what happens? Uh...eventually the chief of police is revealed to be behind it all, and then Harry has to face off against all 4 or 5 psycho cops at a waterfront factory. When they offer to let him join their group or die, Harry says that the system is bullshit but a bad system is better than no system. And his catch phrase for this film is, "A man's GOT to know his li-mi-TATIONs..."

It was disappointing, but decent enough overall to keep going. 1976's The Enforcer promises to be "The dirtiest Harry of them all!" when it actually shows a increasing tameness of violence from the first and second films. Basically it's a generic cop movie where Harry has to stop some terrorists while teamed with (uh-oh) a WOMAN cop who's a rookie and eventually they trust each other and blah blah blah...

The disappointment in this case wasn't just the generic direction and writing but the waste of another plot ripped from the headlines of the day. The terrorist group is partially made up of 'Nam vets and in their schemes to create civil unrest and anarchy they clearly represent the Symbionese Liberation Army. There's a group of Black militants based on the Black Panthers whom Harry has to go to for information at one point.

Nothing interesting comes from either time capsules of the era, they're just there. At least the first film played on the fact that the real-life Zodiac killer was never caught, so sending a ficticious supercop after him was catharsis of sorts.

Then we've got 1983's Sudden Impact, which is where I've jumped ship with only one more sequel to go. All those cliches that the first film invented are still here, only now they're cliched and played in a perfunctory manner as though there's no other choice. Harry spouts more one-liners than ever, they give him a fucking DOG to take care of, and aside from the line "Go ahead, make my day," they have him mutter "swell..." over and over as a backup catchphrase.

Speaking of "make my day," Ronald Reagan's quotation of this line makes the constant admonishments from Harry's superiors that he's a relic of a bygone era and not cut out for the way the world is now and no longer relevant all the more ridiculous. Also, the fact he's been breaking the law for years on every case he gets without being fired is now impossible to ignore. It's the re-invention of an icon as a parody of itself, more or less.

I knew I had to give the film a chance since Eastwood directed it, and yeah, he's got a good eye for shots, but there's even less reason for Sudden Impact to exist than the preceding sequels. So I'm gonna take a pass on The Dead Pool and spare myself the sight of an even more geriatric supercop shooting punks and cracking wise in every single scene, since they ran out of ideas for his character two films prior.

The very last shot of the first Harry has Clint Eastwood, having disgraced himself as a cop in order to stop the Scorpo killer, tossing his badge into the water and walking sullenly away. Perfect ending. Too bad it couldn't have stopped there.

I would love to play this thing sometime, though.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Animation Criticism 2.5 - The Onion AV Club reviews Popeye

Like Slant Magazine's inadequate expectations for the medium, here's another example of an obviously intelligent reviewer only half-understanding the purpose of animation in their professional critical review - August 15th's review of the Popeye The Sailor: 1933 - 1938 DVD

"Because of the repetitive nature of early sound animation, Popeye cartoons are best consumed in small doses. But the Fleischers' frequent experiments with mixed media and forced perspectives—which strove to bring cinematic depth to a moving comic strip—hold up to scrutiny decades later."

By "mixed media" the reviewer may simply be referring to some moments that incorporated live action, but "forced perspectives" bringing "cinematic depth" to "a moving comic strip" is the dead giveaway language of someone with low standards attempting to describe an obviously high quality work and not really knowing how, except to describe it as "cinematic." Well, duh. Popeye was animated on film, and shown in movie theaters. The reason they have "depth" is that they were made by real animators and not "cartoon writers" or alterna-hipster comedians who view drawings as dialogue mannequins.

Here's the review's byline:

"All the fighting on these early sound-era cartoons gets repetitive, but the terrific DVD special features help reveal their artistry."

"All the fighting" being the content of the cartoons and not the form, the reviewer needs to distance himself from the unsophisticated plots and dialogue by restating that because of the "repetitive nature of early sound animation" (early sound not providing enough Simpsons level dialogue,) the cartoons "are best consumed in small doses." Again, DUH. They were created as theatrical shorts. Are we to infer that the faux-clever hipster bait Aqua Teen Hunger Force is easier on the brain and eyeballs if watched for an hour or so?

A quick look at their review of the Aqua Teen movie gushes over "balls-to-the-wall smartass surrealism" which takes "randomness and pop-culture geekdom dominating contemporary comedy to delirious new levels" and contains "bizarre non sequiturs, stoned pop-culture riffing, and some of the weirdest gags ever to make it into a studio-released film."

I take back what I said in the last post, most reviews of animated films and television don't bother mentioning the word itself even once, since a near-total lack thereof is considered irrelevant and can be taken for granted.

DVD features about the Popeye cartoons don't "help reveal their artistry." The art itself reveals its artistry. And the cartoons "hold up to scrutiny decades later" because of what they are: Good. Animation.