Monday, March 30, 2009

Watchmen (2009, Zach Snyder)

Now that the deed is done, I would've much preferred that Warner Brothers plowed ahead with Sam Hamm's post-Batman script. Yes, Rorschach would've been more wisecracking, less angsty. Yes, entire plotlines would've been thrown out the window to fit 120 minutes. Yes, there would have been an ending completely arbitrarily created for the film. However, the result would at least have looked like the 1980s and resembled a real movie rather than the robotic facsimiles that pass for genre movies these days.

Superficially everything is close enough to resembling the original that the Internet "community" of fans who get the buzz going were satisfied. Snyder and the screenwriters' banality reveals itself in the minutiae of this long-awaited pageantry and in two distinct ways: what Rorschach would call "shallow liberal affectations" such as the insertion of evil oil oligarchs and green energy jargon or the boosting of Nixon from a cameo and presence in the book to a seemingly major supporting character, and the insertion of gratuitous violence anywhere it can fit. Snyder's slo-mo / speed up gimmick is his directorial calling card, utterly without imagination yet trademarked. His Watchmen isn't his any more than Dawn of the Dead was. Both take the central idea of something and speed it up for diminished attention spans while slowing down to linger on gory details, or invent them in this here case. How depressing. The last director who was passed up before Snyder for this film was Paul Greengrass of United 93. He seems to have coherent thoughts of his own and would have at least directed material of emotional heft before, rather than 300.

Carrying no resonance whatsoever, Watchmen the movie missed the chance to be a real "event movie" about ten years ago, before superhero movies were increasingly common. On the press junket Malin Åkerman tried pitching the film as a "deconstruction of superhero movies" because even the era of "Zap! Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" headlines is so far behind us that the adaptation of the medium's most prestigious achievement is merely just another superhero movie. The violence has been amped up in attempt to justify what makes this a superhero story "for adults" since apparently Zach Snyder didn't want to make a genuine period piece 1985 and instead shoved Nixon down your throat at every opportunity. This movie was only meant for the fanboys as far as the costumes. They'll buy anything that gets it halfway right, whose pristine trust are they really offering?

The ending: Manhattan's origin is the only time Snyder wasn't having premature ejaculations of blood through a hurried retelling of the ultimate nerd-lit whackoff comic. In the chaotic midst of truncating Moore's prose and imagery into a three hour music video, Manhattan's story is some kind of nice vignette with actual period piece design and the idiotic pop soundtrack which was just so deftly cueing "The Sounds of Silence" to a funeral scene uses some Phillip Glass and it's almost like a real movie. Jackie Earl Haley is entertaining as Rorschach until the heart of his arc, the slow time spent in prison, seems to pass by in just a few hours. When Rorschach gets his mask back at the end of this badly abridged cliff notes version, he says a really stupid line. Was this line absolutely necessary? Reminds me of The Taming of the Shrew, Written by William Shakespeare - additional dialogue by Sam Taylor"

Why is Silk Spectre II as young in her flashback as she is in present day and why's Nite Owl so buff? Ok, I know the latter - appealing modern soulless youth. The added violence, hinted at but rarely explicit in Moore's work, is nothing short of horrifying. Particularly when the lovebirds first fight scene with some goons involves Silk Spectre stabbing someone in the bleeding neck. Much later I was grateful the stupid new action scenes like that at the prison were merely boring. Zach Snyder's idiot milking of an "adult" superhero consists solely of exploiting any opportunity for lingering on sex and violence. Way to go, dolt.

I hadn't even looked at the book in about a year and this was still a cold dead body with plastic surgery leaking out. No. This adaptation should never have been made well by anyone and this wasn't very good, only one of the less worse possibilities. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy was well forgotten first.

"I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The 'Watchmen' film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms. Can't we get something else? Perhaps some takeout? Even Chinese worms would be a nice change.

There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films. It may be true that the only reason the comic book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise. Comics are just a sort of pumpkin patch growing franchises that might be profitable for the ailing movie industry.

They take an idea, bowdlerize it, blow it up, make it infantile and spend $100 million to give people a brief escape from their boring and often demeaning lives at work. It's obscene and it's offensive. This is not the culture I signed up for. I'm sure I sound like Bobby Fischer talking about chess.

Alan Moore
LA Times, 9/18/08

Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009, Patrick Lussier)

I had to wait a month before seeing this on Valentine's Day with my girlie when it was only playing in 3D at one theater, then felt slow in realizing why: the Friday the 13th remake came out Friday the 13th, the day before.

MBV3D's 3D is polarized prints and lenses, which isn't even as effective as red and blue double processing but that's how 3D is done for now until James Cameron supposedly reinvents the wheel with Avatar. You're asked as a viewer to do a lot of the focusing yourself. Contrast between foreground and background staging pops out best and is underused. Once or twice the pickaxe comes through a pane of glass in the foreground and that's the best use of the technology. I'm a mark for 3D in horror, which seems to come cyclically every 30 years from the 50s to 80s and today. My anticipation for Alex Aja's 3D Piranha movie (Joe Dante's, only insofar as the use of piranha) and the novelty of flesh chomping fish swarming the screen forgives the remake albatross for the same reason I'd see the remake of an '81 slasher I'd never seen in order to enjoy a 3D slasher, probably the first one since Friday the 13th 3D.

The reuse of a pickaxe swinging miner as the killer and featured prominently in the advertising was a surprise, given the frequent disassociation from such details of PG-13 slasher remakes like Prom Night or April Fool's Day, and only hinted at the competent reverence Todd Farmer (Jason X) has for the genre tropes. Tom Atkins' presence doesn't hurt and the young adult actors in peril aren't trying to be too funny, thank god.

There is a full circle on display here from the first generation slashers like My Bloody Valentine to the snarky Scream and finally back to where the script is workman rather than self-referentially post modern. The setup is actually pure Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, killing the original villain off at the start to tease the identity of an obvious copycat all the way through. Harry is-he-or-isn't-he Warden is suitably intimidating the way non-immortal slashers between Michael Myers and Freddy had to get by.

The whodunnit aspect is a charmingly old fashioned slasher cliche (revitalized too by Scream) and eventually managed to get me beyond whocares. Unfortunately there is a twist ending which ruins everything despite their familiarity to the slasher genre because it plays a typically unfair trick of perspective shift abused by everyone since Fight Club.

Those are petty details. The point is that Patrick Lussier didn't fool around with the 3D, every usage intends to either draw you in or heighten danger - no snakes springing out of tubes or yo-yos here. He's a Wes Craven protege who's directed some of his worst productions - Dracula 2000, yikes - but he also edited the Scream series, New Nightmare and Red Eye and MacGuyver before that (!) and displays plenty of confidence in making the rhythms of action scary. He can't create a spooky mood the way even the hackiest slashers could when imitating the Italian style, but this is a 3D movie and a seat jumper and that's fine.

3D next gen b-horror, I'm for it!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Regressive Childhood Classics Series (Super Mario Bros, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Ernest Goes To Jail, more)

We live decadently in each others shared childhood relations. including bad movies.

"Kids movie" is a condescending, chaotic and false label but for the purposes of this experiment, whatever. Being that the gulf between "adult" and "child" fare has closed to an imperceptible PG-13 crack wherein the difference between a 13 year old and a 30 year old's praise of The Dark Knight is nonexistent.

In the 80s and 90s, ginormous studio budgets were thrown at what would've been second tier productions starring TV actors just ten years earlier. In the heady special effects boom of those decades, any half baked fantasy premise was green lit until eventually the yuppie puppies were sufficiently retarded.

In the spirit of embracing retardation some friends and I embarked on a journey of mindless self indulgence, revisiting the subcategories of children's fare which never qualified them classics - shameless corporate ventures, special effects boondoggles, dollar theater programmers - movies we might only have enjoyed thoughtlessly as children but had never seen since, and those that escaped our consumption across the table...

Super Mario Bros (1993, Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton)

I saw this three times in the theater. Not being allowed to own a Nintendo had something to do with it. The dream cast of Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo is indicative of the tone where anything weird was "in" for kids. Especially slime and dinosaurs, set to incessantly upbeat and adventurous Alan Silvestri music and directed with pop-cyberpunk love by the co-creators of Max Headroom. They blew a ton of cash on this one and the production is covered in spikes, sparks and Beyond Thunderdome inspired costume design. Those who say the whole enterprise of replicating video game fantasy in live action by changing everything are missing the point, there are about a million fleeting references to the games and occasionally witty moments from Bill & Ted co-writer Ed Solomon's script doctoring. This was the first video game based movie ever and it bombed but its still a lot more of a real movie than its ghetto progeny, all the way up to Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li.

Jingle All The Way (Brian Levant, 1996)

SCHWARZENNEGER. SINBAD. A late period entry from the era of big and would-be big 90s summer comedies, and late in the time my friends Ryan and Matt were going to bad movies on purpose after school. This was the most recent title we were willing to venture. Cody remarked you could occasionally see the spark going out in Sinbad's eyes at the end of some scenes as he realizes his career is over. Phil Hartman has a funny supporting role to remind he could make reading the phone book funny, and he's dead. There are also pre-9/11 jokes about Sinbad using mail bombs and a pre- ah, they'll keep doing it - toy store trampling to death joke. The trendiness of basing a faux-zany big name comedy vehicle around the Tickle-Me-Elmo stories in the news is pretty innocuous, but this is the kind of movie that squanders the goodwill of Phil Hartman and an animatronic killer reindeer chasing Arnold with an extended cameo by Jim Belushi.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (Rodney Amateau, 1987)

Taking a giant step back in time to another milestone of child targetting corporate tie-ins, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie means a lot to me because Garbage Pail Kids once did. I found out about them by accident walking past the lockers of the older kids at my first K-12 school, the stickers long worn inside the doors. With nothing else to go on (they had been out of stores for years) I began making lists of the kids' names as I found them out, and obsessively haunting every garage sale and collectibles store I could, but never to any luck. When the Internet and Ebay arrived I finally satiated my desires and haven't hungered since, but years before that, all I had was The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, appearing like a beacon in the kids/family section of my local video store and giving me the shot of disturbing GPK weirdness I so needed.

The movie itself resembles a hybrid of Steven Spielberg and Troma. A plucky young kid (Spielberg) is terrorized by bullies at least 20 years older than him (Troma) and finds the titular kids in a magic garbage pail (Troma) which if the opening credits are to be believed, come from space (Spielberg.) The can is owned by a wise magical old man in his curio shop of mystic wonders (Spielberg.) When the fun-loving kids are set loose, normal society is in for a "heap" of wacky trouble! With early-Troma New Jersey aesthetics and only slightly less cheap production values.

What most people take from this movie is the unforgettably ugly kids themselves. The permutation from Cabbage Patch Kids parodies to live action versions of said parodies isn't flattering to the midgets whose heads are encased inside, including my favorite little person actor Phil Fondacaro (Troll, Seinfeld) as "Greaser Greg." Ryan couldn't get through the scariness of these kids as a kid, but my love of GPK must have overrode my hair-trigger for nightmare material as a kid, even if the makeup strikes me today as a bit prescient of Chucky. The film's sole disturbance to me as a kid seems a lot less unsettling now - the sudden 3rd act appearance of a "State Home For The Ugly" which rounds up society's misfits for freaking extermination (Troma) and of course locks up the GPKs before they're rescued by the plucky young kid (Spielberg.)

Like Super Mario Bros, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie has the dubious distinction of being the first cross-marketed movie of its kind. However, Topps Trading Cards more than made up for it with their second trading card property feature film, Mars Attacks!

Mac and Me (1988, Stewart Raffill)

watch this movie or the kids at ronald mcdonald's house will starve!

Speaking of Spielberg, this title plagiarizes E.T. so shamelessly you'd swear it fell into public domain. Corporate sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald's probably prevented any lawsuits and their brand is all over this one, especially the latter. Not only is the expressionless Mysterious Alien Creature puppet unofficially monikered after the famous sandwich, his identically facially expressed alien family (whose body suits makes them look like burn victims) but at a critical juncture the healing power of Coca-Cola itself nurses them all back to health. Sounds funny, yet the blatant commercialism is never omnipresent to the point of hilarity and the stupid kids-meet-alien is never anything beyond maudlin boredom. Ryan and Matt and I were tricked into this mess by this scene and the promise that there would be more of the same. Turns out regressive childhood classics have to come from your actual childhood.

Ernest Goes To Jail (1990, John R. Cherry III)

Ahhh, the palette cleanser. Coming off of Mac and Me this was exactly what was needed by all, a deceivingly dopey old fashioned comedian working at what I considered his prime in childhood and remain decided. Jim Varney's Ernest is the last old fashioned matinee icon and entertainer of our time, developing tirelessly a weirdly endearing persona from film to film while working with the same principal crew and delighting...young, not exactly young and old. Pee-Wee Herman filled that gap in the same period. The dark side of this workmanship was Police Academy, just for reference.

At a lean hour and 20, the plotting moves things briskly while balancing the star performance as well as any 1940s series of comedy shorts. If god was in heaven and theaters were still venues for cartoons and three stooges shorts, this would have been 20 minutes only. Varney and oft-director Cherry create a lot of setups which build until paying off with a bank sequence ten minutes long and methodically silly, and forever imprinted on my mind watching upstairs at Grandma's house.

If one has not seen in childhood and needs more highfalutin legitimate praise, Varney's evil twin role of his own doppelganger is effortlessly suave and convincing.

Stay Tuned (1992, Peter Hyams)

Finally and flatly the series ends for now with what Hollywood calls a "high concept" comedy, Ryan's personal recommendation is mostly cheerfully stupid, having fun with itself and the typically overblown budget even when the viewer doesn't. There's some aspects I would've loved at the right age - jumping into interdimensional portals, a cartoon hell at war with cartoon heaven, the Chuck Jones cartoon segment - but the script never gets any cleverer than the fact John Ritter is in a series of television parodies.

There's not a lot of "family fare" that explicitly uses Hell (and conspicuously without Satan) as a plot device. What, George Burns in Oh God! You Devil? It's like Waxwork II: Lost In Time except so family friendly that Jeffrey Jones and Eugene Levy are the bad guys.

The kid in this kids movie is a token banana to Ritter. How many other kid movies can claim not a single scene between parents and children until the very end? Like superhumanly clever 90s movie kid he wears gigantic glasses while hacking into things with computers and looking like a gigantic nerd with his neon safety helmet, day-glo bicycle, and maxi-radical overcooked exclamations, dude!! Jeffrey Jones exclaiming "Time to rock n' roll!" before zapping himself into a television with early 90s CGI morphing effects tickles the same primitive kid impulse nerve.

There's one genuinely uncanny scene in the whole involving the annoying kid and a satellite dish...Peter Hyams also directed Outland which is supposed to be good...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Targets (1968, Peter Bogdanovich)

According to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, when Bob Rafelson walked out of Targets he commented the picture was lousy, but Bogdanovich sure could direct the hell out of a movie. Rafelson had his own theatrical film premiere that year also, the unforgettable Head. Only if your first film is Head do you reserve the right to make such a backhanded compliment about such a startling debut, though IMDB also claims an uncredited turn by Bogdanovich on this Roger Corman title.

Rafelson's friend and collaborator Jack Nicholson got his start as one of Roger Corman's reparatory of actors, appearing as the Cry Baby Killer and in Little Shop of Horrors and the The Terror, shot for the few extra days Corman had sets left over from The Raven (also featuring Jack) co-starring Boris Karloff used as Targets' movie within a movie. His prescience for future greatness was correct here as well. Targets is constantly unnerving, sometimes shocking, and ultimately compromised by Bogdanovich's own ego. That's hard to avoid that when you, the writer-director, cast yourself as the writer-director of a movie within your own movie in a subplot that goes nowhere. Either way this film established him as an auteurist force, oddly carrying the weight of self-referentialism that plagues post-new hollywood bubble gum card auteurs.

Roger Corman being the greatest unsung talent scout Hollywood ever unofficially had, he spotted Bogdanovich and offered the job on the condition he re-use footage from . Bogdanovich uses Corman's prerequisite in a post-modern way, casting Karloff as a veteran horror star at the end of his career. Boggy's character is himself as well, trying to rope the retiring Karloff ("Orloff," as in the count from Nosferatu,) into a role unlike the tired old gothic tropes of his past. This new role, says the director-as-himself to the star-as-himself, is about a real world terror. Karloff/Orloff will be a leading man in a serious film, for once.

Bogdanovich's assertion that the old world horrors were dead by 1968 makes Targets an explicit statement of what horror movies of the day had begun to subtext, that there is horror living next door as well as Transylvania. What made this film unintentionally more horrific in its day was how quickly a seemingly isolated tragedy duplicated itself in America. The psychotic antagonist Bobby Thompson, played with mild mannered opacity by an obscure good looking TV actor named Tim O'Kelly, was primarily modeled on Charles Starkweather's 1965 murder spree which the New Hollywood film Badlands was also based. This film's premiere had the amazingly appropriate bad luck to premiere the month after MLK's assassination and the month before RFK's. The only other film that decade to be so unluckily was, incredibly, The Manchurian Candidate for depicting a political murder by sniper rifle the same year JFK was killed and was subsequently vaulted a few years by star Frank Sinatra. Deliberately, Targets has a bravura sequence in which Bobby snipes slow moving drivers on a highway.

Starkweather's deranged lack of motivation for his random killings is there in O'Kelly, although he cannot help some silent critique upon the easy availability of firearms in America and the culture of gun ownership. The Thompson family is functional and seemingly so is Bobby, eschewing liberal hysteria about guns themselves as the cause of madness (the father owns them too) and conservative hysteria about the juvenile mind rot of horror entertainment. Prior to watching Targets I'd assumed for years that the killer was a fan of Karloff's character who'd methodically stalk him and kill along the way. In actuality their plotlines are totally separate and converge only by coincidence in the final act. This feels like something of a cheat, since there would have been so much to explore thematically. Senator's wives were not yet screeching about Satanic backwards messages in heavy metal records and England was a long way from their "video nasties" campaign, but there had recently been self-appointed guardians of young peoples' minds who crusaded against EC Horror comics of the 50s. Regardless of horror entertainment, the issue had at least exposed itself to public debate in the form of the Warren Beatty Bonnie & Clyde's timely New Hollywood youth oriented violence. A lot of this films' imitators throw the media card into a story like this gratuitously, Rafelson either doesn't care or pardons his contemporaries.

Karloff has a precious couple of remarkable scenes where his stone temple features are maximized; a telling of the ancient Arab joke about meeting the angel of death in Samaria and the denouement of O'Kelley, who's practically been in another movie up until those last few minutes. The consequence is that a memorable moment is robber of deeper resonance since Karloff was busy being in a sitcom with Bogdanovich as himself sitting around watching clips from Karloff movies with Karloff right there in the room. This shameful hermetically sealed mugging is bizarre when the sniping scenes are so perfectly chillingly realized in all their over the shoulder informality and location shooting. In comparison to every following imitator, ignorant or not, there's no stylization to or glorification of the killer's crimes or even his psychology as in Taxi Driver. Only the simplicity of queasy, quasi-documentary American assassin tactics.