Monday, December 27, 2010

Forbidden World aka Mutant (1982, Allan Holzman)


Roger Corman productions had a conflicted duality towards including humor; a sly love of camp warring against a pragmatic mistrust of overt irony. This was based on the financial consideration that audiences were wanting more and more to take silly ideas dead seriously after Vietnam, Watergate et all clogged the drive-in with worldly cynicism. Allan Holzman was hanging around Corman's New World Pictures when they made their defining title of the 70s, Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel) and claims that Corman did as much as possible to scissor out the comedy. One wonders if he ever read the script, and if after seeing the first rushes he honestly thought some occasional excising of absurdity would convince some people that what they were watching wasn't the gonzo camp masterpiece Bartel clearly had in mind. Mutant exists in two versions, a strategically shortened cut entitled Forbidden World and the original full length version which has never been available until now. Mutant is the funnier and better version, although the slightly more serious Forbidden World is almost as good. While not as bold as Death Race, the farcical nature of Holzman's vision is simply too pervasive to eradicate. 

The alterations make the official cut only a smidgen less amusing by removing the lingerings on the silly parts which effectively wink at the audience. Taking these bits out casts doubt on the genuinely humorous intentions of what is frequently ridiculous and makes the film seem dumb. This forced restraint also puts more of an edge on the violence insofar as watching someone scream three or four times can be jarring, until the fifth time or sixth when the repetition becomes a deliberate joke. Removing pithy dialogue meant to lighten the mood when someone has just died is another example. Corman apparently didn't want anyone hungry for an Alien ripoff to think they were watching a borderline spoof, while director Alan Holzman seems to have agreed with Pauline Kael's dismissal of the Ridley Scott blockbuster as a "haunted house with gorilla movie set in space." Not in the perforative sense; as a simple equalizing formula for entertainment that also allows room for personal style. For Alien that meant the designs of H.R. Giger and supporting cast of character actors like Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto. For Holzman, the details are such as the fact that in the future, women are apparently required to wear high heels at all times.

Rarely do movies utterly lacking in originality have the good taste to incorporate a variety of influences that perfectly suit them. Mutant has a hipness which has now well aged into retro-hipness. Even the title Mutant slightly predates the Ninja Turtles and was only changed to Forbidden World after Corman polled some illiterate Los Angeles teens who didn't know what "mutant" meant. Market test research is never good, even for b-movie makers. The look of the laboratory station where most of the story happens certainly imitates the used-future grunge of Alien with flickering lights and leaky water pipes. The stronger influence however is actually John Carpenter's 1981 Escape From New York, which had a million and one cheap tricks to create the future on a budget. Holzman's team appears to have studied them carefully and implements them with even less money. Every workroom has colored blinking lights. There's an elaborate system of security cameras displaying everything on TV monitors embedded in the walls. The attention to detail on functional illustrations, like the stylized font on a glass placard reading CENTRIFUGE, is exquisite. Also straight from Escape is the brilliant use of animation to emulate simple computer screen graphics. The Carpenter influence can also be felt from the synthesizer score by Susan Justin, whose occasional porniness isn't exactly incongruous with all the sexy lady scientists getting naked as often as they do. Owing a little more to Alien is the omnipresence of modular walls and going all the way back to Star Trek is the uniformity of automatically opening doors. These are all small details that collectively go a long way. The only influence which doesn't fit is naturally from Star Wars and is mercifully minimal, mainly an unrelated pre-credits space dogfight prologue using recycled footage from one of Corman's Star Wars cash-ins, Battle Beyond the Stars.

Jesse Vint and a short guy in a robot suit are the spacefarers first seen pretending to evade spaceships from another movie. The strangest difference between Forbidden World and Mutant is the rerecording of the robot's voice; in Mutant he has a generic robot monotone while Forbidden World distractingly gives him what sounds like a young woman imitating the voice of an eight year old boy. Vint is kind of distracting as well; not miscast as a mercenary yet too closely resembling Robert Englund than Harrison Ford for me to believe as a chick magnet. They're summoned to where the movie begins proper, a desert planet laboratory consisting of four scientists, three staff and the titular hungry genetic experiment gone wrong. Two of the scientists are women who take turns getting naked with Vint, and they couldn't have been more obviously cast to cover their bases with contrast in physical types: June Chadwick the leggy take-charge blonde and Dawn Dunlap the sensual mouse. At least Chadwick can act. Dunlap's only prior experience was in a French soft core erotic drama and she's awful. The rest of the cast are generically competent actors with the one standout of Fox Harris as a chain smoking scientist. He does most of the heavy lifting with ponderous pseudoscientific exposition. People with good taste may remember him from Repo Man (1984, Alex Cox) as the loony driver of the radioactive Chevy Malibu and he basically does the same crazy shtick here.

Holzman is the co-editor as well as director and the film has a huge number of meticulous edits. A few are nonsensical for the sake of style, such as when Jesse Vint wakes up from hypersleep (thanks, Alien!) at the beginning of the movie and has split second flash forwards to the rest of the movie which hasn't happened yet. There's also an unfortunate music video style sex scene between Vint and Chadwick. Fortunately the majority of creative edits are directorial decisions that work miracles for the budget. When the mutant grows from bean bag to jumbo size unwieldy giant, cutting around him a few seconds at a time makes his rampage actually seem animate. The space dogfight prologue also wouldn't work if Holzman weren't a skilled enough editor to patch two different movies together. When laser guns go off indoors there are accompanying inserts of white frames to simulate muzzle flashes. Between these edits and the thrift store production design, this film is a master class in making the most of a low budget. The only special effects that don't need to be cleverly cut around are the splatter makeups, which result from the mutant leaving some of its victims half chewed, melting into ooze and still alive (!) Those are excellently gloppy and we get to take long gross looks at them.

Being the best ripoff of anything is a dubious distinction. Ripoffs of exploitation movies can be better than originals through one-upmanship. Alien was a good simple horror movie with astonishing production values that legitimized the horror/sci-fi subgenre to mainstream critics, similar to the way Star Wars inaugurated the long eradication of any distinction between adult and kiddie tastes by finally making Flash Gordon hokum look real. Fans of both films really hate when anyone intimates the content beneath the special effects isn't worth taking too seriously. The fact is, what made Alien a sensation was that razor toothed hand puppet bloodily exploding out of someone's chest and not the Freudian intellectual undertones. Corman and Holzman correctly recognized this. They also understood that just because Sigourney Weaver was the sole survivor didn't mean that the guys most likely to check a movie like Alien the other 99% of the time - and they are guys - wanted to see more strong leading roles for women. They were the readers of Heavy Metal magazine, hence the boobs and slime and good natured silliness. Mutant is handily the most amusing imitation made before the more serious-minded imitations naturally hit the breaking point of self-parody, as in those SyFy Channel original movies with titles like Sharktopus

Of all the New World Pictures directors from this particular era, Holzman may have come the closest to Joe Dante (who did Piranha for Corman in '78) in terms of gently kidding monster movie conventions while still delivering the goods. Corman's trims to Holzman's director's cut make a lot of the film's best moments come off as accidental or naive - such as when Jesse Vint has to perform emergency surgery on Fox Harris and Corman cuts a shot of Harris smoking his cigarette while Vint's hands are still in his belly - but in both versions the scene remains. Shout! Factory did a great service in unearthing the original Mutant and packaging them together. For anyone with a sense of humor and taste for 80s sci-fi pulp, Forbidden World / Mutant is a wonderful scuzzy indulgence.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Martyrs (2008, Pascal Laugier)


I have mixed feelings toward Eli Roth's Hostel movies. They display an obvious love for the genre but are utterly devoid of insight or feeling for the chosen subject matter. Martyrs is both a substantive infusion to the hollow center of the "torture porn" controversy and a partial explanation for the former film's influence. One IMDB eyewitness described Pascal Laugier's bilious reaction when an audience member dared compare his film with Michael Haneke's post-modern sadism exercise Funny Games, prompting Laugier to declare his film the antidote to such works. Haneke is unlike Roth a clever provocateur and it follows that my Hostel comparison is even more egregious. My reasoning is this: Roth's epochal piece of bad taste had a contempt for humanity that felt unearned and insulated, as if everything he had learned about the dark side of our nature simply came from horror movies.

Hostel offhandedly ascribes cartoon villainy as the cause behind a far more intriguing scenario, disarming any plausibility and leaving only the absurdity of grue. Roth's torturers are wealthy businessmen who want to kill people for fun apparently just because they can afford to. We are not invited to contemplate the possibility that the desire to murder might be laying dormant inside so many otherwise ordinary people. Nor are we invited to contemplate the minds of the women willing to act as sexual bait for future torture victims, in an amplification of the old misogynist scary stories of hookers harvesting the organs of their johns. That Roth's sequel made two of these businessmen into main characters only further demonstrated how little he had to say about them. These situations are founded on a fear of people as the ultimate sources of evil. That the author takes this evil at face value is actually more unsettling than the movies themselves.

Martyrs is also a film afraid of the normal looking neighbors next door but does not let the viewer take any horror-genre shortcuts in indulging this fear. There is no easy black humor or familiar beats of suspense. Laugier gives actual humanity to his torturous villains as well as their victims and the result is more disturbing than the most elaborate murder set piece. This is Hostel with a point, churning the stomach and mind in equal measure.

The most common type of kidnapping and torture outside the political realm happens between family members, usually parents and children. Mentally deranged mothers and fathers are capable of physical and sexual abuse on a level of religious fervor; the gut wrenching cases of Elizabeth Fritzil, David Pelzer and "Genie" are those of parents who dehumanized their children by inculcating the psychological state of a horsewhipped slave. For each of these cases there are many more involving the kidnapping and imprisonment of other people's children as sex slaves and human "pets," and one wonders which is the more tragic. Martyrs is unquestionably inspired by such real life incidents of meticulous monstrousness and asks why they are so. The answer is ultimately unsurprising in the context of a horror film, but the journey never betrays the outrage of first hearing, for instance, the story of Josef Fritzil and his daughter. Laugier's moral compass demands we acknowledge the banality of such evil at the start before elaborating any further: a young girl named Lucie escapes on foot from an abandoned industrial area suspiciously resembling the rotting factories of Eli Roth. Once in police custody she cannot remember where she came from or who kidnapped and tortured her. The story jumps ahead to her young adulthood and that of her friend Anna whom she met in an orphanage after the escape.

Laugier begins to play games within games. Lucie arrives at an upperclass household and promptly blows away the family inside. We surmise and are confirmed by her that the adults of the household were the ones at whose hands Lucie was tortured. We are also shown that Lucie is subject to hallucinations of an emaciated, demonic girl resembling herself, putting her sanity and the household couple's identities as perpetrators in question. Furthermore the family has been established prior to Lucie's arrival as bourgeois-ordinary in private and suitably helpless in the face of her wrath, especially their two younger children. Lucie exasperatedly asks the teenage son if he knows what his parents had done before shooting him and killing the younger daughter in cold blood.

With doubt of guilt and sympathy for apparent innocents caught in the crossfire, Laugier prompts questioning of revenge as an equalizing force in addition to circumstantially wondering if the right people are being struck back against. Is whatever Lucie's torturers did worthy of such vengeance? If this is indeed the guilty couple, would justice be better served in the court of law? Certainly for their felled children. If this had happened to yourself, could you wait for the slow gears of justice or would your rage dictate the same actions as Lucie? Would you spare the children? Unlike that subgenre of exploitation films frequently referred to as "Rape-Revenge" (i.e. I Spit On Your Grave) the cause of the victim's rage has not yet been revealed in full and we have only the ruthlessness of revenge with which to gauge the heinousness of the original crimes. This is a powerful omission.

The doubt surrounding Lucie's revenge rampage is given form by Anna, who arrives at the scene of the massacre in shock. Lucie senses her doubt - and that of the audience - and reacts as would any victim whose story is given less than full credibility. Anna even attempts to help one member of the family barely hanging onto life, to Lucie's disgust and final rectification. Further haunted by the ghostly apparition, Lucie ends her own life. The disfigured spirit was that of another girl she saw as a child when escaping, but could not help. Vengeance does not settle the guilt of the lucky living, as Holocaust survivors can testify. There is indeed a parallel between the inner pain of those victims and their righteous indignation that many of those who committed atrocities against them were able to reintegrate into normal society after the war. The skeletal appearance of Lucie's specter and haughty indifference of the murdered family to (what will be soon be revealed) their crimes against humanity unmistakably invites allusion to war crimes glossed over.

Ironically, Hostel makes use of Nazi and Nazi collaborator fears in a similar but frustratingly ignorant way, which is at least useful to illustrate Laugier's thoughtfulness. More than torture, Roth constantly threatens the danger of literally having your life sold out by those you thought were friends - there's a striking scene in Hostel II where such a collaborator all but winks at an imperiled girl as she lets jackbooted thugs into a house to take her. Per his priorities, Roth discards the moment as a joke but the nastiness lingers longer in the imagination than any of the ensuing Greg Nicotero gore effects.

Shortly after Lucie's death, Anna discovers proof of the family's guilt and is captured by members of what is revealed to be a conspiratorial society of torturers. For the last time, the Hostel comparisons are warranted for showing a sharp contrast in approach. The methods of torture used by Roth's villains are horrible gimmicks ending in horror film death, whereas Laugier's are intended to prolong suffering indefinitely and force our consideration of the minds capable of routine depravity - like those of Joseph Fritzil. Where Laugier justifies and slightly diminishes his people-monsters is in revealing a twisted goal behind their work, one with preexisting human origin and history given a terrifying dimension by reintroduction into a modern setting. The title is the clue. Insofar as religious motivations produce the most decadent standardized cruelty to this day, the secret society fits thematically into the film's relentless focus on humans as the scariest creatures of all. One shudders to think what Laugier would do with the Hostel concept, but my point is that he recognizes the unexplored premise of a recreational killing-club as an intellectual cop-out. The humans without humanity in Martyrs have self-justification and that may not make them more disturbing, but it does make them more plausible and provocative. 

The last section of the film is a history of torture inflicted on Anna after her capture by the secret society. The length at which this goes on is as uncomfortable as what happens to her and settles once and for all the notion that torture in horror is porn. What happens to Anna is an endurance test for the viewer along the lines of the Camille Keaton's rape in I Spit On Your Grave. Laugier opts to keep the torturer's faces out of frame, in deference to that film's nightmarish reaction shots of the gang-rapists, but the intention is the same: to place the audience in the victim's role. I Spit was bafflingly misconstrued by reactionaries as a rape simulation; the extent of the marathon unpleasantness in Martyrs should hopefully leave no ambiguities about the sickness meant to be felt versus pornographic voyeurism. The rape of Camille Keaton was very long. The torture of Anna (Morjana Alaoui) is an act onto itself, and its brutality answers the question of Lucie's brutal vengeance that came before.

Only in last minute conclusion does Martyrs falter, giving a pat twist to the fate of the torture society after their "work" on Anna is complete. The film which precedes is possibly the horror genre's first serious moral exercise in the infamous subgenre of "Torture Porn" the way I Spit On Your Grave is the alpha and omega text of "Rape-Revenge" flicks. No serious man or woman disappointed by the snickering juvenilia of Eli Roth or teenage nihilist profundity of the Saw series should miss this; an empathic and unsparing nightmare which places the horror of torture not on an outlandish special effects pedestal but in your neighbor's basement.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Wedding Singer (1998, Frank Coraci)


I was born in 1986 and when I was about eight years old I decided that the 1980s were the greatest decade. Initially this was due to the discovery of old faded Garbage Pail Kids stickers inside the lockers of my elementary school, and their maddening, tantalizing scarcity before eBay put everyone's childhood relics up for sale. I also soon discovered that my favorite film was Gremlins and my favorite band was Devo. These three products shared one commonality: nobody I knew in the present had heard of all three, or cared about one. There were new movies and music available which didn't need explanations to strangers. Yet the 1980s simply had more movies that were more like Gremlins and more bands that used synthesizers than what was new and readily available during the Clinton administration. I started to sincerely believe I had been born just a few years too late for my tastes.

I didn't understand for a long time that I had simply cultivated an affectation which prevented myself from enjoying the present as a matter of snobbery. I was as the narrator of Daniel Clowes' 1995 Eightball story "MCMLXVI": misanthropically obsessed with 1966 as the pinnacle of American pop culture. Having been born that year, he's forever chasing an idealized fantasy. The irony of such obsessions is that people with discriminating tastes have to make an effort of finding culture they enjoy in any decade, and often don't find out about a neat movie or band or what have you until many years after the debut.

There's another, more ominous publication useful for understanding the commodification of nostalgia: an article from the November 4, 1997 The Onion titled US Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past". The joke is that there was 1950s retro in the 1970s and ironic 1990s retro for the 70s, i.e. Grease and Happy Days does not account for this. The satirical piece also asserts that the retro gap has been closing since people started talking about the 1980s too soon, and if current levels of consumption go unchecked we may run out of past by 2005. For anyone annoyed by crass, mass-marketed retro this was a pretty funny article.

What The Onion writers only touched on was that Generation X's "appreciation" of their childhoods was a form of passive aggressive infantilism designed to eliminate the distinctions of adulthood. This is why the humorous 2005 prediction hasn't fanned out, and 1980s retro is still in stride circa 2010. Going back to eBay for a moment: I certainly wasn't the only one who bought old games and toys that I wasn't even alive for the first time around. The Internet helped kill the idea of past pop culture's scarcity - first toys on eBay, then clips on YouTube - as fearfully aging boomers and Gen X-ers began to conglomerate their collective junk memories into a common language. This assures both parties that their Tron reference will remain relevant whether they were 5, 15, 25 or negative-5 years old in 1982.

The first episode of Family Guy aired January 31st, 1999. Tron: Legacy is released in theaters December 17th, 2010. These are not unrelated incidents.

The Wedding Singer is a charming movie deserving the rare approbation of having something for everybody. As far as the retro angle is concerned, I'm baffled as to how the 1985 period setting was chosen the same year That 70s Show premiered. Were the 1980s a boom decade for the wedding singer trade? Probably not, the story could take place in any day. More likely, writer Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler wanted to feature an assortment of retro songs in their movie about a greatest-hits singer and noticed the whole "70s" thing was being overplayed. Instead they decided to beat everyone to the punch of goofing on the 80s, without realizing that relics of the 80s were going to be taken just as seriously as anything new in the years to come.

The fashion references are a lot funnier than the name droppings. Costume Designer Mona May is almost as funny as anyone in front of the camera, inviting the audience to crack up as Sandler's buddy Allen Covert casually enters scenes in Miami Vice or Michael Jackson getups and no one bats an eye. A modern remake would undoubtedly waste time explaining each getup instead of being so mercifully understated. Only in the final climactic scene does the retro become too obnoxiously self-aware, for the sake of a Billy Idol cameo that feels written by a young Seth MacFarlane. Most of the other references are fortunately casual enough to be innocuous and sometimes even irreverent: there's something about Sandler shrugging off a child in a Freddy Krueger mask which underscores the absurdity of the decade that let kids dress up as disfigured child murderers. Not so subtle are shoehorned clunkers like "Hang on hon, I'm watching Dallas! I think J.R. might be dead or something, they shot him!"

Drew Barrymore would be inspired casting if Wes Craven hadn't already used her as an emblem of the decade two years earlier in Scream. On a subtextual level, she's the only ironic touch. While the rest of the cast including Sandler and especially her cousin Christine Taylor have their 80s style played up, Barrymore is obviously closer to contemporary. Mona May's gaudy costumes and hairspray were probably considered unbecoming an up-and-coming recovering actress like herself. Even if her vanity was what made the call, thematically the chick flick trope that she's the special one-and-only meant to be with Sandler provides a rationale for quasi-timelessness in her character's personal style. Her acting is as competently plastic as any other of her adult roles, and Sandler obviously likes looking at her, but she's a cipher. Christine Taylor makes a more lasting impression and she's funnier playing off either one of them.

The Wedding Singer lets Adam Sandler do something he's maybe done one and a half other times in his entire career: play an underdog who's neither an insensitive jerk nor an idiot. This was what won me over. He gets punched out twice and doesn't even return the favor to his romantic rival at the end; it's amazingly restrained compared to the rest of his body of work. His funniest scenes are in reaction to others and Herlihy justifies his few freakouts. The one major breakdown scene was unsurprisingly the most heavily featured in the trailer. That and the rapping granny are what kept me away from this flick until so recently. This is a more challenging role for Sandler than his supposed range-stretching in Punch-Drunk Love and more rewarding to non-Sandler fans like myself. The story's a logical outlet for his usual persona and shtick, including his silly guitar songs. Speaking of logical outlets for particular performers, Jon Lovitz's cameo is just as well done as Steve Buscemi's infamous best man speech in that Buscemi can also be hilarious as the star of the film whereas a small dose of Lovitz is best.

The other most distinguishing accomplishment of the film is the unwieldy combination of Adam Sandler Movie and Chick Flick. You'd never guess Herlihy wrote Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. He and Sandler deftly push all the right emotional aww-buttons for girls while being just rude enough for the men. The only bone thrown to men might be the 80s itself, when middle class women started dressing like whores. Female viewers get Adam Sandler pining for marriage and kids, an adorable old couple happily celebrating their anniversary, Sandler serenading Barrymore with a song about growing old together, Barrymore choosing to dance with the lonely fat kid at a Bar Mitzvah, and a good old fashioned million-to-one stunt by Sandler which rebuffs Barrymore's cheating yuppie fiancee for true love. If all "rom-coms" were as funny and satisfying to both genders as this one, there might finally be peace between us instead of animosity encouraged by the dick kicking parties that the subgenre regularly churns out.

Within the context of no context the 80s stuff in The Wedding Singer has paradoxically made it more relevant to cultural consciousness today than when it was released. The perfect alchemy of Sandler and schmaltz is a genuine feat. When some executive gets around to green lighting the movie of the musical based on the movie, like The Producers or Hairspray, we'll know for sure we've finally run out of retro.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010, Alexandre Aja)



Is there anything more foolish and dispiriting than being disappointed by a film for which you had low expectations, but also wanted very much to like?

Piranha 3D already had my money a good year before I even put on my 3D glasses, and the sheer anticipation provoked retrospectives of the entire Piranha series spread across two episodes of An Alan Smithee Podcast. The newest film follows the franchise tradition of creative schizophrenia over making a dumb monster movie with a knowing wink. This is the inheritance of the original film's screenwriter John Sayles imbuing all the stock monster movie characters with personality and director Joe Dante casting good actors to charmingly deadpan the absurdity of what was in 1978 already a familiarly hokey setup and obvious cash-in by Roger Corman on Jaws.

Piranha 3D's failure is more complex than the sweaty 1981 sequel or the joyless 1995 TV remake. Between the cast, director special effects and even the basic scenario, this could have been the worthy follow-up to Piranha 32 years later. Unfortunately, Aja seems to have taken the job for the proximity to boobs. Screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg of Sorority Row and Good Luck Chuck, respectively, are only too happy to supply him with obnoxious hotties. Like his contemporary Eli Roth, Aja seems to believe that horror movie audiences love to feel contempt for their teen meat before the butchering or feeding frenzy commences. His conception of a dumb-fun horror flick invites us to first ogle Spring Break sluts, then cheer their demise as a kind of puritanical punishment for lacking modesty. This is like being the high school nerd who fantasizes about screwing the hot cheerleader one minute and pictures her on the business end of Jason's machete the next, except that your average Friday the 13th movie has more empathy for the indiscretions of horny teenagers than this one ever shows. The original film had a mean streak, but was at its core a fun romp. The new version has the dressings of a fun romp but at the core is just plain mean-spirited.

Piranha 3D appeals mainly to horny misogynists and gorehounds in that order. As a full time member only of the latter camp, I'm sad to say that while the offerings are better than average they don't compensate for the opportunities botched or missed while catering to the first camp.

One of the original Piranha's quirks, which would soon be revealed as a Joe Dante trademark, was the casting of genre b-movie favorites like Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller. On paper, Piranha 3D seemed to be attenuated to this choice, giving supporting roles to eclectic people like comedian Paul Scheer, a long-missed Christopher Lloyd (drawing audience cheers,) Eli Roth (natch,) and Richard Dreyfuss (geddit?). Top billing goes to Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames. Unfortunately, that's not really the case. The main characters in terms of screen time are Steven R. McQueen as Shue's son, Jessica Szohr as the vapid Spring Breaker he wants to bone, and Jerry O'Connell as the "Girls Gone Wild" type producer who takes them both along on his boat for some videotaped teensploitation. O'Connell is actually funny in his manic sleaziness, yet Aja is constantly offsetting our derisive chuckles by implicating us as viewers of many, many bikini girls and bringing us down to his level. This hypocrisy feels too oblivious to be intentional.

Our intended sympathy for McQueen appears to be based on his desire for Jessica Szohr, a longing for which he's willing to abandon babysitting his two younger siblings and get them stranded on an island from which he then has to rescue them. Since he and Szohr already know what O'Connell's pervy motives are, any way you look at his decisions he comes off as selfish, irresponsible and uncaring that his would-be girlfriend doesn't mind acting like a whore for O'Connell. Ironically, McQueen is such a weasel and simp throughout the whole film that O'Connell's brash honesty about the same base horndog motivations they share makes him more likable. He's certainly funnier in his awfulness. Objectifying teen meat and then expecting the audience to invest emotionally in a couple slabs is a bad idea.

Meanwhile, Shue and Rhames' natural charisma is wasted on dull exposition beats: they find the piranha's first victim, they go talk to Chris Lloyd, they warn the partying teenagers to get out of the water. Even at the climax when Shue has to rescue her son and his slutty crush from O'Connell's sinking boat, the focus remains on McQueen. I was rooting so hard for those piranha to get him, or at least Szohr. Switching the ratio of attention between the teens and adults could have saved this movie, even with the inane dialogue. If Chris Lloyd had been given more than one and a half scenes, he could've sold as many bad lines as they'd give him. Then again, when Adam Scott (of the criminally cancelled Showtime series Party Down) shows up, he's visibly bored by the script and can't even read his lines convincingly, something I'm convinced the native French speaking Aja doesn't particularly notice or care about.

At least the piranha eventually get their due, a little past the halfway mark. Greg Nicotero elaborates on Rob Bottin's grisly aftermath makeup from the original and comes up with some suitably disgusting looking chomped flesh, including a memorably horrific full body view of O'Connell after he's pulled from the water. There's a good missing-legs gag stolen from John Sayles' other killer animal flick Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) and a seamlessly CG enhanced gag involving a wounded swimmer breaking in half. Since fish are hairless, skinless and fluidly moving creatures, the CG piranha don't look all bad - except for a stupid gag when one chokes up a CG dick. They're the only part of the film to really benefit from being in 3D, unless you bought your ticket for a preview of the soft core porn we'll someday be able to stream to our 3D TVs. The other three standout gore moments could've gone into any film with or without piranha, but a modern mainstream horror film trying for more than a couple such moments is commendable in these splatter starved times. Aja acquits himself in viscera department but it would've been nice to care about any of the victims, who are hateful even in their panic.

According to IMDB, Chuck Russell was originally to direct this film and contributed to the script before Aja took over. The director of A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 and the 1988 remake of The Blob definitely knows what genre fans like, so I'm going to assume the various similarities between the original Piranha and this one were more his doing than Goldfinger and Stolberg: the opening shot of a sign warning swimmers, the double climax of an outdoor event massacre and the rescue of children elsewhere, the final escape from piranha via rope around the waist attached to a speedboat. Aja and his screenwriters don't seem to be particular fans of Piranha, or maybe just the idea of character development. The film's first half favors boobs and jerks over blood so much that I was nearly demoralized by the time the piranha got to attack en masse. What about Ving Rhames' character motivated him to sacrifice his life against the piranha? Would have been nice to know. Even without sympathetic characters, a few kills in the first 40 minutes would have compensated a lot for the film giving its best assets the short shrift in favor of asses. All the right ingredients were in place and Aja almost completely blew them.

The opening cameo by Richard Dreyfuss kind of encapsulates the nature of the whole film: the guy from Jaws gets eaten by piranha, but they don't really trust you to recognize the guy from Jaws without having him singing the same song he sang and wearing the same clothes. Piranha 3D aims to be a smart "dumb movie" but ultimately doesn't believe there are any smart people in the audience deserving of the effort. While not a total waste, this film could've been so much more. At least the announced sequel from John Gulager of the "Feast" trilogy will probably give papa Clu a worthy amount of scenes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Godzilla Raids Again (1955, Motoyoshi Oda)



Godzilla Raids Again was released in Japan a year after the original and despite remaining in black and white, the tone of the series has gotten a lot lighter already. Another aspect nailed down right away is the idea of pitting Godzilla against other monsters, although the monster vs. monster fight is resolved midway through the film. If the original Godzilla was a somber spectacle of 1950s atomic sci-fi, the follow-up leaps headfirst into the optimism of Japan's rapid postwar economic growth, and fighting Godzilla actually looks a little fun instead of almost horrifyingly futile.

The stodgy scientists protagonists have been replaced by a charming tuna cannery pilot, his cannery switchboard girl fiance and his beta male co-pilot best friend. There's a sweetness between the three of them and their chemistry is out of a Hollywood light comedy from ten years earlier. Even the nightclub and city scenes play straight from World War II with air raid sirens going off to signal the approaching monsters. There's a delightful drunken company party scene with the three leads making jokes about marriage in a display of convincing adult joviality I wasn't excepting from decades of apparently kid-oriented Godzilla films. The eventual American cut even removed an entire subplot about the best friend having a crush on another cannery co-worker. Amidst the smaller more personal story being told this time around, the only real grimness to carry over from the original film is a couple instances of aftermath from Godzilla's brush-up with Anguirus the prehistoric Ankylosaur. Unlike the first film, the damage is predominantly shown as crumbling or flaming cityscapes instead of explicit human loss. 

The first Godzilla hadn't been released in America by the time Godzilla Raids Again was released in Japan. This does not explain why the American release title was Gigantis the Fire Monster when the Raymond Burred Godzilla, King of the Monsters! had already been a hit and they didn't try to cash in on that popularity, unless they figured Raymond Burr was essential. Technically this is another Godzilla creature (the one who lives to be retained for the remained of the series) so the tethers between the films were easier to sever. Godzilla's roar was even changed to that of Anguirus. For these reasons Raids Again was considered the "lost" Godzilla film by fans. The Japanese version was not available until DVD and is a world of difference from the cheesily dubbed and choppily edited American cut.

Although the effects are designed by Eliji Tsuburaya once again, the Godzilla head puppets in this one have a serious overbite. Also like the original, the black and white helps the monster suits and miniatures. Unfortunately two men in monster suits look faker than just one. When the footage is sped up during  their final fight in Osaka, the added artificiality helps push the sumo antics into herky jerky King Kong stop-motion aesthetics.

Godzilla Raids Again is not compelling on a thematic level as there do not seem to be any themes involved. The nightclub air raid scene recalls World War II only momentarily before leading directly into an elaborate cops and robbers chase that causes a plot point to happen. The cast is a welcome surprise. The giant monster action is about on par with the original, so the colorful kid shows that came later probably had the advantage. Therefore this film is, despite being very well made, unlikely to satisfy either G-fans of the high camp to come or serious minded atomic horror fans who appreciated the original. I enjoyed but would most strongly recommend this to fans of films life in Japan at the time, and old fashioned light comedy-dramas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)


The original Godzilla is one of the unsung examples of what a difference black and white can make to a movie. Color can't help turning a giant monster attack into something fun and unlike the pop culture phenomenon known as Godzilla, the original film is very concerned with dramatizing the human impact of a huge lizard walking through town. There are hospitals forced to fill the hallways with the injured, and a poignant scene of a mother telling her kids as the debris rains down around them that they'll be seeing daddy soon - Godzilla was conceived as a horrifying image with the dramatic weight of human loss left in his wake and the black and white is integral to that effect. The proximity to World War II gives a newsreel quality to the editing of the Japanese army's defense efforts and the destruction of Tokyo. This was a new kind of science fiction-horror hybrid movie, focusing on the human powerlessness in the face of an incomprehensible behemoth to evoke a kind of Lovecraftian dread which even contemporary American monster movies of the time could gloss over in the spectacle of special effects. The closest preceding story was in fact a direct influence: Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953, Eugene Lourie), a Ray Bradbury penned script about an ancient dinosaur unfrozen from the Arctic by atomic blasts. However, that beast was essentially a quadruped iguana and giant bugs (or a giant ape) are after all still giant versions of recognizable creatures and not alien anomalies from the ocean deep, like Cthulu. Godzilla evokes a feeling of helplessness before the unknown that is a hallmark of great paranoid science fiction.

The difference between Godzilla and America's own wave of atomic monster movies in the 1950s is obvious and has been well documented: August 6th and 9th, 1945. The influence of these events is most overt in the depiction of human loss and is only once directly mentioned out loud, otherwise the components of the film are actually interchangeable from the American product: the main characters are an old scientist, a strapping young man scientist and his love interest, the old scientist's beautiful young daughter. We spend a lot of time with military and government men trying to figure the situation out and come up with a plan. The fact Japan has a personal connection to destruction on such a wide scale is highly understated and must be gleaned out from the level of composure all these talking heads seem to have, even in the face of a giant lizard monster. No one at a high level of authority ever really freaks out, just the island farmers who first spot Godzilla and later some excitable newsmen who narrate the climactic destruction of Tokyo a la the Hindenburg. This could also be due to the culture's regard for personal reserve and composure, or the general faith Cold War monster films had in elected officials to handle any crisis. Either way, the allegory must have spoken for itself to Japanese audiences at the time. There's clever reference early in the film to a real incident involving a fisherman contaminated by atomic testing, replicated with Godzilla instead. While categorizing the entire film as one long nuclear holocaust allegory is oversimplifying the aims of the filmmakers, every scene benefits from the consideration that while American giant monster flicks were projecting certain fears, this film was made in the aftermath of those realities.

Godzilla was one of the first major special effects films made in Japan and they're a mixed bag. With no institutionalized talents in the field to choose from, the film establishes two major facets for Japanese special effects in the future: miniature cities and monster suits. Both look better in black and white. The strange thing about the city models is that they range from looking incredibly realistic to completely phony from one shot to the next, alternately rewarding your suspension of disbelief and forcing your imagination to smooth over the discord when you realize you're basically looking at a train set toy town. Godzilla himself is close enough in resemblance to be recognizable as the international icon who came later. The differences are very particular to the tone of his debut as an object of fear and not protector of the Earth from other, even less friendly monsters. His head is more demonic and vicious looking and his famed fire breathing resembles nothing less than a dragon from Hades, especially when lit up against pitch black night sky. In the color movies that came later, he was green. Here, he's black as sin, a blot wiping out the city lights. The performance of the guy in the suit is what is is. While "G-Fans" could probably define the degrees between the various stuntmen who've worn all the different suits over the years the way Friday the 13th fans can distinguish the Jasons, all I could see was the prototypical movements that have lasted for decades. The reason for the suit was lack of budget for the kind of stop-motion animation seen in King Kong, and the results have the opposite effect compared to Willis O'Brien's visceral characterization of Kong as a flinty predator. Godzilla is more a slow, unstoppable force of nature whose movements take on a kind of ballet. Fortunately there's real life in the theatricality of the fakery. Most of the close-ups are of a puppet head with rod arms, not the suit, and while they don't even look as good as the suit's head they do emphasize the monstrousness.

The sound design deserves special mention. While the melodies of Akira Ifukube aren't much more than Japanese pentatonic tones layered into bombastic cues of American horror except when Godzilla himself is involved. Ifukube strikes huge drums and horns in a footstep rhythm which helps tremendously in establishing the presence of a giant. Godzilla's bellow of rage is almost as iconic as anything else about him, and has probably only ever been matched by the T-Rex from Jurassic Park in terms of effectiveness.

The biggest problem with Godzilla is one which I imagine plagued the rest of the series: the lead actors are stiffs. Only Akihiko Hirata as a pacifist patch-eyed scientist who doesn't want his recent discovery used as a weapon, even to kill Godzilla, has a dramatic arc wrapped up in the broader themes of the film. Takashi Shimura as Professor Yamane, the old scientist with a beautiful young daughter, isn't bad when unloading all the pseudoscientific exposition about who Godzilla is and where he came from. The fates of he and his daughter and his colleague/daughter's boyfriend are never as compelling as the film's many vignettes of the nameless little people Godzilla squashes on his way to the top. Besides the aforementioned scenes of human suffering in the wake of a national crisis, there are crusty old island fishermen who apparently knew about Godzilla and give perspective on the rapidly yawning gulf between the superstitious Japan of old and the exponentially modernizing post-War years of American occupation. There could be no American monster movie equivalent thereof; the only souls who know about ancient dormant beasts are the foreigners of Skull Island and Transylvania. The version of this film which became famous in America was recut as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and starred Raymond Burr. This might have helped the film in more ways than one, as one of the more curious aspects of the story is how this giant monster doesn't receive international attention outside Japan. Burr's old fashioned melodramatic style might be preferable to the stuffy politeness at hand.

The residual grimness of Godzilla's conception is a pleasant surprise in light of the monster's decades of gentrification.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Predators (2010, Nimrod Antal)




Predators is a close approximation of the Predator sequel every fan of the old Dark Horse Predator and Aliens comics has been waiting for. The simple revision of the original film's tough-guys-in-a-jungle vs The Predator is not nearly as outrageous as the many pulpy tales of Predators traveling through time and fighting a lot of Aliens which kept both franchises alive in geek hearts during the many years between sequels. Yet just as the many Alien Vs Predator comic books existed more than a decade before the disappointing film version, Predators owes its existence to comic books written for teenage geeks and judging by the finished film, producer Robert Rodriguez probably enjoyed reading one or two of them more than Paul W.S. Anderson. If nothing else, his sensibilities are suitably more comic book inspired while his choices as a producer lend the whole foolish enterprise a lot of unearned classiness.

To compare for a moment what fans of these franchises have had to put up with, the 2007 sequel to Alien Vs Predator took place in Anysmalltown, USA, with plucky teenagers. That's how easy even a simple idea like Aliens™ fighting Predators™ can be screwed up, and it makes Predators' competence probably a little more striking than deserved.

Rodriguez lavishes whatever serious die hard Predator fans are left out there with heavy usage of the original Alan Silvestri music themes and one very flimsy connection through exposition to the original film identical to the one in Predator II (1990, Stephen Hopkins). This is direct sequelage, a rarity in the age of remakes and reboots, and at this point the thought is almost an act of mercy for beleaguered genre fans. Also indicative of Rodriguez's conscientiousness is the amazing amount of restraint in special effects, especially for a filmmaker whose riches have laid in the cutting edge of digital technology. The script actually attempts to build suspense during the first act around the ceremonious first appearance of the Predators, who are a bunch of big guys lumbering around in full body makeup engaging in simple, clunky slugfests. Nimrod does okay making them seem formidable and doesn't have them start turning into CG characters at any point. The whole affair is as relatively low key as the Schwarzenegger film, only with more Predators.

Only the story details and dialogue matched my low expectations, they're more or less as idiotic as you'd expect. Hardened soldiers, career criminals and other jerks have been dropped on a planet to be hunted by Predators, and in order to kill time while waiting for the Preds to show up we're invited to believe that a random handful of these guys (and one obligatory gal) would band together and try to figure out what's going on. As a jumping off point, this would really fly better in a comic book. The only thoughtful touch is some significant time expended on developing what the fans call the "mythology" and keeping in line with the previous films like a "real sequel" should. The "S" at the end of the title implies an expansion of the first film like James Cameron's Aliens, and while the film doesn't begin to approach that honorific, there wasn't enough in the original 1988 film for that kind of brainstorm to happen anyway. When the author's hearts are in the right place, just enough is plenty.

The biggest mark Rodriguez leaves as producer is in the cast, including the stunt casting of a respectable actor like Adrian Brody. Brody's placement in the Arnold part from the original really shows how much the criteria for action stars has changed since Keanu Reeves. Speaking of The Matrix, there's a long cameo from another respectable actor midway through the film which is easily the highlight of the whole show. If he and Brody were paired together through the whole adventure this could've been something great. Instead, Brody growls gravelly-voiced at a modern multiracial fun bunch of stereotypes ripped from the trendy war-torn headlines and good old reliable ethnic stereotypes. There's a Yakuza ninja who fights a Predator with a sword for goodness sake; another comic book style gratuity. More compellingly tasteless is the African death squad goon who helpfully identifies the remains of a Predator hunt as human skull trophies. There's also Danny "Machete" Trejo (the surest sign of Rodriguez wuz here) as a drug cartel scumbag who recounts Tijuanan kidnapping techniques when the plot requires. Topher Grace blends in as a Russian soldier but doesn't get a chance to use his Chechnyan-raping skills.

With Alice Braga as the nonwhite warrior woman, the meatbag roster on hand for the Predators to slice and dice couldn't be much more different than John McTiernan's half-black, half-white, one token Native American commando squad of the original. Ethnography of action movies aside, what the supposedly tough guys of 2010 have to say to each other in their Predator-less first act isn't a bit as tough or hilariously macho as the verbal interplay of Carl Weathers and Jesse "The Body" Ventura, or even Shane Black. Probably the only funny or memorable dialogue from anyone comes out of the aforementioned secret cameo role. Regardless, they're at least a good collection of mugs and there are more good choices than missteps in the casting.

The only seriously poor choice in the structure of the piece is a pre-Predator scene involving a brief skirmish with their CGI hunting dogs. Having other aliens in a Predator movie diminishes the Predators themselves and more importantly, they simply look like every generic four legged CG beast since Men In Black. This is especially disappointing in light of the lack of CG with the Predators themselves. Their relegation to a single scene suggests the further auspice of Rodriguez.

Predators is dumb yet truly reverent toward fans of the series and better made than the competition: they replicated the basic feel of the first film and threw some more glow in the dark blood around. By the time Adrian Brody is caked in mud, surrounded by jungle and fist fighting a Predator to the end, there's a warm feeling that if the franchise holders can't add anything new they can at least recite the greatest hits and make them look good on screen. Earnest nostalgia is ultimately the key to reliving old thrills, a factor obviously missing from similarly belated 80s franchise sequels like Terminator: Salvation. Predators endearingly caters more to old fans than anyone. The source material is underwhelming but reheated with care; with tin foil in a stove instead of the microwave.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)


Toy Story 3 is the successful culmination of Pixar's efforts to replace Disney as our culture's provider of shallow warmth. When the competition for children's attention is as cynical and ugly as the animated films of Dreamworks, what choice do parents have? Yet even more so than the first two films in the trilogy, part 3 is a comforting hand placed on the shoulder of an entire generation vaguely suspicious that their willful lifelong lack of adult refinement might have been a mistake. Four year olds who enjoyed the first Toy Story are by now getting high in college dorms and fabricating memories around 1980s toys they never actually played with. So too is Andy, the human owner of the film's toys, now leaving for college and actually considering bringing his Woody™ doll with him like some kind of nostalgia-mongering hipster baby. Andy is not only the surrogate for this film's audience, he's a more sophisticated model of the lifelong consumer old Walt once fashioned out of the baby boomers - hip to irony, knowingly passive towards corporate brand synergy and Corinthians be damned, an ageless lover of childish things. Like the infantilizing Disney films of old, Pixar flicks are designed to send you crying to mother - which may be why Andy's dad is so conspicuously absent. He might've told his son to grow up a little.

The closing scene in which Andy bestows the very-much-purchasable-in-the-real-world Toy Story™ toys to a four year old is the movie's true message; a conflation of the warm feelings of childhood with the brand of Pixar. This is akin to the Disney versions of Snow White, Peter Pan et all being reinforced by mass media as the ones to be shared and passed down between generations. Within the context of no context these films have done an excellent job of fabricating a fake-timeless collection of playthings: the original Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) successfully used licensed products like Slinky™ and Mr Potato Head™ to evoke nostalgia from parents and I want it I want it I want it!!! from kids, satisfying both television-raised parties. Toy Story 3 continues recording the history of no-context by making Barbie™ and Ken™ integral players to the hoary plot, inviting parents to laugh knowingly at the in-jokes about Ken™'s metrosexual fashion obsession as their daughters make a mental note to ask for the Toy Story 3 Great Shape Barbie™ doll this Christmas.

Insidious product placement in children's movies is not new. What seems new is the degree to which people who should know better will overlook the dubiousness as long as the film is from Pixar. Toy Story 3 all but sanctifies the practice.

The waves of CGI feature length animated films in the wake of the first Toy Story have been uniformly hideous. The syphilitic animation industry abandoned the theory of evolution in the medium back when television was invented. Despite hopes that Toy Story would open a new world of visual possibilities in features, the only developments in the past 15 years have been some of what video game programmers concerned themselves with: bigger senses of scale in environments and more detailed textures. These are liberating advances in the field of video games - unlike the first Toy Story's tie-in game for the Super Nintendo, the graphics of Toy Story 3 and it's next-gen video games are virtually interchangeable. In computer animation, these technical accomplishments are irrelevant to the creation of characters or telling of a story. If anything, the increased freedom allowed by them makes the direction as lazily laden with gratuitous spectacle as the average live action film. The hard drive limitations of 1995 prompted clever direction in the first movie. Today, Unkrich's opening set piece is little more than a commercial for the identical first level of the video game and directed more or less as competently as any random CG cut-scene on your Playstation 3. The humans have more porous skin and creepily doll-like photorealistic hair, the better to add screen time for Andy's religious epiphany around the importance of giving another child a Woody™.

No one has expected to be amazed by animation since Walt died in '66, but supposing for a second that people have, one might notice that every surface in this film is meticulously detailed. Tiled floors bear scuff marks and specks of dirt, tree leaves have veins and seemingly every grain of sand on the ground is in focus. Clothing is also in high resolution and every fiber of Woody's cowboy jeans can me made out. One is barely cognizant of these changes, although they were made in the spirit of progress. Disney would actually be proud, since his own myopic vision of advanced animation had everything to do with making his artists create more realistic mountains, forests, sunsets, snow, et cetera - while freezing the "Disney style" in place so that every villain, hero and cute sidekick were cut from the same tried and true design cloth and identifiable as part of the Disney film look. Pixar's characters are all very much created with identifiable style in mind - a style descended from leagues of cartoonists mindlessly imitating Disney-cute without half the technical skills.

Pixar is the gloss of modern technology smeared over the draconian Disney dictums of "production value" in animation equalling realistic surroundings for the same old conservative stories, characters, themes and dialogue. Toy Story 3 has nothing the first film didn't except more celebrity voices, bigger environments, more characters onscreen at one time, more complicated camera angles and movements - everything bigger and louder and more - everything that a public ignorant to the unique joys of animation has come to expect from an animated movie, which amounts to it being more like a live action "real movie." Is a film whose priorities included casting Timothy Dalton for the voice of an English accented toy really concerned with good animation? Pixar's sole concern in terms of developing their abilities has apparently boiled down to impressing people with literal huge piles of realistic garbage - first in Wall-E, and now in Toy Story 3's climactic landfill sequence. Wow, mom! Look at all those photorealistic cans and bottles!

The revolutionary technical accomplishment of the first Toy Story all but cemented into place the continuation of what Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi termed the "CalArts style" - a mess of Disney cartoon cliches inbred at the California college he founded decades ago - into the age of computer animation. With digital characters being pre-rendered puppets instead of drawings created from scratch on pieces of paper, keeping characters boringly "on-model" has never been easier. Furthermore, their facial expressions and physical acting gestures are from the same Disney playbook of flailing arms, cocked eyebrows ("attitude") and hands placed on hips with arms akimbo. Literally nothing you haven't seen before, but Disney already taught people a long time ago to expect nothing new from animation.

While Toy Story '95 demonstrated some insight into rendering characters composed of three dimensional shapes and giving them weight, Toy Story 3 has only succeeded in completing the generic character animation checklist within this no-longer-new medium. One pointless subplot involving Buzz Lightyear™ exists solely to have him snap from pose to pose, yet that's what almost every character is doing if they're not frantically waving their arms around like they're in a third grade play. There's little difference between any two characters in this movie beyond their plot-driven functions - the celebrity voices plod through sarcastic one-liners all written in the same glib sitcom tone for an easy paycheck. Then when the story needs to get emotional, Tom "Mr. Sincerity" Hanks makes a speech about the values of friendship, etc. There's nothing resembling real emotions or personality in this movie, only the incessant lip service of them. Like every cartoon made since hack writers stole the industry from the artists, this one would rather blather on and on and justify it's expensive voice "talent" budget than anything else.

All three Toy Story films are at some point stories of abandoned toys seeking home. What distinguishes this one from the others is teddy bear villain Lotso Hugs (real actor Ned Beatty...more production value) and the writers expend a lot of effort proving that bad guys just have hurt feelings. Apparently they will also pretend to reform just in time to stab you in the back, so who knows, kids? The toy antagonist of Toy Story 2 was a bitter collectible cowboy doll who had much the same motivations, yet was accompanied by a human villain whose motivations actually had some depth - a grown adult collector of rare toys consumed with the post-childhood life of nerdy toy obsession. Consider also the first film's villain, a future juvie case named Sid who delighted in mutilating playthings. Both examined the dark sides of people's relationships with toys, whereas Toy Story 3 reasserts the materialist ideal that toys-equal-childhood-equals-happiness-itself. Lotso is a two dimensional heavy whose real purpose is add a Southern labor camp / prison escape movie parody to this second retread of the toys-separated-from-home shtick.

When the time finally comes for the scenes of toys scampering through our giant sized world, they're easily the film's saving grace. The micro view of everyday surroundings has been a staple of animation since those old cartoons when objects in a room come to life at night, which is all these films are an update of - plus the product placement. Pixar is well practiced at them by now and there's some good scenes of Woody™ escaping through gigantic rooms like Richard Matheson's Incredible Shrinking Man. One of the uncanny effects of the more realistic, less stylized environments afforded by improved CGI is that when Woody™ is for instance clinging to a kite and blown majestically over the roof of a building, everything from the sky to the trees around him look real. They might as well have shot everything in live action except the toys and composited them together a la Roger Rabbit.

In the aforementioned, much-heralded climactic garbage dump sequence the toys are dangled inches from a roaring fire for as long as possible as if we don't know they're going to be saved at the last second. This kind of thing was old hat back in 1987 with Disney's very very CalArts The Brave Little Toaster, of which future Pixar honcho Joe Ranft was a writer on and whose lamp character "Lampy" is a dead ringer for Pixar's mascot. But hey, now it's got more realistic flames and trash than traditional 2D animation can do, so bask in the march of technology and squeeze your little child's hand tight. If there's one storytelling technique Pixar made sure to copy from Walt, it's killing Bambi's mom. Always a cheap shot and always effective.

If Pixar films are so hip, why are they easier to identify for their heavy handed moral pontification than even the sappiest Disney films of the 80s and 90s? Grown ups seemingly love the constant repetition of positive messages for the kids because it gives them something they can engage with in lieu of compelling animation: The Incredibles is about self esteem, Up is about old age, Wall-E is environmentalist, ad nauseam. This is a more corrosive inheritance from Disney than any unthinkingly overused designs and we still haven't fully shaken it off since Yogi Bear started cleaning up the environment in the 70s. Incidentally, watch for Yogi's new CGI abomination in which he will invariably protect Jellystone Park from evil land developers.

Toy Story 3 is an overlong commercial for itself whose lectures about hurt feelings and abandonment issues are at least mercifully interrupted a few times by good chase sequences that only occur when the characters shut their overpaid celebrity voiced mouths. Which is what kids want in the first place, not the lessons. If we're to assume Pixar the same moral authority with our children as Disney, we should remind ourselves that their commitment to unnecessary sermonizing is the direct parentage of their parent company - the same that gave generations of toddlers more misleading ideas about life than anyone. "Disney Princesses" have almost completely ruined an entire gender. Movies like Toy Story 3 which preach the Disney version of pastel consumerist childhood are the reason adulthood continues to be an ever less popular concept.

Oh yeah, there's a 2D short which precedes the feature as well. It's comprised of stock animation expressions and poses, and contains a very valuable lesson about getting along with people who are different than you. Imagineer that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rubin and Ed (1991, Trent Harris)



Rubin and Ed is one of the greatest unknown buddy comedies ever made and funniest satires of the American tradition of self-invented personality. As a piece of movie history, the 1990s quirk fetish is in fascinatingly full bloom yet the film has continued to languish in obscurity alongside its auteur. Harris has authored a scant few other independent art comedies, some of which also include Crispin Glover. The only DVD release is from his website and he's also independent from Netflix. The primary demographic for this film has been devoted fans of Crispin Glover's ostentatious art weirdo career.

This film is where the Crispin Glover legend started to grow, literally years before the release. Playing reclusive and socially incompatible eccentric Rubin Farr began in 1987 on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman. In a Kaufmanesque appearance - Kaufmanesque except for being unmentioned to Dave beforehand - his bizarre clothes and stilted speech sucked the oxygen out of the room just before almost kicking Letterman in the face. An inch or two closer and horrible television history would've been made, killing Glover's career before his very eyes. Instead of helping promote the film which was years away from completion, Glover kicked off his own national infamy as a semi-dangerous oddball.

Glover later incorporated Rubin Farr into the music video "Clowny Clown Clown" from his own 1989 experimental avant garde music album The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution Equals Let It Be. Again the legend of Glover grew without bolstering anticipation for Rubin and Ed. Even today, millions of people have watch the Letterman clip on YouTube without investigating further.

While Glover alone does not make this film great, his character may signal a surreptitious shift in film comedies from the 1980s to 1990s and beyond. Harris seems to have been the first director since Tim Burton in 1985 to give almost a whole movie over to a completely self-assured nerd. The obtuse and socially maladjusted have starred in incrementally more and more film since the 90s. We've seen them in the films of Wes Anderson, the films of Jim Carrey, in Napoleon Dynamite, in American Splendor, in Punch Drunk Love, in lots of Will Ferrell roles. The defining trait of this comic type is a cultivation of eccentricity so intense that he's genuinely unaware of the world around him. When pushed to interact, his intrusion into our world takes such focus from him that his psychic aura practically clashes with our physical plane and forms a field of energy around his body pushing out in all directions. Glover first lines in the film are childish shouts of "NO!!!" to his mother's demand he go outside and make a friend, and with both fists clenched he practically seems to leap off the frame.

Harris and Glover's progeny is markedly different from screen nerds of the past as portrayed even by Glover himself in his breakout Back To The Future role. Rubin refuses to be scathed by persecution and mostly seems uncomprehending of his own weirdness, basically living inside his own head. Harris makes the character dynamic and mostly ignores the ridicule that such a strange young man would incur, which is exactly what Burton did for Pee-Wee. No one in that big adventure ever remarked what a freak Paul Reubens was, and like the obtuse dork Napoleon Dynamite to come, Rubin Farr has but one designated detractor. There may even be a straight link between the Rubes as Rubin and Ed's credits thank Julie Hickson, Burton's onetime writing partner and girlfriend. The distributor Working Title Films actually came to prominence the same year as Rubin for another auteurist work of trendsetting geek chic weirdness: the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.

The yin to Glover's yang in an absolutely perfect straight man performance is Howard Hesseman, star of 70s and 80s sitcoms WKRP In Cincinnati and Head of the Class, bringing a consumate understated professionalism to his frequently flustered character. Setting the thematic roadmap for the story, Hesseman introduces himself to Rubin as an emissary of an EST parody, the "Power of Positive Real Estate." Mindful of his mother's demand, Rubin reluctantly agrees to come with Ed to a PPR seminar only if they can bury his beloved dead cat along the way. This task soon sidetracks the duo into a mystical trek across a desert, during which Rubin discovers his destiny and Ed has an epiphany of his own once Rubin's abrasive personality wears down his phony salesmanship. The setup is almost a throwback to classic bickering-in-a-desert buddy comedies like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the road to Morocco, minus the budget.

Neuroses fly from Hesseman like sweat, exacerbated not only by Rubin but ex-wife Karen Black in a small but unfortunately broad part, the film's only real weak spot. In his tacky clothes, befuddled demeanor and mood swings from platitude driven cheerfulness to sputtering fury he's the perfect counterpart to Glover - "weird" in his own familiar TV sitcom neighbor-next-door way, compared to Rubin the Martian. He also has the courage to wear an awful looking wig the entire movie, probably his most important character detail.

Glover and Hesseman's comedic chemistry is dazzling and Harris has some very funny observations about our culture and the nature of its misfits, unlike so many future imitators of the weird-dude comedy. Both characters are fringe dwellers of polar opposite perspectives and desires. Glover is happy as a shut-in, Hesseman throws himself with religious fervor unsuccessfully into the lessons of salesmanship. Rubin's beloved cat is implied to be the only friend he's ever had. When Hesseman pushes Rubin into going outside the house, he and the Power of Positive Real Easte help Rubin fill a hole left in his heart in a hilariously serendipitous way completely different from what they had in mind. Rubin's inability to care about what anyone thinks of what he does or says drives Ed crazy until suddenly the whole context of his pathetic life is transformed a la Werner Erhard explaining why you suck.

The funniest and most telling exchange in the film might be Ed's reaction to Rubin guffawing uncontrollably at graffiti reading ANDY WARHOL SUCKS A BIG ONE: "That isn't funny. Andy Warhol is a successful artist." When Rubin then calls him a fraud, Ed says that's absurd - he's famous. "You should never talk about art, religion or politics. No wonder you don't have any friends." At least I'm not a fraud like you, Rubin counters. The choice of modern self-invention pioneer Warhol for this joke is no arbitrary one.

Even as 90s comedies started celebrating dysfunctional behavior they somewhat protecting their weirdo protagonists by stylizing the worlds around them into something not resembling our own. Being one of the first filmmakers to capitalize on this, Trent Harris brings a balanced sincerity to the tone of his film. The direction is so deliberately matter of fact as to be askew, as actor after actor is placed in the dead center of frame or deep within the Y axis of a delicately arranged set. Occasionally there will be a pointless flourish thrown in to remind us we're watching a film, like an insert close up of a recently discarded beer can. Camera tricks are rarely used for laughs as Harris mainly lets his actors perform his witty script without any camera tricks, and the TV ordinariness of his picture compositions only emphasize the askewness within. Rubin and Ed's wanderings through desert formations were shot on location by Utahan native Harris, and he presents the natural grandeur with suitably casual affection complimenting the overall stilted formality.

There are several standout hilarious scenes including Rubin's cat-centric desert mirage and the PPR seminars themselves, even a couple well earned gross out jokes to sideswipe the viewer. Considering the Utah terrain and the PPR office are the only real locations, there's never a dull moment thanks to the raw talent involved. If anything, the desert jaunt really gives physical scale to the comic imagination on display. This movie was so ahead of its time it could be rereleased tomorrow and people wouldn't be any wiser, except for the lack of cell phones. One no-context pop cultural spat of dialogue between Glover and Hesseman about movies with the word "cat" in their title is an epochal moment for the insularity of TV and movie culture and the ties that bind insulated protagonists of slacker and shut-in movies to come.

Only the music stylistically dates the goings on, composed by Frederick Myrow as an arrangement of synthesized MIDI instruments chosen for maximum eclectic strangeness and layered on top of each other. Setting the tone during the film's opening titles, Rubin and Ed's music is also the only overture to identification as a weird movie for weird people. Fortunately Harris does not use Myrow to oversell Crispin Glover, who is at least as bizarre as his music.

As Rubin and Ed walk off together at the end of Rubin and Ed friends at last, they did so into the mist of unjust obscurity. Rubin and Ed is still an undiscovered comedy milestone.