Saturday, May 31, 2014
Just a quick update on me and other me related issues. Haven't posted in the last couple days, because I've been a bit busy helping to produce a short film for the Mid Ohio Filmmakers Association's Three Days Of Comedy Chaos. The basic idea is to write and produce a 5 to 10 minute comedy short in just three days, including certain key elements like specific props and opening shots to keep people from pre-writing or re-using older material. Our entry is called Bacon And Eggs, and its basically Lethal Weapon, but even more awesome. Can't go into too much detail until after the contest, but the video should be available to post in the next couple of weeks (we have to wait until it premieres theatrically in about a week). Anyway, stay tuned for that, and other stuff.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Hollywood's propensity to remake classic horror movies has settled into something of an annual tradition at this point, and in 2013, that honor went to the Stephen King/Brian De Palma film Carrie. Disappointing on basically every level, its earnest but awkward attempt to translate its story to a modern setting seemed almost doomed from the start. A few months later, a much less publicized film also featuring a young girl discovering great destructive power in the wake of trauma was released called Dark Touch, and while its just different enough to escape accusations of being a rip off or a mockbuster, its close enough and good enough that in retrospect, one could easily make the case that this was the Carrie reboot that should have been.
Dark Touch follows a young girl named Niamh sent to live with her neighbors after her parents are killed in a mysterious, supernatural event. Whether or not Niamh is the cause of her parents' demise, and what secret trauma may be behind her powers if she even has them are all technically spoilers, though both should be obvious from the very beginning. This ambiguous approach to the film's reveals is a bit heavy handed, suggesting deeper or more intriguing ideas than its willing to delve into, but what we get proves more than enough, even if it sometimes feels like we're being strung along to get to the place we all saw coming. To dispense with the pretense as the film should have, yes, she has telekinetic powers, as well as a host of other somewhat ill-defined psychic abilities, and yes, they come about due to the intense psychic pain she has in the wake of being molested.
Bad Touch might have been a bit on the nose, and to the film's credit it treads as lightly as possible even as it deals with some very sensitive subject matter (maybe even too lightly in some places). Its disturbing but not to the point of ever feeling exploitative, and its all lent a degree of seriousness from a tone that never forgets just where all the events stem from even as objects start flying and everything goes out of control. Most of the credit must go to Missy Keating who turns in a tour de force performance as Niamh, displaying the kind of vulnerability this kind of character needs to have in stark contrast to Chloe Grace Moretz' much too self confident Carrie. Keating is just young enough that you might question whether or not its right to put the actress through all of this even within the safety of a movie set, but the ease with which she handles her complex character, reminiscent of the two siblings from Mama, is ironically comforting.
I say ironically because the character itself goes to some pretty dark places (no pun intended). The writer/director Marina De Van is apparently known for some pretty extreme material, and while Dark Touch is not particularly gory, the initial premise of psychic force powered by molestation is only the start of the roller coaster of despair. The movie is brutally unsentimental and doesn't waste time trying to come up with pat resolutions to the issues it presents, never demanding that we pity Niamh or justify her actions when she realizes the full extent of her abilities. Without too many spoilers, don't expect a happy ending, and if the idea of juvenile mass murder offends you in any way, don't say I didn't warn you. The ending in particular is interesting because it mirrors Carrie in that sense that innocents are punished along with the guilty, but in this case, the motivations of the character exerting that judgement are so much more real that it feels like more than just an excuse for bloodshed.
The film does have its flaws, mostly in its failure to fully explain just what Niamh can do and why she's doing it. The initial breaking point is clear enough, but things get a bit muddled in terms of the escalation that eventually brings her to the point of telekinetic madness. To continue the Carrie analogy, there isn't really anything to point to that would qualify as a Pig's Blood moment, which in its way is arguably better as you're left to assume its simply the culmination of events that drives her, rather than one crystallizing event, but as a viewer, its easy to feel bewildered by her mostly internal evolution. Also, the film tries to throw in other powers that seem unnecessary in retrospect, as she could have accomplished the same things without them, and by the end its all a little more confusing than it has to be. A strange psychic connection with one of the adults suggests a plot thread that never really materializes, and her Pied Piper control of children, despite leading to one of the most chilling sequences, seems superfluous in the end.
Still, overall, Dark Touch is a great spin on an old story, taking the creepy super powered kid sub-genre of horror movies and producing about the most thematically explicit and powerful version of it in recent memory. Going back to Carrie one last time, Stephen King has gone to this same well maybe a few too many times over the years, to the point where a kid with psychic powers showing up in one of his books or movies has now become a cliche if not an outright drinking game for marathoners, and yet rarely is this trope ever used to say anything about what it means to be a kid in a world where childhood and the innocence attached to it is constantly under threat. Dark Touch does this respectfully and viscerally, placing you in the shoes of a girl betrayed by the world around her with no frame of reference for how to react to something that should never happen to anyone, and as it descends into increasingly uncomfortable chaos, it never loses sight of the reality of the child in the middle of it.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Hey, you know how when you think about Hammer movies, just casually as you do, you almost always think of the ones with Dracula or Dr. Frankenstein in them? Turns out, that's because the ones without them usually suck balls. Okay, I apologize to the four old school British horror fans out there somehow eclectic enough to love Hammer and immature enough to be touchy about it, but my God did they sometimes take moody and atmospheric to mean drop dead boring sometimes. Recently, Hammer has gotten back into the horror business, trying to revitalize a more, let's say classic style, for a modern generation, under the assumption that all it takes to make their slow moving Masterpiece Theater approach to horror relevant today is shoving in hip young actors like Daniel Radcliffe, or as in their latest effort The Quiet Ones, throwing found footage and exorcism movie cliches into whatever you call a blender in the UK (I'm guessing a Gentleman's Gentleman). It does not go well.
The Quiet Ones follows a team of 70's era British college students and their eccentric new agey professor on a quest to bring fringe science into the mainstream and prove that the supposed demonic possession of a troubled young woman is in fact a form of negative energy poisoning that they can identify and cure. "Save one person, save the world." says the professor, and because he's played by Jarred Harris with the same conviction and gravitas he brings to every performance, it may take you a bit longer than usually to realize that nothing he says about anything makes any sense whatsoever. The film jumps right into its central set up of a morally ambiguous experiment grappling with supernatural forces beyond understanding, but even though everything is basically established within the first ten minutes, it took me half the movie before I could figure out what the characters in the situation even thought they were trying to do, and then I realized they were trying to make British Carrie vomit up her telekinesis into a baby doll, and I cursed myself for even bothering.
|And when she does it, it kinda looks like poop (or as the Brits call it, Dumbledore)|
The metaphysics are muddled to say the least, but at the end of the day, I wonder if that's even supposed to matter in an extended mood piece like this. I guess there is always a contingent of people for any remotely high concept movie who need some expository dialogue even if it is completely bonkers and adds nothing to the story, if only to establish that someone knows what's going on, even if its no one in the audience. Still, the larger premise is at least somewhat interesting, though poorly executed. The main characters are ostensibly scientists, but consider themselves true believers, scoffed at by the stuffy traditionalists in academia for accepting the existence of paranormal forces, and yet it is their own inability to look beyond their definitions and acknowledge the possibility of more ancient explanations, magic and demons, that dooms them. Sure, psychic phenomena is real, but it isn't the Devil. That is, until its really bad CGI head starts jumping out of people and flying at the screen.
Oh, but don't let me confuse you into thinking that this movie is in any way exciting. Those few moments that in another, more well paced exercise might be called shocks are surprising and memorable only as a contrast to just how plodding and mind numbingly dull the rest of the movie is. There are jump scares littered throughout the film, virtually all of which fizzle before accomplishing their intended effect, as if the impatience of modern day horror cinema wanting instant gratification is chafing against the old school mentality trying to slowly build an atmosphere of dread, so that neither comes about properly. Add to that, the found footage gimmick is even more half hearted and ill-applied than it usually is in a thousand other marginally better examples, slipping in and out of a slightly different border scheme to let us know that now is the time for the creaky door or gust of eerie wind, because you're in the middle of the action now. Yeah, right; If only that sort of immersion were possible.
A couple of other film geeks and I currently have a sort of movie centric draft game going for 2014, where we picked five movies due out in the Spring and Summer seasons trying to net the most total profit, subtracting budget and excluding foreign box office. My strategy this year was to eschew the high risk, high reward big budget action stuff in favor of low budget horror, hoping that the next Conjuring or Insidious was just around the corner. Sight unseen, The Quiet Ones was second on my list after Oculus, and after seeing both, I fully understand why one proved so much more fruitful to my league than the other. While Oculus was refreshing, fun, and reinvented classic movie tropes to tell its story, The Quiet Ones seems to be trying to skate by on some vague nostalgia for an era of horror cinema that was seldom good even at the time, and only seems to be now because only the best examples of it have survived the test of time. Had it been made in the age that its style is trying to capture, it would have been cast to the dustbin of history, destined for those parts of Netflix streaming that few dare to dwell. So let's go ahead and just do that now, shall we?
Monday, May 26, 2014
"Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual." - The Turtle (AKA, God...I think?)
And once your ridiculously long book gets into unnecessarily goofy shit like giant turtle gods that vomit up the universe, you got to throw away the script and start over. And thank the great and mighty turtle god that that's what the producers of the 1990 film "IT" did, because holy shit is this book overrated. Stephen King's IT is, or was at least at one time, his second longest novel, clocking in at 1100+ pages just behind The Stand, which was considerably more epic in scope, inspired as it was by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. IT, by contrast, is more down to Earth, or would be if not for the aforementioned Turtle nonsense among other strange moments of excess, emblematic of an author who just didn't know when to stop. The success of the book led to a three hour long TV movie mostly remembered today for an infamously hammy performance by Tim Curry as a murderous clown named Pennywise, and as we do here on Book Learnin', its time to see how these two versions of the same story hold up after all these years.
First, a little personal history. If I remember correctly, IT was the first full length Stephen King novel that I ever read cover to cover, though I'm sure I had read at least one of his short story collections by that point, and seen many of the films based on his other work. I had not seen the film version of IT at the time, but I would almost immediately seek it out on VHS from my local library after finishing the novel. Knowing what a lazy reader I was at such a young age, its hard for me to fathom now why I would choose this thick monster of a thing to slog through, but I did, and did so with gusto, falling in love with the weird world of Derry Maine and relating at least to the childhood versions of its protagonists. And apparently, I ignored or failed to understand quite a bit of it, possibly due to my own innocence, though given just how much I'm seeing now as off putting and needlessly strange upon my second reading, I'm beginning to think I somehow got a hold of an abridged version of the book the first time and never realized it until now. No other reason I can think of for how I completely forgot about the little kid orgy at the end, but then, I'm getting ahead of myself.
As for my initial experience with the movie, IT the film may be the first example of a movie I saw after reading its source material rather than before, and the first for which I could snootily opine that, well, the book was better. I still liked the movie as a kid, as despite its many changes it still managed to capture that same supernaturally tinged coming of age story that even to this day represents one of my favorite genres, if you can call it one. But what about those changes, or rather, the omissions? All that history and world building and mythology that even a three hour event could not encapsulate or do justice to? I would recommend it to people, sure, it had a great cast and a lot of creepy moments without too much gore. But, I would smugly assert, you really had to read the book to see what you were missing. Returning to both works in retrospect for this blog, I can honestly say that the first part of that is still true, the movie is fine and perfectly watchable even today. The part about the book, not so much.
Let's start with the changes. If you ignore for the moment what was completely left out of the movie from the book, what was left in is for the most part unchanged and relatively faithful to the text. Certain events are re-arranged to facilitate the different medium of storytelling, but the same ideas are expressed in basically the same way, just lacking the depth allowed for with an omniscient narrator. The two most significant changes are in how the young versions of the characters first encounter the monster IT, and in how they finally defeat the thing at the end. I'll get to the end in a bit, but as for the set up, the movie has it over the book hands down. You may remember in the movie where Seth Green is attacked by The Wolf Man after seeing him in a movie, but the book expands on this, literally bringing out all of the big five Universal horror monsters. Instead of the more organic childhood fears like the shower scene or the ghost of one of their fathers as in the film, they're chased around by the fucking Mummy and the Gillman. Remember that scene in the film where one of the bullies is slowly and hypnotically sucked into a drain pipe too small to contain him? In the book, he's killed by Frankenstein. And that doesn't even get into the killer hobo threatening to give out evil blowjobs. Point: movie.
As for the ending, the book has, among many redundancies, two physical encounters with the creature in the 1950's section, which are basically conflated into one confrontation in the film both for time and clarity. That clarity is sorely needed when you compare the film scene to the two in the book, one which has the kids fighting It as a werewolf, and the other in its true form, first with silver, and then via a psychic game of tug of war called The Ritual of Chud watched over by a mystical Turtle that gives vague advice, the metaphysics of which is alluded to throughout but basically comes in at the last minute practically in Deus Ex Machina fashion. The introduction of these weird cosmic elements is completely out of place and adds nothing to the book, and more importantly, it takes away from the more simple story of childhood belief combating the dark unknown that is expressed much more cleanly and matter of factly in the film version. In the book, the kids aren't even really in control of their own actions, merely guided along by larger cosmic forces about which they never understand, while in the movie, this element is gone, and the kids come together out of personal friendship and mutual protection, and then ultimately through the shared obligation that that friendship entails. You never question the importance of what they do in either timeline in the film, but by the end of the book, that weight to their experiences is completely invalidated by their status as pawns on a chess board.
When the film gets any praise on its own, its usually centered around the performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise, which is well deserved to say the least. I jokingly referred to his take as hammy in my introduction, but really, its a role in which subtlety does not and cannot exist, and as such one where Curry was especially suited (not to say that he can't be subtle when he needs to be, just that he's so much better when he's allowed to go crazy). Comparing Curry's portrayal to how the character is depicted in the book, at the risk of sounding like a broken record I have to say the movie has this down too. The book doesn't even really give much of an explanation for why the character takes the shape of a clown as his default form, and apart from the first scene where he uses it to entice a child briefly before showing his true face, he's always being deliberately creepy, so its not like he's luring them in with the guise all that often. Because the film ditches the cosmic silliness, the connection of clowns as dark and creepy gateways between childhood and the adult world is much more obvious and meaningful, so the question of why he's a clown doesn't even come up. And because so much of the superfluous stuff is taken out of the film, the encounters with Pennywise make up more of a percentage of the narrative, making his presence a constant and unstoppable force, whereas the book often gets distracted from what should be the main point. Sure, the giant spider monster at the end is a bit cheesy by today's standards, but for a TV budget, its perfectly fine, and it gets brutally ripped apart by Clark Kent's mom and the guy from Night Court anyway.
About those omissions. Naturally, a book with more than a thousand pages is bound to have a lot of stuff taken out to fit into a film adaptation, but comparing the two after the fact, literally none of what was removed was in any way important. Sure, some of it added additional flavor to the story, expanding on the town's history and character, but not so much as to justify all the trees killed to basically repeat the same things over and over again. We constantly go back to interludes detailing the history of Derry, all of which are designed to make the same point about the town being a host of something evil to which its residents have acquiesced, and the big shocking twist of each installment: there was a clown in the background somewhere! Once or twice, fine, but there are at least four or five of these, and they are increasingly less impactful as they go on. Remember the photo bit from the movie where the picture comes to life. This happens in the book too, and then it just happens again, in case we forgot. We get whole characters focused on that add nothing to the story, like Patrick, a little sociopathic boy who is tangentially related to the bullies who do factor into the plot, about whom we learn all about his life before he's killed off in the same chapter. The movie covers all of this through snippets of expository dialogue and moves on to things that matter. Again: point movie.
Also, in the movie, all the little boys making up our motley crew of heroes don't pile onto the one girl in the group and have dirty prepubescent sex with her. I wish that were the longest typo in the world, but its not, and for the life of me, I don't know how I forgot this happened. The best I can figure is that all this time I've been unconsciously conflating the book and the movie in my head to construct a memory of this book I claimed to love that didn't include pre-teen orgies, which frankly isn't a coping mechanism anyone should have to develop just to fondly remember a piece of literature. If you look up this book on the popular website TvTropes.com, this element of the story is noted under "It Makes Sense In Context". NO IT FUCKING DOESN'T! Even if I could conceive of a context in which this moment is crucial to a story, this one isn't it. Like the turtle, it comes out of nowhere and can be completely excised from the book without harming the narrative one bit. I don't think I should have to say that if you're going to put something like this in a book, it damn well better be so crucial to the story as to be unavoidable, and if the movie proves anything, it proves this not to be the case. What's more, it tops off an entire book's worth of treating the sole female main character as little more than a sex object for the other kids, suggesting she's only important in so far as she can titillate them and ultimately provide them each their first sexual experience.
And I haven't even gotten to the racism yet! At this point, I need to reveal that technically, I didn't actually "read" IT this time around, but rather listened to the unabridged audiobook, ably voiced by Steven Weber of Wings, presumably through some connection with The Shining miniseries he was involved in. If you're going to tackle the book at all, I recommend going this route, not only because its easier, but it almost makes the effort worth it to hear Weber constantly forced to slip into an Al Jolson voice every time the comic relief kid Richie does his impression of a black slave from Gone With The Wind, which over the course of the book he does A LOT. I get the point King may have been trying to make at first, encapsulating attitudes about race at the time and highlighting the racial innocence of children, but the extent to which he goes back to it goes beyond this, and clearly comes across as a white writer using historical context as an excuse to have way too much fun using racial epithets (and anti-Semitic ones too by the way). For the record, I'm not criticizing the racism or needlessly tawdry depictions of sex on some Puritanical level. Its just that it comes across as so juvenile, as if we're all supposed to rear back and acknowledge how salacious it all is. In a way, its the perfect book to discover as a kid, to make them feel like they've found something their parents would almost certainly disapprove of. The problem is, this isn't a book meant for kids, but rather adults as immature as the author.
Just recently, they've announced that a new film version of IT is in the works, apparently planned at least for the moment as two films, one featuring the childhood storyline, and the other featuring the adult storyline. Honestly, after slogging through both of them, I actually think the whole story would have been better without the parallel timeline mechanic, simply focusing on the kids' adventures and having them dispatch the creature once and for all the first time out (and needless to say, not being really racist or fucking each other afterwards). No doubt the desire to produce a remake of the earlier film is based on the same canard I once engaged in, that if not for all those changes and omissions the movie would have been so much better. One hopes that at some point in the production, someone will actually go back and read the original book and realize the flaw in this logic as I have. Or maybe its good to go back to it? On second thought, so many fans, including myself, have been romanticizing IT for too long, and much like the Loser's Club failed to make sure they'd killed the thing for good, forcing them to come back to it years later to finish the job, maybe we need a more "complete" IT movie, if only to finally show people the horror of what that would truly mean.
And naturally, it would make a nice honey trap for pedos.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
SNL's 39th season is finally over, so Saturday Night Jive is going back to what we always do on the off weeks, talking about classic and not so classic movies featuring SNL cast members. To kick off the hiatus, we start with George's pick, Caddyshack 2, a movie neither of us had seen, and neither of us wish to see ever again. Learn about how Jackie Mason should never be aloud in movies, how a movie all about great performances can be ruined when you take out the great performances, and how much better it all would have been with more bestiality. Enjoy.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
A lot of people tend to forget that Bryan Singer's first X Men movie way back in 2000 basically kicked off the new millennium's cinematic obsession with superhero movies. Sure, there have been better ones since, even in its own franchise, and the brand discipline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe nets it a lot of undeserved credit, but the original X Men was the first successful test case proving that it could be done outside of the iconic DC franchises, ushering in Marvel's eventual dominance of the medium. The X series hasn't been quite so reliable as the MCU in terms of quality, lacking a tried and true formula for safe, mainstream popcorn appeal, but in a way, that only makes it more daring. The latest installment Days Of Future Past, a hybrid crossover of multiple timelines seemingly designed to clean up some of the franchise's sordid history, could never have come about through the cookie cutter hit factory of Marvel Studios, and for once, I'm beginning to think that having a few properties licensed out of their hands might actually be a good thing.
Days Of Future Past, loosely based on one of the most famous storylines in the comics, follows the scattered remnants of Professor Xavier's First Class era team trying to avert an assassination by one of their own that will eventually result in an apocalyptic future ruled by mutant hating robots called Sentinels. Actually, we start out in that future world as the characters from the original trilogy, including a revived Patrick Stewart, a heroic Ian McKellen, and a grey streaked Hugh Jackman plot to stop the event before it happens, sending Wolverine's mind back in time into the body of his past self to warn the rest of them of what will happen if they don't get their crap together. Its not really as complicated as it sounds, or at least its executed well enough that the usual problems with time travel narratives are easily sidestepped, never getting in the way of the punching. Mostly its just an excuse to get the whole gang back together and add a grander sort of epic quality to what would otherwise be a fairly straight forward First Class sequel, which is welcome and doesn't come off as the gimmick that it is.
The notion of history casts a long shadow over the film, and not just because its mostly a period piece set in the 1970s, or because its a movie about travelling back in time. The subtitle of the thing might as well be X Men: The Apology, recognizing the mistakes of the past after Singer left midway through to accomplish his dream of making the most boring Superman movie ever made, but before Matthew Vaughn could right the ship with a prequel. Combining the two timelines, DOFP somewhat audaciously attempts to preserve the best of both worlds while at the same time unequivocally stating once and for all that all that stuff we didn't like never happened. Yes its shameless and obvious, but for any fan, also completely necessary, representing perhaps the first genuine comic book style retcon in a comic book movie. Its such a sop to the fans that it even goes out of its way to bring back one of the most hated characters of the entire series just to kill them off violently, which technically isn't a spoiler even if you do guess who I'm talking about, because the time travel mechanic allows for many convenient death reversals throughout.
Pretty much everyone is back and in top form, or at least the ones you could conceivably care about. Much of the advertising has focused on the dichotomy between the young and old Professor X and Magneto, and while all four are as good as they've always been, once again Logan steals the show, at least among the returning cast, his bewildered time traveler showing more depth than in either of his solo efforts (including the decent one). Jennifer Lawrence looks good in a body suit but is as wooden as ever, though her stunt double is fantastic and given many opportunities to spin around and jump at things, so if anything its a net improvement. The only arguable weak link is Beast, who represents the sole returning member of the First Class student body, with Havok wasted in one brief scene and Banshee and Angel killed unceremoniously off screen. Despite a much better make up job this time around and a somewhat interesting Jekyll and Hyde twist to his powers, he doesn't add nearly enough to the film to justify as much screen time as he's given.
The newcomers, with one very notable exception, don't quite fair as well. The future cast is largely made up of new mutants, including the fire wreathed Sunspot, the energy absorbing Bishop, the portal throwing Blink, and the...Native American powered (?) Warpath. None of them are developed really as characters, and mostly serve to add more action to what are otherwise sedentary scenes with people talking over future-Wolverine's unconscious body. Peter Dinklage is criminally under-utilized as Bolivar Trask, as are his character's signature creations the Sentinels, both of which are awesome whenever they are on screen, but neither of which are on screen nearly enough. Then again, I would be remiss if I did not emphatically applaud the all too quick appearance of American Horror Story's Even Peters as Quicksilver, who justifies the whole movie in five minutes in what is easily the best sequence in the entire franchise, effortlessly rendering any and all future portrayals of the character by a different actor (*cough* Avengers 2*cough) prematurely obsolete.
Literally on the same day that I saw this movie, news broke that Marvel Studios had split with Edgar Wright over creative differences with Ant Man, presumably because his brilliant and unique style failed to fit into their mad quest to homogenize their properties to facilitate a larger shared universe. Learning this after coming out of a movie all about altered timelines, I couldn't help but think about another alternate universe, in which, perhaps after the failure of The Last Stand, Marvel regained the licensing rights to this world of mutants. We almost certainly wouldn't have gotten anything as bad as X-Men: Origins, and likely all of their efforts would have been uniformly entertaining and safe, but we also would not have gotten anything as novel as a swinging sixties prequel, let alone a sequel/prequel as crazy and well done as this one, and though we wouldn't know it, I think we'd be the worse for it. Though the process that led us here is comparatively slap dash, it allows for a certain creative energy that the Marvel movies seem to be losing steadily as they become more successful, a willingness to take chances with previously established properties that can and has failed, but can also lead to wondrous places. Days Of Future Past is proof enough of that.
Oh, and one more thing. I really shouldn't even have to say this at this point, but for fuck's sake, stay for the end credits sequence. About half my audience left early, as if the last decade or so of comic book movies hadn't trained them to expect a teaser at the end. Its not even that its that great, at least for those with little or no knowledge of the character its referencing, but you paid for the ticket, you might as well see the whole movie. I don't care if you have shit to do that day, its your civic duty.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Tomorrow Night is the kind of movie that, regardless of its quality, I’m always excited to discover, an early, previously unreleased work by an artist only now many years later recognized for their genius. In this case, the genius in question is comedian Louis CK, who made the little black and white indie on a shoestring budget back in 1998 and just recently unveiled it on his website for a reasonable fee, following the same successful business model as a recent stand up special. If you’re a fan of CK, and by all rights you should be, the film is almost an automatic must see just as a curiosity, providing a rare glimpse into the man’s evolution as a comic. Whether or not it works as a movie on its own independent of that context is a more complicated question.
That sounds like a polite way of saying the movie isn’t very good, but that’s not quite the issue. Tomorrow Night is the definition of an acquired taste, so much so that even many, if not most Louis CK fans who came aboard upon the debut of his brilliant TV show currently in its third season might have some trouble adjusting to its weird mix of dour absurdity and vulgar silliness, even as it feels so familiar to what we’ve seen him do so much better before. There are many points throughout the film that feel perfectly in keeping with CK’s usual style and outlook on life, or at least a strange sort of proto version of it, and then other moments that are completely unrecognizable, which is to say they are uncomfortable, but not in the clever way he’s usually able to make us uncomfortable while still engaged and entertained. It’s all at once captivating and off-putting, which is also par for the course with Louie, but maybe too far in the latter direction.
The film follows a number of stories and characters, some more interesting than others, in a series of loosely interconnected vignettes centered around a central protagonist who runs a photo development store, back when that was still a thing. Our hero, such as he is, is a caustic introvert who seems to strive to find some sense of order in his life as complications large and small always seem to mount up beyond his control. To alleviate his stress, every night he goes home and sits bare-assed on a bowl of ice cream, possibly for sexual gratification, though that’s thankfully never explicitly confirmed. The character feels like a real person, not because he himself is realistic, but rather because one gets the sense that he is based on someone CK met in real life, maybe just some mean guy behind a counter, and he thought to himself “I bet that guy goes home every night and shoves ice cream up his ass,” and then he wrote a movie about it. Most of the stories in the movie feel this way, like little slices of life exaggerated and merged together into a mosaic of banal non-sequitur weirdness.
Again, that’s not to say that its bad, but my hesitation in taking a definitive stand on the thing stems from my honest inability to exactly pin down just how I feel about it, and that’s after watching it twice now and thinking harder on the subject than I typically do for a review. It’s just so strange and unlike anything else you’re liable to see that even as the flaws are many and obvious, I can’t bring myself to condemn them. The closest comparison I can think of is last year’s Disney-centric thriller Escape from Tomorrow, another black and white independent movie, which failed to be everything I wanted it to be, but still got more than enough points with me for sheer chutzpah alone. I don't know what I wanted this movie to be, but it isn't whatever that is, and yet for some increasingly perplexing reason, I can't say I'm in any way disappointed. Maybe the movie is just so all over the place and distractingly strange that it has me discombobulated, but even though I can't point to a single thing I emphatically loved about it save perhaps the surprisingly macabre ending, I would still go out of my way to recommend it just for the experience of having watched it.
Tomorrow Night is more of a tone piece than a movie, slowly building upon a mood that can best be described as easing one into perpetual uneasiness. To throw out a Louis reference, it exists in that previously undefined sweet spot between a brilliant busking violinist and a dirty old hobo washing himself with a water bottle. Its sometimes unwatchable, and other times almost too watchable, luring you in with the promise that it will all come together, despite every indication that it almost certainly won't, and then it doesn't, and practically mocks you for your want for it to come together, but in that way that you can laugh at too if you don't feel entitled to a movie that fits safely into your paradigm. It doesn't actively defy conventions so much as forgets they exist. I want to say its a little bit like Woody Allen by way of Jon Waters, but as much as that makes no sense, its even less descriptive, as even though it doesn't always feel like it, its clearly a Louis CK movie, which is to say a movie only he could have made. I suppose that in itself is worth the ticket price.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Casting off the classic monster movies of the 40's and 50's and the slasher killers of the 80's and 90's, horror cinema in the new millennium has long since found a new sub genre to run into the ground, and regrettably, the defining format of this decade has officially been declared to be...found footage movies. So cheap and easy to make, qualities beloved by horror producers for ages, what started out as a fad bolstered by the surprise success of the Paranormal Activity franchise has blossomed into a juggernaut of increasingly terrible, and by virtue of the medium mostly poorly shot attempts to jump on the bandwagon. When the trend might finally stop being profitable remains to be seen, but in the meantime, horror fans will have to continue to suffer through it, and all too often watch what could have been great movies ruined by this tired formula, as in the case of last year's otherwise highly enjoyable Banshee Chapter.
Banshee Chapter could best be described as a modern day found footage homage to From Beyond, the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story adapted most famously in 1986 by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. In all iterations of the story including the current one, science meddles in areas where it does not belong, breaching the barrier between this world and another dimension filled with mysterious and savage creatures, specifically by altering the senses of normal humans so that they can see what they are not meant to see, only realizing too late that what they see can now see them as well. Banshee Chapter actually applies a neat new layer to the idea by grounding the horrifying experiments in reality, attributing the supernatural event to the very real and still largely secret MK Ultra experiments of the 1970's, in which test subjects were often unknowingly given dangerous drugs to find ways to chemically manipulate human behavior.
Now, in a way, as much as the attachment to such a dark moment in our history is a nice twist, its also the first real problem with the movie. MK Ultra damaged so many lives and revealed a penchant for unchecked draconian evil on the part of our own government. Though the project itself was shelved, it was only one of many, and its impossible to know how many are still going on today under similar levels of secrecy. To treat this very real thing as a plot device for an otherwise entirely fictional horror movie, while not so gross as to be outright offensive, feels just a tiny bit tacky nonetheless. While one could argue that the film obviously separates the real footage from the fictional narrative and thus informs more people about this reality, it would be very easy for the less curious viewer to associate it with the general fiction of the film and dismiss it entirely. What's more, once its established just how real this was, no fake documentary about extra dimensional monsters could possibly be more interesting than a real one about what this project actually did.
And as fake documentaries go, this might be the laziest, which is to say that the film's attempt to tack on the found footage format to a story clearly requiring a broader range of perspective is so half assed that it takes you out of the movie at almost every point in which it is emphasized. It starts out as a doc about another doc, in which a woman documents her search for her missing ex boyfriend who in turn was documenting the mysterious drug used to summon monsters, which is convoluted but fine, except that ten minutes in, the movie forgets that its supposed to be a fake doc, and spends the rest of the running time switching back and forth between obvious found footage shots and shots impossible to reconcile as being made by a real camera present in the action. Either there's a camera man with her the whole time who never speaks, or she managed to hire a ghost, or more likely, the movie just doesn't give a crap, which I get, since I wouldn't, but if you're going to go this route anyway, the least you could do is get it right.
Its really a shame too, because the constant distraction is diverting attention away from what could have been a very gripping and original supernatural thriller. The historical context of MK Ultra leads to an inspired choice in the character of Thomas Blackburn, a drugged out 60's counter culture radical modeled after Hunter S. Thompson and played gruffly charming by Ted Levine, who in any other movie might be in one scene to provide exposition, but here becomes a major part of the action after he's introduced. The adventure itself is intriguing and spooky with a welcome minimalist approach to the various shocking reveals, even if the mechanics of these creatures gets a bit muddled here and there. The resolution at the end feels a bit pat, as the threat is contained when it feels like it should be more widespread, but a coda at the end revealing a deeper threat is enough to satisfy.
Banshee Chapter is a great movie executed almost too poorly to recommend. Everything not related to the gimmick of found footage is entirely watchable and for the most part very enjoyable, so if you can get past the problem of just who is filming and how this is all being presented, there's no reason not to give it a chance. Personally, I couldn't, but even I could see the good movie hiding under all the bad. I almost can't bring myself to blame the movie for its faults, as its riding a wave without which it very well may not have gotten the funding to be made. When found footage is part of the elevator pitch, whether we like it or not its a selling point for financiers, and while I would have much preferred to see this movie on its own without the shaky cam nonsense, if that's the only way to get it, I guess I'll just have to live with it.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Check out the latest episode of my podcast The Dirty Sons Of Pitches! This week its Giant Monster Movies. Also, the most inappropriately well thought out porn parody ever conceived - The Jizzening! Spread The Penis everybody, and enjoy.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
This week we talk about the Season 39 finale of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Andy Samberg with musical guest St. Vincent. It sucked, so we mostly talk about other stuff that's more interesting. Like giant cans of beer and Ghost Rider peeing fire. Enjoy...the upcoming episodes where we talk about movies and this is fun again.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Whenever I review a movie based on a popular novel, more often than not you'll find a caveat where I note that I have not read the book, and am therefore ignorant of the ways in which the film adaptation differs from its source material. If only to prove once and for all that I can actually read, and to take advantage of a recent phase of literary nostalgia I've been experiencing lately, I thought I'd start a new segment on the blog where I take a look back at some of my favorite books, specifically those that have been made into movies, and compare the two with the benefit of both hindsight and a consecutive viewing of both versions. First up, the book and film that inspired this series: Frank Herbert's epic ecological sci-fi masterpiece Dune, and the trippy Star Wars-esque acid trip of the same name by David Lynch.
One of the biggest criticisms of the film version of Dune is that the director's zeal to put his own bizarre surrealist stamp on the production led to many unnecessary additions, most notably a glimpse of the mutated Guild Navigator showed in later books, and the replacement of the Weirding Way, a form of precognitive martial arts, with Weirding Modules that use sound as a weapon. The latter seems particularly arbitrary and arguably replaces a much better science fiction concept with an inferior one, while the former is somewhat more forgivable considering the relative lack of otherworldly creatures in the Dune universe, and the need to compete with the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars. More to the point, I can't bring myself to fault the film for this special effects indulgence, because it was the sight of that freaky looking creature coming out of the mist that made me love this movie as a kid, and had I not been so enthused, I never would have went on to read the book.
Given the ferocity of criticism from fans of the original, I expected to come back to David Lynch's Dune to find it utterly incomprehensible and alien compared to the book, and I was surprised to see just how much they were able to leave in. Most of the supposed changes are actually more like simplifications that are at least somewhat understandable under the circumstances, like reducing the teachings of the Bene Gesserit to telepathy or making the spice fold space rather than facilitate precognitive plotting for faster than light travel. The book has more room to explore these concepts than the movie, which to its credit feels like an earnest attempt to capture as much of the book as possible in one film in an age when even after Star Wars, the notion of automatic sequels and massive franchise planning was not the norm. If Lynch's Dune commits any great sin against its source material, it is an unavoidable sin of omission, as it couldn't possibly contain the level of intricate world building present in the 500+ pages of the novel.
To my mind, looking at what was left out of the movie from the book, there are two major aspects of the original story that I miss. The first is the great degree of background surrounding the culture of the Fremen, a group of desert dwelling humans depicted in the movie as little more than a faceless army. There is so much more to these blue eyed warriors, so much that they should by all rights possess the same sort of pop culture cache as the Klingons or the Jedi. They write freaking poems to their blades, and can't cry over their dead because it would represent too massive a loss of the precious recycled water that sustains them. Also, they ride giant sandworms bigger than sperm whales and throughout the course of the first few novels engage in a jihad across the universe. They're badass is the point, like Michael Valentine Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land mixed with Rambo, but so much of what they are isn't even touched upon, which given the time spent on explaining the need to milk a poison's antidote out of the nipples of a cat, is somewhat of a missed opportunity on Lynch's part.
This leads to an issue many fans cite with the film, namely the ending, which works for the movie but completely defies the book. In the film, the simplified heroic Paul, a real messiah, magically causes it to rain on Arrakis for the first time, ignoring the fact that the Fremen already had a plan to rejuvenate their ecosystem and this sudden rainfall would really fuck it up. More importantly, it cements the character as a noble and magical leader, when the whole message of the book and the series is that you should never trust the noble and magical leader, because infallibly following authority, especially based on that kind of religious fervor, is always bad. That being said, this is a theme that doesn't really work in a movie designed for mainstream audiences at least without the safety of multiple sequels to express it. The book ends with Atredis assuming control of an entire empire only to lament that fact that he can see the future and knows that his turning the Fremen into his army to avenge his father's death will eventually lead to the aforementioned jihad (which he knew beforehand, but did it anyway, because he's not a good guy). "Yay, we win, and oh by the way I'm going to be Space Hitler" isn't exactly the feel good romp most 80's era filmgoers would have expected.
I often complain about how long movies have gotten these days, with many critically acclaimed films topping out at 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours or longer, but most of the time, the issue isn't the length in general, but the redundancy and self indulgence it represents. Directors had a bit more discipline in the 70's and 80's for the most part, or at least more pressure to keep their films to what was then considered a reasonable running time. Dune is a movie that owing to what it is based on really should have been close to a three hour movie, again assuming that at the time one did not work with guaranteed sequels in mind. So many things that now come off as distracting about the movie like the voice over narration and strange pacing issues in the second and third acts would have been resolved if this story were given the proper amount of time to grow. In retrospect, Lynch's morbid aesthetic is far from a hindrance and feels more like a scapegoat for the larger issue, which is that this was a film made ahead of its time, before the new Golden Age of Television, which in a post Game Of Thrones landscape is the perfect and only medium for something this grandiose.
And speaking of Game of Thrones, I for one was gobsmacked by just how similar the world of Dune is to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice And Fire series, to the point where I have to believe the author of the latter was heavily influenced by the earlier work. I'm not saying he stole anything, but the parallels are striking despite the radically different genres. Both focus on human drama amid high concept settings, introducing fantastical elements sparsely to enhance the personal stories of its vast cast of characters, switching from different perspectives chapter by chapter. Both involve political intrigue, war, and revenge on strange worlds, center around the fall of one great house at the hands of another duplicitous one, and have a generational scope. The Atredis and the Harkonen are The Starks and the Lanisters. The last honorable lord Leto is Ned Stark, Vladimir is Tywin Lannister, and Paul starts out as Bran, a child with visions, grows into Rob (minus the death) to avenge his father, and then goes full on Daenerys, turning a band of desert dwelling warriors into an army to reclaim the throne. Not to mention his wise and callous beyond her years sister, also named Aria. Just replace Dragons with Sandworms, both the most prominent supernatural element of the series ultimately used as a weapon of war, and the similarities are too numerous to overlook.
I thought I would end these with the question of whether or not I would still recommend either the book or the film in question, and whether fans exclusive to one or the other would benefit from reading or viewing its opposite. On this score, the book is easily a must read for anyone willing to be patient with its massive download of information. Its a long slog, but once you get past the vocabulary and initial complexity, its even harder to put down than it was to pick it up. This is a canon book when it comes to classic science fiction literature, one of those essential works that one must read before honestly calling themselves a fan. The movie is more of an acquired taste and obviously not quite as essential to its medium, but even as a curiosity I would recommend giving it a chance, as I feel its still rewarding even if it doesn't inspire you to explore this universe further. Its David Lynch making a big budget sci fi movie in the 80's; if that's all you know about it, I don't know how you could bring yourself to pass it up. And I definitely think that fans of the book who remember the movie as a betrayal should definitely give it a second look at least. There's a lot to rail against, but there's easily just as much to love about it, and like me, you may find your memory of its abuses to be somewhat exaggerated.
Well, that's it for this inaugural edition of Book Learnin', a series that likely won't be nearly as regular as some of my other ones, considering how labor intensive it is. Next time, I'll be delving into another childhood favorite all about children and nostalgia, and also killer clowns and prepubescent orgies. Fear is the mind killer, as they say. Goodnight.