Friday, December 16, 2011
Starring - Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck
Ahhh, 1981. The golden age of 'slasher' cinema. All it took was a holiday and a cool looking mask, and from there on out the sky was the limit. How I long for those simpler times. Every cliche is born somewhere, and the mid-70's to mid-80's was a veritable breeding ground for all manners of stalking and killing teenagers. For a brief but glorious period the 'slashing' templates were forged, sharp as a blade and pretty as a puncture wound, until they eventually stamped themselves out. My Bloody Valentine came at a very opportune time in the genre, when nothing more than a simple pick-axe through the jaw was sufficiently impressive, and excelled through some excellent cinematography, some uniquely mean-spirited kill scenes, and complete utilization of an inherently creepy locale. I would not be surprised to discover that the film makers had secured the mine location long before they had finalized the actual script.
After pillaging the studio's costume warehouse for a frightening face-covering and picking up a truck full of "Moosehead" to pay some small Canadian town for use of their shafts, the producer's next logical step would be to tie everything together via 'holiday'. Being far enough ahead of the curve to procure Valentine's Day, the hard part was already done. Crank out a little revenge rooted in the ignorance of authority, dispatch a group of rowdy youngsters (with a slight age increase to compensate for mining work), blatantly point suspicion at a couple of red herrings, and you got yourself a movie. Of course, when the screenplay is the final piece of the puzzle, as was often the case for this type of film, it is sometimes overtly apparent. My Bloody Valentine does exhibit a smattering of genuine wit and emotion, certainly more than a large number of it's contemporaries, but dialogue and characters frequently teeter between inadvertent kitsch and everlasting cornball.
It's been 20 fictional years since the small mining community of 'Valentine Bluffs' suffered a terrible supervisional tragedy, replacing the legend of the Saints with that of Harry Warden and halting any future festivities. Apparently fueled by the inadequacies of failing to live up to the town's moniker, a new generation of labourers have decided to reinstate the celebration in the only manner that a group of young adults possibly could: by hosting a dance in the local rec centre. You haven't lived until you've raised the roof off your town hall, fruit punch and baked goods style. Enter masked killer, exit jubilation.
The general pacing of the film is quite brisk, opening with a decent kill scene and never allowing more than 7 or 8 minutes to pass without presenting another bloody image. Viewers are treated to not only four kills during the introduction/characterization, said characters then move forward to discover the victims, or parts thereof, essentially doubling the on-screen carnage. The second act features two more kills and their after effects, as the group holds their illicit shindig; this set-up is in itself an interesting deviation as "the party" of similar cinematic ilk is usually reserved for the climactic showdown. Production foresight must have been at it's peak, because the final stage is set in the depths of the mine, a sprawling 30 minute showcase of dark corridors and discomforting angles that exhibits true behind-the-scenes talent.
Now, this next tidbit of personal information may serve as a revelation or a redundancy, pending circumstance; I am a die-hard 'slasher' fan. I have the natural tendency to divide 'slashers' into two key components: the "kill-scenes" and "everything else". Being quite literal, "everything else" encompasses all other elements, spanning from script to costumes to lighting to so on. Success at one of the key components can compensate for failure at the other, and vice versa, the ultimate goal remaining a mastery of both.
Amassing the coveted double-digit kill count, the murderous mayhem presented here relies less on 'point of impact' shots and moreso on the aforementioned aftermath. Actually bearing witness to the blade piercing flesh was the burgeoning frontrunner of "kill-scene" schematics, and remains an enjoyable staple of the genre. My Bloody Valentine does feature a couple of these necessities but the memorable horror is derived through revelation. The fellow's burnt flesh and boiled heart after bobbing for hot dogs, Mabel's charred body tumbling (albeit too quickly) from the dryer, Sylvia and her foreground fountain; each kill is designed to simultaneously terrify both the viewer and another character, making Harry Warden one of the tormentingest slashers of all time. Unlike his slashing brethren, he doesn't discriminate between observers of his handiwork - instead of sharing with just the 'survivor girl', Warden offers his die-o-ramas to everyone.
The moments surrounding each kill build the intensity by allowing the characters plenty of time to struggle with their harbinger of doom. The trend of an oblivious teen taking an arrow from behind or having their throat slit while investigating an unknown sound are thoroughly shirked. In their place is a string of young adults who stare death straight in the eye presumably contemplating their own demise. As the film progresses the P.O.V. shots formerly reserved for Warden's stalking, and typically allotted solely to the killer, expand to include the victim's view. These shot/reverse shot exchanges heighten the tension by alternating the panicked face with the futility of the panic (as represented by the stoic, emotionless answer of 'the mask'.) My personal favourite death belongs to Hollis, which even I find surprising considering how bloodless it is. After tracking down the freshly screwed Mike and Harriet, he faces Warden and stares as the nail gun rises; taking two to the head, he slinks off, only to perish in front of his beloved Patty. The sheer prolonged pain of the situation, both physical and emotional, is what morbidly appeals to me; stumbling around in the dark gravely wounded, holding on long enough to hitch up your last few breaths in front of the woman you're smitten on. Good, clean, malicious fun.
The film does lose some of it's verve when bridging the gap between kills, which is a real shame because not all of it is bottom rung film making. Some self-reflexive wit does shine through, such as the "Friday February 13th" subtitle, and the humorous response to the bartender's obligatory straight-into-the-camera premonitory warning.
It could be you!
Cut to two(2) disinterested teens, neither a part of the core group. TEEN 1 blinks.
Unfortunately, the majority of fallback filler is the love-stricken bickering between T.J. and Axel, neither of which are played by the most spectacular of actors. Upon establishing a legitimate connection through a very simple, impromptu harmonica duet, their relationship descends to nothing less than 5 'bitch and moan' sessions backed by lackluster punches and invoking my screams of "Get fucking over it!" The un-dynamic duo of T.J. and Sarah don't fare too much better, clunkily delivering such multi-layered sentiments as "You left!" or "I love you!" atop bumpy landscapes and grating folk ballads. Some of this time should have been delegated to Axel and Sarah, thus imbuing the "surprise" unveiling with that much more power, and spread out amongst the rest of the group, provided token crack-up Howard doesn't waste it trying to be funny.
At the 1 hour mark six characters, envisioned for better or worse, descend into the mine allowing the story to become propelled by atmosphere. The framing is forcibly confined by the long passageways or the obscuring extreme foreground walls, and the camera often creates odd angles by hugging one side of an opening or sitting just a few degrees off the X-axis. The semi-iconic shot of Warden advancing towards the camera while breaking light bulbs is an aesthetically pleasing manipulation of light and shadow, but I remain much more impressed by the hued circular glares from his headlamp as he confronts T.J. Visually gorgeous, and quite possibly completely accidental. The cramped ladder-climbing sequence is an excellent example of the technical expertise and fancy footworkers devoted to realizing the mine's claustrophobic instability.
One of the most important aspects of watching a movie is taking into account when and where the movie came from. I would be hard pressed to imagine that the gang's acapella waitress ditty would play as anything but laughable nowadays, and to be honest I'm not comfortable accepting that it was even cool back then. My Bloody Valentine was, however, at the forefront of the genre when it was released, helping to perpetuate the modern stereotypes that we know and love. Undeniably noteworthy, the poor writing keeps it just out of reach of "Top _" lists; but it certainly deserves more praise then it seems to get for it's many successful elements. Those simply cannot be denied. The general tipping point of enjoyment probably lies in the subjective difference between 'kitschy' and just plain 'dated'. I cannot begrudge those who fail to appreciate the basic pleasures offered by a faded, pastel title card; or a giggling, high-pitched closing diatribe that gives utterance to the film's very title; or end credits set to an original Harry Warden folk song. That is their prerogative. I can offer them only my pity.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Starring - Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Ben Cross, Eli Danker, Mark Ivanir
"Just when you thought it was safe to go back to prison..."
When we last parted ways with felonious boxing bad-boy George "Iceman" Chambers, he was thoroughly disputed, presumably humbled, and Ving Rhames. How times change. Continuing the further misadventures of Chambers, now played by Michael Jai White, Undisputed II picks up some 6 years after his questionable incarceration in "Sweetwater Prison"; having since lost the championship, he has been reduced to shilling Russian vodka in order to make ends meet. A far cry from his former glory, this plummet in status apparently worked wonders for both his body-building regime and his ageing process. Faster than one can say "Fuck continuity", Chambers is framed for a crime (again?) and subjected to a "hush-hush" prison fight-league (again). Only this time the resident champ is "the most complete fighter in the world" Uri Boyka, played by the formidable Scott Adkins, and armed with a mind-blowing array of kicks and more selfishly skewed pride than the Iceman can shake a fist at. Oh, and it's set in Russia. Hell, judging by the credits, it must have been filmed in Russia while utilizing 90% of the hard working collective from the "Russian Moving Pictures Union".
Director Isaac Florentine has been slowly climbing the ladder of direct-to-video action for a number of years now, delivering films of generic competence that are punctuated with outstanding action sequences. Holding hands with Adkins since Special Forces has only served to insure quality fighting during his rising career. With Undisputed II Florentine, alongside seasoned A-producer/B-scripter Boaz Davidson, has stripped away the drama and characterization of Undisputed and replaced it with what I presume the majority of viewers expected from the outset: hand-to-hand combat. Any connection to the original is severed to the thinnest of ties, delegated to throwaway lines about Iceman's sordid past and a vaguely familiar battle of wits in the cafeteria. This route allows Florentine and Co. the freedom to develop Chambers unhindered, whilst assuring the less confident viewers that they are indeed still following along with a character they already know. ("Ah, good old Iceman... Still cutting off tough guys in the lunch line, just like he used to...") A tried and true direct-to-video sequel technique if ever there was one. Developed in the exact opposite fashion as it's predecessor, the plot line is all conquered territory, featuring clear-cut good guys and bad guys, a duplicitous corner man, a wise and elderly teacher, and an elusive broadcasting system that raises nary an authoritative eyebrow. Attempts at insightful narrative rear up from the back seat in minimal amounts, taking on the didactic forms of winter jackets and a markedly trustworthy niece. Of course, upon witnessing that first spinning jump kick, it becomes increasingly difficult to care if anything else is tucked away back there, so long as this awesome spectacle remains in the driver's seat.
Now, before moving forward allow me to clarify my position; opting to shy away from drama in favour of action is not, in my opinion, an inherently inferior decision. They are simply two different modes of storytelling. The real question then becomes whether or not the trade off was worth it. If that is not an inquiry that you can foresee yourself ever answering "Yes" to, then chances are you have watched this movie accidentally. Or, are one of the many lackadaisical consumers who barely even bother to look at the packaging of that which they are about to consume. If you do possess the acumen to appreciate kicking and punching as much as/more than growth and feelings, it probably took a maximum of 3 minutes to determine the value of this particular approach.
From the opening fight sequence to the climactic showdown, the real success and beauty of Undisputed II comes in the form of engaging violence. It is becoming more and more rare that fight fans (mixed martial arts fans, specifically) are treated to an exhibition of distinctly raw talent, and not fancy editing equipment. Strictly recalling American film making, that is. Lingering takes boast double-digit punch combinations, and the variety of oft-used actual martial arts holds run the full gamut from muay thai, to jiu jitsu, to judo, to wrestling, to beyond. Interspersed are some of the most gratuitously elaborate flip kicks ever captured on film. (Undisputed III notwithstanding.) Much of the praise goes to choreographer and stuntman extraordinaire J.J. Perry, and the cadre of opponents who realize the equivalent importance of being on the receiving end of a stylish beating. None of it, however, would have been so skilfully realized were it not for the film's two stars.
Upon release of this film the casting was immediately open to my scrutiny, despite my predetermined genre excitement, as I had some grand concerns over the decision to replace Rhames with White. Rhames had yet to obliterate the majority of his artistic legitimacy, and though I had always liked White, he never secured that particular role required to really catapult his career. Thanks for nothing, Spawn. Given the present state of affairs, I sheepishly recount the adage based on "hindsight"... Rhames fell far and quietly around the release of this one, (Piranha movies being a good way to kick-start the climb back up), whereas White parlayed this role, along with a relationship with other talented like-minders, into an extremely promising portfolio. From his Black Dynamite brainchild becoming one of the funniest "genre-love" movies of all time, to the justifiably anticipated Mortal Kombat project, to his (generally less anticipated) directorial debut, everything is coming up White. His acting here is fine; believable, given the source material, and never straying outside his range of smirking, "intense eyes", and stoicism. It's Scott Adkins as villainous Boyka, however, who ends up stealing many of the scenes. Wary as I am to admit, considering they are purportedly chums, and I desire to one day hang out with them. Not only is Adkins the best American martial artist working today, he does some great scenery-chewing while maintaining an impressive Russian accent. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of the subtle character depths of Grandmaster level chess or philately, it's when Adkins is growling and barking that shades of genuine acting shine through. He, like White, is currently on the brink of realizing his potential and this film was the proverbial springboard. After years of high caliber stunts in big Hollywood movies, the combined powers behind Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (of all things), have put their faith in Scott Adkins, bestowing unto him spoken lines and face time. An unsurprisingly safe gamble given the cult response, and if this man is not A-list famous within 2 years of this posting, there is something very wrong with the action community. (If The Expendables 2 uses him correctly, it could be much sooner than predicted.)
Even for a typical direct-to-video action movie with atypically good action, the film does suffer from a couple of minor flaws. The pacing loses a bit of momentum around two-thirds of the way in, as Chambers spends his time "emotionally growing" and "constructing a bond" with his new corner-man, thus exceeding the quota of one-on-one fighting cliches; fighters should be kept to one reluctant friendship per tournament. Granted, they did have to illustrate both the literal warming of his icy exterior and his drastically fast-tracked 4 week training program, but any excuse for even one more "sparring partner" sequence would have served to break the monotony of these "necessities". I also found it mildly disheartening to be slightly removed from the spectacular climactic brawl due to some sloppy CGI; a petty grievance quickly overshadowed by my understanding of the need to live up to a subtitle.
For action fans, this is a film of some importance; for non-action fans, it's another couple of tough guys who back up their posturing with punches and kicks. It marks American film making's first notable embrace of the full fight spectrum, combining the brutal realism of grapples and submissions with the theatrics of impractically stunning strikes. One more realization already practised overseas, and spearheaded by the likes of Donnie Yen, Woo-ping Yuen, et al. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing will certainly stand as the turning point for certain careers, breaking more than enough ground via combat to compensate for the lapses in story judgement. The only English fight-flick of recent (long term?) memory to best Undisputed II is Undisputed III, and I have long been broadening my lexicon of Adkins-based-devotion in anticipation of that discourse.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Starring - Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes, Peter Falk, Michael Rooker
Walter Hill has not made a single bad film. A bold statement, it's true; but one I'll defend vehemently. At least, to the reaches of the present discourse. Some are absolutely amazing and some are just "good", but none of them suck. Even what I consider to be his weakest outing, Brewster's Millions, has it's moments. God bless him for trying his hand at something different... (Bear in mind here that I'm not counting Supernova, which actually did kind of suck, in light of the fact that he had his name removed.) Undisputed fits firmly in that range between "amazing" and "good", what would most likely be considered in this vernacular vein to be "great". Hill, who co-wrote and produced (naturally), subverts an existing action sub-genre, which was already simple exploitation of a previous dramatic sub-genre, by infusing the former's tropes with the latter's narrative. Through the natural evolution of direct-to-video cinema, prison dramas that featured some fighting became tournament-fight-movies that were set in a prison. (As we are all aware, illegal fisticuff competitions and "The Big House" go together like bread and water.) Lock-Up became Ring of Death, Death Warrant became In Hell. Undisputed adheres to the fight formula while bringing it full circle with intriguing motivations, realistic representations, and viewer empathy. The same characters that transitioned from drama to action are all present, but we now reflect on the 'how's' and 'why's' of the circuit as oppposed to the punches and kicks. Add to this some very strong performances from not only Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes but also Peter Falk, and you get a helping of what Hill serves up best: a dark, testosterone-laden struggle wherein morally ambiguous characters battle for the basic satiation of pride, honour, and respect.
A brash boxing champion is incarcerated in "Sweetwater Prison" for a crime he may or may not have committed, where he comes face-to-face with their undefeated zen master of pugilism. Factions are established, gauntlets thrown, and an undisputed victor begs to be crowned. A familiar story through and through, but after the foundation is laid, the deja vu begins to fade away. With Hill's signature "grey characterization", the viewer is never really presented with a "bad guy"; sure, 'Iceman Chambers' is kind of a jerk, but is he evil? Is he even guilty? This does not call into question viewer allegiance; slowly and purposefully we're drawn into the favours of the 'Munroe Hutchen' camp. However, by keeping Chambers on that cusp of darkness instead of actually tipping him over, Hill reinforces the notion that this isn't so much a film about "good vs. evil" as it is "man vs. man". Hell, Chambers is even allotted the majority of the screen time, forcing the viewer to contemplate his situation, gradually blurring the line between 'Chambers: the villain' and 'Chambers: the man'.
As the film progressed and my contender devotions were playfully manhandled, I began to anticipate those helpful story archetypes that would typically make my decisions for me. Any minute now, the "evil warden" would bully or threaten one or the other fighter in an attempt to get him to participate in a no-holds barred (yet very secretive) bloodbath, killing his "lovable and/or comical corner man", and encouraging the other fighter to stuff some sort of mystery substance/powder in his gloves/shorts, which the younger, handsomer fighter will eventually overcome on his way to victory. Ding-ding-ding, good guy triumphs, I'm still amused, the end. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. The warden is a rather regular fellow, trying to appease outside forces whilst quietly keeping his nose clean. The general acceptance of people getting away with a crime of this magnitude in a government facility is addressed, and plausible explanations are drawn. Both fighters have begrudgingly amicable relationships with their corner men, but still fight for their own personal sense of pride. More so, they both want a clean, honest fight, with a semblance of rules no less. Part of the fun of the dynamic shared by the protagonists, which is built on a very minimal amount of actual interaction, is their similar sensibility. Both fight for honour, be it denoted by recognition and glory, or as the last bastion of a broken man. And who, pre-tell, is the puppet-master behind this extravaganza, pulling all the strings of power and influence? (Here's a hint: we've already discovered that there is no evil warden...) Why, it's a grizzled old ex-mafioso who also sees the beauty in the brutality and shares a symbiotic and growing relationship with a corner man of his own. (There's a large amount of "masculine emotions" surrounding this particular brawl.)
Ving Rhames turns in a solid portrayal, treading the line nicely between brazen intimidation and driven intensity. When Chambers stone-face baritone's "People play baseball, nobody plays boxing", he instantly commands as much respect as he does fear. (It may not hurt that it's a really good line, appealing to those of us who happily embrace our Y chromosomes.) It seems apparent then that Rhames had quite the positive experience shooting in this prison, considering that he quickly followed up Undisputed with the far inferior Animal...which had hot on it's heels the even farther inferior Animal 2. It was a very good, if not aptly cast, role for Rhames, but it's time for his parole.
Snipes is also quite formidable as the man of "few words/the people", and hopefully utilized this part as research for future endeavours. As the quiet "counter-character" to Chambers, he has a limited number of not only lines, but even scenes, in which to explore his motivations. He accomplishes this with a level of comfort reminiscent of his glory days when he simultaneously exhibited competent dramatic abilities alongside genuine bad-assedness.
This is truly a "3 character" film however, and the memorable performance really belongs to Peter Falk as "Mendy Ripstein". With as much of an internal investment in this fight as the two combatants, Ripstein commentates the surrounding circumstances, making sense of and adding eloquence to the primal simplicity of it all. Falk delivers a couple of excellent speeches in that gruffly iconic tone of his, and his tale of "the mayor" stands as a glimpse into the past moral system that shaped him. Great writing + astute casting + character exploration = "the casino stays open".
The film holds aesthetically true to Hill's repertoire, borne of a time when machismo movies were a standard practice. (Gender alienation is much more dangerous these days, both financially and socially.) Every light bulb flickers on the verge of burn out, dust particles floating through the bare illumination, and the colour palette resigns itself to a fraction of the spectrum. The muted greys, blues, and browns only brighten when the camera pans across the vast surrounding landscape, employing the 'prison-flick' convention of emphasizing the freedom that remains forever out of reach. Scenes are strung together by black and white footage of classic fighters, or interspersed with rapidly edited flashbacks of personal and defining moments, strengthening both the drives and connections shared amongst the three protagonists. The fights themselves are filmed well, utilizing hand held techniques that emulate those of televised events in their effort to draw the viewer as close to the action as possible. It pains me to admit then, that the most notable flaws also stem from these confrontations. The actual punching sounds are exaggerated in an attempt to emphasize the impact, and some longer takes would have served well in showcasing the actors' ability to throw combinations, not just jabs. (Funny how I still focus on the fighting even when the film doesn't.)
More often than not the name "Walter Hill" is merely whispered around the edges of Hollywood auteur lists; meanwhile, insurmountable evidence to the contrary is rapidly accumulating. With Undisputed, Hill is afforded the chance to revisit a sub-genre he helped to originate with Hard Times. Only now, the competitors fight in order to regain, as opposed to fighting in order to maintain. This modern disposition draws central concern away from the food going into one's mouth and towards the words coming out of everyone else's; the burden of shelter succumbs to that of judgement. I suppose it seems somewhat necessary at this point to mention my unadulterated love for Walter Hill, though I do take great pride in my ability to allow a film to stand on it's own merits. That said, this remains successful due to not only the efforts of Hill, but everybody involved, many of whom were thought to have long fallen from the graces of good cinema. The irony here is not that after the accolades I have bestowed upon Undisputed for pulling away from "tournament-fight movies", the two sequels go ahead and beat the shit out of the franchise, pummelling it right back into that overcrowded mix. Nope. Rather, the real irony here is that I actually like both of those movies better. Here we have that very rare series in which each subsequent chapter surpasses the one prior. (Ignoring, of course, genre preference.) That remains a diatribe for another day; suffice it to say, there was indeed a mystery substance that I blissfully saw coming from a mile away.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Starring - Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland, Jason Ritter, Christopher George Marquette, Lochlyn Munro, Katherine Isabelle, Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger
This is the movie I was born to write. Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees were more of a father to me than my own father ever was, and I really should have found some ambition in order to repay the love that was doled out during my developmental years. Considering that I acquiesced to my apathy, special care is necessitated in separating my distastes for this film between biases and cinematic incompetence. Not that I disliked everything about Freddy Vs. Jason mind you, but the nuggets of gold that I did discover sure were buried deep. The fact remains that there was probably no chance that any Freddy Vs. Jason could have lived up to the 12 hour epic that repeatedly played itself in the theater of my imagination since the age of 7. (I still "watch" that one every now and again...) Now that the "Bout of Franchise Clout" has finally come to fruition, and with my hopes firmly nestled amongst the clouds, I can't help but feel average amounts of disappointment. Not surprising, but a much more agreeable outcome than the massive disappointment that could have resulted.
Topping the list of problems would have to be the overall writing. I realize the challenges posed in attempting to tie together years of source material, all the while appeasing a legion of fanatical followers, but that is exactly why meticulous attention needed to be exercised to insure equal respect for our heroes. By allowing Freddy a voice over at the outset of the film, he quickly takes on a more antagonistic role than Jason, who in turn becomes somewhat "backseat" material. I do understand this was probably the much easier route to go: Jason's character is, in many ways, a lack of character. It is a decision, however, that is accompanied by the risk of scorning those of us who remain loyal to both camps. This indiscretion may have been forgiven were it an isolated incident and not the film's seemingly general consensus. Picture, if you will, my excitement rebuilding as Freddy's voice over opens into a montage of past A Nightmare on Elm Street exploits; immediately, I was whisked back to my days of youthful viewing, when every horror sequel opened with a sequence of their here-to-fore greatest scares and kills. They were a reminder to grinning children everywhere not only of the heights of their achievements, but also that to which they aspire to overcome. As I patiently awaited Jason's turn, something began to darkly dawn on me: Jason wasn't getting one. Somebody with some influence decided it wasn't warranted. Rather, they opted to shoot some newly generic stalk and slash footage and crown it with a lame P.O.V. montage of some random counselors. What the hell? Was there no work-around here? The most likely answer would seem to be that the people who own the rights and the people who offered the monies do not play well together, even with Sean S. Cunningham's producing power. The result comes across as a predilection towards glove over hockey mask. These preferences reassert themselves in the number of scenes that strictly involve Freddy's interaction with the kids, namely his four big "dream scares", with nary a Jason in sight. Wes Craven, who takes one of four writing credits, and his cadre of lackeys even manage to rip-off the old Nightmare series much more often than the old Friday series. I don't know who you pissed off on the playground Cunningham, but your baby sure got the short end of that stick. Perhaps you and Craven arm-wrestled for exposure...
Nevertheless, if the Academy Awards have taught us anything, it's not about quantity of screen time as much as it is quality of screen time. Said screen time being pretty damn mediocre. I'll be the first to acknowledge that a lot of the actual close-up blood spurting looked quite pleasing, taking full advantage of the colours and sounds of arterial spray. The causal attacks however, despite being competently constructed, lacked any real innovation or flare. In my humble opinion, the best kill in the film is early on, never a good sign for a slasher flick, when Jason folds Blake backwards. Pretty cool. Somewhat cooler when I saw it in Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives, though. I've seen Jason impale a mid-coital couple. I've seen Freddy etch his message in the flesh of his victim. I've seen beheadings, electrocution, and blood thrown from off screen. Slasher sequel kills demand to be progressive not repetitive. When the creative think-tank do eventually veer away from the financial sprucing up of kills of yore, what do they come up with to sate my voracious appetite? That ridiculous Carroll-esque Freddy-pillar. Fucking weak. Despite parlaying itself into a decent, and still reminiscent, cleaved torso...
Regarding the championship rounds, I wasn't nearly as unsettled as when the duo were destroying anyone else. (Please do not construe this as being "fully satisfied".) I was adequately entertained by Freddy's MMA infused fighting style; it's just a shame that it was continuously overshadowed by rapidly-edited-action-movie-trickery. The most successful moments in the film are during it's simplicity; just the two main attractions on screen, slashing away at each other, utilizing each others' weapons/limbs. Unfortunately, their mere 2 confrontations severely limit this gleeful evisceration. What the film makers failed to understand is that we've got ourselves a "4 confrontation minimum" situation, and they should probably count themselves lucky that I don't insist on 8 or 9...Of course, following these idealistic guidelines would have meant sacrificing the screen time of some of the other 10 "characters".
In a perfect world, a movie like this would really only have two (obviously) developed characters, and a whole ton of nondescript, conventional, stock teenagers who only serve the purpose of slaughter. Alas, this is not the standard of cinematic story lines and popcorn flicks are forced to offer up a couple of empathetic personalities. In this particular case, it would seem as though too many male actors were promised roles and had to be accommodated. Freddy Vs. Jason stacks itself with a wide array of likeable character-actors, only to spread itself so thin that it fails to spend any real constructive time with a single one. Wisely hinging on perennial horror charmer Monica Keena, the flick commits to the three lead females in the beginning, (under-utilizing another adorable genre fave, Katherine Isabelle,) and then cycles through male after male trying to divvy up the screen time equally. When Linderman chimes in with "He's the real Jason" mere moments after hearing the legend for the very first time, I felt not a sense of Linderman's conviction, rather an understanding of the notion that his character hasn't said anything in a while. From Trey and Blake, to Will and Mark (and the baggage of his brother), to Linderman, to Stubbs, to Mr. Campbell, the film has overdosed, offering no individual any real quantity or quality simply because it's too damn busy. Adding insult to injury, viewers are then subjected to one of the greatest "character tragedies" in recent memory with the so-blatant-it's-ballsy rip-off of Kevin Smith's "Jay". Unbelievably, all those involved thought that nobody would notice, or that teens in the know would be too amused by his "stoner" antics to care. Insulting? Probably. Infuriating? Definitely.
Freddy Vs. Jason would have benefited from keeping it's characters at one end of the spectrum or the other. Characters who are richly developed, genuinely intriguing, or plain old funny are just as sought after as in other genres, and I'm inclined to believe have a fairly comparable success rate. Otherwise, just be contented with a single-note stereotype; give the guy a football, or a textbook, or a tie-dyed shirt, or what have you, and toss him on a harpoon, or under a lawnmower, or in a thresher, or what have you. If not, you just end up wasting precious Freddy and/or Jason time.
The question that then begs to be asked is which came first; the expansive cast list, or the erratic, unfocused story, and the subsequent plot holes that follow? The most grievous error comes when the predetermined mythology gets altered, seemingly in an effort to placate the "new breed" of horror fans, leaving us old schoolers balking at the change. Jason afraid of water? Not in my day... The very introduction of this preposterous notion directly contradicts a large of number of kills from the original Friday series in which Jason voluntarily submerges himself. If the powers that be think I'm going to convince myself that the ultra sweet "spear-gun-to-the-groin" of Friday the 13th Part III was nothing more than a dream, then they can suck my dick. Oh, I'm sorry... it's implied that Jason is afraid of running water; well, given that he drowned in a lake as opposed to a bathtub, that New Line of reasoning is equally flimsy. (...And don't cite Jason Takes Manhattan as a means of defense, because that climax is just as ridiculous.)
That said, I did get a kick out of the hypnocil tie-in to Nightmare III; pity that it served only the purpose of shuffling the action around to a couple of different locations. The kids all make their way to the clinic to retrieve the drug, but what was the real motivation behind that escapade? A couple of issues pertaining to the errant thread of Lori's father are addressed, and the gang emerges with a subdued Jason, a plot driver that could have taken place anywhere. Inspecting closer, the true mystery becomes how Jason arrived at Weston Hills so quickly. Either he's a very brisk jogger, or he was soaking up some hospital atmosphere prior to their arrival.
Sloppy construction runs rampant through the unfolding, reinforcing the theory of the film's general distraction, all the while wrenching the viewer from the minimal amounts of immersion they have struggled to establish thus far. What group of teenagers would bear witness to the slaughter-fest at the barn party, flee by the skin of their teeth, then opt to simply go home? Does a good nights rest take precedence over discussing the homicidal maniacs seemingly hellbent on your destruction? Was someone less fearful of being hacked to pieces than they were of missing "Pancake Sunday"? I find it very disconcerting to be removed from a film as a result of crumbling verisimilitude.
There are many fingers of blame to point around here, the difficult task lying in the rigidity of each one. Surely the writers and producers deserve a stiff one, but my index gets a little shaky when trained on Ronny Yu. He seems to be more guilty of not learning from his Asian directing forefathers then he does of being the commanding presence behind this movie. After building a respectable career in Hong Kong combining a mixture of favored genres with cultural expression, and culminating in the stunning The Bride With White Hair, he probably imagined his name in bright Hollywood lights and set out for stardom. In the land of opportunity he gets handed a couple of moderately curious projects and told to spruce it up with his own touches. Sure, he's dabbled in horror before, (and Bride of Chucky is a bit more successful than this outing,) but why was he given something like Formula 51 before Fearless? So, Ronny Yu tries his damnedest, hence the kung-fu fights and couple of stylish shots, but his potential comes across stifled. American dreams once again held back by authority. I shudder to imagine the difficulty involved in arguing with a group of high-falutin producers who are convinced that because something worked in one of the original series' it has to work again with more money. Sorry, Ronny...but I'm pretty sure you can cry on the shoulder of Woo...or Hark...or Lam...or any number of similarly situated sympathizers...
In a small way, I too am to blame. Were my self-proclaimed passions truly at the heights that I have declared, why was I not driven to submit my own script? Once again I was thwarted by laziness and denied myself, and the world, the true loving treatment our heroes deserved. Thus I settle; I wade through the muddle on a fairly regimented basis, just to catch those fleeting glimpses of Freddy/Jason slashing away at Jason/Freddy. Even the smallest portions of a realized dream are worth revisiting. On a side note, I'm pitching an ongoing Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Everyone series if you know anyone who's interested...
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Starring - Josh Stewart, Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth, Juan Fernandez, Karley Scott Collins
Four viewings and this one still excites me. Easily one of the best horror flicks of 2009, The Collector is also amongst the upper echelon of North American horror in recent memory. (A couple more viewings and this one may cement itself quite high up the chain of horror, period.) Director Marcus Dunstan, and co-writer/partner in crime Patrick Melton, grow far beyond their capable work on wrapping up the Saw franchise, and construct an intense-as-hell twist on the recently popular sub-genre of "home invasion" films, inverting the threat so that it now comes from within. An arsenal of cinematic elements are all masterfully manipulated to amp up the tension, and that is the true beauty of the film; stripping away the amazing kill/torture scenes (of which there are numerous) would still leave the viewer with an established anti-hero, stunning cinematography, stylish editing, and an effective soundtrack. Just one more example of superior film making that will inevitably go widely unheralded due to negative connotations associated with this genre. (Sigh.) Combine these elements with a whole mess of blood and pain, and top it all off with an iconic killer, and the result is one of the best pieces of high-concept horror I have ever seen.
Even the snobbiest non-horror fan would have a difficult time denying the beauty of the most memorable shots; two separate overhead sequences spring immediately to my mind, but I certainly don't want to detract from any of the other segments, overhead or otherwise. The striking, straight down aerial shot as Arkin's car pulls off the back road, headlights cutting through the mist to illuminate scattered flora, remains a quietly foreboding marker of his final separation from the outside world. The second is the overhead circular pan as Arkin and the Collector press upon opposite sides of a door, the wall bisecting the frame, reinforcing the close proximity of the threat and the minimal amount of protection actually afforded by one's home. (Shattering the illusion of the home as sanctuary is one of the many thematic elements prevalent throughout not only this film, but also the entire sub-genre.) I do find it a bit curious that amidst all the skin ripping, lip sewing, and gut spilling, I was continuously taken by the shots of aesthetic value...how very uncharacteristic of me...I must be growing up... From the inserted close-ups of the curling arm hairs or the blood oozing out the keyhole, to the low angle of Larry's blood mixing with water, to the wonderfully disorienting interior of the rolling ambulance with Arkin stationary at the bottom of the frame, many visually innovative choices are made with resounding success. Kudos to cinematographer Brandon Cox and a host of other names I didn't bother to look for during the credits.
Of course, any final product is the sum of it's parts, and their subsequent relation to one another, and The Collector adeptly utilizes all surrounding elements in its construction. The lighting is very notable, taking full advantage of any intruder's necessity for a flashlight or the impending lightning storm. Flashes expose otherwise invisible threats, often providing the viewer with a piece of omniscient knowledge; a classic means of creating suspense. The soundtrack is punctuated with some over-amplified diegetic background noises (ie. the ticking clock or the ever-present crickets,) stressing the notions of urgency and isolation. All of it is seamlessly cut together, often employing rapid crosscutting, always in the name of intensity, and never as a cheap means of copping out on gore. I counted 5 scenes that alternate between simultaneous yet separate zones of action, (too excessive?), and given that I love indulgence, found they all worked extremely well. Most impressive of the batch was the three-point standoff between Jill and her boyfriend (oblivious of everything), the Collector (intently watching them), and Arkin approaching, surveying all parties. It creates a very precarious bond reliant on being unaware of the observer, culminating in Jill's inverted P.O.V. of the lascivious Collector, and explodes into chaos.
Both Josh Stewart and Juan Fernandez lead a strong yet numbered supporting cast, fleshing out their characters as they alternate between the roles of predator and prey. The correlation between the two is much of the reason as to why this isn't simply "cat-and-mouse" fare. Stewart's "Arkin" is well realized, foreshadowing his calmly calculating demeanor and protective tendencies through his early dealings with the wasps and the spider; no coincidence that the Collector is an exterminator... The look on his face as he concedes to re-entering the house to save Hanna exudes as much bravery as it elicits pathos. Fernandez shapes the titular antagonist, face obscured for the film's entirety (as any good serial killer should be), relying on postures and body movements to denote emotion. The salacious manner in which he licks his lips, or anxiously tosses the blade from one hand to the other, or the way he moves purposefully when the situation demands countered by the delicate, almost effeminate, fashion in which he releases the spider, all add small, specific characteristics to a man whose greater details are shrouded in mystery.
International "home invasion" flicks have been exploding in both quality and notoriety, with Funny Games, Inside, Martyrs, and the American-made yet distinctly un-American remake Funny Games breaking ground and making waves, (at least within my own circle-of-one,) while North America anted in with the mildly amusing and fairly safe The Strangers. The Collector marks an effort that ranks alongside its formerly superior brethren. It blends the great elements of film-making without ever losing sight of its gore flick sensibilities. And the blood is fucking awesome. Often in close-up. There's something inherently special about a movie that kills off both a cat and a dog. It also excels in the necessity to feature an iconic masked killer; if the killer is wearing a mask, he better be memorable, otherwise fans won't have something to latch onto. Paint me excited for the sequel, in 3D no less, but what Dunstan and Melton need to avoid here is another Feast 2 debacle; more CGI and silliness did not prevail then, and it will not prevail now. Regardless, The Collector is one more in the growing number of very strong English entries in the realm of horror, exemplifying the re-invigorated respect for the genre.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Starring - Gunnar Hansen, Pihla Viitalia, Nae Yuuki, Miranda Hennessy
Allow me to be the first person to express my relief over the title change that occurred for this film's North American release; sure, the Whale Watching Massacre moniker remained unaltered (and firmly denotes this flick's roots), but what the fuck could I have expected from a Reykjavik? Harpoon...now there's a term upon which I can build great expectations. Very clearly the by-product of maniacal-family slasher films of yesteryear, Harpoon is generally quite successful in capturing that low budget, atmospheric tone and sensibility as is alluded to in its subtitle. Hell, it's even got Gunnar Hansen signed on in a fifth business role, though he did get top billing in order to reiterate the major inspirational forces. (Of course, you and I both know that Captain Leatherface suffers a pretty nasty boo-boo about 25 minutes in, and is never to be heard from again...I wonder if old Gunnar was originally going to appear in the film as the father of the family, but had to go home after a half day of shooting on the open water wrought havoc on his arthritis...)
Director Julius Kemp and friends (wisely?) ally themselves with the prestigious Icelandic Film Company and take a very tried and very true formula, usually relegated to the backwoods or a cavernous desert, and set it atop ships on an ocean. Which sounds a little questionable, but works surprisingly well, and just goes to show the versatility of the "backwoods bumpkin" sub-genre. (It also makes me excited for the inevitable upcoming feature set in outer space.) The ship's confining spaces and dirty, interchangeable hallways play quite admirably to the strengths and necessities of this type of material.
The film opens with some grotesquely tantalizing stock footage shots, (nothing provides an opening title backdrop like some old fashioned stock footage...) and then spends the first third of its running time introducing a whopping ten whale watchers. Add to that the four family members and it equals a whole lot of harpooning...I do so admire a film with a double digit kill count... A great percentage of these characters are no more than a loose stereotype indicative of their nationality, and a considerably deep melting pot is featured here. It is during this build that viewers may find the film a mite slow and disjointed; jumping around to so many characters affords the filmmakers very little time to spend with each one, forcing their development out of a couple minutes of screen time and 3 or 4 lines of dialogue apiece. I personally maintain complacency in these situations by likening them to a ritualistic parade of appetizers being carted before me prior to my settling in for some messy consumption.
Moreover, looking past the drunken, annoying French guy and the middle aged German women rewards with some playful creativity; Endo, the assistant with the brutal survival instinct, and the "blonde-survivor" competition both standout due to development that is reliant on stereotypes, the former of a cultural nature and the latter of a cinematic one. The chilling stoicism of the scene in which the assistant coldly straps the kamikaze bomb onto her boss' wife whilst chanting "Kill, kill, kill..." could not have attained such power had it not been the polar opposite of her subservient character unto that point. Though, I found the most intriguing case to be the secondary blonde, whom I would consider to be a counter-character; on the surface, she has all the qualities of the lead female, simply by being attractive, helpless, charming, and sharing some intimate moments with the lead male, (who also breaks some stereotypes via his sexual preference.) Yet, it's the scenes which showcase her selfishness and manipulations, directly contrasting the actions of her female lead rival, that fool the viewers' preconceptions of how this particular character should act. I was mildly/pleasantly stunned when she apathetically walked away from Annett's attempted raping, and by the time she's spitting in her face, I felt bad for feeling anything for her at all.
Unfortunately, the writers overlooked what should by all rights be the most important characters in a film like this, namely the family of lunatics. Admittedly there were a couple of disgustingly pleasing moments , like the younger son rubbing his mother's crispy flesh all over his face, but not only did they lack that coveted iconic status, they weren't even memorable. They most definitely should have been filthier, not only of body from a hard day of whaling, but also of mind. The capture and subsequent torture of Annett would have only benefited were the situation much more lascivious. Anybody worth a nickle knows the name Leatherface, but I couldn't begrudge someone for having never heard of Marilyn Burns...I can't even remember what this family was wearing...
Petty complaints and self-indulgent ramblings aside, the film's real power stems form its oft-stunning cinematography, reserved not only for the kill scenes, (although they are the lynch-pin) but also in showcasing the containment of the ship and the vast expanse of the surrounding ocean. Wonderful horizon pans reinforce the complete isolation of our unlucky tourists, and I found the silhouetted Asian man mounted on the bow to be absolutely gorgeous. Build onto that an extremely satisfying beheading, head explosion, and flare/finger to the eye, (just to touch on the highlights,) and the result is a set of visuals overcoming the instances of poor writing. (Just one more piece of data to add to my ongoing investigation into what cannot be overcome by good kill scenes, and my overall desire to be alive to witness the first movie that is comprised only of kill scenes...)
Not a bad piece of work if you're looking to take a trip back to the heyday of midnight drive-ins or VHS walls in the rear of dark convenience stores. I would have gladly traded in the pointless scene in which Annett contacts her hipster friend at her Bohemian dinner and all that Bjork nonsense, (goddamn Icelandic opportunists,) in order to see Hansen die proper and his shipmate get his bloody comeuppance, but I'll happily take this tour again in a year or two. Hell, they may even squeeze a sequel out of this provided they extend the family a bit, or feature some of them all deformed, or with metal replacements for their wounded fleshy bits...that they poke at with a straightened hanger...it could happen...
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Starring - Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins
The first time I read the words "A new adventure from the world of Jumanji" on the cover box of Zathura I was quite titillated; Jumanji was a lot of fun, and I inherently prefer space-stuff to jungle-stuff, so how could I lose? Then I wondered how many reality-altering board games could possibly exist out there. Then I remembered the time I played "Mouse Trap" and found rat shit under the kitchen sink and wondered if maybe I wasn't living an adventure of my own. Turned out I wasn't. Halting this digression, I must profess at the outset of this particular interpretation that I did quite enjoy my "new adventure", though the marketing think-tank neglected to include the term "moderately inferior." Now, it could be argued that each film is an independent piece of art and I don't really have the right to draw comparisons between the two, and I can't vehemently disagree with that notion. In this case, however, it seems as though the latter is leaning very heavily on the shoulder of it's predecessor; is Zathura a sequel? A loose remake? An accompaniment piece? Or does it even matter so long as the viewer accepts the preconceived mythology set forth in Jumanji? That way, Zathura the movie doesn't have to spend any time developing the existence of "Zathura" the board game, because we viewers have already accepted the probability of said board game. Truth be told, I'd say the real answer is that this is supposed to be an entertaining kids movie about fighting robots and aliens, with a couple of life lessons blatantly tossed on top, and any over-analysing is obviously the action of a somewhat obsessive, somewhat pretentious, somewhat nerdy film fanatic with way too much brainstorming time on his hands. (This probably isn't a good time to note that I saw this movie twice to ensure I didn't miss any subtleties.)
The above cast list of five comprise the entire ensemble of human characters, but the vast majority of the screen time is shared by Hutcherson and Bobo. (Hell, Tim Robbins may have been strolling by on his way home from softball practice and had a free Sunday evening.) Hinging your film on two kids is often treading some dangerous ground; the actors have to maintain that childlike naturalism and banter, without coming across as too precocious or simply annoying. Our two heroes seem to hit the mark about half the time; I found some of their repertoire to be fairly humorous, particularly in the scenarios involving the reading and deciphering of the game cards. But it was always carefully checked by a healthy argument and round of name calling, and these are the scenes in which the acting succumbed to yelling and the grating began. Though I do appreciate the mild cussing spewed forth by the youngsters; it's not like the good old PG days, but it is one step closer to de-coddling the youth. Fortunately, Shepard and Stewart are introduced to break up the bickering; unfortunately, in both cases, it's about 7 minutes too late. Not that their chemistry is really that much better, despite the fact that the best one-liners do belong to Shepard. Stewart ran around in close-to-inappropriate lounging attire for a teenager, (which I'm actually okay with, not for the gross reasons one may assume, rather because I support the fueling of the imaginations of children,) perfecting the weak delivery and jerky head motions that would one day make her wealthy.
Moaning aside, the overall spectacle of the film is pretty bang on, with a bright colour scheme, grand exterior shots of the perils in the vastness of space, and a bunch of rip roaring destruction. The robot and the Zorgons hold onto that pseudo-retro design as realized with modern technology, and all of the threatening situations unfold extremely well. It was those scenes that made it easier to overlook the irritations brought on by the cast or script. The chaotic fun is more accentuated as it hones in on that forbidden fantasy of decimating one's private residence. However, by committing the bulk of the action to the actual house (and to the impending moral of "An adventure can happen without even leaving your own home..."), I feel there may have some missed opportunities to take this destruction on to broader horizons. I've got a lot of curiosities about what else was on board that Zorgon ship...It can't all be furnaces, conveyor belts, and 4-eyed goats...I don't wanna rub it in, but in Jumanji I got to see an entire town get ravaged.
And then the conclusion comes along. And things get a little weird. Some sort of metaphysical nonsense involving parallel universes, or something. I've seen a variety of movies that warn against the dangers of interacting with a past or future self, but very few have encouraged it as a means of personal growth. There's something about absorbing oneself into oneself that just doesn't seem like a healthy idea.
Generally, I couldn't help but feel as though every time something in the film went right, something else went "not right"; not terribly wrong, mind you, just "not right". There were many lessons laden throughout, and a little less focus on these may have been the sacrifice required to tweak those missteps. The movie had some very bright moments when it flirted with old tyme space serials, and I'm compelled to imagine the potential of the Astronaut character had he followed the same mold; full of bravura and 1950's idealism. Of course, this would greatly impact the "Take not thine sibling for granted..." lesson, and eliminate the potential existential crisis that it may inspire, and would that not be for the better? I also feel that I may owe Mr. Favreau an apology; I enjoyed myself, (twice, even) and it may not be fair of me to draw constant comparisons to it's superior predecessor. His intentions may have been differentiation, but is it worth it if the inevitable reaction is that "Jumanji did it better"? The only thing that is certain is that I'll never again haphazardly poke around the open game boxes at the Value Village.