Wednesday, August 16, 2017

summon it all up

I intended to watch enjoyably bad movies this month. Like, aw, how cute that they tried to make a real movie and failed so hilariously. Like Troll 2; you watch that and you know the filmmakers thought they were making something good. It's not good. But it is entertaining. I want every movie to be entertaining. Highlander II (which I guess I'm watching the Special Edition, though Amazon does not label it) is not entertaining. Its turns are too maddening, its characters to unbelievable, and its deformation of everything I liked about the original is despicable.


I didn't even notice yesterday that Ramirez doesn't mention Zeist by name in this version. I guess my memory of the original cut overshadowed this version so much, I heard something that wasn't there. But leaving it out actually makes Ramirez' vague speech and the resulting failed revolution worse; I mean, what are they fighting for? Are they even the good guys? Did Ramirez just marry himself to Connor? Why should I care?

"An exile into the future!" What the fuck kind of fix is that supposed to be for the alien thing? How does this even make sense?

 

 

 

 

 

No. I want to like something about this today. Like the bad editing (e.g. Louise was just in one room, inserting some chip into the shield beam thingy, then abruptly she's back in the previous room inserting a different thing into the computer there)--I won't comment on that. Or how some of the dialogue makes no sense if there's time travel going on and not the Zeist alien thing--for example, when Reno tells Katana that MacLeod is an old man now and will die in a few weeks. There is no "now" to it if he is in their future. I won't comment on that either. Or the poor music choices, including the inclusion of songs from the original that I already complained about yesterday.

On its surface, the initial premise (minus the time travel or alien bits) isn't half bad. I mean, what did MacLeod get from winning the gathering in 1985? He became mortal but he also gained incredible knowledge. As MacLeod receives the final quickening, after beheading the Kurgan in the original, he says (though how literal we should take it could be up for debate). "I feel everything. I know everything. I am everything." And, he describes the "prize" to Brenda like this:

It's like a whirlwind in my head. But if I concentrate... I know hat people are thinking, all over the world. Presidents. Diplomats. Scientists. I can help them understand each other.

Then, because he and Ramirez were connected (just not like in the sequel), Ramirez tells him,

You are generations born and dying. You are at one with all living things. Each man's thoughts and dreams are yours to know. You have power beyond imagination. Use it well, my friend.

This is the kind of thing that actually might turn MacLeod into someone Louise might admire because of his "passion for the world." It would put him at the center of political conversation, put him in touch with scientists. His perspective on the world would be useful. (Realistically, most people wouldn't believe him and would ignore this guy who claims to have once been immortal, but hey, this is Hollywood.) He would have certain insights that normal folk wouldn't have. He might even be inclined to actively seek leadership roles. So, if the ozone were gone and Earth was in serious danger of everyone dying, he might actually be instrumental in whatever effort there was to save it.

The shield is just so silly, though. The science makes no sense. To save the planet, we're going to block out the sun 24 hours a day? Yeah, good plan, except for what will everyone eat? We can't all just be immortal? We're not all from Zeist or the distant past.

That being said, this fight between MacLeod on the hoverboard and the second of the porcupine twins is actually pretty cool (except when they actual strike each other and it looks like neither one is trying to inflict real damage), In some other movie, the sword fight between a guy with wings and a guy on a hoverboard would be awesome. And the quickening effects are still great, destructive on the outside, bursting nearby cars and lights with bolts of lightning, and looking like a combination of intense agony and orgasmic pleasure for MacLeod. Plus, who, given the chance, wouldn't immediately go at it with Virginia Madsen in an alley after getting through that. I mean, he's immortal. We can assume he knows when the timing is right. And, Madsen is hot. (Why she would go for this guy who just killed two people and magically turned young, regardless of how much passion he might have had once upon a time--that's a whole other matter.)

And maybe the insertion of "Who Wants to Live Forever" is ironic. Like, that's the point. MacLeod has meaningless sex with the woman he just met because, yeah, he doesn't want to love anyone again; it's too painful. Also, she's a revolutionary and that's interesting. He's been alive for hundreds of years; he needs interesting.

(How does Katana know to reference Kansas a la The Wizard of Oz if he's from the past? For that matter, if he's an alien, why make that reference then, either? Does he sit around watching our movies like the aliens in The Explorers?

Also, crashing a subway train at nearly 700 mph into a concrete wall is dangerous, even for an immortal, if losing your head can kill you. Katana is lucky his head didn't get separated from the rest of him as he was squashed into bloody Zeistian goo inside the rubble of that train.)

I rather like the decor in Alan's office. I kind of want a big open office that is dark like that, a bit of blue amidst the black, a giant industrial fan moving slowly behind my desk, its shadows cutting through the room because it's not dark enough already. And, an office like that needs a trapdoor that Mr. Burns would be proud of. And, you could do very little in that office but fire people. And, really, that's the only office where you could come up with a plan like the shield, block out the sun, kill all the crops, ruin the world just for the sake of keeping people alive. It's a fantastic place for cinematic villainy. But, Alan seems so nice. In that office, he should have been drawn to evil. Like, I couldn't imagine just having lunch in there, or taking a meeting with a guest. Whatever it was, someone would have to die. There can be only one person in that office after the meeting, and not because someone left through the exit.

Every place in this movie is lit that same way, of course. The hospital, the bar, MacLeod's apartment, the subway, the street. Every place. (The truck-top battle is out of place visually because of this (a little too day-for-night), in addition to being out of place by being a late addition to... make the movie make more sense?)

(Blake says that Alan's computer conversation with MacLeod was "the other day" but editing suggests that entire movie so far has taken place between last night and tonight. MacLeod called for Ramirez last night after the opera. Or was that a matinee? Ramirez Went to that tailor and demanded a suit by 3 o'clock. Assume that's Scotland afternoon, in New York, it was 10am when Ramirez had his suit and then went to the airport, and flew to New York. It was while Ramirez was still on that flight that MacLeod and Alan had that conversation. That was literally today. The old standby "the other day" though--it cares not for the actual passage of time.)

By the way, the coordinates 33°26'N, 6°42'W get you a spot in Burkina Faso, northwest corner of Africa. A spot that is lower than 700 meters altitude. I guess the shield is really low. And many mountains, and at least one building, would rise above it. (Or maybe the shield was warped, and lower than it should be in that location.) But, it's not like much thought was put into any of the science. This is still just fantasy. But, not even thoughtful fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 

And yet, a year later, I was eager to watch the Highlander tv series. It was on Saturday night at 11:35pm (and I'd stay up for Forever Knight after it). And it rightly ignored this second film, made a minor retcon to the ending of the original film and expanded the world of these immortals without making it ridiculous. And, it was often far more thoughtful than it had any right to be. And it was always more thoughtful than this movie is (except when Amanda might pull a full-length sword out of her waist-length leather jacket). And, to steal a description from Ramirez, it was glorious.

watch it slowly drip away

And sometimes, I take the bad movie personally. Sometimes, it's not supposed to be a bad movie at all. Sometimes it's a sequel to one of my favorite films as a kid and I'm excited, and then increasingly disappointed as I watch the horrible followup. That followup: Highlander II: The Quickening. Roger Ebert's review begins with a lovely line about the awfulness of this film: "This movie has to be seen to be believed. On the other hand, maybe that's too high a price to pay." I have paid that price twice. I saw this movie in the theater. Second run theater, actually. Didn't see it opening weekend. I cannot remember if I knew ahead of time not to rush out to it, maybe some bad things said about it in Starlog magazine. Maybe I (or my parents, though I could drive by then) was just busy. I also rented the film on VHS once.


Imagine, if you will, my confusion, having loved the swordfighting and magic in the original Highlander, coming into this movie with its opening text:

The year is 2024.

Industrial pollution has destroyed the ozone layer, leaving the planet at the mercy of the sun's ultraviolet rays.

An electromagnetic shield now protects the earth.

The ozone layer? An electromagnetic shield? Already, you're taking an awesome fantasy and twisting it into science fiction, and not just the costume of science fiction as with Star Wars.

(A bit of confusion: I swear I remember a shot of MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) in some bunker as they turned on the shield, and the Wikipedia entry for this film has two paragraphs of plot before we get to 2024. Am I not watching the theatrical cut? I mean, I know there's another version of the film--the Renegade Version--which removes Zeist from the story somehow; I've never actually seen that version. The existence of the original version pissed me off too much to ever bother. And the existence of the Highlander tv series satiated my love for the original, and even improved on the original in some ways. I looked it up just now and, oddly, think that I saw the UK version of the film, with the longer prologue. I'm not sure what that cut would have been doing at a second run theater in the US, but hey, 10 minutes less ridiculousness tonight.)

The text continues:

A small group believes that the ozone layer has repaired itself and that the shield is no longer necessary.

But no one knows for sure.

1) If this is science, fuck this small group's beliefs. Like climate change deniers. You know, fuck them. 2) No one knows for sure? We do still have scientists, yeah?

Sidenote: The big neon OPERA sign seems like a deliberate nod to the big SILVERCUP sign on the roof at the end of the original. But, all director Mulcahy is doing is reminding us of the better work he did six years before.

Now, back to my point. If we have scientists, if they didn't just all die off along with the ozone layer, then there are ways to check if there's an ozone layer.

But, nevermind that. I have to deal with Zeist. Like I had to deal with it as a teen seeing this movie on the big screen. It makes no sense. Now, a movie about aliens who come to Earth to fight each other--that's cool. That's lots of other cool movies. Hell, just the year before this movie came out, there was I Come in Peace starring Dolph Lundgren (as a J.C. character no less--were I watching that tonight, I could totally run through some Christ-Figuring), for example...

The punishment for the rebellion on Zeist doesn't make any sense either. Send these fighters away to battle one another so only the strongest (in theory) is still around, then they can choose to return to Zeist? Seriously, the long term plan is that the strongest rebel gets to come home. What's to stop him from rebelling again?

And, why did that security camera just zoom in? Will this film do anything that isn't ridiculous?

Even bigger is this: how did MacLeod make the shield? After all the scientists died, was he magically the smartest man on Earth? He may be old, but he ran an antiques shop. For that matter, why is this ozone thing even part of the story? The plot--if we accept the Zeist bullshit--is about a new arrival from Zeist coming to fight MacLeod again. The ozone stuff is a weird attempt to grab an audience that probably wouldn't be seeing this movie anyway. But, I'm not sure if this movie is the Highlander character shoved into a movie that was supposed to be a serious exploration of the consequences of ozone depletion or a cheap bit about ozone depletion shoved into a Highlander sequel.

These hoverboard-riding twins remind me in a weird way of the aliens from Battlefield Earth, a movie so horrible even I couldn't get through it all, but alas I cannot find it available online, not even to pay for, to watch it this month.

Also, why does one hoverboard alien also have wings that pop out of his backpack? How many ways to fly does he need?

And, why do they call him "highlander"? They should use his name. He was called "the highlander" because a) he was from the highlands of Scotland, which I'll get back to in a moment, and b) Duncan wouldn't exist in the Highlander mythos for another year or so.

But let us backtrack a little before this movie really goes off the rails and has Ramirez (Sean Connery) return... Too late. There is is, interrupting a stage performance of Hamlet because, I guess that's funny.

(Sidenote: MacLeod putting "A Kind of Magic" on the jukebox was offensive enough. But, playing an instrumental version of "Who Wants to Live Forever" as he and Louise (Virginia Madsen) go at in an alleyway? Fuck everyone involved in that decision. That song was a beautiful piece connected to Connor's long-term relationship with Heather; it's about the weight of love that ends in relation to immortality. For young me (10 years old when I saw the original, 16 and having seen that original a few more times by the time this sequel came out), that song was meaningful as fuck. Now, here they play it over some bullshit quickie between two people who just met, and it's like--

And I must interrupt because why is MacLeod describing the sky to Louise? Is she supposed to be younger than 25? Madsen was 30 when this movie came out.

--it's like this movie wants to ruin everything... No, that's the terminology of folks who hate remakes just because. It's not changing the original at all, so it can't ruin it. But, it is insulting it by shoving these songs into this context, but shoving MacLeod and Ramirez into this ridiculous story.)

The subway sequence is just stupid. If those numbers on the dash are mph, there should be a lot more destruction when that thing crashes. If they're anything else, they're meaningless.

(And, here's the bit with them activating the shield. Maybe this is the cut of the film I saw, and I just reordered the scenes in the version of the film that exists in the deep, dark recesses of my head.)

And now I must backtrack finally. Because, Connor MacLeod was born in Scotland. Ramirez was born in Egypt (his name wasn't Ramirez, of course). They were not just transported here like Katana (Michael Ironside) or the moron twins. Ramirez explained the Gathering to MacLeod back in Scotland before he (Ramriez) died. Connor and Kastagir talked about the Gathering as well. With no mention of Zeist, no mention of being aliens. Even if we assume that MacLeod and Ramirez and Kastagir just didn't remember who they were before (or if they were somehow inserted onto Earth as unborn infants), how do Katana and the Scientologist twins manage it differently?

Quick nitpick: you drop a body that far, with a noose around the neck, it is not going to stop so nicely. That head is going to be ripped off, the headless body is going to hit the ground. But, hey, if a subway train doesn't have to follow the laws of physics, neither should a human body.

Worse than the Zeist thing is the Zeist thing doesn't set up Katana well enough. Sure, his actions have shown he's a homicidal psychopath, but that' snot enough for a villain. The Kurgan in the original had some personality to him. He had charisma. And, his connection to MacLeod in that battle outside Glenfinnan was set up better (he helps another clan just to get to MacLeod, that shows drive and personality) than Ramirez' speech that starts the rebellion on Zeist. We never really get to know Katana. (Or why a name like Katana or MacLeod or Ramirez would work on Zeist.) David Blake (John C. McGinley) (the head of the Shield Coroporation) has more personality, even if he feels like a mustache-twirling villain and not someone realistic) and more of an obvious investment in the plot.

If Ramirez' magic could open the door, why did he even bother with the giant Bond-villain fan?

(I may be watching the "Special Edition" version of the film. Wikipedia says this truck-top fight was in that version... But it also says the "Special Edition" is "nearly identical to the Renegade Version" which would mean no Zeist. This version has Zeist.)

Interesting bit of trivia: Allan (Allan Rich) tells MacLeod to go to 33 degrees 26 minutes north latitude. (Ramirez later points out the obvious: they need a longitude.) Thing is, the Shield Control base seems to be near New York City. After escaping the facility, MacLeod and Louise don't seem to travel very far. (Or maybe they use the wormholes Jack Bauer always seemed to use on 24.) But, 33 degrees north runs across the southern half of the US. And 33°26' apparently runs right through where the flying saucer supposedly crashed outside Roswell, New Mexico. Maybe they were from Zeist.

And then the movie just ends. (The Wikipedia says MacLeod and Louise go to Zeist. I don't remember that. And this version doesn't have that.) Well, Connor kills Katana and steps into the Shield beam thingy and magics it away.

Monday, August 14, 2017

hold you tighter than your true love

Take Anaconda, for example. Arguably the birthplace of more recent crap fare like Sharknado. Except, this was a real movie, meant for the theater, meant to be taken (relatively) seriously. It's inherently ridiculous, but hey, so is Jaws: The Revenge and that was born out of one of the greatest thrillers ever--the original Jaws. There's a thin line and a slippery slope between a movie that should be taken seriously and a movie that exists to entertain the simpler-minded in its audience, and/or to make some quick cash for a very cynical version of Hollywood.

The cast alone here suggests something more serious. It's not A-listers. But, it's not all has-beens either. Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer. And the setup--a documentarian headed into the Amazon--is far more... highbrow isn't the right word, but it's far "better" than an ex surfer saving the world from freak weather.


The music is almost too happy and excited (reminiscent of Cutthroat Island). The dramatic arrival of Voight is a little much. His accent and Hollywood-obvious "dangerous" are overdone. But, this is aiming for B-movie. And there have always been B-movies, always monster movies and disaster movies that really just aren't that good. But, 1) older ones have that forgivability factor because the effects weren't available to make things more real, and 2) they also don't have to be good. If they can just avoid being inherently stupid and offensive, they can be entertaining for the same reason that I say I don't (strictly) go to movies--the escapism thing. You can watch a bunch of attractive folks deal wth a giant snake and it draws you out of your life. Action and adventure, or the science fiction paranoia of, say, big radioactive creatures from '50s films--it offers up something to distract, or to focus (depending on the film). Something like Anaconda also offers up the exotic. Not just attractive actors but also attractive locations. And a decidedly unattractive situation.

 

 

 

 

 

And despite some things I've said previously, why shouldn't we seek out a movie that has obvious flaws, that embraces its flaws even? Why shouldn't we look for something fun, even if it isn't perfect? Not every movie can be some pretentious indie. Not every movie should be.

Anaconda isn't even that bad. It takes its time, it builds up the mystery, lets Voight chew up the scenery. There's the cold open with Danny Trejo, of course, and there's the title, so we know what's coming. But, the film does not rush into things. Forty minutes before the titular snake kills Mateo.

What works in a movie like this, or so many bad movies I've enjoyed over the years, is that there can be a guarantee of entertainment. Like a relationship. You get familiar with the film. You know what to expect, and it delivers. (To be fair, my distaste at the recent Sharknado 5 was because what it delivered with the mindless action and inane cameos from mostly has been celebrities just doesn't appeal to me. There is an audience for it, obviously. But, I want something more.) I recently came up with an idea for what to do with this blog next month, and it's all about familiarity. For me. Movies I grew up with. Movies I watched all the time as a kid. Movies that I could come back to time and time again because they were steady, they were giving. No matter what was going on in life, the right movie could make it all go away. Or add to it; it's not all escape. A nice thoughtful movie doesn't need to pull you out of life but instead make you weigh it, make you measure life and see it for all that it is. Groundhog Day is that for me, obviously. But, so are so many other movies. Old movies, new movies, good movies, bad movies.

As long as they offer comfort. Or discomfort when things are too comfortable. Time for thought when life needs measure. Mindless action when life is too full. It's not just one thing. But it has to be something.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

who survived this terrifying ordeal

Plan 9 from Outer Space is, on its surface, an awful film, far worse than The Happening, but even if you've not seen Ed Wood and seen Johnny Depp's take on the titular director as a man so in love with film he cannot see its flaws, this movie has charm. It's just so... earnest and overwrought; its voiceover is too much, its melodramatic underpinnings are too big for its short running time; and its straightforwardness of plot coupled, its simplicity of sets (like this airplane cockpit which is barely more than a wall with a curtain; they don't even have steering columns), its simplistic acting (without being goofy or inhuman like Walhberg or Deschanel in The Happening), it's mix of cheap original footage and stock footage, and its ridiculous premise make for a weirdly entertaining thing.


Jeff's (Gregory Walcott) rant about how he can't tell anyone about the flying saucer he saw because he's "muzzled by army brass" feels like the kind of rant Shyamalan puts into his movies. But, the thing is, if they made a film--M. Night Shyamalan--I don't imagine him as being in love with film. He's clearly enamored with something about what he can do with film, but that' snot the same thing. Take Lady in the Water for example. I have been consistent in my dislike for that film; that is worth noting before I go on. There, Shyamalan invents a new mythology and casts himself, literally, as a writer whose ideas will save the world. That takes a whole lot of ego. Hell, just his Hitchockian habit of casting himself in most of his movies takes ego. Usually, it's small roles, sure, but vital ones--the doctor in The Sixth Sense, the suspicious stadium attendee in Unbreakable, the guy who killed Graham's wife in Signs, the guard with the on-the-nose-headlines newspaper in The Village, and I'm pretty sure he was in Split too, but I cannot remember what he did [looked it up and apparently he helped Dr. Fletcher with video footage]. But, Lady in the Water--that one goes beyond the rest; and maybe it's because I have become increasingly troubled by Shyamalan's filmmaking, but by that point I was pretty sure he was full of himself, and then there he was trying to prove it.

But, enough about Shyamalan (at least until I get to another one of his films here in this blog).

Like The Happening, Plan 9 from Outer Space has a tell-don't-show problem, of course. But, that's a little more forgivable in 1959 than in 2008. Less possibility for effects, practical and special.

That's why, I think, I've gotten increasingly annoyed with the various deliberately-cheap Syfy movies like Sharknado; their badness is hard to forgive, especially once the initial novelty wears off. The premise is silly, but imagine a realistically-rendered sharknado and how terrifying that could be.

 

 

 

 

 

And then I neglected to say anything else. The film is the film. And, the real world with its real violence distracted me a bit. And, I kinda want some aliens to show up and threaten us into not hurting one another. Of course, that's just fantasy. That's just film. In the real world, that's a stupid solution. Threats just make things worse. Violence begets violence, no matter how powerful one party may be. (Hell, the movie kind of gets at that too. I'd forgotten where this thing went in the end.)

But bad movies distract. The violence isn't at my backdoor. So, I can afford to be distracted. I wish that were the case for everyone.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

you're not interested in what happened

The one woman's confusion about her book and then stabbing herself in the neck--that's good cinema. The other woman seeing people clawing at themselves, but we don't get to see that clawing--that's just offensive filmmaking. Something Shyamalan does far too much in The Happening; he has characters and fake newscasters tell us things rather than show us things. And, at the climax of the film, while Nursery Owner has already offered up bits of the explanation for what's happening, we aren't offered visual clues to figure it out, and we don't really get to observe the process of Elliot figuring it out... Okay, we are literally allowed to observe him figuring it out but it's so... lame:

Click and see.

The construction site scene is a better opening because we see the action. We don't just hear about it.

But, the best scene comes later--

(Three hours into the "event" that's happening, we've already had autopsies, we've got a detailed explanation of the chemicals or whatever turning off some bullshit receptors in the brain that keep us from killing ourselves, and we've already heard that the event is isolated to New York, just in time for the event to spread to Philadelphia.)

--when a cop shoots himself, drops his gun, some blood spurts out of the wound, a driver (who that cop has just spoken to about the weather) gets out of his car, walks toward the camera, picks up the gun, shoots himself, falls to the ground, and the camera pans to the right just in time for a woman to walk over, pick up that gun and shoot herself, and it's all one take, and it's better filmmaking than anything to come after.


Friday, August 11, 2017

one useless piece

I saw two good movies today. One a horror film, far better than it should have been (though with one annoying flaw right at its center). The other a nice family drama with echoes of last year's Captain Fantastic (which I loved), and based on a true story. That is, Annabelle: Creation and The Glass Castle, respectively.

But, right now, I'm watching The Happening because, I suppose I hate myself.

Now, The Happening isn't all bad. Until Mark Wahlberg shows up on screen, telling us (or his students) about some article about bees that Shyamalan (or Wahlberg's character, though I'm not sure he has one) read in the news, the movie is actually pretty good. A slow burn handful of minutes, that lady losing her place in her book twice then slowly pushing her hairpin into her neck, all of those bodies leaping from the construction site... And then Elliot (Wahlberg) teaches science but doesn't understand what "theory" means.

Cameron Fry has become a principal. Good for him. We should follow him instead of Elliot. Elliot sucks. He says every line like he recently discovered language.


Alma (Zooey Deschanel) manages to be even stranger, talking about the evil of this toxin (which was figured out far too unrealistically quick) like it's the latest fashion she saw on a commercial. It's like Shyamalan really wanted to make a movie where all of the emotional reactions of everyone were mixed up but accidentally made this one instead. For example, Julian (John Leguizamo) and Alma dial up their awkward conversation (deliberately, awkward, mind you) to inhuman levels. And, nothing will be normal again.

Meanwhile, the only real problem with Annabelle: Creation is its abrupt turn from a slow burn first half into a less interesting (but still pretty good) second half filled with CGI and violence (but SPOILERS few actual victims). It manages to offer up characters whose strangeness feels real. Unlike Elliot or Alma or Julian here.

This sequence with the gun and the string of suicides is great filmmaking, better than most of the rest of The Happening. The worst thing about Shyamalan is not his horrible impulses toward the inane but his inconsistency; he can be a brilliant director with one scene and then heavyhanded and silly the next.

David F Sandberg, the director of Annabelle: Creation, on the other hand, is consistently... good. Never great. He knows how to let a visual linger, knows how to get a good performance from his cast, including several young girls. So does Destin Daniel Cretton, the director and writer of The Glass Castle. Both of them get great performances out of kids. Yet here, I'm not even sure Elliot actually knows what a mood ring is.

The Glass Castle, based on Jeanette Walls' book, offers up the kind of character in her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) that is a force of nature, an off-the-grid-living alcoholic who is caring and nurturing one moment, destructive and maddening the next. The kind of part

Here in The Happening, the force of nature is different, and Shyamalan's reliance on obvious dialogue and obvious visuals makes that literal force of nature feel weak and unimportant. It is just there. Rex Walls, though, or the demon that is inside Annabelle--their actions drive their respective stories. They have agency. The plants... The plants just are. A passive antagonist is not an antagonist at all. The premise is intriguing, but there's a reason that say, Night of the Living Dead is about the humans turning on each other, a reason that most any zombie movie is; when you have mindless villains or passive villains, you need someone else to be the antagonist. You need man's inhumanity to man, you need racism and sexism and every -ism that has ever pulled people apart. Instead, Shyamalan focuses on a random grouping of characters, and events happen without much logic. (By the time Jared and Josh are killed by the unseen paranoid guy, it's both too late, and too brief. Same with the brief scene with men in Fairfield, Nebraska loading guns.)

Annabelle, though--she wants something. She wants to exist in our world. She wants to toy with people. She wants a soul (or two or three). Rex Walls wants to take care of his family but he's damaged and broken since he was a child. We see orphan girls in need of parents, parents in need of children, and a nun seemingly (though not confirmed within the film, but one reference in the film suggest her character may be involved in the Nun movie thay've got spinning off from the Conjuring series soon) turned to running an orphanage because of the loss of her own child. That's Annabelle: Creation. We see four children, three girls and a boy, turning one and on to each other as their father destructs and self-destructs, as their mother takes him back and takes him back, as they are moved from place to place, with no sense of anything solid until they demand it for themselves. That's The Glass Castle. But here? We see random characters, most of which we learn very little about--

Alma isn't having an affair, but apparently had dessert with a guy and that's troubling for her, Julian is concerned for his absent wife, Elliot is perplexed by, well, everything, and the unnamed Nursey Owner (Frank Collison) likes hot dogs

--and they kill themselves. And other than maybe Julian, we have no reason to care when that happens. It's just plot. It's impersonal. And it's a little silly.

Two orphan girls swear to get adopted together and it's easy to care. Four siblings swear to make it out on their own, away from their parents, and we already have a good portion of that film behind us to make us care. Maybe a better comparison would be Jeannette accidentally lighting herself on fire while making lunch, and we already understand so much of her character, of her mother, and the family dynamic. But, Alma feels guilty and lies about going out wth that guy, and it's hard to care.

But, I can't fault Shyamalan for trying. I mean, he wants to say something. About nuclear power, about overpopulation, about... something. He has put some thought into this story. He has a message. If more filmmakers, better filmmakers, had things to say, we could have some really good movies.

The Happening is built like Shyamalan's earlier Signs, following one small group as something huge is happening. But, there, we had characters with depth, characters with personal struggles, characters with quirks. Here, we never get that far. Elliot and Alma just aren't that interesting. Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) is interesting, but she's also an oddity here. She's so disconnected from society that she's disconnected from the story. She's there for one more death to set up an emotional climax that is neither earned nor acted successfully.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

and because i am so charitable

I have only one thing further to say about Cutthroat Island. Except, it's not really about the movie itself; rather, it's about Roger Ebert's review. See, he doens't praise it, but he also doesn't seem to find it as boring and distasteful as I do. And, I am surprised by that. "'Cutthroat Island' does not disappoint," he writes. "It touches all [its] bases like clockwork..."

Those bases, the tropes of any "decent pirate pictures" according to Roger:

(1) an escape from a hostile port; (2) a battle at sea, preferably with broadsides fired and pirates boarding each other's ships; (3) one featured swordfight, (4) a storm at sea, with the survivors washed ashore, and (5) discovery of the treasure and a final confrontation.

And, you know what I like about that list? At first blush, my personal favorite pirate movie--The Pirate Movie--has but one of those, a featured swordfight. Now, at second blush, it's got a storm at sea, but writ small, affecting only Mabel's small sailboat, and setting the entire plot into motion. There is a treasure, but it is found simply, with a musical number to boot, and the final confrontation (which is quite hilarious, and in the end, quite thoughtful in its metatextual reference to the story itself) is barely connected to it. There is no battle between ships at sea, no escape from a hostile port, and certainly no extended chase sequence through a crowded city like the one that fills so much of the beginning of Cutthroat Island, or the more recent Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales...


And, speaking of dead men telling no tales, Cutthroat Island makes an explicit reference to the Pirates of the Carbbean ride at Disneyland when Shaw (Matthew Modine) says that very line--"Dead men tell no tales"--when he and Morgan (Geena Davis) come upon a skeleton with a crab crawling on it. If you've not been on the ride, well, at one point, before you're down far enough below ground to get to all of the animatronics (which have recently (or are about to be) altered again to remove the wenches for sale), your boat passes a bit of beach, one skeleton held against a wall by a cutlass, another in the sand, and there are crabs and a bit of treasure. The reference here seems deliberate, so I had to doublecheck to see if Carolco had anything to do with Disney. It didn't. In fact, out of numerous companies that distributed Carolco productions (TriStar several times, Universal a few times, Paramount, Columbia, New Line, Miramax (before Disney owned it), and MGM), Disney never did. Also, Cutthroat Island was the death of Carolco. Adjusted for inflation, I believe Cutthroat Island is still the biggest box office bomb ever, costing around $100 million at the time and making only $10 million at the box office.

I never actually saw the whole movie, by the way. It came out right after I quit the movie theater where I worked (and which had a deal with the nearby theater (where Cutthroat Island was playing) so we ushers could see movies at both for free) and there were better movies available. It was the weekend before Christmas. New to theaters were: Waiting to Exhale, Grumpier Old Men, Sudden Death, Tom and Huck, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Cutthroat Island, Nixon, Balto, Four Rooms, and Shanghai Triad. The weekend before had Jumanji, Heat, Sabrina, Sense and Sensibility, City of Lost Children, and Othello. I saw most of those in the theater. That weekend, it was probably Four Rooms and Grumpier Old Men. The weekend before would have been Heat and Jumanji and probably Sabrina. The weekend after had a few Academy-qualifying runs, just a few theaters each for 12 Monkeys (saw it that weekend), Dead Man Walking (saw it that weekend), Richard III, Restoration, and Mr. Holland's Opus. Really, this movie had no right coming out for Christmas; it's not fun enough to grab the Christmas family audience. It should have been out in the summer, up against Batman Forever and Apollo 13, Pocahontas and Waterworld... The twofer of Cutthroat Island and Waterworld should have been the greatest of cautionary tales for not filming on the ocean.

But anyway, my point is there were better films to be seen. Even a better ocean-based film in Waterworld. (Of course, the beneath-the-ocean Crimson Tide eclipsed either of them when it came to quality.) There are always better films to see. And better films to make. I'm curious of the exact timeline here--When did Harlin and Davis get together? Did he really think she could be an action star or was he just so enamored he had to have her on his movie? Had Michael Douglas remained attached to the film, would it have played better? If Waterworld hadn't have been going on around the same time, might there have been more oceangoing-crew available to replace the dozen or so who quit after Harlin fired the chief camera operator? Is that even a thing--oceangoing crew? If Harlin hadn't pushed Davis to do her own stunts, might he have let the editors trim more of the action sequences to move the film along better?

Which brings me back to Roger, by the way. He says, "director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2") moves the story along smartly." Except, no. The movie barely moves. It's got a pace more appropriate to a tv series...

But, I'm still trying to like it. And, you know what I have come to appreciate? Frank Langella's performance as Dawg Brown. He growls his orders at his men, and snaps at them when they move too slowly. He delivers lames lines like, "I know you're out there, Morgan. I can smell you" as if he means it. And, he exudes more charm as the antagonist than Modine or Davis do as the leads. He even makes me forget completely that there are other villains (until that last half hour when he inexplicably joins up with the British guy. But, best of all with Dawg is that I can buy him actually being a pirate, I can buy him actually seeking out treasure like this. He feels more real.

I wish he would win.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

by the way, that won't work

I have a goal for today. I want to like Cutthroat Island. Despite all of its flaws, I mean. Despite it's simplistic, plot-driven structure. Despite it's excessive length. Despite its unmotivated characters. Despite its generic script. I have my work cut out for me.


I suppose there's charm to these opening titles, all the overlaid old maps and maritime illustrations, like the movie really wants to be the definitive pirate movie...

And then I'm reminded of The Pirate Movie, and I love that movie. That movie has charm, taking The Pirates of Penzance, already good in its own right, and updating it for the 1980s with a bit of parody to it, with just the right balance of cheese and earnestness. This movie could use a little less earnestness, a little more lightheartedness. Instead of this faux gravitas between Harry (Harris Yulin) and Dawg (Frank Langella). Or, instead of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis getting the studio to basically fund their honeymoon (they married just before production), how about a film about the Adams brothers before all of this, before they turned on each other... or make this story of that turning about them instead of about Morgan (Davis).

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it just needs a different editor. Like, cut the length of all these chase scenes, all these establishing shots, move things along fast enough that we don't notice the lack of motivation. I mean, instead of paying attention (which I am trying to do), I get involved in a conversation about acting, theater versus movies, and our kids as actors especially, with another parent. (We're on the set of a pilot for a web series.) There was also a long conversation about the difference between a middle school and a junior high school. But now, the kids are filming, and I'm going to try to focus on the movie.

But then I want to complain about how that chain around Morgan's neck should have at least left some serious bruising, if not kill her outright. Or how this tavern is really well lit for having just a few stray candles and a fireplace for light.

 

 

 

 

 

To be fair, the plot is coherent, unlike the later Pirates of the Caribbean films. Mostly though, that might be because everything takes so damn long, it's hard to miss anything.

That's almost positive.

 

 

 

 

 

And then I'm reading the script for this pilot instead of focusing on the movie. It just never grabs you. It's far better acting than, say, The Room or Troll 2, even better than Howard the Duck, but it's just so boring, and the characters just... exist to service the plot.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

would you settle for the point...

[(Note: This was mostly written a few hours ago, but I forgot to take my keyboard with me today. I hand wrote some stray thoughts then a few rants bits... You'll see.)


My first thought while watching Cutthroat Island was to wonder when it came out. I remembered (accurately, it turned out) it coming out in the mid-90s but it has Mario Kassar listed as producer. My first note: Mario Kassar? - the 80s guy? Sure enough, it' she 80s guy, which explains some of what's going on with this movie.

By the way:


That's page one. Black then red on this page. The others are more organized. I will try to just type them as is, keep it simple, and save me some time.]

Nice confident opening credits. Cold open feels like the cold open of Romancing the Stone, except this is the film, not a setup. Nice sweeping shots--this movie is far too sure of itself. And that score... [later added in red: It gets a little repetitive as it goes on.] Barely begun and trying so damn hard to be glorious.

She scalped her own dying father yet I'm not buying Morgan (Geena Davis) as a badass. [Later added in red: She even carries it in her pants and it feels like there's no import to it. It might as well be on paper.] [Not in my notes, just me adding on now: Seriously, having part of the map hidden on some guy's scalp, only to find it after shaving his head when he dies is an awesome detail... for later in some other, better movie. This early, it's just so arbitrary--strange of sake of being strange. But, imagine this kind of thing as a third act revelation when people have been searching for two acts for that map piece. That would be amazing. But, this isn't that.]

[Then, I've got this in my notes, in cursive, like a title:] Romeo & Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. [And, if you don't get the reference] Not good that I'm thinking of better (Shakespeare in Love) and better-made (Pirates of the Caribbean) films.

There's no sense of her... cleverness, or anything that suggests we should follow her--that is, why her and not a man? Which is a bad question for what should be a feminist moment in cinematic history. It feels like the filmmakers--Renny Harlin anyway--think she's worthy of attention just for being... Which I guess is how it's worked for many a man so I think I'm okay with it.

[Speaking of Harlin], the direction of some action sequences is pretty fair but the in-between moments... Can this guy make a movie? Has he ever seen a movie? The dialogue, already lacking because of the basic script, is ill-timed far too often. Reaction shots seem more arbitrary than appropriate and moments that feel made to be funny just fall flat. The action sequence do tend a little long.

There's no sense of urgency or need--why does anyone want to get to Cutthroat Island? Just for treasure? Why should we care? (Nice arbitrary animatronic eel) but now I'm thinking of the shrieking eels from The Princess Bride and I want to watch that movie, not this one. (And Shaw's (Matthew Modine) hair reminds me of Westley's.) Sword fights too--reminding me of better films, classic films.

She can magically sneak up on people out in the open. First the boat in the beginning and now the carriage.

It's the longitude?! No shit. Was that supposed to be clever? And a palmistry sign made her think of it. [And I went to page two for a rant.]


She's a goddamned sailor, likely grown up at sea as her father was a pirate, a famous pirate--though to be fair, the movie hasn't bothered with much backstory, instead relying on our innate sense of fathers and daughters instead of presenting us anything to suggest these are real people with actual lives beyond the screen. The initial cold open with Morgan having slept with some guy, and introduced naked and dressing--that almost gave us something real--but then the rest of the open with her going to recuse her father we know nothing about from the other pirates we know nothing about--it feels more like a lame echo of other stories instead of a piece of its own. I mean, Frank Langella has some charisma, sure, but when I'd rather be watching Masters of the Universe (the movie [in which Langella starred as Skeletor] or the 80s cartoon), then you don't have me.

And, why not give John's [and I had to look up that character's name] (Maury Chaykin) betrayal some weight? He launches that homing pigeon, the music soars, lightning flashes, but who is this writer guy except the guy the PLOT wants to betray Morgan? He has no real personality, no depth. He is just a tool of the plot.

I want Mr. Blair (Rex Linn) to have his own movie. He intrigues me, just standing there with his facial tattoos and that amazing beard. His silent stare conveys more than all of [Geena] Davis' line readings. Then the PLOT gets ahold of him... I think. I'm not actually sure, as the music swells agin, and waves splash, just who is kicking who off the ship, or why, or why Shaw jumped overboard.

It's all just so arbitrary (and this music reminds me of a ride at Disneyland).

[There's also this side note in a little box:] Risking your life for treasure just doesn't make sense to me. Lost your ship, and your long boat broke apart, but yeah, cheer that you found that island.


Note of course that I called Pirates of the Caribbean a better-made move above, not a better movie (though it is, sort of, that as well). That one, too, is full of arbitrary action, unimportant backstabbings and betrayals, and little sense of, well, reason to care. Those movies survive because the one- or two-note performance of [Johnny] Depp as Jack Sparrow is entertaining (though it gets old quick). This movie tries to be what those movies manage to be, but without that charismatic lead, without the ridiculousness that is all over the action in those movies. Ridiculousness and a good drunk performance can go along way toward entertaining.

[Then my daughter Saer asked if she could add a line.] Saer's line: Hi people who read my dad's blog. Thank you so much for stopping by! Isn't this movie simply awesome? [To which I added: Nope] Don't forget to follow me on Instagram @saerachelle. Ciao!

[Then, back to me.] And now they find the treasure and I want to watch The Goonies (and I'm wearing a Goonies t-shirt today, and that wasn't even on purpose) because there Mikey finds that table full of treasure and we care, the music swells [or does it get quiet?] and it's earned, and the scene matters because finding that treasure means something to those kids we've gotten to know for so much of the film. Here, we still don't know these people. Morgan sees the treasure and says, "Henry, I found it." Why does she call her father by his first name? And I turn to my daughter--we're on a set where she's doing some background work--and ask her about Scout calling her father by his first name. (An explanation, as even if I've mentioned it in this blog before, it's probably been a while: When she was in the 6th grade, Saer starred in a high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird.) She explains that it is--and I'm paraphrasing because I couldn't keep up with her--because Atticus is more than just her father, he's important to the city, the county, and Scout recognizes that fact. Plus, Scout thinks herself more mature than her age. But here (and this is me again; Saer's not watching the movie), Harry is far from important. He isn't a force in this world, unlike Atticus Finch. He's not even a McGuffin; his scalp is, or the treasure is. But, a search for a McGuffin, a fight over a McGuffin only matters if we care about character, if their stories rise above the action of the PLOT. This precursor to Pirates of the Caribbean never lets any character rise above the PLOT, and so we have no reason to care, or to try to understand why any of these people do what they do. And there's half an hour of the movie left and I have no interest in it. Just running on inertia now. And dreaming of better movies. Good movies.

[And, I spent the rest of the movie drawing and coloring a pirate flag.]

Colored all the way to "The End".


Monday, August 7, 2017

it's so lifelike and realistic

Let's be clear. Yesterday was full of contradictions. Watch bad movies. Don't watch bad movies. Associate only with those like you. Associate with those different from you. Or everything and anything in between. Just, whatever you do, try if you can to make the world better by doing it. Laugh at whatever makes you laugh. Laugh loudly. Cry at whatever makes you sad. Wail if you must. Rage at the politics (or movies) that disturb you. And lament for failure, in whatever form. Put some thought into what you do and do what makes you happy (barring anything that hurts anyone else). Rant and rave and contradict yourself. It's fun.

But, enough about yesterday. Tonight I watched Howard the Duck. I'm not sure if I had watched the whole thing since I saw it in the theater in 1986, when I was 10. I'm sure I had seen parts of it now and then on cable. But, mostly, I had forgotten what supposedly made it so bad. The thing is, it's not that bad. In fact, for 1986, for a family-friendly science-fiction-lite film, it's pretty good. It's got great effects for the time--between the practical effects of Howard's face and the special effects of the Dark Overlord, it's actually got some great visuals.


There are really only a couple obvious flaws. (The caveat being for 1986.) First, the transition into the third-act weirdness with the Dark Overlord is not very smooth. It's like the earlier portion of the film is one movie and everything after they use the laser the second time is another... Well, except for some of the goofiness of that Ultra Light chase (that doesn't last nearly as long as one reviewer on IMDb suggests), which is tonally befitting the earlier portion of the film. The entire sequence in the diner is actually pretty damn good, and the Dark Overlord is a strangely great combination of believable menace and ridiculous one-liner humor. And, once the Dark Overlord is out of Jennings' body, that creature is actually pretty scary and not just for 1986.

The film starts with a cold open that sets up the premise, with little need for any depth of science fiction. Howard could be a foreigner from another country instead of another planet and a lot of the first act would be the same. His interactions with Beverly wouldn't change much. His stranger-in-a-strange-land vibe would be the same. The implication of sex between Howard and Beverly might have made fewer people cringe. But, at that point in this "family-friendly" film, we've already seen breasts on two female ducks, so it's already headed into some weird adult territory...

Which brings me to the second obvious flaw. Like Troll 2, Howard the Duck is trying to be a couple different films at the same time. George Lucas set out to produce an adaptation of Steve Gerber's comic, but somewhere in that adaptation process, they lost nearly all of the satire--

(One could argue that there is still a bit of satire regarding relationships and especially the notion that opposites attract. Additionally, some of the ways they deal with people reacting to Howard, and specifically how the folks in the diner react to Beverly calling him her boyfriend, there is room for a discussion of satire about miscegenation, about race. Except, the film isn't trying to be about that. Not deliberately. It's aiming for comedy. Romantic comedy in the first act, something... else in the second, and some strange science-fiction horror comedy in the third. Of course, comedy, like science fiction, is often the best place to look for commentary on life, commentary on social issues, commentary on politics. The biggest problem that some people might have with the movie version of Howard the Duck is that it doesn't have the biting satire of the comic from the 70s. I mean, in '76, Howard ran for president, and like Jay Billington Bulworth would a couple decades later on the big screen, Howard told it like is instead of bullshitting the masses, and there were lobbies and assassins after him, to corrupt him or kill him so he would never be president. And, that's mostly in a single issue (#8 with a little rollover into #9).


It doesn't have the same darkness as the comic either. The first issue of Howard's book (he'd been introduced elsewhere but got his own solo book pretty quickly) has Howard contemplating suicide because life is too hard being a Duck on Earth. The film would never go there. It's not that kind of movie, honey. Instead, it has an alien in Howard that might creep some people out and an alien in the Dark Lord that might frighten the crap out of some of the kids who dragged their parents to this thing. I remembered the Dark Lord more than I remember Howard from when I saw this movie as a kid. That thing was awesome. But, you must remember, I grew up on horror films and the like, so my standards are a little wonky.)

--and they twisted the charming bitterness of Howard into something more resembling a sitcom character... Almost as if Howard is the comic relief in his own film some of the time. But, worse, they kept some of the adult content of the comic but then aimed their adaptation sights on an audience full of kids. And, it makes for a weird combination. Not just the duck breasts, or the implication the Beverly and Howard have sex, but also Howard's job at... Is it a brothel? At one point, he gets thrown into a hot tub where two people are so, in the parlance of the mid-80s going at it hot and heavy so much that they don't notice the dwarf-sized duck in the water with them. Before the implicit sex between Howard and Beverly, by the way, the film makes sure to have Beverly in skimpy clothing as well. It's almost like there were three scripts: 1) a satirical romantic comedy, 2) a Porky's level sex romp with some bestiality at its center, and 3) a science fiction horror film. (That last one isn't too far off, as far as content goes, with the comic, either (though it might be tonally wrong); that first issue where Howard is contemplating suicide, he climbs up a tower made of credit cards, to jump to his death, and ends up battling an evil wizard and saving the life of Beverly. The film instead puts her in danger from street thugs, dialing back that weirdness.

(Side note: the impulse to violence from the diner folk, and the police, and the scientists; and the presence of the street thugs, suggests an interesting mid-80s vibe that some might not recognize. Recall the thugs on the subway in Adventures in Babysitting the year after this film, and we were up to the third Death Wish by 1986. Movies from the 80s were still relying on the idea that the streets were dangerous, that random strangers might mug you at any moment. (Regardless of the reality. And keep in mind, this movie is set in Cleveland, not New York or Chicago.) Additionally, the diner folk tying Howard down with the explicit intent to kill him--in a less fragmented film, might have had echoes of lynching or at least some more tension like a thriller. I can't help but be reminded of the diner in Superman II six years before, and another Hollywood trope to go with the random street thugs: alpha male (and possibly racist) diner guests who will quite easily start a fight.)

So, someone had the sense to not take the sexual stuff to explicit levels (except for those duck breasts, of course). So script #2 got dialed back a lot. But, you get the skimpy outfit Beverly wears to bed, you get Howard's job. The romantic comedy stuff is mostly left to the surface, so script #1 is also mostly missing, but it keeps rearing its head. In the end, it's that hypothetical script #3 that takes over. Except, then it's like two different writers started writing that film from different ends of the story--one at the beginning thinking this was something more akin to Short Circuit or E.T. (if Elliott and E.T. had not only some serious sexual tension but some actual sex... And that might be the weirdest thing I've described in this blog to date) (And, yes, I realize E.T. is not a comedy. My other immediate example was going to be Starman and that' seven less a comedy than E.T.. Maybe I should have gone with *Batteries Not Included.) than, well, Aliens, also out in 1986; and the other writer working backward from an ending with massive scorpioid aliens battling Howard and Phil for the life of Beverly. And, in the middle their scripts met, and drifted past one another just enough that we get alien breast at one end of the film and that song "Howard the Duck" at the other. Like an absurdist burrito of film, layering different scripts on top of one another instead of rewriting any of them.

The thing is, the absurdity works here. There's actually a strange charm to Howard, maybe because he's not as much the curmudgeon as he is in the comics. And, at least watching it in 2017, the implicit interspecies sex doesn't seem that weird; Howard is obviously a horny little bastard, Beverly is hot, and Lea Thompson plays her so that it's clear she cares about Howard. And, as I already said above, the absurd combination of ridiculous humor in the Dark Overlord's dialogue and some palpable menace to his actions works. It just does.

Howard the Duck is not a bad movie. It's a bad adaptation, and it's fragments, and it's dated. But, it's actually quite pleasant.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

level up

I was going to leave today's entry blank. Well, not totally blank. That felt like cheating; I was going to have a single period as a hyperlink to my Twitter account. I was going to livetweet through Sharknado5, but I got bored and mostly ignored the movie (though I left it playing on the TV because, well, rules). I was going to watch bad movies this month...

Actually, I'm still going to watch bad movies this month. But, I want bad movies that were genuine attempts at good movies. I'm pretty sure Tommy Wiseau thought, and still thinks, though he apparently sometimes claims otherwise, that The Room is good. I'm pretty sure Claudio Fragasso thought that Troll 2 was good. But, some recommendations made for me on Facebook--maybe I should have been clearer than "so bad it's good"--are not movies that are trying to be legitimately good movies. Or maybe I'm just being picky because the last week has been mentally exhausting and my insecurities and anxieties and my depression are fucking with me. Or Sharknado 5 and 4 and 3 and 2 and that fucking first one absolutely suck, and the excitement over them, including my own, is a sign of the apocalypse. Or, more likely, both.

But, seriously, the people calling the two hours of Sharknado 5 the best two hours of their life--who the fuck are these people? At least the first one has a bit of charm to it. It was so silly it was delightful. And it's a downhill trudge into useless cameos and inane plot twists. Actually, it had those things right up front. Sharknado wasn't the start of this. I'm not sure which movie was, but it was somewhere between the theatrical release of fairly good movies like Anaconda--which is insane but oh so entertaining--and Lake Placid--which has some serious cleverness to it--and the seemingly weekly _______Shark and Giant Octopus vs_______ movies that seemed to be competing to be the stupidest thing put to film. (Well, probably not actual film, but you get my point.) We should never have a competition to do the worst. Film should add to the world. And, just being entertaining is not enough. Make us think. Make us feel. Make us grow. Make us better than we were before. The best films destroy something in us and rebuild it, reform us, rewire us, reshape us, reveal us.

Or maybe I want too much from film.

Because, honestly--and it should be obvious by now--every film does all of that a little bit. My experience of a given film is just that: my experience. The film you watch is not the film I watch. But, a film, even a bad film, needs that think, whether it's punctum or something broader, but there need to be something real. Rosella Drudi's annoyance with vegetarians is real. You hear that about her motivation in writing Troll 2 and you understand something, it makes sense; Troll 2 is satire, poking the vegetarian cultists, but also--probably inadvertently because of the bad acting--the people who can't be bothered with vegetables. Tommy Wiseau is clearly enamored with the idea of the adopted family you form with your friends and neighbors. (I've never had the latter, and have barely had the former, but my own fiction writing has often reflected something similar.) For whatever reason, perhaps a betrayal in his real life, The Room is Wiseau's take on what happens when that "family" is broken. That is a subject worth exploring, a subject worthy of storytelling.

But, what is the worthy idea in Sharknado?

Now, I'll admit that I have enjoyed many films that don't have it. There is room for a film that doesn't. But, it needs something good. It can't aim downward.

The same is true of life, really. We need to stop trying so hard to be enemies... with anyone. Conflict should not be the go to. We shouldn't be deliberately backing ourselves into extremist corners. We shouldn't be dumbing ourselves down by taking in less, by experiencing less, by avoiding people we don't like, politics we don't like, movies we don't like--

Yeah, I'm contradicting myself. I do that. Because, I'm not suggesting a movie like a Sharknado shouldn't exist. I just wish someone somewhere in the production would have thought to put a little fucking effort in. Watch Buckaroo Bonzai or Time Bandits or even Labyrinth--those movies are insane, those movies are full of silly crap that feels out of place, but they were made by people who were trying to do something other than--and color me a cynic all you want--cater to the lowest common denominator to make a bunch of advertising money.

It makes me a little angry, actually, because I love film. I love what can be done with film. I still sometimes wish I hadn't given up on making films so many years ago. When filmmakers can make a living off of lowbrow bullshit like Sharknado 5 I am, I admit, envious, but I am also pissed off. Like, how does anyone deserve to succeed by not trying to do something good?


 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow I'll be celebrating a movie that sucks, celebrating the failure of someone who tried. Well, maybe.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

when i was your age...

Seriously though, while there may be enough moments to suggest that Troll 2is a giant metaphor for Joshua's burgeoning sexuality, really the metaphor is far more obvious--this is Rosella Drudi and Claudio Fragasso (writer and director, respectively (and also husband and wife), though there is one name--Drake Floyd--credited with both) warning us that the Cold War is not really over. The wall wasn't down yet--that would happen from mid 1990 into 1992--and production happened before the official opening of the wall, November 1989. But, the signs were there. The Cold War was coming to an end, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and all those zombie movies screaming at us about communism (and/or consumerism) were going to have no good metaphors anymore.

(And, no, I won't be spending three days with every bad movie this month--I've gotten more than enough recommendations on Facebook to spread them out a bit more. But Troll 2 is one of those that needs more time. Plus, we need a baseline, beyond my several days with The Room (609 610 611 1086 1087 1088 1089 1090 1091 1092) for comparison.)

Troll 2 is Hollywood itself--even if the film was made by Italian-speaking outsiders using local "talent" from Utah on screen--crying out a warning in two parts: 1) even without communism, Russia will remain, it will haunt us, it will come back to bite us in the ass, perhaps by influencing an election many years in the future (Trump's hair actually matches a few of the goblins, come to think of it), and 2) how will we make any more zombie movies if we don't have the Cold War, the spread of communism or racial equality or gender equality, or alternatively the spread of consumerism, and we've solved all the world's ills? Of course, there's also the more explicit #3, as Drudi has specifically said (quoted in the documentary Best Worst Movie), "Some of my friends had recently become vegetarians... and this pissed me off." In this, the film is a prescient warning about life today with social media and our increasingly politically divided echo chambers lashing out at one another as if every choice each side makes is absolutely evil.

Picture it:

A nice textbook American family--taking Grandpa Seth's ghost as the extra half kid in the proverbial 2.5 kids--heading off to be farmers for a month just as capitalist America had defeated socialist Russia. They're pushing away the trappings of liberal America and heading for conservative America, where they wear baseball caps and cowboy hats, where they go to church, where they grow their own food and they're "hospitable, especially to strangers". The Presents are replaced by the Waits in the town of Nilbog, and it's not just that town name that matters. The reality of the Cold War is being left behind. The reality in which America puts up with all the liberal bullshit spreading since the 1960s is being left behind, or so the conservative message of the film suggests...

Or is it the opposite? Consider: Fitting in with the conservative country folk is the horrific result of giving in to pressure. Perhaps this film is celebrating the liberal side of things. Joshua appreciates a good story. He doesn't just exercise and dress up in trendy 80s clothes like his sister. He doesn't conform to heteronormative conservative ideals like his mother the housewife, or his father the businessman (?). He quite literally pisses on traditions like hospitality. He resists the urge to conform within his family and within the town of Nilbog. He doesn't have much direct interaction with Creedence (and how about that name?) but he does interact with the (apparently unnamed) minister a few times.

Outside of Joshua, consider the various boys who come with Elliott to Nilbog. Arnold chases after and tackles to the ground a strange girl. He goes with her to a church of all places, and for what, if not sex? This is an 80s film and they're two teenagers wandering off alone, after all. There, she is transformed by the experience and eaten. Back to the sex metaphors, I guess. And he is also transformed, and there is (a) pot involved. They both end up dead. Drew, seeing there is no food in the RV, runs into town--but not before complaining to Brent and Elliott who are in bed together--and sure it's a police car that offers him a ride, but getting into a car on the side of the road? If that ain't some hippie liberal practice, I don't know what is. Brent is seduced by a woman he doesn't know and invites her into the RV, and she drowns him in popcorn, because the mixed metaphor of slasher-film-conservatism and movie-audience-consumerism needed to be played out more explicitly. Their hedonistic TV trip into the country ends with a lot of death (just like any slasher film might).


Caption: All that's missing is the joint in his hand.

But, let us come back to the vegetarian thing, specifically. Explicitly, this film is about vegetarian goblins trying to turn a nice, wholesome American family away from eating meat. Joshua consumes bologna to "defeat" them. It's a bit of a mixed bag in terms of its politics. It plays the mindless communism of the goblins as the horror, but lets the sexually active Elliott and Holly escape. It latches onto tradition with Grandpa Seth and his storytelling, but almost exclusively rejects the conservatism of farming by embodying it in the murderous town of Nilbog. It puts the explicitly pagan Creedence into an old chapel, but has the more obvious minister preach in what seems to be an old warehouse. But, imagine that sermon as something literal, giving all those preachy vegan types a place to hang out together that isn't Whole Foods. And imagine if all the vegetarians were marked, as those in Nilbog are, with moles shaped like clover leaves. Echoes of both the biblical Mark of the Beast and some holocaustal armbands, marking those who are different so they might be sacrificed.

What you eventually get in Troll 2, with its strained, and mixed, metaphors, is a film celebrating the Waits family for their urge to consumerism, their urge to carnivorism, but also their independence from religion... At least, the latter fits with the minister. But, while he visibly resembles a religious leader, it is Creedence who more explicitly represents religion--paganism. So, the vegetarianism that so pissed off Rosella Drudi goes hand in hand with paganism and the vegetarian indoctrination party that ends act two is the greatest of horrors. Except, farming, living off the land, can represent both the hippie Left and the Middle America Right. And, the conservative, down home churchy visuals stand out more than Creedence's Druid-ness. Had the filmmakers settled on a more consistent set of visuals, the message might be more clear. But, what is clear is that Troll 2 is about the battle between Right and Left; between urban materialism and rural idealism; between Christianity and paganism; between carnivorism and vegetarianism; between hedonism and good proper, wholesome living. And maybe the Waits winning (for the most part) is a warning. Or maybe the reappearance of the goblins afterward is the warning. It's hard to be sure. And that, really, is the only flaw in Troll 2.

 

 

 

 

 

Also the bad acting, the bad script, and the nonsensical premise. But, that's a given.

Friday, August 4, 2017

what kind of idiotic joke is this?

I've got Troll 2 playing again, because I wanted to say something more about it. But, I also saw The Dark Tower today, and unfortunately, there are also things to be said about that film in this month of bad movies.

Both films have a problem with audience. Troll 2 is ostensibly a family-friendly horror film, but then Holly and Elliott openly talk about sex--she even specifically mentions "group sex"--and Creedence is fairly sexualized as well. Additionally, just watch that scene with Arnold and the girl in the woods and tell me there isn't some serious sexual undertones going on there; girl with a torn shirt running screaming through the woods feels more like a serious R-rated horror film, or some exploitation film from the 70s.

(In fact, there's room for an interpretation of this film not just as Joshua's hallucinations but his vicinity to puberty being the fuel even if Grandpa Seth's death was the trigger. Think about it: his grandpa dies and Joshua is faced with mortality just as he's starting to get some strange new feelings. Maybe he's seen his sister walking around in those high-cut 80s exercise clothes or heard Elliott sneaking into her room at night.

(I won't go so far as to suggest that it wasn't piss that ruined that first dinner in Nilbog, though.)

He has discovered the wonder, and the horror, of sex. And his family heads off into the country to live on a farm for a while. His whole life is in upheaval. You could easily play this through the film as well. It would make thematic sense that the villains fill the role of sexualized Druid and also conservative minister--two sides warring over Joshua's metaphorical goblins. (Also, is that a Catholic priest?) And, if you want to take it to a really dark place, his secret relationship with his grandpa is kind of a problem. Creedence rather explicitly seduces Brent. And the final sequence, after everything has supposedly been fixed, involves Joshua running into the bathroom where his mother is taking a shower. Instead he finds her being "eaten". Also, her corpse, in this family-friendly horror film, has nipples.)

Even Creedence's two guises are like charters intended for two different audiences.


Meanwhile, The Dark Tower offers a lot of details that only fans of the series of novels will understand but goes out of its way not to adapt any portion of those novels accurately--

(Fans of the books would, of course, realize how a different turn of the wheel means the story might be different, but it's a strange bait-and-switch to invite someone because of the story you know they like but then give them some other story.)

--and then plays to rapidly, without little explanation of anything, so an audience coming to it fresh won't get much of the depth of the world. It is just not made for fresh eyes. It demands that you already understand the basic concept of parallel worlds and doorways between them. It forces you to follow a child into a story that isn't his; not really. The novels follow Roland, but Roland barely has any characterization other than Idris Elba looking cool and occasionally reminding the movie audience that he's out for vengeance...

(If anything, the film actually makes more sense as an earlier turn of the wheel than a later one. That's the only way Roland's urge to vengeance works in a story this finite built out of such a grand original. He hasn't discovered his obsession with the tower yet...

Or the filmmakers were afraid of making the hodgepodge of fantasy and science fiction and horror that is the Dark Tower series.)

But, the film hardly offers us the screentime to get to know Roland and father; a good vengeance plot should let you get to know the victims. Instead, the film focuses on Jake instead, like Troll 2 focuses on Joshua, when the story might be better told focusing on someone else. A kid battling goblins is one thing, but this film never tries to be that. Joshua relies on his grandpa, then his family, and mostly they just run away, and then they touch a rock. Really, none of them do much of anything. But then, Erik Amaya at Comicon.com makes an interesting point in his review of The Dark Tower; in a fantasy film from the 1980s, he says, "the logic gaps and errors of scripting will not matter to a child. Instead, they will love that the film suggests their imaginary worlds could be real." Troll 2 not only suggests as much but plays it out quite literally for Joshua. Sure, a world in which Grandpa Seth might be in hell and there are goblins who want to eat you isn't a pleasant world, but it's certainly exciting. Amaya suggests that a child, seeing The Dark Tower might love it because "The amount of world and relationship building an adult's mind requires is unimportant to a child." He argues, a child would assume that "Roland and Jake bond" and that "the evil sorcerer can appear wherever he wants" and that "Roland is sad because of his father died [sic]". The rest of us--adults, or even particularly intelligent teenagers--want to see that Roland's father is worth mourning, that Roland actually mourns. We want to see what a gunslinger is rather than have Arra tell us that Roland really isn't one anymore (though I almost appreciate the subtlety there, this is film and it's visual, and just knowing that he can shoot is not enough to tell us that "gunslinger" means something different in his world than it does in ours. (A later reference to Excalibur actually feels a little too on-the-nose and a little too-little-too-late.) This is something Troll 2 actually does pretty damn well in comparison. In the opening sequence, we get a story about the goblins and what they're about, and we get to see the relationship between Seth and Joshua, and we get an idea of how much Joshua misses Grandpa Seth in his active hallucination of him.

To be fair, The Dark Tower does set up Jake better than it does Roland. As Jake's movie, it actually works better early on because it doesn't try to get into Roland's head. But, again, this is a story about a gunslinger chasing a demon to stop him from destroying the tower that holds the universe together; it's not The Neverending Story, the protagonist isn't a child using his imagination to save the world. If we take Jake as the protagonist, he's about as useful as Joshua here; he just happens to be around when important plot events happen, and he inadvertently drives the climax.

But, we must also remember that Troll 2 is not a fantasy film from the 80s. Sure, it was made at the tail end of the decade, but it feels more like the silliness that should have come early in 80s when, yeah, the gaps of logic didn't matter as much...

Finally, both films end with a bit of deus ex machina--except Jake is the deus ex machina in his own story, without much explanation, some kids just shine.

(See, the arbitrariness of Danny Torrance shining in The Shining didn't matter because his shine didn't solve everything in the end, and the story wasn't really about his shine. It was about the hotel's shine, and the hotel, even in Kubrick's version, has a very obvious history of violence and death the contributed to its malevolence. But, Jake Chambers' powers are arbitrary. His having them is extraneous to the plot, until we need an act three and we need something to force Walter's hand into combat.)

And Grandpa Seth and his backpack is a more obvious deus ex machina. It's also a little bit more of a sexual references; Grandpa Seth just has to slip some bologna to Joshua one last time...

Sorry. Couldn't resist that one.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

you can't piss on hospitality

The question is, what do you want from a movie? Must it challenge your mind, make you contemplate your place in the universe? Must it simply entertain? For that matter, does it have to make sense? And have good acting and a script that sounds like someone actually read it at least once before filming? A bad movie can do all of these things. The problem, really, is when the bad movie makes you hate the people who made it, makes you hate the world for creating a place for it, makes you hate yourself for watching it. Well, a bad bad movie does that. A good bad movie can fail at so much that makes movies watchable--like Margo Prey not bothering to act at all as the mother in Troll 2, just, you know, saying things, or Connie McFarland as the sister yelling like she forgot microphones exist--but still be so watchable in spite of the flaws. Some of what makes a movie like Troll 2 bad can easily be credited to the filmmaker; the director Claudio Fragasso (credited as Drake Floyd because Hollywood racism, of course) supposedly didn't speak much English--

(It's been awhile since I watched Best Worst Movie--the documentary about Troll 2 and its cult following, so I'll admit, I don't remember all the behind-the-scenes details.)

--but the way the central family sings "Row Row Row Your Boat" I wonder if any of them have any grasp on the English language, or songs, or life. Meanwhile, in the real world, Trump wants to limit legal immigration to prioritize those who can speak English; this film could be good fuel for his cause. The Room (609 610 611 1086 1087 1088 1089 1090 1091 1092), as well. Folks trying to tell stories outside the language their comfortable with. (Plus, I'm pretty sure Tommy Wiseau had never interacted with other humans prior to making The Room.)

Anyway, prior to the movie cutting over to Arnold and the random girl running through the woods, this could have been a great metaphor; Joshua is mentally unbalanced, he hallucinates his dead grandpa, and in a world just barely past the end of the Cold War, why shouldn't he imagine goblins that can look human and will sucker you in with dreams of a rural vacation? This is basically an update on the same tropes Romero has been using for years. But then, there's Arnold and that girl and that Druid lady and everything is grounded in reality, and goblins are real, and this is just a fairly basic family-friendly horror film. Without the cleverness of, say, The Gate, or the sheer insane joy of Gremlins or The Lost Boys... What? Don't look at me (or my words) so strangely. The Lost Boys is a joyous romp into the realm of vampires. And, when it came out and I was 11, I loved it. Unfortunately, I never got to see Troll 2 on the big screen. Halloween, sure. A Nightmare on Elm Street, a bit into the second act then my mother made us leave the drive-in because she thought it would give me nightmares. Instead it gave me dreams, and helped cement my interest in horror films. Had I seen Troll 2 in 1990, I probably wouldn't have been too impressed. I would have been 14 and there were far more interesting, and far better made, films in theaters: the likes of Dances with Wolves, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard 2... Actually, I'm looking at a list of the top box office films for that year and I've got to scroll down to #23 Awakenings before I even find one that I didn't see in the theater. And, I saw that one later on video. The Academy, a cheap second run theater in my hometown of Pasadena was a gift to someone like me. Or a curse to whoever else I might have been.

But, I digress.

My point there was this: had Troll 2 come out when I was a few years younger, like in the mid 80s, I probably would have... I won't say that I will have loved it. But, I would have been entertained to be sure. But today, watching it all these years after its release, it is, oddly, not as bad as it's supposed to be. And, for one very good reason: there is no reason that it should be good. A bigger disappointment would be if it had an actual director, and an actual screenwriter--people who knew how to make movies, and they cast real actors, and had a budget for the goblin effects, and it still turned out lame. Disappointment is far worse than straight badness. Like Valerian a couple weeks back; gone is the charm of The Fifth Element or the subtle depth of character of Leon, like Luc Besson was so enamored with a comic from his childhood that he forgot what film is. Throw in the Indiana Jones problem of the protagonist not actually driving the action (and, if anything, making things worse), and Valerian, watchable at the time, is almost offensive in its inability to be good. But Troll 2 is not supposed to be good. And, not just because 27 years of film history since has declared it one of, if not the, worst movie(s). But because it's a no-budget, amateur film. The Goblin masks and costumes may be cheap and unbelievable, but some of the trees and branches growing out of people effects are pretty good. They make for a silly idea, but the visual actually works as far as body horror goes. Especially Joshua's fantasy in the minivan on the way to Nilbog, with the branches coming out of his fingertips.

And, were I to spend numerous days with this film--

(I haven't quite decided how this month will work, here. I'm taking recommendations for bad movies, but I don't know if I want to spend any real stretch of days with them... Maybe I'll think differently tomorrow.)

--I might spend some time with names. Like just the family names here: Waits for the main family and Presents for the main goblin family, or the Druid being named Creedence, the grandpa being named Seth... There's room for a real exploration into what this movie is trying to be. For another example, consider the story from the perspective of Joshua's parents. Their kid has lost his mind since his grandpa's death, they suffer from hunger and thirst after he ruins their initial meal the first day of the vacation, and some cult leader brings the townspeople to them with food. And then, their son sets that cult leader on fire. That is a whole other level of horror. Of course, then the film has to ruin it by having them see the cult leader's body as a goblin and it goes back to being just a fairly basic family-friendly horror film, with bad monster designs, an over-the-top witch (even if she calls herself a Druid, she fills the role of the bad witch in so many kid-centric horror stories), and a whole bunch of creepy townsfolk.

(Come to think of it, the inability of the townsfolk to act is actually a good thing here. They are supposed to be a little off. Also, for the record, Michael Stephenson is acting the crap out of Joshua. He is trying so hard. Connie McFarland as Holly is trying too, even if her dancing bit and the dialogue afterward in the mirror felt like she was still rehearsing. If only Deborah Reed as Creedence or George Hardy or Margo Prey as Michael and Diana Waits would put some effort in. Like, any, at all.)

Even Creedence seducing Brent is family-friendly. That corn may be phallic and the two of them eating it together might be a little weirdly sexual, but then, hey, popcorn!