March 08, 2010

Precious (2009)

#14: Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push'...Sadly, Not the Psychic Teen Sci-Fi/Action Picture 'Push' with Dakota Fanning (2009)

Let it be known: although there are many, many things wrong with Precious (some of which I've detailed in the following paragraphs), and almost as many things wrong with Mo'nique's Oscar acceptance speech, the comedienne-turned-serious-actor deserved her win last night. In fact, I wish the little gold man had been bestowed upon director Lee Daniels as well, as it's truly remarkable that he managed to get a gaggle of non-actors (first-timers Gabourey Sidibe and Lenny Kravitz, please-God-let-this-be-the-last-timer Mariah Carey and, of course, Mo'nique) to turn out performances that not only weren't terrible, but quite good. Unfortunately, the only thing remarkable about the rest of Precious is how often it compelled me to turn off my DVD player.

The film opens its inspirational journey with Precious, an illiterate, obese, physically, mentally and sexually abused 16-year old kicked out of school after being forcibly impregnated with her father's second child. The film closes on a hopeful note, with Precious, a slightly-less-illiterate, obese, physically, mentally and sexually scarred 17-year old willfully leaving her alternative school after being forcibly infected with her father's HIV. If all that sounds like a lot to unpack, fear not: it's laid out very simply at the beginning of Precious, then hammered repeatedly and explicitly with titanium hands and screaming heads. It's emotional torture porn, and soon it all means nothing. Unless you're into racial stereotypes, which Precious sports in spades.

Thought that segway was bad? Stay away from Precious! Mo'nique takes the welfare queen trope to new heights (depths?): uneducated, unemployed, and emotionally incompetent, she only leaves the couch to beat on Precious or pimp a Down's syndrome toddler (Precious' first child) to visiting social workers. She's Ronald Reagan's wet dream! Which begs a VERY important question...when was the last time you saw anyone on welfare (which, as presented in Precious, doesn't even exist anymore, btw) in a film? Exactly.

Whether Precious wants to admit it or not, it single-heavy-handedly represents over 39 million American families of all colors and creeds currently living below the poverty line. Most of its viewers will never know poverty, and in all likelihood will never even know those who know poverty; whether they want to admit it or not, they rely on pop culture relics like Precious to show them what it's "really like" for those living on the fringe. That Precious is a low-budget, independent African American production only furthers the perception of "authenticity", which only makes it sadder that it traffics in such harmful stereotypes.

Sad, but unsurprising. How can a film shoulder such a burden as responsible representation when it can't even bother to fact-check? During one of Precious' fantasy sequences, images are projected onto a wall from the Tiananmen Square protests, despite the fact that the story is set in 1987, two years BEFORE those incidents. In another, Precious and her mother appear in an Italian movie they were watching on TV...with subtitles. Even though they can't read. One more for the road: Precious' Down's-syndrome daughter is affectionately dubbed "Mongo", short for "Mongoloid". Again, they're illiterate - how would they know such an advanced (and curiously out of date) word? I know they don't listen to Devo!

So yes, Precious has some stellar performances. But it's ironic how Mo'nique went on and on about politics in her Oscar speech, because this is precisely where Precious fails.

February 20, 2010

2010 Movie Diary: Armored (2009), The Wolfman (2010), Moscow, Belgium (2009)

#11: Armored (2009)
Format: 35mm ($2 theater)

When I learned that low-budget heist film Armored was opening at the $2 theater, I knew I had to go. Throughout all of 2009, the second-run theater played the second-rate trailer before nearly every film - which makes total sense for movies like Taken, Public Enemies and Inglourious Basterds, but less so for I Love You Beth Cooper, Whip It and Up. Elizabeth & I tied the Armored trailer so closely to the $2 theater that when I saw a billboard on Santa Monica Blvd, it was like some embarrassing inside joke had been shared with the world.

However overplayed Armored the trailer was, Armored the movie isn't at all embarrassing. It's a decent b-action pic, with the "b" standing firmly for "blue collar": Ty is a returning veteran, trying to keep his deceased-parents' home from foreclosure and his younger brother out of trouble in a down economy. Ty literally needs to fill his father's shoes, working his father's old post, with his father's old friends and co-workers, at a small-time armored truck company. Ty isn't the only new blood on the crew - starting tomorrow, the company will switch over to GPS-tracked, state-of-the-art trucks; meaning, the one chance the old boys will ever have to pull off a big heist is today, whether or not they can get Ty on board.

Fittingly, a troop of "working character actors" rounds out the gang of guards: Skeet Ulrich, Jean Reno, Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne. Some big roles between them, but no superstars. Here, there's some big stunts (two chase scenes with the armored trucks), but no fancy gadgets. Just a bunch of guys banding together for one simple plan, and unraveling when it turns out nothing's that simple. Instead of overblown plots of double-agents, electronics, and explosions typical of the heist film, the actions of Armored all come down to personal experience, morality and trust. It's not as sexy as Danny Ocean, but it hits close to home, which is why such an otherwise unassuming film hits so hard.

#12 The Wolfman (2010)
Format: 35mm (AMC Burbank)

The werewolf is a savage hybrid; the cunning of a man, the viciousness of a beast. The Wolfman is an equally dangerous hybrid; part music video, blockbuster, atmospheric drama and creature feature, it renders any tactic to lure you in. Yet, like the werewolf, the best hope for survival is to stay inside and avoid it at all costs.

The production design, courtesy of original Wolfman director Mark Romanek, is gorgeous. Unlike many period horror films, which look like people playing dress-up, there's an eery Gothic atmosphere here, particularly in the lighting and a nightmarish asylum sequence. The monster effects are similarly fantastic - the werewolves very much embody the facial personalities of their actors (no spoilers, although it becomes rather obvious rather quickly who the original werewolf is...but I'll get to that later) as much as the bestial elements distort them. Rick Baker's legendary monster effects in American Werewolf in London transformed the werewolf genre and the horror film. His work in The Wolfman is nowhere near as groundbreaking, but he refines his craft and brings a pedigree that nearly saves the rest of the film.

Which brings us to...the rest of the film. According to an interview with replacement Wolfman director Joe Johnston, the script was largely left intact, but parts were rewritten, endings reshot and then new editors came in at the last minute to further meddle. Much of The Wolfman simply feels out of step. Story-building scenes seem rushed, particularly romantic ones between Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt, his dead brother's fiance that he's known all of a few days. Other scenes leave very obvious clues as to the identity of the original Wolfman, and yet others repeat variations on this same information, until the identity is finally presented as some sort of shocking twist.

It's frustrating and a little depressing to imagine The Wolfman that could have been, for just as you get set into full-on hating the film, there's a faint glimmer of brilliance. Yet, much like the bits of man left in the beast, it must be ignored as you wince and fire away. For all that glimmer says is: "if you love me you must destroy me, for I've lost all control over myself".

#13 Moscow, Belgium (2009)
Format: DVD

I was kind enough to receive this as a screener from Neo-Classic Pictures for review on LAist (for those who don't know, Elizabeth & I have a weekly Film Calendar posted every Wednesday, and I contribute occasional reviews). It's available here.

I'm still pretty backed up, with thoughts on Precious, North by Northwest and Frank Zappa forthcoming. But lacking time to write also means I lack time to watch, so I'm not too far behind. As long as I'm on track for my 100 by the end of the year, if it doesn't bother you, it won't bother me. What do you think?

February 04, 2010

Movie Diary Catchup: Brazil (1985), Sabrina (1954), Martin (1977)

2010 Movie Diary 8: Brazil (1985)
Format: Netflix DVD

This is the fourth or fifth time I've seen Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and while I haven't seen all his films, I feel this is the closest he'll ever come to "getting it right". Gilliam's battles for creative control are infamous; Brazil is no exception. There are at least 3 versions that I know of, ranging from a 90-minute studio cutlet (complete with a "happy ending"), to the 142-minute mega-super-final-director's-cut presented on Criterion's lavish DVD set. I doubt I've seen the same version twice, but this time I felt Brazil ran a bit long. It's as though Gilliam anticipated a future of "creative differences" and carefully crammed every idea and thread into the film in case he never got to work again.

But this is nitpicking - on the whole, Brazil remains a marvelous meld of slapstick and satire. It's especially interesting to view now, as our obsession with going paperless makes the seas of paperwork that surround the conflict more surreal than ever. Where Brazil gets downright spooky is its rapid spread of misinformation. All it takes is one keystroke to spark an inferno, which calls for complete smothering (through armed guards and an Abu-Ghraib-meets-The-Gimp bodysuit), then an instant return to business as usual until the next kneejerk comes along. In the film, the keystroke is presented as an innocent mistake; these days, I'm not so sure.

2010 Movie Dary 9: Sabrina (1954)
Format: DVD

When an actress is as iconic as Audrey Hepburn, their essence and appeal are absorbed without exposing a single foot of film. I admit it - though I've seen many a dorm-room Breakfast at Tiffany's poster and Gap commercial, I'd never seen any Audrey on screen. She's a delight as Sabrina, a mousy chauffeur's daughter who goes to Paris and returns a mousy debutante (aside from the clothes, I couldn't find a difference). It's no wonder brothers Humphrey Bogart & William Holden fall for her, but can the family business survive this servant infiltration? Though the satirical elements take a backseat to the fairytale romance, Billy Wilder lends plenty of sly dialogue & hard-boiled exchanges, which Bogie & Holden lap up. It's great to see the three boys lend noir-ish mentalities & leanings while keeping the fantasy intact.

2010 Movie Diary 10: Martin (1977)
Format: Netflix DVD

George Romero's oeuvre of the undead isn't limited to zombies. In Martin, filmed nearly a decade after Night of the Living Dead and a year before Dawn of the Dead, Romero tackles vampires. Maybe. Martin Matthias claims to be an 84-year old vampire with an insatiable blood lust (which, lacking fangs, he satisfies with hypodermic needles and razor blades). His elderly cousin Tata Cuda, a religious fanatic, believes him enough to want to "save" and then destroy him. Martin has two outlets: a younger cousin and a call-in radio show, but nobody suspends their disbelief. Martin doesn't make it easy for me to either; there's a frenzied quality to Martin's murders, complete with black & white hallucinations of vampire life, but when this experimental style is applied to the dialogue scenes (and there are many), it looks, frankly, cheap. John Amplas is the perfect sleazy creep (more Max Schreck than R. Patts), but he's neither a sympathetic misfit nor a fearsome killer. So...what is he, and what is Martin? Some great ideas, don't get me wrong, but I wish Martin had saved one of his needles for me.

January 30, 2010

Movie Diary: Avatar (2009)

2010 Movie Diary 7: Avatar 3D (2009)
Format: 35mm (AMC Burbank)

I admit it. I was wrong. Over a month out, James Cameron's über-epic Avatar is still three degrees of box office fire! It's on track to out-gross Titanic (although, given inflation & the extra $3-5 tacked on for 3D movies, I doubt it's sold more tickets), and owing to that populism, might even snag the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunately, my skepticism of the movie's quality was entirely justified.

Before I get into the swing of things, I went out of my way to see Avatar. I work full-time, drive to work part-time and come home to another full-time job as a parent, a side gig as a writer and a $2 second-run theater in my immediate vicinity. One of the reasons I chose to make this movie diary a project in 2010 was to entice myself to keep up with newish releases when every logical facet tells me to let it go. So, on Martin Luther King Day, amidst El Niño's fury, I drove to the Red Line, Red Lined to Hollywood, found we had looked up the wrong movie time (it was for Avatar 2D), scrambled to find another place playing it at a reasonable hour, and booked it to Burbank. Soaked & shivering, I wanted to be whisked away to Pandora. Instead, I was wholly stupefied.

Pandora should be an interesting universe. The entire planet is networked, with Na'vi humanoid and alien beast literally linking into one another via brain-stems. The execution is kinda fetishistic and creepy, but it's a genius idea. Ditto for the multiple layers in which "avatars" exist - beyond the titular Avatar program, wherein human minds control alien bodies, there are marine troops whose physical movements control mechanized bodies, and, the Pandora network wherein Na'vi minds control animal bodies. The more the body becomes interconnected, the more identity becomes fragmented. The more I think about the potential behind these concepts, the more I wish Avatar had been fleshed out by David Cronenberg.

Unfortunately, the world of Avatar was chiseled, pixel by pixel, camera by camera, by James "King of the World" Cameron. It's a fitting crescendo for Cameron's obsession with pioneering special effects. Previously, his films had brought unnatural terrors into our world - and we ran for our lives. Now, with Avatar, his effects have finally outlasted our heroes' ability to fend them off; the unnatural is now hyper-natural, and our greatest hope is that we can join it. It's taken a decade, but Cameron can finally embrace his liquid fascination with fully fluid digital characters. But in a post-WETA world, pioneering effects quickly become common practice, technology loses its magic even quicker, and all we have left is the story.

Simply put, the story is where Avatar fails. I'm about to get very snarky, and if you haven't seen the film yet... OMG SPOLIERZ~!

In what would appear to be a pro-environmental, anti-corporate, tree-hugging Avatar, there is one fat colonial cliché - that of the conquistador quickly mastering native customs, and becoming a "super-native" and deity. Disabled vet Jake Sully's body and technology have failed him, so it makes sense that he would see his Avatar as a blessed form where he can literally run free. But just as it is never explained why there are wheelchairs in the future, there is no explanation for the Na'vi's embrace of Sully when they recognize him as an Avatar from the hated "sky people". The audience knows him to be "the chosen one" (as proclaimed in a Snow White moment by the jellyfish-souls of the tree of life), but all the Na'vi know him as is a "warrior from the Jarhead clan". Never mind the logic gap that the Na'vi consider "sky people" warriors more trustworthy than "sky people" scientists & teachers; the Na'vi allow Sully to leech all elements of their culture, when they gain nothing from their relationship, unless they've always wanted a military mole.

Luckily, Sully is a mole entranced. Like a hipster with kanji tattoos, he wears his obsession with the "exotic" group on his sleeve. He spends so much time as an Avatar that his human body becomes filthy & decrepit. Within a couple months, without even knowing the language, he partakes in all the major Na'vi lifecycle rituals, then dismantles their entire social hierarchy by wooting & mating the princess Neytiri, but it's cool. Then the rest of the "sky people" come, and the Na'vi realize their beloved-for-no-real-reason warrior was working for other warriors, who now know all their secrets. Uh oh, Spaghetti O's!

Around this time, the military-industrial outfit that employed Sully figure out he's gone native for Na'vi puffs, but they already have their strike planned against the Na'vi for the rare "unobtainium" (yes, that's really what it's called. Really.) buried beneath the tree of life. In a very strategic maneuver which was only possible due to Sully's careful intel, they blow it up. Then they leave; apparently the $20M-a-gram mineral that's driven their entire operation isn't valuable enough to actually harvest. But they aren't the only ones foregoing the tree of life; after an entire movie in which the Na'vi maintain that they cannot cooperate with the "sky people" because the tree of life is the crux of their civilization, once it's destroyed they simply move along to the tree of souls, which is actually the crux of their civilization. For reals this time. If you're reading this before watching Avatar, I just saved you over a hundred minutes. And it doesn't get any better in that last hour.

Back to Jake Sully, white god. The Na'vi have a legend, where anyone who tames a Leonopteryx, Pandora's fiercest predator, will become a great leader. Although no Na'vi has tamed the creature for hundreds of years, Sully, using his chosen colonial brain-trust, masters the mighty steed by jumping on its head. Sully then wills Pandora itself into action, something not even the highest Na'vi spiritual I.T. could accomplish. Having proven himself superior to the Na'vi, their gods, and his colonial compadres (who just pack up and leave...certainly not to return in greater numbers with even more advanced weapons for the sequel), he can now complete his transformation into Big Blue forever.

But it's not really not these overarching concepts that bother me; after all, I love plenty of genre movies that are racist, sexist and intellectually offensive. It's more the nonplussed way I felt leaving the theater (these rants were all refrigerator moments), when everyone else was on their feet in applause. I realize I'm not an average, normal, or reasonable person, but is this really it? Why is Avatar "the game-changer"? The effects are good, but no better than WETA's work on Lord of the Rings. Why is it the highest-grossing movie of all time? (besides, again, the extra $3-5 tacked on per ticket)

I honestly don't see why such a mediocre sci-fi melodrama, dressed in pretty graphics, has connected so definitively with so many people. I should have just gone for 7 movies at the second-run theater.

January 23, 2010

Movie Diary: Mirageman (2008)

2010 Movie Diary 6: Mirageman (2008)
Format: Netflix DVD

The words "everyday" and "ordinary" become terribly skewed when used to describe superheroes. Batman is an "ordinary" hero in that he doesn't have mutated/alien/magical abilities, but dude's a billionaire genius. Spiderman is an "everyday" guy in that he's a working-class family man, but he also sticks to walls, swings around the city, and shags Mary Jane. So, when I say Mirageman is an "everyday" guy and "ordinary" hero, I mean that as literally as possible. He's a nobody, with no powers or resources, driven solely by the pursuit of justice. And that's what makes Mirageman such an interesting, affecting and brutal superhero film.

Maco Gutierrez has a hard life. Years ago, his parents were murdered, and he and his brother were assaulted and raped. His brother never recovered; residing in an asylum, he won't even leave his room. Maco's somewhat better; he lives alone, works as a bouncer and fanatically trains his body to enact some vengeance, somewhere, sometime. When Maco stumbles upon a robbery and assault in progress, he spies the perfect opportunity, and when he finds he has saved tabloid news personality Carol Valdivieso, the media dubs him a hero, a public menace and an unwilling reality TV star.

Although there are some funny moments (mostly revolving around the impracticality of costume changes and transportation), Mirageman is no comedy. Shot in unflinching digital video, the film is rough and raw. The obsessive details of Maco's training build an incredible investment in the character, and pay off in some incredible martial arts street fights (Marko Zaror, who plays Maco, did all his own stunts & fight choreography). This further disquiets already tense stand-offs when Maco dives too deep into the Chilean underworld; no amount of repetitions, blood or sweat drops could repel a bullet. Dark sketches from his brother break into the fights as well; no man, even the most dedicated, can live up to comic fantasies. Or can he?

What makes a hero? Is it helping others, inspiring them, or is it knowing when to walk away? These are questions usually left unanswered in superhero films, and Mirageman's painful breakdown of the conflicts & consequences of masked vigilantism is admirable. That it does so without losing the spirit of what makes superheroes larger than life is particularly impressive.

January 17, 2010

Movie Diary: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

2010 Movie Diary 5: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Format: 35mm (AMC Burbank)

After Iron Man, I'm convinced that Robert Downey Jr. should play every smart-alecky action hero. He's the white Will Smith, the young Bruce Willis, the alcoholic Bruce Campbell... I could go on all night. And Sherlock Holmes only furthers this belief.

Downey transforms Holmes is a drunken, mad, streetfighting genius. It's probably blasphemous, but no more so than film adaptations where Holmes chases after the Loch Ness Monster, or doesn't even exist. I've yet to read any of Doyle's original stories, but I'll go out on a bridge: Holmes as scientist, detective AND badass-Guy-Ritchie-dude is both a pleasant surprise, and the only way the character could function in an increasingly populist, anti-intellectual culture. It isn't as though Holmes becomes a thug - even when bare-knuckle boxing, he dissects the entire fight blow-by-blow, to optimize his martial art. But he's never one to shy from a fight.

Admittedly, Holmes' antics are so rousing that the mystery plot is where Sherlock Holmes falters. Lord Blackwood, an occultist, seems to have risen from the grave for a string of murders & public panic. The film plays up the magic & secret society angles so beautifully that Holmes' scientific investigation actually kills the fun. It isn't until the very end that any of Holmes' second act comes back, not with the "a-ha!" satisfaction typical of mysteries, but an "O RLY?" and an eye-brow raise.

So...this Sherlock Holmes isn't for the purists. But it's a fun action-comedy, nonetheless.

January 16, 2010

Movie Diary: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

2010 Movie Diary 4: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)
Format: Netflix Watch Instantly

Before the Middle East became a bastion of war & terrorism, it held a mystic grip over Western pop culture. From Shriner's fezzes, to exotica records, to all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, anything Middle Eastern screamed mysterious, romantic & alluring. French comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies filters both mindsets through a '60s spy spoof for a sweet dose of nostalgia that's smart and silly.

Secret agent OSS 117 (whose pulp fiction roots predate Jame Bond) flies to Cairo on a mission to track his partner's killer and a missing Russian battleship. The maze of markets, nightclubs & alleys is nearly impenetrable, with a strange language, strange customs, and double-agents around every corner. It doesn't help that OSS 117 sticks out like a sore thumb, and leaves everyone he meets even sorer.

OSS 117 isn't a total buffoon like Austin Powers or Maxwell Smart, but he's certainly no James Bond. He's very charming, reasonably intelligent, and unreasonably ignorant. It's a credit to his charisma that he can matter-of-factly insult so many of his allies, their culture and religion while maintaining sympathy (although once the film is reissued in 3D I may try to reach out and bite his tongue). But whereas another comedy might simply present him saying these outrageous statements as the joke, in OSS 117, these words have severe consequences, and that's the joke. This slyly twists a light comedy and fish-out-of-water storyline into a satire of Western intervention and attitudes towards the Middle East.

But OSS 117 is enjoyable well beyond a smarty-pants political reading. Its stylish cinematography is a gorgeous throwback to '60s spy films, and, being set in the 1950's, it pays loving tribute to the era's Egyptian obsession. Not to shit on Austin Powers or Maxwell Smart again (I'd love to make this hip & modern with The Spy Next Door jokes, but nobody watched that anyway...), but I've never bought them as actual spies. Comedian Jean Dujardin infuses OSS 117 with the right amount of charm (he's mastered the art of the eyebrow!) and just enough brains that I'm with him, and want him to do it. Which only makes his crashing & burning even funnier.

Apparently, a sequel set in Rio came out last year in France, and another sequel is in the works. I hope both hit these shores soon.

January 14, 2010

Movie Diary: Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

2010 Movie Diary 3: Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
Format: 35mm ($2 theater)

As you may or may not know, I recently earned a number of additional duties at work. My official promotion goes into effect next week. This is universally pretty awesome - with the exception of the doomsday comet it sends into the "writing for fun and (non) profit" universe. It's a bit tricky to motivate myself to write after I've spent a whole day writing, meeting about writing, or working on my weekly LAist column. It's also tricky because I had no energy before, and now I have even less no energy. Par ejemplo, when I saw this last Friday, I was so tired I fell asleep for about ten minutes. At a 9:20 showing. Depressing.

But not as depressing as what I remembered of Where The Wild Things Are. I realize that all adaptations undergo some change, particularly when turning a 25-page book into a 2 hour movie, but why did Spike make Where The Wild Things Are so fucking emo?

The divorce stuff isn't what bothers me. I actually think it adds a bit to the film; explains why Max spends so much time by himself in a cat costume. It's the dysfunctional Wild Things that bother me. Where The Wild Things Are the book is a nice little story about a little rapscallion who causes some mischief, gets busted for it, goes into a fantasy land where he can raise all the wild rumpus he wants, cools down, and rejoins society. In Where The Wild Things Are the movie, a lonely little boy is kind of an asshole, takes it out on his mom, then literally runs away to a magical land where all the monsters are as screwed up as he is - each one a fragment of his personality (e.g. Alexander is small & ignored, Judith is skeptical of authority, Carol is a hyper-emotional brute).

Which is a shame because Spike Jonze's universe is so mesmerizing. The simple jungle of the book becomes lush forests, arid deserts, monumental forts & hidden cities. The Wild Things themselves are incredible - actors in suits, with CGI faces - a perfect blend of presence & fluidity. So...where's the fun in this fantasy?

Compare Where The Wild Things Are to Labyrinth, another dark fantasy that's supposedly made for kids but primarily consumed by hipsters. Its fantasy doubled back to its real-life conflict too, but it was a true journey: a girl teetering between childhood and adulthood struggles to find herself, falls in with a bunch of comic relief, overcomes a series of obstacles, faces down villainy & ta-da! End scene! Without any external conflict in Where The Wild Things Are, it all implodes; the Wild Things can't band together against a common foe, so they must band together against themselves. Each of these interpersonal (interthingal?) conflicts in the Wild Things universe perfectly mirrors Max's "real world" struggles, but just like those, the film never bothers to resolve any of it.

Maybe that's the point, that this isn't fantasy, this is real life. But isn't that why we run away to dark places? If Max can't even be king in his castle, he's just kind of an asshole.

January 06, 2010

Movie Diary: Scream (1996)

2010 Movie Diary 2: Scream (1996)
Format: Netflix Watch Instantly

I haven't seen Scream since its first release. I was 12 or 13, and hated it. Mention of it as influential or even - gasp! - classic, infuriated me to no end. Metatextualism & "post-slashers" just weren't my bloody bag. But now that I can appreciate all things post, I figured I'd give it another go-round.

It's nice to get all the in-jokes this time - my favorite is a quick sight-gag with a striped-sweater, hat-wearing janitor named Fred. My memory's failed me; I thought Scream was horror with a little bit of comedy, when it's the polar opposite. Scream is so funny that the Wayans' spoof, Scary Movie, seems entirely redundant. How can you make fun of something that doesn't take itself seriously? But I digress.

Wes Craven & co. sneak some spectacular stalking sequences betwixt all that comedy. The intro with Drew Barrymore could be clipped & shown as a separate short, and the garage struggle with Rose McGowan is brilliant. Both the ghost-face killer and the would-be victims exhibit mastery of resources: the fights are as evenly-matched as cinema comes, and the desperate grasps for whatever's lying around the house to use as a weapon are entirely believable. This practicality brings the often-ridiculous slasher genre back to reality, and makes Scream smart and thrilling.

But then it all goes out the window during the "rules" sequences & aftermath, wherein the teens openly flout their knowledge of how to survive a slasher - which becomes incredibly handy once they realize they're in a slasher! ZOMG!

One of the pleasures of watching a slasher film is how unapologetically it sticks to conventions. As self-aware as Scream is, at the end of the day, it's still a slasher, and is indebted to follow that same path. When you have characters aware of horror conventions, who loudly proclaim themselves to be above them, there's no excuse for them to turn around and waltz right into them. But they have to, otherwise their talk of "rules" is baseless, and Bob Weinstein flips the fuck out because there's a slasher with no body count.

It's frustrating because everyone is genuinely likable. You know they're better than that. The casting is fantastic - Courtney Cox as the shameless tabloid reporter; David Arquette as the childlike, ineffectual authority figure; Rose McGowan as the friend struggling to understand; Johnny Depp (excuse me...Skeet Ulrich) as the spooky, alluring, suspicious lover; and Neve Campbell as the best final girl since Jamie Lee Curtis. I buy her as sensitive, I buy her as threatened, I buy her as a bad-ass. Girl's versatile. But just because they can do it all doesn't mean they should, and when they juggle too many balls, they all fall down.

I appreciate Scream much more now, but the truth is it cannot walk the line. Its snarkiness undermines its horror. Its gruesomeness kills its fun. It goes sympathetic, then immediately obnoxious, then tries to double-back. It zigs when it talks talks talks about how it's going to zag. It's truly a shame it doesn't gel, because the sum of its parts are pretty close to perfect.

January 03, 2010

Movie Diary: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Rather than forge New Year's resolutions, I decided to set several New Year's Projects for myself in 2010. This is one of them, a movie diary of everything I see in 2010. The tentative goal is 100 films, which even with my schedule should be doable without being so oppressive it isn't any fun any more. Let's give it a go, shall we?

2010 Movie Diary 1: The Wild Bunch (1969)
Format: Blu-Ray (picked it up at Target for $10!)

It's been several years since I'd last seen The Wild Bunch, and I was surprised how much of it I'd forgotten. Even though I knew in my head that much of the story is set in Mexico, I didn't realize how much of the dialogue would be unsubtitled Spanish (perhaps this is only an issue on the blu-ray?). After a few moments of scrambling to make sure I selected the right subtitle track, I realized this is one of the film's key assets in building tension; like the boys in the bunch, I'm thoroughly confused, but know enough to know that something ain't right.

For those unfamiliar with The Wild Bunch, "something ain't right" is an apt plot summary. Set in 1913, the story follows a cadre of aged thieves & scruffy scoundrels on their last-ditch last job, an attempt to rob an army train, deliver its contents across the border & ride off into the sunset. Along the way, the bunch learns that the sun has long set on their West, and the harsh new era will eat them alive. This is portrayed beautifully in The Wild Bunch's opening sequence, where two deadly scorpions are overwhelmed by a swarm of red ants, and then burned by giggling children. More than any other Western I can recall, The Wild Bunch features poor families & children interlaced with its violence. One telling shot shows a woman with a baby at one breast, and an ammo belt at the other. It's not a melodramatic tug for "saving the children", but a matter-of-fact argument that the beginning of one generation must signal the end of another.

At the time of its release, The Wild Bunch was heavily criticized for blasting out a new generation of violent American cinema. Make no mistake: the action set-pieces are still bloody & brutal, particularly in a shocking bank shootout that opens the film and an all-out slaughter when the Mexican Army ambushes the bunch. But even when the bullets stop flying, the bunch's environment is ultra-harsh; a loss of their horses while descending a dune shows their very world threatening them in every moment. This daily struggle becomes laughably hopeless once the bunch forges on and encounters industrialization, trains & automobiles. Many of these laughs are provided by the bunch themselves, their gallows humor an amiable defense against their mounting futility.

To grossly oversimplify the Western genre, it's about (re)defining the self in a period of transition to face a new era. While it's poignant when this wild bunch finds it cannot survive the test of time, it's wonderful to rediscover that The Wild Bunch certainly can. I'm glad I set aside the time to revisit it.

If anyone's reading this besides me, I'd love to hear what you think. Post a comment, message, or email me. If not - no worries, this is a personal project as much as it is a public one.