Sunday, March 29, 2015

Class Struggles: Part One

I'm graduating this semester, so that means I'm stuck with all the classes I put off in earlier years in order to take cool horror classes that let me watch From Beyond and get academic drool all over Wes Craven. The one class I was looking forward to was French cinema, but lo and behold the Fates would not allow it, and the only foreign film class I could get in my schedule was Russian.

As it turns out, this was a happy accident because hardly any country with a relatively thriving cinematic output has had a more tumultuous and fascinating history than the Soviet Union U.S.S.R. Russian Federation. As a result, their cinema is twisted, strange, and uniquely compelling for any aspiring film historian. Here's some mini reviews of the first two films I've had the deranged pleasure of watching.

Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец Потемкин / Bronenosets Po'tyomkin)

Year: 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Run Time: 1 hour 6 minutes

The crew of a battleship mutinies, leading to a rebellion against tsarist forces in the nearby town of Odessa.

To start off the class with a rip-roarin' good time, the first thing we screened was Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein's classic silent film depicting an early Bolshevik rebellion in 1905, twenty years earlier.

You don't often see me reviewing silent films on here, largely because the style of the medium is almost completely divorced from modern cinema and the evolution of film criticism that I represent. But Potemkin has been named one of the three most influential films in world cinema for a reason. It is my hope that I can balance an explanation of how it functions as a classical masterpiece of the form and why it's OK if you don't like it all that much.

I hope you'll all bear with me if I toss some film theory at ya right quick. Eisenstein was an early pioneer of the montage theory of cinema. Montage (no, not the Rocky training sequence kind) was an approach to understanding cinema through the power of editing. An early notable experiment juxtaposed a neutral-faced man with different images, like a bowl of soup, or a young child. Reportedly, the audience commended the man's acting, applauding the hungry look he gave at the soup and the caring look with which he gazed at the child. In reality, this effect was created through the context of the images, for the man's face didn't actually change a lick.

Now you can believe in this theory or not. I personally have some doubts about that particular experiment, but nonetheless Battleship Potemkin was used as a testing ground for some high level early theories about the dialogue of cinema and how the juxtaposition of images functioned to create an emotional response.

On that level, it is a damn masterpiece, a perfect textbook example of all the best ways to use the system. Intellectual metaphors abound, whether it be the relatively simple boiling soup that represents the bubbling rage of the working class or the maggot-infested meat that stands more obliquely for the rotten state of tsarism. And entire books could be written about the famous Odessa steps sequence, and I'm sure several have.

But the fact remains that the silent film era is often too distant from our own to be truly recognizable as entertainment. On top of this, Battleship Potemkin's heavy propaganda elements render it a bit too po-faced and serious to be worth a visit if you're looking from any other perspective than film analyst or historian.

The communistic focus on a collective body of working class people rather than a set of protagonists is likewise alienating for a modern audience. So, while the film is structurally and cinematically possibly the best single silent film of the 1920's, its density overpowers its magnetism. If you're in an academic mood, I recommend Battleship Potemkin above all else, but it is not a film to sit through for pleasure.

Rating: 6/10

Circus (Цирк / Tsirk)

Year: 1936
Director: Grigori Aleksandrov & Isidor Simkov
Cast: Lyubov Orlova, Evgeniya Melnikova, Vladimir Volodin
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

A down-on-her luck American circus performer in Moscow wants to keep her illegitimate black child a secret so she isn't deported.

Circus is a curious beast. A staunchly Stalinist propaganda film disguised as a wacky slapstick comedy about the circus, it's one of the most interesting pieces of film ephemera loosed from the back gums of the 1930's.

Comedy is another of those things that sometimes doesn't carry over quite as well from the black-and-white era. And when you consider that this film exemplifies what people in the Soviet Union found funny, it carries over even less. They weren't, shall we say, the most mirthful of people. 

Yet Circus is another interesting curio. It displays a gaudy fantasy world, but any active audience member  can reverse engineer the illusion to reveal some twisted truths about the time it was created.

Between the wacky misunderstandings, the Charlie Chaplin impersonator, and the warbly Betty Boop musical performances (can you tell that the American films had snuck their way over the border?) lies a story about Russia as a post-racial nirvana where people from all over the world could live in harmony. However, the "all around the world" song that closes the film avoids letting the Jewish man sing, and the demure sidestepping of those pesky Purges piques historical interest.

Propaganda is some of the most excitingly factual cinema out there, if you know where to look. If you take a peek in the corners and behind the curtains, there's a world of secrets waiting to be uncovered. 

Also, the strained excesses of the film's desperate bid for veracity provide some excellent camp value, especially in the closing number "Song of the Motherland." The overall comedy might be a stale imitation of the American greats, but nothing beats the smarmy villain who wants to drag our heroine back to Evil Capitalist America - a man who looks like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Dracula, who has the ability to disappear in a puff of smoke.

You can't make this stuff up.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1033
Reviews In This Series
Class Struggles: Part One (March 29, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Two (April 9, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Three (April 22, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Four (April 24, 2015)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Una Poca De Gracia

Year: 1987
Director: Luis Valdez
Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I don't really like biopics. Human lives are messy. Good things happen, bad things happen, and then you die. There's no narrative there. It's not particularly interesting, no matter how monolithic a public figure you happen to be.

Of course, Hollywood is keenly aware of this. That's why they love to punch these things up with long lost loves, criminal subterfuge, and various nefarious, melodramatic doings. Is your Zayn Malik biopic not turning out the way you want it to? Toss in a cancer-riddled BFF. Maybe a hot air balloon chase. And boom. Box office gold.

1987's La Bamba is perhaps the only biopic in the world that refrains from indulging in these excesses. The story of Ritchie Valens, tragically concise as it is, turns out to be near-perfect fodder for the sickly format. It's short, sweet, simple, and sincere. While it's still beholden to the meandering weaknesses of the genre, the source material is uniquely tailored to the world of cinema.

This is gonna be one of those sad reviews, isn't it?

La Bamba covers a very short period of the life of Richard Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips), beginning with his move to the San Fernando Valley in 1957 and concluding with his devastatingly early death in a plane crash two years later. As he rockets to superstardom at 16 years old, he struggles to balance his Mexican heritage and his American identity, bouncing between his jealous alcoholic half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), his privileged white girlfriend Donna (Danielle von Zerneck), and his loving mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto).

After he joins a garage band called The Silhouettes, his talents are discovered by Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) of Del-Fi Records, who signs him more or less immediately as a solo act. After a series of singles make it big, he sock hops all the way to the bank, providing a good home for his beloved mom and just generally being a saintly, angelic person. It's very Pollyanna, but if there's ever someone worth airbrushing and idealizing, it's a dead minor, I suppose.

Donna's not worth the trouble, though. She's kind of a dick.

The story of La Bamba is more myth than biography, reducing the Valens story into broad brush strokes to create a fablistic tale about passion, family, love, loss, and culture. In doing so, the film necessarily becomes a little bit shallow, but the surface-level plot and themes are functional and slick. 

It's a shame that some key moments (Ritchie agreeing to change his name, or making the fateful decision to incorporate the Mexican folk song La Bamba into his discography) are left by the wayside in a plot that assumes you already know these stories and don't care to hear them again, but for the most part La Bamba is a rollicking soap bubble about a young boy's triumph and his legacy: the tentative prods at acceptance between the Caucasian and Chicano communities of Southern California.

The film is most important as a piece following the lives and losses of the minority community in the Valley. Directed and written by Luis Valdez, a prominent figure in the Chicano theater movement, La Bamba thrums with energy during the scenes that more explicitly explore racial interactions. As Ritchie (a fully American teen who doesn't speak a word of Spanish) learns that he will never be perceived that way because of the color of his skin and begins to embrace his ancestral culture, the screen comes alive with passion and color.

In fact, the parts of the film that depict his meteoric rise to fame could hardly be more perfunctory. Only one moment - Ritchie's first recording session - truly captures the same effervescence and humor that is brought to the scenes of Ritchie's everyday life and internal struggle. By removing nearly all of the iconography from such an iconic figure, Valdez finds the human truth beneath the gloss.

The human brain beneath the perfect hair, so to speak.

Listening to film students talk all day really changes your perspective on what makes a good metaphor.

So La Bamba has heart, a talented and committed cast (especially DeSoto and the newbie Phillips in his first feature role), and a director who knows what to do with the material to make it unique. It's an essential watch in the history of Chicano cinema, and it's an enjoyable rock 'n roll fairy tale to boot. I can't really complain about that. 

This was made in the late 80's, after all, so there are some patently cheesy moments (the final shot, for one thing, and the alarming percentage of The Big Bopper's dialogue that's just "Helloooooo, baybay!") as well as an unnerving fixation on foreshadowing the inevitable plane crash, but all in all La Bamba is a treat. 

It's a biopic that ignores the superficial traditions of the genre, and it's a humanistic fable about finding oneself in the midst of success. It's not complex, but it doesn't need to be. And it's a nostalgic, glowing assessment of one of rock 'n roll's most tragic figures that focuses on his joys and successes rather than the melodrama. I can't think of any way to make the film more rewarding than that.

TL;DR: La Bamba is probably the best of a bad genre, and an excellent account of Mexican-American life in the 1950's.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 913

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Camp Blood

For the crossover review of The Burning over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1981
Director: Tony Maylan
Cast: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1981 was the year of the slasher film. 

No, it didn't have the most slashers released. 1982 beats it out with 43 of the godforsaken things, and the post-video boom years of '87 and '88 also clock in above the legal limit. 

Nor did it have the most franchise involvement. That would be 1989, the grisly offerings of which included Friday the 13th VIII, Halloween 5, Silent Night, Deadly Night III, Sleepaway Camp III, and Nightmare 5

But what it did have was a generous slate of what are pretty widely considered to be the absolute pinnacle films of the genre, including Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II, Just Before Dawn, Hell Night, Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, and The Prowler, and that's not even including the ones that I like that stray from the general consensus.

Our subject today is one of these films: The Burning, which is subject to wide-eyed adulation by many a Johnny Slasherfan. It's got it all. Summer camp shenanigans? Check. Cameos from a pre-fame Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter? Check. Gruesome gore effects provided by Tom Savini, the patron saint of bloody murder? Effects so nasty that Britain successfully persecuted and banned the film as a "video nasty"? Check and check.

So why don't I like it quite as much as all the hype has led me to suspect?

Well, I guess I'll have to tell you now that I've painted myself into this rhetorical corner. 
Also, try not to be depressed that Jason Alexander starred on Seinfeld as the miserably bald George Costanza a mere nine years after this film was shot.

I'll explain my lukewarm affair with The Burning in due time, but let's take a whack at the plot first, shall we? The film opens in the mid-70's in Camp Blackfoot, where young Todd (Keith Mandell) and his friends are planning the prank of a lifetime. They sneak into the bunk of the evil groundskeeper Cropsy (Lou David) and place a worm-riddled skull candle next to his cot. Their innocent jest turns disastrous when Cropsy knocks the candle off the nightstand in fear, igniting a blaze that could toast an admirable number of marshmallows, but toasts the poor groundskeeper instead.

Five years later, a murderous Cropsy has been released upon the world, skin covered in third-degree burns. He hightails it to Camp Stonewater, which is located just down the lake from the now defunct Blackfoot site, which presumably burned down in the blaze that stole his face. The blaze also stole the plot of Friday the 13th Part 2, but that is neither here nor there. Regardless, producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein (I know, right?) claim that their script was written in 1979, before any of this Voorhees nonsense.

Insipid controversy aside (All slasher films are rip-offs of Halloween, which was itself a rip-off of the rip-offs of Psycho. It's a very incestuous gene pool, and it's not worth getting our knickers in a bunch), The Burning has a classic slasher set-up with a new twist. In addition to the nubile counselors and older campers, there's also a heapload of children on hand, making a mess of the mess hall and inciting the ire of the dangerous lurker in the woods.

When a group of campers goes on a weekend canoeing trip, their canoes drift away in the night, trapping them on a wooded island where Cropsy is waiting with his wickedly sharp garden shears. The campers are overwhelmingly numerous, but the ones we really need to keep track of are Todd (played as a teenager by Brian Matthews), the handsome and easygoing head counselor; Michelle (Leah Ayres), his counselor girlfriend who wishes he would be more stern with the camp troublemakers; Glazer (Larry Joshua), one of the aforementioned troublemakers, and a supposed hunk with an alarmingly lumpy musculature; Sally (Carrick Glenn of Girls Nite Out), Glazer's coy girlfriend; Karen (the excitingly-named Carolyn Houlihan), Sally's BFF who is such a virgin that it's hard to walk because her legs don't open all the way; Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), a horndog supernova whose latest target is Karen; and Alfred (Brian Backer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High), a weird loner who expects our sympathy because he's picked on, but is hard to love because he's a voyeuristic creep who watches girls in the shower and stalks couples who trundle off to bang in the woods. If he were that age today, he'd probably be writing My Little Pony fanfiction on his dad's computer while he's at work.

Now don't get any ideas, ya little creep.

So, why am I not as huge a fan of The Burning as I probably should be? Well, for one, the sheer mass of characters in the quivering blob of the film's cast is pretty overwhelming. Because the genre was still new and not completely, soul-witheringly desperate in 1981, the slashers didn't have the Weimar-esque hyperinflated body counts that would come into play later in the decade. Thus, The Burning couldn't compensate for the terrifying size of its ensemble, and far too many of the campers survive without being put into any sort of danger at all.

It's a little hard to be terrified for poor trembling Katie CounselBoob when you know that about 200 other kids are happily splashing in the water just down the riverbank without a care in the world. And, just like in every Ryan Murphy show, there's far too many cast members jostling for attention to really nail down the characterization of any of them.

And don't even get me started on the pacing of the film, which lurches to a halt after an arbitrary opening kill, contenting itself with Parent Trap-esque camp escapades for a good 40 bloodless minutes. The music is stomach-turningly bland, like eating a gallon of oatmeal, and the acting is needlessly showy. When the kills finally arrive, they do offer a shot in the arm of the film, but some of it comes too little too late, and it doesn't help that the effects haven't aged particularly well. It's still Tom Savini, so there's no doubt that it's a master class of latex and Karo syrup, but his work here is the least convincing that I've ever seen from him. 

He's allowed a minor reprieve, though, considering that his work in the same year's The Prowler is far and away the most gruesome, effective kill work he's ever contributed to splatter cinema.

And Cropsy's weapon is too awe-strikingly rad to even quibble about some minor elasticity problems.

One more major complaint: When the ending finally comes around, instead of lining Michelle up as the obvious Final Girl, The Burning tosses her aside and shoves Todd and Alfred into the fray to split duties in a perfunctory sequence that has some decent effects work, but falls flat with a big pffffbt. By its closing moments, the movie has sputtered and spilled out over the sides like an overheated soufflé.

Now keep in mind that while these unfavorable moments are foregrounded, they still exist in a well-shot, well-edited (by Nightmare on Elm Street 2 director Jack Sholder, of all people), high-energy camp slasher that is still one of the best in the business. These issues drag it down somewhat in my esteem, but The Burning is still worth anybody's time as a camp slasher curio of the highest order.

There's sex, pot, hijinks, wacky dialogue about sex, pot, and hijinks, a blissfully generous helping of female and male nudity, and a cool weapon/killer. Cropsy being based on a real urban legend of the New England camping community, his presence adds an extra dimension of cyclical urban legend terror to the film, which is already pretty decently successful in its scare sequences, including [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT] the film's notorious raft massacre.

In a flurry of choppily-edited action that is reminiscent of the post-Hitchcock era of classic horror, Cropsy raises the average kill count of the movie tenfold, bursting out of a drifting canoe and mowing down a pack of campers right after the film's longest stretch of goreless paradise. It's shocking and visceral, liberal with its grue, and downright nasty in its brevity. It would be the best part of any slasher film it was placed in, but here it's the cherry on top of a pretty, well-made, if insubstantial classic work of slashcraft.

The shots AND the men are pretty, so there's really no losing here.

So, heed my warnings if you want to dive into The Burning anytime soon: Don't expect unparalleled greatness. But rest assured that you'll have a terrific summer at Camp Stonewater, whatever the downsides are.

Killer: Cropsy (Lou David)
Final Girl: Todd (Brian Matthews) and Alfred (Brian Backer) and very slightly Michelle (Leah Ayres)
Best Kill: THE RAFT SCENE (Skip to 2:30 - gore warning)

Sign of the Times: This is perhaps the only decade of film history where the men's swimsuits were at least three times as revealing as the ladies'.
Scariest Moment: THE DAMN RAFT SCENE
Weirdest Moment: A hospital orderly attempts to scare a new intern (who is middle aged and balding) by showing him Cropsy's burns, openly comparing him to a monster and an overcooked Big Mac while in the room with the notorious psycho.
Champion Dialogue: "Maybe it's because she likes you, you dumb bastard."
Body Count: 10
  1. Prostitute is stabbed in the gut with scissors.
  2. Karen has her throat slit with shears.
  3. Fish is sliced in the chest with shears.
  4. Barbara is stabbed in the stomach with shears.
  5. Woodstock has his fingers cut off and throat slit with shears.
  6. Eddy is stabbed in the throat with shears.
  7. Diane is sliced in the forehead with shears.
  8. Sally is killed offscreen.
  9. Glazer is impaled in the throat with shears.
  10. Cropsy is stabbed in the back, axed in the face, and burnt to death. 
TL;DR: The Burning is probably the least exciting of the A-list slashers, but you can never go too wrong when Tom Savini is in the fray.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1713

Monday, March 23, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Ari Sandel
Cast: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It's been a while since we've had a truly great high school film. 

And it will still be a while before we get one, because The DUFF never manages to truly escape the colossal shadow of Easy A. But, if you ignore the hyperbolically insistent fat-shaming of a normal-sized human being at its core, The DUFF is a disarmingly sweet and tentatively modern little comedy at least worth a pity watch during a Redbox binge.

I mean, she can't have spent more than $1.29 on those overalls so why pay more than that to watch her in action?

The DUFF tells the story of Bianca (Mae Whitman, who has been playing a high school student for a decade now - Hollywood is a weird place), a horror nerd who has trouble making conversation with people who don't know who Bela Lugosi is. Not that I would know anything about that, I was a super cool jock in high school.

Bianca's two best friends are Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos of Ouija), who are, let's say, hot enough to be cast members of Ouija. When Bianca's douchey jock neighbor/reluctant childhood best friend Wes (Robbie Amell) informs her that she is a DUFF, or Designated Ugly Fat Friend (whose purpose is to make her friends look hotter by comparison), she goes into a downward spiral. Her actions are loosely based around the five stages of grief, but this plot structure drifts away into the wind after Robbie Amell shows his abs.

I mean, I'd get distracted too, but I'm not a professional screenwriter. Keep it together, guys.

What ends up happening is that Bianca offers to tutor Wes in chemistry in exchange for him helping her learn how to be pretty and popular. Quid pro status quo, if you will. Or maybe you shouldn't. When Queen Bee Madison (Bella Thorne) gets wind of Bianca spending time with her soon-to-be boyfriend, she flips out, sending one of her flying monkeys to spread embarrassing viral videos of Bianca and destroy her reputation.

She pursues her hottie crush Toby (Nick Eversman) while dealing with the inevitable feelings that come to light concerning one Wesley McPecNeighbor. Oh, and Bianca is assigned to write an article for the school paper about "What Homecoming Means to Me," because the screenwriters took a brief pause in their Easy A marathon to pop in Never Been Kissed.

What ensues is a largely pleasant, intensely forgettable experience. I'm happy that Mae Whitman has finally been given a shot to lead a wide release movie. After her standout performance as Ann Veal on Arrested Development 900 years ago, she certainly deserves it. And I can get behind any Hollywood comedy about female friendship, though the premise of the film is dubiously progressive at best.

Come one, come all! Marvel at how ugly and fat and... designated this human woman is!

Although The DUFF takes most of its story cues (and many visual moments) directly from the hallowed halls of high school film history, at least it had the good sense to choose the best ones. It's a lukewarm mash, for sure, but the tropes it cherry picks were enjoyable once and continue to sparkle, at least enough to keep the film modestly entertaining for 90 or so of its 100 minutes. It will never be held to the same level of idolatry as Mean Girls or Pretty in Pink, but its "who cares what other people think?" message is still an important one to send to the youth of today.

Unfortunately, the youth of today might find that they have very little in common with the bronzed, overaged facsimiles of teenagers that populate this universe. As tends to happen when inveterate adults attempt to write about modern technology, the references to social media are frequent, forced, and bewildering, like a James Franco lecture tour.

There's a couple pristine jokes in there about Twitter and such, but one gets the sense that none of the crew members are old enough to have teen daughters. It's a darn shame, because they could have instantly pointed out that A) There's no notification when somebody unfriends you on Facebook, B) It makes zero sense to ask how many hits a YouTube video has gotten while it's in the process of being filmed, and C) In no rational universe would the exchange "Viral?" "Viral." ever happen outside of the fever-addled nightmares of Rebecca Black.

At this point, The DUFF has more speculative science fiction than Interstellar.

There's some interesting integration of UI and dubstep imagery into the film, so credit where credit is due. But for the most part, the techie side of the script will remind teens of what it's like when grandma calls, asking how to get her Air Supply records out of the iTune.

Also, in all honesty, Bianca is kind of a selfish jerk. The way she holds her end of the bargain is by handing Wes her chemistry notebook and prancing away into the sunset to cry about the friends that she abandoned. After all the work he puts into helping her achieve her goals, it's actually really unfair. And her irritation with anybody who can't list the major landmark zombie films of the 1970's in alphabetical order is not a healthy way to get through life. At least the set designers did their research, filling her room with genuine horror nerd posters (Shock Waves! Nice!) instead of super generic mainstream fodder that she'd almost certainly hate.

"The Walking Dead is for chumps. I don't even own a TV."

But Whitman's performances outshines her character's writing and she brings a comic spirit and humanity to the character that renders her chemistry with the green Amell entirely natural.

Oh, also Ken Jeong and Allison Janney are in the movie, as Bianca's teacher and mother respectively. But Janney is sidelined for the bulk of the run time, and Jeong can't find anything unique to do with a character who isn't a borderline psychotic. 

All in all, The DUFF is exactly what you'd expect from a February release. B-level stars doing an OK job with a decent script, but nothing special. I'm glad it exists, and I'd watch it again at a slumber party or something, but I'd definitely keep my Twitter open while it was playing.

There. That's how you be a teenager. Case closed.

TL;DR: The DUFF is a listless mishmash of high school teen movie tropes, but it's a pleasantly generic experience.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No more than $5, but sure, go for it.
Word Count: 1124

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Houston, We Have A Sequel

Year: 2001
Director: James Isaac
Cast: Kane Hodder, Lexa Doig, Lisa Ryder
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So here we are, the end of Jason Voorhees. No, not the last film in the franchise. That cash cow's udder might be drawing blood, but Hollywood will keep squeezing it until it snaps off. The tenth Friday the 13th sequel, Jason X, is the final film in the continuity of the original series. 

Granted, that's not saying much.

Consider this fun fact, which I read on a F13 trivia post last week: Jason has died in 6 Friday the 13th films. He has been resurrected in 3 of them. And that's all you need to know about the franchise. Narrative consistency is the redheaded stepchild of Crystal Lake. Nevertheless, Jason X is the tenth and final film of a series dimly recognizable as a whole. The 2003 followup Freddy vs. Jason was a crossover picking up loosely after part nine, and the 2009 remake scraps everything and fills in the cracks with pretty people.

They might as well have renamed Crystal Lake to "Michael Bay."

Now that we're revisiting the de facto swan song for Friday the 13th, let's take a moment to reflect on the franchise as a whole. After young zombie/ghost boy Jason was introduced in Sean S. Cunningham's indie fright flick Friday the 13th, he was taken on by Paramount, who gave him human form in Friday the 13th Part 2 and his iconic hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D. He was summarily offed in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, palely imitated in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and desperately resurrected in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives at the behest of axe-sharpening fans.

In Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Kane Hodder donned the hockey mask to battle a bargain basement Carrie, then took a cruise to Vancouver, briefly stopped over in Times Square, and was destroyed by toxic waste in the Day-Glo nightmare sewers of the Big Apple in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. For some inexplicable reason, audiences didn't respond well to that classic entry, so Paramount upped sticks and sold off their cash cow for some magic beans. 

New Line took on the burden, stripping the franchise of its name and putting the villain front and center, at least in the title. They then burned the whole affair at the stake in an attempt to Nightmare it up with the Lovecraftian body-hopping demon worm fiasco Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. When that film also inexplicably failed to resurrect a cult following, the franchise lay dormant in the New Line basement for over half a decade. While the planned Freddy vs. Jason crossover was being turned over hot coals in Production Hell, New Line decided to renew audience interest with a new installment to the long defunct Jason saga by sending him to space and tossing an acid-trippingly massive $14,000,000 budget at him.

Really, it's a miracle that Jason X even made it into theaters, let alone with that kind of money at its disposal. Naturally, the filmmakers, acknowledging the massive respect involved in being trusted with such a (relatively) gargantuan coffer, made the worst film in the franchise. Seriously, Jason X is the butts.

Not even the good kind.

Jason X begins by immediately retconning JGTH, which isn't the worst decision. It opens with Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder for the fourth and final time) totally alive and evidently fished out of Hell, restrained in the futuristically chrome Crystal Lake Research Facility, which is the worst decision. Sexy researcher Rowan (Lexa Doig of Andromeda) is the leader of a team that has tried executing the mass murderer via every method under the sun, including firing squad, which seems like more of a formality than anything. However, his psycho/zombie/plot device body keeps regenerating itself to full health like the world's least adorable Pokémon.

Her team wants to put Jason into cryogenic sleep until they can figure out what the hell to do with him, but some Evil Capitalists, led by David Cronenberg, want to exploit his regenerative abilities for monetary gain. When they enter Jason's holding cell, obviously their team is eviscerated within seconds, and Rowan uses herself as bait to lure Jason into the freezing chamber. After Jason punctures the chamber with the sturdiest machete in the known universe, they are both frozen until they are discovered by an exploratory team of students four and a half centuries later in the arbitrarily chosen year of 2455.

The crew brings the two bodies onto their spaceship, where they resurrect Rowan and leave Jason to thaw, believing him to be dead like so many Paramount executives back in the day. As the Space Teens scatter to get it on in their bunks, the filthy magic of premarital sex goes to work and Jason rises from his stasis, good as new. He grabs a standard-issue Space Machete off the doctor's table and goes to work.

This sounds like the setup to an awesomely cheesy "psycho killer in space" movie. Don't be fooled, my child. Once upon a time, putting Vanilla Ice in a movie sounded like a great idea too, and look where that got us.

Although I think we can agree that necking next to a serial killer's corpse is NEVER a good plan.

There's far too many useless characters floating around the movie to provide for its record-breaking body count, but let's Meet a selection of the Meat, shall we?

Joining us today is the crew of the good ship Grendel, including Azrael (Dov Tiefenbach), the annoying Space Stoner who proves that history is doomed to repeat itself; Janessa (Melyssa Ade), who is apparently a skilled recombinant DNA researcher, but is more important to the story as a Space Slut - the patriarchy will never die; Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts), who will sacrifice any number of his young students for his own financial gain; Sgt. Brodski (Peter Mensah), who is the leader of the ship's security squadron and Jason's biggest opponent; Tsunaron (Chuck Campbell of Stargate: Atlantis), who is an expert robotics designer and whom I called "Matt" in my notes because not only are these future names confusing, they are also mumbled; and Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), Tsunaron's female android/love interest with a Corey Feldman haircut.

It's like Her, but with more gratuitous nudity.

There's about 8,000 more characters bouncing around the Grendel, but these are the only ones who make any sort of impression. The rest are mere fodder for the gore sequences, which are generally quick, fumbled, and in the dark, like all of James Franco's sexual encounters. The one thing I can say about Jason X is that, what with all the faces, places, and kills whirling past the screen, it's over before you know it. Its episodic scene structure pushes and shoves you through what would have otherwise been a supremely boring slasher flick.

There is no aspect of the film that isn't riddled with leaden incompetence. Sometimes a moment or a line of dialogue will shine through the gloom like a beam of sunlight in the eye of a storm, but then the maelstrom sweeps everything away again.

Perhaps the most waterlogged area of Jason X is its special effects. Although three of the kill sequences are instantly memorable classics, the rest are indistinct and brief, relying on state-of-the-art  early 2000's CGI technology that has aged about as well as The Baha Men. The computer imagery (and the astoundingly varied sets) sucked the budget dry, so the moments that are practical hit with all the force of a wet tissue. A spaceship crash looks more like the opening theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the bionically enhanced Über-Jason of the third act (which, yes, is a thing that exists) wouldn't look out of place in a Mattel catalogue.

Jason Voorhees, now with triple-action kung fu grip.

And before that atrocity is unveiled, Jason's costume is the laziest bit of design in a series for which the high-water mark is denim short-shorts. Honestly, it looks like they literally just jammed a hockey mask on Kane Hodder's face with no touch-up work at all, not even attempting to disguise his terrible late-90's mullet.

In those eyes, you can see the forlorn weariness of a man who has been on the set of Jason Goes to Hell and lived to tell the tale.

Typically Hodder is the best actor on any Friday the 13th set, but he is sleepwalking here, surrounded by the worst cast in a series made famous by poor acting. Perhaps it's the expectation created by the distinctly sci-fi setting that causes the performances to seem so hyperbolically shrill and unbalanced, but the Teen Meat has never been more aggravating. The fact that very few of them seem to die at all is even more frustrating.

Only Jonathan Potts' obsequious professor and Lisa Ryder's cheerfully badass android rise above the muck. And considering the fact that Ryder brings a human warmth and nuance to a role intended to be robotic, maybe it doesn't even count after all.

The Final Girl is vaguely badass but empty, the frequent attempts at comedy fall flat save for one scene set in a virtual reality Camp Crystal Lake, and the action sequences mostly comprise the floor shaking and knocking the cast down like bowling pins over and over and over. It'd be a great pinball game, but it doesn't make for a memorable film.

At least Harry Manfredini's music isn't too self-indulgently spacey. It's nowhere near the frenetic charm of his best franchise work and it scarcely includes the iconic CH-CH-CH motif, but it doesn't sound like Space Mountain, and I'm going to have to put that in the plus column.

At the end of the day, it's still Jason and he's still killing horny teens so it's not the worst horror flick ever invented, but sometimes that just isn't enough. Jason X is without a doubt the nadir of the franchise, and one I would only recommend to the most hardcore Jason fanatics. 

I've seen it three times.

Pray for me.

Killer: Jason Voorhees/Über-Jason (Kane Hodder)
Final Girl: Rowan (Lexa Doig)
Best Kill: Adrienne has her face frozen by liquid nitrogen and slammed on the counter. It shatters into a million bloody pieces and is the only truly memorable gore effect in the film. But it's still one of Jason's career best kills.

Sign of the Times: Apparently in the future, the hot new retro fashion is to dress like you're about to be kicked out of Lollapalooza.

Maybe I should start including fashion victims in the body count.

Scariest Moment: As the crew investigates a rattling door, Jason bursts through a glass window behind them.
Weirdest Moment: Janessa sleeps with Professor Lowe to improve her midterm grades. Future Sex apparently involves having your steel nipple rings twisted by a comically giant clamp. "You pass!"

Champion Dialogue: "I couldn't be with a girl whose balls are bigger than mine."
Body Count: 25; not including the entire population of the space station Solaris, three virtual reality aliens, or Über Jason, who, let's face it, is probably fine.
  1. Private Johnson is choked with a chain.
  2. Guard #1 is smashed in the head with a machine gun.
  3. Guard #2 choked and tossed into gunfire.
  4. Guard #3 has his face bashed in with a noose pole. 
  5. Guard #4 is choked with a chain.
  6. Dr. Wimmer is impaled by a noose pole.
  7. Sgt. Marcus is thrown through a steel door.
  8. Adrienne has her face frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed on the counter.
  9. Stoney is stabbed in the gut.
  10. Azrael is snapped in half.
  11. Dallas has his head crushed against a wall.
  12. Sven has his neck broken.
  13. Condor is impaled on a mining drill.
  14. Geko has her throat slit.
  15. Briggs is impaled on a large hook.
  16. Kicker is sliced in half.
  17. Fat Lou is dismembered offscreen.
  18. Professor Lowe is decapitated offscreen.
  19. Kinsa dies in a shuttle explosion.
  20. Crutch is smashed into a control box and electrocuted.
  21. Waylander dies in an explosion.
  22. Janessa is sucked through a metal grate.
  23. Virtual Camper and
  24. Virtual Camper #2 are smashed together in their sleeping bags.
  25. Sgt. Brodski dies falling into Earth 2's atmosphere. 
TL;DR: Jason X is a tiring, shallow mess unworthy of the Friday the 13th name.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 2085
Reviews In This Series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (McLouglin, 1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Culture Clash

Year: 2006
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza
Run Time: 2 hours 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The story of the Tower of Babel goes as follows:
Once upon a time, everyone on Earth spoke the same language. Settlers in the land of Shinar sought to build a city with a tower reaching into the sky, so their people would never be separated. God looked out upon the construction and realized that there was nothing the people couldn't do if they worked together. He wasn't a big fan of that, so he cast a god spell on them, scattering the builders across the Earth and bestowing them with different languages so they couldn't understand one another or work together ever again. Google Translate having not been invented yet, the construction of the tower was halted and the city became known as Babel, which is now our word for an incomprehensible mash of language.
I have a theory that the production of the 2006 Best Picture-nominated film Babel went a little something like that story. It's a perplexing mash of loosely-connected storytelling, simultaneously thrumming with a conspicuously ham-fisted moral and a set of incomprehensible private musings of its own. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (of this year's Best Picture, Birdman), Babel is a bewildering clutter, but it's not without its charms.

Sexy grey Brad Pitt is probably the least of its charms, so that's saying something.

The story of Babel goes as follows:
1) In Morocco, two young boys play with their father's gun, shooting it at passing cars. After they hit a tour bus an injure a woman inside, the corrupt local policemen pursue their family. And Brennan writes a strongly-worded letter to their parents.
2) In Morocco, unhappily married couple Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) go on vacation in an attempt to move past the unfortunate death of their young son. After Susan is shot by a stray bullet through the window of their tour bus, they spend several days in a nearby town awaiting the arrival of the proper medical authorities. Susan spends pretty much the whole time lying on the floor unconscious. Surprisingly, Cate Blanchett does not win an Oscar for this role.
3) In America, Richard and Susan's kids are left to the care of their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). When their trip is extended by an unfortunate bullet wound, she is forced to take them with her to her son's wedding down in Mexico. They spend a blissful day together, marred by a conflict with the immigration authorities on the way back home. George Bush is unharmed.
4) In Japan, deaf teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi of Pacific Rim) attempts a sexual awakening, but finds that very few older men are interested in her insatiable lust. This is before Instagram was invented, so you can understand her pain. 
So what we get from all of this is... that Alejandro Iñárritu really likes Crash. In all seriousness though, Babel takes after its namesake: Each of the linked stories (The Japan story is dubiously connected to Morocco through Chieko's father) paints a larger picture, that of two different cultures combatting one another, causing issues through lack of compassion and understanding. Basically, it's the cinematic explanation for why we never built that damn tower.

It's those teens with their swingsets and their premarital sex. Ruining it for us all.

The problem with the interconnected stories is that they intersect at such few and inconsistent points, it raises the question of why they felt the need to even try in the first place. Those first three stories go  together pretty strong, but the Japan angle is barely hanging on by a thread. In any other film, I'd say yank that plot out like a loose tooth, but unfortunately Chieko's story is one of the most interesting in the whole kaboodle.

Of all the culture clashes we see throughout the film, Chieko's is the only one that takes place within one umbrella culture. She and the people she struggles with are all Japanese, united under one language and set of traditions. However, her deafness creates a whole new subculture that bumps and grinds against her superculture. Chieko's story is by far the most intriguing to watch play out, second only to Amelia's, which has the most pathos thanks to the director's intimate understanding of the Mexican culture.

With the two strongest stories muscling for screentime in the wings, Babel keeps returning to damn Morocco, with poor Cate Blanchett lying wanly on her rug while Brad Pitt looks angsty and artily bedraggled. It's Oscarbait so pure and undiluted, it makes me a little sick to my stomach.

He's got the shakes. This must be his first time.

There are fantastic parts of Babel. Much of the sound design involved in painting Chieko's world, for instance, or the fleshed-out arc of Amelia's story that rips your heart to shreds. But the film as a whole is unfairly bogged down with an imbalanced focus on the least interesting facets of its narrative, its deliberate pacing, and its startlingly devoted propensity for handheld camerawork.

And don't even get me started on the plot twists that splatter out of the third act like the last of the whipped cream in the tube. They're almost amusingly banal, as if they had gotten M. Night Shyamalan's accountant brother to write them. I won't give anything away, but imagine that the ending of The Sixth Sense was "Bruce Willis was a doctor and his storyline took place five minutes before the other one." It's not a good look.

But really, Babel hits where it counts. I wish it were a little more focused, or maybe that Amelia and Chieko got films of their own instead of being forced to fight to the death with the hyperbolically duller storylines. But all in all, it's not a waste of time. If you're looking to watch an Important movie, Babel will certainly have you covered. And at least you can comfort yourself with Brad Pitt's face while you ignore everything coming out of his mouth.

Kind of like in World War Z!

TL;DR: Babel is a decent prestige drama, but has an unfortunate predilection for its least interesting storylines.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1049

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Silent But Deadly

Year: 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I'm a terrible film major. I spent so much of my time watching ancient VHS detritus like Sorority House Massacre II or Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! that I'm frequently out of the loop when it comes to truly "important" cinema, like BirdmanKill Bill, Moonrise Kingdom, or anything that the medium-strength pretentious people around me like to talk about. As a TA, I've graded so many film essays about classics that I've never given proper attention to, so I decided to take a leap with a freshman favorite: Drive*.

Well, Sergio decided for me. But regardless, it happened.

*Other perennial classics with the youngsters include Fight Club, The Dark Knight, Star Wars, and - inexplicably - The Silver Linings Playbook.

I can't really complain, considering that the 80's, Ryan Gosling, and bright colors are three of my favorite things.

Drive tells the story of an unnamed man (Ryan Gosling) who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood and moonlights as a getaway driver. He's a laconic, stylish, mostly emotionless individual who begins to open up once he connects with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). After Benicio's father gets out of jail, the Driver finds himself drawn by his affection for Irene and his unsavory job into the seedy underbelly of LA. As he finds himself deeper and deeper in the criminal underworld, he works with his boss/confidant Shannon (Brian Cranston) to attempt to sever ties with Jewish mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his shady partner Nino (Ron Perlman).

As things go from bad to worse, the driver must steel himself for his story's inevitable violent conclusion.

It's like the crime-thriller version of whenever I write about Glee on The Backlot.

Everything about Drive is stripped-down and simple, but relentlessly cool and propulsive, like a race car engine. I think. Maybe. This isn't a car blog, alright? This concept, reflected in every aspect of the filmmaking, finds its greatest home in the soundtrack. The Driver's nighttime world of neon and glowing traffic lights is imbued with ambient mystery by sturdy 80's-inspired synth tracks.

Obviously that kind of thing appeals to me, considering that about 60 percent of my iTunes catalogue is composed of songs so synth-fueled, they would give Simon Le Bon a headache. But Drive's soundtrack choices are just plain cool. The tracks refrain from excess, merely providing a slick, evocative soundscape for the stylized world of the film.

Style. That's the word I keep coming back to and for good reason. Style is driving force of the film (so to speak), liberally applied by the guiding hand of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Though the Danish filmmaker may personally stray into hyperbolic pretention more often than not, his hold over the slippery craft of filmmaking remains firm and assured.

The style is so heightened and superb that, when the going gets gory (and it does, in spades), squeamish viewers will be able to stomach even the worst the film has to offer thanks to the film's carefully crafted division from reality. Though it takes care not to divorce itself so much from the real world that those moments aren't still brutal and repugnant. Thanks, Drive.

So. Style. Slow motion, symmetry, reflection, and color are Refn's tools, and Drive is his sandbox. He arranges and rearranges these elements until they form a perfect, smooth aesthetic that allows the story to course through its veins like a shot of nitro (Is that a car thing? My only experience with racing is Mario Kart.). 

My humblest apologies to Mssrs. Gosling and LoveBug.

On top of is pristine style, Drive has a screenplay that might just be the most mechanically precise work ever created from the human imagination. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that it wasn't written by a terrifying supercomputer. 

Every single aspect of the film's mise-en-scène supports its central throughline. Whether it's cheers from a radio sports game underscoring a successful getaway attempt, a red light stopping the car at precise emotional beats, an elevator door emphasizing a schism in a relationship, or a kid's cartoon perfectly summarizing the film's theme, Drive's screenplay works like Swiss clockwork. 

Drawing elements from Aesopian fable, Greek drama, and classic American thriller screenwriting, Drive is basically the perfect machine. This effect comes at the expense of some of the film's humanity, but on that front, the film has a secret weapon: Mr. Ryan Gosling.

Although his character practically has fewer lines of dialogue than Jason Voorhees, Gosling imbues him with a strong personality and moral structure, buried deep beneath his calm exterior, like whale song beneath the calm moonlit ocean.

He inspires the poetic side of me, what can I say?

The entire film is filtered through his character, to the point that many key events in scenes are kept largely offscreen, so we can watch his responses to things rather than the things themselves. That might sound counterintuitive, but the man's eyes are so damn expressive that you can feel every blow, every mote of drama that the world has to offer all through his microscopic reactions. The theater kid inside of me wants to knock his block off in a jealous tantrum.

What's even more impressive is that this performance could have been a total wash. In the hands of any other actor, the empty role would just have been filled with a pretty face and a broad shoulder and been completely efficient. But Gosling elevates the character above his material, even if he could have just coasted through on the fact that the first act is essentially just Ryan Gosling uniform porn. I swear, they put him in just about every single fetishized outfit that Tumblr bloggers can imagine. Check it:

Ryan Gosling as Vic Victor, the hard-nosed vigilante cop with a big appetite.

Ryan Gosling as Edge Streetly, the hunky yet humble mechanic.

Ryan Gosling as... OK, no theory is perfect.

It'd be so easy to let that perfectly symmetrical mug control his performance, but Gosling just goes ahead and owns the screen anyway. Something must be said for the other performers, of whom Carey Mulligan is a clear stand-out in a refreshingly un-idealized role, but Gosling's performance overpowers the ample talents of his co-stars, dulling them with his supernova brightness. His screen presence is so riveting that he sucks some of the emulsion right off the negative.

There's some film student humor for ya. Hey, at least I'm getting something out of my final semester in the academic sphere.

Anyway, my only real qualms with the film revolve around its central simplicity. Its aims and its means tend to be straightforward, but some second act wrinkles breach the straightforward nature of the film, introducing a few too many characters, motivations, and extraneous plot points into its Spartan storyline.

Beyond that? Nothing. Drive is a terrific watch, full of handsome men doing terrible things to terrible men and discovering what it means to be a real human being (or, if you listen to the film's most played song, a "real human bean."). And that's nothing to shake a stick shift at.

TL;DR: Drive is a Swiss watch mechanical thriller with a neon, 80's-infused aesthetic.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1229