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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

12. The Amazing Spider-Man

Days behind review schedule: None, since I actually watched it today.

Alternate Title: “How to Make a Superhero Movie without Really Trying… Or Knowing Anything About What Makes It Good”.

The Gist: Spider-Man gets redesigned by committee.

Currently listening to: “Cannonball” by the Breeders/“Do Ya Thing” by Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and James Murphy.

The Experience: Hey! It’s the summer! That means two things.

1. I've got nothing better to do.
2. There are lots of movies to watch.

So after making myself pretty clear about my feelings on this new entry in the Spider-Man cinematic canon based on the trailer and choice of director, Jojo casually pointed out that she was going to see it regardless, which put me in an awkward position: abstain from watching it and never hear the end of how I had no right to criticise a movie I hadn't watched, or pay to see it and contribute to Sony’s coffers whether I like the film or not.

Okay, there was no way of going in there without some hint of prejudice against this film, but I actually was emboldened to watch it by how split down the middle critics and audiences seem to be on it, and now I've seen it I can at least say whatever I want about it with impunity; so I gave The Amazing Spider-Man its day in court after all.

Now, in the interest of objectivity and not giving in to my own biases, I'm going to keep any comparisons to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies as concise and relevant as possible. I'm also not going to bother summarising the plot too much for reasons that will become obvious: it’s basically the first film with certain bits swapped out in favour of… well, as I say, we’ll get to that. Let me first point out some of the stuff I kinda liked about this film.

First, the casting is good. I can never get sick of watching Andrew Garfield doing what he does, Emma Stone is a strong female lead (no shit, Adam, everyone else seems to have figured that out ages ago), Denis Leary and Martin Sheen are good in their supporting roles (again, old news) and as much as this sounds like a cop-out from coming up with a genuine positive criticism, the film is pretty to look at. The CG web-slinging has indeed improved since last we saw Spidey on screen, but that was 5 years ago and there have been some mind-blowing advances in the field since then, so trumpeting that side of it doesn't make a film better, as many were quick to point out to Peter Jackson when he remade King Kong as a three hour long treatise on bestiality and Stockholm syndrome.

And… that’s pretty much it. Credit where it’s due, but there really was not a lot in this film for me to either marvel at (n.p.i.) or that really jumped out at me.

Now there’s a lot of things I don’t care for in this film, but the majority of them come under a pretty clear meta-heading, so this is the main thing that is wrong with the film from my perspective:-

The Amazing Spider-Man is dumb, it has no heart and it has the miasma of studio middle-management all over it.

Regardless of whether you liked the Raimi movies or not, it was Sony’s insistence on cramming Venom into Spider-Man 3 that screwed up the pace of that film and their refusal to let Sam Raimi make the Spider-Man 4 that he wanted to make was what necessitated the creation of this film in the first place. Let’s break it down.

From a creative point of view, the film is almost completely lacking in terms of a consistent palette, a problem that runs downward from the direction to the script to the production design to the score. There’s a clear attempt been made to turn this into a more gritty and realistic version of the Spider-Man mythos, which is not only sabotaged by its attempts at humour (which range from sophomoric to just moronic) but it's made completely pointless by virtue of the fact that the film focuses on a guy in a red and blue body stocking swinging around on webs and has a giant iguana in a lab coat as the main villain. The score is all over the place too, with no discernible motifs to grip onto and a particular music cue that rates as officially one of the worst in cinema history.

This wouldn't be so bad if the script wasn't patently bullshit. Sub-plots and characters are raised and then dropped on a whim, and the few good performances in this seem to be almost in spite of what their working with! Rhys Ifans does his best in a thankless job, but I never bought him as a villain and his flip-flopping between good and evil reads as clumsy direction and shoddy writing.

In fact, all the supposed “villains” in this film suffer the curse of being woefully under-written or having their character arcs hacked to pieces in the editing suite. Some have suspected this is to save some revelations for the sequel, (of which there is bound to be at least one,) but my little black heart of cynicism (as well as the clear absence of several plot point heavy scenes seen in trailers but not in the finished film) tells me otherwise: this movie reeks of reshoots. Green Lantern had this problem as well, but that was a relatively obscure property with no proven track record; Sony has been making Spider-Man films for ten bloody years!

The presence of Norman Osborn is cock-teased throughout, but even the woefully misjudged mid-credits stinger fails to give us a clear idea of what direction the franchise is meant to be going in. Irffan Khan appears as a shady Oscorp boss… who disappears from the film halfway through and is never seen again. Even the mugger who shoots Uncle Ben is reduced to a generic guy who could be anyone (a plot point that the movie attempts to run with for a bit but is neither resolved nor given a satisfactory justification or context).

And it’s not just the villains who have to deal with sucky writing, although that’s bad enough. Garfield and Stone do indeed have good chemistry, but it’s chemistry without substance, and often feels like their just riffing on each other like another notable couple from a Marvel property *cough* Iron Man *unconvincing cough*. The reason I suspect is because the film-makers either didn't understand what makes Peter Parker/Spider-Man a likeable character or they did and just decided to go completely the other way, because there are some scenes early on (even before his powers manifest) when he behaves in ways that are completely uncharacteristic of the established character. Here, Parker isn't just not likeable; he takes pictures of Gwen Stacy in a way that is about this close to being a stalker, he’s unappreciative of and unpleasant to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and his decision to trespass into the Oscorp labs is what results in him getting bit in the first place. And whilst he (rightfully) blames himself for Uncle Ben’s death, his decision to go around harassing potential criminals in an attempt to find the person responsible makes his initial foray into crime-fighting sort of ethically questionable.

But even the noble Uncle Ben isn't done justice here. Whilst Martin Sheen tries his best, this version is just too curmudgeonly, and his constant lecturing of Peter means that the “with great power comes great responsibility” lesson gets completely lost in the barrage of James Dean-level stroppy teenage angst and “do as your told” parenting. Even poor Aunt May does nothing but fret and wring her hands. And as for Peter’s missing parents… there’s really nothing to say about them. They’re little more than a plot device, a cheap way to get Peter to Oscorp, where Gwen just happens to work as an intern, where he just happens to get bitten, turn into Spider-Man and give his father’s research he has discovered to Dr Connors (passing it off as his own, by the way), precipitating the creation of the Lizard.

Which is another thing that needs to be brought up: this movie has way, WAY too many coincidental plot points!! And the plot points that aren't coincidental are either unexplained or just plain fucking stupid! Peter being able to break into Oscorp by posing as an intern without having to show any ID - stupid. The swinging on cranes thing being played as some big patriotic sign of New Yorker camaraderie - dumb. The clumsily unresolved plot-line involving his parents – really dumb. The emphasis on Parker needing to have a secret identity, in spite of the fact that he creates his suit using resources that can easily be traced back to him, leaves a camera marked with his name on it at the scene of a confrontation with the Lizard (which in turn leads the Lizard back to Peter’s school for the obligatory second act punch-up), not to mention the fact that he keeps coming in late and looking like he’s been put through a clothes mangle – and yet for the entire running time, unless he actually tells someone specifically, NOBODY ELSE IN THE FILM SUSPECTS THAT HE MIGHT BE SPIDER-MAN – SO, SO, SO VERY STUPID.

Of all the performances in this, the one that actually works on its own merits is Denis Leary as Captain Stacey, and here we actually do get a well rounded character that represents the surrogate father figure Peter never had, who actually teaches him about the meaning of sacrifice and responsibility; he is easily the best part of the film, and that’s not intended to be faint praise. But it’s not enough to save the film, and his role feels like its been transplanted in from a completely different movie, which is sort of why this film just doesn't gel from the concept level up – it’s a Frankenstein movie, chopped up and mashed together from bits of other, better films. To say this movie has feet of clay is to grossly misrepresent the structural reliability of clay; if this movie had feet of clay, it would at least be able to stand up on its own.

This brings me neatly to the elephant in the room, the nit that needs picking, the turd in the punchbowl. Lots of people have been split down the middle over whether this film came too early, whether the film is a significant improvement on the direction of the original films, and whether the movie should have come out at all. The fact is, Sony are going to make another film – why wouldn't they? It’s a license to print money, and heaven forbid that the rights revert back to Marvel Studios and by extension Disney. Same with the X-Men franchise – no-one at Fox wants to be responsible for letting that IP go into the long grass. So what we get is a film that’s been designed by studio executives, directed by a cipher with no established track record or clear visual aesthetic besides a slew of pop videos, and based on a script cobbled together from the work of at least three disparate writers.

Now, people are immediately going to point out that Sam Raimi’s films weren't perfect either, and I've already heard people retroactively sneering at them like they were something to be embarrassed of. Yes, Raimi's films aren't perfect, but that misses the point: regardless of how good or bad the old films were, (and let’s face it, everyone loved watching them when they came out, and if you claim otherwise then I call bullshit on that,) the new one should be able to stand on its own merits, and it definitely shouldn't be worse than the original! Many will say the effects have improved but that’s a function of time; that’s like crowing about how The Lion King is so much more "immersive" now that it’s been retro-fitted in 3D. The set pieces are only as impressive as the story that holds them together, and this lacks any of the genuine humour or heart of the Raimi trilogy. This is a boilerplate film that could have really set itself apart from its baggage but instead chooses to aim squarely at the broadest possible market, taking no risks and pushing no envelopes. A damp squib if ever there was one.

Still, I know you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid anyway, and that just makes me sad. Raggedy Adams out.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Spitting Out the Demons Part IV/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Part IV – Movies That Frustrate Jojo

Okay, you know the drill. These are the reviews I should have really gotten done ages ago, but the good news is I'm officially done with college for the year, which means I've got plenty of time to sweat out a couple more quickie reviews. The theme this time: movies that I can appreciate on a cinematic level but that have frustrated or are likely to frustrate my fiancée Jojo. Many of them have a significant amount in common, as I’ll get to in a moment, but a blanket consensus would be that she found the ones she has seen to be boring, slow or lacking in their narrative or characters’ believability. On the other hand, she enjoys the Narnia books, so I suppose everything’s relative.

Theorem – One of my few concessions to trying to absorb New Wave cinema, this film combines the direction of the late Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo) with a hypnotic turn from a then-young Terence Stamp as a student who boards with an upper-middle-class Italian family of four and subsequently seduces all of them (including both parents, the son, the daughter and the maid), causing their lives to change in unusual ways. Watch for the striking visuals and haunting musical score, but be prepared to sit through a lot of (subtitled) ramblings about class and identity. Stamp is a sight to see, though.

Hesher – More or less as above, only instead of Terence Stamp, we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular scruffy metal-head who begins crashing in the home of a boy, his near-catatonic widowed father (Rainn Wilson) and his hilarious granny. And rather than seduction, his method of imparting wisdom and change involves smoking weed, physical assault and being an arsehole to everyone. There’s a subplot about the kid trying to buy back the wreck of his late mother’s car, and Natalie Portman pops up as a slightly unnecessary love interest, but any second when Gordon-Levitt is on screen is fried gold.

Lost Highway – Oh, this film has tested me. The story of how I finally got to see it could fill a page on it’s own, which is just as well as I cannot describe the plot in less than 100 words anyway. The story is a cinematic pretzel folding in on itself (though not as far up its own arse as Inland Empire), the performances range from great (Bill Pullman, Robert Loggia, Robert FUCKING Blake) to meh (Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty) and the music is brilliant. Look, it’s a David Lynch film. You either love it or hate it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With MeThis, however, I can say plenty about. After watching the whole series on Netflix (more on that later), I decided to give the film prequel a chance, and whilst it clearly sets the groundwork for future Lynch films, its pre-existing universe grounds it a little more as we get to see the events that lead to the death of troubled schoolgirl Laura Palmer. Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland make the most of their too-short roles, David Bowie materialises out of the "Dancing in the Street" video and Harry Dean Stanton says what we’re all thinking: “Goddamn, these people are confusing”.

Okay, I'm going over my 100 word limit on this, but a couple of things have to be said for and against Fire Walk With Me. One of the strengths of the TV show was that it balanced a murder mystery within the trappings of a soap opera pastiche, with a big cast and several interlinking B-plots to serve the narrative and flesh out the characters and environs of Twin Peaks. Kyle MacLachlan was undoubtedly the lead character, but his material (arguably the best of David Lynch’s writing) never pulled focus more than was necessary, and the presence of other established actors as well as up-and-comers made it a great launchpad for careers whilst still giving us familiar faces. Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti created a soundtrack to the show that was instantly recognisable and resisted becoming boring through repetition, and the cinematography was exceptional for a 90s TV show. And here, at least, these are Fire Walk With Me’s strengths too: the returning cast all fit neatly back into their roles like they've never left. Badalamenti’s key score themes are incorporated into the film but with bigger and bolder arrangements in places, and the film retains the distinctive rosy colour grade of the show.

Of course, the nudity and drug use is much more visible, which was a little jarring considering the slightly forced chastity of the show when it came to that sort of thing, due to FCC regulations of the time, but then this is a David Lynch film so that’s almost par for the course. That being said, whilst seeing Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer stripping off and getting nasty does have a certain bent appeal that never really depreciates, seeing her shovelling coke up her hooter every five minutes does cause it to slowly lose its allure.

However, one of the main principal bugbears I have with the film is that it reins in the expansiveness of the show; despite being set in a few more locations besides the town itself, its failure to show off as much of the town ironically makes it feel more limited (some perhaps would say tighter) in scope, and after getting used to a wide cast and numerous plot strands, focusing almost exclusively on the lead-up to Laura’s death (especially when fans of the show will already know who killed her and revealing it here will spoil it for non-fans) is a little jarring. “Where are Sheriff Truman and his deputies?” I found myself asking. “And Ben and Audrey Horne? They were my favourite support characters and they don’t appear once!” Plus, even for someone watching it without the benefit of knowing the show, once you've seen one pine forest you've pretty much seen them all, no matter how lovingly it’s been photographed.

In fact, whilst a large chunk of the essential cast do reprise their roles, there are still a couple of notable absences that have been handled with questionable recasting. Moira Kelly (Chaplin, The Lion King) replaces Lara Flynn Boyle (Wayne’s World, Men In Black II) as Laura’s friend Donna and part of me really doesn't have a problem with that; Donna spends most of her time on the show crying or sulking over her friend being dead, so it was actually nice to see the more naïve and waifish side of her; plus I suspect Boyle felt she dodged the bullet by not having to go topless.

Even MacLachlan’s role is little more than an extended cameo here, with the first act leaving us mostly in the hands of Chris Isaak for no discernible reason than they couldn't get MacLachlan to film a bigger role. Isaak isn't bad, despite being better known for his singing than acting, and he does have genuine chemistry with Kiefer Sutherland (playing against his more recent Jack Bauer type as a speccy FBI nerd with Dennis the Menace hair); he just doesn't get the chance to be particularly good either. As for David Bowie… let’s just say that whatever you think about him as an actor, (and I happen to like him,) his performance, whilst deliberately jarring and weird, isn't even close to being the weirdest thing in this film. The trademark dream sequences are back, but so too are the increasingly strange jaunts in which supposedly unreal characters start popping up in the town itself for all to see and hear; aren't these people supposed to be supernatural beings who remain incognito? Part of me feels it is Lynch waving his Jacobs at us. There’s also a slightly gruesome scene involving a drug bust that goes wrong that I can’t remember ever being followed up in the show (my Wikipedia research claims it was mentioned in the pilot, but that's it), and it certainly doesn't seem to have any further relevance to the film’s characters or narrative once its done with.

All this would probably not rankle so much if it weren't for the fact that, whilst keeping faithful to the show’s aesthetic, the cinematography for a lot of the scenes is almost too televisual and not as cinematic as I've come to expect from Lynch. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the show being so of its time, and the show's format and artistry - despite very clearly being an affectation - were a blueprint for other long-form television shows to come, but what this film seemed to lack was the expansiveness of the show or the cinematic qualities of a film in its own right, and while the characters are fleshed out well and the film is still pretty to look at, it still feels like Lynch was hedging his bets a little on this one and hoping for a revival of the series that sadly would never come.

A lot of these technical criticisms, I suppose, seem moot. “Well, of course it’s flawed,” you say. “It’s a film spin-off from a cancelled TV show; of course it’s going to look crappy on a big screen, or not make sense within the narrative of the show. Right?”

Well, no, not really.

For the sake of comparison, take a show like Neon Genesis Evangelion and its first two movie spin-offs, Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. And before you say anything, yes, I know I go on about Evangelion constantly, yes, I'm aware it’s a Japanese animated show, and yes, I will be reviewing the next two films when they come out; but that’s not what I'm talking about now and it’s the closest thing to a good example I can come up with so just deal with it.

The two shows, Twin Peaks and Evangelion, share a lot of interesting similarities:-
They both ran for at least 26 episodes (Peaks actually ran for 30 episodes, but let's not nitpick), and had a slight dip in quality in the middle from which they never quite fully recovered.
In both cases this was largely due to network interference, though Evangelion’s initial demise was also due to its risqué content, forcing Sega to pull their sponsorship and leading to corners being cut in the animation department.
They both had film spin-offs that act as both a prequel and sequel to some extent; Fire Walk With Me being very much a prequel with some sequel elements hinted at through the dream sequences, whilst Death and Rebirth functions as a non-linear clip-show/rehash of the show’s plot (reusing a lot of its material from the show itself with new sequences added) with End of Eva being a rewritten and more action packed version of the show’s finale.
Both shows, and their spin-offs, conclude with more questions raised than they answered.

The difference, (and this is probably a matter of the medium allowing for it more,) is that whilst Evangelion’s scope only suffered when the animation was under-funded and under-used, End of Eva picked it back up again in spades, even in quiet or introspective scenes. Seriously, just watch the first half of it and see how easy it is to create scope with a little consideration for what is cinematic.

Okay, I’m going to wrap this up. For those considering watching the film, I’d have to say you’re probably only really going to get the most out of it if you’re a fan of the show and of Lynch’s 90s output particularly. On the other hand, it is the only David Lynch film I haven’t fallen asleep in with the exception of Dune, and that’s not damning with faint praise; I simply have a bad habit of watching his films when I really should be in bed.

The Atrocity Exhibition – This independent film, based on J.G. Ballard’s book, was an unmitigated slog compared with Mr Lynch’s oeuvre: easier to stay awake through (though only slightly), but significantly less satisfying at the end. The plot is a series of vignettes (one shares its roots with David Cronenburg’s Crash), and a framing narrative describes the film as chronicling a scientist’s mental breakdown, but otherwise the film offers little. The actors are blank and speak in awkward sentences describing absurd scenarios, and the visuals are a mixture of stock footage and student film-level cinematography. Clearly a labour of love, but scarcely worth it.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Okay, home stretch. Tilda Swinton plays a mother dealing with her increasingly sociopathic titular son (played by a terrifying Ezra Miller), all while her husband (John C Reilly) is blithely ignorant of… You know what? Just watch it for yourself. You’ll see what I mean.

Seriously, watch any or all of these films, they are all interesting or different in one way or another. Even Atrocity Exhibition if you can find it. If you actively never watch films that are going to challenge you or that give you something to think about at the end without their being explosions or car chases or tits to hold your attention, then I don’t know why you bother. There’s clearly no pleasing you.

I'm Raggedy Adams. Let's rock.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Cabin in the Woods

11. Cabin in the Woods

Days behind review schedule: Two weeks. To be fair, though, that’s actually not bad compared with my usual record.

Alternate Title: “The Evil Whed(on)”. Out of practice, natch.

The Gist: Shoggoths and Old Ones and ghouls, oh my! Joss Whedon’s return to the horror stable finally sees the light of day.

Currently listening to: "Hawaiian War Chant" by Spike Jones and his Orchestra… Probably best not to ask. :S

The Experience: Now that I've gotten a considerable amount of my backlog of reviews out of the way in Spitting Out the Demons, and since I have some new films to review for the first time in the better part of a month, I've decided to post a review of a film that actually came out relatively recently. Yes, it’s true! The dawning of the age of Aquarius has come again! Raggedy Adams has something to write about for a change!

Joking aside, this is actually the ideal time to talk about the next film, as it’s been out long enough for the initial buzz to take its effect, for better or worse, and the overall opinion of it has been mostly positive but for a few niggles which I’ll get to in a moment. I should warn those who haven’t seen it, though, that I’m going to reveal some pretty integral plot-points so I'm just gonna slap this review with a big old BEWARE!! SPOILERS AHEAD!! STEER CLEAR IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM!!

… Okay, let’s get on with it.

Cabin in the Woods reteams Buffy alumni Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) and returns to what is essentially their bread and butter: post-modern tweaks of the horror genre. The plot is pretty much your standard horror fare, up to a point at least: a group of college kids (including a pre-Asgard Chris Hemsworth and Fran Kranz as living proof that Joss Whedon smokes way too much weed) drive to the woods for spring break. There’s a cabin there. They go down to the basement, mess with the wrong magical MacGuffin and things, as they say, go bump in the night.

The thing that differentiates this from the usual Evil Dead knock-offs is that in this movie, the mechanism behind the evil lurking in the woods is not an all-powerful demon or some backwoods pig rapists, but a pair of schlubby middle-aged technicians (played excellently by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in an underground facility, carefully orchestrating the ritualistic sacrifice of the teenagers, (releasing monsters into the enclosed woods, covertly dosing the prey with chemicals to make them more likely to act recklessly,) in accordance with a formula that is at once the backbone of the horror genre and also a critique of the homogenizing effect it has on cinema and audiences. This is a film about ideas, specifically ideas about what we find more frightening: the monster in the cupboard, or the possibility of people controlling them. In most horror films this fact would be a closely guarded secret played out as a big reveal or twist right at the end of the film, but in Cabin it’s clear pretty much from the first twenty minutes that this is how it’s going down, and the “puppeteer” device is used as both the mechanism and the justification of the plot’s progression; as Jenkins’ character nonchalantly notes, they rig the game as much as they have to, but if the kids don’t transgress, they can’t be punished.

As is expected by now, the film comes thick with Whedon’s signature dialogue - albeit nowhere near as idiosyncratic as in Firefly/Serenity - and casual but subtle subversions of the very genre conventions the film relies upon: the “jock” is a sociology major, the “dumb” blonde’s sudden libido increase and IQ drop is being manipulated through chemical additives to her hair dye, and the “stoner” is the first one to realise something is not quite right. And let’s not forget the monsters. All of them. Yeah, you thought you were just going to get one lame-ass villain from the guy who created Buffy and Angel? FUCK NO!! This movie has a veritable smorgasbord of monsters. Just not all at the same time, mark you, but fear not, horror fans: after several teases, when it counts, you get plenty of variety AND bang for your buck. Literally; there’s gore and tits and witty banter galore. This is the movie Joss Whedon should have gotten made ten years ago (even if you excuse the fact it was on the shelf for three of those years due to original studio MGM going through a messy bankruptcy).

One of the few major criticisms I've heard regarding Cabin in the Woods is that it’s either “not scary enough” or “not scary at all”, which frankly baffles me, because I happened to find Ghostbusters II and Thomas the Tank Engine terrifying as a child; evidently what one person thinks is scary is all relative and therefore not a sure-fire basis for a critical approach to film-going  True, many of the scares are of the jump-variety, but that’s par for the course at this point; most people’s beef with the film is that the tension is frequently sabotaged by the constant cutting away to the orchestration behind the scenes. My counter-argument to this would be “Well, that’s clearly the point! We've seen this movie’s arc dozens, maybe HUNDREDS of times! How can something this overused hold any kind of tension for you?” Kim Newman, who may as well be Official Historian of All That Is Scary, said in his review that the film evokes H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker’s work without achieving their sense of existential dread, which I suppose is sort of a valid point, but my lame counter to that would be that the snarky, pastiche-driven nature of the film and of Whedon’s signature dialogue supersedes the level of heavy gloom inherent in either of those two writers’ oeuvre, but that alone shouldn't be held as a criticism of the film. After all, some of the best horror films are comedies in disguise. Personally, my line on the subject of “scary” is this: anyone who has extolled the virtues of Saw or The Human Centipede, but has not seen Videodrome or American Werewolf in London, has no concept of true horror cinema.

However, that does bring us to the other issue some people have taken with the film: its self-awareness. My esteemed colleague, David “Balders” Baldwin, noted that Cabin not only isn't remotely scary, but also doesn't do anything that Scream didn't do 16 years ago. I have to say that I respectfully disagree; whilst Scream was one of the first films to apply the idea of post-modernist horror to cinema, it didn't really use any techniques other than self-reference to achieve this; thus, what you got was a lot of talky scenes of Neve Campbell or Jamie Kennedy or Skeet Ulrich expounding on the banality of formulaic horror movies… whilst playing those same genre tropes out almost without fail. Nowhere in Scream or its sequels does it attempt to subvert the genre on the scale that Cabin does, and its legacy is ultimately one of perpetuating the formula it originally set itself as being detached from. Cabin in the Woods evokes the formula of the horror genre without ever explicitly referring to it like it’s the Holy fucking Bible, so there are no Jamie Lee Curtis or Horror Movie Rules conversations; it’s just the backdrop of the world in which the characters live.

Also, I would further point out to Mr Baldwin that Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is also a post-modern horror comedy featuring a cabin in the woods but those facts doesn't make it inherently more original or fun than Cabin, and that Scream was itself a full 4 years after Whedon’s (admittedly heavily rewritten) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film came out in cinemas, so I'm prepared to argue that Scream’s creator Kevin Williamson is the imitator and not the originator, but that would be a stretch and a nitpick wrapped into one. The point is this is something fans of Joss Whedon have been rooting for a long time: a return to horror, and a return to the big screen. Whether you’re a horror fan or a Buffy fan or just a person who likes good movies, Cabin in the Woods is a juicy little movie with lots going on. Well done, Joss. You've earned it.

I drank the Kool-Aid. Nuff said.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Spitting Out the Demons Part III – Schlock and Roll

Part III – Schlock and Roll

To make up for my lack of columns recently, (mostly due to my college workload increasing by 500 per cent,) I've made the effort to give you a double dose of reviews, so for those eager to see what amounts to popcorn entertainment in my book, wade right in.

Darkman – It’s so very easy for people to hate on Sam Raimi based on the well intentioned but scatter-shot Spider-Man 3, but I for one think that he is still one of the few directors who really gets comic books, and that’s a very small list. My evidence – Darkman, the result of Raimi not being able to get the rights to make The Shadow, gives us Liam Neeson as a horrifically scarred scientist who uses artificial skin disguises to take vengeance on the yuppies and gangsters who mutilated him. Verdict: worth it for that one sentence alone.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night – In more comic book related news, here’s a film starring Brandon Routh and Sam Huntington (Superman Returns), directed by Kevin Munro (the CG-animated TMNT film), and based on an Italian horror comic no-one has heard of but was previously adapted as Dellamorte Dellamore in the 90s with Rupert Everett as the lead. This go-around, Dylan Dog (Routh) is a paranormal investigator based out of a monster-filled New Orleans (no surprises there), trying to juggle a murder case with a rising body count and help his buddy acclimatise to being one of the newly undead. The surprising news: it doesn't suck!

Super 8 – The more I think about this one, the less impressed I am by it, but I will allow that at the time I was swept along with it, which is basically what JJ Abrams does when at his best. The kid actors are all fun in that Goonies/Stand By Me way, especially Elle Fanning as a blatant wish fulfilment fantasy, and the adult cast (Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich) are all competent, but this is well-meaning but lightweight fluff at best, lazy riffing on the work of Steven Spielberg and the 70s age of film-making at worst.

The Devil’s Double – Nice to see director Lee Tamahori getting his teeth into something interesting that doesn't skimp on the prerequisite violence and gaudiness levels of his previous work. Dominic Cooper does double duty (not a lazy pun) in the performance of his career as both the bug-nuts son of Saddam Hussein, Uday, and the hapless soldier chosen to be his doppelgänger  What follows is a descent into the world of someone pretending to be the son of one of the most hated men in contemporary history, dodging assassination attempts and trying to keep alive and sane long enough to escape the regime.

The Rum Diary – Returning to directing after more than a decade, Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) and Johnny Depp bring us the long-gestating film adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s first novel. Paul Kemp (Depp), an alcoholic journalist, takes a job at a failing Puerto Rican newspaper and takes in the local colour, i.e. Amber Heard’s Chenault, her sleazy PR man boyfriend Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and his colleagues Lotterman, Sala (Michael Rispoli channelling Benicio Del Toro’s Doctor Gonzo) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi channelling Richard E. Grant’s Withnail). Not the acid-warped genius of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but a worthy effort all the same.

The Grey – This is the second Liam Neeson film to pop up in this column, which makes me think he’s determined to steal Chuck Norris’ status as the hardest bastard in popular culture. Not satisfied with beating up Nazis, mediaeval knights, Star Wars villains and Batman, he reteams with A-Team and Smokin’ Aces director Joe Carnahan for a movie in which he plays a security guard stranded by a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, trying to reach civilisation before he and the other survivors either freeze to death or get eaten by wolves. You’ll never guess how it ends… seriously.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Spitting Out the Demons Part II – Hiding Behind the Sofa

Spitting Out the Demons Part II – Hiding Behind the Sofa

So I figured, since I’m giving you the rundown of my movie backlog and trying to work on organising my reviews a bit more, I figured I’d write this particular blog on some of the horror films I’ve recently caught. So here we go, once again, with the review.

Fright Night (2011) – For the sake of transparency, I’ve not seen the original Fright Night, or its sequel, so my expectations of this particular film were middling to low at best. You know the set-up straight off: “kid finds out his neighbour’s a vampire, tries to get a stage magician to help…” Where this film surprised me were its writing (from Buffy alumnus Marti Noxon), strong performances from Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell, and that it actually had palpable tension in places, along with the many laughs gleaned from David Tennant goofing on Russell Brand. This, folks, is how you do it.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)This, sadly, is not how you do it. I really wanted to like this film, but at every turn it simply failed to gel. A competent cast including Rooney Mara, Thomas Dekker and Clancy Brown, a very well-cast if a little on-the-nose villain and a veteran (music video) director were hampered by shoddy scripting, shonky special effects and an utter lack of tension in any of the supposedly ‘scary’ sequences. And the editing – God, it’s like it was cut together with garden shears. An utter waste of my time and those involved.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) – And we’re back on the good foot again! To say the original is a classic, that George Romero is an artist, is almost too big an understatement. Almost. I squirmed, retched, jumped and covered my eyes more in this one film than every other horror film I’ve seen – combined. Special mention for Ken Foree as Peter (later of Kenan and Kel fame for all you tweeny boppers), David Emge as the best zombie victim ever, and make-up maestro Tom Savini’s cameo as a biker. What more is there to say, really? Romero. Zombies. Classic. Fucking. Nuff. Said.

I'm Raggedy Adams. Hear me roar.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Sweating Out the Demons – Part I

Sweating Out the Demons – Part I
Ugh. Okay, here’s the thing. I haven’t not been writing this blog on purpose. I haven’t even not been writing it because there’s been nothing going on worth blogging about. If anything there’s been too much going on. But since my usually hectic schedule became even more hectic, and my commitment to watching the entirety of Twin Peaks spiralled out of control, I’ve found my backlog of reviews getting bigger and bigger. So, since I haven’t got the time to provide my usual level of detail about why a film is good, I’m going to review every film I’ve watched over the last three months or so, and I’m going to do it in no more than 100 words per film, with a view of this becoming my regular format for all my reviews. So here goes.

Network – The closest thing to a definitive movie about the corrupting power of the media on any kind of intellectual dialogue or sense of individuality. Aging anchor-man Howard Beale (the late Peter Finch in an Oscar winning role) is fired from his network for having low ratings, only to be re-embraced as a “mad prophet of the airwaves” when he threatens to kill himself on camera and his rants become an overnight wet dream for the atavistic board of directors. William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall co-star, with masterful direction by Sidney Lumet and caustically funny scripting from Paddy Chayefsky.

Wow. That was easy enough. Let’s run with this a little.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil – One of the best horror comedies I’ve seen, and that includes Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead II. In the logical reverse of Deliverance, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine play two well-meaning but naïve hillbillies vacationing at their rundown cabin in the woods, and whose innocently intended words and actions are mistaken by a group of imbecilic college kid sterotypes for those of the stereotypically murderous and rapacious variety, resulting in the group being killed off in increasingly bizarre manners. This is what Scary Movie would be like if it was written by someone clever.

Hobo With a Shotgun – Umm, well, it’s got Rutger Hauer in it. He plays a hobo. With a shotgun. Okay, fine, it’s not the most complex movie on my list, but I happened to find it fun as a no-holds-barred Troma-esque splatterfest. But save for one very powerful scene involving Hauer soliloquising as only he can to a ward of newborn babies, this is Exact What It Says On The Tin territory: schlocky fun if you’re into gloriously over-the-top violence, not a lot for those who aren’t. Still, not bad for something that started out as a fake trailer.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


10. Splice

Days behind review schedule: Nearly a month. Ugh.

Alternate Title: “Grow, Dren, Grow!”

The Gist: The Fly gets raped by Hollow Man… in a good way. :S

Currently listening to: "There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

The Experience: As I said in my previous blog, never underestimate the value of friends who generously gift you with things you normally wouldn’t spend money on. In this case, I received a rather generous gift card of two months free movie rentals and streaming from Lovefilm (end of plug), and I’ve since been making it my business to catch up on as many of the films I hadn’t watched or needed to rewatch as possible. And so, we come to a film that I’ve been meaning to watch all year: Splice, a quirky science-fiction body horror film from Vincenzo Natali, who also directed the similarly quirky Canadian sci-fi horror film Cube.

If there is a moral at the heart of Splice, it’s that appearances, like Canadians, can be deceptive; sure to your face they’re obliging and friendly almost to the point of naiveté, but the second you turn your back they’re back to clubbing seals and selling tar sand as

starship fuel to the highest bidder, and I say that as someone with immense pride in their dual Anglo-Canadian citizenship. By a similar argument, if you create a completely new species of animal using all the best bits of other animals, chances are you’re going to get either a delicious Christmas dinner or some unexpected side-effects.

That, unsurprisingly, is what happens when husband and wife scientists Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley decide to take their genetic research to the next level by creating an animal-human hybrid, despite their corporate sponsors not really having the stomach for yet another weird mutant test-tube baby on site. So, like any good scientists, they decide to go ahead and do it anyway, because hell, you only live once, right? What emerges from the artificial womb starts off as an angry-looking sting-ray thing, which in turn sheds its skin to form a weird fleshy bipedal hamster thing, before rapidly developing into an adorable little bald girl with hyperactive intelligence (fuelled by what I can only assume are the Canadian equivalent of Tic-tacs) and legs that do not obey the laws of physics. While all this is going on, Adrien and Sarah aka Clive and Elsa go through weird marriage issues, which are amplified by the fact that their rapidly aging “child” has a barbed tail.

Tolstoy said that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, and Clive and Elsa’s marital problems make the Simpsons look like the fucking Waltons. Over the course of the compressed lifespan of Dren, as the little bundle of mutant chimera joy comes to be christened, both parents oscillate between loving and wanting to kill her, particularly unnerving given Clive’s sudden shift from infanticidal pragmatism to some (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!) freaky-ass incest.

So yeah, it’s one of those “like The Fly but” movies, in this case “like The Fly but with more tits”. There’s really not a lot I can say without ruining the film, as many of the sequences actually do exceed my ability to do them justice, except to say that some of the more icky moments of the movie are not purely due to gore. Vincenzo Natali seems to be determined to be the David Cronenburg of the 2000s, and Christ on a cucumber does he hammer that impression home with this film, along with some very troubling home truths about parenting.

 Okay, look, that last paragraph feels like damning it with faint praise, but the simple fact is this is another one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, saying that a film is “like” another is fine as long as it stands on its own merits, and Splice more than justifies its own existence. And, since it’s now out to rent or own on DVD and can be streamed through programs like Lovefilm (I swear I’m not being paid to plug them), there’s not really any excuse for you not picking it up immediately. But then of course I’m one of those people who doesn’t “get” modern horror films, so maybe you’ll be happier rewatching the Saw films back to back, you craven douche.

I drank the Kool-Aid. So should you.