30 October 2010

This List Is Your List, This List Is My List

Unless you're new to this blog (in which case, welcome!) you already know that I've become an enthusiastic follower of Roger Ebert this year.  I don't always agree with his position on a given subject or movie, but I generally find his essays thought provoking.  Tonight, he shared an article from the Wall Street Journal characterizing his contempt for movie lists, and it kicked off some back and forth in the comments section.  I'd been meaning to work up a post along these lines anyway, so it's fortuitous to have this as my impetus.

Lists are often misused and more often misunderstood.  The general idea is that, to make it onto any given list a subject has to meet certain criteria.  You wouldn't put sneakers on your grocery list, for instance, because sneakers aren't sold at grocery stores.  The more specific the theme of the list, the more exclusionary criteria there are.  That's an objective list, though, and does not suit our purposes here because it's hard to have an opinion about an objective list.  They're merely aggregations of data.

Subjective lists, though, are the source of consternation.  Every December magazines and websites compile their obligatory, best-of-the-year lists.  Readers always object to inclusions, omissions and rankings, but that's the whole point: to inspire discourse.  Yes, a lot of times that discourse is vapid, but how is that any more different than any other editorial?  Let's say someone finds my little blog here and reads my review of a book or movie and their entire response is, "I loved it, too!" or "You're crazy, that movie sucked."  Is that any more helpful or insightful than "You left out [insert title]" or "[Insert title] should have been higher?"

Ergo, being a list does not mandate that all responses will be such conversational dead ends.  If a reader articulates why a given inclusion/exclusion/ranking felt out of place, then hasn't the list done its job of provoking discourse?  There's nothing stopping lists from attracting that level of response, and I'm sure there are plenty of letters written every December that are just as engaging and passionate as any formal, non-list review.  It seems to me a mistake to be so dismissive of lists because they happen to be lists.

Readers of this blog will also recall my adoration of Flickchart and ICheckMovies, both movie-centric websites dedicated to lists.  Flickchart asks visitors to choose between two randomly selected movies.  You can use whatever criteria you see fit to make your choice, and you can take as long as you need.  Once you've made a decision, the site ranks (or re-ranks) the selection you made, until you've got a fairly accurate depiction of your personal favorite movies.

The genius is that when you're presented with choosing between The Seventh Seal and A History of Violence, you've got to examine two very different works from a variety of perspectives. In the former, a returning crusader prolongs his demise by engaging Death in a game of chess in the hopes that he can find some satisfactory meaning in dying. In the latter, a former mob hit man's past tracks him to the small town where he has reinvented himself as a family man who runs a diner. One is a philosophical rumination on life, death, God, love and fear; the other is a gripping, gritty drama that tests the limits of devotion. However you decide, it's not easy and it's the few minutes you spend thinking it over that is the real meaning of Flickchart; not wherever either movie is ranked once you've made your decision.

The appeal of ICheckMovies is that they compile lists from various critics (including Mr. Ebert's ongoing "Greatest Movies"), websites, institutions, etc. and you get to check off the ones you've seen.  Should anyone accept these lists as definitive in any way?  Of course not; that would be obscenely subservient.  But they are fairly diverse, covering a healthy range of eras, genres and milieus and are a fantastic starting point for fans wishing to delve into film.  I'm still very much a novice at exploring even the acclaimed classics, much less the niche films that the pretentious cinema snobs insist are so much more important.  It's nice to have a sort of introductory guide to those movies to which I've had no real exposure.

To my way of thinking, then, both these websites demonstrate a positive use for lists.  One is an impetus for considering films in a comparative way; the other is a handy way to begin exploring the medium.  But then, it's worth noting that I'm a nobody.  I don't have to endure the constant deluge of requests for lists that floods Mr. Ebert's in box on a daily basis.  I will say that the one point on which he and I strongly agree is that too often these lists exist for no more apparent reason than to drive up page views for websites by creating an individual page for each entry.  It's obnoxious, I rarely follow through any list presented in such a fashion and I can promise you that whenever I post a list in this blog, it'll all be in one place.  (Unless, of course, it's something like my 2010 DVD Talk Horror Challenge weekly lists, because I've included mini-reviews for each film and having all that in one post would be ridiculously unwieldy.)

28 October 2010

"The Tale of One Bad Rat" by Bryan Talbot

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Bryan Talbot
Trade Paperback published: 26 December 1995
Originally published as The Tale of One Bad Rat #1-4
Cover Price: $14.95
136 pages

As was the case with Jeff Smith's Bone and Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat was a work in the comic book/graphic novel medium that had caught my attention years ago during its original publication but for one reason or another I never quite got around to reading it.  Originally serialized in a four-issue mini-series, I think it reads better here in a singular volume.

Teenage Helen has run away from home, tethered to sanity by her affinity for rats and Beatrix Potter.  It doesn't take long before we learn of the horrors at home, and Talbot makes clear in his afterword that much of what Helen says and experiences was lifted directly from his research into abused children and runaways.  Everywhere Helen turns, there's someone attempting to exploit or attack her and while it becomes overwhelming to read, it's a reminder how vulnerable young runaways really are.  Readers should have no problem identifying the authenticity of Helen's tale, and those who have not had these experiences will likely feel alternating waves of squeamishness and gratitude, tempered by humility.

The running theme of Helen's adoration of Beatrix Potter also gives the story much of its structure; she follows the same path that the famed author once traversed, leaving her sheltered life for the open country and her Hill Top home.  It's not a shallow case of celebrity worship; Helen recognizes in Potter's life story a lot of herself, torn between the passion for creativity and the oppression of a loveless family.  Talbot assures us he devoted himself to diligently capturing the physical places as they exist, and again we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of his work.  Visually, One Bad Rat is gorgeous--and given the darkness of its subject matter, it almost had to be.

It's difficult to imagine in a world where Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been a top rated series on TV for years now, but The Tale of One Bad Rat was nearly earth-shattering when originally published.  Underground comics had explored dark themes before; certainly Art Spiegelman's Maus ranks as a chilling depiction of the Holocaust.  But this was published by Dark Horse Comics, by then established as one of the most prominent independent publishers in the comic book industry.  Wizard spotlighted it in their pages, the most exposure the industry had to offer at the time.  Trust me; even readers who had no desire to ever read this knew it was out there and what it was about.

And that was really the whole point: to chip away at the willful denial mainstream society had at the time about acknowledging the Helens of the world.  It seems almost simplistic, given how willing our mainstream entertainment has become with such content in our prime time TV procedural dramas and the proliferation of organizations who have used the Internet to draw attention to these issues.  I wish I could say it hadn't taken me until nearly turning 31 to read this important work, that I'd had the wherewithal to open its pages fifteen years ago.  I didn't.  I can only say that I have finally read it, and that I implore you to do so as well.  It may not be comfortable or entertaining, but it is every bit as important and well done as I was told it was.

27 October 2010

Silver Screen Attractions

Going to see a movie in a theater can be a costly, frustrating hassle.  Even without concessions, my wife and I can blind buy a DVD for the cost of attending a screening these days.  If we like the movie, great; now we own it.  If we don't enjoy it, we can always trade it in and recoup some of the money.  Once you buy a theater ticket, that money's gone.  The best you can show for it is a ticket stub.  If you need to dash off to the bathroom (as I tend to do, thank you, Crohn's disease), there's the embarrassment of walking past people and then there's the passage of the film you miss because no one's going to pause the screening for you.  And, of course, there's always the chance that someone is going to violate the once-respected norms of attending a theatrical screening by taking a call on their cell, or texting, or carrying on a conversation with their buddy.

There's always someone, it seems, who is intent on recreating Mystery Science Theater 3000 wherever he goes.  (I say, "he" and not, "he or she" because, let's face it, women don't generally crack a lot of jokes for the benefit of an uninterested audience.)  Go to see an all-audiences movie, and there's the risk of dealing with the laissez-faire parents who believe their ticket admission included free daycare for 90 minutes.  Go to the restricted film, and there are bound to be the just-turned-16 crowd who are there to celebrate being at an R rated movie more than they're there to actually watch the movie.  And let's not even go into the 3D fad, with its stupid, expensive glasses.

It may surprise you, if you've read this far, to know that I am wholeheartedly a fan of seeing films on the big screen.  For all the cost and hassle, I maintain that the difference between seeing a movie in a theater vs. seeing it at home is akin to going on safari vs. going to the zoo.  The theater is the natural environment for films.  Movies are filmed with deliberate gags and stunts all timed to excite and tweak an audience.  Watch a comedy in silence sometime and see how much silence is actually put into the movie following key lines.  That's there so that a live audience can laugh without missing the next line.  Contrast that silence with the reaction of a live audience, where laughter begets laughter.  I've watched many a comedy both with a crowd and by myself, and there's no question that movies are funnier with other people laughing.

"Wait a minute; the movie is the same whether one person laughs or a hundred laugh," you say.  True.  Remember that bit about whether a falling tree makes a noise if no one is around to hear it?  We've always said yes, that the noise is not dependent upon an audience.  What we failed to address was what effect that falling tree has on different audiences.  For instance, if you're in the woods by yourself and a tree randomly falls down, that would be pretty damn spooky.  If, however, you're with your buddies and it falls on one of them it has the potential to be hilarious (provided no one is seriously injured).  It's not the presence of noise that matters, but rather the effect of the tree having fallen at all.

In the Louisville area, we're fortunate to have Baxter Avenue Theaters, and their biweekly midnight movie series.  You know all those concerns I listed about seeing a movie with a live audience?  Toss them all (except the part about needing to run to the bathroom during the movie).  These screenings are all of older, cult favorite films that draw dedicated fans.  No one shows up for the sake of having somewhere to be; these crowds are there for the movie.

"What's the big deal about seeing an old movie in a theater?" you ask.  Has anyone told you you ask a lot of questions?  Anyway, there are a few reasons why this is appealing.  Firstly, as I said, the theater is a film's natural environment.  Seeing a movie there is like seeing an exotic animal in the wild.  Today, there's the Great Escape Oldham 8 in LaGrange, and 15 minutes away, across the county line is Tinseltown Louisville, a Cinemark complex.  But when I grew up the nearest movie theater was Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road in Louisville, a good 40 minutes away.  Mom wasn't big on movies; she took us to animated features and things targeted at families, but she had no desire to take us to more mainstream fare.  I'd go to school and hear about classmates being taken to see Ghostbusters, and while they intrigued me, I never bothered to make a point of asking to see them because I knew it wasn't in the cards.  I finally got to see it last Saturday at Baxter, and my inner child felt like he was finally catching up with his peers twenty years later.

When the Oldham 8 opened in 1995 I couldn't have been happier.  I was old enough to go to movies on my own, and having a theater that close negated the fact I couldn't yet drive.  Many a Friday night, my friends and I would get together for the last matinee-priced showing (before 6:00), then go traipsing around LaGrange.  Often, we'd wind up back at my house after stopping off to rent some more movies, and we'd stay up all hours of the night with our mini-marathons.  We had a few that stand out even today, but by and large it was the theatrical screening earlier in the night that was the highlight of my evening.  I'd go see movies I didn't even know anything about just for the sake of seeing something new in those days.  I had no idea what to expect with Event Horizon; even without seeing it since that night I can still vividly recall most of it.  I have no doubt that I enjoyed Paranormal Activity so much last year because the audience we saw it with was completely into it.  Waves of squeamish tension would crescendo with gasps, followed by embarrassed self-conscious chuckling.

I loved it in those early days, because they had a screen in the lobby, just above the ticket-taking stand, that kept looping trailers for forthcoming features.  The screen is still there, but it's been years since it's been used.  I'll never forget standing in line in 1996 and looking up to see the teaser trailer for Star Trek: First Contact.  I had to be nudged to keep walking in the line, because I was mesmerized.  It would be another three years before mainstream audiences stopped dismissing trailers as a forced irritant and began to actively seek them out (thank you, Star Wars: Episode I).

It's funny when I look at the list of movies I've seen in a theater.  Several of my all-time favorite movies aren't on that list, because I came to them after they'd had their run.  Some of those were released before my time; others were the movies my classmates got to see that I didn't.  It kills me that I've seen Meet the Fockers on a big screen, but not Lawrence of Arabia.  Thankfully, Baxter is there to give me a second chance at some of those older movies.  Two years ago, I finally got to see Dick Tracy after years of watching it on VHS and later DVD.  Last year, I got to see Batman, which I did see during its initial release.  But it's a favorite of mine, and I found there was a special little thrill in seeing it with a live audience just as into it as I was.

Which brings me to the other appeal of these midnight screenings: not only is the audience attentive and enthusiastic, but it often includes people seeing the movie for the first time.  We've taken my cousin to a handful of screenings, and there was a bit of a thrill for me to be the one to introduce her to Who Framed Roger Rabbit in a theatrical setting.  It was released seven years before she was born, so it was a rare opportunity for her to see it as I got to see it as a youth.  That same night, there was a young mother with her little girl, and while I don't know if the child had seen the movie at home or not, her mother was clearly there for the sake of sharing with her daughter a movie-going experience that she'd had years before.  It's a way to cheat the passage of time, and share the experience with a younger generation.  I hope one day my cousin will find herself reminiscing about these screenings and value the experience as much as I have.

The Sopranos DVD Special Features

This post is probably going to appear pretty random, but this is one of those instances where I'm treating the blog as a repository for trivial lists and the like that I may wish to refer to later.  You're, of course, welcome to make whatever use of this you see fit.

I love The Sopranos; enough that I even ordered HBO just to follow it in its final seasons, after getting caught up initially by ordering the DVDs from Netflix.  I was pretty underwhelmed by the DVD release special features, though.  There's a pretty comprehensive video interview of David Chase conducted by Peter Bogdanovich on the first season, but the remainder of the few supplements were brief fluff pieces (excluding, of course, twenty scattered episodic audio commentary tracks).  Here's the list:

The Complete First Season
David Chase Interview (1:17:30)
Family Life (4:12)
Meet Tony Soprano (3:30)

The Complete Second Season
The Real Deal (4:51)
A Sit-Down with the Sopranos (13:36)

The Complete Third Season
Untitled featurette (3:46)

Season Six, Part II
Making Cleaver (8:22)
The Music of The Sopranos (16:29)

Notice that seasons four, five and six part I didn't have any supplements aside from commentary tracks.  This list does not include text-based features such as lists of awards or the "previously on..." or season recap montages.

24 October 2010

2010 Horror Challenge - Week Three

17 October
The Lost Boys
A longtime favorite of my wife's, and a first time viewing for me. I see it as the missing link between The Goonies and Twilight, and clearly taking its cues from the "Thriller" music video; not a lot of substance, but plenty of style. The 80s may not have aged well, but Bo Welch's production design still looks great after 23 years.

Night of the Living Dead
I've seen it before, several years ago, but I'm more familiar with the 1990 remake. Tonight I was reminded of how much I'd forgotten and was surprised by how much tension is really sustained throughout the movie. A lot of this has to do with the periodic newscast updates; they're played perfectly straight, as a local broadcast from the period would have covered the story. And give credit to Duane Jones, whose performance as Ben really carries the movie.

18 October
Night of the Living Dead
My first time watching the original and remake back-to-back, and it was rather revealing. On a lot of levels, the remake is an improvement over its predecessor. And yet, I felt like I was watching a movie during the remake; it felt less organic than the original. It was almost like going from a documentary to a dramatization, where the point of the latter is to hit the essential points of the story rather than to explore its depths. Still, I think it holds up fairly well 20 years later on its own merits.

Night of the Living Dead colorized version with Mike Nelson commentary
Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 recorded this track in 2003 for the colorized version of the film. He goes to the "This is what life is like in Wisconsin" well too many times early on, but my chief complaint is that he gets on the movie for its slow pace and lack of anything dynamic occurring for long stretches, but doesn't really punch up the movie with any humor himself.

And since this version was colorized, I'll go ahead and note that the colorization (why don't we call it, "coloring?") was garish. Way too many pastels, which I personally found entirely incongruous with not only the feel of the film, but it just wasn't a plausible decorating aesthetic for an old farm house. Unless, of course, that had been one fabulous farmer.

19 October
Penny Dreadful
A variation on the classic psychotic hitchhiker story, Penny and her therapist are stalked by a guy in the mountains. The movie never bothers to be more complicated than that, and the majority of the film takes place in the car which is quickly trapped between two trees (somehow). The segments of the killer toying with Penny are genuinely creepy, but the rest of the film is pretty weak. It clocks in at just around 90 minutes...which is probably 20 minutes longer than it needed to be.

One of our consignors brought this into my family's shop several years ago and it never sold so I wound up snagging it. Never got around to watching it until now. Anyway, a shady professor has recruited six college coeds to accompany him on an illegal dig around Indian burial grounds. Naturally, they awaken some dark spirits and violence ensues. The premise is actually interesting, and for the most part the cast is surprisingly good; no one ever went over the top and they're fairly believable characters. The story is rather predictable, but in a movie like this that's part of the fun--you know what's coming, and the movie gives it to you.

20 October
Another first time viewing for me of one of my wife's favorites. The story is pretty straightforward: a group of violent "Crites" has stolen a spaceship and landed in Kansas. This is clearly a product of the 80s; the hero of the film is a precocious young boy whose idea of fun revolves around making his own firecrackers. There are some obvious sexist overtones; dad keeps getting attacked, but keeps persevering, while mom largely screams and is in a daze for most of the film after taking a singular quill to the throat, and the son is the brave one, while his older sister contributes absolutely nothing to the survival of the family. Still, the film holds up fairly well--at least, for someone from its target audience generation.

Broken Lizard's Club Dread
The comedy troupe turns in its take on the slasher film, and it's played a lot more straight than you'd think. It's not so much a horror comedy as it simply a self-aware slasher film. Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton), a Jimmy Buffett-type singer, has established his own hedonistic island resort in Costa Rica...and now the staff is being targeted for vicious killings. There are enough red herrings to keep you guessing, and plenty of eye candy between acts of violence.

Jeepers Creepers
My wife and I watched this together years ago when we first started seeing each other and it was creepy as hell then. Seven years later, I can report it's still pretty creepy. A brother & sister (Justin Long & Gina Philips) are harassed on a country road by a deranged driver. The effects are great, and the tension escalates until its rather unsettling crescendo.

While checking our TV listings tonight, I happened upon this just before it started and decided to check it out. It's an animated take on the Frankenstein story from the perspective of an Igor with ambitions to be an evil scientist. He's creating his own monster--in violation of social norms--which he hopes will win him acclaim at the annual Evil Science Fair. It's an enjoyable (though predictable) romp with a great cast---especially Steve Buscemi as the immortal and bleak Scamp.

21 October
Jeepers Creepers II
Despite owning this on DVD for years, neither my wife nor I had gotten around to viewing it until tonight. It picks up four days after the first film, with a high school basketball team passing through The Creeper's kill zone on the final day of his alloted 23 day eating period. The effects are still impressive, but the film suffers from over-exposure of The Creeper and the lack of compelling story amongst his potential victims. I likened it to The Lost World, which lacked the charisma of Jurassic Park and tried to get by entirely on dinosaurs running amok.

An ancient creature once placated by the sacrifice of Greek virgins has been dormant for centuries until Frye (James Earl Jones) goes and unwittingly releases it to prey on the locals. The beast effects are terribly dated (the film is from 1981), and the story is average at best. Still, the cast gives it what they've got and that's what keeps it from being a colossal waste of 82 minutes.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens
A first time viewing, and for the most part I was thrilled to find it lived up to its reputation. Max Shrek is genuinely menacing as Count Orlock, and the film is very dynamic; much more so than, say, Tod Browning's production of Dracula. The only complaint I have is that the version we streamed from Netflix (touted as, "The Original Version," no less) featured a New Age sounding score that was clearly recorded recently and entirely incongruous with the film itself.

22 October
Shadow of the Vampire
I saw this during its theatrical run and loved it, and it's a shame I didn't see Nosferatu until tonight. They did an astounding job recreating the sets and shots of the original film. For the uninformed, this is a fictionalized account of the production of Nosferatu in which Max Shrek (Willem Dafoe) is presented not as an actor, but as an actual vampire who preys upon the cast and crew while an obsessed F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) insists on getting his shots.

Easily my favorite scene in the whole film comes when Shrek shares his thoughts on Bram Stoker's "Dracula," saying the novel made him sad. Asked to elaborate, he launches into this unexpected soliloquy on how pathetic it is for the immortal count to have to receive his guest with no servants, having to do all those little things himself despite not having bothered with them in centuries. It's absolutely brilliant.

23 October
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter
Westerns and Horror: two great genres that go great together! Jesse James and Hank Tracy are on the run (and believed dead) in South America and wind up ensnared by the grandchildren of the famed mad scientist, who are trying to recreate his twisted experiments with creating life. A B-movie through and through, with plot holes and obviously cheap production design, the highlights for me were seeing Jim Davis in a role other than as Jock Ewing and the eye candy of Estelita Rodriguez as Juanita.

Thriller "The Grim Reaper"
William Shatner stars as a guy whose aunt is a very successful mystery writer, who just bought a cursed painting of the grim reaper. Fifteen of its seventeen previous owners met with unexpected, violent deaths and the Shat is there to persuade his aunt to divest herself of it. The cast is great, the story is taut and marked with self-aware humor, and it's enough to make me want to explore the rest of this series that I'd never heard of until recently.

17 October 2010

From Star Trek to Jurassic Park - The Making of a Geek

In 1991, Paramount Pictures went all-out to promote not only the December release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but the 25th anniversary of the franchise in general.  During this year long celebration was when I became a Trekkie.  (Or do we prefer Trekker?  I lose track.)  I had paid no attention whatsoever to Star Trek before that year.  It didn't take me long to begin exploring not just the reruns and previous five feature films, but the comic books and novels, as well.  Those lured me into Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers stores on a biweekly basis, and I was fascinated by how many non-fiction works there were dedicated to the history of the series.  Actor memoirs, sure, but books dedicated to the behind-the-scenes aspects of producing the show; even technical manuals about the fictitious science upon which the U.S.S. Enterprise functions all offered eye-opening glimpses into this world.

Then in late November, a two hour TV special called Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Special aired and it changed my life.  Hosted by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, it traced the genesis of the series from Gene Roddenberry's "wagon train to the stars" sales all the way to an extended trailer for The Undiscovered Country, which opened 6 December.  Interviews with principle cast and crew were cut with clips from assorted episodes and the previous five feature films and while there was nothing controversial or mind-blowing to be found, I'd never seen anything quite like it.

On a certain level, it was almost like an infomercial for Star Trek, but without anyone ever saying, "Call now!" every ten minutes.  I was surprised to learn that individual episodes of Star Trek were sold on VHS (stocked and sold at Suncoast Motion Picture Company, located in most of the malls around here), but I never expected 25th Anniversary Special to be given a home video release.  In 1992, though, it happened and I had to own it.  It was the perfect companion piece to my nascent Star Trek VHS library, and from that moment forward I have never felt complete if such a release existed and was absent from my library.

For Christmas that year, I received the Star Wars Trilogy VHS box set.  I had to own From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga.  Had to.  I couldn't very well have all six Star Trek movies accompanied by 25th Anniversary Special, and have my Star Wars box set missing its counterpart.  I found I loved From Star Wars to Jedi even more.  Everything from models being filmed to George Lucas sharing insights into how various story elements evolved was right there.  There was even a segment featuring John Williams discussing his iconic scores.  (In fairness, though, it only had three films to cover whereas the Trek special had five films and a cumulative 200 episodes to explore.)

I grew up with people who stopped watching movies the moment the end credits began to roll; I even knew some who would fast forward through the opening credits if something wasn't happening on the screen to interest them.  I was comforted by the existence of the Star Trek and Star Wars specials.  They meant that other people were interested in knowing about what went into actually making a movie, from the creative side of storytelling to the nuts and bolts of set design and costuming.  There's a segment where Mark Hamill is being fitted with his black Jedi outfit and he observes that it's a dark version of his white costume from Star Wars; it's a symbolic thing that might be obvious but at that point in my life there was something profound about realizing that such a level of thought went into the clothes people wore in movies.  I'd never paid any attention to such things; and, anyway, who was there in my world to discuss such things with, if I had paid attention?

The third in this triumvirate of behind-the-scenes specials was released in 1995: The Making of Jurassic Park, which explored everything about that film from Michael Crichton's original novel to the most recent theories in paleontology that guided the film's production design.  What I loved most about this one is that it focused even less on the actors than the other two specials I've mentioned.  No offense to actors, but by 1995 my eyes were wide open to the fact that the stars were just one component of film and I longed for a glimpse into the other, overlooked, departments responsible for creating a movie.  I was pleased to learn that Universal included this special as a bonus feature on their Jurassic Park DVD release.

Which brings us to the modern era of DVD and Blu-ray.  The last decade has seen a home video market dominated by "Two Disc Special Editions" chock full of behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary tracks and the like.  For the adolescent I was, this is a dream come true.  I know the majority of fans rarely, if ever, watch any of this stuff (except for the occasional blooper reel or alternate ending) but for someone like me it's a godsend.  I'll never be part of the movie industry; I've always had a fantasy that I could probably knock out a screenplay worth filming but I don't really believe it'll ever happen.  These behind-the-scenes specials offer an access to the medium otherwise entirely unavailable to people like me, and while many of them are fairly generic, every now and again one comes along and is genuinely fascinating.

You may also be interested in "VHS Rental Memories."  I would certainly be interested in any thoughts or experiences you might wish to share!

16 October 2010

Sketch: Either Miranda Lambert or Jennifer Aniston as a Vampire

So today I was thinking about dashing off another sketch ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is still in the planning stage) and I was also thinking about Miranda Lambert.  Her persona is predicated partly on the sense that she's as potentially dangerous as she is alluring.  It really wasn't much of a stretch from there to imagine her as a vampire.  I've never attempted her likeness before, though, and the final product bears a much stronger resemblance to Jennifer Aniston.  Go figure.  I was tinkering with my PhotoSuite after scanning in the sketch and really liked the pink flooding effect.  It adds a sort of 80s kitsch factor, I think.

Miranda Lambert?  Jennifer Aniston?  Someone else?

2010 Horror Challenge - Week Two

10 October
The Darkroom
We picked this up at Half Price Books a while back because it was 1) cheap and 2) starred Reed Diamond, whom I've liked since first seeing him on Homicide: Life on the Street.

In this, he's spent 15 years in an institution with amnesia, having been found wandering a dirt road with blood on his hands. After receiving a dosage of an experimental drug, he's flooded with snippets of violent images. A psychotic reaction, or memories of things he may have done? Those scenes are pretty solid; they reminded us of the Scarecrow drug sequences in 
Batman Begins, only with more gore. The feature itself clocks in just shy of 90 minutes, and the truth is it could probably stand to shed about 5 to 10 minutes to make it less predictable.

Horror Express
The A/V quality was terrible; it looked like someone had taped it off a TV broadcast, and this gave it more of a feel of a sophisticated play than an actual film. Still, the premise was really solid and compelling, and the performances were (mostly) mood-appropriate. The premise is that Lee is bringing back from China a 2 million year old fossil of some kind of ape/man being he believes to be the missing link. It awakens on the train ride through Russia and goes on a killing spree. There are some interesting science vs. religion debates--made somewhat smugly, given that it's set in pre-Bolshevik Russia--and the creature's whole story just kept turning out to be more interesting each time something was learned. Loved it.

11 October
The Terror
A young Jack Nicholson plays a French soldier in 1806 separated from his regiment. He stumbles into a mess where Boris Karloff has been dwelling in a decaying castle with just his servant and is now being haunted by his dead wife. It was alright; Nicholson seems like he's acting through a pain treatment program the entire time; very tenuous and wooden, like he just wanted to get through his scenes and back into a chair. The A/V quality wasn't particularly great, either.

The Sixth Sense
I'd heard this was good back in 1999 when it was released, but I was pretty busy then and didn't get to see it during its theatrical run. By the time it hit home video in 2000, the final twist had already been spoiled for me by any number of people who felt it was their manifest destiny to ruin the first vaguely inventive story in mainstream film in ages. So, I kept deferring getting around to it, not really wanting to reach that moment where knowing what I knew would ruin the movie.

It didn't take long to reach that point, but what I discovered is something that I would have found true even if I'd been entirely unaware: that while the film really isn't much on the Horror side, it's an extremely well acted drama. I can easily appreciate all the acclaim Haley Joel Osment earned at the time; his performance stays within the realm of believability throughout and he even injects some authentic humor at times. It's not a movie that will keep me up at night, but I did find it touching and it's been a long while since I found my heart breaking for movie characters.

12 October
Dawn of the Dead
I'd heard this one was pretty good, and holy damn did it deliver! From the unique pre-credits camera work to the coda played over the end credits, I loved every minute of this 2004 remake. The cast is great, and the characters are all recognizably believable people. I just know that any random assortment of zombie survivors is going to include a guy like Michael, who feels entitled to deride everyone else or a C.J. whose territorialism supersedes any sense of compassion. Everyone's motives are clear, and identifiable and that's what drives the movie. I could easily associate each of them with my own friends and family, and was counting down the moments until it became necessary for someone to shoot my uncle. The zombies are extremely well done here, the music is great (I'll never hear Cash's "The Man Comes Around" the same way again) and the pacing is brisk. Maybe there's a way this film could be better, but I don't know how.

13 October
For the most part, these short stories are cheesy and dated, but I really liked two of the five: "Tide You Over" featuring Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson, and "Creeping Up on You" where a cutthroat business tycoon with O.C.D. is threatened by cockroaches. I probably would have recommended separating the Hal Holbrook segment and further developed it as its own feature but they didn't ask me. I was all of three at the time, so maybe that's for the best. George Romero and Stephen King seem to know what they're doing.

Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride
I was reassured I needn't have seen the preceding Hammer "Dracula" films, and warned that this one was flawed: both proved true. The story is rather ho-hum: a handful of dedicated investigators (whose organization escaped my notice) have traced a group of prominent pillars of society to a singular Satanic cult. And since this is a "Dracula" movie, naturally the age old vampire turns out to be involved with the cult. Very dated, and somewhat tired.

16 October
We traded in a bunch of stuff at Half Price Books and found the "Roger Corman Classics" release of this brand new for $3.00 so we took a chance. It was exactly as advertised, which is to say a whole lot of fun. The humor was great, there was just enough real tension to keep us interested between each mauling and there's even some commentary on the military industrial complex and increasingly outdated views of masculinity. Loved every one of these 92 minutes.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
John Barrymore is perfect in both roles; his Jekyll is perfectly dull and his Hyde seethes with unseemliness. The rest of the cast is clearly overshadowed, and it's always hard to criticize silent film acting anyway. I was surprised to hear sound effects and even some crowd noise; were these part of the original film, or have they been added after the fact? They were startling at times, distracting at others.

15 October 2010

The Strange Case of Dr. DSL and Mr. "Broadband Link Is Not Currently Available"

At first, I thought it was just the router being finicky.  Then the next night, it repeated.  By Sunday, I'd noticed it was happening at the same time each night when, at 7:35, the reassuring green light gave way to its angry, flashing red counterpart.  I spent half an hour or so on the phone with tech support, but as it was a weekend there were only so many things she could try.  Monday being Columbus Day (I hope you celebrated by either contracting an STI or stealing someone's gold), I didn't bother calling them back, but there was a storm a-brewin' and it got darker around 6:30 that night.  You guessed it: down went the Internet connection.

A technician came out yesterday and inspected the lines, changed the main filter and said he couldn't find anything wrong.  I was afraid of that, but I'd suspected he wouldn't.  He came just before 5:00...while the sun was still shining.  In the middle of posting some thoughts in a thread on DVD Talk, the connection froze.  I looked up and saw the red light.  I looked outside and discovered night had fallen.  I called AT&T.  Two hours later, we'd scheduled another technician for tonight, between 6:00 PM and 9:00 PM.  We'll see what happens.

Tuesday night's troubleshooter suggested the problem stems from a dying streetlight near the house.  It sounded kind of funny to me, but then I realized that the streetlight in question comes on when it gets dark.  It may be mere coincidence but it's an awfully suspicious one, I think.  Yesterday's technician, when told of this theory, laughed and dismissed that idea as, "lame."  Of course, he wasn't around to witness the transformation of Dr. DSL into Mr. "Broadband Link Is Not Currently Available."

09 October 2010

2010 Horror Challenge - Week One

1 October
Bram Stoker's Dracula
On the whole, I liked it. It feels like an early 90s movie, right down to the ballad over the end credits. The first half hewed pretty closely to the source material and other adaptations I've seen; then it became a bit adventuresome. Kudos for playing up the eroticism, always a significant element of the "Dracula" mythology. I could have done without some of the jerky, first-person cinematography, though.

Also, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins seemed to each affect different accents at various times; I can only assume that those sequences were shot together, and their voice work changed over the course of the production subtly enough no one really caught it. There are a couple times where Oldman sounds like his villain from 
The Fifth Element, which was really distracting.

2 October

Nightmare Man
Great self-aware humor, and some great suspense. (At least for me, since I have had a lifelong recurring nightmare of being in a house somewhere, stalked from the outside by someone I can't see.)

In 2008, my wife and I attended the Fright Night Horror Fest in Louisville, and we went to the awards show. Tiffany Shepis was in attendance, and while I don't recall now what she won, she injected the entire evening with a lot of genuine enthusiasm. Very delightful, and I wish I'd known who she was at the time!

She-Wolf of London
Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is happily engaged, but soon discovers a problem: the famed "Allenby Curse," through which she suspects she has begun to become a She-Wolf. I won't spoil anything for you, but the film feels much more like a primitive episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent than a Monster movie. Hearing so many obviously American voices in what is supposed to be London only cheapens the film--though that's not to say the performances themselves are bad. By the end of the 62 minutes, one wonders whether there wasn't something else in the Universal vault more worthy of inclusion here.

Based upon real events, a trio of young guys head across the border into Mexico and get mixed up with a local cartel run by a guy whose religious beliefs appear to have been inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Interesting as a crime drama more than an outright horror film, but the performances and pacing were pretty solid. And that undercurrent of reality makes it rather compelling.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
My wife was excited to introduce me to this one, it having been a favorite of hers for years. I loved the humor; even though it's in much the same vain as, say, Airplane!, which I didn't find all that amusing. Perhaps the complete absurdity of the tomatoes was more to my liking. Perhaps it was the appearance by the Famous San Diego Chicken. Whatever it was, I enjoyed the movie.

3 October
The Dark
Ah, The Dark. You had me at, "Starring Maria Bello." Here, she's brought her daughter to her ex-husband (Sean Bean) in Wales, where the daughter drowns...and releases from the dead a little girl of comparable age with a dark past. The performances are pretty intense at times; Bello really creates some convincing urgency and panic. Nice dash of Welsh mythology for good measure. I'm only terrified of two things, and one of them is water at night, so this one really spooked me.

WereWolf of London
WereWolf of London pre-dates The Wolf Man by six years and is the only title here "presented" by Carl Laemmle, the Universal executive responsible for shepherding the rest of their Monster franchises. It's really the most cohesive of the four films collected here, perhaps because it was produced prior to the rise of crossover sequels in which featured Monsters interact with one another. Anyway, botanist Wilford Glendon (Henry Hull) has returned to London with both a rare biological specimen...and lycanthropy, courtesy of the werewolf who attacked him during his expedition. Soon enough, Glendon is running around London and the body count rises. The tension between Glendon and his wife's former beau, her socialite friends and the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Orland) dominates the film so much that when Glendon transforms into the WereWolf, we are invested enough to fear for what he will do while almost grateful for the escape from the other story lines.

My third viewing; we saw it during its theatrical release last year, and rented it from Redbox earlier this year on DVD. We happened to notice it was airing on Starz during a four day free preview period and decided to rewatch it. I thought it was "okay," but fun originally...and now I think it might just be a masterpiece. It's wall-to-wall fun. Woody Harrelson has never been more enjoyable to watch, Abigail Breslin continues to impress and that Emma Stone chick is kinda cute (though a bit young for me at this point in my life). Also, I love that there's no real effort to explain the zombies; we just delve right into a world infested with them.

4 October
The Wolf Man
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the prodigal son, returning home to his father's Welsh estate after his elder brother's death. He wastes no time pitching woo to a local woman, or in being attacked by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi), which turns poor Larry into a lycanthrope. Chaney is genuinely charming as Larry, creating a very sympathetic character, and screenwriter Curt Siodmak deftly balances parallel stories of a love triangle, as well as exploring a contentious father/son relationship. The werewolf story at times seems to intrude on these more interesting story lines. The film is far more dynamic than Dracula, but isn't quite as compelling as Frankenstein.

The Wolf Man with audio commentary by Tom Weaver
Weaver's commentary is informative, offering trivia about the story, the production and those responsible for making the film. This is a guy who clearly knows his Wolf Man, but doesn't take it so seriously that he doesn't rush to point out plot holes or continuity errors. His language is era-inappropriate at times, though, and while I'm certainly no prude, it was a bit distracting to hear some of the words that would never have been allowed in the film being discussed. If you can get past that minor detail, it's one of the better commentary tracks I've heard in quite a while. Sadly, this is the only commentary track to be found in this collection.

5 October
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
I was largely underwhelmed. I felt the story had all the complexity of an episode of Scooby-Doo, though I admit the dinner scene was pretty "out there." It's chilling because it was based on real events, but strictly in the context of being a film I never had a chance to really connect with, or care about, any of the characters. Great production design, though.

This one kicked off a rather lengthy back-and-forth discussion that led to my Flickchart User Showcase entry, "The Casablanca Chainsaw Massacre: Dealing with Underwhelming Greatness," which in turn provoked its own interesting discussion.

6 October
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Larry (Chaney) seeks out Doctor Frankenstein in hopes that he will know means through which Larry can end his suffering. Unfortunately for Larry, the mad scientist has already been killed in one of the intervening Frankenstein pictures and surviving daughter Elsa wants nothing to do with her family's legacy. Again, it's the non-monster stuff that's the most compelling.

At one point, Elsa is in the same room as The Monster (Lugosi), who for all intents and purposes is her "uncle," and Larry is accompanied by Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) who has sort of adopted Larry in lieu of the fact it was her son who was responsible for infecting him in the first movie. No one ever says a word about the odd family dynamics in the scene, but they're unmistakable. Throughout the whole affair, the monster-weary villagers of Vasaria add pressure to the efforts to end Larry's life--which he'd gladly consent to, if they actually had it in their power to kill him. The family dynamics and the commentary on death are poignant, but they are quickly displaced by gratuitous monster-on-monster violence, and the third act feels tired and offers no real resolution for these themes.

7 October
The Evil Dead
Good God, was that a young Bruce Campbell! The effects are delightfully dated (though the make-up was still pretty convincing). I liked it, but thought it would have more humor than it does. Lost track of some of the characters's whereabouts at times, but that was probably because I had to pause the movie three different times on account of my stupid guts. In a straight-through viewing, I don't know that I'd have paid as much attention.

The Last Man on Earth
Based on "I Am Legend," Vincent Price is the titular last man alive after a vampiric virus has decimated humanity. The first act is pretty dated, depicting much less sophisticated survival behavior than we're accustomed to today (the guy still puts on his sport coat when leaving the house), but the second act where we see in flashback the rise and spread of the virus has some genuinely compelling moments as we see his personal losses. The final act calls to mind Fahrenheit 451 and its manhunt, and has some genuine tension. It may not be the most amazing production of all time, but the sincerity sells the source material.

8 October
The Bat
"Murder, She Wrote with Freddy Krueger's cinematic ancestor" is the best way to distill this plot. I confess; my mind was racing with speculation about whom would be revealed as The Bat. There's a very unnerving casualness that the characters have to the rash of murders and being stalked that borders on the absurd, but somehow grounds the film in scenes that might otherwise have gone over-the-top. I really enjoyed this one.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space
First time viewing, and I loved it. They did a great job riffing on the standard clown routine bits and making them simultaneously creepy and darkly humorous. Making a balloon animal dog to follow the trail of the humans? Genius! It's definitely a dated film, but enjoyable. I didn't expect much, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engaged throughout the entire movie.

9 October
Jeff Goldblum drowns after a car accident and is brought back through an experimental procedure...and what did he bring back with him? Is he blacking out and killing young women? The CGI hasn't aged well (contemporary screensavers are more advanced), but the cast is solid--including a trio of Law & Order principals: Goldblum (from Criminal Intent), Jeremy Sisto (from L&O proper) and Alfred Molina (from Los Angeles), Christine Lahti and Alicia Silverstone. We own this because it was based on a Dean Koontz novel, and he's my wife's favorite author.

Circus of Fear
One of six titles collected in our "Price/Lee Horror Collection," a daring robbery of an armored car leads to a circus with some shady folks, including the lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) who only goes around wearing a mask. On the horror side of things, I found it greatly disappointing; it was never really menacing at all, but as a whodunnit, it was likable enough. The performances were material-appropriate (at times convincing, at other times, cheesy), but the A/V quality here was distractingly bad--I know nothing about it, but it looks like someone taped it off a TV broadcast.

Beau Kaelin played the trailer for this the night we went to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at Baxter Avenue Theater (I think that was the movie, anyway) and it piqued our interest but we missed its screening. In any event, it's about a teen girl with notions of valuing virginity who discovers she has vagina dentata, teeth in her vagina that make her the wrong girl to attack. I enjoy movies where I find myself rooting against the victims, and every one of the guys in Teeth have it coming.

It's an interesting commentary on social sexual biases and mores, and one that I would certainly recommend to those seeking to better contextualize the "torture porn" sub-genre. The emphasis here is not on the violence--the assault scenes happen quickly and aren't drawn out--but rather on the sexuality. "Sex positive" viewers will find its commentary simplistic, and prudes will find it somewhat mocking, but I think it does a decent job of ultimately showing how misguided a lot of our sexual standards (and double-standards) really are.