Friday, November 30, 2007

Movie Chat: The Transformers

The Transformers

There's no real connection between The Mist and the movie version of The Transformers, except that I saw them on the same day. But, IMO, that's a strength (and part of the point) of blogging as opposed to writing "real" movie criticism.

Anyway - after going out to watch The Mist during the Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and my brothers-in-law went home and put on a DVD of The Transformers. To recap: none of them had liked The Mist (at all) and, in fact, had found the experience of watching it mightily unpleasant.

None of us thought The Transformers was all that good, but everyone had a good time watching it. It's goofiness and mindless, flashy action turned out to be a good antidote to The Mist's seriousness and pessimism.

I started out wanting to blog that of course a Transformers movie needs to be goofy and of course taking its subject seriously would be a recipe for disaster. But as I composed that post, I remembered the original, animated Transformers movie. That had its light touches, for sure, but it was also kind of serious and (for me at that time) genuinely, emotionally affecting in a way the new movie isn't.

Some more thoughts:

1. My (not original) observation was that there's a good, 90-minute Joe Dante-esque movie hidden inside Transformers. (Or, as my friend Nick said: "It's like Small Soldiers with fewer good jokes." I swear I could edit the thing down myself.

2. I could hardly stay awake during the final battle sequence, even though we were watching it at 5 in the evening. All the CGI action seemed to blur together and I couldn't make much sense of what was going on.

3. Relatedly: the movie's biggest fault, IMO, is that the Transformers are always moving so quickly and their action scenes are so choppily edited - purposefully, it seems, to suggest their high tech, high speed nature - that I never really got a chance to just enjoy looking at them. This isn't some Z-movie where they had to cover up the low budget by only showing the bits and pieces of the creatures: they spent oodles on the design and realization of these robots, but they never give the audience room to just appreciate their work.

4. Relatedly 2: Michael Bay's biggest fault is that despite some good instincts - mainly with regard to casting and directing actors - he's too into the hard sell. His movies would be a lot better if they were shorter, slower, and softer.

5. The screenplay for Disturbia gave Shia LaBeouf something solid to work with: his role there was conventional (maybe even cliched) - troubled but basically good boy in over his head - but it gave him broad outlines within which he was able to sketch a believable, detailed picture of suffering teenager-hood. The screenplay for Transformers gives him almost nothing - horny teen with giant robot - but it was fun to watch LaBeouf (and Michael Bay) make something out of nothing. It was a much more impressive example of movie magic than any of the CGI effects.

Movie Chat: Next


Next would make a great double bill with Deja Vu with the theme of Time Travel Thrillers That Were Better Than I Expected (but I'm Still Glad I Waited to See Them on DVD).

Or you could double bill it with Ghost Rider under the theme Star as Auteur. Or should that be Starteur? Anyway, Nicolas Cage seems to be making movies about guys who are flashy showmen onstage and withdrawn and alienated weirdos off. They just need the love of a beautiful woman to convince them they need to interact with the world.

I think Cage is pretty good in these roles, although maybe "good" is the wrong word since what he's doing is a little bizarre and we might question the validity of the entire project (i.e., working out personal issues through big budget action star vehicles). Still - he ends up giving these movies, well, not depth, but at least some genuine humanity amid all the neat CGI effects and explosions.

But the best part of Next is (slight spoiler) that just when you're worried that they're going to keep the thing going for another twenty minutes, they wrap it up. Nothing pushes a big action movie from Mediocre over the line into Pretty Decent like a 90 minute running time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Movie Chat: The Mist

The Mist

Sean Collins thought the creatures weren't scary enough.

And the folks I went to see it with thought the whole premise was too goofy to take seriously.

For me, well, this is one of those movies where my appreciation for what it's doing is so great that I was with it all the way, even when it isn't 100% successful. It has flaws - a wobbly performance/characterization of one of the central roles (Marcia Gay Harden's), a final scene that works juts fine conceptually but plays out clumsily and ends up feeling like as much of cheat (although in the opposite direction) as the ending of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and, yes, creatures that aren't that scary - but I don't really see the need to nitpick. I could and I probably would if it had been a big critical success like No Country for Old Men, but considering everyone else seems to be piling on (or just plain ignoring) The Mist it's more fitting that I step up to defend it.

Here's a little moment from the movie that kind of sums up everything I liked about it:

David Drayton - our hero - goes into the back room of the supermarket and sees, or rather, smells, that the generator is backing up and spewing fumes. He rushes over to turn it off - a good move - but, of course, that means the lights go out and he ends up bumping his head on an overhanging bar and tripping and stumbling over boxes on his way out. It's played as low key physical comedy and shows how despite our best intentions, the world gets in our way. David does the right thing, but that doesn't mean those boxes aren't there waiting to trip him up.

Actually, "waiting" is the wrong word, because that implies they have some kind of motive and, of course, they don't, which gets right to the heart of what makes this a horror movie: the complete and total indifference of the physical and natural (or in this case, extra-natural) to human intentions - whether those intentions are virtuous or vicious.

That also seems to be the point of the extended battle in the supermarket between the trapped humans and the little flying dragon thingies (I keep thinking of them as Lockheeds, after the X-Men character). The dragons break into the supermarket only because they're following their food source - those little bugs. For the most part, the seem to ignore the people, except when they're in the way. And, as it turns out, the ways the people come up with to fight the monsters - trying to hit them with flaming torches, shooting at them in a crowded store - are almost as dangerous as the monsters themselves.

I want to say that the fire "turns" on one one humans and burns him, but, again, there's no intention here, just indifference. They try to harness the fire for their own purposes, but their mastery over the physical world falls tragically short.

For me, that's where the horror comes in and that's how the movie earns its scares: not through fear of the monsters, per se, but through the fear of our inadequacy when faced with them and the fear that being forced to wrestle with the massive indifference of the universe will either drive you crazy or crush your hope for the future.

These aren't necessarily original themes, but the movie dramatizes them with what I thought was a nearly staggering amount of emotional force, which is, in turn, grounded in very specifically-realized details*. Though on a smaller scale, this made the movie feel a lot like one of Steven Spielberg's (esp. War of the Worlds). But it diverges from Spielberg in its pessimism and refusal to hedge its bets (as my friend Nick texted me: The Mist is "ballz to the wallz")**.

As for the goofiness issue: different people will bring different standards to the table, and, I've noticed, very few people are consistent about it. That is: some people will balk at taking stories about super-powered mutant heroes seriously, but have no problems with stories about the living dead. Other people might be completely down with the whole flying dudes in tights thing, but just can't believe that anyone over the age of 12 would be interested in stories about a teenage wizard. In general, I'm pretty accepting of any kind of fantasy element and while I recognize that it's pretty common for folks to draw a line somewhere or other, I can only just wrap my head around doing that.

In terms of The Mist, my guess would be that if you're at all resistant to the idea of taking a movie with creepy, crawly creatures seriously, it just won't work. I'm not sure this is the fault of the movie: the creatures are pretty nicely done, but they're also drop dead serious. There's not as much for goofiness as there was in The Host, say, or Gremlins.

*28 Weeks Later (my other favorite horror movie of the year) deals with a lot of the same stuff. It's a leaner film and is, I think, overall better made: very little of it doesn't work. Still, for me, The Mist packed more of an emotional punch, maybe because, at heart, I'm more of a Spielberg-kid than a Romero-kid.

**Nitpick: I think the ending works conceptually, but it doesn't quite play out in a satisfying way. It makes the events of the final sequence less a tragedy about the loss of hope and more about bad timing. My guess is that Darabont would have needed more time to really pull it off correctly. As it stands, it felt a little like the Mirror Universe version of the War of the Worlds ending - a downer, for sure, but not one that felt completely earned.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I meant to get a few more new posts up this week before my Thanksgiving break started, but work and preparing for our trip got in the way.

Anyway - happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Movie Chat: Imprint

Masters of Horror: Imprint

Showtime didn't want to air this? Cowards.

Eh, just kidding. This is one disturbing movie. It's also the best-written and most fully-realized of the Masters of Horror episodes I've seen so far. To a certain extent, this movie is Takashi Miike self-consciously making a Takashi Miike-style horror movie: there's the torture scene out of Audition, the sadomasochism of Ichi the Killer, the nightmarish family dynamics of Visitor Q. Maybe a better way to put it is that this is Miike putting together a "Greatest Hits: Horror Edition". Or even: "Takashi Miike for Beginners".

So, this is the kind of movie that makes me wary of the way the term "torture porn" gets thrown around. The movie's elaborate torture sequence is assaultive: watching it was physically uncomfortable. I don't think we're meant to enjoy seeing a sympathetic character graphically experience that kind of pain. Rather, we're shown all of the pain she feels along with the details of how it's doled out (two words: acupuncture malpractice) in order to raise the stakes.

I know that this tactic is sometimes looked down upon. The argument goes: (1) real filmmakers wouldn't need to stoop to these stunts, (2) they don't actually need to show graphic violence, and (3) in fact it's actually scarier if they don't (invoke Val Lewton and the shower scene from Psycho here).

Well, ok - the thing is that, with movies, sometimes the point is to show it - to see it. Miike knows enough about making movies that he could no doubt achieve some effectively horrific moments, solely through clever editing and the performance of his actors, without showing any actual torture or, more importantly, the graphic results of the torture.

So, why show it?

Well, honestly, I could give you a line about how Miike is (a la Cronenberg) emphasizing the physical, organic nature of our bodies and assaulting the notion of mind/body duality. But, really, Miike shows it to make you cringe, to dare you to look away, to catalog the various inventive ways human beings have come up with to hurt other human beings.

(Although I actually think the most shocking/disturbing images in the movie have nothing to do with the torture scenes).

Anyway -

The movie is mostly well-made. The overall structure works, the staging is effective, the set-pieces are appropriately horrific, and, with one exception, the cast does a good job. Unfortunately, that one exception is the lead. Now, I can understand why they cast Billy Drago - he has an effectively creepy presence when he's lurking around the edges of a movie as in The Untouchables or Mysterious Skin - but he can't quite pull off this central role, which requires him to go through several stages of grief, drunkenness, and insanity. I'd be happy to see Drago come back as some kind of dangerous psychopath, but it was hard to buy him as a sympathetic would-be romantic lead.

I had heard bad things about this episode, so I was pleasantly (?) surprised by how much I ended up liking it. If the lead performance were a little better, I might recommend this as a good introduction to Miike's horror stuff. But as it is, you should probably check out Audition before moving onto this one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Chat: Pick Me Up

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up

This is the third Masters of Horror show I've watched. Based on having seen this, Homecoming, and Cigarette Burns, my impression of the series is that while the episodes have a strong starting concept, the scripts don't do that good of a job of building on the initial ideas and the directors seem to struggle with hitting the right tone and achieving a consistent style - my guess is the shooting schedule is so abbreviated that they have to go with the first take a couple of times too many. Also, I have nothing against graphically violent movies, but in this one and Cigarette Burns there were scenes of graphic violence that seemed to be there just because the show is on cable. (With this in mind, I'm interested to see what Dario Argento and Takashi Miike do with their episodes.)

That said, this is probably my favorite of the three, though it's in many ways the sloppiest and least ambitious. This is billed as a Larry Cohen episode and watching the credits I was disappointed that Larry didn't write the screenplay, but was just the director. I like a lot of his movies, but I generally consider him to be first an foremost an "idea guy". As a director he gets by, but the filmmaking in his movies is usually pretty basic. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but watching Larry Cohen bring his almost non-existent horror stylings to bear on a script by Some Dude wasn't exactly the experience I was looking for.

Oh wait - Some Dude is David J. Schow, who wrote the screenplay for The Crow and according to Wikipedia may have invented the term Splatterpunk. Maybe not a "Master of Horror", but certainly a "Pretty Damn Good Practitioner of Horror".

Anyway - my short, spoiler-free conclusion: despite a rocky start and erratic performances, the movie really does come together in its last act and does a good job tweaking some genre conventions. It also has a couple of creepy bits and a few scares, although nothing that really ranks that high on my "horror" scale.

Some more thoughts (with spoilers):

It makes sense that Cohen would want to work with Michael Moriarty again, but Moriarty seems to be in pretty bad shape. The role requires a certain consistency of style that he can't quite muster, so his performance just goes all over the place. It's actually kind of sad to watch him and it shouldn't be, because his character is supposed to be a kind of a bad ass.

Warren Kole is a lot better in the less showy role of the psycho hitch-hiker.

Now, the idea of these two psychos going after the same prey and ending up going after each other is a pretty good one, but the set up is so haphazard that I didn't realize that it was a good idea until the end of the movie when they're finally facing off. Funnily enough, even though this was just an hour long movie, it felt like it should have been shorter. There's some business - Moriarty's scene with Lauren Landon and the torture scene - that just gets in the way of what should be a straightforward tongue-in-cheek send up of the Roaming Psycho genre.

Still - this is the only one of the Masters of Horror episodes that I've seen that's got better as it went along.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Movie Chat: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Here's the puzzle:

How to talk about a movie that, for its first 100 minutes is excellent, but whose last 20 minutes almost don't play at all (even though they do make perfect sense conceptually and thematically)?

Especially since, as much as I liked the movie - and I liked it quite a bit: it's alongside 28 Weeks Later, The Host, and Death Proof as my favorite movies of the year - I'm much more interested in writing about what I didn't like about it, partly because the good stuff is so good that I think it's a real shame that the movie as a whole doesn't quite deliver.

About the good stuff: though the story is nothing new - guy finds money from a drug deal gone wrong, tries to keep it for himself, gets into trouble as a consequence - the storytelling is so fully-realized, with so many "just right" details that moment-to-moment the movie is breathtaking. There are two perfectly executed suspense sequences - one involving the guy getting chased by a dog and the other involving a cat-and-mouse game in a hotel that turns into a running gunfight through the streets of a run down Texas town - and two sustained, spot-on main performances - from Tommy Lee Jones ('natch) and Josh Brolin*.

The major problem is that after the Men's Adventure Movie plot comes to an end, there are still several more scenes that serve to wrap up Cormac McCarthy's thematic concerns. The scenes are well-done, (with one exception) well-acted, and, in some ways, they feel a lot more like what we're used to from the Coen Brothers (think the "philosophical" dialogue scenes from Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, or The Man Who Wasn't There), but compared to everything that came before, they're flat. And there's too many of them: I got the same sense I had at the end of the movie version of Return of the King - one ending would be enough, we don't need three or four. Of course, Return earns those endings (in a way) because they're meant to cap off 8+ hours of epic moviemaking. With this movie, though, they weigh everything down by making too many of the movie's themes explicit.

(It isn't often that I'll see a movie and know exactly what I would cut out, but here it's: Javier Bardem's scene with Stephen Root, Tommy Lee Jones's conversation with the El Paso sheriff played by Rodger Boyce, and Bardem's scene with Kelly MacDonald and it's aftermath - see below.)

My other problem with the movie: Javier Bardem's performance, while technically accomplished, got old pretty quickly.

Compared to the easy naturalism of Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, Bardem is doing elaborate, cartoony schtick. It's the lead performance most like those from other Coen Brothers flicks. This wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't as much of it, because each of his dialogue scenes is making the same point - that he's a psychopathic freak on his own wavelength - in the same way - Bardem's off-kilter, spaced-out intensity.

Bardem is a little like John Turturro in The Big Lebowski, but the big differences are that (a) Jesus is only on screen for a few minutes and (b) the joke at least has a punchline.

Bardem's Chigurh is as one-note of a performance as Robert Patrick's in Terminator 2, but James Cameron is smart enough to have the T-1000 keep his mouth shut. Chigurh, like the T-1000, is supposed to be a kind of a force of nature and he seems more like a plot device - the relentless killing machine - than an actual character. Not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you realize that it's not very interesting to try to get inside the head of a plot device.

Watching Bardem, I started comparing him (unfavorably) to Tom Noonan in Manhunter: Bardem's performance is intense, but it also has big quotation marks around it - he's doing a quirky take on "Movie Psycho" - while Tom Noonan's is intense but also terrifyingly, believably alien - it's creepy and disturbing in a way that we don't usually see in thrillers. The horror comes from the total, straight-faced commitment Tom Noonan brings to that character's twisted belief system.

*After Brolin's performance here and in Planet Terror, I have to wonder if he's always been this good or it's more like after working so long in so many second rate roles in second rate productions he's finally gotten to the point where these kinds of note-perfect genre turns just come naturally to him.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It's a scream

I missed this post from last month on Vincent Baker's blog, but I thought other horror fans might be interested in the discussion:

There's this outtake from The Devil's Rejects where there are two people in horrifying I've-been-tortured-to-death makeup slumped on the floor of a motel bathroom. The maid comes in and snarls because the lights won't turn on and opens the window shades and then opens the bathroom door - and the two actors burst into song and mug for the camera.

It's funny. The on-screen of the movie is apalling. But the more I watch horror flicks and the more carefully I watch them, backed up by interviews, outtakes and commentary, the more it seems that off-screen the actors, the writers, the directors, the effects people - the more it seems that they're having the most fun.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I like the Far Side better, too (with an Update)

Noah Berlatsky says the kind of thing I might say:

I think, for me, some of the problems [with the high art vs. low art distinction that] they're talking about can be resolved by thinking of high-art as simply a different kind of genre — that is, Joyce isn't necessarily any more individual or writerly than Stan Lee; he's just writing in a different tradition with different genre conventions and for a different (smaller) audience. The Lee/Joyce division is actually an interesting one, because both were very original, and so could be said to have been creating a new audience, stitched together from portions of older traditions. And my appreciation for both is probably about the same; I admire and enjoy many things about their writing, but neither are really my favorites, for reasons which have a lot to do with their investment in the tiresome tropes of male self-pity.

Well, okay - I'd never say the bit about male self-pity, but otherwise I find the idea of "high art" or "lit-fic" or "gallery art" as distinct genres in their own right to be pretty useful. My problem with a lot of, say, "lit-fic" fans is that they sometimes commit a synecdoche and treat "lit-fic" as if it were "the only real literature" or "the only literature that matters". (In the comic book world, super hero fans have been - historically - guilty of the same offense).

Update: The conversation in the comments section to Noah's post is interesting to me because the back-and-forth he has with Eric mirrors the arguments Michael Blowhard seems to have whenever he writes about "lit-fic" as "just another bozo on the genre bus". (Okay, so Michael Blowhard never actually uses that phrase, but I like it.)

I might be completely mistaken (and feel free to correct me if you think I am), but I don't think this kind of thing happens as much with film buffs. You tend not to see film buffs wading into a conversation with the assumption that of course Jean Renoir is more worthy/interesting/full-of-ideas/etc. than John Ford. You're more likely to come across guys like Michael Sicinski, who engages enthusiastically and insightfully with both art cinema and popular cinema (check out his top ten lists: look at 1980's, where Airplane tops the list but Hollis Frampton is close behind).

My guess is that lit-fic fans sense that the genre is somewhat endangered (or, at the least, that it 's prominence is on the wane), so that they're more likely to attack arguments like Noah's or Michael B.'s.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fun with pictures...

I had so much fun with my scary movie list, that I've started to go back and add pictures to some of my earlier posts. Not only is this easier than coming up with and writing new posts, it also takes a lot less time. (This blog continues to be a work-in-progress: more pictures to come.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Days Late, Dollars Short: 50 Scary Movies

For the last few weeks, I had been reading Stephen King and Clive Barker short stories, watching movies like The Innocents and 28 Weeks Later, and generally getting into the mood for Halloween, but I wasn't able to conjure up a suitably thematic blog post.

Instead, I'm just going to rip off Sean Collins (my apologies, Sean), which will also provide a good excuse for me to play around with posting a bunch of images (that's the fun part).


My 50 Favorite Creepy, Scary, and/or Spooky Movies

1. Blow Out

2. Vertigo

3. Shadow of a Doubt

4. Blue Velvet

5. The Exorcist

6. Martin

7. The Night of the Hunter

8. The Innocents

9. The Birds

10. The Saragossa Manuscript

11. Videodrome

12. Deliverance

13. 28 Weeks Later

14. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

15. Audition

16. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

17. Alien

18. Frankenstein

19. The Fury

20. 28 Days Later

21. Jaws

22. Rosemary's Baby

23. The Thing

24. Bedlam

25. M

26. The Descent

27. Ugetsu

28. Suspiria

29. Night of the Living Dead

30. War of the Worlds (2005)

31. Aliens

32. The Stepfather

33. Scanners

34. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

35. The Dark Half

36. Manhunter

37. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

38. I Walked with a Zombie

39. The Vanishing

40. Evil Dead II

41. Tenebre

42. The Dead Zone

43. The Evil Dead

44. Scrooged

45. Bram Stoker's Dracula

46. Dead Alive

47. Day of the Dead

48. The Frighteners

49. Re-animator

50. The Shining