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November 1, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»horror

Wake me up when Shocktober ends

When I was a kid in Lexington, Kentucky, I remember that grocery stores would have a little video rental section at the front of the store, just a few shelves stocked with VHS tapes. I used to be fascinated by the horror movies: when my parents were checking out, I would often walk over and look at the box art, which had its own special, lurid appeal. It was the age of golden plasticky, rubbery practical effects. I could have stared at the cover for Ghoulies for hours, wondering what the movie inside was like.

This year, for the first time, I decided to celebrate Shocktober: watching a horror movie for every day in the month before Halloween. In particular, I tried to watch a lot of the movies my 7-year-old self would have wanted to see. It turns out that these were not generally very good! My full list is below, with the standouts in bold.

  1. Children of the Corn
  2. Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
  3. Green Room
  4. We Have Always Lived In The Castle
  5. Ma
  6. The Conjuring
  7. Pumpkinhead
  8. Halloween 2
  9. Hellraiser
  10. Black Christmas
  11. Insidious
  12. Doom: Annihilation
  13. Candyman
  14. Little Evil
  15. Cam
  16. Chopping Mall
  17. House (1986)
  18. Creep (2014)
  19. The Perfection
  20. They Wait
  21. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
  22. Ginger Snaps
  23. The Gate
  24. Prophecy
  25. Halloween 3
  26. In the Tall Grass
  27. Head Count
  28. 1922
  29. Emelie
  30. Train to Busan
  31. The Babysitter
  32. The Ring

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly is how inconsistent the horror genre is: not only is it extremely prone to fashion, but also to drought. The mid-to-late 80s had a lot of real stinkers — either "comedy" horror like House, nonsense slashers like My Bloody Valentine, or just mistakes (Children of the Corn, which is amateurish on almost every level). I suspect this parallels a lot of the CG goofball period of the late 2000s (Darkness Falls Hollow Man, They).

On the other hand, there are some real classics in there. Black Christmas predates Halloween by four years, and not only probably inspired it but is also a much better movie: more interesting characters, better sense of place, and a wild Pelham 123-style investigation. Candyman and Hellraiser are both fascinating, complicated movies packed with indelible imagery. And Halloween 3 manages to feel like a companion piece to They Live, trading all connection to the mainline series for a bizarre riff on media paranoia.

Somewhere in the middle is Chopping Mall, a movie that's somehow so terrible, so perfectly 1986, that it becomes compulsively watchable. Its effects are bad, the characters are thinly drawn and largely there for gratuitous nudity, and its marketing materials wildly overpromise what it will deliver. It's perfect, I love it, and I name it the official movie of Shocktober 2019.

March 7, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Stop trying to hit me

At the end of this month, in keeping with the horrifying march of time, The Matrix turns 20 years old. It's hard to overstate how mind-blowing it was for me, a high-schooler at the time, when the Wachowski sisters' now-classic marched into theaters: combining entirely new effects techniques with Hong Kong wire-work martial arts, it's still a stylish and mesmerizing tour de force.

The sequels... are not. Indeed, little of the Wachowski's post-Matrix output has been great, although there's certainly a die-hard contingent that argues for Speed Racer and Sense8. But in rewatching them this month, I've been struck by the ways that Reloaded and Revolutions almost feel like the work of entirely different filmmakers, ones who have thrown away one of their most powerful storytelling tools. By that, I mean the fight scenes.

The Matrix has a few set-piece fight scenes, and they're not all golden. The lobby gunfight, for example, doesn't hold up nearly as well on rewatch. But at their best, the movie's action segments deftly thread a needle between "cool to watch" and "actively communicating plot." Take, for example, the opening chase between Trinity, some hapless cops, and a pair of agents:

In a few minutes, we learn that A) Trinity is unbelievably dangerous, and B) however competent she is, she's utterly terrified by the agents. We also start to see hints of their character: one side engaged in agile, skilled hit-and-run tactics, while the authorities bully through on raw power. And we get the sense that while there are powers at work here, it's not the domain of magic spells. Instead, Trinity's escape bends the laws of time and space — in a real way, to be able to manipulate the Matrix is to be able to control the camera itself.

But speaking of rules that are can be bent or broken, we soon get to the famous dojo training sequence:

I love the over-the-top kung fu poses that start each exchange, since they're such a neat little way of expressing Neo's distinct emotional progress through the scene: nervousness, overconfidence, determination, fear, self-doubt, and finally awareness. Fishburne absolutely sells his lines ("You think that's air you're breathing now...?"), but the dialog itself is almost superfluous.

The trash-as-tumbleweed is a nice touch to start the last big brawl of the movie, as is the Terminator-esque destruction of Smith's sunglasses. But pay close attention to the specific choreography here: Smith's movements are, again, all power and no technique. During the fight, he hardly even blocks, and there aren't any fancy flips or kicks. But halfway through, after the first big knock-down, Neo starts to use the agent's own attack routines against him, while adding his own improvisations and style at the end of each sequence. One of these characters is dynamic and flexible, and one of them is... well, a machine. We're starting to see the way that the ending will unfold, right here.

What do all these fight scenes have in common? Why are they so good? Well, in part, they're about creating a readable narrative for each character in the shot, driving their action based on the emotional needs of a few distinct participants. Yuen Woo Ping is a master at this — it's practically the defining feature of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, on which he did fight direction a year later and in which almost every scene combines character and action almost seamlessly. Tom Breihan compares it to the role that song-and-dance numbers play in a musical in his History of Violence series, and he's absolutely right. Even without subtitles or knowledge of Mandarin, this scene is beautifully eloquent:

By contrast, three years later, The Matrix Reloaded made its centerpiece the so-called "burly brawl," in which a hundred Agent Smiths swarm Neo in an empty lot:

The tech wasn't there for the fight the Wachowskis wanted to show — digital Keanu is plasticky and weirdly out-of-proportion, while Hugo Weaving's dopplegangers only get a couple of expressions — but even if they had modern, Marvel-era rendering, this still wouldn't be a satisfying scene. With so many ambiguous opponents, we're unable to learn anything about Neo or Smith here. There's no mental growth or relationship between two people — just more disposable mooks to get punched. "More" is not a character beat. But for this movie and for Revolutions, the Wachowskis seemed to be convinced that it was.

At the end of the day, none of that makes the first movie any less impressive. It's just a shame that for all the work that went into imitating bullet time or tinting things green, almost nobody ripped off the low-tech narrative choices that The Matrix made. Yuen Woo Ping went back to Hong Kong, and Hollywood pivoted to The Fast and the Furious a few years later.

But not to end on a completely down note, there is one person who I think actually got it, and that's Keanu Reeves himself. The John Wick movies certainly have glimmers of it, even if the fashion has swung from wuxia to MMA. And Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi is practically an homage to the physicality of the movie that made him an action star. If there is, in fact, a plan to reboot The Matrix as a new franchise, I legitimately think they should put Neo himself in the director's chair. It might be the best way to capture that magic one more time.

February 13, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Sunshine

Sunshine wasn't particularly loved when it was released in 2007, despite a packed cast and direction by Danny Boyle. In the years since, it has somehow stubbornly avoided cult status — before its time, maybe, or just too odd, as it swings wildly between hard sci-fi, psychological drama, survival horror, and eventually straight-up slasher flick by way of Apocalypse Now. But it's intensely watchable and, I would argue, underappreciated, especially in comparison to writer Alex Garland's follow-up attempts on the same themes.

"Our sun is dying," Cillian Murphy mutters at the start of the film, and the tone remains pretty grim from there. The spaceship Icarus II is sent on a desparate trip to restart the sun by tossing a giant cubic nuclear bomb into it — a desparate quest, made all the more desparate by the fact that nobody on the mission seems particularly stable or well-suited to the job. Boyle sketches out each crew member quickly but adeptly, giving each one a well-defined (if sometimes precious) persona, like the neurotic psychologist, the hot-tempered engineer, or the botanist who cares more for her oxygen-producing plants than the people onboard (or, viewers suspect, the mission itself). NASA would never put these people in a small space for more than a day, but they're a marvel of small-scale human conflict almost from the very start.

That approach to character is emblematic of Sunshine's construction, which is really less of a plot and more of a set of simple machines rigged in opposition to each other. An early miscalculation in the position of the ship's sun shield leads to a series of cascading crises, each of which provides both physical challenge as well as ratcheting tension among the crew from dwindling resources. Yet there's only one real plot twist in the whole thing: the murderous captain Pinbeck of Icarus I, driven mad by his own journey toward the sun. Everything else is established clearly and methodically, with ample recall and signposting — it's the rare science fiction movie that doesn't cheat. Even Pinbeck's slasher-esque rampage shows up in clues for savvy viewers, who can clock a missing scalpel and scattered bloody handprints on rewatch.

Similar to an obvious inspiration (and personal favorite), Alien, one of the film's greatest special effects is the cast. Boyle gets a lot of mileage out of Cillian Murphy's After Effects-blue eyes, but you can't go wrong with Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, and Rose Byrne. Still, for my money, Cliff Curtis is the film's MVP: as the doctor/psychologist Searle, he's both bomb-thrower and mediator in equal measures. His obsession with the sun leaves him visibly burned, like a Dorian Gray painting of the crew's mental health. And yet, unlike Pinbeck (who he clearly parallels), Curtis manages to keep his perspective straight and a wry sense of humor — he may love the light, but he's not blinded by it.

So why isn't Sunshine canonized, especially in a climate-change world where "our sun is dying" passes for optimism? Why is it considered a misfire, when Garland's flawed Annihilation was seen as a cult hit in the making? It's still not clear to me. Maybe it just got lost in the shuffle: 2007 was a good year for movies, including There Will Be Blood for the serious film aficianados and The Bourne Ultimatum or Death Proof for surprisingly well-crafted genre fans. Or maybe it's also just too close to its nearest relatives: too easy to write off as "Event Horizon without the schlocky fun" or "Solaris, but for stupid people." Either way, it feels overdue for reconsideration.

August 11, 2014

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

12 Percent of a Plan

I would love to have been in the meeting where someone pitched Guardians of the Galaxy. "We're going to take all the good will you've built up through the Marvel comic movie franchise, and then spend it on a space movie with characters that nobody really knows, one of whom is a heavily-armed raccoon." And then even weirder, it worked: Guardians is pretty good. Maybe it tells when it should show a little too often, but it never stopped me from enjoying myself. It's got a great soundtrack, good writing, well-done special effects, and most importantly, a really watchable cast.

Of course, this has been the case with most of the Marvel movies. I mean, let's be honest about, say, the Thor franchise, which have been a fun pair of movies considering that they're composed almost entirely of gibberish: Norse gods with British accents (who are actually aliens) fighting against elves and ice trolls (who are also aliens)! The whole thing is completely incoherent, but nobody cares because of the casting: everybody onscreen is good-looking, compulsively charming, and clearly having fun with a very silly premise.

But there's one thing that's been bugging me about the Marvel flicks, including Guardians, which is their endings. Namely, that they've all got the same one: the bad guys summon/control/take over a huge flying object, which immediately crashes headlong into a city.

  • The Avengers: Aliens crash giant worms into New York City.
  • Thor: The Dark World: Elves crash giant spaceship into England.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Nazis crash giant aircraft into the Potomac.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Lee Pace crashes giant accordian into alien planet.

Explosions follow, while the heroes rush to tackle the portal/controller/big bad at the wheel. Lots of buildings fall over in the process, and people run through the streets while looking up and behind them (oddly enough, hardly anyone ever trips). Lance Mannion refers to it as the "obligatory ad for the video game," and while that's harsh it's not inaccurate, because it does feel a little bit (between the overused CGI and the framing) like watching someone else play God of War. A lot of money went into it, and someone's clearly having a good time, but it's not necessarily you.

And to be clear, Marvel's not the only company writing screenplays this way. Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example, was a movie that committed every sin in the screenwriting book (and then added a few) but arguably the worst part was the meaningless and cruel spaceship crash at its climax. Over at Fox, X-Men: Days of Future Past has Magneto tossing an airborne baseball stadium at the White House. Huge flying objects are the new glass jail cell.

The problem with these pyrotechnics isn't just that they're repetitive and tasteless (although they are both), it's that they're ineffective: by destroying a huge chunk of a city, the writers are aiming for huge cinematic stakes, but by portraying it from a wide-angle lens (and, in PG-rated films, refusing to show any of the resulting bodies and carnage) there's no sense of drama. It's just computer-generated buildings falling over in the distance: who cares?

For a movie like Guardians, which has no real point other than to be a fun space adventure, it's bad enough that there's a good fifteen minutes of watching architecture instead of the characters that are the real draw. But it's more acutely frustrating for something like The Winter Soldier, which spends its first 90 minutes referencing the modern surveillance state, which is a tricky, subtle political problem. And nothing says "tricky" and "subtle" like sending three flying aircraft carriers through a building in Washington, DC.

Maybe that's expecting a bit much from a huge media property with a multi-year cinema domination plan. Marvel wants to put people into seats twice a year, and if that means making the same movie over and over again, that's fine. It's certainly never stopped anyone else (see also: Transformers and Harry Potter). If they're not even sure they can make a movie starring a woman, the chances they'll mess with the formular are pretty slim.

But look at it this way: now you know when you can take a bathroom break without missing anything. I figure you can stay away until the end of the credits, at which point you'll learn which comic-book movie will drop a giant metal object on Paris next year. If we're all very lucky, it'll be Squirrel Girl's turn eventually.

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