Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April Quick Picks and Pans

Strange Behavior (aka: Dead Kids) (1981) With an emphasis on story rather than cheap thrills, this isn’t your typical early 80s slasher flick.  Strange Behavior was filmed in New Zealand, but the setting is mid-America.  Male high school students are being recruited for psychological experiments by the local university, resulting in homicidal extra-curricular activity.  The experiments are being conducted by an unscrupulous researcher (Is there any other kind in this type of movie?), played with an unhinged zeal by Fiona Lewis.  Apparently, she never heard about the concept of informed consent, but if her subjects truly knew the risks they would never have agreed to the experiments in the first place, and there wouldn’t be a story.  The film doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that psychological experimentation is inherently evil, with ideas that are more pop-psychology than real science.  I have to grant kudos, however, to screenwriters Bill Condon and Michael Laughlin (also the film’s director) for acknowledging Dr. Watson’s early behavioral experiments, and mentioning operant conditioning.  Sadly, they failed to mention B.F. Skinner, who was really instrumental in taking research in this field to another level, but that’s probably asking too much from a movie that’s basically a dead teenager popcorn flick.  It’s an interesting little entry in the horror genre, and definitely merits a look if you can find it.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Eolomea (1972) The East German DEFA Studios-produced Eolomea provides a rare peek at Iron Curtain-era sci-fi.  If you can get past the dated fashions, funky music and obligatory romantic scenes depicting lovers running on a secluded beach, it’s a unique and thought-provoking relic.  Unlike many of its Western counterparts, Eolomea is not about non-stop action scenes, or space battles, or sweeping effects-laden vistas.  While talky by Western standards, it’s a true science fiction film that’s more interested in ideas than action.  Set in the not-too-distant future, space exploration is now an international venture, presided over by the United Nations.  After several deep space vehicles and their crews go missing, a ban is implemented on further missions.  Humanity is left with a dilemma that weighs the perils with the benefits of continued space exploration.  Will ideals win out over bureaucratic meddling?  Considering Eolomea’s communist origins, it was surprising to see the theme of individual initiative prevailing over majority rule cast in such a positive light.  While visuals are not the film’s strong point, they do not detract from the overall experience.  Although the sets and model effects seem quaint and antiquated by today’s standards, it’s evident that a lot of thought was put into the appearance of the spacecraft interiors, and the spacesuits look functional.  One low point (or high point, depending on your point of view) to watch for is a goofy robot that could have been the inspiration for Conky 2000 from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.  The word of the day is Eolomea!

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

Alien vs. Ninja (2010) With a title like Alien vs. Ninja, you can’t expect very much, beyond a marginal level of competence on the part of the filmmakers and an excuse to see a goofy mismatch from different genres.  Sadly, it fails to live up to even this diminished level of expectations.  Thanks to low budget and lower aspirations, I was never convinced that I was watching a period piece, but watching cosplay set in some vague time and place.  My knowledge of Japanese culture prior to the 20th century is a little thin, based largely on Kurosawa films, so I’m not the best judge of authenticity, but somehow I find it hard to believe that ninjas living in feudal Japan had earrings, tribal tattoos or bleached hair.  The story, what there is of it, is sidetracked by feeble attempts at humor and the plot consists of non-stop fighting scenes to the point of monotony.  I caught myself nodding off at least once, but thanks to the flimsy plot, ham-fisted acting and cardboard characters, I had no problem keeping up with what was happening.  The alien costumes probably wouldn’t pass muster at Comic-Con, looking like a bargain basement knockoff of Giger’s original design.  Is it worth watching?  If you really need to see low-rent aliens fight ersatz ninjas without the encumbrance of plot or characterization and you keep your standards sufficiently low, then go for it.  I think I’ll pass.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Neflix Streaming.

Hunter Prey (2010) Hunter Prey was the feature debut from director/co-writer Sandy Collora, best known for the clever shorts Batman: Dead End and World’s Finest .  Interplanetary war is the backdrop, as two species square off against each other in a fight for survival on a desolate alien world.  This is familiar territory, and there’s a distinct sense of déjà vu watching Hunter Prey, which borrows extensively from Star Wars, Star Trek, Enemy Mine (which is referenced), and dozens of other sci-fi films and television shows.  Even well-worn tropes can seem fresh if handled appropriately, and Collora injects some life into the film with his sense of visuals.  He gets a lot of mileage out of the effects and camerawork, considering the film’s tiny budget.  The Mexican desert is also a fitting substitute for an extra-terrestrial landscape, even if the characters seem to be meandering around the same small patch of land for the entire movie.  In a nod to sci-fi geeks everywhere, Erin Gray of Buck Rogers fame adds a nice little touch as a computer voice.  Collora’s story, however, is a little too generic, with dialogue that’s little more than constant bickering between the handful of characters, and an abrupt, unsatisfying ending that just doesn’t make much sense.  Collora was probably setting things up for a sequel, but I hope not.  Perhaps Hunter Prey is best viewed as a dress rehearsal for something better down the line.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Classics Revisited: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

(1954) Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Earl Felton; Based on the Novel by Jules Verne; Starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre; Available on DVD

Rating ***** 

What’s It About?

It’s the year 1868.  Multiple warships are being lost under mysterious circumstances.  Rumors abound about a giant sea monster that’s singlehandedly (Or would that be singletentaclely?) responsible for the disasters.  The esteemed French professor Aronnax is invited by the United States government to accompany one of their warships on a tour of the South Seas, in an attempt to uncover the secrets behind the missing vessels.  His quest eventually leads him directly to the cause, the enigmatic Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus.

James Mason steals the show as Captain Nemo, the original eco-terrorist.  His experiences with men and their destructive ways have left him bitter and cynical, resulting in all-out war on those who would create and distribute weapons.  The only love that he feels is for the ocean, which he now calls home.  In a career that spanned decades and was distinguished by numerous iconic roles, Captain Nemo stands out as one of Mason’s most memorable portrayals.  Mason endows Nemo with a nuanced combination of sophistication, complexity and obsessive conviction.  He refuses to be cast in the stereotypical villain mold, with his morally/ethically ambiguous vendetta against warmongers spurred on by a tragic past.

Kirk Douglas plays the aptly named Ned Land, providing an earthy contrast to the genteel, scholarly countenance of the other main characters.  Land is elemental, practically a force of nature; grounded firmly in black/white thinking and unencumbered by any notions of ambiguity.  His desire to escape from the Nautilus is as singular as Nemo’s desire to wreak vengeance against all who would oppose him.  He doesn’t pause to reflect on his actions, or consider the consequences.  When challenged by Captain Nemo about his refusal to use a knife and a fork at the dinner table, he proclaims that he’s indifferent to them. 

There’s also some fine supporting work by Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre, as professor Aronnax and his middle-aged assistant Conseil, respectively.  Truth be told, Lorre is a wee bit over the hill for his part, but that scarcely seems to matter as he lends a subtle comic touch and wit, interplaying nicely with Douglas’ Ned Land.  In fact, I’d probably never argue with the casting choice of Peter Lorre in anything.

Since this is a 50s era Disney film, the filmmakers felt obligated to insert an extraneous musical interlude.  We’re treated to Kirk Douglas’ musical stylings as he sings “Whale of Tale.”  I cannot comment about whether or not this is a good thing, but this is another tune that you will be unable to exorcise from your skull for days.  There’s also a cute cigar-chomping seal onboard the Nautilus, presumably to keep the kiddies in the audience entertained.  These are just a couple of whimsical diversions in an otherwise thoughtful, sometimes somber picture.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a reflection of the technological advances of the mid-20th century, as well as the 19th century.  It’s no small coincidence that the film was released the same year that the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, was launched.  One of the central messages of the film is that our capacity to create is hobbled by our inclination to destroy.  This theme has been repeated countless times, but it bears repeating.

The Nautilus itself is a thing of beauty, and virtually deserves its own billing.  Its Victorian tech design set the standard for steampunk long before anyone ever invented the word “steampunk.”  Everything looks functional, down to the last rivet; nothing seems out of place.  The level of detail is astonishing, from the submarine’s interior to the diving suits.  The Nautilus clearly appears to have come out of a past era, even though it represents technology far beyond the grasp of late 1800s engineers.

Although the filmmakers took more than a few liberties with the source material, this remains the quintessential Jules Verne film.  There has never been another film before or since that captured the look of Verne’s descriptions with such a meticulous attention to detail.  Some adaptations have been fairly good (First Men in the Moon, Mysterious Island), but most did not come close to Fleischer’s visualization of a Jules Verne novel.  20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a vast improvement on the adequate 1916 silent version, or the mediocre made-for-television versions that have popped up over the years.  Once again, there is talk about bringing 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to the big screen again, but it’s doubtful that any new filmmakers will improve upon this version (CGI submarine and squid, anyone?).

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the serendipitous product of the rarest of moments when big budget and big ambitions met to create a superior film.  It’s also a reminder that great movies and big budgets are not always mutually exclusive – something that’s easy to forget, considering the typical sub-standard output from the Hollywood schlock factory.  It’s also one of the few films that still captures my imagination as a grown up, keeping me as entranced as my first Wonderful World of Disney viewing as a kid in the 70s.  Above all, that is why it remains one of my favorites today.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Movie Hype that Won’t Win Points with Me

Word-of-mouth, whether it’s initiated by the major studios or internet pundits, can undeniably contribute to a film’s success or failure.  At the end of the day, however, it takes more than buzz to get my attention.  I’ve listed five of the biggest offenders below that underscore the eternal struggle of hype over substance.  I’ll preface these points by stating that all of the gripes listed below can also be regarded as amusing sidetrips or discussion points, but I don’t tend to base my like or dislike on these reasons alone, nor does this solely influence my filmgoing decisions.  Without further delay, I present to you my word-of-mouth red flags:
1.     Cameos -- With few exceptions, cameos do not make a film.  It is not a selling point to me if the guy who played Jason in the Friday the 13th movies appears for 5 seconds, or Stan Lee pops up in another Marvel superhero flick.  Even the most amusing cameos cannot make up for the paucity of anything remotely interesting during the rest of the film’s running time.  Likewise, the much-touted appearance of a post-retirement Leonard Nimoy in the upcoming third installment of the Transformers franchise is not likely to make the film any less execrable.

"I'm just in it for the royalties!"

2.      The movie was/wasn’t faithful to the comic book/novel – Books and film are different media.  End of story.  There can never be a direct 1 to 1 translation.  Something is always inevitably lost in the transition from book (or comic) to screen, with details being modified for sake of clarity or omitted completely.  Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae (whether a character’s hair color matches the comic, the uniform is the right material, the plot maintains continuity with the story line set forth by multiple authors over the years, etc…), can the movie stand on its own, as if the source material didn’t exist?  In-jokes can be a great way to reach out to the faithful fans, but the casual viewer should not be required to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 25 years of a comic’s history to enjoy the movie.  The recent adaptations of V for Vendetta and Watchmen could never contain all of the nuances of Alan Moore’s densely written graphic novels, but they were sufficiently entertaining throughout and even sporadically thought provoking. 

"But what about the squid?"

3.      Trailers – It’s a well-known fact that trailers often contain movies’ best scenes and dialogue.  Case in point: Kick Ass.  With so many versions of the trailer floating around, many of the best scenes were already revealed, but the film’s tonal shifts were downplayed.  While I wouldn’t necessarily describe Kick Ass as a failure, the actual film never maintained the balance between action and dark comedy that the excellent trailers promised.  On the other hand, trailers can reveal very little about the movie, as Alfred Hitchcock did for The Birds. This can often do more to pique interest than simply plundering a film for out-of-context scenes and snippets of choice dialogue.

4.      It (stars/is directed by/is written by) ________. -- How many times have we all been lured by this one?  If a film’s marketing campaign is to be believed, the previous (presumably successful) work by an actor/director/writer will reliably predict the quality of their newest production.  “If XYZ directed it, it’s got to be good!”  Of course, we also know that everyone makes a mistake, especially filmmakers.  How else could you explain how Steven Spielberg went on from making some of the most influential films of the 70s and 80s to Hook?   And another thing, since I’m on this guilt by association rant: “From the studio that brought you _______” is not a foolproof sales pitch.  Never mind that 99% of the rest of the studio’s output was insipid tripe. 
From the studio that brough you Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes... Beverly Hills Chihuahua!
5.      The director really captured the style of _________ (70s blaxploitation flicks, 80s horror, 50s B movies, etc…). -- It’s okay to pay homage to other filmmakers and styles of the past, but when the emulated aesthetic becomes the film’s raison d'être, things turn problematic.  At what point does originality cease to matter?  There is a fine line between setting a nostalgic tone and ripping off the past because you have nothing new to say in the present.  This is not to say that this approach can never be effective, when taken in moderation.  Ti West’s clever, retro House of the Devil arrived on the scene looking like a lost B classic from the early 80s.  On the other hand, Larry Blamire's Grade Z homage The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra just seemed tedious and annoying.  In either case, my hope is that both filmmakers will take what they’ve learned and move on to explore greener pastures.
It's so...retro!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In the Mouth of Madness

(1994) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Michael De Luca; Starring: Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, David Warner, Charlton Heston;
Available formats: DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: *** ½

When does fiction end and reality begin?  This is the basic premise of John Carpenter’s twisted little tale, In the Mouth of Madness.  When I think of the films of Mr. Carpenter, I usually think of his output from the 70s through the 80s, when it seemed that he could practically do no wrong.  Few filmmakers could boast such an impressive resume of unique and diverse works, starting with the DIY sci-fi/horror approach of Dark Star in 1974, and running to the paranoia-fueled They Live in 1988.  In the 90s, Carpenter experienced a bit of a creative slump, when the bulk of his output seemed to be carried aloft by his name alone.  While not quite up to the standards of his best work, In the Mouth of Madness was a return to form, with a story that’s high on atmosphere and overall “creep factor,” but low on logic.

Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator with a reputation for being able to sniff out fraudulent claims with ease.  He’s hired by a mega-publisher to track down their cash cow, the reclusive horror novelist Sutter Cane.  We first see Trent committed to an insane asylum, the sort of stereotypical institution that only seems to exist in movies -- a dank, gothic setting, populated by lost souls.  He recounts the events that led to the disintegration of his mental state to a visiting doctor (David Warner), and we soon learn about what drove him to lose his grip with reality.

Trent’s initial research leads him to follow clues laid out by Cane, which eventually point to a secluded New England town called Hobb’s End.  The publishing company’s senior editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) accompanies him on his investigation.   Trent is initially skeptical of the publisher’s motives for sending him on this chase, but as he learns more about Cane and his writings, a mystery unfolds.  Trent’s skepticism is rapidly eroding as his confusion builds.

Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot, Dune) plays Sutter Cane, a Stephen King-esque novelist with Lovecraftian overtones.  His books create an unquenchable mania amongst his rabid fan base, resulting in a wake of riots, violence and destruction in book stores across the country.  Kane views himself as a prophet of sorts, chronicling the machinations of otherworldly evil forces, who threaten to take over the Earth.  His latest, as-yet-unpublished opus has already provoked widespread chaos in the streets.  In the Mouth of Madness takes a dim perspective of fandom in general, with its portrayal of horror fans as a mindless, soulless horde that feeds on the output of the writer, drooling over the literary scraps that are thrown their way.  Later in the film, Trent questions the publishing company’s president (played by Charlton Heston) about how this mania surrounding the new book will affect those that don’t read, he assures him that there’s also a movie on the way.

One of the recurrent themes that the movie posits is whether reality is a fixed state, or if we actively create our own reality.  As Trent gradually changes from a passive observer to an active participant in the strange events that take place, we are left to wonder how things are intertwined.   In the Mouth of Madness has an impressive cast and raises intriguing questions, but it’s never completely satisfying.  The third act seems rushed and muddled, cobbled together from parts of other Carpenter films.  The end-of-the-world motif is very similar to Carpenter’s earlier, and no-less-confounding film, Prince of Darkness.  While certainly atmospheric, it’s more unnerving than genuinely scary.  Apparently, this film was third in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,”  which included The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but none of these films seemed more than loosely connected.  At best, In the Mouth of Madness is more of a thematic continuation, rather than a conclusion to a saga.  All faults aside, it’s still filled with enough twists and surprises to keep things entertaining, and the ending is quite effective.