Monday, May 31, 2010

It's Over

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Well, the list is done. We counted down 27 movies that made going to the movies suck; we had multiple writers, writing multiple opinions; I got mentioned on Roger Ebert's Twitter and Gringo got his Lethal Weapon post mentioned on The Guardian's website. Best of all, with the exception of two, each writer met their deadline and met it with with quality and insight to boot. So I thank them all and thank everyone who read, if not every post, well then at least some of them. Thanks also to those who left comments, seconded opinions or disagreed. Writing a great piece is one thing, but it really doesn't take on shape or meaning until it starts moving people to weigh in. So, once again I thank everyone involved. As much as I will miss this kookey thing, I'm glad it's over and I can get back to doing my own writing. Here's the full list one more time: 27-It Happened One Night
23-Terminator 2
22-Toy Story
19-Donnie Darko
18-Sin City
17-Garden State
16-Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
12-Lethal Weapon
11-American Pie
10-The Ring
8-Animal House
6-Die Hard
5-Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
4-Pulp Fiction
3-Night of the Living Dead
2-Star Wars

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck: Jaws

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Depending on who you talked to back in 1975, Jaws was either the last great film of the infamous director driven Hollywood 70s era or the first bad one. It was both a beginning and an end. Coppola was burnt out, Frienkin set his own bar too high, Bogdanovich, had fallen out of box office favour, Hopper was out of his mind, Penn was an afterthought and Scorsese was falling into great reviews but not so great returns.

Then there was Steve Spielberg, a goofy Jewish kid who stood outside of the typical drug-fueled 1970s archetype and was instead the kid who thought big and dreamed bigger. Before 75, Spielberg had worked in TV where he made his first feature (made-for-TV’s Duel) and had a forgotten Goldie Hawn vehicle under his belt.

When the prospect of Jaws came up everyone doubted it. His contemporaries felt the film was against everything they stood for and even Spielberg struggled to complete the picture with a mechanized shark that he hated. However, from the darkened opening imagines of a young couple going skinny dipping on the beach, to the first notes of that iconic score, a classic exercise in terror was being born.

Jaws, in spite of all its routine elements, was a truly unnerving experience: a film in which a collection of regular people are terrorized by an element of nature. Here it was a shark, but as the years went on the animals changed (bees, spiders, piranhas, bats, snakes, etc.) while the formula stayed essentially the same. However, what those films have in imagination they lack in Jaws’ conviction.

What Jaws knew that few of its imitators did was the fundamental concept that the potential danger that lurks off screen is far more frightening then the thing that is causing it ever could be. By taking issue with the shark, Spielberg was, maybe unintentionally, forced to keep it off screen until the final act, creating POV shots that are far more menacing and suspenseful than indeed the mechanical shark actually ends up being. Jaws, unlike the films that were coming out around it, was all style, but as suspense films go, it was unrelenting in its mastery of the form.

The problem with the trend that Jaws spawned though is twofold. On one hand it not only birthed three pathetic sequels but also a slew of cheap and sloppy direct-to-video and made-for-TV imitators like Shark Attack or Piranha (that both ended up spawning their own sequels). Of course these films were simply focused on providing cheap scares, possessing none of the tone, mood or subtly that made people stay away from the beach for years after 1975, instead opting for bad special effects, cheap thrills and routine violence.

Secondly, the film, made on a budget of under ten million and grossing upwards of $130 million, signaled the return of blockbuster filmmaking; the kind that the early 70s Eurocentric American auteurs worked so hard to overthrow in the first place. Gone were the days of artistic integrity and serious subject matter that had permeated the films of the early 70s and born were the days of The Poseidon Adventure, Airport and The Towering Inferno; high concept films that aimed at one thing: to make as much money as possible by throwing spectacle into the wind and seeing how it landed.

Of course, Spielberg almost always conducted himself with integrity and produced quality work, but as is the case with every landmark success, studios quickly scrambled to get lightning to strike twice and still do to this day. In the days of Twilight and Transformers, where special effects dominate and the production aims for the lowest common denominator kind of audience; where Hollywood churns out one big, glossy tentpole movie after the other, one can’t help but look back and think that Jaws, in some way, had something to do with it all.

Who would have thought that one cheap little b-movie could have blown up beyond all expectation and defined an entire generation of both cheap trash and expensive garbage but, in one way or another, Jaws is just that film.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #2- Star Wars

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Wynter Appears Courtesy of Cinema Scream

Jar Jar.

There, I said it. If we were playing Family Fortunes (Family Feud to our American cousins) and the host said ‘we asked one hundred people to name a bad consequence of Star Wars (1977) I’d be more than happy to go with Jar Jar. Sure there would be other things to consider, like the rise of the multiplex culture, studios chasing box office (not that they were ever in it for charity), the creative process needing to keep one eye on the merchandising opportunities and so on and forever, but Jar Jar is hated above all things... for me, however, Mr Binks does not represent what Simon Pegg called ‘the rape of our childhood’ but, as an object of hatred, is a symbol of something altogether more insidious in our culture, something that Star Wars helped propagate; the selfish inner child.

I love Star Wars. I love The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I love Return of the Jedi (1983). I hated the prequel trilogy. Walking out of The Phantom Menace (1999) I was stunned by the inanity of it all. What had I just seen? What was Lucas thinking? All around me numerous faces told the same story. This wasn’t Star Wars as we knew it. This was some sort of kid’s film... that bastard Lucas had made a children’s film, a toy advert and what the heck was that vaguely racist frog thing? How dare he! Star Wars was ours and this man had ruined it. Dear god, at least I hadn’t dressed up like some of those poor mugs who now had to walk home knowing that it was all over.

Looking back it all seems rather sad. Lucas hadn’t pissed on our childhood; he’d just made a film for children that we, as adults, didn’t connect to. The problem was that we hadn’t grown up and this is how Star Wars made going to the movies suck. We had confused being sold something with actually owning it and, in the process, cinema got a bit sadder. We felt that films were ours as opposed to the product of either a commercial enterprise or artistic endeavour. Fanboys feel ‘betrayed’ as if they were cheated on by a lover, wish pain on those that get the colour of their favourite character’s boots wrong and make it almost impossible to question received wisdom on the IMDB without being labelled a ‘troll’ or ‘hater’.

Worse still is the fact that this crap bleeds into film itself. The bullshit notion that only a true fan can direct the next big comic book adaptation leads into blind alleys where creativity is stifled whilst ‘pleasing the fans’ makes films about boy magicians horrendously bloated to the uninitiated.

There was a time when these views would have annoyed me. I would curse the writer’s ignorance and mutter that he didn’t understand but since I got over Jar Jar life has gotten better. The prequel trilogy is not a ‘travesty’ but simply films that I don’t like. My young nephew likes them and that is how it should be. He prefers them to the originals and that too is okay.

Star Wars brought the ‘fanboy’ attitude to blockbuster cinema and it is a curse that needs to be lifted because it casts the audience as permanent children whom the studios pacify with sweets rather than something more substantial.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and the City

Sex and the City 2 opens today so I figured, what better way to prep than revist my review of the first one. A film like Sex and the City the Movie really unearths the true arbitrary nature of the star rating system. What does appointing a film with a star value really mean after all, when the true point of criticism seems, not to be so much in evaluation, but of sharing ideas and experiences from one film fan to the next? It certainly doesn’t tell us a film’s worth amongst other films, and since the stars don't convey a sense of the writer’s experience with an individual film, then why not just let the review speak for itself? So I bounced the concept around in my head of eliminating the stars altogether for Sex in the City (ed. note: I have recently eliminated the star system altogether for film reviews), because really, what kind of critical angle can I approach it from? Prior to writing this I skimmed Rotten Tomatoes to see what the general critical approach seemed to be. I of course, like many, could resort to general film criticism. I could say that the film is too long (which it is), isn’t genuinely witty (which it isn’t), and doesn’t use the film form in order to expand the original television concept to appeal to a wider audience (which it doesn’t). But I won’t do that, because a good critic will just be honest with themselves and admit up front whether or not they embody the film’s ideal audience and proceed from there. What good would film criticism do anyway for a work that’s cultural status stretches far beyond the simple realms of the film world? “Oh man.” I said to the person I was attending the theater with, “This thing is two and a half hours long.” “Good.” She replied, “The more the better.” Struck out before even getting up to the plate. So, here it is: I never watched one solitary second of Sex and the City when it was on the air, and probably won’t now that I’ve witnessed it on film. So what do I do? I can’t even begin to validate the film’s success in its faithfulness to the original show and playing movie critic for a film whose audience I was clearly not meant to be a part of seems silly for me and dishonest for you. So you see my predicament with rating the darn thing. In my position, appointing a star value to this work seems about as redundant as, well, writing about how redundant it seems. There are two things every 20-something moving to New York City is looking for, tells the writer Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker): labels and love (which could have easily doubled for the film’s own title). Needless to say, Carrie isn’t a very good writer, but a lack of talent seems like small criticism in a world where The Devil Wears Prada flies off the shelves. Carrie, having spent her years in New York, is now 40 and writing about being in love with the man of her dreams Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and their future plans. Supporting her along the way are her four best friends: Charlotte (Kirstin Davis), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and of course, crowd favorite Samantha (Kim Cattrall). For those not initiated with the show, they will find that these four women each inhabit broad social types and their emotional reach does not seem to delve much deeper than that. Carrie is the emotional one who thinks (as her opening voice over suggests) with her heart and her cheque book. The first thing Carrie checks when looking for the new apartment: the closest space. Miranda (the most level-headed and interesting of the four) is the headstrong one; a driven career woman, so caught up in her work that she risks sexually alienating her husband. Charlotte is the bright and bubbly one; the girl who everyone loved but no one took seriously in high school, who wound up with the best husband and family anyway. She’s mostly comic relief and has an unfortunate scene put upon her in which she accidentally drinks water in Mexico and has an attack that wouldn’t be below a Wayans Brothers comedy. Finally there is Samantha, who women love, I assume, because, even at fifty, she is sexually liberated and vulgar; kissing and telling whoever will listen. No wonder Sex and the City was such a hit on TV; these girls occupy the perfect high class/high fashion female fairytale. The plot however, at two and a half hours (that’s five episodes worth of material), feels painfully episodic as each sequence seems to announce itself as a requisite Sex and the City moment instead of emerging from a greater overarching narrative: Okay, here’s the fashion show; Okay, here’s the unveiling of the new closet; Okay, here’s the homosexual male banter; Okay, here’s the fabulous wedding dress, and so on. Of course, none of this seems to add up to any more than it is: another moment, another new idea for next week’s episode. At half an hour increments, I assume that Sex and the City could sustain itself. At two and half, it lacks the continuity and coherence to pack any emotional punch, despite one great sequence that, in spite of it all, seeps under the skin. It’s a montage of New Years Eve, set to the subtle splendor of Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis’ Auld Lang Syne. So now I’ve come to the end, and done my best to fulfill my job as the critic. I’ve described to the best of my abilities, the movie that I saw and the experience I had of it. I’ve tried to explain it in such a way that, if it sounds like it will appeal to you, you’ll see it even though it didn’t much appeal to me. I’ve thus given some thought to the matter and finally decided that the film deserves a three star rating: neither here nor there. As a whole the film doesn’t work: to those uninitiated, it will feel like visiting a stranger’s family reunion, with not much incentive to care about anyone there or the actions they take, and I firmly believe that a film of any nature should strive to be self-sufficient. However, for better or worse, as both a love and a label for many, I’m sure that Sex and the City the Movie is just about perfect.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #3- Night of the Living Dead

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Simon Appears Courtesy of Four of Them

Oh, zombies. Where would our political aggressions be without them? Long a staple of pop culture, spawning five tangents of merchandise, some of which makes sense only if you're on especially bad pot. We love them, I think, because they are the ultimate excuse, both legal and moral, for murder.

However, Night of the Living Dead, Romero's breakout film, and many consider his masterpiece, is not the first appearence of the zombie. Technically, it was practioners of Voodoo in Haiti, 1800s on. In the 1930s, a folklorist named Zora Hurston went there, researching folklore, and met a woman who, by all accounts, had been dead and buried in 1907. And so it began, ya'll.

I won't bore you with more historical nonsense from Wikipedia. The thing is, Night of the Living Dead wasn't even the first movie to feature zombies. This honor went to White Zombie, a 1932 horror starring Bela Lugosi, which in itself was inspired by a book exploring undead voodoo themes published a few years earlier. Other films developed the more apocalyptic themes of the zombie, such as sci-fi Things to Come, several EC Comics which inspired Romero, and, of course, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

So, one could argue, Romero was hardly revolutionary in his concept. What he did do, though, was perfect, popularize, and reinvent the zombie, and the horror genre, forever.

I could list the thousands upon thousands of straight-up zombie flicks, followed by the zombie comedies, parodies, and rip-offs. But I won't (yet). Let's start, as always, with the social aspect. The film stars Duane Jones as Ben, a man caught in the midst of an outbreak of dead men walking, referred to as ghouls, things, and cannibals, barricaded inside a deserted farmhouse with an ever-growing (then decreasing) number of fellow survivors. See, Jones is black. And he's starring in a movie. As an entirely competent, assertive dude with nobody making any issue, or mention, of his race. This, you can imagine, was something of a big deal.

Oh, sure. 1968, you'd think this thing wouldn't cause such a fuss. But this, you'll consider, was the first time a black man fronted a movie as a non-ethnic role. Jones may not be quite the househole name, but he paved the way for Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Fishbourne, and Morgan Freeman.

Then, of course, there was countless political theories taken from this, and indeed all Romero films thereafter. Some compared it to the Vietnam war, the Cold war, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther Kind Jr., etc. Others criticized the partriarchal undertones, the general uselessness of the women, particularly lead-by-proxy Barbra, who spends the majority of the film sitting around, whimpering and drooling. Still more commented on the newfound nihilism of the horror, with not one main character making it to the end. It introduced a new level of unease within film, uncomfortable and bleak. This was the first time people were faced with a situation, on celluloid, anyway, and told that they most likely won't make it out of this situation, if it were them.

Ben's death, especially, is generally considered a flourish, a quick, brutal, pointless action, shot in the head by the Marauding Zombie Slayers, a bunch of rednecks who mistook him for a zombie, when he was standing at the window of the farmhouse the next morning. We were given false hope that hey, at least he made it, in an ironic way (he spends much of the movie arguing with another man over whether or not they should hide out in the basement, and ends up surviving the night by baracading himself there). Then, bam!, sorry Ben. Oh, well.

That's not to mention the countless movies that have followed--the sequels, and remakes of the sequels, B-movies, the reinventions by Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright, subversions and aversions, with every student filmmaker submitting their takes for midterms, and thousands of casting fliars handed out to track teams.

Paranoia--jesting and genuine--now runs rampant. In the back of your mind, can you really say you haven't worried about every cough you hear, every 'cold', that any person could drop one minute and come up the next, grabbing for your arm? Do you really not have a bat within reach when you go to sleep some nights, anticipating you'll have to go Sarah Polley on your sleeping husband? People have studied into the possibility of such an apocalypse? It is the least likely, yet most feared. If you rebuilt society, there'd always be the fear of a resurgence. It promises that you'd have to kill your loved ones, a grim future awaiting.

So, surely, 'Night' is perhaps the most influential film of all time, an impact spanning media, crossing into real life. A new kind of horror, one that's actually, y'know, scary.
ed. This may be as good a time as any to note that, even though I've been putting it off for a couple weeks now, my review of Attack of the Vegan Zombies will be up sometime soon.

My Favourite Musical Blog-A-Thon: Hairspray

To let up for a moment form the movies that made going to the movies suck and to get some of my own writing back on this site, I've decided to play along with an idea that Andrew came up with over at Encore's World of Film and TV where people pick their favourite musicals and write about them. Although my favourite musical is Rent, I'm sure many can agree that the movie version was, if not a total wash, missing something special that it has on the stage (and some major songs to boot) so I've decided to write about Hairspray instead. Enjoy and be sure to check out the other entries as they appear.
Some people live for the films of John Waters…Watch out for them! - Professor P. Tiessen Hairspray is an adaptation of a Broadway musical which was in turn inspired by a 1988 film by that contemptible cult auteur John Waters. With a steady supply of sexual taboos in the palm of his hand, Waters assaulted audiences with images of unspeakable perversions and human atrocities as if we should accept them as commonplace behavior; you’ll never be bored by a John Waters film but after having seen one you realize that boredom may have been the more decent alternative. Love it or hate it, it is what it is. However, in 1988 Waters stepped out from behind his X-Rated cocoon to make a quirky, campy piece of low-budget kitsch in the PG-13 realm (which he would only ever do once more in 1990 with Cry-Baby), about a chubby preteen girl trying to find her place in the early segregated 1960s, called Hairspray. Underneath all of Waters’ pompous flaunting of amateurism and crude social commentary, laid the man’s most personal, heartfelt film, and for a brief moment we understood John Waters as a human being and what it must have been like for him to grow up an outsider in 1960s Baltimore. To watch the original film now is to realize that it was, at its cinematic heart, a musical without a soundtrack. An exercise in excess and camp, just like a musical, Waters threw away the mechanics of conventional storytelling and made a film that threw its every ounce of attitude and corny pizzazz in our faces: mocking the beatniks, making pointed attacks at popular culture and the plastic reality it creates, and bearing a cast that read like sideshow attraction of talent, from an overweight transvestite to Sonny Bohno. A Broadway adaptation of Hairspray is then an ironic act of logistics. By trading in the camp and amateurism for vibrant dance sequences and uplifting 60s-inspired pop songs, director/choreographer Adam Shankman has turned in a better film than Waters probably ever knew he had to begin with. The original was the Coles Notes version; finally we are allowed to see the possibilities of the story in full bloom. The lives of Tracy Turnblad and Penny Pingleton revolve around that moment when they can race home from school to watch the Corny Collins Show, a dance variety program in which a bunch of popular, well groomed teenagers perform choreography overtop of popular songs while the Dick Clark-like Corny mediates the events. The stars of the show are Link and Amber von Tussle, whose mom Velma (the deviously sexy Michelle Phieffer) manages the local television station in Baltimore. With dreams the size of her waistline, Tracy skips school one day with Penny after Corny announces that the show will be looking for new talent and all teenagers are welcome to come out and audition. Although encouraged by her father (Christopher Walken doing a wonderful variation of Christopher Walken), the idea is frowned upon by Tracey’s overweight mother who is played by the scene stealing John Travolta in a fat suit (not so strange considering the role was originally written for John Waters’ cross-dressing star Divine). There is social commentary brooding in the sidelines as well as we learn that the Baltimore TV station is segregated. Thus black people are not allowed to be seen mingling with whites on screen and are allotted airtime once a month when the Corny Collins Show (apparently the only thing on in Baltimore) hosts “Negro Day.” After leaving from her audition humiliated, through a logical progression, Tracy not only makes it on the show, but also becomes a huge hit (no pun intended), leading to speculation that she could steal the title of Little Miss Hairspray (also hosted by Corny Collins) from Amber who is beautiful but a terrible dancer. There is also a subplot about Tracy learning to stand up for what is right by being involved in a protest march for black equality. As a musical Hairspray is Grease for a generation who are not qualified enough to understand the potential power and pleasure of a classic Hollywood musical; remembering a time when musicals could be fun and adventurous and touch us in a certain special way that narrative films just couldn’t. By introducing a sweet young actress in Nicky Blonsky who is a ball of fire and energy, able to carry the entire film on her shoulders, by gathering a cast of eccentric talent, by staging stunning choreography around show stopping pop songs like “Good Morning Baltimore,” and by having a big star like John Travolta create a real character out of a role most actors would play as a gimmick, , Hairspray succeeds at being one of its summer's finest features. But it doesn’t stop there. By taking this story of a chubby girl chasing her dreams out of the John Waters universe and brushing aside inside jokes and obscure cultural references, the message is as simple and touching as ever: Never give up hope; dreams are not selective and anyone with the courage to reach for them has the tools to catch one. Tracy Turnblad is the hero of a moment in time worth getting nostalgic over. Remembering a time of innocence before revolution, a time when people had dreams and stood for something because of it, Hairspray constructs the perfect emotional tone for a wonderfully uplifting fable about how it was possible for a lovable fat girl with an eccentric upbringing in crummy Baltimore to reach for the stars, only to become the most popular girl in town. Times aren’t like that anymore; we’ve lost our innocence, trading it in for darkened cynicism and technological isolation. Thankfully every once in a while a film like Hairspray comes along to remind us that things weren’t always this way. Note: Although both original cast members Sonny Bohno and Divine are no longer living, one who looks close enough will see cameos from original Hairspray cast members Jerry Stiller and Ricki Lake. The truly keen will also spot John Waters himself, who appears and even gets a laugh in the opening scene at the lyric “And there’s the flasher next door.”

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #4 Pulp Fiction

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Sebastian Appears Courtesy of Detailed Criticisms

So, Pulp Fiction. It is a title that is synonymous with wit, absurdity, violence, vulgarity, and all around brilliance. A film this original, smart, and consistently entertaining only comes around every so often, and when it does, it ignites a firestorm of praise and mayhem! Quentin Tarantino's meisterverk did just that. Before Pulp Fiction, no one had really seen anything of the sort. Characters had never talked that way; events like that had never occurred. Plots were a strictly linear affair, and changing it up and going back and forth in the timeline of the film was unheard of. The vulgarity was never so vulgar, the violence was never so violent, and the comedy was never so comic, as it was in Pulp Fiction. It proved to be uber popular, winning the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes festival, raking in tons of cash, and winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It took the world by storm, which, depending on how you look at it, was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Tarantino had ushered in a new era of movie making, one that celebrated the conventions and reveled in prolonged, elaborate stories. On the other hand, it quickly became apparent, as various writers and directors attempted to emulate this style, that filmmakers like Tarantino were a rare breed. To this day, he is still the master of his craft. No one has come close to touching him.

From the very first shot of Pulp Fiction, where Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer talk about the various methods of robbery over coffee, you know you are for something special. Immediately, you are whisked on a bizarre and fascinating journey involving a pair of bible spewing hitmen, their boss, his trophy wife, the down and out boxer he paid off, his girlfriend, a drug dealer, and a suitcase with an ominous golden light coming from it. What made Pulp Fiction standout in my mind, even more then Tarantino's less known debut, Reservoir Dogs, is how it takes its sweet time to get to the point.
The first big segment sees Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield and John Travolta's Vincent Vega heading off to a job at the behest of their boss, Marcellus Wallace. On their way, they talk about, in no particular order, the city of Amsterdam's policies on the distribution, possession, and use of marijuana, the differences at McDonalds between America and Europe, television, Samoan people, and what it means emotionally to give a woman a foot massage. There are multiple scenes like this, of characters talking about bullshit on their way to big events. It's great! On top of that, the big events are some of the weirdest and most absurd ever seen on film, ranging from an encounter with a pair of rapists and their gimp, to a brush with God, to a frantic and surreal rush to dispose of a dead body. Again, it's great. Also the soundtrack is awesome, and the performances are top notch!

So, what's the problem? Well, Pulp Fiction was a big deal when it came out. Everyone wanted to see it, and the studios noticed this, and they, in all their wisdom, decided to try and mimic whatever it is that Tarantino accomplished. The result was a slew of lackluster, soulless knockoffs that quickly fell into obscurity. The problem was that all the writers and directors thought that all they needed to do was watch Pulp Fiction over and over again, take the words off the screen, mix them around on the page, and they'd be done. What they failed to do was capture the magic that Tarantino was creating. As Roger Ebert so eloquently put it, "they knew the words, but not the music." Films like Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Smokin' Aces and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels are all examples of mimicking Tarantino's style without first determining what is special about it. They all had quick, witty dialogue, shocking scenes of ultra violence, and curse words up the wazoo. But, they were missing that certain something, and that something is humanity. In pretty much every Tarantino movie, his characters go through redemption, cope with loss, ruin their lives, make terrible decisions, fueled by greed, sadness, or anger, and pay the penalty. This is all layered on to the witty dialogue, ultra violence, and curse words up the wazoo, giving a realism not found in any other filmmakers work. This human aspect is lost in all other films that sought to mimic him. It's all style, but no substance.

Every movie about criminals these days owes something to Pulp Fiction. Whether it's the inclusion of two snarky hitmen (In Bruges), multiple, interconnecting story lines (Crash, Snatch), or just an overuse of vulgarity and pop culture references (uhhh... all of them), at some point, the makers were influenced by Pulp Fiction. It's completely understandable. A small, independent movie turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly, everyone is attempting to cash in on the craze, whether they know it or not. Tarantino awoke a vicious monster the day he premiered his tale of violence and redemption, and, so far, he is the only one who knows how to tame it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Toronto Underground Cinema- An Interview With Charlie Lawton

Alex Woodside, Charlie Lawton, and Nigel Agnew love movies of all kinds. You can tell. Their favourites range from The Dark Knight to The Godfather to Casablanca and back again to The Big Lewbowski. That's why maybe they're just the right guys to have opened their own theater in downtown Toronto. Toronto Underground Cinema, at Queen and Spadina, is the brainchild of three cinema geeks, buffs, aficionados, whatever you want to call them. Lawton, Woodside and Agnew all came together to open their one screen, 700 seat cinema at 186 Spadina Ave. in an abandoned basement screening space. The Underground got it's kick start on Friday May 14 with a free double feature of Clue and Big Trouble in Little China and opened its doors again two days later for a Jim Henson tribute with Muppets Take Manhattan and Labyrinth. Not strangers to the Toronto film scene, Lawton tells me he is both writer and director and will have his work featured in an upcoming horror anthology film called The Last, which can be expected some time next year. And as for Agnew and Woodside, well they are former employees of the Bloor Cinema where they also put their creative juices to work, creating a trilogy of short films entitled The Popcorn Trilogy (Agnew starred and Woodside produced). And yet, at their heart, these are just three guys who seem to be in love with the cinema and all it's shapes and forms. Where else, after all, will you find a place in Toronto that will show you both The Runaways (Coming Saturday May 29) and The Muppets on the same screen? Or how about Clue and A Prophet (May 28 and 30)? You get the picture. In that sense, despite the local competition of both first and second-run theaters, you get the feeling that these three are doing this for the very best of reasons, one that any movie lover could appreciate: to create an outlet to share the films they love with as many people as possible. "This is our dream, we all love movies, we love cinema, and we’re doing this for love, and we hope that people will come out and support that. And we hope that we provide a space for people to come and enjoy a movie experience they can’t get anywhere else," says Lawton.
From Left: Lawton, Agnew and Woodside I had the privilege of conducting an e mail based interview with Lawton just after the opening weekend of Toronto Underground Cinema. Check out what he had to say: Me: How did the idea for The Underground originate? Lawton: Alex [Woodside] found out about the space in the fall of 09, and due to being too busy with some other projects, passed up on doing anything with it.Then in January he told me about it and I basically hit him on the back of the head and told him he was an idiot for passing that up. Then I got in touch with Nigel and the two of us contacted the owner and purposed that we could provide the infrastructure for the business and run it for him. For a month or so Nigel and I worked on a business plan, and in that time Alex’s previous projects came to an end so he was free and we asked him to help us out. Then the three of us set to work on getting the theatre up and running. M: Was the idea created after finding a location or was this something that you guys had in mind and it just so happened that you came across this location? L: Alex and Nigel had worked at the Bloor [Cinema] previously, and I was a frequent patron of the theatre, as well the three of us worked on Jurassic Park the Shadow Cast (ed. this is where people act out scenes from the movie while it is playing) together in the summer of 09. We became good friends, and we all loved movies. While they worked at the Bloor,we’d always talk about different events and things we’d love to play, and then after they left the Bloor we’d have long talks about what we’d do if we ran a movie theatre. So the idea was always there in abstract, but it wasn’t until Alex told me about the space and the three of us started working on the idea did it really come together into something tangible. M: There's a lot of local competition with both first and second-run theatres nearby. How does The Underground plan of differentiate itself and offer people something that they can't get elsewhere? L: The Underground is going to be an event space. We’ll be showing the typical second run fair, as well as showing events of our own and throwing in some classic films. But what we hope will make it different is the feeling you get when watching a film here. There will be a buzz in the air, the audience will be positively charged. I don’t mean they will be loud and boisterous, even an audience that is sitting quiet, but is there to see a film they love has a great vibe to it. That’s what we’re hoping that’ll make us different, it’ll be filled with people who not only want to see the movie, but love cinema. It’s certainly run by those types. M: Once you are up and running on a regular basis, how will you juggle providing both newer things that will draw in crowds on a regular basis while also retaining your status as a unique underground cinema that shows films like Clue or the Muppets movies? L: It’s all about finding a balance. We’re planning on experimenting with lots of different programming, to see what works for us as a theatre, and what works for the fans and for the community surrounding us. We definitely won’t lose the more cult and “genre” films, because that’s what we love and it’s what drew us to starting a theatre. If we wanted to just show only mainstream fair we’d have submitted our resumes to a Cineplex. M: Are there plans to incorporate more mainstream fare and if so how will it be decided what should be shown and what should be left for the Cineplexes of the world? L: Again, it’s all about finding the right balance for this space. We’re not so in love with the genre films that we shun mainstream films. My favourite film is Dark Knight and you can’t get much more mainstream than that. The week before our theatre opened the three managers went to go see the midnight opening of Iron Man 2. We love mainstream films just as much as the stuff on the fringes. I look at it like this: we love movies; it doesn’t matter if it’s a small indie release or if it’s a multibillion dollar blockbuster. M: What is your opinion on the current state of independent cinema and, more specifically, the filmmaking climate in Toronto? L: I think it’s both a really hard time for indie film makers, as well as a golden age. It’s a golden age because the technology is available for someone to go out and make a movie easily, and if you have the skill to use it correctly, you can make a film look amazing with some basic tools. But that’s also why it’s so hard; the market is literally flooded, so it’s hard to get your voice heard. But I love the filmmaking climate of Toronto. I’m a film maker myself and I love the film community here. It’s through them and the good friends I’ve made that I got to direct my first film, a segment of a horror anthology film called The Last, due out next year. Before moving to Toronto, I lived in Pontypool, out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s nearly impossible to get anything made without the help, support and aid of a good group of friends and fellow film makers. And I love Toronto for that: it’s filled with film makers; all who have great ideas and want to help each other out. On a bigger scale I love seeing the stuff David Cronenberg, Bruce MacDonald, Atom Egoyan, Don Mckeller, and Sarah Polley are doing, as well as many others. I’m a big fan of Canadian cinema. M: Why do you think there is a demand for such a cinema right now? L: I think it’s a void that the city needs filling, there’s a few small cinema events that go on monthly, but I feel that there’s a want for more. It’s easier by the day to watch a movie at home. Everyone can pick up a DVD or Blu-Ray, or video on demand on the computer, and that just doesn’t have the same feel as seeing a film in a cinema. And I think people are realising that: it’s not just the movie, it’s the whole experience you get at a cinema: the small of the popcorn, the electricity in the air from the crowd, and sitting in a hushed room, getting lost in a film. For two hours you are sucked into a film and all your problems are forgotten. It’s a little bit of magic. M: Given the economy and the rarity of big studios trying to take chances of riskier projects, is it now harder than ever for a theatre of this nature not only to open, but to survive? L: It’s definitely not easier, but I think over all the only thing we have to worry about is the audience. If they keep showing up, we’ll have no problem surviving. M: Did the opening weekend meet/surpass expectations? L: The opening blew us away. Not only by the crowd we had out, but by the love and the outpouring of support from the fans. The building felt alive. We also were so touched by our friends who helped us out by volunteering. It was a night none of us will ever forget, I know it still feels surreal to me. M: Can you tell us or hint at some of what The Underground has in store for the future? L: Along with lots of great films, both second run and older fair, we have some events coming up that should be lots of fun. We also have some very special guests lined up, none that I can reveal yet, but we should be making announcements soon. One I can tell you about is we’re thinking of doing a seven deadly sins festival, showing films that play into each sin. We’re also looking into a Batman festival down the line, something that’s near and dear to my own heart. For more information on The Toronto Underground Cinema check out their Facebook page. Also continue to watch for announcements about upcoming showings and coverage on events within this space. Also check out The Underground's website here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #5- Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

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Cinema was built on genres and one of the most enduring genres is the gangster/crime movie. Often overlapping with other genres like film noir, thrillers and even comedy, gangster movies have been a mainstay of Hollywood since the golden age of cinema. But in the United Kingdom they have never had the same relevance and reverence, true there have been some great British gangster movies like The Long Good Friday, Get Carter and Brighton Rock but they have all been a bit few and far between with no collective. Then in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all this changed but was it for better or worse?

If you don’t know the movie, here is a brief synopsis: Eddie (Nick Moran), Soap (Dexter Fletcher). Tom (Jason Flemyng) and Bacon (Jason Statham) have been friends since childhood, seeing an opportunity to make a fast buck they scrape together £100,000 as a stake for an illegal card game hosted by local “porn king” Harry "The Hatchet" Lonsdale (P. H. Moriarty). The Game: three card brag (far more British than poker). Eddie the cardshark of the group sits down to play not realising the game is fixed. Not only does he lose the money but he also has to pay £500,000 within a week to save his fingers and his father's pub. With time ticking away fast they overhear a plot to rob a group of local dope growers. Then throw into the mix a pair of hapless Scouse thieves, a brace of valuable antique shotguns and mob enforcer Big Chris (Vinnie Jones).

The movie is well written, funny and original. There are some compelling characters and a great battling underdog theme. It is also unashamedly British. It doesn’t pretend to be a Hollywood movie, set in London with a British cast, British humour. The movie didn’t exactly save the British film industry but it really kick-started it and put it on a new path. It was the first sign in a decade and a half that Colin Welland declaration at the Oscars "the British are coming" may be true, it wasn’t. The problem with the movie is twofold; as well as the countless imitators it also launched the Hollywood career of British thespians Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham, neither are good actors but both are big stars. Jason Statham: As crap as The Transporter (2002) was, it did have few fun moments and was relatively harmless, did it really need two sequels? What was Crank (2006) all about? In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007) was directed by Uwe Boll, need I say more! He has become the Seagal/Van Damme of the past decade, as their movies go direct to DVD Jason Statham movies still get theatrical releases. On top of all this he has had leading or prominent roles in remakes of Death Race, The Italian Job and Mean Machine, three movies that all have one thing in common, they aren’t as good as the movie they are based on.

Vinnie Jones: Although not the most talented footballer in the world, he was a skilled defender who played on his hard-man reputation to defect attention from his abilities. In 1988 at 23 years old he won the FA Cup with Wimbledon, the so called “Crazy Gang”. Since his retirement from football he has begun to come across as a really nice guy, with this said, he isn’t a good actor. Two directors have known what to do with him, Dominic Sena in Gone in 60 Seconds and Midnight Meat Train in Ryûhei Kitamura gave him minimal dialogue. Other directors: Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), Barry Skolnick (Mean Machine) chose not to do this!

As for the offending imitators there are many but the worst offender is the only feature directed by Edward Thomas. Rancid Aluminium came out just two years after Lock Stock. What is supposed to be a cleaver weaving plot is actually chaos at best. The acting is abysmal the script laughable, the best thing I can say about the movie as a whole is that it is forgettable. Then we have the collective works of Nick Love, the writer director of four nasty little movies in five years: The Football Factory (2004), The Business (2005), Outlaw (2007) and The Firm (2009). These films glorify thugery and violence amongst everyday people with little artistic merit but they are still riding the Lock Stock bandwagon. Even Guy Ritchie is guilty. After the failure of Swept Away he returned to the genre with Revolver, an utter mess of a movie. When this didn’t work he tried again with RocknRolla, whist not a bad movie it is still a pale echo of his earlier movies. But there is a glimmer of hope, Lock Stock producer Matthew Vaughn had a new movie he wanted to make but Guy Ritchie wasn’t interested so Vaughn directed it himself. That film was Layer Cake and it moved the British Gangster movie to add to this. With Sherlock Holmes Guy Ritchie proved he could be a director for hire and he could operate in other genres, well sort of!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #6- Die Hard

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Die Hard is one of the best modern action movies around; indeed it's hard to believe that it was released 22 years ago. It stands the test of time, like all great action movies.

Moreover, unlike many other films in its genre, its success may be attributed to several factors, such as its witty and very excellent script and not just the action sequences.

Of course, a great cast is also crucial. Die Hard is headed up by Bruce Willis and features Mr. Alan Rickman (love him!). It was directed by John McTiernan, who was the director of other greats such as Predator, The Hunt for Red October and The Thomas Crown Affair, the latter of which was completely underrated, in my opinion anyway.

The role of cynical New York Detective John McClane shot Willis to stardom and he plays the role with relish. In short, McClane goes to L.A. for Christmas break to visit his estranged wife, Holly. What should have been a cheery Christmas holiday turns into a gun fest, where McClane takes on European terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Rickman).

Unlike most eighties film villains, Gruber's actions money-motivated. He uses guns to storm the Takagi Corporation's Christmas party and steal millions of dollars from the company. "Die Hard" broke new ground, as it introduced us not only to the terrorist entrepreneur, but also to a new action character, the "down on his luck" hero McClane, who is in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Die Hard will live on as one of the best action movies ever and is held up by the script filled with comic gems and classic one-liners, such as ("Yippy-Ki-Yay, mother******)!

This spawned countless imitations such as Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Speed, Passenger 57 and indeed the Die Hard franchise. Unfortunately, apart from a few notable exceptions few "Try-Hards" came close to Die Hard's witty sarcasm and level of excitement.

Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #7- Halloween

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The Boogeyman is a concept that transcends cultural differences. It is part of the human subconscious, this frightening being that stalks us and preys at the precise moment when we are the most vulnerable, when we least expect attack. There are thousands, probably millions, of conceptions of this evil and mysterious creature, but in 1978 a then-small potatoes director named John Carpenter bested even our worst nightmares with Michael Myers. With gray coveralls and a $2 rubber mask, Carpenter created a killer who was everywhere and nowhere at once – and left an indelible mark on the horror genre.

Key to the success – Halloween became one of the highest-grossing independent films ever – of Carpenter’s cheaply made masterpiece of scare is the harmonious convergence of elements: a formidable murderer; a spine-tingling score; undeniably human characters; and a focus on psychological terror. The character of Myers (Tony Moran) delivers the goods because he is single-minded in his vision: he wants only to kill and kill more. His mask renders his face expressionless, his mouth immobile. He never speaks, and this makes him purely terrifying. Carpenter smartly underscores Myers’ appearances on screen with a spare musical score, written by himself, that relies on just a few quavering notes to play our fear like guitar strings. None of the other characters – including Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Michael’s baby sister and intended victim, and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) – get such distinctive treatment. They are generic Anypeople, and they remind us that evil does not distinguish. Michael Myers breaks them down by playing with their minds, existing at the edges of their vision – note the masterful hedge scene and his appearance outside Laurie’s classroom – appearing and vanishing as if at will. Here Carpenter plays the audience’s fears, letting our imaginations do the heavy lifting. There is little blood, almost no gore, because Carpenter understood what his copycats did not: the real psychological damage is something we must do to ourselves.

Halloween, like many a successful film, inspired innumerable sequels and prequels (thanks to tireless producer Mustapha Akkad), each more overblown than the last. Halloween and Halloween II, gore aficionado Rob Zombie’s latest entries in the canon, miss the mark entirely by wallowing in gore and unnecessarily convoluted plotlines. (Halloween II actually included supernatural visions in which Myers’ mother “spoke” to him.) John Carpenter’s masterpiece also led to the 1980s horror craze, populated by such inspired but less effective characters as the hockey mask-sporting Jason Voorhees of the campy Friday the 13th series, a mute fellow with mommy issues, and Freddy Kreuger of Nightmare on Elm Street, a child killer with knife-capped fingers who made the dreams of teens his hunting grounds. Both franchises devolved into camp (mostly self-referential when the sequels reached double digits) and lacked the bare-bones approach that made the 1978 Halloween such a marvel. Still other horror directors misinterpreted Carpenter’s aims and turned them into a new genre composed entirely of dead teen-agers (including the I Know What You Did Last Summer movies), though Scream had some luck spinning these clichés – unwittingly popularized by Halloween – into pop-culture humor. And the wannabes missed the mark Carpenter hit so blatantly. They failed to see that all the blood and viscera in the world can’t beat a man in a mask, a walking, talking embodiment of our worst fears who is both human and immortal.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Worst Movie Review

Six years ago when I went into university I went with a dream of one day writing movie reviews for a big daily like the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail. Of course, four years later when I graduated newspapers were dropping more people than they were hiring, the Internet was becoming the best source of news and that romantic vision I had of people reading newspapers because they cared about the personality of the writers quickly evaporated. Nevertheless, I still love the art of writing criticism. So few people write good film criticism anymore. Anyone can access a blog, post on a message board, etc. but criticism has lost what makes it so special: the skill and personality of the writer (good writers who know what they are talking about). Because I love it so much, not only do I cherish it when I find it, but I also must call it out when it is bad. There is one review I will never forget. It appeared in the Calgary Sun (The Sun, to give you an idea, is basically a daily tabloid parading as a newspaper and written at around a third grade level) and was written by their nearly incompetent critic Louis B. Hobsen. It was in regards to the third Matrix film Revolutions, which he gave 3 out of 5 stars, which is kind of a cruel irony when you think about it ,but don't let me spoil it, read for yourself: Fans of The Matrix have waited four years to learn that everything that has a beginning has an end. This is the great revelation in The Matrix Revolutions, the conclusion to this sci-fi trilogy that opens today.

When this amazing insight finally dawns on the saviour Neo (Keanu Reeves), he heads for Machine City to negotiate with the artificial intelligence which has enslaved mankind for more than two centuries.

He wants to share this great revelation with the machines who have launched a final attack on mankind's rebel city, Zion.

Neo hopes to convince the machines to side with man against the rogue computer virus known as Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who he predicts will turn against the machines.

It's more gobbledygook and convoluted logic but, once again, it's dressed up with incredible visual effects. Even if The Matrix Revolutions fails to mesmerize your mind, it will dazzle your senses.

Its cutting-edge technology almost disguises the fact that, instead of breaking new ground, Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski have simply recycled everything from Greek mythology and Christian theology to Star Wars and Terminator.

The Wachowskis try to give their final chapter some heart. Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) articulate their love as much as Reeves and Moss can articulate any emotion. (They have to be the dullest actors on this or any other planet.)

The prophet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) gives his former lover Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) some forlorn looks but their mission to save mankind is too noble to include anything such as genuine human emotions.

Reeves, Moss, Fishburne, Pinkett Smith and Mary Alice as the Oracle speak in forced whispers, as if to convince us of the importance of their meanderings and their roles as icons.

It becomes as boring as it is pretentious, especially when they are conversing with each other.
What gives Revolutions life is several outstanding action set pieces, including a battle in the foyer of a sex club. This time, when Neo and Agent Smith battle, they send each other flying into space and toward the centre of the earth.

The battle at the gates of Zion demonstrates just how far computer-generated effects have come. The marriage of live action and computer images is seamless.

The set design for Machine City makes it look like something out of Dante's Inferno, while Zion resembles the caves Christians inhabited to escape the Romans.

It's a fitting way to show how the Wachowskis strive to make everything old seem revolutionary.


You know things aren't looking good for your movie when Ewoks get brought up as a point of reference.

The singin' and dancin' teddy bears were considered the worst thing about Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, which itself is seen by most fans to be the weakest link in the original Star Wars trilogy. Nub-nub this pointy stick right in your eye, you furry little demons.

While Return of the Jedi still managed to wrap up the original Star Wars trilogy on a satisfactory note, both from a story standpoint and as a decent (if flawed) movie in its own right, things aren't looking quite so rosy for The Matrix Revolutions, which opens in theatres today.

"We were laughing in parts I don't think we were supposed to be laughing in," said one friend of mine who caught a preview screening of Revolutions yesterday. "It was two hours of my life I'll never get back," said another.

The so-called professional critics haven't been much kinder to the much-hyped final film in the trilogy about Neo and company's rage against the machines, which many felt needed to redeem the series after the baffling and disappointing middle film, The Matrix Reloaded.

On the website, early reviews of the film were landing decidedly on the rotten side. By late afternoon yesterday, out of the 30 reviews, only one-third gave Revolutions three stars or better out of five.

Christopher Null, a reviewer for, had this to say: "With their third (and hopefully, final) Matrix movie, the Wachowski brothers have delivered a dud so disappointing, they may as well have bused in Ewoks to save Zion."

In a word, ouch! Some of the other zingers:

* "A clamorous, soulless barrage." - Christy Lemire, The Associated Press.

* "Louder, longer, more expensive and dumber than its predecessors, Revolutions is a mediocrity that will provide escapism only to those who head for the theater exits." - Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune.

* "(The Wachowski brothers') movie's tone of self-importance is so bloated it's bound to explode and does, long before the bright green graphics tell us the story has ended." - John Anderson, Newsday.

* "The Matrix Revolutions sucks." - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.

I haven't seen Revolutions yet. I will, of course ... having invested this much in the story, I gotta see how it all turns out. (Matrix newbies would do well to rent the previous two movies first, since the final instalment will make zero sense without having seen them first.)

But to be honest, given what a mish-mash Reloaded was, I'm not in any hurry. Just as the original Star Wars movies are infinitely superior to the glossy, stupid and soulless prequel films, I have a feeling 1999's The Matrix will stand as the movie we'll remember fondly, with Reloaded and Revolutions being the barrage of high-tech pseudo-philosophy that came afterwards to sully those memories. But maybe I'm wrong. It's been known to happen.
That any daily, no matter how bad, would publish a review written by a man who has yet to see the film just baffles me. What were they thinking? Did they need Matrix coverage so bad that week that they simply allowed this man to pad a "review" with quotes from so-called "professionals" on Rotten Tomatoes? And besides Christie Lamire and Peter Travers, I'm not sure any of those critics qualify as respectable sources and even Travers is on the edge of that line. Christopher Null? Come on. What's maybe most shocking is that this kind of thing isn't rare to any of The Sun newspapers. Their entertainment section, with the exception of Bruce Kikrland in Toronto, pride themselves on writing stupid, vapid reviews and celebrity gossip and their achieves are filled with golden nuggets like this one. Maybe I'll have to make this a regular feature?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #8- Animal House

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Every comedy that has ever taken place on campus; every comedy that involves teens or twenty-something’s discovering the glories of beer and babes; every comedy with the National Lampoon’s moniker; every comedy with an overweight, under-shaven slacker who you just love; ever comedy made about losing your purity, your innocence, your virginity, your mind; and just about every comedy made in the respective career of Ivan Reitman, John Landis and Harold Raimis; hell just about every American comedy since 1978 owes something to Animal House. Animal House shook the foundations. Better yet, it shook them up, turned them around upside down and gave them a wet willy. Animal House is the American comedy that just about defines American comedy. You can see the remnants of its trail of influence even to this very day. It’s funny then that the movie would have no real story, no real stars and no real motive other than to look honestly upon the low down, unproductive lives of the people it depicts. It may not have much of a story but it makes up for it in heart, spirit and charisma and it gave birth to one of the greatest comedic stars of his generation: John Belushi. Supposedly based on the real life college experience of writer Chris Miller (who went on to write the book The Real Animal House, telling that what we saw in the film was actually the tame version), the film is about a rundown frat house full of beer guzzlers, party animals and people who care so little about anything else than not caring that they can barely be bothered to go to class. Of course the school dean wants an excuse to get rid of the frat and cooks up a little something by the name of Double Secret Probation, a term that has by now become iconic. That’s about it. The rest of the film is all comic gusto as it lives among these animals, who really, only want to have a good time. Who can blame them? Twas of the time. And although the film succeeds in its broad anarchistic spirit it also has gentle touches of hilarity as well as in how every time someone walks into the Delta House someone off screen throws a beer. Sometimes they collide with the wall, unless they are going in Bluto's (Belushi) direction in which case they are caught with a movement so swift that it’s like a natural reflex from the center of his being. Of course with such staggering originality and such box office success came the imitators and there have been, and continue to be, countless. The failed TV show, which lasted upwards of 13 episodes, Caddyshack, Van Wilder, Sorority Boys, Dorm Daze, Super Troopers, College, American Pie, even The Hangover and a slew of others not even worth remembering. But what most of these films lacked was the spirit. In a way, Animal House wasn’t even a comedy, it just so happened to be really funny. That’s how the best comedies operate, as if humour is just a pleasant byproduct of the story. The imitators tried too hard. They stuck so rigidly to the formula, dreaming up new ways to make it seem fresh and original that they forget the spirit, and in their desperate attempt at any sort of laugh, no matter how pathetic, they overshot their mark and ended with none. In that sense, Animal House didn’t work because of how funny it was, but because of, if you think about it, its maturity and sophistication in the character department. There’s a famous line in the film from Bluto where he calls for “A stupid, futile gesture on someone’s part.” That was the key to Animal House, always getting a laugh on someone else’s behalf. The imitators get the stupid and futile part down just right, but it’s always on their own part. I guess some people just never learn.

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #9- Seven

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Fifteen years ago, stylish rogue director David Fincher took audiences by surprise with his grim, unsettling police thriller, Seven*, a Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman vehicle about a serial killer murdering victims using staged manifestations of the seven deadly sins-- greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, pride, wrath, lust. The killings (which we mostly only see as a visual postscript, leaving our imaginations to fill in the blanks) range from disturbing to downright stomach churning, though each is unfathomably cruel in their own fashion; by the time we meet the victim of sloth, we could very easily call this a horror film, though of course we're too wrapped up in the surfeit the film induces to really give a damn what it's called. That dark, grimy aesthetic just pulls us in and refuses to let go; in the years following the aftermath of Fincher's sophomore major studio effort, that artistic point of view has arguably inspired the looks of major cinematic cities from Alex Proyas' Dark City to Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Gotham in the Batman films.

Of course, Seven's greatest (or most palpable) impact has been felt in the world of graphic design and editing, specifically as it concerns the opening credits; Kyle Cooper's work here has had a massive effect on how artists approach the opening title sequence, treating it as part of the story rather than a banal introductory requirement all films must hold to. Seven's opening credits set up the story on their own instead of simply listing the necessary cast and crew; you can see this influence in films like Snatch, and even HBO series like Carnivale. If nothing else, Seven should be applauded for innovating an element of a film that most wouldn't necessarily think needed to be innovated: Cooper made construction of the opening titles an art form unto itself.

But I have a major beef with Seven, and maybe it's just me. Every great movie has its imitators for certain, so while others have been inspired by Fincher's style and aesthetic, I can't bother with getting that worked up over mere mimicry. What I am fussed over is something much more blatant. Taking cues from a filmmaker is one thing, but flat-out stealing? Well, that's another beast entirely. Enter James Wan and Leigh Whannell, two no-talent schlubs who purloined the essence of Seven for their own ends. I could accuse them of theft and leave it at that, but if I'm going to blame these two creative black holes for anything, I feel it's only right that I also point out the obvious: If Seven never existed, we very well may never have had to endure the Saw franchise.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Seven's John Doe (Kevin Spacey, eerily detached from everything and yet somehow magnetically charismatic in his own bizarre fashion) cuts a brutal and gore-filled swath through the sinners of the unnamed city in which the film's story unfolds based on the biblical. Meanwhile, Saw's John Kramer (Tobin Bell, easily the best part of the entire franchise**), also known as the Jigsaw killer, entraps his victims for entirely non-religious reasons: Having lost his chance at a family and a happy life, and discovering that he is afflicted with cancer, John starts placing people in potentially lethal traps to determine how much they appreciate the "gift of life". John also dies (and don't cry "spoiler" at me, the son of a bitch has a terminal illness) halfway through the series, which continues thanks to the efforts of his "disciples", fellow nutjobs who carry on his legacy over the course of the next three films. If brevity is truly the soul of wit, then John Kramer is the Ayn Rand of movie serial killers.

John Kramer also has a visual aid in the form of a truly goofy looking puppet. So there's that too.

But differences aside there's no mistaking that Kramer comes from the same fundamental mold as Doe. Both of them are driven to kill and maim to expose humanity's decadence and uncover the transgressions of the average human being; they want to punish those they deem to be wicked and, in doing so, make screwed up sociological statements to the rest of us. They want to inject morality back into daily existence. They're serial killers with consciences.

To wit: Doe seeks to demonstrate to all of us how sinful our society has become. His victims all could be classified as innocent, though Doe would naturally disagree. This is a man who believes that the vainglorious are guilty of a crime heinous enough to warrant mutilation and torture as a sentence. Meanwhile, Kramer wants to force those very same sinful sorts of people to face their crimes and, if they're strong enough, survive and gain a new appreciation for the life they've got left. Both of them want to leave a mark on humanity, ostensibly to "save" people from themselves. In Doe's case, his delusion is compelling. In Kramer's, it's downright puzzling-- how do you expect people to appreciate their lives more when you've left them physically and emotionally rent asunder?

There's more to the issue than the similarities between the motives of the killers in both films, of course. Two movies about killers with moral agendas can definitely co-exist. The problem is that Saw borrows too liberally from Seven, and quite literally forces its victims to face their crimes/sins by putting them in situations that mirror the acts that garnered the attention of Kramer in the first place. Seven's victims literally are killed by recreations of the sin they embody; for gluttony, a man is force-fed until his stomach wall ruptures. For pride, a woman taken by her own beauty is disfigured and forced to choose between calling 911 or committing suicide. Fast forward to, say, Saw VI, which centers on one of "Jigsaw's" victims-- an executive of a health insurance company. He is forced, through a series of tests, to decide which of his staff members get to live or die-- just like he decides who lives or dies on a daily basis, depending on who can afford his health insurance! Nefarious. Wan and Whannell have fashioned their Jigsaw killer into John Doe 2.0, and in programming their upgrade excised the wit and social commentary embodied in the character's words and actions in favor of buckets of goop; if in fact Seven was a direct source of inspiration for the duo, then their tribute to its morally murky waters very clearly misses the point of the entire exercise.

Taking the concept and making it their own would have been one thing, but Wan and Whannell lifted so much of the meat of Seven that their films can't help but feel like cheap doppelgangers. Sure, they're the bad guys here-- they had the "great idea"of bringing Saw to life-- and we should retaliate against their assault on good horror filmmaking by, uh, not buying tickets to Saw movies. But in its own way, Seven bears the responsibility of being the film that helped open up the gateway and allowing the Saw badness through. I'm absolutely not suggesting reviling Seven for its unwitting negligence-- but pound for pound, even if the film is so good as to outweigh the consequences of its release, Seven without a doubt made mainstream horror suck a little more.

* Side note: Seven also made it okay for movies and television shows to replace letters with numbers-- like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Numb3rs. Even as someone who favors proper spelling and grammar, I can't get too upset over this minor element since it only allows artists the opportunity to make themselves look stupid.

** Credit where credit's due. Bell is a pretty menacing guy, even if he doesn't do much by way of active participation, which probably makes that air of malice even more impressive.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Was Thinking...

There's a lot of cynicism that surrounds contemporary movies. Sure, they are big, dumb, filled to the brim with special effects but you know, at least they look good, are functional and well made, no? The advancement of CGI may have, for the most part, stripped film of it's authenticity, but even as recently as the 80s, just plain bad filmmaking was doing just about the same thing. This came into my mind last night as I was watching Teen Wolf Too for the first time. Needless to say, it was all kinds of awful. And yet it wasn't awful for the same reasons that today's movies are awful. It was awful because it was sloppy and lazy and made with little care or concern for anything other than getting it made. At least today's movies try their best. Their priorities are just in the wrong place. Today's market is concerned with hooking onto fads, playing up gimmicks, finding trends to beat into the ground, etc. It's not that movies today are bad, they just lack the vision required to make them anything special. Sure, there will always be stupid and lazy romantic comedies and bloated action movies, but on a whole, today's films don't lack ambition, they just lack any desire to do anything but colour inside the lines. Even the worst of contemporary films like Transformers 2, isn't without the drive to be bigger and louder than every other movie out there. In fact, it's problem is that it has too much of that drive to the point where it is blinded to its own misgivings. That's not the problem with films back in the day. Their problem was that they were made incompetently but under the same assembly line mentality as today. Think about it: here we have the sequel to a (very bad) popular film, let's put as little money into it as possible and get huge returns. I mean, look at this: There is no way you would ever see something so blatantly stupid or lazy in today's Hollywood films. So thus I'm left asking the question: is it better to have empty, meaningless films that look good, are ambitious and are well made, or stupid, lazy ones like this? I don't know the answer although I tend towards the contemporary ones. Thoughts?

Just Wright

Finally, at long last, Just Wright is a romantic comedy that doesn’t deal in contrived plot gimmicks, shallow condescension and unlikely, lowest-common-denominator comedy. Instead it’s a film about two good people who fall in love because they get to know each other, explore each others personal depths and are legitimately attracted to one another. I didn’t know that was still allowed. One character even has a father who is kind, helping and supportive. It’s a film about people who so rarely have films made about them any more: ordinary people who work, live, pay the bills and want to meet the one that they can’t live without. That’s it. Films are becoming so big but here’s one of the few that still wants to play on the level. We need to cherish them while they last. Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah) is a New York physiotherapist who loves basketball. She dresses up and takes her old Mustang beater on dates which seem to go well but always end with the same story: always a home girl never a bride. Her favourite team are the New Jersey Nets whose star player is Scott McKnight (rapper Common). One night, at a gas station, after a game, Leslie helps McKinght find his gas cap while he is distracted on the phone organizing a charity event. He’s grateful, assists her back into her car and invites her to his birthday party this upcoming Saturday. The invite is great news for Leslie’s best friend Morgan (Paula Patton from Precious) who is crashing at Leslie’s until she can score an NBA husband and be set for life. Her sights are on Scott and indeed, at the party, they hit it off. Soon Scott and Morgan are engaged until a knee injury on the court threatens the rest of Scott’s career. Even if he can be healed by playoffs, his contract is up at the end of the season and rumours abound about whether the Nets will even want to resign him. In comes Leslie who takes leave from her job and becomes Scott’s live-in personal trainer, while Morgan gets cold feet. There’s no success in being the wife of a has-been. You can see where this is going. And yet there’s something so pure and honest about the rapport that builds between Leslie and Scott that even as the plot weaves through dramatic peaks and valleys (some of them contrived, some not) there is a life and truth to the romance that develops. This isn’t the product of some screenwriter who dreamt up wild and zany situations. The film is never forceful; it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with slapstick or melodrama. It just stands back and let’s emotions grow, with patience, over time. Love is more than a feeling, it’s a realization. Just Wright gets that, well, just right. Maybe we have to thank the stars for that. Queen Latifah has a natural film presence. She’s not a star or a diva, but a real person. She brings depth, presence, intelligence and wisdom to films that is easily relatable. You just can’t help but like her. The discovery may be Common, who has spent his film career playing thugs and muscles but here gets to show that he’s a likeable guy and can play on a natural level. His McKnight is not an egocentric basketball star, plays the game for love and not glory or fame and is a good boy that was raised by a strong woman. In a universe where men are always the villains of romance this one has the courage to see he's on the level. The film was directed by Sanaa Hamri who, one film at a time is becoming the most valuable filmmaker in her chosen genre. Her underrated debut Something New was about a relationship between a white man and a black woman and her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 took a whimsical fairy tale plot and stretched it out with human characters. There is no forced sentimentality in these films; no characters working at the convenience of the plot; and no situations that fly beyond the limits of human emotion. Leslie drives a beat-up car, not because she can’t afford it, but because it has sentimental value; Morgan is not so much a villain as a confused woman looking for happiness in all the wrong places; and Scott has a secret room, the contents of which, when revealed, don’t implicate him in perverse misgivings but provides one of the films most touching moments. Sure the film stretches plausibility a tad towards the conclusion, but that’s simply generic requisites. Hamri really gets to the heart of these people, looks at them, understands them, loves them and respects them enough to let them exist in a real world with real love, confusion, joy and heartbreak. Sure those last scenes are cheesy, but when a film deals in what seems like real human emotion, that has a tendency to soar above these bothersome plots. Thus the end of the film made me happy because I’m glad these characters found the outcome they deserved. That’s all that ever matters.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #10- The Ring

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When I think about movies that made going to the movies suck, there aren't a whole lot that come to mind. You've got American Beauty for the suburbs, Gladiator for your old-timey war epics and maybe Ichi the Killer for testing one's willpower, but only one movie jumped out at me when I thought of movies that set the bar and set it early, spawning countless imitators that sucked to high heavens because it was inevitably compared back to the one that started it all.

That movie, dear readers, is The Ring.

No, it doesn't exactly fall into the realm of "classics" considering it only came out eight years ago and I'm sure there are some of you out there with iron wills and brass balls who didn't even think it was scary, but bear with me on this one.

Now, as far as legitimately horrifying and well-made horror movies that have come out over the last ten years are concerned, I could probably count them all on one hand and even that might be generous. You've got The Descent, The Orphanage, maybe Three...Extremes and, of course, The Ring. I don't know why that is and it's beyond me how so many movies manage to fail so epically when it comes to scaring an audience without inducing unintentional laughter, but such is life and I'd rather have a tentative four to go with over the course of a decade than nothing at all.

The reason I'm picking out the American remake rather than Ringu is simple: not only is it rare to find an American remake these days that doesn't outright blow, but it introduced the Westerners to the evil world of J-horror. See, Americans are pretty tame when it comes to movies, we don't have directors like Takashi Miike in Japan or Chan-Wook Park in South Korea who get away with murder by putting out movies like Audition and Oldboy while we're over here churning out yet another shitty Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. And the crazy thing is, they're famous for it, whereas they'd probably find themselves in the hot seat across from Oprah if they ever tried to pull that shit in the land of freedom fries.

At least we've got Tarantino with his Kill Bills and all, but, damn, us Yankees need to grow a pair.

But even though The Ring was a remake, it was still totally new to a mainstream audience. It's beyond eerie, it's incredibly strange, it presents us with images and circumstances the likes of which we've hardly even dreamed of, and, most importantly, it isn't cheap. This is one of those rare movies that keeps you on edge at all times because the scares wait, they never show up when you think they will and by the time they do come around, they're thrice as a terrifying. I could not effing believe my eyes when I first saw that chick in the closet.

Look, Dark Water, The Grudge 1-26, The Eye, One Missed Call, Premonition, Pulse - all these God awful American remakes of J-horror hits wouldn't even be around if it weren't for The Ring and it's still the only one that did it right.

It probably helps that all these movies suck to begin with, but the real reason The Ring made going to the movies suck is because it's just so damn good. I thank my lucky stars I never got to see this in theaters because I was traumatized enough just seeing at home...on a VHS tape...with the kitchen phone ringing off the hook halfway through.

On second thought, maybe I should have seen it in theaters.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #11- American Pie

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American Pie came in the last year of the old millennium and almost single-handedly turned mainstream comedy into a dirty word. It was such a runaway success that it spawned hundreds of imitators and knock offs that were made for so many wrong reasons that it’s almost hard to remember just how good it actually was. And it was good. In fact it’s just about the definitive take on generation Y and the inherent inhibitions, mysteries, and magic of teenage sexuality. It may be lewd, vulgar and offensive, but the key to its heart was that it took sex seriously. This was not a film about a bunch of teens trying to get laid before graduation; it was about a bunch of curious kids who still had to learn the ropes while feeling the pressure of time slowly running out. To leave high school a virgin is, in many eyes, to not be prepared to face the world and all it’s joys and complications, as if the answer to life’s meaning when you’re a teen is revealed coitally. We used to think like that. There’s a lot of truth in that and the film does a delicate balancing act between being obscene and being about a bunch of guys just trying to survive at being teens. It was John Hughes with f-bombs and premature ejaculation. And although the film was funny as hell it was also sweet and knowing. It was a film that truly loved these kids and all their goofy idiosyncrasies. But most of all, even though a lot of the jokes are in bad taste, they never seem to cross the line into the realms of the impossible. Everything that happens from ingested semen to unfortunate public washroom incidents to the molesting of baked goods could easy happen to any kid with a healthy social foundation and pubescent curiosity. It’s not that American Pie made us want to go hump a pie, but aren't you kind of glad that Jim (Jason Biggs) had the courage to do it? Deep down, at that age, in that time, under such sexual naivety, it seems a logical thing to try. For such scenes American Pie also gave birth to the term “gross-out comedy,” which, yes, made sense, but that’s not what was to be valued about it. Those kinds of "icky" human things just naturally lent themselves to that group of kids as they tried new things, learned new lessons and tormented each other as only the best of friends do. But Hollywood took the term literally and turned out nearly half a decade of nearly insufferable, painfully unfunny comedy that was more focused on how much grosser it could be than the last guy instead of actually being, you know, witty, clever or likable. The list of titles is infinite: See Spot Run, Slackers, Van Wilder, Monkeybone, Whipped, Me, Myself and Irene, and so on, until the genre bottomed out with a recently amputated testicle making its way across a hospital cafeteria and landing in some poor bum’s food in Tomcats. Or wait, was it when Tom Green, pretending to be a doctor, bit through an umbilical chord in Freddy Got Fingered for no better reason than to show what it would look like if a moron pretending to be a doctor bit through an umbilical chord? The post American Pie gross-outs tested the audience. They tested how low they could go before immature teenagers would lose interest. Even John Waters, who is now, after American Pie, credited as being the originator of the gross-out comedy, felt like he was pushing boundaries as well as pushing common decency. His films, at the very least, were alive. The comedies of the early 2000s just felt uninspired, unpleasant, and unfunny as they played a vile game of one-upsmanship. Since then Judd Apatow has reclaimed the comedy and brought back some taste, wit and emotion and reminded us of all the things that made American Pie so special in the first place: it’s heart and head were always in the right place.