Thursday, 19 April 2007

In a world where not everybody loves zombies and 70s exploitation...

I meant to write about this a couple of days ago, but got preoccupied with reading about the Virginia Tech murders. I find that stuff pretty overwhelming. Despite all the people who said they couldn't understand why Columbine happened, the social politics behind it were clear as day. Virginia Tech is less defined, except to say that the modern world is making people lose their minds. Some kid couldn’t take it, and now 33 people are dead. The reasons for the box office failure of Grindhouse suddenly seemed pretty trivial.

Then, I was gonna post this again last night, but got held up again when I noticed that the new Nine Inch Nails CD changes colour in heat. That’s awesome.

So, yeah, Grindhouse is a bomb. And a lot of people are asking why.

Despite what Harvey Weinstein claims, about $100 million was spent on this movie ($30 million of which went to advertising.) The business aspects of box office grosses are of no interest to me, but the social aspects are. It's been interesting reading speculation on why this movie failed to capture a large audience.

Here are a couple of the wrongest theories I’ve read:

- It opened on Easter Weekend, a time when people observe the value of family.

This is true for Easter Sunday morning, but really, nobody who wants to see Grindhouse is so sanctimonious about the Easter holiday weekend that they won't watch violence on Friday or Saturday.

- The feature films contained within are in the wrong order. The more action-oriented Planet Terror should have played after Death Proof.

This shouldn't affect opening weekend box office in any way. Furthermore, it's 100% wrong. If you pay attention to how most long movies are paced, there’s a notable slowing down in the third quarter. Note the poker game in Casino Royale. Its placement makes the film move more briskly, while giving viewers time to catch their breath. The relentless action of Planet Terror makes the breather of the first half of Death Proof a nice chill out period before getting back into the mayhem.

Now here’s a filmmaker’s take on how Grindhouse’s failure reflects on how stupid your nextdoor neighbours are.

“What is wrong with American moviegoers? Is there nothing NEW that they're willing to embrace? Jesus, it's the worst kind of erosion. We're making dumber and dumber films and they're becoming cash cows. God Bless '300', at least it's got balls and the director WENT for it. THAT movie is good for the business, it's good for everybody”
– Joe Carnahan, director of Smokin’ Aces.

Grindhouse is a throwback. It doesn’t represent anything new. Though it is a better movie than most recent films the general public has embraced (like 300), it’s not at an intellectual level they’re incapable of meeting. People weren’t interested in seeing it. When movies like Grindhouse and Smokin’ Aces are hits, it isn’t good for everybody. It’s only good for people who worked on them and people whose entertainment tastes crave seeing more movies like Grindhouse and Smokin’ Aces.

Nobody should really be surprised that Grindhouse isn't more popular. It’s a homage/entry in trash and exploitation cinema. Part of what makes cult films is that they aren't massively popular.

The Internet skewers peoples’ perception of what the rest of the world is interested in. The handful of people who frequent sites like Ain’t It Cool News can spend months salivating over Grindhouse. They’re the audience for that movie. When you move past that circle, to the people who don’t live on the Internet, not many of them give a shit.

A similar thing happened last summer with Snakes on a Plane. You can excite a certain niche with movies like this, but in the broader scope, they're not Spider-Man 3.

It didn’t help that the advertising for Grindhouse was so exclusionary. The trailers, posters and TV spots sold an attitude—an idea that this movie is the epitome of cool, without translating that appeal to those who aren’t in the know.

Advertising the movie on the names Tarantino and Rodriguez, rather than stars like Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, isn’t making things easier. With a couple exceptions, general audiences don't think to ask who directed a movie. Nobody went to see Four Rooms either, and the Rodriguez/Tarantino pair-up From Dusk Till Dawn wasn’t a big hit. Why expect more from the 3+ hour Grindhouse?

I’m suspicious of the attitudes of people who wish the niche, cultish films they love were popular hits. Isn't it good enough that you love them? Part of the appeal of movies like this is that they’re an escape from what the mainstream deems exceptional, and sometimes acceptable. If Evil Dead 2 becomes the dominant culture, what’s left for the cult-circuit films? Underground filmmakers will start establishing their outsider status by making Dirty Dancing sequels.

Maybe this does speak of the sinking levels of the Average Joe’s taste. For whatever problems I have with it, I consider Grindhouse a good movie, and far better than Wild Hogs (and Blades of Glory, Meet the Robinsons and Are We Done Yet?—the films that outgrossed it on its first weekend.) It just shouldn’t crush the dreams of aspiring-future-director-millionaires that more people are showing up for the Ice Cube family comedy.

A point I often try to make is that movies like Wild Hogs and Are We Done Yet? don’t have to be bad. Some of the most satisfying filmgoing experiences happen when a seemingly hopeless premise produces a good movie. And aspiring filmmakers should be relieved to know that coming up with a terrible premise that will appeal to idiots isn’t really that hard.

I have an exercise for producing movie concepts called 60 Minutes in an Hour. This means there are 6 groups of 10 minutes in an hour. Set aside an hour of your day, and sit in a chair. Use this time to think up 6 different movie premises. You have 10 minutes for each one. Don’t worry about them being good right now.

Here’s two surefire hits I thought up in only 20 minutes of my time:

More Jolly Than Roger

This movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as an asshole named Roger. He gets arrested for religious intolerance. He agrees to community service instead of serving his prison sentence. The community service consists of him spending 3 months as a door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness. He really hates this job. To make matters worse, his partner is a super-happy Jehovah’s Witness named Drew (played by Jon Lovitz). They’re a real odd couple. Drew is more jolly than Roger. They fight a lot. Zooey Deschanel should be in it as the nice girl who melts Roger’s heart when he knocks on her door.

Civil Knight’s Movement

The next movie is a comedy with serious overtones. It stars Chris Rock as Winston Lockhart, the most powerful lawyer in Detroit. One day Winston’s driving home from work when his Porsche gets rear-ended by a bulldozer. He goes into a coma. Winston’s family loves him, but they lose hope that he’ll ever wake up from his coma. His wife gets remarried, and his kids’ football coach becomes their stepdad.
a>Several years later, the hospital is scheduled for demolition. But because Winston’s in a far away wing of the hospital that nobody ever checks, they forget to move him out of there, Suddenly, Winston has some body movement (like in the title)! He wakes up from all the noise of the building getting torn down, and has to make it out of the falling hospital alive. The same bulldozer type machines that put him into a coma are trying to kill him again. This is how the movie double-backs upon itself, creating a motif. In screenwriting, the technical term for this is brilliant. He then gets to fight the ruthless contractor. The movie ends with Chris Rock giving a heartfelt speech about civil rights.

Now, both of these movies sound awful. But it’s up to you to find the worth in a premise. Writing a great script requires talent. So if you're worried about money and integrity, figure out the common ground where More Jolly Than Roger gets you as excited as Grindhouse.*

*Note: More Jolly Than Roger and Civil Knight’s Movement are the intellectual property of Mark Palermo. Do not try making either without consulting him. You will be sued.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Saturday the 14th issue

There's a brief shock moment at the beginning of Disturbia that startled me into muttering "What the fuck." It didn't last long. Disturbia is a mostly lifeless, rather xenophobic teen thriller. But the bit caught me off guard because I rarely anticipate those "Oh my God!" moments at horror movies.

It may be that it's a genre I'm well accustomed to. Being unsettled by something is just a question of your emotional involvement with what's going on. For instance, a person could get too involved with the storyline of Pretty Woman to manage to watch it to the end. When I was very young, I couldn't finish an episode of Canadian TV's Mr. Dressup wherein the puppet Casey breaks a pair of Mr. Dressup's glasses, and tries to hide them from him. I was worried that when Mr. Dressup found out he would beat the shit out of that puppet. But that wasn't the innocent show trying to scare me; it was my imagination working on overdrive.

With horror, the frightening impact is more often something that hits me in retrospect, when an event of my life causes me to compare it to an event in a movie.

Just last Wednesday morning, a girl I sort of know messaged me on a friend-networking site to make sure I was still alive. Apparently, she'd just had a dream where I was dead. I assured her that I was unable to walk through my walls, but I then spent all day feeling like I was in a Final Destination movie. I was driving extra carefully, and keeping my eyes open for potential catastrophes.

For this extra special Day After Friday the 13th issue of Blip on the Radar, I'm reflecting on the movies that in some way frightened me as I was watching them. From time to time, I get asked what the scariest movies ever are, and my answer is always the same, "I'm a grown man!"

And so several of my answers are children's movies. When you're a kid, everything has the chance to be scary because you don't know anything yet. Movies used to take advantage of this. Kiddie flicks today (outside of George Miller's stuff) are less sadistic than they were 20 years. They're not the formative experiences they used to be, and that's a notable loss.

Movies that freaked me out to some degree, in the order in which I saw them:

Return to Oz (1985)

My introduction to horror was, like a lot of filmbuffs my age, through Spielberg movies. There's a horror element in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gremlins , which I saw theatrically at the age of 5 (something that horrified my mom, who thought she was taking me to another movie like ET, more than it bothered me) that had built me a taste for this stuff. Certain Disney cartoons used to have this effect as well. But Return to OZ is a whole new level of childhood trauma.

Walter Murch's box office bomb enraged Siskel and Ebert so much that they dedicated the bulk of an episode to warning families away from it. Their main complaint: Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) never smiles. That Return to Oz has reached cult status today is testament to just how uncompromisingly it treats childhood disappointment and cruelty. How can you watch an Oz movie directed by the editor of Apocalypse Now that begins with Dorothy getting shock treatment, and just toss it aside as junk? Return to Oz is messed up! Arched-back freaks called Wheelers hunt the heroine. Princess Mombie (Jean Marsh) has a hallway full of replacement heads that scream at Dorothy to give away her location. Of course, this L. Frank Baum partial-adaptation has its happiness and "value of friendship" stuff as well. But the Yellow-Brick Road is surrounded by fire and brimstone.

Garfield in Disguise (aka Garfield's Halloween Adventure) (1985)

Yes, it's in fact a TV special. As a kid who knew how to program a VCR, I awoke before sunset to see the new Garfield special. 2 things: 1) Garfield was enormously cool among grade-school kids in the 1980s. 2) Horror-themed programming is for some reason scarier if you watch it before everyone wakes up rather than once everyone's gone to bed. This thing is fine most of the way through. Garfield theorizes that Halloween is the greatest of all holidays because it's celebrated with candy rather than fireworks. He and Odie go trick-or-treating. Then, in the last third, it turns into a remake of John Carpenter's The Fog, replete with zombified ghost pirates. There's even an old man who sits in a chair. Old people still frighten me a little.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

My parents used to go grocery shopping on Friday nights, and I'd usually tag along. My incentive was that the grocery store (Sobey's Food Warehouse in Bedford) had a video rental outlet in it. While my parents bought food, I would look at the back of VHS covers of horror movies (some of which were pretty fucked up) and think, "If I ever watched this movie, it would probably kill me." Nothing too crazy went on on the Friday the 13th covers, but the summer camp premise, and the menace of Jason, began appealing to me. Also, they were released by Paramount, who I'd convinced myself could do no wrong since they released the Indiana Jones films and the first R-rated movie I ever saw Beverly Hills Cop. Additionally, I was Jason for Halloween when I was 8 years old.

One night, I was excited to notice in the TV paper that the fourth Friday the 13th was airing. Again, I set the VCR and woke up very early the next morning to watch it before my parents got up. I can't say I was too scared by the film, just that it was a big deal to me at the time. It wasn't as crazy as I'd imagined a real horror movie would be, but it wasn't lame either (at least not until I watched it again in high school.) This Friday the 13th is notable as it featured not only Crispin Glover but Corey Feldman, BEFORE he was cool. Feldman sticks a machete into Jason's eye at the end. But final chapters don't stay down for long. In one of the cheesiest series recoveries ever, part 5 was called A New Beginning.

The Fly (1986)

By far the ickiest movie I saw in the first 10 years of my life. Even with my brother yelling, "Stupid flies!!," every 10 minutes. it didn't really lose its nasty appeal. The power of David Cronenberg's remake is that it uses s simple sci fi premise (a man turning into an insect) to get inside the uncomfortable realization of disease and decomposition--that as humans, we're not just gonna grow up, get big and win marathons. We'll eventually start to decompose. Also, a baboon gets turned inside out at the start. And what is Cronenberg's problem, anyway?

Carrie (1976)

I rented this in the summer between ninth and tenth grade as I was becoming a fairly obsessive fan of Brian De Palma. Carrie never had much prior interest to me, so it was a revelation to discover that it's the director's masterpiece. It's the film's capacity to play as realistic melodrama that made its eventual horror element knock me on my ass. By engaging our sympathies first, it's actually emotionally upsetting when the movie goes to hell. The final 20 minutes are the most relentlessly intense stretch of genre filmmaking I know. Carrie has the greatest shock scene of all time, and is the best teen movie, period. I saw it theatrically a couple years later at a midnight Halloween show, and it was amazing hearing the entire audience gasp collectively. Those are horror movie-going moments that are too rare.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

A friend lent me the DVD of this with the warning that the ending is fucked up. As I began watching the film, I thought, "If the ending is what I think it is that's the most obvious twist ever." I only knew the half of it.

Sleepaway Camp is a cheap Friday the 13th ripoff most of the way. Except it's more laughable, because the kids have the most gratuitously vulgar dialect in slasherdom, the shorts are just too short, and in one scene a man's moustache is clearly made of duct tape. Then the ending happens, and it's ridiculous, but somehow so disturbing that the image burns itself onto your retinas and you spend the next two hours online reading if anyone else was as affected by it as you were. I've had some disagreements over whether the movie is best watched in company or alone. I say alone, maybe cuz that's how I watched it when it first hit me, but both have their virtues.

Opera (1987)

Dario Argento's last great movie is also his most merciless. Opera is based around the rumour that the stage opera of MacBeth is cursed, as killings plague the production. The film is Argento's heavy metal music video of suffering--it would almost be too sadistic to endure if it weren't so beautifully stylized. But though Opera is often muddled in its storytelling (what Argento movie isn't?) and the amazing Sound of Music ending is the most frequent point of debate among the director's fans, it's also a literate examination of a horror filmmaker's position as a madman, and the viewer's role as a sadist. It's the darkest place Argento has ever tread, and the experience bothered him enough that he briefly went to Italy in filmmaking-exile immediately afterward.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Resurrection of the Antichrist

To understand Marilyn Manson, it’s key to accept that he’s a pop artist who makes music for teenagers. It’s an aim which ironically makes his work more credible, exciting, and serious than if it were packaged to people in their late 20s. Or, more precisely, Manson makes teenage art with which certain grownups can identify. Just as some 30 year-olds in the late 90s era when Manson was a major pop force could find identification or emotional memory in Dawson and Joey’s unacknowledged love affair.

When Manson’s Antichrist Superstar hit in 1996, the huge media attention tied largely into parental outrage. But an equally vocal attack on Manson came from jaded listeners. They saw Manson as a fraudulent act: A poor man’s Nine Inch Nails.

I know. I was one of them.

The outrage that surrounded that band eclipsed that of every other rock act of the 90s. Eminem picked up the controversy baton once Manson’s star began fading. Since him, there’s been no replacement. And Eminem’s controversy was more a matter of media convenience than any perceived negative youth impact being picked out. Both stars gave the kids who listened to them a degree of dignity. But the shockwaves Manson set off revealed more about our culture’s groundwork. As an old Rolling Stone review of Mechanical Animals pointed out, there was no more insane talkshow spectacle that decade than the repeated habit of Jenny Jones seating those young Manson fans (with their appalled moms) on her show, and “cleaning them up” into the exact unhappy dorks Manson helped them escape from being.

Despite all this, the actual degree of “shock” in the star’s “shock rock” was grossly exaggerated. It’s interesting to look at Manson as rock’s version of the Farrelly Brothers: He wraps positive, humanist messages in immoral packaging, thereby enraging people who won’t look beneath the surface... exposing intolerance in those who accuse him of that very thing.

This isn’t necessarily profound. It’s afterall the star’s conviction that truth is usually uncovered in dark areas that makes him an artist for teenagers. Though the songwriting improved after the first two records, Marilyn Manson is a vocalist of middling talent.

But the phenomenon of Manson ties into his product almost perfectly. Almost all of his albums are stronger than the best song on them, because they're conceptually so perfect. The best of both worlds exception is Mechanical Animals (a fine premise: His glam rock metaphor for drug-pacified Hollywood told in the sci fi vein of Alduous Huxley's Brave New World) where the closing track "Coma White" is the greatest thing in his catalogue, and one of the best last songs on any record I know.

My initial teenage disregard for Manson was that I was looking for something more grown up, and missing its vitality. Today, I play Manson’s catalogue all the time, but the only Nine Inch Nails CD I ever have an urge to listen to is Broken. What seemed more serious about Trent Reznor’s music (that it had less of a theatrical element), is now why it's more difficult for me to take it seriously.

By wallowing in these ugly areas, Manson slowly grew into a moral voice. The first CD Portrait of an American Family has shock value, but the latter ones do only in their bluntness. For instance when Manson sings the line, "I killed myself to make everybody pay," on Holy Wood (a record largely inspired by Columbine, and the blame directed his way for it) it has the veneer of shock. But for the kids who need to hear that stuff most, it has nothing to do with that. It's empowering. As most worthwhile outsider art does, it lets them know they aren't suffering alone in those feelings.

Marilyn Manson sums himself up in the song "(s)Aint", singing, "You said I tasted famous, so I drew you a heart / But I'm not an artist, I'm a fucking work of art." Of course, I think he is an artist, but there's something very right about that too.

The act has a new album out June 5 called Eat Me, Drink Me. Somebody recorded the debut of the first single “Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand)” off a French radio station yesterday. The quality therefore isn't great, and the song skips forward a couple of times.

But for a star that reinvents himself with every album, the track's direction isn’t unexpected. It’s a poppy summertime love/hate song with a mid-80s sound. Manson’s called this his most sexually frank and wounded album, but an honest adolescent sensibility prevails in the first single. The chorus even recalls the moment in Some Kind of Wonderful where Mary Stuart Masterson threatens Lea Thompson with, “Break his heart and I break your face.”

Some of it sounds uncannily like Animotion’s “Obsession” (recognized in Canada as the theme to Fashion Television.) I can even hear Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins score in there.

Are We Reaping Done Yet?!?

Bienvenue to the inaugural post celebration of Blip on the Radar. This is a place for discussing various things in pop culture of momentary, longterm, or permanent interest. We'll see where it goes.

As of now I'm a bit tired of talking about Grindhouse, and it will be the full column in tomorrow's The Coast anyway. Instead, I'm gonna break this blog in with reviews of movies of less interest among people who spend all day on the Internet.

The first is Are We Done Yet?, a sequel to the 2005 Ice Cube comedy Are We There Yet?. There are people I know who wouldn't fathom going to see this, but it wasn't an experience I was particularly dreading. For one thing, I'm among the 12% of Rotten Tomatoes-certified critics who liked the first movie. On top of that, I feel Ice Cube is unfairly judged as an actor--close to how some critics feign offense to Cuba Gooding, Jr. appearing in light comedies, except that in their eyes Ice Cube has the added demerit of an opportunistic rap star.

Cube’s family man persona in recent movies can be twisted into evidence of the once incendiary entertainer losing his relevance. What the mainstream media never acknowledges is that the success of Cube’s Friday, Barbershop and Are We There Yet? series means he has more recent popular comedy franchises to his name than any of his contemporaries. It’s a feat that would only be beaten if Scary Movie, Austin Powers and American Pie had a unifying star between them.

That Are We Done Yet? is a half-hearted sequel—a purported remake of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House that’s closer in tone to The Money Pit and Funny Farm—has little to do with Ice Cube’s efforts. Projecting humility and frustration as Nick, the husband to Nia Long and surrogate father of her unruly kids, Cube is a charismatic screen presence. The torment Nick endures is tamer than in the first film, and strangely empathetic.

Since Nick is the only character with whom it’s possible to identify (his wife basically only speaks up to complain that his unwillingness to get ripped off by a contractor is taking his attention away from the kids), the slapstick isn’t sadistic. But that doesn’t make this sequel’s propensity of scenes where animals attack Nick, and moments where he learns the difference between a house and a home, more than inoffensive.

There’s something curious about a movie where Ice Cube resolves tensions with his arch nemesis by drinking coffee with him. That’s a leap in anger management from a rapper who boasted, “I’m meaner than a motherfuckin hyena chasin antelope/Put my chrome to your dome, watch it bust like a cantaloupe.” Whether it’s an advance in his comedic taste is another debate.

The "you owe us more" attitude follows Hilary Swank, because unlike Ice Cube (who comforts the white elite by rarely making movies they want to see), she has two Oscars.

As Katherine Winter in The Reaping, she's the house calls version of Richard Dawkins. Proving to communities that believe they’re blessed and cursed by spiritual interference are really succumbing to scientific phenomenon, her lack of faith is tested in the southern town of Haven. Rivers of blood, raining toads, and locust storms make for interesting set pieces in Stephen Hopkins’ (Predator 2) otherwise routine plague thriller. But the question remains, if God’s presence comes through in a movie, is it acceptable that the movie have no personality?

Katherine takes up residence in the white rural mansion that’s in every movie about the southern US. A story of a spiritually broken woman’s awakening shouldn’t skimp on character detail to the point where everybody is taken care of with a couple of defining traits. The story overshadows human interest. Between effects-shots is a whole movie of people discussing how fascinating things are.