Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is a better film than its predecessor. This was something I rather anticipated, however, I don’t believe its to the detriment of this installment that it is second. There is not too much shorthand used and the narrative is accessible enough that that much enjoyment will not be stripped away if you are walking into this one cold.

This film benefits from a more unified and less episodic plot than did its predecessor as well. Not that it still doesn’t reap the benefit of humorous and well thought out subplots but they weave their way into the larger narrative with more finesse than prior. These tales like Chirag’s invisibility, the new girl, the teacher with a vendetta, are all well-handled and add to the film but do not ever threaten to overtake the film from what the central conflict is.

The conflict being that of sibling rivalry, which is handled very well because you see a relationship in stasis go from just about as bad as it can possibly get to become rather functional. It also contains the peaks and valleys that are requisite for such a struggle, and even more of a credit to the film it goes from being borderline cartoonish in its animosity to being rather real and honest in the handling of the themes of both resentment and insurmountable hatred that sometimes accompany such relationship, especially when the age difference is large.

These discussion points come first to illustrate that despite its varying brands of humor, there is a point to be made in the film and its not just mindless and “low-brow” comedy. As for the comedy, it does do a wonderful balancing act again. As this is a home-based tale, there is more parent-child and husband-wife comedy than before.

Again the Steve Zahn brilliantly plays a dad who wants to be as hands off in parenting as he can and also is a typical guy in some regards and not just your typical distant patriarchal archetype. He is countered wonderfully by Rachael Harris. They are funny enough, however, the comedic quotient in this film is amplified greatly when you consider that the talented and previously under-ultilized Devon Bostick gets to step to the fore in this film. He is astonishingly good in this film and rarely delivers a line that doesn’t elicit some sort of response whether it be a laugh or one that connects dramatically.

Zachary Gordon’s character Greg is somewhat mellowed this time around not as hellbent on achieving popularity and other superficial means of acceptance but glimmers of that self appear even in a more rounded character that he creates just as easily, if not easier than he did before. His honesty in situations that in tandem can be seen as absurd are what carry the film and make it something you can connect to sympathetically rather than watch as a disinterested observer.

This film moves along at a very healthy clip, not only are there some fun and creative editing choices like “Disappointed” montage for Mom but things cut swiftly within scenes such that the whole things seems like its done in a blink and not in a disappointed I-Can’t-Believe-They-Call-That-A-Feature kind of way but in a fun and escapist, easily re-watchable way.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
allows the narrative, characters and young performers to grow and evolve from where we left them and you can call it an experiment if you like, but if you do it is surely a success. Those who were there are better, more confident and comfortable in their roles and those who are new like Peyton List, who carries off the important role of Greg’s love interest with uncanny ease, blend in perfectly.

It’s a funny, fun, must-see.

10/10

Rewind Review- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used, on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

With reports already abound that the writers are and have been crafting a sequel since before the premiere the makers of Diary of a Wimpy Kid seemed like they would be getting off on the wrong foot by immediately violating one of my recommended cinematic resolutions (A piece I wrote at the start of that year urged studios to wait on sequel announcements). This is not the case, however, as for the most part there are few missteps and many, many positives in this funny family film that really is likely to please the whole family.

The first thing this film does right was to not fall into the in-and-out no one gets hurt motto of family-friendly filmmaking, which means they were unafraid of a slower pace which feels longer than it is and tells a lot of story. Even better is that you don’t really feel it at all because there’s plenty story there and no filler.

What allows this film to so easily tackle the extra running time is not only the fact that it takes a diary approach, starting just before the first day of school in September and going until the end of the year but also that employs a narrator, the protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), that not only moves the story along but at times talks to the camera directly, which is to this day a hard feat to pull of but it’s well done here.

This is the kind of film that doesn’t work at all unless its young lead is spot on in such a way that you not only identify with his situation but at times feel for it and this accomplished with deft and ease by Zachary Gordon. If Greg Heffly is misplayed at all, considering the story elements, he is not a sympathetic character but he adds to it a naive sure-headedness that make him readily identifiable to most audience members. Similarly, Robert Capron as Rowley easily becomes either like we were at that age, unwilling to grow up and unashamedly himself, or just like someone we knew- together they make this movie happen.

Kudos are also in store to director Thor Freudenthal not only for a second consecutive well-handled and non-condescending family film (Hotel for Dogs) but also for allowing some reality into the equation when dealing with Junior High School. Few films ever, whether through storyline or casting extras older, realistically depict the chasm in maturity that exists not just amongst kids at the same grade-level but between the 6th and 8th grade- you may never feel that extraordinarily short again as you do that year and this film finally addresses that other realities that are typically glossed over by other projects.

Another positive is the realism of the cheese metaphor. In the tale there is a piece of cheese stuck to the blacktop of the playground and it mysteriously never gets moved and it develops this aura. Stories develop and those who touch it are cursed. The flashback sequence describing the history of the cheese is a great subplot and also when it becomes crucial at the end as it is a great metaphor for the triviality and randomness about what is perceived as good and bad by peers in school. It is truly a wonderful touch.

The only slight issues this film suffers from is in the two-pronged rift that occurs between the two friends, it’s not so much that the rift happens because you kind of see it coming but it’s how they happen. First, there is a disagreement when Greg and Rowley are trying to collaborate on a comic strip for a school competition the reason it’s sort of an issue is a matter of personal preference. Basically, it’s an argument between Greg and Rowley where the film seems to want you to take Rowley’s side but in this viewer’s opinion Greg was right on that one- Rowley’s strip is funny in context of the film but taken out of the film Greg’s is better (Note: on re-views Rowley’s has become funnier in its un-funniness and the sequel deals with the joke better). Where Greg isn’t right is when he betrays his friend, of course, and here is where the moral of the film will come in. However, their rift gets prolonged because of how Greg handles his mistake after the fact, lesson learned ultimately but movie slightly lessened due to it- not to say that Rowley should’ve immediately forgiven it, but it was a sorry apology attempt.

Another way in which this film excels, however, is that the secondary characters do show some reality even if they are not as well-sketched as the leads. There is the Gym teacher showing favoritism in a not over-the-top way to his better athletes. Then there’s Angie (Chloe Moretz) who sits on the sidelines most of the time because she realizes how futile being popular and accepted at this level is if you’re not you. Even Greg’s parents just in how they react to one situation, Greg’s fight with a girl during The Wizard of Oz, is real and happens. Mom is disappointed and can’t even talk to him and dad says to Greg “I thought she deserved it.” Then there’s Greg’s older brother Roderick who never changes and always treats Greg poorly but is a proponent of a theory many know well “Just blend in.”

Ultimately, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a very enjoyable, insightful, thoughtful and funny film about an under-represted (in a realistic fashion) subset of the population on film.

8/10

Review- A Bag of Hammers

A Bag of Hammers is a comedy, which follows two men in their 20s who make a living stealing cars and suddenly find that responsibility falls into their laps when a neighboring child loses his mother. The film, as some have noted, fits a bit to the mold of About A Boy. The main difference being that here its a pair of men and they are somewhat less reticent to assume responsibility.

The film is quite funny but it does mix in its themes rather well because of that fact. There are comments on child rearing and social services being made with out being too on the head about either of them. Also, considering that this pair of leads can be seen as beyond imperfect role models and quintessential slackers it does underline the points that are being made. These same points are further underlined by the fact that their background is not dissimilar to that of the young boy’s.

One thing the film is to be commended for is its handling of quirkiness. The temptation to be quirky in pursuit of originality is a strong one, especially in an indie film, especially in a comedy. However, quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake can be a disturbance to the progression of a film. What this film does well is makes the idiosyncrasies seeming necessities, and builds them through the characters and not as plot devices.

The pace of a film is a significant boon to it. The film doesn’t run long but I think that we all know that running time is not necessarily a fair gauge of pace. The pace is positively breezy throughout and the film really flows well for the most part.

The lone exception to the pacing brilliance is the fact that the third act is a bit abrupt. I can’t say it’s the handling that’s poor, it’s just that there’s a certain disproportion to the structure and a bit of acceleration through the end that could require a little more time than it gets.

However, what does need to be said is that the film is propelled to said end by a brilliantly framed and beautifully rendered wish-fulfillment montage, the likes of which you rarely see in this day and age. It truly is the coup de grace of the entire film and it’s rather breathtaking and should serve as an instructional as to how to construct a montage.

One thing that’s interesting to note is that the film, despite some it’s comedy being rather broad and it’s dramatic question being very much up front, it does handle thing with a certain bit of restraint. Namely after the film myself and the two friends I viewed it with were debating the sexuality of the two friends. It’s something that’s never addressed directly but certainly gives food for thought.

The performances in this film are wonderful. Jason Ritter, the spitting image of his father John, plays his character sincerely with great comedic timing and dramatic aplomb. He even carries the film through it’s most difficult patch where his character is resistant to taking care of the boy. Jake Sandvig is comedically deadpan and very sensitive as the character who reaches out to the child. The child, of course, plays a crucial role and Chandler Canterbury who is a very talented, as of yet underrated young talent, is very good in this role. He retains innocence while emoting the browbeaten posture of a child in an inadequate home situation and also shows great restraint emotionally. The scenes between him and his mother feature some of the best writing in the film.

A Bag of Hammers is by no means perfect but it does deserve to be seen and sought out if you have not heard of it yet. It’s both funny and moving and gets the manic depressive seal of approval: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Be on the lookout for it.

8/10

Review- Dark Shadows

With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.

From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.

What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.

There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.

Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.

Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.

Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.

Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.

An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.

Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.

In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.


4/10

Short Film Saturday: The Critic

This is a film that was referred to me by a Twitter friend of mine, @rurugby who also suggested the See the Movie then Read the Book post to me.

This is a very short but also very funny film wherein you get probably the funniest and least annoying in screening reaction you’ve witnessed. Provided by Mel Brooks. This film was suggested to me by way of a link and here’s the story’s inspiration as they tell it:

One day in early 1962, Mel Brooks was sitting in a New York City theater watching an avant-garde film by the Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren when he heard someone in the audience expressing bewilderment. “Three rows behind me,” Brooks told Kenneth Tynan for a 1978 New Yorker profile, “there was an old immigrant man mumbling to himself. He was very unhappy because he was waiting for a story line and he wasn’t getting one.”

Brooks enlisted Ernest Pintoff, who produced an Academy Award-nominated short called The Violinist, to help him make the film. Pintoff hired the artist Bob Heath to do the animation, Brooks ad-libbed the voiceover, and voilà: an Oscar-winning movie that today works perfectly on YouTube. Enjoy.

Short Film Saturday: Ghild

As soon as I saw the opening image of Ghild I thought to myself “Wow, that looks great, I really hope there’s a live action component to this film.” Seeing as how it easily coud’ve been stop-motion or some other animated form based on the opening image, I thought that was nothing more than a pipe-dream, well sure enough it live action.

It’s some of the most creative production design I’ve seen since The Hole.

It’s also a hilarious concept, overall not just in narrative but also in conception and execution.

You may also recognize Jimmy Bennett as the father and Harland Williams in a cameo.

It’s the most I’ve laughed out loud in a while.

Enjoy!

Review- The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison in The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate)

My initial Twitter reaction to The Cabin in the Woods was to say that “it’s like every horror movie you’ve ever seen combined into the most awesome way imaginable.” After all the hullabaloo on the web about critics who had disliked the film and explained why by using spoilers I was afraid that even my exultation of glee was a bit too much. Having already seen the film I then proceeded to read Scott E. Weinberg’s review, which I’ll agree is spoiler-free so I feel better about myself and thus I can continue.

The more one watches films the more one becomes accustomed to genres and their tropes. Depending on how well or poorly said tropes are played, if they’re dealt with originally or lazily is usually what the quality of a genre-specific film hangs on. Typically, when a film breaks a mold, whether it works or it doesn’t, it’s applauded for the effort. What you get in this film is much more smart and far more daring in as much as it takes the set-up you’ve seen far too often: five teenage archetypes heading to a remote cabin in the woods, where you know they’ll meet their untimely demise (or come very close), and absolutely relishes every single horror staple it can lay its hands on. It packs them in at one point or another and this may all seem like too much of a good thing but it’s handled so cleverly it works. How you might ask? Ah, therein lie the spoilers and I won’t tell you that.

A great hint of what you might be in store for is to think on the films that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have written together. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz you have send-ups of very specific kinds of movies, namely zombie films and cop films. They are both funny and lampoon the genres they emulate but do it so brilliantly that they inherently evolve into a genre film. Now The Cabin in the Woods kind of reverse engineers this approach, in as much as you understand the basic horror premise and follow that and the mystery is really shrouded in the second part of the film, the comedy and commentary is coming from the B-plot, of which, the less you know about going in the better off you are.

Now as this film slowly unravels the layers of its mystery, and rewards the attentive viewer with every unfurling, essentially what you’re getting is a two-pronged prolonged set-up. Now, I recently wrote about how I like the set-up in films, but what’s amazing here is that there is some tension and mystery to it when there really shouldn’t be. Mainly because in one scenario you’re in on something the protagonists are not and in another you’re trying to figure out precisely what it is they’re doing. It makes the tropes work even better than they could hope to in a film that was playing it straight. It also makes the trope work in either functionality: horror or comedy.

The effects work in this film is absolutely fantastic and as the film progresses you will see why. Allow me to just say that it might single-handedly expunge all the bad horror CG you’ve seen from your mind with its sheer awesomeness.

As with any horror film the music is of paramount importance and believe me this film does not ignore that element of the equation, and is always playing up the genre. When there’s comedy it allows the visuals and the dialogue to deliver the jokes, it doesn’t try to deliver punchlines and that’s greatly appreciated.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that horror films do not typically hinge on performance, as a matter of fact, some films excel in spite of performance, however, ascendant horror feature great acting, and when it comes to this film that has to be playfully comedic and also an effective genre piece it is an essential piece of the equation, and all the players contribute tremendously to the success of this film.

Very recently I was complaining about how paltry running list of the best horror films of 2012 was looking, even as it stands it’s only half-populated with decent films, however, as long as enough decent titles trickle in later on it could be a banner year because it is incredibly strong at the top because this film will be very hard to beat. It will likely not only go down as one of the best horror films of the year but as one of the best films of the year, period.

10/10

Short Film Saturday- Roger Rabbit

In keeping with the concurrent themes of animation, the “amusement park studios” I also got around to thinking (based on last week’s post) about some lesser-known or under-utilized characters. I think that the animated short proceeding a feature is still a viable commodity and on occasion you will see a new attempt at one. Usually the new class are characters established previously in a feature, even when that character is new. Following the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit there were a few shorts made to try and prolong the character’s notoriety. I’m not certain but I think these were the only two made. I thought, and still do think, they’re great. They’re a tip of the hat to the classics in a hyperactive interpretation of animated slapstick tropes.

Review- 21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street (Columbia/MGM)

One interesting aside that I realized as this review has become somewhat delayed is that there has been some internet chatter contrasting this film, which was a dramatic TV show that metamorphosed to a comedic film with Dark Shadows. This film has been well received and the Dark Shadows trailer has been met with much disgust and vitriol. Aside from the obvious differences between film and trailer the other thing that bears mentioning at leas from my perspective is that you can even turn something from drama to comedy or horror to comedy so long as it perceived as funny. This film always looked funny and it’s even funnier than advertised what we’ve seen of Dark Shadows thus far is not as amusing. In the interest of digression, let us continue with the film we know about (for it has been released) that successfully change the predominant genre it plays in yet mixes in elements of others within it and allow me to end the Dark Shadows conversation by saying I am holding my breath that I do like it but am now very anxious.

Now it’s not the most difficult thing in the world to make incompetent law enforcement funny. It just usually is but this film does so in a very interesting way. It starts with the personal connection between the two leads and then after one stasis scene reverses field as they’re in the police academy and see that they can help each other. Eventually this convenient arrangement made for mutual interests evolves into a friendship. So they pass but they’re not very good in the real world and it leads into their being reassigned and thus things proceed. What makes it even more interesting form that point forward is that there is some tongue-in-cheek, meta treatment of police procedural film plots best exemplified by Ice Cube playing the Angry Police Captain, who is angry and he knows it.

Yet the film isn’t only content with just making a hilarious undercover cop spoof as they go undercover in a high school (as they are, according to the captain, Justin Beaver and Miley Cyrus looking mofos) it does it’s own interpretation of your standard high school film. Yet the best thing about it is not only does the hilarity escalate as they stumbled their way to a plan of action as to how best to infiltrate the drug ring in the school but slowly and surely their prior high school personas invert.

This inversion is facilitated and intimated immediately by the positive generational commentary in the film. The tropes that have been the staple of high school films for years are becoming stale in part because the subcultures of the student body are more diverse and fragmented than ever before and thus in this film even as it only sketched its youthful characters broadly it renders a more positive and complete portrayal of a student body than you usually see in such films.

All of these plot elements are great but comedies perhaps more so than any other genre is truly brought to life by the performers on screen and this may seem like the unlikeliest pair you ever heard of but Hill and Tatum really do make magnificent foils. Hill really has been flexing his muscles lately and provides many of the punchlines here but Tatum as straight man does have his moments including some dramatic ones that add to the surprising depth of the film.

The film is layered but it is a comedy and I scattered the word funny about the first few paragraphs of this review yet the time comes when discussing any comedy to decide: How funny is it? My initial reaction is one I have not wavered from, it is likely the most complete and engaging comedy I’ve seen since Anchorman. With the important caveat that Anchorman was a film which grew on me. I liked it at first and grew to adore it.

What truly puts this film above most is that the laughs stay consistent but all the other tropes, complications and necessities of plot whether the police procedural ones or the high school movie ones get folded in seamlessly. Not once did I groan because such and such scene was coming up and I knew it would it’d prolong the conclusion of the film. A lot of that is also attributed to the writing and performance. In liking the characters and having them already split watching them is easy whether even though they have fought.

21 Jump Street
is a hilarious film, which tells a pretty good crime tale and a great high school story when all those things are combined you end up with a pretty fantastic and special movie.

10/10