TruffautHitchcockVillela: Part 4

This article is a partially fictitious account wherein I imagine myself in conversation with two of the greatest minds in cinema: Truffaut and Hitchcock. This work was inspired by the series of interviews the two conducted which was later turned into a book. The quotes from the two are real though the context isn’t always. If you are interested in the book it can be purchased here. If this alternate history premise insults your sensitivities please move on.

This is part three of a series which started here.

I then sought to get a few pointers on my favorite aspect of filmmaking:

B.V.: The screenplay is your favorite part of the production. What thoughts do you have about screenwriting?

A.H.: For me the film is 90 percent finished with the screenplay. I’d prefer to not have to shoot it. You conceive a film you want and after that it goes to pieces. The actors you had in mind are not available, you can’t get the proper cast. I dream of an IBM machine in which I’d insert the screenplay on one end and film would emerge on the other end complete and in color (330-331). To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, “We can cover that with a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound amongst other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms (222).

B.V.: I disagree, to the extent that I think you oversimplify. If dialogue was as irrelevant as that we’d still be making silent films. Many films have shown how essential dialogue can be such as Last Year at Marienbad, your very own film Psycho was greatly enhanced by the ironic use of dialogue especially in the scene where Janet Leigh is eating with Anthony Perkins.

Psycho (1960, Universal)

B.V.: I am trying to devise a system that ranks films based on how they stem from a type of dream. Being either daydreams or nocturnal; nightmares or fantasies. I believe all these playful delusions are the genesis of creation. This is why I think Spellbound is such an accomplishment because it makes dreams and the workings of the psyche tangible. You worked with Salvador Dalí yet avoided being too surrealistic which, is a trapping of dream-based films.

A.H: I was determined to break with the traditional handling of dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen (163). Since psychoanalysis was involved there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure (165).

F.T: I hope you won’t be offended, but I found the picture something of a disappointment (167).

A.H.: Not at all. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.

Spellbound (1945, United Artists)

B.V: Not at all! Plus, I prefer some explanation rather than none as in The Birds.

F.T.: I’m glad you didn’t give a specific reason for the attacks. It’s clearly speculation, a fantasy (286).

B.V.: I found that Spellbound combined a whodunit aspect which you hate with one of your favorite themes of the innocent man wrongly accused and with great psychoanalytic deduction that Arthur Conan Doyle would’ve used had it been at his disposal. I also find it interesting that in Spellbound you killed a child, albeit in flashback, yet in that instance you don’t look at it as a mistake like it was in Sabotage, why is that?

A.H.: I don’t know. (167).

B.V: A remake is always a difficult and dangerous task to undertake. How then did you remake your own film?

A.H.: Despite the similarities, they’re really quite different from each other (228).

B.V.: So in essence you feel it was like making an entirely new film?

A.H.: Naturally (228).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Gaumont British picture Corporation)

B.V.: Charles Chaplin is perhaps one of the greatest minds in the history of cinema, he thought film was akin to ballet and was against the advent of sound. Yet in 1940 he wrote and performed the most moving speech in film history. What do you think of sound?

A.H.: Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked were the sound of people talking and noises (61). Many films now being made there is very little cinema: They are mostly what I call … Photographs of people talking.” In other words since all that was missing was simply natural sound, there was no need to completely abandon the technique of the pure motion picture, the way they did when sound came in (61).

F.T.: I agree. In the final era of silent movies, the great filmmakers […] in fact almost the whole of the production — had reached something of near perfection. The introduction of sound in a way jeopardized that perfection […] In this sense one might say that mediocrity came back into its own with the advent of sound (61).

A.H.: I agree absolutely (61).

Rope (1948, Warner Bros.)

B.V.: I disagree to an extent, I believe that as film has evolved; the lines between the arts has blurred. Film is now the most complete art-form. In your films you demonstrate this in Rope you capture some of the essence of theater, in a film like Fantasia music is the driving force, Le Chien andalou and Spellbound illustrates painting’s impact, any number of literary adaptations would show the impact of the written word. Statues coming to life have long been a popular motif in the arts and film is not immune; animation is a medium of its own in the realm of film. Even still photography has made its mark and while I hate the “freeze-frame ending” as a rule, the momentary freeze frame is wonderful as illustrated in Jules and Jim. What this all means is that the cinema is now the ultimate art-form and as such the quality of films suffers because there are too many incomplete artists and cannot handle all the disciplines film entails, having said that I believe this represents a paradigm shift, meaning that film is no longer “purely visual” but “primarily visual.”

A.H.: It seems unfortunate that with the arrival of sound in the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form (61).

B.V.: Film is the most theatrically contrived art-form. Nowhere else can the final product be so meticulously planned before hand. What occurred is that sound was used as a crutch for lazy and or less than competent visual artists. This conversation is rather moot since sound is dominant because the audience demanded sound. I don’t think they would’ve been satisfied with piecemeal sound, however, I agree that it is sad that many films were less visually interesting. Yet the slide continues. In the ’30s Hollywood made many dialogue-heavy films but the set design and cinematography were interesting so there was something to look at. The audience is dictating to studios who dictate the artist and when the audience will shell out money for subpar films money rules so quality won’t change. It’s a hard cycle to break. They say “We want sound! We want color! We want Cinemascope!” and they get that and story is thrown out the window.

End.

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61 Days of Halloween: Dementia 13 (1963)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween and a list of previous films covered go here.

Dementia 13 (1963)

This post is an exciting one for me in a few respects. First, I’ve known of this film for a very long time and I’ve always been a bit hesitant to watch it. The reasons that is likely have to do with the fact that the synopsis doesn’t sell it very well, and the early work aspect scared and intrigued me in equal respects. The second reason is that seeing something and then shortly thereafter writing these posts was the initial foundation of the 61 Days of Halloween idea. I wanted to see 61 new horror films in the season. Maybe I still will but I haven’t even met the bogey yet, so I will be featuring some titles I know already to try and do that.

Dementia 13 was probably more destined than ever to be seen since I not only recently saw Twixt, but Coppola stands as one of my most viewed filmmakers of the year as can be seen both in what I’ve watched and liked.

In very traditional AIP fashion the title is virtually meaningless. However, while Corman’s AIP productions are a very mixed bag this does end up being on the favorable end. It doesn’t all click along perfectly, and there’s a very murky section you have to trudge through, but if you’re patient (which should be easy with a running time of 76 minutes) the payoff is pretty good.

It can sound odd to say you’re a fan of knock-offs of a particular film, as well as the film itself, but I’ve come to find that many films that are riffing on, borrowing from, or borderline plagiarizing Psycho have mostly worked for me as well. This one does play some of its tropes and weaves them in quite a different pattern.

If you’re into programming double-features this would actually pair well with Coppola’s most recent foray into the genre. As there he weaves a far more elaborate tale but they both definitely feel born of the same mind, this one more youthfully creating an homage and the latter showing a vibrant maturity.

61 Days of Halloween- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Now that I am into all new selections, meaning that they are both new to me as a writing experience and as a post to this site, I do want to step back a bit from typical review format when possible. Spoiler Alert: I will be analyzing the film with some detail.

Themes have a way of evolving. Initially the idea was to watch a horror movie every day during the lead-up to Halloween, typically a new one. However, now I watch enough horror films as a rule that seeking out new doesn’t always win out over revisiting what definitely works.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a film I first saw in a horror/sci-fi class in college. I signed up to get many weekend screenings and see some mandatory titles. The first time I saw it is something I’ll never forget. It was the 20th of 20 screenings, and aside from the fact that our professor had an uncanny knack for programming double- and triple-features, it was the the most memorable ‘lights up’ after the film. It was dead silent, like the the first moment of calm after a bomb went off. We all looked around at each other checking each other’s level of unease.

Why I go back to my initial reaction to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is because typically when you take a film you’ve viewed and put it in rarified air, you can start to nitpick. Whether or not you consider TCM to be one of the greats here are some things you have to agree with:

This film is post-Psycho and pre-Halloween and bridges that that gap. It takes the quantum leap and amplifies Bate’s mommy-fixation to a family affair. However, it also, on a mass consumption level, creates a faceless (for most of the film) killer.

Clearly, many of its motifs, whether original to the film or not, have become favorites: incessant, brutal noise followed by shocking dead silence; the sound of a flashbulb; the faceless killer; lack information about the antagonist amongst others.

Perhaps the most important thing is not listed above: “Why me?” as it pertains to the pursued in a horror film is still a question that many films feel the need to answer. It was films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that made identity, pathology and reason behind these killers less necessary than ever. In fact, the issues in long-running series are introduced by reason. You’ll recall that Michael Myers history was discussed in Halloween but Laurie Strode being his sister was only added as a plot element in the sequel. In the first film, we just assume he chooses her because he sees her and his psychosis is enough reason. The very fundamental fear of it could be anyone, even you, makes it a universal fear.

Bringing it back to Chainsaw what it does is flirt with overt and obvious set-ups and discard them: Yes, the the hitchhiker’s crazy but they jettison him. There’s no short-cut missed, there’s no getting lost. They break down but are not found at random. It’s their choosing to go to the wrong place that crosses them in the wrong path.

In a way it takes you back to a similar idea in Psycho: if Marion Crane drives on, or is allowed to sleep at the side of the road, the movie ends up being about her trying to get away with the money. There is minimal “Oh my God, that was so dumb!” in TCM. Mistakes are immediately punished, and on two occasions Sally flings herself through a window to escape. The fact that you can fault little of what the protagonists do once found, or even in order to be found, makes it that much more immediate and palpable, as insane and unnatural as the family dynamic, psychosis and actions may seem.

It’s a master class in tone that starts from the read-aloud title crawl that haunts you, and then very normal things unfold slowly and get weirder and weirder.

The sound design of the movie barely incorporates music, and relies on the chilling nature of the sounds of the story: the screaming, the buzzing of the chainsaw, the insane cackling of the family, the blunt thuds of blows.

And flipping the vague antagonist on its side, it’s a film that becomes about its victims and trying to survive. You may not like all of them, and that’s fine, but you know who they are; and to me it passed a crucial test which is I want these people to survive ultimately, some more than others.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also the rare horror film that leaves you more unsettled after its over than you were before it started. Going into a horror film you’re amped. You’re hoping you’ll be scared, amused, entertained greatly; it bumps your adrenaline in anticipation. What this film does brilliantly is that it leaves a sole survivor, but her laughing hysteria at the end combined with Leatherface’s grostesque chainsaw ballet make for a chilling conclusion. The cherry on top in essence, this film just scared the hell out of you, it gives you one survivor, but he’s still out there and just as insane as ever.

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.
 

Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

That Movie Sucked: Trailers That Give Too Much Away

I had a recent Twitter conversation with Larry Richman, after he had attended an advance screening of Someone Like Us, and he had some interesting thoughts on the film. I told him I was glad to hear some of them after having seen the trailer. When he watched the trailer he confirmed what I feared: The trailer essentially gives away the entire movie.

I am doing my best to forget the details of said trailer before seeing it and won’t link to it here, but it does raise the point about why trailers feel the need to be so spoiler-laden. Now, there are certain realities I know and acknowledge, such as: I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) it’s mainly the marketing department (in a studio) in collaboration with the producers who select highlight type moments, good footage and shop them out to companies who specialize in cutting trailers together. They usually get two or three different versions and choose one. Essentially, it’s a sub-contractor relationship. However, this outsourcing of the job isn’t the only reason that over-sharing in trailers occurs, if you ask me. The first part is that some involved with the film select segments to supply the bidders. So the selection has to be a bit more guarded.

What is going to compel me to see a movie is not necessarily knowing the synopsis, not that synopses are innocent of giving away too much (far too often on the back of a film you are told not just the first act break but the second also). What will compel me is getting a sense of the tone of the film with some compelling images that make me wonder “What’s that about? I have to see that!”

Some notable examples of this for upcoming films are:

Les Miserables (Teaser)

The Road (2012)

Even way back when in the Golden Age and before when audiences were not as sophisticated in certain respects as they are now, trailers disseminated information through voice-over and text but not too much of the story was seen and heard through actual footage:

1930s

Dracula (1931)

When I went to YouTube I just typed in the very generic search of “1930s Trailer” and sure enough I got more or less what I expected. A presentational pitch with hyperbolic text, grandiose announcements and key images that intimate what the film is but give very little real information. A lot of times with older films you were allowed to see a piece (sometimes a large piece) of a scene play out but you had little context by which to understand it. It was all just supposed to be enticing.

1940s

Casablanca (1942)

Approximately a decade later the formula was still pretty much the same. The hard thing is watching trailers for films you’ve seen already, for some the edit seem to be giving away a lot of the story because you know it, but it’s really not. Think of the moments in Casablanca that became iconic and none of them are here the farewell, “Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship…”, “…shocked to find that there’s gambling going on in this establishment”, “As Time Goes By,” etc. Yes, this trailer is selling the adventure and danger much more than it is the romance but it’s not shying away from it either. The ethos is still similar in these two examples compelling images, backdrop, genre, stars but not the whole film.

1950s

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

My favorite professor in film school, Max Simkovitch, was not only great at planning double and triple features but also at screening clips and trailers. Therefore, even if something didn’t quite make it on the syllabus, we were made aware of it and tempted to see it. His horror/Sci-Fi class was where I first got a glimpse of Suspiria and then I had to track it down. We also watched The Invasion of the Body Snatchers there and while I can’t argue that this is a brilliant trailer, it is fragmentary enough in the ethos of its time to succeed. There is the frame of panicked reaction. First, you assume insanity then as images compound you think there’s more to it. The best part is the impact of the film is far greater than the trailer and the trailer doesn’t show it all, or intimate it all either. The bad part is that it doesn’t show you just how very good this movie is.

1960s

Psycho (1960)

Now, I will grant you that there are many things that allow this trailer to be as unique as it is. Firstly, you’re dealing with Alfred Hitchcock one of the greatest directors to ever walk the face of the Earth. However, he was also by this point a TV personality too. So his pitching his own film in an extended trailer is not so odd. However, what’s really brilliant about this Psycho trailer is how it seems to be telling you everything but there is so much misdirection and trickery afoot.

1970s

The Exorcist (1973)

Now, this is absolutely brilliant. There is next to now visual information revealed. There is one high contrast shot of Regan, no clear indication of what many of the shots mean and you don’t see the face of the exorcist. That creates the reaction you want. It gives you the emotional tenor of the film and compels you to want to see it. The voice-over works in conjunction with the images and scenes as opposed to presenting them. This is a clear indicator of the evolution of movie trailers. However, this sophisticated near artistry will in the course of the next forty years of film history will lose its restraint and start to give away too much information.

1980s

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Granted here’s another case where you’ve got a lot going for you as you set about creating a trailer: this is the follow-up to the most successful box-office smash of all-time as of this trailer’s debut, you have John Williams’ score and incredible visuals. Yet the temptation could exist to overplay your hand but it’s laid back. You have an exciting kinetic montage, with no information of any kind divulged really and the voice-over only comes in at the very end for one line. Perfect.

1990s

Jurassic Park (1993)

I tried to get a Spielberg film on for the 80s, I couldn’t because I thought of E.T. but the trailer I found had an incessant narrator who wanted to delineate every emotional beat in the whole film. With this short, if not brilliant Jurassic Park trailer, I think I re-affirm my point. Spielberg’s images are always strong. Here the story does a lot of the selling anyway, so just briefly touch upon what the chaos in the park is and make it a short, quick sell.

2000s

Peter Pan (2003)

For quite a bit of time I thought of Peter Pan as a standard-bearer of shorts. It had been some time since I had seen the trailer but I remembered how it had set the expectations very high for me, and then I saw the film it lived up to or exceeded practically every one of them. However, it also is a great illustration of how treacherous a game the cutting of trailers is. For above, what you have is the second version of the trailer. Multiple versions of trailers existing is nothing new, but what struck me as most interesting is that the minutest of changes could have such a drastic impact. When I found the #2 trailer I knew pretty quickly it was the one I liked for it seemed a more fragmentary and tonal presentation of this vision of the story whereas the #1 (below) felt a lot like a demonstration “Here’s this part of Neverland and this part and that part.”

The Present

As for the newer crop the trailer fo Dark Shadows is bad, but does contain a similar tonal dissonance to the actual end product. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent trailer.

Dark Shadows (2012)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

A recently compelling one, that convinced not only me, but many people to see the bad movie being hocked, was that of The Devil Inside.

It’s widely acknowledged that the marketing job done by Paramount to make this film a financial success while thudding with critics and audiences alike is astoundingly good. Another recent Paramount win was the viral marketing effort, the introduction of the “Demand It” concept prior to the release of the first Paranormal Activity film. However, regardless of whether you liked the film or not, the trailer is practically all the highlights of the film. Watch below…

Now, I will readily admit that I, as someone who frequents multiplexes and art houses alike and have a tendency to be quite early, such that I watch not only the trailer but the pre-show, will view these more times over than the average spectator. However, the success of the studios, the box-office both domestically and globally relies on everyone, and trailers are one of the best methods to repeat your business. You have a captive audience, a packed auditorium for the latest tentpole, all the big movies want to advertise in front of it. Whereas sometimes commercials work better because they can give less away, a trailer gives you anywhere from 90 to around 150 seconds to give your best pitch. So please try and tantalize not bore.

When a short film of mine Suffer the Little Children got into Shockerfest, we were afforded the opportunity to buy commercial time on local cable airwaves to advertise our screening. With only 30 seconds and my proclivity to tease rather than over inform, this is what I decided to do:

Here you’ve seen quite a few of the major plot points in the story, however, without knowing the Stephen King short story upon which the film is based you don’t necessarily know the context or the significance of the events. The shots come at you quickly, with juxtapositions that are apropos of nothing and little dialogue is heard. You are given the tone of the piece and some allusions as to what it’s about but you are not told everything. That’s as it should be I feel, even given more time to play around.

Far too often, after seeing a trailer, I will snidely say to myself “That movie sucked.” Now, of course, I’ve learned that the trailer is never a good indicator of what the film is. However, while I do want to be compelled to see the film by the trailer I don’t want to feel like I watched the movie. I felt John Carter, despite other marketing missteps at least attempted to compel with images first and not giveaway all the plot intricacies therein. The removal of the qualifier ‘of Mars’ from the title, the reticence to be upfront about the literary pedigree of the tale right off the bat likely had more to do with its failing, than a trailer that didn’t spoon-feed absolutely everything.

I think above there are plenty of examples of how to do it and how not to do it, and I hope that we get more good than bad in the future. However, in the meantime caveat emptor, buyer beware is definitely a motto to live by. Most recently I heard warnings to stay away from the trailer for Sinister. He is correct. The movie does look very good but there is much information in the trailers. So happy viewing but try and avoid spoilery trailers.

5 Reasons the Suspiria Remake May Not Be The Worst Thing in the History of the Universe

Suspiria (International Classics)

I am not a proponent of remakes in general and certainly am not a fan of the idea of a Suspiria remake, however, in light of recent information I am more positive than I was.

5. Possibility of Reviving A Classic

A common fear with a remake is that the original will be replaced with Suspiria it will likely not be the case. Aside from horror buffs you hardly every heard mention of this film before, when news of the remake first broke people are talking about Argento’s version more than ever before and good or bad the release of the remake will likely revive interest in viewing the original.

4. The Road Less Traveled Theory

Another reason this film may not be such a bad thing is something I’m calling The Road Less Traveled Theory, meaning that in remakes people always seem to be wary of seeing iconic scenes re-interpreted, likely the fault of the Psycho remake. I have reason to believe the story will be updated somewhat and the film is one of such intricacies that there are other avenues to explore and other ways to portray things and it’ll likely look like a very different movie.

3. Natalie Portman

Initial Reports way back when, speculated she might be in the running for the film, yet she stands sort of as a symbol of the positive casting possibilities this film has. Portman, or someone like her, is a positive because I have a feeling based on the inherent tension of Suspiria, plus the fact that David Gordon Green always gives his actors something to sink their teeth into, we should see her (whomever she may be) best.

2. David Gordon Green

You have at the helm of this project a man who has not only directed such diverse ventures as Undertow, Pineapple Express and The Sitter but also someone who is writing the adaptation. So you have not the puppet of some studio, I don’t think Green has yet been accused of that but a man fully invested in bringing his vision of this tale to the screen. Whether or not you like the adaptation presented is another thing entirely but it should be a focused and skillful interpretation of the story.

1. Argento’s Blessing

Up until recently this project had proceeded through pre-production stages without talking to Dario Argento and beyond not getting a seal of approval they hadn’t officially been granted the rights of adaptation, which is a hairy situation to be in. Now Argento has conceded because he has come around to the viewpoint that he is “convinced that his movie is a masterpiece and can’t be overshadowed.”

Which is a fair enough point. Why people get up in arms about remakes is usually due to the “How Dare You” syndrome we fall victim to when hearing about it. Indeed, there has been a rash of remakes of films that can’t be topped recently but in truth they, and similarly sequels, do not truly detract from the original inherently, it is our perception that skews. Similarly, if we really were so sick of all these retreads we would stay away en masse. While those who don’t know any better will flock out to see these films, the fact of the matter is the information is out there to be had so if you’re going to see a remake at least see it knowingly. The internet is a great thing sometimes.
 
These are the reasons I am not as scared as I once was. Fingers crossed.

So You Wanna Win Best Picture?

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Amblin)

To be clear this article is not meant in any way, shape or form to disparage the Academy. This list is aimed at the film enthusiast who may, as I used to, get a bit too worked up about who won or lost. Granted you will link your opinion to a sense of justice, however, it bears keeping in mind that below are 25 films all were nominated for Best Picture, did not win but all have a legacy stronger than most winners of the award. Ultimately, time, the public and critical re-appraisal are what determine the films that last, awards, while nice, are in the moment comparatively speaking. The Oscars are a great show and if something or someone you like wins it’s even better but if not it’s not the end of the world. The list below is evidence of that.

Films That Didn’t Win Best Picture

1. Citizen Kane
2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
3. King Kong
4. The Wizard of Oz
5. The Color Purple
6. The Sixth Sense
7. The Maltese Falcon
8. Apocalypse Now
9. Raging Bull
10. Star Wars
11. JFK
12. A Few Good Men
13. Pulp Fiction
14. As Good As It Gets
15. Double Indemnity
16. It’s a Wonderful Life
17. High Noon
18. Miracle on 34th Street
19. The Ten Commandments
20. Dr. Strangelove
21. The Graduate
22. The Exorcist
23. Chinatown
24. Jaws
25. Taxi Driver

61 Days of Halloween- Homicidal

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Homicidal

Jean Arless and Eugenie Lenotovich in Homicidal (William Castle Productions)

Homicidal is worth seeing for showmanship alone. William Castle was one of the great marketers in the history of cinema. Aside from putting together an impressive resume of hits he also had some of the legendary gimmicks in the history of the medium.

His marketing genius is shown in full force here in his response to Hitchcock’s Psycho. First, there is Castle himself introducing the film but there is also a “Fright Break” in which three quarters of the way through the film a clock appears on screen to countdown a minute allowing anyone who is too scared to keep watching the film to leave.

Having said all that the film is very much worth seeing. It has a twist that I fell for hook, line and sinker. What’s more is that it is alluded to very theatrically in the end credits. If you’re into film pairings you should see this one and A Blade in the Dark back-to-back.

It also is bloody for its time and is bloodier than its predecessor and has a very different kind of twist in store than Psycho had. Interestingly enough this film does have a MacGuffin of its own which plays out very quickly compared to its predecessor. Comparisons aside it is a film that ends up standing on its own and it worth watching based on its own merits.

8/10

Review- Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code (Summit Entertainment)

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to assess my feelings about Source Code and most of the reason why is that a lot of those feelings lie most definitely in an ambivalent place. There is surely plenty to like about it and some things to dislike and they are usually on very different ends of the spectrum such that the overall opinion lies somewhere in the middle with the elements of disparate quality pulling at you trying to make you lean one way or another. The bottom line is that this is a good film but there are a few concerns that keep it from getting any better than it is.

What deserves to be complimented first and foremost is the cast of the film. In particular the three main players: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga. The first of which is the most pleasant surprise of the film. Gyllenhaal, in my estimation, had been a member of a group of young leads around his age who in mind were/are infinitely vanilla. Not great, and not terrible but also not bringing anything to the table. There aren’t too many dynamic young actors that bring something new to the table every time out but here he breaks free from those shackles and really shows a lot, which is made even more impressive based on observations I will make later.

Michelle Monaghan, who I had previously became familiar with through, and honored her for, Trucker, is absolutely perfect in this part. When an actress is given the confine of having to play a character that you could fall in love with over and over again and you only have eight minutes in which to do it in, that’s a formidable task and she accomplishes it easily.

Last but not least is Vera Farmiga, who manages to pull out a very good performance despite the fact that her scenes and dialogue are often redundant, which speaks a little to the screenwriting issues found herein. She all too frequently has to battle Colter (Gyllenhaal) and tell him his questions are irrelevant. She needs to have a very thin facade which breaks down over several conversations, in certain regards she has a bigger hill to climb than Monaghan. However, she’s not even afforded the same flexibility of scenario that Monaghan gets.

One of the other major issues of the film is the handling of the Sci-Fi element itself. Science Fiction seems to break off into two distinct groups there is an assumptive brand wherein futuristic or improbable things are occurring naturally and unquestioned, like in Inception for example where the dream-sharing and serums are given or the didactic wherein in a simulacrum of the world we inhabit in the present day is shown to us and a curtain is pulled back to reveal a secret that is explained to the audience. This film chooses the latter path, which in my mind requires a bit more explanation.

This film waits to grant us answers, which is fine because it allows us to identify easily with the protagonist but when we learn about the Source Code program, what it is and how it functions there are still questions that come to mind.

The idea is original and intriguing but it leaves you wanting for a bit too much which in this case is a double-edged sword. Similarly there’s the Maguffin. Now, it’s not necessary that you know its a Maguffin going in, however, I got a little ahead of this film in this regard. Once you realize finding the bomber is not the point of the story it takes too long for the narrative to catch up and after so many episodes it becomes a slightly tiresome exercise. It’s as if the film gets foisted by its own petard because the sequences are too frequent and short to keep the suspense of the whodunit alive.

A good Maguffin is one that is enthralling though perhaps never resolved. The best example is in Psycho. I care about Marion Crane’s early decisions: Stay or go? Take the money or not? I’m also rapt by her trying to elude the authorities. In the end it doesn’t really matter but it’s riveting. Here it gets tired and you’re left waiting for the bigger story to take over.

This is all said to illustrate that this is a good film that could’ve been made much better. With how the film ends, in terms of narrative not handling, it is most definitely a good film. It is just one that mishandled a few key elements that would’ve made it great.

I do have an appreciation of what was accomplished and intended I just wish it could’ve been greater and that was within reach.

7/10