Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2008

I know I suck, I’m trying to get better though. 2008 was a bit of a letdown film wise. Not that it was bad per se but 2006 and 2007 made film fans positively giddy, for awhile there masterpieces where just falling from the freaking sky. 2008 they just seemed a little thin on the ground. I didn’t get to the movies as much as I would have liked to, I’ve probably only seen about 50 or so and have yet to catch The Wrestler, Milk, or Burn After Reading. But there was a lot of solid stuff out there this year, and more then a few masterpieces, the stuff that was good was so good it almost hurt, and the stuff that wasn’t well...

Worst movie of the Year: The Spirit: This movie is bad that I no longer like movies or comic books. This will leave me with considerably less to write about, not that it would make that much of a difference lately. But dear sweet Jesus the pain. This is a movie that consisted largely of Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes in fetish gear and I literally got no enjoyment out of it. I’m a Frank Miller apologist of the first water the kind of guy who finds enjoyment in All Star Batman And Robin, but this was just too much.

2008 Southland Tales Award: For Movie I Like For No Discernable Reason:

Speed Racer: Sure every moment involving the child and the monkey is sheer distilled cinematic pain. Sure too many of the races are an indiscernible mess. Sure the movie goes dead for about an hour fifteen minutes in. Sure Susan Surandon looks like she’s on valium. Sure it stars Rain. Sure John Goodman looks drunk and angry. Sure the film often resembles a candy coated hellscape of my nightmares.

But… Still there’s something there. I doubt that there’s a more idiosyncratic big budget film out there. The whole thing is produced so strangely, this is what Blockbuster movies look like on other planets. So many rough edges and such a suprising amount of the Wackowski Kink in play. Whenever I say, watch Racer X battle a rocket powered/launching semi truck filled with tranny gangsters, or relive the saga of the racecar driving Viking Hitmen, tempted from their winter layer with chests of fur, or John Goodman call someone a Nonja, or watch Racer X punch a man in the face, as that man is crashing his car, I get a giddy rush.

Oh and in related news Christina Ricci: Fucking Fine.

Say what you will about it, but I’ve never seen anything quite like Speed Racer, and considering its dismal failure probably never will again.

I love this terrible terrible movie.

10 Hellboy II: Del Toro’s seemingly unstoppable run of kickass films continues unabated. Hellboy II shows Del Toro’s untamed imagination in full force, bringing to life a wondrous tapestry of a world.

9. Shine A Light: To say Shine A Light is a lower tier Scorsese movie is to say that it’s pretty great rather then say absolutely transcendent. The elephant in the room is the fact that Shine A Light has absolutely nothing either on No Direction Home, Scorsese’s definitive Dylan project, or The Last Waltz. However, being as one of those is an already legendary definition of an artist who has made his career by being indefinable, and the other is arguably the greatest concert film ever made, arguably filming the death of rock’s classic era, this is hardly surprising. Slightly more annoying is the slightly corporate air the entire thing had, SCORSESE. THE STONES, ON YOUR IMAX, AS YOU SIP NEW COKE, FROM PARAMOUNT, SPONSERED BY HILARY CLINTON. But despite this all the film is at it’s core a portrait of old professionals having a blast, both on the stage and behind the camera. They love what they do, and they take you along with them.

8. The Strangers: It’s real easy to become jaded as a genre film fan. There’s so much bullshit out there on both ends of the “quality” spectrum that you start to detach yourself from the visercial experience of going to the movies. You need something like The Strangers every once and again to remind you why you go. Why you really go. The Strangers didn’t change my life it didn’t give me any new insight into the human condition, it didn’t revolutionize the genre, what it did was scare the living shit out of me for ninety minutes and then sent me home to lock my doors. It reminded me how much fun it is to sit in the dark.

7. Doomsday: This gets the most fun I had in a theater award. Taking me back to my misspent youth rewatching battered John Carpenter and Walter Hill flicks for the hundreth time. Doomsday was Grindhouse for those films rather then seventies exploitation. Any film that opens with a big boobed blond lady snorting coke in a bathtub and shooting people with a shotgun, and ends in Scottish Castle where Malcolm McDowell leads over the most epic renfair ever, is going to be pretty awesome. Add in exploding bunnies and cows, Epic tank battles, Fine Young Cannibals who do dances choreographed to Fine Young Cannibals, and you have maybe the best movie ever.

6. The Pineapple Express: Pineapple Express made me laugh so hard that I thought I was in serious danger of cracking my ribs. Plus it gave David Gordon Greene some fuck you money. That’s all the justification I need.

5. In Bruges: This is one of those films, that it’s unfair to talk to much about, and since the marketing has already done a nice job of mis direction, trying to make it look like Euro Pulp Fiction, I will not bother to correct it. Suffice to say the film is worth your time.

4. The Fall: Like WALLE The Fall gave me hope for the future of pure cinematic storytelling. If Herzog ever made a fantasy it would look like this. Wonderful and tactile and so real it almost hurts.

3. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Buttons:

“I was just thinking about how nothing lasts and what a shame that is.”

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Buttons is in itself a Curious Case. I’ve been fascinated by the how the film has ended up as something of a Rorsarch blot for critics who have been using it as an opportunity to pick apart any damn thing they want. Depending on who you believe the film is either too obvious, or obtuse, too sentimental, or a case of Fincher draining the warmth from the film like a vampire, It’s a masterpiece and trainwreck, a serious Oscar contender and a debacle and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. It’s tough to explain why which is strange because Fincher is a filmmaker I’ve always been able to verbalize. I can explain in great detail just why Fight Club, Seven, Zodiac, and The Game, get my cinematic juices flowing and why Panic Room is completely tolerable, and why Alien 3 is fucking awful. But Buttons has simply gotten under my skin, like The man who keeps getting struck by lightening it just is. I could point to Fincher’s magnificent style, or the soulful performances by the entire cast, I could talk about how this is I believe, the most Kubrickian film made since the great master’s death. But that would all be surface, not really getting to the heart of this melancholy, funny, soulful, alive little film.

2. The Dark Knight: There’s something astounding about seeing a myth realized. Not to get too Joseph Campbell but there is a reason some characters last while others fall by the wayside, a resonance that some have and the charge of Dark Knights comes primarily from watching one of those characters realized in full. There’s not much to be said about Ledger’s performance of The Joker that hasn’t already been mentioned (I think the AV Club put it best “that something appears wrong with him on a biological level.”) Suffice to say nothing needs to, it speaks for itself. So does the film.

1. WALLE: Like 2001 made by Buster Keaton. WALLE is at once a gorgeous tone poem, a stunningly funny and heartfelt story, and the most blistering social satire I have seen since Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Taking the “Shit we don’t need for prices we can’t afford.” Mentality to its logical extremes the way WALLE shows how our how culture is infantilizing us was stunning and a little sickening. Yet the film never comes off as mean spirited, only bitter sweet and hopeful, and at the end when mankind’s creations fight to give us one last shot at creating and being again, it becomes a wonderfully cathartic experience shot with Andrew Stanton’s poet’s eye. Benjamin Button’s might have told us nothing lasts but as long as cinema does, WALLE will.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Comic Book Day 11/26/08

It’s a rare month when there are five comics I am genuinely looking forward to, so having five come out on the same day makes this the best New Comicbook Day EVER. All five titles where ones I was excited about some lived up to expectations some didn’t. Here’s a quick look.

Oh and Spoilers...

Batman #681

Huh. Or to use that much hated phrase. Meh. The thing is whether it was good or bad I had no doubt that Batman RIP would be the (temporary) game changer that Morrison kept saying it would be. The run of the series convinced me of this, what with Bruce Wayne shot up with heroin and crystal meth, his friendly Ghost Hobo spirit guide, Bat-Mite, Talking Gargoyles, The Joker Cutting His tongue down the middle, and Batman dressed in rags dispensing justice with a baseball bat. I figured something truly epic and bizarre was going down in the final issue.

SPOILERS: A quick summation of the finale.

Dr. Paine: I am thez Thomas Wayne!

Bruce Wayne: Nos you ares not!

Dr. Paine: You are right. But I might be your father anyway!

Everyone else: Ohs Nos Teh Helicopter Crash!

Dick Grayson: I’m probablies Batman Now!!

Now two points.

1) After watching Bruce Wayne Bench press his way out of a coffin, I can’t get two worried about him surviving a plane crash.

2) The whole Dr. Paine isn’t Thomas Wayne thing is just two annoying for words. Now let me be frank I think Thomas Wayne turning out to be a wife beating, orgy going junkie, who murdered his wife would have been a pretty pathetic way to go. It’d be cheap and mean Morrison corrupting mythology that doesn’t belong to him. It’d be like someone at Marvel deciding that Uncle Ben was a whoremonger who beat his wife and the Burglar that killed him was just a loan shark recollecting a debt. That said the way it’s handled here is even worse, it’s just pointless. Say what you will about the whole Thomas Wayne thing, but it would have been a real reason for Batman to reconsider being Batman. The fact that everything he’s done and accomplished would be built on a lie would give Batman a good reason to reconsider being Batman.

And that’s really the problem, there really isn’t one anymore. While there are some fun moments, the afore mentioned Batman digging himself out of the coffin, The Joker, and then Batman turning the tables on the way too smug Black Glove, Bruce and Dick’s “final” fight together and The Joker’s speech in praising Batman. At the end of the day I see no reason why Bruce isn’t back at the Batcave the next week.

And when your title’s name is Batman RIP that’s a considerable problem.


Buffy #19

Inspeaking of considerable problems, when you do a cliffhanger involving a major character being evil it’s problematic when you can’t tell who that character is. For the life of me, I thought Dawn was the “madwoman” and it wasn’t until two issues later that I realized it was Willow.

As always Buffy was interentsing, Whedon’s spinning a great web here, and I have a feeling when he finally pulls back and reveals his master plan it’ll be pretty astonishing. The reveal that another character we thought was on the side of angels isn’t had a real punch to it. Though, it does ruin my number one guess as to who Twilight was. (At least I think it’s the character).

Still Whedon’s mix of horror, humor, soap opera, and action is potent as ever. I’m on this train till it ends.


Daredevil #113

Ed Brubaker is so so awesome. Normally I wouldn’t have much more to say then that, but it’s worth mentioning, that occasionally there are detriments to not really reading any main stream superhero comicbook. There’s the death of an apparently major character at the end of this book. But it was tough to care about as I had no idea who she was, or what her relationship to any of the characters was. I knew I was supposed to care. I just didn’t know why.

Other then that great stuff.


Ultimate Spiderman #128

Comicbook death is one of the things that annoys me most about the medium. Not so much for what it is but as a symptom of the disease. In comics nothing is for keeps there’s nothing that can’t get retconned, revisioned, or flat out ignored. In the words of Will Rogers “Don’t like the weather? Wait a few minutes.”

That said, Bendis wrote such a good Gwen Stacy, and she added such a nice dynamic to the group that I can’t help but be glad she’s back. Not to mention the fact that Bendis finds away to make her come back without resulting to either A) Emotional Dildo syndrome (Ala The Dark Tower) or B) Denying what happened. It’s a good solution and plausible, (or at least comicbook plausible) and it that doesn’t float your boat there’s plenty of great action, great character work, and some truly freaky Cronenbergian visuals.

This book isn’t that well loved anymore, but there’s no other title I can buy month after month knowing that I’ll get my three bucks worth of entertainment.


Umbrella Academy: God Save The President #1

Of course I just say that since this book isn’t a monthly. If there was any question that the Umbrella Academy was just a fluke, that Gerard Way really just was a pretty boy playing the sandbox they should be laid to rest with this little number which is just as great as the preceding miniseries.

For those of you who are not familiar with The Umbrella Academy, Take one pinch Salinger, a heaping helping of Wes Anderson. Apply liberal dashes The X-men, Clockwork Orange, The Twilight Zone, and Mike Mignola add A semi insane ten year old with more killing power then Lee Marvin in his prime and that kind of scratches the surface. Despite all of this Umbrella Academy possesses it’s very own brand of nutso, provided by Way, and is brought to life by Ba’s art perfectly.

This issue begins with a group of Preteens taking down a surly Lincoln Monument with the help of John Wilkes Booth, and ends with a ten year old killing literally hundreds with his bare hands. And what sticks them together ain’t bad either. This book is seven different flavors of bad ass.


We'll now return to your regularly scheduled programming of navel gazing and caring way too much about an old anime series. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Revisit Evangelion 5 & 6

(Note: I should mention that if you haven’t seen Eva and want to, you maybe shouldn’t read this for there will be spoilers. In this and all the reconsiderations)

The Fifth Episode Of Eva begins with a timely reminder of just how fucking terrifying the Evangelions are. Flashing back to the past as Unit 00 has it’s first activation, and promptly flips right the fuck out. It’s a worse case scenario on a staggering degree. An Eva doing exactly what you tell it to is a bad enough proposition, one deciding to turn against you is a catastrophuck.

This brings up two key points about the series, one is as much as we like to bitch and moan about it Eva’s ambiguity often works in it’s favor as much as it’s determent. From the second episode on we know the Evas have their own personalites and through the series it becomes apparent that there are human souls inside them, specifically the souls of Shinji’s, Asuka, and Ritsuko’s mother. Having a character come right out and say this, would make the whole thing seem pretty stupid, as would taking us through the step by step process of shoving a dead person’s spirit into a giant war machine, although judging by Unit 00’s reaction upon awakening it’s a pretty horrific experience. Eva never does either, it just gives us hints and dark inferences, and let’s us come to our own conclusions, rather then being spoon fed we spring to the idea itself making it a lot more powerful.

The second point comes from what will be the centeral question of the episode and in many ways the series. Just what the hell is up with Rei? Rei has for better or for worse become the poster child of the series (hint it’s mostly been for the worse) but a lot of that has to do with the fact that she is a truly fascinating character.

As it eventually becomes clear Rei has been reverse engineered from Shinji’s dead Mom, (Why, aside from Gendo’s wacky sense of humor, is a pretty good question, as it’s revealed that Yui was the first Eva pilot, did they just think nobody else could do it? Once again ambiguity working in the show’s favor). But just how much of Yui is in Rei (Because she’s also in Unit 01 right? I mean did she just have a spare soul lying around?) and how much Rei knows about it, her reaction to Shinji and Unit 00 reaction to her suggest that there is something there, not to mention her rather blaise reaction to having to spend large amounts of time in a giant glass tube, suggests she’s not totally ignorant of her origins.

The episodes starts with a visit to the lab that’s been built around the corpse of the (pretty ripe smelling I'd wager) angel from two episodes ago. The revelation that it’s DNA is composed the same way as humanity's is another thing that’s interesting as it is infuriating. Later in the series it’s suggested that the Angel’s are basically other species who have undergone instrumentality. That’s a cool explanation but once again makes little sense, why then are they so pissed at humanity for trying to do the same thing? Is it some sort of hazing ritual where the angels have to test the new guys metal before allowing them to join their interdimensional higher conscience frat? If so then how come there are still so many of them floating around, wouldn’t they have all been killed off in there attempt to stop the last species from assimilating into the form of an effete gay teenager?

The episode continues with Kensuke, and Toji panting over their fanservice’d out classmates, the creepiness of the scene is compounded by the fact that their leering, red faced reaction to Rei is almost identical to a lot of fanboys who have enshrined the character as a sex symbol despite the fact that she is, A) Fourteen, B) Fictional C) Has a tank full of soulless often mutilated clones. Any one of these things has an aura of creepiness to it on it’s own, put them together and you have a perfect storm of icky.

More “Comic Relief” ensues and then Shinji has his first encounter with Rei. Once again their relationship is interesting because we’re not quite sure where she stands. The “sexual tension” between the two is a lot more palatable since it doesn’t seem to exist. Sure Shinji ends up around her naked a lot, but he doesn’t seem so much attracted to her as drawn by something he recognizes. Rei on the other hand over the course of the episode, scolds, awakens, feeds, and protects, Shinji in other words she mother’s him. Is it Yui? Or just the echoes?

Her somewhere beyond Spartan apartment and ultra laconic demeanor, contrast immediately and intriguingly with her attachment to Gendo’s glasses and her anger shown when Shinji gives him less then glowing praise. More then anything else Rei seems incomplete. Assuming that Gendo is the one who did the reverse engineering this raises some interesting ideas. To about half the characters on the show Yui represents the feminine ideal, but what did Gendo, a man so enraptured by her that he’d end humanity to see her again really know about her? It recalls Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris (Yes I’m painfully aware that that’s the third time in as many columns I’ve name checked a high falutin old foreign filmmaker. I am probably not going to stop.) He knows she loved him (apparently) but what else? Was she just a role to him? He’s unable to recreate her just the part of her that he knew, and as Rei’s interaction with the rest of the world, and her tormented inner dialogue shows, that’s not nearly enough.

Anyway before I dig myself any further into bullshit hole, an Angel shows up. Starting now the designs on the Angels become pretty extraordinary, (For the most part, there are a few duds in there). This isn’t to say that the first two weren’t cool, but they where pretty standard to Sci Fi and Anime convention. Despite the fact that we truly have no idea what life other then our own would be like, we do our utmost to portray it as humanoid, or scaly and with a lot of teeth. Eva is one of the exceptions creating beings that are truly alien, like this great big reflective diamond, how it works, or just what it is is unknown, but it’s implacable, smart, and creepy as hell and it has no trouble taking down Nerv’s first attack before it’s even begun nearly boiling our hero in LCL. Cue another great Eva cliffhanger.

The next Episode begins with a replay of Shinji’s defeat, this time with extra humiliation. Shinji’s body hasn’t stopped twitching when a big phallic drill drops from the Angel and begins the dirty business of penetrating the trembling circular Geo Front. Ok probably reading to much into that. College has ruined me.

The interesting thing is just how inefficient the Angel’s mode of attack is. It’s estimated to take 22 hours to penetrate the Geo Front’s open waiting void… OK I promise to stop. One of the cool things about the show is how the Angel’s gradually got a lot smarter as they approached different tactics to end humanity. It’s like the old Wile E. Coyote cartoons had a cast of Coyotes, and as they where busy scraping the latest of there brethren off the pavement, they came up with new and better ways to kill that cocky bird.

The slow pace also allows the battle to take on a slightly different pitch then the usual race against time. Rather then the usual two opponents bashing eachother to pieces, it’s really a game of chess (OK maybe an unusually good game of checkers). The players attack and counter attack, feint and maneuver, each really a series of distractions as each tries to ensnare the other in it’s masterplan. Or maybe GAINIX just didn’t feel like animating another huge battle so they just said “Oh fuck it have one use a drill then the other shoot it, I’m sure it’ll be fine. But god help you if the high school girls look anything less then glistening climbing out of the pool!”

Misato tries several plans they don’t work mainly because of The Angel’s high level of Badass Mother Fuckery, before coming up with one that does. Shinji wakes up, Rei demonstrates the worst bedside manner known to man.

Then after a minimum level of antipathy by Shinji (Once again what a pussy, what kind of fourteen year old kid wouldn’t leap at the chance to go face the thing that nearly killed him again, seconds after emerging from a coma. Am I RIGHT?!?) we’re at the mission briefing all composed in either extreme close up or silhouette it’s another good example of Eva using abstraction early on in the series. As is Shinji’s and Rei’s conversation of the ties that bind directly afterwards, introducing the idea of instrumentality, what would become the crux of the series (and also for the excellent Syndechone New York for anyone who has had the chance to see it).

The Climax of the episode is well choreographed and exciting, delivering a nice bit of tension through just how unable the characters are to react. Finally it all ends with a nice understated irony and a smile.

That smile would prove to cause a lot of shit. “Why is that Rei showed human emotion then and then went back to stoicism immediately after.” But this like Shinji’s cowardice strikes me as mature storytelling now. People don’t make progress in easy to follow, and story beat convenient plateaus. We backslide and fall back on old systems of behavior because they’re comfortable, and more or less go forward in loopy circles rather then a straight line.

Much like this column.

Sorry it took so long, I’d promise that I’d get to the next episodes sooner, but seeing as we’re coming on Thanksgiving and I work in a grocery store, well I just don’t know.

Episode 5: B+
Episode 6: B+

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Revisit Evangelion: Episodes 3 & 4

Well after the books written in the last two reconsiderations there’s not a whole lot to say about this pair of episodes. Episodes 3 and 4 are Eva at its most standard, the closest the show ever came to being a typical teenage Mech drama. In my opinion the closer to the standard Eva adheres the weaker it is. By design it more or less takes on all the weaknesses of the Giant Robot Show and none of the strengths

The episode begins with Shinji in a training program acting like a mannequin. When People say they hate Shinji this is what they’re talking about, the guy in suit rotely parroting his commands again and again acting like one of Skinner’s rats. It doesn’t help matters that Anno shoots him with a fish angle lens that makes it look like Shinji is piloting mechs for Diane Arbus.

Anyway Shinji ends up going to school where we meet two of the shows most uninteresting characters, Toji whose defining trait is he’s Mr. Brash N’ Angry, and Kensuke whose defining trait is that I want to kill him with a hammer, slowly.

Anyway drama ensues, The Hedgehog’s Dillema is discussed (isolation brings pain, the only way to relieve isolation is contact with others, contact with others brings pain, you’re fucked) and then mentioned about ten trillion times (It’s also the title of the episode incase you missed the fact that it’s supposed to be IMPORTANT) an Angel comes we get some cool ground level shots of Tokyo 3 sinking into the Geo Front, and a fight ensues that while well choreographed and possessing a nice sense of geography, doesn’t really have the intensity of Eva at its best.

By episodes end Shinji has had his first little mini breakdown and we’re ready to continue.

Things pick up in episode four. Now you might be confused as how I might find an episode which basically involves nothing but the protagonist wandering aimlessly to be more interesting then an episode were the he you know, saves the world, but such are the strange workings of my mind.

Anyway after his minor nervous breakdown Shinji decides to leave Nerv, and starts drifting around Tokyo. Meanwhile Misato worries, and Toji and Kensuke try to find him to apologize. Like I said the bulk of the episode is basically Shinji walking around Tokyo, so your mileage may vary. Personally I found the sequence to be a great piece of silent story telling, conveying it’s ideas a lot more effectively and subtly then when the characters monologue about basic philosophical and psychological constructs for five minutes, the way they did in The Hedgehogs Dilemma, as well as unfortunately the rest of the series.

Shinji’s Antonioniesque treck across the city and into the wilderness unfolds as basically a series of tableaus, with Shinji first witnessing the closeness of other human relationships before going into the wilderness, where the animation becomes strikingly abstract. It also introduces one of Eva’s best motif’s the image of one of it’s characters walking alone through a series of deserted Tokyo streets. Even as someone whose never been there, the city’s reputation as one of the busiest in the world precedes it, and seeing it almost completely deserted, immediately strikes you as wrong, it’s pretty fucking creepy in an understated and artful way.

The sequence continues as basically a series of pillow shots but they express Shinji’s isolation and confusion perfectly. This is also the kind of thing most people hate Shinji for it’s never really bothered me. As someone who’s had my own battles with depression, and whose ability to turn acquaintances into friends can be described as shitty, I can understand Shinji’s dilema. The desire to be close with people, part of something, yet having no idea how. It’s relatable to me. He doesn’t have the power of self validation, he seeks it from others finds hostility and withdraws, even further outside looking in. What can I say I get it.

The sequence comes to the end with a strikingly composed shot of a red sky with a foreground of beautifully etched wheat with a black form in between, of course that black form turns out to be Kensuke, and the whole thing kinda craps out there. NERV’s Gestapo division finds Shinji, takes him back to headquaters so Misato can yell at him, and then basically releases him so that he can go and do exactly the thing he was going to do before.

Shinji and Misato both reconsider, the oldest trick in the world is used at the train station and the “I’m home.” line that worked so well in episode two repeated to lesser effect. All in all these episodes aren’t what you would call bad, but you have to wonder why it took two episodes to get to where we already were.

Episode 3: C-
Episode 4: C+

Monday, November 10, 2008

Revisit Evangelion Episodes 1&2

(Note: I’m planning on writing about this series at about two episodes per entry. When it works to review them separately I will, when it works to write about them as one long rambling tangent, like today I’ll do that to.)

Let’s start with the theme song, in a lot of ways the series is summed up in that perfect ninety second mix of pretension, cheesecake, symbolism, violence, plot information, and striking imagery (some of which I’m still bitter never made it into the series). As bits of crucial information and terminology flit across the screen the delivery proves to be an object lesson, just enough to have you tantalized not enough to satisfy.

The series hits the ground running with a lot of what the series does right and wrong set from the beginning. There’s some striking stuff here, as well as some clumsy elements. An intriguing mix of elegance and amateurishness.

The series starts off with Shinji alone in a deserted city street mumbling about how no one wants him. Though many have complained about the main protaginist’s spinelessness looking back it only seems realistic. Take any fourteen year old boy with abandonment issues and have callous authority figures and peers literally put the weight of the world on his shoulders after shoving him in a giant monster to go fight another giant monster, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t take it well. Plus there’s a real vulnerability to Shinji that makes him work, little character moments like his sheepish pleasure at being told he’s home, make a truly rounded and to me at least, relatable character rather then a big bag of angst. Of course only time will tell if he’ll wear out his welcome before the series is up, but at the moment I can’t help but feel that the antipathy towards Shinji is due more towards Anime fan’s own insecurities then any flaws in the characterization.

The vision of Rei Shinji has in this opening scene, points out another frustrating technique of the show, the cool thing with many interpretations that is never mentioned let alone explained again. After the movie this vision could mean many things, is it a suggestion that the entire series is just Shinji’s remembrance of events during third impact? A projection by Rei in a time of distress? Or is it what’s left of Yui checking on her long missing son? Anyway you look at it it’s intriguing, and of course, it’s never gone into again. While thanks to a booming toy, fan fiction and art industry Rei gets a lot of crap these days, as symbolizing everything that’s wrong in anime fandom. A group of awkward males stuck in the cobra’s sway of a young, big boobed, teenage girl whose docile and gets beat up a lot. That said she’s one of the characters I’m most interested in getting a second look at. There’s a lot of stuff just below the surface in her character, the question of just what her nature is, and how much she knows about it are some of the most intriguing mysteries of the series.

Anyway back to the first sequence, the direction is top notch, shooting this and much of the first episode at ground level, when the battle between the UN Forces and the Angel cross paths with Shinji it’s truly a terrifying experience, shot entirely from his POV it only cuts away to wider shot to view the extent of the destruction. It gives the series an instant sense of scale, as the angel lays waste to everything in it’s path it’s clear that the stakes are high. Later shots, Shinji riding the escalator unaware of the giant hand he’s passing, the construction crews swarming over the giant broken Eva parts, Misato standing next to the bullet’s being loaded, Her and Shinji framed against the horizons of Tokyo 3 and The Geo Front, continue this neat trick of perception. Everything is shot just off center from where a normal series would focus.

As the episode continues, we are introduced to much of the supporting cast and the show does a pretty good job, of establishing who they are in the short time it has. I’ll have much more to say about them as this series goes on, but since I’ve already written way too much, I’ll cut it short for now. Suffice to say in my opinion a lot of what made Eva great was the way it took apart anime archetypes exposing the true character beneath the clichés, but to do that it had to establish the archetypes first, but from first glance on Misato, Ritsuko, Rei, and Gendo all fit their roles perfectly.

The series always get’s a lot of shit for going off the rails with it’s stream of conscience rants. But if anything what impressed me this time out was how arch the style was from the beginning. The reunion scene between Shinji and Gendo, where he receives his orders to pilot the Eva is pretty faux Bergman, from the blocking, to the angles, to the bizarrely on the nose dialogue, the scene has almost a dreamlike quality to it. It plays like Shinji’s worst nightmare of the encounter, with his beyond distant father treating at him like a spare part and speaking in clipped one word commands as though Shinji’s a naughty puppy, and even the kindly Misato turning on him.

Unfortunately, the scene introduces another frustrating stock in trade trick of Eva, the use of quickly shouted made up jargon as a substitute for drama. Even at this low level I cringed at what I know will soon become whole scenes involving nothing but high pitched voices frantically citing made up statistics.

The film also brought out two more frequently used tropes, that of a beat up Rei and utterly shameless melodrama. On the latter let us not be too hard. It is after all a show made for adolescents, and as a result a fair bit of melodrama is to be expected. And whose kidding who? A bit of soap opera is always enjoyable. The moment really does give some nice character development to Gendo as well. A man who makes Dr. Venture look like parent of the year. “Sure it’s your decision whether or not you want to climb inside the giant creature to fight an unknowable unkillable menace, just know if you don’t I’ll shove this dying girl in your place.” That’s cold.

The awakening of the Eva is done with a great deal of style, also done “from the ground” it doesn’t quite allow you to see what’s happened until it’s all over, and Gendo has had his badass “I don’t blink for shrapnel” moment. The reveal of Shinji and the Eva in the same position, and life coming slowly to the depowered Evangelion’s eye are a prime bit of buildup.

Shinji finally consents to piloting the Eva, he’s inserted into the machine, shot to the surface, and stumbles out to do battle with a creature that has just destroyed the countries entire defense system, all with a body that operates about as well as a drunk on a bender. Things do not go well.

But before we get any further it stops, the second episode begins with a bitch of a cliffhanger, just as things get to their worst, the battle is over. It’s a good choice for what is a pretty slow and expositional episode, no matter how banal the on goings appear the knowledge that something terrible must have happened hangs over the the entire show.

The episode hums along, establishing character, soon to be reaccuring motifs (Another Unfamiliar Ceiling) and engages half heartedly in some “Comic Relief”. Evangelion has never been accused of being a particularly funny show and frankly the less time that is spent making dick jokes the better. The show also has some redundancies to get rid of, the first two episodes are packed with crew and officials who are never seen again. It also introduces “The Council Of Snide Guys” Just who these people are, the human avatars of SEELE, the envoys between The UN and Nerv, is never explained. It doesn’t really matter as they just come off as odd and then disappear halfway through the show. Their MO is always the same, they show up with some weird character design, say snide things to Gendo for awhile and then leave with a cryptic warning. My heart will not grieve when I see the last of them.

By the end of the episode, when we finally get back to what happened against the Angel we’re primed for it. And the show doesn’t disappoint.

Let’s talk about the Eva’s for a moment and what a fantastic and underrated design they truly are. Eschewing the usual high-tech and sterilely clean look that most Mechs use, the Eva’s from the beginning are clearly of a different breed. Huge, ungainly, clumsy, and brutal, these aren’t high tech war machines, but giant creatures, barely contained fueled by bloodlust, savagery, and instinct, without the faintest hint of reason. The way they are, both completely primitive, and utterly otherworldly, the way their binding’s crack or limbs casually extend when they get into the heat of battle.

The way the Eva’s move and fight is positively primal. It’s first tottering steps, piloted by Shinji, a newborn monster. And when “she” awakens, it’s like nothing that had ever been seen before, a newborn God. The Eva doesn’t engage in duels, or showdowns, it sees its prey and bludgeons it to death before fashioning it’s victim’s rib into a crude knife to finish the job. Unlike most mech’s whose ancestor is the duelist, the Eva’s predecessor is the Neanderthal and Mr. Hyde, and in the stunning climax Anno proves it. The Eva may occasionally use a weapon, but when it’s base nature is tapped, it wants no intermediate between it and the kill.

This style strikes a true and primal chord in the viewer and there are at least half a dozen times in the series when the Eva’s cause the hardest reaction to get in an audience, that of genuine awe. At the end the faceplate comes down, and self generating eye stares back at us. If we had any doubts at this point that Evangelion is just a typical Mech series, they should be erased at this point. It’s something different and the fact of the matter is that no matter how stunning the climax of the episode, we haven’t even gotten a hint of what’s to come.

Episode 1: B+
Episode 2: B+

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Revisit Evangelion

It’s a very tricky thing revisiting stuff from your past. Sometimes it’s there for a reason. Works that seemed so deep at the age of 15 can come off as trite. Things that resonated so strongly with who you were no longer really mesh with who you are. Things that seemed bracingly original just seem stale.

Neon Genesis Evangelion hit me big at fifteen. It was a crystallizing moment. I knew anime, I knew avant garde, I knew Philip K. Dick style “sci fi of the soul”. But I never knew them like this. A huge melting pot of teen angst, Jungian and Freudian psychology, Religion, symbolism, soap opera, sci-fi, and giant freaking robots beating the shit out of monsters. It started smacking me around with chess while I was still thinking in checkers. For a lonely fifteen year old kid, who identified with the main character more then I’m probably going to be comfortable with now, and had to walk three miles to the only video store that rented anime, I might as well have been receiving transmissions from Mars.

But time has not been kind to Eva’s reputation. What was once considered an unmissable part of the geek canon is now considered to be a very misable part of the geek canon. To most people Eva is a child of the 90’s best left there. A muddled mess, of clichés, dated animation, dorm room philosophy, psych 101, soap opera, all held together by one of the most unlikable whiny protagonists ever to front their own series. Tied together by an insane director tanking the series in one of the most asinine, nonsensical, borderline retarded endings of all time. An ending so bad that he managed to screw it up twice, and is now trying to screw it up a third time. To quote Spinal Tap most find Eva to be “Floating in a sea of adolescent sexuality and bad poetry.” Or perhaps more appropriately given the series religious preoccupations, “On what day did the lord create Evangelion, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too.”

I’ve changed too, not to play the whole “I liked it before it was cool game.” But I got into anime probably about a year or too before it really hit the mainstream (figure ’98 ’99). At the time anime was still a bit subversive, totally alien, and that just as much as any of the actual shows and movies was part of the appeal. Liking anime before pokemon hit was like wearing a clothespin through your nose in 1978, it still messed with peoples heads a little. The fact is that I’m not that much of an anime fan anymore. I’m not saying there’s not good stuff there because there is, but it’s no longer my go to source for ya yas. I’ll occasionally pick an old favorite off the shelf to watch, Miyaziki is still in my top ten filmmakers of all time, and if there’s a series or movie that I’ve everyone is talking about I’ll usually give it a shot. Heck I’ll usually enjoy it. But if you’d ask me today if I consider myself an anime fan, I’d honestly have to answer no, just an appreciator. The combination of the racketeering business practices of the mainstream Anime Companies (“25 dollars for a two episode VHS? Sure where else are you gonna get this stuff?” The internet arrives “Oh Poo.”), my discovery that anime was stuck in it’s own set of cliché’s and ruts, just as surely as American film was (just different ruts is all), and a certain fatigue has driven me out of the former category. How will Eva look now that I have a mere affection for the artform rather then an affinity?

Maybe it’d be for the best if I cut my losses and left it in the warm forgiving recesses of memory.

But at the same time it’s important to know where you’ve been, the stuff that gets under your skin in your early adolescence never really leaves it. Call it nostalgia if you must, the fact is that we all have things that at formative periods in our life hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks. Shaping our taste rather then just fitting in it. Whetting our appetite by giving us that first scent of something that resonated so strongly in us that we had to pursue it. I can trace a clear line from my enjoyment of Neon Genesis Evangelion, to my love for Philip K. Dick, Lost, Antonioni (Watch Eclipse Sometime), David Lynch, Jodorowsky, Muramki, David Mitchell, and countless others. Maybe I would have come across these artists later in life, but maybe I wouldn’t have. And even if I did come across them maybe I wouldn’t have known what to do with them. Eva primed the pump, it taught me that stories didn’t have to be about three act structures and pat answers, it taught me to appriciate the unknown, to see narrative in a different light. And that is worth at least a second look. It’s probably been around seven or eight years since I’ve seen the series in it’s entirety. Perfect time for another look.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stuff I've Been Doing #2


Locke And Key

If you haven’t read Locke & Key yet you really really should. As anyone whose ever sat through a Chris Mitchum movie, or listened to The Wallflowers knows, talent usually isn’t genetic.

Joe Hill however, is proving to be the exception to this rule, and between his fantastic novel Heart Shaped Box, his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, and this frankly wonderful series, Hill is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

Locke and Key is one of those titles that I almost don’t want to talk about too much, because of how perfectly constructed it really is, every issue is a superb mix of horror, suspense, and family drama. It’s as if The Royal Tenenbaums are starring in The Haunting via Lost.

Suffice to say it’s the story of a family that suffers a tragedy, and moves to the old ancestral home. The home has some strange properties, and an unknown tenant who lives in the well. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Simply put it’s a great story told by a great storyteller. Though he works in the supernatural, Hill’s work reminds me not so much of his father, Stephen King, but more of Neil Gaiman. The through line to his work so far has been stories within stories, like Gaiman his work almost functions as puzzle boxes, smaller stories locked within large ones that are themselves the gears to the big picture.

Reading Joe Hill I get the feeling every reader craves, the spark of excitement that I found with Dennis Lehane, David Mitchell, and precious few others. The knowledge that I had found an author that I would be following for a long long time, and whose every new development will be nothing short of a gift.

I Kill Giants

I Kill Giants is a tough comic to explain. It’s like Calvin and Hobbes if it was clear that Hobbes was Calvin’s way of dealing with some terrible trauma. It’s like Brazil and Pan’s Labyrinth a story about how imagination can simultaneously save and destroy a person. It’s not a children’s story, it’s a story about childhood, real childhood the first time you feel truly powerless and know that the world isn’t going to play by your rules. It’s like Tideland if it didn’t completely suck. All in all it’s pretty fucking great.


American Beauty

You know I’m not the world’s biggest Grateful Dead fan, but if the whole runtime of American Beauty was as good as it’s first three songs, it might have been the greatest album ever. "A Box Of Rain" is the pinnacle of hippie music.


A friend gave me Easy Star All Star’s Dub Side Of The Moon and I thought it was pretty amazing. For those who don’t know, Dub Side Of The Moon is a reggae version of Dark Side Of The Moon. Normally I don’t care for covers and tribute albums, but this one was fantastic, bringing new edges and perspectives to an album that I basically know rote. Some don’t work, but a lot do, songs like Us And Them are tough for me to think about outside of a Reggae context now.

That said I was a bit more skeptical when I heard about Radiodread, a Reggae version of OK Computer from the same collective. Despite all the psychedelics, pretension, and pomp, Pink Floyd at their core was always pretty much a blues band that liked Organs, and studio tricks. Drawing a line between them and Reggae isn’t really that hard. Radiohead on the other hand, are well know for writing two of the most sonically avant garde albums since Metal Machine Music and aren’t really known for their soul.

It basically boils down to the blackest of music genre’s covering the whitest band ever. How the hell is that supposed to sound?

Well really fucking good. Radiodread transforms OK Computer in a way that’s damn near alchemy. Songs like Let Down, one of Radiohead’s dreariest (which must put it in the running for the dreariest song of all time) becomes joyful. Lucky sounds like a fucking hymn now.

There are plenty of weird moments, “Jah loves his Children” is now a statement of fact rather then a bitter irony. And oddly it’s most minimal, Subteranean Home Sick Alien, No Suprises and Exit Music (For a Film) come off as simple covers, rather then the more tricked out ones.

But like Dub Side Of The Moon, the album is on the whole a success, an old favorite from a completely new angle.


Ralph Bakashi is a weird dude. Even I, an animation and cult movie freak, his target audience, have more or less stayed clear of his work. Part of the problem is that it’s tough to build a cult audience when you are equally famous for making terrible movies as you are for making debatably good ones. Bakashi’s oeuvre is littered with such gems as The Lord Of The Rings, and Cool World and even the movies of his that have good reputations pose there own difficulty. It’s tough to walk into your local video shoppe and say “Why yes I’d like to rent Coonskin please, and some Fritz The Cat to, if you don’t mind. Yep it’s a nice night of Racially charged images and animated Cat Sex for me.”

That said I was always curious to see some of Bakashi, so I picked up Wizards, his “family movie” and fuck, if this is PG Bakashi, I don’t know if I can handle full bore. Watching the special features after the movie is like an object lesson in Cognitive Dissonance, Bakashi talks warmly about the wonderful family movie he has made, after you have just watched ninety minutes of cute fantasy creatures being machine gunned to death, and a shitload of naked people. Yes even in a story set tens of thousands of years in a feudel future, Bakashi found away to incorporate whores into his story. If you think Frank Miller loves writing about whores, well sir you haven’t seen the amount of passion and energy Bakashi puts into finding new ways to write about ladies of the night.

Set thousands of years After the earth blew up (No that’s how the movie starts with that exact phrasing to) The world is set ruffly into two camps, those who follow the good wizard, the lecherous, drunken, Grouch Marx impersonator, Avatar and those who follow his brother Blackwolf, a man so evil that he has skeleton arms. Things are kind of a stalemate because though Black Wolf does have tens of thousands of bloodthirsty evil mutants he can’t properly motivate them to go cracking in some fairy skulls. That is until he discovers the power of Joseph Goebbles and gets them really pissed off. I’m not being metaphorical, he literally finds ten thousand year old Goebbles movies and uses them to piss off his orcs.

What follows is basically sixty straight minutes of fairy genocide, broken up by some of the most unlikable heroes I have ever seen in a motion picture.

The film basically ran out of money forcing Bakashi to “rotoscope” a whole lot of it. I put rotoscope in quotes because he didn’t so much do that as he did tint stock footage. By the films end he’s basically just repeating the same frames of ugly animation over and over again and intercutting them with old blitzkrieg footage that now looks purple.

If you can’t already tell I found Wizards is an aggressively unpleasant movie. But it’s a magnetic one. Try as I might I can’t quite get it out of my mind. Bakashi’s animation may be crude, but theres a method to his madness, and some of his design, collage, and composition is quite striking. While I probably would never recommend him, or Wizards to anyone, it has intrigued me somewhat, and I’ll probably end up exploring more of his films.

I just might end up using a trenchcoat and long brimmed hat to do it is all.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

America... Fuck Yeah

There are two endings that never fail to bring to tears.

They more or less sum up how I feel.

It's been along time since I've been this proud to be an American.

Also good for McCain, it's nice to see 2000 era Mc Cain take a last bow of classiness.




Gangs Of New York is my favorite movie. It’s a great American story. A story that encompasses almost everything I care about, History, Religion, the Irish American identity, and Politics all told in a sweeping operatic style. It’s the last true American Epic, told with tactile sets and huge crowds rather then CGI and greenscreen. And it most importantly it’s about America, being an American, what that means, what it’s meant and how our history is one written in blood by generations who have defined what that meant. Today is election day, and back from the polls I pace the length of my small apartment watching CNN and drinking an obscene amount of coffee as I try to tell myself that it’s only Ten AM damn it and the results won’t be in for a long long while. I think of Gangs, and what it represents to me, about how it shows where I came from, who my ancestors were and what they did so I can live my life now. I think about the last eight years of our countries history, and the level of outrage fatigue I’ve been suffering from for the last three or so. And I say a small prayer of thanks for the excitement I feel, an excitement that I worried was gone forever, drowned by cynicism. No matter what the outcome, this election has brought about a change in me for the better, and a line echoes through my mind bellowed by a character who would be disgusted by the election we’re having, “THIS IS A NIGHT FOR AMERICANS!!!” and for the first time in a long time, that line excites me. This is a night for Americans, a liminal moment in our history, and I feel privileged to be here and be a part of it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Oh the Aero I love you...

Still to tired to be any more then semi coherent but suffice to say, the annual Aero horrorthon was far beyond badass.

Night Of The Creeps was great, seeing TCM 2 on the big screen with a big crowd was fun, Dead Alive was a fucking revalation. I always loved it, but kind of gave Bad Taste the edge. But seeing it on the big screen... the crowd went crazy, there was barely a shot that didn't get a roar of laughter, a mortified groan, cheers, or actual fucking applause. Great show.

Then things slowed down a bit, Let's Scare Jessica To Death was kind of a dud despite it's reputation, as was Demons, it's tough to put my finger on any reason why. I just wasn't feeling it. But things ended strong with the moody, creepy as fuck Deathdream, a movie that really needs a reevaluation.

It's metaphor isn't exactly subtle, but it doesn't really need to be, when our shambling Veteran Corpse of a hero beats a man to death while hissing "You OWE me SOMETHING." It's both scary and terribly sad since neither victim nor attacker seem to know what that something is.

Friday, October 31, 2008

31 Days Of Horror. A Story Of Failure

5:36:I suck what can I say. I didn't even get half way there.

But as Ed Wood said, next time it'll be much better.

To make up somewhat I'm doing a liveblog of my Horror movie marathon tonight. Enjoy, or don't, I'm freaking to tired to care right now. I've been lugging groceries in full Joker Make up all day/

5:40 few bong rips later and things are looking up, now to make Tamales and start up Dance Of The Dead, my first film of the night.


After some Tamale related delays the first film begins. Ghost House has been a huge disappointment to me. The idea of Sam Raimi owning his own horror company should fill me with fuzzy bunny feelings. But the fact is that almost everything (30 Days Of Night semi excepted) out of the company has sucked with vigor.

Still the whole pick up eleven indie films and actually show them to people boxset they released last week was pretty cool. Sam, Rob, annd Ted Giving them the same help that they themselves needed when they made Evil Dead. And I've heard good things about Dance Of The Dead, so I guess it all boils down to me hoping that I'll unequivocally like something from Ghost House for once.

6:05: Huh new Punisher Trailer looks decent, if not for the fact that Lexi Alexander was booted off the film would I have what you humans called hope? I'll admit the fact that my two favorite HBO characters ever are in the film in the two leads doesn't hurt.

6:24: So far so not terrible. I can see why Raimi chose this one, it bares a certain resemblance to his work. These guys tightrope the walk between homage and ripoff, with it's living dead hands and rapid quick cut intros to the characters.

But so far it's light tone, fucked up gore gags, and genuine affection for it's oddball characters is winning me over.

6:36: Excellent Gag 20 minutes in starting to dig this. It's nice to see Nerds who lok like real nerds, these dudes make Jonah Hill look like a freaking pinup model.

6:43: Movies the makers of Dance Of The Dead have seen other than Evil Dead and Cemetery Man: Return Of The Living Dead.

Date Rapists decapitated:1
Evil Science Teachers ended: 1
Various: A shitload
Zombies: A whole nother shitload.

6:50: Film swings wildly between Amateurish and stylish. Kinda endearing at times, at others ,such as the swing the camera wildly from person to person as they talk to each other in a poorly lit night scene? Not so much.

6:55: "Did one of you joker's lace my joint with formaldehyde again?" I've been there buddy.

Seriously tho Guitar battling for your life against Zombie Hordes is genuinely classic scene could have used a bit more time though.

7:00: I love Kyle. The crazy as a shithouse rat, redneck, punk rock enforcer, is making this thing.

Oh also Return Of the Living Dead. AGAIN and AGAIN! As I type it.

7:04: OK so of course as soon as I type that he expires. Thanks.

7:04: The main kid does suck a little bit.

7:08: At the right angle the main nerd looks like Donald Sutherland's Mini Me.

7:09: "They got to one, and then the other, and well, ended up having to kill the whole block." Psycho Coach is pretty great and I love that he happens to have everything needed to stop a zombie uprising in his garage.

7:12"Lord we don't know why you've brought the dead back to life. But well you have."


7:30: Points for the cannibal love scene.

7:35 You know I like this film, but it seems like the worst thing that could happen to it would be to get a major Dead Alive style cult following. Scrutiny is pretty unkind to this movie. But left on it's own it's a sweet, light, funny movie with a few great moments, a few funny bits, a handful of genuine scares, and some great gore effects what more do you want from a horror flick?

Next, I visit the Casablanca of my generation, The Nightmare Before Christmas

7:40; I'm only kinda kidding when I refer to Sally and Jack as THE ideal couple of thei- Dear sweet God I love this opening.

7:50: I marvel at what a model of narrative efficiency this movie is.

7:54 "What's This?"

8:26: Not much to say about this flick that hasn't been said. I love that Jack's idea of spreading joy IS spreading demonic crazy shit to every house personally. This film is probably my Gold standard for character animation as far as animation defining character goes.

God The Making Christmas sequence is cool.

8:35: Boogie's Maggots writhing into Santa's beard gets me every time.

9:49: Fuck it I'm watching The Strangers again. Love this movie.

10:02 Dear sweet God this movie scares the shit out of me.

10:20 Jesus the shot where Liv catches the first look at her visitor at the window is one of the best jump scares I've ever scene. Here it's the fourth time I've seen this thing I know exactly when and what the reveal is, but it's still caused me to physically jump every time I see it.

11:113 Onto some HG Lewis, then I thin I'm about run out. Not the biggest marathon I've ever done, but I've got to conserve myself for the marathon I'm going to tomorrow at my beloved Aero for the annual horrorfest, read this one and weep.

Night Of The Creeps
Dead Alive
Let's Scare Jessica To Death



Fuck that is one hell of a line up, best one yet.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

31 Days Of Horror. Day #14: Bram Stoker's Dracula

There is probably no movie that I wanted to see so much, waited so long for, and was more disappointed by then Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Let me explain, as long as I can remember I’ve been a certified horror nut. And to say the the trailers/commercials/posters/town criers, brought in to convince people that Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be the greatest movie ever fucking made, certainly achieved their desired affect. Unfortunately as I was seven or eight and had two somewhat protective parents there wasn’t anyway in hell I was going to see that movie. So instead I let my imagination fueled by American Zoetrope’s marketing department build the best possible Dracula movie ever. Suffice to say when I saw the movie about five years later, the expectations where not met.

Still I don’t think that it can all be blamed on the build up, as I believe that my eight year old self also wouldn’t have known what to make of Dracula turning into some kind of ape creature and fucking the shit out of Sadie Frost. Coppola’s Dracula is a movie that seems determined to destroy itself. For every masterful scene, every stunning bit of design (and dear God there are plenty) Coppola balances it with one that has an equal but opposite reaction. It speeds between great and terrible with a nimbleness that’s mindblowing.

Lets start with the good. To call the film opulent is like calling Versailles a little gaudy. It just doesn’t quite convey the idea. The film is eye candy of the highest order. It’s long been my personal theory that to achieve the look Coppola locked his production and costume designers in Scrooge Mc Duck’s money been and told them to get spending before they drowned. Every shot, every set, every costume, is simply masterful, and it helps that Coppola’s cinematographer, the great Michael Ballhaus, shoots the living shit out of the movie. The movie is a very Catholic one, and it taps into “The Catholic Imagination” with great zeal, giving evil a truly epic quality that most horror films lack. When Dracula comes across a pack of vampire hunters, shifts into the form of demonic bat, forces a cross to burst into flames merely by lunging at it, moans “Look what you’re God has done to me!” and then desolves into a pack of ravenous rats, your watching the product of two thousand years of considering the worst case scenario.

The special effects are amazing as well, mostly done in camera it gives even the simplest of tricks, like the extending of the coachman’s arm, or the backwards contortion walk by one of Dracula’s brides have a great “How did they do that?” charge that’s all but lost in cinema today. CGI would have ruined this movie.

The problem with all this fantastic design is that there are people in them. Had Dracula been silent or acted out with hand puppets, it would probably be considered a flat out masterpiece. Instead it is a very flawed movie that simply looks very very good.

Coppola assembles one of the most random casts ever seen to make this movie, and almost all of them are terrible, and seem to think they’re acting in different movies. Only Oldman’s hype living up to Dracula, who invests his character with the perfect mix of pathos, operatic insanity, and straight up bloodlust and Tom Wait’s fantastic Renfield, played with just the right mix of tragedy, pitch black humor, and superb skin crawling creepiness, seem to know the movie they are in.
Winnona Ryder is merely bland rather then a woman one would cross “Oceans of time” for, it hardly seems realistic that Dracula would ask her for a second date, Sadie Frost is vacant in a very special way. And one scene where she and Winnona play with a bit of Three Company style misunderstanding, involving a Texan’s knife and penis, pinpoints the exact place where “Comic Relief” becomes an actual punishment. Anthoney Hopkins is absolutely wretched, playing Van Helsing at a level I can only describe as ultra camp.

Ah but there’s someone I haven’t mentioned yet is there?

Now look I’m not a Keanu hater. I think he’s an underrated and undervalued actor. No seriously. Films like My Own Private Idaho and The River’s Edge prove it, I’ll always have a debt to him for nailing Bob Arctor in Scanner Darkly and I’m an unabashed Matrix apologist.

That says Keanu really does fuck this movie up quite badly.

It’s not all his fault, I mean the casting makes the choice of Sofia Coppala for Mary Corleone look like a masterstroke. Who better to play a young repressed law clerk from the Victorian era out to make his fortune then you know… Fucking Keanu Reeves.

The opening scenes between Keanu and The Count are pretty fucking hilarious. Similar to the Nicholson Duval face off in The Shining, Keanu seems so utterly outmatched that it’s comical. It would only take a short nudge of editing to turn their scene into a short about a salesman so determined to make a sale that he desperately attempts to ignore all the crazy shit his mark is doing.

Now I suppose that a meeting between a centuries old undead immortal, and a callow clerk should have the latter feeling outmatched. But this plays less like a young Harker being swallowed by the experienced decadent count, and more like Oldman’s style of acting seriously is seriously harshing Keanu’s mellow.

This is particularly evident in the scene where the grisly tableau of Dracula feeding an infant to his hellish brides, to a reaction shot which conveys that Keanu’s buzz has been seriously harshed by the fact that like dude they just totally ate that baby. Not cool.

Keanu actually becomes more useless as the movie goes on. By the end as he prances around wearing a white fright wig that makes him look like Andy Warhol, his performance has become complete camp. It doesn’t help that Keanu has a British Accent that makes Dick Van Dyke sound like Laurence Fucking Oliver.

Once the film gets to London it continues its mesmerizing dance between great and awful. Dracula sliding between the screens at an early cinema, paying to tribute to a knew form of immortality? Brilliant. Dracula turning into an ape creature to fuck Sadie Frost? Not Brilliant. The vampire hunter’s harrowing confrontation with Dracula in his decaying abbey? Brilliant. Dracula turning into mist so he can give Winnona Ryder some head? Not Brilliant. Dracula scuttling inhumanly down a sheer wall? Brilliant. The suggestion that Dracula is a compulsive masturbator… Well you get the picture.

Aside from a piece of eye candy Dracula is most interesting when looked at from an auterist perspective, as it’s most likely Coppala’s most personal film of that decade. Of course given that his other films of that decade were Godfather III, The Rainmaker, and Jack, the competition was not fierce.

At it’s core stripped of all it’s supernatural hugger mugger, Coppala’s Dracula is basically an old guy who gets mad at the Catholic church for along time and then comes back to it in a time of need. It’s about our duty to God and his to us, and the limits if there are any to his forgiveness. Sure as far as theological complexity goes it’s not The Virgin Spring, or The Last Temptation Of Christ, but it’s an interesting look at a director who never really seemed interested in testing such waters before, even you know when he was making a film about Shenanigans at The Vatican.

All in all Dracula is a mess. But it’s a glorious one.

Post Note: Truth in criticism, the recent DVD edition is pretty tremendous. From the art, to the docs, to the design, to the transfer, this is one of the coolest discs I’ve ever owned. If you have the original release this one is actually worth the double dip.

Friday, October 24, 2008

31 Days Of Horror. Day #13: The Shining

The Shining is not my favorite Stanley Kubrick film. Infact it’s probably my least favorite Stanley Kubrick film. The instance where his style and material simply didn’t mesh.

The reason’s pretty simple, I’ve just never been able to separate the film from book. I’m a big Stephen King fan. King is always going to have a special place in my heart, he was after all my first "favorite" author, the one who taught me to love and seek out an author's voice. Ever since I snuck into the adult section of the library on a fourth grade field trip and grabbed The Dead Zone, I've been a loyal fan. And The Shining is quiet possibly King’s best work.

The Shining as a novel is a terrifyingly human horror story. Jack Torrance is arguably King's greatest creation. In the novel Jack Torrance is a good man, but one who has been given a long hard look on multiple occasions of exactly what he's capable of. Yet somehow he’s managed to pick up the pieces, and life is just starting to reward him for it. His wife and child are starting to trust him again, his career might finally pick up...

And then he has to go to that fucking hotel.

The way it works the way every room, every task, ever whisper exploits the still fresh cracks in Jack until he just completely falls apart is terrifying and terrible to behold. You see a man who is desperately trying to hold it together, who knows what'll happen when he backslides. And then he does.

But even then Torrance is still in there, and what happens at the climax is haunting.

It's great, a fantastic piece of characterization and story telling. Like I said arguably King's best. A very human monster as terrifying as he is pitiful.

So of course the first thing Kubrick did was go "Naw fuck all that."

My problem with Kubrick’s Shining is that, there are plenty of scares in but no tragedy. Nicholson is just being "Wacky Jack" from there very beginning. There's no downfall, no good man destroyed. Just Nicholson going from "Raving Looney" to slightly crazier. There’s never a sense for one second that The Torrances have ever functioned as a loving family, so the destruction of the unit means nothing. While Danny in the book is a kid struggling with a power he doesn’t understand, and the revelation of who “Tony” is turns out to be quite poignant, in the movie he’s just a weird little kid who talks to his finger. And while Shelly Duvall does a fine job looking exhausted and terrified, she doesn’t bring a whole lot else to the table. In the book Wendy is an intelligent and strong woman every bit Jack’s equal. With the mousy Duvall in the lead there’s a real strange sense of “How the hell did these two get together?” It’s hard to imagine her and Jack having so much as conversation, let alone a marriage together. It doesn’t help that Nicholson looks about twice her age through the entire film.

There’s that same strange stiltedness to almost every conversation between the living in The Shining. It’s almost like one of Lynch’s REALLY weird movies like Lost Highway or Inland Empire. It’s almost like everyone is speaking in code. For example in the opening when Jack and and the hotel’s manager Ullman discuss the job at hand, Ullman tells Jack the store of Grady going crazy and killing his family. Jack’s response is to tell Ullman not to worry his wife love’s horror movies.

Wait…What the fuck?

Imagine that conversation in real life for a second.

“A madman murdered his wife and children!”

“Ooh Spooky!”

In terms of style it's magnificent. In terms of humanity There's simply nothing there. (And I know that's a charge often used against Kubrick, but I'd like to point out that this is the only movie where that accusation rings true as a detrement for me. While a certain detachment is needed to study the uppercrust of 18th century Europe in Barry Lyndon, the bizarre underground circles of Manhattan in Eyes Wide Shut, or the dystopian future of Clockwork Orange, the style doesn’t really work when it’s applied to a working class family in the eighties).

However, I decided that this time I really was going to give The Shining the benefit of the doubt. Put the book out of my mind, and see the movie with fresh eyes and to give the movie the benefit of the doubt I brought my good friend Herb McSmoky Weed along to the screening. Sadly the results where pretty much the same, if a little more so. I came away from the movie with more impressed by what Kubrick was going for, and yet more disenchanted then ever with how he did it. Still I saw enough interesting wrinkles this time to movie The Shining past Killer’s Kiss. Keep reaching for the stars.

Let’s start off with the good, The Shining’s style particularly when shooting the supernatural, is pretty freaking amazing. Kubrick shoots the various ghosts who show up, in away that is almost a hyper reality. Always shot in Kubrick’s trademark “frames within frames” (The two little girls first in a doorframe then in a hallway, Lloyd between the mirrors of the bar, The Old Lady in the bathtub, Grady between the urinals, the final shot of Jack in a literal frame within a frame, etc. etc. etc.) In scenes like the iconic “two little girls” shot, or the one where Wendy witnesses a man in a dogsuit giving a blow job, the feeling is that they are the intruders, the impermanent ones, after all as Grady puts it, they “have always been there.” It’s the Torrances who are where they don’t belong.

However, the best haunting scenes are the ones in Barroom’s Bathroom. While a bit less flashy then the film’s better known scares, the bathroom scene is the only one where the movie comes close to recreating the bone deep terror of the book. One of Kubrick’s little signatures, was to have some of the worst things happen in the bathroom, man at his most savage at the place where he is least dignified. And once you see the bathroom Kubrick is using…

… Damn you know some bad shit is about to happen in there. The scene that follows takes a lot of the stuff that Kubrick has been doing and really makes it work. The long takes and pauses in the conversation, the way the conversations seem to almost be in code and makes it all work for one chilling sequence. Bizarre N bomb dropping aside (come on Stanley did they have to be racist ghosts?)

The film technique keeps you on edge. It just keeps doing things that are a little off, from how they are normally done. It’s constant use of fades for example give it a strange sense of inevitability. A cut suggests a jump, two unrelated things that become related and associated. It’s more or less the building block of filmic language, and the missing space between the two cuts, suggest some amount of free will in how the characters got to that place. The fade doesn’t allow that luxury, one scene becomes the next which fades into the next and into the next, there is no possible scene except the one that follows it.

Another little thing that I found odd this time, though I’m willing to concede that it might be a simple trick of my DVD’s mix, or my speakers, is the fact that a lot of Kubrick’s orchestral score doesn’t seem to be score at all but source music. Particularly in some of the scenes with Nicholson, the music seems to be coming directly from the room. Though we’re never shown a record player or anything of the like. It’s just one of those things, that makes you go “Weird.” Like the idea that Torrance thought it’d be a good plan to bring a shitload of Bartok LPs to an isolated hotel where everyone would be on edge.

But then again that is the type of character that Nicholson is playing. What the man lacks in pathos and nuisance he makes up for in pure crazy. Of course that’s the whole problem, from scene one he’s just playing wacky jack. Even in his “normal” scenes he seems on edge, it would be a surprise if he DIDN’T end up killing his family.

Still this time out I did have more appreciation for Nicholson’s performance. It’s almost Kabuki. It’s a rare scene where he wears more then one expression, it’s like before every sequence he’s affixed a Jack Nicholson mask to face, and convey’s the character through motion alone.

Unfortunately if anything my antipathy for Duval and whoever the hell the little kid was only grew. Still even this adds some interesting shades to the story. Duval is so bowled under by Nicholson that the film almost becomes a feminist horror movie, where marriage=loss of identity=death.

The Shining also loses steam in it’s somehow acclaimed ending. After the famed “Here’s Johnny” scene the movie just kinda sorta falls apart. Jack chases after his son, though he never gets close enough to be a threat, yelling. While Wendy stumble around the hotel seeing things that really aren’t that scary. Eventually they leave. And then Kubrick shows a picture.

The End.

The Shining as an adaptation is terrible, as entertainment it’s flawed and as a work of art it’s frustrating. But damned if I won’t keep coming back to, Kubrick’s put too much into it to ever have it be dismissed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

31 Days Of Horror. Day #12: The Funhouse

(This review has been repurposed to make benefit of glorious Final Girl Film Club. All hail brutal head of state Stacie Ponder)

I'm not mad at Tobe Hooper just disapointed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is possibly the scariest movie ever made. It’s almost a quantum leap beyond any other in the genre. It’s a singular and masterful experience and I can’t help but wish the director behind it wasn’t such a one hit wonder. Sure Poltergeist is great, but we all know that Hooper was just a front on that one, my affection for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II is well documented (The Aero is playing for their all night horror film festival and I cannot wait), the only other Hooper film worth half a damn is Lifeforce, which coasts by with an ungodly amount of nudity and camp.

Not exactly the formula for a winning career.

But there was one other Hooper film I’ve always been interested in seeing, and after receiving and an email after my TCM2 review my interest was furthered. I mean come on, Creepy ass carnival? Albino serial killer who wears a Frankenstein mask? A whole bunch of animatronics? No way this thing wouldn’t at least be entertaining.

Unfortunately for me Hooper FOUND a way to make it unentertaining. Congrats buddy keep reaching for the stars.

The film gets off to a great start with a fantastic credits sequence that consists of disturbing animatronics acting out the same repetitive motions again and again. Unfortunately for me this wasn’t merely a disturbing motif, but the blueprint that Hooper built his movie on.

Things pretty much go to shit the moment the film starts. Opening with a bizarrely protracted Halloween like POV from a little boy as he selects a knife and mask. The scene dances over the lines separating Parody, Homage, and Ripoff pretty freely. But eventually the “killer” goes into the bathroom where he rips open the curtain on his naked sister and starts smacking her with a giant fake phallic knife, while he photographs it. Ho-Ho!

I mean come on we’ve all been there right? The weird thing is the film plays the scene like it’s just cute kid shit, instead of you know, seriously disturbed behavior. Eventually the sister manages to stop wondering what the fuck is wrong with her brother long enough to get dressed and meet her grease monkey boyfriend and his two fodder, I mean friends to go out for a fun night at The Carnival that has pulled into town, having been chased out of the last one for murdering a couple of children.

No I’m fucking serious, they keep talking about how all these kids bodies where found in the carnival in the last town it was in, and nobody gives a fuck. They’re so nonchalant about it that you think they where debating the quality of the fried dough.

Anyway the group walks around The Carnival for a long long time. No seriously, a really really really long long time. Causing me to adopt a Milhouse like whine and ask “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” The other thing is the carnival is just bad. Not like ooh scary Something Wicked This Way Comes bad, but bad bad. If you bought a ticket to this carnival you would demand my money back. And I swear to God by the end of the film it will feel like you have seen every damn inch of the place. Imagine how tedious something like Last House On The Left would be if it just followed a couple girls out to a rock concert, with no hint of the fact that some crazed hippies would eventually come and kill them.

Eventually the four decide they love the terrible carnival so much that they want to spend the night there, so they hide in the Funhouse. Deformed Albino comes as do some of the most telegraphed "scares" I have ever fucking seen. You know the rest of the story. But I swear to God by the time it happens you won’t care.

The movie basically boils down to a few unpleasant people and one seriously disturbing kid bumbling around a terrible Carnival for awhile. If that sounds like your cup of tea, enjoy.