Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: The Brood (1979)

While not perfect, The Brood is Cronenberg's finest pre-Videodrome work, and can probably be thought of as his most generally 'Cronenbergian.' It has the human body being altered through the power of the mind, creepy reproductive/sexual undertones, and Robert Silverman. Partially inspired by the director's own brutal custody battle, the film tells the story of a family torn asunder by its emotionally unstable matriarch, who has been whisked away by a radical psychotherapist who is more interested in using her to advance his research than actually curing her.

That research is in Psychoplasmics, the study of effects on the body caused by emotional states. In typical Cronenberg fashion, a minor character (a police psychologist in this case) inadvertently explains the film's premise long before the audience has enough information to realize it. Referring to the protagonist's young daughter, who has just been traumatized by the brutal slaying of her grandmother, he proclaims "These things tend to express themselves one way or another. I've seen five year olds ... with ulcers as bad as any middle aged business man." By itself the sentence is fairly innocuous, but the film surrounding it expands that premise to the point of having a woman asexually produce creepy mutant babies via her severe rage problems. Like Videodrome and the motif of harmful sensation, The Brood takes a common sense idea, that emotional stress can cause a physical reaction, and stretches it deep into speculative fiction territory.Since I've previously rambled about the film, here are some bullet point reasons for you to add it to your Netflix queue:

The late, great Oliver Reed: England's heaviest drinking thespian plays the ethically challenged super-psychiatrist responsible for Psychoplasmics. For the most part it's a soft spoken role couched in rationality and passive-aggressive therapist talk, but he really takes off during the roll playing sessions involved in his radical treatments. The film begins with him and a simpering patient demonstrating Psychoplasmics for an audience in a manner strongly reminiscent of Kabuki theater. (A style Cronenberg would later explore in his adaptation of M. Butterfly.) With accelerating anger, Reed plays the role of the patient's father, emasculating and humiliating him until the rage manifests as gross boils all over the man's body.Plus, we get to see exactly how many children it would take to down the famously pugnacious actor:The Kindergarten Beatdown: In the second most shocking scene in the film, a kindergarten teacher with the absolute worst haircut late '70s Canada has to offer gets singled out by a pair of snowsuit clad broodlings when their "mother" begins to see the woman as a rival for her ex-husband's affections. Passing for kids at a distance they easily sneak into the classroom and arm themselves with little wooden hammers. They then proceed to beat the teacher to death (not an easy task, considering their size and weapon choice) in front of all her students. Some of the kids' "traumatized" faces are absolutely priceless. (Imagine the therapy bills. Yikes)The Laid Back Canadian Police: Not only does the sudden appearance of brutal midget murderers get no reaction from the cops other than "We weren't looking for anything that small," but the coroner explains the inner workings of a dead broodling with the calm demeanor of someone who autopsies previously unknown species of mutant children all the time. They even let the civilian protagonist sit in on the affair."Oh look, some sort of grotesque midget monster with no belly button and a life sustaining nutrient pouch to make up for the lack of a digestive system. That's probably the scientific discovery of the decade, if not century. I'd better calmly explain it to the son in law of the people it murdered instead of frantically calling National Geographic or the Weekly World News. Man, I'm hungry. I wonder what's on TV right now?"

The Terrible Day-for-Night: The Psychoplasmics research center is a fascinating slice of Canadian modernist architecture and is an easily readable location in the film. However, many scenes there take place at night, and without a massive budget for lighting, the film needed a way to show the building's distinctive silhouette for nighttime establishing shots. This is the result:The dusk photography and gradated blue filter makes for a nice try, but nothing can hide the fact that the shot breaks a cardinal day-for-night rule: never show the sky. It's a dead giveaway that you're using photographic trickery. (For some truly excellent, albeit CG assisted day-for-night see 28 Weeks Later.)
Note to Minnesota folk: don't forget to check out the last Cronenberg screening at the Trylon Microcinema this weekend. It's The Fly!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: Scanners (1981)

My apologies for the lack of stills in this post, but it turns out I don't actually have a copy of the film sitting around. It was stolen along with a bunch of other DVDs and Gamecube games a few years ago, and I guess I never got around to replacing it.

As a rung on the ladder of David Cronenberg's progression as a filmmaker, Scanners was both a big step up and a bit of an odd duck. It was his first big hit since the now practically forgotten Shivers, the very first publicly funded Canadian film to make a profit, and kick-started his '80s genre glory days. Also, thanks to one memorably gruesome shot, the film arguably has the biggest cultural footprint of his entire oeuvre. On the other hand it is literally his only film (ignoring the non-genre, tax shelter funded, race car oddity, Fast Company) without any sort of creepy psycho-sexual themes. There is nary a stomach vagina or scene of implied spine-hole fucking in sight; not even disturbingly intense marital sex.

Basically, Scanners is a breezy corporate espionage thriller with some Cronenbergian window dressing. Canadian Neo-Expressionist painter Stephen Lack (as in Lack-ing thespian talents, yuk-yuk) plays Cameron Vale, a remarkably well groomed hobo doomed to a life of misery by his uncontrollable ability to "scan" the thoughts of others. He is brought under the tutelage of Patrick McGoohan (the esteemed #6 and all around badass) to control his powers for use in combating evil scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, also pretty badass). Mysteries are solved, double crosses are uncovered, and secret labs are repeatedly snuck into.It's all pretty standard spy stuff, only with a psi-twist that, while common today (especially in video games), was relatively unexplored at the time. Cronenberg's interest in the mind's fictional (unless you're a new-age weirdo) power over the body and physical world fits neatly within the film's sci-fi secret agent framework, but the film would have probably been long forgotten if not for the director's trademark use of unpleasant viscera. Scanners don't just passively read thoughts, they physically affect nervous systems, and with enough power, they can overwhelm a victim with enough intensity to detonate his or her skull.

Yup, this is essentially the shot that put Cronenberg on the map. People may not remember much about the film's lose storytelling or its lead's somnambulant performance, but they sure as hell remember "when that dude's head exploded." It's just one of the many ways the film makes the idea of people killing with their minds visually interesting, and it is excellent cultural shorthand for painful headaches and wishing ill towards your boss/spouse/annoying guy on the bus. Personally, whenever I'm stuck in a long boring meeting I make a concerted effort to mentally explode the head of whoever is currently talking. It's never going to happen, but at least I look like I'm paying attention.

Even though Scanners is an extremely important film in Cronenberg's history, it's still probably his worst film. (That's assuming you ignore Fast Company and grade his early works on a curve.) The ideas are there, but the story is oddly paced and completely free of emotional gravity. The script, which had to be completed over the course of filming due to draconian scheduling, takes some of the blame, but the majority is shouldered by poor Stephen Lack. He manages to pull off the various pained expressions and intense staring required of his psychic character, but nearly every time he opens his mouth it's an embarrassment. Yes, his character is supposed to have a "poorly developed sense of self" due to the lifetime of listening to other's thoughts in place of his own, but for the most part he doesn't seem to be trying for Keanu Reeves in A Scanner Darkly style introversion. When he proclaims "You murdered the future!" to his arch-enemy/long lost brother in the climactic scene, there is a clear attempt at angry inflection, even though it ends up being spread arbitrarily throughout the line. Also, in one of Lack's rare performances outside of Scanners, a brief cameo in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, he is just as cringeworthy. Clearly the dude just can't read dialog to save his life, but at least he can do this:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Melora Takes a Chance on Don't Mess with the Zohan

It was there on Watch it Now of Netflix. In the comedy section. Adam Sandler from my fond media memories of his Saturday Night Live start and then solo career putting his comedy songs and bits on a cassette tape, which I listened to in my car. He appeared in movies then: Big Daddy, Waterboy, Little Nikki (also on Watch it Now). But also in great movies, like The Wedding Singer, and Punch Drunk Love where you got to see his more dramatic side. Playing the outcast. And we mustn't forget, the action/cop movie I think he did...or was that someone else. (I think you are thinking of Bulletproof with Sandler and a Wayans brother. It has one funny joke about farm animals peeing on people, but otherwise is a blight upon cinemadom - Knarf)
Anyhoo here are reasons I'm currently enjoying Zohan:

It takes place in another country in the beginning. It's always good to get out of your comfort zone in movies. We are in modern Israel, a land of sunshine, tan people, and hairy men. Adam Sandler fits right in. He's in shape, for Adam, and who doesn't like to see fit people? We get a full dose of Adam Sandler humor in this flick. (That's going in the "pro" column? Seriously? - K) They bring in the desire to be a hairdresser right away and I immediately thought of a recent movie I watched, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I liked that movie and I think I'll like this movie too. I love the Israeli food and drink products he's constantly advertising. John Tuturro of great movies like The Big Lebowski is a wonderful villain character.

Act II: New York City. Love to see Chris Rock. His antics that people usually love in his country are not well received. Israeli stereo store in New York City. Very stereotypical. Haggling. Insulting? Good music. Constant Hummus eating. Every time I get turned off by the visual, there's a good song on. So gross! And then he fucks his clients. And then C&C Music Factory makes it okay. Let's hump our customers. I like that this movie makes me a little uncomfortable.
Message Recieved: I learned softball when I first moved here. When you're arab, it helps to fit in. And now, it's a Romeo and Juliet type movie. And we get really tense and then we settle our differences with a speech about how everyone thinks they're the same in America so it doesn't matter. Now for some sweet blowing up of stuff and butt kicking. To save the day we must make a Isreali/Palistinian magic vocal sound which hasn't been made in 2000 years. And Woa, there is a really fat Bruce Valance in a really short cut away. They make a giant arab friendly indoor mall. Oh now its the first floor of Mall of America Kiosks. Smulchy ending. How Jewish.

Knarf's Take: For a blonde haired, blue-eyed German, Melora sure likes the Jews a whole lot. (Especially Mel Brooks.) Also, I think she is rebelling against me for all the "rape" movies she's been subjected to over the years. (In my defense, Straw Dogs is really good, and I Stand Alone only has statutory rape in it. Everything else is just brutal violence against women.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

World's Best VHS Cover: Scanner Cop

Does this look like the dude from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to anyone else? He comes from a 1994 spinoff of the sequels to David Cronenberg's Scanners.

This is why we hold onto our intellectual property rights for dear life, kiddies. Also, I desperately have to see this movie now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Slaughter High (1986)

This month in the Final Girl Film Club is Slaughter High. Click here for many more amusing deconstructions and disembowelments of the film.

If you accept the endemic flaws of the '80s slasher film as tropes holding the sub-genre together rather than artifacts of a creatively bankrupt outgrowth of mercenary-capitalist film making sensibilities, then Slaughter High is the greatest slasher film ever made. From the excruciatingly obnoxious characters to the paper thin plot held together by little more than frayed rubber bands and children's letters to Santa, the film takes every irritating slasher cliché and cranks the intensity to eleven before ripping the dials off.

It begins with a painfully overlong flashback sequence setting up the killer's origin. Marty is a pathetic chemistry nerd with huge glasses and a boner for Carol, one of the ten other students who are ever seen in their creepy, asylum themed school after the film's opening credits. Unfortunately for him, all ten appear to belong to the same giant clique, which happens to have an official policy of nerd abuse. With promises of naked tits and awesome sex, she cruelly lures him into the ladies locker room for an April Fool's prank. The token black janitor spots the shenanigans through a conveniently unglazed square of window and gets the school's (apparently) single teacher, an ineffectual Phy-Ed coach, to break it up, but not before they videotape the poor dweeb nekkid, poke him with a javelin, trick him into grabbing an electrified towel rack, and do a lot of general point-and-laugh action. (Though they might just be amazed by his magic pants that disappear between shots without being removed.) Needless to say, the prank climaxes with a swirlie.For humiliating and endangering the life of poor Marty, they are sentenced to a few afternoons of push ups and cardio. Since their increased exercise is obviously the nerd's fault, they naturally have to take revenge. This takes the form of a toxin laced joint that, using their preternatural insights into human behavior, they know he will light up in the chemistry lab while working on his big new project. See, this tainted marijuana is merely the distraction for the main revenge event: putting an unknown powdery substance into Marty's dangerous acid filled science beaker.It probably would have been good enough to simply ruin the experiment's final results, but the powder somehow makes the beaker explode once Marty returns to it. (With the crackerjack timing involved in this prank, these bullies should seriously consider careers in international espionage.) This creates a chain reaction of the absolute last things you want happening in a chemistry lab. First the Bunsen burner explodes, engulfing the edges of the screen in flames. Then the giant, precariously balanced bottle of nitric acid falls off its rickety shelf and flings its entire contents directly at Marty's face.The explosion attracts everyone's attention, but they arrive only to see Marty burned alive and wheeled away by paramedics. Carol leans over to apologize only to get strangled. It turns out to all be a traumatic nightmare of hers, and the movie proper can begin. (Only a quarter of the way through its runtime, no less.) Thanks to some excruciatingly wooden acting, we learn that it's class reunion time, one of the gals is going to be late arriving, and the weather is going to be rainy.

The movie then has to reacquaint us with its long separated cast of annoying characters who were all just on screen a few moments prior. They arrive at their creepy, isolated high school to find it locked up and in a state of even more advanced disrepair than when they attended as suspiciously old looking high school students. This doesn't seem to really alarm anyone, but then, neither does the fact that no one has shown up except those involved in a certain nerd's humiliation and mutilation. Nor is anyone concerned about the April 1st date, which is the anniversary of their fateful prank and Marty's birthday. They eventually tire of standing around pretending to have American accents and break into the school to explore.After about a billion prank based fake scares, the stumble onto the reunion site: a room decked out with food, liquor, and all their old lockers. Every locker has something personal that went missing in high school, except for a single extra one, which turns out to be Marty's. Somehow, absolutely none of this raises any red flags for anyone. They discuss the little nerd's fate, make jokes, and get super duper high, but no one bothers to ponder their situation's sinister implications.A couple of the guys run into the old janitor and give him a beer, but since the dude is black and this is a slasher film, he gets killed almost immediately afterwards by a man in a joker mask. The same joker mask worn by the lead prankster on Marty's fateful day.Now that everyone is nicely shnockered and the movie is half over, people can finally start dying. And considering the awful chunks of human waste they are, it can't start soon enough. Seriously. Look what they did to poor Marty's picture:It's bad enough that they are too stupid to see the clear intent of this evening, but now they're mocking the wounds of their tragic victim and soon to be slaughterer. A slaughterer who has calculated their behavior with the same inhuman precision that they once used on him. You see, he apparently knew exactly which beers they drunken revelers would start shotgunning (PBR, natch) and filled the cans with a special expanding science brew so devious that it neither causes the beer can to explode nor warns the victim with a noxious flavor. (In all honesty, I probably wouldn't be able to tell PBR from fizzy green science juice either.) One burst stomach later, the killing finally starts in earnest.
You seriously didn't notice that going down?

Oh what easy pickings these kids provide, too. One gal, after being sprayed with blood by the gutsplosion, has the completely sane and rational idea to separate herself from the group and draw a nice hot bath. Even ignoring the strange existence of a bathtub with working hot water in an abandoned high school, what could possibly motivate someone whose friend was just murdered by a psychopath who is almost certainly in the same building to get totally naked and take a fucking bath all by herself. Does she have some kind of OCD cleanliness thing?Since the killer is practically precognitive, he had already made plans for someone to hop in the tub and rigged it to start filling with acid after a couple minutes. Not just any acid, either. This stuff can apparently convert an entire bathtub of water into extremely potent flesh dissolver almost instantly. Which I guess makes it similar to ice-nine or Buck Fever Reliever, and also means that Marty certainly would have won his chemistry prize if he hadn't been horribly disfigured.
The bath-termath.

The girl who was going to be late eventually shows up, people wander about endlessly in the dark, someone finds a giant picture of Marty that hands keep erupting from, and everyone generally gets picked off one by one. The gearhead tries to rig up a lawn tractor to smash down the locked gates, but no one bothers to stand guard while he works underneath lawnmower blades. Meanwhile, his horny wife goes off to score with one of the other guys.Once it's down to the last three victims, they finally do the sensible thing and hole up in a room with a javelin as a weapon. Unfortunately, they all eventually pass out and end up sleeping in until passed 11am. (slackers) Refreshed and reinvigorated with stupid, they split up again until there is only Carol as the 'final girl.'Whoo-boy, what a final chase it is, too. The filmmakers take every opportunity to show off their steadycam technology as she runs desperately through the halls to try and run out the clock. It seems that April Fools Day only lasts until noon (huh?) and since "Marty's stuck to the rules so far" (what?) he should let anyone who survives into the PM on the 2nd go free. (Really?) What set of rules exactly is she referring to? Sure it is clearly an elaborate revenge plot of Marty's on a specific, important date, and yes, some of the characters have died in manners related to things they did to Marty in the beginning, (acid, electrocution, nudity, lawnmowers... wait, nevermind) but Carol has no more reason to assume that the killer is following any special set of rules than she does assuming that the killing will end at noon.
This was a High School?

Okay, it has been brought to my attention that "April Fool's Day" does indeed technically end at noon in the UK, but since the movie has just spent an hour and a half desperately pretending it is taking place in the US despite all the poorly disguised accents, I'm still calling 'bullshit'. Also, the jokes may end at noon, but I have found nothing saying that they begin the night before. Either it goes all day or you have a six hour prank window; anything else is cheating.Carol hides in the girl's locker room, but the toilet starts to fill with blood, so she goes back into the halls to get chased some more. Then some more. Then a pause to let the camera guy catch up. Then she circles back around through the same exact hallways. When Marty shows himself, she easily batters his nerdy frame with a bat, but then leaves the bat right next to him as she runs away. He attacks again and she throws him out a window, before ineffectually tossing a javelin at him so he can use it later. This is the movie in a nutshell, an incredibly stupid protagonist doing absolutely everything she can to offer her life up to the killer, who is too frail to be any sort of physical threat to her. Oh yeah, then she hides in the girl's locker room again. Why on Earth would she assume he is not going to look for her at the site of her betrayal and his humiliation... twice?Despite his ineffectiveness, the writers clearly couldn't think of a way for someone so stupid to actually get away, so she eventually does get her ass stabbed with a javelin. Now that Marty has revealed and avenged himself the movie should be over, but instead it starts getting weird. About two seconds after finishing his last victim off, he starts hearing creepy, wailing voices. The voices of his recent victims to be precise. They have come back from the dead with a fog machine to bully him supernaturally. Poor kid just can't catch a break.Only it's all a fever dream of the still bandaged, still hospitalized Marty. That's right kids, it's all a dream. A doctor shows up to check on him, but now he's switched places with the nurse and back to killing mode. Then he starts ripping of his own face. The End?Okay, so none of the film's three different endings makes much of any sense, but neither did anything that came before. Slasher films aren't known for their quality writing, but usually the actions performed within have at least some basis in traditional human behavior. The writers of Slaughter High appear to be so disconnected from how people think and act that it would not be surprising if they turned out to be extraterrestrials or a computer matrix. (Considering the strange, forced accents of many of the actors, I'm leaning toward the alien theory.) Despite the fact that the creepy, clearly abandoned school is locked up tight and may as well be covered in neon signs proclaiming "unpleasant death inside" none of the characters show even the faintest signs of suspicion until the first actual death, after which they proceed to split up, run around, and generally do whatever they can to get killed. On the other hand, if Marty wanted to lead his victims into believing that this was a genuine reunion and not a death trap, why would he keep the place locked up with no indication of what he had set up inside? (Though it does seem to magically unlock itself every once and a while.) Why would he wait until the night of his revenge to kill the janitor? How come the janitor never noticed him moving lockers around and bringing in so much booze? The only possible explanations are that the filmmakers were using the "it's all a dream" excuse to do whatever they wanted, or that they were simply too lazy and stupid to bother caring if anything made even a tiny flicker of sense.While Slaughter High is certainly a decent movie for drinking heavily and marveling at the balls to the wall idiocy, you're time would probably be better served by watching the nearly identical and vastly superior April Fool's Day, which coincidentally came out at almost the exact same time. (SH was originally titled April Fool's Day, but wisely decided to differentiate itself by tricking movie rental patrons into thinking it was a high school slasher film and not just a bunch of annoying people alone in a creepy old building.) If you do decide to brave the horrors, take special note of the ultra synthy Harry Manfredini score and enjoy the murky cinematography. Just to give you a taste, here is a digitally enhanced still of some douchebag crawling through the woods:If any of you out there are experts in the field of illicit substances, is this even remotely close to how one should smoke a joint?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: Videodrome (1983)

The following post contains spoilers, but probably won't make any damn sense if you haven't seen the movie anyway.

This may come as a shock to you, but I loves me some Videodrome. It is probably my all time favorite movie, and it certainly had a massive influence on the disheveled 16 year old version of me who picked up its sun bleached plastic case at a rapidly decaying Mr. Movies. Despite the existence of a most excellent Criterion Collection release, this is arguably the best way to experience Videodrome for the first time. The film practically craves the blurry texture and fuzzy tracking problems of a long neglected analog video tape. It certainly goes out of its way to work the medium's technical, physical, and cultural artifacts into the mise en scène.As a bona fide high school AV nerd spending as much time as possible with the half broken, second hand video production equipment, I was also essentially Videodrome's ideal viewer. The great rack-mount towers of oscilloscopes, VTRs, and broadcasting equipment fascinated me with its clunky DIY aesthetics and odd juxtaposition (sometimes simultaneously) of the advanced and the antiquated. I was completely taken by the film's zeitgeist, so the occasional nudity and infamous bizarro-gore were merely the icing on the cake.This analog-philia, combined with the weirdly artificial grime of the Toronto back alleys in which much of the film takes place (it's like no one has cleaned in decades, but no one has been littering either) gives the film a subtle vibe of alternate reality. I like to call it "tubepunk" or "analog-punk," because while it is obsessed with the ramifications of advancing technology, the real world has long ago surpassed it in ways it only dimly perceived. One character gives a fairly accurate prediction of 'user names' and the Internet's egocentric pseudo-anonymity, while another decries the socially destructive effects of media over-stimulation, a laughably quaint idea coming out of 1983. On the other hand, it is too obsessed with looking forward and too subtly different from the '80s as we knew them to ever truly feel like the past. The result is a fascinating world that is sadly unique to the film that spawned it. (Hence my clamoring for a video game sequel, and decrying of a "modern" remake.)For Cronenberg's career, Videodrome marks a clear turning point in his slow evolution from high concept horror auteur to a more mature director of cerebral thrillers. It's also arguably his first truly good film, unmarred by the weak performances that periodically raise their heads in his earlier work (I'm looking at you, dude from Scanners), and completely saturated with dark subtext. Films like Scanners and The Brood obviously had a lot of ideas and certainly revolve around his favored themes, (the power of the mind over the physical world, gooey abjections of the human form) but Videodrome takes these ideas and runs with them.One theme, further explored in the film eXistenZ, is the traumatic effect of exposure to alternate layers of reality. When protagonist Max Renn (James Woods) is exposed to the Videodrome signal, he begins having hallucinations so vivid that they cannot be distinguished from reality. Another character, Professor Brian O'Blivion, suffers from a Videodrome induced brain tumor (similar to the emotion fueled cellular carnosity in The Brood) that he postulates is actually a new organ with the ability (purpose?) to create an even closer relationship between the mind and the cathode ray tube. "Television is the retina of the mind's eye," he frequently proclaims, possibly meaning that Renn's hallucinatory experiences with the Videodrome show and signal are the result of his consciousness being extended into the television program. Once the boundaries between meatspace and the 'video' world are totally blurred, it becomes impossible for Renn and, by extension, the audience to tell exactly how real the events on screen are, and how characters untainted by the signal are perceiving the events.
For instance, Max gets a crazy mutant gun hand, but when he is brainwashed into murdering his unaffected business associates he merely shoots them with a totally normal weapon. This gives the impression that his fleshy new powers only exist within his Videodrome fugue state. (Perhaps other victims of the signal could also see them.) However this is later contradicted by an unaffected character getting his hand mutated into a flesh grenade, which background extras react in horror to, after sticking it into Renn's stomach vagina along with a mind controlling video tape. What exactly were these unaffected characters witnessing and what are the ramifications for the seperation between the real hallucinatory worlds.

The film gives no easy answer to the above question, which merely scratching the surface of possible textual analysis. There are many more interesting questions about perception, censorship, the motif of harmful sensation, the social effects of violent and pornographic media, and our relationship with media in general. Max has a career as a small time cable pornography provider eager to break the next taboo. There are repercussions of the Videodrome signal's increased effectiveness under sexually violent imagery, as well as the hints of vast, moralistic, right wing conspiracies. There's enough to chew on in this 89 minute film to write a whole book. In fact someone did! (Which I confess I have yet to read.)Videodrome: way more than "that movie where James Woods has a stomach vagina," (though it certainly is that too) or a Family Guy joke about nudity. Buy it, steal it, Netflix it. If you are in Minnesota, the Trylon Microcinema just had a showing and will be doing more Cronenberg movies through the end of October. I'll be attempting to catch all of them, so drop me a comment if you're going as well.

"It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Soundtrack to an Imaginary Women in Prison Film

Deep in the coal black heart of a festering 20th century American city, a pair of mid-level mob enforcers unwind with the company of a semi-cooperative prostitute. After the back-alley lovemaking takes a violent turn, she hastily exits the vehicle with one of the thugs' wallets in tow. Headlights appear in the asphalt's black, rain fed mirrors and the woman is struck down by two tons of smoke belching Oldsmobile.

A week later, one of the perps discovers a surly, bandaged prostitute brandishing a kitchen knife in his apartment. One slit throat later, she is dragged, kicking and screaming into a maximum security women's prison where she must contend with lusty lesbian guards, authoritarian nuns, and those in the employ of the mafia family she unwittingly declared war on.

When the escalating spiral of violence ensnares the daughter she abandoned long ago, she organizes a prison break and, with the help of a faux-naive CIA spook (the dog that walks you), begins systematically burning the city's rotten underbelly to the ground. That is if a certain one-eyed sister of the cloth, determined to save her soul or else, doesn't find her first.

God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl
Blondie - X Offender
PJ Harvey 7 John Parish - Black Hearted Love
The Raveonettes - Here Comes Mary
Loretta Lynn - Rated X*
Blondie - The Hardest Part
Ladytron - Last One Standing
Dirty Elegance - Engloutir
Magneta Lane - Kissing is Easy

*Preferably the Neko Case Cover

It's more of a hybrid rape-revenge/prison story than a true "women in prison" film, but there is only so much plot to be wrung out of such a specific premise. Despite that limitation, I'm shocked that Tarantino or his ilk have yet to give it the post-modern deconstruction treatment. I would also be interested in seeing a feminist upending of the normally exploitative genre. It may not be very relevant in the 21st century, but I still believe there is a rich thematic vein to be mined. (Prison-A-Go-Go! is, sadly, the best we've got at the moment.)

Along the same lines, we need more female anti-heroes. Not just "badasses" or generic video game heroines, but flawed, three dimensional characters. Women in genre films almost always fall into archetypes that either fit neatly within the binary virgin/whore system or are so broadly written that they might as well just be Snake Plissken with tits. (I'm looking at you, Doomsday.)

The hypothetical lead of the above snippet would hopefully fit the bill: a vicious sociopath victimized by current circumstances, but with no one but herself to blame for the lows to which she has already sunk. A doomed noir hero with only a shred of maternal instinct to rally her otherwise selfish quest for revenge around. Otherwise her only redeeming quality being the emotional distance to recognize both the grim inevitabilities of her plight and her personal culpability in its creation. Also she commits many acts of totally awesome violence. In fact, someone should make this the setup for a Grand Theft Auto game; they're about due for a female protagonist. The women in prison section could be the tutorial/character generation bit. Someone please make that.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mini Review: Suspect Zero (2004)

Suspect Zero is the most disappointingly adequate movie I've ever seen. Its miserable scores on Metacritic and RottenTomatoes create no illusions that it's an overlooked gem, but I was sorely mistaken in assuming that the hostility and vicious snark was indicative of the epic failure requiring the full Video Updates treatment. It even has a place in infamy next to Larry the Cable Guy and Uwe Boll films in the Onion AV Club's Commentary Tracks of the Damned column.

The level of review bile contrasts sharply to the extraordinary promise once shown by the career of director E. Elias Merhige. Originally a pretentious art filmmaker, Merhige first emerged with his 1991 experimental feature, Begotten. Shot with the distinct texture of hyper-grainy, ultra high contrast reversal film, it tells a metaphysical horror tale of violence, resurrection, and suicidal gods. It's sadly difficult to get a hold of in a proper viewing format, (I'm stuck with a nigh-unwatchable bootleg, myself) but the striking imagery eventually landed its creator a shot at 'real' feature film making. The result was 2000's sublime Shadow of the Vampire, a dark comedy starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe as the director and 'real life' vampire behind the original Nosferatu.Suspect Zero would be Merhige's second and (so far) final studio film. In spite (or because) of a formidable ad campaign, the film hit theaters with an awkward clanking noise; like a broken alarm clock casually tossed into an empty meatlocker. It certainly didn't help that the film reeks powerfully of Se7en copycat syndrome, or that its 'twist' was given away on nearly every marketing material in a desperate attempt to cover the odor.

That twist is the use of 'remote viewing,' but it only counts as a twist if you haven't seen the trailer, official website, majority of reviews, Wikipedia page, or beginning of this sentence. Also you have to be too stupid to figure out the reason for all the sudden, artsy camera angles that Ben Kingsley keeps sketching in his seedy motel hideout.The main subject of this psychokinetic spying is disgraced FBI agent, Aaron Eckhart. With a small sampling of the Matrix films' supporting cast at his side, the future Harvey Dent slowly unravels a string of murders committed with the intent to get his specific attention. (I guess it takes more than creepy faxes to get an FBI agent's attention these days.) The clues eventually lead to Kingsley, who turns out to be a borderline psychotic veteran of the government's defunct psychic detectives program. He was trained to tune into the mental frequencies of killers, but snapped under the pressure and began hunting the perps down on his own.

None of this sounds particularly new or interesting, and it isn't. The cast is serviceable, the script is a bit of a mess, but the cinematography and direction keep the affair floating an inch or two above absolute mediocrity. It certainly doesn't deserve the heaping piles of scorn provided by mainstream film critics. (Personally, I believe their perspective is warped by this bizarre focus on "good" movies.)The main problem I have with Suspect Zero is in its treatment of the eponymous character. I understand that the spoiler free audience members are supposed to spend portions of the film wondering if Kingsley is the titular suspect, a theoretical serial killer that can never be caught because no pattern connects his murders, but the film never sets that particular red herring in stone. His slaughters have a clear pattern (killing killers) and he is never connected to the sinister black 16-wheeler menacing the film's scene transitions. To everyone outside the film itself Ben is clearly not SZ, so when Kingsley and Eckhart join forces to take him down at the end of the film, I had every reason to believe that he would be a total scary badass, possibly played by an A-list actor, with a cool monologue and a cooler death.It turns out he's just some guy with a trucking job and a bunch of obvious corpse mounds at his desert ranch. He gets neither lines nor a close-up, and does absolutely nothing except run away and get his head smashed in. I know the drama is supposed to be between the two tortured leads, but since no one actually gives a flying fuck at this point, the lack of a sweet villain basically cuts the film's heart out; a far more brutal and tragic death than any portrayed within the narrative.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Freaking Finally: A Horror Remake I Can Stand Behind

Check out the brand new trailer for the upcoming remake of George Romero's The Crazies:

Ever since the Asian Horror remake bubble, genre bloggers complaining about the unnecessary remakes has become a virulent epidemic. In a word where audiences are so subtitle shy, US studios are so creatively bankrupt, and and so much money has to be wasted redoing already brilliant films like Let the Right One In, who can blame us. Fortunately, with so many genre films being mined, the studios were bound to get one right eventually.

The original Crazies is an interesting concept from an influential (if very hit or miss) director. It covered a lot of the same ground as his zombie films, but in a different way. The problem is that it's really quite awful in execution. The story is muddled, the acting is terrible, and the direction is indifferent at best. A bigger budget and some slick modern filmmaking is just what the doctor ordered.

Now if only they can resist the urge to pile on the 'shaky cam' and dig up some less overcooked trailer music. (The Donnie Darko song? Seriously? Didn't Gears of War kill that one already?)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Class of 1999 (1990)

Any serious scholar of bad cinema or 1st year creative writing student can tell you that the technique known as 'naked exposition' is at best a cop-out, and at worst is a giant buzzing neon sign that spells out "bad writing" in cheerful, easily readable block letters. If you are not familiar with the term, dramatic 'exposition' is dialog that literally explains the story. It's a basic and essential tool for writing fiction, but quickly becomes a crutch when used clumsily or in excess. The 'naked' description refers to when it's deployed in a painfully obvious manner; the classic example being James Bond villains explaining their sinister schemes in great detail.Naked exposition doesn't get any naked-er than when it takes the form of voice over narration, and when accompanied by helpful diagrams and graphics, it might as well be showing of its bones and muscles. Hell, it might as well be reading you the synopsis from the back of the box. Low budget science fiction cinema is rife with this hackneyed approach, but ever since John Carpenter and his Escape from ____ films perfected it as a high art of trash, it's hard not to get a childish, low-fi thrill from the endless technobabble and cheesy world-building. Class of 1999, a spiritual sequel to the classic "teacher pushed too far" flick, Class of 1984, gets an automatic pass for its introductory plot dump power-point and epic flood of expository speechifying (complete with an "as you are well aware" line) over the opening credits. This is for two reasons: it is incredibly reminiscent of Escape from New York and the exposition is being delivered by the AAA voice talent tag team of Malcolm McDowell and Stacy Keach. While McDowell needs no introduction, Keach is a relatively obscure figure in spite of his vocal and dramatic ubiquity. He's the owner of the Duff Brewery and Springfield Isotopes on 'The Simpsons,' can often be found propping up entire B-movies Atlas style with his mere presence, and is a documentary and commercial narrator of Keith David/Morgan Freeman caliber. (Freeman even credits Keach as his #1 acting influence.) As demonstrated by his roles in 1999 and Escape from LA, Stacy Keach is the undisputed king of laying down the no-nonsense sci-fi ground rules of the high octane ultra-violence about to be inflicted on the audience.Mr. Keach could be explaining in great detail how he sneaks into your bedroom at night to drill holes in your pancreas while making love to your comely daughters and you would find it entertaining, but in Class of 1999, with the help of some milky lenses and a futuristic white rat-tail, he has something far more important to discuss. It seems that by the far off year of 1999, violent youth gangs have pushed law and order completely out of the areas surrounding their high schools. The Educational Defense Department has recently been formed to take back their domains and foist some learning onto the various '90s day-glo punks running amok. McDowell is the principle of Kennedy High, which is stuck in a particularly rough patch of Seattle, which looks disturbingly like an X-ray of a knee.
While an uneasy order has been established through the judicious use of barbed wire, metal detectors, and cyber-fascist storm troopers, having the Helghast on board does not guarantee the children will learn anything. Enter the Stacy Keach run Megatech, which makes some nifty RC vehicles when not moonlighting as an evil sci-fi defense contractor. Their incredibly well thought out solution to the epic discipline problem is to reprogram a trio of high-end battledroids for educational purposes. The robots are super strong, come pre-loaded with "1 Million Megabytes" of educational software, have the ability to learn and make their own decisions, and when worse comes to worse, can rip off their own hands to reveal exotic weaponry. Plus one of them is Pam Grier!(Note: If Pam Grier was my chemistry teacher, she would not need a flamethrower arm to get me to shut up. One hard look would cease all spit wad and paper airplane construction for the remainder of the semester.)If that doesn't sound like the most backfiring prone plan in moviedom, the masterminds have decided to simultaneously release a batch of extra violent youth criminals back into the student population to test the educational killbots' flesh covered mettle. Apparently they've never heard the axiom "You have to learn to crawl before you can walk." One of these super thugs is Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg from Nightmare on Elmstreet 3), a high ranking member of the Blackhearts gang (color: Magenta) who only wants to keep his head down, his nose clean, and his arse out of the clink. This doesn't sit well with his fellow gangbanger brothers, nor does it make a difference to the adversarial Razorheadz (color: Saffron), who promptly join the reunited siblings in a Road Warrior style car chase.When they finally get to school in their ultra futuristic Oldsmobile with plastic crap hanging off of it, Cody discovers both Kennedy High's totalitarian makeover and his gang's seething resentment at his newfound affinity for the straight life. Despite making fast friends with the principal's hot daughter, things quickly deteriorate in his first period class with cyber-Pam Grier. The leader of the Razorheadz, having recovered quickly from the morning's gun battle and car crash is caught being insolent. Grierbot uses her vast computational decision making powers to select from two 'choose your own adventure' options in her visual readout: educate and discipline. After 'educate' fails a couple times, she switches modes, bringing up a couple of sub menus before reaching this screen:History class fairs just as poorly. The elderly looking killbot with his scholarly pipe is every bit as vicious as badass Foxy Brown. After a slightly unhinged speech about discipline and homework, he is interrupted by a pair of fighting students. Unfazed, he hoists them up by their pants, drags them to the front of the room, and selects 'corporal punishment' from his Terminator-vision menu.
Keach goes nanners.
How come killer robots always have options written in English and plastered over their heads-up-displays? Why do they even have HUDs to begin with? They're robots; they can process that sort of information internally in a microsecond. It's not like Stacy Keach ever sees or displays any awareness of the information in these screens. He just keeps tabs on their body temperatures and looks at what they're doing over the security monitors in his robo-science command center.Hey, it turns out 'corporal punishment' means spanking, (I always thought it was a military themed professional wrestler) which just happens to be the perfect mix of pain and embarrassment to put the students in line when administered by a harmless looking history teacher.

The third killer cyborg, who is stuck teaching physical education, has fewer difficulties keeping the kids in line, possibly due to the frequent demonstrations of his robotic kung fu grip during wrestling practice, which the class immediately dives into. Robo-teachers are obviously too efficient to bother wasting the first day (or week) of class on niceties such as syllabi or playing "the name game." (I imagine a killbot instructor's idea of "movie day" would be watching three different movies at the same time; all played at quadruple speed.)
Future Bus!

The first fatality occurs before the kids have a chance to finish a single assignment, and as the teachers become more obsessed with their greatest enemy/most promising student, Cody (who looks like he might break into a rendition of "The Bartman" at any moment), he becomes suspicious of their odd behavior and decides to investigate. After discovering the ultra-violent trio live in the same townhouse, Cody and the principal's daughter sneak inside to find zero furniture, minimal wardrobes, and a kitchen fully stocked with WD-40 and other maintenance supplies. They're interrupted by the untimely arrival of the unit's mechanized tenants, who arrive in their ultra-futuristic 1990 Ford Taurus for yet another riveting chase scene, this time in one of the non-gang ridden, non-futuristic sections of Seattle. (Cheap Sci-Fi tip: Make sure you don't set the story too far into the future. That way you can still shoot chase scenes in one of the thousands of contemporary warehouse districts available to you. Of course that creates the risk of your DVD release occurring a full decade after the 'future' you depict.)
Cody and his straight laced gal-pal manage to escape, but besting the authoritarian automatons only pushes their unhinged CPUs further into HAL 9000 territory. Their conveniently color coded visual readouts permanently switch from the already violent 'education' mode to their default state: war.The 'enemy' is Cody Culp and his fellow Blackhearts, but the machines are too clever for a frontal assault. They begin systematically murdering key members of the Blackhearts and Razorheadz, including Cody's bug-eyed little brother, in order to instigate a full scale gang war. After hostilities break out, the teachers sneak onto the battlefield to pick off distracted thugs.

Cody ultimately escapes with enough members of both gangs for the requisite "lets team up against our real enemy" moment, and the film can finally get down to its true purposes: ripping off Terminator as shamelessly as possible and having teens ride dirt bikes through a high school. They also find a moment for the greatest line of dialog to ever grace the silver screen:

One of the key elements of Cyborgsploitation cinema is the surreptitious use of copious gore. Ever since cyber-Arnold cut out his own damaged eyeball with an x-acto knife, b-moviemakers have been wrapping their fictional killer robots in a thin layer of people skin with the intent of ripping said skin off in the most violent ways imaginable. It saves money and reduces audience snickering versus more traditional killbots, (Chopping Mall, anyone?) and it nets you some wiggle room with the censors as well. At the climax of Class of 1999, the mechanical educators messily rip off their own forearms (and boobs in the case of Ms. Grier) to reveal specialized anti-personnel weaponry. In a technical sense, the makeup effects are quite similar to a limb ripping zombie kill, but the green blood (hydraulic fluid?), occasional sparking, and surrounding context prevents the gore from pushing the film into the realm of horror. It could almost by considered a sub-genre of gore.The cast is eventually boiled down to the main characters and a single, ragged battledroid. (The Arnie-esque gym teacher played by Patrick Kilpatrick.) Right about here the film ceases being "inspired" by Terminator and resigns itself to be Terminator. After hitting him with an armored future-bus, the wounded survivors must scramble away from his mostly fleshless endoskeleton.The ping-pong ball eyes make it look a little goofy, but the imagery is still strong. There is a reason that partially revealed robotic endoskeletons pop up in science fiction with such frequency. (Surrogates is an excellent contemporary example) Turning a universal symbol of mortality into a shiny, metal killing machine, then surrounding it with a fake meat disguise which is inevitably ripped away is nothing if not a powerful abjection of the human form. The result is universally disturbing to the primitive lizard parts of the brain.The most shocking development in Class of 1999 is how damned likable it is. From the silly premise, to the mountains of exposition, to the dated special effects, nothing in the film should work on any practical level. Thanks to talented cast of scenery chewing genre staples, and a utilitarian screenplay that mostly avoids the second act lull so common in "bad" movies, it is irresistibly watchable and consistently amusing.. Obviously it will never be mistaken for quality cinema, but for anyone who likes to alternate between laughing with and laughing at the cheesy celluloid, it is a real crime that it has languished on VHS for so long.

Special mention must also be made to the second most uncalled for turban in cinematic history (the first is from the original Omen):

The Turban... the turban makes me feel