Jabootu Lives!

I am a sucker for movies of the so-bad-they’re good variety (die-hard MST3K fan here).  Given all the doom and gloom in financial markets recently I was excited to discover Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension is still alive and kicking. A point of light in the darkness, as it were.

To encourage you to check out this site (“Devoted to savoring films at the bottom of the cinematic bell curve since 1997”) I now present an excerpt by editor Ken Begg, describing Steven Seagal directing Michael Caine in On Deadly Ground:

The audience, on the other hand, is chagrined when Jennings opens the other door of the helicopter and reveals that he’s being portrayed by a slumming Michael Caine. Jennings remains such a stock cartoon villain that one concludes that Caine was only hired after both Bluto and Snidely Whiplash were found to be busy on other projects. In the end, it’s somewhat of a surprise that he never ties heroine Joan Chen (using the Hollywood “exotic actor” law to play an Eskimo here) to some railroad tracks. Caine’s hair is dyed a very weird oil-slick black, except for a few scenes when it inexplicably turns dark brown instead. He also wears a bolo tie throughout, apparently to help look like an “oil man”. Jennings pretty much proves to be the worst performance in Caine’s long and busy career (and he’s been in The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Holcroft Covenant, Jaws IV, etc.). I’ve no doubt that this is entirely due to Seagal’s direction. I’ve always pictured this scene in my mind:

Director Seagal: “OK, Michael, you’re the Bad Guy. So act really, like, Evil here.”

Caine: “But look, Steven. You know that, in my character’s mind, he’s not the bad guy. To him, he’s the hero, see. He believes totally in what he’s doing, and in his right to do it. In fact, to him, your character is the bad guy, not he.”

Director Seagal, after staring at Caine for a very long time without changing expression: “OK, Michael, you’re the Bad Guy. So act really Evil here. Oh, and more Awe when he sees me enter the room.”

In addition to being very funny (at least in my own humble opinion), many reviews feature pretty insightful commentary on effective plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt you don’t learn much in terms of “craft” from great books and movies. They’re inspiring, but for me they exist on another plane from what mere mortals such as myself can produce (I am reminded of Hunter S. Thompson typing out sentences from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books to see how it felt putting those sentences together).

In terms of creative education, it’s the crappy stuff you learn from: books and movies that lack polish and run with important bits missing and sparking wires exposed. The least talented decile of your local writing group serves much the same purpose. In fact, an interesting creative exercise is to try and FIX a terrible book or movie. There’s no better way to hone your editorial instincts.

May The Great Jabootu smile on all your endeavors!

Some humble suggestions for improving Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy movie posterFinally saw Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly I can’t believe how much fun the movie ended up being, given that the overarching story was so sadly uninspired (that’s a compliment, by the way). So below I have collected some musings and criticisms.

Please remember:

  1. I am not a comic book reader. I could not care less about any movie’s fidelity to its comic book source material.
  2. I actually had a great time watching Guardians of the Galaxy. If I didn’t I wouldn’t still be thinking about it.
  3. My observations are probably riddled with spoilers, if that sort of thing bothers you.

That said, here are my curmudgeonly observations, in no particular order:

  • As mentioned above, I couldn’t have cared less about the main story arc. Some evil guy and some even more powerful evil guy want to conquer or maybe destroy the universe because… well… because. That’s what Evil Dudes do. I would have found Benicio Del Toro’s character a way more compelling villain. Kind of like Buffalo Bill in space. Too weird for the kiddies? I dunno. I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a little kid and in that movie The Child Catcher is pretty much John Wayne Gacy. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
  • At least The Evil Dudes had some personality. The Nova Corps were a total snooze-fest (with the exception of John C. Reilly, perhaps). No disrespect to Glenn Close. She had nothing to work with. Literally nothing. I was kind of hoping the baddies would destroy this pristine world just so we might be spared revisiting it in future installments.
  • Consequently, the “climactic” battle had no real tension. But I’ll readily admit to being extremely prejudiced against action set pieces these days. I’ve seen waaaay too many and 99% of the time we (the audience) know exactly how things will end from the outset.
  • Why couldn’t the movie have focused on the conflict with the Ravagers? Those guys were a blast to watch.
  • In fact, I’d rather watch a series of movies about all these characters going on crazy unrelated (or tangentially related) adventures in space. Kind of like a golden age sci-if serial, but with more talented performers and much higher production values. Why is everything so damn overwritten these days?

This is what frustrates me about a lot of the comic book movies. They give the most interesting elements the least screen time while favoring well-worn action set pieces and the minutiae of the source material.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are children to wow and thus toys to be sold. Or that some dude/dude at Macquerie sold a bunch of high-yield debt to fund the things so taking a risk with the projected cash flow by pissing off the true fans is a total non-starter. Or maybe I’m just a balding curmudgeon and not at all the intended audience and therefore will just never get it.

I still see oodles of untapped potential.

Evil never looked so good

Black Sunday movie posterMario Bava’s Black Sunday is regarded as one of the most influential horror films of all time. It’s the H.P. Lovecraft of gothic horror movies. Its look and feel have inspired legions of imitators, derivatives and spiritual descendants.

Netflix has been recommending this movie to me for a while now, but I didn’t take the plunge until I read Dave’s review at DVD Infatuation. His view?

From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic scene: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the back of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre.

There is nothing complicated about this movie. It opens with an accused vampire/witch, Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), being condemned to death by her brother. Because Asa is an eeeevil,* unrepentant harpy, she curses her brother and all her descendants before beseeching The Prince of Darkness for assistance. The Prince of Darkness answers her call with a wicked rain storm, and the peasants are unable to burn her at the stake. Why they can’t just burn her when the weather breaks is anyone’s guess.

In any event the Inquisition buries Asa in the family crypt, where she waits to exact revenge from the beyond the grave.

Sure enough, a pair of bumbling doctors on their way to a conference [INSERT JOKE] bring Asa back to life. Thirsty Asa promptly sets her sights on the lithe neck of her great-great-grandniece Katia (also played by Steele). Mayhem ensues.

Narrative complexity is not Black Sunday’s strong suit. The movie is built on strong visuals. It uses its monochrome palette to maximum effect in portraying its bleak, moody setting. Francis Ford Coppola found Black Sunday so visually striking that he recreated some of the shots in his own Dracula adaptation. This is a fantastic example of the atmosphere a skilled director can create with limited resources. I found quality even more prominent coming on the heels of the latest Godzilla movie.

In terms of acting, Barbara Steele’s dual roles steal the show. Asa is of course more fun to watch than Katia (when hasn’t pure eeeevil been more fun than naive virtue?) but Steele is convincing in both roles.

Director Mario Bava ended up as something of a one-hit wonder. Black Sunday was his directorial debut. Nothing else he made matched its critical or box office success. Black Sabbath (also available on Netflix) was probably the closest he came to recapturing the magic before his death in 1980.

* Sometimes one “e” is just not enough.

Godzilla and “Postnarrative” film


It occurred to me while watching the latest Godzilla movie that we are entering a new era in filmmaking. I call it Postnarrative. In this Brave New World movies don’t much bother with characters or plot. They don’t tell stories in the traditional sense. In Postnarrative filmmaking characters and plot are just mechanisms to move us from set-piece to set-piece. Maybe also to sell copies of Maxim, depending on the Obligatory Female Supporting Character & Love Interest (OFSCLI)…

megan fox transformers maxim

Michael Bay’s Transformers movies originated and perfected this formula. In Godzilla it reaches its zenith. In Godzilla we’re not even going from set-piece to set-piece so much as “really cool shot” to “really cool shot” (or “sequence of really cool shots” to “sequence of really cool shots”). Note that I began this post with a picture centered, taking up the entire column width. It expresses the essential quality of Postnarrative movies. It says screams LOOK AT THIS AND BE AMAZED!

There is, for example, the halo jump sequence referenced in that image. In visual terms it’s absolutely stunning. I’ve never made a halo jump. I most certainly never will. But the sequence feels right in terms of what it would look like to parachute into a thunderstorm over a ruined city where three giant monsters are battling to the death.

There is another sequence that tracks a dog tied up at the beach as it flees an oncoming tidal wave, from the moment it breaks its chain to when it reaches the Great Mass of Innocent Bystanders clogging the city streets.

Godzilla is just a collection of these moments. Sure, we have a generic military dude and his family (watch for Elizabeth Olsen as the OFSCLI!) to follow around. And sure, Brian Cranston and Juliet Binoche show up for a little bit — just long enough to justify a paycheck, it seems. But Godzilla doesn’t give us any reason to care about them. So we don’t. The result feels more like a ride at Universal Studios than a movie.

I am not going to defend Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie. I bring it up only to mention Jean Reno’s performance as Philippe Roche, a French DGSE agent. The role was never going to win him an Oscar. But he was an interesting character to watch, and I at least felt invested in his fate. Godzilla 2014 has no such character. Ken Watanabe could have been that guy, but Max Borenstein’s script doesn’t give him anything to work with. Same with Brian Cranston.

Watch any of the following (in no particular order):

  • Kill Bill
  • From Dusk Till Dawn
  • Machete
  • Desperado
  • Die Hard
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • The Matrix
  • Aliens

All these movies prove action and character need not be mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, Postnarrative movies seem to insist on treating them as such. They insist that if you want action and FX something else has to go. And that’s simply not true.

James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard on authors making money

Something that’s always driven me crazy is writers who think of writing as a “calling” and not a business. Sure, you may think of writing as a passion. But if you want anyone else to read what you’ve written your passion is eventually going to collide with someone else’s business interests. Elmore Leonard put it this way:

I think any writer is a fool if he doesn’t do it for money. There needs to be some kind of incentive in addition to the project. It all goes together. It’s fun to sit there and think of characters and get them into action, then be paid for it. I can’t believe it when writers tell me ‘I don’t want to show my work to anybody.’

Perhaps predictably, James Ellroy expressed his opinion even more colorfully:

L.A. Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke—and a wonderful one—and it is never going to happen again—a movie of that quality.

Here’s my final comment on L.A. Confidential, the movie: I go to a video store in Prairie Village, Kansas. The youngsters who work there know me as the guy who wrote L.A. Confidential. They tell all the little old ladies who come in there to get their G-rated family flick. They come up to me, they say, “OOOO… you wrote L.A. Confidential…. Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful movie. I saw it four times. You don’t see storytelling like that on the screen anymore.” … I smile, I say, “Yes, it’s a wonderful movie, and a salutary adaptation of my wonderful novel. But listen, Granny: You love the movie. Did you go out and buy the book?” And Granny invariably says, “Well, no, I didn’t.” And I say to Granny, “Then what the fuck good are you to me?

12 Years A Slave Screenwriter is a boss

I heard this awesome interview with John Ridley, who adapted 12 Years A Slave for the screen, on my drive in to work today.

It’s been long time since I’ve heard an interview this good. Especially from a writer. I recommend you click the link to NPR for the whole thing but here is my favorite part:

My father was out here in California at [a school “grandparents’ day”]. … And a woman from Virginia came up to my dad … and she said to him, “Oh, your name is Ridley? … I used to have family in Virginia named Ridley.”

And my dad just said very casually … “Oh, well, you know what, your family, they probably owned our family. They may have. I have family from Virginia.” And the woman was not shocked, she was not taken aback. She goes, “Oh, you know what? That’s very possible.” They started researching together, firing letters back and forth, looking to find out if that was true.

I think it’s very important for people to not go into it going, “Oh, if my family did that 160 years ago, that’s me.” As opposed to, “Why don’t we find out what happened? Why don’t we find out how we got to a point now where our kids or our grandkids are in the same school, enjoying the same privileges, that we are citizens in the same country and can actually talk about this as opposed to being afraid or horrified about what happened?”

What happened, happened; we can’t change that. But we can change who we are in this moment. That’s how you move on from this.

What an articulate guy. No wonder his screenplay won an Oscar.

Some badass dialogue from The Seventh Seal

knight and Death play chess

Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.

Death: But He remains silent.

Antonius Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.

Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.

Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Antonius Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Death: That day.

Antonius Block: I understand what you mean.

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie till now. It is awesome. Modern movies about faith and death are all weepy and psychological and abstract. The Seventh Seal makes Death a character. And the protagonist LITERALLY plays chess against him for his life. Today’s serious movies just don’t have the balls for that sort of thing. As the late Rogert Ebert noted in his Great Movies series:

Images like that have no place in the modern cinema, which is committed to facile psychology and realistic behavior. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) has more in common with the silent film than with the modern films that followed it–including his own. Perhaps that is why it is out of fashion at the moment. Long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is now a little embarrassing to some viewers, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject, which is no less than the absence of God.

This movie is a more profound meditation on life, death and spirituality than anything I ever heard in church. It puts “religious” torture porn like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to shame.

A knight returns from crusading searching desperately for some evidence of God’s existence (what with having spent the last decade hacking brown people to death and all his outlook is understandably grim). He arrives home to find northern Europe in the throes of the plague. And surprise! It turns out Death has followed him home. The knight challenges Death to a game of chess. As long as the game goes on he is free to continue his quest. If he wins, Death will let him be. If he loses, he’s toast.

The Seventh Seal is about coping with an ugly, violent world – about finding meaning in all that, and possibly even a glimmer of hope or beauty. It remains relevant today. In fact unless we suddenly discover the secret to immortality some day it will ALWAYS be relevant. You really should see it. I’m glad I finally did.

The best scene in The Hobbit

I have to admit I didn’t care for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie (subject for another post, perhaps). However, I did quite enjoy this moment. In fact I would venture that it’s the best scene in the entire film. That’s really saying something considering it lasts a whole 10 seconds.

Gandalf: Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That’s because I am afraid and it gives me courage.

It reminded me of that chapter in Niall Ferguson’s War of the World where he compares the UK during World War II to The Shire. I wouldn’t mind reading that section again, incidentally. Something to do with an extended metaphor — Britain as The Shire and Nazi Germany as Mordor.

In defense of Chernobyl Diaries

I rather enjoyed Chernobyl Diaries. I was appalled to see that it had a measly 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even that turkey Paranormal Activity 3 managed a 68%.

The premise: a handful of backpackers take an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town that housed workers that staffed Russia’s doomed Chernobyl reactor. Their guide is Yuri, a swarthy (if likable) Spetznatz trooper turned tour operator. After wandering around creepy-ass Pripyat for a while, the gang discovers Yuri’s van won’t start. So they’re stuck. Overnight. And to make matters worse, they start seeing and hearing signs they’re not the only ones overnighting in the abandoned city…

Chernobyl Diaries is all about atmosphere. The plot is relatively uninspired — irradiated cannibal mutants stalk hapless victimsWhat this flick has going for it is Pripyat:



Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat panorama


Soviet officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat about 24 hours after the Chernobyl reactor melted down. Wikipedia has a fairly chilling translation of the evacuation order, which it cribbed from a National Geographic special:

For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.

Chernobyl Diaries effectively leverages on this history for the first half of its running time. In fact, some of the creepiest scenes are of Yuri simply leading the backpackers around the abandoned city. This makes for a far more compelling film than a handheld camera pointed at an eight-year old’s bedroom. Or watching blankets rustle in a suburban home. It also offsets shortcomings in plot and characterization. That’s more than you can say for most horror gimmicks (ahem–found footage).

Many horror films live or die by atmosphere. Chernobyl Diaries is one of them. I’m not saying this is a great movie. It might not even rate as average. But it’s certainly not abysmal. It deserves far more credit than it’s gotten.

The cardinal sin of overwriting

I hate overwriting. Where writing and plotting are concerned it is a cardinal sin.

The dictionary definition of overwriting is as follows:

Transitive Verb

“to write too much or in an overly elaborate style.”

Overwriting manifests itself when a writer takes a simple thing and makes it massively complicated for no goddamn reason other than to stroke her own ego. Creative people fall into this trap because we’re tremendously insecure and desperately want others to perceive us as clever. But the truth is when we overwrite we don’t come off as clever. All we do is strain our audiences’ willingness to suspend disbelief – frequently to the breaking point.

Take, for example, The Awakening. In it a skeptical young woman investigates reports of a haunting at a creepy boarding school.

Initially this struck me as a fine film. Damn creepy, too (what with a faceless child ghost and all). But in the third act it runs right off the rails, crashing and burning and scattering body parts all over the place. The reason is a plot twist.

Apparently the protagonist grew up in the house that was later turned into the boarding school. She has traumatic childhood grief related to the place. In fact, she witnessed a double murder there and the faceless ghost is actually her dead brother, who it turns out wanted some company (!)

See what I mean? You get to the third act and WHA-BAM!, the twist hits you like a kabob-smack to the face. All the tension that’s built throughout the film evaporates. Suddenly the script dumps a bunch of backstory on you to make sense of it all, and the last thing you’re thinking about is the faceless ghost.

What, pray tell, is so wrong with a skeptic going to investigate a haunted house because it’s fucking haunted? Why does every goddamn detail need to be interconnected? Why can’t we just flash back to a scene of the murder because the ghost voodoos our protag with some spiritual Jedi mind shit, like Mola Ram does to Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom?

Mola Ram

Mola Ram doing some crazy shit.

I don’t need a convoluted reason for a character to have strange visions in a haunted house. People see weird shit in haunted houses because they’re fucking haunted.

That’s all the explanation you need. It’s an intuitive leap the audience is more than capable of making it on its own.