movies

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.

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?

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

Pripyat

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat panorama

Pripyat

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.

Monster mash: Silent Hill Revelation’s strange brilliance

Silent Hill: Revelation is a classic case of style over substance. I could not describe its plot in detail. Something about a blood cult trying to impregnate a hapless teen with the latest incarnation of some unnamed diety. Yog-Sothoth, perhaps. Sean Bean is involved. He spends most of the production waiting for his check. You can’t really blame him. The writing is laughable. The dialogue displays all the nuance of a haphazard translation of video game cut scenes from Japanese.

And honestly I couldn’t care less. Somehow, against all odds, Silent Hill: Revelation works.

Really it’s a creature feature. It’s all about atmosphere. The plot is just a mechanism that propels us from monster to monster. Fortunately they are damned interesting monsters (pun, anyone?), including:

nurses silent hill

Blind, faceless nurses that hunt by sound!

silent hill mannequin spider

A spider made of mannequin parts!

Pyramid Head

That pyramid-headed fellow with the outsize butcher knife!

woman in spider web

A chick trapped in a spider web!

Carrie Ann Moss holding Sean Bean captive in the lap of - er, whatever that thing's supposed to be...

Carrie Ann Moss holding Sean Bean captive in Magic Mike’s lap!

Hopefully this brief photo montage has effectively conveyed the inspired lunacy that is Silent Hill: Revelation. 

You may still be looking for a plot. In that case give up now. You won’t like what you find.

Instead, crack open a  beer and enjoy the monster mash. The Silent Hill franchise is perfect for a drinking game. Perhaps I will create one.