Monday, April 9, 2007

The Worst of All Possible Outcomes

Well, it happened... Grindhouse flopped.

The film's poor showing really wouldn't be all that disconcerting if it wasn't for the fact that the two films directly above it, Are We Done Yet? and Meet the Robinsons, are such utterly brainless confections as to not even warrant discussion. So with that, I'll leave them aside to address the real point at hand here: this was, for all intents and purposes, the worst of all possible outcomes for Grindhouse the film, for the Weinsteins, for Quentin Tarantino and, indeed, for all those who love movies.

Make no mistake here, what Tarantino and company tried to do, and what the Weinsteins surprisingly signed off on, was a long shot. It wasn't like there were audiences out there clamoring for a grindhouse theater revival. Certainly, there were folks, niche markets and fanbases who were excited by the idea. The sheer amount of attention that the media and blogosphere showed the film indicates that, at least at some level, Grindhouse sparked immaginations and curiosities.

But (and this is a pretty big but), it looks as though folks just weren't ready for this type of experiment, weren't interested in making Tarantino part of their Easter weekend, and perhaps worst of all, weren't really interested in engaging what amounted to a challenging film in a lot of regards.
A lot of outlets have spent a lot of time discussing how surprising this latest Weinstein failure has been. In all honesty though, the deck was stacked against success in this case. Grindhouse was long. And, despite the surreal amount of media attention over the final week or so, I still have the sense that not many regular people knew what this movie was actually about. (I use regular folks here to refer to those that don't have film releases written on their calendar six months in advance.) I had a number of friends and relations say things like, "Isn't that the movie that's like, two movies?" or just simply "I don't get it." Either way, too much of the publicity probably assumed too much knowledge about what constituted grindhouse cinema to actually be effective and not confusing.

So now the talk turns to releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof into two films, something that I think will probably increase the box office potential of the whole project even while it demeans its cultural significance. At its core, Grindhouse was about recreating a film going experience that really doesn't exist outside niche offerings at art house theaters. Every part of the 3+ hour experience played to that end, from the schlock-y editing and digitally manipulated film stock to the over-the-top trailers and goofy age guidelines. All that will be lost when the films are split.

Instead, we'll be left with two very interesting genre offerings. Rodriguez's film, a real zombie gore-fest, plays pastiche for generic criticism. This has become a staple of modern horror cinema, with virtually every competent director nodding at favorite films or scenes from the past. But few do it as ham-fistedly or for as many laughs as Rodriguez does in Planet Terror. Tarantino on the other hand has offered up what, if Kill Bill hadn't been released so recently, I might call the ultimate Tarantino film. Unlike in Kill Bill however, Tarantino showed almost no restraint for flexing his cinephile muscles. Drawing heavily on little known genre films (embarrassingly, even to me), he subjected viewers to a film that dragged at times when Tarantino's script clearly got bogged down in his own twisted intellect. That being said, Grindhouse's final half hour was among the most intense and exciting I've seen in quite a long time.

Which brings us back to the real losers in this whole mess: movie goers. As I said, Grindhouse was a bet, a pretty big one it turns out. And Hollywood hates losing bets. What Hollywood loves are Will Ferrell comedies, animated family movies and Ice-Cube shit shows that loosely resemble films. (Disclaimer: I haven't seen any of these movies, and therefore can only operate under the assumption that they are pretty worthless. Let's just say I feel safe with this assumption.) If not for rolling the dice with the combined release, the Weinsteins might have had two decently successful genre films. Instead, they are stradled with a ton of bad press and a poorly performing film at roughly 3000 theaters across the country. Unfortunately, this failure will only deter further risk and will lead to more "safe bets" and rehashes of already known entities. Is that the end of the world? Of course not. But it will make for some pretty boring weekend afternoons.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Happy Dead Silence Release Day!

Whew, did I need that month off!? Um, actually, no, I guess I didn't... But that's in the past, right? Great! Because today we have to celebrate something of an important day: the release of Dead Silence.

Sure, there's a couple of horror films that have dropped recently, and yeah, Zodiac probably packs more cinematic bang for your buck, but Dead Silence represents one of the few non-remake, non-sequel horror films that we're going to see all year. In my mind, that's something worth celebrating even if the studio isn't screening the film for critics (yikes!).

No matter how the masses react to the film, Dead Silence looks to be something of a creep fest. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the film comes from the same team that gave us the Saw series as they've obviously returned to the same well they've mined in the past with their use of terrifying looking dolls. I would even posit that this film can be seen as the generic offspring of doll-centered horror of old, which includes films like Puppet Master and the Child's Play series.

While the elements of the genre may be traced all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the prototype probably comes from the British horror anthology Dead of Night. In the film's most memorable segment, a ventriloquist is tormented by his doll, who may or may not have come to life. You can pretty much fill in the holes from there, but it's important to note that as far as I can remember, the doll in Dead of Night is never actually seen moving, meaning that all the action and behavior is implied. In many ways, this is much more unsettling than more recent violent dolls like Chucky, and it represents a lot of what makes horror, and particularly older horror films so powerful. It's probably hard to come by, but if you can get your hands on Dead of Night, savor it. They don't really make them like that anymore.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

An Epically Crappy Weekend and Roeper Returns!

I wish I could say that I have a great reason for the lack of posting over the last week, but the reality is that I'm simply still trying to recover from a weekend in which Norbit (staring Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy! and Eddie Murphy!!!) not only took home the top spot, but brought in $34 million. I would say that everyone who attended a screening of the film should be ashamed of themselves, but clearly, they have no shame.

Going into the February 2nd weekend I joked that we might be looking at a new all time low for combined Rotten Tomatoes scores among the weekend's top five films, the previous all time low having been set the weekend before at 23.8%. Well guess what, I was right. Headlined by The Messengers, my predicted number one, that weekend had a combined 18.8% on RT. Pretty good right?

But those poor films hadn't reckoned on the sheer awfulness of Norbit. Like a slow motion car-wreck, involving a fat-suit of course, Norbit led an even classier group of five films that captured audiences' attention with a combined 18.6% score at Rotten Tomatoes. Let me be the first to congratulate Norbit, Hannibal Rising, Because I Said So, The Messengers and Night at the Museum. You accomplished something terrifically crappy this past weekend, and now no one can take that away from you. (Sidenote: Night at the Museum somewhat artificially inflated each of the past two weeks scores with its 45% rating. Otherwise, the top four from both weeks would have come in at a staggering 12.3 and 12 respectively.)

It's also been some time since we visited with our good friend Richard Roeper. Now, it almost seems hard to believe, but Rotten Tomatoes has only uploaded five new Roeper reviews in the past month. What is this man doing all day? I mean, I understand he's a big time columnist and all, but doesn't he realize there's a nation of movie-goers who count on his sterling words of wisdom and insight? Even more upsetting is the fact that he wasn't sent to watch any of the real pieces of shit everyone seems so intent on paying money to see. No Epic Movie, no Because I Said So, no Norbit, not even any Messengers. Utterly unbelievable. But without further ado, here's a somewhat tardy version of This Week in Roeper:
  • Alpha Dog - "Justin Timberlake has what it takes to be a genuine movie star."

  • Arthur and the Invisibles - "Strange and kind of meandering."

  • Alone With Her - "Alone With Her plays like an extended voyeur video with nothing new to say about hidden cameras or stalkers or anything."

  • Catch And Release - "I was pleasantly surprised."

  • Seraphim Falls - "Though the chase threatens to go on too long, the suspense remains high because we don’t know which man is the real villain, or if there’s a villain at all."

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

World War Z Wrapup

About a week ago, I finally got around to finishing Max Brooks' zombie fest, World War Z. Initially, I was really blown away by the book. It's unique in its structure as well as in its subject matter. As I discussed earlier, the author's depth of knowledge on the subject was impressive. Brooks literally thought of every zombie related situation imaginable and found a way to work it into the book. Because of its unique, interview-based structure, World War Z easily incorporates even the most bizarre or esoteric zombie hijinks.

Looking back, it's obvious that this structure--in many ways the books biggest strength--was also its greatest flaw. While Brooks spends a great deal of time on some parts of the war effort, specifically the US's early struggles and eventual victory, he spends few words describing others. Some elements like the descriptions of zombies emerging from the oceans to attack unsuspecting vacationers were cool, but never should have been fleshed out into whole interviews. Others probably could have shouldered a lot more of the effort.

In total, World War Z really stands as an encyclopedia of sorts, relating to all things undead. Brooks took such a massive scope with this work that its hard to imagine what he might have overlooked. But beyond simply rehashing zombie lore, Brooks' global spin also saw the creation of many new conventions and themes: ferals, quislings, chain swarms, etc. The scope of his vision also allowed for a followthrough with regards to how a zombie outbreak would effect the world that would be virtually impossible in film. Romero's Land of the Dead tackled the idea of a world beset with zombies, but still kept its focus fairly tight. It will be very interesting to see how Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt's production house that won the rights to the book in a healthy bidding war, will bring WWZ to the screen as Brooks did the screenwriters few favors.

Brooks' novel ends on something of a positive note. Unlike many of the films that draw on zombie conventions, the survivors of World War Z have reached the end of the tunnel. Each speaker is sure to point out that there is a ways to go and that they are irreparably scarred, but Brooks allows readers a sense of hope for the future. He also never positions the zombies as any sort of deus ex machina that brings about world peace. Instead, we see the zombies as just another challenge that faces humanity, in some cases bringing out the best, while in others, the worst. Brooks illuminates both in a prose that varies with his speakers, but never falters. And like many genre texts that have come before it, be they movies, games or books, World War Z provides much fodder for analysis for any who pick it up in the future.

Monday, February 5, 2007

It's a Bottle Opener, Duh.

By and large the commercials during last night's Super Bowl were a pretty sorry bunch. Unlike past years, there really wasn't any one spot that had everybody buzzing. One could probably make an argument for the Federline-fast food worker ad for Nationwide, but that would mean we'd already spent too much time thinking about K-Fed.

Bud Light did manage to pull together one that is worth a second look though. Were they trying to piggy-back off the modest success of the recent Hitcher remake? Maybe. But either way it's a good laugh.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Brilliant Recuts All About Genre

There's been a number of these recut trailers over the last year and a half. First The Shining, then Jaws and then Brokeback Mountain hit and the whole trend sort of jumped the shark.

At their most basic level, these trailer remixes are all about genre; about leveraging the semantic elements of one genre into the syntactic elements of another. In most cases the humor comes from the interaction between the viewer's knowledge of the original source film, or at least knowledge of that film's generic underpinnings, and the reversal of expectations that comes with the re-edits. Usually, music (a semantic element in and of itself) plays the key role in shifting the focus.

In two of the three above examples, popular horror films were recut to play more like comedies (The Shining as romantic comedy, Jaws as the generic buddy film). Even if you don't know the original films, the editing and original performances are usually good enough to get a chuckle. In the case of the video below however, the artist has recut When Harry Met Sally, one of the strongest examples of modern romantic comedy, to look and feel like a thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction or Sleeping with the Enemy. The trailer itself, devoid of prior knowledge of the film, is loaded with tension. But what takes it beyond the previous examples, in my mind anyway, is the manner in which the creator clings strictly to the generic conventions of the thriller and utilizes pitch-perfect cuts from the original, allowing the new and the old interpretations to play against each other perfectly. It's only within this context that the trailer shows its true humor.

And believe me, I realize that when you analyze things to this extent, they're not usually funny anymore, but watch it. It's still goddamn hilarious.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Hope You Weren't Planning on Hitting the Megaplex

Good sweet Jesus is this going to be an off week at theaters around the country. I certainly don't mean that in terms of box, although it might be that too, but it's shaping up to be a rare weekend in regards to the overall quality of movies that will be available to most of the country.

According to our old friend Rotten Tomatoes, not a single movie in last week's top five Box Office winners scored above a 45% (it takes 60% to be considered "fresh"). For the mathematically inclined readers, last week's top 5 averaged a pretty paltry 23.8%, led of course by last week's winner, Epic Movie, which clocked in at 3%. Yeah I know, I was shocked that 3% of reviewers liked it too. But, as I've said, I'm not one to quibble with audiences' viewing choices.

The real bad news for the discerning film going community is that it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better. This week we have two releases, both of which have received a nauseating amount of advertising run-up. As of this writing only one of the films has received any RT love, and let's just say, you might want to stay home this weekend. I don't know if anyone keeps stats on these things, but we might be looking at an all-time box office top ten shit show when it comes to RT scores. 23.8 is the number to beat, but I think these films are up to it.
The first of these cinematic gems is Because I Said So, which might be the most laugh-out-loud bad title this side of porn. Everything I know about this film I've garnered from watching the preview, but my guess is it doesn't get a whole lot deeper. Apparently Diane Keaton (why, oh why?) plays an overbearing mother to Mandy Moore's rambuncious 20-something. There's some tension, and, gasp, BOYS! And mom and daughter probably butt heads a lot only to realize that they really love each other at the end of the day. Critics seem to be referring to this as a "chick-flick," the generic implications of which I won't even begin to address at this juncture, but I'd dare anyone to find me five so-called "chicks" who are interested in seeing this film. I goddamn dare you. Oh yeah, and just so we're clear, Because I Said So is currently clocking in at an Epic-Movie-like 8% right now over at RT. Good times.
The back end of this weekend's shows some potential. The Messengers is a horror film, which obviously curries favor with this writer, but it's also a Ghost House film (Sam Raimi's production house), so there's hope that it won't be a total waste of time. John Hodgman actually discussed The Messengers a fair amount in his NYT Magazine story "The Haunting", (sorry NYT Select members only it looks like) which looked at the current state of horror in the US. Actually a really nice article if you can get your hands on a full copy somewhere. But I digress. There's one glaring problem here, and it's probably the first thing that jumps out to any fan of the horror genre: a PG-13 rating.

Does a PG-13 rating preclude a film from being scary? No, of course not. But what it does mean is that a large number of the conventions of the genre will be absent or woefully nuetered. Gore, sex, extreme violence? Sorry, go see The Hitcher again. Obviously, films have done pretty well for themselves without all those goodies--Poltergeist and The Ring are just the two that come most readily to mind, Jaws somehow got a fucking PG--but it's an uphill battle. And those exceptions had one thing in common for the most part: decent direction by Speilberg, Hooper and Verbinski. The Messengers is being helmed by two Hong Kong stars, the twin Pang brothers, but what kind of work they'll turn out stateside remains to be seen.

What The Messengers will do is get those pesky teens to the theater. You know, the not-quite-ready-for-Rob-Zombie crowd who still likes a good spook and enjoys a night away from mom and pop? They'll be out in numbers I'd expect. Probably even enough to put Messengers into number one. No guarantees of course, but it'd be nice to see because it would get some good traction going for Ghost House, who will be dropping two more horror ditties on us later this year.

Monday, January 29, 2007

An Odd and an End from the Weekend

Two unrelated topics I wanted to touch on from this weekend, neither really worthy of a full post, so instead I'm just cramming them together, no matter how awkward the fit.
First and foremost, now we all know what happens when you don't read the Sunday Times on Sunday: you miss sweet ass articles like this one from Whitney Joiner. In her piece, Joiner gives readers the low down on Rodriguez and Tarantino's Grindhouse. For folks familiar with the film and its production history to date, there probably wasn't anything in the piece to knock your socks off. But what's important here is that A) it was in the New York freaking Times. They don't talk about any movie to come down the pipe. B) It's fucking Grindhouse for god's sake! I mean, this is going to be one of the messiest, bloodiest, most beautiful pictures of the year. And C) Joiner deploys a strong sense of the generic implications of the two films that make up this beast of a movie experience.

The set piece that kicks the whole story off is Rose McGowan's infamous prosthetic leg/automatic weapon. Joiner talked to both Rodriguez and Tarantino for the piece, and the former make a somewhat surprising statement about how he crafted the film:

“I thought, ‘Nobody’s ever thought of that [put an automatic weapon where a leg should be] before,’ ” Mr. Rodriguez said of his high-caliber epiphany during an interview at his Troublemaker Studios here last month. “Your mind just goes to the craziest idea to lure people into the theater, and then you write your script around those elements.”

This sounds a little reckless, but Rodriguez's feel for genre seems strong enough to make this kind of writing philosophy work. A little later in the piece, he mentions John Carpenter an awful lot, which sets a pretty damn high bar, but could mean great things come release date. A couple other points from the piece are worth mentioning:
  1. Weinstin Company is preparing their largest promotional push since their founding upon Harvey and Bob's acrimonious split with Disney.
  2. The directors, in their effort to create that true grindhouse movie going experience, will be randomly dropping reels from the films.
  3. Tarantino on developing his contribution: “Part of my fun in doing genre cinema, since everyone knows the rules well, whether unconsciously or not, is leading you down a road and giving you all the information that you’ve gotten in other movies, and then using your own information against you,” he said.
  4. The possibility of a sequel is put firmly into play by Rodriguez, but sort of brushed off by Tarantino.
We'll see what he says after the box office numbers start rolling in.

Speaking of box office numbers, my second point from this weekend has to do with Epic Movie's mildly surprising victory in its opening week. When your only real competition is Smokin' Aces, you probably shouldn't go around getting a big head when you open at $18.6 million. Now, that being said, this is the second time in less than a year that one of these spoof films has opened at number one at the box (Scary Movie 4 went number one in April). Epic Movie's draw was also almost identical to Date Movie's last February.

Certainly no one is going to argue that any of these three films is anything substantial. While I haven't seen any of this line since Scary Movie 2, it would seem that the team behind these films has the process down to something of a science, which isn't surprising seeing as that they are, at the end of the day, genre films, and the most derivitive type of genre films to boot.

The strength of each of these films' box office openings, however, speak to audiences desire to laugh through so many of the generic conventions that have succeeded in films that are usually still fresh in their minds. Especially in the case of the Scary and now Epic series, there really is no telling how far these films can go, since they can simply rely on the previous year's crop of films when pulling material together. Then, simply play the exact same set pieces that earlier filmmakers leveraged for drama or scares, only for laughs this time around. I'm not saying you need to like it, but it'd be silly not to respect the racket that this group of writers and producers has set up.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

This Week in Roeper

Apparently our friend Mr. Roeper got this week off because he hasn’t reviewed any of the new releases. It's a sin too as we're left to only imagine what he would have made of a treat like Epic Movie. But just because he didn't take on any of this week's releases doesn't mean he's getting off the hook. So in the interest of helping you feel just a little bit smarter, I went back a couple of weeks to find some new-ish literary gems for the latest edition of This Week in Roeper. Enjoy!
  • Curse of the Golden Flower - “It’s operatic in its feeling and there’s a lot going on here. And there’s murders and betrayals, and affairs that are illicit, and women on horse-back and great fight scenes.”

  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - “Hated this movie. Hated it.”

  • Miss Potter - “The story really grows on you and it’s very sweet and it’s beautiful to look at.”

  • Pan's Labyrinth - “Del Toro’s made a lot imaginative films. I think this is his masterpiece to date.”

  • The Painted Veil - “Sweeping vistas, period-piece sets, impeccable literary source, a little stolid at times, but ultimately quite impressive.”

Friday, January 26, 2007

Original Horror Making Waves at Sundance

So you've seen Black Christmas and The Hitcher, but you're slowly losing interest in the gradually diminishing returns of the spate of horror remakes invading movie houses across the country? Well, it looks like there might be some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of some new original horror cinema debuting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Cinematical's resident horror guru, Scott Weinberg, has two pretty stellar reviews of two wildly divergent horror films that screened over the last week. Each sounds exciting in its own way, but more than anything, it's just good to see some original stuff from some new filmmakers.
The first of these two is Teeth, a coming-of-age story of sorts in which a young woman begins to explore her as of yet untapped sexuality. She runs into some trouble however, when it turns out that her vagina is loaded with something a little too unfriendly to the opposite sex: the film's eponymous teeth. As Weinberg discusses in his review, this unusual addition sets the table for some highly loaded scenes that explore our culture's insecurities with female sexuality and the vagina.

Certainly, this isn't the first film to broach this subject, in fact it's quite popular in the canon of horror cinema, it's just that Teeth, written and directed by rookie filmmaker Mitchell Lichtenstein, explores the subject matter with a literalness rarely seen, which will hopefully allow for intersting new allusions and metaphor. The reception has been so strong that apparently Lichtenstein is already in discussion to make a sequel or two.
The second of these films is The Signal, a mashup of techno-horror and zombie apololypse. For the film, three directors tag team on the three acts, detailing a fictional city in which a hypnotic signal that travels on TV and radio waves turns anyone who encounters it into a crazed killing machine. In the same breath, Weinberg praises both the film's gore as well as character development, which is often a tough duo to find in this genre.

Here again, the point is not that the themes in play (overreliance on technology leading to ruin) are all that new, but that these filmmakers are bringing their own, hopefully blood-soaked, perspective to them. In virtually every genre, the themes addressed haven't changed all that much since their inception. Instead, each filmmaker's contribution comes in the form of the elements and conventions that he or she chooses to highlight and the aesthetic sensibility that they bring to the project.

The best news of all is that both of these films have already secured distribution, Teeth through the Weinsten Company and Lionsgate and The Signal with Magnolia Pictures, and so they should be making their way to theaters sometime in 2007. With even more horror remakes on the way, both should provide a refreshing change of pace for discerning junkies everywhere.