Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #3: “You know… for kids!”

It is easy to forget when watching some teenager running through the woods trying to escape death by the most unlikely weapon some psycho killer can get his hands on that our obsession with horror really begins in childhood. Kids are at once scared of everything and fearless. Perhaps our adult obsession with scaring ourselves is somehow a way to reconnect with our youth and tap into that element of fearlessness we may have lost along the way.

There are different kinds of horror for children. The first might be listed in a class syllabus as “An Introduction to Horror”. This course would cover the basics of horror. The jumps and sudden scares, the false frights, and horror appreciation.

First and foremost, it is important for kids to understand that horror is for fun. Pixar Animation Studios has always been excellent at connecting the child and adult worlds with each other. In the 7 minute animated short they included on the “Cars” DVD they’ve submitted their version of An Introduction to Horror titled “Mater and the Ghostlight”. Now, there is nothing really scary about this cartoon—save for maybe the Screaming Banshee, but even that is really a punchline. But it’s a great example of what makes fright fun.

The short involves a prank the car-izens of Radiator Springs play on the rusty tow truck Mater. They all gather around and tell Mater a scary story about the “Ghostlight” and then take off all at once leaving Mater alone to imagine what this ghostlight might do to him in the dark. How many times as a child did you lie awake after some family gathering to ponder the terrible things that might be lurking about while everyone else is asleep, never imagining that anyone else could be suffering the same plight?

They tie a light to Mater’s tow cable and the poor guy drives around frantically trying to escape the ghostlight until he finally realizes it is just a lantern tied to him. Then everyone pops out for a good laugh with (at) their friend. Then comes the punchline, but I’ll leave that for viewers to discover. It is a fun little film that my kids just love, and I think that makes for a great introduction to horror for them.

Later kids get deeper into Horror Appreciation with family movies of the nature Tim Burton likes to make. With movies like “Corpse Bride” and even “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Burton has shown a knack for taking dark themes and making them appealing to kids. Two of his early attempts at kid-friendly horror include his first live-action short “Frankenweenie” and his first stop-motion feature length animation “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

One thing Burton does with both of these films is saturating them with references to classic horror and science fiction. “Frankenweenie” is a kids version of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” story with a little boy bringing his own dog back from the dead. Burton gleefully recreates the reanimation sequence from James Whale’s original “Frankenstein” film—a sequence that is the quintessential mad scientist scene.

Burton is certain not to leave mad scientists and a Frankenstein’s monster type of character out of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” either. The characters of Sally and her creator Dr. Finkelstein add a new twist to the creator/monster relationship from Shelley’s work. In “Nightmare” Sally is the one person in her world who isn’t a nightmare and she seems to be more of an embarrassment to her creator than an abomination. I suppose in Burton’s universe not being a monster is an abomination. But he fills is with catchy songs and bright colors, so the kids still love it.

Eventually, the young ‘uns will crave more than just cutesy horror references, even if there are some dark themes running underneath them. Fantasy films act as a sort of gateway drug from the young viewers. Fantasy carries their hopes and fears and can be the first movies to really provide bumps in the night.

This past year saw the release of two fantasy films—both from popular young readers novel series—“The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles”. Both films are definitely bent toward darker tones and frightening concepts, yet both still hold children as the central heroes. In each film an adolescent is the chosen one to prevent some dark force from taking over the world.

The dark forces in “The Seeker” seem more devious than those in “Spiderwick” but are much less imaginative in conception. While “The Seeker” seems aimed at slightly older children, the fantasy world of “Spiderwick” is much more fun and adventurous. And since “Spiderwick” is more successful at creating an interesting and mysterious world, the small dose of horror in it is more effective.

But effectiveness aside, it is in these fantasy settings where a horror fanatic will find his roots. The notion of worlds that operate under different rules—rules that are more brutal and powerful than those of the world we live in—drives our curiosity. The notion of an unbendable, inexplicable evil that we must inevitably face drives our fears. And when those notions combine, we get a taste for the thrill of horror. The taste is addictive, and we seek out higher dosages and different flavors from that point on.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Max Payne / * (PG-13)

Max Payne: Mark Wahlberg
Mona Sax: Mila Kunis
BB Hensley: Beau Bridges
Jim Bravura: Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges
Jason Colvin: Chris O’Donnell
Alex Balder: Donal Logue
Jack Lupino: Amaury Nolasco

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by John Moore. Written by Beau Thorne. Based on the video game by Remedy Entertainment and 3-D Realm Entertainment. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality and brief strong language).

I’m not a video gamer. I’ve never had the natural ability to just feel a game out, nor can I stand the didactic nature of reading the gamer’s guides that come with the games. There is no reading so dull to me as that in an instruction manual. And gamer’s guides are all written in the same language. L1+∆=jump kick. Uhg!. There is a standard operating language to cinematic storytelling as well. The best films avoid talking in plain language. And then there are films like “Max Payne”, based on the popular video game, that know all the basic symbols but have no understanding of how to properly assemble them.

Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg, “The Happening”) is a New York Detective. Is he a silent brooder who has a reputation for disobeying orders and can’t seem to play within the rules? Is there some tragedy in his past that has made him this way? Is he estranged from his former partner until some small detail draws them onto the same case? Is he implicated in the murder of his partner when their leads start getting them too close to the truth? The answer to all these questions is of course.

Not that this should be the answer. That small detail that leads them back together is that Payne’s wallet is found on the latest victim in a murder pattern that is plaguing the city. Just before his partner Det. Alex Balder’s (Donal Logue, NBC’s “Life”) murder, he realizes that the victim had the same tattoo as one of the murderers of Payne’s wife. Since Payne left the homicide division and took over cold cases because he wanted to devote his work to finding his wife’s killers, and since he had been with the latest victim the evening of her death solely because she wore that tattoo, you’d think he would have already been aware of the connection. But he doesn’t seem to make the connection until after he storms the precinct station house to break into his murdered partner’s office to find out just what Balder had been trying to tell him before he died.

Is it surprising that the victim had an assassin for a sister named Mona Sax? (All right, that name is a bit surprising.) Is it surprising that Mona (Mila Kunis, “That ‘70s Show”) and Payne team up to find out who killed her sister and why? Is it surprising that there is some new designer drug that has become all the rage in the underground yet no one can seem to get their hands on it except for victims of these murders? And with all these comic book superhero movies being made, is it further surprising to learn that this drug was actually the product of some government-sanctioned project to develop some sort of super soldier? Do I really have to answer this?

There is one thing that is not obvious about this plot and that is the visions that are produced by this drug known as Valkyr. There is some sort of malarkey used to explain the super soldier drug, based on Norse mythology that involves the Valkyrie—an angel of death that rewarded soldiers dying on the battlefield. Their images provide some pretty intense trips from this drug and some fascinating visuals for the movie that unfortunately have little to do with the actual plot.

In fact, the visuals are just about the only thing in this movie that has any sort of worthwhile impact. Director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) is some master of mood. His snowy New York City streets are like something out of Robert Rodriguez’s visually stunning “Sin City”. It’s too bad about his storytelling skills though.

Some other utterly predictable elements of the plot include the fact that Payne is under investigation by internal affairs and IA Detective Jim Bravura (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, “Crash”) is just about the only person he can trust. I’ll leave it to you to try to guess the role his former superior BB Hensley (Beau Bridges, the “Stargate” series) plays in all this. I would like to submit that Beau should start seeking out little brother Jeff’s advice when choosing scripts in the future. I’ll further add that the stage name of Chris Bridges—no relation to Beau and Jeff—really does a great job of summing up this entire project.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report # 2: Our Paradise Lost

Documentaries don’t fit naturally into the tones of Horrorfest. But every once and a while there comes a film or two about real-life atrocities that are undeniable horrors. In the past, Horrorfest has looked at sexual crimes that have been committed under the guise of Godly protection in “Delivers Us from Evil”. I’ve seen the depths to which a sad man will sink just to find acceptance from any group in “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” But perhaps the horrors found in the two “Paradise Lost” films are the most frightening and profound to be found in our world.

In 1993, three children were found brutally murdered in the woods known as Robin Hood Hills in the town of West Memphis, Ark. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” follows the trial of three teenaged boys who were accused and convicted of committing these heinous murders. Without editorializing about whether these kids are guilty or not, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky present a portrait of a justice system perverted by fear and prejudice. One of the kids has an IQ of 72, while the other two are outsiders who wear black and listen to Metallica; and they are convicted almost solely because of these facts. There is so little evidence against them, it is frightening to think any jury could convict them let alone any judge even allow the case to go to trial.

At one point, a witness is put on the stand who raises a great deal of questions about the case against the boys and presents himself as a strong suspect considering the obvious lies he has told police revealed on the witness stand. But for some reason this doesn’t shake the jury’s preconception that these strange teenagers must be responsible for the murders. The prosecution’s case depends primarily on a fairly obviously coerced confession by the kid with the 72 IQ and the unfounded notion that the murders were some sort of ritualistic witchcraft sacrifice. Nothing is show to establish that either the defendants practice such witchcraft or that the murders were even ritualistic in nature. But this is the primary reason cited for the jury’s guilty verdict.

The second film, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, is even more frightening in the way it reveals details about the murders and the suspects that were overlooked by the trial lawyers and police. Connections are made that could have easily been made at the time of the murders, but nobody seemed to think to ask the questions that led to fairly obvious answers. And the man who so obviously perjured himself on the stand in the trial is revealed to be a charlatan of sorts and possibly guilty of yet another murder. The boys who were convicted have grown into men still bewildered by the fact that such injustice could have been acted upon them, while none of the authorities responsible is even willing to consider the obvious mistakes that were made—even once they are pointed out.

When considering these two films, I am reminded of the course our entire country has taken over the past eight years. It seems most of the major developments in our country during that time have been born out of fear and our attempts to just get past our problems as quickly as possible, without truly contemplating how these problems have developed and what might be the best solutions to them. With our sensation-based media machine, we would rather witchcraft or some other abnormality be the cause of our problems. Something that we don’t really understand is easier to condemn and easier to punish without full justification.

The three kids who were convicted for the murders are still behind bars. One was supposed to have been executed by now, but he is still fighting to overturn his and the other convictions. Berlinger and Sinovsky have been compiling footage for a third film. I’m sure they are hoping some real justice will be served before they finish. Hopefully we can all find some real justice in our world before we are all finished.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quarantine / *** (R)

Angela Vidal: Jennifer Carpenter
Scott Percival: Steve Harris
Jake: Jay Hernandez
George Fletcher: Jonathan Scheach
Danny Wilenski: Columbus Short
James McCready: Andrew Fiscella
Yuri Ivanov: Rade Serbedzija
Lawrence: Greg Germann
Bernard: Bernard White
Sadie: Diana Ramriez

Screen Gems presents a film directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Based on the motion picture “[Rec]” by Jaume Balagueró & Luiso Berdejo & Paco Plaza. Running time: 89 min. Rated R (for bloody violent and disturbing content, terror and language).

It’s one of those human-interest stories. We see a young reporter. Is this one of her first stories? She’s putting together a piece on “a night in the life of an L.A. firehouse.” Her cameraman is filming everything because he’s been told he never gets enough B-roll. She’s awkward on camera at times but charming. The firemen like her for more than just something new in the routine of the firehouse. Everybody is just waiting for that big call.

After a good amount of patience to establish the premise that all of this story will take place from the point of view of the reporter through the lens of her cameraman’s camera, that call comes. One of the firemen informs the reporter that most calls to the fire department are actually medical in nature. They arrive at an apartment building and investigate a woman who has locked herself in her apartment. Once the landlord lets them into the apartment they find she is conscious but unresponsive to their questions. That is until she savagely attacks one of police officers on the scene.

These point of view mockumentary horror films are becoming a bit of a trend these days. January saw the release of the point of view creature feature “Cloverfield”. But unlike “Cloverfield” the action of “Quarantine” is much easier to follow, and the camera work is less jittery. Having a professional cameraman as the character handling the camera work of the story allows for a much more focused and well-framed picture. Also the filmmakers have accounted for the fact that any self-preservationist would stop filming at some point; once power is cut to the building, the camera’s light is about the only source of light left available to the heroes.

While the bouncing camera won’t give as many people motion sickness, the nature of the horror may turn a few more stomachs. The filmmakers have provided a more realistic explanation of what might turn people into vicious flesh-eaters—a notion similar to the one provided in “28 Days Later”. But the CDC is onto the viral outbreak before the people in the apartment building have even realized anything is really wrong, forcing them to try to deal with a savage attack and the fact that they are trapped inside at once. By cutting their characters off from the outside world, the filmmakers create a more claustrophobic experience than the typical zombie movie.

Jennifer Carpenter makes her bid here to be the new scream queen as the reporter Angela. Coming off other horror-related projects like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and the television series “Dexter”, Carpenter proves to have likeability similar to that of Jamie Lee Curtis during her reign as scream queen in the early eighties. The establishing scenes at the firehouse allow her to warm the audience. And since she is rarely ever off camera, she shows strength of presence in the way she carries the audience along her terrifying ride.

Director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle and his brother co-writer Drew Dowdle borrowed their story from a Spanish film “[Rec]”. The Brothers Dowdle do a great job structuring their film with little clues as to what is really going on and how it came about, but they keep the focus squarely on the terror of the victims. By placing the audience in the point of view of a participant they increase the audience’s visceral reaction to the material and the whole thing makes for a thrilling and terrifying time. I just hope the CDC got that stuff contained.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #1: Déjà boo!

Horror is probably the most frequently remade genre in film. Lately, Hollywood has gone through a period of heavy horror remakes. We’ve seen reimaginings of slasher movies (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween”), alien invasion flicks (“War of the Worlds”, “The Invasion”), zombie pictures (“Day of the Dead”), creature features (“King Kong”) and Japanese ghosts stories (the list is nearly endless).

One of the reasons horror is so frequently remade for the big screen is that people come for the genre, not the stars. This allows the studios to make horror movies cheaply. If they use a story that has already been tried and successful, that is something else that can entice an audience without much effort put in by the studio to sell it.

Over the past eight years of Horrorfest I have delighted in the privilege and suffered through the pain of a great number of horror remakes and a good deal of their original versions. This year I wanted to make a point of looking at two of 2008’s remakes and their originals back to back. I took a look at two unusual remakes and their original versions. “Prom Night” is unusual because the original is far from a classic. The German movie “Funny Games” is just an unusual one to repackage for American audiences, and the way they went about that was even more unusual.

I suppose it isn’t a stretch to think someone felt “Prom Night” needed to be remade. It is a fairly basic slasher premise, which works as well with modern audiences as it would have 27 years ago. Perhaps they felt they could improve upon it. That wouldn’t have taken much, since the original seemed primarily to be trying to capitalize upon Jamie Lee Curtis’s reign as the original Scream Queen.

Curtis was in the middle of a slew of slasher films at the time “Prom Night” was released, starting with the original “Halloween” and including “The Fog”, “Terror Train” and “Halloween II”. It’s really a toss up as to which is worse, “Prom Night” or “Terror Train”. I’m sure a remake of “Terror Train” is right around the corner.

The original “Prom Night” starts out promisingly with some interesting storytelling techniques. There is this interesting motif established where the audience is allowed inside the thoughts of several of the characters, but as the movie gets into the slasher patterns this motif is dropped. The slasher sequences aren’t the most original or even particularly well done. Plus Leslie Nielson starts as a driving force in the movie and eventually just disappears from the plot. But the movie does a good job of keeping up some of the 70’s cinema horror points that have since become taboo—most notably the idea that evil is born out of children.

The remake, which really had some great potential to improve upon its predecessor, drops all of the positive aspects of the original film and falls into far too many of the pitfalls of modern horror movies. Instead of capitalizing on the cruelty of children, the new “Prom Night” only keeps the prom night part of the premise. In fact everything happens on prom night at a prom that takes place off campus in a luxury hotel, so there aren’t even all those clicks and clashes of high school life for the filmmakers to fall back on. Yes, there is a rivalry going on for prom queen, but without showing these characters interacting within their everyday environment, the filmmakers really miss out on an opportunity to explore any deep hatred shared within high school rivalries.

And instead of linking the killer with these rivalries, we are given a lame set up of a former teacher who stalked one of his students to the point of killing her entire family. Now, she’s going to prom and the killer has escaped. Knowing who the killer is and what his motivations are from the beginning allows much of the tension to escape from the script, which never provides a good reason for him kill anybody. He should have just abducted her. Perhaps the filmmakers should have actually watched the original “Prom Night” and tried to improve upon the themes of that movie, rather than just reading a synopsis from which they only seemed to gather that a bunch of teenagers are stalked by a killer on prom night.

“Funny Games” is another beast altogether. The original 1997 German film depicts a happy family that is visited by two young men at their vacation home and is tortured by the men over the course of one night. The 2008 American remake depicts a happy family that is visited by two young men at their vacation home and is tortured by the men over the course of one night. Now there’s some déjà vu for you.

The new film is a shot for shot, breath for breath, dramatic pause for dramatic pause remake of the original by that film’s same director Michael Haneke in his American debut. How did this happen today? A movie from another culture gets remade in America and it isn’t changed to match America’s taste for prepackaged, homogenized, predictable and pleasing patterns?

And the key to that last question is “pleasing.” This movie will not please audiences in any sense. It is disturbing and brutal. Even though it is a brilliant film—in both versions—few will enjoy it. And perhaps the most disturbing part of the remake is that after ten years, Haneke’s outlook on the world is so bleak he chose not to change a thing.

Watching these two versions—which only differ in their cast, settings and a couple of lines here and there to establish the story as taking place in America or Germany—I was reminded of the only other shot for shot remake I ever seen, Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Both of these remakes, in essence, still contain the same power of their originals, but critics embraced neither. I honestly don’t get it. They were remade with the same mastery of craft of their originals, with minor differences caused by new acting interpretations. The color cinematography did hurt Van Sant’s “Psycho”, but not enough to condemn it. And in “Funny Games” Naomi Watts is far too glamorous to retain the profundity of the crime committed against Susanne Lothar’s mother in the original because desire might play some part in the men’s acts against Watts. So there is reason for some of the greatness of these stories to have fallen away from the remakes, but they do retain most of the same values of their predecessors.

There is great value in remaking genre films. Mostly it allows filmmakers to introduce material to an audience that might otherwise be unaware that it already exists in another form. But a remake requires an even greater responsibility on the filmmakers’ part to present an important commentary on the material presented. This is why so many remakes fail. Producers seem to think a remake requires less responsibility, as if there is less to be created or that the audience will bring more to the movie to begin with because of familiarity with the title. The remake is an important thing indeed, something to be taken just a seriously as any film endeavor.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Beverly Hills Chihuahua / *½ (PG)

Rachel: Piper Perabo
Sam: Manolo Cardona
Aunt Viv: Jamie Lee Curtis

And featuring the voice talents of:
Chloe: Drew Barrymore
Papi: George Lopez
Delgado: Andy Garcia
Manuel: Cheech Marin
Chico: Paul Rodriguez
Monte: Plácido Domingo
Diablo: Edward James Olmos

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Raja Gosnell. Written by Analisa LaBianco and Jeff Bushell. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG (for some mild thematic elements).

I considered writing just a couple-word critique for this movie. Something like, “Ay caramba!” I also considered writing an entire full-length review using just the word “bark!” as if I were using dog language. But despite my poor opinion of the movie, I felt these approaches were cop-outs. If this movie doesn’t deserve much serious consideration for all audiences, it is at least trying to provide an entertaining experience for kids.

“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is not a good movie. It might have enough to it to satisfy younger viewers but leaves their adult chaperones a little bored and grasping to get their heads around the preposterousness of a cast of live-action talking animals. This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen animals talking in a live-action movie, and a very few of them actually pull off the concept (“Babe”), but Hollywood’s fascination with personified animals is generally something only for the young in mind.

The surprising thing about “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is the complexity of the story. The premise is basic—a rich California Chihuahua finds herself lost in the grimy land of Mexico and must rely on dogs and other animals she once looked down upon to get her home. But there are a surprising number of characters and events that inhabit this premise, especially considering its short running time.

We are introduced to Chloe, the title canine voiced by Drew Barrymore (“Curious George”), living in the lap of luxury and being pampered beyond all reason by her owner Aunt Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis, “Freaky Friday”). Viv is the aunt of Rachel (Piper Perabo, “Cheaper by the Dozen”), with whom she entrusts the care of Chloe when she goes to Europe on business. It is no surprise that Chloe becomes lost in Mexico while under Rachel’s care. Nor is it a surprise that Rachel must enlist the help of Viv’s landscaper Sam (Manolo Cardona) and his Chihuahua Papi—who incidentally has a crush on Chloe and is voiced by George Lopez (“Swing Vote”). It should be said these human characters are merely perfunctory and therefore a waste for such talents as Perabo and Curtis.

The first place Chloe winds up in her misadventure is in the seedy underworld of dog fighting, where she must face the Doberman Diablo (voiced by Edward James Olmos, Sci-Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica”). Because everyone wants to see a Doberman eat a Chihuahua, and so many people are going to bet on that fight. Someone may have gotten a hold of the script and beaten some astounding odds, huh?

Chloe is saved by a good-natured German Shepherd named Delgado (Andy Garcia, “Oceans Thirteen”). Delgado is reluctant to help the prissy little dog, but his better nature wins him over, and both dogs learn they aren’t so different from each other, and blah, blah, blah. There are some other characters thrown into the mix, like the rat and chameleon, voiced by Cheech Marin (“Planet Terror”) and Paul Rodriguez (“A Cinderella Story”) respectively, who take advantage of the lost pup at first and later help her because their worlds aren’t as far apart as they might seem, and blah, blah, blah.

Yeah, this is a basic story at best, but it doesn’t take the usual lost dog road movie lines where the animal characters who help the heroine come in, do their thing, and then disappear from the scene. The animals here are surprisingly involved in the screenplay, with running subplots about each of them. Most of the characters are still involved at the story’s climax. Unfortunately, the original approach doesn’t provide any original material.

The animators at Pixar have proven time and again it’s quite possible to create family entertainment that can appeal to a broad audience despite age. The big problem with “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is that it is content to be simply what it is—a movie where dogs and other animals talk. I didn’t laugh once during this movie because director Raja Gosnell (“Scooby-Doo”) and his screenwriters seem to think the gimmick of talking animals is enough to be entertaining all on its own. Perhaps for a six-year-old it is; but for my money, watching my Corgi go at one her toys at home is more fulfilling.