30 June 2011

JULY 2011 MOVIE PREVIEW

Glenn Kenny had a line the other day that I'd have given anything to have written:
"Well what do you want from a summer movie?" a colleague who I bet is going to be one of the "counterintuitive" ravers asked me... Had I had my wits about me a little more I could have mustered a good one-word answer: "Jaws."
Which sums up my feelings towards this summer perfectly. I don't like to think of myself as anti-fun, but when I scan over the releases of the first two months of Blockbuster Season, I can't find anything other than Super 8 that I really honestly enjoyed, popcorn movie-wise. And that sucks - elitist snob or not, I want as much as anybody to actually have a good time watching special effects movies. I'm not made of stone.

1.7.2011

Some well-intentioned counter-programming to the already-released Transformers: The Moon Hits Your Eye: a Selena Gomez picture, Monte Carlo, that shares a title but presumably not a plot with one of the few flaccid Ernst Lubtisch comedies of the early '30s; because 12-year-old girls need movies just like the 12-year-old boys do, though the rest of us aren't expected to have an opinion. Middle-aged folks get Larry Crowne, in which writer-director Tom Hanks shows how damn charming leading man Tom Hanks can be in a romantic comedy. Co-writer Nia Vardalos, noted perpetrator of crappy, over-achieving romantic comedies, is on hand to suck out any charm that accidentally sneaks in.


8.7.2011

I love movies that wear there pitch meetings on their sleeves. In the case of Zookeeper, it could not be more obvious that the hook was "Night at the Museum at a zoo", only instead of a slumming Ben Stiller, we get the ghastly Kevin James as our human proxy this time. If I had kids, I might use this as a reason to take them to an actual, y'know, zoo; or maybe just throw lock them in the basement without food, because I imagine that would be more humane than bringing innocent children to a Kevin James/talking animals picture.

The strangely durable R-rated comedy spate of the summer continues with Horrible Bosses, which has, if nothing else, the best cast of any of them: Justin Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey. I can be on board for that.


15.7.2011

Like a cool glass of water in the desert, here comes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Part of me can't get terribly excited for this movie, because it seems like such an anti-climax in a way; after 7 movies, doesn't it kind of feel like we've already seen it? And yet, that's the comfort of it, because unlike every other movie this summer, there's no surprises in store: we all know exactly what it's going to be like, and whether or we're going to like it, and probably the specific reasons why we're going to like it. My gut says: I'm going to give it 7/10, be grateful it's so much better than the wobbly-paced Deathly Hallows: Part 1, hate on the incompetence of how the epilogue, already the worst part of the book, was executed, and rank it fourth of the eight movies (barely ahead of Prisoner of Azkaban, which looks better but can't compete with the action setpieces in the new one).

Meanwhile, the film of the whole summer that I've been anticipating with the greatest mixture of dread and excitement: the Walt Disney Animation Studios' 51st animated feature, Winnie the Pooh, which the rest of the world has already seen. My affection for the original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is established; and I can say that from the trailer, I'm already deeply concerned that the voices sound all wrong, but that is the kind of idiot fanboy nitpicking that I'd mock if it were, say, toy robots and not toy tigers in question. Anyway, it's going to be a treat to see these characters, animated in such a stripped-down style, on the big screen, though I have to ask what the hell is going on at Disney that they'd open the film on the one single weekend in the entire calendar year where it's guaranteed to fail.


22.7.2011

All along, my hopes have been highest for Captain America: The First Avenger out of the summer's four superhero movies, and now that they've all let me down, there's nothing left but to hope that Joe Johnston, of all unlikely directors, and Chris Evans, of all unlikely stars, can pull something out of their collective asses. On the other hand, if it sucks and if it fails (one does not depend on the other), then maybe the superhero craze is finally over, and we can go back to any other kind of tentpole movie at all?

Meanwhile, another R-rated comedy, and the year's second "friends with benefits" comedy, Friends with Benefits. Hard to say whether it's going to be better than No Strings Attached; NSA'sIvan Reitman is at least one or two steps above FWB's Will Gluck; Natalie Portman is undoubtedly a better actress than Mila Kunis (whose rise to stardom confuses me); Ashton Kutcher is just as undoubtedly a worse actor and human being than Justin Timberlake. The trailer sucks gnat balls, that much I can say; but I feel that it will get to its inevitable "hetero-normative pair-bonding" ending with less contrivance than NSA did.


29.7.2007

Cowboys & Aliens. Can you resist that title? I can't. Screw the trailers (though they are very bad). It's called Cowboys & Aliens. You know what I bet it has? Cowboys and aliens. That's a high concept, right there.

Another comedy with a great cast, but it's not rated R, in the form of Crazy, Stupid, Love. and despite how utterly I despise the use of punctuation, there's no way to not catch your breath when you see the names: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon... I have no idea who the directors are, though, and screenwriter Dan Fogelman is massively inconsistent (from Tangled to Cars 2 in just seven months!).

Lastly, a live-action Smurfs movie is something that exists now.

28 June 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SPY PARODIES

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: let us set aside the other issues surrounding Pixar's Cars 2, and think of it as being the latest in the long and storied history of comic films about spies, a genre far older than you think it is: both spy movies and parodies of spy movies can be found all the way back in the silent era. But for now, let's set our sights a little more recent, with one of the earliest examples of what we mostly think about when we hear the phrase "spy parody": a cheeky piss-take of the James Bond films that came out when those films were still the hot new thing.

The 1960s were, all in all, a really damn weird time for pop culture. The Space Age, the Jet Set, the nascent Sexual Revolution, set the stage for pretty much the all-time coolest era of all time between, roughly, 1960 and 1967: when popular culture featured the Rat Pack, the British Invasion, Jean-Luc Godard's early funny ones, Fellini's period of greatest popularity, et al ad nauseum. It could only have been in this bubbling pool of arch-coolness and expanding sexual openness that world cinema could have been graced by the screen debut of British spy James Bond, a hyper-competent, hyper-masculine hero who was first introduced in the early '50s in print, though it seems kind of hard if not impossible to imagine his cinematic persona coming into existence much earlier than 1962, when director Terence Young's Dr. No turned Ian Fleming's brutally efficient, womanising spy into a brutally efficient, womanising spy and hardcore epicure (the film Bond's noted love of fine alcohol, clothes, and the luxury lifestyle being noted an extension of Young's own preoccupations).

The Bond pictures were a huge success, and like any huge success spawned immediate spoofs and imitations. The Italian film industry, for example, was essentially running of the proceeds of Bond knock-offs for several years, while English-language producers on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to come up with glamorous spy narratives of their own, from the intensely sober (as 1965's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) to the less-sober - such as the hallucinatory 1967 Casino Royale, which is indeed the opposite of sober by just about every definition of the word.

That film remains almost certainly the best-known of the '60s Bond spoofs, but not at all the first. Such films had been their own industry since 1964, though the two most important, each of them jumpstarting a mini-franchise of their own, premiered just weeks apart in January and February 1966: Our Man Flint, a glossy CinemaScope epic from 20th Century Fox, and Columbia's first Matt Helm movie, The Silencers, starring quintessential '60s icon Dean Martin. It is with the former of these pictures that we shall be concerning ourselves with at present, for no particularly better reason than the fact that I hadn't seen the movie in ages (nor had I ever seen it as many times as its slicker, more aggravating sequel, In Like Flint), and I felt like some James Coburn in my life.

Aye! James Coburn, the lanky, easygoing fella with a voice mixing gravel and honey; a character actor who had enlivened a cluster of top-drawer movies in the early '60s (most notably, to my tastes, in The Magnificent Seven and Charade), and who got his very first shot at stardom in the form of Derek Flint, American intelligence officer and all-around flawless genius. Coburn did, in fact, become a pretty gosh-darn big star for a while after this movie, and he deserved it: along with Steve McQueen and Alain Delon, he is arguably the very embodiment of all the things that go into Sixties Cool, that mixture of wit and smugness and irrepressible charisma that says in one breath "I am so much a better person than you that it's sickening" and in the next, "but you could never think of disliking me".

It's a good thing too, since Our Man Flint basically coasts along on two things: Coburn's incredible charm, and the dazzlement of a film that plays like it was built from the ground up to capture everything aesthetically and socially that defined 1965, and preserve it for the delectation of future viewers. The latter of these was presumably not a good selling point in 1966, which makes the actor's role in all this even more important, and reduces the film to one simple equation: do we, in point of fact, believe this smiling, laid-back man when he does things typical of the most absurdly confident and competent super-spy who has ever lived?

Yes we do (or rather, yes I do, and I have control of the editorial "we" at the moment), especially because Coburn deliberately underplays everything, as he would not continue to do in In Like Flint: being incredibly great at everything is something so boring to him that it never occurs to him to emphasise it, to the audience or the other characters. One of my favorite moments in his performance is in response to the suggestion that he flew to Moscow to watch a ballet performance: "No, to teach!" retorts Flint sharply, but the moment isn't played at all in the ha-ha-look-at-me-I'm-great register in which the line would appear to be written; Coburn's reaction is rather of light annoyance, the way you or I might say "I just ran to buy milk!" if someone asked whether we picked up any printer paper while we were out.

That is, incidentally, a pretty standard example of the humor in Our Man Flint, which consists almost entirely of stressing over and over and over again how amazing Flint is, and how tiring all this awesomeness is to his on-again, off-again superior officer Cramden (Lee J. Cobb, giving the only other memorable performance in the film; but do we expect less of Lee J. Cobb?). As parody, this is not in the line of its most famous descendant, Austin Powers (that series pays several small tributes to Flint, including the affectionate theft of a particularly obvious sound cue), mocking the idea of Bond while executing a generally broad farce; it is the specific 1960s version of Bond as lover of the high life and ruthless machine that Flint makes fun of, with a handful of specific references to Bondology (the Walther PPK, gadgets, SPECTRE) that all share the same punchline: Flint is much too perfect to need Bond's weapon/fear Bond's arch-enemy, and so forth. The same punchline, in essence, of the rest of the movie.

For a film to gamble everything on one single joke is usually suicidal: Our Man Flint manages to survive it because Coburn sells it so well, and because the film anyway isn't really as much fun as a comedy as it is a '60s lifestyle piece. Oh, there's a plot in there: it involves the international criminal group Galaxy blackmailing the world by controlling the weather and volcanoes, and the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage (Z.O.W.I.E. - a gag that fits in with the film's overall tone not at all) sending in Flint, over Cramden's objections, to save the day. But the plot is even more immaterial than the jokes are: it is absolutely clear that Flint is never in actual danger, and he seems quite aware of it.

Instead, what makes the film so fun - and it is a hell of a lot of fun, if you can get past some of the terrifying sexual politics on display, primarily involving Flint's harem (there's no other word for it) - this too is made worse, far worse, in In Like Flint - is the hanging-out, the settling in and watching Flint be Flint in glitzy places. If I might get back to my first point, about how weird the '60s were: this was, essentially, a subgenre of cinema in those days, films where plot, action, jokes, character, and anything else like that took a back seat to being, well, cool. Not in a lifestyle porn sort of way; just in the sense that cool people and cool sets just kind of sashay back and forth and it's lighthearted without being funny and thrilling without having momentum. Our Man Flint has always seemed, in fact, to owe its biggest debt not to the Bond franchise, but to The Pink Panther with a couple gags snatched from that film's first sequel, A Shot in the Dark), a slapstick comedy that doesn't waste much energy on slapstick or comedy, a jewel heist movie that forgets about the jewel for roughly 60% of the running time. Both films are ultimately about attitude, a kind of self-satisfied ribbing of the rich and famous that also spends all the time it can staring at their trappings.

It's a style of anti-storytelling that crosses genres and countries; listing examples would be stupid, but for some reason, there was a chunk of time in which dozens of filmmakers seemed compelled to spend time dawdling with the elite. This is almost the exact equivalent of the great '30s escapist comedies, only the high society is younger and hipper, and the film's don't care if they're "funny" as long as they romp along; and to the viewer who finds (as the blogger will admit to, and without a single twitch of shame) that the mid-'60s are just about the most visually fascinating period in the post-WWII western world, the best of them are treasure chests of magnificently dated concepts and images and I'm tempted, in fact, to call Our Man Flint one of the best of them - Flint's pad, which switches from a display of tasteful nudes to tasteful abstractions at the flip of a switch, could only have come from this exact period, so could the go-go room in the villains' lair (yes, a go-go room in the villains' lair).

It's all thankfully director-proof; I am sure it could not be as cheap as director Daniel Mann and cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp make it look, because as it is, it's hardly glossier than a first season Star Trek episode. To a degree, this works to the film's benefit: without any particular artistry to give the film its own personality, nothing distorts its time capsule quality (in fact, the only behind-the-camera artist whose work rises above the completely adequate is composer Jerry Goldsmith, writing the first truly exceptional score of his legendary career, a slinky piece of sassy action funk with a main theme that is instantly recognisable even if you've never heard it). This is, unquestionably, not one for the ages. It is one for a single age only: playfully incorporating Cold War paranoia, incipient sexism, and hyper-masculine efficiency - at times, Our Man Flint seems to mock its hero, at times to fully endorse every retrograde thing he represents - and setting it all against a nonstop stream of glowing Space Age colors and shapes, the film speaks to the modern day in not the smallest respect, and everything about it seems to come from another species, let alone another era. Yet there's still that irreducible core of Cool that remains even underneath all those dated trappings, and makes the film a giddy watch even if the sheer 1965-ness of it weren't sociologically fascinating all on its own.

26 June 2011

THE BLOGGER IN REAL LIFE

I imagine that my regulars have noticed, and I flatter myself to think that they have noticed with disappointment, that I've been on a much reduced writing schedule of late. This is because I have been in the process of moving these past several days, though I am now finally all set up in my new place of residence. However, I'm not so set up that I've seen this weekend's Blockbuster History or Summer of Blood subjects; those will come sometime during the week. Which is convenient, given that on top of everything else, I no longer have ready access to an art theater, and my choice of currently-in-release review candidates has been slashed. Temporarily, I hope; but I would rather not let anybody sit around wondering why the hell Antagony & Ecstasy has been deflating so badly lately. By this time next week, I hope to be back up to 100%.

POLL UPDATE

So, barring something absolutely miraculous, my beloved Bela Tarr has no chance in God's green Hell of winning the director poll (AKA "Whoever shall I do the retrospective thing for next?"). With Sergio Leone and John Hughes running away with it to an immense degree, I have a new twist - one that I was going to introduce all along, but with half a week left in voting, I thought it would be fun to bring it up now.

The top 2 vote-getters will both receive a retrospective here at Antagony & Ecstasy; but the winner is the one who'll get said retro first. Have at it, ballot-stuffers!

24 June 2011

OVERUSED CARS

My short thoughts on Cars 2: it is gorgeous - as gorgeous as any animated movie is likely to be in all of 2011 - and it commits itself to world-building with such an incredibly minute (anal-retentive?) focus on even the teeny-weeniest details that it's hard not to bow in its direction even though the world it builds is kind of completely insane, and it has a completely awful story and script.

I spent a lot of time unsure of what I should do with this. As far as eye candy goes, Cars 2 is simply exquisite, and I find that the more that mainstream movies, especially ones that aim to make a lot of money, are content to look exactly like every other mainstream movie, the more that eye candy for the sake of eye candy appeals to me. I also find that every single start I made to spin that into an actual positive review kept feeling like a desperate Hail Mary attempt to avoid writing a negative review of a Pixar Animation Studios feature, and that being the case, I probably did not, in point of fact, like the movie. So there it is: the Right-Aligned Poster of Dismissal. Don't think that I'm not choking on it.

The real fucker of it, is that Cars 2 is only a single, solitary change at the most basic script level from being absolutely fine - still perhaps the most disposable Pixar feature, and certainly the most emotionally unsophisticated, but absolutely fine for a bright and hectic children's adventure movie that grown-ups won't mind watching. And let us not forget that that is exactly what Pixar used to make: A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. and even, really, the first Toy Story are all kids' movies. Good kids's movies. Great kid's movies. The best kids' movies. But kids' movies all the same. The first Cars got dinged by a lot of people for being just a kids' movie (also for the creepy unreality of a world populated by sentient cars and no animal life whatsoever, and the weird character design that, five years later, doesn't seem very weird anymore - there's even a joke about it in Cars 2), yet it was, as of 2006, a shitload better than any movie their competition was able to crank out.

Cars 2 is clearly not that: it's nowhere near as pleasant to watch as Kung Fu Panda 2 and it isn't a pimple on the ass of Rango. And all because of Fucking Larry the Fucking Cable Guy. No, that is not fair. It's not just Mr. the Cable Guy that's to blame, it's Mater, the character he plays who sucks so much wind, and it is director John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis and screenwriter Ben Queen (along with co-scenarists Lasseter and Dan Fogelman) who collectively made the choice to keep Matering up the new movie, and just when it seemed like it couldn't get any more Matery, they find a way to cram on one more thick, juicy slab of Mater.

Mater, you may or may not recall, was the dimwitted tow-truck who befriended hotshot asshole race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in Cars, as part of Lightning's progression in that film from above-it-all dickface to friendly, humble, decent member of society. In that film, Mater was but a seasoning, the kind that like cumin or cilantro becomes unbearable if you use even a tiny wee bit too much; the main thrust of the film was unmistakably Lightning's arc, as facilitated by all the members of the tiny southwest town Radiator Springs. For Cars 2, the filmmakers seemed to have decided to give up seasoning, and just eat the cumin straight from the bottle with a spoon: though the end credits have the half-assed decency to give Wilson first billing, this is the Mater Show from start to finish (and it's just as irritating as the actual Mater show). In the most ham-fisted, clumsy way possible.

The plot: Lightning has just been invited to take place in an international Grand Prix hosted by industrialist George Axelrod (Eddy Izzard) to showcase his amazing new biofuel, Allinol. Most of the crew from Radiator Springs comes along with, and in a contrivance tolerable enough for a broad comedy, Mater is mistaken for an intelligence operative by two MI6 agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, being absolutely delightful) and Holley Shiftwell* (Emily Mortimer), and in no time at all he finds himself at the heart of an investigation into a cabal of evil cars trying to discredit Allinol and make a killing in oil.

I don't have it in me to go into more detail than that: suffice it to say that from time to time the movie will focus on the Grand Prix, and on Lightning's competition with braggart Italian race car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, running away with every one of the few scenes he occupies), and then for huge chunks at a time it will return to Mater and McMissile and a rather shocking number of gun battles for a movie aimed so squarely at children. Shocking also, now that I think of it, for a movie about cars, but that ends up being one of the things that I, at least, found woozily appealing about Cars 2: it absolutely does not give a shit about making sense. This was one of the complaints leveled frequently against the first one, that it took place in a world that made precious little sense - How do they build, given their lack of hands? Why is their entire society so much like our own, despite the fact that cars can't really need both restaurants and gas stations, just as a single example? For what conceivable reason are there different genders of cars? You don't want me to believe that there is car fucking going on in this universe, just off camera? Christ, Lasseter, you sick sonofabitch. - and the Pixar people have dealt with this by amping up everything, making a world absolutely jam-packed with details in every frame, from in-jokes (an add for Lasse Tyres) to all the little signs and such that would, one must concede, be entirely necessary in a world like this, to conceptual notions that don't even make sense but surely do prove the filmmakers' commitment to their concept: I am as repelled and fascinated by the car toilet sequence as though it were a setpiece in a David Cronenberg feature.

It's a crazy-looking film, then, a completely broken mise en scène, but in some kind of warped kiddie-surrealism way, it's impossible to take your eyes off of it; and it helps matters considerably that Pixar is still in command of the most technically audacious animation known to the world, for all of that crazed "what the fuck is going on?" world-building looks absolutely beautiful: it's hard to say if, visually, Cars 2 raises the bar any higher than it's already been raised (I persist in feeling that WALL·E may have been an "end of history" moment, as far as Pixar animation is concerned), but there's still a beautiful tourist's-eye view of Europe, and the too-zany, neon-saturated vision of Tokyo's nightlife trounces the beautiful neon-lit cruising scene in the first Cars.

Personally, I'm not even opposed to a James Bond parody with talking cars, as such. The opening bit, with McMissile infiltrating an enemy oil rig in the middle of the ocean is enough of a proof of concept for me, and if this were a spy parody in the Cars universe, it might have been exactly the right kind of trivial fun. As a sequel, it's on thinner ice: nearly all the pleasures of the first movie had to do with slowing down, watching the landscape, stepping back from the go! go! pace of modern life, and a parody-heavy action movie is self-evidently not a step in the same direction.

Plus, if it weren't a sequel, there'd be no Mater; and Mater really is the point where the movie breaks. He's a criminally anti-funny collection of the most obnoxious stereotypes of rednecks whom we're meant to laugh at right up until the movie does an about face and turns into a hectoring treatise on how friendship means sticking by your friends even when they're complete disasters of personality and comportment. Well, Mater isn't my damn friend; he was my least favorite element of Cars and it's all but impossible to endure Cars 2 because of how much this dipshit screaming moron has been favored and promoted as the bestest and bravest and most sweet and lovable character ever introduced: he is, in short, John Lasseter's very own Wesley (warning: link goes to TV Tropes, don't click unless you have three hours to spare), and fuck you very much, Mr. Lasseter for forcing that much of a shrill, tedious character down my throat for almost two hours (we're back to Pixar films breaking the 110-minute mark with this one). There is much in Cars 2 that is clever and fun and funny, but all of it gets suffocated under a thick blanket of miserable slapstick involving a character who has absolutely no appealing characteristics.

But, you know, Brave looks like it's going to be completely amazing. So there's that.

6/10

22 June 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: ILL-ADVISED DC ADAPTATIONS

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: pretty much everybody can tell you why the new Green Lantern is spectacularly misconceived, but it's just par for the course: unlike their colleagues at Marvel, DC has been consistently incapable of doing much good with any of their heroes not named Batman, give or take a Chris Reeve Superman or two. Case in point: one of the earliest comic book movies of the modern era was also a badly botched attempt to bring an obscure horror comic figure to life. And hey, he was green too!

Here is something that I can't explain at all: following the massive success of 1978's Superman, the movie that in all essentials created the superhero movie as a major force in blockbuster cinema and thereby did much to usher in the modern age of the tentpole movie, and its delayed 1981 sequel, the next major comic book figure to hit cinema screens was, of all insane choices, Swamp Thing, a remarkably obscure figure who'd premiered in a one-shot story in 1971, in DC's horror imprint line, created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. Though he got his own title at the end of the 1970s, it didn't last very long, and it wasn't until Alan Moore took over the character in 1983 - over a year after the movie premiered - that Swamp Thing gained anything resembling the popularity or importance of an superhero that actual people cared about.

Yet here he was, in all his mucky glory, in February, 1982. Apparently somebody got it in their head that this was a can't-miss prospect for a movie - and I don't understand that, either, for though the early Swamp Thing comics are not without their charms, it's no accident that Moore could only salvage the title by overhauling the goofy concept from the ground up - and then, somewhere a bit further down the line, maverick indie horror director Wes Craven managed to hitch his wagon to the Swamp Thing Express, in the hopes of proving to one and all that he could work within the confines of studio mandates and the star system, and make films that didn't threaten to undermine the basic rules of decency and comportment that undergird all human society (his first feature, The Last House on the Left, being arguably the most controversial film ever released at its 1972 debut, and his 1977 The Hills Have Eyes being the most generally foul-spirited cannibal movie then produced in the English language). A horror maven and a horror comic must have seemed like a match made in heaven; but Swamp Thing somehow managed to become far more of a boilerplate bayou-set action picture than a horror movie of any but the remotest stripe, and proved only that Craven is rather out of his element when you set him down to make an action picture and not a brutal, misanthropic gorefest.

How it begins: underneath some viciously impersonal credits, government operative Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is flown into the middle of absolutely nowhere whatsofuckingever, deep in the Louisiana swamps. She's here to protect the two doctors Holland - Alec (Ray Wise) and his sister Linda (Nanette Brown) - working on a major top-secret project that has brought them to the attention of Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan, as far from Letter from an Unknown Woman as any actor has ever fallen from any height), an evil scientist or patent thief or businessman or terrorist, or something; it's never clear what Arcane does, but he sure does it evilly. He hires out a paramilitary group to kill all their government protection except for Cable, take down the Hollands' lab, and steal their research. As it happens, though, Alec Holland has just found a plant extract that encouraged hyper-accelerated growth in plant life, and when he flees from the burning lab, covered in flames, either he or the surrounding swamp water is saturated with enough of that serum that the genial scientist returns from his watery grave as a massive hybrid of animal and plant life, superstrong and nearly indestructible - the Swamp Thing (Dick Durock).

In the hands of Moore, and subsequent writers, the Swamp Thing is essentially a nature god, an extension of all the plant life of the world given independent, conscious existence to defend "the Green", as it's called, from destruction by humans (also, in Moore's hands the series became a semi-encyclopedia of the weirdest corners of the established DC Universe, but that is neither here nor there). That is certainly the aspect of the character which the modern Swamp Thing fancier is likely to have in mind. Not the case in 1982! Then, he was just a kind of muddy human-plant monster who thumped around the bayou fighting evil and trying to cure himself. Even this version of the character is subtler and more interesting than the one that we find in the movie, who has nothing more exciting to do than punch out henchmen until the time comes to punch out the Big Bad.

The plot is effectively divided into two parts: the opening slightly-less-than-half, in which we get to meet the characters and get to like them a little bit, and the concluding slightly-more-than-half, which is just a big slugfest in the swamp. The plot peters off to just about nothing (we could successfully describe the entirety of the back half as "Swamp Thing and Alice fall in Beauty and the Beast style love while retrieving his research from Arcane", and not really lose too many important details in the process), and the characters, insofar as we have ever been invested in them, cease to have access to their personalities; they just become figures in an endless extension of the part in every James Bond film where Bond has to beat his way through marginally-characterised tertiary characters while looking for the enemy lair (the bland Live and Let Die was never far from my thoughts whilst watching Swamp Thing - a most unwelcome association).

As complaints go, "the characters aren't interesting" tends to be one that I find annoying more often than not; and yet it's at the center of what keeps Swamp Thing from being all that good a movie. The actors aren't up to much good on the whole, for a start: neither of Barbeau's primary talents serves her well in the role of a gruff but tenderhearted government sp00k (though, blessedly, she doesn't come across as too girly, as happens when somebody like Jessica Alba tries to play characters of this nature), and Jourdan, not unreasonably, only intermittently hides his boredom with the material, growing increasingly stiff and uninteresting as the script goes into more fantastical sci-fi reaches. Ray Wise, being the great character actor that he is, is utterly appealing as Holland, eager go-getter scientist who doesn't seem to realise how bizarre and esoteric his research is; but he's not in too much of the movie, and Durock's take on the Swamp Thing is only a little bit more engaging than your average early-'80s slasher villain played by a stuntman (and if we look at his career overall... why, guess what he spent most of his time doing!). Durock is, admittedly, not helped at all by a monster suit that reasonably copies the design of the comic's monster, but does not hide for any length of time the fact that it is, essentially, a vinyl suit, right down to the way the knees and elbows crease. It is, however, a much better effect than the truly embarrassing costume that represents Arcane's post-serum transformation, a bug-eyed wolf thing that would have been right on the edge in a medium-budget 1950s B-movie. And of course, Swamp Thing is but a low-budget 1982 B-movie; but even then, this was not the state-of-the-art, not by a long shot, and however much we're meant to believe in the Swamp Thing, it takes a much less judgmental viewer than eye to reach that state of belief.

Without characters we're invested in, the movie never builds up steam or momentum; it just devolves into one scene after another of watching a man in vinyl pants pushing around David Hess (a veteran of some of the more notorious splatter pictures of the day, who deserved better). Craven's direction isn't much help: the crawling feeling of dread that he managed to build in his early horror movies through long shots of his outdoor locations doesn't translate well to the PG action shenanigans that make up this movie. In fact, other than the inherent body horror jolt of seeing Holland resurrected as the Swamp Thing, little or nothing about the movie ever even considers playing in Craven's ordinary genre, much to its detriment. The simmering lack of momentum that made parts of The Hills Have Eyes pure nightmare fuel leaves the rather more kinetic Swamp Thing like an engine that won't turn over, no matter how many times it seems like it's about to. Instead, it just plods and putters forward, eventually stopping, but not because we've had any release; indeed, we never built up tension in the first place. (I will leave undiscussed Craven's hideously botched treatment of the self-consciously "funny" elements of the film, which may be parodistic or may just be terrible accidents; for example, the mindboggling use of scene transitions including a reliance on cartoony wipe effects that would make the creators of Battlefield Earth feel ashamed).

I have made it out to sound worse than it is. The opening 30 minutes are playful, and just clunky enough that you can see how the filmmakers weren't sure that comic book narrative logic would match well to cinema. But there are a few well-written lines in among the uncomfortably functional dialogue - I am fascinated by the moment in which Cable thinks that Linda Holland is the Dr. Holland, an inversion of the common '50s and '60s trope where the manly hero is amazed to find that Dr. Soandso is a woman! Though there's also a weirdly retrogressive tinge to the moment that hurts it - and solely for its chutzpah, I have to give Craven and the movie props. This was an attempt to do something new, and the fact that it turns into a low-rent swamp adventure, The Dukes of Hazzard with a plant man... They didn't know what they were doing, basically. That's not much of an excuse, but at least Swamp Thing has a novelty value absent from the equally broken comic book adaptations of 20 years later.

20 June 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IT TAKES A LOT OF BALLS

Two things brought about the existence of Phantasm IV: Oblivion, released in 1998 (before I get into either of them, I need to get something off of my chest: the posters and the onscreen title treatment make me want to type it out as Phantasm: OblIVion, which is at once cooler and much stupider. Recall that this was in the heady days when Se7en was still new enough that people were still intoxicated by the joys of cramming numbers into places they didn't belong - anybody remember Thir13en Ghosts?). The first, and much simpler of the things is that the footage removed when the original Phantasm was cut in half from its original three hours back in 1978 was rediscovered and found to be in fairly good condition. This enabled writer-director Don Coscarelli to build his new script around scenes of his three main actors, 20 years younger, and thereby give the new film a much more involved and illuminating flashback structure than would have been possible using only the footage found in the final cut of its predecessor.

The other situation is that a Phantasm fanboy* wrote a script titled Phantasm 1999 A.D. which was an epic yarn criss-crossing an America that had been ruined by the evil paranormal body snatcher known only as the Tall Man. Customarily, fanboy scripts are not much valued by studios or filmmakers best known for nurturing a single cult franchise through so many years of poverty, but the fanboy in question was Roger Avary, who was at that point riding high on the success of some scripts he'd co-written with his buddy Quentin Tarantino, scripts titled True Romance and Pulp Fiction. It is thus less surprising that Coscarelli took notice of Phantasm 1999 A.D. - which would be retitled Phantasm's End before its development ground to a halt - and found it completely marvelous. The two men set to work on making this ultimate Phantasm a reality, but eventually the scope of it proved too great: the film simply could not be made on any budget that it could recover.

It was, however, thanks to the Phantasm's End days that Oblivion took off: initially conceived as a bridge between the original run and the spectacular new finale, it proved instead to be a replacement - though plans for a fifth Phantasm were still alive as recently as the middle of the '00s, it's difficult not to see Oblivion as a summing-up, ending on a more definitive point than any of its predecessors, and doing more to answer questions - well, "answer", anyway - than the other three combined. I imagine that there came a point where Coscarelli resigned himself to the knowledge that this, and not its huge and sprawling big brother, would be the last note in the song of the Tall Man.

He at times described the project as, essentially, a cash-grab; but there are cash-grabs and there are cash-grabs, and the fourth entry in a series of tiny cult horror pictures that got produced at Kubrickian intervals is not at all in the same spirit as the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. I for one find Oblivion to be an entirely honest and satisfying conclusion to the Phantasm saga as anything we were likely to get: in fact, breaking with the general consensus, I'd probably call it the second best picture of the series, erasing as it does the wackiness that had crept into Phantasm II and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, while bringing back the surrealistic creepiness of the original film, and then some.

In fact, the whole thing is so damn loose that I'm almost tempted to go without a plot synopsis at all, but just so we're all on the same page: Oblivion starts off where Lord of the Dead ended, with Reggie (Reggie Bannister), middle-aged ex-ice cream salesman, pinned to a wall by a mass of the evil death-orbs controlled by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Reggie's young friend Mike (Michael Baldwin) has just learned that his skull contains a golden sphere like the Tall Man has, instead of a brain, and he has taken off to figure out what the hell is going on. The excruciating young kid Tim has died without anyone saying a word about him.

As we pick up, the Tall Man lets Reggie go for little discernible reason, and thus our hero, getting visibly worn out by all his running back and forth in the last two movies (it's actually quite a benefit that Bannister has aged 10 years since Phantasm II took place, not more than a few months back), pitches in for one last attempt to find his young friend, encountering along the way yet another Hot Chick with Secrets: Jennifer (Heidi Marnhout). Mike, for his part, is haunted by images and by the ghost of his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and discovers in short order that he's able to manipulate time and space just like the Tall Man can, creating dimensional portals that take him, among other places, to the Civil War (where he has a vision of himself as a soldier and the Tall Man as an evil surgeon), and to some place in the 19th Century, where the same Tall Man is a genteel elderly man named Jebediah Morningside (the name of the cemetery in Phantasm, don't forget!), who uses steampunk technology to open dimensional gates himself, a scheme which, let us say, backfires.

Buried in the film's 90 minutes - my little précis carries us past the 1-hour mark - are many, many scenes of people having visions that may or may not cast light on the whos, whats, and whys of the Tall Man. I will not go into these, for if you have not seen the movie, it would all just sound incomprehensible, and if you have, you don't need me to tell you that it's incomprehensible. The "revelations" are of the sort that raise many more questions than they resolve, to wit: if we accept Oblivion's suggestion that the Tall Man is a corrupted version of Jebediah Morningside, how does that fit with the implication in the original Phantasm that he's an extra-dimensional alien? Did Morningside simply form the "model" for the alien Tall Man, and his tampering is what led the aliens in the red world (which we glimpse only for a split second, but it's more than in Lord of the Dead) to learn of us humans, ripe to be enslaved? That's a guess, nor a bad one, but it has holes, and so does every "not a bad guess" I can make at every single more-or-less symbolic moment that happens in the film's many, many dreams and visions.

There is a widespread theory that Oblivion demonstrates that the entire Phantasm series takes place in Mike's imagination, the yearning attempt of a boy who has in short order lost all of his family members to accidents to attach some kind of greater meaning to their deaths. It's a sound reading, that accounts for the continuity gulfs, and well-supported by some of the specific dialogue in the last third of Oblivion; I don't much like it, but that's mostly because "It was all a dream" is my all-time least favorite narrative twist ever. Matters of taste aside, it also doesn't strike me as tremendously important that we can "solve" the Phantasm narrative arc. It is unquestionably the case that you can take something fine and good and break it by poking at it too enthusiastically, and I would not for anything do that to Phantasm, which may have a completely defensible and internally coherent meaning, and may be much deepened and enriched by ferreting that meaning out; but it is a gorgeously discombobulating experiment in surrealist horror, and why risk fucking that up by figuring out how to explain it all away?

Surrealism is, after all, one of the chief hallmarks of the series, particularly surrealism that recalls the arbitrary narrative jumpiness of a dream. Phantasm delighted in this surrealism, Phantasm II indulged in it to a rare degree for a studio film, Lord of the Dead largely eschewed it. Oblivion is a hard turn back to basics: it positively wallows in it, enough to make the original Phantasm seem relatively straightforward. Not for nothing is one of the most jaw-dropping twists in the movie - Jennifer's last scene, and I'll say nothing else - an adaptation of what was written as a for-real dream sequence in Phantasm's End. And that's not even as wildly inexplicable as, for example, the sequence in which Reggie dreams about rescuing Mike and then finds he has done it in reality, or something to that effect. Or the scene where Mike idly starts throwing rocks around the desert with his mind.

It's as though Coscarelli had finally hit the point where he was just interested in creating the most memorable concepts and images he could, and used only as much script as he thought he needed to string them together. Certainly, the plot doesn't move forward in any particularly rational way: there are scenes inserted without rhyme or reason, crosscutting between Reggie and Mike's separate stories almost arbitrarily (honestly, Reggie's story is itself largely arbitrary). Oblivion can get away with this on account of having some incredibly wonderful imagery, though it goes deeper than that: for the first time since Phantasm itself, the series is reinvested in finding out just how disoriented it can make us, and creating thereby a sense... not of terror, but of considerable uneasiness.

What makes the film unique is that this uneasiness is not existential - the Tall Man has never seemed less immediately threatening than he does here, and there are few moments when it seems like the characters are in actual danger of dying (no screaming death spheres flying down corridors here!) - but intellectual. Of all the Phantasm films, this one spends the most time dealing with the thoughts and perceptions of its characters, starting right at the beginning, with an opening montage narrated by Reggie: culled from the previous three movies that does virtually nothing to bring the viewer up to speed, but instead creates, through whiplash editing and Bannister's glazed-over narration, a particular state of mind, an idea of having flat-out given up in the face of non-stop hectic nastiness.

Mostly, though, the film is about Mike (a nice switch from Lord of the Dead, helped by the significant increase in the quality of Baldwin's acting), and the instability within his mind, fearing death and fearing living as something other than himself. The footage shot in 1977 is incorporated into the new movie in a most fascinating way, turning what were presumably straightforward moments into symbolically laden, sometimes overly so, impressions of adult-Mike's present anxieties worked out through child-Mike's actions. It is sometimes clumsy, largely by being too explicit in places (for there is rarely the obvious feeling that footage has been awkwardly re-purposed), but it is one of the most haunting ideas in the Phantasm mythos, that the man can try to regress into childhood to find comfort from the modern world, only to learn that he has brought the modern world back with him. Oblivion is a film wherein the slightest idea of comfort is something of a joke: even Jody's final attempt to leave his brother with a small morsel of truth has only the effect of making Mike feel worse and more despondent.

That plus a fine atmosphere of doom - Fred Myrow's score here is my favorite of his four trips into the series, oppressive and dark; Chris Chomyn's cinematography boasts some excellent night shots, and even his daytime footage stresses how worn and weary the landscape is, rather than its brightness - and comic relief that actually works rather than knocks the film off its axis, and even some great action sequences - Reggie's fight with a zombie cop is wonderful from start to end - all combine to leave Oblivion as, minimally, one of the most striking horror pictures of its era (the late-'90s, when striking horror pictures were rare as hen's teeth). I suppose that it's very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile; parts of it are so arbitrary that they cross the line from surreality to pointlessness. Still, it's a one-of-a-kind thing, a feverish gust of the warped and uncanny that works on a part of your brain older and more susceptible than the bits that deal with logic and reason.

Body Count: Not fewer than 4, and potentially as many as 11, depending on whether or not certain people die at certain points, and whether we count the undead Lurkers or not. Fucking dream-logic pictures.

Reviews in this series
Phantasm (Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm II (Coscarelli, 1988)
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Coscarelli, 1994)
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Coscarelli, 1998)

18 June 2011

GREEN AROUND THE GILLS

I am not going to be so bold as to say that Green Lantern is good, but this much is certain: it is a hell of a lot better than it looks. Which isn't saying much, considering that it looks unspeakably abysmal but we take our pleasant surprises where we can find them.

The film, a rare example of a non-Batman/Superman DC superhero getting a big-screen vehicle, relates the story first told in 1959 of how hotshot test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) inherited the ring of a dying alien to become the first human being to join the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps, though he was but the second human being to bear the name Green Lantern, though this is not really at all the right moment to dig into the esoterica of Silver Age vs. Golden Age comic book series. Anyway, the GLC is a millennia-old group of space policemen, in essence, individuals tasked with maintaining order and justice throughout the universe, with the aid of powerful rings that use green energy to channel the willpower of the chosen wearer, allowing that individual to create a physical manifestation of anything he or she can imagine, and at the film's start, the Green Lanterns are under assault from an alien presence called Parallax (a hatchet job of TV-quality CGI voiced by Clancy Brown), a being that uses the yellow energy of fear to destroy even the doughtiest of its foes, even the mightiest of all Green Lanterns, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). It's this same Abin Sur whose ring seeks out Hal Jordan and drags the young man somewhat against his will into a galaxy-spanning fight against the forces of evil.

Let us not mince words: a sci-fi epic about a magic imagination ring and an octopus-shaped cloud and the human being who can only learn to use his ring if he can get over the feelings of loss that have haunted him ever since his hotshot test pilot daddy died in an accident, that is not a film that can be understood quite as readily as "angry rich man turns into a vigilante", "boy gets radioactive spider bite, becomes spider", or "alien who is basically Jesus Christ saves everybody all the time", and it is thus not altogether surprising that the casual fan - or, indeed, the non-fan! - of comic books might find Green Lantern a bit harder to get into than Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman. This has indeed been borne out by many reviewers, who have perhaps gone a little bit overboard in slagging on conceptual hooks that have been part of the character's biography since the early 1960s; but then, the makers of Green Lantern (including director Martin Campbell and four different screenwriters) don't necessarily help matters with a screenplay that makes up in volume what it lacks in elegance. Much of what goes into the film was rolled out slowly and meaningfully in the comic: here it is puked out all in great gloppy chunks. To counterbalance this, the writers give us the exact same wad of expository material over and over again: in voiceover at the start, twice on the Green Lanterns' base planet of Oa, once from Hal to his childhood friend and semi-awkward love interest, and newly-minuted boss, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively).

In essence, it's the simplest and most instantly understandable element of the character (he can make green objects with his ring, but only if he believes in them) repeated until even the dullest viewer gets it, while the vaster, more intricate universe-building is shot at the viewer like a Gatling gun assault. It is, one might say, anti-exposition, the kind that almost seems to make the material more difficult the understand than it deserves to be. Ultimately, it all boils down to "guys in yellow are bad, guys in green are good", which is enough to get us through this Green Lantern mostly intact; but the filmmakers seem entirely unconcerned with this Green Lantern, preferring to spend their time desperately setting up Green Lantern 2: While We're Trying to Get a Justice League Picture Started, and doing an entirely sloppy job of it.

That said...

The film is not without its charms. Not least of these is that of fan service: there are those of us for whom the mere fact of seeing the Green Lantern mythos on the big screen is in and of itself appealing (I am not ashamed to admit, dear reader, that I had to suppress a fanboyish squee when Reynolds first began intoning the Green Lantern Oath: "In brightest day..."). But it's also something that most comic book movies have failed to be in recent years: lighthearted. No, they're not all The Dark Knight, but by my reckoning we have to back all the way to the first Iron Man in 2008 to find a comic book movie with such a low sense of its own importance. Not a bad trick for a movie that crisscrosses the galaxy three separate times.

Admittedly, the kludged-together narrative is too sloppy and erratically-paced to say, in good faith, "it's so much fun!" because truth be told, a lot of it isn't fun: it takes what feels like half of the movie for anything resembling a plot to begin, and there's really only two setpieces in any meaningful sense of the word. Still, when the plot isn't grinding along in first gear, there's a brightness to Green Lantern that's lightyears away from the self-consciousness of even something as insubstantial as Thor. For starters, Reynolds makes a pretty damn good Hal Jordan, an admission that tastes like ash in my mouth. He perfectly nails the "likable schmuck" element of the character, and though he never quite finds his way around the hurt behind the braggadocio, this is after all a DC character - Bruce Wayne notwithstanding, they're not really meant to be psychologically dense like Marvel's stable of tragedians.

And while Martin Campbell has proven that he's capable of so very much more than this in the superlative James Bond pictures GoldenEye and Casino Royale, he's not entirely incapable of spicing up Green Lantern: at the very least, he gives the candy-colored visuals (most of which are CGI, and those which aren't courtesy of the reliably lovely if not always interesting cinematoraphy of Dion Beebe) plenty of room to breathe. Absent some unfortunately over-animated alien creatures - parts of the movie look basically like a cartoon, not the realistic effects in a live-action movie - the film does look a shitload better than the trailer promised, bright and poppy even in the moments that act like they're trying to be vast and epic.

The result is a wholly disposable, even fluffy superhero picture - the comparisons to Fantastic Four are inapt (it's not half as concerned with ghastly comic riffing as that film or its vile sequel) but hard to counter, given that both films are attempting with little or no success to capture the "gee whiz!" feeling of Silver Age comics - that is intermittently pleasant to look at, and reasonably playful when Reynolds or a sly and hammy Peter Sarsgaard as the arrogant brainiac villain* takes center stage. There's not much else to recommend it: Blake Lively is awful as the allegedly savvy and brash Carol Ferris in ways that I cannot quite articulate, and none of the many actors playing the various other Green Lanterns register in any meaningful way - not even Mark Strong as not-yet-iconic-villain Sinestro - and there's plenty of time spent wondering when they'll stop talking and do anything. But when doing is being done, then Green Lantern at least rises to the level of idly amusing summer trifle.

Also, it's a tentpole movie that comes in well under two hours. In this day and age, I can't begin to express how happy that makes me.

5/10

16 June 2011

SON OF THE FATHER

Not so long ago, I cracked, in regards to Mike Mills's second feature directorial outing Beginners, "if you've ever nurtured the desire to see Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club, you've got your chance". The joke turns out to be on me: Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club takes up all of three seconds of the whole feature, but Christopher Plummer playing a gay man who, after 75 years in the closet, 44 of them spent in marriage to a woman who (from the minimal evidence we see) took it as a personal insult that she wasn't able to "fix" him, finally comes out to his son and throws himself into the pursuit of the love and lust he so assiduously denied himself for an entire lifetime; that turns out to be indeed a very fine reason to see Beginners, played with great depth of feeling and gentleness and insight and sensitivity and all those other buzzy words critics use to try to get across the idea that, here we have a performance that shall make you feel like washed clean by the end of it. If this is how Plummer finally takes down his long-overdue acting Oscar, it may not be the best possible choice, but not a soul will be able to cluck their tongue and shake their head and say, "no, this is quite wrong". In fact, Plummer turns out to be nearly the only reason to see Beginners, which is on the whole an impossibly dreary film.

If we were to untangle the film's plot and lay it out all straight-like (it's otherwise a series of interlaced flashbacks), Beginners starts in 1999, when graphic designer Oliver's (Ewan McGregor) mother dies, and his father, Hal (Plummer) comes out as homosexual. For four years, Oliver observes his father getting to be happy and at peace with himself, all the while dying by inches of cancer. After he eventually does so, Oliver adopts his dog, Arthur, and sits in a funk for a very long time, until his friends drag him out to a Halloween party. There, he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a struggling actress, and they fall in love with each other, though Oliver is neurotic enough that he starts subconsciously looking for ways to fuck it up, unable to get over his perceptions from childhood (where he was played by Keegan Boos) that his father and mother (Mary Page Keller) were so emotionally unsuited for each other that there's no such thing as an adult relationship that works.

There are three emotional registers in which Beginners spends virtually all of its time: dour and morose, insufferably twee, and genuinely rich and uplifting. The last of these is the most wanting, though the fact that the film spends any time there whatsoever is already proof that Beginners is a tremendous stride in the right direction for Mills after his only preceding feature, the excruciating Thumbsucker from 2005. For that matter the relative balance between moroseness and quirkiness favors the new film as well; there may not be much about watching emotionally broken people being emotionally broke that's terribly fun or - when it's executed with as little grace as Mills shows here - illuminating, but I for one will take it any day over the suffocating indie movie affectation that makes up nearly all of Thumbsucker and most of the scenes in Beginners that involve Anna, starting with her very introduction: at the Halloween party, she has laryngitis, and can only communicate through gamine-eyed facial expressions and a note pad. Oliver is at this time, I should mention, dressed as Sigmund Freud, and has been giving fake psychoanalysis to the other partygoers; Anna is dressed in a very vague was as a '30s man, but given that she is naught but a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it doesn't matter if she has her own sufficiently-expressed personality.

And is it just me, or has it been kind of a while since we've seen one of that particularly awful breed of movie femininity? Between Mills and Laurent, they seem hellbent on making up for lost time: Anna is a particularly personality-deficient, extra-special-sparkling variant of the kind, bringing the twinkle of joy to Oliver's closed-off world that even his dog, speaking in subtitles that Oliver can apparently understand, cannot provide (I can squint my eyes just enough that the subtitled dog routine is not so irritating that I can't ignore it). I'd be inclined to blame Mills's screenplay, which doesn't seem much interested in the inner lives of its characters, but Laurent is just so goddamn eager to play up everything that is the most shallow and cutesy about Anna, never once trying to play her as a flesh-and-blood woman, that I find myself wondering what the hell happened on the Inglourious Basterds set that made her seem, at the time, like the awesome new actress we all wanted to pay attention to.

The parts of Beginners that are merely soul-crushingly depressing are, in comparison, relatively painless, even effective. Oliver is theoretically interesting than the film lets him be (our constant awareness that he is actively jealous of Hal's newfound ability to express and receive love is never quite rewarded by the film managing to do anything with it, other than present it as the situation; McGregor, giving as good a performance as the script really asks of him, almost looks at times like he's begging permission to actually go and chase down this or any other thread that makes his character interesting, rather than pin them down and walk by), but as a depiction of the human mind in a state of despair, the film manages to do some things right - the spare production design is quite great, for example, as evocative as anything any character says or does. Even Kasper Tuxen's uncomfortably dim cinematography, married to Mill's apparent lack of understanding that "depth" exists in compositions, manage to reinforce the idea that Oliver's world is a tiny, crumbly hole, though that's an accidental triumph at best.

And so, Plummer. Who is great and then some, who keys us into tiny snatches of emotion (the matter-of-fact way he admits that his new, polyamorous boyfriend is not exactly his dream lover, is an hundredfold better than the same moment would have been overplayed for pathos), who gives the movie its only breath of proper joy and vitality, and who alone seems to have an actual history that the actor and character both know about, and want to imply to us without stating it outright. There's a great movie to be built around Hal; it's not Beginners, which reduces him to little more than a prop in his son's journey from sad bastard to somewhat less sad bastard; but at least Beginners shows him off a little bit, and that's better than nothing at all.

5/10

14 June 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SPIELBERG IN THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: noted mystery-spinner J.J. Abrams cements his status as Major Popcorn Movie Director with Super 8, but another big name is attached to the film: producer Steven Spielberg, in whose specialised breed of suburban-bound family-friendly thrillers Abrams's film is trafficking. Of course, Spielberg has long since made a secondary career of boosting newish directors whose films are in the same wheelhouse as his PG adventures. (And yes, I should absolutely be reviewing Gremlins, given everything, but I decided it would be more sporting to go with something I haven't seen, like, 10 times already).

Somewhere along the way, Joe Dante's name got lost in the shuffle: an patently unfair fate for the man who directed the best first-generation Jaws ripoff, the best werewolf movie of the 1980s, and one of the all-time great horror comedies. And yet I ask you: when was the last time you heard of a Joe Dante picture coming out, and knew that fact meant something special?

Back in the day, even a "lesser" Dante movie could still be a pretty fun time out, as I found upon watching, for the first time, his 1987 Innerspace; it was one of several projects that found Dante and super-producer Steven Spielberg working together in the 1980s, and not remotely the most personal of them, but even if it is remembered nowadays for winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar and being a crypto-remake of another movie that nobody much these days has seen, Fantastic Voyage, that is itself not at all a fair historical judgment for a movie that, despite not escaping the decade intact, is still one of the more playful and inventive effects-driven popcorn movies of its era.

In brief, the movie is about Lt. Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid), one of those fuck-up hotshot pilots so beloved of writers looking to make stories about adventurers out on the bleeding edge. Tuck is a drunkard; Tuck is a playboy; when we meet Tuck, he has finally ruined things with his more-than-a-fling, not-quite-a-girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan). Four months later, Tuck is at the center of a remarkable experiment in miniaturisation: he's shrunk to a size barely visible through a magnifying glass, and injected into a rabbit.

Except for the rabbit part: in the grandest high-concept fashion, a raid by a rival R&D corporation, a colossally Ee-vil one, ends with little microscopic Tuck shot into the first warm body that will serve as a safe haven from the grasping clutches of mercenary cyborg Mr. Igoe (Vernon Wells), and Dr. Margaret Canker (Fiona Lewis). This happens to be the body of hypochondriac grocery store cashier Jack Putter (Martin Short), and once Tuck has been able to hack into Jack's optic nerve and inner ear, he's able to communicate with his new host, to find out what the hell is happening and how to fix it before Tuck's air supply runs out. That this involves Jack having to team up with Lydia will come as, I pray, no surprise to anybody.

Having mostly nice things to say about the movie, I think it is only right to start out with the one big problem I do have: Innerspace presents itself as being a sci-fi adventure-comedy, and it surely thinks it's a sci-fi adventure-comedy, and while the sci-fi is pretty hard to fault for what it is, and the adventure is aces for a high-concept 1980s family movie, the comedy is awfully wan and reedy. Mayhap this is just a natural distaste for Martin Short getting in the way; but surely I'm not alone in finding Short's characteristic mode of spastic nebbish humor to be damn hard to take in more than tiny doses, even when it's as relatively toned-down as it is in this movie? Or perhaps I'm just a grinch. But there's a whole lot of Short in the picture, particularly that Quaid spends almost the whole movie sitting in a capsule with a lot of blinking lights, and Short is obliged to do all of the heavy lifting of the plot. The fascinating thing is that it's not even Short per se: the "buddy movie" elements of the film, just him and Quaid's voice (or the other way around), in fact shows off the actor in quite a good light - both of them, really, the chemistry between the two is top-notch, something that should not be even a little bit possible given that the actors were present together in only one scene at the end. It's really just Short in comedian mode that drags and makes the movie feel like some TV sitcom gone horribly awry, and if the film were merely an adventure with comic elements rather than a full-on hybrid of genres, Innerspace would certainly be a lot sturdier than is the case.

For, all in all, what's there is cherce, as the fella said. It's no secret that the film exists in no small part to show off some razzle-dazzle visual effects; those effects are very razzly-dazzly, though, an airtight argument for those of us who are miserable old cranks that reflexively prefer old-school practical effects to smooth, shiny CGI. The inside of Jack's body is a fantastic place in the most literal sense, full of red blood cells made out of Jell-o, squishy, wet organs, a beating heart valve that looks like the gaping maw of some massive alien. There's hardly a single point at which the effects are operating any less than 100% (by which I mean, the inner body effects; the miniaturization effect is quite altogether unremarkable), and everything is so unmistakably physical, it's not half difficult to believe the illusion. It's one of the finest visual effects movies of the late-'80s, I'd be inclined to say, and say what you want about all the toys available to the modern filmmaker, the late-'80s were a great time for visual effects.

If that were all that Innerspace had going to it, its appeal would be largely academic, though I am not one to throw out movies on the grounds that their appeal is largely academic. Nonetheless, there are in fact other reasons why a person would be inclined to watch the movie: it is charming, for a start, with Quaid giving an outstanding, "aw shucks, I'm just a regular guy" performance that glides past everything that is terrible about Tuck (he is a womanizer, he has a drinking problem) and slows down for the guileless Americana inherent in every protagonist throughout the history of cinema who is also a test pilot. The cast around him is pretty damn solid, for that matter, with Robert Picardo's warped caricature of an Eastern European technology thief dominating every scene he's in, and legendary character actor Kevin McCarthy being a shitheel villainous businessman as nobody but a legendary character actor could have done it. Even Meg Ryan, struggling mightily with a thankless girl Friday role, manages to bring some spark to a character that, as written, exists almost solely to enable the plot to move forward.

More even than it is charming, with a clutch of fine (entirely unrealistic, but entertaining) characters, what makes Innerspace memorable is its attitude. The film plays entirely fair with its premise, and yet one never quite feels that Dante or writers Chip Proser and Jeffrey Boam take it entirely seriously, and thus is the accidental campiness of Fantastic Voyage almost entirely avoided. There's the sense, in every film Dante directed, that he would rather be making cartoons, and if Innerspace does not go as far in that direction as some (Gremlins 2: The New Batch is unquestionably the filmmaker's high water mark in that regard), there's an anarchic silliness throughout the whole thing that doesn't feel entirely real: the copious Bugs Bunny references and the Chuck Jones cameo certainly demonstrate that this is where the filmmakers' minds were going, but that would mean nothing if the film didn't carry out that promise in scenes like the extravagantly absurd climax, in which Jack and Lydia fight off half-sized versions of the villains, or the unexplained, gleefully ridiculous detail that Igoe has mechanical hands that can be removed and replaced. Somehow, this focus on all the strange cartooniness around the fringes leaves the central concept of a man and a capsule being shrunk down and injected into another man's veins seeming almost reasonable and sedate in comparison.

The net result of all this is that Innerspace has very little in the way of stakes: it's a lark and little else. But a terrifically high-spirited lark, and a lark with absolutely beautiful effects, and a lark that does the Amblin brand name proud, back in what was perhaps the best period in the production company's history. It's a frivolous movie for kids that not a single adult would ever have to be ashamed to watch: there's a breezy quality to it that transcends any target audience, seeking instead just to provide the best time possible to the most people. At this low-key goal, the film succeeds splendidly.

13 June 2011

PRETTY DARN GOOD 8, RATHER, BUT THAT'S A HORRIBLE TITLE

Let me get this off my chest first: yes, there are lens flares in Super 8. Lots of them. Some of them are in places where they add a dash of beauty or wistfulness, most are not. And even the "good" ones feel like it took much too much work to get them there. One supposes that J.J. Abrams noticed all the hubbub about the wall-to-wall lens flares in his 2009 Star Trek reboot, and thought to hisself, "Well, heck, if they noticed it, they must have liked it", and decided that would be his directorial signature from here on out, even if it doesn't make sense and doesn't work. Super 8 does not have as many lens flares as Star Trek, because nothing could, but it does have far, far more lens flares than any movie should ever be able to justify. If I ever meet J.J. Abrams, I am going to greet him by punching him right in the nuts and saying, "Nice lens flares, cunt."

I am incredibly pleased to say, however, that excepting the lens flares, there's basically not a single element of Super 8 about which I have anything bad to say. It is getting spectacularly overpraised in certain corners, but that's just what happens with tentpole movies nowadays, and that doesn't alter the fact that, with all the hype scraped away, what remains is a magnificently small-focus, character driven, nice summer movie. Nice, not in the sense that it is full of hugs and platitudes about being a good person, but in that it is simple, undemanding, not at all worked up over its internal mythology (something Abrams himself does not seem to realise), using CGI and visual effects as they are necessary. It is nice because it doesn't feel like the newest tentacle of a franchise octopus, establishing characters and setting up a sequel hook and kicking off a line of action figures and video games, existing instead because the man who wrote and directed it wanted it to exist; it is the first and very possibly the only obviously personal tentpole movie of 2011. It is nice, in other words, because Abrams loves it, not because he is using it to make money. Which he is, of course, but not with such barren results as in pick-your-favorite-example-of-a-mercenary-franchise-picture.

The film is, broadly, an attempt to recapture the spirit of a big family-friendly summer movie from the early 1980s (when they were all "nice" according to the definition I've just given), and specifically to be Abrams's very own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the two films being most obviously referenced in Super 8, though a complete list of influences would probably include every PG-rated film with a focus on visual effects released from 1978 to 1984. It is no accident, of course, that Abrams would make a giant love letter to the early work of Steven Spielberg (it is no accident either that he produces Super 8), for it is no exaggeration to say that the younger filmmaker owes his entire career to the older man, who commissioned 15-year-old Abrams to edit together the old super 8 mm movies Spielberg had shot in his own youth

This was only a couple years after Abrams was the same age as his protagonists in Super 8, and it is yet a third non-accident that Abrams was 13 in 1979, the same exact year that his movie, with its 13-year-old heroes, takes place. The movie positively wallows in nostalgia like that, and it can, truthfully, get a little bit tiresome at times. But sincerity, even over-the-top, marginally embarrassing sincerity, is always going to be preferable to slick artificiality. Do I wish that there had been no scene in which the five boys at the heart of the movie performed an a cappela rendition of "My Sharona"? Aye, that I do, but I'm also glad that Abrams believed in that scene enough that he insisted on putting it in.

Anyway, after the first scene, the film all takes place in the span of a few days in Lillian, OH, a beatific small town/suburb hybrid anchored by a local steel mill. It was this mill that took the life of Joe Lamb's (Joel Courtney) mother - this was the subject of the opening scene, in fact, a lovely bit of exposition that falls right where it ought to on the scale of "pushy exposition" vs. "too clever for such a mainstream film" - and left him in the care of his emotionally absent father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), because you can't make a Spielberg homage without daddy issues, not that J.J. "Everybody in Lost hates their father" Abrams has an issue with coming up with daddy issues on his own.

Joe is the make-up artist who works with local auteur Charles (Riley Griffiths), 13-year-old creator of 8mm epics made with all the care and attention of a much costlier studio project, and it is the case one night that Charles has decided to drag Joe and the rest of their filmmaking gang to a train depot for one scene ("Production value!" he declares in a flurried combination of enthusiasm and Godlike authority, and I love him dearly), along with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the object of Joe's early-pubertal longings, and also the daughter of his father's arch-enemy (Ron Eldard). Which isn't a deal-breaker, given that Alice has daddy issues of her own, because Abrams making a Spielberg picture clearly means that just one kid with an absent father isn't enough.

Long story short: an Air Force train derails (is derailed...) right in front of the kids' movie shoot, and thus is a Something freed; something that attracts metal and shorts out electronics like a giant ambulatory electromagnetic, something that scares all the dogs out of Lillian, and something that begins snatching people for unknown ends. As the town begins to go crazy from fear, Charles tries to finish his movie and Joe tries in a fumbling adolescent way to get close to Alice; eventually, we find out exactly what's happening and why and involving what nature of beast, though despite how much the advertising makes it seem like these mysteries are the heart and soul of Super 8, I found them to be entirely beside the point. The stuff with the kids, now that is truly engaging cinema, led by Courtney's outrageously good lead turn; it's not just a great juvenile performance, it's a great performance full stop. A baffled everyman staring down a crisis that he can't stop and only barely understands while trying to keep his personal life together, Courtney is every bit the anchor to the movie's paranormal flourishes that Richard Drefyfuss is to CEotTK, and he does it without benefit of ever having acted in a movie before. It is thanks to his work at least as much as it is Abrams's forgiving characterisation that we end up liking Joe as much as we have to if the film is going to succeed as a personal drama.

There are plenty of other performances that are great: all of the kids are quite magnificent, most of them with deeper résumés than Courtney and Griffith; it is perhaps no surprise that acting scion Elle Fanning manages to make a good impression - her acting in the film-within-the-film is one of the highlights of the whole affair - despite having the most undernourished character; this is a lad's project, and she is the Exotic Feminine intruding into a world of boys; this cannot be a fun or rewarding role to play (nor is it a terribly satisfying role to watch: Abrams can't manage quite the same sleight-of-hand that Spielberg is so good at, making us not care that his single important female character is basically a fantasy object), but as much as she can, Fanning gives the role depth. Though she's powerless in the last 30 minutes, when Alice becomes just a damsel in distress.

Really, the movie as a whole suffers in the last 30 or 45 minutes, right about from the moment the Thing goes from being an amorphous to a specific threat, and the whole thing devolves into a protracted chase scene. Not a badly-done chase scene, mind you: Abrams has improved as a filmmaker to such a ridiculous degree that the fingerprints of the man who made Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek look like shiny, overpriced TV movies cannot be detected at all. The last five minutes in particular are unabashed hokum, wedged in because it worked in better movies, and all in all, the more it's not about the focused recreation of a place with sharply-described characters dealing with an inexplicable foe, the more it loses its personality and becomes "just a popcorn movie".

Yet, a good popcorn movie: the train crash is by a wide margin the best setpiece Abrams has ever directed, managing to be hectic and confusing in all the good ways, relying on much longer shots than most such scenes in contemporary cinema and wringing its incoherence from the chaos of the moment, rather than just being incoherent (I've heard people complain it's too long; I rather liked that part of it. Felt more, dunno, apocalyptic). For all that the reveal of the monster is more "oh, okay then" than "My God, I can't believe it", the slow boil up to that point is positively exquisite. Michael Giacchino's score is a note-perfect tribute to John Williams's work of that period without being a plain copy. Larry Fong's cinematography is far, far prettier than anything we deserve from modern blockbusters. And the humor is bright without being annoyingly "jokey": the willingness Abrams shows to poke gentle fun at himself and kids like he used to be almost single-handedly saves the picture from being nothing but nostalgic masturbation.

Sure, it's fannish: it's target audience is people who were 13 in 1979 rather than people who are 13 now, and the fact that it's such a visually and tonally perfect tribute to a bygone way of storytelling doesn't manage to disguise how little Abrams himself has to say: no Quentin Tarantino is he, using the art of pastiche to express something new and personal, instead he uses the art of pastiche to make the best possible pastiche. And yet, within those limits, the film is a lovely, easy thing to watch and enjoy. I don't imagine it will be around in 30 years, like its inspirations, but here in the moment it's a desperately welcome respite from one damn CGI-laden superhero picture after another.

7/10

NB: Best part: the short zombie film the kids made, played over the end credits. Easily the sweetest and most humane part of the whole damn picture.

12 June 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A HORROR COMEDY WITHOUT SCARES OR LAUGHS... WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

When it was released, Phantasm II hit a sweet spot where it was not so successful that Universal Pictures was eager to pay for a second sequel; on the other hand, it had managed to scrape up enough business that Universal was interested in distributing such a film, were it to be produced on somebody else's dime. This proved a good situation for Don Coscarelli: he could make a third Phantasm movie exactly the way he wanted, without notes and suggestions and outright demands from on high. That meant he got to bring back non-actor Michael Baldwin to play the series' protagonist, Mike; he could jettison the tacked-on love story; and on and on. In the end, the deal wasn't quite as sweet as one might have preferred - the film was complete almost a year before it got a blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrical release en route to VHS - but theoretically, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was exactly as Coscarelli wanted it to be.

Woe betide the auteur unleashed.

It's not that Lord of the Dead is bad, exactly. Okay, so that's precisely untrue - it is exactly that Lord of the Dead is bad. But it's not bad in any of the customary ways. It attempts to stretch the narrative scope of the franchise without invalidating anything we've already learned; it is true to the characters as they've been established; it makes references to the original Phantasm that feel like they were placed there thoughtfully and because they service the greater narrative. These things are, none of them, true of sequels generally, and especially not in the savagely mercenary world of horror sequels, where most producer's ideas of "expanding the scope" means increasing the pile of dead bodies. So we might even say that Lord of the Dead occupies the rare position of being, in broad terms, a better sequel than it is a movie qua movies. I am perhaps overstating this a little bit: even as a sequel, there are things that could clearly be improved. But the worst failures are far greater than little continuity hiccups and things of that nature.

On to the film, yes? It kicks off with a really snazzy shot of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), otherworldly creepy villain extraordinaire, sitting in a throne in some kind of room whose exact shape and contents are hard to pin down; it's sort of all golden and reflective and very disconcerting. He looks at his face reflected in one of the franchise's signature touches, the shiny murder balls, and it's all so foreboding and evil, I don't know how to tell you. A fine and moody opening image, in short, though it immediately gets fucked up: for the next thing that happens is that young Mike begins a-narrating. Which isn't, of itself, a bad thing, but the montage it accompanies is: a messily, if enthusiastically compiled series of quick clips from the first two Phantasms that attempts to catch us up on everything that's happened so far. It's kind of touching that Coscarelli apparently believed that there was room to expand the audience for an indie horror franchise that witnessed three entries in 16 years (it occurs to me only now that the 16-year span might also be a fairly good explanation for why there's this sudden, overweening "Previously on..." segment), but there is an artful and an artless way to go about doing it, and this is only a step above your average Friday the 13th picture. On the other hand, there are a couple new shots worked into the montage that actually do deepen the story a little bit: now we see exactly how it is that the Tall Man can avoid dying so often: he doesn't. Rather, a new Tall Man just steps right out of the dimensional rift that we've seen before, to take his place.

Further new footage manages to sneak Baldwin into the scenes that used to be occupied by James LeGros, while leaving Paula Irivine's Liz (who will not be joining us in the current chapter) untouched. It's done rather successfully, in fact, given the passage of years and the decrease in budget. So anyway, the film gets started for real when poor dead Reggie (Reggie Bannister) turns out to in fact be quite alive, just banged up, and he starts after the Tall Man's speeding hearse carrying Mike and Liz just in time to see it blow up. It occurs to me that anybody reading these plot synopses without knowledge of the preceding films in the series must be impossibly confused. But there you go: the joy of making serialised movies separated by a half-decade or more.

By the time Reggie catches up, Liz is dead, but he manages to save Mike from a small clutch of those troll-like critters (this movie gives them a proper name: Lurkers; it also calls the spheres of death "Sentinels"), who are up in a tree dancing about like monkeys, and who fall to the ground like coconuts when Reggie blasts them with his quadruple-barrel shotgun. By threatening to blow Mike and himself to pieces with a grenade, Reggie manages to scare the Tall Man off - it would appear he has plans for an intact Mike - and then we skip ahead a bit to find Mike in a coma, some time later, and Reggie arriving at the hospital just in time to save him from a zombiefied nurse, who proves to have one of those chrome spheres in her head, in what I'd cite as being the new film's most queasily delightful gore effect.

The plot gets a bit squidgy from here on, so let me be brief: Mike's brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury) has been turned into a sphere, but enough of his personality remains that he has broken free of the Tall Man's influence and can sometimes project himself as a ghost; but neither he nor Reggie can stop Mike from being abducted one night. Thus do Reggie and the now-inert Jodyball travel across the Northwest, stopping in Holtsville and Boulton, ID, two towns that have been rigorously savaged by the Tall Man and his beasts. In the first of these, Reggie manages to fall on the wrong side of a group I took to think of as the Southern Redneck Looter Trio (Cindy Ambuehl, John Chandler, and Brooks Garnder), who are quickly dispatched by an alarmingly bloodthirsty kid named Tim (Kevin Connors); in the local Big Spooky Mausoleum, Reggie and Tim also stumble across a pair of rough African-American women, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) and Tanesha (Sarah Davis), who are, how to put it, a moderately unsophisticated depiction of black lesbians. Involving military gear and crew-cuts. Nunchucks are involved, because, ninja fad in the early '90s. Tanesha suffers a run-in with one of the spheres, and later on, Reggie can't fathom why Rocky keeps rejecting his advances; though with the old-man ponytail, I don't think we need to refer to sapphism to explain this particular plot strand.

The Southern Redneck Looter Trio returns as zombies, getting killed, like, five times; Jody comes out of the Jodyball and brings Mike in a less than entirely coherent jumble of metaphysics; everybody chases or is chased through an even Bigger, Spookier Mausoleum, and to be honest the last 15 or 20 minutes seemed to be happening so randomly that I can't honestly say why or what was going on, though there are some very nice "gotcha!" reveals, and more than a few images that jump out at you for just how disconcertingly off-kilter they are. It was, if I may say so, too little, too late: for compared the first two movies, the first half of Lord of the Dead has none of the surrealistic excess that made the first movie such a genuine delight, and managed to save the second one from itself, more often than not. Odd, given that this was theoretically the film where Coscarelli was able to do what he wanted with a free hand.

At any rate, the first 50 minutes or so - everything up till Jody's unexplained saving of Mike - is entirely straightforward and explicable, which makes the lurch into the deliberately unformed and inexplicable close to the end seem less like an exercise in otherworldly horror, and more like bad screenwriting. Then again, part of the problem is that "otherworldly horror" requires, at a minimum, horror, and this is not in great abundance in Lord of the Dead either. It amps up the action, and considerably amps up the antics - the comedy, you might say, though I have reasons for wishing not to.

On paper, of course, that's just what has happened: the increased comic relief of the second film has gone into overdrive here (it is often suggested that Coscarelli was influenced by the full-on plunge into comedy Sam Raimi made with Army of Darkness, but this is almost impossible to square with the production dates involved). Yet despite so much of slapstick wackiness endured by Reggie, nothing about Lord of the Dead particularly seems to be deliberately funny. Of course, there's always the possibility of it simply being a totally unsuccessful comedy, but those usually have a different tone: more mugging for the camera, more moments that feel like they should be followed by a rimshot. Lord of the Dead plays in a way that I can't quite nail down like an experiment in presenting zaniness that is anti-humorous: structurally, it almost totally lacks gags and punchlines, just an increasing state of mania. Perhaps Coscarelli is just really goddamn bad at comedy (except he isn't, says the evidence of the later Bubba Ho-Tep).

The result in any case is that Lord of the Dead has some really awful tonal dissonance, and by the time it ends up in the weird and disorienting phase that made its predecessors so unique, it has more than spent all of its goodwill. That, and the third act spends much too much time focusing on this character or that fighting one of the redneck zombies, willfully absurd material that plays terribly as comedy, horror, or anything else in-between. Both Phantasm and Phantasm II had their fair share of problems as horror movies, but at least they both had atmosphere; something this third entry only has in pieces.

Admittedly, those pieces are absolutely marvelous: the scene with the zombie nurse, a sequence in Tim's house, tricked out with disembodied doll heads (it broke my heart that this portion of the movie was over so soon: 20 minutes of that kind of flat-out inexplicable production design, and I'd have been a quivering mass of gelatinous flesh), and some of the shots during the go-for-broke third act. Coscarelli managed to thread an excessively fine needle, in that the more we learn about the Tall Man - and it's not much, but this film certainly makes aspects of him more concrete and manageable - the more uncanny the things we still don't know become, and there are individual images of him and his workings that are as genuinely creepy as anything in either of the first two movies (and of course, Angus Scrimm is simply an eerie man).

But stacking that up against the inconsistency between warped comedy and surrealist horror, and Lord of the Dead has an uphill battle to fight, one made worse by some of its incidental problems: the acting seems, on the whole, worse than in the others (Baldwin was signficantly better when he was a teenager, and barely manages to out-act the supremely bland James LeGros; Bannister is too given too playing for the camera rather than his co-stars; Henry is simply not very convincing and Connors - admitting that he has the excuse of being a child - is godawfully annoying, a bratty kid in the '80s sitcom vein more than the '90s indie horror vein, but ghastly either way); the music is virtually nothing but a remix and retread of the vanilla synths used in Phantasm II; the cinematography (by Chris Chomyn) consistently errs on the side of being too bright - a better tell that this isn't really much of a horror movie, I can't think of.

It's not really that any of this is truly awful: let us pause for a moment to think of where the horror film was in the first half of the 1990s. By the standards of Jason Goes to Hell, this is a small masterpiece. But it's simply not very memorable in any way, and plagued by a plot that covers more material than any previous Phantasm while "doing" virtually nothing at all. I get that Coscarelli liked hanging out with these people, and the simple joy at reuniting Baldwin, Bannister, and Thornbury was probably more exciting than any particular of the narrative. But that doesn't translate into a Lord of the Dead that has any particular energy or impact; there is a trace of the nightmare energy of the first films, but just a trace, and almost solely because of Scrimm's performance. It's just a movie, nothing more, and that's a crushingly disappointing step down for this franchise.

Body Count: As has become customary with the series, given the fluidity of "dying" and the fact that most of the villains seem to be dead already, I'm going to unsteadily land on 10 people or people-like beings, and 4 of the Lurkers.

Reviews in this series
Phantasm (Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm II (Coscarelli, 1988)
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Coscarelli, 1994)
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Coscarelli, 1998)