Monday, October 28, 2013

Remaketober 2013: Week 4



Week 4 of Remaketober arrives, with a pair of movies I’m…not all that attached to actually. This should, if anything, make me more open to the remakes. Of course it doesn’t help if they’re not good movies in their own right, but hey at least I won’t be complaining about the difference from the original. So, with that in mind, let’s get going.

The Hills Have Eyes:

1977

Hey did you know there’s a hentai named after this movie? It’s called The Hills Have Size. Now you know.

The original Hills Have Eyes is not a good movie. I don’t know if that’s an unpopular opinion or not, I just know that I don’t like it. I mostly chose it for this list because I wanted a Wes Craven movie for the list, which sort of limited my options.. I didn’t have the stamina for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and I respect The Last House on the Left too much to suffer through that remake. So, Hills it is.

And rewatching it, I remembered why I didn’t care much for it. I mentioned my love for Last House a moment ago, and the best comparison I can make between House and Hills is the difference between Clerks and Mallrats. The first movie is cheaper and more obviously amateurish, but there is a depth and realness (and in House’s case, a certain raw horror). The second has more money and is less amateurish, but, there’s less to it and it feels more like empty entertainment.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t good in it. The scene in the camper is really intense, the guy playing Papa Jupiter is incredibly committed to his role and he’s actually pretty good. It’s got a couple of interesting sequences, but it’s overall just not very good; No depth, not exceptionally scary, not a very good story, even the eventual reveal of the family’s backstory is just sort of dull. I get that the idea was to make an American version of the Sawney Bean story, but the end result is a weaker version of The X-Files episode Home. There’s a lot of potential in this concept, it just doesn’t do much with it.

So, with me not exceptionally fond of the original and with a lot of potential in the concept, you’d think that this movie would be more primed for a remake than most. So, let’s see how that turned out…

2006

I’m gonna be honest, the first third of this movie is pure torture. I’m not even kidding, it’s just an irritating chore to watch. This version was directed by Alexander Aja (who’s most famous movie is still probably High Tension, a textbook example of how to ruin a good movie with a shitty third act twist) and while he’s very good at directing violence, he’s yet to prove he knows how to do anything else well. From literally the first moment (IE, a montage of nuclear test footage over a slow moving ballad that had me thinking “Yes Alexander, I too liked Dr. Strangelove.”) I was rolling my eyes.

And it only gets worse from there. The characters are so arch that they become unintentionally funny and a lot of the setup is so telegraphed that it gets boring (Parakeets have only ONE USE in this genre guys, so stop pretending that’s interesting). And that’s before we get to the weird way it treats it’s early kills. The way a lot of the violence is framed is designed to make us sad that these mutants are tearing down American culture (one kill is literally done with an American flag, followed by the mutant singing the Star Spangled Banner…REALLY) but that’s heavily undercut by the derision the film shows for that exact same culture before the violence starts, making the whole thing a tonal mess.

But then something weird happens. Around the halfway point, the bad guys stop acting like the Leatherface clan and start acting like Uruk-Hai, and the good guys stop acting like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and start acting like Bruce Campbell in the 3rd act of a Sam Raimi movie and the movie actually comes alive a bit. Aja’s has a considerable talent for directing violence, and it works a lot better, in this case at least, when he’s trying to excite us rather than frighten us. The movie’s setup is a lot more suited for an overly gory action movie, and while it takes a while to get going, once it gets there, this one really delivers.

I want to be clear, even after the third act hits, the movie still isn’t very good. One could make the argument (and I recall someone doing so) that the movie technically gets worse come the second half, since it basically abandons its original intention of frightening us. But frankly, I don’t care. It may be the first recorded instance of a movie saving itself by going off the rails, but while the second half may not be frightening, at least it’s not boring.


The Omen

(1976)

I feel kind of bad including this on the mediocre list (couldn’t figure out where else to put it) because it’s actually not actually mediocre. It’s a really good movie that at points flirts with being great, but that winds up in an awkward position. It has to be inevitably compared to two other Satanic Child Horror movies released in the same…10 year span (shut up), the other two being The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and as good as The Omen is, that’s not a comparison it’s going to do well with. It lacks the intensity and sheer horror of the former and the intellect and class of the latter. That doesn’t mean it’s anything approaching bad, it’s not, it just means it’s not as good as some other similar movies.

But despite that, I actually think, of the three, it’s actually the most primed for a remake. Rosemary’s Baby, despite being an undeniable classic and very popular among cinephiles, has never really been that dug into the public’s mind and suffers from the connection to Roman Polanski. And remaking The Exorcist is completely pointless, because Exorcist knockoffs have become their own subgenre at this point (hell, the episode of The X-Files that began as an Omen knockoff ended as an Exorcist knockoff…and that’s twice I’ve referenced The X-Files in one article). But The Omen has a handful of scenes that everyone knows and the original version is a little on the cheap side, so it could benefit from an update.

I just realized I’ve barely addressed the movie. I don’t think I really need to, because I assume most of my audience has been alive and awake in the last 20 years. And thus I won’t talk about it, we all know it: Little kid, turns out he’s the antichrist, will find his way to power, gotta stop him before he matures, not going too well. But as I said, this is probably the most primed for a remake movie I’ve done this entire month…

2006

So why does this suck? No seriously, this movie is awful. Oddly put together, slavishly devoted to the original in all the wrong ways with not a new idea in its head. It was directed by John Moore, who’s most notable movie is still probably the awful remake of Flight of the Phoenix and it bears all the hallmarks of a shitty studio driven remake (right down to Liev Shriber, who was also in the awful remake of The Manchurian Candidate). For god’s sake, the American Dad episode spoofing The Omen was a better Omen remake than this.

The film’s best moments are all its recreations of the big sequences from the original, although removed from the practical effects and grittiness of the 70s original, they start to feel some smaller and lacking. The rest of the movie, which includes name drops of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the dying Pope as signs of the apocalypse (you may roll your eyes) is basically the worst sort of remake. It reminds me of nothing so much as the Psycho remake: Shot for shot, with less interesting acting and direction, as original thought was most likely forbidden. This makes it painfully boring to watch, especially back to back with the original. And then there are the weird moments trying to make up for tired material, like the series of nightmare sequences involving Julia Styles going crazy, which are bordering on unintentionally hilarious.

Hey, does anyone think that a kid who literally has the powers of hell at his command is taking a rather roundabout way of getting to power? Like, seriously? You can summon hellhounds, why are you working so hard to get adopted by a midlevel dignitary? I guess that’s a problem with the original too, but there’s less to distract me in the remake.

So, that’s it for Remaketober 2013. And despite some hiccups, I rather enjoyed this little experiment. Perhaps if I feel up to it this time next year, I’ll do it again. Either way, I’ve got a director’s retrospective coming up so, stay tuned.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Captain Phillips



I’ve always felt like I was waiting to like Paul Greengrass as a director. Part of it might be how much I liked Bloody Sunday, but the rest is honestly that I think he’s quite talented. He’s got a good eye for composition, he usually chooses good screenplays and (when he can avoid going overboard with the shakycam shit) he’s usually got some good cinematography. But his choice of material and his presentation on it have always been kind of uneven (the best example of this is still Green Zone.) But with the trend of making real life event movies into big action/thriller films, I think Greengrass might have finally found groove, and made one of the best movies of his career.

The plot is one you already know, at least if you were remotely paying attention to the news at all in 2009. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the Captain of a cargo freighter, set to deliver its cargo in and around the horn of Africa. In the waters off of Somalia, they are hijacked by pirates, led by Abudwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The pirates, after a brief standoff on the ship, wind up fleeing the freighter in the lifeboat, with Captain Phillips as a hostage.

And that’s…sort of it. That’s not a complaint mind, one of the things I really like about this film is its incredibly tight focus on the event it’s depicting. After an incredibly abbreviated opening on land (which does a good job of contrasting the lives of Muse and Phillips) the film remains entirely fixed on the actual event. No cuts to the news covering it or to his family wringing their hands in front of the TV screen or to a politician demanding it be resolved. Hell, for a good portion of the 3rd act, the movie barely even leaves the lifeboat. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but it finds a way, and it retains that focus as much as possible throughout.

 That focus is zeroed in squarely in on the dynamic between Muse and Phillips, and it’s an interesting dynamic. The film is smart enough, or rather trusts us to be smart enough, that it doesn’t feel the need  to spell out that Muse’s life is miserable but what he’s doing is wrong, and doesn’t feel the need to spell out the morals. No, it’s much more interested in examining the cat and mouse game between them, as Phillips (and eventually his crew and the Navy) try to outsmart Muse and his heavily armed group without anyone getting killed.

A lot of that dynamic is on the two leads to sell and they’re both excellent. It’s been easy, in recent years, to forget why Tom Hanks was a big deal, due to his choice of film roles for a while there. But as this, and last year’s Cloud Atlas (which all of you still need to go see) proved, he is actually an excellent actor when he’s given the right part, and he’s pretty damned excellent here. And Barkhad Abdi is a major find. It takes a special kind of talent to be called upon, in your first film role, to act head-to-head with a two time Oscar winner, and what’s even more impressive is that he pulls it off. I don’t want to spoil some of the choices he makes with this role, but trust me, if he’s up for Best Supporting Actor this year I won’t be surprised.

If the movie has a major flaw it’s that the tight focus on Muse and Phillips eventually takes its toll on the rest of the characters. Oh it’s all well written and well directed and all of the dialogue feels natural enough, and some of the characters (mostly Muse’s pirates and a couple of Phillip’s crew members) do get some good character moments, but they begin to feel thin or one dimensional after a while. This works for some of them, like the Navy SEALs who are treated less like characters and more like the wrath of god, once their involved there’s no question of what’s going to happen. But some of them feel a little too nailed into one character trait which is a little disappointing. Oh and there’s the usual bitching about historical accuracy, but I couldn’t give less of a shit.

Regardless of that flaw, Captain Phillip is indeed as good as its trailers made it look, easily one of the best things in theaters (aside from Gravity) and probably one of the better movies of Greengrass’ career and the year overall. I’m increasingly fond of this trend of making historical event movies into action movies or thrillers and as long as the movies keep being this good, I think it’ll stay that way.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept expecting the youngest pirate to say “Tousle my hair Mr. Hanks.”

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Remaketober 2013: Week 3

Terribly sorry this is late, but to be honest, the degree to which you, my faithful readers, are lucky I managed to get this done this week cannot be overstated. I'm not going to go into detail (my personal life stays off my blog, as much as possible) but trust me, this entry was in serious danger of not getting done.

And in that vein, I'm sad to inform you that Mediocrity Week had to be pushed back to next week, and the pair of movies I had planned for the last week got moved up to this one, mostly cause I have easier access to the movies in question this week (I own the originals). So, this week is instead: Carptenter Week.

The Thing

1951

This version (technically entitled The Thing From Another World) is, like all versions, adapted from a John Campbell novella called Who Goes There? And weirdly enough, this version is actually probably the least faithful to the original novella. It turns the shapeshifting alien into a plant monster for...some reason, gives it a blood sucking M.O. and works very hard to give the story something resembling a happy ending.

This isn't to say that The Thing From Another World is bad, far from it. For a 1950s sci-fi film, it's quite good, in places it flirts with being excellent. The actors are all really heavily on board with the concept (one of them, the nominal human villain of the piece, some of you might recognize as the military general from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) and while the special effects are...well very 1950s, especially the electricity parts, they're all convincing enough to be going on with. It's well paced, well written, solidly directed and quite engaging if you're willing to overlook it's age (which I am).

If I had to come up with a complaint about it, besides the fact that it cannot be as purely terrifying as the version I'm going to discuss in a moment, it would be the removal of the shape shifting aspect. This fueled the dark paranoia and worries of the alien conquering the world in the novella and losing it causes the film to lose some depth. Sure it tries for that aspect, with one character constantly sabotaging their attempts to destroy it because he wants to learn from the alien (I like to assume he works for Weyland-Yutani) but that doesn't quite work on the same level. It's still good, just plant monsters aren't as overtly interesting as shapeshifting monsters.

And speaking of shapeshifting...

1982

I've spoken about Carptenter's version here before, but it bears repeating: This is one of the best films of his career and a high point for the monster genre overall. It features some of the best directing, best effects and one of the better screenplays he's ever worked on. Carpenter's strength as a director has always been taking miniscule budgets and making them work, but as this, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China proved, he can work just as well with actual money.

The biggest selling point for this movie is still the special effects, which are still incredibly impressive to this day. The scene in the dog kennel, the ENTIRE insanity that is the scene in the kitchen, even the weird scene with the blood, all of it still looks great, all the effects still hold up, it's still a great ride. I've said before that I think it's my favorite monster movie ever, and it really is. It's still quite frightening in a way a lot of monster movies aren't these days, mostly cause it's special effects still hold up. It's also, it goes without saying, superbly directed, but I'll actually get more into that in the next segment.

But it's also smart, in it's own odd way. Rewatching it as an adult, with my eye on more than 'Holy SHIT, that guy's head just grew spider legs" I was surprised at how quickly and efficiently it establishes it's characters. Example, Kurt Russell's character's tendency to destroy himself and his opponent rather than concede defeat is literally established from the first scene with him in it. It's small details like that, that make the characters feel like real people, which really gives the movie some palpable tension, since you actually care what happens to these people.

Despite not being a critical or commercial hit in it's day, The Thing's fame has grown, Kubrick style, over the years and by the time 2000 rolled around it was considered and out-and-out classic of the monster and horror genres, and one of Carpenter's best works. So around 2011, some people decided to have another crack at it...

2011

Yes, yes I know, this is technically not a remake, it's a prequel to Carpenter's film set at the Norwegian Research Base where the prologue takes place. I was initially going to exclude it from this segment because of that, but I'd already checked it out of the library when I remembered that fact and I said 'Fuck it' and watched it anyway. And I'm sorry, but aside from some incidental details, and a tacked on ending that ties it into the 1982 film, it is a beat for beat retread of Carpenter's, so it goes on the list.

And here, incidentally, is where the aforementioned superb directing comes into play. See, the 2011 Thing forgoes practical effects, for the most part, in favor of CGI. Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, this was 2011, the same year Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out (say what you will about the movie, the CGI was really impressive) so lord knows CGI should have been up to the task. But there are two issues with that. The first is that the CGI in this movie is incredibly out of date, I'd say a solid 4-5 years old at time of release.

The second is...look, there's no easy way to say this, but practical effects take work. They only look good from certain angles, with certain lighting etc. etc. This meant that the original had to be very carefully directed, so it would look good, which is why they were lucky it was being directed by John Carpenter. This one was directed by...some guy who no one has ever heard of, and since CGI takes the pressure off him to direct it well, the movie ends up being a bland looking mess.

There are a couple effects that look alright, but that leads into the other issue with this movie: It's fucking BORING. The characters are one note, you can tell who lives, who dies and even who the Thing will be appearing as for the climax, from literally the first 10 minutes. It skips merrily past some things that might be interesting, like the inclusion of gender and nationality in the paranoia about who might be the Thing (as far as I can tell, the only reason any of the characters are American is to have a really obvious excuse to have all the characters speak in English. Overall it's just completely dull, which is frankly worse then being bad. Which isn't to say there haven't been some straight up bad remakes of Carpenter movies. Speaking of which...


Halloween:

1978: 



Like The Thing, I’ve reviewed John Carpenter’s Halloween here before and like The Thing, it’s hard to undersell it. It is, on a fundamental level, the perfect slasher flick. That doesn’t mean it as a movie is perfect or that there aren’t horror films or even possibly other slasher films, that are better than it, far from it. But it is the perfect expression of the slasher flick as a concept, uncomplicated perhaps but free to be the best a slasher film can be. And while the franchise as a whole is tainted by its increasingly awful sequels (see also: Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the- okay that’s not fair, they were never any good) the original film is still a benchmark classic in the horror genre.

Watching it again, as I do every October, I am struck by how much it does with so little. As I said earlier, one of Carpenter’s strengths as a director is using very little to do a lot, and I can’t think of another film that embodies that as much as Halloween. The lack of any SFX keeps the violence off screen or in the shadows but somehow makes it even tenser. The decision to film Mike in broad daylight just standing there seems like it shouldn’t be frightening, but anyone who’s seen the movie knows otherwise. The theme is minimalist on a good day, something like 2 chords, but it works.
Even Mike’s backstory is minimalist. I have no evidence to back this up, but it seems to me that they realized they didn’t have the time or the energy to come up with a unique, deep villain and so just set out to make the scariest simple villain ever. Mike, in this one at least, has no explanation behind his behavior, no motivation, no rhyme or reason. He simply is, a pure and uncomplicated monster, the boogeyman made flesh. His signature look, a simple jumpsuit and a William Shatner mask painted white, reflect this and somehow make him even more frightening.

Remaking genre classics though, is an awkward thing to do and verrrrrrry difficult to do right. This goes double with classics that have, for better or worse, defined and influenced their genre to any great degree and I honestly can’t think of a movie that has more heavily influenced the slasher genre, or even the horror genre in general, than Halloween. But some people can’t be dissuaded from bad ideas.

2007:

It is utterly impossible to discuss Rob Zombie’s Halloween without discussing Rob Zombie, so you’ll have to bear with me here for a moment. See, to me, it’s still up in the air if Zombie has a legitimately great horror film in him, or even a very good one (note: At time of writing I’ve not seen Lords of Salem, might try to watch it before the end of the month). All 4 of the movies I’ve seen of his so far have not worked…even a little, but they’re all bizarrely fascinating to me. Take The Devil’s Rejects, a movie, I will remind you, that wants us to sympathize with a group of psychotic brutal murders, who we see kidnap and torture a group of innocent people in the previous film. You’re probably already spotting the issue, in that no matter how awful the pair of bounty hunters looking for the leads were, I was consistently rooting for them, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize this and keeps trying to make them look like the good guys. Hell in one scene, directly after the leads savagely murder a bunch of hotel employees, we’re then treated to a sequence of them arguing about what kind of fucking ICE CREAM THEY WANT! This is rather emblematic of Zombie’s issues, the biggest one being of tone. I’m never certain how I’m supposed to regard any given scene in one of his movies.

This problem is in full display in Halloween but it’s compounded not only by inevitable comparisons to the original but also by some truly bizarre choices with the story. In the original, Mike had no explanation behind his behavior, he was simply born evil and while such things are rarely true in real life, I’ve also never found that solving a rubiks cube causes a bunch of chains to attack me, so I was willing to overlook that. But Zombie apparently wasn’t, so the entire first hour of his version of Halloween is given over to endlessly detailing Mike’s backstory, and I’m sorry but EVERYTHING becomes less scary when you fucking explain it.

Then there’s the weird way it treats the actual kills.The movie spends literally a solid third of it's time making it's characters some of the least likeable victims in any slasher flick I've seen and then spends the actual kills trying to make them disturbing and horrifying. The complete awfulness of the characters keeps me from feeling bad when they get killed but the presentation keeps me from enjoying them. It wants to have it both ways and ends up having neither.

It's also an awkwardly put together film. It's basically only got two acts, with the second act being an extremely cut down retread of Carpenter's original. It's well directed (Zombie is at least a pretty solid director, even as he's an awful storyteller) and it's got an intense ending, but it's ultimately a complete failure as a movie.


And with that, week 3 of Remaketober ends. Sorry it took so long. So next week we end with Mediocrity Week. See you then.