11.21.2010

REVIEW: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009)

A film set's unique energy can inspire bold spontaneity. In spite of premeditated shot lists and painstaking schedules a director might suggest, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did it this new way I just thought of instead!?" Sometimes these changes become highlights through representation of what it meant to be part of the film's creation - the raw aura of the production. Watching Revenge of the Fallen, it feels as though director Michael Bay - who here wears acclaimed sci-fi influences from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Empire Strikes Back on his sleeve - was making these spur-of-the-moment decisions every day. Is that a positive or a negatron? That, of course, depends on the viewer, but it would be difficult denying this beefed-up Transformer experiences power overload and becomes way more than we want to meet the eye.

I'll confess, I was pleasantly surprised with the first half of this overlong beast. The characters may be skeletal and pacing's been thrown out the window, but the action is memorably ballsy. Aptly filmed, testosterone-fueled scenes feature appealing compositions that strongly utilize shadow, existing backlight and the fog of war. It's just a pity, as it is in far too many films anymore, we aren't allowed to appreciate the compositions for longer than 0.25 seconds. This is about as backhandedly beautiful and relentlessly frenetic it gets before you move on to a Neveldine/Taylor film.

Bay - for the most part - has traded in the practical, in-camera dynamo of films like The Rock and Bad Boys II for CGI, but at least - again, for the most part - the CGI is top-notch. One disaster sequence almost out-Emmerichs Roland Emmerich (who about out-Emmeriched himself with 2012). Considering the trappings, this action is all that counts, and it certainly stands to be counted.

The problem is the sprawl. Paper-thin characters prancing through a Saturday morning cartoon's plot are only tolerable for so long, and they wear out their welcome about an hour before the credits roll. For much of this Giza-set hour, the film becomes "The Lord of the Ringbots: The Return of the Prime" - a giant battle around the Great Pyramids that causes human brains to default to auto-pilot. The grand yet relatively reigned-in robo-a-robo brawl between Optimus and Megatron earlier on greatly outweighs this sandy stretch. Heck, even the transforming university bimbo with a mechanical whip-tongue puts this desert finale to shame.

Revenge of the Fallen is surely one of the coolest things a 10-year-old boy will ever see this side of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, but as it pushes on longer and longer it just becomes a tiring downward spiral. Though suffering from some of the same issues as in the first movie, the action is surprisingly coherent, but all else has been sacrificed in favor of that accomplishment.

11.18.2010

FILM: Friday the 13th (Swede)

If you're unfamiliar, "swede" is a termed coined by Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind starring Jack Black and Mos Def as video store clerks who remake destroyed films on VHS through meager, budget-free means. A swede is one of these amateur remakes, named as such for the initial claim they are actually custom-made Swedish versions of American films.

The swede phenomenon caught YouTube fire and for some time my girlfriend Jaime and I have been wanting to do our own swedes. After a couple weeks' deliberation we finally buckled in and over the span of maybe four hours whipped together our own no-budget version of Sean S. Cunningham's 1980 slashterpiece, Friday the 13th.

Having been technologically restricted of late, I resorted to Windows Movie Maker 2.6 to piece the footage together. As you'll hear, the basic software created audio issues a-plenty, but thankfully after a few exports/re-edits I managed to minimize the problem.

We're aiming to put together more swedes soon enough - be on the lookout for Paranormal Activity, Boogie Nights, Vanilla Sky and more! For now... you're doomed:

11.01.2010

HORRORTHON '10: Wrap Up


Another October down, and I must say, I'm quite satisfied with my horror haul - in both quantity and quality. Sure, there were plenty of duds and even some outright rankness, but there's never anything wrong with experiencing a film of any caliber - even pure excrement can broaden horizons.

In total I watched twenty-four relevant films (or, at least, films I deemed relevant) and one television episode between this horrorthon's commencement and All Hallow's Eve. Fifteen of them, good or bad, great or dreadful, were not highlighted with full reviews, so I figured I'd offer thoughts on a handful of these leftovers now...

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
(John S. Robertson, 1920/Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

One day I must - MUST - get around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Its four film adaptations I've seen - these two, 1941's Spencer Tracy vehicle and Amicus' I, Monster - have all been absolute winners.

The first, starring John Barrymore, is silent filmmaking at a beautiful best and a true inspiration to behold. The second, starring Fredric March, is a bombastic spectacle rife with bold cinematography and uncompromising artistry. The opening point-of-view tracking shot may already be one of my absolute favorites due to expert blocking and set design. It also taught me that our titular doctor's name is in fact pronounced "Jee-kyll", but has fallen into common-use territory a la "forte". One could even say proper pronunciation is one of the 1931 film's fortes.

The Evil of Frankenstein
(Freddie Francis, 1963)

After devouring the first pair of of Hammer's Frankenstein films - easily two of the best films I've seen from the British studio - I mistakenly leaped ahead to Frankenstein Created Woman. Though I wasn't too enamored with that fourth in the series overall, I was mostly concerned with my having missed the full resolution of Revenge of Frankenstein's compelling cliffhanger. Turns out I was well off missing out. This third entry does nothing to link itself to its immediate predecessor, instead relying solely on the merits of the original. What's more, it completely reimagines events of that original in both look and storyline with embarrassing results. Most prominent is the alteration in the creature's appearance from Christopher Lee's decaying corpse to a more Universal-looking green guy with what appears to be a styrofoam McDonald's burger container stapled to his forehead.

The experience was not a complete waste, however, as the cinematography - which uses the often-mobile camera to probe its environments - is rather marvelous. It is frustrating to see the maturing Baron Von Frankenstein constantly thwarted by imbeciles who simply refuse to understand him, but at least he keeps on trucking.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
(Dwight H. Little, 1988)

Something about big Mike's big return is just plain inept. Oftentimes it seems the production was not allowed ample shooting time, so scenes were only captured from one questionably selected angle. The entire drawn-out second act is a yawn-worthy "Michael's coming, you'd better watch out" with nothing of note taking place whatsoever. At least Sasha Jenson shows up every so often, making me merrily announce "Hey, it's that guy from Dazed & Confused!" In all honesty, I think the just-for-fun, shoestring-budget Dark Departure films I did with Ryan Stevens are better than this load. At least Ryan had Michael's mannerisms down to a science - this incarnation of Michael is just awkward.

I did find myself considering a recant of my oft-mentioned criticism of Michael's driving motivation, though. Of course in these sequels it's introduced that he's been after his family members all along... but in Carpenter's original, he was just an entity of pure evil. That was all fine, well, and good, I guess... but it never quite gelled with me. After seeing the story's continuations this season, I conceded that "just evil and that's it" was the better way to go. Now I believe I understand it even more - I was reminded that Michael didn't set out to murder random babysitters from the get-go. He simply returns home with a killer instinct, and these babysitters get on his case. Laurie braves Michael's front porch to prove something to the boy she's responsible for. One of her friends shouts to a passing car driven by Michael,  "Hey buddy, speed kills!" They placed themselves on his radar, subsequently placing me on board with Michael's motivations.

Parasomnia
(William Malone, 2008)

In fairness, I didn't finish this one. I came close, but after four nights of the film inducing me with involuntary sleep not unlike that of its lead female character, I gave up. I had certain hopes, seeing as after his House on Haunted Hill remake and feardotcom I am a big William Malone fan, but if this is impartial evidence, it would seem Malone has trouble operating under a limited budget. As one familiar with certain Malone-isms, I can see many a point where the director's vision is desperately trying to rear its demented head, but is reined in by pathetic effects.

The budget isn't all to blame, unfortunately, as the script treads off in varying directions without letting a single one flourish. The lead actors' stale performances don't help matters while the great Jeffrey Combs isn't given a single interesting thing to do. Watching Parasomnia is much like watching a contemporary Dario Argento film a la The Card Player or Do You Like Hitchcock?... just not quite as fun.

Trick 'r Treat
(Michael Dougherty, 2007)

There exists a fine line between derivation and a sheer lack of originality. The concept at Trick 'r Treat's forefront, involving the child-like embodiment of Halloween spirit teaching lessons to Scrooges of the season, is decent enough, but just about everything surrounding this bite-sized slasher is directly and shamelessly ripped from the reels of Halloween, Pumpkinhead, CreepshowTales From the Crypt and more. I was grumpily tolerating the proceedings until Marilyn Manson's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" cover came on, employed in the precise fashion it was for Malone's House on Haunted Hill (the original of which is later shown in its colorized form - perhaps an unwitting allegory). At that point the experience became so miserable I went into my permafrown mode.

All that said, I can see why this mixed-up anthology is so popular. If you can surpass all-too-familiar content and annoyingly undercooked production design, the flick is dynamically lit and rapid-fire enough to be amusing on a base level. If you become completely resigned to it, perhaps some of the twists will thrill you. For me, though, I'll be behind my frown until the credits roll.


The other favorable films I took in but neglected to review are Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969), which brought its series back up to par, Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958), which I meant to review in contrast to the fourth in Hammer's Frankenstein series due to compellingly different uses of spiritual themes, The House on Haunted Hill (William Malone, 1999), which I've probably seen about thirty times by now, and The Most Dangerous Game (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932), which is probably the best film I saw all month. Falling on the other side of the quality gap are Opera (Dario Argento, 1987), The Masque of Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964), Terrore nello spazio (Mario Bava, 1965), El espinazo del diablo (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001) and Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007).

So, the month may be over, but plenty more horror awaits! I've yet to exhaust my interest in Hammer Studios, I've barely tapped the world of giallo and even certain classics like The Haunting and The Fearless Vampire Killers still lay ahead.

HORRORTHON '10: The Walking Dead, Ep. 101: Days Gone Bye (Frank Darabont, 2010)

Robert Kirkman's ("Battle Pope", "Invincible") comic book epic, "The Walking Dead", which began in 2003 and currently stands at seventy-eight issues, isn't about zombies the way something like Night of the Living Dead or Resident Evil is about zombies. Oh, sure, re-animated shamblers skirt the series and propel its plot, and with any given page one of your most beloved characters could be gruesomely dispatched, but at its core "The Walking Dead" is about society and morality in the absence of government and law. Honestly, it can be rather soap operatic at times, but I eat up every drop of ink.

Frank Darabont's opening installment in AMC's hotly-anticipated television adaptation may not be as visually stark as its black and white source material, but it captures a similar vibe with frequent musical silence. Darabont is not a slave to source and sets an initially quaint stage for this sprawling tale with ideas translated between media to have similar effect through slightly different means. Design-wise, though, the props, costumes and on-screen talent are direct ports.

Perhaps the most promising aspect for fans of both rookie and veteran varieties is how Darabont, who also penned the teleplay, expands upon scenes, moods and themes - a rarity among print-to-screen adaptations, as most tend to simplify. Revisiting a familiar story in a new way here feels less "been there, done that" and more "hey, I'm getting even more out of this, now!" Right off the bat, certain zombie clich├ęs are presented, but I'll be damned if they aren't handled with more gravitas and emotion than I've seen before - a true sign this is definitely the "Walking Dead" I know and love.

It's only the beginning. Rick has still only just arrived in Atlanta. Knowing the trials and travesties that lay ahead, I can already see throngs of new fans seething about recent events and frothing for more. If careful standards set by this pilot maintain, AMC's The Walking Dead will be a classic.