Saturday, October 31, 2009

Murder as Photo Op: Scream 2 starring Neve Campbell and Jada Pinkett (1997)

[Here's a time capsule review from one of my favorite horror franchises.]

I imagine Kevin Williamson had great fun writing screenplays for Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and now Scream 2. Instinctively aware of the fickle tastes of the young and media savvy, he can't or won't write down to his audience. While part of his job consists of imagining even more elaborate ways to have a death-reaper disguised villain leap from behind the unexpected door with a bloody knife in a large house, he also hit upon the winning method of constantly including knowing pop culture references, reflections, and commentary of the whole institution of horror films in his movies. In this way, he can create a pretty good but not great film like Scream 2 and neutralize all critical response in advance by including a scene where a film class debates the pros and cons of making sequels.

Williamson knows how to capitalize on the way all the different media outlets will exploit and cannibalize a murder story into hundreds of fictional or newsworthy or television talk show formats. The dissonance between the human horror of murder and the gleeful feeding frenzy of the press creates the ironic distance wherein these Scream movies can be made. Thus characters can scream, comment on their position within a horror convention, and light up at the possibility of appearing nationwide with Diane Sawyer simultaneously.

In the opening sequence, a young black couple enter a theater to watch the horror film Stab as they discuss how African Americans have traditionally been excluded from lily white horror films. As Jada Pinkett's character says, "I read my Entertainment Weekly. I know my shit!" Stab is a crude movie-within-a-movie recreation of the original Scream. The couple sit down to a parody of the now famous scene where Drew Barrymore gets attacked by an anonymous telephone caller, and guess who gets killed in the theater as every other audience member wears promotional reaper masks and slashes around with plastic green knives? When a murder victim stumbles up on stage to die during the movie, the audience members in the theater think it's a publicity stunt. Welcome to the postmodern hall of mirrors of Scream 2.

Does Scream 2 suffer from sequelitis? Yes. The original Scream included cries of "There's got to be a sequel!" Scream 2 takes place at the same small college where Sid (Neve Campbell) seeks to escape her memories of the former slashing. Now she's in drama class playing Cassandra, appropriately enough. After the opening murders, sensing a copycat sequence of killings coming up, the media descends on the campus in their electronic gewgaw-laden vans, among them Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who has written a book about the original Scream slashings, and Dewey (David Arquette), the small town lovable deputy who shows up to warn Sid that she probably already knows the killers. Pretty soon we find Last Summer's Sarah Michelle Gellar alone in a large sorority house at night. Sid's erstwhile boyfriend keeps appearing at suspicious moments, but Randy (another friend) knowingly points out that since the other boyfriend in Scream turned out to be the killer, this one can't be him.

I wasn't as caught up in the mystery aspect of the movie this time, preferring the clever self-referential reflections built in the set-piece scenes. For instance, the murderer in this movie takes video footage of his victims before killing them, so we get to watch these versions of earlier scenes in a screening room just before the killer kicks in to attack the viewers. Tori Spelling plays a delightfully campy movie variation of Sid in the original Scream in a scene sampled on a talk show. While Sid remains a rather static epic heroine grimly determined to fight her way out of slasheedom, Courtney Cox and David Arquette actually develop as side characters with Courtney finding some unexpected compassion for her media victims.

During one of the last scenes in the movie, a survivor hands out his card to the press, telling them what he knows warrants a price, and saying the story will definitely make a good movie. I thought of Kevin Williamson at this point jacking up his fees for Scream 3 and I Know What You Did Last Summer 2 (already in production). In this age of big dumb studio blockbusters, knowing how not to condescend to your audience can pay very well indeed.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Notable film and media links--October 30, 2009

---Facebook is so passe, but at least it acknowledges the dead. Wal-Mart now offers a discount for the dead. Also, let's not forget the media death spiral and the death of the book review.

---Bill Murray, screen demigod:

"The threat of sudden emotional violence is always lurking within. In his early movies, such as Meatballs and Caddyshack, he made this his shtick — witness his famously manic “It just doesn’t matter!” speech from the former movie, or the bursts of gopher-hatred in the latter. In later work, such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, though the performances are more restrained the threat is still there, simmering behind the impassive glare. Think of how he gleefully destroys schoolboy Jason Schwartzman’s bicycle inRushmore, or how he humiliates Robert De Niro’s tremulous cop in the opening of Mad Dog and Glory with a genuinely terrifying stare and the viciously spat, “F*** off!”

---Film in Focus honors the achievement of Joe Bowman of Fin de Cinema as part of their Behind the Blog series.

---Stephen Asma attempts to figure out the significance of our love of monsters:

"Believers in human progress, from the Enlightenment to the present, think that monsters are disappearing. Rationality will pour its light into the dark corners and reveal the monsters to be merely chimeric. A familiar upshot of the liberal interpretation of monsters is to suggest that when we properly embrace difference, the monsters will vanish. According to this view, the monster concept is no longer useful in the modern world. If it hangs on, it does so like an appendix—useful once but hazardous now.

I disagree. The monster concept is still extremely useful, and it's a permanent player in the moral imagination because human vulnerability is permanent. The monster is a beneficial foe, helping us to virtually represent the obstacles that real life will surely send our way. As long as there are real enemies in the world, there will be useful dramatic versions of them in our heads."

---Which is more accurate--the view of Baghdad from up in a helicopter, or down in the streets?

---Dennis Cozzalio points out where the dirty hipsters are.

---David Cairns examines a remake of one of my favorite films- Sternberg's Der blaue Engel.

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard consider Trouble Every Day in time for Halloween.

---David Thomson vents about pod actors and the idea of a remake of The Third Man.

---I confess that I've been enjoying William Mann's new biography of Elizabeth Taylor, in part because of his emphasis on her skill at being a celebrity. As Laura Miller points out:

"As a pioneer for the Madonnas and Lindsay Lohans of today, women whose personal lives occupy more of the public imagination than does their creative work, Taylor comes across as remarkably sympathetic and uncomplicated. For all her temperament, narcissism and hedonism, she was never driven or insecure. She didn't seek applause as a balm for deeper wounds, like Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe; her fame was forged by others rather than the object of her own ambition. She didn't much like making movies, though she'd occasionally pull out the stops when the project suited her whims. What she really wanted was to lounge around on yachts and in luxury hotels, chowing down on fried chicken with "lots of gravy" and waking up to a Tiffany's box on her pillow on a fairly regular basis. Acting, fame and a few of her marriages were little more than means to those ends."

---Sociological Images looks at the evolution of Disney princesses.

---The Fake AP Stylebook answers all of your style and usage questions.

---For those trying to figure out the internet, you can check it out its ten laws, decry its negative effect on the long-form narrative, consider how it spreads rumors, celebrate its 40th birthday, or imagine what it will be like in 5 years.

---Speaking of "Imagine," the upcoming John Lennon biopic looks intriguing, although I never cared much for "Hey Jude."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Edge of Exasperation: David Mamet's The Edge starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins (1997)

[Here's another time capsule review from 12 years ago.]

I may be the wrong type of guy to write a review of The Edge. The writer of the movie, David Mamet, evidently believes you're not really a man until you have to use your wits to survive in the cold Alaskan wilderness. You have to build fires to keep drying off your damp clothes. You have to go for days without food and then maybe gnaw on half of a squirrel you catch in a little ingenious stick trap shaped like a box. If that isn't enough, you're not really a man until you kill a 500 lb grizzly bear by wedging a spear in a rock so the upraised howling, drooling bear impales itself on its own weight and falls on top of you.

The last film that followed this trial-by-torment ethic was G. I. Jane, which at least was trashily entertaining. The Edge takes its old fashioned Hemingwayesque Grizzly Adams/Jack London/Deliverance survival shtick seriously, which eventually makes it a dreary bore. Anthony Hopkins plays Charles, a billionaire genius who flies out to the frozen tundra with his much younger wife, Elle Macpherson, who supermodels faux Native American clothes for handsome fashion photographer Bob (Alec Baldwin), who is sleeping with her on the sly.

Out at the bear lodge, Charles quickly establishes himself as an overcivilized scaredy-cat when Bob frightens him with the head of a bear rug. I think we are meant to think of Alec Baldwin as a frivolous superficial photographer modern man, but he looks too strong and resourceful for the part. He decides he wants to hire a local bear-hunting Indian for a fashion shoot and so they fly north into a flock of birds that causes the plane to crash into the water, and away they go on their adventure.

For awhile Bob and Charles have another character played by Harold Perrineau walking along with them, but he proves to be early bear meat after he accidentally cuts his leg and attracts the bear with the smell of his blood. Compared to the shark in Jaws or the big snake in Anaconda, this grizzly looks kind of cute. I kept thinking the real circus or zoo-kept bear probably enjoyed his occasional jaunts out in the woods in front of a camera. We also get to see a computer animated bear and a man-in-a-bear-suit bear for the fancier stunts. This grizzly means business because he has a special preference for humans, and so he tracks Bob and Charles for half of the film. He has his own special bear music for his appearances, some sort of wonking trombone sound to go with the loud epic orchestral music.

Did I mention the breathtaking natural scenery? The many feats of courage, strength, and stamina? Charles knows that Bob wants to kill him to get his money and his supermodel wife, which adds a nice little plot wrinkle. Is Bob saving Charles' life just so he can kill him later? (Spoiler alert) After they kill the bear, they both wear bear pelt coats, hats, and bear claw necklaces so they really look like two Grizzly Adamses. We see their actions and faces take on a soulful dignity born of true manlihood.

Maybe Boy Scouts, hunters, and men suffering midlife crises might like and learn from this movie, but I didn't. I guess I'm not man enough.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Notable film and media links--October 23, 2009

---X-Men Origins: Wolverine (in 30 seconds)

---Nathan Zeldez broods on ways to beat information overload:

"William Shockley knew the value of isolation. In 1948, shortly after his colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the point-contact transistor in Shockley's absence, he became so upset that he holed up in a hotel room. He knew he needed a quiet place to think. Some days later he emerged, having worked out the basic design for the far superior junction transistor that became the key to modern electronics.

Today few can afford the luxury of such isolation. While just about everybody agrees that electronic messaging is critical to modern business and that some interruptions are vital to workplace interactions, clearly they've become too much of a good thing. This glut affects Fortune 500 corporations, tiny companies, schools, government agencies, churches, and nonprofits. Just about everyone, in other words.

The irony of all this constant communication is that we're not communicating well at all. Consider the meeting where everyone's eyes are glued to their BlackBerries or laptops. They're sifting through e-mail or scanning reports or updating spreadsheets; nobody is paying attention to the business at hand."

---(500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb shoots a music video for Weezer.

---David Thomson discusses the genius and self-destruction of Orson Welles:

"It's easy to see how this flamboyant figure has influenced would-be directors in America from Bogdanovich (who knew Welles well) and Spielberg to Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. But it's more than the flourish, the eloquence with which he let himself be interviewed, and the effortless seduction of the man himself. If ever our young directors feel fear, self-pity or failure in their lives – then surely they think of Welles again. For Welles is not just the boy wonder; he is Falstaff and Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil – gross hulks. At the root of Welles's fascination lies this question: how can anyone so creative be so self-destructive?"

---Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner recommends that you get away from the computer:

"When I look at digital, the dark side of it for me is the physicality that's being presented alongside the Internet. I think about that movie The Matrix, and about these bodies that are human batteries that support computers. I met this guy who was creating software where you could watch Mad Men and you could chat with your friend while you're watching it, and things would pop up, and facts would pop up, and I said, 'You're a human battery. Turn the . . . thing off! You're not allowed to watch the show anymore. You're missing the idea of sitting in a dark place and having an experience. Are you just like sitting with your phone and you're kissing your girlfriend and saying, "'I'm kissing my girlfriend! This is so great, we're having sex!'" EXPERIENCE THINGS!"

---Speaking of Mad Men, Michael Wilson traces Weiner's mania for period detail. January Jones attempts to evade the Betty Draper image. Also, Benjamin Schwartz examines the pros and cons of the show:

"Finally, there’s another factor, one that cuts both ways and thereby contributes to Mad Men’s inner tension: the peculiar emotional chord the show’s setting strikes with viewers over 30. Critics invariably discuss how the series echoes John Cheever’s stories, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (a novel Weiner says he hadn’t read when he created the show). But for every audience member familiar with gin-soaked Shady Hill, there are dozens whose notions of the glamour of adult life, of Manhattan, and of “creative” careers were shaped by endless reruns of three sitcoms with concrete ties to Mad Men’s particular milieu: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and That Girl. The key to television success, Don Draper tosses off, is to offer “derivative with a twist.” Mad Men is those shows grown up, grown hard, and—in ways that flatter its writers’ and viewers’ images of themselves—grown wise."

---Pollution in China.

---A. O. Scott confesses that La Dolce Vita is one of his favs.

---Noam Chomsky looks at our meaningless propaganda: "the bewildered herd" needs distracting.

---I don't own a cellphone. How much longer can I hold out?

---42 essential third act twists.

---Race, prejudice, and Lee Daniels' Precious.

---The New Yorker profile of James Cameron.

---The decline of the cinema of outrage.

---Kristin Thompson defends the blockbuster.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Katie, Micah, and the scary demon: a pictorial primer for Paranormal Activity

See the young couple Katie and Micah. Katie and Micah are scared to go to bed. Why are they scared to go to bed? Because a demon is after her. The demon goes BUMP and makes weird sounds in the night. The demon clearly has no manners at all.

Here is a demon image taken from an old woodcut. At one point in Paranormal Activity, Micah flips through a book of pictures much like this one to show what they are up against. Scary, scary demon that makes noises in the night.

See the cat. Our cat's name is Darcy. Darcy makes all of the loud noises at night in our household. Darcy is basically an evil punk who was raised in a feed bucket, but I digress.

See the scared filmgoers. The filmgoers are frightened because of the gradual way the demon goes after poor Katie and Micah. The filmgoers lined up to watch Paranormal Activity at midnight in sold out shows in select theaters across the US. Perhaps people scare easily when staying up that late. Paranormal Activity has been called "The most frightening film ever made!" Now that's savvy marketing.

Here is Oren Peli. Peli is the Israeli-born videogame designer who wrote, directed, and edited Paranormal Activity. He found Micah and Katie after a marathon casting session in Hollywood yielded about 150 applicants. Then, for a mere $15,000 he shot the film in a week in his suburban tract home. He didn't even change the names of the actors. Now that is what I call cheap.

See Micah with his fancy camera. The camera is the real star of Paranormal Activity. Like so many others, Micah and Katie are exhibitionists. As Warren Beatty said to Madonna in her Truth or Dare (1991) concert film, "Why say anything if it is not on camera?" Now everyone can be on camera all of the time. Micah often asks Katie if he can film their "extra-curricular activities." At times, the extra-curricular activities seem more important to Micah than the paranormal activities. And, ultimately, Katie gets annoyed and tells him "Turn off the f-ing camera!" As if being tormented by a demon wasn't bothersome enough.

Here is Linda Blair possessed by a demon in The Exorcist. Peli acknowledges the influence of The Exorcist when he has Micah play spooky music reminiscent of the 1973 horror film. In The Exorcist, Linda Blair's character curses, rages, and hurls abuse at her mother, in other words, a realistic portrayal of a teenage girl.

Here is Heather Donahue freaking out in The Blair Witch Project (1999), another dirt-cheap horror film with a clever marketing campaign. The Blair Witch Project is an obvious influence on Paranormal Activity, only the two directors of Blair Witch kept their actors awake at night in the woods at length, and didn't tell them what would happen next, and generally tormented them on video until they really were freaked out. Unfortunately, in Paranormal Activity, Peli relies on Katie's and Micah's acting.

Here are Katie and Micah acting. They are also sleep-deprived, but still unaccountably not leaving the house, after the demon torments them for days. Katie says things like "It's getting worse," and "I'm nervous," and "Something's wrong," and "I can feel it watching me right now." Katie is an English major planning on becoming a teacher someday. I kept hoping she would recite lines from The Mysteries of Udolpho, but no such luck.

Eventually, things start getting really bad for Micah and Katie. (Spoiler alert) The demon messes up Micah's Ouija board, demonic paw prints appear in the baby powder, and Katie has difficulty studying for her English test.

I made the mistake of seeing the movie on a Saturday afternoon with a restless audience. A little boy kept saying "Oh man, oh man, oh man," as his mother tried to shush him, and a girl kept hopping up and down the stairs by the seats. At the climax of the film, two women behind me laughed, and one said, (I'm not making this up): "The most frightening film ever made, my ass!"

Next time I'll watch Paranormal Activity with a sold out crowd at midnight.

Related link:

notes on Paranormal Activity 2

Friday, October 16, 2009

Notable film and media links--October 16, 2009

---Infernal landscapes.

---Our age of attention whores.

---Newsweek considers 2009 as possibly the most depressing year at the movies:

"Fall movie season is usually the time when the studios haul out their dark dramas for awards consideration, but this year's batch seems especially bleak. The themes they touch upon include incest, murder, AIDS, cancer, abuse, layoffs, and lots of unexpected, tragic deaths (and we're not even counting the dead vampires in the Twilight sequel). This probably isn't just coincidental. This fall's slate was written at the end of the Bush administration, when most of Hollywood—at least the predominantly liberal part—was under a cloud of gloom. Now, we're all feeling gloomy; the economy is in tatters, and the unemployment rate continues to soar. Does anybody really want to go to the movies this year to feel even more depressed?"

---Sadly, the world may not end in 2012, and besides, the Mayans are getting annoyed with all of the profitable misrepresentation of their legends.

---Dr. North of Spectacular Attractions compares the two versions of Michael Haneke's Funny Games:

"I’ve always been uncomfortable with the didactic nature of the film, but I admire its commitment to unsettling its viewer. It’s still possible, if so inclined, to enjoy it as another extreme thrill ride (I’m often amazed by the ability of horror fans to shrug off even the most gruelling of movies or to compartmentalise them as compendia of bodily destruction in all its variations), though you can see Haneke trying to thwart such attempts at complacency. Funny Games doesn’t play fair – the divisive moment where one of the killers uses a remote control to rewind the film to make it replay in his favour breaks a contract with the spectator that their involvement in the fiction can have an influence on it. We like to believe that because we’re on the side of the innocents, the filmmaker will at least reward us with some relief, some catharsis or vengeance, but there is no comfort here: in this place of carefully applied violence, dogs and children die first. Why? Because they’re not supposed to, and thus is highlighted the artifice of the conventions that usually govern film violence."

---Anne Helen Petersen examines the essential banality of the Vanity Fair celebrity profile of Penelope Cruz.

---Matt Zoller Seitz looks more closely at the political implications of Marlon Brando's On the Waterfront.

---Film Studies for Free treats us to an hour long interview with Alfred Hitchcock. Also, A. O. Scott enthuses over Vertigo.

---Buzz Machine analyzes how the old media executives are not getting "the collaboration economy":

"Add this to the other blind spots these old media powers have about the new economic reality: the imperatives of the link economy, the need and benefit of giving up control, the advantages of creating open platforms over closed systems, the value of networks, the post-scarcity economy and the art of exploiting abundance, the need to be searchable to be found, the deflation innovation brings, the value of free, the triumph of process over product…."

---Brando, Herzog, and Criterion: the first chapter of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City.

---87 cool things.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Follow the rules or die: notes on Trick 'r Treat

In the EC horror comics vein, Michael Doughtery's Trick 'r Treat chops up one Halloween evening in Sheeps Meadow, Ohio and tells four interwoven tales in a rearranged manner reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. Critics have belatedly raved about this 2007 film that Warner Brothers mysteriously never got around to releasing in theaters (it just came out on DVD). While the various stories are ingeniously arranged, and the film has the glossy slick look of a Tim Burton horror film complete with children singing in the soundtrack, I was impressed by the technique but underwhelmed by Trick 'r Treat's shock tactics and ironic reversals. Here are some notes:

1) Where's the horror in a film where just about everyone is a villain? We no sooner meet Principal Steven Wilkins than we learn that he's a serial killer with the awkward task of burying bodies in the backyard as his annoying young son yells down to him from upstairs about carving the jack-o-lantern. (Spoiler alert) Wilkins is so proficient at multipurpose Halloween naughtiness, he moonlights as a costumed seducer/killer of young women at the local parade. If the characters weren't wicked already, most of the innocent turn evil quickly, as if screenwriter Dougherty was worried we may get bored otherwise.

2) And what is the major crime here? Not following the rules of Halloween. For instance, if you blow out a jack-o-lantern before the night is over, you deserve death. If you play an evil prank on someone that causes a bump on the head, then of course you should expire. If you neglect to give trick or treaters candy, then watch out. And if you happen to bust up pumpkins on the way home, forget about it. A persnickety holiday formalism underlies much of the mayhem of the movie.

3) Anna Paquin plays a virginal Little Red Riding Hood figure named Laurie who's in search of a boyfriend. In comparison to her lewd, more aggressive friends dressed as Snow White, Cinderella, etc., Laurie just wants a date, and Paquin briefly achieves some pathos before her story ends. Since you never really get to know characters, you have to take their costumes at face value (and Dougherty likes to ironically reverse the connotations of their costumes). Thus the angel is evil, the witch is good, and so on.

4) The most satisfying scene: from Principal Wilkins' point of view, we see a man in the neighboring house screaming for help through the window just before he gets attacked. Wilkins says "Screw you," and ignores him. I did like knowing that the involuted structure of the film would reveal what happened several scenes later.

5) The most engaging story involves a bus full of criminally insane, costumed children that plunges into a rock quarry because their parents get sick of dealing with them, but the film never really culminates in a coherent sense of evil. Be it werewolves, evil child spirits, sadistic teenagers, or just plain people who hate Halloween, Trick 'r Treat has plenty of menace to go around, but much of it cancels itself out in a salad bar of horror tropes. Ironically, Trick 'r Treat succeeds most in the calm moments between each bloody narrative. A girl in a witch's costume from one story pauses to acknowledge the demon of another as they pass in the night. Donnie Darko would be proud.

Friday, October 9, 2009

America, the weird: notes on The Hitchhiking Movie

What would it be like to hitchhike across the country from New York City to Los Angeles in a week? In The Hitchhiking Movie, Philip Hullquist and Ryan Jeanes decided to find out in 2007. While I had my doubts about this low-budget documentary that Hullquist sent to me in DVD form, the results are compelling, in part because the two men decided to try not to spend any money in this Kerouac-esque venture, and because the resulting journey develops a deranged fascination. The film begins with various people in New York predicting that the two guys will be assaulted, kidnapped, and murdered. Ryan carries a backpack with basic supplies, and Hullquist (who mostly does not appear in the movie) carries his camera equipment, but otherwise they remain at the mercy of freeways, truck stops, and a steady stream of people in vehicles who usually prefer to not pick up hitchhikers. One woman who supplies a ride, for instance, says she figured that "the two guys were trustworthy because [she] saw one of them carrying a camera, unless, of course, they planned on filming her murder."

With its playful editing, crude cinematography, typed-in inserts consisting of data about states, murky night photography, thought-balloons, flash-forwards, problems with sound, and so on, the movie can get a little too eager to please, but Ryan humorously grouses about his frequent inability to get a ride. I was intrigued by the grim nature of their voyage much of the time. Ryan and Phillip are too much in a rush to dwell on much local scenery, and often the highways look the same. Instead of picking up the hitchhikers, people would frequently honk as they drove by, so Ryan speculates that perhaps this means that they would like to stop, but they won't, but they want to establish some rapport anyway. Ryan and Phillip endure extended visits to truck stops (usually late at night) where Ryan wanders around asking one trucker after another for a ride. 99% say no either because the company they work for will not allow it, or because the two travellers would add too much weight. At other times, the two fellows find themselves stranded in the heat for hours, pulled over by the police for illegally hitching on the highway, or obliged to sleep at a nearby park full of mosquitos. In the course of the week, they get precious little sleep.

Ryan and Phillip's travels yield a quirky supporting cast of random drivers. One part-native American trucker named Fred drives them from Pennsylvania to Kentucky with a peace pipe on his dashboard. Fred pontificates at length about life's choices, drug dealers who wanted to use his truck for smuggling, and the holocaust of Native Americans. One "psychiatrist," driving a convertible, bores the hitchhikers with his discussion about kidney function. Another woman named Sarah invites the guys to a farm near Owensboro, Kentucky, where they find themselves drinking out of beer bongs, eating mutton sandwiches, and avoiding donkeys that keep blocking the driveway. One young woman just broke up with her fiance after eating bad lobsters under a rotting giraffe. More than once, someone drives over to give the hitchhikers a second ride on their way, with Ryan using his charm to persuade them to buy McDonalds or Arby's food for the journey. At a bar in Missouri, the waitress treats the guys to free beers and the world's largest tacos when she isn't explaining that the place used to have a brothel upstairs. The bar has a large cocktail neon sign outside, and the cherry would light up when the the prostitutes were ready for their next customers (a red light district variation on Krispy Kreme doughnuts). If it's a guy who lost an eye in a bar fight, an African American couple who gives them pickles, or a Christian couple hauling around fancy trucks, most everyone proves engaging one way or another.

Even though Ryan and Phillip often think of quitting, or taking an easier route (like hopping a train), they persist even in the increasingly hot regions out west. Occasionally, the film occasionally dips into cutesiness and self-glorification, and sometimes the subtitles are misspelled. Still, The Hitchhiking Movie still struck me as a winning indie effort, in part due to Phillip and Ryan's adventurous chutzpah, but also due to the cross sampling of talkative drivers who provide a weird yet ultimately generous portrait of America.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Notable film and media links (mostly)--October 9, 2009

---A history of blowing up national monuments on film.

---What book publishers think of the Amazon Kindle (with thanks to Office Space).

---Life in a tent city:

"The PR had previous experience in the ghettos, slums, and shantytowns of various Third World cities, including Jakarta, Nuevo Laredo, Peshawar, Bangkok, and Kathmandu. It was observed, however, that the PR was feeling more fear here in Fresno than he had felt in any of those foreign locales. Wild shouts could be heard; the air smelled of wood fire and dust; dogs roamed the Study Area; mysterious figures stared out from asymmetrical doorways; in the distance, under a highway overpass, a cramped, smoky, Stygian neighborhood seemed to exude menace."

---Christopher Hitchens considers Monty Python.

---The difficulties of adapting David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men for film.

---Tom Cruise fails to adapt to the new media:

"[Concerning Cruise's webpage] The template looks snazzy enough, and the video that’s freezeframed above is high quality streaming. But it’s a montage of Cruise clips — most of them culled from classic Cruise, with a few iconic looks from the likes of Collateral thrown in for good measure — and, get this, set to…..the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The only thing better would’ve been to set it to “Danger Zone.”) Obviously, the designers are attempting to communicate the epic character of Cruise’s star — the iconic roles he’s played spanning the decades — but it plays rather like an amateur YouTube vid. Indeed, exploring the entire site, it offers very, very little that a star homepage from, say, 1998 would. It loads faster and uses streaming video — but couldn’t I have found that anywhere? What would draw me to this particular site? How is this refining or repopularizing Cruise’s image in any way? (Especially since it relies so heavily on old movies, effectively reminding its audience of what a great star Cruise was. Nearly thirty years ago.)"

---The aquacalypse or the end of fish (with thanks to

---T.S. of Screen Savour analyzes Buster Keaton's classic The General.

---You can now go to jail for Twittering, sell out Twittering, make art with Twitter, meform of inform on Twitter, and mine Twitter data for money.

---The politics of On the Waterfront.

---David Hudson of The Auteurs chooses the best film sites.

---A O Scott reviews Three Kings.

---Kurt Vonnegut's rules for writing a short story. Also, Chuck Palahniuk has some writing tips.

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss Pixar (part of their Conversations series, and part of The House Next Door's Pixar week).

---Too poor to bury the dead. In other cheerful news, Gore Vidal thinks the United States is doomed.

---Metropia: dystopic cartoon of the future.

---Internet addiction (and lots of reasons to justify that addiction).

---Life inside an avalanche.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The pleasures of massacring zombies: notes on Zombieland

1) I think films like Zombieland appeal to us because modern life has become too cluttered and constrained, too full of words, people, laws, the past, schedules, property, corporations, household appliances, work, commutes, and traffic regulations. Wouldn't it be nice to imagine a 28 Days Later scenario when most fellow humans have been reduced to snarling, drooling infected zombies due to a disease stemming from tainted hamburger? Wouldn't it then be fun to stock up on guns and wander around the car-cluttered freeways, the detritus of old strip malls and grocery stores, and shoot zombies as needed? Aside from the obvious downsides, wouldn't such an apocalypse be tremendously liberating?

Thus does Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) seem to have fun as he struggles to survive. He lives by a list of rules, which includes:

1) Cardio (needed for running from zombies).

2) Doubletap (one bullet to the head may not suffice. Shoot twice for greater safety).

3) Beware of bathrooms (because you can be relatively defenseless on the john).

4) Seatbelts (in case you need to crash your vehicle to send a zombie through the windshield).

6) Cast iron skillet (one of several weapons including a banjo, a bowling ball, and hedge clippers that work well for zombie killing).

14) Limber up (for battle. Tallahasee (Woody Harrelson) does not think this rule is needed, by the way).

17) Don't be a hero.

31) Check the backseat.

32) Enjoy the little things (such as using one's car door to brain a zombie when driving by).

One day Columbus happens upon Tallahasee on the freeway. They contemplate shooting each other in a Mexican stand-off, but then Columbus sticks out his thumb, and Tallahasee reluctantly agrees to drive him to Columbus, Ohio (characters use place names in this movie to avoid getting too attached to each other). Since there are precious few uninfected humans around, Columbus and Tallahasee can drink whiskey and drive, not wear their seatbelts, let off steam by smashing vans, and hunt for the ever elusive Twinkie (the film's one massive product placement). Tallahasee specializes in zombie killing, but he has no desires for anything aside from a Twinkie--a good thing since there are no female love interests in the plot for him.
Instead, two confidence girls--Wichita (Emma Stone) and 12-year old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) happen upon our heroes in a grocery store. As they all eventually band together and seek an amusement park out west, I kept being reminded of Breslin's break-out role in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), where she and her highly dysfunctional family seek a junior miss beauty pageant in a yellow VW bus. In Zombieland, the gang also drive a large yellow vehicle--this time a Hummer.

2) While watching the movie, you can enjoy the Van Halen music, the free-for-all pleasures of slaughtering zombies with impunity, and director Ruben Fleisher's slow motion zombie attack action scenes reminiscent of Timur Bekmambetov's work in Wanted (2oo8), but do not look for much plausibility. I found myself wondering about:

a) Why would a large grocery store have electricity? The zombie outbreak took place recently, within the past several months or weeks, but are some of the few remaining humans running the local power plant? Why does the amusement park have electricity? Could it be because the film would lack enough light without it?

b) How can our merry band of zombie killers drive from the Midwest to Los Angeles without being stopped by abandoned cars on the freeway? They seem to make the journey in one night.

c) For that matter, where is the gas for this road trip coming from?

d) Why is Emma Stone's character Wichita wearing eyeliner? The girls talk of desiring a shower, but no one ever appears to need one.

e) Later on, we learn that Tallahassee greatly misses his son, who died young. Tallahassee cries in front of the gang, and admits that he "hasn't cried like that since Titanic." Good thing he's such a cuddly, lovable killing machine.

3) The makers of Zombieland love to make allusions to other films, including Psycho (when Columbus tries to stop a female zombie with a shower curtain), Babe (when Tallahasee says "That'll do, pig"), and even Adventureland (which features Jesse Eisenberg once again trying to impress a woman in an amusement park). The film is loosely designed like so many summer blockbusters as a kind of carnival ride (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to mind). The film (spoiler alert) ends at an actual carnival in Los Angeles called Pacific Playland, thus making the narrative arch oddly reminiscent of National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).

4) Aside from the film's wit, ultimately, I think, its chief pleasure resides in the viewer's ability to combine all of his or her concerns into one enemy--zombies--and then take pleasure in massacring them. As World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War author Max Brooks puts it:

"I think its been gathering steam throughout the [George W.] Bush years," he explained. "We live in some really uncertain times and I think people are being just bombarded with so many problems and so many fears and so many anxieties, it's kind of hard to keep track of them. And I think zombies, because they're so apocalyptic, are a great way for people to coalesce their anxieties into one threat."

Zombieland not only unites all of these threats, it supplies a violent solution that draws on the Western tradition of gunslinging vigilante justice (perhaps one reason why the film's characters turn around and drive west). In his dystopic out of print science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968), John Brunner imagined an over-populated future in which people frequently turned "mucker." Oppressed by everyone around them, muckers run amuck, killing everyone indiscriminately until someone murders them in turn. It may seem like a stretch to relate the playful comic horror of Zombieland with this extreme irrational violence, but they exist along the same axis, only zombies render massacres guilt-free and thereby suitable for mass entertainment.

Whatever the means, Zombieland satiates that desire to shake off the constraints of civilization, clear a space, and live happily in the ruins. As the trailer for the movie gloomily points out, we live with the threat of "epidemics, climate change, and dwindling resources." A mere zombie outbreak seems outright pleasant in comparison.

Return of the Snake Monster: Jennifer Lopez in Anaconda (1997)

[Note: In 1997, a fledgling movie critic reviewed a cheesy large snake film called Anaconda. 12 years later, he wondered if he would ever have a reason to republish the old review, but then came a scene in Zombieland when scrappy zombie killer Wichita (Emma Stone) reminisces with Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) over her first R-rated film: Anaconda. Here's the time capsule review.]

There's a dirty rumor going around that most studio-produced movies are written by some fancy new computer software that triangulates other popular films into unoriginal but lucrative packages. This might explain Anaconda, a scrappily-made film with minimal characterization that swirls together Apocalypse Now, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Swamp Thing.

Whether or not you find the film entertaining depends on what you come to the theater for. If you like bad guys who roll their eyes and sneer to affirm their bad-guy-icity, as Dennis Hopper does so well and Jon Voigt does in this film, then by all means go. If you like clever computer-animated effects combined with the most simplistic snake-o-vision-from-the-water camera angles, then buy your ticket now. If you enjoy a film that frequently cuts from violent acrobatic death scenes to scantily clad sweaty Jennifer Lopez with a concerned expression on her face, then this is the film for you.

The plot is simplicity itself. Eric Stoltz, looking angelic as usual, guides an eclectic crew of documentary filmmakers into the deepest part of the Amazon jungle to encounter Paul Sarone (Voigt), where, after a fashion, they all go snake hunting. The characterization is on par with a Hanna Barbera cartoon, with the foppish sophisticate, a sinister-looking druggy boat captain, two pretty California people (good snake food), and Jennifer Lopez roughly approximately Helen Hunt's role in Twister. In one clever twist, the filmmakers decided to include Ice Cube to show how Compton-style rapper street smarts fare in the Darwinian jungle (Ice does just fine).

In the tradition of horror films, you wonder which characters are expendable enough to get killed off first (there they go, one by one, with a few false alarms). In the tradition of Jaws, you learn not to go in the water. The anaconda himself, about the size of a large telephone pole, enjoys squeezing people until their heads or eyeballs pop out and then he bites their heads off afterwards. Cool! People die, the plots twists, and the audience gasps and screams. There were times when the sheer calisthenic ability of the computer-generated snake impressed me, but this movie sure didn't.