Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Films I Dislike that Could be Improved Through Further Committment

Dead Poet's Society:
From the get go this story of manipulation of a group of impressionable people by a demagogue reminded me of fascism. Robin Williams' Mr Keating doesn't lead his flock away from conformity to freedom but to just another conformtity: his. After everything that happens we're supposed to cheer the kids for making their stand rather than weep for their gullibility. Put Nicholas Winding Refn in the chair and watch as the real story of localised brainwashing cordons a group of the elite blazer-wearing privileged away from middle class mediocrity to the blazing cult of heroism. It'd make a nice obverse role for Ryan Gosling after his own fall and redemption in Half Nelson. Keep the music the same. If you don't get the irony of its cloying sentimentality as the boys give the parting leader the secret sign then you should find a way out of compulsory voting.

Eddie and the Cruisers:
Imagine Jim Morrison appearing on the scene just before the Beatles break in America but dying in an accident before his big groundbreaker of an album is released. This premise is still intriguing but this early 80s film doesn't seem to realise that sounding like Springsteen on an off night wouldn't sound like the future in 1964, it would sound like musical potato starch. So, do it for real. Have the band go from the Four Seasons to a kind of proto Doors as the central figure takes the same journey from good time music to poetic disgust. Have it sound like pop music straining out of the chrysalis like the first Doors album. Keep it from breaking through with the same kind of intra band politics that smothered Brian Wilson and you get a much more plausible reason for Eddie's death itself to be a controversy.

True life horror unfolds in a diner as a prankster claiming to be a cop manipulates the staff until his chief victim is traumatised for life. The big message was about how we submit to authority too easily but the tone soon became too ugly. The victims' compliance, however factually based, grew so incredible that they were soon cast as deserving of their treatment and the resulting gap was filled with the perpetrator's viewpoint. The sleaze of this is not that we identify with a sicko but we're then supposed to snap out of it and condemn him at the end so everything's ok and we were really on the side of right all along. Phew! Well, commit to it, really commit to the sleaze and sick self pleasure of it. Start, continue and finish inside the bad guy's mind. Cast Will Ferrell so you never know whether to laugh or not until it's too late and you're with him on a nightmare voyage through a dark and terrifying narcissism. Keep the footage of the victims intact. Just don't start with it. Anyone who watches that and has to be reminded at the end that it's bad should be given a list of local psychiatric facilities before something terrible happens.

I had looked forward to this as I was already a Lynch fan after Eraserhead and Elephant Man and really wanted to see what he could make of sci fi and colour. It was just too big for him. Lynch is so much better when he's deep inside the nervous system than out on the open field and this film only proves it. Seeing the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune didn't change my mind in that direction, either. It's like a two hour long "previously on Dune" sequence that highlights all the subplots. Throw those away for starters unless they are directly relevant to Paul's progress from viceregal heir to living god. Have Paul pursue the mystery of himself as though he's on the tail of a killer and you've got something. Anyone who needs to read the book to get the rest is free to, meanwhile here's the companion film. Could be a good Cronenberger.

Animal Kingdom:
This mess was bursting with treasures but you had to  pick through a lot of used marshmallows to get to them. The single most compelling performance was Jackie Weaver's but everything that had to do with the youngest brother seemed to drive the most important scenes. Stick to that. Put mother at one end and son at the other and slowly bring them together through their own stories. Ditch all the sub plots and overlong fates of the other brothers and get rid of the dragging speech that explains the title as there is no need for it. Ben Mendelsohn can still play his super creepy murder scene and Jackie still gets her mother wolf grin at the cop that goes through everyone who sees it. Cast a more believably seventeen looking seventeen year old as Josh and you've got it, a great family crime/coming of age film without the director getting in his own way to let you know how wonderful he is.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Films I Dislike that Ought to be Remade and How

Frances Ha:
As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Frances and the film she lived in repelled me with their constant pleading for me to indulge them. My solution would be to correctly diagnose Frances as bipolar or something more accurate and let Brandon Cronenberg have a stab at it. This would be a good way to get to the genuinely intriguing possibilities of Frances as a case study in galloping narcissism and also allow Cronenberg Junior to step with a realistically measured pace away from charges of following his dad too closely (as unfairly happened with Antiviral).

As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Rushmore was the first and almost the last Wes Anderson Film I ever saw, so vehemently did I it revile. Let Sion Sono loose on it to render the cloying cuteness into a range of disturbing illusory episodes and examine the protagonist's galloping narcissism. It could still be about the life lesson of learning self-acceptance and giving up unrealistic dreams but the ride would be intriguing and a hell of a lot more fun.

Bad Lieutenant:
Abel Ferrara's quirky character piece about sin with an eleventh hour cherry of redemption ground at my patience for the writer/director's failure to develop the constant list of atrocities committed by the titular Loot. It plays like a toddler throwing a tantrum for the guests, having an effect but unaware that that has quickly turned to exhausting annoyance. Rename it Bad Decisions, cast Vince Vaughn in the lead and play it as a man-boy black comedy of a once bad cop who just can't get straight because a series of hilarious co-incidences and mishaps keep putting him in the frame. The gang members can't be allowed to get away with the original adolescently imagined horror crime, of course, but Michael Sera with a dye job could outline it to his increasingly bored gang, constantly topping himself just to get a reaction out of them: "ok, so we rob a mom and pop store." Silence. "No, a church, we rob a church." Silence. "We rob a ... church with NUNS in it ... and we rape the nuns...!" This approach will render the conceits of the original at least plausible. And just imagine the redemption scene now!

This is one of the founding bricks in the ghost-ride and cattleprod wall that has filled cinemas and emptied mainstream horror of its substance. Quiet .... BOO ....... quiet ...... BOO. And that's about it. Ok, so, remove every jolt that isn't directly derived from the characters and their relation to each other. Play the resulting jolt-free film as a Bergmanesque depresso piece about people trying unsuccessfully to convince each other that they've seen the sudden horrors but to no avail. Keep the pallet desaturated and keep all the big jolty orchestra hits for when the breathlessly delivered accounts reach their climaxes. Eventually, we wander a house of coagulating disbelief with only the victims of the scares convinced of the forces beyond the light, huddled into themselves in silent distrust. The only way to give credence to the horrors they've known is to recreate them, one by one....

Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
The only way I could endure the screening of John Hughes's freshly minted mid-80s paean to the sieze the day joy of youth was to recognise that it was essentialy a tale of bullying. Ferris constantly berates and belittles his dowdy friend until the latter really gets it and siezes that melonfarming day by its a-hole horns. Ferris' irrational whimsicality, if not seen as lovable but grating, lends itself to a case study of adolescent schizophrenia. Keep all the football games, wild drives, school collection campaigns (but shorten the excruciating Twist and Shout scene) but smash them together as a kind of delusional flash forward as Ferris imagines the day to come. Then play them as they would be, a series of increasingly crushing disappointments that steadily shift Ferris' sights from the fun he thought he'd have to the manipulative influence he has over Cameron. Cameron's life lesson would be the same but so much graver and unforgettable, like a Machinist or Fight Club for teens.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Jay is seventeen, intelligent and sexy. Her new boyfriend is a little older but he's super cool, even if he gets spooked by nothing and makes them walk out on a movie. The big date comes and the sex is great. The trouble starts (after the consensual conjunction, that will become important) when he knocks her out with chloroform and ties her to a chair, saying it's for her own good. Ok, so Mr Nice is really Ted Bundy. Well, no.

She wakes in an abandoned building shell, winds whistling around, as he circles with a torch, gibbering about being sorry for what's about to happen. He's given her a curse, the result can be seen approaching step by step in the overgrown grounds below and into the space with them; a naked woman expressionlessly walking toward Jay in the chair. The guy gets close to the figure who doesn't acknowledge him. He frees Jay and they escape in a panic. He deposits her, still only in her underwear, on the street outside her house and drives off forever. A few nights later, after rallying friends around her the kitchen window is smashed. She goes to investigate only to find another woman, far scarier than the first advancing on her while urinating.

All that without a word about the prologue. There is a good one but my purpose here is not to go over the plot but to air the premise. If you read the synopsis you might be dreading the return of the sex/death equation of the horrors of the seventies and eighties that this film so stylishly recalls. But even in those cases the mistake of taking allegory literally is one of missing the point.

If Jay wanted to evade the curse she'd just have sex again and flee safely. But there's something else going on here. The bearers of the curse, even when safe, can still see the identity-shifting entity that follows the accursed. If the entity catches up and kills the latter it goes after the last one all over again. Time to think of the title here. It, the thing follows the victim but the phrase also refers to a logical consequence.

The grassy autumnal footpaths of the suburbia of the setting will remind anyone who's seen it of John Carpenter's Halloween. A blackboard in an English class also reminds us that people in this setting refer to autumn as fall. You don't need to know your Book of Genesis that well to be aware that the fall of man in that mythology is the consequence of knowledge. It's not an orgasm that makes life so difficult (all the sex in this film is consensual and most of it looks natural and enjoyable) but the awareness of the place where any worldly act can put us. Contrast this with the peppering of voyeurism done by the younger boys of the neighbourhood. Their curiosity has a sinister taste, a kind of unformed sleaze, enacted before knowledge.

Sex is a well chosen trope here not just because it plugs us in to the tradition of teen horror but it means the Scooby team of teen siblings and local friends to be variously experienced. Only those who have come into contact with the curse can see the thing. This only partially changes but essentially remains the case.

There is also the repeated gestation, birth and growing imagery of floating (the backyard pool later is shown after its water has broken), urination, menstruation. Jay runs from the entity to take refuge on the swings of the nearby park but this proves as terrifying a place as anywhere else on earth, a planet she now knows much better than she did before. There are decisions to be made about how to exit the curse and they increasingly lean toward responsibility and ever deeper consideration.

Sounds kinda PC doesn't it? Well, happily it's not the only thing on show. The mechanism of terror in this film uses the deliberate certainty of the entity itself and keeps clear of sudden jolts. Some manifestations (the kitchen, the later scene of fulfilment which is truly ghastly) will leave you wide eyed and others (the figure in the school grounds; a scene involving a masterful mix of single take and focus shifting) are just as effective by their understatement. This horror movie is scary. If you've seen as many as I have and still celebrate the genre, you'll know that that statement is not tautologous. It's scary because it delivers its fresh ideas on teen horror in the costume of an era when something as bloodless as Halloween was scary (still is, by the way). And there's another reason and it's a good one.

Could it be that, after the bloated karaoke versions of Ringu, Dark Water or Pulse were remade for people who can't read subtitles, the lessons of J-horror have finally been absorbed by filmmakers in the West, not studied, copied and overwrought but absorbed? It Follows plays less like Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination than Ringu or Kairo. It doesn't play at all like the flattened approach of more recent fare like Insidious or Sinister because when it does use sudden scares it earns each one with genuine suspense and is prepared to go slowly so we can absorb its notions and questions enough to bring our own dread to the space between ourselves and the screen.

Also, if you've seen the Harry Potter version of The Woman in Black or Sinister or a host of other recent shallow efforts you'll remember the big scary endings with the nasty thing jolting out of the scenery as though Asian horror had never happened. It Follows recalls a tradition that allowed its audiences to do some thinking for themselves and adds a pinch of something of its own.

No review of this film can escape without a few plaudits chucked its way for the superb electronic score that goes from clear Carpenterian tributes to the noisier and darker parts of the oscillators and filters of the synthesiser. It augments the dread and never needs to inform us of what we should be feeling.

Also, this is the second horror-related film I've seen that has made use of its Detroit setting. Only Lovers Left Alive turned this into a kind of digetic editorial which was saved by Jarmsuch's goofy poetics and Tom Hiddleston's delivery of them. In It Follows America's industrial ghost town has whole ex neighbourhoods of surburban dream life rendered into crumbling gothic shells whose surrounding gardens grow into twisting strangulation around the foundations. The sense that dusty perdition is only streets away is palpable (and reinforced in the dialogue). The lake is Lake Michigan, once loud with commerce and affluent leisure now just huge, silent and unknowable.

Also, any film that features a partial reading of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (in a very Halloweenish classroom scene) and a recited quote from Dostoyevsky that encapsulates the film's theme in accelerating prose can only get my vote.

Also, any film that has its origins in a real nightmare that the writer/director had, has already started in the right place.

There is buzz on the tail of this film sufficient that, even if it only attains a modest success, there will almost certainly be a sequel. If that happens could the filmmakers of that reach even further back into horror history? Val Lewton helped to save RKO Studio after the box office disaster of Citizen Kane with the first of his back seat driven features Cat People. It stormed the box office. It was only meant to be a copy of the kind of horror Universal had been churning out since Dracula but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur cast the cat monster suit aside and remembered that people above all feared what they didn't know and couldn't see. When its sequel, Curse of the Cat People, appeared it swerved sideways into an eerie tale which might have been a haunting or a troubled child's imagining. It wasn't a sequel in name only as there were solid links to the original but it wasn't just a replay either. So guys, if you do it again, surprise us all over again. Would juz?