Sunday, 17 August 2014

Trailer Review: Annabelle

You have got to be kidding me. I can totally respect the art and craftsmanship that goes into dollmaking, but come on.

I know it's the 50s or whatever and it was a different time and, all but who just pops over the neighbours' in the middle of the night to check out the horrible screaming coming from next door? Seriously, who does that. And who doesn't call the police about the horrible screaming coming from next door in the middle of the night? Honestly.

I know it's the 50s or whatever and it was a different time and all, but who would ever covet that doll? That has got to be the ugliest, creepiest doll ever. Who brings that into their house? And puts in the baby's room?

Also, I'm pretty sure this trailer is the prologue. Although I haven't seen The Conjuring, I have seen Child's Play and Silence and that episode of The X-Files, Chinga, so I'm pretty sure I've got a good grip on what'll happen after that doll gets possessed.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Dumbest Genre: Action Movies in Retrospect

As The Expendables 3 makes its North American debut, let's take a moment to reflect on how we came to this point.

Popular opinion would have us believe that action films are in a slump, or worse still, the era of the American action movie is over. People are increasingly looking to foreign imports for their action fix because Hollywood can't deliver the goods. Instead of hard-hitting action movies, studios are churning out hard-to-watch action sequences bookended by drawn-out dramatic interludes and the whole thing is shaped like one giant explosion. Yes, these films make money, but movies like Ong-bak (2003), The Raid: Redemption (2011), and District 13 (2004, remade as Brick Mansions (2014)) are catching the attention of critics and audiences alike. Indeed, it must sting to find out that other countries have appropriated what is considered to be an American filmmaking genre and are doing a better job at it.

When The Expendables was released in 2010, it was both hailed and criticized for being a nostalgia-fuelled adolescent fantasy. Some liked it, others hated, and usually for the same reasons: the writing is terrible, the characters are flat, and Stallone's ego gets in the way of what should be a dumb action movie. Or, put another way, The Expendables is a delightfully campy romp, populated by ageing though guys which proves that American action cinema can still kick ass.

“Viewed though a fog of testosterone, The Expendables is a glorious throwback to the dumb action movies of the eighties and nineties.”

Action cinema as a distinct genre only really came about in the 1980s. Prior to that, action movies were largely categorized based on their narrative or stylistic elements. Exploitation movies, fantasy-adventure films, and sci-fi from the '60s and '70s were all action-packed but they weren't unified under a single banner. Film genres generally form as the result of the repeated success of a certain type of filmmaking, and action cinema's popularity in the '80s led to the creation of the genre.

Action cinema finds its roots in the historical epics of the early 20th century. When Italy hit it big with The Fall of Troy (1910) and Quo Vadis? (1913), the fledgeling American film industry saw box office potential in releasing its own historical films. Audiences thrilled to Judith and Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916). In addition to controversy (Birth was criticized for being overtly racist, and Intolerance was director D.W. Griffith's attempt to make ammends) these films shared length, largess, and expense in common. Producing these epics was itself an epic undertaking as the need for massive sets, travel to exotic locations, and a cast of thousands stressed the budget.

The cost was worth it. The movies were a big draw throughout the early and mid-century. Cinema attendance dropped off in the 1960s, and hit an all-time low in the '70s. There are a number of reasons why. Television is one, an increase in other leisure activities another. When studios could no longer count on habitual movie-going, they looked for new ways to entice people back to the cinema. A splashy, effects-heavy event movie not unlike those made in the teens seemed liked a good idea.

Genre history is a funny thing: it's revisionist to a fault. Cinephiles like to think of the 1970s as the era of the art house picture, but that's the decade that gave us The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Jaws (1975), and Star Wars (1977). Jaws was the game-changer. Its premise is exploitation to the core, but the movie was given a big-budget treatment. The resulting film was the first summer blockbuster and its success revolutionized the way studios conceived and managed their production slate. The “tentpole movie” grew out of Jaws' success as all studios sought to create their own blockbusters, event films that would both cost and make a lot of money and, in essence, pay for the other films studios released throughout the year.  

To read the rest of this article, head over to Influx Magazine.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Some Thoughts on Age of Extinction

1. I think it's pretty obvious where they got the idea.

2. Beast Wars was a great show.
      2.5 So was Shadow Raiders, aka War Planets.

3. I have absolutely no idea what this movie is about. Seriously, the trailer has no story to tell other than "Mark Wahlberg jump-starts a truck."

Monday, 23 June 2014

Low-Budget Film Fest: Science Fiction Edition


I recently read this article on Buzzfeed about how some of the best sci-fi movies are the low-budget ones that, due to financial/logistical constraints, force a small group of characters to deal with larger sci-fi-y problems. It was a good article, but I was a little disappointed that it didn't include a list of movies to watch and enjoy. Which is all the more perplexing given we're talking about Buzzfeed.

Anyway, I've seen a bunch of sci-fi and I think I can make a few suggestions. Note, I define small budget as $3M or less--the estimated cost of Prince of Darkness.

The Machine

Two scientists create a self-aware AI that forces us to consider what it means to be human. Not nearly as preachy as one might expect, given the premise. Actually, the film is delightfully understated and questions the ethical limits of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Tetsuo The Iron Man

A distinctly Japanese take on Cronenbergian body horror. It's weird, it's sexual, it kind of defies explanation.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

To be honest, I didn't like this movie but it does perfectly recreate the wtf atmosphere of trippy 70s and early 80s sci-fi. Largely an experiment in style, BBtR, fails and succeeds for the same reason: it's friggin weird. It makes very little sense but if odd, drug-fueled thought experiments are your bag, this film's for you.

Banshee Chapter

Speaking of drugs, Banshee Chapter uses mind-altering narcotics as its gateway to weirdness and horror. Think MKUltra meets From Beyond. This film genuinely creeped me out on more than one occasion and made me jump with one of the best startle effects in recent memory.


Okay, so this one is just over my arbitrary limit but it's my list and I can do what I want with it, so there. In the near future a man gets caught up in the dangerous and lucrative business of black market celebrity viruses--selling viral infections that afflict celebrities to their fans. If this also seems like a Cronenberg-type film that's because it was made by his son, Brandon.

Prince of Darkness

More of a horror movie, really. But it does contain a fair amount of speculation and metaphysics. A group of grad students study an ancient artifact stored in a church basement. Best. Ending. Ever. Fact is, I love this movie and want everyone to see it, so I included it here.

Honourable mentions (because they cost more than a little but are still comparatively "small"): 


Before there was Edge of Tomorrow (the movie version, at any rate) there was Triangle, Chris Smith's movie about a woman stuck in a time-loop in which she dies again and again.


An alien siege movie that's long on suspense. Hard to believe it began life as a comedy inspired by the works of Sam Raimi because the end result is a well-paced thriller.

For other lists that I may or may not agree with check out Den of Geek and i09. For a good read on the subject check out, wait for it, The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Camp Dread

Dear Sir,

I regret to inform you that after having watched your movie, Camp Dread, I must request a refund for both my money and time spent. Anticipating your questions as to why I feel owed, and in order to prevent any further contact from you--ever--I have listed my reasons below.

Having read about, written about, and watched a lot of horror movies, I feel I am sufficiently qualified to pass judgement on yours. In short, it stinks. It plays as if you yourself have never a horror film but have only had one described to you in the broadest terms, perhaps something along the lines of "hot kids get killed at camp." You interpret the word "hot," to mean both physically attractive and sexually charged. This isn't a criticism, per se, but it does reflect a rather generic understanding of horror movie conventions. Worse is how you characterize the hot kids. I hesitate to describe them as either stereotypes or archetypes, given how thinly written they are. Suffice it to say, you mistake physical attributes and sexual orientation for personality. You've created a cast of characters who have little to no individuality (or humanity) and who serve no purpose other than to die.

Far be it for me to hope for a prize-winning filmic adventure, but I can't be blamed for wanting to connect to or identify with at least one character. Or to even be interested in the story at large.

I find your premise ludicrous, to say the least. Not only does it make no sense to send a group of delinquent youth to an unlicensed rehabilitation camp that doubles as a set for a reality television show--a show that will never air but only leveraged as a template for a future horror movie--you appear to have little to no familiarity with legal system. It is simply impossible for a girl who murdered her rapist brother to be sent to rehab camp to begin with, let alone the same camp as another girl whose only "crime" is homosexuality. Moreover, these "kids" as you describe them are in their twenties; they are adults and adults are not sentenced to rehab camps. At least, not in the way you suggest.

Leaving aside the larger issues of law and order, let us focus on the events that take place at your fictional Camp Rehab. Your characters are players in a survival reality show. They will undergo challenges that will force them to work together, presumably to help them better themselves, and win immunity from the "killer." The killer is an unknown individual who periodically eliminates players by "touching them on the shoulder" or through some other generally peaceable interaction. That's all well and good, but not once do we see any of this happen. If we're to engage with these people and their story, we need to see the reality show, and actual reality unfold. Instead all I saw was a lot of forced animosity, a terrible sexual encounter (interpret that any way you wish), and some rather bland death scenes. There's no sense of escalation and no one knows the reality show premise is a sham. I know this, of course, but for the people that matter, i.e.: the "hot kids," they're never given a chance to figure out what is really going on.

Your basic scenario of "hot kids get killed at camp" is not developed enough for the type of story you are trying to tell. You appear to be attempting some blend of postmodernist subversion and meta-criticism but you are not well-versed enough in the genre to succeed. The story you want to tell is full of intrigue and double-cross. The story you've scripted is not. You also appear to be unfamiliar with basic literary terms. You mistake "MacGuffin" for "red herring," which is bad enough, but your use of MacGuffin (read: red herring) in the script suggests you don't know how it is employed. A MacGuffin is a motivator, usually a desired item, that drives the plot, such as the case in Ronin. A red herring is a false lead or misdirection, such as communism in Clue. You make a small effort to establish the Sheriff's brother as a red herring, which you incorrectly identify as a MacGuffin, but he only shows up twice, once at the beginning and then at the end as a corpse. There is no good reason to think he is the killer when your movie devotes absolutely no time to solving this mystery.

I note that you managed to sign both Eric Roberts and Danielle Harris for this project. While these names do carry some weight and brand-recognition, it is simply not enough to get me on board with your movie. As I stated at the beginning of this letter, you lack an instinctual understanding of horror cinema (or cinema in general) which prevents you from being able to properly tell your story through film. And that is what I am interested in: story. I can watch "hot kids get killed" in any number of horror movies. What I'm having a harder time finding these days is watching them die for interesting reasons in interesting ways.



Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Taking of Pelham 123

Brought to you by the same guys who made the poster for Unstoppable.

Sometimes I hate myself. You know what I mean because you've felt that way too (not about me, about yourself. I mean, you  might hate me, I don't know). You have, on purpose and sans irony, watched a movie you knew wasn't going to be very good, that you weren't going to enjoy. Usually I have a "good" reason to punish myself like this: TheAvod. But not this time.

No, this time I elected to watch The Taking of Pelham 123 because it was available. Because once, long ago in a haze of optimism, I thought it might be passable. Sounded exciting enough: John Travolta takes a New York subway car hostage. I've liked hostage movies in the past. I even liked Hostage. Critics didn't really care for Pelham as a whole, or John Travolta's excessive performance in particular (looked to me like he was having fun, although I suspect he was the only person on set who was enjoying himself). And still I pressed play on a movie I knew no one liked.

Depending on how you look at it, I both was and wasn't disappointed. Pelham lived up to expectations, is what I'm saying. It stinks. What I assume is supposed to be a tense thriller plays out like a badly paced action movie. I think it all happens in real time, too. I can't be sure because I can't be bothered to look it up. Here's the plot, such as it is:

John Travolta hijacks a subway train and holds the straphangers hostage for ten million dollars. The city has one hour to pay up. In the subway control centre is Denzel Washington, a big shot who's currently under investigation for bribery. Denzel just happened to be working the mic when Travolta rang with his demands. The city coughs up the dough and, for reasons that aren't worth explaining, Denzel has to deliver the money. There's a chase, a face-off (ha!), and then the movie's over.

Can you believe this is based on a book? It's also a remake. Think about that.

Now think about this: The Negotiator. I'm serious. Think about it. The Negotiator is a lot like Pelham, only it does a much better job blending intrigue with action; there's a lot of talking punctuated by exciting action sequences. Pelham, on the other hand, is all talk and zero intrigue lightly peppered with a couple of bland action scenes. The worst part is the movie had so much potential, but the script is incapable of pacing its plot points and using its contrivances to its advantage.

"Is this thing on?"

For instance no time is given over to figuring out who, exactly, is holding everyone hostage. The mayor, of all people, comes up with a lead and the rest of the detective work happens off-screen. Then there's the live stream. The bad guys have jury-rigged a wifi connection in the subway tunnel and a hostage is surreptitiously skyping with his girlfriend. The whole world can see what's going on in the train car but does anyone do anything about it? No. The transit authority identifies one of the hostage takers from the feed and that's it. No attempts are made to communicate with the hostages, nor do the cops use the intel to coordinate with the SWAT team in the subway tunnel. And about that SWAT team. On no fewer than two occasions do they have an opportunity to shoot the bad guys and don't take it.

Worse still, the movie mocks itself for how stupid it is. Travolta wants ten million bucks or he's going to kill everyone. Fine. The city releases the money, and it's loaded into a cop car and race to the subway. Then comes the line, delivered with utter contempt for the delivery plan, "I hope they don't get lost." Thanks for that. Exciting driving sequence ensues which ends in a crash. But the clock's still ticking! Bring in the helicopters to take the money the rest of way! "Why didn't we just use choppers to begin with?" someone asks.

Why indeed. There's absolutely nothing on the line here. The money will get to Travolta regardless and if he shoots someone in the meantime, so what? We've already established that he's trigger happy, so there's no emotional play at work here. Also, by this point, the film has already used up its emotional goodwill by forcing the good guy to either admit to or lie about take a bribe and then treating him as another, albeit, lesser villain.

The Negotiator had the good sense to leverage Samuel L. Jackson's perceived villainy, to make it integral to the plot. Here, Denzel's bribe-taking is what demoted him to the control room and eventually made him the first point of contact for Travolta, but that's it. The film wants it to be more, to mean more for the characters and plot, but really it's just a means to an end.

An end that isn't worth the journey.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Stage Fright

To begin, an overdue congratulations to Telelfilm for pulling its head out of its ass. This is the second film I've seen inside a week that was high caliber genre made with Telefilm money. And to think all it took was a boy from Halifax winning an international, high profile movie trailer competition.

Now, onto the show!

I used to really like musicals. I'd fall asleep listening to the Cats soundtrack and I knew all the words to every song in Phantom. Then I kind of aged out of musical theatre. Of course, I'd see a musical or two at Stratford--it is Stratford, after all--and I made a point of seeing Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, but I never bothered with Lion King or War Horse. I've not seen Les Mis, to this day.

Genre musicals were/are a different matter. Once More With Feeling, Evil Dead, Dr. Horrible, Dead and Breakfast. Seen and loved them all. I think it has to do with the horror/comedy opposition. As Noel Carroll points out, horror and comedy exist on the same spectrum; both deal in absurdity but it's the presentation of that absurdity and our reactions to it that differ.

Stage Fright is a horror comedy musical, which is just about as absurd as you can get. Set at Center Stage, a  musical theatre camp, the camp director, Roger McCall, decides to mount The Haunting of the Opera. This particular musical has special significance because McCall produced Haunting ten years ago when the star, Kylie Swanson, was murdered on opening night. McCall took in her orphaned children who now work as kitchen staff at the camp. Camilla Swanson, Kylie's daughter, auditions for her late mother's role hoping it will bring her closer to her mom.

She kills it, of course.

As the camp prepares for their rendition of Haunting, a masked madman prepares himself for a killing spree that he hopes will prevent the show from taking place. But the show must go on!

Stage Fright pokes fun at both the horror and musical genres. Admittedly, I don't know much about musicals, but I know enough to recognize a satire of schmaltzy, overblown, Andrew Lloyd Weber-style musicals. Haunting, of course, is a take on Phantom of the Opera which is then mounted with a Kabuki theme by the kids at camp. Within the world of the film, this is a misguided attempt at further dramatizing a melodrama.

"What is at the heart of Haunting?" asks the director. "It's about covering up who you really are."

Of course that's not true, but it's his way of introducing his own misinterpretation of Kabuki as a way to showcase the "themes" of Haunting.

Within Stage Fright the film, covering up is exactly what's happening in one way or another. Kabuki also hinges on the spectacle of performance, and a horror/comedy/musical about a musical is truly spectacular. The delightfully fluffy and cheerful musical numbers sung by the kids at camp are offset by the killer's rock soliloquies. Dressed in a black and white mask, the glam rock Metal Killer echoes Kiss and was inspired by Ozzy and Metallica, and he spouts punny one-liners for the benefit of the audience.

Without getting too postmodern, Stage Fright knows its a movie and what's more, understands its heritage. In the same way the film's musical aspects draw from and satirize musical theatre, Stage Fright pays homage to Carrie, TCM, Halloween, ANOES, and Hellraiser. As a further tribute to classic horror, most of the gore effects are physical effects, and there's very little CGI.

The mystery of the Metal Killer isn't especially hard to figure out, but the Stage Fright experience is really more about watching the show. The film is both an accomplished musical and horror movie, funny and violent with good gore and clever kills. Drawing on operatic traditions, the lead is a soprano and her patriarch is a (sort of) bass; listen out for a joke about the secondary status of altos. Everything is overdone, from the lyrics to the kills, reveling in the shared ambition of spectacle and performance.