Friday, 14 August 2015

Area 51

For a movie that took eight years to get made and released, Area 51 looks like it was slapped together in a matter of days.

Describing Area 51 as lazy just seems lazy on my part. But it does appear as though Peli kind of gave up on this one. No real effort was made to innovate or further develop either found footage filmmaking or the alien subgenre. Instead, characters and audience members alike stumble through the plot, while the movie awkwardly cuts between POVs because Peli doesn't know to manage two dynamic cameras.

Quite frankly, I don't know what's worse, the story or the execution. Reid is obsessed with aliens and plans to infiltrate Area 51. With him are Darrin, Ben, and Jelena. Ben really doesn't want to have anything to do with breaking into a military base, so he just argues with Reid all the time and drops everyone off by the side of the road. Reid, Darrin, and Jelena enter Area 51 with little trouble and what happens next has to be the most boring and visually incoherent exploration of a top-secret facility ever recorded. I'm not even going to bother trying to explain it. Suffice it to say, no aliens are ever caught on tape and what little alien activity does take place is more akin to a poltergeist going apeshit than what you would want or expect from a rampaging monster from beyond the moon.

As if to add insult to injury, the scenes are stitched together with no regard for geographic orientation or continuity. There is no way for the audience to orient themselves in the film space--there are no landmarks to help tie all the rooms, corridors, and stairwells together. Other reviewers describe Area 51 as a "sophomoric slump" but I think the film's incoherent visuals are evidence of a bigger problem: that Peli doesn't know what he's doing.

The nothingness inside the spacecraft is a nice metaphor for the nothingness inside the movie.

Further evidence includes the film's structure and style. At least half the running time is given over to Reid and co.'s preparation for their raid on Area 51. This includes stalking an employee, visiting a storage facility, and sneaking a bodycam into a strip club. There is absolutely no tension or suspense, either during the prep nor when they succeed at getting onto the base.

Moreover, the film begins as a kind of documentary, in which people talk about Reid and his friends in the past tense. It switches to found footage shortly thereafter, then back again to a more standard documentary style with a montage of conspiracy theorists spewing their crazy ideas. Classic found footage takes over for the remainder of the movie, but in name only. The film is cut together like a traditional third-person narrative. Admittedly, found footage has evolved past the need for a framing story to explain why and how the film exists, but Area 51 desperately needs a reason for being. The "invisible hand" is all over this thing, and even something as simple as "I found these two cameras and followed-up with the families" would help immeasurably.

But Peli doesn't seem to understand any of this, and appears to be in well over his head. Paranormal Activity was a cozy ghost story with good pacing and a great sound design. Area 51 is too big, with too many locations, and relies too heavily on the promise of wonders we can both hear and see (a promise which is never fulfilled). Worse still, he had a much better, easier, and more compelling story languishing off-camera. Peli had a real opportunity here to learn and grow as a filmmaker by developing Area 51 as a mockumentary about Reid and his slow descent into alien abduction/conspiracy theory madness. But all that good stuff happens between cuts, glossed over by a title that reads "Three Months Later."

Pictured: what it looks like to be in over your heard.

Area 51 isn't just a bad second movie, it's a step backward. Peli might be a competent producer, but this film proves, more than anything, that he can't script a story: Reid and Ben argue about stuff that should have been settled a long time ago; likewise, the night of the raid is not the night you field test your gear for the first time to make sure it works. The movie is too aware of its audience and (ironically) in too much of a hurry to allow its characters to behave normally and move the story forward on their own. Were this film made before PA, it could have served as an awkward but ambitious first step down an exciting career path for Peli. Instead, it's a harsh reminder that not everyone can or will live up to expectations.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Ridges

COM4234 Advanced Project

A major focus of the Advanced Project is the design and implementation of a research project, the topic of which will be discussed with and approved of by the instructor. Students will undertake advanced reading and will refine their critical analysis skills.

The final report will be graded as follows:

Project: The Ridges


Every couple of years I receive a proposal for a research project on The Ridges, and I'm always hesitant to approve it. Your proposal was no different in that regard. While I always approve The Ridges proposals in the end, I've never regretted doing so until now.

What you've presented hardly passes as an in-depth study of The Ridges' folklore and history--it barely registers as a vlog about a haunted building. Instead of the critical investigation you promised, you slapped together a video that showcases your friend's alarmingly rapid descent into madness after spending a few hours inside The Ridges.

Your thesis "The Ridges is not haunted" is abandoned in favour of documenting the goings-on in your living room. I can understand, perhaps even forgive you for the change of subject matter, given what happens to your friend, but I cannot understand why you don't seek medical attention for her condition. Your shocking lack of concern for Robbie's well being is unforgivable and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Moreover, if she is, in fact, haunted or possessed by the spirit of her great-aunt, then you've disproved your thesis. Meaning, The Ridges is haunted and you have proof of that. What are the spiritual, religious, and intellectual implications of this finding? Truly a missed opportunity there.

Still more puzzling is your choice to include your methodology, such as it is. I know I asked students to outline their research design, but you must know that your approach is damaging to your final grade. The only benefit in including your perfunctory research into The Ridges History and your eleventh-hour attempts to secure access to The Ridges is that I know have an example I can show to future students of how not to approach their advanced research project.

Finally, I must address the nature of your investigation as it appears in the video. Simply having a friend film you as you explore the building is not enough (also, the camera should proceed you). A lack of understanding of, or appreciation for, The Ridges' history clearly shows in the first half of the video. Not once do you provide any context for what's shown on screen, nor do you address past accounts of paranormal or supernatural activity that have taken place. No real research is presented to the viewer, nor do you demonstrate any real awareness of your subject matter. Your video is ninety minutes of you arguing with your friends.

To sum up, your research project, which was to disprove the existence of ghosts with specific attention being paid to The Ridges, fails to demonstrate any of the advanced skills this course was designed to help develop in upper-year students. You show no ability to think critically or independently, nor do you seem capable of conducting independent research.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015


There's nothing wrong with Ouija, but there's nothing right with it either.

After Debbie hangs herself for no apparent reason, her best friend Lane starts looking into her death and concludes that Debbie's "suicide" is directly related to an old Ouija board. Lane and her friends use the board to find answers and/or closure, but it doesn't work. Instead of closure, the board presents them with new mysteries which they must solve before they each befall a fate similar to Deb.

I lied when I said this movie didn't have any problems. Ouija's got problems, specifically problems with pacing and escalation. But disregarding those for the moment, Ouija's biggest issue is that it's flat. Flat tone, flat story; there's nothing there you can dig your teeth into, no real substance. It's just...flat.

There's no real mystery to Ouija. The film plays out exactly as you would expect it to, including the fake-outs. Have you seen a haunted house movie? A movie about ghosts? Then you've seen Ouija. I'm not saying each new movie must break new ground, but Ouija is so rote that it's dull. I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, but the movie holds no surprises. One or two creepy moments can't make up for ninety minutes of same 'ole same 'ole.

Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the problem. I've seen so many horror movies that I can't just enjoy a regular ghost story. Or maybe it's the regular part that's the problem. There's no real art or artistry to most mainstream horror--it's a product not a project. Ouija's script wasn't written so much as it was outlined and scheduled.

And it's that lack of real passion for telling a compelling story that leaves the movie feeling flat. It's laziness, really. Too lazy to build a video diary into Debbie's backstory, Lane discovers the one (and only) personal video Deb recorded that just happened to contain important information. It's the visual equivalent of the exposition dump. Too lazy to craft any real tension or suspense, the script uses the ghosts as tools rather than characters. And finally, too lazy to escalate the stakes, the movie separates Lane from her friends, stalling the plot rather than developing it.

It's this kind of filmmaking that makes me weep for the next generation. If tomorrow's horror writers and directors are watching Ouija thinking it's acceptable, what uninspired plots will they conceive when it's their turn at the wheel?

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Horror Core: Great Genre Film Themes

I've written about music before. Not that I'm at all qualified to do so, but still. And now here's more on the subject. Specifically about theme songs for genre films. Which I've also posted about in the past. Sort of. But this time I'm talking song songs, like with lyrics and stuff.

It's not so unusual for a movie to have a theme song--in fact, it's often expected. More so if a singer is cast in the film. Witness Men in Black or Battleship. Or Dark Floors, the Lordi movie. Heck, Bobby Brown laid down a track for Ghostbusters 2 and he was hardly in it. And then there are the genre films that have no good reason for a theme song, but still one exists. For reasons that escape most of us, someone decided these movies needed a theme tune, something to sum up, in verse, the films' themes and/or plot. I've scoured my memory, my friends' memories, and the Internet to bring you a few choice selections.

Shocker as heard in Shocker

Shocker is not a great film, by any standard. But it's still kinda fun to watch, even if Wes Craven was just plagiarizing himself for most of it. A lot of work went into the soundtrack, and a super-group of sorts was assembled to produce and sing the theme song. The Dudes of Wrath include members from KISS, Whitesnake, Motley Crue, and Van Halen.

Green Slime as heard in The Green Slime

I haven't actually seen this stinker from 1968, but I'm told that those who have remember it for its theme song. Or from the first ever MST3K. Anyway, The Green Slime boasts a rocking theme that includes both a sitar and a theremin. Written by award-winning composer Charles Fox, and sung by Richard Dalvey, who pioneered surf music. (Special thanks to Andrew Barr)

Zombeavers as heard in Zombeavers

If you haven't seen Zombeavers, you should. Also, the song is full of spoilers. Sung by crooner Nick Amado, and written by Jon and Al Kaplan, the Zombeavers theme is exactly what you'd expect from the guys who brought us The Thing musical. Incidentally, the guys who wrote the movie's theme also wrote the movie.

Looker as heard in Looker

Looker isn't a bad movie, even though critics didn't like it very much back in 1981. Written and directed by Michael Crichton, the movie touches on themes of beauty and perfection and the plot could totally be remade today. Complementing the film is its theme song sung by Sue Sadd and the Next, which was later covered by Kim Carnes. Looker has an entire soundtrack album that recorded but never released. (Special Thanks to Don Guarisco)

Dream Warriors as heard in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is a fascinating study. No less interesting is the third movie's theme song by Dokken. This rock power anthem probably wasn't the band's crowning achievement, but it was remixed and released on what became their best-selling album. Rumor has it the band's internal conflict helped fuel their sound. Whatever the case, Dream Warriors is so awesome that it defeats Freddy himself.

Burn as heard in The Crow

The Crow is legendary for a lot of reasons, its soundtrack being one of them. The movie is full of '90s rock and metal, and the soundtrack sold over four million copies. Initially, no label would produce it until Trent Reznor got on board. The soundtrack is crammed full of new songs and covers, but Burn by The Cure became the movie's theme. It's haunting and gothy, capturing the essence of the film.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Well, I finally saw it. I didn't want to, but I felt obligated to do so. And I have to say it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. Of course, the bar so low as to be underground, but still I've seen worse. That doesn't mean the movie is any good--it's terrible--but it's not the worse thing ever.

I think there's some comfort to be found there.

Platinum Dunes's TMNT was doomed from the start; there was simply no way Michael Bay could make a new Ninja Turtles movie and not face a staggering amount of opposition. He'd already destroyed Transformers and now his company was taking aim at everyone's next favourite childhood property. Bay added insult to injury when he announced the turtles would be aliens. Aliens? Like this is some Biker Mice from Mars bullshit? But despite massive blowback and vitriol, PD made and released TMNT, disappointing fans and critics alike.

Pictured: some bullshit.

At least they changed the part about them being aliens. There's even a line in the script about it. "Are they aliens?" Vernon asks. "No, that's stupid," says April. Of course it's stupid. They're mutants. It's right there in the title. We don't need a clever line to remind us all about how gracious PD was to bow to "popular opinion" and rewrite that part of the origin story.

But rewrite it they did. This time round the turtles are the mutated results of trying to reverse-engineer an antidote for a poisonous gas. Why a lab would use turtles as test subjects is never questioned in the film, so I won't bring it up here. What I will bring up is the poisonous gas. In a minute. Bear with me.

So. Eric Sacks owns a big medical company that had a tragic lab fire that killed April's father many years ago. Turns out her dad set fire to the lab when he found out what Sacks was up to, namely trying to create a cure for some horrible disease he was planning to unleash on the city.

After the lab fire, Sacks thought all was lost and the Big Plan to Poison New York was mothballed. Then in walks April O'Neill who tells him all about how her pet turtles, which where the lab turtles, grew up big and strong and are, wait for it, the mysterious vigilantes who've been thwarting the Foot Clan attacks around the city. This is great news for Sacks because he's secretly in league with the Foot and their leader, Shredder who is, wait for it, Sacks's surrogate father who raised him when his parents died when they were living in Japan.

And why was Sacks planning to gas New York? So he could sell the cure and become rich. "Stupid rich," in his own words. Because he's not rich enough. Which is a real problem for him.

Did you get all that? Doesn't matter! Moving on.

TMNT is so full of problems it's hard to know where to begin. The easiest thing to do would be to compare it to the 1990 movie of the same name.

Does my nostalgia for old-school Ninja Turtles cloud my judgement with regards to PD's TMNT? Probably, yeah. But there's a reason I and everyone else like it so much, and despise this incarnation. What the new TMNT lacks is substance, from its bad CGI to its plot. The turtles are well animated, for the most part, but Splinter is so poorly realized he's difficult to watch. That's to say nothing of Shredder, who appears to have gravity-defying superpowers. Shredder fights with grace and ease, as if his enormous suit of armour was made of rice paper instead of chrome.

Make a list of white boy suburban stereotypes and you'll guess at least 50% of the turtles' characters and personalities, maybe 75 if you include "nerd." Only Leonardo fails the stereotype test but that's because he as no personality whatsoever. The bare minimum of effort was made to give these characters a life of their own, independent of one another: Raf butts heads with Leo because he's expected to; Mikey pervs on April because someone (wrongly) thought it'd be funny; and Donny's contribution to the team dynamic is his technological know-how, he does't say or do anything that isn't related to tech.

This dismissive attitude regarding the turtles' characters is explained by the fact that the movie isn't really about them. For whatever reason, TMNT is April's story. She's the central figure in all this, the fixed point around which Sacks and the turtles orbit. The movie breaks away from April only when the action plot demands it, like for expositions or a fight. Otherwise, TMNT is the April O'Neill Power Hour with Special Guests the Ninja Turtles.

Or, Memoirs of an Invisible Turtle?

If you're wondering how Shredder and the Foot Clan factor into all of this, you're not alone. I've seen the movie and I'm still not sure. The Foot fall somewhere on the spectrum between "street gang" and "crime syndicate." Shredder's pissed the Foot aren't getting the attention or respect he thinks they deserve, lamenting the fact that most people in the city think they're a myth. For the life of me, I can't understand why this would bother him. If anything, Shredder should be pleased no one takes the Foot Clan seriously--it's so much easier to carry out your nefarious deeds on the dl when nobody thinks you're a threat. What Shredder's big-picture plans are for the Foot, I have no clue. And it doesn't matter. The Foot Clan are in the movie because of course they are.

As a kid, I didn't tune in to Ninja Turtles for an important lesson about family or trust or some other crap. I watched the cartoon and the movies because they were fun. If, along the way, I learned something about teamwork or self-confidence, so much the better. TMNT seems to have missed the subtle point here, that the moralizing that takes place in kids' entertainment is woven into the story. In PD's version, any valuable lessons learned are undercut by the sheer awkwardness of the "teachable moment." Raf spews forth a desperate confession about why he fronts so much that, while heartfelt, will likely engender more ridicule than compassion. And Splinter offers up some garbage about how the turtle's greatest strength is their teamwork. That would have been a great lesson, sure, if their ability to work together (or not) was ever an issue.

The problem is the movie's all incident. There's no story development here, just a series of action sequences all piled on top of one another. And sometimes, that's all you want from a movie. But not this movie. TMNT wants desperately to tell us a story and to have it mean something, but it doesn't know how. Substance has been replaced by special effects, and the kids who see this movie will grow up never knowing the difference.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Trailer Review: Point Break

Yeah, that's right. Point. Break.

Despite it being remade once already as The Fast and the Furious, some genius at Warner Brothers thought he'd mine XXX for inspiration for a(nother) Point Break remake.

Because being an expert in one extreme sport means your're an expert in all extreme sports. And demolition. Does Warner Bros know how long it takes become brilliant at gliding? Surfing and snowboarding are not interchangeable. You can't just replace waves with snow and have at it. Okay, I admit I'm not an extreme sportsman. -woman. -person. I am a really good skier, though, but that doesn't mean I can rollerblade worth a damn.

And I can't be sure who's side I'm supposed to be on. The cops or the robbers. I mean, I understand that's the point, but these guys are dropping dollar bills on impoverished communities, for chrissakes. But the lead robber looks like kind of a douche, so that's a strike against.

And another thing: that "law of gravity" line might sound good, but it points to a general misunderstanding of both gravity and law. I know no one'll ever say, "The only law that matters is Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation that allows us to calculate the gravitational pull between me and the Earth," before heroically pitching themselves off a cliff. But still. What he really means is the theory of gravity. Unfortunately, there's no good set-up for that.

Johnny Utah
Do you have any idea how many laws 
you've broken? A lot. The answer is a lot. 
That makes you a bad person, in theory.

The only theory that matters is gravity.

I say scrap the whole gravity word play and with it all attempts at cleverness. Because you're bad at it.

Johnny Utah
Do you have any idea how many 
laws you've broken?           

Do you have any idea how many 
fucks I give?                 

I'm guessing the answer is zero. Zero fucks. Which is exactly the same amount of fucks given by everyone who brought this idea to life.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Trailer Review: Infini

Because everyone loved Doom so much.
Because everyone's forgotten this happened once already, and we called it Doom.

At the tail-end of a too-long chapter in film history, 'round about the time when all the carefully delineated subgenres spiral downward into chaos and self-parody, comes Infini. Infini will either deliver us from The Era of Re (as in -boot, -make, -hash) or it will dig us deeper into this cinematic rut I call Early 21st Century Grit.

That's not to suggest there weren't some truly great and/or gritty "res" in the past 15 years. I'm just saying the res have run their course. They've done their job, and now it's time for them to retire and give way to a new re, the resurgence. I'm talking old-school, back-to-basics genre film. I'm talking everything from story to effects to mise-en-scene. I'm talking Wrong Turn and It Follows and The Guest, three contemporary movies that take an old aesthetic and make it new again.

We crave decent horror and we don't even know it. We're spoon fed gore and jump scares and we're told we want more, and we nod yes, more please. And so the feeding continues only now with a funnel jammed in our mouths. Into that cakehole is crammed every trope and cliche, every archetype and stereotype, every thing we've seen before.

And now here's one more. Maybe. I don't know. My love for genre film makes me naive and hopeful for the future, even though a lot of contemporary horror sucks balls. Also, I'm one of the few people who like Doom so I don't really care if someone has forced it to breed with the plot of Aliens, creating this blasphemy. All I care is that Infini doesn't fall victim to its era, that it doesn't pander or insult or offend because it misunderstands its own genre.