Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ghostbusters

What is the genius of Ghostbusters (1984)? The filmmakers spent countless millions of dollars on elaborate, eye-popping special effects, creating all sorts of ghosts, ghouls, and other supernatural baddies, and Bill Murray will not react to any of it. If nothing else, Ghostbusters is probably the best example of the 80s comedy: a wacky premise, a great cast, endlessly quotable dialogue, former SNL cast members at their comedic peaks, smart aleck humor, and real effort in making the special effects come alive (or dead).

After being kicked out their university, New York City parapsychologists Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) decide to go into business as the Ghostbusters, catching and storing ghosts and specters. Despite a slow start, the business catches on to the point they hire a fourth teammate, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). Meanwhile, all the paranormal activity they're investigating seems to be related to something even bigger than they could possibly imagine, and it has to do with the apartment building of their first client -and Venkman's love interest- Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) and her neighbor Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). Worse, EPA official Walter Peck (William Atherton) is determined to shut the boys down.

For a plot threatened to be overwhelmed by chaos, Ghostbusters remains remarkably in control of the action. Quite often, movies that have such elaborate effects and fantastic plots tend to become bogged down, enthralled to all the activity and noise. It's hard to laugh when you're standing in awe.

But what keeps it working, I think, is how all the Ghostbusters are well drawn and individualized. Venkman is the cynical wise-ass, heckling his teammates and not at all hesitant to use his position to score a date. Ray is the overgrown, excitable kid, Egon is the analytical, overly-technical scientist, and Winston is the down-to-earth, cool one ("Ray, when someone asks if you're a god, you say YES!"). They work great together. Even the supporting cast is fun, especially the nerdy Louis ("Okay, who brought the dog?").

The Oscar-nominated effects by Richard Edlund were really something back in 1984, and they still hold up very well. The floating spirits such as the librarian ghost and Slime, the demon dogs, and of course, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are effectively spooky and funny. They seem real. The way the Ghostbusters, particularly Vankman, react to them, at turns horrified and dismissive, provides much of the film's laughs. The underlying material about ghosts and demons is presented so plausibly and effectively, there's real opportunities for jokes.

So that's Ghostbusters. I'm sure most you have already seen and love it, but if you haven't, what's wrong with you? If nothing else, it gave us one excellent title track by Ray Parker Jr.

Scanners

You'd be hard-pressed to call mainstream a movie in which telepathic mutants cause heads to explode, but when you consider the filmmaker behind such a film is David Cronenberg, the unique director who has delved in the bizarre and out-there his entire career, then you can understand how straightforward and rather pedestrian Scanners (1981) is.

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a homeless man taken by the ConSec corporation after he causes a woman to have a seizure just by looking at her. Turns out, as explained by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), Vale is a Scanner, one of 237 people in the world capable of reading minds and exerting control of people through telekinesis. Ruth wants to train Vale to control his power and use him to infiltrate a Scanner underground forming under Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful Scanner who attacked ConSec and is murdering all Scanners refusing to join him.

The main problem with Scanners is it's too much plot and not enough character. The corporate espionage stuff - agents in trench coats, cover-ups, tranquilizer guns, assassinations, car chases, shootouts- is all rather routine, and in between all the gory action is mainly exposition. Vale is an uninteresting character, made by worse by Lack's wooden, stilted performance. Much better on the acting front is Ironside's intense, driven villain and McGoohan's morally-ambiguous scientist.

Cronenberg includes some memorable set pieces, the most famous of which is the exploding head. Revok attends a ConSec Scanner demonstration and causes the other Scanner's head to explode. There's also the final showdown between Revok and Vale as they psychically duel, the power of their minds devastating their bodies in the process. Another Scanner, Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman) finds mental solace from his power in his art, including nestling himself inside a giant head.

The mind and body as battlegrounds has long fascinated Cronenberg. In Scanners, we see the results of scientific experimentation manifest itself in an unexpected manner. Scanners were created when pregnant women received injections of a drug called Ephemerol. The "invisible side effect," as Revok calls it, is the psychic ability of the children who grow up to be dysfunctional, socially maladjusted misfits ripe for exploitation. Sadly, this theme ends up feeling shortchanged by the espionage aspect.

Scanners for a while was considered the premier Cronenberg film. It certainly has enough going for it to make it watchable, but Cronenberg has been better and more daring elsewhere.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

No More Mr. Nice Guy

After three years of could-of, should-of, would-of, I finally saw Alice Cooper live in concert. On Aug. 17, Alice and his band performed at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion in Columbus. I was there (ah, the joy of free tickets from work), and it rocked. After more than 40 years in the business, Alice still puts on one hell of a show.

The usual favorites were played: "Poison," "I'm Eighteen," "No More Mr. Nice Guy" (the name of the tour), "Only Women Bleed," "Under My Wheels," "Feed My Frankenstein," "Hey Stoopid," and of course, "School's Out." I don't know how long Alice has gone with the three-guitar attack, but that setup gave the night a blistering, furious hard rock edge. Alice may be in his 60s, but he can still sneer, snarl, cackle, and shriek with the best of them.

Of course, you can't discuss an Alice Cooper concert with out describing his stage show. The show opened with "The Black Widow." When the curtain dropped, Alice appeared on top of a staircase tower, bathed in red light, his band below him, and spider legs protruding from his ribs. Sure, you could see the strings attached to his arms to follow his movements, but it was a suitably dark opening that set the macabre tone for the night.

Later, Alice brought out another creepy crawling favorite: a snake. For a rendition of "Is It My Body," he wrapped a snake around his neck and pranced around the stage. Certainly not as dangerous as it likely appeared in the 70s, but it's an old favorite. Personally, I've always wondered what the snake thinks of the stuff going on. My favorite was when Alice stuffed his head in a guillotine and chopped it off. Any artist willing to dismember himself for my entertainment just touches my heart.

Then it was time for mad scientist mode. Alice, wearing a lab coat and assisted by a deformed assistant, electrified a giant Frankenstein of himself. That thing was huge, its head reaching the top of the stage. This was one stage act I've never seen Alice have before, but it really worked. I almost wish he finished the rest of the show with that thing. Sadly, my camera's battery died, so I didn't get a picture. Still, seeing the monster rampage was worth seeing in person.

Alice capped off the show with an encore performance of "Elected." Wearing an Uncle Sam coat and hat (along with an Ohio State University Buckeye jersey with the "O" crossed out) and waving the flag, Alice sent the crowd home happy. "Columbus has problems. Cleveland has problems. Akron has problems. Personally, I don't care."

Watching an Alice Cooper concert is like watching contained anarchy. The music was solid and loud, and the antics were amazing and outrageous. Any fans out there would do well to catch him the next time he comes to town.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Elvis

The cinematic partnership between director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell certainly stands as one of the more impressive modern movie pairings. Spanning five films, their collaboration has resulted in sci-fi action dystopia (Escape from New York and its sequel), kung fu comedy (Big Trouble in Little China), and apocalyptic monster thriller (The Thing). As a result, their first team-up, a made-for-TV biopic about Elvis Presley, appropriately titled Elvis (1979), certainly feels like an anomaly, and while I'm not completely enthused about the movie, it has enough elements going for it to be recommended.

The film chronicles the life and fame of rock-n-roll legend Elvis Presley (Russell) from his childhood and his parents (Shelley Winters and Bing Russell) to signing a record deal with Sam Phillips (Charles Cyphers) to being managed by Colonel Parker (Pat Hingle) to his marriage with Priscilla (Season Hubley) and his growing discontent with the entertainer's lifestyle. At nearly three hours long, the film covers a lot of ground.

First, the positives. Kurt Russell is astounding. He embodies Elvis so much, there are times you really think that is the King. We get his hip-swinging, girl-swooning showmanship as well as the darker, more troubled man beneath the persona. He means it when he tells Priscilla he'll give up the rock-n-roll lifestyle, but the tug from the audience and the potential to captivate the world is too much to resist.

The supporting excels as well, particularly Winters as Gladys Presley, the mother stunned by her son's new-found wealth and determined to protect him. Elvis is something of a mama's boy, and it's no surprise that after her death, he seems to have lost his foundation. Hingle is fun as Parker, the wily manager who knows how to keep his charge's career on track; it's shame he wasn't in more of the movie. Bing Russell (Kurt's real-life father) doesn't have much to do as Elvis's father, but their relationship feels authentic.

Even though the film was made for television, it feels like a feature. Carpenter does not limit himself to a flat, static look. Had I not known otherwise, I would have thought this had gone to theaters. The period details - the clothes, cars, music, etc. - ring true. Watching the movie is like stepping back in time.

Sadly, all this effort feels restrained by an unambitious script that doesn't take many chances. Instead of highlighting drama, the film chronicles events. There's no momentum or dramatic tension. And whether it was the script or network restrictions, the film doesn't delve into certain aspects of Elvis's life: his drug problems, his infidelities, or his weight problems. The portrait of the man behind the legend is not complete.

Still, this was a star-making role for Russell, and he doesn't disappoint. A child star for Disney, this was his first adult role, and he shines. Carpenter does well for a non-genre film; I'm curious what he could have done with more dramatic opportunities. While not all it could have been, Elvis is worth checking out.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clerks

Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) is one of those little movies that could. Filmed on an obviously low budget and in black and white about a couple of low-level store clerks, it somehow caught on, signaling the arrival of Smith as director with a unique sensibilities and becoming something of a cultural statement for the slacker culture it depicts. It's crude, vulgar, virtually plot-less, and the characters undergo no real dramatic growth, but somehow the film became a voice for its generation.

Clerks depicts a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a 20-something slacker called into work at a convenience store on his day off. His best friend Randall (Jeff Anderson) works next door at a second-rate video store. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) is pressuring him to go back to school, his ex-girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer) is getting married, another ex-girlfriend's wake is today, he's got a hockey game later, and most customers are a combination of obnoxious and stupid. There's also a pair of drug dealers, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, respectively) always hanging around outside the store.

This may sound blasphemous, but I prefer Clerks 2 to Clerks. Maybe it was a matter of expectations. I had been told by many that Clerks was the funniest movie of the last 20-odd years or so while Clerks 2 looked on the surface to be a return to comfortable territory for a director whose previous venture into new territory (Jersey Girl) didn't pan out. I just found Clerks 2 to be funnier, more professionally made, and more fun, but that's not to say Clerks is without its merits.

What Clerks has is an authentic touch. It was filmed in an actual convenience store (where Smith worked during the day), and the hopes and anxieties of the characters are real. These are people who might be adults but haven't yet grown up. They're aimless and frustrated. Plus, the details of the stores ring true: the idiot customers, the boss who dumps extra time on you, and all the ways people find to slack while on the job. Smith also wrote the film, and his dialogue is particularly sharp, carrying the entire movie.

Of course, there's room for some wacky antics that probably haven't happened in any store I've been to but were funny enough and at times outrageous: the guidance counselor searching for the perfect eggs, the hockey game on the roof, and what we're told happens in the bathroom with the ex-girlfriend (Make no mistake; this film is raunchy).

My problem with Clerks is the characters we spend the most time with (Dante and Randall) are self-absorbed assholes. Dante is self-pitying, always blaming everyone else for his problems, and is willing to end a good relationship with his girlfriend to go after an ex that treated him like crap. Randal is just a dick. The way treats people and gets his friends in trouble makes him someone you want to punch. Granted, there are plenty of people in real life just like this, but to spend an entire movie with these two, who either mope about life or acts like a jerk, is a little too much. That temperament drags the movie down, making it not as funny as it seems like it should be.

Ultimately, Clerks is a movie that's easier to admire than it is to enjoy. What Smith pulled off on such a low budget and how he used it to springboard his career is impressive, but I can't quite recommend it. It has its charm, some laughs, and moments of profound truth (or at least sharp insight), but I still prefer Clerks 2.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Midnight Movie

Did you know Tobe Hooper directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Don't worry, if you didn't, because if you read Hooper's first novel, Midnight Movie (2011), you'll be reminded of that tidbit every couple of pages as well as see it on the front and back cover of the book. You know, in case you forget. Honestly, it's probably the only reason anyone is reading the book.

Ghost-written, I mean, co-written by Alan Goldsher, Midnight Movie is about a Hollywood horror director named Tobe Hooper who directed the groundbreaking fright flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A movie Hooper made as a teenager called Destiny Express is recently unearthed to be shown at a film festival in Austin, Texas. Hooper, who can't remember the film or the experience making it because of a car accident's effect on his memory, attends the premiere. However, the film seems to have a strange effect on people. Some people react violently, taking out their rage on anyone. Others become sex-crazed maniacs who ... well, let's just say it involves blue fluid. Buildings begin blowing up all over the country, and even some zombies turn up. "The Game," as these escalating events become known as, threaten the world. Hooper, along with part-time film critic Erik Laughlin and local college student Janine Daltrey, decide to seek out the long-lost cast and crew to see if they can figure out the mystery of Destiny Express and end the Game.

Midnight Movie is written in an epistolary style: newspaper articles, blog entries, Twitter tweets, and testimony from the characters interviewed by Goldsher as if he were a reporter chronicling the Game. The plot plays out like an amalgamation of John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (a film that drives people crazy), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (a horror director appearing as himself in his own work and his relationship to said work), and Hooper's own Lifeforce (apocalyptic destruction and sex-crazed zombies). In fact, the overall tone bears more than a passing resemblance to Lifeforce; it is completely off-the-wall, outrageous, batshit-insane, and nonsensical.

The problem with Midnight Movie is that it's not really as effective as any of the aforementioned titles. I blazed through it pretty quickly and was never bored with it, but I just don't know what to make of it. Individual passages are effective in their own right, but overall, the narrative doesn't tie together in a satisfactory manner. It feels like a bunch a random scenes are just strung together without much of a connection, and so much is never really explained. Why does the film have a different effect on its viewers? Why do some people go crazy while others turn into zombies? In Chainsaw, very little was explained, but it felt like you were being pulled into a surreal nightmare. The seeming lack of logic there was unnerving, but it's just confusing here.

I did like the shots taken against the Hollywood machine. One could read those sections and certainly feel real-life frustration and bitterness on the part of Hooper, himself no stranger to the damage studios have done to careers. Curious how he portrays himself as an antisocial loner. I also enjoyed the subplot of the Homeland Security agent affected by the film who infiltrates a terrorist cell and becomes so engrossed in it to earn their trust, he does more damage than they do. It has a Catch-22 sense of logic and humor to it, even though it feels like it belongs in another book.

Hooper has a tendency to go off tangent with insider references, side stories, and jokes. He's never been the most disciplined of filmmakers (I recall a story actor Bill Moseley told about filming Chainsaw 2 in which Hooper repeatedly called for additional takes of a scene simply because he enjoyed watching Moseley swing a hammer). While that has served him well elsewhere, it doesn't work here. I especially couldn't stand the character of Dude McGee, the fat, obnoxious organizer of the screening. I know he's supposed to be disgusting and annoying, getting everyone's name wrong on purpose, and smelling like moldy salami but he was too much. I wanted him off the page. Hooper has often mixed horror and humor, but it felt distracting here.

There's a part of me that wants to admire and enjoy Midnight Movie. Hooper throws restraint into the wind and piles on excess after excess. That is pretty daring and refreshing, but it felt like he and Goldsher were just throwing everything against the wall to see what stuck. With a little more focus and clarity, the book could have worked, but as is, it's a lot of sound and fury without much beneath it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Made in Britain

In Made in Britain (1982), Tim Roth plays Trevor, a 16-year old skinhead with a swastika tattooed between his eyes. He doesn't like school, authority, minorities, and even though we never meet them, I'm pretty sure he doesn't like his parents either. He's vulgar, violent, and prone to racist outbursts, but he has enough articulation and intelligence that his social worker sees hope in him. After throwing a brick through the window of a store and injuring the Pakistani owner in the process, Trevor is sent to the Hooper Street Residential Assessment Centre, where he will be evaluated and his punishment determined. Although he still has a chance at reforming himself, Trevor continues to willfully self-destruct.

Directed by Alan Clarke, Made in Britain is part of a series of films Clarke made for British television in the late 70s and early 80s about the educational system in Great Britain. During this time, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, unemployment and racial tensions were high, several British cities suffered riots, and the Falklands War with Argentina occurred, among other key events. Made in Britain feels less like a narrative and more like a snapshot of the period's turmoil.

It might be too simplistic to label Trevor a white supremacist. There is the swastika tattoo and his outbursts against minorities, but the movie doesn't dwell on them. Trevor gives a number of speeches, but they are directed against the authority of the courts and school and not about extolling white power. He gets along friendly enough with Leroy (David Baldwin), a black youth also at the assessment center. Trevor's actions suggest a strategy on his part to shock as much as possible and disrupt what he sees as the conformity and hypocrisy of the people in charge. Everyone has always told Trevor what to do saying it's for his own good; "Bollocks," he says, they just want to keep him in line. They say he's wrecking his future, but the future the world offers is one he rejects.

The film really was a star-making role for Roth, here in his first role. Even though he's violent and says and does ugly things, it's a strangely charismatic performance. In the end, you almost end up feeling sorry for him because of how his lot in life turned out. He refused to accept what he saw a poor offer from society and rebelled. All that rage bottled up inside him and destroyed his life.

Unlike many television movies, Made in Britain doesn't feel confined by the medium. The setting is appropriately scummy, gritty, and claustrophobic but doesn't feel low-budget or compromised. Like a punch to the gut, the movie is raw and direct.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Zombie Autopsies

We've seen zombies as monsters, and we've seen them as metaphors. They've been pop-up targets for action scenes, objects of pity, and figures for ridicule. In books, cinema, and comic books, they've been used as just about every possible plot function.

But what are zombies? Walking corpses who feast on the flesh of the living for sure, but biologically speaking, they remain a mystery. Even in literature that postulates a cause, whether a virus or something supernatural, how their bodies operate is puzzling. What happens on a cellular level to their bodies? How do they get nutrition when their digestive systems are not functioning? Why is brain trauma the only way to kill them? If you really think about it, the act of resurrection itself is so beyond the grasp of human understanding, most writers, filmmaker and audiences take it for granted, not appreciating just how amazing the concept really is.

This aspect of zombie physiology stands at the center of The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse (2011) by Steven C. Schlozman, MD. Unlike other purveyors of the undead, Schlozman does not use the science as expositional window dressing; he builds his entire plot around it. Schlozman, who studied English and biology and is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, uses actual scientific practices, devices, terminology, and concepts to explore what a zombie really might be. Forget Star Trek-esque technobabble; this is plausible.

The fate of humanity is on the line. A zombie plague has decimated mankind, and mankind's response has decimated the planet. Not only are the dead returning to life to attack the living, the virus that reanimates them spreads like the flu, meaning everyone is already infected and slowing turning into zombies. The United Nations sets up a scientific research on an island in the Indian Ocean where the world's leading scientists can study the plague and find a cure. The average lifespan of a scientist on the island, known as the Crypt, is two weeks. When a scientist sends a garbled message indicating a possible solution, the UN sends a team to investigate, but only one, Dr. Stanley Blum, arrives. His journal documents his entire time on the island and may represent the world's last hope.

While most zombie stories feature trapped survivors desperately fighting hordes of the undead, this novel has maybe two scenes in which the characters are directly threatened. In a book 200 pages long, that amounts to maybe five pages. The Crypt has five infected humanoids in a holding area, and the scientists are reasonably safe from outside threats. The threat is not external but internal as the scientists minds and bodies collapse. Scholzman does something few have successfully pulled off: present a reality in which zombies really exist. Even George Romero says this on the back of the book. The result is a book that is inherently grittier, bleaker, and more plausible than just about any other tale of the undead.

The Zombie Autopsies is broken up into two formats: official UN briefings and Blum's handwritten journal. We know from the first chapter Blum will not survive or find a cure. The UN reports note his fate and indicate the best thing to do is go through his journal because it may have important observations and information. Even though the reports are written in detached, bureaucratic language, they're not dense, and they add atmosphere. They really feel like something the world government would prepare in such a scenario. It makes the end of the world official.

Blum's journal is a first-person account of working with the doctors and the zombies. This is where the human element of the book shines through. As Blum writes, he chronicles his final days to keep his sanity and leave some kind of a record. We learn a little about him, his background, and his family, and even though we know he won't survive, we can feel his despair and desperation. We pay attention to what he writes because maybe we'll see something he missed. We're invested in him.

The Zombie Autopsies feels real. It's a scientific account of what actual zombies might possibly be like. It's a quick read, loaded with fascinating science, and is a chilling account of the apocalypse. For those who complain zombie stories are all alike, here's one that's different.