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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

6WH: Slasher Statistics
There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back. -- Randy (Scream, 1996)
The slasher film is an unusual beast. It's often criticized for its lack of originality, simplistic premises, repetitive nature, and strict adherence to formula. Of course, it's often praised for such qualities as well. For fans of the slasher, watching a new film that follows the formula is like eating comfort food.
Ahhh, horror comfort food. Watching an '80s bodycount film, I find, is relaxing. You kinda know what's going to happen and all of the characters act in predictable ways, but that's why it's like putting a sweater on on a chilly day.
The funny thing about this is that the so-called formula isn't exactly precise. I've written about genres in general before:
A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.
As such, it's usually easy to spot a Slasher flick, even if there are lots of traits that are uncommon or unique. That being said, there are a number of characteristics common to a lot of slasher films:
  • A Killer: Usually a lone, male killer, but not always.
  • Victims: Usually more than two victims, introduced at the beginning and slowly killed off as the film progresses (in the manner of Ten Little Indians)
  • A Survivor: Usually a female, and usually the main protagonist that defeats the killer in the end.
  • Gratuitious Violence: Usually a variety of weaponry is used to dispatch the victims in a relatively gruesome manner. Rarely are impersonal weapons (such as guns) used, except in certain exotic cases (such as the speargun, common to the Friday the 13th series). More personal weapons, like knives and other bladed weapons, are usually the norm, and the result is generally depicted in gory detail.
  • Sex: Nudity and sex are usually involved, and are generally indicators that those participating will die. Sometimes this is a deliberate commentary on sexuality, sometimes it's just a more specific example of punishing those who are distracted.
  • History: There is usually some tragedy in the past that is being revisited upon the present in some way. This is less common than the above tropes, but still frequent enough to be mentioned.
There are tons of other tropes that I could go into, but that covers a good portion of the conventions used in the slasher film. Another interesting thing about the slasher film is that while there are a number of Ur Examples (i.e. primitive slashers) and Trope Makers/Codifiers, there are some pretty distinct time periods that are important. Again, there are lots of pre-slashers, notably movies like Psycho and Black Christmas1, but for all intents and purposes, the slasher film started in 1978 with Halloween and went into overdrive with the release of Friday the 13th in 1980. The period between 1980 and 1983 saw the release of countless imitators and sequels, and by 1986, the sub-genre had slowed considerably2. There were still some series limping by (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc...), but by the mid-90s, the sub-genre was all but dead. Wes Craven then revived things with the ultra-self-aware, mega-referential Scream, but by that point, the tropes of the sub-genre were so well established that subverting them became the order of the day. Post-Scream slashers don't quite resemble the early 80s slashers and perhaps deserve their own sub-genre definition (neo-slashers?).3

So to me, the "true" slasher film was made between the years of 1978 and 1996, with the primary concentration being in the early 80s. Sure, there were a ton of influential films made before 1978 that featured or established important tropes, but none of those films even approached the success of Halloween and it's imitators. Similarly, films made after Scream were forced to acknowledge the tropes and conventions of the sub-genre, and thus they shouldn't really count.

In 1992, Carol Clover coined the term Final Girl to describe the lone surviving character at the end of slasher films, and a new controversy was born. Because of its seemingly rigid conventions, the slasher film is ripe for post-modern interpretations and deconstructions, and it's easy to get carried away with such things. Clover started a more academic discussion of the sub-genre, and it's continued for the past 18 years. The discussion has mostly revolved around the role of women in these films, with the general contention being that more women are killed than men, and in a more graphic way. There have been papers arguing one way or the other, and as you might expect, none are particularly definitive.

Which brings me to a relatively recent scholarly article, Sex and Violence in the Slasher Horror Film: A Content Analysis of Gender Differences in the Depiction of Violence (.pdf). Published in 2009, the article summarizes the existing arguments and, more notably, attempts to do a pretty thorough quantitative analysis of 50 slasher films.

The article is detailed and thorough enough that it would be of interest to any fans of the genre, even if it's possible to nitpick a number of details in their methodology. Given what I wrote about above, I think you can see where my nitpicking was focused. In particular, I was baffled by the film sample list (see page 11).

Earlier in the article, the authors discuss previous efforts, and dismiss them for various reasons. One of the previous articles is criticized for a small sample size - which is a pretty legitimate criticism. Another is criticized because it selected films by commercial success:
The sample size in the Molitor and Sapolsky (1993) study is adequate; however the decision to sample the most commercially successful films may raise problems with sample bias and interpretation of the findings (Molitor & Sapolsky, 1993; Sapolsky et al., 2003). Films featuring frequent presentations of extremely graphic violence may appeal to a smaller audience, generating lower box office revenues. Thus, the findings in the existing research may not reflect the true nature of violent presentations characteristic of the slasher subgenre.
This I find less valid, especially given the author's concerns surrounding the impact of slasher films on society. If a film is not commercially successful, it is less influential, almost by definition.

All that being said, the authors came up with a new methodology which involved using IMDB's power search capabilities. To my mind, their new methodology is probably just as problematic as previous studies. Their definition of the slasher sub-genre seems a bit broad, and as such, some of the films chosen as part of their study are questionable at best. For one thing, they include several pre-Halloween films and several post-Scream films, which dilutes the sample. Indeed, some of the films are arguably not even slashers. For instance, the inclusion of two Saw films seems like a bit of a stretch. It is true that Saw leverages some similar tropes, but it's also one of the defining films in a different sub-genre - the "Torture Porn" film. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs, but I can't imagine anyone jumping to Saw when asked to think of a slasher film.

The lack of any sort of measurement of influence is another issue. This is a more general problem, but it impacts this study in particular due to the random nature of the sample collection. For instance, there is no way that a movie like Cherry Falls should be used as a representative member of the slasher sub-genre. A study that focuses on commercial success of a film (i.e. box office and home video sales) would never have included that film.

Ultimately, these complaints amount to nitpicks. Even with these flaws, some of the study's conclusions are still interesting:
Contrary to the findings reported in previous research, the current analysis suggests that there are several differences in the nature of violent presentations involving male and female characters. Male characters in slasher horror films are more likely to experience relatively quick, graphic, and serious acts of violence. Comparatively, female characters are more likely to be victims of less serious and less graphic forms of violence, such as stalking or confinement, with increased cinematic focus on depicting close-up states of prolonged terror. Women in slasher films are also more likely to be featured in scenes involving sexual content. Specifically, female characters are far more likely to be featured as partially or fully naked and, when sexual and violent images are concomitantly present, the film’s antagonist is significantly more likely to attack a woman.
This is ultimately not all that surprising, though I do wonder about a few things. For instance, since the Final Girl is a common convention, and since the final battle with the killer is likely to last a lot longer than earlier murders, it would make sense that the violence against women characters is less serious, but prolonged. I suppose one could also argue about the inclusion of non-physical violence as violence, which could get a bit hairy. The stats surrounding nudity and sex are also interesting, though I wonder how they would compare against other film genres (action films, for instance). The study presents the slasher as some sort of outlier, but I don't know if that's the case (not that it would excuse anything). I don't know that any of these correlations can be tied to a causation, but it's interesting nonetheless.

It's an interesting article, and well worth a read for anyone interested in the sub-genre. Thanks to And Now the Screaming Starts for the pointer and stay tuned for the next installment of the Six Weeks of Halloween movie marathon. That's all for now, but don't worry, I'll be right back!

1 I'm particularly fascinated by pre-slasher films, of which there are many. Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace (and other Giallos), Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, Silent Night, Bloody Night, Alice Sweet Alice, The Hills Have Eyes, and so on. Even some older films nor normally associated with slashers presage the idea, like Thirteen Women or And Then There Were None.

2 In particular, April Fool's Day and Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, both released in 1986, began to recognize the conventions of the genre and started the self-awareness trend that would culminate in Craven's Scream. There are probably lots of other good slashers made during this 1986-1996 corridor, but the slasher film was seriously on the decline at that point.

3 It might be a bit insulting to Film Noir, but there are some parallels here. Critics basically defined the film noir after the fact and once that definition became popular, all new films that featured noir-like characteristics became known as neo-noir. Of course, this is not a perfect parallel, but there is a similarity here. Once people self-consciously started making noir films, they lost a certain quality, and the same is probably true for the slasher, and in particular, films like Scream and those that followed.
Posted by Mark on September 29, 2010 at 08:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

6WH: Week 2 - Sixties Horror
At first, I didn't think I'd have a recognizable theme this week, but then I realized that these three films were all made in the 1960s (even though one is probably more of a thriller than a horror film, I'm going to let it slide, especially since it does feature several horror hallmarks). So here we go:
  • The Others (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror: Bad Dream House (sorry, no vid online)
  • The Haunting (trailer)
  • The Innocents: The quiz I posted on Wednesday featured a question about picking a Freddie Frances directed movie, and my answer indicated that his fimography as a cinematography was more impressive, and The Innocents is a prime example of why. Speaking of that quiz, I think one of the questions could have been something like "The Innocents or The Haunting", as these two films certainly share a certain thematic similarity. The Innocents isn't as bold or striking as The Haunting, but that sort of subtlety is its defining characteristic. The film is an exercise in suggestive storytelling, so the lack of pyrotechnics is appropriate and even contributes to the film's repressive atmosphere. This isn't to say that the film is poorly made - it's just that the filmmakers are so confident in their story (based on Henry James' horror milestone, The Turn of the Screw) that they don't feel the need to spice things up with flashy camera angles or stinging audio cues. The camera moves fluidly and the cinematography is gorgeous, but neither really calls attention to itself. The acting, especially Deborah Kerr's performance, is very good, but again, not showy. Kerr's repressed personality is well portrayed, but this doesn't exactly set the screen on fire (nor should it).

    The story concerns a governess hired to take care of two children in a country manner. The children's parents have died, and their uncle is a lifelong bachelor who is unwilling to change his ways, so he hires Miss Giddens (played wonderfully by Deborah Kerr) to take care of the kids. When she first arrives, she meets young Flora and all seems well. But then Flora's brother Miles comes home early, having been expelled for reasons that are unclear. As the story proceeds, we get hints that the previous nanny and caretaker were lovers and that they've corrupted the children somehow. Like Miles expulsion from school, the servants transgressions are never really all that clear, and all we have to go on are certain suggestive cues.

    There are some genuinely creepy moments in the film, and there's certainly something to be said for a subtle and suggestive story, but something rubbed me the wrong way about this film. It may have been the ending that left me a bit cold, or maybe it was just that I kept thinking about The Haunting as I was watching this movie. Director Jack Clayton has said that he wanted to get away from the popular horror films of the day (his contemporary competition would have been Hammer Horror), and in that, he has certainly succeeded (I like this film much more than the Hammer films I've seen). There's a lot to like here and the film probably deserves a larger audience, but I also think there's a reason this is a cult film that's often overshadowed by the likes of The Haunting. **1/2
  • Freaks (trailer)
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • Grindhouse: Don't (fake trailer)
  • Carnival of Souls: Moody and atmospheric, this tale of a car crash's lone survivor is short and sweet. The most notable thing about the movie for me is the soundtrack. Our heroine is an organist, you see, and she's been hired to play for a local church. But after her accident, she seems strangely withdrawn... almost like she doesn't have a soul! The organ-heavy soundtrack is quite evocative and Candace Hilligoss's empty (in a good way) performance hits the perfect note. It's difficult to tell a story with a main character who has no soul because, well, how can the audience relate to that? But Hilligoss imbues her performance with enough pathos that you can't help but feel for her. Plus, she keeps seeing this strange ghoul-faced man all over the place, eventually leading her to explore an abandoned carnival, and as you might expect, things get even weirder from there, including an interesting but not entirely unexpected ending. **1/2
  • Rear Window (trailer)
  • Rear Window as Three's Company (fake trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Bart of Darkness (sorry, no vid online)
  • Wait Until Dark: Perhaps less of a horror film than a mere thriller, this film does feature a number of striking horror-like sequences, enough so that I'm not going to disqualify it (plus, uh, I didn't have any other sixties films lined up for this week:p). The plot is simple and maybe a little gimmicky. A doll stuffed with drugs accidentally makes its way to the apartment of Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn), and a group of criminals (lead by a sinister, infamous-sunglasses-wearing Alan Arkin) conspires to get it back by conning Susy.
    Alan Arkin
    The gimmick here is that Susy is blind, leading to several scenes where our villains attempt to exploit their ocular advantage. Unfortunately for them, they're not as smart as they think, and Susy pretty quickly figures out what's going on (or, at least, she realizes that things aren't as they appear). The film starts a bit slowly, but the tension mounts pretty evenly as the film proceeds, leading to a few standout sequences late in the film, including excellent use of darkness, sound, and an exceptional "boo!" sequence towards the end of the film that will probably shock you even though you were expecting it. ***
Not positive what will be next, but coming up will definitely be a week of Silent Era Horror and some Ozploitation.

Update: Yeah, I should probably mention some other folks doing some horror movie blogging as well. Ben has been infected by my efforts and inspired to watch some horror in preparation for the season (this time, he's going for underwater horror), and of course, kernunrex continues his yearly marathon (which had originally inspired me in the first place). I haven't looked around a ton, but I'm sure lots more folks will be starting up once we reach October...
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2010 at 10:00 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Professor David Huxley's Laborious, Licentious Spotted-Leopard Labor Day Film Quiz
I'm a few weeks late to the party, but Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another movie quiz. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, and Professor Severus Snape are also available... But now, here are my answers to Professor Huxley:

1) Classic film you most want to experience that has so far eluded you.

The last film quiz had a similar question... and sadly, I still have not watched The Apartment. I don't really have a good excuse for this one either.

2) Greatest Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release ever

This is a difficult question, seeing as though I've probably only seen somewhere around 10% of the movies in the Criterion Collection (and many of the ones I have seen haven't necessarily been the Criterion version), but the first thing that came to mind was the Ultimate Three-Disc Special Edition Box Set of Brazil. I think a big part of this is that, at the time, Criterion was the only company putting out DVD releases this thorough, and this one blew me away. It featured two versions of the film - Gilliam's directors cut and the "Love Conquers All" version - and an exhaustive series of special features chronicling the film's production and the studio meddling with the US release that ultimately lead to the creation of a new version of the film that had a happy ending. This sort of treatment isn't that unusual today, but back then, it was, and it was all the more notable because it was created in service of a relatively obscure cult film.

3) The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon?

I had to rub my eyes for a second because these questions asking us to pick between two movies (or actors/actresses) usually feature at least one option that I'm not at all familiar with. In this case, I've actually seen both films (it's been a few years, but I've definitely seen both)... yet I'm still having trouble picking. For now, I'll say The Big Sleep, though it's not like I have anything against The Maltese Falcon.

4) Jason Bateman or Paul Rudd?

Wow, two in a row where I know what you're asking about. It's another tough one, but for now I'll have to go with Paul Rudd, though Bateman has been coming on strong lately.

5) Best mother/child (male or female) movie star combo

The only thing I could really come up with here is Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, which appears to be a pretty common (i.e. boring) answer to this question...

6) Who are the Robert Mitchums and Ida Lupinos among working movie actors? Do modern parallels to such masculine and no-nonsense feminine stars even exist? If not, why not?

I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm no expert on his filmography, but it's not like Mitchum was surrounded by contemporaries who did what he did, and I can't really think of anyone working today that comes close either. The closest I can come is Clint Eastwood, but he's still quite a bit different (interestingly, I was wondering the other day if any younger actors could fill Eastwood's type of role these days?). I have to admit that I'm not at all familiar with Ida Lupino, but when it comes to no-nonsense actresses, someone in the comments of the SLIFR thread mentioned Christina Hendricks. I guess that's cheating, though, as she's more of a TV star. No-nonsense characters seem to be less common these days though, so perhaps that could account for the lack of actors taking on that sort of role (or being type-cast as that sort of character).

7) Favorite Preston Sturges movie

The Lady Eve (these questions are easy when you've only seen one film in a director's filmography!).

8) Odette Yustman or Mary Elizabeth Winstead?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as she's been in a lot of decent movies already (and not so decent movies that I don't really mind). The most notably thing Odette Yustman has been in for me is Fallout 3, where she did voice acting for the Overseer's daughter (she shot me down).

9) Is there a movie that if you found out a partner or love interest loved (or didn't love) would qualify as a Relationship Deal Breaker?

I always find stories about this amusing, but I can't think of a single film that would ever provoke this kind of reaction in me. Perhaps if I hated every film she liked, there might be a problem, but in that case, I suspect it would really just be symptomatic of deeper problems.

10) Favorite DVD commentary

The tricky part about commentaries is that the best commentaries are usually done for bad movies. There's no pressure to defend poor choices or mistakes, and thus the filmmakers tend to be a little more comfortable and honest about the production. The biggest problem with this is that you actually have to watch bad movies in order to get to these types of commentaries. For instance, I've heard that Joel Schumacher's commentary for Batman & Robin is fantastic because he doesn't really hold back and openly admits mistakes and problems with the production. I have not heard the entire commentary, but I saw a clip once where he admitted to redesigning the batmobile in order to sell more toys (or some such). That's not my answer though - my pick would be Kevin Smith's (and the rest of the cast's) commentary on Mallrats. All of Smith's commentaries are entertaining, but the failure of this movie at the box office adds that extra dimension that can make a commentary great. You get lots of moments between friends, like when Smith and others berate Affleck for liking Malcolm in the Middle, but you also get stories about how the marketing failed the movie and how studio execs convinced Smith to tone down some of his more raunchy humor. It's excellent stuff. (I'd love to see a commentary on Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but Smith was apparently so distraught at some of the behind the scenes wranglings that he didn't want to do one - hopefully once he gets some time and movies behind him, he can revisit this...)

11) Movies most recently seen on DVD, Blu-ray and theatrically

On DVD, it was Don't Torture a Duckling, Lucio Fulci's disturbing Giallo (part of my 6WH horror movie marathon). It was a decent film with a few standout sequences, but it doesn't really compare to the top tier of Giallos.

On Blu-Ray, it was Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a self-aware, neo-slasher mock-documentary. It features some interesting components and puts a name to the many conventions of the genre, though the only really new terminology that's coined is the concept of an "Ahab" (basically, in the context of slashers, the primary example of an Ahab would be Dr. Loomis from the Halloween films). Ultimately it's not a great film, but it was an entertaining enough watch.

In theaters, it was The Town, Ben Affleck's surprisingly strong sophomore effort as director. It's not going to win awards like Gone Baby Gone, but it's still a solid film. I wish more films like this were made and I'd be more than happy if Affleck spent the rest of his career putting out little crime thrillers set in Boston.

12) Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates?

Ah, there we go! I'm not especially familiar with either of these actors, but I guess I'd give it to Alan Bates, as I've actually seen a few of his movies.

13) Favorite DVD extra

Well, I've already given two of my favorite examples (the Behind the Scenes documentaries about Brazil and the Love Conquers All version of the film, and Kevin Smith's commentary for Mallrats...) so I'm having trouble picking another favorite. Kevin Smith does have some other great special features, like the (seemingly) 2 hours of deleted scenes (with introductions) from Dogma. There are some interesting making-of documentaries on my copy of The Terminator and The Thing. Alien and Aliens also have pretty good special features. But now we're just getting into movies I like! Someone in the comments at SLIFR mentioned the Fruity Oaty Bars feature from Serenity, which I find funny (both because it warranted a special feature on the DVD and because someone actually picked it as their favorite extra). In a more general sense, my favorite extra feature is a commentary track (especially if done well!)

14) Brian De Palma’s Scarface— yes or no?

Yes. Though I certainly don't get the absolute worship the film receives, it is a reasonably well done movie.

15) Best comic moment from a horror film that is not a horror comedy (Young Frankenstein, Love At First Bite, et al.)

The answer here is obviously from Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. I'll chose the title sequence where the camera zooms into Jason's eye, where you then see Jason sashay accross the screen, James Bond style, and swing his trusty machete, filling the screen with blood that eventually spells out the title. I laughed for a solid ten minutes when I revisited the film recently, not remembering that this film was so self-aware. There are several other choices in the film, such as a couple's attempt to bribe Jason with an American Express card, the fact that one of the children in the camp is reading Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, and the way Jason holds a dismembered arm and cocks his head, as if thinking "Huh, his arm came off. Will wonders never cease." I suppose you could make an argument that this movie is a horror comedy, but most of the film retains the typical, earnest slasher movie style, so I think it counts (and there are a few legitimately creepifying moments, though maybe that's just nostalgic remnants of my childhood poking through). There are actually a bunch of other movies I considered for this, including Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive, Re-Animator, Tremors, and An American Werewolf in London (though again, you might consider at least some of those to be horror/comedies)...

16) Jane Birkin or Edwige Fenech?

I got nothing.

17) Favorite Wong Kar-wai movie

I have to admit that I'm not a particularly huge Wong Kar-wai fan, so I've not seen a lot of his films. Of the ones I've seen, I'd say In the Mood for Love, which does have a legitimately interesting premise.

18) Best horrific moment from a comedy that is not a horror comedy

This one was a lot harder than question 15... Does Raising Arizona count as a comedy? I remember finding The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse a bit creepy when I was younger... I guess another option would be the end of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

19) From 2010, a specific example of what movies are doing right…

I loved Inception and hope its success augurs for more of the same. Even if it's just a few new movies that are not based on existing properties, I think that'd be a win. I'm not tremendously confident of that, but it'd be nice. Another thing that seems to be going well is the concept of digital distribution. I've caught a few movies on IFC On Demand, which means that I can watch some of those hard to find movies without even leaving home (even if it's playing in Philly, this means I can avoid the traffic and the parking, etc...)

20) Ryan Reynolds or Chris Evans?

Hey, two more people I know. This must be a record. Anyway, I guess I'd probably go with Chris Evans, as he seems to make more interesting choices.

21) Speculate about the future of online film writing. What’s next?

I'm not sure. Everything seems to be getting smaller. Perhaps film critics who post exclusively on twitter or some other sort of micro-blogging format. Or the other direction: the return of long-form film criticism. Ultimately, I don't think much will change. Old school outlets and criticism will continue to lose ground to the seemingly endless throngs of online critics who work for peanuts (if that).

22) Roger Livesey or David Farrar?

Filmspotting has been doing a Powell-Pressburger marathon, and so they've been talking about these two guys... but I haven't seen either of them, so I can't really pick.

23) Best father/child (male or female) movie star combo

The first that comes to mind is Kirk and Michael Douglas, which I guess is a boring answer, but the only others I can think of are also boring. Given my answer to the mother/child question, I suppose I could also go with Tony Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis, just for the sake of symmetry.

24) Favorite Freddie Francis movie (as Director)

Not tremendously familiar with his work, but I guess I'll go with Tales from the Crypt. He seems to have a more impressive resume as a cinematographer than as a director.

25) Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth?

Seeing as though I've only seen one of these, I've got Bringing Up Baby by default.

26) Tina Fey or Kristen Wiig?

I guess I'll go with Tina Fey on this one, though I do really like both (Wiig, for instance, was the best part of Knocked Up, and she was only in it for about a minute or so).

27) Name a stylistically important director and the best film that would have never been made without his/her influence.

What started with John Ford westerns moved to Akira Kurosawa samurai films and then back to the westerns with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. If I have to pick my favorite spaghetti western, it would be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but the entire sub-genre owes a debt to what came before.

28) Movie you’d most enjoy seeing remade and transplanted to a different culture (i.e. Yimou Zhang’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.)

I was going to think of an answer for this, but then I saw Patrick's answer at SLIFR: "I'd love to see what Hayao Miyazaki would do with the Wizard of Oz."

29) Link to a picture/frame grab of a movie image that for you best illustrates bliss. Elaborate.

I had a surprisingly hard time with this. The first shot that came to mind was the end of It's a Wonderful Life. On the other end of the spectrum, I also thought about the end of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, but again, I couldn't get a good screenshot of that (and I suspect that Capra's visual talent outweighs that of Danny Leiner).
Its A Wonderful Life
30) With a tip of that hat to Glenn Kenny, think of a just-slightly-inadequate alternate title for a famous movie. (Examples from GK: Fan Fiction; Boudu Relieved From Cramping; The Mild Imprecation of the Cat People)

I stink at these, but here are a few: Star Embargos, Inglorious Bastards, The Texas Chainsaw Picnic, Reservoir Puppies, Eyes Wide Open , and hmm, if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the Texas Chainsaw one.

And I think that about covers it. See you on Sunday with some 60s horror.
Posted by Mark on September 22, 2010 at 10:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 - Giallo Films
Halloweentime is my favorite time of the year, and like kernunrex, I celebrate the season by watching a ton of horror movies, eating bite-sized candy, drinking pumpkin flavored beer, and playfully decorating my home with (fake) corpses and mutilated pumpkins. I've got Netflix queue full of movies and only 6 weeks to get through them all, but if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment or play along!

I'm starting this year with a distinctive Italian sub-genre known as the Giallo. The word "giallo" means "yellow" in Italian, and the sub-genre takes that name because of the distinctive yellow backgrounds on a series of pulpy, Italian crime/mystery novels.
Giallo Novels
The defining characteristics of these stories are all familiar to fans of traditional pulp fiction. There's usually a whodunit murder/mystery element, combined with lurid sexual themes and often bloody violence. These films started appearing the in the early 1960s and ultimately lead into the slasher craze of the early 80s (may of the elements of the slasher are prefigured in Giallo films - more on this below).
  • Psycho (trailer)
  • Here's Your Problem... (Robot Chicken)
  • Hardly Working: Slasher (short)
  • Blood and Black Lace (1963): The origins of the modern slasher film are usually traced back to Hitchcock's Psycho. That film, of course, is not really a slasher, but it originates some of the common tropes of the sub-genre. Rumor has it that Italian director Mario Bava saw Hitchcock's film and was so inspired by the brilliantly staged death sequences that he vowed to make a movie with three times as many deaths. And thus was born the body-count movie. Even beyond that, this film prefigures the modern slasher more than any other of its contemporaries (until 1974's Black Christmas). Besides the body count, it also features a masked killer (and it's a surprisingly effective mask, perhaps because it's so simple and elegant), some POV shots, lots of young models, and well staged, violent deaths though means of elaborate or unusual weaponry (in particular, the three-pronged metal claw stolen off of a piece of armor). Of course, Bava is a much more talented filmmaker than much of the slasher-ilk that would follow, and this film features several exceptional set pieces, and not all of them are murder sequences either.
    Masked Killer
    The film takes place in an Italian modeling agency/fashion house. The first victim is almost immediately dispatched and later, one of the models finds the victim's diary and places it in her purse. Bava playfully dances around the scene, first executing a quick montage of paranoid onlookers, then orchestrating a long sequence where the bag never leaves the camera's gaze, but characters maneuver around the screen, attempting to get at the diary (which presumably holds some sort of clue about her murderer, and the assumption at this point is that it's someone at the fashion house that's responsible).

    The production design is also well done. It seems to feature a lot of ornate, body-shaped objects such as mannequins, statues, and suits of armor. The effect being that you always feel like you're seeing people who aren't really there. Bava's impeccable sense of framing almost always frames the murders in the presence of these figures (Bava will also follow up a murder by moving the camera towards an angelic figure, an interesting symbolic motif that persists throughout the film). Ultimately, the story of the film is rather commonplace by today's standards, but it's extremely well made. Bava is known as the father of Italian horror, and his influence can be seen far and wide, both in future Italian cinema as well as American cinema. Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) is especially influential (it's another slasher precursor, and it's also blatantly copied by the early Friday the 13th films, especially part 2) and Planet of the Vampires seems to have an awful lot in common with Alien (though Bava's film absolutely pales in comparison to Alien). All in all, Blood and Black Lace is a great film for those in love with the genre. It may seem a bit tame by today's standards, but that's only because we're so used to the conventions this film helped to establish. ***1/2
  • Deep Red (trailer)
  • Black Christmas (trailer)
  • Susperia (trailer)
  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970): Dario Argento's directorial debut is a well executed murder mystery that shows some hints of what's to come in that director's career. In a lot of ways, it's very derivative of the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace, but Argento manages to assert himself a bit by the end of the film. Many of his trademark themes are here, in particular the idea of a protagonist who sees something of great importance but doesn't realize the significance of what they saw (or can't remember a key detail of what they saw). One of the interesting things about this film is that on the police procedural side of the story, we see a lot of precursors to the current forensic craze (represented by TV shows like CSI, etc...). This film taking place in the 60s, the methods are somewhat primitive, but it's an interesting element (and it makes me wonder if, thirty years from now, some joker will be saying the same things about CSI). While I've not seen a ton of Argento's films, this film ultimately takes a back seat to his later works, in particular the exceptional Deep Red. This film is worth a watch for Argento fans, but if you're not familiar with him, I'd recommend Deep Red ahead of this... **1/2
  • Zombie 2 (trailer)
  • The Beyond (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial 'Z' For Zombies
  • Don't Torture a Duckling (1972): Lucio Fulci's disturbing and controversial tale of a series of child murders is reasonably well made and very disturbing. Part of this is just because of the subject matter - killing kids is a pretty lurid and manipulative thing to do to an audience, but this film goes there, and it doesn't flinch. Interestingly, the most disturbing death scene in the movie features no children at all. I don't want to ruin the sequence for anyone who decides to see this, but the way Fulci juxtaposes music with the violence during the sequence is expertly done. And that scene is quite violent and relatively gory, even by today's standards (well, maybe not quite, but it's close). Fulci would later become known for his out-of-control gore, but he's still somewhat restrained at this point in his career (the zombie films he produced in the late 70s and early 80s are another story). The controversy surrounding the film is not only because of the age of the victims, but because of a somewhat critical stance against the Church, which is apparently something of a no-no in Italian cinema. The film was only released in the US on DVD in the past few years. Like Argento's Crystal Plumage, this film is a solid example of the genre, but probably not for a casual viewer (if you enjoy Deep Red and Blood and Black Lace, you might like this).
Well, that about covers it for this week. Except that I probably need to watch a dozen other Giallo movies! Lots more movies on the docket for this year, including a few good old fashion hauntings, some crazy Japanese splatter films, and maybe even some silent horror. Stay tuned!
Posted by Mark on September 19, 2010 at 06:55 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Link Dump and Other Stuff
I'll be travelling this week, so there probably won't be an entry on Wednesday. But! Next week marks the start of the Six Weeks of Halloween, so lots of good stuff coming... For now though, enjoy some links:
  • Modern Warfare 2 Player Attempting To Reach Rank 70 Without Killing Anyone: Sometimes, when looking at the video game landscape, it's easy to see a lot of juvenile power fantasies and become embarrassed by that. For example, games that feature shooting as a primary mechanic seem to be rather dominant (at least, among the big budget stuff). However, unlike passive forms of entertainment (TV, Movies, Books, etc...), games can allow for creativity on the consumer end of things. This means that even a relatively juvenile exercise like Modern Warfare 2 can become something more interesting... but only if you work for it. For example:
    In two hours of playing, Glen has reached rank 5 without taking a life. Using pacifist means to earn points, Glen estimates it will take him roughly two months to be the first player to reach rank 70 with zero kills.
    Apparently, he's up to level 21...
  • Fermat's Last Theorum: Engaging 45 minute documentary about the man who solved Fermat's Last Theorum. As Kottke notes: 'The film is not really about math; it's about all of those movie trailer cliches -- "one man!", "finds the truth!", "fights the odds!", etc. -- except that this is actually true and poignant.'
  • Danish Championships in Rabbit Hopping: I don't think my brain works anymore. This can't be what I think it is. Can it? I need to run some diagnostics. Impressive bunnies though.
  • How to Make Luke's Lightsaber: Ridiculously thorough instructions for creating your very own lightsaber.
  • Hollywood Producer Fight!: James Cameron rips on Piranha 3D and that illustrious film's producer overreacts:
    What it comes down to, Jim, is - that like most things in life - size doesn’t really matter. Not everyone has the advantage of having endless amounts of money to play in their sandbox and to take ten years using other people’s money to make and market a film….like you do. Why can’t you just count your blessings? Why do you have to drop Marty Scorsese’s or Tim Burton’s names, both gentlemen who I have personally worked with, and who have enjoyed great joy and success with movies of all genres and sizes well before the advent of modern 3D? Then as now, they were like kids in a candy store recognizing, far beyond your imagination, the possibilities of storytelling and originality.
    If I were a producer, my response would have been something along the lines of: "Clearly Jim didn't see the underwater ballet scene. Also, Avatar sucked."
That is all for now. Again, probably no post on Wednesday (maybe something on Thursday when I get back). Also, first week of 6WH will kick off with three Italian giallo films. See you then...
Posted by Mark on September 12, 2010 at 10:48 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Deep Thoughs on Piranha 3D
Piranha is not a good movie, but it is just about exactly what you'd expect and thus, it can be a lot of fun if you go into it with the right mindset. It's one of those movies (like Snakes on a Plane) where movie reviews and ratings won't really sway an audience. This is a movie where tons of ferocious fish chow down on a bunch of obnoxious kids celebrating Spring Break. That either interests you, or it doesn't. Either way, I don't think anyone expects it to be good, and it's not. So this isn't really a review, but I had some assorted thoughts I'd like to share.
  • So the premise of the film is that an earthquake has opened a hole to a subterranean lake-within-a-lake. Fortuitously, this happens right at the start of Spring Break, when the lake on top of the subterranean lake is normally invaded by drunken teens. What no one knows yet is that the subterranean lake has housed a particularly vicious species of piranha, and later in the film, we meet piranha expert Christopher Lloyd, who informs us that these piranha have been extinct for millions of years, and that these ones only survived because they resorted to cannibalism.

    Obviously, this premise is flimsy and doesn't really deserve much consideration, but I began to wonder: Is it possible for a species of piranha to survive in isolation by resorting to cannibalism? Imagine my surprise when a very thorough and exhaustive 2 minutes of google searching yielded mildly supportive evidence. Apparently cannibalism is common among fish species and look at this simulation! It's clear to me that this movie is more plausible than I gave it credit for. I mean, if you can't trust a tech demo simulation of fish found on the internet, what can you trust?
  • Once the shit hits the fan, deputy Ving Rhames yanks a propeller off a boat, starts it up, and proceeds to annihilate all surrounding piranha by swinging the propeller through the air and the water. My question: Once he sticks the propeller in the water, wouldn't he be, you know, propelled in the opposite direction? My extensive internet research has revealed that it was unwise to apply traditional physics to the awesome power of Ving Rhames. Amazing.
    Behold the awesome power of Ving Rhames
  • Despite relatively tepid box office returns, this movie was still judged to be a success, and thus we can look forward to Piranha 3D part two, probably next year. For some reason, this made me wonder about the fate of the town in this movie. Surely they would be economically destroyed by this whole disaster. Or maybe not. Maybe they have a surprisingly robust economy and could handle the shock of decreased tourism. I think it actually could be pretty funny to set the sequel in the same town if they could come up with a ridiculous enough justification for it.
I have to admit that I'm surprised at the amount of good press this movie is getting. I mean, it's essentially a remake of a 30 year old, low budget, exploitative rip-off of Jaws, and it attempts to do approximately nothing new with the premise, unless you count the addition of the typical 21st century mean streak that has emerged in most horror of this decade. Oh, and I guess the underwater ballet sequence is astounding in its gratuitous glory. It's a bad movie, but I had fun with it.
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2010 at 01:29 AM .: link :.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Tasting Notes...
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

  • The only show I watch regularly is True Blood, and even that has been a bit of a bust this season. There are some good things about this season, but it seems like all the side characters are annoying this season. Even Lafayette seems to be getting annoying. You can't keep increasing the number of big character arcs indefinitely, and this season definitely hit the limit and then stomped over it. All that being said, it's still an entertaining show, and last week's cliffhanger was kinda interesting, except that I know better than to trust that it will be conclusive, which is probably a bad thing. Unless it turns out the way I expect, which is kinda ironic. A damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, I guess.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Mythbusters. Yeah, we've all seen these epsiodes, but putting them on Netflix Watch Instantly is a problem. I didn't know they were on there until Shamus mentioned if off-handedly, and now I find myself watching them all the time.
Video Games
  • It turns out that I've played approximately 0 hours of GTA IV since the last Tasting Notes, so I'm thinking that I should just move on to something else. Complaints are, more or less, the same as last time. All the good things about the game are the same as GTA III, and all the new bits only seem to weigh it down. And for crying out loud, it's ok to let people save their games whenever. This is something that I've become pretty inflexible on - if you have static save points that force me to replay stuff and rewatch cutscenes, I'm not going to like your game much.
  • In lieu of GTA IV, I've been replaying Half-Life 2 on my PC. It's interesting how great that game is, despite its aged mechanics. It got me thinking about what would make for the ideal FPS game (perhaps a topic for another post).
  • Portal is fantastic, but you probably already knew that. Still, for a 3 hour gaming experience, it's just about perfect. I only got stuck a couple of times, and even then, it was fun piecing together what I needed to do... Well worth a play, even if you're not huge into gaming.
  • Machete is brilliant trash. Interestingly, Rodriguez takes the opportunity to address politics and make a point about immigration. This sort of hand-wringing would normally be annoying, but the mixture of polemic with gloriously over-the-top action, gratuitous nudity and violence, is actually pretty well balanced. On their own, those two elements would be cloying or frustrating. Mix them together, and you've got something altogether different, and it works really well. Also working well, Lindsay Lohan in a bit of self-aware stunt casting (I can't really say that the role "transcends" that with a straight face, but it does go further than simple exploitation). Not working so well: Jessica Alba. She's fine for most of the movie, but when it comes time for her to give an inspirational speech, it's kinda embarrassing. Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson (!?) are great. Robert De Niro and Steven Seagal are kinda sleepwalking through their roles, but they're fine. In the end, it's trashy fun, and I have a feeling it will stick with me more than other trashy summer fare.
  • The American, on the other hand, is slow, ponderous and ultimately pointless. A promising start, but rather than build on that, the tension evaporates as the film slowly grinds its way to an unsurprising conclusion. Poorly paced and not much to it...
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Beer Wars. A documentary about beer, featuring a pretty good cross-section of the craft brewing leaders in the US, as well as some interesting behind-the-scenes info about legal side of things and how the laws impact the rest of the distribution chain. Really, it's just fun to see interviews with some of my favorite brewers, like the guys from Dogfish Head and Stone brewing, or the Yuengling owner (who seems to get drunk and spill some beans). If you like beer, it's well worth a watch.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week That I Haven't Even Seen Yet: Mother. This Korean thriller made waves in the film-nerd community earlier this year, so it's on my must watch list. Seems noirish.
Books The Finer Things (aka Beer!)
  • Brewery Ommegang is probably my favorite brewery in America, and I recently managed to get my hands on some of their more uncommon brews. BPA is a Belgian-style pale ale. Not as hoppy as an IPA, but also not quite as tasty as Ommegang's other beers. An interesting experiment, but not something I see myself turning to very often. Bière De Mars, on the other hand, is great. I think Ommegang's standards are pretty tough to beat, but that one holds its own. It's a seasonal beer and a limited batch; the one I found was from 2008. It was well worth the wait. There are a bunch of other Ommegang seasonals or specialty beers, but the one I really want to find is the Tripel Perfection. The Tripel is probably my favorite style of belgian beer, so I'd love to see Ommegang's take on it.
  • Some interesting stuff in my fridge: Saison Du BUFF is a collaboration between three local breweries. This batch is from Victory, but the formula was created by Victory, Stone, and Dogfish Head. I saw a case of the Dogfish Head somewhere, but didn't want to buy it until I tried it out. Also in the fridge: Fantôme Saison (this comes highly rated, but I haven't seen it around until now), and a few pumpkin or Octoberfest ales.
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2010 at 07:24 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

More SF Pet Peeves
Sunday's post on the Unquestioned Assumptions of SF was a little strange as the post I was referencing was really more about pet peeves than unquestioned assumptions, so I figured that I should rename this post to add my own pet peeves to Matt Johnsons's list. So without further ado:
  • Aliens That Aren't Really Alien: Most alien species you see in SF are basically humans with weird ears or bumps on their forehead. In other words, they're just humans with superficial differences. Sure many of them will have strange customs or psychological ticks, but most of the time, such differences aren't even as severe as cultural differences here on earth. The most egregious violator of this is Star Trek. Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans... they're all just humans with various traits magnified (impatient aggression, steadfast logic, and passionate cunning, respectively). One notable exception in the world of film is Alien (though sequels tend to diminish the more alien qualities). In the world of literature, the big exception is Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books, A Fire Upon The Deep (reviewed on this blog a while back) and A Deepness in the Sky (which I also wrote about once). Fire's wolflike aliens, in particular, were great examples of what is possible, but rarely even attempted in SF. Regardless, examples of human-like alien races far outweigh the truly alien aliens in SF, and that's always bothered me. To be sure, this does present something of a challenge to authors, as it requires them to think in ways unaccustomed to humans.
  • Monolithic Planet Ecologies: Star Wars is particularly bad in this respect - the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc... The thought of an entire planet with only one type of climate almost boggles the mind. I'm sure there are some planets like this, but if Star Wars was any indication, every planet has one and only one dominant climate. Sometimes this sort of conceit can be used to good effect, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, but it's still a pet peeve of mine.
  • Language: Rarely is language used as anything more than simple flavor in a story with alien species. Most of the time there is some sort of unexplained technology, typically called the "Universal Translator" or something, that will automatically translate alien languages. Rarely does the translation aspect receive any scrutiny. At best, we get some sort of throwaway reference to the universal translator, then the story moves on to other things. If you think of the way all the various human languages interact with one another and the inadequacies of translations, it seems really unlikely that alien species would even come close to being easily understood. For instance, human translators working to convert a text from one human language to another aren't working in a vacuum - they bring their own cultural and historical context into the picture when translating that text. Take a Greek word like pathos; there isn't really a single English word that corresponds with what Pathos represents. You rarely get that sort of depth in SF. One notable exception to this is Mary Doria Russell's exceptional novel, The Sparrow. The novel has many themes, but the way it uses language to precipitate a tragic outcome is unsurpassed. Interestingly, Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash has a more thorough exploration of the nature of language than most stories with alien species (and Snow Crash doesn't even feature any aliens!)
  • Artificial Gravity: Another concept often relegated to a throwaway reference, there exists a lot of potential here that goes untapped. It's not so much that it's impossible to control gravity as that if we had that ability, the applications would extend far beyond being able to stand on the floor of a spaceship. Implications for weaponry are enormous, and energy manipulation in general seems ripe for this sort of technology. But no, we'll just use it to simulate earth level gravity, thanks. I guess tractor beams could be explained in such a way, and a lot of SF does at least attempt to account for this by explaining that the spaceship is spinning in such a way as to simulate earth gravity, but it's still a bothersome trope.
I think that's all for now. I was going to write one for manned interstellar travel, but that topic is just too large (for example, it encompasses FTL travel, which is, in itself, a rather large subject) for a quick paragraph (Nevertheless, the way interstellar travel is depicted in SF is often tiresome and thoroughly unrealistic - one notable exception, Greg Egan's Diaspora). One interesting thing about writing this post that I didn't really expect were the number of exceptions to each of the above pet peeves. It turns out that there are a lot of books that really do address these issues (perhaps another reason why the phrase "Unquestioned Assumptions" is not appropriate for this discussion).
Posted by Mark on September 01, 2010 at 09:27 PM .: link :.

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