Film review: As Above, So So

As Above So Below PosterAs Above So Below

This film follows a group of renegade explorers as they dive into the Paris catacombs looking for buried Alchemist treasure.  It’s a creepy movie that plays on the extraordinary claustrophobia of underground spaces, and makes excellent use of the first-person camera genre (though it never proposes the means by which the audience came to see this footage).  A few thoughts:

  • I wish screenwriters would look up the name of another Alchemist.  Nicholas Flammel is probably sitting somewhere right now scowling at the way he gets brought up over and over again.
  • The first hour of this ninety-minute movie was great.  It had a growing sense of dread and creepiness that really works well.  The last thirty minutes, not as much.
  • The film’s best points are its great use of the first person cameras.  The limited view we get is excellent, and makes for a frightening experience as we try to understand what the people are seeing behind the person whose camera we’re using.
  • The spiritual component of the film is interesting too — the idea that the movie makes the alchemist’s philosophy a key component of the story is great.  There are some moments that are downright weird, but you come to understand why they happened the way they did.  That said, the film isn’t as precise about the nature of the metaphysical haunting stuff as I’d like it to be.  When they propose a ‘system’ for how things work, it feels to me like they should really work that way.
  • This film reminded me a lot of The Descent, another excellent ‘trapped underground’ movie with an even weirder ending.  (In 2007, here’s what I wrote about The Descent: “A surprisingly enjoyable horror movie that became startlingly LESS scary when the monsters showed up.  Disasterous spelunking and solid character development don’t need hungry Gollums to spice things up.  I haven’t felt such claustrophobia while watching a film since DAS BOOT.”)  Both films figured out how to make being in an enclosed space scary, but didn’t figure out that they could leave out the creepy supernatural stuff.  Being underground is scary enough.

Ultimately, As Above So Below is a fine B movie with a creepy premise and solid execution.  It doesn’t really stick the landing, but you’ll enjoy the fall.

Here’s a trailer you can watch if you want to spoil literally every key plot point.

The Weird, Muddled Ethics of KINGSMAN

Kingsman
Kingsman

Kingsman: The Secret Service

A twenty-something hoodlum is recruited to a super-secret spy agency where he learns to fight awesomely and gets access to lots of cool gadgets and has to help stop a madman from destroying the world.  As I watched Kingsman, I found myself oscillating wildly.  The action set pieces are great, the film’s ethics are terrible, and the tone is really odd.  Then, when the credits ran and I saw the line indicating that this film is based on a Mark Millar project, I got it.  I’ve always found the ethical worldview in Millar’s comics, well, odd.

When I read Wanted and Kick-Ass, I found myself pretty ambivalent about Mark Millar’s project.  Here’s what I wrote about Wanted:

Maybe I just don’t get Mark Millar’s writing style, or his interests in the superhero genre.  Compare the stories at the heart of Wanted or Kick-Ass to those in The Authority, for example.  Both seem concerned with the inherent dangers at the heart of the superhero idea, but where Ellis’ run on The Authority alternates between reveling in the might-makes-right attitude of its villains and the ethical ramifications of a fascist world, Millar’s Wanted seems interested only in the former.

But it’s a comic about supervillains, you say.  It isn’t about heroes.  Sure.  And I enjoy a good villain story, viz Brian Azzarello’s Joker or various crime movies like The Godfather.  But those stories explore the complexity of being a villain and the emotional dangers it brings.  Wanted seems to ignore those aspects of life murdering people.

Despite the fact that the heroes in this film stand on the side of good, I still found myself at odds with the movie.  In particular, two action scenes stood out in this regard.  In each, the action rendered was violent, bloody, and over-the-top.  The music was raucous, but neither silly nor chaotic.  It was celebratory–announcing that we’re to enjoy this scene, feed our ancient blood lust and revel in the notion that might makes right.  Where other films have used such scenes to engage in full comedy (Shoot ‘Em Up) or full action (The Crow), Kingsman does both, with the result of an unclear muddle.

Part of me wanted to imagine that the film intends to mock us.  Like the genre-analysis built into Cabin in the Woods, it would be possible to read this film as a send-up of spy movies and making fun of the violence they include as par for the course.  But if that’s the intent, something about the tone misses.  Like Millar’s other stories, we’re supposed to enjoy the hero’s debaucheries, but the film doesn’t feel like it wants us to understand the nuance of them.  We should enjoy them vicariously.

It was only in the tasteless humor after the world-saving battle sequence that I realized the direct similarity to Wanted as a story.  Both tales involve young men whose fathers disappeared (or died) and who discover, upon growing up, that they’re due to inherit a powerful legacy.  When they do inherit it, the personal perks are the best part.  Indeed, the boy’s return to his mother’s abusive situation bears this out.  He isn’t a man until he’s able to beat the shit out of a bunch of guys.

They’re making a movie of THAT?

Clue
Clue

The recent kerfuffle about the reboot of Ghostbusters (which sounds great to me) got me thinking about reboots and, well, toys.  We all remember the slip-ups.  Your Battleships, your GI-Joes, your endless television cartoons created just to sell toys (He-Man and My Little Pony), but it’s worth our while to take a moment to celebrate the successful adaptations.  So here are a few toys-to-movies that are definitely worth watching. (In reverse order, saving the best for last).

I’ll try to stick to movies that come from properties without a built-in storyline.  So Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which comes from a comic book, will not be included because there’s a storyline to use.

Transformers
Sure, this was always going to be “Michael Bay prints money,” but the first one is a delightful popcorn blend with an amusing teenage-boy adventure storyline, fun toys, a cartoonish villain, and a teenage girl for him to lust after.  If only they’d stopped. (Also, I am aware that I have violated my central premise for this, which is the idea that these are toys-made-into-movies rather than properties without any storylines to begin with, but it’s my list, so too bad.)

The LEGO movie
This could have been SOOO bad.  But it’s great, a mix of humor and pop-culture references, with jokes for grown-ups and stuff kids like.  And, of course, a tie-in line of LEGO toys that let you build, from instructions, the toys in the movie. EVERYTHING IS AWESOME.

Clue
The entire goddamn movie is quotable.  Nearly every actor is notable and amazing. It’s funny without being awful or dated.  Go watch it again right now.  I’m going to.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing 2011Having just seen John Carpenter’s original The Thing in January, I sought out the recent prequel, also confusingly titled The Thing.  It’s a weird prequel/remake, with an almost identical story structure to that of the original film.  In the 1982 film, we find out that a Norwegian research station had already been gutted by the monster, as McReady’s trip reveals the horrors that occurred there.  The Thing 2011 tells the tale of that Norwegian station and their travails.  A few thoughts:

  • The film clearly isn’t a remake, as the tale involves different characters and locations, and sets itself up as a prequel.  But its plot is so similar to the original film that it feels like a remake.  As such, it’s good but a bit too derivative to be great.
  • The filmmakers do a great job with the effects, mixing practical monstrosities with CGI to give the film a real, meaty feel.  It works great.  The creature effects in the film admirably continue the tradition of the original.  The best moment will make you re-think helping an injured pal walk by putting his arm around your soldier.
  • It was nice to introduce a couple female characters, including a woman who, in the tradition of Ripley, is no shrinking violet.
  • The acting in the film is great, with stellar paranoia and mania.  I particularly like the Norwegians they used in the film, robust, bold men all.  It was also fun to see Joel Edgerton there.  I was reminded that he played the young Owen Lars in SW Ep 3. ( Can somebody make a list of people who have played characters in both deserts and ice-scapes? )
  • The best part of The Thing 2011 is the “reverse forensics” of the film, the establishment of the moments that create the settings MacReady finds when he visits the Norwegian camp in the John Carpenter movie.  The payoffs that establish the axe in the door or the burned lab are excellent.

The Thing 2011 isn’t great, but it’s a pretty enjoyable follow up to the amazing 1982 original.

I was going to post some pictures from the movie, but it’s damn gross, so here’s a fluffy kitten from Martjin Berendse.

Fluffy Kitten Martjin Berendse

Herbie vs. Superman

Herbie Man of Steel

Recently watched, on the same day, both Man of Steel and Herbie: Fully LoadedMan of Steel is the recent Superman reboot, featuring the lantern-jawed Henry Cavill as the titular hero punching his way around the U.S. fighting General Zod.  Herbie: Fully Loaded is the decade-old Herbie reboot, featuring the titular zany car once again winning races and hitting ne’er-do-wells with his doors.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films arrive atop a pile of earlier movies, and have to figure out how to define themselves in the new context.  Herbie assumes continuity, imagining that all the previous Herbie films happened and this is the next moment in the life’s car.  Man of Steel starts over, beginning a new cycle of Superman movies.
  • The burden of parental obligations is high in these films, with Jar-El (Russel Crowe) expecting that Cal will become the savior of the human race and of Krypton, and with Payton (Michael Keaton) expecting that Maggie will not lie to him or engage in illicit street racing.
  • Both films use too much computer graphics.  It’s inevitable in a super-hero movie, but the squiggy spaceships and nano-tech arm-claw things in Man of Steel were not to my taste.  Equally annoying were the few times they made Herbie digital — as when he waggles his whole chassis at Matt Dillon, a moment my children thought was hilarious.
  • The untold stories at the heart of these films are key as well — what happened to Clark between his adolescence and his appearance as a crab fisherman?  Like Jesus, he goes from being 12 to being 32.  Maggie, too, has a dark past in which she totaled a car on a tree in her street-racing days.  Yikes!

And regarding the films separately:

  • Herbie was a cute film, with enough poignancy and real story to give the adults something to hang onto, and with enough slapstick for the kids to like.  Michael Keaton is underused, and Herbie falls in love with a modern Beetle.  When they leave to go on a date, Avery theorized that they were going to a car wash.
  • Man of Steel was better than I thought it was going to be, but horrific toward the end.  The New York-wrecking finale of The Avengers had nothing on Man of Steel, in which thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people died while two superhumans battled it out.  Really, Supe?  You couldn’t lead the guy away from the population center?  You had to drag his face across the side of a sky-scraper?

Herbie: Fully Loaded – recommended, especially if you have to watch a movie with diverse child ages

Man of Steel – Meh, recommended for a lazy afternoon where you want to see some flyin’ and some punchin’.

 

2014 in Review: Films

I don’t keep track of movies quite as closely as other media that I view, but I do try to keep track.  Of the roughly 35 movies I watched this year, here are my top four:

The LEGO movie Captain America Winter Soldier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Edge of Tomorrow

The LEGO Movie
Far better than you could hope it would be, The LEGO movie perfectly captured both the pop-culture zeitgeist that the king of building toy sets has, and the spirit of the builder/explorer mentality encouraged by the blocks themselves.  Now if only it had been a bit more gender neutral and racially diverse, it would have been perfect.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
While the last Captain America movie was okay, this one had a legit and interesting plot, great set pieces, and a good role for more than one woman.  There was genuine camaraderie, and this film is the lynchpin of the next round of the MARVEL universe.  Very entertaining.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This film captures the feeling of a 1970s spy thriller, with lots of quiet moments, people doing things with subtlety that should have significant consequences later, and dudes with wide ties.  Also, the delicate and taciturn acting Oldman does in this film should finally convince EVERYONE that he’s a great actor.
(see also: Spies and psychics (double movie review) )

Edge of Tomorrow
Hampered by a summer full of bombast and a stupid name, this was the best action movie you didn’t see last year.  Tom Cruise plays self-effacing well at the beginning (picture the character from Rainman in the military) and Emily Blunt is great. If only the ending had been slightly better, it would have been perfect.  I also like the way they’ve taken the tagline and basically re-titled the movie Live. Die. Repeat.

Here are a couple more I will call “memorable” because they’re likely to come up again in various ways for me, but I wouldn’t quite call them “top” movies:

Snowpiercer Deadgirl Big Hero 6

Snowpiercer
A ridiculous premise with excellent action set-pieces and cartoonishly wonderful over-acting, Snowpiercer is a love-it or hate-it movie.  Its ending is a bit weird (reminding me of The Matrix Reloaded), but you’ll be glad you saw it.  Probably.  Also, features the best fish-gutting sequence captured on film.  And all that axe-fighting!

Deadgirl
A disturbing zombie movie I’d hesitate to recommend to anyone, Deadgirl is a haunting meditation on the depravity of human beings, particularly teenage boys.
(see also: The psychopathy of teenage boys: Deadgirl and Consent, entitlement, and zombies (Deadgirl, part 2) )

Big Hero 6
Full of love, pathos, learning, and excitement, Big Hero 6 follows the PIXAR formula almost too well.  It’s a great movie that you’ll be glad you saw.  My only complaint is that there’s not much you wouldn’t have expected from it by watching the trailer.  A great steak is still, most of the time, a steak.  PiXAR has, in the past, made movies that looked like they were going to be steak, but then turned out to be a surf-and-turf.

Juan of the Dead – Zombies Cubano

Juan of the DeadJuan of the Dead is a Cuban zombie movie in the long tradition of the humorous horror film.  Most directly, it reflects Shaun of the Dead in its narrative, but with a distinct Cuban flavor.  Juan and his friends find themselves among the only sensible people surviving in Havanna after the zombie outbreak begins.  So naturally, they start a business clearing zombies out of peoples’ homes.  As things continue to get worse throughout the city, the group decides they need to move on, giving them one more race through the city they need to survive.  A few thoughts:

  • One of the best things about watching movies made in another country is seeing where the slippage in language and humor creates gaps.  In Juan of the Dead, the humor occasionally misses, with lines that are probably funny in Cuba becoming meaningless here, either through the subtitling or through references outside our sphere of knowledge.
  • But a lot of the humor comes from the protagonists’ extreme pragmatism.  Unlike many zombie movies, where the heroes happily go out of their way to help people, Juan of the Dead finds the main characters occasionally killing living people, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, but never really with regret.  At one point, a man in a wheelchair is trying to get away from the zombies, and two of the heroes run to help him, their arms full of cases of liquor.  When they come back, they’re pushing the wheelchair with the cases of liquor on the seat.  When Juan looks at them funny, one says “He died.  We took the wheelchair.”  Then the other mutters, “Not necessarily in that order.”  It plays off funny, but really dark.
  • The biggest disconnect for me is the regular use of homophobic epithets in the film.  While the characters seem happy to accept a transvestite as part of their group, they also regularly bandy about homophobic slurs in the way that some British folk use the “c” word.  Knowing that Latin American cultures have a different attitude toward homosexuality doesn’t make these jokes any less discomfiting to me.
  • Juan of the Dead pays a lot of homage to other zombie films, obviously to Shaun of the Dead with Juan’s boat paddle, and to Dead Alive, with the priest who shouts “I kick ass for the Lord.”
  • I love the way the Cuban philosophy and daily life translates into the film.  The characters’ experiences under communism and the difficulties with the economic life of Cuba come out in the way they talk about what’s going on.  They refer to the zombies as ‘dissidents.’  It’s perhaps my favorite thing about the movie.

Juan and his friends

Overall, Juan of the Dead is an enjoyable middle-of-the-road zombie movie.  It has some neat moments, and it’s pretty funny at times.  The best part of it, though, is the thing that brought it to my attention and probably yours — its roots in the Cuban culture and the way it reflects how people living in that particular corner of the world might think about zombies if they ever show up.

The Zombies of Mora Tau – not quite the worst zombie movie…

Zombies of Mora TauThere’s a moment in the short-lived show The Middleman where Natalie Morales’ protagonist argues with her love interest that Zombies of Mora Tau is the worst zombie film ever made, and a great palette-cleanser between viewings of good zombie movies.  First, I’d suggest that you don’t need a palette-cleanser between zombie movies, as the aftertaste of one usually makes the next better (Eww!).  Second, and more importantly, it’s not the worst zombie movie ever made.  But it’s pretty bad.

We follow a crew of intrepid diamond hunters who have gone to Mora Tau to dive for a famed lost chest of diamonds which, they learn later, are guarded by the ship’s crew, animated but not rotting, and not particularly dangerous though menacing.  A few thoughts:

  • Like White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, this film begins with outsiders coming to a remote tropical place where the locals know about zombies and the outsiders ignore them to their peril.
  • Unlike most zombie movies of the era, the Mora Tau zombies are a horde of greed zombies, awakened to protect a hoard of diamonds they stole from an African temple.
  • These zombies sleep in a tomb, and rise simultaneously like vampires only at night.  It would be creepy if it weren’t so campy.
  • Our intrepid heroes discover that the zombies are afraid of fire, so they use that to protect themselves.  But oddly, they don’t try to kill the zombies with either fire or dismemberment.  They shoot them once or twice and decide the zombies are unkillable.
  • The close-up scenes in the diving sequences are hilariously bad cut-aways to an obvious prop of a man standing in a diving helmet against a blue background, rather than the diver in situ.

Zombies of Mora Tau is probably worth watching for the completist, but there are so many other movies to enjoy, I don’t think it’s worth watching otherwise.  A few that will scratch a similar itch:

  • The King of the Zombies – slightly silly zombies in a tropical setting
  • Dead Snow – greed zombies being much more menacing
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon – the terror of unknown depths and diving
  • I Walked with a Zombie – Family drama with a background of old timey zombies
  • I Eat Your Skin – a similar dashing hero, with a little more comedy and some cheerful misogyny.

As for the worst zombie movie ever made, I’d still put Johnny Sunshine or The Dead Hate the Living in that slot.

Cabins in the Woods

Last week, after watching Cabin Fever, I started to think about this particular subgenre, and wondered how it would be to watch some of these films side by side.  I discovered that four of them have very similar run-times, check it:

The CabinThe Evil Dead, 1981, 85 min
Cabin Fever, 2002, 92 min
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, 89 min
The Cabin in the Woods, 95 min

How would these movies be if next to one another?  What would they look like if they played at the same time?  This got me to thinking about the subgenre in a larger way, and I discovered that the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of defining or refining it.  I suspect there is some scholarship that does — something I haven’t looked into yet — but I thought I’d start by making a list of the movies I know fit the genre, and ones I think border it but would be excluded.  (Note, I have not seen all the movies mentioned here, so corrections/opinions welcome; I’ve designated movies I haven’t seen with an asterisk.).

Continue reading Cabins in the Woods

Consent, entitlement, and zombies (Deadgirl, part 2)

Trigger Warning: this post discusses sexual assault and harassment.
Spoiler Alert: this post discusses plot points in Deadgirl in detail.

This is not a review of Deadgirl.  For that, you can see this post.  Instead, this post reflects on some resonances I see between the ideas at work in the film and recent flare-ups of misogyny we’ve seen in the last few months, particularly with regard to #GamerGate.

First, I’ll lay out a few scene descriptions.  These are awful, but without them it’s hard to make the leap to the next argument.

1. Upon finding a tied-up zombie girl (without significant decay, so looking more like a drugged girl than a corpse; I use the term ‘girl’ here because that’s what the boys call her–it’s unclear how old she’s supposed to be, but I would suggest late teens to mid twenties), a group of boys argue about what to do with her.  The first encounter ends with Rickie objecting to JT’s intended rape of the girl, but leaving the JT to it rather than objecting more forcefully.  At this point, Rickie believes the girl is alive (not a zombie).

2. Over the course of the film, three more boys will find the zombie girl and of the five, only Rickie refrains from raping her.  The last two boys do so specifically because they’re prodded into it.  The group clearly operates on a mix of bravado, machismo, untethered morality, and peer pressure.  They’re also significantly guided by a strong-willed sociopath who quickly leads them into the most depraved acts.

3. Late in the film, two of the boys decide the zombie girl has become too decayed to continue raping, and they decide to kidnap another woman and turn her into a zombie girl.  At this point, clear lines have been drawn between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘evil’ ones, but the sliding scale of that morality is slippery and fungible in the film.  Of particular note to the discussion here is JT’s final speech to Rickie, suggesting that they were destined for a life of poverty and denial from the women they want, and suggesting that taking what they want is the only way to proceed.

At the heart of the new misogyny, particularly the MRA and PUA communities, lies an assumption of entitlement.  It’s a suggestion that men have a right to women who will sleep with them, and that feminism is a plot to deny men that basic right.  At its heart, it’s a philosophy that imagines women not as individuals with equal rights, but as objects that exist to serve men.  When a toxic community–like PUAs–foster these ideas for one another, they drive one another ever further into that mentality.  The boys in the film go from tentatively touching the bound zombie girl to desiring another and planning to kidnap a woman to make her into one.  It feels intensely similar to the ‘techniques’ shared by Pick-Up Artists who believe sexual relations to be a game, and who cultivate a disregard for womens’ humanity as a basic part of their rhetoric.

Indeed, consent stands as the unspoken issue in the film.  The seemingly-drugged state of the zombie girl gives JT the opportunity to rape her, and their discovery that she is, in fact, dead gives them the excuse to keep doing so.  But aside from Rickie, the characters seem to attach no interest at all in whether what they’re doing is wrong.  In fact, the girl’s nudity implies, to these boys, consent.  By the end of the film, this sense of entitlement has grown such that they’re willing to kidnap women to get what they want.

The film also raises a point that resonates with the argument made by anti-porn and anti-media-violence advocates — that familiarity with a trope decreases sensitivity against it.  In other words, treating women as objects regularly conditions us to treat women as objects.  In his essay from Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, “Zombie Gladiators,” Dale Jacquette argues that even in a world of zombies, it would not be in our best interest to kill zombies for sport or entertainment.  Because zombies resemble humans, the regular exposure to their brutalization would inure us to the brutalization of other humans who aren’t zombies.  We see this theme throughout zombie cinema — people who spend a lot of time killing zombies become more willing to kill regular people who get in their way.  (The Walking Dead turns significantly on this idea.)  Deadgirl suggests that the misogynistic and exploitative relationship the boys have with the deadgirl taints their ability to relate to all people, making them cavalier about life and willing to, as I mentioned above, kidnap another woman to get a new “deadgirl.”

As I watched the movie and saw the way the sociopathic leader could taunt and cajole his followers into acts of incredible depravity, I couldn’t help but think of the slavering attack hounds of #GamerGate who pile abuse and hatred on women in gaming.  Like the boys in deadgirl with the zombie, #GamerGaters have stopped seeing their critics as human beings, they’ve lost control of their moral compass, and they’re reveling in the debauchery they’ve wrought. Like Rickie, they’ve failed to sever ties with the awful human beings they’re associated with, and they continue to try and salvage the situation.

The real question is what to make of the people who still imagine #GamerGate can productively be about anything else. When I read the continued defense from #GamerGaters of the movement, claiming to decry the behavior of their colleagues, I can’t help but think of the final sequence in the movie:

After JT stabs Joann, Rickie tries to drag her to safety.  He holds her, telling her he loves her.  Joann coughs blood in his face and groans “Grow up.”

The psychopathy of teenage boys: Deadgirl

DeadgirlTrigger warning: this post explores issues of sexual assault.

Deadgirl is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen.  I knew, from what little I’d read, that it would be hard to watch, but the film’s surprisingly believable dive into the torments of unbalanced teenage boys cuts to the core.  It’s awful, and stunning.  I want to wash my brain out with soap.

The film revolves around two teenage boys (Rickie and JT) who find a zombie girl tied up in a secret room in the back of an abandoned asylum.  Their struggle about what to do with her (including using her as a sex toy) becomes the center of the movie.  The main moral force–and the central viewpoint–in the film, Rickie, wavers in his willingness to keep the dead girl secret when she seems to be looking at him, sometimes expressing distress, but then devolving to the growling animal state of the conventional movie zombie.  Add to this the growing problems that come from hanging out with zombies and you have a compelling film.  A few thoughts:

  • The early sequences of the film involve the struggle among the friends to decide what to do.  At play are the bonds of lifelong friendship and the peer pressure of teen groups against the meagre moral compass of one of the characters.  The story complicates quickly as they discover the girl is, in fact, a zombie and thus less human in the eyes of some of the boys.  The early sequences feel like they are about frat-house rape, in which the victim has been drugged and the boys cheer one and egg one another on.
  • As the film progresses, it shifts into a fiasco movie, with the boys finding themselves in more and more trouble as the secret horror they’re trying to keep becomes harder and harder to contain.  This results in some lighter scenes in between the extremely dark sequences that make up the bulk of the film.
  • We also come to the horror trope of the mildly-villainous person who goes mad with power as the story goes along.  JT’s descent into madness works very well, and reminds me of 2006’s Slither, which revolves around Grant’s increasing mania (though to be fair, JT is just an amoral bastard rather than being controlled by an alien slug like Grant).
  • The cinematography is this film is particularly well done. Harris Charalambous composes shots that walk the border between voyeuristic and creepy (though lean toward creepy), giving the audience Rickie’s perspective (the curious teenager who hesitates) rather than JT’s (the more willing to break taboos).  As the film progresses, the girl becomes less sexualized and more brutalized, even as the boys around her are becoming degraded and debauched by their continued association with the zombie.  Few movies have used visual metaphor to represent moral taint so effectively.
  • Last, the film effectively explores issues of entitlement and detachment that sit at the root of the modern misogyny.  The attitudes expressed by the boys in the film sound all too familiar for people paying attention to the rampant rise of public sexism and harassment culture, particularly among young men and boys. (I will explore these more thoroughly in a later post.)

There are a few movies that ponder what obligation we have to zombies as beings.  Day of the Dead tackles the idea of zombie-as-person in the Bub storyline, and the extras on Dawn of the Dead include a sequence with a bunch of frat guys trying to rape a zombie (it doesn’t end well for them).  Romero’s films regularly feature stomach-churning sequences in which humans descend into depravity by torturing zombies for amusement — hanging the zombies up for target practice, etc.  Dead Alive also approaches the question of the zombie-kept-alive from a different angle, the one of filial obligation.  But as far as I know, this is one of the only films that wonders about zombies as sex slaves (setting aside porn or soft-porn movies, of which a brief google search suggests there might be many; I did not click any links from that search, so I leave that to one of you, intrepid readers).

I didn’t want to watch Deadgirl.  It’s an unpleasantly horrific movie.  But much of its horror comes not from the debauched and vile things the boys in the film do, but the all-too-believable psychology behind why they do them.  As to whether you should see it?  I really can’t say.  I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I also know it will stick with me for a long time as a crucial and disturbing zombie film.

Movies you missed me not missing – one sentence reviews (part 3)

xmen-days-of-future-past how-to-train-your-dragon2 snowpiercer the-nut-job Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-IMAX-Poster guardians-of-the-galaxy

During my hiatus from blogging, I saw a bunch of movies.  And I didn’t review or mention them here.  I know, you’re crushed. So here I continue a series of one sentence reviews of most of the movies I watched between 2 December 2013 and 5 September 2014.

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past – A pleasant and fun addition to the X-Men series, as long as you don’t think about how the stupid time-travel tale works.
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 – A well-meaning addition to the franchise that was, to my mind, too “talky.”  It’s supposed to be about dragons, not feelings.
  • Snowpiercer – A pleasant and fun scifi action film with an Asian feel (the axe fight felt like The Raid or similar films), as long as you don’t think about how the stupid train is supposed to work.
  • The Nut Job – Squirrels on a caper: about what you’d expect.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The best of the Marvel superhero movies thus far, with solid character development and a real plot.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – A great team up action scifi movie directed by James Gunn, the genius behind Slither.

Cabin Fever is not a zombie movie, but it feels like one

Cabin FeverCabin Fever

I knew the early Eli Roth movie Cabin Fever is not a zombie movie before I watched it, but it comes up in the recommendations and mentions of such films that I thought it would be a nice change of pace.  The story tells the tale of five college students who travel to a cabin in the woods and … mayhem and madness breaks out.  Only instead of it being because of a zombie outbreak or a spare copy of the Necronomicon, this one happens because of a flesh-eating virus that makes people a little manic and a lot infectious.

A few thoughts about the film (somewhat spoilery):

  • The beginning of the film is too knowing, quite aware that it’s playing into the usual genre but at the same time not twisting it enough.  Watch this film next to Cabin in the Woods to see how pastiche/bricolage can effectively become satire.  This movie is too close to the genre to work well as commentary on it.  This reification of the genre expands in its characters, a cartoonish set of characters that model quite overtly the five archetypes in Whedon’s film.
  • Where we see a change is in the way the characters themselves behave.  Early on, we think maybe the kids going to the cabin are enjoyable avatars for ourselves.  Not so — very quickly they become the worst, abandoning one another, stealing and lying and generally dropping all their humanity at the first sign of trouble.  But this makes their eventual demise in the second half more enjoyable.  We don’t want to see them punished for sex or partying, but for being awful people.
  • The ending which sets up the sequels nicely.  I will certainly watch at least the first, as these are likely to be enjoyably stupid as well.
  • Not surprisingly, the movie consistently reinforces the urban/rural divide, marking the rural as a dangerous place where urban folk had best not go.  On the other hand, the city folk seem deserving of all the ire heaped on them, and the clever reversal of the old shopkeeper’s racism works as a good overturning of the original split.
  • Last, while the movie fits many of the tropes of the horror genre, it’s just as much as fiasco movie (like Blood Simple or Fargo), with the flesh-eating virus destroying people just as effectively as greed does.

Better than I thought it would be, but not really a horror movie, nor a zombie movie.  But it feels like part of a conversation about them.

Sappy vs. Humor/horror – Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Simon Birch Frankenweenie

Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Every now and again, I page through the upcoming movies on the channels we get to see what might be worth recording for a casual future viewing.  This net caught both films reviewed here today. Frankenweenie expands Tim Burton’s famous early film (which Disney did not like, at the time) about a boy who brings his dog back from the dead.  It’s a low dramatic arc with high drama and a good story. It’s also full of truly funny animation. Simon Birch is a famously maligned tear-jerker from the late 90s that adapts one of my favorite novels (A Prayer for Owen Meany) by cutting it in half and distilling out the complexity with sap.

A few thoughts on these tales:

  • We have, in these two films, a clash of worldviews.  Neither stories want us to accept death as a random shitty fact of life, but rather to understand it in the larger context as either something God wants or science will help us overcome.
  • Both tales cut significant lessons from their source texts. Frankenweenie dodges the problem of scientific ethics by infusing love as one of the ingredients.  Victor’s experiment worked because he loved his dog, whereas the monsters created by the other experimenters were not loved in the same way.  Shelley’s horror at the dangers of science go missing from the tale. Simon Birch dodges the complexity of its title character by making him a saintly martyr, confident in his life because God has a plan for him.  Irving’s novel gives its title character much more complexity, makes him a regular person with all sorts of faults.Both films stand on a scaffold of old tropes, as well.
  • Simon Birch uses so many tear-jerker cliches, you’ll want your bingo card out.  We have the heroic disadvantaged person, a romantic/ expressionist world where God shines His love down via swirling leaves (hence making October the holiest month), stereotypical bullies, tweenage boy resentful of his mother’s suitor, lingering by gravestones, and the dramatic sacrifice that Makes It All Worth It. Frankenweenie uses old tropes in a winking way, rewarding fans of old Universal horror films with character names, set pieces, plot points, and other references.  My favorite, a dramatic chase that leads to a flaming windmill.
  • I love the casts of both films. Frankenweenie employs to great effect the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, and Winona Ryder.  Meanwhile, Simon Birch surrounds the eponymous protagonist with Joseph Mazello (the boy from Jurassic Park), Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, Jan Hooks, David Strathairn, and Dana Ivey as grand mother (a character actress you’d recognize as “offended upper-class lady” from all sorts of movies).

Frankenweenie is worth a watch, a cute evocation of old movies that has both cleverness and heart.  Simon Birch has solid Oliver Platt time, which is always a good thing, but is otherwise just the schmaltzy tale you probably thought it was.  Go read A Prayer for Owen Meany instead.  It’s probably more schmaltzy than I remember, but it’s also certainly better than the film.

Get the F*ck out of London, You Goddamn Zombies! (Cockneys vs. Zombies)

Cockneys vs. ZombiesCockneys vs. Zombies is a solidly enjoyable zombie comedy, which great production values, a funny scenario, and a bit of pathos.  The film follows two storylines during a zombie outbreak in East London — a group of old-age pensioners trying to survive as their caregivers and the people in streets around them all succumb to the zombie outbreak and a pair of misfit bank robbers who happen to rob a bank at the exact moment the zombie outbreak begins.  It’s a silly movie in the vein of Shaun of the Dead, but without quite as much pathos.  In fact, it would be easy to imagine this as part of the same world — except that the zombie outbreak comes from a sealed plague pit rather than from outer space.

A few thoughts:

  • As far as the genre goes, the film doesn’t add much to it.  The undead in this film come from the comedy zombie well — hilariously slow, only kinda dangerous when it fits the narrative that they need to be.  The outbreak progresses far too fast given their ineptness, but otherwise this is exactly what you’d expect from a zombie comedy.
  • But the film itself does a few things really well.  First, it offers a bunch of nice set-pieces, places for the characters to go and quarrel and for the story to evolve.  And following two sets of survivors gives the variety that some zombie films fail to provide.  Second, the filmmakers use Family Guy style flashbacks, showing us moments from the characters’ back stories as cut-away scenes.  Very funny and well done.
  • The film makes great use of its environment as well.  The East End is a famously working-class area of the city, always under pressure from gentrification and class issues.  The underlying storyline is pretty sad, if you think about it.  The two main characters take up bank robbery so they’d have enough money to save their grand-dad’s old-folks home from developers.
  • The soundtrack is pretty great, with a closing credits song that’s an instant earworm (or really annoying, depending on your taste).
  • Cockneys vs. Zombies plays on the inherently funny cinematic vision of elderly people doing things we normally reserve for younger folk.  Particularly satisfying is the sequence with character actor Richard Briers shooting an Uzi from his walker, and every sequence involving Alan Ford (“Brick Top” from Snatch).  That said, both RED and Kung-Fu Hustle tell this joke better.

The film does have several great conceits, which I’ll detail below the picture, so if you don’t want to read them, you can stop now.  It’s a fine B movie, and worth a watch if you’re a zombie fan.

Ashley Thomas as the crazy robber
Ashley Thomas as Mental Mickey, the crazy guy with a bunch of guns.

Moments to watch for (Spoilers):

  • We see some football hooligan zombies who haven’t lost their taste for a rumble.
  • Richard Briers shows up as Hamish, a walker-bound pensioner who sleeps through the first round of the zombie attack, and then has a tense race with some zombies.
  • Another of the great characters is Eric, a pensioner whose rhyming slang has gotten way out of control, with five or six or more steps to transform his phrases into common English.  It’s funny as long as you don’t recognize it as a sign of dementia.
  • Perhaps the best zombie moment is when the bank robbers try to kill the now-zombified crazy thug — played with great joie de vivre by Ashley Thomas — only to remember that he has a metal plate in his head from his military service.

* Thanks to Scott Kenemore, author of several great zombie books for recommending this. (See also: Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; Zombie, Indiana)