Tuesday, June 23, 2015

the long night of joy and sadness (inside out)

Pixar has proven itself capable of great pathos before--Jessie's story in Toy Story 2, the prologue to Up, the climax of Toy Story 3--but it has outdone itself with Inside Out, dealing quite literally in emotions while also playing with (and if you know the premise, this makes perfect sense) the emotions of those emotions and the emotions of the audience.

Consider the following a minor SPOILER, because it offers up more than the trailers do. Inside Out is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) whose life is falling apart after her parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. But really, the film is about so much more, and the personified Joy (Amy Poehller) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and the imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) are the real show here. Joy and Sadness get accidentally removed from the headquarters in Riley's mind and (major SPOILERS ahead) Riley's internal world starts literally falling apart just as her external world figuratively does. Most of the film takes place over the course of a single night and day in which Joy and Sadness, with the help of Bing Bong, try to get back to headquarters so Riley will not be an emotionless preteen.

The plot is actually fairly simple, but insightful dissection of this little girl's emotional state works quite well as a representation of all of our emotional states. There is truth to this film--just as there has been in many a Pixar film. And, not to be too obvious about it, there is great joy and great sadness as well. Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) have their moments, as do the emotions of Riley's parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) and of several other characters at the end of the film (living in a house with three cats, I must say the representation of a cat's emotional life was dead on).

The design of the headquarters and the rest of Riley's mind is not, as one might expect--and as its simplistic version early on might seem), arbitrary, but quite logical, and the reason for the simplicity is explained--SPOILERS, simple version, Riley was a child so her interests were narrow, more complicated version, Joy was overbearing and overprotective.

Ultimately, the idea that we need sadness to get by is not a novel concept but it is a powerful one.

Inside Out is Pixar on top of its game once again.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"it follows" the old formula

It Follows is a well made, (mostly) well acted horror film that relies more on suspense and some interesting camera work than jump scares. But, it is built around a rather antiquated horror-film-theme--that sex is dangerous. It almost plays like a mid-80s slasher film just with more modern cinematic sensibilities. The danger in It Follows...


The danger in It Follows is rather literally tied to sex. Potential victims can pass the danger along through sex, which both promotes casual sex--surely, if you must pass on the danger to survive, you'd rather give it to a stranger than someone you know and love--and suggests repeatedly that sex at all is a bad idea.

We are never offered an origin story for It, but it seems important, and telling, that the first time we see It it is a naked woman and another time we see It it is a half naked woman, her clothing torn. There seems to be a suggestion of origination in sexual assault, which ties so nicely into the casual sex line that it seems a bit too on-the-nose. Furthermore, toward the end of the film, when the main characters attempt to fight back against It, there is a Freudian angle in It appearing as the father of the lead character--Maika Monroe, carrying the heavy load while supporting cast members are occasionally superfluous... I forgot to mention that, as part of the sex-is-dangerous theme, It can appear as a stranger or as someone you know. The danger is everywhere. It's like an abstinence-only PSA got together with a horror film... In fact, other than a bit of CGI trickery here and there, the script would probably sit quite well in the 1980s, or the swinging 70s.

The film plays on a strangely anachronistic nostalgia, as well, but not for the 80s or the 70s but the 1950s. Characters regularly watch old science fiction films, including at a silent movie theater equipped with an organ for accompaniment. Like many a slasher film, the political bent of It Follows is quite conservative. So, of course the film yearns for a simpler time, for childhood. Jay (Monroe) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist, who seems vacuous in some scenes and quite brilliant in others) talk repeatedly about the time when they were younger and they kissed. Ultimately, this is a lead up to their having sex near the end of the film, but it also reinforces the idea that the more innocent past is the better reality.

All of that being said, It Follows is definitely worth viewing, especially if you are a fan of horror films. Imagine it's a film from the early- to mid-80s and it will play so much better, though.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

whiplash - romantic comedy

(A note: I have deliberately neglected this blog of mine on behalf of a much more regular one—The Groundhog Day Project. If you have not been following that blog and somehow still follow this one that I haven’t updated in a long ol’ time, well for a year, I watched Groundhog Day every day and blogged about it. Then, after that year was up, I continued the blog, switching movies every week—i.e. generally, I’ve been watching each movie seven times, blogging about that a well. There was an exception—in October, I watched a different slasher film every day. This past month—December, in case you’re reading this sometime in the future—I’ve been watching Christmas movies (Home Alone, Black Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and, starting tonight, A Christmas Story). It’s been a useful exercise in structure for my life and there’s been a therapeutic aspect to it as well—I’m working on a Master’s Thesis on that very subject, actually, using my own blog as one of my primary examples. The thing is, since I’ve been writing about first Groundhog Day every day and then other movies every day, I have neglected newer movies, when I have previously written reviews here and writeups about Oscar nominees. I’ve squeezed other movies into my Groundhog Day Project blog, even new ones—obvious ones like About Time or Edge of Tomorrow and less obvious ones like The Fault in Our Stars and her. I’ve squeezed older movies in, TV shows, books, and a whole lot of articles from periodicals and scholarly journals.

I would like to change all that. I don’t want to stop the other blog, but I would like to write in this one from time to time, write about new movies as well as older ones.)

Starting with Whiplash.

(Another note: I spent a month watching romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally..., Moonstruck, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Pretty Woman). You’ll see why this matters in a moment.)

Whiplash is not a film for everyone. J.K. Simmons’ band leader is a complex mix of violence (mostly boiling just under the surface but occasionally coming up for air) and caring. Miles Teller’s drummer is a guy willing to give up just about every aspect of his life to be great—his ambition pushing him to the edge of unlikable. Both performances are amazing. Aside from the material—music and obsession—not being for everyone, there really isn’t anything wrong with the movie. Or there doesn’t seem to be. Someone who knows music better might see some discrepancies here or there between what is seen and what is heard, but I couldn’t tell if there was a problem there.

There are two things worth noting specifically in regards to Whiplash: visuals and structure.

Regarding visuals, during band performances there are the expected cuts to closeups of instruments playing, back and forth from player to player to band leader. The usual stuff. But, it is remarkable how the camera movements outside of those scenes also follow musical cues. During an early montage of shots of the city, for example, the camera pans down a building and as the music speeds up the camera speeds up, as the music slows, the camera slows. The cuts from cityscape shot to cityscape shot match the beats.

Structurally—and keep in mind that Whiplash is about an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive band leader and a college student who wants to be one of the great drummers—the film is like a romantic comedy. Fletcher (the band leader) and Andrew (drummer) meet when the former happens upon the latter playing drums. Andrew quits drumming abruptly and Fletcher asks why he quit and he starts up again. Stops and Fletcher asks if he told him to start again. The dynamic is established quickly with the mismatch of power, but it also works just like the “meet-cute” in any modern romantic comedy. We can see, not just because we’ve probably seen the trailer for the film or read about it if we’re bothering to watch it but also because the scene makes it clear, that these two men are supposed to work together. They are meant for each other.

Fletcher pushes Andrew and pushes Andrew, throws a chair at his head at one point. SPOILERS ahead. Andrew practices intensively, his hands bleeding, because he wants to reach the levels Fletcher is pushing him toward. Meanwhile, a couple other things are happening. Andrew’s father worries about him putting too much energy into his music and some other relatives don’t seem to value Andrew’s field—there’s an amusing (and, I think, insightful) dinner scene involving Andrew’s cousin who plays college football and what success is.

(The basic point Andrew makes it that he’d rather die young and be remembered than grow old and have no one know who he is. Charlie Parker died in 1955, only 34 years old, but they’re still talking about him (and he comes up throughout the film). Andrew sees that as success and argues that anyone would.)

Andrew has also asked out a girl who works at the movie theater he goes to sometimes with his father. When it seems she is attending a college she happened to have gotten into and doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, it becomes clear (even before Andrew tells her outright that they cannot be together) that Andrew looks down on her. He’s too ambitious for his own good. Plus, he just can’t be with Nicole because, per the film’s structure, he has to be with Fletcher.

In blogging about romantic comedies back in September, I often cited Hinnant’s (2006) “Jane Austen’s ‘Wild Imagination’: Romance and the Courtship Plot in the Six Canonical Novels.” Hinnant details seven romantic setups from Austen that we see in various romances (dramatic or comedic) then and since. One of those is one that begins with “an atmosphere of bitter animosity.” The first day Andrew plays for Fletcher’s band, he gets slapped repeatedly to make a point about tempo and he gets a chair thrown at his head. Yet, we know he has got to eventually play to Fletcher’s liking. That is the kind of story Hollywood sells. Another one of Hinnant’s scenarios involves “close friends... where one is older... a mentor-pupil relationship [and] the pair is unaware of the depth of their feelings for one another. The film also comes close to the usual “Cinderella” story, which Hinnant also covers.

Another often cited piece when blogging about romantic comedies was Dowd and Fallotta’s (2000) “The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the Postmodern Age.” Dowd and Fallotta write about “the presence of a serious obstacle” in the classic romance—and of course, the same extends into modern romantic comedies. In the case of Whiplash, Fletcher’s demands as well as Andrew’s father’s worries get in the way. And, just when Andrew seems to be pushing back, events outside either his or Fletcher’s control get in the way (in the form of a truck). This is the breakup, the inevitable second act breakup that necessitates a third act struggle to get back together.

But, in comparing this drama to a romantic comedy, I’ve got to wonder if maybe every film just has the same structure, the same story. So often lately, I’ve found various movies (not slasher films, much, but so many other movies) that end with some semblance of the theme of togetherness or belonging. Characters don’t quite fit the roles they have in the beginning, and in the end, they come closer with the help of another character. The final band performance of this film is like that last ditch effort to rekindle the flame of romance in any romantic comedy. Imagine the guy running to catch up to the girl, to profess his love for her, to beg for forgiveness for his transgressions, to repair everything at all costs. But, here in Whiplash it is Andrew drumming, first trying to keep up with Fletcher’s abrupt change of music, then getting ahead of Fletcher’s lead to prove he’s got the stuff Fletcher is looking for. Leftover anger turns gradually into something like respect, this film’s version of the love you see in a romantic comedy, as Andrew does indeed prove he’s got what Fletcher wants.

(Now, I must return to The Groundhog Day Project to get to the usual blog. I will try to return. There are plenty of movies to write about.)

And, for the record, Simmons deserves his Golden Globe nomination and his SAG nomination and his Spirit Award nomination—he also won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics—and I’m glad Whiplash was nominated for Best Feature and Best Editing (as I mentioned the editing above) at the Spirit Awards. Whether he or it wins or not, that ain’t up to me, but he and it should definitely be on the list.

Works Cited

Dowd, J.J. & Fallotta, N.R. (2000). The end of romance: The demystification of love in the postmodern age. Sociological Perspectives 43(4), 549-580.

Hinnant, C.H. (2006). Jane Austen’s “wild imagination”: Romance and the courtship plot in the six canonical novels. Narrative 14(3), 294-310.

Friday, August 2, 2013

and so it begins, the groundhog day project

I’ve never written a review of Groundhog Day, as far as I know. But, I’ve seen the movie many times, and I used it in nearly every round of impromptu when I was doing competitive speech and debate in college. That last one—that’s because you can use the movie to cover just about any theme. Phil Connors is not only a great central character for a good comedy like this—not that there are many comedies like this—but he works as an everyman and he goes through all the emotions we all do every day of our lives. There is time in the film (not to mention the many parts of his journey we don’t see on screen) for joy, for sadness, for arrogance and humility, silliness and seriousness, flippancy and philosophy.

The trailer for the movie gets a lot out of the idea of “living life like there’s no tomorrow.” That is perhaps the central idea to the film. But, for Phil, it’s not just a question of doing anything and everything; he starts out arrogant and self-centered, so his early attempts to live like there’s no tomorrow are shallow and simplistic. He manipulates his way into a date, to get money, to eat a lot of junkfood… put simply, he does what any of us might do if we had the opportunity to repeat one day over and over. But, there are consequences, not the least of which is boredom.

There is a telling moment early on in the film, when Phil asks Gus and Ralph, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Ralph’s response: “That about sums it up for me.” Most of our lives are already repetitive. Day in, day out. We work our day jobs and spend our nights watching television—not all of us, certainly, but it seems the case that most of us simply cannot live life like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve got responsibilities: school, work, family, friends. Maybe the reason the film works so well is that, despite deeper philosophical themes, there’s an absurdist fantasy at the heart of it; it’s not that we want the chance to repeat a day, though fixing some mistakes could alter our lives completely, but we want the chance to spend a day doing whatever comes to mind. We wish that we could operate by our whims and whimsy. We could dress like Clint Eastwood just to go to a movie. We could eat without worrying about weight gain. We could even drive on the railroad tracks.

Or, maybe it’s just funny.

What makes Groundhog Day a good comedy, regardless of larger themes? Is it Bill Murray’s ability to play a loveable scoundrel? Is it the remarkable balance between comeuppance and growth that Phil experiences? Is it the one liners? Is it possible the subject of repeating a day, though it has been done for dramatic effect—notably, I liked ABC television’s Day Break, but it did do poorly in the ratings that maybe it proves the following point—works best as comedy because of the way comedy works, the way jokes work. Comedy often is about the subverting expectations. The classic, and obvious, example is, Why did the chicken cross the road? We want an answer that gives us insight into motivation and maybe even the human condition (well, maybe not with the chicken, specifically). But, the classic response both subverts expectation and gives us just what we want, a real answer. The chicken did cross the road to get to the other side. Sure, we might want to go a few more steps up the list of causality, figure out why the chicken wanted to get to the other side, but comedy doesn’t work that way. In an interview with The Weekly, emmy-winning comedy writer and producer Ben Karlin had this to say about the challenges of writing comedy:

I think the challenges of writing comedy differ from person to person. For me, it’s always a struggle to find something interesting to say, to find a unique point of view or a way of expressing something that hasn’t been said before. Comedy is about subverting expectation and audiences are so sophisticated. They have read and watched and experienced so much that the biggest trap you can fall into is writing something that has been done before – and often done better.

Groundhog Day not only plays with the usual tropes and expectations of comedy but presents us with a plot built entirely on repetition, not only doing what’s been done before, but doing it again and again and again, providing us clear expectation in repetition then subverting that repetition. Sure, it’s a giant fantasy about living without consequences, and it’s also about seeing just how crazy Phil Connors can be in that situation, just how much can he get away with—we live vicariously through Phil and often the simplest comedy in the film comes from the subtle and not-so-subtle (Phil punching Ned Ryerson, for example) differences from day to day. Mostly, it’s played broadly, but then deeper points gets injected. For example, in the same scene that Phil has his table of desserts, Rita quotes a Sir Walter Scott poem to comment on his egocentrism. A little bit of depth to counterbalance and even augment the comedy.

Or, maybe it’s just funny.

Despite the repetitive structure, Groundhog Day still manages to have a pretty basic 3-act structure like most any other film out of Hollywood. Phil exploits his circumstances, he learns the failings of it, then he figures out that the key might not be making the best of the situation but making the best of himself. That’s Groundhog Day put simply. But, I don’t want to just put it simply. I want to break it down, tear it apart, look at its parts and what those parts tell us about life, the universe, and everything.

So, the plan: I will watch Groundhog Day every day, and I will explore its aspects and research into its tangents. I will run the film into the ground and, I hope, build it right back up again. Like Phil Connors with his day in Punxsutawney, I will probably have some crazy ideas early on, I will probably get sick of the film after a while and watching it and writing about it will become a chore. But, sometime later, maybe I can explore the film in such a way that I rebuild it, rebuild myself, and maybe help my readers, whoever they may end up being, to rebuild themselves with a better grasp of, dare I say it, the human condition.

Or, maybe it will just be funny.

Anyway, welcome to The Groundhog Day Project. Don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s cold out there.

In the future, follow The Groundhog Day Project at http://groundhogdayproject.blogspot.com/.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Necessity of Plot (The Possession and The Master)

A good portion of The Possession is a good movie. Natasha Calis has a strong screen presence for someone so young, and this makes up for the weakness of Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in their performances as her parents. But, in the end, this very plot-driven story comes to an obvious climax--with the requisite "take me instead" detour that comes with just about any movie in the possession subgenre of horror films--with a nice, seemingly tacked on "twist" of an ending that leaves an opening for an unnecessary sequel.

The problem, though is that through all the drama, you know the plot, the story never gels very well. Sure, we can empathize with a divorced dad just trying to do right by his daughters, except the film never gives us too many examples of this--he gives his daughters pizza on his weekend despite his ex-wife telling him not to, which is cute except that his youngest daughter seems to be a vegetarian because of allergies not just moral reasons, so this is actually an example of his bad parenting. His best parenting is in figuring out something is wrong with his daughter, but after she stabs him with a fork he'd have to be blind not to notice that.

There's another man in the wife's life now, and he keeps reappearing but ultimately gets chased out of the story by the possessed girl never to be  seen or really spoken of again. Because Hollywood needs the divorced couple to get back together in the end, you know, and he was in the way. Except, the film never actually gives the husband and wife any reason to get back together. And, his job offer out of state sounds like a good idea... well, it would if the movie bothered to suggest that either of these people were struggling with life monetarily or in any way at all. If he was pining for his ex-wife, if he seemed depressed an lonely without his daughters around in his new house, if there was any depth to any of these characters at all, perhaps we'd have reason to care. Instead, we get a horror film with very few attempts at scares, even fewer successful ones, and a generic, straightforward plot.

That being said, at least The Possession has a plot. Paul Thomas Anderson is a great filmmaker. And, he can tell a good story and get fantastic performances out of his actors. But--and I regret this even as I suggest it, because I understand that PLOT is not actually necessary--I really wish he could discover the idea of having a plot. There's a scene in The Master where the titular Master's son says he sleeps through his father's sermons because he can skip parts here and there and not miss a thing--"He's making this up as he goes," he suggests. And, remarkably, the same seems true of Anderson's film; you could skip a few scenes and still get the whole idea. There are no character arcs, no plot to speak of--well, there is almost a plot, or at least the inkling of a direction, except the film never actually goes that direction and the characters don't change... well, maybe a little, but we don't really see that change happen. We might wonder if there is a real epiphany in Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell walking back and forth and back and forth for at least an entire day, but at best, the epiphany he gets is the same we might get from the sequence: this is going nowhere.

The trailer for The Master includes a few shots that are not in the film, and that happens, sure. But, there is one shot of Phoenix with a gun that hints perhaps at violence or at least the possibility thereof. Maybe he will come to question his Master, maybe even kill him. But, this never happens. In fact, he violently protects his Master and mostly gets away with it.

Chekov would be, well, confused.

Phoenix's Quell has a problem with alcohol, a problem with women, and a problem with his temper. In the end, he's still got at least two of these, and probably all three, albeit perhaps in a more controlled measure. But, this growth, if it is even there, does NOT come from his Master's help, not really. If we believe the Master to be correct in the things he says about aliens and endless battles between good and evil, then this could be one tiny piece of that struggle, but it is so tiny a piece that it doesn't matter. Painted on a cosmic canvas, these two men struggling with their own arrogance and ego is all but meaningless.

One could guess this is the point of the film, but one should expect the point of the film to be, even if only for the briefest of moments, text and not subtext. And, characters should grow (or wither) and change. The order of events should matter. We should not be able to sleep through part of the story and miss nothing.

Then again, at least we get real characters, people with depth in a world where things just happen and demon possessed boxes don't happen into our lives to infuse a plot into the boredom. Arguably, The Master is more realistic--and I do not mean because of the supernatural element in The Possession--in giving us a portrait of life, people who seem real, who have real cares and concerns and struggle with everyday things. But, isn't that why we have life? Shouldn't our fiction have more of a point, or at least a recognizable catharsis? Shouldn't it at least have an obvious endpoint?

The key to a plot is that when it ends, we can recognize that it is over. In The Master, the movie ends, apparently, at the point that Anderson decided for it to end, not at some organic point where the struggles within the story have ended, or at least turned an important corner. There is certainly value to a character study, but even the most aimless and arbitrary character study relies on an arc, something the character wants and in some way seeks. And, failure to obtain can be a reasonable ending to a plot, but a real denouement requires something to come of that failure as well.

The Master is a great film, filled with parts that could probably be rearranged into something far better. But, something is missing.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

and i didn't even get to the opening credits... oh, and it's about time i reviewed Cabin in the Woods

In my recent review of Paranormal Incident, I neglected to cover something that should have been right at the beginning--the opening credits... I also should have mentioned the entirely pointless brief flashes of nudity early in the film that served only to titilate and barely to establish some character conflict later which could have been better served by, well, about anything else. But, I digress.

Opening credits. Sometimes, they are awesome and appropriate and set up themes and feelings and tone for the film--I'm thinking North by Northwest, I'm thinking SE7EN, I'm thinking Sleepwalkers, Halloween, any of those Saul Bass style openers... and there are many. I'd like to deal with SE7EN's credits here, because they relate in a way to Paranormal Incidents. There's scratchiness, frames that aren't quite as still as they should be, like the projector is unsteady, there are flashes of creepy imagery that may or may not tie in to the actual content of the film... in SE7EN we get a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at a killer we have not yet been introduced to, and in retrospect we may realize later that we're getting a look at his journals, which show up later. WE also get a good idea of the vibe for the film, that world-os-off-kilter tone that permeates the film...

Paranormal Incident tries this, but doesn't have anything as great as that almost wordless version of Nine Inch Nails' Closer playing. Instead, there's instrumental music that almost contradicts the visuals, which could be on purpose, except that wouldn't fit the tone of the film. It's like the director or whoever put together the titles wanted a creepy vibe, wanted that SE7EN vibe, but didn't quite know how to get it, and just couldn't find his Nine Inch Nails CD (or the money to license one of their songs).

Anyway, sometimes the opening titles work, sometimes they don't. Insidious, which far too many people actually liked, has this discordant and loud stinger-like music to go with its title, like it's going for some classic horror film visual and a jarring audio to, well, get some of that off-kilter vibe also. Except, the film is so lazily put together that the tone never congeals. And, the opening credits seem more like a parody than something as serious as it's supposed to be... Then again, so many people loved that movie and probably totally dug the opening titles. I think that sudden, pseudo-old-fashioned title with accompanying stinger works far better in this year's Cabin in the Woods. Now, this film deserves a review of its own, but the short version is this: while Cabin in the Woods is a horror film, it is not often as scary as its content might seem to require. But, that's kinda on purpose, because Cabin in the Woods IS a parody of a sort, or at least a genre deconstruction. Insidious, on the other hand, is supposed to be taken seriously, is supposed to be a classic in the making, despite Darth Maul's retarded younger brother and all that--go find my Insidious review if you want more on that. The thing is, that stinger title in Cabin in the Woods is so incongruous with what comes before it and what comes after it that it serves as this rather abrupt reminder that what we're watching is NOT real. I mean, we all know the film isn't real, but the fact that it isn't real is part of the point to Cabin in the Woods, arguably...

SPOILERS COMING--Cabin in the Woods is essentially a deconstruction of why we watch horror films, particularly slasher films. Whether or not we the audience are represented merely by the old gods waiting for our sacrifices or perhaps more by the technicians not only leading the victims to their deaths but betting on how it's going to go--well, that's an argument worth having as well. Paranormal Incident gets some of scares in more successfully than Cabin in the Woods, but Cabin in the Woods is not really made for someone new to the genre, needing to be frightened; Cabin in the Woods is made for the veteran audience, the kind of people that populate the edges of the Scream films, knowledgable of the rules of the genre, knowing what's coming and at the same time ecstatic for the moments things twist away from the usual path and completely happy with the moments where eveyrthing happens just as it's happened before and will happen again in the next slasher film (and, yes, it's worth pointing out that the actual plot that gets the characters killed in the film is closer to a supernatural movie like Evil Dead than a straight slasher film, I think it serves the film better in describing it as a slasher because a) it's easier and b) that structure is essentially the same, even if in one you get a methodical killer and in the other you get vengeful spirits or pseudo-zombies... and, that "pseudo" is to separate out the more straight zombies from the likes of Romero's films or even 28 Days Later from the more supernatural ones of the Evil Dead series). Cabin in the Woods is comfort food for people who know what to expect and are comfortable even when cliches are thrown around.

Of course, Cabin in the Woods tears a lot of the cliches apart, makes the stereotypical characters into a part of the story... For those who haven't seen it, the idea is that there are five types of victims for the sacrifice, the jock, the slut, the nerd, the fool and the virgin. These show up (perhaps not exactly) in so many slasher films that they are easily recognizable. But, Cabin in the Woods gives us not screenwriters fitting these characters into a deadly plot but rather other characters turning them into these stereotypes right before our eyes, or at least attempting to. This is already deep into spoiler territory, but I don't want to give everything away.

Cabin in the Woods has the trademark wit of Joss Whedon and a hadnful of good actors for a horror film. This is far more of a "classic" in the making than Insidious (which sucked) or Paranormal Incident (which was pretty good most of the time). The film is intelligent and does serve up a few scares--though, they are comfort scares for we fans of horror films. It's a great deconstruction of the genre/subgenre... now we just need a good reconstructive followup, something new that isn't so-called "torture porn" or mediocre (at best) or bad (at worst) attempts to bring back ghost stories... A recent mediocre example would be The Lady in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Its parts are all pretty good, but the whole just isn't very deep or meaningful, and good ghost stories should have some depth to them, After all, ghost stories are about loss, at least in part, and The Lady in Black is about loss from a couple angles. Insidious would be a bad attempt to bring back ghosts. The Paranormal Activity movies (not to be confused with Paranormal Incident) are good attempts to put something new into ghost stories, with the first one being the most original, the second one probably being the best made, and the third expanding the story into something bigger and weirder... Honestly, when I saw Scream 3 and they said the rule for the third part in a trilogy was that you find some secret from the past that changes the way you look at everything (you know like in the original Star Wars trilogy, learning how Luke and Leia are related to one another and to Darth Vader changes the entire story. And Paranormal Activity 3 does this sort of thing to the series. But, the whold found footage thing is perhaps getting a bit played out, used well now and then... Chronicle made excellent use of the idea, and also made good use of Freudian psychology (which my wife deconstructed far better than I could have, and I should still get her to do a guest review). Insidious, on the other hand, could have used something like a found footage restriction. The conceit would have limited its approach enought that maybe it wouldn't have been so full of itself.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below... and the films about them that are not quite as good as they should be

The plot for Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is actually fairly simple. A young girl whose father is dead and whose nurse mother is mostly absent ventures into a mythical underworld with a government agent who believes he can get his dead wife back by going there. It's anime, so it's got some great visuals, some interesting design work--the "God" in the underworld is a great visual, for example, like a multi-oared boat flying through the sky the first few times it's seen then transforming into a many-eyed human-shaped thing when it comes time to assist in the government agent's resurrection of his wife...

And, that last bit is not much of a spoiler. That there is resurrection coming is kinda the point of the story, or rather the plot. The story seems to be leaning toward some deeper exploration into grief and coming to terms with loss, except the main girl never really deals with her father's death and never once considers bringing him back. And, the agent is so inexpressive that his grief is all but nonexistent. Still the movie is entertaining. It is entertaining as an adventure story, these two characters and those who help them or that they meet along the way interact in interesting ways, there is tension and drama and though there may be no clear antagonist, there are some villainous inclusions here and there, and there is some good conflict.

The problem, as I see it, is this movie needs more internal conflict. It needs more of the agent's grief, more of the girl's grief. When--SPOILERS AHEAD, not that there haven't already been some--the agent's wife can only return to flesh by possessing the girl, there should be a bigger dilemma for the agent or he should come across as a villain, but there is really neither. It is simple another thing that happens. When the strange shadow creatures come after the characters, it seems more an exericse in worldbuilding than storytelling and... I must admit I'm not sure if there is some source material here that has greater detail, maybe a comic or something--certainly not an actual mythology, since this one incorporates seemingly Japanese ideas about nature with some South American details; the guardian creatures that keep overlanders out are called Quetzal Coatls for example. There are elements here that seem like windowdressing, even though there's a great plot at the center. The story just never quite gets everything together into one cohesive whole. What could have been a fantastic drama about grief and loss disguised as an adventure yarn is instead simply an adventure yarn. And, I don't mean to judge the film simply on what I imagine it to be; there are points in the film where grief is explicitly brought up, hinting at themes that seem to want to be here but aren't.

All in all, still an enjoyable film. It just needed to be more if it was going to hint at much bigger things; I mean, there's a god and giant animalian guardians, shadow creatures, violence, and even a cute little kitten. This movie should be better but is still quite good.