Elitism and Film Hierarchy

Last week, I won tickets to a free advance screening of I, Frankenstein in Toronto. The theatre was peopled entirely with other contest winners – not one of us paid to see this movie – and yet the two dudes sitting next to me spent the whole movie complaining about how “stupid” it was. A movie they didn’t have to pay for, and yet decided to come down to an advance screening for people who mostly, presumably, did something to win those tickets. And all I could think is where is your sense of fun?

Do I think that I, Frankenstein should sweep the Oscars next year? Should it be recognized as a cultural milestone? No, of course not, but this is completely unfair criteria by which to judge a film. I get really frustrated when people dismiss genre films (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc) for failing to be… well, serious. Sure there are the exceptions to that rule, but in general, “geeky” movies aren’t taken seriously by more sombre film critics.

Award-winning films have become so predictable that sociologists have found a way to measure “Oscar bait.” Terms like “family tragedy” and “domestic servant” play well, and obviously these are meant to be the best films of a given year – but does anyone really think that Crash deserved to win? And as much as I adored The King’s Speech, The Social Network is probably going to be more clearly remembered in a decade or two. I feel like a lot of people don’t take these awards too seriously – if I watch at all, it’s for the dresses, not the awards (but that still won’t stop me from screaming if Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win). But they dominate cultural conversations for a few months every year. Award season is a cultural touchstone where the dark, gritty seriousness of Nolan’s Batman films was apparently deserving of recognition but the fun romp that was The Avengers was mainly overlooked.

I guess the question is whether or not “entertainment” is a noble goal to have when setting out to make a film, and in my book, it is. That doesn’t mean that a purely entertaining film should be free from criticism, but I think that we have to adapt our reference points from film to film; we should judge the success of a film based on its ability to achieve what it sets out to do. I, Frankenstein knows that its audience is here to see some goofy action sequences, so it develops its characters and mythology only to the point that the plot is possible, and puts most of its effort into fight choreography and special effects. Last year’s Pacific Rim was slammed by some for lacking subtlety – but its tagline was “Go Big or Go Extinct,” so it seems to me that the problem with that assessment is with the reviewer, not the film itself.

And you know what these films have in common that is absent from many award-nominated films this year? Minority representation. Pacific Rim, while having one of the most boring white dude protagonists in the history of film, was really about Mako Mori – it’s no 12 Years a Slave in terms of examining race relations, but it has some cultural significance for having a leading lady of colour who isn’t an exoticized caricature. Geek spaces are dominated by white straight male voices, but sub-genres and cult films are havens for minority groups – look at something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That film will never be remembered for mainstream appeal, but that doesn’t make it culturally insignificant.

If I go into a horror movie, I want to be scared, and that’s going to be the standard by which I judge the film. I don’t think that all horror movies are worthy of widespread accolade, but I don’t think either that they should be summarily dismissed for not meeting some kind of film standard that’s skewed toward emotionally manipulative dramas. Movies can be art, but they can also be pure entertainment, and not everyone wants to leave a movie theatre feeling like they’ve changed as a person. If goofy action flicks aren’t for you, that’s fine, but don’t put them down because they aren’t Quentin Tarantino movies.

Which, by the way, wouldn’t exist without the B-movies he lovingly imitates.

I’m a film lover because I know the heights that films can hit, in terms of emotional resonance but also in engrossing me in a story. Some of the most engrossing stories are told in faraway galaxies, about people accomplishing the unfeasible. Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art far more than art imitates life, so give me stories where people beat impossible odds and good prevails, I don’t care if it takes a plothole or two for us to get there.

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Looking to the Future: A Panel Discussion on Superhero Films in 2014

I participated in this panel about superhero movies, for those interested. Watch me go off in a completely different direction from the other panelists on 2 of the 3 questions. The fact that I forgot that The Wolverine was a thing this year probably didn’t lend me credence either. OH WELL.

A. A. Omer

I love superheroes and this year was just one giant present filled with costume clad characters. I’ve already counted down and commented on the 5 superhero movies of 2013 over at Paper Droids but while that was about looking back, I decided to look forward.

I got 5 people who love superheroes and superhero movies to discuss the films of 2013 and what that’ll mean in terms of the expectations we’ll have for the 2014 batch. They come from all walks of life. They either reside in the United States or Canada. Some read comics while others haven’t. They do share one thing in common and it’s superheroes on the screen so let’s hear what this panel has to say…

What’s your most anticipated 2014 film and why?

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier

Allison O’Toole: 

I can’t confirm that it will happen in 2014, but there seems to be a John Constantine show in development…

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Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Because it needs to be said: I am a Wes Anderson fan. I don’t think enjoying his films is a case of ‘getting it’ or anything like that, but I can understand why some people wouldn’t like them – he uses the same aesthetic in every film, regardless of settings of time or place. His characters can seem interchangeable from film to film; the adults act like bored children, while the kids are tiny adults.

 

All of that said, something about most of his films really works for me. I love his single aesthetic, and I think it adds to the worlds he creates for every film. His obsessive attention to detail makes his work a visual treat even on repeat viewings; his literary and filmic references are a nice nod for nerds like me, and I find I can relate to most of his characters – even if they are mostly disenchanted rich white guys. So that’s why this weekend, instead of seeing Snow White and the Huntsman or Prometheus, I trekked to the only theatre in Toronto playing it to see Moonrise Kingdom.

The story is simple enough: a small island town is uprooted when two ‘troubled’ 12-year-olds run away from home to start a new life together having fallen in love. Drawn into the search for the young couple are the local deputy (Bruce Willis), runaway Sam’s Scouts master (Edward Norton), young Suzy’s attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances MacDormand), and child services (personified by Tilda Swinton), called in when Sam’s foster parents no longer wish to care for him.

 

Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the star-crossed lovers are fabulous, and perform perfectly within Anderson’s style. Anderson showed in Rushmore that he could get wonderful performances out of young actors, and that ability is on in full form in this film. There are a number of impressive performances out of the many young actors. I had some reservations about how well Bruce Willis would fare within Anderson’s world, but he musters a quiet earnestness that feels right at home. The same can be said for Edward Norton, whose passionate Scouts master is at once pathetic and highly endearing. Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, and Frances MacDormand all do well with their supporting roles, giving their antagonistic characters some sympathetic qualities. Look out for fun cameos from Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel, as well as regulars Jason Schwartzman and Eric Anderson. (Surprisingly, neither Wilson brother appears).

 

The story of young love against obstacles is not a new one, but it is hard not to get invested in it. What sets this story apart is the world going on beyond the central figures. Comparative little time is spent developing the supporting characters, but we still get a sense of their lives and relationships – in standard Andersonian fashion – through a glimpsed conversation, a casual line of dialogue, or a photo placed on a desk. The relationships, as always, are central, but this film has more action than Anderson’s previous live-action films. Like The Fantastic Mr Fox, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a storybook, perhaps one of the fantasy stories loved by the heroine. Aesthetically, Anderson’s films all resemble ornate dollhouses, this one with pure love at the centre. Even their names, Sam and Suzy, seem picked out of a book for children. There is something reminiscent of Peter Pan and Wendy about the leads in their more childlike moments – they try so hard to be adults, but with so many unhappy adults in their lives, why would they want to grow up? And like a storybook, it ends with a flood, a chase that ends on a rainy rooftop, and softening villains.

Moonrise Kingdom fills the checklist of things to watch out for in a Wes Anderson film; if that won’t get in the way of your enjoyment, and if you’d like to watch a not-so-quiet character comedy about young love and flawed people helping or hindering it, then I highly recommend this film.

Review: The Avengers

I’ll admit upfront that I had huge biases going into this film. I’ve been a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s for years, and I’ve more recently fallen in love with the Marvel movies, so I was predisposed to love it.  I can say that my nerd overrode my film critic, but honestly, I don’t believe you should judge all genres by the same criteria. A good a comedy is not good for the same reason as is a drama, or a horror film, or a romance. They have different requirements, so why do we put down superhero movies as something lesser; why do “good superhero movie” and “good movie” have to be separate labels? A movie like The Dark Knightis more grounded in realism, so it can be more, well, realistic. That was never an option for this movie. So no, I’m not going to say much about the cinematography and the mise-en-scene and the other stuff you’d critique in a Bergman film. It had a good story, characters I was invested in, and was a blast to watch; I think this was a good movie, and I don’t really care if it isn’t “high art.”The plot is simple: Loki, last seen as the hero’s villainous brother in Thor, has come to Earth with the intention to subjugate its population. And, as you know if you’ve seen the previews, he has an army. Loki steals the tesseract (which you may remember as the glowing blue cube in Captain America: The First Avenger), a portal through deep space of unknown power. Faced with this seemingly unbeatable threat, Nick Fury decides to call together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. They have to overcome their clashing values and personalities to SAVE THE WORLD.

Joss Whedon manages to do the near impossible: he brings together a group of solo acts and makes them all coexist as one performance, where everyone gets near-equal chances to shine. His action scenes are fun, fresh, and actually surprising. The final act is huge, with a number of memorable action scenes peppered throughout. Amidst those though are a number of brief but powerful character moments. My only qualm is that both Thor and Loki feel slightly off at times; Whedonesque dialogue is perfect for Tony Stark, but occasionally feels awkward coming from the mouths of these “gods.” Still, overall he does very well, even with the Asgardians, and his ability to shift seamlessly between drama, action, and humour is on in full form in this film, and the tone perfectly brings Marvel Comics to life.

The characters are the most important part of this film, and they are all well represented, even if some outshine the others. Surprising to me, the character I most loved was Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo finally injects some much-needed humour into the character, and with that, comes pathos. Banner was a funny, intelligent, endearing character, but always with the legitimate threat under the surface. Even more impressive though, is the Hulk, created by WETA Digital over motion capture actually performed by Ruffalo, making him the first actor to play both Banner and “the other guy.” Hulk’s first appearance is a scene worthy of a werewolf movie, and after that he too develops a sense of humour and pathos. The midnight crowd at my theatre went wild every time any character turned up on screen, but Hulk got the loudest cheers by far. With both roles, Ruffalo completely steals the show, and I look forward to future Hulk films – something I never thought I’d say.

The strong presence of Scarlet Johansson as the Black Widow was a similarly pleasant surprise. I should have expected this from Joss, but he develops her from her minor role in Iron Man 2, giving hints of her past while still leaving it mainly shrouded in mystery. No, she doesn’t have superpowers to match those of her teammates, but she is unquestionably a capable asset to her team.

Robert Downey Jr is flawless, as usual, as Tony Stark, and unsurprisingly gets his fair share of screen time. He gives the performance we’ve come to expect, balancing humour, vulnerability, and straight badassery. He fits most comfortably into Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue. I was pleased too to see Gwyneth Paltrow back as Pepper Potts, because Tony Stark really isn’t Tony Stark without her. Other memorable supporting performances are given by Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, and Clark Gregg as the ever-awesome Agent Phil Coulson, who finally gets the development and screen time the fans have been demanding for him.

For the leader of the team, Chris Evans as Captain America does not get as much dialogue as his teammates. That said, he is more human, I think, than he was in his solo film. Some beautiful comedic and dramatic moments come from his misunderstanding and mistrust of the modern world. He and Tony Stark butt heads immediately, since Tony represents everything that Steve dislikes about the new world. I can’t wait to see the two of them together in future films, as they had great chemistry (as did Downey Jr and Ruffalo).

Hawkeye gets very little development, unfortunately, but Jeremy Renner manages to make Clint Barton memorable and capable, despite just being the guy with the bow. I hope that we get to learn more about him in subsequent films.

Finally, my favourite Avenger, who I really wish had been more present in the film: Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. As the only character with ties to the villain, I wish their relationship had been better explored, and that we had had more than one short scene looking at Thor’s feelings toward Loki’s actions. However, each of his scenes with his brother pack a powerful emotional punch, brief as they are. For his part, Tom Hiddleston is once again in top form as Loki, playing a more manic, malicious, and dangerous version of the character. Gone are his tears and justifications, replaced my evil grins and condescending sarcasm. His one-on-one scenes with each of the Avengers are superb and often chilling, but each is memorable for its own reasons. The scenes with Thor especially reveal that Loki’s insecurities are very much still present, and that he is still motivated by jealousy despite his new cocky posturing. Their dialogue could have used some work, but they did well with what they had.

The action scenes are huge, bigger than anything Marvel has done before. The closely-guarded identity of Loki’s alien army is insignificant, but revealed early in the film. They pose a threat, but not one as large as the mysterious force behind them, revealed in a mid-credit sequence to be a formidable villain from Marvel comics, one who I eagerly await to see in later films. I enjoyed the pace of the film, allowing for ample character development, but I can see how it could feel slow to someone desiring average popcorn fare. If you’re in North America, be sure to stay until the end of the credits for a lovely surprise in Whedon’s usual style.

Overall, this is a fun, heartfelt, fresh superhero film, and the perfect summer blockbuster. While you could watch it without having seen the previous films, it is really worth giving them a watch first, as they make the character moments in this one so much more potent. The Avengers will make you want to go back and watch them now – whether you have seen them before or not.

"A naked American man stole my balloons" An American Werewolf in London

No matter how many times I see this movie, I will never grow tired of it. I’m going to write this with only a few minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe I can convince you to do so.

If you are a fan of horror or comedy, especially that of the late ’70s/early ’80s, this movie is necessary viewing. The film was written and directed by John Landis, the man behind The Blues BrothersAnimal House, Coming to America, and others. As such, while it is most assuredly a horror movie, it is hilarious. I can’t think of any other horror film which so successfully blends horror and comedy. I guess Shaun of the Dead does, but I’d say it is more comedy than horror.

Let’s start out with the technical stuff. The soundtrack is great, and swings more toward the comedy aspects. Landis chose only songs with the word “moon” in the title, leading to some great, appropriate music (the scene with “Moondance” is particularly effective), as well as moments of juxtaposition (like the transformation scene and the ending). The camera work has its moments of glory, such as David’s dream sequences (which I like to call “naked running montages”), when the camera takes on the POV of the wolf running through the forest. The camera often subs in for the werewolf, so that the audience sees the characters’ reactions to the monster, and the audience must fill in the horror with their imaginations. The low shots are particularly effective in the scene in the tube station, making the hallways look too long and claustrophobic.The script gets a bit melodramatic at times, as does the acting; however, the comedy scenes are fabulously written and acted, and make up for the few slips in the dramatic bits. There are, however, some effective dramatic scenes as well, and there is a particularly sweet scene in a phone booth, which I won’t spoil.

The audience can immediately feel the bromance between the protagonists, and their conversations are always fun to watch because they seem so natural. The Brits are well represented too, with a capable love interest, and a stiff doctor as the skeptic trying to get to the bottom of the werewolf nonsense. The supporting cast is full of memorable smaller parts – the guys in the pub, the detectives (especially the incompetent one), Frank Oz’s cameo as an American ambassador – and they all add to the film.

The humour is one of the things that separates this from other horror films, because the movie never loses it; there are constant jokes and gags against the dark and gruesome scenes. Don’t judge me if you haven’t seen it yet, but there are a few scenes with a porno film that are just hilarious. Those scenes also feature some of the best dark humour in the film, from situation and dialogue. This is the only horror movie that makes me laugh as much as it raises my heart rate, and all of the humour is intentional, unlike some cheesy-thus-hilarious horror movies.

Not just hilarious, as we would expect from John Landis, this movie is scary – it is a horror movie at heart. This movie understands how to use gore. It uses blood pretty liberally at times, but always for a purpose. With a few notable exceptions, we just get snippets of gore – a bloody severed hand on the ground, and that only for an instant. When it does get gory, it isn’t always just to be frightening. The scene in the hospital room (you know which one I’m talking about if you’ve seen it) uses gore liberally to evoke a sense of the uncanny. Everything is nearly normal – the characters act like their normal selves – but there’s something a bit off, and the gore is there to keep you feeling that eeriness. You can’t get used to it, because you can’t take your eyes off of that little flap of skin… I’ll stop here lest I spoil any more, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in the tube station, which is one of the most intense chase scenes I have ever seen.

On top of all of that, you’ve got basically the best werewolf transformation scenes in cinema history. The Oscars invented a category for make up effects that year to award Rick Baker, the make up genius behind the movie. He just won his seventh Oscar for that godawful Wolfman  remake, wherein his talents were underused, and he worked on the Cantina scene in Star Wars. So a pretty accomplished guy. He used puppet and make up to make this excruciatingly long and painful transformation which is still impressive today. You actually get that feeling of “how did they do that” which is so rare now, unless you can understand the computer programs used to create CG effects. You know how nerds (like me) complain about CGI these days? It’s because of movies like this. (Here is an example of his effects, but it’s pretty gory, I don’t want to scare anyone who’s squeamish).

I guess I should admit now that I have a soft spot for werewolf movies, mainly because they tend to consolidate antagonist and protagonist. What’s more frightening than realizing that you are the villain, in a not-split-personality kind of way? These days, you’ll see many tortured vampires with guilty pasts as protagonists, but those movies tend to have evil vamps as well, and the broody vampire is the good guy who has to fight them. Werewolf movies like this one are a bit more ambiguous, I guess. He’s a sort of Jekyll/Hyde figure, where you know that the werewolf isn’t technically the “human” character you see the rest of the time, but that character is still violently killing people at some point in the movie. So what do you do about that? If evil is the nice guy next door, that’s scary – you find yourself questioning or not trusting other people. But if evil is YOU… How do you deal with that? It all becomes very morally ambiguous, and I love that.

I love good werewolf movies, and I’d say that this is the best one I’ve ever seen. Check it out.

A Defence of Horror

Horror is an often dismissed genre of storytelling. Most scholars see all horror as schlocky and below the respectable dramatic genre. While I admit, there are some bad horror films out there, there are lots of bad dramas too. Have you seen Seven Pounds?

Despite its status as “low” art, horror is perpetually one of the most popular genres. In America, popularity of horror films has tended to spike in time of financial recession – just look at the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, and the slashers in the ‘80s. We’ve seen it recently too, with the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. While it seems like people would want happy, escapist films in times of uncertainty, evidently audiences would rather see their fears reflected in film. If the lovers can escape from the Frankenstein monster, then we can make it through financial hardship. For the same reason, horror films represent the times in which they are made better than any other genre. The eerie moods of ‘30s monster movies reflected the uncertainty many were experiencing, and their monsters were easier to identify and defeat than the stock market. In the ‘50s, horror films often overlapped with science fiction, reflecting the Cold War and fears concerning nuclear warfare. Horror’s popularity is maintained because the stories so strongly reflect their times.

Another reason for horror’s enduring popularity is its appeal to our baser emotions – the ones we don’t like to talk about. Dramas manipulate our emotions just as much, but they tend to play to our more “appropriate” feelings, like sympathy or hope. There is nothing wrong with this of course, I love a feel good as much as the next gal, but I would argue that feeling fear in empathy with fictional characters is just as important, healthy, and fun as feeling happiness. At the heart of most horror films is a basic human fear, such as fear of the unknown (are ghosts/zombies/etc real? Where is the killer hiding now?), isolation (in space/the middle of nowhere no one can hear you scream, you’re being chased and you can’t call anyone for help), or repression (now that I’m a vampire/werewolf/Mr Hyde I can’t control my carnal desires, this murderer seems obsessed with people having sex). Many horror films also manipulate more specific fears, like ghosts or sharks, and the best create them, like showers or chainsaw-wielding madmen in hockey masks.

So why would we want our fears manipulated? Don’t we try daily to mask or overcome our fears? Well, that’s like asking why we watch sad movies: it’s cathartic. For those of you who don’t remember high school English class, catharsis in this case is essentially a purging of feelings, which leaves you feeling lighter. After having a good cry over a favourite character’s death, we may feel some lingering sadness, but we can come back to the real world and feel somewhat lighter emotionally. Horror works on the same principle, only with fear. Being frightened gets your adrenaline rushing, your heart pumping, and puts the hairs on the back of your neck on end. This is called “horripilation,” and it is just as cathartic as that cry. A good “poppy-outty scare,” as my housemates call it (or startle scares, as we called them when I worked at a horror themed amusement park attraction, which I will get to later) will cause a burst of adrenaline, which is often very effective. I however prefer an “atmosphere” scare, which builds tension through events or mood. My favourite example, and one that never ceases to terrify me, is in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but you may want to skip ahead if you’ve never seen the movie. The infamous night-vision goggle scene makes me poo my pants in fear every time I see it. This is a good example of fear of the unknown: the dark is the ultimate symbol of the unknown, and you can see the pure terror on Clarice’s face while she tries to navigate the pitch black and unfamiliar basement. The audience is unsure at this point who is about to die, but you know it has to be one of them – and the tension elicits an intensely visceral response from me.

This visceral reaction is one of the reasons that so many horror films involve sexual repression or perversion. Fear and lust are probably the most carnal and physical responses a person can experience – being overcome with happiness isn’t quite the same as being overcome with terror. This is also why horror is one of the most heavily censored genres – it loves social taboos. Now, I am not criticizing this in all cases, only in films which seem to believe that shock is the same thing as horror. Stephen King, a favourite author of mine, said in Danse Macabre that he aims to terrorize readers, and that terror is the “finest emotion.” That all-encompassing, overwhelming fear is the goal of horror writer, and he has succeeded a few times, most notably in Pet Sematary – for me anyway. If he can’t do that, he’ll try to horrify us, which is closer to shock, but we’re still afraid for the character, or at the atrocity that something like that could happen. There is an element of a trainwreck here, where we can’t look away, because we’re getting a glimpse of chaos, which is exciting amidst our otherwise ordered lives. Finally, if neither horror nor terror can be achieved, King will “go for the gross-out,” for which he “is not proud.” I’m a big fan of older horror films, because they don’t show you everything, and try to scare you by building a mood and the graphic stuff often happens offscreen. These days, too many films think we’ll be scared because a character is sawing his own feet off or something. Gore, when used properly, can be very effective (see An American Werewolf in London for some marvellously handled gore), but on its own is not scary. Come on, I can see people’s insides on CSI or a medical drama; if you want to scare me, you’ll have to be more creative than that.

The best horror films are the ones that stick with you, and leave you mistrusting the darkness when you try to sleep. Some do it by making you wonder what sort of monsters could be lurking in the shadows; others, by exploring what my favourite high school teacher referred to as social taboos. Most of the most controversial horror films are so because of sexual content, although vivid torture is up there these days, and offense to religion/God was popular in days of yore. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (one of my absolute favourites) was one of the first American horror films to deal explicitly with sexual repression, and while Frederic March won an Oscar for the dual lead role, Miriam Hopkins’ role (as a woman of questionable morals) was so cut down that she didn’t have enough screen time to qualify for a Supporting Actress nod. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a great example of sexual perversion in horror cinema, but an even better (and more controversial) example is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a month before Psycho and caused a much bigger stir. The main character is fascinated with fear, and films himself murdering women. He takes it a step further, placing a mirror on the top of his camera, so he can capture his victims’ terrified expressions as they watch themselves die. He watches the films later, clearly deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from it. The subject matter is disturbing on its own, made even worse by the voyeurism it turns on the viewer. Like following Norman Bates peeking through the hole in his office wall, watching a character watch himself commit murder puts the audience on the spot, as our act of watching is not too far removed from these “psychos.” We love to follow lurid and sensationalized murder stories on television; shows like CSI thrive on that, but don’t provide the opportunity for intelligent discussion the way that horror films do. We can analyze what scares us and how our fears reflect our values – and sometimes expose some “ordinary” behaviours which are maybe somewhat disturbing.

At this point, some of you may be backing away slowly, and making mental notes to avoid me from now on. Why, you are wondering, am I so excited by fear and perversion? Well, if everything thus far hasn’t been enough to convince you that enjoying horror is valid, I guess I can say that I also enjoy it because my love for horror developed in a time where a lot changed in my life, and I gained a lot of self-confidence. Until I was around 13 or 14, I was ridiculously over sensitive. I had different tastes than most people in my school, and as such, was teased. Nothing too harsh I’m sure, but I always felt that I needed to defend my love of musicals and dislike of soccer and other popular things. One of these popular things was watching horror movies at slumber parties. Do you remember attending these events, where there’d always be that one kid who always got terrified? Well, I was that kid. Once, my friends were watching Thirteen Ghosts (which in retrospect was a really stupid movie) and kept trying to force me to watch the really scary parts for laughs. I had to sleep with my parents for like two weeks. Anyway, a year later, I was hanging out with a different group of girls, and I requested that we not watch any too scary movies (I believe that The Ring was on the table), and we ended up watching a movie I was really into at the time, The Mothman Prophecies. Despite how easily frightened I was, I had this fascination for anything supernatural, and that one was reportedly based on true stories, so I watched it over and over through my fingers. But since I had already seen it, I ended up being the one who lightens the mood, making jokes and keeping the lights on. I ended up keeping that role for every (now forgotten) horror movie I watched with those girls. The next year, I watched The Shining at Halloween with a new group of friends, and I absolutely loved it. This time, we were all too engrossed in the movie for anyone to be joking, but no one seemed unreasonably afraid or upset either. It took me until I was 14, but I realized something – being scared can be fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes along with the fear and adrenaline, and I liked it. I read the novel of The Shining, fell in love with Stephen King, and a horror buff was born.

I now watch horror movies whenever I can; I’ve read books on them, and while I probably know more than your average cinema-goer, I don’t pretend to be a huge expert. There are still so many I haven’t seen – my list of must-sees never seems to shrink. When I was 16, I worked at a Halloween attraction at a theme park, where I basically put on a silly rubber mask and tried to scare people all night. That experience further enforced my earlier realization that fear is fun. There were consistently people trying to show their friends how unafraid they were, usually by making fun of the employees, and I always wondered why they would bother paying to come. The same goes for the horror movies – unless you’re a kid at a sleepover trying to help your friend sleep, why bother sitting through a movie refusing to let it affect you? People like being scared, that’s the biggest reason that horror is so popular – if you don’t want to be scared, avoid the genre. If you want that thrill where your heart leaps into your throat, shivers creep up your spine, and you find yourself wondering if that really was your reflection in the window, then relish it, and surrender to your fear for a while.

But maybe you should make sure that your night-light works first.

"A boy’s best friend is his mother" A Love-Letter to Psycho

Last night my housemates and I watched Psycho together, providing me another reminder of why that movie rocks. It is especially fun/scary watching it in our house, since from our couch, you can see our neighbour’s creepy window:
“As if I could do anything but just sit and stare”
When Te and I watched the movie on Halloween, the lights were all out, we were huddled together under a blanket because it was freezing, and suddenly the light in that window went on – and someone was standing there, terrifying both of us. We have referred to it as “the Psycho window” ever since.
Since I have nothing else to write about at the moment, I will write a love letter to Psycho.
*HERE BE SPOILERS*
 If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, stop reading here. And go watch it now.
First of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of the greatest, most recognizable in film history. From the opening credits, you get this immense sense of foreboding – even though it doesn’t seem much like a horror movie for about half an hour. The violent violins, paired with the choppy, fractured opening sequence, foreshadow the fragmented villain’s mind, and create tension right from the beginning.

The camera work is also stunning. The infamous shower scene has been written about a hundred times, but with good reason. It may not seem as frightening by today’s standards, but for its time, it was horrific. The rapid cuts and Herrmann’s score gives it a sense of crazed urgency, and it’s still tense to watch, even though we all know it’s coming before we see the movie. My favourite scene for camera work – actually, my favourite scene period – is the parlour scene, where we really get to see Norman’s crazy side. The room is full of birds, which are framed differently, reflecting the conversation. When Norman begins talking about his mother, an owl hovers over his shoulder, and doesn’t leave until the conversation changes again. By the end of the scene, a crow looks over Marion’s shoulder, and birds of prey frame Norman’s face. After Marion’s death, Norman knocks over the picture of a small bird in her motel room, and he uses tentative, bird-like motions at many crucial points in the film. If you haven’t already, watch the film again, and watch out for any references to birds, whether visually, like stuffed birds and suggestive gestures, or audibly – Marion “eats like a bird”, and her last name is Crane.

The script has some flaws (notably the exposition scene at the end, but more on that later), but over-all it is wonderfully quotable, and perfectly paced. The aforementioned parlour scene is a perfect example: through dialogue, Norman goes slowly from awkward but sweet boy-next-door too insane dude with serious mommy issues.  There is a lot of subtext, both in the dialogue and in the camera work, but the incestuous implications really keep this movie disturbing. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think that Norman and his mother (or her corpse) ever engaged in actual sexual acts, but there was undoubtedly sexual jealousy there.  He was still “all Norman” when he murdered his mother and her lover – while they were in bed together – and I severely doubt that he was just jealous of the attention/time she was giving this guy. Unfortunately though, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”.

The Macguffin and its usage in this film is one of Hitchcock’s best, in my opinion. The $40 000 dollars (about $2 million today, or so I’m told) drive the plot for the first half of the movie. The assumption is that it will continue to do so. However, the main antagonist doesn’t only ignore the cash, he doesn’t even know about it – and it goes down in the swamp with his victim’s car. Hitchcock just takes all of the viewers’ assumptions and expectations about where the film is going, and chucks them out the window. You’ve watched this mostly sympathetic everywoman as the protagonist, and she’s suddenly dead – so what happens now? We don’t notice on a conscious level, but that is upsetting for movie viewers. The twist ending (even though most of us know it now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not) is respectable, and hadn’t been done to death when the movie came out. The skeleton spinning around in the chair is still effectively chilling, even if you know it is coming.

The acting is mostly quite good. John Gavin is pretty wooden, but Sam isn’t a particularly interesting character anyway. Janet Leigh makes Marion sympathetic, but not weak or helpless – despite the fact that she’s a thief, you’re rooting for her. She’s wonderful in the shower scene too, especially the final shot where it zooms out from her eye – so unsettling. Vera Miles and Martin Balsam do their jobs as Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective investigating her case. But this movie is really all about Tony Perkins, who carries it beautifully. I don’t think I need to say much about why – if you’ve seen it you know how he is scary and crazy and sympathetic and kind of cute the entire time.

I also like both of the Crane sisters – they’re feminine, but without being the helpless damsel-in-distress types. They make their own decisions, and contribute to the plot beyond being love interests/murder victims.

My only complaint about the film is the awful expository monologue by the detective at the end. It’s poorly written, poorly delivered, and mostly unnecessary. I can understand wanting to explain some of the psychology to viewers, but I feel like most of it was pretty obvious. Not to mention, it’s written like a bad detective movie from the 40’s, and is delivered in the same manner, which feels hugely out of place. However, apparently some disagree with me, and feel that it is helpful in summing up the movie, so maybe it is useful. Either way, the scene is followed by the “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene, with Perkins staring psychotically into the camera – and the superimposition of Mother’s skull over his face leaves you feeling chilled, negating the effects of that crap detective scene.

The final shot of the car being pulled from the swamp means that Marion’s family can recover her body, the money can be returned, and the status quo essentially resumed. But Norman Bates is still out there, so who’s to say something like this couldn’t happen again? With no ghosts or evil birds, this is one of Hitchcock’s scariest but also most plausible films, and certainly a classic in his oeuvre and in all of horror film.



The King’s Speech – See it Now!

I just saw this film, and it is fantastic.

The King’s Speech is about Prince Albert Duke of York (Bertie to his friends, played by Colin Firth) and his stammer. Often representing his father, King George V, in public, Bertie has to overcome his nearly debilitating impediment. When nothing else seems to work, Bertie’s wife (the future Queen Mum, played by Helena Bonham Carter) books him an appointment with an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Predictably, Logue helps Bertie become more comfortable being in the public eye (or rather ear), and the two become good friends. When his father dies and his older brother abdicates the throne, Bertie becomes King George VI, and needs Lionel’s help more than ever – especially with his country on the brink of World War Two.
The acting is probably the film’s strongest point. I don’t have anything to say beyond what has been said already, but I’d like to see Firth take home the Oscar for his performance, and at least nominations for Rush and Bonham Carter in their supporting roles. All of the performances are wonderfully understated, communicating with no more than a look or a gesture. They are supported, of course, by a wonderful script. It’s full of quick, British wit, and is hilarious at times (Bertie finds that he doesn’t stammer when he swears), but is still a touching drama. The conflict is largely character based, with the central issue being man vs. self (or man vs. stammer?), and the movie this feels very human. It is certainly a period piece, but with more accessible and real characters than can be characteristic of this style of film. The treatment of history was also refreshing. While surely a character-based film, the setting is important, and I felt that the writers did a good job of understanding that their audience would know quite a bit about this period in history, but that we’re not all history buffs – so the personal lives of the characters are explored, but we don’t have to get newsreels or the like to explain the significance of Hitler’s actions at the time. Not to mention, this film has one of the cutest bromances in recent memory, outside of the Judd Apatow school of male camaraderie.
Many scenes were very short, but these vignettes effectively told us all we needed to know without lots of uninteresting back story. (Minor spoiler, so stop if you want to go in completely fresh, but this is a minor detail) In one scene, Lionel auditions for a theatre company with a pedestrian performance of the first soliloquy from Richard III. He is rejected, but claims to have played the part before in Perth, which isn’t quite London. His status as a failed actor is referred to a few more times in the film, but that scene told us all we needed to know about his background. The film is full of short scenes like this which capture the characters admirably. The audience is allowed to figure the story and the characters out for themselves, rather than being spoonfed.
The cinematography was quirky, but not enough so to be labelled a “quirky” film, in the style of Wes Anderson and his contemporaries. Characters were often shown in close shots, enhancing the feelings of intimacy which pervaded the film. When Bertie’s stammer gets particularly painful, we get right in close to his mouth – when we’d really prefer to be as far away from it as possible. As aforementioned, the actors can portray thoughts and emotions with the simplest of expressions or gestures, and these were captured beautifully in close ups, as well as many oddly framed shots, with main action on the left or right of the screen, and a few examples of action split by a door frame or a window. The sets were beautiful, and they were given their due with sweeping far shots, ensuring that you get a good look at the floor of Westminster Abbey, the dilapidated wall of Logue’s studio, or the interior of a royal abode. Overall I thought it had a good look to it.
The score was good, for the most part, but not spectacular – although I’ve liked Alexandra Desplat’s work in the past (his work on The Fantastic Mr Fox was, well, fantastic). Near the beginning, there was some light, fast piano work which seemed wonderfully British to me, and fit nicely. The sweeping orchestral parts over the drama, however, were more commonplace. In a film so much about speech, score seemed almost unnecessary at times, and I felt that it got in the way of the speech that is so important – it would have been better even if it had been a bit quieter. That is only a minor complaint, and I’ve got nothing but praise for the rest of the movie.
The movie is getting well deserved Oscar buzz, is nominated for a number of Golden Globes, and won a number of British Independent Film awards (most of the major awards, except for Leading Actress and Director). I don’t see it winning many Oscars, but I’d like to see Firth take home the Best Actor statue, and I think he has a chance. The top contenders for Best Picture this year seem to be Black Swan and The Social Network. I haven’t yet seen Swan, so I cannot say which is better. I did see Social Network, but it isn’t fresh enough in my mind to make a fair call. I will say, however, that I left The King’s Speech feeling more satisfied, and I spent more time thinking about it afterward. The fact that I enjoyed a movie more does not necessarily make it superior, but I know which movie I will be gunning for come award season – although it probably won’t be the one I on which I place my bets.

EDIT: I’ve been reading a bunch of Oscar predictions, and apparently most people seem to think that the most likely contenders for Best Picture are this film and Social Network. I’m still pretty sure that the latter will win, but that won’t stop me from cheering for the former. Also, I saw this again today (Jan/12/2011) and it’s just as good the second time.

All in all, I recommend it. You go in knowing how it will end, but that doesn’t really matter. It may not be complicated, but it is intelligent, and the acting is wonderful. So if you want that giddy happiness you get at the end of a good (albeit predictable) romcom, mixed with the triumph you get at the end of any movie where someone has to overcome adversity (a handicap, prejudice, an opposing sports team, etc), but you want something a little more intelligent than average fair, definitely check this out. We all need a feel good every now and then, and this is an example that feel good doesn’t have to mean light or empty.

Tim Burton

I just saw the Tim Burton exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and it was kind of amazing. I’ve loved his work since I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas at the tender age of three. I have many fond memories watching that movie throughout my life: before going trick-or-treating as a kid, singing the songs at recess with my friend Natasha in grade 7, watching it in French class in grade 9, and convincing the teacher that we had to watch Oogie Boogie’s song in English, because it just wasn’t the same in French… and many more. It’s always been one of my favourite movies, and I’ve always worn my Nightmare sweaters and accessories boldly in the face of emo/goth kids who tried to claim the movie for their own. It’s a damn musical – it’s not that dark, guys. Get over yourselves.
In short, it has always been a big part of my life, but I didn’t realize quite how important until I saw this image:

…and nearly burst into tears. They had a very thorough set of Nightmare related stuff, including these design sketches, some storyboards, the original poem, and some of the actual puppets used – including those heading this post. Seeing the puppets especially (and these really neat photos he’d taken with them) brought it to life in a whole new way for me. The detail was amazing to see up close, and it was very obvious how much TLC had gone into creating them. Seeing everything up close like that made it so much more real, maybe just because it was tangible, but it was a very nostalgic and weirdly emotional moment for me. So thanks, Timmy, for creating something that affected me deeply so subtly.

The rest of the exhibit was really neat too. It was awesome for me, since much more space was devoted to his earlier projects than his later – of which I’m much fonder. The Edward Scissorhands bit was especially detailed and interesting. It featured a ton of original sketches and a comment from Johnny Depp, who said that those images made him fall in love with the character – and I’m not surprised. In his character notes (also featured) Burton noted that Edward would be try to dress nicely and be very well mannered, but be cut up, due to harmless things like trying to scratch a fly from his nose. His hobbies (apparently) include playing steel drums, and he hopes to someday vacation in the Caribbean. There, an already adorable movie is about 80000 times cuter now. Also on display were a costume from the movie loaned by Depp, one of the Scissorhand gloves, and part of the cookie making machine – the thing with the cookie cutter feet.

The Beetlejuice section had a sandworm used in stop motion filming, and Beetlejuice’s long sleeves, I assume from when his arms turn into carnival hammers – remember that? There were also special pieces made only for the exhibit, which were interesting.

There were also a bunch of other neat things, such as the cape worn by Christopher Walken in Sleepy Hollow, some severed heads and a Martian anatomy chart from Mars Attacks!, the infamous angora sweater Depp wears in Ed Wood, and (playing on loop) Burton’s first short film, Vincent. The exhibit also featured some of his planned but never realized projects, as well as artwork from when he was a teenager/before he was famous.
In all, I had a really good, albeit unexpectedly emotional time. Some of his concept art, especially for towns and locations were so fabulously Expressionist – which, as those who know me are aware, is very exciting for me. I just wanted them on my wall at home. Oh well.
If you’re in/near Toronto and have any interest in Burton’s work at all, I highly recommend checking this out.