Tommy Lee Jones stars as Dave Robicheaux, small-town Louisiana sheriff investigating a murdered prostitute named Cherry Leblanc. On top of that, he has to deal with drunk film star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and his more-responsible girlfriend (Kelly McDonald) roaring around the backwaters, who stumbled upon a chain-encrusted corpse on their set. Said corpse belongs to Dewitt Prejean, a young black man who “escaped” jail into the bayou, where he was shot by two men—a scene that’s etched into the memory of Dave, who happened to see the event as a tween.
As Dave continues his investigations—digging up a troubled past to find Prejean’s history, and finding that Leblanc is just the start to a chain of serial killings—he finds that they’re not as disparate as he thought they were. Instead, the crimes are linked. And that investigation will unearth the twisted and diverse history of this small backwater of Louisiana swamp… ranging from ghosts of Confederate generals to the 1960s racial tensions.
The cast does an admirable job. Tommy Lee Jones hands in a solid performance, better than some of his phoning-it-in roles (Captain America) even though you’ve seen him play this character before. Peter Saarsgard is great, but woefully underused; Kelly MacDonald does just as well in her small role. John Goodman is hamming it up in fine form. Very good performances, and the use of local talent is excellent—legendary guitarist Buddy Guy is the weak role in the acting department, but makes up for it with atmosphere and local flavor.
The film has plenty of interesting bits to play with. There’s some post-Katrina allegory here, with the local Mafia (run by John Goodman) buying up property, and commentary on the relief efforts; some social consciousness using the Jim Crow-era’s racial tensions as a touchstone; and a healthy dose of Southern Gothic and magical realism revolving around the Civil War, to go with its neo-noir mystery-thriller parts. Plus the big-city/rural divide, with the Robicheaux family and their neighbors contrasted with the hot-rodding actors and snide film crew. Safe to say, there’s a lot of great stuff going on.
If only the film knew how to use it. As a Franco-American production, the film has more of a European subtlety to it, eschewing the big-bang Hollywood techno-wizardry and action in favor of moody setting. After using all those pieces, crafting that fine plot, and layering that thick atmosphere, the film leads slowly to an underwhelming finale and a twist ending that wouldn’t have made it into a bad Twilight Zone episode. (We’re talking Outer Limits mediocrity with the ending.)
The use of long, slow shots is beautiful for atmosphere, and that subtle touch is masterful. It’s a soft, delicate, but deliberate pacing—the film knows where it’s going, and moves with ambient grace. But instead of bringing it home for a satisfying conclusion, the plot blows away with the wind, and the film’s beauty fades away in lost possibility. In The Electric Mist starts out with an excellent noirish miasma, looking like a clear-cut winner. But when it comes time to seal the deal, it slipped on its own lack of initiative. It’s not a bad film, but the blase ending failed to deliver on the buildup’s promises.
I wonder if the original novel is more satisfying, or if the longer director’s cut was improved—it saw theatrical release oversees; the shorter US version went straight to DVD. Which is what it feels like: an artsy European film that went straight-to-DVD in the States. And I wonder how its production woes, which delayed its release to 2009 after a 2007 shoot, affected the film.
Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s something built into my jaded generation, but I end up assuming everything will be a steaming plate of shit and chips unless it first provides certification of its not-shit nature. In triplicate. Such was my assumption about The Hunger Games; when I first heard about it, my reaction was Didn’t I already read/watch this when it was called Battle Royale? An attempt to reformat the Japanese original’s totalitarian state and teenage gladiatorial death arena for the palate of Western audiences, namely the post-Potter Twilight generation?
Yeah. I should stop assuming things.
The setup is pretty straightforward. Generations after a failed uprising/civil war, the post-apocalyptic remains of North America have restitched themselves under the control of the victorious state of Panem. As punishment for their attempted rebellion, the outlying areas have been divvied up into districts, operating as combination collective farms and industrial plants and kept in a state of suppressed poverty. Once per year, two teenagers—a boy and a girl—are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games: a futuristic deathmatch where these Tributes fight to the death, with the Panem and District citizens watching the ordeal in a rapt fervor. Twenty-four teenagers enter, one teenager leaves.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12; when her younger sister is chosen, she volunteers in her stead. A talented archer, she manages to overcome the prejudices weighted against her district through unconventional tactics. See, well-to-do viewers may sponsor the participants with air-dropped gifts, such as medicine or food, and the Games are equal part survival course, combat mission, and showboating for fans. District 12′s other Tribute, a strapping young lad named Peeta, manages to showboat a little too far when he reveals he has a secret crush on Katniss—snap! I wonder what her boyfriend back home thinks about this?
Their drunken advisor—Woody Harrelson, since Woody Harrelson is in freaking everything—urges them to play up this star-crossed lovers angle. Even as they get into the meat of the film—the third act is the Games themselves, after some long and bloated setup—their relationship develops onward, despite the foregone outcome that one of the two will die. The hope is that Katniss will get more sponsors this way… because they’re all guessing Katniss is the only one with a chance, and needs all the help she can get. Their strained relationship ebbs and flows during the game, but by the end, it becomes both the foundation and moving force of the film.
On the one hand, this is a grim futuristic dystopia with a Young Adult love-story that can appeal equally to girls and boys. On a deeper level, this film a scathing satire of our glorious technological future. Contrast the pastoral, 1950s-drab outlying Districts with the glitz and glamor of the Capital City, an amalgam of the stereotypical worst excesses of D.C. insiders and the Hollywood elite, the One Percent turned to eleven—it’s a modern-day Metropolis gone Lord of the Flies.
And note the connection between the Hunger Games and modern society, with their sponsors and mass-media appeal, the vicarious viewers whose emotions are played by this reality TV show gone Thunderdome. It’s in the same vein as Battle Royale, yes, but also treks back through the history of the totalitarian dystopia through Logan’s Run (check out those jumpsuits!), Orwell, and Huxley; it emerged with many similarities, but still has something new and interesting to say.
As the first installment of a trilogy, it has that problem where unique and interesting concepts are introduced but left undeveloped. For example, the Games take place in an artificial, controlled environment, and Gamesmasters are shown to have the ability to drop in new threats to herd, or weed out, the participants… something that’s used about twice. I’ll bet that comes back in the sequels, since it’s a concept that shouldn’t be so woefully underused. There are a number of blatantly obvious questions, many about the setting, that are never answered, and any social criticism is left in the allegorical stage, buried under the surface-level narrative.
An actual film complaint—pretty much my only one—is that is uses the bane of today’s moviegoer… the shaky-cam. Imagine dropping a half-dozen teenagers, a camcorder set to record at full zoom, and some pit bulls into a cement mixer, and you have The Hunger Games‘ fight sequences. The first time it’s used, it can follow its purpose: that would be the initial slaughter when the Tributes are released into the Games, the scrimmage over the supplies left before them. Reflecting the stress and chaos of the moment, with distanced sounds and nervous breathing, it works, without obscuring the action too greatly. And the scenes in the Games have these hand-held, documentary look, which could reflect Katniss’ unsteady nerves or whatever, so there’s already some unsteady-cam action going on.
After that, it does pretty much what shaky-cam cinematography always does: acts as a crutch for inept/lazy directors and/or actors, obscuring the lack of choreography. “You actors, just sprawl around on the ground slapping each other while Bob films from inside a tumble dryer; don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” The fight sequences are a muddled mess of close-ups and jerky handheld cameras and bad lighting; as either consolation or an addendum, they’re also way damn short.
The teenage actors all did admirable performances. Josh Hutcherson stumbles occasionally as Peeta, but he gives an all-around solid performance that I can’t complain about. Supporting cast such as Lenny Cravitz, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland are excellent, and Stanley Tucci hams things up as the Games’ newscaster/reporter. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss who steals the show; her ability to emote is sublime, which is in high demand in The Hunger Games, with some emotionally powerful scenes. She also manages to pull off a strong, independent Tomboy who’s still sexy—and since the traditional genre stereotypes are thrown on their heads, with Katniss caretaking an injured Peeta, we have yet another solid female rolemodel from a science-fiction-tinged action movie.
Within The Hunger Games we have an entertaining action film, a Young Adult love story, a dystopia, a cunning social satire, a modern parable for the 99% generation, and probably two or three other things I left out. It’s one of those few films that appeals to teens and adults without compromising—the thematic allegories are vague, not dense or bludgeoning; the action is frenetic, but not the focus; the love story is engaging, not sappy. The effects are slick, and the film’s vision is sweeping and uncompromising, if under-detailed. Its pre-Game half grew long, and the shaky-cam sequences are shit, flaws marring an otherwise solid movie.
I don’t think it’ll go down in history as a landmark film—save for making bank at the box-office—and it might not be the one 2012 movie you remember ten years from now. But The Hunger Games is certainly worth watching.
Okay, I’ve been pretty skeptical about this one, dating back to when I first heard they were remaking it. I mean, the Schwarzenegger one wasn’t brilliant, but it managed to keep Philip K. Dick’s paranoia and questioning of reality intact inside an entertaining ’80s trashy action movie. Probably one of the top three PKD book-to-movie adaptations… behind Blade Runner, of course, and I’m growing to like Spielberg’s Minority Report more than the original story.
And Hollywood has a tendency to make… well, really shitty “sci-fi” movies out of hot-shit science fiction properties (anyone else remember Surrogates? Cowboys and Aliens? Predators? Green Lantern? Need I go on?). For every District 9 or Inception, we get a good number of science fiction films that are forgettable, or best left forgotten. Just look at all the failed attempts to turn Dick’s novels into films—don’t get me started on Paycheck or Next. (I’ve realized that the irony of The Adjustment Bureau is that they didn’t develop the concepts far enough; probably why Rango, which went far enough and then some, beat it down at the box office.)
So, yeah, after seeing the trailer, I’ll eat some crow and say the new Total Recall looks pretty damn good. As in, see it opening day damn good. The visuals are astounding, for one, and the plot seems as Dickian as Dick’s original story. Also, the cast is pretty stellar. Colin Farrell stars, with support from Jessica Biel and Bryan Freaking Cranston as antagonists, and Ethan Hawk, Bill Nighy, and Kate Beckinsale in support.
The whole Mars subplot has been dropped, but honestly, what made the story interesting was Dick’s surrealist paranoid mindfuckery. The Mars angle was great flavor, but the meat of the story wasn’t the Martian rebellion, it was Dick’s eternal attempts to define reality and humanity, the sense that you never knew what was the true world and which was the implant. Something the poster hypes up:
Well, you know how to market a Philip K. Dick-based film and stay true to Philip K. Dick’s overarching vision; you have my interest.
So, here’s hoping that screenwriters and directors have figured out the proper way to adapt PKD to film, rather than skimming the surface-value concepts into another formulaic, chase-scene-rific shitty action film. (I really hated Paycheck and Next, okay?)
All told, this should be made of win. It’s Pixar’s first live-action movie. It’s bankrolled by the Disney Vault. It’s directed by Andrew Stanton, the mastermind behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E, who also happens to be a big damn dork and Barsoom fan. It’s one of the oldest and long-lasting works in the science fiction genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the third—and first successful—attempt to bring the novel to the big screen, a hundred years from its magazine serialization. And it’s following in the footsteps of Avatar, itself a Burroughs clone (from Cameron’s own mouth), which proved that Star Wars-style space opera isn’t dead but, in fact, technologically elite. Plus, it’s got a rockin’ orchestral version of Kashmir, and the visuals are beautiful.
And outside of science fiction nerddom—proclaimed SF geeks, turn in your piece and shield if you don’t recognize the term Barsoom—nobody’s paying attention to John Carter. Which bodes very poorly for what should be a guaranteed cash-cow. Even the extended superbowl trailer didn’t fix any of the branding problems; the lack of hype and branding is still there.
If you look at the YouTube comments section for any of the trailers, about ninety-five percent of the comments are from people wondering why Disney’s ripping off Avatar and the gladiatorial scenes from Attack of the Clones. (This echoes other news sources.) The other five percent are a handful of dedicated fanboys trying, futilely, to point out that the movie is based on a venerable cycle of pulp adventures, and that in reality John Carter‘s trying to take back the tropes it devised a century ago. Though, to be fair, having established the tropes in-print means little when the main grounds for visual comparison are films both new and similar.
I’ll admit, when I first saw “John Carter” in a list of upcoming movies, I breezed past it. About thirty seconds later the little lightbulb popped on, and digging around on IMDB I discovered, yes, it was that John Carter. Losing the Of Mars in his title, despite the reference “John Carter of Earth” in the Superbowl trailer, doesn’t help; it’s a lame, uninspired name that tells you jack shit about the movie. (What were they thinking; irking core fanboys just so little Timmy doesn’t believe Mars is populated by insect-men, red chicks, and monsters? The idea that a guy wouldn’t see that movie, with a trailer full of action and violence, just because it has “Princess” in the name is laughable.)
Even the nod to “Mister Burroughs” in the first trailer was nice, but weak; most people aren’t going to make the connection to the writer. Especially when you’re dealing with a hundred-year-old pulp hero. And given its placement in time, you can see the executive reasoning behind it: we need another science fantasy hot on the heels of Avatar, and here’s a ready-made property that has all the same awesome stuff built into it. (Not that it stopped them from adding Avatar-esque flying fight scenes in TRON:Legacy, but y’know.)
At this point, it’s getting too late to turn the ship around; I can’t imagine they’ll pump out another trailer this month which will manage to explain both the point of the movie and that it originates a large number of the genre conventions the trailers showcase. Given the film’s affluent budget, estimated in the $400-500Mn range, it’s got to set fires under critics and woo non-fanboys in order to make bank. Otherwise, it could easily become this generation’s Waterworld; given that Waterworld was actually an entertaining Mad Max-on-jetskis action romp, and was mostly despised because it cost so much, took so long, and was nothing more than Mad Max on jetskis, I think the comparison (and fear) is grounded. (Waterworld : Mad Max :: John Carter : Avatar?)
Besides, we’ll never get to Warlord of Mars if the first movie tanks it.
Yep, I’m finally at the last day, with the fifteenth and final horror movie on my list. Keep in mind that the basis for this was a Facebook meme where you list the first fifteen horror movies that pop into your head, and since then, I’ve been second-guessing myself and remembering all sorts of fantastic horror films.
I think Cloverfield was the last horror movie I saw in theaters, so that’s probably the reason I picked it as number 15. (What, I don’t watch a lot of films in the theater.) It also caters to my childhood love of kaiju movies and disaster flicks. Giant monster attacks a major city (New York), causes havoc; the military has futile attempts to kill it (this time sans Toho’s giant rockets and mecha); a small batch of protagonists attempt to escape the area.
It’s another capable entry in the “found footage”/shakycam genre started by the Blair Witch Project, which would have most certainly been on this list if I hadn’t paid so much attention to the hype then found out the actors were still alive before going out to see it. Even then, I think Cloverfield was much more effective and believable in its shakycam roots. I’d want to snag as much visual data as possible if there was a giant monster running around; I’d probably save my batteries if I was one of three morons stuck out in the woods. Blair Witch is spooky because of the weird occurrences; we know damn well there’s a giant monster running amok in New York, and that tangible threat was more convincing to me.
I think the kaiju angle needs to be properly emphasized. Cloverfield is to post-9/11 New York as Gojira was to postwar Japan. The strange culture of fear is paralleled, if a bit exaggerated, in the monster’s attack. The average citizen is helpless; the armed forces cannot defend them; there was little to no prior warning before the Statue of Liberty’s head rolled down the street. (It’s sad when that CGI head is the fake-looking part in a series of shots bloated with CGI: the graphics in this film are almost always top-notch.)
Why is it scary?
There’s a scene in the film where the characters are walking around in the abandoned subway tunnels, and one of the characters (the cameraman) announces, “Remember how there was some guy down in here years ago setting fire to bums?” (Sadly Rich had just left for the restroom, since that defines about half of his RPG characters.) That scene was priceless; a few moments later, the characters are attacked by the poisonous water-fleas the big giant monster has accumulated, which cause horrific and fatal death to anyone they bite.
Aside from the subway scenes scaring the crap out of me, I think Cloverfield uses its found footage setup quite effectively in conveying terror. We don’t see the monster, but we see a lot of devastation; we feel for these characters who we already know something about, and want them to escape before the inevitable nukes come out.
Again, this is not a particularly scary movie. It doesn’t have the same psychological horror as Mouth of Madness, or the paranoia of The Thing, or the jump-out-and-scream thrills of a good slasher film.
I do have some complaints about it, too; I haven’t seen it in a while but I don’t remember the shakycam footage annoying me as much as the fact we get a damn good view of the monster right before the end. Giant monsters work fine in one of two ways: show it to us from the beginning (more or less), ala King Kong or Gojira, or keep it hidden for as long as possible and don’t allow us to watch it just stand there and stare at us. It’s like J.J. Abrams wanted us to know exactly what the monster looked like… and it looked like some overgrown mutant bat. I liked the random concept art where it was Whalethulhu better, and giving away all the monster’s detail was a bad move.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s telling when half of the first fifteen horror movies I can think of aren’t pure horror movies. That said, I think a lot of them do the horror genre good, and most of them have the same tropes and techniques that makes the horror genre what it is.
Like this one, Pitch Black. I watched it again a few weeks ago, and it blew me away. Not because of its special effects, which aren’t bad but look dated. (Then again, I also watched The Fellowship of the Rings, and the “amazing” intro CGI battle at the foot of Mount Doom that blew everyone away years ago was just painful compared to Avatar or Cloverfield.) No, it reminded me of just how good a horror-thriller this film is.
Another basic horror movie setup, only merged with stock science fiction: after being pulverized by meteorites, a cargo ship crash lands on a desert planet baked by three suns. As the survivors begin to patch up and try to figure out how to get rescued, they start being picked off one by one… and it’s not because of Vin Diesel’s Riddick, the bloodthirsty serial killer being transported by a questionable cop.
It’s when the lights go out that things really start heating up: pursued by unstoppable monsters, previously dormant under the surface, relying on the questionable cop and the even more questionable serial killer. Diesel’s performance as the brutal anti-hero is top-notch, and launched the actor into stardom. The actual horror-thriller elements create a fine atmosphere of tension and desperation, as the survivors languish (and die) over a mere two-mile trek.
Why is it scary?
Again, the basics of horror: a group of people, without proper equipment, isolated from civilization, in desperate need of help. Also, it’s the middle of a permanent eclipse, so throw in humanity’s primal fear of the dark. And there are killer monsters out there, that we don’t see until after they’ve killed a handful of people. Also, the only person the survivors can trust is a psychotic killer who’s had cats-eye implants in prison.
It’s a hellish situation for the characters, and I think that translates to the viewers. This film is full of tension and great twists, and has the masterstroke of having Riddick as red herring and threat rolled into a single package. It’s a perfect hybrid of genres, and I think it works very well (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of it). One very underrated film.
Its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, dropped the horror-thriller angles to focus on being an action-movie/unauthorized Warhammer 40k fanfic, and wasn’t as successful. I didn’t think it was as terrible as everyone else in the world, but it wasn’t half as effective at being an action movie as Pitch Black was at being horror.
I think it says a lot about me when the first fifteen horror movies I can come up with include a lot of hybrids—a couple of thriller crime/horror hybrids, a bunch of SF/horror hybrids, and a pair of comedy/horror hybrids. Like this one.
“You’ve got red on you.”
Shaun of the Dead isn’t a true horror movie; it’s a romantic comedy, but one that stays within the constraints of a zombie movie. Simon Pegg is an office zombie, going through his day to day life, hanging out with his slacker friend (Nick Frost) and trying to win back his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield), which just so happens to occur during a zombie apocalypse. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from: Pegg’s Shaun doesn’t even notice the zombies at first, too caught up in his thoughts.
The fact that it’s also a checklist for zombie film components is also a plus: escape scenes, gruesome walking dead, the slow and eventual deaths of the less-important group members, one group member getting bit, the climactic hold-0ut scene… it’s all there. Only neatly subverted into comedy: instead of holding out in an office building or mall, they hold out in a pub; the person who’s infected by the zombies is Shaun’s girlfriend’s mother; the escape scene involves the survivors zombie-walking through a group of undead.
Why is it scary?
It’s not; not in the slightest bit. It is, however, pretty funny, and the zombie special effects are terrific. As a horror rom-com hybrid, I think it does what it set out to do damn well: be a comedy movie set within the boundaries of a zombie film. All the classic zombie film bits are there, making it an authentic zombie film, which it uses to its advantage: the movie takes a serious-but-comedic approach to panning the genre.
I think it holds up a lot better than the other serious zombie comedy (zom-com?), Zombieland, which had a lot going for it but was too short and too shallow and was largely powered by hype. Shaun came out of left field—being British helped, nobody in the States pays any attention to foreign films being developed, which is a shame—and I think being a pleasant surprise, with its distinctly British wry humor, made the film stick out in my mind.
At the end of the day, it may not be a real horror film, but it is one of the best zombie movies ever made.
The b-movie people who hate b-movies love. A trashy horror movie with a philosophical axe to grind. And it’s got Bruce Campbell to boot.
Bruce Campbell is Sebastian Haff, Elvis impersonator in an old folks’ home. Unless he really is Elvis, like he thinks he is. He’s largely bed-bound, left alone with his reflections of past glories and introspection on age and life. His lone friend is Jack, an elderly black gent in a wheelchair who claims he is JFK (dyed black after the assassination attempt, then left to rot). These two must face off against an ancient Egyptian mummy who walks the halls of the retirement villa, slaying old people.
It’s a surprisingly deep movie, all things considered, though its humor is derived from the ludicrousness of the situation. Is this really Elvis? That pill is easier to take than accepting the old black dude is really JFK, but most of all, this is a movie with a mummy that regenerates by sucking the souls of old people out of their assholes. Not something to take seriously, despite its serious introspection from Elvis/not-Elvis on the topics of age and life. This is a complex film, with some great scenes, and an unforgettable performance on behalf of Bruce Campbell.
Why is it scary?
Well… it isn’t? The horror parts are something of a derail to the meditation on old age (and/or sanity), and are somewhat predictable. But that’s part of the fun: in a way, it’s a b-movie parodying b-movies. A lot of the humor comes from the protagonists, yes, but also in the weirdness of the situation: an ancient mummy? Which sucks souls out of somebody’s ass? In an old folks’ home? And these are the only two people who stop it are
Though, it is worth noting that there’s some viable terror here: it’s pitched as a drama in many circles because the horror parallels, and in many cases augments, the film’s philosophical messages: the helplessness and isolation of old age. Horror often uses isolation and helplessness to its advantages; here, the characters start off weak and old to boot. People don’t believe that they’re really Elvis and JFK to begin with, so it’s up to them to prove that they’re not just old and worthless.