Quick! Before it Expires: Videodrome, Demolition Man, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Videodrome

You may recall that on a few times Josh and I have talked about our appreciation for David Cronenberg. We even did a debate pitting him up against David Lynch.

Cronenberg made his mark on Hollywood by leading the charge in a horror sub-genre called “body horror.” These are movies that focus on our culture’s obsession, fear, and ignorance about our bodies. Most often the horror from these movies come in the form of body mutilation and destruction.

Many critics and fans cite Videodrome as Cronenberg’s crowning achievement. The story is about James Woods’ character finding a strange television station. As he unfurls the mystery behind this tv station, he begins to loose his grip on reality. The movie is chock full of trademark Cronenberg imagery, themes, and gore. It’s arguably the best movie to start with if you’ve never explored his filmography.

Videodrome expires on July 1st.

Demolition Man

Demolition Man isn’t a great movie. In fact, it’s kind of bad. However, I recommend it for two reasons.

One, it takes place in the future. Whenever a movie takes place in the future, it uses the present to predict and extrapolate what will happen in the future. In this case, the movie takes place in a future filtered through 90s sensibilities. In other words, it’s an unintentionally hilarious depiction of the future. This is a timeline when fast food chains go to “war” and the sole victor is Taco Bell. This is a future that tickets people for swearing.

Two, have you ever heard a joke about using three seashells in a bathroom? Watch Demolition Man and you’ll finally get the references. (Sort of.)

Demolition Man expires July 1st.

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Guy Ritchie has jumped to bigger audiences with his two Sherlock Holmes movies.

But the way he got his start was by making clever, slick crime movies that featured lots of characters, interconnected stories, and a loose timeline. In short, for a while, he was the British Quentin Tarantino.

Lock, Stock was Ritchie’s first movie and it’s quite a feat. The movie has a general air around it like it’s the director’s third or fourth movie. The level of filmmaking competence is quite high.

The movie is about four friends who get mixed up in an underground poker game and must pay back a local gangster 500,000 pounds. The movie follows around a few factions of people including pot dealers, a debt collector, and two dense thieves until each storyline ingeniously dovetails together. It also features a pre-action star Jason Statham.

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels expires on July 1st.

Harrison

Enjoying the Deriviative

I want to elaborate on something I touched on in an earlier post. I said we live in a world of fan fiction and I think that’s hard to deny. As a recent relocatee to the New York City area it’s impossible not to be bombarded by ads for the next big thing, be it a new movie, TV show, website or play/musical. It’s hard not to notice how the biggest pop cultural events are derivative works. Broadway has been dominated by derivative works including the near-flop Spiderman musical. Not to mention all the revivals and film to Broadway adaptations now playing. The hottest book of the summer 50 Shades of Grey is literally a piece of fan fiction, written by James initially as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. Not to mention the mashups of classic novels and zombies/sea monsters/ aliens/ what-have-you.

The biggest and most impressive derivative work of the summer is the Avengers, which has made all of the money in the world this summer. It’s a whole mess of derivativity. The Avengers based on a comic book story that was based off of previously established characters (fan fiction defined). Not to mention it is the sequel to 4 superhero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. Iron Man had it’s own sequel and the Avengers features the third actor to play the Hulk/Dr. Banner (after a remake of a poor adaptation by Ang Lee). After all this the Avengers comic book was Marvel Comic’s response to DC’s successful Justice League comic. Can one film get any more derivative? The short answer is yes. Loki and Thor are reestablished characters taken from Norse mythology. There’s hardly a frame of the Avengers that’s not derivative.

Hulk says movie is good.

This by no means these projects to be poor in quality. I enjoyed the Avengers and think it’s one of the better summer blockbusters in recent memory due to its playful tone and wonderful escapist quality. It means that as a criterion for cinema (in terms of quality) originality can’t be the deciding factor. I’m not going to argue whether or not we can be original in the post modern era, that’s not the point Originality is just not en vogue. As artists we should be focusing our attention on a much more important criteria of what is good–enjoyability and transcendence.

It should come as no surprise that movies are more than just entertaining things to watch. Some films cause emotional responses (be them repulsion or joy). We should let these be our guide. I have two different viewing experience when I watch the Avengers and when I watch Win Win, but that doesn’t mean I can’t watch them both. These films are both enjoyable, but in my opinion only one of them gets the emotional response that I want to have out of a movie. If you are satisfied with the pure adrenaline rush and fun laughs during the Avengers fantastic. I’m going to enjoy that film but it won’t be on my top ten list at the end of the year.

What do you think? Are there better examples of film that transcend the viewing experience or films that don’t need that because they are just that enjoyable?

Josh E.

A Defense of Crank: High Voltage

It’s been three years and at this point I’ve heard all the guffaws, scoffs, sneers, seen all the incredulous looks, eye rolling, stand-offish body language, and the general sense of “are-you-kidding-me” behavior.

I still stand by my opinion that not only is Crank: High Voltage an amazingly good movie (masterpiece?) but it is also an Important movie with a capital I.

Continue reading

Contemplating Post-Release Edits

In case you haven’t heard, Steven Spielberg is putting back in the guns in the Blu Ray version of E.T.

Let’s back up for a second. For the the 20th Anniversary edition DVD of the movie, Spielberg, for whatever reason, decided to take out the guns from the movie and replace them with walkie-talkies.

This whole idea of post-release edits of movies really fascinates me. To be honest I’m not quite sure how to think about them.

The most famous example of this is George Lucas’ repeated alterations with the original Star Wars trilogies. I think it goes without saying that there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of people claiming that these changes are a good thing. Or that they add to the movie experience. In fact, it could be argued, that because of Lucas the whole idea of post-release edits are frowned upon.

But what about a less severe example? What about the countless comedies that come out each year on Blu Rays and DVDs that claim to be “Unrated” editions. These movies add new material to a movie that theater-goers did not see. The new scenes and content usually don’t add too much to the movie, but it is weird that two audiences members could watch the same movie, but not see the same movie. If that makes sense.

In the case of comedies, I have a hard time believing that the “Unrated” editions are born out of artistic integrity. It seems this is more of a ploy to get audiences to pay to see the movie twice.

So what about director’s cuts? I can think of no more famous example than Blade Runner. Over the years there’s been multiple cuts released of the movie. All of this is based out of the conflict between Ridley Scott and the studios. The marketplace for a director’s cut makes more sense to me. If a director feels his or her vision has been unfairly compromised, then maybe they should get an outlet to show the public what they saw in the movie.

The flip side of this is what if a director’s cut is bad? Currently the only version of Lethal Weapon on DVD is the Richard Donner Director’s Cut. As an absolute uber-fan of the Lethal Weapon movies, I have to say, the director’s cut is not as good as the theatrical cut. Most notable is that Martin Riggs gets a different introduction. Instead of Christmas tree shopping, Riggs first appears on screen at a school shooting. The Christmas tree scene is still in the movie, but its effectiveness is severely diminished.

I do think that going into a movie to alter the content within the frames is an inherently wrong thing to do. But when it comes to adding and deleting scenes, it’s a much trickier proposition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But again, I think the weirdest thing of all is that two people can have a conversation about Apocalypse Now even if only one of them has seen Apocalypse Now Redux.

What do you think about altering movies and deleted scenes? Chime in below.

Harrison

Debate: Best Summer Blockbuster

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

I find that Summer Blockbusters are a fairly contentious part of the world of cinema. Some people deride the blockbusters as the prime example for the downfall in current quality. I, however, love these types of movies. The best Summer Blockbusters are like theme park rides/roller coasters/exotic trips all rolled into one. Of course, I’d like to point out that this isn’t an admission that all I want out of a Summer Blockbuster is cheap thrills and loud explosions. Story matters too. Story matters because without it, the Summer Blockbuster does feel like an empty experience. With a good story you remember the action scenes in context to a story you have immersed yourself in and have bonded with.

And then, of course, there’s the idea that a Summer Blockbuster is an event. Audiences line up outside the theater. Billboards, commercials, tie-in products reach a critical mass. The movie becomes so ubiquitous that it is inescapable. This sort of culture does not lend itself to high dramas like Atonement.

Keeping this in mind, there’s no better Summer Blockbuster than Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  T2 has a lot going for it as a Summer Blockbuster.

One, it is a sequel. Right now sequels, prequels, franchises are a bit tiresome because the market is over saturated with them. But flash back two decades ago, and the idea of a sequel was exhilarating. The idea that you were going to get even more adventures with characters from a pre-existing movie was awe inspiring. And as a sequel T2 understands a basic rule: bigger and better. The villain of the previous movie is now the hero? Awesome. The hapless waitress is now a badass militant? Amazing. The new villain is even scarier than the previous? Perfect. Story-wise instead of preventing one person’s death, now the plot is about preventing nuclear Armageddon. I’d argue that T2 is the movie that absolutely perfected the idea of sequels being bigger and better.

And just to reiterate: The story of T2 is captivating. Nothing about the action or movie as a whole feels empty.

Two, the special effects in the movie were revolutionary. Not only was T2 a bigger and better sequel, but as James Cameron is wont to do, his movie was a showcase for a new paradigm shift in computer effects. Every couple of years a movie comes along that reinvigorates the idea that cinema can take you to new worlds and show you new things. The CG involved with the T-1000 character was nothing short of mind blowing. The T-1000 could be considered the baseline test for our CG. If the CGI in a movie is worse than in T2, it has failed miserably. If it’s better then it can be considered a success. Of course, having good CG isn’t indicative of a good movie, but if 1991 technology can make the T2, then a modern movie better be at least at the same level.

Three, its epic scope. As mentioned before T2 is a great movie that feels like a ride. The story is about protecting the eventual savior of humanity, John Connor, and stopping a corporation from setting down a path leading to the apocalypse. As the story unfolds, the movie takes on this presence that feels enormous. As an audience member you are going along on this adventure to save humanity. Because the action feels mostly grounded (no spaceships, superheroes, or future tech; the action is all about guns and explosions), you feel such a strong connection to the movie. You feel like you are helping to save humanity.

What separates T2 from Jaws is simple: T2 was intentionally created to be a Summer Blockbuster. Jaws was a very, very happy accident. I have nothing against sleeper hits. I think it’s great when movies unexpectedly become massive hits. Even if I don’t particularly like the movie, it shows that you can never predict what sort of movie is going to strike a chord with audiences.

That said, I feel like the act of intentionally developing a movie to be epic in scope with lots of action, and a great story is much harder than making a movie that happens to become a huge hit. The former requires skilled filmmakers to craft a movie that hits all the requirements for a Summer Blockbuster. The latter is about making a movie and putting it in the hands of the audience to promote. No matter what type of movie it is, making a movie is hard, hard work. I just can’t help but think using a 100-200 million dollar budget to make a movie that does not suck is infinitely more challenging.

Jaws may be the granddaddy of all Summer Blockbusters. Just because it’s first, doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is the movie I use to check against all other Summer Blockbusters. It’s the perfect blueprint to follow. The action is bold, the story is sublime, the thrill of movie is unparalleled. It’s the ultimate Summer Blockbuster.

Harrison

Jaws

It’s very hard to root against Jaws as the best summer blockbuster. Not only was it one of the first summer blockbusters, (I’m going out on a limb to say that) it was one of the best films of all time.

Before I have to substantiate that claim, let’s talk about summer blockbusters. They began around the seventies (with Jaws and Star Wars being the earliest examles) and have continued since. The summer blockbuster is the high budget, tentpole feature that the studios base their budgets around. If a blockbuster does well, it can fund a whole lot of films. This years best examples are The Avengers (which will keep Disney afloat forever), The Dark Knight Rises (WB), and Skyfall (MGM/Paramount). These films will bankroll tons of other films if they perform as expected. What makes a good summer blockbuster involves two things: what we expect from them and what they do for the film industry. The second part is easy, they have to perform well at the box office to perform their function.  So let’s examine our expectations.

Summer blockbusters must do two things: entertain and provide an element of spectacle. In other words, the film must be visually appealing and good enough that most people enjoy. These categories are vague. I’m sorry, but it’s almost impossible to create a formula for summer blockbusters. If there was one Hollywood would have bored us with it by now. So at the very least blockbusters must occupy our eye, or contain an element of spectacle.

Spectacle literally means anything presented to the sight or view, especially something of a striking or impressive kind, Jaws succeeds. %%SPOILER ALERT%% The shark is something that modern film audiences take for granted but it was amazing when it debuted.  It allowed people to observe a 20-25 foot shark devour a human being. It was amazing.

Spectacle apparent  in both Terminator 2 and Jaws. So what makes Jaws better? I think it’s the story. Jaws gets to the heart of human struggle. Not only is it visually entertaining and financially successful but it displays the triumph of man against nature. Brody and Hooper triumph against a beast they never should have. It’s an epic struggle of good versus evil in its most blunt form. It’s also directed by one of the best in Steven Spielberg, who is an expert at getting people to feel emotions. It doesn’t hurt that John Williams composed and epic score that everyone knows.

Jaws is one of those films that happens every once and a while where it puts its fingers on the pulse of a culture. It’s an amazing escape from the summer heat into a summer environment where man is pitted against nature in a fight to the death for the right to swim in the ocean.

Happy swimming.

Josh E.

Moving Beyond Genre

I am a Mad Men fan. I have tried to explain my Mad Men fandom to multiple people with no luck because Mad Men is such a specific show, it resists a one line explanation. Now I direct people to this great NY mag piece by Matt Zoller Seitz about what Mad Men is about. In a flustered attempt to catch up on Mad Men this concept kept coming back to me Mad Men is the without a genre.

Before we get to genre-less things we should try and get a handle on what genre actually is. Genre is often thought of as a way to classify films, after the fact. However it’s important to note that every viewer has a rolodex in their mind of genre conventions. We use these conventions in our mind to sort through elements of the movie. When a film that doesn’t follow these rules it is exhilarating because in part, it breaks with genre. An audiences acumen to accumulate rules is grand.

Genre is something that used to be easily defined: monster movies were horror films, funny films were comedies, and serious films were dramas. As audiences became aware of these genre became specific: the comedy got the romantic comedy and the screwball comedy and the generic ensemble comedy’ the scary film got separated into the sci-fi film the horror film and the thriller; and the serious films were separated into period pieces, and the normal dramas.

Then something happened. Genres began to (for lack of a better word) mate. It’s easy for me to say that we went entered the modernist/post-modernist era but that does leave out a lot of the practical side of the movie business.

This isn’t the first example of a genre bending film but it’s an example of an extremely profitable genre bending film. It was top ten in 1982. Audiences enjoyed the melding of action and comedy because it defied expectation. However Hollywood isn’t about defying expectation. The movie business is a business of copycats–because the combination of Eddie Murphy and your typical cop movie worked more of these genre bending films appeared. Including some action hits:

It also spawned wise-cracking cops in the 1980s actions scenes. Eddie Murphy continued with BHC1-3 and Bruce Willis joined the party as John McClane in 1988. This trend continued and evolved as audiences got bored with the buddy cop dynamic the industry started to blend other genres together:

From Dusk till Dawn is an excellent example of how genre bending can work and create an interesting movie and how limited it is. The first plays genre against you, which is what Tarantino does all of the time. It starts as a action/thriller with a relatively unproven George Clooney (first real film lead role) and Tarantino himself as cons running for the border when they stop at a vampire infested biker bar. The film blends the action comedy (buddy cons instead of cops) with the horror film. I enjoy this film but it’s jam packed, any more genre bending and it would cease to work. Some didn’t like it when they saw it because it was too strange or too sudden of a genre change.

This leads to today: we’re at a point where genre has been almost thoroughly exhausted. These categories don’t mean anything anymore. Let’s look at the weekend’s box office as an example.


Avengers

It’s a film about a group of people fighting crime (action film). They have super powers (comic book film). They jockey for position in the group and make fun of each other (screwball comedy). They fight a Norse God and an army from outerspace (sci-fi film).


Men In Black III

It’s a two cops, one plays a straight man one is a “comedian” (buddy cop action/comedy in true 48 Hours tradition). They investigate alien mysteries (sci-fi film).


Snow White and the Huntsman

A princess freed from captivity by a supernatural queen leads an army against her to save her land. There’s a love triangle too.(fairy-tale, supernatural, romance, epic, action, adventure…) You catch my drift.

We are in an age where potentially anything goes in cinema, which is in one sense freeing and the other sense incredibly debilitating. The problem is that audiences demand new and different and exhilarating and the business model of the industry is the back of a shampoo bottle. Debut existing property, see if it makes money, repeat (sequels, prequels and spinoffs). That’s why there seems to be a ho hum feeling coming out of many movies these days. You know that “it was okay” instead of awesome or brilliant.

If we let go of conventions can we still be exhilarated by it? The answer is yes, at the end of the day a good story is a good story or a good performance is a good performance and audiences will flock to see good stories. Cinema is evolving away from convention and genre itself and moving toward real life. This is what has already happened in television and why Mad Men and Breaking Bad will continue to have audiences and be the water cooler talk. These dramas (the Emmy category only) are able to breach multiple genres because they are being written as stories with real human characters in unique situations. This is what cinema has to try to do. It has to focus on stories that are intriguing and original not massive and filled with set pieces. Nothing against large tent-pole pictures and set pieces, but until cinema realizes that it’s fallen behind tv as the best drama around.

Josh E.