Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Stan Winston: Farewell to a Legend.

Stan Winston was responsible for more of my childhood nightmares than anyone else in the motion picture business - and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. The robotically methodical, yet gleefully sadistic velociraptors from Jurassic Park. The grotesque titular beast in Predator, whose tusk-mouthed, dredlock-topped puss made Arnold Schwartzenegger's assessment ("You ah wahn ahgly mathafucka!") the understatement of the century. The hideous Penguin from Batman Returns, whose physical corruption mirrored his moral decay, though he still remained oddly sympathetic. Most terrifying of all, of course, was the Queen from Aliens - even as a 21-year-old today, I still think there are few scenes as underwear-shittingly nightmarish as when Sigourney Weaver first walks into her lair, and comes face to face with the fat, insect-like matriarch of the whole colony, sitting comfortably on her sinewy throne, squeezing eggs out of her engorged abdomen.

As little Newt said in the film, "mommy always said there were no monsters - no real ones - but there are." Truly this is something that everyone my age who grew up watching Stan Winston's cinematic monsters can relate to. As much as our parents tried to convince us that these creatures were merely imaginary, built by the skilled hands of Hollywood special effects artists, there was still a degree of unease that remained, even when we re-watched the films in question, for with Stan Winston's creations, you never saw the strings. Unlike the beautifully rendered but unmistakably fake cyclopses and hydras of Ray Harryhausen, or the fun but never truly scary giant monsters of the patented Japanese rubber suit variety, with Stan Winston, you never had to suspend your disbelief. It wasn't necessary. His monsters looked so convincing that you never saw a special effect. You saw a living, breathing, terrifying thing.

That is not to say that Mr. Winston and his talented team of artists only exceeded at creating horrific nightmare creatures - he was also responsible for Johnny Depp's iconic Edward Scissorhands makeup, the reinvisioned versions of the classic Universal monsters in the cult favorite The Monster Squad, the robots in the massively underrated Artificial Intelligence, and most recently, Robert Downey Jr.'s armored suit in Iron Man. As special effects today continuously lean towards more cost-effective but very rarely convincing CGI images, artists of Stan Winston's caliber are sadly a dying breed. Mr. Winston left countless unforgettable images on our collective psyches, and he will be sorely missed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
is not a masterpiece. It will never be confused with Citizen Kane or Ikiru or even There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men. And its sole reason for being made seems to be to remind moviegoers that it has no reason to be. It is a purely fun, action-packed adventure - a cinematic ice cream sundae smothered in the hot fudge of nostalgia.

The Indiana Jones series was born out of nostaligia - Spielberg and Lucas set out to create a modern update of the cliffhanger serials they had loved in their youth. Thankfully, they made Raiders of the Lost Ark in a time before DVD, so they weren't able to revisit Ace Drummond or The Jungle Menace to use them as reference points. The reason Raiders is so much better than any of the 30's and 40's serialized adventures - even the very best ones directed by the gifted and underrated William Witney - is because Spielberg and Lucas had a rose-tinted view of said films, having watched them before the jadedness of adulthood kicked in.

How fitting then, that the cycle should continue, and the Indiana Jones series would become such an enormous part of my generation's childhood. Like so many other movies in my life, I am completely unable to look at them objectively in any way - they are so intrinsically tied to my own nostalgia. I often wonder if, for example, what I might think of films like The Goonies and Beetlejuice if I had never seen them before, and were watching them today, at the age of 21. I saw Star Wars when the trilogy was re-released in theaters at the age of nine, and it is the reason I decided to become a filmmaker - but I wonder if I saw it for the first time right now, would I think it was ridiculous and silly? I would like to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a strong enough film that it would still enthrall and captivate my hypothetical, somewhat cinematically ignorant, alternate-universe self - but I really have no way at all knowing.

Crystal Skull is seemingly made for viewers exactly like me. Nobody who didn't grow up loving and idolizing Indiana Jones has any business seeing this movie. This is our party, and they're just not invited. Although Spielberg's direction seems to indicate a faint air of bittersweetness that audiences are more interested in seeing him make popcorn films than uncompromising, adult fare like Munich (indicated at the very start of the film, as the Paramount logo fades into a mound of dirt surrounding a gopher hole), he still seems happy to be back in the saddle again, as we are right along with him.

Nobody has tried to hide the fact that a decade and a half has passed since Last Crusade, and yet the film still has heaps of nostalgia for the Eisenhower era. We revisit American Graffiti's universe of malt shops, greasers, poodle skirts and leather jackets, while replacing the Nazis as foes are the two things it seemed everyone in America was most frightened of in the 50's - Commies and little green saucermen. For all the fuss people whipped up about how Harrison Ford would fare in the role as an "old man," every doubt was pretty much rendered moot from the moment he first appears onscreen. Indiana Jones was always rather cranky, sarcastic, and world-weary, and if anything, he only seems to have grown into those qualities. He has one of those faces that doesn't seem to have gotten wrinkly, just more leathery and weatherbeaten. Like Clint Eastwood, he is one of those actors who will never cease to be a pillar of cool. The hat still fits.

The titular crystal skull feels like something of a macguffin, more like the mystical glowing stones in Temple of Doom than the more metaphorically weighted quests for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in the first and third films. Having said that, it is still one hell of a fun adventure with almost everything you'd hope for. John Hurt and Ray Winstone's supporting characters are a trifle underwritten, and it was a bit much to see Shia LaBouf swinging through the jungle vines like Tarzan, calling on the aid of his monkey friends during a lethal jeep chase. But, to paraphrase the second-greatest Harrison Ford character, the film has "got it where it counts, kid." Where it really counts, here, is the love story between Indy and Marion, which couldn't have been handled better. From their first meetup after many years and the continuous barrage of Hawksian banter that flies back and forth from thereon afterwards, you know it was fated to be - as if there was any doubt anyway. And Karen Allen still looks beautiful, by the way - it's a testament to how much so that when she was standing right next to Cate Blanchett, who plays a Russian-accented, saber-wielding dominatrix with a Louise Brooks haircut, all I could think to myself was "Damn, Karen Allen is so gorgeous!"

It's not a film for critics, for Spielberg naysayers who go in hoping to see a fluffy mess (of which there are many - and if you ask me, they are the same people, who had they been around in the 50's, would've lambasted Hitchcock for being too user-friendly), and it's not even a movie that will please all Indiana Jones fans. But for me, it was a blast, and made me feel like I was ten again, which is what I believe is exactly what it set out to do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Happy Friday the 13th!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Review: Mother of Tears

What exactly went wrong with Dario Argento's latest offering? The conclusion of his "evil mothers" trilogy which also includes his masterwork Suspiria and the underrated Inferno leaves a great deal to be desired. It makes the viewer wonder if the great Italian horror maestro simply called "action" and then walked outside for a smoke or to get a pack of cheez-its from the vending machine. It's still early yet, but I'm willing to label Mother of Tears the biggest cinematic disappointment of 2008. In fact, I'd even be willing to call it one of the lousiest films I've ever had the misfortune of seeing in a theater.

Anyone who's seen any of his films will be able to tell you that plot and character development aren't Mr. Argento's strong points. Most of his films are full of gaping plot holes, with wooden performances by actors reciting dialogue that could've been penned by George Lucas in full-on Attack of the Clones mode. But that doesn't matter. The real reason to see an Argento film is the atmosphere - indeed, his 70's and 80's pictures are some of the few horror films that can be considered masterpieces of the genre due to atmosphere alone. Utilizing an acrobatic camera, a gorgeously poisoned-candy color palette, and some truly Rube Goldbergian death scenes, Argento movies operate not on a sense of regular logic, but a weird, nightmarish dream logic.

This is the problem with Mother of Tears. It doesn't look like an extravagant madman's nightmare. It looks like an episode of CSI. Whether this was intentional on Argento's part to ground the film in realism, or if he's simply getting sloppy as he gets older, the film is a visual bore, devoid of any of the wonderful atmosphere he brought to his earlier pictures. The visual ugliness causes us to focus instead on the plot, which is exactly where your attention shouldn't be focused when watching a Dario Argento movie. Those who previously hailed the man as one of the finest living horror directors, who would rather turn to their Anchor Bay DVD copies of Deep Red and Opera than blow their disposable income on the latest entries of the Saw franchise, will, after seeing Mother of Tears, find themselves cast into the abyss. The legions of Fangoria readers who uphold Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake as a pinaccle of modern horror will soon be at their door, torturing them with the jeering chant of "where's your Messiah now!?!"

Where was I?

Mother of Tears opens when a construction crew discovers a wooden trunk buried outside a rural cemetery. The priest sends the box to his associate Michael, the curator of the Rome Museum of Ancient Art. Upon opening the box, one of his interns is pounced upon by demons and strangled with her own innards. Her death doesn't look like an "Argento moment," but more like a clumsily-lensed third-rate Fulci imitator.

After the box is opened, a wave of violence spreads over Rome (i.e., small groups of unpaid extras appear to have been offered donuts in exchange for pretending to strangle each other). Groups of witches, who look like they took a time machine from a 1985 Siouxsie and the Banshees concert start arriving at the airport. As we come to understand, this is all the doing of the mostly-nude titular Third Mother. Meanwhile, Asia Argento slowly learns that she has psychic powers, such as being able to open doors with her mind, and to appear invisible if she concentrates real hard and rubs her temples. She is egged on by the hovering specter of her mother, a la Chef Linguini in Ratatouille. She also takes her clothes off and takes a shower, which seems a little odd in a film directed by your old man. I wonder what her home life was like.

Udo Kier, who shows up in a brief cameo, and an evil monkey, respectively, give the best performances in the film. Makes me wish the pair of them had stuck around longer. Argento looks genuinely confused and sometimes stoned, and everyone else seems to be reading their lines off of cue cards. Argento seems to have tried to attempted to inject the low-key immediacy of The Exorcist into a Fulci-styled end-of-the-world film, but Mother of Tears lacks the firm grounding in reality that Friedkin's film has, and Argento can't really come close to the genuine misanthropy and mean-spiritedness that raised Fulci's work above the rest of the crop. You can't fault a director for trying something new, but truly there seems to have been something in Argento's mind that did not successfully make it to the screen. It's something I'd really only reccomend to fans of the director, if they want to see how badly a great genre filmmaker can go wrong.