Saturday, August 29, 2009

'I Love It When a Plan 9 Comes Together'

by Jason Pyles / August 29, 2009

Many people consider Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) to be, quite literally, the worst film ever made. Yes, it uniformly fits in with the other bad films we’ve been discussing — and yes, it’s poorly made, but I don’t consider it “the worst film ever made.”

[Huge digression regarding the concept of a movie being “the _____ movie ever made”:

Once I was reading Stanley Kauffmann, the legendary film critic for The New Republic. He scoffed at the audacity of judging a film the severest of all filmdom (for whatever reason, for better or for worse), since it is basically impossible to truly be qualified to make such a call, as no one has seen every film ever made. Indeed, since many films are lost or no longer exist, those facts alone make it an impossibility. But why quibble when we all understand the sentiment? Such classifications aren’t literal, anyway.]

Director Edward Wood Jr. is somewhat infamous for his filmmaking. He has been voted the “worst director of all time.” (See? We love making those distinctions.) In 1994, Tim Burton made a film called “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp in the title role. Perhaps we should also check that movie out at some point.

Despite its deplorable special effects and costumes, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” follows suit with the themes common to science-fiction films, such as the anxieties of man’s technological advancements and the chance they could go awry; hostile alien visitations; government conspiracies; etc. The 1950s were brim with sci-fi offerings that reflected anxieties of the Cold War and the ominous existence of nuclear weaponry.

So, I have to give “Plan 9” credit for its own metaphorical take on these worries, what with the aliens trying to save us from ourselves and our irresponsible, runaway science and our destructive, war-prone natures.

And what about this movie’s crazy, cross-genre blending? What we basically have here is a sci-fi, alien, zombie, vampire movie! Weird.

Yes, it’s a terrible-looking film with horribly clunky dialogue, but at least it has something akin to a plot, fitting for its era (which is more than I can say for the reprehensible “Urban Menace”). Even the utterly deplorable “Master of Disguise” movie had a little bit of a story.

“Plan 9’s” Achilles’ heel involves its production design and all the related duties: art, makeup, costumes. What killed me was the alien Eros’ Knights-of-the-Round-Table outfit. (Why would an alien who resents humans’ warring tendencies have a medieval battle-ax on his uniform?) And how about that junky, flea-market table that was aboard the alien spacecraft — you know, the set that looked curiously like the inside of a wood shed? Get it? “Wood” shed? Thus it was.

The flying saucers look hilarious, yes, but I also found them intriguing to watch — unconvincing, to be sure, but entertaining, nonetheless. Oh, and I have to commend the film’s sound department, Dale Knight and Sam Kopetzky: When the earthlings knocked on the outside of the spaceship, it really sounded like some kind of alien alloy. I was almost deluded into thinking it was a real ship ... that is, until they went inside.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Malibou’s Most Wanted Marlboro Man Is an Urban Menace

by Jason Pyles / August 25, 2009

It might seem like cheating to discuss them simultaneously, but here is a compare-and-contrast review of “Malibou’s Most Wanted” (2003), “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” (1991) and “Urban Menace” (1999).

First, a preface: This “worst movie series” (my dumb idea that nearly killed this blog if it weren’t for Andy), had a noble objective: In the quest for understanding what constitutes cinematic greatness, I was hoping a look at several bad movies would enable us to identify what makes terrible films so terrible. By contrast, one then should, theoretically, be able to gain insights into defining filmic excellence.

For me, the chasm between awful movies and exceptional ones has been made deeper and wider, thanks to this exercise. But even though I can blatantly perceive it, I’m just not sure that it has helped me to articulate such vast disparity any more clearly.

However, I noticed the distance between the quality of “Malibou,” “Marlboro” and “Urban” is much closer than the distance between these and any “excellent” film, so I find the differences easier to describe.

“Malibou” and “Marlboro” — ridiculous as they are — both have a story; whereas, “Urban’s” feeble narrative is so faint, it barely exists. No doubt, the budget for “Malibou” and “Marlboro” was comparable, while “Urban” obviously had no budget.

“Urban Menace,” a straight-to-video release, is a prime example of what happens when people who evidently know very little about filmmaking attempt to make a movie. A quick glance at the filmography of its creators, however, reveals some surprises, because these seemingly ignorant filmmakers should know better:

For instance, “Urban’s” director, Albert Pyun, has 45 directing credits to his name, according to the Internet Movie Database. You’d think that after 34 previous projects, even if he learned nothing technical about his trade, he’d have some instinct about which projects to reject. “Urban’s” production designer, Nenad Pecur, did some art direction for “Hannibal Rising,” “EuroTrip,” “The Pianist” and “Behind Enemy Lines,” so the only explanation seems to be that limited funding hindered Pecur.

As for its writers, Hannah Blue only has three other writing credits, Andrew Markell has only one other credit, and the third writer, Tim Story, who has only one other writing credit, also directed both “Fantastic Four” movies, which explains a lot. I’m not trying to be unfairly vicious, but “Urban’s” 72-minute runtime feels lengthy (even longer than the first “Fantastic Four”).

I’m not trying to personally attack (or wholly blame) these five filmmakers, because even after taking the auteur theory into favorable consideration, filmmaking is still a collaborative art. Many people own the shame that is “Urban Menace.” And that’s fine. Bad movies will be made, in order to get the great movies. If you want an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. “Urban Menace” is thoroughly broken.

Because my comments are becoming long-winded, I’ll wrap up by saying “Malibou’s Most Wanted” made me chuckle a few times. It was no more reprehensible than any other Saturday Night Live skit unwisely stretched into a feature film. “Malibou’s” greatest offenses were the instances when a couple of its actors over-extended the parody. These awkward moments produce that bizarre phenomenon where we, the viewer, inexplicably feel embarrassed.

“Marlboro Man” was mildly entertaining as a buddy-adventure-action movie, something akin to early ‘80s primetime TV, like “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “The A-Team.” I guess if I had a gun to my head, I’d say “Malibou” is the funniest, “Marlboro” is the most entertaining, and “Urban” is the worst of our series — thus far. I still need to watch Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outerspace” (1959) next, which is notorious for its legendary badness — often called “THE worst movie of all time.” I’ll return soon with my final verdict.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Universal Story: Some Thoughts on Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”

by Jason Pyles / August 24, 2009

We cannot underestimate the significance of the gulf that exists between a spectator and a film from a land that’s alien to said spectator. Embracing a movie made in one’s own culture is sometimes difficult enough — David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” (2001) provides case in point.

So when we Americans — namely, those who have been inundated for 25 years with the high-speed editing and brisk pacing from the so-called MTV generation — get to experience a work by director Yasujiro Ozu (he who was said to be “the most Japanese of directors”), we are likely to resist his gentle, leisurely story-telling.

(By the way, Ozu died on his 60th birthday, December 12, 1963. That always strikes me as particularly sad when someone goes out the day they came in.)

Speaking of sad, Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953) has an undercurrent of deep sadness that tends to stir its viewers to either feel reflective or regretful. “Tokyo Story” is about a couple who travel a considerable distance to visit their adult children and grandchildren in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the sojourners are mostly perceived as an inconvenience. As a result, their children try to whisk them away and pawn them off onto alternative entertainments, when the visitors only wanted to see their family.

The grandmother falls ill and dies, but really, that’s not what is so sad about this movie. What’s heart-breaking is the children’s apparent disregard for the value of their parents’ company, and such opportunities are perishable. The film makes it clear that the trip is somewhat arduous for the aged travelers, but they wanted to see their family, so it was worth the trip. Their visit was squandered, and when the old couple return home and she dies, the children take the time to go visit them.

My good, wise friend Fred Connors once said, “If you don’t come to see me in the hospital — don’t bother coming to see me at my funeral.” I bet most of us are guilty of too-late-now, after-the-fact attempts at visiting. That’s half of the masterstroke to Ozu’s film: It is a universal theme — we’re nuts about our parents when we’re young. As we become adults, they become an inconvenience. We can all relate. I’d bet just about everyone who sees this film can think of someone they should (or should have) spent more time with, “if tomorrow never comes.”

Now, if this theme of neglecting our loved ones and not returning the favor to take care of them speaks loudly to us Americans, think of how this film must play to Japanese audiences, a culture known for revering and valuing its elderly.

The other half of the film’s power comes from its understatement. In traditional Hollywood films, when a dramatically significant moment occurs — think of any one instance of mistreatment in this film — Hollywood would underscore it with emotional, swelling music and zoomed-in reaction shots. Not Ozu. The hurtful elements of his scenes unfold so subtly, it’s almost as if Ozu looks away, because the moment is a little too painful. Regret knows no international boundaries, and neither does “Tokyo Story.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

“Blood Simple.”: Not So Simple

by Jason Pyles

Without question, my favorite movie scenario is the predicament of having to deal with a dead body.

It really doesn’t matter to me if the person trying to dispose of the body is innocent or guilty of the murder; it’s my vicarious experience of the absolute panic that bursts upon the character once the gravity of the situation sinks in that stirs and excites me. Bodies are very difficult to dispose of, I would assume, and getting caught and going to prison is a fate possibly worse than death. (I love the first half of “Very Bad Things” for this same reason.)

And I appreciate it when films attempt to portray how heavy a dead body would be. Think about how hurried and rushed you’d feel while trying to get rid of the incriminating evidence, but because of the “dead weight,” you’d be going very slowly trying to heft and maneuver it. That’s like those nightmares where you can’t run. It’s no wonder people start chopping them up, but then you’re stuck with lots more blood!

I know. It’s sick and morbid to think about, but if you really put yourself in the character’s position, these types of movies can be a tense experience.

In “Blood Simple,” when Ray first decides that he’s going to try to take care of Marty’s body, he tries to wipe up the blood (in the dumbest way possible). But that blood just seems impossible to ever clean up.

Obviously, “Blood Simple.” is a fine example of what’s called “neonoir,” or new film noir. Naturally, the term “film noir” means “black film,” which was the term French film critics gave the bleak, treacherous Hollywood crime films of the 1940s. Films Noirs (that’s the correct plural) have a male anti-hero, who is, as Ronald Bergan’s “Film” book puts it, “a weak man whose life is ruined when caught up in a web of passion, deceit, and murder by a ... femme fatale,” which literally means “deadly woman.”

And though Frances McDormand’s apparently sweet, dim-witted Abby character seems to be the most innocent one of the cast, she is fatal to the three men around her. She is clearly a femme fatale, and “Blood Simple.” is clearly an excellent film.

A Note of Interest About “Blood Simple.”: According to ioncinema, as of June 23, 2009, Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”) is doing a remake of “Blood Simple.” But why? It doesn’t need to be redone — it was done right the first time.

An Uninteresting Note About Me: I’m tired of letting Andy show me up on this blog. He has written about nearly every film — in an intelligent and timely manner, I might add — so I’m getting back on my horse and stepping up to the bar he has raised. After all, I wouldn’t want The New York Times to come looking for a new film critic and have them pluck Andy right off this site because I was asleep at the job to give him a run for his money. So I vow to do better and catch up (much like I vowed a few months ago), but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to wield terminology like “paramour.” That’s some fancy stuff, Andy.

Blood Simple by Andy

Did I mention how nice it is to be done with the awful movies section of our blog (ok, I've got one more to go)?

Do the Cohen brothers like to have random events and plot turns in their movies or what? "Blood Simple" is another great example of why the Cohen brothers are different. "Blood Simple" is a much less complicated story than "No Country for Old Men," but it's the same basic idea. One character decides to do something nefarious and hilarity, insanity, and unpredictability ensue. I honestly don't know what more to say about it.

One of my favorite parts (other than the knife through the hand) was when the paramour was burying the husband and low and behold husband had the gun (which ironically he had given wife and which PI had used to shoot husband) and he pulls the trigger to defend himself to no avail. Because it was a Cohen brothers film, you didn't really know whether it was going to go off or not. Brilliant.

comments by Andy

Tokyo Story, as watched by Andy

So as some of you know, I have a "tendency" to fall asleep and/or doze off while watching films anytime after 2pm. It's kind of my fault - I often times put in a movie just so I can fall asleep. Anyway, as Jason suggested this movie, he also gave me a warning that I needed to be well-rested and not watch it in the late afternoon or evening. Basically, this movie is really really slow.

Here's the deal though: "Tokyo Story" was almost refreshingly slow. It felt like it was paced for real life, and the characters were able to develop quite differently than in other movies. It seems to me (and I'm no film student) that characters in a modern movie are generally developed through nuance or dialog specifically aimed at developing a character. "Tokyo Story" seemed different to me. It seemed that the characters were developed throughout the film as events unfolded. It wasn't that the characters changed, it was just that you knew more about the individual characters based on how they reacted in a particular instance.

As slow as the movie was, and it was slooowwww, it's pace was necessarily slow to give the character development needed to unfold the very human and tragic story it told. None of the characters were caricatures (as in many films), and yet the real humanity of the children showed how rotten and selfish most of us really are, and how much it sucks to get old and rely on others.

On a personal note, I'm only 32 and I know what it's like to stay in a hotel that is catering to a demographic years younger than you are. My wife and I stayed in a hostel in Munich, Germany, and the noise went on all night long. It was so bad I got up in the middle of the night and started pounding on doors to shut people up (to no avail). I very much felt what our film's patriarch felt at the spa.

comments by Andy

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Malibu's Most Wanted, by Andy

This was a terrible movie, and maybe it was because so many of the others have been so bad, but I didn't hate it. I like Jamie Kennedy. I think the premise of the movie was funny, and other than the gangster arc juxtaposing the political arc, I thought the movie was a logical choice to make.

The biggest criticism I have of the movie is of Kennedy's character. I buy that there are kids in Malibu who think they are gangsters but that live in million dollar homes and drive around hummers. Those kids exist, I think. But those kids in some small way do gangster stuff. They pick on other people, do drugs, own guns, etc. We are meant to believe that Kennedy's character was all gangster, except that he didn't actually do anything gangster-ish. And neither did his friends. It's too much.

I did like some of the acting in the movie. I though Kennedy did a good job with the character he played, and I also thought that Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson played very believable Hollywood actors turned pretend gangster.

by Andy

Shark Attack 3: Megalodon by Andy

I'm sort of ashamed to say, but I think I saw the original Megalodon movie. It was a huge shark that they couldn't contain in a net or something. It was equally as stupid. And I'm guessing that the "scientists" from that movie didn't tell the scientists from this movie that Megalodons were still alive. Shame too. So many lives lost.

This movie was soooo bad... The producers obviously tried to follow a common pattern, but their plot and dialog was just laughable. The actors were good-looking enough I guess, but the words that actually came out of their mouths were just ridiculous.

Here's the major problem with the movie - terrible special effects. To pull off what was essentially a 60 ft great white, they took stock footage of a much smaller great white and then just did a little photo shop to put in the people, boats, and whatever else the fish decided to eat. And it ate a lot towards the end. The shark was so incredibly large compared to the stuff it ate I started to laugh mid-munching. It ate a full speed boat and a jetski. Right. A 60 foot fish eats a 16 foot motor boat (which is a very small motor boat) in one gulp. Sure, if by 60 foot you mean 200+ foot. And a 200 foot shark would have been fine if they'd spent all of their money and had at least one decent graphic. In my church group the kids make movies every year and I've seen 15 year olds put together better special effects!

Anyway, I want my hour and a half back.

by Andy