Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Breakers (2012)

I grew up during the heyday of MTV culture. In fact, my graduating high school yearbook sold out to MTV and ran a series of pop culture ads - right in the back of the yearbook! And though I always regarded MTV culture with a certain disdain - it seemed to represent to me a celebration of the sort of douchebag jock culture that I, an introverted nerd, grew to despise - I was always, unerringly, captivated by the whole "spring break" theme. Not unlike how I worshipped (in the days before I discovered internet porn) Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition, even as I had virtually no interest in sports and, thus, the rest of Sports Illustrated's regular issues. Spring break was all about hot girls in (and out of) bikinis, on tropical beaches, listening to live music. (I ignored the drugs and alcohol because those two things never interested me much).

In short, it was the place to be - especially from the perspective of a hormonal teen who didn't get enough attention from the ladies. And Girls Gone Wild was basically the porn version of that - hot chicks getting naked and doing sexy things while on the ultimate vacation of their young lives. Although I never got a hold of any actual GGW footage (I was still too young during the time I was aware of it to purchase it legally), I do remember staying up for their infomercial advertising slots late at night on frequent occasions, to let my horny imagination run wild with the teaser clips and censored shots they would run on television.

But the spring break theme wasn't the only thing drawing my attention to Spring Breakers. In any sexy movie about college coeds, a certain quota of debauchery is expected. But instead of casting known bad girl actresses, the cast list to this movie boasts several actresses with innocent, good girl reputations. We have Selena Gomez of Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place and Vanessa Hudgens of Disney's High School Musical, as well as Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars. And the fourth girl to round out the cast is the writer/director Harmony Korine's own wife Rachel. Aside from the creative benefits, this was also a brilliant marketing decision, because it gives the Disney girls a chance to reinvent their public image and show the world they've grown up. Lots of people are drawn to the spectacle of corrupted innocence, whether for pure or prurient reasons. And for these girls to be doing a movie like this - I count it a victory for those of us who court with the dark side of life.

Spring Breakers is the dramatic and sexy tale of four college girls trying to break out of the dull monotony of their lives. Spring break is their ticket to escape and freedom, and they'll get there even if they have to rob a diner to fund the trip. But it doesn't end there. They find themselves in jail after a wild party gets raided, and it's James Franco's rapper/gangsta with a heart of gold, self-styled as 'Alien', who bails them out. He likes these girls, but one by one they are whittled down to just the hardest, who can not only stand Alien's hustlin' lifestyle, but actually thrive in it. The audience is treated to quite a show of debauchery, not just involving the swingin' spring breakers' copious intake of sex and drugs, but all the money and guns the local criminal underground hoards and holds onto.

My first impression of Spring Breakers - aside from being pleased by all the exposed flesh - was a feeling that it should have been more Girls Gone Wild and less Gangster Paradise. Take the character of Faith (Gomez) for example. She's the odd girl out, being the most innocent and chaste of the group. She's religious, yet she seems to have no qualms about indulging in drugs and alcohol, and the general party atmosphere of spring break. I thought that was a nice opportunity to point out the hypocrisy, or general hollowness, of religion. But she's the first to bail out when Alien introduces the girls to Florida's criminal underground. She finds a spirituality in the beauty of the beach, and her friendship with the other girls, and the exceptionally enthusiastic mood of the spring breakers. But her stay in paradise is cut short when the going gets rough, and she decides to run back home.

But for a movie about partying and debauchery, Spring Breakers is surprisingly sincere and complex. My appreciation of its themes was greater upon second viewing. At first glance, Alien is a pathetic white gangster, whose immoral idealism idolizes a life of crime, who equates success and power with amassing obscene quantities of guns and money. And yet he manages to be sympathetic, and a lot of the fear and tension I felt at first before I really got to know Alien, changed to curiosity and concern when I saw how much he really did care for these girls. On the other hand, a deeper look reveals the cold, calculating cruelty of two of the girls in the group, who are likely sociopaths, and seem to be natural born criminals.

The movie does play very much like a fever dream, perhaps an homage in parts to the days of music video pop culture. Scenes are played, sometimes repeated, dialogue sometimes overlaid, not always in direct chronological order. But there's a sense of purpose to it. And a sort of sensitivity, an existential mood, permeates it all, so that even though these characters are committing crimes and dealing in debauchery, you feel for them and their search for the meaning in their lives. And yet it still concerns you - even scares you - when you see just how far some of them will go, can go, want to go, to satisfy their craving for excitement and adventure. But, nevertheless, it's one wild, endearing ride.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Masters of Horror: Season One (2005)

Masters of Horror is a series of one-hour short films that ran on Showtime, directed by many of the seminal horror directors of our time. The idea originated from a series of cordial dinner outings shared by a group of directors (many of which are represented in this series) spearheaded by Mick Garris. The project is unique in that it gives each director a clean slate to work from, to produce a short film in ten days, with practically nonexistent interference from any studios or higher-ups, to be run on television. I have just finished watching the first season, so I will review each of the episodes below. It may be worth noting that I did not watch the episodes in the order that they aired, but rather in the apparently random order they came in my box set.

Title: Jenifer
Director: Dario Argento
You might remember his film...Suspiria (1977)

Premise: Steven Weber stars in a screenplay he wrote based on a short comic about a man's unhealthy obsession with a feral creature that possesses the body of a beautiful woman, coupled with a monstrous face.

Opinion: I suppose I was expecting something a little more "colorful" from Dario Argento, but Jenifer left me feeling kind of lukewarm. It's a good story, and I really like that it approaches the topic of sex and sexual obsession, but the story really isn't that deep, and you can pretty much see where it's going after the first five minutes. Still, it is an interesting premise, although I'm not convinced that the male libido is so strong that a man would protect a carnivorous monster just because she's got a great rack, unless there's something supernatural at work. Dario brings his Italian sensibilities to the picture, which means he's not squeamish about the marriage of sex and violence like so many Americans are, although the result is that he was one of the only directors on the project who had to make a few cuts to his picture. In spite of the theme and the unflinching gore, I found this episode struggling to lift itself above "TV anthology horror" quality.

Title: Cigarette Burns
Director: John Carpenter
You might remember his film...Halloween (1978)

Premise: Norman Reedus (Daryl on The Walking Dead) stars as a cinephile and rare film finder hired to track down an obscure French film (La Fin Absolue du Monde, "The Absolute End of the World") which is rumored to have the power to whip everyone who watches it up into a mad frenzy of ultraviolence.

Opinion: I was genuinely impressed with this episode, which kept my attention glued to the screen throughout. Credit goes to the actors and director, of course, but also to the story, which, as an artist keenly attentive to issues of censorship and the power of art over people's lives, I found to be utterly fascinating. I agree with the director that the idea of a film being a weapon that induces violence is cockamamie, but as a fantasy it thrills the mind, and this episode explores under what fictional consequences might such a thing actually be possible. It is, in a Cartesian sense, a horrible vision of the natural progression of the idea that art moves people. Furthermore, it plays on the excitement every film buff experiences when in search of rare and infamous films.

Title: Pick Me Up
Director: Larry Cohen
You might remember his film...It's Alive (1974)

Premise: Two very different but equally charismatic serial killers match wits against one another when they both encounter a bus full of travelers broken down by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

Opinion: I wasn't familiar with Larry Cohen going into this episode so I didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be really excellent. The two killers - one a hitchhiker and the other a trucker (named Walker and Wheeler) - are both really captivating on screen, and despite being villains, become your favorite characters. I suppose that means this episode isn't all that scary, as you're never particularly rooting for their victims, but it is lots of fun. You get to see their two different approaches to the trade, and how they clash when they both set eyes on the same prey. Very much recommended.

Title: Incident On And Off A Mountain Road
Director: Don Coscarelli
You might remember his film...Phantasm (1979)

Premise: A woman tries to escape a mutant serial killer in the mountains after a car accident, while thinking back on her relationship with the man who taught her the survival skills she'll need to stay alive.

Opinion: A fairly straightforward premise proves to be a rather clever and interesting juxtaposition of storylines, chronicling the lead actress' evolving relationship with a survivalist, and how those experiences have given her the knowledge and confidence to face her life-threatening chase through the woods with strength and ingenuity. For once, we get a heroine who is not helpless - even if some of her MacGyver-meets-The-Goonies antics (challenge: build a tripwire slingshot with a stick, a pocket knife, a pair of panties, and a length of skirt, and do it in the dark, before that deformed homicidal psycho catches up to you!) at times stretch the audience's credulity - that ultimately leads to a fresh and original ending. The balance of suspense and comfort between the two interposed storylines is handled exceptionally well. If this episode did not engage me quite as enthusiastically as Pick Me Up or Cigarette Burns, in the end it proves itself to be a worthy addition to the Masters of Horror series.

Title: Homecoming
Director: Joe Dante
You might remember his film...The Howling (1981)

Premise: The dead rise - but it's not brains, it's suffrage they want in this political satire condemning the Bush administration's unpopular war in Iraq.

Opinion: One of the great things about Masters of Horror is that - especially in conjunction with the DVD special features - it places an emphasis on the director, giving him more of a character and a personality than you might get by just watching movies through the years. Joe Dante was an unfamiliar name to me, but in addition to working on the Roger Corman-spearheaded Jaws knock-off Piranha, he also directed one of my favorite werewolf movies - the classic The Howling - as well as Gremlins, which, despite its comedic approach, gave me nightmares when I watched it as a child. Even though politics isn't really my thing, I respect Joe Dante for having the guts to tell a story with such a blatant political agenda. And despite it's - what some may call 'preachiness' - it's pretty entertaining, too. Although the premise's requirement that the zombies be sympathetic and not frightening characters detracts from its horror value, it does on the other hand present a refreshingly original (if irretrievably dated to the Bush administration) take in what has become an oversaturated subgenre of horror.

Title: Chocolate
Director: Mick Garris
You might remember his film...Stephen King's The Stand (1994)

Premise: The mastermind behind Masters of Horror Mick Garris writes and directs this psychological horror about a man who develops a psychic connection with a woman and is able to experience her feelings and sensations from the inside out.

Opinion: When I started watching Masters of Horror, the main question that hung on my mind was, knowing TV's reputation compared to film, could these master filmmakers manage to create a series whose quality exceeded that which one would expect from a TV anthology show? And so far, the evidence has been pointing overwhelmingly to "yes". Chocolate, despite being more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror, is no exception. In fact, it manages to conjure one of the creepier and more believable middle-of-the-night intruder-in-the-house scenes I can recall seeing. The premise is pretty interesting, and invokes a good bit of mystery, if it is a fairly arbitrary device to provide most of the piece's horror. Still, the character and his experiences are fascinating, and this story does include some sex and nudity. So, it's definitely no waste of an hour.

Title: Dreams In The Witch-House
Director: Stuart Gordon
You might remember his film...Re-Animator (1985)

Premise: In this adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story, a graduate student rents a room in an old house that is haunted by a witch hiding out in an alternate dimension who seduces victims into committing heinous deeds.

Opinion: I don't know whether to credit H.P. Lovecraft for the story - and his uniquely effective approach to horror - or Stuart Gordon (who has directed several other H.P. Lovecraft story adaptations in the past), but this episode of Masters of Horror was excellent. The crossing of these two minds is, perhaps, a match made in hell, as Gordon's approach to horror is equally impressive. He doesn't believe there is such a thing as "going too far", and he thinks the most effective horror stories are those where the creator breaks the rules, so you don't know what to expect (an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree). In this story, the life of an innocent baby is in jeopardy, a witch takes advantage of string theory (for real!) to manipulate space and time, and her familiar - a rat with a human face - crawls around creeping people out. Plus we get a glimpse of the Necronomicon! Leave it to Lovecraft to get the creative juices flowing: I feel inspired to finally get around to reading his stories, as well as checking out some of Stuart Gordon's other films.

Title: Dance of the Dead
Director: Tobe Hooper
You might remember his film...Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Premise: Robert Englund (the original Freddy Krueger) stars in this adaptation of a Richard Matheson story as the MC of a gothic night club in a war-torn, post-apocalyptic, urban wasteland.

Opinion: Jessica Lowndes is illuminating as the last piece of innocence in a land ravaged by chemical warfare, even as she is seduced and corrupted by a group of punk thugs. This story is a dark and energetic look at an apocalyptic world where everyone has lost something, and few have the luxury to cling onto any sense of decency or morality. It's a pretty good story, but I unfortunately have to count the erratic cinematography against it. I know Tobe Hooper (who also directed Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist) has good reasons for making that stylistic decision - and it does put you into the zero-to-sixty mindspace of these characters - but it really detracted from my enjoyment of the episode with the constant camera movement and double, triple, quadruple images. A more judicious use of that device might have proved less annoying, but at least, the quality of the material underneath that filter was very good.

Title: Deer Woman
Director: John Landis
You might remember his film...An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Premise: A Native American legend about a half-woman, half-deer seductress comes to life in this tale of a jaded police officer's hunt for redemption.

Opinion: As to be expected from the man who directed Animal House and The Blues Brothers, John Landis mixes some humor into his episode of Masters of Horror. But, I'm happy to say, it's an intelligent and straight-faced humor, that doesn't undermine the horror of the piece. In fact, I like what he said in the interview special feature about trying to approach [both comedy and] horror with realism - not in terms of the supernatural themes, but in terms of the character's reactions to what's going on; that also has the effect of making them both more likable and more relatable. In this case, the characters recognize the absurdity of the concept of a deer woman seducing and then murdering men, but they're forced to accept the premise by the evidence that appears before them, while the mythical killer's own credibility and dangerousness is not reduced by its statistical and scientific improbability. The result is a pretty fun, if silly, story - and in truth, horror isn't always about being scary, it's about having a good time, too.

Title: The Fair Haired Child
Director: William Malone
You might remember his film...House On Haunted Hill (1999)

Premise: A schoolgirl is abducted by a distraught couple to feed a monster they summoned in a Satanic ritual to bring back their drowned son.

Opinion: To be honest, this was the first episode in a while that I felt was struggling to lift itself above TV anthology quality (in spite of that premise). However, the monster was very creepy - thanks to an effective design and the director's unsettling use of camera tricks. It looked and felt almost like something that could have escaped from The SCP Foundation. There is also a surreal element to this episode, sometimes bordering on the absurd. It wasn't bad, at all, but the basement ordeal drags a bit, and the ending, while twisty, just has too much of a happy-positive feeling. The bad guys aren't supposed to get their comeuppance, and the good guys aren't supposed to live happily ever after - as rarely happens in real life - that's part of what makes a good horror so unsettling.

Title: Sick Girl
Director: Lucky McKee
You might remember his film...May (2002)

Premise: A quirky entomologist enters a sweet romance with an erratic artist, which is disturbed by an aggressive monster bug that impregnates humans.

Opinion: The odds are against Lucky McKee. He's one of the newest and least experienced directors called on to the Masters of Horror project, his episode's story - about a parasitic bug - could easily fall into TV anthology territory, and his episode is as much romantic comedy as it is horror. And yet, he manages to churn out one of the more entertaining episodes in this series. He decides to make the protagonist female, thus allowing himself the opportunity to tell a somewhat more unusual story of an endearing lesbian romance. And the actress opposite the lead is none other than Erin Brown a.k.a. Misty Mundae - my favorite softcore porn actress! I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw her in this role, and she was perfect for it! The constant presence of the bugs that the lead is so enamored with maintains a creepiness factor throughout the story, even before the real horror erupts - and when it does, it's suitably devastating. I'm really impressed with what this unfamiliar director has done with his opportunity to join the Masters of Horror, and I'm intrigued by the other directing projects he's done so far.

Title: Haeckel's Tale
Director: John McNaughton
You might remember his film...Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Premise: In this period piece adapted from a Clive Barker story, a man in mourning seeks the aid of a necromancer to bring back his deceased wife, and learns of the horror of love that transcends death.

Opinion: I was very excited to see Clive Barker's name attached to an episode of Masters of Horror, as he is an excellent writer, who writes disturbing and original stories. And John McNaughton succeeds at bringing this story to life, without shying away from the disturbing element of sexual perversity that flavors many of Barker's stories (not least of which includes the sadomasochistic overtones in Hellraiser). In this case, we have what I can enthusiastically report is the most erotic zombie sex scene I have ever seen, thanks in no small part to the casting of Leela Savasta who, as an art model, is not only comfortable with nudity, but possesses a flawless physical beauty. Other horror contained in this episode includes some re-animated dogs, which have that same excellently creepy feel as the dog in The Fly II which I love to fear so much. Additionally, the story is structured in a way - not unfamiliar in Clive Barker's stories - that it doesn't quite go in the predictable and cliched direction you might expect, instead ending up somewhere disturbing on a wholly novel level. Excellently done.

Title: Imprint
Director: Takashi Miike
You might remember his film...Audition (1999)

Premise: An American visits a notorious brothel in Meiji era Japan in search of his lost love. But the story he extracts from a prostitute gets increasingly disturbing the closer he comes to the truth.

Opinion: I had been looking forward to seeing Takashi Miike's episode of Masters of Horror ever since I started watching the series, after he impressed me with the deeply disturbing Audition years ago. Here, he does not disappoint. Imprint is easily the most unsettling episode in this series, which has the crucial distinction of being the only episode that Showtime wouldn't air. The setting of a seedy Meiji era brothel is intriguing, and the story just gets darker and darker as the protagonist plunges down the rabbit hole, delving into the past of one of the prostitutes - beautiful, in spite of her disfigured face - and her cohabitation with the woman he loved. The torture scene is brutally uncomfortable, in that uniquely subtle Japanese way, which distinguishes itself from the more aggressive American approach. I'm very happy that the Masters of Horror made a point to include a director to represent Asian horror in their series, and I couldn't be happier with their choice of Takashi Miike. If there is one complaint I have against this episode, it's that the actors' thick Japanese accents are at times hard to understand. I would just as soon have watched the episode in Japanese with English subtitles, but I understand this episode was filmed with an American audience distinctly in mind.

In conclusion, I can say that I am very impressed with the first season of Masters of Horror. It exceeded my modest expectations of a television anthology series, and lived up to its promise given the level of talent involved. Most importantly, I had a lot of fun watching these short films, and learning more about the directors behind the camera. Doing so has repeatedly sparked my inspiration, and led me to seek out many of the other titles several of these directors have previously worked on. I look forward to getting an opportunity at some point in the future to see the second season of Masters of Horror, and I urge all dedicated horror fans to give this series a look!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dragonslayer (1981)

Dragonslayer is unique, in that it is a Disney movie, and yet it is a gritty fantasy with gore, nudity, and adult themes. In fact, looking back on it from the perspective of today's media mentality, it is a wonder that this film is rated PG.

The story follows a sorcerer's apprentice who is tasked with slaying a mighty dragon who had been wreaking havoc upon the countryside until the nearest King entered a pact to supply it with a tasty virgin maiden every so often in exchange for peace. Each virgin is chosen by lottery, in a corrupt system where the rich and the noblemen's daughters are secretly spared from danger of being chosen. Naturally, some of the kingdom's residents would prefer that the dragon be gotten rid of altogether, and a sorcerer (or as may be necessary, his apprentice) is the only one with the power (and, perhaps, the courage) to attempt it.

Some of the special effects are, truthfully, dated by today's standards - after all, this movie was made before I was even born - however, the monsters are immaculate. The dragon itself is treated like a horror monster and not a fantasy creature - like it is in many other dragon movies - and is thus effectively frightening (think of the difference between the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and the titular monster in Carnosaur). The settings are gorgeous; having been filmed in Wales and Scotland, you get a very foggy Dark Ages kind of a medieval look, in contrast with New Zealand's almost otherworldly beautiful Middle-Earth look that is popular in fantasy today. And the fire lake where the dragon dwells looks totally awesome. It's incredibly inspiring for an imaginative mind like my own, especially one rooted in fantasy and monster-based horror.

The story even manages to evade many cliches, despite how straightforward the premise is. Your heroes are atypical, the wizard rather than the knight faces the dragon, and the princess - well, I'll leave that as a surprise. Plus, there is some very intriguing subtext concerning the decline of paganism - a spirituality that powers the mystic forces of both the dragon and the sorcerer's magic - and the usurping of Christianity, a hollow but powerfully vain and egotistical religion. Altogether I would say that Dragonslayer is most definitely a cult gem of the fantasy genre.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Walking Dead (PS3)

So I had the good fortune to play through The Walking Dead by Telltale Games, which I'm guessing is the first video game based on the acclaimed comic and now television series The Walking Dead. This game is based on the comics, and is not to be confused with the newer game, subtitled Survival Instinct, which features the fan favorite and original characters the Dixon brothers (Daryl and Merle) from the TV series.

The first thing you'll notice if you play this game is that it's not your typical zombie survival horror gaming experience. Unlike Resident Evil, where you go around killing zombies and exploring, picking up health and ammo and the like, this game plays more like an interactive drama (it's even split up into five "episodes"), where you get to make decisions about what to do and what to say, which allegedly changes the course of the story.

This is actually the game's biggest strength. Because in emphasizing the drama, emotional horror, and character dynamics, this game effectively gets at the heart of The Walking Dead series and what sets it apart from the myriad zombie stories that permeate the media. It sets out to ask the question, what would you choose to do when faced with difficult decisions in the zombie apocalypse? What's your plan? Who do you side with in your group? Do you trust strangers? Can you do what it takes to survive?

It's a really fun, really intense, and heartfelt gaming experience, where you have to guide your character, Lee Everett, a convicted murderer (it was a crime of passion) on his way to prison when the zombie apocalypse breaks out, while protecting the little girl Clementine who got separated from her parents, against all odds. As in The Walking Dead comic and television series, you meet new people during your journey for survival, some of them die, and then you meet some more - not all of them worthy of being trusted. And there are characters you'll come to hate, and other characters you'll come to love (all the more sad when it's their time to die).

If I have one main complaint against this game, it's that it doesn't have nearly the replay value you would expect, given its boast that the story adapts to the choices you make. The truth is, there's really only one storyline, and while your choices do affect dialogue and character interactions, and whether or not you survive to make the next decision, the broad strokes of the storyline are all set in stone. It seems the biggest decisions you can make are which characters' lives to save and when, and even then, it's always the secondary characters who have a minimal effect on the thrust of the story.

I realize that creating a game that changes based on the player's decisions is a massive work effort. I honestly do. It's almost like creating multiple games at the same time. And I suppose I'm spoiled by Japanese visual novels - of which Fate/Stay Night is an excellent example - where your decisions can lead to totally different story threads. At the very least, I would have expected The Walking Dead to have more than one ending, depending on your playing personality, but alas, there is not. I just think that maybe the way the creators advertised the effect your decisions have on the story could maybe have been clarified a little, because as it stands, it writes a check it can't deliver.

But this doesn't ruin what the game has going for it, which is a lot. If you treat the decisions not as "how will the story unfold", but "what choices will I make in the zombie apocalypse", it still serves to be a very exciting gaming experience. Will you be honest or lie to your group members? Will you help a stranger in need or leave him to his fate? Where do your loyalties lie? Will you be a friendly person or a dick? Do you follow your moral compass, or are all bets off in this new and terrible world? And I guarantee that many of these decisions will not be easy to make, or to follow through with. Plus, at the end of each episode, you get to measure your choices to select pivotal decisions against everyone else who has played the game, via stats that are compiled online.

In conclusion, The Walking Dead by Telltale Games is a worthy addition to the Walking Dead series, adding a parallel and standalone storyline to the main plot (featuring mostly original characters, but with a couple notable cameos), that successfully captures the mood and gravitas of the series. If you are a fan of The Walking Dead, and appreciate what it does differently from the endless stream of zombie stories coming out these days, or you are in the mood for an intense and horrific drama (there are no happy endings in the zombie apocalypse), then it would be well worth your time to give this game a play through.