Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Final Halloween-stination II

I wasn’t particularly thrilled by this summer’s lineup of major releases. Yes, The Hurt Locker and Ponyo were great movies that happened to come out during the summer, that's not what I'm talking about. What I am referring to are the megabudget action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero blockbustery movies we get every year, or the major-release comedies. I loved Up and Inglourious Basterds, and they sort of fit the profile, but they were a little more off-beat, a little more interested in doing their own thing. Last year we got The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and Hellboy 2. What did we get this year?

The Hangover was funny, but not something I need ever see again. Funny People was interesting, but turned out to be a dark, somewhat unpleasant drama with a little humor rather than a comedy. I wrote a long rambling post about being a little obsessed with Transformers 2, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t think it was a terrible movie. I liked Star Trek I guess, it was fun and was perfectly cast, but I’m shocked at the outpouring of critical and commercial love it received considering that it had what I consider to be some rather egregious flaws in its direction and storytelling. Likewise District 9, which seems to already have a (mystifying to me) reputation as a minor classic, exciting and thoughtful; not only didn’t I like it, I thought it was downright poorly made at times, with a lot of lazy storytelling. And I didn't even bother seeing G.I. Joe.

(Update 9/16: Further proving my point about the lackluster summer season, I didn't recall that I saw Michael Mann's disappointing Public Enemies and Justin Lin's passably stupid Fast and Furious. And I totally forgot that Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which I didn't waste my time on, even existed.)

(Update 9/18: Holy shit! And I forgot to mention Terminator: Salvation in my update. I think I liked it, or at least liked the action scenes, slightly more than the general public and it still completely slipped my mind. Worst summer ever.)

Looking back over the summer a week or so ago, I worried that I was becoming an old fuss-budget. Honestly, except for
Funny People, I hadn't even been looking forward to any of those movies. Am I becoming too artsy-fartsy? Have my efforts to watch a more diverse and eclectic selection of films somehow spoiled my ability to enjoy a dumb summer movie? Am I holding my light entertainment to too high of a standard?

Maybe I am becoming a pretentious asshole, but all I had to do to remind myself that I haven't become a total killjoy was look to the weekend of August 28. What may be considered the final weekend of the summer season was easily my most anticipated, as it marked the release of both
The Final Destination (aka Final Destination 4 in 3-D!!!) and Rob Zombie's Halloween the Remake II. You can't be too much of an elitist if you're eagerly awaiting the release the fourth film in a franchise whose inspiration dried up two movies ago, and the sequel to the terrible remake of a beloved classic.

I may be an admirer of Rob Zombie's The House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, moreso it seems than most horror-moviegoers, but I knew that even a talented individual such as Mr. Zombie shouldn't touch Halloween with a ten-foot pole. No horror director, no matter how good, would come off well in comparison to the original, because the original is in a class of its own. (Maybe if they hired a director with a distinct vision who worked mainly outside the genre and didn't feel the need to honor the original, it could have been interesting. Just try imagining, say, Werner Herzog's Halloween). It wasn't surprising that the remake sucked; what was a little surprising was the manner in which it sucked. I'm not going to review it here; suffice it to say that in addition to the film's obnoxious dialogue and seriously flawed structure, I was disheartened to see that Zombie failed to craft a single stalk/slash/suspense sequence that was anything more than tedious.

Yet somehow I found myself looking forward to Halloween II, most likely because Zombie was promising in interviews that he was doing his own thing, not following the original series and trying to stick closer to his own vision. It was clear in the Halloween remake that zombie was trying, unsuccessfully, to use his style to tell someone else's story with someone else's characters. Maybe now that he felt free to tell his own story would his style finally gel with the Halloween series. Instead of remaking the original Halloween II, he'd finally make the real Rob Zombie's Halloween.

So of course the new Halloween II begins where part 1 left off, and then has protagonist Laurie sent to the hospital where she is attacked by Michael Myers, exactly like the original sequel. "Holy shit," you're thinking, "He's actually doing a remake of Halloween II." Turns out it's just Zombie having a little fun fucking with the fanboys' expectations; the hospital sequence is just the opener and then he's on to other things.

I'll say this for the new Halloween II, it's an improvement over the remake. I would go so far as to say I liked it, however that's not an "I really liked it," but rather an "I liked it*". It feels more like a complete film than the remake, not like two half-assed films stitched together.

The element that I thought worked best was that, this time out, Zombie gives us access to Michael's inner thoughts, so he's less of a boogeyman and feels like more of a character. This time we can actually see the wounded little boy inside of Michael, instead of just being told about it. Literally. Turns out that Michael hallucinates about his pre-adolescent self a lot. Along for the ride is his dead mother (nice to see Sheri Moon Zombie back) always dressed in white, a faithful white horse that follows her around, and weird nightmarish creatures that live in the recesses of Michael's mind. These sequences, highly stylized, often backlit with blinding white light and I think in one part shot in black and white, were probably my favorites in the movie, where it felt like Zombie was finally doing his own thing and ignoring the usual generic conventions. The imagery may be a little obvious or even corny at times, but it has a weirdo, surreal, spooky quality that I responded to.

Unlike the remake, this film is fun and even funny at times. Zombie still can't write dialogue for teenage girls that isn't grating and obnoxious, what with them calling each other "dicklickers" and "bitches" ad naseum, but the humor he showed in his earlier films is still present. The best is the subplot about Dr. Loomis, who has become a vain, egocentric publicity hound, trying to capitalize on the murders in the first movie to further his career. He's such an asshole and a whiny bitch that you can't help but laugh, pestering his assistant to bring him a cup of his special tea before he has a hissy fit, or going on a talk show and getting snippy with the host. (The other guest is Weird Al Yankovic). There are other funny bits in the movie too. I liked the kid at the Halloween party with the wolfman costume who promises that the beers in his van are roofie-free.

In the interim between this and the remake, Zombie learned how to construct a chase/suspense sequence. I remember watching the remake in theaters and totally tuning out during the climactic chase. Then I watched it on DVD and tuned out at the exact same point. It was that boring. This time, Zombie starts the movie off with a bang, with the hospital chase, and until he goes overboard with the shakeycam, it's an effective scene.

Poor Laurie, bruised and battered, with a big cast on her leg, wakes up in the hospital and can't seem to find anyone around. She stumbles down the hallway to the nurse's station, where the nurse seems weirdly unresponsive. Always a bad sign. The nurse turns around and, oh shit, her face is split open in she's in some sort of daze. Out comes Michael, and Laurie's got to try to get away, through corridors and down the stairwell, dragging her wounded leg behind her, and the big bastard just keeps coming. The scene also features an effective use of the song "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues, an offbeat musical choice that is Zombie's bread and butter, and a way better choice than his confounding use of "Love Hurts" in the remake. The other set pieces never quite top the opener, but they all still function on an entertaining level.

So, the better screenplay and better set pieces, combined with more of a weird, personal vision from Zombie, adds up to a better movie... but still a problematic one. I mentioned before that Zombie still tries too hard to write clever dialogue for his young female characters and winds up making you hate them all, but it's even a little worse than that. He can't even flesh them into real characters or give them anything interesting to do. Poor Scout Taylor-Compton, she seems like she might be charming and likable in real life, but as Laurie she spends the whole movie either crying, screaming, or running away from Michael Myers while crying and screaming. That is the extent of her character. She is almost always making what my girlfriend referred to as "the super pouty face," and I concur with Shenan that Ms. Taylor-Compton is a pro at it. Zombie tries to go to some different places with her character (is she losing her mind, just like her brother Michael?) but since Laurie spends 95% of her screentime in screamy-crying-pouty-running mode, it doesn't really scan and she comes off as yet another generic final girl.

Halloween II also falls victim to the common slasher movie trope of introducing too many characters for the sole purpose of killing them off to add more violence. Michael Myers is constantly running afoul of characters we've never met before and brutally murdering them after they get their obligatory 2 minutes of screen time. He hides out at a farm, so the owner and his family show up to scare him off and he kills them. He shows up at a strip club after hours for no reason and murders all the staff. Etc. I don't normally like this kind of shit because I have no emotional investment in what's going on and it sidetracks from the main story for no better reason than to satisfy audience bloodlust. It can be fun in a shitty slasher movie if the death is particularly over-the-top, but in a movie such as this one, trying to strike a more serious tone, it's a waste of celluloid and something of a concession.

The worst though, and I really didn't see this coming, is how stylistically bombastic and assaultive the film becomes at times. It's as if instead of trying to scare you, Zombie decided to settle for overwhelming your senses. Bright, blinding, seizure-inducing lights flash on the screen. Loud clanging noises and explosions erupt out of the speakers and drown out your every thought any time there is a mild surprise or bit of action in the film, or sometimes for no reason at all. Completely indistinguishable from the film's overbearing score, I should add. Fuck, even the stabbing noises were louder than gunshots are in most other movies.

Zombie's first two films are excellent enough that he's built up a lot of goodwill with me, so I'm still on board next time he makes an original feature. Unfortunately, that won't be for a while, as the motherfucker signed on to do a remake of The Blob, which already had an excellent remake in the 80's and doesn't need to be revisited. Sigh.

At 82 minutes, The Final Destination (in 3-D!!!!!) is so streamlined that it barely feels like a real movie. No time for character development or new ideas, after rehashing the same plot as the last three films in the series in as little time as possible, it moves efficiently enough, though at a breakneck pace, through a series of deaths, disfigurements, dismemberments, etc. If you saw any of the previous films, then you know the drill: blandly attractive young Dawson's Creek-looking motherfucker has a psychic vision, prevents catastrophic death of self and others, turns out that it was their time to go so the malevolent force of Death kills everyone off (in the order they were originally supposed to die) in elaborate, protracted, Rube Goldberg device-esque ways.

And I swear it takes maybe all of 15 minutes for them to get through the catastrophe and the exposition and get to the murder set pieces. It opens at a Nascar rally, each major character gets about 2 lines of dialogue, then a car crash happens and sets off a spectacular chain of events, etc etc.

The problem here is that, outside of the illusion of an extra spacial dimension, The Final Destination is content to add nothing new to the series. In the original Final Destination, the premise was still fresh and interesting, the complex, ornate death sequences were a surprise instead of an expectation, and it actually made an attempt to flesh out its characters and even get a little philosophical about the nature of life and death (just a little bit, mind you). Final Destination 2 was a step down, but it was at least ambitious and tried to build upon the first movie: it made the plot ludicrously complex and intertwined with the first film, tried to add some new rules and ideas (i.e. if they bring a new life in to the world, maybe Death will spare them). Part 3 was another slight step down, basically resigned to repeating the story from the first two movies and focusing on the death scenes. And now we have the fourth, which strips the formula down even further to a series of showy death sequences barely strung together by a nearly non-existent plot.

David Ellis, the director of Final Destination 2, returns to helm this one (James Wong directed 1 and 3, so I seriously hope if they continue the series that Wong directs part 5 and that he and Ellis tag-team the series for as long as it runs) and along for the ride is one of the two Butterfly Effect guys who both wrote part 2. Apparently the other guy had all the good ideas though, or they need to work as a team, because nothing new is brought to the table. Seriously guys, step it up a bit, throw a twist or two in there. How about next time, the psychic character gets killed halfway through, leaving everyone else totally screwed. Or have it turn out that their lives will be spared if they kill someone else to take their place. Or use my buddy Patrick's idea: have a psychic somehow prevent the destruction of earth, so Death has to go around killing every single person on the planet Mouse Trap style.

That said, I haven't given up on this series yet, and there is still a lot of fun to be had. Maybe the movie boils down to nothing but set pieces, but some of the set pieces are pretty good. There's a kind of slowly building, deliberate, coming together of many different strands style to the set pieces in the Final Destination series that are Hitchcockian in nature. Or, at least, sub-Hitchcockian. Or really more sub-DePalmian, but you get my point. Or if you don't, my point is that this style is rare in modern, mainstream horror movies. I wouldn't dare go so far as to call the construction of these sequences brilliant, but the visual storytelling is often exceedingly clever, and requires a certain amount of craftsmanship sometimes missing in the genre.

The most enjoyable sequence for me was a major one near the end, in which an accident at a construction site in a mall leads to an explosion at a movie theater (showing a 3-D movie, natch) which leads to a series of calamaties that turns the mall's escalator into a conveyor belt of swirly, slashing, bone-crushing doom. Also, The Final Destination re-enacts an urban legend I've been wanting to see in a movie for years: the one where a pool filter pulls out a man's guts through his asshole.

What I'm saying is, if you like this kind of shit like I do, this one is worth seeing even if it isn't anything special. Though I wouldn't say it's a big deal to rush out and see it in 3-D, you can wait for video. Ellis's use of the 3-D gimmick isn't gimmicky enough and pales in comparison to the goofy eyeball-popping madness of this year's My Bloody Valentine 3D. If you're going to use a silly gimmick like 3-D for your silly horror movie, you need to go all out. Except for a few moments, the format is wasted in The Final Destination.

So, wrapping up, maybe this weekend didn't quite live up to my expectations. Certainly I won't be putting either one of these on any "best of" lists. Regardless, both Halloween the Remake II and The Final Desintation are enjoyable endevours for horror fans, and in particular I'd be interested in rewatching Zombie's film some day to see if time irons out some of the flaws.

*but it has a lot of problems.

Quick Thoughts On Thirst

THIRST came out in DC a few weeks ago and I caught it. It's pretty good but suffers in comparison to Park Chan-wook’s best films (OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE, his chapter in THREE… EXTREMES). I think my harshest criticism of THIRST would be that it’s somewhat bifurcated, and the 2nd half doesn’t really make good on the first half. Park is one of my favorite directors and THIRST is a very good movie, but I don’t think it’ll go down as a classic.

The first half is slow and contemplative, about a priest who becomes a vampire. He tries to reconcile his beliefs with his newfound bloodlust, essentially trying to be a human vampire. But is it truly in man’s nature to be good, and once you taste the forbidden fruit, can you go back etc etc?

The second half is more baroque and entertaining, but disappointingly drops a lot of the moral/philosophical questions it raised in the first half, and it becomes more of a standard murder/guilt story (this half is apparently based on a French novel from the 1800’s that had nothing to do with vampires). It’s a lot of fun because Park goes overboard on the visual style, and the movie becomes increasingly more violent and darkly humorous, but my problem is that it doesn’t fulfill the promises made in the first half.

Still, Park is a peerless craftsman, and there are a lot of wonderful sequences. In particular, there’s a scene where the protagonist seduces the heroine by cradling her in his arms while he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, where the camera stays on her face the whole time, that is evocative and romantic in a way that puts supposed romantic-vampire bullshit like TWILIGHT to shame. I just felt that THIRST doesn’t quite dig to the heart of its characters and themes the way Park’s best films do.