Music/dancing/music/dancing!!!

THE BOOK OF MORMON

While I was in New York City, I saw the musical “Book of Mormon” from the South Park creators, and the creator of Avenue Q.

I  bought my kid’s sippy cup filled with OJ and Ketel One, and proceeded to enjoy, for the most part, a musical that is filled with references to AIDS, baby rape, Star Wars, and Mormonism.

Before the show began, there were rumors circulating from the audience in front of me that Hugh Jackman was in the house. Hugh Jackman?? And during intermission, I saw Tony Hawke walk (versus skate) past.

The stars came out for this Wednesday evening showing. I was predicting a different audience for a mid-week show. But I guess stars and celebs like to hit the town on Weds night and just stay inside on the weekends. As Hawke passed me by at the concessions line, I looked at him and pretended like I didn’t who he was. If this was on a Friday or a Saturday night, I might have said hello. But it’s a Wednesday. He probably didn’t want to be bothered.

The audience I saw this with was a healthy mix of younger people and older, seasoned veterans of Broadway musicals. You could tell who they were by their forced, really loud laughter (“I get that joke!”) and the ones who just stared at the stage, marveling at how the hell something like this was even conceived for public consumption.

But let’s not forget it was nominated for 14 Tonys. That’s the highest of any other show this year. You can bet your bottom dollar people bought their tickets when they found out. I think I bought mine before that, since I had to plan the trip months in advance. So I am in the clear getting on the Book of Mormon bandwagon, okay. I lead the pilgrimage as far as I’m concerned.

So how was this musical, which won 14 nominations and garnered the interest of both Hugh Jackman and Tony Hawke?

A little overrated, to be honest.

I feel like musicals can sometimes be their own worst enemy, by the sheer fact there is music and dancing in them.

I like music, and I like dancing. But musicals are overwhelming combinations of both, and it’s their duty to be as obnoxious as they possibly can. You paid fucking good money to see them, so they better be! I feel like Matt and Trey enjoy the theatricality of musicals, and you can see it in their films. The South Park movie, Cannibal!, and Team America all have characters that break out into song and dance midway through the story.

In the back of my mind I kind of thought the allusions to musicals were tongue in cheek to be ironic. But after seeing this, I think they just genuinely like them. They seem to have an unlimited love for them, actually. Cannibal!, and the South Park movie both feature musical numbers that kind of start wear on you. Team America is not as bad, probably because puppets are singing and the songs are actually really catchy.

Book of Mormon has a couple of catchy tunes. But I would say on the whole, we’re just getting funny lyrics sung to traditional, vanilla show tunes. And hey, no problem right. It’s a musical, after all. But after two and a half hours of it, the show tunes start to wear you down.

Part of the problem is that musicals are divided into two parts. You have a 15 minute intermission to hang out with Tony Hawke at the concessions line, but then the musical has to invite you back for more, and keep the momentum up. I’d say the first half was right on the money with laughs, set design, story, and music. You get into it. It’s fun.

The second half feels more repetitive. By the last act (if we’re to look at musicals in three acts, although that’s probably not accurate), we feel like we’ve been there, done that. The jokes don’t land as hard (with the exception of one of the Uganda characters singing about worms in his scrotum), and the songs aren’t memorable.

I think it deserved a few Tonys. The set design was amazing. The actors, particularly Josh Gad, held their own for the entire performance and gave the show huge life and energy. And it bravely tackled topics that you don’t see tackled on Broadway, let alone in movies, songs, or any other form of art.

One complaint I do have concerns the use of the Mormon religion in the play. If I was a Mormon, and I watched interviews about the show, I’d feel okay seeing it. But in the presence of other non-Mormons watching it, I think the experience would be mostly negative. I’d probably feel people were laughing at my religion.

And that’s fine. I’m not about to condemn musicals for blasting on Mormons. It’s every Americans right to get a bollocking, to use the English expression. However – if you read interviews with Matt or Trey, they clearly suggest Mormons will love it. And that simply can’t be the case if you’re a self respecting Mormon. They do get made fun of, and they are exploited for laughs. I’d like a little more honesty from the creators but after all they are capitalists, and they are trying to sell tickets.

Mormons be warned. People who only mildly enjoy musicals should be warned as well. Oh, and people who love musicals but the traditional kind only, without references to things that could make them uncomfortable.

B- is my grade.

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Spin offs are hard to do

SHREDDER

I saw a movie called “Shredder” several months ago. It is an independent film made by a friend of mine, Cody Clarke. I am one of the few people who have seen the film, and of the people who have seen it, one of the few who are qualified to blog about it.

The film defies many conventional techniques in a manner that is stubborn and ritualistic. I would compare it to something like “Brown Bunny”, if only because I know Clarke adores that movie, and I can’t stand it. Our varying reactions to that film indicate a love-it or hate-it degree of separation with no place for discussion in the middle. Either the film succeeds wildly or fails miserably.

And that is what Clarke is going for here. There’s no interest on his part in going straight for middle of the road. Your reaction will be based on an absolute love for what he’s doing, or complete unmitigated hatred. In either case it’s good to have his email address handy to tell him what you thought of it.

In my amazing ability for objective analysis I’ll share why someone could hate the film, and then reasons why someone could love it with equal fervor.

Before I do that I should probably go through the plot outline, if only briefly. An anonymous posting on IMDB indicates the film is centrally focused on “Travis, a High School senior who has fallen out of love with writing comedy songs on guitar and in love with practicing heavy metal. Through a fly-on-the-wall filmmaking approach in which static shots are utilized exclusively, we follow Travis’ ups and downs with friends, love interests, and his instrument.”

I would say that is a fairly accurate description of the film, so kudos to “Anonymous” for posting that. I don’t think the plot is open to a lot of different interpretations, either. That description is verifiable and there isn’t a lot of ambiguity about it.

So stylistically, Clarke is not going for David Lynch territory, although Clarke and Lynch share a similarity. Both of their first films were shot in black and white. Clarke may have shot his in color first, and then transferred it to black and white, but with digital filmmaking today, you can do whatever you like and nobody will hold it against you. So don’t worry about it, Cody. If it’s black and white it’s easy to convince me you shot it that way first.

Before we get too far into this, let’s get one thing straight first. There is no mention of anyone named Shredder in the film. You can coast on advertising your film as a spin off of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for only so long before Shredder must make an appearance. I haven’t read any interviews with Clarke that confirms nor denies this is a TMNT spin off. But if you are a TMNT fan, proceed at your own risk.

However, a guitar does make an appearance. Often guitar players in heavy metal bands like to “shred”, or play on their guitar very quickly, so that might be a more accurate indication of what the title is referring to.

The main character Travis (Cody Clarke) spends some time shredding, albeit rather slowly. An observer could hardly call it shredding. There is not much heavy metal music found in the film, either. So heavy metal fans may watch the film with a heavy heart, too.

But there is music. Some of it is quite good, too. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where Travis invites his friends to play songs. Just like in the film “Sex and the City”, where a plot is interrupted by a shopping sequence, here there is a plot interrupted by people playing music. It’s intimate, and feels like some of your friends came over just to belt a couple tunes before you finished watching your movie.

I think where haters and lovers will differ on the film has everything to do with style. The plot is mercilessly slow. The camera is mercilessly still. The sound is mercilessly quiet. The photography is mercilessly black and white. The actors are mercilessly unaware there is a camera recording them. Those are the building blocks of a contained little movie that will try your patience, but also reward a close viewing.

Because despite how minimalist, and “fly on the wall” the film is, Travis is a character we’re trying to figure out for 87 minutes. His pillow talk conversations with his girlfriend are ones I think viewers can relate to. Beneath his empty words and casual, laissez faire demeanor, is a guy afraid of taking any risks with his life. He’s comfortable sitting in his apartment with the windows shut, and getting reprimanded by his mom. If Travis wore a blanket all the time, and grew a huge beard, it would be a similar lifestyle to the one Osama bin Laden was enjoying in that compound for so long. I don’t know if bid Laden was practicing how to shred, and I don’t think his mom was around, but his wives sure were. I bet once in awhile they poked their head in his room and told him to keep it down so their 25 kids wouldn’t wake up.

Comparing Travis to bin Laden might be a reach. But there is a fine line between a high school kid practicing on his guitar alone in his New York City bedroom, and a jihadist in the making. Just give him a reason. His boredom is a good foundation.

Because Clarke is the main actor in the film, and he directed the film in his home state of New York City, allow me to be the first critic who compares Clarke to Woody Allen. Clarke intends to make one film every year, like Allen. I want this comparison to be true. Because I want Clarke to marry his step daughter, and I want Clarke to make solid, memorable films about New York for years to come.

Cody has posted a link to his movie, which you can watch here:

http://www.codyclarke.com/shredder/

W35 cr6v3n kills his franchise

SCRE4M


Why was Wes Craven talking about more Scream sequels, when Scream 4 was such an obvious final nail in the coffin of his beloved horror franchise?

Another trilogy is planned. Nothing from the ending suggested a direction this could go. Nothing in the film itself suggested there was new life in the series. It was a retread, almost as bad as a remake would have been. But usually with remakes, there is some notable difference in the visual quality. Look at the Texas Chainsaw remakes. They have that gold plated, over produced sheen to them. Those movies have a “glimmer” about them, shiny and neat.

I always liked the look of the Scream movies. It was almost like a TV show, something you would see on CW (or back when they came out, WB). The killings and general grim storylines were a fun contrast to the commercial look. It’s as if they kept the fun, sunny style of “Clueless”, kept a few of its dullard characters around, and then proceeded to dispatch them in gruesome violent ways. It was a formula that succeeded.

Writer Kevin Williamson is largely responsible for bridging old school horror films from the 80s into the 90s, and the same is attempted again by bridging the 90s into the 10s. Scream is very much a 90s franchise. The noughts are reserved for Japanese horror, home invasion horror, and horror remakes. But nothing in the years between Scream 3 and Scream 4 has indicated that the franchise deserves to be revisited. The trailers had Ghostface talking about remakes, and how since it’s a new decade, there are new rules.

But the new rules aren’t very obvious. If you just watched the trailer, there’s no “aha!” moment where you feel totally compelled to dip a toe back into the murky waters of the franchise. Sure, we have cell phones. We have facebook and twitter. Add it all up, and what does it mean?

After seeing this film my suspicions were confirmed: nobody really has any idea.

Lets start with one of the weirdest details of the film. The characters still use land lines.

Second weird detail. Everyone still lives in the suburbs! How simple is it to move Ghostface to New York, like they did with Jason? Does moving Ghostface into an urban setting change the film? Absolutely not. It keeps in the tradition of following the same pattern of every slasher film every made. And since this film isn’t trying to “reinvent” slasher films, common sense tells me to move Ghostface. So if it’s a new decade, and there are new rules, the easiest way to sell that concept is to get Ghostface the fuck out of Woodsboro.

Keeping it there meant the writers got lazy with the premise. One of the survivors returns to Woodsboro on a book tour. Killings resume.

I had a lot of issue with it, because it seemed so obvious. Even the actors who reprised their roles seemed to phone it in, implying they thought it was too obvious as well. It leaves a stale, dull taste in everybody’s mouth. Especially for the audience.

So already the film had an uphill battle. The only way to make things less dull was to spice up the killings, which was my third problem with the film. Most of the killings were done with a knife, and CGI was used this time around. Wes Craven said they would look more real. And he was right about that – the stabbings look more real. But as a result of looking more real, they are harder to enjoy. I like blood and guts as much as the next guy, but stabbings seem to have more real world weight associated with them. People get stabbed in real life all the time. There’s nothing really too fun about it. Watching someone get stabbed in the movie is kind of a downer. I never really thought the killings were too fun in the earlier movies, either. The elaborate design leading up to the killings were great, and the opening scene of Scream is a perfect example of that. But there’s nothing nearly as inventive in this film. It’s safe to say there is gore here that is just gratuitous, without the enjoyment factor typically associated with that kind of violence.

What they meant by “new rules” was actually “new, younger cast”. They are pivotal to the success of the film, especially the third act which I actually enjoyed the most. That’s because we get removed from the “original cast” and stay on the “new cast” a little, and get a feel for their character dynamics for the first time in the film. Just think about that. We don’t really know who these brats are until the last, oh, twenty minutes. That makes the finale fun, and I think the script does a decent job of bringing the younger cast and the older cast together at the end.

But this film says nothing about new rules, and the new decade. The writers don’t know. Craven doesn’t know. Which explains why there is absolutely no direction for this “second trilogy” to take.

My advice? Take Ghostface to Manhattan.

Better left buried

HATCHET

The tagline for this horror film by Adam Green is, “Old School American Horror”. So there are tits all over the place, tons of gory scenes, and cameos by Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and the Candyman.

I guess this is like what Pepsi is doing now with their Pepsi Throwback sodas, using real sugar instead of that “unhealthy” corn syrup. Instead of CGI effects, Adam Green wanted to go back to the practical days of horror, using makeup and prosthesis to tear off people’s limbs. Overall it’s a pretty decent look. Most of the film is shot at night, in the woods, and that deters from some of the fun – but there’s a reason the old school horror works better than the new school horror. As consumers, we want real stuff. Not the artificial crap.

But even if you say your movie is “old school”, that’s not entirely possible. You aren’t really old school unless you’re completely sincere with your audience. If you’re winking at them, you can’t be that old school. It’s the problem horror films have today – specifically slashers. The audience is several steps ahead already, so winking at them constantly alleviates some of the crushing burden you have as a filmmaker to deliver the goods.

“Hatchet” is not the most creative, or original slasher film. But it tries to have fun, almost to a point where it’s vigourous about it. Saying this was boring could be the worst criticism against the film. The dialogue is what keeps it going. The cast they put together – the band of “survivors” that get knocked off  – is mildly entertaining to watch. None of it is scary, or suspenseful. That is the major issue with the film, since it’s hard to call something a horror film when it’s just trying to make you laugh. Every time Victor Crowley shows up, it’s like watching an oversized kid terrorize a bunch of grown ups. I appreciated the backstory to his character, where we get the flashback to his crappy childhood, and eventually, the cause of his “death”. But things like Victor never really die. They live on as legends, like Jason, Freddy, and the Candyman.

It’s what’s so interesting about slasher movies. They start with a legend. A campfire tale. Something is buried. Or sitting at the bottom of a lake. And then it comes to life, so the legend can live on.

“Hatchet” doesn’t re-invigorate the genre. But it is a successful franchise in its own right. It spawned a sequel and a third one is coming. Viewed together as a trilogy it is one big tip of the hat to the slashers we grew up on. But it feels more like a fan of those movies made his movie to commemorate those movies. Will Adam Green make 7 more sequels, just to pay homage to the fact those movies spawned that many too? It’s the only reason I could see him making more sequels.

Bending the conventions

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

This weekend I wasn’t feeling very social. And since my girlfriend was, it gave me a chance to nestle in with Ti West’s horror film from 2009. I’ve been hearing about his newest film “The Innkeepers” which played at SXSW, so I wanted to educate myself.

This film is a great example of how to keep a genre fresh. Not easy to do…especially in horror. But because the audience knows the conventions, it’s easy to break them, and play with them. Some audiences thought Ti’s style was too slow, and called it a “slow burn” horror movie. I don’t know where the term slow burn comes from, but it’s useless, and describes nothing.

Most horror films have no trouble appeasing audiences. They want kills, dammit. And so kills they will get. But most stories never build up the kills. They’re like pornos. Suspense doesn’t exist. Only the money shots matter.

Ti is saying the kills don’t matter. In fact, his last ten minutes are not the strongest part of the film – they’re by comparison the weakest. I don’t recall my enjoyment coming from the kills. They came from the build up. Why is “The Shining” my favorite horror movie? It’s not because Jack shoves an axe into Holloran’s chest.

As with any suspenseful film, just because nothing happens doesn’t mean it’s not working. I’ve read comments like “She just walks around the house for 90 minutes.” Actually, the more accurate observation would be, she doesn’t know the dangers lurking in the house, and the one outside. But we do.

That’s what Ebert is referring to when he says the suspense is Hitchcockian. Here’s the two people sitting and arguing. Not interesting. But let’s put a bomb under their table, and what do we get?

This film gets equal praise and criticism for its retro throwback to 80s films. The lead actress resembles Margo Kidder (Black Christmas). The freeze frame titles are in a lot of 70s and 80s opening credits sequences. But these aren’t abused for kitsch, the way they are in Tarantino’s “Death Proof”. As a result, this is the stronger film.

As I write my own horror film, I will always think about the way West used suspense here, and the way he bent the conventions of the genre to his advantage.

Oscar predictions

The Oscars are this Sunday. I’ve played the voting game on Mubi, competing for $100,000. If you get them all right, you split the winnings with everyone else who gets them right.

So here’s my breakdown:

Actor in a Supporting Role – GEOFFREY RUSH, KING’S SPEECH

Actress in a Supporting Role – HELENA BONHAM CARTER, KING’S SPEECH

Adapted Screenplay – THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Original Screenplay – THE KING’S SPEECH

Original score for a Motion Picture – THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Original song for a Motion Picture – TOY STORY 3

Best Animated Film: TOY STORY 3

Art Direction: KING’S SPEECH

Cinematography: TRUE GRIT

Costume Design: KING’S SPEECH

Makeup: WOLFMAN

Sound Editing: INCEPTION

Sound Mixing: SOCIAL NETWORK

Visual Effects: INCEPTION

Best Documentary Feature: INSIDE JOB

Best Documentary Short: KILLING IN THE NAME

Best Film Editing: SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Foreign Film: BUITIFUL

Best Animated Short: DAY & NIGHT

Best Live Action Short: THE CONFESSION

Achievement in Directing: TOM HOOPER, KING’S SPEECH

Lead Actress: MICHELLE WILLIAMS, BLUE VALENTINE

Lead Actor: COLIN FIRTH, KING’S SPEECH

Best Motion Picture: KING’S SPEECH

I’m predicting a King’s Speech night. I think it helps if the Queen of England endorses the film.