Monday, October 01, 2007

Games Movies Play

There’s cheese, then there’s cheese sprinkled with a healthy dose of cinnamon and pure sugar cane. You know, a loony idea that will give you a mind-blow buzz and halt your heart, all in one convenient package.

During the past two decades, as the costs of movie production inflated exponentially, studios became cautious about the types of projects they assembled. Original, unproven scripts became increasingly rare because of financial risk, and producers resorted to sequels, franchises, remakes, literary works, even video games (remember Wing Commander and Doom?).

But that still doesn’t explain Elf Bowling the Movie.

Back a bit before the turn of the century, before Homestar Runner and Weebl and Bob became cottage industries, Flash oddities still were little more than fun time-wasters created by stressed-out programmers slaving away at the dotcom rack. In the Christmas season of 1999, a slightly off-color seasonal game starting making the rounds, featuring a miffed-but-still-jolly Santa using his striking (heh) elf workers as bowling pins. The game was stupidly bemusing, with the elves mooning and taunting Santa, even “cheating” by occasionally moving out of the way of the ball. My stressed-out publishing office loved it, and soon little high-pitched voices yelping “Who’s your daddy?” and “Is that all the balls you got, Santa?” floated daily above the gray cubical walls.

See? Exactly the kind of material on which to construct a Christmas children’s toon.

Even in a cinematic age where few films are truly original and studios are digging out the most obscure properties to develop, a movie based on a 9-year-old, free Flash-in-the-pan game sounds more like a mad movie hoax than an actual project, z-grade level as it may be. That’s because Hollywood isn’t to blame for this one: Fiji is. Yeah, Fiji. The island. Apparently, they have a film industry now. Maybe it makes cottage, too.

It says something about the home video market when a little island country can produce a full-blown animation feature based on barely-remembered game and get it released on DVD by a major Hollywood studio. I’m not sure what, but it says something.

It also says something when said game has produced several sequels that are not remembered much at all. The movie version includes elements from Elf Bowling 3, which introduces Santa’s brother Dingle Kringle and his couch-crashing ways. There’s even a bocce version. Bocce!

Americans’ constant obsession with shiny techno variations of the Pet Rock may speak to an inner child, but with Elf Bowling, static seems to have mangled the transmission. A harmless joke is dragged too far, substituting absurdity for humor. Yet, that common creative error becomes fascinating by itself, and the obsession continues on, slightly mutated. We simply can’t look away, dazzled by disbelief.

Like watching a car wreck. Involving Cool Whip and chickens.

The same day but a couple hours before Scott “I Paid to See Drop Dead Fred” Foy alerted the denizens of the B-Movie Message Board to Elf Bowling the Movie’s existence, I had just rescued my aged Hewlett Packard from the junk room and turned it on for the first time in six years. First the forgotten Michael Whelan painting reclaimed its backdrop spot on the screen, then all the little time-waster icons popped into place, including three little bowling pins. I had completely forgotten it was there.

When synchronicity calls, I can’t ignore it. Yes, I will see Elf Bowling the Movie. But only because I prefer nutmeg on my Muenster.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

REVIEW: The Plague Dogs

Martin Rosen’s production of Watership Down is almost as well loved as Richard Adams’ original novel. Rosen, who wrote, directed and produced the 1978 animated movie, was careful about what story elements and characters were changed or removed, resulting in probably the second-best animated adaptation of a novel (the first being The Last Unicorn). The movie became a critical and financial success, thus it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Rosen returned to Adams’ writings for inspiration. Probably because Shardik boasted human characters and unspooled to more than 500 pages, Rosen turned instead to Adams’ third novel, The Plague Dogs. Like Watership Down, Adams told much of the story from the point of his animal characters, in this case two dogs escaped from an animal testing facility.

And that’s where the similarities end.

The film opens with a black screen and a soft voice cooning “I don’t feel no pain no more.” Slowly, we hear first the lapping of water and then the sounds of a dog struggling as the title cards in red lettering begin to roll by onscreen. Once the credits run, we see what we’ve been hearing—a black Labrador vainly struggling to stay afloat in an enclosed tank of water. As two scientists calmly watch above, the dog finally gives up and slowly floats to the bottom of the tank. It doesn’t matter that you’re watching a cartoon. It’s still sickening.

The scientists revive the black dog and put him back in his cage. Later that night, when a man comes by to feed them (and take out the dead body of another dog), the black Lab’s door is accidentally left open. A terrier with a cap taped to his head notices, and tries to wake the Lab. It is thus we learn the names of Rowf and Snitter, and it’s the first we hear them speak, with Rowf, still fighting against the water, on the verge of giving up all together. Snitter finds the wire fencing between their cages loose, and slips through to convince his friend to escape. They do, but barely, and find themselves alone in the rocky crags of England’s Lakeland District.

Where Watership Down was pastoral, The Plague Dogs is bleak. Beautiful watercolors—both naturalistic and abstract—create the backgrounds of Watership Down, but here, Snitter and Rowf climb and fall over roughly-rendered harsh rock and deadwood, all in different shades of gray and brown. Rarely do we see any lively green and blue, and those instances are few, as few as the moments of joy for the two escapees. Even the red fur of the tod, a fox who joins the dogs, is as muted as the landscape in which they live.

The Plague Dogs also is violent. Very violent. If there’s anyone left who thinks that animation, with animals or not, is for kids will be cured of that belief after watching this. Sheep are killed and eaten, dogs piss constantly, a man has his face blown off by a shotgun....heck, at one point the tod tells Rowf, “The way you came over the fell, you’d think your ass was afire.” But Rosen’s animators pull it off with a remarkable restraint. The man holds his hands over his face as blood seeps through for only a few seconds before he drops to the ground. After the sheep are killed, they almost become part of the rock of the landscape, with only their heads and brown blood to reveal the dead body. It’s a haunting touch. Two other scenes in particular stand out—Rowf and Snitter’s first sheep killing and the infamous man-eating scene. In the first, instead of seeing Rowf chase down the ram and fighting it, we see brownish blood flow down rock into a brook, and then Snitter and Rowf with the felled ram. We only learn in the aftermath that the ram nearly battered Rowf to death as the Lab shakily limps back down the crag to rest on safer ground. In the other, a starving Rowf and Snitter watch as a would-be hunter falls to his death. Rowf sits on his haunches and looks at the body. After a brief look at Snitter, he gets up and walks off the screen. Both scenes are effective, because we realize what happened off-screen, and the deletion of both the action—which would have numbed for later, similar scenes—and the gore—which would have revolted the audience—saves the film’s quiet power.

In addition, the animation improved greatly since Rosen’s first effort. Motion of characters is never choppy or stiff, and their rendering is much more consistent than Watership Down. It ain’t anime or even Disney, but you knew that already. Rosen also made the wise decision to focus on the animal (the novel gave equal time to humans), which allows him to avoid big scenes that require full blown human interaction, always a problem for animators (see: Balto). Instead, we see the humans mostly from the dogs’ point of view: legs, torsos, feet, but rarely heads and faces. The only time we see a face is jarring and frightening.

The film is not without faults. The music at times feels completely out of place, especially in the film’s denouement. While the animation is solid, facial expressions are still somewhat limited, especially with the tod. An important subplot from the novel was taken out, evaporating some of the movie’s power. A large problem is the story itself. Once Snitter and Rowf escape the research center, we watch them stumble around the countryside trying to survive. There’s no instant pursuit by the scientists, who just seem content to let their research roam the countryside. Not only that, the possibility that the two dogs may carry the bubonic plague doesn’t surface until an hour into the movie, and then nothing is done with it. It is only after the dogs eat the hunter that any organized action is taken by anybody. In the novel, the media whips the populace up in a frenzy with the notion of “plague dogs” running around in their backyards. In the film, there’s no panic. It’s not until the end of the movie that the dogs actually are pursued. Watership Down meandered from scene to scene as well, but at least it had a direction—first finding a new home, then rescuing the does from Efafra. The Plague Dogs focuses instead on its two main characters and their transformation, which brings us to the film’s greatest fault—Rowf.

While Snitter has enough back story and problems to fill an entire novel by himself, Rowf is a cipher. He’s a laboratory dog. He’s afraid of water, a fact of which we’re constantly reminded. He hates men, or as he calls them, “whitecoats.” That’s it. Without knowing where he came from, how he ended up at the research center, how long he’s been there....well, it’s just hard to become emotionally attached. The tod has more life and character than Rowf, and the fox is in the story only half of the time. Rowf seems simply there to play off of Snitter, and with no strong plot to help out, that gets tiresome after a while.

It’s ironic then that Rowf dominates the movie’s most powerful scenes: the opening and ending, the sight of Rowf howling in his loneliness, the aforementioned man-eating. It’s a tribute to Rosen and his crew that these scenes are still affecting and disturbing even with Rowf as their catalyst. And when all is said and done, that’s what they’ve accomplished as a whole. With all of its problems, The Plague Dogs is still a powerful story. There’s so much I haven’t mentioned—the way the movie starts and ends in water; how the dogs’ dark adventure is like Rowf’s water tank; how the humans’ dialog is spoken over scenes of the dogs struggling from crag to crag, adding to their isolation; how Snitter’s view of masters changes…the list goes on and on. If you can find it, rent it, buy it. Watch it more than once, because for all its darkness the movie demands you discover it on your own. And you won’t realize until you try to sleep at night that the image of Rowf struggling against the water is still dancing before your eyes.

Film Information
Year Released: 1982
Director: Martin Rosen
Main Cast (voices): John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam, Nigel Hawthorne

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back to the Big Screen

When I told my Dad about the AFI Silver Theatre’s huge main screening room, he replied, “Just like they all used to be.” He had to rub it in, didn’t he?

Back in the 1970s, as drive-ins began fading out and ticket sales struggled, downtown palaces were forced slice their single-screen cinemas in smaller pieces to compete against the new onslaught of shopping mall multiplexes. By the time I reached high school, every theater in the Danbury area had split into 2 or 3 screens each—the Cine, the Palace, the Crown, the Bank Street Cinema, and the Fine Arts. Less than a decade later, the new 10-screen multiplex drove all but one out of business, leaving just the little art house in Bethel and the second run house in Newtown clinging to their niche audiences.

One screen, cut in half, sometimes in thrice. No wonder I was shocked by the Silver’s grandeur.

I vaguely remember seeing a movie as a kid at the old Palace Theater on Main Street before it was cut. The crowd was large enough to invade the balcony above, but my Mom got me safely away from any falling popcorn or soda. I last attended the Palace in the early 1990s, to see Highlander: The Final Dimension. This time, I got to be in the balcony, but only because the theater had cut it away from the screening room below—the balcony now was its own theater, with a sloped wooden “floor” yawning from my front row seat to the screen. The theater closed only a couple of years later.

I wonder if it’s time to reopen them.

An unexpected side effect to the advent of multiplexes has been the shorter runs of major releases. Two decades ago, a blockbuster film like Raiders of the Lost Ark would run all summer and into the fall. But with studios churning out more and more event crowd-thrillers to please the working class and school-aged clientele of the movie mall, the finite amount of available release dates grew smaller and smaller, until blockbusters—once a monthly event—started piling on top of one another. A major movie losing about half its audience after its opening week used to be an ominous sign of a possible turkey; today, it’s the general rule. This past summer, Spider-Man 3, Shriek the Third, Knocked Up, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ocean’s Thirteen, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Evan Almighty, A Mighty Heart, Live Free or Die Hard, and Ratatouille all were released within two months of each other and all before July, with dozens of smaller studio and independent films filling the in-between cracks. Studios now expect blockbusters to win back most of their production costs in the hopefully huge opening weekend, accepting that audiences will move onto the next big release the next week.

The problem with this fiscal philosophy is that even modern stadium-seating rooms are fairly limited to a few hundred, if that. With highly anticipated releases like Pirates and Spider-Man, showings are sold out well in advance, leaving people scrambling to find later showings or another day. Which seems a bit counter-productive, given how movies are viewed today: comfortable lounge seats with cup-holders, multiple-speaker sound systems, tickets that finally have risen to double-digits. Movie-going has become an outing, just like going to a baseball game or concert.

So why not go full-bore and bring back the big screen?

Not every theater needs one, and not every multiplex screen must be gargantuan. But with more and more people installing personal home theaters, the idea of spending between $10–$30 to go out to see a movie has become impractical; movie-going used to be, and should be, a unique experience that cannot be replicated unless you’re Howard Hughes. Restoring some screens to retro size would bring back some of the lost grandeur and make the event movies a true event, and with the shorter runs of major movies, the risk is far less than it was 20 years ago. It works for the Silver—they manage to draw people in with dusty classics, foreign films, and one or two actual new releases. Imagine what would happen if the local multiplex had one “blockbuster screen.” Imagine seeing something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter on it.

Movies still are struggling—last week’s Resident Evil: Extinction grossed more than its predecessor but actually sold fewer tickets. Theater-going quickly is growing from a regular activity to a special occasion; perhaps it’s time theaters began treating themselves the same way. They have little to lose.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

She Was Wongo!

Gypsy and her cronies recently survived something called a Wild Women Weekend, and apparently they’re so bedragged and bushed that she hasn’t even posted any pictures yet, much less tell me anything about it. But some guy in a trench coat and fedora…or was it a checkered blazer and bowler?...anyway, this guy slipped me this video, swearing up and down that it was actual footage of the cataclysmic event. I only had to pay him $50 for exclusive rights:

Man, no wonder Gypsy’s been mum. Well-coiffed, beefcake barbarians are hard to come by.

(Sad bit of disclosure: I actually rented this movie, which came on a Something Weird DVD with two other lovely barbarian women flicks. Yes, I did watch all three, but I can't remember the titles of the other two, probably because Wongo euthanized what remained of my brain.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bride of Stardust

Stories spring from a common well of tradition, reaching back to the storyteller carrying down fables and legends from their youth long before the literary could live on the page. Everything is connected, everything inspiring offspring, everything a subconscious creature of its past, both personal and ancestral. Nothing is wholly original, and originality does not make a quality story. What does is the telling, the belief of the teller in his characters, her imagination, and their ability to captivate.

And yet, when a film bares a striking resemblance to another, the natural tendency is to compare and contrast, often unfavorably. A modern story, seeking at least acceptance, is forced to live against expectations built by a well-loved predecessor; if the newcomer fails to surpass, then it is branded a failure.

Stardust has been discovering this conundrum for about a month now. A fairy tale adventure with a healthy sense of whimsical wit? The Princess Bride staked that territory years ago and registered it at the Cinema Classics Department. And to be honest, the two films do share several traits: based on books by well-known authors (Neil Gaiman and William Goldman), an adventure rooted in the emotion of love, an adaptation with a major tonal change from the original work, pirates and evil princes, unexpected modern humor enlightening the faerie tropes, and, unfortunately, a less-than successful theatrical run despite generally favorable reviews.

But that’s only the surface scan. A fundamental difference exists between the two features: One is a story about a fairy tale, while the other is the fairy tale. The Princess Bride’s well-known twist is that the narrator tells the “good-parts” version, leaving out all the overly mushy and (in the book, at least) the more dreary traits. Stardust, however, has no such censor, and the whimsy plays hand-in-hand with a twisted darkness borne from the Brothers Grimm. Unlike Westley and Buttercup’s light-hearted adventure, real danger awaits in Stardust’s more macabre world.

The two films, despite their easy kinship, are two completely different experiences.

That’s the significance of the telling. One change in perspective, and the entire narrative atmosphere shifts, touching characters, schemes, motivations, and setting. Those expecting a spiritual rewind of The Princess Bride will be disappointed, a fault not of Stardust’s making but one for which the film is marked. Both films may succeed in their own way, but because one came before, the other is the lesser copy that didn’t quite get it right.

Expectations can ruin a good movie, as can history buttressed by an easily accessible archive. Since the 1980s, home video in its various forms has allowed moviegoers to watch films endlessly rather than wait for the next theatrical showing. Favorite movies are learned by rote, favorite lines repeated to friends and fellow fans as cultural code words, and all the while little forgotten failures become reborn as cult treasures. Why chance another story when a well-loved familiar is in hand? Maybe that’s the hurtful concession—while cinema now has a second chance for stranger tales, the attention of the audience is mostly elsewhere.

And thus, a tale well told is left unreeling in vacant theaters, undone by both similarity and difference.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Good Trade

I’m not a melancholy man, nor do tearjerkers manage to manipulate me. One thing, though, one thing, no matter the story, will blindside a raw weakness in me and crack the stoic.

The last full measure.

Whether it’s the regiment of black Union soldiers, silently marching to their willing deaths on the beach, willing to die to prove to everyone that they are worthy of humanity not slavery, and the white soldiers, the ones who depraved them, realizing what they’re about to do and spontaneously snapping to a salute.

Whether it’s the metal man created for malevolence but forgetting and learning from a boy to be more than tool, the metal man hunted without mercy by those who fear him and in so doing launch their own destruction to rain down on them…it is the act of the metal man, shaken from his anger, to smile, turn, and fly into the annihilating rain to save everyone in exchange for himself, joyfully calling out his ad hoc hero’s name: “Suuuuperman.”

The tears flow.

Six years ago today, malevolence fell on us, sending thousands to their deaths in New York and Washington, DC. Six years ago, I drove by the Pentagon 10 minutes before it was hit, only to helplessly watch the television with most of my coworkers as the towers fell.

Within the horror, heroism bloomed. Firefighters, police, and emergency workers responded, many coming in off-duty. They chose this. They chose this life, they chose this moment. But an old wartime saying hammers the reality home: Real heroes never come home.

They give up their life so that another may live.

The people on Flight 93 understood. They and those who chose to enter the burning destruction, full knowing the end would come without warning but also knowing others would die if they didn’t, they understood what they had to do, and what awful but awesome trade they had to make. One life for another.

Today, tomorrow, forever, that is the ultimate lesson of September 11. It was a lesson that propelled strangers to come after the fires were out to dig through the wreckage on a faint hope more were alive. It was a lesson that fueled unrivaled donations to the American Red Cross and other emergency organizations. It was a lesson we should never forget: That the ultimate gift we can give is of ourselves.

Tonight, in the quiet night, the painful memory of that day perhaps is dulled, scabbed over by time. But then I think of the heroes, the real heroes, glancing up at the hell above them, yet still going in. And the tears flow.

Monday, September 10, 2007

American Wuxia

Patiently we waited in the AFI Silver Theatre lobby, milling amongst the display cases laden with pop culture relics recalling our childhood. While starring at the synthesized one-hit records and Rubik’s Cubes, we would hear the muffled roar of Brazil’s climax, signaling that its showing was running late. We didn’t mind.

Hey, we were simply waiting for Jack Burton.

When John Carpenter’s oddity barreled into mid-1980s theaters, the likes of The Goonies and Gremlins formed audiences’ conception of fantasy adventures with their amusement-park-ride décor, light-show magic, and deformed monster suits. General assumption dictated that Big Trouble in Little China was more of the same, and the trailers only reinforced that notion. But Carpenter—who, with the acclaimed and commercially successful Starman, had just shaken free of the horror genre after a string of hit movies—Carpenter had something different in mind. Something that mainstream American audiences or critics knew nothing about.

A riff on wuxia, done up sai yan style.

Also known as “Hong Kong swordplay,” wuxia long has been a crazy subtext to the martial arts cinema. Combining kung fu philosophy and swordsmen traditions with a mishmash of fantasy, comedy, horror, and tragic romance, wuxia movies play a melodeon of emotions, flipping and flying along on wires among lavish sets and colorful costumes mimicking a symbolic edition of ancient China. Although the genre’s roots reach back as far as the 1920s, the heyday of wuxia really started during the kung fu boom of the 1970s. The following decade, though, began with a radical reworking of the mythos—Tsui Hark’s Zu, Warriors of Magic Mountain. After the international success of Star Wars, Hark borrowed that space opera’s special effect techniques and Saturday matinee storytelling to translate what had been a style heavy on Buddhist and historical tradition to something more buoyant and randomly adventurous. The more dramatic traits of wuxia were and are still present, but in many of the popular specimens, they fight for screen time with the insanity.

It was this version of wuxia that Carpenter discovered and fell in love with, so much so that as he rode his recent Hollywood success, he decided to create his own Hong Kong fantasia, but from his perspective. Which, in the end, turned out to be ours.

As we finally drifted into the screening room, we were engulfed by an art deco cavern. The Silver has three theaters, two of which resemble the stadium-seating efficiencies of modern multiplexes. But the third has been restored to its mid-20th century form, its tapestry wallpaper embellishing between the wood carvings roiling on the walls. The ceiling feels a mile or two away. The screen is simply huge, while the seating dwarfs the 50 or so now finding perfect seats everywhere.

As the lights dim and the old Fox logo appears, there’s a strange stillness I can’t place. It is anticipation: As soon as Egg appears, questioned by his cynical lawyer, an ovation rises in the darkness, followed by giggling and geek-riven glee. The Three Storms get a even louder one when they appear in their grandiose entree. Ole Jack, meanwhile, got complete silence, because everybody wanted to hear every single line.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a theater watching a movie everybody with me adored. Maybe it’s been never.

Big Trouble in Little China flopped back in Big 80s, eclipsed by, all things, Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. Critics shamed Carpenter for using Asian stereotypes in his movie, never realizing that the director actually was paying proper homage to the films the Asian industry was churning out. Those critics, and unfortunately the mainstream audience, were unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema; their ignorance led to misunderstanding, and Big Trouble ended with the dreaded “ahead of its time” tag.

Over the years, Carpenter’s fun opus found its fans and slowly rose in estimation, strangely coming to help define the cinematic artistry of the decade that spurned it. Blame Jack Burton.

Sitting in the Silver, loving every minute of a movie I knew far too well, I realized two things. First, akin to the screening of The Terminator, I noticed things I never did before, but this time, it had to do with Carpenter and writer W.D. Richter’s (Buckaroo Banzai) sly character humor. Jack is Jack, and Egg is bemusingly sage-like, but I’ve never noticed how hilarious the globs of exposition were ratta-tating from Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law, nor how gloriously earnest Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi tried to be.

The second is, well, Jack himself. The accepted great joke of Big Trouble in Little China is that Jack Burton thinks he’s the hero, but he’s really Wang’s sidekick. With one big exception, Jack doesn’t accomplish much heroic, and instead stumbles around completely out of his depth among a dozen Chinese hells, elemental henchmen, and Six Demon Bags.

Just like the audience.

That’s the honest fun of Big Trouble—Jack is one of us. For all of his bluster, Jack’s perspective is the same as his creator’s—the outsider experiencing Chinese magic and mythology for the first time. Carpenter knew he could never make a pure wuxia movie, so he made a twisted translation with a familiar cliché. The real joke of Jack Burton is that he’s more than a confused sidekick—he’s a Western hero waylaid in a Chinese wuxia movie, the modern cowboy equipped with his one-liners and bravado hopelessly out-of-place. Jack grounds the wuxia insanity with well-intentioned buffoonery, allowing his audience to both laugh and learn. We know Jack, even though Kurt Russell is playing a parody, and Burton calms the strangeness by entertaining us with what we know.

Big Trouble in Little China transcends nostalgia because it’s a preface, a guided introduction to another culture’s unique genre. Years later, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would become a surprise hit escaping the art house, opening the multiplex door for modern-day wuxia. Every year, Hong Kong fantasies perform for the mainstream—from House of Flying Daggers to The Banquet to Hero. This time, audiences were ready for the magic.

Thank Jack.