Friday, April 24, 2015

My Take on The Blob (1988) by Chuck Russell

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

My review breaks down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

The Blob is a 1988 monster movie directed by Chuck Russell and a remake of a 1958 film of the same name.

Strength of Character: D-

Let’s count the tropes: Jock football-player nice-guy with a friend who’s a Jock football-player asshat. There’s a cheerleader prom-queen with more mettle than expected and a hobo miscreant with shoddy dirt-makeup. Let’s not forget the outsider-badass-mulleteer (“Mulleteer” copyrighted by Luke Elliott 2015) (Not really). Throw in the little boys as the meta-horror-movie fans and the ineffectual sheriff and you’ve well on your way to a baker’s dozen of jelly-filled character tropes.

At least Meg kicked a little ass.
Genre Strength: C

Sorry, you aren't the protagonist. Mullets are required.
Ok so Mr. Nice Paul going early was a clever choice. And this is the first of several money-shots of the film, AKA what we paid to see, and that’s people get swallowed up and dissolved by The Blob. A lot of the effects were effective in these moments, although they were reminiscent of The Thing (1982), and not quite on par, so it’s hard to award too many points. Another stand-out scene was the woman barricaded in the phone booth, surrounded by the blob. The voice on the other end of the line informs her that the sheriff should already be there, and up he floats, complete with identifying badge-shot.

The bigger shots of The Blob, especially in motion, were mostly awful/silly/ridiculous, with the one exception being the blob splayed out in the theater digesting movie-goers. The bits of cheese-ball comedy were sprinkled in that reminded us that this movie isn’t to be taken seriously.

Thematic Poignancy: D

These are the themes I picked up on: Cops, authority-figures, and adults in general, can’t help you. They’re just people too. The government isn’t just untrustworthy, it’s nefarious. The arms race with Russia is out of control, and the folly of the men who first split the atom is doomed to be repeated.

None of these are particularly fresh or even that interesting. In fact, they felt like a shoddy knockoff of the themes of a lot of the other major 80s movies.

Entertainment Value: C-

Somebody really thought motorcycles were badass. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why we were subjected to all the flimsily-setup motorcycle stunts. There’s a lot of that sort of flimsy plot devices being put to use, like the catch in the zipper, hiding in the freezer, etc.

There were a few nice twists, I admit. Especially when The Blob seems to be an alien hitchhiking on the back of a meteorite, but it’s revealed to be man-made.

The scenes involving the two boys, where they discussed horror movie tropes and dealt with the obnoxious guy behind them in the theater, were some of the most entertaining of the film. There is a certain element of fun to the movie. A sense that it knows what it is, a fairly predictable monster flick, and harbors no illusions of grandeur, and decides to be playful with these scenes. The Blob knows it’s no better than the slasher-movie the kids saw at the theater and that any clever movie-goer can predict the outcome of all the major plot points.

Random Notes and Final Grade: D+

* *Slaps newspaper down, revealing face* “Ribbed!”

* I spent half the movie believing the actor who played Brian Flag was a young Ethan Hawke. It was Kevin Dillon, in case you’re wondering.
* What exactly is the purpose of a snow-maker truck equipped with a bulldozer on the front? Is snow-making a sought after service I’m unaware of?

* The girl almost saves the day, then oops, she trips, and our mulleteer has to rescue her. *Yawn* 

* Hey look guys, an “It Lives!” ending

Friday, April 10, 2015

My take on Godzilla (2014) Directed by Gareth Edwards

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

My review breaks down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Godzilla is a 2014 American science fiction monster film directed by Gareth Edwards. It is a reboot of the Godzilla film franchise and retells the origins of Godzilla in contemporary times as a "terrifying force of nature" –via Wikipedia

Strength of Character: D+

Where to begin? I suppose I’ll start with what rescued this movie from receiving a solid F for strength of character, and that’s Brian Cranston. I assume his character had a name, but no one would remember him as anything but Brian Cranston. BC is fantastic here, milking the opening sequences and turning that milk into blue meth (Ok maybe not that part). The failing nuclear reactor scene where BC’s wife, played by Juliette Binoche, adds a weight and pathos to the narrative and sets the tone for the character-heavy drama that we are about to enjoy. BC is a man obsessed, a man against the world, and we are right there with him. Let’s do this.

And then he and all that pathos fall off a catwalk and get zipped up in a body bag.

Characters? Who are you kidding? This is an old-school monster movie, the only character you need to worry about is a little guy named GODZILLA. He’s basically Earth’s bouncer called in to kick the shit out of some unruly drunks trying to hook up before last call. Silly humans, thinking they are important.

And that’s the problem. The fatal flaw of this movie. It can’t decide what it is. It’s got a whopping case of dissociative identity disorder.

The bag of dirty diapers on top of the dumpster fire of this movie’s characters is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “Sir Snorefest” himself, Ford Brody. AKA G.I. Joe Shmoe.  Who will ever forget the moment he spoke those immortal words, in a blip above a monotone, to the dying Brian Cranston?

“Hey, stay with me.”

I know, brings a tear to the eye even writing it. He’s all like, “hey,” in case BC wasn’t listening, and then he doesn’t want his dad to die so he adds: “Stay with me.” Legendary. (Sarcasm font, in case you missed it).

And let’s not forget Dr. Serizawa, who walks around the whole movie slack-jawed and mumbling “let them fight.” Take another bong-hit, Dr. S.

Genre Strength: B+

This is a monster movie. Forget what the previews told you, forget the all the implications that it was going to be about the characters, forget Brian Cranston.

Is that all forgotten? Good.

Now watch some old Godzilla films, I’m not talking about that runt from 1998, I’m talking some lizard-mascot fighting another mascot on top of a model city. That’s what this movie is, at its radioactive core.

And how does it succeed in that respect? It knocks it out of the park, and then Godzilla steps on the park. This movie rips open the jaws of Godzilla (1998) and breathes a blue laser down its throat. This is modern CGI at its finest, and the genuinely awe-inspiring sequences of the Thunder-From-WAY-Down-Under, Big G, are near-flawless. The only thing keeping me from giving this movie an A+ for genre is the aforementioned identity crisis.

Thematic Poignancy: C

Man vs. Nature. More specifically, man vs THE LEATHERY BOOTHEEL OF NATURE OH MY GOD IT’S CRUSHING ME. This film brings Godzilla back to center. Big G is an incarnation of a natural disaster, as immense and unstoppable as a category 5 hurricane. The MUTOs are the “villains,” but even they aren’t given some sort of human-intelligence. They are big animals just looking to mate and feed. It’s even sort of cute when the winged one defends big momma.

The raw power of nature becomes the focus and theme of the movie, yet it feels a bit hokey for my tastes. Probably because Dr. S spells it out for the audience every other time he’s on screen.

Entertainment Value: C-

After you stub your toe, amirite?
So, entertainment-wise, this was a mixed up bag of radioactive monster eggs. On the one hand, this movie rocked my entertainment system. You should’ve heard that patented roar on my woofer, seriously. The action was fun. The tension? Generally tense. The monsters delivered an epic performance.

The movie uses subtlety well, keeping the creatures obscured for most of the film, barely glimpsed on the small television screens, or behind a cloud of dust or smoke. Director Gareth Edwards deftly uses a quiet before the roar. (I said roar instead of storm, see what I did there? DID YOU SEE?)

Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. They had the right idea, in my opinion, to try and go the character route. Their mistake was in letting BC and basically that whole angle die off early. By the time I saw Sir Snorefest predictably reunited with his family I’d completely jumped off that poorly-positioned ship.

Random Notes and Final Grade: C

*Godzilla is the real protagonist here, we’re just led to believe he’s the villain. It was an interesting move, but one I think leaves the audience at a loss for something to root for until the very end.

*The skydiving scene is visually awe-inspiring and gorgeous. And those seem like paltry adjectives to describe it. The look of that scene alone sold millions of tickets, and they were smart to use it so prominently in the trailers. 

*I’m actually intrigued by the potential confirmed sequel. I would go into the movie in the right mindset next time, looking for Godzilla vs New Monster and disaster-porn, but little else.

Friday, March 27, 2015

My take on "The Thing" (1982) directed by John Carpenter

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

A parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research station, taking the appearance of the researchers that it absorbs, and paranoia develops within the group.” –from Wikipedia
Strength of Character: C+

R.J. MacReady is our hard-ass pilot protagonist as portrayed by Kurt Russel. He doesn’t have any backstory to speak of, none of the characters do. They just are who they are. It works for the most part, but at times I wanted a little more emotional attachment to the people being killed, and the best way to achieve that would be through more attention to character development. It would’ve made for a more devastating film.

Nice hat, MacReady. You're a real trendsetter.
The more you think of the characters in this movie the more frustrated you become. They are at some U.S. outpost in Antarctica, we gather, but for what purpose? Are they soldiers? Because they don’t act like soldiers with their complete lack of discipline and command structure. They certainly are armed like soldiers, with a whole cache of weapons and explosives including two flame throwers.

There are two doctors, doctor Copper and doctor Blair, but their purpose at the facility is never really explored. And why do they have some computer that can play a version of asteroid and somehow determine the threat posed by these alien cells?

But most of these questions didn’t occur to me with my first viewing. These came up recently as I was hyper-aware and critical of the characters. Ultimately this movie isn’t about its characters, it’s about The Thing. We only care about the characters enough to remember who’s who during the epic wire-in-the-blood scene.

Genre Strength: A

Speaking of the wire-in-the-blood scene, the plotline of the infiltrator is as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  It added a psychological element to the film, a thought-experiment on trust and distrust.

This movie, much like “Alien,” uses isolation as a vehicle to horror. The characters are as stranded and alone as possible, far from help, far from civilization. That sense of isolation sets the audience on edge well before The Thing starts to have its way.

The Thing itself is a macabre masterpiece. There’s a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics that called the “Uncanny Valley.” Described on Wikipedia as “When features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.” I think you can see this at play with the design of the puppets in this movie. They are just recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine.
And those autopsy scenes were delightfully disgusting. They did a great job with the prop work.

Thematic Poignancy: C+

Who can you trust if someone amongst you is a doppelganger? More of a thought-experiment than a theme, perhaps, but it is a chilling reminder of just how hard it is to know what people are hiding.

Could you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? The survivors at the end choose to do it, but the decision comes a little too easily. I would’ve liked to see some more teeth gnashing, or for one of them to be far less on board with the plan.

Overall this wasn’t a film with a deep well of poignant themes, but that’s ok. It didn’t really need them.

Entertainment Value: B-

The movie is an undeniable horror classic, but it is also imperfect. There’s some cheesy lines delivered by Kurt Russel like the cartoony: “Because it’s different than us, see?” and the line delivered while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to explode in his hand, “Yeah, fuck you too!” The 80s were more forgiving of this sort of thing, I know, but it only earned an eye roll from me. Did I mention he’s holding lit dynamite that is about to explode at any moment?
But to focus too much on the negatives is to ignore the positives, and there were many. The grotesque props and puppets are the literal stuff of nightmares. The eponymous Thing is consistently equal parts frightening, gruesome, uncanny, and depraved. John Carpenter hit it out of the park with this one.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B

*Windows wipes a scalpel on his pants to sanitize it during the wire in the blood scene. If that’s the sterilization procedure anyone who goes after the infected guy is actually The Thing via that dirty scalpel.
*You would think they’d all stick together once they know they’re all human. As soon as someone is alone all bets are off.
*It was nice way to play with the emotions of the audience at the beginning when we see the helicopter shooting at that dog. I wanted to hate those guys and love the poor dog, we all did, I think.