Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best/Worst of the Decade!

As the decade draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to take a stab at putting together a best of/worst of list of Fantasmo-esque films from the past 10 years. While I recognize the superficial nature of these types of ranking efforts, I nevertheless enjoy taking them in (and hope you will as well). If nothing else they’re fun to debate. In looking back I wouldn’t say it was the greatest decade in genre filmdom, but it wasn’t bad either . . . and it was MUCH better than the 90’s! There were some bona fide classics which emerged, and a host of horrifically bad efforts as well. For putting together this list I stuck with identifying relatively major films, so more obscure (yet cool) titles aren't represented here (e.g. I’d certainly put Goodbye Dragon Inn or OSS 117: Cario, Nest of Spies on a best of list, but so few have seen them they likely wouldn’t register). So without any further ado here are my top 10 lists, both bad and good.

Top 10 Best Films

1Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): I don’t know about you, but Bruce Campbell had fallen off my radar for a while prior to this. He just hadn’t made anything that jumped out in an Evil Dead/Brisco County Jr. sort of way in a number of years. And the same was true for Phantasm director Don Coscarelli. Then the two team up for this unlikely story of the later years of Elvis and JFK as they battle an evil mummy! Not only is it a fun movie, it’s also surprisingly touching and gives Bruce what may be his best role ever. It’s a shame he appears to have passed on Bubba Nosferatu.

2Donnie Darko (2001): Arguably the biggest cult film of the decade, this one is a minor masterpiece. Director Richard Kelly came up with a melancholy, intelligent sci-fi outing that is sure to be the object of many a midnight show to come. He also understood the power of a great soundtrack, and his selections from the 80’s are top notch. Any film that opens with Echo and the Bunnymen garners instant points!

3The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004): I don’t always like Wes Anderson’s films, but they never fail to be interesting. Life Aquatic is amazing. Having Bill Murray play a washed-up, Jacques Cousteau type character was brilliant. And I love the idea of competing marine biologists (I believe no matter what field you’re in, be it librarianship or whatever, you should always cultivate a nemesis). I personally would love to own a pair of the Team Zissou Adidas sneakers. Apparently there was an unsuccessful grass roots effort to get Adidas to actually produce them for the mass market. You can still get them on Ebay where folks have made their own custom versions, but I digress.

4Night Watch (2004): The inaugural film in the adaptation of a series of Russian fantasy novels, Night Watch was a breath of fresh air, particularly in the arena of vampire movies. It had cool, Matrix-like flourishes, and established a fully-realized world of its own that was akin to something on the scale of Lord of the Rings. Although it deviated significantly from the novels, enough was retained to satisfy fans (at least non-sticklers like me). The follow-up Day Watch appeared to tie up any loose ends, but there are still two books to go. Here's hoping we'll see those in the upcoming decade.

5Team America: World Police (2004): Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to prove that they are geniuses. Reviving Gerry Anderson style supermarionation for the purpose of skewering the current political scene (along with Michael Bay action films) was a jaw-droppingly brilliant idea. How they convinced anyone to back it financially is nothing short of miraculous, and its dismal failure at the box office probably insured that such an endeavor won’t be undertaken any time in the near future. Perhaps best of all is the incredibly catchy soundtrack, which will lodge itself firmly in your mind for a good, long while after the credits have rolled.

6The Devil’s Rejects (2005): Let’s be clear upfront, I’m not the world’s biggest Rob Zombie fan. But as I mentioned in my post on remakes, I respect that he has a unique voice in the world of horror cinema. I’d rather see 10 Rob Zombie movies than one of the lifeless retreads we’ve endured in recent years. Having said that, The Devil’s Rejects is the closest he’s come for my money to making a great film. It has a terrific villain in the form of William Forsythe, the 70’s vibe is spot on, and it’s often visually stunning. The drawback for me is that it’s grittier than I care for, but if it’s your cup of tea then there’s little not to like.

7The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008): Here’s another one where it’s somewhat of a miracle the film even exists. Almost a decade after the first X-Files feature, Chris Carter crafted what could best be described as an anti-blockbuster. Arriving in the heart of the summer movie season, I Want to Believe was unapologetically minimalistic. No explosions, relatively little action, and absolutely not epic. It doesn’t concern itself with the main story arc of X-Files, but rather a standalone tale that is touchy on a number of fronts. For this reason alone it merits attention, even if it left audiences cold during its initial run.

8JCVD (2008): If you would have told me in the year 2000 by decade’s end I would be raving about the brilliance of a film starring and named after Jean-Claude Van Damme, much less putting it on a top 10 list, I would have called you crazy. In defiance of all odds that is exactly what has happened, and I can’t recommend this movie more strongly. Not only is it a cool riff on action cinema, it is proof positive that Van Damme has strong acting chops that have yet to be explored. Let’s just say I find myself unusually excited about the upcoming Universal Soldier 3 which teams him and Lundgren up again!

9Black Dynamite (2009): In the interest of full disclosure I have not seen this film, but feel confident on the strength of the trailer and every review I’ve read that it belongs on this list! Sadly it didn’t get a strong release, but hopefully video will see it become the cult favorite it deserves to be. Michael Jai White has officially made up for Spawn!

10Drag Me to Hell (2009): After far too much Spider-Man for my tastes, it was great to see Sam Raimi in a stunning return to form with this wildly, over-the-top horror film. Some were disappointed that this was PG-13, but frankly it wasn’t missing a thing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve said it before in an earlier post, but the sequence with the goat is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time . . . and classic Raimi. If you liked Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, you’ll love this movie.

Top 10 Worst Films

1Battlefield Earth (2000): If there’s one thing I can appreciate, it’s when a big star cashes in hard won clout to make a movie that is truly personal. Look no further than Seagal’s On Deadly Ground. John Travolta made his personal opus in adapting Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Meant to be the beginning of a blockbuster saga, the movie utterly tanked. I don’t think this was due as much to the content, which is pretty standard sci-fi stuff, as it was to questionable choices. The clearly expensive production just isn’t very attractive, and it has sort of a bland lead in the form of Barry Pepper. To be fair I don’t know how much you can really put that at his doorstep, as he isn’t given much to work with. At the heart of it all though is Travolta. His villainous turn ranks as one of the all-time most over-the-top performances ever committed to film – which is both good and bad. On the positive side it gives the film some life and is fun to watch. On the bad side it turns the proceedings into total camp . . . which probably wasn’t the intention. If you like this sort of thing it doesn’t get much better (or worse) than Battlefield Earth.

2Monkeybone (2001): I’m not familiar with the source material for this film, but it must be pretty outrageous stuff . . . and it’s always surprising when a movie like this gets made. Unfortunately what seems to have happened is that those who greenlighted it realized too late that they’d approved something that had the potential to be quirky and interesting (horrors). As a result Monkeybone was reportedly edited in order to put together something palatable for a mass audience. To no one’s surprise the final product is a disjointed mess. On that level Monkeybone is not a good movie. However one can still see the vestiges of what promised to be a truly special film, and interested parties should (and likely will) continue to seek this out in the future. It would be great to see a true director’s cut, as Monkeybone is ripe for such treatment.

3The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002): Eddie Murphy has carved out a pretty decent comeback in family films, this one was an expensive misfire. I’d love to see him return to some of his 80’s greatness, or at minimum get offered some stronger projects. That the star of Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and 48 Hours is stuck playing Pluto Nash is just unfortunate. Enough said.

4Rollerball (2002): I know I just wrote a big piece on the worthiness of remakes, but here is a perfect example of the type of remake that creates such bad blood. The original Rollerball isn’t the greatest movie ever made by any stretch, but it’s fairly entertaining and has an interesting concept. In some ways it’s perfect for an update as it doesn’t have that high level of rabid fandom that other similar properties do (e.g. Logan’s Run). Truth be told when I heard the director of Die Hard was at the helm, I figured this would be a home run. And it had one of the greatest teaser posters ever. Alas the action was unexciting, and Chris Klein didn’t prove to be a substitute for James Caan.

5Thunderbirds (2004): When you look at Gerry Anderson’s original show, it wasn’t the awesome storylines or well-developed characters that kept kids glued to their sets - it was the puppets (Team America sure got that part right)! So it was no surprise that Thunderbirds were not go at the box office. The casting of Ben Kingsley as The Hood was relatively inspired, but everything else not so much. Basically it’s a movie that is puzzling to anyone too young to remember the original and off-putting to longtime fans.

6The Wicker Man (2006): Again a remake. The original is such a fantastic film, that it’s a tall hurdle to clear in doing something worthwhile in terms of an update. Interestingly it has a cool director (Neil LaBute) and great cast (Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn), so you’d think it might have a shot. Nope. Particularly crazy is the outlandish performance by Cage who is in rare form. Don’t get me wrong, I like when Cage is in full on Cage mode (e.g. Vampire’s Kiss, Wild At Heart) . . . just not here. I always thought Ewan McGregor would’ve been good in the role, but he couldn’t have saved this.

7Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007): I didn’t hate the first Alien Vs. Predator film as some did. It had a cool concept, but was unfortunately a bit watered down. Frankly I preferred it to Alien Resurrection. The announcement of Requiem didn’t excite me at all, but it did have a great tagline – “This Christmas there will be no peace on Earth.” Say what you will but that’s pretty good. Giving it the subtitle of Requiem also makes it sound as though it may be high minded fare for a movie depicting a conflict between aliens and predators. Unfortunately the movie is a total mess. It’s not just that the plot and characters are weak, the film looks bad. You literally cannot see the action most of the time. In some cases (e.g. the original Alien) this is a stylistic choice, here it looks like someone forgot to pay the electric bill.

8Hulk (2003): The truth is I’m of two minds on this movie. While on one level I appreciate that Ang Lee attempted to do something radical for a summer blockbuster, it simply doesn’t measure up to the larger than life nature of the title character. The comic book visual style is pretty cool, there are a few great Hulk action sequences, and Nick Nolte turns in a performance beyond description. I’m betting in a few years I warm up to this one, but that hasn’t happened yet. For what it’s worth it’s not as lifeless as the follow up with Edward Norton.

9Hollow Man (2000): This was such a major disappointment. The material was perfect for Verhoeven, and it certainly bears some of his crazy trademark touches, but the end result is underwhelming. Interestingly I watched the first 30 minutes of the DTV sequel starring Christian Slater and found it more entertaining. That’s the great thing about DTV, it rarely favors style over substance.

10Halloween: Resurrection (2002): This installment came and went without showing up on my radar, and then I randomly came across it on cable one night. It reminds me of the old saying what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise. Not much as it turns out. Say what you will about Zombie’s reimaginings, but they’re a far cry better than this. It makes the Friday the 13th reboot look like a work of unparalleled genius. In the right hands I don’t have a problem with the concept they were trying to pull off (i.e. reality television meets the horror genre). Recently I just saw a great example of a similar effort in the British show Dead Set (zombies meet Big Brother). Unfortunately these were the wrong hands.

So there you have it a best of/worst of list for the 2000’s. As I said in the intro, these kinds of lists are never satisfactory, in my mind they serve to highlight standouts (of which there are many). Feel free to comment and share others you think are worthy (or unworthy : )

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fantasmo Episode 52: Lugosi Forever!

Hey Superfans!

It’s a new year and as we like to do here at Fantasmo, we’ll be starting things off right with some bona fide classics. For this very special episode, we’re focusing on some post-Dracula efforts from the legendary Bela Lugosi. Much adoration is given to the late, great Boris Karloff. He brought life to Frankenstein, creeped us out when teamed up with Val Lewton, and generally turned in a host of excellent performances throughout his legendary career. Bela Lugosi, while attaining icon status with Dracula at around the same time, wasn’t quite so fortunate. Although he was granted some good projects early on, eventually Hollywood relegated him to terrible cameos or riffs on his most famous role. The example most folks are familiar with of course are his collaborations with Ed Wood, as depicted famously by Martin Landau in the excellent Tim Burton film. For whatever reason, Lugosi could never seem to break out or escape typecasting the positive way Karloff did.

Here at Fantasmo HQ we have a lot of love for Lugosi, and are excited to screen three of his best. No cheapies here friends (although those are great in their own way), only Grade A classic horror! Here are your full Episode 52 details:

When: Friday, January 8th, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 p.m.: Return of the Vampire

9:15 p.m.: The Black Cat

10:30 p.m.: The Raven

Can you imagine a greater lineup or a better evening? We sure can’t! Be sure not to miss these timeless horror classics on our bigger than life screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To Remake or Not to Remake?

One of the coolest aspects of Fantasmo is the conversations that are generated during the course of the evening by the films being screened. At our most recent outing with Dr. Syn, discussion veered off on a tangent to Patrick McGoohan’s classic series The Prisoner. Specifically talk was directed toward the new AMC remake of sorts starring Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. Before I go any further I have to warn you that this piece may get into some spoilerish territory of The Prisoner and other things, so proceed with caution. It is safe to say that the majority of the folks involved in the conversation were fans of the original show, myself being included. In fact for my part, I would say The Prisoner is perhaps my favorite piece of filmed fiction ever produced (television, movie, or otherwise). McGoohan created a truly timeless work of art that is as relevant today as it ever was. When I initially heard about the possibility of a remake I was skeptical, as the original was quite surreal and unlikely to lend itself well to a retelling. After all the end of the show sees McGoohan literally confronting the dark side of himself, and learning he was (as portrayed in a living, breathing metaphor) his own jailer. Once you’ve witnessed that punchline and all that it represents, the thought of doing it again wouldn’t appear to make much sense. Who would care? This point was what fueled the discussion, as it brought up the larger issue of the validity of remakes in general. Is there such a thing as a worthy remake, or are they all just bankrupt endeavors from folks who have run out of ideas, wishing to make a quick dollar off of a familiar property? This is the question I seek to answer.

My knee jerk reaction to remakes, and I think many feel the same way, is that they tend to be rather lazy. Take for example the recent reboot of Friday the 13th. It plays around with familiar elements of the films, but it captures neither the essence which made the originals great, nor covers any new ground that makes the territory worth revisiting. It’s just empty calories that make for a big opening weekend box office, but not a lasting impression. And how many of these have we seen in recent memory? Last House on the Left, The Hitcher, The Fog, The Hills Have Eyes, Death Race 2000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, etc. And the list just keeps getting bigger with remakes of Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and others on the way. If you run the numbers, the sheer volume of terrible remakes out there do not inspire much enthusiasm for the artists behind these endeavors, nor the potential quality of the final products. As such it’s easy to understand why fans don’t react well to these, given their dime a dozen nature.

For me the notion of a classic or beloved piece of work being revisited is not in and of itself a bad thing. The perfect example of this would be in the theatre world where you have numerous interpretations of the work of Shakespeare. Not only are his works given inexhaustible life by the interpretations of the performers, but in many instances they are spun in a new fashion (e.g. an update of the time period). This is evident in recent film adaptations as well such as Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. One may question the quality of any given interpretation, but the notion of staging a unique Shakespearian production is not the subject of fiery debate. New generations of artists pick up the baton and keep the work fresh and relevant for their own particular moment in time. And like him or not, one would be hard pressed to argue that Shakespeare is not one of the most (if not the most) important artistic giant with regard to the written word. With that in mind, the next question would be if we can remake and retell the greatest works of literature, then why should The Prisoner, much less Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, be untouchable?

My own personal answer to the question is that no piece of art, no matter how revered, should be untouchable (even The Untouchables itself was re-envisioned . . . not to mention DePalma’s reboots of Scarface and Mission: Impossible). Once an artist puts something out in the open forum of the entertainment universe, it becomes a part of that fabric and forever altered by the perceptions of those who experience it. So the only “pure vision” is actually in the mind of its author (which is why I don’t have a big problem with folks like Lucas or Friedkin revising their classics, even if the final result isn’t pleasing to me). By extending their work to the world of artists and critics, which on some level is all of us, they are accepting all the risks of compromise that come with that action. All art is a collaboration. There is the issue of copyright of course, but that is an issue of economics more than artistry. Outside of any legal considerations, the morphing of that original concept by other “artists” is fair game. When you think about it, sequels fall under this banner as well as they are often extensions by others of an original concept, even if they don’t follow the exact plot. For example Dan O’Bannon may have come up with the story for Alien, but chances are he didn’t envision the place James Cameron eventually took things . . . yet most would agree that Aliens was a worthy film.

The trouble, and general lack of goodwill toward remakes/retellings/re-envisionings in the current climate, stems from the quantity vs. quality angle. It seems that Hollywood has veered away from concerns of putting forward visions that truly expand or enhance original material, and instead seek to cash in on pure name recognition. The template is to find a hotshot director, hand over a revered property the studio owns, and have them crank out a slick-looking update of the original in the minimum time/cost required. Even if the movie goes down in the second weekend due to bad word of mouth, chances are it will make a profit from the first weekend. And that’s not even counting foreign grosses and video. Consequently it is a rare occasion when remakes in this day and age manage to be both profitable and interesting. Despite this condition, those few films (and I’m including television here as well) that manage to say something new with the classic material have a right to make their artistic case. In my mind they constitute an experiment, and therefore provide food for thought – even when they aren’t successfully executed. The fact is that they are attempting to push forward in some fashion, and that is often a worthy endeavor in itself. It is only through the encouragement of such experimentations, that other artists are emboldened to chart new paths.

It’s taken me a while to come around to making this conclusion, and I can clearly identify the turning point. When I was reading Vern’s Seagalogy, he talked about his admiration of Seagal for making the wildly non-commercial environmental epic On Deadly Ground. While noting that Seagal’s vision was a departure from grounds less deadly to box office receipts, he admired him for cashing in his clout to do something personal (even if it wasn’t perfectly executed). In making his case, Vern drew a parallel with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot (mostly) remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He felt some admiration for Van Sant for using his Good Will Hunting clout, and undertaking a project that was maligned by practically everyone from the word go. Van Sant thought it would be interesting to see what would result in trying to (mostly) perfectly replicate Psycho using the tools/artists of the day. In this sense he was not simply remaking a film to cash in, he was engaging in a true experiment with purpose. Now mileage may widely vary as to what folks thought about the worth of the purpose, but that’s the nature of art anyway.

The fact is when I saw Van Sant’s Psycho during its original run, I along with just about everybody else thought it was a travesty. I haven’t seen it since, and suspect my assessment of its success as entertainment or a good film would likely not change very much. That being said, having listened to Vern’s argument, I became firmly convinced that Gus Van Sant’s Psycho had a right to exist. Going further I believed it was good that it did exist, and that Van Sant courageously tried a bold experiment. Although the experiment was not successful in terms of garnering praise or producing a great film, I believe he answered the question he sought to answer (even if it was not the answer he and the audience were hoping for). If nothing else that answer will insure there are no shot-for-shot remakes of Vertigo anytime soon. And let’s be honest, what he attempted was a far cry from what we’re given in lesser remakes such as Friday the 13th. There was something behind what he was doing beyond making money. To look at more recent efforts for comparison, I would say his stab at Psycho was close in spirit to Rob Zombie’s Halloween I & II. Zombie parroted certain elements of the originals, particularly in Halloween, but he took it a step further and gave each his own spin. The fact is both directors had a vision and an artistic reason for what they were doing, and I can respect that even if I didn’t care for the films.

I keep picking on Friday the 13th, but it’s not just these flash in the pan types of remakes that lack vision. One can look at more respected auteurs and encounter the same problem. There are few directors I hold in higher esteem than the legendary John Carpenter. Yet when he sought to update Village of the Damned, the results were decidedly mediocre. Instead of putting his own touches on a film I’m sure he was fond of, he produced one of the empty calorie remakes. It has all the plot elements of the original film, cool ILM effects, and a great genre cast, but it lacks anything that would distinguish it as being a worthwhile endeavor. There are a couple of minor plot re-workings, but they add nothing significant. What’s interesting though is that Carpenter is actually a director who happens to be adept at remakes. For example Assault on Precinct 13 was an amazing update of Rio Bravo, and he even produced a clever remake of AOP13 years later in the form of Ghost of Mars. Furthermore, Escape From L.A. was a good remake of Escape From New York, which tread the same plot points with a new message. So one can even see the pitfalls and values of remakes within the filmography of a single director.

Bringing this all back to AMC’s The Prisoner, despite my devotion to the original show I feel that it (thus far) is worthy. I’ve only seen the first four episodes of the show, so the ending may disappoint, but it is clear that the makers have done enough to establish that it is not a by-the-numbers, hollow retread. There are visual touches that recall the old show, and the Village/Number Two/Number Six structure is similar, but the execution is much different. This new Prisoner is even more surreal (who would have thought that possible), features a weaker Number Six, and sports a pretty hopeless atmosphere out of the gate. Additionally, the underlying purpose/theme of the show is both a mystery and a departure. McGoohan’s Prisoner early on established personal identity and the struggle against those who would squash it as a central theme. Caviezel’s Prisoner pays lip service to this, but genuinely seems more concerned with just getting out. Now that’s a simpler construct, but I’m thinking they’ll attempt to tie the disjointed narrative together with some message in the end. Whether that’s successful or not is another story, but it’s clear they’ve made a decision not to try to outdo McGoohan (unless Caviezel discovers himself in an ape mask in the end, and launches a rocket).

As far as my enjoyment of the new Prisoner goes, I’ve found it to be interesting but nothing I’ll add to my all-time favorites list. If I were seeing it with no knowledge of the original, I’d probably say it’s a solid series worth seeing (again four episodes in). In the context of the original, it’s certainly nowhere near matching McGoohan’s efforts. It’s stylish and well-mounted, but it doesn’t resonate with me as strongly, nor is it as engaging. That may sound harsh, but remember it’s up against what is perhaps my ultimate favorite. A strength I should mention though is the performances. McKellen is outstanding as one would expect, and Caviezel does a good job with the spin on this Number Six. Six spends much of his time disoriented and is not particularly strong, and that works within the context of this version. Caviezel has taken some hits for a limp portrayal, but it’s smart that he didn’t try to imitate McGoohan . . . because no one could. I think reviews have been overly negative in the press, largely focusing on its comparison to the original. If taken on its own merits, this Prisoner is an interesting diversion and riff on the original.

The most persuasive argument that was advanced during the course of the Fantasmo debate, was that McGoohan had a strong vision that was intensely personal. As such any attempt to replicate or modify that is unacceptable. I understand this position, and on some level feel that myself. However what I would counter with is that appraisal of art, be it merit of concept or execution, is subjective. I don’t think one can apply objective principles in determining whether the artistic endeavor of a remake should be commenced. In other words I couldn’t look at the original Prisoner and objectively state that McGoohan had a strong artistic vision (X) + strong execution of that vision (Y) = the material should not be tampered with (Z). As I said in the beginning, due to the nature of art as a collaborative experience between artist and audience, I believe we must assume that modification will happen on some level once the art is exhibited. The ability to objectively identify merit (e.g. technical/aesthetic values) will be more possible once the modification (in this case remakes) has occurred, but even then subjectivity is going to be a greater factor. There may be a consensus that something is bad (e.g. Friday the 13th), but there will always be some contingent who find the updated/modified material worthwhile on some level.

Long story short, I would suggest that despite mine and the tendency of others to dismiss the majority of remakes out of hand, the right for remakes to be undertaken is legitimate. Unfortunately the trend is toward the by-the-numbers efforts that lack inspiration, but those few which have a vision make the sifting through process worthwhile. Even the noble failures, among which I would count the new Prisoner as it is not the equal of the original, are worth experiencing for what they have to offer. To go back to an earlier example, while I don’t plan on revisiting Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, I’m glad I saw them. They gave me a few new elements to consider, even if the ride was uneven. For what it’s worth I’d love to see Zombie remake Halloween III, as I’m sure he’d do wonders with the evil toymaker plotline. He couldn’t top the original though unless he was able to get Tom Atkins back for the lead, I think we can all agree on that!