Wednesday, October 30, 2013

10 HOPES FOR HORROR THIS HALLOWEEN

With October 31 tomorrow, you don’t have to look too far to find bloggers and online magazines recommending all sorts of horror movies to view this Halloween. I’ve done that sort of thing before (http://exm.nr/LKGGSh), so I’ll offer something new this holiday. Here are my “10 Hopes for Horror” in the coming year.

LESS FOUND FOOTAGE HORROR

This sub-genre of horror, starting with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in 1999, may have reached its limits with so many duds coming out year after year since. And the diminishing returns of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise have certainly not helped. The idea of documenting terror even when your life is being threatened still remains absurd and few filmmakers have found a way to get around that basic narrative issue. Let’s hope more of them come up with a stronger horror point of view than the done-to-death handheld POV.

BETTER PARANORMAL ACTIVITY MOVIES

The fifth one is coming out in January so hopefully the series will start finding new venues for ghosts than suburban homes. With video cameras everywhere these days, there’s no excuse to not expand the settings for ‘documenting’ frights in this yearly franchise.
Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie in Fox's SLEEPY HOLLOW
MORE HORROR ON TV

Horror has found a real home on television what with THE WALKING DEAD, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, VAMPIRE DIARIES, and much more all thriving in prime time. Even this year’s SLEEPY HOLLOW on Fox is a monster hit. And NBC’s new take on DRACULA has started with great promise. DEXTER may be done, but there’s room for plenty more like ‘em.

MORE HORROR SHORT ANTHOLOGIES

There are more sequels planned for the V/H/S and ABC’S OF DEATH franchises, which could be terrific. (The first ones were.) So what other horror themes could be given to filmmakers to keep making such shorts? The Ten Commandments? The 50 United States? New Year’s Resolutions?

LESS REMAKES AND SEQUELS

For every great re-do like this year’s MANIAC (http://exm.nr/12aFy13), there are so many remakes that are best forgotten. Sequels too. This year even gave us a sequel to the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE from last year. It was surprisingly effective, considering the luridness of the material, but it still makes one long for more original stories.
Lina Leandersson and Kare Hedebrant in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
MORE FOREIGN HORROR

We’ve been lucky with the likes of Guillermo del Toro, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and THE DESCENT invading our shores, so let’s keep bringing in more horror imports.

NEW HORROR ICONS

SAW was an amazingly successful franchise, but is Jigsaw or his puppet really that iconic? MAMA was scary as hell, but she’s a one-off (http://exm.nr/UYeKKZ). Where is the next Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers? We haven’t had a big horror star in a while, no?

MORE ANIMATED HORROR

FRANKENWEENIE (http://exm.nr/R2OeSiand PARANORMAN were terrific all-family horror films, but couldn’t an animated frightener aimed at just adults be truly killer as well? Animation houses do amazing work, and not everything has to look like a kid’s movie, so let’s give them a shot at some full-length horror features.

MORE REAL LIFE HORROR STORIES

There are plenty of great true tales throughout history, and they can scare up the money at the box office too, as THE CONJURING has proven (http://exm.nr/1azLSlg). More history lessons, please. After all, truth is always stranger than fiction.

STOP KILLING ANIMALS FOR CHEAP THRILLS

If you’re a pet owner, you find this trend in modern horror abhorrent. If you’re a horror buff, you scoff at the lazy kills of offing the family cat or dog in movies. Enough already!


It’s becoming a ‘golden age’ of modern cinematic horror in many ways, certainly on television. And with so many of today’s filmmakers taking this genre so seriously, I hope they share my hopes and make horror even better. And scarier.

What are you hoping for? Share your thoughts with all of us!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

NEW CARRIE VS. OLD CARRIE: WHICH WAS MORE SCARY?

Chloe Grace Moretz as CARRIE (2013)

Kimberly Peirce’s take on “Carrie”, that opened this past Friday, October 19, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a respectable adaptation of the Stephen King novel for a new audience. And it made 18 million this past weekend (http://abt.cm/172gXP6). Nonetheless, the worth of any remake lies truly in how it stands up to its predecessor artistically. So, with that in mind, let’s compare this new version to the 1976 classic of “Carrie” and see how close it comes.
Sissy Spacek in her Oscar-nominated version of CARRIE in 1976.
Sissy Spacek vs. Chloe Grace Moretz

Both who’ve essayed the role on the big screen are wonderfully talented actresses. And they each render their Carrie empathetically. Spacek however seemed to be Carrie, where you can see Moretz acting the part. In fact, Peirce fudges right off the bat by giving Moretz a bad red rinse to make her look odder. Spacek looked unusual to begin with. Her abundance of freckles, ghostly white skin and humongous eyes all gave her a true uniqueness. When her Carrie is told she’s pretty by Tommy, it’s more of her inner beauty that he sees. When Moretz is told it here, it’s because frankly, the actress is a knockout. And Moretz is way too over-confident when destroying the town. You’d expect that from Hit Girl, but not Carrie.
Piper Laurie cradles Sissy Spacek in CARRIE (1976)
Piper Laurie vs. Julianne Moore

Moore was scarier as Sarah Palin. Here, she’s incredibly staid, even dull. Didn’t Moore realize that Carrie’s mother is Medea or Cruella de Ville, a villainous an actress should have some fun playing? Yes, there’s a bullying element to this material, and religious wacko’s do a lot of harm, true, but this is a horror movie. It’s supposed to be fun too. Piper Laurie purred even snide lines like, “Your dirty pillows are showing.” And when Moore confesses she liked the sex that led to her pregnancy, there’s none of the carnality that Laurie’s mad mom exalted in through her confession. Less is Moore here.
Sissy Spacek being directed by Brian De Palma 
Brian De Palma’s direction vs. Kimberly Peirce’s

If anything, Peirce is too restrained, especially for a horror movie. She treats Stephen King’s great pulp fiction as if it’s the Matthew Shephard story. Her “Carrie” is too staid and straight. Heck, she even rushes the destruction of the prom, and that’s the set piece! And since Peirce was so willing to re-do her friend’s classic (http://bit.ly/1a3jeff), why not find more ways to differentiate it? She repeats tons of dialogue verbatim, and even vamps the ‘shopping for prom tuxedos’ scene? Adding cell phones and social media isn’t enough.

Look, I don’t think De Palma walks on hallowed ground (http://exm.nr/1bZSgGN), but his “Carrie” is a classic, and his direction was wicked and witty. Peirce can be a great director as “Boys Don’t Cry” proved, but she’s whiffed this one. And why didn’t she pay homage to De Palma’s classic split screen effects? That made his “Carrie” killer.
Amy Irving as Sue Snell in the original CARRIE (1976)
Old school teens vs. new school teens

Not one teen in this new one makes much of an impression. No one comes close to registering the saucy mischief of Nancy Allen as Chris, or the wide-eyed regret of Amy Irving as Sue Snell. The best Peirce can summon is two twins who almost could be an effect, that’s how similar and boring they are. And the new Tommy is so earnest and dull that when he dies it has little impact. When William Katt died in the ’76 version, you felt the utter tragedy of the prank gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Prom apocalypse vs. prom fire

Yes, that’s how these two set pieces could be characterized, as the 1976 version took no prisoners. Everyone in the old school version perished in the flames. In this one, it looks like only the baddies bite the big one.
Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) stops the villain's car in the 2013 version.
1976 special effects vs. 2013 special effects

Okay, this one the new version wins, only because visuals have come so far. But having Carrie fly during her revenge gilded the lily. After such levitation, bringing her house down with telekinetic powers seemed almost anticlimactic.
The old ending vs. the new ending

This is the problem with remakes. The original ending of Carrie, where she reached out and grabbed Sue from beyond the grave, was a classic and it’s been done dozens of times since then. So Peirce opted for her own ending where Carrie is actually alive under the dirt. The original ending was Sue’s bad dream, suggesting that the teen girl would never get over her guilt. This one lamely sets up Carrie’s return for a sequel. Yawn.
Sissy Spacek and William Katt at the prom in CARRIE (1976)

Some remakes deepen and darken the material for a modern time, like this year’s take on “Maniac” (http://exm.nr/12aFy13). But this “Carrie” is so very…unnecessary. Next time, I’d like to see a director of Peirce’s caliber execute a new version of one that could some refining, like 1981’s “Funhouse.” Imagine what you could do with the world of traveling fair’s and the terrifying grittiness of roadies? I’ll bet that film would even be fun, considering the name and all. And it’s certainly something this new “Carrie” was lacking.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

FILMMAKER JENNIFER LYNCH TALKS TO YOURS TRULY IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW


Filmmaker Jennifer Lynch was in Chicago this past Friday, October 18, as part of the USA premiere of the documentary about her called DESPITE THE GODS. It had appeared at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival Thursday night, and despite being a behind-the-scenes look at the troubles faced while trying to film NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS, a horror movie set in India, it was a positive portrayal of both Lynch’s work and her approach to movie making. It’s the same upbeat artist that I sat down with for an exclusive interview I did as a film critic for the Chicago Examiner. We met  at the CIFF offices at 30 E. Adams for a 45 minute interview that was candid, funny and as entertaining as the gregarious filmmaker.
Filmmaker Jennifer Lynch photographed by me on my iPhone in Chicago.
“I thought I was going to be learning about India but instead I learned about me,” Lynch chuckled when she talked about what she really came away with during her 9-month ordeal in India.  While there, she had to deal with uncooperative weather, locations and even some sexist crew members who weren’t used to such a strong and ebullient woman helming a complicated film. Yet through it all, Lynch remained as sunny and bright as the weather was not.

Indeed, you name it – monsoons, location problems, fainting extras - it was all tossed the director’s way. She was told they could film at certain sights, only to be ushered away after setting up, due to them being on hallowed ground. Crowds got in the way wherever they went as they clamored to see Bollywood superstar Malika Sherawat, the star of Lynch’s film. And a first assistant director often thought he knew best and demeaned her for being a woman. It’s all there in the film that is a fantastic look at the realities of how hard it is to make a movie (http://exm.nr/1aXjGrT). But Lynch is incredible in the documentary, laughing through it all, working harder than any crewmember, and even managing to be a doting mother to her tagalong teen Sydney.
Jennifer Lynch, remaining strong and committed, while on location. 
The documentary could have been a total downer, as it took 9 months to get the film in the cam, but instead the film, directed by the wonderful documentarian Penny Vozniak, works as a ringing endorsement of the work and joy it takes to create. And that’s saying something, considering this true ‘Bollywood’ story ends with Lynch’s film being taken away from her by producers who didn’t see eye-to-eye with her on the final cut.

“We all failed and we all triumphed,” Lynch admits. “And I wish I could celebrate that with everyone involved. I’m still very good friends with a lot of the crew and that helped me heal.” Her choosing to dwell on the positive is impressive considering the producers criticized her edit of the film as being too “European, languid and sensual.” Lynch took that as a compliment because that was what she was aiming for, but the powers-that-be wanted something more overtly horrific, garish and commercial.
The camera is about to roll on star Malika Sherawat in "Nagin the Snake Goddess"
“With Nagin, there I was dealing with a legend that I couldn’t necessarily alter, but I could put a spin on. And the comic elements, you know I love to play with the whole sexuality of it…and the cobra being a fertility goddess and a phallus at the same time, a woman swallowing a man whole, and all of that fun stuff…was supposed to be joyful.”

But the memory of that movie is now bittersweet. The producers wanted a more garish and violent horror movie and that’s what they released without Lynch, under their re-edited and re-titled HISSS. If that sounds like a B horror movie to you, well, you’re not alone. It’s a problem that plagues too many entries in the genre these days, and Lynch would rather go the other way.
Producer Karina Astrup, Jennifer Lynch and Documentarian director Penny Vozniak in Chicago.
“I’m drawn to things that are…more authentic,” Jennifer says. She finds horror that is more relatable to be the more disturbing and effective. In CHAINED, her 2012 thriller about Bob, a cab-driving serial killer (http://bit.ly/13cDqHs), she strove to help the audience understand just what went on inside the man who became a monster.

“You don’t behave like a jerk unless you’re terrified or feeling threatened,” Lynch reasons. “In CHAINED I really wanted to talk about how the human monster was made. It’s the guy sitting across from me at the table. It’s the guy standing behind me in the grocery store line. It’s the guy driving the taxi. And you don’t know what they’ve suffered. You don’t know what decisions he’s made based on what happened to him. And we all weather the storm that our lives have been. The way we do, and that’s what builds character. And that doesn’t excuse the behavior of a monster, but it explains it.”
The poster for the documentary DESPITE THE GODS
Lynch has done a superb job of explaining the monsters she’s put on the screen for over 20 years, starting at when she wrote and directed BOXING HELENA at the precious age of 19. That film became one of the most controversial movies of all time. And its focus on character, like all of Lynch’s horror films, was too much for most critics and audiences used to ‘B-movie’ claptrap to handle (http://bit.ly/bQZALk). The character of the obsessive surgeon (Julian Sands) who saves a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) after a car accident, struck people as misogynistic because he amputates her legs to save her, and then removes her arms to keep her from escaping. But the fact is, the end the story reveals it’s all in the doctor’s mind, making him the true prisoner of his own insecurities. Today, the film is more often understood as a searing dissertation on sexual power, but it took audiences two decades to come to that realization.

“Now people come up to me and say, ‘I was afraid to admit it then but I really liked it. Because it wasn’t cool to like your movie.” She’s always been ahead of her time, provoking and challenging the norms and subjects that films or female filmmakers could explore. But she doesn’t know how to be any other way. “I want to be challenged. I’m grateful to filmmakers who make films I hate! It helps me define what I don’t want to do and what upsets me.”

She’s drawn to dark material and it contrasts with her buoyant and vivacious attitude towards life. She’s been struggling to get her artistic visions seen and heard all her life. And yet Lynch has always remained undeterred by her critics, doing stunning work despite those wanting to hold her back.
The poster for Lynch's controversial 1993 film BOXING HELENA
Lynch challenged our perceptions of teenage angst with her candid and shocking portrayal of addiction in her book “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” that outdid her controversial father’s take on the character in TWIN PEAKS and FIRE WALK WITH ME. She won the Grand Prize at the Festival de Cine de Sitges for her examination of the lies people tell the cops in the 2008 thriller SURVEILLANCE. And with NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS, she filmed a startling revenge tale, yet her version of it may never see the light of day, due to her close-minded producers. At least we have Vozniak’s documentary that shows a lot of what Lynch did in filming her vision.

It’s all part of the up’s and down’s of working in the movies to Lynch as she explains, “Excited and terrified are just a decision away from each other.” It’s how she approaches the crazy world of filmmaking, and what drives her as an artist. “When I a frightened, I tend to giggle.”

That kind of pluck is evident throughout DESPITE THE GODS, which should be seen by anyone who’s interested in seeing movies or making them. It’s an honest and compelling piece, and the fact that its subject is a strong woman, and its produced and directed by two equally courageous women (director Vozniak and producer Karina Astrup) makes it even more extraordinary in an industry too dominated by male sensibilities. Now, if only Lynch’s NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS would get the same opportunity to reach an audience.
A shot of Sherawat from NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS
To a woman who excels at horror, the scariest thing to Lynch is how celebrity culture has made movies seem “more special than other things.” The red carpets, the ‘what are you wearing’ queries – these are the things that disturb her. “There are no doctors today being interviewed about how they get through a surgery. There are no teachers being interviewed about how they impart knowledge. But for some reason the industry is given importance that nothing else is given. And that’s nuts.”

In the meantime, she is onto new projects that excite her, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She held the audience in the palm of her hand during the Q & A Thursday night after the screening. And she’s just as captivating one-on-one. She wants to keep working and with her talent and zeal, should if people are daring enough to try new things and not settle on the same-old, same-old. 

Horror could use more filmmakers like her. And it would be fascinating to see Lynch take a crack at a romantic comedy or a straight drama too. Her honesty and bravery would behoove any genre. And despite the gods of India or Hollywood, Lynch not only remains an artist, and a survivor, but a person who still finds the joy in it all. In fact, even when the biz scares her to death, she is strong enough to laugh at it. In fact, she giggles.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

THE AFI IS FONDA JANE, AS WELL THEY SHOULD BE


Caricature of Jane Fonda in KLUTE (1971) by Jeff York (copyright 2013)
It was announced late Thursday that Jane Fonda has been chosen to receive the 42nd annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. The AFI has come under fire in years past for the timing of their honor of certain stars. Tom Hanks received it in 2002 when he was only 45 and the blowback was devastating. But Jane Fonda is 75 and she’s had a film career since the 60’s, thus she’s not only old enough to receive a career capper, but she’s also done plenty of quality work that has stood the test of time.

Work that has longevity, and a distinct imprint on the cinematic world, are supposed to be the main criteria for the award, and there’s no arguing with Fonda’s impact as an actress. She was the actress of her generation with a string of films that would be the envy of any resume. Her screen persona was one of passion, intensity, vulnerability, and usually strong intelligence and equally attuned modern sexuality. Fonda did nothing half-rate, she never slummed, and she always gave every project she was involved in 100%. When she was on the screen, you couldn't take your eyes off her. 

She excelled in some early comedies like CAT BALLOU (1965) and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967) before breaking through in her devastating turn as Gloria, the marathon dance contestant in Sydney Pollack’s drama THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969). From there she moved easily between comedy (FUN WITH DICK & JANE, CALIFORNIA SUITE) and drama (JULIA, COMES A HORSEMAN) and even farce (9 TO 5). She won two Academy Awards for Best Actress in the 70’s, first as the provocative yet brittle prostitute in  KLUTE (1971) and then as the GI wife coming to understand the hell that was the Viet Nam War in COMING HOME (1978).

She also made a number of impressive films after that decade such as THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979), ON GOLDEN POND (1981), THE DOLLMAKER (A TV-movie in 1984 for which she won an Emmy Award), AGNES OF GOD, and THE MORNING AFTER (1986), her last Oscar nomination and her 7th. Then in 1990, she took a 15-year sabbatical from film and did not return to the big screen until the middling comedy MONSTER-IN-LAW opposite Jennifer Lopez. This last year she had a high-attention cameo, playing Nancy Reagan of all people, in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. But her return to acting hasn't been exactly exemplary, despite a terrific Emmy-nominated turn on HBO's THE NEWSROOM.

The fact that she has been chosen for the AFI award says a lot about her reputation from those first three decades of her career. Arguably, she hasn’t really been outstanding in anything since THE MORNING AFTER, where she played a drunken actress trying to solve a murder she was involved in. We will never know what kinds of work she may have done during that self-imposed exile from film, but her record as it stands is enough for the recognition, despite that huge hole in her filmography. But it’s rather daring of the AFI to choose her, especially when her output has been so spotty or absent for the last 25 plus years.

One of the reasons that she has lasted in their consciousness and ours is that she was a woman so tethered to her times, and her choices of film reflect that. She was a world-famous political activist, protesting Viet Nam and all sorts of injustices throughout the globe, and she chose vehicles that reflected her interests in such topics, and they were nothing if not timely. COMING HOME helped open the door to America’s understanding of what it was like to fight in that controversial war. THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) warned about the dangers of nuclear power and a few months later Three Mile Island happened. Even a fall-down farce like 9 TO 5 made the case for equal pay in the workplace and helped bring that shameful issue of discrimination against women out into the open.

That's a lot of do-gooding too, but many have despised Fonda for her politics. Few on the right can ever forgive the activist actress for her ‘Hanoi Jane’ days. And others, including yours truly, wonder why she never made a bigger stink about her third husband Ted Turner colorizing black and white films back in the 1990’s. Preserving the original vision of the artist would have seemed like a cause tailor-made for Fonda, but she was surprisingly mute during the controversy, remaining a stalwart and somewhat silent wife to her corporate titan husband.

It’s daring of the AFI to choose her, considering her politics, and they've shied away from giving out their Life Achievement Award to others with a troubled political history many times before. Charlie Chaplin missed the cut back in the 70’s when the award was in its infancy. And during the 80’s, the AFI notoriously chose to not honor Elia Kazan, enraging many on the AFI committee including Charlton Heston and Karl Malden, who had been lobbying for the accolade. The AFI also skipped over Heston, likely due to his outspoken words about the Kazan snub, as well as his right-wing views on politics and guns.

The recognizing of Fonda does two other significant things. It furthers the legacy of family in the industry and the AFI awards, as now both she and her father Henry have been honored, as have father Kirk Douglas and son Michael. Brother and sister Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine were honored as well. 

And second, it continues to move the AFI in the right direction regarding just whom they are honoring. There was a run after Hanks where the AFI honored a number of recipients who were certainly worthy, but they were all receiving it rather early. Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, George Lucas and Al Pacino were still in their 50’s or 60’s.

Those inclusions also prevented older stars with longer careers from getting their due, and to this day it’s utterly ridiculous that the award has not yet been bestowed upon Robert Redford, Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Peter O’Toole or Francis Ford Coppola, just to name six. One could easily make the case for honoring all of them, as well as stars from before then who shockingly have been overlooked as well. It’s likely that Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren and Shirley Temple will never be called, but they should have. And they should have been named before someone like Harrison Ford, who was honored in 2000 when he was only 57.

Still, I’ve picked on the AFI many times before on this blog and I’m not going to be too hard on them now. Jane Fonda is an obvious and correct choice, and one that I lobbied for last year. She should be commended for her amazing career, even with the dark periods, and the American Film Institute has chosen wisely in getting past some of those blemishes. And it will be exciting to hear what Fonda says upon receiving her prize. I’ll bet her acceptance speech will be filled with politics and her trembling passion. In other words, vintage Jane Fonda.