Monday, August 31, 2015

THE THREE WAYS WES CRAVEN CHANGED THE FACE OF HORROR


The legendary Wes Craven died on Sunday, August 30, after a tragic battle with brain cancer. He left an amazing number of friends and admirers behind, as well as a legendary legacy including some of the most important horror movies ever made. The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films and the SCREAM series have gone down in history as two of the greatest franchises in movie history. SCREAM is still so popular it was recently revived on MTV as a regular series with Craven serving as one of its executive producers. Craven’s touch was far and wide in horror, and even when he ventured away from the genre, he showed a deft, master’s touch. He directed Meryl Streep to an Academy Award nomination for MUSIC OF THE HEART in 1999. Yet, horror is where his greatest triumphs were, and no wonder, as he changed the face of horror in three significant ways that cannot be underestimated.

The first time that Craven altered the way we look at horror was in 1972 with his low-budget film THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Up until that moment, most horror was born out of the macabre or the supernatural: monsters, witches and creatures transformed by nuclear waste. “THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was different. It was realistic, almost too real in many ways. It was the first post-Manson family horror movie. After the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, villains no longer came draped just in black capes, black hats or ghoulish appearances. They could look like flower children, even pretty teenage girls. Craven ran with that in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and created vile monsters who looked like regular Joe’s and Jane’s. It forever changed what the antagonists in horror looked like, and broadened the genre to include tropes that were much more true-to-life.


Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING from 1960, Craven made his film about rape and revenge feel like a documentary. It was shot cheaply, with unskilled actors, and had a crude, handheld style throughout. That made it seem like it was real. And playing off of current events like the Manson murders and the Zodiac killings, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT seemed almost like a horrific home movie.

In Craven’s first masterpiece, the teenage Mari goes off to the city for a concert in New York City with her girlfriend Phyllis. Mari’s parents worry about their youth amidst the dangers of the big city, but Mari talks them into trusting her. It would be the last time they’d see her alive as once she got there, Mari and Phyllis quickly fell into the hands of a marijuana dealer and his vicious family. His dad was a just escaped rapist and serial killer named Krug. And this thug is traveling with two equally loathsome cons – his girlfriend Sadie, and buddy Weasel. They take the girls hostage and transport them out to the suburban woods, which Mari recognizes as being close to her home.

Krug, Weasel and Sadie take turns taunting, defiling and torturing the two teens. Phyllis is stabbed to death, while Mari is carved up, raped and ultimately shot dead as she tries to escape via the nearby lake. Any resemblance between these fictional events and what happened in August of 1969 at that famous house on Cielo Drive that Roman Polanski was renting was strictly intentional. Even the name Sadie echoes the nickname “Sexy Sadie” given to Manson girl Susan Atkins.

The scenes of violation in Craven's shocker were truly traumatic to watch, but they were masterfully executed by Craven and his committed actors. The story's events had an almost random energy to them. They were shot close, jittery, and the brutality was more visceral than most films had dared present in those days. Watching it, the audience felt close to it all, too close, as if they were victims being savaged by Krug and his gang as well. And if Craven had stopped there, the film would still have been regarded as a truly revolutionary American horror cinema. But Craven went one better. What came afterwards really created a conversation - one about how violence had seeped into the fabric of everyday American life. 

For here, the parents did not just mourn the loss of their beloved Mari, but they decided to ultimately avenge her. Craven presented a normal couple driven to vigilantism and their own thuggery by the events of violence. America was becoming a nation of an eye for an eye, Craven was saying, and that's why he had Mari's parents exact revenge that included stabbing, electrocution and sexual sadism. Crime drove them mad with rage, something that all the terrible events of the sixties were doing to everyday Americans. Assassination, war, crime, poverty and moral decline was taking its toll and Craven said so. It may have been a  grindhouse movie but it spoke to the nation, became a huge hit, and quickly catapulted Craven to the big time.



The second way that Craven transformed Hollywood horror happened when he wrote and directed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984. Marquee horror characters were nothing new at the cinema. Ever since the heydays of Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein, scary movies were filled with larger-than-life bogeymen who made the audience shiver with delight. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Michael Myers from the HALLOWEEN franchise and Jason Voorhees from the FRIDAY THE 13TH series had already staked claims as superstars. Yet they were mute thugs who essentially killed without much thinking. And their means of knives and machetes were hardly imaginative tools of the trade. That’s where Craven came in. With his A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, he created a much more sophisticated and well-spoken baddie with better and more clever ways of dispatching his victims. Freddie Krueger was witty, outspoken, and a haunter of dreams who could turn your deepest fears against you. He found all sorts of ways to kill his victims based on themes or props from their subconscious. And it turned him into a celebrity villain almost immediately.

Krueger came with a backstory of child molesting, and his subsequent punishment of lynching and being burned alive by the livid parents of his victims. Again, Craven played off of the current trends in the nation and our increasing knowledge of such sociopathic behavior by the likes of Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams. Craven also rode the wave of our nation’s obsession with psychology and how our brain makes us think and act the way we do. Krueger invaded his victim’s sleeping states, a place that was full of infinite imagination, and he used that playground to tease, torture and slaughter his prey. Our worst fears literally killed us in Freddy’s world. It was an endless landscape in hell, one that spawned five sequels, a series, and a 2010 reboot.

In addition, Freddy’s imaginative ways of killing inspired hundreds of other movies afterwards. Conventional killing became too expected as screenwriters ran in all directions to find new ways of offing their fictional victims. The entire series of SAW owes a great deal of debt to Craven as its Jigsaw Killer was practically a flesh and blood version of Freddy, exacting revenge with the most outlandish devices and Rube Goldberg set-ups.



Finally, the third way that Craven revolutionized the horror world came in 1996. That year, Craven had an idea for a horror movie that would practically define the term “meta.” Meta is the term applied to anything that references itself or the conventions of its genre, and that’s exactly what Craven did with his movie SCREAM. It was a horror movie about horror movies, one that constantly commented on the conventions and clichés of the genre while playing out as a real movie. The killer(s) in the film were obsessive students of horror who lived and breathed the narrative tropes of the genre so well that they editorialized about them while they were committing their own heinous acts of bloodletting. From the opening scene where they torment Drew Barrymore about what happens in horror movies when someone is left alone in the house, like she was at that moment, the film satirized the genre while simultaneously playing it for real.

Craven was brilliant as he made us laugh while his characters reminded those in the movie and those watching it of how easily predictable most horror had become. But then Craven pulled the rug out from under us by finding a fresh new way to scare just when we thought we had it all figured out. With subsequent sequels, the films started playing us even more. Was Craven riffing on horror clichés or merely those of SCREAM? Was that a real clue or just a red herring, or perhaps a clue masquerading as a red herring like SCREAM was apt to do? It almost became film classes within the films, as Craven made the first post-horror horror movie series. 

Ultimately, what Craven did was make horror a whole helluva lot smarter. His movies and scares always felt fresh, new, and of-the-moment. His films were often gruesome but they always remained entertaining and cathartic for audiences desiring quality thrills and chills. That was always at the forefront of Craven’s mind and thus, today he is at the forefront of ours. Wes Craven was a great filmmaker, a horror pioneer, and a man who gave us the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of. They were darker versions, granted, but dreams nonetheless.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

THE FIVE REASONS THE NBC TV SHOW "HANNIBAL" HAS RUN ITS (GOURMET) COURSE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Mads Mikkelsen as HANNIBAL (copyright 2013)
The NBC series HANNIBAL finished its third season on August 29 with its two main characters, serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham, clinging to each other as they tumbled off a cliff. That may very well have been the perfect symbolic end for a show that this season was tossed away by its network. The way NBC abandoned the show was shocking, especially one that just last year New York magazine called “the best drama on network TV.”

Why was a show that never had good ratings but had critical hosannas discarded so? And why were there no other takers? Netflix, Amazon, and other outlets passed on picking it up. Even the Kickstarter rumors that showrunner Bryan Fuller suggested might save the show thus far have not come through. All the actors have been released from their contracts too so it looks like the show is as dried up as Dr. Chilton’s chances for an Aveda endorsement. So what happened? How did this show die such an unfortunate death?

NBC REDUCED ITS VIABILITY

Fuller admitted going into this season that NBC informed him that it would be its last at the network. Perhaps as a shot at a stay of execution, the network moved the show from a spring premiere to June, hoping that the summer season would give it less competition. But its premiere ratings numbers were dismal, and the second week it sunk even further. Then NBC announced it was cancelling it with 11 episodes yet to air. How they’d expect the ratings to hold with such an announcement defies credulity. Soon afterwards, they weren’t even showing previews of coming shows. They further turned their backs on HANNIBAL by moving it from its Friday night slot to the wasteland that is Saturday evening. There, it struggled to maintain an audience of a million viewers. Such shoddy behavior made the show all the less viable on paper to potential buyers.  

LECTER WAS IMPRISONED TOO EARLY

Those viewers still remaining with the series likely started to see some aesthetic reasons that may have led NBC to turn a cold shoulder to the program as well. In the firs two seasons, Fuller’s vision fascinated viewers with his fresh take on the backstory of “Hannibal the Cannibal.” The show presented Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as a free man, living the life of a bon vivant, and consulting with the FBI on various cases. Special agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) did not yet know of the mad man in their midst. It was fun for viewers to witness this bad doctor helping them profile a killer who turned out to be Lecter himself. But by the end of the second season, the jig was up, and Lecter fled the States. At the start of season three he was on the lam in Europe. Then midway through this season, he was captured. With Lecter in jail the show started to resemble all the movies done about him already. Incarcerated the character became inert, and suddenly the show started to feel that way too.

TOO MANY STORIES WERE REHASHED

Not helping this season was revisiting old storylines like those from “HANNIBAL the movie, HANNIBAL RISING and the very first Lecter story, that of the Red Dragon. That’s where Lecter and Graham first appeared on the pages of author Thomas Harris, and that crackling thriller had already been done twice by Hollywood. First, Michael Mann made the great MANHUNTER in 1986, and then Brett Ratnor rendered a so-so remake in 2002. In the first two seasons Fuller took great leeway with Lecter lore, but this season he was too loyal with the source material. Was the over-familiarity of the storyline to blame for a lot of viewers giving up on the show? Perhaps. There was a lot of grumbling about it online, and it seemed with such tropes that HANNIBAL was starting to rehash the tried and true from before.

BRYAN FULLER MOVED ONTO ANOTHER SHOW

One can imagine that NBC couldn’t conjure up the same enthusiasm for HANNIBAL with Fuller starting to develop a new series for Starz based on Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods.” And indeed, at times during the third season, Fuller’s crackling wit and dialogue seemed to be absent. The extended torture of Dr. Chilton by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, AKA the Red Dragon, (Richard Armitage) was rather gratuitous for a show that kept most of its violence off screen. Yet, starting with the season finale last year, HANNIBAL started to become positively bathed in brutality. Fuller’s show originally was more about criminal psychology than crimson. Did too many commitments force him to let others take the reins and let it run red with blood?

THE LEADS WERE TOO OFTEN SUPPORTING PLAYERS

The two leads, Mikkelson and Dancy, were almost relegated to supporting roles once the Red Dragon story took over. In particular, the reduced screen time for Dancy throughout this season was shocking. There was one episode where he was completely absent, and others where he barely showed up. And throughout this season, he spent more time chatting with Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s psychiatrist/lover Bedelia Du Maurier than he did bantering with Mads’ mad doctor. Fishburne’s presence seemed reduced to a cameo at times too. Granted, he was busy starring in BLACK-ISH all season long as well, but the third season suffered from not having enough of him in it either. And as good an actor as Richard Armitage is, he never made Dolarhyde particularly interesting. His grunting and monotone delivery rendered him a rather dull villain. His outsized back tattoo seemed to have more breadth than the killer’s personality.

Other elements may have contributed to the downfall of HANNIBAL as well. The show’s macabre visual scheme was always exquisite, but it started to dominate the hours in ways it hadn’t in the past. The obsessive slow motion of gushing gore not only felt too garish, it felt like fetish. And there were logic problems too. Dr. Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) was thrown out of a second story window in the climax of the second season, but she was walking around without a cane by the middle of this season. Du Maurier remained a free woman this season even though she certainly would’ve been incarcerated as Lecter’s European accomplice. And the dialogue started to play too on the nose even through the last episode. “The bluff is eroding”, Lecter coyly told Will at their hideaway on the aforementioned cliff after their ruse to catch Dolarhyde backfired.  


Maybe HANNIBAL will get another shot. Fuller has teased the possibility of a big screen effort, but that seems unlikely all things considered. Finding investors for a vehicle that had such ratings problems will be a tough pitch. And some of the other issues the show had in its third season may frighten away more. In the final analysis, the autopsy may show that HANNIBAL was a once truly wonderful feast for horror fans whose third helping was just too hard to swallow.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE BEST SURPRISES & BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE 2015 SUMMER


It’s the last gasp of August and the nip of fall is already in the air, so it seems like a good time to take a look back on the summer movies from 2015 and determine what was hot and what was not. There were a lot of worthy sequels (PITCH PERFECT 2 and FURIOUS 7) and reboots that were spectacularly good (MAD MAX FURY ROAD), but for every decent MAGIC MIKE XXL there was a misbegotten TERMINATOR: GENISYS marring the world of return visits. The superhero entries veered from the so cool (Yay, ANT-MAN!) to the so-so (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON). There were some excellent all-family features (INSIDE OUT and MINIONS) and some indies that were refreshing adult fare (LOVE & MERCY and ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL). All in all, good stuff for discerning audiences, by and large, and the movies made money too.

Rather than go over some of the movies I’ve already written about here, I thought I’d share my thoughts on five movies that truly surprised me by being so terrific. And of course, you can’t have the yin without the yang, so I’ll also share my five biggest disappointments too. Let’s start with the good stuff, shall we?



MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION

Nobody had really high expectations for this movie. After all, this was the fifth movie into a franchise that started way back in the 90’s. And its star Tom Cruise wasn’t exactly a box office favorite these days. Plus, God knows the HBO documentary GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF certainly didn’t endear him to anyone. And yet, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION and Cruise really delivered the goods. It had four truly amazing set pieces - the opening plane hijacking, the opera crossfire, the multiple motorcycle chase, and the underwater break-in. The script and direction was tight, witty and easy to track. (Thank you, Christopher McQuarrie!) And it had Cruise’s venerable secret agent man Ethan Hunt who was now older, a little bit wiser, and certainly wearier. And his vulnerabilities (He died in that underwater sequence before they resuscitated him!) made us love him anew. I’m ready for the sixth in the series. How about you?



AMERICAN ULTRA

Kristen Stewart can be a terrific actress, despite (ahem) rather lifeless performances in some of the early TWILIGHT movies. This year, she gave two wonderful performances. First, she played shrewd and knowing in the arthouse sleeper CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA as Juliette Binoche’s world weary manager. (Don’t be surprised if she gets an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.) And then, in the last weeks of summer, she gave a fun and funny performance opposite a sly and surprisingly physical Jesse Eisenberg in the action comedy AMERICAN ULTRA. It’s basically Jason Bourne crossed with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but the whole thing works incredibly well. It was deftly written, succinctly directed, and well-acted by everyone. Topher Grace, Connie Britton and John Leguizamo were hilarious as the supporting cast. I laughed more at this movie than many of the official comedies out there this summer. (I'm referring to VACATION, which I'll cover a few paragraphs from now.) Too bad this movie didn't open earlier in the season where it might have been more noticed and done better box office. Its teen audience was already back in school when it opened last weekend. But it's worth finding now, while it's still in theaters, or when it's available on VOD.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Ian McKellen as MR. HOLMES (copyright 2015).

MR. HOLMES

I’m a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve already got many favorite versions of Holmes, starting with Jeremy Brett in the 1980’s British TV series, Benedict Cumberbatch from the current BBC show SHERLOCK, and Christopher Plummer’s star turn in the 1979 big screen effort MURDER BY DECREE. Now, I’ve got a fourth fave. Ian McKellen makes the role something wholly his own in MR. HOLMES. Bill Condon’s film about the sleuth in the winter of his years is a lovely character study about a man struggling with his age and his past. The greatest mystery Holmes faces here concerns how confounding it is to rapidly lose those exquisite powers of deduction he once could count on. MR. HOLMES was truly grown-up entertainment placed in a sea of popcorn this summer. What a special film this is. And here’s hoping it is remembered come awards season.



THE GIFT

Joel Edgerton has been a big deal in movies for the past few years. He’s impressed in everything from WARRIOR to ZERO DARK THIRTY to EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, he's getting even bigger. Here, he not only starred in the film, but he wrote and directed it as well. This is an intimate and tension-filled three-hander costarring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. They give great performances, and Edgerton clearly knows how to direct actors. He shows great skill as a writer too as his script is taut, lean and turns a lot of horror tropes on their ear. His direction is deftly focused and unfussy too, and his skill at creating thrills and chills never plays as heavy-handed. THE GIFT turned out to be one of the best horror movies of the year. It joins IT FOLLOWS as superb frighteners that are sure to be remembered when critics make their year-end 10 Best Lists. And here's hoping Edgerton continues to write and direct as well as act so sublimely.





TRAINWRECK

Is anyone having a better year than Amy Schumer? Her Comedy Central show will likely win a batch of Emmys this September, and deservedly so. She also happens to be the hottest standup comic right now. And on the big screen this summer, she proved to be a terrific leading lady and screenwriter with the hit romantic comedy TRAINWRECK. Not only was this the most satisfying laugh-fest of the summer, but it was also incredibly touching too. Who saw that coming? Schumer’s party girl character in the movie uses sex and sarcasm to keep out a world that had been a little too cruel along the way. But when she finally meets a great guy (Bill Hader), she doesn’t know how to deal with a good thing and almost ruins it. Schumer aced all of it, including the pathos. (So did Hader, by the way.) I can’t wait to what the amazing Amy will do next. Drama? A musical? A period piece? The world's her oyster.

Now, onto those that truly disappointed me. It won’t be pretty but it has to be done.




SINISTER 2

The original SINISTER from 2012 was a sly and scary thriller that had a marvelously empathetic performance by Ethan Hawke at the center of it. His horror at the home movie snuff his character witness was exactly what we were feeling in the audience. Because of such skill, the first one did well at the box office and that led to a sequel of course. Unfortunately, this once is misconceived at every turn, starting with the decision to put the doofus deputy character from the first movie at the center of this one. Sadly, SINISTER 2 also fails to be particularly scary, smart or clever. It also lacks that crucial character empathy. Most everyone in this film is irritating and unlikable. And none of the new cast can hold a spooky floating candle to what Hawke did in the original. This film is so bad it even bungles the use of ghost children. Spooky kids in horror always scare, but not here. SINISTER 2 makes them too omnipresent and chatty to boot. Whoever said “Children should be seen and not heard” would have been able to justify their prejudice here.




SOUTHPAW

I love Jake Gyllenhaal and thought he deserved an Oscar for his star turn in NIGHTCRAWLER last year. But despite getting in great shape to look like a boxer, he never wholly convinces as a pugilist in SOUTHPAW. It’s a movie that is way too melodramatic and overwrought by half, and the script is chock full of hoary, boxing movie clichés. Of course the fighter has to lose everything. Of course he has to show up at a ratty gym to get trained. Of course the only guy who will do it is a tortured, reluctant geezer. And so on, and so on. I hope whatever Gyllenhaal does next will be more in the vein of the fascinating three-dimensional characters he created in movies like NIGHTCRAWLER, as well as 2013's PRISONERS and ENEMY. This is a glitch in an otherwise sterling string of successes in the last few years. 



THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Despite a suave turn from Henry Cavill, and an appearance late in the picture by the hilariously droll Hugh Grant as the head of U.N.C.L.E., this movie doesn’t quite pass muster as the clever spy caper it wants to be. It should have wonderful, but it's just okay. Granted, it has lovely 1960’s period details, and female lead Alicia Vikander is just as lush and sexy. There are even some good laughs too, like when the two male leads argue pettily without realizing that a villain is being electrocuted in the background. If there was more bite like that, this would have been a very clever and darkly comedic thriller, but instead it misses the mark in too many instances starting with poor Armie Hammer being tasked with playing a totally clichéd of Cold War Russian. Why director Guy Ritchie seems to be aping the directorial style and choices of Quentin Tarantino throughout, I do not know, but it seems to be a huge miscalculation. If you’ve ever seen SNATCH or ROCKNROLLA, you know Ritchie’s one of the most distinctive helmers working today, so what’s going on here? Was the suave style of that classic TV show too much outside his comfort zone? He’s used to thugs, Cockney accents, and comic violence, so perhaps this sophisticated spy story left him flummoxed. No matter what the reason, this film doesn't soar. It's not terrible, just disappointing. Really, really disappointing.




VACATION

The original NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION from 1983 was full of raucous, gross-out scenes that made audiences hoot and holler. Remember the dog urine-soaked sandwiches? Or Imogene Coco’s dead old bag strapped to the roof of the station wagon? Still, even with such overt moments, the John Hughes’ penned classic remained grounded in a relatively relatable narrative. And it had a sweetness to it. Sure, Chevy Chase’s dad was a bit of a doofus, but he meant well. But here in VACATION, Ed Helms plays the grown-up son of Chase, and he’s such a complete dunderhead that you don’t like him or much of anything else in the movie. Every scene, every gag, each bit of funny business is delivered so big, broad and unbelievable, that it grates more than ingratiates. The filmmakers keep trying, often going for outrageously dirty or profane jokes, but none of it is particularly engaging. The movie strands talented people like Helms, Christina Applegate and Chris Hemsworth with too many one-note comic bits that don't go anywhere. This should have been a riotous and searing commentary about the state of the American family, but instead, it’s just trying to be another outrageous comedy like THE HANGOVER. Yawn.



JURASSIC WORLD

The biggest hit of the year is one film that I truly disliked. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but we’ll see if JURASSIC WORLD stands the test of time. I think it won't stand the test of six months. True, Chris Pratt handled the action and the comedy with equal aplomb, but he was the only admirable part of this big, dumb, special effects laden egg. Loud and garish do not excitement make. And boy, was a lot of the CGI unconvincing. Its genuine scare count was very low. The park ideas didn't make much sense. (A petting zoo with baby dinosaurs? Really? That would be good for six-year-olds?) And the corporate character that Bryce Dallas Howard played set action ingénues back 20 years. (Damn those ridiculous heels they made her wear throughout!) The original JURASSIC PARK from 1993 remains one of the best horror films of all time. And frankly, I wish they had quit there. All of the sequels, including this one, were diminishing returns.


That’s my take on the summer. Tell me what amazed you, or bummed you out. Autumn and winter at the Cineplex sound pretty good this year with the likes of CAROL, a plethora of screen bios, and a new STAR WARS movie all heading our way. I'm excited. Bring on the cooler weather and even cooler movies!