Neo-Revenge in Two Styles

25 June 2011 at 15:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Spoilers abound***

The revenge narrative structure remains a stalwart of the horror genre despite being one of cinema’s oldest formulas. Well before seventies exploitation films made the rape/revenge formula a sleazy regular of grindhouse cinema, vigilantes populated Westerns and even the great “art house” director, Ingmar Bergman, directed the gorgeously devastating The Virgin Spring that inspired more traditionally generic fare such as The Last House on the Left.

Nevertheless, filmmakers continue to rework the revenge formula for new audiences. Revenge remakes have enjoyed a revival of sorts (see my speculation on one such effort), but new stories have emerged as well. Two recent screenings I attended reminded me of how divergent the uses of revenge can be despite the simple formula. The films, Hobo with a Shotgun and Red White and Blue, both use the revenge formula for a contemporary audience but in drastically divergent ways.

Image take from Wired.com

The more conventional of the two, Hobo with a Shotgun casts the legendary (I don’t banty the term about lightly) Rutger Hauer in the titular role of a homeless man just trying to survive peacefully in a nightmarish urban Nova Scotia landscape. After witnessing the cartoonish cruelty of the city’s thugs, however, he takes up arms against criminal elements. Watch the red band trailer below:

The trailer highlights the stylistic flourishes of the film, harkening back to an eighties action film aesthetic of urban lawlessness (think Robocop or Cobra). The film, in other words, exemplifies pastiche much like related efforts Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Hobo began, after all, as a trailer for a contest associated with the release of Grindhouse before becoming a full-length feature as did Machete. The results are predictably gratuitous and campy, and while it may have fallen slightly short of my high expectations, it delivered on its promise gory action sequences and hilariously stilted dialog.

Red White and Blue differs dramatically from Hobo in both its aims and execution. The film follows a group of characters all residing in Austin, Texas, beginning with the detached and promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller). Despite her reckless sexual exploits, she attracts the attention of the pensive Nate, (Noah Taylor in an impressive turn), whose vague military career and stories of childhood hint at psychopathology. Despite their flaws, the two reluctantly form a bond, violently shattered by the entrance of Franki (Marc Senter), a musician whose tryst with Erica proves life-changing.

What differentiates Red White and Blue from so many other revenge narratives is the way in which complex grievances and motivations entangle the characters. The downward spiral begins when Franki discovers that he contracted HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with Erica. While the implications for his own life prove devastating enough, the impact multiplies since Franki donated blood to his mother who suffers from cancer. Franki and his friends then kidnap Erica. Upon confronting her, Erica admits to the knowledge of her own HIV positive status to Franki, both downplaying the significance of the disease and explaining her behavior in terms of her own sexual trauma. It could be Erica’s vulnerability in this scene that leads to a strange kind of violation: Franki, in a supposed effort to make amends, rapes Erica before proposing to her. (Note: Some viewers might not interpret this scene as rape since Erica hardly resists, but Fuller’s performance clearly conveys a lack of consent; it is a disturbing scene because the violence is as much emotional as it is physical.) After Erica attempts to escape, Franki fatally stabs her, dismembering and stowing away the body with the help of his friends. Soon thereafter, Nate tracks down and brutally attacks, interrogates, and tortures Franki and his accomplices. These scenes of calculated violence reveal the monstrous interior hiding beneath Nate’s tranquil exterior, making it difficult to root for Nate as avenger.

Image take from Impawards.com

Ultimately, then, Red White and Blue refuses to give its audience a character to root for but makes each of its principal players multifaceted and sympathetic (to varying degrees). Hobo with a Shotgun, by contrast, simplifies the intentions of its characters: the hobo along with his sidekick hooker with a heart of gold represent marginalized goodness while crime boss, The Drake, and his spoiled sadistic sons embody evil fueled by unchecked greed. While I found Hobo far more satisfying as a spectacle, Red White and Blue challenged me in its conception of revenge and, in the process, critiqued our culture’s simplistic notions of justice. Red White and Blue showed that the myth of the vigilante portrayed in Hobo may be comforting, but rarely does it translate to life beyond the screen.

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10 Hilarious Things About Jason X

20 June 2010 at 22:18 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I visited my buddies in Austin for the last time this week before moving my shit out to the Pacific Northwest next week. We had some good meals, listened to some terrific music from Austin’s freshest bands, and best of all, had a lot of good conversation. Still, one of the most fun activities of the weekend was watching Jason X while we stayed at my friend Curran’s place. Curran and his partner Masashi own a ridiculously large collection of horror videos and dvds–they best me in terms of horror fandom hands down.

When faced with the wide array of choices, we decided to watch a Friday the Thirteenth installment I’d never seen: Jason X. I’d caught some of the film on television (back when I had cable) but had not viewed it in its entirety. I found the film to be just as schlocky as expected, and hence, a pleasurable viewing experience.

Jason X (2002), by the way, stars that irrepressible, hockey-masked villain, Jason Voorhees, in the tenth installment of the series. In this version, a company attempts to transport Jason to a research facility to better understand his ability to survive any form of execution. Of course, everything goes wrong, and Jason and incredulous scientist, Rowan, both succumb to freezing after a cryogenic tank breaks. Nearly five hundred years later, a group of researchers discovers the two frozen beings and takes them aboard a funky looking space ship (more on that later) where they thaw out and all hell breaks loose. It’s like Alien meets Terminator meets…well, Friday the Thirteenth.

It may shock you to know that Jason X does not presume to be a serious entry into the horror genre, but revels in poor acting, lame dialog, and the worst CGI since Jaws 3-D. Here’s the trailer:

Here are ten things about Jason X that will keep you laughing from beginning to end:

1 Writing – Much of the film’s attempts at comic relief rely upon the lowest form of humor: the pun. After one unfortunate victim becomes impaled upon a large drill, one of his comrades says, “he’s screwed.” One character cries out, “this sucks on so many levels” when (surprise, surprise) being sucked out of a ship after Jason punches a hole into the outer wall. Some of the kills seem built entirely around the punny line that follows.

2 Animation – The film uses CGI to create the world of outer-space, but apparently the $11,000,000 budget couldn’t buy much in the way of quality. The ships portrayed look completely ridiculous, like someone tried way too hard to come-up with something unusual.

3 Costuming – Along the same lines, the characters wear the most ridiculous, lurid clothing throughout the film. The odd textures, colors, and layering fail to evoke a consistent style of the future, except in that the ladies tend to bare midriff and/or cleavage. This still gets at what I’m talking about it:

Some of the pretty young things working the ship in Jason X. From the-adventurers-club.typepad.com.

4 Kink – The film also uses kink as a source of humor. Android Kay-Em 14 dresses like a dominatrix when facing off against Jason, but my favorite thing: a sex scene between a female student and male professor featuring a pair of tongs used to twist the teacher’s nipple. As a orgasms, he cries out: “you passed!”

5 Weird Science – The film portrays a future in which limbs can be reattached in a jiff and bodies frozen for four-hundred years merely need be covered in ants to reanimate. Yes, ants. This technology also benefits Jason, who despite being shot up into a chunky paste by Kay-Em 14 inexplicably reemerges as a cyborg. The script makes few attempts to explain how this technology works, which actually seems more honest to me even if it makes for perplexing entertainment.

6 Characters – Besides the final girl, Rowan, everyone else in this movie is pretty unsympathetic. Both annoying and idiotic, you will not mourn the loss. The Professor Brandon Lowe, who learns that Jason will likely snag him a lot of money, exudes the same kind of sleaziness that Paul Reiser did in Aliens but without the subtlety. One death after another feels like it belongs in the Darwin awards.

7 Kills – The kills are ridiculous: getting sucked into space through a grate; dipping a girl’s face into liquid nitrogen and shattering it; the famous sleeping bag kill with two simultaneous victims. Ugh.

8 Plot – The twists and turns prove to be both imaginative and nonsensical. Why, for example, do Jason and Rowan’s bodies lie untouched for nearly five hundred years?

9 Action Sequences – The face-off against Kay-Em 14 proves more hilarious than heart-stopping due to the silly stunts:

This clip highlights the final hilarious thing about Jason X

10 Acting – Sure, the writing stinks, but the delivery is worse. The actors frequently overact, miss their beats, and provoke unintended laughs.

I could easily come up with more hilarious things about the movie (the score, the ending, etc…) but that would ruin my whole X/10 parallel. Besides, the many surprises along the way may be the most entertaining thing about Jason X, and what kind of fan would I be to give all of that away?

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Unanswered Questions in District 9

19 August 2009 at 18:21 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

This past weekend, District 9 opened to rave reviews and the highest box office earnings of the weekend. While in many ways the film exhibits the classic markings of a big-budget science fiction adventure, reviewers contrasted it explicitly and implicitly with the mind-numbingly silly Transformers 2 and G. I. Joes with comments like, “It’s nice to see a movie where some serious thought has been put into reviving a stale genre” (from Peter Howell of The Toronto Star), and “If you’re looking for the late-summer special-effects action fantasy with big franchise potential, forget about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. . . . . Instead, proceed directly to District 9” (from Richard Corliss of TIME Magazine). Clearly, if you review movies for a living, District 9 stands out from the pack.

The poster for District 9.  Taken from filmmisery.com.

The poster for District 9. Taken from filmmisery.com.

Unfortunately, the movie may not be as smart as it thinks it is. While I felt the film was well-made and entertaining, the plot’s twists and turns felt contrived at times. Various details challenged my willing suspension of disbelief, and I left the screening with so many questions, I couldn’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied. With that in mind, I list my questions below:

1) Why did the prawns land on earth in the first place?

2) Why are the Nigerians permitted to openly exploit the prawns?

3) Why does the jet fuel for Christopher’s ship cause Wikus to become a prawn?

4) With such heavy artillery and great physical strength, why don’t the prawns rise up against the humans?

5) Why is the alien character named “Christopher Thompson,” rather than some kind of alien name?

A bigger concern about the film: why are the injustices against the prawns told primarily through the view of humans? I understand the effect: the pseudo-documentary style frames the events from the human perspective so that when later scenes render certain prawns sympathetic, they jarringly undermine the audience’s prejudices. But ultimately, I felt the film never fully overturned the initial assumptions of the human characters. The prawns remain hapless and mysterious, and while I sympathized with them, I never felt fully engaged with their plight.

A prawn from District 9.

A "prawn" from District 9.

Of course, a sequel could answer these questions, and I would encourage writer/director Neill Blomkamp to focus the next chapter of this story around Christopher rather than Wikus. While Wikus may be easier to identify with on a cosmetic level, Christopher proves to be the more compelling character. A view into his story would also bring the apartheid themes (pushed oddly to the background, as Daniel Engbar points out in his Slate.com piece) to the forefront. Hopefully in a few summers, we’ll be getting the progressive allegory that the film’s trailers advertised but didn’t quite deliver.

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The Antagonistic Corporation – Part 2

28 July 2009 at 14:15 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I didn’t plan for this to be a two-part post, but then I read more deeply into a new sci-fi film called District 9, and I couldn’t help but elaborate upon the ideas explored in my previous post. I first saw the trailer over the weekend at a matinee screening of Orphan (more on that movie later). Here’s the trailer:

The film’s setting struck me immediately upon watching the trailer. Western films rarely use South Africa as a film’s setting unless the film examines the history of apartheid. While District 9 clearly draws upon apartheid also, it does so through a story set in the future. The authorities confine aliens to a section of Johannesburg where they can be contained and interrogated, an obvious reference to apartheid-era townships (though truth be told, apartheid reforms did not eliminate the townships, as much of the black population in Johannesburg remains in those underdeveloped communities). It’s yet to be seen exactly how the film will draw upon apartheid, but the marketing for the film hints at some interesting possibilities: a fictional blog by an alien activist, signage declaring “humans only,” and a protest at the San Diego ComicCon all suggest that the filmmakers will be raising some interesting questions with District 9.

So, what’s the connection between District 9 and the films mentioned in my previous post? As in RoboCop and Aliens, the primary antagonist in District 9 is a multi-national corporation. Taking a page from the Aliens book, the corporation appropriately known as Multinational United (MNU) studies the aliens for weapons development. Hence, District 9 critiques the military-industrial complex much like it’s sci-fi predecessors. That District 9 also tackles issues of human (er, alien?) rights gives it all the more potential.

A poster for District 9. Image taken from Flickr.

A poster for District 9.

Hopefully, a film about injustice in South Africa will draw attention to the social unrest plaguing the country. In recent weeks, protests have broken out across the country over poor living conditions in townships. One Guardian article declares, “South Africa is sitting on a social time bomb,” due to a 77% poverty rate, one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and government corruption. While District 9 potentially trivializes these concerns, it also has the potential to powerfully allegorize these problems.

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The Antagonistic Corporation

28 July 2009 at 06:44 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

The hubby and I watched Robocop this weekend. Though I’ve seen it before, watching it in the context of the current political discussion about a “big government” takeover of health care helped me to see the film with fresh eyes. In case you were wondering, I have no qualms about a public option or a single-payer system for that matter and find the concerns about too much government involvement misplaced. Robocop and many other similar sci-fi/action hybrids of the eighties argue that big business may be the true enemy, a point conservative naysayers rarely acknowledge in the health care debate.

In Robocop, a corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP) finances and manages the Detroit Police department. In its efforts to clean up the city before building a high tech development known as Delta City, OCP creates a crime-fighting robot called ED-209. When brought before the company’s CEOs for a demonstration, things go horribly awry with ED-209:

The biggest proponent of ED-209, Dick Jones, considers this incident a minor setback, but the company’s president disagrees. As a result, young opportunist Bob Morton proposes that another weapons development program be given the green light. This new program creates a cyborg officer called RoboCop out of mechanical parts and the salvageable remains of Alex Murphy, a young police officer who meets an unfortunate end at the hands of cartoonish criminals only to be resurrected as RoboCop. While Murphy initially remembers nothing about his previous life, he gradually recalls the past with the help of his former partner, Anne Lewis. He also uncovers a vast conspiracy in which Jones works with the very criminals who initially destroyed Murphy, but avoids charges by pre-programming the RoboCop to let all OCP employees go. In the end, Murphy reveals the conspiracy to OCP’s president, killing Jones at the film’s end. RoboCop‘s message seems simple: with a huge corporation in charge of law enforcement profit motives outweigh basic principles of justice, enabling corruption and criminal activity.

This critique of American capitalism continues to be relevant over twenty years later. I’m particularly reminded of Naomi Klein‘s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, Klein reveals a pattern in which disasters, real and/or manufactured, allow proponents of free market capitalism to force their policies onto a vulnerable populace. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers an excellent example that’s close to home, but Klein also explores how countries such as Chile, Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, deployed the shock doctrine.

The Detroit of Robocop seems similarly positioned; while the film does not allude to a natural disaster or political upheaval, the decline of the Rust Belt seems to be an unspoken cause of the rampant crime and urban decay depicted in the film. OCP takes advantage of this weakened state, particularly in terms of law enforcement, to justify the development, manufacturing, and selling of law enforcement weaponry.

Other sci-fi films of the eighties also convey a distrust of corporations. I think specifically of Aliens. In Aliens, Ripley, the lone survivor of the original film, assists a group of marines on a mission to explore the now-inhabited planet where her crew initially discovered the creatures. As the body count quickly mounts, Ripley learns that the corporation involved in the investigation, known as Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hopes to bring an alien specimen back from the trip for weapons research by allowing Ripley and a little girl, Newt, to be impregnated and then frozen on the return trip. She also learns that the colonists of the planet were encouraged to look for the aliens after Ripley told the company of their existence. Ultimately, these actions wipe out all but one colonist, most of the marines, and not so surprisingly, the company’s corporate lawyer and chief instigator of the company’s actions, Burke.

The cast of Aliens, which includes Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (front and center) and Paul Reiser as Burke (directly to her right).

The cast of Aliens, which includes Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (front and center) and Paul Reiser as Burke (directly to her right).

Burke, by the way, epitomizes the sleazy, pip squeaky type. The same goes for Morton in RoboCop, though his is the more hedonistic variety (he literally does a line of coke off of a woman’s cleavage). Nevertheless, both men’s senses of masculinity strongly contrast the toughness demonstrated by the working men and women employed to further their causes. Early on in RoboCop, Nancy Allen‘s Anne Lewis show’s herself to be “one of the guys” by beating up a disorderly male perpetrator. Similarly, Vasquez (played by Jenette Goldstein) displays her ripped muscles and quick wit in the scene below:

This may seem like a digression, but these scenes demonstrate an action ethos in which those who work for the state–the cops, the marines, etc.–represent strong, working class masculinity, regardless of the sex of the character. By contrast, the corporation’s representatives exhibit feeble qualities that compromise their masculinity; instead of manifesting their power corporeally, they do so through cunning schemes that compromise the safety of the workers they employ. Clearly, there is a class critique at work here, and gender becomes the primary signifier of class differences.

The class critique is symptomatic of a broader concern that both films have with the role that corporations play in shaping public policies and managing disasters. While both films set their plots in futuristic worlds with technologies yet to be realized, the critiques they make could not be more contemporary.

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Open Forum – Drag Me to Hell

31 May 2009 at 08:30 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

As promised, I went right out to see Drag Me to Hell, the hotly anticipated new horror film written and directed by Sam Raimi. With my expectations high, I worried that the film might disappoint. It didn’t. The film combined just enough cheesy special effects, make-up, and dialogue with genuine suspense, well staged action sequences, and gross-out moments to keep me engaged from beginning to end.

Drag Me to Hells protagonist:  haunted by the ghost of a gypsy or her working class background?

Drag Me to Hell's protagonist: haunted by the ghost of a gypsy or her working class background?

What’s more, it exceeded my expectations ideologically. The film took a relatively sophisticated approach to identity by taking into account the intersections of class and sex. Of course, it’s treatment of ethnicity left something to be desired. I also noticed that as in the Evil Dead series, the female body remains the sight of much trauma, with an emphasis on the mouth as penetrable orifice:

But its critique of the primary protagonist’s quest for upward mobility delighted me, even though it personalized the issue through a single character clouding a systemic view of the issue. Bottom line: it’s rare to see the nightmarish side of the so-called American Dream of class ascendancy.

Because I’m sure that many readers have their own thoughts on Drag Me to Hell, I am hoping that folks will contribute their own assessments of the film in the comments section. What did you think about the film stylistically? Did the combination of camp and horror work for you? What was your interpretation of the film overall? Your thoughts on the ending? Please voice your ideas here!

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