Friday, July 20, 2012

On the events in Aurora, Colorado

As you can tell by this blog, I love movies. They bring me joy, even when they're poorly made, or when they're telling an unpleasant story. Going to the movies is one of the great pleasures of life. A movie theater should be a place of awe and wonder. It should be a place where you can imagine yourself away from whatever is troubling you at the time or where you can be transported to places you couldn't otherwise go. It should be a place where dreams can come true, and the fact that a movie theater today was transformed into a place of real-life horror and sadness and violence and fear is indescribably awful to me. My condolences to the people who have been affected by this terrible tragedy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

(This post is presented in conjunction with Kevin Olson's blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and his ongoing Summer of Slash series.)

In retrospect, you have to ask the makers of the Friday the 13th films what they were thinking when they subtitled the fourth film in the series The Final Chapter. True, they definitively killed Jason (and quite spectacularly at that) at the end of the film, which certainly gave things a sense of finality, but were they honestly planning to just end the series then and there? With so much money yet to be made? Once you've reached the point where a slasher film series surpasses trilogy status and hits installment number four, hasn't any semblance of restraint already been thrown out the window? Am I asking too many questions? The answer to all of these is, of course, no, and after what was undoubtedly a lively session of forehead-slapping at Paramount, the decision was made to move forward. But how to do it? Jason Voorhees, the star of the show, was dead; he'd had his cabeza sliced open like a melon. I'm guessing that the filmmakers' thoughts returned to the very first film for inspiration. As we all know, it was Jason's mother who perpetrated the mayhem in that film, and having someone else be responsible for the killings in part 5 probably sounded like a good idea.

As far as I'm concerned, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (or as it should have been called, Friday the 13th: Just Kidding About The Final Chapter Thing) has always occupied an awkward spot in the series. Coming down off the high of the fourth film, which showcased the triumphant return of Tom Savini to the role of effects maestro, and preceding the sixth film, which introduces a new twist to the Jason Voorhees mythos, the fifth film sort of just sits there. Danny Steinmann's direction is reasonably competent, and the story refreshingly eschews the old "horny teenagers come to a lakeside cabin" setting, establishing a fresh milieu for the carnage to take place in, but to me, it will always have the feel of a stopgap film that was made simply to keep the Friday the 13th brand in the public's consciousness until they could get the series proper back on track. As if to compensate for this, the filmmakers crammed this installment with more murders that ever before - a whopping 22, if you count the two in the prologue (I'll explain in a moment). The film's running time is approximately 90 minutes; you do the math. 

Things begin atmospherically enough, with a pre-credits sequence featuring a brief cameo by Corey Feldman as the young Tommy Jarvis that actually foreshadows the opening of the next film. In this prologue, he witnesses the apparent resurrection of Jason after his wormy corpse is exhumed by a pair of thrill-seeking young men. After Jason dispatches the two grave robbers and turns his attention to Tommy, it's revealed to be a dream sequence. Tommy is actually a young adult now (played quite well by John Shepherd), and he awakens from his nightmare in the back of a van that's delivering him to the Pinehurst Youth Development Center, a home for disturbed young people in a rural, farmlike setting. Here the credits begin, and oddly, the first credit we see, even before the cast, is for Executive Producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. Since Mancuso, Jr. is one of the few people involved with this film with any direct ties to the previous entries, it's almost as if it's meant to be a subtle reminder that yes, this is indeed an honest-to-goodness Friday the 13th film, although it's doubtful that the average viewer of this type of film would have paid attention to such things. A more direct link, and one that would have been more apparent to the average audience member (even if they didn't realize it), was the return of composer Harry Manfredini, contributing his fifth score for the series. Manfredini was the John Barry of the Friday the 13th films, and his outstanding scores gave the films a sense of continuity they might not otherwise have had.

Tommy clearly has issues, but when he arrives at Pinehurst, the film introduces a motley group of young people, many of whom seem reasonably well-adjusted considering where they're staying. The two residents who have the most obvious problems are Vic, a young man with severe anger management issues (as we'll soon see), and Joey, a chocolate-loving fat kid who's been shuffled around from foster home to foster home and seems to be a bit slow, but it's not quite clear why the others are residing there, unless liking sex or stuttering or listening to new wave music is a sign of being disturbed. As I mentioned, this setting is a nice change from the usual one, and it gives the actors a chance to stretch a bit more than usual by playing something besides horny teenagers (although some of them are more up to the task than others). Speaking of horny teenagers, it's often been said that slasher movies in general and the Friday the 13th series in particular are infused with a "have sex and die" motif. It should therefore be noted that only two of the characters in this film have actual sex (although a few others are clearly thinking about it, and one character has a nearly orgasmic reaction while taking a dump in an outhouse), and with 22 murders overall, the sex-to-death ratio is astoundingly low. By contrast, at least six of the victims partake in illicit substances (or are about to), so if anything, there's more of a "take drugs and die" theme.

Also on hand at the farm are Pam Roberts, the Assistant Director; Matthew Letter, the Director; the cook and his grandson Reggie who's just visiting (and takes great pains to let Tommy know this). After we meet the residents and the staff of Pinehurst, we're introduced to a few more characters, these being Ethel Hubbard and her son Junior, a pair of dirty, foul-mouthed rednecks who live nearby and provide some comic relief, and the local law enforcement. Just like with the other films, pretty much everyone we meet is likely to end up dead, so when the characters begin piling up, you know the bodies soon will be, too. Things get off to a bloody start when Joey interferes with Vic's wood chopping chores and ends up axed to death for his troubles. It's the first non-dream murder in the film, and it's not even committed by the movie's real killer; as you can see, confusion is already beginning to set in. An ambulance shows up to collect Joey's remains in a behind-the-flashing-light shot that reminded me of the Leslie Nielsen slapstick comedy series Police Squad (not to mention the Naked Gun films that followed). Roy, one of the paramedics, seems unusually disturbed by the sight of the dismembered corpse under a blood-soaked sheet, and at this point, it should be fairly obvious that he's going to figure into the ensuing hijinks somehow.

It doesn't take much longer for the murders to begin in earnest, starting with a couple of leather-jacketed greasers who seem like they could have stumbled out of The Outsiders. While one of them tries to fix their broken-down car, the other goes off to take a crap in the woods, seemingly without toilet paper (something which is inconceivable to me). Needless to say, they're both quickly dispatched. The killer isn't shown in either of these murders, nor in several of the subsequent killings, indicating that the filmmakers were trying to create some kind of mystery as to the killer's identity. Clearly, we're meant to wonder whether or not Tommy is actually behind them. To be perfectly honest, it's been so long since I saw this film for the first time that I can't remember if I ever bought into it. Meanwhile, Tommy is tormented by visions of Jason, and during his first breakfast at Pinehurst, he lays out one of the fellow inmates using some fighting skills he's apparently picked up during his years of institutionalization. The next night, one of the ambulance drivers from the beginning of the film is killed along with his waitress girlfriend (who still has time to show us her boobs in the scant few minutes she has onscreen), and we're off and running.

At this point, the killer begins to move in on the occupants of Pinehurst, which of course means they have to start splitting up into manageable groups. Whether it's two lovers who sneak into the woods to get it on, Matthew heading off to look for them after they fail to return, Pam taking Tommy and Reggie into town in the requisite unreliable vehicle or the other kids heading off to their respective rooms, the killer is now able to take care of them much more easily. Pam (this episode's Final Girl, or is she?) eventually returns  to Pinehurst with Tommy and Reggie in tow for a climactic confrontation with "Jason," who ends up falling onto a spiky piece of farm machinery. "Jason," of course, turns out to be Roy, the ambulance driver. We're told that Joey, the axe victim from the beginning, was Roy's estranged son, and the sight of Joey's dismembered corpse was apparently enough to send Roy around the bend. Why he decided to dress up like Jason is a bit of a mystery (multiple personality disorder?), but realistic psychology isn't one of the series' strong points. It is kind of a nice touch when Tommy, who's been seeing apparitions of Jason all along, is confronted with what he believes to be Jason in the flesh; Shepherd's portrayal of Tommy's confusion and doubt is pretty believable. The film ends with a predictable double twist in which a hospitalized Tommy first dreams he kills Pam and then, upon waking, advances on her from behind, wielding a butcher knife and wearing the hockey mask. The finale of part 4 seemed to indicate that Tommy would become a killer as a result of his traumatic experiences, and we're basically given the same idea here.

One thing that definitely set the Friday the 13th films apart from other, more run-of-the-mill slashers was their insistence on utilizing graphically elaborate makeup effects. The original Friday the 13th, while obviously inspired by Halloween, brazenly displayed the blood and gore that John Carpenter's film kept mostly offscreen, and this tradition mostly continued through the series, regardless of what the MPAA actually allowed to wind up on screen. Beginning with the legendary Tom Savini in the first film, each subsequent film employed a talented team of makeup effects artists who generally delivered much more than just simple gags using blood tubing and shoddy dummies. Once Jason took center stage, it also became the job of the makeup artists to showcase his twisted visage. It's disappointing, then, that the effects in A New Beginning are merely adequate, and occasionally shoddy. Perhaps the quality suffered because there were so many murders to orchestrate, but the result is that only a few of them exhibit anything above average. The road flare in the mouth that one of the greasers receives and Junior's meat cleaver decapitation while zooming around on his motorbike are probably the major highlights. There's also a fairly nasty scene in which a guy has his head squeezed by a leather strap that's wrapped around a tree and tightened with a stick. Regardless of their quality, most the murders that are shown are cut away from so quickly that they lose much of their impact. In the case of one throat slashing, there's an optical zoom away from the wound and into the victim's face that seems like it was done in post-production. No doubt, the MPAA took issue with the number of killings in the film and demanded even more edits than usual. Also, given the fact that the killer isn't even Jason, there's no grotesque prosthetic makeup necessary.

The major problem with A New Beginning is the fact that, if you strip away the killer's borrowed hockey mask and Manfredini's superb music, the movie isn't really any different than any other generic 80s slasher flick. Perhaps you care a little more about the characters than usual, but not enough to make much of a difference, and the murders happen in such rapid succession during the last half of the film that it's difficult to keep track of who's alive and who's dead. Ultimately, we miss the presence of Jason, and despite the film's success, the makers seemed to realize this. Jason would be back the next time around.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Friday the 13th: The Challenge Begins

Kevin Olson has been reviewing the Friday the 13th films as part of his ongoing Summer of Slash series over at the great blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. He heroically made it through the first four films in the series before fatigue understandably began to set in. There's only so much one man can take, and Kevin decided to briefly recap the rest of the movies in a single post.

When I saw that Kevin wasn't going to make it through the entire series, I felt a responsibility to step in and offer to help by reviewing the remaining films for him. To me, it seemed like a great way to shamelessly promote my own blog help out a fellow blogger. It's a tough job, picking up with part 5, as the series essentially gets worse and worse as it goes along, but I think I can handle it. To show you how serious I'm taking this assignment, I made my way to an actual cabin in the woods on this past Friday the 13th, where I viewed Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and began writing my first review. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. As you can see by the photo, the cabin was well-equipped with a plethora of sharp objects hanging in the woodshed, just in case you-know-who decided to show up. (There was a lot of beer, too.) Luckily, I made it through the weekend mostly intact, except for a nasty sunburn and several mosquito bites. My review of A New Beginning  should be up within the next day or so.

Like Kevin, I'm only human, so I can't guarantee I'll make it all the way through the series (and unlike Kevin, I do plan on including both Freddy vs. Jason and the 2009 reboot), but I'm going to try my damnedest. Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The sinking of Battleship

Peter Berg's alien invasion film Battleship is arguably the biggest failure of the 2012 summer movie season. As I write this, the film, which cost in excess of $200 million to produce, has grossed a paltry $65 million in the United States after having been in release for nearly two months. (A discussion of box office receipts is perhaps the only time I'll unironically use the word "paltry" when referring to tens of millions of dollars.) The overall critical reaction to the film was unsurprisingly savage, as it represents nearly everything serious film critics despise: it's big, it's dumb, it's loud and it's derivative. But let's be honest; critics rarely influence the moviegoing public, and I expected the film to do at least somewhat better business than it has. What I have found surprising is the largely ambivalent, even negative reaction to the film among moviegoers and internet commentators. Clearly, based on its box office returns, a lot of people simply chose not to see Battleship, and after reading a lot of what's been written about it, you would expect it to be one of the worst films ever made. But it isn't, not by a long shot. I saw it in a theater, and I have to say, it's not that bad. I thought it was perfectly enjoyable, and I certainly didn't walk out of the theater regretting having seen the film. (It may have helped matters somewhat that we saw it for free by using a gift card.) Although the plot was ridiculous to say the least, the acting was reasonably competent, the special effects were spectacularly well-done, and overall, I was honestly entertained more than I expected to be. I'm not going to expend any more words trying to defend the film (at least not in this paragraph), because on a certain level, it's indefensible. An obscene amount of money was spent to produce this film, but that's nothing out of the ordinary in today's Hollywood; it only becomes an issue when that money isn't recouped. The bottom line is, either you'll have fun with Battleship or you won't, but frankly, I'm mystified as to why it bombed so thoroughly, and I'd like to try and figure out why.

I'll bet they're feeling a bit inadequate

First of all, the argument that it tanked because it's a dumb movie is invalid. It's not like stupid movies haven't cleaned up at the box office in the past; just look at Michael Bay's Transformers series, which Battleship actually has a lot in common with. Both were developed by the toy company Hasbro based on their products, both feature robotic alien machinery that can reconfigure itself into different objects, and both are, well, stupid. That's where the similarities end, however. The three Transformers films (of which, full disclosure here, I've only seen the first), have grossed well over a billion dollars in the US alone. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, which tracks a film's popularity among both critics and audiences, Battleship receives a dismal 34% score from critics and doesn't fare much better with audiences, who score it at 56%. By contrast, the first Transformers movie scored 57% with critics and 89% with audiences. Why the huge difference? Is Transformers really a better movie? If you asked me, I'd say no. While I enjoyed the first film to a certain degree, it clearly didn't make me want to rush out and see the other two films upon their release. I haven't even bothered to rent them yet. Transformers is deafening, obnoxious and infantile to a much greater degree than Battleship, and personally, I find the star of the series, Shia LaBoeuf, to be irritating, much more so than Battleship star Taylor Kitsch. Speaking of Kitsch, he was also the lead in another huge 2012 flop, John Carter, leading some people to hypothesize that he's somehow box office poison. I think it's just bad luck on his part. No, despite the recent, massive success of a truly intelligent and thought-provoking sci-fi/action film like Christopher Nolan's Inception (or for that matter, his Batman films), the fact remains that dumb movies are as popular as ever (Twilight, anyone?).

"Get to the choppa! Wait, get away from the choppa!"

I suspect the fact that Battleship's lowly origin - it is, in fact, based on a board game - has a lot to do with its negative perception. Like a lot of people, I groaned inwardly when I first heard about it. Hollywood's well of inspiration has been pretty dry as of late; they've gone from remakes of foreign films to "reboots" of their own properties to movies based on TV shows and video games. Basing a film on a board game would seem to be the absolute nadir of creativity, and to a certain extent, it is. Countless jokes along the lines of, "What's next, Chutes and Ladders: The Movie?" were made when Battleship was first announced, and I laughed along with them. Speculation ran high as to whether or not someone in the film would utter the famous line, "You sank my battleship!" in a petulant tone, as seen in the TV commercials for the game. The fact is, however, that Battleship the movie has next to nothing to do with Battleship the game. This rather tenuous connection was nothing more than an attempt to align the film with a familiar and beloved product to boost its visibility, and in this case, it backfired horribly. When you strip all that away, however, what you're left with is an alien invasion flick that has far more in common with other films of its ilk, such as Independence Day and War of the Worlds, than with any game. If Battleship had been called something else entirely and had not been promoted as an adaptation of a board game, it might have done better. This also might explain why it's done reasonably well outside the United States, pulling in over $200 million overseas. The connection with the game may have gone over the heads of non-US viewers who aren't familiar with it and therefore it avoided the negative connotations associated with that relationship.

A snazzy suit of alien armor
Ultimately, though, I think Battleship's failure was mainly the result of unfortunate timing. To see what I mean, you only have to go back two weeks in time from its opening date (May 18) and look at which movie premiered on that date: The Avengers. This admittedly superior film became an unstoppable box office juggernaut that simply left no room for an also-ran like Battleship. The Avengers has grossed nearly ten times as much as Battleship has. It's a better film, yes, but is it ten times better? With all due respect to Joss Whedon and crew, of course not, but that's not really a valid comparison anyway. Any sci-fi/action film that went head to head with The Avengers would have had its work cut out for it, and Battleship just wasn't up to the task. What I don't quite understand is why Battleship didn't benefit more from spill-over business from The Avengers. I'm sure a lot of people who wanted to see The Avengers were turned away due to sold out shows, and I would have expected a healthy percentage of those people to have elected to see Battleship as an alternative. I guess they either walked away or bought tickets to a later showing of The Avengers instead. Of course, it's also possible that Battleship only made as much money as it did because of the patronage of those disappointed moviegoers. I suppose the studio could have played up the patriotic aspect of the film a bit more (it features real-life war veterans in both small and leading roles), seeing as how it opened around Memorial Day, but that probably wouldn't have helped much. In retrospect, if they had waited until July 4th to release the film, things might have worked out slightly better, although they would still have been competing with The Amazing Spiderman and then, two weeks later, The Dark Knight Rises.

Someone just read the reviews to Liam Neeson

We may never really know why Battleship failed so resoundingly. It's worth noting that the film does have its supporters (or at the very least, its apologists). I looked up Roger Ebert's review; while he dutifully points out all of the film's faults, he gives it two and a half stars, and he and I are on the same page about it being better than Transformers (yes, I just compared myself to Roger Ebert). Nick Pinkerton's amusingly witty review in The Village Voice is what ultimately made me decide to see the film; in particular, the last line of the review, which reads, "And when the F-14s came out for a triumphant flyover, I looked around the room to find the moron who was applauding only to realize that it was me." Finally, while searching the web for photos to accompany this post, I stumbled upon another blog post whose rather high-profile author saw Battleship back-to-back with The Avengers and ultimately found Battleship to be more satisfying. The blogger? Oliver Stone. It will be interesting to see if the film develops any sort of second life on home video (at the very least, as the subject of some sort of drinking game). I definitely think it's worth a repeat viewing, especially if you have a decent home theater system that can approximate the room-shaking quality of the theatrical experience, and it's highly likely that I'll rent it, or even buy it on Blu-ray, if the price is right (say, ten bucks or less). While I've found most of director Peter Berg's other films to be instantly forgettable, for once, he made one that I'd like to see again, and it bombed. I feel his pain.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Let's talk about violence

One of the first of countless casualties in The Wild Bunch

"...I feel totally great and fine in saying that in real life I have a major problem with violence, that I do think our society is too violent, but I have no problem going to a film and seeing violence on the screen." 
-- Quentin Tarantino

"When people talk about violence in cinema, it's like talking about cheese on pasta; it sort of comes with the dish." 
-- Brian De Palma

Let's take a cue from Mr. De Palma and discuss violence a bit, shall we? It's something that's going to come up again and again in this blog (in fact, I already touched on it a bit in my first few entries), and there are a few things I feel I should get out in the open. I recently watched the special edition DVD of The Enforcer, and one of the special features was a documentary featuring various filmmakers and film historians frankly discussing the pros and cons of cinematic violence. It was an interesting show, and it got me thinking about my views on the subject. First of all, let me say that I am in no way, shape or form a violent person. In general, I'm what you would refer to as a bleeding heart liberal (if you want proof, see the post immediately prior to this one). I've never been in a real fight, I've never raised my hand in anger against anyone, I despise war and I'm against capital punishment and solidly in favor of gun control. Despite all this, I find myself watching a lot of violent movies. All you have to do is look through a list of some of my favorite films - Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch, Apocalypse Now, Drive, A Clockwork Orange, Alien, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Once Upon a Time in the West and countless blood-drenched horror films you've probably never heard of - to see that violence is an integral part of my film diet. In my view, many of the most interesting and intriguing films also happen to be the most violent. How can this be? How can such a mild-mannered person as myself derive pleasure from watching brutality take place on the screen? Well, it's complicated. You know, like life.

A reluctant execution in Army of Shadows

In my mind, there are different types of screen violence. First of all, there's violence that's supposed to be ugly, that's supposed to repulse the viewer and demonstrate to them how horrible violence really is. This is what I consider to be, more or less, realistic violence. You'll find it in many of the films of Sam Peckinpah, or Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, or Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, or Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows). When you watch a violent sequence in one these films, it's the filmmakers' intention that you should be sickened by it. In many cases, the characters in the films who perpetrate the violence are sickened by it as well. It couldn't possibly be argued that a well-adjusted person would view these films and get the idea that violence is a positive thing (although that hasn't stopped a never-ending stream of pundits from trying to do just that over virtually the entire history of the cinema). At the very least, it's shown to be repugnant but necessary. Melville's film contains an incredibly powerful scene in which members of the French resistance during World War II reluctantly kill an informer who would otherwise give them away to the Nazis; the necessity of doing it quietly and cleanly means that they have to strangle him, and it's absolutely excruciating to watch, despite the fact that it's not at all graphic.

With that being said, many of the violent sequences in these films are nevertheless filmed and presented in a way that is visually and cinematically exciting. Scenes like the Normandy invasion in Private Ryan or the opening and closing gun battles in The Wild Bunch are horrifying, yes, but there's no denying the fact that the bravura expression of sheer cinematic technique utilized in these sequences is thrilling in its own right, and is somehow artistically divorced from the content itself. In short, it's possible to admire them even as you're appalled by them. (By contrast, the rape/murder sequences in Last House on the Left are filmed so dispassionately and with such a lack of flourish that they become practically unbearable to watch.) The argument has been put forth that these films somehow condone violence merely by presenting it, but the idea that exhibiting violence in a graphic manner is tantamount to condoning it seems ludicrous to me. Film is no different than other forms of art. If I look at Picasso's Guernica and say "Goddamn, that's an amazing painting," does that mean I think it's OK for fascists to bomb a town full of women and children into splinters? Of course not. Cinematic violence of this type can justifiably be referred to as an artist making a statement about society. 

Steven Seagal wants to talk to you about your behavior

Another type of screen violence, which is somewhat more problematic, is the type that isn't supposed to turn us off. It's the kind we're actually supposed to, well, enjoy. It's heroes taking out villains by any means necessary. It's Charles Bronson blowing away a scumbag rapist, or John Rambo using an explosive-tipped arrow to detonate a Vietnamese soldier, or Steven Seagal kicking the living shit out of a terrorist. It's violence that's supposed to elicit a cheer from the audience, or a giggle, or at the very least, a satisfied sigh. This is the type of violence that worries some people, and to a certain extent, I can understand why. The violence in these films is presented as less consequential, or even inconsequential. In most cases, we aren't shown the bad guys' pain at any great length, or the grief of their loved ones (if they have any; more often than not, they exist in a vacuum), or the circumstances that made them the way they were. The filmmakers aren't interested in those things, nor are we supposed to be, and as a result, those on the receiving end of this "righteous" violence are dehumanized.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (my daughter said he screamed like a girl)

Of course, the antagonists in police dramas and action movies are often presented as unrepentantly evil to begin with, and that is, in my opinion, the key to being able to enjoy these films without feeling too guilty about it. These aren't characters; they're caricatures, and sometimes it's nice to visit a world in which everything is black and white (in a moral sense). In the documentary I mentioned earlier, screenwriter Shane Black says something to the effect of "It's fun to see the bad guy get blown the fuck out of his socks," and I tend to agree. As I write this, I'm preparing to take my nine-year-old daughter to a theatrical screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. She might be a bit young for it, but it's a rare opportunity to see this classic film on the big screen, and I want to take advantage of it in the hope that it will help kindle a love of film in her (much the same as it did for me). I was discussing with a relative whether or not I'd need to cover her eyes at the climax, when Belloq and the Nazi villains are gruesomely obliterated by the Ark, and he remarked, "Well, they deserve it!" That sums it up right there. Movie villains always deserve it. There's no doubt that they've committed their crimes; hell, we've seen them do it, and we've got the film to prove it! This absolute certainty squelches many of my moral reservations about seeing them wiped out. Speaking of Raiders, has the scene where Indy shoots the sword-wielding baddie ever failed to elicit an uproarious laugh from the audience? Like it or not, sometimes violence is just fucking hilarious! (I did end up letting my daughter watch the end; she remarked that the melting Nazi "screamed like a girl," and later, we discussed how the effects were accomplished.)

Riverdance this is not - Ryan Gosling in Drive

Some filmmakers do try to have it both ways. In Nicolas Winding Refn's stunning crime film Drive, Ryan Gosling's unnamed character commits some intense acts of violence in the course of protecting a young mother and her son from vicious gangsters. While his motives may be good and pure, he's obviously got some issues of his own, as evidenced by the extreme methods he uses. In Drive's most infamous scene, when confronted in an elevator, he repeatedly stomps on a thug's head until it resembles a pancake, and both the woman he's protecting in the film and we the audience are left in dumbstruck silence by his sheer ferocity. Or, there's The Matrix, in which we witness Keanu Reeves blowing away dozens of bad guys who, as it turns out, aren't even real. As much as I hate violence in real life, I have to admit I love watching it in movies of this ilk. The trick is to realize that they're just movies, and this sort of violent response to evil rarely works in the real world.

If I haven't said much yet about violence in horror films, it's because they're a different animal altogether. Horror films are specifically designed to confront us with our own mortality, and as such, the representation of violent death is an intrinsic part of their DNA. While it's entirely possible to make an effective horror film without explicit violence, since the late 1950s, these more subtle attempts at horror have increasingly been the exceptions to the rule. Horror films do often showcase violence as something ugly and reprehensible, as in Craven's Last House, but it's just as often presented as a visual spectacle, even more so than the action films referenced above. Horror fans watch these so-called "body count" films not only to be scared (if that even happens) but also to revel in the meticulously gory creations of special effects artists. We watch them for the specific purpose of seeing people dispatched in various messy ways, and we don't really care much about them at all. Of the thousands of characters who've been graphically butchered in horror films over the last five decades, many are often even greater ciphers than many of the action movie villains. The disposability of these victims is exacerbated by the fact that a good number of these horror films are low-budget affairs, with substandard writing and acting that don't do much to endear the characters to us. Violence is the raison d'être of these films; if you remove it, they're essentially pointless.

Alessio Orano delivers the coup de grâce in Lisa and the Devil

Again, there are quite a few exceptions. Neil Marshall's The Descent gives us a group of characters we grow to care about before they're plunged into a subterranean nightmare. We're terribly frightened for them and horrified by their brutal, ghastly deaths. We also root for them as they turn the tables on their subhuman tormentors and bring the pain back to them. Near the end, we're conflicted when one of them turns on another in retaliation for an earlier transgression; we understand, but we don't necessarily agree. Ultimately, we're emotionally shattered by the downbeat ending. Other horror films, while they may have their share of bloody moments, transcend these gruesome scenes and become truly exceptional films due to the sheer artistry on display. Mario Bava's 1972 horror masterpiece, Lisa and the Devil, features a number of grotesque murders, including a man who is run over repeatedly by a car and a half-dressed woman who is bludgeoned to death, but the film is so elegantly made and achieves such a remarkable, dreamlike quality that the violence doesn't seem as grotesque as it should. Other filmmakers play the violence for laughs, as in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. The gruesome dismemberments and popped-out eyeballs in Raimi's sequel to/remake of his own Evil Dead (which was a far more serious film) are famously inspired by the physically abusive comedy of The Three Stooges.

Whatever its context or presentation may be, violence in the cinema has been around since the very beginning, and it's not likely that it'll be going away anytime soon, despite the fact that many people would like it to. There's a group of people who seem to think that getting rid of violent movies will make our society less violent. That's patently absurd. While there are certain damaged individuals who may latch on to a violent film and find inspiration in it, is preventing everyone from seeing it really the answer? Won't these people just find something else that will set them off? One could argue that violence should be allowed in films if it has artistic merit, but who decides which films qualify? Ultimately, violent films are a reflection of our society as it is now. Perhaps someday, if and when we evolve to the point where we stop killing one another, these movies will become passé. While I'd love to live in a peaceful society, going to the movies in such a utopian world will sure be a hell of a lot more boring.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

Happy Fourth of July, my fellow Americans! After a stirring speech by Bill Pullman, let's all band together and take our country back from the evil, slimy, inhuman creatures who would like nothing better than to enslave us and suck up all of our natural resources!

No, not those evil, slimy, inhuman creatures! 

These evil, slimy, inhuman creatures!

Have a great holiday!