Thursday, October 29, 2009

A New Rule for Sport Fans

With the World Series underway, I feel now is an appropriate time to address a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, now. Fans are only allowed to take credit for championships during times that they were actually fans of the team and actively rooting and living the season with them. Cub fans don’t go around saying, “at least we won the World Series in 1908!” That’s no consolation because they weren’t around to experience the excitement.

I’ll admit right out of the gate that this springs from the Yankees return to the World Series and having friends who are fans of them. Don’t get me wrong, though. Having my roots in Pennsylvania, I experienced this phenomenon with the recent success of the Pittsburgh Steelers (“One for the thumb”), as well. There is never a time that it isn’t annoying, regardless of the team.

Yankee fans are calling for their 27th title, but how many people are still alive that were fans for all of them? And you can call it sour grapes if you want (I am a Red Sox fan, after all), but even if you look at the past fifteen years the Yankees still have the most titles. They still have bragging rights! But if I run into an 8-year old Yankees fan, you better believe I’m going to dangle his title-less existence over his or her head while I flaunt my two championships. It’s just the way it’s gotta be.

Fans really view themselves as a part of the team. If this is true (and there is a strong argument that they are more a part of the team than the actual players), then they shouldn’t get the glory of the team from before they signed on. If I joined the Red Sox now, they aren’t going to give me a ring for 2007. The best part of this new rule is that it rewards longtime fandom. You can’t just hop on a bandwagon and the longer you root, the more title chances you get.

It’s time to stop living in the past.

But because I was alive for this (and yes, I see the irony with the prior sentence):

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Much has been made of Paranormal Activity’s similarity to The Blair Witch Project, what with the low-budget, (mostly) hand-held look. Even the marketing is comparable, letting word-of-mouth and a unique, audience-assisted distribution technique driving interest. Clearly, it’s worked. The film grossed $9.1 million in its first week showing in less than 200 theaters. As it’s expanded, the numbers have shot up to the top of the box office. I finally got around to seeing it and with all the good I’ve been hearing about it, my expectations were pretty high.

The first thing I noticed was that, aside from aesthetic, Paranormal Activity owes a lot more to the 1981 demon haunting story starring Barbara Hershey than it did to Blair Witch (I highly recommend checking out The Entity, but watch it with a group. I’ll tantalize you with a four-word description: heavy metal demon rape). Also, since I saw Drag Me to Hell earlier this year, I couldn’t shake the similarities even though Paranormal Activity was made earlier. It’s not fair, but I couldn’t help it. Fortunately, the films have completely different approaches to similar material, so it didn’t feel I’d already seen the movie this year.

Now, maybe I watch too many horror movies (and I probably do), but by the time stuff really started to happen in Paranormal Activity, I was completely bored and restless. I appreciate that the film took its time building up the suspense and the different emotional states the characters went through, but I simply didn’t care for the characters. I blame part of this on myself. I get intensely uncomfortable watching those cutesy moments of relationships depicted. The times where people act silly and playful with each other but they are the only ones who would find what they are doing amusing. I know I do it, too, but I don’t want anyone to have to see it. This is how the characters are introduced to the audience, though, so instead of caring for them, I disconnected.
My other issue that I have to cop to is that I don’t like watching irrational fighting. Sure, you could say all fighting is irrational, but what I mean is I don’t like watching a problem that can easily be solved become a huge deal because one party is being stubborn. In the case of Paranormal Activity, the girlfriend (Katie) repeatedly asks her boyfriend (Micah) to turn the camera and increasingly gets upset. Of course, if the boyfriend stops filming, then there is not movie, so he has to continue. I’m certain most people will overlook this, and probably should, but it really bugs me. The genre of the horror mockumentary is filled with contrived reasons to continue filming beyond the point that is reasonably acceptable. Generally, it’s dealt with by having a character say, “Film everything!” Here, it’s done to seemingly antagonize a freaked out girlfriend for no reason (same deal with the Ouiji board. Again, all of this fighting and stupidity takes me out of the intended experience of the movie.

Since Paranormal Activity is deliberate, and I’m essentially alienated from the film, there’s a lot of down time in which to grow restless. The mystery is enough to drive the story initially, though. It’s creepy to see the minor things that start out the incident, but again, it’s always the same set piece slightly tweaked each time, so even that got a little dull. The film telegraphs every moment of potential scares by having a low drone start just before something happens. Sure, it may build suspense, but it doesn’t really get under your skin like a subtler approach would.

Quick aside: we’re meant to believe that the police gave this footage to the filmmaker to edit together. For all intents and purposes, the events of the film are real. Yet, the filmmaker decided to add this score to every paranormal event. How exploitative is that? Instead of presenting things as they happened, the director is saying, “Hey… check THIS out.” End aside.

It’s not that Paranormal Activity is bad. Hell, the only other people at my screening applauded after it ended. And I don’t think my expectations had anything to do with my disappointment. In the end, it probably is that I’ve seen too many horror movies. I’ve seen the material before and I’ve seen it done much better. If you want to see a horror mockumentary that really gets under your skin, be sure to catch Lake Mungo when it eventually gets released. In terms of tone, the films are quite similar, but the suspense is done very differently.

Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Concession Stand

Throughout my high school years, also known as the years I should have been working so I’d have varied job experiences to call back to when I need to instead of being lazy, I rejected the idea of working in a movie theater. The hours sucked, it could get incredibly busy, and you had to deal with all sorts of obnoxious people. In short, I was above the job (much like I was above working at Blockbuster). In retrospect, high school was the perfect time to work at a theater. It would have given me valuable experience in the field that I want to pursue and what did I care what my classmates thought?

Now, I’m working in two theaters and assisting a coworker’s (directorial) stage debut. Essentially, I’m doing the job I thought I was too good for, but I’m doing it for free and over ten years later. I can’t help but think I made a mistake somewhere along the line. The consolation is that the places I’m working at now aren’t part of a giant corporation, but are small and locally run. In the case of the Hollywood Theater, it’s not for profit, so that’s nice.

However, I was reminded of some aspects of human nature I’d forgotten about upon entry into this new world. Things that laid dormant in the two plus years since I left Neato Burrito. I’d forgotten how incredibly lazy and stupid people are, in general. I don’t think they are like this all the time, just when they leave the house and have to talk to people.

I don’t know how much time we spend at counters to order food, be it fast food or a roadside trailer or a concession stand, but it’s enough that we should have learned by now how to approach this scenario. I can’t believe how many people make it to the counter without having a decision made. It’s not like the theaters in which I’m working have all sorts of other options like nachos, slushies, and other such stuff. We have candy, popcorn, and drinks all in plain view. To make matters worse, there’s a not insignificant number of people when asked, “what size popcorn would you like?” respond with, “what sizes do you have?” You’re not in a Starbucks, buddy. It’s small, medium, or large, the same measurements nearly everything else in the world uses.

The longer you are in line, the less excuse you have for not knowing what you want. There’s plenty of time to prepare for this (and I know this territory has been covered extensively by comedians, but it’s a whole different thing to live it regularly). I can understand approaching the counter and having to think a little, but even then, stand back and let others jump in so you don’t hold things up. And as a side note, don’t give me your trash to throw out. It’s a movie theater. There are trashcans everywhere.

But working at the concession stand isn’t so bad. The most obnoxious thing is cleaning up the theater after the crowd leaves. It’s like people lose all concept of cleaning up after themselves. It’s the ultimate in irony that people complain about theaters having sticky floors when the only reason the floors get sticky is because they make a mess of it all. Spilling popcorn is going to happen, because for some reason, popcorn is nearly impossible to handle if you pick up more than one piece at a time (seriously, it’s like it has an aversion to being eaten). But I’m legitimately shocked at how many half full (what can I say? I’m an optimist) bags of popcorn and bottles of soda that get left behind. Why even by concessions? Surely you’ve learned to gauge how hungry/thirsty you are at this point. And since we only serve bottles of soda at the Hollywood, why not take it with you? It has a lid for a reason.

I know that people don’t like to hold their trash longer than necessary (hence why people litter), but is it really so hard to pick up your wrappers and napkins (oh god, the PILES of napkins just lying around is astounding. It’s like they grow on trees or something) and such? I’ll clean up the popcorn and spilled M&Ms, after all, I need something to do, but I don’t have that much room in my little sweeper thing.

It’s not really such a big deal and I’m kind of a curmudgeon anyway, but I’m trying to think or what other places people go that they just leave trash behind. I think it’s just something people do when they go to be entertained. Some people describe going to the movies so they can “turn their mind off” for a few hours. That has never seemed so appropriate to me as it does now.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top Film for Each Year of My Life – 2001

Wet Hot American Summer

“Well, no, why don't we say 9:30, and then make it your beeswax to be here by 9:30? I mean, we'll all be in our late 20s by then. I just don't see any reason why we can't be places on time.”

“You taste like a burger. I don't like you anymore.”

This was really a no-brainer. The only serious competition for this spot was The Royal Tenenbaums and Monsters Inc., and while they are both terrific, Wet Hot is about 100 times more rewatchable. It ranked number two on my Top Ten Comedies of the Past Ten Years list. Even though the film was shot during a wet, cold Pennsylvania spring, the performances don’t show it. Energy and joy pour off the screen.
Wet Hot is an ode to summer camp movies, but also a loving deconstruction of them, mocking the genre tropes and adding its own surreal flourishes. While I never attended overnight summer camp, I feel an intense nostalgia to be a counselor based on this movie. There’s an inherent appeal to nostalgia in all camp movies (well, maybe not Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp), but only Wet Hot, a parody, makes me want to work at one. Actually, I don’t want to work at summer camp. I want to live in this movie.

The cast is largely made up of members of The State whose reputation in sketch comedy is well established. Much like Monty Python, they excel at smart silliness, and Wet Hot oozes it, like when Neil (on a motorcycle) is chasing Victor (running) down a long road only to not catch up to him due to a stray bail of hay in the road. Brilliantly goofy.
In addition to the members of The State (who are great, as always) as Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni, Bradley Cooper, Amy Pohler, Molly Shannon, and Paul Rudd throwing the all-time greatest temper tantrum in film history. With such a huge cast, one might think a few would get lost in the shuffle, but the episodic nature of the Wet Hot (all of which takes place on the last day of camp) allows for moments for everyone to shine. It helps that David Wain and Michael Showalter wrote a great script and gave everyone defined personalities.

I’d go ahead and list my favorite moments, but I’d be better served posting the script or trying to embed the whole film here. One of my favorite aspects of it, though, is that it’s so authentic that if you aren’t prepared for the over-the-top parody of it, you might just end up confused (as a friend of mine recently did). Throw this in with Freaks and Geeks and maybe the 80s weren’t so bad after all (what am I saying?).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Ash-ian Transition

If you watch enough horror movies, you’ve seen it before. The odds are stacked against our hero and his/her friends. The characters we’ve come to love and rely on are individually being dispatched or wounded and the only person left to fight back has, hitherto, been hiding in the corner avoiding confrontation. All hope is lost. But wait. What’s this? Something triggers inside this coward’s head and he/she fights and fights hard. Where did this come from? How can someone who apparently never raised a fist in anger kill with such ease? My friends, you have just witnessed The Ash-ian Transition.

Maybe it doesn’t play out exactly like that, but the key elements are there. A seemingly wimpy, unstable, or just unknowledgeable character who is of little help to anyone in danger. Imminent threat. Shockingly abrupt turnaround into a heroic killing machine. Those are the basics. In addition to them, the character can’t be settling a score with just one enemy. He/she has to take it upon him/herself eliminate the danger. Mercy and remorse are for the week. At least while there is business to attend to. Also, there is usually some sort of physical transformation. Broken glasses, severed hand, shirtless, etc. You know, just so you know something's different, you know?

While not confined to the realm of horror, The Ash-ian Transition most often resides there (few genres offer as many opportunities for consequence free murder). If you dig, I’m certain you will find examples in war and gang/gangster films. It’s like a violent version of The Grapes of Wrath where Tom Joad kills the “cop beatin’ up a guy” and others taking advantage of the poor. Even better, it’s the horror equivalent of the ugly girl with glasses in a romantic comedy that turns out to be a stunning prom queen. Oddly, it’s not found much in Westerns, which focuses more on the fallen warrior or the killer in retirement. These men always have it in them; they just aren’t using it anymore. Wherever it pops up, though, it is always welcome and always awesome.

Now that you have an idea of what to look for with The Ash-ian Transition, let’s look at a few examples and variations of it.

The Evil Dead Trilogy

The series that gave The Ash-ian Transition its name. While not the first to portray this phenomenon, it is arguably the most dramatic portrayal in cinema history. The main character, Ash (played by The Chin himself, Bruce Campbell), goes from being unable to fight off a fallen bookshelf to leading an army against the undead in the span of two weeks, tops (and I lean more towards one week, but I don’t want to be accused of exaggerating). In The Evil Dead, he is completely useless (“We can’t bury Shelly, she’s a friend of ours.”) through most of the film until he is left alone to fight off the scourge of deadites.

In the Evil Dead II, which can kind of be spliced with the first to act as a continuation (the door to the fruit cellar becomes an issue doing this), Ash gains a lot of confidence once he cuts his hand off. Perhaps he’s trying to impress his new visitors. Regardless, by the end, he’s seeking out the deadites, even choosing to “go into the fruit cellar and carve [himself] a witch]. This is day two.

Finally, in Army of Darkness, he turns into Superhero Joe, building bombs, organizing and training an army, sword fighting like a pro, and turning the Classic (his car) into a destruction machine. Sure, he still seems a bit of a sniveling coward at times, but this Ash has a confidence that the Ash from the first film couldn’t dream of.

Straw Dogs

This highly controversial film by Sam Peckinpah is notable for a lot more than an Ash-ian Transition (it’s responsible for my most heated film-related argument to date, which was with a not-argumentative person), but that doesn’t diminish the greatness of said Transition. This is the only non-horror film on the list, unless you count personal horror, which I don’t. Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician (NERD!) whose uneasiness with his wife’s past in his new town bubbles beneath the surface, barely concealed. He is a man of the mind, impotent and filled with rage at the dominance of his wife’s former lover and his pals, but he tries his best solve his problems without confrontation (with them at least). Finally, when his home and those dwelling within are under assault, his survival instincts kick in, accompanied by a blistering bagpipe soundtrack chosen by him, balls-to-the-wall mayhem ensues, with giant bear trap. Regardless of one’s opinion of this Straw Dogs, this scene is something to behold.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Aside from The Ash-ian Transition, this film has another, more bizarre and jarring transition: from uncomfortable brutality in the first half to silly spaghetti western in the second half. Both of these changes occur at the same moment. Doug Bukowski, a non-entity up to this point, is out to find his kidnapped daughter, which he does, but not before encountering mutated hill-people. With the aid of a Morricone-esque score, he dispatches his assaulters and saves his child. I have no idea where this came from, but it’s the highlight of the film. Having not seen the original, I don’t know if anything similar happens, but I hope so.

The Descent

This film is interesting because the main character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), is an adventurer at heart, but personal tragedy broke her spirit so she battles personal demons that withdraw her from the group. Her transformation is less a rising to the occasion to fight for her and her friend’s lives than the final plunge into a long-coming madness. She has nothing to lose and circumstances (being lost in a cave system with monsters/friends dying one-by-one) put her over the edge. Not only does she do some monster smashing while covered in blood, she turns on a “friend” who previously betrayed her. Depending on which ending of the film you saw, her madness saved her or trapped her.

28 Days Later

Another variation of The Ash-ian Transition. The bulk of the action in this film is spent running from the speedy, infected threat. It’s about survival, not fighting back. It’s not until we get to the military outpost that anyone needs to stand up to the threat, which it turns out is completely different than what our heroes thought it was. Every attack prior to the cadre of survivors endure en route to the outpost they are mentally prepared for. It’s only when they get to “safety” that they let their guards down and the threat becomes palpable. Jim (Cillian Murphy) is separated from the women and sent to his execution. Due to minion foolishness (always bites the bad guys in the ass), Jim gets away, determined to rescue his friends by any means necessary. He moves like a ninja, avoiding the infected, sneaking through the mansion, squishing eyes in their sockets (had to be an Evil Dead reference), and killing every soldier that the infected man he let loose doesn’t kill. It’s a massacre and we can barely tell if he’s human or infected.

Shaun of the Dead

I’ll finish up here because Shaun (Simon Pegg) is slightly different from the others. From beginning to end, Shaun is a pub-going everyman. While initially terrified by the zom… sorry, zed-words, along with his buddy Ed (Nick Frost), they overcome outright fear enough to fight back an learn to kill them (though Ed is desperately unhelpful most of the time). Shaun takes it upon himself to try to rescue not only his mom, but his recently anointed ex-girlfriend, too. While he shows initiative to beat this menace, he gains the confidence commonly associated with those who go through The Ash-ian Transition (though he may act like he has it). Shaun’s transformation is actually immense personal growth that plays out over one day. Yeah, he takes out a bunch of the undead along the way, but what he really did was learn how to live his life and be a better person and all it took was the deaths of nearly all of his friends and family.

Now that I’ve introduced you to The Ash-ian Transition, keep your eyes peeled. And if you have any that I missed, I’d love to hear about it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why Be Something You’re Not? – How I Met Your Mother

Upon the recommendation of a friend and the fact that I have nothing but time thus far in Portland, I Netflixed How I Met Your Mother. There’s no good reason that I wasn’t watching it already. Jason Segel is one of the stars and few people are more enjoyable to watch on television or in movies than he. Plus, there are a ton of awesome guests on the show: Bryan Cranston, Bill Fagerbakke (who is perfect to play Segel’s dad), Samm Levine, Martin Starr (!), Michael Gross, and many more. I think I stayed away because the multi-camera/laugh track-laden sitcom is tired. Why confine yourself to sets and basic camera set-ups when you don’t need to? And is anyone not annoyed by laugh tracks anymore?

Now that I am 2/3 of the way through season three, I can’t help but think that How I Met Your Mother really wants to be a single-camera show, but is hanging on to some sort of link to sitcom history by not going that route. The show isn’t filmed in front of a live studio audience (which you can tell when watching the outtakes from the show – you only hear crew laughter). Also, there are innumerable cutaways and inserts and fantasies in each episode that are almost universally the domain of single-camera shows (and they would be nearly impossible to have a live audience engage with). I’m not surprised How I Met Your Mother has won so many technical Emmy’s for being a multi-camera show, but if you have greater ambition with the editing and camera work, break free of it.

There are so many limitations with the set-up. The framing and organization of the cast always seems so staged with everyone facing the camera or the sides of their faces at most. Everything else in the show feels so smooth and natural that this aspect jumps out at me. Plus, the show deals surprisingly explicitly with sex and drugs and the old multi-camera set-up has a connotation of a certain type of content. Sure, there have been shows that dealt in these subjects before, but Friends and Seinfeld jumped through hoops to lighten the blow (yes, I know HIMYM referred to marijuana as “sandwiches,” but it’s still directly referencing pot use).

Aside from the editing and fantasy sequences, perhaps the most single-camera sitcom-y facet is that each episode builds on previous episodes. Again, it’s not the first multi-camera to do this, but the episodes are far more focused on the story moving forward (which is necessary since that’s the entire basis for the show). And while the show gets bogged down in the occasional sitcom cliché, it also does its part to point it out and mock said clichés.

Maybe that’s why How I Met Your Mother is shot this way. It can better play with sitcom conventions the closer it resembles a sitcom. Or maybe it’s just cheaper. Either way, I just can’t help but feel HIMYM would be better served as a single-camera show. The freedom that approach provides would really allow them to go nuts with some of their great gags, of which they have many (the Slap Bet is brilliant).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three Weeks and a Sweep

My excitement about the baseball playoffs was palpable. Finally, I was going to get to watch a Red Sox game with a group of Red Sox fans. Surely people will be packing the bars to watch the playoffs. My excitement was tempered only by the fact that I had to wait an extra day to see the Sox play. Doffing a Red Sox shirt and hat, I went out looking for a bar to watch the game in. The game started around 6:30 here and much to my surprise, the bars were empty. Now, I didn’t expect Portland to be a huge baseball city seeing as they don’t have a professional team in town to cheer, but I definitely expected more than this. I wound up parking myself in a “sports” bar and watching the first few innings alone. Game one: strike out. It’s just as well, because the Sox played like shit and I decided that flipping between NBC’s Thursday night lineup and the game was more to my liking.
For game two, I went to a bar I found online that said they showed Red Sox games and local fans showed up, The New Old Lompoc. I’d gone there once before, but it was a Saturday game around noon and it was pretty empty. I wasn’t led astray this time. There were several individuals and groups of Sox fans watching the game. Unfortunately, I realized how very much I am not the type of person to go to a bar and talk to anyone. Here I was, amongst a group of like-minded people, and I sat eating my fries (too fast, thus giving me a stomach-ache which eventually led to me leaving so I didn’t accidentally throw up in front of a bunch of strangers) and drinking my cider while not interacting with my fandom brethren. However, I also learned that unless you are in a large bar filled packed with fans cheering, watching in a bar can be kind of awkward. You get two or three people shouting at the TV and trying to start chants and claps like they are at the game. It ends up more irritating than anything. We should all be talking baseball, not yelling at people who will never hear us. By the way, I made it home and never threw up.
In a devilish bit of scheduling, game three started at 9:20 out here. I didn’t even have time to ease into the idea that that this could be the Sox last game of the season and for a while, I didn’t think I’d have to. But the baseball gods had other plans and the Sox lost in heartbreaking fashion. I didn’t expect them to take it all this year, or even win this series, but I really wanted them to put up a fight. It was ugly, but due to the time, I watched it alone (a good thing) and still had the rest of the day to get over it. I took the opportunity to go for a hike through Forest Park and get my bearings on the various hiking trails, of which there are many and all within walking distance. It was a great way to clear my mind.

Seeing Fenway Park on TV instantly made me miss Boston and everything the past two years had to offer. In a way, I’m kind of glad that the Sox lost because I won’t have to experience those feelings for the rest of the playoffs. And after living a World Series championship in Boston, watching the Red Sox in the playoffs just doesn’t feel the same without being there. It’s a feeling that tells me I’m not done with the city of Boston.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Halloween Movie NIghts

In this month of terror, it’s only appropriate to spend most of it watching horror films. Unfortunately, watching them on TV strips them of their greatness (blood and boobs) and adds commercial breaks. So, in light of this and the fun of watching lots of movies with friends, I’ve created a variety of movie nights for you to enjoy. Obviously, you can pick and choose what you want, but I tried to feature some kind of theme with most of them. Also, I left off some more obvious things (Ghostbusters, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, etc) because you’re going to watch them anyway. No need for me to tell you to watch them. There’s a lot of fantastic movies missing from the following lists, so don’t forget to whimsically rent anything that looks scary. You may discover a secret classic (but stay away from Devil Times Five. I just watched it and the movie doesn’t live up to its concept and cover). Sadly, my knowledge of horror from the 30s to 60s is lacking, but getting better, so most of the movies are from the past 30 years.

An Evening of Terror

The Fog (1980)//The Mist

The link between these films is clear: a bizarre cloud creeps over the town and strange horrors lurk within. The handle the material in vastly different ways, but each is well worth watching. John Carpenter directs the former and the latter based on a Stephen King story, and while adaptations of his stuff are shaky, the one guy who consistently gets it right, Frank Darabont, directs it. We’re in the hands of horror greatness.

Evil Dead II//Bubba Ho-Tep//Drag Me To Hell

See Bruce Campbell in his greatest role, Ash. Then see him in his second greatest role, Elvis! This night is about celebrating the greatness of The Chin and Sam Raimi. Raimi directed the Evil Dead trilogy and finally made his triumphant return to horror with Drag Me to Hell. As for Bubba Ho-Tep… who doesn’t want to see an elderly Elvis and JFK dyed black fight an evil mummy in a Texas old folks home? I rest my case.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)//The Return of the Living Dead//Shaun of the Dead

A night of zombies! Instead of focusing on the scares, this collection is designed for laughs, as well. With Dawn, you get George Romero at the top of his game (plus Tom Savini supplies the gore). Return gives you the classic brain-craving and talking zombie. Finally, Shaun brings it all home with loving references to zombie history and a love story. Something for everyone.

Christine//The Hitcher (1986)//Joy Ride

Automobile madness! Christine is a love story between a boy and his murderous car, but damn if that car isn’t beautiful. Carpenter adapts King’s novel and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The Hitcher teaches you a lesson you already knew; never pick up Rutger Hauer on the side of the road. Roger Ebert hated this movie, but he doesn’t know anything about genre movies. This is one of the great movies of the 80s. Bonus: C. Thomas Howell! Finally, Joy Ride is mindless fun co-written by J.J. Abrams. Think Duel, but even crazier.

A Marathon of Terror

Halloween (1978)//Friday the 13th (1980)//A Nightmare on Elm Street// Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

The slasher’s are taking back the night. It makes me sad that all of these iconic movies have been or are getting remade, but that’s the way Hollywood works these days. Watch all of the classics then check out Behind the Mask for a meta look at what it takes to be a slasher villain. It’s fun to see how each film builds on the previous one (Friday the 13th is essentially Halloween plus gore) and even more fun to see all the crazy ways people die.

The Haunting (1963)//Poltergeist//The Frighteners//A Tale of Two Sisters

Beware of any sudden drops in temperature, because ghosts are taking over. These pretty much run the gamut in terms of rating, from G to R, but none sacrifice the scares. The Frighteners breaks up the tension adding some much needed humor before the sheer suspense of the Korean A Tale of Two Sisters (subtitled, but mesmerizing).

The Howling//An American Werewolf in London/Silver Bullet//Dog Soldiers//Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Beware the moon. Some classic movies in here and some cheese-tastic (in more than one way) movies. Lot’s of laughs and lots of awesome special effects. Plus, Corey Haim and Gary Busey IN THE SAME MOVIE! One of the most all-out enjoyable nights of horror on the list.

Evil Dead//The Shining//The Thing//The Descent//Sunshine

A pretty unrelenting collection of films. Sure, there are laughs to be had in (and at) The Evil Dead and The Shining, but those are tempered with some really disturbing images. The theme with these films is isolation. Each features a small group of people who only have each other. Outside help is impossible (or in the case of The Shining, useless). Watch these with people who scare easily to get your maximum entertainment out of them.

The Monster Squad//Suspiria//The Orphanage//House//Creepshow//28 Days Later

This marathon is modeled after Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater’s annual horror-thon. This is the only list that is not listed by release year and that doesn’t have a theme. The movies are funny, terrifying, balls-out weird, emotional, and just damn entertaining and the order is designed to take you on an emotional ride. Be prepared for some subtitles, but there’s a great time to be had here.

I hope this inspires someone to have a horror marathon, even if it’s not one I designed. There’s nothing better than a good scare, especially when there are others to drink and laugh with. Tis the season, after all.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula

One of the most disappointing things about moving to a place in which you don’t know anyone right before October is that there is no one to watch horror movies with. Sure, if I was more gregarious, I’d go a-knocking on my neighbor’s door inviting them in for some beer and a scare (but I can’t really offer them a beer because that’s not an essential expense right now). So I’m stuck watching scary movies alone, so it’s good that I don’t get super creeped out by them anymore, though the upcoming Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has me nervous.

Of course, a bonus to being alone is that I can watch anything I like and the other day, I liked to watch Coppola’s take on Dracula. The decision was made mostly because I’m reading Richard E. Grant’s film diaries (don’t ask how I got them [seriously, don’t {ok, they were published}]) and his talk of his experience on the set of the film sparked me to revisit it. I was very surprised to discover how much of Bram Stoker’s Dracula I forgot about; especially with such vivid memories of the last time I watched it (undergrad, in Florida for baseball spring training, and in my teammates’ motel room).
But that’s not what this is about. Coppola’s take on Dracula is like a love affair to cinema history. And why not? The Dracula story has been told repeatedly since the beginning of cinema. It essentially started with Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922 and never really stopped. So, when you know you are telling a story that everyone knows, you need something to set it apart. Instead of loading it up with the best, most modern special effects or trying to redefine the story, Coppola took the viewer back in time.

What’s remarkable about this Dracula is that nearly all of the films visual effects are in camera: done with forced perspective, miniatures, clever make-up application, etc. IMDB has an very interesting trivia item on some of the effects that I highly recommend checking out. It makes watching the film an interactive experience. It’s fun to watch the scenes and figure out how the effect was achieved. Some are very difficult to figure out and it’s no wonder that the crew struggled to figure out how filmmakers achieved some of the visuals that they did back in the early days of cinema.

The massive sets and matte paintings are incredibly beautiful. With all the location shooting done these days, once forgets how much thought had to be put into building things from scratch or the skill it takes to construct a convincing matte. The film is simply never boring to look at even when the story drags or Keanu Reeves is trying to act (with a British accent, no less).
Perhaps the best parts, at least for lovers of cinema (horror specifically), are all of the nods to films of the past. There are very obvious nods to Nosferatu, The Shining, and The Exorcist. The teardrops to diamonds trick is taken from Cocteau’s La belle et la bete and there are many references to other Dracula films. An old time movie house features prominently and actually recreates as scene from earlier in the film. Simply put, if you love movies, then watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula with cinema history in mind. You don’t even have to care about the story, which you know already. Just watch and you’ll be transported.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Two Weeks in Stumptown

When I moved to Portland with no job prospects and no friends, I expected to struggle a little. The friend thing isn’t such a big deal because it’s easy to keep in touch with people and I have DVDs to supplant my need for companionship (and now, the baseball playoffs have started). The crappy job market didn’t surprise me, either. It was one of the defining characteristics I was informed of preparing to move. Some would say that this is probably the most important characteristic, but those people no nothing of irresponsible decisions and should be ignored. What has surprised me is how difficult it is to find a place to volunteer.

Seriously, who doesn’t want free work? Apparently, everyone. In addition to the job applications I’ve sent out, I sent out about five or six volunteer applications. Unfortunately, aside from one email back saying they were full up on volunteers, I’ve heard nothing from the others. No one needs membership mailings compiled? I planned on volunteering to be my way into the industry and to help me find a real job. So far, I’ve been spending most of my time on the Foof. Don’t get me wrong, it’s as comfy and relaxing as ever, but that’s superficial. My mind is getting antsy.

To be fair, I finally found a place that is willing to take my free services. It’s a very cool old theater called The Hollywood Theater. I have to wait over a week before my first night of work, but it’s a start.

The other problem is I’m used to relatively quick turnaround about job inquiries one way or the other. I guess I’ve been spoiled in that way. Even the jobs that advertised openings only tell me they received an application, but I have no idea when they are looking at them or when to expect an answer one way or another. I can understand with real jobs that are of the “career” variety. You want someone qualified who will hang around for a while. But does REI or a pizza place really need to take weeks to figure out if it needs to hire someone to work?

It’s also a bit unusual because I know longer have to go into a place to apply. In fact, most places want you to apply online. How can I make an impression on an employee or boss pre-interview if I don’t interact with them?

It’s only been two weeks, which isn’t that much time, but when you’ve done nothing with your life for four months, it starts to feel like an eternity. Still, as of now, there is nothing to stop me from going to the bar and watching the Red Sox play some playoff baseball. Sweet.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Simpsons: Then and Now

It’s pretty well understood that The Simpsons isn’t nearly as good now as it was through the 90s. There are many reasons for this, most of which are well documented all over the interwebs. I’m a Simpsons apologist. I accept that it’s not as good, but I also find it immensely enjoyable. One thing I find is especially true is that the new episodes hold up to repeat viewings quite well. Sure, classic episodes are harder to come by, but I’m willing to give The Simpsons a pass since it already has more than enough great episodes.

So, acknowledging that I’m not covering any new ground, I’m going to discuss this in terms of comparing the new introduction to the old intro. The old opening definitely needed to be updated, featuring several cast members who have since died and ignoring many new prominent characters, but the manner in which it was done was far from elegant.

The change came with the shift to HD. The first of the new openings was very clever, moving through Springfield just after the destruction of the town from The Simpsons Movie. However, after this, The Simpsons permanently shifted to the new opening, which is really a microcosm of the difference between the heyday and the current era of The Simpsons.

The original opening relied on subtle site gags. The new one uses the same structure, but instead of leaving the gags to the chalkboard, Lisa’s saxophone solo, the quick pan across the city and the couch gag (of course), every scene of the intro now has an in-your-face gag to go along with it. Some of them are good, the Krusty billboard and Maggie’s encounter with Gerald, the baby with one eyebrow come to mind, but most just seem like overkill. It’s the opening credits of the show. It doesn’t have to be a joke factory.

It’s this hit-to-miss ratio that is the difference. Back in the day, The Simpsons jokes came organically. Sure, there were the odd non-sequitors (a man digging in the background of a ghost town for no reason), but largely the jokes served the story. Now the jokes come flying off the screen ad nauseum. Some land, but most drip off of the screen into a puddle of meh.

Sadly, this looks like The Family Guy effect, and who can blame them? Seth MacFarlane has three shows on Sunday night now. If The Simpsons would just scale back the impulse to pound the viewer with jokes, I think the show could very easily return to form. After all, Futurama churned out all sorts of great episodes as The Simpsons slid downhill.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Minor spoilers below. Be warned.

I didn’t go into Zombieland with the intention of writing about it, but I feel like I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have or as much as the critics and the general populous do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very enjoyable and everyone should see it before the surprise is spoiled for them, but something was amiss for me and I have several theories as to why.

First, the good things. Typically, I don’t care for the over-stylized use of slow motion, but Zombieland makes great use of it. It’s the same sort of hyper-slow motion used at times in The Hurt Locker, except here it’s deployed for humor instead of intensity. It helps that the scenarios depicted are delightfully silly.

The film also takes great glee in zombie “murder.” Seriously, when you think of the zombie apocalypse, you see yourself kicking ass, not hiding away in some remote fortress while cabin fever sets in. There is a video game sense in that anything you pick up is a weapon: a toilet tank lid, a banjo, shears, etc. And let’s not forget the ability to mindlessly destroy anything when you’re the last people on earth. It’s wish fulfillment

I immediately perked up at the surprise, because let’s face it, it’s awesome (though ultimately does nothing to advance the story, but I’ll forgive it that since it offers so much funny). And the movie is funny, with creative kills and the rules that pop up on screen (for a more comprehensive list, check out Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Handbook). Perhaps the funniest stuff comes from the different personalities teaming up. Timid Columbus, crazed Tallahassee, and distrustful con-sisters Wichita and Little Rock. The interplay between them is always amusing, especially during a montage showing each of them driving.

It’s because I enjoyed the dynamic between the characters so much that I was disappointed every time they were broken up for a while. Columbus and Tallahassee were always fun to watch, but the sisters didn’t bring much to the table when it’s just them because they are familiar with each other. The flashback of them conning the gas station attendant is just dull and unnecessary. We already know they run a good con because they’ve tricked Columbus and Tallahassee twice.

Another issue I have with the film is that I don’t like fast zombies (though to be fair, these seem to be viral zombies and not undead zombies). I love 28 Days Later, but that film is legitimately scary. Zombieland is going almost entirely for laughs and the fast zombies seem to exist to make a not particularly scary movie slightly scarier in the easiest way possible. There’s nothing wrong with it not being scary, but if you do want to, don’t try to cheat it. Essentially, Zombieland is a different type of gross-out comedy than we’re used to.

I’m not typically a fan of narration, but in Zombieland, the narration doesn’t make any sense to me. There are a bunch of decent jokes gotten out of it, but in a post-zombie apocalyptic world, who is Columbus narrating to? I think it’s fair to say that he is narrating recent events and no indication is given that the group has met anyone new, so for all intents and purposes, there is no one left to hear his story or advice. I know this seems nitpicky, but it was something that occupied my mind during the film, and films shouldn’t offer anything that will bring the viewer out of the world it has created.

My final gripe is that the amusement park set piece could have been exploited far better than it was. I know that Zombieland is really a road movie, but I just can’t help but think of all the awesome opportunities that were missed by not getting them to the park earlier.

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if my experience was shaded by not only seeing it alone, but having to listen to a group of fanboys talking loudly before the movie about what the next Batman movie will entail, the purpose of Michael Bay in the world, and shouting out “I didn’t approve this!” during the green audience approved screen before the trailers. Also, an annoying girl behind me kept vocalizing her approval of plot elements by saying, “yeeeeees!” Tangent: unless the filmmakers are there, there is no need to clap and cheer. Films should elicit natural, uncontrived responses such as tears, laughter, or screams, not applause because you heard someone else start to clap. End tangent.

With the theater experience being less than ideal, I’ll definitely check Zombie land out again. Hell, I’ll probably buy it simply because I love the genre. I really do want to love it and it did take a few screenings of 28 Days Later for me to fully appreciate it.

One final note: stay through the end credits. It’s worth your time.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Internet and the Job Search

Since moving to Portland, I’ve done essentially two things. Sit on my ass all afternoon/evening/night watching DVDs and looking for jobs. The latter has met with significantly less success than the former. I’ve learned that hoofing it around town and asking if people are hiring doesn’t really get one so far these days. Several times I’ve been told that all application stuff is done online and more businesses are moving that way. Even offering myself up to volunteer at the Northwest Film Center while in the Film Center led to me being sent home to sign-up online.

This is all well and good for those who have constant access to the internet, but for the first week and a half, I relied on the coffee shop across the street. Now, I enjoy parking myself in a coffee shop as much as the next person, but the money for a chai latte or hot chocolate adds up when you’re going every day. And, in such a small shop, there is the risk of over-staying one’s welcome.

So I rejoiced when I finally got the internet on Wednesday. I’ve applied to many real jobs and volunteer positions. Things were going great until today, Friday of the same week, when I was doing the job search thing and spilled water on myself, the Foof, and yes, my computer. About five minutes passed and the machine powered down. Many emotions flooded through me. I can’t afford to buy a new computer right now. I just got internet and now I’m paying to not have it. And I have no idea how to search for jobs without internet access. Every place I’ve applied I found because of internet searches. It’s crazy to think that there are still people who get by without this wonderful technology.

Fortunately, my computer started working about two to three hours later, but has shut down randomly on me periodically. As luck should have it, ever since I got to Portland, I felt like my computer was going to crash, so last night I backed up all the vital files on my computer, so if it was dead, I still had everything I needed.

It’s not hard to live without internet when one doesn’t really need anything, but increasingly, everything one needs is available only online. I kind of scared myself thinking about how much I rely on this technology and how out of touch I am with the formerly conventional methods of living. It’s almost like I need a back-up computer to feel safe.