Monday, January 30, 2006

Winona Ryder: Cottage Cheese With Peaches

Kinetoscope has been moving home offices this weekend, so rude film reviews will be a bit spotty until uh, you know, I alphabetize my DVDs.

So fanfic is a labor of love: it is truly one of the last arts with absolutely no money, fame and precious little glory attached. And it's one thing to fall in love with a TV show or novel and want to expand upon that world. It's a more frequent thing to fall in love with a person, but they are rarely expressed in the same medium. I always knew it existed somewhere, but there's a dearth of it about my favorite coffee house pin-up. I give you:

WINONA RYDER FAN FICTION. In quantity. (Courtesy of The Winona Ryder Film Page)

Coffee & Noni: Big in Japan
The Garden of Earthly Delights: WR & black coffee

Audience Reaction Studies questionnaire: Does it creep you out? Or does it make you laugh? Or does it break your heart a little? The secret of celebrity fan fiction's spiney power is that this is how film actors make us all feel. We just don't say it out loud. We probably don't realize we're doing it. But on this page are fantasies about what stars are like at home, hints that their screen persona appeal is linked to their real personalities, rescue fantasies, wish-fulfillment encounters and coded poetry that hints at a world of secrets. More than any other fanfic, this stuff gets to an excruciatingly private place and makes it public. The benefit and purpose may be unclear. But in the best of these, the actor-figure becomes a doorway, or a metaphor or a handful of glitter, reflecting the author's ideas about life, death, and love. These scenes reveal the author's grasps at the infinite via this weirdest of genres.

The more you read, the less easy it becomes to mentally project the real Winona Ryder into the story.

All the writing on this page enjoys the usual fanfic problems: bizarre attention to minute details, excess of adjective, and Mary Sue-ing. But that's what makes them special, and not just "appreciations."

A highlight is the cryptic poem "Eleven Notes," which confirms that someone else free-associates Winona Ryder and "Brown Eyed Girl," but also calls her "Garboesque."

My favorite is probably the first story on the page, "Morning." It begins with oblique reference to Ryder's infamous (in, uh, some quarters) insomnia, and extends through breakfast during which the actress peruses the script for The Age of Innocence (identified via oblique reference) ... and that's it!

"She was hungry but settled for two slivers of dry toast and a mug of juice. She was anxious to get back to reading the script that she left on the kitchen table late last evening. Starting a pot of coffee first she settled down in the only chair in the spotlight of the warm early rays of the sun streaming in the window above the sink. She nibbled the warm toast and pulled back the black cover of the script and started in. She loved the story, whispering some of the lines over and over again. She was glad to be ready to get back to work. As she read it she imagined Daniel opposite her and hoped that Anthony would be in it too. She felt warm when she thought of Hopkins. She loved him dearly. Daniel seemed more quiet and mysterious but she adored him as well.

Now she was hungrier. Reaching into the fridge she grabbed a small container of cottage cheese and reaching up in the cupboard she brought down a can of peaches to pour over it."


Such attention to the level of someone's appetite! The script has a mysterious black cover! Astute fans will note that Sir Anthony Hopkins does not appear in Age of Innocence, which gives this story rather a bittersweet tinge (and slightly more thorough research would've revealed that Hopkins' friends call him "Tony"). As always, I suggest indulging as much as you can possibly stand.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday Weirdness: Thick Black Lagoon!


I know the lagoon was black, but this is ridiculous!

Anyone who collects monster toys will feel their heart break upon seeing this poor little '64 Palmer Creature from the Black Lagoon covered in enamel paint! Those kids in the '60s were the real monsters!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Does Any of This Need to Be Done on the Airplane? : RED EYE (2005)

With the exception of the first two Scream films, Mr. Wes Craven has never made a film I admire or can recommend as "good." With Red Eye, his track record remains unchanged.

I love when thrillers of all stripe are as unbelievable and outlandish as their makers can dream them to be. I believe we all do. That's the startling theme of Brian De Palma's most brilliant meta-thrillers. That's why Hitchcock noted that his films are "slices of cake," not "slices of life": not only are they perfect entertainments, but they don't mirror reality. We don't criticize North by Northwest as ridiculous only because it posits itself as ridiculous. This is why David Fincher's The Game kind of works for me, but Panic Room doesn't. Invite careful examination of your narrative reality, and the average dope can tear apart the plot of any thriller. The trick is to not invite that questioning.

Spoilings Ahoy!


Post-9/11 security fails utterly,
where only a plucky girl succeeds, in Red Eye!

So Red Eye concerns Rachel McAdams as Lisa Risert, head desk clerk at a hotel, who finds herself trapped on a plane next to Mr. Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, still handsome, but now inexplicably terrible). Rippner gives her a damned-if-you-do choice: either his henchman kills her dad (Brian Cox on ultra-casual day), or she assists in a plot to kill the Homeland Security chief. As their lives hang in the balance, Dad pads around the house in sweatpants, watches TV and makes the occasional attempt at American accent ("Your room hasn't bean touched"), while the HS chief edges ever nearer his hotel room death trap!


Ladies and gentlemen, how can our wide-eyed and dull heroine figure into this terrorist plot? By phoning the hotel from the plane, and having the victim moved to a different hotel room. That's the choice: make a phone call possibly resulting in the death of a near stranger, or have your father tortured and murdered. This takes Lisa hours and hours of deliberation.

In his review of The Hearse (1980), Roger Ebert talks about "The Idiot Plot," which only works if every character involved is a moron. Red Eye only works if screenwriter Carl Ellsworth is a moron. Not only does Red Eye not even offer bullshit-thriller explanations for its plot contrivances, not only does it beg dozens of questions of the average viewer, but it is as if these problems never occurred to anyone involved.

Riddle me this, Messrs. Ellsworth and Craven: What kind of plan is this?!

Nothing in the terrorist conspiracy plan makes sense, from execution to result. The end-product of the crime is to execute the Homeland Security chief by blowing apart his hotel room with a missile. As a political move, this makes no sense - the Homeland Security chief will simply be replaced. As an of terror it's enormously expensive and not-terrifying. The symbolic gesture is nowhere near as security-shaking for Americans as the 9/11 attacks, which only involved investment in a couple of flight lessons and the price of a boxcutter.

The attack consists of blowing apart a hotel room. This involves the complex smuggling of a surely-expensive missile, the off-chance of the target being in his room, and the success of the A Plot's room-switcheroo. Why the assassins cannot simply explode the entire building with domestic ingredient bomb, as real terrorists are wont to do, is not addressed.

But honestly, Red Eye's political assassination is an excuse to justify the story taking place on the airplane. The movie wants to play off our stranger-phobia. The real question isn't "what if the life of the Homeland Security chief were in your hands?" but "what if the cute guy you met at the airport were a killer?" It's hard to reconcile the close-quarters human plane drama with the far-flung political terror nonsense, either in emotional or story logic terms.

Red Eye draws attention to its own shoddy plotting by trying to play up the security paranoia of post-9/11 airport culture. The central gimmick is that Rippner is threatening Lisa in the middle of a packed airplane. Let us accept for a moment that international terrorists find it feasible to hire a domestic hitman to follow a hotel employee for weeks at a time to get personal information about her, so that he can charm her in an airport lounge... rather than just blowing up the target's car or something. It's supposed to be tense that there are a hundred people around, but no one Lisa can turn to for assistance. Instead, it leaves one wondering why this course of action is the most logical for Rippner.

All he needs is a telephone. Given the appalling security of this airline, it should have taken two minutes to grab Lisa in the parking lot, jam a knife in her ribs, and force her to make a phone call. Or indeed kidnap her. Or indeed have some other woman call the hotel, pretending to be Lisa. Does any of this really need to be done on the airplane?

As dopey as all this is, there's something far more wrong with Red Eye. And it's the thing the film seems most proud of, and so far as I can tell by informal conversation, the element most admired by Red Eye defenders: the character of Lisa Risert.

I'm going to seriously "spoil" the end of the picture here, but I think this needs to be addressed. Red Eye desperately wants to be in the genre-subversive female empowerment vein of Alien or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

First of all, the history of female empowerment in mysteries, thrillers, and horror films is richer and far longer than popularly given credit. From Nancy Drew to Susperia to Carrie to Kill Bill, the fantastique is loaded with heroines who survive specifically by the grace of their feminine cunning.

Secondly, I want to propose a more deeply subversive reading of the thriller genre and its nutty cousin, the slasher picture, in which the endless peril, abuse, death and general trouble faced by female characters is caused by destructive elements male sexuality and/or power. This isn't the time or place to get too detailed, but in brief, if you want to be critical of (or simply honest about) this dynamic, you have to show it in action. It may take an articulated feminist mission statement like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for this to be explicitly understood. But this tension is present in interesting ways - be they sophisticated or naive - in everything from Rear Window to Halloween. I'm not claiming these are feminist works, I'm proposing that their gender schematics have possible unexplored nuances.

Red Eye presents an exceptionally irritating character in Lisa, a woman the screenplay tries very hard to sell as a young woman super-competent and preternaturally adept at her career. Unfortunately, while being a hotel desk clerk is certainly stressful, there is not much thrill to be had in watching someone breeze through rudimentary customer service tasks. Look, the job just isn't that hard. A hilarious early scene has Lisa on the phone with a nervous newbie desk clerk, talking her through a difficult transaction. It plays like a brain-numbing version of the death-bed composing scenes of Amadeus.


Hawkeye Pierce's most frequent surgical lesson is put to new use
in Mr. Craven's Eye Am Curious (Red)

All this is just innocently silly, and on par with the rest of the movie -- the appalling and hollow "flirty" dialogue that falls out of McAdams and Murphy's mouths in the aiport lounge is less Meet Cute than Meet Retarded, and when a character is stabbed in the throat with a pen, he does not shed a drop of blood, and spends the next half hour running and fighting non-stop. But it's also the first brick in Lisa's seriously fumbled character arc.

In a third act backstory revelation, we learn that Lisa's ambition is a symptom of (overcompensating? Coping?) having previously been raped at knifepoint. So the arc will be that she goes from victim to digging deep in her self-reliance flightbag, save the Homeland Security chief, and her Pops, and kill the bad guy. The film has in no way earned Lisa's victimization story, but that's the idea. But no. No, Red Eye gives us a woman who goes from being a rape victim to... being rescued by her dad.

But Red Eye makes very clear what point it's attempting to make about its heroine, and promptly fails to bear out that mission. Which is kind of a singular achievement, in its own way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

RE-ANIMATOR Special L.A. Drive-In Screening!

Mark your calendars... with re-animation fluid!
You heard it hear first.


At the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90027.

This is the Theater's first drive-in show, and it should be a very good time. After all, one time they had giant robots fighting in the parking lot there, and neighbors complained that their windows were rattling! How will they like Barbara Crampton's creamy pink undraped form projected in full view of a city street!? How many babies will be made in the parking lot of the Center for Inquiry that night? Come and find out!

Also I made the poster for the screening. Pretty gross!

To Serve and Protect Fan Art


For those disinclined or not to explore the world of fan art, the above computy-wallpaper sums up everything you need to know. A lot of photorealistic/Photoshoprealistic fan art is a forum for artists to explore the sex-tingle given off by stars (or Hobbits or whatever). The above image cuts straight to the chase, and depicts the artist himself protecting Winona Ryder with a huge, vertically held sword.

How they got in this fix, how "Knight Errant" and Winona Ryder were transported to medieval times, and the nature of the peril are all unclear. But instead of being muddled, it articulates something else very clearly.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bloodshot Eye, Empty Wallet: 20 DVDs I Heart in 2005

This took me an inexcusable two weeks to put together. So I hope you find something to enjoy or bitch about.

Actually, due to poverty, I drastically altered my DVD habit in '05. But renting reintroduced me to the good habits of eclectic viewing. Simply: I'm more prone to watch movies and explore genres that I'm not predisposed to like, if I'm not buying it. That sounds obvious, but anyone else with a hundred unwatched discs knows what I mean.

Since these lists tend to degenerate into superlative-fests, and amount to little more than "good movie, good transfer, good extras," I'll try to elaborate on what makes the release specifically worthy of the format, or at least why it hit me personally. With three of my Top 20 films making debuts this year, after Dellamorte Dellamore makes it to R1 DVD, my lists will get decidedly more calm.

20. Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities - Celebrated Shorts, 1920s - 1960s (Walt Disney Home Video)

Both Disney titles on this list have some transfer or source quality issues. But I suggest you stuff all caveats, crack the tin, and inhale deep. The Company has a tendency to homogenize their history to create an illusion of timeless continuity. The Treasures line, and this release in particular, are about a different, and far more fascinating Disney, with difficult beginnings, avant-garde experimentation, failures and ideas too big to realize. With nearly a whole disc of "Alice Comedies" alone, is the true birth of Walt Disney's art (until Maltin wants to give us a Kansas City Shorts collection), history we're lucky this stubborn studio wants to share. I can't lie - it may be antiquated, you may find it boring or esoteric. But no hard-core Disneyhead could live without this mainline hit of raw Walt.

19. "The Simpsons" - The Complete Seventh Season (Fox TV) / "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - The Chosen Collecton (Fox TV)

Witness the last Great American Sitcom before it slid from grace. Actually all seven "Simpsons" boxes are cornerstones of any DVD library, and I think we're becoming blasé towards the effort it takes to provide commentaries for every single episode. I find these the most compulsively consumable, and whole-day-wasting of all supplements. Season 6 could just as easily be on this list, but Season 7 sidestepped a silly packaging controversy, and contains my favorite episode, the raucous, caffeine-addled "22 Short Films About Springfield." It doesn't even need praise: there's just nothing else like it in TV.

I gave these two a "tie," because the slab of a "Buffy" set is a bit of a cheat: it collects seven seasons of previously issued discs. Chosen Collection is convenient, economical, attractive and essential. Instead of feeling like a double-dip rip-off, it is a relief for groaning DVD shelves.

Here's hoping for a "M*A*S*H Chosen Collection when that massive run is finished.

18. Bringing Up Baby (Warner)

It's acquired taste, this lost genre. The screwball comedy was systematically de-screwed, de-fanged, and de-comedied into the watery milk modern romantic comedy. So here's maybe the blackest of them all, with a worldview so scary it's a step away from noir. Humans are all moronic, science fails in the face of chaos, and one man's ordered life is torn apart through no fault of his own, and forces beyond his control. The only animal fit to survive is Love, and it's portrayed as a rampaging, destructive natural force. Metaphorically, everybody dies at the end. Ha ha. Keeps getting funnier, every time you see it, which is why need a DVD.

Note to God: Please stop letting the terminally boring and never-insightful Peter Bogdonavich have anything to do with DVD production. I know he likes movies a lot, but that doesn't mean he has anything useful to say about them. Didn't Gregg Araki say this movie is more important than Citizen Kane? Get that guy on a commentary!

17. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Criterion)

The sole "new release" on this list. Most directors go their whole lives without making a film so accomplished. I try not to revisit Anderson's films too often, so they will retain their power. But still, something different will make me cry every time. Last time it was Zissou shutting off Jane's tape recorder out of embarrassment, Ned looking plaintively at his new stationary, seeing a life he never had, and Alistair's gentle and knowing concedence: "I've got an excuse. I'm part gay." No matter how you change, Anderson's films change with you. Besides the insightful commentary, the extras are cute but ineffectual. Still, you'll want this disc around in 20 years.

16.The Blind Dead Collection (Blue Underground)

Prying open the coffin-lid (literally!) on this set is accompanied by long-held-in sighs of relief from European horror dorks across the globe. It may be imperfect, but it's a big, brave, and finally beautiful undertaking. I honestly didn't know these pictures had it in them to look so nice! The Knights Templar ride out in higher style than you've ever seen. Oh and this is the only coffin-shaped box that fits just fine on your shelf, so thanks for that, too.

15. The Candy Snatchers (Subversive Cinema)

Rescued from total oblivion by the up-and-coming darlings at Subversive, Candy Snatchers is a truly outrageous sick-joke kidnapping exploiter. The astounding trailer makes it look like a gleeful, kitschy romp, but the real thing is infinitely smarter and nastier. With a Coen-brothers-loopy plot and great cast of diverse characters cutting through a wide swath of socioeconomic classes, the jewels in Snatchers crown are Vince Martorano and Ben Piazza's respectively sweat-beaded and hilarious performances. I don't want to oversell a cheapo crime caper, and I know the crazy turn into overblown melodrama doesn't work for everyone, but in this case, the little guy tries 100 times harder.

14. The Val Lewton Collection (Warner)

Woah, easy, guys! Lewton's a few steps away from household name, but here's a big, chunky, vault-clearing box. There is maybe no classier way to totally creep your shit out than these movies, and Tom Weaver is the best film historian commentator in the business; but I do not need to sell you on either idea. Let us hope its acclaim spurs other studios to clean out their Golden Age horror catalogs.

13. Bambi - Platinum Edition (Walt Disney Home Video)

After a few years of snide, latter-day coffer-fillers (Aladdin, Lion King) clogging the Platinum Edition pipeline, here comes the sweetest slice of perfection in the Disney canon. A microcosm examination of what it means to be a living creature on this planet, Disney has never since surpassed Bambi's achievements in storytelling ease, richness, or animation. There's some artifacting issues, but otherwise the film done nothing but justice on the most attractive Platinum yet. I'm not sure why Disney is getting stingier with commentary tracks, since those put together for past Platinums, and Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty are some of the best on record.

12. Twilight Zone - The Definitive Edition - Season 2 (Image Entertainment)

Third time's a charm for TZ. Very few shows in history could benefit from - or withstand - such exhaustive scrutiny as the supplements here. The joys of rewatching Twilight Zone constantly are widely known, but these discs are beeeeeutiful - and there wasn't even much wrong with the last editions! Season 2 gets the prize for containing my all-time fave "Nick of Time," the totally whacked-out "The Howling Man," and simply for not being Season 4. These encyclopedic sets will confirm for all that Serling was one of the great humanist fantasists of his age.

11. The Bela Lugosi Collection (Universal)


And me, I just would've been happy with The Black Cat, but if you want to throw in Invisible Ray, then hey, we're on our way to digitally reconstructing Shock Theater! The only problem with these second-tier horror classics is that like their even more poverty-ridden cousins, they go down like honey roasted peanuts, and you want more, more. Yum. Those with classier taste than mine may substitute the Hammer Collection or move the Lewton box up a couple pegs. Snobs.

10. The Fly (Fox)

Psychic ills erupt in physically violent ways all over Cronenberg's work, but none so spectacularly as The Fly. Whatever your poison, there's something to gross you out here. Plus, in addition to the usual fixations, Fly is also a meditation on the monster movie itself, and as always, it's an essay by a guy smarter than you. As for the DVD, that, ladies and monkey-cats, is how you make a making-of documentary.

9. Rebel Without a Cause (Warner)

The most Shakespearian of JD pictures, and one of the most subversive studio hits of the '50s, Rebel continues to tear at the fabric of American straight-spined hypocrisy: if we love families so much, why do we do such a poor job of preserving them? It may be a "classic" because of The Sainthood of James Dean, but here he earns it in spades, and the DVD preserves his nuanced performance in detail. Go ahead, and use your DVD player like a microscope to dissect the star's cell-structure: I suggest zooming in on Dean's hands and face for further study. For me, it's not even Dean, but the paperback-cover-painting cinematography, Sal Mineo's sweet and sad performance, and all these iconic, mythic-scope images dumped over what used to and would continue to be, essentially an exploitation genre. Extras out the wazoo. No studio knows how to look after its own like Warner.

8. L'Eclisse (Criterion)

Speaking of acquired tastes... Antonioni's chilly exploration of how we are miserable sods and then stop existing, is preserved on museum-quality DVD. The ending is one of the most reality-shaking shock finales I know. With Antonioni, if you can't see these pictures with crystal-clarity, you're not seeing it at all.
Now if Criterion would get their hooks on La Notte...

7. The Wizard of Oz - Three Disc Collector's Edition (Warner)

I can't report on how it looked in 1939, but to me, Wizard of Oz should look as eye-searing as possible. As for the supplements... it's a twister! Look, by now we know every facet of this film's production and history, down to every shooting day's lunch break and how many times Judy coughed during recording session retakes. There probably aren't new anecdotes to impart, but the massive package includes invaluable collections of silent film and Baum-related materials. Very strange and stylish cover art wins points from me. This is the most worshipful release of the year, but hey. Oz is an alter from which we cannot unshackle ourselves.

6. Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 3 (Warner)

These are the funniest films our nation ever produced, and forever transformed the face of American comedy. These are the most-played discs in the house. All Bob Clampett and '30s cartoon fans have call to rejoice over Vol. 3. Just restoring and collecting these cartoons would take enough effort (though cripes, somebody should've taken a pass at those Snafu shorts), but the assembled supplements are a class apart. History and analysis is covered from both layperson and animation nerd perspectives. The Frank Taschlin appreciation is thoroughly informative and insightful. Michael Barrier and Greg Ford's tracks have made them king audio commentators of these boxes, with constant surprising fresh perspectives and useful information. But the fanboy highlight is probably John Kricfalusi gushing all over Clampett's "Gruesome Twosome," and calling Friz Freleng "boring."

5. The Bird With Crystal Plumage (Blue Underground)

I Heart B.U. so much I wanted them to be #1 this year. Given the near-holy status of the film and the sweet perfection of the disc, it only means there are some how four discs better than one of the best DVDs I have ever seen. It was formerly enough just to have most of Argento uncut on disc, but the library looks shoddier with each passing year. Blue Underground wipes the slate, goes back to square one, and reminds us that Jesus Christ, did this kid know what he was doing.

4. Edison - Invention of the Movies (Kino / MoMA)


"Shucks, thanks for the validation!," says old Tom

Going in, I figured Invention of the Movies would be educational, a bit dreary, and only of interest to students of early cinema, and mostly as a reference tool. Coming out, four discs later, I was exhausted, grinning, and soaking wet with history. In a way it's four whole discs of supplements, in another it's one massive documentary, in another, it's hundreds of films. Either way, it's so fun and fascinating and important, the supplements best any book on the subject I've ever read, and in proper context these shorts are engrossing like never before. Here is the first movie, and you can watch it in your house. The first movie. The heart skips.

The gorgeous box and wistful menu music also make this the DVD packaging of the year. No other contenders.

3. King Kong (Warner)

Leave the porch light on long enough, and your babies will come home. The restoration isn't as crystal clear as one might hope, but it's a damn sight better than ever before. Kong is a pleasure to freeze-frame, and view in slow motion, and let us never take these things for granted.

FOUR HOURS of Alien Quadirilogy-level exhaustive making-of and historical documentaries. The multimedia presentation of Willis O'Brein's still born Creation is worth the price of admission, and Mr. Jackson's Spider Pit reconstruction is perhaps the DVD supplement of the year. You'll be shocked it doesn't have a spine number

2. Danger: Diabolik (Paramount)

Pure pop exhilaration, brought to color-drenched, oversexed, totally immoral life by Paramount's sparkling DVD. Extra heaping of kudos for the extras; though Tim Lucas isn't working from his usual meticulous historical and analytical notes, he still squeezes out the commentary of the year with star John Phillip Law, and Steve Bissette's comics-to-film featurette is the only insightful documentary of its type (they're usually for the comics-illiterate). It's between this and Blood and Black Lace for my favorite Bava film. For the first time in home video history, somebody did right by Diabolik.

Except for that ugly cover.

1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Criterion)

If you're crazy in love with Man Who Fell to Earth, Criterion's put together a box to make you cry. Personally, it's my favorite science fiction film, and grows in my estimation every year. Most films will yield more secrets on repeat viewings, but Man Who Fell is inexhaustible. The dystopia is the world you already know and live in, but the film is a web of rhyming lines, and images, variable metaphors, fractured mirrors and looping timelines so infinitely complex it can't all be comprehended the first time through. Perhaps never. So whether you're watching for Bowie's performance-of-a-lifetime, or to savor the grace notes, you and your DVD player can fiddle with this puzzle-box for hours and years.

There's something to this disc which makes it stand out beyond even Criterion's usual respectful buff and shine: someone obviously loved this movie dearly.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Of Course You Realize, This Means War, Chuck...

Before it slips my mind, I should weigh in on this (if there's something to complain about, I don't want to miss out!). In the current-as-I-write issue of Video Watchdog, #123, Steven Lloyd continues his reviews of Warner Home Video's Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs. The last article was a tiring and not-particularly-useful plot summary of every single cartoon on each disc. Since most VW readers are likely to file their issues with others, and not next to their box sets, and there are already resources for this, it seemed a dull page-filler for a magazine that has never previously mistaken plot summary for criticism. The new article spends much time on the same task, but Lloyd more than makes up for it in his opening-statement essay. For starters, it contains a great defense of Friz Freleng, in specific his understanding of filmic music. But the part that gets the blood pumping is about Chuck Jones.

In brief, he calls out Chuck Jones for hijacking Daffy Duck's character in the '50s, and by implication for making himself the de facto voice of Looney Tunes animators. The change in Daffy from freewheeling lunatic to what John Kricfalusi calls "the comedy asshole" at Jones' hands has certainly been noted before, but here is a rare instance of someone complaining about it.

I agree that it is obnoxious when Jones talks about this shift as if Daffy were always so, and worse when he acknowledges it, but insists that the crazy-ass Daffy is an untenable character for manufacturing plots. This didn't useta bother him when he made Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. You can't, he argues, just have this guy screaming and flying around for 7 minutes. What Jones probably actually disliked about Daffy-Daffy was a limited use for his increasing interest in subdued, non-stretchy character "acting" animation. Intuitively, that seems to fly against the constant body-deformation in his Roadrunner series, or Daffy's bill being blown off repeatedly in "Duck! Rabbit, Duck!" However, those are always plausible extensions of the character designs, and all eyeball-popping an torso-twisting is meticulously explained by the physical realities of the gag. By contrast, I suggest frame-stepping through Clampett's "Falling Hare," when the Gremlin smacks Bugs Bunny on the brain with a huge wrench, or better yet simply Bugs screaming "WHAT am I DOING!?" The contorted drawings of Bugs are hilarious, totally off-model, impossible, and so grotesque they would never be allowed within 100 yards of a '50s Jones cartoon. I suspect Daffy had to change partly because it made Jones uncomfortable drawing characters in such expressionistic ways.


Chuck Jones at work, carefully in-betweening his own history


The problem is, that I like the Jones Jerk-Daffy, too. Insecurity, hair-trigger temper, greed, and cravenness in a hero character are very, very funny (I've wondered if William Macy modeled his performance of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo on this Daffy), and in Daffy they are smartly observed. It's a necessary character-type for the Looney Tune universe, which was previously missing. I like the crazy original Daffy more, but what would he have to do in Jones' mature (and ultimately moralizing - meanness is punished in Jones' postwar work) cartoons, anyway?

The Jones revisionism that bothers me far more is what he did to Bugs Bunny. And I never hear anyone talk about this. Jones' philosophy is that Bugs must, in every story, be innocently minding his own beeswax, until some thug threatens his home, then he fights back. The director would boast whenever asked, that he has always been very careful about making sure Bugs didn't hit first.

And I gotta cry "foul." That kind of thinking totally hamstrings the character as a mythological trickster, leads to repetitive storytelling, and turns plots into revenge stories in which Bugs takes an eye and a leg and a head for an eye. Besides, it's revisionist, and denies that in the past Bugs had behaved like a bully, braggart or worse. He was named "Bugs" because he's a nutcase, no? Witness Friz Freleng's great "Wabbit Who Came to Supper," in which Bugs destroys Elmer Fudd's sanity via home invasion for the sole reason that he knows Elmer is sworn not to hurt any animals. It obviously didn't jeopardize audience sympathy in the pre-war cartoons to have Bugs screw with anyone he felt like for no reason. In a way, it is the same kind of wish-fulfillment we get from Jones' vengeance-driven Bugs. I don't understand his guilt over stories where Bugs picks on Elmer Fudd, either. It's a real-world dynamic: don't we all feel oppressed by stupid people?

To be perhaps more petty, and perhaps more heartfelt, I just don't like the way Jones drew characters. I don't like the elfin slant he gave to eyes. I don't like the elongated, overly tall, too-humanoid physician he gave Bugs.

I don't mean to attack Chuck Jones' work, even so far as to imply it's boring; he was a genius animator, and made hundreds of hilarious cartoons that I love. But since he was so articulate about his work, and survived after many of his peers, his personal vision of characters and self-imposed storytelling rules became confused in the public forum for Official Looney Tunes Policy. It is partly because his body of work is so renown that it's worth finally looking closely about what was imperfect about Jones' cartoons.

[Note: Pardon my lack of supporting examples, but I'm writing this at lunch... Uh. Maybe I could use those cartoon plot summaries after all.]

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"David Wanted the Feeling That You Were Completely Fucked": Forty Reasons Why ALIEN 3 Sucks

At this point in David Fincher's career, with his thematic concerns and recognizable technique firmly in place, it is tempting to return to Alien 3 (1992) for reevaluation. In common complaint/ explanation for box office failure, the film is too dark and mean-spirited (or in frequent dismissive misnomer, "nihilistic") for popular tastes, or bucks the expectations of franchise fans. I feel those explanations are passive-aggressive judgments that indicate the movie is too sophisticated for the multiplex set who ate up the precedingAliens. And I think they're wrong.

I understand the impulse of any Fincher fan capable of complex grappling with Se7en and Fight Club, to retroactively apply what they've found to Alien 3. For all of those films' grim images and storylines fraught with destruction, Se7en is ultimately meditative about our violent world, and filled with hope, and Fight Club a jet black sick joke satire. They're difficult works because their protagonists spend the majority of the running time with their brains at thematic odds with Fincher's ultimate messages. But Alien 3 is not Se7en in embryonic form; Alien 3 is just a bloody mess.

There are a multitude of reasons why this happened, long explanations of how it happened, and a hundred reasons the defensive can give about why none of this is David Fincher's fault. Those stories aren't of concern in the below list. I don't care whose fault it is.


Most terrifying place is jail? A giant fan? Oh, oh, you're trying to imply "Earth," aren't you? Ha ha. You wish.


1. Creature redesign

The idea is that the Alien partially replicates the anatomy of its host is not one that tickles me particularly in the first place. Because a) it's the idea of The Thing, b) it's a latter-day rule-rewrite. The first two films have bipedal monsters, but no concrete explanation that they've somehow absorbed human DNA. The idea doesn't particularly make sense, and these guys are complicated enough anyway. So when the Alien sucks up some rottweiler DNA, it's both confusing and a disappointing bad design. Part of what works for the original Giger design is the recognizable human elements poking through the biomechanics and ectoplasm.

2. Nothing happens

Until the grand finale, the essential plot is repeated wholesale from Alien. Just as James Cameron is proud that his sequel expanded the story, character, world and logically extended the narrative from the first film, so should Alien 3 be a little ashamed that it collapses back into the smothering Ten Little Indians-in-space story of Alien. There's a bunch of people trapped in dark hallways, and they get killed despite their best efforts. Any illusion that Ripley's character arc does anything but leapfrog backwards is strictly motion-control.

3. Nihilism confuses series themes

I suppose when people call Alien 3 "nihilistic," they're referring to the ending. No one says it about the other films, which are just as much about slaughtering every character one by one. It must be that Alien lets a cute orange cat live. This isn't the time to discuss a reading of Ripley's sacrifice at the end of Alien 3, but whether you consider it bleakly beautiful and noble, or a cynical last-ditch compromise, it confuses the issue of Ripley's survivor instinct. There's a point being made in Alien and Aliens about Ripley's singular ability to survive the creatures, a point about the character, the nature of female resilience, and sheer blue-collar gutsiness. If self-sacrifice were ever an option for Ripley, she could've simply blown-up her escape pod at the end of Alien. She could've told Newt to haul Bishop into the Sulaco and get off the platform while she distracted the Queen with a power loader scuffle. But Ripley doesn't do those things. But she is awfully eager to jump into a fire-pit in Alien 3 before exhausting all other options.

4. Newt autopsy

Even after nine seasons of "X-Files," and nightly "Forensic Files" viewing, Newt's autopsy is particularly unpleasantly staged. The physical and psychic ickiness of a nude child being cut open would be fine the scene were there to drive home Ripley's cool determination to confront the Alien at all personal cost. Instead it seems like a cruel joke on the character. Take that, Rips.

5. Alien life-cycle...

... altered and confused. So where do Queens come from? How do they plant their babies in chests? Because I don't see any huge facehugger finger welts on Ripley's face.

6. EEV scan hides SFX

There is very cool special-effects work somewhere behind the fake-o video noise on the medical scan of Ripley's torso. Somewhere in there is a little puppet of a baby Alien Queen. One presumes anyhow, that is what freaks out Ripley and Aaron on the monitor. But you know what? If I didn't know already, I couldn't tell you that.

7. Where's the acid blood?

The most giddily retarded idea about the Alien is that it has acid blood. It's also the most ripe with possibility for interesting ways to damage bodies, objects, and sets. Maybe I'm just overly infatuated with Alien: Resurrection, which is obsessed with the acid blood. And maybe the acid doesn't matter as much without the threat of it "eating through the hull." But Alien 3 seems to hate the acid blood.

8. Clemens' secret

Ripley finds a sort-of friend with the sort-of nice prison doctor, not because they have any chemistry, but he's the only non-fanatic or person with any conversational skills on the planet. So why is he so twitchy when asked why he's on Fiorina 161? If you guessed "he's a prisoner," blue-ribbon dumbbell screenwriting machine points for you. But can you guess why he's a prisoner? If you even bother to guess, the joke's on you. It doesn't matter, and isn't terribly interesting after all the build-up. Nor does it enrich his character. Nor does it enrich Ripley's character that she still trusts Clemens after learning of his crime. It's not like she has much choice.



9. "Religion"

A big, presumably Symbolic idea of the prison world is that the convicts have all become monk-like religious converts. The film is astute enough to make this manifest in costume design; the men are shaved bald and wearing heavy robes for diegetic and metaphorical reasons. Unfortunately the nature of this religion is neither spelled out, nor tied-up with the story in literal or figurative ways. You can't just stick a big cross made of junk on the planet's surface and expect us to do the symbolic work for you.

10. Dillon's speech

In a magnificent eyeball-roller of a scene, Charles S. Dutton's Dillon gives a top-of-his-lungs pep talk to his fellow prisoners. It's the kind of locker room team pump-up nonsense that could've easily been in less tasteful writers' first drafts of Alien or Aliens. "You're all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin' knees, begging? I ain't much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothing! So I say fuck that thing! Let's fight it!" Indeed. That Alien never gave him anything. So fuck it. Who would think a mere ex-thug murderer contained such eloquent and passionate speech in his reformed criminal heart? No wonder these men look to him as a leader. Let's fight it!

11. Toxic waste room = no payoff

Please tell me in detail about the place where you can trap the Alien, including the room's history, and set up an elaborate plan, and then follow through on none of these things.

12. The Warrior and the Queen

It's a scary moment, and a great trailer clip, when the Alien sticks its face in Ripley's and hisses. Then it runs away. Because, you see, Ripley has a baby Queen inside her. Instead of letting the most precious of chestbursters be carried around by a woman who wants to destroy it, mightn't the Alien wish to cocoon the host to prevent damage to Her Royal Slimeness? It's not unheard-of protocol to cocoon rooms full of colonists simply to host regular hoppy Aliens. And judging by their behavior in Aliens, warriors will do anything, including self-sacrifice, to protect the Queen... unless, stipulates Alien 3, she hasn't popped out yet.

13. "I can't do it myself" : Ripley pusses out

I don't believe there's anything Ripley can't will herself to do, including kill herself if necessary. If she can't, it's because there's still another way out. The situation doesn't seem particularly more dire in the middle of the film than at the finale: the Company is coming either way. So. I say we fight it!

14. Last survivor

Part of the Ripley Thing is - er, was- that she's literally the last man standing in the face of interplanetary rape-menace in Alien, and fights all comers and homewreckers (also literally) to reconstruct a figurative family in Aliens. She fights forces which attack the heart (and chest!) of female values and not only stops them, but comes out on top. In Alien 3 she sacrifices herself that she may a) kill her metaphorical baby and b) let a sole ex-convict escape from Hell. This doesn't resonate; it thuds.

15. "I am a murderer and rapist of women": Dillon's arc

Dillon doesn't change in any appreciable way. Seismic character shifts are not a requirement of good drama by any means, though I think the film is trying hard to indicate Dillon's moved from asshole to saint. Certainly his selfless sacrifice is the inspiration for Ripley's a few minutes later. If anything, his bone-headed tough-love spirituality is vindicated... which is out of place in Fincher's larger body of work, and this secular series. As Miss Haley Mills says in Pollyanna, "he sure does sermonize somethin' fierce!" But so far as I can tell, the other prisoners listen to him because he will beat them up with a pipe if they do not.

16. Ugly without poetry

There's an undeniable effort to make the movie look like... something. To make it look dirty, wet, rusty, gooey, uncomfortable and hazy. But the same adjective list can be hauled out again for Se7en, which is beautiful, and for a whole host of stylish films outside Fincher's oeuvre, not least of all Alien. There's no grandeur, even in the large sets. There's no eccentric, interesting detail in the small sets. The only attractive element of the generally lusterluss photography is the color-coding of the chilly blue morgue, orange fan shaft and red furnaces, but it can't save the uninspired designs.

17. Alien-cam

It's disappointing to see what the world looks like through the Alien's eyes, but we do repeatedly in the final "leadworks trap" chase sequences. It's a demystifying idea of a mythic monster, and besides, the silly image distortion may indicate the beast sees less clearly than humans. The spinning Steadicam perspective could be a woozy thrill in another context, but we should not peer through the eyes this most unknowable of creatures. Especially since they don't appear to have eyes.

18. Leadworks trap: What? Who? Where?

The entirety of Panic Room plays like an apology or penance for the theoretical action climax of Alien 3. It's possible to watch the sequence and think you've seen the same screaming bald guy run down the same hallway five times. The later film is obsessed with making sure we know measurements, comprehend spatial relationships, and technical details of room layout all so that we may confirm that the outrageous suspense gimmicks are playing by the meticulously established rules. Alien 3 can't bother to show us a blueprint.

19. Underused Postlethwaite

Pete Postlethwaite plays one of a dozen identifying-mark-less inmates. If you'd told me it was possible to make matinee action junk so bland even Postlethwaite wouldn't make an impression, I'd direct you to The Lost World to prove you wrong. Zero opportunities for one of the best character actors alive to do anything weird, funny or memorable.

20. Only interesting characters wasted early

Problems with Clemens' backstory aside, he and Warden Andrews are the closest the film musters to believably shaded characters. This is mostly due to Brian Glover's funny performance as Andrews and Clemens being the only inmate who does more than scream or grumble. Andrews is wasted in an early surprise attack that boils down to a failed jump-scare gag. I suppose Clemens' early demise is intended as a variation on the Psycho-style shocking death. The secret of why this works for Psycho is that you end up following the most darkly appealing character after you lose your surrogate. In Alien 3 there's no one you'll want to spend time with.

21. Ripley's loooong gestation

Just me, or do these things take longer to incubate as the series progresses? Kane was only awake for a few minutes before he blew blood and Maypo all over the breakfast table, and he was in bad shape before that. But here Ripley is running around all day with occasional indigestion pains.

22. "This is a maximum security prison, and you have no weapons of any kind?"

I've got to share Ripley's disbelief here. It's a "cool" what-if plot conceit, battling Aliens without firepower, but best save it for another story. Another story not set in a place that would most certainly have weapons.

23. Bishop didn't wake them up?

I'll suspend my disbelief and assume that somehow, at some point at the end of Aliens, the Queen got inside the Sulaco for a minute and squirted out a couple eggs. Or whatever. I'm a little stumped as to why some monitoring system in Bishop or the flight computer didn't alert the crew and shake them out of hypersleep the very second the motion detectors picked up lifeforms. Or does Wayland-Yutani program computers to kindly smooth over all plot holes?

24. Golic disappears

One of the prisoners is driven mad by witnessing Alien attacks and is taken, wounded and gibbering, to the infirmary. Then he disappears from the movie. The studio-apology extended cut does explain this by restoring a goofy subplot which also pays off the toxic waste room. The point I'm trying to make isn't that the demented-Golic-frees-captured-Alien plot was crucial or well written. It's that the story was carelessly excised, leaving all the set-ups still clinging to the rest of the film. Then Data runs in and tells the reporter they saw an octopus.

25. Fury 161 back-story: What?

So it's a prison planet. But it's also a leadworks. But then they decided to close the leadworks. But they let some guys stay on it. Because you gotta have some guys looking after your closed-down leadworks! So it's a maximum security prison where a warden and assistant are paid full wages to look after 25 prisoners, and expenses are covered for semi-regular supply ships to fly out. Because that is money very well spent instead of moving a handful of prisoners out of the abandoned factory and into a real prison.

26. Hicks is dead. Let's fuck!

I'm sure the logic here is that any of us, after having been through so much exhausting adventure and prolonged isolation as Ripley, would need to get laid. That much is true. Problem is, the last exhausting adventure she went through was coping with the loss of the last man with whom she connected. Your personal take on if Hicks and Ripley relationship is your business, but my feeling is: it's the kind of thing where you know you're going to be in love in a month, as soon as shit calms down. Promiscuity and/or self-destructiveness is not an infrequent part of the mourning process. Kieslowski's Blue is partly a poetic, lump-in-throat examination of this phenomenon. I do not get the feeling Alien 3 has any psychology so complicated in mind. Besides the bad-taste disrespectful timing for Ripley, as the only successful literal sex in the first three films, it pales in compare to the clever and sweet metaphorical sex scene in Aliens. If you missed it, it's the one where Hicks shows Ripley how to handle his pulse rifle.

27. Shh! There's an alien. Don't tell anyone!

Ripley may be soured on warning people about the Alien after suffering Steve-McQueen-in-The-Blob Syndrome in Aliens. But it's different when you're locked up in a building with the monster. So why she needs to beat around the bush even after making friends with kindly Dr. Clemens, I cannot tell you.

28. Outrunning the beast

I heard this kid saying once that if he made an Alien movie, the first rule would be if a human and an Alien were on screen together? That human was dead meat. No chance of survival. You don't see an Alien and live.

That's a dorky way to put it, but... he was right.

29. So isn't the queen alive?

Aliens can float around in space without dying. They can be coated in molten lead and live. Please tell me why we should think the chestburster queen is successfully killed in Ripley's lava swan-dive?

30. Missed opportunity: repressed sexuality

Someone had the twisted good taste to hire H.R. Giger to design a creepy-sexual monster (O'Bannon and Scott will both take credit, but O'Bannon not taking credit is like Alien 5: Jonesy's Story: ain't gonna happen). And by the end of Alien: Resurrection, Whedon and Jeunet have the smarts to let Ripley tongue-kiss the monster and roll around on the Queen's giant slimy labia. So where, in this entry about men isolated from women, where the only sexuality on display is a mercy-fuck and a near rape, is any semblance of the Alien as a psychosexual metaphor? It's unfair to judge a film for what it doesn't even attempt to do, but it seems the story is halfway to acknowledging this idea, and chickens out.

31. Tell me one thing about any of these guys

What are David and Troy like? Do you even recognize those men from their names? How does William feel about Ripley's presence on Fiorina? The first film was notoriously brief in the character department, but I can tell you the Nostromo crew's names, funny things they did, how they feel about other specific crew members, and how they fit into the ship's social dynamic. Over the course of incarceration, the Fiorinans have developed no dynamic except that Dillon is a blowhard.

32. Opticals all suck

Moaning about special effects is normally dullard's film criticism, but the image compositing is really distracting here. Did they forget to light the puppet like it was running through the same dark hallway as the guy two steps ahead? It's slipshod matte work on objects that are otherwise moving in a convincing manner.

33. Boring set design

Corridor. Corridor. School nurse office. Cafeteria. Junkyard. They're boring locations - surely they would've worked in that abandoned warehouse that features in all low-budget cops and robbers pictures if they could have. Alien, after returning from the jaw-dropping derelict ship, is mostly set in corridors, kitchens and medical labs. But from the padded womby Mother computer chamber to the dining room that suggests an operating theatre, to that strange cathedral filled with nothing but a jungle of hanging chains and dripping water, the first film proves there are ways to make everyday settings beautiful, striking, or at worst interesting. Alien 3 certainly has a lot of corridors. I think. I'm not positive, because they all look like the same corridor.

34. Fire trap: no payoff

There are scenes - excitingly different, but linked by nature - in the first two films, where firepower is assembled (Dallas with flamethrower, Colonial Marines with guns), Aliens are hunted, and humans are ambushed. In those scenes, the humans fail because "superior firepower" ain't enough if you can't see where the monster is coming from. Thematically, it's a matter of learning to master those dark spaces and traps and use them as intuitively as the thing you fear, and use single-function tools in a nontraditional manner; mastery and cleverness which Ripley is eventually able to achieve. In 3, the trap to use noxious fire chemicals to lure the Alien down the correct corridors fails because some idiot drops a match.

It's funny, I would normally like a film set in a universe so capricious. However, I want some kind of narrative and thematic development (and yes, yes, series continuity), not repeated rug-pulling.

35. We want facehuggers!

Might just be that James Cameron seemed as fascinated by facehuggers as Jeunet is by acid blood, and they don't want to overdose us on the little guys. This movie does everything possible to avoid showing us any huggies, though.

36. Less gore is more in THIS?

Everything from little girls to cute dogs get their torsos ripped apart in Alien 3. So why does Fincher occasionally cut away from some deaths? Variety? Look, as long as you're doing Slaughter High in a space prison, you might as well give us the stylish death scenes that are the lifeblood (and have the high-style potential) of the slasher genre.

37. Rape! Now we're pals

As attempted rape scenes go, Alien's moments during Ash's meltdown wherein he tries to mouth-sodomize Ripley with a rolled-up girlie magazine are scarier, more bizarre and somehow more on the money. Alien 3 has Ripley getting jumped in the rainy junkyard, which is kind of a metaphor for the movie. At least she gets saved by burly black fellows both times, in a rare nod to series unity. The problem is, I don't buy that Ripley would give two figs about any of these people after this incident.


The beasts close in on Ripley: but who is worse? The Alien, or the company that wants it for a weapon?! WHO IS WORSE? WHO? WHO? NOOOOO!


38. Quit wandering around, you!

Nobody in this movie wants her running around, but for unexplained plot-necessary reasons, everyone refuses to take any steps to confine Ripley! Not the Aliens, not even a prison warden, whose only job is to imprison people. Instead Warden Andrews screams at her not to leave the doctor's office, and she pouts.

39. Look, show the shark, or don't show the shark

Alien makes the choice to keep its main creature's shocking visage in the shadows, for maximum impact of its rare appearances. Alien: Resurrection makes the choice that, as Mr. Jeunet has said, we all know what the Alien looks like; the mystery is gone. You might just as well show it, and let yourself make a more balls-out "monster movie." Similar to the film's sometimes-graphic, sometimes-coy gore, the Aliens are variously revealed like some big secret, and shown in full light for entire action sequences.

40. Title

The only series title with a numeric tag, 3 is a nothing title, and looks foolish next to three other cleverly named films. At least, given the boring possibilities, the logo designers came up with ane eye-catching, numeral-decreasing way to typeset the title on an absolute stunner of a poster. And really, it doesn't make you flinch like Alien Vs. Predator, huh?