How Ron Howard Stole ‘The Grinch’

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

The-Grinch-Poster-1

“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the perennially popular children’s book, was excellently adapted in the 1960s for television as an animated short.  Like the book it was based on, the program was concise and insightful, bringing the Grinch story to a widespread audience and making it a bona fide cultural phenomenon for the past half-century.  Given the animated program’s popularity and the tendency for filmmakers to put on the silver screen those things they adored when they were young, it was only a matter of time before somebody would turn it into a feature-length film.  That time came in the winter of 2000, and that somebody was Ron Howard.  And the failure he wrought upon Dr. Seuss is something the Whos still sing about.

For those of you who (somehow) don’t know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” let me give you the quick version: the Grinch is a rather ill-spirited loner who lives outside of the town of Whoville.  Every year, the Whos of Whoville celebrate Christmas with much singing, gift giving, feasting and enjoyment, much to the annoyance of the Grinch.  One particular Christmas eve, the Grinch decides to steal all of the Whos’ food, gifts, and decorations in hopes that they won’t celebrate the holiday, only to find the Whos still rejoicing on Christmas morn.  This causes a change of heart in the Grinch, who realizes that Christmas has a much deeper meaning than he had thought, and so he takes everything he stole back to the Whos and celebrates whole-heartedly in the holiday.

It’s a nice, short children’s story, and the message is appropriately subtle.  The book, read thoroughly, can still be finished in a little less than a half-hour, which was also about the running time of the animated program.  You may wonder how such a pithy tale translated to a two-hour film.

Not well.

Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Howard & Co. for needing to add more to this story in order to fit it to film.  I am not criticizing them for exploring Whoville in greater depth, giving the Grinch more personality, or providing him more of a reason for disliking Christmas.  My issue is that this film changes the very nature of the story itself.

In the original story, what the Grinch failed to understand was the concept of the sacramental (see James’s review of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ for a detailed explanation.)  Gifts and feasts and songs are signs of Christmas—pointing to the charity, love and hope of the holiday—but they are not what the season is about.  Though it might seem strange, we, as humans, are more like the Grinch than the Whos in the story, for we often lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas amongst all of the clutter.  The altruistic Whos, then, are what we strive to be, understanding the important role of sacramentals, but never confusing them with or forgetting about the real meaning of the holiday.

Contrast this with what Ron Howard gives us in the film, which is a Whoville that is overwhelmingly materialistic and almost hedonistically obsessed with gifts, celebrations and parties (references to sex, adultery and alcohol—all of which are found in the film—should NEVER EVER belong in anything Dr.Seuss-related).  The Whos are a self-absorbed, self-righteous lot, hardly a model to live up to, hardly a great contrast to the Grinch, played far too extravagantly by Jim Carrey under heavy make-up.  Sorry, Carrey, the Grinch was grumpy and a little eccentric, never border-line insane.

As in the book, the Grinch hates the Whos, but here it’s completely understandable.  He hates them because of their arrogance, their selfishness, their blatantly shallow commercialism, and their underlying cruelty.  It is revealed in flashbacks that he lived among the Whos as a child, only to be mocked and ridiculed by them.  He might be over the top, and he might be a little crazy, but the Grinch’s resentment for the Whos and their holiday is hardly misplaced.  Unlike the book, the Grinch’s flawed understanding of Christmas doesn’t come from some misconception of the Whos and their ideas of Christmas, it is rather a direct result of the attitudes of the Whos themselves.  In that sense the Grinch is almost in the right.  Though he may not understand the meaning of the holiday, neither do the Whos.  The exception, of course, is a young girl, Cindy Lu Who, who seems to consummately grasp the real meaning of Christmas.  In the book she was a charming representative of the Whos’ good ways, here she is an exception to their rule.  Her message of goodwill would be endearing if it unfortunately weren’t so on the nose; the subtlety of the book has been replaced with a kind of embarrassing blatancy.  And unlike the book or the animated program, the film never quite effectively answers what role sacramentals play in the role of holidays.

This leads me to believe that Ron Howard, in fact, “stole” The Grinch. He borrows the characters as well as the setting from Dr. Seuss’s story, and he inserts them in a superficially similar, but far inferior, plot.  The combination of over-acting, extravagant but poorly designed sets, and bad cinematography don’t help much either, as they make the film oddly depressing.  The film’s humor does work semi-frequently, but again, it’s typically adult in nature and not really something for a Dr. Seuss story.  Worst of all, again, the film’s moral is too blunt to have the same effect it did in the book or animated program.

All of this is another way to say that ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is a mediocre film that attempts to cash in on nostalgia.  On it’s own, it’s worthy of a few laughs, and Carrey’s performance, while not faithful to Dr. Seuss, is at times admirable.  But as an adaptation of one of the most profound children’s stories by one of the most influential children’s writers, it simply does not deliver.

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The (Not So) Amazing Spider-Man

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: it is incredibly strange that, in 2012, we are already getting a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise.  Quite simply, it feels way too soon, as Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy ended just five years ago.  Also, most people seemed to like Raimi’s films and his interpretation of Spider-Man — his ‘Spider-Man 2’ routinely ranks as one of the best superhero movies ever made.  Even if the last film, ‘Spider-Man 3,’ was something of a mixed bag, it’s not as if there was a desperate outcry from the fan base demanding a whole new version of the character*.  So, what exactly Sony is doing by giving us this reboot as if we either forgot about or completely hated Raimi’s films is a complete mystery to me.  I suppose it comes down to money and the rights to the character; you know, the dark side of capitalism.  But hey, as long as this film is a fresh, original, bold new take on the Spider-Man mythos, it’s a welcome addition in my book.

Too bad it isn’t.

Which isn’t to say that it’s completely awful, either.  It has some good things going for it, most notably the performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who are both exquisite in their respective roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.  Garfield, with his perfect mix of insecurity and bravado, has the potential to be a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, and Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a more interesting character than Mary Jane ever was in the Raimi films.  Also, the film boasts some impressive visuals and cinematography, which contribute to fun action scenes.  (If you can, see this film in IMAX 3D).  In short, it is entertaining.

But there’s one big problem here that cripples this film: plot.  Instead of taking the opportunity to give us a completely different and exciting adventure, the filmmakers decided to use the origin story from 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’ as the template for telling this one.  The result is that ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ feels almost like a carbon (but inferior) copy of ‘Spider-Man’, following many of the same plot points WAY TOO CLOSELY.  Seriously, so many of the events in this movie mirror those of its decade old predecessor, but whereas Raimi knew how to give dramatic weight and importance to those events, here they come off as shallow and derivative.  Scenes feel rushed, critical moments feel disrespected, plot threads that should be of utmost significance are dropped, never to be spoken of again; and despite the film’s impressive leads, the other characters are grossly underdeveloped and underutilized.  I cried when Uncle Ben died in 2002.  I couldn’t care less when he died in 2012.  It all comes across as a cheap imitation rather than a reinvention.

Now, before I get attacked for not knowing the comics, let me just say that maybe the filmmakers didn’t actively decide to use the 2002 ‘Spider-Man’ as a template, maybe both movies just draw on the same classic origin story of Spider-Man and this film is just being faithful to the original premise.  Ordinarily I might applaud such a thing; but, again, we’ve already seen this story and it was done better in 2002.  ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, as a reboot, is supposed to be new and different.  If they were going to do the exact same thing that Raimi did, why are they bothering to reboot this at all? (Commercial reasons, I know. It was a rhetorical question.)  Why not pull a James Bond and have this be a continuation of the Raimi series but with a different director and actor behind the mask?  Or, if it must be a reboot, why not pull a ‘Batman’ 1989 and have this story already start with Peter Parker as Spider-Man?  Why not skip the origin thing all together and just jump into an original story?  Or have the origin be in flashbacks.  Or something, anything other than spoon-feeding us a watered-down version of what we saw in 2002.

Anyways, that is the critical failure of this film, that it chooses not to take any kind of risk and instead gives us more of the same, except that it’s actually a little worse this time around.  It feels more like a remake than a reboot, and only an okay one at that.  Even without the Raimi series to compare with, if this film had come out as is, it would still seem only average.

Average, but entertaining. Despite my incredible frustration with the creative decisions behind this movie, it is fun and is worth seeing for Garfield’s and Stone’s performances as well as the action. And it is doing well, both critically and commercially, so obviously a lot of people aren’t as frustrated as I am about it; you out there might very well enjoy this film more than I did.

Personally, I actually do want this film to be a success; because then, like ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ — with which it shares many of the same problems — it might get a nice ‘Wrath of Khan’ treatment.  If and when Garfield and Stone’s characters are let loose in an all new Spider-Man epic that breaks free of the trappings of Raimi’s films, I’m all in.  Until then, I’m sticking to the older Spider-Man trilogy, which I already own on DVD.  If nothing else, at least it’s cheaper.

*None that I heard of anyways.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Village

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: A film with the best intentions that, in the end, simply doesn’t deliver.

Review:  M. Night Shyamalan, once an acclaimed young filmmaker, has gradually become something of a joke in Hollywood, thanks to a string of subpar films that wrap themselves in a cloak of unfulfilling mystery.  It’s a shame too, as early on in his career, he was responsible for ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, which encompass a trinity of good, suspenseful filmmaking and are among my favorite films to watch.  By most accounts his problems began with his follow-up to ‘Signs’, a little film called ‘The Village’ which, while interesting, ultimately set itself up for disaster.

To reference something James once said, the ‘The Village’ isn’t half bad, it’s just a little under three-fourths good.  It suffers from two major issues. First, it was marketed as a strict horror movie.  I remember the commercials for this movie attempted to portray it in a shocking, frightening manner, comparing it to ‘Signs’ in much the same, unfair way that ‘Unbreakable’ was compared to ‘The Sixth Sense’ upon its release.  The truth is that, while there are elements of horror in ‘The Village’, its much more of slow-paced mystery than simple terror.  Those who went in expecting ‘Signs’ found themselves disappointed when they realized they were dealing with a very different animal.

For being a slow-paced mystery with a touch of terror, though, it isn’t badly done… at first.  The turn of the century town in which the film takes place is guarded on all sides by evil spirits in the surrounding forest, or so the elders say, and so the town folk can never leave, forced to remain locked in forever.  Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that this film would have someone, that someone being a girl, daring to venture into the forest and the outside world, and therefore confronting these alleged demons.

All that is fine and dandy, but now we must get to the second problem.  ‘The Village’ banks on a plot twist that doesn’t really work.  I won’t tell you what it is, for the sake of seeing the film, but rest assured, it doesn’t help the story.  The issue is this; a plot twist, when used well, ought to really add something to the story.  It ought to show things in a new light and give new meaning and perspective to the events of the film.  It should give depth. This is the sort of twist M. Night Shyamalan gave us in ‘The Sixth Sense’.

In ‘The Village’ however, the plot twist that comes devalues a lot of the film’s previous moments.  The sense of mystery that worked well enough earlier seems pointless afterword.  It raises too many questions that the film vaguely answers at best, and it leaves the audience feeling empty inside.  Instead of some needed depth for the film, it makes it seem shallower.  As Roger Ebert put it (though he disliked this film much more than I did) it was little better than saying that everything that happened up to that point was a dream.

That all said, its obvious Shyamalan had a lot of faith in this story.  He does show strong direction in this film, and by that I mean he does a good job of setting things up early in the film.  He does spark our interest in what’s going on and we do care about what happens to the people of this town.  The initial ideas we are presented with are strong enough; they just get derailed and don’t wind up paying off.  An audience should feel challenged, but never alienated, and unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former by the time the credits roll.

‘The Village’ was a box office success, though not to the degree its predecessors had been.  Critically it was mostly negative or, at best, mixed.  I think most people would agree that this is where M. Night Shyamalan began descending into the hole from which he has yet to stop digging.  Still, I have hope that he has good filmmaking left in him, provided he neither gives in to the demands of Hollywood nor his own established tropes (he really should stop putting plot twists in his films).  I happened to like the first half of ‘The Village’, and so I recommend this movie for one full watch.  Come to think of it, maybe less than a full watch — when you come to the part where the female protagonist decides to leave the village, you may just want to stop it there, avoid the plot twist, and leave well enough alone.

Unknown (2011)

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  A standard, gutless thriller that mostly fails as cinematic craft and relies too heavily on its talented cast.

I usually search high and low for unique posters, but I chose the generic one for this. It seemed appropriate.

Review:  Mmm. There’s nothing like a film that plays like a first draft.  A first draft, we may surmise, written by a team of bored writers whose physical diet is 95% sugary coffee and whose sole source of cinematic nutrition is Americanized Euro-thrillers.  ‘Unknown’, as you might have guessed (you clever fiend! *twirls mustache*) is just such a movie.  It really does seem like a hastily cobbled script that was either commissioned or bought by producers who believed that the path to success lay in capping off a shoddy structure with a shiny star, in this case Liam Neeson.  It doesn’t cut it, folks.  Liam Neeson is a great actor, but despite his best efforts he can’t save a film that’s damned to the recycling bin.

There is, of course, the inevitable comparison with the surprise 2009 hit ‘Taken’, released in the same time of year with the same star and European setting.  ‘Taken’ treats Liam’s character like a retired Jason Bourne almost devoid of conscience.  You don’t assign him to missions, you just turn him loose.  I think people were in awe of Liam’s ability to kick ass, but that’s a fact of life reinforced by better movies, like ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The A-Team’.  Nothing particularly special about ‘Taken’, though it’s a bit subversive because of how cold-hearted and impressively efficient the protagonist is.  I saw it four times in the theater, both in appreciation of its finer points and for social reasons, but I didn’t have the itch to see it again.  Until this film showed up on the horizon, that is, promising another Neeson action vehicle.   ‘Unknown’, however, fails to ride the gravy train.  It doesn’t give us ‘Taken 2: Took”.  He doesn’t go into badass mode until the inevitable climatic fight scene, and I felt cheated.  I was deceived by advertising, which I guess is unsurprising.

‘Unknown’ is generic.  One could craft a better film after visiting the Thriller index on TV Tropes.  I suspect they did, but failed to use the tired genre elements in a way that created lasting suspense.  It feels long.  ‘Unknown’ has the kind of raw Hitchcockian material that can be stretched so tight, you could pluck it and hear the shriek of Herrmann’s string section.  Instead, the filmmakers play it safe, preventing us from feeling hemmed in.  No roller coaster drama for us.

There’s also the disturbing lack of memorable symbols and themes.  Neeson ostensibly plays a botanist (and something more), the main plot involves a discovery in that field, and there is a plot device made of scientific plant names, but never is there any correlation drawn between the plot and bigger ideas.  Hitchcock used occasionally anonymous McGuffins to drive his movies, but most of the time there was some larger idea at play that you couldn’t easily miss.  ‘North by Northwest’ springs off the notion of a nonexistent spy, but ties this into its heroes reaction to being confused with a man who doesn’t exist.  This forces the protagonist into fulfilling the role.  It says something about the clandestine games governments play and how innocent people can get snagged in them.  Not grand, perhaps, but clear.  ‘Unknown’s ideas are too confused to have such focus or effect.  The filmmakers jump from locale to locale without anointing their doors with emotion.  I like to quote Kubrick’s notion of film as music, and he’s vindicated once again by this film’s unmusical construction.  The screenwriters seem reluctant to repeat cinematic melodies, opting instead to pack in more clichés, and those images that repeat lack cathartic transformation.

There are better ways to use one’s time.  Go watch some Hitchcock; leave this one for the soon-to-be-disappointed birds.

Classic Review: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  Silly, heedless, jingoistic and naïve, this classic invasion flick is great throwback fun.

Review:  I grew up on the B’s.  I adored — and still do — the mostly unintentional laughs and geeky excitement conjured up by the sci-fi kitsch of yore, those pictures which defied common sense and budgetary limits with heedless abandon.  My special love was for Toho Ltd.’s ‘Godzilla’ series, but I’d devour anything else.  Recently I’ve had a bit of a B-movie reawakening.  In pursuit of my next cheesy sci-fi meal, I queued up ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers‘ in Netflix on DVD, having admired a creepy edit of the trailer on an overplayed VHS tape in my youth.

Made at the height of UFO hysteria with the substantial plus of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s iconic touch, the film arrived at just the right time, capitalizing on public fears while affirming the official faith in the U.S. Military and science at large.  This was the era when space travel was a wild, exciting frontier that most people didn’t know a lick about and promised variants of the sort of phantom dangers that had terrified explorers sailing off the map centuries before.  Nowadays, it seems the American public has grown terribly cynical about the enterprise, and there isn’t that juvenile mix of fear and enthusiasm that accompanied those tentative steps beyond our sphere.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ totally lacks the cynicism and self-awareness that marks today’s cream-of-the-crop science fiction, in part due to its exploitive nature and otherwise attributable to naiveté.  The film’s attitude, in essence, is: “Gee, aren’t rockets cool?  And America, too, God bless her?  And her fine fighting men and those brilliant scientists!  Why, even the flying saucers are cool, and I kind of pity those poor aliens and their burned-out world.  It’s a shame we have to quickly abandon diplomacy and annihilate the last of their race without visible remorse… Gee, isn’t Joan Taylor pretty?  And those American monuments, too?  But I sure did like seeing them built in miniature and blown up!  Hurray for Hollywood!”  You can see why I love this stuff.

Its many humorous philosophical, narrative, and cinematographical flaws aside, ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ has lots of great little moments.  Harryhausen’s effects are wonderful and fun, setting the standard for Hollywood spaceships and aliens for years to come, and some of his shots are so nice, they show them twice.  The leads do their best with a silly script and, despite not being terribly memorable on their own, keep the movie watchable when there isn’t an expensive effect or stock footage on-screen.  The most hilarious aspect of the film is the black comedy inherit in how the script treats the aliens, who are actually pretty reasonable and sympathetic before they start trying to destroy the world, which, by the way, they promised not to do and explained in detail why it would be monumentally stupid.  The aliens are just there to get blown up, however, and to prove how damned resourceful America is.  The rest of the world doesn’t visibly contribute at all to the effort to, you know, save the world.  They just trust the States, I guess.  Anyway, the aliens are refugees, and sure they try to take the planet, but at least they want to talk about it first.   When they are soundly defeated, Joan Taylor’s character hilariously wonders if they will ever return, even though the aliens made it quite clear they were the last of their entire species.  So despite the massive loss for humanity’s collective conscience (not to mention science), the nameless aliens die en masse, everybody shrugs and goes to the beach.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ is among the very best in B-movie buttered popcorn guilty pleasures.  For the classic sci-fi fan, this is essential viewing.  Bring your savvy friends.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: Cheap scares and gore, but it did set a necessary and important bedrock for later, better films to come.

Review:  One of the things I feel slightly obligated to do when I review older films is at least try to look at them through a historical lens. I try to think about what they might have seemed like “back then…” in addition to how they’re seen now. In terms of 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’, I think I have to do this because it is a “cabin in the woods” movie. Granted, today that scenario is such a time-warn cliché that modern movies using it are almost always unintentionally comical for it. But back then, when the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise was still new and people weren’t yet making this kind of film all the time, I suppose it seemed fresher. And for what it’s worth, they do try to shake it up in this film by adding more supernatural elements and a strange “Book of the Dead” to the story. Anyways, my point is that, for everything that’s sub-par about this picture, I won’t accuse its premise for being unoriginal.

But when it comes right down to it, this film is still a cheesy low-budget horror film. There are women screaming, ghouls popping up out of nowhere, chase scenes, people dying in bloody ways, etc. Even then I don’t think this was particularly effective, and it certainly isn’t now. In fact the only thing horror-wise that this film has going for it is a villain (some evil spirit I guess) whom we never see. We only view first person shots of it running through the forest. That, I’ll admit, was surprising potent, if little else about this film was. I should also mention that this film starred a very young Bruce Campbell, an actor destined for later B-movie greatness.

This film’s director was Sam Raimi, the man who would go on to direct all three of the highly successful ‘Spiderman’ pictures. This was his first feature-length film, and I suppose he learned valuable lessons on it that helped to make his later movies better. I will say, however, that I’m glad that ‘Evil Dead’ was a modest success at the box office and has since become a cult hit. I’m glad because Raimi, along with Campbell, made two sequels to it; films which were much more entertaining and fun to see.