REVIEW – John Dies At The End (2012)

JDATEVideovista have my review of Don Coscarelli’s drug-addled urban fantasy John Dies at the End.

Based on a novel by Jason Pargin writing as David Wong, John Dies at the End follows a pair of generically handsome American youths (with ‘Close Boy Faces‘ naturally) as they are sucked into a weird and evocative demimonde in which they are compelled to battle ghosts, demons and genetically-engineered Cthuloid deities. The reason I go on at considerable length about JDATE being a work of urban fantasy is that the film is clearly desperate to escape that label:

Given the structural and social barriers involved in getting a work of urban fantasy made for the big screen, it is perhaps unavoidable that most marketing departments try to position works of urban fantasy as being part of more socially acceptable genres. Thus, The Matrix trilogy was successfully marketed as a work of science fiction, while the cowardly and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Hellblazer comics was described as a ‘supernatural action-thriller’ lest girl-cooties alienate the intended audience. John Dies At The End continues this somewhat inglorious tradition with a PR campaign that tries to distance the project from the literary context that inspired the original novel, and reposition the film as the kind of gonzo horror/ comedy you would expect from the man responsible for both the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep.

The wikipedia entry for the film describes JDATE as “dark comedy-horror”.

The wikipedia entry for the book describes JDATE as “cosmic horror”.

Why should this be?

The answer has quite a lot to do with privilege and the ways in which we are socialised into a particular gender. The straight white men of today are like the painted French aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France: Pampered and protected by economic and social systems that are as unjust as they are unstable, straight white men live in unconscious fear of becoming declasse or reduced in status to a lower social rank like that of woman, BME or LGBT.

Once upon a time, the trappings of masculinity were so instantly recognisable that all a man needed to do in order to protect his privileged status was to grow a beard and either run off to war or get a job that required him to wear a tie. However, as society has been shaped and re-shaped by the tidal forces of global capitalism, the trappings of masculinity have been commodified to the point where cloaking yourself in the traditional trappings of masculinity no longer serve as a basis for differentiating one group from another. However, because straight white men are trained to take pride in their status, they are forever on the lookout for things that will identify them as straight white men and distinguish them from everyone else. Maybe it’s liking football, maybe it’s wearing sports gear, maybe it’s drinking pints, maybe it’s talking about how much you enjoy sex in a loud and boisterous manner. The problem is that every time straight white men find a way of broadcasting their group membership, fashions change and people from other groups begin adopting those characteristics. This has made straight white men hypersensitive to any product that might make them look like they might belong to a lesser social class, and this is where Urban Fantasy comes in.

Urban Fantasy shares about 80% of its DNA with Paranormal Romance. In fact, the only difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy places ever so slightly less emphasis on the romantic sub-plots. This association is somewhat problematic as reading Romance novels is one of those characteristics that is so unquestionably feminine that it is enough to alienate most straight men. In fact, some straight white men are so uncomfortable with the connections between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance that they have tried to re-write the history of Urban Fantasy to exclude as many female authors as possible. This is why JDATE is being marketed as “dark comedy-horror” rather than the work of cinematic Urban Fantasy it so obviously is.

Another result of the association between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy is a genre with very little critical status. In fact, it’s quite telling that what I liked most about this film is the director’s valiant attempts at resisting genre narratives even though they were built into his film at script level. Some might argue that this is a reflection of my own privilege and failure to take the red pill and move beyond the gendered aesthetics fed to us by our culture but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Our aesthetic preferences are built into us on the same level as our personality traits and there’s a point at which getting free of the system is effectively indistinguishable from becoming an entirely different person.

REVIEW – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa posterFilmJuice have my review of Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, easily one of the most disappointing films I have seen this year.

Despite his familiarity to and broad popularity with British audiences, the character of Alan Partridge is something of a cult figure; A comedy grotesque born not only from the self-conscious egotism of Steve Coogan but also the subtle brilliance of Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris, two of the most respected and influential writers in contemporary British comedy. Over the years, Partridge has undergone a slow process of evolution from little more than a means of mocking sports journalism to a a more rounded critique of low-end British celebrity and eventually middle-aged masculinity in general. That which began as Motson continued as Wogan and Titchmarsh before concluding as your dad. Given that each turn of the creative handle has injected more history and depth into the character, it is strange to find the beautifully nuanced Partridge of Welcome to the Places of My Life turn up in a knockabout cinematic comedy. Indeed, many of the problems with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa stem from the fact that the film’s writers keep wanting to produce character comedy in a film set up to deliver broad and accessible jokes. Little surprise that this film seems to have encountered significant problems during the production process:

Most DVD releases contain making-of documentaries that are really little more than advertising designed to convince everyone that actors and crew all had an amazing time making the film. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa breaks violently with that tradition by inadvertently laying bare the film’s tortured production history. The first warning sign appears when Steve Coogan apologises to his fellow actors for the lack of a finished script. From there we move on to talk about on-camera improvisation and some absolutely extraordinary footage in which Colm Meaney appears to be working out his character’s motivations on set while other actors mention the fact that they were frequently given their lines on the morning on which they were due to film the scene. This lack of a clear vision going into the project is evident not only in the sloppy narrative but also the comparative weakness of many of the jokes. Compared to your average cinematic comedy or TV sitcom, this film’s gag-rate is surprisingly low and when the jokes do come they invariably feel as though they could have been improved by a couple of re-writes. In fact, aside from a few good lines and a genuinely funny dream sequence, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is not a particularly funny film. It is not only less funny and less well made than such recent comedies as Bridesmaids, it is significantly less funny than Michael Lehmann’s 1994 comedy Airheads, whose plot is almost identical to that of Alpha Papa.

This is one of those films where you wish you could be a fly on the wall during production meetings as almost every aspect of the film seems to have gone wrong from the choice of locations to the choice of plot right through to the way in which the actors worked on set.

How actors work on set is actually a fascinating question as the rise of Judd Apatow seems to have ushered in an entirely new approach to the production of cinematic comedy. The reason why the trailers for films like Bridesmaids and Get Him to The Greek (both produced by Apatow) feature different iterations of the jokes that appear in the final films is that many contemporary comedies work by shooting numerous variations on the same basic gags. Sometimes these differences will be comedic in nature (different pace, different props, different lines), sometimes they will be technical (different angles, different lightings) and sometimes they will bring out different aspects of the plot or characters, but what all of these differences do is shift the act of creating the film from something that happens in the writers’ heads before production starts to something that happens in the heads of the editors and directors after production has completed.

Given the information contained in the astonishingly candid making-of featurette included on the DVD, it is tempting to conclude that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa tried to use both approaches at the same time and wound up locating the creative act in the minds of writers and actors as they were sitting on set. Indeed, we see that Coogan and Meaney had a good deal of freedom in creating their parts on set and yet supporting actors were given their parts on the morning in which they were expected to shoot. This suggests that the film went through a continuous process of re-writing in which spontaneous acts of creativity would shape and reshape the characters who were supposed to serve as basis for much of the comedy. This also explains why so many of the gags felt under-written: The writers simply did not have time to finesse them. An experienced director could have imposed order on this process but the producers of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa went with Declan Lowney, whose directorial experience lies mostly in TV comedies like Father Ted. Again, the making-of featurette reveals quite a lot about Lowney’s role as it is full of images of Coogan either directly undermining Lowney or assuming the type of leadership position that you would normally associate with a director.

 

REVIEW – Creepshow (1982)

creepshowFilmJuice have my review of George A. Romero’s infamous horror/comedy Creepshow. Infamous… not because it’s particularly funny or scary, but rather because it features the film’s writer Stephen King playing a dungaree-clad redneck simpleton who slowly turns into a hedge. Creepshow is something of an odd cultural artifact as, despite having an incredibly famous writer and an incredibly famous director, the film is actually quite shit. Indeed, re-watching the film and scowling my way through its terrible gags and ineffectual scares, I was struck by the fact that this film’s fame owes less to the film itself than it does to its impeccable geek heritage. As I put it in my review:

Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand.  Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.

The nostalgia I speak of is nostalgia for a range of oddball horror comics published in the 1950s by a company called EC. As I explain in my review, before being wound down into a rump publishing little more than Mad Magazine, EC acquired a huge following by pioneering the combination of comedy and horror at a time when comics were being broken on the rack of public opinion for their supposed role in creating juvenile delinquents. Despite being something of a flash in the pan, the sensibility pioneered by EC was immensely influential on American babyboomers and traces of EC heritage can be found not only in the work of George A. Romero and Stephen King but also people like Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi and anyone from that generation who took it upon themselves to direct a horror/comedy. The problem is that, while the ‘boomers clearly loved their EC comics, they drank so deeply from the wellspring and returned to it so often that the idea explored by the EC comics themselves now seem incredibly dated and dull. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better because everyone who ever read an EC comic decided to borrow the idea and make a film about it.

At the time, Creepshow must have seemed like a great idea and given how many 1980s film critics must have read EC comics as children, I’m sure the sense of shared love and nostalgia was universal. However, while nostalgia is an incredibly potent force that excuses many great cultural ills, it doesn’t transfer between generations meaning that while EC comics might have meant a lot to ‘boomers, they don’t mean anything to people like me. In fact, I’m more like to be nostalgic for the work of Romero and King than I am for the work that inspired them. Stripped of its shield of nostalgic good will, Creepshow reveals itself as poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly made.

I got into this question when I reviewed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell back in 2009:

What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism.  The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages.  Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits.  A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers.  Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house.  I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsies except that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.

At which point, Patrick Hudson appeared in the comments and mentioned not only Creepshow, but also nostalgia for EC comics. At the time, I was unimpressed by the suggestion that nostalgia somehow made Sam Raimi’s antitziganism acceptable but since then, my position has hardened even further: Nostalgia does not travel between generations and any attempt to force the issue (as in the case of Olivier Assayas’ recent love letter to the 1960s) is likely to result in a film that makes its creator look either sentimental, simple-minded or politically reactionary.

REVIEW – I’m So Excited! (2013)

Im-So-Excited-2013FilmJuice have my review of Pedro Almodovar’s thoroughly underwhelming comedy I’m So Excited!

When I’m So Excited! was released earlier this year, I was sceptical. I was sceptical despite my enduring love for Almodovar’s Bad Education and despite the fact that Sight & Sound magazine made a massive fuss over it. I was sceptical because I thought (and continue to think) that this film is fundamentally flawed at a conceptual level. In fact, I don’t think that anyone could make a decent film out of this particular set of ideas.

Set predominantly on a flight from Spain to Mexico, the film follows the crew and first class passengers as they desperately try to keep their minds off the fact that their plane’s landing gear is stuck and they will soon be making an emergency landing. The cabin crew are an engaging bunch of booze and pill-chugging reprobates while the passengers are a bunch of wealthy people with secrets including a professional dominatrix, a virgin psychic who reads the future by groping men’s groins and an actor with an emotionally unstable girlfriend. Camp as general synod, the crew flirt outrageously, talk about their overly-complicated lovelives and drug the passengers in an effort to help them open up emotionally and sexually. There are many double entendres and a dance number. It’s not very funny. In fact… it’s more than a little bit embarrassing despite the predictably wonderful art direction and design.

I’m So Excited is beautifully designed and effortlessly directed but without any real ideas to explore or an appropriately funny script, the film drags terribly from one largely unfunny and unsubstantial set piece to the next. Even worse, Almodovar struggles to control the tone of his own film meaning that campy slapstick and raunchy dialogue unpredictably collapse into (admittedly well-realised) inserts about an actor getting back together with his ex-girlfriend when his current girlfriend is committed for attempting suicide. These wild changes of tone and focus not only rob the film of any sense of comedic momentum, they also draw attention to the weakness of the writing and the lack of care and attention that went into deciding what to keep and what to cut prior to release. Why bother including an insert about an actor’s love life when the results are neither funny nor related to anything else in the film? The most logical answer is that it amused the director to include it and that is the living definition of creative self-indulgence.

My initial scepticism about I’m So Excited! is derived from three different areas:

Firstly, if you make a comedy about a plane flight then you are inviting comparisons with Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Zucker’s Airplane! one of the most enduring and influential comedy films of the thirty five years. If your film is not at least as funny as Airplane! or Airplane 2 then chances are that your film will disappoint. Making a comedy set on a plane is as short-sighted and arrogant as writing a sitcom set in a Torquay hotel. Why invite that comparison?

Secondly, the publicity for this film emphasised both the campiness of the comedy and the fact that it featured a (not particularly funny or well executed) dance routine. This immediately put me in mind of Britain’s entry into the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. If the idea of camp and raunchy air cabin crew can’t sustain a 3-minute pop song, why would it support a 90-minute film?

Thirdly, I think the sexual politics of this type of comedy are completely out of step with the times. Back in the early 1970s, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft began production of a situation comedy with a very similar comedic aesthetic. Set in a department store and called Are You Being Served?, the sitcom was heavy on the double-entendres and featured a career-defining performance by John Inman as the magnificently camp Mr Humphyrs. The series’ most famous running joke involved Molly Sugden’s aging shop assistant Mrs Slocombe making frequent allusions to the state of her ‘pussy’. One of the reasons why Are You Being Served? seems out of date is that the series uses double-entendres as a way of ‘innocently’ alluding to taboo topics such as the sex-lives of gay men and the genitals of elderly shop assistants. However, as time has moved on and social mores have shifted, the idea of older women having sex lives is no longer taboo and so Molly Sugden complaining about having to thaw out her pussy now seems more like TMI than LOL. I would argue that something very similar has happened regarding the depiction of GLBT people in popular culture. Back in the 1970s, gay people were expected to be invisible and so a flamboyantly camp man making allusions to his sex life was so transgressive that people reacted to Mr Humphyrs as though they were in on some sort of elaborate joke at the BBC’s expense. However, forty years later and openly gay men are now fairly common in TV and film and so there’s no reason to react to anything they say as some sort of transgressive utterance that has been secreted past the men upstairs. As I ask in my review, what is so funny about a male pilot having sex with one of the male cabin crew? what is so funny about an ostensibly straight man exploring his own sexuality by sucking a cock? There is nothing inherently funny about the idea of two men having sex so why are we expected to laugh? Camp was a part of many gay lives for a very long time but that time has now passed… I could understand a nostalgic exploration of a time when gay men were obliged to hide in plain sight by camping it up but playing that campness for laughs now? in the 21st Century? Doesn’t work. The times they have-a-changed.