SCARY MOVIE: a post-modern horror spoof without any post-modern wit (2000 in Film #26)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 7th, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie

All through watching Scary Movie, a film I missed twenty years ago the first time around, I kept thinking as I sat, largely stone-faced and more than a bit repulsed… would 18 year old Tony have found this funny?

The answer is, honestly, yes. Probably. 18 year old Tony found Road Trip, which we discussed earlier this summer, very funny at the time. It certainly isn’t as nasty as Scary Movie in its frat-boy comedy but it’s just as base, obvious and cheap. Both of these films are aimed, squarely, at youthful or teenage audiences who are rewarded by cheap laughs. However, Scary Movie comes from a different stable. Road Trip is an extension of the post-modern revival of the teen sex comedy. Keenen Ivory Wayans’ spoof harkens back to the Zucker Brothers or Mel Brooks brand of cinematic spoof, in this case directly lampooning the modern horror genre, particularly the post-modern horror genre made up of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, with a few other examples sprinkled in.

In fact, Miramax—the production company behind Scary Movie—were already producing a Scream spoof when the film was written, and WGA arbitration gives the writers of that other script credit here given the ideas were undoubtedly fused together to make what would become Scary Movie. The targets are primarily recent examples of the horror movie inversion, the meta-textual examination of horror tropes, characters and narratives which earlier this year remained still in evidence with Scream 3, which was derided (perhaps unfairly) for taking the concept to the max and making films within films, examining Hollywood within that spectrum. It was perhaps both too soon for a spoof like Scary Movie and exactly the right time, given the sizeable box office take that would lead, over the next fifteen years, to four sequels.

Here’s the thing, though. Scary Movie is terrible. Not just terrible, but *horrible*, and considering it so desperately wants to ape Airplane or Hot Shots etc… it is, despite being younger than those films, infinitely already much more dated.

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Book Review: THE SILVER WIND (Nina Allan)

Nina Allan prefaces this re-issue of her 2011 science-fiction novel, The Silver Wind, with thoughts about material she has inserted back into the book which didn’t seem to fit the first time around, and this nicely queues you up for the kind of treat her novel turns out to be. The Silver Wind is discordant, tricky, eerie and almost entirely non-linear, all in the right ways.

Even giving a broad description of Allan’s fairly short, not much longer than a novella work, is a slippery proposition. Ostensibly the story revolves around brother and sister Martin and Dora Newland, who find themselves embroiled in the mystery of a man named Owen Andrews, a watchmaker who has found a way to control the flow of time. To say anymore feels churlish and unfair to the sweep of Allan’s book which is unusually structured in order to pay off the inter-connectivity of what are, effectively, short stories tethered together by an ever-developing thread concerning time travel.

We might as well get that one out of the way given the novel is science-fiction. Time travel is a factor.

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GEMINI MAN: A 90’s sci-fi action thriller that fell through a time vortex

Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

Parabellum is not an ending. That’s the first point to make about the third John Wick movie. Rather than a conclusion, this is the next part in what is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s most anticipated action franchise.

This feels important to state because it goes some way of approaching Chapter 3 of what most people assumed would be the capper on one of the most fine-tuned and striking Hollywood action movie trilogies of recent years. John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 threw some striking components into a cinematic blender – high-concept, hyper-real Hong Kong and Korean kung-fu/action, post-Jason Bourne close quarter fight stylistics, the dark glamour of James Bond and even the comic-book superheroism of The Matrix and brewed them up with a Neo-noir, even Neo-Western visual spectacle. Chad Stalhelski’s franchise manages to do what Gareth Evans’ The Raid films never quite succeeded in doing; taking a pulp action movie concept, filled with influences from the last twenty-five years, and turn it mainstream. Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin no doubt helped – a familiar, likeable household name giving the one-two punch to the chest and reviving his career in the process.

The first John Wick film skews more toward Americana than the subsequent movies; while the chief villains may be Russian, they have a sleaziness about them which only allows Stahelski to hint at the deeper mythology lurking beneath the world Wick inhabits, and while it certainly lays necessary foundations for Chapter 2 and establishes the character successfully, it is only Chapter 2 when Stahelski turns John Wick into a truly iconic 21st century action anti-hero. Festooned with stunning visuals and exemplary action choreography which feels more like a violent ballet than a shoot-em-up, Chapter 2 expands the scale and brings death, throwing obstacle after obstacle in Wick’s way before leaving a tantalising cliffhanger on the bubble which suggested Chapter 3, subtitled Parabellum, would be an intense, thrilling experience.

While that *is* the case, John Wick: Chapter 3 is also somewhat less revelatory, and an emptier experience than the film that preceded it.

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ALIAS – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12 – Review)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Ready Player God: Technology, Spirituality & Nostalgia in Modern Fiction

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop-culture busting novel Ready Player One has a more than overt reference to ‘God in the Machine’, a conceptual fusion of spirituality with near-future advancements in technology which suggests our models of worship are changing and evolving alongside how we interact with entertainment, media and the wider online world.

That phrase sounds a little similar to ‘God From the Machine’, better known as deus ex machina in fiction in the original Latin, which has emerged as a symbolic description over the years in narrative terms whereby the resolution of a plot comes at the hand of a character or object, equivalent in relative terms to a God, which quickly and unexpectedly solves the insoluble problem faced by the protagonists.

This doesn’t equate directly to Ready Player One, because the deus ex machina is coded into the very DNA of the entire concept behind that fictional world; James Halliday, the programmer and creator of the OASIS, developed a world he wanted to give back to the people once they found him, his soul essentially, deep inside the hidden corners of the machine.

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Black Mirror Season 4 – A Unified Theory

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

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The Last Jedi: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

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