Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Question for the Week of Nov 5 - 11: Why So Serious?

What are you going on about with all this critique and criticism?
How can I explain... why I seem like a hardass? Instead of explaining all my standards, which I've done slowly thru my Movie Aspects and R3V13W3R$ tags, I'll use an example. 

And one example we've all seen major movies use, misuse, overuse, and abuse: the American film/tv industry's obsession with "dark" or "edgy" characters, scenes, and/or material. It's so over-played, I figure any reader has a similar moment in mind already...

9MM has a guy enter the bdsm/fringe film element, hunting down the source of a snuff film; Tron: Legacy: The Suckening had a spoiled 21 year-old trust fund baby describe the last 30 years with absolute bored cyncism; in Gladiator, the lead's wife and babes are killed; any season of The Sopranos after the 1st.

The basic idea: character/plot elements should be more compelling when (off the top of my head) a suburban grandma kills a nice dog because she's jealous of its owner. In many recent pix, this sort of scene just comes out of the blue, with not enough characterizing setup beforehand or thematic purpose displayed afterwards. It only happens to sting the audience.

If you read my review of Peter Jackson's debut film, Bad Taste, you know I revere and adore a sick indie movie that entwines its smartly-executed alien invasion storyline around scenes that are flat-out disgusting. My review made verbal love to that picture, and the only non-spoiler scene I can find to try to explain how it's like a hysterical but icky gross-out contest from your best friend is a clip from Jackson's 3rd film (which I will review), Brain Dead. But please, don't have kids nearby when you watch this, ok? 


Right? Can you tell that it's not like I'm only for brainy, arthouse movies or historical biopics? That I can want to hug a film that pulls harsh, messed-up s--t at the drop of a dime? It's like a great Halloween story, or... a prank from a parent or sibling! It's not cheap, you can't dismiss it, and it's effective!

The important thing is that all the splatter was appropriate to BD (in the US, called Dead Alive), and that it also had good dialogue, camerawork, characters, pace, and tone. And, honestly, if a director gets to make a film without massive studio interference, there isn't much excuse - it's the basic job of a movie to have those things. That's my big, fancy standard that I write about all the time.

I'll never think it's not weird to have people who aren't film-makers talk like they're superior to people that are film-making professionals. And yet an experienced audience member can often tell when the job's been done right. It then boils down to the balance between two things - material that actively bothered a person, and material that they actively liked.

So when I see a movie that's got graphic elements - like sex assault or, well (hahaha), that clip I just showed you - it's just a matter of whether I trust the movie and the director to be including it in a worthwhile and/or appropriate way. And as with old Peter Jackson works, these elements can be used for scares and laughs, sometimes at the same time; I call the style "Demented," and it's fun.

Let's take a look at a clip from his second movie, which I also love and also will review: 

In some cases, these elements are used to create tension and/or humor, or (less often) to say something about the roles - or about what changes in them over the course of the film's events. 28 Days Later, Apocalypse Now, and The Deerhunter tell stories about people becoming a bit dark and on the edge, but they're never trashy.

My guide is that, in a quality film, the "dark" stuff deals with the film's thesis - or, lacking a thesis, its decently-developed themes. For many movies, some idiot believes that harsh stuff can be included and it instantly makes the picture compelling or deep. So often, this effort fails.

It's those professionals that inspired me to be a tough judge. Sex assault, nihilistic cynicism, women getting beaten, heroin/crank addiction, child molestation - these are the typical ways some hack says, "look at how dark and mature we are." They're tossed into pictures so often as to lose shock or impact... And that's a fitting result, as that's the only reason they were added in the first place.

Try Mel Gibson in Payback. Or in almost any film really, but Payback is perfect for this - it was a fun movie; Get Shorty meets the original Get Carter! I tolerated the earliest attempt at extreme grit, but the last one was just too much. The opener: Mel's character's wife betrays him during a robbery and leaves him to bleed to death. Of course, she's also cheating on him. When he finds her again, she's a total heroin addict. He gives her a harsh-ass-love detox. She OD's anyway, from a hidden stash in the closet.

I accepted this plot because it gets the story going, and... and I didn't want to be a hardass. But there's a reason Payback has a great big asterisk next to its director's name - a need for more "edge." Brian Helgeland didn't want to add a later scene Mel devised - where his part is tortured for information by having his toes removed one by one with a chisel

It was tense, sure, but the director thought it was too much. And it is. The guy got beat up enough already.

Mel wanted it, tho, and he had a lot of power. His scenes were filmed, over the director's protest. Despite grueling injuries, both mental and physical, Mel needed more hurting. Then again, Gibson made a movie about Jesus Christ in which the New Testament's message is, apparently, "this great guy was beat to s--t, helplessly; he took it like a hero." 

This is not the most inspirational idea to take from the New Testament...

Another example: in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, we learn that Freddy "took" the neighborhood kids and killed them. Nothing's elaborated, but those poor fictitious tots were dead. Apparently, Wes Craven did want to make Freddy a pedophile, but there were many high-profile cases at the time, so it seemed exploitative of real-life tragedy. It was left off as mere kid-murder.

This was a tasteful choice. But my imagination always filled in parts of his story, so, by the 3rd time I saw Nightmare, I guessed Freddy probably sex-assaulted his victims, too. After the murder part, it didn't make him any worse if he did or didn't; it worked fine. Start at the 1:53 mark for the best explanation you get:

Yet in the awful 2010 remake, they actually come out and develop a whole subplot about Freddy molesting the children - because I guess in the 21st Century, it's not harsh enough to be a serial killer who just, y'know, murders kids. Vengeful dream spirits that look burned to all hell and are furious aren't edgy or interesting enough. From the Wiki page:
The decision to apply that characteristic was based in part on the idea that there would not be much of a story to tell if he simply killed children for no apparent reason. It would be easy for the teenage characters to figure out, whereas it is easier to hide the idea of children being molested and force the teen characters to seek out the truth of what happened.
Yeah, who wants to watch a dream monster kill teens who don't know if he's real, or why he's attacking them, then realize both and try to survive?
Oh wait: everyone who loved the original, which is a lot of people. Including me - I haven't reviewed it because I'm afraid I won't do it justice...

Instead, the simplicity of the original is replaced by a child-molestation discovery backstory. The teens in the reboot find out that Freddy used to do that. Then they find out Freddy did it to them, too, and they forgot - with her own Mom revealing that Nancy was Freddy's "favorite!" (whose mom passes that on?!) And it sounds like this plot took up 20 to 30 minutes of the movie. There is no "WTF" loud enough for my exasperation...

Good heaven, over just the last few years, Hollywood has remade Last House on the Left (2009), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), and Straw Dogs (2011). All three were famous for their rape scenes, as well as their violence. Why would you remake those movies when each was made for a specific purpose? And of them all, only I Spit was considered a shameless exploitation film - the rest were just... actual movies that were difficult viewing.

Yes, part of the answer is Remake-itis, Hollywood's obsession over anything that was popular in the past - but only as a way to "ensure" higher profits. But something I see in all this is the modern need to push people's buttons with no real goal, and to do it as strongly as possible. It's not even like button-pushing in itself is a crime, just that it's a cheap and manipulative method - when it has no other thematic purpose.

Like nudity in films, you shouldn't use these elements unless they have appropriate context.

And these days, it's so common and so misused! It's like a world in which every dessert is too sweet, every meal too large to finish, and one sip of any drink is an instant trip to being completely blitzed. I could just ignore all this, I suppose, but... No, I can't. 

This sort of approach - the interference of a flawed business model on the art of crafting a good story - lowers the standards of audiences. Remember, a lot of B-movies used to look like B-movies, and you could judge them accordingly. Now, studio-backed films have crisp footage that's shot well, but they're bankrupt and rotten, right to the core. I worry for the general direction of the movie industry, and one of the many things that annoys me here is the laziness of this approach. Film is a business, but it's also an art. And in no case should the audience be the loser...

So, I have my little rants about things like Sequel-itis and Remake-itis and other flaws that I can't help but ignore. I hope that my voice can give people food for thought, or motivate people to demand better, or encourage someone out there to realize that these problems could be so easily avoided...

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