Thursday, May 30, 2013

Culture Shock 05.30.13: 'The Burning' is a forgotten slasher gem

In a classic "Seinfeld" episode, "The Opposite," George Costanza, realizing his instincts are always wrong, decides to do the opposite of what they tell him. When his instincts say lie, he tells the truth. When his gut reaction is do nothing, he does something. The strategy works miracles.

Now apply it to slasher movies, where kids, campers and promiscuous teenagers have been doing the wrong thing for roughly 35 years. When your instinct says wander away from everyone for a skinny dip, don't. When your gut says make out with your boyfriend in the woods, don't. When you think you should go down to the basement alone, don't.

That would make for a slasher movie with a very low body count. Fortunately for us, kids in slasher movies always go with their guts, even if that means their guts end up on the floor, and especially when one of those kids is "George Costanza."

Long before he was George, Jason Alexander was Dave, one of the unlucky campers in the 1981 horror flick "The Burning," slickly promoted with a trailer in which the announcer gravely intones lines like, "If you're looking forward to midnight swims, don't."

Without an endless stream of sequels and remakes to keep its name alive, "The Burning" has fallen into obscurity. That's a shame because it's not only one of the best slasher movies to come out of the '80s, it has a pedigree that's pretty remarkable. It's the first film produced by the now powerhouse team of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, it features makeup effects by Tom Savini and a creepy electronic score by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and it's the first screen credit for not only the future George Costanza but also Fisher Stevens ("Short Circuit") and future Oscar winner Holly Hunter.

It's now been rescued from the vault by Shout! Factory, which has released "The Burning" in a DVD/Blu-ray combo "collector's edition" that looks great without bleaching away the film's lo-fi roots.

The story, which the Weinsteins co-wrote, draws from campfire tales counselors told to scare young New Yorkers at Hudson Valley summer camps in the 1960s and '70s. When a prank goes awry, Camp Blackfoot's creepy handyman, Cropsy (Lou David), is burned alive. He survives, barely, but returns as a horribly disfigured boogeyman to have his revenge.

It's not exactly a plot-heavy movie. Even "Friday the 13th" has it beat on that count. But it is character-heavy for a slasher flick, taking its time to let us care about some of these stock characters (the good girl, the bad girl, the jock, the dweeb) before they are gruesomely dispatched.

Unlike the "pure evil" Michael Myers but like the childlike Jason Voorhees, Cropsy flirts with being a sympathetic figure. Even if it's largely misdirected, his rage is born of mistreatment. He's the teased and humiliated outsider who is ignored, except as a subject of ridicule, and treated as something less than human even before his transformation into an unstoppable killer.

As far as the campers who accidentally set Cropsy on fire are concerned, he's a monster even before he comes back seeking vengeance. But when we see their contorted faces watching through the window as Cropsy awakes screaming, we wonder who the real monster is. When it comes to monsters, kids can be the cruelest of all.

But apart from drive-in sociology, "The Burning" delivers where it really counts.

Cropsy's garden-shears killing spree serves up several great kills, which are the main reason we're watching, and the rules of the slasher genre were still in flux in 1981, so some of the attacks still can surprise. They're not all variations on the kill scenes we've seen in the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" sequels.

So maybe there is an upside to being virtually forgotten: No one spends the next three decades ripping off your best tricks.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Culture Shock 05.23.13: This is a 'Star Trek' into disaster

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is like a greatest hits album of all your old favorites, only rerecorded by Muzak. It's turbolift music.

It's called "Star Trek," the characters have the same names as the "Star Trek" characters who appeared on TV in the 1960s, and the plot borrows liberally from where many "Star Treks" have gone before. But this is a "Star Trek" Gene Roddenberry would barely recognize.

Director J.J. Abrams — already jumped ship to the "Star Wars" franchise — has put his distinctive mark on the "Star Trek" universe. Well, I say "distinctive," but how distinctive is a generic summer action movie with nothing to set it apart from the competition except Abrams' bizarre obsession with lens flares?

I'm not sure who the intended audience is. From beginning to end, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a patchwork of allusions, in-jokes, and red herrings that depend on a working knowledge of the "Star Trek" mythos. Yet Abrams, his regular screenwriting collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and co-writer Damon Lindelof have so warped everything they've pilfered from Treks past that I can't imagine many longtime Trekkies (or Trekkers) being happy with the results.

And the movie's emotional high points are completely unearned. We may have known these characters for years, but as far as they're concerned, they just met.

Meanwhile, an unschooled viewer isn't likely to get much besides motion sickness.

When last we left the crew of the USS Enterprise, they had just been placed under the command of a smug rookie captain with almost no experience outside of the academy, because Starfleet will apparently hand over its newest ship to just about anyone. To its credit, "Star Trek Into Darkness" starts out addressing that issue, with Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) so flagrantly violating Starfleet protocols that he is relieved of command.

There is a fine line between Kirk as charming proto-"Mad Men" womanizer (as played by William Shatner) and Kirk as oversexed fratboy douchebag. Pine's Kirk crosses it like the Kobayashi Maru crosses the neutral zone. But even that is easy to take compared to the lovebird bickering between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). I wonder if Uhura will remember she's dating a Vulcan? I wonder if Spock will remember it's illogical to date a junior officer? Eh, guess not.

Of course, Kirk isn't out of the captain's chair long before a terrorist attack aimed at Starfleet's senior officers puts him back on the Enterprise bridge, with orders to hunt down and kill the terrorist, allegedly a rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).

It's hardly a spoiler to give away that Harrison is actually Khan in disguise, because apart from the name, this character is nothing like the one Ricardo Montalban portrayed in "Space Seed" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Cumber-Khan, as I call him, is some sort of ridiculous super-ninja with magic healing blood. His midi-chlorians must be off the scale. Why call the character Khan when he's nothing like Khan, except as a bone to fans who would rather just watch "Star Trek II" again?

Well, this is, in part, a Lindelof script, and as he showed us with "Prometheus" and "Lost," stories that make sense and characters who behave somewhat rationally are not his forte. Ask yourself why anyone in "Star Trek Into Darkness" does what he does, and you'll unravel the tapestry.

And as brilliant and fun to watch as Cumberbatch is in the BBC's "Sherlock," he's simply tiresome here, as are most of the performances, apart from Karl Urban's underused Dr. McCoy, who does recall DeForest Kelley's cantankerous but humanistic portrayal.

Abrams has said he was never a "Star Trek" fan, and it shows. His two films play like a reconstruction from a CliffsNotes synopsis. Well, whatever. He is "Star Wars" fans' problem now.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Culture Shock 05.16.13: Revenge is a dish served cold

"Revenge is a dish best served cold." — old Klingon proverb.

Sushi is also a dish best served cold, and "Sushi Girl" makes it a buffet of both.

The debut feature film by director, co-writer and co-producer Kern Saxton, "Sushi Girl" (DVD, Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix and Amazon) is probably the best Quentin Tarantino movie Quentin Tarantino didn't make. Admittedly, that's a low bar. QT has many imitators, some of whose films he even produced, but imitation has become the sincerest form of failure.

Saxton doesn't fail, but he doesn't entirely succeed either, delivering what basically is a remake of  Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" in all but name. It even opens with a classic Tarantino trope: another movie's title song, in this case Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever."

Six years after a diamond heist gone bad, Fish, the one thief who didn't get away, is unexpectedly released from prison — time off for good behavior — and whisked away to a gathering in his honor.

If Fish seems vaguely familiar, that's probably because he's portrayed by Noah Hathaway, who as a child played Boxey in the original "Battlestar Galactica" before becoming a teen heartthrob as Atreyu in 1984's "The Neverending Story."

The other four attendees are his former partners in crime. And the big boss, Duke, played by Tony Todd ("Candyman") has set out a feast to celebrate the prodigal son's return: sushi served on the nude body of a beautiful woman, paid not to react to anything she sees or hears.

This silent, unmoving "sushi girl" (Cortney Palm) is our window into their world.

So, after a little bit of reminiscing about old times, Fish's old crew has only one question for him: Where are the diamonds?

Best just to say that what follows involves a chair, duct tape and lots of everyday household implements both sharp and blunt. And while Duke and his gang try to get answers out of Fish, the film dribbles out a few answers of its own, in flashback.

An imposing 6-foot-5 with an even more imposing voice, Todd, who also served as executive producer, brings much-needed gravitas to the proceedings, while Hathaway plays on our sympathy by working those expressive brown eyes of his. Hathaway hasn't been in front of a camera in nearly 20 years, but he hasn't lost a step since he was a kid actor having to react to imaginary creatures just off-screen.

Rounding out the gang without making much of an impression are James Duval as the one member who has sympathy for Fish and Andy Mackenzie as the team's muscle.

That leaves only the resident psycho, Crow, played as a gay stereotype by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill has spent so long as a voice actor for cartoon characters it seems to be his default mode, and he plays Crow as a cross between his own Joker from "Batman: The Animated Series" and Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight," complete with a tangled mop of greasy blond hair.

You get the feeling Hamill is not acting in the same movie as everyone else. He'd be more at home in Gotham, perhaps discussing the merits of market fresh strawberries with Bane. And that's got to make anyone looking forward to Hamill possibly appearing as Luke in the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode VII" just a little bit nervous.

Tarantino veterans Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn and Danny Trejo show up for glorified cameos, as does the legendary Sonny Chiba as the sushi chef, who might as well be — and probably is meant to be  — Chiba's Hattori Hanzo character from QT's "Kill Bill."

Overall, "Sushi Girl" is a pleasant enough diversion, with a twist you'll probably see coming. But its main fault is that nothing lives up to the promise of the stylish opening titles.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Culture Shock 05.09.13: New director builds a better Iron Man

Like its two predecessors and "The Avengers" before it, "Iron Man 3" is as much a comedy as an action movie. As before, it's fueled by the affable, wisecracking presence of Robert Downey Jr., again making the now 50-year-old comic book character Tony Stark his own.

Don't believe me? Open the latest "Invincible Iron Man" comic book and you'll see the character now more closely resembles Downey than the Stark of old. The movies have become the real Marvel Universe, while the comics have become a kind of fan fiction, except the writers get paid.

Joining Downey this time is writer/director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon," "Monster Squad"), who has inherited the franchise from "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau, although Favreau still gets screen time as Stark's chauffeur/head of security Happy Hogan.

No stranger to the action-comedy formula, Black handles the alternating punches and punchlines so deftly you barely notice that it's all just a high-octane feint for his real agenda: a critique of the war on terror.

After the somewhat disappointing "Iron Man 2," which had to do too much heavy lifting to set up the Marvel movies that followed, "Iron Man 3" gets us back on track, with a more personal story that puts a new spin on Stark's "I am Iron Man" confession at the end of the first film.

Following the world-changing events of "The Avengers," the formerly confident Stark is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's finally in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he doesn't know how to protect her from the threats he knows are out there. So, he retreats to the security of his workshop and his armor.

He's only forced out of hiding when Happy is critically injured in an attack apparently staged by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the mysterious terrorist hinted at in the first film.

The Mandarin is behind a bombing campaign that has American intelligence agencies baffled. What they don't know is the apparent suicide bombers aren't detonating bombs, they are bombs — living bombs caused by an experiment gone wrong.

That experiment is extremis, a biotechnology created by Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who sought Tony's help with it — unsuccessfully — years before. Now extremis is in the hands of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), another scientist Tony brushed off back in his playboy days.

What extremis is supposed to do is regenerate lost limbs, making it a godsend for veterans who have returned from the war on terror missing arms and legs. What Killian wants it to do is create super soldiers. And when its recipients literally go off, well, that's where the Mandarin comes in.

Under all of this is the subtext: an indictment both of the war on terror, as being largely a fiction exploited by military contractors, and the government's treatment of injured veterans. It's a coincidence that "Iron Man 3" opens as the Veterans Administration's case backlog reaches critical mass.

Between the Mandarin's living bombs and Stark's PTSD, this is a movie about wounded warriors.

Also back from "Iron Man 2" is Don Cheadle as Tony's best friend and government liaison Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, whose Stark-designed War Machine armor has been given a red, white and blue makeover and rebranded the Iron Patriot.

For Tony and Rhodey it's a joke. War Machine is a much cooler name. But as far as the subtext is concerned, it's a more honest name. The "war machine" is what everyone in "Iron Man 3" has been put through.

The Tony Stark we all know and love is still here, and "Iron Man 3" is up there with "Iron Man" and Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" as the most entertaining Marvel films. But Black has done something surprising. He's given the Marvel movie universe depth. Now it's Whedon's turn to answer.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, RIP

Ray Harryhausen's final film was 1981's Clash of the Titans. While not as highly regarded as Harryhausen's earlier films, especially his 1963 masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts, the Medusa set piece was arguably the high point of Harryhausen's storied career, and a fitting capstone.

The year before, George Lucas, who revolutionized movie special effects with Star Wars in 1977, paid the ultimate tribute to Harryhausen, using the master's stop-motion techniques for the thrilling Battle of Hoth sequence in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

From It Came from Beneath the Sea to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and its sequels) to The Valley of Gwangi, Harryhausen has thrilled generations of moviegovers and fueled the imaginations of generations of filmmakers.

Harryhausen died today in London. He was 92.

At the end of Clash of the Titans, Zeus, played by Laurence Olivier, delivers an epilogue that seems to serve equally as the epilogue of Harryhausen's career.

Like the stars, Harryhausen's inspiration will never fade. Never. It will burn 'til the end of time.

The epic skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts: