The Sleepy Skunk Reviews: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

 

awil

 

Well folks, Halloween is here. And since we’re among the sites who believe that topical content resorts to better traffic, we’re joining in the fun and offering you a fresk take on the 1981 John Landis classic An American Werewolf In London. I have seen the film more than once before but had not revisited it in a while. Then, I remembered how Edgar Wright considered it to be a major inspiration for his Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto trilogy and I wanted to see how it relates. From the opening scene involving unfriendly townfolks to the gratuitous amounts of desensitized violence, I could not only see the correlation but also how the film created a genre of its own in the 80’s: the light-hearted horror flick.

John Landis penned the first draft of the script at the tender age of 19, and from the very first scene, you can sense the energy and the excitement of a young up-and-comer trying to prove himself. The characters are hopping around on the roads of the Yorkshire moors of Northern England and they have conversations about a childhood female friend who has grown up into an attractive woman. They walk into a pub named The Slaughtered Lamb, where the patrons are about as unwelcoming as they can be. From that very scene, you get a sense that every part of the movie has been carefully planned to be entertaining and special. The characters are colorful and the setup is wonderfully crafted.

And then a copious amount of gore gloriously shows its muzzle. The lead character David manages to barely escape a viscious werewolf attack at the detriment of his best travelling pal Jack who gets mangled like a mix of berries in a blender. It’s the kind of buckets of red paint that will make you believe the human body might be 99% filled with blood. The skin is cut loose and pieces of it remain half attached. Though practical effects do look dated from the perspective of younger generations, everything you see in An American Werewolf in London is the finest display of make-up and prosthetics you’ll witness from that era of filmmaking.

Following the Spielberg rule established in Jaws, Landis understands the importance of not showing the werewolf too clearly on the screen in order to retain a sense of threat and only revealing its clearest angles towards the end of the movie. And then something wonderful happens – a mesh of genres within the horror realm. The victims of the werewolf – mainly one of the two lead characters Jack – reappear at random moments and provide key pieces of information regarding the transformation that the lead character is about to experience.

We jump from one scene to the next and the tone refuses to stay the same. One dream sequence involving Nazi monsters with machine guns is incredibly immature and unexpectedly silly. Another scene where a late night commuter starts to hear suspicious noises in the London underground is effectively suspenseful and brilliantly paced. While one would expect that such inconsistencies might disengage the audience, the complete opposite seems to happen. There is so much originality and cleverness presented on screen that the movie almost plays out like a series of vignettes on the recurrent theme of werewolves. Considering that more than one movie based on short stories appear on Landis’ filmography, perhaps we can assume he has a taste for that style of production.

I find it most fascinating that when movies are praised upon release for featuring groundbreaking special effects and cinematography, all the attention get focused on that and the general consensus is that the movie was mediocre but benefited from groundbreaking technical achievements. However, time goes by and allows us to look back and realize that in almost every case, these movies had much more to offer than that starting with an inspired script, tight character development and the resolve of an uber-confident director. Jurassic Park would be the quentessential example, but I also feel that An American Werewolf in London strongly qualifies in this case.

The editing is a bit choppy at times and you get a sense that it was put together in a hurry. Irrelevant, however, are the fine details of filmmaking polish when you enjoy such a juvenile piece of pop culture entertainment. Rick Baker’s makeup is so well-conceived and scary looking that its award wins lifted the movie from the obscure B-shelves and onto the Oscar spotlight. Regardless of its production values (positive or negative), An American Werewolf in London excels in keeping audiences engaged, surprised and astonished at every turn.

Fun movies all share one thing in common: they fail to have a single moment that doesn’t trigger some sort of emotional reaction. An American Werewolf in London is the textbook definition of a fun movie. There is no filler, no superflous character development, and no stretched out plot points. It’s a concentrated can of pure fun, and a prime example of how to create effective mainstream cinema.

– The Sleepy Skunk

Tales From The Marvel Universe: The Pressures of an ROI

 

Rocket-Raccoon

 

One thing remains certain in this world other than death or taxes: Marvel as a property breathes incredible financial success. Everyone in the world now knows who the Avengers are, demonstrated by being one of the highest grossing films of all time. Iron Man 3 was the first film to spin-off the events of the Avengers and was easily the largest box-office hit of the year both domestically and worldwide. Avengers 2: Age of Ultron has officially been announced and has everyone excited to see Joss Whedon repeat his monstrous success one more time. In the meantime, however, some strange happenings have been coming out of The Walt Disney Company with regards to the Marvel Universe. The kinds of behaviors that investors normally have when their tie is starting to slowly strangle them.

The weird feeling started pointing its nose three weeks before the release of Iron Man 3. Disney/Marvel decided to change the pieces on the chessboard and asked all major theatre chains to take a smaller percentage of movie ticket sales. The bad press started dripping some serious ink and the studio was characterized as overly aggressive and unreasonable in their business dealings with distributors. The chains decided to stand united in response (a little bit like The Avengers when they’re all standing around in a circle) and chose not to sell tickets for Iron Man 3 unless Disney got off their backs. The Mouse House did. Referring to Disney’s revenue demands, AMC’s Chief Executive Gerry Lopez told The Los Angeles Times: “The depth and the breadth of the ask puts us in a very, very uncomfortable situation (…) clearly they are under some kind of financial pressure.” RED FLAG #1: MARVEL IS BULLYING ALL MAJOR THEATRE CHAINS IN ORDER TO MAKE A QUICK BUCK.

Fast foward to the end of Summer 2013 where Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has clearly positioned itself as one of the most anticipated TV shows of the Fall. The show kicks in with a great pilot episode and seemingly promises to satisfy our Avengers cravings until 2015. However, only 4 episodes in, the show begins to show signs of weakness in terms of action and character development. Let’s look at a superhero TV show that’s done it right before in comparison: Smallville. Smallville followed a great format in the beginning of the series: a mysterious event occurs, Clark and Chloe play Sherlock to unravel the mystery, a big action filled climax, and finally what they learned from the episode. This is what made Smallville a great TV show – action mixed with good character development. However, it also worked because we actually cared about the fact that Clark was eventually set to become Superman.

When it comes to S.H.I.E.L.D., we don’t actually know who we’re supposed to be cheering for. Agent Coulson? Skye? The dude agent that never smiles? Marvel might forget that we don’t even know much about Coulson in the first place because he was merely a cameo in the other films. Though Clark Gregg does a great job playing Agent Coulson, our need to focus on him isn’t really defined. I’m sure if he died in the next episode (which he clearly can’t because of The Avengers), the show would still carry on and not have much impact. The show lacks an anchor, which is probably why viewers find it unsatisfying and have already started tuning off according to Nielsen ratings. Bottom line: It’s a bad show and since it wasn’t due to lack of resources or caring, it’s fair to assume that was due to a rush in production, script, and the overall creative process. But who keeps rushing them like that? The same folks that AMC’s Gerry Lopez was talking about? RED FLAG #2: MARVEL IS PUTTING OUT BRAND DAMAGING, LESSER QUALITY CONTENT IN ORDER TO MAKE A QUICK BUCK.

Next up: Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? Anyone? I consider myself a humble reader of mainstream comics, and yet all I know is that there is a racoon on the team and that Thanos has something to do with them. I can tell you about Spider-Man’s date of birth or all the characters that came and went through the revolving door at Avengers Mansion, but I honestly know zilch about the Guardians of the Galaxy. Who has decided to green-light that property when so many movies in recent years (cue in John Carter and Green Lantern) should have served as a warning sign?

According to IMDb, Chris Pratt plays Star Lord – an interplanetary policeman. I guess he might be considered the Green Lantern of the Marvel Universe. Zoe Saldana plays the daughter of Thanos, which could be a critical plot line of the movie (but again, what do I know about this movie?). And the two biggest names of the cast; Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, aren’t even physically in the movie – they are voice-acting for a CGI raccoon and “hyper-intelligent tree-like creature”, respectively. My guess is that they lacked the starpower to attract an audience, and neither Bradley Cooper nor Vin Diesel could turn down the publicity involved in attaching their names to Marvel just for a couple of headphone-wearing line delivery sessions. Same reason these sub-Pixar animated movies are always packed with big names. And if you aren’t shocked by the decision to make a GOTG movie, wait until Ant-Man shows up in 2015. That’s right, ANT-MAN is getting his own movie. Ant-Man. RED FLAG #3: MARVEL IS GREEN-LIGHTING B-GRADE LEVEL COMIC BOOK PROPERTIES IN ORDER TO MAKE A QUICK BUCK.

If you disagree with my piece, your defense mechanisms should have kicked in by now. Every major entertainment brand does that! Marvel was giving sub-level heroes their movie properties back in the nineties! Distributors should thank their lucky stars they had Iron Man 3 this Summer! Okay, okay. But I have one more red flag for you. It’s when licensing goes beserk… The official news that Disney… are you ready? are you sitting down? Okay. That official news that Disney Consumer Products will market Marvel-branded fruits and vegetables. Holy cabbage, Thor!!! RED FLAG #4: MARVEL IS WHORING THEIR LICENSING ONTO ANY CONSUMER PRODUCT AVAILABLE TO MANKIND IN ORDER TO MAKE A QUICK BUCK.

Up until April 2013, the rule of thumb for Disney/Marvel was always to carefully build their brand and universe around Iron Man and The Avengers. That universe alone has limitless storytelling possibilities and one movie per annum sounded like the perfect release platform to keep audiences engaged for decades. Decades, however, don’t give you the cash flow necessary to pay your interest rates back. Interest rates, however again, that you might have incurred by spending 7.4 BILLION to buy Pixar, 4 BILLION to buy Marvel and another 4 BILLION to buy Lucasfilm. That’s over 15 BILLION dollars so regardless of how low-interest Disney’s borrowing plan might be, even The Avengers won’t come to their rescue fast enough.

Speaking of thunder, Thor 2 is coming out next month. I, for one, couldn’t be less thrilled to see it simply for the fact that I feel Marvel has been in overkill mode. It’s like I’ve been eating my favorite dish of pasta every single night for a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love pasta, but not as much as I used to. As a huge Joss Whedon fan, I sincerely hope he has a plan to make Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in more cohesively with the incredible universe he was able to craft with The Avengers. I’m just afraid that all this piggybacking might prove so heavy that he won’t be able to lift them up; instead, they’re simply going to bring him down.

– The Silent Shark

The Curious Career of Robert Rodriguez

 

machete

 

This week-end marks the release of ‘Machete Kills‘, Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse sequel to a grindhouse movie based on a fake trailer that appeared during Grindhouse. It once again stars Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding ex-Federale mercenary with a knack for disemboweling the bad guys, and disempanty-ing the ladies. The film promises to give us more of what we’ve come to expect from Rodriguez: equal measures of violence, sex and wry humour, all carried out by a surprising array of actors who might seem to be slumming it, if only they didn’t seem to be having such a great time. After over 20 years in Hollywood, Rodriguez is still an outsider filmmaker who operates with a level of creative freedom virtually unthinkable within the confines of studio blockbuster filmmaking. By choosing creative control over the traditional standards of Hollywood success, Rodriguez has stood the test of time as a pioneer of do-it-yourself filmmaking.

Before digital cameras and YouTube made filmmaking success attainable to anyone with talent, an idea, and the will to see it through, there was El Mariachi. Rodriguez first burst on to the Hollywood radar in 1992 with his simple tale of a man, a guitar case, and lots of guns. The film was famously produced for the still-low price of $7,000 ($2,000 cheaper than what he had originally projected to spend). As discussed in his thoroughly entertaining memoir Rebel Without a Crew, Rodriguez raised the money, in part, by working as a human “lab rat” testing a cholesterol-reducing drug. The gig paid him $100 a day for 30 days. He was a one-man crew, acting not only as director, but also writer, camera operator, editor, visual effects supervisor, sound recorder – virtually the only job that he didn’t do on El Mariachi was act. Rodriguez’s original ambition was for the film to break into the Spanish-language direct-to-video market, but it was received so well at the Telluride, Toronto and Sundance film festivals that Columbia Pictures bought the film and spent close to $1 million on promotion and additional post-production work. In the end, Rodriguez’s $7,000 exercise in do-it-yourself filmmaking earned over $2 million and was seen by audiences around the world.

Following on the spurs of El Mariachi, Rodriguez made 1995’s Desperado. Although ostensibly a sequel to El Mariachi, Desperado is essentially a Hollywood-ized version of the same Tex-Mex Western motif with bigger battles and prettier actors. Desperado nevertheless showed that Rodriguez could transfer his aesthetic to a larger canvass – the film was literally 100 times more expensive than El Mariachi.

Rodriguez then went on to direct his first filmmaking collaboration with Quentin Tarantino (excluding Tarantino’s brief-but-memorable cameo in Desperado), 1996’s From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Rodriguez and Tarantino will forever be linked as indie filmmakers who emerged in 1992 with a similar taste for violence and irreverence. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, which Tarantino both wrote and co-starred in, is a perfect meld of what they each do best. Tarantino’s dialogue and sharp eye for character gave audiences their first glimpse of the easy confidence that would make George Clooney a movie star. Rodriguez restrains himself for the first half of the film, then goes balls-out crazy in the vampire bar-set second half, directing a hand-held frenzy of throat-eating, limb-ripping, and Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn makes you laugh, then it makes you throw up, then it makes you laugh at how much you just threw up. It’s one of my favourite movies of all time.

Following 1998’s modestly successful sci-fi horror outing The Faculty, Rodriguez shifted his focus and made 2001’s Spy Kids. While it seems hard to believe that the director of this scene could make a family film, Spy Kids really works. The film features Rodriguez regulars like Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo (playing “Uncle Machete”) and successfully captures the frenetic energy of his earlier work while playing to a broad family audience. The legacy of the film has been somewhat diminished by its 3 sequels, the most recent of which (2011’s Spy Kids: All The Time in the World) is perhaps most notable for giving us “Aroma-scope”. Even while making large scale, expensive-looking family films, the budget of the Spy Kids films has never exceeded $39 million, and Rodriguez continues to act as his own cinematographer, editor, composer, and special effects designer. Collectively, the films have earned more than $550 million at the global box office on a budget of $154 million.

After completing the first 3 Spy Kids films (and returning to the Mariachi franchise with 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico), Rodriguez stayed in the world of family films with 2005’s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D. The film was poorly received by critics and not very successful at the box office, but it remains an example of Rodriguez’s innovative, uniquely personal filmmaking style. Rodriguez’s name appears in the credits 14 times, including credits as director, producer, writer, visual effects supervisor, editor, director of photography, camera operator, and composer. The film’s story is credited to his son, Racer Rodriguez.

In 2005, Rodriguez completed his long-awaited adaptation of the cult comic book Sin City. Rodriguez collaborated closely with series creator Frank Miller on the project, and wanted Miller to receive a co-directing credit. The Directors Guild of America has rules that permit only one individual to receive a directorial credit, with certain exceptions. Ever the indie auteur at heart, Rodriguez quit the DGA in protest in order to enable Miller to receive a co-directing credit. He continues to direct films as a non-member to this day. This decision has had significant commercial consequences for Rodriguez. Major film studios, such as Disney and Paramount, are signatories to the DGA’s basic agreement, meaning that these studios can only hire directors who are Guild members. By remaining outside of the DGA, Rodriguez has essentially blacklisted himself from working for major studios and directing the properties that they own. At one time Rodriguez was in line to direct John Carter of Mars for Paramount, but he was forced to drop out of the project after relinquishing his Guild membership.

Rodriguez teamed up with Tarantino once again for 2007’s Grindhouse, one of the most innovative cinema going experiences of recent years. The film was conceived as a tribute to B-movie double features of the 1970s. His installment, Planet Terror, was about a zombie outbreak and features Rose McGowan with a prosthetic machine gun leg. Tarantino’s installment, Death Proof, gave us Kurt Russell’s best performance in years as a murderous stuntman. Grindhouse was something of a dismal failure at the box office, taking in about $25 million domestically on a reported budget of $53 million. The film was a genuine double feature, and it turns out that getting audiences to sit through 191 minutes of neo-exploitation cinema was a hard sell. Dimension Films attempted to salvage the project by releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof as separate films internationally. However, Grindhouse has left behind a surprising pop cultural legacy. Two of the once-fake trailers that preceded the film (Hobo With A Shotgun, Machete) have gone on to become real films themselves, with at least one more trailer possibly coming to life in the future. Machete Kills has the unique distinction of being the first sequel to a “fake film”.

“Uniqueness” is the quality that seems to define Rodriguez’s filmography more than anything else. On one hand, it’s fair to suggest that Rodriguez has been disappointingly stagnant in his ambitions. While Tarantino achieves higher and higher levels of critical and commercial success with each subsequent film, Rodriguez is still making movies about tits and guns . But they’re really fun! And more importantly, after 20 years, Rodriguez has never lost his indie credibility. He keeps his budgets down by solving problems with creativity rather than money. Need a location that you can’t afford? Create it with a green screen. Even when working with names like Mel Gibson and Lady Gaga, Rodriguez is still a do-it-yourselfer at heart, and serves as a godfather to the digital cinema revolution that has enabled an emerging generation of filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell and upload their work directly to an audience.

Rodriguez will probably never win an Oscar for Best Director, but he doesn’t have to – his legacy is already larger than that.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

The Sleepy Skunk reviews: CITIZEN KANE

 

Citizen-Kane-title3

 

The best film of all-time! A marvel above all cinematic achievements! The Eight Wonder of the World! Behold my young-lings as I take advantage of a bad case of early flu season and an overdose of Neo-Citran to revisit a classic that has been mentioned a thousand times more than it has been seen:

Citizen KANE!

I will admit that I never actually sat through this film in its entirety before. Countless clips have been featured over the years which makes me familiar about its look, but I never really took the time to get into it until now. More interestingly, however, is the fact that I never researched it nor did I indulge in all the praise that other reviews have thrown at it. This review does take into account that the film was made in 1941 and that Welles was only 26 years old at the time but aside from that, no external sources have affected my opinion. This is my honest assessment, fair and square.

Citizen Kane follows the life of a very interesting man who has the brains, the riches, the charm, and the assertiveness to lead a meaningful and consequential existence. He chooses to stand by his morals and becomes the editor of a small New York newspaper in order to cave into his sense of idealism. The only difference with him, however, is that he has so much money to his name that he holds the means to make his larger-than-life desires come to fruition in an instant. When he comes across a competing newspaper who gathers more credibility and success than his because they have all the best journalists, he instantly manages to buy them all off.

To anyone whose interests are not being served by Charles Foster Kane – namely those who prefer for the poor and the underprivileged to remain exactly where they are – the man represents an undeniable threat. Kane’s marriage grows cold and distant as he focuses his effort and attention on his striving New York paper. Him and his wife eventually lose their spark and he starts chasing after his youth by having an affair with a young singer. This new, secret relationship gives him renewed optimism and the required energy he needs to fight for his ideals. He throws himself into a race to become Governor and pulls all the stops which makes him climb in the polls.

Kane became the one politician who couldn’t be bought by special interests. The great man who actually had the talent and work ethic to inspire the masses and the zeal to make things right for the working man. More than just a political facade, the man was independent of all the things that makes politics such a corrupted place. He didn’t only spread his ideals but he also believed them and embodied them. How I wish we could have a politician like Kane out there in the real world – a man of integrity and principle who won’t let power change his views on what society truly needs.

But then, everything falls apart. On the eve of his sure-fire election victory, his opponent presents undeniable evidence of Kane’s infidelity and contacts his wife in order to plot a classic case of blackmailing: You either withdraw yourself from the race or tomorrow’s headline will paint you as a cheater and a liar. Driven by ego and emotions, Kane decides to take the wrong path (in a pivotal scene I re-watched twice to fully grasp). He proceeds with the election as his wife leaves him, gets defeated and goes on to marry his young singer who gave him a second lease on life and a tarnished reputation.

The difference in age, values, and interests becomes evident over time and his constant obsession with providing her with everything she wants cannot hide the undeniable fact that they share nothing in common. What he believed was a more meaningful connection for him turned out to be a selfish need that she could only satisfy for a defined period of time. They grow old and unhappy and she decides to leave him without looking back. His life is over, his ideals are burnt and shredded into pieces. He is now a mere shadow of the man he was supposed to become.

Citizen Kane carves the portrayal of a life betrayed by bad choices but still worthy of being examined because of good-hearted intentions and incredible potential. The performances and the exchanges are great in every scene and the pace is quite frenetic considering that this is a 1940’s motion picture. Every scene leads to the next with great logic and nothing ever drags on as we get to admire a man from his rise to his fall. And then, we also get to ponder about the mysterious meaning behind his last word:

Rose… bud.

In a press statement issued by Orson Welles on January 15, 1941 regarding his forthcoming motion picture entitled Citizen Kane, the man himself wrote: “Rosebud” is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.” Simply a case of nostalgia for Kane, who was longing for the days in his life where he was truly loved, not the ones where all the people who no longer needed anything from him decided to leave him behind.

There are some ambitious and fascinating shots that clearly must have inspired so many filmmakers in the decades that followed. One scene in the Thatcher Memorial Library showcases three enormous beams of light that create an astonishing reflection on the protagonists. Another has the camera panning around in the middle of a thunderstorm, making it go through a deceivingly larger-than-life El Rancho neon sign and then blurring right through a window. This is the type of footage that only a perfectionist can capture. This is what happens when directors no longer vow to achieve perfection in order to simply ‘wow’ audiences. They’re doing it to challenge themselves and are obsessed with making the contents of their reel feel exactly the same as what their imaginations cooked up in their mind.

The transitions of atmospheric sounds, fades and music are also top-notch and keep audiences so involved that even today, it can hold up with our ADD-driven level of retention. The characters are complicated and the dialogue is so rich and witty. The movie is about an inspiring man involving himself into a series of interesting opportunities and pursuing his ideals until his bitter end. There’s a Charles Foster Kane that everyone of us wish we could be – someone who has it all, chooses to do what he pleases, and puts all ambition and resources at the service of the greater good.

And for every aspiring filmmaker out there, there’s also an Orson Welles that everyone of them wish they could be. An artist at the height of his inspiration and in full creative control at such a young age that everything remains ahead of him as he joyfully savors every minute of his success.

– The Sleepy Skunk