Category Archives: UNDERRATED THINGS

Triangle (2009)

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There’s a triangle, right there.

This isn’t about the shape though, or indeed the legendary 80s nautical soap, but rather the 2009 film written and directed by Christopher Smith and starring Melissa George.

Oddly enough, the biggest problem with this (at least if, as I did, you watched it in the comfort of your own home), is the box the DVD comes in (at least in the UK).  It’s not that it’s badly designed or made or anything (it even has one of those cardboard sleeves with a 3D hologram thingy on it, the sort that makes you feel faintly nauseous whenever you look at it); but rather what’s written on it.  Specifically, there are quotes from reviews that contain words like “head-spinning” and “twist”, and, crucially, on the back there’s a list of the special features, which, we learn, include various storyboards.  The ‘crucial’ part is that the packaging lists what these sequences are called.

This becomes important two-and-a-half minutes into the film.  At this point there’s a moment with a doorbell which sets off a light bulb above the head of anyone that’s seen Lost Highway.  “Aha!” you think, “I know broadly how this is going to be structured!”  If you’re me, you write this thought down, so you can check you haven’t been cheating later on.  (Yes, I know.)  After you’ve done this, you remember the list of scene titles for which you can peruse the storyboards later, and, after another minute or so, you pause the DVD and write down in some detail what you think is going to happen.  (Yes, I know, again.)

Twenty-five minutes in there’s a vaguely Shining-esque moment, which will have you reaching for your pen and drawing ticks all over the notes you made earlier (Yes, I know, again, again, &c.) and, when the credits roll after the regulation hour and half [1] you’ll note that everything you wrote down was quite right.

However.

I don’t want to this to sound like a “do you see how clever I am?” exercise (bit bloody late now!  Jesus. – Ed) because I actually really rather enjoyed this, and I have endless admiration for filmmakers like Christopher Smith who create and get lower budget stuff like Triangle actually made and into cinemas.  I don’t mean to suggest for a moment, either, that Smith was cribbing from Lynch or Kubrick, beyond anything any filmmaker would.

The short (ish) point is that, as a reasonably film-literate person who reads the film magazines and reviews etc, and, having thought I’d find this interesting (and realised that I would, for location and parenthood reasons, be very unlikely to see this “at the time” on the big screen) therefore carefully avoided spoilers for months and months, it was slightly disappointing to have the film ‘spoilt’ (as it were) by the packaging on the DVD I’d finally shelled out hard-earned for (and which, essentially, with the aid of film-memory related light bulbs, enabled me to map out most of it within five minutes…)

That said, there were plenty of minor moments that I hadn’t written down, and I’d still very much recommend it.  I’m still having (genuinely, and yes, yet again, I know) fun drawing a chart of exactly what I think the time-line(s) are, which is the reason I haven’t linked to the spoiler-filled wikipedia page, as I haven’t yet finished deciding to what extent I agree with it yet…

So: nice one, despite the efforts of the packaging designers, and I fully realise how colossaly wanky and unforgivably unnaceptable I sound here…

[1]  Incidentally, hooray for this being the right length for the story rather than several days too long.  Increasingly, as I get older and grumpier, I find this sort of thing is not trivial)

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Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005)

It’s going to be hard, perhaps, to claim that this, from 2004:

or this, from 2005:

are underrated things.  And yet….

Today’s challenge: write a thousand or so words on how the multiple Razzie-winning 2004 Catwoman film isn’t actually that bad, remembering that any gags about how the end titles include a credit for “Whip Coach” are outlawed…

Not really. But, we might wonder, why is it that, when, in these times when superhero films bestride the world like vast money-making machines, so few are about female heroes, and those that are (from Supergirl onwards) tend to be rather derided.

The prime example, of course, is the aforementioned Halle Berry-starring Catwoman, directed by the absurdly appellated Pitof, to which, I guess, the only acceptable response is, “Pit of what?” (I must admit, I initially thought his name was “Pitou”, which would have been much better, as it leads to a “Bless you!” joke.)

Anyway. Interzone’s famous film critic Nick Lowe once suggested that, in films with more than one (or one team of) credited writer(s), it’s fun (bearing in mind the useful rule of thumb that the number of credited writers is often only the cube root of the number actually involved) to try and spot the bones of previous drafts peeping through the carcass of what eventually makes it to screen.

Oddly enough, though, the moment in Catwoman that most clearly gives a whiff of the film that might have been is the opening titles. A montage of cats and women through history, starting in Egyptian times with Mau cats and the goddess Bast, and moving through time to witches, and thence right through to modern suggestions of the comic-book Catwoman character, suggest a suitably epic, rich, and mythic background, and genuinely make one look forward to what might follow…

Alas. As is usual with superhero films, there then follows an interminable and soul-destroying origin/background story (though Catwoman is no worse than any other superhero film in this regard, it’s 20 minutes before Patience “dies” and becomes Catwoman, and the traditional “But – what does any of this have to do with me?” line doesn’t occur until, so help me, nearly 50 minutes have passed.) What’s wrong, though, is not the slowness, which seems to be de rigueur for initial films in superhero franchises, but the tone: the backstory here has to do with the fact that an evil corporation is planning to release an anti-aging beauty cream that is toxic. Now, this might be okay in something like Erin Brockovich; but having tantalized the audience with the prospect of a suitably mythic and epic story, and that the heroine’s adversaries will similarly turn out to be epic, and mythic, and interesting, and battle with her for the future of the world, the villains of the piece actually turn out to be business people preying on the propensity of idiotic women to purchase expensive creams that will allegedly make them appear younger. It’s hard to express how dull and ugly such a story is, and the excuse that it ties in with the film being about “accepting who you are” and “female empowerment” won’t wash either: at one point a policeman, asked whether his wife would crawl out onto a ledge far above the street to rescue a cat, says: “Only if the cat was carrying a pizza.” I don’t want to come over all PC and moralistic here, but leaving aside any questions of whether or not this is funny (it isn’t), it’s so tonally out of place with any guess as to what the film is trying to be, that it’s genuinely hard to guess why no-one thought to say, “Actually, hang on a minute…”

It’s a shame. The CGI Catwoman is pretty good, as these things go (certainly no worse that the CGI Spiderman or anything in the Matrix films [aside for another post, if I can ever bring myself to watch them again: The Matrix films are rubbish of the highest order, and the most over-rated things ever. Fact!]) Too, Halle Berry is as good as anyone could be with this and could have been the definitive Catwoman with better material; and Sharon Stone would have been a great supervillain if the script had written her character as such, as opposed to a colossally uninteresting businesswoman. (There is, though, an enjoyable moment when Stone says to Halle Berry, “Take my phone,” and Berry picks it up and stuffs it down the front of her trousers. Captain Subtext hasn’t been so busy since Xena: Warrior Princess finished.)

Ultimately, though, you have to say the target has been missed if the most memorable moment (as is the case here) is a scene in which Catwoman escapes from jail by squeezing herself through the bars of her cell in a cat-like manner, and, purely because of the way the scene is edited, at the crucial moment the viewer thinks, “Alas! She’s not going to make it as her bottom won’t fit through…”

On the converse side of the bullpen, 2005’s Elektra, directed by the much more sensibly named Rob Bowman, and a spin-off from the vastly underrated Daredevil, rather than tantalize the audience with what might have been, competently does (to coin a cliché, and while by no means equaling Frank Millar’s comics) exactly what it says on the tin…

Starring the also more or less perfectly cast Jennifer Garner (and ER’s latest Dr Sex Goran Visnjic) there is, as we’d expect by now, a fair amount of tedious background to be got in, but, compared with the first half-hour of Catwoman, this is woven in a lot less obtrusively (let us pass over, for now, any possible similarities between this film’s “The Treasure” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Key”), and the bad guys (though they ultimately end up being dispatched in a somewhat deux ex machina fashion) are at least suitably mythic…

Equally, the otherworldly and odd way Elektra has of moving is rather better rendered than the similar effect in Catwoman: and this is not merely a matter of saying “boo!” to the audience (witness the way that Batman scribe David Goyer’s film The Unborn does this without ever actually being particularly marvellous.)

Ultimately though, both films end up being, a trifle yawningly, about “finding yourself” and thus (?) saying goodbye to your current potential boyfriend. Argh. Both creations deserve better…

Screamers (1995)

Written by: Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores
Directed by: Christian Duguay

A second Underrated Thing, here, following on from Blair Witch 2. Seeing as 1995 was 16 years ago, and this (“Third Revision”) version of the screenplay, credited to legendary sf screenwriter O’Bannon alone, from the days when the project was still called CLAW1

is dated “October 1981”, and, seeing further, that the Philip K. Dick short-story, Second Variety, upon which both of these are based, first appeared nearly sixty years ago in 1953, I don’t think we need worry too much about warning that COLOSSAL SPOILERS will ensue.

That said, I do think all these version of the story (particularly Dick’s original) are Very Good Things, and the film version we finally got with Screamers remains, despite the fact that its long, many-handed gestation period partially (though by no means completely) weakened the ending, my favourite of the billions2 of Dick screen adaptations. Well worth going and reading/watching any or all of these first, in other words.

Anyhoo. The plot involves a war between The UN and the Soviet Union (“Second Variety”) The UN and the New Ecomomic Group (CLAW), or The Alliance and the New Economic Block (Screamers), and the questions of who is human or who only appears as human3, encountered by Joe Hendriksson (the legendary Peter Weller — the characeter is named “Hendricks” in Second Variety and CLAW), as he embarks on a doomed peace mission.

The self-replicating, evolving CLAW/Screamer robots, you see, have learned how to imitate humans, and evade the jamming devices the UN/Alliance soldiers who initially deployed them use to protect themselves. Several varieties of these are discovered, from the basic churning, flying buzzsaws, to cyborgs disguised as a lost child carrying a teddy bear (the genuinely creepy Davids), to wounded soldiers crying for help; and their type, or model number, is discovered from chips retrieved from destroyed models…But what is the second variety?

In Dick’s original story, the first development from the psychotic flymo parts (the wounded soldier) is the First Variety, the Davids are the Third, and the supposed Second Variety (the soldier Klaus) turns out to be the Fourth; the Second turning out to be the story’s female charactor, Tasso. At the tale’s end, the doomed Hendricks, having sent Tasso (whom he believed to be human) away on a single-seat evacuation rocket, reflects that at least Tasso’s previous actions had showed that the CLAWS were developing the technology to destroy each other, and not just humans.

Although O’Bannon’s CLAW script heeds to this numbering, the ending involves Hendricks escaping away from various Tasso robots; but then the script ends with a final scene of an ageless CLAW version of himself piloting ships full of Tassos to the stars…

This is where Screamers nearly blows it. It fudges the numbers issue a bit, and, though Tasso (by now, rather wetly, renamed “Jessica”), still turns out to be a CLAW, the first (?) version of her that Hendricksson meets, and who has fallen in love with him, turns out to have a “heart” (*vomits*), and fights off a version of herself to enable Hendricksson to escape on the evac-rocket4. Right at the death though, the film is saved5 by a teddy bear, of the sort carried by the Davids, and which is lying in the evacuation rocket, starting, in a brilliantly Dickian fashion, to twitch…

So, Screamers is a film that covers Dick’s grand theme, in a relatively low-budget, not-scarred by fatuous CGI way that feels more like Dick’s writing than things like Total Recall (still great fun, given O’Bannon’s input and P. Verhoeven’s usual barking turned-up-to-11 performance as director) or Blade Runner (a couple of genuinely excellent moments, but still, I can’t help but find, personally, not something I ever want to watch again) managed.

A genuinely UNDERRATED THING

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1 Cybernetic Lurking Antipersonnel Weapon.

2 Slight exaggeration.

3 “My grand theme” — Philip K. Dick

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4 This sort of robots with a heart of gold bollockosity still occurs, sometimes, even here in the 21st Century. See, e.g. Victory of the Daleks, in, to be fair, the excellent Matt Smith’s mostly splendidly enjoyable first series of Doctor Who.


5
Rather like the superb Bernard Cribbens turned up at the end to save the last couple of finales of the previous Tennant of the Tardis’s tenure on Doctor Who…

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Written by: Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
Directed by: Joe Berlinger

The first in an occasional series on UNDERRATED THINGS.

In the April 2011 issue of bestselling UK film magazine Empire, there is a review of Paranormal Activity 2, the DVD of that sequel being a new release of the time. It begins in thus wise:

The 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project (Book of Shadows) still stands as a lesson in how not to turn your surprise-hit, no-budget found-footage horror into a megabucks franchise: by ditching the format entirely and attempting straight scares. It was, and is, a failure. [p142, Issue 262.]

Now, this is a view (and the most common one I’ve encountered over the past decade, let’s be fair), and I only differ in as much as I think the opposite to pretty much everthing in those two sentences.1

The original Blair Witch Project, which appeared just a year before this sequel, was, let’s be honest, a not especially scary film about three tiresome, not to say incompetent and useless hikers, redeemed, just at the death2, by a memorable “stay-with-you” final scene. By far the most interesting thing about it was the guerilla internet marketing and the way that combined with the (less original) faux-documentary ‘found footage’ set up of the film itself.

In this regard, hiring noted documentarian Joe Berlinger to direct the second film, and having him make a sequel, not to the first film itself, but rather to the effect the film had (both on Burkittsville and audience) and the whole idea of the blurring of fact of fiction in the digital age, and the way that can be manipulated, and the implications for the words “truth” and “documentary” that this entails, seems to me to be an original and splendid move rather than a failure.

Neither does Berlinger disappoint. His intention3 was to make a film that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and meditates on the distiction between fiction and documentary (or “documentary”, if you will). It’s not perfect — as Berlinger notes in his commentary, the studio-demanded gore inserts do make the line between ‘are these kids the perpetrators of an atrocity or the victims of evil?” less blurred than would be ideal (and make planted lines like Jeff’s about how video never lies although film does more (perhaps) of a giveaway than originally intended): although I think the intercutting of the final interrogations throughout the film, rather than having them all together at the end is less harmful than Berlinger thinks.

Partly this is because the cast is uniformly splendid, and partly because there are still enough curveballs (particularly re. the consistency of the filmed portions regarding the editing of the videotapes of the missing hours; the real state of the truck; the appearance of the police files etc. etc.) to ensure the true state of affairs does remain genuinely ambiguous; and partly because this is just a better film than the first Blair Witch.

Let’s start with the “straight scares”. These are much better done, and much more scary in this film than the first one (e.g. the girl on the bridge, the heard sounds from dreams, the extent and nature of what, if anything, is missing from the protagonist’s memories etc.) and (which is always a consideration in horror films) the funny lines of dialogue are genuinely funny. (“Oh my God, who made that?!?!?! Oh, I did earlier!” and the light bulb joke: “How many Heather Donohues does it take to screw in a light bulb? *tearfully bellows* JUST ONE!!! JUST THE ONE OF THEM!!!”)

Too, the final scenes, containing the refrains, as various video (rather than film) footage plays, of “I didn’t do that!!” and Stephen’s stressed, uncontrollable, yet determined (or is it?) cries of, “Somebody fucked with that tape!!!” are just as much ‘keepers’ as the final act of the first film.

So. Not just an UNDERRATED THING, but better than its predecessor, and, indeed, one of the best horror films of the noughties.

Fact!!

🙂

1 I’ll certainly give them that Book of Shadows didn’t turn Blair Witch into a “megabucks franchise” though. This is far from the least of the film’s achievements.

2 As it were…

3 One of the many great things about Book of Shadows is that the DVD contains perhaps the most honest and enlightening director’s commentary ever. I’m one of those fellows that if I buy a DVD I inevitably find time to listen to the commentaries, but even I’d be hard pressed to describe them as essential. Two I genuinely think are though, are Berlinger’s on this film, and that on the first Spinal Tap film, which, brilliantly, functions as it’s own sequel…