Friday, December 30, 2005

Best Movie of 2006?

Snakes on a Plane

That's AWESOME. That's my favourite thing EVER. That is so mind-bogglingly brilliant I'm at a loss.

It's called Snakes on a Plane. It's about a bunch of people on a plane and, hey, snakes! Now there's truth in advertising. You can't say you didn't know what to expect. People won't be coming out of that muttering, "Well if it was just about a bunch of snakes on a plane they should have made that clear."

This is a defining moment, people. This is the beginning of a whole new GENRE of cinema. Think of the possibilities:
Alligators on a Train
Leopards on a Bus
Great White Sharks in a Taxi
Rhinoceroses on Bicycles

I'm blown away by the sheer brilliance of it. Samuel Jackson's career is about to hit a whole new level.

I'm going to be happy all day about this. Between this and Slither, it's enough to make you wonder if maybe the pure joy of the B-Movie isn't entirely lost to us, after all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Biggest Thing In The World

Okay, first of all I have to rant a little bit about how unbelievably stupid it is that the Empire State Building is trademarked. Seriously, you have to get permission to use a picture of the thing in your movie.

You know, if you build a great big frickin' skyscraper in the middle of a great big frickin' city, I don't think you get to tell people how they can use pictures that happen to include it.

Intellectual property law in service to the marketplace. It's an ugly, ugly thing.

Done. Sorry about that.

But I did want to talk a little bit about the Empire State Building and its place in King Kong. Hope I don't need somebody's permission to do that.

Just to deal with one typically asinine point -- the notion of skyscrapers as phallic symbols. Tall buildings don't look the way they do because that makes them resemble erect penises. They look the way they do because in order to maximise the value of a single piece of real estate, you build straight up in a floorplan that as much as possible completely fills the area of the lot.

Kong climbing the world's largest phallus, while an arresting image in and of itself, doesn't, in my view, offer a very interesting take on the story.

Kong climbing the world's largest symbol of civilization and progress, on the other hand, does.

This of course is why the film ends as it does: because Kong, as the perfect symbol of primitive individualistic power, can only prove himself against the ultimate symbol of civilized cooperative power. If he doesn't tame the greatest structure in the world, the supreme achievement of many little people working together, then how will we ever know if he's really as bad-ass as we want him to be?

It's been said (dunno who by) that Skull Island represents the human mind -- with its minute portion tamed (conscious) and settled, and a great wall that blocks off the savage, untamed portion. The notion is that we each have a Kong wandering the jungles of our minds, a beast of pure selfish need and fury that is capable, when it wishes, of dominating all else that lies within our subconscious. This, of course, explains why there's a gate in that great big wall -- because we each of us have a gap, an opening whereby that beast can emerge and run rampant in the streets of our mental New York.

You can go too far with this, of course, but hidden in the Freudian mumbo-jumbo (don't you sometimes want to just slap Sigmund Freud upside the head? Maybe it's just me) is the truth that everyone likes to watch monsters go crazy. Animals, people, little stop-motion figures, whatever. Movie-going audiences have been eating up destruction and mayhem since the earliest days, and there does not exist the little kid who doesn't giggle with glee while stomping a sandcastle into oblivion.

When Kong unloads on the overhead tram, or when Godzilla starts torching Tokyo yet again, or even when Norman Bates puts on the dress and starts running around (um, everyone's seen Psycho, right?), we are watching chaos overwhelm order. We are watching the monsters go crazy, and monsters going crazy makes us happy. It reminds us that we don't have to put up with all this crap. We don't have to kowtow and scrape and ass-kiss. Heck, no! We can wrestle tyrannosaurs, break chains (even ones made of chrome steel), and toss automobiles about with abandon.

We can climb the Empire State Building, if we want to. But we know what's waiting at the top. And it's not bigger than us -- it's little. Little buzzing fussbudgets that individually are fragile and easily brushed aside, but in swarming masses overwhelm us with their insistent poking and annoying and relentless drive to injure us, to force us from the position we've climbed so laboriously to achieve. Suddenly, being the biggest doesn't seem so important. Because in the world of rationality, of civilization, the lesson is that the biggest, the loudest, the scariest doesn't always win.

Being the biggest thing in the world is a liability.

King Kong is NOT a tragedy. Nobody cries when the monkey dies (sorry, Mr. De Laurentis). We feel regret, sure, because Kong is magnificient, and because part of us yearns to roar and demolish and defy the great structure of our society. But part of us also knows that what thrives on the secret dark portion of Skull Island has to stay there, and when it escapes, or is dragged in chains into the light, it must be tamed and thereby destroyed.

Kong reaffirms us in our knowledge that the social order we subscribe to is necessary. That the rationality we impose on our own souls is healthy. But it also refuses to let us kid ourselves into thinking it's easy, or that no price has to be paid.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sleeping With The Monkey

One of the more interesting differences between Jackson's Kong and the original is sexualizing of the story.

(there will be further spoilers in here, so Jill, you decide if you want to know more)

In the original, Fay Wray's body is presented front-and-center for the audience's appreciation. She is displayed in a near-explicit sexual fashion from the get-go (and she's reaching for what? An apple. Hm. Forbidden fruit, anyone?). Her initial encounter with Denham is handled in such a manner that their conversation could be interpreted (and indeed is interpreted by Darrow herself) as negotiation for sexual favours, and her presence on board the ship is marked by the display of her body.

Even an audience that isn't paying attention to these details is going to react to a beautiful woman standing around almost naked. She is vulnerable, she requires protection, and even more to the point, she is AVAILABLE. She's a mare in heat, and we are given the expectation that at some point, this filly will require mounting.

Not to be too crude about it.

But the voyage to Skull Island, in Cooper's film, sets up Ann not so much as a romantic partner for Jack (although that happens, of course, in one of my favourite 30's lines of all time: "Say, I guess I love you."), but as a sexually unfinished figure, as desire embodied without fulfillment.

Naomi Watts is not nearly so sexualised in Jackson's film. She is instead romanticised. Where Fay Wray reacts to Denham's pitch with stuttering confusion and uncertainty, Watts simply walks out on him. It's not at all clear that Wray's Darrow wouldn't have gone along with Denham even if he WAS a pimp. Watts is not subjected to hostility from sailors who distrust her sexuality; instead she partners up with them to perform vaudeville shows.

Once the monkey shows up, however, things are quite different.

Not in presentation; Wray is still relentlessly sexualised and her undressing by Kong probably ranks as one of the least likely stripteases in cinema. Not on the level of Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea, perhaps, but still it's pretty silly. We don't see anything that anthropomorphic in Jackson's film, as his Kong is as fully a gorilla as can be. Willis O'Brien's creation is honestly a very large, uneducated man with communication difficulties. And he undresses Fay Wray with the curious wonder of a boy learning how to unhook a bra for the first time.

But what actually happens in the story at this point flips the sexualization meter the other way. Now it's Jackson's film that gets all sexified. Wray is undressed by the ape, but then before Kong can (and here the mind fairly reels, as they say) consummate his burgeoning lust, she is snatched away from him by Driscoll's courageous rescue.

Watts' Darrow, however, finds a very different relationship with the big guy: she actually sleeps with him.

In Jackson's film we see Darrow and Kong in fact consummate their relationship. Well, we don't ACTUALLY see that happen, as this is a PG film (and the anatomical difficulties are, to say the least, intimidating), but they fall asleep together and she awakes in his embrace. Were he a human being, there would be almost no question that these two characters have become one overnight.

And big props to Naomi Watts for communicating this in the scene where Driscoll shows up to rescue her; we can see in her eyes that she's not immediately convinced she wants to leave. Kong has protected her, he's been an enthusiastic audience and he's shown her beauty and tenderness. That's frankly more than she's gotten from anyone else. She's found a real man at last.

Cooper's film does provide Wray's personification of sexual need with the fulfillment so desperately required -- she is engaged to Jack and so that story is all wrapped up. Phew. Filly has done been mounted. That sexualization that was so important to the early part of the film is withdrawn from the latter, and all that is left is the acting out of the rage of the jealous monkey. Jackson, on the other hand, maintains Kong as someone with a real connection to Ann. The only someone with a connection to her, who can draw her out of her hopeless life.

The original doesn't provide this interpretation. Kong is not a desirable mate in the 1933 film. He is an angry, jealous, 30-foot-tall stalker. He's a gigantic two-year-old throwing a tantrum because his toy has been taken away, and although we feel a connection to him, and even admire him for his unwillingness (or inability) to bow to necessity, we are not horror-stricken at his death. Cooper did not make a tragedy.

Jackson is trying to. It's a tough sell, because, you know, giant monkey fighting dinosaurs just isn't classic tragedy. And I'm not sure it works. Ann can't end up with Kong, and we can't feel too terrible that he's finally destroyed.

Because monkey love, ew.

And it just might be that the old standby of holding off on the consummation until the END of the story is the right choice, cinematically. When Kong plunges to his doom in Jackson's film, we can think, "Hey, at least he got to sleep with Naomi Watts." But in Cooper's film Kong is decidedly unfulfilled. He never acquires the civilizing relationship he needs, and somehow that makes his end MORE satisfying.

It's like John Woo's Mission Impossible: 2, the first part of which is a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious, with the exception that the spy sleeps with the girl right at the start of the film. I think they did this in MI:2 because they thought it would strengthen the bond between guy and girl, but it has the opposite effect, and I think you could argue the same is true in King Kong. Once our heroes get it on, a big part of the reason we're watching goes out the window.

The Moonlighting effect, you might call it.

And monkey love is still ooky.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Talking To Myself

Okay, so obviously I've seen Jackson's new version of King Kong. I'm going to have a lot of thoughts about this picture, as the original is pretty much my favourite film of all time, and I think it's interesting to compare the differences between the pictures.

What struck me first about the two films and their differences was the final famous line.

"No, it wasn't the airplanes that got him. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

In the original, Denham delivers this line to a police lieutenant standing next to him. In Jackson's Denham is alone and speaks to himself.

Which is weird. Says me. People don't do that in the real world, only in movies.

Partly this comes from the built-up "movie reality" that has accrued over the last seventy years of film-making that audiences accept nowadays (which one might argue derives from the old theatre tradition of "asides"), but partly it points to a hollowness in Jackson's picture.

In the original, Denham's line is as natural and perfect as can be. The theme of Beauty and the Beast has been established from the very beginning of the film, reinforced throughout, and Denham's response to the lieutenant's remark about the airplanes is simply his character reinforcing that notion. It wraps up the story for us and in a way tells us why we've been watching, but it does so within a context that grows organically out of the world of the movie.

Jackson mostly eschews the "Beauty and the Beast" motif until Denham's appearance on stage in New York. Of course it's present, but by no means to the degree in which it is in the original. THIS film is much more about the relationship between THIS girl and THAT monkey, as opposed to the more symbolic representations of the first film.

Likewise, Denham simply disappears for the final act of Jackson's film, whereas in the original he follows Kong to the rooftops, and then works with the police to track him and eventually bring in the airplanes. He's not accomplishing much, but he's present. And so he can speak with a police lieutenant. He can be recognized by the crowd around the body.

Denham doesn't have such a comfortable place next to Kong's body in Jackson's film. He's truly alone here, isolated in the crowd, anonymous and indistinguishable from anybody else. He's not bigger than life. And yet Jackson can't keep that brash, confident line out of his picture, and so we get this contrived, artificial moment that draws a fond smile because of its reference of the old favourite, but it obviously doesn't quite work here, and only serves to remind us that we're watching a remake, not a personal vision.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Did You Ever Hear of... Kong?

In celebration of Mr. Jackson's re-release of the original classic of all classics, I have created Kongadelica. It's not a thing of beauty, but it makes me giggle.

I love GarageBand almost more than I can stand.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Better Than Gilgamesh

It has to be said: "Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers" is the best name for a band since "Gilgamesh and the Guitar-Gardeners" took Babylon by storm.

Sumeria, whatever.

It also ought to be said that it's not all that surprising that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension never really took off and became a bona fide hit movie. It's a bit of a mess, story-wise (The Lectroids are stealing the Overthruster! The Lectroids don't have the Overthruster! The Lectroids have their own Overthruster! The Lectroid's Overthruster doesn't work! Wait, is the planet going to be destroyed or not!? Huh? What?), and the effects are probably best described as "charming", but more than that, Buckaroo Banzai doesn't wear a costume.

Have you ever wondered why it is that superheroes always wear outlandish costumes? I guess there's a couple of reasons (makes it easier to draw them if they're always wearing the same thing, makes them more recognizable on cover illustrations), but I was thinking recently that one of the key reasons is that by depicting characters in idiot costumes, costume superhero stories clearly indicate that they are taking place in some alternative fantasy world, NOT our own.

We can accept that Superman flies around and stops criminals more easily if we're told right from the get-go that this story is taking place in a fantasy land. Likewise Batman, who arguably isn't a super-hero at all, just a man with great skill, lots of money and phenomenal luck, wears a costume in part to let us relax our suspension of disbelief and accept the goofy stories that we're being told.

I think it's harder for many people to relax that suspension of disbelief if the cues announcing a fantasy setting aren't as clear.

Now, given that Buckaroo Banzai starts with a character who goes from brain surgery to inter-dimensional rocket test pilot, and is named Buckaroo Banzai, it could be argued that the cues here are reasonably clear. But a big cape, primary colours and even a mask would go a long way toward making that crystal.

Not that I'm arguing for that. I like Buckaroo the way he is, and indeed I like this film just the way it is, thank you very much. It does a great job of evoking its wacky little world without ever falling into over-explication. It respects its audience, and assumes we're all in on the joke, which is is a sufficiently rare thing for any film that in that quality alone it's worth watching.

Buckaroo harkens back to the pulp heroes of yesteryear, when a man could excel at ALL things, and didn't have to specialize in one field. It wants to tell us (and this is the central argument of nearly all fantasy) that one person CAN make a difference, that we CAN make choices that will effect not only our lives, but the very course of history.

Maybe that's why fantasy typically gets a bum rap from most critical wankers: because it dresses up its core struggles with the trappings of historical significance, rather than relying on the inner world of the human spirit. A real writer would be able to tell that story, present that struggle and give it weight and power and resonance without armies or dragons or evil masterminds. Using such elements is seen as "cheating" -- much in the way that over-stirring music can alienate rather than move an audience.

But would Buckaroo's story be BETTER if it didn't feature a possessed Dr. Lizardo (that's another problem -- you've got a character named DR. LIZARDO and you have him possessed by some clown named John Whorfin? WTF?), Lectroids from Planet 10, the perils of the 8th Dimension and the threat of nuclear annihilation? Now that's crazy talk. Because we all know that critical wankers who say things like got said in the previous paragraph are joy-killing turdballs who probably don't even like dinosaur movies.

TAoBBAtED would have been more popular had the story been more coherent, had there been LESS goofy ideas thrown about, and most importantly, had they put Buckaroo in a cape and a mask. But it would have been less of a movie. Even if they'd added dinosaurs.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Infinite: Epic Modern

At last, here it is! The crown jewel of EN Mini-Games!

INFINITE: EPIC MODERN

Every generation tells tales of heroes... men and women with prowess and valor far beyond the norm. But although modern man prefers to think of these tales and their protagonists as legends or exaggerations or outright lies, the truth is... giants still walk among us.

Welcome to Infinite, a minigame of Postmodern Pulp Adventure.

Legends Live. In Infinite, the line between man and myth, history and legend, is blurred. The heroes may discover that many of the fantastic characters from myth and fiction... from Victorian detectives to Pulp Era adventurers to modern super-soldiers... have real-world counterparts, although their exploits may have been misreported (perhaps intentionally).

Evil Waits. At the heart of Infinite is a secret cabal of unfathomable antiquity and unimaginable evil. The Hidden Masters have lurked in the shadows for millennia, secretly manipulating all mankind for their own devious purposes. In return for absolute obedience, they offer their servants the greatest reward imaginable... eternal life.

Heroes Arise. In every generation, a handful of extraordinary men and women stand against the Hidden Masters, wielding powers and abilities that push the limit of human potential. Infinite presents new rules for advancing d20 Modern characters beyond twentieth level, creating heroes and villains who will forge legends of their own.