Saturday, April 19, 2014

SHORT FEATURE: JOHNNY DEPP IN BURTONLAND

Well, I feel like my transformation into a bonafide professional movie reviewer is complete. This week over at Aleteia, I gave a less than stellar review to Transcendence, and while it inexplicably appears to be the most popular post I’ve ever done over there (at least based on the number of “likes”), not everyone is pleased. Over on Aleteia’s Facebook page, a few enraged Johnny Depp fans have shown up to declare me a (expletive deleted) because I dared to think a movie the dreamy JD was in fell apart at the end. Yes, there are now people who hate me personally because of a review. I have arrived!

The odd thing is, I didn’t really say anything bad about Depp’s performance. I merely poked fun at some of his more recent roles. It’s not like I’m the first person to do that…

See, it’s not just me. But even it was, I’m just calling it like I see it. I suppose it’s like the Bible says in the book of Amos, “They hate those who reprove at the gate and abhor those who speak with integrity.” Of course, that verse was referring to prophets who had been commissioned by God to point out acts of lawlessness and vice on the parts of the people, while I’m just talking about a silly motion picture. Admittedly, the “truth” in a movie review is a tad more subjective than the truth the prophets were dishing out. As I tried to explain to the angry mob on Facebook…

“Well, it seems I've upset the Johnny Depp fan club. I'm not sure why either, since I didn't really lay any of the faults of the movie at his feet. All I did was bring up the fact that I believe some of his recent roles have not been his best work because he's relied too much on the makeup. But, hey, if anyone wants to make an impassioned defense of Dark Shadows, knock yourselves out. I'll respectfully read your piece and then probably completely disagree with you. But that's how movie reviews work. You read enough of a person's reviews that you begin to understand their taste and how it relates to your own. Then you're able to use their opinion as a barometer on how you might or might not enjoy the movie. For instance, I often agreed with Roger Ebert on science fiction movies, but rarely on horror, so when he gave a negative review to anything scary, I always figured that was a good reason to check it out. Please feel free to do the same with me... Or you can just skip all that and immediately dismiss me as a dumba$$ because I thought a bad script ruined an otherwise interesting Johnny Depp movie.”

The “truth” is that I love debating about movies, so it doesn’t bother me at all that one of my reviews provoked this kind of response. Disagreement can be fun as long it’s done in the right spirit and the insults are aimed at what’s on the screen and not at who’s watching it. So keep those likes and dislikes coming, folks, I’ll take either one.

P.S. While we’re on the subject of truth, those of you who have read my review of Freejack here at the B-Movie Catechism might recognize that I recycled a few lines from that post for my review of Transcendence. I didn’t feel like it was cheating, though, since you have to come back here if you want all the detailed religious stuff behind the themes I was talking about over there.

P.P.S. And while we’re on the subject of film critics, please say a prayer for some of my fellow faith-based movie reviewers if you have the time. Now that most of the world has already forgotten Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and moved on, I just don’t know what they’re going to do with themselves. At least not until Ridley Scott’s Exodus comes around anyway.

Monday, April 14, 2014

CUTAWAYS: STUDENT BODIES

Seven years ago, back when the B-Movie Catechism was a wee little blog just getting started, one of the first movies we ever reviewed was Student Bodies, still one of the best slasher parodies ever as far as we’re concerned. Now, for that piece we concentrated on laying to rest Professor Tony Williams’ notion that slasher movies represented revenge fantasies for the Reagan era religious right. But Williams is hardly the only one to have come up with a theory regarding slashers. One popular hypothesis revolves around the preponderance of scenes such as this one…

Have I mentioned how much I love this movie?

Obviously, what Student Bodies is parodying here is the ubiquitous scene in which the action is shown from the killer’s point of view. Back in 1980, Siskel and Ebert aired a special episode of their show entitled Women In Danger which dealt primarily with slasher movies and what America’s favorite critics perceived as those movies lousy attitudes towards the fairer sex. One thing they considered particularly egregious was all those shots from the killer's perspective which they believed appealed to the baser instincts of male viewers by placing them in the killer’s shoes.

However, Carol J. Clover, in her essay which appeared in the book Horror, the Film Reader, thinks such an idea is only partially valid. She writes…

“Much is made of the use of the I-camera to represent the killer's point of view. In these passages—they are usually few and brief, but powerful—we see through his eyes and (on the sound track) hear his breathing and heartbeat. His and our vision is partly obscured by bushes or window blinds in the foreground. By such means we are forced, the argument goes, to identify with the killer. In fact, however, the relation between camera point of view and the processes of viewer identification are poorly understood; the fact that Steven Spielberg can stage an attack from the shark's point of view (underwater, rushing upward toward the swimmers flailing legs) or Hitchcock an attack in The Birds from the birds’-eye perspective (from the sky, as they gather to swoop down on the streets of Bodega Bay) would seem to suggest either that the viewers identificatory powers are unbelievably elastic or that point-of-view shots can sometimes be pro forma. But let us for the moment accept the equation point of view = identification. We are linked in this way with the killer in the early part of the film, usually before we have seen him directly and before we have come to know the Final Girl in any detail. Our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by story line as well as camera position. By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her. watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top. and so on. With her we become, if not the killer of the killer, then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film's course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative. When Stretch eviscerates Chop Top at the end of Texas Chain Saw ll, she is literally the only character left alive on either side.”

Basically, Clover believes most slashers actually do start by putting us in the killer’s place, but by the end has transitioned our sympathies over to the victim who ultimately overcomes evil.

Oddly enough, something similar happens during the gospel reading on Palm Sunday. In many parishes, the extra long selection detailing the last week in the life of Christ includes parts where the congregation in the pews recites the words of the crowds at Jesus’ trial. We are put in the place of those who demanded the death of Jesus, calling out “Crucify him!” and declaring that his blood will be on our hands and the hands of our children. It’s theater in a way, but it’s effective. By making the crowd’s point of view ours, the reading accentuates that it was our sins that put Jesus on the cross.

And yet, by the end of the reading, for various reasons, the attention of everyone in the narrative, from the Magdalene to the the chief priests and the Pharisees, has turned to Jesus and his foretold resurrection. Although we started in the shoe’s of the killers, in the end we inevitably come to the risen Christ who will triumph over all death. There is no alternative.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

THE B-LIST: 5 MOVIES WITH HAUNTED MIRRORS TO KEEP YOU BUSY UNTIL OCULUS COMES TO CABLE

Had I stuck with the program, I would obviously had reviewed Rio 2 for Aleteia this week since it’s the new release that’s going to make all the big bucks. But, I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I went for something a little more suited to this blog for a change, Oculus. As you may have gathered from the commercials, this is the movie in which Amy Pond and Starbuck fight a mirror. Okay, that’s not fair. Oculus may not be quite the classic it could have been if just a few more scares and a little bit more thought had been put into it, but it’s actually pretty good, even considering the well worn premise.

Still, because the idea of a haunted mirror has pretty much been done to death, nobody could really be blamed for deciding to wait until Oculus makes its way to the small screen before watching it. If you’re among those in no rush to see this latest trip through a ghost filled looking glass, here are some older flicks with creepy mirrors to keep you busy until Oculus pops up on cable.

Dead Of Night

Dead of Night (1945)

In which a mirror shows a man the tragedy that will occur if he gives in to jealousy. I’m not sure if this venerable old anthology represents the first movie in which a haunted mirror shows up to cause trouble, but it’s definitely one of the most fondly remembered. Now, that’s probably due to the segment with the ultra creepy ventriloquist’s dummy more than it is the one with the mirror, but Dead of Night is still definitely worth checking out if you enjoy the classics.

Boogey Man, The

The Boogey Man (1980)

In which a mirror holds the soul of a deceased slasher. If pressed, most folks would say The Boogey Man is director Ulli Lommel’s best effort. Of course, that’s pretty much like saying which tooth you prefer to have yanked out with no anesthetic, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in that.

From Beyond The Grave

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

In which a mirror houses the hungry souls of its victims. Like Dead of Night before it, the mirror segment isn’t really the highlight of this portmanteau, but it’s an Amicus feature starring Peter Cushing, so even the weaker stories are still fun.

Amityville New Generation

Amityville: A New Generation (1993)

In which a mirror taken from the infamous Amityville house brings doom and destruction to its new owners. This is the seventh movie in the Amityville series. Do you really have to ask if its any good?

Mirror Mirror Academy Vhs Ad

Mirror Mirror (1990)

In which a mirror containing a demon helps a bullied Goth girl take vengeance on the cool kids at school. Mostly remembered because its star, Rainbow Harvest, was pretty much channeling Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice, Mirror, Mirror was actually popular enough to warrant three sequels. Not saying any of them were watchable, but they did get made.

It makes you wonder just what it is about mirrors that makes Hollywood keep going back to that well. Well, according to mirrorhistory.com (don’t you just love micro-niche websites), there have been a number of superstitions revolving around mirrors over the centuries, including:

    • The idea that breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck likely evolved from the days when people used water as a mirror. Some ancients believed they were seeing their soul, so if the watery image was distorted, they were fated to die. After the invention of physical mirrors, many cultures believed they too reflected the soul, so a broken mirror obviously signaled misfortune. Fortunately, some ancient Roman’s believed a soul could renew itself in seven years, so at least the bad luck had a time limit.
    • Obviously, since mirrors reflected souls, soulless creatures like vampires could have no reflection.
    • In later times, the belief developed that mirrors could actually trap the souls of deceased, so many cultures, including the Jews, started the custom of covering all mirrors in the house after the passing of a loved one.
    • Mirrors became so linked to the soul, that even if one fell off a wall by itself when nobody was around, it meant that someone somewhere was going to die.
    • Apparently there was so much death surrounding mirrors that If you so much as looked at a mirror by candlelight you might see the spirit of a loved person who had died.
    • And because mirrors were obviously portals through which the soul could enter the spiritual dimension, it made sense that other things could be in them as well. Jewish Kabbalistic writings, for instance, insisted that the demoness Lilith could possess women through mirrors.

After a few centuries of that kind of stuff, is it any wonder some people still believe mirrors can be haunted. Just last year, two London roommates listed a mirror on eBay they claimed might be harboring some evil spirit. It sold to the one and only bidder for $155. No word yet on how that purchase worked out.

The Bible doesn’t actually reference any of these superstitions, but given the ancient world’s predilection to associate mirrors with the soul, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some of the early readers of the Epistle of James might have had such tales in mind when they read these verses from Chapter 1:

“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.”

Obviously the passage deals with James’ primary theme of the importance of faith AND works, but If we look at these verses as also being about a person contemplating a reflection of their own soul in a mirror, then they can take on a secondary layer of meaning dealing with the knowledge of self. It is only by viewing the soul through the lens of the laws of Jesus that a person’s true face might be seen. And if that focus is lost or quickly forgotten, then self knowledge will fade away with the memory as well.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just stretching the verse a bit to match the theme. But then again, it was Pope St. Gregory who said, “The Holy Bible is like a mirror before our mind’s eye. In it we see our inner face. From the Scriptures we can learn our spiritual deformities and beauties. And there too we discover the progress we are making and how far we are from perfection.” So maybe I’m not too far off after all.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

PULP CATHOLICISM

Pulp Catholicism 063

CUTAWAYS: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990)

Being  a lifelong comic geek, it would have taken more than one team of wild horses to keep me from reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier for Aleteia this last week. And I have to say, while I’m a fan of Marvel Studio’s first Captain America film, I think this one has it beat, definitely a film worthy of everyone’s favorite shield slinger.
Alas, it wasn’t always that way, was it? Most folks can usually recall the Captain America television movies of the late 70s, the ones starring Reb Brown wearing a blue motorcycle helmet and carrying a clear plastic shield. But as bad as they were, at least Reb’s movies had a little of bit of charm thanks to their disco era cheesiness. Not so with 1990’s Captain America, a film most people have forgotten because everyone who ever saw it prayed for collective amnesia afterwards. Oh, it was painful. Still, despite its wretchedness, it managed to highlight one of ol’ winghead’s lesser known skills, one never seen in any other film version of Captain America before or since, that of the master car thief…
Now some folks out there might be shocked that a good protestant boy like Cap would so blatantly violate the Lord’s  commandment not to steal, but perhaps there’s more to the situation than meets the eye. The Catechism bluntly states that “the seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner,” so there’s no doubt about whether stealing is right or wrong. But it goes on to add, “there is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others.” So, if you’ve really got to take someone else’s car to go save the world from the Red Skull (or whatever it is he Cap did in that movie, I’ve managed to purge most of the details), it’s technically not considered a theft, at least not from an ethical standpoint. So you see, despite what it looks like, Steve Rogers did not actually steal anything in Captain America 1990. Well, unless you count the hour and a half you spent watching the movie, that is. He owes you big time for taking that part of your life away.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

BMC MOVIE OF THE WEEK: HARD ROCK ZOMBIES

Hard Rock Zombies

“A hard rock band travels to the tiny and remote town of Grand Guignol to perform. Peopled by hicks, rubes, werewolves, murderous dwarves, sex perverts, and Hitler, the town is a strange place but that doesn't stop the band's lead singer from falling in love with a local girl named Cassie. After Nazi sex perverts kill the band to satisfy their lusts, Cassie calls the rockers back from the grave to save her, the town, and maybe the world.” ~ IMDb

April 6, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)

If you’re of a certain age, or at least of a certain questionable taste in movies, then you no doubt are well aware of the heavy metal horror fad of the 1980s. But just in case you’re one of the (lucky?) ones who missed it, I’ll elaborate. You see, although heavy metal and its psuedo-satanic trappings had been around since the late 1960s, it wasn’t until the combined onslaught of M-TV and glam metal at the start of the awesome 80s that the scene piqued the interest of moviemakers. Okay, it’s true there was Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park in 1978, but I’m willing to forget all about that if you are. Besides, that wasn’t really horror. No, what we’re talking about here is that unique mixture of big hair, shredding guitars, and shoddy monster effects that only the M-TV generation could provide.

hrz01

Now, rock stars being the attention whores they so often can be, a few of these films managed to attract some well known names from the heavy metal industry. Trick Or Treat had a possessed teenager making trouble for Gene Simmons and Ozzy Ozbourne, Monster Dog had a werewolf troubling Alice Cooper, and Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare had demons giving a hard time to Jon Mikl Thor (what, Thor counts, he put out some albums). Most of them, though, couldn’t really afford guys with any name recognition. Instead, films like Rocktober Blood, Black Roses, and Terror On Tour got by with bands most people had never heard of and budgets nobody would ever try to make a real movie on. And then there’s Hardrock Zombies, which stands in a class by itself. It features a band nobody in their right mind would ever want to hear from and a budget pooled together from whatever spare change they managed to find on the floor of the bus station they were probably sleeping in at the time.

What Hardrock Zombies does have going in its favor, however, is the absolute insanity of everyone involved in the production. Okay, I don’t have the medical records to back that up, but how else do you explain the things you see in this movie? I mean, you know things are messed up when a ninety-something year old Hitler is one of the more normal sights. Besides Der Fuhrer, there’s his octogenarian wife who occasionally turns into a double-switchblade wielding werewolf, the two deformed dwarves he calls his grandchildren, and a heavy metal chick who can’t act a lick, but who can absolutely throw her leg up over her head, a talent she must display forty to fifty times over the course of the film. And, of course, there’s the two main characters, Jesse, he of the most spectacular power mullet known to mankind, and Cassie, she whose enormous eyebrows might possibly be a sentient lifeform of their own.

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But it’s not just that the cast seems to have taken a break from their day jobs in a sideshow to make this film. No, the story itself is completely loony as well. If there’s any one thing to blame for this, it’s probably that Hard Rock Zombies started life as roughly twenty minutes of footage created to serve as the movie playing in the background during the comedy American Drive-In, a film which was also released in 1985. But in a move worthy of Roger Corman, the producers looked at what they had and decided that with a few extra bucks (but not too many extra) they could expand Hard Rock Zombies into a second feature film. Of course, building a coherent story around their existing footage was next to impossible, so, if the end results are any indication, they didn’t even try.

That’s why, besides all of the crazy stuff going on at Hitler’s house, there’s plenty of time spent with the inept town council who are horrified at the idea of a rock concert taking place in their town, something which complicates the budding romance between Jessie and Cassie. Well, that, and the fact that Cassie is supposed to be fifteen or sixteen while Jessie has obviously left his teen years long behind him. Probably the creepiest thing in the whole movie is watching the zombified Jessie stand onstage and sing a power ballad to his under-aged sweetheart. And yes, you read that right. After the band comes back to life and disposes of the Hitler clan, they do indeed head back over to the stage to finish their show. Unfortunately, all the bad guys come back to life as zombies as well, so, while the band sings (a lot), the town is soon invaded by a horde of undead Nazis (not to mention the werewolf grandma and the girl who can kick her leg over her head).

hrz07

This leads to one of the loopiest scenes in the whole movie in which the council formulates a plan to drive off the zombies. Under the assumption that zombies are the antithesis of intellectual existence, a state of being which is centered in the head, the townies determine that zombies must hate heads the way Satan hates the Church. Based on this hypothesis, they create body sized placards adorned with pictures of the heads of well known celebrities and charge the zombies with them in the hope they will work in the same way crosses do with vampires. It doesn’t quite go as planned so, in the end, it all comes down to the Nazi and townie zombies versus Cassie and the Hard Rock Zombies (which isn’t too bad of a name for a band now that I think of it).

If for nothing else, you have to at least give Hard Rock Zombies a little credit for its unique take on the walking dead. At a time when mindless gut munching Romero-style zombies were all the rage (kind of like today), the shamblers in this movie actually had a little personality. Oh sure, they’d still take a bite out of you, but they also held onto to some of their old ways of doing things, like playing in a rock band, holding hands with their jail-bait girlfriends, or even kicking their legs up over their heads. They’re dead, for sure, but they’re the same folks they were before they stopped breathing. It’s a fun change of pace on the whole zombie idea. Of course, it has to be said, it’s a take that someone like St. Thomas Aquinas could never get behind and endorse.

hrz06

Aquinas would definitely have been a Romero man when it came to zombies. He was a firm believer in what the Catechism teaches, that “man is a composite being, spirit and body.” He explained it in his Summa Theologica this way:

As stated in De Anima ii, 4, "the soul stands in relation to the body not only as its form and end, but also as efficient cause." For the soul is compared to the body as art to the thing made by art, as the Philosopher says (De Anim. Gener. Ii, 4), and whatever is shown forth explicitly in the product of art is all contained implicitly and originally in the art. In like manner whatever appears in the parts of the body is all contained originally and, in a way, implicitly in the soul. Thus just as the work of an art would not be perfect, if its product lacked any of the things contained in the art, so neither could man be perfect, unless the whole that is contained enfolded in the soul be outwardly unfolded in the body, nor would the body correspond in full proportion to the soul. Since then at the resurrection it behooves man's body to correspond entirely to the soul, for it will not rise again except according to the relation it bears to the rational soul, it follows that man also must rise again perfect, seeing that he is thereby repaired in order that he may obtain his ultimate perfection. Consequently all the members that are now in man's body must needs be restored at the resurrection.

In other words, when we are to be resurrected by God, like we read about in this week’s readings from Ezekiel and Romans, it’s the whole package, perfected body and soul, that is to come back. If it was only the body without the soul, then it wouldn’t be the actual person at all, because both parts are required to be a perfect resurrected being. A walking corpse reanimated by something other than God (who alone has the singular ability to confer souls) might register some residual memory, as we see in Romero type zombies, but it would be impossible for the real personality to be there. It would just be a mindless husk waiting for the true resurrection.

hrz14

Now some zombie movies such as the recent Warm Bodies get around this technicality by having a virus that causes the body to mimic death while simultaneously withering the mind and soul to a state of near non-existence. In that way, their zombies can still have a real personality that can resurface with the proper stimuli, such as the love of a good woman. They acknowledge Aquinas while still finding a way to have zombies be more than just mindless eating machines.

But let’s be honest, that’s not what’s going on in Hard Rock Zombies. There’s no way the people who made this movie put that much thought into it. They just thought it would be fun to have a bunch of zombies kicking their legs up over their heads and playing loud music. And you know, if you’re in the mood for some big hair and bad moviemaking, they were kind of right.