Posts Tagged ‘steven spielberg’

I admit, I’d blissfully forgotten about director Stewart Raffill’s godawful 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac And Me until it turned up as the first “episode” of the new “season” of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. I mean, I saw it as a kid, but I remember being fundamentally unimpressed by it even then — and now I remember why : it’s basically a 90-ish minute McDonald’s (and Coke, and Skittles — but mainly Mickey D’s) commercial strung out over the barest skeleton of a script.

If you think that’s too harsh an assessment, I assure you it’s not, and offer this mercifully brief “plot” synopsis as proof : wheelchair-bound youth Eric Cruise (played with an annoying level of over-sincerity, but no discernible talent, by Jade Calegory), his older brother, Michael (Jonathan Ward), and their mom, Janet (Christine Ebersole) are in the midst of a cross-country move from Chicago to California when an alien who was literally vacuumed aboard a NASA planetary lander along with his the family he’s now separated from stows away in the back of their mini-van after escaping government custody. Once set up in their new digs, the Cruise clan is subject to a series of weird “alien interventions,” such as when the little guy inexplicably decides to replicate the wooded area outside — in the living room of their house. The feds are hot on the tail of this extraterrestrial varmint, whom Eric has nicknamed “Mac” (for “Mysterious Alien Creature”), but fear not, as these bungling buffoons are no match for a gang of plucky teenagers led by our protagonist brothers and the literal girls next door, Debbie (Lauren Stanley) and senior sis Courtney (Katrina Caspary), who works at — McDonald’s. The kids (and several of their ostensible “friends”) are all having fun dancing and running around (keep your eyes peeled for a youthful Jennifer Aniston and Nikki Cox in the crowd of merry-makers) at a birthday party at — McDonald’s when the G-Men make their move, but by cleverly disguising “Mac” in a full-body teddy bear costume they manage to give ’em the slip and get him to his family (no need for these folks to “phone home” since they have some sort of psychic communication “wavelength” they conjure up by means of — their hands?) that’s hiding in a cave. The Earth’s atmosphere is making our visitors sick, but fortunately Coke restores them to full health, and Skittles fill their bellies with happy butterflies, and then it’s time for them to head back to their home planet after saying some less-than-tearful (for us, at any rate) farewells.

Plot holes abound in this cinematic abomination, the most noticeable probably being when Eric first gets the idea to capture “Mac” with a vacuum cleaner even though he has no reason to believe that’s gonna work because he wasn’t on the alien planet when it happened before, but that’s immaterial : something tells me that Raffill and his co-screenwriter, Steve Feke, didn’t cobble their script together to make sense, but to sell product. “Mac” is literally always drinking Coke, for instance, and Courtney has a habit of wearing her McDonald’s work uniform around even when she’s off the clock. Product placement is one thing, but Mac And Me makes all of its sponsors central to the proceedings, dispensing with the notion of “incidental” brand identification completely. It’s entirely blatant, entirely annoying, and frankly entirely cynical.

But hey, you can’t say these corporations didn’t get their money’s worth : as it turns out, producer R.J. Louis (fresh off a massive hit with The Karate Kid) actually got McDonald’s to more or less finance the entire film from top to bottom, with Coke and Skittles kicking in just enough to get in on the action, as well. So this thing doesn’t just look or feel like an extended promo spot — that’s exactly what it is. Say what you will for the Reese’s Pieces inclusion in E.T., but at least Steven Spielberg worked it into the movie rather than going the Raffill/Louis route of working a cutesy “family-friendly” science fiction yarn into their ad.

I guess the production values aren’t too bad — the alien “family” is competently-realized and the vacuuming scenes are a rather impressive example of pre-CGI effects, but that’s all I can really say in this flick’s favor : the acting is uniformly lousy, the plot is derivative and predictable, the characters are wooden in the extreme, the laughs (hell, even chuckles) are non-existent, and there is never any sense of threat or menace from the NASA (or FBI, or whatever) cops. It doesn’t even feel like anybody’s trying.

Fortunately, this crass slab of celluloid commercialization met the fate it deserved at the box office, disappearing after two weeks and a six-million-dollar gross, and while it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not like it’s some cult favorite that sells in steady and respectable numbers. I dare say I’m far from the only person who forgot about it altogether until the “riffed” MST3K version became available for streaming, and while it’s far from one of the series’ classic installments, if you’re gonna subject yourself to this dreck, watching Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo rip it to shreds is the only way of making the experience bearable.

So, here we are with the third installment in the Michael Bay/Steven Spielberg/Paramount/Hasbro Transformers franchise, specifically Transformers : Dark Of The Moon, and the question I have at this point is — does any of this shit really matter?

I mean, honestly — do us folks out here in ticket-buying land even expect these films to be good at this point, or for that matter even remotely entertaining, or have we all been so thoroughly-trained, Pavlov-style, to just file into the theater to see these things that whatever they throw up on the screen will pretty much just do for us? Because truth be told, although my wife and I went to see this film on opening weekend, I couldn’t really tell you why. We just did it.

And the same, apparently, can be said for everyone involved in front of and behind the camera. Much like the hotheaded young actor who plays him, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky character gets less likable with each succeeding movie. It’s impossible, quite literally, to even remotely give a good goddamn about him or anything that happens to him. The interchangeable Hollywood-version-of-“hot” female lead has gone from Megan Fox to Brit Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, but it’s not like it really matters — she’s just there for eye candy. Second-tier supporting players Tyrese Gibon, Josh Duhamel, Frances McDormand, and John Turturro are back, their ranks swelled by the likes of  scenery-chewer extraordinaire John Malkovich,  as well as Patrick Dempsey, Ken Jeong, Alan Tudyk (for all you Joss Whedon fans out there) and even Buzz fucking Aldrin for Christ’s sake, but they’re just all collecting their paychecks and going home like everyone else.

This is well and truly a franchise on autopilot. I don’t know if bay really even shows up for work at this point, and Spielberg certainly doesn’t. There’s not even a thin attempt at disguising the fact that these things are just a celluloid license to print money. The screenplay, by one-time Hollywood wunderkind Ehren Kruger, is as by-the-numbers as you’re ever likely to find, and really the whole thing’s just an exercise in spreading out big, bad CGI fight sequences over the space of two-plus hours.

Even though the theater was packed when we saw it, there was no clapping, cheering, whooping, hollering, or sounds of indrawn breath — not even from the numerous kids in the audience. We just watched it all play out. We were just there. It’s like we were all products of some dystopian future reporting for our mandatory designated “entertainment” period. there’s nothing inolving or even particularly interesting happening on screen. It’s big, brash, loud, spectacular — and hopelessly dull.

Hell, you can’t even summon up enough energy to find yourself bored by these things at this point. Like shit, Transformers movies just happen. They make ’em, and we show up and watch ’em. We don’t know why. we don’t care why. It probably doesn’t even matter why. We’re trained. We’re compliant. We do as we’re fucking told.

It’s not like it’s even a painfully dull viewing experience — hell, I’d take that over this. At least there’s be some memory attached to it. It just is. A couple hours of our life are gone and we can never get them back, but we really can’t even remember where they went. And honestly, I can’t claim to be any better than the other sheep who filed in to watch this flick — after all, I was there, too. I’ve become another interchangeable cog in Hollywood’s biggest money-making machine. If I died tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter. Somebody else would be there to fork over five-to-ten bucks and fill my seat. But at least I’m not as far-gone as the guy I heard coming out of the theater who said to his kid “Can’t wait to see that one again” — with no excitement or emotion in his voice whatsoever. He just sees these things twice. That’s what he does.

As of yesterday morning, Transformers : Dark Of The Moon had grossed over $325 million in domestic box-office receipts and over half a billion worldwide.

Ahhhh, childhood. When you’re in that 12-10-14 (or whatever) age bracket, so much about life seems just out of reach. You’re interested in the opposite sex for the first time but don’t really know why; the things the grown-ups talk about or that you see on the evening new remain just beyond the full reach of your understanding; and honestly, life itself seems frustratingly close to really, truly beginning, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

There’s one big secret that no one tells kids, though, although they try to through cliched expressions like “enjoy youth while you’ve got it,” etc. — and that is, once all this shit really does start to make sense, it all makes less sense than ever. If you know what I mean.  The last throes of childhood really are a magical time, when you look back, because when you’re at that stage where the inner working of human life seem just moments away from your fully comprehending them, you imagine to yourself how great it’s all going to be once you’ve got this whole thing figured out, and there’s no doubt in your mind that you will. The things you don’t quite understand, about why we humans are the way we are and why we’ve constructed our society to be the way it is, are all like ripe fruit hanging not quite low enough for you to pick, but once you’ve got ’em, damnit, you’ll grab on and not let go.

Then something happens — slowly, inexorably, you do indeed begin to figure life out, only to find out that it all makes even less sense than you thought it did, and the only explanation the older and purportedly “wiser” folks have to offer is the unsatisfying (but you might as well get used to it) “that’s just the way things are.” And honestly, it’s such a letdown, isn’t it? to go from thinking there must be some reason you’re not quite getting why people are the way they are, and the world is the way it is, to knowing there really is no reason whatsoever for any of it, but it’s never going to change so just go with the flow, kid.

What’s all this got to do with writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, you ask? Well, not since Steven Spielberg (who also served as an air-quote executive producer on this flick)’s E.T. has a summer blockbuster so keenly understood — and yeah, if we’re going to be completely honest, exploited — this particular ultra-early-adolescent mindset, and shown the world so effectively through the eyes of the people who are, let’s face it, the movie’s target audience. And if you happen to be (or were) one of those geeky kids who didn’t quite fit in and cared more about George Romero flicks than about sports, it hits home all the more.

The kids in this movie (a largely unknown cast headed by Joel Courtney as protagonist Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as the object of his first crush, Alice Dainard, who all, incidentally, do a damn fine job across the board) are so close to getting it — they witness the train crash that will soon change everything they know about their town and, by extension, the world, while out late one night working on a home-made Super 8 zombie movie (just to show how close they-are-to-but-not-quite-getting-it count up the number of times backyard auteur/Joe’s best buddy/obligatorily-included fat kid Charles talks about “production value” for his film), but never fully understand why the military is coming down on their town like a ton of bricks, why they’re soon at the epicenter of what could be an alien invasion, and why some their parents don’t get along, even though they’ve seen a hundred movies about alien/zombie apocalypses and they somehow intrinsically just get the feeling that it’s going to be up to them to put things right. This late-childhood/ultra-early-adolescent sense of awe and wonder and being intrigued, rather than frustrated, by confusion is really at the core of what Super 8 is all about, story be damned.

And frankly, the story does have some weak spots, because the explanations of what is going on are, indeed, less than completely satisfying as they unfold, and it’s so much more interesting to just imagine what might be going on rather than actually know about it. But honestly, whether by accident or design (and frankly I think it’s a little bit of both), this whole arc of going from wide-eyed kid to slightly-more-world-wise-kid-provided-with-less-than-satisfying-explanations-for what’s-going-down is so in tune with the overall aesthetic of the film that even the parts that don’t work feel like they do work because the questions are supposed to be so much more satisfying than the answers. It’s just that the kids, of course, won’t really know that until years later, after the pattern has repeated itself on a smaller scale time and time again.

The other big influence here is Cloverfield — produced, of course, by Abrams himself (a patron at the theater I attended remarked that the whole thing “felt like E.T. meets Cloverfield, and he was exactly right — which makes me wonder why the hell this movie worked so well for me since, earlier comments about its one praiseworthy aspect notwithstanding, I’m not a tremendous fan of E.T. and, frankly, I didn’t care much for Cloverfield at all — but hey, I don’t like either chocolate or peanut butter much on their own, but give me a Reese’s anytime), and making its presence felt in pretty much every CGI alien scene once the shit really starts to hit the fan. We never really see the entire monster, for instance, for more than the briefest of instances toward the end, and a good chunk of why exactly it’s doing what it’s doing is only hinted at rather than fully fleshed out (although it’s pretty easy to fill in the necessary blanks).  Which makes me wonder what kind of blockbusters we’re going to be seeing in 20 years’ time when the kids who grew up on Cloverfield grow up to become Hollywood wunderkind directors and producers. but I guess we’ll find out about that when the time comes.

And truth be told, Super 8 doesn’t have much of anything to do with looking toward the future, it’s all about celebrating the past, from its early-80s time period setting to the subject matter that motivates the celebratory heart of the film itself. J.J. Abrams is thanking the Romeros and Spielbergs and Lucases and Carpenters of the world with a cinematic love letter, a ceulluloid portrayal of who he was and what their influence did to cause him to become what he is today. It’s a lot longer on style than it is on substance, to be sure, but it’s sincere, heartfelt, intriguing, and all just a little bit wonderful. Much like childhood itself.

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

Ah, the silent tyranny of expectations. Yesterday, you host did a bit of theater-hopping at the Block E megaplex and took in both of this weekend’s big new horror releases,  the studio-engineered “viral” marketing sensation “Paranormal Activity,” and the largely-dreaded remake of “The Stepfather.” I found myself enjoying both and finding them more-than-worthy additions to our little monthlong Halloween countdown here, but didn’t rank them in the order that I expected, so let’s get started with “Paranormal Activity” and take a look at the “Blair Witch of the 21st century” before moving on to a flick that virtually everyone assumed would suck but doesn’t.

Let’s be honest here — at this point, “Paranormal Activity” — that is, the film itself — is essentially inseparable from its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Paramount has spent a whole lot of money making this look like a word-of-mouth, “because you demanded it”-type thing. In reality, while it looks like a whole new type of “internet phenomenon,” what we’ve got here is essentially a high-tech updating of Mishkin-esque 42nd street ad campaigns. It’s carnival-barking with the audience enlisted as the barkers, and you know, while seeing it for the sham it is, my hat’s still off to the folks behind it, because it follows in the grand exploitation tradition even if most people can’t see it, which is probably the best part of the trick. 1,000 demands will get this into your city? You could get 1,000 demands for just about anything these days, and the theaters were already booked in advance, with full knowledge that this “grassroots campaign” would work.

Which is not to say that first-time filmmaker Oren Peli’s little (at one point) indie horror hasn’t had a circuitous path to wide release. Completed around two years ago, it languished around a bit on the small festival circuit for quite awhile until Steven Spielberg (audible groan) started singing its praises and brought it to the attention of Hollywood execs, who threw a little bit of cash at Peli (not much, it must be said, and the total budget for the film is around $13,000) to reshoot some of the ending and got to work on coming up with a unique way of marketing the film, namely having us do a lot of their work for them. From the horror convention circuit to limited-release midnight shows to its incrementally- timed rollout expansion, this has all been planned.  But I digress.

What’s driving this studio-engineered “demand” is the promise of one of the scariest damn movies you’ll ever see. Why, everyone says so. It’s “Blair Witch” all over again — a tight little suspense shocker that’s so cheaply-made it could pass for a documentary. Some people can’t take it and have to leave the theater, it’s just too intense (so we’re told). Some people actually think it’s real (so we’re told). And it’s really harrowing stuff (so we’re told).

In truth, though, what we’ve got here is really just the latest in the DIY/YouTube-style horror genre that really got going with “Cloverfield” and continued with “REC.” and it’s later English-language reworking “Quarantine” and  then with George Romero’s criminally-underrated “Diary of the Dead,” the only qualitative difference being that this flick’s budget really is damn close to actual DIY levels.

So yes, it does feel authentic. And claustrophobic. And like it could really happen. And it is, in fact, pretty good. But about halfway through this little story of a young couple being haunted by an indefinable presence, I realized I had to divorce myself from the high expectations I had for it if I had any hope of enjoying it. Because it’s not, as the bloody-disgusting.com review quoted on the poster claims, one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s plenty scary, sure, but it’s not, as the kids would say, all that.

The setup is pleasingly simple — a young couple, Micah (played by Micah Sloat) and Katie (played by Katie Featherston) move into a new rental townhouse-type thing in San Diego. She’s an English major (who still says “unexplainable?” Please.), he’s a day trader. Her house burned down when she was a young child and she’s been followed by some type of malicious presence ever since. When things start going bump in the might in their new place, they decide to set up cameras all over the place, most prominently in their bedroom, and watch the footage the next day to say what happens while they’re asleep.

And that’s it. We never leave the confines of their house apart from a brief sene out at their swimming pool. The only other notable character included into the mix is a “ghost hunter”-type of guy who pays them a couple of visits. It’s really just the two of them, their place, and their uninvited guest. This minimalistic setup really works, and the conceit of having the actors play characters with their own names adds a further frisson of “everyday horror” to the proceedings. In fact, “everyday horror” is the entire modus operandi here. The fact that this film feels authentic is its greatest strength, and, in fact, it’s only real one.

It’s essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s a good enough trick to keep you glued to your seat for 90 minutes. Each successive scene ratchets up the fear factor a notch at a time. It builds to a shockingly satisfying climax that really explains nothing but feels “just right” nonetheless. But I have to admit that I’ve seen better ultra-low-budget, minimally-scripted films (a couple of which have been reviewed on this very blog — “Last House on Dead End Street” and “Combat Shock”).

All of which is not to knock what Peli has achieved here. It’s certainly remarkable enough in its own right. He and his collaborators can hold their heads high. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-crafted, minimalist flick that wrings as much fright as it can from its contents.

But its rather unique add campaign — remember, inseparable from the film itself — is also its undoing. It’s doing its job of getting what would otherwise be an otherwise unnoticed piece of backyard filmmaking (well, okay, indoor backyard filmmaking) plenty of attention “buzz” — but it’s also setting people up for a bit of disappointment by promising one of the scariest movies ever, and “Paranormal Activity” just plain isn’t. In true exploitation style, the promise is better than the payoff.

Time will tell how this flick is eventually judged, of course. “Blair Witch” started as a huge sensation, endured something of a backlash in ensuing years, and has recently been re-evaluated as a seminal horror movie after all, which it really is, warts and all. I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” will prove to be quite as groundbreaking — or even as groundbreaking as it seems right now. But in Peli’s defense, he didn’t set out to make some trailblazing cinematic phenomenon, he set out to make the best scare film he could with limited resources. And in that respect he succeeds quite admirably.