Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

On a cold winter night a few years ago, I was channel surfing when I came across what seemed to be a documentary on the Discovery Network about a real life haunting. I say "seemed to be" because it had fairly high production values and a great deal of cinematic flair in its dramatization of the infamous Snedecker case. This was "A Haunting in Connecticut" which would later lead to a series on the same channel depicting "A Haunting" in many other parts of the country. None of those, however, came close to the feeling of dread and wintry death as this one, however. Part of the effect was due to the story itself which was, of course, supposedly "true". Or at least as true as anything self proclaimed "demonologists" Ed and Lorraine Warren were involved with before (The Amityville Horror).

This material has been adapted again into a feature film starring Virginia Madsen and it desperately wants to scare you to death. Armed with elaborate makeup effects and a whole bag of visual and auditory fireworks the movie works hard for your money and should theoretically be scarier than the cut rate television production. But it's not. Not by a mile.

So, the question is: Why not?

The story of the Snedecker haunting first came to the public's awareness via the book "In a Dark Place" written by horror novelist Ray Garton along with the Warrens themselves. Garton would later say that the book was a pile of BS and that many of the Snedeckers stories were contradictory. After relaying his concerns to Ed Warren, Garton supposedly received this sage advice:

"Oh, they’re crazy. Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary."

Now I bring this up not to attack the Warrens or Ray Garton for taking your money. I bring this up because the intent was not journalistic, but rather narrative. "Just make it up and make it scary." But what does that really mean? "Make it scary"? At its core, the story as laid down by Garton and dramatized on the Discovery Channel program is nothing more than the usual blood and thunder ghost story. It could be broken down in the usual beats:

1.Unsuspecting Family moves into strange and strangely inexpensive old house.
2. They slowly become aware that they are not alone there.
3. Tensions rise as the supernatural phenomena begins to tear apart the family unit.
4. Someone goes to the library instead of looking on the internet to find out about the house's murderous past.
5. Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in to fight the evil within. If the family is Catholic replace "Ed and Lorraine Warren" with a Priest.

I suspect that amid the piles of scripts sitting on Ari Gold's desk in Entourage, there would be at least one or two with this exact structure. And not one of them would be even remotely scary.

OK. So, how did Garton take this formula and "Make it scary"?

He didn't-You did-the moment you saw the words, "Based On A True Story". The suspension of disbelief which is so important to all fiction but of primary importance in a tale of terror is automatically engaged with those 5 words. And with this engagement comes the sudden loss of critical functions. Something that would sound contrived in a work of fiction is not even given a second's thought once it is believed to be "what really happened" because we all know that there are many things that are "Strange, but true".

Now, it IS true that Garton was also working with a pretty creepy situation from which all kinds of deep seated fears could be milked. You see, this wasn't just your regular "Amityville" house with a creepy attic. This house was once a funeral home complete with all the old dissecting tools and a crematorium in the basement. Now, few of us would want to spend more than a few minutes in one of these places-let alone spending the night-let alone LIVING there. Along with this situation is the central figure of the story's haunting, the Snedeckers teenage son who was stricken with cancer and receiving intense experimental treatments at a local hospital in a last ditch effort to save his life. There is something about the young man being so close to death that gives the story an added sense of personal drama and makes the supernatural aspects more harrowing. This is very well captured in the Discovery Channel program which makes great use of aerial shots of snow capped Connecticut trees and icy roads to envelop you in a cold and deathly universe. But the program does something else which makes it quite frightening and it's not narrative but formal. Since someone was good enough to put the whole program up on YouTube you can watch the entire thing there-but for our purposes take a look at THIS portion of the program-it's not the scariest part or the most interesting but it serves to demonstrate the peculiar effect of the form.

Now, the events depicted in the clip are all present in the film version. Yet, they carry none of the dread that is in virtually every second of this clip. The TV version is even more subtly and effectively directed than the feature version. It makes use of a quiet gliding camera and very specific and quiet sound effects to play on the viewer's imagination. This is all more successful than the elaborately constructed explosions of shock cuts and screaming in the film.

But there's something else.

And it's been used in programs of this sort since the days of In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries. The story is not only relayed visually through re-enacted dramatization but also orally through a "voice of doom" narrator and personal testimony of those involved. Ghost stories have a long tradition of oral storytelling and it could be that this is the form that has the most power. The thing is that is a form that doesn't agree with the commonly accepted notion of narration in the cinema. In motion pictures, narration that simply states what the visuals make obvious is considered to be artless. But here, we see the young boy go into the basement and are told by the narrator that "Paul made his way down to the basement." But this narration sets us on edge. The same scene in a standard horror picture accompanied by "scary music" would only be slightly effective. In a standard horror movie, the boy would go into the basement and hear strange sounds from the shadows. But in the TV version the narrator tells us that the boy "could hear strange sounds from the next room and began to feel as though something was watching him." Now THIS really begins to chill the spine in a way a movie could never achieve. The shots that follow of the boy walking into the dark room have a dread that wouldn't exist without the voiceover.

The question is whether the commercial cinema can actually learn from this and achieve the same effect within the confines of cinematic storytelling. You don't go to the movies to watch an extended Unsolved Mysteries episode after all, the expectation is for a psychologically credible narrative that isn't interrupted by omniscient narrators or personal testimony. How could a filmmaker blend the forms without alienating the audience?

I don't know if he could do worse than the trite and obvious manner in which the film version was made. The film isn't BAD, and actually the acting is quite good by Madsen, Kyle Gallner, and Martin Donovan. What fails to work is the film's insistence on being in your face. The desire to prevent the teen audience from texting in the dark rather than following the story leaves a movie that has no grace notes, no sense of real atmosphere or control of pacing. I think it should be remembered that the much subtler TV version was MADE FOR TV where there is a very real fear that someone would just flip the channel. For a theatrical film, you have a captive audience who has paid for a ticket and is not so ready to jump ship. But for me, an hour of annoying flash cuts and random screams made me want to do that very thing. At least there was this tribute to a truly great horror film:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

FLYBOYS Movie Review

by Brian Holcomb

The First World War was fought with 20th century technology within a 19th century mindset, and the result of this Molotov cocktail was massive casualties on a scale never before seen or even imagined. It was also the first war to make use of the still new technology of motion pictures as a tool of both journalism and propaganda. Although this was often less journalism and more propaganda, most of the footage would qualify today as “reality TV” since most of it was staged for dramatic effect. Since staging for dramatic effect was the business of Hollywood, it wouldn’t be long before they took it one step further and made it all dramatic, or more accurately, melodramatic. The ink was still wet on the Treaty of Versailles when the studios began a new cycle of films that used the Great War as a backdrop for the kind of stoical romanticism specialized by John Monk Saunders, the pulp poet of the air.

There are several stock characters in these melodramas and you will recognize all of them as they have appeared in many films to this date. One is the Ace Squadron Leader. He is the veteran of many kills and missions who has seen it all and seems to have lost all the idealism he may have once had, replacing it with a jaded desire for revenge for his dead friends. His arch enemy is a German flier who is always a variation on the Red Baron. The other is the Young Idealist. He arrives with the pack of new recruits and is immediately pushed around by the Ace Squadron Leader”, who sees his former self in the new pilot, and lets him know that war is indeed hell and the best you can expect is a quick, painless death.

When the Young Idealist proves his mettle in battle, the Ace Squadron Leader shows his newfound respect for him. Later, after many terrible missions, the Ace Squadron Leader sacrifices himself in battle against the Black Raven or Brown Bunny (or a similarly moniker villain), and the Young Idealist finds himself being named the new Ace Squadron Leader, with his own bone to pick with the Yellow Hornet. If you’ve never seen one of these films, ask Snoopy. He knows all about them.

Flyboys doesn’t miss a beat in following this mad lib template. It’s ostensibly the romantic adventure of a group of young Americans who go to France to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a special squadron of 38 American pilots who risked their lives before their own country decided to enter the war. It may indeed be inspired by a true story, but what we see onscreen is simply “Star Wars” set in some fantasy French air base circa 1917. Similar to the war that inspired it, “Flyboys” uses 21st century technology to tell a very old fashioned 20th century tale of how war will make a man out of you; that is, if you are lucky enough to survive it.

The movie was shot with the new Panavision Genesis camera, which was also used on “Superman Returns” and seems to have proven itself as the first true challenger to the throne held by Eastman Kodak. The images are colorful and sharp, making the film aesthetically enjoyable even when the content is completely absurd. Speaking of the content, it is the responsibility of three screenwriters, of whom David S. Ward is the best known. Ward is the Academy Award winning writer of “The Sting” and “Major League”. This script, however, is more “Major League” than “The Sting”.

Which is not to say “Flyboys” isn’t fun or even technically well made. There is a strange tendency in modern art that if director Tony Bill simply let us know he realized he was working with some really hokey and ancient story conventions and that he was playing some of it for dark satire, it would suddenly be a great movie. Still, you feel as though everyone was quite sincere about the story’s absurdities. During the second act climax, the script even rolls out its own version of the Death Star via a massive Zeppelin the pilots try to bring down.
It’s particularly from this point on that the movie gets carried away with its CGI zeal. Since anything is physically possible with CGI planes, the film seems to test the impossible at every chance. Even if half of the stunt “flying” in “Flyboys” were actually possible, it is not cinematically believable, including a “flyby” shooting with a hand held pistol in the skies that is quite hard to swallow. In real life, some people actually survive after being shot in the head, but this would really challenge our suspension of disbelief onscreen.

The performances are excellent all round. James Franco (“The Great Raid” and the “Spiderman” movies) proves that the acclaim he received for playing James Dean was no fluke. Jean Reno (“Empire of the Wolves”) effectively does his Jean Reno thing as the Commander, and Martin Henderson (“Torque”) should have had more scenes since his character was the most enigmatic and interesting of the bunch. He’s the Ace Squadron Leader by the way.

Outside of the content itself, the movie is very handsomely produced, with excellent digital photography by Henry Braham which seems to exploit the full color range of the Genesis camera. The CGI looks visually convincing, and the direction of the air battles is always clear, with no confusion as to who is shooting whom or where the danger lies. Bill is a veteran director and he is not sloppy with his craft: “Flyboys” is solidly built on the rickety legs of cliché. The movie might even sneak its old fashioned story by if it were shorter. At 139 minutes, it’s at least a half hour too long.

The final shot of the movie shows a photograph of the actual aces of the Lafayette Escadrille, and it is very jarring. With this one image, you are suddenly reawakened to the odd fact that the romantic comic book adventure you have just watched has some actual basis in the lives and deaths of real men. Instead of being the inspiring image it was clearly intended to be, it makes the last two hours seem somewhat cheap and exploitative.

Tony Bill (director)
Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans, David S. Ward (screenplay)
CAST: Jennifer Decker …. Lucienne
David Ellison …. Eddie Beagle
James Franco …. Blaine Rawlings
Martin Henderson …. Cassidy
Barry McGee …. Dewitt
Pip Pickering …. Nunn
Jean Reno …. Captain Thenault
Ian Rose …. Wolfert


Sunday, September 06, 2009

FORTY GUNS Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

"She’s a high ridin’ woman with a whip . . . But if someone could break her and take her whip away, someone big, someone strong, someone tall, you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all."

This is the kind of film that you watch with your jaw hanging down. If the internet was around at the time, some of the reviews would say, "WTF?" Ostensibly just another western from Daryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century Fox stables, this was really the latest entry in the "Sam Fuller is crazy as all hell" genre. While the visual style is reminiscent of My Darling Clementine, the film can be seen as a precursor to the feminine histrionics of Johnny Guitar. It's completely obsessed with sex and none of it is really under the surface. Dialogue is completely surreal on the order of David Lynch or Russ Meyer. At the end when Brocky is shot he lets us know how bad it is as he dies by declaring, "I'm killed, Mr. Bonnell, I'm killed". It's like something from a Shakespearian tragedy.

Filled with shock effects designed to call attention to itself, it's a New Hollywood kind of movie made decades before it became "new". Fuller's comic book world is a complete artistic creation, a place where men were MEN and women could take a bullet now and then. Hugely influential on the later work of Sergio Leone as you might tell from the following image: