Monthly Archives: January 2019

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

*. Actually not bad, as far as these things go.
*. I wasn’t bored. This despite the fact that Part 5 (as it is sometimes numbered, though this is not how its title appears on screen) is one of the most conventional and thus predictable entries in the series, right down to the stupid jump scare at the end. Plus the gore looks like it was done on the cheap throughout. (Though, in the film’s defence, some of the better kills had to be cut for being too violent. During the DVD commentary director Danny Steinman even remarks at one point “I’m looking at these kills and they are not good.” He’s right. They aren’t.)
*. Still, for some reason I kept watching and wasn’t distracted.
*. Maybe it was just the sheer number of bodies piling up. I believe there are over 20 kills in this instalment. According to Steinmann he was under a directive to give a scare, a jump, or a kill (“preferably a kill”) every seven or eight minutes. That keeps things moving along.
*. Another thing that kept me watching was the plot. Not because the plot is very interesting or original, but . . . it’s a Friday the 13th film with a plot! Meaning they actually try to set up a bit of a mystery as to the killer’s identity. Which in itself is remarkable as I think this is the one movie in the series where the killer in the hockey mask (a slightly different hockey mask, purists will note) is not Jason Voorhees.
*. Perhaps it was just the mix of old and new then. There are all the old, familiar touchstones like the jump scares with animals, the running through the woods in the rain, the discovery of the bodies, and Jason rising from the dead, but there’s also the Tommy Jarvis “is he or isn’t he?” angle.

*. Roger Ebert thought it “more recycled leftover garbage from the last time around” and didn’t see anything that set this movie apart from the first four but I think this is unappreciative of what was a real effort to reboot the series and take it in a slightly different direction. It didn’t work, as the Tommy Jarvis experiment turned into a damp squib, but in a way this movie did reset things and took the franchise in a new direction because in digging Jason back up again in the next film they had to fully enter the world of the supernatural.
*. According to “horror guru” Michael Felsher, interviewed for the “making of” featurette, A New Beginning has the worst reputation of any of the sequels. That’s a judgment he rejects, calling this “a very underrated movie.” This made me wonder how he ranks them. I mean, there does have to be a worst.
*. It had a weird launch. The series had attained a bad reputation and so it was cast under the fake (but nevertheless apt) title Repetition. The actors were unaware that it was going to be another Friday the 13th movie. Meanwhile, the director Danny Steinmann came from a background in exploitation work that censors had a lot of problems with. This is a track record he would continue with A New Beginning, which would be his last film. The MPAA wanted a lot of cuts to give this an R rating.
*. Steinmann had thought he was shooting a porno in the woods what with all the nude scenes he had included. I think that reveals a certain bent in his imagination. I mean, these movies always include some gratuitous nudity, but this one goes a bit further in that regard.
*. I’d be more censorious, but the fact is Deborah Voorhees looks sensational in her brief forest idyll. And how weird is it that she has the same last name as Jason?

*. Why is it that the killer is wearing a mask underneath his mask? Does that make sense? I don’t recall that ever being explained.
*. A final bit of weirdness: Why are the kids watching A Place in the Sun? There’s little thematic relevance I can see and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing either of them would be into. I thought it telling that none of the four participants on the DVD commentary even knew the name of the movie until one of them looked it up.
*. Gene Siskel didn’t understand why this movie went in for skewering so much. I don’t think there’s any skewering except for the death of Demon. What I did note was how drug use had supplanted casual sex as the chief catalyst for death. For all their sex and violence, these movies were actually quite moralistic.
*. I can’t remember having seen this one before. I think I probably did see it a quarter-century ago but on this most recent viewing I seem to have forgotten it completely. Certainly the absurd plot twist at the end where the identity of the killer and his motivation is revealed took me by surprise. I was sure, however, that I’d seen the outhouse murder. Some things stick in your head. But why didn’t I remember the girl dancing the robot? She’s very good.
*. So there you have it. An oddity in the franchise that opened up several doors that had nothing behind them. Ironically for a new beginning, it was mainly a dead end. Jason, however, was going to prove to be eternal.

Beowulf (2007)

*. Wow. Ray Winstone has been working out. He’s looking pretty buff, even seven years after Sexy Beast.
*. I’m kidding. That’s not Ray. And that’s not Angelina Jolie, pumped (or pimped) up to look like the target demographic’s idea of an ideal woman. This is an animated film. And how you feel about that will determine what you think about the movie.
*. This is a shame, as there was an interesting script here, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. As soon as we see Anthony Hopkins appear as a drunken Hrothgar we know they’re not going to be too reverent to the source material. This might even be a bit of fun, along the lines of what Sean Connery did with the 1984 film they made out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sword of the Valiant.
*. But then there’s the 3D and the CGI and all the rest of the stuff to make us think we’re only watching another video game. On the DVD box there’s a pull quote from Leonard Maltin calling it “cutting-edge moviemaking,” and I suppose it was in 2007. But nothing dates you faster than being on the cutting edge.
*. Ten years later, the look can fairly be called retro. Some elements, like the swimming scenes and the horses, are especially bad. Meanwhile, the bodies don’t move naturally at all and the faces look airbrushed and Photoshopped of all expression.
*. So while I’d like to say there’s more to this Beowulf than just the look, the look is so distracting and overwhelming that any other commentary is sort of pointless.
*. Even the script fails to live up to its initial promise. I thought changing the tone of the Old English poem made sense in places, and that’s all they did in the first half of the film. But then things just go crazy. Grendel is Hrothgar’s love child. Grendel’s mom then seduces Beowulf, who becomes the new king of the Danes after Hrothgar kills himself. The dragon turns out to be the spawn of Beowulf and Grendel’s mom. The whole thing is turned into an Anglo-Saxon soap opera.
*. That’s is too bad. This could have been an interesting cast if they’d been given the chance to do some acting, and there’s some cleverness sprinkled throughout (like introducing bits of Old English in various places, and making Grendel’s mom into a richer and more suggestive figure). But at the end of the day it really is just a cartoon, and not one that was made in a style that has worn well. At the time it was reasonably well received but I doubt many people watch it today. Ten years from now I suspect it will be totally forgotten.

Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

*. At the beginning of the group DVD commentary on Beowulf & Grendel a couple of interesting things are said.
*. I’ll start with writer Andrew Rai Berzins, who says that he was drawn to the Beowulf story in part because it “had never been filmed.” Actually, it had been filmed twice just five years earlier: as The 13th Warrior and Beowulf. Now both of these were loose adaptations, with the former being a more realistic version of the legend based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead and the latter a post-apocalyptic fantasy starring Christopher Lambert, but they were still the Beowulf story. Given how much is changed in this telling I don’t think they can say they were the first and it’s hard to believe Berzins wasn’t aware of the others (from other things he says on the commentary it seems pretty clear that he was). [Note: Berzins responds in the comments below.]
*. The second thing I found interesting is when director Sturla Gunnarsson says that his initial inspiration for the film was the Icelandic landscape, which he describes as being a character in the film. I can see that, and if you’ve got a crush on such a landscape I guess there are only so many different stories that are going to work with it. Beowulf was one. Not because Iceland looks like Denmark, but because it makes such a wonderful fantasy backdrop.

*. The raw power of the setting gives the film both an otherworldly and realistic texture. This fits with the overall approach of the film, which was not to use any CGI. In other words it’s the opposite of the Robert Zemeckis animated Beowulf that would come out just a couple of years later.
*. Saying this is a more “realistic” and less mythical Beowulf doesn’t mean it’s any more faithful an adaptation. This is very much a modern re-interpretation, as I think you would expect. If you know the poem there actually isn’t much there to work with in terms of character. So Beowulf is a bit more conflicted here, while Grendel is given a more complicated back story. He’s a troll now, with Shakespeare’s Caliban as his literary model.

*. I was fine with most of the changes, and with the use of “fuck” throughout the script, and lines like “I tell you the troll must be one tough prick.” Some reviewers didn’t like this, but I don’t know what their objections were based on. How was it anachronistic? Nobody in the Middle Ages in this part of the world was speaking English anyway. I agree with Gunnarsson that it’s a silly convention that everyone in such historical epics deliver Shakespeherian lines.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the Good Witch Selma, and boy does Sarah Polley seem uninterested in the part. I think she’s a good actor, but she often looks like she’s bored by the roles she plays.
*. The movie has a wonderful big-screen look to it, and there are a lot of other things I enjoyed (like the script, in general, and Gerard Butler’s all-too-human Beowulf). But it doesn’t add up to a film I love. Perhaps because all the revisions take the story away from its roots in an essential way that The 13th Warrior and Zemeckis’s film didn’t (I should add here that I much prefer this film to Zemeckis’s, though I’d rank The 13th Warrior higher).
*. What I mean is that Beowulf is an action story and this movie doesn’t do action well. The fight scenes are quick, dark, and uninteresting, and the half-humanization of Grendel undercuts the heroic man vs. monster mythos.
*. A final note on the commentary. Berzins remarks that the way the film ends, with the child of Grendel and Selma being allowed to live, was introduced because they wanted to leave things open for a sequel. Really! Like Beowulf & the Son of Grendel. Or maybe Grendel: The Revenge. That’s incredible, but I didn’t get the sense Berzins was joking. [Note: Berzin expands on this point in his comment below.] My own take on the ending was that they just wanted to suggest the heroic-age revenge cycle of violence was doomed to continue. I think that’s the way I’ll continue to think of it. The idea of a sequel is too diminishing.

The 13th Warrior (1999)

*. Being labeled as one of the biggest box office bombs ever is tough to live down, but it can be misleading. Not every bomb (or expensive flop) is a bad movie, and given the vagaries of Hollywood accounting defining the actual extent of the financial damage can be difficult.
*. Enter The 13th Warrior, which is usually regarded as having been a bomb but which is an entirely watchable if not great movie and whose balance sheet may not have been as grim as it is sometimes made out to be.
*. It must have seemed like a winner on paper. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead, which was also the film’s original title) and directed by John (Predator, Die Hard) McTiernan. But for whatever reason the initial test audiences weren’t enthusiastic and there followed a lengthy process of re-shoots (directed by Crichton), editing, and even the writing of a new score. All this extra work is usually blamed for the overruns, though there’s wide disagreement about how much the film ultimately cost.
*. Once you step away from this industry inside-baseball analysis, however, I don’t think it’s that bad a movie. The basic idea is fascinating, and effectively presented. Basically Crichton took the Old English poem Beowulf and re-imagined a real story that might have given birth to the legend. So Grendel becomes the Wendol, a tribe of primitive cannibals, the fire-breathing dragon is a stream of Wendol horsemen carrying torches riding down a mountain, and Grendel’s mother is the witchy-woman who rules the Wendol.
*. Well, at least I thought it was fascinating. But then I’ve read Beowulf. Not bragging, but maybe I got more out of that part of it. Still, even leaving that out I thought it was a solid historical adventure, with lots of guys with beards wielding broadswords and chopping off limbs. The plot is Beowulf meets The Seven Samurai, and what’s wrong with that? Or even Beowulf meets Predator, with the Wendol hanging their dismembered victims upside down and our hero (his name is Buliwyf) all but saying “If it bleeds we can kill it.” Actually, what he says is “If it’s a man it sleeps, and if it sleeps it has a lair.” Same idea.
*. I mentioned how odd it seemed watching The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) today and seeing the hero praying to Allah. This may have been the last big-budget Hollywood flick though that would have a hero doing that.
*. I thought it interesting that one of the changes Crichton made in the reshoots was to change a scene that was more faithful to his novel. As McTiernan had it, the den mother figure was portrayed as an old woman, as she is in the novel. It was decided this didn’t look good on screen so she was changed into a youthful minx. Sometimes the writer has to be one to re-imagine his own work. Or at least repackage it.
*. I really liked the atmosphere they created shooting on location, and the practical effects. It goes with the de-mythologizing theme, and I bought into all the mud and blood entirely. Today this would all be drowned in CGI and there’d be no texture to the film. Just look at the worthless all-CGI version of Beowulf that Robert Zemeckis directed. I’d watch this over that any day. And, I’ll add, I’d rather watch this than the similarly atmospheric Beowulf & Grendel (2005) any day too.
*. So, sure, maybe it was a flop. I think it’s still pretty good. It’s a bit slow and doesn’t move well (probably attributable to all the re-shooting and editing). They should have dropped a lot of the early, introductory stuff. Omar Sharif apparently hated his small part so much he retired from acting for a while. He could and probably should have been left out entirely. But once things get going I find this to be a perfetly serviceable and even at times enjoyable action flick. It’s not a favourite, but it deserves to be remembered as something a lot more than a bomb.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

*. In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (a book I can’t recommend enough) he talks about our movement away from a text-based civilization to the new electronic dispensation. This was in 1985, so before the Internet as we know it, but Postman still nailed what would become the essential point: that it was not the dystopic vision of Orwell’s 1984 that we would see realized but that of Huxley’s Brave New World. The state wouldn’t burn books or engage in heavy-handed censorship because we wouldn’t care about books any more. We’d watch the “feelies” on TV and give ourselves over entirely to mindless entertainment. People would “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
*. This is a point Ray Bradbury had already made in Fahrenheit 451. Yes, there’s a fascistic state police squad and all the other props of the Orwellian dystopia, but as he makes clear at the end of the book, the public “stopped reading of its own accord.” The state didn’t really need any enforcers.
*. This is more like our world. We’ve been told for decades now that people don’t read any more and that print is dead. And while this is an overstatement, it does reflect a general truth. Julie Christie makes the point, albeit a bit awkwardly, during her DVD commentary: “Bradbury must have thought that for books to be a threat what was going to happen in the future is that most people in this story, most people retain free will. In other words, the threat is that if the books are there then the people would choose to read them, to exercise their minds by reading. But in fact, most people have chosen not to read books.”
*. Also on the commentary track editor Thom Noble expresses bafflement at people wanting to remake it since it’s a “period piece” that wouldn’t really make sense today. So much for SF as prophecy.
*. This is not, however, a point that Fran├žois Truffaut’s film bothers with. Instead we have the firemen as stereotypical jackbooted Nazi thugs and the book people as a bunch of hippie freedom lovers. We can’t even call them a resistance since they’ve really just opted out of society entirely. There is a dark ambiguity to this I’ll come back to, but overall the political message is simpler than it is in the book.

*. Fahrenheit 451 is a movie that both should have been a lot better and at the same time works a lot better than you might expect.
*. When I say it should have been better I’m referring mainly to the talent collected. A classic Ray Bradbury story. Truffaut directing. Nicolas Roeg behind the camera. Oskar Werner when he was a star (that didn’t last long). Julie Christie pulling double duty.
*. On the other hand, there were good reasons for doubting it from the start. Foremost among these being the fact that Truffaut didn’t know English. This is something that critics took the film to task for right from the beginning, and they haven’t stopped since.
*. There’s no denying that the language barrier led to difficulties. In the “making of” featurette it’s said that the cast and crew basically all worked in French, and apparently even the script was originally written in French and then re-written (perhaps meaning more than translated) into English. Given that all the dialogue was dubbed in post, one wonders why they didn’t just shoot it in French as well.
*. But does this make a difference? Sergio Leone knew little English, but still made great movies by compensating with laconic heroes and lots of close-ups. Truffaut had a way of working with the language barrier too: by insisting that the dialogue be uninflected and unemotional. He thought that people who didn’t read would be inarticulate. So if the speech sounds stiff, that’s not just because Truffaut didn’t know English but because he wanted it to sound that way.

*. Beyond the language barrier there were other reasons you might have thought it would go wrong. This was Truffaut’s first colour film, which is a big change. It was also SF, and Truffaut was not a fan of that genre. And finally he was entering into a Hitchcock phase, but was this a good fit as a Hitchcock film?
*. A good fit or not, Truffaut was going to try and make it work. There are various nods to Hitch throughout, from the small and subtle (the reaction shot of Montag’s wife finding a book) to the blatant (Montag’s dream). I suspect there might also be a connection between Christie playing two roles and Kim Novak’s doubling in Vertigo. And of course you’ve got Bernard Herrmann’s score backing it all up.
*. But the question remains as to how appropriate this was. I think it might have worked, as the setting of a police/surveillance state is a good fit for building suspense. But there’s something about the atmosphere that just doesn’t build the appropriate level of threat and dread.
*. At the most basic level: what is Montag threatened with if he gets caught? Not getting his promotion? Being fired? Or perhaps sent to some re-education camp where he’ll be tortured and killed? How repressive a society is this? The commune of the book people doesn’t look so bad.
*. So much of the film seems over the top, from Herrmann’s score to the childlike reds of the fire engine and fire station. This was deliberate, but off-putting.
*. Then there are the bizarre moments that don’t seem to have any explanation. The sinister fireman who appears crossdressed at the school. The antique phones. The fact that Montag can’t use the pole at the fire station. The way half the screen goes black at the park.

*. Or take another example. If you’re a fan of the book perhaps the biggest thing you’ll miss is the Mechanical Hound. I think the reason they had to leave it out is pretty clear. There was just no way they were going to make it look anything other than ridiculous. Hell, forty years later the mechanical hounds in Kingsman: The Golden Circle still looked ridiculous. On the other hand, did they have to replace it with the men in jetpacks? Did they look any less ridiculous, even in 1966. How can you take them seriously?
*. Montag’s escape is also pretty unbelievable. Basically he just walks out of town and crosses a little river in a rowboat. Which is fine if this is all a fantasy, but it doesn’t work as well if you want the audience to buy into the notion of there being anything really at stake.
*. Oh, those classic Penguin Classic covers. They’ve brought them back in recent years. They really were iconic.
*. I mentioned the ambiguity in the depiction of the commune at the end. This arises from the fact that reading is, for the most part, a personal experience. It’s something we do by ourselves, turning the words on the page into the voice in our head. As such, there’s something solipsistic in it. And so, as others have noted, are the book people at the end that different from the people masturbating on the monorail? Or the man in the red sweater making out with himself in the park?
*. Julie Christie says on the commentary that the ending is suggestive of some social communion beyond the sexual or physical, but one that allows for a deeper interpersonal bonding and understanding. I’m not so sure. Don’t those figures pacing back and forth, oblivious to one another, seem like so many of the people we see today plugged into their phones and iPods? SF can be prophetic! Believe!