Tuesday, September 25, 2012

John Waters - A Night Out Amongst the Savagery of Art Prize and the Wisdom of "Smut"

There was a torrent of trendy folks clomping around the streets of Grand Rapids this evening. They blocked roads, took up all the free parking, and exacerbated my existing hatred for the citywide event known, to those unfortunate to be in the GR-Know, as Art Prize. Needless to say, tonight was almost like existing upon a level of hell, one drawn to Earth by the intense intellectual vacuum produced by the pseudo-art savvy, mostly empty minds of various Grand Rapidians and art snobs visiting from abroad. Enter the hero of the night...John Waters.

Having grown up with bits of John Waters' work here and there throughout my occasional filmic explorations I was overjoyed to see that he would be gracing the town in which I live with a brief visit. I was even more elated to learn of his expressed lack of appreciation for the inept and over-publicized "Artsy" Western Michigan event. We had something in common!

I dropped my wife off at the front of the Civic Theatre and began my search for a parking spot with about fifteen minutes left before the start of the show. After about the first two blocks I realized that I would either be walking a great distance to the theatre or I would be paying an  insane amount for an area in which to park my vehicle. I rounded many corners in my anxious search and after a while was convinced that the same slow-walking, vacant expression-wearing guy was at every crosswalk I happened upon. He wasn't the only deplorable, seemingly reoccurring character which stood in the way of my failing attempt to hastily park. There was a hoarde of shambling, culture-seekers, their faces blank yet sneering, crossing en masse at every red light, of which there were many. Sadly, it took more than the fifteen minutes to eventually find a lot where a mere (HA!) eight dollars rented me a space.

Hustling over a crosswalk myself, and feeling a deep subconscious shame while doing so, I made my way over a block's distance to the theatre. The woman at the front door kindly accepted my traffic excuse, informed me that John Waters had already taken the stage, and then directed me to the balcony. My eyes searched around for my wife who was nowhere to be found. So, assuming I was alone for the duration, I leapt up the three flights of stairs and entered into the semi-darkened auditorium, winded, and beheld a sea of distorted heads seated before of me. Past them, below, upon black cloth-draped stage stood the man himself. I took a seat and listened as he continued on about some woman he encountered in his early film career. Made it, I thought.

The talk went on for almost two hours. John was full of an admirable energy, pacing back and forth, barely taking a breath between anecdotes and strange reflections on the people and times he'd encountered and lived. The talk went from strange sex acts, to comments on the events surrounding the production of his films, to the peculiar varieties of subcultures within homosexuality. He spoke about the people he spent time with, the relationship types he preferred, and in a way he debunked the "John Waters Book Meme" proliferated around the internet. Overall it was a stupdendous time, and it ended nicely with the fellow patiently fielding a plethora of random, bizarre, and mostly pointless audience questions and comments. Unfortunately once that had ended there went the night. No photo opportunities. No chance to shake his hand and thank him for pushing the envelope and helping the creators of questionable material find a home for their work in the wider world. Just a simple gracious bow and an exit.

As we shoved our way clear of the theatre I found myself a little happier about things in general, a little more amused with the absurdities amongst which I lived, and almost positive that the people of my town weren't all that bad. Everyone who didn't pose an idiotic query during the question and answer portion seemed as happy as I if not more. There were folks meeting and greeting each other during the mass departure. It was quite pleasant. Then came the walk back to the car. I'll not delve into that and spoil the moment.

So, thanks to John Waters for coming to town. Even if it was just another meaningless paid obligation for him I'm glad I got a chance to see him. Hopefully he'll return to this crazy city one day and there will be a chance to talk to him face-to-face. Maybe someday.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dredd - Comic Film's Greatest Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Being the type of person who tends to enjoy grey characters, non-typical storytelling, and older printed material it's no surprise that I frequent the back corner boxes of my local comic book shops, and have for years. In those boxes I often find the books that the fans of Marvel and DC take for granted. Through those boxes I've found bits of colorful material from Slave Labor Graphics, old Darkhorse titles, Hernandez Brothers' work, stuff from Daniel Clowes, various other independent comic treasures, and the occasional copy of the British comic anthology 2000AD. It is in the latter that I find not just simple stories about this character or that series of events but a group of stories about varied characters each living in their own brilliant little world.

When I first encountered 2000AD the character who obviously jumped to the forefront was a fellow named Judge Dredd. Dredd is a dealer of supreme justice and a proficient badass, to put it plainly. In reading his stories I recognize that he is a character who, like many of the popular American comic book heroes, stands firm in his beliefs which clearly define him, and in so doing he becomes the paragon for those like him in his world, though his humanity inevitably stirs up questions and doubt at appropriate times to round him out in an exceptional way.

Judge Dredd mostly focuses on a specific duality in human nature which is the focus of the law of his land, good and bad, innocent and criminal. He operates in Mega City One, a metropolis of such tremendous breadth and population that no other name could possibly suffice. In that mega city Dredd patrols the streets with his peers, the Judges of the Hall of Justice, and locates crime so that he might deal judgment upon it. So, we have a mightily vast future city spanning the Washington DC area to New York, filled with hundreds of millions of people, and a law system functioning at a most extreme level. What a terrific setting for a dystopian tale of humanity in a future where society is barely holding itself together.

The character Dredd has been around for many years in the pages of 2000AD and the occasional crossover book. Hollywood produced a film adaptation in the mid-90s starring Sylvester Stallone as the Judge along with some doofy comic relief played by Rob Schneider. It was a tremendous flop, and to this day it remains happily forgotten by most self-respecting comic and movie fans. Then this year Lionsgate boldly released a new film adaptation of the old and beloved tough guy titled Dredd, which features Karl Urban in the titular role. A better product has rarely been made in the adaptation process from page to screen.

Dredd, available in 3D and certainly worthy of that format (more on that later), is a film set in a Mega City One which is very much like the metropolis found in the source material. The story of the film follows Judge Dredd on a seemingly regular day in the life of a Judge. During this particular day he is requested to run a nearly failed Judge-potential, named Anderson and played by the stunning Olivia Thirlby, through a test to determine if she is capable of taking up the position. What occurs during a routine crime check makes for a series of events beyond anything merely routine.

We're introduced to the world of this film version of Dredd in such a succinct way from the beginning that there is no question of where the events are taking place geographically and chronologically nor of the state of humanity. Basically the audience is given fair glimpses of character and world content as the story progresses without a mass of spell-it-all-out exposition cluttering up the beginning of the movie. One of the greatest strengths of this film is its story, mainly in how its structured and executed. Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later, was brought on to pen this fine adaptation. Throughout the film Garland wrote the events and characters in such a way that the action flows without any staggering and the audience is given brief views into the potential depth of the issues addressed and the characters at the helm of the thrill ride that is the plot. No one character is completely spelled out from the beginning, but they are instead unravelled as they act and react to the events with which they must contend.

The portrayals of the characters in this film were a joy to watch as they fell within a range from fairly basic, for most of the extras and background characters, to stunning, as were the leads. Karl Urban's portrayal of Dredd was spot on. He masterfully handled both the serious and grim sides of the character along with his merciful and sometimes humorous facets. Olivia Thirlby acted wonderfully as the mutant, possible Judge-to-be. As Anderson she played out the character's sensitive center whilst confidently handling her business side. Lena Headey thespianed the hell out of one of the most villainous ladies to feature in a film of any kind. Her Ma Ma was a cold, driven bitch, commanding in her savageness with a sort of disconnect from reality trailing throughout her. To say that the film was well cast is to make a ridiculous understatement.

Visually this film is sure to set precidents or at least be noted as inspirational to folks in the industry. Having seen several 3D films over the last year and a half I must say that thus far Dredd has most deserved the format and employed it to a magically awe-inspiring level. The violence of the film, which is heavy and graphic, is taken to an almost gorgeous height through the cinematography and use of the 3D effect. Nowhere else does the 3D element most shine than in the scenes where characters are subjecting themselves to the film's despised drug "Slo-Mo." Watching a character hit a vial and dive down 200 stories seems almost enviable when seen through the movie's dazzling 3D. Overall I feel that the look of the movie definitely pays homage to the dynamic wonder of the comic page.

If you're a fan, like me, of 2000AD and are looking for a film which honors your title of interest this is definitely it. If you're just a comic book fan looking for an adaptation which justifies this whole business of constant page-to-screen adapting then this is a film for you. It's many terrific elements assembled into a package of wondrous big screen joy.

Out of five I happily give this film five. Thank you for reading!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - A Review

Folklore and tradition are often tragically neglected in modern horror and fantasy films. Failure to touch back on such important sources for these genres displays a foolish confidence in the potential of a creator's "new" idea (though typically it's a mere rehash) or just a general ignorance, through which the work inevitably suffers. I'd liken this issue to crafting a Golem without the necessary symbols of life necessary to animate it or simply leaving the brain out of the homunculus. What you have is an ineffective, incomplete concept without the essential vital spark. The horror-fantasy film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark not only succeeds where others have failed by wonderfully honoring the classical elements, it also grounds the key aspects of the old stories in the modern times in such a masterful way.

We the audience are introduced to a manor house, its dark history, and the little girl through which we're granted sight into the magical world of the mostly unseen. In the depths of the Earth beneath the manor, in which the girl, her father, and his girlfriend reside, lives a hidden race of diminutive creatures which have plagued the grounds since the original owner stalked them in fear for his own sanity and life. Through the protagonist, young Sally Hurst, we're exposed to a form of the classical "little people" who turn out not to be the "fair folk" romanticized in Victorian literature but instead something closer to the foul and mischievous people of the mounds of the British Isles. The horror comes mostly from their savage practices and sinister needs.

Not only does the film perform magnificently as a tribute to the aged tales of faerie folk, it also offers something for fans of classic horror literature. If you appreciate the works of William Hope Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft, and the like you'll be happy to know that there is not only mention of one of their peers but themes in the film's design which draw directly from weird fiction similar to their dark and otherworldly tales. Arthur Machen is specifically referenced in this film when Katie Holmes' character, Sally's father's girlfriend, goes to research the history of the original owner of the house, a Lord Blackwood. Guillermo Del Toro, the co-writer of the film, specifically chose Machen because of his idea of dark and misshapen faerie folk; a concept Del Toro not only found appealing but very much applicable to this tale.

There are occurrences here and there in the film which feel like stock moments or just bits of cliche, such as the gory faerie attack on the groundskeeper. I suppose a horror film needs to have a little gore these days to draw in a certain element. Just once though I'd love to see a film of the horror genre that relies solely on a deeper, more powerful fear without defaulting to savage blood-letting or a shocker scene to display obvious mortal danger. Creators should imply more without spilling so much red, not to say that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a bloody romp through over-the-top violence. Not at all, actually.

Out of five I give this film a four. Don't pass up the opportunity to see it.

One of the dark-dwelling "faeries" of the film.