Thursday, June 5, 2014

Super Mario Bros

(Note: This post originally appeared in the comments of the excellent film criticism website The Dissolve, as part of the commentariat's ongoing Lovefest series, where commentors write a defense of little-loved movies that they still enjoy. I hope you all enjoy!)

Mario is one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of all time. It’s estimated that, as of 2014, more people recognize Mario then Mickey Mouse. He holds a huge amount of cultural cache, and through his name Nintendo owns a media empire, spanning across a huge library of games (of almost every genre), cartoons, comics, toys, and pretty much anything you can think of.

To me, part of the reason why Super Mario Bros: The Movie is so special is the fact that it takes this incredibly well known character and, instead of giving us what we expect from him, presents him in possibly the weirdest way imaginable. Mario may be spread out in almost every possible direction, but I don’t think that anybody expected his titular movie to be set in a dystopian parallel cyberpunk dimension ruled by dinosaurs that look like people. The directors of the film, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, had previously helped create Max Headroom, the trippy late 80s British series set in a similar setting. It shows throughout the film, and Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa even bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Headroom.

But why? Why take a character who, at the time, was most known for running through castles and saving princesses and put him in a setting like that? To answer this, I think we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, what makes a good video game adaptation in the first place? In my mind, there have only been four movies that I consider to be successful adaptations of video games, discounting films like the Pokemon movies that already relied on established characters from their television adaptations. Including Super Mario Bros., they are 1989’s Sweet Home, 2001’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and 2012’s Ace Attorney. What differentiates these three films from Super Mario Bros. is the fact that all of the games they are based on are very much plot heavy. The Ace Attorney games are practically novels, and the Resident Evil series has been noted for it’s heavy cinematic influence since it’s first game. Sweet Home is a bit of an outlier, but director Kiyoshi Kurosawa supervised the production of both the game and the movie, so it has a strong connecting thread between both properties.

That leaves us with Super Mario Bros., the only film that highly deviates from the plot of its original game. Of course, the long-standing rule of adaptations is that they don’t have to follow the exact plotline of the original as long as they capture the spirit of the original. Does Super Mario Bros. do this? Yes, with aplomb! In fact, I would argue that through the changes implanted in the movie, the film captures the spirit of the original Mario games far better then it would if it was set on the background of the traditional kingdoms and dragons setting.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Re-Animator (1985)

Complaints I hear about modern horror films often are centered on the lack of practical effects and their replacement by CGI. The argument goes that so much of the blood and guts in these films are created on a computer, as opposed to using red corn syrup and sheep brains, and that it doesn't have the same effect as the old effects did because it lacks the presence and weight that you can see onscreen. Even if the red corn syrup looks super fake, it's clearly a fake something, captured on film, as opposed to pixels created after the fact. The actors can then really react to it and make it feel more integral to the scene.

I agree with this, to a point (clever animators can make CGI gore just as fun as practical gore if they use their tools right) but I think an even bigger thing missing from modern horror are the sounds. The squishes as somebody's intestines get ripped out, or the cartoony "SPLATS" of blood hitting a wall. If you watch Berberian Sound Studio you can see how integral these pieces of sound design are to the creation of a movie. Because it's not visual, however, these contributions often get overlooked by moviegoers still reeling from what they've seen onscreen.

Re-Animator, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, is a very gory movie. It has blood and guts all over the place, spraying out of a decapitated head or gushing from a zombies mouth. But more important then that, it sounds gory. Ever drip and drill, every squirt and screech, all are used to enhance the action onscreen in a way that turns the squick factor up to 11. A bloody head I can stand, but hearing the squish of the needle sinking into the neck as the plunger pushes it's serum into the body is a whole other world of disgusting, and Re-Animator knows how to uses these methods to their greatest effect. It's gross, and all the better because of it.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

With the exception of the original 1954 Gojira, a grim anti-war masterpiece about the effects of nuclear war and the neverending arms race it produces, Japanese giant monster movies, known as kaiju, are best when the plot stays simple. The movie can't consist completely of monsters beating each other up, otherwise we'd get bored. There needs to be a human element there to contextualize the attacks. But the more elaborate and convoluted your human story becomes, the more silly the whole thing gets. Movies like The X from Outer Space, Invasion of Astro-Monster, and Godzilla vs. Megalon all featured out there plots involving moon men, ancient civilizations, espionage, intergalactic space travel, and other bits of silliness that only managed to get in the way of what the audience really wanted, which is monsters beating each other up.

The smartest thing Pacific Rim does is find a way to keep the people a vital part of the story without distracting us from the action. Pulling from a wide range of influences including mecha anime, kaiju, the Cthulu mythos, and Top Gun, Pacific Rim is a giddy, breathless action movie that revels in it's trash fiction roots. Self aware but not overtly so, this movie is not afraid to get dumb if it means being able to have more fun. This approach could have killed this film, but under Guillermo Del Toro's direction it gives the movie a quality that instead makes it an absolute joy to watch.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sharknado and SyFy's Instant Mix

According to urban legend, when Betty Crocker first introduced their instant cake mixes, the kind that only needed water, initial sales were disappointing. The executives were confused at this, since by all reports housewives across America wanted a quicker, less time consuming process for baking cakes. Then, one executive got the idea to take out the powdered egg already in the mix and make the customers add their own fresh eggs to the process. The reasoning behind this was that people wanted to still have the experience of making "homemade" cakes, so by forcing them to add their own egg, they would feel more accomplished and satisfied with the results. It worked, and Betty Crocker became a household name.

The "so-bad-it's-good" movie has been having something of a comeback in recent years, thanks to the Internet and the ability to access almost any movie with a few clicks of your fingertips. Troll 2, The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and others have found new life as the next evolutionary step to the midnight movies of old, watched by a bunch of friends crowding around a laptop, or shared via YouTube supercuts. The participatory nature of these movies, whether it's giggling at viewing parties or sharing through social media, are essential to their success. We don't just want to watch these misfires, we want to joke and quip about it with others, asking disbelievingly how it's possible this thing got made, or how they possibly missed this and that and the other thing.

But these types of movies are usually the exception, not the rule. It takes a special blend of elements to make a beautiful trainwreck. Yet the SyFy network wants to force this. They recognize the internet's obsession and want nothing more to indulge and cash in on this. These are not people trying to make the best with what they got. This is a cold, calculated, predatory approach to trick profitable demographics into laughing at purposefully bad art. It's appropriate, then, that the channel is so obsessed with sharks, such as their latest attempt at internet mockery, Sharknado. This piece is not a review, because of course Sharknado is terrible. Rather, this is a look at SyFy's attempts to make bad movies on purpose in the hopes of people MST3King it, and how by doing this they are potentially killing the genre.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Arrested Development (Season 4)

 The framing device behind Chuck Palahniuk's book Haunted is that a group of people have agreed to be part of a reality TV show. Each of the characters are introduced through a short story that's not really related to the "plot" of the book as a whole. As the book continues, we learn more about the circumstances that brought each character to this point as they dissolve into madness for attention. It's doesn't do a particularly good job tying everything together, in a large part because Palahniuk isn't a great writer, but it's still an interesting framing device.

The key to enjoying the brand new fourth season of Arrested Development, which in case you are living in a hole premiered on Netflix streaming this week, is realizing that it's not a TV show. It's the continuation of a TV show, perhaps the funniest TV show of all time. But it is not one itself. It's not quite like anything I've really ever seen before. The closest equivalent would be a miniseries on HBO, but that's not right either. It's more like Haunted, a collection of moments from each character's lives that build and tie together into a greater whole. Thankfully Mitchell Hurwitz is not Chuck Palahniuk, and the result is a winning series, one that tries to be as ambitious as it can and just about reaches that goal.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)


Tony Stark is not a superhero. At least not in the conventional sense. Rewatching the original Iron Man what stood out to me the most was how unheroic he is. When comparing him to, say, Spider-Man, you notice that Tony never really does anything out of altruism. The movie is about him becoming a better person, but he doesn't save anybody or fight crime. The only real heroics he does is when he saves a small village from the 10 Rings, but that's not done because he just wanted to save people. It was done out of revenge and clearing Tony's own conscience (the weapons used in the attack were built by Stark Industries). Spider-Man will sacrifice his scholarship, job, and identity to go save some folks (in Spider-Man 2 he literally does this, taking a detour from delivering pizzas to stop some robbers), but to Iron Man, saving people is an incidental plus to his own goals. The Tony Stark from Iron Man would never sacrifice himself just to help others.

The Avengers, however, is a different story. Tony is probably the primary protagonist of that film and the only hero to be changed by his experiences. He starts out the same as he was in Iron Man, but due to a dead Coulson, a missile, and a wormhole, he discovers his heroic side, the part of him willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It's an interesting build, as most superhero movies would have established that fact before the end credits of their first outing, while it took 3 movies to do so with Iron Man. As I've mentioned before, major Hollywood franchises are becoming more like television in how they are built. You can really consider all the Marvel movies, starting with Iron Man and going up to The Avengers, as Season 1. They introduce everybody with their own movies before throwing them all together for the big season finale. With this in mind, Iron Man 3 is supposedly the beginning of Season 2.

The problem is that Iron Man 3 clearly doesn't want to be this. It wants to be a stand alone movie, not part of a greater whole. But because the Marvel universe is now established it can't be, it needs to be a component of this world. This may explain why the movie feels so disorienting, and why even though it's certainly not a bad movie by any means it's definitely disappointing.