Some pretty different films this installment, so let’s just dig in.
Teen Wolf- Teen Wolf is one weird movie, man. I get that the country was riding the Michael J. Fox wave, but I’m shocked that this thing was a major hit. It has cult film written all over it.
I’m a huge fan of Axe Cop and one of the reasons why is that it is the work of a child that is being made by adults as though it is deserving of every resource they can muster. I don’t know how old Jeph Loeb was when he wrote the screenplay, but it almost feels like a 17-year-old wrote the script and it was made by adult professionals. It’s practically dadaist in many ways, from the sudden bizzare shifts in tone to the way there is no sense of linear narrative passing. (Dialogue indicates the film takes place over a matter of days while the climax indicates an entire basketball season has been played.) Not to mention the bizarre way that the main character is accepted immediately and nobody ever really questions the situation. Wouldn’t the confirmation of the existence of werewolves be at least worthy of local media attention? Wouldn’t it spark the slightest scientific curiosity?
I mostly knew of the film thanks to the Saturday Morning cartoon and from seeing Teen Wolf Too with my mom as a kid. (I assume she saw the first and enjoyed it, so she took us to the sequel that was ahead of its time in recognizing the cinematic qualities of intercollegiate wrestling.) But I’m sure I saw at least some of the original during some network broadcast in the mid to late 80s. My interest in seeing it complete was related to a Cracked podcast (one of the participants being ‘David Wong,’ writer of John Dies at the End) in which the film was discussed as not just an obvious puberty metaphor, but a subconscious racial tale in which Fox’s werewolf side, being flashy, confident, outgoing and good at basketball, is actually displaying traits associated with being black by popular culture of the time. The climax involves him returning to being “good” by abandoning those qualities and returning to being a cookie-cutter, under-the-radar white kid.
There is certainly evidence to support the theory, though it does seem accidental at best. It’s just one part of a really, really confusing theme that seems to be a preemptive argument against The Incredibles’ cries of positive individualism. Sure, Fox’s Scott gets popular when he is revealed to be the eponymous monster, but his friends become afraid of him or exploitive and the basketball team hates him for becoming a ball hog. He also finally attracts the attention of his crush, who turns out to be both a good lay and a mind-gaming psycho on the level of her boyfriend that insinuates he killed Scott’s mom in the tradition of 80s teen movie bad guys that seem like they are trying to outdo Ted Bundy. (It also features the classic genre stereotypes of the fat guy, the sidekick that always has a scheme up his sleeve and the best friend/love interest that is actually more attractive than the popular hot girl, but they think because her hair isn’t teased, that somehow makes her “plain.” This would reach its nadir with She’s All That.) Rather than embracing his growth, the girl wants him to be his unassuming old self. And instead of using his natural abilities on the court, he intentionally hobbles himself. (Meanwhile the rest of the team somehow begins to play well magically despite still using the same poor, arcless shooting.) So what is it? Pro-USSR Cold War conformist propaganda? Parody of Michael Landon’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf afraid to go full Zucker Bros.? Segregationist racial allegory? All I know is it’s weird, it’s fun and it’s kind of terrible. So a great late night movie.
In a World…- I wonder if Don LaFontaine’s family insisted on his lionization to use his name in the film In a World… The best known of the Hollywood trailer voices, one has to ponder if it’s because he was truly the most talented or if it is because he had the best agents. Because he’s spoken of like a God in this film. Regardless, the film is a fun little slice of indie comedy.
I personally found myself interested because it is set within the Hollywood voiceover industry. (A business I’ve had people suggest I should be a part of on occasion.) As trailers all meld together and become more and more alike, I’ve actually noticed a dip in the amount of voiceovers with trailers relying more on editing and text to sell films. Usually accompanied with the ever popular “thum!” sound effect. Which is a shame. It certainly hasn’t helped trailers get any better. Still, there’s plenty of work for voice over artists if you can find it and in this story, Lake Bell is on the verge of breaking through and out from under her famous (within the business at least) father’s shadow.
In doing so, we are treated to a pretty great cast of actual vocal performers, cameos announced and unannounced and excellent comedians. Her main rival outside the family is Ken Marino, who I’ve been a fan of for a while as he’s bounced around between The State alumni projects and small roles in lots of varied projects like the show Reaper and films like Role Models. There’s also Rob Courdry appearing as her brother-in-law, but the side story between him and her sister is actually the weakest part of the film. I mean, I get it as an attempt to build the world and deepen her background. On it’s own it would even be a decent enough short film. But ultimately it didn’t feel like it tied into the main plot enough to justify spending so much time on it. Still, Courdry is good as usual. Add in some all-stars like Dimitri Martin as her love interest and Nick Offerman (looking bizarre without his mustache) as an engineer and you’ve got enough talent to make even a failed attempt worth watching.
Fortunately, the film succeeds in being a low key success. It turns out to be utterly charming and funny. The best part is that while the film certainly fits into the “young woman adrift and flailing in the real world” genre, it doesn’t revel in it. Bell’s character Carol is seemingly a decent person who isn’t just making horrible mistakes that hurt others. She actually grows. She learns. She works to succeed. She may be a complete dork and a more than a little socially retarded, but we get some explanation for that and we see her breaking cycles to move forward with her life and that’s a great thing. It may have the technical merits of a Kevin Smith production, but the writing is strong enough to overcome its limitations.
This isn’t one of those surprise films that I find myself putting onto my “top films of the year” list like I did with Safety Not Guaranteed a couple of years ago, but I highly recommend it.
Zatoichi the Outlaw- In the sixteenth entry of the series that I’ve been making my way through, we find what is probably one of the weaker episodes thus far simply because there’s almost nothing new in it and it is not paced or structured as well as many of the others.
In this chapter we get a patchwork of things that have dotted the series over the last several films. Yet again, he gets involved in a gang war between rival yakuza. And they become corrupt thanks to colluding with the local government officials. Once again, a woman is forced into prostitution due to the yakuza she loves making poor choices and by the time he tries to take responsibility, she is an alcoholic who thinks her honor is too tarnished. And once again, Ichi has to deal with a moralist who chides him for using his sword to help others, though at least in this one he’s thanked in the end by a majority of the people he saves. Hell, we’ve already seen some of the actors playing at least two or three other characters. The only thing really different in this case is some b-grade Three Stooges-style hijinx involving other blind masseurs.
The best part about the film is definitely the ending and it has all the trademark grace notes of the series’ excellent sword play, as well as a return to actually including some gore in the proceedings with fake blood and the like instead of being like an old TV Western in which someone grabs the effected area and keels over. It was very odd that I remember there being a film or two that didn’t do that, but then it went right back into the bloodless killing. I’m not sure if it has to do with the particular director or if the studio tried to mimic another film and decided it hadn’t worked, but I for one enjoy the goofy bloodspray that occupies such films as the Lone Wolf and Cub series, so for me it is jarring but fun.
Given some of the themes of these films (rape or attempted rape being a rather obvious one), I’d be very careful about showing them to children anyway, so for me it makes sense to go ahead and make them visually more adult.
The Fog- I’ve decided that on my quest to better myself in terms of expanding my cinematic horizons, I need to start catching up on the work of John Carpenter. I’ve hit most of the big beats. I consider Big Trouble in Little China a classic and look at The Thing as one of the greatest movies of all time, regardless of genre. So where did I start on this journey? Scream Factory’s release of his low-budget 1980 ghost story, The Fog. And darned if I didn’t kinda love it, despite it’s flaws.
I’ll grant you, I had the idea this would be a good starting place based on my predilection for atmospheric supernatural tales. Fortunately, the atmosphere is what Carpenter gets right above all else. The use of the actual fog they have crawling around buildings and under doors is insanely cool. They must have gone through enough dry ice to keep Mr. Wizard stocked for life. When combined with the coastal town production design (and the early 80s setting that somehow adds to the proceedings) it makes the film much more than the sum of its parts. But most of the film is shot exceedingly well in anamorphic widescreen, which helps it look like a much more professional production than it may have if it was done another way. Even the bright daytime scenes carry the film because the locations are so great, like the lighthouse/radio station that Adrienne Barbeau owns.
In many ways, the film is an urban legend mashup before that concept really even existed. You have vengeful ghosts (many of which kill with hooks), a ghost ship, a teen hitchhiker, references to the “witching hour” and all sorts of elements that come straight from a campfire horror tale. The opening exposition showing just that is a brilliant move on Carpenter’s part. It sets the mood for a tale that never is really that scary, but definitely manages to be wonderfully creepy. While there is definitely gore in the film (the most egregious example of which is an eyeless corpse) it seems downright quaint compared to a lot of the slasher films that would follow it. The music is also fantastic and is probably my favorite of Carpenter’s scores thus far.
The issues with the film are abundantly clear. The characters’ lack of depth is the biggest offender and I’m sure part of that boils down to how many characters are featured. Due to their paths only crossing on occasion, they don’t really gel that well either. That said, some of the principles are stronger than others. Father O’Fallon is a flawed man, but he manages to be a hero in the end and is utterly repentant for the sins of his fathers. Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne sinks to hysterics in some moments, but still manages to sink her teeth into the role, exuding sultriness in her role as the town radio station’s owner operator that apparently is only not working for five hours a day. It’s no wonder the Batman Animated producers made her their Catwoman. I wonder if her character wasn’t an inspiration for the show Welcome to Nightvale. The weakest link is probably Vivian Leigh’s town “historian” that comes across as a less negligent version of the mayor from Jaws.
Shout/Scream Factory has done a great job with this release. They honestly love this kind of material and it really shows. As a low-budget affair with lots of dark shots and optical effects, there’s no way The Fog was ever going to look pristine. The quality of the video varies wildly from soft shots full of grain (thankfully most of these are very short) to vivid, detailed images. It skews more towards the latter and I have a hard time believing it could look any better without seeing a pristine 35mm print on opening weekend. It also has some very interesting and candid special features in which Carpenter and co. talk about how the first cut of the film was simply terrible and quick, messy reshoots essentially saved it and turned it into a modestly successful film whose reputation has grown over the years thanks in large part to home video. I highly recommend this disc. I don’t have as many Shout blu rays as I’d like (off the top of my head, all I remember is this, MST3K: The Movie and Night of the Comet) but I will continue to build my collection. If they’re trying to be the B-Grade/cult version of Criterion, they’re doing it right.
Kon Tiki- It’s hard for me to be impartial about the film Kon Tiki because I love the book. It made me want to hop on a raft and make the trip, myself.
The book, written by Thor Heyerdahl, the man behind the expedition, is a pure adventure tale. It is largely bereft of interpersonal squabbles and full of fascinating scientific observations, colored with an explorer’s philosophy. In comparison, the film seems somewhat exploitive and false. For all I know, everything in it could be true, but it makes it seem so much more like soap opera. And I’m torn on that. Part of me knows that it would be harder to maintain interest in the story without showing the emotional effects of spending months at sea, sharing a tiny raft with five other men. I understand a big part of that is how the nuance of the journey would be hard to explain without tons of internal monologue style narration or clunky exposition. And to be fair, it does turn out to be quite a good film, beautifully shot and featuring some great, low-key special effects. There is an “infinite crane” shot that especially dazzles, showing just how isolated and small they are against the Pacific Ocean, like someone appropriated Powers of Ten and added a plot.
I watched the English language version because, while the film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, there are two distinct versions of the film. One is in Norwegian (the country from which the men in the expedition came and where the film was essentially made.) The other is, rather than a clumsy dub, filmed natively in English and is supposed to be the exact same film, but with the actors speaking a different language. This in and of itself is rather fascinating and I’d love to compare the two. It reminds me of when Universal made English and Spanish versions of Dracula at the same time, except in the case of Kon Tiki, they actually use the same actors.
I highly recommend the film, especially if you haven’t read the book. If it is a good starting point for getting you interested in actually reading about the expedition, so much the better. It’s especially interesting now as for a very long time Heyerdahl’s work was said to be discredited due to genetic research showing Polynesia was populated from the west. But, as with most things, it turns out it wasn’t that simple and recent tests show traces of Peruvian genetics in the people of Easter Island, lending credence to his theories and showing that even now, the story of Kon Tiki isn’t over.