Archive for June, 2008

Spontaneous Combustion

Posted in Horror on June 21, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(1991, 1:85, Tobe Hooper)
** – Worth Seeing

After dealing with The Cannon Group wreaking havoc on Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, director Tobe Hooper was reported to have said that his next film would be his own production. That way, Hooper reasoned, no one else but he could be blamed if the film was bad. If Hooper had known that the film that would follow this statement, Spontaneous Combustion, would be subject to a post-production re-haul and a straight-to-video release, he might have thought twice before speaking. The post-production history of Spontaneous Combustion is unclear, but it is known that the film was released in a version that Hooper said was far from his own vision. Many in the press and the horror fan-base said that this was to cover up for what they saw as Hooper’s long suspected filmmaking inadequacies, questioning the degree to which he had a true directorial hand in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. Since Hooper also credited himself as the producer and screenwriter, critics reasoned that all of the film’s deficiencies unquestionably pointed to him.

Most of the criticism focuses on the narrative of Hooper’s film, calling it a rip-off of Stephen King’s Firestarter, and, I grant, there are some similarities. In the 1950s, a young couple agrees to become subjects in nuclear tests for the US military and for a corporation, in exchange for a house, car and all the other accoutrements of postwar prosperity. Soon after the test, the seemingly unscathed newlyweds produce a boy, yet the promised suburban bliss goes up in smoke when the parents spontaneously combust just hours after the child’s birth. The sponsors of the test convene and decide to keep the whole affair secret, leaving the child, Sam, to be closely monitored through adulthood by the head of the corporation, who covertly nurtures Sam’s inherited powers. The narrative jumps twenty some-odd years, during which Sam, played as an adult by Brad Dourif, has grown up in a small town unaware that it is a hive of secrets and hidden agendas. Everyone — from his girlfriend to his ex-wife to the family doctor — is playing some secret role in grooming Sam to be a new weapon for the military. All goes awry when Sam hears a witness to the nuclear experiment call into a talk show that Sam is listening to, and the threads of his life begin to untangle. Sam’s girlfriend, Lisa, confesses that she herself is the birth child of the same nuclear tests and that she has been placed in Sam’s life by his uncle. Sam confronts his uncle at his mansion, who reveals that he is not only the head of the corporation which sponsored the tests, but also Sam’s real father, impregnating Sam’s mother before her willing exposure to a nuclear blast. Enraged by the web of deceit that his life has been enmeshed in, Sam draws upon his destructive power to literally burn the house down, taking most of the conspirators with it.

While the plot of Spontaneous Combustion is similar to King’s story, Hooper’s own preoccupations override any surface resemblance. Foremost is the emphasis on the bloodline and history of families that spawn abnormal and dysfunctional individuals, the vicious mechanisms of American industry and capitalism that create these families, and the facade of suburban normalcy that is an attempt to hide these deficiencies. Also present are the themes of destructive forces of nature that exist inside and outside the body that manifest themselves in relation to sex and rage, along with supernatural and psychic powers such as ESP and telepathy. Hooper, as usual, strikingly works these concerns into the set design and look of the film. Reflecting the theme of fire and heat, the art direction is constructed of hot colors and glowing neon, and the lighting design radiates a bright sheen, represented visually in all the lighting fixtures that decorate the sets.

To find an article or interview where Hooper spoke at length of the changes made to Spontaneous Combustion would be of great service, because what remains of the film hints at a well thought-out and designed horror film. The sequences that take place in the Fifties seem to be the most intact and therefore fully realized, but when the film shifts to the Seventies to focus on Sam, the narrative becomes wobbly, and at times, incoherent. Character’s relations to each other become ill-defined, as do their motivations, and the subplot that links Sam’s realization of his powers with the start date of the town’s new nuclear power plant is totally underdeveloped. A further understanding of Hooper’s intentions may also clarify Brad Dourif’s performance, which shifts from exaggerated naiveté to drooling, over-the-top rage and thus almost renders itself a parody. Hooper’s films always have elements of black humor and parody, but so much is missing between and within the scenes here that it is impossible to discern the proper tone or intentions of the film. (A perfect example is the exclusion of any scene establishing Sam and Lisa as high-school teachers, thus making them look like the oldest students in history to be wandering the halls.)

All that remains, however, is what either the other producers or the distributor found dynamic or fit to remain. Hooper said that Lifeforce was cut by 22 minutes because the producers wanted to get to the effect scenes as quickly as possible; gutting story, atmosphere and suspense in the meantime. Spontaneous Combustion seems to have met a similar fate, but with even more destructive results. Some sequences appear to have been edited out of order; shots that were to be intercut now remain separate actions resulting in moments when absolutely nothing is happening on screen. While slow pacing may be a problem in a lot of Hooper’s films, anyone familiar with his work knows he has far surpassed the rudiments of film editing. Then there is the matter of the ending: after Sam has destroyed his birth father, ex-wife and doctor, the film abruptly ends as Lisa helplessly watches as Sam dissolves into a swirling pool of fire or something like that. There is no resolution as to what will happen with Lisa, or, for that matter, what happened to Sam; once the nemeses of Sam’s life are extinguished, the film cuts to the end credits, the theme music pounding out — giving the sense that something exciting has happened, but if it has, its been left on the editing room floor.

Those who have been eager to dismiss Hooper fail to realize that with Spontaneous Combustion, and some of his other work, a comprehensive evaluation is difficult, for one is dealing with incomplete texts: texts that have been disassembled and reconstructed apart from the author’s intentions. In considering an auteur’s work- or perhaps any filmmaker- one needs to keep in mind the mode and conditions of production under which a particular film was made, especially in America for the past 23 years. Hooper’s career is a case in point in this respect: having started working independently in the 70s, absorbed by the studio system in the 80s, and then cast back out into the realm of independent film production, which had changed greatly from the 70s due to the advent and marketing of video. If this seems like special pleading for a director with an uneven filmography, I would insist that the case needs to be made in defense of Hooper, whose work demonstrates a high level of visual sophistication and thematic continuity. Therefore, no matter what the problems with Spontaneous Combustion, the film can still be seen as a worthwhile contribution to Hooper’s body of work and can be recommended.

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The Accidental Spy

Posted in Hong Kong Cinema on June 19, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(2001, 2:35, Teddy Chen)
** = Worth Seeing

Continuing the mix of international casts and locations found in Police Story Four: First Strike, Jackie Chan and company set their sights further to the west, read American audiences, with mixed results. As the title suggests, Chan plays an ordinary man who in thwarting a bank robbery at a mall he works in, becomes involved in finding a bio-terrorist virus called Anthrax II. His search takes him from Hong Kong to Seoul and Istanbul, meeting Koreans, Turks, and Americans on the way.

Though a Hong Kong production, the look and shape of the film is for the most part modern Hollywood; glossy photography, shallow focus, close-up heavy and character driven. The filmmakers also adapts the Hollywood practice of multiple camera set ups and heavy editing for action sequences, thus further diluting the key elements of a Jackie Chan picture. Almost gone is the exhilaration of long takes and camera movements capturing the action choreography, though a comic fight scene in an outdoor market in Istanbul, with Chan in the buff, still retains the dynamism of Chan’s best work. (The credited director here is Teddy Chen, but I have a feeling that Chan had a major hand in calling the shots.) The film is also taken down a peg by a cloying “mickey mouse” soundtrack that makes sure the western audiences don’t miss the humorous bits of business during the action scenes. The irony of Chan and his company making the film more accessible to a western market is that the US distributor, the infamous Dimension Films, still cut 20 minutes and released it straight to video.

Even with all these weaknesses, The Accidental Spy doesn’t have the almost faceless characteristics of Chan’s Hollywood productions, where he farms out the dialogue scenes to an American director and has little control over the editing of his own action sequences. The film overall is fluid in its execution with decent use of the ‘Scope frame and, despite the fast cutting, there is none of the spatial disorientation and violations found in most current American action films. There is a certain amount of sadness rustling through the film in regards to Chan’s character being an orphan –his main motive in becoming wrapped up in espionage is to quell his curiosity that the man supposedly responsible for creating the Anthrax II virus may be his father– and Chan’s inability to save a orphaned young woman who has fallen victim to heroin addiction through her relation with an international smuggler. These melancholic moments give the film a bit more weight and allow Chan to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Yet the film’s strengths are weakened as it mechanically moves to deliver a show-stopping set piece in the third act, and switches gears from a spy story to vigilante wish fulfillment when Chan decides to personally take down the smuggler. As the sequence moves from an airfield to a freeway, complete with an overheated tanker that will explode if it does keep moving, ala 1994’s Speed, the editing jumps from one attraction to the next with little build or tempo. In this rush to add one set piece after another, there’s a lot of longwinded exposition between characters explaining what needs to be done to stop the truck, catch the villain, save the hostages, etc.. (When a Hong Kong action film has to rely on narration to illustrate action, you know it is in trouble.) Along with this manufactured feel, there’s the vigilante bent that leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Any nuances or complexities in the film or Chan’s character get erased in the move to such simple mindedness, and ends up compromising and tainting the material. The film further stumbles near at the end, where Chan learns that his involvement in the bio-terrorist plot was not so accidental, along with a sequence playing over the end credits hinting at Chan’s character continuing his espionage adventures. Were Chan and his production company keeping things open for a new franchise? Box office receipts may prohibit that.

With all the bases –and markets– the film tries to touch, the end result becomes so top heavy as to be lopsided, and the cumulative flaws of The Accidental Spy renders the film below most of Chan’s Hong Kong work. Yet with all this, the film still retains fragments of what makes Chan and his films so dynamic and appealing, fragments that get totally lost when added to the Hollywood mix of his Disney and DreamWorks productions. Perhaps the dilution of Chan in America makes this viewer starved for a real fix of Chan, and while this Hong Kong entry does not contain all the proper ingredients there’s a sprinkling of enough as to keep one mildly content, though the lost opportunity or reluctance of delivering a genuine item lingers on.

On John Guillermin

Posted in Uncategorized on June 12, 2008 by michaelaworrall

About ten years ago, I was flipping channels and came across a letterboxed version of “The Blue Max” on AMC, pre-commercial interruptions days. Though I tuned in during the last 10 minutes, I was very impressed with a shot in which the camera tracked back/forth and in/out of a crowd of spectators watching a pilot perform stunts. The camera weaved in and out like it was floating and the amount of time the shot was sustained –carefully choreographed with the plane– resulted in me making a mental note to check out the film and the work of the director, John Guillermin.

I believe that one should approach action sequences carefully when viewing a film through an auteurist lens, for it may be a second unit director or cameraman who is ultimately responsible. So when
“The Blue Max” laserdisc appeared on EBay earlier this year, my memories of the flying sequence–along with a rather decent review of the film and disc on Doug Pratt’s dvdlaser website– persuaded me to put down a small bid and the disc was easily won.

I can’t say I liked the film very much. It’s is a task to sit through: the editing and pace are dreadfully slow. The story premise of a young upstart German war pilot could have been knocked out by Hawks or Wellman in about 90 minutes with more skill and impact. While acting is pretty low on my list of what makes a film successful, the incredibly wooden performance of George Peppard and the sight of James Mason screaming a lot of bad dialog to make it sound dramatic– with Guillermin placing the camera at a very low angle beneath Mason at one point– added to my suspicion that perhaps it really was the second unit that was responsible for the shot that stayed in my memory the past 10 years.

However, through all the objectionable aspects I noticed that in terms of composition of the ‘scope frame, Guillermin demonstrated an awareness of how to arrange and utilize the frame. The problem was how these shots work together. The sense I got from watching “The Blue Max” was that Guillermin designed shots without really thinking about how they would cut together. The compositions tended to clash against each other, creating a disjointed and rather lumpy editing rhythm. Guillermin’s penchant in composing shots for effect was confirmed by my viewing of “Never Let Go” (1960), “Waltz of The Toreadors” (1962), “Guns at Batasi” (1964), “The Bridge at Remagen” (1969), “Shaft in Africa” (1973), “King Kong” (1976) and “Death on the Nile” (1978). (I should note that as of this time, a great deal of Guillmermin’s pre-1960’s work is not available on any video format.)

Now “King Kong” is a rather questionable and dangerous film to use as a demonstration of Guillermin’s compositional talents,–though I am always ready and willing to seriously consider and defend the disreputable– and while I agree with Dave Kehr’s capsule review on the Chicado Reader’s website that the film is ultimately “low camp”, I would make a case for the island scenes before Kong’s appearance.
The sense of scale, which ties into Guillermin composing for effect–is striking, particularity the night sequence when the natives prepare Jessica Lang for her blind date. Guillermin’s sense of creating shots for impact serve him well in this sequence, and it’s unfortunate that his sense of scale abandons him or does not translate to the effects department, for the use and the scale of miniatures for the film’s special effects are probably the worst I have ever seen.

Are there any other consistencies or personal signatures in the work of John Guillermin? None that I can see so far. How one goes from “Waltz of the Toreadors” to “Shaft in Africa” is beyond me, and Guillermin strikes me as a director who is ultimately only as good as his script. With a film like “Death on the Nile”, Guillermin seems very bored and his staging is, to again quote Dave Kehr’s capsule review: “”sluggish, repetitious and clumsy.” (When a director has Peter Ustinov and David Niven together and fails to generate any chemistry, you know something is wrong.) For a director who appears to be often indifferent or disengaged with his material, the interviews that I have read with actors who have worked with Guillermin describe him as very short-tempered and prone to violent outbursts. It would be interesting to know what made Guillermin so volatile on the set.

At this time I would place Guillermin in the ranks of the proficient British technician, way above the almost impoverished mise-en-scene of Guy Hamilton but far from the astuteness of Terence Fisher. Ultimately, I cannot write off a filmmaker who, in their limited and flawed ability, attempts to engage the frame and I will not pass up the chance to see his work –particularly his pre-1960’s work– but with this particular filmmaker and with the works that I have seen thus far, the parts are definitely better than the whole.