Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Summer School Dispatch Double Feature

I have been working my way through my queue of movies under the general SUMMER SCHOOL heading and thought I would tackle two of them at once here. (I’m also going to review yet another movie tomorrow, a certified classic, but that’s official 1001 Movies Blog Club homework which automatically makes it geekier and more Wednesday-appropriate, even though today’s focal points are more sci-fi-ish genre pieces. My blog, my rules.) One movie is from just last year, while the other reaches all the way back to 1990. Nostalgia!

So first up, Chronicle, which I mentioned not too long ago that I really wanted to see because it was co-written by Max Landis, who seems (from the admittedly scant evidence of his YouTubing) to just generally get it. Chronicle was not technically a summer blockbuster, since it was released in February and had a fairly modest budget. But it was yet another example of a found footage movie, and yet another example of an “original” superhero movie, and I vaguely recalled there being some backlash against how overplayed both of those were becoming at the time, even if no one else had yet combined the two. Personally, I tend to like stories that acknowledge their own story-ness in some way, and I enjoy deconstruction of superhero tropes as much as the next geek, so the combo seemed like a winning one to me.

And I didn’t exactly fall in love with Chronicle, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It doesn’t exactly break new ground with the basic concept that power corrupts, and there’s so many contrivances incorporated into the found footage technique (including not one but two different high school students who, for different reasons, go around digitally recording everything they do) that it becomes more of an aesthetic choice than anything that could possibly make the film feel more “real”. Ultimately, that wasn’t really a problem, as I just suspended disbelief and went with it and rolled my eyes a little at the spots that were the most egregious. And the final sequence, to my mind, justified the entire effort by pushing just a little into slightly new territory. A bullied teen given unimaginable, almost unlimited power would lash out at those who antagonized him and then eventually at the whole world? Old news. But if someone who loved him had to try to stop him, and in the end kill him, would they still love him when the sun rose again? Chronicle answers that affirmatively, as the camera that has become synonymous with the aggrieved victim’s point-of-view is taken by his cousin, who permanently stopped the climactic rampage, and is set up as eternal silent witness to a peaceful monastery in Tibet, where the victim always wanted to go. It’s a through-the-viewfinder moment that has a lot more power since the majority of the movie has been shot that way, as opposed to being tacked on to a more traditional looking film.

Supposedly Chronicle was such a surprise sleeper hit that a sequel is in development, but I can’t imagine where they would take the story after an ending as definitively satisfying as that. Maybe the development talk will all come to nothing. We shall see.

Movie number two is Tremors, which for some reason has for the past couple of decades occupied a gigantic amount of my rental real estate (or burrowed under same, I suppose) despite my never having seen it. I allow this (very probably) may not be the case for many of you, so I will refresh your memory that this is the one about Kevin Bacon, out west, with giant carnivorous worms. How did this disposable monster flick get so thoroughly embedded in my craw? A few possibilities:

- In the early 90’s I was in high school and buying a lot of comic books, and I remember the ad campaign for Tremors was fairly robust, with lots of buys on the back covers of comics. The imagery was pretty iconic, too: three small human figures standing on the ground up at the top, and a colossal worm with its fang-filled mouth open wide coming straight up for them. I must have seen that dozens of times when the movie came out in theaters, and probably a few dozen more when it was released on VHS.

- In the late 90’s I was moderately obsessed with the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and I was pretty good at it, with a lot of the man’s filmography already under my belt (from Animal House to Footloose to Flatliners to JFK) and I was acutely aware of the fact that I hadn’t seen Tremors, which was (I believed) one of his more notorious outings. I prided myself on being good at 6DoKB, so I always felt like I had done myself a disservice.

- Tremors itself managed to hang around interminably with a slew of direct-to-video sequels and even a series on Sci-Fi. It’s become quite the cult property, and I’m frequently running across airings of the original movie on basic cable, but rather than catch it in edited form I just kept telling myself I should rent it and watch it all the way through.

I vaguely recall scoffing at Tremors in 1990 as a blatantly dumb monster movie, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown much more accepting of my own predilections and my genuine affection for blatantly dumb monster movies. Add onto that the recent surge in my interest in westerns, from Stephen King’s Dark Tower to Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name films, and understand Tremors is a horror-western, and clearly this was as good a time as any for me to rectify my long-standing avoidance.

I’ll stand by the “blatantly dumb monster movie” label, because I don’t consider that a put-down. It’s a perfectly adequate popcorn flick, as long as you don’t mind eating popcorn while watching some extremely fake looking yet still gross practical effects in the battle between worm and man. (Although it is a bit of a letdown that the nightmare fuel on the original poster looks to be at least fifteen feet tall from belly to back and hundreds of feet long, big enough to swallow a city bus, whereas the actual beasties in the movie are maybe three or four feet high and thirty feet long. Fishbait-and-switch! But they call the beasties “graboids” so points back for that, let’s call it a wash.)

But what really struck me about the movie, speaking of The Gunslinger and whatnot, was how much it felt like a Stephen King story, even though he had nothing to do with it whatsoever. It’s got a ragtag bunch of people trying to survive the inexplicable onslaught of terrifying grotesques. Said folks are mostly blue-collar but there’s one certified smarty-pants, who happens to be a graduate student in geology. There’s a single mom with an adorable little girl. There’s a married couple who are both survivalist gun-nuts and who become vitally important in act three. The other characters are quirky enough to elicit at least some emotional reaction when two or three of them inevitably are devoured by the graboids to raise the stakes. The remote location is a valley in Nevada rather than a mountain in Maine, but other than that the only thing missing to make it more Stephen King-like would be if Kevin Bacon’s handyman-cowboy were also moonlighting as a novelist on the side.

So going two-for-two on movies not being a complete waste of time is pretty good, as far as I’m concerned. Tune in tomorrow to see if I can summon up more glowing feelings than that for a thoroughly vetted and canonized film!

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