Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Death From Above: The Birds at 60

Released 60 years ago today, on March 28th, 1963, the enduring greatness of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds lies foremost in its still impressive technical proficiency. This is a movie that would be largely accomplished via CGI today but in 1963, aside from working with actual birds in many scenes (including the brutal final assault on Tippi Hedren), Hitchcock had to call upon on an array of practical techniques - ranging from prop birds made from papier-mache (mechanical birds proved to be unusable) to matte paintings (courtesy of the famed Albert Whitlock) to optical effects (supervised by former Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who performed such tricks as optically multiplying the number of birds in a scene through double, triple and quadruple printing shots) - in order to portray its avian terrors. It may have lost the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to Cleopatra but it's the FX of The Birds that still retain the ability to dazzle. 

Beyond its technical virtuosity, the power of The Birds lies in its enduring ambiguity, This is a vision of the end of the world that resists easy interpretation. Not only did Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter refuse to provide an explanation for the bird attacks (although Hitchcock did say to Cinefantastique magazine in a 1976 interview that rabies was the cause in his mind, equating the birds' behavior to that of information he read of rabies-affected bats in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico) but it's a film that resists metaphorical interpretation as well. What the birds might represent in The Birds remains anyone's guess, even six decades later. 

Are they supposed to echo modern fears of nuclear destruction, symbolizing "death from above?" I think that's a hard case to make, which is probably why few have seriously tried to. Unlike many other films from that era, The Birds is a movie that has remained immune from that sort of glib atomic age reading. Whether or not director Don Siegel intended the pod people of 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be seen as a metaphor for the Red Scare of the '50s and the creeping paranoia of McCarthyism, that didn't stop critics from perceiving that message in his film. But The Birds has steadfastly resisted allegorical interpretations. It's the end of the world but with no overt comment on what it all means. 

Nearly every nature gone amok/eco-horror film that was inspired by The Birds - everything from Frogs (1972) to Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) - felt obliged to provide some sort of ecological rationalization for the natural world turning against man. But Hitchcock believed that such prosaic explanations were, well, for the birds. The why of what's happening doesn't matter. It only matters that it is happening. The Birds is pure cinema, a series of unprecedented technical challenges that Hitchcock posed for himself to overcome. 

If it were just the end of the world that Hitchcock was interested in, he could have told any kind of apocalyptic tale he wanted to, he could have concocted any kind of conventional doomsday scenario if all he wanted to do was send some kind of message about the state of the world, a warning about the future, or to just tell a story about how people might face the unraveling of society. He chose Daphne du Maurier's 1952 short story to adapt not because of whatever the notion of birds turning against man might mean symbolically but because of what they would mean cinematically. It was about the specific challenges that using birds would entail from a movie making perspective. Having Bodega Bay invaded by, say, aliens? Oh, that's easy. But birds? Well now you've made it hard on yourself. While there are genuine emotional layers to be found in The Birds thanks to the cast all delivering sensitive, empathetic performances, the greatest statement it makes is about Hitchcock's desire at such a late stage in his career, when he had nothing left to prove, to task himself harder than he ever had. 

What, if anything, Hitchcock was trying to say about humanity with The Birds is debatable. What he was saying about himself as a filmmaker is undeniable: that he was the best in the game.   

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Ride The Lightning

Ever since it was announced in October of last year that James Gunn and Peter Safran were taking the reigns of the DCU in film, TV and animation as the co-chairs and co-CEOs of DC Studios, suddenly there was a question as to how the remaining films in the pipeline - Blue Beetle, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods - were going to fit in to the soon to be rebooted DCU. Of those four, The Flash remained the most relevant because it was specifically about the DC multiverse and is rumored to be a reset of DC on film, emulating the "Flashpoint" storyline in the comics that reset the DC timeline. The other three films, however, suddenly felt unmoored from whatever the new status quo was going to be. More detached than any of them, arguably, was Fury of the Gods

With the last DC film released prior to the Gunn/Safran announcement being Black Adam, the Shazam corner of the DCU already had a pall of failure hanging over it. Whatever the behind the scenes business decisions were that prompted Warners to want to reboot the DCU, as the last film in theaters before that shake up, Black Adam had the appearance as being the last nail in the coffin for whatever the DCU used to be. When you have a post credit scene that hypes the return of Henry Cavill's Superman and a whole new direction for the DCU and a month later, audiences are told that all of that is dead it's not the kind of thing that helps generate buzz for Shazam 2, you know?  

Even if a new era of DC on film wasn't impending, though, and even if whatever Black Adam has set up was still part of the plan, I think Fury of the Gods would have still struggled to find an audience. Not every superhero can necessarily support a sustainable franchise and Shazam is an example of that. There are a few problems that come with attempting an ongoing Shazam series, which Fury of the Gods only serves to highlight. 

The number one problem is dealing with the advancing age of Billy Batson. Billy needs to be a kid for Shazam as a concept to work. You could argue that Billy, as played by Asher Angel, was already a little too long in the tooth in 2019's Shazam! but at least he was young enough where it was still do-able. But Angel was seventeen in 2019 and playing a fourteen year old. He's now twenty and there's only so much you can fudge his age. They even acknowledge in the movie that Billy is about to turn eighteen and that's way too old. As a result, Angel barely appears in Fury of the Gods. He's grown up so much it's distracting to have him around so he's almost wholly absent from the film in favor of just having Zachary Levi as Shazam and it drains the sequel of the heart the original had. 

Adding to Fury of the Gods' problems is that seeing Angel on screen as a visibly mature young man makes Levi's portrayal of Shazam as the same goofball he was in the original strike a false note. In the first film, there wasn't a jarring disconnect between how Angel played Billy and how Levi played Shazam. You could go along with the idea that they were the same person. That's no longer the case. Levi is still playing Shazam in the same awkward, gee whiz manner but that doesn't jibe with how Angel comes across as Billy, even in the short amount of time that he appears on screen. Given his age, there would just be no way for Angel to adjust his performance to make it match up to what Levi is doing without it coming across as weird. The reality of it is that he's an adult now so having him transform into a superhero who still acts like he's a kid in an adult's body just doesn't work. If they had really wanted to do Shazam as a franchise, to at least get a trilogy out of it, they would have had the foresight to cast Billy very young to start with. By casting Angel as Billy, they guaranteed that there'd be no real legs to this series and the delays to the sequel caused by Covid sure didn't help them to beat the clock. 

So from the start there's a major issue with Fury of the Gods that's difficult to work around. But aside from being forced to sideline Billy, there's also the problem of dealing with the larger Shazam family. Having Billy grant his foster siblings powers made for a rousing climax to the original Shazam! but now having five other superheroes with the exact same power set and trying to give them all interesting roles to serve in this storyline is a real challenge. Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy's physically disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman gets the most screentime, with Freddy being drawn into a romantic subplot with the goddess Anthea, played by Rachel Zegler. There's two problems with this, though. One, bumping up Freddy's role only calls attention to the fact that we barely see Billy. Whereas the first film was very much centered on Billy, here it feels like Freddy is the main character. He's the only hero that we spend significant time with in their civilian guise, with Freddy being depowered for a long stretch of the film. Two, Grazer just isn't - to my mind, at least - particularly likable as Freddy. Granted, this may strictly be my own personal reaction but I find Freddy to be truly the most unsympathetic handicapped character on film since Franklin in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I do not find him endearing. I find him abrasive and annoying and that isn't really conducive to getting invested the character's love life. Especially when you find it impossible to believe that anyone would want to voluntarily spend time with this person, much less be enchanted by them. But, as I said, I concede that my aversion to Grazer's performance may be unique to me. I felt the same way about him in the first film but he was used sparingly enough that it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the movie. Here, not so much. But whether you like Freddy or not, it's still a problem that he's prioritized over Billy. It gives us a sequel where we're no longer following the character that we were invested in. 

Another obstacle for Shazam as a series that Fury of the Gods fails to find a satisfying resolution to is the matter of Shazam's name. Due to Marvel having trademarked "Captain Marvel," DC has been unable to use that name in any promotion or marketing since 1972. Despite that, DC still continued to refer to the character in stories as Captain Marvel while using "Shazam" as the title of the comic but in 2012 they officially changed the character's name simply to Shazam. While I get the motivation behind it, it was a dumb move and that dumb move gets painfully repeated here. 

In Fury of the Gods's last scene, the wizard at long last finally reveals that Shazam's superhero name is, wait for it...Shazam and while this is treated as a "Duh, of course!" revelation I wish that rather than cut to the end credits they had continued this scene in order to dump on its idiocy. I mean, we're supposed to call Levi's character Shazam. But yet that's also the name of the wizard. And the other five characters with Shazam powers are all called Shazam too. So we have a wizard called Shazam and six superheroes called Shazam and, by the way, none of the superheroes can say their name without changing back to their civilian identities. 

Years ago, when DC learned that they could no longer use the Captain Marvel name, they should have created a new code name for the character. Using "Shazam" is fine for promotional purposes. You can still call the comic Shazam, you can call the movies Shazam but within the stories you have to give these characters names they can use to refer to themselves and also to one another that doesn't transform them back and forth whenever they say it. Going with Shazam as the character's name has always been such a lazy, zero effort, "eh, that'll do" branding decision and having that be the big reveal before the end credits brings the movie to a close on an enervating note rather than a rousing one. I can't blame the filmmakers because this is a purely corporate decision regarding the character that they're obliged to play along with but I just think it's crazy that no one on the comic book side fixed this shit years ago and now a film franchise is saddled with this dopey decision.  

Finally, let's have a few words about the two end credits scenes, both of which I think should have been left out. The first brings in Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee) from Peacemaker as they wander out to some abandoned gas station out in the woods where Shazam is practicing shooting lightning bolts at empty soda cans. They're approaching Shazam in the hopes that they can interest him in taking a spot in the Justice Society but on the nerdy nitpicking front I have to wonder why Shazam is practicing zapping cans like he's just learning his powers when he's been doing this for years? I mean, just in this movie he literally took down actual Gods so I think we're past the target practice stage. More critically, though, the fact that this tease is about bringing Shazam into the JSA is a problem because we all know that's not gonna happen. The Justice Society is dead in the DCU. If it comes back, it isn't going to be with Shazam in it or with any of the characters from Black Adam. So why not just drop this scene altogether? 

Then there's the second tease with the return of Sivana and Mister Mind with Mister Mind once again appearing in Sivana's cell to talk to him about his big plans for the two of them to work together only to have Sivana blow up in frustration at continuing to be kept waiting. On the one hand, the self-awareness of acknowledging that the end credit tease for the first movie went absolutely nowhere is admirable. However, it also serves as a sad comment on how little pay off there's been in the DCU. How many post credit scenes in the now ten year history of the DCU have gone anywhere? When the post credit tease of your previous film promised the return of Henry Cavill's Superman only to purge him from the DCU just a few weeks later, I'm not sure how smart it is to hilariously point out that these teases are mostly bullshit.  

Fury of the Gods is, at best, an inoffensively bland superhero outing with forgettable villains (even Helen Mirren can't breath much life into her character of Hespera) and a string of big battles that fail to engage. As a CGI laden superhero adventure, it's greatest sin is being thoroughly average. More critically, it's hindered by the one thing that makes Shazam difficult material for a sustainable live action franchise - it can't stop its main actor from aging out of the requirements of the role and the efforts made to try to work around that (like limiting that actor's screen time to what amounts to a cameo appearance) only pushes this sequel into feeling like generic superhero fare. 

It was probably too optimistic to expect lightning to strike twice with a second Shazam! but as a fan of the character and a fan of the first film, I was hoping that returning director David F. Sandberg could pull it off. I do think he did as well as he could but a second Shazam! just came with too many hurdles to overcome. The first film was one of the most solidly entertaining and charming DCU films but the sequel feels warmed over, like a movie that missed both its moment and its mark. It's greatest value going forward is likely to be as an archival artifact of the end of the DCU as we knew it. With its big DCU cameo being from Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, whose own future in the DCU is uncertain, Fury of the Gods has the feel of watching a TV show that was abruptly cancelled without the time to plan for a proper finale. 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Scream And Scream Again

In 1996, Scream arrived as a hip, snarky, ironic reinvention of the slasher genre. In 2023, though, we're now six films in to the Scream franchise and twenty seven years (!) removed from the pop culture landscape of 1996 so Scream isn't the smart aleck upstart anymore, it's now the horror establishment and Scream VI can't help but serve as a referendum on the state of slasher nation. 

With Michael Myers on sabbatical in the wake of Halloween Ends, Jason Voorhees still entangled in frustrating legal troubles, and with no one being able to figure out how to successfully resurrect the Elm St. franchise, Scream has now become the big legacy slasher on the block. Good thing, then, that the latest installment shows how strong the series' long term viability is. Based on the success of Scream VI, it's clear that for the foreseeable future, Ghostface will comfortably rule the slasher scene. 

Last year's comeback for the series, Scream, from the directing team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, was a solid installment but with its understandable emphasis on the returning legacy characters, the new crew was limited in how much of an impact they were able to make. The question lingered as to what kind of future Scream could have as its fan favorite original players retired from the series. The strength of Scream VI is that it allows the survivors of the last film to really move up and come into their own as the new leads of the series and let the audience develop the same kind of emotional attachment to them that they had for the OG crew of Sidney, Gale and Dewey.

Melissa Barrera as Billy Loomis' illegitimate daughter Sam Carpenter, Jenna Ortega as Sam's half sister Tara Carpenter, Jasmin Savoy Brown as the niece of Randy Meeks, Mindy Meeks-Martin, and Mason Gooding as Mindy's twin, Chad Meeks-Martin, are - as Chad dubs them - the "core four" and Scream VI secures their standing as the future of the franchise. Courtney Cox appears as Gale Weathers but she feels like a guest star in the Scream world now rather than a driving force, with the returning Hayden Panettiere as Scream 4 survivor Kirby Reed (now an FBI agent) having a bigger role than Cox here. The training wheels have come off for the new kids and there's no doubt that the franchise belongs to them now. 

Aside from elevating the "core four," what Scream VI also does well is to lean into the complex mythology of the series. By this point, the series has evolved into a horror version of the Fast and Furious franchise in that its cast of characters and all their back stories have become so vast and intertwined that by now only the die hard fans can easily recall the connections. Rather than try and streamline things and make these sequels more new viewer friendly, the complexity of Scream is now very much a part of its appeal. As with the latest F&F or MCU entries, it's expected that hardcore fans know all these people, that they know all these returning character's connections to each other and that fans appreciate being rewarded for their knowledge. You can still follow Scream VI without knowing the other movies chapter and verse - there's enough exposition given to get casual fans or new viewers up to speed - but it's definitely more satisfying to watch this with prior knowledge of who's who and with an awareness of the recurring motifs of the series. 

As for Scream VI's much hyped NYC setting, despite the tagline of "New City, New Rules," the Big Apple has such an anonymous presence here (this could be taking place in any big metropolis) that it gives the long mocked and maligned Jason Takes Manhattan (given a shout out here via a clip on TV) a surprising bit of redemption. This has everything to do with the fact that none of Scream VI was actually shot in NYC. Like Jason Takes Manhattan, Scream VI substitutes Canada for NYC (Manhattan was shot in Vancouver, Scream VI in Montreal) but unlike Scream VI, Manhattan did at least some location shooting in NYC, enough to have Jason standing smack in the middle of a bustling late '80s Times Square like a boss. 

So while Jason may have taken a ridiculously long time to get to NYC, when he finally did make it, the filmmakers were able to exploit the iconography of the city in a way that Scream VI does not. It's not like you could say that Manhattan gets the last laugh here, per se. It's not like it suddenly turned into a good movie. But it at least it keeps some bragging rights when it comes to being a slasher icon in NYC movie and that ain't nothing I say!    

While 2022's Scream could have served as the last word on the series, a nostalgia fueled comeback that potentially could have also been the last hurrah, Scream VI clearly makes the case for Scream as a series that has no expiration date. The new characters are firmly established and the series' convoluted soap opera tapestry has been embraced as an asset and expanded on. Watching Scream VI, it's easy to imagine that in time another group of characters will inherit the mantle of the "core four" and carry the torch into the next era of Scream and that the series can keep the narrative going indefinitely, in much the same way that Don Mancini has made Chucky into a franchise that has spanned decades and multiple generations and has only become richer and more interesting. 

On the downside, the makers of future Screams will have to deal with a problem that plagued the classic incarnation of the series. Once Randy was killed off in Scream 2, the audience's affection for the surviving members of the original cast was so strong that the Scream stewards were reluctant to put these characters in any real danger and thus they kept improbably surviving. Now it's going to be difficult to eliminate any of the "core four" without risking a backlash. At the same time, if people feel like all four of these characters will survive no matter what, it reduces the suspense. 

But hey, that's a problem for another day and another sequel. For now, the Scream franchise is on secure footing. If the decision makers at Paramount are smart, they'll just let the current creative team of directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett and writers Vanderbilt and Busick keep making these movies as long as they're interested in doing so. The current caretakers of Scream have nailed what really drove the classic incarnation of the series. The meta commentary was never the true backbone of Scream. That was always just window dressing, more glib than it was insightful. What kept audiences invested in Scream as a series was the fact that they always had a cast full of likable characters and it always delivered top shelf slasher action with tense, bloody set pieces. While most of the old school slashers are currently facing uncertain futures, Scream stands alone as a series that has figured out how to navigate a long term course for itself. Its continued success is going to be not just what keeps Scream thriving but what lets the slasher genre as a whole stay viable as a big screen commodity. That's a sincere accomplishment for a series known for its irony. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Manhattan Memories

As someone who saw Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan on its opening night of July 28th, 1989, I can tell you from first hand experience that the immediate reaction was not enthusiastic. Yes, it was quite the deflating night at the movies, save for the raucous response when V.C. Dupree as aspiring young boxer Julius got his head punched off his shoulders. Of course, you didn't have to be there to know that Friday Part VIII was a disappointment. Its reputation speaks for itself. But with fellow slasher icon Ghostface now set to take their own stab at the Big Apple, I think it's worth showing a little nostalgic appreciation for the flawed but fun Jason Takes Manhattan.


The major complaint with Manhattan, of course, was that despite the promise of the title and a marketing campaign that primed audiences to expect Jason to be rampaging his way through the streets of New York City, the Sultan of Slaughter spends most of Manhattan's running time on a boat. Had the movie been called something like Death Cruise or Blood Waters and the Manhattan aspect of the film had been a complete surprise to audiences, it might have gotten a better reception because the portion of the film that takes place on the SS Lazarus is satisfying, slickly made late '80s slasher fare. As long as you're able to put aside your (very legitimate) questions about how a cruise ship could get into the waters of Crystal Lake and how Crystal Lake somehow also opens up into the Atlantic Ocean and - most importantly - as long as you're not feeling increasingly impatient waiting for the movie to finally live up to its title, it's an ok movie. Writer/director Rob Hedden does a fine job, showing more flair than the typical Friday director with Manhattan being the most sharply directed Friday of the '80s after 1986's Jason Lives.

So perhaps if Manhattan hadn't been promoted as a Jason in NYC movie it might have been received more favorably. On the other hand, the temptation to use that irresistible commercial hook of Jason in Manhattan was obviously too much to say no to and, you know, it's probably for the best because it would have truly sucked to have been denied the awesome marketing campaign that this movie had. Sure, the movie didn't live up to it, sure Paramount completely misled people but the posters and teasers and trailers for Manhattan are so memorable in their own right it would have been a real loss if all of it had never existed. And hey, it not like Jason never gets to NYC, you know? 

There's no way that a marketing campaign that promoted the concept of Jason on a boat could have possibly compared to Jason slashing his way through the iconic "I Love NY" poster. And in the end, even without being promoted as a New York movie, the reception probably wouldn't have been substantially different. Marginally better, maybe, slightly less aggrieved, but it's not like it would have been greeted as a masterpiece. It just would have gotten a little less grief upon its release. 

I will say that I think had the ending to Manhattan been better, many fans would have been quicker to get over the lack of NYC action. Sure it sucked to have to wait (and wait...and wait...) for Jason to actually get to freaking New York but the real disappointment was having the climax be Jason being hit by a flood of toxic waste and somehow, in death, being transformed back into a child. This ending was so massively misconceived that I think it does far more damage to the movie than the interminable wait to get off the damn boat. 

Rob Hedden has explained his reasoning behind Jason's death scene as wanting it to echo the deaths of classic Universal Monsters like the Wolfman and the Invisible Man in which they reverted to their human forms after they were killed, with their purity and innocence being restored once they died. However it was absolutely idiotic to try that move with Jason. It makes no sense. Jason was never someone that had been transformed into a monster so trying to "change him back" in death doesn't hold up conceptually. It sure doesn't help that this is moment is presented in such a confusing fashion (you have to wonder what the characters witnessing this make of it).  

The failure of Manhattan's ending is especially galling given the fact that the perfect ending was right there. Jason gets hit by a wave of toxic shit - so just fucking have him dissolve into a puddle of goo. No need to overthink this shit. No need to get artsy with it. No need to put a creative spin on it. 

Having toxic waste melt him down would have been a spectacularly disgusting way to take out Jason, a perfect opportunity to have a big practical FX moment in true '80s fashion and it would have been a death that was big enough to seem really final rather than just burying a machete in Jason's head. And if they had wanted to do another Friday, there's always a way to undo any slasher villain's death no matter how permanent it might look. 

I believe that all (or at least most) of Manhattan's sins would have been forgiven had Hedden just resisted the urge to get clever with Jason's death. Over time, I've come to terms with Jason spending so much time on the Lazarus but I've never been able to justify that misfire of an ending. It is truly a self-inflicted wound on Hedden's part. Would have been so easy to avoid but oh well. It is what it is.  

All these years later, I would say the initial disappointment that Manhattan was met with has been replaced with...less disappointment. It'll never turn into a great Friday but it's become easier to appreciate. What Manhattan has going for it now is nostalgia. Nostalgia for old school Jason, nostalgia for the NYC of the '80s, and nostalgia for a more innocent time for the horror genre. In 1989, Jason Takes Manhattan embodied everything that fans hated about where horror was at. It wasn’t gritty, wasn’t gory, and it damn sure wasn’t scary. You look at it now, though, and think "Man, I miss when horror movies were just fun."

In retrospect, Manhattan has a great pop sheen to it that is so late '80s. Even before the film arrives at the bright neon lights of New York, the ship bound action set on the Lazarus boasts a more colorful palette than any of the previous Fridays, complete with a disco dance floor (with a mirror ball!) for Jason to bust his moves on. I also love that Hedden had Jason straight up teleporting in this movie - not just having him get from place to place with no explanation but doing so in ways that are physically impossible, done with the faith that the Friday audience will see the fun in that. I much prefer this playful approach to the tired, literal minded thinking that compelled the makers of 2009's otherwise strong Friday remake to feel the audience needed to be told that it's because he uses a network of underground tunnels that Jason is able to mysteriously get ahead of his victims. Fuck that. Just have him pop up anywhere.  

As limited as Jason's time in New York may be in Manhattan, the one shot that circles around Kane Hodder's Jason as he stands in the middle of Times Square remains one of the highlights of the franchise. Freddy may have surpassed him at the box office by that point but for those brief few seconds, Jason was king of the world. Say what you will about Jason Takes Manhattan but even if Jason never fully got into the New York groove, I appreciate the fact that Crystal Lake's favorite son got to close out the ‘80s with a rock star moment.