Monday, January 28, 2013

A Frank Review of S. Darko (2009)

The Short Version? Darker, but full of S.
What Is It? Indie drama with some sci-fi/horror elements.
Who Is In It? Lilo, Sol Star, Nomi Malone
Should I See It? Maybe.

As of today, I still haven't reviewed Donnie Darko for this blog because of my ambivalence towards it. I rented it a few weeks after it turned up on the new release rack at the ratty local video store without any foreknowledge, drawn to the intriguing cover art and cast. I was fascinated by it, seeking out answers to the many questions it posed. I evangelized for it in the early years, and still have a framed poster up on my wall. However, the more I learned about the picture, the more it tainted my enjoyment. It went from the puzzling little flick no one had heard of to enough of a favorite of the Hot Topic crowd that Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World" got radio play. The film's official website and commentary track contradicted my personal interpretation of the movie. The Director's Cut proved that George Lucas isn't the only creator oblivious to why his movie resonated with audiences. Richard Kelly's follow-up film Southland Tales was a debacle, his script for Domino was shitty, and I never even bothered with The Box. I'm sure I've sat through Donnie Darko into the double digits, and virtually no film could survive that much analysis by a hypercritical asshole like me in just barely a decade.

On the plus side, I approached S. Darko with a relatively open mind, rather than as the gutting of a sacred cow. This is after all a sequel disavowed by all but one party involved with the original production, arriving direct to DVD eight years later. One should probably lower ones expectations, given the optimism necessary to walk in with the hope this thing would be bearable, much less any good. S. Darko is, in fact, any good. Not great, not even good, but decent enough to not shame the original or be any sort of trial for the viewer. Like most DTV sequels, S. Darko reverse engineers Donnie Darko, then attempts to rebuild it with sufficient enough differences to appear to be something new. Screenwriter Nathan Atkins clearly has love for the original, but no actual insights into it, or interesting tangents to spin off from it. Instead, he just redresses it in the clothing of a bumfuck noir with a bit of Run, Lola, Run spliced in.

A text scroll in a cursive font straight from some store bought editing software announced that this film would take place seven years after the first. Tough to tell, because aside from a gender change and severe lack of Echo & The Bunnymen, the films open exactly the same. Like fifty quintillion other movies, a road trip through the desert leads to a steaming radiator and folks getting stranded in a small town. Donnie Darko was a troubled youth too smart for his own good with geeky friends and a quirky relationship with his family. Younger sister Samantha Darko is a sort of hippy pixie blank with a bitchy, semi-slutty best friend, the sort of odd couple rarely seen outside of movies, in a very movie setting, written by a man who has likely seen more movies than life. Where Donnie Darko bathed in its period setting, S. Darko offers obligatory nods through references to O.J. and a few unfortunate fashion choices. Donnie had a killer mixtape soundtrack with an equally affecting score. This was one area where S. at least tries, with a solid if repetitive score by Ed Harcourt. After a lackluster source track or two, I started thinking of some period singles minor enough to be affordable, and was pleased when I nailed Whale's "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe." The new stab at The Church was Catharine Wheel, reasonably enough. The cinematography is pretty nice, as well.

Daveigh Chase as Samantha Darko is very pretty, looks creepy in make-up during some green screen sequences, and I suppose does what she can with the character. Briana Evigan is wonderful at channeling the shitty add-on characters in '90s sequels to horror franchises, recalling Rocky in Phantasm III, Julie Walker in Return of the Living Dead 3, and the filmography of Kelly Jo Minter. I seriously mean that as a compliment, because the daughter of B.J. of "the Bear" fame looks hot in short shorts, plays her character type pitch perfect, and is the most legitimate '90s element. The biggest names in the supporting cast include a commendable if minor performance from John Hawkes and a sound Elizabeth Berkley. Not a single character has a fraction of the life of those featured in Donnie, they're all stock taken wholesale from other films, and their stories aren't layered throughout the plot so much as globs of undissolved packaged mix. It's hard to tell if the acting is terrible, or the characters are horrendous on the page, but it's usually a bit of both.

In commentary, the creators tried to lay claim to intentional incomprehensibility. Since they recycle so much from Donnie Darko, if you halfway figured out one, it explains the other. Since the characters are so obvious, the perceived bad guys are, the perceived good-hearted crazies are, and the "left field" turns of a few characters come with a GPS. There are no mysteries here, because your first impressions should bear out. Rather than perplexing, it's plodding, because you're waiting for these nothing characters to get to places you saw coming immediately.

You may get a sense of great disappointment or anger from this review, but neither is true. The film is samey samey, like an album by an okay band full of rewrites of other band's hits. Dido's "Don't Think of Me" isn't Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," but I don't mind listening to it. If you really, really loved Donnie Darko, and it isn't enough to watch other mindfuck pictures-- you need something approaching a carbon copy, S. Darko might be just the tribute bar band for you. That, or you'll shave your hair into a mohawk and roam the studio grounds with an assault rifle.


  • The Making of S. Darko This is great! Fifteen minutes of filmmakers trying to make themselves believe that this was more than a naked classless cash grab, all while produced by "Darko 2 LLC." Vindication through the actress behind the least interesting, most sold-out member of the Darko clan agreeing to reprise her role. Another highlight includes pointing out that "The Director's Cut" sucked, too. Plus, profuse apologizing and hand wringing toward Richard Kelly and his fans.
  • Commentary with Director Chris Fisher, Writer Nathan Atkins, and Cinematographer Marvin V. Rush Less defensive than the "making of" doc, but still refreshingly candid/deluded. How many direct homages do you need in a movie that is already wholly dependent in style and substance on another movie? Considering some of the best things about this movie were source tracks from Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins, don't slag on the music of '95 just because you can't afford 1988 Duran Duran.
  • Utah Too Much Behind the scenes and a music video for a surprisingly alright country novelty tune.
  • Deleted Scenes You don't tend to have a lot of material left on the floor in a four million dollar production, so these are brief and few. The cuts are understandable, but more because they belabor points made elsewhere in the film, rather than any deficit of quality in comparison to the rest of the flick.
  • S. Darko Trailer and additional random trailers, although Notorious featuring the rap sampling of Sparkle Motion's signature song is tres apropos.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Frank Review of "V/H/S" (2012)

The Short Version? More found footage. Yay?
What Is It? Horror Anthology.
Who Is In It? The directors' friends and neighbors.
Should I See It? No.

I'm just old enough to remember all the different ways people used to watch movies, from drive-ins to filthy downtown spankhouses. Grandmothers would tune in to the afternoon Million Dollar Movie showcase, kids would watch the Saturday afternoon kung-fu flicks or stay up late for wretched horror movie presentations hosted by local actors in make-up. It was a huge deal when a 2+ year old movie would debut on network television, less so when tired shit would work its way down to UHF. There was sometimes that one really insane cinephile who had copies of favorites available to project on super-8 film. You used to have to work hard to find a movie you wanted to see, and the when/where/what of your viewing experience was pretty much always determined by a higher power greater than yourself. Even with cable, a programmer decided that you'd be catching bits of a limited selection replayed throughout a month, and that you'd have to stay up until at least 10 p.m. before you could masturbate to European softcore.

Home video changed everything. Betamax and VHS meant never having to ask anyone's permission to watch any movie that you could get your hands on. Every town had a video store, and every video store had uncut obscurities on the main shelves and a back room for pornography you'd have to wait way later than Skinemax After Dark to sneak off with so your parents didn't know you'd pilfered their stash, but was so much more worth it once you did. The horror section fully embraced the grindhouse aesthetic, with covers as lurid and disgusting as the law would allow. I was seriously too afraid to watch some of that stuff until I was an adult, only to find little committed to those spools of tape that warranted the hard sell of the boxes. VHS was gratuitous; it was the freedom to indulge the id monster on anything you were brave enough to walk up to a clerk and ask to check out.

On the other hand, as I said and as with most things, there was a lot more sizzle than steak. The internet changed everything again, and with a few strokes of the keys in a search engine I can see real people tortured to death, or having sex with exotic animals, or whatever else the demented mind can conceive. It's easy to become desensitized, and for all its LCD pandering, memories of the video store and VHS format are comparatively quaint. They mostly recall the '80s, with all its cheese and flash and very occasional glory.

If you're going to make a movies that combines the letters V/H/S in the title, you're creating specific expectations in the minds of people for whom those letters would be a relevant selling point. One of the main complaints film geeks seemed to have about Planet Terror was that on the Grindhouse bill, everyone else had conformed to expectations of '70s exploitation cinema, whereas the soul of Robert Rodriguez's zombie spectacle was clearly from someplace nearer to the summer of 1986. What I saw of House of the Devil was boring as fuck, but as a production it was memorable for its fidelity to the referenced time period, down to releasing it in a collectable oversized VHS box that served as marque advertisement space in the video store days.

The only thing evocative in V/H/S is its selling viewers on one kind of movie, delivering quite another, and totally pissing people off as a result. It is another tedious millennial "found footage" feature of narcissistic self-documentation. One of the obvious reasons why you didn't see this sort of thing among the self-possessed of early generations is because VHS was a cumbersome format that necessitated recording with a hefty camera. Aside from annoying VHS artifacts like blue screens and static between cuts, this movie looks to have been recorded on someone's iPhone. Despite being an anthology with multiple directors and screenwriters, nearly every segment involves the same group of obnoxious buzzed fratboys indulging in voyeurism until being ripped to pieces by one unimaginative and obtuse threat after another. There's a banal lo-fi repetition very much of the internet age, like clicking on one "similar videos" link after another on a hosting site.

The bridging sequence involves douchebags who turn a profit from sharking and home invasions watching a trove of mysterious VHS tapes without regard for the increasing likelihood of getting caught. The first segment might as well have featured the exact same group of characters, only this time covertly recording chicks at a bar and an attempt to score with two in a hotel room that predictably goes very wrong. The second segment chronicles a couple's road trip that plods along until a last second "twist" reveal that's ineffectively set up. If you give it any thought at all afterward, it will come down to logistics, not characters. The third feature is a post-Scream meta summer camp slasher exercise that plays like a looped sample of a song you never liked much in the first place forming the spine of a new tune you enjoy even less. The best of the set involves a believable couple's Skyping sessions that tells a complete, affective horror story. The linking vignette ends early after playing out exactly as expected and far outliving interest. Likely having recognized this, the final segment launches. It once again involves a group of obnoxious guys filming shenanigans, but at least they turn out to be a decent sort, not that it does them any good. The editing on this one was the strongest, but the story and characters were representatively thin, serving to remind how poor and familiar the whole affair was.


  • Cast & Crew Audio Commentary One viewing was enough, thanks.
  • Alternate Ending (10/31/98) Trimmed off for effectiveness.
  • More Tuesday the 17th Because you always want more in a found footage feature, right?
  • Amateur Night - Balloon Night Behind the scenes of the short's ending effects.
  • Webcam Interviews
  • Cast & Crew Interviews Just under thirty minutes.
  • AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S
  • Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
  • Conceptual Design Gallery - Lily
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • Also from Magnolia Home Entertainment

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Danger Club: Death (2012)

I can't remember the name "Danger Club." I'm sure a fair amount of thought went into the perfect way to evoke juvenile heroic teams of past generations, but the adverse effect is that it's too generic to embed in my memory. I keep wanting to call it "Brat Pack," and that's the problem, isn't it? I'm not particularly fond of Alan Moore, but I recognize that his influence and innovations still resound decades after initial impact. Then along comes Geoff Johns, who simply processes Moore's work through the sensibilities of his equally strong Marv Wolfman influence to create thoroughly mainstream derivative drivel and reap massive rewards as a result. I care even less for Rick Veitch than I do for Moore, and the soil of his creative legacy doesn't appear as lucratively fertile, but he still deserves a co-creator credit for this enterprise by virtue of its so blatantly being the fruit of his past imaginings. Marv Wolfman could probably take a piece as well, but he'd have to give most of it to Chris Claremont, if we followed this train of logic.

Alan Moore's Supreme comics opened with a retro splash page meant to offer the promise of a Silver Age novelty story, then spun it into a modern narrative with a punky swagger. Danger Club is so faithful to the technique that you'd be forgiven for thinking it an honorary member of the recent (and sadly failing) alt-comic revival of Rob Liefeld's Extreme properties. The line-up of Danger Club isn't as doggedly analogous as would be necessary to properly Rob, however. There's a sort of Kid Nick Fury, a young Black Zatara, and a Thor-Boy that mingles Ozymandias into its Loki. My favorite twist is a tiny girl who drives a "giant" robot not too much larger than Iron Man and named after a Flaming Lips concept album. The originality is undone by the lead character though, who is not only plainly Dick Grayson, but seems intended on recalling The Protector, a Robin stand-in created for an '80s anti-drug comic when the Boy Wonder was rendered unavailable due to a licensing conflict. That's pretty goddamn specific.

The premise of the series is Lord of the Flies writ large. All of the adult heroes fly off to take part in one of those epic universe-shaking crossover events, but never come back. Their unsupervised wards then descend into savage in-fighting, forcing Robin and his Teen Titans to go all Damian Wayne on their asses. The first issue is Batman's climactic battle with Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, played with the subtlety of kryptonite brass knuckles. When even the name publishers are riffing on Battle Royale, there's no shock value in this sort of thing anymore. From there, the teen heroes begin a multi-part battle against Doctor Blasphemy, including an ill-considered flash forward that appears to show an awful lot of hand. I say appears because the succeeding issues close out a loop started by the aforementioned prophesy, but offers no real resolution to multiple subplots left as cliffhangers in a series that hasn't published an issue since October. Another legacy of the '80s creator owned vanguard I hope the title doesn't repeat is the eternally unfinished story.

Despite it committing many sins of modern age comics, I do actually want to read more. Landry Q. Walker and Eric Jones have spent the past several years working on DC's all ages titles, and this effort appears to have been given birth out of their frustrations with the restrictions of that format. Rather than thoroughly explaining gentle single issue stories for children, Danger Club is one layer of ongoing mystery cryptically laid on top of another with a definite aversion to exposition. There's a density to the artwork, both in image and in storytelling, that exposes a desire to do more with the medium than Disney Adventures Comic Zone would ever allow. The characters are drawn as realistic adolescents, part of the target demographic of the creators' work-for-hire paychecks, so the visceral quality to the violence perpetrated against them is stomach churning in a way that denies guilt free indulgence. Bratpack was fueled by a clear hatred of the genre, where Danger Club is by professionals who seem to think the New Mutants stories never rose to the challenge of the gauntlet thrown down by Bill Sienkiewicz having drawn them. There's enthusiasm and a level of overall craft on display here (Rusty Drake's coloring is as good as anything else in the book) that at the very least I can't deny Danger Club's superiority in the current market, even as it dilutes the arsenic works with which past creators tried to poison the genre to its death. Galling and totally dependent on familiarity with decades of other people's books though it may be, if a person is going to read transgressive super-hero comics (and these creators have previously produced the positively niche selection of those that are not these days,) Danger Club is one of the best possible options with which to avail oneself.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Empowered Volume 7 (May, 2012)

Over a year after my belated review of the previous volume, a new Empowered came out, and I still waited another half year to read and review it. Like The Walking Dead, I have a love/hate relationship with this book's expansive cast and often meandering, repetitive narrative. Reading one Empowered takes about as long as any three trades from anybody else, and it's sometimes hard to force oneself through another scene of drunken karaoke confessions/living room whines about sexual hang-ups/extended bondage sequences/Caged Demonwolf verbiage. As with The Walking Dead, I'm sick of key surviving characters, miss the dead, and am ready for the book to progress rather than circumnavigate. On the other hand, there has yet to be an Empowered volume lacking at least some amusement, notable character development, keen concepts, and delicious art. I can always justify the purchase.

Overall, the 2011 "season" was an improvement over 2010, not that I'm trying to damn it with faint praise. It still felt "off" though, in part because of its strong focus on Ninjette and the consequence of its scale being significant shrunk. I like Ninjette as a supporting character, and remain curious to see if her infatuation with Thugboy ever forces an irreversible shift in the series' dynamic. Real tension has been drawn from her harrowing upbringing and the constant threat of that past overtaking her present. Still, 'Jette isn't really strong enough to carry an arc as the central character, even with the assistance of intriguing figures like Oyuki-Chan. This volume certainly tries to develop her further, and seeks to resolve a fair amount of loose strings from prior editions, but ultraviolent bootylicious chop-socky only has so much appeal. It probably plays well with the manga fans, but what I love about Empowered is the ridiculously grand world building and mad Morrison concepts. This forces the customary logic leaps of why one should engage in life and death stakes with ancient blade weaponry and uncertain allies when your best friend can just call up a few second string Avengers to take on some rapey Foot Clan wannabes.

My other complaint about this volume is a pair of aggravating narrative devices. The first is non-linear storytelling, most heightened in a prologue sequences of single panel decontextualized teases of sequences from later in the book. They're too vague to be spoilers, and intentionally misleading, which you'll recognize as they come up throughout the book. As such, they're initially irritating and confusing, then come off as cheap. The rest of the volume then jumps around in time. The through story remains Ninjette's conflict with the Ayakami-Clan, but it's constantly sidetracked by a coda for the prior volume and the usual Empowered tangents. The book comes out only as a thick yearly edition, and remains broken up into chapters determined by the artist's whim rather than the page constraints of monthly publication. A typical volume's many gear shifts keeps things fresh, collecting any number of short subjects that often stealthily build to a grand finale. Here, the book starts at the finale, then jerks you around with mundane bullshit that stalls the progress of the ninja clash. The result is the diminishing of everything that isn't directly tied to the clan war. Warren's second trick is old, having Emp break the fourth wall the sell elevated stakes directly to the reader. She did the exact same thing the last time Ninjette was imperiled in a similar fashion, so it's hard for a reader not to recall the old saying "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

Having aired my grievances, I'll say this volume was generally fun, and I was interested in the new details of Ninjette's world. There's indications that Empowered may finally get some respect in the hero world, and she's only ever bound and gagged in flashback. There's foreshadowing of changes to come, and I suspect that Warren will drop some serious business in 2013, fingers crossed.


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