Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

This film has one of the more unique stories behind its genesis. It was inspired by an ad that first appeared in the back of a magazine, then spread like wildfire across the internet. The ad is written by a person looking for somebody to accompany him traveling through time, who must bring their own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. The ad is only seven sentences long, but it's seven sentences that undoubtedly spark the imagination of anybody who reads it. It just so happened to spark the imaginations of a few indie filmmakers enough to make a full length movie out of it.

In Safety Not Guaranteed a reporter and two interns go in search of the author of the ad. Jeff, the reporter, is actually using the story as an excuse to try to reconnect with an old girlfriend, leaving Darius, one of his interns, to do all of the research on the story herself.

Like any good indie comedy, it shifts between laugh out loud moments and very poignant ones. The author of the ad turns out to be Kenneth, a grocery store clerk, who is actually serious about going back in time. As Darius works to gain his trust, she lets herself buy into his story, but at the same time realizes he might be dangerous. There's also elements of a buddy road trip comedy thrown into the mix as Jeff works to get the other intern he brought along to loosen up and go wild.

At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie about characters trying to fix what's wrong in their lives, focusing on either how things are going wrong for them now, or how they messed things up in the past.  The time travel aspect of it is really just a plot device to expose what the characters want to change about how they've lived their lives. It sounds gimmicky, but it's subtle in its execution. The filmmakers never hit you over the head with how Jeff is metaphorically trying to go back in time while Kenneth is trying to do it literally.

As a side note, the author of the original ad has actually come forward and explained himself. It turns out he's not crazy. He was just trying to fill up ad space. You can read his story here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Innkeepers

I've found that some of the best horror movies I've seen are ones that were made on a low budget. I think it's because when filmmakers accept the limitations of their budget, rather than crafting outlandish nightmares with complex mythologies, they're forced to make a story that's much more scaled back. Instead of relying on CGI monsters, they have to rely on playing up our own inherent fears. Fears of the dark. Fears of ghosts and supernatural phenomenon. Fears of being lost or trapped. All of these fears are put against the viewer to great effect in the film The Innkeepers.

The film was written and directed by Ti West, whose previous film, House of the Devil, seems to be a bit of a cult hit among horror enthusiasts. The Innkeepers is a fairly straightforward story. It's set at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel that's in it's last weekend of operation before going out of business. The owner is off on vacation, and the hotel staff is down to two employees, Claire and Luke, who are staying in the empty rooms for the closing weekend. With the hotel essentially deserted, they decide to investigate the ghost that supposedly haunts the hotel, and that Luke claims to have seen.

The filmmakers did such a good job of establishing the atmosphere in the movie that you owe it to yourself to meet them halfway. Kill all the lights. Watch it with as few people as possible. Watch it in a basement if you're daring enough. And absolutely, turn up the volume. The DVD actually plays a notice at the start of the movie saying that for full effect the volume should be played loud.

At first I just assumed that this was so that they could surprise you with things popping out at unexpected moments. To some degree that is what happens, but it's mainly to make sure you hear the barely audible noises in the film. Several key scenes involve Claire wandering around empty rooms with a tape recorder trying to pick up sounds of ghosts. At first she just hears static, but it slowly gives way to coherent and unnerving sounds.

The ghosts in this movie are kept pretty simple, which makes them not only frightening, but downright believable. If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you're hesitant to enter a dark room in an empty building, because something in the back of your mind is worried there might be something unnatural in there, even though you don't really believe in ghosts, this movie will prey on your fears. When the ghosts do manifest themselves, what happens is probably what you're afraid will happen to you when you're in that dark and empty room.

Some parts of the story are predictable, but Ti West takes what's familiar and makes them feel like elements that belong in every classic ghost story. It just conveniently happens that one of the few guests at the hotel is a spiritual medium, but from a storytelling point of view, she's put to good use by establishing the potential dangers of the hotel's ghosts. Likewise, when an old man shows up at the hotel, insistent on checking into a specific room, you know that something bad is going to come out of it, but there's still that sense of dread you'll get while you wait for the inevitable scene to happen.

In fact, building a sense of dread is what the horror aspect of this movie revolves around. It provides little bits and pieces here and there to make you feel unnerved. Things like faint noises and a building full of empty rooms. At the same time, the scenes between Luke and Claire enjoying themselves in the empty hotel provide you with enough of a sense of security that you are willing to accept why two people would stay in a hotel if they think it's haunted. When the dread starts to build to its fever pitch, you really notice the loss of that sense of security. This film has one of the best deliveries of the line, "She's right behind you," that I've seen in a while.

It's also worth noting that the Yankee Pedlar Inn is actually a real hotel. Unlike it's depiction in the film, it's currently still in business, and they proudly let visitors know on its website that it was used as the filming location for The Innkeepers. It might not seem like the wisest of marketing strategies, but then again the Stanley Hotel  also proudly lets visitors know it was the inspiration for Stephen King's novel, The Shining and the filming location for the mini-series adaptation. They even show Stanley Kubrick's version (which was not filmed there) on a continuous loop on channel 42.

Getting back to The Innkeepers, it's a nice compact story that doesn't waste time stretching its premise out any longer than is necessary. It probably isn't all that scary a film if you watch it in broad daylight, but if you watch it the way it's meant to be watched, you'll find it has all the kick of a good campfire story.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Roman Coppola may be the most underrated of all the Coppolas. There's a good chance you're familiar with his work, even if you don't know it. He co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom and was a second unit director on some of Wes Anderson's films. He directed the music video for Wyclef Jean's "We Trying to Stay Alive."He was also was the man behind the eerie and theatrical special effects in Bram Stoker's Dracula, which his father directed. Despite this, it seems he's still a bit  obscure, except to the most die hard film aficionados.

Back in 2001, Roman wrote and directed a film called CQ. So far it's been the only film he's directed, although he is currently working on another one. CQ is a story about an American filmmaker named Paul, who lives in France in 1969, and is working as an editor on a film called Dragonfly, a sort of Barbarella-inspired spy movie. At the same time, he's working on a side project of his own, recording every aspect of his day-to-day life. On the one hand, Paul's career advances as the producers of Dragonfly start going through directors. On the other hand, his relationship with his girlfriend starts to fall apart because of his obsession with documenting his life instead of filming it.

Leading the cast as Paul is actor Jeremy Davies, who you might recognize as Daniel Faraday from Lost. (Now that I think of it, he spends most of his time in both roles wearing the same black tie and white button down shirt.) He's perfect for the role, capturing the vibe of a man swept up in the free spirit vibe of the 60's but who hasn't lost himself in it. This is in contrast to the actors playing the other directors for the film within the film. Gerard Depardieu plays a director more concerned with making a political statement than making a film that's profitable, and Jason Schwartzman more or less plays his own interpretation of Andy Warhol.

I'm a bit disappointed that in the years since this was released we haven't seen more of Angela Lindvall,  who does double duty performing as Valentine, the leading lady of Dragonfly, as well as performing in character as the spy Dragonfly. As Valentine, she comes off as a warm hearted girl next door, but as Dragonfly she's an absolute sexbomb. It's impressive how she creates a character that feels completely natural when she's supposed to be off set, but when she's supposed to be playing the spy it almost makes you wish they made an actual feature film out of Dragonfly.

One of my favorite things about this film is the visual aspect of it. Not content to just set the movie in the 60's, Roman Coppola gives this film the look and feel of a movie made in the 60's. I don't mean some cheezy homage to 60's cinema either. If it weren't for the copyright notice, you might honestly think this was shot around the same time as The Pink Panther or the Sean Connery James Bond movies. He absolutely nails the color and lighting. Complimenting the visuals is a score by French psychedelic band Mellow, that again, feel perfect for the era.

Roman Coppola plays around with blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Sometimes we the audience will be shown a scene from the film within the film, presented as a fully edited and scored work, only for it to abruptly transition to the crew working on the film. Other times, the audience gets to go along with Paul's daydreams as he ponders what he wants to do with the film, letting characters from the film mix with his real life. It lends itself to the sort of wackiness one might expect based on Coppola's collaborations with Wes Anderson, if the wackiness of a Wes Anderson movie were somehow contained to one character.

As I mentioned before, Dragonfly, the film being made by the characters in CQ, feels like it should be a stand alone move. Even though you only see about fifteen minutes of footage from Dragonfly within CQ, it's so well thought out you get the sense that somebody in the 60's made such a movie from start to finish. Knowing this, the producers threw in two cuts of the film as bonus features on the DVD. One is supposed to be Paul's version of the film, the other is supposed to be Gerard Depardieu's character's version.

All in all, CQ is a worthwhile movie checking out if you're at all a fan of The Darjeeling Limited, the Coppola family in general, or just movies with that 1960's mod vibe to them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why "Aliens" May be the Worst Title for a Sequel

Any film buff has inevitably had this happen. You're talking about the Alien movies, and when it comes to the first of the sequel, you really have to make it clear which movie you're talking about. If you mention James Cameron, you're in the clear. If you don't you've probably found yourself overemphasizing the "s" in Aliens. Why? Because you have to make it clear you're talking about Aliens and not Alien. As a result, it sounds like you're talking about a movie called Alienzzz, which sounds like some sort of space invader themed gangster movie from the 90's.

Of course, you could be sacrilegious, and call it Alien 2, but this usually only happens after you've gotten fed up of clarifying whether you're talking about Alien in a singular or plural form.

It's not just in conversation that this is problematic. It can be annoying when it comes time to watch the movie as well. You have to do a bit of a double-take just to make sure it's the original or the sequel you're selecting because the title is a difference of just one letter.

I can understand not wanting to call it Alien 2. Considering how horror movies tend to be sequelized to death, it makes sense to give it a more original sounding name, but  I always thought that Aliens was a bit too clever. I imagine that when it first came out, a lot of the marketing effort must have been spent clarifying to people that it was a sequel, not a rerelease of the original Ridley Scott movie. They could have at least given it a more distinctive name like Alien Hoard or Alien: Get Away From Her You Bitch. Not the most original titles, I know, but you get where I'm going with this.

All of this popped in my head recently because of Prometheus, Ridley Scott's new prequel/spinoff to Alien. I would have left it as definitely being the worst title for a sequel, instead of maybe being the worst, but as I was dwelling on this issue, I realized that The Fast and the Furious movies definitely have Aliens beat.

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift is the only one of the sequels with a respectable sounding name. (On a side note, this is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies.) Some degree of effort was put into naming two of the other sequels. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be a crap title, but at least it's clear that it's a sequel to the original. Then there's Fast Five. Certainly a better effort than 2 Fast 2 Furious, but still not great. If it were good, then maybe the TV ads for this movie wouldn't have had the voice over guy call it The Fast and the Furious 5 while the Fast Five logo appears on screen.

The worst of these is the fourth entry to this series. They could have called it Fast Four or if they really wanted to strain things, F4ST and the Furious, or 4ast and the 4urious, or some crap like that. Instead they just called it Fast & Furious.

At least Aliens makes sense as titles go. In the original, there was one alien. In the sequel, there are several. (I know it's supposed to be an entire hoard, but ever since reading on IMDB that only 5 alien suits were made for the movie, I've had a hard time not seeing the crew being chased by the same 5 aliens.) On the other hand Fast & Furious is just begging to be confusing. From a cataloguing point of view, those two should share the same spot on the shelf. You can't just look at the title when you pick up one of those movies. You actually have to flip to the back and read the plot description just to make sure which movie you're picking up.

I'm sure a worse title will come along soon enough. Studios always seem to dread just slapping a number at the end of a film title, but aren't always good at coming up with decent names for sequels. If we're lucky, a few summers from now, we'll all be bombarded by ads for Trans4mers.


With Prometheus, director Ridley Scott did what I'm sure many directors have wanted to do after making an iconic horror movie who's impact was diluted by a slew of unnecessary sequels. He decided to reclaim his work. In 1979, Scott gave us Alien. While the sequel Aliens was comparable to the original, the franchise was marred by increasingly poor sequels, ultimately culminating in the Alien vs. Predator movies, which turned out to be far from as awesome as we all imagined they would be.

Prometheus isn't technically a prequel to Alien, but it is set within the same fictional universe, and does take place prior to the events of Alien. Rather then focus on the Xenomorph (what non-nerds would call the alien creature) it instead focuses more on Weyland Industries, the company that the crew of the ship in Alien worked for. In Prometheus, we learn more about the company's founder and the goals behind their space exploration as they chase after the possible origins of life on Earth.

The tone of this movie is considerably different from others in the Alien franchise. The others were straight-up horror movies, but Prometheus is more of a sci-fi drama with some intense horror elements. The story opens with a team of scientists who have found repeated evidence of a star map in drawings made by ancient civilizations. They are convinced that the planet shown through the map contains the secret of human creation. Of course, what they find on the planet turns out to be something dark and evil.

Much of the film focuses on the nature of what it means to be human. It's actually one of the few films I can think of that actually poses the question, "How can one believe in Christianity once they know aliens exist?" If it isn't the first to pose that question, at least it's one of the few I could think of that does so in a way not condescending towards religion or science. We see the nature of humanity questioned mainly through the eyes of David (Michael Fassbender) an android who is constantly reminded by his ship mates that he isn't human. But, as David points out to his human counterparts, they may find their creators as indifferent to their humanity as they are toward's David's. This is balanced against the religious convictions of Dr. Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace, star of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies.) In spite of what she sees and what she gets put through, she still shows signs that she holds onto her faith.

The film isn't all philosophical debate, in fact that aspect takes a back burner once the action kicks up. As the mission (inevitably) starts to go wrong, we the audience are treated to some very intense scenes. There may not be any moment as iconic as the original Alien's chest busting scene, but there are moments that match it's level of white-knuckle intensity.

The core story about an ill fated space is well played out, and makes for a great movie on its own, but the subtle underlying philosophical element of the story is what makes it stand out from other space horror movies. My only gripe about Prometheus is that it raises deep philosophical questions, and implies there are answers to them, but it leaves them unresolved. Of course deep philosophical questions are part of the best works of science fiction, especially unanswered ones. Blade Runner also questions what it means to be human. Minority Report questions the line between intention and action. 

Unfortunately Prometheus raises questions that it feels like there are concrete answers to. Worse than that, it implies they'll be answered in a possible sequel. Imagine if in 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead of leaving the monoliths as mysterious objects lurking in the background of great moments in human history, he implied there was an answer to what they were, but you'd have to wait until the sequel to find out.  If this style of storytelling feels familiar to you. it should come as no surprise then that this film was written by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof.

That being said, Prometheus is certainly a landmark science fiction film. It draws upon elements from Alien and its sequels, but it's possibly the first movie I've seen that could be qualified as a prequel which manages to work as a stand alone movie, separate from the others. Considering how much buzz it's created on the internet since its release, you should probably see it soon, before other people spoil it for you.