Thursday, July 29, 2010

Karate Kid (1984)

The Movie: Teenager Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) unwillingly moves from New Jersey to California with his mother. On the plus side, very early on he meets Ali (Elisabeth Shu), who reciprocates his attraction to her. On the down side, she has a jealous ex, Johnny (William Zabka), who is also the leader of the local junior thug society. Daniel finds himself on Johnny and his gang’s shit list really quick.

Even worse for Daniel, Johnny and his goons turn out to be very apt pupils of the Cobra Kai karate dojo; which is run by John Kreese (Martin Kove), himself very much a vicious bully. Daniel is unable to fight back against these bullies, they outmatch and outnumber him. With them gunning for him, it’s doubtful he’ll even survive the school year.

Fortunately, Daniel has made a friend in Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the building’s handyman. Miyagi himself is very skilled at karate, and saves Daniel from the latest and most brutal beating. What’s more, he accompanies Daniel down to Kreese’s dojo to confront him about his students. An agreement is reached that the upcoming karate championship will be used to settle matters.

Miyagi is able and willing to teach Daniel what he needs to know. Unfortunately, Daniel’s insecurities threaten to derail any and all of his future successes. Then there’s the little matter that even if Daniel gets his insecurities under control, Kreese is not a man who believes in fighting fair…

The Review:

Daniel: “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?”
Mr. Miyagi: "Canvas, you like? J.C. Penny for $3.19. In Okinawa belt mean no need rope to hold up pants."

A few weeks back an old high school friend of mine invited me to join her and some of her friends to see the Karate Kid remake. Talk about your depressing experiences. Not the people; I am rather fond of said friend, and everybody I was introduced to was pleasant enough. The movie on the other hand, that depressed me.

About a week or two prior I had bought a copy of the original Karate Kid, so it was fresh in my mind. As a result, I had a constant sense of déjà vu all throughout the remake. Seriously, the majority of the good parts and all of the major plot points were lifted straight from the original; almost entirely word for word. But what really got me wasn’t the blatant plagiarizing, though that was bad enough; it was how obvious it was that the people who put this movie together had no idea what any of what they were ripping off meant.

The Karate Kid is a popular movie, and rightly so. On its surface it doesn’t look like much; just your formulaic coming of age story. A young boy on the cusp of manhood is facing a crisis of identity, and the choice he makes will determine the rest of his life. He finds a mentor who, while seemingly teaching him something unrelated, helps him learn what he needs to know to resolve his crisis. In many ways Karate Kid is very much a product of its time; and it even plays to the vogue for wise, ethnic mentors.

However, that is just on its surface. Not far beneath, this movie has a real and relevant message. True, said message was shaped by the time period the movie was made in, but it is one that is relevant to any time or place. At its core, Karate Kid is a story about the clash of two very different ideologies, which are represented in the persons of Miyagi and Kreese.

John Kreese espouses an ideology that was very common at the time, and unfortunately is all too prevalent today: namely, Might Makes Right. Or, as Miyagi puts it, Kreese thinks with his fist. Kreese believes that being strong is the most important thing, and that those who aren’t strong aren’t worthy of respect. Kreese’s definition of strength is one of self aggrandizement and force. The strongest man is the one who can toot his own horn the most, and who can shout down or roll over everybody else. Mercy, compassion and courtesy of any kind are all signs of weakness.

Miyagi, on the other hand, follows a very different definition of strength. He knows exactly what he is and what he is capable of, and he doesn’t feel any need to show it off. Most people just assume Miyagi is an unimpressive old man, and he’s happy to keep it that way unless more is needed. As can be inferred from the quote above, for all his skill in karate Miyagi has never felt the need to compete. Likewise, compare Kreese’s wall of trophies and awards with the fact that Miyagi keeps his Medal of Valor hidden in a small box.

My second favorite scene in the film demonstrates the differences between the two men. Miyagi has accompanied Daniel down to Kreese’s dojo to confront him about his students. Kreese behaves in the expected ways; he bullies, he blusters, he yells and gets into Miyagi’s personnel space, and otherwise tries to roll over him. Miyagi, meanwhile, refuses to play Kreese’s game. He stands up to him by quietly making it clear that he will have his say. Miyagi doesn’t even raise his voice, but he very obviously doesn’t back down from Kreese.

The thing that really struck me about Miyagi is how little he talks. He dispenses little tidbits of wisdom to Daniel, of course, but he never speechifies like mentors in these movies are expected to. In fact, Miyagi never says a word more than what is absolutely needed. Kreese is the one in this movie who gives long-winded speeches and diatribes; but Miyagi teaches by example whenever possible.

Due to pop culture saturation, almost everyone is familiar with how Miyagi begins Daniel’s training: “wax on, wax off.” Miyagi makes Daniel do chores such as waxing his cars, painting, and sanding his floor. Each one is supposed to be done only with a certain hand movement; up-down when painting the fence for example. And of course, irritating and irrelevant as this all might seem at first; the gestures turn out to be the basis for the fighting style Daniel is being taught.

But there is a bit more to it. More than fighting moves, Miyagi is teaching Daniel humility. First of all, people of Kreese’s ilk would claim that their training puts them above this kind of work; Miyagi is showing Daniel that this isn’t the case. Far more importantly, Miyagi is teaching Daniel the simple, yet essential lesson that there is much to be learned from even the most humble tasks and experiences.

My favorite part of the Karate Kid, and the part that is most revealing about Miyagi and his teaching, is when Daniel finally confronts Miyagi about the tasks he is being put to. A scene that is elegant in its simplicity, Miyagi’s response is to order Daniel to demonstrate the hand gestures. All he says are simple orders; “show me sand’a the floor; no, stand up,” with no more elaboration than that. Then, once Daniel is doing it, he simply demonstrates how the required gestures work as a fighting style, with no more words. His point made, he walks silently back inside. What I love about this scene is the expression on Daniel’s face at the end, one that says very clearly “wow, I think I’m starting to get this.”

The final important character is, of course, our hero, Daniel. Both Macchio and the script do a great job of creating a realistic character. I identify very strongly with Daniel; although I must confess it’s less in the pleasant nostalgic way most people usually mean when they say that and more in the “oh gods, please don’t tell me I used to be like that” way. Daniel is your typical, directionless teenage boy who is plunked down into an unknown and uncertain situation. And it shows.

Through the first half of the movie Daniel follows Kreese’s ideology, although one gets the impression that it’s less out of conscious decision than it is simply because he doesn’t know a better way. He picked up a little bit of Karate in New Jersey, and uses it to try to impress people. When Daniel and Johnny first butt heads, Daniel uses it on him and learns, firsthand, the major flaw in this ideology. As Miyagi points out later; no matter how good you think you are there’s always somebody better.

There’s also the fact that Daniel is extremely insecure. Even when good things happen to him, such as Ali reciprocating his affections, he can’t help questioning it and expecting the worst. He tries the easiest seeming solutions to his problems, such as the suicidally blatant prank on Johnny that nearly gets him killed. And whenever he comes upon a hurdle, whether or not it’s one of his own creation, his reaction is always to lash out and then cut himself off from those around him.

However, Macchio and the script do a good job of making Daniel sympathetic. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and he has enough good traits that it’s hard to dislike him entirely. Ultimately you wind up hoping he’ll succeed; even if, at the same time, you want to smack him around yourself and say “now see here you moron!” On a personal note, I think Daniel’s girlfriend is way too good for him (although not in the way her family and most of her friends think so), but I’m glad she doesn’t realize it.

Even though it follows a familiar formula, Karate Kid very much deserves its popularity. The makers of this movie use the well-known elements of the genre to create a story that provides a real message. What’s more, it doesn’t hit you over the head with the moral like so many other of these movies do. This is a movie worth rewatching multiple times.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Messiah of Evil (1973)

The Movie: Arletty (Mariana Hill) travels to the remote seaside town of Pointe Dune. Her father, an artist of some renown, moved out there so that he could be alone to paint. However, his letters have started to become erratic and unbalanced, so she is naturally worried about him.

The people of Pointe Dune are unhelpful, unfriendly, and somewhat creepy. Arletty eventually finds another group of outsiders: the rich degenerate Thom (Michael Greer) and his two “traveling companions;” the sultry former model Laura (Anitra Ford, a model on the game show the Price Is Right as well as starring in Invasion of the Bee Girls and the Big Bird Cage), and the jailbait Tony (Joy Bang). Thom came to Pointe Dune to learn the local legends, and they, too, have been seeking out Arletty’s father.

Unfortunately, emotions start to come to a head as soon as Arletty enters the picture. As Laura puts it “Thom likes to collect things,” and it’s no secret that he wants Arletty as another traveling companion. However, the emotional turmoil is the least of their worries. Piecing together clues from Arletty’s father’s journal and the accounts of the local drunk reveal a really dark legend about the last time the moon turned blood red.

The legend talks about unthinkable depravities, and an evil force that takes people over and turns them into something less than human. Then there is the Dark Stranger, a mysterious former preacher who was with the Donner Party when he discovered faith in another, darker Power. The Dark Stranger was last seen walking into the sea; but he promised to return a century later, to usher Pointe Dune’s curse upon the rest of the world.

The Review: Only about a year or two ago there was a wonderful little store on State Street in Boise. It sold used movies, mostly VHS, along with old videogame systems and games. I loved to go through the movies, where I often found obscure little gems. Probably my greatest discovery there was in one of those huge boxes VHS used to come in, and had the intriguing title Messiah of Evil.

Now, I had never heard anything about this picture before. The title interested me, so I grabbed it. However, I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I was pretty sure that this movie would have a few fascinating, though far underutilized, ideas; and would be, at very best, passable. Which just goes to show that I can be wrong sometimes.

What can I say? Messiah of Evil is a true artistic masterpiece of a horror movie. The people who put it together knew exactly what they were doing and how they were going to do it. Considering that said makers, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, were the screenwriters for American Graffiti (not to mention that Huyck’s career ended when he wrote and directed Howard the Duck), the craftsmanship and knowhow that went into creating such a creepy and haunting piece is just breathtaking.

The main issue with creating a truly effective horror story, whatever the medium you use, is successfully creating and maintaining that atmosphere of tension. Messiah of Evil is set up specifically, in every detail, to make you uneasy. Lights, camera shots, blocking, mirrors, music, sound, two sets of voice-overs (one from Arletty and one from her father); all are used to amazing effect to make things off-kilter. In fact Pointe Dune, where we spend nearly all of the running time, seems less like an ordinary town and more like a waking nightmare.

One of the most effective settings is Arletty’s father’s house, where a good deal of the movie takes place. In almost every room are murals on the walls; mainly people, although there is one of some escalators that is extremely effective. From the beginning the people in the murals are kind of creepy, but they grow more so as strange events start happening. In many places they play as a kind of silent Greek chorus to what’s going on onscreen. Overall, they make the house, which is also the heroes’ shelter and base of operations, seem oppressive and threatening. I know, were it me using the room Arletty sets up as her bedroom, I’d never get a night’s sleep.

Another thing that caught my attention on my last viewing was the blood. I know, blood is par for the course in a horror movie these days; but what caught me was how sparely it was used. What’s more, the blood was so much more effective than it would have been had it come in rivers. A drop of blood falling from an eye, or a red hand hopelessly reaching for succor, is much more effective than the usual oceans of red stuff that is used.

Finally, the makers of this movie employed a masterful use of one of the oldest and most effective techniques for creating horror; warping the normal and familiar. The two most famous scenes in Messiah of Evil, the ones in the grocery store and movie theater, are extremely effectual because they are taking place somewhere that appears otherwise normal. The theater scene especially catches my imagination. Every time I see it I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to watch it in an actual movie theater. If nothing else, I probably would have been very suspicious of anybody sitting near me.

The characters are well made and acted. Admittedly, we don’t get to know them very well; we never get even a hint of what Arletty’s life was like pre-Pointe Dune, for example. Still, they come across as real human beings. Unlike most other horror movies, while they do stupid things; it never comes across as moronically suicidal, but how an actual human being would act under the same circumstances. The disconnect that comes from not knowing much about them pre-Pointe Dune actually helps reinforce the sense of a living nightmare.

None of the acting quality goes anywhere below adequate, although Greer comes across as the best of the primary characters. As Thom, Greer does a good job at showing both his bad (Thom is somewhat arrogant, lecherous and decadent) and his good (he really does try to do right by the others when he figures out what’s going on) points. Also, he apparently played the Dark Stranger as well. The Stranger’s face is always hidden by shadow, but he does bear a strong resemblance. There are all sorts of rumors about a cut scene showing that Thom and the Dark Stranger are actually the same being, or at least linked in some way.

I don’t know enough to comment one way or the other. I have no problem believing it to be so, however. Thom’s ultimate fate, and what comes immediately afterward, could argue for the affirmative. Whatever link there is between the two characters, if any, is left undisclosed; but it does add yet another layer of nightmarish ambiguity.

Probably the best of the cast are the extras who play the creepy townspeople. The most visible is Bennie Robinson, a black (as in African descended) albino who does a really disturbing performance with both his lines and his simple presence. However, I was also taken by the owner of the gallery Arletty visits at the very beginning of the movie. She’s a blind old woman who first feels Arletty’s face (“like a spider” Arletty’s voiceover describes the experience) and then snaps for her assistant. She then taps out Morse code on his hand, which he translates for Arletty. It is a very brief scene, but I still find it effectively off.

In conclusion, I will repeat what I said at the start of this review; Messiah of Evil is a true artistic masterpiece of a horror movie. It is one long waking nightmare with a decent cast, put together by people who knew exactly what they were doing. If you like horror; and I mean real horror, not the torture porn, bloody cartoons or condescendingly self-referential crap that passes for horror movies these days; you cannot miss this one.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Compare and Contrast: Bedazzled (1967 & 2000)

The Movie (1967): Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) is a cook at a fast food place. Nervous, dissatisfied with his lot in life and somewhat lacking in social skills; Stanley is deeply in love with his co-worker, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron). Of course, he is too scared to make conversation, and his attempt to ask her out goes badly.

A disastrous and humiliating suicide attempt is where he meets Satan, aka. George Spiggott (Peter Cook). The Devil offers Stanley a chance to get everything he’s ever wanted; seven wishes, whatever he asks for, in exchange for his soul. Of course, this being the Devil, Stanley’s wishes always turn out the exact opposite of what he’s after. With each failed wish, Stanley desperately attempts to outwit George; but the Devil and his servants, the Seven Deadly Sins, are always a few steps ahead…

The Movie (2000): Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) is unable to relate to people, though he desperately wants to. He tries to fit in and make friends, but he has trouble reading social cues and tends to try too hard. As a result; all his co-workers loath him and give him a hard time and he is unable to approach Alison Gardner (Frances O’Connor), the woman of his dreams. In short, Elliot is lonely and miserable.

Then one night in a bar, Elliot meets the Devil (Elizabeth Hurley). The Devil offers him a way to solve all of his problems and win Alison; in exchange for his soul she will give him seven wishes. But as the old saying goes: “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it;” and what you get might not be what you truly wanted in the first place…

Compare and Contrast: And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. For this review I am going to try an idea I got from some other web sites; I will compare and contrast the movie Bedazzled and its remake. This was probably inevitable, as the majority of Hollywood’s works these days are remakes. This is an experiment, so I’m not sure how well it’s going to go. Feedback on this would be most welcome. A small warning, there will be some spoilers in this review, probably a few major ones. One more note is that I will make references to “God” as written. This isn’t a slight of anyone’s beliefs, but a concession to my own; as I tend to lean toward the polytheist end of things. No offense is meant to anyone; though I’m sure there are those who will take it just the same.

My parents have long been fans of the original Bedazzled. In fact, one of my oldest memories is of watching part of it with them on television. However, it never came out on video until the remake, so it wasn’t until late high school/early college that I got to see it. While Bedazzled is very much a product of its times, and I hesitate to call it a classic; it is definitely a very fun, well made movie. It’s obviously the result of intelligent people with a rather warped and cynical sense of humor; my kind of art.

As for the remake, it’s almost as good. I really shouldn’t have to be surprised at this; but in this age of remakes I have started to become burned out on the things. After seeing the remake of Karate Kid (which, gods help me, I may cover one day), which steals all of the best parts and major plot points of a good movie with no clue whatsoever of why they were so effective; it’s refreshing to watch a competent remake. The 2000 version of Bedazzled does follow the same basic plot structure; it even borrows a few major plot points from and makes a few obvious winks and nods to the original. However, the completed work is very much its own movie.

Probably the first major point of departure of the two movies is the general tone of the humor. The original Bedazzled is British humor; dry, acerbic and understated even as more outré events happen. Much of the comedy is based on witty lines, word-play and innuendos. The remake, being Hollywood, is much more blatant and outrageous. For an example, a comparison between the two movies’ handling of one the few wishes they both featured should suffice.

In the original, Stanley’s second wish is to be a multimillionaire and married to Margaret; who he wants to be very physical and affectionate. In true Faustian fashion, Margaret is very physical and affectionate with everyone but Stanley. Most of the humor comes from Stanley trying to keep his cool while Margaret is visibly cuckolding him in front of everyone. George, Stanley’s friend and business associate in this wish, makes all sorts of subtle innuendos about the situation which Stanley desperately tries to ignore or pass off. It finally ends when George betrays Stanley with Margaret and Stanley decides it is just too much. There is also the small element that Stanley gets his wealth from arms deals, although it’s only presented as a minor detail.

In the remake, Elliot’s first wish is to be rich, powerful and married to Alison. The situation with his wife is similar; she hates her husband and is very obviously having an affair with one of his underlings. However, most of the humor comes from Elliot’s revelation about where his wealth and power come from; he’s a Colombian drug lord. Elliot’s cuckolding and moral uncertainty about his business causes one of his minions to rebel against him, and the resulting explosive (literally) shootout prompts Elliot to cancel his wish.

The heroes of the respective movies have some slight variation on each other. Stanley Moon is kind of a nebbish wallflower; he can’t relate to other people and is too afraid to try. Elliot Richards, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He does try, but he works so hard at being what he thinks other people want him to be that he overcompensates. The differences fit into the general spirit of the two films; in the original Stanley is pretty much the helpless everyman who is constantly stepped on by the impartial forces that rule his world. Elliot, on the other hand, can’t or won’t understand what he needs to do to have control of his life.

Peter Cook’s George Spiggot, aka Satan; puts some interesting spins on the character of the Devil. For one thing, he pretty much personifies the definition of “frienemy.” All throughout the movie he alternates between being friendly and sympathetic to Stanley on one hand, nasty and insulting on the other, switching between the two at a whim. He constantly tries, successfully, to trip Stanley up on his wishes. Every so often he offers a gesture of seeming kindness and generosity, but there is always an ulterior motive.

George appears in all of Stanley’s wishes as well. When he does, he is almost always the spoiler element. In the wish I went over above, for example, George is the friend who commits the final betrayal of Stanley with his wife. In another one, where Stanley wishes to be a famous pop star, George is the upcoming rival who steals the spotlight from him. They only times when this isn’t the case is when either the wish itself is stacked against Stanley, or Stanley is obviously going to screw himself over and needs no outside help to do it.

A final, interesting twist to George’s character is what he does between Stanley’s wishes. Whenever Stanley cancels a wish, he spends the time tagging along with George as he does his job. What’s interesting is that George rarely does anything blatantly evil or destructive. Instead, he does things like scratching records and tearing the last pages out of mystery novels before selling them, training a pigeon to poop on a man’s hat, or calling wrong numbers to people who are in the tub. His actions are definitely petty, mean-spirited and irritating, but they can’t really be called evil.

Elizabeth Hurley’s Devil is very different. For one thing she’s female, which lends a sexual vibe to her and her actions (I don’t understand why female evil tends to be linked to female sexuality in the popular mindset, but there you are). Also, her between-wish actions tend to be more blatantly destructive; things like causing car accidents and giving candy to hospital patients instead of their pills. However, she’s not quite as nasty toward Elliot as George is to Stanley. In fact, when she tells him she likes and cares about him, it’s very easy to believe her even though she is trying to trip him up.

Another interesting difference is the Devil’s influence in Elliot’s wishes. She appears in a few of them, but always in the background. For example, in Elliot’s wish to be an NBA star, we catch a glimpse of her leading his team’s cheerleaders. However, she never directly affects the wish herself. It’s always either the wish, or it’s Elliot himself, or some combination of the two that is responsible for it failing.

My final contrast between the films, how the contract is resolved and how “God” is depicted, are what ultimately define the movies’ tone and viewpoint. In the original, George tells Stanley early on that he has a bet with “God” about who can get a certain number of souls first. He’s almost there, and if he wins he gets back into Heaven.

Later on, Stanley’s is stuck in his last disastrous wish and catches George just as he’s about to leave for Heaven. On a whim, George decides that returning Stanley’s soul would make an impressive magnanimous gesture. Unfortunately for him, “God” decides that George’s motives are suspect and doesn’t let him back in after all. Just before the credits roll we have George shouting at the sky, threatening to screw up the world so much “God” Himself will be ashamed. His only response is “God’s” evil laughter.

Stanley ends the movie back where he started at the beginning. All he has to show for his trials are several lifetimes of experience; and the knowledge that he has to get what he wants himself, with no supernatural help. What he will do with this knowledge, or whether it will even be of use to him at all, is left hanging. Bedazzled leaves us with a grim cosmology, one where we are insignificant pawns in a game between formidable but indifferent forces, and where we have little power to change things for ourselves.

In the remake, Elliot, with one wish to go and realizing that he’s screwed, attempts to get out of the contract and winds up in jail for the night. He finds himself sharing a cell with a man who tells him exactly what he needs to hear; he can’t sell his soul, it’s within his power to change his life, and that if he tries he will get to where he needs to be. Elliot tells the Devil he doesn’t want his last wish. She tries to scare him into it with a vision of Hell and Elliot, deciding he’s screwed anyway, wishes for Alison to have a happy life. When he comes to, the Devil tells him that there is a loophole in the contract that voids it if he does anything truly selfless.

Elliot’s experiences gives him the strength to not let his co-workers walk over him and to ask Alison out. It turns out she’s taken, but he gets a new neighbor, Nicole, who’s her exact duplicate. At the end of the movie, it’s obvious that things are going very well between the two of them.

The remake’s cosmology is very different from the original. In this one, human actions and choices are what’s really important; the Devil tells Elliot as much at the end. Likewise, while there are powers trying to trip us up (i.e. the Devil), there are other ones who are trying to help us. We are left in no doubt as to the identity of Elliot’s cellmate; one of our last glimpses is of him and the Devil playing chess in the park. Even the Devil isn’t too bad, and what she can do to us is limited by the choices we make for ourselves.

In ending, I would say that the original Bedazzled, from a technical and artistic standpoint, is the better movie. On a personnel note, it’s also the one that fits my world view. However, I actually like the remake better. This is because the remake’s point of view is the one I want to believe in. Both are very much products of their times (especially the original), but both are also very much their own movies and worth seeing.