Friday, 11 January 2008

Hack and Slash (100 Posts and Counting)

Contains spoilers for 28 Weeks Later and Alpha Dog.

Well, flip me (I've made a vague resolution for 2008 not to swear so much) - 100 posts and counting. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun! That said, neither 28 Weeks Later or Alpha Dog are a whole lot of fun - the only way to deal with them is to hack them down with a sharpened spade like the mangy old dogs they are.

28 Weeks Later – directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo; written by Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Jesus Olmo, Enrique Lopez Lavigne (and Rowan Joffe’s dog for all I know).

About twenty minutes in, I started to worry: why can’t I bring myself to care what happens to these people? Why do I truly not give a rat’s ass what happens to any of them? Am I sociopathic? Asleep? Dead perhaps? Then I realised that the four writers it took to churn this thing out haven’t got a scooby. Phew! Indeed, it took four of them to make it this bad (not counting Rowan Joffe’s dog of course, who was apparently denied a screenwriting credit).

Robert Caryle plays Don, a man so chickenshit that he abandons his wife to a houseful of zombies and bravely runs away as fast as his little Scottish legs will carry him. Way to go, writer guys! Make your protagonist a dyed in the wool, lily-livered coward from the off – that’ll do it. What’s more, Bob lies to his children about having seen his wife die, which turns into a major embarrassment when she turns up alive in the attic of their London home.

But not to worry! Don is bitten by his wife, whom he then kills. He then goes on a zombified killing spree, infecting the population of London all over again. The movie then goes into freefall as it flails about looking for a protagonist – in the resulting search, it finds about eight of them, all of them hopeless cardboard cut outs brandishing military hardware. Ho hum.

I also got a little hung up on trying to figure out exactly who the protagonist was. You could argue that within the horror genre this question doesn't matter so much, as characterisation is often sacrified (wrongly in my opinion) in favour of keeping the audience guessing who is going to die next. However, in 28 Weeks Later, after forty minutes Don’s narrative is completely jettisoned – he is given no chance to redeem himself with his wife and children, which makes for a viewing experience so devoid of emotion as to be utterly pointless.

And what’s more, Don’s son crawls into an air vent to escape the rampaging zombie hoardes, thereby violating John August’s Air Vent Rule (...the only time I’ve seen the inside of an air duct is television and movies, when a character — generally the hero — has to be clever enough (and small enough) to climb through a conveniently-accessible air duct). Jesus Christ, they’ll be playing chess next (the next time I see two characters in a movie playing chess – stand up Lucky Number Slevin and Revolver – I’m going to write a stiff letter to my MP)!

And what the bajesus is that sub-Godspeed MOR racket doing clogging up the soundtrack? STOP IT, NOW!

Anyway, zombies – aint’cha sick of ‘em? So last season, sweetie.

Alpha Dog – written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.

Where do you start with a film like this? There’s so much going on I started to wonder whether half of it was altogether necessary. For instance, the faux documentary interviews – are they really needed? No – they simply over-egg an already over-egged pudding. The idea I guess is that the documentary elements add to the supposed ‘true story’ elements of the movie, and provide some (unneeded) exposition. I suspect what it’s really there for is to provide opportunities for actors to chew up the scenery (note to self: histrionic/ hysterical dialogue is no substitute for a genuinely involving/emotional narrative). Not that Bruce Willis does any of this, to be honest, but you knew that anyway.

The movie’s central conflict takes nearly forty minutes to establish, which is fine, but probably could have been done in fifteen minutes without quite so much fannying about. And what a couple of whiny, unsympathetic jerkwads these guys are – Johnny Truelove, wannabe middle class gangster and all round dick, and Jake Mazursky, the paramilitary junkie moron with a sideline in SS tattoos and overacting who is seemingly never too wasted to lay out a room full of party goers in a frenzy of comedy Tae Kwando. That said, Jake disappears halfway through, which is always a problem with sprawling narratives such as this: if you spread the role of the protagonist amongst six or seven characters, then at some point someone is going to get left out. As Alpha Dog stands, we end up following the least sympathetic character of all, Johnny Truelove, who ends up not getting shagged in New Mexico. It really isn’t that interesting.

That said, does it really matter who the protagonist is? Admittedly, Cassavetes does a much better job than the seventy eight writers needed to cobble together 28 Weeks Later. In this case, perhaps we can revert to Chip Smith’s Patented Screenwriting Excuses:

Excuse #32: No clear protagonist? It’s an ensemble piece, you frickin’ mofo (rubbish swearing courtesy of Alpha Dog).

In addition to actors over-emoting in an attempt to lend proceedings a much needed emotional core, it also appears that rubbish David Bowie songs have to be drafted in to do this job as well (it’s a well known fact that after 1980’s Scary Monsters Bowie was replaced by a cyborg who proceeded to royally screw up a top drawer oeuvre by releasing Let’s Dance and forming Tin Machine). For a film that purports to be ‘real’, shoehorning in a late period Bowie song is just not right, and certainly not credible. Remember Leon, a good film spoiled by the addition of a Sting song over the closing credits? For the love of god – Sting! Arrgghh! Why not just put Cliff Richard and The Tweets on the soundtrack and have done with it?

I was going to write about Die Hard 4.0, but could feel a swear word about to emerge. I will try and calm down a bit and report back later...


Lucy said...

Alpha Dog was great! True the protagonist sucked royal ass but otherwise it was very good, the faux docs really worked. And you're not exactly known for liking drama, HMMMMMMM? Not as good as Harsh Times tho.

Oli said...

And now I shall take up the cause of 28 Weeks Later...

I thought the dialogue sounded like it was written by someone to whom English was a second language (and it was) the point was always there, but it was often inelegant.

Tammy was the protag, Don the antag. And I found it genuinely horrific, which I feel means it did its job as a horror movie.

Nowhere near as good as the original, but nowhere near as bad as it should have been.

Lucy said...

The world has clearly gone mad.

Tom said...

One of the main problems I had with 28 Weeks Later was the villification of Don's character at the beginning of the film because he acted like a normal human being and not like a hollywood hero. I felt it was far too simplistic to say "obviously not a nice man because he's a coward" because his actions were not carried out through maliciousness, greed or suchlike but through fear and self-preservation. But there we are.

Chip Smith said...

Lucy: I love drama, whaddyamean?! Just saw AMERICAN GANGSTER and it's superb. Saw ZODIAC last night and that's pretty good too. I just didn't like Alpha Dog. It had its moments I guess, but really, the use of a late period Bowie song? INEXCUSABLE! Trousersnake was very good, mind you - I wasn't expecting big things from him (so to speak), but the boy done good I reckon.

Oli: nooooooooo! I didn't find 28Weeks Later horrific at all, 'cos I really couldn't bring myself to care what happened to any of them, to be honest. Shame they were't all killed in the first 30 minutes, but you can't have everything!

Tom: my complaint was that if you're going to set up your protag (well, someone who I thought was the protag) as a lily livered chicken, you'd better give him the chance to redeem himself. Don's problem is that he lasts barely 40 minutes in non-zombie form, and after he's killed his wife, the whole narrative is dropped like a hot brick. It may be a little 'Hollywood' to say this, but emotionally, this approach failed on every level for me. Ho hum. I'm off to watch THE THING now, just to remind myself what a good horror film should look like!

Oli said...

Hmmmm... a horror film that starts with an unsympathetic protagonist, who runs when they should stay, is out of the film (effectivley) at about half an hour, to be replaced by a multiple-protagonist group who are gradually killed by the antagonist?

28 Weeks Later... or Psycho?

Tom said...

As Van Sant's shot for shot remake in '98 showed, you can't copy genius!

Chip Smith said...

Strangely enough, Oli, I had the same thought when watching 28WL as well, and you could even argue that Psycho loses a little of its focus once Janet Leigh has been offed. That said, Psycho was made in 1960, where offing your protagonist was virtually unheard of (Janet Leigh was also very famous at the time, mostly the reason that Hitchcock cast her I suspect, inasmuch as when she is killed the shock is all the greater). And I'd also say that Leigh made a more symapthetic protag than we think: the office scene with Cassidy clearly undermines our resistance to Leigh taking the money, and so on.

Sorry, I could bang on about Psycho for an ages: not so 28WL! (and the least said about that Van Sant remake the better!)

Jon Peacey said...

No swearing? You gonna use Melon Farmer like the TV version of Repo Man?

As for Sting on Leon... two words... French Director. I've been to France... I've heard the dominant pop music... it's somewhat different to British tastes... as is the dominant American music, actually. C&W!

PS: Bowie's Outside is a near perfect LP.

Chip Smith said...

I think the phrase I'm going to use from now on is 'Forget you!', which they dubbed in for the obvious on some cop flick a while back.

I will take your word on Outside, as I haven't heard it. Tin Machine scared me away years ago, so I've always trodden carefully with Bowie since. However, having just seen 30 Century Man, the documentary on Scott Walker that Bowie produced, I may have to start catching up on the old geezer's later output I guess.

Talking of C&W, I caught that Kenny Roger's song 'Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town' on the radio the other day: wow - What a song. They followed it up with Neil Diamond's 'Beautiful Noise.' Double wow. Perhaps now would be an opportune time to give that Stockhausen CD a spin.

Jon Peacey said...

Outside. Bowie's Nine Inch Nails phase...

I don't get C&W at all; I don't understand Blues or Jazz either. Or Johnny Cash. Why do people love those American Recordings? Why? Why? Why? It's none of it a patch on the original.

I know, I'm a philistine, I admit it!

Chip Smith said...

Jazz - don't get me started on that one, Jon! I may have to break my swear word ban many, many times over...

Robin Kelly said...

I just don't know where to start. I really don't. Let me calm down a moment...

There is nothing wrong with Sting! Let's Dance is a classic! I love French pop! I love country! (not C&W!)

I actually rather enjoyed 28 Days Later and was thrilled by it. The only issue I remember bothering me was to do with the underground. There was no reason for them to travel that way or something, I think, and it was done just for a great scene.

But it's not a great scene if you don't believe they would take such an unnecessary and unlikely risk in the first place.

I had no problems with the 'cowardice' either because it was psychologically true. He couldn't have saved his Mrs and self preservation made more sense. I also liked that it is by trying to atone for that with her that he kicks the whole thing off.

In any case I saw that whole sequence as a prologue before the titles and the big jump to 28 weeks later. The protag is often not in the prologue. I agree that it's Tammy.

Chip Smith said...

It's OK, Robin - deep breaths now!

There are some things that it's difficult for me to agree with anyone on, and Sting falls under that heading. As for late period Bowie, Jon has convinced me that Outside might be worth a spin, even if the idea of Bowie 'doing' NIN makes my blood run cold! So you could say that the jury's still out on that one.

28WL - hmmm... the fact that Don is at heart a born again coward didn't bother me that much, it's just that I didn't feel any empathy with him when he did a runner. Psychologically true it may be and that's cool, but 40 minutes in terms of a 'prologue' is way too long. Don't get me wrong, I love films where the protag could be classified as unsympathetic - Taxi Driver springs immediately to mind - but if Don isn't the protag, why bother with 40 minutes of prologue? If something is going to be psychologically true, then I want to see the emotional pay off - otherwise, why bother?!

Changing the subject, I grew up with C&W as my dad was a rabid fan of Box Car Willie and Hank Williams, so I developed a natural aversion to it, one that I'm only just getting over now (and I love Kenny Rogers - just don't mention George Hamilton IV in my general vicinity or I may well start frothing at the mouth).

Robin Kelly said...

Let's Dance was my first introduction to Bowie as a kid and it still has a place in my heart. I did go on to discover the earlier stuff, which isn't bad, but haven't yet got round to discovering the later stuff. The same with Sting, my childhood hero. I've been working my way through the Police discography. Genius.

Anyway, with 28 Weeks Later, you're right in that it's 40 minutes before he gets infected but I meant just the 10 minutes before the titles. After the titles, the story is from the children's point of view, which is common in many stories where we follow someone coming home after a long time away. Every adult we get to know before we meet the children - from the army side - is later involved in trying to help the children escape.

But I've changed my mind and think Tammy is too passive in propelling the plot to be the protagonist. Instead, I think she and Andy share the main character function and the protag role is shared between Don, Doyle and Sally. Usually, the mc and protag are the same but sometimes they're split. And the antag, rather than being a person, is probably the disease itself.

The advantage is the audience is less certain what's going to happen with the story but the disadvantage is that we experience story via the characters so if there isn't a clear protag and antag and it isn't focussed enough then, as you say, the emotional pay-off is gonna be reduced.

Chip Smith said...

Ashes to Ashes was my first introduction to Bowie - you can't really go wrong with any Bowie album before that point, but as far as I'm concerned, he's earned the right to do whatever he likes - Tin Machine included!

If only 28WL was a little simpler, it could have been so much more effective I think. I saw The Thing again recently, and that seems to me to be a masterclass in keeping the audience guessing without over-complicating things - every accusation that the group makes turns out to be incorrect, which all adds to the paranoia/fear quotient. By chucking so much into the mix, I felt 28WL missed a real trick in keeping me engaged - either that or I'm a bit socipathic, which of course is always a possibility!