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Weekend Reel Reads: Classic Directors, Fresh Faces and Slasher Send-Ups

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire November 4, 2012 at 8:29AM

This week's collection of film-related stories spans from kung fu to Cory Matthews, from "Lincoln" to "The Lady Vanishes" (with a little bit of the Stones thrown in for good measure).
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This Movie is Rated Wu

Alex Pappademas' GQ profile of the RZA devotes a significant portion to the man's career as the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, one of rap's iconic supergroups. But the entry point into RZA's post-rap career is his recent film "The Man with the Iron Fists," a creation born from his passions since he was known simply as Robert Diggs. "Iron Fists" becomes not just a vanity project or a casual hobby, but the fulfillment of a lifelong fascination with an artform. Pappademas focuses solely on RZA (and gets some fascinating candid quotes in the process).

"The movie they made has some overeager pacing, a few sets (notably Lucy Liu's brothel) that appear to date back to the P. F. Chang Dynasty—but look, it's not supposed to be Bertolucci. Nor is it Crouching Tiger or Kill Bill. It's not an art film based on kung fu subject matter, because RZA's already made a bunch of those—they just happened to be Wu-Tang Clan albums, cinematic music in which the kung fu stuff deepened and mythologized the accounts of street warfare in the lyrics. This, on the other hand, is a goddamn kung fu movie about men hitting other men. It's a movie that would have packed 'em in on 42nd Street in 1982, and that's all it has to be. Because it's also an exit strategy: If he can keep making movies, he'll avoid the ignominy of a diminishing-returns career in an ever-more-youth-oriented hiphop marketplace."

Low-Budget Horror Flicks: A Hollywood Rite of Passage

As Ian Buckwalter points out in this roundup for The Atlantic, we tend to forget that the terrible and nearly-terrible horror films that come out every year often provide the much-needed paychecks for actors looking to prolong their fledgling careers. But occasionally, those checks can also bring with them the first step on the road to mega-stardom. Buckwalter gathers a list of such titles, including the young actors who starred in them before they commanded far more attention. Also found in the collection: a handful of directors and cinematographers who also used ill-fated sequels as resume builders.

"There's no shame here. Beginning actors are young and hungry, and horror films are hungry for the young. If you're willing to work cheap and die gruesomely, there's a place for you. But it's also an effective proving ground. Can you learn to work under adverse conditions? Can you distinguish your performance from that of a dozen other scream queens while a bulky stuntman in a ridiculous mask is chasing you with a meat cleaver? Sometimes there are fine lines between a completely awful horror movie, and one that's merely bad but still watchable. In many cases, the difference is made by an actor who seems immediately better than the material, showing a spark that is perhaps the first sign of a star in the making."

Dear Internet, Joss Whedon Shouldn't Run Everything, Including 'Star Wars'

With all the Jedi hysteria that swept through the web last week with the Disney-Lucasfilm announcement, one of the common threads was a litany of suggestions of who should assume control of the director's chair. While ThinkProgress' Alyssa Rosenberg acknowledges that there certainly are worse choices than Joss Whedon, she posits that the faith in Whedon's ability overlooks his thematic track record. His signature style has a tendency to impede the depiction of true action sequences, rather than winking nods at them. Also suspect in Rosenberg's eyes are his tentative approach to sexuality and the idea that his inclusion would be entirely sufficient for those interested in seeing "Star Wars" move in a more feminist direction.

"It’s worth remembering, for example, that Whedon’s main accomplishment is revitalizing and critiquing the horror genre, and that he’s actually weak when it comes to one of the most important components of truly transcendent action filmmaking. He often seems relatively indifferent to actual action sequences. The fights in Buffy and Angel (which I’m working my way through now) are almost deliberately indifferent and schlocky in a way that robs tension from them. Matchups may be exciting because of their outcomes, like Buffy sending Angel to Hell, but not because of any clash of styles, or often, any real sense that the outcome itself is at stake. Dollhouse was more attuned to standard-issue training montages than any particular difference in style. Like Buffy, River Tam’s fight scenes in Firefly and Serenity are plausible because of things we’ve told that have been done to her, and she wins because that’s integral to the story’s needs. We don’t see the decisions or things other than the generic martial arts skills she has, that give her an advantage and let her think her way out of corners, because she’s never really in any. If anything, I’d say Whedon has an interest in the artificiality of action sequences, which lends itself to valid critiques of genre conventions, but not always to fight choreography that stands on its own."

An Oral History of the Infamous 'Boy Meets World' Horror Parody Episode

In the past few months, we've featured oral histories about film productions, but Matt Patches' look at a classic episode of the '90s sitcom "Boy Meets World" benefits from specificity. Rather than casting a wide net over the entire series, the Hollywood.com piece focuses on a single episode, "And Then There Was Shawn," which used a skewering of teen slasher films as a jumping point for a half hour of television that could easily have had disastrous consequences for the future of the show. (Spoiler: it ran for another two years.) In Patches' slate of interviews that covered cast and crew alike, perhaps the most interesting tidbit is that the episode was penned by a former film critic.

"[Producer/Director] Jeff McCracken: We were going to do it in a way that was going to be fun. We wanted the shock value, we wanted to scare. But we understood that we had a young audience and we did not want them running to their parents saying it's now a horror show and they can't sleep for a week. I said, 'Look, here's how we're going to do this. The pencil is going to go in his head, but when he falls, he's going to leave a pencil trail behind him. That's going to break the suspense for the laugh.' No blood. If that doesn't work, I don't know what to do in terms of funny. The janitor in the trashcan, when he pulls him up, right before then we crack a big joke. We teed it up to see it coming. Making sure we're wink-wink."

Ranking the Hitchcock Movies

Any list trying to put the best of a particular artist in order of quality has a certain element of futility to it. But what makes Jordan Hoffman's list for Film.com of the best Alfred Hitchcock films worth reading is the sheer scope of it. By not stopping at 5 or 10 and going to 50 entries, his list acts as a handy primer as well as a statement of opinion. It also benefits from a running cameo tracker and a reminder to readers that a number of early Hitchcock efforts are available through public sites live archive.org. 

"I’m counting down his top 50 features because it’s a nice round number. I fully embrace, however, any angry comments about leaving out the films with missing reels, German versions, silent versions of talkies, French language propaganda shorts, episodes of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' or early movies that exist only in the great Trim Bin in the Sky. (This is in addition to, I hope, sanctimonious ire concerning my order and rationale behind certain choices.)"

'Gimme Shelter' or 'Gimme a Break'?

The classic Rolling Stones song isn't just for Scorsese anymore. Robert Zemeckis' "Flight" has used the song in its commercials and it's on the film's official soundtrack, a development that prompted Steve Dougherty at the Wall Street Journal to ask those responsible for its inclusion whether they thought using such a well-known, well-traveled song would be a distraction.

"Gimme Shelter" appeals to Hollywood for the same reason rockers revere it. "It's got menace, all right," Stones guitarist Keith Richards writes in "Life," his 2011 autobiography. "It's scary stuff." What accounts for the song's arresting, almost eerie power? Mr. Richards attributes it to the Jimmy Reed-inspired chord progression—"the same haunting trick," he writes, "sliding up the fret board." And it derives much of its hair-raising power from Merry Clayton's vocals ("Rape! Murder!").

Lincoln Like Me

Megan Fernandez is a descendant of Abraham Lincoln, but her piece in the latest issue of Indianapolis Monthly documents her difficulties in getting Lincoln enthusiasts to recognize the Hoosier State's contribution to the president's early years. Despite the personal connection and the geneaology aspect of the piece, this is more than just a self-serving family tale. It's not exactly a thorough examination of "Lincoln" either, but it does prompt a consideration of where the boundaries of a biopic reach. Regardless of how much Indiana played in Lincoln's early life, does an audience (whether in print biography or biopic form) deserve the same information that Fernandez is able to dig up?

"No, the motivation instead kicked in when I saw the poster for Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg–helmed biopic coming out this month. A co-worker was marveling at the profile of Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, all angular bones and sunken cheeks, and the only thing I could think was, Those are Mom’s features. It’s no secret she got the Lincoln nose. Once, she was standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial when a stranger asked if she was related to him. But other than that bit of family lore, our Lincoln connection always carried a ring of trivia, not substance. We don’t possess any heirlooms or oral history tied to the famous Lincoln, and my parents didn’t even know about their dual connection until after they were married; he is descended from Josiah’s daughter, Nancy, and she from his son, Thomas. Perhaps Dad didn’t go on about his Lincoln-hood because he hated pretension—it would have seemed shallow to him to act like the relation made us special."

This article is related to: Reel Reads, Alfred Hitchcock, RZA, The Man with the Iron Fists, Flight, Lincoln, Joss Whedon, Star Wars


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