THE THING (2011)

(I had this post left hanging half-written in my drafts for about a month. My friend decided to write up a review of John Carpenter's 1982 version, and so I have been compelled to continue where I've left off, which might explain the digression half way through)

I will start on a positive whim, and talk about what I liked about this film. I liked the design of the special effects of the monster thingy--from here on referred to as Thinga-me-bobs--which was impressively sketched out like something from the pages of The Necronomicon, or inspired by the manga Parasyte. The concept of the Thinga-me-bobs was creepy on its own, but then, tragiluckily, they had to go ahead and make a movie about it. I say the special effects were well done, I just take issue with they way they were employed.

Which brings me to what I didn't like about this film, namely: everything else!

The Thinga-me-bobs was quite horrifying, but they lingered on it too long, as if the production team had to pat itself on the back for a job so well done, but the more we see it on screen the sillier it gets. This is due to bad pacing, so let me talk about that for a second.

The Thing (2011) is a slow-paced film, which is good for a horror, for it can linger on the atmosphere and build the world around you. You get to know the characters, and you become more vulnerable to shock via loud screeching beasts from Hell. But this is a very boring film, crippled by sloppy writing leaning on "established convention" as a crutch. I'll talk more about the writing later, I want to bring attention to the actors first, and how they contributed to the aforementioned everything else.

Particularly Mary Elizabeth Winstead--from here on will be referred to as MEW--in the lead role, and who was admittedly the real reason I was attracted to this film. I enjoyed MEW in Scott Pilgrim vs The World as Ramona Flowers. She had a laid-back charm, and seemed to affect the way I interpreted her character in the comics (same couldn't be said for most of the other actors). The only other time I've seen her was in Death Proof, where she talked about peeing on some guy, and it was great.

MEW is distractingly beautiful, and I hope that beauty will never be ruined or wrecked by the likes of Zack Snyder or Brett Ratner or some other creep. And although I never saw that dancing movie she did, I hope her talents are recognised and exploited to full potential in the future. In The Thing (2011), however, I'm obliged to say she was a little too beautiful for this role. She was like a void, sucking in the light from the surroundings, rendering my eyes useless to the scenario whenever she was on screen. In her more grittier, muddier moments, I noticed how she would show her face, and behold, no grit or mud! Her face perfectly made up, her big round eyes glaring at whatever CGI thing is getting at her, no tears, no dirt, just MEW in all her unholy glory.

Her interaction with Joel Edgerton didn't so much lack chemistry, but produce an undesired effect. Edgerton--here on referred to as Edgerton (OK I'll stop that)--is basically an Australian-import with an undeniable presence. He's charming, handsome and buff, a true beefcake of a man. He's basically everything Sam Worthington should be. But then his flirty glances at MEW--who in turn gives a lacking response--end up making him out to be a creepy leering rapist, who you don't want to be caught in the same room with alone.

The Norwegians in this movie were awesome, but like the special effects, weren't very effective.

To get back to the writing/pacing, the first encounter between MEW and Edgerton takes place in a helicopter ride to the Antarctic base. Edgerton gives MEW a creepy glance, she returns it with confusion, he indicates headphones and she responds by putting them on. He asks her about a basketball team, she says she doesn't follow football, etc. Some other characters are in the helicopter, I guess, like the token black guy, but Edgerton warns her of a storm and jokes about being shacked up with a bunch of Norwegians. I don't know how long this scene goes for, but I would have cut the whole thing. Everything it establishes is either already established or it will be. All it really gives us is that Edgerton is creepy, MEW is creeped out, and we haven't even got to the Thinga-me-bobs yet!

There is a difference between slow-paced and boring. I've heard someone else say this before, and it's true. Another thing I find boring: predictability.

Some call it the Jack-In-The-Box trick, also known as The Jump Scare and it's inferior off-shoot The Cheap Shot. It goes like this: stuff is happening, then stuff stops happening, the music dies down, absolutely nothing is happening, but it feels like that maybe--BOO! Gotcha! Hahahahaha!

But seriously, the token black guy--OK, I'll call him Triple A--is looking at the ice-block, intensely, and someone behind him actually says "Boo!", and then laughs. And Triple A says "get the hell outta here fool!" and the guy walks away. Oh and then the Thinga-me-bobs jumps out of the ice-block.

And I'm like "pfffffffff".

I'm not against jump-scares, or even cheap-shots. It's all about how they're dealt with. A Jack-in-the-box will always work the same way, and when you consistently see the action coming to a complete halt, you always know what to expect: something's going to pop out, or a sudden noise hit the speakers, whether it's a scare or a false scare. It's a formula, and it's also a cliché. But they can still be employed with tact, since the whole idea of a scare is that the audience is not supposed to predict them.

For the best jump-scares, I will cite The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin. The mother is on the phone, bearing some horrible news, the doctors can't explain what's happening with her daughter, and she seems to feel distressed over the sudden changes in her daughter's behaviour. She hangs up the phone, then looks up the stair-case with a sudden fright...PUDDUMPUDDUMPUDDUMP! the daughter comes spider-walking down the stairs! That scene makes my heart skip a beat, every time. There are plenty of jumpy moments in this film, but it's also just hardcore horror in every respect.

Cheap-shots are a harder kind to pin down. I would cite Jaws, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Brody (Rob Scheider) drive their boat to another boat which is a sight for a recent shark-attack. Hooper decides to investigate, and scuba-dives underneath, against Brody's advice. Hooper finds a large hole, which looks like it's been bitten out. He feels around the hole's edge, and picks out a tooth. It looks like a shark tooth--BAM!

A severed head floats out of the hole. He drops the tooth and comes to the surface gasping for air.

Now that's what I call a cheap-shot!

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The official Chinatown in Brisbane is in a suburb adjacent to the city called Fortitude Valley. There you'll find a line of restaurants and supermarkets. But the the unofficial Chinatown, where all the Chinese actually are, is in an out-of-the-way suburb called Sunnybank.

Sunnybank is so Chinese their restaurants display menus without English translations.
I'm even intimidated to buy a cup of coffee there, lest I don't know the proper way to ask for one. Their cinema however, located within the Sunnybank Plaza, owned by the Hoyts franchise, is a unique place whereby alongside exhibition of the regular mainstream selection, they also exhibit the occasional Chinese release that no other cinema could find an audience for. This is where I went to see the latest Jet Li fantasy epic 白蛇傳說之法海 (else known as the sorcerer and the white snake).

My personal impression of this film: it was all a bit silly for my liking. The story, while based in a fantasy make-it-up-as-you-go-along setting drawing from traditional Chinese mythology, at its core had some powerful moments. It contained the four elements of a proper epic: romance, melodrama, magic and mystery. The acting was top-notch, quality performances all around from the leading roles to the minute bit-parts. The special effects? They left much to be desired. But here's the problem: this movie was heavily reliant on the special effects. I didn't see it in 3D like I was supposed to, but I'm sure it wouldn't have helped. Quality melodrama and uncanny valley CGI do not mix well in my stomach, and my regurgitation makes an apt meta-metaphor for this pile of pretty colours passing itself off pitifully as a plausible light-show. But that's just my personal impression.

I wouldn't watch this a second time, I wouldn't buy it on blu-ray, but I don't regret the experience. The most interesting part about seeing this movie was seeing it with a Chinese audience, who were all listening to the words rather than reading the subtitles.

There was a scene of light comic relief, where Jet Li--who plays the head arbiter of a monk temple bent on exercising demons from the human realm--hitches a ride in a boat with his protégé to go take care of some demons or something. The boat is driven by a poor medicine man who aspires to run his own pharmacy, and the conversation about aspiration carries over to the protégé who says he aspires to one day become the head arbiter of his temple. Jet Li gets serious and asks something like "and where does that leave me? You want me dead, is that it?" I was half-way across rolling my eyes when I was caught by surprise from the big laughs coming from the audience behind me. I mean proper laughter. I don't know if there was something lost in translation, or if I'd missed some sort of cultural context, but something about Jet Li was apparently hysterical, and so I de-rolled my eyes back to their starting positions. And this happened a few times.

I get easily annoyed whenever I hear someone say they won't watch a film with subtitles. Their typical excuse is they don't feel they should need to use their head as much in reading and watching at the same time. A flimsy excuse to miss out on 50%+ of the greatest films you'll ever see! But now I have to wonder about subtitles: do they properly capture the essence and context of what the characters are saying? Could all of that even be translated into English? Take the above scene, for example. I know the Chinese are deeply rooted in a sense of hierarchy, that there is always a superior and an inferior. Jet Li's underling aspires to one day reach the top, but Jet Li corners him by taking it as an insult, considered to be the ultimate faux pas, pitting the poor guy in a sticky situation indeed. The best way to subtitle this, I suppose, is to translate what's not being said, like: "You wan't me dead, is that it? [Awkward!]"

Although I found the film wholly unsatisfying, I'm glad I saw it in the end. Seeing a movie is much better when you see it with the audience who it was meant for, and I felt like I was involved in something rare. Like a secret.