Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Acceptable Clichés & Moronic Deal Breakers

If you have been around the cinematic, or videotronic, block enough times, you will find that movies time and time again utilize certain clichés that stick out like a turd in a punchbowl. Some of them I’m fine with. These are what I call “Acceptable Cliches”; plot devices or situations that provide a launching pad for something cool that while utilized extensively in movies both good and bad, are not terribly offensive in and of themselves.

Others are “Moronic Deal-Breakers”; plot devices or situations that are so freakin’ lame that the rest of the movie has to work extra hard at being bad ass to bring you back from the brink of movie suckdom. These clichés are typically used and abused through sheer cynical, lazy filmmaking, though like every cliché there are noteworthy exceptions.

1.       MARTIAL ARTS FILMS
Acceptable Cliché: This kind of overlaps with action films, but regardless, I can totally live with a martial arts movie that uses the old-saw “you killed my brother/sister/family/second step cousin twice removed” or “humiliated my school of kung fu” excuse to launch a action-packed, bloody tale of one man’s revenge. Or woman, I’m not biased. Angela Mao can avenge my death any day. As long as someone’s been horribly wronged and is dishing out the vengeance, I’m cool. See THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and ONG-BAK (2003) for perfect examples of this wisp of a plot device acting as a catalyst for amazing action.

Moronic Deal Breaker: There are a couple, but this is my main throw-my-remote-across-the-room deal-breaker: The insipid “small, agile hero fights the big, fat, stupid guy” routine. Stars who are really capable of very impressive martial arts scenes like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have all fallen into this trap at one point or another. “Oh no! A huge fat guy is attacking like a brontosaurus in a tar pit!” Our hero scampers around, lays out a flurry of attacks while the hulking mass of blubber stumbles around, throwing wild haymakers in slow motion, bellowing with rage and confusion as our nimble hero ducks, doges and leaps to safety. This scene, at least in most films, invariably features some sort of humorous tomfoolery where our hero ends the fight with a groin shot, kick in the ass or bucket over the head. A perfect example of this can be found in THE BIG BRAWL (aka BATTLE CREEK BRAWL, 1980). An example of a movie getting a pass on this is THE STORY OF RICKY (1991), if only because our hero punches the lumbering oaf in the stomach and pulls out a bloody handful of intestines, unintentionally turning the cliché on its ear.

2.       ACTION FILMS
Acceptable Cliché: The loner, loose-cannon cop is going to take down the mob/dealers/dirty cops/serial killer/whatever. This is an acceptable launching point for a masterpiece of the genre such as MAGNUM FORCE (1973) or just an action-packed, stunt-filled corker such as SHAKEDOWN (1988). As long as the filmmakers don’t get carried away thinking that cliché is going to keep the entire movie afloat, it is totally acceptable. One too many trips to the chief’s office, too much time spent brooding over the partner’s demise or god forbid an animal is somehow factored into the plot and that movie is headed to the dog-house. At no point should this cliché overshadow the hard action and gritty dialogue.

Moronic Deal Breaker: I was tempted to go with “The Hitman with a Heart of Gold”, but I think I’m going to have to go with “The Abandoned Refinery”. It was a tough decision, but if you’ve seen enough low-budget action films from the ‘80s and ‘90s, you know it’s the right one.
Aside from the prologue, the entire film takes place in an abandoned refinery. I really I hate this cliché. Your movie better kick some serious friggin’ ass if I’m going to sit through more than 10 minutes of guys running up and down ladders and cat-walks taking random pot-shots at each other. I don’t give a flying crap how many times someone falls over a railing in slow-motion, I better see some goddamn exploding heads and ninjas and shit. A wise fillmmaker will use this money-saving cliché sparingly and creatively, only as a small portion of the action locales or it factors directly into the plot. Films like NEMESIS (1992) and THE NINJA MISSION (1984) pull this off with aplomb.

3.       HORROR FILMS
Acceptable Cliché: The unseen/unstoppable stalker/killer. I’m pretty sure I can’t even count as high as the number of films that use this cliché. There's like some factor of Pi in there somewhere, I'm willing to bet. I'd need people who would never read this blog to figure out what that is.
From the Old Dark House movies that have been around since the silent era to the Italian Giallos to the American Slasher movies of the ‘80s (though the killer was frequently seen in those films), this is the Pam Anderson of horror plot devices. Easy, well used and rough around the edges. Films like SUSPIRIA (1977) use it in conjunction with the occult and a barrage of bizarre visuals and music to deliver a film that completely transcends its humble “a killer is stalking a dance studio” premise. Also you can have the theme amplified and streamlined such as in RITUALS (1977) which sets precedent by having intelligent, educated adults being stalked through the woods and gruesomely picked off one by one. Because of the way the film builds tension to the breaking point and delivers disturbing shocks, it never seems to be a simple stalk n’ slash. On the other hand you have William Castle’s OLD DARK HOUSE (1963) which not only fails to deliver any of the campy fun punctuated by the occasional bit of truly twisted shocks ala HOMICIDAL (1961) but leaves the viewer waiting for that unseen killer to strike again just to alleviate the tedium.

Moronic Deal Breaker: This was another tough choice: “Ethnically Diverse, Horny Teens” vs. “Half-Assed Undead”. I think I can deal with the teens as long as something really bad happens to them (man, it’s a short ride from here to “get off my lawn, you damn kids!” isn’t it?).
If there is one true way to ruin a zombie movie, it’s zombies that look like normal people with nifty contact lenses acting like they are wild animals. No seriously. Look at them! They are making “roawr” sounds, hunching over and making claws with their hands. That’s fucking lame! All manner of low-rent, post-28 DAYS LATER (2002), zombie fare has this half-assed, cynical approach to the subject matter. I’m not even going to get into the whole “fast-moving” vs. “shuffling” thing, that’s not the point. The point is that if your zombies do not look like they were dead at some point, you suck. Not only did DEAD AIR (2008) give us the cheapest looking zombies ever (don't even start with that "technically they were 'infected'" crap) and threw in a tedious, cheap and not remotely believable plot, so-bad-it's-just-bad dialog, simplistic uber-patriot soapboxing and annoying, badly acted characters to get my vote as one of the worst zombie films ever. Contrast that with Bill Hinzman's FLESHEATER (1988). It is super-low budget but even so makes a decent effort in the make-up department and scores as a minor classic of sorts. Why? Because it's unintentionally hilarious, gory and trashy, plus it's pretty damn amusing that this is how Hinzman decided to capitalize on his minor fame as the zombie who was coming to get Barbara in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Not to mention the fact that he's got a bucknekkid zombie chick and writes a scene for himself to grope some topless talent. Can't beat that.
ZOMBIELAND (2009) had the big bucks to do some crazy cool zombies, but couldn’t really bother to take its zombies seriously. “But it’s a comedy,” I hear you say. Ah yes, but so was RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and there were so many diverse types of zombies that it takes multiple viewings to catch them all. Even the generally disliked Bryan Yuzna sequel RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (1993), whatever it’s faults, provided a variety of gristly zombies that looked nothing like some over-acting extra with torn-clothes and a little blood splatter. 

4.       SCIENCE FICTION FILMS
Acceptable Cliché: “Aliens are trying to kill us!” Of course we know this to be true, but that still doesn’t make it any less of a cliché. The thing of it is, more often than not, the well-trodden path of xenophobia makes for entertaining cinema. Films like ALIEN (1979) are slick exercises in xenophobic terror. It’s an old horror film in a futuristic environment, nothing more than a bottle of Everclear; throat-searing moonshine with a purdy label. Films like X-TRO (1983) took the concept and wrapped it in a surreal, drug-induced haze of strangeness and Baltimore filmmaker Don Dohler arguably popularized the modern post-STAR WARS (1978) alien invasion motif with an entire penal colony of aliens terrorizing the local yokels in THE ALIEN FACTOR (1978). Whether the aliens are attacking us because they need our women, want to have Christmas or simply because they are just bloodthirsty, conscienceless killers, there is absolutely nothing wrong with well-placed fear of furiners.

Moronic Deal Breaker: Since I can’t use the same answer as Action Movies (“it’s the future! Abandoned refineries are the future!”), it’s got to be the “we’re too broke and lazy to come up with a cool futuristic environment, so we’ll have our hero go back in time to present day”.
What? You gotta be kidding me! Weak! Ok, fine. So how do we know our hero is from the future? He wears wrap-around shades and has a lot of product in his hair! A movie saddled with this cop-out has to work balls-out double time to recover from that weak crap. The best example of a movie getting away with that scot-free is TRANCERS (1985). Only a trench-coat clad, laser-gun armed, soft-focus shot Tim Thomerson could pull of what is admittedly the lamest of cheap plots about a cop from the future chasing down a criminal from the future who is controlling the minds of present-day suburbanites. Not only does Thomerson and Charles Band (of all people) make it happen, but does it so well, he was able to cash-in with five wretched sequels that deliver every drop of mono-dimensional tedium missing from the original. Very few others manage to even come close. Yes, yes, I know, I know there’s that one movie directed by that one guy who is currently very proud of his puerile blue aliens… We don’t talk about him.

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