Saturday, June 30, 2007

Black Sheep (2007)

Jonathan King's cheeky debut feature is a prime example of a script that wasn't ready to be filmed. I give credit to King for his premise, which must have seemed awfully clever at the time: Genetic-engineering malfeasance results in ravenous, carnivorous zombie sheep that terrorize a New Zealand farming complex. The problem is that his film never does anything with that premise; the reigning assumption is that there's mutant killer sheep in this movie and that's enough to carry a 95-minute movie, right? Unfortunately, it's not; while the sheep FX (done by the invaluable Weta Workshops) are impressive, something needs to fill the dead space in between wooly-bully attacks, and King falls back too often on the bane of comic horror films -- the Broad Goofy Caricature. As with many films of its ilk, Black Sheep trades in stereotypes as a form of character shorthand, so we can know who is sympathetic and who deserves to catch their lunch without wasting valuable screen time on genuine development. The pitfall with this approach is that it's too tempting to go for the easy laugh by creating obnoxious types. It's the lazy way out, and it almost always results in one-note films that irritate more than they entertain. That is sadly what happens here, with the worst offender being granola eco-avenger Experience, portrayed with maximum annoyance value by Danielle Mason -- she's ostensibly a heroine figure, but she spends so much time making lame jokes about bad feng shui and selfish auras that I could only pray for her to get eaten as soon as possible. And if King's characterizations are lazy, his pacing is positively narcotized, wandering as it does from scene to lumpy scene. As a result, the film just kind of sits there, patiently waiting for an inspiration that never arrives. King does show promise -- there's the occasional laugh that works like it should (I knew that a sheep-fucking joke would pop up eventually, but I was surprised and amused by the angle from whence it came), and he has a burgeoning cinematic eye that's only accentuated by the gorgeous rolling landscape of the New Zealand countryside. Next time out, though, I hope he does more than throw a concept in front a camera and hope for the best -- I mean, even Undead was better than this. (That this gets a theatrical rollout while Isolation, which uses similar plotting and character types to far greater effect, goes straight to video breaks my heart.) But despite my reservations about his low-effort work here, King has my attention. Let's see what he can do with it.

Grade: C

Friday, June 29, 2007

Art of the Devil (2004)

Thai horror film about a spurned woman who uses witchcraft to wreak vengeance on a cheating cad and his family so that she can get his house. Or something like that. Honestly, I don't have anything interesting to say about this incompetent, scare-free shitpile. The writers put a lot of credence in their melodramatic plot, so you wonder why they didn't bother to have it make sense; meanwhile, director Tanit Jitnukul shows no flair for pacing, tension or, indeed, anything you'd want a horror director to have. The gore scenes are brief and ineffective, save for one semi-decent scene where a guy explodes from being full of eels. This should be called Ass of the Devil, 'cause that's what it is -- a whole heaping helping of ass.

Grade: D

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Hitcher (2007)

I'm not one to judge remakes on how they stack up to the source material, but this imagination-free thing makes it damn difficult not to do so. This could have been a good thing, really; I think 1986's The Hitcher is one of the most overvalued horror flicks of the '80s, as any attempt at diseased allegory are washed away by the waves of contrivance and silliness that pound through the film. So it's a film that I wouldn't mind being remade. However, I will admit that Rutger Hauer's portrayal of the title psychopath is one of modern horror's most indelible and genuinely creepy portraits of evil, which bodes not well for anyone trying to step into his shoes. Sean Bean is that anyone, and I'd like to say he at least gave it the old college try; however, this new version has abstracted John Ryder to the point where there's no point in Bean trying because he's barely in the film. (If the 1986 John Ryder was a supernatural demon, as the more absurd aspects of the film would seem to suggest, this John Ryder is a forlorn phantom.) As unlikely as it sounds, this redux seems devoted to making me think the original wasn't so bad -- it ports over the plot, down to the last detail, but misses the menace and adds its own layer of retarded. (Example: Remember when Hauer shot down a police chopper with a revolver? That was dumb. Bean doing the same thing to the tune of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer"? Even dumber.) The worst "innovation" is splitting the protagonist into two people, which would diffuse the tension even if the two leads were interesting. But instead of the squirrely jitters of C. Thomas Howell, you get two Teen-Beat bland college-agers who aren't even portrayed as being interesting to each other -- note that their first scene together in the car has them sitting in uncomfortable silence for about a minute before the girl declares she has to pee. Maybe it's for the best that John Ryder came into their lives -- he saved them from a lifetime of spiteful, silent togetherness.

Grade: D+
The Wicker Man (2006)

This isn't much of a horror film, but then I don't think the 1973 original is much of one either, so in my eyes Neil LaBute moved in the right direction here. From where I stand, this is actually a rather inspired autocritical comedy -- LaBute's gender politics have always been a bit goofy and ham-handed, but The Wicker Man is the first time where that goofiness is on purpose. I mean, you don't have Nicolas Cage running around in a bear suit punching various women and call it a serious, straight-faced horror film. Claims of misogyny are understandable -- evil matriarchal society built on the hierarchy of the honeybee, ya know -- but such claims also miss the fact that, as always, LaBute doesn't look kindly upon the men in his scenario; Cage's crusading cop isn't sympathetic in the slightest, brusque and sexist as he is, and it's suggested that, in LaBute's eyes, he pretty much deserves his ultimate fate. (It's not like LaBute's being coy or subtle about this, either -- fer crissakes, Cage's character's name is Edward Malus, pronounced 'male-us.') Also not to be discounted is Cage's splendidly unhinged performance -- he's a wild, unrestrained actor, but he's also smart enough to know when he's doing drama and when he's having a lark. In short: piss-poor as horror, but it was never destined to be a genre offering anyway, so stop yer whining excitable horror fans and enjoy this for the hilarious thing it is.

Grade: B
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Victor Erice's gorgeously filmed allegory centering around two young girls, their emotionally remote family life and the film Frankenstein seems to me a bit mysterious, so much so that I don't think I quite got it all on first viewing. What struck me thematically was the film's depiction of childhood as a time of fumbling for understanding -- the whole film is structured as Ana's journey towards the comprension of how we deal with horror. She asks her sister after seeing Frankenstein, "Why did he kill the little girl?" trying to puzzle out the meaning of death in as straightforward a manner as a child can, but her sister's deflectory answer ("Movies are all fake") opens a window into a world where pain and unhappiness are shuffled away, obscured or generally understood only in a sidelong manner (her mother writes letters to an imaginary brother, while her father obsesses over his bees). Tne end of the film sees Ana forcibly confronted with the fact of death apart from distancing or coping mechanisms; this, then, leads into the idea that she will soon be better equipped to understand both her parents' isolation from each other and the spectre of Franco that looms in the background of the film's 1940s time period. This distance between the actual and the perceived, between what is true and what is presented, seems to be reflected in the film's favoring of long shots. Erice often isolates his characters in the midst of large landscapes (especially whenever Ana and/or her sister Isabel approach the large farmhouse in which crucial narrative events take place), thus giving a sense of isolation within something larger than oneself; however, I also find that Erice's open compositions and framing (i.e. the scene where Ana and Isabel are at the train tracks) give a sense of temporal movement -- not only are we being shown where the characters are, but we're also seeing where they've been and where they will be, which ties into the idea of the evolution of understanding. There's more, plenty more, I'm sure. (I haven't even touched upon, say, the honeybee symbolism.) I'll have to watch this again. Not that that's a bad thing.

Grade: B
The Passenger (1975)

"If you try hard enough, perhaps you can reinvent him." Michelangelo Antonioni's slippery meditation on identity asks the question: At what point do you become who you say you are? Jack Nicholson's detached reporter David Locke, disgusted with modern indifference and frustration of communication (the opening scene sees him asking African tribal natives, "Do you speak English?"), attempts to disengage from the world by assuming the identity of a dead man and disappearing; along the way, he meets a young girl (Maria Schneider) with no discernable identity at all -- the credits refer to her as "Girl." Antonioni often plays up the relationship between his characters and the environment they inhabit, and here we see David trying to fade into his surroundings much in the way that Anna was swallowed by the landscape in L'Avventura; while a synthesis is occasionally achieved (note the late bit where the camera pans to follow cars driving past Nicholson and Schneider, as though the two of them were merely functions of the car they drive), the landscape here is ultimately a hostile one and rejects David. Despite his efforts at escape, David is trapped by a society he has helped to create (i.e. the interview where the subject complains to David, "Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me," suggesting that the piece was written in David's head before he sat down). So on one level, his disappearance has been a failure, but what about from an existential point of view? At the end of the film, is he still David Locke, or has he become Robertson? And if he is Robertson, is he the same Robertson who died in an African hotel room, or is this a different Robertson? I think Antonioni leaves the possibilities open; David never seems to fully commit to the charade, but he never identifies as still being himself, either. Maybe that's it: In an attempt to become someone else, David only goes part of the way and becomes nobody. He tries to take the person of another but ends up only losing his own. The awesome final shot seems to show us a tragedy, but look closer: We end up viewing it from the outside, in intimations and second-hand glimpses, because there can be no tragedy if there's no there there -- if David is nobody now, then nothing has happened and nothing has been lost. Maria Schneider kills a lot of this film's third act for me -- Schneider, like her character, has always struck me as an exquisite blank, and watching her try to wrestle with Antonioni's oblique dialogue is painful -- but otherwise, this is some fine ruminatory stuff.

Grade: B

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ordet (1955)

Sorry, folks, this one ain't working. I mean, I love Carl Theodor Dreyer, but this stodgy thing doesn't even belong in the same room as the other films of his I've seen. Adapted from a play, it never quite sheds its earthbound origins; while Dreyer manages to overcome the stagy constraints early on with imaginative direction (i.e. Johannes saying, " that my light may shine in the darkness," followed almost immediately by a character blowing out the candles in the room), he eventually loosens his grip, and the film collapses into a series of scenes where people declaim at one another in static medium shots. Furthermore, the cast is seriously lacking -- while heavy drama of this nature doesn't exactly require a Jerry Lewis type, it does require a pulse, but the actors in this give calcified performances that suggest swimming through tar. I get the deliberateness, and I get the themes -- considering that the line, "Miracles don't happen anymore," gets intoned twice, I can't see how anyone couldn't get the themes -- but I'd like to think that there's some sense of life within the films I watch, and I'm not getting that here. Maybe I need to see this on the big screen or something.

Grade: C
Port of Call (1948)

Decent but flawed early work from Ingmar Bergman, back when he was still pushing his way through the structures of Swedish melodrama. In many ways, it's a step forward from Crisis -- his framing and visual storytelling can be seen to gain confidence here. An example is the early dancehall sequence where sailor Gösta first meets troubled young woman Berit; as they join together and begin their vertical flirtation, Bergman has the extras crowd around and frames the shots extra-tight so as to emphasize the sweaty overcloseness and discomfort one feels when waltzing across a floor with a person you met not five minutes earlier, and this physical awkwardness ties in with the themes of sexual angst that pop up later. There's also a fight scene, uncharacteristic for the director, that's really well handled, all clumsy blows and thrashing attempts at wounding nearby adversaries. It's a shame, then, that this burgeoning filmmaker is let down by his material -- Bergman, who also helped to adapt this from a novel by credited writer Olle Länsberg, does what he can to bring intelligence and sensitivity to this stock melodrama, and he almost makes it fly. The first two acts have a looseness that makes it feel like the characters are living lives instead of having life happen to them (the remarkable sexual frankness, honest without being explicit, helps); unfortunately, the third act, hinging as it does around an abortion performed on a minor character, allows the more overblown and less interesting aspects previously held in check to overwhelm the narrative. It's fine to have Berit say, "Books just make things worse," allowing us to mentally fill in the idea that intelligence and knowledge don't stave off loneliness, but to have Berit scrawl "LONELY" on a mirror in lipstick (as she does about fifteen minutes in) is overstating things. That's the level on which the third act is pitched, and it mars an otherwise-fine film. As such, it's an important developmental step, but its imperfections keep it at the level of a curiosity. Self-Reflex Dept.: Certainly there's some perverse humor at work when this most morose of directors has Gösta tell Berit, "Your lack of optimism is fascinating."

Grade: B-

Thursday, June 14, 2007

College (1927)

Better than Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, which has a similar setup, but this is still an uncharacteristically weak vehicle for Buster Keaton. The melancholy that hangs in the back of (and gives weight to) a lot of Keaton's best work (Cops, Sherlock, Jr., Neighbors) is allowed to seep into the framework of the plot and infuse every scene; thus, what should be a laugh riot feels curiously damp, as though Keaton's frustrations with the loss of creative control were externalizing themselves via this tale of a smart young man who tries and repeatedly fails to gain entry into the popular circles by taking up sports. Still pretty funny stuff, of course -- the rowing climax is rousing, as is the bit where Buster finally gets to show off all he's learned on the field, and many of the expected pratfalls amuse even in this lesser context -- but it's not essential Buster by any stretch.

Grade: B-
Body Melt (1993)

Doesn't really work as a film, due mainly to a broken-backed structure -- for whatever reason, the puzzling decision was made to stitch the narrative together from four short stories previously written by director Philip Brophy. The vague throughline (about deadly vitamin supplements that cause all forms of mutations in a group of unsuspecting guinea pigs) tries to hold all of this together, but it's to no avail, as the film careens about from thread to thread with little coherence or sense of buildup. One thread in particular, involving two hooligans and their encounter with a family of inbred outback denizens, has absolute fuck-all to do with the main business of the film, and the last-minute attempt to make it fit into the larger structure is pretty desperate. However, what this film lacks in cohesion, it makes up for it in gumption, grotesquerie and sheer brass balls. The makeup effects, as one might divine from the title, are the raison d'etre of Body Melt, and they don't disappoint. Dead Alive is an obvious touchstone, but Brophy at times goes past even that moist milestone and hews out radical form-warped space that generally only gets explored by David Cronenberg and Brian Yuzna. You want killer placentas? You want melting heads? You want blown-out faces and humongous tongues and exploding dick beef? Here's your film, all sickly-shiny and plasticine and gleeful. Body Melt is an absurd lurching mess, but it's also kinda fun; I've certainly sat through worse, and so have you.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Inferior to the other two films in the series, the latest edition of the comic-book-inspired tentpole franchise nonetheless has enough entertainment value to trump most other summertime offerings. Franchise shepherd Sam Raimi keeps the proceedings moving at a managable pace despite having twice the characters to juggle; while certain elements feel forced, frenzied or underdeveloped (Sandman's daughter shows up long enough to provide motivation then politely disappears forever, while Venom needed his own film), enough here works that the corner-cutting can be excused as a form of shorthand. Besides, this series (unike, say, the Batman franchise) has never really been about the villains -- it's been about the development of Peter Parker as he navigates his way through the nature of heroism in the world he lives. Here, we get Peter getting lazy, coasting on his fame; this allows his dark side to well up (literally, in the form of an alien symbiote) and he momentarily loses his sense of self. The sequence in which he succumbs to the dark power, briefly becoming what can only be summed up as a strutting, preening emo-boy, is hilarious and prime Raimi. Speaking of... the emo-ish tendencies that have always hung around in the background finally break through in this installment, for better and worse. Raimi's generosity (even the ostensibly-evil ones) with his characters is encouraging, and Harry's revenge has an emotional cruelty about it that would seem out of place in any other comic-book movie but works here; however, we really didn't need yet another rejiggering of the Uncle Ben trauma (I've now seen that sequence more often than the Zapruder footage) and the climax, where one villain basically says, "Um... sorry, won't do it again," and gets a free pass to leave, is a bit squooshy. But-but-but, you say, how are the fight scenes? Well, they're fucking awesome, what do you expect? Raimi gets more confident in that arena with each passing installment, and while there's nothing here that stands out a la the El train duel in Spidey II, this gets points for being the most consistent in its rock-em sock-em action, plus it also allows its fight scenes to work as character development (i.e. the two callously vicious beatdowns Spidey delivers midfilm)... just like a good comic-book movie ought to do. I see the flaws, but I can't help it -- I like this stuff.

Grade: B
Hot Fuzz (2007)

I was going to champion Edgar Wright, director/co-writer of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, as one of cinema's sharpest and most promising new satirists when a simple truth occurred to me: He's not a satirist. True, his films mine laughs from the conventions of genre cinema by placing them in the context of a humble workaday world. Yet, there's no mockery or condescension, not even of the gentle good-natured kind -- Wright genuinely loves the types of films he takes on. He kids because he loves, and because he loves he sees to it that he and his cohorts (including the invaluably funny Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) craft the best possible comic burlesques he can, ones that make sport of their chosen genres even as they inhabit them comfortably. This is probably why Shaun was such an effective zombie film despite the slacker humor, and it's also why Hot Fuzz is able to smoothly transition into the kind of thunderous, rip-roaring action film it's ostensibly spoofing. At this point, Pegg and Frost have such an easy, relaxed chemistry that it shines through even when they're playing characters worlds apart from one another (as they are in the first act here), and it's their gradual meeting-of-worlds that provides much of the best humor (Frost's incessant questions, Pegg finally loosening up and drinking a bit); I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't mention the sterling contributions of the rest of the cast, with special attention to an agreeably jovial Jim Broadbent (sending up his own facilities with the agreeably jovial) and the snarling sardonicism of Paddy Considine. Then there's the climax, which is more exciting and better choreographed than most recent American action films you could care to name. Guns, laughs, explosions, unexpected gore and fun with potted plants: What more does a film really need, anyway?

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Punishment Park (1971)

Peter Watkins' caustic chunk of speculative fiction takes as its jumping-off point a provision deep in the McCarran Internal Security Act that allowed the president or attorney general to detain "each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe that such person probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or of sabotage" during times of perceived insurrection. Out of this passage, troublingly open to interpretation as it is, Watkins spins a near-future (circa 1971) America wherein political dissenters are rounded up by the dozen, subjected to one-sided secret tribunals and forced into the desert, ostensibly to participate in an endurance race that means their freedom if they complete the course. Sewn from equal parts rage and terror, Punishment Park can't be said to be fair or balanced in any way, but I imagine it was difficult to feel even-handed in the wake of Kent State and Vietnam anyway, and Watkins's lapel-grabbing tactics get his points and fears across far more forcefully than a more measured response would have. The end product is something as angry and almost as tense as his astonishing The War Game; if the deck feels stacked from the beginning, I'd argue that more or less is Watkins's point -- at the rate things were going, we might have ended up with a political future without room for argument. Battle Royale seems a spiritual cousin to this film, right down to the structural flaws (though here, they're even more glaring, since the convicted have the ability to choose between the Park or a jail sentence); while I can't say I think this among the best I've seen from Watkins, the aggression and despair for man at his least civil make this a vital watch.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Valet (2007)

Constructed almost entirely from fluff and cotton balls, this cheerful appetizer of a French farce nonetheless managed to provide enough charm and whimsy to provide a pleasant afternoon's entertainment. The main conflict (hapless valet Francois has to fake being the squeeze of famed supermodel Elena) has little tension, but that's more or less by design: The true thrust of The Valet is not the relationship between Francois and Elena or even Francois's stumbling efforts to win over winsome bookseller Émilie (Virginie Ledoyen) but the systematic humbling/stripping-down of arrogant billionaire Pierre (Daniel Auteil). Bringing low the rich and spiteful seems to be a favorite theme of writer/director Francis Veber (The Dinner Game), and the real satisfaction comes not from the farcical setups and punchlines but the simple peace of seeing everyone get exactly that which they deserve. I look at this film like an well-worn pair of shoes -- old as hell and twice as dusty, but somehow there's a level of comfort that makes you feel good no matter how cracked and faded the material is.

Grade: B-
Thr3e (2007)

[Requested by Andy Nowicki.]

I try not to let tragedy interfere with my judgment in these reviews. Still, I think I'm going to have to pull a few punches on this one. I mean, I know the screenplay is credited to some guy named Alan B. McElroy, but I think that's out of sensitivity -- the real author here should be obvious. I guess I can understand his family wanting to shield his name from being tarnished, what with his unexpected and tragic death in an automobile accident a few years back, and even in the face of such a loss it has to be admitted that this screenplay -- indeed, this idea -- was never very good. It was always kind of foolish and hackneyed, with a twist in the tail that craps on any semblance of credibility... but dammit, it was his idea and now he's gone and we should respect that. So instead of picking apart the myriad idiocies and physical/psychic impossibilities of Thr3e or complaining about the indifferent direction and the mediocre, soap-opera-level acting (aside from Bill Moseley, who gives the film a late, much-needed shot of weirdo juice), I will instead defer to his long-suffering mother, who called it "psychologically taut." I will say, though, that they should have kept the chase scene between the car and the horse. I think the original author would have liked that.

Grade: D+
The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

Entertaining enough but hollow biopic -- this is the life-story genre reduced to the level of costume jewelry. Given the subject, that approach seems appropriate, but it's a rather self-defeating tactic; though thematically proper, the all-surface-all-the-time method of telling Bettie Page's story makes the film slip through the brain like a pig coated in Teflon. The only memorable aspect of this is, unbelievably, Gretchen Mol as the title character. Lord knows whether she learned to act during her long exile from the Hollywood A-list or if this is just a lightning-in-a-bottle turn a la Summer Phoenix in Esther Kahn, but she's pretty magnificent here, summoning up reserves of wholesome sauciness and unflappable cheer in service of the incarnation of a woman who reached literal iconic status. She's the living embodiment of a Page centerfold. Still, I didn't realize just how successful her disappearance into the role had been until the credits, where we see what looks like old stag-loop footage of a Page strip show. I watched nearly the entire thing before realizing that it was still Mol. Good for her.

Grade: C+
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Crackling B-movie, made with consumate professionalism and vigor, about a series of disappearances and their relation to a recently opened wax museum manned by an old master sculptor crippled many years past. Rather than the expected ham, Lionel Atwill plays the proprietor of this museum with a marvelously weary haughtiness, so that when he slides into mania in the third act it seems less like overacting and more like a natural progression of his misanthropy. Glenda Farrell, meanwhile, steals scenes and reads 'zines in the snappy role of Florence Dempsey, a tough-talking newspaper reporter who eventually figures out the whole shebang. Briskly paced and sharply directed by Michael Curtiz (one of Hollywood's finest journeymen), and containing at least one twist at the end that I should have seen coming but didn't (even if I did, though, the abrupt reveal is spectacular), this is pretty solid matinee stuff. I can't imagine the Vincent Price version being that much better, though I do wonder what the hell is up with that last scene...

Grade: B

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hardgore (1974)

What audience was this insane thing made for? One of the first and best-known entires in the slim but notable '70s horror-porn genre, Hardgore involves a young woman suffering (if that is the word) from nymphomania who is forcibly checked into a mental institution; once there, she discovers that the place is a front for Satanic ritualistic activity... unless she's dreaming the whole thing. The filmmakers, to their credit, understand the mechanics and purpose of both the average gore flick and the average porn flick. I'd love to think that what they're doing is something along the lines of A Hole in My Heart or Cafe Flesh, where two genres are combined in an effort to short-circuit the pleasures of each. However, Hole works because it's not actually interested in being a porn film, while the aggressive anti-erotic sterility of Cafe works thematically as a reflection of the society within the film (and thus, a comment on the whole of pornography). Hardgore doesn't have any fallback intellectualism behind which it can hide -- on all evidence, the guys behind this sincerely believe that explicit gore and explicit sex can comfortably coexist just as is. The contrast does result in some truly shocking juxtapositions and memorable images, most notably in the early bit where a man receiving oral sex has his penis unexpectedly severed, thereby replacing the traditional facial pop shot with a shower of blood. The wholesale lunacy of the film, too, at least deserves respect. But viewing this is like eating chocolate-covered calamari: While the experience is certainly different and unique, it's not pleasant in any way.

Grade: C