Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Santo vs. Frankenstein's Daughter (1972)

Even by the standards of the Man in the Silver Mask, this series entry is pretty whacked. Considering this was helmed by Miguel M. Delgado, who also gave us Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein and Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man, this weirdness isn't really that surprising; Delgado seems to have realizes, with his Santo entries, that the mythology and character were established enough for him to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Thus, we get an extended bit where the title villain actually removes Santo's mask. We also get a protracted, unexpectedly brutal duel between Santo and Dr. Lady Frankenstein's slave Truxon (who, despite the name change, is actually Gomar from Doctor of Doom/Night of the Bloody Apes), which I think is the only time I've ever seen Santo beat someone to death. And we also find out that the reason Lady Frankenstein is so bent on capturing Santo is that her eternal-youth serum requires his super-blood. Yes, apparently, Santo has super-blood, which explains his ability to take grievous amounts of punishment and bounce back relatively unharmed as well as his ability to make his wounds disappear in between scene transitions. (Being told this is kind of like the midichlorian revelation in Star Wars: Episode I except that here I think it's stupid on purpose.) Stir in the requisite choreographed beatings, some icky makeup FX and lots of cheese, and you've got a superior Santo entry.

Grade: B

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Condemned (2007)

If that rumored Neal H. Moritz-produced remake of Battle Royale ever comes to pass, it will probably look a lot like this dumb flick, which, being a product of the WWE, emphasizes the violence above all else (in more ways than one, but we'll get to that). Part of the film's deficiencies can be attributed to the man they call Stone Cold: If Steve Austin had one-tenth of the natural charisma of The Rock, he might be bearable in the lead role (or in any lead role). But he's a phallus-domed, stone-faced dead zone, a placeholder with muscles. The filmmakers seems to realize this, considering what a small percentage of the running time requires him to be on-screen; director Scott Wiper tries to compensate for the gaping hole at the film's center by following other characters and introducing side plots whenever possible, leaning heavily on Vinnie Jones's laddish sadism and Madeline West's ability to look worried in thin T-shirts that showcase the spectacular nature of her breasts. Even if Austin was the second coming of Olivier, though, The Condemned would still be hamstrung by an idiotic screenplay rife with cliches, contrivances (most awesome plot hole: wouldn't the morally-offended newswoman who interviews the villainous, venal producer bankrolling this bloodsport nonsense just tell the authorities where this island was?) and characters thinner than rice paper. The cherry on the shit sundae, though, is the ridiculous third-act moralizing about how violence is Bad and Wrong and perverts the soul and some such junk, which might mean something if it wasn't coming from a company that would cease to exist if people actually listened to such imprecations. As it stands, The Condemned is no Funny Games. Hell, it isn't even Hostel: Part II, though it does have as one of its few bright spots a dryly funny performance from motormouth Rick Hoffman, last seen as the American Tourist in the first Hostel. It's just cinema at its most disposable, meant to be seen and forgotten. Nickelback plays over the closing credits, which I think says it all.

Grade: D+
Air Guitar Nation (2007)

Someday, we are going to run out of unusual competitions about which to make quirky documentaries. The latest entry in the post-Spellbound genre of strange games people play concerns the world air guitar championship, and if you didn't know such a thing existed, neither did I. As usual for this subgenre, Air Guitar Nation has more on its mind than just dudes in goofy costumes shredding on invisible instruments -- director Alexandra Lipsitz uses this to offer a broader statement on the need for validation of achievement (one contestant in the world championship talks of a victory meaning he's the best in the world at something, at least) as well as the lure and excitement of role-playing and persona assumption. On the latter, it seems only appropriate that one of the film's two main "characters," David Jung AKA C-Diddy, is an actor by trade; a clear division is seen between stage and off-stage personas for most everyone in the film, the most striking being the line between quiet, polite Dan Crane and his cocky-to-the-point-of-dickishness alter ego Bjorn Turoque. It's this admission of artificiality, the idea that the participants recognize the silliness of it all yet do it anyway because it makes them feel good, that keeps the film from sliding into condescension and/or falling victim to the allure of novelty; it doesn't really catch fire, though, until it gets to the World Championship in Finland, an event as exciting as it is improbable. The final bout of the competition might be the only circumstance under which The Darkness has ever or will ever be cool.

Grade: B
Cannibal Man (1972)

Far from the gut-munching bit of sleaze promised by the title, Eloy de la Iglesia's atmospheric horror flick is a slow-moving but well-made depiction of one man's mental breakdown. Vicente Parra plays Marcos, a slaughterhouse worker who goes from accidental killings to straight-up murder and psychosis in the span of roughly a week, and his expressive eyes and body language get across the helplessness of the character and his squirmy, almost apologetic descent into madness even underneath the de-riguer crap dubbing. De la Iglesia's directorial eye, though quite lovely at times, is detached and unsparing, with a more muted palette than many other European exploitation films of the period; interestingly, this makes the explosive crimson splashes all the more shocking (the butcher's knife gag is especially effective). The screenplay, unfortunately, has a number of imperfections, notably a weak thud of an ending and a severely underdeveloped thematic strand holding up Marcos's actions as symptomatic of the decrepit final days of Spanish Fascism. Also, anyone expecting flesh-eating as per the title is in for a disappointment -- the only on-screen acting of person consumption is inadvertent. Still, this is pretty engaging. I'd like to see some other films from Eloy.

Grade: B-

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Captivity (2007)

The purpose and meaning behind this godawful concoction can be quite easily gleaned from studying the film's big gore scenes. There's three of them worth noting, and they're all as queasy and disgusting as you'd imagine them to be. However, if you can divorce yourself from the content (which includes acid baths, blendered eyeballs and shotgunned poodles) and discern the context in which they exist, you'll find that there is none. These supergore scenes float free of the rest of the film, affecting the plot and character arcs in absolutely no way. They're just little suites of sickness, and they've pretty obviously been shot and inserted after the fact so that the film could potentially capitalize on the "torture porn" wave of films that have brought us the Hostel and Saw films, among others. In other words, this dumb, dumb movie is shallow opportunism at its crassest. Not that the gore scenes weren't, on some reptilian level, appreciated by my entertainment-starved brain -- at least trying to shoehorn Captivity in between Eli Roth and Rob Zombie gives the otherwise-generic and hopelessly boring film a reason to exist besides concrete proof that Elisha Cuthbert is a terrible actress and should never be employed again for any reason ever. But then, that's a pretty dubious fucking reason to exist. I'd be offended if this weren't so laughable.

Grade: D-
Eastern Promises (2007)

There's two films warring it out within the skin of David Cronenberg's mobsters-and-tattoos extravaganza. One is a righteously indignant slice of vaguely boring social-problem drama in the vein of screenwriter Steven Knight's Dirty Pretty Things; the other is a wired, black-hued comedy of mobster manners. Guess which one wins out. It's entertaining enough for a while anyway, mainly on the strength of Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel's high-camp high-wire act as, respectively, a beefy chauffeur/bodyguard trying to crack his way into the upper echelons of the Russian Mafia and his neurotically violent, possibly homosexually enamored confidante and sponsor. The last twenty minutes, though, allow the A-plot, wherein plucky and determined nurse Naomi Watts (never duller) does everything she can to uncover to story behind an orphaned baby and her teenage mother, who bled to death in labor on Watts's surgery table, to take the reins and ride roughshod over all the interesting bits. Consequently, characterizations and plot points shift on a dime; the scene with Cassel crying at the river might be the worst thing I've seen in a movie all year, and the big twist is not only stupid but stupid, pointless and almost entirely unnecessary. The last shot consciously echoes Cronenberg and Mortensen's previous collaboration A History of Violence; unfortunately, doing so only points up what a botch this new film is in comparison.

Grade: C+
Tristana (1970)

Stodgy two-men-one-woman melodrama from Luis Buñuel, lacking the violent fire of his Spanish-exile work and the wry playfulness of his later work. There's some interesting moments early on (the bell-based nightmare is as close as this gets to prime Luis); eventually, though, everything sinks into a swamp of Sirkian sludge, except Sirk would at least have the good sense to go ridiculously over the top with this material. Fernando Rey shows up and does the dissolute-European thing that was his stock in trade, while Catherine Denueve, surprisingly, is a porcelain-masked non-entity (the distance between her early girlish naivety and later jaded manipulativeness can be measured in microns). Religion gets replaced by capitalism, the innocent get corrupted, love is anything but pure, ho hum. I already saw Viridiana, thanks all the same.

Grade: C

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Benny's Video (1992)

Obviously a passkey to much of Michael Haneke's later work, as the obsession with the video image, to the point of advanced alienation (Benny only relates to things through their video counterparts, so that, say, a vacation is experienced by him second-hand even as he's experiencing it first-hand), points forward to the meta-nihilism of Funny Games and the cryptic threats of Caché even as the use of violence and detached destruction as a symptom of soul-crushing class friction refines the thematic heart of The Seventh Continent. I just wish it didn't fall apart in its final third -- Haneke runs along with his formal mastery (the most disturbing line in the final is a banal, "Please be quiet") and his thematic dexterity (the connection between commerce and killing is illustrated by a seemingly-unimportant pyramid scheme being run at Benny's school, with money passing virally like violence) as far as he can go with the story he has, but he pulls the trigger far too early, so the main plot is concluded after roughly an hour. Thus, the third-act trip to Africa, which should be a wellspring of bourgeoisie discomfort but instead just turns into a way to stretch the film to feature length. This is still very much the work of a world-class artist finding his bearings, and it's fascinating as such. But it could have been so much more, really.

Grade: B-
Severance (2007)

Somehow, the smugly righteous air that infects the first half hour or so of this British bucket of crap, coupled with the corporate-retreat plotline and the filmmakers' oh-so-clever designation of said corporation as a manufacturer of military weapons have led this to be typified as savage satire of a sort. It's not -- the obvious, broadly painted leftist leanings are a distraction, not a way of thinking. Writer/director Christopher Smith and his co-writer James Moran have pasted such sympathies on here as bait for the overanalytical, the idea being that if a prospective audience member is fooled by its status as a film-fest journeyman and its lip service towards Redeeming Value, they won't notice that they've lost ninety minutes of their life to yet another obnoxious, formulaic slasher comedy that's not as funny or gruesome as it thinks it is. But that's only part of the problem: Loathsome shithead characters, lousy acting and embarrassingly clumsy attempts at veddy-British irony only make this stupid thing even more wretched than it would have been as a mere satiric shell game.

Grade: D
Alphaville (1965)

"Sometimes, reality is too complex for oral communication." So begins one of Jean-Luc Godard's most seminal films, serving as it does as the dividing line between his early movie-brat films, concerned with genre and moments out of time, and his second-wave films filled with long, complex dialogue and political insinuations. The framework suggests a typical noir story garnished with sci-fi elements, as rumpled private dick Lemmy Caution (played with stoic panache by Eddie Constantine) attempts to find Professor Von Braun, a ruthless mad scientist-turned megalomaniac ruler of the distant cosmic hamlet of Alphaville while also engaged in a strange, halting relationship with the Professor's daughter (Anna Karina!). That's really just the cover story, though -- running alongside the detective story is a arch, wordy treatise on how the vagaries of language can obfuscate and inhibit meaning, especially when emotion is separated from logic (the denizens of Alphaville are not allowed love or passion). While this often makes for some dryly philosophical passages, Godard also indulges his strange and welcome sense of humor in making his point -- in particular, the funniest scene exemplifies logical literalism, as Lemmy duly drops a coin into a vending machine that reads, "Insert One Token," only to get nothing more than a placard that reads, "Merci." Too, Godard's mise-en-scene tends towards elision rather than explication, heavy on the odd setups and purposely misframed action scenes. (The elevator sequence, with its striking use of offscreen space and tight framing, seems to me some manner of genius.) A strangely seductive film, all suggestion and atmosphere; gets pretty logy near the end, but still pretty damn entertaining. You can't say that about 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, can you?

Grade: B

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dead Silence (2007)

As if Saw wasn't sharp enough evidence, here's Dead Silence to prove two things: Saw franchise patriarchs Leigh Whannell and James Wan are terrible writers and Wan is also a terrible director. The sheer dopiness of this film can be summed up not in the fact that it's a killer-doll movie with no killer dolls but that Donnie Wahlberg has a running-gag character trait (he carries an electric razor with him at all times) that mishandled to the point where it doesn't even qualify as a gag. Wan, meanwhile, has no feel for how to build tension or suspense, hitting his marks either way too early or way too late (the "come closer" scene is a hilarious example of the latter). There's also a twist that tries to be clever but achieves the polar opposite; upon figuring out part of the ending ahead of time, I remarked that if Wan and Whannell actually did it that it would be so stupid as to be kind of awesome, yet the execution went so far into stupid that any awesome was immediately extinguished. Acting uniformly terrible, dialogue wooden bordering on unrecitable... why did I bother with this again?

Grade: D
Trip with the Teacher (1975)

One of many drive-in epics cast in the mold of Last House on the Left, Earl Barton's tale of madness, molestation and motorcycles turns out about as tame as you'd expect from a guy who choreographed a bunch of late-'50s rock musicals. Despite its veneer of sleaze, this comes from a fundamentally innocent-eyed mindset, and as such it never feels as wretched as it should. A little trimming and this could be an Afterschool Special. However, what this lacks in slime is occasionally compensated for by goofy setpieces. Of particular note is a long motorcycle chase that ends on a curlicue so abrupt that it merited a guffaw and a rewind. Zalman King, in the David Hess role, sneers and twitches as though Barton's only direction to him was to look 10% sweatier from shot to shot; meanwhile, Marvin the bus driver is the smartest, most interesting character, and as such he's the first one to be offed. Pity.

Grade: C