Monday, December 31, 2007

There Will Be Blood (2007)

This one deserves its own heading. I was primed to love it and I did, but I was also surprised to find that it was less of a plot-heavy clash over land and oil rights (which the trailer had made it appear) and more of an elliptical character study of Daniel Plainview with emphasis on his personal and family life, in the persons of his son (Dillon Freasier) and half-brother (Kevin J. O'Connor, previously mostly known as the second banana in several Stephen Sommers movies). It's a terrific look at the American self-made millionaire, paranoid and scheming but capable and worthy of respect all the same - what I like to call a 'magnificent bastard' movie. The music by Jonny Greenwood (and assists from Arvo Part and Brahms) is terrific, the cinematography is excellent, and everyone else is saying it so I might as well, too: Daniel Day-Lewis is stunning as Daniel Plainview.

This movie also represents a step forward for Paul Thomas Anderson, too. I recently rewatched Boogie Nights, which I hadn't seen in several years and had always felt some lingering dissatisfaction with. Watching it this time I realized that even though the explicit subject of the movie is the porn industry in the late '70s-early '80s, the implicit subject of the movie is Anderson's own exuberance and joy at being able to make cinema, to play with what Welles called 'the best train set a boy could ever have'. And while I love movies like it, that reflect that Truffautian joy of creation, the problem is that it's a movie that's a little too exuberant for its own good. I love Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love for the same reasons, but they suffer from the same flaw in varying degrees.

In this movie, Anderson has found subject material from a pre-existing source that reflects his own personal thematic interests (the people and history of Southern California, father-son relationships) and also has forced him to hone his abilities like he never has before in the subject of a particular focussed vision, with less flash and frills and more steel underneath). It's a nice step forward and I hope this movie makes a lot of money so we don't have to wait five years for his next movie.

One question: how long did it take people to realize that Paul Dano was actually playing two characters? For me, it wasn't until the dinner scene when Eli jumps at his father. Yes, I know that's 2/3 into the movie. Oh well.
(9/10)

Holiday Review Roundup

I'll probably have more detailed write-ups of some of these but I wanted to end this posting drought with some quick mentions of the last several things I've seen.

Control is well-shot in anamorphic black and white (man, I wish more movies were shot in this format, it looks so good) and very well-acted, especially by Sam Riley as Ian Curtis, but apart from that I wasn't sure what the point of it all was. Perhaps I needed to know more about Joy Division going in and to already have an appreciation of their music and Curtis's talents, but I didn't, and the movie didn't really seem to be designed to educate an outsider like myself (a few years ago, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People left me completely uninvolved too). Take away the music and it's a simple portrait of a young guy who can't cope with professional success and relationship problems and even though Riley does a good job, the story just sort of rambles on without momentum until the obligatory sad ending. Director Anton Corbijn joins the long list of music video directors who are apparently outmatched by the needs of a feature-length narrative. (6/10)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story isn't a very good movie but it's sporadically funny and it serves the useful purpose of pointing out that, even though they have their virtues, Ray and Walk the Line and their ilk are all kind of full of crap, with their deterministic story arcs and selective amnesia. Unfortunately, Dewey Cox is a one-note character (John C. Reilly's amiable dumb guys are good in small doses, like in Boogie or Talladega Nights, but can't support a whole movie) and Jake Kasdan's directorial abilities are strained to the limit. (5/10)

I'm a Tim Burton fan and while I liked his version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I didn't love it. It feels rather impersonal, like Burton trying his best merely to be faithful to Sondheim rather than to make the material his own. The moments where there is a successful synthesis, like the "A Little Priest" or "By the Sea" numbers, shine in comparison to the ones that don't. Depp is fine but Helena Bonham Carter's voice is too weak for the material. Big fan of the throat-slashings and corpses landing on their heads, though. (8/10)

The first fifteen minutes of Juno are annoying as hell, the screenwriting equivalent of a Michael Bay movie - Diablo Cody is insecurely demanding that you be entertained by any means necessary, whether you like it or not, and so tosses in "shut your freakin' gob" and "homeskillet" and the hamburger phone. Thankfully after that point the movie settles down and becomes a fairly skillful crowd-pleasing comedy, which I liked for the most part. It's not particularly deep and it has some plot holes, but I think I liked it marginally better than Knocked Up, if for no other reason than because it actually had an inkling as to how the female mind works. (7/10)

More to come soon and Happy New Year's.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

One of the things I love about the modern American incarnation of Christmas is that you don't have to be Christian to enjoy it. It's sufficient to travel somewhere to visit with your family, to enjoy some homecooked meals together and give each other gifts. We could go out to a church if we felt like it (none of us wants to) or we could just stay inside with music playing.

This is why I think that, even though Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are uniquely American holidays, that Christmas represents something purely American at the same time: the synthesis of disparate traditions into something that can be religious, or secular, spiritual or commercial, all at the same time, presided over by the secular patron saint of the season, Santa Claus, and his archangels Rudolph and Frosty. No other country in the world could have made such great non-religious Christmas movies as It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, or Bad Santa.

So in that spirit, whether you're just sitting around the house or going out to the Chinese restaurant that's open or hanging in church, here's my best to everyone and merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Indiewire Critics Poll

This is one of my favorite year-end lists of the year, the compilation survey that used to appear in the Village Voice but nowadays is handled by Indiewire.com. This is the only critics' circle that matters, as far as I'm concerned: these are some of the smartest writers on film, bunched together with multiple ranked lists, comments, and it's all sponsored by The Bucket List (for your consideration) so they have a sense of humor, too. My favorite bits and pieces that I've noticed so far: crazy Armond White putting I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and The Brave One on his top ten list; Jonathan Rosenbaum choosing Black Book (yay!) and In the Valley of Elah (he should have known better); Southland Tales making it to #3 on Jim Hoberman's list; and the perverse presence on the list of such titles as Norbit, Zoo, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

On Bloggers and Blogging

Warning: this post contains cathartic rants. I've spent a lot of time online for the last few years and as will happen, friction has resulted. I'm no saint - I'm terribly stubborn and have a perverse tendency to insist on contact with some of the worst people online. After a perfect storm this week of online clashes, it felt like a good time to have my own personal say about certain personalities. What's interesting to me are the different personas that people choose to display online, which may or may not be accurate depictions of themselves.

First up is David Poland of Moviecitynews.com. Ever since becoming independent several years ago on his own site, Poland has developed a specific online persona: the uncorruptible White Knight of the entertainment blogosphere. While he serves a useful purpose (certainly the world of journalism can use some self-policing), he has an unfortunate tendency to ride an incredibly high horse, which wouldn't be a big deal if he wasn't also an occasional hypocrite. Today's example: this post, which I would sum up as "I know a secret, but I'm too good to tell you what it is. Have I mentioned how high my ethical standards are lately?" Dude, when you know a secret that you aren't comfortable spreading around, the appropriate thing to do is to just keep your big fat mouth shut, not advertise your self-proclaimed virtue.

Next, Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere. Wells knows that in most respects he's kind of a slug, but he does cling to an aesthetic superiority complex, which combines with a certain low-grade fascism to produce a thuggish critical viewpoint. Wells has a number of irrational hatreds for various filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, which he shamelessly exploits for site traffic on posts like this one. Mostly, though, the strangest thing about Wells is the archaic, affected lingo he likes to use, things like "ayem", "boyo", "hubba-hubba" and so on. He's a living Damon Runyon character.

Poland and Wells both fancy themselves as crusaders for moral and artistic standards in a debased world; fair enough, most of us do. Fighting this crusade like a modern-day Travis Bickle is Daniel Zelter, who trolls Wells's site with a never-ending series of snide posts targeted at those he disagrees with on political and movie-related subjects. It's a rare post from him that isn't about something that he hates, be it Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Weinstein, the Republican Party, the Arclight, living in Los Angeles, or the people who pretend to be his friends (his words, not mine). Zelter is especially frustrating to deal with because of his total lack of any sense of humor or irony. I have to assume that he has some form of Asperger's Syndrome because that's the only way to make sense of his rigid facade of obsessiveness and his total disinterest in social engagement. He also reminds me of my younger brother, except that I knew that, ultimately, my brother was just screwing with me. Zelter, I think, honestly believes all of his crap.

You'd think Hollywood megaproducer Don Murphy would have better things to do than troll movie web sites, and sometimes he does, but sometimes he doesn't. Murphy posted for a long time under the nom de blog "Spam Dooley" and picked a lot of consequence-free fights with pretty much everyone. For reasons unknown to me earlier this year he decided to attack me viciously under his own name, which was curiously honest of him. I did tell him that he was a bad producer who had only made one movie that I thought wasn't essentially garbage (Natural Born Killers, where I suspect he had little control over the final shape of the film), and I'd tell him the same to his face. Murphy's online persona is of a coked-up rageaholic, but I have to assume this is a joke on his end - I find it difficult to believe that someone as full of bile as he appears to be could have any kind of sustainable career in Hollywood. I see Murphy as the human equivalent of a bighorn sheep, ramming head-on into other people in a weird kind of alpha-male struggle for respect.

Last but not least is Hunter Tremayne, who has thankfully vanished for the last several weeks after posing as 'Ian Sinclair', a character from a clearly-horrible play that he wrote. Tremayne's persona is that of an asshole for sport. He delights in bullying people for his own enjoyment, which made it uniquely ironic that he initially went after me for my enjoyment of the Hostel movies. He's probably the single worst person out of this little group, because he has never produced anything of value to anyone else in any of his online conversations. Daniel Zelter is obtuse and ignorant but to his credit he actually thinks of himself as a good, productive person. Tremayne has never had any goal beyond his own giddy enjoyment.

So: my little rant. And now, a shoutout to those online folk who actually are genuinely interested in talking about movies in a productive and ego-free manner: Noah Forrest, Craig Kennedy, Sasha Stone, Christian Divine, Kris Tapley, Luke Y. Thompson, Matt Zoller Seitz and his teammates, "Actionman", "Wrecktum", and more. Even Josh Massey and "Mgmax", whose real name I don't know, are to be commended for their intelligence, taste, and intellectual honesty even though they're Conservatives.

So to you folks: Happy Holidays and thanks for not being assholes and sorry that this post had to exist in the first place (but I feel better).

Sincerely, Jeff McMahon

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts lately. I'm trying to cram a lot of work into this week before I go traveling for the holidays and I've hardly seen any new movies. It's annoying.

I enjoyed Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, it's a highly diverting film and well-acted all the way around. It's a good reminder that yes, Marisa Tomei actually deserved her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney are acting legends, and a good sign that Ethan Hawke might have finally outgrown the callowness of his youth and turned into a decent character actor. Add in some fun narrative twists and it's a good night at the movies.

The thing is, I can't really join in on the 'one of the best movies of the year' train that the movie's riding to some extent right now, because I found it good but not great.

(SPOILERS) It's your standard noir outline - losers who are brothers (Hoffman and Hawke) try to score a heist but in the process muck it up - with a domestic twist, that the jewelry store they target for a hold-up is owned by their own parents and in the process Mom gets a bullet in the belly and Dad, distraught, tries to figure out who's to blame, only to discover that the culprits are closer than he thinks. Great concept, okay execution. The basic problem is that the premise is crying out for Shakespeare-level dialogue and character development but ultimately we don't really ever find out that much about what Philip Seymour Hoffman's problems are or why he hates his father so much or how it happened that Tomei would be sleeping with Hawks, so that the drama winds up underdeveloped from the get-go. On top of that, while I don't agree with Armond White that Sidney Lumet is a terrible director, I do have to agree with him that the visuals of this movie are fairly undernourished - considering that we're working with such tragic subject matter, a little more chiaroscuro would have helped, I think.

I don't want to give the idea that I disliked the movie, because I did find it entertaining and well-made, but all in all I'd say that I prefer Lumet's last film, the Brechtian courtroom drama Find Me Guilty, as a richer and weirder cinematic journey.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Back in 2005, Stephen King named The Squid and the Whale his favorite movie of the year and in the process called Jeff Daniels' character "an ego-driven monster who demonizes and nearly breaks his children's hearts and minds." So now Noah Baumbach gives us Nicole Kidman as the bride of the monster in his funny, abrasive new movie.

Like all great screen monsters, the brilliant thing about Kidman's Margot is that she doesn't think she's a bad person; travelling to her estranged sister's wedding to a cuddly slacker, she does what she does out of a misguided combination of well-meaning affection, obliviousness, and well-educated condescension. It's an excellent performance and a good reminder of why Kidman is such a good actress after so many clunkers. Kidman has always been too much in her own head to be a Hollywood sweetheart, like Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon, but as her career proceeds she might still be a colder Vanessa Redgrave.

Watching Margot at the Wedding is like watching a slow-motion car wreck, with Margot at the wheel (a metaphor that gets literalized towards the end of the movie) Of course, everyone that Margot comes in contact with is teetering on the verge of neurotic collapse to begin with, needing only a brief comment or two to topple. Watching a group of flawed upper-middle-class people bicker and destroy each others' lives might sound like worse torture porn than the Saw movies, but it works because of the strong performances (especially Kidman, Leigh, and Zane Pais as Kidman's son), but more importantly because Baumbach infuses the demolition derby with the kind of wry humor that you can only get from having been in these situations, realizing how awful and absurd it all is to begin with, the knowledge that ties that bind one to their family can just as easily be anchor chains dragging a person down. There's bitter truth in this movie, leavened by the comedy of experience. I liked it a lot.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Southland Tales (2007)

First things first: this movie is a colossal mess, no doubt about it. Performances are uneven, storylines are muddled, and even while paying firm attention, it feels like you've nodded off and missed a reel's worth of exposition and character development. I think it's fair to say that Richard Kelly came down with a big case of beliving-his-own-hypeitis, which has afflicted such filmmakers as the Wachowskis and Shyamalan in recent years.

That said, I enjoyed this as a sort of time capsule for where we are in AD 2007 (or 2005, when the movie was shot) and as a better Philip K. Dick movie than, say, A Scanner Darkly, which I liked but which didn't really capture Dick's trippy, radically destabilized worldview as well as this movie. My vision of cinema is one in which narrative and normal Hollywood production values are less important than ideas and cinematic virtues. I'm fine with a sloppy, crazy movie as long as it delivers emotions and sustains interesting ideas in a visual sense. In other words, I'll take this movie over a sterile mediocrity like Beowulf any time.

So what the hell is going on here? It's basically an apocalyptic vision of American life in our times: paranoid, obsessed with celebrity, skeptical of authority, ravenous for something meaningful and authentic amidst our current postmodern hall of mirrors. Ironically for Conservatives who can't get beyond the Bush-bashing in this movie, it's a movie with a heartfelt Messianic yearning, with a magical tattoo of the weeping Christ that appears on Dwayne "Don't call me The Rock" Johnson's back at the climax, a character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar named "Krysta Now", and an ending that seems to leave the future of the world in a transfigured, apocalyptic state.

All of this is to say that, whenever you can, it's a must-see. It's a movie in which a lonely Homeland Security worker demands to give a blowjob at gunpoint to the movie star played by Johnson; in which a car commercial shows SVUs fucking like beasts; in which Justin Timberlake delivers the ultimate music video performance of The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done"; in which Amy Poehler is hilarious as always as a pretentious Marxist terrorist wannabe; in which Rebekah Del Rio sings the national anthem in a reference to Mulholland Drive; and in which Nora Dunn tells John Larroquette, "No one rocks the cock like Cyndi Pinziki" after tasering him. How can you not want to see this movie?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

As requested, here's an entry for the critics' darling that seems like the current front-runner for Best Picture. I've seen it once, a few weeks ago, and liked it quite a bit - it's just about perfect in terms of suspense, performances, cinematography, the dialogue is sharp without being too self-conscious as the Coens have done from time to time, etc.

I don't know what I really think about the ending - I need to see it a second time to make sure. Thematically it certainly makes sense that the movie is bookended by Tommy Lee Jones talking about how he perceives law and order in his corner of the world and how people have changed over time. That said, the abruptness of the climax (or anticlimax if you prefer) is indeed a speed bump, a major seam that may work better in theory and in intellectual terms than in emotional, movie-watching terms. I guess what I'm saying is that it's one thing for the ending to 'make sense' but in addition it's best if the ending also feels proportional and organic to what has come before, integrated seamlessly in Aristotelian terms to the movie as a whole. A truly great film shouldn't need elaborate intellectual justifications to make sense, and I need to verify if No Country for Old Men is a truly great movie or only a very good one.

The other thing I want to talk about is one of my favorite sections of the movie, and one which also serves as the movie in a microcosm - the scene in which Josh Brolin outruns and outswims the dog. I like this a lot because it's suspenseful and it's funny at the same time - a lesser movie would have had the chasing dog be some kind of hellhound, an evil doberman or something that we're meant to be afraid of. The Coens, instead, chose a pit bull, and a pretty friendly-looking one at that - it's a good dog that just happens to have the job of chasing down those people its master deems in need of chasing. The incongruity and the dog's single-minded pursuit gives the chase an extra dimension, and the dog is just doing what it's supposed to do the same way that Anton Chigurh or Llewelyn Moss find themselves programmed into a collision course after their initial actions.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

I haven't actually watched this Pasolini movie but I really want to after seeing this clip from its conclusion - it's insane! I'm pretty sure Pasolini himself appears at the very end as the guy closing the book. (Not safe for work.)

UPDATE 7:25 pm: Well, it was nice while it lasted but Youtube took the clip down, not surprising since it involved a demon literally pooping out bishops and friars in close-up.


Courtesy of New York Magazine's Vulture blog about "The Ten Most Anti-Christian Movies of All Time", for this year's War on Christmas I guess.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Saw IV (2007)

This is very much after-the-fact, but the lateness of this review reflects that I simply had no desire to see this movie and only did so because I could as part of, shall we say, a 2-for-1 situation (a review of Southland Tales will be up soon). Nonetheless, I saw this out of a sense of duty to have an informed opinion about the most lucrative horror franchise right now, and also to have an excuse to rant about how much I hate these movies.

The original Saw was okay, a decent locked-room dramatic situation for the most part. It was mildly enjoyable except for some obnoxiously trendy music video-style editing and Cary Elwes' terrible performance. But when the baton was passed to first-time director Darren Bousman with Saw II, everything went downhill fast. The first movie had established the character of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), an engineering genius and victim of terminal cancer on a mission to teach the world something about the value of life. Fine and good as a gimmick in the first movie, but Bousman's direction was to foreground Jigsaw and make him the center of his movies as a sort of world-weary antihero. Interesting concept, but Bousman lacked the imagination, moral compass, and directorial chops to pull it off.

Jigsaw is obviously an extension of both Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (the serial killer-as-guru, smarter than everyone else and with no qualms about playing by his own rules) and John Smith in Seven (on a mission to punish those he deems in need of moral rectitude via gruesome torture). Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about how much he hates the serial-killer-as-moral-authority trend specifically as it appears in both Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men; I don't think he's right about either of those movies but I think his argument applies well to Bousman's Jigsaw. The point of Seven was to watch how Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are changed via their confrontation with a sociopath; it's a film about characters under stress with the 'seven deadly sins' gimmick merely the macguffin for the rest of the plot. The point of Saw II-IV, on the other hand, is to watch characters jump through Jigsaw's hoops, only to discover at the end that nobody is capable of living up to his 'moral standards'. Where Fincher and the Coens are interesting in asking questions about morality and our place in the world, Bousman has the balls to speak, via Jigsaw, as a patronizing and childish moral authority. The characters and their moral issues have become the macguffins, and the sullen, insistent gore has become the point.

Now, gore for gore's sake isn't necessarily a deal-breaker as far as I'm concerned - it's one of the primary reasons to watch a movie like Dead Alive or Dawn of the Dead. The problem with Bousman's filmmaking is twofold: his insistence on making his movies so humorless, so utterly intent on 'scaring' his audience in a drab, grim manner that I can only call pretentious and hollow; and his utter incompetence at filmmaking. All three of his Saw movies feature terrible acting and annoying cinematography and editing. Craft matters, and it's bizarre that Bousman apparently considers himself to be a horror movie fan, because you wouldn't know it from looking at his work - his movies appear to be made by an aging hack intent on trying to appeal to a youth audience through camera and editing gimmicks.

So that's the deal with the franchise in general; Saw IV in particular stands as the worst of the series so far, thanks to a bizarre insistence on trying to cram in plotlines and characters from all four movies and a bewildering narrative that I couldn't make heads or tails of by the end - I suppose patient attention and multiple viewings of the previous movies would clear some of this up, but I just didn't care why Angus Macfadyen from Saw III was suddenly reappearing or how the multiple flashbacks pieced together.

So what makes the difference between Bousman's movies and Eli Roth's movies, which I'm a fan of? The basic answer would have to be mastery of tone and, believe it or not, restraint. Bousman's movies are thudding, obvious, and deadly serious, while Roth knows how to shoft moods from terror to comedy to absurdity. The most chilling moment in Hostel Part II is a scene involving the kids in the woods and how they turn on each other ; it's simple, quiet, Hitchcockian, and has no counterpart in the Saw sequels. You can tell just by watching Bousman's movies that he doesn't know what he's doing, and more importantly, he doesn't really care.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Worst of the Worst

There was a discussion over at Hollywood Elsewhere from Jeff Wells (who has admitted previously that when he watches a bad movie he falls into a regressive fugue state, moaning and curling into a fetal ball to the discomfort of those seated around him) on the subject of really bad movies, and it led me to think about really bad movies. We're all familiar with 'so bad they're good' movies, the films of Chuck Norris in the '80s or Ed Wood in the '50s where the absurdities are so intense as make the experience fun and enjoyable, just not necessarily as the filmmakers intended.

On the other hand are movies so bad they're bad - movies that are so badly made that there's no response from the audience but bored dejection, depression, and annoyance, movies worse than even the worst studio-produced piece of garbage, which at least can be guaranteed to be semi-competent. I've encountered many of these while seeking out the next Gymkata or Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, so maybe it's time to share.

The worst movie I've seen this year was Severe Visibility, a dire political film in the mold of JFK from director-actor Paul Cross, who I knew from an '80s figure skating movie called Ice Pawn. Obviously troubled by 9/11 conspiracy theories and 'documentaries' like Loose Change (I'm not a fan), Mr. Cross directed a talky, disheartening thriller about an Army officer who was in the Pentagon on 9/11 who begins to suspect there's more to the official story. Imagine your favorite disjointed internet conspiracy blog, then stick bad actors into it and sit there quietly for 90 minutes.

I'm a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but there were some movies even they couldn't salvage. The nadir of those was probably Red Zone Cuba, a ramshackle mid-'60s anti-Castro adventure movie from the mind of Coleman Francis, who mysteriously was able to make three cheap movies. Of course 'adventure' is misleading because nothing really happens in this movie - we're given a bunch of blurry images of men wandering through California scrubland standing in for Cuba, there's a brief glimpse of someone who may or may not be an actor playing Castro, and I think someone gets shot. I've watched this one three times and I really couldn't tell you what happens in it. To its credit, it does feature John Carradine singing the title song.

The worst of the worst, for me these days, is something called Psyched by the 4-D Witch, from the early '70s, when you could book a movie into theaters as long as you had a semblance of a story and some naked boobs. Barely even categorizable as a movie, Psyched features a voiceover telling the story of a young woman's sexual awakening thanks to the intervention of the ghost of an ancestor, the titular witch. This accompanies a string of random images of young women and trippy LSD colors and probably some stock footage and leader and whatever would get the film long enough to be called a 'feature'. It's pretty much the least watchable movie I've ever seen. When you're the bottom half of a double feature with Monster A-Go Go, you're in bad shape.

Anybody else?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Redacted (2007)

This is how you know what kind of Brian DePalma fan I am - I made it to the last theatrical screening of his widely hated new movie in Los Angeles on Thursday night, where a well-meaning woman was handing out anti-Bush flyers inside the lobby as if they were 3-D glasses. Or maybe I'm just obsessive-compulsive. Either way.

So, Redacted. The first thing to say is that, like almost all of DePalma's movies, it's better and more interesting than he's given credit for. On the other hand, it's still artistically limited - for years now, DePalma has been more interested in having his movies operate on an intellectual and formal level than in terms of basic narrative storytelling. Gone are the days of Carrie and Blow Out when he could combine both in a satisfying way. Redacted is more interested in being a piece of self-conscious apparatus, a movie that film students can pick apart for layers of subtext and political significance, but not something that anyone is going to want to watch for fun after a long day of work.

The plot is largely similar to DePalma's 1989 Casualties of War: Soldiers stranded far from home in the hell of war react in one of two ways: animalistic aggression and passive acceptance, culminating in the rape of an innocent young girl. Redacted shrugs off the benefits of the traditional narrative and well-drawn characters of Casualties and instead aims at something trickier, more harshly interrogative and Godardian. DePalma fractures his movie into a series of autonomously produced videos - a French documentary, Arab television broadcasts, a Marine's self-made war diary (he wants to get into film school), Jihadist web propaganda, and surveillance cameras. It's a cute idea, but it also illustrates a point: when everyone can make their own videos, everyone can be the star of their own performance piece. There is no objective authenticity to be found except through the mass collective of all these individual pieces of video, and everyone is the 'star' of their own show, with the result that everyone - including the sympathetic characters - wears a facade. In the end, it's not the rapists who are the bad guys of the movie, but the 'good guys' who allowed the rape to take place. In the final scene of the movie, one of the 'innocent' bystanders, back home at an engagement party, cries about the horrors that he witnessed in Iraq - but he's crying for the camera, putting on a show for the benefit of his own self-pity. It's not the thugs who are the bad guys of this movie, it's the people who should know better but stand by and allow atrocities to happen.

All that said: it's a movie that's more interesting than good. For all of DePalma's panopticon trickery and indictment of himself and his audience in the horrors of the world, we still have a movie with stiff and unconvincing acting (another Brechtian ploy?) and a general lack of emotional flow. I appreciate this movie but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't a DePalma completist.

UPDATE: Armond White has reviewed this movie, and he's pissed. His rambling, lengthy comments are revealing, I think, of what must be a bitter sense of betrayal - this is the first DePalma movie that Armond hasn't been able to say something good about, after praising The Fury and Mission to Mars as masterpieces and Wise Guys and Bonfire of the Vanities as underrated.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Republican YouTube Debate

Okay, some random thoughts from watching most of the CNN/YouTube debate tonight:

Rudy Giuliani: Starting to have more problems. He may have hit a ceiling among voters who won't get beyond his pro-choice, socially liberal positions (at least he has the conviction to stick to these instead of pandering to the right wing). But as he goes along and has to face the issues from his personal life, his responses will get more brittle and angry and his support will bleed away.

Mike Huckabee: Very charming and folksy, and I'm not surprised to read that he's rising quickly in the polls. He also seems to be a legitimately decent guy with a talent for relatively straight talk and a good sense of humor. Too bad he doesn't believe in evolution and is generally on the wrong side of every substantive issue, but I'd have a hamburger with him.

Duncan Hunter: Why is he still around? He's just trying to avoid embarrassment at this point and waiting for an excuse to drop out.

John McCain: I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He's had a long and honorable career serving his country, got smeared by Bush and Rove in 2000, and his face is lumpy. If you put a gun to my head and made me vote for a Republican I'd probably choose him because I think he's probably the most authentically principled of the bunch, and I have a lot of respect for his steadfast stand against torture. But his positions are increasingly unpopular with his party and he doesn't have a lot longer to go.

Ron Paul: The zealot. Like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader he's fun to listen to for the sake of outrage and catharsis, but he has no business pretending to be a viable candidate for leader of the free world. He sounded borderline-insane when he was given a question about the New World Order. The kids seem to like him.

Mitt Romney: This man seems to have no core convictions beyond the unshakeable certainty of his own self-importance. He's an empty suit who will apparently say anything to please any audience, as was made clear again from his statement from a decade ago that he looked forward to the day when gays could serve openly in the military, but "that was a different time." His total misunderstanding of John Edwards' "two Americas" theme and his refusal to agree that waterboarding is illegal under the Geneva Convention were frustrating as well.

Tom Tancredo: Didn't get a lot of time, which is no great loss.

Fred Thompson: Lacked energy and looked like he would rather be somewhere else. I expect him to drop out pretty early in January so that he can start collecting residuals from Law & Order reruns again.

For the record, my favorite candidate currently is John Edwards, but I'll vote for any of the four leading Democrats.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Mist (2007)

So close...

I've been a big Stephen King fan for years (a habit I picked up from my Mom) and I've been looking forward to an adaptation of this one for a long time. It's one of King's best short works, suspenseful and rich in nightmare fodder, a great example of the kind of stories he does best: in which madness and terror (here in the form of an extra-dimensional monster-spawning fog) are unleashed into the unsuspecting normal everyday world of suburban Maine.

Frank Darabont would seem like a perfect choice for this material. Even though his first three movies were earnest and old-fashioned (I'm assuming - like most people I never saw The Majestic) his early career was as screenwriter on Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (the good sequel) and the remake of The Blob. So he's a seasoned director with a background in horror and Stephen King, the movie should have been great, right?

The first problem with the movie is a certain self-importance that you probably get after your first couple of Academy Award nominations. The Mist should have been a fast-paced, nasty little monster movie, and to a great degree, it is. But Darabont falls into the Rod Serling trap - not content to just let his audience have fun, he tries to draw the deeper meaning out of his material. Again, not something I want to dissuade filmmakers from doing, but it weighs the film down a touch more than it should. Additionally, Darabont should have taken a page from the Paul Greengrass school and made his crowd scenes a little more chaotic and noisy. The crowd in this supermarket are pretty quiet and well-disciplined for a group who just popped out to get some soup for dinner and find themselves suddenly facing Cthulhu's spawn.

And then there's the ending... (SPOILERS).
Basically, the hero, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) shoots his friends and son in order to spare them the horror of being eaten by monsters, only to have the U.S. Army show up thirty seconds later as the Mist retreats. Darabont has altered King's original open-ended conclusion in order to end on a more significant, emotional note, a sort of Shyamalanesque sucker punch. It sort of works on an intellectual level and it connects to Darabont's other movies - basically, Darabont is telling his audience not to give up or give in to despair because hope could be right around the corner. But since this concept hasn't been firmly established earlier in the film, it doesn't have the impact he wants it to. I don't want to say the ending is a failure, but I don't think it really works, either. When you shoot a cute little kid in the head in a mainstream American movie, you better make damn sure you do it right.

All that said, I still thoroughly enjoyed this one. The monsters are nicely Lovecraftian, Darabont gets good work from his cast, including Marcia Gay Harden as the almost unplayable Red State villainess; and the waking-nightmare quality of King's underlying story comes through. Darabont hit a solid double with this one, I was just hoping for a home run.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis, come back to live-action filmmaking. While we appreciate your pioneering efforts to expand digital technology, you could also leave that work to music videos and commercials, where dead-eyed characters can roam around in CGI landscapes for thirty seconds at a time. Do you really want to be working in product testing for the rest of your career?

So the point is, Zemeckis's Beowulf is a disappointment, in spite of a sprinkling of fun visuals. Mostly the failure stems from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's lackluster screenplay, which is full of plot holes and has a very dry, perfunctory, just-get-to-the-next-plot-point feel to it, not to mention the thinness of Beowulf himself as a character. Oddly, for an IMAX 3-D film, the world of this movie is distant and uninvolving. It feels like the whole movie only takes place in the same three or four locations and with five or six characters, curious for a type of movie limited only by imagination.

In contrast, not long ago I rewatched Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, a pair of super-low-tech swashbucklers from 1973-74. Neither movie has a dragon or any sea monsters, but they have so much more life in them than Beowulf, which is arid and limp by comparison. In contrast in the other direction, I hated 300 from earlier this year, but it was more successful in at least being thrilling and stylized in an original way, without the pretenses of having a deeper meaning and at a fraction of Beowulf's cost. That said, I don't hate Beowulf so I'd still give it higher marks for not making me angry, as 300 did. But on the level of simply providing cheap thrills, Zemeckis's movie falls short.

This is definitely a case where the technology gets in the way of the storytelling, and where the story has been altered and expanded unnecessarily for the sake of an additional action set piece or two. Too bad but at least it's better than The Polar Express.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Yeah, it's sweet and well-made and all, but I'm gonna be something of a skeptic on this one. For one thing, I think there's something basically dishonest about a movie that has as its premise 'a man falls in love with a sex doll' and then goes to great lengths to make sure that its audience knows that there's no actual sex happening, thank you very much. The movie wants to titillate you but not creep you out, and as far as that goes it manages to walk that line but there's still a persistent denial at the movie's center that I find annoying. Basically, I wish that David Cronenberg had directed this.

My other real problem with the movie is that, as brilliant as Ryan Gosling's performance is, it's very heavily interiorized, which means that there's very little external conflict. The drama of the film is basically watching Gosling's Lars and waiting for him to come around and get with the program, and there isn't really much in the way of external drama to affect him or shake him up properly, which I would call a dramatic failure. We observe Lars without ever really feeling what's going on in his head (so I guess he's got something in common with Frank Lucas, for me).

Finally, there's a common trope in movies about romantic loners where there's always an unrecognized romantic possibility just around the corner. It's kind of a lame cliche.

(PS: I saw this movie a month ago but I'm writing about it now because I haven't had enough time yet to fully process No Country for Old Men and have anything interesting to say about it except that it's nice to see the Coens back again and the ending is odd. More later.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Celebrity Sighting of the Day

Weird Al Yankovic, waiting to cross at the intersection of Franklin and Hillhurst in my neighborhood. In L.A. you mostly see celebrities in fancy public places like movie theaters or bars so to just see Mr. Dare to be Stupid tooling around on foot was especially odd.

Who else wishes he would bring back the moustache, by the way?

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Even though the trailers made it look annoyingly preachy and didactic (you could say, Haggis-esque), I'd have to call this one a must-see. In its own way, Robert Redford's new film seeks to transcend the polarizing national debate over the War on Terror and find new, common, American purpose. Apologies if my review ends up sounding Armond White-esque but I think he's right about this one in his own review.

In an anonymous California University, an old-school liberal professor (Robert Redford) interrogates a well-off but lazy student about the nature of his cynicism. In Washington, a promising young Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) gives an exclusive interview to an established reporter (Meryl Streep) about a new strategy to defeat the Taliban. And in Afghanistan this strategy is implemented using two Marines (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), both former students of Redford's. It's a talky movie, but it's never a boring one because of the constant stimulation of strong dialogue, acting, and ideas, and because the stakes are simply too high to be boring. Redford lays it all out on the table: Western Civilization, as led by the U.S. government, is in a war against angry medieval idiots. What are you going to do about it? In the movie's most potent moment, Cruise literally asks Streep and by extension, the audience, "Do you want to win the war on terror?" a question which hangs in the air, never resolved. The big surprise of the movie isn't that it takes strongly liberal positions, but that it challenges liberals to move beyond the miserable failure of the Bush administration and look forward to envision success on the global stage with whatever President takes over on Jan. 20, 2009 - success that I don't think that selfish isolationists like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul have the vision to conceive of.

For a while now, I've been wondering how it's possible for a movie to truly be progressive and actually have an impact at the same time, when so many well-intentioned movies simply play to their own choirs or are ignored by the public. Even though it looks like Lions for Lambs is going to be the latest one to be shrugged off, it deserves a lot better, especially in its central question: what are you, the American viewer, comfortable at home, going to do? Anything? This is classic Hollywood liberalism at its best, urging the complacent viewer out of his or her torpor and into their best possible self, the kind of thoughtful, principled progressive liberalism seen in movies from High Noon to A Man for All Seasons to Good Night and Good Luck (even though I'm sure Armond would probably disagree with all three of those). Redford is telling us that we need to get beyond the sloth that cynicism breeds and get off our butts, simple enough.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dan in Real Life (2007)

This was a pleasant surprise. It was rather cheaply advertised as something much more zany and Robin Williams-esque than it turned out to be, when it's actually very low-key and charming in an almost effortless way, thanks primarily to breezy lead performances from Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche, plus the three very good actresses who play Carell's daughters. (My favorite single moment: Carell's middle daughter screaming at him, "You are a murderer of love!") And Dane Cook isn't horribly obnoxious, so that helps too.

A curious omission from the movie, though, comes from the movie's premise, where 'Dan in Real Life' is supposed to be the advice column written by Carell's character. Curiously, the fact that his character is alleged to be an advice expert is almost forgotten by the movie, except for a couple of moments in the opening credits where we see Dan working and dispensing obvious, sub-Dr. Phil-level advice like "Hide your couch potato's remote control!" No wonder Dan has so many personal problems of his own.

The basic premise of the movie is affirmatory, one of those movies that seeks to affirm to the audience that they should relax, take a little me time, drink some tea. Usually I don't care for these kinds of movies because they tend to verge towards blandness and introversion, but when it works, it works. Also, Carell builds his library of awful white-guy-dance scenes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Writers Strike

My friend Rachel Axler writes for The Daily Show and, in her free time from marching around in front of Rockefeller Center next to a giant inflatable rat (?) she wrote a piece for the New York Times. It's not an in-depth argument for the necessity of profit-sharing from New Media income streams, but it is free Daily Show humor until the strike ends. Enjoy!

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007)

First of all, a quick apology to anyone who cares for my lack of posts lately. Being unemployed has ironically resulted in less free time for blogging, as I've been catching up on other tasks and looking for new work. (No, I'm not on strike. My former employers ran out of money and let me go.) Anyone need an editor or assistant editor?

Anyway, the new version of Blade Runner. This is one of those movies that I've never seen eye-to-eye with the rest of sci-fi movie geekdom. When I first rented Blade Runner sometime in the early '90s I was bored stiff. Yes, the movie is and was a triumph of visual imagination, thanks to the work of Ridley Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and production designer Lawrence G. Paull, but Roger Ebert had it right back in his original 1982 review when he called it "thin in its human story" (In his new review, Ebert capitulates and suggests several improbable, over-reaching theories about the movie). And he was right: Harrison Ford's Deckard is barely engaged in the movie's plot and doesn't have much substance beyond being an archetypal film noir detective. Of the supporting characters, only Roy Batty (the amazing Rutger Hauer) and J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) have any real life to them. It's as if the oppressiveness of the futuristic urban dystopia that the movie takes place in has sucked all the life out of the actors - and not in a good 'the movie is about a future where life is meaningless' way but in a bad 'I'm bored watching Joanna Cassidy get killed because I don't know anything about who she is and why I should care about her' kind of way.

The new version also adds in (SPOILERS) new evidence to support the idea that Ford's Deckard is himself a Replicant, which I honestly find more confusing than revelatory. Why would the police hire a Replicant to track down and kill other Replicants? Why is Deckard so much weaker than Roy or Leon if he's one of them? On a thematic level it's more interesting for a human Deckard to be contrasted with a Replicant Roy, falling in love with the Replicant Rachael (Sean Young) and breaking the human-cyborg taboo line. So the faint orange glow Ridley Scott has added to Harrison Ford's eyes in a shot or two seems like a bad addition, a confirmation that takes away from the mystery of the text.

All this griping aside, I enjoyed watching the movie on the big screen for the first time, and I've developed more respect for the movie over time. Not enough to call it a classic or a masterpiece, but enough that I don't hate it anymore.

I also think it's interesting that Ridley Scott basically invented Wong Kar-Wai's style years before As Tears Go By.

Monday, November 05, 2007

American Gangster (2007)

A lot of stuff happens in this movie, from drug busts to bribery to courtroom eruptions to Chinchilla coats being tossed on fires, but not very much of it really seems to be thematically related to some larger point that the movie is trying to make. It's a movie with a lot of sound and fury, but ultimately, signifying not much of anything.

The great American crime movies, The Godfather I and II, Scarface, and so on burn with the passions of their lead characters, take their power from their ambitions and uncertainties. I couldn't really tell you what makes Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington's character, tick. He gets a couple of minor subplots - buying a house for his mother, coping with the established Italian mobs - but sorry to say, it's a pretty shallow depiction of an interesting person. Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts has a little more to do, but again, very little of his screentime seems pointed towards building some larger conception of what crime and crime-fighting in America are about. So anyway, I was moderately entertained by all the flash and ridiculous outfits, and Washington has at least one terrific outburst involving a blood-stained carpet, but I was left generally unsatisfied.

The supporting cast is pretty strong, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, and Josh Brolin. On the other hand, Lymari Nadal as Lucas's Puerto Rican wife is pretty bad and I could barely make out anything said by her, Armand Assante, or the RZA.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Horror Movie Roundup 3

One more and then it's time to see serious Fall movies again:

Watching The Descent a second time, I was slightly less enamoured of it. The action and scares are still good, but the problems I had with it before didn't go away - the drama and characterization are still weak, and the movie has a crappy ending which the director apparently prefers to the truncated American-release version. While it's hard for me to begrudge any director their preferred cut, I have to say to Neil Marshall that he should have gotten over himself. Not every movie needs to be a hard-hitting expose of the human soul, and if you can't pull it off, cut your losses and keep it short. I'm not saying The Descent's human arc is an utter failure, but it's not nearly as interesting or as fresh as Marshall thinks it is (he admits on the DVD that the ending is ripped off from Brazil). Still, excellent tension and thrills and the only recent movie set in a cave that is at all well-shot in terms of lighting and geography, so good job.

The Reaping is utter garbage. It's as bad as a studio-produced horror movie can be, which means that there's enough eye candy in terms of visual effects and famous actors to keep you from noticing how rancid the story and subtext are. Hilary Swank, who apparently is cashing in while she can, plays a former minister-turned-miracle-debunker who travels the world to tell people that when they see Jesus in a tortilla, it's actually toxic hallucinogens from the local chemical factory. All well and good, but she needs to learn the error of her ways, so somewhere in Lousisiana a bunch of crap happens that mirrors the Plagues of Egypt. In the end (spoilers!) it turns out that the town are all evil Satan-worshippers and the pretty little girl (surprise!) isn't evil after all, but Hilary should have an abortion to get rid of Satan inside her pregnant belly, both sides of the political spectrum are happy: the Right gets to see Jesus win, and the Left gets to see a town of intolerant hicks get wiped off the face of the Earth. I don't want to discuss this movie any further except to say that it made me wish I was watching Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man (NOT THE BEES!), so there you go.

Finally, I rewatched the original Universal Frankenstein (very good and ground-breaking) and Bride of Frankenstein (one of the absolute best horror movies ever) in the first half of the month, so I caught up on the third in the series, Son of Frankenstein, this week after not having seen it in several years. It's a movie that's hard to take seriously if you've ever seen Young Frankenstein, from which it steals a lot of elements, mainly the false-armed police inspector played by Lionel Atwill in the original and Kenneth Mars in the parody - I mean, Atwill almost does all of the same absurd, jerky-armed things as Mars, lighting cigarettes and playing darts and everything. Son of Frankenstein constantly verges on self-parody in the inspector scenes, and the rest of the time it's tedious, spending more time with Basil Rathbone's over-enunciating Frankenstein spawn than on Boris Karloff's final appearance as the monster. Also the kid playing Rathbone's little boy is intensely obnoxious and awful in a way that we don't see in movies anymore, thankfully. But it still hits all the notes of angry villagers and evil henchmen and so on that I can forgive it, even if it is the Frankenstein movie that finally displays Sequelitis.

I've been thinking of applying ratings to these reviews, so I'd give The Descent 7/10, The Reaping 3/10, and Son of Frankenstein 6/10.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Movie Roundup 2

A few more, as promised:

Nightmare City is one of the many cheap Italian-produced zombie movies made after the major success of Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The first of these spawn was Lucio Fulci's Zombie, which is okay but something of a letdown; Zombie's trailer promises a zombie meltdown in New York City but then the actual movie mostly takes place on a rural Caribbean Island. Nightmare City fulfills that promise and takes place in a modern, unnamed Western city. Technically they aren't 'zombies' but rather victims of 'nuclear contamination' which has destroyed mens' brains, given them a thirst for blood, and caked brown gunk on their faces. Like so many Italian horror movies from the 1970s and '80s, it's a movie that privileges action and spectacle over coherence and narrative sense, which means that things happen for no reason, like the existence of a TV dance show so that women can be chased around in their leotards and attacked by zombies. It's fun in a cheesy, grindhouse kind of way.

I had seen The Innocents once before but it seemed like a good idea to revisit it again when I found out that Deborah Kerr had died. It's a handsome movie, well-acted by Kerr and well-shot by cinematographer Freddie Francis, and a pretty good adaptation of James' The Turn of the Screw. However, I question the approach taken here in adapting the story's ambiguities. The movie feels like it's trying very hard to be superior to the character of Kerr's Miss Giddens, condescending to her sexual repression and hysteria. And that's why I think this movie is ultimately inferior to its next-door-neighbor, Robert Wise's The Haunting, which is about many of the same things but remains closer and more emotionally connected to its main character, Eleanor, and her problems, and more willing to indulge in the pure pleasures of the horror movie, with the bulging doors and creaks and jolts and so on. The Innocents, in trying to be so purely psychological and tasteful and genteel, falls a little short for me. Kerr is great, though.

Like everyone, I've seen The Silence of the Lambs a bunch of times and it's become an influential, landmark film. The weird thing about it is that it really straddles the line between the highbrow and the low-brow - I don't know of any other Academy Award-winning movies that include a character escaping from the police by disguising himself under a dead man's face - and then forty-five minutes later, we're laughing that he's about to murder and eat a guy.

The movie exists on two different planes - there's the sensitive, emotional half of the movie that focusses on Clarice Starling, her childhood traumas, and her efforts to try and get by in a male-dominated society, coupled with Brooke Adams as the victim down in the bottom of the well. Then there's the half of the movie where you have a superhuman, hyper-intelligent bad guy named Hannibal Lecter who the audience falls for. Demme sews these elements together pretty seamlessly, but when you really get down to it, Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who's smarter and more cultured than you are and therefore transcends the category of mere murderer doesn't really belong in a movie that purports to be a real, psychological portrait of authentic serial-killers and victims. He's a sophisticated, archetypal cartoon character, which Ridley Scott realized when he made Hannibal and reconfigured that movie into an over-the-top fairy tale.

There's no way to verify this, but I have a pretty strong feeling that Jonathan Demme was embarrassed by having created the biggest horror icon since Freddy Krueger, and took pains to only make serious-minded liberal movies and documentaries for the rest of the 1990s.

More to come soon.

Horror Movie Roundup

Here are the last few things I've watched on video:

Marebito (2005) is an entertaining enough Japanese horror movie from the director of the Ju-On/Grudge movies. It was obviously made fast and cheap, which gives it a sort of giddy energy but also means that in the home stretch the story devolves into something routine. The first half is the best part, as a deranged cameraman (Tetsuo's Shinya Tsukamoto) explores the nature of fear, wanders into the Tokyo sewers to find a Lovecraftian fantasy world, and brings back a mysterious feral girl. There's a little self-critique inherent in a movie about a man staring at video screens trying to understand the nature of terror, but this trails off into cliche by the end of the movie too. Aside from the weak third act, though, fun stuff with some juicy imagery.

I had never seen The Lost Boys (1987) before. I can see why it was a hit - it moves along briskly and has good performances from the leads (Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, and the gape-mouthed Corey Haim) even though none of their characters are very interesting and the story is pretty predictable. But the movie succeeds on its own terms well enough, and the kids manage to somehow steal enough Holy Water to fill a bathtub and melt a vampire with. The movie's subtext - the bad kids in town are all vampires - is right out of a 1950s movie.

Speaking of which, The Bad Seed (1956) would have fit right in if it had been made in the 1930s. It's painfully stagy, barely 'opened up' from the original stage play and full of flowery monologues and one character who gets two whoppingly grandstanding drunk scenes and all manner of flowery overdramatics, so it's not really a surprise that Charles Busch does the DVD commentary track. There's a little bit of outdated discussion on the nature vs. nurture debate - here, the evil little girl Rhoda (Patty McCormack) was apparently born that way, thus reiterating the 19th century notion that the lower-classes were inherently worthy of their place in life - but the debate is basically just a veneer for outdated melodrama. There are some good moments where terrible things are not visualized, but only heard/spoken of (what happens to Henry Jones, for example) but on the whole this movie would be a good candidate for a remake.

More to come - Nightmare City, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Innocents. And at some point I'll endure Saw IV, too.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Top Fifteen Liberal Horror Films

At Libertas, you can be amused and scared at the same time at what passes for intelligent discourse on film in Conservative circles - specifically, their list of the top fifteen Conservative horror films. William F. Buckley, this is not. I mean, some of these are jokes, right?

Horror has been called an inherently reactionary genre, because so often it's typically about our fears and the quest for 'normalcy' in a world gone mad. And some movies are inherently 'conservative' - Libertas is correct about Fatal Attraction and Friday the 13th - they both espouse a Conservative perspective. (They're also both bad films). But the list is also indicative of what Conservatives are afraid of - women, sexuality, science, the Social Contract. (The fact that Libertas doesn't include any Cronenberg movies, who is loathed as a reactionary by Robin Wood, is indicative of a basic lack of film-criticism literacy, and even though I love The Brood, it's more than a little misogynistic.)

At the same time, there are plenty of progressive horror movies and TV, because fears can run the political spectrum, and because the genre is also about exploring the realms of possibility - physical, mental, and spiritual. Anything written by Rod Serling counts, to the extreme of several obnoxiously liberal Twilight Zone episodes. Any movie by George A. Romero counts, visualizing the hypocrisies and hollowness of modern society with scathing wit. Plus, there are great liberal horror movies on Libertas' list. Craven's Last House on the Left, while expressing the reactionary fears of a post-60s generation worried about the basic collapse of civilization, still shows that revenge is a horrible thing, damaging to the soul and basically unproductive. And then there are the movies which are so great as to transcend politics, including The Exorcist, which spouts some deeply reactionary ideology within a structure that nonetheless is one of the scariest and most effective horror movies ever made (credit goes to William Friedkin for translating William Peter Blatty's nonsense into art). And I don't believe in organized religion, but the final scene in the church at the end of the original War of the Worlds gets me every time.

So with all that in mind, here are the Top Fifteen Liberal Horror Films:

15. Deathdream (1974)
A young man returns from the Vietnam War transformed into a bloodthirsty zombie - but the prevailing mood is sorrow and anguish. A much better version of the same basic story that was told in In the Valley of Elah.14. The Blob (1958 & 1988)
The teens are the only ones who can save the town from the spreading evil when the authority figures are too full of themselves to listen.

13. It's Alive (1974)
Unregulated environmental toxins start turning perfectly normal babies into killer mutants.
12. Candyman (1992)

Our history of slavery refuses to stay buried as residents of Chicago's ghettos pay the price.

11. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Military groupthink proves inadequate to the threat of mass chaos, and actually makes things worse despite the best efforts of individual soldiers. See also George Romero's The Crazies (1973)

10. The Shining (1980)
Your standard story of patriarchal-power-run-amok.

9. Street Trash (1987)
Chaos reigns supreme under the poverty line in Reagan's America, where homeless and mentally ill Vietnam vets go crazy and murder each other.8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)
Individuality-stealing monsters seek to impose their will on everyone else.

7. Audition (2000)
Take that, Salaryman! This is what you get for objectifying women!

6. The Devils (1971)
Corrupt politicians team up with the Church to destroy a man through slander, fanaticism, and torture. This one's almost too easy but the film isn't out on DVD, and is therefore slipping into obscurity even though it's brilliant.5. Carrie (1976)
Repressive religious sentiments team up with pathological fear of female sexuality to explode into a mass bloodbath. The perfect 'return of the repressed' movie.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The terminal stage of capitalism is reached - cannibalism. (See also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, where the victims are turned into chili.)

3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Civilization crumbles and The Man doesn't know how to deal with it, from the bureaucrats in Washington to the bald guy in the basement.

2. Psycho (1960)
The tyranny of the dead past, in the form of Mother.
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Consumer society as a necropolis, a magnificent epic horror movie in which society's basic ills implode in on themselves.

Happy Halloween weekend to everyone.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cannibal Campout (1988)

Now I'm the first to agree that some bad movies are very entertaining to watch - this is not one of them. This is just plain awful, one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen, which is saying something.

It was shot somewhere in New Jersey, which we learn in the movie's first scene, when the Jerseyest girl in the world puts on a bright pink headband and leg warmers to go jogging before she abruptly gets murdered. From there tt's basically a Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff - four college kids get in a van for a road trip and run afoul of a family of murderous flesh-eaters. All well and good, except that then the movie fails to do anything - it's not scary, it's not funny, it's not dramatic. It's kind of gory, but so what. This movie's contribution to horror iconography, Jet Helmet Man, falls flat.
Also, the movie is insanely cheap. Now I'm not one to hold a movie's tiny budget against it, if something interesting is going on, but this is just a bunch of New Jersey kids running through the woods - they didn't even get a real house to chase each other around in, just a State Park and the occasional abandoned shack. And it's shot, apparently, on VHS. So there comes a point, in one of the rape scenes, where the cinematic illusion is so thin that it's like watching a sociopath's home movies. This means that suddenly the movie takes on a scarier subtext, but not one that the filmmakers were intending. Watching an ugly kid from New Jersey play-act his Leatherface fantasies is dispiriting, at best.

I can't believe I wrote even this much about it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Rox vs. Sox


Well that's kind of a surprise after a season in which the Rockies managed to just squeak into the Wild Card spot and the Mets collapsed after seeming like a pretty sure thing. I'm kind of a sports dilettante but I've always liked the Red Sox as underdogs against the evil Yankees, but too bad for them - they already won a damn World Series.

Any other topics of interest?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

30 Days of Night (2007)

This one kind of feels like a missed opportunity, due to a certain basic lack of filmmaking competency, and it's kind of shocking to realize that Sam Raimi's Ghost House Productions has now released five horror movies and they've almost all sucked.

Quick plot synopsis: a band of vampires descends upon the town of Barrow, Alaska, which is above the Arctic Circle and thus dark for 30 days in the middle of Winter. For some unexplained reason, nobody in the rest of the world seems to think it's strange that they suddenly lose contact with an entire town of people for a month, which means Sheriff Josh Hartnett and estranged wife Melissa George have to fight them off.

The biggest problem with this movie is simple narrative disjointedness. The story stops and starts, nothing flows together, we don't really get to know any of the characters beyond the headlining three or four. It feels like there may have been a longer cut with more character beats (like showing how the residents of Barrow spend their time in-between story beats, eating canned food and being cold and miserable in hiding) but these were cut to the bone to make the movie shorter. Bad idea because the story becomes uninvolving and tedious as a result.

The second biggest problem with the movie is casting: Josh Hartnett is stiff and unconvincing as always, and only Danny Huston (who's great) really seems suited for his role, as the feral leader of the pack of vampires (correction: Mark Boone Junior is pretty good too). Ben Foster officially crosses the line, for me, from 'interesting' to 'annoying' with his performance in this movie.

The final major problem is basic directing: wayyy too much of this movie is shot in close-up, a standard problem for inexperienced directors. I also don't care for the overabundance of digital mattes and fake snow, especially after seeing the real thing not long ago in The Last Winter - standard Hollywood insistence on comfort over detailed realism. Lastly, the movie's ending is a ripoff of the similar, perfectly realized end of Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II.

On the other hand, I do like the make-up and performances of the vampire characters, rendered as vicious and wolf-like (although the one vampire with fake blood on his mouth for most of the movie would surely have wiped his face at some point during the month). Also, the action/gore beats are pretty good, including some pretty vicious vampire killings including (SPOILER!) one nasty little vampire kid whose death will almost certainly be extended in the inevitable director's cut. And I do have a softness for horror movies set in snow, no doubt about it.