Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Brave One (2007)

It's a little disturbing that someone as experienced and as intelligent as Jodie Foster would apparently be under the delusion that The Brave One, which she executive produced, is a good film. It's certainly an entertaining movie, and well-crafted by Neil Jordan, but if it was intended to be a serious look at urban violence and vigilantism (which it certainly seems to be) then it falls incredibly short.

Briefly, the movie tells a standard 1970s-style urban revenge story, this time about Foster's Erica Bain, a radio talk-show host whose fiance gets murdered in a mugging by Latino thugs. Scared and emotionally ravaged, Erica soon finds herself roaming the streets at night with a gun, putting herself into dangerous situations like an addict who won't admit they have a problem.

One of the movie's key problems is that the victims of Erica's vigilante wrath are all obviously bad guys who deserve to die (a murdering husband, a predatory pimp, a wealthy mobster) and the audience is urged to root for their murders with little doubt that Erica is doing the right thing. It's a pandering way to get the audience on Erica's side while conveniently sidestepping the issue of whether what she's doing is right or wrong.

The movie reaches its climax (Spoilers!) when Erica is able to track down the thugs who killed her boyfriend at the beginning of the movie, murders two of them, and is about to kill the third when Terrence Howard's honest cop character shows up. Now, the ending of a movie is where a filmmaker really makes their most important decisions as far as where to leave the audience and what statement, ultimately, they want to send. Jordan and Foster could have done the right thing in several different ways: they could have emphasized that Erica Bain's character is a fragile, emotionally damaged woman lashing out at the world that has hurt her, trying to take control by killing those she deems to be in need of killing; that her actions, while cheerable, are still totally illegal and ethical only in a Hollywood revenge fantasy; and that a story like this should not end happily.

So how do they end it? Terrence Howard suggests a cover-up to let Erica get away free and clear and the third murderer gets a bullet in the head. Ignore the fact that any investigation would be able to use basic forensic evidence to poke massive holes in their cover story, and the movie basically ends on a note of total audience-pandering hypocrisy. The film apparently tells us that a little bit of vigilantism is healthy and therapeutic, and you have some major mixed messages mixed in with co-dependency and denial.

As I said, the movie is partially redeemed by Neil Jordan's skill behind the camera and a bunch of good performances (besides Foster and Howard, Nicky Katt and Ene Ojola), plus a pulsing emotionalism that it wears on its sleeve, but I always say, the best-crafted movie in the world is meaningless if it's hollow at its center. This movie isn't hollow, but it is deeply confused.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Last Winter (2007)

Larry Fessenden is an interesting filmmaker. Even though he makes horror movies (Habit, Wendigo) they generally feel like they would rather be politically-themed indie movies, for better and for worse. So at its worst, The Last Winter feels like what would happen if Paul Haggis decided to make a monster movie. It's set in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Ron Perlman plays a charismatic blowhard determined to make progress in drilling oil wells in the region, despite the objections of the local environmentalist, played by a bearded James LeGros. The movie leaves no doubt that the evil oil man is wrong and the saintly scientist is right about leaving the tundra alone, which drains the movie of much drama. Of course comeuppance comes in the form of ghostly caribou and bizarre weather formations before too long.

Fortunately as the movie goes along, it gets weirder and deeper than the standard eco-horror movie, and the climax broadens out in scope in a nicely ominous way (borrowing the ending of the first Resident Evil). I was skeptical for a long time that the movie was going to do more than just toy with the audience, since there seemed to be a lot of scenes of people talking about how strange everything was without anything really all that strange being visualized. David Cronenberg made artsy horror movies early in his career, too, but he also had enough commercial sense to have a head explode every so often, while Fessenden seems to be uninterested in providing his audience with standard payoffs or to lighten his moods with anything approaching comic relief.

It helps that even though Fessenden's narrative is convoluted and unven, he gets good performances out of his cast, including "Friday Night Lights" costars Connie Britton and Zach Gilford, and he has a feeling for editing, sound design, and music to gloss over the weak spots of the movie with eerie moods.

It also helps that I love movies set in frosty Arctic (or Antarctic) realms. There's something about those vast expanses of snow that hits a nerve with me.

David Poland thinks he's funny but he isn't

For example, this.

It kind of reminds me of Cracked Magazine, where they would have a movie parody called "Hostile, Part Doo-Doo" and say it was directed by Eli (Blechh!) Rot.

The most insulting thing is, this is a guy who loved Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, aka Jessica Biel in a Wet T-Shirt: The Horror Movie. I wish I understood that cognitive dissonance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ils (2006)

Retitled Them for American audiences, this is basically a French version of the movie Vacancy from earlier this year, a short (77 minutes) exercise in menace in which a young couple is threatened by mostly unseen invaders out in the middle of nowhere (in this case, Romania). As with Vacancy, the movie is fairly hollow; it gives us a bland couple to be audience surrogates and proceeds to chase them around a big empty estate, into the attic and out to the woods, and then it ends. Very little dialogue, not a lot of 'content' or substance per se. Vacancy was more of a Hollywood production, with slightly more interesting characters (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson start the movie bickering incessantly, which doesn't make them likeable but it does make them amusing) and a greater degree of craft, especially in terms of carefully composed shots and sound design. For all that, though, the rawness of Ils - shot on raw, muddy, handheld HD - was more satisfying to me, more immediate without the comfort level that a high level of craft transmits to a horror movie. It's a stripped-down roller coaster ride of a movie and it works well enough on that level.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Across the Universe (2007)

The stupidest thing about this movie is its insistence on trying to work its collection of musical numbers into a single coherent narrative, which just doesn't work. This movie would have worked better as a loose collection of thematically related musical interludes, more like Pink Floyd: The Wall than Moulin Rouge. It means that the filmmakers have all manner of stupid contrivances, including characters named Jude, Lucy, Prudence, and Jojo. Try not to throw something at the screen when Maxwell shows up brandishing a certain burnished household tool for no good reason. This framework forces the movie towards some of the most mindlessly literal interpretations of the Beatles' songs possible.

The second stupidest thing about this movie is setting it in the 1960s, which leads to all manner of tired cliches about hippies and the anti-Vietnam movement and peace and love and stuff that we've seen in movies about a thousand times before. If the film had been set in the present, or better yet, in a stylized anytime, it would have worked a lot better, been more resonant. I don't need a hippied-up Bono telling me he is the walrus, and the same obligatory urban riot that exploded into Dreamgirls strikes again here.

In spite of these massive impediments to success, the movie does have a few scattered moments where it all works, mostly when plot isn't around. The early number "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is simple, timeless, and heartfelt. It's probably the best thing in the whole movie. Evan Rachel Wood's performance of "If I Fell" and Jim Sturgess's "Something" are pretty damn good too. Julie Taymor knows how to craft an image, and the sights of this movie are often spectacular, but she needs help in getting them to really flow and intersect with each other in truly provocative ways. I'm sure there are going to be people who will love this movie, but chances are they're people who haven't seen the older, better movies in this tradition. It's too bad because the music presented is mostly wonderful, and the messages that are still relevant deserve an intelligent, stimulating presentation.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Red River (1948)

I don't think this is one of Howard Hawks's greatest films in the company of The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Rio Bravo, but it's pretty good and thoroughly entertaining. It's got action, it's got a little romance, it's got suspense, and it has John Wayne and Montgomery Clift giving excellent performances - Wayne is actually convincingly dramatic for perhaps the first time in his career, and Clift is loose and unmannered. There's also a hilarious scene where Clift meets cute and flirts with the female lead (Joanne Dru) in the middle of an Indian raid - she takes an arrow in the shoulder and doesn't bat an eye - only in a Hawks movie. You really get the feeling of the grungy exhiliration of being on your own in the middle of nowhere, on a mission, in this case the first cattle drive after the Civil War, complicated by a range mutiny that ejects John Wayne from command.

What holds the movie back from masterpiece status is the sense that it doesn't always seem to know what it's about. Early on there's a rivalry established between Clift and John Ireland, both seen as young gunslingers out to prove themselves. They get a classically homoerotic scene where they check out each others' guns, it looks like they're going to be rivals, and then...nothing happens. Ireland sides with Clift halfway through the movie when the revolt happens, and that's about it. More egregious is the way the movie insists that a tragic, Shakespearean dramatic conclusion is going to happen once Wayne catches up with Clift at the end of the trail, seeking a grim satisfaction for the deep personal wrong done to him. And instead, the movie ends with an 'I can't stay mad at you' ending with Wayne forgiving Clift and living happily ever after. It's a traditional Hawksian ending, a love story between two men, so it's not really the ending that's flawed but rather the heavy foreshadowing in the middle of the movie that feels wrong.

My first bad review

From the IMDB's user comments on my USC thesis film, "Sleep in Heavenly Peace":

Amateurish and overdoses on violence, 30 August 2007

Saw this as part of the True West Cinema Festival. Amateurish even for a student film. Someone has apparently knelt down and worshiped at the movie Hostel and Eli Roth because it is a rip off of that torture porn film. Violence for the sake of violence. It isn't a enjoyable to see on screen minute by minute of gore and blood. The director and writers should watch some Hitchcock and some old school horror directors before they waste their time again with this genre. The acting may have been the saving grace of the film if the director would have let the actors go. Instead it focuses on gore and blood and everything else that is included in the now boring torture porn genre. Bowd Beal does commendable work as the lead but is almost ruined by his co stars work. Anastasia Zavaro may be one of the worst actresses to grace a screen this year. All in all a terrible film. Not worth anyones trouble.

I was surprised at how much this stung, although I guess I shouldn't have been - I've certainly dished out my share of bad reviews of movies in the last few years. I don't want to embarass myself by directly responding to the critique the same way Michael Bay did this summer with Transformers when he made reference to how much his good friend Steven Spielberg enjoyed the movie, except to say that my film is not for everybody.

The thing that annoys me most about this review is the phrase 'amateurish even for a student film', which I think is objectively incorrect. One could find legitimate things to criticize in my writing, my choice of where to put the camera, or the way the performances are directed. But the technical aspects of the film - cinematography, production design, makeup, editing, and sound design - are all certainly of professional quality, and range from good to very good, in my humble opinion. In addition, my film has no on-screen violence and less than three minutes of blood or gore out of its 15:40 total.

So my overall point is, I just wish this review was better-written. I would urge anyone who's seen the film, regardless of their opinion, to post a comment on IMDB or here.

Oh, also the film will next be seen at the Eerie Horror Festival in Erie, Pennsylvania on October 14.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hatchet (2007)

Just a couple of quick words on this, which I saw about a week ago in the wake of glowing online reviews that were calling it "a B-horror masterpiece" (Harry Knowles) or "the best slasher flick in decades" (

Guys - raise your standards.

I enjoyed Hatchet well enough for what it is - a goofy throwback that doesn't take itself seriously, that just wants to give the audience some jokes, some gory murders, and some topless girls. But it's a sign of just how weak American horror is right now that this movie is getting any more than mild praise. This is not a great movie, it's not even a particularly good movie. It's an entertaining mediocre movie for those who don't mind being entertained by the abovementioned rudimentary pleasures (and I count myself in that group) but it's a pure trifle all the way. It's not scary, it's not stylish, and it's only mildly funny. And, there's surprisingly little hatchet action for a movie with this title - something like "Mardi Gras Maniac" would have been a better title, perhaps.

What bugs me most about this movie is that it represents one of the worst trends in modern genre filmmaking, the incessant drive to recapitulate and rehash the horror glory days of the 1970s and early 1980s without adding anything. It's push-button nostalgia, the same reason why Across the Universe exists for the children of the 1960s. There's nothing surprising, challenging, or forward-moving about this movie. Already this year David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and Rob Zombie have given in to this trend (although I think Fincher and Tarantino transcended mere nostalgia, and Zombie got at least half free of it) not to mention the dismal 'spoof' Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, aka Scream for people who don't like horror movies. Like I said: mindless regurgitation is fun from time to time, but it shouldn't be praised (although since that's all that Harry Knowles ever wants I guess I shouldn't be surprised).

The Tony Todd cameo, in face paint and a cape, is pretty funny though.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Celebrity Sighting of the Day

Tony Cox, buying what seemed like four sandwiches at a Hollywood Subway. Like all movie stars, he's not as tall as I expected.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

First of all, apologies for not posting much lately, between the 48-hour film festival I participated in a week and a half ago (the Elevate Festival) and my trip to Colorado for the Estes Park Film Festival this last weekend, I've been busy lately and neglecting my virtual life.

Anyway, I've been behind in catching a lot of the recent late-Summer/early-Fall movies so I headed up to Pasadena to see this crowd-pleasing documentary. First of all, guys: settle on a single title. The King of Kong gets the idea across just fine without the unnecessary jokey subtitle.

So this is a very entertaining documentary about two men battling for the world record in Donkey Kong, with sharply rendered characters in a simple, direct conflict with a likeable underdog challenging an established, irritating champion. This gets to one of my main quibbles with the movie, and about so many modern documentaries: that it's so wrapped up in being about its surface-level plot (who will win the title, the ambitious prick or the quasi-autistic family man?) that it forgets to spend a lot of time thinking about anything deeper on a thematic level (the drive for success in modern America, the absurdity of grown men becoming emotionally wrapped up in a 1980s arcade game).

Part of my resistance to the movie's spell can be attributed to my lack of interest in video games. Once I realized that most video games basically operate on the same principle as those levers that rats push in order to be rewarded with treats, I decided to find better ways to spend my time. So I'm glad that the movie depicts its characters as geeks, by and large, but a little added contrast between their subculture and the rest of the world might have provided a little more definition for the world of competitive video gamers.

All that said, it's a very well-made documentary, sharply edited and shot in a less ostentatiously hip manner than Murderball from a couple of years ago. I was a little annoyed at how obviously I was being manipulated to root for Steve Wiebe against his rival (and as of June, current world-record holder) Billy Mitchell - in American, we love winners, but we love to tear them down even more. But I think this is a healthy thing, because two of my favorite things about America are our insistence on rooting for underdogs and our refusal to kowtow to established authority. It helps that Mitchell seems to be a world-class cock (just look at him in that photo above - in case you can't tell, he's wearing a Statue of Liberty tie. Also, he has a wife whose defining features are her huge knockers). Billy has the world record, but his appearance in this movie will live in cinematic infamy.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Thing from Another World (1951)

After watching John Carpenter's version of The Thing and seeing it appear on TV screens in both versions of Halloween I decided to revisit this, another classic I haven't seen in quite a while.

Even though this is one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made (it set the form for the 'isolated men vs. a monster' subgenre) you might not know how it goes: briefly, a bunch of Air Force men are sent up to the North Pole to check on a remote station of scientists. It turns out that a flying saucer has crash-landed and they haul a frozen block of alien back to the camp. It thaws out into James Arness wearing Frankenstein makeup and the battle is joined.

The major plot complication is that the scientists, led by an obviously suspect type, are more interested in studying and communicating with the monster while the military guys, noticing that it's a hulking beast with a thirst for human blood, are more interested in killing it - and the movie is on their side, seeing them as no-nonsense regular joes and the scientists as effete eggheads obsessed with perceived notions of the alien's superiority even though all it does is grunt and murder.

I enjoy this movie, but it's obviously problematic, a one-sided Cold War parable made at a time when the U.S. military had won WWII, but scientists had brought the world the A-bomb. I like to think of this movie as a companion piece to The Day the Earth Stood Still (the other sci-fi classic from 1951) because, even though it's kind of a cliche, the movies complement each other perfectly. While the alien in The Thing is a thuggish monster, in Day he's a charming Brit (and the movie's protagonist, to boot). While the scientists in The Thing are cold Oppenheimer types, in Day they're kindly Einstein types. And where The Thing is paranoid and insular, Day is open-minded and thoughtful.

The flip side is that, problematic as it is, I think The Thing from Another World is a better-made movie - the narrative is clean and direct, the characters rattle off their dialogue in a way that feels modern and lifelike, and most importantly, Howard Hawks doesn't need to resort to contrived Jesus metaphors to get his point across. The Day the Earth Stood Still has a preachy, head-in-the-clouds, Adlai Stevenson quality that The Thing is thankfully free of with its emphasis on the great American tradition of regular guys working hard to do the right thing. It's a movie in the best Hawks style (yes, I know he's only credited as Producer, but still) with a fun mixture of action, comedy, and a sassy dame so that it all manages to transcend its somewhat clunky, dated subtext.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

LA Shorts Fest

My USC thesis film Sleep in Heavenly Peace is screening on Thursday at 3:15 pm at the LA Shorts Fest, which is at the Burbank AMC 6. Ask for Program 5.

As I've said before, I promise anyone who can make it the funniest Christmas-themed farm accident movie they've ever seen. Copies are also available on DVD, act now and get the bonus short Milf Tracker plus four others!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Halloween (2007)

First of all, I can't say that I agree with the ire that this movie is apparently meeting among some of the online horror community. Obviously, people don't like their cherished icons messed with, and I can sympathize with this to a certain degree - from the sounds of things, J.J. Abrams's version of Star Trek is going to be D.O.A. as far as I'm concerned. But in a lot of ways, I think Rob Zombie is attempting to do exactly the right thing as far as Michael Myers is concerned. Attempting, mind you.

The major difference between John Carpenter's original film and this one is the focus. Carpenter's primary interest was in the character of Laurie Strode, a normal small-town girl who faces off with the physical embodiment of the Boogeyman one night. In this movie and all the rest, Michael Myers isn't a person, he's an unstoppable killing machine, the archetype of the slasher before Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. Yes, Michael came after Black Christmas and Leatherface, but Carpenter perfected the icon - faceless, unemotional, relentless, all to the point of being essentially supernatural in his unstoppability.

Rob Zombie, meanwhile, is more interested in treating Michael Myers as a character, a real person, and to a certain extent in deconstructing the mythos of the unstoppable slasher. Somebody - I think it was Stephen King in Danse Macabre - wrote that as scary as Halloween's murders are, the scariest thing for him in the movie was the moment at the end where Laurie manages to peel off Michael's William Shatner mask for a second to reveal the slack, vacant, psychotic farmboy face underneath, before he pulls it back on again. Zombie's movie is an attempt to spread out that one moment into the entire first act of his movie, which is why we spend the first act getting to know a young pudgy kid with dirty blonde hair who wears a KISS t-shirt and gets bullied and lives in squalor. The first third of this movie is Rob Zombie at his best, bringing us close to this kid and the world he lives in and daring us to sympathize with him once he starts killing people.

The major flaw of the movie is that Zombie's interest in Michael's psychology all but disappears after the first act, from which point the movie becomes a condensed rehash of the original 1978 movie, almost point-for-point. I wish Zombie had stuck with what he was doing, but instead Michael reverts into form as a big, bad boogeyman. And since the film has less time to work with, we barely spend enough time with Laurie Strode to really get to know her, so that the final act of the movie becomes a battle between two characters we only halfway care about.

So on that level, the movie's something of a disappointment. Fortunately I still enjoyed it, because even if it's not rich in characterization, Zombie still delivers in a lot of ways. I love the textures of his movies; they tend to take place in a hyper-real universe of supreme white trashiness. Zombie is basically the cinematic heir to John Waters in this department, but with a more enveloping sense of place and detail and mood. I don't know any other director who can do as good of a job directing a scene of a lower-middle-class family arguing over a breakfast table about how much they all hate each other. The new version of Dr. Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell, is also wonderfully sleazy, a hipster exploitationist more interested in celebrity than in saving the world from a serial killer.

On the whole a mixed bag but thumbs up. I'm curious now to revisit the scripts that have apparently been floating around or the older cuts to see how the Weinsteins altered this movie after they greenlit it (apparently producers not really understanding what they're doing at the greenlight stage is the cause of 95% of the problems in the editing room, as I'm currently learning).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Halloween II (1981) & Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

I decided to take a look at these before seeing Rob Zombie's Halloween. Both were produced by John Carpenter and therefore feel similar to his other films - anamorphic widescreen, minimalist electronic scores, even some of the same scares - sharp stings when a bad guy suddenly appears in the frame.

Halloween II starts off very well, picking up immediately where Halloween ended. This gives the first half of the movie a feeling of immediacy and uncanniness - we're plunged into the middle of events already in progress, moving fast and unpredictably as Michael Myers continues on his killing spree and Donald Pleasence tries to track him down. The feeling of a small town under siege is also sharply depicted. Unfortunately, the movie's second half devolves into the standard 'who's getting murdered now' formula and it gets kind of tedious. The revelation that Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode is really Michael Myers's younger sister is interesting what?

Then, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which I had never seen before. Good lord, what a bad movie. It was ballsy and perverse of Carpenter and producing partner Debra Hill to decide to make a Halloween sequel which didn't have anything to do with the previous movies, and they paid for it. Instead, this is about an evil druid-ish toy company making evil Halloween masks for kids that will melt faces or something when triggered by an evil television commercial. The evil mask maker(Dan O'Herlihy) also has a private army of evil androids to do his bidding.

All of this nonsense could have worked if the movie was aware of its own ridiculousness, but instead the movie adopts a tone of ponderous seriousness. It's a dumb, tedious, utterly illogical movie with a bunch of lifeless, uninteresting performances (Tom Atkins, your leading-man career is not mourned) and it seems to insist on being taken for serious horror. Ugh.

Halloween III also makes a big mistake by putting a couple of clips of the original Halloween on TV screens that characters are watching. When an audience is watching a bad movie, it's a terrible idea to remind them of a much better movie they could be watching instead.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Invasion (2007)

Now that I've seen it, I can't say that I find it very good, but it certainly is a lot more interesting than I was expecting (not necessarily a good thing). For one thing, this is the first version of the story that isn't a horror movie - this one's an action thriller with car chases and guns and nothing really all that scary or creepy. The closest this comes is that the body snatchers this time aren't pod people, but space spores who can infect a person like a virus, which means that this is the first movie I can think of where somebody projectile vomits mucus into Nicole Kidman's face - something I wholeheartedly applaud, but more silly than scary.

This movie also differentiates itself by being more overtly political than the other versions. This one's a police state/New World Order/the-Bush-administration-is-evil version, which is sort of a good idea in concept but not really in execution, because the paranoia feels applied, affected, not organic or based on anything but the filmmakers' own sense of ire.

The movie has one other halfway intriguing notion, which is that the world under alien control magically is one without war - the blessings of totalitarianism. The movie means to end on an ambiguous note, as if to pose the question, maybe peace and human emotions are incompatible? An idea which I think is basically stupid. Why should we need to choose between a peaceful world and one in which the human race doesn't consist of pod people? Come on guys, if you're going to do ambiguity, come up with an idea that's more complex than this.

Finally, this movie is a good example of form not meeting function. It's a glossy, expensive movie with good-looking movie star Nicole Kidman in the lead, taking place in a series of expensive houses and offices. The production design and cinematography are clean and precise. All of this is completely wrong for a movie that wants to illustrate a contrast between messy, emotional humanity and cold, efficient pod people. The last scene of the movie takes place in a clean, chrome- and marble-covered kitchen with two little kids wearing identical school uniforms watched by Nicole Kidman's unlined, pretty face. And these people aren't the dehumanized drones?