Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

I've been trying to figure out something intelligent and erudite to say about Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff, which I saw lately, but I honestly don't know what I could add beyond "they're very good", and I need to get to Wall-E, Hancock, and The Dark Knight at some point, but for right now I'll just deal with something easier and more fun, the latest piece of Eurotrash that I watched over the weekend.

My biggest guilty pleasures are bad horror movies, as long as they're not boring, and in the '70s and '80s the Italians were foremost in schlock cinema that managed to be at least halfway entertaining even while remaining total crap - my favorites include Demons, Nightmare City, Cannibal Holocaust, and just about anything by Argento or Lucio Fulci.

On the DVD for this movie there's an interview with director Bruno Mattei where he agrees that yes, most of his movies are pretty bad and if he could he'd like to reshoot them. (He's since passed away, so those remakes will have to wait for Paul W.S. Anderson's schedule to clear up). That said, even though it's a bad movie, Rats: Night of Terror kept me engaged enough through a single viewing. It starts with your standard post-apocalyptic bikers (obviously fuel economy is important to the motorists of the future) who wander into a town that's clearly some kind of Cinecitta backlot. Where this gang came from and what they do most of the time isn't clear, because there aren't enough of them to harass even a small colony of oil-drillers, like in The Road Warrior.

As it happens the town houses an abandoned science lab with a greenhouse, some corpses, and a lot of rats. Rats themselves aren't a very cinematic monster, like sharks or giant spiders, and the only way they really 'attack' the bikers is by scooping themselves into a box and convincing an off-camera PA to throw them at the actors, which happens over and over again as the movie continues. It's like that scene from Star Trek where piles of Tribbles landed on Kirk, and basically just as funny. The rats aren't even particularly scary - it's pretty easy at any given moment for the characters to run past them, or brush them away, but in the universe of this movie, it's par for the course to have eight or ten rats jump on you and then for the leader of your clan to decide the best way to help is to give you a blast from his flame-thrower. I mean, these people are so uncivilized, they have sex in front of each other, revealed after a curious, unexplained sound cue.The movie rubs its cast out one-by-one (deaths by flame-thrower, grenade, suicide, falling drunk down an open manhole, and being eaten by rats) until the only ones left are the ones with the futuristic names 'Video' and 'Chocolate' (yes, the movie's lone black character). They seem to be rescued by mysterious strangers in hazmat suits, and Video and Chocolate effusively thank them for being their new best friends, just in time for the lead hazmat guy to remove his mask to uncover a human-sized rat face underneath. Now this isn't a surprise in any way - in fact, the big surprise would have been if it was something else - but damn if there still isn't something creepy and uncanny about the intelligent eyes of a human staring out with malice from underneath a furry, pointed face. It's because of sporadic moments like this that the full 96 minutes of Rats: Night of Terror was worthwhile to me.

Let me reiterate, this is not 'good' cinema but it did entertain me,and I'll take a piece of engaging schlock like this over a piece of safe, studio-released horror product like this year's Prom Night or last year's The Hitcher - movies made to appeal to the PG-13 set with high production values and no ideas - any day of the week.


Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain, Viagra, and Birth Control

This is old news by now, but I still think it's a pretty remarkable bit of video, especially because it shows John McCain squirming (check out what he does at 0:52, it's hilarious and tragic) in a way that none of the other major political figures out there would do - Obama and Hillary Clinton have been preternaturally composed in the last few months, tears aside, while Mitt Romney and Bush typically maintain a stubborn lunkheadedness in the face of conflicting ideas in their minds. Really, what this does is make me feel sorry for John McCain - I think he's a genuinely good guy who just happens to be on the wrong side of most of the issues out there, but he's also not a traditional politician, which is both how he got his 'maverick' reputation and his popularity and why he's probably going to fizzle out in the next few months.

Anything else?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

I love and admire Werner Herzog - he can kind of do anything. Given the opportunity to make a film about Antarctica, he set off without any particular person or place to document and had three weeks to come back with enough footage to make into a finished film, and sure enough, he did it. The secret is, he knows what kinds of questions to ask, what kind of oddities to explore, and most importantly, how to be open to what's around him.

For example, when interviewing a rather taciturn penguin expert (and obviously irritated at having to shoot footage of penguins in the first place) Herzog asks if penguins can be gay; a few minutes later, he asks if they can be insane or deranged after having to live within penguin society. We then see, amid the packs of penguins dutifully walking to their feeding ground, one lone penguin seemingly driven by perversity to start walking into the center of the continent, towards mountains miles and miles away, far from any food or water. The penguin is heading, implacably, towards its own death and the scientists inform Herzog that if they were to pick up the penguin and try to redirect it, it would just turn around again on its original heading. The juxtaposition of images - cuddly, awkward creature and immense continent of doom - is amazing, and something you only can find when you know what to look for as a filmmaker, and are interested in peeling off the usual layer of eco-sentimentality from the science documentary genre.

This isn't to say that it's a revisionist documentary, as we still get lots of staggeringly beautiful landscapes of Antarctica's icebergs, volcanoes, and (best of all) underwater realms, resembling an alien planet. Herzog combines his interest in these kind of huge, oceanic vistas with his interest in eccentric human behavior, and he finds plenty of that as well, as McMurdo Station is apparently one of the key collection points for inspired dreamers and weirdoes in the world. Ironically even Herzog finds his fill of globe-trotting eccentrics and their stories, as one woman, telling her life story, gets the dry voiceover commentary, "Her story goes on forever."

Ultimately Herzog's project isn't about the crazy people in a research station or the pretty landscapes, but about the two together, the figure in the landscape, from a distanced perspective - he asks the question if humankind will be able to survive itself and its own insistence on heading towards destruction, not with melodrama or hope, but just as a question of fact, yes or no, and whatever conclusions we draw - and what emotions we feel - are ours alone.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Raw Meat (1972)

Since I'm currently unemployed, in theory you can look forward to more reviews of stuff that I've accumulated on DVD as I plow through titles I already own. So in that spirit, I rewatched the 1972 British horror movie Raw Meat, also known as Death Line. The 'Death Line' referred to is whatever subway line runs through the Russell Square underground station in London, where an upperclass twit, after a long day of perusing strip clubs and porn shops, is attacked by an unseen brute in the movie's opening sequence.

It turns out that the 'monster' of the movie is the last remnant of an underground mini-society of Brits trapped underground after a cave-in eighty years earlier while digging the subway lines; as such he's a vitamin-deficient cannibal whose only grasp of English is the phrase "Mind the Doors!" in one of the movie's best bits of truly bitter black comedy.

This underground dweller is a classic example of one of the most interesting themes in horror, the 'return of the repressed', those elements of the past, supressed through time or societal ignorance, that come back to plague the innocent and the not-so-innocent alike. This is a horror movie with a conscience, one that is ultimately as much tragedy as anything else as we're made to sympathize with the plight of this most piteous brute, consigned to a living hell. The scope of his hellish existence is conveyed to us in one masterful long, uncut tracking shot that pans through the clammy underground rooms he and his fellow subterraneans have lived in for decades, killing the occasional surface-dweller when food ran short. It's a masterful stroke in an otherwise small-scale movie.

The movie's other masterful stroke was in hiring Donald Pleasence as the police inspector looking into all the mysterious deaths around this one subway stop, and in obviously letting Pleasence cut loose with a juicy performance that's one of his best. He's a surly, working-class detective with a quick retort handy at any moment, a healthy contempt for the powers that be, and little respect for the two hippie-ish youngsters who get enmeshed in the case. These two, a pair of longhairs stuck in the movie as its juvenile leads, drag the movie back down into conventionality. Aside from them, however, the movie is a well-made, nasty little piece of work worth the time if you're a fan of the genre. Better than C.H.U.D., in other words.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The New Yorker Cover

I hope to have at least something movie-related up here before too long again, but first I wanted to point out this tidbit.

I'll make the modest proposal that this controversial New Yorker cover is obviously a piece of satire, in the grand tradition of satire that works through subtle exagerration, in this case, taking every element of innuendo and rumor-mongering build up in the media over the last few months and mashing them together into a single cluster-f*&@ of an image. So on that level it's kind of brilliant, because it shows how stupid the 'terrorist fist jab' and everything else is.

At the same time, the mistake the New Yorker made was over-subtlety (the problem with 54.3% of all satire) in that most people, including the traditional 'humorless liberals', didn't get it. If the art had been a little less droll and whimsical, perhaps the intention would have been easier to make out, but that's the way the NYer rolls.

What's most interesting to me, though, is that this helps to illustrate that, sadly enough, a huge amount of the population of White America, even after all these years, still doesn't really believe, deep down, that non-White people are really Americans. It's not really an overt thing, but the buildup of each of these things - the 'flag pin' debate, the continued perception that Obama is a secret Muslim, etc. are the symptoms of the psychological resistance that people still have to the idea that a black guy whose middle name is Hussein is a leading contender to become President of the United States, and why the GOP is keeping these very subtle memes alive, to exacerbate the idea that he's not one of us. Which is why I salute the New Yorker for getting it all out into the open, in a way that hopefully will stimulate a little more national debate.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Get Smart (2008) & You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008)

First, apologies (to anyone out there who cares) about the lack of posts lately, the holidays and my impending unemployment ($&#*^ing freelance job) have kept me out of it. So here's a couple of easy ones.

Get Smart is pretty much a waste of time, with lame direction from Peter Segal (the guy who gave us Tommy Boy), a lazy screenplay, and cruddy digital cinematography. The only things it has going for it (and not coincidentally, the main reason I saw it) are the performances from its leading actors. And even though Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, and Alan Arkin aren't given much to work with, they earn their massive paychecks, squeezing every possible chuckle and emotional moment from their desiccated material. Carell is especially good as the nerdy, quasi-idiot savant Maxwell Smart. But this is probably giving too much credit to an unnecessary TV adaptation that isn't very good anyway.

On the other hand, I enjoyed You Don't Mess With the Zohan a lot more than I expected to, more than any other Sandler comedy since Little Nicky (yes, really). One thing I especially liked about it was its good-natured open-heartedness on an insanely touchy subject - this is a movie that suggests that a Palestinian master terrorist (John Turturro) might not be such a bad guy, and can even join forces as the hero's sidekick in foiling a nefarious conspiracy plot from an alliance of American capitalists and rednecks. Think about that - a mainstream Hollywood movie with a budget of something like $90 million dollars predicated on showing that businessmen and hicks are bigger bad guys than Palestinian terrorists. It's a more extreme position than the one taken by Spielberg in Munich, which was pretty widely attacked as "defeatist" and "morally relativist" - which is to illustrate the amazing and subversive power of comedy, to slip under the radar and present ideas without people realizing.

I don't want to say that Zohan is as rich or complex as Munich because after all, it's still an Adam Sandler movie, and its ideological ideas are simplistic and based on stereotypes. Fortunately the movie doesn't really need to be rich or complex as long as it delivers as a comedy, which it does - it's often a breathtakingly silly movie, with scenes of cats being used as hacky sacks, Lainie Kazan in a sex scene, and hummus everywhere. The Israeli superspy Zohan Dvir is Sandler's best comedic creation since Canteen Boy, a Sabra goof with supreme confidence and a ridiculous accent, yet not a trace of condesension (I can't honestly say the same for Rob Schneider's brownface Arab cab driver). Sandler's movies have been open-minded and inclusive for a long time, to gays (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), imprisoned convicts (The Longest Yard), and weirdoes in general, and I'm glad to see him broadening his approach to include the Arab-Israeli conflict as well.

The movie's signature scene: a group of New York Jews and Arabs confront each other about politics until the conversation devolves into which First Lady they all find more sexually attractive - and if Rob Schneider hadn't already made The Hot Chick I'd suggest that Sandler just needs to cross women off his list of groups next.

Get Smart: 4/10
You Don't Mess With the Zohan: 7/10