Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Early December Review or something

Okay, it's been a while and once again I've been reminded that people actually read this blog so here are a few thoughts on the new movies I've watched in the last month or so.

First, real quick, I could use some suggestions on the design and color scheme - I went black for October because black is spooky, but in general? This gray isn't cutting it. I think I want to migrate the whole thing over to Wordpress anyway (any tips on that from anyone?) Anyway:

Big Fan: I saw this as a New Beverly double feature with The Wrestler, as both were written by Robert Siegel (who was also, weirdly, former editor-in-chief at The Onion). The double feature was useful in illustrating the contrast between the two movies, and why Big Fan, entertaining and well-acted as it was, kind of fell short: Both movies are about New Jersey losers who are associated with professional sports, but whereas The Wrestler left me touched and emotionally invested in the characters, Big Fan was made by a filmmaker who, ultimately, condescended to them - The Wrestler has its share of jokes at the expense of the sad-sacks in the lower rungs of the professional wrestling world, but this was tempered by genuine pathos and sympathy. Big Fan is basically all snark, all the time, tempered only by Patton Oswalt's genuine and sincere performance. 6/10.

2012: For reasons I don't quite understand, I've pretty much loved the previous movies in Roland Emmerich's apocalypse triptych (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) while hating everything else he's ever done (Stargate, The Patriot, 10000 BC). So I was planning to enjoy this movie too, which only a retarded fanboy would do, right? Anyway, as it turns out, the movie itself is pretty lame, with one major exception: the much-trailered sequence of John Cusack and co. driving around through Los Angeles in the midst of a superdeluxe earthquake pretty much rocked my socks off. What's wrong with me, that I should be so radically energized by the spectacle of literally thousands of people being crushed and whatnot? I don't know. But I have to admit that I find this sequence thrilling. 4/10

An Education: There's a certain class of movie that I've gotten used to, over the years, as the high-class snoozer - the kind of highly-regarded movie where you pretty much know, ten minutes in, what's going to happen by the end of the movie, so if you doze off for a few minutes here and there, it's pretty easy to pick up on what's happening. So since it was BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that Peter Sarsgaard was going to turn out to be a pseudo-pedophiliac cad and leave Carey Mulligan high and dry from his first (very creepy) scene in the movie.

Anyway, this movie isn't that bad, but the performances and direction are a lot better than the story itself, which is fairly mundane. 7/10

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: This one is interesting to me because it illustrates (like Transformers 2) that despite what all the screenwriting gurus say, audiences don't really care about story, because neither of those two movies really had 'stories' per se as much as they have compilations of scenes delivering what audiences want to see: CGI spectacle in one case, really good actors in scenes of heightened misery in the other. "Academy Award nominee Mo'Nique" seems to be inevitable.

As for the rest of the movie, even though Lee Daniels is obviously great with actors, he doesn't know much about storytelling or visuals and doesn't seem to have much of a vision beyond 'get all this awful drama up on the screen' which limits how impactful the movie can be to some degree. Anyway, not bad. 7/10

Fantastic Mr. Fox: If only Wes Anderson could have found a way to blend his unique style with something more family-friendly, this terrific movie wouldn't have flopped. Because it's basically just like every other Wes Anderson movie - ironic, formal, oblique, fetishistically detailed - but with puppets instead of live actors. Anyway, I very much enjoyed it as the latest entry into his world of upper-class world-weary whimsy. 8/10

Where the Wild Things Are: On the other hand, this one has a lot going for it (amazing performances, production design, creature effects, cinematography) but the story just totally fell flat for me. A big part was that I didn't connect to the kid - I was never a 'pretend to be wild animals and throw tantrums' kid, I was a 'sit quietly in the corner reading a book' kid, and never understood the other kind of kids. But beyond that, the story of this movie felt like an over-obvious pseudo-Freudian allegory for me. As soon as I saw the lead wild thing tearing shit up in Monster Village while the other monsters wonder how to deal with him, I got it. We all got it. 6/10

Swear Words in the Irish Parliament

The swearing is pretty good, but the fact that the swearer is a member of Parliament who nonetheless looks like he just wandered in off the Dublin streets after a relaxing pint? Even better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Object: Urim and Thummim (2007)

This was an interesting documentary that played at the Silent Theater a couple of weeks ago. Basically, it's the story of Todd Walker, a down-on-his-luck Kentuckian who strolled into a Goodwill one day, bought an odd-looking object that struck his eye for $0.69, went home, stared at it for a few hours (like you do) and realized that he was having visions of demons and pyramids and whatnot. A little research later, and Mr. Walker is convinced that he's the new owner of the Urim and Thummim, Biblical artifacts associated with wisdom and divination (and which the Mormon church also claims were used by Joseph Smith to write the Book of Mormon).

In the film Walker proceeds to explain how he's shown the object to various friends and local acquaintances and that several of them have experienced visions as well, and he proceeds to bring the item to a number of local scientists and religious scholars, even though he's aware that the whole idea makes him sound like a lunatic.

The strongest sense that you get from watching The Object is that Todd Walker is utterly sincere: he believes that he's in possession of a holy relic, no doubt about it. The odd thing is, now that Walker is in possession of this item, he doesn't really seem to know what to do with it. One would expect someone experiencing visions to have some kind of goal or endgame in mind - after all, that's what happened with Moses, St. Paul, Constantine, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy: have a vision, found a movement, instigate social or political change. But Todd Walker seems baffled by his own visions, uncertain of anything beyond their basic existence. (Which suggests to me that you need to have two things if you want to start a religion: visions from on high, and a goal-oriented Type A personality - who knows how many messages from God have foundered because their recipients were befuddled by them?)

As for the object itself, which basically looks like a sort of squashed incense burner, it's just old and mysterious-looking enough that I can see why one might jump to conclusions about it, even though it doesn't seem to fit the requirements to be the Biblical Urim and Thummim (it's just one item, for starters, not two). Walker keeps it in a bag near him at all times, apparently, and a showing was arranged for after the Silent Theater's screening but I didn't go to take a look at it - there didn't seem to be much need, especially after Walker and his friends insisted that most visions didn't come until hours of peering into its depths.

As a story, The Object is fascinating. As a film, it made me wonder what Werner Herzog or (even better) Errol Morris could have done with the subject matter. Co-director Jacob Young said he has a motto for his filmmaking: "Make a friend, then make a film." That sounds like good advice for getting through life as a filmmaker in a smooth, uncontroversial manner, but it also sounds like a good way to make films that never investigate deeply - I imagine Errol Morris, with his detached, Interrotron-eye view of the world, doesn't make a lot of friends with his subjects, but he has made a handful of masterpieces. Either way, I applaud the filmmakers of The Object for bringing this unusual, very American story to light, and with a refusal to mock or condescend to their subject.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Uninvited (1988) Trailer

Okay, bear with me - today is the birthday of character actor Clu Gulager, who I don't actually know, but have seen many times at the New Beverly Theater where he's a regular. He seems to be a great guy, and he was in a lot of movies, of which this - Uninvited - is perhaps my favorite. It's about a genetically engineered cat that, when angry, launches another, smaller, evil radioactive cat out of its mouth that proceeds to kill people. So this blog posting is in honor of him.

And yeah, I intend to have some real content up here again soon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th Part 2 Trailer

If I had been born about ten or fifteen years earlier, I'd probably hate the entire Friday the 13th series as much as I hate the Saw series - a bunch of pointlessly identical misanthropic cash cows. But since I've only seen them all on home video with a respectable distance, they're basically all '80s kitsch, which means that I kind of like some of them - and I like Part 2 the best of all. Happy Friday.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

This one is going to split viewers - or at least, the small number of viewers who get to see it since it's basically been dumped by the studio.

In each of his three movies, Jared Hess has walked the fine line between making fun of his oddball characters (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) and empathizing with them and their unusual plights. Many have seen these movies as essentially mean-spirited and exploitative, making fun of these weirdos. Personally, I see Hess as being on the side of the dreamers and outcasts, but also recognizing that comedy comes from pain, and the most acute pain comes from social ostracism. And in each of his movies, Hess has balanced the pain with triumph - Napoleon wows his high schoolmates with his dance performance, Nacho wins the wrestling match, and in this movie Benjamin Purvis finds a way to make his loved ones' dreams come true. These are sweet, gentle-hearted movies that also happen to have a piercing eye for the absurd and aren't afraid of the occasional poop joke.

Anyway, Gentlemen Broncos, which sounds like it could involve gay cowboys eating pudding, is the story of Ben Purvis, a teenage sci-fi writer whose dreams run into two obstacles - absurdly pompous author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, featuring the greatest accent on Earth) and a pair of low-budget teenage filmmakers who bastardize Ben's already bizarre story, which involves genital hazards and flying deer that fire missiles and yeast - it's all a bit hard to describe. Suffice to say that for me, Gentlemen Broncos was delightful, and if you don't want to see Sam Rockwell launching himself into the sky through the power of flatulence or Jemaine Clement ponderously explaining how sci-fi names can always be improved through the addition of '-onious' or '-anous', then I don't know what else to tell you. And Mike White as a longhaired creep with an ill snake? And Halley Feiffer getting a hand massage with too much lotion? Freakazoid bliss.

Hess's visual style has been compared to that of Wes Anderson, with an emphasis on centered framings and odd tangential details, but I realized in this movie that the two filmmakers are interested in radically different themes - Hess focusses on people in marginalized, out-of-the-way places, whereas Anderson focusses on people in the most chic and stylish places (who nonetheless are broken and lonely as well). And don't get me wrong, I love Anderson's films, but I absolutely find a huge amount of value in Jared Hess's resolutely anti-glamorous films as well.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Offerings (1989)

Sometimes it's the little things that stick out in a movie. Offerings is a pretty undistinguished Halloween ripoff from 1989 (way to jump on that slasher bandwagon in a timely way, guys!) and made in Oklahoma. It slavishly follows the Halloween template - weird kid gets locked up, comes back years later to kill a batch of teenagers, there's an expert who tries to track him down, etc. This killer, John Radley, leaves the occasional gift for the final girl, who was his only friend back when he was just a weird kid - an ear on the porch, a nose in a newspaper, and so on. One night all of the teens are watching TV and waiting for a pizza, and when the pizza finally arrives, it's just sitting on the front porch with no deliveryman in sight, and it's not just cheese like they ordered - both pizzas are now sausage pizzas - OR ARE THEY? As one teen says, "It doesn't taste like sausage but it's good."

Of course, later on the sheriff analyzes the pizza (?) and the lab results come back and the kids were all eating human sausage, reinforcing the horror-movie trope that when people eat human flesh and don't know it, it's DELICIOUS.

But here's the thing - I can understand how a killer could carve a fillet or a rough steak out of a human victim, maybe even grind up the meat into human hamburger. But sausage? So John Radley killed somebody, butchered some meat off their body, ground it up, seasoned it, filled it into a casing, cooked it, and then waited around for the teens to order a pizza for his savory cannibalistic topping? It's a weird little detail that obviously none of the filmmakers thought about very hard, and this scenario I invented is actually more amusing than the movie itself - but I wouldn't have invented this scenario without watching Offerings, so thanks to the filmmakers for that.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Review

Okay, so being unemployed for 3 weeks out of the month allowed me to watch a total of 38 horror movies, old and new, seen-before and never-seen-before. Yes, that disturbs and alarms me as well. Anyway, here's how they stacked up:

Canvas of Blood (1997)
Mind, Body & Soul (1992)
Danger on Tiki Island (1968)
Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996)

Superstition (1982)
The Horror Show (1989)
Final Exam (1981)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Abby (1974)
Tormented (1960)
Night of the Demon (1980)

Trick 'r Treat (2009)
The Burning (1981)
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
Zombieland (2009)
Graduation Day (1981)
Dr. Giggles (1992)
Blacula (1972)
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
The Man from Deep River (1972)
Shakma (1990)
How to Make a Monster (1958)

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Dog Soldiers (2002)
The House by the Cemetery (1981)
Fight For Your Life (1977)
Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Phantasm (1979)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
J.D.'s Revenge (1976)
Dr. Cyclops (1940)
Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)

This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Black Sabbath (1963)
The Exorcist (1973)
Curse of the Demon (1957)
Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Yeesh. Time to see some art movies or something.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ruby (1977)

Okay, I haven't actually seen this movie, but I stumbled upon this trailer and isn't it kind of craptacularly awesome?

An Exorcist ripoff with Piper Laurie riding the success of her character from Carrie and featuring all manner of wind-machine hauntings, wheelchair flops, Lesbian romances (?!) and underwater skeletonfights? Yes please.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ghostbusters (1984)

Typically, a big budget is considered to be the best way to ruin a comedy - Evan Almighty, Land of the Lost, name your own. Ghostbusters is a rarity, a movie that ambitiously seeks to be a whole bunch of different things - raucous comedy, horror film, tentpole adventure movie - and does them all well.

One of the reasons why the movie succeeds so well, for me, is that it clearly takes place in a real world. Even though the movie brings the audience into a world populated not just by ghosts, but ultimately by elder gods out of something written by H.P. Lovecraft, the filmmakers slowly and carefully introduce the different fantastical elements to draw the audience into the fantasy. The production design and cinematography have more in common with the gritty , high-contrast look of a 1970s movie than with the more plastic, shiny tentpole movies that Hollywood would put out later in the decade and up to the preent - basically, the look of this movie is a lot closer to Dog Day Afternoon than Men in Black. So when the Staypuft Marshmallow Man arrives at the movie's climax, it's both ridiculous, but totally embedded into the world of the movie.

As the release of Paranormal Activity shows, spooky things are scarier when they happen in the context of a normal, naturalistic setting. Now, I wouldn't say that Slimer or the other ghosts in this movie are scary for me nowadays, but when I first saw this in theaters at the age of seven, the Library Lady and the Taxi-Driving Ghoul were enough to freak my shit out. And I think it's in no small part because of the naturalistic way the movie presents them.

Of course, this naturalistic production design and cinematography are primarily at the service of letting the comic actors do their thing, and the bulk of the movie is about giving Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and all the rest weird situations in which to play. Good actors given unusual things to do - what else does a movie need?

In recent times some have found a Reagan '80s pro-business, anti-government regulation subtext in the movie, with the small businessmen of the Ghostbusters contending with the petty bureaucrat played by William Atherton (the go-to slimeball character actor for about a decade). There's a little bit of validity to this argument, but I'd say that primarily the attitude of Ghostbusters is more in the classic American tradition of refusing to kowtow to authority of any kind, be it a government pencil-pusher or a forgotten deity. If the Marx Brothers had ever made a ghost movie, it would probably look something like this.

More than anything, though, this is the Bill Murray show, pretty much refusing to take any given scene seriously, nudging the audience, but never getting obnoxious about it, the way that Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy can be prone to do. Indeed, there's a touch of pathos to Murray's performance, especially in his scenes with Sigourney Weaver, that would later blossom (if that's the right word) in Murray's movies like Groundhog Day and Rushmore.


(Presented as part of the Class of '84 Blog-a-thon hosted by This Distracted Globe.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Well, it's nice to know that the totally misbegotten sequel to a big studio hit has a long tradition behind it. This movie is pretty much a failure on every level except as camp. How does a mega-million-dollar corporation let something like this happen? But if not for bizarre studio choices we wouldn't have Citizen Kane or Inglourious Basterds either, so anyways.

Anyway, while it's a dismal failure as a horror movie, there are some nice redeeming facets. John Boorman is a stronger visual stylist than William Friedkin ever wanted to be, and there are some great images in this movie, from climbing the mountains of Ethiopia to some ridiculous cliff-top monastery to buzzing around on locust-cam (which is awesome) to a weirdly trippy telepathic encounter with the demon Pazuzu in Louise Fletcher's head. And of course, Ennio Morricone does the score, so the movie has that going for it. And John Boorman is definitely more of an outside-the-box thinker than Friedkin or William Peter Blatty, with a more expansive visual and spiritual sense than either of those filmmakers.

But all the visual virtuosity in the world means neither jack nor shit when your story is incomprehensible and dopey. So otherwise, this is the one where Louise Fletcher has a box with flashing lights that allows people to enter each others' thoughts, where a tired-looking Richard Burton hams it up when he's not sitting motionless (there's a nine-minute scene where Burton just sits and watches other characters do things without saying a line or even having a facial reaction), where Linda Blair finds herelf tap-dancing in the middle of the movie for some reason, and where this happens:

(hat tip to Christian Divine.)

And I still don't know which character is supposed to be The Heretic - Blair? Burton? Von Sydow? Pazuzu? Chief? McCloud?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

J.D.'s Revenge (1976)

This played at the New Beverly Tuesday night in a double bill with Blacula, and even though I hadn't heard of this movie before, I think it was the more entertaining of the two. It's a pretty simple set-up: nice guy Glynn Turman gets put into a trance by a Bourbon Street hypnotist and then gets possessed (as will happen) by the ghost of vengeful 1940s gangster J.D. Walker.

The trailer makes it look a lot sillier than it plays in the actual movie - director Arthur Marks allows the possession to sink in gradually over time (just as William Friedkin did in The Exorcist) so the audience isn't plunged too quickly into ludicrosity and zoot suits.

Ultimately, the movie is less about a spooky ghost story than it is about Glynn Turman biting deep into a double role and chewing hard. I can't think of many performances where it's so obvious that the actor is truly relishing the over-the-topness of their character, and Turman's joy in his performance as the totally unrestrained pimptastic J.D. is infectious. His outdated hairdo, not so much, but when he starts going all razor-happy and slashing the husbands of random women he just had sex with? The New Beverly audience ate that up.

Ultimately, J.D.'s Revenge doesn't take its premise very far, just deep enough to be a satisfying b-movie. With a little more effort and psychological character development, this could have been a classic.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Exorcist (1973)

Speaking of movies with backlashes, here's another one, although the backlash against this movie is less about commercial hype than it is about political correctness, so let's get this out of the way: yes, The Exorcist is ultimately a movie with a regressive attitude towards gender roles (two priests must do battle against an unruly female) and towards morality (stark medieval good vs. evil).

All that said, The Exorcist still stands for me as one of the all-time great horror movies, simply on the basis of its ability to create tension and scares and on the basis of sheer storytelling. There's hardly a wasted second in William Friedkin's original cut, with a relentless build towards the final showdown between Max Von Sydow and the demon inhabiting Linda Blair; indeed, this movie is a good example of how a focussed, energetic director's work can transcend a mediocre screenplay - just look at the opening sequence, which introduces Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, a character who will then disappear until the last half hour of the movie. It's a sequence loaded with an overpowering, foreboding mood, but with virtually zero narrative connection, either to the rest of the movie, or really, within itself. But because Friedkin knows what he's doing, the mood and editing propulsiveness carry us through this sequence and into the main body of the movie.

And the performances are almost uniformly great; We all know that Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn are great actors, but where did Jason Miller come from and why wasn't he in more films? And Linda Blair's performance, natural and easy-going as a normal girl, genuinely diabolical when possessed, is easy to attribute to special effects, but has to be seen as one of the best performances by a teenager, ever.

I need to add, however, that the version I watched on Friday night wasn't Friedkin's original director's cut, but the 2000 'special edition' which is basically William Peter Blatty's preferred Producer's Cut, which adds in a bunch of redundantly superimposed demon faces and a dumb 'happy ending' scene at the very end of the movie, among other details. Now, I think William Friedkin has about as much interest in convincing his audience of the existence of demons as Sam Raimi did in Drag Me to Hell; Friedkin's career shows that he's more interested in telling stories for the sake of telling stories. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Blatty actually believed in his own shaggy dog tale, since pretty much every choice in his cut of the movie makes it more strained and pretentious.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2009)

When you have a horror movie without stars in it and without a standard premise for a marketing hook, it becomes necessary to market it as "The Scariest Movie of All Time". And then when when people go to see it and it's a perfectly respectable scary movie, but not so scary that everybody watching it has their eyeballs explode in terror and the ushers all quit because the seats are covered in the aftermath of everybody shitting their pants, then a pretty standard backlash ensues. It happened with The Blair Witch Project, and it's happening again now with Paranormal Activity. And it's dumb and pointless.

Yes, Paranormal Activity is another ultra-low-budget, shot-on-home-video film with semi-professional actors, just like Blair Witch, with a tiny scope and scares built up more out of suggestion and mood than anything else. And like Blair Witch, it works. Director Oren Peli slowly and carefully crafts a mood of discomfort in what is supposed to be the most comfortable place of all - the modern middle-class suburban home - and proceeds to demolish any sense of safety through prudent use of sound effects and a smart use of visual space. On its face, a movie like this seems simplistic, but when you look at some of the failures in the genre over the last ten years - Blair Witch 2, Quarantine and, worst of all, Cloverfield (I still haven't seen Rec) - you realize that crafting a mood through camerawork and sound design isn't quite so easy after all. And mood is where a movie like Paranormal Activity lives and dies. And in this case, to this particular movie-goer, it was a success.

Granted, it's a small-scale movie with characters who aren't fully-inhabited literary characters, a la the characters in, say, The Innocents or The Haunting. Nor, however, do they need to be. But they are unique individuals, brought to life by solid (if unspectacular) performances, and rounded out by a dash of subtextual conflict - this is as much a movie about dealing with a douchebag boyfriend as it is about a vengeful demon, and the conflict between the characters is just as important as the conflict with their invisible tormentor (and in some ways, it's the same conflict).

One last note: the ending, which was apparently added well after the movie screened at festivals in 2007 and 2008, is a little dopey. It's appropriately big and climactic, yes, but it's also kind of a lame Hollywood wink at the audience. But I guess it's hard to argue with Steven Spielberg when he's giving notes.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pieces (1982)

This scene is pretty much all you need to know about the partially-Spanish-made 1982 slasher Pieces - a college coed has just been murdered, chainsaw-style, in a locker room, and Lynda Day George here has discovered the body.

What I especially like about this moment is the total bewilderment the other actor has on his face - how is he supposed to react to this insane bit of performance? I'm just surprised he isn't cracking up.

Hopefully without sounding pretentious, Pieces is the ne plus ultra of the cheesy '80s slasher movie, a ludicrously-written, horribly-performed, completely gratuitous piece of trash exploitation that is nonetheless totally delightful. It's a movie that opens with a pre-teen murdering his mother with an axe, and ends with (spoiler alert!) a corpse squeezing a guy's crotch from beyond the grave. It's also a movie where this happens:

"My kung fu professor". God bless the schlockmeisters.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Final Exam (1981)

Ugh, save me from the '80s slasher movie where NOTHING HAPPENS. There's a reason why there were so many Halloween ripoffs in the early '80s: they were cheap to make. All you needed was a small cast of unknown actors, a few simple locations (a house or two, a college gym, a summer camp) and a decent special effects guy with some gore experience. Put it all together and you have a huge rate of return - the first Friday the 13th cost less than $1 million, and grossed more than $30 million.

So how can you find an even higher rate of return? Cut your costs so that your entire movie consists of young actors chattering in nondescript locations, with no extravagant gore beyond a stabbing or two. So in that respect, a completely bland, generic slasher movie like Final Exam actually has more in common with a Mumblecore movie, except less pretentiousness and (thankfully) more murders.

Final Exam is set on a thinly-populated college campus right at the end of a semester. There are maybe a dozen kids around, and they all talk about how they need to pass their exams and how they're in love with each other and yadda yadda. There's a nerdy guy who manages the football team (read: he accounts for the equipment) and another guy rushing for his fraternity who winds up tied to a tree and covered in whipped cream. And that's ALL that happens from between the initial pair of deaths (5 min. in, making out in a convertible) to the next death scene (55 min. in, tied to a tree). Okay, add in the bizarre frat prank in which a bunch of guys launch a paramilitary terrorist attack on the campus and kill a dozen students - just kidding? (That actually happens, but nobody cares much). Now, if you're a good enough screenwriter, you can develop characters in such a way that the audience doesn't care that there's nothing particularly interesting happening on-screen - but even the Scream movies were smart enough to pepper in a death scene at least every 20 minutes or so.

It doesn't help that Final Exam's killer is totally nondescript - lacking in motivation and even in any kind of cool iconography, he's basically just a middle-aged dude in slacks and a khaki shirt out to kill coeds. Like, give me someone I can't find in real life, already, jeeze.

I'd like to give the movie credit for the couple of minor thrills and laughs that I got out of it, or the six seconds of nudity it contains, but there aren't enough to write home about. Just a bland, generic '80s slasher, lost to time.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

The New Beverly All-Night Horrorthon 2009

God, I love the New Beverly, LA's grungiest non-porn repertory theater. This year, as last year, they showed an all-night horror movie marathon in the lead-up to Halloween and I was there, here's the quick rundown:

Dog Soldiers (2002): I had seen Neil Marshall's directorial debut before on DVD; on a second viewing it's still a pretty kickass action/horror hybrid, but at the same time some of Marshall's inexperience felt more prominent, along with the screenplay's seams. Either way, still a fun, smart little movie. 7/10

The Burning (1981): This should be the title for a horror movie about a skin disease, but it's actually a Friday the 13th clone produced by Harvey Weinstein, and like a lot of other movies from very early in the slasher era, it actually has its own identity and some strong moments. Still, not much to write home about, beyond the presence of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and (somewhere in there) Holly Hunter. 6/10

The House by the Cemetery (1981): This was when things really kicked in for me because of my love for the films of Lucio Fulci, the weirdest and least rational Italian horror filmmaker of the era. Like all of his movies, this one is loaded full of bizarre images only connected by fleeting dream-logic: mannequins losing their heads and bleeding, little girls appearing out of nowhere to give cryptic warnings, monsters that bleed maggots. Good stuff! The former owner of the titular house was a - get this - Dr. Freudstein. 7/10

At this point, the organizers showed three Tales from the Crypt episodes, and while they were fun, I think it would have made more sense to just show a single episode as a palate-cleanser. Three in a row was a bit much.

Superstition (1982): Probably the weakest movie of the night, and one that didn't actually involve 'superstition' per se but rather the vengeful spirit of a witch haunting a house and causing peoples' heads to wind up in microwaves and saw blades to fly across the room and kill people. I nodded off during the second half of this rather slow-moving movie and missed some of the explanatory stuff, but I don't think I missed much. 4/10

Fight For Your Life (1977): I had also seen this one before at the New Bev, basically a Last House on the Left variant with a vicious white racist (William Sanderson, in a great performance) holding an African-American family hostage and spewing the most amazingly awful torrent of hate-speech at them for an hour and a half. Of course it all ends with the family rising up and striking back at their oppressor. I wonder if, at the New Beverly, there was a single African-American person watching it last night or if it was all complacent white hipsters like myself. 7/10

Galaxy of Terror (1981): Probably not the best idea to put another very slow movie at the very end of the night, and this Alien-ripoff is pretty incomprehensible, but it still has Sid Haig chopping off one of his own arms, Grace Zabriskie captaining a spaceship and somehow ending up barbequed, and an attractive blonde actress basically getting raped and killed by a gigantic maggot. When you can't really tell if what you're watching is actually on the screen or just a product of your own movie-addled mind, you've had a good night. 6/10

Overall, a very fun night, although I wish that the programmers would range out a little further - a slew of '70s-'80s grindhouse movies is fine, but I'd love it if they could mix it up with maybe some '50s Hammer or something modern from France or Japan or maybe something more mainstream and classic in there - tossing in a John Carpenter or Wes Craven film alongside the no-name slashers. Anyway, 52 weeks to Horrorthon 2010!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964) & This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)

As far as I can tell, Jose Mojica Marins basically pioneered the Latin American horror movie at about the same time that the British, Italians, and Japanese were all launching into the worldwide exploitation market. And like most of those movies, JMM's work is raw, pulpy, and an expression of raw id. Marins' alter-ego, Coffin Joe, is basically the world's worst undertaker, with an ego of colossal, Nietzche-esque proportions and a worldview somewhere between Hitler and Ayn Rand on the subject of the need to extend his bloodline by murdering whatever subhumans will get in his way.

Some critics have had a problem with the politics of Marins' films, and it's not hard to see why, since Coffin Joe (more technically, 'Ze de Caixao') is pretty much the only character in either of the two Marins movies that I've seen, with everybody else basically just showing up to cringe at or be enraged by Coffin Joe's antics.

Yesterday night the Silent Theater showed Marins' first two Coffin Joe pictures. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is a fairly modest c-level production elevated, more than anything, by Marins' performance as Joe and his own ability to create mood. The plot is pretty flimsy - Joe wants women to bear him children, and kills a few people when they become obstacles - but it all works with a surprising degree of mood and gore, not to mention some blasphemy; the opening scenes take place on a Friday, and Joe rants about wanting to eat meat, and proceeds to blatantly chew on a leg of lamb while watching the local villagers in a religious procession outside his window, chuckling the whole time.

At Midnight was just the dress rehearsal for This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, a bigger, more violent, more outrageous sequel. Coffin Joe, brought back to life after the events of the previous movie by a retcon line of dialogue, is more intent on ever on his goal of creating a master race with the perfect woman, and basically kidnaps and auditions a group of young ladies for the job. If there's such a thing as tarantula-porn, this movie is it, with spiders crawling all over a gaggle of young women in nighties.

The high point of the movie, though, is a sequence in which Joe find himself transported to Hell, witnessing the torments of the damned in gory full-color. It's a crazy sequence, but it's marred by venturing out of the black and white mood created up to that point - seeing all the crappy papier-mache sets in full color causes them to lose a lot of their charm.

(I have more to say on these films but right now I've gotta go to the New Beverly's 12-hour horrorthon. Until later.)

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul: 6/10
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse: 7/10

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Broadview Security

Anyone who watches enough basic cable has seen these ads, and I want to congratulate the fine people at Broadview Security for inventing a new subgenre: Fear Porn. Without the services of Broadview Security, you too will be the victim of a brazen daylight attack!

Basically, I think these things are terrible, blatantly exploiting peoples' (specifically women's) fears through slick filmmaking, and I hope the commercial-makers themselves were holding their noses when they cashed their checks.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Entity (1982)

This one played at the New Beverly about a month ago and I didn't know anything about it except that the premise involves Barbara Hershey getting raped by a ghost. Obviously this was a can't miss premise in the post-Exorcist era even if it sounds utterly ridiculous now. And sure enough, that's what happens, about five times during the course of the movie, each time accompanied by the most awesomely tasteless, throbbing music that you've ever heard in a rape scene in a movie. It's basically loud, insistent porno music, and it returns every time the ghost (or whatever) goes after Hershey.

What's most interesting to me about this movie is that it seems to exhibit cinematic split-personality disorder. On the one hand we have what we see happening to Hershey - she gets slapped and raped by invisible forces, and this is all seen objectively - there's clearly a ghost (or something) attacking her.

At the same time, the movie introduces Ron Silver as her psychiatrist, a sympathetic, rational guy who proceeds to make a very compelling case that Hershey's character is, in fact, nuts - that she's had an unhealthy sex life, that her relationships with men have been unstable, and that the whole thing is a figment of her imagination. This is combined with a number of subtle touches director Sidney J. Furie adds to the movie, constantly bringing in reflections and mirror images (like the above) to suggest that she's doing it to herself - this is all pretty convincing, cinematically, especially given Barbara Hershey's completely committed, nuanced performance...

Except for when the blue lightning bolts attack Hershey's son, or at the end of the movie, when scientists manage to trap and freeze the entity as a giant blob of blue goo. WHUH? I guess the filmmakers thought that making both sides of the debate convincing would be quirky and ambiguous, but...WHUH?

Anyway, Furie's direction is controlled and Hershey gives a very strong performance, so I recommend the movie on those levels, but otherwise it's a lunatic film (which also means I recommend it).


Monday, October 05, 2009

Trick 'r Treat (2009)

It's a strange feeling to be in a theater full of people who are having a different experience than yours. The best example of this feeling in my lifetime was when I went to see Eyes Wide Shut on opening weekend, and when the audience of mainstream movie-goers expecting a Basic Instinct-style erotic thriller actually got a lengthy dream-fugue on sexual morality, the audience's emotional strain (even, distress) was palpable, while I was grinning ear-to-ear at Kubrick's posthumous audacity.

It was a less extreme feeling when I went to see Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat at the New Beverly on Sunday night, but I still had that feeling while the audience was going crazy about the film around me. Really? You guys are really that into this? Let me emphasize, Trick 'r Treat is not a bad movie, and it's clearly a labor of love. But it's not a great movie, and the reaction I was feeling was the reaction to a much better movie than the one I saw.

Trick 'r Treat was written and directed by Michael Dougherty, screenwriter on X2 and Superman Returns, and it's become famous for how long its release has been delayed - originally slated to come out in October 2007, it's only now getting a few token releases in advance of its dump to DVD. Such is Hollywood (and the foul effects of the Saw franchise). And then along the line, it became some kind of cause celebre among the world of horror movie bloggers. And I'm all in favor of movie bloggers championing disrespected movies...but there's still some weird disconnect here.

Trick 'r Treat is an anthology movie, and individual sequences within it are pretty terrific, especially the climactic sequence pitting Brian Cox against 'Sam', an enigmatic trick-or-treater/demon (he's that cute little guy in the picture up top). Well and good, but then other sequences, especially one involving Anna Paquin as a meek Red Riding Hood in search of a man, just fall flat - and Paquin's sequence got the biggest cheers and applause from the New Beverly crowd. Wha happa? Somehow, some crucial element of the the scene passed me by, because what I saw was a confusingly-shot, blandly-written episode with a predictable twist.

In fact, the movie as a whole, in general, suffers from confusing direction and misguided writing. Dougherty made the good decision to try and integrate his episodes into each other (unlike most anthology movies, like Creepshow, which stand separate), but the ways Dougherty chooses to interweave his stories don't really lead to anything. Dylan Baker, as a creepy school principal, is good within his own story, but it doesn't really add anything, or even make sense, for him to pop up within the Anna Paquin story. Brian Cox's presence as a character in two separate stories is established through a totally gratuitous photograph that appears very late in the movie - that's bad screenwriting, from a guy who's made hundreds of thousands as a Hollywood screenwriter. And so on.

Let me reiterate, I loved specific moments within this movie - Brian Cox fighting a junior pumpkinhead is up there with Karen Black vs. the Zuni fetish doll; Dylan Baker's performance is awesome as always; and the storyline involving a busload of special needs kids who die in a bus crash (see above) is nicely creepy and has a great payoff. But the movie as a whole? I hate to be a Halloween grinch, but it's only okay, not amazing, and hardly a modern classic. I really feel bad saying it - I want to encourage people to see this movie, but also not to have too-high expectations.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow creeped me out before I even saw it. This was thanks to the Berni Wrightson graphic novel that came out the same time as the movie, which my Stephen King-loving mother bought and which I gobbled up (it being a lot easier and quicker to read than, say, The Stand). And, at the age of 5, it was my first introduction to the world of the E.C.-style comics that it was homaging, full of lurid love triangles and vengeful zombies and (worst of all) toothy monsters in crates. Thanks the the nightmares the graphic novel gave me, it took me a few years to actually get around to watching the George A. Romero movie.

So imagine my surprise as a pre-teen to discover that what had been nightmare fodder in print had been transmuted into something colorful and funny in film. As a filmmaker, Romero's kind of a point-and-shoot guy, more of a concept man than a true master of form, space, and color, and he has a tendency to moralize in his lesser movies. So the opportunity to make a movie that was all about style and fun and not about making sociological points seems to have loosened him up and given him the freedom to make a movie that actually has a visual style, for pretty much the only time in his career. Granted, it's a visual style largely borrowed from his buddy Dario Argento's films Suspiria and Inferno, but whatever works.

Of course, the quality of the stories varies, with the weakest ("Father's Day") up front, with the most boring characters and worst performances in the whole movie. From that point, things start to click. "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" is basically a one-man show starring screenwriter and non-actor Stephen King, and his performance is broad and ridiculous, but thankfully Romero knows this and pitches the tone of the story around King to make everything fit. King was never going to be up for an Oscar, but at the very least you have to give him credit for fully committing to his role as a dim-witted Maine hick, with more than a few traces of autobiography. This section also functions as the film's highest moment of tragedy, not bad for a story about a guy turning into Swamp Thing.

Episode 3, "Something to Tide You Over", is probably the most successful in the film in capturing that old-fashioned E.C. feeling of dismal deeds and ghastly justice from beyond, plus Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson are both pretty good in it.

But for me, the highlight of the whole movie is "The Crate", in which we're told that Adrienne Barbeau deserves to be eaten by a baboon for committing the sin of being an Obnoxious Drunk. Barbeau is great in this segment, almost certainly the pinnacle of her acting career, and Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook bring their A-games as well (Weaver's incoherent babbling after each monster attack is a highlight of the movie).

Finally, the last segment, "They're Creeping Up On You" is one of the lesser ones, but (as I discovered seeing it at the New Beverly) it plays better on the big screen, where the claustrophobia and ickiness of the bugs can really take hold. E.G. Marshall demonstrates the real way to take a one-man segment and make it work (sorry, Steve King).

Ultimately, as much as I love this movie, I have to admit that the whole thing feels like something of a collection of Tales from the Darkside episodes strung together. Not that that's a bad thing either, but only in certain moments (like "The Crate") does it really take cinematic flight.

Two other tangential notes: It's an amazing thing to watch a horror movie that doesn't feature a single teenager; and Romero's version of how to make a comic-book movie is so much smarter and more appropriate than what Ang Lee tried to do in his Hulk that it's not even funny.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Jennifer's Body (2009)

Lame. There's a lot of untapped potential here in this story literalizing the hell of high school social relations into an actual story of demonic possession, but what ended up on the screen looks like it was about three screenplay drafts away from being ready to shoot - the character relationships are underdeveloped, the structure is clunky, things are set up and then poorly paid off, if at all.

I'll give the filmmakers credit: Diablo Cody's script does have its share of good dialogue and jokes, and the cast does a good job, especially Amanda Seyfried in the lead and Johnny Simmons as her boyfriend (and the rare actor in a teen movie who actually looks like a teenager). Even Megan Fox isn't awful as Jennifer, showing a lot more acting ability than Michael Bay ever bothered to try and get out of her.

The problem is that the movie's emotional connections don't connect; we know that Jennifer, the school's hot slutty bitch, has a strong, co-dependent relationship with Seyfried's geeky character Needy, but the relationship is skin-deep - the movie's idea of investigating these characters is to give them a gratuitous kissing scene. Not that I'm against girls kissing, but Cody's screenplay does such a poor job of building up to it, or tracking the follow-up, that it really serves no useful purpose (beyond the obvious).

On top of all this, Karyn Kusama directs like a first-timer, with no sense of space or mood. But my biggest complaint is the presence of Adam Brody as the lead singer of a band who sell their souls to Satan in exchange for success. Yeah, they're responsible for turning Jennifer into a demon, but their connection to the story is so incredibly poorly managed that they really distract from everything else. Okay, my BIGGEST complaint was the huge number of plot holes, but I could just keep going on forever.

So in conclusion, what Jennifer's Body tells me is that Jason Reitman was the unsung hero in making Juno coherent and emotionally engaging.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Schlocktober Begins: Hausu (1977)

Sweet jeebus, I went the entire month of September without making a single entry here? Dammit. It was a busy, stressful month, a time now relieved by the magic of...(drum roll)...Unemployment!

So here's the deal: I have no job to go to and it's October, so my goal for this month is to actually make a blog post every day. And the best way for me to do that is to set myself a goal: Review a horror movie every day (more or less). It'll be a grab bag of stuff I haven't seen before and stuff I've seen a hundred times before, just whatever I happen to be watching at any given time, so it'll be eclectic. For starters, the insane Japanese horror-fantasy that I saw at the American Cinematheque last week, Hausu (aka House).

The first thing you have to know about Hausu is that one of the credited screenwriters is the director's then-seven-year-old daughter. From that point, the brazenly Oedipal layers of the story make perfect, unironic sense: a teenage girl (named 'Gorgeous' in the version I saw. Other girls are named 'Mac', 'Prof', and oddly for a Japanese movie, 'Kung Fu') is planning to go on a vacation with her father, a trip ruined when the father suddenly introduces his new fiancee, amidst much wind blowing and scarf flapping, thus destroying their fragile and quasi-erotic father-daughter bond. Gorgeous cancels her plans and instead decides to go with her gang of schoolgirl friends to visit her lonely aunt, whom she hasn't seen in years. Once at the aunt's big, creepy house, things start to get strange...

Okay, that's what would happen in any other movie of this genre type, except that Hausu has been irremediably strange from its first frames, working as a heightened parody of teenage-girls-in-peril movies from the get-go, using every trick in the book: frames within frames, flashbacks, wacky sped-up Monkees-style comedy montages, you name it. Things are already strange and then get stranger.

The best way I can explain Hausu to someone who hasn't seen it is as a mash-up of Argento's Suspiria and Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris. And it should be noted that neither of those movies is exactly well-known by the mainstream. Hausu is definitely a fringe movie - specifically, it's the kind of movie that's so fringe, it's the kind of movie that people who have seen just about everything seek out in order to hit a new high of audio-visual bizarreness. Yeah, maybe you've seen Lucio Fulci destroy an eyeball or ten and maybe you've seen Herzog stage a little person cackling at a pooping camel, but have you seen a piano eat a girl? Or maybe a man turn into a heap of bananas, for no reason whatsoever? These are the treasures granted to the viewer by director Nobuhiko Obayashi in Hausu.

So it's not exactly a movie that integrates its wild imagery in the service of a coherent statement about what life is like for teenage girls, or within a fairly traditional patriarchal structure, or so on, like, say, Carrie or any good episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; rather, it's a deliberate, anything-goes, screwball fantasia. Even the 'scary' moments, like the below Youtube link, are more about reaching a heightened aesthetic experience than about actually communicating the horror of being electocuted by a killer lampshade. The director is clearly making an extended, fantastic gag of a movie, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your own willingness to follow a chain of surreal dream-logic and parodic weirdness as far as it can go. And within its own crazy worldview, there are nuggets of fairy-tale gold in this film.


(Next up: either Jennifer's Body or Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell. Or maybe Firestarter or Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Don't pressure me!)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Samurai Cop

This now rockets to the upper echelons of my must-see list.
Also, I hope to go on a blogging spree soon and write up my thoughts on a bunch of movies, including Whatever Works (6/10), The Hurt Locker (8/10), Orphan (7/10), Thirst (8/10), Taxidermia (8/10) and Inglourious Basterds (9/10). Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Avatar Trailer

Wow, this goes way beyond what I was expecting. Looking forward to it now a lot more.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lorna's Silence (2008)

Good stuff, in general from the Dardenne brothers, but I fear that their formulas may be beginning to yield diminishing returns. Specifically in this movie, we once again have a movie about the plight of immigrants in scuzzy modern Belgium (just like La Promesse) and a feisty young woman trying to own a cafe (just like Rosetta) and dealing with an acute moral crisis (just like all of them) which is fine - the acting is perfect, the narrative is compelling, the moral issue is suitably drastic - but there's a whiff of been-there-seen-that. And this time, as if in order to juice things up a bit, the Dardennes have given their lead actress a scene or three where she gets (SPOILERS) to go crazy and have delusions, and I don't think this kind of internalized psychology seems to be their strong point. It feels a little contrived and inorganic when Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), the movie's Albanian immigrant, decides to have a hysterical pregnancy in order to deal with her complicity in the death of a Belgian junkie (Jeremie Renier, wraithlike), it doesn't really work - the movie takes on a melodramatic, sentimental quality that doesn't fit.

Of course, let me be clear that the movie is still excellent and better than 90% of what's out there right now - it's just no Rosetta, or even L'Enfant.


Monday, August 17, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

This is just a quick little ramble so as to maintain some presence on this thing. Basically, the G.I. Joe movie was tolerable. It's watchable in that hit-your-head-enough-time-and-eventually-it-feels-okay kind of way that's increasingly dominating American movies. It's certainly better than Transformers 2, and there are big parts of it that I enjoyed, including the bad guy performances of Sienna Miller, the Asian guy playing Storm Shadow, and the crazy chaos of the Paris chase sequence. I also appreciated that the formerly all-American squad is now an international, NATO-based force, which I know irritates the purists but I'm not one of them.

All that said, it's still probably Stephen Sommers's worst movie that I've seen. Unlike most people, I didn't hate his last movie, Van Helsing - it was overstuffed and had a dumb ending, but you could tell it was being made by a guy who had a real joy in playing with that particular toy box of Universal monsters and expensive CGI and so on. G.I. Joe, on the other hand, feels like a case of pure corporate synergistic hackery, down to the needless addition of shots of aircraft carriers and exosuits and stuff that's basically only in the movie in order for Hasbro to sell more toys. A lot of the movie feels impersonal and pointlessly commercial in order to set up the sequel and so on, and if Stephen Sommers doesn't care about whether or not it makes sense for the Baroness to be good or just misunderstood, or for Cobra Commander's character to make any sense whatsoever, why should I? Also, Channing Tatum is hilariously awful as the alleged lead character - guy, this is the biggest movie you've ever done - you could pretend like you actually want to earn a couple more of these paychecks, at least.

Still, less offensively ludicrous than a lot of this Summer's other movies.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Auto-Tune the News

As usual I'm about three steps behind everyone else in finding this stuff. The first time I watched this I was 'meh'. By the third time, I realized it was AMAZING.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

June and July Update

I've developed this pattern of only posting two or three times a month, mostly involving a Youtube video and a post of short reviews starting with the phrase, "I apologize" so let's just move on from there with quick thoughts on things I've watched since my last review.

Drag Me to Hell. Something of a minor masterpiece, and pretty much the best studio movie I've seen this year. Sam Raimi makes movies that look like cheesy, insubstantial fun but actually have a spine of moralistic steel underneath - Alison Lohman's character performs a wrong, refuses to take responsibility for it (not unlike Mena Suvari in last year's Stuck) and winds up paying the penalty for it. That Raimi could make such a sturdy depiction of individual responsibility in a world that increasingly wants to deny such things - in a movie where an anvil drops on somebody's head and their eyeballs pop out - is some kind of triumph. 9/10

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. It's not an easy thing to make a comprehensible film out of a mass of character-less handheld video footage, and the filmmakers here found an ingenious solution, structuring their film around a framing story of one Burmese resistance member coordinating the flow of footage by phone and computer. It's a well-made and fascinating movie, still limited by its topicality to a certain time and place, but crafted strongly enough that it should retain watchability longer than other such political documentaries. 7/10

Up. Pixar's movies have settled into a certain familiarity, which is both good and bad - I kind of want them to exit their comfort zone a little bit more they have lately - only Brad Bird seems to be able to provide real surprises from within the Pixar formula. Still, entertaining, funny, and affecting (and better than Wall-E). 8/10

Terminator Salvation: Stupid and pointless. Just a series of rambling and expensive set pieces linked by a flaccid and poorly motivated narrative. Still, better than the incoherent and boring Wolverine thanks to a good performance from Sam Worthington and some legitimately okay action scenes. 4/10

Moon: Reasonably entertaining and well-acted, but kind of unimaginative. You can stick a guy on the Moon, and the only thing you can have him do is take part in yet another 'corporations are evil' bulldozer? Come on, David Bowie's son, show us something we haven't seen before. Here's an idea for the sequel: Two Sam Rockwells are good, but a dozen are better. 6/10

Land of the Lost: Misbegotten. I like the idea of creating a bizarre fantasy-landscape made of fragments of every era of history. Too bad they populated it with a pair of unlikeable idiots and a vacuous bit of female eye candy. 4/10

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Low expectations helped me to experience this movie as tolerable and not eyeball-gougingly awful. The narrative and characters make no sense to the point of being downright insulting to the audience (stepping through a door from Washington's Air and Space Museum to some Southwestern desert? Fuck you too, Michael Bay). But all of that is beside the point given Bay's command of spectacle, which he manages to deliver on. There are amazing, earth-shattering sights in this movie. Too bad they're still embedded within a very expensive commercial for Hasbro, GM and the U.S. military. Oh, and those racist Autobots? Soooooo amazingly racist. I can't believe that Bay isn't getting laughed out of theaters the same way M. Night Shyamalan and Brian DePalma have been in recent years. Also, I realize this may put me in the minority, but I find Megan Fox's appearance to be creepy and a little disgusting, like an overblown drag queen parody of femininity. I can almost imagine an actual good-looking women coming up to her and going, 'are you making fun of me?'. 3/10

Bruno: Sort of funny, but really only in an 'I'm so much smarter than those people on screen!' kind of way. I enjoyed Borat but only because it was more honestly outrageous and more warmhearted, factors that feel warmed-over and insincere this time. Sacha Baron Cohen is amazingly talented and a courageous performer - too bad he has so little interest in using his talents in the service of any idea larger than dividing his audience into the 'get-its' and the 'don't get its'. Ron Paul is a loony and a homophobe (apparently) but he deserves better than this kind of unfair ambush comedy. 5/10

And the most interesting old movies that I've seen lately:

The Sinful Dwarf (1973): A demented little person teams up with his faded showgirl mother to kidnap girls for a sex-slavery operation. You've never seen so much devious mugging in your whole life in this grimy, entrancing bit of schlock. 5/10

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975): Sort of a case study in cinematic S&M, watching a series of men being dominated by the towering, imperious Ilsa, as played by Dyanne Thorne, who winds up getting an appropriate comeuppance from her concentration camp wards. Probably more interested in terms of pathology, but like The Sinful Dwarf, something of a must-see for fans of '70s softcore kitsch, and better than its sequel, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (which played as part of a New Beverly double feature). 5/10

Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II(1944-46). Eisenstein's unfinished trilogy is an amazing achievement, an expressionistic political nightmare that extends beyond Stalin-era allegory into the realm of Shakespeare. I especially liked Part II as the film descended even deeper into realms of paranoia and lunacy. 8/10 and 9/10.

The Long Riders (1980). Another New Beverly viewing, a sort of rambling and not particularly focussed Western about the James and Younger gangs. Like the Andrew Dominik/Brad Pitt film from a couple of years ago, I don't think it makes a coherent statement about what it means to be an outlaw or a folk hero or anything like that. It does have a bunch of fun performances from the likes of David Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Pamela Reed, plus a fairly amazing Peckinpah-esque shootout sequence. 7/10

Hospital (1970). I've seen four Frederick Wiseman films now, and with each new one I feel like he's an essential, underrated American genius. The trick is subtlety: a lot of movies take on social issues, but not many use his strategy, seen here, of merely observing ordinary people and letting their simple dramatic situations illustrate the pedantic points that Wiseman wants to make. It's more effective than just interviewing the same people and letting a narrator fill in the gaps. 9/10

Hopefully more to come soon.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Moon Landing, 33 Years Later

This happened in 2002, but I only saw it for the first time a few days ago amidst the hubbub over the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Buzz Aldrin may be a lot of things (astronaut, recovering alcoholic, possible UFO spotter), but this shows that American hero is still one of them. And goddammit, I hate conspiracy theorists.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sewer Worms

It's been a while since I posted anything really weird and disgusting, so please enjoy this colony of worms discovered in a Raleigh, N.C. sewer. Why the sewers in Raleigh have video footage, I don't know.

(thanks to Drew McWeeny's blog for showing me this.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

I don't think I've really processed this one, yet. It's an epoch-shattering event, on the same level as the deaths of Elvis or John Lennon, but by now we've seen so many of these superstars-turned-crazy-tabloid-fodder-turned-corpses that it almost feels like it was inevitable, like this was the logical next step after Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and Anna Nicole Smith.
I mean, we all knew that Michael Jackson wasn't going to have a happy ending, right? That he wasn't going to grow old gracefully and dote upon his grandchildren, Prince Michael III and Blanket II? And I can't help but think of that scene from Three Kings, the one where the Iraqi is torturing Marky Mark and asking him, 'why did you make Michael Jackson cut up his face?'
But my point is, it still doesn't feel real. This all feels like the Hollywood simulacrum that should predictably happen in the second-rate film of Michael Jackson's life. Which means, of course, that Jackson's life had inevitably followed the Hollywood script that he knew it would.
So that's that, but it's still incumbent upon a member of my generation to pay homage to one of the most famous people who ever lived, who was possessed of an incredibly, boundary-shattering talent for music and dance. So here's my favorite music video of his, possibly the first place I ever really was acquainted with zombies, Thriller (via Youtube link).

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Angels & Demons (2009)

Ron Howard seems like such a nice guy, why does he insist on making such shitty movies? So here we have another Dan Brown movie - stiff, self-important, blithely clueless on its own subject matter (church history, particle physics) at the service of some kind of weirdly self-serving rhetoric about the Catholic Church being out of touch with the modern era. It has a little more energy than its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, in terms of people getting murdered and explosions, but not enough to make it a good movie.

Sunday I saw Drag Me to Hell, the kind of energetic, inventive, fun movie that made me fall in love with the movies in the first place and be a filmmaker (more about it in another review). Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, the kind of numbing, stale, made-by-committee product that makes a person want to just give up. I guess it's a notch less depressing than Wolverine, because there's an added dimension of competence and craft - Salvatore Totino's cinematography is moody and sharp, and the movie works through its nonsense at a steady (if overlong) pace. But what both this movie and Wolverine have in common is that I just can't imagine that the filmakers had any passion whatsoever for what they were making. They're just such empty, by-the-numbers pieces of mechanical clockwork with all humanity stripped out of them.

Hanks and Howard are bored by the material and it shows (hey Tom Hanks: you're making, what, $20 million? $40 million? to be in this movie, if you're not having fun, maybe you could pretend?). As for the real auteur behind this material, Dan Brown, what's his deal and why do so many people love his stuff, above and beyond other modern authors of simple potboilers? I think the answer is that he's found a way to exploit many peoples' modern, Western dissatisfaction with the institutions of the Church (Roman Catholic and otherwise) combined with their longing for something spiritual to fill the gap. Neither The Da Vinci Code nor Angels & Demons is simple-minded Catholicsploitation, but both end on notes of progress, of reformation towards finding a balance with science and feminism. Too bad the movies are so incredibly stupid or they might actually impact people.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

May Update

Yeesh, it's hard to keep up-to-date on this thing when I'm working 60-hour weeks. But enough excuses, here's a quick roundup of the last several things that I've seen:

Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Why the redundant title? Otherwise, it's a pretty good, if limited, picture of a couple of guys in mid-life crisis as they try to recover their glory days, basically a cross between American Movie and This Is Spinal Tap (down to the almost carbon-copy finale). I don't care much about heavy metal, but the movie is smart enough to gloss over the technicalities in order to linger on the elements that do matter, like working crappy day jobs and getting shafted by Czech promoters. I enjoyed it and it's funny and touching, I just wish it had gone a little deeper and not been quite so conventional in its storytelling arc. 7/10

Star Trek. Yes, I'm the guy (alongside Roger Ebert and Armond White) who didn't like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. I want to say more about it separately, but for me it all comes down to Abrams' vision simply being less expansive and imaginative than what Roddenberry put into motion 45 years ago, and I thought it was frantic and pointless. On the plus side, we have good performances from most of the cast and one beautiful image (the Enterprise rising out of the clouds of Titan). 4/10

Adventureland. Sweet and funny, and richer and more complex than Superbad was. This makes me want to check out Mottola's other stuff, especially The Daytrippers, which I ignored back when it came out. My only gripe is with the finale, which seemed contrived and emotionally phony in a way that the rest of the movie hadn't been leading towards. Also, I hope Jesse Eisenberg grows into his horseface sometime soon. 8/10

Monsters vs. Aliens. Amusing, forgettable. Makes me wish that Guillermo Del Toro was directing his remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon. 6/10

Il Divo. Amazing visuals and an obviously excellent performance from Toni Servillo, playing Giulio Andreotti as a cross between Peter Bogdanovich and Nosferatu, but not being a student of post-War Italian politics, I didn't have any fucking idea what was going on in this movie. Not the movie's fault, obviously, but it was sort of like watching Oliver Stone's Nixon and only knowing that it was about a sweaty guy who had gotten into trouble about something, somewhere in politics, sometime in the '70s. To be revisited on DVD. 7/10

Tyson. Really fascinating stuff, and I like the strategy of simply structuring the film as a long, free-flowing first-person monologue, bringing us inside the head of an odd, but understandable and very human person. This film might just be one of the more avant-garde things I've seen in quite a while. And on the subjects of his domestic violence against Robin Givens and his rape conviction, Tyson gets enough rope to hang himself with. 8/10

Dark and Stormy Night. This is the newest undistributed film from Larry Blamire, the guy who made The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. It's a stilted parody of the 'old dark house' movies of the 1930s and '40s. As such it's funny and entertaining but kind of an artistic blind alley - this is the kind of clever genre rehash that everyone accuses Tarantino of making, except without the creativity. Still, if you only see one movie this year involving a guy in a gorilla suit, a psychic in a turban, and a freak with two heads, this is the one. 6/10

More to come soon!