Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Why Are People Like Jellybeans?

The Aristocrats
2005, USA
Paul Provenza

Wow. It’s amazing what you can do with a hi-8 camera, a few funny friends, and a good joke. Absolutely fucking nothing. This documentary looks like it was made with spare change picked out of phone booth coin return slots by a wedding video cinematographer. Granted, The Aristocrats is funnier than if I filmed my friends and I telling jokes, because essentially that would involve me telling that racist one about everyone hating black jellybeans and a whole lot of uncomfortable silence from the imaginary cast of Star Trek I hang out with. And it’s funnier than if it were your friends, because these guys are actually talented and don’t just quote lines from The Simpsons while fighting over the last roach tokes. In fact, the film is hysterically funny. It’s just that it’s terribly made, shoddily edited, and cheap, which, like a bootlegged porn blooper tape, interferes with the humor. In fact, the adult film analogy is a good one, as this film looks like amateur pornography uploaded to a gateway website, only the performers are somehow uglier than the pimply and bruised nymphets we see pumping away on a futon lit by a desk lamp. Phyllis Diller looks like a sagging skin road map with all the major highways marked in varicose veins and red creases, and Don Rickles looks more and more like a pimple the closer he gets to his second century.

Seriously, that looks infected.

The performers in question, for those who haven’t heard about this notorious documentary, are some of the brightest stars in the comedy world and Howie Mandel, who all tell the same legendary dirty joke. The joke isn’t funny, in any way, but between the genteel introduction and the flat, titular punch line lies, in this case, about 87 minutes of absolute filth of the worst kind. And I do mean worst. I like shock humor as much as the next guy who makes a living twisting anti-Semitic slurs into Godzilla reviews, but the endless repetition of the same dirty work tends to be less shocking and more like an annoying younger sibling blowing spit bubbles on your arm in the backseat of your parents car, saying “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” over and over again until you can’t take it anymore and gouge out his left eye with a Bic ballpoint pen cap and spend the next three years in the Denton County Juvenile Detention Center doing nothing but reading Sight and Sound magazine until you become such a film snob you can’t enjoy anything other than reruns of Cops on TBS. OK. Where was I? Oh, yes, the joke. The repetition of scatological references and descriptions of incestuous sex acts becomes so tiresome that the only real highlights of the film come when the comedians flip your expectations and say something that doesn’t involve fecal matter. This does happen with some regularity, like Wendy Liebeman’s polite spin on the joke, or the weird racial elements that slide in to replace the violent sexuality sometimes, the best instance of which comes from Andy Richter, who manages to make everything all the more shocking by telling the joke to his two year old child. The rest of the film floats by numbly for the most part, though listening to Bob Saget curse is still funny, even years after Dirty Work came out. The rest of it though, is a few bong hits away from being truly genius.

The onyl reason Pauly Shore is famous. Also God hates us.

Actually, that’s a misstatement. This film isn’t about pot humour. Pot humour is all sight gags and references to TV shows from when you were younger and stupider, which roughly approximates the mental state of most pot-heads. Beer humour, on the other hand, revolves around passing gas and the word ‘dick’, putting it slightly below Jackass and above the American Pie series. The Aristocrats, however, is all cocaine comedy, manic and full of enamel chips from teeth ground down to their roots. It’s sweaty, twitchy, and the only state of mind in which Gilbert Gottfried is actually funny, instead of a twisted vision of terror born of the Leprechaun movies and the scene from Jaws when Quint draws his nails across a chalkboard. He even makes Rob Schneider laugh so hard he falls off his chair, which I guess is not surprising, since a dirty joke about fisting is probably the closest Rob Schneider has ever gotten to funny in his miserable life. I miss cocaine comedy. It was big in the seventies, obviously, but it died out with Club 54, leaving a void of low-brow humour based upon jokes aimed at the lowest common denominator, which explains why the Farrelly brothers are so successful. If you’re writing your film so it will make fans of professional wrestling laugh, I don’t want to see it. If the jokes come a mile a minute, however, and require at least a semi-conscious state to appreciate them, then you might have something worth shooting. Just try not to film it on a Camcorder.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Will Ferrell Isn't Funny, So Why Am I Laughing? Oh, Yeah. Pedophilia.

2005, USA
Nora Ephron

This is one of those movies that presents a conundrum for me, as a writer. It’s so disposable, so ephemeral, that I don’t know quite how to approach it. Targets for ridicule that normally seem so easy to find in most movies tend to waft away like hash smoke from a hookah, disappearing into the air, yet leaving their sickly sweet stink behind like a rotting hippie. Films like Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming, and Anchorman, in fact anything Will Ferrell has ever done, are entirely too forgettable to ever be considered good, yet many reviewers find them too funny to be labeled bad. Fortunately, I have absolutely no sense of humor, so I’m able to see Professor Marvel behind the curtain, frantically working levers and pedals in an effort to have Will Ferrell crowned a comic genius without him ever telling a single joke. I’m sad to say it, but the man is just not funny. He’s loud, I’ll give him that, and it is unpleasant to see him either nude or squeezed into tight underwear like toothpaste wrapped in a rubber band, but mostly he seems to make people uncomfortable. Like fear, however, the tension caused by feeling awkward frequently results in laughter, often hysterical bouts of it, but generally it’s the same type of laughter that inadvertently escapes when you find child pornography downloaded on your work computer, only with a less pleasant aftertaste.

Note: Not actually child porn. No need to report this.

Ferrell’s latest effort seems to almost recognize this, however, and casts him almost as the straight man, playing him against Nicole Kidman, who grabs most of the spotlight. He still gets to work his material, which mainly consists of acting like either a jackass or an simpleton, often both, but Kidman is the true star. This seems like a good idea, in theory, as Kidman can be fairly capable when she’s given the right material, but she tends to fumble when she’s presented with, say, no material whatsoever, or no more so than would fill up a post-it-note. Which is what this movie is, essentially. It’s a one sentence log line that someone forgot to expand into a screenplay. Essentially, it’s about a remake of the 1960s TV show Bewitched, only the lead actress is actually is a witch! Sounds like a hilarious script. If only they’d written one. As with Wedding Crashers, a lot of this feels like Farrell goofing off, but Kidman doesn’t seem too keen on improv, thank god, nor does the rest of the cast. They mainly just wait patiently while he does his thing, reminding me to an uncomfortable degree of every woman I’ve ever slept with.

This drawing, however, is under 18 years of age

While I understand that a certain spin on the naïve and dated humor of the original show is necessary to make the film appealing to anyone other than programmers at Deja View, I’m not sure I’m too crazy about their treatment of witchcraft. Frankly, there’s nothing funny about witchery. Have you ever met a real witch? They’re terrifying! And not in the Malleus Maleficarum, Burkittesville,Maryland way. They’re scary in the Magic: The Gathering, mother-earth life-force, werewolf-legs kind of way. Is it just me, or do they always seem to have a speech about persecution ready at the drop of a hat? I don’t want to burn you at the stake, Cerridwyn, I just want to get out of the frigging comic book store without spending twenty minutes arguing about gender politics and moon goddesses. I always feel like I’ll have to buy a mood ring off them to make them go away, or donate money to a vegan soup kitchen that smells like moldy beets and urine. I’ll admit that pagans are generally misunderstood, portrayed as Bible-burning, child-sacrificing vampires in the media, when in reality they very rarely burn Bibles, but I’d certainly go to greater lengths to understand them if they didn’t dress like they’re trying to date Anne Rice’s daughter. As a word of advice to any pagans that may be reading this, no one else is terribly impressed by Stonehenge. And, that goddamn ankh tattoo isn’t winning you any fans. It doesn’t mean ‘eternal life’ in Egyptian, it means ‘loser’ in English, and this is coming from a guy who’s got his entire body marked up like The Book Of The Dead. And on that note, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to how far we’ve drifted from Bewitched in just a few short minutes. If I can’t remember what I’m talking about two paragraphs into a review, the movie can’t be that good.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Learn Hatred The Black Metal Way.

Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende)
Norway, 2005
Erik Skjoldbjærg

Where I live, September brings autumn, frosh week, and film festivals, each terribly annoying in their own way. The fall provides glimpses of a depressingly long winter on the horizon, frosh floods the streets with the charming stench of partially digested pub fare and bile, and the film festivals kick off with The Montreal World Film Festival, a great idea executed almost incompetently. Every year I attend, throwing good money away at a schedule so mammoth in scope that Deep Blue allegedly took three bathroom breaks while processing the program guide. To say that quantity trumps quality would be an understatement akin to saying that this site gets a little snippy sometimes; the line-up feels like they fired a load of birdshot at a world map and picked twenty films from every pissant, fly-speck country that got hit by a pellet. I’m as worldly as an Illico-addicted shut-in can be, but as thrilled as I am that Turkmenistan has an film industry now, I really don’t need to see a two hour epic about how the death of Babur’s goat has deprived his home village of both a food source and a eligible bachelorette.

And a fine wife she'll make, Babur

That said, this year I took a slightly different tack. Instead of picking twenty films by pouring over the overpriced program until I couldn’t focus on the words praising the effects the discovery of electricity has had on the studio system of Burkina-Faso, I just picked a bunch of movies at random based around my free time. The result, amazingly, was an evening of two surprisingly good movies. The first film was En Folkenfiende, roughly translated as Enemy of the People. It's the latest film from Erik Skjoldbjaerg, The Muppet Show’s Swedish chef, whose original version of Insomnia is one of my favourite films. En Folkenfiende is an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play, and it helped to shatter some illusions I had about theatre. Despite have attended more than my share of theatre performances, I’m still stuck with a conception of theatre as a claustrophobic, overacted bore, a conceptual mix between one of those live murder mystery evenings and women in corsets tittering at 16th century double-entendres while a busload of high school students falls asleep in Stratford, Ontario. Most film adaptations, like the otherwise interesting Closer, keep that awkward, stagebound feel, but En Folkenfiende is such a loose adaptation that it frees itself from its stagey shackles. Another misconception destroyed by this film was my perception of Norway. Having learned everything I know about the country from Scandinavian Black Metal, a genre of music that sounds something like rain falling on a corrugated tin rough crossed with an industrial sander, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Norwegians are not all 9 foot behemoths clad in corpse paint and bondage gear, coming off as the bastard love children of Gene Simmons and dominatrix Lady Heather. The rivers do not run red with Christian blood, nor does fire rain from a blazing northern sky. There is, however, a lot of standing around and talking in a language that sounds like a bad mockery of German. I’ve picked up a little bit of Norwegian, thanks to Black Metal, but it was confined to knowing how to say ‘black castle’ (dimmu borgir, if you’re interested), and a phonetically-learned tirade against Jewish music critics (thank you, Darkthrone), who apparently are rather hard on the frequently anti-Semitic genre . Having heard a lot more of Norwegian now, I can safely say that it’s the funniest language I’ve ever heard, barring whatever the hell that guy from The Gods Must Be Crazy speaks.

Playwright Henrik Ibsen

The movie itself follows an anti-corporate activist, a nutritionist named Tomas Stockmann. Stockmann is not played by Stellan Skarsgaard, but for the purposes of clarity in this review, we’ll pretend that he is. The character is not the sort of anti-capitalist North American audiences are familiar with, in that he doesn’t have a bandana wrapped around anything like a jackass nor does he look like he smells like a sweaty dumpster. A crusader for consumer rights, Stockmann hosts a Michael Moore-style TV show where he confronts corporate criminals in video-taped ambushes, only one would imagine he doesn’t make quite as much stuff up as Moore. Quitting the show after too much interference, Stockmann moves back to his hometown, along with his wife, a pinch-faced woman who looks like Franke Potente after eating a lemon, and her father, who appears to be Orson Welles. Once there, they start up a bottled water company using a rejuvenative local spring. Stockmann soon finds himself on the wrong end of a scandal, however, once he discovers that the water may be contaminated with pesticides. Things go from bad to worse as his crusade to take down the company threatens to destroy his marriage, the town, and his very expensive-looking suits. The film is an interesting look at a character who at first seems straightforward and noble, but is gradually revealed to be a troubled and flawed man, which is the reverse of your standard narrative arc, sort of like if you made a movie about Mother Theresa and ended it with her trading handjobs for black tar opium in a Calcutta smokehouse. Skarsgaard’s performance is striking, and the direction from Skjoldbjaerg is confident, making this a strong entry among the 48000 other films at the Montreal World Film Festival. Hopefully, the film critics will agree. As long as they’re not Jewish.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Comedy On The Fly! Also Sodomy.

Wedding Crashers
2005, USA
David Dobkin

You know what’s fun? Hanging out with your friends. Or, at least I'd imagine it is, for you. I probably wouldn't like your friends, unless they're German and Protestant. You know what’s not so fun? Paying ten dollars to watch someone else hang out with their friends. And that’s what this movie is, 90 minutes of Vince Vaughn cracking Owen Wilson up, lightly spiced with Christopher Walken doing an impression of Jay Mohr doing an impression of Christopher Walken. Wow. That’s as close to metatextual as Hollywood has been since Julia Roberts played herself in Ocean’s 12, and it’s just as dumb. While I do appreciate the trend of R-rated comedies Wedding Crashers is proudly part of, as it’s slowly paving the way for the eventual success of my screenplay for the hilarious teen comedy ­Neo-Nazi Nanny, I do wish they’d put more thought into these pictures. As it stands, this new comedy clique is churning out pictures faster than CSI can mangle forensic science textbooks, and they’re really not putting in any effort. Films like Wedding Singers, Anchorman, and the like, all seem so rushed, so half-assed, that it just feels like you’re watching bad improv with nice lighting. Of course, that there’s any such thing as good improv. That just goes without saying. I suppose it can be mildly amusing, if you’re seeing it live, it features a guy you know from camp, and they’re serving booze in the high school auditorium you’re watching it in, but usually it just feels like you’re applauding because they managed to work the word ‘terrarium’ into a spontaneous rap bit composed of audience suggestions. Basically, people laugh because they’re acknowledging that the performers are slightly funnier than they would be in the same situation. It’s all sweaty, and manic, and uncomfortable, like feeling up your little sister in the ten minutes before dad comes home from work and makes you leave the bedroom door open. See that? That was improv. Not funny, but funnier than you would be if you were trying to review Wedding Crashers during an Ultimate Fighter commercial break. Plus, it’s shocking, which is one way you can get a laugh without being funny. Wedding Crashers is full similar hallmarks of improvisational comedy, from flubbed dialogue, to stepped on lines, to dead air normally filled with audience hooting because Wayne Brady made a joke about Colin Mockrie being bald.

Now that's funny!

I don’t suppose I need to explain the plot of the film, as the title essentially fills you in with all you need to know before heading in to watch Vince Vaughn waste ten minutes of screen time with a bit about maple syrup. Ha ha! Get it? He puts maple syrup in his hair! Like an idiot! How that got past a conscious editor is beyond me, unless of course there was four hours of cut material about how difficult it is to set a VCR timer and what the deal is with women and shopping clogging the Steinbeck. This is just a lazy, lazy movie. Vaughn and Wilson jerk each other off for a bit, feeding each other ammunition for rambling tirades and crude sex jokes, clearly more concerned with outdoing each other than with telling a cohesive story or playing actual characters. The improvs are obvious, and the staged bits seem forced and, on occasion, like the part with the bizarrely predatory homosexual, played by Keir O’Donnell as mix between Crispin Glover in Willard and a pederast, quite out of place.

This, however, isn't. Especially if you're an 11 year old boy

There are some good parts of the film, I suppose, like Rachel McAdams surprisingly strong performance as the one actual character in the entire film, and a bravura showing from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’s left breast. I’m not even all that thrilled at seeing Jane Seymore nude. In fact, most days, I would find it a terrifying instance of viewing a mother figure in a sexual situation, like those creepy bits in American Pie with Stifler’s mom, but in this case, it was a welcome distraction, keeping my eyes off Owen Wilson alternating between ‘earnest’ and ‘playful’, and my mind from the perpetual threat of Vince Vaughn barrelling his immense frame through the scene like Frankenstein’s monster with a book of Jackie Martling dirty jokes. Beats him making them up on the spot, I suppose.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

My Summer of Drill Fetishes.

My Summer of Love
2004, UK
Pawel Pawlikowski

Although still a taboo subject in many parts of the world, films about lesbians are quite common here in the educated parts of North American. Granted, many of them feature Gia Paloma, Chrystal Ray, and a dildo strapped to an electric drill, but don't let that throw you off. They're feminist films, really. After all, noted theorist Andrea Dworkin said that patriarchy and the oppression of women results in every heterosexual encounter being essentially rape, which I interpret as license to obsessively watch lesbian pornography. These women are yonic warriors, battling to free their gender from the shackles of oppressive male dominations by enabling middle age men to masturbate furtively to Cousin Stevie's Pussy Party 6 while their wives pick up milk from the corner store to soften up the mashed potatoes.

The result of an unhelpful Google Image search for Pussy Party

My Summer of Love, however, is a departure from the standard I'm used to from lesbian films. For one thing, it has dialogue, and very little in the way of unsanitary insertions. It also has a story, and an interesting one at that, though a little familiar. Mixing the conventions of interclass romance best observed in Pretty In Pink with the sexual experiments of The Dreamers and, to a lesser and more literal extent, SS Camp Women's Hell, the film tells the story of a blossoming romance between a blue collar orphan from a working class town, Mona, and the confusingly named Tamsin, a privileged aristocrat's daughter. What comes next seems to follow a path well-trodden, with an obsessive friendship turning into puppy love, which then turns into disappointingly tasteful sex scenes. We're not surprised when, as the summer ends, the rich girl prepares to abandon her summer conquest to return to boarding school, nor are shocked by her lover's violent reaction, having seen Heavenly Creatures several times hoping to catch a glimpse of Melanie Lynsky's nipple. But, the climax of the film is not what's expected at all, swerving from its familiar path at the last minute, and leaving the viewer feeling unsatisfied. It almost feels like the natural flow of the film has been interrupted just before completion, that the director is revelling in the pent up expectations of the viewer and enjoying leaving frustrated tension humming in the audience. In short, this movie seems almost like an exercise in delaying and denying expectations, kind of like this review is an attempt to call the film a cock tease without using objectionable language.

Damn Safe Search

The film's two leads, Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press, play their roles well, full of the bouncy, jiggley effervescence of youth, though Blunt is a touch too much like a more androgynous Tilda Swinton to truly satisfy. Their passionate commitment to character shines through, however, and almost makes up for the film's faults, which include a reluctance to get right to the warm, moist core of their relationship, and a script which focuses too heavily on tell, rather than show. Also, whenever Tamsin's brother shows up, played by Paddy Constantine, I found myself distracted from the main thrust of the narrative. Nevertheless, despite its failings, My Summer of Love provides a titillating glimpse of the potential of two talented actresses, one that hopefully will find fulfilment and reward in the future, either with an Academy Award, or Cousin Stevie's $1000 grand prize.

Monday, August 22, 2005

From Gangsters To Blood-Caked Money Shots, And Everything In Between

Layer Cake
2005, UK
Matthew Vaughn

Am I the only one sick to death of things being ‘hip’? I know I sound like a grouchy pensioner when I say stuff like that, but if that’s what it takes to distinguish me from the legions of Ipod Mini-sporting idiots in Von Dutch trucker hats, sign me up for shuffleboard and classes in leering creepily at young women in the drug store. I realize that phrases like “style over substance” tend to be the dying words of suicidal film critics sitting in a closed garage with the engine running after screening yet another 100 million dollar music video directed by some jackass with a one word name who graduated from an ad agency, but that’s one of the few stock phrases that apply to film today. Every movie needs to be slick, nowadays, with scriptwriters pouring over 50 Cent videos to see what kind of car their drug dealer protagonist should be driving on his way to getting his teeth replaced by sharpened diamond spearheads. It’s all this contrived, corporate version of cool, so glossy and slick it looks like a Vanity Fair photo spread for the retarded, and seems just as staged. I’d say a good sixty percent of all the movies released in theatres stink of a marketing meeting mock-up, like Poochie from The Simpsons slanted towards the 18-35 demographic.

Layer Cake is no exception to this trend. It’s a mix of British crime cool and music video special effects, as if Guy Ritchie had a baby with David Fincher, only the kid had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and spends his life laughing at shiny things and saying ‘cheers’ a lot to no one in particular. The film starts out with a sequence torn straight from Fight Club, a kind of animated tour through a Sears catalogue laced with street drugs, a scene that had the dimmer audience members cheering and made anyone in the crowd with a university degree in anything other than Communications or Leisure cringe. Then, through the use of expository voice-over borrowed heavily from Casino¸ our story unfolds. I supposed compressing pages of character backstory and development into a soundbyte is a necessary evil in an age where people don’t even have the patience for skin flicks with dialogue anymore, but at least if they tried to find a subtle way to work it into the script without having a narrator essentially read the film treatment to the audience, it would feel a little less awkward. I know there’s a rush to get to the gunfights, but a little drama would liven things up a bit. I guess there’s a reason these films are aimed at men rather than women; women tend to require a little more foreplay before a disappointing ending, and men just want to skip all the boring crap and get to the spraying fluids. I know I certainly do, but there’s enough blood in my fluids already that I don’t need to get my hemoglobin fix from movies.

What? That's normal, right?

The story of Layer Cake is a basic one. A drug dealer tries to get out, but they pull him back in, trying desperately not to word it quite so much like Al Pacino. Then, through various encounters with quirky characters and pop culture references, he rises to the top, only to fall spectacularly from a symbolically high location into either a pool of water, blood, or Scarface DVDs. I’ve seen this movie a million times under various names, and so have you. It’s time to finish with this plot line and move on to something more original, like a team of young misfits and losers pulled together by a gruff but lovable coach to win a championship, any championship, or a high school stud who takes a bet to go on a date with the school weirdo only to realize he loves her five script pages before the third act. Or at least a sexy delivery guy bringing a large pizza to Belladonna’s sorority. Then, we can skip straight to the fluids.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Funny Yellow Discharge For The Soul

Suspect Zero
2004, USA
E. Elias Merhige

Finally, a movie where Ben Kingsley gets to not act. I’m sick of seeing him turn in nuanced, commanding performances in films like Searching for Bobby Fisher and Schindler’s List, full of emotive power and a commitment to character so profound it could make James Lipton stop interviewing Carrot Top for a moment and get goosebumps. I’m tired of getting drawn into a film by his finely-attuned responsiveness and Method devotion. The repressed rage of Behrani in House of Sand and Fog gives me a headache, and if I have Sexy Beast championed to me one more time as a simultaneously comedic and terrifying portrayal of a sociopath, I’m going to forget all the lessons Ghandi taught me and carve out the tongue of the hipster jackass with a hard-on for British crime thrillers that look like music videos. I’ve been waiting for Kingsley to give up on the craft and take the golden path blazed by De Niro, Pacino, and the greats before them, resting on his laurels so long he dies in his sleep on location for a Billy Crystal sequel. Species showed he was heading in the right direction, and Thunderbirds hinted that his downward trajectory had altered its angle by a decent 20 degrees, but I wasn’t sure he was quite ready to chew scenery with the best of them yet. After all, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve played Satan like a bad Saturday Night Live impersonation opposite a beefcake retard.

Suspect Zero, however, is proof positive that Kingsley’s ready for the big leagues. Hopefully, he’ll reach further back into the annals of fallen idols and take the Welles/Brando route, allowing his talent to decrease in inverse proportion to his girth, until eventually he has trouble remembering to wear pants on set but can eat an entire planet like Galactus. Everything about Suspect Zero would lead you to believe that it would be an enjoyable B-movie, and in a way it is. But it’s in a guilty pleasure way, like admitting you had New Kids on the Block shoelaces when you were 12, or that you find Blanche from The Golden Girls arousing. The premise involves remote viewing, a process familiar to Psi-Factor fans and crazy people with JoJo’s Psychic Alliance on speed dial, in which people are trained in the art of astral projection. Astral projection, for those without access to Unsolved Mysteries DVDs, is all about casting your spirit self to a far off location, to ‘see’ things thousands of miles away. I tried that once, by downing nearly an entire quart of Demerol syrup and watching the Rob Zombie animated sequence from Beavis and Butthead Do America, but I foolishly decided to remote view a child sex tour in Thailand, so my astral self got a bad case of syphilis from a Bangkok whorehouse and died on a third world operating table, leaving me soulless, void, and itchy.

The basic plot has a remote viewing program at the FBI causing Ben Kingsley to go insane and think that yelling a lot of creepy non-sequitors is a substitute for subtlety. Then, he starts serial killing serial killers, which is the kind of thing that would make a producer's head explode in a pitch meeting. The film is actually kind of interesting, Kingsely’s ridiculous mugging aside, primarily because of the interplay between leads Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss, and the fascinating direction of E. Elias Merhige. Merhige, whose last film, Shadow of the Vampire, was similarly forgotten by audiences and critics rather quickly, has a knack for making us feel like we’re watching smaller chunks of a much larger story, which is due either to his mastery of an dream like meta-narrative or mild schizophrenia. Either way, it makes for a hypnotizing viewing experience, one that almost makes me slip into a trance and check out what’s going on at the Dao Kanong brothel.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Better To Bore Out, Than To Slowly Fade Away

Last Days
2005, USA
Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant is a genius. This is not to say that every film he makes is good, interesting, or even worth watching. It just means that his crappy films are all the more baffling for viewers expecting the surreal Shakespearean drama of My Own Private Idaho or the sharp mordant satire of To Die For. Good Will Hunting is boring and preposterous, and Finding Forrester is like finding out that Einstein spent a few years of his prime writing those skill testing questions you have to answer whenever you win a free bottle of Frutopia. And, like many geniuses, Van Sant’s work is often misunderstood, most likely because you have watch his films while being aware that he’s a genius, or you get the distinct impression that someone let an autistic child play with a $120 000 camera. This is especially true of his last three films, a trilogy that triumphs minimalism over style, and seems to be designed specifically to get upper-middle class Jewish women to demand rental refunds from the local Blockbuster. Gerry, which reduced Hollywood narrative clichés to basic Aristotelian conflicts, simultaneously sent half of the Sundance jury into fourth stage Delta sleep, and Elephant managed to make the Columbine shooting spree seem like a pleasant way to finally end 70 minutes of a boring high school orientation.

Last Days makes no effort to amp up the tension or style at all, at least in the way that most people define style, which is stupidly. Style, to most film viewers, is exactly how much like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels a film can be without running afoul of copyright law. There are special exceptions to be made for mid-nineties Tarantino rip-offs, and Tony Scott has a category all his own, but essentially, if you didn’t graduate from USC or haven’t spent 5 years making luxury car commercials, you don’t resonate with the 18-35 set. Van Sant’s last three films have a much more languid, drowsy style, sort of like Tarkovsky for people who don’t know who that is and aren’t willing to find out. In a sentence, it’s a viewing experience somewhere between Meet Joe Black and a Bergman film on half a bottle of cough syrup. The film tells the story of the final days of Kurt Cobain, I mean ‘Blake’, freshly escaped from rehab and wandering aimlessly around in his decaying mansion, fumbling and tripping over rotting furniture, and occasionally avoiding contact with his scummy drug addict friends and Asia Argento’s ass. Cobain gives us a side of drug addiction that is less Trainspotting and heroin chic than an impression of a geriatric patient trying to make it to the shitter before his colonoscopy bag breaks. In fact, the whole film is on a heroin nod, unfolding almost accidentally, full of long takes, head-cutting framing, and unscripted dialogue, kind of like the footage you’d get if you brought a drunk friend with a camcorder to a house party. Occasionally, the camera drifts off and becomes distracted by mundane items, like floorboards, and, in one memorable instance, almost an entire Boys II Men video, something that could pose no interest to a person unless they were stoned, brain damaged, or Jennifer Hollett.

The world's last living Boys II Men fan

Michael Pitt plays Cobain as a mumbling, staggering introvert, who manages to live in a house with four other people without pretty much any human contact whatsoever. Uneventful, yet atmospheric, the film is sad but captivating, managing to suck any glamour from Cobain’s life and death without taking anything away from his legacy. Granted, there’s not much of his legacy to take away from, since his lasting contribution to music seems to mainly involve the quite/loud dichotomy of screamo-bands and the brief resurgence of plaid, but the movie treats that with respect. Lots of long, long, very boring respect.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Gloria Estefan: Splatterpunk Death Queen

Red Eye
2005, USA
Wes Craven

At one point in his career, Wes Craven was making some of the best horror movies of the 20th century, films that were simultaneously brutal and intelligent, films that provoked both thought and screams. You know, like Swamp Thing. Nothing strikes terror into the hearts of an audience like the Jolly Green Giant living in the Bayou. That particular misstep aside, Craven was responsible for The Last House of the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, three films that dished out thrills and gore for teenage audiences while touching the fears and concerns that hid in the collective unconscious. Anti-war sentiment and issues of violence in the media lay at the heart of Last House…, the demise of the family linked The Hills Have Eyes to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare On Elm Street dealt with the mounting fear of John Saxon that has plagued society since Enter the Dragon.

Then, all of a sudden, Craven gave up on life, and the innovative ways to end it. After Nightmare, things went steadily south, dragging us through the terrors of robot girlfriends and Bill Pullman’s genitals before depositing us squarely in the midst of Eddie Murphy’s slump with Vampire In Brooklyn. It was as if Craven had given up on his relationship with horror. The bloom was off the rose, the romance had left, and the sex had gone from wild, passionate, shocking carnality to rushing a quickie before CSI: Miami comes back on. That’s not to say that the relationship was completely over. Craven apparently bought some flavoured condoms and a hardback edition of the Kama Sutra in time for one last flurry of passion, in the form of the excellent Scream, but soon, things cooled off again. Horror went back to living vicariously through Danielle Steele novels and Craven lost interest, eventually wandering off and having a torrid affair with Gloria Estefan and an inner city music school before crawling back shamefaced with the abysmal Cursed. Red Eye is no exception to this pattern, coming off less as a thriller than a paint-by-numbers exercise, only the paint is tempra and the painting is a bunch of dogs playing poker, making it about as close to art as the Max 5 jingle is to music.

Red Eye stars Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert, a hotel manager returning from her grandmother’s funeral when her flight goes straight to hell at the hands of Cillian Murphy, who plays a manager of some vague Murder Incorporated rip-off. McAdams is proving herself to be a versatile actor, playing a wide variety of characters in a wide variety of crap, and this film is no exception. She’s reason enough to watch it, even if the story is so full of holes you could drive a truck full of swiss cheese and various other clichéd closers to that sentence through it. Murphy threatens to kill Reisert’s father unless she helps him assassinate the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, which he has apparently elected to do in the most convoluted way possible. I’m no assassination expert, preferring to limit my homicidal impulses to online death-threats aimed at Lindsay Lohan and the occasional bell-tower spree killing, but even I can figure out that there are probably more efficient ways to murder someone than firing a missile through their hotel window, unless of course you’re either a James Bond villain or the Israeli army. While the film has a relatively tense first two acts, when Reisert is trapped on a plane with Murphy, things really start to fall apart right before the climax, when the paperclips holding the script together begin to degrade in the high altitude. Once she’s off the plane, there’s no point in even arguing with the film, as Reisert rapidly turns into Sidney Prescott and the movie reaches the point where logic and reason give up and head down to the strip club for the lunch buffet, sick and tired of arguing with the screenplay about how a low cell-phone battery isn’t really a tension building device when you’re near a pay phone. My advice to Craven, if asked, would be to bring home a bottle of nice champagne, and a bouquet of expensive roses, and remind the horror genre why you two got together in the first place. Either than, or go back to Gloria. You two made such beautiful music together.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Mars Needs Communists!

1924, USSR
Yakov Protazanov

I don’t know why I expected the first Soviet science fiction film to be any different from the last Soviet science fiction film, in that it’s confusing and paced so slowly you feel like you’re watching Terri Schiavo die in real time, but I decided to give this early silent film a shot. I had high hopes that it would either entertain me or lull me into one of those blissful sleeps where wild string orchestration provides the soundtrack to a Expressionist killing spree dream, where nubile women elaborately pantomime their terror before I relax my hunched shoulders long enough to throttle them in bed. Sadly, the film did neither. It was extraordinarily boring, and the score was entirely too heavy on the timpani to do much lulling. Nevertheless, it did have some interesting moments, though I wouldn’t strictly classify it as science fiction. It does involve a rocket ship at one point, and several scenes are set on Mars, where a bushy-browed princess rules over a proletariat society with an iron fist and a ridiculous hat. A lot of people have stupid hats on Mars, actually, making the whole planet look like a cross between Jackie Kennedy’s closet and a Qin Dynasty exhibit. But, as it turns out, all the Mars scenes are actually dream sequences, showing that even hardworking Communist screenwriters get too lazy to write themselves out of corners.

All jokes aside, Communism actually does play a big part of this film, as the Ruskie propaganda machine was in full force during the making of this film. Wait. Did you hear that? It sounded like a bunch of American readers rapidly clicking away from this blog and frantically heading over to less liberal websites, like the Department of Defense 101 Slide Show or God Hates And rightly so. I did use the C-word, which is anathema to many Americans, either because of lingering Cold War paranoia, or because it shares many of the same letters as terrorism and requires at least four years of grade school in a Blue State to tell the difference. For the record, I am not a communist, and did not become one by watching Aelita, so it’s safe to continue with reading this review, unless you’re being monitored by a Patriot Act enabled FBI computer program, in which case you’re probably screwed anyway, because I’ve been under investigation ever since I posted a negative review of Cinderella Man, thereby proving that I hate America.

The film follows a Soviet engineer, Los, who receives a mysterious radio message beamed from Mars, and subsequently kills his wife. Those two events are not connected, but to explain how one follows the other would take about as much time as watching the movie yourself, and we’d probably both get distracted by internet gambling sites before we got too far. On the run from the law, Los decides that the best course of action would be to pose as a rocket scientist, build a spaceship, and escape to Mars, an idea that may seem ridiculous at first, but one has to consider that it comes from a country that sought to institute a world economic policy based upon a kindergarten-level concept of sharing. Once on Mars, Los discovers that the entire planet is dependant on an evil capitalist economy, where exploited workers toil endlessly under intolerable conditions while the elite rulers eat caviar and mug for the camera. Ever the revolutionary, Los instigates a proletariat revolt and imposes a new socialist republic, where exploited workers toil endlessly under intolerable conditions while the elite rulers eat tinned rations and hold their pants up with rope. Then he wakes up and the terrible movie ends, proving once again that communism is a pipe dream, capitalism is a nightmare, and the world is a better place now that the Soviet Union no longer makes science fiction movies.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The AntiChrist Is Among Us, And He Has A Mustache.

Mr. And Mrs. Smith
2005, USA
Doug Liman

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like the type of movie I’d like. After all, I didn’t make it, and it doesn’t involve Nicky “The Cock Huntress” Hunter in an awkward and clearly medically inadvisable sexual position. But, every once in while, even film snobs like to go slumming, and movies such as this are like a nice, warm, dark alley where you can cuddle up with a quarter-point of H and a woman desperate enough to pretend to be a young Taiwanese boy. Mr. And Mrs. Smith tells the story of a pair of married assassins, who are each unaware of the other’s actual profession, instead believing themselves to be just as boring as the rest of us who don’t kill people or, as in my case, don’t kill people for money. You know, kind of like True Lies, but without the threat of Jamie Lee Curtis revealing her well-toned male swimmer’s body or the perpetually manic Tom Arnold to baffle us as to how a man so clearly strung out on street drugs can be so fat. The film works primarily because of director Doug Liman’s aggressive direction, and the performances of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who have a palpable… you thought I was going to say chemistry, didn’t you? Admit it. You did. You came here, to my website, dressed in that tight skirt and low-cut blouse, expecting to hear me talk dirty to you, parroting filthily overused phrases about the “chemistry” between actors, or “tension so thick you can cut it with a knife”, or the dreaded “edge of your seat thrill ride”, like I’m some sort of brainwashed hack being paid to spoon feed the idiot American public reasons why they should watch John Travolta movies using words of less than six letters. Well, I’ve got news for you. I’m not desperately trying to put a film degree from NYU to use by toadying up to some magazine editor of a broadsheet newspaper with a sports section bigger than the yellow pages. I dropped out, damn it. I don’t have a career to risk losing, so if you want some safe catchphrases, head on over to Good Morning America and try to listen to Joel Siegel without trying to gnaw through the flesh of your own wrists to end the pain of alliteration and sound-byte synopses.

The Antichrist

Now, where was I? Oh yes, why I hated this movie. I know it may have seemed like I enjoyed the film earlier, but then I remembered why I write this crap anyway, which is as an antidote to the aforementioned fawning reviews by Kevin Thomas clones, coupled with internet message boards full of barely literate defenses of terrible movies that essentially make the point that everyone who doesn’t agree is either gay, a communist, or “pretentius”. So despite the fact that I enjoyed Mr. And Mrs. Smith, it has to be noted that this is essentially a collection of witty asides and wisecracks written for a couple of attractive people to deliver while cars blow up. Why ever they chose Angelina Jolie as one of those attractive people is beyond me. I do realize that an admission that I find her unpleasant looking casts aspersions upon my sexuality, so let me just state that I’m as red-blooded and hetero as my libido suppressing anti-depressants will allow me to be, it’s just that I don’t find women with teenage stoner eyes and lips like winter tires attractive. She can’t act, either, she’s just weird and affected, so much so that people think she’s making it up and give her an Oscar just because she can act like a mental patient. Every second girl I went to high school with was like her, begging for attention with scarification and Anne Rice blood imagery, and encouraging them just makes it worse. So , for the benefit of guys everywhere who would like to sit down in their school cafeteria and not have to listen to a long story about teen angst and how it can be solved with a bottle of wine and a packet of Gravol, please stop going to see Angelina Jolie movies, even if they are edge of your seat thrill rides.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Machinist Makes Me Want To Puke. And Puke, And Puke, And Puke, Until I'm Pretty.

The Machinist
2004, Spain
Brad Anderson

First of all, I’ve seen Fight Club already, and I didn’t like it then, so I don’t see why I would like it now. It’s not that plot similarities are necessarily a bad thing, or that they’re in any way avoidable. Hell, everything I’ve ever written is a mix between Dave Barry and Michael J. Nelson, so who am I to quibble about cribbing? It’s just that I think that a reasonable amount of time should pass before you can start downloading your third act from Script-O-Rama. The Sixth Sense waited over thirty years before ripping off Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project nearly that for the buzz off of Cannibal Holocaust to wear off, and Reservoir Dogs at least ran City of Fire through Babel Fish before remaking it without credit. The twist at the end of The Machinist is so tired, however, that it ruins all the good things the movie has going for it, chief among which is a chance to see hunky Christian Bale reduced to the punchline of an eating disorder joke.

Bale’s dramatic weight loss, which he accomplished by digesting nothing but an apple, a can of tuna, and a publicity stunt manual a day, is shocking, no matter how prepared you are for it. It’s enough to put you off your lunch, or convince you that you should lose a few pounds round the middle, tubby. Honestly, have you seen yourself lately? I mean, you still look good, you know, for a pink marshmallow with fingers like cooked hotdogs. It’s just that I’ve been thinking that you’re getting a little puffy around the cheeks, like a sweaty ham, and they’re going to sag when you get older. But enough about you fat you are, back to the movie. Bale plays the titular machinist, whose insomnia and weight loss have driven him to the brink of insanity. He begins having encounters with a fat, bald man with a disfigured hand and snakeskin boots, a terrifying image even without the psychological thriller context. Snakeskin boots have always set off my spidey-sense, since clearly someone with fashion sense that poor has nothing to lose. This is the same reasoning that has kept me from ever daring to instigate a conversation with a woman wearing those puffy moccasin-looking boots that look like a cross between a space-suit and a lambskin condom. Bale is accompanied on his journey through madness by Michael Ironside, a veteran character actor who has made a living by being mistaken for John Saxon, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a prostitute with the perfect mix of pathos and strength, though quite frankly, she could stand to lose a few pounds. I mean, I know that the Hollywood beauty myth perpetuated by fashion magazines and music videos is damaging to female self-esteem in a broad cultural sense, but personally, even the slightest hint of flab on a girl's body makes me think of a drowned corpse bloated with gas. I figure, better they throw up than me, right? After all, as a man, I'm required to do all sorts of things to make myself attractive to women, like shave almost daily and change my pants occasionally, so it's only fair that they reciprocate by starving themselves.

The film itself is very well put together, revelling in a pervasive creepiness highlighted by the dark green and steely grey colour scheme and recurring, distressing imagery. The soundtrack is unsettling as well, even when Ironside isn’t speaking with his voice like a metal file being drawn over a leg bone. However, the ending is just too irritatingly obvious. It’s not that it’s an easy call all the way, like when I called the end to Matchstick Men on the way to the theatre, but the few admittedly interesting surprises the film has in store are overshadowed by the big Fight Club twist. It’s just a shame that a clearly talented filmmaker like Brad Anderson would rely on a script that comes just too soon after a slew of similar stories. Hollywood is much criticized for its lack of originality, and this film doesn’t do anything to disprove that complaint, though due no doubt to a tax dodge, the film is technically Spanish. If only there were some way to purge the end of the film, allowing us to gluttonously devour the deliciously interesting aspects of the first two thirds of the film, I might have enjoyed it. But perhaps it's for the best. I have been feeling a little heavy lately.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Death, Dating, and Dexedrine.

Land of the Dead
2005, USA
George A. Romero

It’s been a long time since George Romero made a good movie. In fact, most would argue that it’s literally been an eternity, and I tend to agree. While I love some of his films dearly, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that any of them are actually good. Some of them are intelligent, some of them are creepy in an accidentally way, like when you watch a David Bowie video at 1 in the morning after having been up for two days solid, and some of them are Knightriders, which is simultaneously the best and the worst movie about motorcycle jousting I have ever seen. Romero scored a legendary horror hit with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and introduced the world to the non-voodoo zombie, an innovation akin to the birth of the romantic comedy and the invention of the Schick Quattro razor. Prior to that film, zombies were slow moving Haitians under the spell of either a houngan or Bela Lugosi, but afterwards, freed from the tyranny of servitude and powdered tetrodotoxin, they were finally able to wander around aimlessly and attack women running in high heels.

The rest of the films in the series followed the basic formula of the first, namely lots of over-the-top gore worthy of an early Peter Jackson film, ham-fisted social commentary stolen directly from 11th grade creative writing exercises, and apocalyptic endings. Land of the Dead does little to depart from this formula, sticking to the basics, and although it’s the weakest of the series, it has enough going for it to keep Romero fans happy. Granted, Romero fans are generally Romero fans because they dropped out of high school and vent their frustrations at pretty women and people with non-service industry jobs by imaging the world ending at the hands of cannibalistic hordes and poorly written dialogue, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is what made the zombies so terrifying in Romero’s early films, which was not their speed, savagery, or tendency to attack alongside loud music cues and bad MTV cutting, but rather the slow, inexorable and unavoidable progression in which they wipe out the human race. This is an element that I found lacking in Land of the Dead. Where the prior films showed a clear progression from a contained incident to the absolute destruction of society, this film has civilization rising from the ashes to a certain extent, which I found disappointing, though I suppose whether or not society survives this imaginary apocalypse, that cute girl from Videotron is still not going to sleep with me.

Aside from that, the film contains all the Romero landmarks, including a ridiculously obvious subtext, this time focusing on class struggle and commercialism, and terrible lines delivered by terrible actors, here led by John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, who has apparently reverted to his pre-rehab days as an actor who will do pretty much anything so long as it pays for yellow jackets and white lady. Tom Savini has a hilarious cameo as the zombie version of his character from Dawn of the Dead, or rather it would be hilarious if you haven’t fallen asleep already. The problem with the film is that, despite its strict adherence to the Romero formula, it’s not actually scary. The remake of Dawn of the Dead replaced intelligence with action, and 28 Days Later just cut all the boring bits out of Romero’s first three films and added a bunch of extras hopped up on Dexedrine. Land of the Dead is an intelligent film, at least comparably, but the smarts come at the expense of thrills, and sadly, intelligence is something wasted on guys with Evil Dead lunchboxes and unrequited crushes

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Mental Illness Is Not Funny. But Africans Are.

Crazy Safari
1991, Hong Kong
Billy Chan

My, this is interesting. It's amazing the kind of stuff you find if you live near a good video store. Well, 'good' is a relative term. Some might define 'good' as the type of video store that guarantees that Vin Diesel's The Pacifier will always be in, should you find yourself in a situation when you need to creep your kids out of their minds, but I define it as the type of place where a friendly smile and a few well placed hints will get you a bootlegged video of a 15 year old Asian girl getting mounted by a black Lab. And those are the kinds of rental places you'll find films like Crazy Safari.

This particular gem of Hong Kong cinema is actually a sequel to the popular The Gods Must Be Crazy franchise, a series that needed another entry like I need another hate speech conviction. I know, I know, it's a heart-warming story about a clash of cultures, as a charmingly primitive African tribesman encounters a bustling post-colonial city, where innocence meets commerce, pollution, and genocidal government officials driving Mercedes S600Ls, but when I'm of the opinion that both cultures should be eradicated by drought and disease to clear valuable land for McDonald's to raise cattle, I tend not to get particularly enthralled. In the first Gods Must Be Crazy, a young (or possibly terribly old, when you're that shrunken and sun-weathered, it's hard to tell) hunter is startled when he's hit on the head by a Coke bottle, which he takes as a sign of the Gods. It's supposed to be comical, but it's just insulting. He's so monstrously uneducated he mistakes product placement for divine intervention. Isn't that cute? Plus he doesn't even bother to speak English, preferring instead to communicate in the proverbial clicks and whistles that most people assume is just part of a bad joke you overhear bikers tell in bars with tinted windows. All in all, I was unimpressed, but I'll chalk that up to a cultural insensitivity on my part akin to moral Novocain and move on.

Crazy Safari, however, draws my ire at both the patronizing portrayal of the tribesman and the bafflingly insane portrayal of Asian culture, something that regular readers will recognize as a familiar theme on these pages. The film starts off as the first in the series did, with the tribesman, N!Xau, blissfully unaware of anything more complicated that a hollowed out gourd and a sharp rock. Then, he's hit on the head by a Chinese hopping vampire falling out of a plane carrying Steven Chow and the guy from Mr. Vampire. Naturally, he uses the vampire to battle a rampaging Zulu horde led by white South African diamond miners. Then comes the part when N!Xau gets possessed by a photo of Bruce Lee and starts attacking stock footage from The Chinese Connection. At this point, my brain is officially sparking with the myriad possible directions this review can take. Do I rely on the old standard, pointing out that watching any non-Kurosawa movie made east of the Gobi desert feels kind of like running around in a video arcade on acid? Do I start trying to explain the complex mythology behind Chinese ghost stories and why they're about as frightening as an episode of Zoom? Do I write about the social and political effects of conflict diamond mining in post-colonial African society? Nah, I think I'll just make fun of the tribesmen some more, since they probably can't read this anyway. Although, what with my country's draconian hate speech laws, maybe I better leave it be for now.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Rejected By The Devil, Embraced By The Stupid.

The Devil's Rejects
2005, USA
Rob Zombie

I hate House of 1000 Corpses. Or rather, I hate people who like House of 1000 Corpses. The movie itself isn't so bad, if you like flashing lights, loud noises, and get scared at carnivals, but the film has engendered a rabid fan following. You know the type of fan I mean, the kind that overhears a disparaging Lord of the Rings comment and then leads a savage gang beating with a gnarled oak staff and a bag full of twelve sided dice. These folks tend to get personally insulted if you disagree with their opinion, particularly if your contradictory remarks contain words with more than one syllable, and the arguments than ensue tend to involve a lot of sputtering, which is a problem for someone like me who's morbidly revolted by bodily fluids. In director Rob Zombie's first film, he did what most genre fans who get a chance at the big time do, which is make the type of movie they want to see. Generally, this works, but if the only movie you want to see is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, things can get a little derivative.

Thankfully, in The Devil's Rejects, Zombie chooses to rip off a plethora of horror films, instead of just the one. His targets are still 1970s exploitation films, but the focuses is skewed more towards the action end of the spectrum, like The Hills Have Eyes and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, broadening the scope of his copyright infringement. While the lifts from Texas are still prevalent, there's a lot here to spot and identify via loud stage whisper to your date or, barring that, to the group of underage skateboarders in the row in front of you who snuck in by buying tickets for Bad News Bears. It's like Kill Bill for people who wear black jeans in the summer. The film follows some of the more colorful members of the Firefly clan introduced in the first film, except instead of focusing on surreal comedy and a last act clearly inspired by a Floria Sigismondi video, this is more of a graphically violent road picture than anything else. It does have its moments of comedy, but many of them are unintentional, like the moment that you realize that the Leatherface character's makeup is the same as That Yellow Bastard's from Sin City, only not quite so jaundiced.

What annoys me most about this movie, and others like it, is that it seems that horror fans today don't realize that blood, tits, and scary clowns do not a horror film make. The best horror movies were soulless and depraved, true, but they either had something to say, or barring that, at least said nothing by touching on a sub-conscious cultural fear that spoke to the time period. The 60s had the cold war paranoia, followed by the degeneration of the family as a primary concern in the next decade, and the 80s engendered a fear of franchise sequels and plastic masks. What, pray tell, am I supposed to be afraid of after watching this film? 70s exploitation movies? Music videos? For all Zombie's attempts to recapture the gritty, panicked quality of that era, it's difficult to imitate the low-budget immediacy of an underground horror film when you have crane shots and a helicopter, and cut every ten seconds like you're trying to match a Destiny's Child beat.

There are some pluses in the film, like the performance of Sid Haig, but there are even bigger minuses, like Zombie's wife Sheri Moon, who's cute as a button, but seems about as dumb as one. Also, Karen Black has been mysteriously replaced by a cheap, less Down's Syndrome-y knock-off, which knocks a leg of credibility out from under the movie. This lack of credibility, as well as any real point, is a real weaknesses of the film. There are moments where it seems as if The Devil's Rejects might be rising above just a mindless excuse for filming torture and butchery, like a sequence near the end of the picture when cheesy music and super 8 footage makes it seems as if Zombie is playing with us and the American obsession with glorifying the anti-hero. Then, it quickly becomes evident that those are really big words and he just wants to see someone get raped with a knife blown up on a 20 foot screen. The biggest problem with the film, however, are the characters. Zombie seems to have fallen into the trap of every single 18 year old high school drop out who decides that they've seen enough horror movies that they can write a good one in between shifts as a dishwasher . Clearly, too much time has been spent plotting out the villains, their one-liners, and their murderous quirks, and not enough on plotting out the story or removing all the awkward lines your stoned buddies came up with while playing Madden '04 at 3 am. This whole movie is one big circle jerk for gore-hounds fed up with character motivation, plot structure, or anything else that gets in the way of quotable dialogue for voice mail greetings and a cool T-shirt. If you're looking for a fun time spent picking out cameos by Michael Berryman and the babysitter from Halloween, then you're going to be one happy camper. But if you're not an idiot, then you might want to return to Zombie's source material for some challenging fare.

Friday, August 05, 2005

School of Cock Rock

Rock School
2005, USA
Don Argott

First off, let’s not get this confused with Richard Linklater’s School of Rock. This is a bad documentary, not a bad Jack Black comedy. The distinction may be difficult, since neither of them are very funny, but this movie at least has the excuse of being unscripted. Actually, it’s quite an interesting little film, though it feels too much like an A&E special stretched out from a pre-commercial length of 44 minutes to be truly great. For better or worse, I prefer my documentaries to have a distinct, auteur-driven voice, be it the complex narrative sine waves of Errol Morris’ films, or the frothy ravings and bald faced lies of Michael Moore’s. Rock School doesn’t really have this, but like the equally bland The Backyard, the subject matter is at least interesting enough to make it bearable.

Said subject matter revolves around Paul Green’s Rock School, an after-school program where impressionably young teens are taught to become drug-dependent rock club barflies through verbal abuse and KISS records. Teaching the young to play music is clearly Green’s way of living vicariously through his pupils as his dreams of stadium rocking and throwing up blood and tequila from the eighth floor of a Sofitel fade away, but he admits this freely, so I suppose that makes it slightly less pathetic. The film mainly focuses on Green’s attempts to get his star pupils ready for a massive concert at a three day Frank Zappa festival in Germany, and along the way we meet several interesting secondary characters, aside from Green himself, who seems to have neglected the depressive part of his clear bi-polar disorder and carries on like he just inhaled a meth lab. Among the more interested students are Will O’Conner, an attention-craving loner and a nascent Marilyn Manson fan if I’ve ever seen one, and Asa and Tucker Collins, two androgynous, talentless munchkin twins whose interest in music apparently functions better in theory than in practice, gathering from their inability to comprehend notes and rhythm, two necessarily components of all forms of music save Seth Putnam songs.

Actually, as in the School of Rock, the thing I found most annoying in this film was the music, but I will freely admit that that’s due more to a personal problem than any fault on the filmmakers’ part. As some of you may have gathered, the one thing I hate more than movies is music. I don’t listen to the radio, and I can’t stand anything that comes even remotely close to the Billboard top 200, but of course anybody under the age of 45 is going to say the same thing. The odd part is, however, that I don’t even listen to underground stuff. Alternative, math rock, garage, all that crap just sounds to me like they taped a Portishead song off a retro 90s radio show and played the keyboard riff backwards. The same melody, harmonies, and structures have been recycled for the past 50 years, and before anyone tries to get too snobby, playing a pop song in ¾ time does not make you original, so all you Tool and Radiohead fans can go back to sulking on the Pitchfork Media website. So, when Paul Green starts passing off Queen and Zeppelin songs as powerful and original, I go temporarily blind from rolling my eyes in exasperation, because the one thing I hate more than the bizarre infiltration of pop into the underground music scene, ass typified by the Scissor Sisters and The Polyphonic Spree, is 70s arena rock. Indulgent, over-long, and irritatingly obsessed with Lord of the Rings, it’s bands like Rush that make me ashamed that I even know how to play guitar. But while I cringed every time someone even looked like they were going to start playing Black Dog, I appreciated the fact that Green’s at least abusive enough that he prepares the kids for the kind of heckling his students are going to receive if they even try to perform Stairway to Heaven at anything but a high school dance.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Fine, I'll Use Paragraphs. Fantastic Paragraphs.

Fantastic Four
2005, USA
Tim Story

Finally, a comic book movie that not only knows it’s based on a comic book, but knows what kind of comic book it’s based on. I’m not asking for much in the recent glut of adaptations. I’m not even asking for good movies, which this clearly isn’t. I’m just begging that whoever makes these films takes the 25 minutes necessary to actually read the comics the movies are coming from. It’s fairly clear that Francis Lawrence hadn’t read a lot of Hellblazer before he made Constantine, judging from the fact that they changed the lead from a snarky Sting impersonator to a sulky aging pinup, and I’ll bet even money that Pitof didn’t even read the script for Catwoman, let alone the source material. It’s not that I require strict faithfulness when it comes to adaptations. Far from it. I actually prefer some deviation to justify the translation from one medium to another. I want to see a Sin City movie, not an animated flip book narrated by Mickey Spillane. However, if the film misses the point, like Constantine and Swamp Thing did, I get angry. Well, angrier. I sort of idle at angry, and first gear is bitter, plus when you pop my clutch I spit acid. Fantastic Four, however, does not miss the point, which is the comic is a shitty adventure book full of lame villains, bad dialogue, and more color than a Dario Argento light show. The movie hits that nail right on the brain-damaged head in that regard, sticking right by the simplistic dialogue and plot twists straight out of a first year screenwriting course at a non-accredited film school, replacing the leaden seriousness of Batman Begins with the kind of giddy, air-headed exuberance generally reserved for Sweet Valley High episodes and nitrous highs. The family dynamic portrayed in the comics is spot on, as is the fact that I feel just as ashamed admitting I saw this film as I am to have a subscription to the magazine.

My only sticking point is the character of Dr. Doom. If I were an internet fan boy, I would insert a long, poorly spelled rant here about how the origin of Victor Von Doom was altered, but instead I choose to retain both my dignity and my grasp of syntax and merely acknowledge the change, rather than judging it. This is an adaptation, after all, and it’s the filmmakers’ prerogative as to what to change to best suit the demands of a different medium. However, it must be said that his character is the most ignored in a buffet of underwritten characters. If your character has less depth than the one Jessica Alba plays, you’re in trouble, and not even Julian McMahon can dig his way out of this pit of cliché. You can make a good guy go bad, or a bad guy go even worse, but to have a bad guy just sort of stay bad is probably the most boring choice you could make, save using the phrase ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ seriously in a film pitch. McMahon plays Doom as a sociopathic prick from his first scene, as a supposed friend of the pre-super power Fantastic Four, to his last, when he finishes off the movie as a bad Glenna Goodacre sculpture. I know I don’t exactly have my fingers on the pulse of the nation, but I’m fairly sure that most people wouldn’t spend a lot of time in confined spaces with a megalomaniacal asshole named Doom, which, come to think of it, may explain why I don’t have a lot of friends. The effects in the film are for the most part good, though The Thing kind of looks like his superpower is emoting through a rubber suit, and Mr. Fantastic’s super-Gumby abilities don’t translate very well to live action, coming off more like warped film stock than stretchy limbs. Michael Chiklis does well in his role, as does Chris Evans as the Human Torch. Jessica Alba has large breasts, and thus fulfills her role of helping 17 year old males make it through that one last year before they can rent porn from Rogers. Not particularly challenged by the material, the actors at least manage to avoid looking embarrassed by the stupid script, delivering their lines with a sense of fun and only the barest whisper of shame that the film they’re in is dumber than livestock. And that description is as true to the comic book as you can get.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Yogic Flyers For Victory!

What The #$*! Do We Know!?
2004, USA
William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vincente

This movie stinks. And I’ll tell you exactly what it stinks like. It stinks like stagnant bong water and three years’ worth of sweat soaked into a hemp necklace. It stinks like energy crystals coated in resin and the acrid stench of psilocybin-laced vomit. In short, it stinks like aged hippie. Essentially, this movie uses some of the more fascinating elements of quantum physics to try and convince us to vote for the Natural Law Party. Apparently, since the electrons that surround the nucleus of an atom are simultaneously particle and wave, or, more accurately, they exist in a sphere of probability up until the moment they are observed, we all live in The Matrix and can dodge bullets if we just think hard enough. If we could really alter our surroundings just by concentrated thought, don’t you think I would have taken advantage of it? Why don’t I shit diamonds into a gold toilet? Why are The Arcade Fire still making music? Why do I not live in an enormous castle made of blood and black rock built upon a ziggurat of severed heads, all chanting my name in unison to throngs of buxom, underage women of varying ethnicities worshiping me like a god? I’ll tell you why. It’s because understanding physics takes a little more effort than reading a StephenHawking book and dosing out on Romilar. What The #$*! Do We Know!? is the worst kind of propaganda, save for Michael Moore. It's a misleading, pseudoscientific treatise disguised as one of those bad documentaries you see in high school science class to try and explain genetics to skateboarders using bad computer animation and Disney knock-off animal narrators. The film is essentially comprised of two, equally retarded parts. The first part is a succession of interviews with physicists and scholars, interspersed with the views crackpots and magic shop owners who wandered off from the Burning Man festival three years ago and just found their way out of the desert. The problem is, no distinction is made between the two. Here, the hard science of quantum physics is butted up against spacey ravings from Manson cult acolytes, wild-eyed with the fervor of converting another housewife hooked on telephone psychics to the fold. This is disgusting, because the science is interesting, but not when it’s muddled by spiritualism that seeks to use the fact that atoms are mainly space as opposed to matter to prove the existence of the human soul. This does not compute, but if you’re not paying attention, it just might slip by you. The rest of the movie is a terrible, terrible re-enactment of the concepts explored by the film, featuring deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who may or may not be the same person who plays Sue Thomas, FB Eye. Presumably, she wasn’t reading lips too well when she signed on for this project, or maybe they just aren’t all that many roles for actresses who can’t hear and speak like they’ve just gotten a tongue transplant from a cow. This movie is like a virus, spreading out to TV screens from video stores the continent over, rejected by the intelligent and the strong, but infecting the weak-minded with an intellectual plague that threatens to reduce otherwise rational human beings to astrology enthusiasts and yogic flyers. The best part of the re-enactment, excluding the part when animated human cells get into fistfights with each other due to negative energy, comes with the appearance of Armin Shimerman. The presence of Deep Space Nine’s Quark in a movie purportedly about quantum physics indicated that even crazy people have senses of humor, and thankfully it occasionally takes the form of ‘ha-ha’ funny, instead of ‘my, that certainly is a great deal of fecal matter smeared on your wall’ funny. Still, if you zone out for a bit, you might get sucked into the mind-over-matter, love makes the world go round, blah, blah, blah buy an L. Ron Hubbard book spirituality of the movie. By the end of the film, once its less than tenuous grasp of reality had been established, and the re-enactment scenes had finished teaching me how time has no meaning and I shouldn’t listen to psychiatrists or take prescription drugs because I can think myself out of the psychosis I have that makes me watch ten movies a day and nail frogs to trees, I was left feeling a little dizzy, as if all the new age mumbo-jumbo had merged its way perfectly with the wonderful intricacies of pure physics, fusing the rational side of my brain with the crazy, soap-opera addicted side that comes from that lousy X chromosome. Thankfully, I think I shook it off, though I’m still a little woozy. Nothing, I’m sure, a little transcendental meditation couldn’t cure.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Illegal Aliens

War of the Worlds
2005, USA
Steven Spielberg

First of all, if you’re disappointed by the ending of this film, you’re an idiot. You don’t have to like it, just don’t be disappointed. Instead, be surprised. Be surprised that they didn’t change the ending of the H.G. Wells novel by having Tom Cruise destroy the alien mothership by piloting an experimental aircraft that only he has the skills to fly ever since washing out of the Air Force for punching a superior officer, alongside sassy black comic relief in the form of either Chris Tucker or that guy from The Hughleys. Be surprised that at no point does Cruise linger on an aircraft carrier as the fate of the world hangs in the balance for one last kiss with his beautiful yet tough as nails CO, played by any one of a myriad of ex-teen TV stars making the leap to the big screen, all grown up and ready to display cleavage via a partially unzipped flight suit. Forget surprised, and thank whatever god you pray to that no one has an attitude so bad that they’re the only ones who can save the day. I’ll admit, I, too, find the film’s final moments, when the invading alien hordes are defeated by microbes, a little deflating and anti-climactic, as if you got two hours into Sophie’s Choice only to discover that Meryl Streep’s final decision was selecting between reading the novelization of Revenge of the Sith or waiting for the movie to come out, but the original ending is integral to the story. The point of the book, and now the film, is that despite all humanity’s developments in terms of weaponry, warfare, and American hero wisecracking, our destruction at the hands of superior forces comes rapidly and unstoppably, highlighting our insignificance in a universal sense. And yet, said superior forces are just as easily felled by something that we ourselves considered insignificant, allowing the film to make the dual point of both never overestimating your own strength or underestimating the strength of others. Pretty deep for a fellow who alternates movies about somber historical tragedies with movies about big things eating little things. Spielberg has made some very powerful and meaningful dramas, such as Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and The Color Purple, and some exciting fantasy films, like ET and Schindler’s List, but this film doesn’t compare with his finer works in either genre, despite its focus on both special effects and character development. Personally, I wouldn’t mind it so much if he combined the two styles. Yes, I understand that the Holocaust was a terrible black mark on humanity and should never be trivialized, but if a lifetime of historical study has taught me anything, it’s that Hitler was into some crazy shit, like underwater zombies and monkey brain transplants, and I think few would disagree if I said that the Auschwitz scenes in Schindler's List would have been even more shocking had man’s inhumanity to man been coupled with giant spiders with radioactive fire-breath. I’m not going to say that, however, as that would be a parole violation. The film’s ending aside, War of the Worlds is not a particularly good film. It’s not terrible, in the way that Rob Cohen movies make me want to murder a house full of McGill exchange students just so someone will make a TV movie of my life that’ll be better than The Fast and The Furious, but it’s certainly not good. Tom Cruise is surprisingly competent in his performance of an interestingly written character, a fairly bad father stuck with his kids when the Earth is attacked, but the film never really gets going. Good special effects don’t inject any excitement into the film, and a lengthy interlude with Tim Robbins hamming his way through a bad Vietnam War Section 8 discharge attempt doesn’t help liven things up. And, as you might expect, things certainly don’t pick up once microbes start killing the aliens. Incidentally, I’m not sorry at all for spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t seen the film, because if you don’t know the ending of the novel, you’re either massively ignorant, or have just barely reached the level of literacy necessary to get all the way through The Da Vinci Code without relying too heavily on a thesaurus. Either way, I’m educating you to the point when you can impress the teenage girlfriend you picked up at the video arcade with your background in literature. As usual, I have only your best interests at heart.

In other news, I’ve been linked to by another blog, officially doubling my readership. And the best part is, she’s Mexican, which leads to a lot of inappropriate jokes about the alien invasion described above. That’s right, kids, I no longer appeal solely to guys I met in high school and white militia members living in Idaho. And my mother will be very pleased that people are finally starting to judge me based on my work, rather than how many militantly right wing mailing lists I belong to. Check out neonightmare here, for a taste of brief but often poetic snippets of bloggerdom, only spicier, because there’s some Spanish.