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While I seldom flat-out reject a film based on personal bias, I can't say I went into "Frozen" with great expectations. Even more so than the blaringly outspoken Eli Roth, the would-be "cult auteur" visage of writer/director/pilferer Adam Green (he of the wretched slasher throwback "Hatchet") comes across as representative of all the smug douchebags whose most (and sometimes only) original move was ripping off the horror films they were weaned on without throwing much creativity into the mix. Listening to the characters of "Frozen" exchange their initial lines portended an onslaught of spoiled-brat attitude that didn't bode well for its premise: three college types (played by Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers, and Shawn Ashmore) who become stranded high above a mountain in a ski lift, and their subsequent battle to survive. Once the time-killing setup has been dispensed with and we are looming high above earth with our defenseless trio, however, "Frozen" starts to build a dread that, while not completely terrifying, is at least gripping enough for its duration. The cinematography develops a sense of vertigo early on, and Green's script quite admirably avoids the urge to cut away from the lone setting (no flashbacks playing during the dialog, for instance), stranding the audience with the characters (who develop into near-three-dimensional people whose fates we care about) in a seemingly no-exit scenario.
Sucker Punch (2011)
Fascinating, Frustrating, and Hard to Shake
Several days after viewing it, I have come to the conclusion that I like "Sucker Punch." I *think* I like it, anyway. At the very least, I have been unable to shake its alternatively bleak, exhilarating, and brazenly energized imagery from my frontal lobe. Coming from director Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the original script with Steve Shibuya), the notion of calling this film a vanity project is redundant, as Snyder is the whiz kid who gave us Green-Screened visual feasts like "300" and "Watchmen" (graphic-novel adaptations that, in the case of the latter, came very close to perfection) -- films that gorged themselves on a unique kind of visual beauty. The difference between a technical auteur like Snyder and the soul-dead commercial hackwork of, say, Michael Bay is a reliable core of character and plot to push the visuals along with a sense of purpose, no matter how disparate. Which is what makes the initial machinations of "Sucker Punch" somewhat jarring -- set in an anachronistic, parallel-universe America, where Babydoll (Emily Browning) is sent away to an all-girls asylum after attacking her grotesque pervert of an uncle, she is covertly signed away (by an equally lecherous orderly) and set to receive a trans-orbital lobotomy at the end of five days, thus setting into play an imaginary world that may be her only chance of salvation. Old-world notions of psychiatry, patriarchy, and the role of women in such a repressive society is not where Snyder's interest lies, though he does create some distinctive (if not particularly well-drawn -- probably the film's biggest flaw) female ass-kickers, literally battling it out against unfathomable odds. Like Terry Gilliam's oeuvre on a dose of David Lynch mindbender, "Sucker Punch" is a largely self-indulgent work -- frequently chaotic, but mostly fascinating; Snyder's interest in cohering the various combat sequences (which run the gamut from a steampunk vision of WWII, a Medieval siege, and a futuristic train populated by android assassins) into a consistent narrative is minimal at best, instead opting for an epic, "bigger is better" mentality that reinforces the film's "against all odds" schematic (it may not be subtle or original, but the driven vision of it all makes it fly). Like Gilliam's undervalued "Tideland," "Sucker Punch" is destined for cult status -- and, unlike Tim Burton's lame interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland," is never boring.
Winter's Bone (2010)
I use the latter part of my summary to refer to a blunder, not the favored slang of adolescent boys comparing themselves in the high-school john. After allowing the flood of 'Best of 2010' lists naming "Winter's Bone" within their rankings to subside, I finally sat down and watched the film to make my own determination. While the specter of hype stood in the back of my mind, I tried to assess as little predetermined expectation as possible. The result? A film with a generally unsympathetic heroine, some sporadically gripping moments (thanks in large part to the setting and cinematography), and a persistent ambiguity that frustrates rather than fascinates (the Coen Brothers pulled a similar stunt with "No Country for Old Men," but their surface simplicity portended greater metaphors and meaning culled straight from Cormac McCarthy's source novel). While many have lauded "Bone"'s unconventional Noir and pulp aspects (set in the Ozarks, the film is populated by tattooed hicks, corrupt policemen, and charred houses where crank labs once stood), the lack of any sort of narrative payoff turns the proceedings into a wild goose chase trying to convince viewers that it's the Real Deal.
Well Within Limits
It's frustrating when any work of art -- be it an album of music, a novel, a painting, or a film -- carries a distinct yet maddeningly unplaceable sense of familiarity; when its sources and inspirations bubble exceedingly close to the surface without ever really showing their faces, as if embarrassed by what has been done with their influence. "Limitless" is a film fraught with such familiarity, and as a result, comes nowhere near matching its title. The plot involves disheveled, would-be writer Eddie Mora (the reliably charismatic Bradley Cooper), who has a run-in with a long-unseen cohort, who hooks him up with a transparent, dime-sized drug called NZT. After his first tab, Eddie plows through his novel and becomes a sudden fountain of once-untapped knowledge (the aim of the drug is to free up all the unused, inaccessible space in the human brain); he makes connections up the societal ladder, and eventually uses his expanded headspace to...wait for it...play the Stock Market and make himself filthy rich. This leads him to a position of grace with a powerful corporate mogul played by Robert De Niro (on default mode, as is usually the case these days). As one might predict, what goes up must come down, and the demands of NZT eventually cause Eddie to run afoul of some time-filling Russian mobsters who serve no real purpose other than to shoehorn some overly contrived, plot-desperate conflict into the proceedings. As directed by Neil Burger, "Limitless" is pulp, plain and simple -- alternating between bizarrely jokey voice-over narration, some very cool (if narratively disposable) 'rollercoaster' shots, and dour sermons on the side effects of addiction, all while culminating in an ending that favors convenience over believable logic.
I Spit on Your Grave (2010)
Spit Redux: Spit Harder
My in-quotations "fanfare" for Meir Zarchi's notorious 1978 rape-and-revenge shocker "I Spit On Your Grave" was informed as much by the film's ambiguity and contradictions as by its shocks and relentless, unflinching perspective; here was a film that had a reputation for being one of the Baddest Mothers to play the grindhouse circuit, but was, in reality, a film also inclined toward the kind of contemplative, introspective moments you'd find in a film by Bergman or Antonioni (yes, I said it). Needless to say, I found the revulsion leveled against it both justified and over-the-top; I took greater issue with Zarchi's inexplicable desire to play all sides: the faultless female protagonist (the luminous Camille Keaton) who is brutally violated by four misogynist -- yet also maddeningly innocuous -- hoods who seem to represent the very worst manifestation of inexplicable sexual rage. Despite this, "Spit" remains a fascinating, one-of-a-kind work, which makes the notion of a remake something even more curious: while the fan opinion of Today seems to have balanced the scales against the critical opinion of Then, Zarchi's film remains best-known as the film Roger Ebert derided as the worst of all time.
By some strange feat, director Steven R. Monroe and writer Stuart Morse have given "Spit" a modern face-lift that improves and expands upon the original film, provides clearer character motivation (not to mention more development), and settles into acts of revenge that are jaw-dropping in their audacity, yet strangely justified in their torture-porn excesses. While Zarchi trafficked in predictable payoffs distinguished by geysers of gore, Morse scripts scenes of torture so florid that they border on the abstractly poetic (while hanging on by a delicate string of credibility throughout). The rapists here are three-dimensional nightmares of liquor-slugging (yet backwoods-smart) horniness, and our female protagonist (Sarah Butler, in a performance as courageous as Keaton's) finds the perfect balance between fear and intimidation; empowerment and hellfire vengeance. The plot is suspenseful and largely unpredictable (even during the first act, which uses Zarchi's script as a template but goes into even more grueling, horrifying terrain of negative anticipation), though "Spit Redux" sometimes flinches when it should push its excesses that much further (the actual rape is truncated, illuminating contemporary popular attitudes toward sexual violence in film). And some of the machinations of the last act stretch credibility in terms of character consistency. Still, "I Spit on Your Grave" is a remake as potent as "The Hills Have Eyes," "Dawn of the Dead," and "Halloween" -- an electrifying reminder of just how potent and ugly the filmed image can be (and that's a compliment).
7.5 out of 10
Eraserhead Goes Greek
In an interview (on the Kino DVD) surprisingly devoid of any deliberate insight, director Giorgos Lanthimos explains that "Dogtooth" was conceived not in terms of a linear plot, but as a series of unrelated sequences. Watching the film, that is plain to see. "Dogtooth" takes the notion of the dysfunctional family and transforms it into a baby that David Lynch would love and coddle. This Greek production is rife with stark imagery, coded language, and very attractive actors doing heinously antisocial (by our standards of sociability, mind you) things in the face of a unique, purely insular world where the antisocial is indeed the accepted norm. We have a soft-spoken patriarch who works at an unnamed industrial facility (the film contains nary a brand name nor a recognizable reference to anything within popular culture, save for a few key moments), carrying on a guise of bread-winning "normality." When he returns home each day, he plays bizarre games with his developmentally challenged adult children (who have no notion of what waits outside the ominously cheerful fence that encircles the isolated acreage), and leaves his grown son to participate in awkwardly graphic intercourse with the female security guard at his facility. When the security guard begins to draw the daughters into her web of seduction (seemingly out of boredom), she threatens to bring the outside world crashing into their consciences, something the patriarch doesn't take kindly to. While sometimes running the edge between bizarre for its own sake and outright pretension, "Dogtooth," in its own hypnotic, stream-of-consciousness manner, manages to fascinate, compel, and haunt in equal measure. It's a sometimes-unpleasant film to view (and many mainstream viewers will be repelled by its stark, morally ambiguous perspective toward sexuality), but its images affix firmly in the mind's eye.
7.5 out of 10
Strong, Subjective Horror
When done well, a film whose main gimmick rests on the widespread fear of enclosed spaces can inspire a flood of queasiness and horror greater than most genre films (and indeed, something few can match). With few aesthetic exceptions, "Buried" is exactly what the title promises -- the tale of U.S. civilian contractor Paul Conroy (a fantastically believable Ryan Reynolds), who awakens in darkness, only to discover that he's been buried alive by terrorists bent on getting a ransom for his oxygen-deprived body. With only a cell phone, a pen, and a small canteen of liquor, director Rodrigo Cortes manages to ratchet up tension as well as (if not better than) a big-budget suspense thriller utilizing a wide variety of locales. For 95 grueling minutes, Paul frantically tries to make contact with the State Department, his company's CEO, and his absent wife in the States, only to be met with a string of double-talk, false assurances, and threats of extreme punishment (the terrorist he communicates with chillingly demands for him to make a ransom video for the public). With the exception of some brief video communicated via cell phone, Cortes never leaves the coffin, and the effect is harrowing; much like Conroy, we feel the urgency of the situation and the sense that time may be running out. While its closing twist is somewhat predictable (given the course of events, I feel that most viewers will see it coming), "Buried" is still an exhaustively well-done exercise in confined, subjective horror.
Drive Angry (2011)
Highway to Cinema Hell
With each successive role, Nicolas Cage becomes a sadder, more sulking version of his former self, which got me thinking: was Cage ever that great to begin with? While he has worked under the guidance of some impressive directors (including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Werner Herzog), has his acting range ever truly transcended the mindset of a bland (and sometimes hyperactive) summer action hero? "Drive Angry" goes a long way toward answering that question. The latest 3D'ed effort from director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer, who previously visited a remake of "My Bloody Valentine" upon us, this tale of a Badass escaping from Hell to rain down retribution upon the Bad Dudes who killed his daughter and took her baby is formless in concept (imagine a really bad rip-off of the already-bad "Constantine"), with minimal explanation given to John Milton (said Badass, played by Cage) and his powers...and his backstory...etc. The awful Amber Heard shines awfully in the role of Cage's sidekick, hitching her boots on an awful Southern twang. Looking like Jimmy Fallon given over to a rock-star hangover, Billy Burke ("Twilight") shows up as the Satanic cult leader who killed Milton's daughter, and looks to ritually sacrifice her child because...well, um, like a lot else in "Drive Angry," it's just never explained. Some filmmakers can float their concepts on a deliberate lack of conventional logic and exposition (early-period David Lynch and Roman Polanski comes to mind), delivering compelling work through a confident directorial vision. Lussier is not one of those filmmakers. As with "My Bloody Valentine," the 3D effect is very well-integrated, but amounts to little more than a throwaway bit of eye candy that adds nothing to the film overall; and with a story as half-baked as this, it doesn't take long for tedium to settle in. Like last year's faux-grindhouse experiment "Machete," "Drive Angry" is an awesome trailer hawking a lousy movie. The one bright spot: reliable character actor William Fichtner, showing up periodically as a commissioned-by-Hell "Accountant" tasked with bringing Milton back to the underworld; in his brief scenes, he brings a refreshingly mocking attitude to the proceedings that elicits some solid laughs.
Enter the Void (2009)
Null and Void
With each film, director Gaspar Noe aims to provoke, disorient, and even violate the viewer in some way; as a result, one gets the impression that he invites the vitriol of those who would slam his cinematic vision. Now, while I was compelled (if not "entertained") by the near-pornographic subjectivity of Noe's "I Stand Alone" (the tale of a sociopath butcher wandering around France with a whole lot of pent-up anger) and "Irreversible" (a backwards-unraveling tale of revenge and rape), "Enter the Void" is an agonizingly overlong tale of death and the Afterlife that mistakes neon-saturated, drug-trip informed imagery as a profound comment on a world beyond our own mortality. In its first half, "Void" manages to compel and intrigue, even if our grating and unsympathetic protagonists (a brother-and-sister duo living in Japan as a drug dealer and a stripper, respectively) do very little to make all the flashy neon seem like more than aesthetic window-dressing. At 90 minutes, "Void" is a passable (if largely empty) film, but as it crawls towards the 3-hour mark, it becomes obnoxious, intolerable, and infuriating (with Noe's pretentious excesses -- culminating in a literal orgy -- becoming the stuff of yawns rather than gasps).
When Hughes Met Pasolini
In a parallel universe, where a vacationing John Hughes (the definitive chronicler of '80s youth who needs no introduction) happened upon the set of Pier Paolo Pasolini's legendary endurance test "Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom," the director of such light-yet-crushingly-truthful fare as "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" might have steered his sensibilities toward a script like "Deadgirl." Many of the core Hughes facets remain intact in this tale of two high-school buddies (Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan): one seeking the company of a long-lost crush; the other looking to get laid, and both paradoxically fascinated and repulsed by notions of their own sexuality. The script, by Troma veteran Trent Haaga, is brutally frank and unapologetically profane when it comes to teenage male notions of the opposite sex and all that women entail; when our duo, in the midst of trashing an abandoned mental hospital, stumble upon a nude woman chained to rusted basement piping, their sexual awakening becomes a descent into almost unbearable horror. Directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel parallel the permanent blue skies of above-ground suburban facades with the subterranean darkness of the asylum that, symbolically, becomes an oppressive metaphor for the eroding sanity of our conflicted characters. There is a queasy realism to the performances that lends "Deadgirl" much of its wrenching power: to be a teenager (that frustrating dead zone between "child" and "adult") in a circumstance as extraordinary as being able to perform any violent or sexually deviant act on a prone woman (who carries a fatal plague in her bite) invites the shattering of subtlety for a full-bore push through taboo after taboo. In many ways, the film is a semi-supernatural (the origin and species of the titular female is never explained) companion piece to Meir Zarchi's feminist revenge classic, "I Spit On Your Grave," wherein misogyny was deconstructed in a confrontational, punishing way that dared us to look away from the horrors unfolding on-screen. "Deadgirl" carries the same power -- a haunting and thought-provoking film that dives into hell face-first and doesn't look back.