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The Raven (2012)
Quoth the Raven, "This movie sucks."
A charmless, sluggish, joyless spectacle lacking thrills or horror, the Raven offers nothing and has absolutely nothing to say. Cusack gives little effort in raising his Poe beyond a slightly witty curmudgeon, but fails even this, as his wit is witless and his charm suffocating in wood. The "Poe-themed" crimes are an artless display lacking neither the campy fun of a Hammer death nor the sleaze of Saw-inspired torture: like the movie itself, they serve no purpose but to further PLOT, and when PLOT is as half-hearted as it is in the Raven, it is not long before the audience is snoring in sleep.
After a perfectly fine Masquerade Ball sequence, the film's thrilless plot begins rolling, and it is as fresh and enticing as moldy toast. Tired sequence after tiring sequence follows, full of mediocre mystery, devoid of either realism or originality. The (obvious) villain, once he is (obviously) revealed, gives the dull, canned reasons for the murders any viewer of average-intelligence expected all along. No interesting conflict is addressed, no true or heroic or even interesting mountain must Poe climb- the audience is left feeling as hollow as the film's heart, and even the James Bond-influenced closing credits can't save them from feeling like they have experienced a goofy pockmark of clichés. Goofy, yet not goofy enough to be enjoyable. But sadly perhaps just goofy enough to annoy, and turn some off Poe forever.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
30-Something Slacker Propaganda
Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is 30-something slacker propaganda disguised as a mopey indie flick. After first being introduced as a comical, delusional loaf (lazy oaf), we, the audience, spend the rest of a movie full of pat coincidences being programmed into believing Jeff is (somehow) right after all. About what, I don't know: apparently, the moral of the story is that we, of the slacker trade, must wait to hear our calling from the Universe, and when our calling comes we must be quick to the rescue. And our calling must be as dramatic and heroic as saving a family from a sinking car, after which we can return to our dull, infantile existence for the rest of our meaningless lives.
Jeff is an exaggeration; his brother is a cartoon. This is the sort of movie that because it is indie doesn't whore itself off to product placement but instead uses familiar products to give it the semblance of real life, which is in my mind equally as patronizing, especially when I am supposed to believe movie moguls Jason Segal or Susan Sarandon have any channel whatsoever to what is real life.
In a way, I felt like Susan Sarandon's character while watching this movie: superfluous, and easily manipulated by an exploiting presence to feel the heady pleasures of superficial, short-lived enjoyment, which like this movie lasted only 70 or so minutes, before reality set in and I realized what I watched was a perfectly contrived machine for making me feel this way... and absolutely nothing more.
The Galaxy Invader (1985)
What happens when stupid greedy rednecks capture a gross-looking alien? Find out in this depressing story about domestic violence and family dysFUNction
Any superficial enjoyment the usual snarky MST3K crowd of Hollywood- pandering mall-snobs could find in an independent movie like Galaxy Invader should be abated a bit by how downright depressing it is. The alien is really only a plot device, a MacGuffin to propel the story into one dealing with human ignorance and greed, and an examination of the little tyrant of a dysfunctional family. This is one of the most bleak and depressing depictions of a family I have ever seen, with an enabler of a mother, a cowering, toady son, and two daughters that hate their father, who rules over all in a torn shirt that symbolizes his own ethical laziness and moral bankruptcy. There are some fine, funny scenes in Galaxy Invader, such as when a dummy spirals off a cliff at stunning velocity, but all the funny scenes are soured by what came before them, be it the senseless depravity carried out on an alien life form or the spectacle of a sweaty, enraged father wrestling to the death with his own son.
The overall ambiance of Galaxy Invader is one of hopelessness and desperation. Where meeting an alien being should elicit a scene of joy and wonder, or in a Hollywood movie some schmaltzy E.T. crap, here in an independent feature we are given a vision of a close encounter that seems startlingly disturbing and ugly and born of dull dark reality, the beer-soaked jungles of gristly redneck life. The invader at the center of Galaxy Invader doesn't come from another planet: it comes from the galaxy of our own bitter, corrupt hearts.
3 Things I Hate About this Movie (spoilers)
I thought this movie was pretty good; I laughed, I (didn't cry, but thought about crying), for the most part it handled its topic realistically and maturely.
BUT there were three things I didn't like in this film:
1. The main character's dad having Alzheimer's. Great idea, and an opportunity for comparing and contrasting ailments, but it's totally undeveloped in the story and leads nowhere and is just distracting.
2. The girlfriend. She's first handled realistically, then out of nowhere becomes a huge jerk. It's okay that she's a jerk, and it's okay that she doesn't want to go to treatments with the main character: she's only human. But then she goes from a round to flat character and the butt of jokes. She wasn't given any room to develop: she became something to move the plot along, and nothing more.
3. The ending. No, I'm not going to complain there's a happy ending: I'm very glad there's a happy ending, that's fine. But tagging on a "love story" makes the whole cancer seem like a quest-narrative, a journey that our hero must triumph over to reach his one-true-love. In essence, it's equating cancer as a "character building" experience, and the hero has won his prize in a girl.
That's a little simplifying. I've never had cancer but people in my family have and some have died and from what I can see cancer sucks. It ruins your life and everybody around you, it's slow, it's painful, it's a horrible way to die. It's not something you laugh off. It changes you. It's not something you go through and then at the end you wipe your brow and say "Whew! Glad that's over!" You worry it will come back. You've been through this painful experience that wasn't caused by anything you did, that you didn't ask for. It just happened to you, and it changes you.
I'm not saying I'm not glad the main character is happy and alive at the end, I'm just saying it's a little Hollywood magic that he ends up with his shrink (the only person that truly understands him?) after going through this traumatic event. It equates being in a relationship as the prize won for "winning" the game of cancer. There's no winners of cancer, only survivors. Validating cancer as an enriching experience and manufacturing a reward for winning it is what makes this otherwise vibrant movie both stale and oddly preachy.
To Die For (1995)
Media Lords Strike Again
This is my least favorite type of movie: Hollywood's attempt at showing how the rest of the country is stupid and brazen for celebrity. Yes, this is actually a subgenre of movies, though the opposite is a more accurate statement.
"Black comedies" with goofy scores and over-the-top performances offer nothing: too superficial to be insightful, too withdrawn to be prescient, the only advantage they offer is for a certain type of bloated self-hating American to feel smugly superior to his/her compatriots and a false sense of camaraderie with the snobbish purveyors of tasteful propaganda of Hollywood who they would love to "rub elbows" with.
What's worse, this movie is misogynist, portraying vapid proto-Stepford Wife Nicole Kidman (all too easily playing the dumb blonde winking at the camera) as a career woman hell bent on getting to the top of her field (this is a bad thing?) at the expense of her lazy husband's wishes to impregnate her and have her work at his business.
What's far worse, however, is for a movie like this, so so-called "sophisticated" and "edgy" when it came out, to be so uselessly out of date. In the 21st century Television is grandpa's game and the cult of celebrity is open to anyone willing to work hard with air.
A movie satirizing celebrity culture that isn't totally predictable and actually has something interesting to say? Now that I'd like to see, but it would have to be made by some of us dumb hicks east of Hollywood, and we'd never get ourselves away from the screens long enough to make it.
Psycho a Go-Go (1965)
I'm a fan of Psycho a Go-Go, and Al Adamson in general, though his films can be hit or miss at best. Psycho a Go-Go is about middleground for him, not as dreadfully incoherent as Blood of Dracula's Castle, not as existential and apocalyptic as Satan's Sadists. Yet "Psycho" can at times reach the weirdness of a David Lynch movie (Blue Velvet comes to mind), and at other times the "coolness" level of Tarantino's overrated Pulp Fiction. Here we have thin-tied gangsters in black zoot suits, dames in beehive hair with lounge voices, the catchy but surreal siren call of go-go song and dance, a chipmunk-voiced black doll, and a killer who is a cross between a young Jack Nicholson and Michael Ironside, with an ugly butch haircut and an uglier mind. The scene where he sadistically strangles a girl, intercut with the blinking neon blue lights of a seedy motel sign, is unquestionably a work of art, or at least of high imitation.
A decent genre flick without the pretensions of its later imitators, and a portal into the weird dark world of Los Angeles.
Land of the Blind (2006)
Too Clever By Half
The Land of the Blind is a rather decent first movie and script, yet it has many glaring faults, the most obvious one simply being it doesn't know where it wants to go halfway through. One gets the impression that if the creator had it his way, the film would be two hours longer.
The first hour of the movie is more or less superb. Especially crafty are the news broadcasts (reminiscent of the forced lightheartedness of Japanese television) that include advertisements of products. The news segments are irreverent, silly lampoonery, and could have easily been situated in Mike Judge's Idiocracy world- yet somehow, unbelievably, the news segments and other over-the-top lampoons are never taken for being quite as idiotic as they could be, which I think is a great testament to the overall serious tone the movie holds. Like Catch-22, the more absurd moments in the first half of the movie might make us laugh, but if they do it is at our own expense.
Yet after Joe's fateful decision, and the changing of the guard, the movie diddles and pops out of cohesiveness and all but loses its footing. The difficulty the creators of this film face is fierce: how do they show things haven't changed while changing things enough so we're not bored? Their answer is a muddy montage of images that take us more out of reality and into a confusing state that lacks any emotional effect. No new insight that hasn't been told by the simplest morality Utopian tale is offered; the last quarter of the movie seems like the beginning of Papillon.
And indeed, where once the satirical elements of the first half were inspiring, now they become grating. It becomes sadly obvious that Joe and Donald Sutherland are the only characters in the film's world with any semblance of intelligence or free will; everyone else is mere blind sheep, ciphers, straw men. The serious satirical tone the film mastered in the first half fizzles into parody, a Green Acres squalor of familiar set pieces and situations. The movie's credibility is totally lost. The Land of The Blind is a satirical place, and its inhabitants aren't to be taken as anything more than straw men, but by the second half the pathos and music montages and fancy CG cuts are sprinkled a little too graciously to spice the film up, and the viewer's patience and involvement with any sort of parallel reality wears too thin.
I enjoyed the settings, and how they were filmed. All the acting was brilliant, especially Junior as the Vista Street-directing little tyrant and Donald Sutherland as the complicated revolutionary. Even Ralph Fiennes (who I've always though looks a little bit like Mrs. Doubtfire) was in top form. But I did not like the puzzlement aspect of some things. Too many puzzle and references may make the audience feel smart, but ultimately they are a magic trick, hiding the lack of original content. And ultimately there is nothing very original about Land of the Blind, and there will be little consequence to its lack of fanfare.
2001 Maniacs (2005)
2001 Maniacs the remake isn't a movie. It is a post-movie. It is as developed as an 88 minute Capitol One commercial, and the only thing it sells is the theoretical algorithm of what defines a good time to a certain consumer demographic.
The overall structure, plot, pacing, dialog, and format of 2001 Maniacs could have been inputed by a machine based on the specific formulas of similar movies (Bordello of Blood, Dusk Till Dawn). 2001 Maniacs then reflects the camp aspect of slasher/gore movies, yet some integral part is missing. It isn't that 2001 Maniacs has no heart or soul, it simply wasn't programmed to have heart or soul in the first place. 2001 Maniacs follows the sad trend of most genre (and mainstream) films these days, of trying to imitate the nature of a narrative film. The structure is then reinforced through nothing but shear will of the audience, who has consumed the same tired formula so many times before they now can essentially beg for the same old bone on command.
Yet 2001 Maniacs is more than just this: it is not simply a bad movie that is neither funny or scary. It is nothing. It is a black hole, so mediocre it produces no emotions in its watcher. Or rather it produces in the watcher the vacant gaze of catatonic enjoyment one simulates when watching a commercial, this movie imitation's closest relative.
A scary thing indeed.
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Making Propaganda Out of Propaganda
For the record, I'm sort of a nutjob and against all forms of atomic energy, so you'd think this movie would be right up my alley. But actually I found it quite offensive. This movie suffers from what I like to call "nowism," a distinct present-day phenomenon in which the past is viewed through current-trend glasses, and people of past eras are seen as ignorant, naive, and downright stupid. Nowists excel at taking things out of the original contexts of their times in order to do little of productive value but ridicule the past ironically for their own amusement.
I see this film, The Atomic Cafe, as one of the first and finest examples of the nowist agenda. People, especially the middle class and members of the military/industrial complex, are demonstrated (admittedly through their own film records) to be nothing but idiots, warmongers, and sadists. Is this montage of spliced news serials and army propaganda films a true representation of the people of the Atomic age? Of course not. For one thing, the powerful medium known as television was just being invented back then, and these television broadcasts, while appearing primitive and apparently buffoonish, in retrospect are demonstrations of the affects of television as a simple-minded medium. This does not mean that the people in charge of our nation, or even the common soldier or man on the street, had a mind that can best be reflected in the television broadcasts of their day, that we may watch and snicker at in our day. On the contrary, the corny dialogue must be taken with a grain of salt. People are complex creatures, and a person confronted with this new device called television, be it on the street or reading from a script, will not act as they really are. When this film lampoons the media of the past, it unintentionally lampoons the crisis of that time. This film captures the hysteria of the atomic age, yet fails to recognize the imminent and very serious threat all believed was an inevitable result of the cold war: mutual destruction. This fear may seem "funny" to us now, but at the time it was a serious matter.
Artistically, the splicing of propaganda videos and instructional tapes and news reels is handled very well, (though anyone who's had to sit through a Michael Moore documentary may groan at the ironic atomic-bomb-themed country music used as the overture). Artistically, I think this is a very capable film. It takes a great deal of talent to splice up a gigantic mass of stock photography and make a cohesive narrative out of it all. But this talent is sadly misused in creating this snickering, snide, snarky, smarmy, one-sided propaganda vehicle. A montage of fast food joints is spliced over Eisenhower giving a riveting speech about America. Mutilated Japanese victims are spliced over a voice-over of one of the A-bomb pilots. The Rosenbergs, arguably the greatest traitors of the era, are shown with unexplained yet palpable sympathy. Why? Why any of these things, except to show Eisenhower to be an idiot, a pilot to be callous, the Rosenbergs to be innocent. But why? What explanation is given for any of these arguments? Nothing but the same tricky ploys of the visual medium those old stock propaganda filmmakers thought they perfected years ago, now ironically used against them. And there can be no new criticism of The Atomic Cafe: it brings nothing new to the table. It has no new content. The old is its only content, and only to be ridiculed. Like a VH1 I LOVE THE ___ episode, it is an indestructible silent windbag, because it reflects back upon itself.
Yes, sometimes people in the past seem funny and stupid, LOL, but what can be learned by the common nowist superiority complex, demonstrated in The Atomic Cafe, that is informing the people of right now?
The Ape (1940)
A Case of Conscience
The Ape starring Boris Karloff is a morally ambiguous tale centering on a kindhearted but misunderstood doctor (Karloff) and his attempts to cure the polio (never mentioned but assumed) that inflicts a town, and a particularly his attempts to help one girl walk again, a girl that becomes his sort of foster-child, as his own daughter and wife have died from the affliction. When a giant ape escapes from a circus and the doctor manages to kill it, he sees a way of getting the injections he needs to continue helping the girl... by taking over the place of the ape and murdering people and taking their spinal fluids.
What follows is a far-fetched idea, but only if you look at it from a logical standpoint: I decided to see the doctor's ape-transformation as metaphor. We are never shown the doctor actually putting some ape-costume on, rather we see the ape leaving the doctor's house after we believe it to be dead. The ape transformation then becomes a metaphor for the doctor's fervent fanaticism, the brutality he will create in himself to save the life of the girl (who must herself experience pain before she can get better). This film then becomes an expose on humanity's sacrifices to science, whether or not it is ethical to forfeit the lives of others in order for the "greater good" of a cure. One could draw a comparison between the Ape and stem cell research, antidepressants, and animal testing. The Ape of science is always near, primitive in its actions, shielded from the world.
Boris Karloff is excellent in the "title" role, commanding our pathos, and the rest of the cast is believable townsfolk (I especially liked the corrupt-but-honest sheriff, who reminded me of Tom Skerritt) The Sheriff and the Doctor have an interesting relationship to one another, as do all the characters to one another in the film. For 1940, in a horror movie that's only 60 minutes long, this movie captures quite the dramatic range of emotions and depth.
Spoiler: In the second-to-last scene, in which it is revealed the doctor is the ape, the girl finally walks towards him. Yet notice she does not walk to a man in a monkey suit, but the doctor sans the monkey suit, that has strangely disappeared... she cannot see the ugliness he performed to create the cure, only the human being that helped her walk.