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Has "guilty pleasure" written all over it.
I liked "Hostel." In the same way that I enjoyed Hershell Gordon Lewis' "Gore-Gore Girls," and the 80s pop of Hall and Oates, "Hostel" carries in its bloody clutches a "guilty pleasure" endowment that's hardly mistakable.
That said, there also appears to be a duel train of thought, here, that was carelessly overlooked during the film's making.
The plot is pretty simple. Two college students take an uninhibited tour of Europe's dark under belly, relishing the purple haze of legal hash bars ... having ravishing sex with bosomy euro-chicks. Life's pretty good for these irreverent, if naive and unsophisticated hedonists. Then ... within a matter of minutes ... everything appears to go to hell. One of them finds his hands and feet bound by shackles, sitting almost naked in a dank room that is lavished with all manner of knives and power tools. The purpose of all this? Well ... it's sort of like the Playboy mansion for twisted millionaires ... a place where rich men (and maybe women ... I dunno) can exact all sorts of barbarous, sadistic torture on unwilling participants. And the question on everyone's minds? Can these kids escape this dungeon of carnal, bloody pleasures with their lives?
For a movie that spews rivers of blood, pulpy bone marrow, and mashed limbs ... on top of comely nudity and blistering sex, "Hostel" is pretty fun to watch. I found this movie to be deranged, vicious, and inappropriate in every conceivable way. Sure, I've seen gore in other films that might make "Hostel" seem like a Charlotte Bronte novel. But the vast majority of movie-goers simply don't watch those films ... and for a lot of younger kids who cut their teeth on "Scream" or the "I Know What You Did ..." movies ... the intensity of what they're watching, here, might appear some-what repulsive. (Actually ... I might clarify one thing ... "Hostel" isn't a horror movie ... it tries REALLY hard to be an exploitation shock-fest ... which is probably why Quentin Tarantino's name is in the credits.)
Gore, for the sake of gore alone, I'm totally cool with. Gore, to me, does not enhance the "scare factor" of a movie, though. And if Eli Roth, who helmed this picture, wants to be a maestro of thrills and chills, he'd do much better studying the beguiling atmosphere of Roman Polanksi, or even that of Alfred Hitchcock.
The point that Roth was obviously trying to communicate is that violence, under the guise of entertainment is ... um ... well ... BAD. Okay. However, he relays his message through a camera lens engulfed in thick, syrupy sadism. He's not trying to disappoint America's fixation with violence ... Roth is exciting us with all of this bloody madness. I don't think I'm being far-fetched when I write that Roth WANTS us to watch "Hostel" ... over and over again. And because of this, his commentary (already simple and overcooked) is therefore moot.
But who cares? If you're watching "Hostel," hoping to view a portrait of man's inhumanity to man, you've wasted your money. As a guilty pleasure, "Hostel" hits all the essential bases, man. Actually ... guys like Eli Roth might well be the last bastion of filmmakers who dare to push the proverbial decency envelope. As meaningless as their work might be, you also have to love them for their irreverence for our sensibilities. Guys like Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco were men who swiped the rug from underneath their audience, and made them feel uncomfortable. Roth may eventually clamor among their ranks.
The Punisher (2004)
It's like a boring comic book ... movie
First, let me state that I'm a pretty devoted follower of the Punisher comic, produced by Marvel. His character, having been resurrected from the bowels of one or two-shot guest-star roles in comics such as "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Daredevil" was given a title all his own, magnificently penned and drawn by Steve Grant and Mike Zeck, respectively. Through the years, the Punisher has experienced a proverbial roller-coaster of ups and downs. In the last five or six years, writer Garth Ennis completely reinvented the Frank Castle/Punisher comic, adding layers of depth (not to mention superb storytelling) to a character that was beginning to wither away inside the Marvel Comic universe.
I say all this because it is the Garth Ennis reinterpretation of the Punisher that this film, "The Punisher" is primarily reefed upon.
Or ... well, sort of.
Like any comic book movie that's being produced nowadays, we're shown in this film a detailed (and somewhat graphic) depiction of Frank Castle's (Thomas Jane) metamorphosis into the Punisher. We watch as his entire family is massacred ... we stand by as his depression and grief evolves into bitter hatred. We see him cleverly unravel a well-organized mafia, strand by strand. We hear as he explains his actions ... that he is not exacting vengeance upon those who wronged him ... rather, he is pronouncing grave punishment.
I love this character to death. And I think, for the most part, "The Punisher" characterizes the strengths of his original comic book design. He's intense, clever ... but far from a superhero.
So why, then, is the end result so utterly prosaic in its telling?
To Thomas Jane's credit, I think he does his dead-level best at what he's given to work with. For my money, I'm betting it's the indifference of actors like John Travolta, who carries his role as the mafia boss too underhandedly. It's not that I don't like Travolta ... it's just that he doesn't really move me when he's playing a sinister heavy. It's just not in him, I'm afraid. Smaller, independent productions, such as "White Man's Burden" suit him rather well. But with each of those, we're also forced to contend with movies like "Broken Arrow," and "Swordfish," where Travolta is seen as some kind of criminal mastermind.
As a fan of the Punisher comic, I wasn't at all thrilled with the liberties filmmaker Jonathan Hensleigh took with his origins ... or his setting. From what I've taken away from interviews that I have read, Tampa, Florida was used (instead of New York City) because of budget restrictions. This is hardly fair. Would Sam Raimi have made "Spider-Man" if he were forced to film in a city, other than the Big Apple? Of course not. I know that the Punisher character is pretty far removed from Spider-Man in terms of popularity, but come on!!
It would be easier if I just summed this film up as, well, boring. Formulaic to the core. I had a lot of fun watching it ... but something much better could have been made, given the correct script and a trifle more creativity behind the camera. Thomas Jane did a bang-up job playing the tortured Punisher ... he's a decent actor who mined some rich, greasy ore from the character. The Punisher isn't really a "superhero" at all ... he's a vigilante who fights on the side of good ... but does so by breaking the law. (Anyone interested in the basic physics of his character should scour their nearest flea market for copies of Don Pellington's original pulp series, The Executioner.)
You know, I'm looking forward to seeing a sequel ... with a bigger budget, and hopefully in a setting OTHER than Tampa. But we've all seen this action-genre film dozens of times before. There's no escaping that, I'm afraid.
By the way ... As a fan-boy, I'd really love to see the Punisher's classic villain, Jigsaw, as a possible character in the sequel. And if Marvel Films cares enough about this franchise, I believe they'd hire Garth Ennis to pen the script. He's given the Punisher a thrilling new life on the page. No reason he couldn't do it all over again, with a palette the size of a Hollywood movie.
The Black Cat (1934)
A good horror movie is worth repeating
For me, Universal's 1934 film, "The Black Cat," starring big-screen titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, totally personifies what an effective horror movie is supposed to be. Though we're led to believe that it is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's fictional story, there's really nothing to relate to it at all, except of course for a black cat that occasionally appears on screen.
Co-written and directed by poverty-row filmmaker genius, Edgar G. Ulmer, what we're presented with is a macabre tale of revenge, human sacrifice, vivisection, and outright satanism. By 1934's standards, it's really a miracle that this film was even made.
Lugosi stars as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who travels to the home of an well-know acquaintance, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), who has built his art-deco dwelling on top of what was a particularly gory battleground. Along with Werdegast are two blissfully innocent American travelers who were the victims of a near-fatal car accident. They seek shelter inside Poelzig's home until the morning. But there's something slightly amiss within these walls. Perhaps it is the appearance of Werdegast's long-dead daughter. Or maybe it's the chants of the well-dressed satanist disciples, who downstairs take part in some sort of black mass ritual.
Everything about this movie should induce cold sweats and elevated heartbeats. Ulmer (who also helmed the noir classic, "Detour) makes perfect use of some artfully decorated sets and modest lighting schemes to establish a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Down to its core, that's what throws "The Black Cat" over the top. For an hour and a few minutes, we're thrust into this pitch black world that is immediately threatening. Though I'm in total love with Universal's more classic monster movies, like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," they're over-hyped to such an extreme that it's difficult to glean any kind foreboding atmosphere. "The Black Cat," though it brought in truckloads of cash for Universal, is relatively unknown by most standards today. The casual horror movie fan that subsists on the "Saw" and "Scream" movies probably isn't aware of "The Black Cat." That's a low-down, dirty shame, too. Though I doubt I'll make any new friends by saying this ... I believe "The Black Cat" to be infinitely superior to the classic Universal monster iconography. Lugosi, I think, had a difficult time shaking off his over-exaggerated stage presence ... but he's still Lugosi. I'm convinced that he was born to play these kinds of roles. As for Boris Karloff ... I don't know what to tell you. He was frightening as Frankenstein's monster ... but here, sans pasty movie make up, he's bone-chillingly gruesome. From the moment the camera reveals him in "The Black Cat," my heart rate did not settle or relax for an instant.
I think with a lot of older horror films, you hear this statement used ad nausim: "It isn't what you see ... it's what you DON'T see." It's a pretty tepid statement ... we all know this to be true, usually. But in "The Black Cat," it takes on an entirely new meaning. Though I'd love to go into detail about this, I'd hate to ruin the surprise for anyone. Needless to say, what you do not see is very, very disturbing. In fact, you'll probably swear that you DID see it.
Thankfully, someone at Universal Studios had the bright idea of releasing this visionary film on DVD. It's sandwiched in between a few other Lugosi-Karloff team-ups that are fairly worthwhile, also. One can only hope that a generation of popcorn-eating, Red Bull-swilling teenagers will somehow discover this film and unearth an entirely new dimension of horror that they never even imagined existed. It's true, anyone on a quest for spurting gore and/or outrageous nudity will walk away feeling pretty cheated. There's none of that, here. But it's okay. That sort of excess has no home in this kind of horror film. What we get in "The Black Cat" is the very essence of horror. A movie, much like Hitchcock's "Psycho," that blankets us in an appropriately sinister atmosphere. The rest should come only naturally.
"The Black Cat" deserves to be watched again and again. It deserves study ... not only by the casual viewer, but most assuredly by a modern generation of filmmakers.
As a footnote, this film has no connection whatsoever to Universal's 1941 comedy-horror film, "The Black Cat," other than its star, Lugosi. Basil Rathbone and Lugosi give fine performances, but one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.
Dark Passage (1947)
Bogart and Bacall do it again!
I think that Richard Maltin nailed when he said that "Dark Passage" is not a great film, but it IS a very good one.
It's actually a bit of a shock that this film survived Jack Warner's watch-dogs. I mean ... come on! A Humphrey Bogart picture where we don't even get to see his face until the last 40 minutes? Did someone fall asleep during the script approval process, here?
Despite all of this, "Dark Passage" is a very decent Warner film noir ... with roots firmly embedded in the pulp fiction universe (Delmer Daves' screenplay was adapted from Dave Goodis' pulp novel). Plus, we get to see "That man" Bogart, and "that woman" Lauren Bacall, "together again." More than any other film that I've seen her in, "Dark Passage" features Bacall at her most charming best. And last but not least, as the audience, we're treated to what was considered a fairly revolutionary camera trick: first-person perspective, thanks to the invention of a new hand-held camera. Compounded by some really awesome San Francisco locations, there's really nothing that keeps our minds from wandering during this picture.
The story is: Vincent Parry (Bogart) is an escaped convict, fleeing from San Quinton when we first meet him. After he knocks out a motorist and steals his clothes, Irene Jansen (Bacall) drives him into San Francisco ... where she obliges him with an expensive set of clothes and a thousand bucks. From there, he pays a plastic surgeon a 2 a.m. visit for a face lift. After some pretty nifty scalpel moves and a surreal dream sequence, Parry awakes with his head and face covered in bandages. Somewhere along the way, Parry's best friend is killed and the fore-mentioned motorist decides to extort Jansen, through Parry, for a couple hundred thousand dollars. In addition, Parry's old flame (consummately played by Agnes Moorehead), who sent him up years prior on a murder rap, has begun to cause trouble for Parry and Jansen. At the end of "Dark Passage," we're led to believe that things are going to end on a rather bleak note, but ... as in all good noirs ... things never are as they appear.
I'll skip my comments on Bogart, simply because he's a hard act to top. What could be said about this man that's not already been famously stated a thousand times before? Even when we can't see his face ... when we have to rely on the sound of his voice ... Bogart dominates just about every facet of this picture. So much so that I started to feel a knot in my stomach when I fell in love with Lauren Bacall all over again. Had Bogart caught wind of this, I was kind of worried he might have stepped out of my television screen and roughed me over once or twice.
But in all ... I think my favorite part of "Dark Passage" is the precise characteristic that most loathe about it: the absence of Bogart's physical presence throughout most the film. I'd really like to think that Delmer Daves was, rather sadistically, poking and jibing at us in forcing us us wait for "that man" to finally make his full appearance on screen. If that really was the case, then congratulations, Mr. Daves. More than any other actor that I can think of, Humphrey Bogart is a man who is well worth waiting for. I think this carved out a great new dimension to the film. Had it not been included, I'm afraid "Dark Passage" might have only be remembered as being, well, just another trifling all-star thriller.
To me, "Dark Passage" is very entertaining because of its noir value. There's a lot better out there, lurking in the proverbial shadows. But why complain about it? We're presented with some extremely talented actors ... and given a dark, creative perspective on the genre.
If you get a chance, check this film out, along with "Dead Reckoning," starring Bogart and the sultry Lizabeth Scott. It's another staple noir film that is visually stunning ... with characters that burn right off the screen.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
"And I brought you nightmares. Or did I?"
You know, I don't necessarily like being told something is a "classic" until I finally see it for myself and judge it on its merits. I don't want to base my opinion on what some swarthy critic condescendingly tells me what makes the film so great, worthwhile ... classic. So, while I was watching "Shadow Of A Doubt," I really tried to retain that in the back of my mind.
First of all ... I think "Shadow Of A Doubt" IS a classic. Alfred Hitchcock's name-sake alone makes this film worthwhile. Maybe I am channeling more than just a few critics, here, but even Hitchcock's lesser films have flourishes of masterful cinematic technique. "Shadow Of A Doubt" is certainly NOT one of those films, however. There's more than enough, here, to place it on the same shelf as "Rear Window," and "The 39 Steps." Here, in his first American film, Hitchcock whittles out an excellent story of deceit, suspicion, and outright terror. One that plunges us, the viewer, deep into its guts.
Joseph Cotton plays Charlie, a man whose mysterious criminal past prompts him to flee for California, where his sister, nieces and nephews reside. As he arrives, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright) greets him with love and more than just a little hero-worship. And yet, after a firm warning from a police investigator, she begins to suspect that her uncle may, in fact, be a vicious killer who has sought asylum in her mother's home. As the tension slowly rises, Charlie's mistrust gives way to bone-chilling terror. And we, as the audience, question everything that we/she sees until the surprising finale.
You know ... my only real complaint about "Shadow Of A Doubt" is its dawdling pace. Hitchcock takes WAY too much time establishing each character. He's a master filmmaker, but the suspense really didn't add up until well after the mid-way point of the movie. And while I enjoyed the development and the fine writing, some of it becomes moot at the very end.
But ... lingering for the climax was well worth the admission price. Besides, Joesph Cotton is pure gold, here. When, at the dinner table, he begins a sort of silent but deadly tirade about widowed women, frivolously squandering their husbands' money, Hitchcock's camera reluctantly pushing in to Cotton's face.
"Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm," asks Cotton. "And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?"
I don't know where this seething hatred originates ... but it's enough to evoke a nightmare or two. Cotton does it quite well. He knows how to dominate the screen without appearing to even try. He's strikingly handsome, but not pretty enough to be your average dispassionate Hollywood heart-throb. He had the look of an everyman, who only happened to know are really great tailor.
I think that "Shadow Of A Doubt" indeed is a classic. It's slow to start ... but it finishes very well, under Hitchcock's knowing eye. Also ... check out Joseph Cotton in one of my favorites, "The Third Man."
The Dark Half (1993)
A film that deserves far more than it's given credit for
Somewhere in the dark recesses of over-fluffed and processed Stephen King movie adaptations, there lies this jewel of a film: "The Dark Half."
After having it watched it about three times, I'm still quite at a loss as to why this movie has been, more or less, forgotten or simply passed over by the horror movie community. Not only is it a fairly neat adaptation of a great King novel, but it's also directed and written by a true horror movie icon: the one and only George Romero. Isn't this the kind of "team-up" that fans would, under normal circumstances, go absolutely bananas over? I know that I did.
Anyway ... the movie is about a writer, Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), whose past - quite literally - comes back to haunt him. As a young man, he wrote pulpy crime novels (that I can only imagine were directly inspired by Richard Stark's hardboiled, master thief, Parker) that sold well ... though his literary yearnings tended to veer toward a much less marketable direction. We learn that when he was writing those pulps, his personality suffered. He drank, yelled at his wife, probably slept around, too. Having successfully exorcised that particular demon, when we meet him, Beaumont has a couple kids and an office at some New England university, teaching - you guessed it - creative writing. But when the bodies of folks close to him (i.e.: his agent, biographer) begin cropping up, the small-town police fun finger is pointed at Beaumont. But ... there's a much more sinister twist in this jet-black yarn. We learn that Beaumont indeed has a "dark half."
The direction is perfect, the writing is perfect, the acting is perfect. What more do you want in a film? I'm not exactly certain what King's response was to this film ... I've heard rumors that if he's not directly involved in the production process, he generally scoffs at the final film product. (For example ... he's all but urinated on all the goodness that was Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of "The Shining," which not only marked a substantial turning point in horror cinema, but it's also one of my personal favorites.) Then again ... from what I understand to be true of King and Romero both ... they're friends. Hell, they made "Creepshow" together ... which is another favorite of mine, though I'm more than just a little bit guilty about it.
"The Dark Half" also does one hell of a job at creating a genuinely creepy atmosphere. And who could listen to "Are You Lonesome Tonight" again the same way ... after hearing its soft melodies during a particularly uncomfortable dream sequence?
All of this, compounded with the fact that Timothy Hutton is a damned fine actor (albeit sinfully unknown by most these days) ... makes "The Dark Half" an explosively well made horror/thriller. The proverbial mind meld of King and Romero made "Creepshow" an instant cult classic. So, I ask again ... why was "The Dark Half" a blink-or-you'll-miss-it flop? Maybe these horror titans just can't share the same marquee, anymore.
Hollow Triumph (1948)
Remembering the dark, brooding mythos that was film noir
Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett star in "The Scar," otherwise known as "Hollow Triumph."
As a film noir, "The Scar" works on several different levels. And even though a major plot point in the story stretches the realm of possibility a bit too far, this forgotten little film deserves a better fate than its present public-domain, bargain bin video status.
The plot revolves around John Muller (Henreid), who organizes a major casino heist with a few of his pals. When the sting is botched, Muller runs as far away as he can with his ill-gotten gains. The casino's owner, a gangster (who bears an interesting likeness to Richard Conte) isn't planning on taking this robbery on his back. He dispatches two of his more intimidating thugs to locate him and ... well ... retrieve the stolen money. "Even if it takes you 20 years," he demands. In a desperate attempt to conceal himself from the vengeful clutches of the fore-mentioned gangster, Muller engineers a plan to impersonate a psychologist who, as it turns out, is a carbon-copy lookalike of himself. The only difference between the two is a rigid scar that outlines his left cheek. Can Muller find it within himself to kill the psychologist and begin living a double life? Will the gangsters guns find him first?
I have to admit, with the exception of a couple of protracted scenes, "The Scar" truly is a first-rate thriller. Steve Sekely directs, punctuating just about every scene with classic film noir iconography. Daniel Fuchs' script is also top-notch ... which may have served as a primer for his next project ... the indelible "Criss Cross" for Universal. (He also penned "Panic in the Streets," another great, oft-overlooked film noir starring Richard Widmark.) Joan Bennett's performance comes off as a trifle pallid ... but then again, this was Henreid's picture from the get-go. He commands every scene that he appears in with suave acumen, something that I missed from his performance in the overrated "Casablanca." I'll be the first to admit that I've not seen many of his other pictures. But Henreid really won me over with this film ... he deserves a far better acknowledgement than only as "the other guy" of "Casablanca."
More than anything, I think "The Scar" (or "Hollow Triumph" ... whatever) is a classic example of just how absent-minded popular culture really is. More than ever, movie-goers expect a film that is saturated in bloody action, quick-cuts, and talentless actors. There's not a lot going for movies, today. And thankfully ... most of what's out there will have been long-forgotten by the popular culture consciousness in a few years. I think that modern pop culture has unfairly labeled film noir as being movies lavished with shadows, dames and guns. And while all of these are inherent to the genre, they forget the cold, black heart that beats beneath its surface. "The Scar" thrives on this kind of energy. It's a classic example of what made film noir great ... and why we'll never see anything like it ever again.
Michael Mann ... one of the last truly great directors
Though I'm not sure that it's a concerted effort, Hollywood and independent movies these days seem to stand on opposite sides of a very tall and rickety fence: a movie is either entertaining, accompanied with all the traditional bells and whistles that is glorified eye candy. OR ... a movie is the celluloid parallel to watching a brick wall ... or maybe the grass growing. Characters contain lush, exuberant depth, but they're spiritless talking heads ... usually miscarried David Mamet rip-offs.
So what an uplifting feeling to have just finished watching "Collateral," Michael Mann's most recent film. As the audience, we get chills, spills and an outpouring of thrills. There's an interesting, well-developed script ... the razor-sharp timing of veteran director Mann ... and the facile performances of Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Perhaps there's more to be asked for in a movie, but I can't think of what that might be. "Collateral" is easily one the better recent movies on the market ... and I'll attempt to explain why that is.
But first ...
Max (Foxx) is a L.A. cabbie that has a debilitated mother in the hospital ... and futile dreams of owning a limo service. Vincent (Cruise) is a nefarious contract killer, assigned to dispatch five essential prosecution witnesses in a mafioso's trial. Their meeting inside the cab is at first banal, with the garden variety "where are you from" and "how long are you in town" dialog. Vincent divulges that he has to make a few stops during the night until his plane leaves at 6 a.m. He bribes Max to drive him around ... offering $600 for his services. During Vincent's first stop, however, a body falls onto the top of Max's cab. Max panics and Vincent unsheathes a gun ... acknowledging that he's not in town on business, but kills for a living. The movie details the events of their evening together. Max slow burns through panic, which leads to utter confusion ... into stark terror.
First, it has to be said that Tom Cruise truly is an excellent actor. Despite what some may think of him, Cruise has a talent that far exceeds the mainstream Hollywood fare. Not only that, there's a certain genuine gratitude he carries when not in a film. He is respectful of critics and generous to his fans. Yes, he has appeared in several movies that I've despised for good reason ... but never because of him, personally. In "Collateral," we get Cruise as an impersonal killer. His performance is like a meat clever thrust in a block of ice ... it's a Cruise we've never seen before.
Though I'm not as familiar with Jamie Foxx ... he has finally been given a role where his aptitudes have surfaced. He doesn't put on airs in front of the camera. Nor is he afraid to react with the frailty of a human being to freakishly bizarre circumstances. His paranoia appears real to us. He doesn't succumb to the "geek turned hero" pratfall, either. Foxx is real ... and I sincerely hope that he's given more chances to display his range as an actor.
And then there's Michael Mann ... a true god among directors. Tell me, folks ... through his entire filmography, has there ever been a BAD Michael Mann movie? I certainly can't think of one. He's given us "Thief," "Manhunter," "Miami Vice," "Heat" and "The Insider." Rather than the brassy computer generated theatrics of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Mann knows how to spin a hearty yarn hinged on solid direction and storytelling. He relies on character development. Computer effects just aren't needed in Mann's universe. In "Collateral," he takes what was probably a decent script and carves out a complicated, yet masterful thriller. And I sincerely doubt I'd be writing this review now if the script had been in the hands of a lesser person.
In an interview with Cruise I read in a newspaper, he briefly hinted that Mann had written complex exposition regarding Vincent's character ... details about his life that are never revealed to us. My fanboy sensibilities are screaming for a prequel, based on the material Mann wrote for Cruise. Or ... at the very least ... a published version of Vincent's story.
Maybe not. Either way ... "Collateral" is a movie to be watched and rewatched. There's a great deal going on within the frame with just enough concentrated substance that ... like it or not ... leaves style as only a superfluous extra.
Sin City (2005)
A journey through the naked city of human depravity
If nothing else, Robert Rodriguez is probably one of the most unpredictable filmmakers of this era. The explosive, hardhitting action of "El Mariachi" and "From Dusk Till Dawn" sharply contrast with the bright and colorful "Spy Kids" trilogy. He's found his niche within the film-making community, yet continues to pull some unexpected rabbits out of his exceptional bag of tricks.
As a particular fan of the gritty, hard-boiled "film noir" genre, I was on pins and needles after watching the highly kinetic trailer for "Sin City," the newest entry in Rodriguez's canon. Filmed with high definition cameras and using ultra-expensive CGI in just about every shot, Rodriguez has successfully reinvented not only his own film-making style ... but he also trodden upon a new era in feature film history.
Blending three stories from Frank Miller's pulpy Sin City comic books, Rodriguez and an all-star cast lead us down inside the murky depths of human depravity ... where revenge and redemption are mostly synonymous. We're introduced to Marv, a brutal ex-convict who's found a new lease on life: avenging the murder of a very beautiful, but dead hooker that showed him a modicum of kindness. Marv twists, gouges and impales the truth out of anyone remotely connected to her.
We meet Dwight and a legion of gun-wielding prostitutes ... all of whom act as judge, jury and executioners of "Old Town," a part of Sin City with the kind of brutal lawlessness not seen since the days of the American Frontier.
Finally we're treated to the story of Hartigan, a cop out to prove to himself that his life has some glimmer of value. He protects a girl from the gnarled clutches of a pedophile whose appearance could have been lifted straight off of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy rouges gallery.
I wasn't trendy enough to have read the Frank Miller books when they first premiered, but I've since checked a couple of them out from my local public library and found them quite refreshing. Rodriguez, who is apparently a fervent fanatic of Miller's material, deviates not one inch from these books. The writing, direction and acting were spot on, which has doubtless thrilled a legion of fans.
What I loved the most about "Sin City" was its respect for the history of pulp novels and the dark, gritty film noir of the 1940s and 50s. If pulp-masters Dashiell Hammet and Mickey Spillane were still writing fiction today, their work would doubtless resemble the desperate, beguiling atmosphere Rodriguez creates for us in this film. During some moments, I felt that the actual city is not just a setting, but a state of mind that crashes and burns through the screen. It was impressive and I was left hungry for more. Several scenes reminded me of the covers of old pulp magazines like "Black Mask" and "Weird Stories."
I was also reminded several times of John Boorman's neo-noir film, "Point Blank." Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickenson, "Point Blank" is about a hard-boiled thief cheated out of his cut from a heist. The story of the cold-blooded revenge he inflicts on those responsible could have seamlessly been incorporated in "Sin City." One has to wonder if Miller drew any inspiration from the film (or the books in which it was based on by Richard Stark AKA Donald Westlake) when writing and drawing Sin City.
Though I wouldn't venture to call "Sin City" brilliant, there are tiny flourishes of brilliance throughout that will invariably leave deep teeth marks all over popular culture for several years to come. I'd love to see a sequel to this film, as there are several stories from Miller's book that would make beautiful translation into film.
Emanuelle in America (1977)
I thought this was supposed to be good ... or something.
Emanuelle in America is the Led Zeppelin of sleaze movies. Hmm ... Yeah. That's a pretty safe bet.
Let's see ... there's a healthy smattering of tits and ass ... an endless amazon of 70's-style bush ... lesbian and hardcore sex scenes ... a perplexing beastiality scene ... am I missing anything? Um ... uh ... not really. OH! Hang on ... there's also some compelling snuff film footage that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Sure, it's fake ... and if you're twisted enough to pause your VCR or DVD player during the snuff scenes, you'll probably notice how bogus everything looks. However, for anyone else too disenchanted to slow-mo the snuff scenes ... let's just say it exudes a completely authentic aura.
So ... what do we have in "Emanuelle?" Certainly nothing that even approaches a coherent plot. If you're searching for acting talent, you're better off scouring the Spice Channel. If you've got a hankering for attractive naked people, you'd be better off going through your back issues of Swank magazine.
It goes without saying that "Emanuelle In America" lacks depth, dramatic narrative, and imagination. The director's stale attempt at political commentary was futile. Any emotions that I had for Emanuelle were reefed on when she would provide the camera with another fully nude shot.
Fortunately, "Emanuelle in America" is a film that looks to arouse or repulse (depending upon your definition of either of the two). Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) is certainly very easy on the eyes ...
fully clothed or stark-assed naked. The supporting cast, however, is a different story. The lesbian scene(s) are tame enough to please your late-night Cinemax crowd. The beastiality scene (a poor, homely girl mindlessly jerking off a horse) is amusing. The "hardcore" sex scenes are bland, and lack passion. The torture, mutilation and murder clips are moderately appalling, given the sincere, authentic and grainy look to them. I wasn't expecting to see a woman's nipples being torn off. But ... it's a sleaze movie. What should I have expected?
"Emanuelle In America" scrapes the upper-stratosphere of sleaze cinema. Or ... if you want my commentary sans pretension? Don't be watchin' this movie while your old lady's in the background baking chocolate chip cookies for your daughter's elementary school fundraiser. I'm generally not a fan of this kind of film, but I've been reading about its cult status for a few years. I admit, I felt compelled to watch it based on that alone. But I wasn't impressed afterwards. And I've resigned myself to watching the "cult" movies recommended to me by people I know. Life's too short to base your movie selections on what other people you've never met say.
Which pretty much negates my entire review. So ... do what you want. Maybe "Emanuelle" will liberate your inner freak.