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Xavier: Renegade Angel (2007)
Xavier Renegade Angel is my favorite TV show.
When you were a kid did you ever have crazy, bizarre nightmares filled with images right of Salvador Dali's psycho-analysis sessions? Well, if you didn't, now you can pretend you did thanks to Xavier Renegade Angel.
Xavier Renegade Angel is an intensely surreal (even by Adult Swim standards) show from Wonder Showzen creators, PFFR. It's about a freakish man beast who is covered in fur, has 6 nipples, backwards knees, a third eye where his penis should be, a snake for a hand, an eagles beak, and Heterochromia, who wanders America trying to find spiritual fulfillment and the identity of the man who killed his parents. Unfortunately for Xavier and everyone with whom he comes into contact, he has no spiritual insight whatsoever, and remains totally oblivious to the fact that he was the one who killed his parents, even though their ghosts tell him so repeatedly. He most often ruins the lives of those he is trying to help while failing to grasp even the most basic truths about the world around him. At the end of each episode Xavier knows even less about the world than he did at the beginning.
I could write 1000 words on how Xavier employs Brechtian narrative elements and uses alienation to allow the viewer to perceive reality with disinterested contemplation. Or how it acts as a reader for the work of Jean Baudrillard. Or how it brilliantly remixes elements of Foucault, Judith Butler, Hegel, Marx, Kant, Nietzsche, Douglas Adams, Vonnegut, Gogol, Voltaire, Ginsberg, Beckett, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and David Foster Wallace with an art style that is heavily influenced by the proto-Dada work of the Die Bruke and Blue Rider movements of the Weimar Republic. But it's one of those things where if you don't already know, I probably couldn't tell you.
Xavier is not a show for everyone, or even most anyone. It is vile, obnoxious, mean-spirited, confusing, and really ugly to look at thanks to CGI graphics made by a company that usually does economy class video game cut scenes. However, if you can see beyond the aggressively alienating exterior of the show you will discover a razor sharp Juvenilian satire of American Bourgeois values that makes salient points about the hypocrisy of mainstream and subculture ranging from hippies and environmentalists to neo-cons and fundamentalists.
The wonderful thing about Xavier is how high brow/low brow it is. The program goes well out of its way to ask complex, soul searching questions about the nature of reality and humanity's inability to perceive truth, but then asks these questions using the most base and puerile dick and fart jokes imaginable. During the best episodes of season 2 there are some 40 jokes a minute thanks to its triple and quadruple-entendre dialogue. And though the creators designed the show to look as unappealing as possible, underneath the hideous character design there is actually some really inventive and boundary pushing use of the camera going on.
Upon a first viewing, most will notice the sparse, clipped dialogue featuring words seemingly arbitrarily echoing into infinity, but after seeing a few episodes it becomes clear that this is a stylistic choice. Every time the vocals abruptly cut it signals the viewer to some type of wordplay within the sentence. Clips and phrases like "Take that! Taste the pain!" repeat in all 20 episodes in different contexts, sometimes dropped in in the middle of other words. It's really mind-bending stuff. Meanwhile, the echoing effect is most often used to recall a reference to a previous episode or else to highlight a piece of new age jargon that the show is mocking.
At first glance Xavier seems like a show with less plot than Family Guy, every two minutes or so there is a bizarre plot twist that seems to come from nowhere and lead nowhere. One of the best episodes begins with Xavier trying to sell road kill to a restaurant and ends with a prostitute aura (who provides aural sex to the point of soul-jaculation) causing the end of the world with a spiritually transmitted disease. Along the way the episode also touches on huffing glue (as well as snorting tacs and shooting staples), bestiality, cannibalism, and camels that open up to reveal machine guns. It's pretty abstract and incredibly weird, but upon second and third repeat each episode begins to come together. Instead of seeming random, the show's intricacies come into view, with each successive turn clearly foreshadowed and generally motivated by larger thematic elements. The show employs nonstandard narrative structure and deeply couched post-modern plotting that can be difficult to decipher, but is very rewarding if you're willing to put in the effort.
Basically, if you love An Andalusian Dog, Beyond Good and Evil and Freddy Got Fingered all in equal measure, then Xavier Renegade Angel is for you.
Saw VI (2009)
Jigsaw says "Vote Yes on Healthcare Reform"
"Saw" was never a franchise that was designed to last. The first film made a point of killing off every main character save one who was already dying of an inoperable brain tumor. But, when a movie grosses 100 times its budget filmmakers tend to find untapped wells of ingenuity.
"Saw VI" tells a story that is almost certainly incomprehensible to those who have not seen the previous five films. The entire plot hinges on the reveal of an element first introduced in "Saw III" and details the rise of a character who made his debut as a glorified extra. The entire twist ending is predicated upon one's memory of a secondary character who is never even on screen during this feature except during a brief flashback. It's some straight up "Star Trek" level minutia.
Because of this, a plot summary is useless. You either know what to expect, in which case it is best to see the movie completely cold, or you've already determined that you don't care. Suffice it to say, John "Jigsaw" Kramer and Amanda Young are still dead, (as they have been since part three) and Agent Hoffman is still on the loose, trying to teach more people to appreciate life. Then things get complicated.
"Saw" has always worked under a strange moral code, espousing a bizarre brand of carpe diem philosophy spoken by serial killer who seems to think that he is saving people by throwing them in pits of used needles or forcing them to cut off their feet. This philosophy has long been an albatross for the series because Jigsaw's ideas are, to put it bluntly, completely idiotic. The result of these tests would likely be a crippling case of post-traumatic stress disorder, not a moment of truth.
"Saw VI" works hard to solve this problem. For the first time in series history Jigsaw is shown to be maybe the slightest bit mentally unsound. This is a small but important step as the series makes infinitely more sense and is far more chilling if Jigsaw is taken as a David Berkowitz type instead of some sort of blood and guts Buddha. Simultaneous to this, the filmmakers have finally created a cast of victims who might well deserve their fate. Thinking back, it's actually quite surprising that it took five sequels to get to a trap where loan sharks are forced to contend with Shylock's infamous demand of "A pound of Flesh".
While many have anticipated a jump to the supernatural for several entries, few if any guessed that Saw would ever become a political story. You see, "Saw VI" is just as much about the current healthcare reform debate as it is about soap opera plot twists. In one scene Jigsaw literally says the words "Medical decisions should be made by Doctors and patients" before going on to equate HMO's with murderous thugs. And while the political polemic elements are perhaps a bit overcooked, they do imply a level of effort on the part of the filmmakers that goes beyond the call of duty. The social consciousness of Jason Voorhees' sixth outing began and ended with a happy face symbol made of blood.
Longtime series editor Kevin Greutert moves to the director's chair for this entry and his experience with the franchise shines through. He has clearly been planning for this opportunity for quite some time, and he makes the most of it, combining the indie grunge of the original with the flashy scene transitions of the sequels all while expanding the color palette, steadying the ADHD afflicted cinematography and toning down the ultra-violence.. This is almost certainly the best looking part six the horror genre has ever seen. Keeping pace with the direction is a slick, fast, and occasionally inventive screenplay by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, who handedly outdo their work on the previous two films.
Everything that was wrong with the five previous films is still wrong here. The sets still look like those of a movie made for about a million dollars, the actors are mostly second rate and the logic is tenuous within a real world scenario. The dialogue is occasionally as cringe inducing as the gory set pieces and the script makes excessive use of expository tape recordings in place of legitimate character development. And yet, I had a damn good time.
This film is easily the best since part two, and somehow actually made me want to see part seven. For those already invested in the series "Saw VI" is a Halloween treat. It's smarter than the previous three and it features some of the series most interesting traps. It even gives you a little something to talk about after the credits roll. Most will hate it sight unseen, but those who show up to watch, "Saw VI" is better than it has any right to be.
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Conning Linguists: The Brothers Bloom In a summer full of dumber than dumb spectacle, and subtext free action porn "The Brothers Bloom" is a breath of fresh air.
With wit, warmth, and beautiful settings galore the film creates a delightfully wacky alternate world full of whimsy, romance, and adventure.
At the beginning of the film we meet two orphaned brothers, Stephen Bloom (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom Bloom (Adrien Brody). From the age of 10, the brothers are con-artists, always spinning yarns and creating characters, inventing new and increasingly elaborate ways of separating their mark from his money while also giving him exactly what he wants in life. Everything changes when Bloom decides to get out of the game and Stephen lures him in for one last swindlea beautiful and quirky millionaire (Rachel Weisz) who yearns for a taste of adventure.
The Brothers Bloom is the second feature from writer/director Rian Johnson. He previously took the indie world by storm with his award winning debut, "Brick". As with "Brick" Johnson again takes elements of several fallow genres and remixes them into something that feels both new and old all at once. The result is nothing short of magical. The characters pop off the screen and the dialogue and images loop back in on themselves making winking references that are sure to inspire fits of giggles from anyone who stayed awake during AP Lit. But, even if you don't recognize the title as a Dostoevsky reference, the film is sure to entertain.
At the center of it all is Brody who is tasked with playing the straight man during the film's increasingly convoluted comic twists and turns. Perpetually at his side is Ruffalo, who has great fun playing the off the wall, yet always-sincere idea man who writes his schemes the way Russians write novels. The chemistry between the duo is infectious. It's like the two have known each other for their entire lives. They could not look less similar, and yet one never questions their bond.
Weisz is absolutely electric as the object of Brody's affections and the subject of Ruffalo's confidence game. She plays the kind of bubbly, strange woman that really only exists in movies but imbues her with a quiet sadness that grounds the entire picture and ensures that the more surreal elements never take too much of a hold on the film.
Though there is only one large-scale explosion, "The Brothers Bloom" demands the big screen treatment. It was filmed all over Europe and South America and the locations are used to great effect. These aren't sound stages, and it really makes a difference. Every shot is impeccably framed, it's as if Hal Ashby shot "The Sting".
The film is not for all tastes. It requires attention from the viewer, and plays at a leisurely pace compared to many films currently in theaters, and some of the more action oriented beats don't quite gel with the rest of the film, but for those who can appreciate a story that gives itself room to breath, and for those willing to forgive the overly long third act, there is plenty to love.
Most of the movies coming out over the next few months are simply product, attractive, eye catching, and ultimately little more than 90 minute advertisements for the sequel. Not so with "The Brothers Bloom." If you've got a girlfriend and you owe her a decent date movie you can't do much better than this. If you have a boyfriend and you don't want to make him suffer through "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" this is a great choice. If you've already seen all the action spectaculars, here's something else to see. Or, you know, if you just like good movies
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Actually dude, maybe it's better if you don't come back.
When it came out back in 1984 "The Terminator" was a wild ride full of action, adventure, and a killer science fiction hook. It told the story a young woman stuck in the unenviable position of having to outrun Arnold Schwarzenegger's robot from the future. It was so good that few people noticed that the sequel, subtitled "Judgment Day" was ostensibly the exact same movie with the son replacing his mother. By part three people were beginning to catch on, so, for the fourth entry the producers moved the action out of modern day Los Angeles and into the post apocalyptic world that was only scene for brief seconds in the earlier films.
While the first three entries had one story between them "Terminator Salvation" can't even boast that much. It's sort of about John Conner trying to save his time warped father's life. It's sort of about a multiple murderer cum cyborg trying to find his humanity. It's sort of wants to be about the human nature and the battle between free will and predestination. But really, it's just about the cool looking robots, and the big explosions.
And on one level, I'm all for that. I mean, the terminator is a friggin cool monster. I could watch like a dozen post-apocalyptic war movies about that thing. Or, at least I thought I could until I actually saw a post-apocalyptic war movie about these things.
I really, really, really wanted to like this movie. The concept seemed so fertile, the actors seemed like such interesting choices. I even sort of liked McG's "Charlie's Angels" flicks. And the trailers were amongst the best I have ever seen. But there is just no meat to this movie. It's boring and confusing as a stand-alone narrative, and utterly useless as an expansion of the Terminator mythology.
Christian Bale's John Conner is a totally blank slate. He's so visibly bored that his performance almost seems like it is taken out of a zombie film. I can't really blame him for taking a paycheck movie after years of physically draining roles like his terrifying turn in "The Machinist", I just wish he were slummed in a more interesting picture. Here he has no arc, no personal investment, and no real participation in the plot. He is totally passive, which is unacceptable for an action hero.
Come to think of it, no one has an arc in this movie. Anton Yelchin comes close as Kyle Reese, but he has to battle for screen time with Helen Bonham Carter, Sam Worthington, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who are all saddled with incredibly boring characters. At a point it became hard to tell the humans from the robots. The movie does pick up a bit when rap/tor Common is on screen. Even though he is seemingly reprising his role as "Black weapons expert who stands around being black and not talking" from "Wanted" he just oozes charisma.
Normally I wouldn't be so harsh on a movie that exists for the sake of spectacle, but here, I couldn't help but examine the logic flaws, character shortcomings, gaping plot holes, and persistent use of deus ex machina because even the spectacle sucked.
McG, aided by cinematographer Michael Fitzgerald and Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut (the latter of whom was the subject of Bale's infamous profanity laced tirade during shooting) can't seem to figure out how to shoot an action scene. I'm not even talking about the trend of super fast cuts between whirling hand-held cameras that has become so popular in recent years, I'm talking shots that are simply missing. On several occasions I found myself disoriented because the characters seemed to magic their way around a location, jumping from one place to another without any connection between shots.
And what's more, the movie is simply ugly to look at. The desaturated color palette was probably meant to make the movie look gritty, but instead it leaves the images looking bland. Every location looks the same. Not even the burnt out husk of Los Angeles gets a rise.
But the real problems begin with the script. There is just no reason for this movie to exist. it has all the impact of an episode of Power Rangers. Nothing is at stake, and at the end of the day, nothing is gained or lost.
At one point the movie ended with John Conner's death and replacement by a cyborg. This might have made for a cool movie (it was called Robocop), but for whatever reason the producers got cold feet and went back for reshoots, changing the ending into a weaksauce variant on this concept, which is all well and good, except for the fact that no one ever went back and fixed the first two acts so that they would match the new ending. So, as with the recent, and infinitely more entertaining, "Star Trek" we are left with a movie that seems at war with itself, dead set on not paying off a single set up.
Terminator Salvation shouldn't be a movie. It's barely passable as internet fan-fiction. Stay home and study for finals, you'll have more fun that way.
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
Blood, guts and vocal range
There are two ways in which a movie can succeed.
Oneit can have a fully realized plot that works to explain some larger subtextual moral. It can demonstrate a mastery of technical and thematic areas and create an emotional response in the viewer. This is the route that most critics look for when giving a positive review. Films like Schindler's List. On the Waterfront. A Streetcar Named Desire.
The other way in which a movie can succeed is with ideas. This type of movie doesn't have to make sense in the same way that a traditional film does. It simply has to take you somewhere you have never been, and hopefully throw your mind through a few loops along the way. Films like El Topo. The Fountain. Eraserhead. Gummo. The Exterminating Angels.
Repo! The Genetic Opera definitely falls into the latter category.
The story, told entirely through song, details the intersecting secrets of people living in a world where a mysterious virus has caused random organ failure and forced people to resort to leasing cloned organs, at a very high price.
There is so much whimsy in this film that it almost becomes an absurdist fairytale. It skips and jumps from one homage to the next, cribbing notes from Rocky Horror in one scene before moving on to Rigoletto in the next. Genres and archetypes are thrown up against one another and mashed together with reckless abandon mixing Grand Guignol with Sondheim and Disney with Faces of Death. It cuts together the pieces of our collective pop culture consciousness the same way that the antagonists cut together new forms for their bodies.
And it's wickedly funny too.
Picking up where the ultimate consumers of Romero's shopping malls left off, Repo! makes for a brutal satire of consumer culture where human flesh is a commodity bought and sold with government approval. People have designer spines and get upgrades on their bodies when they go in for maintenance on their artificial organs. Starlets don't forget to wear panties, they forget to sew on their new faces.
Darren Lynn Bousman has made a name for himself as a go-to guy for over the top, operatic gore and he doesn't shy away from it here. Repo! is often tremendously bloody with sanguine spilling left and right, often directly on top of naked flesh. He takes what he learned making Saw II--IV and pushes in into overdrive as he uses it to skewer one satirical target after the next.
Normally I am one to shy away from sexualized violence. I find it repulsive and saddening, but here, Bousman has found that perfect mix between sexy and grotesque. Though the bloodletting is vicious, it never spills over into elaborate rape fantasy. It is a shame that he is no longer attached to the Hellraiser relaunch.
The cast, made up of a bizarre collection of geek favorites, musicians and world famous opera singers is almost weirder than the movie's central conceit. Paul Sorvino is brilliant fun as the patriarch who controls the world but finds himself unable to defeat cancer. Sorvino is fascinating to watch when he is let loose and he has a singing voice to rival any star of stage. Sarah Brightman is also quite good in a small roll that is entirely divorced from her signature turn in Phantom of the Opera. The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Alexa Vega is strong as the cloistered daughter of the eponymous organ ripper and Anthony Stewart Head outdoes his Buffy singing, even as his role is too close to that of Giles. Meanwhile Bill Mosely is obnoxious and all over the place, playing his seventh version of Chop-top while Paris Hilton is actually shockingly watchable as Amber Sweet, a heightened reality version of herself. But the real standout is Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy. The man steals the show as a deformed lothario who has a nasty habit of killing his lovers.
At a point, the film becomes as scattershot as the cast list with some moments hitting it out of the park while others miss wildly. By the end of the film one would be hard pressed to explain how the characters all end up in the same place, but it has long since ceased to matter because you've either accepted that the film is fairly divorced from reality, or else, you've walked out of the theater. I stayed, and loved every minute of it.
When I see a movie like this, I want to be taken to a new world. Somewhere strange and alien. The futuristic retro-chic of the Repo's alternate dimension is vibrant and dazzling, it's a whirling dervish of colors and styles. And though it never comes together, the overwhelming strangeness of it is intoxicating. The music is not for everyone, and the bloodletting is extreme, but Repo! offers something rarely seen at the multiplex--originality.
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Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
A Risk Worth Taking
Let the Right one In is like no other vampire movie that I have ever seen. It is smarter, scarier and more nuanced. It doesn't feel like a thriller, it feels like literature.
The film, which details the bizarre misadventures of a pair of pre-teen star crossed lovers, one of whom is an androgynous vampire, is phenomenal in almost every regard. The details of young Oskar's (Kare Hedebrant) life are spot on. Stuck in that incredibly painful period of post-childhood, pre-adolescence, Oskar is aware of girls, but has no idea how to contend with them. He is small for his age and is brutalized by other boys as a result. He's terribly alone and collects news clips of violent crimes as a way of letting out his rage. One day a strange young girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) appears on the playground. They become fast friends and things begin to look up for Oskar. Eli even (innocently) spends the night on occasion.
Meanwhile, we are privy to some things that Oskar doesn't know. As it happens, Eli's caretaker is a serial killer of the most brutal order, desanguinating his victims into a bucket. Soon, Oskar comes to realize that his new friend is a bit more than she seemed at first.
After a tragedy of shocking violence Eli is left to fend for herself, trying desperately to stave off the urge to drink fresh blood while also forming a delicate new bond with Oskar.
There is already a remake of Let the Right one In on the way. But don't wait for it. There is no way it could ever hope to capture the magic of the original. It's not just that this film is gorgeously shot. Not just that it is impeccably written. Not just that it is fully realized with an unmatched respect for vampire lore. It is all in the acting. Even if the producers find two amazing young actors, the odds against recapturing the brilliant, melancholy chemistry are astronomical.
Everything about Let the Right one In is thought through. Where a more traditional horror film might have opted for endless ultra violence or else cut everything out in favor of a kiddie friendly rating. director Tomas Alfredson steers the line right down the middle. When the violence comes it is brutal and horrific, but it is never dwelt upon. We are left to question what we just saw rather than see kidneys on display.
Too, there is a great stillness to the film. The first half of the film it mimics Oskar's stage. Stuck in between. Never moving, with no hope of growth. But as things begin to change, it becomes apparent that the stillness is not for Oskar but rather for Eli. Oskar will grow up, change and become a man. Eli is stuck in a much more burdensome fate.
And then there is the quiet, understated ending. Some will find it haunting, others will find it whimsical, I went back and forth more than a few times. No two people will have the same understanding.
This is the kind of movie people beg for. Don't miss it. This is the first time since perhaps Silence of the Lambs that a horror film had a real chance to take home some Oscar gold. And not only that, it will deserve it.
THE FILM Stuck is a confusing film. On the one hand, the film plays as a deliciously nasty piece of black comedy, piling inhumanity on top of inhumanity and coating it all with sanguine and self-immolation. On the other hand, I have been assured by an industry friend that the film is not a comedy at all, but rather a profoundly confused wouldbe thriller full of inexcusable racist stereotypes. As the DVD has nothing in the way of special features, I have no way of knowing what Auteur/infant terrible Stuart Gordon actually had in mind.
The premise is ripped straight from the strange-but-true headlines. A nurse hits a homeless man while driving drunk. She hits him so hard that he ends up lodged in her windshield. Instead of taking the man to a hospital, she drives home, leaving the man to bleed to death in her garage while she goes inside and has sex with her boyfriend.
Gordon's take on the story follows the real world events quite loosely, changing most everything after the initial crash. In reality, the man died 2 hours after being hit. Here he goes through days of misadventures.
These changes are a point of contention for many. In real life the victim was white and the killer was black. In the film, the victim is white and the killer is a white-trash Caucasian who can easily be read as an extremely stereotyped black woman who has simply been bleached.
And this is where things get confusing. Everyone in the film is stereotyped. There is a "magic negro" who is so broad that even Steven King might find it offensive. A completely subordinate black best friend. Side-of-a-barn cruel police officers. An illegal immigrant family fueled by foolish machismo. An effete gay man walking a fluffy dog. A drug dealing, gun toting, cheating black boyfriend. Helpless, brain dead elderly. And, at the center of it all, a perfect example of "the noble poor." The acting from Stephen Rea and Mena Suvari (who also acts as producer) is quite good but the writing is either totally incompetent or brilliantly subversive.
Many of the elements are incongruous. And, considering that Gordon's last film was the vastly underrated Edmond* I am inclined to believe that the film is intended to be funny. I know I laughed a lot. But, at this same time, it is entirely possible that the film is inadvertently hilarious. The whole thing is very ambiguous if you don't know Gordon's filmography.
And perhaps, it is this very tension that makes the movie worthwhile. It's a horrifically mean spirited film. So dark that it makes Very Bad Things look like Adams Family Values. This bleakness is perhaps confusing some people to the larger social context of the film.
Ultimately, in my mind, the film is a character study about a woman who selflessly works for rich white folks all day and engages in black culture all night. This internal tension makes her a type of Uncle Tom, regardless of her actual skin pigment. The film is about how good people are capable of evil and about how we are all culpable for the crimes of those we look down on.
I've always been a Stuart Gordon fan and this film cements his status for me. Unlike most filmmakers, who cool with time Gordon is on fire. His last 3 films** might well be the best of his entire career. I can't wait to see what he does next.
DVD: There are no special features, but the picture is reasonably clean and the menus are nice. I love Gordon's commentary tracks. It is sorely missed here.
CONCLUSION: Stuck is not a film for everyone. Many will find it too grisly and mean spirited. Others might even find it racist. But, for a select few, the film is a hilariously painful piece of social commentary schadenfreude. A theater of cruelty, but a brilliant one.
The very fact that I can see how someone might be horribly offended, but also find it to mean the exact opposite is enough reason to recommend the film. A movie to watch and discuss over coffee.
FILM: A- DVD: D+
*In my mind the best David Mamet adaptation to date. ** King of Ants, Edmond, Stuck
Racist, self hating, misogynistic and only passively funny
Some movies do not exist as films but as products, part of a brand. This year has seen several films of this type. Pirates of the Caribbean, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the most obvious examples, but Eddie Murphy's latest entry into the self-loathing minstrel show genre, Norbit is little more than a product itself.
Norbit tells the story of the eponymous slightly mentally challenged and speech impediment afflicted young orphan who is put through the ringer by his Wife of Bath-esquire bride (both played by Murphy) and her criminally inclined family (not played by Murphy). Norbit seems content with this life until his childhood sweetheart (the unfortunately cast Thandie Newton in a role that should have been played by Murphy too) turns up on the scene. From there, the film spirals into an anti-romantic comedy with Norbit's wife Rasputia trying to kill Norbit and his chances at happiness.
There is a lot going on in Norbit. It's an angrier movie than Murphy has made in years. There is a great deal of anguish, deep seeded self loathing, racial self hatred and disgust boiling just below the surface at any given moment. Beyond the obvious ego-tripping (at the gates of dawn) of Murphy, playing 3 of the principal characters there is something more to it. Under the pretense of playing multiple characters Murphy has rough sex with himself, slaps himself around, tells himself he is worthless, calls himself "hideous" and tries to kill himself.
Then there is the fact that this film, like Martin Lawrence's Big Momma's House and the "Madea" franchise of allegedly uplifting and positive plays/movies/reinforcements of reductive stereotypes, is predicated upon the Aunt Jemima image of a black slave woman. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I find the whole minstrel show, black face motif to be unnerving to say the least.
But then, maybe I'm not smart enough for this movie.
There are things going on, hatred of the dark skinned characters, who are almost universally villainous, while expounding upon the inherent goodness of the lighter skinned characters. Murphy's bizarre (though admittedly often hilarious) turn as an Asian American that lead to much deeper insight into race relations than Crash ever could. Maybe Spike Lee should write a book on this film.
The movie itself is messy. Plot lines go nowhere; characters enter and exit for no reason, endless strings of tired, racist stereotypes that are repeated as straight forward jokes. That said, the effects work by Rick Baker is Oscar worthy, the direction is adequate bringing a little grace to the proceedings and the music is quiet good. None of that can save this film however.
There are only 2 reasons to see this movie.
A: If you are a sociology major looking into the troubles of modern day African Americans adapting to a world run by white men.
B: If you are as big a fan of make up effects as is humanly possible.
Also, the Asian grandfather character is pretty funny, even if he does rank higher than Amos & Andy levels on the bigotry scale
Chinese exclusion act, wha? For more reviews please visit www.collider.com
Half Past Dead 2 (2007)
Half Past Dead 2.
Think about that for a moment. Does that mean, "Half Past Dead, As Well" or "Two Individuals who are Both Half Past Dead in equal measure" or, "3 Times as Dead as the Average Corpse"? I don't know, but logic was never the strong suit of this wouldbe prison riot franchise.
When the first Half Past Dead came out Steven Seagal wasn't the joke he is today. He was simply box office poison. The movie grossed 15 million dollars and quietly ended the theatrical career of Seagal. Since then, Seagal has gone on to star in about a dozen direct-to-video actioners. Oddly however, he is not in this sequel.
Instead, we get rapper Kurupt returning as the whiny wise guy, "Twitch" and new-comer Bill Goldberg as a framed felon with a heart of gold. Continuing the series' standard of actor/directors Art Camacho takes over from Don Michael Paul as director of the shenanigans.
Instead of just resetting the series and using the name and general premise (annoying B-level rapper sidekick and innocent white ass kicker) as a selling point, Half Past Dead 2 legitimizes its' existence by continuing the plot of the first film which centered around $200 million in missing gold. Twitch knows where said gold is, as does another prisoner who is to be paroled before Twitch. Twitch does the only logical thing, picks a prison fight and gets sent to a prison closer to the gold's location obviously.
Twitch plans to break out of prison. But before anything happens, a riot breaks out while Goldberg's daughter and Twitches fiancé are visiting. Mayhem ensues.
It's almost needless to say, but Half Past Dead 2 is not a very good movie. There are massive logic jumps. The main plot is predicated on the assumption that a man can yell a name in a crowed room, pull out a gun and shoot someone, and then frame another man for the crime. The rest of the movie feels oddly reminiscent of Lets Go to Prison.
Also, Kurupt's Twitch, the film's main protagonist, is more annoying than he clever. His motivations are not always clear, and Goldberg's performance could not be flatter if the film were animated
Still, the film is oddly watchable. Thanks to Camacho's energetic direction that makes the most of the film's obviously microscopic budget, and some solid (for the genre) performances from the bit players.
And then there is the guy who has his face tattooed right below his face on his neck. Yeah, it's that kind of movie. Whereas recent big budget fair like Grindhouse tried to imitate this kind of film, Half Past Dead 2 is a real entry into the genre of schlocky B-grade ultra-violent grindhouse fair. While it doesn't hold a candle to the inspired brutality of say, Sonny Chiba's The Streetfighter, or the out and out lunacy of Roger Corman's Death Race 2000, Half Past Dead 2 does hold its' own. It's not great, but it's definitely better than the original and nothing painful to watch.
Alpha Dog (2006)
An underseen gem
Occasionally there is one of those movies that just completely slips through the cracks. Usually it's a low to medium budget movie that is either mis-marketed, under marketed or just dumped to die a quick death. A few years later you might discover a movie like this on cable at 3 AM and think, "whoa, that was actually pretty good." Films like Running Scared, Wrong Turn, Turistas, Josie and the Pussycats, Can't Hardly Wait, Teachers Pet, Rent, The Fountain, Breach and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton are some recent additions to this sad subgenre of film. And it looks as if Alpha Dog is in prime position to be the new guy.
Nick Cassavetes, son of indie film pioneer John, was hot off of his mega hit The Notebook when he picked this true crime story to be his next film. Unfortunately, things were problematic for Alpha Dog from the beginning.
The shoot was troubled, even shutting down at one point with no plans for the film to be finished. The film did manage complete principal photography but then sat on the shelf for 2 years getting several re-edits before finally seeing the light of day in the second week of January earlier this year to mediocre reviews and complete disinterest at the box office.
As the film prepared for release, Jesse James Hollywood, the real life villain of the piece, played by soon to be Speed Racer, Emile Hirsh, was finally brought to justice. A new ending was filmed and the movie looked to have a new selling hook but after much legal wrangling from Hollywood's wrangling team it became obvious that the film could not be released in conjunction with the sure-to-be-a-media-circus-trail. Worse yet, Hollywood's lawyers tried to have an injunction placed on the release of the film for fear it might poison the jury pool.
Of course, none of this behind the scenes drama would matter if what was on screen wasn't any good. Fortunately, it is.
Though the film is occasionally over stylized with too many temporal shifts for its own good and a rather obtuse framing story featuring Bruce Willis, most of what's put on screen works. The story, revolving around the real life kidnapping and murder of 15 year old boy by a rich-kid-cum-drug-kingpin, is fairly intriguing and well executed. Even the obviously villainous characters are compelling and never feel like cartoons.
All of the acting is top shelf, especially Ben Foster who just drips an oddly charismatic brand sleaze. The usually clean cut Hirsh is a revelation as the total scumbag, Johnny Truelove and Sharon Stone has an absolutely heartbreaking monologue that almost steals the movie at the beginning of the third act.
Also of note is Justin Timberlake who is making a very interesting career for himself. Instead of picking the easy romantic leads or action heroes, Timberlake has cut a path of smaller, more complex character roles that imply higher aspirations as an actor than the cross promotion that most musicians get from film roles. At this rate, he's on tap to end of like Mark Walberg instead of Madonna.
And there are complex ideas at play here too. More than just being a cautionary tale about too much, too young, the film uses its temporal shifts to extrapolate the human costs of these crimes. There are no less than 4 time periods at play in the movie, each with different make up, different character traits from the same actors. By the time Sharon Stone reaches her monologue we understand that she has been ravaged by years of grief. Her visage has been destroyed and she has been laid bare. The low-fi, documentary feel of her confessional only accentuates the palpable feelings of real pain.
It's the same gimmick Cassavetes used in The Notebook, but it's a damn effective tool for showing just how catastrophic events can be. It's a good case for "the butterfly effect" (not the Ashton Kutcher film).
It really says something about the strength of Cassavetes writing that at the end of the film, it felt tragic. Not just for the dead youth. Not just for his family who lost one son to drugs and another to a horrible murder. I somehow felt bad for the kidnappers. I felt bad for Timberlake, I even felt a little bad for Truelove, who never had a chance. His father, (Bruce Willis, underplaying quiet well) was such a manipulative scum bag, what else was Truelove to become? There are lots of questions, and no easy answers.
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