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Mother's Day (1980)
8/10
A deceptively smart stupid movie...
9 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I've been watching this movie regularly ever since I was a horny, frustrated and slightly repressed teenager in the 80s. I first heard about it in Fangoria magazine and it was notable mainly for having been shot across the way from Camp Crystal Lake (aka Camp Blood). Oddly enough, I've met and made a pal in Adrienne King, even watched Friday the 13th with her in a theater not long ago, but that's another story.

This film is the heartwarming (or heart-burning) story of a sick old lady who lives in the woods and has raised two boys to be sadistic killers, and of the three unfortunate women who are found by them. The women, who bear an uncanny resemblance to Stella Stevens, Sally Field and Mary McDonnell (and there's a Lady Gaga lookalike in the first scene), are one-time college friends celebrating their ritualistic getaway weekend and mistakenly choose a forbidden forest (or so says the demented local shopkeeper) for their retreat. After about a half hour of setup in which we are treated to a scene of a disco party that would be later copied in "Boogie Nights," the introduction of a greasy, worthless boyfriend, a hateful mother, some weird east-coast characters and a flashback wherein a boasting macho man is humilated by being rendered naked in a baseball field to the tune of "I Think We're Alone Now," our three friends, aka "The Rat Pack," are captured by Ike and Addely, the creepy, animalistic sons of our woodland "mother," to ends various, sundry and violent.

There's nothing particularly noteworthy in this scenario; it's a story that has been told often and the film might easily have been just another slasher, or "sadistic men torture women for voyeuristic filmgoers pathetic kicks" picture, but this one is definitely not cut from the same cloth as its 1980s counterparts.

First there is the proliferation of iconic media imagery...the house of "mother" and her two degenerate kids is littered with pop culture trash including a Star Trek poster and a Big Bird alarm clock that, in one odd scene, wakes our hideous heros from slumber in their cartoon-sheeted bunk beds. Second, the acting is generally pretty good, if on the campy side. Mother and the copper-haired slob Ike (who bears a resemblance to Tim Curry from Rocky Horror, and who apparently changed his name to be in this film) are particularly memorable, as are the two surviving girls. The film is nasty, bloody and rough but never forgets movies, even disgusting movies like this one, are meant to be entertaining, and so ladles on the camp at weird moments, making it a dark comedy at times; moments before, and after, a disturbing, unpleasant rape scene (that is nowhere near as graphic as what you see in films nowadays, at the least) there are scenes where you actually find yourself oddly compelled by the charisma of the sick monsters causing all the mayhem. There's the on-going "punk sucks/disco's stupid" argument between the dopey brothers. There's also a weird "mythos" underneath the plot of the film concerning an un-seen malevolence, a bizarre, feral relative named "Queenie" who is spoken of in hushed tones, creating a mesmerizing spook factor to the precedings.

This is a well-made film despite its low-budget trappings; it is well-beyond the low bar set but Lloyd Kaufman and Troma (despite being directed by Kaufman's brother)...the scenes of tension are palpable and at some points unendurable (a scene with a rope cutting into a woman's hands is well-nigh impossible to watch). While the violence is sometimes presented as cartoonish, at other times you are made to care for the victims and their situation, particularly when the surviving women mourn their friend who doesn't survive.

Most noteworthy for me is that for once the female victims, while still technically on-screen for the purpose of being ogled for their beauty (and nudity), fight back. The women that survive (theoretically--the film has an unfortunate surprise ending that cheapens what might have been a sincere victory) make it because they are, in their own words, strong. They defy their attackers, and they (spoiler) defeat them, in ways that feel justified and satisfying for once. Yet the film is also mature enough to point out that even this victory is layered with the inherent abomination of murder, even if it's in retribution, something you don't often find in modern torture porn. Or modern films, period.

I have to hand it to this one...it's rough, raw, dumb, dirty, cartoonish and amateurish, but weirdly entertaining...and much smarter than one would suspect it to be (note things like the motif of the "fake knife in the back"). After 40 years it still has a sick, black heart beating, and there's merit in that. Check it out if you like nasty, but entertaining, old slasher movies.
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9/10
She's Still Remains A Mystery...
14 December 2017
I have seen "Crimes Of Passion" many times over the years but I think I only just came to understand this movie more fully after watching it in its final edited form again recently. "Crimes Of Passion," for all its (many) flaws, for all its trash and sleaze, for good or ill, is a cinematic work of art that defies convention.

The film is partly the story of a vivacious woman, played by Kathleen Turner, who works in design by day and goes into drag to turns tricks downtown by night. She's pursued by a deranged priest who seems intent on "saving" her, possibly by using perverted sex to kill her. Meanwhile, an "average Joe" family man is tasked with investigating her, and just can't stay away from what turns him on. "Bobby," played by John Laughlin, is involved in a marriage and family that's fizzling and may possibly be the perfect antidote to what ails our confused working girl...if she can survive that is.

What most take away from the film is Ms. Turner's brave, fantastic, uninhibited (mentally as well as physically) performance, the berserk scenes with Anthony Perkins, the neon pinks and blues in the set design, the strange surprise ending and the sardonic tone--with all the sex, violence, the lurid color palette and over-the-top synth score, the plot almost seemed like an afterthought; the movie is like a musical where the sex scenes are the big production numbers.

That being said, what's remarkable is that, along with Spielberg's "Close Encounters" this may have been one of the first films to cause a buzz for being re-edited and successfully re-released later.

The "unrated version" that came out in the 80s was popular, adding an infamous "did Turner really sign on for this?" S+M sequence with a cop, selling the movie as a soft-core porn film. The film seemed trashier (if possible) and less redemptive somehow after watching how far "Joanna Crane" (and Ken Russell, in fact) could descend into violent, sexual excess with such seeming nonchalance.

Flash forward to the 90s and we got "C of P" on laser disc with deleted scenes and audio commentary of Ken Russell being interviewed by Barry Sandler, the screenwriter of the film. Here, we learned that Anthony Perkins' character was not originally a fallen priest, which would have made a profound difference in how the character was perceived. The deleted scenes added another level of explanation to the project somehow. The film already has a number of melodramatic, wooden-acted moments, some that seem straight out of a sad, low-budget TV movie; the deleted scenes presented on the laser disc, including a couples' backyard BBQ and a confrontation between a wife and the woman her husband is seeing behind her back seemed like something you'd find on the Lifetime channel. In fact, these scenes just don't fit at all, at least if you see the film as the Ken Russell phantasmagoria it appeared to be in the original edits in the 80s.

The current home-view version of the film includes more deleted scenes and footage cut into the film that was never in any earlier cuts, at least in the US. None of the new scenes extended the outrageousness of the movie (with the exception of an exceptionally ugly and graphic bit of actual porn footage on a TV monitor), quite the opposite. Taken as a body, if you include all the deleted scenes available (which were surely in the green-lit script?) it would seem that originally the story of the film might have been meant to be played straight, and that the plot was about an average Joe in a crumbling marriage who gets involved with a woman who tricks at night and is pursued by a crazy person.

In the current edit, the "China Blue" scenes that once seemed the raison d'etre of the project comprise a much smaller part of the big picture...it's unlikely (but I have no confirmation) that Mr. Sandler envisioned the garishly-colored, over-sexed diatribe on American sexual mores that Mr. Russell crafted out of the script he had to work with (and Russell had brilliantly done something similar with Chayefsky's "Altered States" just years before). Certainly it's hard to believe anyone but Ms. Turner, directed by Mr. Russell, could have gotten away with the (deliciously) ridiculous action in the "China Blue" scenes. Imagine, for example, someone like "Basic Instinct"-era Sharon Stone playing the part, as directed by Adrian Lynne or something--it just wouldn't work, or be as fun.

And the movie IS fun, or should be, aside from some unfortunate misogyny (no film, EVER, should have the line, "strip...b!tch!" in it). The "final edit" of the film we have now, which may be closer to the intent of the work I suspect Mr. Sandler originally concocted, which exists only when you look at all the deleted scenes and the most recent edit, is still good stuff. It's more realistic, there's a lot more compassion; John Laughlin's trajectory makes more sense, and we find that Annie Potts' best work, and many keys to the "point" of the movie, were left on the cutting room floor to make room for more sex-with-nuns-and-dildos Russell-stuff (but that's not really a complaint). But the original conception of the film may have been a different, less outrageous movie. It seems possible that by editing the film into the shorter cut we saw in the mid-80s we were gifted with another berserk Russellian moving-painting whereas if someone else had directed the movie we might have instead gotten an interesting, but less-than-noteworthy melodrama.

Again, the film is flawed in any form, but its power can't be ignored--the visuals, the editing, the music, Ms. Turner and Mr. Perkins' performances, the unflinching discussion of sexual topics many people even today would run screaming from--all of these things combine to create a piece of film art that shouldn't be left out when discussing the works of Ken Russell specifically, and the place of art films in film history in general.
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A Wedding (1978)
8/10
Buried Treasure...
26 November 2017
"A Wedding" falls under the category of films that have to be experienced more than once to be appreciated, or perhaps even enjoyed. I saw it in the theater when it came out; I was a kid and the movie was billed as a mainstream comedy but far from laughing at what I witnessed I was disturbed by it. Raised on Disney films and related pablum, nothing had prepared me for the black humor, cynicism and nihilism that makes up what is, in my opinion, Robert Altman's most enduring work. It certainly isn't a film I'd recommend to anyone looking for light romantic fare (try "Father Of The Bride" and please, do wake me when it's over). It gets better every time you see it, certainly. The problem might be, as I've heard from non-fans of the films of Ken Russell, for those who didn't enjoy a movie the first time why on earth would they revisit it? I didn't see "A Wedding" again until I was older but when I did the film was on TV and possibly censored (there's a lot PG-rated cursing and some non-sexual but surprisingly lengthy--and superfluous--nudity), making it less of a shock to my then-conservative system. But viewing the film again I began to make sense of what at first appears to be chaos, a film that shows a world stuffed with hateful, base people acting in the worst ways humans can, and presents it for laughs. The same thing would happen when I discovered the films of John Waters some time later. I think a film like "A Wedding" goes down easier at home than in a theater, even more so after repeated viewings, where you can study the movie the way it should be studied, as an "art" film and not a mindless Hollywood comedy.

"A Wedding" is, of course, a record, in real time, of a wedding event where the daughter in a nouveau riche family marries the son from a family with "old" money and just about everything goes awry. Along the way we are introduced to a never-ending cavalcade of family members. One might complain that it's good no guests showed up, it's hard enough to tell who everyone is even after a couple viewings, but I think that's the fun of repeat viewings--untying the tangled knots. I'm reminded of the film "1941" from a few years later; I didn't get that movie either until I realized the "plot" is basically one crash after the next. This is true of "A Wedding" as well; if you try to find a comfortable comedy plot line or look for single characters to follow you will be frustrated...you're much better off just relaxing and enjoying the big, rambunctious ride and allowing it to take you where it will go...you'll be dropped off safely when the ride is over, to be sure.

Roger Ebert, who gave the film a positive review, likened watching the movie to being an invisible guest at the ceremony and after seeing the movie dozens of times I can think of no better description. I also come up short while thinking of another movie that is similar in presentation. Certainly Altman did overlapping dialog before and after this film. I'm no great fan of his work but agree with many that when he hits the mark he hits it well...and when he phones it in it's a whole lotta no fun. Altman was fond of creating over-long movies where the plot revolved around groups of people intermingling with no apparent (at first) goal. Others, like P.T. Anderson, have picked up the mantle of this technique and run with it. But I'm hard-pressed to think of any movie that so effectively sticks you in the center of the "action" (such as it is; very little happens, it's like a filmed play), even when you dearly wish you could run away screaming.

But the real genius of the film to me is the line it walks between humor and horror. On the one hand you have Carol Burnett using her (brilliant) stock tools to illicit the familiar kinds of laughs you'd have found on her variety show at the time; on the other you have her in a truly uncomfortable situation followed by a moment of unflinching, devastating tragedy, where she plays it straight and hints at some of the serious acting work she'd perform in future roles. The cast of mostly-knowns (either then or now) is composed of dignified, familiar actors playing against type as a rogues' gallery of grand grotesques, but the more you examine these strange, mostly unpleasant people the more you (uncomfortably) begin to realize they're pretty much accurate portraits of the people you know (or are).

Finally, the mounting tension of wondering what on earth can possibly go wrong next (culminating in a convulsive fit and an act of infidelity) leaves you on the verge of going numb...but strangely satisfied. Just as in real life, there are no happy endings, there is seldom a satisfying resolution to the conflicts we experience and very little of what happens in the world makes sense. It all just sort of "is." But if you're lucky, you get a filmmaker like Robert Altman to point a camera at it all and help us to gain understanding of the world around us, or at least to laugh at the absurdity of it, even if we're crying at the same time.

"A Wedding" is far from perfect but is also a film I can't recommend enough, that is, at least, to serious lovers of cinema. I'm afraid it would be entirely lost on those expecting merely a "comedy," but there are plenty of those types of films out there--this one is for the rest of us.
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The Escort (IV) (2016)
6/10
Good, but not for obvious reasons
20 May 2017
I chose this film while randomly perusing Amazon Prime's lists, a strange new occupation I find a lot of us pursuing of late. I was looking for something in the vein of a Sebastian Gutierrez indie flick. I chose the movie based entirely on the description and poster, something I never do any more as my time is too precious to gamble on a bad movie. I was rewarded with a pleasant, if unremarkable, film that I'd definitely recommend, but for reasons other than the obvious ones. It wasn't bad and had a decent story but that's not what prompted me to write a review about it.

In downtown LA a young woman is earning her keep as a high-priced sexual escort and a young aspiring writer has lost his job and is looking for a good story. He's also addicted to an "instant hookup" app and ends up meeting our lady of the night in a bar when he thinks she's his next match. They form a partnership where he gets his story (about her) in return for watching over her while she deals with unsavory men, and if you can't guess what happens next this is probably the first movie you've ever seen.

I found the first 20 minutes or so enticing; the cast was attractive, the dialog crisp, the acting sit-com level or higher and since it opened with a woman having "specialty" sex and the male lead tramping around, it seemed like a film that was going to have an edge to it. It doesn't, and in fact it ends up being lighter fare, topically, than anything you'd see on prime time TV, but it passed the time. I started checking my phone at the half-hour mark and never really engaged again after that but I didn't turn it off either.

What really sold me on this film, and has kept me thinking about it for days, was the soundtrack. Not since the 80s or 90s can I think of a movie where I was so intrigued by the music playing underneath scenes and transitions, and the way it flavored my experience of this film. I've spent a lot of time in downtown LA and thereabouts and with the great photography and soundtrack the filmmakers really got the "feel" of the area right. It's not as easy a thing to do as one might imagine; making a film that accurately portrays a location isn't as simple as just planting a camera there, you have to get the feel of it right.

I'm also intrigued by films that are focused on sex but don't actually include any sexual content. There are a couple of fully-clothed "humping" scenes in this movie but it's all fairly innocent and unobtrusive. It reminds you that a steamy sex scene with full nudity isn't always necessary to make a point. Films made before the ratings game came into play in the late 60s or so had to rely on technique rather than bared skin to convey sexual tension. Again...how it "feels" rather than simply how rutting looks when you focus a camera on it. It's not a common practice any more and I have no qualms about showing sexuality and nudity, it's just intriguing when it ISN'T shown, especially in a film that is ostensibly about a woman who sells her sexuality for a living.

Lastly, I found it interesting that the movie seems to take place in a world populated mostly by Caucasians. It's not something I really thought about until I saw this movie; the idea that these people dwell downtown but rarely encounter any racial (or gender, for that matter) diversity seems odd. Again, having spent a lot of time in these locations it's unlikely to say the least. It's not a judgment call, I'm wasn't offended, just intrigued...had the film been made 15-20 years ago it wouldn't have even crossed my mind.

Anyway, worth a look, which is actually quite an accomplishment.
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The Voices (2014)
A Mean-Spirited Film Desperate To Be Liked...
29 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Amazon Prime has become a great place to find quirky, cult-y movies of varying budgets from different eras, some of which are buried treasures. "The Voices" is definitely quirky as it straddles the line between ghastly horror and campy humor, but doesn't quite a achieve cult status despite how hard it, or director Marjane Satrapi try to please.

The plot concerns goofy and amiable Jerry (played by the likable Ryan Reynolds, who appears to be having more fun than we are) who we find out very quickly has some problems with his mental health. He lives in a day-glo world despite his lowly employment and lives with two animal companions who seem to be able to speak to him in his own voice, but with funny accents. These are the best parts of the film and almost elevate it to the goal it was striving for--had the writer and director been disciplined enough to really explore the interior landscape of a serial killer this might have been a dark, but fun journey into the mind of a psychopath who you find yourself inexplicably rooting for despite his horrendous mis-deeds.

Unfortunately the tone shifts drastically when Jerry starts interacting with the women in his office, and the film becomes a fairly standard "will justice catch up to the killer or not?" would-be suspense film.

The performances, particularly by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver are so good you wish these actors were in another movie (and maybe they thought they were). The scenes with Jerry's foul-mouthed Scottish cat and slow-but-steady Southern dog are brilliant; well shot, funny and creepy all at once. The anti-spetic tone of Jerry's mental state in contrast with the reality we're giving brief glimpses of is chilling and thought-provoking.

Where the film stumbles is the hubris of its creators ignoring years of film and story development and trying, like an enthusiastic new film school student, to see if it's possible to create an entertaining story with a central character who is almost impossible to empathize with. It can be done..."Psycho" is probably the best example, "Citizen Kane" qualifies, "The Last Seduction" ...more recently, anything done by Todd Solondz, although that's just my personal opinion since I like his films...But the truth is, it's very difficult to pull this sort of story off, and questionable as to why anyone would try.

Here we have a film that revels in the mistreatment of women as entertainment; we're shown graphic images of women being cut up and terrorized and there's absolutely no "payoff" other than some smug "wink wink" humor with talking post-mortem heads; the women are barely even grieved let alone considered well-rounded human beings. All of this is shown from the point of view of our pro/an-tagonist, who ultimately can't be considered empathetic if you have any human decency or morals. So you're left with no one to care about, at which point the film becomes a study of psychosis in general; this worked well in David Cronenberg's "Crash" but this film doesn't have the conviction of its anti-morals that one had.

Instead we get a "comedy" that contains close-ups of excrement, graphic depictions of gore, violence against women and what appears to be actual depictions of animals copulating and killing on screen, tee hee. Adding further insult to injury, there's a tasteless, tacked-on "Austin Powers"-ish musical number for the end credits that tries to suggest everything we've seen was all in fun. This kind of sardonic humor worked well in a movie like "All That Jazz," but this film just hasn't earned the right to that kind of well-thought-out cynicism, nor has it played by the rules of its own attempt (and almost success) at creating a sense of madness.

In the end "The Voices" is trying very hard, like the lead character who is in nearly every scene, to get our attention and be liked, any way it can...by being shocking, offensive, derivative, immature, or simply not going away (the movie is over 90 minutes long). Surprisingly, what it did best for me was send me to IMDb about halfway through to start composing a review.
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7/10
Learning how to live by hanging with a dead guy...
23 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Imagine the pitch: What if, on the eve of deciding you must take your own life in a remote location, you see a random dead guy washed up on the shore and, through a series of exercises in human physiognomy, including chronic flatulence and tumescence, the corpse (or zombie?) becomes your friend, teaching you how to live a more fulfilling life? Cheers to the studio(s) that funded this fun, clever, gross, touching and very dark comedy/bromance, and here's hoping discerning, intelligent movie audiences can continue to get more quality films that push envelopes the way this one does.

Taking a cue from the old story "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse," "Swiss Army Man" spends much of it's running time creating a relationship between someone at the end of his rope and someone who has passed the end of his rope, as our hero drags and carries around his talking cadaver pal. The conversations that take place between the living character played by Paul Dano and his new, deceased companion played by Daniel Radcliffe, include ruminations on growing up ashamed of your body and bodily functions and how it can translate into a broken sense of ego, destroying your ability to love and be loved. In fact, there's a possibility (spoiler here, perhaps) that all of this is merely a projection played out in the head of our hero. I don't think it is though; the fact that "evidence" is captured on video at the conclusion of this story suggests that the whole thing really was supposed to be taking place in the "real world," which makes the film a kind of dark fairy tale. I'm reminded of Todd Solondz' "Palindromes," which also (successfully) found whimsy in topics that are generally thought of in polite society as being taboo.

There is a lot of whimsy here...Dano's "Hank" exerts a great deal of energy to try to convince Radcliffe's "Manny" (or perhaps himself) of the importance of loving yourself and then others, while utilizing piles of junk to recreate scenes in real life (a cinema, a bus ride) that would make the castaways of Gilligan's Island proud (and the film has many such fun and familiar references to other works). The elaborate set-ups and the clever way this business is filmed reminds one of the work of Michel Gondry (and, unfortunately, sometimes succumbs to the same kind of preciousness Gondry's work suffers from) but is a feast for the eyes.

So too is the work of Radcliffe--what a dream it must be to be able to take on roles like this after the tedium of the Harry Potter films, and you can tell Radcliffe is having a great time. With his gravelly, stroke-victim speaking style and childish questions he creates a character something in-between the child robot in "AI" and Peter Falk. He jumps in with his entire (broken) body and goes places a lot of actors wouldn't have the (literal) guts to go. In fact, much of the enjoyment of the film (if that's what it is) is the focus on the flesh, guts and bones of "Manny's" dead body in all its repulsive, eruptive glory and it's hard to take your eyes off his fascinating, distorted face. David Cronenberg probably wishes he made this one. Dano is also fun to watch and gives a compassionate, touching, near-pathetic performance that veers just on the edge of going too far into child-like slapstick.

The film is far from perfect...the ending drags and one senses the filmmakers spent a great deal of time trying to outsmart today's sharp and literal-minded audiences. I found the ending satisfying but that's because I didn't have any expectations by that point. If the film had ended (spoiler again) in the "real world," it would have been awfully depressing but would probably have been more true to the set up. As it is, the ending fits into the "anything goes" premise set up earlier on.

There's also the "precious/cute" quality, the glorification of vulgar bodily function gags, long stretches that push credibility and a score that sometimes enthralls but often as not irritates. Clearly part of the reason this movie was made was to showcase digital effects but the effects work is sometimes a bit cheap looking (but I'm in the FX industry so maybe more critical).

But overall this is an original, engaging and well-produced piece of cinema that is meant for a specific type of audience. It's likely to irritate people who expected a mainstream comedy (to which I would query, did you watch the trailer? What were you expecting?), people who want Radcliffe to stay Harry Potter and people who are insecure with their sexuality (the film bravely crosses a line into glorification of two men experimenting with each other physically, hinting at necrophilia, as well as focusing on Mr. Radcliffe's bare derriere several times). But for the rest of us, who like films that challenge while entertaining, that offer shocks that exist for more than just shock value and are visually fulfilling, this film is a rare treat. It's free on Amazon right now, if you're at all intrigued, check it out while you can...it's a brisk, zippy little film that, even if you hate it, will probably stick with you, which is more than I can say for any of the endless Harry Potter films.
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8/10
Shallow and Beautiful
8 February 2017
"Neon Demon" isn't for everyone, but it's wonderful all the same.

Set in the high-fashion world of LA (??) "Neon Demon" takes its first cue from "Mulholland Drive," starting as the story of a young, blonde innocent played delightfully by a chameleon-like Elle Fanning who is sometimes innocent beyond belief and other times seductive, wise and deranged beyond her years. She meets a "friend" in Jenna Malone, who gives the film's most interesting performance as a possibly-predatory, possibly insane Lynchian lipstick lesbian and the movie then moves into Brian DePalma-land, filled as it is with ultra-clean, neon lit sets and the ever-pulsing electronic score. The plot follows Fanning's "Jesse" as she moves her way up the ladder of "success" in the cutthroat fashion industry and the malevolent forces that seem to be gathering, either to taint her quality or to, literally, feed on it.

While the plot isn't all that original (people in high-profile creative jobs can be literal cut-throat monsters, Hollywood is a tough town, the price of naivete is destruction) and the film contains some tiresome, unsavory moments of young women being threatened and dominated by men (and one gratuitous scene with a cadaver that would have stopped the show completely if what followed hadn't been equally outrageous) what makes the ride worthwhile are the 80's-inspired set pieces. Project creator "NWR," whose other films I have not yet seen, tips a hat to Kubrick, DePalma, "The Hunger" and "Cat People" (to answer the question many have asked as to why a certain scene of an uninvited animal guest appears in the movie). I imagine that's part of the problem...I don't think a lot people who reviewed this film negatively got the "joke." I chuckled through the entire movie, and I suspect the director wouldn't have minded. My first clue was the use of a Kubrick homage key word...I can't believe any director would put such a bit of business into a film and expect it to be treated seriously...likewise the Lynchian cameo of Keanu Reeves and Allessandro Nivola. The pace, the characters, the over-the-top fashions, the color scheme (I have a color-blind friend who can vouch that people with color blindness prefer a world that looks the way the film is colored) the retro music score and the nods to other psychological thrillers...I was absolutely delighted to find someone had seen and loved the same trashy films I enjoyed in the 80s and 90s and made a film that not only commemorates those tarnished gems but takes them a step further (I had no idea where the film was going to end up and found the ending satisfying as well as repulsive).

This film is not for anyone who has pre-conceptions going in, it's not for those who insist on viewing cinema as an art form of "literalism" ("Cinema Sins," which I actually enjoy), it's not for someone in a hurry, it's not for someone who wants to see a "Syd Field 101"-scripted action story with commonplace character tropes. It's female-centric, the politics are left-of-center and the movie absolutely requires you to surrender yourself to the moment and not be in control. It's probably not terribly deep in intent. It has the lack of narrative discipline of a European art film, it's too long and slow, it succumbs to the visually and mentally repulsive on occasion and doesn't provide easy answers...I'm not even sure the movie is asking any questions. It seems like the sole purpose of the movie, like "Enter The Void," is to generate a sensory response, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Would that many mainstream Hollywood films today were better at doing that much.

When this movie came out I read a lot of reviews saying this movie was "bad," that it was a disappointment, that it didn't live up to the potential created by the director's other films. As usual I took the advice of these reviews and missed seeing the thing in a theater before remembering that often as not the movies that people shout are "good" bore me to tears. To re-frame my subject line in a more positive light, if you find yourself liking movies that mainstream viewers don't, this might be one for you to check out.
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Wiener-Dog (2016)
7/10
A Solondz Film, Not a Dog Lovers' Film
20 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Have you seen the one about the little doggie passed from owner to owner who, in her journeys, shows us some insight into some of the darker--and lighter--shades of humanity along the way? Did you like it? Hate it? Were you irritated by it, or merely bored?

Good, you're still among the living.

I saw a new Solondz film was out and was mildly excited--I was disappointed by his last two; it felt as if he was going the route of a lot of once-popular auteur-esque filmmakers these days--tiny-budgeted direct-to-video personal statements without the boldness and brashness (or budgets) that made the director famous.

An acquaintance told me he'd seen it *in a theater* and he liked Solondz but hadn't heard of "Palindromes" or "Happiness" (????) and was ambivalent about THIS movie. Others were saying it was Solondz's first "feel good" film (perish the vile thought!). Then it showed up as a freebie on Amazon--in fact they were rolling out the red carpet for a filmmaker who had become, basically, un-bankable in our Captain America world (word of Solondz's still having to keep his day job despite his prolific efforts as a director was depressing too). Thank you, Amazon, I've just renewed my Prime account...

Now we have "Wiener-Dog," which both recalls what Solondz fans love about his past works and brings something new to the table. To those who would argue he's merely repeating himself...did you make it to the end, with the lyrical, poetic vision of younger versions of the Ellen Burstyn character...? No, this "Black(comedy) Beauty for the 2010's" is not his strongest work--the short and (mostly) incomplete nature of the stories included prevents us from getting too involved, unlike, say, Aviva's "hero's journey" in "Palindromes" or the scathing and dread-inducing pedophile's story in "Happiness" or the "I was almost there once" shudders "Welcome To The Dollhouse" evokes. But for all that it's a powerful piece of cinema that isn't easily forgotten, happily enrages the conservative and small-minded and, like the best of Solondz, pits an undying optimism and love of beauty against all the darker themes, visions of an unavoidable imperfect humanity and grue. What is a cynic, but a buried optimist, after all? To those who would say the film is "hateful" consider that Solondz has gone on record as saying he loves his characters (even the pedophile in "Happiness"), a very evolved way of looking at things in a world of "I need a bad guy to transfer all my anger and hate to." Solondz's films have the audacity to present a world without gloss and fantasy visions of humans as immortal superheros...and still makes it all entertaining. It's easy enough to love this year's favorite celebrities, beautiful or no--who loves the "little" people, the people with flaws and egos? and there are a lot more of them (us), after all.

To those who object to the perceived mistreatment of an animal, or at least the CG glorification of it in the film's jaw-dropping final moments, it's SUPPOSED to be nasty. Did you see "Jurassic World," "The Force Awakens" or any number of big-ticket action films? (You probably did)...how many un-grieved, senseless deaths happen to unwitting bystanders in those films, one wonders? The tragic accidental death of a revered, humble animal in this film, presented unflinchingly and without fanfare, is more artistic, true and dignified than the horrifying slaughters that happen in movies made for children...but also reflects a bold and absurd "laughing equals crying" sense of humor that is a lot more complicated than the "laugh at every line" sitcom formula most audiences are used to. As a writing teacher told me once, "Sometimes kids need to hear that the 101 Dalmations did NOT survive, and were actually turned into coats after all," because that's as valid--maybe more so--than "they all lived happily ever after." I don't think it's a cynical joke the Nana character names her dog Cancer (and anyway, she could have been referring to the zodiac sign), but it is funny in a cynical way; when we stop laughing at tragedy we're really done for.

Lastly, to the critics who didn't get it (among them the Hollywood Reporter, New Yorker, EW, Travers and Reed--thankfully the reviewer on Ebert's page "got" it, as I think Roger would have), well, professional criticism is on the way out and thankfully movies like this get made, and seen, despite the tired personal rants of reviewers about what they personally don't like, based on their own simple biases. Oh, and the critics also neglect to mention that DeVito and Burstyn in particular give fantastic, noteworthy, touching performances.

Those of us who "got" this film know it was made for us, not all of "you," and are glad movies like this can still get made. The rest of "you" have everything else, and please do go enjoy mainstream, big-budgeted movies and keep Hollywood afloat so stuff like this can sip through the cracks now and then...
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4/10
A Product Of A Lost Era
20 July 2013
"Lie Down With Dogs" probably only exists because it was a product of the mid-90s, and as such has become a bit of a time capsule of an era that is now long gone, for good or ill. In the early 90s entertainment with gay themes began to capture the interests of straight viewers; "Philadelphia," "Priscilla Queen Of The Desert," "The Crying Game" and the PBS mini- series "Tales From The City" were all successful and proved to Hollywood that there was money to be made in "gay cinema." The sole motivating factor in Hollywood is making a buck; suddenly gay meant cash, and there was a flood of gay-themed movies. Most of them were pretty terrible, some of them ("Broken Hearts Club," "Jeffrey," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," "To Wong Foo") had bigger budgets and tried hard, and sometimes succeeded. The main thing Hollywood created was content: for the first time in history, there was an abundance of gay-themed films that took the subject matter more or less for granted-- these were not stories about perverts, degenerates and losers, the homosexuals of these films were heroes.

Nowadays it's hard to imagine how a film like "Lie Down With Dogs" would get any attention at all. Gay-themed films are the "B-movies" of the day, micro-budgeted without much distribution, but there are scads of them. Most of them are, like "LDWD," fluffy, forgettable and mostly fun, low on budget, acting or story but entertaining enough--like a trashy summer read. "LDWD" in particular shows a time when gay men looked a certain way, acted a certain way and thought certain ways...just listening to the soundtrack is like hearing a time capsule of what the 90s *sounded* like.

I picked this movie up for a dollar out of curiosity recently and found that what the movie is "about" was of little importance--that it isn't about a conflicted gay man trying to come out in a straight world or writhing in shame is the significant thing. That it's a mindless comedy about a young man on the prowl for love makes it no different than thousands of rom-coms made for straight people, which is also significant. There are now dozens of such movies to choose from but that wasn't always the case, and in a weird way makes "LDWD," which is NOT a particularly good film, a bit of a landmark. Also too the fact that the "author" of the film seems to have passed away lends the film a bit of significance, or at least poignancy; all the bubble-headed, insatiable, selfish characters in the film would now be a good deal older as would be the target audience for this film, gay men in 1995. The 90s are gone, the world has changed and "Tommy" and his buddies would have passed the torch to a younger generation of egocentric P-Town tourists by now. It makes the film seem almost sad somehow, in that light. I would be surprised if anyone even remembers this movie at all in another 10 years (or even today), and that's not the end of the world, but as a time capsule of a different era I think it's rather thought-provoking.
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Lynch land
9 April 2012
A description of this project can only be, like descriptions of Lynch's other more obtuse works ("Inland Empire," "Lost Highway," "Fire Walk With Me" "Rabbits") a description of "what happens" during the running time, which is more or less a useless venture. Try to describe what you dreamed last night to a friend and watch his eyes glaze over. One would hope that someone watching this video has a vague idea what to expect...you don't go for a viewing of something by Lynch hoping for "Singing In The Rain" at the least.

This project is definitely "out there," and like the other films mentioned is more or less non-narrative, more like a tone poem...what "meaning" there is to be found is probably up to the individual viewer. As I've said before about Lynch, only the dreamer of the dream can really guess accurately what any of it "means" to him, our experience can only be what the artist has filtered through. So what do we have? First and foremost, this recording, culled from two live performances Lynch was apparently commissioned to do, contains some of the wonderful, spooky songs written for and recorded by the ethereal Julee Cruise. The pyrotechnics, flashes of lighting, metal-on-metal surroundings, frustrated sexuality and typically Lynchian sound effects evoke an "industrial" dread that pre-sages Cronenberg's "Crash" a few years later. It is by turns perversely sexual, horrifically surreal, sweetly sentimental and slightly dull, and all within 50 minutes. The possible highlight is a song that plays like a sad lament for a lost era of 50's doo-wop, with two blasé prom-dressed girls and a chorus of vivacious Vegas showgirls.

This is "Lynch-land," and if you like Lynch you'll probably enjoy it, if not you would probably find it pure torture...it looks a bit "90's" by today's standards, it is relentlessly dark and slow at times and I question how much forethought actually went into it (Lynch himself claims it was put together pretty fast) but it is inherently memorable...one is unlikely to forget some of the strong images, or the plaintive sighing of Julee as she floats through the air, the embodiment of an innocent heart broken, but not destroyed.
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Carver (2008 Video)
Noteworthy low-budget splatter flick
23 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
There's very little territory to mine in the "mad slasher" genre...it was all done in the 80's, re-done in the 90's and has been "retro" done again ever since. A recent trend has been to drop the pretense of any "mystery" about who the killer is or what he/she wants and just aim directly for the nearest artery, and open it...on screen, with an unflinching camera. This has resulted in scads of thoroughly unpleasant low budget shocker flicks commonly labeled "torture porn." The genre itself is nothing new...Herschell Gordon Lewis mined the viscera field until there was nary an eyeball left to be stepped on in the late 60's. The 70's are ripe with truly unpleasant, mean-spirited, ugly little films that exist solely for lovers of human suffering and unrelenting grue to whack their puds to. And then of course there are "motion pictures" like the "guinea pig" series from Japan that take things to the furthest extremes imaginable...just because someone had to do it.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is an efficient little direct-to-the-home-market piece of sludge called "Carver" that I found exceptional for a number of reasons. I resisted it at first...as I have grown up I'm no longer as interested in watching people suffer as I was as a teenager glued to pay-cable. But, like many fans I know, I'm always looking for something a little different than what the genre usually offers. By the time I saw this one I already knew about the infamous "outhouse scene" and was prepared for the worst. What I didn't expect was that the scene in question, and pretty much all the splatter, was the least interesting thing to me in the movie. I've found myself watching it on "Crackle" in its edited/censored form while doing other things around my place, because it makes good background distraction. Huh? My suspicion is that Franklin Guerrero Jr. is actually a competent and enthusiastic film director who is aware of the time-honored tradition of breaking into professional film directing via the low-budget genre. And as such, he also knows that the bar MUST be raised in order for a film to get noticed. So make a film that ups the ante on the disgust-o-meter and you're likely to at LEAST get a chance to make another film, as it seems Guerrero has done.

"Carver" is nothing new, in fact it's old as the hills: stupid kids make the "mistake" of camping in a place where there's a vicious killer who then proceeds to kill them on-screen for, essentially, our edification. "Carver" adds a clever twist by incorporating the idea of voyeurism-via-film as part of the killer's motive, but that is, of course, beside the point. The "point" is blood, and much blood is spilled and yes, it is rather satisfying in a visceral, sick way when a film doesn't hold back (and the effects are reasonably well done). It IS disgusting, but as Helen Mirren said of her role in "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover," "It's all theater, darling..."

But kudos to the stunningly attractive Ursula Taherian, who seems to be a very credible actress and deserves more work, beyond low budget horror. Cheers also to Neil Kubath--the director was smart to have him carry the film...he's got an interesting face that wears a look of confused disgust with the world around him that I know very well from having had a similar little brother myself. His delivery is unusual and his position in the movie perplexing (he's not a hero, not an anti-hero, he simply exists, until he doesn't anymore). But the presence of Kubath, Taherian and some of the others, the gore and the premise (and yes, That Scene) anchor what would otherwise be an utterly forgettable entry into the genre and make this one, in fact, at least to this viewer, rather memorable.
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Jane Eyre (2011)
Adaptations
22 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Jane Eyre is a complicated story and, much like "Wuthering Heights," it defies film adaptation because you can't squeeze it into a traditional Hollywood "3-act" formula. They either sacrifice the plot to fit the formula or make a sprawling mini-series out of it that taxes the patience because it does NOT follow Hollywood formula. What is required is a thoughtful, well-planned and well-executed adaptation of the work. This "Jane Eyre" is one of the best adaptations of the novel--and a piece of classic literature--I've seen in a very long time.

The genius is in the structure...recalling "Wuthering Heights," in fact, the film begins around 3/4 of the way through the story. This does two amazing things: it provides a natural way to include the "St. John" episode which is often otherwise dropped in the interest of maintaining momentum, and it keeps the experience fresh for viewers who are familiar with the material and are now challenged by having the story told "in reverse." And, as adaptation, it's a near genius way to avoid redundancy--a re-write of the book might have incorporated the device, which is no small suggestion of course, and the highest possible praise for the screenplay you could imagine.

At 2 hrs running time the film feels full and "epic" but doesn't drag (well, it probably does for younger audiences who can't sit still for a film that doesn't move like a lightning bolt; I'm happy to say this film was not made for them). It encompasses the breadth of the story, which is very long, without leaving out too many important details (I was both anticipating and dreading Rochester's "gypsy" disguise moment and glad the makers of the film found a way around it). Most importantly it captures the "feel" of the source material.

I've noted other reviewers complaining about the "heart" of the film being absent, as if this were some Jane Austen bon-bon...this film is Bronte incarnate: dark, cold, unflinching,twisted, cerebral...passion that, even when it's released is subdued. The acting is superlative--you know that underneath the cold, repressed exteriors of these emotionally stunted characters fire-breathing dragons lie hidden, clawing to get out of their shells and let their passion loose--the very essence of the Victorian era. There have been complaints about some of the artificial elements of the storytelling...well, the BOOK had artificial elements, that's part of the charm of Victorian novels, really. I found the ending utterly satisfying, the final lines sent chills down my spine. They really, really nailed it.

Having traveled in England and studied Victorian novels some, and read quite a few, I found the film completely satisfying as an interpretation both of a specific work and of a genre in general. If people don't like this film then it's likely because they don't get it. Again, thankfully, it wasn't made for those viewers, but for the rest of us who understand what the goal was in lensing this film one more time, and how successful the attempt to capture this difficult book really was.
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Vendetta (1986)
Great if you're in the mood
10 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Have you ever really, really been angry at the world, so angry you'd just about break the law...so angry you just didn't think you could take it anymore? This film might be for you...

"Vendetta" is an odd one. It rides the fine line between being sleazy B-movie and a "real" movie. A little bit more nudity and it would easily qualify as something made for the cable TV pud-pulling crowd. More bloody violence and it would work for the gore market. A little less of everything and it might just work as a TV movie for a niche cable market. It has some snappy dialog and some smart themes, but it also has female prisoners allowed to wander around at will, kill each other at random and dress in Madonna-inspired underthings. I found it hard to believe even in the 80's that these women were allowed to sport 10 foot high mall-hair, whore make-up and frilly lace bras. Would that really be regulation? Even functional?

So a realistic view of a women's prison this is not. But who cares? It has Sandy Martin! She has to be one of the most under-used talents around...she is in lots of movies and always makes her mark on them ("Napoleon Dynamite" is probably what she's known most for today I'd imagine) but never really gets to show what she can do. In "Vendetta" she does, and she all but steals the show. As much as you want her to pay for the terrible things she's been involved in, she's so fun to watch you can't help but root for her too on some level.

The rest of the cast is serviceable. The fights may seem strange today because they're rather more realistic than audiences might be used to--they almost look to be in slow motion considering how action scenes are cut today (which isn't necessarily a bad thing--Kill Bill for example). But the action keeps coming and is quite satisfying in a low-rent kind of way...if you're in the mood.

This is a cheap film, 80's campy, very unrealistic most of the time, and hardly earth-shaking, but when I'm in a bad mood and feel like the world is against me I can think of few better movies to purge that feeling than one in which the wronged lead heroine, who is essentially a good person, destroys all the monsters who have ruined so many people's lives with vigilante justice...to answer the warden's very thought-provoking question, "Did it bring your sister back?" No, but watching this movie, I'm glad she did it all anyway, and I think I would've too, if I could've, and life was a movie.
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5/10
I'm Afraid So...
29 June 2011
I was really rooting for this one--the "gay rom-com" can be a wonderful thing that indulges one's fantasies and even conveys a truth or two. There is still much territory to be mined in stories about dating in the digital age, life in big cities, coming of age as a gay man in a more tolerant society, the relationships between gay men and women and young gay men and their elders, but I guess we'll have to wait a little longer for those stories. Here we have a fantasy that is so far from reality that it's not fun for the viewer, shaking his head in disbelief. It's as if the author of the film wants to have his cake and eat it without so much as a glance into a cookbook to see how much actual work cake-baking requires to get such pleasant results.

First the "one note joke" of the film, that two people who have had at least 2 nights of intimate phone calls (although, other than phone sex, it appears all they do is say, "I like that TOO!") would not pick up right away that a mistake has been made when they meet, just doesn't work. This concept would be perfect for a short film or sitcom (specifically Three's Company) but is a tough one to sustain for 90 minutes. Because all it would take is one or two sentences to clear up the whole mess (and end the movie), and because no one SAYS those sentences, we are left believing our protagonists are stupid people, and it's difficult to enjoy the process of their discovery or even like them (despite being portrayed by guys who are handsome and not bad actors--you can't blame them for some of the wince-inducing dialog). I looked at my watch halfway through the film with disbelief...the "reveal" (that even a 4 year old could see coming--would anyone rent a movie like this to NOT see the heros get together eventually?) was going to be delayed for another 45 minutes? Yes.

Second, the world of this film is curious to the point of drawing one out of the movie. I know the coffee shop where some of the action takes place, and the magazine that is highlighted, which would seem to indicate the film takes place in West Hollywood...if so, it's an alternate universe where everyone is white, under 30, gay or gay-friendly. One of the bars looks suspiciously like a set built in someone's garage (we only see 2 walls of it). No one really seems to work...do these people have hobbies? What do they do all day when they aren't involved in our protagonist finding or not finding the man of his dreams? How do they know each other? Why do they CARE about each other? The women we encounter are by and large fag hags who exist only to comfort or antagonize their gay companions (the one whose only personality trait is having sex with a riding crop in particular). There is one man who appears to be (gasp!) over 50 and he is treated, as is often the case in films but not real life, like some wise sage, a knowing gay Gandalf who again exists for no other purpose than to support the young heroes. Meanwhile, his sudden, and constant, intrusions into his hot young ward's life are creepy and borderline criminal. Bruce Gray delivers some fun quips but was clearly not "directed," though he seems to do his best. Meanwhile--what if the old man and the young kid had found something in common? Or if Xander had turned out to be ugly or of some ethnic persuasion Blaine found initially distasteful? Now there are some challenges. Well he SAID he was in love with the PERSON didn't he?

But mostly I found the central conceit of the film the hardest to swallow...Blaine, like most love-sick protagonists in rom-com films, is supposed to be a sort of undiscovered Cinderella: if only a guy would show up in his life everything would be better. This fallacy is the essence of good rom-coms of course, but ignores the truth, which is that a "good" relationship is born out of trust and develops gradually over time. In the same way that a person with little experience would see older gay men only as quippy, neutered fairies, gal-pals as emotional tampons and go-go boys as hot-pantsed (it's not a "g-string" btw) older brothers, one might look at a "good relationship" between two people as something built on a couple great phone calls and attractive looks. Oh, if only.

What has Blaine offered? What has changed about him by the end of the film? He got everything he wanted and didn't have to do anything but admit he made a mistake that was so foolish and ill-conceived it would be a deal-breaker even for someone desperate, let alone a perfect knight in shining cowboy suit (at least until he sneaks into Blaine's apartment to "sing"...well, to each his own--frankly I might have called the cops). People who say they want to take long walks on the beach with someone should try taking one themselves first--it can be really nice, and then when you do have someone you can share your location with them. People who say they want to cuddle in bed on Sunday with someone ought to be made aware that sometimes people don't smell that good first thing in the morning, but if you care about them you get over it.

Well, again--this isn't reality, it's fantasy, and for all its faults the film looked pretty good for a micro-budget, had many cute moments, and I thought about it enough to warrant writing something on IMDb about it. I hope for many more films that try to tackle the issues of this one, and I hope they succeed in the attempt where this one failed.
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8/10
Dark side of Hollywood in entertaining comedy
12 March 2010
"Hollywood J'taime" is unique in being the only French film I can think of that wasn't made by anyone French. In theme and style it well-emulates a European film, and that's a compliment.

The film is the journey of a man in Paris who has been dumped by his boyfriend and decides to chuck it all and go to Hollywoodland, USA to get over it. This all results in his finding that home is where the heart is--not an earth-shattering revelation, Dorothy Gale, but one that never grows tired or passé--in an ending that is refreshing in its unwillingness to tie up all the loose ends like a dopey sitcom, but is satisfying nonetheless.

What makes the movie so French is that the p.o.v. of the film belongs to vacationing Frenchman Jérôme, played with wonderful understatement and realism by Eric Debets (who does, in fact, bear a remarkable resemblance to Adrian Brody, a running gag). We follow Jérôme from France to LAX and beyond, seeing LA through his eyes, and to see what he sees, and how he sees it, is the primary joy of the movie. Aside from being dead-pan natural, real, and utterly "French" on-screen, Debets doesn't hold back exposing himself both theoretically and quite literally...this is a film with a gay audience in mind and as such knows there's no need to try to be otherwise; most comfortably gay males appreciate male nudity, and don't spend a lot of time sitting around discussing what it means to be gay, the problem with many films in this genre.

The director shows confidence in presenting his story without either going crazy with technique or being hobbled by budgetary limits (the opening credits are delightfully snappy). It looks far more expensive than it probably was to make, but doesn't resort to flashy gimmicks (although some may argue the slightly-beyond-R sexual scenes push that boundary--again, depends on your comfort level). It's easy to watch, the acting is above average, the characters interesting and the script feels complete. It could probably use one more edit to cut just a wee bit of fat around the edges, particularly in the 3rd act when Jérôme looks for a "real" job in a restaurant. Jérôme verges on unsympathetic at times for his bad planning (he seems too old for some of the dumb choices he makes) and the plot suffers occasionally when it resorts to contrivance and coincidence, but it is, after all, a movie. I also found myself wanting to know more background on most of the characters, who seem to appear on cue and disappear as needed. However, things never become insufferable in depicting drag queens with hearts of gold or gorgeous guys throwing themselves at someone just because the script requires it, like many similar films in the same category. And the somewhat-open ending is, again, satisfying and very "true" to what has come before.

What really sets this one apart is its depiction of the "real" Hollywood...this is literally a snapshot of the popular Silver Lake-to-Santa Monica stretch of LA area as it is/was in 2009; one can almost smell the grit on the sidewalks or feel the dry heat. I say that being a resident who recognized every block used as a location. It's one view among many, and not pretty, but it's an accurate one, and should be required viewing for anyone (gay) who is thinking of dropping everything and coming to Hollywood with the idea that it is a "dream factory," something that still happens quite frequently. Similarly, the film is remarkable, being made by Americans, in portraying the US from the perspective of a person from France, and captures the European-out-of-water in LA scenario, which is very common here, quite well (It's too bad Jérôme didn't take the bus to Venice Beach instead, it may have been a whole different movie).

Congratulations to cast and crew on a job well done and kudos well-earned, and a film that goes down like a fine French wine to those interested in the subject matter. I'll definitely be on the lookout for a sequel, and I'm glad we're living in times when movies like this can be made.
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The Fall (2006)
8/10
"The Fall" vs. "Pan's Labyrinth"
8 December 2009
I just saw "The Fall" after hearing about it for some time and, while watching it, thought two things. 1) It brought to mind "Pan's Labyrinth" and 2) showed me that, while "The Fall" was far from a perfect movie, it points out everything that's wrong with "Pan." To misquote Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated that movie. That's what this review will be about and if you don't want to hear my comparisons of the two films with that slant, don't read any more.

Both "Pan" and "Fall" are personal, stylized films that concern young girls in situations where their childhood innocence is in jeopardy and refuge--of sorts--is found in a fantasy world that has nebulous borders with reality. Both little girls are required to complete tasks that require them to be more adult than they are prepared to be, to serve the needs of someone else, and in both cases the fantasy worlds they wander in, which are generally more malevolent than fanciful, act as a mirror and commentary to this journey; symbolic representations of their inner journeys.

The first noticeable difference is in look. "The Fall" is jaw-droppingly bright and beautiful, the imagery echoes Fellini, Gilliam and Jodorowsky in terms of amount of work undertaken just to get one single shot as beautifully rendered as possible. By contrast, del Toro's film has a sort of "Henson"-esque knock-off feel to it, the sort of "blue and black" color scheme that has been around since the 80's. The "fantasy" world of the film is bleak, ugly and unfriendly, a terrible place that no one would want to go, and doesn't look much different than the "real" world the characters inhabit.

Technically both films sport incredible attention to detail and a filmmaker in love with his art and style, often to the detriment of story. Watching "The Fall" to the end it's clear there wasn't one wasted frame, it just seemed confusing because one didn't know what the outcome was going to be, ie, you had to actually think a bit. "Pan" is full of sidetracks and tangents, clearly because the director simply thought it would be "neato" if certain creatures looked or acted the way they did, and the same with the human characters, who don't resemble "real" people any more than the monsters.

The performances of Lee Pace and an alarmingly talented Catinca Untaru in "The Fall" are so real and touching it's like watching a magician perform--it's hard to believe that what you're seeing isn't real. You like "Fall's" characters even though Roy is a reprehensible, broken being that you should hate. "Pan's" sympathetic characters are so remote and un-knowable you can't like them at all, they're just more props for del Toro to move around like his dripping-with-goo puppets and dark, etched walls.

Thematically, "Pan" presents a universe in which there is little or no hope, presided over by an evil human being who has no human attributes and is All Bad All The Time. The plot exists only to point out the unpleasant, and NOT universally shared belief, that life is to be suffered through, martyr-like, in order that one find rewards and riches in the afterlife that you were denied on earth. The violence is gratuitous and mean in a way that, far from being "brutally honest" speaks more about the immaturity of a director who couldn't stop himself from going too far, for kicks.

"The Fall," on the other hand, assembles a crazy quilt of subtle clues that present a world that is complex, interesting and realistic. In life, unlike a scripted movie, things just keep going, no one knows exactly what to do and there's good and bad to be found everywhere at various times. For every answer there's a question, but the sooner you learn to live with the knowledge of these things, the easier your life will go--something everyone can appreciate learning even if they don't like hearing it. The fantasy world created is a brilliant fusion of what a man is dreaming up and how a little girl interprets what he says and, despite some silly humor, the world is indeed very "fairy tale" like and magical. The violence is also gratuitous in parts, but violence IS ugly, and as the young Alexandria is literally forced to find out, it can't always be avoided...but it can be dealt with in a world of hope. Director Tarsem obviously knows a thing or two about grief management and loss, and how to battle through to come to peace on the other end. The denouement of "The Fall" is a beautiful moment that avoids being cloying and over-sentimental while still being satisfying and very moving.

Finally, in "Pan" a young girl is forced by all-powerful, unknowable forces to complete a task that doesn't make sense to her and in the end is rewarded with a crown. In "The Fall" a young girl is guided by an unknowable force into an interaction with a damaged soul that sends her on a journey that doesn't make sense to her but ultimately gives her tools to grow, learn and lead a more fulfilling existence from then on. The choice of which is the better film is as obvious to me as a brightly colored butterfly.
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3/10
Wouldn't even have been good in 3D
5 November 2009
I was really shocked by this flick; I'm not in the least bit prudish, however, the barrage of unnecessary profanity was the only thing that kept me awake...everyone was so unbelievably, defiantly stupid it made me want to move to another country and see if smarter people live there--people who don't make, or like, movies about people like this.

The plot concerns an inexplicably successful man (Paul Rudd) with the social skills of someone with severe mental challenges nearing his wedding date. Through a series of contrivances so obvious even our numb-nuts hero would figure them out, he deduces that he needs male friends. Enter Jason Segel, resident guru in all things masculine, who proves he's a man by letting his little dog evacuate its bowels on Venice Beach and doesn't clean it up, hyuck hyuck. Of course, the two boy-men strike up a "bromance," (with "jamming" to 80's cliché band Rush replacing sexual intercourse in an endless and unfunny montage where the two actors were obviously allowed free reign to improv and the editor had to try to piece something together from the slim pickin's) and all sorts of gay-ish situations and complications arise that illustrate that, gee, if a guy has a relationship with a guy, in SOME ways it's almost like a guy having a relationship with a girl! Dude! No way, man! Gee, I wonder if everything will turn out all right in the end or not?

If you had any fears that things were not going to work out in this story, indeed, if you have any doubts at all about where the plot goes from there, this movie is ideal for you. It takes place in "romantic comedy" land, which bears little resemblance to the earth most of us inhabit, and everyone talks like they're on a TV sitcom, with their amusing lines prepared for them. The idea that a character as stupid and dull as the one Paul Rudd plays could have a girlfriend at all, let alone a job selling multi-million dollar houses for celebrities, further proves the theory that Americans are, and have been for some time, fascinated with seeing the talentless and dim-witted in the media. Where once we idolized people for being intelligent, skilled and creative we now make heroes out of people who fart and puke on each other, and think it's funny. There must be satisfaction and security to a good many people to see inept fools magnified and glorified on screen. How else to explain the likes of a movie like this, which cost a good deal to make and made a good deal in return?

Once upon a time, a "good story" involved someone who had to prove his worth in order to attain the things he wanted out of life, usually at great cost, and the satisfaction of watching came from learning that the best rewards in life grow out of hard work and great interpersonal evolution--something that must have been more true then than it is now in the age of reality TV. Today, people apparently want to believe that you can be ignorant, skill-less, short-sighted, utterly self-absorbed and hopelessly lacking in communicative skills, but still be rich and famous and a "star," without really even having to do anything but be the same moron you were yesterday--it's "the world" that's wrong and has to change, not the self-entitled individual. And you even get the hot girl.

That's what people want to see, or movies/TV shows like this wouldn't be made.

Someone I believed I knew and thought I respected handed this "film" to me and told me it was hands down the best thing he'd seen all year, perhaps even longer than that. I have no idea what to tell him when I hand it back. I suppose, simply, "Thanks for the loan and, well, it was great knowing you, sort of."

I wonder how much worse things get from here in the "comedy" genre--maybe next, as John Waters sort of predicted, they'll show people eating each others' colostomy bags for laughs, har har...oh wait, didn't the Farrely brothers already do that?
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7/10
Definitely different...
24 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Having seen dozens of zombie films, from the classics to the currents, I was impressed to find something that was different...depending on your own tastes that difference is either a good thing or bad thing.

The plot...plot? Oh why bother--you know the drill--undead cannibals vs. trapped humans being picked off one by one in a remote (and in this case wonderfully Gothic) locale. This is apparently some kind of cult classic...I think it probably attained that status before the wave of early millennium zombies came lurching in. I think this probably had a lot more punch in its day--nowadays you feel ripped off if you DON'T have zombies playing flesh-slinky in every film, and the atrocity of what the little boy (?) does is diminished in light of the endless "Saw"-type gore films available today. And, frankly, the sight of five extras wearing putty skull masks as they tip-toe towards their victims in broad daylight simply isn't all that SCARY. Things get better when the "Night Of Terror" finally descends...but most of the movie is played in broad daylight, illuminating bad make-up. Romero's mall-zombies are cheaply made up too, but the unease one experiences watching that classic comes from seeing their expressions, and the constant reminder that the zombies are us--but without reason and a tad more "ripe."

The director claimed this was almost a "sex" film which is also odd..admittedly there's an awful lot of necking in it and some unabashed nudity for any desperate teenager to flog his log to, but again, nowadays you'd see more on network TV, and it neither increased or diminished the "entertainment" value here.

I really wanted to embrace this cult film the way its fans have, and it is definitely demented, so I was surprised that it left me feeling ambivalent, and "hungry" for something a little more satisfying.

Among the film's charms: **only 24 minutes of exposition before the first gory fun starts **lots of badly dubbed women screaming that sounded so much like they were having orgasms I had to turn the volume down so my neighbors wouldn't think I was watching porn **icky facial maggots and worm earrings **smart zombies that can organize, use tools and are good shots with a dart **zombies that crumble when hit, and ejaculate green goo when shot **a wonderful be-heading scene **zombie monks **lots of bloody gut wrangling **neato Gothic locales including a castle and church.

Oh yes...and the infamous Peter Bark. I admit, that was one of the most distinctive aspects of this movie. There was absolutely no reason to include an incest plot line here and it was so badly developed it seemed like an afterthought, but the presence of "Michael," who resembles Marlon Brando's homunculus in the remake of "Island Of Doctor Moreau," is here somehow being presented as a 10 year old despite looking something more like an old lady, and carrying the dubbed voice of a mature man trying to do a child's falsetto. The effect is wonderfully disturbing in the same way "Freaks" is. However, I don't credit the director with having done this deliberately. He did, in fact, create a fun, mindless little flick that's not nearly as mean-spirited or unpleasant as a lot of its contemporaries of the day, and is never dull.
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Great Explorations (2003 Video)
Cute and disgusting at the same time
25 August 2009
While perhaps not the end-all be-all of the unsavory and seldom respected genre of "poo comedy," this short comes close...the ending has to be seen to be believed. Notable acting from all the performers, including the goofy, rubber-faced director whose appearance is reminiscent of Peter Jackson's cameos in his own films. The location shooting is beautiful, the camera work and editing professional and the whole thing looks like it was shot for a lot more than it probably was. If you like Python-esquire parody or gross-out comedy you'll like this, check it out. Oh, and did I mention the unbelievable ending? If you aren't throwing up, you'll be laughing...
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9/10
Home Of The Original
22 April 2009
It's possible that, in an era of digital magic, the originality of Laurie Anderson's use of technology in the 1980's has been diminished, but one thing that time hasn't affected is her originality. The existence of this concert film/performance art piece is a testament to the unique presence Laurie created out of herself in the 80's and her appeal to a truly appreciative audience of the time.

Assembled loosely into small "bytes," the performances in Laurie's concert range from simple statements of fact to speculation, to obtuse poetry, to accessible pop music to challenging political statements, to beyond-surreal vignettes about nothing whatsoever. The overall tone comes off as stream of consciousness, the language filled with dream imagery and non-sequiturs. Hypnotic back-projection accompanies most of the on-stage action, including an eerie, "OZ"-like moment where Laurie's giant, disembodied head floats above the proceedings, glancing around non-committally.

At times the whole thing seems to unravel only to come back around to a unified center again--that center always being Ms. Anderson, the ringmaster, who is by turns sexy, cute, scary, androgynous and almost always remote...but with a warm twinkle in her eye and dry sense of humor never far away. That what looks like chaos must indeed be very well choreographed is astounding, and could only have been wrangled with the help of the brilliant musicians Ms. Anderson assembled for this concert. It's also well--if conservatively--filmed.

Of course, this was made with college kids in mind and I imagine it was popular with the stoner crowd. However, it works as its own sort of drug, by turns seductive, beguiling, off-putting, obnoxious, bewildering and immensely entertaining. It reminds me somewhat of David Lynch's Industrial Symphony no. 1 but is far lighter in tone and moves a bit quicker. I doubt it's possible to get this anymore and will eventually be forgotten; I'm glad I have it and pull it out now and then when I'm in the mood to sit back and be transported to Laurie's odd 80's world for 90 minutes.
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Castle Freak (1995 Video)
6/10
Yucky
9 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I've known about this movie for some time and am a casual fan of Gordon's work, but this one came out at a time when things were changing in the low-rent movie biz...more and more a B-film was meaning a "DIY" film, any old hack could put something out and call it a movie and Full Moon, Troma or SOMEONE would try to sell it as a legit feature. I just didn't believe it could be worth the effort, I was tired of being burned by early-90's low-rent horror sludge.

"Castle Freak" is a legit feature...sorta. It's shot on film, it has real actors and locations, but still suffers the trappings of a low budget...the sets are underwhelming and nothing much happens. And that's one of two major beefs I had with this movie.

1) Nothing much happens, and what does transpire is old news...there's a Thing in the cellar and before we dispatch with it there's a modicum of bloodletting and screaming. Meanwhile we have to sit through a healthy heap of tedium concerning the domestic problems of a small family. Despite the presence of some good B-movie actors these scenes seem superfluous to the action...which we never quite get to, except...

2) When it does happen, it's outrageously repulsive. Not the most offensive thing you've ever seen it's just...this movie is just really icky! Out of nowhere there are a couple of things that transpire that include naughty bits that are just...unpleasant, and not in the fun way. I wasn't so much offended or caught in that so-gross-it's-fun mode as just...well, sorry I had to bear witness to it--and the effects weren't even that well done. It's just...the sight of the Freak and what he does to his victim is just...blecchy! And it's so completely out of touch with the rest of the movie, which is very "USA Up All Night," back when that show was on. It's really weird to see an average little quirky B-film with this kind of grue in it. I'm glad they went there, actually, I just wish the film would've either sustained/accelerated it (as Gordon did so well in "Re-Animator") or not even gone there to begin with.

It's not bad, really it isn't...what's good about it is great--the castle, the final fight, the mysterious Italian village aura and the compelling idea of what exactly the Freak is all about. But the combo of this not being quite bad enough to be really bad or good enough to be really good left me ambivalent, and left me stuck with the sickening images of Freak's mutilated crotch and the prostitute's mutilated boobs. If that's what you want stuck in your head, see this film immediately.
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Deathbed (2002 Video)
2/10
Made Me Sleepy
30 March 2009
I mistakenly thought this was the 70's art film about the bed that eats people, which sounded interesting. It isn't. Interesting, I mean, let alone about a man-eating bed.

I assume Stuart Gordon put his name on this in the same spirit that Lloyd Kaufman puts "Troma" on just about anything that's been shot with a video camera, in the interest of building up a franchise library. Little more can be said about this opus other than the running time is less than 90 minutes. It is, of course, about a bed that is haunted by the spirit of a man, or something, that once killed a woman with a wig and long false eyelashes. Along the way we get **a five minute opening credit sequence (is the one for "Lawrence Of Arabia" even as long?) **a murderer with Marylin Manson contacts who kills using the same technique as the troll in "Cat's Eye" **demonstrations of a sexual practice Michael Hutchence may have employed **a preview of what Emilio Estevez will soon look and act like **soft core porn even Cinemax would pass on **manbutt and one topless scene **a wacky (or is it "whack"-ee?) ending involving unintentionally hilarious hammer hits and leftover strawberry pie (well, it looked that way to me) **and a rudimentary surprise ending apros pos of nothing much. It's like the screenwriter even fell asleep on the "Deathbed" before finishing the last draft.

It's not scary, it's not sexy, it's shot on hi-def video and doesn't look bad but doesn't look good either, the acting is just good enough to not be bad enough to be fun and so is everything else. No one would probably have even seen or heard of it unless it was on a disc with another movie, the modern day "double feature." I wasn't paying attention for parts of it so I may have missed something. But for some reason I doubt it. Rating: PASS
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Coraline (2009)
9/10
Beautiful, Haunting and Memorable
5 February 2009
"Coraline" makes a nice companion piece to "Mirror Mask," with the stop-motion film skewed to younger viewers than its live-action sister, but with no less bite, or visual flourish. There's no question "Coraline" should be viewed in 3D if possible; it's stunning, although digital animation has come so far recently that it makes one wonder if anyone notices that this is puppet stop-motion work--for all the incredible, painstaking artistry in "Coraline," would anyone but a professional know the difference between this and digital, or care? It would be a shame if not.

Matters of plot seem to be a mere inconvenience to the film's authors (try describing it: "A little girl finds an alternate world where people have buttons for eyes and there are these dogs with wings, but you have to collect magic balls so the kids can go to heaven because the witch, who is sort of like a spider, is your Other Mother who lives in a world through a tunnel in the wall. But the neighbor upstairs is an acrobat!), but the plot is secondary to the jaw-droppingly beautiful set pieces, and fortunately doesn't get in the way of the overall experience.

The universe of the film is visually splendid, oddly familiar while at the same time feeling alien. After an obligatory set up concerning a discontent little girl with a strong personality and singular point of view, we're thrust into a breathtaking alternate reality where All Sorts Of Things Happen and Problems Must Be Solved, with a host of memorable characters, human, animal and otherwise, along the way. Like "Silent Hill," which "Coraline" resembles in some places, the film is something like a hybrid between a video game that one plays and a movie that one watches...there are clues the protagonist needs to pick up and something like a "big boss" character that needs to be defeated. It's a style of film storytelling that was ahead of its time when it premiered and even now may not be for everyone, but is definitely unique and worth checking out.
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The Slaughter (2006)
2/10
Relax! Just silly no-budget, gory fun
27 October 2008
I'll say this, "The Slaughter" starts out great. The opening scene with a bevy of the most beautiful witches (or witch worshipers, or whatever they are) that have probably ever graced the screen this side of porn getting naked, seductively self-mutilating themselves (!!) and calling to life the demon-woman pictured on the DVD cover is up there with the phantasmagoria of Ken Russell in his prime. It's very MTV but also effective...all double exposures and reaching hands, muted, digitized images and an eerie score. I was already prepared to accept I'd gotten my $1 rental money's worth for taking a gamble on an unknown DVD with a neato cover. Had it gone on in this way I was prepared to call this the most original fear film to have come out in decades, but it couldn't keep it up.

Cut to a bunch of beautiful, stupid young people "required" to be in a haunted house for one of the lamest reasons ever (they're cleaning it) and we're back on the same ol' territory as any run-of-the mill haunted house flick. The good news is that this is a dumb movie about idiotic people made by people who appear to be quite smart. The characters are oddly likable because it's clear the actors are talented and were having a ball (I particularly enjoyed the brain-fried stoner and the slutty girl). Unfortunately, the tone of the film goes from being scary-with-some-humor to out and out ridiculous and it descends into "student film" territory. I wish we were having as much fun as the people making the movie seemed to have been...either let us in on the joke or let us laugh AT you, but when people in a movie on a screen are laughing at themselves it seldom is fun for an audience.

The script has some fun one-liners and fast-paced dialog, the effects, though incredibly cheap, are fun, the gore is gratuitous and gloppy and the make-up on the demon-woman is really, really nice. The actors are all beautiful and fun to watch, the attack scenes (when they come--you have to wait a good 50 minutes! Sheesh!) are satisfying. Too bad the witch just never really DOES anything, too bad there's just no plot at all and too bad we've seen most of this before a million times. The speed-monster-metal score is a nice touch, though it doesn't really suit the material that well.

Oh, who am I fooling--this movie blows! It really is something only a slightly-feeble-minded 12 year old could truly enjoy, but as a dirt-cheap rental before Halloween I found it was actually amusing enough. Next!
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9/10
Tell Your Friends
27 October 2008
This is a wonderful movie...it's funny, dark, poignant, thought-provoking, innocently naughty and generally entertaining all around. I don't know that I've seen the like before..."The Rapture,"or maybe one of Todd Solondz's black-as-night "comedies" or even the recent movie "Teeth" come to mind...but those are all bitter, nasty little gems. "Franklins," despite the darkness around the edges, manages to have a thoroughly sincere and pure heart.

The story is similar to John Waters' "Low Down Dirty Shame," only this film differs in that it actually HAS a story, and something to say as well, beyond Waters' juvenile "Sex isn't dirty (snicker, nudge-nudge)" message. A conservative, repressed family undergoes a drastic change as a result of a car accident and suddenly aren't so conservative anymore...in fact, they're finally actually happy, probably the only people in their town (or maybe the entire world) who are. To talk about why this is the case would be to spoil the film; simply put, everyone should see it, though of course only people who are already sold on what the movie's upbeat, hopeful philosophy is ever would.

The acting is great--just this side of realistic enough to keep the proceedings from getting too heavy...Teresa Willis gives an especially memorable and brave performance as an uptight mother who emerges like a butterfly when she's freed up. Both she and Robertson Dean deserve kudos for their unflinchingly sincere performances (not to mention frequent and extensive nudity and sex scenes); they turn what could have been a salacious joke involving a "deviant sex practice" into a touching, believable and endearing moment. Aviva as the daughter is a standout and someone to watch, perfectly capturing the attitude, angst and speech patterns of a girl her age. Vince Pavia as the "himbo" brother with a secret is good looking and functional although his storyline and how everyone reacts to it is more rewarding than his actual acting. Mari Blackwell as the conflicted best friend to mother Franklin is wonderfully cold, confused and even compassionate in a role that could have gone over-the-top.

Technically the film looks fantastic, all bright colors and wide-open locales...it looks like it may have been shot Hi-def...if so, the line has gotten very thin, it looks very much like film. There is a great deal of talking and a lot of it philosophical, which gets a bit preachy (moreso, I'd imagine to a viewer who disagrees with the film's politics), but this film says a lot of things that need saying...if only people wouldn't be afraid to listen and think. The arguments that take place are smart and well thought out, first and foremost refusing to demonize either the religious OR non-religious parties.

The ending is on the ambiguous side, which I found a bit of a disappointment somehow...I think it would've worked better had the author (as Jay Floyd is, since he produced, wrote and directed) given a more workable denouement, some sort of solution, but then again, there probably isn't one when it comes to pitting people with different faiths against one another. All the same, it was a moving, memorable final image that left me choked up--a success. Meanwhile, I'm awfully glad Mr. Floyd got this film made and look forward to sharing it with as many people as possible. Check it out.
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