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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 swindle—a 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
The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006)
The Amazing Screw on Head is maybe the greatest thing of all time.
The Amazing Screw on Head is maybe the greatest thing of all time.
No, really. It might be the best thing I have ever encountered. It's got zombies and robots and vampires and werewolves and mummies and demigods and Abraham Lincoln and a freaking monkey firing a machine gun. And all of this over the course of only 22 minutes. Also, there is one scene where a villain smokes another character through a giant hookah.
'Screw on Head' tells the tale of an alternate history for America. Abraham Lincoln uses the titular character to deal with secret government matters, like attacks by the evil Emperor Zombie, who coincidentally used to work as Screw on Head's first butler. After a brief set up, the series goes for total, gee whiz, super colossal, brilliant dada absurdism.
I have never read anything mike Mignola before. I didn't terribly like the Hellboy film and I never saw Atlantis. However, if The Amazing Screw on Head is so good that I think I'm going to go buy the guy's back catalogue sight unseen. The animation is perfect, the line readings all inspired. Everything about this project is flawless.
Unfortunately, this appears to be all she wrote. 'Screw on Head' was produced as a pilot for Sci-Fi channel, and to my knowledge, it was not picked up for series. If there is one flaw, it is that it leaves you wanting more. Also, the mouth movements don't often match the voice recordings. But, that's a minor problem that is only noticeable on the many repeat viewings that this warrants.
I don't know what the MSRP is for this product, but the extras are very slim. The show is only 21 minutes and change and there is less than 20 minutes of additional features (discounting the commentary track). The cartoon is presented in both normal television and widescreen format, but occasionally the animation feels pixely in its transfer in both versions.
The commentary track is amusing and an easy listen with a good balance of technical jargon and good old fashioned anecdotes. The same cannot be said for the storyboard to screen comparison which lasts for under 4 minutes. The featurette is also fairly standard with talking heads praising the cartoon.
The other major extra is the alleged comic book which is not a comic book at all. Instead, it is just a collection of a few pages of character designs, a 2 page essay by Mignola on where 'Screw on Head' came from and 2 original character designs for unproduced episodes of the series.
It is frustrating that some really interesting features are mentioned in the commentary track, but never materialize on the disc. Why they didn't I don't know because, as it stands, paying even 15 dollars for this DVD seems extraneous. The show is brilliant and has great rewatch value, but if you're going to be shelling out hard earned cash, you should be getting more.
The Movie: 9.9/10 The DVD: 5/10
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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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Incomprehensible and boring
To call a film boring is not something I would usually count as a valid criticism. However, when a film is crassly made of spare parts from other films that weren't that good to begin with, and it is slow as molasses with no real payoff, I think it's fair to call a spade a spade. And The Ghost is a very boring film.
A movie that is about as original as its' name, The Ghost tells the story of a young girl with amnesia being haunted by a ghost that holds the secret to her past. Only, it's a whole lot more complicated and less interesting than one would think.
The plot line is almost incomprehensible for most of the picture and the hook, the amnesia element, only makes things worse. It seems that no one, including the screenwriter and director have any clue what the hell is happening at any given moment. Instead they chose to do what roughly amounts to the filmic equivalent of a sitcom clip show. There are scenes taken directly from Ringu, Dark Water, Shutter, The Grudge series, and a smattering of Pulse for good measure. Making matters worse, the half dozen female leads all dress and read their lines alike, making them impossible to tell apart.
There is just nothing to grasp onto with this film. The story isn't all that well thought out. The amnesia gimmick is lazy. The mystery element is un-involving and handled with little grace. The characters never deduce anything, all the information is just handed out through the lead remembering her past whenever it is convenient for the plot.
The cinematography, full of reflections and shots of water at least attempts to add to the subtext, a thematic link with the amnesia and the final twist (which I won't reveal) is nice, but often overwrought. Even the score feels borrowed and cliché.
Worst of all, the inciting action for the curse isn't very interesting and the final twist is predictable and lame. "Wait, you mean that one character who has 15 minutes of screen time but appeared to have nothing to do with the plot comes back in the end? No!" Audiences are too savvy for this kind of tripe. Anyone who has seen any of the films that this rips off will find very little to even keep them awake with this feature. I used to think Shimizu was the bottom of the barrel for this kind of crap (remaking his grudge film no less than 5 times) but even his second rate work like Reincarnation, a film I couldn't even bring my self to finish, is miles ahead of this.
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Better than Ringu and Ju-On
The idea of the monster in the west is very different than that in the east. Here, it is informed by Christian sensibilities and local lore. American monsters deal with fears brought up in our culture. They reinforce our values and deal with our own mythology. The Horatio Alger myth and the American ideal of rugged individualism are all prized. But concepts like a linear flow of time with a definite beginning and end are not universal. Thus, western horror films have their own set of conventions and eastern films seem completely separate, even as both use the same basic tools.
In the Jungian sense, there aren't that many types of monsters to begin with. The same types are used over and over because it allows for shorthand in the storytelling. There are unspoken agreements and understandings between the audience and the filmmakers. Stories show up and are repeated in genre's because of constraints and tenants of the genre.
Some of the main examples of monsters are: A: Ghosts B:Bigfoot/Sasquatch/abominable snowman/werewolf C: Ghoul D:Vampire/zombie/undead E: Witches/Wizard/Banshee/Succubus/Incubus E:Alien F: Mythological beast* (this includes dragons, king kong, giant bug movies.) G: Demons/evil Gods**
*Note that aliens are often included in this section too. The Xenomorph in Alien and the Predator in Predator would both be mythological beasts. However, the speaking intelligent alien creatures found in some films are sufficiently different as to demand their own category. Of course, these aliens would probably be closer to the Greek Gods and thus be mythological anyway.
**Demons are of course mythological too, but they are treated differently in Christian countries.
Each of these types of creatures shows up in all western societies. Karl Jung had a theory about stories like these, that they were programmed into our brains as part of a mass consciousness. Even if they aren't, we have been trained to recognize these ideas and creatures in movies. This is good it lets movies move faster without explaining what a ghost is in every time.
Horror films are basically an extension of children's stories. Most all children's stories exist to impart morals to the next generation and to reinforce the idea of order in the world. A guide will show up in many children's stories to explain the rules of the universe to the main character (a modern example being the Faun in Pans Labyrinth) who must then follow these rules. When a rule is broken, the protagonist is punished. When a rule is followed, the protagonist is rewarded. This teaches children to function within a society.
The horror film takes this premise and applies these rules to the monster. It is important that the audience knows what the monster is so that they can follow the rules. It's why you can tell who will die immediately when a slasher film starts. Those are the social norms and morals you have been taught by these films.
The west intrinsically understands the what and why of Jason and Freddy. But, the meanings of most of the eastern films are obscured to us. The seemingly omnipresent dark haired female ghost found in many films, (Ringu, The Grudge, Dark Water) is a cultural presence in the eastern world. Unless a western remake sufficiently alters the original as to localize this creature, (like The Ring) the meanings are lost and the underlying message is muddled as can be seen with the recent crop of American imitations of eastern horror (The Messengers, Dead Silence, FearDotCom).
The soaking wet, raven haired adolescent ghost found in eastern horror is a representation of the cultural values found there. She is, to some extent, an extension of the "Ying/Yang." Men are seen as more physically strong, while women are seen as more mentally inclined, including a propensity toward psychic power. The girl is not actually a ghost, but rather an amalgamation of a banshee, a ghost and a witch. Genre mashing like this is fine. It is done all the time, but when categories are blurred, an explanation of the creature becomes necessary. There must be unity and internal logic to the piece. Weird stuff can't just happen. If it does, the movie will be rejected by the mass populace.
And that's why you should see "Shutter" in its unmolested Tai form. Even if you don't understand the cultural through lines, there is a logical unity to the piece which allows for greater emotional investment on the part of the viewer. When things start to go wrong, as bizarre as the course of events are, they never feel haphazard. And things get weird, and very, very scary.
"Shutter" tells the story of a young photographer couple who accidentally hit a young woman while driving home from a party. They leave her to die, but have second thoughts and go to inspect the crime scene, only to discover that no one has any idea what they are talking about. Then, mysterious anomalies begin to show up in their photos.
I jumped 3 or 4 times during "Shutter." It's a damn scary movie. Within 2 years, American audiences will see the remake hit screens. But, you should see this version first. It's terrifying, even without resorting to cheap "Boo!" scares. There is a general sense of malaise to the whole affair. And far from being derivative of Ringu as the cover art would seem to imply, the film is actually vastly superior to that work. Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as some of the scenes in Shutter and though some of the twists do feel slightly reminiscent of Oldboy, there is so much to treasure in this veritable horror masterpiece.
Post Script. Don't watch the trailers, they give away many of the best moments.
Black Christmas (2006)
Black X-Mas, BESTWORST
There are bad movies, and then there is "Black Christmas," or as the DVD box calls it, "Black Xmas" (undoubtedly a reference to E.E. Cummings). Black Christmas isn't just bad, it's awful and shocking in a manner that I usually expect only from new Black Eyed Peas singles. "Black Christmas" is the Olympics of bad. It's the 8th wonder of the world bad. It's Uwe Boll bad.
Black Christmas tells the story of a creepy guy killing various nubile femmes during a snowy evening. Many people die from falling objects, including an icicle, from 4 feet overhead. Then, they throw a flaming Christmas tree through a wall.
It's a coat hanger abortion of a movie that is too standard to interest the hardcore genre fans and too grisly to work for the casual viewer. Every decision is wrong. Every moment forced. Yes, there is a plethora of attractive female leads, but a good horror film this does not make.
Fortunately, black Christmas is bad in the way that few films are. It's mesmerizing bad. It's hilariously bad. It's the kind of movie you realize is stupid, even when you're watching it stoned, which is the only way I can really recommend anyone watching it, (I was sober by the way). And that's its biggest strength. The movie is drenched in a kind of morbid, "how bad can this possibly get" type vibe.
From the girl with the 6 inch thick glasses that make her face look like an anime character to the reveal of the killer, to the flaming Christmas tree thrown inside of a wall, everything in this movie is insane. The filmmakers looked at Christmas and tried to think of every single imaginable way to deface the holiday. As an agnostic male of Jewish descent, I found this terribly amusing. Unfortunately, it's done with all the panache of a 9-year old just learning swear words and so, it's markedly less effective than say, "Bad Santa" after which "Black Christmas" seems to be modeled.
But, unlike Billy Bob Thornton's curmudgeonly Magnum Opus , Black Christmas never generates any warmth from it's black coal of a heart and so the whole affair ends up as lifeless as the various corpses strewn across the screen.
The film is a remake of Bob Clark's second most frightening film (behind Baby Geniuses 2: Super Babies) but it basically ignores everything that film had to offer. I haven't seen it in years, but I don't recall the method of killing, the motivation or the ending being even vaguely similar. There is the clear plastic suffocation thing going on still and the Christmas setting, but otherwise, this film totally abandons everything cool about the original, including the ambiguous ending.
There are a few nice camera angles, but overall this movie feels like amateur hour. Written and directed by Glen Morgan, (sans his usual partner James Wong), before being forced into massive reshoots just weeks before its release, Black Christmas hits only sour notes. But it does so in a sort of compelling way.
Great show! A big part of my childhood, and still great as an adult.
There are a lot of things I love from my childhood. Turns out, most of them suck. I'm not much for hanging onto something just because it makes me happy. There are a few things here and there, I can't let go of my love for Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's work ("Can't Hardly Wait", "Josie and the Pussycats") for example. But most of the time, I look back at something I loved as a kid and it turns out to be unwatchable tripe.
When I got the DVD of "Dinosaurs" in the mail, I was scared that this would be another case of being let down by discovering how truly abysmal my taste was (is?).
Fortunately, "Dinosaurs" is not only not terrible, it's excellent. The animatronic dinosaurs are fascinating to watch. The voice acting and lip syncing is solid and the jokes are damn funny. This isn't just some kids show, a lot of love and effort when into it.
Where most "family" television settles for entertaining the kids and maybe throwing something in for mom and dad every once in a while, "Dinosaurs" is chock full of giggly moments, I even found myself laughing out loud once or twice an episode. But then, I'm a sucker for animatronic anything.
The characters are well defined and act in a logical and consistent manner throughout the course of the series. The character designs are attractive and story arcs are dynamic. There are even a few episodes that took things in places I was totally unprepared for. And then there is the series finale that deals with extinction is a poetic and prophetic manner.
Along the way though, the series hits the notes of every major sitcom before and after. There is the drug episode, that worked as a drug episode when I saw it as a youngster and works as a parody of "very special" drug episodes now that I'm older.
Sure, there are a few off episodes, and many jokes, like an on-going gag about a "Barney" type kids show feel stale or dated, but by and large the series still holds up as exemplary TV.
If you've got kids, this is the one to buy. I was utterly enchanted with it when it first aired, and equally charmed by it today. Your kids will probably want to watch it on a non-stop loop as youngin's are wont to do, which is fine because the episodes are filled with enough subtle jokes as to enrich re-watch value. Also, the 4 disc set with 36 episodes is sure to keep you from growing tired of the show too quickly.
The Gravedancers (2006)
Better than it should be
All the crap that After Dark has put me through is officially forgiven. Seriously, all the atrocious marketing BS and even worse movies (Dark Ride, here's looking at you) are officially forgiven in light of "The Gravedancers." The movie is that good.
It's hard to make an effective and scary ghost story. So many have already been done and the whole genre feels tired. Even the gimmickry of exotic Asian takes on the genre is beginning to fade. One needs look no farther than this years sole major release ghost story, "Dead Silence" to see how dire the situation has gotten.
But somehow Mike Mendez has taken a tired conceit and knocked it out of the park.
"The Gravedancers" tells the story of three friends who sneak into a cemetery after a friend's funeral. While there they find a mysterious and poetic letter that tells them to dance in the hallowed ground. They do so and soon discover they have placed a curse on themselves to be haunted by the ghosts whose graves they defaced. Of course, this being a horror film, they were dancing in the section of the cemetery reserved for "undesirables." The characters in "The Gravedancers" are all well drawn and filled out by the actors and the ghosts are each iconic with unique back stories. Also, the characters act like real people. They look for help and make intelligent decisions. This grounding in reality allows the film to really go off the deep end in its final reel without leaving the audience feeling insulted.
Though one matricidal phantom seems a bit too much of a coincidence haunting the married couple, the film rarely strains credulity and manages to wrap up almost all of its plot lines into one fulfilling arc. Characters die in surprising ways and the gore, though minimal, is done excellently by the team behind "Hellboy." And then there are the scares. I don't scare easy. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of horror flicks and I've taken enough film theory classes in college to know structurally when the jump scenes are coming, but Mendez flips the script and managed to make me squirm with tension and even surprised me more than once. There is one scene with a character waking up in bed that ranks amongst the most unsettling things I've ever seen.
Sadly, the ghost makeup is too cartoony to be effective when seen for any length of time and the film's micro-budget leaves the grand finale awash in sub-par effects that detract from an otherwise exceptional whole. But, because the 80 minutes leading up to the finale are so strong, the audience can easily forgive these short comings.
Dark Ride (2006)
Terrible and Boring
A "Dark Ride" is fairly similar to a horror film. It has facades meant to draw you into a fictitious world where creeps and spooks will jump out and say "boo!" Unfortunately, a "Dark Ride" is exactly the same as a bad horror movie. Cheap sets, too much smoke in a pathetic attempt to create atmosphere and no real cognitive pay off to the slight story lines devised.
There isn't much good about the movie "Dark Ride." Everything in it is spare parts, which is a shame because it feels like the director, Craig Singer, and his writing partner Robert Dean Klein had something more in mind. The concept of a horror movie set inside of a semblance of a horror movie is an intriguing one. It is just totally wasted here.
The cast is full of unlikable people. From the film geek who seems to have never seen a movie that wasn't directed by Cimino, to the horny guy with a van, everyone is stock and boring. I fell asleep trying to watch this movie, twice. The plot makes no sense and the final twist is the worst I have ever seen, bar none.
The only bright spot is Andrea Bogart who is talented and incredibly beautiful. Whenever she was on screen, the movie came alive a bit. Unfortunately, her endearing stoner hitchhiker leaves the picture early and spends most of her brief screen time out of frame, pleasuring another cast member in an awfully staged oral sex scene that goes, intermittently for 20 minutes.
The kills are lame. The cast is substandard. The cinematography is lazy and the colors are bland. The killer looks sort of cool, but his back story was too bizarre to make any sense. If you think about anything in this film for 5 minutes, it all falls apart. Don't waste your time.
Twin Peaks (1990)
Twin Peaks--confusion illuminated.
David Lynch is a badass. He gets to go around Hollywood being treated like an elite while making insane films that don't make much sense. He freely admitted during a recent lecture I attended that he came up with the plot for "Mulholland Drive" in under an hour. He does exactly what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. And that is to be admired.
But there is a certain self destructiveness to it all. Case and point, season 2 of Twin Peaks. After the phenomenal success of the first season's 8 episode run, Lynch's murder mystery in a small town opus was re-upped for 22 more episodes. Everyone was happy with the critically lauded show that pulled in massive ratings. But when Lynch was given more free reign, things only got weirder.
We found out who killed Laura Palmer and why. The solution was vastly more fulfilling than I'm sure Lost will ever be, but all the same, without Laura's ghost haunting the town, things took a turn for the weird. Many people didn't like it. The midget whose dialogue was recorded in reverse became more prominent and the character quirks that once made the show pop seemed to overtake the characters. The show had always been satirical, but any naturalism faded away and everything went absolutely crazy.
Needless to say, ratings dropped off and the show was canceled. Adding insult to injury, the last few episodes were thrown together on one night to burn them off more quickly. (Ala, the late, great, Arrested Development.) But those who stopped watching after the big reveal missed the point of the show completely. Every scene was a mystery that built to a conclusion that led to greater mysteries that didn't have to be solved because the point was that things don't always make sense. In one early episode, we are confronted with the bizarre image of a close up of a man's hands drenched in oil slowly opening a door. The image is odd, compelling, humorous and possibly a bit dangerous since we cannot immediately identify the liquid. We pull back, and back until we finally see the hands belong to the town's sheriff, Harry S. Truman. We still don't know where he is until he trips over 2 long poles and his wife screams at him for breaking her "invention." (She was trying to make silent curtain openers, which she does with the help of a few drops of oil).* This scene is a mystery all unto itself as are most scenes in the series. From the moose head that keeps appearing on tables, to the evil scheming of the high school kids who aren't as clean cut as they appear, the whole builds and builds until your brain begins to make connections on things that might otherwise not seem logical.
Lynch works in the ephemeral, the either. Those blurry spots in your peripheral vision as you fall asleep. And Twin Peaks taken as a whole expounds on this better than most anything he has ever done.
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Oedipo alcalde (1996)
Not Gabo's best, but interesting nonetheless
Some of you, (the ones that took high school English) will undoubtedly remember Oedipus Rex, Sophocles' infamous tragedy. Those of you who are avid readers, or have taken college level English undoubtedly know Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of masterworks of magical realism like "100 Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera." "Edipo Alcalde" is a marriage of the 2 where the latter updates the former's work into war torn Columbia.
The match is a smart one. Sophocles tragedy is intentionally provocative in ways that suit Garcia Marquez, who has a propensity towards kinky and illicit sex that pushes boundaries in his work. (The protagonist of "Love in the Time of Cholera" has had 622 affairs while preserving his emotional virginity for 50 years and the narrator of "Memoirs of his Melancholy Whores" wishes only for a night of sex with a 14 year old virgin as a gift to himself for his 94th birthday). Also, inherent in his magical realism is a sense of acceptance of fate, fortune tellers and mystics, all of which play major roles in both "100 Years of Solitude" and "Oedipus Rex."
Garcia Marquez takes Sophocles basic storyline and strays from it only in his exclusions. Most of the set up is left out of the movie. Laius is never even a character in the film. He is only a presence felt and spoken about throughout. Thankfully, the rape of a young boy is excluded and replaced by a prophetic dream as the reasoning behind Laius' curse.
Some subtext is lost with the decision to cut the subplot of Oedipus' defeat of the monster. The name Oedipus refers to 'known feet' and he solves the riddle because of his intimate knowledge of walking with a cane (which was caused by his father chaining him to the mountain). This reinforces the element of fate in the story. Without it, things seem more up to sad coincidence.
As a fan of Garcia Marquez's work, there are interesting carry-overs of his literary themes. Cruelty to animals is a harbinger of doom. Love and sex are at odds. There are characters who remain chaste is some sense for decades before consummating a flawed relationship. And, he even out does himself. Incest between mother and child is surely a more outlandish sexual topic than even sexual relationships with 14 year old girls (a topic covered, at length in at least 2 of his books).
The film is often thrilling with a palpable sense of danger and violence. The locations all look beautiful. The jungles are lush and real feeling. The whole affair feels top notch and very expensive. It looks like a $50 Million movie, though I am sure it was done for a fraction of that price.
Jorge Ali Triana has very few feature directorial credits to his name, but the man knows how to tell complex narratives quickly while still imbuing them with soul. Also, he moves the camera in ways that show great stylistic flair as well as dramatic pragmatism.
The casting is top notch too. The concept of the protagonist sleeping with a woman 30 years his senior is made believable through smart casting. Jorge Perugorría looks a bit old for 30 and Angela Molina, who won a Fotogramas de Plata for her role, looks incredible at 41. Better than women half her age. She needed no body double in her copious nude scenes. The two make sense together physically and are both are excellent in their respective roles.
The movie is not perfect however. It only runs about 100 minutes, but it feels long. Also, the emotional epoch of the story, Oedipus removing his eye's is left out. The film didn't need the gore, but it felt like an awkward cut.
Still, for fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Greek Tragedy, this is a good buy.
La science des rêves (2006)
A compelling if frustrating work of art
A Michel Gondry film works best when in reference to the man.
After meeting with him his work makes infinitely more sense. Talking to Gondry is like listening to a small child telling an extremely dirty joke. He will say some very blue stuff, like repeatedly referencing the fact that he has an abnormally large male organ, but he says it in such a way that it seems like he has only just overheard the 'real' adults talking about it and is emulating them.
His films are incredibly personal. Stephane, the protagonist, (I would hesitate to call him a hero) of his newest piece, "The Science of Sleep" is more or less Gondry gone awry. He is a man-child so wrapped up in his own head that he cannot understandmuch less interact withthe world around him. He also just might be a genius and a visual poet if he ever found the right outlet.
"The Science of Sleep" is a terribly romantic film about incredibly flawed people. And there is more than a little bit of Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" with a dada twist to be found. There are lots of heady ideas about consciousness sanity or the lack thereof, but at its' core the film is about art and the creative process.
Many people, myself included, found this film derivate of "Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind" when it was first released in theaters. But after sitting on it a few months and seeing it again, the delineation point between Kaufman and Gondry becomes clear. Certainly this is a companion piece to 'Eternal Sunshine' but it has its' own charms and quirks. Gondry had the initial idea for 'Eternal Sunshine' and this is probably exactly the film he would have made without Kaufman's interference.
Kaufman is the opposite of Gondry in many ways. The former is a world weary traveler alienated because of his art and seemingly obsessed with psychoanalytical theory. The latter is utterly childlike and more interested in dreams themselves than the reasons behind them. Because of this, Kaufman's films pack a huge emotional wallop while Gondry's are closer to an ornate and mechanized plaything. When the two work together, it is mind blowing. But taken separately, their interpretations of similar constructs are equally compelling. Someday, 'Eternal Sunshine' and "The Science of Sleep" will make a wonderful double feature at a revival house.
Unfortunately, though he has a breathtaking talent for the visual, Gondry is a much less disciplined writer than Kaufman. He chooses to go for the weird and wonderful, "the beautiful and the sublime" in place of grounding the characters in the emotional reality that is essential to any film than wants to be so willfully surreal. The characters and the world can be insane, but there must be a core of catharsis for the unreality in which they live. But in spite of stand out work from a cast headed by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the universe never feels tangible.
Bernal comes off as creepy. Not the fractured genius creepy that his 'Disaster calendar' tries to imply, but rather a sort of rapist creepy. There is a scene in which he sneaks into Gainsbourg's apartment and then sits in the dark waiting for her. Moments like this make Bernal an untrustworthy, and thus, unlikable lead.
But there are certain scenes when everything coalesces into an emotionally satisfying whole. When Bernal and Gainsbourg start to create their own fantasy world, the joy and suspension of the laws of reality is earned and heart warming. Bernal's dreams are mostly charming and his waking interactions with his co-workers are delightfully weird. There is much to appreciate in this film, and it definitely improves upon multiple viewings, but like last years "A Scanner Darkly" it never really seems to get where it is trying to go.
All the same, it is a beautiful, if only marginally successful, work of art.
Armed & Famous (2007)
Not great, but certainly not the worst
This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Reality TV was supposed to come and go like all of the other flavors of the week. But here it is the dawn of 2007 and what are we left with? "Armed and Famous." I'm not going to call it the first sign of the apocalypse, but don't be surprised if in some future episode Wee-Man gets called to a farm about a red calf being born.
Satanic possibilities aside, the show is far from the worst reality offering that I have encountered. In my mind, celebrity based reality TV peaked with "Celebrity Mole: Hawaii" unfortunately, this is no "Celebrity Mole: Hawaii." It never rises to the sublime heights of "Celebrity Mole" or "The Surreal Life" but it also never plumbs the depths of American Idol's 14 weekly episodes.
The casting decisions aren't bad. Even if I have no idea what she has done that would qualify her as famous, seeing Latoya (the crazy one) Jackson with a gun is compelling. And making Erik Estrada a real cop just might be the best bit of stunt casting since Paris Hilton was impaled on a giant pole in night shot then bukkaked on the poster of "House of Wax." The Network describes the first episode thusly: "The celebrities arrive in Muncie, Indiana to begin their training to become official reserve police officers. From their first meeting with the head of the Muncie police department, Chief Joe Winkle, the cadets realize they're no longer in Hollywood. Muncie's newest crime fighters are in for the challenge of their life as they learn about everything from firearms, hand-to-hand combat and what it's like to be on the receiving end of a taser gun. Upon completion of their training, the celebrities are issued badges and guns, partnered with veteran officers and immediately hit the streets. To these five celebrities, serving the people of Muncie is a tremendous honor, but will they be able to live up to the real life pressures of being ARMED & FAMOUS?" To answer all the questions that must be racing through your mind, yes, it does feel totally staged, yes there are arbitrary "uplifting" momentslike the sickeningly gratuitous episode closer where Trish Stratus, a former WWE star, ineptly tries to console a family after their house burns down. Yes Wee-Man does get shocked with a Taser and no, it's not that funny anymore. But, most importantly, yes, the stars are self deluded enough to actually be entertaining from time to time.
Unfortunately, what should have been this show's core is totally passed over. By half way through the first episode, the whole gang is already certified police officers. This just seems like a waste. There is no way "Jack Osborne, police officer" is going to be as amusing as "Jack Osborne, wannabe police cadet." All we see of the training is the aforementioned Taser shocks, some boring and cursory gun and combat instruction and a pathetic and unfunny introductory lecture from the local police chief.
Still, the show does have its' moments. Towards the end of the premiere, Estrada goes to arrest a crack dealer, (and by the way, who knew Indiana had so much crack? The show could almost be called "Celebrities in Crack City USA" but then, that brings to mind an entirely different program) who turns out to be a 75 year old woman who is thrilled to be arrested by "Ponch." She is maybe the most pleasant drug dealer of all time. So, that was fun.
But the whole show doesn't hang together. There is no pacing. For example in the second segment there is, for no discernible reason, a scene of the celebrities trying to do laundry. Also, there are too many celebrities to follow. Wee-Man has screen presence, and Estrada and Jackson are amusing, but Osborne and Stratus are utter non-entities. This, coupled with the show's obviously staged early scenes is crippling.
There is a good documentary to be made about the process of becoming a police officer, especially in this patriotism-hungry period. People are looking for heroes, and police and firemen could fill that need, but Erik Estrada and Wee-Man playing dress up with real guns just isn't going to cut it.
The Marine (2006)
I don't like the WWE. I find it more than vaguely homoerotic, which is fine for something like Fight Club, but in a setting of 4 or 5 weekly brawl-fests, it is just boring if not mind numbing. That said, I absolutely adore WWE Films. They reach a certain absurd level of "bestworst" where eye sockets are urinated in, and porn stars direct real movies, and that was only in their first release.
The Marine tries to one up "See No Evil" (the aforementioned first release) and in some levels it does. It is far more absurd, and even less plausible as a "real" movie and twists wildly between over the top action and slap stick comedy in a manner that would make a dada master proud. Of course, to call it dada would be to over estimate this movie's intelligence and potential.
The plot of "The Marine" is as follows; John Cena is fired from the Marine corps for doing his job. Robert Patrick steals some diamonds. Then, through a use Deus Ex Machina, Cena chases Patrick through a swamp, filled with explosives. and everything is explosive in this swamp. Gas stations go up like Hiroshima. Brick walls explode on contact. The only things that don't explode are the villains. (Something the WWE has rectified in their next film, a knock off of Battle Royale starring Stone Cold Steve Austin called "The Condemned".) The acting is of course terrible and, when it gets down to it, John Cena is scarier looking than Kane. The veins on his neck are thicker than my forearms and he has worked out to the point where he no carries human proportions. If you've ever seen wrestling action figures you know how they are proportioned like the Mohawk-ed villain of a cyberpunk. Well, in Cena's case, that is no exaggeration. Seriously, next time they make an adaptation of "Frankenstein" they should paint the guy gray and let him loose. Though, they might want to give him acting lessons first, because he is a bit too stiff to play a reanimated corpse.
The Marine is not a good movie. Not by a long shot. If you want a good movie avoid this film. There is nothing witty, nothing under the surface and nothing approaching cohesiveness in the product. However, it is a tremendously fun trashy little action thriller. There is an explosion per minute ratio of 1:8, roughly, and on ongoing joke about sexual abuse caused by rock candy. Also, Robert Patrick has a lot of fun with a terrible role and in the best directorial decision of the decade, Kelly Carlson spends most of the movie knocked out and being carried over someone shoulder, giving us a brilliant look at her bent over in ridiculously tight jeans.
If any of that interests you, you'll probably like the film. And if you want a new drinking game movie, this is a prime candidate. The Marine is trash. But you know that already. If you think it will entertain you, it probably will.
In the early days of cinema, before their invention was stolen by Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers created 50 second, one shot, moving postcards designed to give the audience a feeling for what Paris (for example) feels like in winter. Shortly thereafter, narrative film-making began with "Life of an American Fireman" when Edwin S. Porter discovered that cutting between two story lines to create a heightened sense of emotional resonance was possible.
Cinema has since been predicated upon one's ability to suspend disbelief. This has been used to make audiences accept flying cars, talking toys, xenomorphs, singing gangsters, and real, true love. People want to believe in the magic of movies. They want to see the pretty colors on screen as real; they want to ignore the projection booth in the back of the theater. They want t be absorbed into the story. But this suspension must be earned. When done right, an audience will believe that Arnold is actually an evil robot, or is fighting an invisible man hunting alien. When done poorly, the audience will believe that Arnold is actually an evil robot when he is supposed to be a boy's father looking for a Christmas present.
This brings us to "Unknown," the latest in the long cavalcade of Tarantino impersonating, single location, temporal overlay, tough-guy flicks. This time around, there is a distinct hint of "Saw" in the air, and an unusually high caliber cast filling out the stock characters with a reasonable amount of pathos.
"Unknown" tells the story of an notably whiney group of men who awaken in an abandoned factory with high tech doors locking them in. Everyone has been beaten bloody; one man has been shot and handcuffed. Unfortunately because of a mysterious gas leak, no one remembers what has transpired, or who anyone is. It quickly becomes apparent that some of the men are kidnappers and some of the men have been kidnapped. For the next 70 minutes, the men try to escape the building before the other kidnappers return to finish off the victims. Along the way, the men slowly regain their memories as it becomes convenient for the plot line.
It is an interesting premise, albeit a bit high concept for a film released by IFC Films, but it ends up being so far fetched and so totally reliant of Deus Ex Machina for every one of its' dozen or so plot twists that by the end, it is impossible to care about the big reveal. Also, I picked out who was who before all the characters even woke up.
Even at barely 80 minutes, the movie feels long in the tooth. The main story is set inside of the abandoned factory, but a good 20 minutes of screen time is devoted to an utterly pointless subplot about police officers tracking the ransom money. It is redundant after a few minutes and ends up feeling reminiscent of the infamous Charlie Chan sequel where Chan walked to a cab and then rode to his destination in real time to pad the length of the feature. It adds nothing to the proceedings that isn't already clear and ultimately serves only as the set up for one of the most ill-thought out plot twists in recent memory.
As is par for the genre, (both crime film and amnesia film) several of the characters harbor dark secrets. The last 5 minutes of the film contain no less than 3 character reversals and enough gun blasts to last a lifetime. This is all well and good, but when the sub-textual moral of the story seems to be about overcoming adversity and the need for understanding before judging others, the final twist seems totally out of step with the story.
This is a shame, because the film, ostensibly a reaction to the turmoil of a modern world where we are told that anyone could be a terrorist, has some validity and moral weight to its' point that it subverts in favor of a needlessly nihilistic and callow ending that undoes any of the goodwill the audience could have built up for the film.
First time director Simon Brand does admirable work creating a grungy atmosphere for the film; IMDb lists the budget at 3.7 million, and it is all on screen. The film looks expensive and with the exception of the flashbacks which appear to have been filtered through a 1950's era 3D process, never feels like a compromise was made on the visuals for budgetary reasons.
The script by Mathew Waynee, also a first timer, is often humorous and never devolves into total cliché exploitation. However, it does feel like a film school thesis more than a calling card product. Waynee tries to out puzzle the audience and in so doing, wears our patience thin. Also, the movie contains the line "If you're going to murder me, you do it to my mother ******* face!" spoken with great intensity at a pivotal moment. I can't decide if that line is brilliant, or the worst thing to happen to English grammar since "txt msgs" so I will let you draw your own conclusions.
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New Year's Day (1989)
An interesting, if slightly meandering film.
New Years Day isn't a terribly good movie, but somehow, it's still endearing.
Starring a cast of no names, and an awful early performance by David Duchovny (as well as rather good Milos Forman), New Years Day tells the story of 3 young women about to move out of an apartment they have shared for years, and the man who is moving in. the four spend new years day together, (psychoanalyzing each other) because of a misunderstanding of what the meaning of "through January first."
The film has a decent set up, and other than Duchovny, the acting is all solid.
However, director and star Henry Jaglom apparently doesn't do scripts, he does giant flow charts. Consequently, his actors are forced to improvise, and generally become defined more by their bundles of neuroses than by any redeeming aspects.
Case and point for this affliction is a character who spends the entirety of the film's third act, where the girls throw a going away party, explaining repeatedly that he avoids the pitfalls of sleeping with his psychoanalysis patients by sleeping with them first, then becoming their doctor. The joke is cute the first time, but by the 4th time it has been told, no one cares anymore.
The movie is rife with moments like this. The worst of which is a suicide attempt that seems not only unrealistic, but also to have been included because without the scene the suicide attemptee would have absolutely no motivation or purpose within the story.
All the same, there is some definite underlying charm to much of it. Jaglom gives a wonderful opening and closing monologue giving the film, which otherwise just sort of starts and stops, a feeling of closure and weight. And the improvised dialogue is largely successful in creating a naturalistic atmosphere. However, if you don't already buy into the concept of Feud, Jung and Psycho Analytical theory, you will probably spend much of the film rolling your eyes.
If you just love Woody Allen and Robert Altman but have already seen all of their films, or just can't get enough stories about mediocre looking Jewish men discussing philosophy and becoming intimate with attractive women half their age, New Years Day is the film for you.
For everyone else, it's good, but not great, a little self important, and ultimately pointless.
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Charlie Bartlett (2007)
Charlie Bartlett is an above par teen film that is close to greatness, but never really achieves it.
Charlie Bartlett is one of the few teen films that gets it. Being a teen isn't a laugh a minute affair where everybody looks like Sean William Scott or Freddie Prinze Jr.. It's also not the manic, fantasy of Superbad. Kids smoke. Kids drink. Kids die in stupid, stupid ways, and some kids kill themselves. Childhood and adolescence isn't really a comedy, it's a lonely and confusing place.
Most teen films gloss over these elements, white washing it and adding a token black kid. Maybe some kids lives are like this, but my adolescence looked a lot more like a Larry Clark film than a John Hughes affair. It was scary, violent, visceral, sexual and exciting. And though it carries a strong dose of fantasy wish fulfillment, Charlie Bartlett gets most of these tragicomic elements of teen life right.
Charlie Bartlett is a story about finding out who you are. It's also a film about selling drugs, giving unlicensed therapy, outwitting bullies, throwing wild parties, rioting, and getting the girl. In it's short running time the film manages to capture the feeling of a school year. The way that one scheme leads into another, the way that a note with a heart on it turns into heavy petting in the backseat of a car, the way enemies become friends, and the way that at the end of 9 months you feel like an entirely different person.
The film starts out as a yarn about the titular character, Charlie. Charlie is not a well-liked kid. He doesn't know how to fit in or how to make friends. He's nervous around girls and he gets swirl-ied a lot.* He comes from a rich family with a disaffected mother and an absentee father. He's also been kicked out of every private school in the state because of his rule breaking schemes. All he wants is to make friends and for most of his life, he's only ever made friends by getting them fake IDs. Once Charlie arrives at his new public high school, he finds himself in a whole new chalkboard jungle.
What starts out as a way to get the school bully to stop picking on Charlie ends up as a full-scale drug dealing empire. This evolves into an amateur therapy endeavor, as well as a school play production. Along the way, Charlie becomes the most popular kid in school, resolves his family problems, prevents a kid from committing suicide, loses his virginity, stops his girlfriend from smoking, solves her family problems and starts a social protest movement.
I have no idea how to adequately summarize this film. It has more plot elements and twists and turns than all 4 seasons of The OC. But, the overstuffed nature of the film is part of its' charm. Everything happens at once and it's hard to keep up, but the attentive viewer is richly rewarded with layered characters and charismatic performances.
Anton Yelchin, is incredibly likable as Charlie. His chemistry with Kat Dennings, goes a long way towards making some of the more far fetched elements of the story work. Meanwhile Dennings does a superb job playing against Robert Downey Jr., matching his screen presence in every scene. Hope Davis, is funny as Charlie's distant mother, even if she is a bit underused. The rest of the cast, made up of relative unknowns is also generally above par. The story gets a bit out there by the end, but the emotional resonance of the characters keeps things from getting too absurd.
And while there are many problems with the film, including several bizarre and illogical choices by characters, a general misunderstanding of teenage social class stratification, and a complete lack of speaking parts for minority characters,** the overwhelming good natured vibe that the film gives off more than makes up for these.
*I've never seen or heard of this happening in real life, but every teen film about geeks seems to feature it.
**There are, by my count, 2 black characters in the film. They stand side by side in the background of some group shots.
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