Friday, December 23, 2011

CAPSULE REVIEW: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

The Spook Who Sat by the Door has all the makings of a blaxploitation film: an ex-CIA protagonist outraged at the injustice in the streets who takes matters into his own hands, racist white men at the top of the power structure leading a campaign of corruption and oppression against the inner city, and a revenge/vigilante-centered plot. Somewhere along the line though, you realize that this film is going places most blaxploitation films wouldn't dare. There's an edge to the rhetoric delivered by Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) that's willing to penetrate beyond the one-dimensional caricatures you'd expect from some throwaway action flick. Cook almost makes you believe that the corruption runs so deep through society and is so ingrained in our culture that the only one way to solve it is through a fully armed revolution. Is it any wonder studios didn't want to touch this back in 1973? The message is a strong one, but not one that's thrown out lightly. There's nuance a-plenty, and while Freeman slowly builds his army in preparation for all-out war against the United States, you'll find yourself drawn into his struggle while simultaneously being appalled at the scale of the undertaking he's attempting. While characters sometimes fall into stereotypes, this is a film that's mostly aware of the structure in which it's working. None of the characters are reduced to simple caricatures. Pitching it as blaxploitation was the only way this could have flown under the radar until it was released. While it's bound to provoke controversy, it's just an all-around good film. Thanks to the folks at Cinema Overdrive for unearthing this and closing out the 2011 season with a bang. (Also, the poster above is by artist Iron Jaiden, who's done consistently great work for Cinema Overdrive.)

8 / 10 = See it

MA$$ACRE: The Three Musketeers (2011)

I've fully exhausted the dollar theater to the point where it was this or The Smurfs - well, okay, Midnight in Paris was also playing, but I couldn't talk my friends into it, and those who were on my side skipped out to watch something at home. The fact that I'm justifying why I saw this before even talking about the film does not bode well. You can stop reading now if you want. Do you remember when this awful thing was in normal theaters? No, neither do I. I'm willing to bet without fact-checking that this means it tanked at the box office, flew out within weeks of opening, is staying in second-run theaters over Christmas in hopes that some misguided families will see it, and then will be rushed to video in a desperate attempt to make up whatever millions it lost.

There is nothing to justify the existence of this cinematic turd. The story has been remade literally dozens of times, and this film adds nothing but garish visuals and costume designs that are offensive to the eyes. I'm leaving pictures out of this review because I don't want ugly stills from this movie on my blog. Logan Lerman manages to be cocky without an ounce of charisma as d'Artagnan, and the actual musketeers are reduced to single character traits: the strong one, the sneaky one, and the, uh... the... other one - the leader. None of them get enough individual screen time for this to matter though. Christoph Waltz and Orlando Bloom appear as villians, mostly to grab some cash I'd imagine. Maybe they delivered good performances, but I was too busy being agape at how bad their haircuts were to notice. Also, because it's a Paul W.S. Anderson movie, Milla Jovovich is in it. Eh.

It seems like rehashing an old story into a relatively inoffensive remake would have been reduced to a science by now, but this film manages to screw up pretty much everything. For one, it's ugly to look at. The set designers operate under the principle that more (of anything) is better, so we get massive courtyards filled with awful faux-period statues, palaces where every square inch of everything is gilded and chintzily ornamented, and costumes that try horribly to imitate the nearly self-parodying style of Tim Burton's recent work. The score could not be more blatant in its intent. It swells ludicrously with every line of already swollen dialogue and employs anachronistic instruments to the point of absurdity. Listen for the surf guitar chords whenever Milla Jovovich says something sinister. There is very little to latch on to in this film, but at the very least I can say that it chooses not to employ shaky-cam style editing for its fight scenes. Of course, the fights defy physics in just about every way possible and are more often than not clothed in lazily applied CG, but at least I could tell what was going on. 

I've already devoted too many words to this. You get the idea. Avoid at all costs, even $2.

0.5 / 10 = Stay away

Monday, December 19, 2011

MA$$ACRE: Killer Elite (2011)

It's hard for me to get the words flowing about Killer Elite right now because it's just so by-the-books ordinary. Also, because I might have fallen asleep during some points in the latter half. Jason Statham plays Jason Statham, former member of a British special-ops team who's forced to return for one last job to save his mentor, an elderly Robert DeNiro who's been captured by a old middle-eastern Sheikh. As he sets out to kill three SAS agents who went rogue and killed the Sheikh's son's, the SAS catches on instigates a global cat-and-mouse chase. Espionage, intrigue, and numerous action sequences occur. This would make a great "Dad" movie to watch if you're stuck with the family over the holidays. Males of all generations will enjoy watching Statham figure out clever ways to make killing men seem accidental, engaging in copious gunfire, and beating people to death while tied to a chair. The plot is tight, and whisks from one location to another, punctuating each with its own action before moving on, and throwing minor moral quandaries into the mix along the way. DeNiro has been a husk of his former self for a long time now, and unfortunately he remains so here. If you pass this by, you won't be missing much, but it's a serviceable way to kill a couple hours.

4 / 10 = Not the worst way to kill time

Sunday, December 18, 2011

MA$$ACRE: 50/50 (2011)

I cannot stand how illness and diseases (particularly life-threatening ones) get glamorized in movies. Dying is not glamorous, ennobling, or in any way life-affirming, and I really hate to see it being used as a prop for cheap sentimentality. 50/50 bills itself as a cancer movie free from all this, and it succeeds, well, probably 50% of the time. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young radio producer who's struck with a rare form of cancer that proves fatal to half of those diagnosed with it. In addition to cancer, he's got to deal with how everyone else reacts to the news, including his somewhat shallow girlfriend, overbearing mother, man-child best friend (Seth Rogen, unsurprisingly), and an unflinchingly positive therapist who's probably younger than he is. This is a cancer "comedy" for the most part, and I was deathly afraid Rogen was going to spoil the whole thing. Surprisingly I didn't hate him at the end of the movie, and chalk this up to the relatively restrained material he was given in the script as opposed to his portrayal of his character. Levitt doesn't deliver as strong a performance as he's capable of, but does a decent job, especially toward the end when he's approaching major surgery that'll determine his eventual outcome. As far as using cancer as material for comedy, it's still pretty guilty of making light of the situation, but usually because the characters see no reason to succumb to self-pity and instead make the best of a bad situation. There are a few scenes that try to hammer home how much it'd suck to be sick, but these are more or less balanced out by the funny stuff. For a realistic portrayal of the toll cancer takes on families, A Lion in the House is the best place to go. Otherwise, this isn't terrible if you want a nibble of reality that won't spoil a fun night at the movies.

5.5 / 10 = Watch if there's nothing else showing

Friday, December 16, 2011

MA$$ACRE: Drive (2011)

Nothing says Thanksgiving like watching Ryan Gosling stomp a man's head in with your family after gorging all day. I had seen Drive when it was initially released, but out of all our options for a post-feast film at the dollar theater, this was by far the pick of the litter. Drive exists within the shell of what might be considered an action film, but the action here is at times so restrained that it's best just not to expect any until it eventually explodes. Nicholas Winding Refn ends up using this film to do what he's been doing throughout his directorial career: exploring themes of personal transformation and reinvention with violence as the driving (ha ha)  mechanism.

Ryan Gosling takes the role of Driver, who we're first shown acting as an accessory to a robbery by providing the getaway transportation. This scene is flat-out awesome, as are most of the action sequences in Drive. They're as tense as they are brutal, but still never fall into excess, which grounds them in something more akin to reality than is typical for action films. After the opening scene we're offered a reprieve for quite a while, as we get to know Driver a little better as he develops a not-relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a waitress who lives down the hall from him.

Gosling's portrayal of Driver as a quiet, seemingly shy guy works most of the time, because it offers very little insight into what kind of a man Driver is. Left without dialogue to flesh him out, we project what we expect him to be onto him, and end up making him into a pretty good guy despite his life of crime. I mean, a) he's Ryan Gosling, b) he does some thoughtful things for Irene, c) he seems to be looking for an out when it comes to the whole robbery thing. That last one ends up being correct, but it's never as easy to untangle yourself from the criminal underworld as you think it'll be, and the escalating violence that Driver becomes wrapped up in when he tries to help Irene's family quickly gets out of control. While the action takes over in the latter half of the film, as a whole it remains a character study, and the best part of the film is trying to figure Driver out.

Unfortunately, his ambiguity also leads to some of the weak spots in the film, which are the awkward-pause laden interactions he has with Irene. Since we never really see them talking, their sudden fondness for each other seems sort of abrupt. The dialogue in general (when it's there) is pretty perfunctory and occasionally drops into mob-movie cliche. This is something that I was able to overlook, especially since this movie puts its focus more what characters do rather than what they say.

What I like most about Drive is that takes the well-worn story of a man trying to leave a life of crime and wipes away all the glamour the hero is given just by nature of the fact that he's the protagonist. Gosling's character Driver isn't absolved of his past sins just because he wants to be a better person, nor is he any less of a monster when he employs violence for a good cause. The dichotomy between hero and villain is blurred here, and picking apart exactly what kind of a man Driver is (or wants to be) is what makes this film enjoyable. Definitely check it out if it's still screening in your area, otherwise pick it up on DVD in January. This one comes with my mother's seal of approval.

8 / 10 = Worth your time

Thursday, December 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Abomination (1986)

The Abomination is a truly sleazy relic from the video era, shot on 8mm with what must have been close to no-budget, filled to the brim with splatter, and dubbed thoroughly. Right off the bat we're shown a highlight reel of all the gore scenes in the film, cut together with our 'hero' waking up from a nightmare dozens of times over. I like to think that rather than blowing its load prematurely, it's just laying all its cards out on the table. You can't complain early on that you don't know exactly what's coming for the remaining 90 minutes.

Cody is the 'hero' of this film, and he lives with his mother. Just look at this guy. He is the epitome of sleaze. Mom's addicted to watching a local televangelist, to whom she prays to have her cancer-riddled body made well. The prayer works, maybe, and she ends up hacking up a tumor, which crawls into Cody's mouth at night and possesses him. Afterwards, he's compelled to kill people relentlessly, while nurturing this monster and feeding it body parts.

The movie is framed interestingly – dubbed over with Cody's conversation with a therapist. Supposedly everything we're seeing is a flashback, but it's easy to forget, since this narrative drops in and out at random. The fact that majority of the dialogue is dubbed sometimes masks everything in a surreal silence. There are some intermittent foley effects, but their lack of consistency and quality makes everything seem a little off. Add to this a truly great synth score, and you've got a recipe for an awesomely weird atmosphere. It gets even better towards the end, when Cody's voice is overlaid with massive reverb, chanting “THE ABOMINATION, WHICH MAKES ALL THINGS DESOLATE” as he slaughters everyone he knows.

The downside is that the first half tends to drag. There clearly wasn't a lot of material to work with, and there's lots of filler, and quite a bit of repetition. Count how many times there's a shot of a horse pasted into an outdoor scene. But just sit back, absorb it, and let it put you into a sort of trance. It'll get you in the appropriate mood to appreciate the really heinous stuff at the end. The creature effects aren't anything to write home about, although they do have quite a bit of homemade charm. Throw a bunch of pig (?) guts onto anything and it'll end up looking gross.

This film is notoriously hard to find on video, which means it's priced way more than it's probably worth. If you can figure out a way to watch it without dropping multiple-digit sums of cash, it's worth checking out, since it falls into the category of films that somehow manage to turn their low budget origins into a distinct aesthetic and make the transition from terrible into surreal. It's not essential viewing, but of all the absolutely awful micro-budget horror from the 80's, this has enough going for it to make it interesting.

5.5 / 10 = If you're bored

Sunday, December 11, 2011

REVIEW: Santa Sangre (1989)

The weeks before the holidays have been busy for me, but that doesn't mean I haven't been haunting the dollar theater in my spare time. There's been some good stuff showing, but while I'm getting my thoughts together, here's a review of a recently re-released cult classic by midnight movie king Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky is without a doubt one of my favorite filmmakers, and I'd been meaning to rewatch Santa Sangre since it was re-released by Severin Films. My previous experience was with a grainy VHS rip, so I was excited to see this film released properly, as it languished in purgatory and was out of print for far too long. Jodorowsky is known for his incredible visual style and semi-coherent plots infused with mysticism and transgressive religious themes. In the former, Santa Sangre doesn't disappoint, although it doesn't quite achieve the insane heights that Jodorowsky reached in The Holy Mountain. To be fair though, nothing does. As far as the plot is concerned, Santa Sangre is the closest he ever got to a mainstream film and feels like a fairy-tale of betrayal and revenge with more than a hint of giallo-inspired murder, likely due to the involvement of producer Claudio Argento (Dario's brother).

Santa Sangre centers upon the traumatic childhood and bizarre adulthood of Fenix, a boy raised as a circus magician by his lecherous knife-throwing father and a mother who leads a cultish offshoot of the Catholic church who worships the memory of a young girl whose arms were cut off in a violent mugging. That's really only the tip of the iceberg, and things get increasingly insane when mom's cult is demolished by the Mexican government, Dad begins cheating on her with a contortionist woman tattooed from head to toe, and the whole deal climaxes in bloody slaughter. Jodorowsky has always been fond of using his characters more as symbols than people, and this story is no exception, frequently lapsing into allegory. Some scenes seem a bit over-played, and while this sort of caricature works well in his other more surreal films, for a plot set in something that closely resembles the real world this style can be somewhat jarring.

It works far better in the second half of the film, where we follow the adult Fenix as he reverts from savage to human, and ultimately attempts to purge himself from his mothers' influence. The success of this act largely depends on Axel Jodorowsky, (Alejandro's son) who plays the adult Fenix. He utterly absorbs the character's multiple layers of insanity, and is willing to embrace all the weirdness his father can throw at him. As he emerges from a regressive state in a mental institution, he finds himself reconnecting with his armless mother, and acting as her arms, both in her new role as a stage performer and in her daily life. She's also been driven slightly insane herself, and has some sort of telepathic hold on him which she uses in fits of maternal jealousy to force him to murder anyone he becomes attached to.

One of the things I love about Jodorowsky is that he stages scenes so fantastic that you'll simply never see anything like them elsewhere. Here they're scaled back in scope somewhat, but lose none of their power. To give a taste, we get: a funeral procession for an elephant that ends with its massive coffin being dumped off a cliff and devoured by hundreds of slum dwellers, a one-man magic show performed in a cave by Fenix and his dwarf assistant. Powerful images like this overshadow any of the film's narrative weakness (of which there's more than a little.)

Santa Sangre is probably Jodorowsky at his most accessible (if you ignore the films that's he's since disowned), and stands on its own as a phantasmagoric slasher that's unlike anything else you're likely to see. Highly recommended.

9 / 10 = Must see

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

MA$$ACRE: Captain America (2011)

From my perspective, Captain America has always been sort of a jerk. Granted, I haven't read too many comics from his solo series, but it used to be that every time he showed up in any X-men books (pre-90's anyway), he'd be quick to blame them for whatever trouble was happening. Because, you know, mutants. Thankfully he's grown a little wiser since then, or maybe another character took the name and costume, I'm not sure. But in the past few years he's been fighting for truly American ideals like acceptance and justice, and not blaming minorities for stuff, at least when he isn't dying.

Still, it took some persuasion from friends to get me to see this one, even despite the $2 entry fee, mostly because I just didn't feel enthused about Cap as a character. Thankfully, it wasn't entirely bad, although as a whole it's a mess, and I seriously question some of the things we're asked to believe.

The first half of the movie actually had me pretty entertained. Set during World War II, we're introduced to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who has the heart of a lion and the body of a twelve-year-old. All he wants to do is join the army and fight for his country, but he's shot down again and again due to his diminutive frame. (Didn't they recruit for non-combat positions in WWII?) Through all of this we get nonsense about how courage and heart are all you really need to be a man, and eventually Rogers' persistence pays off when Tommy Lee Jones sees him as a potential candidate for a new super-soldier program.

After getting pumped full of drugs, Rogers becomes a manly muscle man, and now is when everyone starts fawning over him. The previously frigid female officer who couldn't be bothered to look at him before lets her hair down and does nothing but sigh and bat her eyelashes for the rest of the goddamn movie. His comrades suddenly give him the respect he deserves now that he looks the part. The film refuses to back up all the talk about courage and bravery and all that being more important than your outward appearance. What a message to send to kids: yeah, what's inside counts, but good luck getting people to notice it unless you look like a Greek god.

As a superhero though, Cap doesn't get immediate respect, and the film's self-awareness of how ridiculous a costumed American flag guy would be in real life leads to some of the most entertaining scenes. Before seeing any real action, Cap is turned into a propaganda piece and carted around the country punching a fake Adolf Hitler in a stage show to encourage the sale of war bonds. Unfortunately, this sense of realism collapses under the weight of a ridiculously portrayed group of cartoon villains that we're supposed to see as more evil than regular old Nazis.

The superhero formula has been done so much recently that it seems like writers are just falling back on the flow of the origin story as a crutch. Once we've got a fully-formed hero, they don't have a clue as to what to do with him. Action sequences...? Uh, yeah, that must be it. And throw in a cast of racial stereotypes to fight with Cap, cause it's easier than introducing characters we care about. The film just feels lazy in the latter half, the main villain, Red Skull, acts entirely without logic, and the disjointed action sequences do nothing to help you care. In short, my assumptions about Captain America as a character were reinforced - there's no internal conflict driving his character once he gets pumped up, and he just becomes a cardboard cutout that fights bad guys. Any message the film tries to convey regarding heroism rings hollow, and we're left with another largely empty film about an action figure that goes through the motions just so that people won't be clueless about the character once the Avengers tie-in rolls around.

3.5 / 10 = Skip it

Monday, November 28, 2011

CLASSICS: Yi Yi (2001)

It always frustrates me when a highly regarded film just doesn’t click with me, mostly because I can’t help but ascribe some portion of it to my own lack of competence as a viewer. I’m not terribly well-schooled when it comes to film, but I like to believe that I’m working towards an increasing lack of ignorance. I also generally believe that film is a medium that’s always accessible on some level, and that you should never need secret or specialized knowledge to parse a film. So it’s somewhat unnerving when something so widely lauded falls flat and lacks any resonance for me, because it either means my assumptions about the medium are false, or that I’m just simply on a vastly different wavelength than most viewers.

I’m not talking about Yi Yi actually, but Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. I continue to read about the rich humanity and depth of emotion in Ozu’s films, but fail to see it for myself. Barring the possibility that I’m an emotionless robot, I have to chalk this up to my own taste. I see humanity through a character’s actions and words, not simply by their presence on screen. And while the old couple in Tokyo Story seemed perfectly nice and almost preternaturally gentle, I didn’t empathize with them any more than I would an acquaintance’s grandparents. I appreciate the technical aspects of the film: the frame focused on a room through which characters enter and exit as if they aren’t aware they’re being watched, the face-on dialogue shot as if you’re conversing with the characters. Still, even these techniques, which should have enhanced the realism of the film, just couldn’t pull me out of my apathy.

Back to Yi Yi. It’s a similar film in a lot of ways - focusing on an ordinary middle-class family in the midst of the minor tragedies and victories of life which seem momentous in scale only for the ones directly experiencing them. Both films focus on a family forced to confront a death juxtaposed against the otherwise boring pace of real life. Both focus on the insecurities and fears each character possesses which manifest in the shortcomings of their behavior. As in Tokyo Story, we encounter these characters in the midst of everyday life - in medias res for the story of their lives, and leave them just as they’ve started to comprehend their own plights.

What makes Yi Yi different for me is that the people we see are fully realized - as flawed as they are good, but always aspiring to be better. They’re not as one-dimensional as the neglectful family or the saintly grandparents in Tokyo Story, but fleshed out people, fully intending to live up to their personal ideals, but without the courage or motivation to always follow through on them.

The English title for Yi Yi is “A one and a two…” and it’s appropriate, given the slow rhythm of ordinary life that drives the film’s narrative. We don’t have large emotional arcs or slow climbs towards drama here, just the gentle ebb and flow of happiness and disappointment along with the cycles of yearning for what might have been and appreciation for what is. It’s a form that filmmakers usually don’t choose to capture, but one that’s immediately resonant when it works. The closest recent thing that comes to mind in comparison is the musical structure of the movements within The Tree of Life. If you’re a fan of that film and have got the time to sit down uninterrupted for about three hours, I’d recommend checking this one out.

8.5 / 10 = See it

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MA$$ACRE: Contagion (2011)

Watching society fall apart is one of my favorite things to do, so I was pretty excited to see that Steven Soderbergh was doing it large-scale by unleashing a virus on the world. What's more, first and foremost he chose to target my former home state of Minnesota! It's always good to see familiar territory being ravaged by plague. I'm impressed by how versatile Soderbergh can be, and while he doesn't always hit the mark with his bigger-budget features, it's clear that he's not afraid to ditch the money in favor of making films he wants to make (i.e. Bubble). Here he's picked up a whole line-up of big-name actors to assemble his ensemble cast, but thankfully never lets the star power overshadow his film.

Matt Damon acts as our Minneapolitan civilian counterpart whose family is one of the first to fall prey to the disease. Meanwhile in Atlanta, Lawrence Fishburne steps in as the head of the CDC and desperately tries to contain the outbreak, prevent the general population from panicking, and keep himself from exploiting his position of power to keep his loved-ones safe. We also get Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist blogger, Zoey Deschanel as a disease investigator in China, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, John Hawkes... needless to say, there's a lot going on in this movie. For the most part it's balanced pretty well, although some of the stories inevitably get shortchanged. It's also a shame that we don't get any main characters based in China, where the disease originates and seemingly has an equally devastating effect (if not moreso than what we're shown in the U.S.).

The stories unfold simultaneously,and are broken up by news-reel style footage and voiceovers, setting this film firmly in reality. There's nothing campy or sensationalistic about it – at times it's almost too subtle, but this works really well when shit really begins to hit the fan. The overall feel reminded me of a modern version of Threads, perhaps a little less bleak and soul-crushing in the end, with nuclear fallout replaced by an unusually aggresive superbug.

This one was definitely worth the $2 entry fee. There's a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe to the whole deal, and I'm a sucker for anything that suggests the end is nigh, so I had a blast. It's sometimes understated, but has a few killer scenes that really hammer home the sense of dread. I'd recommend checking it out over the holidays – what better way to spend Thanksgiving than watching a movie about a Thanksgiving epidemic? Just wash your damn hands before touching the food.

 8/10 = See it

Sunday, November 20, 2011

REVIEW: The Taint (2010)

The Taint achieves what by now seems impossible: it pushes splatter to previously unthinkable levels of gore and tastelessness. This is exactly why it deserves your attention. It might be that everything worth doing has been done to death at this point, but just when you think we’ve hit bottom, there’s someone down there scraping away at the muck. Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson have worked long and hard to produce this slimy little diamond in the rough.

Why not just bypass all the semi-concealed themes in the post-apocalyptic infection scenarios - you know, society keeps people in check, and removing social order via a plague, zombies, etc. allows the non-infected to act out suppressed fantasies… The Taint cuts out the middleman and imagines a mutagen that turns all men into raging misogynists who want nothing more than to kill women. The protagonist seems to exist only because movies are supposed to have one, and we need some reason to jump from gag to gag and flashback to flashback. Don’t go in expecting much continuity, or even much of a story. The Taint is really nothing more than a series of gore-based set pieces, but you can’t fault it for doing one thing if it does it really well.

Misogyny and homoeroticism go hand in hand, and there’s tons of both here. It was really a great move when you think about it - anyone who’s going to revel in the macho violence a little too much is likely going to be caught off-guard by the guy-on-guy wrestling or the ever-present short shorts and crotch shots. The only thing that outnumber the dick jokes in this film are the dicks themselves, all destined to be destroyed in various fashions. But for every sophmoric attempt at humor, there’s something clever - it’s humor by attrition, and it comes out on top in the end.

The film’s greatest weakness is the acting, or the lack of it. Acting (or even having characters) clearly isn’t the focus of the film, so just don’t expect it. At best, the lines are delivered with barely contained smirks, and the suppressed irony threatens to boil over, but only actually does a couple times. (Did we really need a that’s what she said joke in the middle of a montage parody?) Still, it’s clear that the film doesn’t have much spite for the tried and true post-apocalyptic formula, it’s just carrying it to an ultraviolent extreme.

I’m more tolerant of films when they’re labors of love as opposed to cash grabs churned out by big studios. Also, chainsaws, tons of head-crushing, and lots of practical effects don’t hurt. Did I mention how great the soundtrack to this film is? When you add up the numbers, there’s just too much to like here to let the flaws overshadow what the film does well. This is the best and most entertaining low/no-budget film I’ve seen since Mold! and I hope Bolduc and Nelson use it as a springboard to move on to bigger projects.

7/10 = Worth checking out

Friday, November 18, 2011

REVIEW: The Wild Hunt (2009)

Setting a boring story about a boring romance inside a giant LARP game doesn’t make it any less boring. Despite the intriguing concept, I just couldn’t get involved in the core storyline of The Wild Hunt, and by the time things picked up in the last act it was too late. I was so uninterested in the characters that by then that even transitioning from fake violence with foam swords to real head-crushing couldn’t make me care.

The movie opens with Erik (Ricky Mabe) being sad about his girlfriend Lyn (Tiio Horn), who sort-of breaks up with him and then promptly runs off to the woods to LARP and play courtesean to a “barbarian lord.” Why do we care? That’s a good question - one that I never figured out. As far as I can tell, it’s because we’re supposed to relate to how moody and whiny they are and how pensive poor Erik looks as he watches traffic go by. When he heads into the woods to retrieve her, he’s sucked into the game and forced into the middle of the conflict between several warring factions, including the Nordic warriors led by his brother, Bjorn (Mark Krupa).

It’s a well-constructed film, even if it lends a bit more drama to the LARPers at times than is necessary. It’s hard to discern whether it’s poking fun at the game or taking it seriously, and this makes for a few wild shifts in tone. But despite the interesting ancillary characters, the plot is hard to take seriously when it doesn’t seem like it takes itself seriously for most of the film.

I can understand why this has gotten some attention - it’s generally well acted and takes some turns that are somewhat predictable but still have enough spin to make them interesting. It’s just a shame that there’s no backbone to the plot. Consistency isn’t necessarily key in filmmaking, but if you’re messing around with such drastic tonal shifts, you’d better make sure you’re doing it deliberately, or else you’re preventing your audience from investing anything in your story. I’d recommend the far more interesting documentary Darkon if you’re intrigued by the LARPing and want characters who are more fully drawn (since they’re real).

3.5 / 10 = Skip it

CAPSULE REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

How do you break free from the shadows of vintage Schwarzenegger? Is it even worth trying? The answer is yes, my friends. The way it’s accomplished is to go back to kick-ass source material and adapt it as faithfully as possible. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t follow the books exactly, but it has the same spirit as the pulp stories did. There are maybe two scenes in this film that aren’t action sequences, and the battles are bloody, quick, and varied enough to keep you from being bored. Jason Momoa might as well be the real-life version of Conan, in looks and in attitude, and in retrospect he carries the role with a savagery and slight cockiness that fits the character better than Arnold did (however blasphemous it sounds). On the downside, Rose McGowan still can’t act, but thankfully she’s just the auxillary villian to Stephen Lang’s frothing-at-the-mouth portrayal of would-be wizard Khalar Zym. The film is beautiful, and the landscapes look like they were lifted out of a Frazetta painting. The more I think about this film, the more I like it, so here’s hoping it a sequel gets green-lighted. As a side note, I saw this in 3D (I had a groupon - no way in hell I would pay full price) and it added nothing except slight blurriness. This rates slightly low on my rating scale (more on that sometime maybe), but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

6/10 = Worth checking out

Thursday, November 17, 2011

CAPSULE REVIEW: The Visitor (1979)

What on earth were the filmmakers responsible for The Visitor thinking? Most of the time it seems like they were going for a straightforward telekinetic evil kid movie, and if it wasn’t for the intermittent exposition, you’d probably just fill in the gaps on your own and call it a day. Instead, thanks to the extended cut 35mm print unearthed by the guys at Cinema Overdrive, we get an opening scene where a soft-focus hippie space-alien Jesus tells a story about an evil being named “Sateen” to a bunch of bald kids… There’s a lot to like in the next hour and a half, including the surprisingly effective performance of the young Paige Conner, whose intermittent Southern drawl adds just enough creepiness to her lines at just the right time. You also get exploding basketballs, flocks of angry birds, Lance Henrickson (better known as Bishop from Aliens), a couple of moments of absurdly sped-up car crashes and ice-rink carnage, and a surreal cameo by Sam Peckinpah in which he’s entirely dubbed and not at all sober. The Italians tend to be good at throwing traditional narrative logic out the window, but unfortunately this one is never quite able to establish a coherent mood. Despite director Giulio Paradisi’s tangential connection to Fellini (he was a bit actor in 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita), none of the master’s technique seemed to stick. The Visitor is worth seeing for its surreal and unsettlingly assembled scare scenes, and is a pretty fun and unpredictable supernatural horror flick.

6 / 10 = Check it out

Thanks again to Cinema Overdrive for presenting this theatrically.

MA$$ACRE: Super 8 (2011)

There was so much talk way back when about Super 8 being nothing but empty nostalgia and to some extent it uses your memories of old Amblin features, but thankfully not in the soulless way that the awful 80s-franchise reboots tend to do. Rather, it seeks to evoke memories and a period in childhood where you’re right on the cusp of adolescence, a long summer stretches ahead of you, and you have nothing to do but kick around your small town with a group of friends.

Joe (Joel Courtney) is a kid who lost his mother in a steel mill accident a few months ago and is left more or less to his own devices while his police officer father works himself to the bone as a distraction. Joe and his friends are by far the strongest aspect of Super 8 - they do a great job of acting like kids without overacting, and remaining likable despite their near constant bickering as they work (futilely it sometimes seems) to complete a short film for entry into a contest. The band of slightly roguish kids was also the main ingredient in other 80’s kids adventure movies, such as The Goonies, and Abrams is able to recreate it well.

But this is an action/adventure movie, so we need some action thrown into the mix, and here it comes in the form of an enormous train crash from which something escapes and sparks all sorts of odd things in the sleepy Ohio town. The only thing is, after this initial encounter between the kids and the creature, their stories diverge until the last act. Maybe this is a good thing, since it means we get to continue to watch Joe and his friends struggle to get their movie made amidst an increasingly threatening military presence in the town. When the creature does appear, we’re teased by jump cuts and huge roars, but never see much of it or get too much of a feel for what it’s up to.

The action does let loose in the final act, but the real reason I wanted to see this monster taken care of was so that it’d stop interrupting the far more interesting story of Joe and his friends. Although it seems like the kids might come into contact with it and uncover its secrets, they never really encounter it firsthand. There’s a little too much telling going on, where there should be some showing. About 2/3rds of the way through the film we’re told why we should empathize with the monster, but since we’ve never seen it… how can we?

Super 8 shows Abrams still trying to come into his own as a director, which, honestly, he’s had quite a while to do. Here, as in his Star Trek reboot, he’s shown that he’s able to recreate popular sci-fi stories adequately without really adding anything to them. (Exception: lens flares, which for some reason are still all over the place in Super 8, although less so than in Star Trek thank god.) Abrams talks about how much of a fan he is, and it certainly seems like he loves sci-fi from the jobs he chooses to take, but he hasn’t done much but mimic so far. I’d love to see something original from him, but for now, I’ll turn my brain off and take Super 8 for what it is - a slightly above average kids’ action flick.

6/10 = Worth seeing theatrically… for $2

REVIEW: The Woman (2011)

Even though I saw Lucky McKee's The Woman a while ago, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it. It definitely subverted the expectations I had for it, which were undoubtedly influenced by the news of walkouts (excuse me, “runouts”) and audience members becoming sick in the aisles at recent fest screenings. Setting the hype to the side, it's still a pretty uncomfortable film to watch, although not always for the reasons you anticipate.

The Woman is supposedly a loose sequel to 2009's Offspring – an intermittently fun and consistently stupid film about a pack of wild cannibals running loose on the pacific coast. I'm not even sure why the connection to The Woman needs to be drawn though. Aside from sharing the concept of a feral woman, the two have nothing in common in terms of structure, tone, or even intent. The Woman focuses on what appears to be a typical upper-middle class suburban family who is mildly shocked (although not as much as you’d think) when Dad goes hunting and brings back a grime-covered woman he’s found wandering around. Dad has a great and generous plan to teach her how to be civilized, and the whole family will have to chip in to help in order for this ambitious plan to work.

It’s an interesting premise, but I’m going to have to spoil most of the film in order to discuss it, so be warned.

The suggestion in the first half of the film (and by nearly all of the press material) that there's going to be a profound message about civilized society versus nature turns out to be just a ruse. The hints that Dad is a misogynistic psychopath holding his family emotionally captive are present all along, but they're integrated into the context of the film as a social satire. Once it's revealed that he is in fact crazy, his family's acceptance of the bizarre notion that this Woman is going to be held captive in their storm shelter suddenly makes sense. He's forced them into a domestic autocracy where no decision of his is questioned without swift physical punishment. But it's a far less interesting truth than is hinted at during the setup of the film, and it undercuts your ability to read anything meaningful into the film. It's a clever bait-and-switch though, especially because it seems to hint that McKee is throwing up a giant middle finger at anyone looking to distill any profound meaning from the film. Still, the true story is less interesting than the one you're expecting, and if not for the clever lead-up into it, we'd be watching something that retreads old ground.

Compare The Woman to the rape/revenge flicks of the past - it's reasonably similar in structure, and the thing that it truly has in common is that there's such a high sleaze-factor that isn’t often incorporated into modern films. A lot of old rape/revenge films are really unpalatable – especially now, when we're all entering the theater hyper-aware of political correctness. Such films are routinely picked apart looking for subtexts, and you've got to wonder if that's the only way that audiences today can stand to view them. Examining such a film under the lens of female empowerment makes it somewhat more tolerable, yes, but does it change the core concept of the film? Does the ten-minute long rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave become shorter depending on how you interpret it?

The Woman seems to be aware of how audiences are going to read it and sets up all its pieces in such a way that you're guided along until the final act of the film when the rug is pulled out from underneath you. No, we're not watching an allegory here – this is a very straightforward story about a sick man, made seemingly more tolerable initially by the way it's presented. Viewing a monster as a metaphor lessens the reality of its deeds, but once this safe interpretation is destroyed, the truth becomes all the more harder to bear. Following the big reveal, McKee really kicks things into overdrive. The gore is never watered down at any point in the film, but it's turned up several notches in the end. Once the cards are all on the table, the blood flows as freely as the film is finally liberated to roll around in its exploitative filth.

And in a way, I commend McKee for not being afraid to eventually cast off all the postmodern trappings and give us sleaze for the sake of sleaze. The trend of introducing a slight amount of satire into horror has always bothered me a little bit, since it seems to suggest that horror films aren't able to be appreciated on their own merit unless we're simultaneously laughing at their shortcomings. McKee is fully aware of the “rules” of the genre, but then uses them to subvert and shock rather than poke fun.  This is why I suspect the film is getting such violent reactions – because those viewers who would normally be gone at the drop of a hat go in hoping for some intellectual stimulation, and are tricked into watching a film that presents vileness free from context.

The downside is that the true film is essentially old ground re-tread. In order to prime you to read the film the way he wants, McKee introduces a number of elements which weaken it. It's somewhat difficult to reconcile the day-glo suburban atmosphere with the torrid abuse going on within the home, and it also gives the film an air of a made-for-TV teen drama. The inclusion of a relatively upbeat alt-rock soundtrack just strengthens that feeling. It may be that these choices were made to try and induce a little bit of ironic levity to the dark material we're being shown, but they don't always click.

I'd have to watch the film again to see how these thoughts hold up, and I'm not anxious to do that for a while. This film will undoubtedly be labeled torture porn and dismissed by many because of it, but the fact that I'm still thinking about it days afterwards speaks to its strengths. While it's not the most consistent film, I'm inclined to believe that quite a bit of thought was put into it. This makes it worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for an alternative to the popcorn gore of some recent (unnamed) horror franchises, and like your horror filled with the grit, nastiness, and downright mean-spiritedness that the best exploitation films of yesterday adopted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CAPSULE REVIEW: Aftermath (1994)

Aftermath is proof that gore alone can’t sustain a movie, even if it’s only 30 minutes long. Don’t get me wrong - I love some good splatter, but even if it’s technically polished as hell, watching a pathologist mutilate and rape a corpse just isn’t the kind of thing that in and of itself can sustain interest for me. If Nacho Cerdà was just trying to show off his skill at creating realistic gore effects (as long as you ignore the fact that corpses don’t bleed) and establishing a really grim atmosphere, then I guess he’s succeeded. I actually am interested in seeing how his first feature (2006’s The Abandoned) turned out, and hope that Cerdà managed to throw some susbstance in with his style.

Aftermath is available on Netflix Instant.

3/10 = Skip it

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

REVIEW: Darkon (2006)

I remember when it wasn’t cool to be a geek. I don’t know what changed since ninth grade - whether it’s the sheer ubiquity of technology these days, or the fact that video games have introduced sci-fi and fantasy tropes into a new generation that’s accepted them as the norm. Maybe it’s just my adult self ceasing to give a shit about how things I like are perceived by a general audience. Still, while we might live in a golden age of geekdom, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t outsiders subject to ridicule.

Enter LARPing (Live-Action Role-Playing), in which grown men and women dress in fare more suited to the local renaissance festival and run around soccer fields beating each other with foam swords. To the uninitiated it looks ridiculous, but to those involved it’s as serious an undertaking as any. Darkon explores the world of LARPing by following a number of enthusiasts through their in-game conquests as well as the more mundane aspects of their everyday lives.

I was apprehensive going into this film, half-expecting an incredulous outsider’s look into a bizarre subculture with the take-away message of “can you believe these people?” But Darkon doesn’t ridicule its subjects, and lets them speak for themselves, whether it’s on their in-game characters, the political machinations that make up the story of the game, or what they do when they aren’t slaying foes. Still, the unspoken question that runs throughout the interviews is: Why do this? What’s the appeal of a grown-up game of ‘let’s pretend?’ Anyone who’s roleplayed doesn’t need an answer to this; it’s fun, and that’s all that matters. It seems like the filmmakers weren’t content with this though, and often they dig into the personal insecurities of the subjects, superimposing their inadequacies in real life against their in-game victories and aspirations. I wonder just how much questioning had to happen before some of the answers that appear in the documentary were elucidated.

The subjects are interesting and likable people though, and the dedication they put into weaving their in-game stories reveals a passion that would be entertaining to watch regardless of the pursuit it was poured into. This eventually lends the footage of the game a weight that it lacks when it’s shown out of context in the beginning. And this is what LARPing is all about – not the act of hitting things with fake weapons, but the clash of personalities and the communal telling of a story. The dramatic music and crane shots near the climactic battle almost cheapen it in a way. There’s enough tension in the story without these pseudo-Hollywood effects.

What it comes down to in the end is that real life can be boring, and most people find a way to make it less so. These people don’t deserve scorn - if anything they should be applauded for creating a story so extensive and immersive.

7.5/10 = Worth your time

Darkon is available to watch via Netflix Instant.

CAPSULE REVIEW: Kaboom (2010)

I just can't decide whether I should love or hate Gregg Araki. I thought The Doom Generation was one of the most vapid examples of style over substance and mid-nineties nihilism ever put to celluloid, while Mysterious Skin managed to handle an incredibly difficult subject (the aftermath of child abuse) with unparalleled deftness and emotional depth. Kaboom is somewhere in between. Focusing on Smith (Thomas Dekker), a sexually fluid college freshman, it might be mistaken for a corny day-glo television high-school drama with unusually strong performances, if that show was somehow blended with soft-core porn and moments of dread-filled apocalyptic Lynchian conspiracy. Sound like a mess? It is, but that doesn’t stop it from being genuinely entertaining for most of its length. The ending trainwrecks though, and feels thrown together without any regard for plot resolution or the fact that we’ve just waited eighty minutes for an explanation. Still, you can tell Araki had fun making this, and it’s worth checking out if you’re willing just go with it.

6/10 = Worth checking out

Monday, November 14, 2011

REVIEW: Stake Land (2010)

In the spectrum of post-apocalyptic road movies, Stake Land can’t decide whether it wants to fall on the side of the old-school monster-killing, badassery, or the more somber, character-driven style that seems to have been rekindled by The Road. One the one hand, we’ve got Mister (Nick Damici), the kind of efficient moustache-totin’ vampire-staking machine you’d want on your side if the apocalypse did roll around, but then we’re also given Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenage kid of indeterminate age whose contemplative voice-over frequently pushes the tone into the sentimental. The resulting film handles both styles reasonably well, but the constant tension between the two means neither really develops as much as it could.

Despite the numerous scenes of vampire-killing carnage, the father-son dynamic is what wins over and ends up driving the story. The film is set some time after the emergence of zombies, er, I mean vampires, causes society to collapse and general chaos to ensure. Martin meets Mister the day his parents are killed in a vampire attack, and the two hit the road in search of New Eden, a Canadian town rumored to host a sanctuary from the undead. Just to keep things interesting, there’s also a fanatic Christian cult thrown into the mix. My biggest issue with the story is that it doesn’t break any new ground. While it does an okay job of driving the story forward, every scene feels as if it’s been played out before, and every character falls neatly into a standard archetype.

Still, this is a very good-looking apocalypse, and the believability of the sets, costumes, and general feel of the film is extremely convincing. Some of the best parts of Stake Land are its depictions of a destroyed rural American countryside with vast stretches of fields and forests broken up only by run-down shantytowns. There are also some truly intense action scenes (ever seen vampires dropped out of helicopters as weapons?), although there are an equal amount that unfold unremarkably.

It’s a shame the monsters of this world aren’t as nice-looking as the scenery. The vampires are believable when they’re simply bruised people with fangs, but other times the makeup and prosthetics are slathered on so thick it looks ridiculous. Also, they shout in that annoying guttural roar that no human throat can produce - the one that for some reason seems slapped into every single horror movie where someone transforms into a monster. The cult members are similarly over-the-top, and I’d be okay with this (insane cults are one of the best things about PA films), except that it’s incongruous with the serious tone the rest of the movie tries to establish.

I might be overly critical of Stake Land, but only because I saw such potential in it. It’s a shame that the filmmakers settled for re-treading old ground, and I truly think that had they put a little more time into the development of their script as opposed to the look of the film, they could have achieved something memorable. Instead, we’ll have to settle for another polished post-apocalyptic re-hash.

7/10 = Worth checking out

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

[Transmission Resuming]

Welcome, and thanks for tuning in. I'm now on air and ready for broadcast.

Dollar Theater Massacre! is my new place to talk about movies I see. The name comes from the fact that I live within walking distance from a second-run theater whose price of admission is low enough to pay for with the change I find in my couch. Despite the sleaze factor, this place is home to some really fond memories, and it gives me a chance to see films theatrically that I'd otherwise skip. If they're good, they're extra good because they're cheap. If they're bad, I get full bitching rights without paying an exorbitant amount. I may not be able to review stuff before it gets a wide release, but let my suffering inform your video rental decisions.

I'm also into horror / cult / exploitation flicks. Recently, in an attempt to reduce my cinematic ignorance, am working my way through the classics.

Give me a shout if you like similar stuff - I'd love to follow some other blogs. In the meantime, happy viewing.