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