Monday, June 29, 2009

Amblin' (1968)--3/5 & Xenogenesis (1978)--3/5

Think about the contexts of "Amblin'" and "Xenogenesis." Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, respectively, are hungry young filmmakers, scrambling for any opportunity to put a vision onto film. They had no idea that people would be picking these films apart thirty or forty years later, finding the seeds of later wild success.

It's easier to see Cameron's narrow obsessions in "Xenogenesis." To stretch his budget, he posits the short as a small chapter in a world-spanning space saga. Cheesy paintings describe other installments. Cameron would do the same with "The Terminator." The series may seem completely played out now, but it's been feeding off of the expansive back story of the first (independent and Hail Mary) film for twenty-five years. The short sequences of Kyle Reese in the Future War are exciting and colored beyond the edges of the film.

"Xenogenesis" has simple sci-fi beats for Cameron to drape his mastery of stop-motion and film-layering. The heroic Raj is out on a mission "to deliver humanity from the final cataclysm" when he encounters a giant cleaning droid. This droid has the same treads and proportions as the Hunter-Killers from the Terminator series. Just as he's about to get "swept away" by the droid, his partner appears in a spidery walking machine. She fights the droid in a scene that would later be refurbished as the climax of Cameron's masterpiece, "Aliens."

Even at this early stage, Cameron is a master at creating insane special effects using any budget or technique. Each shot in "Xenogenesis" works towards a functioning, other world. This is not an easy thing to do when a close-up on an actual set cuts to a wide shot of an immense room cuts to a stop-motion shot of two robots battling cuts to...

You can watch "Xenogenesis" online.

Steven Spielberg's twenty-five minute "Amblin'" doesn't point as succinctly to the director's future. He's been a little harder to pin down than Cameron. But he's still distinctly himself. "Spielbergian" is heard almost as much as "Lynchian." Maybe what "Amblin'" does illustrate is Spielberg's skill of shorthand characterization and his subtle experimentation.

"Amblin'" has a simple story of two hippie drifters, one good-looking guy and one good-looking girl. It's mostly silent, with a soundtrack suggesting an AM Gold version of Fairport Convention with less singing. In other words, it's kind of icky. The film becomes a clever interplay between emotive personalities, not unlike a modern Pixar short.

Perhaps atoning for the threadbare nature of his story, Spielberg uses some overt techniques to keep attentions from waning. In a long shot, the young man is seen slightly distorted as he runs towards the camera. It zooms out, revealing the reflection of a car's rear-view mirror. Not necessary, but kind of fun. Later (or is it before, I forget), the two drifters smoke weed in a large drainpipe. They're seen in a striking silhouette, evoking "E.T.'s" classic shot of bikers in the moon. (This shot has been combined with the word "Amblin" as Spielberg's production logo.)

"Amblin'" ends with a prescient idea. The girl looks in the guy's guitar case as he swims in the beach. Finding a nice shirt and tie, she realizes that he's appropriated the hippie lifestyle as a fashion choice. He's just another future automaton, working for the man. I leave you to decide to whom Spielberg relates more.

"Weeds: Season Four" (2008)--2/5

Questions for "Weeds: Season Four:"

Why is Nancy trained to mule drugs over the border when the tunnel to the maternity store has been in progress for months or years?

Are "Weeds" writers "Friday Night Lights" fans? If so, they could maybe get away with calling the teenager-sleeps-with-precocious-neighbor-kids'-mom subplot an homage and not a total rip-off.

Why is Andy stuck at the border once Nancy drives away? It seems to take minutes to travel from the American store to the Mexican mechanic. And even if the border is far away from their home, he could walk a few miles and then call a cab. (Yes, even while stoned.)

Why is it so horrible that Nancy traverses the tunnel? It's not like she isn't going to find out what's happening: an armed Mexican guards the delivery of giant bricks of weed all day and night.

Where exactly is this tunnel? It only descends a few feet into the earth, yet it doesn't run through any storm sewers or gas pipes.

Why is Esteban so concerned with hiding his true identity to Nancy once she's seen his face? He's the mayor of Tijuana, a fact that is discovered with, ummm, no effort.

Cool--more Wacky Packages!

Confessions Of A Shopaholic (2009)--1/5

In this despicable husk of a movie, a superficial idiot (Isla Fisher) buys couture that Brüno wouldn't touch to the soundtrack of early-nineties club hits and her own Muffy Mouse voiceover. She writes barely incoherent columns comparing fashion with finances. Inexplicably, especially considering the states of the magazine, fashion, and money industries, she's a hit. Laura tells me there's a scene in "Confessions of a Shopaholic" in which the Dude (Hugh Dancy) opines on how intelligent she is. (I was on the phone for a good chunk of the film.) This is a disconnect akin to everyone saying how beautiful Maggie Gyllenhall is in "The Dark Knight." Or, if you're offended by that, it's like everyone saying how much Hilary Swank looks like Mia Kirshner in "The Black Dahlia." No matter how many times you tell the audience, it still isn't gonna be true. (I guess I'm a superficial idiot, too.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

El Norte (1983)--3/5

"El Norte" hinges on a single quick cut that comes seconds before the end. Enrique (David Villalpando) daydreams while digging a ditch with other day laborers. The spinning of the concrete drum turns into the spinning water wheel of his Guatemalan village. He's travelled 3,000 miles with his sister Rose (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), from Guatemala to LA. They had little in a land of little. Now they have little in a land of plenty.

"El Norte" could be the tale of Enrique or any one of his coworkers. It could take place in 1983 or now. Every faceless immigrant, hired or discarded without much thought, has their own story. Enrique and Rosa's may be one of the more tragic stories, but it's still unfortunately typical.

Director Gregory Nava takes a mostly matter-of-fact approach to the journey. This is a good thing, since "action" sequences, such as the sewer pipe rat attack, are incompetently filmed. The rat scene goes on and on while sequencing metronomically through the same three shots of fake-looking creatures.

Enrique and Rosa make it to el Norte. Enrique even lucks into a decent job waiting tables. Any success they have, though, is untenable. They don't even have to make mistakes. For Enrique, it's an anonymous call made to immigration. For Rosa, it's a refusal to go to the hospital for fear of deportation. "El Norte" is a sobering rebuttal to people's aspirations.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Valkyrie (2008)--4/5

"Valkyrie" is like "Titanic." We know how it's going to end. This doesn't make the ride any less entertaining. Or frustrating. I got so caught up in "Valkyrie" that I secretly hoped it would turn into a Harry Turtledove-style alternate history. Would Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) succeed in killing Hitler?

Stauffenberg is a man with many demons. His misgivings about Nazi policies are concretized after an Allied strafing in Tunisia. He loses his right hand, two fingers on his left hand, and his left eye. These perceived weaknesses only drive him harder into the resistance.

For a Brian Singer-directed Tom Cruise vehicle, "Valkyrie" is surprisingly heavy. Cruise gives one of his most complete performances. He's rarely slowed by his injuries. The few moments he even stops to ponder them--like when, sans eyepatch, he looks at himself in the mirror--are moving.

The moments I find overly dramatic and scripted in "Valkyrie" are faithful to actual events. Major General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) has some particularly purple lines about "doing the right thing." Many quotes of this type are directly attributed to the man. In the final scene, Lieutenant Haeften (Jamie Parker) runs into the path of the executioners' bullets, something he really did.

"Valkyrie" also stars Eddie Izzard--that's smart casting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Workingman's Death (2005)--4/5

Or, "People Really Live This Way."

It starts with a lone man digging for coal on a Ukrainian hill. Not a job anyone would want, but not the worst thing one could do. Soon after, a group of men discuss their job. They're in good spirits, despite the fact that they appear to be permanently tattooed from coal dust.

Suddenly, we're in an two-foot crevice with the men. Unable to stand for hours at a time, they hammer at fissures in the ceiling, causing small cave-ins. At the end of the day, they drag out a paltry haul. This is the first of five hellish jobs documented by Michael Glawogger in "Workingman's Death."

Things get worse. The second segment follows Indonesian sulfur miners climbing to the base of a mountain. They slam a long pole into the smoking ground and fill a contraption made of two baskets connected by a cane. This is the easy part. They then climb up the mountain for the rest of the day, carrying their two hundred pound loads. Tourists snap their pictures as they rush by.

Glawogger offers no narration and the jobs are illustrated as an aggregate of unembellished long shots. He still manages to find something like a lyrical beauty in the muck.

Glawogger visits an open Nigerian slaughtering pit, certainly one of the most Godforsaken places on the planet. After the cries of stuck goats and cows, the Pakistani oil-rig salvage yard is something of a reprieve.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The International (2009)--2/5

"The International" flits from Milan to NYC to Luxembourg to Istanbul for no good reason. It makes the mistake of thinking a MacGuffin is more important than the shenanigans created around it. In this case, the MacGuffin is a lazy conspiracy involving an international bank buying and selling arms. They want war-torn countries to have lots of debt with their bank. Jeez, remember the day when shady cabals wanted to destroy the sun?

The few scenes of shenanigans are also slackly conceived. The bank will stop at nothing, leading to a by-the-numbers shootout between Clive Owen and about two hundred bad guys that destroys the Guggenheim Museum. As a pointless desecration, this is up there with Rome letting the makers of "Jumper" film a noxious action sequence inside the Colosseum.

Super Troopers - Shenanigans

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friday The 13th (2009)--2/5

The title of this movie means nothing. "Friday the 13th" isn't a remake of the first film. Jason, not his mother, is the killer for ninety-five percent of the film. It truthfully is "Friday the 13th: Part XII." (If "Freddy Vs. Jason" counts.)

Normally, any description of character motivation in a "Friday the 13th" film would be beside the point. All you need to know is that some kids go into the woods and are creatively hacked to death. One (or two?) make it through to the end. This latest "Friday the 13th" has a slightly interesting twist in the person of Whitney (Amanda Righetti). In a long preface, she's captured by Jason, who sees her as his dead mother. Six weeks later, Clay (Jared Padalecki, who's been spending his time pumping iron since "Gilmore Girls" went off the air) is investigating her disappearance. You can tell he's a "rebel," or whatever, from his vintage motorcycle.

Whitney and Clay's escape through Jason's surprisingly well-engineered underground complex is a rare scary scene. Horror filmmakers take note: we care about the characters.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pretty In Pink (1986) & Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987)

One night in "He's Just Not That Into You," Ginnifer Goodwin watches "Some Kind of Wonderful." The next day, she corners her coworker. "I'm Keith and he's Watts." "But Watts is a girl in that movie." (These aren't direct quotes, but you get the idea.) Why can't they just talk about "Pretty In Pink," which has the same plot, but with reversed genders? This is nothing new; everyone who's seen both "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Pretty In Pink" knows the similarities. I'm bringing it up as an introduction to a showdown of the two films.

Andie (Molly Ringwald) vs. Keith (Eric Stoltz)

Advantage: Keith (Some Kind of Wonderful)

Andie is defined as a poor semi-outcast in "Pretty In Pink," yet she owns a refurbished classic car, her own phone line, and an answering machine--in the eighties. Keith works after school at a service station. (Nobody else seems to work there.) He also has a passion for art. Oil and paint are often artistically smudged on his face and clothes. He's still more authentically from "the wrong side of the tracks" than Andie.

Duckie (Jon Cryer) vs. Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson)

Advantage: Watts (Some Kind of Wonderful)

Duckie is pretty cool and we do feel bad for him. But he's a high school friend more like Ricky from "My So-Called Life," except not gay. Well, maybe a little gay. The point is, he's never truly in the running for Andie's love. Watts, on the other hand, is hot, stylish, funny, bad-ass. Her smooching scene with Keith is the highlight of the film. If Keith doesn't end up with her, there's no justice in the John Hughesiverse.

Blane (Andrew McCarthy) vs. Amanda (Lea Thompson)

Advantage: Neither

Blane and Amanda are both blander than Kashi cereal. As I type, I'm forgetting that Amanda even existed in the film. This category, then, tips toward "Some Kind of Wonderful" because Keith realizes the truth and runs down the street to Watts.

Winner: Some Kind of Wonderful. Sorry, Molly Ringwald fans.

For the record: Pretty in Pink--2/5 & Some Kind of Wonderful--3/5

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tell No One (2006)--1/5

Laura (before): Well, I hate Harlan Coben books and I hate French movies.* Let's watch it!

Harlan Coben pens yearly variations on the same sub-Dean Koontz theme. A normal person is confronted with some left-field revelations from the past. Tugging at the strands revs up the tension and mystery. A lengthy explanation towards the end make no logical sense while attempting to clear up events of the book.

In "Tell No One," Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) is sent an email linking to a security camera's feed. His wife, dead for eight years, is seen staring mournfully into the camera. It's a neat germ for a Hitchcockian story. Everything after this cannot be called "Hitchcockian."

Writer/director Guillame Canet tries for maybe an hour to transcend Coben's asinine story. A long chase scene, including a stretch across a busy highway, is at least watchable.

André Dussollier is the unfortunate actor charged with reading the endless lines of explanatory dialogue. The scene goes on for at least twenty minutes. Then, after a pause, an additional five minutes explains the twenty minutes.

Laura (after): It should be called "Tell No One...To Watch This Movie."

*She doesn't really hate all French movies, though we have seen some wretched ones together. "Cache" comes to mind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Open Hearts (2002)--3/5

What a terrible title for this otherwise acceptable film.

"Open Hearts" is filmed in the minmalist Danish "Dogme 95" style, with at least one bothersome exception. Cecilie (Sonja Richter) walks through town wearing headphones and listening to an annoying dentist's office song (think: the song "Dreams" from "Magnolia," but more insipid). The song follows the action through several cuts, indicating that it was recorded separately and added in post. Rule 2 of "Dogme" states, "The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa."

I guess I don't really care--I just don't think the song fits the character. The Dogme 95 regulations can be more trouble than they're worth. As something to aim for, they can help cut out waste in a film. Conversely, I'm often more fascinated by how a film has been made with the limitations than with the story.

"Open Hearts" finds the right balance. The most striking thing provided by Dogme 95 is an awareness of the time of day. Lighting has to be natural or already available on location. As a result, many scenes are lit by tall, clear windows. The actors have a luminous look that feeds their naturalistic acting.

Mads Mikkelson, the great villain from "Casino Royale" and great humanist from "After the Wedding," here portrays a third distinct character: slimy adulterer. It's almost a shame that "Open Hearts" ends up circling around him, since the other characters aren't as pathetic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Miracle At St. Anna (2008)--3/5

The World War II actioner can defeat an auteur, but it's still a rite of passage. Steven Spielberg succeeded with "Saving Private Ryan," but he's been making WWII pictures of a sort throughout his career. John Woo tried to dampen his more delirious impulses with "Windtalkers," embalming the action. Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" has yet to be seen outside of Cannes, but it looks to be "Kill Bill: Poland." Take that as you will.

Spike Lee's "Miracle At St. Anna" is an enhancement of the director's strengths and weaknesses. Two battles bookend the film--the first sprawling and the last in close quarters. Lee is out of his element on the first battlefield. We don't know any of the characters yet and Lee is obsessed with cutting to a Nazi studio broadcasting propaganda to the Buffalo Soldiers.

The later fight, in the serpentine streets of a small Italian town, quiets earlier criticism. A lot of things are improved; I wonder if it was filmed late in the shoot, after Spike Lee found a new vocabulary.

The story gets away from Lee at times. He wants to comment on too much, leading to long scenes away from the four soldiers: Stamps, Cummings, Negron, and Train.

It's in the fears and prejudices of these black soldiers that Lee finds his muse. A flashback in the center of "Miracle At St. Anna" is the film's Rosetta Stone. The soldiers, proud to be in uniform and serving the country, are turned away at gunpoint from a Southern eatery. The owner will serve Nazi POW's but not African-American soldiers. Throughout the film, they wonder what exactly they're fighting for. "Miracle at St. Anna" answers them once in a while.

Does Woody Allen have a WWII film?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Surfwise (2007)--3/5

Annette and Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz have nine children. Eight boys and one girl. For their entire childhoods, they traveled from one coast to the other in a half-sized RV.

Eleven people. In an RV. His children are a little bitter today, what with their lack of education. They sure can surf, though. The Stanford-educated Doc believes that surfing is the cornerstone of human health and education.

"Surfwise" is amusing because it's a ninety-minute documentary about eleven people. The Paskowitz kids are labeled "#1," "#2," and so on. None of them get much screen time, which is a shame, since they all seem interesting. Maybe that's a strength of the film; intriguing facts seem more so because they briefly tantalize.

For example, two of the sons (#5 and #7? I have no idea) were in a band in the late nineties that had a hit song. They were The Flys and the song was "Got You (Where I Want You)." Wait a second, these Bohemian surfers cracked the Top 40? Other careers taken up by the family: comic book/surf logo illustrator, model, surfing champion, screenwriter, stuntman...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)--3/5

Leonardo DiCaprio is a perfect casting choice as Frank Wheeler, arrested man-child of "Revolutionary Road." He looks like he's grown two years to Kate Winslet's actual ten in the years since "Titanic." (And Kathy Bates is in this one as well.) Leo is thirty-four. Frank turns thirty in the movie and it's still hard to believe.

Central to "Revolutionary Road" is the idea of being trapped--in the suburbs, in a family, in a job, in the fifties. No solution is better than another. April Wheeler (Winslet) wants the family to emigrate to Paris. Frank goes along with the plan because he hates his job. But does he hate it enough to turn down a healthy raise to do the same bullshit? When telling their friends, they might as well be saying they're traveling to Titan without spacesuits. "How will you make money?" "Your wife will support you?"

Once this central conflict is finally resolved, the air goes out of "Revolutionary Road" a bit. Conflicts are mundane without the dynamic tension of whether they'll affect Frank and April's plans. Though for the most part, "Revolutionary Road" is cannily melodramatic and may strike close to home for a lot of people.

This Japanese poster makes "Revolutionary Road" look like a Beverly Lewis novel.

[Beavis laugh]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

AVQ&A: Pop-Culture Relic Quotes

Taken from The Onion AV Club's weekly feature.

"What bit of pop-cultural ephemera still sticks in your own personal quote machine that few people get?"

I immediately thought of the commercial for crappy-looking board game "Splat." A claymation bug with an exasperated New Yorker accent, gets smushed by a giant hand. "I hate when that happens," he says. "But we love it!," responds a roomful of excited children.

For the last nineteen years, whenever someone has said "I hate when that happens" or one out of every ten times I've done something dumb, these lines have run through my head. Often, I'll say them out loud.

Until yesterday, I had forgotten the name of the game and the commercial's jingle. Thanks to Jo Pulcini's incredible Google skills, it's all come back to me now. If you ever watched the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Super Mario Bros. Super Show" block on WUAB Channel 43 Kids' Club, you've already seen this ad twelve thousand times.

Martyrs (2008)--2/5

Don't watch this movie. "Martyrs" is a nasty French horror flick that, in measured pain and suffering, outruns "Hostel" by a few hundred kilometres.

Fifteen years after escaping a bizarre captivity, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is convinced that she has found, in a random newspaper photo, the couple responsible. They have two kids and live what appears to be a normal suburban life. Anna (Morjana Alaoui), Lucie's friend from the group home, is not convinced. The photo is blurry and Lucie's memory may not be reliable. Nevertheless, Anna is an accomplice. She arrives after Lucie to find the family killed. Lucie takes her own life soon after. This happens in the first, um, thirty minutes of "Martyrs." Anna, the new focus of the film, discovers a hidden metal stairway in the house, behind a cupboard.

The rapid, yet logical, twists of "Martyrs" give the film an authentic creepiness. Anna's journey down the stairs, what she finds there? One of the scariest scenes I've ever watched. I'll give "Martyrs" that much.

Those who made "Martyrs" can probably tell you why their film is more worthwhile than other extreme horror films. How the violence is meta or existential. This is most apparent in the third act of the film. It's an austere series of transcendentally painful blackout scenes that somehow combines Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." All good things, for sure. What are they doing in this movie? The DNA of "Martyrs" is always going to be sick--a murdered family, a man beating a woman unconscious, and worse. In a movie like this, you can't take this stuff seriously.

(I couldn't find any suitable pictures from "Martyrs.")

Thursday, June 11, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)--3/5

I'm being a little generous here. "He's Just Not That Into You" is a romantic comedy based on a non-fiction book based on a line (lines? a whole episode?) from "Sex and the City." Additionally, it's a film in the five-plots-are-better-than-one style of "Love Actually." Yikes.

Alex's (Justin Long) dialogue seems to be taken verbatim from the book. He exists only to explain to Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) why men aren't into her. Big surprise: he falls for her. Non-sarcastic surprise: it's kind of sweet.

In wrapping up all but one of its stories with a happy couple, "He's Just Not That Into You" may be a pleasant, inoffensive experience, but it argues against the book's logic. Gigi is told that she's the "exception" when earlier in the movie her friends assure her that there are no exceptions. That friend of a friend who got a call weeks later from a guy? That never happened. Except it does for Gigi. And the guy who's just not that into you because he won't marry you (Ben Affleck, of course)? Just give him time and make him miserable--he'll cave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jon & Kate

Can Troy Patterson's Slate article be the final word on these guys?

"She is a moaning 34-year-old harpy with highlights as wide as mountain-bike tires sporting an asymmetrical haircut suggestive of a wounded stork. He is a sullen 32-year-old layabout whose skate-punk sideburns and gelled forelocks signal boring bad news."

Terminator Salvation (2009)--2/5

John Connor has been saved now in four features, one television series, and one 3D "experience." I ask: why is John Connor so great? He's like the baby in a "Roger Rabbit" short--leave him alone for a nanosecond and he's falling twelve stories to his death. He's never done anything particularly amazing for the resistance. The only reason John even succeeds at blowing up one (of many; there will be sequels) Skynet base in "Terminator: Salvation" is because he's trying to save Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teenager who grows up to travel back in time to be his father in the eighties.

The resistance fighters have a choice of who lives at the end of the film: John Connor, accident-prone mortal and possible future leader; or Marcus Wright, nearly indestructible half-Terminator, half-human who's working against his creators. Marcus has already proven that a "Terminator" movie can be carried without Connor; he steals the show by starring in the substantial action scenes.

Each "Terminator" film has a twist that calls into question the original cause of events. As mentioned, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor. Later, Skynet is created using the smushed T-800 from the first film and Judgment Day ends the third film, despite everyone's best efforts to stop it. Removing John Connor from this infinite loop would be a much needed restart to the creaky series. And it would support the series cockeyed approach to fate.

After the repeat of Arnold's *good* T2 Terminator in T3, it's nice to see him back as the mute villain. Never mind that his digitally-created face is quickly burned away because of the cost of the computer effects involved.

"Terminator Salvation" has some other issues. Star (one-named actor Jadagrace) is a little girl following Reese who, despite being mute, is still more annoying than Jar-Jar Binks. She exists in the film only to dispense the exact item that's needed (Band-Aid, flare, detonator) at a given time. These reveals are played for laughs. I just want to yell at the screen like Gordon Ramsay: "Useless!"

Also, "Salvation" is finally a Terminator film set in the future, something that's been hinted about throughout the series. I know it's a callback to the history of the series, but couldn't the writers think of a climactic setting more original than yet another steel-smelting plant?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nightbreed (1990)--2/5

While watching "Nightbreed," I kept thinking of how I was going to describe protagonist Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer). This is what I came up with: He looks like the Buffyverse's Angel, if Angel were a bully in a John Cusack movie. As you can see, it was hard to pay attention to this film, Clive Barker's followup to "Hellraiser."

The Nightbreed creatures themselves, hatched from Barker's fertile mind and fashioned with a craftsmanship little-seen in today's digital effects-heavy films, are uniformly intriguing. And "The Scarecrow Movie Guide" claims that they all have deep backstories. But "Nightbreed" is the worst kind of fantasy: the heroes are given little to do but tag-team wrestle against an encroaching army of rednecks. (That's probably not "the worst kind of fantasy;" I like how the hyperbole sounds.)

David Cronenberg takes a rare bow in front of the camera in "Nightbreed" as Boone's unhinged psychologist. He made me wish I had watched one of his films instead.


...and Angel.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Drag Me To Hell (2009)--3/5

Did Sam Raimi really have to make three "Spider-Man" tent poles before he was allowed to make a new "Sam Raimi" movie? That doesn't seem right, especially in the case of the "Batman Forever"-emulating third installment.

Savor "Drag Me To Hell" now, since it's going to be another ten years--and another twelve subpar Marvel villains--before something similar comes along. Raimi's seasick approach to comic horror has no peer. "Drag Me To Hell," with the increasingly insane plagues set upon heroine Christine (Alison Lohman), is a spiritual successor to Raimi's classic "Evil Dead" cycle. The trials come about because Christine has the bad luck to get between an elderly Gypsy woman (familiar television actor Lorna Raver) and her home loan.

Whether it's a slog in a muddy grave or an epic battle in a compact car, Lohman is game for everything she's asked to do. She doesn't have quite the impeccable timing of "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell, but very few people do.

Playing a college professor, Justin Long's office is festooned with Apple products. Hilarious.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Defiance (2008)--2/5

Edward Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai") brings his lifelike diorama style now to the Holocaust. Specifically, "Defiance" tells the little-known story of Belorussian Jews surviving in the unforgiving forest. "Defiance" quickly draws a line between brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber). Tuvia, the eventual leader of the forest camp, is a stoic pacifist, while Zus believes in striking from the jungle as often and as viciously as possible.

In their situation, either approach is pretty much doomed. Stealing food alerts the Nazis to their presence and staying put leads to faster starvation. Since "Defiance" is billed as an exciting action movie, Zus's disposition easily wins out. Tuvia and company shoot their way out of the forest and then on to the next camp. Along the way, they're miraculously helped by Zus, who happens to be moving by at the right time.

Events are dangerously compressed in "Defiance." They're linked in a series that allows glimpses of true miserable destitution before whipping back to a more conventional world at war. The actors--including the leads--have been given one-phrase directions (stoic pacifist, wise teacher, rash whippersnapper, girl who looks like a runway model) and left for dead in front of the camera.

Shogun Assassin (1980)--3/5

It’s not difficult to imagine Quentin Tarantino watching “Shogun Assassin” for the twentieth time in preparation for filming “Kill Bill.” Almost every inventive evisceration or bloodletting in his movie has its genesis—or at least ultimate iteration—in Kenji Misumi and Robert Houston’s efficient original.

A little explanation is necessary: In 1980, Houston combined two Japanese films based on the long-lived “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga to make “Shogun Assassin.” Eleven minutes were culled from “Sword of Vengeance” and seventy from “Baby Cart at the River Styx” (what a title!). I wish I’d known this before watching “Shogun Assassin,” since the original films are available on DVD.

The basic setup has Ogami Ittō displeasing his paranoid master, the Shogun. Forever on the run, Ittō, now a “Lone Wolf,” encounters assassins at every crossroads, in every town, and on every boat. The story is episodic, without much to look forward to. The appeal lies in how Ittō uses the environment, his son, and his Swiss Army arsenal to dispatch the bad guys.

See, when Lone Wolf kills, he does it with style. And more often than not, Daiguro, his toddler son, is his accomplice. Lone Wolf’s duel with the Shogun’s own son sets the tone for what follows. As they run toward each other, Ittō bows at the last second, revealing Daiguro and his reflective crown. The blinded foe is easily decapitated. Spraying blood, the corpse drops in a striking, faked slow motion. (Ittō stands frozen in action during the shot.) Tarantino wishes he could be that cool.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)--2/5

A Segway is not as inherently funny as "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" thinks it is. "Arrested Development" got some laughs out of brother Gob's Segway, but that was more from the character's assumed superiority while riding it. Paul Blart isn't a funny guy; he's a comedic straight man without a partner.

It's no surprise that "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" finds short-lived success in the first major scene without Segway-riding. Blart accidentally drinks at an after-hours mall-worker party. He spouts increasingly obnoxious non-sequiters before jumping through a window. It says something for the rest of this unholy "Home Alone"/"Dawn of the Dead" hybrid that this is the winning scene.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Taken (2009)--1/5

Bryan Mills' (Liam Neeson) daughter Kim and her friend Amanda are kidnapped shortly after arriving in Paris. In the alternate universe of "Taken," this is commonplace. American girls are kidnapped and sold into slavery everyday; the news media is not interested in something so boring. Mills has no faith in the police and immediately flies to Europe to kick some Albanian butt. In doing so, he seals the fate of Amanda, killed by an overdose and quickly forgotten. But he does find his daughter! And he kills, tortures, or mutilates enough Albanian- and Arabic-speaking rent-a-baddies to satisfy those who think Jack Bauer is a model of restraint.

We know Mills is a retired butt-kicker from his friends' painful expository dialogue. We also find out that he's worried his daughter will be abducted in Europe. It's a good thing the exact thing he's completely prepared for happens!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics (2009)--3/5

When a "Bone" movie is finally made, "The Cartoonist" will be a welcome extra on the bonus disc. (This is, of course, if DVD's still exist that far in the future.) Mostly filmed during Jeff Smith's victory lap through the Wexner Center last year, the film concisely relates the genesis of "Bone." At the unbelievable age of five, Smith first conceived of the Bone archetype while doodling. Later inspired by Walt Kelly, Sparky Schultz, and the collection of Ohio State's Cartoon Research Library, he contributed daily strips to The Lantern.

Before beginning the epic "Bone" comics, Smith had a day job as a founder of Character Builders, a Columbus-based animation studio. In its most novel sequence, "The Cartoonist" unearths some primitive, little-seen commercials for White Castle, Time-Warner Cable, and other, smaller, companies.

The history of "Bone" has been told and told again. Smith has been asked the same questions so many times that he has a bank of sound bites--like the one about the childhood desire for a thousand-page Uncle Scrooge omnibus. Still, it's nice to have a feature companion to the Wexner Center's exhibit.

Emmanuelle (1974)--1/5

I've run into a problem, writing about everything I watch: I have to reveal that I Netflixed the infamous soft-core Eurotrash "Emmanuelle." It has a plot just as forced and banal as a standard porno, with an bonus layer of art-theater self-importance. (And without the porno--"love" scenes are shown not at all or through gauzy curtains! Just sayin'.)

Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel) couples with every attractive man or woman she meets (i.e. everyone she meets) and her clothing is less than optional. You can tell the filmmakers are trying to posit her stature as a daring feminist, throwing off the shackles of a patriarchal society. Like when she impulsively travels into the Thailand wilderness to consummate a passionate lesbian affair, leaving her husband to wallow in a dirty Bangkok stripclub. Eh, sorry. It's an impossible dream, this deeper meaning--leering men and a generally voyeuristic directorial style make sure of this.

"Emmanuelle" has more to answer to than just itself. Since it was a smash upon initial release, it's seen as a template for all successive soft-focus late night skin flicks. Zalman King and the creators of Skinemax have "Emmanuelle" to thank for their careers.

Thanks a lot.