Friday, December 31, 2010

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010) -- D+

Easy A misses the ultimate irony about itself (despite incessant smarmy and cutesy perceptions from all of its intolerable characters) - it too, is a lie, much like those perpetuated by the student body of a netherworld high school about Olive (Emma Stone), whose embellished (and fictional) recanting of a sexual encounter snowballs into her becoming the school slut. Catch is, she doesn't actually fuck the guys, she just claims to, receiving gift cards in exchange for a rep boost to fledgling fat asses, virgin geeks, and closeted homosexuals. All of this is meant to riff on Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (Olive brands a red A on her new skank attire), but the film is not interested in dealing with sincere issues of adolescent sexual angst or double standards, making none of it convincing in the slightest. Moreover, there's a mean-streak running throughout which heaves even more bitterness atop the already wavering mountain of contrivance and dishonesty, a solipsism that does not mark critique or satire, but negligent Hollywood bullshit. There's nary an endearing or enriched, emotionally evocative moment to be found amidst the chic posturing. Emma Stone absolves herself nicely, but the writing provides no room for human comedy, just cynicism masquerading as coming-of-age wisdom, another nail in the coffin for subsequent generations who may be persuaded by this form of social sickness.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) -- B

Following his overrated cop epic The Departed with Shutter Island makes sense for Martin Scorsese. Working (and muffing) a gangster genre piece, his new film, based on the bone-chilling novel by Dennis Lehane, hybridizes horror and film noir, allowing one of cinema’s greatest masters to make a distinctive new entry into his 40+ year filmography, while integrating various, seamless homages. Shutter Island lets Scorsese be at both work and play, simultaneously.

Boston, 1954. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives via ferry with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to a secluded mental asylum. The objective: find escapee Rachel Solando, one of the institution’s most dangerous patients. No one seems to know how she’s escaped. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains: “It’s as if she evaporated, straight through the walls.” Encountering potentially supernatural beings and confronting his own demons, Daniels’ sanity becomes the crux of the film’s focus.

In taking on a project set in the mid-1950’s, Scorsese affords himself the opportunity to rack his movie knowledge. The string and horn score is indicative of nearly any of Bernard Hermann’s greatest, most notably Psycho. Flashback scenes, set during World War II, clearly recall Sam Fuller’s great The Steel Helmet. Visual motifs signal reverence; a spiral staircase derives from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, one of Scorsese’s favorites. Even Kubrick’s The Shining gets a fabulous homage, especially in one of the film’s key scenes.

Thankfully, Scorsese does not let the references run amok. They are not impertinent to the story at hand, and certainly play runner-up to the gripping narrative, held tightly together by DiCaprio, in one of his good performances. He’s especially convincing here, featured in every scene, but maintaining a modesty that doesn’t make his presence tiring.

Shutter Island is a decidedly artistic effort, nowhere near the commercial vanilla that hurt the entertaining, but underwhelming The Departed. You’d have to go back eleven years and cite Bringing Out the Dead to find a truly comparable example from the director’s past films. There is rough material here, presented in a fairly abstract manner, especially in several flashbacks, the best sequences of whole piece. Familiarity with surrealism and expressionism will be required to understand precisely what Scorsese is getting at. The trailers depict fairly conventional horror tropes, but the actual film exorcizes much darker demons and it’s certain that many moviegoers may be turned off by this.

However, once the menacing music, DiCaprio’s vulnerable, but stern performance and the organic aura of despair set in, your blood runs cold. Regardless of being a bit flabby (at least two or three scenes could have been trimmed off) and having an over-explanatory ending, the grasp of Scorsese’s directorial hand grips squarely around the throat. He builds atmosphere, even at 67, like very few filmmakers are able to. Is it anywhere near as good as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or After Hours? Of course not. However, it’s one of his strongest from the past 20 years and impressively demonstrates that he is still capable of churning out top notch work.

She's Out of My League (Jim Field Smith, 2010) -- D+

Arriving post-Farrelly Brothers, post-Apatow, the new (by release date only) comedy She’s Out of My League attempts to combine moments of bodily fluid, crotch shot and man-grooming humor with a much sweeter side, showing that beneath the veneer of filth and cynicism its twenty-something characters blithely spew, lies more seasoned and mature adults, just coming to grips with their loss of adolescence. Problem is, nothing about either its characters or what they are saying constitutes anything that can’t be gleaned from countless other, better films. Or, for that matter, any college dorm across America. The discourse would inevitably be more astute.

Movies like this, not wanting to put forth any effort, depend on introducing character types, more easily establishing the fictitious (but real) world inhabited. Kirk (Jay Baruchel) has worked airport security with his buddies since he graduated from high school. His girlfriend recently dumped him, his friends and family make fun of him, he’s down on himself, etc.

What does a slightly awkward, down-on-his-luck guy need to turn his life around? According to She’s Out of My League, a hot (but nice, sweet) babe. Insert Molly (Alice Eve), the kind of woman that makes every man’s head turn. We know this because her intro is a slow-motion sequence, dance club music blasting, while each and every male (young, old, whatever) turns his head in confounded astonishment, relishing her beauty. Mouths fall agape, husbands get jabs in the sides from their wives – basically, the world stands still. Meeting her after a mix-up with her iPhone (so chic), Kirk’s living out the fantasy his friends say is impossible: He’s but a measly five, dating a ten.

A fundamental problem at the icky heart of She’s Out of My League is the utterly cut-and-paste viewpoint it takes on relationship mores and practices. Kirk’s friends talk like the scheming screenwriters who concocted them: all pizzazz, no veracity. Their dialogue works only as a type of vogue, blanketing the utter lack of connection with real world relationships.

Likewise, Molly and her pal Patty (Krysten Ritter) are allocated only enough screen time to keep the balance of power from completely toppling into the males favor. Why not a film from Molly’s point of view? Or, for that matter, how about a comedy where the woman is the five and the man is the ten? Unfortunately, Hollywood has a problem when it comes to such role reversals, so we’re stuck with yet another comedy pandering to its crowd, offering the underachieving male’s perspective.

Only, it isn’t any sort of discernibly honest perspective (how could it be when peddling easy gags about getting hit in the crotch with a hockey puck, a dog licking Kirk’s boxers after premature ejaculation or Kirk shaving his “man region,” a joke that was old when American Wedding did it back in 2003?). Nope, nothing too gut-bustingly funny about these old jokes and character types, thinly veiled and re-wrapped to try and squeeze every last ounce of comedy out of the already barren barrel.

Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink, 2010) -- C

About half way through Hot Tub Time Machine, a new comedy from director Steve Pink, it becomes quite clear that nothing’s ever going to take any congealed shape. Content to let its characters bounce back and forth from lame sight gag to mildly amusing repartee, the script witlessly hurls its four burnt out protagonists into a high concept plot, without much intention of ever building any sincere rooting interest.

After Lou (Rob Corddry) tries to kill himself following a drinking binge, his former best friends Adam (John Cusack) and Jacob (Craig Robinson) decide he needs a bit of nostalgia; a trip to the ski lodge which officially marked the best times of their lives over 25 years ago. Tagging along is Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), a chubby, smart-ass type, whose presence becomes wearying quickly. Perhaps not quite as quickly as Corddry’s pervasively foul-mouthed party monster, a character (a performance) unaware of anything approaching subtlety. Once there, boredom turns to euphoria when they discover a glowing hot tub, which, after a night of excessive drinking and nude male bonding (“Have you guys even seen Wild Hogs?”) they wake up miraculously, astonishingly 25 years in the past, at the very point in time their lives took a crucial turn for the worse.

It’s always fascinating in such high concept comedies when the film has so little wonder about the process that has landed its mishap characters in an incredibly uncanny position. Add this one to the list. In fact, the lack of interest in either the premise itself or the mounting of comedic momentum makes it all the more disappointing. Trying to cram far too much into its 100 minute runtime, the film would have been wise to cut a few characters (namely Jacob, a needless inclusion) and really immerse itself in examining the regret and pathos felt by its three main characters. That, and eliminating jokes about digging car keys out of a dog’s ass, a urine spewing catheter, and several overtly homophobic gags.

The only bright spot comes in a small role from Crispin Glover as a long time employee of the ski lodge. I won’t spoil the running gag; it at least gets to the more bizarre, yet dopily inspired type of humor which sadly is in short supply here. Cusack gives it a run, charming and as convincing as any actor could be in such a role. Robinson also has charm, but he’s given far too little to do, usually the recipient of one of several over-the-top and in poor taste gags involving Corddry. Ultimately, without any sense of comedic timing in editing or plot construction, the actors struggle to wrestle laughs, or even mild amusement from the chaotic proceedings.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer, 2010) -- D-

Samuel Bayer’s soporific “re-imagining” of A Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately amounts to this: several blobs of talking skin, bone, and flesh (I guess these are supposed to be human beings) tell each other about their difficulties sleeping. They’re scared for one another. We see it in the blank stares. Monotone line readings help too. “Don’t fall asleep” is the general theme. If you didn’t catch it during its first 50 utterances, it’s stated once more for good measure. Well wouldn’t you know it, somebody falls asleep, but they wake up, barely avoiding Freddy’s grasp. “Take some pills,” one character says. “They’ll keep you awake.” Too late. Already asleep. Then Freddy slits, stabs, scrapes, punctures, and kills, bloodying his rusty but trusty glove-knives-hand thing. Rinse and repeat.

So passes the glory of Wes Craven’s shockingly inventive 1984 original, which placed a group of handsome, sexy, but modest teenagers in some semblance of an actual American suburb, only to have their middle-class comfort wrecked by Fred Krueger, the return-of-the-repressed personified. In Bayer’s film, beautiful people in their mid-20’s replace that original “average” looking foursome, displacing any sense of vulnerable teens. The star of Craven’s original, Heather Langenkamp, was just 19 during production. Her role in the update is player by a dreadfully dull Rooney Mara, 24 during the shoot. The change makes a significant difference, especially since these characters are supposed to be a clan of high school seniors, but beauty seems to trump logic nowadays.

To exacerbate already dire circumstances, the script (or lack thereof) by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer contains nary an interesting sequence, scene, line, or moment. They aren’t interested in placing any effort whatsoever into meaningful character development, which would necessitate a conversation, at some point, not about trying to stay awake. If these teens had lives before Freddy, one wouldn’t know it from the film. So what’s at stake? Aside from blindly caring for a fellow (wo)man, they’re but ciphers, detached from any perceivable ethos.

Craven’s original keyed into middle class anxieties via the teens, who suffer the brunt of their parents actions. There is a true sense of shattered naïveté there, that violent actions, no matter how seemingly forgotten, linger in the unconscious of the transgressor, one day returning to haunt them. Freddy was a metaphor; a visually startling one, to be sure, but not the one-liner king a slew of dopey sequels turned him into.

At least the regrettable sequels opted for camp over solemnity. Played with an inept level of seriousness, this one’s too interested in being “a real film”, at least according to the perverted sensibilities passing as profound amongst the bulk of the MTV generation from whence Bayer comes. For instance, Freddy popped up in the original, scary for sure, but always within the film’s bounds. After killing one his victims in the new film, he gaily says: “You know, the brain still functions for up to seven minutes once the heart stops beating. We still have time to play.” In order to have a character speak such a depraved concept, a film’s got to earn it. There’s got to be something it’s getting at beneath the surface or using as irony. No irony here. The only thing on this film’s short-term mind is bad setup, kill. Bad setup, kill, seemingly ad infinitum. The fact that Jackie Earle Haley makes a passable substitute for Robert Englund is beside the point, especially once it’s clear the film has such flaccid, literal minded interests.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) -- D

After seeing Kick-Ass, it’s clear that director Matthew Vaughn is either the most droll satirist of our pop-culture times, or a façade of a satirist, intending to subvert and critique what have become comic book norms, but not having the cajones to carry out his mission. Claiming the former would be giving Vaughn far too much credit; it would assert seeming indulgence as poker-faced critique, an argument based solely on desire for such a result. Instead, what’s served up is less than half-baked, an incongruity of intentions, tones and misnomers. Satire, by nature, lambasts and critiques. Kick-Ass is unadulterated indulgence, carried forth with blithe disregard for its implications.

First off, let’s set the record straight: I have no inherent qualms with using an eleven year-old girl as an assassin, dismembering, maiming, and killing dozens of men. However, only when such a character has been put to proper use does it become excusable. Hit-Girl’s role in the film sort of epitomizes what’s wrong with it. Ideally, the character would be used to critique the violence she’s engaged in. Instead, Vaughn merely uses her character for titillation, mindlessly backing a climactic fight sequence with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Even the musical choice makes little sense as context. Rather than serving up irony as a means for off-setting extreme violence, Vaughn plays it up, hoping his viewer engages rather than detaches.

It’s a conspicuous lack of consistency for a film that earlier draws a parallel between superhero and serial killer. Lamenting his inaction, titular Kick-Ass deduces: “But like any serial killer, eventually fantasizing just doesn’t cut it any more.” It’s a pretty convoluted comparison, not the least bit subtle, but at least it’s an attempt at pop culture commentary, if a maladroit one.

Clearly, KA’s sensation on the internet as a knee-jerk fascination is meant as a comment on fickle moral sympathizing. Here’s a guy, a normal guy, who fights crime. Yet Vaughn fails to truly serve up any cohesive comment on how new age media enables the partaking of debased content. For instance: when KA’s friends watch as he and Big-Daddy are tortured and beaten, one of them gets a kiss from a previously platonic friend. Instead of being appalled or enraptured by the live broadcast of violence, their libidos still function. Now the time is ripe for a comment on sex and violence, how the two become intertwined when Faces of Death and hardcore porn are but a click apart. Vaughn, seemingly afraid to get his hands dirty, merely leaves it at that. Now, an argument could be made that as viewers, we’re supposed to revile at their actions, even though the film would have us believe they are meant as our identifiers. Certainly, several of the members in my audience identified, laughing at the character’s misplaced concerns. Anyone privy to such efforts, though, would be remiss to claim Vaughn acting as anything other than facilitator. Vaughn’s not a detractor of such practices. Apparently, he’s a fan.

Only a culture so pervasively disconnected from the real world atrocities committed against children could produce Kick-Ass as a piece of pop entertainment. How about the introductory scene of HG and BD, as their superhero belts conveniently abbreviate? Acclimating his young daughter to the unfortunate nuisance of getting shot in the chest while in the line of fire, the scene plays as a yuck, meant to inspire cackling rather than sobering realism. It immediately recalls the scene in Mateo Garrone’s Gomorrah, where young’uns are forced to take one in the chest to prove loyalty to the mob. In contrast, KA becomes a sick joke, or at least an ill-conceived one. Although, I might argue that Garrone’s film also used such imagery as an exploitation tool itself, but at least it’s driving for a significance that’s not even on KA’s radar. Every sequence of violence is meant to be relished, enjoyed, or engaged with. This isn’t inherently bad, but it seems sorely misplaced for a film that wants to reject comic-book lore. As a gutless exercise that merely adds to the laundry list of post-modern misfires, the content feels right at home.

Were this true satire, the characters, especially KA and his “have-to-be-cynical” friends would all be the problem. They would all meet gruesome fates rather than placid endings. Also, it would seek to reverse frat-boy notions of masculinity by eliminating a sub-plot about homophobia that’s played for laughs. It would turn KA’s girlfriend Katie into more than a superficial bitch. Ironically, the most subversive character is clearly Hit-Girl, but Vaughn can’t even muster enough guile to play with feminist notions of female agency. Nothing about his filmmaking indicates he’s approaching her character any different than he would treat an adult female, say Uma Thurman’s The Bride; a school-girl outfit for HG is shamelessly ripped from Kill Bill, and Tarantino undoubtedly ripped it from someone else prior. This is all third-rate kiddie shit, meandering and searching for a purpose, other than appeasing filmgoers who couldn’t accept anything truly subversive.

True Grit (The Coen Brothers, 2010) -- C

I never thought I'd see the day where it would be possible to similarly compare a Coen Brothers film with The Blind Side, but that day is upon us. Losing nearly every shred of their irreverence, philosophically saturated dialogue, and even narrative coherence, the dynamic duo to rescue American cinema from the pits of middlebrow hell now themselves appear to be headed in that very direction. They have made a film that should appeal to the base of Christian conservative sects, capitalizing on the precocious nature of a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (an unconvincingly mannered Hailee Steinfeld) and the squirrely old-man shtick of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to allow all too simplistic renderings of intent and purpose, while relegating a significant portion of the dialogue to exposition and often meaningless bickering. Everything about the film is subpar for the Coens. The opening proverb, "The wicked flee when none pursueth," plays like a disingenuous afterthought of the rigorously labored A Serious Man. No sequences of dialogue hold significance beyond mere narrative and overwrought character establishment (particularly an early scene where Mattie barters with a man for the price of a few horses - we get she's a feisty one quickly enough, yet the Coens seem insistent upon inserting numerous scenes to showcase it). Fleeting attempts at moral/ethical issues briefly come about, but to no avail (specifically an exchange about the difference between God-given and socially constructed morality). By not probing the very issues raised, the filmmakers are pandering to their worst instincts, forgoing the harder, complex questions for moments of crowd-pleasing nonsense, including several last second gunshots to save main characters, a little prayer said before a "miracle" shot, and even a guiding cheer for the viewer in case he's too slow on the uptick. The closing epilogue is telling, as it haphazardly rushes to the final shot, where the credit for the Coens as writer/director comes and goes within seconds, a bafflingly shoddy conclusion to an even more puzzling concoction, conservative through and through, from these consistently uncompromising filmmakers.

The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) -- C+

Aside from an intriguingly shot opening credits sequence, there's nothing about David O. Russell's The Fighter that stands out, with little demonstrating a nuanced presentation or understanding of the small Massachusetts town in which it's set, and constant preference of histrionics over character revelation. The "based on a true story" tale of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) attempts to integrate the grittier, neo-realist detail of Raging Bull (crack houses, domestic disputes and violence, self-destructive personalities), while retaining the sentimental and (phony) ethnic pathos of Rocky - ultimately an unpleasant hybrid, especially when Russell is in Aronofsky mode (not altogether surprising since the Black Swan director receives an executive producer credit), wielding broadly sketched characters, lead-pipe ironies and contrived scenarios (foremost a sweater-wearing wet rag who comments on an art film's "gorgeous cinematography"), a ploy to more easily and cheaply attain emotional response. Most laughable is a prison scene where Ward's brother Dickey (Christian Bale) prances into a screening room as HBO is about to premiere a documentary about his crack addiction. The inmates invariably cheer, high five, and laud the inexplicably popular inmate (emotional high), then turn on him once Dickey demands the film be shut off (emotional low). Much of the film unfortunately functions in this way, losing any middle ground for fluctuating extremes. The acting has garnered much attention (especially Bale and Melissa Leo, playing Ward's chain-smoking mother) and they fulfill their method acting goals sufficiently. However, it insufficiently compensates for Russell's overall disinterest, only sporadically displaying the verve and humanism present in his excellent Three Kings.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010: Film Report Card

Though the year is not even close to being "finished" for myself in terms of films seen, here's a look at how my grades stack up thus far. I will be updating as I plow through it:




Piranha 3D
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


Exit Through the Gift Shop
Fish Tank
I Am Love
Life During Wartime
Please Give
Runaways, The
Social Network, The
Wild Grass


Black Swan
Ghost Writer, The
I’m Still Here
Jackass 3D
Jonah Hex
Killer Inside Me, The
Prodigal Sons
Shutter Island
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


American, The
Crazies, The
George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead
Last Station, The
Milk of Sorrow, The
October Country
Town, The
Youth in Revolt


127 Hours
Fighter, The
Get Him to the Greek
Grown Ups
How to Train Your Dragon
Human Centipede, The
Kids Are All Right, The
Other Guys, The
Toy Story 3
Winnebago Man
Winter’s Bone


Book of Eli, The
District 13: Ultimatum
Edge of Darkness
Expendables, The
From Paris with Love
Hot Tub Time Machine
Iron Man 2
Prophet, A
True Grit


Alice in Wonderland
Date Night
Enter the Void
Green Zone
Mother and Child
Yellow Handkerchief, The


Easy A
She’s Out of My League


Brooklyn’s Finest
Cop Out
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The
Losers, The
Repo Men


Nightmare on Elm Street, A


Monday, December 6, 2010

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) -- B-

To laud Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan as a great film (tempting as that might be for some) would be to forsake its cinematic antecedents - forsake, because Aronofsky misunderstands what makes them so great (The Red Shoes, Suspiria, Carrie, Possession, and Mulholland Dr. are all in play here) while opting for a connect-the-dots game of pop-Freudian psycho-drama cum monstrous-feminine posturing. There's so much wrong with the film, one doesn't know where to start; but the wrong is also what makes it ever so close to right - if only the director were able to massage a little more nuance and a whole lot more satire from the all too neatly situated proceedings. Opening with aspiring ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) haunted by a nightmare, Aronofsky (and the screenplay by three relative newbies) can't help but explicitly announce what's happening at every turn. Repressed Nina is watched over by her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) - and has suspicions that newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) may have it out for her. We know this because Nina literally projects herself onto Lily (seeing the dark side her instructor (Vincent Cassel) encourages her to unearth), or even the look-a-like she passes in a dark alley. Mirrors constantly double her - her alternate, uninhibited self is yearning to be freed - a metaphor the film makes literal as her body transforms into a beast. The simplistic psychological renderings are alleviated somewhat by the sheer exuberance of Aronofsky's filmmaking - it does not excuse the comprehensive risibility of the film, but does make for memorable sequences, including Nina's face-down masturbation on her bed, a rave scene which should have gone on much, much longer, and the denoument, as Nina takes stage as Swan Queen. What's missing from the film, however, is an honest sensibility towards understanding Nina's drive and passion as an artist, something that does not consistently indulge the easier, perhaps sexier route of hellbent obsession leading to madness. All Aronofsky really seems to be interested in is seeing sexy women go nuts - a plight I would wholeheartedly endorse were he able to at least bring an interesting visual ideology to the film, which is not to say Black Swan isn't well shot or composed; it is. Yet, Aronofsky's surface abilities and musings, while good for an energetic romp, fail to yield anything that would warrant further consideration.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010) -- B+

The Upper East Side protagonists of Nicole Holofcener's Please Give transcend easy categorization, placement, and contrast, a welcome bit of self-reflexivity and critical insight that's missing from nearly any of its cynical, solipsistic Indie counterparts. Pondering privileged white guilt with pointed social humor and progressively fleshed out characters, it is the independent American comedy of the year, dispersing pathos with economical precision and ending ironically rather than in affirmation of its own self-worth. Where Greenberg stumbles over its own intelligence and The Kids Are All Right plays like a didactic moral lesson (even summarizing itself in the title!), Please Give successfully wades into the lives of materialistic intellectuals and, while not quite piercing their souls the way a Whit Stillman is able to, Holofcener's simultaneously playful and probing reverence for human dilemma ultimately resonates with an impressive level of honesty and good faith.

The characters and scenario are admittedly contrived: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician (sexuality is dangerous, mechanical), is lonely, but looking for love. Her office mates ask: "Don't you want to go see the leaves with us? They change colors!" She doesn't understand the enthusiasm for something so seemingly trivial. She lives with bitchy, tan sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a spa technician (she can only see skin deep) close to their near-death grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Turns out, the next door neighbors Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) have just purchased Andra's apartment and intend to extend their own...once she dies. They own a furniture store, peddling unique items...that they buy from the relatives of recently deceased loved ones. They buy cheap, jack up the prices, inflating the profit margins. Their daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), insecure because of her acne, covets a pair of $200 jeans, but Kate refuses. "You buy $200 jeans, mom," pouts Abby. Kate responds, "but that's because I'm an adult." Meanwhile, she has no problem dropping $20's in the jars of homeless, at one point even mistaking a black man waiting for a table as a panhandler.

The scenario and character contrivances, though, become gradually drowned out by both the incredibly human and intricate performances of every cast member mentioned above and Holofcener's refusal to merely perform a series of ironic exchanges and incidents. Certainly they are present, but Holofcener deftly eradicates a simplistic aligning through her devotion to each character's emotional considerations. Central to that is, of course, Keener's character, so guilt ridden by her financial status that she can't sleep at night. Holofcener plays this as absurdist narcissism, yet in no way is out to merely condemn either. She is not affirming or condemning, but probing through the character's crisis of self-worth. She wants to volunteer with old people and handicapped children, but is too saddened by their state to go through with it. In no way is Holofcener affirming this stance, clearly evident because of the real volunteers, who recognize her conflicted state as symptomatic of her class status, a rich white woman with nothing better to do than feel sorry for others. Holofcener never has a character speak these words explicitly, but allows the scenario to suggest it, much like how every character's problem is self-inflicted, with the exception of Rebecca, though one could argue the responsibility to her grandmother is used as a crutch to explain away her inactive social life.

Ultimately, the materialism and ageism of the culture (facials, expensive shampoos, hip furniture, designer jeans) is met with neither affirmation or condemnation, but a lack of judgment, a scripting decision that proves wise because it forgoes any kind of summarization. Yet, Holofcener is not ambivalent about her characters' either, since scene after scene lovingly criticizes their privileged way of life. Even the closing scene, as Kate and Alex finally agree to buy Abby the jeans, denies a happy, definitive ending, even though Abby grins from ear to ear. The materialistic lineage is not broken and in a society that prizes brand names and superficiality, it becomes a necessity for adolescent egos. Holofcener is not celebrating this idea, yet neither is she condemning it. She's slyly suggesting that something deeper is taking place, especially for Kate, who's rumination over her inability to help others does not end in epiphany nor elation, but contented dejection, almost indifference, so that the buying of the jeans only problematizes her state, even if it provides (momentary) comfort to her daughter. By examining the behaviors and neuroses of a social class rather than merely indulging them, Holofcener finds depth and meaning, perhaps even in an universal sense, through an examination of a very minute percent of the American population. That's something of a feat, yet she's helped immensely by over a half dozen virtuoso, restrained performances.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) -- C+

127 Hours should have been more honestly titled James Franco vs. Danny Boyle, since the Oscar winning director takes every opportunity imaginable to undercut his actor's magnificent performance. Credit for some of the film's ultimate failure must also be attributed to the screenplay (co-written by Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy), typifying the simplistic dualities and thematic beats that have composed nearly any of Boyle's films. It may be a stretch to call him a hack , but 127 Hours proves, at the very least, that he's completely one-dimensional, unable to forgo his expected tactics of flash cuts, speeding through shots, and split-screen, ultimately amounting to nothing more than noise and visual diarrhea. Here, his cognitive process assumes the only way to tell the amazing true story of Aron Ralston (Franco), whose arm became pinned by a rock in a Utah canyon, is to almost amp up the artifice, with shots from inside his water bottle, laying on thick moments of techno pop, shrill ambiance, and even a moment where he literally goes inside the camera Ralston uses to film himself, quickly showing the rewinding of the digital tape. All of these attempts to bolster the "suspense" reveals Boyle's shortcomings as a thinker, apparently unaware that the gravitas in the film should come from Ralston's slow, delirious realization of the absurd scenario he's been placed in and the nearly unthinkable deed he'll have to perform to get out.

Boyle's solipsism is evident from the opening three-way split screen shots of people exiting trains, cheering in soccer stadiums, and filing through the hustle and bustle of city life. Likewise, Ralston's late night drive into the Utah desert is superimposed with logos of McDonald's, Taco Bell, and several other chains, a lead-pipe juxtaposition of Ralston's reason for seeking solace in the tranquility of the subliminal canyons and underground coves. For Boyle, this simple dichotomy is all that's need to establish motive, but such calculative reasoning denies Ralston's pursuits the depth and sincere spirituality needed to flesh him out to human status. More shenanigans: Ralston meets up with two hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), persuading them to let him lead their way. Ralston snaps a three-shot of them with his camera, the image freezes, then whisks away like some sort of exited page on a MacBook Pro. Superfluous to no end, Boyle continues to suck any genuine verve from the film's proceedings, never ceasing to indulge his apparently never-ending thirst for formal tinkering.

Moreover, once Ralston takes his tumble and is pinned by the mammoth rock (at about the 20 minute mark), Boyle slyly comes in with the film's title, proposing an almost 24-like race against the clock. Boyle unwisely tries to speed up time rather than slow it down, opting to reflect Ralston's growing sense of doom through more obnoxiousness, including a nearly ten mile, 200 MPH aerial shot from Ralston's perspective to the back of his truck, where he remembers a full, sweating Gatorade, a dreamed monsoon that frees him, and several flashbacks to a past girlfriend, who at one point says to him (no lie), "You're going to be lonely for the rest of your life, Aron," and, of course, being stuck at the bottom of a massive canyon, it looks as though she may have been right. Moreover, it's a further indictment on Boyle's lack of subtlety, having to spell out the pathos literally, through dialogue.

While Boyle's directing tactics remain as suspect as ever, Franco's performance, humorous, sincere, and remarkably free of histrionics, is an antidote to the film's excesses, humanizing Ralston despite Boyle's every attempt to put the attention squarely on himself. It's an actor's film that Boyle tries to make a director's, yet Franco reveals his director's conceit with graceful clarity, remaining compelling and modest while becoming progressively unhinged, and giving what is sure to be the year's finest piece of acting. Likewise, A.R. Rahman's score works well within the diegesis, and the choice of Sigur Ros's "Festival" once Ralston reaches the surface wonderfully evokes inexpressible elation at being alive. If only Boyle had displayed a little versatility, depth, and consideration of his own, 127 Hours may well have matched Franco's brilliance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010) -- B+

The Killer Inside Me aligns very well with No Country for Old Men and, in some ways, its consideration of cinematic violence is even more astute. To be clear, Michael Winterbottom's film in no way approaches the Coen Brothers' artistry in terms of mise-en-scene and sound design - few can even approach their impeccable abilities on those terms. Yet, Anton Chigurh's choking a deputy with handcuffs, capping a passer-by with a cattle gun, and taking off the shoes to ambush a few drug runners with a silenced shotgun are, unquestionably, "cool." Not just cool, but since the exterior narrative is deemed "worthy" and "authentic," mainstream critics are able to rationalize the destruction as suitable and passable. Winterbottom's polarizing film does not make the violence "cool" (or, in Tarantino/Ritchie lingo, "stylized") - nor does it completely unaestheticize it for some kind of Redacted faux-verite. Furthermore, neither is it "silly-fun" like the 2010 abominations The Losers, Kick-Ass, and Red. The Killer Inside Me deftly deconstructs the serial killer coda and the presentation of violence that accompanies it.

The subversion begins with an ironically colorful credits sequence, differentiating between the real (actors names) and the fictional (the characters they play). A daring, almost virtuoso choice, countering the posturing seriousness that's expected. The film is, of course, adapted from Jim Thompson's famous novel, about Lou Ford (Casey Affleck, having just played Bob Ford, a cinematic link Winterbottom is certainly aware of), a seemingly friendly and law-upholding deputy patrolling a small West Texas town during the 1950's. Fortunately, Winterbottom doesn't simply use the retro setting as means for constructing another brutally banal neo-noir. Rather, he problematizes post-modern inclinations by refusing to engage them, yet by retaining the brutality (especially against women), he's not got his head in the clouds like Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, which completely confuses and offends decent taste through a simple-minded juxtaposition of post-code decorum (swearing, depicted violence) and authentic 40's sheen (he used cameras from the period to shoot the film). The Killer Inside Me is much fuzzier, authentically troubled, and without guilt.

Female critics have torn the film apart for its depiction of violence against women. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post says: "As for the misogynist brutality, it is indeed depraved, made more so by the fact that its female victims are depicted as loving their abuse right up until it turns murderous." Indeed, lonely hooker Joyce (Jessica Alba) receives a literal spanking from Ford in one of the film's early scenes, and initially responds in pain, before turning into pleasure. Ford's girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) likes her sex a little rough too. Ultimately, both women are brutally beaten to death by Ford - repeatedly punched in the face and kicked in the stomach. Winterbottom's choice to depict the scenario in this particular manner reveals just that - that it is a choice, and one totally in the director's hands. Much like Haneke's Funny Games, he is not merely indulging in thoughtless misogyny, but questioning modes of representation altogether and the viewer desire inherent (even better, Winterbottom does it without condescension). So, if he had been a good liberal, he would have made the women resist any form of pleasure from punishment, fight back and remain strong through Ford's murder attempts, and shown their deaths in a "tasteful" way, perhaps one that isn't as literal? Is that how the course of logic proceeds? If so, the hypocrisy is revealed, meaning that violence becomes "acceptable" so long as a check-list of politically correct behaviors and reactions are met - or so long as it's all played for laughs. Winterbottom throws out the checklist on this front, and others as well. Casey Affleck's performance and character in no way adheres to expected scenes of psychological struggle and torment. Winterbottom fumbles only sporadically as he unwisely peppers in a few instances of internal flashback, showing moments of Ford's childhood. Otherwise, the proceedings are anchored by an almost outrageous disconnect from causality, until it unfortunately settles in for a more routine police procedural narrative. Nevertheless, everything in the film is about a tick or two off from the "Oscar" mode many critics and viewers hope to embrace. Winterbottom's film isn't simply anti-cinema or deliberately contrarian either, but on a firm ground between the two, revealing the glibness of politically correct modes and expected cinematic norms.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2010) -- B+

Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is one of the most convincing crib-jobs in recent memory - drawing upon influences like Douglas Sirk, Luchino Visconti, and Stanley Kubrick, the director manages to wring something remarkably adept and perceptive from his overt idols. Even if his film does not rank with the best works of these antecedents, it nevertheless displays the director's ability to replicate and appropriate various styles, then produce something coherent and, in some ways, forward thinking. Ultimately, Guadagnino probes an ontological question - how to produce something "new" or fitfully transition into an evolving filmmaking period when artistic influences are so prevalent. Inherent to this question is identity, and Guadagnino deftly integrates these questions into his narrative of patriarchal dominance spear-heading generational difference. Thus, the diegesis compliments the meta-text, producing a simultaneously cerebral and affecting film, if somewhat overblown or overwrought in stretches.

A gorgeous credits sequence begins the film, as snow falls on Milan, the streets and tall buildings covered in a blanket of cold. Segueing to what turns out to be a prologue of sorts, the Recchi family gathers at their estate near the turn of the 21st century, a night on which the family business (a clothing factory) will be handed-down from father to son. The warm interiors contrast the cold exteriors, which Guadagnino effectively contrasts. A dichotomy of spaces is established, much in the Sirkian sense, as the family members begin filing into the house as the servants hustle to prepare the necessary food and dining arrangements. Guadagnino uses slow zooms and tracking shots a la Kubrick, establishing both the family members and the layout of their elaborate estate with Renoir-like precision. Various comments and snippets of conversations establish a complicated family history, including athletic prowess and traditional decorum, foremost among them an adherence to convention gender and patriarchal roles. The patriarch's son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) inherits the business along with his son Edo (Flavio Parenti), a track athlete who's just finished runner-up to friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Edo's mother Emma (Tilda Swinton) says little during the proceedings, but takes notice of Antonio, looking out through a window as he traverses away from the house, through the snow. Desires, feelings, and mores are changing, and Guadagnino forces the question upon cineastes as well - how does one shift filmic modes in order to deal with this? Guadagnino seems to suggest that reverence, oddly enough, is what's needed, especially through a mixing of styles and "pastiching" various filmmakers. Far from a new notion, Gudagnino nevertheless holds steadfast to his convictions, sincere in both formal and thematic concerns, and the film rarely loses credibility because of it.

Jumping to a few months later, the crux of the narrative falls on Emma's pursuit of Antonio, seeking "forbidden" desires in both the racial and social sense. She also discovers her daughter is a lesbian - no one wants to fulfill their "expected" sexual roles, just as cinema can no longer occupy a static space; tensions crop up in both areas and that duality remains fascinating throughout. Less so are forced metaphors like close-ups of budding flowers as Emma and Antonio have sex for the first time. Or a third-act "twist" that unconvincingly brings about the tragic circumstances to end the film. Guadagnino's more melodramatic inclinations don't quite work because of his intrusion, his insistence on having his film be so calculated and tightly wound. Likewise, a concluding image is supposed to be haunting and foreboding, but again seems forced and inorganic. However, these flaws do not negate the film's artistic aim and, on the whole, success of formal and thematic replication. Of course, one could just as easily go to the source of Guadagnino's influences, yet there is something inherently valuable about a well-performed melange and I Am Love remains at least sporadically compelling, even amidst its less formidable elements.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2010) -- B+

Wild Grass marks one of the most formally ambitious films of the year - not surprising coming from cinematic great Alain Resnais who, at 88 years of age, directs with more awareness, sense of style fitting content, and, most importantly, genuine passion than nearly any solidified director in his 40's. He and fellow veteran Marco Bellocchio (whose Vincere will remain one of the year's best films) aren't even merely replicating the style and themes that composed their great films, but adapting to the changing times with either modern stories (Resnais) or a politically aware period piece (Bellocchio). With Wild Grass, Resnais addresses old age discontent somewhere between the kinetic elegance of De Palma and the soapier, saturated mise-en-scene melodramas of Almodovar. Yet he's never solemn or drowsily serious - he remains playful while poignant, not cynical nor slapdashedly whimsical - there's an odd blend of tones and visual ticks that, while varying in terms of effectiveness, nevertheless demonstrate a filmmaker who has not tired of his chosen medium and, for that reason alone, his film deserves praise.

Thankfully, ambition alone is not all Resnais displays throughout his PG rated film. A prologue establishes the narrative crux - after splurging on some shoes (the narration makes it clear that this woman's feet are deserving of attention) Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema) has her bag snatched by a thief. The contents of her bag are dispersed, the wallet finding itself behind the left tire of a car belonging to Georges Palet (André Dussollier), a wealthy, married, but discontented bourgeois slackened by a life slowly running out of meaning. The wallet does not preface a meet-cute; rather, Georges' hope that this woman will show some verve in taking the initiative to not only thank him, but meet him as well. Resnais shoots these opening scenes with fluid long takes, oddly placed or unorthodox, with deep neons and monochrome lighting, but embodying his hybridization of melodramatic love story with noirish elements (societal unrest, personal crisis). Even creative split frame shots, as Georges gets a secondary vignette while driving, plotting his nervous phone call. Furthermore, Resnais intercuts shots on blowing tall grass throughout (Marguerite also has a head full of frizzy read hair), the metaphor not literal in the sense that the blowing grass (or wild grass) stands in for the unclaimed desires of Georges, but that nature's untamed allure often falsely enables a sense of lost time in the well-to-do, meaning Resnais' premise (adapted from a novel by Christian Gailly) isn't merely a trite tale of ennui (or midlife crisis, if you prefer), but a grander meditation on contrasting environments - the constructed reality with the real, that which exists outside of the societal - the wild grass, uncultivated, but not meant to be idealized and romanticized, since such fetishizing only leads to death and despair. It's an unspoken portion of the film's larger themes that could go unnoticed amidst its simultaneous flair for the absurd and the sublime.

Ultimately, though, Resnais' film isn't a celebration of either bourgeois complacency/frustrations or charting the unknown - it is about the human spirit, in all of its peccadilloes, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections, seeking solace when a chosen path no longer allows it. Resnais seems to suggest in a closing bit that reincarnation alone is the answer for traversing other paths, but then again nothing is rigidly defined in his world, nor is it required. The fuzzy edges give wonder to not just the characters' anxieties and pursuits, but the act of filmmaking itself.

Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer, 2010) -- C+

Winnebago Man is hampered by its director Ben Steinbauer, who only glibly considers the larger foundation of his documentary - that being a culture founded upon ridicule, ironic detachment, and subterfuge, or just plain old schadenfreude as the internet and Youtube age came into full swing. Perhaps that's because Steinbauer acknowledges himself as complicit in the hooliganism, admitting that the underground videos of Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney (also affectionately know as "the angriest man in the world") cursing, swearing and unleashing his frustrations during commercial shoot outtakes give him comfort when he's feeling down, knowing that "his frustrations are shared by others." Fair enough, but that's about as deep as Steinbauer is able to plumb the phenomenon, not just of Rebney, but of viral videos in general - their appeal, fascination, and persistence. His curiosity about Rebney, in particular, inspires him to seek out the man himself, whom no one appears to have heard from in years. Steinbauer's interviews with the knuckleheads who use these kinds of videos for a living are the most revealing, as one guy admits "it's funny if I don't know who these people are. Once they become real people, it ceases to be funny." Willful ignorance, then, fuels the fire of pleasure at pain - the subject must be seen as momentarily non-human in order for the sensation to occur and, on the whole, it's that suspension of knowledge that enables the laughs. Nevertheless, Steinbauer is less interested in these ethical or behavioral questions than Rebney himself, who, turns out, lives secluded in the mountains of northern California. He's scornful, hates what's become of him through the videos, and resents those who've made them popular. That is, until he's invited to a screening of viral videos entitled "The Found Footage Festival" (hosted by The Red Vic Theater in San Francisco, no less), and he discovers that people aren't laughing at him, they're laughing with. Or, at least, that's the narrative arc Steinbauer's film tries to present and while there's admitted poignancy in these closing scenes, as an old man realizes his perception of human ignorance doesn't play as down the line when confronted with actual human beings, it is somewhat forced and shallow, especially in Steinbauer's attempts to "sum-up" his film during a closing monologue. There are interesting premises (especially the display of Rebney's outbursts permeating mainstream Hollywood films and TV shows), but the lack of interest in what drives the relatively new phenomenon cannot be overlooked and needed to be more fully delved into and fleshed out in order to make the film a simultaneous character study and societal expose. It is only moderately successful at the former and almost totally neglects the latter.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirty-One: The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980) -- A

John Carpenter’s The Fog deserves rank amongst the great genre filmmaker’s most cherished achievements. In an era predominately configured on changing aesthetic codes and altered narrative formation (soon to take the post-modern form of pastiche), Carpenter remained steadfast to three central components: characters to care about, economical mise-en-scene, and classic storytelling, founded upon the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or, in filmic terms, Howard Hawks. Assault on Precinct 13 explicitly revises the Hawksian western, updating it to fit the urban gang-led terrain of east Los Angeles, drawing heavily also upon both Night of the Living Dead’s black lead and zombie-like presence for the nameless, faceless gang members. Though his drawing upon influences may appear to belong to the growing attention to intertextual construction, Carpenter’s political attention and distinctly minimalist aesthetic signals pure innovation rather than layered regurgitation. The quintessential Halloween made Carpenter a name and, more importantly, signaled the arrival of a filmmaker with total command of his craft, able to use diegetic sound, screen space, and his now famous score to communicate the existential dread faced within the genre realm, a faceless, expressionless stalker terrorizing the suburban Haddonfield, a metonymic figure for complacent, bourgeois America. The film’s success can be linked to this unconscious fear on the viewer’s part, the safe neighborhoods and smiling faces of the 1950’s transforming into places of moral degeneracy, corruption, and violence – in essence, the disintegration of the family via the repressed and closeted forces of a bygone era, now fully in view to be dealt with head-on. The “return of the repressed” nightmare in Halloween merges perfectly with the postcolonial anxieties of The Fog, yet these astute discursive elements never impede upon Carpenter’s foremost concern: form, style, and – quite literally – atmosphere. Halloween’s dread is now even more palpable since Carpenter chooses to set his film in one place over a mere 24 hour period. The claustrophobic narrative duration serves as metaphorical mirror to Antonio Bay, the terrible place, a site where century old misdeeds return in the form of amorphous pirates, seeking retribution for betrayal and murder.

Carpenter opens by citing one of Poe’s most chilling quotes: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Poe’s question of identity and consciousness suits both Carpenter’s interest in nightmarish apocalypse via psychological crisis (the horror genre) and cultural devotion, engaging in a celebration of the past, no matter how gruesome the hidden details may be. Likewise, the next image juxtaposes two more themes for Carpenter: innocence and time. The ticking pocket watch plays as an in-joke for connoisseurs of the auteur’s style, but more importantly, it establishes the lurking doom and dread, closing in with every tick. Childhood is no longer a safe, comfortable state when the personified sins of the parents return for retribution.

John Housman’s opening ghost story reinforces the competing modes - playful children’s campfire tale juxtaposed with vengeful, wronged men. In this scene, Carpenter introduces the first of his musical themes, creepily underlining the darkness and cold engulfing the fire barely lighting the frame. Such a duality persists throughout the film, and it’s this kind of attention to battling forces that enlivens his apocalyptic discourse, where all binaries are put into play, the highest of all (good vs. evil) dueling as well. What’s so marvelous about Carpenter’s formal filmmaking, though, is its fluidity; here, he doesn’t cut to a credit sequence, but tilts up, inserting a black credit card, but seemingly going through it to reveal the bay, the title card, and the rolling fog, a virtuoso subtlety that informs all of his masterful, early films.

A radio broadcast from a small lighthouse, run by Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), announces the clock’s toll of midnight; oddly enough, the bell is rung by Carpenter himself, making an Hitchockian cameo, though Carpenter actually has a few lines (he says them rather unconvincingly, unfortunately). Nevertheless, he is puppeteer, in control of the narrative and its visual/sonic composition. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) quietly sips wine, relieving the Carpenter cameo of his duty. Malone’s shadow casts upon the wall, indicative of the proverbial double he casts, his ancestral responsible for the inevitably descending ghosts. An inexplicable, rumbling shakes free a piece of the cement wall, revealing a diary tucked beneath the surface, the contents a written recollection to be read aloud later in the film. A following montage chronicles the strange events throughout the town, such as car’s honking without drivers and gas pumping without pumpers. The only commentary provided is by Wayne’s raspy radio voice. The radio, a waning form of communication, is another meta-symbolic gesture of Carpenter’s anachronistic placement in film history, yet it also allows an ingenious narrative device for an uncanny discomfort, the radio VJ present but not, much like the murderous deeds serving as the foundation for the town’s centennial. It has a specter-like presence.

The montage segues into shore man Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) driving down a dark road; he stops to pick-up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis). “You’re my thirteenth ride,” she tells him. Suddenly, their widows are smashed by an unseen force. Wayne chit-chats with radar man Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers). A fog bank rolls into a ship of seamen, drunk and unaware of the demons that roam within. Cut to the radio, which pans up to reveal Nick and Elizabeth in bed together. They talk of her photography (which she hopes to sell) and how they both feel aimless in their lives, an irresoluteness about their ultimate destination. Wayne voiced the same thing earlier, how “it’s a lot of water, but at least it’s better than Chicago.” No one is at home, everyone is a drifter. A knock at Nick’s door signals a macabre solution to discontent – death, though a converse death than suffered by the knocker, whose life was ended by greed and ambition, not malaise. The wandering ennui of the living privileged brings back the angry souls of dead. Only a rupturing of the Grandfather clock (Carpenter’s pun intended) scares away the demon. Carpenter’s seamless transitions give the illusion of one continuous scene, without breaks or breaths. Though nearly 25 minutes into the film, it has the sense of a single sequence, an ultra-long take, even with the numerous cuts.

Night turns to day, and Wayne’s son Andy (Ty Mitchell) finds an artifact from the ship on the beach. Nick shows up at the docks to find his friends haven’t returned from their midnight rounds. Meanwhile, the preparation for celebrations have begun, conducted by community organizer Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis). The casting of Leigh, obviously Jamie Lee’s mother, alludes to Carpenter’s intention to retain Hitchcock’s mode of suspense over gore. Again, Carpenter cross-cuts between discovery of the abandoned ship and the pair of women’s trip to see Father Malone. “This city should be proud of its past,” claims Williams, almost as a pre-programmed response to younger Sandy’s sarcasm and reticence towards their preparations. Malone interrupts their visit by reading the found diary; it reveals his grandfather’s admission of murdering Blake, a rich, sickly man who wanted to move the colony away from the bay. He took his riches and inhabited the land, claiming wealth, persistence and prosperity as a disguise. Overlapping Malone’s reading is Nick’s admission that “[I] don’t believe in much of anything,” a further compromise of his living, breathing body. Life taken, life uncertain – another duality persists, though Carpenter is not interested in giving easy answers or answers at all. The uncertainty lingers, explicated in troubling stories of the past, told simultaneously by Nick and Malone, each reckoning with troubled family pasts.

A body found in the remains of the ship has the signs of having been under water for more than several months; it comes to life momentarily to scribble a “3” on the floor; the sun sets, night approaches. Carpenter again manages this as if this will be the last sunset, as if death is closing in on everyone, not just those of Antonio Bay, but anyone with sins to hide, not only from a higher power, but from themselves, engaging in subterfuge to absolve their conscience. The descending fog is a threat to anyone with blood on their hands (or, as the slasher mold tends to go, anyone who dares to take its threat lightly). Carpenter communicates this through the mise-en-scene, a neon red offsetting the fog’s grays and blues. His attention to color comes through strongly in these sequences, using them in supplements with the pools of black.

Not to be underestimated through all of the thematic and formal elements is just how damned scary Carpenter’s film is, streamlined to disallow a breath to alleviate the tension. This shouldn’t suggest that the film isn’t without a sense of humor – on the contrary, the opening half is slyly funny about the notion of impending doom, Carpenter’s apocalyptic laughter coming just to the edge of the void before falling in. The second half, though, considers the end more thoroughly, rounding all of the characters up in Father Malone’s chapel, Carpenter’s score pulsating to the wall of enclosing fog, and all of them quickly thinking of how to bargain, not just with the bloodthirsty demons of the fog, but themselves, if their own fears, frights, and anxieties can be dealt with (not to mention echoes of Assault). The object sought is a gold cross – religious synecdoche in the form of materialism. The cross-hairs of guilt and religion mesh with Carpenter’s glowing, illuminated cross, the hands of the transgressed and the kin of the transgressor meeting, physically paying for the postcolonial guilt that now plagues rational minds. He gives back the material good taken, but cannot restore the life lost. Nick, Elizabeth, and the others do not speak their own thoughts, but their expressions relay reflection and understanding of mortality – the fleeting, ephemeral life that can be snatched away by colonists fueled by greed or just the rolling fog on any given night. As Wayne warns: “Look for the fog.” Look at yourself, engage in self-reflection, or these ghosts will persist and haunt the next generation, as more wronged men return for their due. At its foundation, Carpenter lays a simple moral base. Yet mounted upon that is something much grander and more nuanced, both filmicly and philosophically. The closing shot is not just a meaningless jump scare, but a reminder that even momentary complacency and amorality can (and will) cause havoc, both psychologically and physically. The Fog is indeed a great horror film, a great ghost story, and great for Halloween, but it’s also a richly defined film about history and injustice, indicating that, to echo the opening Poe quote, reality can turn into a nightmare, and vice versa, if civility and dignified purpose don’t prevail.

I’ve enjoyed writing this second Horrorthon and I hope everyone has enjoyed reading. Until next year…

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirty: The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945) -- B

The Body Snatcher is a serviceable Halloween chiller, though not in the upper-echelon of either Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi's oeuvre. The two get lead billing, though neither is really one of the three central characters - unfortunately, that's reserved for a menial thread about Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his well-to-do assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), who become obsessed with trying to cure a paralyzed small girl. Why is MacFarlane so medically prominent? It's because he gets dead bodies from a supplier, John Gray (Karloff). Naturally, Gray does not just steal the bodies from the morgue or crime scenes - he procures them himself by murdering innocent passers-by. Lugosi shows up in a nothing role as a retarded servant, though he and Karloff have a nice scene together. Visually, Wise's second collaboration with Val Lewton proves he can manage the shadowy expressionism, though it's expected presence almost becomes a hindrance, a cliche if nothing truly spectacular is to be done with it. Thematically, it's a cautionary tale of the dangers science and rationality can cause if not kept in check, and Dr. MacFarlane suffers severely for his transgression, even though he helps save a girl's vitality. The production code can be partially blamed for this, but the whole affair has the feeling of complacency, not trying to truly make an innovative or memorable work, but simply assemble a horror film to fit the second half of a double bill. Wise and company do so competently and with lean precision, but there's really nothing here much better films haven't explored and executed with greater gusto and shock.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Nine: Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973) -- B-

Sergio Martino's Torso makes the same mistakes as an earlier reviewed film on this blog - The Eyes of Laura Mars. It lack sufficient style, thought, and an overall gravitas to be compelling, even though it is competently pieced together. Moreover, the films share thematic material - that being a killer who fetishizes his victim's eyes, brought about by childhood trauma (concurrent within any Giallo). The similarities cannot go unmentioned, and the later film's script (co-written by John Carpenter) appears to have aped much of the ideas. In Torso, a group of college students are terrorized by a man wearing a stocking on his head; just before he kills his first victim (by tearing her eyes out) he flashes back to a doll, lying on the ground, his fingers about to come into contact with its eyes. This type of psychological fetish comprises nearly every motive for Gialli killers, and while not necessarily a handicap or hindrance in and of itself, the reoccurance necessitates an added bit of ingenuity and insight, something Martino does not do. Furthermore, the killer's identity is hilariously transparent, as only fifteen minutes into the film, the heroine says to a male friend, "You have such lovely eyes." He responds, disheveled, dejected, "Please do not tease me about such things." Surely enough, this is indeed our man, a detail that typifies Martino's surface notions of depth and insight. Nevertheless, Torso is an hilarious film, chocked-full of knockout moments, such as a child falling from a cliff to his death, or the killer deliriously screaming, "Bitches! Bitches! Bitches!" because of his impotence. While there's nary a dull moment because of the ineptitude, it's quite hard to commend the film for this, thus relegating it to "midnight movie" status. I'm not suggesting that as an inherently inferior position (far from it), but in the case of Torso, it's outlandish enough to make serviceable fodder for those seeking a bad film for a good time. The film's silly trailer should help make that point more concretely.

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Eight: The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin, 1978) -- B

The Grapes of Death proves Jean Rollin's understanding of the horror genre and his ability to be innovative while remaining reverential. Rollin is indebted to films ranging from House of Dracula to Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, yet he exports a 70's art house aesthetic as his visual style. It is, in essence, a pastiche, but Rollin cleverly disguises this through distinct narrative ingenuity, even if the beats and plot points are clearly generic. A pesticide is being sprayed onto the grapes of a vineyard in order to turn those who drink the wine into zombies, thus making them slaves to the grapes - more proletarian workers to harvest the fruit needed for bourgeois luxury. A young woman named Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) traveling to see her boyfriend, discovers the plot after confronting one of the zombies on a train. She then works to expose the plot, to muddled success. Nothing within the narrative really matters, as Rollin's film is, at heart, exploitation, using the broadly drawn allegory for gore effects (well done), female nudity (always welcome) and zombie slumbering (eh). The sum product succeeds because of Rollin's vacillation between various modes, even if there are periods of flat-footed dialogue inspiring viewer disinterest.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Seven: Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988) -- D+

Pumpkinhead is a terrible movie, made all the more disheartening because its interesting premise is squandered in director Stan Winston's incompetent attempt to balance horror and pathos, religious symbolism and vigilante justice (his only subsequent feature involved Anthony Michael Hall and a gnome). The special effects maestro has no sense of narrative progression, tonal consistency, or, most importantly, no respect for a viewer's good faith, since it becomes clear that Winston's true interest lies in the titular demon, summoned by Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) to eviscerate a pack of wild teenagers who accidentally killed his son during a dirt bike race. The death itself absolutely defies logic or coherence, coming about through an inane series of excuses and coincidences that puts him in danger. My quibbling about such things usually remains minimal, since narrative liberties are often necessary to pursue thematic questions. Here, however, it's just a silly ploy to put the narrative into motion. Unfortunately, all of the southern black magic plays like the hokum it is, letting the demon kill a few characters before Ed, conveniently, has a change of heart, unconvincingly adding a layer of guilt to his initial need for vengeance. Oddly enough, Pumpkinhead's attempt to add "character development" or various genre elements to the Alien mold just complicates and muddles things since Winston doesn't have a strong enough directorial eye to navigate them convincingly.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Six: Uncle Sam (William Lustig, 1997) -- C+

The lofty prospect of a Larry Cohen script under William Lustig's direction only comes to moderate fruition in Uncle Sam, mostly due to both men dropping the ball in the third act. A fascinating set-up has Sam Harper (David Fralick) being killed during Desert Storm; three years later, his sister, wife, and nephew are still grappling with his death, especially once they're informed that his dead body has finally been discovered and is soon to be returned home for burial. The nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden) finds solace in calling Sam a hero, and vows to enlist when he's of age. Cohen and Lustig communicate these sequences with the utmost clarity, displaying how young minds are constructed to follow the Nationalistic order. As Jody says, "I'll do whatever the president asks of me when I'm a soldier, because he knows more than we do." Intervening is veteran soldier Jed Crowley (Issac Hayes), who tells Jody that "we used to know who and what we were fighting. Now everybody is confused." These elements nicely stage a narrative for engaging complex subjects, and Lustig films them without pretension, modestly and with conviction. What doesn't work, however, is the film's strictly horror half, when the body of "Uncle Sam" comes to life, dons the red, white, and blue duds and starts killing people during a July 4th celebration. This shift, though initially apropos in its allegorical dimension, betrays the more sincere aspects of a film confronting government lies and the selling of propaganda to susceptible children. Especially when the killings begin to have nothing to do with this thread and eventually become a self-parody. It makes one long for Bob Clark's masterpiece Deathdream, a thoroughly allegorical and intelligent film dealing with the impossibility of civilian assimilation after facing the horrors of war. Uncle Sam could have reached somewhere close to those heights if it had remained steadfast to its convictions, rather than calling an audible in favor of lesser thrills.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Twenty-Five: Deadly Friend (Wes Craven, 1986) -- B-

Joe Bob Briggs has called Wes Craven's Deadly Friend "A Breakfast Club version of Bride of Frankenstein." That's about right, and it's enough to make the film worthwhile as a purely genre exercise. Techno wiz Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) moves to a new place, bringing along with him a self-built robot named BB. Along with new friends Tom (Michael Sharrett) and Sam (Kristy Swanson), the trio become good friends - and there's even the potential of a little romance between Paul and Sam. However, Sam has a controlling, abusive father. Equally pestering, an old hag neighbor who absconds with their basketball and pulls a shotty on them anytime they step near her property. The (im)perfect storm of narrative dominoes fall, the neighbor destroying the robot and Sam's father beating her and leaving her brain dead. Riddled with grief, the friends decide to resurrect Sam, using the computer chip formerly used by BB. There's nothing here that deserves immediate mentioning (except for a great death scene involving an exploding head and the basketball), but Craven navigates light-hearted humor with outrageous gore, though the final third is tonally confused, as the police are summoned and the film loses its keener edge. Craven cannot be blamed for the script's lesser aspirations (he didn't write it), though there is some ingenuity in its establishing build, especially if one does not know what's to come. Initially, it seems more sci-fi geared towards the robot, but the shift works because Craven makes it coalesce through pacing. He builds enough character momentum, narrative drive, and overall goodwill to make one not come down harshly on his enjoyable, intermittently thoughtful effort, with enough competent parts to overlook the lacking whole.