Monday, April 27, 2009
114) Jar City (2006) Dir:
There's something about the dreariness of Scandinavian countries that makes for very satisfying police procedurial plots. As exemplified by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall's "Martin Beck" series, most famous for its fourth entry, The Laughing Policeman, Scandinavian noir is home to hard-nosed policemen that track down clues between drags of omnipresent cigarettes. They mutter and curse and lash out at everyone and no one but in after these matter-of-fact shows of macho, quasi-caveman-like behavior, they do their jobs Writer/director Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City (2006), adapted from Arnaldur Indriðason 's novel by the same name, continues that tradition but this time with a more memorably realistic Mike Hammer protagonist.
Meet Erlendur Sveinsson (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson), a cop that shoegazes when he chainsmokes because he knows that if he looks up, he won't like what he sees. Erlendur's earned the chip on his shoulder seeing as how his home life with prodigal daughter Eva (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir), a pregnant drug addict, is just as unrelenting as his casework. In Jar City, he's investigating the murder of Holberg (Þorsteinn Gunnarsson), a sixty year-old local connected with an unsolved cold case from the '70s. In the course of his investigation, Erlendur will interrogate Holberg's homicidal accomplice Ellidi (Theódór Júlíusson), search in vain for a rape victim, pay off his daughter's debts, exhume the corpse of a decades-long buried little girl and go in search of her missing brain. You better believe that when his partner asks him to put out his cig he tells him to "Quit whining like a sissy."
Erlendur's a great reactionary pulp hero because he does the right thing but in his own time and way. He's a product of his bleek environment, a world where the police coroner blithely eats his lunch with the same rubber gloves that he just handled a body with. When two of Eva's user buddies try to force their way into his apartment, he breaks one of their legs, takes a deep breath, calls an ambulance for him and props up his victim's leg with a pillow from his couch. This case, steeped in bodies and another precarious father-daughter relationship, does not change his worldview but rather provides the world-weary dick with a new routine that forces him to recognize what he already knew--life, like a ripe corpse, stinks but then you hold your nose and deal with it.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
110) The Tingler (1959) Dir: William Castle Date Released: July 1959 Date Seen: April 22nd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
As a stand-in for writer/director William Castle, The Tingler’s Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) is not that interesting a character. He, just like Price’s Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill (1959), is driven by the desire to find the next best way to trick his subjects/audience into screaming. Neither Chapin nor Castle treat their test groups as willing participants—I’d love to hear the reactions of lay moviegoers that found out all on their own about the tingling wires Castle put in participating movie auditorium seats—and hence they don’t need to disclose what they’re doing; after all, they’re not really trying to hurt them.
Dr. Chapin is striking however as half of the middle stage of the three types of heterosexual marriages that The Tingler presents. As a couple, Chapin and Isabel (Patricia Cutts), his unfaithful wife, are rather tame when compared to Ollie and Martha Higgins (Philip Coolidge and Judith Evelyn) but hardly as innocent as that of young lovers David and Lucy (Darryl Pickman and Pamela Lincoln), Isabel’s younger sister. Early on, Chapin proudly professes to identify with David’s innocent workaholic gusto but by film’s end, he’ll also admit that he can understand all too well why Ollie, a man looking for any excuse to get away from the ol’ ball-and-chain for a beer, might kill his spouse.
Don’t judge Ollie too harshly, just yet, dear reader, until you’ve heard a little bit about Martha. She’s the definition of a fussbudget, insisting on cleaning the theater they co-run once a week(!) and frantically checking her money as if it might evaporate as soon as she looks away. She’s a deaf-mute and hence can’t tell Ollie what she wants and almost always insists on having her way—the decors is not to Ollie’s taste but like so many other decisions made for or by his wife, he’s seemed to have grown used to it. To get away from her omnipresent domination, Ollie’s more than willing to turn their home into a makeshift haunted house—sort of a proto-House on Haunted Hill—as a manic last resort.
As we find out later in the film, that sense of urgency is something Chapin can relate to but it’s almost certainly nothing he’d ever enact. Chapin and his wife have an abusive relationship—she cheats on him, he glares at her and blithely mocks her about it—but he’s not the type to act on his suspicion, though they are always on his mind, much like his fascination with the evil titular metaphysical monster. In either case, he wants to go farther but just can’t seem to find the opportunity. Ollie however has motive and, thanks to Chapin’s explanation of how the Tingler works, a means. He’s Chapin’s wish fulfillment, albeit one that he ultimately recognizes is wrong—he stolidly admonishes Ollie at film’s end with some line about “murder is murder,” though he doesn’t exactly call the cops on the guy either.
In this hilariously sexist line of thought, one has to wonder: if Ollie is what Chapin could become and he’s in turn what David will almost certainly become considering their incestuous shared profession and family ties, how soon will Lucy start sleeping around? Like Loren’s marriage in House on Haunted Hill, the failure of Chapin’s marriage is a cynical fait accompli, one that is entirely not the fault of the obsessed working male. There’s always the thin possibility that Chapin’s reading too much into Isabel’s cagey behavior and the gold tie-clip left on the den’s coffee table but that’s entirely besides the point. What matters is wondering what circumstances and means a man could scare his subject, I mean wife, to death, a proposition as preposterous as it is quaintly macabre. Hitchcock would’ve been proud.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
109) Teeth (2007) Dir: Mitchell Lichtenstein Date Released: January 2008 Date Seen: April 21st, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5
Teeth (2007) might have been the rightful descendant of Paul Morrissey’s deadpan-camp monster sex comedy hybrids if it weren’t trying so damn hard to win its audience over. Like Morrissey’s films, writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s parody of Heartland, America is apropos of nothing. It exists only to announce its filmmakers boredom with bourgeois attitudes towards female sexuality. Lichtenstein’s smalltown American might as well be the Transylvania of Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974) as both are non-descript enough to provoke jeering laughs when they are inexplicably invaded by the ultimate outsiders: characters with New York accents (n Teeth, the coroner and the detective and the inimitable serf in Blood for Dracula).
Both Teeth and Blood for Dracula similarly hold in contempt the malignance and the self-important pathos that their simple misogynists’ cover up with hysteria—Jess Weixler and John Hensley pout and look beruddled very nicely. However, only Lichenstein’s film tries to entertain the audience, delving into Raimian camp while Morrissey further appeals to God knows who save himself. That kind of apathy is essential to making a truly subversive parody, leaving Lichenstein’s viewers only the modest pleasures of watching an extended sarcastic joke.
Photo from: Ménilmontant (1926)
ISF: Ballet Mécanique (1924) Dir: Fernand Léger Date Seen: April 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
In its heightened speed, Léger’s aggressive style of montage gets his point across. In his experimentation with mise en scene, specifically camera placement, Léger seduces us with the tantalizing promise of new technology.
ISF: Ménilmontant (1926) Dir: Dimitri Kirsanoff Date Seen: April 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
The most engaging of the avant garde shorts shown today. Writer/director Dimitri Kirsanoff’s presentation of the uniform bleakness of humanity is intriguing, positing that despite its lurid appeal, that the city is no more brutal in its repression than the country. Very heady and rather disturbing in how its final scene of graphic violence is expected and hence not nearly as disturbing as it might otherwise be.
ISF: The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) Dir: Germaine Dulac Date Seen: April 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
The ideawork in Dulac’s film is stirring but predictably cold for the most part. Though he’s never trying to really ingratiate himself to his viewer, the fact that he takes the effort to sporadically teases us, as with the mystical images of the tiny archipelago that the titular clergyman (“theater of cruelty” founder Antonin Artaud) conjures from his repressed imagination, suggests that he’s more than content to tease.
ISF: Symphonie Diagonale (1924) Dir: Viking Eggeling Date Seen: April 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5
As a visualization of Vertov’s theory of “interval”-based montage editing, it works. And it’s pretty.
ISF: Un Chien Andalou (1929) Dir: Luis Buñuel Date Seen: April 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
Fitfully engaging. I seriously have nothing intelligent to say about this film and I’m not sure there’s much to say save for I laughed at its humor and was perplexed by its surreal imagery.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Via my Twitter: "Leprechaun 4 would be sitting better w/me if the moronic script wasn't as painfully earnest but imaginatively bankrupt. Dumb fun otherwise./Ok, I lied: a lot of other stuff in Leprechaun 4 is pretty terrible too. I just like watching Warwick Davis....in spaaaace!"
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Saturday, April 18, 2009
This is where things really go off-the-rails. Because, according to this film, arbitrary divisions are the psychological root to the outbreak of violence that Vietnam started, logically(?!), the best predator to finally snuff out what life remains on our planet is (wait for it) a hermaphrodite space vampire. The sniper, formally unable or perhaps unwilling to admit to his culpability in the assassination of the messianic ambassador, is invaded by an alien presence that leaves a bloody vaginal scar right between its host’s eyes. I shit you not, that scar serves as a reminder that the sniper is now both himself and “other,” a transsexual figure that, it has to be noted, we see suck the blood out of mostly male victims for longer periods of time than the one or two females he pounces on.
More so than the film’s bleak Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) type ending, his gender transgression looks to be the truly final sign that we have seen the enemy and he is us. Whether or not that works as a metaphor is open for debate but I swear, just like how Momotake swears that he did not make a crew member say anything under hypnosis that wasn’t the absolute truth, all of this is in the film just waiting to be picked over by both the generically curious and the psychically troubled alike.
*He's not listed on IMDB. Help here would be appreciated.
**"Goke"="widow" in English.
Note: Speaking of Bava, the chintzy make-up effects at the end remind me of something from Lifeforce (1985) by way of Planet of the Vampires (1965). Strange mix for a strange film, I guess.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
105) Attack the Gas Station! (1999) Dir: Kim Sang-Jin Date Released (DVD): July 2004 Date Seen: April 15th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
Kim Sang-Jin’s Attack the Gas Station! (1999) excels at only one thing but that one thing is what makes it so much fun: attitude. In its brainless whatever-the-fuck mentality, Attack proves itself in thought and deed to be a punk film that sometimes looks like a mainstream youth action-comedy. In it, four moron slackers learn a lesson and take a stand against free-loafing cops one minute only to rob the gas station they’ve been holding up the next. They have to work for the money they’re stealing but they’re not joking when they say they have no idea where they’re going at film’s end.
The ambitions of the film’s stooge-like heroes are stupid simple—they rob a gas station twice for no other reason than they can—and so is the film’s script: get from point A-B and then worry about the rest of that other shit that comes afterwards as it comes. Any prescribed cultural critiques seem accidental considering how even basic plot points in the story appear and disappear with frighteningly casual regularity—whatever happened to that couple in the trunk?
Park Jeong-woo’s script is just as wonderfully listless, taking swings at local gangs, then joking about the neutered threat of Western commodities—Pepsi’s not a threat because, as one character points out, its blue, red and white symbol is from the Korean flag. Even our goons’ backstories, the ones that shed light on their current restlessness, are just one-off explanations that tie into insignificant plot points that are almost all forgotten right after they’ve been established. Without a plan and in no real rush to get to wherever the hell it’s going, Attack sacrifices complexity for authenticity's sake and is that much funnier for it.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
104) Observe & Report (2009) Dir: Jody Hill Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: April 14th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
There’s very little that I feel hasn’t by now already been overstated about the obnoxious and fairly self-evident psychology of violent delusions in Jody Hill’s Observe & Report so I’ll keep this brief. The infantilization of Travis Bickle's paranoiac power fantasies in Ronnie (Seth Rogen) the rent-a-cop is unbearably heavy-handed up until the film's final 20-30 minutes. At this point, the shit hits the fan so hard and fast that I rapidly became willing to be didactically alienated in exchange for a few long, good, ragged gasps of terrified laughter.
It should be said though that Hill is not Cronenberg and this isn’t A History of Violence (2005) and that’s a very good thing. By the film’s explosive finish, you can’t forget that you’re being lecture but you can feel thrilled about being so debased. I’m going to have to go with the wave of wary approval the film has earned and say: yes, O&R's crudely but effectively subversive explosions of violence work because they’re buttressed by meager but satisfying amateur psychology and a few very good supporting performances by Anna Faris and Michael Pena. And a wicked sense of humor; that helps a lot.
103) 10 Items or Less (2006) Dir: Brad Silberling Date Released: December 2006 Date Seen: April 14th, 2009 Rating: 1/5
Writer/director Brad Silberling’s 10 Items or Less (2006) is a perfect test for anyone who ever said that they could watch Morgan Freeman read the phone book and be sated. It’s a feel-good comedy about enduring life on the bluecollar margins by the director of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and the upcoming revamp of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Land of the Lost (2009). That’s right, before Siberling made Will Ferrell fight the Sleestaks he made a warm-hearted, low-budget trip into the faux-indie heartland and dragged down there Morgan Freeman with him.
Here Freeman, billed only as “Him,” isn’t playing the “magical negro” type that he normally does—he forfeits his race card when he picks at a cassette tape of Paul Simon and cooes at images from The Yearling (1946) playing on a TV at a Latino carwash. In Silberling’s real-world fantasy, Freeman is a “magical movie star” that swoops down from his ivory tower after four years of inaction to help Scarlet (Paz Vega), a dumpy(?!) supermarket employee in desperate need of a change of pace. Freeman’s an angel whose ability to enrich Scarlet’s life comes from his superhuman distance from the common people—he gawks at the low prices at Target, amazed that such a wondrous smorgasbord of savings exists. If you can’t tell by now, “Him”’s an idiot.
He’s also a major dick. As always, Freeman’s earnestness in the film is reflected by his tendency to shoot from the hip. In this case, however, he talks, and hence thinks, in Hollywood jargon: when he sees Scarlet’s ripped blouse, he fails to comfort her by stammering: “This? That’s nothing! That’s just a wardrobe change! Don’t worry about it.” The man, not so much kooky as he is insipid, has no regard for the plebeians whose toes he’s stepping on while he traipses through their lives like a Hollywood moonman confused by our quaint Earth customs—upon seeing the sign outside Scarlet’s trailer park community he smirks to no one in particular, “Star Mobile…ha! God, I feel at home already! This your neighborhood? Nice. Real…texture.”
Because Freeman’s our guide to the world of dead-end, working-class, immigrant America, the world according to 10 Items or Less looks as true-to-life as Disneyland’s "It’s a Small World" ride. As if it wasn’t enough that Scarlet lives in a trailer while being dicked over by her cheating future ex-husband (Bobby Cannavale), the fact that she drives a lemon-yellow Gremlin, the car that makes the Pinto look regal, tips us off to how stuck in place she's supposed to be. At this point, I’m laughing but not with Freeman or the film. These clichéd and absurd details are so piercingly obnoxious that it’s impossible to think that at some point, this character was intended to represent reality according to an outsider. Thank goodness Silberling isn’t making this kind of project his regular thing because man, this shit makes Lemony Snicket look genuwine.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Thursday, April 9, 2009
100) Tremors (1990) Dir: Ron Underwood Date Released: January 1990 Date Seen: April 9th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
The first sign of trouble in Tremors (1990) is the rapidly increasing body count followed in short-succession by the cussword count. “Son of a bitch…pardon my French. Son of a damn bitch!” howls Earl (Fred Ward) right after Valentine (Kevin Bacon), his hetero-partner-in-crime, almost gets bit by a mutant snake-a-ma-jig. As far as portents go, that's pretty innocent but not so tame as to be totally inoffensive. A smattering of blood and a pinc of four letter words are so seamlessly incorporated into the film’s script that they’re not quite overtaxed nor really understated, which for the plot in question is just right—after all, this is a film where a jackhammer causes a geyser of tomato soupy-type blood to bubble up from the desert floor. They’re obvious but effective blunt instruments, just like any of the other, perhaps more subtle, signifiers that screenwriters Wilson and Maddock skillfully employ. Their script isn’t without a noticeable amount of unintentionally campy hiccups, but the rest of their film is sturdy enough to take it and then some.
Bacon and Ward’s harmlessly crude camaraderie is one thing but their chemistry is just the most prominent fixture in the film’s collection of good ol’ boys and girls. The community of Perfection, population 14, as a bullet-riddled sign announces, is endearingly eccentric and thankfully not gratingly quirky. The generic character types that they each fulfill are jointly conceived by both their performers and screenwriters with enough supporting detail to make them more than just forgettable, empty-headed oddballs. Their hang-ups and proclivities, like Burt and Heather Gummer’s (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) defining obsession with an imaginary imminent apocalypse, almost always feel genuinely well-thought-out, which is the next best thing to feeling real when your film stars giant subterranean snake-things.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
99) The Burrowers (2008) Dir: J.T. Petty Date Released (DVD): April 2009 Date Seen: April 8th, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5
Ironically, while the sound on my DVD of writer/director J.T Petty’s The Burrowers (2008), appropriately spiked every time something went boom or someone gasped, the same could not be said about anything in the film. Petty’s horror-western isn’t nearly as audacious as it should be and never rises above nor sinks past the level of mediocrity that makes you want to either like it or leave it. Petty’s cast, script and direction aren’t that bad, but they’re not that good either, which, for a film about a search party’s fight against a group of giant subterranean worm-things, is the biggest disappointment of all.
98) Putney Swope (1969) Dir: Robert Downey Sr. Date Released: July 1969 Date Seen: April 8th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Via my Twitter: "Robert Downey just made William Klein's fiction films look like sober reportage." See my blog post for the New York Press.
Monday, April 6, 2009
97) Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) Dir: Stephen Chiodo Date Released: May 1988 Date Seen: April 6th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
The wonderful irony of Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) the Chiodo brothers—director Stephen and his co-writers Edward and Charles—is that it’s brimming with a wickedly subversive subtext but appears to make nothing of it. There’s not a single hard bone in the film, making its freakishly deformed alien clowns a blissfully superficial critique of the plethora of ‘80s horror pastiches that made mince meat out of ‘50s alien invasion yarns. The Chiodos weren’t trying to and certainly didn’t succeed in putting the nail in the subgenre’s coffin—Darabont and Russell’s The Blob (1988) was released scant months later—but they were smart enough to make their space invaders unapologetically bewildering. While their grotesque clowns are creepy enough to be scary, they’re also campy enough to be absurd. For that, the Chiodos deserve to have their cake and eat it too.
Exceptions should be made for any film whose central conceit so neatly pokes fun of the revisionist foundation that contemporary tributes like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) are built on. By having new pod people settle down in Everytown, USA, these films demanded that the viewer take their newly revamped retro-space terrors seriously. Using elaborate make-up and visual effects that oozed and exploded in all the right places, Carpenter's spsawn attempted to lure audiences away from Jason Voorhees and co. with the promise of good-looking new terrors made from now-restored scraps.
Therein lies the problem: The Blob feature a newly revived traditional terror, but is not really modern because of it. It lapses into the mindless chills of the slasher films it tries to distance itself from, because, as the Chiodos’ astutely recalls, there’s no rhyme or reason to a space invasion. The titular clowns are the ultimate carnivalesque figures because while they pose a serious threat to the town, it’s impossible to take them seriously. Much of the film is spent watching generic smalltown protags deny and re-affirm their existence, not because they’re being slaughtered for no apparent reason but because their murderers look too goofy to be wearing a hockey mask.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space is a perfect encapsulation of the paradox that even The Thing doesn’t answer satisfactorily: why is retro the new modern? The ability to claim affinity to the past’s generic horrors in order to condemn the present’s decadence is one thing but when the good guys can just as easily stand in for Reagan's good ol’ fashioned family values, something’s amiss.
The Chiodos’ surmount this challenge by having Mike and Debbie (Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder), the young lovers that first saw the clowns and lived to sound the alarm, plow ahead with their stories regardless of the doubtful stares they get. They know what they saw, even if they can’t prove it (“We saw it. That’s a fact…I know what I saw. I just can’t prove it. My proof is gone!”). Unlike the new and improved Blob, these bulb-nosed space creatures aren’t the catalyst for contemporary critique. Heck, they announce their facile intentions in big balloon-sized letters: “We’re just here to kill ya!”
Sunday, April 5, 2009
RV!: Zombi 2 (1979) Dir: Lucio Fulci Date Released: July 1980 Date Seen: April 5th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5
After recently watching City of the Living Dead (1980), director Lucio Fulci succeeded Zombi 2 (1979) with, I feel like I can appreciate what in the latter film, upon first view, seems like guileless and unintentionally abrupt pacing. Fulci uses that jarring and seemingly slipshod technique to illustrate Elisa Briganti’s screenplay’s fixation on ritual as unthinking action. To put it another way, the horror in Zombi 2 is not in being able to see any of the numerous, gratuitous make-up effects, but in seeing them without warning or explanation.
Zombi 2 fittingly enough cannibalizes this theme of the zombie as inexplicable terror from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), a key influence that Fulci acknowledged by claiming that his film was a sequel to Romero’s. In Zombi 2, the only explanation for the zombie outbreak comes from one character’s repetition of Dawn’s evocative but otherwise meaningless explanation about Hell having no more vacancies, which, incidentally, is taken directly from Revelations.* There’s no virus, no experiment gone wrong and no voodoo incantation to make sense of what’s happening. Bad shit just happens.
By chucking logical narrative explanation out the window, Fulci indirectly has justified making his film a loose collection of scenes that start and stop with all the grace of a bumper car. He’s only interested in action, violence and emotional responses as instinctual, automatic responses. In the infamous eye-busting scene, we don’t get to find out what happens to the girl after her cornea’s been raped by a jagged splinter. We’ve already seen that scene’s climax as the body is unfathomably and inexplicably violated. In his (pardon the pun) eyes, Fulci’s Buñuelian homage is justified because it, like the rest of the film, can be there. Intellectually, it makes sense but emotionally, it’s still just a wondrously unsettling bit of post-Hitchcockian bloodletting.
At the same time, Zombi 2’s giddily unfathomable violence makes the film’s final shoot-out, the most exciting part of the film, just a little more boring. As a tableau of violence, Fulci shows us in traditional shot-revere-shot fashion how and why blood gets shed (we see a zombie, then the guy about to blow him away and then the zombie getting blown away). After seeing all that violence come and go out of the blue, sensible action just seems like such a letdown, even if it’s presented in the film’s most consistently paced scene.
*Note: I lied.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
96) Sleep Dealer (2008) Dir: Alex Rivera Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: April 4th, 2009 Rating: 2/5
Via my Twitter: "SLEEP DEALER was far too formulaic, over-serious and under-developed in its melodrama for me to care about its equally lame cyberpunk ideas." See me elaborate in my upcoming review for the New York Press.
95) Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) Dir: Adam McKay Date Released: August 2006 Date Seen: April 4th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Of the three feature-length Adam McKay/Will Ferrell co-scripted fratboy comedies released thus far, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) is probably the most modestly amusing. Though it has a great supporting cast full of gifted improvisational comedians—Sacha Baron Cohen, John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon being my favorites—it just doesn’t have the sheer volume of gags as either Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Step Brothers (2008) and for a film that relies on such juvenile humor, that relative slackness can be fatal. It’s a fun, middle-of-the-road comedy with a fair amount of good hearty laughs but a little more spontaneity and spastic energy would’ve gone a long way.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
94) The Wicker Man (2006) Dir: Neil LaBute Date Released: September 2006 Date Seen: April 1st, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5
The contemporary discussion regarding writer/director Neil LaBute’s re-imagined version of Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man (1973) is problematically facile, devolving into two main condemnations. One camp accuses it of being laughably bad misogynistic trash while the other insists that the film’s delirious campiness is what it makes it a classic guilty pleasure. Both arguments willfully ignore crucial and integral clues that LaBute leaves along the way that have led me to believe that it’s an unsuccessful black comedy, one whose bombastic humor clouds its brash but relatively subtle critique of the phallocentricism inherent in the original film.
LaBute’s Wicker Man (2006) may be a smug and cocky re-interpretation of Schaffer’s screenplay but it also recognizes the absurdity of the original film's main conflict. In Schaffer’s version, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) might as well be the last Christian man on Earth, a stuffy but self-assured copper who confronts the residents of Summerisle, who are by contrast a horde of anti-nomian heathens. They’re his worst nightmare, a collective that is slow to respond to demands, equivocates even in the face of absolute certainty and worst of all, speaks plainly about sexuality, even in the schoolhouses (“And what does the Maypole represent, class?”). As their immodest clothing and bawdy singing indicates, they’re barbarically unchristian and fiercely proud of it. Summersisle is Howie’s Bizarroworld in miniature, a land where his prim and orderly methods are heretically held against him, making his death at the stake cruelly ironic.
In LaBute’s version, that hysterical fear of paganism is transformed into a blind distrust of strident femininity. Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) is a swinging dick motorcycle cop whose world is turned upside down when he’s unable to play the gallant knight and save a mother and daughter from a tragic and incredibly bizarre collision with a speeding 16-wheeler. This shatters his confidence and erodes his simple, chauvinistic worldview, as depicted by the western he’s watching at home. Aimlessly looking for answers, he seeks help in the most unlikely places— as a clichéd, all-powerful alpha male, one of the first signs we get of Malus’ cartoonish fear of inadequacy is that he resorts to a self-help book called Everything’s Ok! Now a broken man, he jumps at the opportunity to save the day when an incredible letter from an old flame provides him with a mystery and puts him on a chivalrous quest to find Rowan, a girl he’s never met but immediately suspects is his child.
From the very beginning, Malus is presented as the butt of the film’s final killing joke. On his way to Summersisle, he’s rudely awoken from a daydream of Rowan when the 16-wheeler that originally careened into her re-appears to finish the job (this is the first but sadly not last time it does so). His comically entitled attitude on the island confirms that he’s intentionally a parodic representation of empty-headed male patriarchal entitlement and not just an absurd and ill-defined B-movie protagonist. To get to Summerisle, he bribes his way there, joking with the pilot about fitting on board “all of us” just before whipping out some leafy green bills. Likewise, he responds to initial inquiries by suspicious natives with a blustery and insincere sense of superiority, making an ass of himself at every turn of his investigation by answering understandably defensive questions with thuggish answers like “I’m a cop.”
Alas, LaBute shoots himself in the foot by not consistently characterizing Malus with that kind of toothless distortion of macho behavior. As his fall guy and protagonist, Malus is alternately portrayed as a shrill critique of male ego-centricism and a sympathetic protagonist, making it impossible to see him as a plausible grotesque scapegoat. His douchebag attitude and blustery proclamations make his final, Ed Averyesque denouncement of “You bitches!” a terrific release of all the film’s ludicrous and uneven build-up but at that point, it also looks like one of several gaffes on LaBute’s part. What should be an ironically fatalistic triumph over the all-threatening phallic symbol turns out to be a Raimian freak-out that gives the Youtube rubberneckers exactly what they came for.