Sunday, August 15, 2010

170) The Dark Half (1993)

170) The Dark Half (1993) Dir: George Romero Date Released: April 1993 Date Seen: May 15, 2010 Rating: 3/5

Though The Dark Half, writer/director George Romero's adaptation of a short story by Stephen King, seriously takes a nose-dive once George Stark (Timothy Hutton), the pen name and now evil twin of mild-mannered writer and family man Thad Beaumont (also Hutton), starts talking, there's something about the film I find irresistible. For Romero, The Dark Half is a much-needed return to a more character-driven kind of horror film, something he hasn't really tried since Martin,* which is rapidly becoming my favorite of his films. Hutton's alternately inspired and just flat-out hammy performance really is the heart of the film, not the mostly unexplored idea that man needs to become schizophrenic in order to fully express themselves. Romero's script is crude and rambling but that's because he's trying to do something he's never really nailed down: fleshing out protagonists that are people first and a series of provocative tics second.

The Dark Half is also a nice reminder that Romero does know how and hence can cognizantly direct an evocative scene. His films aren't just a collection of neat concepts that infrequently pay off in a big way: there's a craft to it, as in the film's spectacular The Birds tribute, the ending in the hidden room, a brief street scene where Stark is stalking Beaumont, the rising tension in the scene where Stark pulls over his next victim or the one where he uses someone's head as a football. They're all sub-Bava or even sub-De Palma stabs at Hitchcockian suspense and hence just a riff on an established mode but I think Romero needs that from time to time; gives him some much-needed focus. Not a perfect film but certainly one I'm glad I saw on the big screen at BAM and a very nice way to kill time on a Saturday afternoon.

*As far as I know. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

169) Northface (2008)

169) Northface (2008) Dir: Philipp Stolzl Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: May 13, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

I liked most of it. But not by much. Sorry; it's just not an especially memorable film, sadly. See my review for the New York Press.

RV!: The Terminator (1984), 168) Commando, RV!: Predator (1987) and RV!: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)

RV!: The Terminator (1984) Dir: James Cameron Date Released: October 1984 Date Seen: May 11, 2010 Rating: 4/5

168) Commando (1985) Dir: Mark L. Lester Date Released: October 1985 Date Seen: May 11, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

RV!: Predator (1987) Dir: John McTiernan Date Released: June 1987 Date Seen: May 12, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

RV!: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) Dir: James Cameron Date Released: July 1991 Date Seen: May 17, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

A whole mess of Arnold pics for a big ol' essay about what I think are his three best/most complementary roles as an action star: Predator, Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Not going to publish this piece just yet as it's tied up with another project at present. But it's more than 3000 words long. So it's been written. As for Commando: the kind of cartoonish, half-cognizant violence I expect from Shane Black. And you by now should know how I feel about that guy's style of humor. Still: a lot more violent than most Black films and hence more entertaining.

167) Wall Street (1987)

167) Wall Street (1987) Dir: Oliver Stone Date Released: December 1987 Date Seen: May 8, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

There are two main things that make Wall Street one of my favorite of the admittedly small number of Oliver Stone's films* I've seen. Firstly: I love Michael Douglas's performance. I saw this a couple of months after rewatching Basic Instinct and I have to say, I really like Douglas when he's in sleazy smooth operator mode. There's that one scene in Basic Instinct where he's just had sex with Sharon Stone and he psyches her jilted lover out with a line as happily squalid as, "I think she's the fuck of the century. What do you think?" He says it so well. It left me begging for more, made me want to revel in that kind unibrow decadence just a little longer. And voila, just the thing for me.

Just so we're all on the same playing field: I don't think Wall Street works as a drama. Stone is self-consciously tackling zeitgeisty themes, scads of contemporary research and his ceaseless tyro's need to prove himself all at once. And while I know that's his M.O, that makes the script for Wall Street, which he co-wrote with Stanley Weiser, clogged with stiff, unconvincing and sometimes perplexing dialogue that sticks in the throats of all of the film's performers save for the better/more experiences ones. Charlie Sheen and John C. McGinley both gag a bit every now and then but Douglas never does.

Douglas's Gekko is flat-out convincing: I could see myself buying a used car from him, any used car, just gimme the lease now, please. There's gravitas to his Gordon Gekko and a fearful inevitability to his actions. I'm especially thinking of the scene where Sheen's Bud Fox is practically begging Gekko to stay interested in him while the two men take a ride in Gekko's posh limo (or was it a town car? I seem to remember a limo but I could be totally wrong). Douglas's lines are more than a little convoluted but they're ultimately inconsequential as he radiates such easy menace throughout the scene. He single-handedly saves the scene from devolving into a mess of ridiculous high-handed dreck with an exact but seemingly improvised show of nonchalance . That's Douglas at his best, effortlessly oozing charisma on command. A lot of papa Spartacus's charm rubbed off on him and boy does it show here (Gosh, I loveWonder Boys as much as the next guy but a man cannot subsist on Curtis Hanson alone).

The other thing I love about Wall Street is how absurd the film's concept of technological marvels is. I'm not talking about the fact that I'm watching Wall Street 23 years later from its original release date, which in technology years is pretty vast (like dog years, except smaller). Obviously, Wall Street is plenty dated and the thing that ties it to its specific place and time the most is the portable tv and the tape recorder Fox proudly and strategically whips out at just the right moments, as if he invented the damn things just for those moments.

But you don't have to be George Jetson to know that there's something inherently fishy about the idea that Fox is able to confidently walk up to anyone, let alone Gekko, in an open field in Central Park, with a clunky tape recorder down his pants (I know, I know, it's in his waistband but c'mon, humor me, will ya?) and do it with some swagger while doing it. Those things were massive. Just massive hunksa gadgetry. And Fox is strutting up to Gordon Gekko with one dangling around his crotch like he were the Mozza himself. Ah, such kitsch.

*At the time of this writing, I have only seen this, Platoon, Nixon, Alexander (director's cut) and W. I own VHS tapes of The Doors and Salvador though. And I'd love to see The Hand. Recommendations, preferably ones that try to take my taste into account, would be appreciated.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

RV!: Metropolis (1927)

RV!: Metropolis (1927) Dir: Fritz Lang Date (Re-)Released: May 2010 Date Seen: May 7, 2010 Rating: 4.75/5

The additional footage is the kind of flab I love to see, the kind that expands the fillm's mythos to even more gargantuan proportions. See my review for Slant Magazine.

166) The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

166) The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) Dir: Daniel Alfredson Date Released: July 2010 Date Seen: May 4, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

I groaned a bit less this time around. But only a bit. See my review for the New York Press.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

165) A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)

165) A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) Dir: Samuel Bayer Date Released: April 2010 Date Seen: May 3, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

It seems pointless to rhetorically ask where the mandate to remake A Nightmare on Elm Street comes from because in reality, producer Michael Bay and his croneys at Platinum Dunes never really needed one before so why start now? I get why Samuel Bayer, director of Nirvana's epochal "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video (yeah epochal: wrap your mind around that!), is at the helm on this titanic (nyuk nyuk) turd. He was hired to add technical sophistication and a grungy veneer to Wes Craven's film. Ok, fine, that's almost even clever in a unibrow kind of way. But why only accentuate instead of building on Craven's already shallow attempt at complicating conventional black-and-white generic morality?

Bayer's Nightmare on Elm Street does nothing with Craven's original film save make it more "extreme," "edgy" or something equally meaningless. The black hat-wearing child killer Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) is now a rapist and a pedophile. Instead of killing some children, he's raped a whole pre-school class of them. He raped them all. Every last one. There must be at least a dozen of them. They didn't speak up until after he'd finished his rape marathon and he was never caught in the act. He raped all of them. Disgusting and reprehensible, absolutely, but also kind of impressive. And with those words, I've just become a "person of interest." I swear, fellas, it's not what you think!

So Freddy's a pedophile and that's worse than murder according to the film because it means these kids have had to grow up having to live with that terrible trauma all their lives. Just as in Craven's original film, Freddy's return is a tacky literal manifestation of revenge of the repressed except here, Freddy's targets were directly wronged by him. In the original, the sins of the fathers were literally visited on the next generation of suburban American kidilinks. This was already a stale idea when Craven did it in his 1984 Nightmare. Twelve years after Last House on the Left, Craven's notorious debut, and he was still only vaguely addressing the theme of subconscious societal evils surfacing in the form of communal Franken-boogeymen that are only as ugly as the people that created them. You can't improve something if you don't think it needs fixing in the first place so it stands to reason that fawning screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer did nothing to address what Craven couldn't or maybe just didn't.

So what does Bayer's Bayer's remake do? Show us everything that Craven did and a lot that he didn't. This is most grating in the way that Bayer gives good fan service by strictly redoing the iconic death scenes* of the original film. These scenes are often hideously overdone in Platinum Dunes' characteristic more is MOAAR aesthetic: I can't remember seeing a filmmaker abusively overuse slow motion this badly in a long while. I kind of like that decadence, to be honest, because I think there's something inherently attractive about filmmakers that seem to make creative decisions by committee and always have more money than they know what to do with. Normally that's my kind of trainwreck.

But again: why does this film exist? Bayer and his screenwriters don't even seem comfortable with the bed they've made for themselves in attempting to thoughtlessly update Craven's film instead of, y'know, remaking it. They don't know what they should show and what they should leave to the imagination, something even Craven, a hack par excellence, knew how to do. We see Freddy get burned to death by the Elm Street kids'** parents all those years ago, writhing around in his ass-ugly red and grey wool sweater in the most risibly funny slowmo scene in the film. We even see Freddy's lair because for some reason, the final girl and boy are determined to exonerate Freddy, as if somehow they were determined to find their parents out and blame all their problems on mommy and daddy. And when they finally do accept that Freddy was in fact a voracious pedophile, it's only after they're briefly convinced that their parents made the whole thing up and that Freddy was never bad at all. Bayer's retread isn't even able to conjure the superficial moral grey zone that pervaded Craven's Nightmare. So again: where's the beef?

Maybe if Bayer's Nightmare didn't feel exactly like the Platinum Dunes' other slasher remakes in that they're all shiny, oversexed and completely brainless rehashes that haven't got a worthwhile original bone in their bodies, I'd say that that purposelessness doesn't matter. But like whoa, it /is/ just another Platinum Dunes remake. I admit, I could watch the film at times. But not for very long.

*Tangental rant: I'm disheartened to see that most reviews of horror movies Iread use the term "kill scenes" instead of "death scenes." I understand that the latter emphasizes a fetishized quality that the former does not. But "kill scenes" is as sub-literate as it gets and an unfortunate reminder of the boundaries of the genre ghetto I often find myself working within.

**I would absolutely roll up for a new Nightmare sequel if it was a crossover with Our Gang, but only if the film's surtitle something like The Little Elm Street Rascals Aren't All Right.

162) Metropia (2009), 163) Into Eternity (2010) and 164) Lola (2009)

162) Metropia (2009) Dir: Tarik Saleh Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 1, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

163) Into Eternity (2010) Dir: Michael Madsen Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 2, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

164) Lola (2009) Dir: Brillante Mendoza Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 2, 2010 Rating: 2.5/5

The last Tribeca 2010 review capsule round-up for the New York Press. I swear. No more. Until next year.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

RV!: The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

RV!: The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) Dir: Tom Six Date Released: April 2010 May 2010 Date Seen: May 1, 2010 Rating: 4/5

If Tom Six never made the sequel to The Human Centipede (First Sequence) that his debut feature's title threatens viewers with, it would only serve to confirm my understanding of what makes First Sequence so playfully demented. It's nice to know that after a second viewing, I still find the film to be gripping, effectively queasy and a small wonder of new pastiche and exploitation cinema. Six announces his perhaps overdetermined control over the film from the start in the simple but effective pan his camera makes on the outskirts of a rather sizable highway. The shot, like the film, is overt in announcing Six's total control over what the viewer is seeing. It's very telling that this is how Six starts the film, immediately trying to impress the viewer with a visually literal and highly overt show of his authorial powers. The frequent mood swings that will come later in the film are deliberate. There is an intelligence to the film's shallow but deliberately frustrating direction. And now that you've presumably seen the film, I can go deeper into explaining how Six accomplishes that. Spoilers ahead. Duh.

To start, I think one has to address what I'm now more sure than ever is a deliberate shallowness to the film's narrative, tone, structure, aesthetic and acting. There isn't a coherent context that the film's events can be understood within. They do not exist in any kind of cogent history beyond a tentative allusion to Japanese kamikaze pilots and Nazis, which sadly does not a WW2 allegory make. Dieter Laser's Dr. Heiter is distressingly unreadable. Laser camps it up mercilessly and yet remains a serious threat not just because he has some supremely disgusting plans for the film's central three victims but rather because his motives cannot be understood beyond a point.

Beyond his clipped but disjointed speech, the only things that shed light on Heiter's character is his house's distinguishing fixtures, of which there are very few. The conspicuous black candles on his dining room table and the ultrasound mural behind his couch are the only signs that somebody has ever lived in there. It's spacious and lit with an ominous and ubiquitous fluorescent lighting throughout, from the fuzzy white that simulates natural lighting in the bedroom to the baby neon blue of the downstairs laboratory's medicine cabinet. There's a swimming pool with a rather large fresco featuring ridiculous Romanesque figures frolicking about but apart from that, the place could have been rented for the weekend and nobody would know but Heiter.

Heiter's dialogue and actions are even harder to parse. He's a very cartoonish villain, wielding his rifle from outside his bedroom floor-to-ceiling windows like a boy playing at being a soldier one moment, then enjoying pasta and canned tomato sauce the next. Without any understanding of where his abnormal behavior comes from, apart from the knowledge that he's previously experimented on his beloved "three-dog," the viewer isn't privileged with any insight into his psyche.

By making Heiter so flamboyant and so vile in his single-minded preoccupations, Six is knowingly pushing the viewer to ask for things he won't give them. There's no stabilizing explanations here, no ideological intent to justify Heiter's actions and hence no way to know what's really going on. The fact that the movie could effectively end halfway in, after the centipede is created, shows you that what the viewer is seeing is not motivated by a totally coherent narrative. We get the breadcrumbs that Six gives us and we only get that if and when he feels like giving them.

Six's nigh-tyrannically self-assured grip extends to the way he treats the human components of the eponymous centipede like playthings that he's emotionally invested in. We know that Six cares for the two American girls, or at least sympathizes with them enough to give them that crucial scene where they clasp hands, a scene that feels all the more poignant and significant the second time around. But beyond that, they are characters whose fates are irrevocably sealed. Their lives are now inexplicably headed towards a weird and very demeaning fate. There are two scenes that suggest these kids never had a prayer and they're not coincidentall the film's pivotal escape attempts. Here Six shows how well he can draw out tension and the extent of his film's pessimism. He can't help himself from frustrating the viewer. The scene in the pool and the one where the Japanese guy kills himself perfectly showcase Six's central preoccupation with anticlimaxes. That is what the centipede is, not a fetish to be feared reverently but rather an anti-climax, a grotesque menace that is realized midway through the film. Any narrative momentum in the film ultimately directs the viewer off a series of cascading cliffs.

That cycle of anticlimaxes is also central to understanding what the centipede represents, specifically what little it says about the disintegration of communication between total strangers. In light of the way the film ends, I couldn't help but focus on the way characters interact with one another in the film. Sympathy for these poor mechanicals is obviously generated by situational peril but I can't ignore the wisp of humanity, that potential for good expressed when the two Americans hold hands, in the film. I've never seen the ugly bimboish quality that so many did in the Americans, especially not before their first encounter with Heiter. They're under duress and very, very on edge. But never unduly ugly, never to the point where we can disavow the validity and humanity of their nervous reactions.

What the centipede does is force a group of estranged people to work together, to physically rely on one another as they do in the second escape attempt. Heiter's experiment is positioned as a regressive exercise meant to see if its participants can regain a lost part of their humanity, forcing them to see beyond their own immediate needs and to understand and appreciate their reliance on others. The disappointing end result of that trial by fire speaks to a damning cynicism that explains the film's constant need to throw the rug out from under the viewer. Because there is no hope nor any understanding to be found in The Human Centipede (First Sequence) after that final precipice, making the title's hint of further sequences all the more bleakly funny. I look forward to a sequel but I don't expect nor do I really need one.

161) Le Combat dans L'Ile (1961)

161) Le Combat Dans L'Ile (1961) Dir: Alain Cavalier Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: May 1, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

When I was watching Le Combat Dans L'Ile, I remember being consistently involved with how the romantic intrigue between the three central protagonists stood in for its main political tension. I also remember constantly waiting for some kind of bigger payoff. Cavalier's direction is effective and there's a lot of great moody set pieces. But there's no sustained tension beyond the search for the missing bazooka and the fear that a greater reckoning of some kind is on the way. Pretty dissatisfying beyond a point but not something I want to completely dismiss. Should revisit a while. Not anytime soon.