Thursday, September 29, 2011

Alone Together

Jean Renoir once said that the only real way to gauge the talent of a crop of filmmakers is to have everyone make the same movie. Unless everyone makes a western, how will you know whether their strengths transcend their obsessions? I like to think we've come to see that the eye-roll that used to greet Westerns and horror films critically is not only unfair, it's unproductive. The odd direct-to-dvd cheapie is going to piss on the buffet, sure, but let's look at the year 2007. Think about the few mainstream westerns that were given runs in a proper movie house; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men (if you will). At the risk of losing my academic edge, those films fucking rule. Granted, I'm sure they sure weren't pitched like Anthony Mann would have pitched The Naked Spur to studio heads, but they're grammar is all Mann, Ford, Huston and Boetticher. Actually that's not entirely true. There's also a shit load of McCabe & Mrs Miller, Robert Altman's gorgeous, opiate ode to the west. In Altman's filmography McCabe was sandwiched between a war film, a countercultural whiff, a trippy horror film, an old fashioned showbiz movie warped into a docudrama, a dystopian sci-fi lark and a dustbowl crime dramedy. Without genre films what the fuck would Robert Altman have done in the 70s? Without the genre film just what the fuck is the Golden Age of Hollywood? In fact, where the fuck does the establishment get off using Genre to describe anything other than gripping drama or films about jesus? Sorry, my point is that if you want to know what a director is capable of, if you want their style distilled to its essence, put them in charge of a western or a sci-fi film. This year Nic Winding Refn, Kelly Reicherdt, Takashi Miike, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Rupert Wyatt, Jon Favreau, Craig Gillespie and Gore Verbinski saddled themselves with the conventions of films outside of their usual mindblowing personal projects and all acquitted themselves admirably, if not actively making their previous work pale in comparison. But the person I'm here to talk about once again is Lars Von Trier. In the last two years Lars has released movies that, if you squinted, were genre exercises, but were really just Lars Von Trier films. Any director worth his salt makes a film that you could recognize a mile off as the work of its creator. Swanberg and Refn come out best on that score of those listed above but Von Trier has them beat hands down. From the first second we clap eyes on Kirsten Dunst conducting electricity through her fingers in slow motion, we know which demigod has created the universe we're now locked inside. Granted it took Dogville, Manderlay, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark for us to know that, but the genre film is too important because as we'll see, it may be the only place the artist can still thrive.

by Lars Von Trier

We meet Justine on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Everyone tells her it should be the happiest day of her life. She keeps acknowledging that it should be the happiest day of her life. Yet every second she can give over to it is spent running away from the things meant to make her happy. She's just been married to charmingly simple Michael and her sister Claire and her husband John have thrown them a wedding that out-does Michael Cimino's most resplendent ceremonies in its lavishness and John is not about to let her forget how much fucking money he spent on this wedding, as if reminding her how much effort went into it makes it seem like any better an idea in Justine's mind. For despite everyone's best efforts, it's Justine's depression, not John's money, Claire, their horrible parents, her boss nor her husband, that is running the show. After every imaginable escape attempt, her husband finally takes the hint and leaves. Justine stays at John and Claire's enormous estate for as long as they'll have her but even that doesn't last long. Her depression is her only company in the week following her wedding so finally Claire sends a car to her house to pick her up. Justine might not be fit to get out of bed, but Claire's going to make sure that she's in bed near people who care about her. And just as Claire makes it her mission to cheer Justine out of her crippling depression for what must be the hundredth time, John starts worrying about Claire. The thing that has Claire having kittens is that a small planet has been spotted. Not just by astrophysicists either. Justine saw the damn thing on her wedding night and it's just gotten bigger since then. Claire has spent a little too much time on the internet and thinks that "Melancholia" is going to crash into the earth and kill everything on it. John, being the kind of know-it-all his wardrobe and wealth betrays, is something of an amateur astronomer and he concurs with the most reasoned argument that it's just on a fly-by course and will do nothing more than temporarily encroach on the atmosphere and impede everyone's breathing for a few minutes. That may be, but John's certainty betrays not only his insufferable behavior. After all, only so much of it is for Claire's benefit. He too needs convincing that Melancholia isn't going to kill all life on earth and the more he talks the more he sounds like he's trying to fool himself. In fact the only person who remains unflappable in the face of the greatest uncertainty in man's history is Justine. She seems certain that not only are they doomed, it's not even that big a deal. So who's right?

On its face Melancholia is one of the clumsiest metaphors in the history of film. A planet called Melancholy threatens to kill everyone on earth. Well...fucking duh. As someone with what I've always considered at least depressed tendencies (never diagnosed, never serious enough to consider diagnoses, won't pretend for a second it's as serious as those who have it, please forgive my attempts at empathy here) and who's had seriously depressed friends (To put it another way I've never been as hopeless as Justine, but I've certainly been Claire, spending whole days thinking of something to cheer someone up who won't crack, nor will they share their problem), I understand the urge to make a movie with this big and loud a message propping it up. It takes nothing so much as hearing someone argue about the wrong thing to have me thinking exclusively of how cruel and pointless life seems. All Von Trier (who has very publicly shared his depression) is doing is removing any and all associations and getting to the heart of the problem. There's death hanging literally in the sky. You can try to run from it, as Claire literally tries to, but what have you accomplished? Justine's insight into what is starting to plague her sister and her family is what keeps her grounded. This may be new for Claire, but this is just getting out of bed for Justine. Now here's the thing. I completely understand why Von Trier abandons subtlety here. He's a middle-aged man with probably very few friends and the world doesn't find his brand of humour all that funny. I, however, do. Not only do I understand him, I've made a film about death with at least as little subtlety as Melancholia, except without the metaphor. That film, Tron Wayne Gacy, is entirely about someone who thinks about death so much that it effects people he barely knows. This character is me, like Justine (and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist before her) is Von Trier. So, yeah, on paper, he made a film that could hardly be any more screamingly obvious, but in practice he made one of the few films that accurately depicts depression, and one of the most beautifully rendered cinematic love letters of the last decade.
The reason I didn't notice how clumsy Melancholia is (except when John says the planet's name for the first time) is because Lars Von Trier's style is winning at the best of times and here, in a movie where characters are not actively out to destroy each other, it becomes as engrossing as a down bed with silk sheets. The opening montage of apocalyptic tableau bests even those corresponding shots in Antichrist. The wedding is filmed so beautifully (and I can't express enough how much I love the setting and Von Trier establishes its boundaries) that it took me quite some time to recognize how miserable the lead is. Of course, that's not just the cinematography. It turns out that beneath an eminently, distractingly likable exterior, Kirsten Dunst is one of the finest actresses of the day. She commands the first half of the film with such ease, her actions slowly unfurling a complex and fragile personality. It definitely made me wish she was in the second half of the film as much more than the devil on Claire's shoulder. Watching her with Michael (fabulously underplayed by Alexander Skarsgård, whose father Stellan, plays Justine's overbearing boss) in the film's first proper scene is heartbreaking. You believe these two are in love. No, that's not right. You believe that he's in love, you slowly realize that she wants to be in love, but that someone as vanilla as Michael is never going to be enough to stop her from being herself. All he needs is that perfect midwestern accent to convey how fall short of the mark he falls. Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt play the overwhelming parents. They didn't need a single line of dialogue; their presence is shorthand. Hurt is a scatterbrained hellraiser, Rampling an ice-cold bitch. They needn't have said anything and we would know why Justine's suffering from depression. Gainsbourg is believable, as always, and likable as the supposedly normal one trying to keep everyone together while her sister simply does what's going to keep her sane from moment to moment. The other revelation is Kiefer Sutherland giving a fucking dynamite performance as the arrogant John. It's the part he was born to play. I'm glad that even when the other brilliant players went home after the wedding, he hung around. A word about the wedding. It takes up a little less than half of the film and is a showcase for Kirsten Dunst more than it is anything else. But what it is secondly is a Zentropa family reunion and as such I felt like I was invited in to something truly special, drinking wine with the only people who Lars Von Trier thinks of as family. Skarsgård, Hurt, Udo Kier (the funniest part of this occasionally funny film), Gainsbourg are all veterans of Zentropa productions and Brady Corbet and Jesper Christensen have proved their euro-arthouse cruelty credentials quite sufficiently to fit right in. The only surprise is that Kirsten Dunst leaves absolutely everyone in the dust. She's breath-taking, for one thing, and her child-like frustration and unpredictability makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her.

With as big a driving force as a planet maybe falling to earth, Von Trier doesn't even need to hammer home his big themes or human misery as cruelly as is his wont. No one hits anyone, no one raises their voice for more than a few seconds, no one is incapable of feeling. In fact I'd say these are the most human characters we've seen in one of the Danish auteur's films since...well, maybe ever. And as he's not too busy making sure everyone goes into histrionics or remembering imaginary boundaries, he lets the film student in his soul dress the set. Scott Tobias likened the film to Solaris, which by an interesting coincidence I watched not a day before seeing Melancholia, and that's certainly a possible reference point, what with its planet-as-legend-to-the-grieving-process motif. Dunst steps into Natalya Bondarchuk's adorable/sinister innocence for the first half of the film and Gainsbourg's frantically losing her footing resembles Donatas Bonionis dealing with his wife's appearances aboard the ship. But that doesn't quite cover it. If Antichrist was his tribute to Tarkovsky, I'd wager what that means is Stalker and The Mirror with a hint of Nostalghia. There is the same studied grace of every person in the frame that came to characterize Andrei Tarkovsky's films (from Andrei Rublev on, his actors looked like they were cut from some ancient tree, crafted by the director himself) present throughout. Kirsten Dunst in her wedding dress is Von Trier's most active and personal creation. It's what people will be putting in their films to signify his influence years from now. Just as thanks to Andrei Rublev, the presence of a horse will always be shorthand for Tarkovsky, and perfectly sculpted hedges in the floodlights signifies Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad, if the eventually claustrophobic party at a mansion didn't do it for you (or if you thought he was merely nodding in the direction of his one-time Dogme partner Thomas Vinterberg's best film to date The Celebration). And though Solaris is too obvious to ignore but the set-up comes right out of The Sacrifice, perhaps tellingly the Russian master's final film. In that movie Erland Josephson tries to thwart nuclear war by bedding a poor neighbor. Justine tries to cure her wandering displeasure the same way. The world maybe ending on an endless green landscape bonds the two films tightly, even if ultimately Von Trier emerges the better filmmaker in this case. Why? Genre.

A few weeks ago I saw a film called Another Earth whose sci-fi trappings were really just a springboard for an unconvincing romance and an exploration of grief that I'd seen before and better. The problem is that the makers of that film evidently thought they were making something greater and more important than sci-fi and spend so little time on the ramifications of a plot device not at all dissimilar from Melancholia. In that film the planet is identical to earth and not an ominous, lifeless wake-up call. The films work to opposite purposes. Another Earth uses its planet as a cure for one man's depression with the promise of hope and possibility. Melancholia's planet is meant to remind us that we're entirely the fuck alone in the universe and that we have to acknowledge horrible things to really be able to face the idea of death. Tellingly, Another Earth spends so little of its run time on its titular plot device and comes across as achingly inessential despite its best efforts to be bigger than the two cloying romantics it centers on. It has important things to say about love and forgiveness. Melancholia has one thing to say and like Solaris, you can never escape it. Just as you're trapped aboard a spaceship for all but the opening 45 minutes of the film, Von Trier's opening montage ensures you never forget about his planet. Just because it's set on earth doesn't make it any less of sci-fi film than Solaris or Moon or Sunshine, even if it's a heady, unscientific sci-fi. Like those films, it takes one motif (the sun, the moon, another planet) to explore the human condition, the idea being we have to go there, to the farthest reaches of the universe, to be truly alone with ourselves and our problems. Von Trier figures there's no reason to leave and gets in the same punches with an even heftier emotional weight than the other movies. The reason Solaris is a better film than The Sacrifice (and the better known of the two) is because it hides its message in the fantastical, something cinema is made for. The Sacrifice is a big important movie about big important issues and for goodness sakes can you believe this cold war!? It's not relevant today, but by setting Solaris in the future and generalizing his crises, he made a lasting and beloved classic, at least among freaks like me. Sci-fi lent Tarkovsky a cushion for his ideas, just as it does for Von Trier.
I should come clean and admit that I've seen everything he's ever done. Von Trier is the White Stripes of the film world; they made some of the most incredible rock music of all time, but none of their albums work from start to finish. Jack White's uncanny ability with a guitar mimics the miracles Von Trier pulls with his digital imagery (the chapter markers in Breaking the Waves, the tableau of his latest work, the sheer audacity of the way he filmed Dogville and Manderlay - though I'd only call the latter of them really pretty) and, you know, I'll go ahead and stop this comparison right here. This fucking thing is long and convoluted enough as it is. Suffice it to say The White Stripes broke up before they released their Melancholia. Anyway, Von Trier is an artist whose explorations are never less than fascinating. But the issue is that I can only stomach his genre exercises enough to watch them twice. Anyone who watches Dancer in the Dark for fun should probably find out who Lars is seeing about his depression and schedule an appointment. I was always kind of amazed that some of his movies were given DVD releases. Who the shit can sit through Breaking The Waves or The Idiots twice? I don't regret seeing any of his movies, but I never want to see some of them again. I've never been tempted to find Dogville again. Like Michael Haneke's best known works, the ideas work well enough that I don't need a second visit. Give me Time of the Wolf over The Piano Teacher anyday (speaking of Tarkovskian...). But even though his films were hitherto like arthouse bootcamp, to me, that just makes Melancholia that much more special. His work and I have been flirting since we discovered each other and it took getting to know each other, a courtship that spanned at first only seeing youthful zeal and incredibly appealing aesthetics (Europa, The Element Of Crime, The Kingdom). This gave way to an untenable Marxist hardening, the equivalent of watching them date other people and mirror that person's personality to the point that you wonder if you'll ever get together (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots). But they broke it off eventually, and it was hard (Dancer), but personal growth showed me what I saw in them to begin with (Dogville, Manderlay). Then they played coy (Five Obstructions, Boss Of It All) but with the blanket of the horror genre, it finally seemed like it was time to give this thing a shot. She was certainly sending signals. And now, Lars Von Trier's films and I are on the same page. Not only could I see watching Melancholia again, I can't fucking wait to own it so I can watch it in perpetuity alongside Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Let The Right One In, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Inception. It may have taken our whole lives, but it was worth the wait.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Profondo Argento - L'Apertura

It took almost two years but Giallo finally saw a tiny theatrical release in England. It was the filmmaker's fault, they didn't pay Adrian Brody, for one, and as the man plays two roles and is basically the reason it got made, I for one don't have much sympathy for the moneymen. It got trashed, critically, of course. There was no way it wouldn't. It's not very good and suffers from the same things that have plagued Argento since he stopped making movies about witches. He's insisted on making, or at least releasing, every film in English. This means either terrible dubbing or directing in a language he doesn't know all that well. He may know what makes audiences squirm but lately he's been doing it unintentionally. Now I can't say I disagree with popular opinion, that he's past his prime, but where I do take exception is that they don't see that his prime ended directly after Inferno. Argento's worst movies, to my eye, are the movies were made in the 80s. I like Phenomenon well enough but he wasn't the man to direct it. Demons is vile and nonsensical. Opera is incredibly misguided and must be the only movie set in an opera house that has a score composed entirely of shitty 80s hair metal. How anyone puts up with it is beyond me. And Tenebrae is so screamingly, indefensibly awful it must surely be called his greatest failure. So while I absolutely agree that Giallo and really anything he made in the last decade isn't quite up to snuff, it's time to correct any misgivings about what that used to mean. Argento didn't rise to near legendary status without at least partially deserving it right? On this day, which coincidentally is also the very day that shooting has wrapped on his newest film, Dracula 3D, let's start from the very beginning and figure out how high he set so high the bar that his critics now use to beat him. Let's get back to basics.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage
By Dario Argento
While walking home one day, journalist Sam Dalmas witnesses an attempted murder. The police show up and question him endlessly but all he can tell them is what little he's certain of. He saw a man in a black leather coat and hat stab a woman in white on a staircase, then the man fled the scene. The cop in charge of the investigation, Inspector Morosini, keeps his passport all the same as Sam's the only witness and they have no other leads. This bothers him, as I'm sure you can imagine, as he doesn't think he can be of any more use, but on his way back from the station the killer shows up again and tries to cut his head off with a big-ass knife. So maybe he knows more than he thinks. After a few days of being pumped for information and continually reliving the murder in his head, Sam decides he's going to try his hand at solving the crime. He figures out that the girl was one in a long line of shopgirls who've been killed in Rome over the last few weeks. Monica Ranieri, the woman he saved, was only exceptional in that she survived. The killings resume a few days later and Sam increases the intensity of his investigation with his girlfriend Julia serving as his aid. Sam interviews a whole host of subjects, each stranger than the next, and the attempts on his life continue all the while. A man tries gunning him down in the street but gets away. Interviews with a pimp, a shop owner and an artist all bring him closer to the truth, but will it be too late?

The most remarkable thing about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is how unremarkable it seems today. The plot is totally by the numbers, especially if you've seen as many serial killer films as I have. It's slightly more effective than most gialli and/or Italian policiers of the day and certainly easier to sit through, but next to The French Connection or Frenzy, it looks naive. Ok, maybe that's not fair. Maybe hip or modern is the right word. It's a product of its time, and I don't mean just because of its being stilted or politically incorrect - only rarely does it fall into either trap. It's far more vigorous and youthful than either film, but it's combination of antique editing gambits, jazzy score and comic interludes prevents it from being anywhere near as terrifying as its most terrifying elements. Every single person that Tony Musante's character interviews is played for comic relief, which wouldn't be an issue if Argento had a better sense of humour. Although there are a few things here that still make me laugh. When picking perverts out of a line-up at the police station, a man in drag steps out, only to be recalled by Morosini. “How many times do I have to tell you Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” To which the disgruntled queen replies: "Well I should hope so!” Never not funny. But the one thing you don't ever feel is the kind of oppressive mean spirit you get from most Italian horror movies. The comedy might be heavy handed but the rest of the movie is comparably light. It's fleet enough that it escapes the same class of brute that the Italian film industry was producing at the time. In fact there are moments where you could mistake its intelligent staging for an American film. The one thing you almost wouldn't mistake it for is the work of its director.
Having watched everyone of his movies (admittedly in the wrong order) I was ready for full-on rape and gore and screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth and to tell you the truth I was sort of dreading watching it. But this was Dario before he'd had his heart broken. The Dario Argento I like is the one who started as Italy's golden boy and turned into a real artist when he tired of what the genre could offer him. He'd worked as a critic and scenarist in the industry for many years until he finally got his big break. His dad was something of a mogul at the time and so when Dario stepped up to bat he had the keys to the kingdom. Working the camera was Vittorio Storaro, future DP of Apocalypse Now among other things. The score was written by none other than Ennio Morricone, to whom Argento had the audacity to suggest avant garde music as an influence. It obviously worked because the music's minimalist percussion is gripping and ahead of its time. The young turk had all the resources he could ever need and did things his way. The result is everything you'd expect from a cinephile with a particular affinity for Edgar Wallace and Hitchcock. The filmmaking is energetic and fun. The use of the POV cam is so in-your-face it's almost percussive; North Americans wouldn't use it in this way for another few years. He took the principle from Peeping Tom and the MO from Mario Bava and shot it like he imagined Alfred Hitchcock would have, but this is definitely its own beast. There are splendidly executed tracking shots. There's the famous scene where Argento put a camera on a bungee cord to simulate a victim falling to his death. The action moved so quickly that the focus puller was often too slow. Chances were being taken. The Italian film industry is so paint-by-numbers that you're lucky to find anything as exciting or demented as the best of Sergio Martino or Joe D'Amato, and they all followed Dario's lead. For a few years anyway, he wasn't making films like an Italian. Tony Musante makes for a much more likable hero than we usually get, someone not tainted by some ancient crime or other. His relationship to Suzy Kendall's character is also breezy and believable; a breath of fresh air, to be sure. The editing is straight out of Hitchcock; he even replicates the shower scene in a closet and makes it even more ghastly. Reggie Nalder even shows up, essentially reprising his role from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The scene where Sam is trapped between two glass doors for the murder and its aftermath is truly wonderful. After a certain period, no one in Italy would give over this much time to someone simply being anxious and powerless. Unless a knife is being brandished the camera doesn't care. Here Argento lets Musante's helplessness sink in and lets us feel the seconds tick by as the woman bleeds and the killer gets away. It's exactly the sort of thing the master of suspense would have done in his heyday. The shot is also beautifully composed; like the rest of the movie it's far prettier than most of his peers ever cared to try for.

Dario was a crucial figure because like Mario Bava he was the filmmaker that the rest of the world saw and associated with Italy. Unlike Bava, he seemed to understand that he was part of film history. The referential quality of his images and editing put him in the same company as Corman's brats, but unlike Coppola or Scorsese he started out with total control. Look at the chase scene with Reggie Nalder. He shot it in such a way that conventional editing was impossible, so we are meant to draw conclusions. Its interesting to look at and he gave his audience far more credit than most directors, or rather understood that film required suspension of disbelief. It's better than real, or at least more fun. The police line-up, for instance, looks more like a movie screening for executives than an actual police headquarters. Mario Bava was the first director in Italy to make full use of the redness of blood and the mechanics of filmmaking to such an unreal degree, but he was far more interested in set dressing and gore. Dario would adopt this approach later but at first what he cared about was craft. How to edit together a stalking scene cleverly rather than deliver the most gruesome death scene. In fact all of the deaths in Crystal Plumage are either cheats or off screen, something I didn't pick up on the first time I saw it, a testament to their effectiveness. The pace and tension are also maintained with a preternatural sureness. It is a detective story, not actually too dissimilar from the sort of thing Graham Greene used to write (Argento is not nearly so curtly eloquent, but that’s not the point), the largest difference being that we see things from the killer’s perspective. Which itself was not a new development but its intensity was second only to Bava and would become the norm for serial killer films, albeit indirectly.

All this is one way of saying that Bird isn't the best movie you'll ever see but it's absolutely worth watching and absolutely better than most of the American slasher films that would steal from it indirectly in the decades that followed. Argento's enthusiasm is infectious and carries the film through its few weak spots. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage contains all the elements of the gialli - black gloved killer, knives a plenty, wrongfully accused man, characters solving the murders along with the audience, last-minute bait-and-switch - but they're all a canvas for his homages and sly rule-breaking. He was essentially trying to fuse every kind of cinema that Italy was known for and influenced it in turn. Lord knows how many gialli came out in the years following its box office success with some animal in the name. I'm hesitant to call his technique new - though if I had to guess, I'd say it was at least novel - because he wouldn't truly come into his own until Suspiria, but Argento's methods were at least new to Italy. He took something shop-worn and slapped a beautifully lavish coat of red paint on it. I'm glad the world responded as well as it did because he had a few more brilliant little movies in him, even if the giallo would eventually be his undoing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

ReMarathon 2011, Part 3, And Soon The Nightmare Ends

And now for the final installment! And this's personal!

Children of the Corn
by Donald P. Borchers
Well here's your problem, you hired children! You needed actors! If I was to count the ways in which this made-for-tv remake of an already terrible movie that last I checked was still producing execrable sequels fucked the dog, I'd need about a hundred more fingers. I mean fucking wow! The child actors are across the board horrible, each of them giving performances that might charitably be called performances. It's kind of astonishing to think that not a single one of these kids was worth a damn with the camera rolling, but here you have it. That'd be alright if the film had a solid anchor in its two leads but David Anders and Kandyse McClure manage to be even more horrid than the children. Sweet Christ, does this film shit the bed on the bad acting front. After a sermon that counts as the high point of the kid who plays Isaac's time in this movie, we meet the shrieking, horrible, no-fucking-way-are-these-dickbags-married, protagonists. Vicki and Burt are their names and they're headed christ knows where, literally screaming at each other the whole time. They hit a kid, stop in the town of Gatlin, get attacked by the cult, and are killed, but not fast enough for me. These two give shameful performances, but McClure really takes the cake. Right after Burt hits the kid, she takes the reins and doesn't relent. "It's Maaaan Slaughter!!!! Don't you wanna come and see? So you can tell all your NRA buddies what you bagged in Nebraska!" She delivers this horrible dialogue in a new kind of cadence that humans haven't gotten around to using yet. She's hysterically awful from start to finish and I'd say the movie was worth seeing just for her histrionic lunacy, but frankly it gets old after the first twenty minutes. A minute with Vicki Stanton is funny, two is hysterical, three makes you want to kill yourself. And from there it just gets worse. Truly, nothing goes right with this film and to top it off, Anders says "Why don't you put that in your god and smoke it?" To children. Who have probably never even heard the original saying before. Wow, wow, wow!

The Stepfather
by Nelson McCormick
McCormick and Cardone at least stuck much closer to the outline of the original film, a great Reagan-era family values parable, but you have to ask why when they maintain nothing of that film's underlying motifs or importance. Subtext is verboten here, it's all about the murder, but even that takes its sweet ass time getting here. If the remake money ever dries up, these two would be at home making Lifetime originals. The murders in this film are too tame because McCormick doesn't have the balls so really it's all very whitebread and boring and you wonder why you're here. In order to draw the teenage boy set they hired Amber Heard, who's something of a fixture here these days. Mark Kermode hypothesized that McCormick stuck her in her underwear everytime the film was starting to lag. That woman's vagina gets more screentime than Penn Badgley. I'd like to ask a practical question: are these movies funded in part by record companies? Badgely's hero puts on headphones and they play songs that all sound the same, but I'm sure are from different bands. Why? There's no way this kid listens to this shit, so is someone paying to have these bands played? As for the movie, just fuckin' skip it, it ain't worth your time. Jon Tenney's the best thing about it and he's got ten minutes of screentime.

A Nightmare on Elm Street
by Samuel Bayer
Ah, well it was bound to happen I guess. And wouldn't you know that they fucked it up in one of the dumbest possible ways. Samuel Bayer, the guy who directed videos for "Stand" by Poison and Sheryl Crow's "My Favorite Mistake," a ghastly resume indeed, at least has an eye for visuals that escapes Dave Meyers, but this still winds up being one of the most rancorous of the Michael Bay remakes. Turning The Hitcher into a commercial slightly better than having your balls cut off was bad enough, but remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street and making it about molestation would be like remaking Dr. Strangelove and playing it as gripping drama. But that's exactly what Bayer and writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer did. I hope some day they remake fuckin' Hostel and make it even dumber just so this generation gets what its like to have your movie raped quite so bad as this. To his credit the movie is lit very well, but Bayer also manages to make Freddie Krueger seem more silly than anything else, and he keeps fucking with the dream rules. And as much as I like Rooney Mara (she got out of bad horror movie land but quick after this. Look for her, appropriately enough, in the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), there is no performance here that makes this worth watching. Jackie Earle Haley embarasses himself as the villain and the screenwriters fuck up his motivation in one of the most egregious ways imaginable. They go right for the whole pedophile aspect, making that his sole motivator. The problem is this: he sexualizes the girls he kills, Mara especially. Can anyone tell me what pedophiles find attractive again? Oh right, children! Yeah, that's right. He wouldn't like these kids anymore. And worse still, you know without a shadow of a doubt that he did it, erasing all of the subtext from Craven's film. And as if that weren't enough, there's nothing dreamlike about the dreams. Craven's film is remembered as having revolutionized the way dreams are conveyed in film and his techniques are still being copied today. Bayer seems content to steal, except in one instance, and everything he steals that was practical and revolutionary in 1984, is cold, digital and stupid here. Bayer perversely changes nothing about the real world and the dream world in the vane hope of catching the audience off guard, but in doing so he negates what the fuck he's doing. Dreams don't look or feel real (if only he'd waited to see Inception!) but the ones Bayer cooks up are supposed to look real and confuse you because the characters don't know they're dreaming half the time. In other words, this movie gets less than zero right and its creators should be made barren at first light.

And Soon The Darkness
by Marcos Efron
Well, at least they're remaking something relatively obscure. And managed another extraordinary feat: they made a horror movie of almost total predictability and safety. I can think of no one aspect to recommend it. It's bland and ordinary and one of the only mysteries in recent memory where the only suspects are actually the guys who did it. It might be them, you think it's them, it's them. The usually splendid Karl Urban is a non-entity. Odette Yustman and Amber Heard lead the cast. Odette Yustman's most unique feature is that she's better looking than Megan Fox. And Amber Heard; I've seen her in five or six movies, three of them recently and I don't think I could pick her out of a line-up if the other people were old chinese men. She exudes nothing but a willingness to appear in horror films. There's less than nothing to see here, not a shock or a scare to be found and has a future as one of those movies you rent thinking it'll be gory fun and then it isn't and your party sucks as a result. The only thing that got my attention about this movie was that it was produced by Anchor Bay, the one-time champions of schlocky home video. I was wondering how they were getting along these days and then realized they put Children of the Corn and our next film, I Spit On Your Grave on DVD. And then I stopped caring.

I Spit On Your Grave
by Stephen R. Monroe
The original movie had a hard enough time escaping controversy in '78 without a fuckwit like Stephen Monroe ignoring the subtext and making it a backwoods Saw clone with an emphasis on sex, if the poster wasn't a big enough clue. Using sex to sell a movie about rape earns you a one-way-ticket to hell in my book. Hobos should pee on you. Muggers should be given your address. I have no time for someone who'd turn in a second-rate piece of shit like this and name it after one of the most widely misunderstood/infamous films of all time, a movie that earned its reputation thanks to continued hand wringing over something people still won't talk about. It's happening today. Look at Lucky McKee's The Woman. That movie went out of its way to stare a very uncomfortable subject in the mouth because it had an incredibly specific point to make about the nature of white masculinity and people flipped the fuck out. Monroe's shitstain of a remake is in borrowed spotlight and has nothing to say. If they'd called this movie anything else, Always Lock Your Door or She Waits In The Woods, something generic like that, no one would have bothered with it because it turns rape into a supposedly compelling argument to turn into the Jigsaw Killer for a weekend. But Sarah Butler's performance is barely there (it's certainly nothing like it needed to be to acquit this movie of its crimes. Camille Keaton's performance alone answers any and all questions of mysogyny as far as I'm concerned) and Monroe never misses an opportunity to get her naked, which negates any argument he may have had in the first place. It's all boundlessly stupid and even more so considering that Steven R. Monroe makes shitty made-for-syfy movies like Ice Twisters and Ogre and the second he was done with this deeply unpleasant assignment, he went right back to making Mongolian Death Worm. Andrew Howard gives a good performance, but it's not worth sifting through shit to get to it. Before I go ahead and write this off and encourage you to do the same, I want to draw your attention to this bit of trivia from the IMDB:
According to director Steven R. Monroe, the studio submitted an uncut version of the film to the MPAA to see if by chance they would get an R rating. The MPAA came back and said "look, you've got an NC-17 movie, but we don't recommend that you cut it down because we feel like it's really impactful." Yeah...I bet they said that.

Mother's Day
by Darren Lynn Bousman
I admit that I was interested in seeing this, though not without reservation. It was Darren Bousman's first feature outside the Saw franchise, excepting his misbegotten musical Repo! The Genetic Opera, which he'd made once before as a short. So this was his first movie with a clean slate. I was willing to look past the Saw films because I really wanted to see if he had something to say. James Wan, left to his own devices, has less-than-nothing to say. After laughing my way through Insidious, I though perhaps Bousman had a better chance at my respect. Bousman's talent remains in question, though Mother's Day proves he's a perfectly decent director when he wants to be. If I compare this to The Woman again, just as it's the last thing I saw, I can say that though I thought that film smarter and more cunning, I have to admit that Bousman has a tighter grasp on mechanics. His screenwriting, on the other hand, needs work. The problem with Mother's Day is that it's made of punishing vignettes that pit people against each other in an impossible situation, which if you'll recall is what he spent the last ten years doing making Saw sequels. Call it SawBurbia but all that it means is that he didn't remake Mother's Day so much as The House on the Edge of the Park. A woman and her insane sons crash a housewarming party after a botched bank robbery (think Reservoir Dogs, actually, no, think Last House on the Beach) under the impression that the house is theirs and that their mother is there waiting for them. It was, at least up until a few months ago when it was foreclosed upon and the newlywed Sohapis won it in an auction. There's just one problem. Ike and his brothers have been sending money to this house because they thought their mother still lived there. If the Sohapis and their guests want to leave alive they have to fork over the money, keep gutshot brother Johnny alive, not make trigger happy Addley mad and most of all not upset their crazy fucking mother.

Fitting that we should end our marathon remake fest with this one as it features cast members from My Bloody Valentine, Sorority Row and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In this movie's corner is tight if not particularly discerning direction from Darren Bousman and characteristically strong work from Jaime King, Shawn Ashmore and Briana Evigan, who I rooted for the whole film. You survive Sorority Row, you earn my respect. That she's very cute helps too, but I digress. On the other hand none of the set-pieces that make up the film's second and third act haven't been done before and better; people beat each other to a pulp though they keep getting back up past the point of that being reasonable and I really can't shake the feeling that this was a bunch of Saw ideas recycled into another screenplay, just as Bousman's Saw 2 was once something else entirely that was retrofitted into the series. And beyond that the film's thesis is tired and without the green-and-grey scale or the amped up theatricality of the murders, I can kinda see why its producers shelved it so long (it wrapped in 2009 and has seen very few screens, legally that is, since then): it's a joyless slog. It doesn't matter how likable everyone is because you know pretty much from the beginning that no one's survival is guaranteed; it doesn't help that people are killed in that annoying "thought you were the villain" way that horror directors are so fond of. So why watch nice people get killed? Well, that's a question that you have to ask yourself before watching most horror remakes because 14 times out of 20, that's what you'll be watching. I'm not opposed to remaking a movie if you do it well and have a reason. Eli Roth talks a big fucking game about being able to do justice to Tobe Hooper's Funhouse. Guess what? Tobe Hooper did justice to Tobe Hooper's Funhouse. It needs Eli Roth remaking it like the human body needs heroin. I say unless you prove you can make your own movie, something Eli and the rest of this crew have proven rather sad at lately, you shouldn't be allowed to remake someone else's. Until then, do some research, find these movies and appreciate why they were optioned in the first place: they're worth watching....well, maybe not Children of the Corn. We'll just have to see if everyone learns their lesson in another ten years.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

ReMarathon 2011, Part 2

Now, where were we? Oh yeah!

Black Christmas
By Glen Morgan

Ok, finally. Here's a film that not only does something completely different from its namesake, but also uses the story from the earlier film in a clever way. So, this movie retcons the story of Black Christmas into a modern day plotline, or, well, that's not exactly true. For those of you who've seen Black Christmas (which I'll be reviewing before too long), you'll remember that the voice on the phone continually mentions two people called Agnes and Billy. Well, Glen Morgan's Black Christmas has weaved them a backstory. Turns out Billy and Agnes were siblings whose parents were totally insane. Billy responded by cutting his parents up, carving their skin into the shape of Christmas cookies and eating them on December 25th. The girls living in the sorority that used to be Billy's house celebrate this with a macabre little ritual. Mrs. MacHenry, the dorm mother, assigns one of the girls Billy when they do their secret santa giftgiving every year. The eight girls left in the house this Christmas are split about it. Heather the jesus freak doesn't like it, Lauren the alcoholic slut doesn't care for anything festive, Kelli doesn't want anyone to fight, Melissa takes Lauren's side because she doesn't like Heather, Dana doesn't have a personality, Eve is too much of a space cadet to take part in the discussion and both Megan and Clair are already dead. Now, the film plays it cool here. As much as we're all obviously supposed to assume that Billy has had a hand in the deaths of the poor coeds, we're also shown quite clearly that Billy has yet to break out of the insane asylum he's been kept in since cutting up his parents. Make no mistake, he does break out, and violently, but the question remains: who's the hulking blonde in the attic who's carving up the girls of Delta Alpha Kappa?

There are two words that spring to mind when I think about this version of Black Christmas: Fucking Insane. Every oblique angle shouts crazy, every few minute someone is murdered in the craziest fucking way possible, every new plot development makes someone either a suspect or a victim, blood and viscera shoot out of wounds like someone turned on a hose. People don't just bleed in this movie, they fucking explode. The lighting is absolutely nuts and the camera work matches it every step of the way. With Black Christmas, Glen Morgan has effectively out De Palma'd Brian De Palma. The swaths of red that litter the colour scheme, the jaundiced villain, the enormous slant on voyeurism, the presentational lighting, the is-it-stealing-or-homage quality that imbues every angle. Christ on a cricket, no wonder Morgan hasn't worked since. Weirder still, despite its sorority house setting and cast of not-quite stars, there's almost no nudity and none that couldn't be someone's body double. Now, here's where the problems start. I really liked Black Christmas but not without reservations. It has big problems, pacing chief among them; the thing moves at the speed of sound to no real ends. Characters arrive in time to make a hint of an impression before being killed and the girls who make the slightest impression last the longest. And I have to dock some points for the way Morgan so quickly dispatches Leela Savasta, a better and more courageous actress than two-thirds of the girls in the sorority. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, for instance, should have been the lead. She's the most memorable of the girls by far (Crystal Lowe a close second) and attacks her role, making it impossible for her to remain in the single-trait slot tat Morgan wrote for her. Katie Cassidy is the main character basically by default. She's by far the least interesting and charismatic of the girls. And I can't say I'm really on the side of a movie that carves up a bunch of well-meaning teenage girls (especially when the script makes such a huge fucking deal about the bonds of sisterhood), but style does count for something and this film drips with it. I knew Morgan trafficked in the unsettling after his redo of Willard, but this thing leaves that, and frankly everything covered here today, in the dust. It's not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach and it's not a good movie like the original was, but sweet jesus, it's deranged. I'm kind of amazed that there's no force in place to tell people about movies like this and Orphan, because they really need to be seen to be believed.

Hannibal Rising
by Peter Webber
Now, ok, I'll admit that this doesn't quite count. Red Dragon can only be considered a remake in the loosest sense, in that it was only following the same novel as Michael Mann's first treatment of the Hannibal Lecter story, Manhunter. But it was clearly supposed to be more in keeping with the newest films on the world's most famous cannibal, because, well, Brett Ratner stole Ridley Scott's aesthetic even if he seemed to have been following Mann's earlier script. So with the last film in the series being as shameless a cash-in as Red Dragon, it was tough not to lump Hannibal Rising (why is my urge to always call this Young Hannibal?) in with the then-novel spate of glossy remakes. In fact it was this and Michael Bay's The Hitcher that I remember causing me to throw my hands up and start avoiding these things as a rule. I didn't realize that Hannibal Rising wasn't meant to grip the coattails of a franchise that hadn't made a dignified sound since 2001. The book that it's based on, however, was. Before it was an indifferent-to-poorly received movie it was a universally panned novel that took all of the mystique out of a character that not even a film as shitty as Red Dragon could undo. Thomas Harris, the book's author, apparently needed a bigger house, because there's no defensible reason for the book, and its written in such breathless, purple prose that you get the impression that he needed to finish it before the movers take the couch he's sitting on. He goes so fast that he fucks up several crucial, already spelled-out details from previous books, one of them kind of crucial as it's the reason he goes on his lifelong killing spree. The book's thesis was simple: Hannibal wasn't the embodiment of evil for no reason, he was evil because some Nazis killed and ate his baby sister. While all the angry literary critics who made up the books audience agreed that its not a bad impulse to suggest that all bad people typically have a reason to be that way, they also rightly posited that Lecter was a fictional character and no one gave a shit how he became evil, they just wanted him outwitting/flirting with Clarice Starling. It might not be morally right but its fucking entertaining, which is why people read the sort of thing Harris writes in the first place. The movie tries hard to stick to Ridley Scott's template and undo some of Harris' blind traipsing around history, trying to account for how someone with a vendetta forgot it and became history's greatest monster.

Hannibal's family is killed at the tail-end of WWII by some nazis played by ringers like Rhys Ifans and Kevin McKidd . He grows up with an awful big chip on his shoulder and outgrows the boarding school that has been set up on his family's estate. He escapes when he gets tired of the shitheads who run the place and the dipshits who go there and goes looking for his uncle. The older man is dead by now, but his mistress (the impossibly beautiful Gong Li, who, like everyone else in this movie, is better than this) takes him in and teaches him how to use a samurai sword in the film's dumbest scene. His killing technique refined, he tests it out on a collaborator who upsets his aunt one day in the marketplace. He escapes but not without arousing the suspicion of Inspector Popil (Dominic West, also way better than this. The way the man looks in his long coat is the second best thing about the film. The way Gong Li looks in a kimono remains the best, even if she looks tired and bored throughout) who can see that Lecter is probably guilty but that he's only killing evil men. It's the kind of conundrum that goes nowhere, because the movie then gets to its real business, Lecter hunting down and Saw-killing the nazis who ate his sister. And as with any prequel, there's no real tension because you know that Hannibal's going to be around for dozens and dozens of years after the events of this film. The only tension is whether he'll rescue his aunt from one of Ifans' traps, but even that ain't much. The movie's more like a grotesque painting than a proper horror film, anyway, pretty, but totally static.

Peter Webber was probably as good as this movie was going to do. But he's not a horror director and doesn't have the stomach for gut spilling. So in lieu of that, he makes the movie and all the characters and their houses as gorgeous as possible and mostly suceeds, but this wasn't supposed to be a sober costume crime drama, it was meant to be about Hannibal, but Webber's camera doesn't really like Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal. He's the only active character in a landscape of well-worn, beautifully passive faces and he doesn't gel with the rest of the film. It's a movie that wants to be about the poetry of murder like Hannibal, but doesn't have enough to say on the subject of murder. It's got the same structure as a Saw film or the later I Spit On Your Grave remake, and so should be a straight-up exploitation film but isn't. So it's all very pretty and perfunctory and boring and I hardly noticed it going by. Interestingly, this was the last film Dino De Laurentiis produced. Back in the day he was so miffed about Manhunter's success that he reportedly gave the rights to Silence of the Lambs up for free, which then went on to be one of the most successful films of all time, anyway you choose to look at it. Fitting that Dino died trying to correct his biggest financial mistake with an even bigger one.

The Hills Have Eyes 2
by Martin Weisz

Joe Bob Briggs said of Blood Feast that it's a more interesting film to talk about then watch. This is true of the tortured history of the sequels to both versions of The Hills Have Eyes. In 85, a year before Tobe Hooper gave us the much hated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre under the watchful wallets of Golan and Globus's Canon group, Wes made a sequel to his best film, The Hills Have Eyes. It was...shameful. And just as Tobe's film got something of a do-over sequel wise that was a totally grim and pointless affair (can't make a sequel to a film where the villain's had his chainsaw arm off), Wes Craven got to live vicariously through the sequel to the remake. Wes was a good deal luckier in his directors than Tobe, but ultimately both tarnished their own reputations because the mere idea of a sequel brings down the classiness of the original idea, even if the respective requels were slightly better than they wound up being. Alexandra Aja and Marcus Nispel were more or less evenly matched in America, even if Aja's debut was a touch more auspicious than Nispels. John Liebesman, however, had nothing on Martin Weisz's credentials. Weisz' film Grimm Love might not be the best thing I've ever seen, but it boasted two incredible lead performances and a David Fincher-inspired production design. On the other hand, he's also a fucking music video director, which probably accounts for Hills Have Eyes 2 being totally throw-away. But back to Craven. I think he clearly saw an opportunity to correct past mistakes when Fox Atomic optioned the sequel. He and his son Jonathan even wrote the damned thing. And from the look of the trailer, you'd really think they'd nailed it. Seriously, check it out. It's one of the better trailers I've ever seen. That the film looked so handsome from far away is a little disappointing because there's nothing unique or interesting here. It's a touch better than these typically get, but that's all really. A bunch of guys with guns head into the desert, are hunted by cannibals and most of them get slaughtered. Its Aliens to Hills Have's Alien. Except with a 65% drop in quality and suspense. The best thing you can say about it is that it is markedly better than the first Hills Have Eyes II. But, really so's anything...except this next film.

The Hitcher
by Dave Meyers
Michael Bay productions exist largely to sell tits and bad emo music, which is why his Transformers movies are scored largely by Linkin Park and the sound of Megan Fox's hips swiveling. It's also why when he gets what I'm sure are sticky, sweaty palms on a property, he'll find someone with less scruples than even him to direct it. Bay didn't direct The Hitcher, but it's tough to picture him doing a worse job than Meyers. Meyers' spooktacular CV include the music videos for The Offspring's "Original Prankster" (the one with the shit sandwich), Creed's "My Sacrifice" (the one where Scott Stapp pulls himself out of a river), and Dave Matthews Band's "I Did It" (the one that steals from movies as diverse as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead 2, which proves that he's seen enough scary movies that he should hate his version of The Hitcher and especially the asshole who directed it). And boy does that show; the film is basically one long music video. The first image is terrible and the shittiness never relents. A computer generated hare steps out onto a desert highway and is hit by a car. Then, set to one of the many terrible songs this movie has up its sleeve, Jim Halsey calls his girlfriend and wakes her up. They're supposed to go on a road trip today! OH NO!!!! She's totally making them late! Yeah, it's that kind of film. Fucking shoot me. The movie plays out with exactly the same beats as the original except that Halsey isn't alone, and he doesn't end up being the lead character, though he certainly starts out that way. Already the movie is beyond saving. By giving Halsey company right away, the writers have already taken away the thing that made the first The Hitcher so compelling in the first place: Halsey's complete isolation. Even when Nash shows up, she's more like a mirage than a character and Eric Red's screenplay is pretty fucking vicious towards her presence. By putting Sophia Bush in the car, Bay has neutered the movie to the point of ABSOLUTE Irrelevance. No matter how good Sean Bean's performance might be (and frankly he's been better. He seems faintly embarrassed, like he knows he's being undercut by the dumb movie he's in at every turn), it doesn't fucking matter because Bay doesn't kill the only pair of tits in the movie.

And that's all before we consider that Ryder has morphed into a generic boogeyman. He's everywhere and nowhere and he's unkillable and has unlimited ammo. In the dumbest scene in the movie, Ryder appears in a Thunderbird to take down a squadron of cop cars while Nine Inch Nail's "Closer" also comes out of nowhere to score the scene. Man, fuck this movie. By the time we've gone through the most memorable scenes from the first movie, rendered useless because of the high school play level acting from its two charisma-free leads, we get to the conclusion. By this time Sophia Bush is by herself and Ryder has killed all the cops in the van taking him to prison in an impossibly dumb way. So she takes the sheriff's gun to go kill Ryder. But, best part, Ryder fucking takes it from her, and then kills the sheriff. So not only does she fail to kill him when it meant her boyfriend's life, she can't even do it when she has nothing to lose. So she finally gets ahold of another gun, which happens to be a shotgun that would knock her right on her ass if she fired that thing in reality and kills him. So her victory is hollow and the movie it closes has the dubious honor of being one of the worst films ever made. Nice work, everybody. Lunch?

April Fool's Day
by Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores
Now, before we begin, a note. Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores would like very much like it if we called them The Butcher Brothers, which is adorable. After all, their movies couldn't be more harmless if they replaced every actor with a Jack Russell Terrier and called it a gallery installation. Having seen their rather terrible 2010 film The Violent Kind, I knew I was in for a treat when their cute pen name appeared under the words "Directed by." Incidentally that they don't add "Barely" is false advertising that I think could get you a class action suit going. The plot and gotcha twist at the end are in keeping with the original film, but my question is why bother. None of the people in this film are what you could call "actors" or if they are, Flores and Altieri convinced all of them not to act as some kind of experiment. Now eventually they settle into it (what's that they say about broken clocks?) but for the first forty-five minutes, we're privy to a movie in which exactly one person seems to be doing anything other than reading lines from a card. Holy Fucking Shit is it terrible. That exception, in case you were wondering, is Scout Taylor-Compton. She acts circles around these motherfuckers. If she made Chloe Moretz and Lori Heuring seem like they're trying too hard, then imagine how she decimates these clowns. And because the Butchers are such god awful filmmakers, the movie looks for all the world like an overlong episode of One Tree Hill or some damn thing. Even worse, they totally and utterly believe in their terrible, terrible screenplays so that all the non-actors deliver their lines as woodenly and sincerely as possible. Never a good combination. It's never less than absolutely embarrassing, like when the movie spends more than five minutes on a fake talk show discussing something we just fucking saw happen. We know what happened, we were there, yet they perversely go over the events of the crime in excruciatingly full detail. If they were actually related I'd say they dethrone John and Erick Dowdle as the worst family of filmmakers working today. Though try as they might, they don't succeed in making Scout Taylor-Compton look less than professional.

Prom Night
by Nelson McCormick

Speaking of Wicked Little Things, the script for the update of Prom Night comes from J.S. Cardone. This is a little odd to me because Cardone was active at the same time as the first Prom Night. In fact, Cardone's debut film The Slayer, one of the original video nasties, has a plot almost identical to Humongous, the film that Prom Night director Paul Lynch made in the same year. The plot here is a touch different from the oddball Canadian original; It has no name in common with Lynch's film and instead centers on Donna Keppel. About a year ago her whole family was killed by her math teacher who had a bit of a thing for her. They caught him and locked him up and Donna moved in with her aunt and uncle. She seems to be doing better in her new town and the chemistry she has with her friends is believable. The problem there is that it's too believable. Like "who gives a fuck about these vacuous teenagers if they're all going to get killed" believable? I really feel like Nelson McCormick and Cardone are better at the quieter moments in these films. They should really think about making films about the foibles of professionals and their less-than-professional children. I didn't really like the teenage characters (and what was Jessica Stroup doing in a prom dress? She played a commando in Hills Have Eyes 2, how old is she supposed to be?) but I believed that they believed in their own shallow nonsense. The best part of the movie is watching Linden Ashby and Jessalyn Gilsig at home acting like a concerned married couple or Idris Elba acting like a seasoned professional and doing preliminary rounds in the hotel he suspects a murderer might find or Brittany Snow as Donna and Scott Porter as her boyfriend in her bedroom after they think the trauma is over. The moments of calm the movie finds are superb and made me like it despite it being a cash-in with no sex and no real violence. The bitchy prom queen doesn't even get stabbed. What the fuck kinda slasher movie is this, anyway? I'd like to know from the people who really liked this (it made enough money to give McCormick and Cardone their next job, which we'll talk about soon enough) what they like about it? It's not particularly scary, sexy or bloody. If you read this, please go ahead and put that in the comment section because I'd love to know.

My Bloody Valentine
by Patrick Lussier
This has roughly the same story as the original My Bloody Valentine, which was one of the better Friday the 13th knock-offs the early 80s-slasher boom produced. The key difference of course is that this became a springboard for the burgeoning 3D industry, then nearing its apex. This of course means that it looks like shit. I was under the impression that this was Lussier's first film, which would have excused the amateurish camera work (I chalked the look to the shitty 3D cameras, but there's no reason it should be so poorly filmed). But he's been doing this since Dracula 2000. Remember that piece of shit? Yeah, well he also did two fucking sequels. Yikes. Anyway, the movie doesn't work as a horror film and frankly the 3D is wasted as often as its used. For every time the pick-axe comes flying at the camera, there's ten tons of shit thrown by one character or another that isn't 3Dified. And the 3D murders end up looking incredibly lame anyway because they naturally couldn't actually throw a mining tool at their expensive 3D cameras, so instead they CG it in later in post, making the whole project totally useless. And then there are little irksome things littered throughout the movie. A woman is hit in the stomach with an axe and blood hits the wall? The killer manages to run through a grocery store and then out the door and around back in ten seconds and then when another character makes the same trip it takes about three minutes. In one scene the killer's shadow starts close to a character, then gets far away as he approaches her...? That's just shit filmmaking. And then the reveal takes us back through a few murders we've already witnessed and flat out lies to us about things we've seen. You might generously call it unreliable narrator, but I call it lazy filmmaking.

In fact the one saving grace was, like Prom Night, its relationship dynamic. I really enjoyed Kerr Smith as the sheriff being shaken up by wife Jaime King's former relationship with Jensen Ackles. Now Ackles isn't worth shit, but King and Smith are terrific and they're the only reason to watch this piece of shit. When Lussier starts casting doubt about Smith's innocence, it only works because of how firm a grip he has on the character. There's a moment about halfway through when he wants King to rat on Ackles but she won't do it. His anger there is terrifying and understandable at once, and it's probably the best moment in the movie. I wanted a film just about their marriage. Alas, I got a movie about 3D tits and poorly executed jaw removal. Sigh.

Sorority Row
by Stewart Hendler
Now Tayne I can get into. Sorority Row is obviously a remake of The House on Sorority Row but it's really like all remakes in one. The ur text. There are elements of Black Christmas, April Fool's Day, My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night here and it's sleazy and bitchy enough for all of them. Thank christ, says I. If I had to sit through another film that doesn't even best its source material in body count, I was going to snap. Sorority Row starts with April Fool's Day's opening gambit: a prank. Garrett has fucked up, so his sister Chugs and her sorority sisters Cassidy, Jessica, Claire, Megan and Ellie have decided to fake something pretty fucking serious. They convince Garrett that Megan would get with him and to roofy the girl's drink and then film his bedroom as she fakes a reaction. They drive her out to a mine when she plays possum in the car and then take things just a touch to far. Garrett thinks she's really dead, so he opens up her wind pipe with a fucking tire iron, which says to me, he was going to snap sooner or later anyway. So with Megan actually dead, they agree that the only solution is to throw her down the mine and forget it ever happened. Cut to eight months later, the girls start disappearing. Not only that, anyone who even overhears them talking about it, also goes. Now, we know what's really happening: they gettin' fucking murda'd! But who is it? And what do they want?

The one thing you'll hear complaints about, I'm guessing is that there isn't nearly enough sex to make this a grindhouse classic. And the murders could be a little more frequent, but this movie plays the game and well. You don't like any of these girls because most of them go pretty far out of their way to earn the crazy ass fate they wind up with. Seriously the way these women meet their maker is pretty off the wall. In order to let them know that they are being killed because of what happened to Megan, the killer has crafted some kind of crazy fucking knife that's shaped like a tire iron, but consists of several kinds of knife. Between the horrid murders, coed showers, all the sex that's hinted at and Leah Pipes as the consciousless leader of the sorority, you're looking at one hell of a sleaze-fest. It's the kind of film that never looks over its shoulder and I appreciate its efficiency. It's ten kinds of dumb but I had a fucking blast howling at the screen with a room full of like-minded individuals.

Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

ReMarathon 2011, Part 1

From the opening seconds of Quarantine, you know instantly that they've fucked the dog. Jennifer Carpenter's human interest reporter looks into the camera and says that her name is Angela Vidal. But that's not how she pronounces it. She says it "Vie-Dell," which is how no one pronounces that name in any part of the globe unless they've been hit in the head with a hammer and recently. In the writer-director's attempts to give the film it's own voice, they managed to make one of the dumbest translation mistakes I've heard since Jesus Franco first fell in love with Lina Romay. Remakes, in theory, are a way to tell a story again on the off chance that there was something off about the original. In the case of, say, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the movie was told much like a TV movie; it was uncinematic, slow and largely very boring. It was also wrapped up in an insanely complex niche of Swedish government. You fix those problems by giving it to David Fincher, a director renowned for his beautifully visual storytelling and distinct stylization. In a perfect world, that'd be the only way you remake something. Our world is far from perfect and so we get a remake every six months of something that either didn't need to be remade or could have used a remake but the folks in charge address problems that weren't pervasive in the original, inventing new ones on the way, kinda like giving someone with a broken leg an intubation. One out of every...let's say 21, for no reason at all, will have enough going for it to overlook the fact that it's pissing in a pretty important pool. But largely these movies could have been called anything, which means that they're cash-ins. The Hitcher is pretty much exactly the same movie as its inspiration, except it sucks a grizzly bear's asshole. Prom Night and House of Wax bear strictly nominal resemblances to their counterparts, which means they had nothing but cold calculation and dollar signs on the brain. Why call a movie House of Wax if it's got nothing to do with any previous version of House of Wax? Because a name is something, I guess. And producers assume people will come to see a movie that's already kinda sorta succeeded...if you call being slightly worse than Friday The 13th or not the most embarrassing Stephen King adaptation of the 80s when placed next to The Running Man success. Well, lately curiosity got the better of me and after checking out the totally horrible remake of Friday the 13th, I decided to run the gauntlet, as it were, and check out every one of the slick, new remakes to see if anyone had anything to say. As a hint for what's to come I will say I was totally in the mood for the kind of blunt, sexualized violence these movies promise when I started this experiment. Now that it's over, I want everyone in Hollywood to die a violent, embarrassing death.

The Amityville Horror
by Andrew Douglas
Now, look before I dig in here, I gotta lotta remakes to get through so if I rehash the plots of movies that you've already seen (or should have, if you call yourselves professionals) we'll never get home. The bad news is that the plot is exactly the same as the original, which is why it never goes anywhere. The good news is that Michael Bay didn't yet take hold of every aspect of these Platinum Dunes films just yet. He's writ large over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that film was enjoyable enough if you shut your brain off. Here, he's made as good a choice as I think it was possible to make in giving the film to Andrew Douglas, the director of Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Just as John Stockwell seemed an odd but ultimately rewarding choice to direct Turistas, Douglas' involvement saved it from what might have been, so that now it's simply forgettable. He's not much in the way of a climax but he fills the movie with enough memorable and beautiful images that I wasn't offended. The story is dumb and it's loaded with cliche, but Douglas' steady camera and love for the natural imagery surrounding the house that Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George buy make this a markedly better film than its predecessor. If only that meant something. As it is, Amityville is so slight it almost doesn't exist. No one's in any real danger because there are no incidental characters and the best parts about it are mostly divorced from the plot. All in all, not a terrible second effort from Platinum Dunes, but they should have quit while they were ahead.

House of Wax
by Jaume Collett-Serra
I guess the plot is required here as it has absolutely nothing to do with the superior Vincent Price film, or that movie's inspiration from the 30s. In this one, a bunch of fucking kids are going to see a football game, but stop arbitrarily in the middle of nowhere to camp. They piss off some locals on their way in, who stop by in the middle of the night to cut one of their fan-belts. Why they don't cut both of them is because the screenwriters are morons, which they've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by writing Whiteout and The Reaping in the years since this sad little movie. Anyway, two of them go looking for gas and find a town that doesn't appear to have any living relatives. In fact the only guy they find in town is in the middle of a funeral. He says he's got the necessary fan-belt, but that it's at his house and would they please wait for him to finish burying his brother. They agree and decide to hit the Wax Museum first thing. It's suitably creepy and even more so when Collett-Serra lets us know that there's some long-haired creep still working on the figurines in the basement. While retrieving the part, one of the kids is abducted, the other escapes and then their friends show up to help and are all killed and turned into wax people except the lead girl and her brother.

House of Wax has some of the angularity and baroque direction of the superiorly crazy Black Christmas, but isn't quite as insane. It's stacked to the rafters with talent poached from teenage-aimed television, including Jared Padalecki, whose since settled down in this world with his lead turn in Friday the 13th and a surprisingly strong performance from Chad Michael Murray, who just about vanished from sight after this. And then there's the reason this movie gained what little notoriety it did: Paris Hilton as one of the expendable idiots. She's bad but no more so than Camilla Belle in When A Stranger Calls. Her death scene sticks to the old truism about severed heads in horror films: they spent a lot on that head and by christ their gonna get their money's worth. To be fair this is as good as a movie with Paris Hilton could possibly be. It follows roughly the same trajectory as Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw, right down to the lead's boyfriend being operated on as an indication of how screwed everyone is. It's half-goofy tone reminds me more of Tourist Trap than anything Vincent Price did in the 50s. That is, until the gore comes out and all of a sudden this becomes a much grimmer affair then it started. The best parts of the film, other than how well Murray acquits himself playing a redeemable dickbag, are the opening sequence where we meet the killers as children and hints at how much better the film could have been and then the credit sequence, which was maybe the most compelling part of the movie. I have an inordinate love of the song "Helena" by My Chemical Romance, a band I otherwise have no time for. By putting that and then Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades" in sequence, Jaume Collett-Serra manages to make it seem like I didn't just waste an hour and forty-five minutes, even though I know for certain I did.

The Fog
by Rupert Wainwright
John Carpenter has terrible taste in films. As much as I like his best work, I've always known from his seemingly endless string of documentary appearances that he likes shit and hates great movies. Which perhaps explains why he not only allowed The Fog to be remade, but produced the damn thing himself. That doesn't explain why it's the worst thing with his name on it since Ghosts of Mars. Well, maybe handing it to the guy whose credentials include the video for "2 Legit 2 Quit" and fuckin' Stigmata does. Anyway, the story's the same, except it's not scary, and they lose the ensemble aspect which made the original so interesting. And they lose the production design, which, though borrowed from the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, was original enough in the context of American horror that the whole effect was all very pleasing. Here, we get a random collection of set-pieces that add up to nothing with an emphasis on stupid people being stupid and handsome people being handsome. It's all incredibly fucking boring and neutered and should be skipped.

When A Stranger Calls
by Simon West
There's a popular misconception that the original When A Stranger Calls is a horror film. It starts as one but the minute Charles Durning shows up, it's a procedural with an emphasis on suspense. And then you realize the whole thing was more a thriller than a horror film. Simon West is not half as smart or clever as Fred Walton, who also directed the original April Fool's Day, on which more in a moment. Though he's since parted company with Jerry Bruckheimer, the lingering stench of his influence is all over this movie. In fact, his first film, Con Air, is more often than not confused with the work of Michael Bay. Which is fitting because West does the same thing to the house that makes up the setting for most of When A Stranger Calls as Bay did to the house in his Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Except instead of decrepit and grimy, the house here is state-of-the-art and modern. So modern in fact that it's a stage set and never for a second looks like anything else. There's even a scene where the killer jumps through the roof of one of the rooms and you see that it's a set! And he does this ten seconds after he turns the master power to the house on. Last time I checked, the fuse box is never in the attic.

Anyway, there's no Charles Durning in this one, except for a few seconds in the beginning, it's all girl in the house. And I wouldn't mind except the girl is fucking wretched. Camilla Belle sleepwalks through her part, barely able to get up the energy to sound scared. Which, I guess, is appropriate because the guy doing all the calling isn't all that scary. He's just a guy. The whole thing feels engineered and never works to get you to suspend your disbelief. The opening is promising as we see the handiwork of the killer; the cops have to carry her out of her house in several trash bags, but the film fails to deliver on this promise. The only other thing to say is that this movie features the first appearance of Katie Cassidy, who we're going to seeing a lot more of.

The Omen
by John Moore
The only thing I'll say for this movie is that Liev Schreiber does a fine job and that they found perfect counterparts for the original roles in Pete Posthlethwaite, David Thewlis and I love any movie that casts Giovanni Lombardi Radice, but the beats are exactly the same, the effects are exactly the same, the child has a ridiculous haircut and Julia Stiles is no Lee Remick. The only part that seems to wake the film up is a seconds-long medicine cabinet scare, something these movies all traffic in. Barely there by all accounts and not at all worth your time.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
by Jonathan Liebesman

Now, look, I know I brought this one on myself (well, ok, I brought all of these on myself, but nevermind that) but I was still pissed off at this movie. First of all, they set this movie in the late 60s, yeah? How about some fucking commitment. You have, what? Seven characters in the whole film, and you couldn't find period costumes for them? Right out of the fucking gate, one of the girls is wearing a fucking La Perla bra, and she's supposed to be poor! And as if that weren't lazy enough, we're treated to basically the same fucking script and identical production design and cinematography as Marcus Nispel and Michael Bay's first Texas Chainsaw film. The only real difference is that the cast is far less adept at selling the fact that they don't know what cellphones are. Oh and it's grimmer. A lot grimmer. I knew this going into it, it is a prequel after all, but I was still so mad at this movie when it kills off the last character. This is when I knew that these remakes were playing fucking dirty. Not only do you not know anything more about Leatherface than you did in the last eight Texas Chainsaw films, if anything, the issue is muddled even further. You see him being born and then his mother dies and he's adopted by a family of crazies. So, that explains how his insanity was nurtured, but what about his birth mother made him want to cut his nose off as a young boy? Yeah, see what I mean? And I know that the mere fact that this takes place before the events of the previous film and that none of the female characters place a revolver in their vagina means that they won't be around for the next outing, but what kind of sick fuckers make a movie about people who have to be killed with a chainsaw before the film ends. That's not suspense, that's torture. So what kind of sick people turn moviewatching into torture? Why Platinum Dunes, of course. This is the first of the Michael Bay produced remakes that I openly despised and could see the disgraceful, sweaty palm of Bay steering the production from the opening sex scene to the last grubby cheat that this movie calls a climax. There were a lot of things to explore in this movie; who belonged to the face Thomas Hewitt is wearing before he steals Eric Balfour's was nothing I cared about. And it's not enough to hinge a movie on otherwise devoted to killing likable people in the worst possible fashion. Don't watch this movie. Don't play their game, you'll lose every time.

by John Erick Dowdle
The movie they've raped this time is [Rec], a movie that I'd call very near perfect, it's effectiveness as a horror film occasionally standing in the way of any artistic aspiration, which prevents it from being an A+. But as a movie designed to scare you so bad you have nightmares, it's one of the best ever made and is so efficient that you like and believe everybody as who they're supposed to be. Quarantine is a movie run through babelfish. What appears an attempt to be spontaneous is all the more insidious because it's word-for-word the transcript of a brilliant screenplay. The beauty of [Rec] was that you couldn't tell if it was meticulously planned or largely and ingeniously improvised. Here the decision is obvious because aside from a few stupid exceptions (the business with the rats), the script is word-for-word the same. Except...well, let's put it this way: Quarantine is 90 minutes and [Rec] is 75. The spanish film didn't fuck around and moved so quickly that you were constantly terrified and plot developments happened in a second. Here they take their time to make sure that you are made way more aware than you need to be about what's happening. They also deliver exactly the same lines, but take just as long to do so in English as it takes the actors in the first to do so in Spanish and they talk at three times the speed of your average english speaker. So not only are you aware that instead of writing a new script, they just copied down the subtitles, they made sure to have the actors mock the performances from the original, except more shrill and annoying. It's really kind of perverse, like watching a play by Max Fischer. As much as I hate Let Me In on principle, I have a hard time imagining it's more annoying than Quarantine.

John Dowdle is one of the worst directors working today and from his short resume, he and his writer brother Drew have absolutely no moral compass. After their hysterically stupid debut,The Poughkeepsie Tapes, their first project out of the gate was a remake and they've since made a film from an idea by M. Night Shyamalan, Devil, a movie unequaled in its offensively facile and downright childish worldview. And again, I wouldn't hate Quarantine so much if they hadn't copied and pasted [Rec] into I can't quite express to you my contempt for Quarantine, which lumbers along with its dumb caricatures, its soundtrack negating the supposed verite aspect, its cutting when they think no one's paying attention, its generally treating its audience like an abusive boyfriend until it comes to its merciful close. At no point is it believable that the camera being wielded is the kind of camera used for its ostensible purpose or being wielded by anyone but a professional DP. Fuck this movie and fuck everyone involved. You guys screwed up one of the best horror films of all time. A year after it was released. I hope they put that on your tombstone, you fucks. Oh, and they put a bra on the thing in the penthouse, who shouldn't even be there because they changed the cause of the virus. Go fuck yourselves.

Ok, woo...ok, calm...alright...ok, let's just cool off a second. Whew...Ok, I'm good. Join us next time as we continue the saga of the early twenty first century remake!