30 June 2009

Horror Movie Round-Up: Frontier(s), Martyrs, Splinter, Quarantine

I rented a bunch of horror movies so you don’t have to.

Frontier(s) (written & directed by Xavier Gens): The best horror movies, like science fiction flicks, are political, using the tropes of the genre to comment on the state of the contemporary. So when I heard that this French film was about Arab slumdogs rioting on the outskirts of Paris, following the election of a right-wing government, who run into Nazi-holdover cannibals in an outpost inn/mineshaft, I rubbed my hands and licked my lips, anticipating something as savvy as Cargo 200. Unfortunately, Frontier(s)’ politics are so blatant—the Old Right abuses, nay literally feeds off immigrants—that they’re insignificant; writer-director Gens is far more concerned with fashioning a pointless exercise in gore in which entrails are dumped into bins, characters swim through pigshit, men are hung upside down by hooks through the feet, Achilles tendons are snapped, Arabs are melted in Auschwitz-style gassings, and pregnant women in wedding dresses are punched in the face. Yawn. It’s a House of 1,000 Corpses lookalike and a cheap Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff—the Nispel version, at that. Grade: C-

Martyrs (written & directed by Pascal Laugier): In case you thought the Saw films were a sign of American cultural decline, the French have been making more than their fair share of torture porn, too, in recent years: Frontier(s) (see above), High Tension (which has the stupidest twist ending ever!), Inside and now Martyrs, a peculiar film that’s really two movies. The first is a sometimes-surprising revenge film, proficient enough; the second, a pseudo-metaphysical exploration of martyrdom (from the Greek for “witness,” the filmmakers remind us, implying that martyrs bear witness to some sort of mortal truth.) Laugier’s ideas are so thin that most of the second half involves Morjana Alaoui vomiting in between getting punched in the gut and smacked in the face. The point seems to be that suffering leads to some kind of transcendent knowledge, and that the fetishization of victimhood is a noble pursuit. Right. Grade: C+

Splinter (directed by Toby Wilkins; written by Wilkins, Kai Barry & Ian Shorr): A few reels into Splinter, I was worried I had rented the wrong movie; David Edelstein was crazy about this? The problem is the actors: Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, and Rachel Kerbs are all terrible, portraying respectively an escaped con, a haughty biologist, a Last Girl Standing and a fiending addict as nothing more complex than paper dolls; they make the most obvious acting choices. But once they hole up in a gas station’s convenience mart and get attacked by…zombies?, they stop having to be real characters; as they settle down into horror movie archetypes, the movie picks up: it becomes old-fashioned (as in Raimi-esque) fun, with cops snapped in two; autonomous, homicidal hands; and interludes in a chilly beer locker. If you’re dying to see a horror movie, you could do worse (see above), but you could do better, too (see below). Grade: B-

Quarantine (directed by John Erick Dowdle; written by Drew & John Erick Dowdle): You rent handfuls of contemporary horror on the chance that you’ll rent a winner like this. Although, truth be told, Quarantine is a bit dim-witted, what it lacks in intellectualism it makes up for in formal moxie; the movie boasts the same P.O.V. immediacy as Cloverfield: a female video reporter on a fire department ridealong winds up in an L.A. apartment complex, where she’s locked in with a rapidly spreading strain of super-rabies. Every carefully choreographed scene plays out in extended long takes, which give the film an indismissible visceral immediacy. (Dowdle obviously cheats sometimes by moving the camera in and out of shadows, a la Rope.) The problem is that that immediacy goes nowhere; we watch all the action through a camcorder, but the film makes none of the larger points about such that Matt Reeves’ film did, or even Diary of the Dead. At one point the cameraman beats a makeshift zombie to death with his camera. That’s “loaded,” as one friend told me. He’s right—but loaded with what? (It’s possible something has been lost in the translation; Quarantine is a remake of the recent Spanish film [●rec].) As the film winds down, it clumsily answers the origins of its mysteries; it’s unnecessary, as content isn’t what’s important here (though I enjoyed the paranoia and mistrust of government)—it’s the execution. Grade: B+


Directed by: Pete Docter
Written by: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Full credits from IMDb

In the middle of Up, Pixar’s latest comic teartugger, a tubby boy (voiced by Jordan Nagai) recounts the scattered hours he’s spent with his largely absent father: “the boring stuff is what I remember the most.” The same is true of us, the audience: the high-tech animation, the dogs flying airplanes, the chase sequences that end at the edge of a jagged cliff—these aren’t what stick in the audience’s heads after the credits have rolled. It’s the tenderness, the old-fashioned stuff: the love, the romance, the characters, the drama. The boring stuff.

Too bad, then, that Up ultimately decides to rally against all things old. Although, at first, the movie seems to revere what has come before; in particular, like last year’s Wall-E, it has a crush on old movies, which it admires through allusion: the film opens with a newsreel, a la Citizen Kane; it features an old house in a storm that evokes The Wizard of Oz; and it includes a shot of a flying house passing by an apartment window that recalls King Kong, albeit with a wafting one-family in place of the ape. Above all, however, it’s It’s a Wonderful Life that weighs on the filmmakers’ minds.

Like George Bailey, Mr. Frederickson (v. Ed Asner), when we first meet him, is a young man with a rambling spirit and fantasies of adventure that he never gets to act on; stuff comes up, life and shit happen. He’s married to a female version of himself, a spunky zoologist and erstwhile tomboy; we meet her during a pitch-perfect opening montage, a ballsy sequence that includes what’s probably the first miscarriage sequence in a children’s cartoon, that brings us from their childhood meet cute through her death many decades later. (She is killed so quickly because this is a boy’s picture; the only major female character, a rare bird, is even assigned a boy’s name.)

During their marriage they buy a modest, fixer-upper dreamhouse, as do the Baileys, and dream of traveling together to a place called Paradise Falls, which sounds a little like Bedford Falls, but better. Up functions as a sequel to its forebear—a portrait of the banker as an old man, a widower in a crass world with neither respect nor reverence for the old, a world in which beautiful houses are surrounded by cold metal boxes and the elderly are shoveled into retirement homes. (In a lovely detail, a garish “Sushi Pronto” franchise stands across the street from Mr. Frederickson’s home.) To escape the senior center blues, our octogenarian hero retrofits his two-story colonial with infinite balloons—and quilt & shower-curtain sails—taking off into the stratosphere for the dreamed-of South American exploration he and his wife never could take.

When Up opens, it’s enamored with the bygone, with old movies and old men, but it isn’t naïve, either. When Frederickson arrives in Paradise Falls, he meets his childhood hero, an explorer, now impossibly old, who quickly turns out to be a mad and sinister scientist with a pack of talking dogs and a collection of helmets of those who have crossed his path before. “I finally meet my childhood hero and he tries to kill me,” Frederickson laments, proving that while some of the things from our pasts are worth preserving, others are not. Up advocates smartly for selective nostalgia.

At least, it does so for a little while, until it comes to deal only in extremes. By the end, the filmmakers have rejected sentimentality as a blanket rule; Frederickson becomes a veritable Buddhist, disposing of all of his possessions and, by proxy, his dead wife. Eventually, he even chucks their home. “It’s just a house,” he tells his chubby young friend. He rejects widowerhood for grandfatherhood because it’s time to refocus on the present generation, and every young boy (in a Pixar movie) needs the strong presence of a male role model. What that butterball needs is a papa, not a mourning makeshift grandpa.

Up begins as a shrewd film that suggests a need to protect the good parts of the past while discounting the bad. (God bless Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.) But it ends with a moral discomfiting in its plain-and-simpleness: out with the old, in with the new. Then again, I suppose it’d be naïve to expect anything less from the pioneering computer animation company—the people responsible, more than anyone else, for killing the hand-drawn cartoon. Grade: B+

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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Full credits from IMDb

What's this movie about? Shia LaBeouf can't tell his girlfriend he loves her? I couldn't really follow the story, not just because Michael Bay's directing style is so incoherent (his camera has the Tony Scott spins), but because I kept getting distracted by all the commercial breaks. It was like the Super Bowl, with all those neat spots! Transformers 2 could save the automotive industry if all the car commercials in between encourage consumers to buy American automobiles again. And those battling robot toys were really cool; maybe they’ll save the struggling retail industry? But most of all: how about all those free endorsements for right-wing militarism?

Seriously, did Hasbro produce this in association with the Department of Defense and Palin 2012? Let’s break it down: The Decepticons are the insurgents, right? And the Autobots are the Americans? And the Americans are the...well, I guess the allegory doesn't quite hold, but it's still there. (Michael Bay is too stupid to hold together an allegory.)

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

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24 June 2009

Year One

Directed by: Harold Ramis
Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg
Full credits at IMDb

Let’s start with the basics: why the heck is this movie called Year One? It’s set in some fantastical (read: nonsensical) conflation of prehistory and Old Testament times—two different time frames simultaneously occurring, like in a Philip K. Dick novel. Either way, we’re talking about thousands of years Before the Common Era in both cases; if it were Year One, we’d be in the dawn of time, or at least the days of Jesus, though he’s conspicuously missing from this Bible-crazy movie.

And yet another era gets folded into the film as well: the contemporary. Jack Black and Michael Cera star as exiled cavemen who meet most of the Torah’s major figures: the Tree of Knowledge, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and finally, for a superlong sequence, the residents of Sodom. (Guess if anyone makes anal sex jokes—like, over and over again.) But Black and Cera stay in their comfort zones, playing the respective Oscar and Felix types they play in everything else they’re in. (They’re like temporal travelers from 21st Century America, though no one ever mentions anything about a time machine.) The movie opens by mimicking Apocalypto—the parody so blatant that you think the “directed by” credit will go to Mel Brooks rather than Harold Ramis—another movie that anachronistically applied contemporary social dynamics to historical types. The only difference is that this movie does it consciously, for laughs. Sporadic, sporadic laughs.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

17 June 2009


Written & Directed by: Christian Petzold
Full credits from IMDb

Is James M. Cain’s 1934 bodice-ripper The Postman Always Rings Twice a novel rooted in steamy sex or in social conditions? Well, it depends on whom you ask; solicit an American’s opinion and you’re sure to hear that it’s about the sex. The hot, violent sex. Both Hollywood adaptations—Tay Garnett’s 1941 noir classic and Bob Rafelson’s less classic 1981 remake—are more focused on leggy blondes than on the worlds those bombshells inhabit; the post-production-code remake is especially known for its Nicholson on Lange lovemaking.

Luchino Visconti’s unauthorized 1941 adaptation Ossessione, recognized by many historians as the first Italian neo-realist film (a genre known for the authenticity of its cultural documentation), is sweltering in its own way, too, but clearly boasts a searing social component; it’s hard to separate the characters from the dusty rural poverty that they inhabit. Christian Petzold’s latest is a loose, unofficial adaptation of the same story, borrowing Cain’s love triangle—and, broadly, his characters—while relocating it to aughties Germany. And while the movie has a sexy fair-haired woman and some rough hallway-floor fucking (which leaves a bite mark on the hand the man had used as a gag), it’s less sultry than it is socio-economical.

Generally, Petzold keeps his camera a safe distance from the characters; his is a cool and observational style. Violent as some of the sex may be, it isn’t exactly hot. The director uses his screen-time to construct slowly a minimalist portrait of his homeland in crisis, expressed through three representative, microcosmic characters. Benno Fürmann, whose shelf-like brow strangely evokes Dwayne Johnson, stars as an Afghan War vet in the former East Germany who gets a job—and good jobs are hard to come by, as we see him early on slung over a machine, harvesting cucumbers—with a snack stand magnate (Hilmi Sözer); he’s a hirsute Greek who dances like Zorba and runs his business with his wife, a young and attractive girl (Nina Hoss) who’s obviously, aesthetically anyway, too good for him. She and Fürmann begin an affair and then plot to kill off her husband—a tricky proposition, as he’s the one paying down her enormous debt.

The earliest dialogue in Jerichow is about debts owed, and subsequently every scene involves money in some way, whether through dialogue or transaction. Times are tough, and every franchisee is looking for something extra, for a way to cheat the boss. Petzold paints a cynical view of a recessionary Germany, where capitalism has made a crook of everyone, not just financially but sexually, too. The film is rife with mentions of prison terms, dishonorable discharges, debt and depression, with depictions of unemployment, shitty odd jobs, betrayal, and immigrants. “I live in a country that doesn’t want me,” Sözer laments, “with a woman I bought.” (He’s an unusually complex cuckold.) A marriage is born of financial necessity; a love triangle is informed by money problems. Hoss outlines the theme when, late in the picture, she announces, “you can’t love if you don’t have money.” Welcome to Great-Recession cinema, now with less eroticism. Grade: B

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Written & Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Full credits from IMDb

Atom Egoyan suffers from Shayamalan Syndrome: from any objective standard, his films, like Exotica and Ararat, are awful, packed with poor performances, stilted verbosity and solemn self-importance—a general pretentiousness. So why are they so damn appealing? Is it the sincerity? Or, at least, the absence of irony? The visual elegance? Adoration is classic Egoyan, hobbled by the aforementioned faults that impair the rest of his oeuvre; after Where the Truth Lies, an erotic (homo and otherwise) Martin and Lewis murder mystery, he has decided to tackle Matters of Grave Importance, like the emotional and spiritual destruction caused by terrorism (gasp!), as well as the natures of fiction and technology, the latter a pet motif of the director since his Next of Kin days, at least. Watch a digital camera melt in the flames of a fire and ponder its Meaning.

Devon Bostick plays Simon (badly), a high-school student encouraged by his French teacher Sabine (Egoyan regular Arsinée Khanjian) to engage in a drama exercise: pretend he is the son of a couple from an old newspaper article whose father sent his pregnant wife onto an Israel-bound plane with a suitcase, unbeknownst to her, full of explosives that failed to detonate. Emotionally, it’s rooted in Simon’s real http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifexperience: when he was a child, his parents died in a car accident, a possibly intentional one if you believe Simon’s hate-filled grandfather (Kenneth Welsh, whom Egoyan criminally tethers to a death bed. The brilliantly manic actor who brought Windom Earle to life should be playing Jack Napier, not a bed-bound grouch!) The boy was subsequently raised by his uncle, Tom, played by a wonderfully moody Scott Speedman. (“Uncle Tom” may be an intentional joke, er, Significant Detail, as racism is one of the film’s most prevalent themes.)

Simon’s story is made public and becomes an Internet sensation, a hot topic of histrionic discussion between classmates and academics; it also exposes Simon to a gallery of victim fetishizers and unbalanced kooks—either a frightening vision of a society’s individual consciences or a wholly contrived and phony one. Egoyan clumsily works his way through hot topics like Racism! And Xenophobia!—teens compare and contrast capitalism and terrorism, and debate the validity of such an exercise, with unintentional hilarity—treating his college freshman knowledge of how society functions as prophetic wisdom, imparted to us ignorant theatergoers in screams.

At the same time, he challenges the function of storytelling with accusations of inherent emotional exploitation.

“I don’t understand this pretending stuff, I don’t like this pretending stuff,” Tom tells Sabine. “You’re messing with people.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” she responds feebily.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” he answers. A-ha!

It’s Egoyan talking to himself perhaps, conscious of his own manipulations, especially a melodramatic third-act twist. Adoration’s ideas are often complex and intriguing, if inelegantly presented; luckily, their expression is captured gracefully by an ever-prowling camera, underlining that Egoyan is Looking for Answers here, people! His films, so formally sumptuous, would benefit from being in another language; if his dialogue could hide behind subtitles’ cloak of legitimacy, he might be a more generally adored filmmaker, rather than a reluctantly tolerated one. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

Whatever Works

Written & Directed by: Woody Allen
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 2.5/4

The worst thing about Woody's latest is Larry David. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, the improvisational Seinfeld vet has proven comically adept at playing himself, but now we know he can't play anyone else—and certainly not Woody Allen. The two come out of very different traditions in Jewish humor. For the first half of Whatever Works, David is downright awful: You can see him stuttering, struggling to stall so he can remember the script. Furthermore, his stiff and unconvincing line readings of Allen's idiosyncratic dialogue ring false (much as David's writing suffered coming out of Steven Weber's mouth in Sour Grapes). And it's impossible to buy the crusty Costanza-model as a Nobel-level physicist with a knack for literary allusion. That schlemiel?

Keep reading at Slant Magazine

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12 June 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Full credits from IMDb

It’s always vexing when a gritty classic gets a thoughtless Hollywood reboot, and this Taking of Pelham is a classic example: the 1974 original was a hilarious snapshot of NYC in economic crisis; the latest is a lame, clueless portrait of the contemporary city...but there is at least one detail that separates this remake from its forebear that feels (somewhat) right. In Joseph Sargent’s original, no one takes the hijackers seriously; the passengers laugh when they threaten to kill them (a wino remains passed out during much of the commotion, and several passengers need the threats translated into Spanish.) A crusty supervisor asks, “What do [the passengers] expect for their thirty five cents? To live forever?” But everyone in this exhaustingly straight-faced film takes the hijackers seriously from the beginning—because this is the humorless NY of today, post-9/11.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

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10 June 2009


Directed by: Duncan Jones
Written by: Nathan Parker
Full credits from IMDb

An exploration of space madness, the modern married man and corporate ethics, Moon stars Sam Rockwell and Sam Rockwell. The beloved indie actor plays Sam Bell (rhymes with Sam Rockwell), an exhaustion-eyed employee of a green corporation sitting in a tin can far above the world, on a three-year contract to manage, solo, a clean-energy mining operation on the far side of earth's only satellite. Showing his range, the always-remarkable Rockwell also plays a healthier, angrier and three-years-younger version of Bell, a clone who turns up when Bell One is injured on the job and wakes up in sickbay.

A glum, existential, psycho-philosophical mystery rooted in the tropes of retro sci-fi, the wonderful feature debut of director Jones, né Zowie Bowie, boasts a conspicuous debt of influence to 2001, both in its outer space contemplativeness and the tactility of its pale production design...

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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The Hangover

Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Full credits from IMDb

Did you know that all chicks are bitches? I didn’t know either until I saw The Hangover, the latest piece of bromance, this one from Todd Phillips (Old School). Seriously, what hath Apatow wrought? I thought the recent I Love You Man marked a nadir for this kind of shit, but The Hangover outdoes it by doubling the number of dicks; we’ve got four bros here, on a bachelor party bender in Vegas: Doug (Justin Bartha), who’s to be married in two days time, plus his brother-in-law to-be Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and his two best friends, Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper, whose credits read like a worst of the decade: The Rocker, He’s Just Not That Into You, Yes Man, etc.) The four of them—painfully dull Doug is thankfully dispatched early, and the film becomes a mystery as the remaining trio tries to find him—are a bunch of Jagermeister-shooting assholes, grown men who haven’t developed past the college-freshman stage of their perpetual frat-boy lives.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer: