30 May 2007

WHEN IT SIZZLES

The omnibus film! That most difficult, maddening, precious attempt to gather the best and the brightest of international cinema into one place, the genre that peaked and fizzled in a roughly 3 year span in the 1960s and has never taken off since!

A full year after its 2006 Cannes premiere, the United States gets to taste the world's newest omnibus film, Paris, je t'aime, in which 18 filmmakers or filmmaking teams created a short film about 18 of the 20 arrondissements* of Paris (whether the last two were incomplete or cut, I cannot say). Each of the shorts concerns, in some way, shape or form, a love story.

In all honesty, there's not a whole lot of cohesion to the finished project; for the most part the order of shorts is chosen non-arbitrarily (and not at all related to the numbering of the arrondissements themselves), but it never feels like a unified celebration of Paris, but a basketful of individual and highly personal reflections upon the city. Which is frankly as it should be; but it does mean that describing the project as a whole is kind of wasteful. Instead, this being the internet & therefore space is no concern, I'll go film by film.

* * * * *

Montmartre, written and directed by Bruno Podalydès.

A very low-key start to things, in which Podalydès (of whose work I am totally ignorant) stars as a crabby driver caught in traffic, when he spots a young woman (Florence Muller) who has fainted in the street. He rescues her, and they talk.

It's quite French and narratively vague, but it is uadmittedly sweet. Fortunately, better films crowd it out almost immediately. You might think of it as a palate cleanser, readying you for the buffet ahead without leaving much of a trace itself.

* * * * *

Quais de Seine, directed by Gurinder Chadha, written by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.

To start, this does a much better job of being about place than the previous film: set in the Left Bank, home of the great universities of Paris, it is largely a story of leaning things about life and oneself. It's a tiny multi-culti fable, in which a young Muslim woman (Leïla Bekhti) demonstrates the value of not being a sexist bigot to an earnest young French student (Cyril Descours).

It's a satisfying enough love story, but it suffers a bit due for being a too-literal epxression of its themes: the girl essentially preaches to us and the boy for about 40 seconds, and I still haven't decided if the short format makes that more necessary or more objectionable. I can say without hesitation that it's indelicate where it feels out place, and ruins an otherwise sweet story.

* * * * *

Le Marais, written and directed by Gus Van Sant.

The first short to really stand out because of its style, and of course that style would be the clinical humanism of Van Sant's that I've never found very appealing. This is the only homosexual story in the film - kind of - as befits the story set in the gay center of the city. Why only one? Homophobic Frenchmen, I guess.

Being a Van Sant film, not a damn thing happens: an artist (Marianne Faithfull, way overqualified for the size of her part) needs paint, so she takes her translator (Gaspard Ulliel) to a workshop where he falls head over heels for the new assistant (Elias McConnell), and talks his ear off about banal trivialities until he has to leave. All concerned nail the nervous energy of a new flirtation, and Van Sant's style is much more delightful in five minutes than in, say, Elephant, but I still have to complain about the final gag of the story, which isn't funny (due to the director's inflectionless camera), and makes up for in predictability what it lacks in emotional honesty.

* * * * *

Tuileries, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Obviously, the story set in the main tourist district of Paris would have to be shot by Americans, and feature an American tourist played by Steve Buscemi in the befuddled style of Jacques Tati. This is quite the best of the 18 segments, a tiny comedy that could practically work as a silent, concerning an innocent abroad getting into the most horrible trouble despite his trusty guidebooks. It's slight, and it's fairly obvious to look at it how it works, so I wouldn't want to risk breaking it by trying to analyze it further; but it's sheer magic of that sort that reminds me what makes me love the Coens.

* * * * *

Loins de 16e, written and directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas.

Heady stuff coming off of the Coen farce: Catalina Sandino Moreno is an impoverished young woman who leaves her child in a mass nursery to go serve as nanny to the child of a careless businesswoman. It's the shortest film here, and perhaps the most sobering: a quick punch in the gut of social awareness acted to perfection. As it stands, it's one of my favorites here, but I suspect that its impact would be even greater if it were pushed to a later point in the whole.

* * * * *

Porte de Choisy, directed by Christopher Doyle, written by Doyle, Gabrielle Keng and Kathy Li.

Set in the Parisian Chinatown, this is not exactly the "worst" film in the batch, but it's easily the most confusing: director Barbet Schroeder plays a hair products salesman who runs against the imperious Madame Li (model Li Xin) and...something. It turns into what looks unmistakably like a high-fashion commercial, and that is why I'm willing to cut it at least a tiny bit of slack: Doyle is after all a cinematographer, and that is why I am willing to let it slide that his second-ever project as a director is basically a celebration of the photographed. It's not the most beautiful thing ever (oddly, Doyle didn't shoot it; Kathy Li did), but it's stylish and full of lovely images.

That doesn't keep it from being blisteringly incoherent, mind you.

* * * * *

Bastille, written and directed by Isabelle Coixet.

Surprisingly upbeat and playful for a story that is almost entirely about death and/or loss, but that's Europe for you. A man (Sergio Castellitto) is preparing to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) until he learns that she is dying of cancer. He falls back in love with her, and cares for her until she dies.

Morbid stuff, that, but Coixet (a Spanish director that I've never heard of before) keeps things lively by dropping dialogue in favor of narration that gives the whole short the odd feeling of a bedtime story. Add in some of the best compositions in the film, including several revolving around a red coat iconic enough to wind up on the film's French poster, and this is certainly in the top tier of Paris, je t'aime.

* * * * *

Place de Victoires, written and directed by Suwa Nobuhiro.

Peculiar and lifeless, this is the story of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), whose young son has recently died, shattering her faith in a loving God. At the risk of seeming like an asshole, it's the sort of role that Binoche can play in her sleep, and that is apparently what she is doing here. Midway through, she has a vision of a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who offers her one last visit with her child before he passes on.

Inherently, there's nothing wrong with that story, but it's carried off without a hint of grace. Suwa is yet another director that I've never seen, and I'm not sure that this is a strong argument that I want to; he treats magical realism like neorealism, and grinds the life out of the story in the process.

* * * * *

Tour Eiffel, written and directed by Sylvain Chomet.

When I heard that the mind behind Les triplettes des Belleville had a segment in Paris, je t'aime, I had a ready-made "most anticipated" short, and it does not disappoint. This is the French-est of all segments, by which I mean, it is about mimes. Beyond that, it's just like his animation, only live action, which is as much to say that it's not really possibly to describe it in writing.

* * * * *

Parc Monceau, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.

This is very nearly the most disappointing segment. In one seven-minute take, we see an old man (Nick Nolte) and a young woman (Ludivine Sagnier) setting up what appears to be an assignation. They spend most of those seven minutes in low lighting. As one moment in a feature, this could have been a brilliant moment (and Cuarón demonstrated only months after this film's premiere that he knows from brilliant use of long takes), but as a stand-alone, it feels like the director forgot that he had to present a film until the evening before it was due. There's no emotional anything here, and the "naturalistic" dialogue feels canned.

* * * * *

Quartier des Enfants Rouges, written and directed by Olivier Assayas.

Liz, an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal), needs heroin, and she needs affection, and she tries to get both from Ken (Lionel Dray), to such a point that she buys drugs just to see him; but he's a bit of an oblivious asshole, and things go wrong. This is the single example of something that I expected to be pervasive: it's so interesting and compelling that I want to see the rest of this story. As the opening scene of a feature, I love it, but it doesn't tell a complete story.

Ah, well, Assayas is consistently a better director than writer, even in six minute chunks.

* * * * *

Place des fêtes, written and directed by Oliver Schmitz.

Packs a surprising amount of narrative layering into just a few minutes: Hassan (Seydou Boro) flirts with Sophie (Aïssa Maïga), she humors him, we note that he is bleeding, she is an EMT, and the film spins around like a seedling of Last Year at Marienbad to show how all of this is the result of their first and only prior meeting.

This is a textbook case of characters caught in the wrong plot; both Boro and Maïga are fantastic in the scant few minutes we get to spend with them, but the direction Schmitz takes them is entirely unimaginative. It's more frustrating than enlightening to see the causal link that ties the two characters, because it's so deeply contrived. The most forgettable segment in the project.

* * * * *

Pigalle, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese.

A journey into the famous whore pits of Paris with Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant, and the success of the segment is due entirely to the fact that you're watching Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant. LaGravenese is historically a fairly middleweight writer, and historically he's hardly a director at all, so it should be no surprise that he doesn't do much of anything interesting; in particular the final moments are carried off so clumsily, and to so little effect, that I laughed involuntarily at the sheer absurdity of it all.

That said, Hoskins and Ardant are great performers, and if nothing else, the sight of Hoskins in the red light district gave me happy Mona Lisa flashbacks.

* * * * *

Quartier de la Madeleine, written and directed by Vincenzo Natali.

I wouldn't have guessed that one of the very best segments in the feature would have come out of the man who made Cube, of all damn things, but there you have it. I was impressed enough by the aggressively stylized film noir flavor of the first moments. in which a backpacking Elijah Wood stumbles nervously through the dark streets, but then it goes and turns into a vampire story. At this moment, you're thinking one of two things: A fucking vampire movie? or A fucking vampire movie! I thought the latter, and nobody will ever tell me that I'm wrong. Great use of oversaturated reds, for what it's worth.

* * * * *

Père-Lachaise, written and directed by Wes Craven.

Awful. Simply awful, and that pains me to say about a director that I'm something of an apologist for. Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell play an engaged couple touring the most famous cemetery in the world, where she realizes that she can't love him because he's not as witty as Oscar Wilde.

Besides its dim view of female intelligence, the short suffers from an aggressively twee sense of fun that never comes even close to equalling "good humor." It's not funny for one split second, it needs to be funny throughout, and that turns into a sour bit of idiotic farce. And this is all before Alexander Payne's incredibly strange cameo.

* * * * *

Fauborg Saint-Denis, written and directed by Tom Tykwer.

I am all but certain that this segment is not as good as I think it is, but its proximity to Craven's misfire makes it seem like the textbook definition of High Art. Melchior Beslon plays a blind student who falls in love with an actress (Natalie Portman), who finds himself recalling the entire arc of their relationship in the instant when she calls to tell him that it's over.

This recollection takes the form of a very high-energy sequence of repeated motifs and narrative phrases that flash by at just about the fastest speed we could expect to fully process them. Of all the segments, this is the one that demands the most attention and I applaud Tykwer for that. But why did he have to go and ruin it with the most ill-considered ending of all 18 shorts?

* * * * *

Quartier Latin, directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin, written by Gena Rowlands.

An old American man comes to Paris to meet his wife for the first time since she moved there years ago. They are getting divorced. They try to be nice at first, then they trade affectionate barbs, then the barbs get a bit less affectionate and a bit more venomous.

So no, nothing happens, but one does not care very much because that old man and woman are played by Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, turning this segment into a distaff John Cassavetes homage, with all the rigourous acting and curdled misanthropy that implies. "Curdled misanthropy" is a compliment, there.

Unfortunately, the two directors do not add up to their extraordinary progenitor, and the short lacks even the slightest visual imagination. But it doesn't matter. Seeing those amazing human beings onscreen is nothing shy of a privilege.

* * * * *

14e arrondissement, written and directed by Alexander Payne.

Pride of place makes this final episode seem a bit more profound than it actually is, but it serves as such a fine conclusion: Margo Martindale plays Francine, a middle-aged American tourist reciting an essay on her Parisian vacation to her French language class, mangling said language beyond hope in the process. It being a Payne film, there's a lot of not-quite-laughing at her general pathetic helplessness.

But, being a Payne film, there's a surprising hidden humanity there, too, as Francine (whose life, we gather, has been colorless since birth) comes to fall in love with the city of light itself. It's the emotional core of the whole damn feature, which is after all titled I Love You, Paris, and it's probably the most emotionally fulfilling moment in the whole two hour affair. I've already given out the "Best Segment" award, but this one runs a close second; and it's the only short whose absence would noticeably detract from Paris, je t'aime and its effect at the basic conceptual level.

* * * * *

And with some wordless framing footage out of the way, we're done. "Fall in love with Paris 18 times," proclaims the advertising. Maybe not, but it's obvious that the films were all made by people who did love Paris, each in their own way, and if that doesn't make this a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, it's still a fantastic travelogue.

8/10

ARRRRRRRRGH

A touch of theory: in general, no film comedy should be longer than 105 minutes, no action movie should be longer than 135 minutes, no children's movie should be longer than 90 minutes, and no film with the word "Pirates" in the title should be longer than two hours. In general.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, is longer than two hours. In fact, it is nearly one full hour longer than two hours, and that is simply indecent. It's not as though there isn't 2 hours and 48 minutes worth of plot, for there is. It's that a pirate movie should not attempt to have 2 hours and 48 minutes worth of plot.

Of course, a superfluity of narrative has always been a part of this franchise. As it seemed right to me, I re-watched POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl and POTC: Dead Man's Chest in preparation for At World's End, and I was struck anew by how unspeakably padded the first film feels, with a solid 40 minutes of completely unnecessary water-treading starting around the 80 minute mark, and by how the second film has a false first act and two hours of exposition.

Now, as I'd hoped for last summer, At World's End is an improvement over Dead Man's Chest for the very good reason that it possesses rising action, culminating in a final forty minutes that contain some of the most exciting fantasy action setpieces that I've seen all decade. But that leaves more than two hours (aka "the running time of Captain Blood") of punishing dialogue sequences, which call to mind another franchise that was born out of a sincere desire to update the classic genre films of long ago with state-of-the-art effects, before turning into a flabby epic of political economics; and when you find yourself reminded of Stars Wars: Episode I while watching a movie, that is a fairly unanswerable argument that the movie you are watching has gone seriously wrong.

That said, there's nothing confusing about the plot, any more than there was in the immediate predecessor, contra the many critics who claim to have been utterly lost in the proceedings. It's just that there's so fucking much plot: first we are in Shanghai, where Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are seeking the aid of Chinese pirate lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) in finding the missing Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Then the whole lot of pirates is thrust into a pitched battle against the ee-vil East Indies Trading Company, still led by the ee-vil Lord Cutlet Beckett (Tom Hollander). Then they escape to the Antarctic, where a needlessly convoluted Map of Everything brings them to the edge of the world.

Meanwhile, Jack Sparrow is in Hell, and quite the Hell it is at that: an expanse of sand and rocks that turn into crabs, with a landlocked ship crewed by dozens of Johnny Depps. It's artsy and poetic, something like Jean Cocteau lite mixed with Luis Buñuel lite, and it has fuck-all place being in a summer blockbuster, but director Gore Verbinski obviously wants to make better movies than Disney will finance, and I salute him in that wish.

Finally, well over a half-hour in, the team of heroes finds Our Jack and they all go back to the world of the living, and that's when the really hard-core Phantom Menace vibe kicks in, as Barbossa summons the Nine Pirate Lords to discuss how best to fight against Beckett and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), all the time ladling out huge steaming lumps of mythology that really might have worked if they'd been even hinted at in either of the first two films.

At World's End plays fair: it answers every question it raises, unlike Dead Man's Chest, and the scale of the story it tells justifies its length, unlike Curse of the Black Pearl. But that doesn't change that it is a pirate movie, and for two brutal hours there is almost no piracy or swashbuckling to be found. When it hits, it is absolutely the best of the three films, but when it misses, it is endlessly tedious.

All that being true or not, it ignores a key question: what of the Johnny? It was his left-field parody of Keith Richards that made the first film work, after all, and the very concept of a Pirates trilogy would be wholly unsupportable without his presence. Which makes it all the more frustrating that he's relegated to a supporting role, at best, in the current drama. In addition to appearing far too late into the story, he is given nothing at all to do besides spout incredibly nonspontaneous one-liners while Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley and even Orlando Bloom are given more screen time and better character arcs.

This works in the case of Rush, who ends up giving the film its best performance (not so hammy as the first film, but somehow more menacing), but Knightley and Bloom have regressed since Dead Man's Chest, and Bloom in particular has been taken with a terrible case of the blands. I've never liked him - not as Legolas, not in Elizabethtown, and surely not in Troy - and now that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have gone and given the thin love story of the first two films a tragic element, I can no longer take him or his character seriously, and the strange twists of loyalty he undergoes in the middle hour fail totally.

But I don't want to end on a crabby note, and so I will instead suggest that when Pirates of the Caribbean: Wrath of God or whatever ends up coming out three years down the road, it will maybe not be so bad as that; for the places that At World's End leaves its characters make a sequel seem almost inevitable for some and impossible for others, and it generally puts me in the mind that a fourth entry in the franchise would maybe possibly be a bit lighter on the heavy myth and a bit heavier on the light swashbuckling. That's probably just a foolish hope. Because the myth is heavy here, indeed. At World's End is not bad as such, but it is extremely anti-fun, given the vast cornucopia of details to keep straight. One does not watch this film, one endures it.

6/10

29 May 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IT'S OVER or DEADFUCK DEADFUCK DEADFUCK DEADFUCK

It is 1984. The first major wave of American slasher films is just about spent. In Britain, the "Video Nasties" panic in Great Britain was codified into law in that year, and in the United States, family groups were openly questioning whether the genre was actively immoral.

Not an unusual environment for Hollywood to find itself in, then, and yet in this particular case, Paramount - producer of the that most notorious of all slasher franchises, Friday the 13th - made the extraordinary choice to cave. The fourth film, they announced, would be the last.

In addition to being a terrible business decision - the series was at this point still a licence to print money - it wasn't necessarily all that sound aesthetically. The Friday the 13th films bore the brunt of the weight of the slasher genre simply for being the first and most successful, but the second and third installments weren't particularly gory, by choice (in the case of Part 2) or by MPAA censorship (in the case of Part 3). But be that as it may, here we are: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

The film opens with the now-standard stock footage recap that works much better than before. Rather than just dropping the last five minutes of the previous film in as a block, we are instead treated to a rather carefully composed assemblage of shots from the story thus far over Paul's version of the Jason Voorhees legend from Part 2. No, it's not high art, but it's fairly effective and it really makes it clear that this is a summing up. Kudos to Barney Cohen, a screenwriter of no repute (after this, his most well-known work is a story credit on The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington).

Once the credits begin to roll, we get our second pleasantish surprise, and that is to see that gore maestro Tom Savini from Friday the 13th has returned for this entry; there is a pervasive rumor that it was because he felt that, after his role in birthing a series he despised, it was his duty to help kill it off. Oh, Tom. As optimistic as the rest of us.

Now, at some point I'll have to get to this, and it might as well be now: gore. Here and there in my Summer of Blood adventure, and elsewhere historically, I've probably made it seem like I'm a bit of a gore hound. I can't disagree with that assessment, although we should not make it seem like I am a zealot; I would never claim that for example L'Atalante is somehow less of a film because it lacks eye-gouging. And God knows, I'm sympathetic to the argument that elaborate, explicit gore effects are responsible for numbing our culture and making our young people inured to violence.

So how does a young, well-meaning liberal moralist come to sigh in delight that the patron saint of Fangoria is responsible for the makeup effects in The Final Chapter? There's not one answer. A part of it, certainly, is that certain movies are supposed to be brutal and vicious, such as Night of the Living Dead or The Hills Have Eyes or the Savini-designed Dawn of the Dead. All three of those have been called immoral, with a certain degree of justification, and all three are movies that I hold in great esteem. It is not a sin when art is brutal; life is brutal, when all is said and done. It's important to recognize that fact. There will never be a moment when I say of a film that it is flawed because of how hard it is to watch. Being hard to watch is an absolute virtue, and I share with Yoko Ono the belief that you can tell a great work of art because people walk out in disgust.

Obviously, though, the Friday the 13th films are not art. They are shitty. And this leads to my second reason: really high-caliber gore effects are often the only indication you will ever get that anyone cared about a film whatsoever. That's the hard truth of being a bad movie lover; bad movies are badly made, often by hacks who don't give a damn. In many horror films, and this one is no exception, the makeup designer is the lone craftsman who actually wants to work at the peak of his ability. Love and care goes into good gore, and that must be respected.

Last and certainly least, there is an undeniable human attraction towards violent death. No matter how much we protest, there is an animal core that wants to hear the story about the decapitated journalist, or catch a glimpse of the car crash out of the corner of our eye. At least slasher films allow us to fill that base need, and I'm not claiming I don't have it, without requiring actual human suffering.

All of that is as much to say: the name "Tom Savini" already demonstrates that this film will be a step above Part 3.

Happily, The Final Chapter is at least a step above Part 3 in every other way, as well. No mistakes: it's not a good film by any definition. It's quite stupid. But it's not so venally stupid as its predecessor, and that is because this is the film where the series got its feet, and stopped pretending that there was any actual story: this film exists only to show us victims and then kill them, and in that sense it has roughly as much narrative thrust as a dessert trolley. Which doesn't sound like a compliment, but after the buffet of ass that was the last film in the series, I am happy to take what I can get.

So...the credits end, and we find that it is the night after Chris left an axe in Jason's forehead, and the local authorities are loading that certain psycho's body into an ambulance (in this entry, Jason will be played totally without distinction by an uncredited Ted White). The cops prattle the expected prattle about how this evil dude killed all those people over the last three days.

We follow Jason to the hospital, and all that I just said about this not being a stupid buffet of ass goes away in the face of a scene that reaches Ed Woodian levels of inane behavior and dialogue and exploitative sex: the Ballad of Axel and Nurse Morgan. Axel (Bruce Mahler) is a smarmy morgue attendant, and Morgan (Lisa Freeman) is the hottie that he lusts after. He behaves as a smarmy morgue attendant must, setting his food on dead bodies and joking about the hot dead teen girls, and generally hitting on Morgan, who rebuffs his advances in revulsion (Dialogue of the Gods I: "Axel, I am not faking any more orgasms for you!"). Yet there comes a time, for no reason, when she jumps him, right on the edge of Jason's gurney. Can you tell where this is going? Yes, I thought you could. His hatred of consensual, if really inexplicable sex brings him verily back from the dead, and his cold hand falls upon Morgan's thigh, freaking out Axel something fierce (Dialogue of the Gods II: "Jesus jumping Christmas shit!"). Their tryst thus prematurely severed, Morgan goes to work while Axel whacks off to an aerobics program, and damn me but they had porny aerobics programs in the 1980s. Quelle surprise, Jason sits bolt upright and nicks Axel's head off with a bone saw, before wandering over to jab a scalpel into Morgan's rather oblivious gut.

Morning comes, and it brings with it the most tiring "Meet the Meat" sequence in the series so far. If the following seems tedious, well, that's what it's like to watch it.

First up, we see two middle-aged women hiking through the woods. They begin talking about their Dad, so we know that they're sisters, but then the older-looking one (Joan Freeman) begins talking about Dad missing her sexually, which the younger one (Kimberly Beck) confirms, and it gets very squirmy and awkward until we realize that, all appearances to the contrary, this is a mother and daughter: Mom and Trish Jarvis.

They get to their cozy home in the woods, where a little boy wearing a cute alien mask plays with an old-school video game box of some hideously archaic nature. DIALOGUE THAT IS ROUGHLY AS SUBTLE AS TYPING IN ALL CAPS reveals that the little boy built the mask himself. Anyway, Mom demands that he remove it, and we see that her son is a demonic little insane monster, by which I mean that he is played by Corey Feldman in a normal frame of mind. That Corey Feldman. His name is Tommy, and I pray that's a reference to the other mask-maker associated with this film. Mom tells her children that the cabin next door has been rented by-

-a truckful of unbelievably old teenagers! Who, like their counterparts in Part 3 have no knowledge of the Crystal Lake slayings, and yes, we do find out about this point that this is still on that fucking lake, with its ever-lengthening shoreline. This batch of Meat is unusually low on distinguishing personality traits, which is a shame, because it's also by far the best-acted in the series. To start, not only because he is the best-acted but also because he is introduced first, is Jim, the lonely and undersexed one with the shaggy hair, played by Crispin Glover. That Crispin Glover. Life is strange - not five days before I watched this movie, I saw Crispin Glover in the flesh, narrating Guy Maddin's Brand upon the Brain with full orchestra at the Music Box theater in Chicago. And I was keenly aware of that for every single instant of this film.

Jim is sitting in the back with Ted (Lawrence Monoson), the asshole practical joker, second of that name. Ted responds to Jim's bitching by air-typing data into an air-computer, and declaring that Jim's problem is that he is a "deadfuck," a lousy lay. Do you find the word "deadfuck" amusing? Because Barney Cohen did. We'll get to hear a lot of it. To mimic the effect, I'll just drop the word "deadfuck" into the rest of this review at random.

The rest of the car is filled by Paul (Alan Hayes), the apparent leader; Paul's girlfriend Samantha McSluttington (Judie Aronson); Sara (Barbara Howard), who is utterly guileless and sweet, and would almost seem perfect for our Final Girl, if only we hadn't already met Trish, and more importantly, Trish's little brother; and Doug (Peter Barton). Doug has the absolute minimum number of characteristics it takes to be a movie character, and maybe ten lines in the whole movie. All hail Doug.

Along the way, they pass two things: a graveyard with a nice shiny tombstone reading "PAMELA VOORHEES" (at last, a name!), and a fat hippie chick (Bonnie Hellman) hitchhiking. The hippy chick has a sign that reads "CANADA AND LOVE" on one side, and "FUCK YOU" on the other, and I want that as a T-shirt. Anyhow, they ignore her, for she is fat and a hippie, and for no good goddamn reason at all, Jason comes along to kill her just as she sits down to enjoy a banana. Deadfuck. She gets one of those classy "sharp object through the back of the throat" deaths that the F13 directors all seem to love.

No good goddamn reason describes most of the film. Even more than in Part 3, there is no earthly excuse for Jason Voorhees to do what he does in this film. They are nowhere near his home, and if he's gone this many years without butchering all of Crystal Lake, NJ, why start now? I digress.

Deadfuck. The kids get to the cabin, and Samantha gives The Talk to Sara, so she's officially off the Final Girl shortlist. Next, Samantha undresses in front of a window, and Corey Feldman ogles her. This is easily the creepiest moment in any Friday the 13th film thus far.

In the morning, the kids begin the loooong trek to Crystal Lake, where they meet the Whore Twins, Tina and Terri (Camilla and Carey More). I do not fling around words like "whore" lightly, but it is worth it for these two, who when we meet them are doing that '80s "sweater on the shoulder" thing to a degree where it looks like their shirts are about to fall off. I honestly thought they were togas at first. The lot of them go skinny dipping, just as Tommy shows up to ogle them again (I mean, Jesus Christ), and Trish grabs him angrily away from the libidinous show.

Trish's car dies, and who should show up just then but Rob the Backpacking Hunk (Erich Anderson), who claims to be hunting bear (to Tommy's disbelief, strange given that in Part 2 the existence of bears was conclusively established). He starts the car, and at long fucking last, we have our entire meat tray laid out for consumption.

Deadfuck.

Having spent all that time on the frakking exposition, I'm in no mood to elucidate every moment of the killings, although I will say that they are all: a) unimaginative; b) well-designed. I will mention that this is sequence requires that all of the major players outside Trish and her mother be stone deaf. Also, Ted gets stoned and watches the longest homemade stag film in the history of pornography, sex is had, the most wince-inducing death in the series as it stands occurs when Paul is shot in the crotch with a spear gun, deadfuck, and director Joseph Zito gets one pretty fine image in the death of one of the Whore Twins (Terri, I think), whose death we only see in shadow, until she is pinned to the door with a spear gun. Where Jason gets these from, we are only permitted to guess.

Meanwhile, Rob has a Dark Secret: his sister died in the course of Part 2, and he's got revenge on his mind. He's also got a pretty impressive set of newspaper clippings for four days' work. The film unspools endlessly as Crispin Glover dances spastically, a dog gets thrown out of a window in slow motion, wagging its happy tail all the way down, we get a nice shot of Jason's corroded, waterlogged hands, even though we are meant to believe that he is not a resurrected lake zombie and we've previously seen his hands looking just fine, and a good dozen euphemisms for "have sex" are tossed around.

It's a cringingly bad forty minutes, livened only by Savini's great gore and copious nudity (hold on to that), but it finally ends up at the Final Girl sequence. And a doozy that is: running back and forth between the two houses, with Trish never quite sure of whether Tommy is safe or not. The editing is not always perfect, to be sure, and there is often some confusion as to where anybody is, but ultimately we get the Mexican standoff of Trish, Jason, and Tommy made up to look like Little Boy Zombie Jason (which makes fuck-all sense, but it comes after a legitimately exciting ten minutes and so I forgive it), and then Trish smacks Jason with a machete (WHY ARE THERE SO MANY MACHETES IN THE NEW JERSEY WOODS?), knocking off his mask, and then she shoves it in his eye and then, drumroll please, for the most gruesome effect in all of Tom Savini's glorious, machete-riven career, as Jason falls to the floor, and his head slides slowly down the machete blade. Okay, he's fucking dead now.

Kind of. His hand twitches in a death reflex, and Tommy goes apeshit, grabbing the machete and chopping Jason into putty. Okay, he's totally fucking dead now. And Tommy has crazy eyes.

The film sucks, but it sucks much less than Part 3, for the simple reason that it is an unabashed exploitation film, moreso than any of its predecessors. Which is maybe not an objective good in your eyes, but I takes what I gets.

No, it doesn't make any sense that Jason isn't dead, or that he kills the teens in this go-round; but none of that matters, because there's really almost no sense that what's happening has narrative causality. People come, people go, nothing changes, except that they kind of die a lot. The ethos of the Friday the 13th series is finally complete: these films exist as an excuse for blood and boobs. Amen.

So, that's The Final Chapter. I have to admit, that was harder than I expected it to be, the films started running together after a bit and the last two were really stupid, although the third was much more retarded while the fourth was just kind of cutely dumb. But at least I survived it. And I got some memorable gore effects out of the bargain. I really feel that this was a rite of passage-

What?

Oh.

Fuck.

Body Count: 14, definitely including Jason this time, one death occurring off-screen, plus one dog.

The F13 Dating Controversy: Our first time vortex! Pamela Voorhees's tombstone clearly shows that she died in 1979, indicating that Friday the 13th took place on June 13 of that year, which was a Wednesday, not a Friday. But let's run with it, and that means that the second, third and fourth film take place in 1984, in which year July 13 was a Friday (if such a thing can be trusted at this point). Assuming that the deaths in Part 2 took place on said Friday, because why not, we have a timeline:

-Summer, 1957: Ten-year-old (I'm guessing) Jason Voorhees "drowns."
-Summer, 1958: Pamela Voorhees kills two counselors.
-13 June, 1979: Friday the 13th.
-August, 1979: 32-year-old Jason Voorhees kills Alice.
-Summer, 1982: Chris encounters the 35-year-old Jason in the woods.
-Thursday, 12 July, 1984: the first day of Part 2.
-Friday, 13 July, 1984: the second day of Part 2.
-Saturday, 14 July, 1984: the final morning of Part 2 and the first night of Part 3.
-Sunday, 15 July, 1984: the first day and second night of Part 3.
-Monday, 16 July, 1984: the final morning of Part 3 and the first night of Final Chapter.
-Tuesday, 17 July, 1984: the first day and second night of Final Chapter.
-Wednesday, 18 July, 1984: the second day and third night of Final Chapter.

In other words, Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter is the first film in the series to take place in its year of release. To reiterate, Jason Voorhees "drowned" 27 years ago, and is now 37 years old.

Deadfuck.

Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

JUNE 2007 MOVIE PREVIEW

The first month of the summer = bust. Let us see what the future will bring!

1.6.2007
There is nothing - NOTHING - better than a 2+ hour sex comedy. Okay, I tease a bit. I'm looking forward to Knocked Up, especially after seeing the international trailer for the first time. That said, writer-director Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin nearly didn't survive its perilous runtime, and the new film is almost 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, the Russian sci-fi fantasy action thriller Day Watch is coming out, and if you think that sounds exciting, you clearly missed out on the maddening Night Watch, which deftly combined a hideously confusing plot with two hours of the most aggressive audio-visual assault that you ever did see.

The little films: Mr. Brooks, a serial killer film that weirdly enough stars Demi Moore, Kevin Costner and William Hurt; and Gracie, a massively nepotistic pseudo-autobiography for costar Elisabeth Shue.

8.6.2006
I was one of the eight or so people in North America who really loved Ocean's Twelve, and therefore I have absolutely no reason whatsover to assume that Soderbergh & Co.'s Ocean's Thirteen will be anything less than a shimmering delight. I even love the trailers for that film, that's how much of a mewling jackass I am. Besides, we're overdue for a third film to actually work this summer.

Also: a bit of the ol' torture porn in Hostel, Part II, this time with girls instead of boys, and there's just not much you can do about that. Looking torturous in a different way, we have the second animated penguin movie in seven months, Surf's Up. Why penguins and surfing? Why not, I say.

Plus, La vie en rose or La Môme for us pretentious fucks, a biopic about Edith Piaf

15.6.2007
In a summer packed with something like 15 sequels, the one that stands out as the most wasteful is surely Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Yes, the original was a successful film, but perhaps you will recall that in the summer of 2005, there were very few big hit films, and by mid-July there was really no other game in town. It was a glass of water in the desert. 2007, by contrast, and despite the insufficiently obscene takes of the third Spider-Man and Pirates films, is a right ocean of soulless blockbusters.

Even so, it will outgross all over poor little Nancy Drew, a film that is very specifically being pitched at people who are not teenaged boys, and is therefore doomed.

20.6.2007
So, Danny Boyle's Sunshine is to open this day? Let us wait and see. I've watched this release date get battered around far too often to believe it.

22.6.2007
Steve Carrell is better than Evan Almighty. End of discussion.

Leaving us with: John Cusack in a Stephen King vehicle, 1408. A bit more girl-centered torture porn, Captivity - that film with the notorious promotional campaign, directed by the producer of Super Mario Bros. And A Mighty Heart, the film about Daniel Pearl, which is, admittedly, directed by Michael Winterbottom and so might be at least a little bit tolerable.

But still, fuck summer.

27.6.2007
There is just no chance at all that Live Free or Die Hard will be even a tiny bit good, but I can't help but be excited anyway. A terrible '80s action movie is still leaps better than a mediocre '00s action movie.

29.6.2007
Pixar, thank you for saving June. As directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava, I will acknowledge no possibility that Ratatouille might possibly fail even a little bit, and that mentality has been biting me on the ass a lot recently, but still. Keep the faith.

Indies all 'round: a dreadfully quirky looking English romantic comedy, Eagle vs. Shark; Michael Moore's latest, Sicko, an attack on the US health care system; Death at a Funeral, Frank Oz's twee little attempt to make us forget his last film was a complete boondoggle; and Evening, as writ by Michael Cunningham, and co-starring a girl that I once took a class with, and that freaks me out a wee bit every time I see the trailer.

AT LAST, MY ARM IS COMPLETE AGAIN

Once again, I have the internet at my beck and call, and believe me that if I didn't have to go to work now, I would be posting the hell out this blog right now.

26 May 2007

SERVICE INTERRUPTION, FILS

Still don't got no internets at the new apartment. Still have to scrape out time where I can find it (hence the shoddy quality of the last three reviews). Again, the Summer of Blood, Sunday Classic, Big Disappointing Summer Blockbuster and associated reviews are coming, just late.

25 May 2007

AT LONG LAST, I CAN BRING THE HATE WITHOUT GUILT

I would like to share a bit of received wisdom with you all: you can't tell somebody that what they're laughing at isn't funny.

Thankfully, nobody in the theater where I saw Shrek the Third was laughing very much at all, so I don't have to pretend that it was anything other than a complete waste of time.

In the interests of full disclosure, I thought pretty much exactly the same thing about Shrek and Shrek 2, and I understand that this makes me a mirthless crank. Then let me be a crank and be proud of it, for if there's one thing that I've never been able to stand it's the modern idea that the only way for a cartoon to be funny is for it to be porked out with shrill pop culture references and lowest-common-denominator sex jokes for the parents smeared on top of the lowest-common-denominator fart and shit jokes for their kids. Frankly, I'm not even sure which of those three types of "comedy" offend me the most, but I know this: the Shrek series delights to traffic in all three.

Setting aside the idea that different people have different senses of humor, what really frustrates me is the idea that an animated film needs to have two discreet levels of text for young people and older people (Dreamworks Animation does this constantly). Surely Pixar, particularly Finding Nemo, has put the lie to that notion by now. But alack, it will be more than a month yet before I get to see that studio's latest, and Shrek the Third is what I have to deal with right now.

Frankly, it's fairly clear to me that even for those who loved the first two films, this third Shrek suffers rather badly from diminishing returns. There is no narrative evolution on display here: it's an enlarged cast running through exactly the same types of jokes as the last time, and the time before that. In this corner, anachronistic pop music that's anywher from three years to decades out of date. In that corner, tiresome carping about classic Disney movies. Lastly, a bunch of gags that I'm not even sure why they're meant to be funny, particularly in this case the lengthy stretch in which Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, here as last time the only voice actor worth a damn) swap bodies. That's the gag. Isn't it funny?

After three films, I think it's safe to assume that we "get" the milieu of Shrek and his world: fractured fairy tales for the video game generation (Where have you gone Edward Everett Horton? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you). And that was almost enough the first time, but there's no energy spent in building on that. Look, this time it's post-modern version of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel (voice respectively by Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Cheri Oteri and Maya Rudolph, all tragically underused)! Look, it's the Matter of Britain - set in a high school! Justin Timberlake is Arthur! Isn't that crazy?!

Sure, it probably is, but it's also very tired, because we've seen it before. This is the worst kind of sequel, the kind that refuses to add anything new whatsoever to the table for fear of tweaking the formula so much that people don't want to spend money hand over fist to watch it. Fine, whatever. I've resigned myself to the idea that summer movies are about being safe bets, and the occasional great movie is mere accident. But I don't have to pretend that it's defensible, or that I sat through the theater in anything other than stony silence.

I don't think, as some seem to, that this is the film that will kill Shrek. I think that the people who loved the first two will merely like this one, the people who merely liked the first will dislike this one, and the people like myself who disliked the first two will continue to just dislike this one. For God's sake, you can't hate Shrek the Third. It's far too open in its desires (MAKING MONEY) to be hate-worthy. I knew when the summer started that this was doomed to be the most personality-free film of the summer, and I was right.

Besides, you can't hate a movie that is, honestly, this beautiful. Yes, yes, the Shrek films were always nice to look at as still images, but I always found something cringe-worthy in the animation itself, a robotic stiffness to the characters' movements that plunked them deep in the Uncanny Valley. That's mostly not a problem here, with a few exceptions (anyone in a crowd scene, the villainous Prince Charming). There are scenes which, if not for the large green ogre in the center, would be close to indistinguishable from live-action. It's as well-animated as any CGI movie I've ever seen, and that's not nothing. That is, indeed, quite a lot. Not enough to pretend that the script it good, but enough that I'll never get around to calling this the worst film of the summer.

And as long as I'm being generous, I'll admit that there was one moment that I not only laughed at (actually, I laughed a few times, but I mostly don't remember the gags that I laughed at), but actually caught myself respecting how clever the filmmakers were for including it , even though it ran aground of the bitchy Disney-bashing that has always been one of the most tiresome elements of the series. In one scene, Snow White is singing a twerpy little piece about the animals in the forest, and her song is in that distinctively fuzzy mono sound that plagues Walt's own early musicals. To be honest, I suspect that my response to that gag says a lot more about me than it does about Shrek the Third.

4/10

24 May 2007

BROTHER JOHN AND SISTER KATE

Ah, the centenary! Such a sacral observance for beings such as we, that are hard-wired to think in tens. And this month witnesses two that are not so important in the great scheme of things, but mean quite a lot to me: Katharine Hepburn's 100th on May 12, and John Wayne's on May 26.

Being me, I couldn't let those dates go by unnoticed, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to use this opportunity to watch the one and only film that those ever made together: Rooster Cogburn, the continuing adventures of the drunken asshole lawman that brought Wayne his first and only Oscar in 1969's True Grit.

As films go, Rooster Cogburn is maybe not the most memorable thing in the world, which is not to say that it is without charm. It's just very slight. Stuart Millar, the director, was by trade a producer (although curiously, not of this particular film), and it really does show that he doesn't have much clue what he's doing. And screenwriter Martha Hyer, a Western character actress working under the pseudonym "Martin Julien," never wrote another film before or since. Given these two facts it's none to surprising that the story kind of ambles around and never amounts to much of anything. It's also shockingly derivative, although 30 years on its that very quality that tends to make the plot more interesting.

The story opens in a very familiar place: Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn has just ended the reign of terror of a small gang by the expedient of killing them all. The local magistrate, Judge Parker (prolific character actor John McIntire) can't stand these rough 'n' tumble marshals who take the law into their own hands, and so he strips Cogburn of his badge, sending him off to be belligerent and drunk in exile. In other words, Rooster Cogburn falls into the tradition of "cop that's too tough for the system" movies, that has become unspeakably hoary by now, but in 1975 was still...not "fresh," but not tempered by decades of overuse. At any rate, it fascinates me to no end that John Wayne found himself, at the end of his career, playing the Harry Callahan of the Indian Territory.

Of course, this being that kind of movie, Cogburn is given the chance to redeem himself if he can apprehend a particularly vicious criminal without recourse to lethal violence, and in no time at all, he's on the trail of Breed (Anthony Zerbe), a villain who has just laid bloody waste to a school just inside the Territory, killing several locals and the placid white preacher who taught there. The only survivors are Wolf (Richard Romancito), a teenage boy, and Eula Goodnight (Hepburn), the spinster daughter of the preacher.

Cogburn and Miss Goodnight* join up, against the lawman's will, to track Breed's gang, and at that point we stop caring about the plot entirely, but it goes a little bit something like this: Cogburn is rough and crude and drunk, Goodnight is prim and religious, they spar as they adventure, but slowly come to some sort of affection for each other. It is, in other words, a precise rip-off of Hepburn's The African Queen, which is its own special weird metanarrative thing that I'll return to in a moment.

By the time we come to the fairly idiotic climax to the plot, it's more or less obvious that Rooster Cogburn isn't a conventionally successful Western (indeed, as a "film," the only really good thing about it is Harry Stradling's cinematography, with some really amazing compositions in the first twenty minutes or so). Instead, it's a strange postmodern commentary on the idea of movie star personae. Clearly I don't know if that was anyone's specific intent, nor do I know if the film was conceived before or after Kate Hepburn signed on. But the film as it stands is less of a conflict between Rooster and Eula, or Rooster/Eula against the outlaws, but between John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn's respective filmographies.

What is a John Wayne character? Gruff and masculine, a bit misogynist, good with a gun, sharp-tongued, strong personal moral code (of course, all of these things can be either positive or negative, depending upon the particular role). And what is a Katharine Hepburn character? Also sharp-tongued, but refined, old money, strong-willed, feminist, educated. Within the film itself, these differences are commented on, but they absolutely don't need to be.

No viewer is likely to come to Rooster Cogburn unaware of its two headliners, and so the film has the luxury of trading on our knowledge of the decades of films between them. I don't mean to say that it's a lazy film (certainly, both performers - Wayne especially - had starred in plenty of movies that traded 100% on the star's persona). Rather, I mean that it is a sort of controlled experiment in what happens when two completely incompatible movie stars occupy the same physical space without changing what makes them a star.

Such mash-ups have occurred throughout the history of cinema with typically unsuccessful results, but in 1975, Hepburn and Wayne weren't just popular actors, they were living legends. Their pairing would have been less of a stunt-casting commercial event and more of a battle between gods. Watching the two together works on the level of enjoying two great actors, of course, but it also works on the rarer and more intriguing level of what makes those actors great. Contrasting the two stars makes us unusually aware of the mechanical aspects of their respective personae, which is a needlessly confusing way of saying that putting Hepburn and Wayne against an alien romantic lead has the effect of isolating the actors, and allowing us to consider their characteristics more fully once they have been so isolated. Given our knowledge that the audience lacked in 1975, that the two stars would only make five more films between them, we now have the added thrill of considering these superstars-in-isolation as the culmination of lifetimes, and while for neither actor would this have been a great swan song, it is still the case that this deconstruction could only have been possible at the end of a career.

If all that makes it seem like the movie itself isn't so great, well, it's not. But it is a perfectly wonderful treat for fans of the two stars, and there's precious damn little reason for anyone to be a fan of neither Hepburn nor Wayne. In a way, it's something better than good: it's interesting, because it allows us to briefly recontextualize two exceedingly familiar faces, and think about why we like them specifically, rather than just mindlessly enjoying their familiarity.

23 May 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IN YOUR FACE!

It seems likely that we are on the cusp of a new wave in three-dimensional cinema. The usual suspects (soulless technocrat George Lucas; the marketing genii at Disney; Zemeckis and Spielberg and their descendents) are convinced that this will give them new licence to create beautiful, immersive worlds, expand the limits of storytelling, and release another version of Star Wars.

Bullshit, I say. Have all of these bright lights forgotten the first two waves of 3-D, in 1953-55 and 1982-84, and the mangled corpses they left in their wake? From those six years, I can name one film, the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, that managed to use 3-D in a significant and appealing way (not even Hitchcock could manage that feat, in his otherwise fine Dial M for Murder). Otherwise, it was all just waggling crap towards the camera.

And look! We've got just such a crap-waggler headed down the pike right now!

The early-'80s wave of 3-D had a curious trait shared by neither of its siblings: every damn film that was third in a franchise was released in a 3-D print, and in two memorably barbaric examples, that fact was reflected not just in their advertising, but their very titles (Amityville 3-D and Jaws 3-D). The film to ignite this particular subtrend, as I suppose you've guessed, was 1982's Friday the 13th, Part 3 (saith the poster, but Part III according to the film print; tradition holds that Roman numerals accompanied the launch of the second phase of films, and I'll not break with tradition).

I'll bet you also could guess that this particular 3-D extravaganza fails to advance the Lucasian thesis that the technology can be used to great imaginative effect. Not, mind you, that I was able to watch the film in its intended three dimensions; but damn me if there didn't seem to be a whole lot of pointing knives at the camera and precious little in the way of carefully composed deep-focus setpieces.

In my review of Part 2, I came to the conclusion that the film was sorta kinda not terrible, that it might even be good and well-shot in a few places, and that maybe just maybe it justified the notoriety of the whole franchise. Well, I hope you all enjoyed that brief renaissance of quality, because Part 3 is a deeply stupid movie.

"Wait," I can hear you say, a quizzical and confused look on your face with your head cocked at a dubious angle. "Does that mean that the first two films weren't stupid?" No, my dears, that means that Friday the 13th, Part 3 is so appallingly, overwhelmingly stupid, it is stupid even by the standards of the Friday the 13th franchise.

That stupidity breaks right out of the gate: remember in Part 2, I complained that it had, and I quote, a "generous application of stock footage from part 1 crudely disguised as a dream sequence." I was not pleased then, and I meant my comments to reflect that; but if only I could have looked into the future to see what screenwriters Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson had in store for their opening sequence, I would have praised that film to the highest heaven. Because Part 3 opens with the last five minutes of Part 2 just stuck right there on the front end of the print. With the exception that the weird-ass final scare gets cut in favor of a new scene of Jason pulling out the machete with which Ginny nearly severed his left arm. Also, the 1.85:1 image from the earlier film has been matted to match the new film's 2.35:1 'scope ratio, and it is powerful ugly, in the way of all compositions that cut people's heads off at the hairline.

Unhappily the recap footage manages to include my favorite single shot from that film, giving the most potent possible evidence that returning director Steve Miner just gave up, or something, because all of the directorial niceness that made Part 2 bearable is far gone now.

Anyway, the Parade of Horribly Stupid continues right on into the credits: you know how the film is in 3-D? Do you suspect that this means that the credits WHOOOSH out of the screen and then WHOOOSH back? Congratulations.

What you likely did not suspect was that the underscore for this happy little technical demonstration would be a Harry Manfredini-penned variation on his rather effective opening theme from the first two films. If you read the internet enough, you'll eventually find all of the gags out there, and I'm sad to say that I cannot think of a single way to jokingly describe this piece of music that hasn't already been used. So I'll just say that yes, it is undeniably a disco remix of the theme, and there is no better indication of the depths of this film's suckage than the way that it makes a total hash out of the one and only consistently good element of the series to that point.

Okay, there is a better indication of the film's suckage: the 9-minute opening scene starring Edna (Cheri Maugans) and Harold (Steve Susskind), the two least essential characters in the history of the cinema. I will spare you the endless litany of unfunny gags that unroll as these two doddering fools wander through their home and general store, while the TV news helpfully recaps that morning's discovery of a bloodbath at Camp Crystal Lake and reveals in the process that the town itself is also named Crystal Lake, which will be an aid and comfort to me going forward. Occasionally, they waggle things at the camera. Eventually they both die. It is a cathartic moment.

The next morning, we get our roll call of Expendable Meat, although I'll be damned if I can tell whether they're supposed to be teens or early twentysomethings. I'll begrudgingly confess that I'm a little grateful that this film doles out the cast in a slightly more ordered fashion than its predecessors, and so they are a bit easier to tell apart. Group 1: Debbie (Tracie Savage, who between then and now spent a bit of time as a news anchor for KFWB in Los Angeles, a fact that every last reviewer of this film sees fit to relate) and Andy (Jeffrey Rogers) who are dating and really, really, really like fucking; Shelly (Larry Zerner), this entry's requisite practical joker and a colossally overwhelming douche; and Chris (Dana Kimmell), who is more or less introduced with a cryptic remark about what happened at the lake a long time ago, and that bit of backstory plus her androgynous name means that she might as well have a nametag reading, "Hello, I'm going to be the Final Girl."

As we meet our Gallant Quartet, they are picking up their Hispanic friend Vera, who is played by Catherine Parks, who is very Caucasian, and I spent every moment until she died unable to get around that fact. It seems that this merry lot are going to spend a weekend at Chris's father's cabin on Crystal Lake, unaware of the attacks from the previous day. I would now like to defend the movie on one and only one point: it's usually said that the victim sets of these films are insanely stupid for returning over and over again to a known psycho killer's haunts, but this particular film makes a decent show of demonstrating how reasonable it is that they'd have no idea of what's going on. So, yeah.

When the Gallant Quintet returns to the car, they find it to be on fire, and by "on fire," they mean "populated by two pot-smoking hippies." These are Chili (Rachel Howard) and Chuck (David Katims), and they are undeniable old, and their presence makes no sense, and it allows for a dispiriting series of pot gags that are nearly as bad as the Edna and Harold Follies, and will be likewise ignored.

So! off drives the Gallant Septet, past the newest murder site (Chris looks pensive) and smack dab into a crazy old hitchhiker (David Wiley), who claims that he was given a gift by a mysterious "Him." This gift, we are helpfully informed by one of the meat, is a human eyeball, that looks a lot like a wadded-up paper towel with some blue dye on one side. The hitchhiker cackles weird things as the young people drive off in a fright, and he then completely confounds my expectations by never showing up again and therefore not becoming our first victim.

Also, he waggles the "eye" at the camera.

This is taking ages. Kicking it up a gear: they all arrive at the Higgins' Haven farm, where Chris finds her boyfriend Rick (Paul Kratka) who is a complete dick and reduces Chris herself to the status of a pre-feminist girl who would be all over a complete dick, although I don't think we're supposed to notice that. Meanwhile, Shelly and Vera incur the wrath of a trio of bikers (two black! The series' first minorities with speaking roles!) during a deeply obnoxious "I need money because I'm Hispanic and only have food stamps" bit. And now that we have an awe-inspiring eleven potential victims, the killin' can get started.

First, a shadowy figure dressed in Tedious Harold's workclothes kills the three bikers, who have come to the farm to teach those meddling kids a lesson about incurring the wrath of bikers. That's in the middle of the afternoon, mind you. As night falls, Chris and Rick are having a heart-to-heart about her experience two summers ago, when she was stalked in the woods by Jason (she doesn't know that yet, nor will she ever, given that the word "Jason" is never spoken in this film), who did something that was not rape, but damned if I or anyone else will ever know what it was, because this flashback is completely nonsensical. Meanwhile, Vera and Shelly are trying to have a heart-to-heart, in which Shelly confesses his Cliché-O-Matic backstory about how he's really shy and he's only a jackass because he needs attention, and Vera seems to accept this; so obviously he responds a few minutes later by jumping out at her with a spear gun and a hockey mask. I fucking hate Shelly. Thank the good Lord, Vera does not immediately forgive him as Chris did for Rick, and so he goes to sulk. And die. A few minutes later, while trying to fish Shelly's wallet out of the lake (don't ask), Vera notices a much larger man than Shelly wearing said hockey mask and brandishing said spear gun, and promptly shooting her in the eye, in the fakest-looking single 3-D effect of the whole goddamn movie (or so it seemed in 2-D).

I'll never get a better chance: having not grown up with Jason, indeed having not seen any Friday the 13th movie prior to my 20th year of life, I have no attachment to The Mask, and so I get to point out that it's really damn stupid. You know why there's a hockey mask? Because some Canadian crew members thought it would be a fun in-joke. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the whole ten-film series typified in one anecdote.

So, death-death-death, in two cases directly repeating deaths from earlier films in the series, and so we have the official tally: it took approximately 230 minutes for the F13 creative team to run out of ideas. Anyway, it's inevitably Chris and Jason, and she runs around, and it's not a terrible Final Girl sequence (much better than the first film had, anyway), but nor is it anywhere near as well-directed as its immediate predecessor. Chris eventually pulls that ass-stupid mask off, realizes that Jason is the same man she saw in the woods, and we the audience get completely confused by the fact that he looks nothing like he did in the big reveal in Part 2. Blah blah, Jason gets an axe to the face, Chris gets on a canoe, and paddles out. First she thinks she sees Jason in the window of the house; then poof he's gone, and in a nifty (read: not nifty, not at all) reversal of the absurd scare from the first film, a zombified Mrs. Voorhees jumps out of the lake to grab Chris-

-and she's being rescued by the cops and left for insane.

There's so much wrong here. SO MUCH FUCKING WRONG. There's the massive pileup of continuity errors, to start, an artifact of starting the film on the heels of the previous one. Then there's the mounds and mounds of backstory that puke out: why did Chris meet Jason before? It doesn't actually change anything, she doesn't use her knowledge of him to defeat him, nor does he seem to know or care who she is. How would she know who Mrs. Voorhees is, in order to hallucinate her? Why the throwaway line about Debbie's pregnancy? Etc. etc.

To me, though, the biggest question mark is this: why the hell does Jason Voorhees want to kill these people? They're not on Camp Crystal Lake, they didn't kill his mother. Psycho killers kill, I suppose.

At least the series figured out what it was about, in this film. Young people + edged weapons. Insofar as there is a plot, it exists only to support the 35 minutes of this 96-minute film in which people get stalked and killed. Insofar as there is a plot, it might be the most slapdash and sloppy one I've ever encountered.

Plus, there's the bitter recognition that Steve Miner's once-fine direction has been neutered by the constant need to waggle things in front of the camera.

My God, this was a terrible movie.

Body Count: 12, not counting Jason, who sure as hell looks dead...

Cheap 3-D Tricks Count: 24 that I noticed; I'm certain the true number is higher.

The F13 Dating Controversy: The film opens about 10 hours after Part 2 ends, and some 36 hours pass (if the first film began on Friday, this one ends on Tuesday morning, in other words). Hence this August, 1982 film takes place in the summer of 1985. Chris's first encounter with Jason was in 1983. As before, it is 28 years since Jason "drowned."

Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

COMCAST CAN FUCKING FUCK THEMSELVES IN THE EAR WITH A WOODEN KITCHEN SPOON, AND THEN THEY CAN PROCEED TO FUCK THEMSELVES IN THE EYE

n/m

19 May 2007

SERVICE INTERRUPTION

I'm moving this weekend. Which means that a) I'll be too busy to write and b) I won't have internet access anyway.

As a matter of fact, it's beginning to look scarily like I won't have the internet until Wednesday, which is about as appealing a notion as having my Achilles tendons severed. There will, I promise, be a slasher review; a very special classic movie; Shrek the Third, and maybe a couple of the things in and around Chicago this weekend: Everything's Gone Green (at the Gene Siskel Film Center) or Brand upon the Brain (at the Music Box, with narration and live music), but it would be very, very stupid for me to predict when those might be up.

There is at least the possibility of there also being new apartment pictures.

18 May 2007

3 WOMEN. ALL OF WHOM GRATE.

If I were to ask of you: "Jane Fonda, Lindsay Lohan and Felicity Huffman are starring in a film together, whom do you think gave the most memorable performance," you would not likely answer, "Obviously, Lindsay Lohan, that high-talent little spitfire," and that is where you would be wrong. For it is indeed Ms. Lohan who gives the incredibly misbegotten Georgia Rule the closest thing it has to an actual spark.

Indeed, one might say if one were cruel that this is the role Lohan has been practicing for all her life: an oversexed, drugged-out, foul-mouthed teenager with a vast sense of entitlement named Rachel Wilcox. But there's more to it, I think, than just history's greatest Method performance. In these latter days of absent panties, crude Blackberry manifestos and video captures of cocaine use, it's easy to forget that she is actually a great actress when she sets her mind to it (which she has done but once; but she was so perfect in Mean Girls that even two decades years hence, when I'm watching a burned-out fucked-up LiLo playing the Shelly Winters role in a remake of Cleopatra Jones, I will sigh in the knowledge that a mere 25 years ago, she was destined to be the Next Big Thing). Her performance in Georgia Rule is not great, but it is good. It's just kind of hard to tell because of the repellent screenplay, which renders her character virtually unplayable (for most of the second hour, we have no idea at any given point if Rachel is lying or not about the film's central crisis, neither do we care).

That is, to be sure, a problem that Fonda and Huffman have to deal with as well; Fonda plays Georgia Randall, a snarky old lady in a tiny Idaho town who is "sassy" in that soullessly clinical way that Hollywood prefers: why, she says "fuck!" And old ladies don't say "fuck!" Ergo, she is sassy! Just look at her no-nonsense way of dealing with problems by hosing down people who cause her problems! Sadly, Fonda is perfectly content to coast on this most joylessly mechanical of character arcs. And I must ask: why has she come out of retirement now, to spoil the purity of a career that involved roles in Klute and Julia and even the better-than-it-really-is Barbarella, for scripts like this and Monster-in-Law? She can't need the money, and it's obviously not for the love of acting.

A propos of people who don't love acting: Felicity Huffman, one of my very favorite American actresses of the modern age, whose every performance is a nimble blend of ditziness and pathos. Until here. Huffman's disgust for this film and her role and her costar leaps off the screen. It is curdling. She mumbles and plays her drunk scenes far too broadly (and they are legion: she plays an alcoholic) and the whole thing is just an embarrassing shambles. And yet somehow I still walked out of the theater with my love for her intact, because if I were in that film, I hope I'd have been the same.

So what is this horrible story that I keep hinting at around the edges? Nothing less than: a fluffy comedy about a young woman who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather.

Here's the thing: Garry Marshall is a very consistent director, whose movies are not the product of a great artist but of a very proficient commercial craftsman. His films lack all personality, but they are all the exact same: a naughty twinkle sitting atop a resolutely unchallenging story about good people getting good things with not too much effort. Add a splash of vanilla pop music from about five years ago. Reinforce social norms, and serve.

That's a fine approach to making infinite variations on romantic comedies, but Georgia Rule is not romantic, and it is not comic. It is kind of horrifying and disturbing, actually, to see the chipper sentimentality of a Garry Marshall film married to a story about three generations of women who mistrust each other so fully that a mother is entirely unsure if her daughter is being honest or not when she lays the aforementioned rape bombshell down early on in the proceedings.

That is the core issue of the film, which it never ever rises above. A miserable comedy. Hooray. I spent a great deal of the film laughing, but it was always a nervous laughter, a kind of "dear God, is that actually happening onscreen?" The script is already imbalanced, trying to marry a horribly unpleasant story with a lark about small towns, but Marshall's presence pushes it into the Twilight Zone. I felt frankly creepy during the bulk of it, the parade of shiny happy people laughing and being clever and naughty while somewhere, there was going on a story about a familial breakdown so complete and traumatizing that I can imagine Ingmar Bergman directing the story. Whatever Garry Marshall's undeniable talents may be, dour Scandinavian nihilism is not likely to ever be counted among them.

3/10

16 May 2007

A FLUFFY, FUNNY REMINDER OF DEATH

I promised myself, before ever sitting down to watch Waitress, that I would not talk about The Murder. As I left the theater, I thought about how great it was that I had plenty to discuss using only the film itself, and not The Murder. So here I am, in front of the computer, and I'm opening my review by bringing up The Murder.

On 1 November, 2006, Adrienne Shelly, an actress-director first brought to prominence in the films of Hal Hartley was found dead in her apartment, hanging from the shower curtain rod. Irregularities in the crime scene, specifically an unidentifiable set of boot prints, led the police to rule the apparent suicide an unsolved homicide. A few days later, 19-year-old Diego Pillco, an illegal Ecuadorian immigrant, confessed that he had beaten her to death and staged her suicide, all because she complained about the construction noise that he was making in the apartment downstairs, and he was having "a bad day." (Not that I like linking there, but the only easily available version of this largely-ignored story is at the NY Post).

No murder is "logical," but you'd have to look long and hard for anything quite this random and meaningless. It's the most horrible kind of death I can imagine. Anyway, Shelly had recently finished shooting her film at that time, and her friends and colleagues finished it for her and premiered it at Sundance, and now it is in theaters.

I don't like to tell that story because I think it's very tempting to overvalue the film just because the woman who created it is gone now, and Waitress is a better film than that. It's sweet and charming and nice, nothing ground-breaking or revolutionary in any way; it's a sweet movie made by a woman who loved her characters and was very, very generous to them. And that's exactly why I can't ignore her death. I know nothing about Adrienne Shelly: I've seen none of her other films as a director, and my only prior exposure to her acting was a small role in the Bukowski fantasia Factotum. But I think I would have loved her a little bit, based on this one example, for although she did not attempt to stretch the boundaries of the cinematic arts, she clearly had a good spirit about her story.

So: Waitress. This is the tale of Jenna (Keri Russell), who works at a tiny Southern diner where she makes the finest pies in mankind's history, given strange and evocative names like "Mermaid Marshmallow" and "Lonely Chicago." She also is married to a complete wretch of a man-child named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who treats her like a dog and, some weeks before the film begins, gets her drunk in order to sleep with her. This results in a most unexpected pregnancy.

Once you have all the pieces, this goes most of the places you would expect it to: the new hunk of an OB-GYN (Nathan Fillion) starts a mad flirtation with Jenna, her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly herself) act as mirrors to Jenna's own life/a country-style Greek chorus, and Andy Griffith fills the last slot as a crusty old man with an unsurprising soft core and an unsurprising plan to help Jenna in her miserable life.

I don't usually care for "nice" films, unless they are made with deep conviction, and Waitress is. It is funny and well-observed, not in such a way that you would laugh aloud, but for the great majority of the film I had a satisfied smile plastered on my face. The actors are all ideal, whether it be Russell and her perky pragmatism, or Fillion's awkwardness (that could not be farther from his iconic role as Mal Reynolds of Firefly), and they deliver Shelly's tart dialogue with elan. Frankly, I didn't believe a moment of it, but I haven't privileged realism in filmmaking for a very long time now, and the story and characters instead have the truth of a fable or fairy tale. To these eyes, that is infinitely more appealing.

The film is a sort of neo-feminist text, largely concerned with the arduous process by which Jenna comes to take ownership of her life. I am completely in support of such a plot, although it raises an inevitable question, which is why there is not a moment when the A-word is brought up. Absent a bumbling moment when the doctor confesses that they can't do "that" at his office, there is never any indication that a woman with Jenna's obvious hatred of her life and pregnancy might at least consider terminating it. The pregnancy, not her life.

That would, maybe, strike a sour note that Shelly doesn't want. The film is sweet, even syrupy, and here I'm going to be one of a thousand critics comparing the movie to a pie; but it really does beg for that comparison. Pies are the central element of the story, the tools by which Jenna expresses her inner voice - "I Hate My Husband" pie, "I Don't Want to Have Earl's Baby" pie - and the movie is created with the same attention and the same earnest but non-aggressive desire to please as a really fine pie. I speak this from long experience: pie-making is damn hard, but it is the most satisfying thing in the world, because more than any other form of baking, you're doing it because you want to share your love with the people who get to eat it. That's what Waitress feels like.

Fittingly, the look of the film (shot by Matthew Irving) privileges the pies; everything is shot in a warm albeit sitcommy golden hue, but the pies themselves take on the alarming hues of 1950's Day-Glo kitsch. I'll not give away the ending save to say that eventually this palette moves from just the pies to the mise en scène as a whole, and it is a deeply satisfying moment when it does. This is one of the great food movies of my experience, in which every loving frame of pastry made me incredibly, almost lustfully hungry.

So, long story short: this is a film that will not surprise you for a single moment, but it is gentle and loving, even when it speaks with a cynical voice. It is the work of a brilliant humanist, and in a better world, I would be thrilled to look forward to her future works; instead I have only two films to see, two films that I should have seen years ago. You were a beautiful human being, Adrienne, and I am so terribly sorry that I'm only finding this out now, too late. Goodbye, and thank you.

8/10

15 May 2007

BLOOD, DEVASTATION, DEATH, WAR AND HORROR

My hopes were much higher than my expectations concerning 28 Weeks Later, which I figured would be somewhere between "tepid cash-in" and "almost as good as the first one."

On balance, I think it's not entirely fair to compare this film with 28 Days Later, for they seek to do different things, but if I had to - really, absolutely had to - I might actually have to admit that the sequel is the better film. I'm not going to belabor that, but I had to get it out there.

Casting aside issues of relative quality, 28 Weeks Later works first and above all because it is amazingly goddamn brutal. In the good way, assuming that you recognize the existence of the "good kind of brutality." What I mean to say is that this is a film which does not present a sanitized depiction of dark events, nor is it a film that delights in putting its characters through hell for our "entertainment." It is a film in which the characters suffer through great agonies and the audience is made to feel sympathetic agony in response. As I've mentioned, many times, I find this to be the highest goal of the horror film, especially in the days of pornographic violence that we currently find ourselves in. 28 Weeks Later is easily the best horror film I've seen since The Descent, and for many of the same reasons: it is about adult issues that it treats with intelligence and sensitivity, and it gains most of its horrific effect by subjecting evil upon legitimate humans, and not cardboard standees in the shape of lusty young people.

Now, what this newfound infatuation with raw brutality means is that the eye-popping style of 28 Days Later is largely abandoned, and replaced by mere eye-popping. Ultimately, I think I'm glad of it; although I loved Danny Boyle's work in the first film, I can always re-watch the first film. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is Boyle's hand-picked replacement; but he is not Boyle, and he treats the material with a much different hand. Where the first film had poetically terrifying moments of light and dark set against a soundtrack of quavering art-rock, the sequel goes for frantic editing and Wagnerian techno. It is a grander film, which is not inherently the same as "better"; I mean that it is more direct and intense of an experience, an opera to the first film's chamber music. It is story of social apocalypse, and while that was the setting of the original, it was not the story, which was much more personal and intimate.

I suppose that's my cue to actually go ahead and take a look at the story in the new film: 28 weeks after the rage virus first got into the population of Great Britain, turning nearly the entire population into hyper-violent cannibals, London has been occupied by American soldiers operating out of a "Green Zone" (satire, much?) where they hope to bring some sort of stability to the area and permit the survivors of the outbreak to return and repopulate. Despite the fact that the infected have all been dead for some five and a half weeks, a single carrier still lives, and manages to spread the disease back into the Green Zone, where the Americans, not prepared for any sort of real combat, freak out, kill civilians, make a general hash out of things and end up having to firebomb the city to stop the enemy (no really: satire, much?).

Focus in a little bit tighter: this is the story of Don (Robert Carlyle), who watched his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) get taken by the infected days after the epidemic started; and of his children Tam (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) who were out of the country at the time of the virus. Don is haunted by images of his wife's apparent demise, and he is shortly haunted by a bit more when it turns out she was only kind of infected, and that is all I shall say about that, for the story very quickly goes places that are twisty.

Eventually, the story goes places that are very typical, although very well-executed, but that is not what I'd like to talk about. I'd like to talk about the ways in which Weeks is an apparent inversion of Days on almost every level. The first film was about survival: it centers on a young man who managed to not die for four weeks despite being abandoned in a coma, it concerns him and a fluctuating band of compatriots running away for no clearer reason other than the knowledge that here is extremely dangerous, and there can't be any worse. This concludes in a happy ending, in which the virtuous are mostly alive (and I do hate to bring that up, I know that neither Boyle nor screenwriter Alex Garland were very keen on it).

After the opening scene, set during the first week of the plague, the new film has a first act that is mostly about peace and rebuilding and family; upon establishing this theme, Fresnadillo and his writers tear it down in a most violent and shocking shift of tone that reminded me of nothing less than Psycho in the way that it completely interrupted the flow of the movie and essentially restarts everything from square one. 28 Weeks Later is not about survival, it is about the end of the world, and the ending reinforces that, while making 28 Months Later a virtual certainty (and how that film will be anything other than a "these are fast zombies!"* retread of Land of the Dead, I have no idea).

Shorter: the visions that stick in your mind after the first film are of Cillian Murphy wandering around an abandoned city; after the second, you are likelier to think of snipers gunning down civilians, or explosions blossoming throughout the streets of the city. Destruction, not isolation. The first film is a study of one man in an insane world, the second film is a study of that insane world falling apart.

There's no reason that this story should be pleasant, and that's why the horrific levels of violence in the film are so important. This film is hard to watch, scarier and more visceral than anything I've seen in a long while, and goddamned if that isn't exactly the way it should be. It's the end of the world as we know it, folks. It does not feel fine.

9/10