30 June 2008

WANTED? NOT BY ME, I ASSURE YOU.

Nine years ago, in the cinematic annus mirabilis of 1999, two of the movies that did the most to get the hearts and minds of the American male adolescent pumping were Fight Club and The Matrix, the first a fable about the restoration of Western masculinity, the second a thing, with the bullet-time (and there was also Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me but that wasn't mirabilis so much as misirabil). It's taken almost a decade, but the inevitable has finally happened: those two films had a baby, Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of the classically nihilistic comic series Wanted. And quite a wretched hybrid it turns out to be, with all due respect to the mayhem-lovers out there.

In a nutshell, this is what the plot looks like: Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), trapped in a miserable cubicle job in Chicago, hates his job, hates his fat boss, hates that his girlfriend and best friend are fucking, hates that his name has zero results in a Google search, apparently because he has a magic version of Google from 1994 or so where dirt-common names like "Wesley" and "Gibson" have no web presence. In comparison, the name I just made up "Forrest Annabelle Lipschitz" has 250 results, so I think Mr. Bekmambetov's point is made: our hero exists in a transparently fake world.

Where was I...right, so Wesley hates everything about his life, and takes lots of anxiety pills to compensate for it, and it just so happens one day while he's standing in the pharmacy, he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), a superassassin with the Fraternity, an assassin's guild formed 1000 by Moldavian weavers who were able to read the secret code of the Loom of Fate, and it did tell them that certain persons must die to keep the world safe.* Wesley doesn't particularly give a damn about keeping the world safe, he just wants to learn how to make bullets bend around corners so he can kill the ex-Fraternity assassin who killed the father Wesley hadn't seen since he was one week old.

I've been poking at the story ever since I saw the movie, and I haven't been able to come up with any other reading besides "The best way to feel better about wasting your whole life in an office is to learn how to commit poetic acts of extreme violence". It's even worse if we flip it around: "Extreme violence sure does make you feel better about being a loser". I don't like it when movies make me feel like I have to be some kind of joy-eating moralist, but y'know, I've worked in an office in my day, and it's not very much fun at all, but I don't suppose that having a giant gun and the ability to flip cars in midair would be a constructive way of dealing with that frustration. Much like Fight Club without the satire or The Matrix without the revolutionary visuals, Wanted is nothing more than an entry in the modern bastardisation of Horatio Alger: hey lads, your frustration at not being super-duper awesome and important can be cured at any second by a hot chick taking an interest in your life, and discovering your untapped skills at beating the crap out of other guys!

That way leads only to being a tiresome moral scold, so let me move on to the "yes, and such small portions!" half of my complaint. I know a lot of people though Bekmambetov's Matrix-flavored vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch were just the bee's knees. Personally, I found the first to be a schizophrenic, visually noisy affair that was more fatiguing than exciting, and learning that its sequel was a full half-hour longer was such a daunting prospect that I shamefacedly elected to give it a pass. So it was no surprise to me that Wanted would turn out to be a string of hyper-stylised action sequences cut to ribbons so that you could hardly follow what was happening at any particular moment, and plumped-out with show-off CGI effects that serve no purpose other than to be kewl. Which they might have been, in 1998. Now, it just feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, and it all happens to fast as to be annoying. Basically, I'm trying to say that if you're going to senselessly glorify violence as being a joyful emotional release, the least you can do is make the violence look exciting and not confusing.

In the midst of all this chaos and ugliness, it falls upon the film's stars to make it even a tiny bit worthwhile. Unexpectedly, this does not include Morgan Freeman as Sloan, the Fraternity's ruler, or president, or something that requires him to use his beautiful voice to explain the film's goofy plot and read messages from the Loom of Fate. "Morgan and the Loom of Fate", incidentally, would be a good name for a crappy local indie rock band. No, I am referring to Jolie and McAvoy, who are both very pretty and get to make out at one point. McAvoy isn't quite as good in his role, spending an awful lot of time fighting a losing fight against his Scottish accent bleeding into his "Midwestern", but he still manages to bend his unique personal charm to good use in showcasing Wesley's rise from prematurely-aged office monkey to free-spirited murderer. Jolie, though, is absolutely perfect in a role where "perfection" is admittedly a bit debased; she's got that seductive little grin she does that communicates volumes about how much fun it is to have giant Rube Goldberg guns and drive cars in ways they weren't meant to be driven. It's actually very like her performance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, so I suppose the degree to which one found her playful and sexy in that movie predicts how one will think of her here.

The duo makes a good argument for why we need movie stars: if not for them and how hot they are and how appealing their personae, Wanted would be entirely without merit. I regret that this film is so clumsy in execution that it's poisoned me against a comic series that by all accounts is extravagantly nihilistic in a way that I might have otherwise respected; but both morally and aesthetically, there's nothing to respect about this film, which tries to play the old summertime trick of replacing quality with loud noises and beating down the audience to the point where we think that feeling worn out is the same as being entertained. In this, I did not find it successful.

4/10

JULY 2008 MOVIE PREVIEW

And so summer rattles along, with the year's first bona-fide masterpiece finally under our belt. Lo and behold, it does appear that there might be another one on the horizon, maybe, if we allow that superhero movies can be bona-fide masterpieces. And for the record, I am certainly not talking about...


2.7.2008
...Hancock, which looks appealing only insofar as Will Smith is an appealing guy. Otherwise, the trailers seem to indicate a pretty dire concoction that doesn't know if its a satire or not, with the distinct smack of racism lying over the whole proceedings: a lazy, drunk (black) superhero with a bad attitude must conform to what (white) people need of him. I'm not sure how this of all films got the July 4 slot.


4.7.2008
The blockbusters take a quick breather, leaving us just with some little indie flicks to fight the good fight against John Phillips Sousa and fireworks: The Wackness, in which nostalgia for the 1990s finally hits the big screen, and Diminished Capacity, which as far as I can tell is a comedy about Alzheimer's. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.


11.7.2008
Man oh man, the only thing better than Brendan Fraser has to be Brendan Fraser hurtling towards you in 3-D, and thank God we've got that magical combination coming in Journey to the Center of the Earth, which shall continue the beloved tradition of adapting Jules Verne without leaving much of anything in the original novel intact other than the title and maybe the setting.

For those of us who like a little bit of craftsmanship with our CGI, Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army shall also be opening this weekend. Me, I liked Hellboy just fine, and I love me some Guillermo del Toro, so my expectations might be a touch higher than they should be. But I also do love the spectacle of a box office failure getting a sequel because of good video sales.

Lastly, Eddie Murphy stars in a new sci-fi comedy, Meet Dave, because that shit always turns out well.


18.7.2008
Ah, here it is...after months and years of waiting, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight opens in the wake of tragedy. If it's just as good as Batman Begins, it's sure to be the best popcorn film of the year, and let's face it: we all expect it to be a sight better than "just as good." Raise a glass to Mr. Heath Ledger, whose untimely passing has cast a shadow over the film that was due to have been his crowning achievement.

About as far from "the film so dark that it drove an actor to the pills that killed him" is Mamma Mia! in which Meryl Streep dances and sings to ABBA in a movie based on the stage musical that every single middle-aged woman I've ever known either saw and loved, or desperately wanted to see.

Then, sort of triangulating how far you can get from either, is, uh, Space Chimps. About space chimps, I suppose.


25.7.2008
I was once passionately in love with The X-Files.

It wasn't love at first sight. I'd be in the room when it was on, and I'd glance up and think "that seems okay," but there was no electricity, not yet. It was only a couple of years later, when we'd spent a lot of time in the same circles that we hooked-up one night. "Here's an episode with Charles Nelson Reilly as a sci-fi author" it purred in my ear. "And Peter Boyle as a psychic. There's an ichthyosaur, and a man who persuades people to kill themselves, and funny murdering cockroaches." "Don't stop," I whispered. "A two-parter that ends with a man bleeding black goo from his eyes in an abandoned missile silo. And an epic mythology about government conspiracies." At that moment, I fell completely, and the next several months were a fevered blur of beautiful moments and memorable nights together. Well do I remember that last perfect moment we shared - "Agent Mulder died last night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head!" it moaned as I gasped for air.

The afterglow was nice, but I began to notice that the show just didn't care as much. "Wait, isn't the black oil a sentient being that controls its hosts?" "Nah, it's a virus that turns people to lizard monsters." "Oh...that doesn't make a whole lot of sense." "Yeah, but the Smoking Man has a son who may be Mulder's half brother." "Um, that's kind of stupid." I was sure things were getting bad about the time we went to the movies, and just sat there in bored silence.

Things got worse after that. Sure, we had a few fun times, but it seemed like the show wasn't even trying any more. It tried a gimmick with the Bermuda Triangle that didn't go anywhere; and one time it had Michael McKean being funny, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I should. At the same time, it tried to excuse itself with increasingly outlandish stories about aliens and the government, but none of that made any sense anymore. Things just kept getting worse - I could tell the show didn't care at all - and eventually, it told me David Duchovny was leaving. That was bad enough, but it tried to bring another man in. "Oh, you'll like John Doggett," it said, but that silky purr had been swallowed up by a raspy cough, and I could barely contain my disgust.

Things ended a little more than a year later, but they'd been going hard for a while; by "Jump the Shark" or the terrible attempt to parody the Brady Bunch, we were just hatefucking, pure and simple. I couldn't wait to get out, and I finally did, hardly able to hide my shudder at the gross spectacle of Mulder and Scully making out, or the Smoking Man melting in a nuclear fire. That was years ago, and I still remember, fondly, the good parts. But it's hard to do that, sometimes.

Anyhow: the second movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe opens today.

Also: John C. Reilly's continued descent into the pits of shit alongside Will Ferrell - they're Step Brothers! - and for no reason that I can possibly comprehend, there's a mockumentary update of The Breakfast Club with the barbaric title American Teen. And the glossy, shallow Julian Jarrold is directing what I'm sure will be a glossy, shallow adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

29 June 2008

TSPDT #857: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED

The history of the animated feature film does not begin, as most people tend to think and the Disney corporation tries to imply, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Rather, it begins 20 years earlier, with Argentine filmmaker Quirino Cristiani's satire El apóstol, a film lost after all known copies were destroyed in a 1926 fire. The second animated feature is...also lost, Cristiani's 1918 Sin dejar rastros [Without a Trace], a WWI film confiscated by the government and presumably destroyed. Which is why the modern animation scholar has to start with the world's third animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger's 65-minute fantasy The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

It is customary to observe about this film that it's like nothing else ever made, and this is a flat-out lie: Reiniger herself made dozens of other films in the same style, and plenty of experimental animators, whether by direct influence or congruent evolution, have made films using the same basic technique. However, there's little doubt that most people, whether they first thing they think of when they hear the word "animation" is Fantasia or Shrek, Akira or "Gerald McBoing-Boing", The Lion King or "Lines: Vertical", probably haven't ever really considered that animation could stretch as far as Reiniger's technique.

And that technique is...actually, it's probably easier just to show you:

Reiniger's animation was achieved by cutting silhouettes out of black cardboard, stitching their joints together with thread, and placing them atop a lit screen. It's the exact same technique used in traditional shadow puppet theatre, which the director had been fascinated by from childhood. Only in Prince Achmed, which was animated using stop-motion techniques, there are no rods or wires to give away the illusion. Only black shapes moving against empty space, or sometimes against translucent backgrounds.

If that sounds primitive, that's because it is, for in the strictest definition of "primitive", the oldest-surviving animated feature must necessarily be primitive. That's not the same thing as saying that it's not successful, or that a modern viewer couldn't appreciate it, for neither of those things are true: with very few exceptions, the movement is as smooth as silk, and Reiniger's cut-outs are exceptionally beautiful and detailed (incidentally, the film credits her with three "collaborators", Berthold Bartose, Alexander Kardan and Walter Ruttman, in addition to her husband Carl Koch, who operated the camera; what those men did is not known to me, but I presume they aided in the animation itself, not the design). It can only be explained as intense passion that someone took the time and energy to produce, from black paper, something like this:

Just as impressive as the detail is how much actorly expression Reiniger was able to achieve with virtually nothing other than extremely detailed hand movements, which she considered to be the most important element of her character design. Prince Achmed is not a model for deep psychological introspection, of course, but these are literal cardboard characters - that we are usually able to tell what they are feeling is a triumph that the word "triumph" seems singularly inadequate to praise.

The film's plot is a pastiche of elements from One Thousand and One Nights: an evil African magician creates a wonderful flying horse to give the Caliph in exchange for a precious treasure; when that treasure ends up being the Caliph's daughter, Dirazade, the magician is imprisoned, but not until after he tricks the Caliph's son Achmed onto the horse, which takes the prince to a faraway place, the Spirit Islands. There he spies on the ruler, Princess Peri Banu, and falls in love with her, kidnapping her and running from her servant demons until he reaches China. There, the magician, escaped from prison, captures Peri Banu and throws Achmed into a wasteland where he meets the Witch of the Fire Mountain, the magician's greatest enemy; together with Aladdin, whose wonderful lamp was stolen by the same magician as he was seducing Achmed's sister, they fight the magician to rescue Peri Banu and Dirazade.

Honestly, isn't that more what you'd expect from the first animated feature of all time, rather than a political satire that got the director in trouble with the Argentine government? Of course it's most just an accident of history that Walt Disney loved fairy tales and created the "animation = fantasy" stranglehold that persists to this day and makes movies like Persepolis seem so radical. But still, Prince Achmed is a fantasy that would have fit neatly into the Disney Studios ethos (very neatly indeed), a fantasy in which the narrative is neither surprising nor challenging in the smallest degree (living in the 21st Century, I can't help but be disappointed that a woman filmmaker would tell a story with such retrograde gender politics, even though it would be psychotic to expect otherwise).

And just like Uncle Walt proved time and time again, nothing is wrong with a comforting story if you have the visual flair to dress it up. More than eighty years later, the most surprising thing about Prince Achmed is still how extraordinarily beautiful it is, just like people were saying back in 1926 (Jean Renoir, no stranger to beautiful movies, was an early admirer of the film, and instrumental in facilitating its general European release). Perhaps it is not a profoundly imaginative work: coming two years after Douglas Fairbanks's Thief of Bagdad was released, it doesn't depict anything that couldn't have been depicted in live-action, and none of the "camera set-ups" (I don't know what else to call them) stand out as being especially different from what one might have seen in any old Hollywood melodrama,except for a few strikingly geometric compositions that remind us that it was Germany, and there was an Expressionism going on. But that doesn't mean that the particular choice of silhouette animation wasn't inspired, or that Prince Achmed isn't a treat for the eye. It still looks like nothing you've ever seen, even if you in point of fact have. That one woman with three ill-defined "collaborators" could achieve something this stunning is frankly inspiring.

Neither you nor I would like it all that much I spent much time describing in words things that are so gorgeous to look at, but let me just toss out one example: the scene in which Achmed spies on Peri Banu and her handmaids in a pool.

The thing I want to point out is not the delicate position of the characters' arms, nor that I've now shown three frames that have three different tint colors - tinting is used extremely well in this film, apres the film's massive 1999 restoration - nor the fine detail in which Reiniger cut out all those little fronds. I want to point out the tiny pieces of paper used to represent reflections in the surface of the water, which as you cannot see in a still image, are "drifting" slightly. It's a tiny detail that, once you've seen it, is positively essential to creating the illusion that you are looking at a real thing and not just black shapes on blue light; that attention to tiny throwaway details is present throughout Prince Achmed, and it signifies the great love Reiniger put into the production. And that love, in turn, is the reason why Prince Achmed, after lifetimes of experiment, refinement and revolution in the artform, is still one of the most captivating animated films I've ever seen.

28 June 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: ONE OF THE MOST BIZARRE CRIMES IN THE ANN... HEY, WAIT A SECOND

Well, here's what I surely didn't expect: that a remake produced by the insipid Michael Bay in 2003 and starring a TV teen starlet would end up being the second-best film with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its title. No, it cannot hold a candle to Tobe Hooper's original, but it's not a godawful comedy, and that alone would be enough to bump it above at least the second and fourth entries in the franchise.

The question could probably be asked, why remake TCM, anyway? And the answer would probably come back, why the hell not, they did it twice already. Neither Leatherface nor The Next Generation fits comfortably into the continuity of the first two films, and they both take significant chunks of plot and several details from the first, as much or more as the 2003 movie does. One of them did a terrible, terrible job of it, and the other is at best an unpainful retread of the material. Today's subject has to be at least a step up from "unpainful": the script isn't any worse than the third film's, and it looks a hell of a lot better. But I don't mean to get ahead of myself.

Still, it seems curious: why remake this film in that year? The truly amazing glut of horror remakes that has brought us new versions of (at least) The Hitcher, Prom Night, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, Willard, The Fog, Killing Me Won't Bring Back Your Goddamn Honey, The Omen, and (God help us) the upcoming Friday the 13th hadn't begun yet - indeed, I think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre uncorked that particular genie - and the general trend of remaking '70s films was still in its cradle. Slasher films weren't remotely popular in 2003; still aren't, the rise and fall of torture porno from 2004-'07 made sure of that. But Michael Bay is nothing if not a man with a keen eye for what will pack a movie theatre, and the handsome returns TCM brought back proved that he knows from crowd-pleasing, two years before The Island suggested that maybe he actually doesn't. But something convinced him and New Line that the world was dying for a return to the franchise that had bottomed out less than ten years earlier with one of the most wretched barrel-scraping exercises in all of '90s horror.

At any rate, remake it they did, and right from the very start it's clear that somebody was trying to avoid intentionally pissing off the fans of the original: the film begins with narration by the very same actor who performed that function in 1974, the now-venerable John Larroquette. His little speech - very close to the one in the first film, with a touch more vagary to it - isn't replicated on a scrolling card like it had been in all of the preceding four installments; instead, he speaks over some super-duper grainy footage that's meant to be the official police film from their investigation of killing site on August 20, 1973 (the police footage comes back at the end, where it's used to set up an incredibly stupid sequel hook). Apparently, the lone survivor of an event quickly dubbed "the Texas chainsaw massacre" alerted the cops to the terrible goings-on at the old Hewitt place - and isn't Hewitt a much friendlier bad pun than "Sawyer" was?

Jump back in time two days, where a group of five slasher-ready college kids are driving from Mexico to Dallas, where they have front-row seats to see Lynyrd Skynyrd perform, and we know that they're huge fans because they're playing "Sweet Home Alabama" on their van's stereo, having apparently acquired a bootleg of the band's second album eight months before it was released. Hell, Skynyrd's first album had only come out five days prior! And thus it is that we learn a Very Important Lesson about setting the scene: when you hump period trappings as desperately as the first ten minutes of TCM humps "The Early '70s", it does well to make sure you're getting those period trappings right, because some snotty blogger will notice and he will mock you for it.

So, the van's occupants are: its owner, Kemper (Eric Balfour), wearing not one but two articles of clothing monogrammed with a "K"; his buddy Blond Dude Whose Name We Learn Halfway Through The Film (Mike Vogel); bespectacled pothead Morgan (Jonathan Tucker); Pepper (Erica Leerhsen, the oldest of the five actors, and the youngest-looking), the hitchhiker they picked up in El Paso, who enjoys extremely spittle-heavy make-out sessions with Blond Dude; and Kemper's girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel). Erin is an absolutely obvious Final Girl, for two reasons: she is played by the film's most famous star in an age of horror films when the famous person always lives to the end, and she is a mirthless prude. Not only does she find Blond Dude and Pepper's oral gymnastics distasteful in the extreme, she's probably the only twentysomething in America in 1973 who not only refuses to smoke pot herself, but is shocked - shocked! - that her friends might not actually share her moral position. Interestingly, she is not obviously a virgin (the original script made her pregnant, in fact), given that she's apparently living with Kemper and waiting for his proposal any day now; the fact that the new TCM, like its forebear, doesn't so much as nod in the direction of Have Sex and Die is one of its foremost virtues.

They're zipping through the Texas countryside with their giant piñata full of weed, basking in the most pornographic collection of '70s signifiers you ever did see, when they spot a "teenage" girl (Lauren German, who is three years older than Biel) standing dazed in the middle of the road. Since fate has kindly provided them with one insatiably horny hitchhiking ladyfriend, they pick her up, but find themselves more than a bit creeped out by her rambling, disjointed mutterings and pleas to be taken home. As soon as she notices what's happening, she starts screaming that they're going "back there", and so pronounced is her fear of wherever "there" is that she pulls a revolver out of... out of her skirt, but for the life of me I can only think of one way that you could hide a revolver underneath a skirt, and I really don't thank the filmmakers for going there, and she shoots herself in the head, splatting viscera all over the van and blasting a great big hole in the back window.

This, incidentally, is where the film first threatened to go off the rails for me. The opening was actually pretty swell: the characters were fairly well-written, for a slasher movie, and fairly well-acted, for a slasher movie/a Jessica Biel vehicle. But the girl's death scene is shot in a profoundly overbaked way, with three separate angles of the back window exploding in slow motion and a really sexy computer-aided tracking shot from the front seat, back through the giant hole in the girl's head, back through the broken window, and some fifty feet away from the car, which looks really cool but signifies absolutely nothing and seems like first-time feature director Marcus Nispel, a music video veteran, was doing nothing whatsoever but showing off. Such fripperies are the exception, rather than the norm, thankfully.

It's kind of amusing how desperately Morgan and Blond Dude (okay, we eventually learn that he's named "Andy") think that they can still make it to Skynyrd with a corpse in the back seat, but Kemper pulls off at the first available business, a gas station proudly selling barbecued meat - the only moment that the new TCM will ever even think about the cannibal angle that helped make the original such a queasy, nihilistic experience. The old clerk (Marietta Marich) is a real shady character who acts like she sees blood-spattered kids with a suicide victim in tow every day of the week and twice on Sundays, but she calls up the sheriff for them, and tells them that he's too busy to come out, but he'll meet them at the old mill.

The old mill turns out to be abandoned, and it's time to say good-bye to the relatively well-drawn characterizations of the Meat that we've enjoyed thus far, because everything from here on out requires them to be idiotic in ever more expansive ways. First up: root around the old junked cars piled to the side of the mill, one of which hides a jar of formaldehyde, containing a photograph of their suicidal friend and her family - incidentally, there seems to be no earthly reason for this artifact to exist except to frighten the kids, although at least they do get frightened. Idiots they may well be, but they're still idiots who are scared shitless that psychos are all around them, and indeed a spirited debate crops up about whether or not they should just dump the girl's body and flee, and the movie continues only because Erin - who is the noble, moral one, lest we forget - has Kemper completely pussy-whipped.

Cut a long story short, they meet a creepy little boy, Jedediah (David Dorfman), who tells them that the sheriff's house is just down the road, unreachable by car; Kemper and Erin head off to find him, the others stay behind to keep freaking themselves out. When the two finally reach the house, they find only a giant model that looks like a cross between a cinder block and the White House, and not a rural Texan farmhouse at all, but they go to it, and find a legless man in a wheelchair, named in the credits "Old Monty" (Terrence Evans). He grudgingly permits Erin to use his phone, and later to help him off the floor after he's emptied his colostomy bag - gee, thanks movie! - while Kemper, not trusting this situation at all, sneaks into the house, and finds himself unceremoniously clubbed to death by a hypertrophic man in a leather mask (Andrew Bryniarski, who apparently confronted Michael Bay at a party to beg for this part).

Meanwhile, the sheriff (the irreplaceable R. Lee Ermey) finally shows up - at least, he claims he's the sheriff. The film is curiously coy about whether or not he's the sheriff gone psycho, or a pyscho sheriff impersonator. Surprisingly none of the kids seem to notice that he's completely bugfuck crazy when he asks them to help him wrap the dead girl in plastic wrap (leading me to snark, in my best Jack Nance impersonation, "she's dead - wrapped in plastic!" to no-one in particular in my empty apartment), nor when he starts leering about how he used to grope corpses, and notices that the girl is "wet" down "there". Hokey smokes, this is mortifying just to recap.

By the time Erin gets back to the mill, assuming that Kemper preceded her there, everybody is starting to figure out that all is not well. Which is why Erin and Andy go back to Movie Set Mansion, where they meet Leatherface again (the leather mask is unusually good in this film - maybe even scarier than in the original, and certainly leaps better than in the three sequels). Erin books out, but Andy manages to get ambushed in some hanging linens, and gets his leg chainsawed off at the knee, whereupon he becomes this entry's "victim left to slowly die on a meathook", with the charming addition that Leatherface rubs salt on his stump to cure it. Cure it like you cure meat. Not cure it, like "fix it". This is actually another extraordinary subtle cannibalism reference, now that I think about it.

Back again at the mill, Erin is barely able to blubber to Morgan and Pepper that they need to get the fuck out of Dodge, when the sheriff gets back and flips out over the joint in the van's ashtray (topic for discussion: is this merely his pretext, or is he of the puritanical breed of psycho killers?). After a lengthy sequence where he mentally tortures Morgan with an unloaded revolver - this scene and the meat hook scene actually lead me to nominate TCM as the spiritual originator of the torture genre, for some damn reason - he takes the boy away, leaving Pepper and Erin to fend off Leatherface. Only one does.

Thus begins the Final Girl sequence, freely blending the TCM ethos of "running through the backwoods, end up at that gas station where you started just to find out that the owner was one of the killers all along" plus a stop off at a trailer where Henrietta (Heather Kafka) and the obese Tea Lady (Kathy Lamkin, who is extraordinarily distracting here, having also played the trailer park manager - "I ain't at liberty to give out no information" - in No Country for Old Men) are caring for the suicide girl's baby sibling, with the more typically '80s-style slasher film "cat and mouse" type of chase. I am more than happy to report that the played-out Dinner with Grandpa that was so nightmarishly effective in the first film and increasingly tedious in the sequels is nowhere to be found. I'm even happier that the Final Girl sequence here is actually pretty okay, not imaginative in the slightest, but propulsive and full of nice little grace notes. Not so happy that the scream-from-Hell's-bowels intensity of the production design in the first film is missing, but you take what you get when you get it.

You can't say that first-time screenwriter Scott Kosar didn't at least try. The framework of the movie is uncut slasher formalism - the first time the series really got to that point - but I kind of dig that, since the original did so much to establish the slasher genre in the first place. I certainly dig the characterisations, which are shockingly full for a teen-oriented horror picture, especially a latter-day teen-oriented horror picture, and I was delighted by Leatherface's unprecedented sensitivity towards pain. Maybe the screenplay goes a little bit overboard in trying to give the Hewitts a backstory, which doesn't make perfect sense (little Thomas developed a skin disorder and the other boys laughed at him, so we trap and murder itinerants now), but he could have simply rehashed the now-ossified TCM plot points, and he didn't. He rehashed Friday the 13th. Which is actually a step down, but in 2003 it wasn't quite as run into the ground as it was in the early 1990s.

Please don't misunderstand me: this isn't a good film. It's a paint-by-numbers slasher film with all the edges sanded off: Nispel can direct a functioning stalking sequence, but even by slasher movie standards, this is a resolutely unfrightening motion picture, and it positively aches for an unrated cut that doesn't keep pussyfooting around every last gore moment. Still, even a paint-by-numbers slasher is a novelty in this decade, and while Saw and its bastard children were still in the future, TCM is like a glass of cool water from a mountain spring compared to the torture fad.

But there's one place where the film really does excel, and I've saved it for last because sometimes I like to be a positive angry film blogger. Remember a few weeks ago, I referred to Daniel Pearl's "exemplary" and "iconic" cinematography as one of the chief reasons why the original film was a masterpiece? Here's something cool: that same Daniel Pearl, now sporting a very professional middle initial "C", was brought onboard to shoot the remake, something that I am almost positive has never happened before. Now, nobody is ever going to make a film that looks exactly like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre again and have it work one-half as well as it did in 1974, and besides, if you're hiring Daniel "C." Pearl to shoot your movie, but you want him to exactly recreate something he's already done, shame on you. Pearl is a better cinematographer than that, and his schedule is full of more important projects like oh holy fuck he's shooting the Friday the 13th remake.

But back to my point, which is that, though TCM-03 looks nothing like TCM-74 and isn't as visually powerful as TCM-74, at least it still has killer cinematography. My eyes aren't quite good enough to tell if it's the result of some very clever use of stock and filters, or if it was just digital intermediate - I'd bet a lot of money that it was digital intermediate - but there's a pronounced yellowness to much of the film that hovers just below the conscious level in almost every respect, except for the sky. The sky is a very awkward shade of muddy-yellow-blue, and it looks exactly like that very distinctive color the sky turns in old photographs that have been fading for a while, and it gives the new TCM a very characteristic and somehow very appropriate look. I don't mind saying, I loved every bit of it, and I once again sit in stunned amazement that a talented man like this, who could have an Oscar or an ASC award under his belt by now if he'd done anything respectable, should be so very tied to such very shitty horror movies (his last two credits were More Aliens vs. More Predators and Captivity).

And there we have it: the hugely successful return of one of the granddaddy of all granddaddies in the horror genre, a mediocre film that nevertheless knocks Freddy vs. Jason, released by the same studio two months earlier for equally obscure reasons, right into a cocked hat. A film that managed to dodge a giant bullet, by somehow managing to not completely suck even though it took the most dangerous American horror film of all time and remade it into something soft and predictable. And therefore a film that should count itself lucky, and not toy around with a sequel. Which, technically, I guess it didn't.

Body Count: 8, one of them a suicide and one of them a villain. Two people are killed directly by a chainsaw, and one is dismembered while still living, making this the chainsawiest massacre yet.

Reviews in this series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)

27 June 2008

AYE, ROBOT, or: EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

I have seen the future of cinema, and it is a bug-eyed, box-shaped robot.

That's not meant to be a pun about how Pixar's miraculous ninth feature, WALL·E, is set in the year 2800. Though I've certainly made worse puns. No, what I mean is that WALL·E the movie and WALL·E, the obscenely cute star thereof, represent a new order in the production of CGI animation, the first completely computer-created protagonist that I am aware of in the history of film. By which I mean, for the first time in my knowledge, the main character in an animated film has been voiced entirely through the work of a sound designer, Ben Burtt, who is my new favorite person in the whole world. Customarily, the creation of a memorable animated character is the collision of a great vocal performance with sensitive, expressive drawings/renderings/models, but WALL·E the robot is gifted with a full range of instantly recognisable emotions, despite the fact that every element of the character is digital. He was created on computers and sound boards, with nothing tactile from start to finish. If it is true that the new wave of filmmaking will be entirely computer-driven (a sad thought, but just give it a decade or two), at least we now have proof that as long as real passion lies behind the 1s and 0s, there is some hope for the future of art.

This much, at least, should not be surprising: the overpowering ad campaign for the film made it altogether clear that the robot would be exceptionally pleasing to the eye and heart of all but the morbidly cynical. And therefore I am pleased to report that the personality of WALL·E himself, however marvelous, is a somewhat ephemeral element of the film WALL·E, which continues the Pixar run of creating extraordinary cinematic delights and demolishing the technical limitations of animation, and tops it off with one of the finest single passages in any American movie since the end of the 1970s. Oh yes, I did just go there.

WALL·E has a perfect opening sequence of about 8-10 minutes, and I do not mean "perfect" as in, "everything I wanted and more" - though it is. I mean "perfect". I mean, "200 years from now, the opening sequence from WALL·E will be looked at by film scholars with the same eye that we look at the choicest moments from Sunrise, Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai". Incidentally, I love that blogging makes it hard to punish hyperbole. Here is how WALL·E begins: the camera (good Lord, is it ever hard not to think of it as "the camera") moves through space, as the chipper "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the lamentable film version of Hello, Dolly! plays. For starters, we already have a juxtaposition of imagery and music as unexpected, and yet perfectly appropriate, as anything in the last 20 years of ironic pop song counterpoints has ever produced. Anyhow, we zoom in to a very brown version of Earth, covered in dust and giant piles of trash, and in the middle of it all is WALL·E, playing the song from a speaker in his chest as he scoops up piles of garbage, compresses them into boxes, and sets them in neat stacks.

I'd never dare give away the specifics of what follows, but it makes for a master class in how to show, not tell. In what might be literally the fewest number of shots that it could possibly take to explain, we learn everything that we need to know about the story: humanity produced so much garbage that the whole race took off in a luxury spaceship, leaving the clean-up to a fleet of Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class robots. After many centuries, only one WALL·E unit is still functioning, and all that time alone has given him plenty of chance to develop a mind, and a boundless sense of curiosity about the world around him - especially that magic thing called "love", which he only knows about from a few minutes of a battered, ancient VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! (incidentally, videotape isn't remotely that stable, but it's best to let it slide). Most of the sequence is given over to nothing but the exploration of a single day in WALL·E's life, told with all the delicacy of the very finest silent comedies of Keaton, Lloyd or Chaplin (whose films were all screened multiple times for the animators). I don't got the words, man. The incredible visual economy of those precious eight or ten minutes is the reason why movies exist - or at least, it hearkens back to the style of the late '20s that is, legitimately, the reason why movies still exist.

Pixar, I think, has finally reached a point where they can do literally anything they damn well please: after effectively solving photo-realistic inorganic surfaces in Cars, and perfecting the art of synthetic cinematography in Ratatouille, the only thing left to see was what they would do with their essentially complete box of crayons. And what they've done is to make a film that would make a formalist weep in ecstasy. The compelling use of focal depth as a significant aspect of a film's narrative is rare enough even for a live-action film in these debased times, but in a cartoon? Only the second time I can ever name it being done - and little wonder, with Roger Deakins and special effects guru Dennis Muren working on the film as visual consultants. There are a great many moments, especially in the first third, when I simply forgot that I was watching an animated film at all; the "cinematography" is so perfectly textured and used in exactly the way it would be in a "real" film.

I have very little doubt that WALL·E is the most visually sophisticated animated narrative film ever produced. There is no sense, as there was in almost every other Pixar film, that the animators "solved" some problem of representation - they simply used animation as the most appropriate tool to make the film exactly what they wanted it to be. After a fashion, the film feels like the culmination of something - CGI is out of its prototype phase now. That the filmmakers had some similar idea seems likely: the end credit sequence, while lovely in and of itself (much as in Ratatouille and The Incredibles), also retells the history of Western graphic art, starting out in the style of cave paintings, moving into Egyptian iconography, all the way up to Impressionism. Then, for the final crawl, it jumps ahead a bit to the era of 8-bit video games. WALL·E isn't the ending point of the history of art, of course, but it does feel a little bit like the first gesture in a newly-perfected style of filmmaking, at the very least. And what do the animators do with this wonderful tool, but recreate the cinematic language of the late silent era, arguably the finest moment in the visual history of live-action film. So WALL·E combines the old with the new, an acute sense of history with an ambitious idea of the future.

For something very close to half of its running time, WALL·E purrs along as the most sublime visual experience that will play in a movie theater this year: WALL·E's eventual love interest, the superfuturistic robot EVE - "Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator" - is voiced by an actual human, Elissa Knight, but she's a triumph of design and animated performance anyway, and there's a zero-gravity ballet between the two robots which is absolutely gorgeous and sweet enough to make WALL·E a top-notch date movie, in addition to everything else. The rule of thumb is: as long as the characters onscreen are all robots, the film is transcendent bliss.

Therein lies the closest the film comes to having a "problem". After a time, as you all know from the trailers, WALL·E hops on a rocket to chase EVE, ending up on the very same ship where all the humans are living, and then the actual plot kicks in. It's a good adventure plot, too - I'm not going to say what - and it would be everything the film needed to stand head and shoulders with the middle of the Pixar pack. But though the adventure is robust, and the social satire is unexpectedly pointed (a more anti-consumerism Disney blockbuster you will never see), it all feels...so typical after the eye-popping wonders of the first 40 minutes and the blissful cinematic intensity of the opening sequence in particular. The "human half" of WALL·E is not the stuff of legends, it is the stuff of very high-end entertainment.

Even if that counted as a flaw, there's more than enough in the first act to effortlessly counteract it all - the dark edge to the abandoned Earth mixed with the playful Chaplinesque clowning of our hero (who at one point steals parts from a WALL·E graveyard, one of the grimmest and funniest moments in the film), and frankly the avant-garde flavor that most of it has; you can't really open a kids' movie in the summer with a half-hour wordless homage to the silent comics of the '20s that hangs most of its thematic resonance on a movie musical that almost nobody likes, can you? It turns out that you can, and that right now, WALL·E is, despite its weaknesses, a shining example of the best and bravest work that mainstream filmmaking anywhere in the world could even dream of in this day and age.

10/10

26 June 2008

THE FINGER ON THE PULSE OF THE MIDDLEBROW

It is certainly foolish to expect a populist magazine like Entertainment Weekly to come out with lists that are anything other than populist, but even if we allow that they will never publish "The Ten Best Béla Tarr Films You've Never Seen",* it's still the case that their recent list of the 100 Best Movies of the Last 25 Years is an exceptionally asinine misfire. For starters, there are only six films produced in a language other than English:

28. Wings of Desire
49. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
56. The Lives of Others
69. All About My Mother
86. Y tu mámá también
95. In the Mood for Love

No Three Colors, no Ran, no Yi Yi (indeed, only one two Asian films altogether, despite the common opinion that China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea all enjoyed their cinematic Golden Ages in the last 25 years), no Run Lola Run, no Amores perros, no City of God, no Paris, Texas - and these are not minor little unknown films that only snobs like.

To say nothing of the absence of deserving American and British pictures like Short Cuts, Mona Lisa, Trainspotting, Mulholland Drive, Dangerous Liaisons, Terence Malick's Thin Red Line and The New World, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset dyad, anything by Spielberg more interesting than the inevitable Schindler's List and Private Ryan, anything at all by Gus Van Sant or Terry Gilliam or Mike Leigh or David Cronenberg or Jim Jarmusch.

Hell, they couldn't even get do populism right: Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit is nowhere to be found, and his Back to the Future barely clawed its way on at 91 - one behind Napoleon Dynamite, three behind the first Austin Powers and half a list behind Men in Black. No Jurassic Park, no Princess Bride, no Big Lebowski, Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, Kill Bill...

Not even Showgirls!

But they did manage to find room for Out of Africa, Fatal Attraction and Dirty Dancing on the list, for Pretty Woman, Speed, Rain Man, Shrek and Gladiator in the top 50, and for Titanic in the top 3.

These people are tastemakers, for god's sake. Couldn't they have put a little more effort into trying to make people aware of movies they might not have heard of before? Or is that what the unexpected appearance of Crumb at 14 was meant to handle? If not for the presence of Blue Velvet at a shocking 4th place, this list would have essentially no value whatever.

Your own picks for the best films since 1983, your own gripes about the EW list, or you can even try to defend it, if you like, in comments.

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 6

Echelon Studios, an independent film DVD distributor, has lately put together a collection of short films under the title "Shorts for Cats" - the idea being that cats and people can sit down for a nice little movie together in this fast-paced world where the pet/owner relationship is under the same strains as any other relationship.

Now, it so happens that I have a cat; and being a fan of the scientific method, I decided to put Echelon to the test: are these, in fact, good shorts for cats? For comparison, my cat tends to enjoy Italian horror movies the most, although she's fine with anything Japanese as well (think I'm joking? Come by my apartment with a Mario Bava DVD sometime).


"Duel" (dir: Dominic Antonio Cerniglio)

The Plot: A drunk (Matthew Rimmer) at Generic Fantasy Tavern goads a soldier (Jonathan Fraser) into a swordfight, only to learn that they have a connection.

Me: Though the story hardly deserves the name, "Duel" is a consummate bit of moviemaking, with some absolutely top-drawer photography, perhaps a little lovelier in the exteriors than the interiors (which suffer a bit from obviously fake candlelight). The swordfight choreography, taking up something like a third of the whole film, is more than good enough considering the tiny scale of the production. At 26 minutes, it's over before you have a chance to notice that nothing happens.

My Cat: About one minute into the opening credits, she jumped over to the chair by the TV, sprawled on her back and fell asleep. She poked her eyes open just after the fight ended, for all of ten seconds, and went back to sleep. Her paws were twitching and her little pink tongue was sticking out.


"No Menus Please" (dir: Edward Shieh)

The Plot: A recent immigrant (Richard Chang) with a job distributing Chinese restaurant menus makes a deal with a Mexican restaurant menu-distributor (Kevin Rivera), that both men may appear to be doing hard work while actually being lazy. Until, that is, the gears of capitalism catch up with them.

Me: Not really sure what the point was, but it was cute, insofar as we live in a world where "cute" justifies the existence of a movie. It looks very glossy but a bit too flat, and the editing is a mess, full of jump cuts that serve no purpose and all sorts of neat-o video transitions that suggest that somebody just bought the "1980s Kids' Show" effects pack for Final Cut.

My Cat: Very restless the whole time: up on the couch, off the couch, bathing herself, meowing at me constantly. She settled down literally just when the credits started.


"The Big Break" (dir: Matthew Hals)

The Plot: An idiotic hitman (Luca Costa) interferes with an actress's (Pia Shah) screen test.

Me: We now know that eight minutes isn't enough running time to support a plot twist; it took me two viewings to be confident that I knew exactly what had just happened. Fortunately, the two performers - Costa especially - are charismatic and funny enough that the script mostly doesn't matter, and the film is surpassingly well-lit and in focus, not something to take for granted in the microbudget world.

My Cat: She was leaning against my arm the whole time, like she was sleeping, but her eyes were definitely open and she was watching TV. Not a smash hit, but enough to keep her interested.


"The Fight" (dir: Nicholas T.)

The Plot: A mixed martial-arts fighter (Cody Jones) who wants to be a graphic designer fights one last time over his wife's (Segel Shisov) objections, on the very day that they're expecting his acceptance letter to art school.

Me: I have no doubt that this is a labor of love for the uniquely named Mr. T. - oh, I see what he did there! - but it feels a lot like the kind of movie that gets made by people who don't know how to make movies: the dialogue is clumsy, the shots are all very two-dimensional and over-exposed, and the whole thing feels cheap, hinging as it does on a prizefight with no spectators. The opening, which lacks dialogue, is a great bit of silent filmmaking and it's a shame the rest of the film can't live up to it; this is a well-intentioned but undeniably clumsy piece.

My Cat: She fell asleep on my arm during the credits for "The Big Break", so we just rolled straight through, and she didn't wake up the whole time. My arm fell asleep about halfway in.


"Little Wings" (dir: Morgan Rhodes)

The Plot: A sweet little boy named Thomas (Joseph Castanon) uses the magic wishing power of butterflies to escape his unbearably hellish, abusive existence, in a fairy tale that is exactly like those stories we used to read as children that were supposed to be charming and uplifting, despite the fact that they were godawfully depressing.

Me: Overdetermined fairy-tale elements notwithstanding, Rhodes sure as hell knows how to compose an image, and she and DP Seamus Tierney make the very most out of golden hour. Castanon is good enough for a child actor, but the presence of a real-life character actor, Ron Canada, is enough to push the film over the top - god bless nonprofessionals, but there's a difference between hiring your friends and hiring a legitimate actor, and Canada gives the absolute best performance on the DVD. Kudos also to the digital effects, much better than you'd expect from so minor a project; although I must admit, when teeny-weeny indie shorts come to rely this heavily on CGI, I wonder if it's even worth bothering anymore.

My Cat: When we started, she was sitting in the window with her back to the movie. When Canada appeared, she turned and I thought she might want to watch, but it was just to bathe herself. Then she jumped out and left the room. She doesn't really like fantasy, you see.


"Don't Leave Me" (dir: Lyndon Ives)

The Plot: A woman (Amber Coombs) throws her philandering lover (Mark Wilson) out of the house, and an office worker (Andrew Piper) sees a mysterious blonde everywhere he turns. Would you like to know how it all connects? So would I, but the best I can tell is that a dream sequence is involved.

Me: There were script issues that needed to be addressed a long time before the shoot began, but if you can get over that, it's pretty well put together for something obviously shot on virtually no budget (the shiny video is a dead giveaway). None of the principals embarrass themselves, and Ives clearly has ideas for some compelling visual motifs, even if the film's extremely modest scale makes some of those ideas a bit dodgy in the execution. The whole thing needs a bit more breathing room, and is a perfect example of what we mean by the patronising word "promising".

My Cat: Sat on the coffee table, staring at me the whole time.

25 June 2008

THE PLOT THICKENS

It's a few days old, but I've just come around to Jim Emerson's post "Tell me a story...or don't," in which he says everything that I've been thinking for years, but could never put into words so clearly because I am not nearly as good at film theory as Jim Emerson is, and he does it three or four times a week.

My own extremely utilitarian take on the matter (I was trained as a film maker after all, not a film critic, and utilitarianism is in my blood) is that film can be thought of as the culmination of several "modules":

-Plot, or as it's often called, "story"; but story is what happens in a sort of "objective" sense, while plot is what happens in the movie, and in what order

-Dialogue

-Acting

-Editing

-Music

-Diegetic sound

-The bundle of lighting, focus, composition and camera movement that is typically referred to by the blanket term "cinematography" despite the fact that those four elements are all separable, and the result of work done by three people: the director, the cinematographer and the gaffer

-Mise en scène, French for "whatever the hell you want it to mean"; the appearance of the space in which the film occurs

That's eight things (did I miss any?), and any film can have one or five or all eight of them turn out very well or very poorly - I'd argue that those films we describe with words like "masterpiece" are generally those in which all eight are good individually, as well as working in concert with each other. But there is a marked tendency for most people to regard plot as the primary driving force behind whether a film is good or not, and that the other seven are fripperies - that good editing or good acting are simply bonuses in a movie that is already "good" in some outside sense. What I think Emerson is saying is that story/plot is just one element of the whole thing of film, and it needs to work with everything else to count as "good" on its own.

There's an extra question: what do all those elements do for a film? My sense, and this is just a casual observation, ripe for later refinement, is that any narrative work of art is meant to impart a message or theme, suggest truths about human character, or instigate an emotion in the viewer. Obviously, most films do more than one of these things, but I'd suggest that theme-character-emotion is the "goal" of a film, and the eight elements are how that goal is achieved. Thinking critically about film isn't really a matter of figuring out what a film is saying, but breaking down how it is saying. In other words, the "meaning" of a film has nothing to do with whether or not it's "good" - a film is good if it imparts its meaning clearly through effective use of the language of cinema.

But I don't mean to overreach: I'm here mostly to praise Emerson and his simple but effective attempt to knock the pegs out from under Story Above All. I should probably mention that, damn the publication stamp on this post (Blogger lets you pre-set publishing times now, very convenient), it's very late and I'm very tired, and probably incoherent.

24 June 2008

MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH

Get Smart the movie is absolutely not Get Smart the TV show, and if we are going to judge Get Smart the movie based solely on how it compares to its illustrious forebear, well it's obviously going to be a flat-out disaster. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's groundbreaking sitcom remains one of the funniest programs in the history of the medium, whereas the movie, directed by Peter Segal - for to call it "Peter Segal's movie" would grant an entirely unwarranted patina of authorship to the man behind The Naked Gun 33⅓ and 50 First Dates - is nothing more than a pleasingly drowsy summer action comedy that calls to mind the pleasingly drowsy action comedies that used to come out once or twice a year in the 1980s and 1990s.

So let's not compare Get Smart to Get Smart, because as an action comedy, the film is perfectly entertaining in the modest way that it was meant to be enjoyed. In other words: this week you can pay money to see this, or you can pay money to see The Love Guru, and while you might elect to save your money and rest assured that nobody will blame you, it's pretty obvious that one of the two movies is a much better investment than the other.

It's an origin story, of sorts: Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell), an analyst for the super-secret US intelligence agency CONTROL, is promoted to field agent after the terrorist organisation KAOS kills of most of the CONTROL staff, and learns the ropes with the help of his mentor, the agency's chief (Alan Arkin) and the sexy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), recently recovered from a massive plastic surgery effort to hide her identity and carve several years off of her appearance. Unsurprisingly, "learning the ropes" means "saving the world from a plot to set off a nest of discarded Soviet nukes," this being a popcorn movie and not a quiet Sundance-style dramedy.

With direction by the resolutely impersonal Segal, and a screenplay by the team of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, also of Failure to Launch and a healthy number of sitcoms, it inevitably comes to the actors to give Get Smart whatever it has in the way of entertainment value, and in the main they are successful at this. Carrell was always an inspired choice to play Smart, though in the end he does not choose to copy Don Adams's take on the character (which was almost certainly a wise decision), but to play the agent as a typical variation on the Carrell persona. As one who enjoys the Carrell persona, I can't say I was let down, any more than I can say I was pleasantly surprised. The real standouts in the cast are all in the supporting team: Arkin continues proving to a new age that he is totally indispensable, stealing every one of his scenes with the film's best line-readings, proving that he's an old pro in a sea of well-intentioned lightweights. As the cool and awesome Agent 23, Dwayne Johnson Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson nee The Rock has made a rather exciting leap from being just one of those wrestling stars making shitty action pictures into a vital comic character actor - a trend that isn't brand new, but this is surely the biggest step in that transformation he's made yet. Numerous That Guys and famous people fill out the film's small roles, with Bill Murray's one-scene cameo as a man in a tree being the certain highlight.

Only two actors really let the project down, and unfortunately they're in roles that the film can't really afford: the first is the ubiquitous Terence Stamp as the Bondian villain Siegfried, a role that the actor ought to be able to nail in his sleep. In fact, he actually seems to be asleep, bringing not a whisper of bigness to a role positively screaming for campy theatrics. The other is Hathaway, an star whose appeal beyond her bright smile continues to elude me; and since Agent 99 is primarily "the non-nonsense one", that smile is little in evidence, leaving the actress withe exactly zero tricks to play, and the resulting flatness in the film's second-largest character is a particularly draining note of imbalance.

The movie itself isn't, like the show, a comic parody of spy movies; it's much closer to being a spy movie that is unusually funny. That's not terrible, and it's not unprecedented (the marvelous Flint movies in the '60s were the same way), but Get Smart really isn't a very good spy movie, in the age of Jason Bourne and the Daniel Craigified James Bond. Without many strong comic notes - though it should be pointed out, this is less about gags being played badly than it is about the filmmakers electing not to include so many gags - the film's overriding tone is not one of hilarity, nor one of of adventure, but mostly one of geniality. Genial films have the place, right? And it seems we get one or two every summer, and at least by having Carrell as the lead, it is legitimately genial, and not sour and forced. I'm not sure if there's a weaker way to recommend a movie. Ah well, it has tiny goals and it meets them, and while I would never call Get Smart a film for all time, it's a perfectly watchable summer movie, and it's been a few weeks since we've had one of those.

6/10

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE'S GIANT COCK WALKS INTO A BAR...

Do you like dick jokes?

Do you really like dick jokes?

Then boy, does Mike Myers have a movie for you.

I don't mean to say that there's anything wrong with dick jokes. Fact is, I've enjoyed a dick joke in my day. But there are dick jokes and then there are good dick jokes, and The Love Guru hasn't got too many of the latter. It has some, but only because when you have as many dick jokes as The Love Guru has, simple math dictates that at least a few of them have to work.

The Love Guru finds Myers playing the guru Maurice Pitka, an American who traveled to India in the mid-'70s to study on the famed guru Tugginmypudha - go ahead, say it out loud. Not one of the good ones, by the way. Tugginmypudha is played by Ben Kingsley, who is pretty much as far from Gandhi as he will ever be, so let's just get that out of our systems right now: yes, Sir Ben Kingsley plays a cross-eyed guru named Tugginmypudha, who makes his students fight with mops dunked in stagnant urine.

In the intervening decades, Pitka has established himself as the world's second most successful selp-help guru behind only his fellow student, Deepak Chopra (who gamely puts in a cameo, and probably - probably - wins The Love Guru's coveted "Most Embarrassing" award). In his life-long quest to end up on Oprah Winfrey's television show and become the new biggest fake guru in the world, Pitka agrees to help the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team out by patching up the marriage of their star player, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco, an extremely gifted comic actor who already made a fool of himself earlier this year in Baby Mama), after his wife leaves him for the famed Québécois player Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake). Along the way, Pitka falls head over heels for the Maple Leafs' cursed owner, Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba), and must find his own inner peace in order to remove the chastity belt placed on him at a young age when he entered training.

I don't know why I just recapped the plot. I could as well have said: Mike Myers has an Indian accent and makes jokes about his dick, Timberlake's fake big dick, dicks in general, pop culture, and Verne Troyer's dwarfism.

Comedy being subjective, the rest of what I have to say should be taken with a big ol' grain of salt, but I must confess that I found the movie a little bit funny. Despite its already toxic reputation, it has probably 12 or 18 gags that really work, which may seem small but it's more than were in such recent comic train wrecks like Good Luck Chuck, Strange Wilderness or License to Wed. And not just "I'm laughing because it's not awful" jokes that work, but flat-out successful jokes, some of which come early enough in the film that it can't possibly just be that we're that starved for humor. There's a Bollywood parody that looks perfect and is written into the film well, there are a couple non sequiturs surprising enough to be funny, one of the three pop music parodies is pretty hard to find fault with, some grace notes involving Steven Colbert as a dope-fiend sportscaster are subtle and playful, a few odds and ends here and there are pretty clever, and as I've already pointed out, the law of averages demands that at least a few of the dick jokes work. Despite that, The Love Guru more than earns every morsel of vitriol hurled towards it, for the simple fact that while some of the jokes click, most of the jokes that fail, fail apocalyptically. Take the celebrated matter of Pitka's mantra, "Mariska Hargitay." As a quick one-off pop culture wink, it's not terrible, but when it's used something like thirty times in the first ten minutes, most of its charm as a joke dies pretty fast, and when Pitka actually comes to greet Mariska Hargitay herself, we enter the field of unheard of anti-funny, compounded by the fact that bless her, Hargitay isn't a household name, attested to by the fact that at her appearance, three separate people in the theater where I saw the film asked their seatmates, loud enough for the whole room to hear, "who is she?"

We could indeed go through the whole film, beat by beat, and deconstruct every gag that flops - the piss-mops would be a good second place to head - but I don't have the stamina and if you are like most people, you have already decided that there is no chance in hell that you're going to pay money to see The Love Guru. So let's cut right to the insanity: the jokes are so completely awful, and they take so long to get to their complete awfulness, that the film almost functions as an experiment in anti-comedy, like Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered is sometimes defended as being (I've never seen Freddy Got Fingered, and if Hell does not exist, I never shall). There is a scene where Pitka and Jane are sitting down to a meal. It is named something incoherently faux-Indian, and Pitka's long-suffering manservant Rajneesh (Manu Narayan, the most appealing person in the movie, despite the palpable self-loathing) starts cooking it; it looks precisely like testicles in a scrotum. Pitka and Jane both know it looks like testicles in a scrotum; every time Pitka speaks about it, he makes a transparent pun about "crushed nuts" or "safewords" or the like. And then he laughs loudly at himself. Oh my, does Pitka ever spend a lot of time laughing at his own jokes in The Love Guru, almost as much time laughing as speaking, and this is good; else there would be no laughter in the theater at all. So, back to the scene: the gag is "food that looks like testicles in a scrotum", and all three characters are in on it, and the joke goes on for about two minutes. Nothing about this scenario makes sense as humor-writing (it is a fact that jokes are less funny when the characters are in on them), but as a tossed-off piece of performance art, trying to explore the limits of just how much you can strangle the comedy out of a moment? It's genius, and the film is simply endless with experiments like that, always capped off by Pitka/Myer's smug, self-satisfied laugh. Can it be that The Love Guru is smarter than we are, and it's just a giant punking by director Marco Schnabel and co-writers Myers and Graham Gordy? Forcing the audience to confront what isn't funny, for so long and in such a systematic way, that out of desperation the anti-comedy starts to be funny? In that case, I have no choice:

10/10

Er, 2/10. I meant, 2/10

23 June 2008

TSPDT #699: OPENING NIGHT

The films of John Cassavetes have quite a bit in common, thematically and aesthetically, with one of the most famous and most obvious being the function of actors in his style. In a Cassavetes picture, performance isn't necessarily important because of how it reveals character, but because of how it reveals the process of performing: it's never clear in something like A Woman Under the Influence, to take one well-described example, whether we're responding to the torments of Mabel and Nick Longhetti, or to the torments of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in playing Mabel and Nick.

This thread of Cassavetes's work reaches what must surely be its peak in his 1977 Opening Night, in which Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, an actress finding it virtually impossible to get into her new role as "Virginia", the menopausal heroine of a play called The Second Woman, in try-outs in New Haven. A long-ignored note in the director's career of poorly-distributed films (its New York premiere wasn't until 1991, two years after his death), Opening Night is as densely layered and difficult as anything else Cassavetes had directed, as dense as any American film from the 1970s, but it all starts with the extraordinary central performance, and the manner in which the film blurs the line between Myrtle, Virginia and Rowlands herself: acting is being, and all three women seem to occupy the same space for most of the movie.

I've given myself too easy a segue not to use it: there are two sets of three women in the film, the other being Myrtle, the elderly playwright Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell, whose 40-year career is probably best known for her work in several of Busby Berkeley's musicals at Warner in the '30s) who wrote The Second Woman as her own meditation of aging, and Nancy Stein (Laura Johnson), the 17-year-old girl who haunts Myrtle's imagination after the actress sees her die in a car accident on a rainy night after standing at the stage door for an autograph. It's a tempting oversimplification to claim that metaphorically, all three of these characters are one woman at three stages of life; that is certainly the way that Myrtle views their relationship, but "how Myrtle sees the world" and "how Opening Night sees the world" aren't synonymous positions. For one thing, that simple maiden-matron-crone breakdown ignores that there's a lot more to Sarah than just being a worn-out old lady, not to mention how rudely it treats poor Nancy: we never know a thing about her other than that she is star-struck, but to Myrtle, she represents everything wonderful about youth, and in order to make her own breakdown complete, it is necessary that she pulls Nancy back from the dead to fulfill a three-part structure that exists only in Myrtle's own mind.

One could explain Myrtle's conflict in pretty simple terms that would pull a little bit of the magic out of the movie, basically that she is already worried about aging, and seeing a young girl's life snuffed out right at the same time that she's struggling with her part pushes her too far. Her great fear, contra what some including Sarah and the director Manny Victor (Ben Gazzara, like Rowlands a frequent face in Cassavetes's cinema) think, is not that she is already like Virginia, but that she is going to turn into Virginia, and that "becoming" the character onstage means becoming the woman in reality. Leading to her quixotic attempt to play the part without any reference to aging, a typically Cassavetean touch of noble insanity; after all, how could one ever play the lead in The Second Woman, whose very title is seemingly about menopause (though we never have a very clear sense of what the play's story is about, or if it's remotely good), without reference to age?

I say this reading robs Opening Night of some of its magic, because it reduces the film to a simple and clichéd matter of women of a certain age realising that the world only like pretty girls, which is at best a portion of the movie, hardly the complete picture. Though the specific case that the story looks at is a woman afraid that her part will turn her into an old lady, the more general idea is what happens to an actor who cannot believe the basic truth of her role - how can you get inside the human core of something that is basically just a stereotype reflecting some author's limited imagination about people? At one point, an exasperated Sarah tells Myrtle to "say the lines, with some inflection of emotion, and Virginia will appear," a gross reduction of the art that even Myrtle is clear-headed enough to view with precisely the disdain it deserves.

Nor does her director Manny have anything remotely useful to provide, apparently guessing that when you cast a "super-high-priced professional",* the good acting takes care of itself. Dealing with the third-act slap that is perhaps Myrtle's single greatest problem with the play, delivered as it is by her ex-lover Maurice Aarons (Cassavetes himself, in a role given much extra bite from the viewer's knowledge that he and Rowlands were happily married 22 years at this point, and would be until his death). Manny's advice: "It's a tradition, actresses get slapped." When Myrtle finally discovers how to play that moment in a way that doesn't shame her as a person and a woman, it's a scene that destroys the play and even starts to corrode the fourth wall of the movie: watching Virginia and her lover turn into Myrtle and Maurice, we're also watching Myrtle and Maurice turn into Rowlands and Cassavetes, neither of whom try very hard to keep in character - which character? - as the audience starts cracking up. An audience which was brought in live and given no indication of what has happening, mind you, other than that they were about to see scenes from a play being work-shopped.

The film is a masterpiece, unjustly ignored for too long and still far more obscure than it should be, relative to equally great works like A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Faces. Giving Gena Rowlands, one of the best actresses who ever walked in front a camera, a chance to work out her process on film may or may not have been a generous thing for her, but it proved to be an absolutely brilliant gift to the audience. Opening Night does more to break down the walls between layers of narrative; between who the characters are, what they do, who plays them; than just about any American film I can name.

21 June 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AN ATROCITY BEYOND HUMAN IMAGINING

Strap in kids, because the story of how Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation came to exist, and why it was released by yet a fourth studio, is a long and sometimes confusing one; and it is almost certainly more dramatically compelling than the actual content of the movie involved.

In the chaotic fallout that came after the distributing company for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre dissolved, one other man besides Tobe Hooper still had some intellectual claim to the property, if not a practical one: Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the story and co-creator of Leatherface & Co. Having an intellectual claim doesn't really do much for you in Hollywood, of course, and for many years he laid in quiet.

In 1990, 16 years after the original had been released, New Line Cinema took a bath on Leatherface, and elected to put the TCM brand name on ice for a while. The early '90s, after all, were a very bad time for violent horror movies, something keenly felt at this particular studio, where not one but three slasher franchises were put to pasture in four years: TCM first, followed by Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday in 1993 (and as the Friday the 13th franchise dictated, so went the subgenre; this was ever the case), and at last, Wes Craven's ex post facto autopsy of all the things that made up a slasher movie with Wes Craven's New Nightmare in 1994.

So, in 1993 or '94, when Henkel thought it might be a swell idea to revive his one and only claim to fame, New Line didn't have much of a problem renting him the rights to the title for a one-off independent production. Let somebody else lose money on the property, you know? And so it was that Henkel got to take his long-unproduced idea for the One True Sequel and make it into a reality; and he called it The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it was given either a one-week or one-day run (I haven't been able to figure out which for sure) at a local Texas theater eager to show off the talents of the local actors and crew; and then Henkel sat back to wait for a distribution deal.

And wait. And wait.

1994 was a really bad time to be a slasher movie. Maybe the single worst year since the floodgates opened in 1980. And nobody wanted to invest the time and money into a guaranteed flop like TRotTCM. Thus did Henkel's at last realised vision sit and moulder like a hollowed-out corpse.

Until late in 1996, when two movies were released that changed the film's fortunes considerably. One of these was Scream, a film that did more than any one film ever has to revive the entire slasher field, especially those which were knowing and ironic - and while TRotTCM wasn't exactly knowing or ironic, at least it was silly rather than serious. The other film was Jerry Maguire.

"Wait, what?" you say. "What does Jerry Maguire have to do with slasher films?" As it happens, one of the several hungry Texan actors cast in this precise slasher film was a young woman named Renée Zellweger, who had been given the greatest opportunity available to an ingénue in 1996: the romantic lead opposite Tom Cruise in a sure-fire box-office smash. It just so happened that Columbia, the studio that finally snatched up Henkel's opus, was also the company responsible for Jerry Maguire. And if there's one thing Columbia didn't want, it was for their bright new star to have the ugliness of a cheap slasher sequel fresh in everybody's mind (it's tempting, to me at least, to wonder if Columbia bought the film primarily to keep it from being distributed at an inopportune moment). Once Jerry Maguire was safely out of theatres, with an Oscary glow about it, then the horror picture could be dumped safely.

Except, and here's the weird thing, it happened a second time. One of the other stars of TRotTCM was another Texan who'd been in a couple of noteworthy roles in fairly well-received films, and had his own big coming-out number in late 1996. His name was Matthew McConaughey, of Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, but the film that really put him on the map was A Time to Kill. It happened to be the case that his first big summer tentpole movie, Contact, was set for a July 1997 release, and that his agent had some reasonable influence at Columbia, and it was the easiest thing for the agent to make sure that the potentially embarrassing sight of his client as a psycho with a bionic leg would be well hidden. Thus it was that, three years after its "debut", Henkel's first and last film as a director would be thrown out on video in the late summer of 1997, under the gussied-up title of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

It's probably not the case that a full appreciation of TCM:TNG needs that much backstory, full as it is of irrelevant details that happened a full three years after production ended, but I went into such detail for a reason: it is an interesting anecdote, whereas the film itself is not very interesting at all. Perhaps the only thing that differentiates it from every other late-era slasher film is its forthright comic tone, and even that wasn't new for the franchise, although to be fair, TCM:TNG isn't remotely as aggressive in its unfunniness as TCM 2 was.

I guess I had ought to actually get around the movie. There's the de rigeur opening crawl that invalidates the previous movies in the franchise; once again it appears that the end of TCM wasn't actually right, and we are told that two "minor incidents" occurred in the years since that first case - this is the last gag in the movie that actually worked for me, incidentally. Then the picture itself begins, and right from the start it's obvious that the fourth entry in the franchise is going to be the first one since the original that actually falls into the strictly-defined limits of the slasher film: in other words, it opens on prom night, and it takes about three minutes for us to meet the Expendable Meat. In the release version, that is; the director's cut (never released in any country except Canada, strangely, where it was the only version that ever was released) opens with a scene establishing that the obvious Final Girl, Jenny (Zellweger), has an abusive stepfather. The "bad touch" kind of abusive. Ah, Kim Henkel, you nut!

Anyway, we jump in at the tail end of prom, where the rather dizzy blonde Heather (Lisa Newmyer) is stomping around looking for her boyfriend, Barry (Tyler Cone). When she does so, he happens to have his lips locked around another woman, and Heather storms off to the lovingly restored old car they arrived in, the pride of Barry's father. Fearing that in her current state, Heather will total the car and thereby leave his own life forfeit, Barry runs after her and hops in the passenger seat.

The fight that Heather and Barry have as she speeds along proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are the two most awful people in the whole world. I would spare you the details, but there's a passage of dialogue that serves as the tiny version of the argument why TCM:TNG is one of the most atrocious horror films of the '90s:

-B: "Once, I kissed her once! God, it's like I can't talk to my friends anymore, I can't believe how possessive you are."
-H: "Oh right, I guess that's why you were feeling her up?"
-B: "Look, guys need sex. It's bad for you if you get all worked up and then not get it, you can get prostrate cancer. Is that what you want?"

Besides the extraordinary non sequitur into "I guess that's why you were feeling her up", I want to call attention to "prostrate" cancer, which is apparently the type you get when you lie down a lot. I should mention, later in the film it becomes obvious that Henkel was trying to go for "funny," and that at least explains why the writing in the opening sequence is inexpressibly terrible, but it doesn't magically turn it into comedy, or even into something that looks like comedy might have been part of its intention.

As Barry and Heather continue to be wretched, Jenny and her friend-not-boyfriend-she's-a-Final-Girl Sean (John Harrison) pop up from the backseat, where they had hidden to avoid the noisy indignities of the prom, and also because despite anything related to actual human behavior, the four are friends and they all rode in together. The chief result is that Barry's awfulness is no longer about verbally berating Heather, but instead about establishing his superiority to Jenny. Because she is an ugly virgin who never tries to make friends with anybody. Comedy walks in the room, looks at the film for a second, shrugs, and walks out.

Thank God, eventually Heather's bad driving ends in a car crash (actually, in two car crashes, but the first one is a mere scratch, designed to freak Barry out about his dad's car), and the fella they hit ends up passed out on the road. Sean stays behind as the others go off to look for help, eventually arriving at the mobile home office of Darla (Tonie Perensky), a loud-mouthed, large-breasted parody of what people who don't live in Texas think Texans are like. In one of the most unexpected moments of the film, she flashes the local high-school boys driving around and saying obnoxious things, and thus does the series get its first gratuitous boob shot.

So, once she's done flashing teens, Darla calls a certain "Vilmer," and sends him to the accident site. The three are all very grateful, but they shouldn't be - we get to see Vilmer (McConaughey) just a second later, and he is rather transparently a psycho, with his crazy eyes and his giant pneumatic leg brace and the fact that he snaps the passed-out dude's neck just for a punchline, and most damningly, because he is played by Matthew McConaughey. He chases Sean around in his tow-truck for a little bit, and they share some rather arch dialogue (the first twitch of awareness that this was a comedy came right about here, when I thought, "not even an insane person could think that this would be remotely scary or thrilling"), and then Vilmer backs over Sean with the truck.

The others have left Darla, looking to hitch a ride, and of course they get separated. Jenny happens across Vilmer, who gives her the same routine he gave Sean ("I shall kill you, but not until after we have a lengthy dialogue about your feelings about being killed"), but she escapes, for no apparent reason. At the same time, Barry and Heather, having had an insipid conversation about dreadful things, stumble across the house of... is it the Sawyer family still? Anyway, that house. While Barry looks around, and meets the crazy, literature-quoting W.E. (Joe Stevens), Heather runs into the latest incarnation of Leatherface (Robert Jacks), who after four films has devolved from a faceless incarnation of destruction to something more or less like a hydrocephalic autistic child who cross-dresses in women's clothes and women's skin. That Kim Henkel, what a card!

Barry is hammered to death, while Heather gets tossed up on a meat hook, just like in the first movie. Also just like in the first movie, Jenny finds her way back to the one place she thinks is safe - Darla's trailer - only to learn in short order that yes, Darla is a crazy person who ties Jenny up and has W.E. come to pick them both up. But not until after she, Darla, orders some pizzas for dinner. The amount of stress placed on those goddamn pizzas, man.

After an extended "comic" scene that is too toxic to repeat, Jenny ends up at the Psycho Hut, and the film runs off the rails entirely; this is when I stopped wondering if the film was supposed to be funny, and got to enjoy the comparatively simple pleasure of realising that instead of being balls-out stupid, it was just a failure. For this is where TCM:TNG stops being a slasher film or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film at all, and turns into a sitcom, with the short-tempered guy (Vilmer), the well-intentioned but clumsy girl (Darla), the goofy sage (W.E.) the really zany one who always gets the most applause (Leatherface), and the girl they all have trussed up to skin and eat (Jenny). They yell at each other and throw things and Jenny yells at all of them and begs to be killed just so she can be put out of her suffering, and I tell you what, I completely agree with her.

Jenny almost escapes something like a half-dozen times, but she keeps stopping because otherwise the movie would end too fast. Eventually, they get around to the customary dinner with Grandpa (Grayson Victor Schirmacher) and now a bevy of mummified guests, and the not-yet-dead Heather, who when she finally dies, will have been meat-hooked, kicked, chewed, had the skin on her nose bitten off, set on fire, and stomped with a giant metal boot. Hey, it takes her a long time to die! That's comedy! Kim Henkel has said that he hoped for this whole passage to mirror the (cut) passage where Jenny was abused by her stepfather; when she was confronted with another, more outlandish abusive family, she was finally able to beat the forces of Abuse that she could never overcome before. This is ironic, because I hope for Kim Henkel to die in a fire.

So far, the film has been extravagantly unfunny, not even a tiny bit scary, shoddily-produced, with day-for-night photography that I can't call the worst I've ever seen - the world is full of inordinately bad day-for-night - but it is really bad anyway. The only light has been Zellweger's performance, which could have resulted in a pretty fine Final Girl if she'd been given things to do that weren't shout at the killers about how confusing and irritating they were being. And McConaughey is good enough that you can see why he got bigger parts, thought not why he became a rom-com superstar.

But the worst is yet to come, in the form of a brain-cramping reveal that the crazy family is part of a millennia-old conspiracy where the powerful shadow-government types have a clan of insane people on hand to do the needful killings - JFK, that sort of thing. At first this is presented as Darla's crazy ravings, but then a man in a suit, named "Rothman" in the credits (James Gale, who actually managed to put in some time in an even worse movie than this one: 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain) shows up, and says things that make no sense, and then he leaves, and then when Jenny escapes, he kills Vilmer with a crop-duster and offers to take Jenny to the hospital. I've encountered the theory that Rothman is Henkel's commentary on the making of sequels, and maybe his dialogue would bear that out, if I had been listening to that instead of the rushing noise of blood in my ears. I wonder if Henkel's commentary on making sequels was: "Don't. They are always completely fucking awful." I could get behind that. Because TCM:TNG isn't just a complete failure as a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's one of the five or ten worst films I've seen from the whole of the 1990s.

Body Count: For sure 5. It's not clear if the kindly couple in an RV who try to help Jenny die when Leatherface knocks the RV over with his chainsaw. If they do, than they make 7, and the only deaths caused in even an inadvertent way by the titular weapon. Also, there's hardly enough stage blood in the entire movie to give someone a convincing paper cut.

For those keeping track, there were approximately 26 deaths in the first phase of Texas Chainsaw Massacres, and a grand total of 3 - not quite twelve percent - were people getting massacred by a chainsaw.

Reviews in this series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)