30 April 2010

IN DREAMS, YOU'RE MINE

Horror remake fever creeps on- though 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street isn't the youngest major American film to get the remake treatment (The Hitcher, from 1986, was only 21 when it got its very own do-over), it feels like we've hit ourselves a sea-change, doesn't it? Maybe it's just me. Anyway, it feels like the bulwark has fallen, and we can expect a deluge of mid- and late-'80s horror films to get revamped for the modern age, though after Nightmare, it's hard to say what remaining title has the name recognition for anybody to bother. Quick, who wants a Witchcraft reboot? Yeah, me neither.

On the other hand, it's hard to say what drove anybody to bother with this particular well-known title, if all they were going to give us was the floppy, dimwitted 95 minutes of criminally mediocre horror that the new Nightmare represents. Now, every viewer surely comes to this or any other movie with a separate set of expectations, but here was mine: one of the hallmarks of all seven films in the original series was their garish, surrealist killing scenes, even in the relatively more sober first two films. The killer Freddy Krueger was, after all, a dream demon of sorts, and he first terrorised his victims in elaborate, effects-heavy nightmares. Now, every single one of those films save the last was produced before the dawn of the CGI Golden Age in 1993, and it would be a good seven or eight years after that until computer effects became de rigeur in everything from summer tentpole movies to quirky romantic dramedies. So I, at least, was anticipating - with some tiny level of enthusiasm - a veritable CGI blizzard, endless waves of delightfully gaudy deaths taking place in ambitious nightmare-scapes that could never have been realised in the 1980s and '90s. That's not out of line, right?

Well, apparently, the filmmakers of the remake felt it was, because all in all, the 2010 Nightmare is the least effects-driven film in the whole franchise. There are only three scenes that use much CGI at all, and in one of those at least, the effect is far less convincing than the similar moment in 1984. Otherwise, it's so much slasher film boilerplate: Freddy jams his knife-glove through somebody's abdomen, or slices their throat, and they bleed to death, all inside a run-of-the-miller boiler room, or sometimes a creepy abandoned preschool. It's staggeringly ho-hum, not even bad enough to be delightfully bad fun.

Writers Wesley Strick (a very well-established name, running all the way back to Arachnophobia back in 1990) and Eric Heisserer (not at all well-established) have largely stuck close to the template of Wes Craven's essentially perfect original, much more faithfully than the great majority of slasher remakes have done: in the town of Springwood, Ohio, a group of fairly nondescript high-schoolers are being stalked by a terrifying figure in their dreams: a man with a horribly scarred face, dressed in a ratty red and green sweater and battered fedora, with a clawlike glove on his right hand (for the first time ever, Freddy is being played not by Robert Englund, but by Jackie Earle Haley). None of them has shared their nightmares with the others, until one night a young man named Dean (Kellan Lutz, one of the unimportant shiny vampires from Twilight) cuts his own throat in a diner, while apparently asleep and mumbling to an unseen assailant. At his funeral, everybody begins the gradual process of comparing notes, and we find that four other Springwood teens have been seeing the same dark figure: Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara), Quentin Smith (Kyle Gallner, who is positioned in the film's credits as its second "name" actor, apparently because the producers noted that smart people watched Veronica Mars), Kris Fowles (Katie Cassidy) and Jesse Braun (Thomas Dekker). Clearly, the killer has a secret that involves the kids' parents, and possibly their mysterious past in preschool; but more people have to die before that secret can be revealed. It's not exactly the same as in the original film, but the nugget is close enough: Freddy's angry ghost is killing the kids for revenge against their parents for killing him.

(Incidentally, none of those actors looks even vaguely like a teenager - the youngest, Dekker, is 22 - which hasn't been as much of a problem these past few years as it was in the '80s. Also, they're all very bad. But they've been given a pretty lame script, so let's not hold it against them.)

Comparing this film and the 1984 edition of the same material is nothing but an exercise in frustration and pain, so I won't. But it is a hell of a way to make all of the logic gaps and Idiot Plot moments (the plot can only advance if the characters are idiots) that much more obvious. Damn, does the new Nightmare ever have a sloppy middle: it's nothing but one big grindathon to boost the thing up to a respectable length. Wes Craven got around that by extending the beginning - by making it more of a mystery what the hell was going on, and having fully the first half of the movie be something of a whodunnit. Of course, the new writers have to assume that the audience comes in knowing that Freddy Krueger is a vengeful ghost who kills people in their dreams, and they couldn't play the material as ambiguously; but you know what, I've seen the '84 Nightmare four times, and I never find myself getting bored during the first half.

Wait, I said I wouldn't compare the two, didn't I? Well, it's the remake's fault, for not trying hard enough - or at all! - to carve out its own identity. The closest it comes is that it restores the genuine seriousness of the first movie, before Freddy had been reduced to a black comedy clown. Even that doesn't really count as "originality" according to any definition of that word that has any meaning.

At best, the film's purpose as a unique thing, other than putting asses in theater seats, is that somebody observed that Haley's two most prominent roles have been as a pedophile and a merciless killer, and since Freddy is basically a merciless pedophilic killer... But Haley doesn't do much to make the role his own, either, hiding behind a remarkably inexpressive sheath of latex, and intoning things menacingly. He's also way too short to have any credible presence; or maybe the filmmakers were so apocalyptically incompetent that they just didn't know how to get around that. Either way, in just about every wide-shot, we're faced with the question of why a hobbit is fighting teenagers.

I'm tempted to blame the filmmakers for that one. Director Samuel Bayer - a music video veteran making his feature debut - and cinematography Jeff Cutter don't have any concrete ideas about making the images remotely interesting or evocative, other than observing that hey, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre looked good, and amping up the video noise on flashback footage. Indeed, Bayer's treatment of the material is so slackly proficient and unmemorable that it falls to editor Glen Scantlebury to make things distinctive, which he does by ripping the thing apart and letting continuity and coherence die a withering death on the curb. A more distractingly-edited movie I haven't seen in months, and by the way, do you know what Scantlebury's last credit was? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I nearly died of ecstasy when I found that out. (That was just an "additional editor" credit. His last full "edited by" credit was... Transformers. God bless us, every one).

There's not a single reason on earth for this Nightmare to exist; and other than the siren call of R-rated horror, not a single reason to bother watching it. By the way, don't assume that said R-rating means that the film is full of outstanding Grand Guignol moments; the gore is just as tepidly-presented as every other element of the film. If not for its title, and the memories it conjures up of one of the slasher subgenre's few out-and-out masterpieces, the film wouldn't have enough of an impact to last through the end of the credits.

4/10

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

28 April 2010

CIRCUMSTANCES AND CONSEQUENCES

In 2004, a 23-year-old French woman named Marie-Leonie Leblanc reported that she had been attacked by North African immigrants who hurled anti-Semitic slurs at her. That Leblanc was not Jewish was merely the first head-scratching moment in a narrative that quickly unraveled in the span of a month, when it was found that she had completely fabricated the evidence of the assault; this proved just enough time for it to become an international incident (Ariel Sharon was obliged to speak words of caution to France's Jewish community before all was said and done).

One year later, the playwright Jean-Marie Bessett fictionalised this event in his play RER (the Réseau Express Régional is a train system servicing Paris and its suburbs, and it was on a RER train that Leblanc claimed to have been attacked); and in 2009, the great director André Téchiné turned that play into a film, The Girl on the Train (or, if you prefer the more evocative French title, The Girl of the RER), which is presently crawling its way across U.S. art theaters, where it is enjoying the fixed attention of dozens, if not scores, of viewers.

It's probably just as well: Téchiné is not the world's easiest filmmaker, and The Girl on the Train is a particularly gnarly knot of a movie: focusing its entire attention on one outrageous, unsupportable lie - the moment that the protagonist, Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), announces that she's been "attacked", the movie itself breaks into two parts - and making no real effort to explain what the hell is going on in the mind of the liar. Do we walk out of the theater making conjectures about what made Jeanne do this thing, one in a string of unfathomable choices she makes over the course of the plot? Yes, undoubtedly. And my conjectures aren't likely to be the same as your conjectures. The film is in some ways a tabula rasa that permits the viewer to reflect at his or her leisure, but it is not a puzzle with a solution. Just for fun, check out the film's Metacritic page: at this writing, you can find two consecutive pullquotes declaring that it's "really about... people. Just regular people" and "What the film is really about is social embarrassment".

What it's really about is Jeanne, her mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve, whom convention requires me to refer to as "the great Catherine Deneuve"), her unsavory temporary boyfriend Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and the Bleistein family: Samuel (Michel Blanc), a famous lawyer and old friend of Louise's, his son Alex (Mathieu Demy), his daughter-in-law Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), and in some ways most importantly, his grandson Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), preparing for his bar mitzvah. There are both superficial and probing ways that the two main lines of the plot - Jeanne and her mother vs. Nathan and his parents - mirror and/or contrast each other; there is the coolness between Jeanne and Louise that sometimes pierces (a recurrent image of Louise playing with the young children she's watching while Jeanne watches from a distance is, I think, the closest we come to an explanation for what happened), while Nathan's feelings towards Alex are nearly as icy; but the Bleisteins, unlike their gentile counterparts, also have a messy kind of personal intimacy that doesn't curdle, though it still causes problems for them. I should rather let the individual viewer tease out these sorts of connections, though, since in a very real sense watching The Girl on the Train is a matter of witnessing these connections organically rise up from the scenario.

As the plot slides, on, with Louise inducing Samuel to take up Jeanne's case although both of them believe more or less that she's lying, the film's questions become thicker and more confusing, leading the story into corners that never find any sort of traditionally satisfying resolution. The film does not want to part with its meaning readily, and in a certain sense, this is a strike against it: there comes a point where opacity shades into smug pretension, although the details we observe of the characters, and even more the performances giving the characters life (Dequenne is particularly transfixing, all the more since she has by far the most veiled role to play), leave the film with enough of a beating human heart that I can't really fathom how anyone could honestly accuse it of being pretentious. Still, it's an experience that is more valuable for the challenge it poses to the audience than the statements it makes. That's not really a fun night out at the movies, any way you slice it.

A master craftsman, Téchiné does what he can to make the experience a smooth one through the incredibly judicious use of camera angles, and even more so with a peculiar but wildly effective editing trick that pops up over and over again: the film cuts from one shot of a character to another shot, very similarly if not identically framed, in the same location - it looks, at first, like the film has a stutter. It keeps the audience from getting properly situated, and suggests a fragmentary reality in keeping with the script's refusal to give us answers: who can say what's "true" about a situation that won't even hold still and have the decency not to keep jump-cutting? Less cutely: the editing rather unmistakably violates the film's realism, which in turn devalues that realism, which in turn devalues the explanation for the film's reality.

Characteristically, Téchiné also uses some great musical cues, along with an excellent original score by Philippe Sarde; there are several moments in the film, beginning with its masterful opening shot (the POV of a train barreling through a subway tunnel, with the exit just a tiny dot in the far distance, as lights rush past) set to a peculiar, militaristic bagpipe piece, on to the moody use of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" to accompany a pantomime montage revealing how disconnected Jeanne feels from the rest of the world - itself a repeated motif, especially in the first half, and it's not probably that two of the film's best scenes consist of Jeanne listening to music through headphones and ignoring the world around her - there's always a deep, intuitive rightness to the music, the kind that makes sense almost despite your attempt to consciously figure out why.

I suppose there are people who will be frustrated with the film's slow pace (it is a very long 105 minutes) and its practiced ambiguity, but The Girl on the Train is a character study par excellence, that simmers and lingers and reveals itself only by inches. The demands it makes upon its audience are not tiny, but its rewards are very considerable: it allows us to ponder how human beings think, without asking that we be judgmental or reductive.

8/10

26 April 2010

TEN FOR MONDAY: BRAINS!

(Hopefully, this feature will come back and stay back this time - it has the admirable merit of not requiring me to see movies in the free time I'm suddenly lacking).

Having, basically, dared myself with the phrase "any conversation about the best zombie movies ever" yesterday, I am pleased to present what is, in retrospect, probably a completely inevitable and obvious subject for a list:

The Ten Best Zombie Movies of All Time
(NB: if I'm being honest, Day of the Dead belongs on this list, but three Romero films out of ten overall seemed, to me, inelegant).

10. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Prior to Romero's genre-redefining efforts, zombie films were pretty exclusively stories of white people in the Caribbean, stumbling across a local voodoo priest trying to take over the island with his army of the undead, who didn't really do much besides stand there and look sullen. The formula has been almost completely abandoned in the last 40 years (if you're a horror filmmaker, and you can make a movie about a dull-eyed animate corpse, or a blood-soaked monster ripping a man's stomach out through his throat, which do you choose?), and a lot of them are frankly a bit dull. But at their best - and in the hands of one of horror cinema's all-time great visual poets, I Walked with a Zombie is easily the best - these voodoo zombie movies can attain an otherworldly power all their own. It's almost certainly Tourneur's second-best horror effort after Cat People: a lyrical, uncanny story drenched in dream logic, in which the horror is muted and implied, and arguably all the more creepy because of it. It's undoubtedly the most beautiful film on this list.


9. Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Jorge Grau, 1974)
Beating the main body of Italian zombie movies to the punch by five years (it was a Spanish co-production), this remains one of the most oddly unique movies in the genre's history. Superficially, it has a bit in common with the ur-text, Night of the Living Dead, but once you spend time with this story of two drifters who are accused by a conservative cop of murder in Manchester, only to find that an experimental pest control system is reviving the nervous systems of dead humans, you'll start to realise that there's a lot going on here which isn't found in the run-of-the-mill gutmunchers made in the wake of Zombi 2. An atmospheric murder mystery that only gradually turns into a zombie siege, it's filled with some of the most haunting images in any zombie film you can hope to see. Bonus points for the title, which in any language (the Italian translates to "Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead") is one of the best in horror history.


8. Braindead AKA Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)
On the one hand, it's nothing but an exercise in silliness - awfully good silliness, at that. On the other, it's one of the bloodiest movies ever made. Those facts aren't remotely as difficult to resolve as you might think, for in this, his greatest motion picture, Jackson revels in a truth that every horror fan already knows: gore can be a lot of fun There's not another zombie movie out there that is so delightfully, innocently playful as this one; without a trace of mockery or ironic coolness to inflect its comedy, Braindead is horror cinema as a bauble, an extraordinary example of a filmmaker turning out exactly the kind of movie he wants to watch, and isn't it totally cool? For all the gallons of stage blood pumped out, there's not one frame of the film that feels even a little bit dangerous, or mean, or edgy. Made by an enthusiast with the talent to make everyone who watches the film just as enthusiastic as he is, this is about as enjoyable, in the purest sense, as any horror movie out there.


7. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
A film that deserves a much better title; the kind that doesn't essentially demand we compare it to one of the stone-cold masterpieces of the genre. Synder's film (his debut, and his only great work before descending into degraded hatchet jobs against comic books that deserve more) is pretty much a different animal than George A. Romero's any way you want to look at it: jettisoning the original film's satire for intense and unflagging action - Snyder makes excellent use of the "fast zombies" that Danny Boyle's not-quite-a-zombie-film 28 Days Later popularised - it's an action movie as much as a horror movie, meant to make us shout "awesome!" rather than scream in mortal terror. But the hell of it is, it actually is awesome: kinetic and tense and altogether one of the great movie thrill rides of the '00s. By far the best movie in the dodgy "let's remake '70s horror!" movement.


6. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985)
The crypto-sequel to the most important zombie film of all time not only managed to fully honor the memory of its illustrious predecessor, it got the contemporary horror-comedy trend off the ground with one of the very best examples of that often frustrating subgenre. Its historic importance doesn't end there: it's where we first encounter the idea of zombies hunting people to munch on their brains, and it also introduced the world to the great '80s exploitation queen Linnea Quigley and her... talents. All while also being full of great, creepy imagery, a kick-ass death-punk soundtrack, and some of the smartest grace notes in any horror film of its decade. Ever had a problem with horror characters doing stupid things and dying? Check out RotLD, in which people actually ask the questions and take the steps that a real live person might do in the same situation. And then die.


5. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
"You've got red on you". The genius of Wright's breakthrough collaboration with co-writer and star Simon Pegg is that (much like their subsequent Hot Fuzz) it's not really a parody of the material it's making fun of: even at its goofiest, the film treats the idea of cannibalistic zombies with dead seriousness. When a character gets ripped apart near the end in a manner mimicking on of the most famous deaths in Day of the Dead, you can feel it every bit as much as in Romero's mirthless apocalypse fantasy. It's just that, instead of satiric commentary on consumerism or the military, Wright and Penn want to have fun with slapstick and farce. The poster accurately called it "a romantic comedy with zombies", but "a zombie film with romance and comedy" would have been just as accurate, if much clumsier.


4. Zombi 2 AKA Zombie AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters (Lucio Fulci, 1979)
You could call it yet another in the long tradition of Italian knock-offs; and you'd be completely right (it was a distaff sequel to a heavily re-edited version of Romero's Dawn of the Dead). And in blaming it for igniting the awe-inspiring run of terrible, terrible Italian zombie movies in the early 1980s, you could fairly say that its rancid legacy more than counters anything it does right. But please don't: its one of the best films ever made by a director often wrongly judged by his lesser work, and one of the all-time great feasts of gore effects makeup (it has what remains, I think, the most nauseatingly effective "stake through the eye" effects of all time). Being an Italian horror film, the power of the individual moments is generally greater than the effect of the whole movie, but those moments include some of the most iconic sequences in zombiedom. If nothing else, the film earns its place on this list for pitting a zombie against a motherfucking shark.


3. La noche del terror ciego AKA Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)
Steeped in history and invented mythology, the first movie to come out in the wake of George A. Romero's epochal reinvention of the zombie film (see below) is argably the greatest Spanish horror film ever made. Like most European horror films from the 1970s - or ever, come to think of it - Tombs is more concerned about atmosphere than a coherent, cohesive plot: but what atmosphere! Not much in the long annals of cinematic horror can compete in terms of sheer uncanny creepiness with the sight of a foggy ancient graveyard in the middle of a ruined medieval town; nor are there too many films that can claim a scene as breathtakingly tense as the moment when a woman, who has been careful to keep from making all of the stupid mistakes that usually kill people in zombie movies, discovers that the one thing she can't hide from the blind, ravenous and very smart undead Templars hunting her is the sound of her frantically beating heart. Easily the scariest film on this list.


2. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
One of the great seismic moments in cinema history came when an young indie filmmaker from Pennsylvania freely conflated zombies (shuffling reanimated corpses with no personality) and vampires (vicious reanimated corpses with a penchant for devouring living humans), with a splash of horrifying violence that would have been completely inconceivable a mere ten years earlier. The basic scenario of NotLD has been copied in a virtually uncountable number of movies, but it's never been surpassed; and you can count on your fingers the number of subsequent horror films that have matched the raw terror of Romero's doomsday scenario, or the nihilistic impact of its closing sucker punch. It's the kind of all-around masterpiece that could only be surpassed by...


1. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
...Romero himself, re-purposing his plague-like revenants as the vehicles for social commentary, without sacrificing for one second the threat they represent. Though even more than in Night, this outstanding sequel makes excellent use of what has become (thanks to Romero's films) a zombie movie commonplace: the lumbering corpses are always less of a danger than the conflicting egos of the still-living humans under siege. From the time capsule '70s aesthetic to the magnificent gore effects that put the great Tom Savini on the map to the cruel dark humor veined through the whole movie, the original Dawn remains one of the most intelligent, artistic horror films ever made, not only one of the best films of its genre but also its decade.

25 April 2010

WHERE ZOMBIES GO TO DIE

Eight years elapsed between The Return of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead III; it then took a further twelve years before somebody finally worked up the unmerited bravery to take the series out of mothballs for one last bow. It was not, as you could probably guess, worth the wait, although the true measure of how godawful the fourth - and fifth! - RotLD features turned out can be readily guessed when you learn that the films' premiere wasn't theatrical, nor even on video; they were first screened for the general public in a content-edited form on the Sci-Fi Channel on October 15, 2005.

(Actually, they first screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, which is a fact that my brain flat-out refuses to allow as a real possibility despite three sources of confirmation).

Shot concurrently in Romania and the Ukraine, by the same crew and some of the same cast, it seems fair not to bother treating the films as two separate objects; and given how fuckawful bad they are, I'm happy to dispose of them both in a single review. That's right, as joyless as Return of the Living Dead, Part II is, it's right in the middle of the series, quality-wise. Think on that a moment, and despair.

The first half of our bitter little double feature, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, opens with one of the most instantly dispiriting scenes you could hope to see, if somehow the combination of "Sci-Fi Channel premiere" and "mid-'00s zombie movie" and "shot in Romania" hadn't bashed the last little trace of hope out of you that it would be even marginally worth watching. We're faced, right off the bat, with a promotional video for a company called Hybra Tech - I can't shake the feeling that something is just damn wrong about that name - but really, they might as well just announce at the start, "This is EvilCo" and be done with it. They're a multinational, cross-industry company, and despite being worth theoretically billions of dollars, their commercials are filmed, edited and narrated exactly like a high school video project. Seriously, there's cheap and then's oh my God, so cheap. In this video, by the way, we learn that apparently the regular outbreaks of zombie activity are a widely-known phenomenon, and that Hybra Tech took the lead in containing the situation when it last cropped up, ten years ago.

Cut to: the Ukraine, and specifically the abandoned Ukrainian city Chernobyl. Believe it or not, Necropolis actually managed to shoot in the very same power plant that suffered the must infamous disaster of the nuclear age in 1986, and what do the filmmakers do with it? Fuck all. It's the site where Hybra Tech has been storing some canisters of 245 Trioxin - renamed Trioxin 5 in this new chapter - and besides some effective shots of the surrounding city that I assume were captured and left in the film by accident, there is nothing about the setting that couldn't have been achieved in that exact same abandoned factory in Vancouver that was always redressed as a missile silo in The X-Files.

Anyway, a Hybra employee named Charles (Peter Coyote) - "Charles Garrison" according to the Wikipedia, but I'm afraid I didn't catch it myself - is in Chernobyl to bring the canisters back; one of them obligingly leaks to turn one of the local guards into a zombie. Charles takes quick control of the situation by coolly taking aim and shooting the monster in the-

There is ONE RULE in the Living Dead franchise, and it was established in one of the funniest, geekiest scenes in the original movie: you can't kill a Trioxin zombie by shooting it in the head. That, and Trioxin itself, are pretty much the only thing to separate the first three films, as a whole, from every other zombie movie out there (don't say, "they're funny"; the third one isn't and isn't meant to be). So yes, please screenwriters - William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, who have done enough other shit that I assume they don't even consider this a low point, let alone an embarrassment - definitely remove one of those two distinctive points in the very first scene of your movie.

Back in the States, doubled by Romania, we find that Charles is the guardian of teenage Julian (John Keefe) and tween Jake, or "Pyro" (Alexandru Geoana), whose parents died in a wildly incomprehensible, ill-edited scene that comes right after Charles shoots the zombie. And from here, I'm not even going to bother: suffice to say that a bunch of Jake's friends pop up and they go dirtbiking for about fifteen minutes as terrible rock plays, and then we find out that Hybra is conducting evil tests involving zombies, and the kids all band together to sneak into the lab, where by chance one of them, Katie (Jana Kramer) happens to work as something not terribly well-explained. They sneak in, they find an army of zombie fetuses, then they find some zombies in metal suits (probably meant to remind us of the exoskeletons in RotLD3) that make the zombies look exactly like Borg. And then a system security failure takes place because one of the kids, Carlos (Toma Danila) was shooting off door locks to move around the facility, and that means all of the zombies escape and some of the teens are eaten and a lot of stuff blows up.

It's a film in which the best scene involves a Trioxin leak reviving the roasted rat that two homeless men were about to start eating. That's the level of absolute barrel-scraping tedium we're discussing here. Every incident in the plot is marred by outrageously flimsy logic, and director Ellory Elkayem - his only previous credit of note was on the pleasingly trashy Eight Legged Freaks - manages to keep driving the thing forward with only the thinnest kind of basic competence. It's not very interesting to look at, coated in a layer of darkness and moody blue lights, and at every new turn the soundtrack blares forth with some new, horrible song. That's to say nothing of the shoddiness of the make-up effects; give me $500 and a strip mall with both a Home Depot and a Hobby Lobby, and I hope that I could do at least as well.

The acting is almost uniformly terrible; Jana Kramer is by far the worst, and I like to assume that her character's death (which feels for all the world like it was meant to end in her miraculous recovery in the last scene) was added because the filmmakers were sensible enough to know they didn't want her in the next movie. On the other side, Peter Coyote is so obviously full of the deepest self loathing: every line delivery sounds like he's about to break out crying, and whenever he doesn't have to hold the camera's attention, meaning pretty much every time someone else is speaking, his face goes absolutely slack. I have seen few if any performances that reveal in such undisguised detail the actor's disgust with the part he's been compelled to take, and the outright misery on every line of his face is the one and only real human emotion anywhere in the unwatchable morass of Necropolis. It's horrible to imagine that a series which began with a film good enough that it deserves a place in any conversation about the best zombie movies ever should have eventually resulted in something this brutally bad.

Maybe I was easy to please after all that, but Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave didn't depress me to nearly the same degree. It's still the second-worst film in the franchise, but only by a little; just a few tweaks and it would be every inch as good as Part II. Which was still a movie I didn't like at all, but at least it didn't put me in as profoundly foul a mood as Necropolis. Part of it is because in a very flaccid way, Rave to the Grave takes the series back to its roots: for the first time since the second film, it's an out-and-out comedy, though a very bad comedy. Butler and Strongoni apparently think that there is no form of comedy richer than slapping two... Italian?... Interpol agents (Claudiu Bleont and Sorin Cocis) into lady opera singer costumes and have them bumble around. Bumbling! Man, how great is it to see unabashed bumbling cops in a movie of relatively new vintage? It's like having a gumdrop tree in your backyard, and the gumdrops all taste like dead baby unicorns.

The two agents are introduced as mobsters that are meeting with Charles (poor damn Peter Coyote, it would have been easy just to kill him in the last film) to buy some of the Trioxin he spirited away last time. His demonstration goes awry, to say the least, and Coyote at last gets to drop out of the project, with whatever dignity he has left. Haha, I kid, he has no dignity left.

Back home, Julian - now a college freshman - gets to deal with sorting out his dead uncle's affairs, which involves finding a hidden room, as he declares to his new girlfriend Jenny (Jenny Mollen) "I've lived in this house 18 years, and never once did my parents even talk about this room". Here and elsewhere, it's very difficult to say whether the gleefully horrible dialogue is accidental or deliberate, part of the "joke". Probably the former, and it's certainly funnier that way.

In this room, Julian finds some Trioxin in large cans, and doesn't figure out what it is. Apparently he wasn't paying any more attention to Necropolis than I was. So he's obliged to take it to the techie Cody (Cory Hardrict), also a survivor from before - then he was a hacker, now he's a chemist, same difference - who can't quite figure it out either, but Jenny's brother, the DJ and all-round drug fiend Jeremy (Cain Mihnea Manoliu) decides that the right thing to do is ingest some of the liquid they've drawn from the can, and declare that it gives him a truly legendary high. It shall be perfect, he concludes, to sell all around the campus. As luck would have it, it's a few days before Halloween, the night of an epic rave that Jeremy is DJ'ing; he annoyingly and repetitively refers to it as a "rave to the grave", and in meeting with the local drug dealer Skeet (Catalin Parschiv) - yes, "Skeet" - dubs the drug "Z", because it makes you feel like a zombie. Hoho, the irony.

So the ingredients: bumbling Interpol agents, a whole lot of college kids ready to trip balls on Trioxin at the Biggest Rave Ever, and in a repeat of the last film, the best scene involves a rat given Trioxin (it's a lab rat named Mr. Stinky this time, not a hobo banquet). Also, one of the Trioxin vats busts open to reveal, for the first time since Part II an honest-to-God Tarman zombie (there's a sort-of Tarman in the third film), who gets saddled with a positively unendurable gag in the last scene, but hey, it's Tarman.

Anyway, you see where all this is going, right? Well, it goes there. The body count is marvelously high, the gore is generally more visceral and convincing than in the last one, and there are lots of topless women. So if your needs are as barbarously low as you can get them, Rave to the Grave will at least prove more satisfying than Necropolis. On the other side, Elkayem had by this point in the production cycle given up entirely on making Romania look like the U.S., the film is overlit and dreadfully flat, and the comedy is played in the broadest, most grating way that it could be.

Even so, at the very least it's got a whole lot more mayhem and carnage than its sibling, which for a solid half of its running time watched as a lot of indistinguishable teens sneak into a lab. Here, a lot of indistinguishable teens get their skulls chomped off, as two Romanians playing Italians with Russian accents tromp about, mangling English. It's cheesy and squirrelly, but at least it's not wretched. If that sounds like the faintest praise with which I can damn something, it's meant to be, and my single response to Rave to the Grave is relief that I have no more painfully diminished Return of the Living Dead knock-offs to weep through.

Reviews in this series
The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985)
Return of the Living Dead, Part II (Wiederhorn, 1988)
Return of the Living Dead III (Yuzna, 1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (Elkayem, 2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (Elkayem, 2005)

24 April 2010

THE LIGHT, THE HEAT

Let this not be the spot for grousing about the Academy Awards, save for mentioning in the most off-hand way I can that I've now seen four of the five nominees for the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and the winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, is the fourth-best of them. I phrase it in that way because, unlike some winners of that award in recent years, the Argentine feature is hardly "bad" - it is by all means a fun, though noticeably ill-paced police procedural and character sketch. It is also, in the mind of a plurality of very inexplicable voters, a better motion picture than Un prophète, which is like declaring The Counterfeiters superior to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. OH WAIT.

The film opens around the turn of the millennium: an aging man named Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is trying out several openings for a true crime novel he's trying to start. His struggles eventually take him to the office of district attorney Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who was a new member of the justice department office where Esposito worked in 1974, when he was investigating the very same case that now serves as the basis for his novel; a case that he's never been able to work out of his system in all the years since.

The story proper thus takes the form of flashbacks in Esposito's mind as he reconstructs his personal history, with occasional dips back to the days, 25 years later, as he grapples with the reasons that he's forcing himself to relive those events. A young woman, Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) was found raped and beaten to death, leaving her new husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) a broken-down shell of a man; Esposito and his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) throw themselves into the task of finding the killer, not only for justice's sake, but to offer whatever comfort they can to the grieving husband. It takes hardly any time to figure out that all the evidence points to one of Liliana's old boyfriends, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), but finding him - and then nailing him - turns out to be fraught with complexity and ultimately, even political ramifications.

Points to the movie for having almost ludicrous ambition: you can't tell from the plot synopsis I just laid out, but The Secret in Their Eyes manages to include, in its 129 minutes, a broadside attack against the injustice of the Argentine legal system, a tragic love story, a police procedural, and a thoughtful, metaphorically-laden look at how people become obsessed. I am likely forgetting something.

The degree to which it's successful in pursuing any of these particular avenues is up for debate, though it's hard to imagine anybody flat-out hating the movie. What works is mostly not due to the script (adapted from Eduardo Sacheri's novel by himself and the film's director, Juan José Campanella), nor anything particular in the way the material is presented, but thanks to a perfectly excellent cast; with the meatiest, most ambiguous character, it is only logical that Darín should end up the stand-out, but virtually no-one with a speaking role fails to hit the core of their character with precision and aplomb.

But since it is Esposito's story - literally! - it seems right to focus on Darín's performance, and the way that the actor teases out the protagonist's unspoken depths. It's not fair to say that he plays elements of Esposito that aren't in the screenplay, rather that he plays the elements of the screenplay that could be dramatised outright. When the film is over and the lights come up, what we're mostly left with is the picture of a man who can't give up the past, for reasons that only become gradually clear. Darín underplays the 1974-'75 scenes perfectly well, but the genius of his work lies in the scenes of Esposito as a weary retiree, when he lets his face, staring quietly at his developing novel, explain everything we need to know about what this man felt and feels about the events of that investigation, how it nags at him like a wound. Only in the last shots do we understand why, but it's an engaging enough characterisation prior to that time, that we don't really find the film's lack of overt exposition tremendously unsatisfying.

On the whole, though, The Secret in Their Eyes isn't terribly special. Oh, it's a perfectly good procedural, made somewhat more interesting that it's not a whodunnit as much as a how-do-we-catch-him. Campanella does basically two things, as far as I can tell: direct Argentina's Oscar nominees (he's only made one other feature since 2001's Foreign Film nominee Son of the Bride, the last time that country had a dog in the race), and direct episodes of American procedurals, most notably 17 episodes of Law and Order: SVU. His work in this film certainly doesn't feel like a television cop show, although the time spent on the small screen has had a telling effect: his visual sense is heavily dependent upon close-ups and medium shots, and very little in The Secret in Their Eyes is visually engaging in any way. Which is a shame, for when Campanella cuts loose and lets style reign, the results are easily the best moments in the film: the cryptic opening scenes, in which each of Esposito's false starts on his book are dramatised in extraordinarily different ways, or a magnificent show-off long take (digitally stitched together, I have no doubt), which begins as an aerial view of Buenos Aires and ends in a speedy tracking shot through the bowls of a football stadium.

Would that the rest of the movie had been directed by the crazy bravura madman who thought up that insane single-take scene! But for the most part, The Secret in Their Eyes is precisely as good as it has to be, and no better: attractive without distinction, just obscure enough in its intentions (as with, say, its title, changed from the novel's The Question in Their Eyes) that it seems very smart and mysterious, though it is merely interesting. I'll admit, that the slow development of the frame story, with old Escobito, is a fairly genuine mystery. But outside of that, the film is servicably entertaining and rather too draggy in its depiction of the murder case that's allegedly so captivating that Escobito has clung to it for 25 years. For him, maybe, but I'd be surprised if I still remembered most of the details a month from now.

7/10

22 April 2010

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 21

First, the full disclosure: I am personally acquainted with multiple people who worked on Moonshine Inc., especially including the director-writer-editor and the cinematographer. I leave it to you the reader to decide if I'm thus being too lenient, too hard, or just right. However, the bit where I claim "if I believed in reincarnation, I'd be inclined to wonder if the photography was a sign of the second coming of Karl Freund" can probably be ascribed to personal bias.

The creation of the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" is one of the great moments in film criticism in the last ten years: it codified a trope that has sometimes though rarely been used brilliantly, and which has been with us, silently, for decades and decades - hell, you could stare me in the face and argue that there are MPDGs in Shakespeare, and I'd take you seriously for a moment. On the flipside, that moment when Nathan Rabin gave a name to the phenomenon, he seems to have given it a sickening kind of new life; and it kind of seems like you can't make a romantic comedy from a male perspective anymore without running into one of the damned things.

Philip Crippen's microbudget feature Moonshine Inc. is on paper another one of the many, many quirkycore indies with a raving MPDG at the center, as shall be quickly revealed via this plot synopsis: he, Cal (Levi Fiehler), is an aspiring hypnotherapist who has just moved to Los Angeles to reboot his life after some emotional setbacks that have left him seeking peace with the mantra "I will never fall in love again". She, Win (Whitney Powell), is squatting in his apartment, making moonshine and waxing rhapsodic about how she will sell it to hipsters and jumpstart a new movement in boutique alcohol consumption. Also, her name is Win.

In practice, it's not quite as simple as that, and not least because "selling hipsters moonshine ironically" isn't quirky so much as it is distressingly plausible. Rather than trying to redeem the manic pixieness of the scenario by downplaying it, or treating it straight, Crippen goes nuts with it, and drags Powell with him; it's largely her performance, which resembles one of those violent woodland creatures in a Tex Avery cartoon rather than an ostensible human being, and all for the good, that manages to shift Win from "impossibly darling and twee girl" to "borderline-insane person who is magnetic precisely because she is so obviously deranged". I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a parody of the whole conceit, but it makes a good stab at it.

It helps as well that Crippen doesn't demand our love for his characters and situations, the way that so many quirky indie filmmakers do; nor does he make the opposite mistake of drifting too far into ironic distance, and thus becoming unbearably smug. It's not as fine a line as all that - dozens of great comedies in the '30s and '40s were produced in exactly that margin, the great screwballs - but after so many unwatchable Wes Anderson clones, it's pleasing to see one that mostly works.

"Mostly"; because outside of the central relationship between Cal and Win, a great deal of Moonshine Inc. strains more than it should. There are three supporting characters big enough to notice in the film - Cal's deranged landlord Aki (Daniel Laney), a goofy actor named Tommy (Trevor Trout), and a tremendous bobblehead of an actress named Cookie (Molly Beucher) - and none of them gel very well. Aki in particular seems to have come from a different movie (Laney's performance comes across somewhat like a bad improv artist given "smarmy yuppie" and told to build a scene out of it), and all three of the characters operate in a much lower, broader kind of humor than the weird but charming dialogue flying between the leads.

Visually, the film has the definite merit of not looking cheap; something that plenty of shot-on-video microbudget indies cannot claim (better still: the sound is pretty great, except for a spot here or there where it peaks a little too high). Slickly shot by Will Beckley, Moonshine Inc. moves comfortably from night to day, inside to outside, and through a nice array of color temperatures that keep the film's tiny number of locations looking fresh every time. Then again, I'd be remiss in failing to mention the movie's most howling flaw - even more than concluding that in 2010, we need more Manic Pixie Dream Girls - a weird visual flourish involving the use of crash zooms. It's apparent enough what the idea behind it is - when Win is in control, everything is crazy! even the movie itself! - but it's distracting as hell, and at times makes it nigh unto impossible to pay attention to the action onscreen.

I can't honestly say that it's more than cute, but Moonshine Inc. at least manages to dodge the major pitfalls of its subgenre (else it would have been infinitely less than cute). It might not put the stake in the MPDG's heart, but at least it doesn't make the viewer long for a quick death.


Finding a very different way to deal with the issues of presenting a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and making her something else than a reductive symbol of inhuman femininity and male privilege, the writers of Coasting, Michael P. Noens (who also directs) and David B. Grelck go the opposite direction, at least for a bit: commit entirely to the audience's preconceived ideas of what a quirky romantic drama looks like, and then pull the rug out.

They also try to give the MPDG a bit more of her own backstory than the form typically allows. Lauren (Stephanie Wyatt) is a wedding photographer in Chicago, who has traveled one weekend to Stillwater, Illinois for the funeral of her boyfriend's ex. Wes (Jonathan C. Legat) is a job placement specialist from Cincinnati attending the same funeral with his brother, another former lover of the deceased. Knowing absolutely nobody, they meet in a hotel bar one night and hit it off smashingly, but since they're both in relationships, nothing happens. A year later, Wes is back in Stillwater for his grandfather's funeral, and he bumps into Lauren in the same exact hotel bar; this time they act on their mutual attraction, except-UGH, fucking plot twists. It's damn near impossible to make Coasting sound as interesting as it is without explaining what happens, but I am absolutely not going to do that. Let's just say that their relationship becomes incredibly contentious and not just because they're both cheating, and what started off as a twinkly dramedy about accidental soulmates turns into a peculiar, sometimes off-putting but absolutely fascinating study of the capriciousness and irresistability of romantic attraction

Classically speaking, Lauren isn't necessarily a pixie; she lacks any quirky characteristics that would give her the bubbly edge of awfulness typical of the role. But she is functionally the type, particularly in the film's first half: it's Wes's story, told mostly from Wes's perspective, and it's largely because of Lauren's freedom of spirit that he learns to become a happier, more whole human being. Since the chief criticism of the MPDG is the way that the trope robs women of personality and agency, Coasting superficially qualifies.

Yet, the filmmakers muddy it a bit by also throwing in several Lauren-centric scenes - nowhere near as many as Wes gets, but still - and once again, the character is ultimately saved by a great performance. Wyatt digs deep into the character to fine desire and pain and confusion that aren't necessarily present on the page, and the result is something damn close to a real, tactile woman, one who feels and thinks. Indeed, she pretty much ends up being more interesting than Wes (Legat's performance is agreeable, but hardly revelatory).

Coasting doesn't have much in the way of flair, perhaps; the dialogue feels very self-consciously Written, with characters stating things for our benefit and to push the plot forward clearly, even if the things they say aren't always recognisable as human speech. It's handsomely filmed, though; first-time cinematographer Danny Crook makes good use of an unexpectedly wide aspect ratio and the use of color throughout the film is moody and evocative without being obvious. It's fairly simple, though, as is the film around it: a pointed character study that wastes the minimum effort possible on chasing down blind alleys, instead working to explore a central relationship that ought to feel contrived, but is instead compelling and disturbing in equal measure. It's an unfussy film, but marvelously precise.

20 April 2010

REAL LIFE AND THE BLOGGER

An ongoing service advisory - it pains me to say it, but the zero dollars a month I make blogging haven't really been enough to keep me watching movies - oh, or eating & paying my rent - so I went and got mysself a job. Started just yesterday, but today was actually the first long day. And it's one of those retail jobs, where I'll have a different schedule every week and sometimes it'll be super late at night and sometimes super late in the morning, and so basically, I'm telling you all of this because effective immediately, I can't really predict what kind of writing schedule I'll be keeping. Sometimes, I might even have to go two or three days in a row without posting anything; I'll try my damnedest to fill those days with a list or dirty film-related limericks or something, but one can make no promises.

Of course, if I got, say, $1000 a month in my tip jar, none of this would have to happen *cough*hint*

19 April 2010

ALL OUT OF BUBBLEGUM

Part of the problem, I'm certain, is a major case of expectation failure: when a film has been assiduously marketed as a superhero comedy, it's not the act of an unreasonable man to assume that it will, in fact, be a superhero comedy. This is not the case with Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, adapted from the Mark Miller comic series, and suggested by just about every single frame of the ad campaign to be a snarky comic romp about geeky teens, sort of like Superbad in tights. Instead, as you may have heard - indeed it's a great deal less likely that you haven't heard - Kick-Ass is a movie full of lots of dead and dying people, a scene of an 11-year-old girl getting kicked in the face, and a few scattered moments of comic relief, but no more than the form generally requires. As far as yucks-per-minute goes, it's a tenth the comedy that Iron Man was, for example.

That, as I said, is doubtlessly part of the problem.

The rest of the problem is that Kick-Ass isn't terribly good, nor terribly fun, nor terribly anything - not even terribly violent, though you've probably heard otherwise from an assortment of moral scolds claiming, and surely not without reason, that a film whose chief appeal seems to be its loving depiction of a preteen girl killing the fuck out of a lot of people while saying "cunt" and "motherfucker" is best viewed as a dramatic symptom of the coarsening of Western culture. That might be true (I guess it probably is); but for my money, the most sickening part of the whole circus is the film's palpable desire to be seen as beyond the pale, just the right thing to shock the squares while all the cool hip kids get to assert their aesthetic superiority over the moralising blue-hairs. I like to think that I am neither a square nor a hipster, but either way I have a pretty damn low tolerance for forced controversy.

If Kick-Ass were genuinely outrageous, that would be something, at least; but by and large, it's just effing dull. Contrary to the cultural dialogue surrounding the movie, the protagonist is actually the titular superhero, the invention of an anonymous high school comic book fancier named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who asks a question that essentially every young American male since the 1930s has asked at some point: why don't real-life people try to be superheroes? You'd think at least one crazy person would have tried it by now. For a kid with no real purpose in life and no direction, that's a good enough reason to buy a wetsuit and run around trying to stop crime.

I haven't read the comics (I kind of can't stand Mark Millar), but in film form, Dave represents a fairly alarming level of undisguised contempt for the young geeks who make up the material's natural target audience. He is, after all, just a regular comic book fan, with an active fantasy life, and he completely sucks at everything he does. And frankly, he's profoundly uninteresting as both a human being and a superhero. It's no accident that he gets completely upstaged at every moment by the secretive team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), AKA Damon and Mindy Maceready: they have a much clearer motivation, and are generally just damn cooler. In fact, the only thing that keeps Dave from being the least interesting figure in his own story is the presence of an even less-defined superhero in the form of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the alter ego of Chris D'Amico, son of the local ganglord Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and Dave's classmate.

There are plenty of opportunities for the film to make some sort of commentary on a number of subjects: it notices, but does not care, that Dave is almost more infatuated with his status as an online celebrity than with stopping crime, and it sure does seem at a number of points that it's going to be about the real-world effects of fantasy violence. But instead of any thematic niceties - to say nothing at all about character development - Kick-Ass just wants to focus on action and dazzlement, as befits its title. While that single-handedly means that it can't approach the top-tier of superhero movies, such as Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (which nimbly address both the psychological and reality-of-violence themes that Kick-Ass boldly eschews), it could still have been a fun popcorn-type movie; who doesn't like a good action setpiece? Let's set aside for the moment how many of them seem to teeter on the edge of child abuse.

Vaughn used to be a good director, once; his Layer Cake was one of the finest British gangster films of the '00s. But then the genially limp Stardust happened, and though he went to a lot of personal trouble to make Kick-Ass a reality - in addition to co-writing the screenplay with Jane Goldman, he more or less paid for the film out of his own pocket - he doesn't have any particularly fresh take on what is, all in all, fairly standard material. The best that the film's fêted violence sequences can achieve is to rip-off the work of Quentin Tarantino (Vaughn goes so far as to use an Ennio Morricone cue from For a Few Dollars More), though with neither the cartoon elegance of Kill Bill nor the apocalyptic energy of Inglourious Basterds. If watching Moretz spin like a dervish and maul several grown men can possibly be drowsy, well that is just what Kick-Ass manages. It's this, more than anything else, that makes me lose interest in actually mounting a moral argument against the movie: it's just not rousing enough to be wicked.

There are some good flashes: Cage, channeling Adam West, is outstanding (and coming so soon after The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, I wonder if we're at the cusp of a Cage Renaissance?), Moretz, so godawful annoying in (500) Days of Summer, has a certain spiciness about her; and the cinematography by Vaughn's regular Ben Davis has at least the merit of being very unlike what we expect to see in a superhero movie, often indulging in contrast just for the sake of it. Moreover, there is little that is genuinely bad: only Dave/Kick-Ass's own profound lack of affect and depth serves to make the film worse than it is. By and large, Kick-Ass is just straight down the middle, none too exciting and perfunctory. It wants to be edgy and nasty and delightfully cruel, but that very certainty in its own cleverness forbids it from being anything else than so much clockwork.

5/10

18 April 2010

MY GIRLFRIEND'S BACK

It's well-known that George A. Romero's Dead films are works of cultural inquiry: each of them filmed in a different decade (until, that is, Diary of the Dead), each of them taking a hard look a the social mores and movements of the day, bringing them to bear under the light of sometimes gentle, often piercing satire. Thus it is that even though the events described by the series cover a period of only several months or a couple of years, it's quite obvious that Night of the Living Dead takes place in the 1960s, Dawn of the Dead in the 1970s, et cetera.

The same is at least partially true, as it turns out, and certainly by accident, of Night's semi-official, distaff series of sequels; or at least, so I caught myself thinking as I watched Return of the Living Dead III: "My God, this film could only have come out in 1993!" Admittedly, less because writer John Penney and director Brian Yuzna had some particularly keen insights about life in the early 1990s, and more because they were pandering with a cheap-ass zombie movie. But still, for those of us who enjoy watching horror movies for their qualities as time capsules - and I at least consider this one of the chief joys of even the dodgiest '80s slasher; something about the horror genre is inexplicably well-suited for careful observation about the clothing, the decor, the behaviors of a moment in time, and I assume it's probably that these films were all produced so cheaply that they didn't have the luxury of honest-to-God costume and production designers - RotLD3 has some choice stuff hidden in there.

Hidden, and hidden deeply: though one must do the film the credit of recognising that it's a sight better than Return of the Living Dead, Part II. That bogglingly awful sequel to the genuinely great The Return of the Living Dead made the criminal mistake of substituting comedy for horror, and added insult to injury when the comedy in question proved to be of the most dreadfully incompetent sort. The results are hardly the worst of all zombie movies on the books - trust me, you don't want to start thinking about the worst of all zombie movies - but it's pretty much shite anyway. RotLD3 goes exactly the opposite route: it jettisons virtually all of the comedy from the first two movies, and substitutes, of all things, an angst-ridden teenage love story. Which comes much closer to working than you'd believe possible.

An indefinite number of years after the last movie, it would appear that the government finally has control of all the remaining 245 Trioxin, and is now using it in weapons experimentation. Army scientist Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord) has finally figured out enough of the secrets of the Trioxin zombies, enough to make a reasonable test geared towards controlling, not destroying, the creatures (it appears that nobody from RotLD2 bothered to tell them that you can electrocute a zombie to re-death). He is opposed by the icy Lt. Col. Sinclair (Sarah Douglas, whose British accent is a major distraction), who something something metal exoskeletons.

Reynolds has a son, Curt (J. Trevor Edmond - doesn't he sound like the b-story protagonist in substandard '30s romance?), but they're relationship hasn't been very happy since Mrs. Reynolds died; Curt's relationship with "tough" girl Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke, here going by "Mindy") isn't helping matters, either. Which is why Curt swiped his dad's security keycard, and takes Julie with him to spy on the latest experiment, which involves reviving a corpse with Trioxin and then politely looking away to make sure that it gets a good opportunity to savage the lab tech. This incident gets Reynolds bumped from the program, and sent to Oklahoma City (spoken of in hushed tones that make it sound like the worst place on Earth); Curt, who has now well and truly given up on his dad, refuses to come along, and he and Julie go joyriding on his motorcycle to celebrate the freedom of being teenage runaways. Until Curt has to dodge a truck, and Julie gets flung into a tree, snapping her neck. Oho, but didn't they just witness a gas that can bring dead people back to life? So Curt revives his girlfriend, who can't figure out why she's so damn hungry, and they head to a convenience store, where they piss off a Hispanic gang, and in the melee, Julie learns that human blood is exactly what she's been craving.

Now, RotLD3 is no lost masterpiece of horror: it is quite fumbling and bumbling and awkward altogether. There's a fun party game to be had in picking apart all of the plot holes, mostly of they "military bases don't work that way" variety; in particular, it is dumbfounding that Curt can sneak a dead body into the lab mere hours after a major security breach involving a dead body that ate a man's hand off. There's a flimsy line earlier about the base's terrible security that feels like it was studded into the screenplay just so that this gaping error would have a plausible dodge. And that's really the key to the film, in its first half or thereabouts: it's kind of inept, but it wants to be better than it is, and that's sort of charming.

You can pick the exact scene where it all goes to hell: after finding out that she has a taste for blood, Julie and Curt flee into the sewers to escape the gang, and from there on out, it's just one long, mostly boring chase scene, aided and abetted by one of the most impossibly understanding Magical Negroes in cinema history, a kindly homeless gent named Riverman (Basil Wallace). In truth, the film doesn't get any worse at this point, but it goes out of its way to point out a route by which it could have gotten immeasurably better, and the sense of a chance not taken is maddening. Namely, the changes going on in Julie's head: she knows that she's a cannibalistic revenant now, and she discovers that she can stave off her hunger by inflicting pain on herself; but this is not at all the focus of the movie, only something convenient to pull out when the two lovers need to be slowed down in their escape. I cannot imagine but that you would be able to think of a much deeper, sadder, more horrifying film about a young woman sliding into ghoulhood while her boyfriend watches helplessly than the film which RotLD3 proves to be. It is schlocky and clumsy, no more than hundreds of other cheap horror films - but few of them ever made a point of drawing our attention to the far, far richer human story that they weren't telling.

Nor does the film do much to distinguish itself as a schlocky horror picture - and let's be clear, I love schlocky horror. Unfortunately, RotLD3 fell afoul of the implacable MPAA ratings guide, which meant that it had to be sliced and diced to maintain its "R", and in a lot of places the cuts serve to actively obfuscate the flow of the movie. When they don't, all that's left is a bunch of effects that aren't as convincing as they should have been, a clear example I think of ambition outstripping ability (the head-on-a-spine effect in particular deserved much better execution than we see hear). Yuzna, who was more of a producer than a director in those days (he oversaw Stuart Gordon's great Re-Animator), didn't really have much of an eye, maybe; he lets us linger on the problems with his film, rather than quickly moving past the flaws to get to the good stuff.

On the other hand, flaws are really all we're left with, as the movie progresses: Clarke and Edmond are pretty damn uncharismatic leads, and the sewer-bound plot leaves very little room for the film to flourish as a zombie-mayhem picture, like the first two. Nor does its one great innovation, to focus on the transition from living, feeling woman to zombie, get treated with any kind of respect. The few moments that absolutely click do so only momentarily - the best example is when Julie transforms herself into a BDSM avatar of sorts, all piercings and slashed flesh: it's shocking and memorable, but Yuzna plainly has no idea what to do with the figure once she's stepped in front of the camera.

Never more than fleetingly entertaining; but at least, with its emphasis on early-'90s punk and grunge aesthetic, and its proto-X-Files government experiment plot, it works as a curio. Even taken as a zombie film, it's damn better than RotLD2 came even remotely close to being. Unfortunately, it does so much to run away from anything that would separate it out from the great mass of zombie pictures, something true of neither of its predecessors, that it's not really a wonder that it fizzled during its pro forma theatrical run, and has enjoyed no kind of cult fandom on video; and no surprise that for many years, the Return of the Living Dead brand name was quietly, and without fanfare, mothballed for more than a decade.

Reviews in this series
The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985)
Return of the Living Dead, Part II (Wiederhorn, 1988)
Return of the Living Dead III (Yuzna, 1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (Elkayem, 2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (Elkayem, 2005)

16 April 2010

MISS MARPLE, THE PUNK YEARS

There came a point where I felt like I could no longer put off watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on the hope that eventually, I'd get around to reading the late Stieg Larsson's massively popular international best-selling crime novel it's based on, so that's the first confession: I write from a position of relative ignorance. I don't know if the film is a faithful adaptation or a freewheeling one; and I don't know if its single biggest, indeed overwhelming flaw is something that could possibly have been avoided, given the source material. Here's what I do know: the film, written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev - primarily known for his work on police procedurals for Danish television - demonstrates with admirable skill and grace that even Sweden, not known internationally for the glossiness of its cinema, can give us a slick thriller with a surfeit of craftsmanship, rather more entertaining, perhaps, than it is memorable or "good".

For entertaining it certainly is. In brief, the story concerns a left-wing investigative reporter named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who has just been successfully framed for libel and sentenced to three months in prison. Before he's due to serve his term, he's approached by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the former head of a massive family-owned business concern, about investigating a 40-year-old disappearance: Henrik's niece, Harriet, who vanished in 1966 at age 16. Henrik is certain one of his numerous awful relatives killed her; Blomkvist's job is to find anything he can, to give the old man some measure of peace before he dies. Along the way, Blomkvist joins forces with a 24-year-old hacker and "researcher" - a security company spy - Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who happens to be spying on his hard-drive, and finds herself instantly intrigued by the Harriet Vanger case.

At some point, what has looked for all the world like a standard-issue "amateur sleuths investigate a mystery" plot shifts smoothly into something else: something dark and strange, a character-driven chamber drama of sorts, where we find ourselves much more interested in the interactions of Blomkvist and Salander than in the case they're investigating. Especially Salander: played as all edges and snappish retorts by Rapace in an incredible turn that damn well ought to make a star out of her, the young hacker is an insoluble mystery that attracts Blomkvist, and by extension the audience, far more than the case of Harriet Vanger's disappearance (which has, in the event, a resolution that would be intensely aggravating and cheap if we cared about the story as a straightforward mystery). Perhaps I should not say insoluble; in fact we get the solution a little, though poor sad-sack Blomkvist doesn't.

Along the way, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - and might I point out that, whatever the book and novel are called in the anglophone world, the actual Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, means, "Men Who Hate Women", which is a much different and more appropriate title - stops off for some probing looks at rampaging male ego and the sense of entitlement a certain kind of alpha male has over any woman who catches his eye. I can't go any further without traipsing all over major plot reveals, but there's no mistaking that it's about the terrible things that male desire can do to women, and the strong women who won't stand for being passive victims

The thing is: what about male entitlement and strong women? Here is where the film starts to break down a bit. I imagine that Larsson's novel probably spends a lot more time delving into sociology and the like, but Oplev and his writers are far too busy wrangling Larsson's massively complex story to do more than genuflect in the direction of thematic resonance. And yet, since that wrangling includes the identification of this idea of destructive male desire, without really paying it off very much, the time spent in the identifying - I am particularly thinking of Salander's entire function in the plot before she hooks up with Blomkvist - has the feel of padding. In the end, the film clocks in at a thick 152 minutes, and this is the overwhelming flaw I mentioned; it feels every second of that running time. At the same time, it doesn't seem like anything could possibly be cut, without damaging the story (and given the book's heft, I imagine quite a lot was cut already). So here's the Catch-22: the film plods along endlessly, but if you snipped it, it would either be incoherent or have absolutely no character and thematic resonance.

Maybe it's just that Oplev isn't a very good director. For all that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looks handsome, and sounds rich and epic, it's no better than competent, and sometimes, such as a montage in which Blomkvist reminds himself of the Vanger family's Nazi ties, it becomes laugh-out-loud silly. There's an urgency to the omnipresent darkness and grimness of the material that begins to feel overdetermined by the end; frankly, it came as no surprise to learn that Oplev was a television director, for his approach to everything has the unsubtle tang of the episodic procedural, where you have to get from A to B with maximum efficiency and minimum grace. Of course, I don't know jack about Danish cop shows, so maybe he's just a bad filmmaker. Whatever the case, he doesn't make the material sing: he presents it, and it just sort of sits there, and only the good story and the great performances keep it moving.

And so, back to where we started: it's a fun movie, but not more than that; and it's not hard to think of ways that it could have been even more fun, and maybe even meaningful. I dearly wish that it was 40 minutes shorter; but bloat isn't enough to wreck the story, nor to make watching the twists and turns play out any less than it ought to be. When worst comes to worst, we still have Rapace's intense, angry eyes staring at us; and whatever other flaws or merits the film has as a mystery and a character study, it's never less than mesmerising when she's onscreen.

7/10

14 April 2010

WITH A NAME LIKE "MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE", IT HAS TO BE GOOD

Werner Herzog is not, in the best of times, a director who especially cares if you (yes, you personally) particularly like what he's doing in a given movie or not. Which means that when he goes full-bore and makes a film that seems to spend its entire running time ensconced firmly in his own head, we're talking about a seriously unapologetic explosion of self-indulgence.

Even the very title of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (co-written by Herzog and his sometime assistant director Herbert Golder) sets us up for something intensely disconnected from the viewer's own pleasure; leastwise, it doesn't strike me that you'd call a movie My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (good lord, even a question mark would make it more palatable) if you had the remotest desire that any paying audience anywhere in the world would be actively interested in watching it. And the movie bears that out: this is Herzog pursuing ideas that fascinate him almost without recourse to whether or not they "work" according to any classical sense of film grammar. For we committed Herzog enthusiasts, that idea has its own kind of sick appeal, and I certainly found My Son, My Son to be wildly interesting, almost too interesting to handle. At the same time, even at 91 minutes there's a lot of movie going on, and the whole thing is chaotic and a touch mind-numbing. All things considered, the director's other recent crime picture with a godawful name, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, is probably more successful; it's a hell of a lot more straightforward, at any rate.

My Son, My Son starts with a true crime, and then makes up almost all of the details: Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) has killed his mother with a sword, and San Diego police detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) is on the scene, trying to figure out the wheres and whys, with his partner Vargas (Michael Peña). While Brad is shut up in his and his mother's garishly decorated house, Havenhurst interviews the two best witnesses to the suspect's deranged state that he's got: Brad's girlfriend Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), who was directing the community theater adaptation of a Greek tragedy that Brad had been acting in until shortly before he snapped.

Or, the one-sentence version of the story: a detective sits in a van and interviews two character witnesses. That's pretty much it, so anyone who accidentally stumbles across My Son, My Son hoping for a legitimate true-crime thriller will walk out furiously disappointed. Or religiously inspired. It's hard to say which; it's always hard to say with Werner Herzog.

I'd love to say that the film is secretive and twisty and strange, but actually it's pretty simple to describe what it "is": a study of a man who went crazy, and an inquiry into how he got there. The second part is also pretty clear, if you know your Herzog: Brad had a racist uncle (Brad Dourif) who raised giant chickens, and shortly before he went nuts, he spent some time in the Peruvian jungle. Chickens and jungles are of course two of the director's least-favorite things in the world; I suspect that by putting those elements into his scenario, he was trying to short-circuit what could otherwise be the film's big mystery, about why Brad went insane. Why is right there; let us instead just look at the how. Tellingly, Brad's final, murderous insanity is triggered when his pseudo-religious ravings run up against his time spent in the tragic play, a setting where he's already being encouraged to submerge his own personality and identity - it strikes me that Brad probably reminded Herzog of Klaus Kinski, the infamously psychotic actor with whom the director shared his most nightmarish, creatively inspired sets. Since Herzog has already made it clear that he finds the mere fact of watching Kinski's insanity to be compelling (e.g. the documentary My Best Fiend), I imagine that his approach to My Son, My Son was about the same: let's just look at Brad McCullum in all his glorious, unhinged craziness.

Now, we can bicker and argue as to whether watching a movie about a crazy person being crazy makes for a fun night at the movies. At any rate, The Bad Lieutenant covered awfully similar ground, and in that film, there was some actual dramatic point to it; I can tell you what I think that film "means", in a way that I absolutely cannot do with My Son, My Son. Does that make the newer film a pointless waste? Maybe - certainly yes, if you watch it and don't find it compelling. All that Herzog is doing is the only thing he ever openly sets out to do, which is create unique moments and watch as a human mind breaks down. Like I said, I don't think he cares in the slightest if you or I "like" his film. He just wants to make sure that we get walloped by it, and that's the sort of thing you can't talk about using review-type language. I can certainly break down all the mechanical things in the movie, and why I thought they worked as well as they did: the long takes ending in awkward freeze-frames, the comically stilted dialogue, the fascinating geometry of a can of oats rolling down a driveway. But I cannot tell you if you will be affected by them like I was. That is the joy and the frustration of art, when practiced by somebody who hates rules just for the sake of it.

Things that I can say: Michael Shannon's performance as Brad is a godsend, the best film performance that this great, under-used character actor has ever given us; it is carefully, weirdly attuned to the physical space and other characters around him, so that he always seems the most organic part of any scene and at the same time completely alien in every context. Nicolas Cage's performance as the crazy cop in The Bad Lieutenant was showier and perhaps more dangerous, but Shannon is infinitely more discomfiting and upsetting; since the best way to compare the two films is to call My Son, My Son more discomfiting and upsetting, this distinction between the actors seems just.

The film also plays around with the iconography of its executive producer, David Lynch; he apparently exerted no influence over Herzog whatsoever, and yet the director studs in a great number of Lynchian moments and Lynchian shots; he even cast Grace Zabriskie, one of the key members of the Lynch Stock Company, as Brad's mother. I'd never call My Son, My Son, a Lynch film directed by Herzog, or any such nonsense; but it is a Herzog film that liberally quotes from Lynch, and this is not, I think, to its credit. One of the most famous of all the endlessly quotable German's utterances is his discourse on finding new and original images; and for the most part, his career has been a good-faith effort to create as many new images as he can. Cribbing from Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart is entirely contrary to that mission.

But still: My Son, My Son is still a movie that nobody else could have made, and nobody else would have wanted to make. Which may or may not be a good thing; but the film unquestionably has the merit of being wildly unconventional, and even the viewer who is wildly turned-off by the film can't argue in faith that it's dull. Which maybe was the point all along. Anyway, I liked the hell out of it.

8/10