Thursday, December 30, 2010

December Quick Picks and Pans


A Town Called Panic (2009): Writer/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patarfollows chronicle the quixotic misadventures of three friends: Cowboy, Indian and Horse, in a crudely animated but endearing Belgian film that’s like watching Gumby on crystal meth.  The three friends interact and react to a menagerie of other townsfolk, including a high-strung farmer who’s in danger of suffering a stroke at any moment.  A Town Called Panic is essentially plotless, jumping abruptly from one episodic situation to another, with dilemmas compounding like layers on an impossibly tall cake.  It has been suggested to me that this movie emulates how children play, and I have to agree.  Seemingly random elements are added to the story, including a giant robotic penguin that throws snowballs or an undersea city populated by kleptomaniac fish people.  Taken in the right frame of mind, it’s a lot of fun.  In fact, this one might play even better for kids, who are more apt to accept chaos as the norm.  It’s the perfect solution when you get sick of all of the usual suspects from Disney, Dreamworks and the other major studios. 
Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.


The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008):  A Korean Western?  Why not?  Ji-woon Kim’s ode to Sergio Leone is a post-postmodern Western, played fast, loud and over the top, and set in 1940’s Manchuria.  We’re introduced to the three main characters in the opening scene, on a train: A bounty hunter on the trail of his quarry, a ruthless killer (clad entirely in black, of course), and an eccentric outlaw with a price on his head.  Although there’s no question about Park Chang-yi (The Bad), the lines blur when looking at the other two.   Kang-ho Song’s Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird) compared to Eli Wallach’s Tuco, comes across as more sympathetic and a trifle less sadistic, as an unholy hybrid of that character and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name.  The “Good” in this version, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) is played straight, and seems to be a riff on the stereotypical Western hero who’s a crack shot and always gets his man.  Everyone is in pursuit of an elusive map, marking a hidden treasure.  While there’s nothing particularly original about the story or situations, it’s all in the telling that keeps things fresh, with crazy characters, Wild West-style shootouts mixed with martial arts, and inventive cinematography.  All of this takes place in the backdrop of a conquered China.  It’s probably helpful to know about the history of the 1st half of the 20th century in China, Korea and Japan, but that doesn’t really matter.  The true language spoken here is Western.  Even if it doesn’t have anything new to say, it’s a wild ride to the finish.
Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming.

Countess Dracula (1971): The title of this middling film is a misnomer, since the main character doesn’t really have anything to do with Dracula, and could never be categorized as a vampire, despite her penchant for blood. This is actually Hammer’s anemic (pun intended) take on the Lady Bathory legend with the late Ingrid Pitt starring as Countess Nodosheen (in bad old age makeup), who bathes in the blood of young virgin women to retain her youthful visage.  As it turns out, this description is a lot more interesting than the movie itself, which pulls most of its punches instead of trying to terrify.  Most of the story involves a plot by the Countess to pass herself off as her daughter Ilona so that she can marry Lt. Toth, a much younger man.  The more lurid aspects of the story are downplayed in favor of a dull costume drama with a few scant splashes of blood thrown in.  It’s really unfortunate that this was such a snoozefest, since the source material is ripe for a worthwhile retelling.  Maybe some day, another enterprising filmmaker will realize its full potential, creating a new film that more successfully skirts the line between exploitive and informative (infosploitive?). 
Rating: **.  Available on DVD, Netflix Streaming


The Maze (1953): This early 50s curiosity from director William Cameron Menzies (Invaders from Mars) stems from an era when there was a push to release practically everything in 3D, whether it was warranted or not (Hmmm…Sound familiar?).  Richard Carlson (Creature From The Black Lagoon, It Came From Beneath The Sea) stars as  Gerald MacTeam, engaged to be married in two weeks when he’s suddenly called away to his deceased uncle’s remote Scottish castle.  Weeks go by, and his fiancé Kitty (Veronica Hurst) hears nothing from him, except for a cryptic letter stating that the engagement is off.  She decides to investigate, discovering that her happy-go-lucky beau has turned into an asshole.  Instead of leaving, as he implores her to do, she’s determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of his sudden personality shift, and find out what dark family secret he’s hiding.  The film does a fairly good job of slowly building tension and mystery, and the sets are interesting to look at.  It’s just a shame that a lot of the suspense is derailed by a goofy climax and a pat ending that attempts to wrap everything up in a nice little package.  Still, it’s worth a look, if only for the first nine-tenths.
Rating: ***.  Available through Netflix Streaming only.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale


(2010) Directed by Jalmari Helander; Written by Jalmari Helander and Juuso Helander; Starring: Jorma Tommila, Onni Tommila, Peeter Jakobi;
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** 

The Finnish import Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale just might be the cure for the holiday blues when you’ve had your fill of the season’s usual assortment of schmaltzy productions.  Rare Exports weaves its twisted story in an efficient 84 minutes, combining a tight narrative with believable characters and sardonic humor while skewering a ubiquitous holiday icon.  All of this is achieved without a hint of the artificial sentimentality or forced cheer normally associated with Christmas films.


Director Helander depicts a harsh existence for the handful of people who inhabit a remote Finnish village.  As winter approaches, subsistence rather than conspicuous consumption is the driving force during the holiday season.  The residents’ livelihood is based on the annual reindeer roundup, which will bring food and money to the region.  Day to day survival is tied to living off the land, rather than stopping by the local supermarket for groceries. 



The fun begins when a nearby team of American researchers excavate a deep mountaintop pit, uncovering something that has been buried for a long, long time.  Pietari and Juuso, two boys from the village, spy on the dig and speculate about the discovery.  In the process of snooping, he and his friend cut through the fence surrounding the excavation site, thus exposing the rest of the village to whatever has been unwittingly released.  This has direct consequences, as the reindeer that were slated to be rounded up are soon massacred by an as-yet-unseen predator.  Their parents instantly blame the Americans for neglecting the fence and allowing wolves to escape and kill the reindeer.   The boys quickly conspire to keep their part a secret, as the true cause of the mishap.    



So, what does all this have to do with Santa Claus?  While Juuso is the consummate skeptic, Pietari only recently learned that Santa Claus did not exist, and doesn’t seem so confident about this knowledge.  This prompts him to do his own research about the real Santa Claus, who turns out to be a far cry from the rotund, jolly elf popularized by the Coca Cola Company.  According to ancient folklore, Santa Claus had more sinister origins, grounded in the Finnish legend of Joulupukki.  This being was not interested in giving out presents to all of the world’s good little boys and girls, but exacting horrific punishment on children who misbehaved.  After learning about the true history, guilt-wracked Pietari is convinced that the not-so-jolly old elf is now after him for his misdeeds.  When the village’s children start vanishing one by one, Pietari realizes that it’s up to him to set things right.



Rare Exports is unconventional by American standards, devoting a fair amount of time to learn about the main characters.  The details about Pietari and his widower father Rauno seem worthy of a brooding family drama, rather than a horror film.  The strange goings-on in the village are contrasted with the real-life concerns that Rauno and the other village leaders face, as they owe the equivalent of $85,000 for the dead reindeer herd, with no apparent means of making up the difference.  The story shifts into high gear about halfway in, after Rauno captures the culprit in an illegal wolf trap, only to discover something very different and very alive.

 
Rare Exports is played straight, with a few flourishes of dark humor thrown in.  One of the running gags is that virtually the only thing left to eat are the gingerbread cookies that Rauno bakes for himself and his son.  Most of the violence is implied, rather than explicit, which might be a turnoff for some hardcore gore fans.  Unlike an American production, the focus is not on quick scares and gross-out thrills, but character development and building a story that follows through on a uniquely bizarre premise.  



The surreal scene of (Minor spoiler alert: highlight “invisible” text to view) 198 feral naked Santa’s helpers trudging through the snow ensures us that this film wasn’t a Hollywood product, churned out by committee.  Even if the climax seems a bit conventional compared to the events that preceded it, stick around.  Rare Exports rewards you with an ending that more than delivers, and serves as a fitting conclusion.  You may never look at St. Nick the same way again.

On a side note, today’s review marks a mini-milestone for Cinematic Catharsis.  I was fortunate enough to catch Rare Exports during its extremely limited theatrical release, so I’m actually discussing a first run film this time.  At the time of this posting, there was no scheduled DVD release, but I suspect it should become available before 2011 is too far along.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pi


(1998) Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette and Eric Watson; Starring: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman; Available formats: DVD                      

Rating: **** 

Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan, Requiem for A Dream) feature debut is a low budget psychological/science fiction thriller that manages to be engaging and visually arresting without any recognizable actors or elaborate special effects.  Math review time -- don’t worry, you won’t be tested later!  The title refers to the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which is commonly referred to as pi (also represented by the symbol π).  3.14 is just an approximation, however, with the digits carrying out to infinity.  It’s a number that has intrigued mathematicians for centuries, with current calculations spanning 5 trillion digits (Math review ends here.)!  Sadly, that’s about the extent of my mathematical knowledge, and thankfully, you won’t need to know any more to appreciate Pi. 

Max Cohen (played by co-writer Sean Gullette) is a reclusive mathematician obsessed with the number pi.  One of Max’s conceits is that there is an underlying order to everything in the universe, which can be discovered through numbers.  He cobbles together a supercomputer in his New York City apartment, determined to unlock pi’s elusive secrets.  After running an experiment that uncovers the key to accurately predicting the stock market, Max is resolute about discovering a greater truth.

Naturally, there are others out there who want to know what Max knows.  He meets a Hasidic Jew, Lenny, who’s keenly interested in numbers as well. Lenny’s fascination is based in the Kabbalistic belief that numbers have a religious significance, and sees Max as a means to an end.  Somewhere among pi’s endless string of digits lies a 216-digit number that could be the key to uncovering the secrets of God’s code.  Max is also being pursued by a shady agent who is employed by an unnamed Wall Street or government entity.  She’s prompted by Max’s deadly accurate predictions about the stock market to employ him for her own purposes.  She offers to help him with his numerical explorations by providing an extremely powerful, classified computer processor.  Max asserts, however, that he is not motivated by money, but a quest for a greater truth.


The high-contrast black and white cinematography works exceedingly well for this story, and is a fitting metaphor for the main character, Max, who seems to view his world entirely in that regard.  Max’s belief in an elusive pattern that underlies all things implies that order supersedes chaos.  Other people are either an annoyance or useful for his purposes.  His only real friend is a former professor and mentor, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) who was forced to retire after he suffered a stroke.  Sol identifies the pressures that Max endures while seeking an unattainable mathematical answer, and warns him that he is taking things too far.  As Max continues down the path of discovering a universal cosmic pattern, he is blurring the line between being a mathematician and a numerologist.  In Sol’s view, the inevitable outcome is madness. 

Pi begs the question: How much is taking place in the real world and how much is in Max’s head?  We’re never explicitly told what is wrong with Max, but he seems to be suffering from a form of schizophrenia or schizoid behavior.  He frequently pops pills and injects himself with medication to quell the uncontrolled movement and noises in his head.  We can never be certain if the incidents with the Hasidic man and the Wall Street/government agent are real or simply manifestations of his paranoia and delusions.  As Pi progresses, his mental stability continues on its downward trajectory.  Depending on your point of view, his unique perspective is evidence that he’s cursed (or blessed) with a vision of the universe that no one else can experience, or purely delusional.  We are left with a beguiling, enigmatic puzzle with certain pieces that are purposefully missing, leaving us to provide order through our own interpretations.


In Aronofsky’s later work, such as Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, the main characters’ obsessions (e.g., drugs, wrestling) are their one true love.  Numbers are Max’s drug of choice.  There is no room for anyone else in his world, or activities that do not serve his obsessions.  Despite the admonition of his friend Sol to follow Archimedes’ example to “take a bath” and unwind, Max is incapable of shutting his brain off or engaging in other pursuits.

In his voiceover narration, Max repeatedly recounts an incident from his childhood when he stared at the sun and almost permanently damaged his eyes.  This contrasts with a scene in which Sol compares Max to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and was burned.  The pursuit of knowledge can be a perilous journey, and enlightenment does not necessarily lead to fulfillment. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dumb Movies That I Like Anyway

Stupidity, as well as profundity, is in the eye of the beholder.  Movie watching can be a very personal experience.  It’s often difficult to articulate why some work and some don’t, but there’s a special category of film that taps into a primal need – we’ll call it the cheesy center of the brain.  Based on our natural predilections, tolerance level varies from person to person, but I would venture to opine that it exists in everyone.  We all have our guilty pleasures that we enjoy, without any pretense to good taste, aesthetics or believability.  It could be the (gasp!) Twilight films for some, or anything starring Adam Sandler or directed by Ed Wood, but we all have our dirty little secrets.

The following list is a sampling of some of my more notorious guilty pleasures.  The normal standards of quality (or in some cases competent) filmmaking do not apply.  I can’t always explain why I feel affection for some films that are nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of junk food.  Instead of paying for my transgressions in empty calories, however, I’m paying in minutes deducted from my life.  I tend to give points for originality and sheer chutzpah, and deduct points for generic sameness.  I can overlook a lot when it comes to logic, acting and common sense, but I can’t forgive tedium.  Tread carefully!  If you choose to watch any of these wonders, you might not respect yourself in the morning, but to quote an old beer commercial, they’re less filling and tastes great.  Do the costs outweigh the benefits?  You’ll have to decide. 

All titles are three stars, unless otherwise noted.

Tron (1982) *** ½
I’m sure I’ll be marked on some geek hit list because of this, but let’s face it: take away the novelty of the computer-enhanced visuals and themes of a “real” world and a virtual world existing side by side, what do you have left?  At its heart is a standard good versus evil story, saddled with some tremendously cringe-worthy dialogue.  Tron’s saving grace has always been its unique look, loaded with more eye candy than you can shake a digital stick at.  Jeff Bridges and everyone’s favorite bad guy, David Warner lend their talents to give the film some much needed credibility. 

The Internet has been buzzing for some time over the long-awaited sequel.  Disney’s banking on Tron Legacy to score big at the box office, going so far as to talk further sequels and a TV series, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re putting the cart before the horse.  I’ll step out on a limb and predict that regardless if the sequel is good or not, it will not be the huge hit they’re anticipating.  Even though it arguably inspired a whole generation of geeks, the original Tron was not a big hit in the first place.  Geek interest doesn’t always correlate to mainstream acceptance (witness the recent poor performance of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).  Then again, maybe it will be a case of Disney being in the right place at the right time the second time around.  Time will tell.

  

The Beastmaster (1982)

After the success of Conan the Barbarian many filmmakers tried to ride its coattails with their own hastily made entries in the sword and sorcery genre.  Don Coscarelli jumped into the mix with this follow-up to Phantasm.  Nothing says 80s cheese like Marc Singer dressed up like a He-Man/Conan hybrid, with his trusty faux black tiger by his side.  The Beastmaster shouldn’t work, but somehow does, thanks to a likable hero, hateful bad guy played by Rip Torn, and some creepy vulture things that digest men whole in their wing/stomachs.  Good brainless fun.


 

The Black Hole (1979)

There is a force in the universe so powerful that nothing, not even logic or credibility can escape its gravitational pull.  At first glance, this seems like a Star Wars ripoff, but The Black Hole borrows extensively from earlier films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Disney’s own version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  Maximilian Schell stars as the enigmatic Captain Nemo-esque commander of the starship USS Cygnus, which was thought to be lost years ago.  The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of B actors, including Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimeux, Ernest Borgnine, and cutesy robots voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens.  High points include some impressive old school optical effects, a stirring John Barry score, and one of the most imposing robots ever committed to cinema, Maximilian (proving conclusively that fitting your robot with spinning blades for hands is a monumentally bad idea).  The Black Hole contains what might possibly be the single most ridiculous scene in sci-fi history, when a giant meteor smashes right through the center of the USS Cygnus, and the rest of the structure remains intact.  The silliness is topped off by an ending that’s simultaneously pretentious and dumb, but a ballsy choice nonetheless.  All in all, it adds up to a wonderful failure that took me a few decades to fully appreciate its bizarre mixture of craftsmanship and ineptitude.


The Running Man (1987)

An entire post – or site – could easily be devoted to the films of former body builder, politician and master thespian Schwarzenegger, and it was difficult to list just one.  It was a toss-up between listing this and Commando, but I decided to go with the film that boldly decided to clad its protagonists in yellow spandex.  Nominally based on a Stephen King (under alias Richard Bachman) novella of the same name, The Running Man takes place in the not-so-distant future, when the country’s number one television show involves contestants in a life-or-death struggle to win their freedom.  Hmmm… doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.  It’s a battle of the accents between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Conchita Alonso, as they trade goofy one-liners and fight goofier villains.  The Running Man does away with Stephen King’s original bleak ending in favor of something a little more box-office friendly, ensuring that social commentary is kept to a minimum.


Logan’s Run (1976)
I saw this one in the theater as a kid, and it left an indelible impression despite the fact that it has not aged well.  Who had any idea that the future would resemble the 1970s?  Thankfully, its primary conceit that the population is limited to age 30 has not come to pass, or I wouldn’t be here to write this commentary.  Michael York stars as Logan, and he does in fact run.  The filmmakers spared no effort to convince us that we were glimpsing the world of the future through the skillful employment of chintzy models, a robot that looks like the propmasters slapped it together from common household items in 15 minutes, and the initial setting of a thinly disguised shopping mall.  A description of the lame elements doesn’t do the overall film justice.  Somehow it all works, in the end as a movie that’s so cheesy, it’s cool!


300 (2006)
From the fertile minds of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, two people who know little about restraint, comes this improbable retelling of a momentous battle between the Spartans and the Persian Empire.  A lot of criticism was lobbed at this movie because of its many historical inaccuracies and questionable politics.  Duh!  This is a popcorn flick, pure and simple (emphasis on the simple), rife with non-stop posturing, male bonding and CGI carnage.  I don’t think anyone could have confused this with a PBS documentary.  This may as well have been set on another planet or Middle Earth, for all the filmmakers cared about being faithful to the reality of the time.  As depicted here, the Persian army certainly has no resemblance to anything terrestrial.  300 pays homage to a bygone age when men could not control the volume of their voice, and everything that was spoken was a solemn proclamation.  This is the best video game movie that’s not actually based on a video game.

Pet Sematary (1989)
This horror “classic” stars Fred (Herman Munster) Gwynne and several other actors who should have known better.  Its clunky attempts at inducing scares generally fall flat, but it still gets a pass from me due to a few saving graces: the eponymous Ramones song, some unintentional humor, and one of the most cringe-inducing scenes involving a knife and an Achilles tendon (shudder!).  Is it a good movie?  Nope, but applying Sturgeon’s Law (see my review of the superior Trick ‘r Treat) it’s still better than 90% of everything else that’s out there.


Heavy Metal (1981)
What do you get when you combine cut-rate animation, a mixed bag of popular music tracks, and juvenile storytelling?  In this case, they add up to an inconsistent but oddly amusing early 80s artifact called Heavy Metal.  Producer Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes) and a wealth of voice talent including Harold Ramis, John Candy and Joe Flaherty (Ghostbusters, Stripes) are largely to blame or applaud, depending on which side of the fence you stand.  It’s undeniably misogynistic and shallow, like a 14-year-old boy’s fantasies come to life, but when I feel the need to regress to a simpler, less socially responsible time, Heavy Metal fits the bill.  Just don’t expect anything more insightful than the doodlings on a 9th grader’s Pee Chee folder.

Troll 2 (1990)
The only inarguably bad movie on this list.  I can’t imagine anyone thinking this was actually a good movie, but it exists as a perfect example of complete incompetence in action.  So much has already been written about this movie that it really needs no introduction at this point.  Whether you find this an enjoyable excursion into cheese or an excruciating test of your sanity depends on your tolerance for bad cinema.  Remember: If you only take away one message from Troll 2, it’s that evil can be conquered by a double-decker bologna sandwich.  How can I justify a three star rating?  I just used this simple formula: * (As a Horror film) + ***** (As a Comedy) divided by 2 = *** stars.


The Protector (2005)
Tony Jaa is no Jackie Chan, but let’s just keep that to ourselves, okay?  If he would cross the ocean from his native Thailand to Australia just because his village’s prized elephant was stolen, what would stop him from beating my head in just on general principle?  The dialogue-driven scenes are nothing to write home about, but the fight scenes, which are many, are the real reason that The Protector exists.  Words cannot adequately describe one amazing continuous take scene that’s worth the rental price alone, where he single-handedly takes on an entire gang in a hotel.  We need more people like Jaa.  If PETA or the World Wildlife Fund had him on their side, the only endangered species on the planet would be poachers.  Lesson learned: if Tony Jaa comes around demanding, “Where’s my elephant?” you’d better have a damned good answer.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Android



Android (1982) Directed by: Aaron Lipstadt; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Don Opper, Brie Howard, Norbert Weisser, Crofton Hardester;
Available on DVD and Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

1982 was a landmark year for the sci-fi genre, including such notables as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner and Tron. One overlooked gem not likely to wind up on most lists is the low-budget Android, which was filmed in less than three weeks and released with little fanfare.  While volumes have been written about those other aforementioned films, Android has since faded into obscurity, and isn’t likely to be much more than a footnote in most examinations of 80s genre films.  Thanks to Netflix streaming, however, I had another chance to see a film that initially slipped through the cracks.

Android works, not because of an A-list cast, elaborate sets or heavy reliance on special effects, but primarily on the strength of its main character, Max 404, played with a wide-eyed, childlike zeal by Don Opper (who also co-wrote the screenplay).  Almost the entire movie takes place on a remote space station, and is confined to little more than a few constrictive sets.  We never get a real sense of how expansive the space station is but we see enough to establish a sense of time and place.  The other resident of the space station is Max’s creator Dr. Daniel played by Klaus Kinski.  Following his success with Max, Dr. Daniel strives to build the perfect android, indistinguishable from a human.  He’s on the verge of a breakthrough until the government pulls the plug on his experiments.  We soon learn that Max’s days are numbered, as Dr. Daniel works to build his successor. 


Max longs for companionship, isolated from Earth and cut off from human beings.  He’s especially fascinated by male/female relationships, and studies videos to learn about the intricacies of human courtship.  His hopes are answered one day when he responds to a distress call, surprised to hear a female voice on the other end -- the first woman he’s ever spoken to.  He provides clearance to dock with the station for repairs, unaware that she is one of three escaped fugitives.

With the exception of Crofton Hardester’s one-note performance as Mendes, there’s more complexity to the roles of the fugitives than what is normally expected.  Keller (Norbert Weisser) is relatively subtle as the man in the middle.  He’s clearly conflicted about taking advantage of Max’s hospitality.  Although he’s killed before, you can tell that it’s a distasteful thing for him, and you get a sense that he does only what he needs to do to survive.  This stands in sharp contrast to Mendes, who’s not averse to killing whoever happens to get in his way or using violence if it gets a point across.  It’s a credit to Weisser that he can convey this much information with little dialogue, in an essentially thankless, underwritten role.  The third fugitive, Maggie (Brie Howard), is perhaps the most conflicted of the three.  She’s in a relationship with Mendes that’s more physical than anything else.  Her motivations for being his girlfriend are apparently based in fear and supplication, rather than love.  She does not enjoy being used by the others for their own gain, and sees an innocence in Max that’s refreshing.  She actually seems to care about him, and wants to get out of this situation in one piece, but doesn’t want to use Max as a tool.

Dr. Daniel is probably the most under-utilized character in Android.  He only makes sporadic appearances throughout the film, leaving large gaps when he’s not present.  I suspect that this might be largely due to budgetary constraints rather than story limitations.  It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that they had to shoot Kinski’s scenes quickly, and they needed to stretch out what little they had along the film’s running time.  Thankfully, the scenes without Kinski are not mere filler.  He’s not really missed, because the central focus is on Max, as we get a chance to learn about his attempts to understand what it means to be human.  At the same time, Dr. Daniel seems to have lost his own humanity.  He becomes incensed when he discovers that Max took his own initiative to allow other humans to enter the space station.  His desire to get rid of the fugitives takes an abrupt about-face when he learns that one of the three is a woman, and realizes that Maggie can serve his own purposes.  She is a means to end.  He appears to have no use for anyone unless they can do something for him.  Certainly his intentions for his newest creation, Cassandra One, are less than noble or selfless.


Android takes familiar elements that are as old as the sci-fi genre itself, and makes them seem fresh.  Some themes, such as the creator and his responsibility to his creation, go back to Frankenstein.  Max’s quest to become more human has been explored through numerous angles, from Pinocchio to the various iterations of Star Trek, but it is Don Opper’s interpretation of Max that breathes new life into a tired idea.  In one brief scene, he watches a clip of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, another creation that has taken on a life of its own.  Android was never intended to impress with loads of eye candy, revolutionary concepts, or Academy Award-caliber performances, but it succeeds in the quieter, reflective moments.


 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

November Quick Picks and Pans


Bucket of Blood (1959):  You can accuse Roger Corman of many things, but you can’t say he isn’t prolific.  This quickie was filmed in just five days, but it’s a surprisingly entertaining, wicked satire on modern art.  Corman regular Dick Miller (who coincidentally became a regular for Corman protégée Joe Dante) appears in a rare starring role as Walter Paisley, a ne’er-do-well working as a busboy in a beatnik coffee house frequented by the town’s culturati.  Paisley gains overnight success as an avant-garde artist with his moribund, life-sized sculptures -- or are they just sculptures?   His first work, aptly named “dead cat,” is the end result of the accidental demise of his landlady’s cat, which sets the stage for further artistic experimentation as he moves from animal to human subjects.  The Walter Paisley character almost seems to foreshadow Peter Seller’s role as Chauncey Gardener in Being There, in that both characters are simple-minded men who are perceived as geniuses by the cultural elite.  Of course, it’s a given that Chauncey Gardner never had Paisley’s homicidal tendencies.  Bucket of Blood asks us to question what really constitutes art, and if public perception is ultimately more important than authentic talent.  Great fun! Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.




Splice (2009): A good film that could have been much better, Splice starts out strong but gets undermined by unsympathetic main characters, and a formulaic third act.  Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) maintains an uneasy, disturbing atmosphere throughout that’s evocative of David Cronenberg’s more provocative work (especially The Fly).  Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are genetic researchers (and partners) who have created two synthetic life forms, Fred and Ginger, the product of splicing DNA from several different animals.  Encouraged by the apparent success of their new creations, they decide to take things a step further, creating a new life form that incorporates human DNA.  Needless to say, this raises some ethical and moral issues as things abruptly spiral out of control as they try to deal with the new life they’ve created.  The ethics became muddled by the end largely on account of the dubious choices of the leads, and I was left without a sympathetic character.  I eventually felt distanced from everything that was going on, as the plot simply degenerated into another monster-on-the-loose movie.  One of Splice’s strong points, however, is Delphine Chanéac’s performance as Dren (“nerd” spelled backwards, hmmmm), playing a human-like creature that is equal parts naïve, unpredictable and dangerous.  At times, Splice’s reach exceeds its grasp, but it still manages to raise some intriguing themes.  Primarily, as our knowledge advances to the point that we have the capability to develop life forms of increasing complexity what is our responsibility to that life? 
Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray 

 
Predators (2010): Director Nimród Antal’s first feature-length effort was the excellent Hungarian language film Kontroll, set in the dark underworld of the Budapest subway system.  Based on this earlier film, I was convinced that he had an eye for action and was more than up to the task of directing an ensemble piece such as Predators.  My expectations were lowered a notch after Predators received mixed reviews from critics and fans, but I ended up pleasantly surprised by the end result.  Predators borrows some ideas from an earlier, unfilmed script by producer Robert Rodriguez, and continues from the storyline of the first film as if the 1990 sequel and dreadful Alien vs. Predator detours in the franchise never existed.  With the exception of the alien planet setting, Predators doesn’t strive to break any new ground, but stands as a worthy successor to the original 1987 movie as a solid sci-fi action flick.  The cast includes Adrien Brody (Is this Adrien Brody month?), Alice Braga, Danny Trejo and Laurence Fisburne as trained killers who are now the prey on an alien planet.  Brody’s character is marginally analogous to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Dutch” in the first film, but Brody wisely avoids trying to duplicate that role.  With the exception of a frustrating ending that’s not much of an ending, I have few reservations recommending this to anyone looking for a good, mindless popcorn flick. 
Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009): Watching Tom Six’s The Human Centipede seemed more like a dare than a legitimate movie watching experience.  The cardboard characters serve mainly as set pieces for the ickiness that transpires.  Ashley Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are two obtuse American tourists who wind up lost while on the way to a party somewhere in Germany, and wouldn’t you know it?  When they decide to look for help after their rental car blows a tire, they end up at the doorstep of a secluded house whose sole resident is a mad doctor, played enthusiastically by Dieter Laser (doing his best Udo Kier impression).  This happens to be a terrific coincidence for the doctor, who has been longing to find suitable subjects for his experiment of combining three humans into a single organism.  Somehow, he manages to kidnap an unsuspecting Japanese tourist and bring him back to his home to complete his creation. The Human Centipede is a veritable laundry list of stupid people doing stupid things.  To catalogue their dumb choices would require a full-length review, and I’ve already devoted too much space to this cinematic dropping.  I’d like to think that there’s some bigger message here, but I can’t imagine what it would be.  Instead of sly social commentary Six just goes for the gross-out, carrying the one-note gimmick of three people surgically grafted together to predictable and disgusting ends, with little style, no substance and no sense of fun.  Apparently, Tom Six has already planned a completely unnecessary sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), involving not three, but twelve unwilling subjects.  Oh, joy...  I can’t say that The Human Centipede is the worst movie I’ve seen, but it’s fairly wretched. Why the extra ½ star, you might ask?  Well, it does deliver on its premise, so I suppose that’s something.  Rating: *½.  Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix Streaming.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Winnebago Man



(2009) Directed by Ben Steinbauer; Starring: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer;
Available formats: DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****


Schadenfreude, or taking pleasure from others’ misfortunes, has arguably been the underlying basis for the success of numerous viral internet videos. Witness the success of the "Star Wars Kid," "Star Wars Trumpet Solo," or the dubious popularity of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which feature an average schmoe falling into an embarrassing predicament. We love it when someone does something amazing, but we love it even more when someone screws up in a big way. The relative anonymity of the web has afforded us the luxury to watch people we don’t know, captured at their worst possible moment. Thanks to the advent of You Tube and other similar websites, something that might have been witnessed by a handful of people can now be shared with thousands or millions, turning the videos’ subjects into instant unwitting celebrities.  In the case of the Star Wars Kid, this unsolicited notoriety resulted in the subject’s personal shame and merciless derision from others.  In other instances, the subject of the video might go about his or her daily life, blissfully unaware of the phenomenon that has grown around their unfortunate blunder. The documentary Winnebago Man attempts to explore the unlikely celebrity created by one such video.


Winnebago Man’s video in question is a compilation of “found” outtakes from a 1989 Winnebago motor home promotional video, in which the befuddled spokesman, Jack Rebney, issues forth with an unprecedented string of profanity-laden outbursts as he repeatedly blows his lines and misses his cues. The original tape of outtakes from the promotional video was copied repeatedly over the years, and passed off from one person to another like a treasured heirloom in a secret society, gaining notice from found footage aficionados and the Hollywood elite. Eventually, the clip wound up on You Tube, graduating from an underground in-joke to a mainstream internet meme.


                 Jack Rebney in his natural element. Warning: Definitely NSFW!

There was something about this video that transcended the simple label of schadenfreude. We are not simply laughing at this intensely frustrated man, but there is something universal that we can all identify with, as if all of our failures, our pent up tensions and feelings of inadequacy were contained in this one glorious expression of the Id run rampant. There’s something compelling in the purity of his uncontained ire. We laugh because we’ve all been there at one point in our lives, even if we’ve never expressed ourselves with such conviction before. Based on Rebney’s protracted rant, some dubbed him the “angriest man in the world.”  How could he possibly live up to this expectation? Documentarian Ben Steinbauer sought to find out the true story of the man behind the video. What did Rebney think about all of his accidental fame? What was he doing now?  Was he still alive?


Initially, the trail is very thin, with only a few scant clues to lead to his current whereabouts. Steinbauer hired a private investigator to find Rebney, but the search yielded little, except for several PO Boxes listed under his name. After sending some inquiries to the PO Boxes, Steinbauer finally gets a bite, discovering that Rebney is alive and presumably well, and reluctantly willing to talk. The now 76-year-old Rebney is leading a reclusive existence in a trailer on a secluded Northern California mountaintop with his dog Buddha. In sharp contrast to his Winnebago video persona, he seems happy and serene in his solitary life  His initially calm personality turns out to be a bit of a ruse, as later on his other, more cantankerous self emerges, like a vulgar Wizard of Oz revealed behind the curtain.

Rebney is scholarly, intelligent, articulate, and a man of deep convictions. He has largely shunned society, retaining only a few close friends.  With the exception of his computer he has little use for most technology, and seems to be content to live out the rest of his life in a remote town. We learn that he worked in New York and Los Angeles for several decades in the field of broadcast news, and that his spokesperson gig for Winnebago was at the tail end of his career. We are left with two opposing portraits: an old man who has found peace with the world and wishes to live out his final days in solitude, versus a deeply reflective man who is highly critical of modern society and the political tide that has washed over the country. His ambivalence is exemplified by his contempt for the internet and most people, contrasted with a desire to be heard by those who would listen. When he finally gets to meet some of his fans, they are met with a strange mixture of irascibility and reverence. He seems to love an audience, yet abhor the mob mentality.


One area that Winnebago Man falters is not in its subject, Jack Rebney, but in its narrator/director, Steinbauer. He’s clearly frustrated with Rebney because he will not cooperate with his questioning, refusing to reveal anything about his childhood or failed marriage. Steinbauer argues that people will be more willing to accept Rebney’s views in the present if they are aware of his past. Steinbauer does not seem to be interested in meeting Rebney with respect for the here-and-now, and appears to be disappointed because the man does not conform to his expectations. There is a conflict of personal agendas, with Steinbauer the documentarian looking for a willing subject and Rebney just wanting to be understood. Consequently, we only see a rough sketch of the present-day Jack Rebney, with little insight into his beliefs or values. It’s possible that some of these details were left on the cutting room floor, and Rebney’s personal views were deemed beyond the scope of the documentary, but these details could have helped to uncover the real human being that existed beyond the caricature.  


Ultimately, Winnebago Man has more to say about who we are than who Jack Rebney is. We are left with an incomplete story, the rest of which will likely never be known. The person that we’ve concocted in our mind’s eye can never quite compare to the real one. Our celebrities are never what we imagine them to be.  Maybe the message of Winnebago Man is something else, something more telling about the nature of fame and our identity. It’s a little sad that Rebney will be remembered for his tirade, not for his thoughts. How much of fame involves someone who did not need or want an audience, but found it anyway? Amidst this portrait of an enigmatic hermit we are left with some unsettling truths: we are not always masters of our own destiny, and we are not in control of how we will be remembered.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hardware


(1990) Written and Directed by Richard Stanley; Starring: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, Iggy Pop (voice); Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray                      

Rating: **1/2

The label “cult classic” gets thrown around a bit too liberally these days, often being applied to virtually every film from decades past with quirky content and a miniscule budget.  Some films such as the Evil Dead 2, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or Night of the Creeps, have earned their cult status through memorable lines, iconic scenes, or sheer ingenuity.  Despite the fact that Hardware doesn’t really possess any of these traits, it has managed to gain a loyal following over the years.  I wasn’t terribly impressed during its initial release on video 20 years ago, but I decided to give it another look.  After all, times and opinions change.  Sadly, I was left with the same underwhelming feeling the second time around. 

Hardware is set in a dystopian future America, sometime after a worldwide nuclear war.  Everyone is concerned with how much radiation they’ve absorbed, the air and water are polluted, most seem to be subsisting off of some sort of government assistance, and the U.S. government is taking measures to limit the population.  These themes are more window dressing than anything else, and never get fully explored. 



Hardware opens promisingly enough, with a lone scavenger walking an arid, desolate landscape that could just as well be the surface of Mars instead of a scorched Earth.  He picks through some scattered debris, looking for anything worth selling, and finds a robot head resembling a human skull.  Mo, played by Dylan McDermott, purchases the head from the scavenger.  Instead of re-selling the head to a local merchant, he decides to bring it back to his girlfriend Jill as a Christmas present, figuring she’s an artist and she’ll know what to do with it.  Makes perfect sense, right?  Apparently, the gambit paid off for Mo, judging by what follows in the next scene.  I can only speculate that the robot head must possess some aphrodisiac properties.  After their MTV-inspired lovemaking, she incorporates the head into her latest sculpture, along with a few Cajun blackened Barbie dolls for good measure.  Voila! Instant pop art!  Little did they know, however, that the robot could reconstruct itself from the odds and ends lying around Jill’s apartment, thus continuing its imperative to kill everything in its path.


Her voyeuristic neighbor, played by William Hootkins, is quite possibly one of the most repulsive characters in film history.  To merely call him a pervert does not begin to describe how vile he truly is.  In fact, I’d venture to guess that he’d probably disgust other perverts.  It’s either brilliant casting or an attempt to distance the audience, but Hootkins just exudes creepiness from every pore -- you can even see it glistening on his face.  He’s like a composite of every stereotypical sex offender that’s ever been depicted: chubby and balding with a greasy ponytail, and mascara-rimmed eyes.  His favorite pastime appears to be incessantly watching Jill in various states of undress through the telescopic lens of his camera, and clicking away.  When he’s not spying on her, he’s making obscene phone calls in his spare time.  Oh, and did I mention that he sings, too?  Although the lyrics are surprisingly bereft of vulgarity, they are mind numbingly stupid.  What has been heard cannot be unheard.  If you watch Hardware, be prepared to have this little ditty stuck in your brain for the next week.  Consider yourself warned!  His death at the hands of the rogue robot can only be described as a mercy killing.

We soon learn that the robot head belongs to an experimental government Mark 13 drone, the most efficient killing machine devised yet.  Hardware’s version of not-so-subtle social commentary amounts to the killer robot’s head decorated with stars and stripes, but that’s about as deep as the commentary gets.  The refusal to dig any deeper takes Hardware away from its art house sci-fi pretensions, and shows its true colors as a relatively pedestrian technology on the loose story with nothing really new to say.   What we’re essentially left with in the second half of the movie is a story about an unstoppable machine that mercilessly kills its victims.  Hmmm… Where have we seen that scenario before?  We are also treated to scenes of view through the robot’s infrared eyes that seem suspiciously like the creature vision from Predator. 


I can certainly appreciate what the filmmakers have done here with a low budget, creating a robot that looks deadly enough, although the Mark 13 seems incredibly lethargic for something that’s supposed to be the ultimate killing machine.  Jill’s apartment does not appear to be the most spacious piece of real estate, yet it takes forever to chase her.  It was obvious that the robot’s issues with mobility were largely due to the film’s budgetary restrictions, rather than a conscious effort of the filmmakers.  Unfortunately, because of these limitations, the cat and mouse pursuit seems more implausible rather than tense.  Action is sporadic, limited to a handful of sets.  If it had been handled the right way, it might have added a claustrophobic feel, but even this seems a hit-and-miss affair.  One particularly clumsy scene involves one of the characters making a perfectly timed jump through two malfunctioning hydraulic doors as if it were part of an 80s era video game. 

There are a few bright spots, such as Iggy Pop’s voice work as the radio personality Angry Bob – what little there is of it.  He manages to infuse some life into the proceedings, however briefly, with some welcome sardonic commentary on the current state of his society.  Alas, if only there had been more of these moments, rather than the cameo we’re stuck with.  You’re left thinking, “Hey, that was Iggy Pop!”  His voice could have served as an integral presence in the movie (think Stephen Wright’s somnambulistic-sounding DJ from Reservoir Dogs, for instance), rather than an afterthought. 

The look of Hardware reveals Stanley’s music video roots.  Even if no one has anything worthwhile to say, he can construct a pretty scene.  There’s also some good cinematography and moody atmospheric elements and artful use of color.  All of this is backed by generous doses of industrial/synth music.  The Apocalypse has a good beat, and you can dance to it.  Who knew? 


In the end, there are some good elements that do not add up to a satisfying whole.  It’s a nice attempt that probably could have been a whole lot better if it didn’t try so hard to emulate other movies.  Hardware is one of those films that I really wanted to like despite its many flaws, but it ultimately falls flat.  I’m sure there are a lot of worse ways to spend 90 minutes than to watch Hardware, but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s a worthwhile viewing experience.  If nothing else, Richard Stanley proves that you don’t need a lot of money to make a movie full of tired clichés or half-baked ideas.