Thursday, June 26, 2008

Masters of Horror: Screwfly Solution

A couple of years ago, I watched Joe Dante's Homecoming, an entry from Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series. It was a blistering piece of anti-Iraq war agitprop with zombies. Not scary by any means, and lacking Dante's usual smart-ass wit, but interesting viewing. Now that I'm no longer watching a foreign film a week, I thought I'd watch all of the Master of Horror episodes currently available on DVD. It's a murderer's row of genre directors: Dante, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, Takashi Miike, John Landis.... and none of the entries longer than an hour. Sounds like fun to me. The first episode I watched was Dante's second entry in the series, The Screwfly Solution, which concerns a virus that turns men's sexual urges into homicidal urges. As with Homecoming, the episode suffers from a glaringly low budget, a heavy thematic hand, and generally pedestrian direction, but the concept pays off in unnerving ways. Mostly, watching this makes me curious to see what other horror aces do with the limitations and structures of the series.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Incredile Hulk

It seems that one's opinion of the rebooted Incredible Hulk is inexorably linked to one's opinion of Ang Lee's Hulk of 2003, of which the new version is a sort of quasi-sequel. Folks who thought that Lee's version, with its somber tone and Freudian themes, was a bold, visionary attempt to make a comic book movie into something substantive seem to find this new hulk to a be a much dumber, sadder, less interesting beast. Those who found Lee's version to be a load of ponderous horseshit, on the other hand, welcome a Hulk movie that glories in the spectacle of Hulk smashing things.

For the record, I think Ang Lee's Hulk is a goddamn disaster. Yes! I know that he was trying to add symbolic and emotional resonance to a comic book film, but moviemaking isn't the Special Olympics: you don't get credit for trying. Lee's Hulk, like Bryan Singer's Superman Returns failed because the creator failed to appreciate the genre. The Superhero icon is an expansive trope that can accomodate all sorts of musings on culture and psychology, but it's also extremely fragile. If you graft your personal cinematic obsessions onto a comic book character, you'll likely end up crushing it under the weight of your intellectual pretensions. Ang Lee's entire film ouvre is a meditation on repression, and so he turned Bruce Banner into a man struggling with a gamma-radiated Oedipus Complex. Now, that's a bold move, but it's bound to fail if you shoot a film in which the main character periodically turns into a giant green CGI monster with all of the joyless brooding of Brokeback Mountain.

Marvel Studios learned their lesson from that, so they got the dude who directed The Transporter to make a more smash-centric Hulk. But this new Hulk underscores another potential pitfall of the comic book genre: bland proficiency. The new Hulk possesses none of the faults of the Ang Lee version, but neither does it boast any sort of discernable point of view. Maybe effective ass-kicking and artistic vision are mutually exclusive in the comic book film genre, and if so, I guess if I had to have one, it would be effective ass-kicking. Yes, Virginia, I am a Philistine. But I'm going to watch a movie featuring a giant green monster, I'd rather watch him rip a police car in half and use the pieces as boxing gloves than watch Eric Bana look angst-riddled for two hours. Most of this new Hulk film is servicable if not great: Ed Norton is charismatic as the harried Bruce Banner, his inhibited romance with Liv Tyler's Betty Ross carries a bit of heft and the special effects are convincing. A big showdown between the Hulk and Gen. Ross's army unit is marred a bit by some clumsy editing, but the film really earns its keep in the last reel, when the Hulk goes toe to toe in the streets of Harlem with supersoldier Emil Blonsky's mutated Abomination. It's the kind of climax that is too rare in the comic movie universe: an action set piece that highlights everything that is awesome about the iconic
character the film is based around. Hulk smashes, he crashes, he claps his hands and creates a sonic boom, he punches the ground and creates a mini-earthquake, it's all enough to give a guy a nerdgasm. For all the movie snob posturing about the merits of a "cerebral" (read: boring) approach to comic material, there's something to be said for revelling in the mindless but thrilling vulgarity of pulp spectacle.

Score: 7.2

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Happening

Strike Three, M. Night, you're out.

The Happening is easily the worst film of Shyamalan's career. For all of it's jaw-dropping awfulness, Lady in the Water possesses a Herzogian obsession that's gripping to behold. Shyamalan created that film as a monument to his own ego, with a commitment so bold it's impossible not to admire a little. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan's cre de cour to every critic or studio exec with the temerity to doubt his genius. It says: "I WILL cast myself as a writer whose work will save the world! I AM so gifted a storyteller that I can devote half the film's running time to expository dialogue screeched in a Korean accent! I CAN base an entire film around a mythology that I completely made up, and expect the audience to immediately accept it!" The movie is a creation that bespeaks a will to power on the behalf of its maker that's awe inspiring, like the Pyramids or Auschwitz.

The Happening shows none of that lunatic vision: it's just inept. Literally every halfway effective visual in the film is in the commerical, from the chick sticking a hairpin in her neck to all the dudes jumping off of the roof to the guy laying in front of the lawnmower. And most of it's over in the first ten minutes. What's left is an hour and a half of Mark Wahlberg making like Fred Rogers on Methadone, leading his wife Zooey Deschanel and a little girl as they skulk around the Pennsylvania countryside, meeting wildly overacting rural characters and trying to outrun gusts of wind (really). The premise of a mysterious chemical causing people to spontaneously kill themselves is potentially interesting, but Shyamalan fails utterly to do anything interesting with it. Wahlberg and company don't know what's causing the attacks, and neither does the audience, but we do know that if it gets to the main characters, they'll die pretty much instantly, and the movie will be over. Since that can't happen, Shyamalan pads the middle part of the film with pseudo-suspense courtesy of the aforementioned overacting rural characters. Their presence is so transparently one dimensional (provide some sense of dread during part of the movie when here is no real chance that the deadly chemical will reach the protagonists), and their behavior so arbitrary, that they leave no impression at all.

One scene in particular fails miserably in its attempt at creating suspense, while at the same time highlighting Shyamalan's complete collapse as a film artist. In a direct reference to Shyamalan's most perfectly rendered piece of suspense filmmaking (the "Brazilian Birthday Party" video from Signs), a woman shows a crowd of onlookers a video someone e-mailed to her iphone (timely!). It's a dude committing suicide by walking into the lion enclosure at the Philadelphia zoo. The fact that this scene completely lacks every single element that made the original sequence from Signs compelling, and that Shyamalan seems to have no clue that it fails to meet these vital criteria, is the most eloquent evidence available that the man needs to find a new career. I suggest Subway sandwich artist.

Score: 1.8

Monday, June 16, 2008

More Blogging! You Know You Crave It!

For a while now I've been thinking about reviving my political blog "Handjobs for Third Stringers," then I decide that I'm too lazy to blog (which is really, really fucking lazy). But the new cover of Newsweek has blown my brain out of my ass with outrage, so I'm bringing 'er back. Stop over and check it out.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

2008 DVD Review: The Signal

The Signal is a low budget indie horror film that enjoyed a brief theatrical run earlier this year. It's too bad it didn't receive a wider distribution, because The Signal is easily scarier, wittier, and more heartfelt that about 90% of theatrically released horror films. In the forebodingly named city of Terminus, a mysterious electrical signal suddenly appears on all bands of communication: television, cell phones, land lines, radio. All those exposed to it eventually turn into homicidal maniacs. There's a superficial similarity to a recent Stephen King novel, Cell, but the film's conceit is actually much more rich and interesting. Rather than becoming slathering murder-beasts instantly, as in King's novel, the "crazies" in The Signal slowly become detached from reality, with the nature of their insanity determined by the underlying resentments and jealousies hiding dormant in their psyches. The viewer is never sure if what they're seeing is real, or simply the delusion of the character. The uncertainty is amplified by the fact that the "crazies" reveal themselves slowly: a character who seems at first glance to have avoided crazification, will, over time, reveal themselves to be shithouse nuts.

What makes the film really pop is the fact, while the it features three main characters throughout (a cheating wife, her cuckold husband, and her lover), it's split into three distinct "transmissions" focusing on the point of view of each one. The three segments are helmed by different directors, and have different moods. Transmission one, in which the cheating wife returns home to find her entire apartment building full of murderous crazies, including her husband, is an adrenalized shot of anarchic terror. Transmission two, which finds the cuckold husband, on a quest to find his wife, attending an extremely bizarre new years party, hits a sweet note of lurid violence and deadpan comedy. Transmission three finds the lover questing after the wife, and shifts the mood to hysterical romance in the last-reel-of-28 Days Later tradition. As with most anthology films, the different pieces are a bit uneven in quality (transmission 2 was my favorite, hands down), but the singular plot and group of characters keep it from seeming disjointed. Most impressively, the film squeezes every drop of value from its miniscule budget, although there aren't enough moments of apocalyptic mayhem.(god, I love my apocalyptic mayhem!) I really wish someone would throw 60 or 70 million bucks at these guys so that they could make a sort of sequel/remake, like Robert Rodriquez did with Desperado.

Score: 8.0

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


After two failed attempts to watch a couple of MYOFNF candidates, I've come to the conclusion that my method here, pretty much randomly Netflixing foreign films from the 70s or earlier that I've heard of, is the definition of retarded. I end up watching movies I don't like, the rich veins of films by specific directors get ignored. So, instead of watching any old movie with subtitles once a week, I'm going to go deep into the oeuvre of specific foreign directors who intrigue me. Then, after I've drunk deep of the creative cup of said director, I'll post a detailed overview of their output. Expect updates maybe once a month or so, featuring directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, and Akira Kurosawa. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Strangers

Michael Hanekes two versions of Funny Games are both great films, but they both completely fail in their goal. Haneke wanted to make audiences reevaluate their relationship to film violence and, hopefully, never go to a movie looking to be entertained by the suffering of others. I've seen both the German language original AND the English remake in the past six months, and still, there I was, sitting in a theater watching Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler being tormented by home invaders.

The Strangers writer/director Bryan Bertino has a few tricks up his sleeve and at first, they're deeply effective. The use of sound design, for example, with dead-of-night knocks coming against heavy wooden doors, records skipping and ominious footfalls all setting a mood of dread and unease. Also, the strangers themselves, wearing creepy blank masks, seep in and out of the corners of frames, usually while one of the protagonists is looking the other way, their horrible presence a secret between the interloper and the audience. These moves raise gooseflesh the first few times they're used, but they steadily lose power with repetition. Onc the novelty of these gags wears off, you're left with an all-to-familiar catalogue of scares and would-be scares as two young lovers tryto fend off three masked psychos dressed like Decembrists concerte-goers. Too often, Bertino undercuts his most powerful moments with an intrusive, blandly atonal score or has his main characters do insanely counterintuitive things just to keep the action moving forward. Funny Games might fail as a vehicle for shaming people out of enjoying film violence, but it's a smashing success at creating terror by maintaining an oppressive air of reality through long, unbroken takes and a total lack of music. If Bertino could marry some of his more winning stylistic tics to a more auster, Hanekeian approach, he might make a truly disturbing, super-fun horror film. Wouldn't it be a gas if Haneke's efforts to banish sadism from the silver screen ended up perfecting the genre?

Score: 7.5

Thursday, June 05, 2008

2007 DVD Review: Charlie Wilson's War

There's a scene in Tim Burton's great film Ed Wood in which Johnny Depp, playing the eponymous filmmaker, sorts through bits of stock footage for use in his masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Looking at images of buffalo herds, atomic blasts and army maneuvers, Wood muses that he could make an entire movie out of stock footage if he arranged it in the right order. Ed Wood never did make that found footage masterpiece, but Mike Nichols has picked up the idea in his execrable film Charlie Wilson's War. It seems like at least half of Wilson's running time is taken up by news camera shots of helicopters, mujahideen fighters and refugee columns. The parts of the film that aren't twenty-five year old clips from Nightline are staged with a Woodsian lack of artistry. In particular, the film's only "action" scene, in which Afghan insurgents shoot down a Soviet Hind helicopter with a Stinger missile, could have come straight from Glen or Glenda. Three dudes stand on a hill that's probably somewhere in Griffin Park, fire a rocket launcher, then jump around and celebrate, all intercut with shots from inside the cockpit of the helicopter, and images of the helicopter in flight that seem to be stolen from a different, equally shitty film. Having read part of the book the film is based on, I was all set to slam the movie for glorifying a criminal enterprise; namely, the covert arming and funding of Islamic fundamentalists by the CIA. The film is such a stunningly inept work of moviemaking, though, that the sheer crappiness sucked up all of my outrage. It's not even really a film at all in any recognizable sense. It's not funny, there's no dramatic tension or character development, and nothing approaching a rising action or climax (except for that awful Stinger attack). It's just a collection of woodenly acted, stagey conversations between a never-worse Tom Hanks, a never-worse Julia Roberts (how in the world can a woman from Georgia NOT be able to approximate a Southern accent?), and an awesome-as-always Philip Seymour Hoffman. I'm baffled how this movie got even mixed reviews (not to mention a slew of Golden Globe nominations). Is the combined star power in front of and behind the camera (in addition to Hanks and Robert, Mike Nichols directed from an Aaron Sorkin script) so blinding that most critics didn't notice the absolutely slack, lifeless, witless, uninspired dreck up on the screen?

Score: 2.0