Sunday, December 23, 2007

Catsup, Part 2

Part two in my attempt to recap all the movies I haven't already written about. I'm allowed to keep it to one sentence if I want. Funny that hasn't happened yet.

The Return of Count Yorga (1971, Bob Kelljan) [68]: Kelljan died too early with too few features under his belt to get a Taratinoized rebirth, but dammit, he deserves it. His three vampire films -- Count Yorga, Vampire, Scream, Blacula, Scream, and this, the Yorga sequel -- are all crude and shocking bits of pulp that hit like barbed wire wrapped around a two by four. What Kelljan lacked in subtlety, he made up for in aggressiveness -- his slo-mo running vampires, shock cuts and freeze-frames feel like they're dipped in nightmare. But while the first Yorga is severely crippled by the awful lighting and lumpy screenplay, the sequel (written by Yvonne Wilder, who also plays the deaf-mute housekeeper) is comparatively elegant. There's a definite feminist subtext going on, with focus on the Mariette Hartley character and the gaslighting of the housekeeper (quite similar to the same year's Let's Scare Jessica to Death), that contrasts well with the sexist original. There are lulls, and it doesn't always hang together perfectly, but the set-pieces make up for it. Kelljan tops the first Yorga's tense, gut-wrenching ending with a climactic sequence that's both exciting and dread-inducing, ending with two of the most terrifying freeze-frames in horror film history. That Kelljan never got to grow as an artist, and that his contributions to the mechanics of suspense are ignored by modern filmmakers, is a fucking tragedy.

Day Night Day Night (2007, Julia Loktev) [76]: Key image for me was watching our confused emo protag try on different outfits for her big day, and briefly donning a jacket with "Baby Girl" on the back. She rejects the jacket, but the she never really shakes off the label -- despite the deathly seriousness of her task, she's still a kid, really, incapable of understanding that she's not doing this for any great cause (pointedly, we have no idea what the cause is), but simply because she hasn't figured out who she is (pointedly, we have no idea who she is). This would've been impossible for Loktev to convey (at least, not without making a terrible film) without lead Williams, who does more with her body before six a.m. than most actors do all day. The first half is the best, all controlled, claustrophobic angles, yet comforting in their directness, not unlike the obscure cause that's been embraced by these masked men. Then she's let out into the "real world", the camera goes handheld, strangers start looking at the camera, and the tension, rather than heightened, is diffused (defused?) by the hustle and bustle. It's air squeaking out of the balloon, and while that's mostly the point -- the group's ideology crumbling against the chaos of modern existence, a life intended to be meaningful through sacrifice that suddenly loses meaning in the anonymous crowds -- it's still a bit of a drag. Good job with that last shot, though.

Zombie (1979, Lucio Fulci) [34]: Boring boring cool cool boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring cool cool how'dtheydothat cool boring boring boring boring boring gross gross gross boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring boring nice nice nice boring boring boring boring stupid stupid stupid boring boring boring boring boring boring dumb dumb oh thank god it's over.

Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland) [71]: Yeah, I know. This has 80s written all over it, from the hair and clothes, to the way the narrative is honed-down, in the Syd Field manner, to its bare essentials -- there can't be more than eight characters in the entire thing. Still, it enraptured me when I was 13 and still does today. Probably has something to do with a fondness for the Savant-as-Hero, the guy whose head full of useless trivia becomes a weapon against monsters. (Today we'd recognize both Charlie and Evil as a bona-fide geeks, but the movie can only situate them, vaguely, as outsiders, which is probably why we never meet any other kids, apart from Amy). But a monster movie is only as good as its monster, and Chris Sarandon's suave and menacing neighborhood vampire is just as worthy of an Aurora model kit as the Tall Man in my opinion. (Love how the film demonstrates his toughness -- stripping the wood off a banister with his fingernail.) And the disco scene, while a homage to Polanski's ballroom scene in The Fearless Vampire Killers, outdoes its predecessor in sensuality and just plain cinematic snap. Watch Amanda Bearse's Amy become a woman over the course of a cheesy synth-pop number! (Must I turn in my Hipster's Learning Permit if I admit that I found Bearse, pre-Married With Children shrew, kinda hot? Is it significant that we now know she's a lesbian?)

1408 (2007, Mikael Håfsröm) [22]: Here's what's wrong with this movie: the haunted room is omnipotent. It can do anything it wants with Cusack; he's powerless. How can there be any meaningful conflict if one character has literally all the power? The movie tries to make up for this lack of conflict by making the experience about whether Cusack will come to terms with his dead daughter, but you know what? That's not horror. That's Lifetime. Oh, and don't get me started on the Jackson/Cusack scene. Suckas act like it's the second coming of True West or some shit, when it's just a frickin' speed bump on the way to the CGI. Oh, and don't get me started on the CGI. There's a ghost from the thirties, and one from the fifties? Let's make them look like scratched up B&W film and Technicolor, respectively! Woo! Fucking hacks.

30 Days of Night (2007, David Slade) [65]: Here's what's wrong with this movie, and really, it's the only thing that's wrong (without necessarily implying that the rest is "right"): Thirty days is just too damn long for drama. The film does a terrible job of showing how weeks of avoiding vampire-induced death affects the characters physically and mentally, and just a terrible job of demonstrating the passing of time in general. (A "Day 15" title card just don't cut it.) There's very little difference between Day 3 and Day 30, and considering the ferociousness of the vampires, it starts to beggar belief that anyone would make it past day two. But then, what about the vampires? You tell me they got thirty days to eat everyone, and they haven't razed the entire town in a week? What, did they break into someone's house and find a copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz and think, "Well, when are we gonna be back here?" Yet, change the title to "Three Days of Night", and you got a winner. But I guess that isn't horrifying enough.

Hostel Part II (2007, Eli Roth) [59]: So Martin suggested that David Poland was paid by someone to have a shit fit over this, and damn, he might be onto something. Feels like Roth lost his nerve -- he could've really earned that shit fit, but instead backs away from most of the carnage (I can't even remember what happened to Bijou Phillips). All of the ideas here are good ones, from the gender switch to the focus on the torturers' perspective to the "money talks" ending. (Probably the best idea is simply showing the contrast between the boys' trip in the first movie -- an abbreviated sex comedy -- and the girls' trip, which is threatening long before they reach the hostel.) But Roth ultimately doesn't know what to do with his ideas, so the whole thing lacks any kind of depth. Everyone hits their marks, torture set pieces come and go (quickly), and then it's over. Bart tries valiantly to make his character work but can't make his third act change of heart believable. Best scene isn't even in the movie: on the DVD, check out the deleted scene "Rape Shower". Yeah, yeah, I know, sounds tasteless, but it's just two of the women talking. It's pretty funny and lends credence to the rumor that Tarantino has a hand in Roth's scripts.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Catsup, Part 1

Whoah! Dusty in here. Smells funny, too. That's what happens when you leave a blog sitting out for so long, I guess.

Gonna attempt to cover all the movies I've seen since the last update, going in reverse chronological order, why not. Everything will get at least a sentence, in the approved Michael Atkinson mode, but that might be it.

WARNING: Some films may be SPOILED ROTTEN, of course.

No Country For Old Men (2007, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) [82]: Terrific film, yada yada yada. Let's get to the real debate: Who's the protagonist? Now, understand that I'm talking about "protagonist", a pretty specific and wonky term (so be warned), used here in the context of studying screenplay structure, so I'm not talking "main character", "key character", "lead" or "supporting" characters or anything like that. And I say it's the Brolin character, if only for the simple fact that there's no story without him. The inciting incident (finding the money) and the first act twist (getting caught by the drug dealers) are about him. Without Brolin, Bardem has nothing to do but flip his gorgeous locks, and Jones can only putter around and philosophize. (Oh wait, that's what he does anyway.) That's what makes the last part so discombobulating. It's almost like the film itself starts looking, across space and time, for a protagonist to hang itself on, like a amnesiac child on a cosmic quest. Are you my protagonist? No, I'm just the wife of the protagonist, a side character. Are you my protagonist? No, I'm the antagonist, and all I can do now is kill side characters and get offed myself, now that I have no purpose. Are you my protagonist? I should've been, sonny, but I couldn't find the nerve.

(Of course, Martin McClellan will come in and destroy this argument. And God knows what Todd Alcott's gonna say when he gets around to it.)

The Mist (2007, Frank Darabont) [77]: Nice to see Darabont back to doing disreputable genre work, even if it is another goddamn Stephen King book. Script isn't as tight as his job on the 1988 remake of The Blob, and the "Do We Need The First 10 Pages" question rises again. (I left the theater during a preview to complain about the volume -- the trailer for Awake fuckin' shook the seats -- and when I got back, the family was outside with the tree. Didn't get a proper intro to the characters, but plotwise, nothing lost.) Tense and exciting, but Acting saves the day -- Braugher's character is incomprehensible, but holds it together through sheer talent, and Harden makes an intolerable character tolerable by playing to the cheap seats. Neither performance should work, but do. And great cinematography as well -- verité in the accepted shaky-cam style, but keeping spacial integrity, so fuck you Greengrass. Unfortunately, the ending doesn't work -- the decision comes too quickly, too easily, and then lead Jane is left to express something that's quite frankly inexpressible, yet gives us a rather unimaginative and empty Wail O' Anguish anyway. But 50s-inspired giant bugs are good enough.

Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi) [73]: Why the hate, yo? So much better than number two, which was so tonally inconsistent it may as well have been South Korean. Feels like a random issue of the comic book, pulled off the rack circa '81, with a central conflict (Parker and Mary Jane's trouble relationship) that sings compared to the previous one, which was about... what was that about, again? Bitching about the landing of the black goo is stupid; it's clear that Pete's gone dark long before the suit does, making its arrival the period at the end of the sentence. Grace and Howard are well-cast, the former for his ingratiating smarm, the latter for her empty-headed cheer.

Hairspray (2007, Adam Shankman) [55]: More cheeky than I was expecting -- Watered down, if you will -- but Blonsky is awful. She has one look (naive wonderment), one move (a shoulder shake), and no presence at all. High school musical, indeed. Speaking of which, that Efron kid is the real deal (so I get why all the gay five year olds are crazy about him), and I like Bynes all grown up, thank you very much. (Not sure about the deep tan, though -- a foreshadowing of her character's sexual awakening, or just too long at Desert Sun?) Also: no dedication to Divine? For shame, filmmakers.

Mr. Brooks (2007, Bruce A. Evans) [57]: Hi, my name's Bruce A. Evans, and I have directed a feature film called Mr. Brooks. Perhaps you'd like to hire me to direct your next film? I can do low-key drama (roll scene of Costner and wife bantering in car), psycho thriller (roll scene of Costner killing couple in bed), action (roll scene of Moore fighting killers in van), stylized action (roll scene of Moore shoot-out in hallway) and wish-fullfillment (roll scene of Dane Cook getting throat slashed). And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, when you think "directing", think Bruce A. Evans.

Grave of the Vampire (1974, John Hayes) [37]: I've seen this shitty movie three times. Three times. Why. Why. It's Danny Peary's fault, actually -- the glowing write-up in Guide for the Film Fanatic writes checks the movie can't cash, especially in the awful public domain version that seems to be the only way to see it. It's a good premise, admittedly. (Note to writer, Sopranos creator David Chase: Make this your next TV show.) But the Poverty Row production values, stiff acting, and point-and-shoot direction from John "Fomaldehyde Zombies" Hayes just sinks the entire show. One good bit, which we can blame on Chase: the half-vampire son opts to romance not the attractive, age-appropriate woman but the matronly, less pretty one -- yet it's clear to us, if not him, that he's just trying to get back at Vampire Dad.