Friday, May 29, 2009

Hasta La Vista, Colon

As I’ve said before, Terminator Salvation seemed too good to be true. Angry Christian Bale kicking ass in the post-apocalypse? With homicidal, power-mad robots? That’s more than enough to earn my $12. But if I’ve learned anything from apartment hunting on Craig’s List, anything too good to be true usually is (too good, not true), and the fourth outing of John Connor & posse isn’t quite what it could be.

At the same time, based on some of the feedback I’d heard before I eventually made my way to a Sunday matinee, I was expecting Batman & Robin levels of badness. There’s a chance my expectations had been lowered so far down that McG would have had to put nipples on John Connor’s SWAT gear for me to really hate the movie (although the temptation of seeing Bale’s nipples wouldn’t necessarily deter me from anything), but I genuinely didn’t mind Terminator’s fourth installment. Is it flawed? Affirmative. It doesn’t and maybe can’t, in 95 minutes, capture the grand mythology that’s become so much more intriguing in the prematurely canceled Sarah Connor Chronicles, but...well, there’s killer robots. And shiny stuff. 

So. Because I seem to be unable to make what sounds like a coherent case for why I kinda sorta didn’t hate, maybe even enjoyed T4, I’d like to address some of the charges brought against it. Court is in session. Spoilers will follow:

Charge 1: A fantastic supporting cast is wasted

Verdict: Reduced Charge
With names like Michael Ironside, Jane Alexander, Helena Bonham Carter and Bryce Dallas Howard filling in key roles, Terminator Salvation certainly had a better cast than it did script. While most didn’t get that big scene you would expect, I personally found that their very presence added a certain weight that’s not always found in blockbuster fare. Compare Alexander’s grandmotherly hostage to Common’s terribly acted mourning soldier and you see how vital a few good talents are (and how detrimental a lack can be). Ironside is always welcome--particularly when playing a surly badass. I find Bryce Dallas Howard to be an interesting actress, so it was a tad disappointing to see her relegated to the pregnant wifey role. That being said, this wasn’t Kate Brewster-Connor’s story. Hell, it was barely John Connor’s story. While I wouldn’t be surprised if the DVD release is packed with deleted “character development” scenes, the theatrical release couldn’t really sustain longer dialogue. It wasn’t an epic, and it didn’t waste its energy trying to be one.

Charge 2: Sam Worthington ain’t Arnold

Verdict: Guilty...
..but I can be lenient. Worthington is solid enough, and sympathetic in a gravely heroic way. I don’t know that a franchise could ever be built around him, but learning that he’ll be wearing Harry Hamlin’s loincloth in the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake eases the torturous pain I’ve been in since I heard that classic film was being unnecessarily reshot. As Marcus, Worthington was stiff enough to be a robot while portraying confused torment with just the right touch of a human heart. There’s something there, even if it occasionally lapses into an Australian accent. 

Charge 3: A PG13 Rating is blasphemous
Verdict: Not Guilty
Normally, a PG13 slapped on what had previously been an R franchise hurts like a mosquito bite from The Mist (yippee kay eh, mommy dearest). Past Terminator films made great use of the R with intense violence and some nice shots of an infamous politician’s firm buns, but Salvation doesn’t get soft with its more teenager-friendly restrictions. While there were no real holy shit! effects moments so wonderfully present in T2, the action was high and for the most part, suspenseful. And hey: the three-year-old kid some irresponsible moviegoer next to me brought into the theatre still cried a lot, so that must mean something...maybe I’m starting to reach.

Charge 4: No good villain

Verdict: Not Guilty
This Terminator had no colon (a grammatical one, not the organ). This was a different movie from the Arnold-enhanced previous installments, finally set during the war with machines. Machines, not A machine. What has always made SKYnet so frightening was not the fact that its poster boy was a future Kindergarten Cop, but that it had no face, no soul, and no individuality. I’d hate to get all JC inspirational here, but it’s vital to point out the difference between humans and the machines that are trying to destroy them. The very fact that there is no one entity to call the enemy, at this point in the franchise, is completely appropriate. 

Charge 5: Moon Bloodgood is terrible

Verdict: Guilty
Linda Hamilton fans, join hands and nod. I miss her too. 

Charge 6: The little girl character is unnecessary
Verdict: Reduced Charge
Yeah, the adorable lil mute child Kyle Reese watches over has no purpose other than to look sad and touch stuff, but something I found compelling (if not fully developed) about The Sarah Connor Chronicles was learning about children that grew up post-Judgement Day. It gave a human face to the apocalypse, and young Jadagrace (who continues what  must have been an impossible-to-not-laugh-at role call in the names department on the set of Terminator Salvation) serves this purpose fair enough. Since she doesn’t talk, we don’t have to deal with the annoyingness so often present in kid actors and here and there, she’s quite useful. Most importantly, her presence helps to heroize Kyle Reese, not as a grand action star, but as a scared but brave human trying to protect what's still left in an empty world..

Charge 7: Christian Bale is one note

Verdict: Guilty
After two rounds of Batman + one John Connor, I’m starting to wish poor hearing on every Bale co-star, if only so that he no longer mouths his entire performance as a whisper and just starts speaking normally. I don’t know that it’s Bale or the script at fault here, but I will side with many a critic and concede that Wales’ best Method actor didn’t quite portray a messiah worth worshipping. It’s especially disappointing because I really hoped that after the blandness of Nick Stahl and the slowly improving pretty boyness of Thomas Dekker, Bale would finally incarnate the spunky and resourceful JC first hinted at by juvenile delinquent Edward Furlong. Sadly, I couldn’t muster enough belief in Bale’s performance. He just seemed really angry and kind of...well...dull. 

Charge: Unbelievable ending
Verdict: Really?
To nitpick the logic of a Terminator film is about as productive as explaining global warming to George Bush. The very foundation on which lies the Resistance--and, essentially, the future of mankind, is null: John exists because he sent Kyle Reese back in time to impregnate Sarah Connor. If time is linear--as is hinted at by the series--how can John ever exist in the first place? More importantly, if we’re applying common human logic, why can’t Skynet just send a terminator back to kill Sarah Connor’s mother? Or grandmother? Or grandfather? Surely there’s some weak link down the line. Considering the smartest, most powerful and advanced computers in the universe aren’t able to just blow one person up, I can forgive an outdoor open heart surgery with poor medical supplies. 

So ultimately, I’m not willing to praise McG’s messy little movie, but I will defend it as decent summer entertainment. Hurl your comments, hostages, and Bale-inspired fury my way below. Or you can, dare I say it, lend me some support? After all, doesn’t everybody deserve a second chance (or, in the case of the morally fuzzy Marcus, a fourth or fifth?)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ya Da Da Da Dah, 2018

Due to a continuously busy schedule and some limited Internet access, I haven't had the chance to compile my complete thoughts on the enjoyable mediocrity that is Terminator Salvation. Still, since it's the first film I've seen in the theatres in three months, it seemed necessary to post a few lessons Christian "The American Whisperer" Bale and friends taught me as I munched on non-movie theatre popcorn and a Duane Reade Peppermint Patty. Later this week, I'm hoping to go a little deeper with my T4 analysi/defense over at Pop Syndicate. Stay tuned, but first, take some notes. You never know when the American military will accidentally unleash self aware Austrian killer robots to herd us lowly bipeds into giant metal buckets.

So be prepared, in part because a few SPOILERS may follow, but also because in nine years, the future will be a world where the following is true:

Dr. Hibbert prevails! Major surgeries WILL be performed in the outdoors

Early versions of terminators will be unable to count to 3, at least when it comes to chances

Early versions of terminators will be prone to lapsing into Australian accents

Romantically unattached female members of the Resistance will not be the greatest judges of character. Or heartbeats.

SKYnet may be an evil collection of man-hating machines, but they do believe in free will

Hair ties will be hard to come by, but there will be a surplus of shampoo and hydrating conditioner

Two day old coyote is better than three day old coyote. Duh.

Despite a lack of food and sunshine, the survivors of the future will be rather hot

SKYnet's favorite film characters are Bond villains that rarely kill key prisoners with the power to thwart their plans

Post apocalyptic fashion will involve Samurai eye makeup

If you've never driven a car before, the best time to learn will be in a high-speed chase with advanced killer robots in hot pursuit. Don't worry: you'll do just fine.

Michael Ironside will continue to make anything cooler

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Vertically Challenged, Morally Bereft

1982’s big budget adaptation of Annie is a fairly disturbing kid film. Daddy Warbucks jokes aside (“I never thought I’d get used to a girl!”) it could have been a brilliant Lynchian surrealist fantasty had the marvelous Carol Burnett been replaced with the maniacal Clara Keller of 1973’s The Sinful Dwarf. Singing out of tune and dancing half clothed, Kelly’s Lila Lash may very well have been the chief inspiration for the eccentric, back alley orphanage mama Miss Hannigan...

except without the nudity, brothel, and son that happens to be a mischieveous little person who enjoys sodomy and the piano.

So that was kind of my way of not starting my review of The Sinful Dwarf by addressing the fact that it’s about a sinful dwarf. And a lot of sex, nearly all of it forced onto drugged up naked women. But hey, at least there’s two gleefully tone deaf musical numbers! (This is turning out to be much more like Annie the more I think about it.)

Quick Plot: While playing hopscotch like any twentysomething dressed like a little girl, a young woman meets the lecherously limping Orlaf (child actor-turned-porn star Torbin Billie). With promises of a toy collection and a Jack Nicholson smile, the hobbling dwarf lures her into heroin-addled white slavery run out of a the shabby hotel he runs with Lila Lash, his boozy floozy of a mother. Meanwhile, a comely young couple arrives to rent a room. While Peter, the husband, spends his day trying to peddle a few manuscripts, his daft wife (Anne Sparrow) lounges around and complains about everything. Occasionally, they have sex and we (and Orlaf) get to watch.

The bra & brainless Sparrow is clearly a temptation for Orlaf and of use to Lila, who’s in need of a pretty blond to replace a fair-haired prostitute that’s become a tad too reliant on the heroin Orlaf administers to dull the pain of, you know, being held captive by a flannel-wearing dwarf and forced to have rough sex with S&M enthusiastic johns. Needless to say, Orlaf gets his alone time with his houseguest. The results are just wrong.

High Points
A strong credit sequence features an array of strange little toys, setting an eerie and surreal mood early on

If an Oscar was ever given for Best Performance By a Mechanical Poodle, the final shot should have clinched it

There is a cheerfully macabre Bette Davis feel to Clara Keller’s weird and wonderful (and yet not very good) performance. Some may find it grating and tacky; as a person whose favorite Halloween of all time was spent dressed as Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford, it made me smile

Low Points
You know how, if you’re in a particularly sour, cynical, and airhead-hating mood, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is kind of a drag? Sparrow’s Mary makes Mrs. Woodhouse look like Sarah Connnor

A heroin dealer named Santa Claus smuggles drugs with the help of a dwarf and homemade teddy bears. Which is awesome. You know what’s not? He’s not an interesting character

Lessons Learned
Toy police cars are great reminders about who to go to when you fear for your wife’s life

When you’re fairly poor and have nothing to do all day but investigate strange noises in a creepy hotel that makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably time to just get a fucking job

Danish police officers trust the general public to do the dirty work for them

If you feel like you’re being watched, perhaps you should wear a bra under a tight white sweater

The Sinful Dwarf is exploitation at its wackiest, rich in gratuitous nudity, graphic rapes, and scored to a porn-rock soundtrack. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your filmgoing tastes. Let’s face it: you know, based on the title, if you want to watch this film. As far as ownership goes, the newly released DVD is fairly scant on extras, but does include a very entertaining short about two video nerds being mentally abused by Orlaf’s adventures. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a bizarre little pervert sodomize a Tori Spelling lookalike, then this is, in all probability, the only movie for you.

For now.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Evil of Expectations

I don’t normally get excited by big studio releases, but my blood is pumping fast over the opening of Terminator: Salvation, and not because it stars my favorite short-tempered Newsie. Based on the previews and early reviews, this is the Terminator film I’ve been craving since the world got its first peek of the tech savvy apocalypse in 1981. Though rife with garbled Schwarzeneggerian-isms, the recent third installment was an aching disappointment for me because I had to wait 2+ hours to reach that plot. And then the movie ended. 

Quite simply, it wasn’t the story I wanted to see. I know, who am I, some lowly copy editor and amateur bloggist, to give screenwriting advice to a multimillion dollar franchise. I am one fan. But all this giddiness at Memorial Day’s big release did get me thinking quite selfishly, of other films that had potential, but failed my personal expectations, not by quality but in the basic plot and direction.

1)In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter changed the scope of horror filmdom with Halloween and made Rogaine evil in Body Bags . The guy knows how to make a good movie, but more importantly, the dude can create unique cinema with philosophically evocative messages disguised as blue collar shoot ‘em ups or old fashioned bloodbaths. This 1995 horror stars Sam Neill as an insurance investigator who gets wrapped up in a mass market paperback inspired apocalypse (the worst kind there is, of course). Hidden under gooey monsters and ax-wielding extras, Carpenter makes a few passing statements about modern hero worship using a Stephen King stand-in that has developed such a strong literary following, he’s attained deity status.

In an age where a former coke addicted cheerleader spent 8 years as the symbol of family values, a presidential candidate gets his face branded on condoms, and the general public is more invested in the results of American Idol than the Iraq War, the possiblility that Dan Brown or J.J. Abrams could crown (or become) the next messiah is relevant and realistic. For a while, it seems as though In the Mouth of Madness will explore what happens when enough people believe someone to be a god. The possibilities of such a story direction are promising, but sadly, Carpenter doesn’t quite find it material enough for plotting. Instead, our final 20 minutes tiptoe away from the thought-provoking religious questions to plunge headfirst into monster mash territory, finally drifting away into rehashed The Twilight Zone territory. 


It’s not that a film about Nazi-bred elves, set in a shopping mall, and featuring Grizzly Adams as a heroic Santa Clause is a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but I find such a plot possible of yielding the greatest film of all time. If, of course, it actually had elves. But there’s just one, making this not only a disappointingly bad film but, far more offensively, a disappointingly bad, deceptively titled film. For shame.

There are quite a few F13 films I could have included in this category--the unFeldmaned Part V and my personal favorite, Jason Takes a 20 Minute Layover in Vancouverish Manhattan come to mind--but the 2009 remake/reboot/reshit is, is my opinion, utterly deplorable for failing blandly in two ways: it was neither affectionately nostalgic nor actually scary. In fact, it was everything I had feared it would be, minus the claw-my-own-eyes-out PG13 rating. I didn’t expect a remake of a never-that-good series to be cinematic gold, but a little energy, a little more intelligence, a smidgen of creativity, and, I don’t know, a utilized wood chipper could have at least merited the title of ‘reboot’ over ‘eleventh sequel.’

4) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Despite my grudging approval of the TCM remake, I had little expectations for this quick followup...that is, until I found out it would be a prequel centering on the origin of Leatherface. I like my cannibalistic cross dressers as much as the next gal, so imagine my excitement at seeing what I hoped would be a Glen Or Glenda-ish romp with a few Sears sponsored dismemberments tossed in. Sadly, Leartherface’s wonder years are quickly flashed through to get to the more telegenic and less interesting Jordana Brewster and her typical Abercrombie (but soooo 70s) friends. While I love me some scarily screaming R. Lee Ermey, this “beginning” ends up doing what every single entry in this five film franchise has done before.

Love it or hate it, you have to admit Zombie may have been onto something when he decided to explore the childhood sociopathy of Michael Meyers. With genre nobleman Malcolm McDowell cast as Dr. Loomis and young Tyler Mane providing some genuine misfit youthfulness, Zombie had the makings of something different. It’s just too bad he tried to cram it into 45 minutes, saving the second 45 for an unlikable Laurie Strode’s whining. Ultimately, Zombie’s film is torn between the chance it wants to take and yet another glossily gory reshoot studios love to push. 

7) Moscow Zero

Key words on Netflix synopsis: Val Kilmer as an evil gatekeeper to hell, which is apparently located under the Moscow subway (I’ve been there and it’s entirely believable)
Actually watching Moscow Zero: 90 minutes of black and blue scenery that’s barely visible, dialogue that’s nonsensical, and an early night’s sleep for me

8)Flowers in the Attic

As a well-read adult, I can now admit that V.C. Andrews adolescent exploitation is not quite Pulitzer worthy, but as a 14 year old whose previous girl-powered literature featured spunky babysitters, the Dollanger saga was engrossing, disturbing, and absolutely incredible. The film adaptation? None of those things. Victoria Tenant and Louise Fletcher are perfectly cast as old money matriarchs all too eager to lock four fair-haired children in a room for four years. Screenwriter and director Jeffrey Bloom, however, never seemed to grasp what made the novel resonate with millions of readers. It wasn’t just the setup; it was Cathy’s narration as a feistily flawed young woman stuck experiencing puberty while playing an elaborate game of house with her siblings. Andrews captures what it means to grow up, while using gothic drama as an exciting backdrop. Bloom makes a badly paced TV movie that skims on story, character, and ultimately feels like a melodrama about a retired Nurse Ratched being crabby to her too-cute grandkids. 

9) Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Juggernaut: An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path
Flop: a complete failure

A quick revisit to Burkitsville was inevitable following the yet-to-be-matched blasting success of 1999’s found footage horror. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez could have taken the easy route with a linear follow-up or Ginger Snaps Back style prequel, so it’s admirable that they tried something different. If only this meta sequel were any good. Any. (By any, I mean as little as .000001%). I include this film here not because of its fairly creative plot--obnoxious fans of the actual film camp out on location and subsequently meet their inner crazy and/or pissed off spirit of the unseen title femme--but because its script failure was so grandiose, it nearly guaranteed the death of any sequels that dared to try something new. Had Book of Shadows been executed with more skill, I sometimes imagine a better world, one with less I Still Know What You Did Back In the Day When People Careds and more Wes Craven’s New NIghtmares. Only with better films. 

10) Westworld

Dear Michael Bay,
You don’t know me and I don’t particularly like you. I’m sure you’re a nice enough man who pets the occasional puppy, but in all honesty, you’ve made some obscene errors when it comes to remaking films. Before you defend yourself with the adequate reincarnation of Leatherface, let me silence you with two words that, once uttered, should never be spoken of again: The. Hitcher. 

Now. This world believes in second chances (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mickey Rourke) and so I’m inviting you to take one by keeping your finely lotioned hands off of actual good classics like Rosemary’s Baby and focusing on some lesser fare of the past. See, there’s this film about robots--whoa, settle down Mikey. Don’t point that CGI-shooting laser gun at me. It’s rude. And shiny. As I was saying, these robots, they look like you or me, but cooler. Much, much cooler. Ukranian cowboy cooler. 

So the film is Westworld and it was directed, well, kind of poorly, by the very smart Michael Crichton. The idea is brilliant: in the future, amusement parks take fantasy to a new level by creating historical settings with human-looking androids catering to your every whim. You know, DIsneyland with a Mickey Mouse that actually talks rather than flailing his arms around like an overgrown stuffed animal. Oh. And you can have sex with them. Maybe not Mickey, although perhaps you can arrange some sort of porn tie-in. That’s your business and probably a very lucrative one at that.

Anyway, the movie has great elements but needs a redo. Instead of one lonely (albeit awesome) gunslinger chase, give us an all-out war between pampered park guests and terminator-infused cowboys, gladiators, and medieval knights. Cloning Yul Brynner would be ideal and it’s not like budgeting is an issue. Since the androids are supposed to look like humans, it’s not like you have to throw money away on special effects and believe it or not, it is possible to NOT blow up stuff in this one, as Romans and Greeks were not especially known for explosions. Should you want to pop in a few gunpowdery puffs in Westworld, I certainly can't stop you. But my robot can if you remake the wrong film. Stick to what's flawed. 

Thoughts, my friends? Movies that just didn’t deliver what you wanted/expected/demanded from that special place you call Imagination? And how likely is it that I’ll be reposting a followup expressing disappointment in the salvation of androids?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Martyrs, Spoiled

Me: Psst. Did you see Martyrs?

You: No.

Me: Go away.

You: Dude(tte). What’s your problem?

Me: I can’t go into any detail whatsoever about this movie without spoiling it grosser than a gallon of milk left open in an Elm St. boiler room.

You: Oh.

Me: Yeah.

You: So...should I, like, watch the movie?

Me: Yes.

You: Is it great?

Me: Eh. Yes. No.

You: Yes or no?

Me: I’m not sure. But it’s definitely very good.

You: Okay.

Me: Yeah.

You: Um, later.

Me: I’m glad we had this conversation.

That’s right folks. I did indeed major in Playwriting and English and graduate cum laude. Onto the review, which, in case my Shakespearean dialogue was a little too dense, contains SPOILERS that will make you want to throw hungry wolverine clawed kittens in my direction.

You’ve been warned:

Like many works of art and the artists that create them, a good deal of horror films struggle with identity crises. Their makers have clearly seen enough canon to know what’s expected of their genre and strive to recreate what’s worked in the past while occasionally casting a line out to catch something fresh. The recent (and recently reviewed) Frontier(s), for example, hit all the notes of backwoods horror birthed by classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or the earlier and beloved Spider Baby), but hinted at something new with Nazi undertones and a disappointingly unexplored dystopian setting. Unfortunately, Frontier(s) stopped short of forming anything revolutionary. For all the moody chaos in the bleak police state future, it delivered straight--if exceptionally well-done--gore cinema (known today as the heavily stigmatized torture porn).

Martyrs, the Canadian/French sleeper that has been making its prestigious rounds through the DVD community this past year, turns the confines of horror sub-genres into a fascinating, intelligent, and imperfect collage. Just when you think you know what type of film auteur Pascal Laugier is delivering (mangled ghostly girl? J-horror!), one shockingly explicit action transforms the story and style into another (shotgun in suburbia? home invasion!) and another (secret torture den? Underground society conspiracy!) until finally, the last 30 minutes lets Martyrs come into its own... for better and worse.

Quick Plot: Somewhere I never want to go in an industrial area of France, a young girl runs screaming through an empty morning street. We soon learn that this is Lucie, a mysterious orphan who was held captive and tortured, though no culprit or motive has been discovered. The understandably disturbed child is befriended by the pretty and maternal Anna, her roommate at a sad little orphanage that seems not entirely safe from the ghosts of Lucie’s past.

15 years later, the action shifts to a secluded upper middle class home where a typical family eats breakfast over the usual morning bickering. The doorbell rings. Father answers it, his face registering confusion, fear, and (possibly) recognition before a blast of shotgun busts through his stomach. At the other end of the smoking weapon is a now grown Lucie, her face still holding all the fear and hell of the little girl we met ten minutes earlier.

And then other stuff happens.

I could continue to describe the story, but if you’re reading this far, you already know it (and if you don’t and therefore haven’t heeded my SPOILER warning, you deserve a large heaping of force-fed gruel and systematic beatdowns). A lot of things happen in Martyrs, and none of them are good. Okay, a lot of things happen in Martyrs and none of them are any more pleasant than a route canal performed by Steve Martin’s dentist character in Little Shop of Horrors. At the same time, this isn’t a Saw sausage fest that tries to top itself or other extreme films with cinematic violence for shock’s sake. Bad things happen because the story demands them. Bad things happen because there are people in this world that do them.

Long haunted by a gollum-ish female, Lucie shoots some people--two innocent, two not. This does nothing to quell the demon that hunts her. When Anna meets the inspiration for Lucie’s trauma, she (and we) is equally repulsed, terrified, and heartbroken. It’s almost a relief to see her head blown off, for both the character’s sake and our own.

Like the film itself, there is no clear morality in the universe. People torture young women to unlock a mystery that probably shouldn’t be unlocked. Lives are destroyed in beyond painful ways. Yet the head mistress of this diabolical underground community gets her answer: a martyr is made in Anna, a skinless Joan of Arc without the independence to do anything with her bravery.

Or maybe Anna wins. What she tells the grand torturess, we never know. Maybe she lies. Maybe she whispers horrors of what lies beyond this world to terrify and guilt this macabre madame into suicide. Maybe she creates an imaginary eden to lure the old woman closer and quicker to an eternity of hell. Or maybe she has nothing to report and proves that the years of cruelty were for naught. We don’t know.

Personally, I’m not ready to rank Martyrs as a Great Film just yet. It’s an excellent movie, yes, and one that is clearly made by an artist with the potential to steer the genre in a solidly new direction. Technically, Martyrs is near perfect; the acting is spot on, the visuals are beautiful, and the editing is effective. If there’s a flaw, it comes somewhere at the 40 minute mark, where, despite what I recall as being tense and engrossing staging, something starts to drag. Maybe it’s the Haute Tension-ish look sparked by a pretty girl in a bloody tanktop or the not-too-surprising first reveal of Lucie’s real tormentor. I can’t put my finger on it, but at some point, I fell out before coming back.

Laugier does not reinvent the horror film, but he does reshape what’s already there with fascinating results. One hour in, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where this film was going. I haven’t really felt that way since the total surprise of The Descent. Where Neil Marshall’s spelunking scarefest led us into a nightmare with jumps and fear, Laugier’s Martyrs starts with hell and philosophically transforms it into purgatory.

High Points
Although we never get to truly know either character, both Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jamponoi make intensely sympathetic and haunted characters

The minimalist score constantly evolves throughout the film, never settling on a predictable pattern to warn us of mood shifts

From the snowing feather gunshot to Anna’s gleaming eyes, Laugier creates some incredibly memorable visuals

Low Points
While I originally admired the opening Peeping Tom-esque home movie documentary feel of the child Anna and Lucie, it’s abandoned so quickly that I wonder if it was a simple exposition device

Lessons Learned
Overachieving in butterfly swimming competitions is just asking for trouble

When your shower is clogged, the best solution is to dig a ten foot hole in your front yard and find the little mouse bastard that’s been hanging out in the pipes

There are few things more frightening than old French ladies with money and Norma Desmond headwraps

You need to see this movie, if only to throw your hat into the discussion of what the fuss is all about. (But then, if you’re reading this far, you’ve already seen it.) As I explained in my yesterday’s posting, Martyrs didn’t quite live up to the hype I’d been hearing about it through podcasts and the blogosphere, but it definitely did leave an equally deep emotional and philosophical impression. Because of its ambiguous ending, it’s also a film to share and discuss, so I could certainly endorse a buy from your local independent dealer. A thorough making-of is included in the extras, giving you detailed discussions about every aspect of filming. All in all, it’s a solid, unique, and thoughtful horror that highlights Pascal Laugier as a filmmaker to watch with two open eyes. As the man tapped to helm the remake (reboot? I can’t keep up with the evolving language of stale cinematic trends) of Hellraiser, it’s guaranteed that we’ll be seeing more of him. Let’s hope he continues to make cinema his own.

Unspoiled Martyrs

...will not be discussed yet. Mostly because I spent yesterday trying to do laundry, realizing I bought fabric softener instead of detergent, buying detergent, spilling detergent all over the hallway of my new apartment building, cleaning up new hallway to not alienate new neighbors before I've actually moved in, attempting and failing to reverse the door on my refrigerator, feeling embarrassed that I work in an appliance company and once wrote directions for reversing the door on refrigerators, then shopping for a mattress at Sleepy's which involved laying for 5 minutes on about six different mattresses all alone in the store with the salesman and realizing just how creepy it is to shop for a mattress.

I did see Martyrs. Quick thoughts: it's good. Overhyped for me personally, just because I've been jumping through hoops with more dexterity than Neo just to NOT hear a single word about it and, well, it just wasn't amazing.

Don't get me wrong: If you haven't seen it yet, bump it up on the queue (and see if Netflix actually sends it to you or deems you waitlist-worthy instead) and watch it with the lights off and no interruptions. Whatever you're expecting, you won't get it because the film's main genius lies in how it constantly reinvents itself in plot and tone.

If I'm productive on the subway today, I should be posting a review this evening. If not, you have permission to feed me gruel (note: for extra torture, make it cream-of-onion).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rugrats Worth a Rescue

For many horror audiences, the very presence of a prominent child character spells doom. One less death scene (I mean, with the exception of Who Can Kill a Child?, who CAN kill a child?), plus the more-than-likely chance that we’ll be subjected to an abstinence inspiring performance.

Every now and then however, those underage thespians impress. Sometimes, it’s pure dramatic talent, while other kids are simply likable enough to warrant survivor status. Upon watching the mediocre prequel Amityville II: The Possession, I realized that as much as I was craving the inevitable massacre, I wanted to spare the two youngest moppets, whose only cinematic crime was having an easily possessible older brother and an NRA enthusiast of a father. For that, they didn't deserve to die. Plus, they were cute.

This week’s countdown is devoted to the best kid characters in horror. Note that I'm sticking with those on the “good” side, because it’s far too easy write a linguistic shrine to Rhoda Penmark. In other words, expect a slow and uninspired day of mine to feature a linguistic shrine to Rhoda Penmark.

5) Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Remember when Corey Feldman was the brother you always wanted? A few years before he became the neighbor with great pot connections you wish would move upstairs and well before his semi-stardom as the slightly less annoying half of an uexceptionally unexceptional reality start couple you’d like to see exiled to a Battle Royale-esque Fox TV contest? Yeah, prior to puberty, Feldman was a unique presence onscreen, particularly when he played  the only memorable (and perhaps likable) character in a Friday the 13th film. As Tommy, Feldman was a resourceful Fangoria fan who knew a thing or two about monster hunting. His subsequent reincarnations--first as a disturbed teen and then as a bland grave-digging idiot--didn’t quite fulfill his alter ego’s destiny, but for once, Jason had a victim worth the chase and a slasher sequel rose above the Dead Teenager Genre. )

4)  Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro is a man of many talents, but much like a better-known American director soon to appear on this list, one of his most admirable strengths is his unique ability to direct children. The Devil’s Backbone features an entire orphanage of sympathetic pre-teens and Cronos has a perfectly cast (and totally adorable) little girl at its heart, but it’s Baquero‘s Ofelia who takes the mini-Oscar. Many child-starring films brand the main kids as supporting actors, but Ofelia is front and center throughout most of this horrific, historic fantasy. Whether she’s taking instructions from a CGI faun or standing up to her facsist stepfather, Ivana Baquero maintains a worldly dignity that transcends age.

3) Heather O'Rourke as Carol Ann, Poltergeist

Poltergiest is the perfect bargain horror film because there’s something scary for every audience. You may have outgrown your fear of that gumby-armed clown doll under the bed (although admit it: there’s no way you’ve outgrown your fear of that gumby-armed clown doll under the bed) but as an adult, the terror of losing your child suddenly takes on new and more terrifying implications. Cast Heather O’Rourke as the kidnappee in question and you can multiply that fear by a thousand Zelda Rubenstiens (but she’s small, so let's make it one thousand Zeldas standing on top of CraigT. Nelson’s shoulders). O’Rourke doesn’t do a whole lot in the first Spielbergian commandeered Hooper collaboration, but her angelic presence casts a deep and haunting mood over the the entire series. The tragedy of her young death amplifies this sadness so much that I find Part III unbearable to watch (plus, it’s a really bad movie).

2) Alex Vincent as Andy Barkley, Child’s Play

For quite a few years following my initial viewing, I ranked Child’s Play to be the most terrifying film of all time and attributed this declaration to two personal factors: 1) I was petrified of dolls and 2) I was six years old. Over time, I’ve slowly come to face just why Chucky was my boogeyman: his primary prey was Andy Barkley. Watching Child’s Play today, I’m struck by how vital Alex Vincent’s performance truly is. Observe his joy upon hugging that Good Guy the first time and you realize just how lonely a boy this fatherless tike has become, making Chucky’s turn so much more cruel. It’s one thing to crack the limbs of your irresponsible voodoo teacher or to fry the brain of a dubious child psychologist; it’s just pure evil to make a ice little boy cry.

1) Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear, The Sixth Sense

Say what you want about the degeneration of M. Night Shayamalan as a filmmaker (are we throwing hives of killer bees? Because I should stretch first) but admit one fact: Haley Joel Osment’s performance as Cole Sear is heartbreaking. Playing the role of a dead-people-seeing outcast, Osment moves like a frightened deer and carries himself like an insomniac whose only moments of peace are nightmares Freddy Krueger would be scared to visit. The most terrifying scene comes early, as a cruel party prank places Cole in a locked closet with a raging ghost. When he finaly emerges, the look on 11 year-old Osment’s face is pure terror. Sure, he may have lost our sympathy in Pay It Forward and deserved a good mauling in The Country Bears , but Forrest Gump Jr. created a character that will always be worth a cuddly Bruce Willis's bodyguard defense.

So dear readers, which school-aged horror characters would you like to keep save from spirits, slashers, stranglers, and sadists?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kumbay-Killer, Retro Style

Return To Sleepaway Camp is made for one audience and one audience only: nostalgic and forgiving fans of the 1983 original. Like that odd little horror and its cheerfully bad sequels, this 2008 entry has no real scares or intentionally witty humor. This is a cheap and affectionate homage to an infamous--if not especially good--low budget semi-classic of yore.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Camp Manadake, a summer getaway for incredibly obnoxious teenagers and run by mostly child-hating counselors. Our (cough cough) protagonist is husky frog-friending Alan, an understandably outcasted camper who is basically the boy that wouldn’t take a shower from Wet Hot American Summer, all awkwardly grown up. Poor Alan huffs his way through seemingly unsupervised days of croquet as slowly---verrrrrrrry slowly---some of his tormentors are killed through Saw-lite methods of murder. Camp director Vincent Pastore (his acting improving only an appetizer’s portion of antipasto since Black Roses) and junior partner Paul DeAngelo (whose thespian powers have been frozen in the 80s) fret about lost camp tuition and the possible return of Angela Baker, the transgendered murderess who wields a mean curling iron and even meaner guitar.

This is a movie that brewed in production purgatory for some time, and while it’s nice to have a genuine throwback horror, Return To Sleepaway Camp is also a reminder as to why some films die quick deaths (unlike the cast members, who suffer prolonged and elaborate torture that take too long to get to and even longer to end). From the nasty characters to the juvenile jokes, there’s simply too much to dislike in RtSC to really enjoy it. The spirit is admirable; the experience is not.

High Points
The nods to earlier films are gleefully deliberate (The Return of Ronnie’s Short Shorts!) and perhaps serendipitously accidental, like the police chief’s prosthetic nose and its resemblence to Part 1’s magic marker mustache

Because you don’t like one single character, rooting for all their deaths is quite easy

Low Points
Because you don’t like one single character, sitting through their dialogue is painful

Yes, it’s cute to have Isaac Hayes play a chef named Chef, but is that the end of the joke?

With few exceptions, every death takes about six times as long as it should. There’s no reason for this film to be 100+ minutes. But it is. And it feels like eternity.

Lessons Learned
Organized paintball has the potential to be amazinglly awesome. Can I watch that movie instead?

Rats chew fast

It’s really hard to get kicked out of camp nowadays

If you haven’t seen or never cared for the Sleepaway Camp franchise, avoid this film like a campfire sing-a-long. It’s simply not good. Loyal fans of Angela’s zany adventures will definitely want to check out the newest generation and many may find it to be fun. It’s goofy and stupid--just like Parts I-III. Enter at your own risk.

Despite my valiant efforts (okay, two rounds of Googling) I failed to find an adequate picture of DeAngelo's gams or 1983's artificial mustache. However, since Amityville II's review birthed quite the 'stache admiration society, I figured I'd include a nod to my personal favorite finely crafted whiskers of the 80s:

Keith almost makes me want to embrace a caterpillar. Almost.