Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There Will Be Jazz Hands

Takashei Miike has over 80 directing credits on his IMDB resume, yet embarrassingly enough, I've seen three including today’s review. What I realized after watching The Happiness of the Katakuris is that, while I don’t hold this or the infamous Audition to be perfect, both demonstrate that Miike is a director in the truest sense of the word, with a strong point of view and a great control over tone. Compare the slow, creepingly haunting feel of Audition with the jubilant, quirky joy of The Katakuris and you have a prime example of distinctly different, yet equally well-executed films unlike any other.
Quick Plot: The Katakuris, a somewhat dysfunctional Japanese family, are trying to make a living running a hotel located near what is supposed to eventually be a major highway. Business is tough, but their personal lives are much worse: father is struggling to build a new life after being laid off, mother is trying to help, son Masayuki is a recent ex-con, daughter Shizue falls in love too easily, and grandfather is exasperated and aging. Only the adorably narrating Yurie, Shizue’s 4ish year old daughter, seems to be enjoying the Katakuri company.

Things get exciting when the Katakuris’ first paying customer arrives in the form of a rained-on depressive, who follows a lonely song of longing (fitting the perfect “I Wish...” mold of current musical theater) and promptly commits suicide. Knowing that a chalky outline on their newly treated floors may hurt business, the Katakuris agree--in song and interpretive dance!--to bury the corpse and move on. Next to visit is a horny skinny sumo wrestler and his giggly girlfriend, both of whom meet their end in a sexual accident (not the worst way to go I suppose). 
Ever so slowly, life starts to shine a little brighter for the Katakuris, occasionally dimmed by the mortal motel renter. Shizue falls in love with a traveling con man in grand Bollywood style and parents Masao and Terue sing of their love in a complete karaoke-ready number (disco ball, floating effects, and follow-the-lyrics included). A few dramatic snares cause a little more trouble: a rumble between Shizue’s beloved and the Katakuri grandfather turns to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-like claymation, road construction leads a toiling dig-up and incredible zombie dance, and a violent fugitive puts the Katakuris in actual danger. 

If there’s one fault to The Happiness of the Katakuris, it’s that the plot is both the least interesting thing in the film and the one aspect given the least attention. There’s no driving throughline to lead us into the climax, and even when we get through what feels like a dramatic finale, another even wackier storyline gets thrown in.
That being said, this is one of the most cheerful and warm films I’ve seen in some time. The fact that it happens to involve man-eating goblins and an undead kickline is really just gravy.

High Points
It’s wonderfully refreshing to see such a warm and love-filled marriage between the two middle aged parents

While some songs are better than others, one nice Miike touch is how each character retains his or her own style during the choreography

One especially humorous scene featuring Japan’s most unhealthy family had me laughing hysterically
Low Points
We never really get to know enough about the hotheaded Masayuki which is a shame since actor Shinji Takeda has such a strong presence
The ending isn't awful, but it comes rather suddenly, especially when the entire film never seems to have a plot plan 
Lessons Learned
Whether you’re goblin, cow, or uvula, there’s always something bigger to come and eat you 
One does not require a uvula to scream “My uvula!”

It’s really fun to say the word “uvula”

Stews are full of goodness
Not surprisingly, zombies are decent enough at dance steps but do have serious, in the late Patrick Swayze’s words, “spaghetti arms”
Being dead, handcuffed, or trapped in lava is no reason to not dance

If you’re in the mood for a musical version of Little Miss Sunshine mixed with with the Chiodo Brothers pitching in for special effects, then this is the film for you. While it is a remake of an earlier Korean film, its originality and bright spirit make it a unique, cheerful, and occasionally macabre movie unlike any other. The DVD includes ample extras featuring the very enthusiastic cast, so I would definitely endorse a buy, followed by a karaoke performance of your favorite song. With all the work I do for you, that’s really not a lot to ask.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mamma Mia! Thatsa Hungry Baby

Few things possess more potential terror than newborns. Babies are tiny. They weigh less than a greek omelette breakfast plate and seem more fragile than a fine fabrege egg. People tell you to loosen up when you hold one in your arms, yet one drop of your elbows and seasoned relatives are leaping towards you with looks of disgust previously reserved for brussel sprouts and Uwe Boll movies.
I don’t mean to make light out of parenthood in any way. I may indeed one day birth my own deadly dollette, but at this point in life, the idea of being the body and soul responsible in full for a helpless creature is truly terrifying. Grace, first time writer/director Paul Solet’s chilly new thriller, is not a perfect film in any way but does manage to capture the inherent horror and inevitable power natural to my understanding of motherhood.
Quick Plot: Jordan Ladd plays Madeleine, a happily married enough vegan expecting her first child following two miscarriages and three years of fertility treatments. In case you don’t get it, she really wants a baby.

A tragic car accident (because films involving pregnant women feature no other type) widows Madeleine and stops the heartbeat of her now nearly 7 month old fetus. Madeleine decides to carry out her pregnancy, delivering what seems to be a stillborn in the home clinic of her midwife/ex college girlfriend. In a heart-wrenching scene, the new mother cradles her lifeless daughter when, to everyone’s surprise, baby Grace lets out a cry. 

She’s alive. Maybe.
Madeleine brings Grace home and picks up her life doing the typical new mom activities, like singing lullabies and warding off a nosy mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose). Then other things happen. Instead of popping in the latest Baby Einstein, Madeleine finds herself having to seal off the crib with homemade fly netting when a swarm of insects take a liking to the infant. A gentle bath takes a turn when Grace lets out a primal scream and seems to develop an instant rash. Why does she have a rotten smell and, perhaps most pressing of all, where the hell did this kid learn how to breast feed, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror?

Grace is rich in potential and, for its first 45 minutes, is a genuinely unnerving film. Solet creates a sort of Rosemary’s Baby-esque mood with a little more maternal warmth. Ladd’s Madeleine is tragically sympathetic and we want the best for this newly created (and broken) family. Her in-laws, meanwhile, are a creepily fascinating side story of their own. Unfortunately, Solet never finds the right story to comfortably unite the two. I’ve heard some reviewers describe Grace as being a great idea for a short story or piece of an anthology film (it began life as an 8 minute short), but I think its premise could easily have been a better feature with a tighter storyline. It’s riveting to watch a near catatonic Madeleine go through the motions of motherhood knowing that something is terribly wrong, especially with such somberly creative artistic choices in lighting and sound. I won’t go into spoilers here (check out my previous post at Pop Syndicate for more explicit ramblings), but what begins as a quietly chilling tale of broken mothers doing what they think is best has absolutely no reason to turn into a lights-off violent showdown between unrealistically violent characters. 

High Points
Several excellent performances fill Grace. Ladd easily holds the film and shows a depth and command past roles never even hinted at, while Gabrielle Rose and Serge Houde make a realistically sad older couple disturbingly content in not being happy
The first fly scene is wonderfully creepy and makes me wish I had seen it one week before writing about great fly moments in horror 

Plenty of small touches--like Dr. Sohn (which happens to be the same name of my beloved childhood pediatrician)’s Cronenberg-ish breast pump and Vivian’s intimacy style with her long-suffering husband--help to create a strong underlying sense of wrongness to the world of Grace
Low Points
The coldness in Madeleine and Michael’s marriage is quite an intriguing choice, but it never gets enough attention to let us know how she actually feels now that he’s gone
Despite some excellent staging and a lot of suspense, I fell out of Grace by the time the third act kicked in. Not every horror film (if you even want to give Grace that label) needs to climax in an act of violence, but it seems like Solet painted himself into a corner by not setting up a strong enough plot to allow a more emotional or intelligent ending

Lessons Learned
As long as your nipples get enough attention, you can nurse after menopause
Karl’s cows have no antibiotics or synthetic hormones
Anemia is best cured with a little milking from a rusted brass breast pump
Always stay in touch with your obsessive college hookups, particularly if they’re well-versed in the art of birthing babies, negotiating the price of a used RV, and wig shopping

If it seems like I’m being hard on Grace, it’s mostly because Paul Solet is clearly a gifted and promising filmmaker with more complete works ahead of him. The atmosphere of the film is haunting and distinct, and clearly the man can pull great performances out of a range of actors. This is a good film and a great alternative to more formulaic mainstream horror; it’s just not the near perfect thriller I was hoping for. The DVD, however, is bursting with extras and is probably a must for anyone with a serious interest in how to make and market a low budget film, from its infancy to a Sundance premiere. This isn’t a true classic, but it will leave you sad and scared for most of its running time. Plus, it provides us all with a great question for the old would-you-rather party game: would you rather have a mammary obsessed mother-in-law or a carnivorous baby? Drink a meat & vitamin shake or a post-menopausal woman’s breast milk? And so on...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Quick Fix Finales

Paul Solet’s Grace is a fascinating, disturbing, and haunting little thriller that wedges itself under your skin, then dies suddenly before it can lay eggs. It’s effective and upsetting but for me, it stumbles in its third act by forcing its characters into a contrived and somewhat predictable violent confrontation.

I love cinematic violence. Splatter films have their own sub-section in my DVD collection and my heart tends to drop a tad when it learns a kickass trailer is approved for thirteen year olds. Recent favorites include the French import Inside, which provided a powerful example of how to end with (SPOILERS) a do-it-yourself C-sectiom and not have your audience feel exploited, and William Friedken’s woefully underrated Bug, a play-turned-film chronicling a romantic descent into mania that culminated in a horrifically graphic nightmare. The flawed but fun Silent Hill is rightfully memorable for its razor-sharp ivy-filled finale. And yes, Carrie is a classic example of how to build character and story well enough to earn a 20 minute massacre. These films--and their endings--leave the audience feeling hurt and abused, but not cheated.

Think of the apex of baby horror, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. It never teases us with the suggestion that poor Mrs. Woodhouse is going to have to stab her way through a coven of satanists or wrestle her evil neighbors (although the sight of pregnant Mia Farrow tumbling with the gloriously spry Ruth Gordon would have bested Yoda’s dual with Christopher Lee as greatest fight in mainstream filmdom). There is no final chase with slain civilians or blood-soaked showdown. Rosemary confronts her tormentors and makes a decision, leaving us terrified of what’s to come by the sheer force of suggestion.

One of my favorite films of this year so far has been Neill Blomkamp's incredibly innovative District 9. Thoughtful, skeptical, and not afraid to twist and reshape the typical summer blockbuster cliches, this film comes dangerously close to being Great (yes, with a capital) and then...well it gets really...fun. By its final act, the documentary style and social subtext so carefully explored in the opening half hour take a break while a Trasformers-y chase and shootout closes the show. It’s fun to watch and rich with suspense, but ultimately, it reduces what started out as an almost subversive and important popcorn film to a smarter-to-than-your-average alien actionfest.

Some films take the opposite route by opening with the money shots and slowly fooling us with second act smarts. Take Larry Cohen's God Told Me To, which features a terrifying first scene wherein a madman guns down New York extras and quickly moves slows down into more heady fare. Its most disturbing scene is a mere monologue (although said speech is said by a father explaining how he killed his entire family). The blockbuster juggernaut The Sixth Sense is admittedly low on the type of violence found in a Clark film, but notice how it also leaves its entire last 30 minutes to quiet moments as characters deal with the supernatural in calm yet creepy ways. Even Shion Sono's Suicide Club--an avant garde piece of sorts busting with blood, flattened-out human skin, and stickily stubborn earlobes--ultimately steps away from its insane visual nastiness to wrap up (kind of) its plot (although for some, J-pop may be more frightening and offensive than jumping in front of a moving subway or slicing off your own hand while making a sandwich for the kids).

This brings me back to Grace, which is indeed a strong and worth-your-money movie. The problem I have with it (cue SPOILER sirens) is not that it ends with an act of violence between its two female leads, but that it reduces a complex relationship into what you can do with a hammer and ex-girlfriend. Did I expect family counseling or a custody case? No, but the sudden resolution felt too easy in eliminating a character that had been developed so carefully throughout the film. I believe anyone is capable of violence, and more specifically, that most mothers would not hesitate in doing whatever it would take to protect their children. 

It just doesn't mean that's all we deserve to watch.

Agree, disagree, want to end this with a quick and sudden act of violence? Leave it in word form below:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Death of a Cheerleader


It’s a rare Oscar winner that would follow and Academy awarded screenplay with a blood-soaked horror movie set in high school, but the prom queen of 2008’s Sundance did just that with Jennifer’s Body. Written by Juno scribe Diablo Cody and directed by Girlfight’s Karyn Kasuma, this bouncy pseudo horror has a refreshingly high dose of estrogen behind its production. 

That doesn't make it a particularly good (certainly not well directed) film, but despite the late-nite cable title, retro 80s poster art dying to make messy backseat love to a VHS (above, and I actually really dig it), and the abundance of near-nude Megan Fox skin, it's important to note that Jennifer's Body does try a few new things in marrying snappy high school humor with  a throwback horror style. 

Quick Plot: Despite their differences, mousey Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and hot cadet squad captain Jennifer (Megan Fox) remain lifelong BFFs, as proven by their matching heart necklaces. While Needy would prefer a quiet night in with her pet ferret or sweet boyfriend (you know he’s a catch because he went to Super Target to buy the spiral textured condoms so “it feels good for girls”), she agrees to accompany Jennifer to the local bar to see the hot new band from “the city” (which, from Long Island to the Alaska, is like, so the way suburban kids describe the nearest metropolis). Jennifer flirts her way into the sights of the lead singer (a hilarious Adam Brody) who in turn consults his drummer about the possible sexual history/non-history of the underage goupie-to-be. Offended, Needy dishonestly defends her friend’s honor before a fatal fire destroys the bar and makes extra crispy meat of most of its inhabitants. A shocked Jennifer ends up in the back of the band’s van, only to later show up in Needy’s kitchen with an appetite for Boston Market and an erupting blackened bloody wound in her chest. 

The next day, students and faculty mourn the town’s tragedy while Jennifer acts like a bitchy hot girl who craves the flesh of teenaged boys. And since she is cadet squad captain, she totally gets it. (Side note: once online for a roller coaster at Great Adventure, I overheard this pearly gem from a young blonde on a school trip: "I'm a cheerleader. That means I can do whatever the hell I want." Jennifer's Body comes extremely close to using this exact line).

Like a lot of current horror, Jennifer’s Body seemed to take some fan backlash when its very concept was announced. Diablo Cody’s style is pretty polarizing, and early trailers made the film look like 90 minutes of Fox teasing audiences with near nudity and sapphic innuendo. While the film is no masterpiece or milestone in the horror genre, it is an energetically enjoyable flick ripe for a Sunday afternoon viewing, sort of like a younger Drag Me To Hell with a little more Whedonesque puns tossed in. Amanda Seyfried proves that whether she’s slaying demons or singing to ABBA, she’s an incredibly likable and interesting onscreen presence (even if her “geek” look of flat hair and thick glasses is less believable than Rachael Lee Cook’s makeover in She’s All That). Megan Fox finds the right beats to prove herself more than capable of having fun with the kind of role she was born to play. Cody’s script is far less stylized than the every-line’s-a-pop-culture-quip of Juno, although a few dialogue duds land here and there. Still, the script is generally good fun without being forced.

But is it a good horror movie? Well, not in the scary sense, but that doesn’t mean Jennifer’s Body doesn’t fit its genre. This doesn’t come near the brilliance of something like Scream (which combined self-aware teenagedom with actual suspense in a way that’s hard to rival) but there’s a lot to enjoy, from the complex yet believable relationship between two mismatched best friends to the gleefully macabre humor around the world’s most satanically ambitious indie band since Black Roses. As far as actual fear factor goes, Jennifer’s Body is far more concerned with keeping its audience chuckling than inspiring nightmares, but those chuckles are sometimes quite nasty (and I mean that in the nicest way). It won't give you nightmares, but it will make you smile.
High Points
Neither gets much to do, but it’s still a treat to see Amy Sedaris and J.K. Simmons turning in shining little performances, plus an extra special cameo by one very genre friendly actor in the final scene

The actual sacrifice scene is filled with maniacally black humor 
Both Jennifer and Needy’s choice in promwear is gloriously horrendous. Whether this was an homage to the film’s 80s spirit or a comment on the misguided fashion sense of small town middle America, I like it

Low Points
Despite all the the cheer for the R-Rating, there’s nothing overwhelming or envelope pushing regarding the sex or violence

For all its buildup to the two climaxes, the finale(s) feel underwhelming and rushed. While we can laugh along with Jennifer and are certainly pulling for Seyfried's Needy, director Kasuma does not seem to have any control in building actual cinematic suspense
Lessons Learned
Small towns have bars; cool cities have clubs

Never chide a violent prison inmate for her dietary choices
Murderers of cheerleaders get a lot of fan mail

High school sex smells like Thai food
Bands that aspire to be Maroon 5 are never up to any good

See/Skip/Sneak In
I had a great time watching this movie, and only part of that came from the two 22 ounce glasses of pumpkin beer consumed one hour before showtime. That being said, there is definitely a segment of theatrical audiences--possibly a lot that are male--that will naturally have an aversion to mixing Mean Girls with demonic possession in a manner that tries a little too hard to wear its own cred in a too obvious (and acknowledged) placement of an Evil Dead t-shirt. This isn't the film anyone has been sacrificing puppies to see on the big screen, but it's a fun enough way to spend 90 minutes and a few months from now when it hits DVD, I can actually see some of the laughs landing more effectively. The fact that it seemed to bomb with theatrical audiences is something of a bummer; this isn't a new classic, but it's certainly more deserving of attention than something as trite and uninspired as Friday the 13th Part 12. 

Sigh. It always comes back to that for me, doesn't it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Just Keep Telling Yourself: It's Only a Remake! It's Only a Remake!

First, a disclaimer: any true horror fan needs to support original and fresh concepts made with heart and energy. Pay for Orphan. Sneak into Sorority Row.
On the other hand...
Anybody whose chief complaint about 2009‘s Last House On the Left is that it’s a sub par remake of a classic film must first acknowledge that Wes Craven’s primal 1972 film was in fact its own remake of Igmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring

And next...
That being said, the problem with today’s remakes tends to be the question of purpose. Why take something like The Omen--a fairly mediocre, if occasionally chilling relic--and re-film nearly every scene (my theory is actually that this one was the first, and probably only film to be made simply to land on the best release date, 6/6/06)? On the other hand, why call something like the Prom Night remake Prom Night if it has nothing to do with the original? When it comes to remakes in the 21st century, we’ve had our ups (Dawn of the Dead, My Bloody Valentine 3D) and downs (The Hitcher, Friday the 13th Part XII) and despite my own tiredness of hearing the word, it’s nearly impossible to review Last House on the Left ’09 without acknowledging its source.
Wes Craven’s film was revolutionary and shocking, but that does not necessarily equal ‘good.’ The film is deeply hurt by a few amateur performances and, at the director’s own admission, a comedic subplot featuring bumbling cops that was simply the wrong choice. At the same time, it has a vicious energy about it and true ruthlessness that has survived over 30 years for a reason. 

Quick Plot: The Collingwoods, a pleasant, upper middle class couple quietly getting over the death of their oldest son, head to their summer lake house with their teen daughter, a pretty Olympian swimmer-in-the-making named Mari, who quickly ditches her lame folks to hang out with the ditzy convenience store clerk, Paige. The girls meet a shy young man who offers them some grade A pot in his seedy motel room. They realize the wrongness of recreational drugs and bake oatmeal cookies instead, then distribute a batch to the poor neighborhood children and celebrate with ice cold apple cider and a good natured round of Parchese.

Or not. See, much like the original, the motel room in question happens to be under the name of Krug, a ragtag family of psychopathic killers on the run. The characters are identical to Craven’s, with Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt playing the raging patriarch, Riki Lindhome as his needy girlfriend Aaron Paul as the lecherous uncle, and, in the one twist, a much more innocent Spencer Treat Clark as the morally minded teenager. The girls are kidnapped. One is brutally raped. The other stabbed. As an aggressive storm begins to strike, the Krugs seek shelter in the nearest home which...drumroll sounding...happens to belong to none other than the worrisome Collingwoods.

In many ways, LHOtL ’09 does what a good remake is supposed to do: honor the source material while integrating something new. The changes here (SPOILER ALERT) help to make the second half a decidedly different film from Craven’s bleak original. As her parents tuck the Krugs into the guest house, the battered and bleeding Mari makes her way home. Like the past two films the parents quickly realize what has happened and who caused it but now, there is a certain immediacy in killing the Krugs. Father John (the always solid, and possibly fountain of youth drinking Tony Goldwyn) and mother Emma (a very good Monica Potter, an actress I’ve never really given any weight to before) fight more to protect their daughter than for vengeance and here, many devotees of the past two films may be annoyed. 

The Virgin Spring is a film about brutal instincts beating the rules of modern faith. Craven’s Last House focuses on revenge at its most primal. In some ways, this latest version has more emotion and far less complexity. The Collingwoods have to take down the Krugs, not for blind rage, but because otherwise, how can they boat Mari to safety? As viewers, we’re certainly invested; we like Mari, who seems smart and sweet enough to deserve survival. At the same time, the moral implications so rich in the first two films can’t really come to play here...until the final scene, which will leave everyone who watches this movie with sweet dreams of hot pockets.

Argh, the final shot. This is one of those instances where I curse modern movie trailers. Like most horror filmgoers, I’d seen the extended preview several times in the theater. Between the haunting cover of Sweet Child of Mine and the shot of Dillahunt’s head jammed inside the microwave, it certainly piqued my interest enough to want to see Last House, but it also revealed one of the most shocking moments in this version. The biggest problem was that, while I was completely involved in this film, the image of Krug’s nuking was in the back of my (thankfully non-nuked) head the entire time. When it finally came, it almost felt like a concession to viewers craving something truly outrageous. As much as I enjoy the ridiculous image of a man’s head exploding in a household appliance, I honestly can’t tell you whether I approved of the jarring mood switch here because I never really had the chance to see it fresh.
High Points
Most of the specific changes made from the ’72 film make the actions and characters much more believable; the clearer location, the lingering ghost of the late Collingwood son, Mari’s swimming prowess, and a few more that never really make you think--as with many horror films--that what is happening is overly silly
The biggest flaw with Craven’s original is the low quality of acting. While non of the cast is making Oscar bids, Goldwyn and Potter sell their characters, Sara Paxton’s Mari is smart and likable, and the entire Krug clan is trashily fearsome

Low Points
Time and time again, we hear the same beef with modern horror films: they’re too ‘glossy’ and clean. Last House is beautifully shot--which is more than fine--but there is some sort of sheen cast over the entire film that makes it feel a tad too neat for the brutal subject matter

Lessons Learned
Broken microwaves possess powers most of us have only dreamed of. As someone who works for an appliance company, I’m suddenly wondering if this is a new direction in marketing
The Village People aren’t the only beneficiaries of the YMCA

Always let your dishes soak
If a murderous madman wants to pee, keep the man happy and let him pee
Spinoff Pitch
Mortal Microwave: The Microwave That Blows People’s Heads Up (to be written by Patton Oswalt and directed by George Barry) 
This is definitely worthy of a view, if only so you can draw your own judgment on whether it was necessary or respectful a film. Like its predecessors, Last House is not an easy film to sit through and contains some pretty icky moments of rape. The DVD includes a quickie “behind the scenes” (which is essentially a glorified trailer) and a few wisely deleted delete scenes, so it’s not quite a buy. Give it a chance and let me know your thoughts. As I said earlier, it lacks the moral ambiguity and hazy depth of past takes, but you know what? For 90 minutes, it gives you a suspenseful and well-filmed ride. It’s not my personal apex of what a remake should be, but it’s enjoyable enough for what it is and entertains on a certain, if tamer, level.