Archive for August, 2009

The Worst: Halloween 2 or Rob Zombie hates Dr. Loomis

August 31, 2009

Forever? Forever-ever?

Forever? Forever-ever?

Let’s not kid ourselves, Halloween 2 is a bad film. Rob Zombie has gone out of his way to make a film that focuses on all the things he loves about horror movies(blood, violence) and has done away with all of the detail and style that makes film, any type of film, entertaining to watch. Halloween 2 is devoid of scares, tension, and subtext. A great horror film preys on an a viewer’s anxieties and phobias; if you have ever been afraid of having your head stomped while taking out the trash, H2 will chill you to the bone.

H2 picks up right where the first one ended with Michael Myers dead and Laurie Strode covered in blood strolling down the street. This leads into a particularly gruesome sequence where Zombie treats us to graphic shots of faces being stitched up and dismembered hands being poked and prodded. This segues to two police officers tasked with driving Michael Myers’ body to the morgue, which is apparently located far away, in the middle of nowhere. They end up hitting a cow with their van and Zombie does not hold back on repeated shots of the driver’s bloody, mashed face. After the third pan over what was left of the cop’s face I thought, “I get it, you are correct, that is indeed gross. Send my congratulations to the special effects team. Moving on?” The collision brings Myers back to life and his first order of business is cutting off the surviving officer’s head. This is acceptable, as the cop had just been talking about having sex with corpses just moments before the accident so we don’t really care he dies. I mean, that’s why they had that sick dialogue, right? So we identify with Michael Myers? Apparently so.

Cut to Laurie Strode, injured in the hospital and clearly in bad shape. She is startled to find herself menaced by Myers who has suddenly appeared in the hospital and is hacking up nurses left and right. As a matter of fact, he stabs one nurse in the back of the head about ten times. It’s brutal and vicious. Then he remembers that he’s chasing Laurie, and there is a few minutes of cat and mouse, and then IT WAS ALL A DREAM! But wait, was the opening of the movie a dream too? No, it wasn’t, but clear storytelling isn’t a priority here.

I’ll save you some time. Halloween 2 is about Michael Myers spending a year roughing it in the woods, having some visions of his dead mother and a big white horse and deciding to go back to town to get his sister. While it appeared that he wanted to kill her in the first movie, this time, I dunno. He wants to hang out, I guess, be a family. It’s like they always used to say on Arrested Development. Laurie Strode has survived the events of the first film, but is now a mix of tortured, care free, thoughtless, and most important, badly acted. Scout Taylor-Compton might be a bad actress or the script requires her to be several things at once, none consistent or believable. Taylor-Compton’s ratty hair and tattoos are obvious shorthand for “troubled”, but her behavior never approaches anything beyond angst. Her flip flop moods are more indicative of a spoiled child than a survivor of a murder spree.

This bathroom is a subtle reflection of my internal anguish.

"This bathroom is a subtle reflection of my internal anguish."

Somehow Doctor Loomis manages to survive having his eyes gouged out in Halloween the First and has turned those events into a trashy bestseller. Rob Zombie really, really hates Doctor Loomis. Now a greedy famewhore who everyone blames for Michael Myers rampage, Loomis functions away from most of the film, basically being a dick to everyone he meets as he embarks on his book tour. That he holds equal disdain for both fans of his book as well as the angry parents who try to murder him at book signings, I don’t think Rob Zombie wants us to like this character very much. I did chuckle to myself at the mental image of a young Rob Zombie watching the original Halloween and becoming angry as Doctor Loomis shoots Michael Myers out a window. Some people want to grow up and make important statements. Rob Zombie grew up write and direct a film where Doctor Loomis is an asshole and Michael Myers, he aight.

If Rob Zombie had never made The Devil’s Rejects I would probably be inclined to label him a bad filmmaker. But he did make that film so I must assume he is either slumming or figure that The Devil’s Rejects is a fluke. Halloween 2 is too much of a muddle and bares a startling resemblance to those Michael Bay horror remakes. Like all the worst horror movies, the plot is a bare shoestring on which to hang the violence. But even then, the plot often has little to nothing to do with the violence, as Michael Myers exists away from just about everybody prominent for most of the running time. And speaking of violence, sheesh. Rob Zombie goes out of his way to make it all as unpleasant as possible, making the statement, “Violence is terrible and disgusting, it is not entertaining.” Unlike the Jason and Freddy movies, hell even the Saw films, Michael Myers simply kills people in simple and inelegant ways. Which creates a Catch-22. Zombie proves his point that violence is sick and depraved and not “creative” at all and absolutely no fun to watch. Which makes his film no fun to watch. Halloween 2 critiques horror as a genre, questioning why we would want to see anyone killed, especially innocent people.  It’s unfortunate for Rob Zombie that Michael Haneke made a film about this already and it is called Funny Games. Actually, he made it twice, the second time in English to spare Rob Zombie from having to read so much. Well, I’m sorry Michael Haneke, I don’t think Rob Zombie saw your movie.*

Halloween 2 ends with all the (surviving) characters showing up in one place for a big showdown. Even Doctor Loomis, who hasn’t been involved in anything worthwhile for the entire film. It should be mentioned that Doctor Loomis has a change of heart Jerry Maguire style about his dickish behavior after a traumatic talk show appearance, where he is chided by Weird Al Yankovic and Chris Hardwick. Of course, what’s more dickish than finally seeing the error of your ways after someone makes some jokes at your expense while on a low rent talk show? Did I mention Rob Zombie really hates Doctor Loomis?

Weird Al is all, You nailed him! while Loomis is all, Ive been nailed.

Weird Al is all, "You got got!" while Loomis is all, "I am indeed got."

The big finale involves some ghosts, Doctor Loomis taking a knife to the face(finally that guy gets what he deserves), Laurie Strode stabbing Michael Myers in the face, and then Laurie ending up in a psych ward, where she sees the same apparitions that appeared to Michael Myers. There is little to no subtlety to the finale, and Laurie’s apparent trip to the dark side is neither convincing nor that interesting. Worse, I don’t even care about this character. After two movies I can tell you she’s a girl, she went through some shit, now she crazy. I recall there being much anger and hand-wringing over the end of Hannibal by Thomas Harris, where Clarice Starling runs off with Hannibal Lecter. Based on what we knew about the character from The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling running off with Lecter made no sense. Even Ridley Scott knew it was a bad idea and changed it for the film version. Laurie Strode in Zombie’s Halloween films hasn’t even a sliver of Starling’s depth and thus her eventual turn feels like a decision made by flipping a coin, delivering a tacked on “creepy” ending in a weak attempt to send the audience out talking. I had the passing thought of nature versus nurture but that kind of discussion is entirely too complex for this film.

*As my header obviously shows, I’m a big fan of Funny Games and can fully appreciate, if not quite condone Haneke’s intent. What elevates Funny Games is Haneke’s decision to keep most of the violence off screen and generally going out of his way to deprive the audience of the kind of closure most films of its ilk would deliver. I can completely understand why someone would hate this film, but it at least has the courage of its convictions and goes out of the way to make the audience uncomfortable. Funny Games elicits a response and makes one question whether we are sadistic in our tastes or if Michael Haneke is humorless churl. Halloween 2 is like attending a lecture delivered by a blood covered idiot.

Below: Boo-Scares Under the Sea

August 27, 2009

When I consider David Twohy’s contributions to cinema, it starts with Pitch Plack and ends with Riddick stabbing that guy in the head and breaking off the handle in The Chronicles of Riddick. Everything else just can’t compare. I haven’t seen A Perfect Getaway and it has been years and years since I saw half of The Arrival on cable one afternoon in the late 90’s, so all I have to go on is Below. Reportedly written by Darren Aronofsky, Below is a bland thriller set on a submarine during the 1940’s. If Aronofsky had injected any of his more mindbending ideas into the script, subsequent rewrites by Twohy and Lucas Sussman scrubbed those clean.

Films set on submarines are small lot. You’ve got Das Boot, Crimson Tide,  maybe U-571. Otherwise, nobody remembers you. Thus, we have Below. Set on a sub during World War II, the film details the mysterious goings-on on a sub with a missing captain, nervous crew, and their rescued British castaways. The entire cast is actually a good mix of solid B-movie actors along with Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, and a pre-fame Zach Galifianakis. Also the boyfriend from Legally Blond. 2002 in the house.

The plot is needlessly convoluted with a mysterious secret involving the ship’s captain(did he fall, or was he pushed?), the arrival of some British survivors of a sinking ship, and these constant ghostly apparitions. These ghost scenes are Below‘s biggest problem. The filmmakers seem unsure whether to commit to their ghost story, so instead of it going full hog supernatural, it just limps along before arriving at the most anti-climactic finale I’ve seen in awhile. Speaking of ghosts, Below might have more boo scares than any other film on record. For those who don’t know, a “boo scare” tends to be a scene where sudden silence is broken by a loud noise or instrumental stab on the soundtrack, and instead of a character being surprised by an actual threat or attacker, is instead merely startled by a benign falling object or a jumping cat. In Below‘s case, characters are boo scared again and again by each other to the point of tedium. In the final stretch, one actor seemed visibly irritated that Olivia Williams had been boo scared by his sudden presence. Not a good look.

Along with being a pretty dull group, the actors tend to have muted reactions to the more insane and horrific scenarios they encounter. Upon the discovery that most of the submarine’s crew has been cooked alive in a heating accident, the surviving crew members are generally stoic and not at all repulsed or grief stricken over the tragic demise of their fellow crewmen. It’s not like a pan fell off a counter, then they’d give you some screams.

Below does have one element that helps it stand out against other bland early 2000’s thrillers. It might be the only film where someone commits suicide by shooting themselves in the head twice, with a brief pause between shots. You can look at that as “just being thorough”, or a bad movie completing the slow trudge to the credits.

Torture or Treat- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

August 27, 2009

torture or treat logo

Bad Guys Win takes your recommendation and decides whether it is Torture or a Treat.

A recommendation from Mary, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World comes with the baggage of being a period piece starring Russell Crowe. Crowe loves period pieces, he’s easily made more than 5 thus far in his career, rough estimate, and tends to be a good fit, as do most British and Australian actors. Let’s face it, anyone not from the Fifty Nifty can generally pull off a period piece. But I do not like Gladiator very much and don’t really want to revisit A Beautiful Mind, which also featured Paul Bettany. So, deck stacked.

Lo and behold, the deciding factor appears to have been director Peter Weir. My film professor at Lake State once referred to Weir as one of finest directors alive. I scoffed at this statement, based solely on the fact that Dead Poets Society is garbage. Based on Master and Commander, I might be willing to reconsider the man. (But just the man. Life is too short to sit through DPS again.)

Master and Commander takes place almost entirely aboard the HMS Surprise, captained by Crowe’s “Lucky Jack” Aubrey. After a surprise attack by a French vessel at the beginning of the film, Captain Jack and his crew engage in pursuit, despite the fact that they are both outnumbered and outgunned. This is a thrilling setup for a film and I’m happy to say that Master and Commander delivers. It also succeeds in making those Pirates of the Caribbean movies look even worse than they already do. Russell Crowe is perfect casting as Captain Jack, projecting a strong man’s man vibe while not coming off as cold and impersonal. He’s such a good captain because his crew respects him, and it’s pretty enjoyable to watch this crew of men, bonded by their close quarters, work together to solve their dilemmas. Paul Bettany is the ship’s surgeon and Captain Jack’s best friend, engaging in spirited cello and violin duets in between discussions and debates on matters of the crew and their mission.

Master and Commander is a gorgeous film. According to the IMDB, much of it was filmed on actual ships, which makes the entire enterprise feel that much more real and involving. The special effects are seamless on account that I didn’t notice any. How often does that happen? More importantly, I just got plain old sucked into this film. I’m a sucker for a story about team, all with specific skills, facing insurmountable odds that will test their will and abilities. Yup, I’m in.

Period films often seem boring and dull because of how people talk in them. The dialogue can sound very dry as if the past was a very stale time and things only got interesting once spaceships were invented. Master and Commander overcomes this issue by containing characters with passion and interest, as it should. If you’ve been put on a ship and cast out to sea to do battle, where if you die your body will be cast into the ocean, you better be a little bit interesting. Every face in Master and Commander tells a story, from the old man who survives brain surgery at sea to only spark paranoia, to the young boy who loses an arm in a cannon attack but never loses his excitement for being a part of this ships crew. There are all kinds of characters in Master and Commander, but not one whiny asshole. Who knows, their might have been a guy like that but they threw him overboard before the movie started. When the camera panned over a row of dead sailors near the end of the film, I actually felt sad, sighing as each cold, motionless face was passed by the camera. You touched me, movie.

The battle scenes are clear and vicious. This film does not fuck around when it comes to cannon battles, not to mention the damage resulting from a cannon battle. So vicious is the attack at the beginning of the film I seriously doubted whether any of the characters were going to make it. I can’t rag on a film that owns its violence like that. Fist bump, Peter Weir.

For the first edition of Torture or Treat, I’ve found myself with one hell of a treat. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World does more than its fair share of work redeeming the period piece along with delivering a great Russell Crowe performance. Maybe I do want to see Crowe in more period pieces. What’s his next movie? Robin Hood? With the director of Gladiator? Ugh, maybe not.

(Do you have a recommendation for Torture or Treat? Leave it in the comments below.)

Inglourious Basterds: The Best Propaganda Film Ever Made

August 24, 2009

Eli Roth, mouth breather

Eli Roth, mouth breather

Plenty of press, critics and blogs have called Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, since Jackie Brown, since Kill Bill. In other words, it’s another great movie from Tarantino. That’s how I would do the press for this. “And another one!” Leave it up to Tarantino to craft an alternate history revenge story that manages to be an examination of revenge as well as a critique of the austere war films that seem designed only for awards bait.

What I feel has been underplayed is that Inglourious Basterds is a masterpiece of tension. So many scenes play out in slow builds, punctuated in sudden and quick bursts of violence, some so quick you haven’t a moment to process it before you realize, holy shit, is everybody dead?  The plot involves two central characters Shoshanna and Hans Landa, and the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine. Landa (Christoph Waltz), a member of the Nazi SS is also known as the Jew Hunter. Waltz’s performance is one for the books, playing Landa as smart, sadistic, and yet charming as hell. It is a hall of fame performance of villainy, on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker and Anthony Hopkins in Instinct(chill out, I’m kidding. I meant Red Dragon). IB opens with Landa entering the home of a French dairy farmer and genially explaining his reputation, and the possibility that this farmer is hiding Jews. Waltz portrays Landa with a charm and intelligence that characters of his ilk are not normally afforded.

Brad Pitt is equally charming as Raine, evoking a near parody southern accent in a performance clearly mirrored off those old leading man roles like Clark Gable and John Wayne. The rest of the Basterd’s aren’t given much screen time but in a way that’s because they’re the least interesting characters. They just want to kill Nazi’s and that’s about it. Which isn’t a bad thing. Eli Roth’s Jew Bear character has some great moments in the finale. While I’m not sold on Roth as an actor, he pretty much nailed it in the end where his mugging felt completely appropriate.

Melanie Laurent’s performance as Shoshanna is just another notch in Tarantino’s belt of great casting decisions. I don’t know how he finds these actors(including Waltz), and knows that they’ll deliver the best performances of their lives. But he does and they do. Laurent has a more complex performance, in that while her character is clearly seething with hatred and anger towards the Nazis, she has to keep it all inside, and present a demure and nearly staid front. This proves to be difficult when dealing with the ever persistent Fredrick Zoller, a guy who does not understand the word “No”.

The themes of vengence and secrecy are the two most prevelant in IB, most notably in the reality skewering finale, where we finally see Hitler and other various Nazi’s burned and blown to smithereens. I took special note to Hitler’s disintegrating face, which I took to mean, “Here is your anger and vengeance personified, you have become what you hate, feel any better?” As A.V. Club writer Noel Murray sharply mentioned on his Twitter, Inglourious Basterds is Nation’s Pride. I like thinking of IB as a rumination on revenge and how it consumes these characters as well as the fact that no one in the film can hide their true self, and if they try to they’re either shot or have it carved into their head.

Quentin Tarantino (and The Weinstein Company trailer editors) pulled a pretty good one, promising a shallow romp of violence and instead delivering a multilayer-ed period piece of self critiquing propaganda. That’s the kind of trick I can appreciate.

The Worst: Tiptoes

August 19, 2009

Tiptoes is a goddamn bore. A completely sincere, generally benign drama about an artist who learns her fiancée comes from a family of dwarfs. This is especially surprising since her fiancée is played by Matthew McConaughey. Tiptoes appears to have its heart in the right place, but makes a large tactical error in the casting of Gary Oldman as McConaughey’s twin dwarf brother. This error is not due to Oldman’s acting abilities, but due to the fact that Gary Oldman is clearly walking on his knees in every scene.

The first twenty minutes tilt towards failed madcap, with Oldman traveling with a Marxist dwarf played by Peter Dinklage. They manage to almost get into hi-jinks but then the film backs away and nothing much really happens. That’s Tiptoes in a nutshell, a film where something almost happens and then doesn’t, over and over again. McConaughey is confronted by his fiancée played by Kate Beckinsale about the fact that he hid his dwarf family from her. They sorta argue and then yeah, it’s fine. Gary Oldman’s character is frequently referenced as a newspaper columnist, but he spends the first half of the film appearing to be homeless and we never see him write anything. There are a couple scenes at dwarf parties where characters have bland, pointless conversations that lead to nothing. In particular is a dinner party where Beckinsale’s parents meet McConaughy’s and it goes fine. SNOOOOOZE. The last thirty minutes deal with the birth of the couple’s child and McConaughy’s inability to deal with it. This encompasses a single argument that leads Beckinsale to leave and shack up with Oldman. This makes no sense, and the film ends with McConaughy essentially conceding his relationship and fatherly status to Oldman.

Totally natural

Totally natural

This movie was famously never released in theaters, wallowing on the shelf before an eventual DVD burial. I think most people assume this is because of the ridiculous Gary Oldman stuff. Probably. I think it might also be because it is boring and devoid of conflict. Hell, the conflict has clearly been cut out of the film. Oldman makes a telling statement about McConaughy not screwing things up with Beckinsale, but the film ends with McConaughy’s only crime being an anxious father of a special needs child. Who can blame him? The film spends countless scenes conveying the harsh experiences of being born a dwarf, from ulcers to organ issues. Being a dwarf is not easy, and McConaughy seems entirely justified in his trepidation and fear over the health of his child. However, while researching Tiptoes on the IMDB I discovered three photos from cut scenes which tell the story of an apparent infidelity subplot. That makes a little more sense, but the woman pictured isn’t even half as hot as Kate Beckinsale, so it was probably cut for being complete bullshit.

Cut for being bullshit

But let’s get back to Oldman. His character is blandly nice, which is apparently a virtue in comparison to McConaughy’s cool guy firefighter. While the story’s intent might be for Beckinsale and Oldman to get together, they have no chemistry and Beckinsale only appears to pity Oldman and look at him the way one would a precocious child. The film ends with this idea of the two beginning a relationship together but I didn’t buy it. Oldman’s casting is a mistake because it undermines the entire point of the film. Unlike every other dwarf in the movie, he has to pretend to be one, and it comes across just as fake as it looks. Just about every other dwarf in Tiptoes comes across like a real human being who just happens to be a little smaller. Oldman struts around with oversized limbs, a giant head and a general permissive nature that is equally cloying and a buzzkill. At every party they go to, he’s the least interesting person there.

If Tiptoes has any redeeming qualities, it’s that it provided employment for many dwarf actors, where they were able to dress in normal clothes and not appear in some weird David Lynch nightmare. Small victory, no pun intended.

Ready For The Weekend by Calvin Harris: He still likes girls

August 19, 2009

Calvin Harris is a young British guy who, much like Lily Allen, got his record deal based on some tunes he slapped up on a Myspace page. Thus, Harris lacks that polish of your typical pop star, and in interviews he tends to come across as a pretty normal guy. His music is pretty unpretentious and the songs tend to hang on themes of parties, girls, and girls at parties. Which is fine, he’s famous and in his 20’s, I hope he’s enjoying girls at parties. However, it appears that on Ready For The Weekend Harris comes dangerously close to sucking the well dry on party tunes for and/or about girls.

Just to get it out of the way, Ready For The Weekend isn’t bad. Calvin Harris continues to make jams, he just can’t sustain it for an entire album. At 15 tracks, Ready For The Weekend nearly topples over from being so front loaded. Tracks like “Rain”, “Ready For The Weekend” and “Flashback” are fine  editions to the catalog. At the same time, Calvin Harris’s limitations as a singer and lyricist are much more obvious. “Worst Day” finds Calvin heartbroken and listing all the mistakes he made in a relationship with a woman. It’s so earnest as to become a parody, and wouldn’t be out of place on the Flight of the Conchord’s album. Obviously, there it would have more jokes. Harris as a singer has not grown on me as he seems to only sing with various levels of bored detachment. When he concedes his choruses to various unknown female singers, the songs take off into the stratosphere. An album of Harris productions and a rotating cast of guest vocalists wouldn’t be a bad idea.

But there is plenty to love. The aforementioned “Flashback” is exhilarating and bold, and “Rain” is a party starter if I’ve ever heard one. Calvin smartly included his Dizzee Rascal collaboration “Dance Wiv Me”, which still grooves along as well as it did a year ago. “Stars Come Out” struts out on a familiar Harris bassline accompanied by some playful falsetto on the chorus from Calvin.

I don’t want my expectations to get the best of me, but I wanted more from this album. Harris has heard all the great dance artists, but he has yet to transcend his influences, which leads to plodding tracks like “5iliconeator” which sounds like a weak attempt at Moby ambience, or “Yeah Yeah Yeah La La La”, an embarrassing Prince imitation.

Ready For The Weekend works for a time but comes far short of classic status. Especially in year where acts like Phoenix, Passion Pit and MSTRKRFT have brought the heat, Calvin Harris’s latest can’t help but feel undercooked.

District B13: A District movie I can endorse.

August 18, 2009

I’ve spent some air and internet time expounding my opinion that District 9, though well made, uses a real life event as a simple background detail of which to foreground a generic action movie made of spare parts borrowed from buddy cop movies and the Alien franchise. District B13 also uses real life ills and problems to prop up a film that was expressly made to show off parkour and martial arts, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more.

I don’t want to turn this into a versus issue(but aren’t I? Damn), but it was one of the first things that came to mind while watching District B13. The first twenty minutes do a pretty great job of establishing a crime and drug-ridden Paris, ignored by the government, betrayed and abandoned by the police. One of the heroes of the piece, Leïto, is just a guy trying to rid the area of drugs and prostitution, but he is in way over his head. It is important to note that Leïto spends most of his time evading the enemy, which leads to some spectacular chases. His eventual partner Damien is as one character says, a “supercop”. We first meet him as he fights his way out of illegal casino. It’s an amazing sequence where Damien jumps, kicks, flips, and generally whoops ass as he attempts to get himself out alive. And it’s all real, so I assume all the actors are dead now. Because you don’t walk away from some of this shit.

The plot kicks in as Leïto and Damien are forced to team up to retrieve a bomb that has fallen into the possession of Taha, the criminal drug lord who has Leïto’s sister drugged and on a leash. Taha has also seen Scarface a few times. Maybe more than a few times. As I said, this is all in service of martial arts and ass kicking, but the film makes some strong points about the ignored underclass. Leïto has seen first hand that the disenfranchised can be easily ignored, while Damien has always lived in a world where the law is upheld, for good. Think of Damien as an even more serious version of Simon Pegg’s character in Hot Fuzz. The actors who portray Leïto and Damien are clearly martial artists first and actors second, but this works to District B13‘s advantage, as Damien’s stiffness and Leïto’s deer-in-headlights gaze define their characters in important ways that some of the clumsy dialogue doesn’t always achieve.

District B13 does have an ending that feels slightly like a video game, with a showdown against a literal giant, but that leads to a great battle between the heroes. All through this, the background of poverty and crime infecting this city is never forgotten. It’s actually what the movie is about. It’s sometimes awkward and occasionally on the nose, but it has the courage of its convictions. Which brings me back to District 9. It mentions apartheid, great. But it only uses that to get to what the movie is actually about, the minority helping the white man to victory over his oppressors. If you want to use such a tragic and vicious period in the history of a country as full of unrest as South Africa, then stick to your guns. Make me uncomfortable, face some truths. Or blow up some random soldiers with your mech. Whatever.

A New Feature: Torture or Treat

August 17, 2009

torture or treat logo

I want to get a little more interactive with the on average 20 or so readers who stumble on this site every day. I’m introducing a new feature, Torture or Treat. Recommend anything, movies, music, television shows, books(I’ll regret that), and I’ll determine, as the title says, whether they are Torture or a Treat. I already started taking suggestions on Twitter, which is where my initial list is derived, but I’m still taking new recommendations, both in the comments on this blog and on the aforementioned twitter. I’m sure you are dying to know my opinion on something you hold very near and dear. Let me embrace it with you, or tear it asunder and chastise it.

Here’s the first batch for Torture or Treat, only films so far:

21, recommended by Kelli

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, recommended by Mary

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, recommended by Meghan

Sex and Lucía, recommended by Naomi

I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to some of these more than others. Naomi had originally recommended Ratboy, which sadly is out of print on DVD.  Damn, that looks like a hoot.

So send in those suggestions. I got the time, give me something to do.

Grace is about this baby…

August 15, 2009

Grace does not signal a new voice in horror cinema. It steals from a couple obvious sources, is liberal with its bloodletting and is an equal opportunity offender of both liberals and conservatives. It is very entertaining.

The always game Jordan Ladd stars as Madeline, a married woman who is with child for the third time after two failed pregnancies. She is married to Michael and the film opens with the two having some pretty passionless sex. Michael’s mother Vivian is a control freak who brags of still being able to nurse despite her age and despises Madeline’s eating habits not to mention her decision to go to a midwife instead of a regular hospital doctor. As luck would have it, Michael and Madeline are in a car accident and Michael is killed. Plus, the baby appears to be stillborn. Madeline is distraught and demands she still give birth to the baby. The delivery surprisingly goes well and the baby is fine. Except for some dietary issues. Dun Dun DUNNNNNN!

I gave away quite a bit just with that, but it gets stranger and I enjoyed the ride. Madeline’s every shocking discovery involving the baby evokes a giggle and Vivian’s slow descent into a strange baby envy/oedipal hell is the highlight of the film. Vivian sitting beside her dead son’s race car bed, surrounded by pictures and clutching a breast pump is gold in my eyes.

Gold.

Gold.

I also enjoyed the equal opportunity scare tactics. Midwives, doctors, vegans, lesbians, in laws; Grace takes shots at all y’all. Not to mention the overall theme of having a baby by any means necessary. It’s kind of shocking to think that Madeline never considers what her baby might be when it grows up.

District 9: Rush Hour + Apartheid x 1 Mech

August 14, 2009

The buzz  surrounding District 9 sang of innovation and unexpected delights. According to the IMDB, Peter Jackson gave director Neill Blomkamp $30 million dollars to do whatever he wanted, so impressive was Blomkamp’s Halo test footage. This kind of back story and buzz had me expecting something subversive, perhaps even a little extreme. Instead, District 9 is a very familiar film, filled to the brim with movie clichés tried and true.

District 9 begins as a pseudo-documentary explaining the events that occurred in Johannesburg, South Africa when an alien ship shows up one day in 1982. It just hovers there for three months until someone gets the bright idea to open it up, wherein they find about a million malnourished aliens. These aliens are taken and put into camps(the titular District 9), and apparently right after that everybody said, “Yeah, we know we’re not alone in the universe, but I still got bills to pay.” So the aliens are ignored, they cause trouble, become second class citizens. The action picks up in 2010, when a group of private government contractors are enlisted to evict all of the alien inhabitants of District 9 and move them to other government housing. During this we are introduced to Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a diminutive pushover who is promoted to lead the evictions. Wikus is being followed by a documentary crew, and he comes across a little like Tim from the original British version of The Office. But the film was already starting to lose me here because instead of sticking with the documentary footage following Wikus around, the film cuts away to scenes that are not in the documentary style, and bare little to no difference in visual appearance. A couple times I caught myself thinking, “How did the documentary guys film this?” before realizing we had moved away from that footage. After about 20 or so minutes of the film, after a particular plot point, the film abandons the documentary camera entirely. This begs the question whether it was necessary to begin with. It felt like a gimmick to me, and only worked to clutter what could have been a more streamlined opening.

(Massive Spoilers Ahead)

The big plot point is when Wikus is sprayed with a black liquid which slowly begins changing him into an alien. This got a chuckle out of me, as I had figured from the commercials that the big secret of District 9 was either some insidious plan by the aliens to kill humankind or that humans were actually experimenting on the aliens. As it turns out, I was half right. When Wikus’s physical changes are revealed(not before much vomiting and Dumb and Dumberesque diarrhea SFX), he’s cordoned off by the very company that employs him. Turns out, the weapons(of course, weapons) that belong to the aliens can only be fired by the aliens due to their design.  This leads to an agonizing and effective scene where Wikus is forced to fire confiscated alien weapons at various targets, including a captive live alien. At this point, District 9 has abandoned the original narrative of the injustices placed against the aliens(also called “prawns”) and has shifted to Wikus’s plight. He manages to escape captivity just as he’s about to be chopped up for experimental purposes, fleeing the apparently not guarded at all facility.  This is where the film becomes very familiar.

Wikus attempts to get food from a burger joint when a television in the room interrupts for breaking news! “Have you seen this man? (picture of Wikus) He is dangerous, he had sex with aliens and is highly contagious.” Forced to flee, Wikus takes refuge in District 9, all while attempting to make contact with his wife via cellphone, who he initially can’t reach because her evil father, who runs the very company trying to dissect Wikus, is doing everything in his power to prevent the two from speaking.  This leads to teary phone call between Van De Merwe and his wife, wherein Wikus makes some promises he knows he can’t keep and the tone is downright grave. Sure, the Breaking News bit was tired, but now we’re back to serious town. Not so, as Wikus stumbles back into the home of the prawn whose tube of black liquid caused Wikus to change in the first place. Wikus and the prawn, who is actually named Christopher Johnson(I know!), engage in some dialogue that anyone who has seen a mismatched duo comedy or action movie in the last 20 years will find very familiar. This continues for the rest of the running time. District 9 has scenes that are just rewrites of old tropes, including the “gotta get some weapons” scene, the “I thought you gave up on me” scene, and the super smart little kid.

Or how about this old chestnut-

Interior: (Wikus and Christopher Johnson are surrounded, pinned down by enemy gunfire. CJ approaches a table of random prawn tech and begins assembling a device.)

Wikus: (Exasperated) “What are you building?”

Christopher Johnson: “A bomb.”

KABOOM! (Wikus and Christopher Johnson escape)

I could also mention the discussion where Wikus and CJ decide to storm the enemy base to steal back the liquid that turned Wikus into a prawn. “I thought you said it was a suicide mission.” Lethal Weapon 5 up in here.

I’m aware that all the stories are written and that everything is a rehash of everything else, but District 9 has been advertised and hyped as a change from the norm. Instead, it’s the same stuff we’ve always been watching, but with more exploding heads; bodies blown into mush splatting against the camera lens. There is even a mech at one point, which is when I realized  Blomkamp actually wanted to focus on bloody action. These action scenes are refreshingly coherent and gory as hell, but they had to sacrifice an interesting premise.

The disappointment I feel with District 9 rests mainly on the fact that when given carte blanche by Peter Jackson to make any film he wanted, Neill Blomkamp wanted to make a generic action movie. In a way, District 9‘s closest cinematic sibling is Rambo from 2008. While Stallone based it around the genocide in Burma, its actually about Rambo shooting soldiers until they liquefy. It appears that District 9 is a trenchant examination of apartheid, but really it’s about a gun fights where people explode a lot.  Of course the evil corporation wants to use the weapons. But is anyone curious about the aspects of space flight? Somebody built that space ship that can apparently hover for 28 years without filling up a gas tank, wouldn’t that be something worth exploring? No, instead we have a mech fight.

District 9 ends on a somber note with a tone of impending doom. It could be argued that the ending is just “keeping it real”, but the since the bulk of the film is so reliant on action movie clichés and tired dialogue, it plays like a pose.  The lack of answered questions, the over reliance on action in the second half seems to indicate that Neill Blomkamp isn’t the next great big screen innovator, but just another in a long line of people who can blow shit up good.  Good work if you can get it, but don’t we have enough of these guys already?