Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trailer Sunday Presents the Films of David Lynch



Eraserhead


The Elephant Man


Dune


Blue Velvet


Wild at Heart


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me


Lost Highway


The Straight Story


Mulholland Dr


INLAND EMPIRE

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Video Daily Double for Those Cut-Ups in School!


 Greetings, Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy back with another fantasticational Video Daily Double! Today I thought I'd keep things in the classroom for all of you, and shine a light on those students that want all of the attention: the class clowns. Unfortunately for them, this isn't the kind of attention they're looking for, but any attention is good attention, right?

 Wrong!

---

 Our first film, The Self Image Film: If Mirrors Could Speak, should give you some idea of how ridiculous you are and why your life will be a miserable failure of bad jokes and ill-mannered office ettiquette.


 Our second film, Act Your Age, is for those dopes who didn't pay attention to the last movie and are grown up knuckleheads. Nice job, knucklehead.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Retro Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


 So this may be different for all of you out there, but I'm pretty sure the Cap'n was the only person who didn't groan when the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button played before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. All of my friends seemed to immediately write the film off as "bad" or "stupid" or "boring" and it seemed like the critics were ready to do it too. They gravitated towards the fact that screenwriter Eric Roth also wrote Forrest Gump, which also happens to be a movie about a guy with crutches who lives through events in the Twentieth Century and has an on again, off again romance, so obviously they're exactly the same, right? I mean, Forrest Gump was on a boat, and so is Benjamin Button! Lazy!!!

 Yeah, so that happened. I remember because nobody wanted to see it and eventually I gave up on trying to watch it theatrically. I was actually pretty excited about it because David Fincher was following up the really engrossing Zodiac with Button, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I had come to respect the choices Brad Pitt made as he moved beyond "Hollywood hunk" to "movie star who liked to pick interesting roles." It seemed like an interesting premise, and if anything I was maybe worried that a 27 page story didn't necessarily need to be a 166 minute movie. But David Fincher doesn't exactly make short movies, so you just take that in stride. In no way was I so put off by the runtime that I dismissed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

 So when a friend of mine from college asked me to take a look back at the film (something I don't think I ever reviewed in 2008-9), I thought it might be fair to give it a bit of a defense, as people occasionally bemoan its status as part of the Criterion Collection (though nowhere near to the degree that Armageddon gets it*). Generally the film is forgotten as blip in Fincher's filmography, between Zodiac and The Social Network, two critically lauded and well regarded films that deserve the attention they received.

 To begin with, I should note that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not one of my favorite David Fincher films. It's not my least favorite: that belongs to Panic Room, which is technically well made but mostly pretty boring. It's the only reason I knew who Kristen Stewart was when I saw Catch That Kid, which for being a pretty lousy kiddie movie is still more interesting than all of Panic Room (except maybe for the horrible things that happen to Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam). Button is too long, it doesn't seem to be going much of anywhere for long stretches in the middle, and I really didn't like the digitally "young-ifying" effects for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that essentially make them look like wax versions of themselves. No shocker that it was the same company who made Jeff Bridges into "young Flynn / CLU" in Tron: Legacy. You have a long way to go before that technique is going to work, gang.

 So The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't a masterpiece, but it's also not a movie you need to instantly write off. If you're willing to sit down with it and have an open mind, and if you don't sit there with you "Forrest Gump to Benjamin Button" conversion table, you might even enjoy most of the experience.

 For example, while the "young" Benjamin (Pitt) and Daisy (Blanchett) look like waxy versions of themselves, the "old" Benjamin Button is nothing short of astonishing. The "baby" is a little shaky, but as Benjamin begins to age backwards, it's tricky to tell when he stops being an effect and becomes Brad Pitt with makeup on. The seamless integration of a completely digital character into the film for the first half(?) only draws further attention to the ineffective "youth" effects applied to Daisy in her twenties and Benjamin as he grows younger / older.

 I also don't feel that, while overlong, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ever particularly boring. It takes a long time to get where it's going (the bookend segments taking place as hurricane Katrina is arriving on the Gulf Coast) but I wasn't checking my watch during the film. When it was over, I certainly felt like I'd watched a long film, but I didn't regret having seen it, or felt like time was better spent watching something else. It's not simply a slog through history for its own sake - there is a compelling story in there, and as it moves into the final quarter of the film I found myself more invested in Daisy and Benjamin's story.

 But hey, let's be honest here. If you saw the trailer and rolled your eyes, this isn't going to change your mind. To you, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bore, a movie by a director who you enjoyed before and afterwards, but this one was worth skipping. Maybe you groaned when it nabbed some Oscar nominations and silently cheered when it didn't win any major ones. So it's not a perfect film, it's not the best version of that story there could possibly be. I know for a fact many of you sat through worse and made excuses for it, and so did I. Maybe giving The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a shot isn't too much to ask from where I'm sitting.



 * Also, Ride with the Devil, but I don't see the same people complaining about Chasing Amy for some reason.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Master


  "Even for Paul Thomas Anderson, that was different."

 That was friend of the Blogorium and occasional contributor Neil's immediate reaction after The Master cut to credits, and it's a fair assessment. The Master doesn't conform to a "conventional" narrative, in that it's beginning, middle, and end are what would traditionally be considered the "middle" of the story. We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at the tail end of his service in the Pacific front of World War II, and follow him as he drifts into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a scientist, author, and guru of "The Cause," Dodd's movement to bring humanity to a new level of evolution by solving traumas of lives past. And, on the other end, we see the end of that quixotic attempt by Dodd to make Quell his protege, his triumph in practice. Nothing more, nothing less.

 Which is not to say that there isn't plenty of story in The Master, but it can leave on feeling as though they've only seen part of a film. It makes the narrative arc of There Will Be Blood seem downright thorough by comparison, so I understand the critical divide about The Master. Much of the misgivings are softened by the exceptional performances by Hoffman and Phoenix, who reminds us why his retreat from the public eye surrounding I'm Still Here robbed audiences of any number of great performances.

 I hesitated to mention this, because using Freudian analysis of film is overdone to the point of being trite (the Cap'n was in no less than three classes that insisted on using psychoanalysis to dissect horror and film noir) but in the case of The Master it might help answer a few questions I overheard leaving the theatre.

 If The Master is "about" anything in particular (and there were certainly a number of people asking that), one could read the film as an exploration of the Ego unsuccessfully taming the Id, using the backdrop of a familiar religious movement without calling it that. It's important to point out that The Master is not about Scientology, although people will certainly find parallels to draw between "The Cause" and Dianetics. The film is less about what Lancaster Dodd is doing than his mission to "civilize" Freddie Quell, to rid him of his "animal" instincts and prove (to himself, if no one else) that "The Cause" works.

 Joaquin Phoenix, as Freddie Quell, is the embodiment of the Id: he is a creature devoted entirely to fulfilling his instincts, specifically sexual. He spends much of the film in pursuit of women, but also in a semi-drunken stupor, based almost exclusively on alcoholic concotions he makes from whatever he can find (bomb fuel, mouth cleaner, rubbing alcohol). Quell and Dodd bond after the former drunkenly stows away on the latter's boat and wakes up the next morning to discover he asked "The Master" to hire him for any work needed. In addition to taking a liking to his hodgepodge liquor, Dodd is fascinated by the uninhibited Quell, who acts entirely according to his desires. Even his body language - sloped shoulders, shambling gait, face pinched with rage - evoke less of a man and more of the Freudian Id.

 The Master is ostensibly told from Freddie's perspective, and frequently shifts into what he is seeing or thinking (no more apparent than the scene where Dodd is singing "I'll Never Go a Roving").  In that case, it's fair to wonder how much of what happens in The Master actually happens (the ending of the film in particular), but most of it seems to be concerned with Quell's stubborn indifference to being "pygmalioned" (probably not a real word) by the spiritual guru. Their first "processing" interview is an acting tour de force, as Quell realizes the game Dodd is playing and matches him beat for beat. As The Master progresses, it becomes unclear who has the stronger effect on the other, and emotional manipulation fades away into mutual regret.

 In fact, the Ego (Dodd) might continue to "rehabilitate" the Id (Quell) if not for the Super Ego, in this case the members of his family who make up the core of "The Cause": his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), daughter  Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), and son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek). Each offers their reason why Freddie is undermining Lancaster's goal, but it may be Peggy - who knows of her husband's philandering ways - who makes the strongest case that Quell cannot be tamed. As the most devoted supporter of "The Cause," Peggy sees clearly that her husband leans too heavily towards his baser tendencies, and draws him back from the Id.

 It isn't merely that Freddie is almost always drunk or behaving lustily, but also that in his misguided attempts to be loyal to Dodd (who took him in), he often acts out violently against anyone who criticizes "The Cause," including Dodd's own son, Val (Jesse Plemons). He viciously attacks a man who challenges "The Master" during a session, assaults police officers who come to arrest Dodd after it's revealed the yacht was stolen, and savages Dodd's former editor (Kevin J. O'Connor) after the release of The Split Saber, Lancaster's second "gift to Homo Sapiens." Much to the chagrin of the Dodd family, Freddie refuses (or is unable) to separate his immediate reactions from what's best to promote the movement.

 Mind you, this is one possible reading of The Master. There are others, including one it has in common with Anderson's other films: the idea of atypical families, particularly fathers and sons (and it's apparent that in The Master, like There Will Be Blood, that the father figure is less concerned with his immediate family than that of an adopted outcast). There are a number of obvious religious parallels, beyond the analogies to Scientology: one could read the final scene between Freddie and Lancaster as an inversion of the "Prodigal Son" parable, if what happens between them even really took place at all (it follows a certain dream logic consistent with Quell's imagination). There's a clear distinction made between WWII veterans who suffered psychological trauma during the war and the rest of society, who move on towards their "brave new world," that bears noting. It clearly plays into Freddie's psychological state throughout the film, whether he behaves on impulse or not.

 And so The Master is atypical, narratively at least, but not without plenty of substance to be drawn from its unbalanced structure. It's also a beautifully shot film, with a disconcerting score by Jonny Greenwood counterbalanced with jazz standards (one of which certainly helps the Id / Ego comparison, Ella Fitzgerald performing "Get Thee Behind Me Satan"). The acting is going to bring you in and keep you there, even if the narrative seems disjointed at times. Hoffman, Phoenix, Adams, and even a surprise turn from Laura Dern - who I had no idea was in the film - are at the top of their game, and the scenes with Dodd and Quell crackle with electricity. By the time "The Master" explains to Freddie that "if we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy," it's hard to argue that you're seeing anything less than stellar acting at work.

 So I don't mind if it isn't as consistent as There Will Be Blood, or as tied together as Boogie Nights. It's emotional core is a bit like Punch-Drunk Love, which is to say tricky to settle into at first but ultimately rewarding. I can see disappointment, even with the elevate expectations that a Paul Thomas Anderson film invariably brings, but I disagree that there's no "there" there. There's plenty to The Master, it's just packaged differently.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Trailer Sunday Presents the Films of Guillermo del Toro



Cronos


Mimic


The Devil's Backbone


Blade II


Hellboy


Pan's Labyrinth


Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Retro Review: Star Trek - Nemesis


 Lost amidst all of the 30th anniversary hoopla of now cult classics like Blade Runner and The Thing and Conan the Barbarian (as well as established classics like E.T., which beat up on those movies all summer, and maybe The Road Warrior too. I'd have to check, but that's not germane to this review) is the more important anniversaries, like, uh, Chasing Amy hitting the fifteen year mark. Or Good Will Hunting, and let's be honest here, if you'd asked the Cap'n which of those movies he's be watching again fifteen years later, younger me would be wrong in a big bad way. But we grow older and wiser, so we revisit things every now and then.

 Speaking of movies that aren't any good, Star Trek: Nemesis, unlike Chasing Amy, was maligned when it came out ten years ago (this December) for "ruining" the Star Trek: The Next Generation film series (and with competition like Generations and Insurrection, that's saying something). It broke the "even numbered film = good / odd numbered film = bad" rule of thumb for Trek films, and pretty much guaranteed we'd never see Captain Picard on the big screen again. In fact, Paramount handed the keys to the franchise over to JJ Abrams, who rebooted the whole franchise and (with the screenwriters) relegated Picard, Data, Worf, and Geordi to a comic book prequel that assured us they wouldn't be showing up with Chris Pine and company.

 For people who still want to argue that Nemesis "isn't that bad," I'll see you on the other side of the Mr. Plinkett review of the film. In fact, I'd almost considered just posting that as my "Retro Review" and writing "nuff said" because it covers almost all of the basis of why Nemesis is not, in fact, all right. It's yet another watered down retread of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which producer Rick Berman helpfully points out in the extras by explaining that Nemesis needed "a strong villain" because that's what made First Contact and Wrath of Khan successful. The jury is apparently out on what made The Voyage Home a bigger success, as its "strong villain" is a probe looking for humpback whales (SPOILER).

 Anyway, so the reason I thought Nemesis might be worth coming back to had nothing to do with B-4, the stupid "dune buggy" away mission, the pointless transposition of the Kirk / Khan storyline into a TNG movie, using characters not designed for action movies in a totally inappropriate context (the Plinkett review of First Contact, by the way, covers in some detail why the TNG movies failed even in success). It's not about the "mind rape" sequence of Ron Perlman as a creepy vampire bat Reman, the heretofore unknown "sister" species of the Romulans* who happen to look like a planet of Nosferatus, or even the Admiral Janeway cameo that confused me because I always understood that Voyager didn't end with the crew in the best esteem of the Federation. Mind you, I never watched Voyager, even the episode with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, so this is purely from a point of willful ignorance, although Trekkers I know have told me watching the series isn't worth my time.

 Where was I? Oh, right, Nemesis. It's hard to stay focused on such an unmemorable film. So I thought I'd check it out again because it was the only movie I associated Tom Hardy with until people started raving about Bronson**. In fact, it came as a surprise that Tom Hardy had a career resurgence (that continues to thrive) because he's so uninteresting as Shinzon, the Picard clone-turned-slave-turned-leader-of-the-Reman-Resistance that screenwriter John Logan opted to pair him with Ron Perlman as a vampire bat in order to make our villain vaguely menacing.

 But I did think it was cool to see a young Tom Hardy screen test with Patrick Stewart and more than hold his own, which doesn't really translate to Nemesis. In the movie, it's not clear what the hell Shinzon really wants to do, or what he cares about, or really anything. Instead we get stupid Brent Spiner slapstick (doubled!) and pointless chase scenes and an ultimately inconsequential story about an upset in the Romulan Empire after Shinzon wipes the Senate out. Why inconsequential? Well, for one thing, that supernova completely wiped out Romulus, causing Nero to go crazy and travel back in time in order to destroy Vulcan and then fail to wipe out Earth. So not only do the alternate universe Romulans still distrust the Federation, but now one of their own was responsible for killing almost all of the Vulcans and disrupting history, etc.

 Anyway, so needless to say that I was very impressed to see that Tom Hardy could be charismatic and menacing and have, well, screen presence after Nemesis. It's not his fault that the movie still sucks, and it's a testament to his work ethic in the studio system and beyond that it wasn't a career killer. Also, I don't hang it on director Stuart Baird (who also made Executive Decision and U.S. Marshals but also edited some much more impressive films), even though he gets a lot of grief for coming as a Trek "newbie" and making a movie like Nemesis. It's not totally his fault that Nemesis is a lousy Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, and the final action scenes between the Enterprise and the Scimitar look good. It's just the rest of the movie, including the awful wedding of Riker and Troi that kicks things off, that make the film so hard to sit through.

 So ten years ago this was what we had to point to and say, "well, maybe Insurrection wasn't the worst TNG movie they could possibly make after all." Now we have a odd-numbered Star Trek movie that almost everybody seems to like (Star Trek) and people are looking forward to the sequel to that. Patrick Stewart is crossing his fingers that Charles Xavier doesn't have a cameo in the Wolverine sequel and that maybe they'll just ask him to come back for X-Men First Class: Days of Future Past, and Jonathan Frakes is directing television after the one-two punch of Clockstoppers and Thunderbirds. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy was in Bronson, Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Dark Knight Rises, and Lawless***. I did not see that coming, but at least something good came from such a limp closing to "classic era" Star Trek.



 * What this means for the implied connection over the series between Romulans and Vulcans has probably been explored in more depth on a Trek site I don't have time to look for, but are Remans also distantly related to Vulcans? Does it even matter?
** I haven't seen Black Hawk Down, along with several other Ridley Scott movies not featuring Tom Hardy, like G.I. Jane, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and anything after American Gangster and before Prometheus.
*** And coughThisMeansWarcough...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blogorium Review: Cosmopolis


 David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is a difficult movie to like. I don't mean that it's not an interesting film or that there isn't a great deal of thematic and visual material to merit watching again. That's not really the issue at hand. However, at every opportunity, Cronenberg makes decisions to remove the audience's ability to engage with the characters, the narrative, and even the dialogue. It's as though we're meant to appreciate Cosmopolis as an exercise in alienating the audience.

  From the get go, something is amiss with Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson)'s day: the young hotshot entrepreneur / trader wants a haircut, but the city of New York seems to be conspiring against his wishes. His chief of security, Torval (Kevin Durand) warns him that getting anywhere is going to be impossible because the President is in town and traffic has slowed to a crawl, but Packer wants what he wants (although he's more fond of using the royal "we" when referring to his wishes). so they set out in his state-of-the-art limousine. Over the course of the day, he travel slowly enough to skip out and have three meals with his newlywed bride, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), a poet and heiress. Along the way, he also picks up various business advisers: Shiner (Jay Baruchel), Michael Chin (Philip Nozuka), Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire), and "philosophical consultant" Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton), as well as entertain art dealer / mistress Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche). Eric even manages to discuss business while undergoing his daily physical exam.

  The film is constructed of a series of vignettes as Eric waxes the philosophic about aging, trading, art, protests, wealth, and the "credible" threat to his life Torval has been monitoring all day. As his life begins to collapse - a result of bad business deals, dissolving relationships, and the death of his spiritual mentor, Brutha Fez (K'Naan) - Packer becomes more unpredictable, more unhinged, and his placid veneer cracks to reveal the nihilist underneath. It's not until nearly the end that any of this is evident, as Robert Pattinson's Eric Packer is a blank slate, concerned more with the intellectual than the physical  - a theme that appears throughout Cronenberg's filmography, most notably in Crash, Dead Ringers, and more recently, A Dangerous Method. Accordingly, I hesitate to take the easy path of blaming the actor, mostly associated with the Twilight series, for the distant and unlikable protagonist of the film.

  A co-worker of mine described the film as an "existential meditation on the 1%" and that's not far off from what Cronenberg, adapting his screenplay from Don DeLillo's novel of the same name, seems to be attempting. It's hard to relate to anything that happens to Eric Packer at any point in the film, even if cultural anecdotes like a "Pastry Assassin" (Mathieu Amalric) who "pies" him is something we're familiar with in passing. To keep us off guard, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky also place the camera uncomfortably close to the actors in Cosmopolis (think of a film like Repulsion as a good basis of comparison), giving the film a heightened sense of reality. We're physically close but emotionally and philosophically at a distance from the characters at all times. The most that happens in Cosmopolis occurs in the final scenes between Packer and Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), and even that manages to detach us as the film heads towards its inevitable conclusion.

  On the other hand, I left Cosmopolis with a great appreciation of what Cronenberg, the cast, editor Ronald Sanders, and the score by Howard Shore (partially performed by the band Metric) accomplished. Cosmopolis is not an easy film to engage in, but it has a wealth of interesting concepts. I'm interested in seeing the film again for asymmetrical imagery, to examine the deliberately artificial first scene in the limo between Pattinson and Baruchel, and to draw the threads together in the seemingly episodic narrative.

  While I could appreciate A Dangerous Method, I felt that the idea of separating and internalizing the salacious sexual content removed any point of engagement in the film beyond a strictly intellectual level. Cosmopolis, while intellectually divorcing itself from the audience for most of the story, nevertheless manages to connect on a visceral level, even as it denies viewers basic expectations (including the final shot - no pun intended). On the other hand, it is often funny in a way absent from all but the most vicious of black comedies. I can't think of another film that generates the kind of uncomfortable laughter during a prostate exam that Cosmopolis does.

 The visceral reactions aren't always positive: during every showing of Cosmopolis' three week run, there was at least one walk out, if not more. One disgusted viewer explained that the film was "over the moment it started" and I can't say it's an unfair reaction. Cosmopolis is a demanding film that promises nothing and pays off only scant rewards the first time around. When I say it's not a film for everyone, that's not a value judgment on audiences. It's just a fact. You're going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting while watching Cosmopolis, and I can't guarantee that what you come out with is going to seem worth it. But if your ears perk up when you hear "Cronenberg" and "DeLillo" together, or how Robert Pattinson fits into the equation, it may just be worth the challenge.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Video Daily Double to Keep You Off of the Pot!


 Good day to you all, Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy is back with another fact-tastic Video Daily Double. Now, I realize it's been entirely too long since I've warned you about the dangers of drug use, and since some of your older brothers and sisters may have headed off to college recently, you might want to... what's the term? Email them this link. That works; sorry, I'm not hip to the lingo of your generation. But in any lingo, drugs are bad. Mmmkay?

 Beware the drug!

---

 Our first film, The Mind-Benders, warns you of the dangers of hallucinogens, which alter your perception of reality, and not in some epiphany-inspiring fashion. Nope, just in a "stare at the walls like a dope and giggle for hours" way, which doesn't get your homework done, now does it?


 Our second film, Narcotics: Pit of Despair, deals with all of the other stuff that innocent "pot smoking" parties leads to. Mainly shooting heroin, which killed most of your parents' favorite musicians, but strangely not yours. They're learning how to live without the dope - shouldn't you?


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Retro Review: Sex and Death 101


editor's note: In his continuing quest to re-post older reviews that never made it from the old Blogorium to its present home, Cap'n Howdy has been delivering piles of digital bits to me in the hopes I know what to do with it. Some movies are older than others, but most of these come from a period between 2006 and 2009, when the move took place. Enjoy

---

It seems fitting that almost twenty years after his first screenplay, Heathers, writer Daniel Waters would return with a kind-of-sort-of sequel. Oh, I'm sorry; did you not hear about this? Sex and Death 101? Well, I won't lie to you and say "oh I followed it from day one", because it was a surprise to me too. The good news is that this kind of surprise is the good one.

    Roderick Blank (Simon Baker of Land of the Dead) is a normal guy living a normal life, about to be engaged when he receives an anonymous email. This email has the name of every woman he's ever slept with, and it turns out his fiance is number 29. On a list of 101. You can imagine where this is going, but you might be surprised where it ends up. The list comes from... well, I won't spoil that. Let's just say it involves Patton Oswalt and a white room. Again, that's only giving you part of the scenario.

    First things first: don't expect an actual sequel to Heathers with any of the characters or story returning. Sex and Death 101 is more of a thematic sequel to Heathers (if you want to even call it that). I bring it up only because much of the film is going to remind you of the dream sequences in Heathers, and in a good way. Much of the tone of Sex and Death 101 is bizarre but inspired black comedy, and more than a few times I laughed as hard as "I love my dead gay son!" in this film.

    The catch, and there is one, is that the movie is slow to get going. It wasn't until probably twenty minutes in or so that Baker really settles into the role and the film gets fun. In the meantime, there's the weird presence of Mindy Cohn (The Facts of Life) as his assistant and a supporting cast that includes "oh! that guy" or "hey, why do I know her?". Everything seems a little forced early on and I really thought I wasn't going to like this movie.

    But the Heathers connection gets a little clearer when Winona Ryder enters the story as Death Knell, a not-acutally-a-serial-killer who beds sleazy guys and puts them in comas. Her first real scene in the movie, involving a newstand owner, hints at where Waters actually wants to go with this premise, and things only get better from there.

    Waters wrote and directed Sex and Death, so much like Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this is his undiluted vision. Every step of the story is filled with double-backs, fake outs, tricksy narration, and some really clever in-camera trickery (watch that bar scene about three quarters of the way in). His writing is still as sharp as ever, and for the first time in years you'll hear an actually clever OJ Simpson joke. Oh, and Patton Oswalt is in the movie, and a lot more than I thought he would be.

    Ultimately what compels me to recommend the movie is that it frequently zigs when you expect it to zag. The writing is clever, the casting at times inspired, and even though it starts and ends a little shaky, there's more than enough in between that you haven't seen in a long time, if at all.

    Sex and Death 101 isn't going to blow you away like Heathers, but it will amuse you. I get why it didn't have larger press, because this is the kind of movie that's a little too weird for the Superhero Movie crowd and more subversive than the "quirky" comedy fans are interested in. If you're willing to let the film settle in, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise, which is exactly what we hope for in "lost" movies.

Monday, September 10, 2012

So You Won't, uh, Or Maybe You Will (I Dunno): Legend


 So yeah... Legend. Ridley Scott's Legend, his follow-up to Alien and Blade Runner. I understand that Legend has a cult following and it has its ardent defenders, and as a result I wondered why nobody ever said to me "Cap'n, you should really check out Legend!" I mean beyond the director, Legend has Tom Cruise going for it, TimeCop's Mia Sara* and Dr. Frank-N-Furter himself, Tim Curry as "Darkness," the ultimate embodiment of evil. On top of that, Rob Bottin (The Howling, John Carpenter's The Thing) handled makeup effects, and that's always a plus. So why don't I know people who recommend it? It's never happened, so when I came across the movie last week, I thought "why not see what this is all about?"

 And I watched Legend, and, uh, yeah. I get why it never came up in many film conversations. Legend is a bit of a mess, cobbled together by Scott and writer William Hjortsberg of a dozen or so different fantasy elements and then crammed together into a "hero's journey" narrative halfheartedly. And I'm not averse to the fantasy genre, which bears pointing out: I continue to enjoy Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (two of Legend's 80s contemporaries) which contain many, if not almost all, of the same story elements. While I'm not as big of a fan of "sword and sorcery" fantasy films, I would hardly qualify Legend as being part of that subgenre. The movie looks great, and has some memorable imagery, but there's also so much being crammed into the film for no apparent reason that after a while I just gave up.

 For the record, I watched Ridley Scott's preferred Director's Cut, which clocks in nearly thirty minutes longer than the theatrically released version. It also restores Jerry Goldsmith's score to the film rather than use the Tangerine Dream music most people associate with the film. I did check out some of the shorter cut and will address it later in this review.

  Okay, so Princess Lili (Mia Sara) has an innocent heart but a bit of a mischievous streak, so while singing and cavorting in the woods with "forest child" Jack (Cruise), she disregards his warning while showing her something very special: two unicorns. A human must never touch a unicorn, and when Lili does, it upsets the balance of the world, allowing Blix (Alice Playten), a goblin, to poison the unicorn and steal its horn. Blix is a servant of Darkness, the Lord of Night, who needs both unicorn horns to ensure that a light is removed from the world and that he may reign supreme. Unaware of what happened, Lili and Jack return, and while she toys with his infatuation, a storm arrives and covers the forest in frost and snow. Lili and Jack are separated, but help arrives in the form of Gump (David Bennent), an elf, Oona (Annabelle Lanyon), a fairy, Screwball (Billy Barty) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert), two dwarves. They help Jack to protect the last unicorn and to defeat Darkness, who discovers he desires something even more than ruling the world: the young princess.

 That's the simple plot synopsis, leaving out additional goblins and secondary characters who provide us some more information about Lili and Jack. (SPOILER ALERT from here on out, I guess) From this point, Legend basically moves into "teaching Jack how to be a hero and save the day" but without really having to do much of anything in the way of growing as a person, er, forest person. Lili and the second unicorn are captured by Darkness, and he attempts to woo the princess to no avail, and then Jack defeats him by "bringing light to darkness" with the help of his friends. Lili falls asleep, and Jack takes her to where they were separated, and after retrieving the ring she promised to marry whoever found it, she reneges on that. Well, she may have forgotten the whole thing ever happened. Still, Jack happily sends her along her merry way and the unicorns are fine with Gump and Oona and Brown Tom and Screwball. Jack runs into a patently artificial sunset and that's end. And they lived blissfully ignorant ever after...

 Every time I try to write about Legend, despite the fact that I was really impressed by the way Scott holds back revealing Tim Curry in his (very impressive) Darkness makeup and how the manufactured (in studio) forest (but with real animals living in it) most of the time doesn't look like a set, I keep getting bogged down in how "safe" the film is. It makes me all the more cruel to the movie, because it's such a consequence free film where characters can say or do anything and nothing matters at all.

 Take, for instance, Blunder (Kiran Shah, who most people know as Elijah Wood's Hobbit stunt double). Blunder is introduced as one of Blix's friends, and participates in the hunting of the unicorns and is present when Blix steals the horn. Blunder is too impressed by the magical power of the horn (which acts like a magic wand of sorts) and when he speaks ill of Darkness, a zombie (?) rises from the ground, picks him up, and carries him down a hole. It's treated with all the severity of an "uh oh!"

 We meet Blunder again later when Jack and company find themselves in Darkness' dungeon, where a pair of demonic butchers are cutting up a dummy to eat. While trying to help them escape, Blunder is dragged off, kicking and screaming, to what one would assume would be his doom. Instead, later in that same sequence, Brown Tom and Screwball find Blunder inside of a meat pie, tied up with vegetables around him, but very much alive, and he joins them in defeating Darkness. In fact, he's with Gump and the rest at the end of the film, including the unicorns. Yes, unicorns, because even though one was poisoned and lost her horn, it's strongly implied that this isn't enough to kill a unicorn and that the horn can be reattached. Hopefully in a way that makes it look less wobbly than earlier in the film.

 See what I mean? I can't not point out things that demean Legend or make it sound ridiculous because after a while it was clear to me that nothing mattered in the film. Even Darkness (correctly) points out to Jack that he can't really die, because there can be no light without darkness, that they are "brothers eternal." When he's sucked into space (?) and becomes a constellation (?), it's not really a satisfying conclusion for our antagonist. It's more of a "meh." If there are no stakes in this world, forgive me for no longer being invested after an hour of watching Legend. Even the admittedly cool looking Meg Mucklebones (played by Joe Dante regular Robert Picardo) scene doesn't seem to really advance the plot or really sell to me that Jack is capable of destroying Darkness. And I'm pretty sure that's the only reason it's in there at all.

 After taking a quick look at the Theatrical Cut, I will say I'm glad I watched the Director's Cut instead, because the opening crawl laughably oversells the fantasy world and you see Darkness almost immediately afterward, cross cut with the demon butchers cutting up that dummy, presumably to really sell how eeeeeeevillll it all is. If you're interested in other differences, I refer you to IMDB's page. While I can't say I enjoyed the version of Legend I watched, it certainly sounds like a vast improvement over the other cut, even if I did miss out on the Tangerine Dream music. That is, by the way, not intended sarcastically, as most of the people I talked to after watching Legend specifically mentioned Tangerine Dream.

 It's been nearly a week and I'm already forgetting a lot of Legend, which is not a good sign. Since I don't know whether you folks have seen it or not, I can't honestly say I watched it So You Won't Have To. Nobody ever mentioned it, so I can't be sure you didn't already see it. If you did, then I'd certainly be happy to hear you take on why you like it so much. Again, if you did. I know enough to know that it does have a following, as Blade Runner does (another Ridley Scott movie with multiple cuts that didn't make a strong impression when released), so perhaps you could shed some light on the darkness of this review, so to speak.


 * What, did you think I was going to say Ferris Bueller's Day Off?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Retro Review: The Wizard of Gore (2008)

 editor's note: In his continuing quest to re-post older reviews that never made it from the old Blogorium to its present home, Cap'n Howdy has been delivering piles of digital bits to me in the hopes I know what to do with it. Some movies are older than others, but most of these come from a period between 2006 and 2009, when the move took place. Enjoy

---

The Wizard of Gore reminded me a lot of Hellraiser: Hellseeker (aka Hellraiser 6 for those not keeping track), which is not necessarily a good thing. There's a twist, it feels like, and the movie is slow in doling out information when it's clear we should be sussing this out sooner than we do. It's not that the ending is bad per se, but the landing is a little rough.

    That being said, small pleasures are to be had watching Wizard, particularly from supporting cast members Brad Dourif and Jeffrey Combs. Most importantly, of course, is Crispin Glover himself as Montag the Magnificent, the Wizard of Gore himself. When he's onscreen the movie instantly perks up and dilutes the lackluster performance from lead actor Kip Pardue (Thirteen). For once, Bijou Phillips isn't the weak link in a movie, and for that I'm thankful. Combs doesn't do much until late in the film, but when he does it pays off what seems like a wasted cameo.

    As for the "Gore", it's not as much as I expected, but when used is effective (mostly the violence is limited to Montag's stage show). The Suicide Girls, hyped incessantly on the front and back of the dvd do exactly what you'd expect them to do in this movie: a) wear fetish gear, b) take their clothes off, c) die horrible deaths at the hands of Montag.

    There's a bit of a mystery in Wizard that you can work out for yourself pretty quickly once the mysterious "link" in all the murders is named, and while the movie goes one step better than you'd hope with the "twist", the way it gets there and the effects technique to indicate Pardue is losing his grip on reality are handled poorly.

    It's a renter, and if people are up for it, I might throw it on during horror fest. It's not going to replace the original in anyone's mind, but Suspiria is still better than both version (eat that, Diablo Cody!).

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blogorium Review: Lawless



 There was pretty much no way I wasn't going to see Lawless, the new film from director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) and writer Nick Cave (of "and" The Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three, and in this film The Bootleggers). In fact, I broke my "don't go see a movie alone" for the first time since Eyes Wide Shut to catch a 9:25 showing the night it opened. While I used my employee ability to see it for free, believe me when I say I would have paid to watch Lawless. With that combination of director and writer, a story (based in fact) about three brothers who bootleg alcohol during prohibition and the cast they'd lined up, I wasn't expecting to be disappointed.

 The Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LeBouf) distill moonshine in Franklin county, Virginia, the "wettest county in the world" and business has been good to them. The brothers are the stuff of legend around Franklin county, in large part because Forrest has the ability to survive injuries and illnesses that would kill any other man. His "indestructible" nature and propensity for speaking little and sudden, brutal outbursts of violence have the respect of other moonshiners, and keeps the unpredictable Howard and sensitive Jack in their good graces. Things change when the normally amenable local police come under the jurisdiction of Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin) and Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) come in from Chicago and begin making demands, or else.

 Forrest decides not to play along, raising the ire of Rakes and ending up on the wrong side of a screwdriver to the throat. Jack, eager to prove he's strong enough to be a part of the family business, strikes a deal with Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and keeps the Bondurants in business while his older brother recovers. In the meantime, Jack decides he wants to woo Bertha Mennix (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local preacher. She takes a liking to him, but her strict religious family recognizes trouble immediately. The success of the Bondurant boys enrages the Special Deputy, and he reveals just how far he's willing to go to end the legend of Forrest Bondurant once and for all.

 In a lot of ways, Lawless is a companion piece to The Proposition, and not merely because both are "period" stories; both films deal with familial bonds between brothers on the wrong side of the law and the consequences that can bring, albeit to different ends. Outside factors force the brothers to choose against their best interests in order to protect each other. If The Proposition is a "western" set in colonial Australia, then Lawless is a rural "gangster" film mostly without gangsters. Floyd Banner is a minor role, and while the boys do travel to Chicago to do business, if you're expecting something like Boardwalk Empire based on the chronological setting, prepare yourselves accordingly. This is more like Public Enemies by way of Matewan, but in a the best possible sense. Like The Proposition, it is a violent film, at times graphically so, and with that in mind I can understand why Roger Ebert considers it the kind of story that only deals with horrible people doing horrible things.

 From people I've talked to, Shia LeBeouf seems to be their concern as the "weak link" in an otherwise strong cast, but I have to say that as the weakest of the brothers, as the one who most desperately wants to impress Forrest, LeBeouf's Jack has much of Lawless to carry and does it quite well. You can understand what he sees in Bertha and why she's taken with him, even if the Bondurant reputation keeps her at bay. Speaking of which, Wasikowska has what should be the thankless "love interest" role and makes Bertha someone we care about, someone we worry for when Jack lets success get to his head. To be fair, Jack's success alongside Cricket Pate (Chronicle's Dane DeHaan) is born out of hard work, and when things go well, it's hard to blame them for celebrating and emulating the likes of Floyd Banner and Al Capone.

 Guy Pearce nearly steals the show as Charlie Rakes, the preening, squeaky-voiced Special Deputy with an affinity for brutality, matched only by his insistence on keeping clean at all times. Rakes wears one pair of gloves when beating Jack and another for when he chooses to use his gun. It's a greater insult to mar his face or mess his hair than to openly break the law, although it turns out there's one thing that Rakes hates even more than being disliked by criminals. With his shaved eyebrows and strange accent, it would be easy for Charlie Rakes to slip into caricature, to stand out too much from the rest of the cast, but Pearce always keeps him in check, a potent threat and not merely a joke of an antagonist.

 I realize I haven't even mentioned Jessica Chastain, who plays Maggie Beauford, a woman who left Chicago and came to Franklin county looking for work. She ends up in the gas station / restaurant the Bondurants use as a "cover" for their business, and like everybody else in Lawless, her history is far more complicated than one might suspect. Chastain has more to work with than Wasikowska as a character, and I was pleasantly surprised that despite what and who Maggie knows that her character's development is more than a plot device. There are a number of other recognizable actors in smaller roles that made me happy as the film went on: Noah Taylor (Almost Famous, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) is Floyd Banner's right hand man, Lew Temple (The Devil's Rejects, Unstoppable) is one of Franklin county's deputies, and even Jason Clarke, the Bondurant brother who isn't as well known, has been memorable on Brotherhood and in Death Race, Public Enemies, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

 Okay, so clearly I haven't even mentioned Tom Hardy yet, who is the main attraction for most people who don't know who John Hillcoat is. After The Dark Knight Rises, he's on everybody's radar, and while I'd love it if more of you would go back and watch Bronson, Layer Cake, Inception, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I'm happy you're going to see Lawless because he's in it. And disappoint Hardy does not: Forrest Bondurant is mostly silent, and Hardy finds ways to diminish his size under baggy sweaters and an oversized fedora. When Forrest speaks, he often begins by muttering or making a noise that feels less like an acting choice and more like an appropriate reaction to he's just heard. There's a great scene near the end of the film between Hardy and Chastain that suggests even Forrest can't separate the legend from fact about his life.

 I mentioned before that Lawless is based on a true story, documented in The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson of one of the brothers. The film closes with a picture of the real Bondurant brothers as boys, and gives greater context to Jack's narration during the film, one that rides the line between the myth of the family and the reality as it moves forward to the other side of Prohibition. Also adding to the film's slightly unreal quality is the choices in music (performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, as well as The Bootleggers, Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris), most of which are anachronistic to say the least.

 That said, while it's initially strange to hear "White Light / White Heat" or Townes Van Zandt's "Snake Song" in a film set in the 1930s, the lyrically appropriate choices don't distract in a way that, say, Moulin Rouge does. Only "White Light / White Heat" is immediately recognizable, and it appears more than once during the film in different incarnations.

 Finally, this may simply be the Cap'n alone on crazy island, but the climactic showdown of Lawless reminded me of the end of Porky's. That's not in any way meant to diminish my enjoyment of the film, or even to suggest that the two movies are in any way similar, but somewhere my loony brain made that synaptic connection. Go figure.

Sunday, September 2, 2012