Monday, April 30, 2012

Zardoz

If nothing else, Zardoz (1974) is a daring movie. Directed by John Boorman, who was coming off the success of Deliverance, it is chock full of ideas about the social class system, human sexuality, and mortality, and it contains ambitious special effects in creating a most unusual and certainly unforgettable world. However, Zardoz is memorable for all the wrong reasons, dragged down by an unintentional level of hilarity that destroys any dignity of the cast and crew. Only completely sincere people could have made a movie as bad as Zardoz.

In the year 2293, Zed (Sean Connery) is an Exterminator, a merciless killer who hunts down Breeders, people who spread the seed of life poisoning the earth. Zed also worships Zardoz, a giant floating stone head that declares, "The gun is good. The penis is evil." One day, Zed sneaks inside of Zardoz and ends up in the Vortex, an encased society of immortals known as the Eternals. As a "Brutal," Zed threatens the very existence of the Vortex.

Look at that picture of Connery. Gaze at it. Take it in. That man to many is the definitive James Bond. Now consider this, while he spends most of the movie dressed like this, it is not the least dignified costume he wears. Do I need to continue? How is anyone supposed to take this movie seriously when the hero looks like ... that? Doesn't that picture tell you enough about what to expect? 

Maybe Zardoz would have worked better as a novel like Brave New World or 1984. The ideas are certainly intriguing enough, but the way they're realized is ridiculous. Consider this: 1984 had at its center Winston Smith, a relatively normal guy we could relate to or at least understand. Brave New World begins with essentially a history lesson explaining this weird new society. Zardoz has neither; it just flings us right into the swing of things without bothering to properly introduce us or get us acclimated.

We meet Zed and already he's defying the order of things by climbing into Zardoz, but we don't learn this (or his name) until much later and in flashback. We open in the hilly countryside with a party of horsemen dress similarly like Zed, praying to Zardoz and receiving guns. Five minutes, we leave this cast of characters and are dropped literally into another strange section of society. Very little of the narrative or the background is explained in a coherent manner or given a proper context. To the audience, it's just a lot of weird shit.

Consider the Apathetics, a sub-sect of the Eternals who are so bored by immortality they have literally stopped interacting with the world and merely stand in place not reacting to anything. Zed's first response to learning this is to grab a woman's breast and throw her on a pile of straw to ravish her in full view of a room full of people. When she still does not respond, he picks up a barrel, runs across the room, and smashes it. Describing the act in print makes it sound creepy and uncomfortable, but to see it played out is unintentionally funny.  It's like, really, that's the first thing he thought to do? Later, we discover Zed's ultra-masculinity somehow stirs the Apathetics from their malaise or something like that. The Eternals also exert psychic powers by extending their arms out and humming; all they have to do is say ooga-booga.

I liked some of the ideas present in Zardoz. We learn the Eternals were originally the elite of society who shielded themselves with mankind's intellectual achievements when the  world went to hell in a hand basket, and they use a false idol, Zardoz, to control the rest of humanity which has descended into barbarism, a rather interesting take on The Time Machine's notion of two opposite societies. Eternals who rebel are aged into senility forever because they can't die, and I've always been a fan of stories in which the "uncultured" outsider clashes with the established order. But seriously, when the leaders of the Vortex start going on about the evil of Sean Connery's erection (no joke), any seriousness or credibility vanishes.

Zardoz is unlike any other sci fi movie I've ever seen, and it's memorable, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Today, most bad sci fi movies are terrible in all the same safe and commercial way, but Zardoz is bad in a way all of its own. For that reason alone, it's actually worth seeing.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tideland

Terry Gilliam, the American Python, the only American member of the Monty Python, and the crazed genius behind the troupe's distinctive, surreal animation. When Monty Python split up, Gilliam established himself as an idiosyncratic director in his own right with such unique sci fi and fantasy movies as Time Bandits, Brazil, and Twelve Monkeys. He also delved into more dramatic fare with the likes of The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, although even these films retained his bizarre visual style and sensibilities.

Tideland (2005), more in the style of those latter two movies, is distinctively Gilliam. A borderline horror movie in the vein of Psycho or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tideland plays as an extremely warped and some might say troubling variation of Alice in Wonderland, and like some of Gilliam's earlier work, it's about childhood and imagination and how those can be shields against the hardships of reality. Tideland also shows how too much imagination and denial of reality can drag someone into deep trouble. It's a hallucinatory meditation on the danger of innocence.

Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is the 11-year-old daughter Noah (Jeff Bridges), an aging hippy musician with a heroin addiction, and Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), a white-trash type who loves chocolate. When Queen Gunhilda overdoses, Noah takes Jeliza-Rose to the abandoned farmhouse of his dead mother to hide, but before long, he's dead too. Jeliza-Rose doesn't seem to notice her father continually decomposing and becomes lost in her little fantasy world along with her "friends," the disembodied Barbie doll heads she carries around on her fingertips. They all have different names and personalities (and are all voiced by Ferland): Mustique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal. Jeliza-Rose also encounters another pair of strange characters: Dell (Janet McTeer), a one-eyed beekeeper mistaken for a witch, and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), Del's lobotomized, epileptic brother.

In his introduction on the DVD, Gilliam says many people will hate this movie, many will love it, and many will not know how to react, and he's right. This is a challenging, alienating, dark, and often unpleasant film, especially when you consider the main character is a young girl. We see her perform many questionable actions: preparing the heroin for her father to inject, dressing up his corpse with a wig and makeup, and, in probably the most unsettling part of the movie, becoming the "girlfriend" of Dickens, who must at least be 30. We even see the two kiss. We see Jeliza-Rose engage in all this behavior without understanding what it means. Without any parental or adult guidance, she's left to her fantasies, and this distorts her perception of reality.

Gilliam's strong visual style remains on display. We get rather beautiful shots of wheat fields and a fantasy sequence of Jeliza-Rose swimming underwater. Then we get shots of that living spaces that Leatherface would feel right at home in: dank walls, rotten wood, filth, stuffed animals (as in taxidermy), flies buzzing on Noah's corpse (which is increasingly worse for wear and always propped up in his chair), and the warped angles on Jeliza-Rose's doll heads that make them appear larger than her.

I think my problem with Tideland is that there's too much of it. Gilliam is a famously indulgent filmmaker when it comes to style, but at two hours in length, Tideland is at least a half hour too long and repetitious. There's not enough story to justify the running time. I took similar issue with Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas; the same point is hammered home repeatedly without much variation while the on-screen depravity piles on. What begins as shocking but intriguing gradually becomes tedious and merely uncomfortable.

Zulu

In his review of the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, Roger Ebert said he was going to try not to discuss religion; he just wanted to focus on the movie. I'm going to try to do the same with my review of Zulu (1964), which depicts a small force of British forces fighting an overwhelming force of Zulu warriors at the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War. We can probably spend all day discussing the impact of colonialism and imperialism on Africa, and the historical accuracies of the movie, but right now, I'm more interested in answering the question of whether Zulu remains an effective and involving motion picture about one heroic stand. I believe it does.

War has broken out between British Army and the forces of Zulu King Cetewayo, and the Zulu forces have achieved the upper hand after annihilating a British detachment at the Battle of Isandlwana. Before long, the Zulus are advancing on a supply and hospital outpost occupied by the British Army's 24th Regiment of Foot at Rorke's Drift. Upon learning news of the defeat at Isandlwana, Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the Royal Engineers assumes command of the unit from its less experienced leader, Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). The soldiers, numbering around 100, dig in and fortify the place as thousands of Zulus warriors advance.

The best praise I can give Zulu is how even nearly 50 years after its release, with such titles as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan in its wake, it remains an intense depiction of warfare. As presented in the film, Her Majesty's fighting men are in a desperate, pitched fight for survival, throwing everything they have into the maelstrom and trying to hold on until relief arrives. Sure, it's not as graphic or gory as later war movies, but combat remains a draining, exhaustive, chaotic, and dangerous enterprise. The men grow tired and become dirty as all the smoke, dirt, sweat, and soot pile on. The soldiers, organized in lines and firing volleys against the attacking warriors, frequently become engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting as they struggle to hold their lines. If the line should break, we know they are lost. In a brief pause in the fighting, we see the soldiers rationing out spoonfuls of water.

The film effectively builds up to the showdown between the British and the Zulus, opening with narration discussing Isandlwana and then showing the corpse-strewn battlefield. From there, the film takes its time, waiting as the British frantically rush about to prepare a defense, not knowing when the Zulus will arrive but knowing they surely will. We get some little dramas between the characters as they argue whether to retreat, and some of the men require some prodding to fight.

Once the Zulus arrive, the battle begins and doesn't let up until the movie's over. They attack from different sides, sending in wave after wave of warriors against the outnumbered British. There are brief interludes, pauses in which the soldiers (and the audience) wait anxiously for the next attack, on edge about how and where it will come. It's the classic siege scenario done with energy and intensity.

Zulu isn't really a character-driven movie. The important thing is how everyone looks and feels like they belong to this far-flung military unit. While there are individual acts of heroics performed throughout the film and although there are a number of recognizable stars in the cast, this is not a movie about one superstar actor dominating the whole show. It's more about the collective group of men, these highly disciplined soldiers who stood firm in the face of seemingly insurmountably odds.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

My knowledge of J. Edgar Hoover is limited. Here's about all I know: he was director of the F.B.I. for nearly 50 years, supposedly had dirt on everyone of importance during that time, was a lifelong bachelor, and there are rumors and innuendo he wore dresses and was a repressed homosexual. Hoover remains an enigmatic and fascinating figure of modern American history as evidenced by the recent movie J. Edgar directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Considering how long he was around, how many high-profile events he was a part of, and the intrigue surrounding his character, Hoover is ripe for cinematic treatment.

Well, I'm not here to review the recent Hollywood effort, but rather the nearly forgotten The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) directed by Larry Cohen. Cohen is the low-budget wunderkind responsible for the mutant baby It's Alive trilogy, Q the Winged Serpent, some Blaxploitation vehicles,  and other genre fare. He's also the writer behind recent high-concept scripts like Phone Booth and Cellular. His trademark involves taking schlocky subject matter and infusing it with wit, dark humor, and quirky characters. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is clearly a case of Cohen's ambition exceeding his craft. Despite good casting and touches of authenticity, the movie lacks focus and coherence on its subject.

The film opens with the announcement of Hoover's death in 1972 after 48 years as FBI chief. As a young man played by James Wright, we see him progress from lawyer in the Justice Department during the Palmer Raids to his appointment to the FBI and his campaign against John Dillinger and other gangsters of the 1930s. Later, played by Broderick Crawford, Hoover clashes with the like of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as he builds up the reputation of the FBI. All the while, he engages in wiretapping, snooping, and other ethically questionably and potentially illegal actions to assemble files on his enemies and others.

The main problem with The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is how it tries to cram 48 years worth of history into less than two hours of screen time, and as a result, very little resonates. Prominent historical figures are introduced, setting up what looks like conflict, and then they're hardly mentioned again. Certain developments occur off-screen, leaving us to guess what happened. Only the bare-bones information is included, leaving out any details that would bring character or humanity to any of the events. It feels like we're watching a passionless recitation of facts rather than any sort of narrative. There are moments, but nothing builds; they just happen. 

Both Wright and Crawford are good as Hoover. Crawford looks very much like the real-life Hoover; it's uncanny. There are some great moments throughout the film, and the period details, given the low budget, are effective in conveying the past. Unfortunately, the movie is literally a cast of dozens, and even though they look right, so few are established. Too often, I was left confused trying to remember or figure out who everyone was.

What makes the film unique is how it was apparently filmed in the actual locations Hoover frequented and worked. Reportedly, Cohen was unable to get permission from the FBI to film at their offices, but one day, then-First Lady Betty Ford found out Dan Dailey, who plays Hoover's longtime assistant (and rumored lover, although the movie seems to refute this) Clyde Tolson, was in town for a movie. She invited Dailey and Crawford to the White House for lunch, and Cohen, ever the opportunist, called all the locations he wanted to film at and mentioned how his stars were dining at the White House, making it seem like they had official backing. When the movie was screened, it was reported both Democrats and Republicans took offense, and apparently there was some kind of legal dust up between the filmmakers and the FBI over the movie's release.

In the end, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover doesn't really delve deep enough into any of its potential stories or offer much insight into Hoover. I think this is a case where the story behind the scenes is more interesting than the actually movie that was made. Think about it: a B-Movie horror director makes his would-be magnum opus, a bio-pic about America's top cop, in defiance of the FBI and in the process bamboozles a number of government agencies to let him film at their offices and training grounds. There's a delicious irony there.


Videodrome

To quote Keanu Reeves from The Matrix, "Whoa." How else can I describe my reaction to David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)? It bares all the hallmarks of his work: graphic violence, warped sexuality, bodies and minds mutating and changing in horrifying ways, and reality-bending weirdness. Having watched the movie at least twice, I still can't say I understood it or can discern what really happened and what was a hallucination of the protagonist. Still, I remain fascinated by Videodrome, curious to peel back the layers and find the method and purpose to its madness.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a sleazy Toronto cable station specializing in "soft-core porn and hardcore violence." Renn is looking for the next big thing, something "tough" to take his station to the next level and show his audience something they've never seen. He soon discovers "Videodrome," a pirated show with no plot or characters, just violence and torture. Renn becomes convinced this is what he's been looking for. Before long, Renn begins having fantastical and quite gruesome hallucinations related to Videodrome and interacting with a host of strange, sometimes dangerous people: Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a radio psychologist Renn romances who wants to audition for Videodrome; Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a prophet who speaks only through prerecorded television monologues and considers television the reality of the future; Bianca O'Blivion (Sonja Smitt), O'Blivion's daughter who runs a mission that provides the homeless daily doses of television; and Barry Convex (Les Carlson), the head of the company that developed Videodrome.

"The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome," O'Blivion intones. "[W]hatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television."

Our reality is determined by the experiences of our five senses: touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. Those sensations in turn are shaped by our minds. To quote another Matrix  character, "Your mind makes it real." Television influences are minds, which in turn influences are senses, which in turn influences our reality. Videodrome is about how something as powerful as a television signal can be used to corrupt our minds and alter our reality if those who broadcast it saw fit to do so. As we see what happens with Renn, Videodrome is capable of "programming" people.

Television has become so ingrained in our society over the past 50-60 years or so, and that's reflected in Videodrome. When we first meet Max, he's asleep in his apartment with the TV on, a prerecorded message plays to get him up. Television for Max is his livelihood and his life so much so that it extends beyond his waking existence. Later, on a talk show, Max defends his product's smut on the grounds it gives consumers a healthy outlet for emotions. Meanwhile, at Bianca's mission, we see television as the new alter of worship, a need as important as food and shelter. That dependence can be exploited.

The hallucinations Max undergoes, triggered by a brain tumor caused by Videodrome, are freaky and disgusting. Special props must go to Rick Baker because the effects are top-notch. Like reality itself, flesh too is capable of bending and changing in seemingly impossible ways. If television and Videodrome can take over your mind and alter your perception of reality, just imagine what kind of havoc it can wreak of your body. Body horror is a theme Cronenberg regularly explores; the changes that our flesh undergoes can be just frightening and horrific as the threat of death.

Cronenberg proves yet again what a master he is. Even as the grue and weirdness pile on, Videodrome  remains intensely cerebral and involving. It's definitely one of his finest works.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Omega Man

Richard Matheson's vampire novel I Am Legend has been adapted three times to the silver screen. The most recent was in 2007 with the Will Smith vehicle of the same name, the first was the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man on Earth (1964), and starring Charlton Heston, The Omega Man (1971). Each film carries the same premise: a lone scientist remains the last uninfected human after a plague transformed the rest of humanity into vampires, mutants, or CGI rejects from The Mummy. Matheson's work remains one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century, a brilliant examination of how the social norms became flipped and how one man deals with the psychological burden of being totally alone. And it's scary. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for The Omega Man (or the other adaptations for that matter).

Colonel Robert Neville (Heston) is the last man alive in Los Angeles after biological warfare broke out on a global scale, but he is not alone. The Family, other survivors of the war who were mutated into light-fearing albinos under the leadership of former news broadcaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), believe science, technology, and other modern facets of society ended the world. Donning black robes, by night they burn books, destroy any remnants of the old society, and hunt Neville, the last living reminder of a failed civilization. By day, Neville hunts them and deals with his isolation. When he meets a group of infected survivors who aren't as far gone as the Family, Neville believes he can process a cure using his immune blood.

Why filmmakers purchase the rights to a vampire novel and then change the monsters from vampires to mutant albinos in robes, I have no idea. The whole point of I Am Legend is the normal and the supernatural had changed places. Vampires were now society, and humans were myth. Neville unknowingly had become the monster lurking in the shadows, the tale told to frighten vampires. Vampires have a long cinematic history and an even longer literary tradition; many cultures around the world have folk tales involving vampire or vampire-like creatures. Changing the creatures from vampires to generic mutants loses that lineage, and thus the theme of the novel is lost.

Early on in the film, we get some effective shots of Neville driving and walking through a deserted, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, but this aspect of the film is not explored in depth enough. Neville gets into a fights with the mutants, has a few flashbacks to his time as a scientist trying to stop the plague, and makes wisecracks to a bust of Julius Caesar. The true sense of isolation and loneliness is only there for a few instances, like when Neville spots the calendar of a pinup, finds himself surrounded my mannequins, or goes to the theater to watch Woodstock. It isn't long before Neville is captured by the family and rescued by the other survivors.

The other human survivors aren't very compelling, and two of them, including the love interest, engage in groan-inducing, stupid behavior. The Family fares better. Sure, they look kind of campy and silly, but they have their interest. The idea of Matthias, who in a way brought the Gospel of modernity through television, is now a rabid fanatic who preaches to a cult against technology is an interesting substitute for the novel's original subtext. It's the final battle between science and faith to a certain degree. The Family has the convictions of its beliefs, and they believe they will purge the world of evil by killing Neville. The mutants aren't particularly frightening though but are suitably Gothic, and to the movie's credit, it has a number of exciting action scenes.

The Omega Man is fun enough as a sci action movie, but as an adaptation of Matheson's work, it's disappointing. By jettisoning the vampires, the movie dates itself to the early 70s and really doesn't bother with the novel's deeper ideas. Still, it at least inspired one of my favorite Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes: "The Homega Man."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Batman Forever

Like one of its villains, Batman Forever (1995) is schizophrenic. There were times while watching it I was really into it, and then there were times that made me cringe. The first Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever contains many of the same elements that would be pushed to the nth degree in Batman & Robin, but here, it's mostly toned down and easier to take. While there are still plenty of boneheaded decisions on the part of the filmmakers that keep this from being good, Batman Forever remains passably entertaining, which is more than I can muster for its sequel.

Batman (Val Kilmer) is dealing with an old friend turned enemy: Harvey "Two-Face" Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), the former district attorney who became a warped criminal after acid scarred half of his face. Two-Face bases his crimes and actions on the number two, deciding fates on the flip of a coin. At a charity circus, Two-Face kills the acrobat family the Flying Graysons, all except for the youngest Dick (Chris O'Donnell). Bruce Wayne takes Dick in as his ward, who before long learns his benefactor is Batman. Dick desperately wants to become Batman's partner so he can kill Two-Face, but Wayne won't allow it. Meanwhile, a spurned Waynetech employee, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), becomes the Riddler, leaves Bruce Wayne anonymous puzzles, and goes to Two-Face with a proposition: they will learn learn Batman's identity and drain Gotham City of its brain waves.

Lighter and brighter than the previous movies in the series directed by Tim Burton, Batman Forever has more going for it than Batman & Robin. Yes, the tacky neon lights are still here, but they're used more sparingly and effectively. The action scenes are engaging and not overwhelmed by noise and chaos, and Kilmer, while not a standout, at least manages to keep his dignity intact, unlike George Clooney. There are a few genuine laughs here and there, like when Alfred tells Bruce that Master Dick took the car. "Not the Jaguar. The other car."

Like Batman & Robin, there are too many story lines fighting for screen, and a number of them get short-changed. I've never been a fan of the Robin character, but his arc here and how Bruce Wayne sees a parallel between their family tragedies and desires for revenge work pretty well. It opens up some moral implications: is Batman inspiring others to emulate his lifestyle, and what choices will Dick Grayson make? Will he go down the same path? Also, O'Donnell is nowhere near as annoying as he was in the next installment of the franchise.

At around two hours in length, Batman Forever feels truncated. It feels like there are missing scenes that would further go into the characters and explain what appear to be plot holes in the movie: the psychiatrist Batman/Bruce Wayne romances (Nicole Kidman) wavers back and forth between the "two" men without much elaboration; Dick Grayson runs away but in his next scene appears as Robin without showing how or why he came back; and when Dick discovers the Batcave with Alfred in it, he is then seeing driving the Batmobile (that doesn't seem like something Alfred or the cave's security system would allow).

But for me, the biggest detriment to Batman Forever was its treatment of its villains. Frankly, it's awful. Jones, who I believe was a great choice for Two-Face, is a second-rate Joker clone, cackling and hamming it up when he should be deadly serious, grizzled, and pained. Like Mr. Freeze, he's something of a tragic figure, a once good man warped and twisted who now leaves everything up to the whimsy of fate. Nor is he helped by the ridiculous costume and makeup that makes him look purple. We rarely see him flip the coin, and one time he does, he continues to flip it until he gets the result he wants. That goes against the spirit of the character; in the comics and elsewhere, whatever side the coin landed on, Two-Face accepted it without question. With Jones acting like a campy villain, he's just another goon. He just kinds of appears and disappears throughout the story, never really having an ultimate scheme, which makes him feel second-rate.

Which brings me to the Riddler. Let me illustrate something: I like Jim Carrey. I love the Ace Ventura movies and enjoy his work in comedy. That said, I hate his performance as the Riddler. I know Riddler is meant to be obnoxious and full of himself, but this is too much. Carrey pretty much just mucks it up for the camera, causing any threat or intelligence this guy is supposed to possess to just dissipate. He never shuts up or stops with the silly posturing, and he goes off on weird tangents and bits that were better left in Dumb and Dumber. He's a distraction. The frustrating part is how much better his story line is written than Two-Face's, going from the loyal, starstruck employee to a deranged, obsessed fanatic out for revenge. With a more controlled actor who could project the intelligence and demented threat, it could have been great.

I guess you could say Batman Forever splits the difference. Not as good as the Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan movies and not as bad as Batman & Robin, it at least does a competent job as a comic-book blockbuster. With better treatment of the villains, it could have been so much more.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bruiser

Poor George Romero. The creator of the modern zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead, he never really got the respect in Hollywood he deserved. The list of films he almost made is probably longer than his actual filmography. In the 1990s alone, he was attached to a number of high-profile projects that were cancelled or he got the boot from: The Mummy, Resident Evil, Goosebumps, and an intriguing project known as Before I Wake (which apparently fell apart after the studio demanded Sharon Stone star and she declined) just to name a few. This trend continues today. In the past eight years, he's made three zombie movies (two of which were independently financed in Canada), but no one will give him money for anything else. That's a shame because I admire his other work greatly.

The last non-zombie movie from Romero came in 2000 with Bruiser, a fascinating if ultimately flat change of pace for the renowned gore master. A revenge fantasy about a man who loses his identity and his face, Bruiser contains some interesting stylistic touches and engaging performances, but it lacks a certain edge and doesn't have many elements that would please horror fans. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised Romero can't find financing for other projects.

Fashion magazine executive Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) is the ultimate wimp. Everyone walks all over him. His boss Milo (Peter Stormare) degrades him at work, his wife Janine (Nina Garbiras) cheats on him, and his best friend James (Andrew Tarbet) is ripping him off. Henry possesses morbid thought of suicide as well as lashing out against those who have wronged him. The only person he seems to connect with Rosemary (Leslie Hope), Milo's wife. One day, after a company barbecue, Henry wakes up to find his face covered with a blank white mask, erasing his identity.

Seeing as how this was Romero's first picture in about seven or eight years after being misused in Hollywood, Bruiser is an angry picture. Henry has been continually wronged by the time we meet him, putting up with so much crap, and dealing with all sorts of shady people that something finally snaps. We never learn explicitly why the mask appears on his face, how it got there, or even if it's really there. The blankness of it reflects Henry's own emptiness and lack of self-worth.

The first 30 minutes or so are solid in establishing Henry and his life. There's a nice scene at the company barbecue where Rosemary makes a mold mask of everyone's face and tells them to decorate it so people know who it's supposed to be; poor Henry is so meek he can't think of anything to put on the mask. His house, an incomplete mansion in some state of construction, is dotted with plastic sheets that slightly obscure Henry's face, so he's somewhat unrecognizable. Intermixed with his mundane life are Henry's fantasies of revenge and murder until the mask become fixed to his face, and one fantasy turns out to be real. From there, Henry seeks to reclaim his identity from those who took it. As he kills those who have harmed him, Henry paints the mask, the ghostly pale slowly becoming stained with war paint.

Romero's earlier movies have a gritty feeling, lots of jump cuts and a frantic style of editing. Bruiser is more polished with a lot of smoother camerawork and a less rushed pace. Unfortunately, the earlier scenes and fantasies that offer the promise of a twisted, surreal descent into madness result in a rather ordinary revenge piece. The scenes of Henry finally taking revenge against all the bad people in his life should pack a punch. They should build in excitement and tension, but for the most part, they just kind of happen without much fanfare. As a result, there's little satisfaction in seeing these nasty people get their just desserts nor do we feel much suspense. Thankfully, the performances, especially Flemyng and Stormare (who steals the show in a very over-the-top showing), carry the movie, making it at least a passable melodrama with spikes of dark humor.

In the end, Romero seems like he's trying to balance the trappings of a thriller and with the freedom of an art house movie with Bruiser, and while there's some intrigue in the latter, the former is a disappointment. Still, it's an interesting change of pace for a director who seemingly can't escape the undead, and any movie that climaxes at a Misfits concert has to be doing something right.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

All the elements for a gritty crime story are there: the boozing detective, the dumb sap taking the rap for a murder he didn't commit, the alluring femme fatale, the corrupt authority figure, the ineffectual law enforcement, the greedy real estate developers, the blackmail scheme, the fedoras, the cigarettes, the adultery, and the seedy backstage dealings of Hollywood. Make the central character a cartoon bunny rabbit, and you get Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a hilarious take on all those hard-boiled detective movies from the 1940s that also works as an engaging comic mystery in its own right.

P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by studio executive R.K. Maroon (Alan Tivern) to do a little snooping because his biggest star Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer) is distracted by the tabloid coverage of his buxom wife Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner). Valiant finds Jessica engaged in a little "patty-cake" with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toontown and the Acme Corporation. Before long, Acme is dead from a safe being dropped on his head, and the rabbit is the prime suspect. Roger Rabbit turns to Valiant to help clear his name because he got him in this mess and because Valiant has famously helped other toons in the past. Valiant insists he doesn't work for toons anymore, not since one killed his brother Teddy, but he gets dragged along on the case before he knows it. Acme's death also leaves the ownership of Toontown in question because his will can't be found, and all the while, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) vows to bring to Roger Rabbit to justice by putting him in "Dip," the only thing that can kill a toon.

I guess you could say this Chinatown meets Looney Tunes (and Disney). You have the deadly seriousness and cynicism of film noir crossed with the zany anarchy of cartoons, and somehow that dichotomy of bleakness and corruption against cartoon slapstick and wit works. How the blackmail plot and framing of Roger Rabbit ties together is compelling in its own right, and the antics of Toons are funny.

The technical credits are impressive, both in the recreation of 1940s Hollywood and the mixing of live-action sets and actions with animation (and vice versa). In a world in which the existence of living cartoons is just a fact of life and never questioned, it never feels like a gimmick; it comes off as genuine so even the adult audience members can accept it.

Hoskins is great, essentially playing the straight man to all the chaos around him. It's even more praiseworthy when you consider there were many scenes in which he had to act off of cartoon characters that were drawn in later. Lloyd is a memorable villain, providing a suitable comic menace. Of course, the most important character is Roger Rabbit; it's easy to see how he could have gone too far and become obnoxious. Yes, he's annoying, but he's supposed to be, and pairing him with a tight wad like Valiant was comic gold.

I've seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit many times since I was kid, and with this most recent viewing, I picked up a lot more on the more subtle jokes, double entendres, and hidden gags that I've never noticed before. It's just one of those movies you can watch again and again at different ages and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Batman & Robin

I think I first saw Batman & Robin (1997) when it came out on video. I couldn't remember much about it other than it clearly wasn't as good as the earlier movies in the series. I never thought much of it until I discovered the film's reputation on the Internet, and since then, as a pop-culture aficionado, I joined in mocking and deriding it any chance I could. Still, I always felt awkward making fun something I could barely recollect, and I've always admired director Joel Schumacher's honesty and willingness to accept the film disappointed people. He's even apologized in interviews. With that in mind, I decided to revisit the picture and see what value I could gleam from it.

Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) have a new enemy: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a brilliant scientist turned super villain after an accident mutated him, forcing him to keep his body at sub-zero temperatures to survive. Freeze has been driven mad in his pursuit to cure his cryogenically frozen wife who is dying of a rare disease. At the same time, another villain, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) wants to reclaim the world for plants starting with Gotham City, and to do that, she's using a pheromone to pit Dark Knight against the Boy Wonder. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's longtime butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) is dying, and he summons to Wayne Manor his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), who by film's end joins the team as Batgirl.

I've always believed less is more. Understatement and subtlety go a long way while going over-the-top and in-your-face, which certainly work sometimes, can quickly become grating and distracting. There are the seeds for a compelling Batman story (or three) in Batman & Robin, but they are buried beneath a sea of gaudy, neon lighting; tacky sets; ridiculous costumes; uninteresting action; cornball dialogue; and embarrassing and embarrassed performances.

When Tim Burton held the reigns of the franchise in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), he kept things edgy, in the shadows, and controlled. Schumacher lets everything get away from him, losing sight of the plot and characters in the process. There's just so so much auditory and visual activity bombarding the picture, you just sit there overwhelmed while watching. It's too bright, too loud, and too chaotic.

There are three potentially interesting story lines in the movie (There are more than three plot threads, but these are the only ones of any interest): Mr. Freeze's tragic background and his being goaded into attacking Gotham, Poison Ivy manipulating the Dynamic Duo into fighting over her, and the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred as the latter hangs perilously close to death. Only one of these story lines works.

Schwarzennegar is horribly miscast. His persona overshadows the entire movie, and instead of a haunting, tragic Mr. Freeze, we get a goofball in a silly costume spouting terrible one-liners about cold and ice. While his background is right, his actions are nonsensical. Instead of working toward curing his wife, he makes his henchmen (dressed as Eskimo hockey players in case we didn't get the cold motif) sing songs from Christmas specials. Meanwhile, Thurman, a good actress elsewhere, is just awful as Ivy. Instead of cunning and seductive, she's freakishly vampish and overplays the villain aspect. I didn't even mention Bane (Jeep Swenson); in the comics, Bane is the brilliant strategist who is also strong enough to have broken Batman's back. Here, he's a roided-up, nearly mute brute who acts as Ivy's lapdog.

The heroes aren't much better. I've always insisted Clooney could have been a good Batman in a better written movie; since his turn as the Dark Knight, he's played a surprising number of edgy, quirky characters given his superstar status. Here, he's given nothing to work with, and a result, he's an empty suit. O'Donnell as Robin is worse, coming off as an entitled, whining little shit that you want Batman to punch out. Silverstone contributes nothing, hardly factoring in until the end.

What works? Gough brings dignity as Alfred, making his subplot the only story of any emotional resonance. His scenes with Clooney are the best because they are quiet, patient, and heartfelt. They get the mood right, and treat the situation seriously. Like everything, it's limited to a few token scenes, but I'll take what I can get.

Is Batman & Robin the worst movie ever made? No. Although there's very little to recommend about and it is certainly the nadir of the Caped Crusader on the big screen, it's mostly just disappointing, filled with missed opportunities; underdeveloped characters; contradictory tones; and ridiculous costumes, sets, and special effects.There is a fair degree of technical competence and a few moments worthy of the Batman legacy, but everything boils down a misplaced level of intent that pushes the film in the wrong direction at nearly every step. In the end, it's a poorly written, empty shell.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Deathdream

The late Bob Clark was nothing if not an eclectic filmmaker, directing movies across a wide array of genres. From the family holiday classic A Christmas Story to the Sherlock Holmes piece Murder by Decree and the raunchy teen comedy Porky's and the (shudder) Baby Genius movies, Clark's been around. Deathdream (1974, also known as Dead of Night) was one of three cult horror movies he made in the seventies, the others being the slasher Black Christmas and the zombie movie Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. Dead of Night proves to be an effective low-budget shocker with an intriguing subtext: the disintegration of the American family in the wake of the Vietnam War).

The Brooks family - father Charles (John Marley), mother Christine (Lynn Carlin, and daughter Cathy (Anya Ormsby) - are sitting at the dinner table when they receive news their son Andy (Richard Backus) has been killed in action in Vietman. Charles is in shock, and Cathy weeps, but Christine refuses to believe it. Sitting up by candlelight, she refuses to accept his death, insisting he promised to return. Later, Andy does indeed return; apparently the Army made a mistake. The family rejoices, although Andy cryptically notes he was dead. Andy displays other strange behavior: he stays in his room all day, he acts cold and distant toward everyone, and the cheerful demeanor he had before the war is gone. Dead bodies soon begin turning up in town, all showing signs they've been drained of blood. Charles suspects Andy might be involved with the murders, but Christine refuses to believe her son could do any wrong.

The story uses the premise from the Monkey Paw: a character wishes for something they later wish hadn't. It's served as the basis for a number of horror movies and thrillers, and here it works quite well. By updating the premise to middle America in the throes of the Vietnam War, Clark and his screenwriter Alan Ormsby pack in quite the political and personal punch.

The trope of the alienated Vietnam veteran has been used in a number of non-genre films including First Blood, Born on the Fourth of July, and Coming Home. There's always that fear of families who send patriotic youthful men off to war that they will not return or if they do, something about them has changed, whether it be crippling injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness, or as was common in Vietnam, addiction to heroin and other drugs. In Deathdream, the happy young man who went off to fight has returned an undead monster. The early scenes of Andy interacting with his family has an eerie, unsettling atmosphere to them. We can something is off about him, but we're not sure what. We're just waiting for the horror that's bubbling beneath the surface to erupt. Reinforcing the Vietnam connection is Andy's method of extracting blood from his victims: a hypodermic needle. It's hard not see the sight of the vampire inject through his arm his victim's blood and not think of a heroin addict.

Performances, despite some lackluster dialogue, are good all around. Marley is solid as the father who not knowing to react to his strange son turns to anger and drink as is Carlin as the doting, denying mother who must eventually learn to accept what her son has become. You really get the sense the family's stability and happiness is falling apart. The standout role is Backus; he's not frothing at the mouth or over-the-top, just quiet, awkward, and calculating.

Dead of Night
also marks one of the first movies in which Tom Savini created the special makeup effects. The master behind the splatter horror of Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th shows his early promise with some cheap but effective work. In fact, another movie Savini did the effects for, George Romero's Martin, would make an interesting companion piece to Deathdream, seeing as how both films re-envisioned the modern vampire as a troubled boy-next-door.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pink Floyd The Wall

The Wall by Pink Floyd is my favorite music album. It contains a number of my favorite songs - "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," "Hey You," "Mother," and "Comfortably Numb" - and it has a sprawling ambition and daring which, given how sugar-coated and homogenized music has become today, stands out even more. Plus, the central message - the emotional walls we build to keep the outside world out - speaks to me.

Directed by Alan Parker, Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) is probably as good of a movie as we could have expected from an adaptation of the album. The hyper-stylized movie showcases the music of the album and attaches images to augment the music. It is the sound of the album visualized, and the result is often disorienting, bizarre, surreal, freaky, and brilliant.

Rock star Pink (Bob Geldoff) is a burned-out basket case. Everything that has happened in his life - the death of his father in World War II, the smothering upbringing by his mother, the oppressive environment of primary education, the infidelity of his wife - has turned him into a emotional zombie. He walls himself off from the world, literally in his hotel room and mentally from having any sort of human feelings or interaction.

The film does not possess a standard, three-act plot structure. We just bare witness to Pink's fragile psyche as he drifts in and out of different memories, hallucinations, and events. Split between live action and animation by political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, it zeroes in on every hangup of this troubled rock star: his issues with women, absence of a father, fear of nuclear annihilation, drug problems, and life as a touring musician. All these elements contributed to his building of his metaphorical wall.

Parker crafts some very striking images during the live action sequences: Pink staring blankly at his TV in his trashed hotel room; the rally in which Pink morphs into a kind of fascist dictator and the audience an adoring public; and in probably its most famous scene, the schoolchildren donning masks and marching into a sausage grinder as "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" plays.

Scarfe's animation, obviously even less tethered to a grounded reality, includes a cornucopia of distorted, graphic, and sometimes frightening images. We see war planes transforming into flying crosses, a monstrous flower devouring another, and at the end, Pink putting himself on trial with a grotesque judge.

There's very little dialogue and scantly anything pleasant about Pink Floyd The Wall, but it's a daring, visually extravagant enterprise. The film is essentially a 90-minute music video, further exploring the themes of the album, but if you can accept its nihilism and bleakness, you'll find it's a daring work. As a fan of the album, the best I can say is it does the music justice.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Vanishing (1988)

I remember seeing an interview with Roger Corman in which he described the audience reaction to one of his movies. In a particular scene, the main character, approaches a closed door, and behind that door, there could be anything. Half the audience, Corman says, screams don't open that door while the other half inches closer to the screen, afraid of what lies beyond the door but more anxious to find out what it is.

The Vanishing (1988), a French and Dutch co-production, understands that principle. It understands how horrible the truth can be and yet how we still crave it. No matter the consequences, no matter cost, we approach that door and open it, ignoring and disregarding all warnings. The truth can set you free, but how terrible it is when it brings no profit or comfort. Which is worse: not knowing the truth or knowing just horrible the truth is?

Dutchman Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are driving through France for a vacation when they stop at a service station. Saskia goes inside the station but doesn't come out. Three years, Rex has become obsessive and desperate to know what happened the day Saskia vanished. He goes on television, begging the culprit to come forward. He's so consumed he alienates his new girlfriend Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus). Meanwhile, the perpetrator, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) carefully observes Rex before announcing himself and offering to reveal exactly what happened.

The Vanishing is about obsession; how far will Rex go to find the truth about what happened to Saskia? "Sometimes I imagine she's alive," Rex says. "Somewhere far away. She's very happy. And then, I have to make a choice. Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened. So... I let her die."

Rex allows Saskia's disappearance to completely take over his life. Three years later, he's still hanging fliers and posters around, asking for any information. He travels to France five times after receiving postcards from someone claiming to be responsible and asking for a meeting only for no one else to turn up. He even lets Lieneke walk out of his life because he can't let go of the past. Not knowing what happened has destroyed his life.

Raymond is not like other cinematic killers. We learn early on he's the culprit, but we see he is a professor and loving family man with a wife and two daughters. As critic Mark Kermode described him, he's "boringly normal," a man just wondering if he's capable of evil. His story is intercut with Rex's. We watch his actions leading up to the crime, how he prepares for it, what steps he anticipates, and how it almost falls apart on a number of occasions. He succeeds because of his anonymity, ability to blend in with a crowd, and dumb luck.

Everything comes to a head when Rex and Raymond finally meet face-to-face. Like John Doe in Se7en, Raymond presents himself to his would-be pursuer, offering the truth if Rex is willing to experience what Saskia did. As Roger Corman might say, half the audience is screaming don't do it, and the other half is egging him on. The final resolution, if you can accept Rex's decision, is a shot to the gut, ending the movie with a haunting finality (of course the Americanized remake butchered this part. The only curious aspect of the remake is how it was also directed by George Sluzier, seemingly forgetting what made his original version so powerful).

Yes, The Vanishing is a thriller, and yes, it's a mystery, but it's not a cat-and-mouse thrill ride like Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. There aren't any chases down long, dark alleys or scenes where the killer sneaks up on the hero, and yet it remains a creepy, paranoid experience. Knowledge is power and suspense.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Aguirre, The Wrath of God

It's pretty easy to summarize the plot of Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972): a group of Conquistadors search the jungles of South America for the fabled city of El Dorado and instead meet their deaths. But the film's effect is not simple. At times beautiful, haunting, darkly funny, intense, hallucinatory, violent, and shocking, the movie is never short of ambition and to this day remains an extraordinary cinematic vision of madness, greed, and death.

In 1560, an expedition of Conquistadors and their Indian slaves march down the Andes Mountains into the jungle below. Under the command of Gozalo Pizzaro (Alejandro Repulles), they seek the golden city the Indians speak of: El Dorado. The journey is difficult, the jungle nearly impassable, and hostile natives pick off their numbers. Pizzaro decides to send a smaller expedition ahead under the command of Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). If they find nothing within a week, the effort will be abandoned. Before long, Aguirre, driven mad by his lust for power and calling himself the Wrath of God, takes control of the party and kills or has killed those in his way. The deeper into the jungle they go, the further insane Aguirre becomes. He is so frightening that none challenge him even he leads straight them to their doom.

As I noted in my review of Stroszek, Herzog believes in the "Voodoo" of a location. Actors, he reasons, will project something entirely different on a sound stage or in a forest just outside Los Angeles than they will if they really are in the Peruvian jungle 300 miles from the nearest population center. The fatigue, despair, and borderline madness they show are genuine, and we the audience can sense the difference between the authentic and the staged. This strategy gives Aguirre, The Wrath of God something of a documentary feel. Herzong buries his camera among the actors as they wade across the river in rafts, haul cannons through sinking mud, and climb down the mountain. You can feel their exhaustion while watching.

But the movie isn't a docu-drama. Aided by the other-worldly music of the band Popol Vuh, the film takes on the feeling of a surreal descent into madness. The farther away from civilization they go, the less grasp of reason they have as harshness of the jungle closes in on them. Herzog works in several striking and iconic images; the opening shot of hundreds of men walking down the mountain in a winding path, the hallucination of a boat hanging above a tree, and the final picture of Aguirre, alone on the raft and surrounded by the corpses of his fellow explorers and hundreds of chattering monkeys as he plots to expand his "empire," are probably the best remembered moments.

Nature makes a mockery of human ambition as the movie demonstrates. The jungle is the untamed wild, the embodiment of chaos man tries to impose order on as it slowly saps his will and life. Aguirre, in a quietly manic and calculating performance by Kinski, refuses to accept this, pressing the others onward. Arrogantly, he deems himself the wrath of God, believing he can frighten his men and control nature, but ultimately, he's only half right. Only a mad man thinks he can impose his will on God or nature.