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Wednesday
Dec302009

August Underground (2001)

Down with the Sickness

I met Fred Vogel at last month’s HorrorHound convention in Cincinnati. I’d recently heard a great interview with him on Deadpit Radio, where he spoke at length about horror films and his production company, Toe Tag Pictures; it was cool to meet him, even though I’d never seen any of the August Underground pictures for which he is perhaps best known. Fred was very nice and—as in the interview—well spoken, passionate, and knowledgeable. I came away happy to have plopped down some cash for the trilogy, sight-unseen, knowing that I was supporting the efforts of a cool human being.

Today, I finally watched the first film, titled, simply, August Underground. Frankly, it’s the best independent film I’ve ever seen, and a wonderful example of what someone with enough imagination and talent can produce, even with the sparest of budgets. The problem is, I don’t know who the hell I can recommend it to.

You see, August Underground is a mock snuff film. Wholly devoid of plot and redeeming social value, it is the ultimate exercise in both style and tolerance. The film takes place in Pittsburgh, and centers on two unnamed guys who pass the time by kidnapping and torturing people. If this sounds like a Saw or Hostel knock-off, keep in mind that this film was released in 2001, and it is also shot as cinema verite: both the actors and the gore effects are so convincing that the only way to make it through the film with a clear conscience is to marvel at the performances and the artistry. This is sick stuff.

The conceit of the film is that it is a “found” VHS tape, I guess in the vain of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. But Vogel’s commitment to the material is so absolute that the movie will cut from a woman bound and bleeding in a basement to a rave party at a local club to a pasture in which a cow gives birth. The image jumps and warps just as would a tape that had been recorded over multiple times, which means there are scenes that stop in the middle and open onto others that are thematic opposites. It’s style is the total absence of style.

Which is not to say that the movie is a pointless exercise in violence. On top of the acting and makeup effects, August Underground is a study in both set design and camerawork as storytelling devices. The assailants’ basement lair is a hellhole of arrested development, littered with cutouts from adult magazines and a bathtub filled with decomposing bodies; the cameraman (Allen Peters) giggles and lingers on exposed privates, taunting his friend (Fred Vogel) with ideas for how to further degrade and terrify the victims. While these shots seem random and repetitive, they begin to tell us something about the person taking them, peeling back the layers of psychosis but not providing any answers.

This subject matter has been tackled before, in films as far ranging as A Clockwork Orange and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to American Psycho. But August Underground pushes the ideas, almost to their extremes (I say “almost” because, much like David Fincher’s Se7en, we see mostly the aftermath of the violence; there is a good measure of assault, sure, but Vogel is surprisingly conservative in how much he actually shows). In the other films I mentioned, the audience understands that they’re just watching movies, stories with a first, second, and third act; and that, likely, the killer be punished, or at least disposed of until the sequel. August Underground is free to just be a crazy tape, and that makes the experience of watching the movie totally unpredictable.

Going into the movie, I expected the worst. Vogel and his films are considered by some to be the progenitors of the “torture porn” trend, and I had no interest in watching people get cut up for two hours (the first film is mercifully short, at 70 minutes). But having seen the movie for myself, I can say that it’s not a cheap splatterfest.

August Underground is a beautiful, gruesome, dark piece of art that will probably turn a lot of people off within the first two minutes. But for any aspiring filmmakers reading this, it is a must-see. There is no longer an excuse for amateurish acting, shoddy special effects, or stories that fail to elicit emotion; with very little money, Fred Vogel created a serial killing duo, crawled inside their twisted heads, and produced a video diary that will make the most jaded moviegoer squirm. I don’t know what it says about me that I really enjoyed this movie, but I take some solace in knowing that it’ll be a good long while before I check out the sequels.

Note: I typically post these reviews with a still from the movie at hand. There are literally no good, representative images that I can put up in good conscience. So here’s a happy picture of Fred and me; it’s the only happy picture associated with August Underground.

Monday
Dec282009

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Shit Sherlock

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes accomplishes several astonishing things:

1. It evokes Robert Downey Jr.’s least interesting performance since his re-emergence as an A-list actor.

2. It reduces literature’s greatest detective to a borderline-autistic, drunken brawler.

3. It manages to wholly miss the point and promise of a good mystery.

This is a truly awful movie. And considering the talent on and off the screen, that had to have been a greater feat than all the technical wizardry in Avatar. Like Avatar, I knew I was in trouble less than ten minutes into this picture; I was honestly compelled to leave. But no movie has beaten me yet.

This is a much different take on the Holmes character than previous incarnations. For one thing, he and his faithful assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are much younger—at least they act like it. They share a London apartment, which they have trouble maintaining due to Watson’s gambling problem and Holmes’ propensity for blowing holes in the walls. They’re like a Masterpiece Theatre version of the Jersey Shore housemates, who occasionally solve crimes. Indeed, I found that the film’s biggest mysteries didn’t involve the sinister, back-from-the-dead Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), or the motives of erstwhile femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams); my curiosity lay in how Holmes and Watson could stand to be friends, much less work together. It was also never explained who or what Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be: rather than a sophisticated genius, Downey comes off as a very lucky hard case who grew up reading stories featuring his character.

When most people read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, they don’t settle in for an afternoon of explosions, incessant banter between the leads, and action set pieces; they want to enjoy an elaborate mystery, packed with atmosphere, plot twists, and suspects. Leave it to Guy Ritchie to throw out the story on day one and give us a chase scene through a shipyard featuring a shoddy runaway CG anchor.

The director and screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg correctly assume that one of the highlights of a good puzzle picture is the climax, where the brilliant protagonist unravels the threads and helps the audience to see what was in front of their faces all along (think The Usual Suspects); however, they miss the point of that exercise, which is that it happens once—at the end of the story. In Sherlock Holmes, there are at least five of these kinds of scenes, where Holmes breaks down everything, from boxing match strategy to whipping up a disguise; the problem is that these scenes are often slow-motion foretellings in his head that we must then watch in real-time half a minute later. This flashy, tedious contrivance is meant to confuse the audience with cuteness rather than cleverness—or, you know, story.

There are times, though, when a movie isn’t really about the story. There are rare movies where the main attraction is a powerhouse performance, like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or even Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. The key is that the actor must do something unexpected with the part, something playful and engaging that either gets the audience on their side or turns them so solidly against him/her that they must stick around to revel in the character’s comeuppance. Sadly, the only surprise in Downey’s portrayal of Holmes is how phoned-in it is.

His English accent is flawless, but so what? He can do accents in his sleep; I was hoping he’d apply the same obsessive seriousness to Holmes that he did to his Paul Avery character in David Fincher’s Zodiac—perhaps with a slight comic bent; in both films he plays a smart, obsessed man on the trail of a killer. The difference is that here, he’s less man than Warner Brothers cartoon; he mumbles and slurs his lines unintelligibly for most of the movie (especially when he’s got that damned pipe shoved in his mouth); it’s as if he realizes this is a blockbuster, and not a job that requires an actual performance. There are two scenes in which we glimpse the Holmes that might have been (inspecting the ginger midget's apartment--before the madcap fight--and the climax with Lord Blackwood on the bridge), but they are sad reminders of everything else his character does during the other 105 minutes.

On a side note, who the hell thought Rachel McAdams was right for this movie? It’s bad enough that her “character” is a half-baked rip-off of Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, but the writers inexplicably made her an American—I guess to add some dimension or something. The problem is that there’s something off-puttingly modern in her acting here, a not-quite-Valley-Girl cadence that suggests a grade-schooler playing a grown-up.

Of course, the Irene character is not the only nod to Casino Royale and other films. Sherlock Holmes’s climax involves a big chase through the bowels of Parliament that ends when Holmes pops up through a door—which opens onto a giant, under-construction bridge hundreds of feet above the Thames (yeah, I said, “huh?” too). There is much fighting and monologuing, and we’re meant to be awed at the danger and dizzied by the height; but I kept thinking about how much more satisfying the James Bond picture was (and how much smarter, too). I was also reminded of an earlier scene in which Holmes, Watson, and Irene must escape an elaborate series of traps—a passageway lined with timed bursts of flame and a conveyor belt where pigs are ripped apart by a buzz-saw; anyone who has seen Saw VI and Saw III will instantly recognize these traps, which were also handled better in their original incarnations.

The most disheartening thing about Sherlock Holmes is its cynical use of a supernatural story as the main plot. Anyone who has read a Holmes story—or seen an episode of Scooby-Doo—knows that the “ghosts” will eventually be revealed as mortal men with enough imagination and connections to pull off elaborate hoaxes. So when the time comes to reveal the secrets of the villain’s sleight of hand, we no longer care because there was never a doubt that the whole thing was a trick.

It would have been really interesting if there had been a supernatural foe for Holmes, or maybe just an enemy with a greater intellect than his own. In a “nod” to both Batman Begins and The Phantom Menace, we get a glimpse of the evil Moriarty, who is set up as the next picture’s antagonist. I hope to God he can slap some adulthood into this man-child version of Holmes. At last, a mystery worth pondering!

Sunday
Dec272009

Pieces (1983)

The Gold Standard of Awful

The cosmos gave me an early Christmas present this year in the form of J.P. Simon’s slasher masterpiece, Pieces. Even non-horror fans can enjoy this perfect storm of awkward dubbing, bizarre dialogue, and a visible evolution of horrendous acting that builds from character to character, climaxing in the most entertaining delivery of the word “bastard” you’ll ever see. The genius of the film, though, is that there are some genuinely disturbing scenes dropped into the middle of absolute schlock; which is why Pieces is my new favorite Bad Movie.

We begin with a little boy chopping his mother to bits (pieces) in 1942. She’d caught him putting together a nudie puzzle and got halfway through confiscating his porn when he put an axe through her forehead. Flash forward to a Boston college campus in 1982. A mysterious madman has begun dismembering co-eds with a chainsaw and making off with parts (pieces) of their bodies. The baffled police enlist the help of a goofy student named Kendall (Ian Sera) and an undercover cop/tennis player named Mary (Lynda Day George) to hunt down the maniac. Half the fun of watching Pieces is guessing which of the older male characters is the killer; each attracts and deflects suspicion so many times that every line delivery could be followed by cheesy organ music (“dum-dum-duuuuum!”).

There are two reasons people watch this kind of movie: nudity and inventive kills (preferably gory ones). Pieces provides both in spades, but in ways that are both surprisingly bad and occasionally effective. Sure, you have plenty of college girls showering or sitting up in bed after making love, but you also see plenty of our hero, Kendall. I don’t know if J.P. Simon was going for realism or simply trying to level the exposed-flesh playing field, but Ian Sera’s nude scene is just plain weird: as he stands at his dorm window, yapping to his girlfriend about possibly seeing the killer, our attention is torn between his early-eighties dick fro and the incompetence of his performance.

The murders are evenly split, in terms of effectiveness. On the one hand, you have a bookworm brutally decapitated in broad daylight (apparently on an entirely empty quad); on the other, you have another girl who is torn in half in the shower, shown briefly as a bloody, disemboweled mess (the effects in Pieces are top-notch). Then there’s the haunting murder of a nosy female reporter, who is stabbed repeatedly on a waterbed; the killer misses his stabs as often as he lands them, and the ones that land are really hard to watch. This scene is offset by one in which a girl gets her arms sawed off in an elevator: she welcomes a tall guy in a black trench coat and fedora into the car with her, not realizing that he’s carrying a chainsaw behind his back as if it were a bouquet of flowers.

The film’s climax is a roller coaster of cool ideas mixed with shittiness. We go up with the killer’s reveal, in a scene right out of James Bond; we plummet with Lynda Day George’s horrendous portrayal of a woman who’s been slipped a paralyzing drug. We go up again with a spectacularly gruesome jump-scare of a body falling out of a book case, and run completely off the rails with the movie’s closing shot: Kendall gets his balls ripped out and we freeze on his expression. His face is contorted in a way that suggests the “before” picture of a Preparation H ad.

There is so much to recommend in Pieces. It’s a head-scratching, breath-catching disaster that takes all the stale conventions of bad slasher movies and makes them compelling through a ninety-minute chain of happy accidents. It may even be the template for modern horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead (I give Pieces a slight edge, though, because its badness is earnest, and not a kitschy wink at the audience). I love this movie to death (pieces).

Note: For a real treat, savor the performance of Paul L. Smith as Willard, the campus handyman. His lovechild-of-Bluto-and-Popeye look makes him the funniest and least effective red herring ever.

Monday
Dec212009

Avatar (2009)

Mollified by Shiny Objects

“He’s a demon set loose on the earth to lower the standards, end of fucking story.”

Bill Hicks

Everything you’ve heard about Avatar is true. Director James Cameron has revolutionized digital filmmaking in a way that can rightfully be called “game-changing” (assuming, that is, he allows others to play in his spiffy new sandbox). The 3-D characters and environments that he and his team of effects gurus have brought to life on the planet Pandora leave video game graphics behind and bridge the uncanny valley; both flesh-and-blood and CG performers are finally able to share the virtual stage without noticeable green screen issues, such as fake-looking backgrounds or mismatched eye-lines. I believed just about every second of what I saw on the screen.

So what?

I was bored to tears by this movie. I cannot recommend it as a theatrical experience to anyone. And I’ll go a step further, with a shout-out to the unlikeliest of sources, Rush Limbaugh:

I hope Avatar fails.

This is not likely to happen, but I would be thrilled if Cameron fell on his face and couldn't land another directing job for twelve years.

I should probably back up. Before the first trailer came out, I was pretty jazzed to see what Cameron had been working on (in earnest) for the past four years; I’d heard the stories about mind-blowing technology that would immerse the audience in a truly alien world. I love any innovation that leads to a new and engaging movie-going experience. But when the trailer hit, my stomach sank; the entire story was laid out in two minutes, it seemed, and that story was Dances with Wolves in Space.

By now, this is a trite criticism. It also happens to be true. I approached the film with cautious optimism (timid critic’s lingo meaning “skepticism”), and hoped that the film would contain many surprises not found in the previews; a reasonable assumption, considering its two-and-a-half-hour run-time. But, no, there is nothing in Avatar that will surprise anyone who’s ever paid attention during most any movie.

The plot involves a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (fittingly bland cipher Sam Worthington) who agrees to help the military/industrial complex remove a race of blue-skinned aliens from their home so that said m/i complex can mine a rare ore. The planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans, so Sully links psychically to an “avatar”, a hybrid creature that looks like one of the natives, but which is remote-controlled by a person in a sleep chamber; the idea is to get in good with the locals and convince them to leave peaceably, instead of wasting tons of expensive ammunition on a messy genocide. On his mission, Sully falls in love with an alien princess and...Jesus, this synopsis is a waste of time.

The characters in Avatar—such as they are—fail to elicit any emotion other than frustration. Sully is an idiot, and a greedy one at that; he begins the film by agreeing to sell out an entire species for a new pair of legs and ends it by realizing that human beings are the real monsters. Give me a fucking break. This movie takes place in 2154, apparently in a reality where conscience and self-awareness are as scarce as that ore. In fairness, Sully is a Christopher Nolan sketch compared to his fellow marines, who are simply kill-happy thugs that do nothing but bark lines that end in “people” and shout that “Ooh-rah” bullshit. What’s worse is that they were created by the same guy who gave us the very interesting Corporal Hicks in Aliens almost twenty-four years ago.

Speaking of Aliens, remember how slimy Paul Reiser’s Burke was? Well, in Avatar, we get the same character, this time played by Giovanni Ribisi. He’s the company man, the agent of evil, the sharp-dressed, smarmy worm. The key difference is that Burke had an actual arc, beginning as a person trusted by the protagonist, who reveals himself to be the film’s villain. Ribisi may as well have worn a foam dollar sign costume while brandishing a ray gun (actually, half my problem with his character was that the wrong actor played him: anyone who’s watched HBO’s Entourage will immediately recognize Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold character in Ribisi’s poor imitation.).

The other characters are as stock as broth; none more so than the Na’vi aliens, whose culture apparently stems from an ancient fable called "Last of the Dancing Mohican Root Wolves". Consider the main Na'vi cast: Wise, stern tribe leader? Check. Rebellious, spunky princess with a thing for outsider bad boys? Check. Jealous alpha-male warrior who will eventually bond with said outsider bad boy? Check. Seriously, these aren’t even archetypes we’re talking about anymore, they’re Xeroxes.

Aside from the first paragraph, I haven’t spent any time on the visuals. Frankly, they don’t deserve to be mentioned. Cameron has done some truly amazing things with the technology, but they service dialogue, characters and situations that are worth no one’s time. I’ve heard the argument that one does not go to a movie like Avatar for the story, that it’s all about the visuals. Sorry, but I happen to respect my mind, and if someone asks me to turn it off--for any reason, much less to appreciate art--I can only call "bullshit". Besides, if that line of thinking had any validity whatsoever, then The Phantom Menace and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be the gold standard of science fiction filmmaking; also, there would be no such thing as a bad movie, as long as said movie had enough polish and CG.

It’s horrifying to think that this script has been around for fourteen years. In the nearly three hours it plays out, the narrative fails to address what happened to Earth, or the schools the Earthlings established to educate the Na’vi, or why their village was the only location from which the ore could be mined (especially if the humans only needed very small amounts for their purposes--whatever those were). We also never learn about Sully's life beforehand or what kind of a man he was supposed to be; his entire character boils down to bullet points: marine, twin brother who's dead, no legs. I’m not asking for a full-blown history lesson, but it would have been preferable to the countless journeys through forests and floaty mountain waterfalls teeming with creatures that could only be considered spectacular to people without imagination. It’s obvious that the story was just a skeleton onto which James Cameron would hang his blue gorilla suit dressed in a Technicolor Dreamcoat; which is why I feel fine reciprocating the lack of emotional investment: he doesn’t care, which means I can’t care.

In a perfect world, blockbusters would satisfy the mind and the eyes. This lowest-common-denominator pandering has to stop. There aren’t enough thirteen-year-old boys on the planet with enough disposable income and free time to recoup a $300 million budget, so why not pack the screenplay with challenging ideas, characters you can remember and root for, and maybe even a story that forces audiences to go back a couple of times to fully figure out? There’s no law that says a film can’t contain “bad-ass” imagery and brain-teasing plot twists.

As a side note to any future directors who might be reading: if you plan on leaving the story behind, at least make the visuals somewhat fresh. Cameron steals so liberally from Aliens that were Avatar released by any studio other than Fox, he would’ve been staring down a $300 million lawsuit. From the drop-ships to the motion sensor readouts to the marines’ armor, there’s nothing original here. I’d like to say he saved his innovation for the jungle life of the alien world, but, being the sci-fi/comic book junky that I am, I’ve seen it all before (perhaps not as lavishly rendered, but that’s not the point, is it?).

Avatar is not an epic. Avatar is not a classic. Landmark science fiction films tell us conventional stories in unconventional ways; 2001: A Space Odyssey presented alien encounters as they had never been considered before; Star Wars hid Joseph Campbell’s paradigms in a blend of Saturday-serial homage and a universe of previously unimagined (or at least unseen) scope; Aliens brought us a contemporary military operation on a desolate alien planet, with an enemy that had evolved since the last time we, the audience, encountered it. Twenty years from now, Avatar will simply be that movie James Cameron did with the primitive CG characters that everyone will be too embarrassed to admit they thought looked really cool at the time.

Wednesday
Dec162009

The Road (2009)

Ash Ye Shall Receive

Typically, when I can’t stand the film adaptation of a book, I recommend that the potential moviegoer skip it and head straight for the source material. With John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself in the weird position of having found the film to be an utterly faithful interpretation—yet still recommending the book instead.

The problem here is that Hillcoat has literally brought McCarthy’s vivid post apocalyptic landscapes and tales of hard living to life; the imagery and situations are almost exactly as I imagined them in the novel.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask.

Yes, and no.

The Road is a bleak spectacle of ash-covered landscapes, dead prairies and human remains strewn across America; like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Hillcoat’s movie fetishizes texture—particularly grimy texture. The meticulous details of dirt on jackets, under finger nails, and in the crevices of crow’s feet make every shot look like a painting; there are lovely bursts of contrasts whenever The Man (Viggo Mortenson) flashes back to his life before the end of the world: all green and golden loveliness, plus Charlize Theron’s warm smile. So, yes, one can certainly marvel at the sights.

However, the storytelling—wonderful as it is in terms of plot and meaning—becomes a chore after awhile. As in the book, there are long stretches of walking, foraging and sleeping. As The Man and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way South in search of warmth—or at least hope—they occasionally encounter bandits and cannibals, and the odd drifter. Their encounters range from violent to mundane, and the mundane ones are almost too much to bear; I’m thinking of their encounter with Old Man (Robert Duvall), which plays as filler in the movie, a chance to inject some exposition about the possible cause of the disaster that I don’t recall being in the book. Even Guy Pearce seemed overtaken with boredom when he popped up towards the end, reciting his lines as if he’d gone totally Method and forgotten to eat for six weeks.

What it all comes down to is that, for me, the surprises in The Road were much more powerful in the book; scenes like the bomb shelter and the house with clothes piled high in the living room were punctuations of action in a story that focused much more on ideas (such as hours and minutes being completely irrelevant in the end times). The movie kind of touches on these with The Man’s spotty narration, but watching the film wasn’t the kind of deeply personal experience that reading the book was. I guess it’s like the difference between reading a poem and having someone read it to you; the material is the same, but the difference in experience is profound.

This may be the most awkward positive review I’ve written. If you’ve read The Road, sure, check out the movie; Mortensen does a fantastic job embodying the fear and instinctual resolve of The Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee is serviceable, but is perhaps a bit too realistic in his constant whining and tantrum-throwing. If you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book, please read the novel first! Then, if you’re so compelled, see the movie on the big screen; don’t wait for video. This is the rare film that does the source material nearly absolute justice, and in doing so ends up as a curiosity rather than a new and engaging experience.

Note: Though I appreciate Charlize Theron's presence in the movie, I can't help but think that her star power is behind the inclusion of so many flashbacks involving her character. She was barely in the novel, and I think it would have been a much more powerful choice to relegate her to one, maybe two glimpses on screen. One interlude in particular--involving her dress and her husband's hand--didn't belong in the same movie as the rest of the story; not even in the same universe; the filmmakers went for a cute, hot moment and ended up with the cinematic equivalent of a record scratch.