Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Meandering but that's the point: Revisiting SLACKER

I recently re-watched Richard Linklater's 1991 debut SLACKER, a thoughtful, aimless and bold free associating take on cinematic storytelling or how to break the conventional rules of storytelling ala Godard style. Slacker goes from character to character, all of whom talk at great lengths about their theories of life, art, conspiracies, politics, love and even how The Smurfs were a parable about communism and Krishna.

Linklater covers a small landscape of Austin, Texas in the late 80s when he shot this film. The people you meet in this film can be labelled any which way: hippies, bohemians, freaks, weirdos, loners, mental cases but the term slacker is the term Linklater prefers and he is in intent on applying it in a positive way despite the word's negative and dismissive connitation.

In his audio commentary, he states that his characters, even though you only see them fleetingly, are active people full of energy and purpose. To him, a slacker is defined by a person whose goals and sense of being aren't determined by the conventional and expected ways of living--the 9-5 job you hate but need, keeping your outspoken and odds beliefs to yourself. The characters aren't ashamed or embarrassed to share their fears and strong beliefs with some stranger on the street. They have a sense of pride in their own neurosis. "I may live badly, but at least I don't have to *work* to do it." says a footloose hitchiker.

One memorable scene has a young woman run into some friends on a street corner and proceed to show off a papsmear that supposedly belonged to Madonna. In his commentary, Linklater says a friend remarked to him that the future of pornography would be celebrity papsmears.

The remarkable thing about Linklater's writing and directing approach with SLACKER is his lack of judgement for the people on screen. He is almost calling out anybody who would be quick to judge or dismiss these characters, despite only being on screen for a few minutes. Their odd behaviour can obviously be off-putting but it isn't boring and it's certainly revealing of certain human nature. SLACKER contains walking, talking, embodied bloggers before the internet inspired some of these folk off the streets and onto their laptops in a basement.

Footnote: The great Criterion DVD release of Slacker contains deleted scenes, a reunion video of the cast and crew, Linklater's first feature, shot on Super8 entitled IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO LEARN HOW TO PLOW BY READING BOOKS.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Le Voyou

The film opens with a flashing neon sign in the background underneath a bridge that reads "VOYOU" in big red letters. Le Voyou meaning "the thug". Four well dressed men stand in the foreground with their hands up. A 1920s vintage car passes behind them and machine gun fire mows them all down. The car spins around in a circle and gangsters pile out carrying machine guns. Sexy women in showgirl outfits step out along with a black man in a long white suit and purple hat. They jump into a dance number in which the man sings about his life of crime for which he must pay dearly for. It's a catchy theme song that highlights a beautiful score by Francis Lai.

This turns out to be a film within the actual film that two characters sit in a cinema and watch. It comically counteracts the serious action that's about to be unravelled in the movie.

LE VOYOU, known in North America as THE CROOK is a 1970 film directed by Claude LeLouch (A Man and a Woman) The trailer announces that this is LeLouch's own particular take on crime, and it truly is. When I purchased this film on DVD, I was expecting a French take on something like John Boorman's POINT BLANK (1967) instead LE VOYOU is a playful, witty and unpredicatable crime caper with the underrated Jean Louis Trintignant (The Great Silence) the wonderful sad faced actor, in the title role. He plays Simon, a focused and intense criminal who does whatever it takes to elude capture from the authorities and survive. After escaping from prison, he takes advantage of an old female friend by using her apartment as a safe house. He is charming but cold and calculating. He has hidden away 100,000 francs from a previous job and he is determined to intercept it without interference from the cops.

Simon reunites with his ex-wife (the beautiful Daniele Delorme). They team up on a plan to scam a banker and his family in which they kidnap their son for one million in ransom. The caper pays off but not without complications. The story concludes with our anti-hero keeping himself several steps ahead of everyone and finally irony piles upon more irony in a crafty and funny conclusion.

That's all I will describe of the plot, which unfolds with great surprises, humor and inspired storytelling to compliment the dark nature of the character and his actions. Simon shows tenderness to his child and ex-wife, who is complicit in his illegal deeds. Despite his relentless intensity, it's kind of easy to like Simon since he falls under the thief with a heard of gold category. The child they kidnap thinks he's spending time with Santa--Delorme dressed as Ol' Saint Nick.

Trintignant is a great actor. See him in his mute performance as a gunslinger wanting vengeance against Klaus Kinski in the great spaghetti western THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) He also gave a wonderful performance in Bernardo Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST (1970) When people think of French new wave cinema, they think of Jean Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon. Tringinant is under appreciated in my opinion. THE CROOK is a unsung gem of international crime cinema and a perfect example of his striking screen prescence.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

R.I.P. Irvin Kirshner

[On why George Lucas asked him to direct Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)]: "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me? I remember he said, 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood.' I liked that."

Irvin Kirshner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87. George Lucas tapped him to helm the next installment of Star Wars because Kirshner was his teacher at UCLA film school and he felt that he had a great talent for getting great performances from his actors.

Kirsher made his directorial debut with the 1958 film Stakeout on Dope Street and then followed up with work in television series like The Rebel, Ben Casey and Naked City. Other notable credits include the Barbara Streisand film Up The Sandbox, S*P*Y*S which starred Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, and The Eyes of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway. After directing Empire in 1980, he worked with Sean Connery who returned to the James Bond role in 1983's Never Say Never Again and was also behind the camera for Robocop 2 in 1990.

If you've seen the very underrated teen comedy Angus (1995) you'll see Kirshner in a silent cameo as George C. Scott's chess partner--Kirshner directed Scott in 1967's The Flim Flam Man.

A fitting tribute to Kirsher is that many of the Star Wars actors cited him as the best director of the series because they felt he was a joy to work with.

"I think it went beyond 'Star Wars'. You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end. I had an emotional climax." -- Irvin Kirshner on The Empire Strikes Back

Sunday, November 28, 2010

R.I.P. Frank Drebin

Leslie Nielsen left us yesterday at the age of 84. A Canadian character actor whose career and persona changed in a major way when he became a distinctive comedy icon after co-starring in the classic spoof Airplane!(1980) He then became known as the straight faced, oblivious creator of comic chaos in films like The Naked Gun (1988) and it's sequels which inspired more spoof movies such as Spy Hard (1996) and Wrongfully Accused (1998). His famous character Frank Drebin, which debuted on the short lived series Police Squad! leading to the Naked Gun series was only one of the over 200+ characters he played in front of the camera.

Sci-fi fans will remember him for his lead role in the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet. Those who remember the golden age of television would have seen him on numerous series like Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O, Barnaby Jones, Ironside, Kojak, etc.

He even graced the stage, notably in a one man show where he portrayed lawyer Clarence Darrow.

I say we all pay tribute to this legendary actor by putting in a DVD of one his many films, which numbered over 100. He leaves behind a prolific body of work that made us all laugh heartily.

Thanks for the great laughs Leslie! We'll miss you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The power of bad cinema: Best Worst Movie

Troll 2, an Italian produced horror film shot in Utah in 1989, has had a resurrection thanks for the power of the internet and a diverse group of bad cinema fans. A direct-to-video train wreck with stupefying acting, "special" effects and writing, it's not even a sequel to the 1986 American made "Troll". Troll 2 has no trolls, only goblins, but I guess the producers figured a loose link to the original Troll would attract attention.

Best Worst Movie, a very revealing, funny, warm and oddly poignant documentary, was directed and produced by Michael Paul Stephenson, who played the lead role as the young child in Troll 2. The cult rebirth of the movie, which nabbed the top (or bottom top) spot on's worst movies list, has allowed the actors to finally embrace the movie after years of denial, shame or embarrassment of their participation.

The doc centers around Dr. George Hardy, a down to earth dentist in small town Alabama and the nicest man you'll ever meet who for years kept quiet about his principal role as the father in Troll 2. But when his patients looked at him puzzled as if to think, "Was that Dr. Hardy I saw in that horrible movie on HBO?", he had to own up to his role. With the advent of Myspace and Youtube, Troll 2 became a wider cult phenomenon, inspiring special screenings at theatres like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and the Nuart in Los Angeles. Extremely enthusiastic fans recite their favorite lines of bad dialogue from the film and some even remake props from the film.

George Hardy clearly is surprised and thrilled by the fanbase Troll 2 has created. Supporting actors from the film also come out of hiding to find out they have fans. The director, Italian anti-auteur Claudio Fraggaso (who used the pseudonym Drake Floyd and is also responsible for such epics like Zombie 4) travels from Italy to LA with his wife who wrote the movie, to witness a long lineup outside a theatre for a screening. "It is very strange." he remarks with a dumbfounded look. He seems conflicted about the so-bad-it's-good response from the audience. He takes the film quite seriously, applying heavy meaning to it's "themes". Even the Italian editor proclaims that Troll 2 inspired Harry Potter!

Most of the great humor in the film comes from scenes in which the director and actors travel to the original locations in Utah to recreate the insane scenes from the film. The director speaks with broken English and with a strong distain for the Americans he has to put up with. At one point he refers to his cast as "dogs" and shows deep jealousy that they are often the center of attention at screenings and Q&As.

One of the more sadder sections in the doc comes when Hardy and Stephenson track down the only cast member who has yet to be found, Margo Prey, who played Hardy's wife. When they knock at her door with apprehension, they discover she is living a shut in life of quiet desperation, taking care of her invalid mother and is the only actor from Troll 2 who truly believes it is a good movie, even boldly comparing it to Casablanca!

Hardy travels to horror conventions with the promise of meeting more hardcore fans but only to find Q&As with depressingly low attendance and sitting at a table with posters to sign and getting virtually no attention.

If Best Worst Movie captures anything perfectly, it's shows the fickle nature of fame, even D or F level fame, and how exhausting and repetitive life in the limelight can be, even for the stars of the worst movie of all time. It also shows how cinema, even terrible cinema, has a bizarre power to bring people together and make them happy. Funny how a bad movie about evil goblins who turn their human victims into mushy green goo has touched the lives of many.

Best Worst Movie is now available on DVD in the U.S. It will be available in Canada on December 7.

Troll 2 is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Selected works from the Godfather of Gore

I love the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who made 26 groundbreaking super low budget exploitation films between 1959 and 1972. He is credited as being the man who brought buckets of rich blood and gore to the big screen when Hollywood wouldn't dare go near anything of the sort. His films are bargain basement cardboard productions, made with a charming tackiness, claustrophobic cinematography and tinny sound but with a sly sense of black humor. Partnered with exploitation impresario David F. Friedman in the early 60s, the two men began their campaign of cinematic mayhem by making "nudie cutie" films that were popular in the late 50s and early 60s. These were films that featured pasty guys and gals sans clothing in an outdoor setting playing volleyball or nature hiking and not really much else. When that market dried up, they needed a new hook that the major studios were ignoring. Extreme violence and horror was the key to their success and the release of 1963's Blood Feast was a milestone. For the first time in film history, you can witness a mad butcher sever a woman's tongue in explicit detail. Never mind that the blood itself looked like tomato soup.

Blood Feast was a surprise drive-in smash and Lewis and Friedman had to dream up more ghastly blood epics like Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) which were released to great financial success. But the two partners broke up and Lewis was left on his own to continue his insane work.

Two of his titles that I finally got around to seeing are particular standouts: 1970's The Wizard of Gore and 1972's The Gore Gore Girls, which until Blood Feast 2 (2002), was Lewis' last film before retiring from the movies and excelling in the field of direct marketing and authoring numerous books on the subject.

The Wizard of Gore must be seen to be believed. A manic magician named Montag the Magnificent hypnotizes his audience into seeing incredible feats of illusion while he's actually butchering his volunteers on stage. He saws them in half, cuts out their tongues, punctures their stomachs with a punch press all while the dazed audience sees nothing but harmless trickery. He's getting away with murder. A reporter and her boyfriend investigate his bizarre exploits as the body count rises and baffles police.

Ray Sager plays Montag with great over the top hammy relish. This is a one of kind horror character. The bad special effects and cheap staginess of the production only add to the delights of this mad piece of work. It was influential enough to inspire a
recent remake with Crispin Glover in the title role.

The Gore Gore Girls is a much more extreme and bloody exercise in debauchery for Lewis. With ample nudity and nastier use of gore this time around, this film follows fey private detective Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) as he investigates the brutal murders of go-go dancers. He's aided, or at least hounded, by an air headed reporter (Amy Farrell) as he frequently visits a local strip joint (run by none other than legendary comedian Henny Youngman!) and questions anyone he can as he tries finding the killer, whose methods are jaw dropping. In one scene, scissors are applied to the tip of a woman's breast so that bloody milk can spray out into a glass! Her bare bottom is then battered with a meat tenderizer. Only in the movies.

Alternating between a tawdry farce and a slasher film, The Gore Gore Girls is a perfect example of fly by night, el cheapo exploitation. Violent, obscene but with tongue in severed cheek and very funny. These movies were far ahead of their time, before irony and dark humor became mainstream and shocking audiences was easier. In times when Jackass 3-D grosses $50 million in one weekend, Lewis' work can be viewed today as the birth of modern gross out cinema.

I have somewhat of a personal link to Lewis' films. My close friend, exploitation filmmaker Lee Demarbre, directed a loving homage to Lewis' filmography (with scenes practically lifted from The Gore Gore Girls) entitled Smash Cut (2009) which stars cult film actor David Hess (Last House on the Left) as a crazed filmmaker who resorts to killing people to use their blood and body parts as convincing props in his cheap horror productions. This is a film in which Mr. Lewis comes full circle. The coming attractions of his early work often featured an actor looking at the camera warning audiences of the shocking things they were about to see. At the beginning of Smash Cut, Lewis provides the warning himself.

"I implore you, ladies and gentlemen, to never forget that filmmaking is a blood sport. Watch if you must, but remember, you were warned!"

Pretty Poison: Flirting with a Sociopath

The odd and quirky 1968 film Pretty Poison is another example of a one of a kind cinematic relic from the 1960s. It stars Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins as a strange couple who are brought together through lies, anti-social behavior and a dangerous attraction.

Perkins, proving here why he was such an underrated actor, plays Dennis, a well meaning but troubled young man who has just released from a mental hospital where he spent his entire youth after he burned his house down and killed his aunt as a boy. Did he mean to cause her death or was it unintentional? Supposedly rehabilitated, he is now under the guidance of a kindly parole officer (John Randolph) Dennis is a bright wise ass who jokes about entering the real world and getting a blue collar job but goes to work at a bottling plant run under the watchful eye of a supervisor who right away doesn't like him.

One day while eating at a lunch truck, Dennis sees a gorgeous young blonde leading a high school marching band. This is Sue Ann (Weld) who has the looks and demeanor of the prototypical sweet girl next door but has a surprise in store for those who dare get aquainted with her. Dennis introduces himself to her by posing as a desperate secret agent who needs her help in his various devious tasks. Sue Ann is enticed by this sense of danger and risk and quickly falls for Dennis, despite being browbeaten by her angry mother, excellently played by Beverly Garland. Things take a turn for the worse when murder comes into the equation and Dennis much choose whether to run away with Sue Ann or face the consequences and come clean with his guilt.

Directed by Noel Black (a director who did a lot of notable TV work like Kojak, McCloud and Hawaii Five-O) and scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who wrote the 1966 big screen Batman) this film is an unpredictable mix of suspense and dark comedy with two strong performances by the leads. Weld is wholly convincing as the two faced manipulator who loves to rebel and get herself into trouble. Perkins plays his part with great edginess buried underneath his clean cut and charming exterior and it's infused with great comic timing. He's a disturbing and dubious character, we're never quite certain of his intentions but you can strangely sympathize with him. Even in his famous portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, it was possible to feel sorry for him because he was a prisoner of his own madness. He really wanted to do good but couldn't. It's same to a degree here in Pretty Poison. Although less mad than Bates, his character here seems capable of anything despite a well mannered nice-guy personality. Crafty editing hints at his internal conflict; images of a burning house are intercut with close ups of him and this is before we learn of his past.

This film is a bizarre transplant of a romantic comedy mixed with film noir and elements of an original and even tragic thriller. It's involving and inspired.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rock Hudson and his Pretty Maids

Here's a saucy little number for you. Pretty Maids All In A Row, directed by Roger Vadim (Barbarella) and written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (!) and released in 1971, is a bizarre mixture of sex comedy, police procedural, thriller and a fairly skewed after school special. It opens with a handsome young lad named Ponce (John David Carson) who rides his moped to school while scoping various good looking girls who are strolling on the sidewalk. Ponce looks nervous and throughout the film often is at the sight of the opposite sex, especially the arousing new substitute teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson). He's the poster boy for hidden public erections.

Ponce has a close relationship with Mr. McDrew (Rock Hudson) who is affectionately referred to by the student body and faculty as "Tiger". Tiger has his hands full at the school. He's the assistant principal, guidance counsellor with a PhD in psychology, and he's also the football coach. He frequently takes it upon himself to have sexual trysts with just about every female student and since this is a Roger Vadim film, all the girls look like Playboy playmates. There's not an ugly or plain looking girl in this movie.

Ponce discovers the corpse of one of these student beauties in the washroom, leading to a police investigation led by a cool headed police chief (Telly Savalas) who speaks with quiet authority and keeps his sunglasses resting atop of his bald head. There is definitely a moral vacuum at the school. When the principal (Roddy McDowell) discovers the dead student, he keeps emphasizing that she was "a good little cheerleader".

More female students are found dead and Savalas sticks around campus, questioning the students and teachers and eyeing his favorite suspect, Tiger, who's office has a neon sign above the door that says "Testing" and is lit red whenever he's having a quickie with a student.

Meanwhile, the shy and timid Ponce is getting friendly with Miss Smith, who under the advisement of Tiger, plans to help Ponce with his sexual insecurity. She invites him over to her house for "homework". A second visit leads to her giving the innocent boy some good bath. And of course, if Angie Dickinson is sweet enough to offer that to you, you're a fool for saying no.

Pretty Maids is a freewheeling and almost senseless romp. Is it a satire? If so, what is it satirizing? The sexual revolution which was hot stuff at the time this film was made? In one scene a fetching Asian American student proclaims to Savalas who's questioning her as a witness, "Our generation is not afraid of feeling affection, or expressing it." By affection, she must be insinuating sex and preferably sex with a teacher who looks like Rock Hudson, nevermind the fact that he's married and has a daughter.

My god, the 70s seemed like a strange time. There's no way this film would be made today by a major studio. The latest "teen sex comedy" I've seen is Easy A, which I liked, but is on a different planet culturally and morally compared to Pretty Maids. In Easy A, there is no sex, only discussion and implication of it, leading to a strong moral conclusion against promiscuity. In Pretty Maids, sex is constantly an extra curricular activity amongst students and teachers and there is no statement made. If made and released today, the moral majority would be red hot with protest.

I don't really know what to make of this me-decade cinematic oddity. It's certainly original and bold but to what point? Maybe there is none. Most sex comedies don't really need a point I guess. Maybe it's just the silly wet dream of it's creators. Perhaps it's nihilistic in the interest of comic shock value. But then isn't the sight of a nude Angie Dickinson enough? If you're in the right frame of mind and you have a love for kitschy 70s cinema, maybe it is.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Letting her in forever

An American version of the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In I suppose was inevitable, although not unwelcome. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) is the man behind this U.S. version which retains the exact tone of the original and occupies it with well cast actors and a proper and well tuned sense of gloom and dread.

The world of both these films is lacking in any definition of joy or sunniness. This is a bleak, dark and cruel world filled with broken families, scarred children, subzero temperatures and bizarre murder.

The setting in the remake is 1980s New Mexico. A worrisome detective (underrated actor Elias Koteas) is conducting an investigation of some brutal murders in which the victims have been drained of all blood. He knows a creepy middle aged man (Richard Jenkins) is involved but that's only one loose piece of the puzzle. This man lives in an apartment complex with a solemn young girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz). Abby sits quietly outside on the snow covered monkey bars in the courtyard of the complex. She wears no coat and is barefoot and pale skinned. She meets a troubled lone boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose mother drinks alot of wine and has angry phone conversations with Owen's estranged father. He is often left to his own devices, friendless and the victim of some extremely sadistic school bullies who refer to him as a "girl."

Abby and Owen of course become kindred spirits although she is reluctant and elusive, not sharing any real information about herself but still drawn to the fragile boy. These two lead lives in which the adults are either detached or dangerous.

If you've seen the original film or at least the trailers, you'll know that Abby is a vampire and becomes a profound but conflicting presence in the Owen's life. Can he accept her deadly nature?

Let Me In is very faithful, perhaps maybe too faithful, to Let The Right One In, although it's just as visually evocative and brutal and at times moving. The difference aside from the country it's set in, would be some small story structure changes and the era. The film takes plenty of opportunity to remind the audience it's 1983, by showing a Ronald Reagan address on television (in which he states evil does exist) a familiar 80s soundtrack and in a brief moment of humor, a cashier is seen dressed in Boy George attire complete with the hairdo. Drawing attention to the decade doesn't really seem necessary to the story even though some of the soundtrack choices are perfect ironic counterpoints to the brooding events on screen.

The actors all do a great job of convincingly conveying anguish, grief and anxiety. There is nothing over the top. Visually, there are some truly compelling moments, especially a car collision scene that is amazing directed and photographed.

The downside to this film and many exceptional remakes that stick close to the essence of the story and action is that there is a lack of surprises. While Let Me In is a worthy new version, if you've seen Let The Right One, you'll see the next scene coming and wonder if it will be recreated better or worse. A terrifying and ingenious climax set in an indoor pool at night was the high point of the first film and here it is well executed but it reminded me that the former film pulled it off much better because you never saw it coming.

The makers of Let Me In know perfectly well why and how the Swedish predecessor pushed the right buttons and created a horrific story that also contained genuine and touching sadness and tragedy. But even though you can reinterpret a story very well with the right creative people at hand, if the original version struck a chord, you can never top what was done first.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The online revenge of a nerd

The Social Network tells the fateful true story of how a bitter computer genius created a cultural monster that brought anonymous people together online while it's erudite creator alienated his only true friend who helped finance it. Mark Zuckerberg, the world's youngest billionaire and the antagonizing protagonist of the film, created Facebook after getting the seed of the idea from two identical twin Harvard jocks (played by one actor, Armie Hammer) who came to Zuckerberg looking to start up a social network site exclusive to the college. This led to excruciating lawsuits being filed while simultaneously Facebook spread from one Ivy League school to the next before becoming a public phenomenon worth 25 billion dollars.

Zuckerberg (played with intense focus and adroitness by Jesse Eisenberg) is seen as a single minded, pompous and ambitious nerd with no empathy or patience for others who aren't on his wavelength. In the film's extremely well written and acted first scene, he and his very soon to be ex-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) sit in a campus pub and exchange rapid and curt words over the idea of belonging to exclusive clubs and the desperate desire to fit in. Zuckerberg shows a lack of respect and understanding towards Erica's views and she immediately and without any sugar coating, dumps him on the spot. "You're exhausting to be around!" she moans. Mark's brilliant matrix of a brain can't even fathom this to be serious and he simply replies "Do you still want to get food?"

Enraged, he goes back to his dorm, gets drunk and hacks into Harvard's server and creates a webpage in which the photos of Harvard girls are placed side by side in a "Hot or not hot" type of voting system. This mean spirited prank is proven extremely popular in what seems like minutes and subsequently Mark gets slammed with academic probation and quite the rep.

This leads to the social networking site creation which the twin brothers propose to Zuckerberg only to find themselves stonewalled when Mark runs solo with their initial idea and creates what we now know and all love as Facebook. He turns to his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for the startup financing which leads to him being frozen out of the company once a rival enters the picture: cocky Napster co-founder Sean Parker (very well played by Justin Timberlake) who gets wind of the burgeoning site after a one night stand with a college girl who's become addicted to it. Parker promises big bucks and the high life to the introverted Zuckerberg. Saverin is not impressed by the arrogant and hucksterish Parker and locks horns with him. Mark seems stuck in the middle, lost in his tight and unbreakable focus as he works tirelessly to build the site bigger.

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) is a very absorbing and insightful look at how quickly and even modestly one of the world's most obsessed over sites was created and the toll it took on a friendship that led to a multi-million dollar lawsuit on top of the one the rowing twins brought forth. Despite the fortune and fame, it doesn't seem like much fun to be Mark Zuckerberg.

The performances are fantastic, with Garfield a standout as the sympathetic and stressed out financier and COO of Facebook. He comes across as the most interesting and relatable character in the picture: a basically good kid, hard working, smart, exasperated, eager to please his best friend, while possessing a strong desire to belong to a macho fraternity and all the emasculating humiliation he must face with it. Poor Saverin becomes a casualty of big business imposing on him while seducing his friend.

There are heavily detailed scenes of depositions given by the people looking to sue Zuckerberg while he fiercely defends himself. This is intercut with what led to that and what follows after Facebook becomes a major commodity and Zuckerberg and his trusted crew of programmers move out to a bungalow in California to continue their work while filling themselves up with booze and pot courtesy of Parker while they become the richest rich kids in the world. It's like the classic small band makes it big but some members get left behind story only the instruments are computers but the egos are just as big as rising rock stars.

Is the film worthy of it's major critical hype? Well, plainly put, it is simply a very good picture: directed with great craft and style without being too over stylized to overshadow the story. The screenplay by Sorkin is very well written, with punchy dialogue and well drawn characterizations. Trent Reznor's score is noteworthy as well. Ultimately, it's a solid and relevant story that's entertaining and extremely involving even though you might find yourself lost in the details of computer geek speak but not so much that you'll be taken out of the movie.

Overall, the film reminded me that Facebook is indicative of human nature. We spend hours divulging our personal business and feelings in hopes of some fleeting recognition amongst our friends (real friends and "Facebook friends") The site is a public post-it note, online locker room, open diary, bulletin board and other various facets of communication all rolled into one neat package. What started as an online club that represented the exclusivity and snobbery of a posh university soon gave way to something that anyone and everyone globally can access and obsess over daily. I'm guilty of being addicted to.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greed never sleeps

Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has it's title explained by the ubiquitous manipulator Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) who stands in a busy subway car with the young and enterprising financial whizkid Jake Moore (Shia Leboeuf) as he waxes poetically about how money is a "bitch who never sleeps". The key word is bitch because it's the driving force behind merciless corruption, giant ego inspired game playing and soulless ambition at the cost of redemption. Gekko has just been released from prison after serving eight years for his crimes committed in the first Wall Street (1987) and now he emerges as a broken man who's written a book foreboding the market crash and is charming college students with his wit and candor in speaking engagements. But he's also looking for a second chance with the only person he may have left: his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) a liberal blogger who wants nothing to do with him. But since she is about to marry Jake, Gekko may have a window of opportunity to reenter her life by way of secret meetings with the young idealistic kid who's caught between the reserved and wise old sages of the old school and the pompous and killer-instinctive new school whose fear of a market downfall only fuels their greed even more. Gekko exists the middle as a kind of commentator.

Jake works hard at an old fashioned investment firm run by his father figure mentor, a weathered investor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who mourns the forthcoming financial meltdown and is sold out of his own company by the oily Bretton James (Josh Brolin) who is the Gordon Gekko of today. Zabel, crushed by his loss of control, commits suicide and the devastated Moore is convinced James is responsible for motivating this so he turns to Gekko for advice on how to topple James in the most Machiavellian way possible. Gekko agrees as long as Jake can orchestrate a reconciliation between him and Winnie. But are Gordon Gekko's motives honorable considering his devious history?

The film deals with morally dubious themes in a skillful and knowing way; Can money earned dishonestly fund a greater good?--Jake works tirelessly to try and invest in green energy---and can someone akin to the devil compromise his nature to do the right thing?

Oliver Stone not only knows Wall Street, the location and the internal world, like the back of his hand, he managed to keep me engaged in this story that takes a larger and much more troubling look at the uncompromising and nasty financial world than his first foray into this milieu back in the go-go 1980s. The movie is also stunningly shot and captures the dizzying world of capitalism in a dynamic and sometimes feverish fashion.

As for the performances, they are unsurprisingly first rate. Even LeBoeuf, who by looking at the film's trailer, seems like a 14 year old stock trader, manages to pull off his role exceptionally well in what is essentially Doogie Howser in the stock market. His fiance is played superbly by the impressive young actress Mulligan. Josh Brolin makes an understated impression as the villain and continues to prove why he's a superior unsung talent. Appearances by Susan Sarandon, as Jake's overbearing realtor mother, Langella, and even Eli Wallach as an ancient Wall Street warrior, are all a welcome presence.

And of course there's Michael Douglas revisiting his Oscar winning role after 23 years. He doesn't dominate the film as people would expect and in fact, many critics are disappointed that he's not in the film more. But I think it was smart to have his character shadow the film in the scenes where he's absent like some kind of wild card. Is Gekko a changed man or does he still possess an evil agenda? When you find out for sure, the answer isn't an easy one to take.

Money Never Sleeps raises questions left for the audience to ponder even after a seemingly corny happy ending that beneath the warm and fuzzy surface, lies a dark subtext that is challenging. Money never sleeps and greed doesn't stop making the world spin.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goodbye Sally...

A great film editor has died. Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's long time editor and close collaborator, is dead at the age of 56. She has edited all of Tarantino's films from Reservoir Dogs all the way to Inglourious Basterds which gained her an Oscar nomination. She was also nominated in 1995 for her work on Pulp Fiction. Her other credits include Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, All The Pretty Horses, Nightwatch and Mulholland Falls.

Tarantino was extremely proud of her and often made tributes to her during filming by having his actors look at the camera and say hello to her when it began rolling before a first take. These "Hello Sallys" are included as extra features on the Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds DVDs. They serve as a perfect and affectionate remembrance of a very talented person.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Listen to a great podcast: The Drunken Master's Revue

This week I sat in on my friends' radio show about movies, The Drunken Master Revue, which broadcasts every Wednesday 5-6pm on 93.1FM CKCU in Ottawa. It's a show by movie geeks for movie geeks and it's often extremely hilarious and informative. Click here to check out the episode I guested on and if you own a radio or a computer with Internet capabilities, listen to this great show weekly!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Town: The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Ben Affleck already proved himself a capable and promising filmmaker with his debut Gone Baby Gone (2007) a gritty thriller about an abducted child in south Boston. Here he returns to the same location for another unforgiving foray into a neighborhood where crime seems to be the number one employment opportunity. The Town is a story set in Charlestown, a burg in Boston known for it's tradition of breeding bank robbers. Young and angry punks are exploited by the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who runs a flower shop but is anything but interested in flowers. He runs a gang of well organized thieves with two loyal friends at the helm: Doug (Affleck) a conflicted criminal who walked away from a hockey career and the volatile and trigger happy James or "Jem" (Jeremy Renner). Both men have accepted their lives as criminals and seem despite being free men seem imprisoned by their obligation to their code and lawless life. A visit to Doug's father in prison (an excellent Chris Cooper) suggests their possible future.

While pulling a robbery at a local bank, Jem brutally wounds the assistant manager and they take hostage the main manager, a beautiful woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall) whom they set free after placing a blindfold on her. Doug's sense of guilt moves him into her life days after in a chance meeting at a laundry mat in which they have the kind of charmed meet cute you'd see in a romantic film. She's a warmhearted and generous woman (a volunteer at the nearby Boys and Girls Club) whose experiencing post traumatic stress from the robbery. They begin dating and once Jem discovers this, he's understandably furious that Doug is entering a relationship with the person who can give them up to the Feds. Jem's drug addled sister and Doug's part time girlfriend (Blake Lively) a girl tired of being used by her men, may also be a liability to them.

A hard nosed FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is convinced it's these men who pulled the robbery but lacks hard evidence since their system includes dumping bleach over every part of the bank they touch.

The Town is a well executed crime caper with strong performances and especially great cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and editing by Dylan Tichenor (another Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator) which aid in the solid action sequences that are of the quality of Michael Mann's films like Thief (1981) and Heat (1995). A third act heist at a baseball stadium reminded me of the robbery at a race track in Stanley's Kubrick's The Killing (1956).

I like the overall theme of men who are doomed to a life of crime based on their misfortune of growing up in a bad town with bad parents and essentially being put in the grasp of Postlethwaite's malevolent character, who operates like a pimp and the boys who do his bidding are his whores.

Affleck's performance is quiet and understated for the most part. Since he is also the director, I don't think he wanted his starring role to be showy. Renner is credible and solid as his brutal but loyal friend. Hall (who showcased her talent very well in films like Frost/Nixon (2008) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) is well cast as the woman Affleck falls for.

The story covers ground that has been seen before but Affleck knows what he's doing here and aside from a Hollywood ending that's way too neat and tidy, The Town has conviction and great tragic thematic material.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Easy A: A comedy with the many alternatives for the 'S' Word

If you read my blog on a regular basis, you'll know of my infatuation with rising star Emma Stone, whose new film Easy A is her first starring role. Here she really gets a chance to prove herself front and center as a gifted and funny actress, wise beyond her years and with a natural charisma.

Easy A is a high school satire which tells the tale of Olive Penderghast (Stone) a whip smart but unpopular girl who fibs to her best friend (Aly Michalka) that she slept with a college student over the weekend. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, which this film hilariously rips, this little lie spirals into a wild rumor about Olive's sex life. To make matters worse, she agrees to fake a sexual encounter with her gay friend (Dan Byrd) in order to ward off his bullies and give him a reputation. Suddenly, Olive is the go-to-girl for imaginary sexual favors in exchange for gift cards and goodwill. She is now labelled viciously as the school slut by the student body, in particular the self-righteous Christian kids, led by the prissy Marianne (Amanda Bynes)

Olive handles this burden with a savage sense of sarcasm and irony. Her English class is reading The Scarlett Letter and she decides to symbolize the book by showing up to school dressed like a burlesque dancer with a red A stitched on her bustier. This is a high school where crazy things can happen especially since Malcolm McDowell is the principal.

Easy A skewers high school in the tradition of John Hughes films, which Olive lovingly references as she tells her story first person throughout the movie via webcam. We all know that nasty rumors spread rapidly but this generation's obsession with invasion of privacy and instant gratification via the internet and cell phones, embellished tall tales arrive to you faster than you'd want them to.

The film handles it's story with knowing wit and charm and sidesteps the tired cliches that are prevalent in many high school comedies, although this is another teen movie where once the girl has made herself infamous every single extra in the school courtyard looks at her with severe judgement.

Stone is the whole show here and she earns her starring role because she is the real deal. I can't say anything about her that I haven't said already in my previous blog post but to sum it all up she's 22 and she's going places.

She's also aided by a talented supporting cast which include funny turns by the underrated Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her sharp tongued and wiseass parents. Thomas Haden Church provides some chuckles as the hip and sardonic English teacher and Lisa Kudrow is a welcome presence as his estranged wife who's also the guidance counsellor who needs a guidance counsellor.

Easy A is PG-13 and despite it's tawdry subject matter, no one really gets naked or laid but it intelligently sheds light upon the desire of many young kids who are willing to compromise and just accept the rumor that they got to third base with someone rather than experiencing the real thing. If there's a sequel where Olive goes to college, imagine how deeply the game can change.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

R.I.P. Kevin McCarthy

"Listen! Listen to me! They're not human! Can't you see everyone?! They're here already!!! YOU'RE NEXT!!!"

Goddamn it, I hate writing obituaries, mainly because I don't like it when people die, especially great actors and filmmakers. Also, it's the job of a professional wire service reporter to compile a brief bio and list of film credits but I find myself doing that now when I think it's better to embed a youtube video that pays tribute showing what that person did best.

We lost Kevin McCarthy on September 11th at the age of 96. He had a major filmography, reportedly one of the IMDB's most extensive. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Death of a Salesman in 1951, but he was mainly a favorite of genre filmgoers with roles in such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pirahna, The Howling and alongside Weird Al Yankovic in a delightfully over the top and funny performance as the villain in UHF.

To display his underrated contribution to film take a look at these great videos.

You're Gonna Miss Me: The Music and Plight of Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson stood out amongst his peers of rock and roll lions like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and Jim Morrison. In his high pitched, southern twanged voice roared the soul of a transgressive artist. Here was a singer/songwriter, head of the Austin, Texas group the 13th Floor Elevators, who pioneered psychedelic rock and paid the price for bravely spearheading it's inception. He got in constant trouble with the police for marijuana and LSD possession and instead of jail time, was put into a mental institution where he emerged a damaged man suffering from the misunderstood cerebral monster that is schizophrenia.

This documentary about his life and battles with his mental health and family issues, shows him living a solitary and sheltered life supervised by his controlling mother Evelyn, who has a penchant for therapeutic practices like yoga and scotch taping collages of herself and her sons to illustrate her sense of pride as a mother. This is a woman who quietly and desperately clings onto a troubled past in order to survive a troubled present. She also won't let go of her adult son who according to his younger brother, Sumner, needs to get away from their mother and get real psychiatric care and medicine.

The custody battle hovers over the film and in between is the story of Roky's musical career which began with the wonderfully inventive and primitive garage rock of the Elevators and progressed into darker territory in the 70s and 80s where his personal demons and obsessions with horror movies and Satanic subject matter were ferociously thrown into his lyrics. Driving and fervently alive songs like "Mine Mine Mind" "Two Headed Dog" and "The Wind and More" are prime examples of this.

"Your Gonna Miss Me" shows a sad and wistful life and talent that has blessed American rock but was a casualty of it's drug milieu. But it's not without redemption. Sumner stands by his big brother faithfully and bravely out of love but also out of respect and admiration for his music. The movie also deeply focuses on Sumner's emotional struggles as he visits weekly with a therapist at a place called the Somatic Institute in Pittsburgh. Music has also provided solace and escape for him as he plays tuba with an orchestra. Both men are product of a sorrowful childhood that has left dark shadows in their adult life.

This film seems more about mental health and different ways one creates a survival method against it's horrors than it is a documentary about a rock and roll career. The filmmaker, Kevin McAlester, has amazing access and captures some real candid and private moments that display the power struggle between his mother and little brother that harbours resentment and hurt between them that has haunted the family for decades. We even meet their father, a man of very few words, who has a look about him that suggests someone who has survived a traumatic accident.

But if you've followed Roky Erickson's progress as of late, you'll know that he has prevailed. He has resumed recording, touring and playing music festivals. He has released a new album with The Okkervil River as his backing band. Roky has luckily survived his strife and the great music continues.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Forgotten Gem: Nighthawks (1981)

Recently I had the opportunity to view a print of the 1981 action thriller Nighthawks starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer. Here's an example of an underrated cop picture: lean, tense, stylishly directed, strongly acted and engaging in a simple, direct and efficient fashion. It's no frills genre filmmaking.

Stallone plays a focused and dedicated NYC cop who patrols the streets at night either dressed in drag or expensive attire to attract and nail muggers. Billy Dee Williams is his buddy and partner. Their basic job of baiting and hooking dumb criminals is halted when a bold terrorism expert (Nigel Davenport, an interesting addition to the cast) comes to the NYPD to train street cops with military experience into becoming assassins to pursue a vicious German terrorist named Wulfgar (Hauer) and his female companion (Persis Khambatta) who have fled from overseas to bring fear and unpredictable violence to the Big Apple and it's United Nations representatives.

Stallone becomes frustrated in feeling co-opted into changing from a cop who practices due process and follows prodedure into a hunter with orders to shoot to kill his one target on sight. Despite his impressive record in Vietnam, he doesn't believe in being a cop cum soldier with a license to kill, but his ethics are put to the test when he must confront Wulfgar in the gritty urban jungle.

Nighthawks has fairly predictable police movie cliches: the cop who's more attentive to his work than his long suffering wife, the wise cracking partner, the angry superior (well played by the late great Joe Spinell, most famous for playing a psychopath in Maniac) But makes inspired use of the cat and mouse formula: a cop accustomed to practicing restraint
and now ordered to shoot to kill his target on sight.

Hauer is frightening and convincingly cold as a terrorist who claims to be killing in the name of "the people" but seems to be doing it more out of pathological enjoyment. Witnessing Hauer's character make his moves from Paris to London to New York are chilling and build some real tension.

The set pieces in the film are expert. The first time Stallone and Hauer come face to face in a disco with The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar and Keith Emerson's driving score is pitch perfect. A harrowing scene on a cable car involving Stallone transporting a baby away from a hostage crisis is well executed.

Although lacking in real depth or character development, and what even seems like compromised editing (apparently Universal Pictures cut the film severly), Nighthawks contains solid suspense, action, outstanding stunt work, tight pacing and forceful performances. After it's release in the spring of 1981, a year before Stallone started the Rambo franchise with First Blood, Nighthawks received mixed reviews and mediocre box office. It deserves a second look thirty years after the fact.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Winnebago Man is God#$%@ funny and revealing!

Jack Rebney is not an easy subject for a documentary. A former TV news director, Rebney later became an internet celebrity thanks to an infamous blooper reel from an industrial demo tape shot for Winnebago, in which he curses a blue streak and berates his crew during an extremely hot and fly ridden shooting day in Iowa, 1989. The tape was bootlegged endlessly and is now a YouTube staple. The problem is, Rebney doesn't exactly embrace the attention and interest.

But filmmaker Ben Steinbauer does and devotes his time and passion for this obscure viral video to make this revealing documentary about a man with a lot to say and a colorful way of saying it. In his attempt to track down (or stalk) Rebney, he discovers that he is living a reclusive life as a caretaker of a fishing resort in northern California. A symbolic contrast to the fast paced noise of the urban centres and high tech world. He agrees to be interviewed at his home and presents a calm, friendly and mysteriously low key version of himself. Steinbauer is disappointed. Where is the angry and profane man seen in that video? Can his subject sustain a feature length documentary after one brief and banal interview in which Rebney reveals almost nothing?

Ah, but there's a great twist. Steinbauer returns home and receives a surprise call from Rebney. He confesses that the nice, even tempered man Ben met was just an act. Rebney really is the man you see in the Winnebago tape: short fused and pissed off, but with eloquent vocabulary laced within the coarse language.

Steinbauer returns to Rebney's cabin and the film really begins. Ben and Jack become an unlikely duo as they argue over the value of discussing Jack's personal life and career. He would rather rant about the evils of Wal Mart and Dick Cheney than delve into his childhood or any other personal matter.

Winnebago Man sheds some often hilarious light on the cult of reluctant celebrity in the age of instant gratification. Rebney detests this part of the culture. He doesn't care for the internet whatsoever. At one point he refers to YouTube as "that fuckin' abysmal piece of shit tube" His modest house contains shelves of books you'd probably find in a university professor's office.

This character study displays a contradictory man; someone who seems to desire a soapbox for his anger (mostly political) but resists any on camera attention and often throws irritated fits towards Steinbauer, who wants his biography instead of a filmed diatribe of society and politics. There's some real tension in the battle of wits and words between the two. We don't know how this story will end because Jack Rebney may not want it fully told.

But he opens up enough for the filmmaker to show a sensitive side but he still retains his pessimistic and profanity filled grumpiness. Rebney is smart and funny enough to belong in front of the camera despite his insistence on privacy. This film perfectly captures this conflict. The F word will always be funny and fascinating but Jack Rebney certainly enhances it with his one of a kind character and personality.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Machete is bloody exploitation to the bone

If you saw Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007), and since it was a major flop, you may not have, maybe you know that Machete originates as one of the fake trailers in that throwback to 70s exploitation double bills. Now a feature length film from 20th Century Fox and with a big name cast, Machete still retains it's gritty and ultra violent B-movie motif.

Danny Trejo, a Charles Bronsonesque character actor who has worked with Robert Rodriguez (who co-directed this with his editing partner Ethan Maniquis) several times. Now Trejo gets his turn to shine in his first lead role, letting his scowl and scarred face do most of the acting as he conveys real convincing menace with few words and some real understated intimidation.

Machete is an honorable Federale whose wife and child are murdered by the evil Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal, a near equal to Trejo in the speak softly and scowl roughly department.) Machete then jumps the border into Texas and crosses paths with two sexy women: one, a taco truck operator who moonlights as the leader of a network of border jumpers (Michelle Rodriguez) and a U.S. Immigration agent with Mexican roots (Jessica Alba) who is torn between following the rules and helping her poor native countrymen find a better life in the States. A threat to this is a slimeball state senator (Robert DeNiro) whose racism and anti-immigration stances are not at all hidden in his re-election campaign and his vicious aide (Jeff Fahey) who gets Machete to be the patsy for a staged assassination attempt on the senator, which sets up a war against disenfranchised illegal aliens and fierce Texans. Also in the colorful cast of characters is a murderous border patrol cop (Don Johnson) Fahey's drug addled sexpot daughter (Lindsey Lohan) a gun toting padre (Cheech Marin) and even horror movie legend Tom Savini shows up as a hired assassin.

The cast has real fun getting their hands dirty in the elaborate gore and over the top comedic violence and sex. Mexican stereotypes are also part of the savagely blunt satire. Machete is really a joyful live action comic book that is rich in wonderfully vulgar humor and abundant in dismemberment and murder with various sharp garden and medical tools. The human intestines also play a helpful role in helping the hero escape out of a window.

Rodriguez knows how to stage skillful, modestly budgeted and efficient action pics. He has always had a sly sense of innovation and resourcefulness that dates back to his $7,000 debut feature El Mariachi (1992). He's not subtle, but never boring.

Machete works as a violent comedy disguised as a political action movie. It's ballsy and very ridiculous but gleefully fun.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

First Blood Redux: A Love Story

"Flooding With Love For The Kid" is one of the best films of 2010 but it's not a conventional piece of filmmaking but a bold and ingenious piece of underground art. Here is a film scripted, edited, shot, directed and starring a stage actor named Zachary Oberzan, who with $96 dollars in hand and only his New York City 220 sq. ft. studio apartment at his disposal, made this film no holds barred and played every role in the movie. He performs each character with diversity and conviction.

The film is based on David Morrell's 1972 novel First Blood, which inspired the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie of the same name. The difference screenplay wise is Oberzan's interpretation is more faithful to the novel. Prose from the book are even placed on screen to give scenes more context and mood.

The story of John Rambo, a quiet but volatile Vietnam vet who runs afoul of the local sheriff in a small town after he is arrested for vagrancy and then starts a one man war against the town's authorities is well known by most action film fans. But what Oberzan does is dig deeper into the original story's themes that the Stallone film ignored: the war fatigue and scarring of two bitter veterans (Rambo and the sheriff, Will Teasle, a Korean war vet.) and the disenfranchisement they both face in post war life. This film also further develops the Teasle character almost to the point where Rambo takes a backseat. Teasle is in the middle of a rough divorce from his wife who has left him and the challenge of pursuing Rambo after he has escaped from his custody only puts his self worth as a man to the test even more.

The film's total lack of production value is pretty much an opportunity for laughs. But, he doesn't hide or apologize for his no budget limitations but instead embraces them. Oberzan uses basic costumes and any small props he can get his hands on. Stuffed animals are used as forest critters, a ceiling fan is used as a helicopter propeller, and a sink faucet is utilized as a river stream! His use of simple sound effects also forces the viewer to suspend disbelief and use the imagination to compensate for the lack of locations. His kitchen is used in a diner scene, his living room is used for not only the police station but also the treacherous forest that Rambo finds himself trying to hide and survive in!

Oberzan displays real ingenuity, invention and above all else, bravery with this project. What could have easily been a laughing stock becomes a highly ambitious and soulful story of post traumatic stress, survival, loss, violence and male machismo gone to tragic extremes. At 107 minutes, you become absorbed and compelled by the power of the tale being told. This film proves that story is king.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Last Exorcism after many

The poster for The Last Exorcism immediately conjures up the iconic images of Linda Blair as the possessed young girl in the classic The Exorcist, but it doesn't promise anything new beyond reminding you of the iconic. This film, "presented" by horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) has all the obligatory elements you'd expect in a sweet young girl in pajamas possessed by a demon film: The growling, the moving furniture, the vomit, the cursing, and the impressive aerobic flexibility that girls possessed by demons can display.

The film is also another one of those faux documentaries, shot in Panavision doubling as a handy video camera, which begins by introducing us to Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) an opportunistic Marjoe Gortner type who supports his loving wife and son by pretending to be a believer and exploiting fearful fundamentalists by performing fake exorcisms for families who believe their loved ones are possessed. Cotton is perfectly happy making easy cash as a fraud but his structure of non-belief is challenged when he is called upon by a frightened God fearing Louisiana father (Louis Herthum) whose 16 year old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is showing signs of possession.

Cotton, along with his two person documentary crew, travel to the man's eerie farmhouse where they meet the father's volatile and creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) who believes the real danger isn't a demon but their strict extremist father. Is this girl really under siege by Satan or has she been driven insane by her dad?

The chaos that ensues is handled in the style of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity with it's overuse of shaky handheld camera work and endless shots of lens focusing. And of course constant demands from characters to "Shut the camera off!"

To it's credit, certain moments of terror are effectively handled and the film
is very well acted, especially by young Ms. Bell who convincingly conveys physical and emotional anguish by the supernatural. But overall it's amidst a thoroughly derivative and uninspired story that recycles the best from not only The Exorcist but also Rosemary's Baby and Race With The Devil for good measure. Roger Ebert often says it's not what a movie is about but how it's about, but in this case, and after many years of Exorcist ripoffs, it's not really a matter of how but why.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Piranha 3-D: CGI carnality and carnage

*This review contains minor spoilers.

The fish are bigger, this time around in the 3-D semi-remake of the 1978 classic which was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante. In this 2010 version, director Alexandre Aja, who is no stranger to remakes since he helmed 2006's The Hills Have Eyes, is the man responsible for this extra dimensional entry, in it's full 3-D glory that proudly directs to the audience everything from beer bottles, severed private parts, boobs, and the piercing eyes and razor sharp teeth of the titular killers.

Shot in beautiful Arizona and set in the fictitious town of Lake Victoria, Piranha 3-D utilizes great looking locations perfect for a horror film. The setting is primed for spring break festivities in which nubile babes and lunkheaded frat boys all congregate to party lakeside and ripen the appetite of the fish below. In the opening scene, special guest star Richard Dreyfuss, presumably reprising his Jaws role as he drunkenly sits alone in a boat fishing while mumbling the lyrics to "Show Me The Way To Go Home", is victim number one as the lake floor opens up to free some prehistoric killer fish more than happy to munch on poor old Matt Hooper.

This casualty comes to the attention of the town sheriff Julie Forester (a miscast Elizabeth Shue) and her deputy (Ving Rhames) who both immediately agree that it's best to close the beach. But of course in any Jaws ripoff, keeping the party animals out of the water is about as easy as swimming away from the rapidly moving piranha.

To make matters worse, Forester's teenage son (Steven R. McQueen) the town nice boy, ditches his duties as babysitter to his little brother and sister in order to take a job escorting an obnoxious pornographer (Jerry O'Connell) and his two hot-to-trot starlets (the very striking Kelly Brook and real life porn star Riley Steele) out to water for a prime location for his lesbo epic. The younger siblings also ditch their post at home and find themselves stranded on a small island after they fail to anchor their canoe.

Piranha 3-D has all the necessary elements of a brainless but fun gore fest. It also has the spirit of the kind of film an 11 year old kid watches at a drive-in yards away with his dad's binoculars. The nudity is extremely abundant and so is the bloody violence, which is executed in some tastelessly wonderful and creative ways. But the movie really lacks the kind of consistent pacing needed for an efficient exploitation movie. No real tension is built and a lot of the attempted scares come too quick and aren't effective enough. The intended comedy is woeful with the exception of another amusing stunt cameo with Christopher Lloyd as a crazed fish store owner who is more than shocked and amazed that two million year old piranha have suddenly appeared in the local lake.

Certain "money shots" of gore and CGI keep the eyes interested at certain points of the movie but they are too few and far between. At a reasonable 89 minutes, Piranha has stretches that become repetitive and lagging. A few days before seeing this, I saw Humanoids From The Deep on Blu-ray, another monster-in-the-water epic from Roger Corman. That film is played pretty seriously but it at least had a consistent pattern and story amidst the nudity and bloodshed. Not that Pirahna 3-D needed to take itself seriously to be a good movie, but I think it spends too much time meddling with the exploitation elements to have any real momentum and long lasting shock value.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A shameless tribute to Emma Stone

Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, an objective film critic or journalist. I’m a film geek—fully self proclaimed. The following entry is a gushing piece of fandom but I also try to make a point about contemporary young actresses. OK, here we go...

I have an...

adulation, affection, amorousness, appreciation, ardency, cherishing, crush, enchantment, fondness, infatuation, soft spot, yearning and zeal for a young actress named Emma Stone. The name might not ring a bell but chances are you’ve seen her in such films as Superbad, The House Bunny and Zombieland. Here is an example of a young actress with a spunky sense of humor, personality, intelligence and attitude to compliment her beauty. She has striking eyes, a wonderful speaking voice and a god-damned sexy grin that would make Jack Nicholson blush. Bill Murray has told the press she is very funny and she has somethin'.

She’s a refreshing new addition to movies in the age of Megan Fox running from CGI robots.

Ms. Stone hasn’t made a great film yet but I do believe she will one day. I hope that talented filmmakers like David Gordon Green or Edgar Wright, to give a couple of examples, have her on their radar. She's a casting director's dream.

This September comes the release of Stone’s first lead role in the high school comedy Easy A, a comic variation of The Scarlett Letter in which she plays an unpopular girl who in pretending to take the virginity of the nerds in order to give them some new found cool, gains a reputation as the school floozy. I can only speak about the trailer since I haven’t seen the movie yet. It could go either way: this could be another tired and routine high school movie in which the under appreciated wallflower rises to the occasion and overcomes the cruelty of the evil popular crowd OR Stone’s natural grace and gift as a brilliant comic actress will transcend the genre’s cliches. She certainly has a talented cast opposite her: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play her parents.

One of the most tantalizing qualities of Emma Stone is how classical her screen presence and personality is. She seems wise beyond her years and reminds me of the charismatic and witty personality of someone like Katherine Hepburn. If they remade Bringing Up Baby, they should cast Stone.

The missing ingredient in many of today's actresses seems to be a sense of individuality and unique attitude aside from the basic talent of performance. Lindsey Lohan has proven herself as a talented and likable actress in a good movie like Mean Girls, but people are perfectly happy accepting her based on the cliches of the proverbial celebrity train wreck: the scandals mixed in with one note sex appeal. It seems to be a cruel hobby to verbally beat up on an actress in shallow celebrity gossip mags rather than pay attention to what that actress is doing artistically. Stone is a place apart from that because she is focused and smart. There seems to be another adjective I'm looking for to describe her in a singular way but I'm having a hard time finding it...

Winsome? That's a good one.

*Special thanks to