Archive for January 2006

Manderlay

January 27, 2006

The only freedoms we really appreciate are those which cast others into an equivalent state of servitude. – Jean Paulhan, “Happiness in Slavery”

Gangster’s daughter Grace Margaret Mulligan (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) blunders into yet another corrupt enclosed society in Manderlay, the second film in Lars von Trier’s “America” trilogy (after 2004’s Dogville). Once again, the town is mapped out in chalk outlines, as if von Trier were visiting the scene of a crime. As, in a sense, he is. Von Trier has always been fascinated with the mechanics of oppression and subservience, and in his “America” films he uses the supposed bastion of freedom to observe the hypocrisies of that freedom. If you’re a woman (in Dogville) and, here, if you’re black, freedom doesn’t mean what it means to other people. Taking its cue from the above-quoted Jean Paulhan essay, Manderlay gets into a contradiction — the freedom of oppression.

Passing by the plantation of Manderlay with her mobster dad (Willem Dafoe, in for James Caan), Grace sees a black man about to be whipped for some offense. Appalled, Grace stops the whipping and gives the white townsfolk a piece of her mind: Don’t they know slavery was abolished seventy years ago? Grace decides to stay behind for a while and bring freedom to the black slaves of Manderlay. Her cynical father leaves Grace a cadre of his armed men to enforce her will, then takes off in his sleek black limo. The first order of business is to turn the social tables, turning the whites into manual laborers and giving the blacks a choice to leave Manderlay or stay behind and rebuild their community. Having just been enslaved back in Dogville, Grace empathizes with the blacks in a way that goes beyond simple liberal dilettantism. Her actions in Manderlay — and her mistakes — emerge directly from the lessons she learned in the previous film, though this time she doesn’t go so far as to bring fiery apocalypse onto the town. Instead, the apocalypse is slower, more spiritual.

It’s tempting, and probably unavoidable, to draw parallels between Grace’s mission in Manderlay and America’s belated justification for war in Iraq: to get rid of oppression and restore liberty to the people. Von Trier wrote the script before we entered Iraq, though; his aim is more universal, to illustrate the arrogance of even benevolent power. To what extent is Grace simply working out her aggressions — avenging herself on the same kinds of intolerant hicks who put her in chains? Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role from Nicole Kidman, makes Grace a nice, naïve girl on the surface, but one who can turn on a dime into coldness and ruthlessness. Grace has entered a world that, despite her brief experience with slavery, she cannot truly understand. Her attempts to bring “democracy” to Manderlay usually result in disaster. Nothing goes as planned. Cutting down the trees in the garden of the old deceased Mam (Lauren Bacall) for wood to repair the leaky roofs seems like a fine idea but instead invites the caprice of nature. Manderlay is about the folly of control.

As compared to the townspeople of Dogville (with its more generous running time), the black folk of Manderlay are less distinct than one might like, the white folk even less so. Several cast members from Dogville (Bacall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Zeljko Ivanek, Udo Kier) return as different characters, and John Hurt reprises his duty as the Godlike narrator. The only constant between the two films, aside from Grace’s character, is Hurt’s voice — the movies have the tone of repertory theater, with familiar faces and a recast lead actress. Danny Glover brings his rumbling gravitas to the elder Wilhelm; Isaach De Bankolé is challenging and abrasive as the African transplant Timothy, who recognizes that Grace’s well-meant dictatorship is not so different from Mam’s. Both men have secrets that emerge, rather theatrically, in the final reel, exploding Grace’s assumptions about Manderlay. Grace will not leave this town without blood on her hands, either.

Lacking Dogville‘s hushed aura of perversity (aside from a late-inning sex scene that must have made Ron Howard — the lead actress’ father — wince and avert his eyes), Manderlay comes across as more of a position paper than a dramatization. If this trilogy finishes up strong, this middle portion may come to be seen as the weakest, though it’s still forceful and intimate in the von Trier manner, and it will spark hot discussions that will likely have little to do with the film’s actual message. Von Trier plays with slavery to get at deeper truths about human nature; for him, exerting one’s will over others is the dominant mode of human interaction, and he’s less interested in the process than in the psyche of the enslaved. Having explored that at length in two films, von Trier may have said all he has to say on the subject. Manderlay asks, What do you do after slavery? Von Trier’s fans may well ask him, What do you do after Manderlay?

Underworld: Evolution

January 20, 2006

The biggest shock in Underworld: Evolution, the unsolicited-by-me sequel to 2003’s video-sleeper hit Underworld, is the moment when the latex-goth vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is revealed to be … a brunette. In all of Underworld and in most of this movie, Selene seems to have jet-black hair, but it turns out that’s just the dull color scheme of both films, which turns everything various shades of blue and black. It’s as if someone had washed these films in the same laundry load as Batman’s costume; even Cyndi Lauper in her ’80s prime would be rendered colorless in the Underworld universe. In a tender post-coital moment, though, Selene is seen in the morning light, and there she is with brown hair. I’m thinking about hair color after just having seen an action-horror movie; that’s a bad sign.

Underworld had its fans — those who wanted a self-important Matrix-y horror flick, I guess — so here we have more of the same. If you felt generous, you could praise these movies’ tonal consistency: There isn’t a laugh anywhere in either film. Director Len Wiseman has possibly played too many vampire-themed role-playing games (indeed, the RPG company White Wolf sued over the similarities between the first film and their games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse). He takes the material with the deadly seriousness of a game master presiding over a terribly crucial round of play. Brokeback Mountain had more levity than these movies, for Christ’s sake. As before, characters stand around grimly, jaws clenched, distracted by the unspeakable import of the centuries-long feud between … uh … vampires and werewolves.

I’m sorry, should movies like this not be fun? Should there not be a modern sensibility to go along with the modern weaponry? In a prologue, set in the 12th century, we see vamps and werewolves go at each other with swords and their own fangs. The rest of the movie has the vampires loaded for bear with the latest in NRA chic (the werewolves don’t get much screen time here, though, and they don’t have any firepower now). Selene, a “death dealer” whose job is to kill werewolves, always has what appear to be dozens of guns secreted somewhere in her body suit. Yet late in the movie, when a SWAT team of vampires delve into a werewolf-ridden dungeon, we hear one of them say “We only have UV rounds” — which only work on vamps, not werewolves (who died by liquid-silver bullets in the first film). Excuse me? You have equipment that would make Rambo cry with envy, and you forgot to bring the ammo that kills the very creatures you’ve been hunting for centuries?

Underworld: Evolution is convoluted nonsense anyway, having to do with the powerful vampire and werewolf sons (boss-level monsters, you’d call them in a video game) of the immortal Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), whose blood also flows in the veins of Selene’s half-vamp, half-wolf sweetie Michael (Scott Speedman). The vampire son Marcus (Tony Curran) can turn into a bat-like thing that at one point chases Selene while she’s driving a big truck; I feel certain that Derek Jacobi never imagined he’d be in a movie involving a contest between a truck and a bat monster. The werewolf son is in exile behind approximately five thousand locked doors, which can only be opened by two keys, and only Selene knows where he is, and I’m back to thinking about Selene’s hair color. Seriously, is her hair like a mood ring or something? It’s only brown when she’s happy?

I’m a horror fan and a shameless booster of cheesy movies. I love a ridiculous vampire or werewolf movie as much as the next B-movie geek. Hell, I can’t wait for Werewolves on Wheels to come out on DVD next month. But the Underworld movies take what should be a radiantly goofy premise and ladle tons of uptight style and backstory over it, stealing from The Matrix and Lord of the Rings and whatever else made millions of geeks buy millions of tickets (only by the grace of God are there no lightsabers in these films, I suspect). The effect is pulp pomposity.

The Underworld films — a prequel is said to be planned too, if you’re ready for that — are just action flicks banged together with horror fantasy, and the action is pretty uninspired, except a scene involving a climactic fight perilously near a whirring helicopter blade. But wait, that rips off the Indiana Jones movies. I guess we’re lucky Selene isn’t wearing a fedora. Then again, that would cover up her mood hair.

Film Geek

January 13, 2006

The early scenes in Film Geek brought me right back to my days toiling at Blockbuster. I spent a lot of time shrink-wrapping empty VHS boxes, and I never thought I’d see that chore depicted in a film. I’ve also had that “black bars” argument with people clueless about letterboxing. Can’t say I’ve ever wanked into a bathroom sink, though, unlike the socially inept hero. No, really.

Scotty Pelk (Melik Malkasian) is an idiot savant of film. He’s the sort of obliviously enthusiastic geek you meet in all other kinds of fan obsession — put a human face in front of him and he rattles off names of directors, editors, cinematographers, blissfully unaware that his listeners aren’t listening. Unfortunately, “encyclopedic film knowledge” doesn’t qualify him to last long as a clerk at Video Connections, the kind of video chain that doesn’t require film passion — just people who can work the register and come in on Saturdays. Scotty’s overbearing customer service gets him fired.

Scotty meets an artsy chick named Niko (Tyler Gannon), whom he first spies reading a book on David Cronenberg. He’s enthralled, though he doesn’t actually seem much interested in her sexually or even romantically — he just wants someone pretty he can talk film with. Scotty seems so far removed from normal human interaction he’s like a robot or an alien filtering life through what he’s seen in movies. He’s snobbish in some ways, though — unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino (the most famous video-store geek-made-good), who can usually find something to geekgasm about in any piece of crap, Scotty doesn’t have an omnivorous appetite for movies. He name-checks the usual suspects (Buñuel, Bergman, Kieslowski) and disdains those who prefer Patch Adams to Memento. In short, Scotty is your typical film geek, without the quirks of taste that can make real film nerds interesting.

The IMDb informs me that Film Geek was first screened in early 2005, though it plays for all the world like a 1995 film. It’s got the mid-’90s indie-flick soundtrack; it’s got Scotty’s website, with its laughably rudimentary design that evokes the Dark Ages of the internet; even the video stores (and Scotty’s own cluttered room) seem to stock VHS exclusively. This is absolutely the kind of movie that we would’ve expected to see around the same time that films like If Lucy Fell and Sleep with Me and about ten different Parker Posey quirkfests came out — when every studio wanted their own Clerks and ponied up a couple mil to try to make that happen.

Still, Film Geek is amusing (and, at 72 minutes, in and out of there fast), with a diabolically dweeby performance by Melik Malkasian — who could pass for a younger M. Night Shyamalan (who was probably a lot like Scotty back in the day) (um, actually he probably still is a lot like Scotty). Not content to score easy laughs off Scotty, writer-director James Westby allows Scotty a kind of cracked dignity and innocence. We actually enjoy the denouement, though, oddly, it reminded me of an infamous catch-you-leaning-the-wrong-way passage in Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary.

Most actual film geeks will want to think they’re above Scotty. Deep down, they aren’t. As I’ve said elsewhere, everyone is geeky about something; I fail to see why NASCAR devotees, say, should feel superior to Trekkies, or vice versa. The only real difference is in the style of geekiness. Film Geek both parodies and honors its chosen geekology.

BloodRayne

January 6, 2006

When the credits proudly announce “Special Appearance by Billy Zane,” you know you’re in trouble. Zane, however, is actually pretty funny in BloodRayne, a witless action-vampire flick based on a video game. He plays Elrich, some sort of elite vamp who mostly sits in his study and acts snarky. “Would you stop throwing things at me?” he deadpans at a minion who has tossed a scroll and, earlier, a severed head onto his desk. Zane’s dialogue is the only evidence I could find of credited screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who wrote the ’90s lesbian indie film Go Fish and has contributed to Showtime’s The L Word. Well, that and the scene wherein the half-vamp heroine Rayne (Kristanna Loken) seduces a female vampire only to chomp her throat.

BloodRayne is the latest in director Uwe Boll’s ongoing crusade to take horror-oriented video games (House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark were his previous efforts) and suck all the life out of them. I’ve played BloodRayne, and its cut scenes are better than anything in the movie. The plot manages the dubious feat of being both dumb and complicated, like the worst James Bond movies, when all it’s really about is stopping king-shit vampire Kagan (Ben Kingsley) before he can gather three ancient body parts that can make him invulnerable. Kagan (no relation to Fagin, whom Kingsley played in 2005’s Oliver Twist) is essentially The Master from Buffy‘s first season, with the Darth Vader spin of also being Rayne’s father (he raped her human mother). Rayne, for her part, is essentially a distaff Blade, only without the impressive arsenal (she could use a Whistler).

But don’t let the presence of fanged bloodsuckers fool you: BloodRayne is really no more a vampire film than Grandma’s Boy is. It’s a derivative quest film, with Rayne accompanied by a motley crew (Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Davis) as she searches for the elusive items — an eye in a monastery, a heart in a box underwater. As she collects these items, her energy points go up — uh, I mean her powers become greater (she can tolerate water, which once scorched her flesh). Unfortunately, Kristanna Loken’s acting becomes no greater. Then again, Maria Falconetti at her peak couldn’t do much with the lines Loken and everyone else (except Billy Zane) are given, and poor Michelle Rodriguez tries hard to maintain some sort of period-appropriate accent but winds up defaulting to her sullen mode. (She and her Girlfight director Karyn Kusama — who came a cropper with Aeon Flux — need to reunite fast and stop faffing about with dorky girl-power fantasies that are really about giving teen boys a peek.)

This was my first Uwe Boll film — weep now for my lost innocence, please — and he’s every bit as inept as I’d heard. His fight scenes are the worst kind of editing-room cheating, meant to cover for actors who haven’t been trained to wield anything more intimidating than a cell phone. Rayne begins the movie as a carny freak, and her escape from that degrading life is shown in a confusing flashback while she’s escaping. Yeah, it didn’t make sense to me either. Loken’s topless sex scene with Matt Davis — clang, clang against dungeon bars (ooh, how medievally erotic!) — might join Elizabeth Berkley’s Showgirls pool-thrashing in sex-scene infamy. Blood squirts and spurts everywhere, a tribute of sorts to the sanguinary game, only the blood looked more realistic there. Meat Loaf collects a check for a couple of scenes as a vamp libertine; Geraldine Chaplin — whose father Charlie is not, let’s hope, following her career from the afterlife — pops in as a fortune teller who fails to tell Kristanna Loken not to sign on for any more Uwe Boll movies based on video games. As it happens, Loken is due to appear in Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale in December 2006. Mark your calendars.

Hostel

January 6, 2006

The ads for Hostel sold it all wrong. They sold it as a sadistic tour de force that the youth of America would have to dare each other to sit through. Maybe the marketing was effective in the short term — Hostel made $20 million its opening weekend. But the movie I saw, rather than being the callow gross-out I’d expected, is actually genuinely frightening and not terribly explicit (though it does have its share of grisly moments). Premises don’t get much more basic — three guys in search of thrills in a strange land confront stark raving evil — but what writer/director Eli Roth does with it stands as a stern moralistic rebuke to ugly-Americanism. The movie is in-your-face but not pointlessly so.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), two typical college guys out for as much sex and drugs as they can grab during their European tour, and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), a hedonistic Icelandic guy who’s maybe ten years older, begin the movie in weed-friendly Amsterdam. For these guys, ancient and many-tongued Europe exists only to satiate their wolvish whims. Like the party-boy Victor in The Rules of Attraction, whose Euro-trip streaked by in flashes of nudity and hallucinogens, Paxton and Josh treat their surroundings as their playpen. They’re hated pretty much everywhere they go, but they hear about a place in Slovakia where the women are hot for American accents. The trio are on the next train there.

Roth takes his time. We’re maybe forty minutes into Hostel (not counting the ominous opening credits) before we catch the first glimpse of carnage. The guys, it turns out, are being steered towards a dank and dingy dungeon of torture, where businessmen pay top dollar to mutilate captives. (In a good joke, the most expensive objects of torture are Americans.) Before that, though, Roth plausibly sets up a disorienting atmosphere in which three hungover guys who aren’t necessarily thinking with the thinking parts of their anatomy could be so easily herded to the slaughter. Paxton and Josh are cannily drawn as surrogates for the young males who’ll be most attracted to Hostel and would be most attracted to the same comely diversions that tempt the protagonists. In other words, they’re obnoxious.

Then again, so were the young victims in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that horror classic certainly didn’t suffer for lacking “nice” protagonists. Once Paxton and Josh are separated and helpless in the face of masked, heavily-accented evil, we realize how much of their xenophobic, homophobic façade is a cover for just plain phobia; they are fearful, overcompensating young males, and now they really have a reason to be afraid. The torture scenes are certainly unpleasant, though Roth knows that what scares us is not clinical repulsiveness but the dread of shadows and the barely-glimpsed. When Paxton is dragged to the cell where pain awaits him, we catch corner-of-the-eye images of horrific things going on in other cells. Far more disturbing than what we actually see is the ghastly economics of this place, where anguish is well-paid for, the cops are in on it, and ruined body parts are casually chopped up, probably for dog meat. And the film’s most clearly seen disgusting moment is actually, perversely, an act of mercy.

Roth probes another level of American darkness when we meet a businessman from the States (Rick Hoffman) who’s absolutely giddy at the prospect of torturing a young Japanese woman. He’s done it all, he says, and he wants the rush of having ultimate power over life and death. The European and Asian torturers we see, while certainly sick and depraved, do seem to have some sense of gravity, some strange sense of respect for the import of what they’re doing. Not the American torturer, who can’t decide whether he wants to “make it quick” or get more bang out of his buck by making the agony last. He is, perhaps, meant to be Paxton or Josh twenty years later, an American male who never grew out of the pursuit of decadence and followed it down the rabbit hole to madness. He is probably the most repellent thing on view in the movie, and Roth very much intends him to be repellent and pathetic, not someone whose mind is to be enjoyed or emulated. The strategic placement of his scene, after we’ve already endured torture from the point of view of the protagonists, tells us that Roth is not simply after mayhem for kicks.

Some of Hostel — okay, a lot of it — strains credibility. (Are the people of Slovakia so blasé that they don’t notice someone with a blowtorched eye socket wobbling around a train station?) But the atmosphere, sin giving way to darker sin, is the important thing. It carries you through the mild cheesiness of the vengeful finale (as bracing as it is to see the pale, masked torturers get their comeuppance), which quotes directly from the moment in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis, about to escape his tormentors, stops and decides that he just can’t leave Ving Rhames like that. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Quentin Tarantino is “presenting” Hostel — it shares his aesthetic and his pet theme (actions have consequences). Roth, whose 2003 Cabin Fever was a fun throwback to backwoods horror, has made a movie that criticizes its self-consciously grotesque peers (recent movies like Saw II and Wolf Creek that seem to glory in nihilistic bloodletting for its own sake), criticizes its own audience, and even criticizes its own advertising. If you go to Hostel hoping for sadistic jollies, Roth puts you in that chair and makes you feel what it must be like to wait for God knows who to do God knows what to you. And it’s interesting that such a cinematic reminder of the hideousness of torture comes at a time when torture has been, shall we say, in the newspapers.


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