Archive for September 2009

Pandorum

September 27, 2009

Ridley Scott’s Alien remains a horror masterpiece, but the grungy industrial look of its spaceship — innovative at the time — has been a lingering dreary influence on science-fiction interior design. The latest grubby-ductwork sci-fi thriller is Pandorum, set entirely aboard a spacecraft whose exterior has been imaginatively rendered but whose interiors must have been entrusted to three crew members who went yardsaling and browsed through abandoned fishing vessels. The movie looks unpleasant, is usually shot through blue filters, and was apparently edited by three other crew members with meat cleavers.

If a movie is going to be ridiculous, shouldn’t we at least have fun watching it? As it is, Pandorum clenches its teeth grimly as it blunders through its overstuffed plot, in which a spaceship contains thousands of Earthlings en route to a more hospitable planet. When we come in, lots of years have passed and not many of the passengers are left alive — at least not in the expected state. Two flight-crew members, Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid), emerge from extended hypersleep and spend a long while trying to figure out what happened. “You’re disoriented,” Bower tells Payton upon the latter’s awakening. The audience nods in empathy — we don’t know what’s going on either. Nor, for the most part, will we.

There are cannibalistic mutants on board, and a couple of random crew members who have somehow become expert fighters. One of them, Nadia (Antje Traue), is this year’s attempted Milla Jovovich reincarnation, a babe who kicks ass despite looking as though the last thing she attacked with any success was a salad. Our heroes crawl around the grimy, disgusting ship, running from the mutants and trying to reach the ship’s reactor, while Payton stays behind and contends with someone who may have “Pandorum,” a particular deep-space delirium dreaded by everyone in the movie. “Pandorum” apparently makes you paranoid, makes you see stuff that isn’t there, and makes you hire Norman Reedus, possibly the most annoying actor in the history of cinema, for a small role.

Norman Reedus disappears almost as quickly as he shows up, which is nice, but the movie keeps going, which is not so nice. The mutant-attack scenes are unscannable gibberish, and I really hope not to read some article detailing how much training Antje Traue had to endure to play her fight scenes, because the way they’re shot and edited it might be her or it might be Lily Tomlin, for all we can tell. Dennis Quaid gets his voice up in a few scenes, but the role keeps him pinched and sour throughout, as if he were either suffering from gastrointestinal distress or grooming himself as the next Harrison Ford. It’s hard to believe this is the same man Pauline Kael used to love for the freewheeling humor he often brought to his game. Then again, he’s trapped in the same anti-actor muck as the rest of the cast; Ben Foster has been no slouch elsewhere, and Antje Traue might, for all we know, be a major actress in her native Germany. In terms of calling our attention to great, unknown-to-us foreign actors and writing zesty roles for them, director Christian Alvart and scripter Travis Milloy are no Quentin Tarantino.

There are, of course, several twists at the end, the default mode for lazy screenwriting. Pandorum was cheap ($40 million) but not cheap enough; this sort of junk works better when the sets are cardboard, the monsters are obvious latex, and the whole affair doesn’t take itself so deadly damn seriously. (Number of intentional laughs: zero.) The movies Pandorum steals from did it all with more style and panache — Alien, of course, and also Event Horizon and Neil Marshall’s two effective potboilers The Descent and Doomsday. In fact, I hope there’s a big juicy check in the mail to Neil Marshall from this film’s producers.

Jennifer’s Body

September 20, 2009

Horror movies exist at least partly to tell us things we wish weren’t true, and from Jennifer’s Body — written and directed by women — we learn that no one fears and loathes the female body more than the female. Jennifer (Megan Fox) has a body that attracts boys, which gets her in trouble — like, wrong-end-of-a-sacrificial-knife trouble. Needy (Amanda Seyfried), Jennifer’s dweeby BFF since the sandbox, both loves and hates Jennifer for what she has and what she can get just because she won the genetic lottery.

Diablo Cody, who wrote the film, and Karyn Kusama, who directed it, have clearly been on both sides: resentful nerds in high school (I’m guessing), jeered at by everyone and their sister in adulthood (Cody suffered an enormous backlash after winning an Oscar for writing Juno, and Kusama’s previous film was the universally insulted Aeon Flux). There is a demon of the supernatural kind in the movie, but it gets a lot of help from the demons already devouring the characters from within — insecurity, self-hatred, the twin horns of sexual desire and the inevitable (from a female perspective) disappointment of its fulfillment. The movie is also, in case I’ve lost any of you, an almost first-rate horror-comedy.

Jennifer is lured into a van by emo band Low Shoulder, whose members have something diabolical in mind for her. Their plan doesn’t quite work out, since Jennifer isn’t quite the virgin she’d led them to believe. So she emerges impervious to harm and with an insatiable hellspawn in her belly, demanding the intestines of clueless boys. Kusama’s direction of the feeding scenes will be a letdown for gorehounds but a relief for the squeamish — editing and shadows are her workarounds. Cody’s dialogue occasionally dabbles in the quirky Codyspeak everyone seems to despise, but nobody sneers at stylized patter when Tarantino does it. Besides, here it suggests a shared in-joke universe between Jennifer and Needy.

The warm Needy is the moral center, and Seyfried carries the movie without strain. Someone once referred to Megan Fox as the Uncanny Valley Girl, and while she’s not ready for Uncle Vanya just yet, her lacquered impersonality and crude coyness work well for Jennifer. Fox will probably never be better cast than as a desire-driven, boy-munching airhead. People are rooting for Fox to fail — and for the movie to fail — the way they might’ve rooted for the homecoming queen or the head cheerleader to fall into indignity. But Fox does what the role requires, and Jennifer’s Body works its body-horror metaphors as only smart women who’ve been there can.

What keeps it from being a great horror film, rather than a very good horror film with surprising shades of sadness, is that past a certain point it literalizes too much. I’m a fan of ambiguous horror, and when we (and neutral, rational parties in the film) see the results of Jennifer’s midnight snacks, the threat is irrefutably supernatural. Needy, who narrates, could’ve been an unreliable narrator (the movie begins with her in a mental institution), spinning us a dark and gory fantasia about what she can’t let herself face. “I don’t tell whoppers and I’m not crazy,” she says at one point, but what if she does and she is? Jennifer’s Body thus stays on the level of a smarter-than-average Saturday-night demon-fest. It’s still better than most of what we horror fans are served, haters be damned.

Sorority Row

September 14, 2009

As the tough-talking, shotgun-toting house mother in Sorority Row, Carrie Fisher seems to be angling for a camp-classic performance, something to laugh about with her many, much-referenced gay friends. But the movie, stupid without a pause, fails her every time. Sorority Row throws Fisher away, but then Sorority Row throws itself away, too. A loose remake of the dull House on Sorority Row (1983), the film has to do with a prank gone awry — that creaky standard of teen slasher flicks — and the stalking of five Theta Pi girls by someone who, uh, knows what they did last summer. Or fall, or whenever.

I can’t remember the last widely-released movie that looked this dingy and grainy, and I assume the look wasn’t intentional, as in Grindhouse or the cinema of Rob Zombie. For that reason, I was with Sorority Row for a little while, even if only visually, as a throwback to ‘80s slashers. But the teenagers in those movies were generally allowed a bit more personality — even House on Sorority Row (whose director, Mark Rosman, gets to have the college in this film named after him; I’m sure he’d rather have the money) had Harley Jane Kozak and Eileen Davidson. And the earlier film’s plot synopsis on Wikipedia contains one of the most awesome sentences ever written: “Katey grabs the hand gun that was used on Mrs. Slater and flees from the clown-costumed Eric, which is when she discovers Jeanie’s severed head in the toilet.”

No heads in the toilet in the new movie, except perhaps off-camera bulimics. That isn’t a joke; Sorority Row fumbles for relevance by showing how cruel girls can be about each others’ bodies, and the logical extension of this is the rough treatment of one Theta Pi member during and after the poorly thought-out prank. With Carrie Fisher tippling her way through her small corner of the plot, and with Leah Pipes snarking her way through her performance as the self-anointed sorority queen with an eye to marrying into a major political family, Sorority Row actually could’ve been the anti-House Bunny (Rumer Willis, apparently everyone’s idea of a Greek sister, appears in both films), a dark satire that also worked as horror. (There’s a hint of this when Pipes’ character goes to lunch with her boyfriend and her prospective father-in-law, who worries that she’ll embarrass him and damage his shot at the vice-presidency; we see her realizing that, if her life stays on this track, her days of fun are over.)

Instead, we get a numbingly bland lowest-common-denominator snooze with the usual structure. (Could a case be made for Agatha Christie being the great-grandmother of the slasher subgenre? It all started with And Then There Were None.) One attends a motion picture such as Sorority Row for gore and nudity as much as anything else, but both are in short supply here. The killer employs a modified cross wrench, thrown across the room into someone’s skull and then yanked out with a cord. This mode of murder gets boring fast, although one unfortunate sister is obliged to swallow a bottle of wine more forcefully than she’d intended, and another finds herself on the wrong end of a flare gun. The whole mess starts when the surviving, upwardly-mobile sisters uneasily agree that if the truth about the prank went public, their lives would be ruined. I’d rather see an honest film about exactly what would happen if they’d told the truth. Failing that, a competent, scary, witty horror film might’ve been nice. Briana Evigan, as the most moral of the sisters, has a casual appeal and seems to back away from the movie as much as her character backs away from her sisters’ willingness to cover up inadvertent murder. She, unlike most everyone else here, might have a future.

A Rage to Live: In Defense of the “Crank” Films

September 9, 2009

I didn’t watch Crank and Crank: High Voltage back-to-back — it was more like a night and the following afternoon — but it was close enough. I now think some enterprising home-video tech geek, after Crank: High Voltage hits DVD and Blu-ray today, should rip both and merge them into one ferocious, hilarious three-hour experience. It’d be Grindhouse 2.

Since the sequel picks up exactly where the first left off, it’s a seamless mix. Call it Crank². Gulp the whole epic down like a can of Red Bull mixed with blood, sweat, jizz and breast-implant goo. (Okay, maybe not.) I took the long Labor Day weekend as an excuse to catch up on the Crank films, which have polarized critics and audiences: there’s the “OMG this is so fuckin’ crazy” camp and the “OMG this is so fuckin’ stupid” camp. Revoke my film-critic card if you will, but I had a ball. Here are the plots of both Crank movies:

Crank: Jason Statham has to keep his adrenaline pumping in order to stay alive.

Crank: High Voltage: Jason Statham has to keep electrocuting himself in order to stay alive.

That’s it. But within that framework, writers/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (always billed as “Neveldine/Taylor,” like some business firm) turn these films into overwrought skate-punk extravaganzas high on testosterone. Like Smokin’ Aces and Shoot ‘Em Up, they’re far more comedies than action films — if they starred a young Bruce Campbell, more people would get what they were really about. Crank and its sequel form one gigantic piss-take on the action genre. In the crazier moments of the sequel, the only difference between it and a cartoon is that it isn’t actually drawn.

The Crank films, of course, chuck realism out a ten-story window and spit down onto it as it falls. They’re not meant to be taken seriously on any level, which is why I shrug at the flicks’ frequent sexism and racism and every other offense to politically correct sensibilities. These movies are the corroded battery of the action film, jump-started and throwing off sparks and acid. Neveldine/Taylor destroy cinema and manhandle it brutally into spastic life in two short strokes. They bring the narrative structure and graphic clichés of video games into the multiplex; some critics would rather keep that stuff on the console where it belongs, but I take it as more or less a wry acknowledgment that video games are essentially what action films have become. The Crank films just take it all the way.

Neveldine/Taylor’s approach isn’t only subversive, though; they also clearly love doing this stuff. They’re basically comedians of violent excess — the set pieces are timed for laughs, not thrills. I haven’t seen Gamer, their recently-released third film, so I don’t know whether they can carry over the Crank aesthetic into other stories or even want to. But the Crank movies, I think, are perfect. Not great; not important; but perfect, in the sense that the films are so happily and completely what they are, guided by an unwavering psychotronic-meets-cyberpunk vision of brutal urban life. Nobody should bother making a Grand Theft Auto movie now; Neveldine/Taylor have already made two — or one big one.

The whole raucously infernal saga could be read as the fantasy of a dying man, some accountant or librarian expiring of a heart attack alone in his apartment and imagining himself as a hit man poisoned for his efforts and running all over drug-encrusted, titty-laden L.A. in search of his enemies. That would explain some of the more extreme leaps of physical logic in the movies. But it’s more fun to take the events on faith and enjoy their sheer absurdity. By the time Statham hallucinates himself and his foe as kaiju monsters doing battle among electricity towers, it’s obvious that Neveldine/Taylor are going to shoehorn anything they deem cool into this bash. Reanimated severed head? Check. Close-up of a horse cock during a public sex scene? Check. Professional hot mess Bai Ling in full-on fire-breathing crazy mode? Check. The wanton playfulness on display here used to be praised to the skies (and rightly so) when Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson did it. If these movies had subtitles and came from Japan — specifically, if Takashi Miike did them (and let’s be honest: no Miike, no Crank) — some of their detractors would fawn all over them.

So when Crank: High Voltage hits stores today, curl up with both films and get acquainted with a brutal-cool form of cartoon art. It isn’t remotely good for you, and it doesn’t have to be. Nor is it the sort of rarefied stuff that wins Oscars or prizes at Cannes. But I call it art, unreservedly. These films have their own tempo, pulse, vision. They’re not sadistic or amoral so much as blithely unconcerned with anything but the next gag. They could’ve been cookie-cutter movies, and they are not. They come to the fork in the road separating the banal and the outrageous, and they always take the road less traveled. Most of all, they are brilliant slapstick in an era that usually leaves such things to the all-thumbs hands of Shawn Levy or Dennis Dugan. I will defend the Crank films as art in front of any court of film critics anywhere.

Extract

September 6, 2009

extract-poster-5In tone and spirit, Extract kept reminding me of various smart, well-acted, but lukewarm indie comedies of the ‘90s — comedies less manic than depressive. This, fairly or not, isn’t what we expect from Mike Judge, creator of Beavis & Butt-head and the cult satires Office Space and Idiocracy. Those films have dialogue and sequences that are still talked about years later. Extract isn’t especially quotable or, sadly, especially funny, and it isn’t satirical, either — not in the same sense as Judge’s other work. It’s not a bad film — it runs smoothly, creates an environment and a mood. But fans of Judge’s previous work might do well to scale their expectations back — maybe all the way back to waiting for Netflix.

Jason Bateman’s Joel, owner of a bottled-extract company, is the first well-to-do hero of a Mike Judge film. Joel is leaning towards selling the company so he can retire (at his young age?), which makes his assembly-line employees nervous about their future. Good lord, what awful timing — good luck finding an audience who’ll sympathize with Joel at this moment in American history. (The script, I’m guessing, was written well before the economy did a face-plant; it started shooting last August.) Judge throws a few barbs at the various doofuses who work for Joel, but Judge must realize how mean-spirited it is to score laughs on the Wal-Mart dwellers and ethnic types working for a rich white man, so the barbs are half-hearted.

Joel’s biggest problem isn’t work anyway. His wife (Kristen Wiig, who seems to be channeling Jennifer Aniston), bored and frustrated making coupons for the company at home, lacks the energy to have sex with him. Joel’s solution is to surreptitiously hook her up with a gigolo, so that he can guiltlessly pursue his own interest in a new temp (Mila Kunis), a con artist who wants to manipulate an injured worker into suing the company for big bucks that she can then, presumably, abscond with. In a vague way, Extract is a satire — everyone in it has blinkered, self-interested motives. The target would appear to be the folly of chasing happiness in the forms of sex, money, power. But the movie lacks the pitiless shape of great satire — it’s rather amorphous and bland.

I almost felt that I was being asked to feel sorry for Mike Judge, the rich, successful creator surrounded by (studio) idiots. Jason Bateman usually plays the sanest person in the room, and he’s the movie’s default moral center, but when we watch him visiting that injured worker (who lost a testicle, haw haw) at the man’s cluttered white-trash house (that nonetheless sports a large flat-screen TV in the living room), the comedy becomes sour. Bateman is there to talk the guy out of a lawsuit, which could endanger the potential big sale of the company that will allow Bateman to retire in comfort with his lavish house and big pool, and I felt the movie floating away from me — we’re supposed to care?

Extract is full of talented people doing their best in underwritten roles, and if it weren’t for the fact that nobody comes off well, I’d lament the screenwriting that makes all the women either duplicitous or callous. The movie simply has no verve, no personality, no point of view; it seems as bored and essenceless as Joel’s wife. I couldn’t work out why it was made, why I was watching, why Mike Judge felt the need to tell this story. Just when the movie is about to die, though, Gene Simmons swoops in as Joe Adler, a slimy lawyer who advertises on bus-stop benches, and shocks the film to life for one scene. Simmons would’ve been the dominating center of a better Mike Judge comedy; that he’s relegated to a late-inning walk-on and a quick post-credits encore speaks none too well of Judge’s priorities.


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