Archive for March 2006

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

March 10, 2006

I wonder if the reason that the resolutely unscary Blair Witch Project scared so many people was that it had no stars. When you don’t recognize anyone onscreen from TV or other movies, you feel that anything can happen to them; they have, as yet, no image to protect. The vintage horror films of the ’70s, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween to some extent (whose only big name at the time was Donald Pleasence), and Wes Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, worked like that. The problem — well, one problem among many — with today’s horror movies is that the studios, despite the evidence of Blair Witch, think stars are required to get asses in seats. So we get movies like the Chainsaw remake, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and now the Hills Have Eyes remake with comfortingly familiar faces you expect to survive till the end credits.

This new Hills Have Eyes has been scrupulously copied from Craven’s original template by hotshot French horror director Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, released in the U.S. as High Tension). Craven himself was one of the remake’s producers, so he can’t complain, even if we can. Like Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) and Eli Roth (Hostel), Aja loves the disreputable, ornery grindhouse horror of the ’70s, and his work here and in Haute Tension is exceptionally well-crafted, if unavoidably derivative. Aja’s Hills is shinier, gorier, and nastier than Craven’s Hills, though it has demerits of its own.

As before, we meet a family — headed by macho retired cop Bob (Ted Levine) and his ex-hippie wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) — driving to California with their three teen-to-adult kids, a son-in-law, a baby, and two dogs named Beauty and the Beast. As before, young male power carries the day, right down to the fates of Beauty (don’t get too attached to her) and the Beast (arguably the hero of the movie). The parents, whom the remake goes out of its way to establish as Republican, haven’t a clue how to survive out in the desert when their car is totalled, especially when a second family made up of deformed nuclear-testing casualties comes out to play.

Up-and-coming young actors Aaron Stanford (as the liberal son-in-law — he’s Meathead to Levine’s Archie Bunker) and Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin (as one of the daughters) reassure you they’ll make it to the end, even if you haven’t seen the original. Similarly, the mutants, though imaginatively designed, are a bit too monster-movieish; they’re just make-up, not truly menacing. (The original film’s Michael Berryman needed no make-up, and you knew that such a low-budget film couldn’t afford to make anyone look like Berryman naturally did.) It doesn’t help that the mutants are given far less screen time than in the original. You barely know why one of the more compassionate mutants (Laura Ortiz) risks her life to keep the family’s baby safe once it’s been kidnapped, and you don’t even meet the mutants’ patriarch Jupiter until the very end. What was once a crude but effective parallel study of two dysfunctional family units is now just a Saturday-night shocker for teenagers.

As such, this Hills sometimes delivers, simply by way of its willingness to be nasty. But there’s a difference between Aja’s homage to nastiness and Craven’s genuine, Manson-and-Kent-State-inspired nastiness back in the day. It’s self-conscious nastiness, once removed from its motivating source. Some will point to the moment when the most vicious mutant molests a young mother while pointing a gun at her baby; others will single out the film’s anti-American streak (and sneeringly add that the director is French) — both, of course, were also in the 1977 version. One major new addition, a tour through a bomb-blasted town (with such touches as a fat bald woman glued to Jerry Springer on TV and a character named “Big Brain” in obvious tribute to Chris Cunningham’s freaky Rubber Johnny video), works well if only because we haven’t seen it before. And here what was subtle subtext in the original becomes overexplicit: The mutants are to us what Godzilla was to Japan — monsters forged in the heat of military/nuclear hubris. See, Aja is saying, we create our own terror(ists). But then it’s back to the original template, wherein we comfortably watch familiar faces pick-axing heavily latexed boogeymen.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

March 3, 2006

Had she lived to see it, I think Pauline Kael, that notoriously hard-to-please film critic, would’ve loved Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. After all, she loved the concert films Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz, and this movie deserves to be on the same shelf as those classics. Kael also loved Richard Pryor, and she might’ve seen his legacy living on in Dave Chappelle, the quicksilver comic who turns racial tension into farce. Easygoing and levelheaded, despite his highly publicized conflict with Comedy Central over the fate of Chappelle’s Show, Chappelle isn’t so much an angry black man as a humanist who sees the lowdown, raffish humor in people’s delusions. (In one of his most famous sketches he played a blind white supremacist who didn’t know he was black.)

So when Chappelle pulled together an all-star concert on a Bed-Stuy corner in September 2004, he did it without anything to prove. He had clout now, and a means to get all his favorite musicians together for one eight-hour concert. Like Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz, the movie is all about a good time. It’s also about inclusiveness. The artists — Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, the reunited Fugees — are primarily black, with the occasional white session player. But Chappelle, in the footage we see, goes back to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio to hand out free tickets to the concert (including transportation and a night at a hotel), and he approaches people of all races, ages, and genders. Some of them he probably expects to say no, like the middle-aged ladies who run the convenience store, but he just wants to see what they say and how they say it. As it happens, the ladies say yes.

Director Michel Gondry (who made 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) cross-cuts between the concert and the process of putting it together. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is less about the music than about the event. There’s a good deal of goofing around between Chappelle and various musicians in rehearsal, and we see Dave doing things like trying on pimp hats or just shooting the shit with the famous and nonfamous alike. Gondry brings a caught-on-the-fly style to the footage that nonetheless coheres into something that feels planned, or pre-ordained. Chappelle happens across a college marching band and asks them if they want to play at the concert; soon they’re backing up Kanye West for an electrifying, relentless run-through of his “Jesus Walks.”

I couldn’t honestly tell you what some of the hip-hop artists are saying without looking up the lyrics — the words sprint out in a rat-a-tat Uzi stutter that my ears just couldn’t process (I sympathize with the older white guy in the film who says he doesn’t dislike rap, he just literally can’t hear what they’re saying) — but not understanding all the words never stopped anyone from enjoying opera music. What matters is the syncopated joy, despair, love, hate, passion, and everything else that comes pouring out of the performers and their audience. As in the 1981 punk/new-wave concert film Urgh! A Music War, the women make themselves heard more clearly; they’ve worked too hard not to be heard, and singers like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and especially the volcanic Jill Scott are almost frighteningly precise and powerful. Their segments reminded me of yet another classic concert film, Bert Stern’s way-ahead-of-its-time Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a gorgeous time-capsule record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Chappelle says in the film that the block party was the best day of his career. I’m sure it was. Given the pressures that made him flee to Africa and bow out of a third season of Chappelle’s Show, it makes sense that he wanted to organize this concert (a month or so before he signed the famous $50 million contract) — it let him just hang out with creative buddies, and it let him be a fan again. Most of the time, Chappelle is just another face in the crowd, bobbing his head in time to the beat, nothing on his mind except the music. The movie lets us share in the experience.

Ultraviolet

March 3, 2006

If Ultraviolet had subtitles and starred someone like Maggie Cheung or, say, Elina Löwensohn about ten years ago, it might get a fairer shake. The movie is blathering sub-pop nonsense from scalp to toes, but, damn, is it fun to look at. Forget the subtitles, even — just turn the sound off, put on the techno or classical music or whatever soundtrack of your choice, and coast on the visuals. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer may not have two original ideas to rub together, but he sure as hell has an eye.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Milla Jovovich can act, but she has a surly supermodel presence and looks comfortable spinning around and waving sharp objects; in this film, that’s just about enough. Milla plays Violet, a “hemophage” (vampire) who takes it upon herself to protect a boy (Cameron Bright) carrying lethal antigens in his blood. This involves lots of costume changes, and since Violet is a busy woman, the movie helpfully changes her costumes for her via computer coloring. Sometimes her hair changes too. If you don’t like how Milla looks at any given time, wait two minutes and she’ll reboot for you.

Ultraviolet frequently lost me; it has the kind of simplistic yet convoluted plot that becomes white noise to my brain. But Kurt Wimmer, whose equally derivative yet eye-boggling Equilibrium was hailed by some (mostly the folks at CHUD) as the greatest thing since bullet-riddled bread, seems to have dedicated himself to making the prettiest pulp ever. Literally every frame has a burnished sheen, and the close-ups are digitally airbrushed — it looks like a high-end comic drawn by Richard Corben or Pete Von Sholly. A scene in which Violet and the boy share a rare moment of respite during a fireworks display — the colors and lights playing moodily on their faces — is gorgeous visual poetry. Directors have been lionized for far less.

Of course, to fully enjoy Ultraviolet you have to agree to overlook its story — which is eminently overlookable — and let it have its way with your eyes. I sympathize with the many charges against the film. “Idiotic,” some have said. “Hollow,” others say. “How the hell does Milla Jovovich keep getting film work,” ask still others. Apologies, but these objections are beside the point of the movie and beyond its purview. It wants only to catch Milla in a variety of poses against lovingly stylized backdrops while she handles weaponry and looks fetching in sunglasses. Which also change color. This is the kind of movie that makes me glad there’s a “Worth a Look” rating on eFilmCritic. Ultraviolet is absolutely worth a look — if not a listen or a thought.