Archive for April 2008


April 30, 2008

In the South Park movie, Stan catches a clip from an online scheisse video and exclaims “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?” Your response to À l’intérieur (now out on American DVD as Inside) may well be “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with French people?” Or maybe just “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with Béatrice Dalle?”

French people, whatever the fuck might be wrong with them, have in recent years relished the opportunity to show American horror fans that, when it comes to onscreen gore, the French are far from being cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, and now Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s ferociously grotesque À l’intérieur spill the red red krovvy wantonly, almost disdainfully, creating Jackson Pollock splatters of rage and Gallic alienation. The Italians (Bava, Argento, Fulci, Deodato) used to be the big swinging dicks of world gorehound cinema, but leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.

À l’intérieur takes the woman-in-peril trope about as far as it can go, cruelly ups the ante by making her swollen with child, and sets Béatrice Dalle loose on her. Dalle made her mark 22 years ago in the fiercely polarizing Betty Blue and has never quite come down to earth, either in film or in life, since then. She has aged into a sultry, unstable virago, and if her diastemic choppers didn’t give you pause (who was it that advised never to trust a gap-toothed woman?), the serene madness in her eyes should do it. Her unnamed character wants the baby of expecting widowed mother Sarah (Alysson Paradis, sister of Johnny Depp’s paramour Vanessa) and will stop at absolutely nothing to get it. It helps that Paradis plays Sarah, pre-siege, as depressed and rather prickly. Sarah is due to give birth on Christmas Day, the father is months dead, riots are searing the streets of France, and is this world really worth bringing another life into?

The directors take their time (though it’s a very short film — 83 minutes in the unrated cut). For a while, À l’intérieur is less sanguinary than just plain creepy. After dark, the obsessed woman shows up outside Sarah’s house, barely glimpsed in the shadows, illuminated only by her cigarette. A little later, after the police have come and gone, she appears inside — it hardly matters how exactly she got in or eluded the cops. If you’re the type that picks logical nits, À l’intérieur will make you crazy; about half an hour in, the movie abandons rationality and dives into the logic of nightmares, in which you really need to scream but somehow you can’t, or you’re not looking over your shoulder for a madwoman brandishing large scissors because you don’t know you’re in a horror movie until it’s too late.

After a while, the flesh everywhere on the screen seems positively eager to part and open the floodgates. The movie becomes nasty, then disgusting, then disgustingly nasty. The two actresses keep this private war rooted in the fury only women can have for each other — this is as far from a sisterhood chick flick, or indeed a date movie, as a film can get without throwing porn into the mix. Occasionally an outsider stumbles into the fray, only to be discouraged in some very wet fashion. Towards the finish, even the hardiest viewer may groan and wonder if the film will go there. Not only does it go there, it snaps full-color photos and shoves them under your nose. For all that, the most disturbing thing in À l’intérieur is the sight of Béatrice Dalle attempting to act normal. There are hidden reserves of sadness in her rampaging-psycho performance, too — volumes are conveyed by the way she swats a meant-to-be-consoling male hand off her knee. Kindness is not hers to give or receive, not any more.

I cannot accurately say I “enjoyed” À l’intérieur — even at its abbreviated length it can be an endurance test, and I can’t say I was sorry it was over. Yet I give it five stars, because it is a horror movie, and it horrifies. It does its work without the slightest compromise or mercy. And it gives us, in the frightening person of Béatrice Dalle, the most stubbornly memorable and bizarrely human screen psycho in quite some time.


April 29, 2008

After you’ve followed an actor in a well-defined role on a TV show for about two years, it’s fun to see him or her playing a radical change-of-pace character. So as a Castle fan who’s enjoyed Stana Katic as the tough, no-nonsense Detective Kate Beckett, I was more than a little curious to see her as a vengeful, bloodthirsty Russian assassin in Stiletto.

Katic doesn’t disappoint — her Raina, who favors a massive pigsticker of a blade (hence the title), is ruthless yet vulnerable. The rest of Stiletto does disappoint, despite its surefire B-flick cast. Raina is after a bunch of low-rent mobsters with neo-Nazi connections. A dirty cop (Paul Sloan, also credited with the crude script) has his eye on her at the behest of the Greek gang lord (Tom Berenger) she almost killed. The always-welcome Michael Biehn works for Berenger and spends most of the movie arguing with psychotic, self-mutilating Cockney squeeze Amanda Brooks. Kelly Hu is a cop who doesn’t do much except show up at crime scenes and yell at Paul Sloan.

This cast includes William Forsythe, James Russo, Tom Sizemore, and not one but two actors who’ve played Leatherface (not Gunnar Hansen, sadly), and there’s very little to go around for the whole crew. So a lot of the “action” (a gratuitous drag race between Biehn and Sloan; a shootout in a Japanese restaurant where women stylishly sword-fight for the amusement of the clientele) seems tacked on. Ultimately the only points of interest are Raina’s bloody vengeance (somebody saw Kill Bill, I suspect) and the motivation behind it. Aside from Katic and Berenger (who brings a “fuck it, I’ve already died once” Zen attitude to his performance), I got a kick out of Tom Sizemore, playing a rabidly fucked-up celeb who keeps company with hookers; the role, to put it politely, is solidly in Sizemore’s wheelhouse these days. A couple of abrupt deaths also surprised a laugh out of me. I assume, given Raina’s sob story, that Stiletto is intended seriously, but most of it is useful only for derisive snickering.

Baby Mama

April 25, 2008

Tina Fey is a successful career woman who desperately wants a baby but can’t conceive. She picks ne’er-do-well Amy Poehler to carry her baby. Sitcom hijinks ensue. The appeal of this one is all in the cast (though it’d be more interesting if Fey and Poehler had switched characters), including a smoothly likable Greg Kinnear as a juice-shop owner Fey takes a shine to, Steve Martin as Fey’s deeply New Age boss, Sigourney Weaver as the surrogacy-clinic supervisor, Dax Shepard as Poehler’s incredibly stupid common-law husband, and the scene-stealing Romany Falco as Fey’s doorman. The script is full of easy jokes (like Siobhan Fallon’s birthing instructor with a speech impediment); the funniest bits were probably improvised, and Fey and Poehler have an obvious rapport.

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

April 25, 2008

Neil Patrick Harris is a golden god in the Harold & Kumar movies. Playing an absurdist version of “himself” — a drugged-out, aggressively hetero star who strikes awe in everyone he meets — “Mr. Patrick Harris,” as a character refers to him, is a libertine guru inspiring heroes Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) to greater depths of decadence. Cheech and Chong had Timothy Leary (in Nice Dreams); Jay and Silent Bob had George Carlin; Harold and Kumar have Neil Patrick Harris. An entire movie spent in the company of “Neil Patrick Harris” would be too much, but we get just enough of him (and his shiny new unicorn) in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay to last us.

The new movie lacks the freshness and surprise of 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and it doesn’t up the ante of outrageousness as we may hope it would have, but it’s still giddy brain-dead fun that goes to such pains to debunk stereotypes that the debunking itself becomes a joke. The unstressed point of the first film was that twentysomething guys of Korean and Indian descent were pretty much just like any other American-born slacker-stoners, aside from the cultural expectations and racist assumptions they sought to escape. Here, our heroes take a tour through the American south, encountering fearsome black guys, fearsome rednecks, and fearsome Ku Klux Klansmen. The blacks are harmless, the rednecks’ walls are lined with full bookshelves, and the KKK are just puerile. (Chris Meloni, so memorable as the first film’s Freakshow, scores again here as the KKK Grand Wizard.)

Paranoia and stupidity — their own, too, but mostly others’ — pull Harold and Kumar off an Amsterdam-bound plane and drop them into a cell at Gitmo, where the guards practice unsafe sex upon the inmates. The movie, directed as well as written by the scribes of the first H&K film, may expose some forms of bigotry but traffics unreflectively in others: gay male sex is gross, lesbian action is fun for men to watch, and whores are just whores — I waited in vain for the movie to find some stereotype-breaking twist on the women who work in the brothel frequented by Neil Patrick Harris. In fact, women in general aren’t thought out very well in these movies; Kumar’s lost love (Danneel Harris), due to get hitched to a slimy young Republican, has little to reveal to us aside from her closet weed habit, and Harold’s girlfriend (Paula Garcés) has even less. These are clearly boys’ films, though women with a taste for the lewd, crude and stoopid may not mind.

Thankfully, scant screen time actually unfolds inside Guantanamo Bay; it’s a loose road movie, with some mild topical shots at current events (rendering this sequel a time-capsule movie, as opposed to the more timeless White Castle). George W. Bush is brought out, in the form of impersonator James Adomian, for some toothless shots at his drinking, drugging, and dumbness — hey, man, W’s just a stoner like Harold and Kumar! That doesn’t really work, and neither does Rob Corddry’s cartoonishly idiotic Homeland Security trigger-finger, though Corddry has such obvious fun in the role it’s hard not to share it. A comedy trying to wring laughs out of people and places that have caused real-life misery either needs to go there with both guns blazing, or needs not to go there at all; the movie checks its guns at the airport. For all its fixation on weed and babes, H&K Escape from Guantanamo Bay is missing the heedless, almost inhuman craziness it would need to be a classic. Though Neil Patrick Harris holds up his end of the deal.

The Forbidden Kingdom

April 18, 2008

31Fans of Jackie Chan and Jet Li have been waiting for years to see them together in a movie. Well, here it is, and it turns out to be pretty much a kiddie movie. Weep for the disgruntled fanboys. For kids, though, The Forbidden Kingdom is a fun gateway drug to such classics as Drunken Master and Once Upon a Time in China, once they’re a little older. The movie concerns an American teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) who worships at the altar of Hong Kong cinema. The movie that follows could be Jason’s delirious wish-fulfillment dream: he gets to hang out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and fight alongside them. What’s odd is that Jason, who knows his Shaw Brothers from his Ronny Yu, never just stops and says “Hey, you’re Jackie Chan! And you’re Jet Li — wait, didn’t you say you were done with martial-arts movies?”

Jason gets pulled into ancient China, where he must return a magic staff to its rightful owner — the Monkey King (Li), who has been encased in stone for 500 years. Helping Jason is an immortal (Chan) whose life-maintaining elixir happens to be booze, and a monk (Li again) who has made it his life’s mission to restore the Monkey King to life. It may seem derivative, but that’s because John Fusco’s script is glancingly based on Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century classic Journey to the West, which has found its way into various films and TV shows over the decades, from a Shaw Brothers series to Dragon Ball. The movie is a grab bag of swipes from a lot of the videos on Jason’s shelves, including The Bride with White Hair, echoed here by a character called Ni Chang the White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing).

Poetry is in short supply here. The great Woo-ping Yuen (also on board as an executive producer) contributes his usual lighter-than-air fight choreography; while still enjoyable, it’s become a bit familiar by now, even a bit rote. The generously concussive duet between Chan and Li dazzles, but perhaps more because it’s them — Ali vs. Foreman, King Kong vs. Godzilla — than because of anything they do. (I found myself more charmed by a shot of the two masters sharing a hearty laugh at the visiting white boy’s expense.) This is fantasy, of course, so a lot of the wire work is soundly divorced from reality, even more so when CGI enters the picture — the villain of the piece, the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), is able to zap opponents with his hands, and I found myself thinking that this sort of thing was somehow more entertaining in the ’70s, when the zaps were spindly bits of lightning scratched onto the celluloid.

For all that, The Forbidden Kingdom is good low-calorie fun. Neither Chan nor Li takes the proceedings terribly seriously, and it’s nice to see the usually dour Li cracking a smile or, as the Monkey King, leaping about cackling. The movie often has the charisma of a project undertaken by its leads because they wanted to make something their kids could see (though Chan has been in his share of family-friendly swill in recent years). Michael Angarano, who was almost the young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, is unnecessary but not too annoying; Jason gets humbled for most of his screen time anyway, though the modern-day framing sequence, with Jason threatened by a gang of Southie punks and Chan in froggy old-man latex as a Chinatown shop owner, feels drab and mundane. (You might wonder why Jason wants to go back home.) This may not be the Chan-Li movie everyone was salivating for, but it’s a good diversion — neither as great nor as bad as it could’ve been.

Prom Night (2008)

April 11, 2008

Just last month we had Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his own 1997 Austrian thriller. Aside from the cast and a few tiny details, the remake duplicated the original film exactly. On the other end of the spectrum, we now have Prom Night, one of a growing number of RINOs. Those aren’t Republicans In Name Only (a phrase belonging to political chat, sometimes used to disparage John McCain); they’re Remakes In Name Only. RINOs seem especially prevalent in horror — the recent direct-to-DVD “remake” Day of the Dead is one such specimen. Aside from the milieu and a very basic similarity in premise — psycho on the loose during the prom — Prom Night bears no resemblance to the 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis slasher flick; it simply shares a title.

Not that Prom Night ‘80 was a stunning example of the craft, worthy of slavish emulation; nor is it a sacrosanct classic for which the very idea of a remake is blasphemy. Often, fanboys offended by an unsolicited remake of an adored film will say “Why don’t they remake a bad movie?” Well, they have remade a bad movie, and the result is a worse movie. This Prom Night offers Brittany Snow as Donna, the object of a homicidal science teacher’s fixation. This teacher (Johnathon Schaech) invaded Donna’s home three years ago and murdered her entire family. He was caught and put away for life, but now he has escaped, and two cops (Idris Elba and James Ransone, both late of The Wire) realize he’s making a beeline for Donna on that very special night of a high-school girl’s life, being held at a fancy hotel ballroom.

Brittany Snow is amiable enough, and was entertaining in Hairspray, but Jamie Lee Curtis’ slyly self-amused work in the original Prom Night isn’t threatened by Snow’s whitebread hysteria; the scar on Snow’s forehead (couldn’t that have been written into the script as the result of Donna’s previous run-in with the teacher?) has more personality than she does. In the original, someone was picking off everyone else but Curtis; here it’s all about Donna, and everyone else is just psycho fodder. The implausibilities pile up, but they might be easily ignorable if first-time feature director Nelson McCormick (currently working on a remake of The Stepfather — shoot me now) had any aptitude for suspense. As it is, to provide a cheap jump every few scenes, Donna is constantly being startled by things — her aunt, her boyfriend, and even, on one occasion, a lampshade. Ah, yes, that quiet killer the lampshade. This movie truly performs a public service.

Prom Night ‘80 was full of red herrings and dumb twists, but at least there were twists. Not so with Prom Night ‘08, which simply follows the killer through his paces; he’s unstoppable, but he’s not an evil genius — he just seems to sap the IQ of everyone who crosses his path. This hotel must employ the dumbest maids and bellhops in hotel history. Admittedly I haven’t been to a prom in *coughcough* years, but I don’t remember them looking like the red carpet on Oscar night, with underclassmen behind the ropes like screaming fans when the seniors stroll into the dance. In 1980 we had disco for Jamie Lee to boogie to; in 2008 we have Timbaland and Britney Spears for the kids to fail to dance to. I don’t honestly know which is worse — it’s rotten apples and rotten oranges.

Prom Night: ‘08 Megamix kept me amused with the following: the casting of Blair Witch veteran Joshua Leonard (who’s been working steadily all these years, not that you probably noticed) as The Moronic Bellhop; the casting of James Ransone, whom I vividly remember graphically pleasuring himself and then killing his grandparents in Ken Park, as a detective — yes, a police detective; Mary Mara as a lesbian gym teacher (all female gym teachers in movies are lesbians); and the climax’s shameless steal from the Lecter-evades-SWAT-team sequence in The Silence of the Lambs, right down to the corpse springing down from the ceiling. I guess it’s true; this killer makes everyone around him stupid, including SWAT guys and possibly the teen audience who made this a #1 hit to the tune of $22 million.

The Ruins

April 4, 2008

Vines have always freaked me out a little. They don’t just grow. They climb. They snake their way up the sides of houses and into rain gutters looking for water. They can be trained, for God’s sake; they can be coaxed into covering a wall or a fence. They can get into just about anything, as any homeowner or gardener can tell you. They slither around blindly but intelligently, and someday they will develop a taste for blood, and come for you in the night. Vines: I don’t trust the goddamn things.

Vines are the villains in The Ruins, a gory, wince-inducing horror film based on a bestseller by Scott Smith (he also wrote the script), whose previous novel A Simple Plan was adapted ten years ago by Sam Raimi. That film was a frosted film noir; this one concerns blood sacrifice, amputation, and a character who begins to carve a taco-sized chunk of skin off her thigh. Why? The vines. Four college kids (Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey) are vacationing in Cancun when they hear about an uncharted Mayan temple from a fellow tourist (Joe Anderson). They find the temple, only to discover a hostile group of locals who shoot one of the guys tagging along with the group. Why? Because the guy touched the vines.

Should I tell you more about the vines? No, they’re best left for you to discover, particularly the way they lure people to them. The surviving explorers are trapped atop the temple with no food and less than a day’s worth of water. They can’t leave, or the Mayans will kill them. They can’t stay, or the vines will worm their way into any open wound or orifice. These vines, I assume, have developed a craving for blood, perhaps from various on-site human sacrifices over the centuries. They will squirm around inside you, visible under the skin, and drive you crazy enough to pick up something sharp and start hacking at yourself to get them out.

One could argue that my thing about vines made The Ruins a far more effective horror movie for me than for most others (the movie is getting ridiculed everywhere, and it opened at an unimpressive #5 at the box office; between this and Doomsday, it’s a cold atmosphere lately for inexpensive throwback horror). First-time feature director Carter Smith (no relation to Scott), lucky enough to work with ace cinematographer Darius Khondji, creates a sense of sun-baked menace and dread; sometimes things are scarier when seen in stark daylight. Of the cast, the young women are memorably, believably traumatized; the young men are a bit blank. We know a little about the couple played by Tucker and Malone (he’s a med student, she’s disappointed he’s going to school thousands of miles away and tends to get drunk and loosey-goosey) and practically nothing about the couple played by Ashmore and Ramsey, so the latter couple’s fates don’t move us as they should — perhaps Scott Smith’s novel picks up the slack.

Other than that, The Ruins is a short, sharp shock in an era of torture porn, PG-13 ghost stories, and slasher remakes. It puts likable (if sketchy) characters in a ghastly situation and watches them deteriorate, and delivers several uniquely creepy moments. It isn’t one of the brightest lights in horror-film history, but it does its job remorselessly and well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to take care of with a weed-whacker.