Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America

In the midst of a fairly dreary summer Captain America emerges as an unlikely hero. This summer has seemingly had the goal of redefining empty spectacle and while one could hardly accuse Captain America of modest introspective filmmaking, it does at least want you to care about the people who are caught up in all of the CGI-splosions and tell a complete story about them. It’s almost a little sad how gratifying that is.

Like Joe Johnson’s earlier film The Rocketeer, Captain America manages to capture the fun, and dare I say innocence of the pulp era, with its straightforward heroes, hissable villains and retro future designs. Though it may lack The Rocketeer’s aesthetics purity it remains a welcome reminder that the sight of a Nazi taking a hard left hook to the puss will never lose any of its inherent charm.

Chris Evans, continuing his trend of being unexpectantly talented (he was always better than the movies he was in, watch Push sometime). He manages to play both Steve Rogers and Captain America convinincingly. Showing how the latter grows from the former. He’s easily the most human superhero we’ve seen since Tobey Maguire put on the red and blue. His opposite Hugo Weaving gets to Hugo Weaving it up, which is never a bad thing. His Red Skull is the ultimate pulp villain, marshalling armies of black clad soldiers and masses of infernal devices. Here is a man who knows the value of an ominous insectile war ship that he can stand in front of and cackle while it hovers ominously in the background. Stanley Tucci also makes a nice addition and Tommy Lee Jones also stars in the Tommy Lee Jones role. Delivering what I can only describe as The Platonic Ideal of “Old Crusty Tommy Lee Jones” performances.

Joe Johnston builds a unique look for the film (real visual imagination being another rarity this summer). Unadorned period piece for most of the America set segments, a look of sinister retro evil for the more fantastic sequences. Also welcome is his sense of lucid action. It’s amazing how much better spectacle works when you can see it.

I don’t want to oversell things here. It’s not a perfect movie, somewhat over long, with a climax that comes about fifteen minutes too late, and features one battle aboard a sinister hovercraft too many. Though it says something that it may leave the viewer hungrier for some more period action than The Avenger’s movie it sets up. Still in a summer, neigh a movie year as dire as this one has been it is rewarding to see something that comes in and does its job with such straightforward determination. Like its hero Captain America is old fashioned, which is by no means a bad thing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jackass 3/2.5

Jackass 3 reaches a kind of frenzied gloried. Though I enjoyed (I suppose that is the word) the other two Jackass films to one degree or another, they have now been made completely redundant. One cannot imagine where they can go from here. Or perhaps one simply does not want to. There’s something hypnotic about watching Jackass 3. It is like watching civilization end. Hunter Thompson once marveled that Circus Circus was what we would be doing every Saturday Night if the Nazi’s won the war. Jackass 3 is how we would spend our evenings if the bomb went off and nobody bothered to rebuild.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes the experience of watching the crew (including Chris Pontius the pride of my hometown) do  horrifying things to one another so different this time out. I mean sure the depravity and brutality have been turned up a few notches, with even relatively innocent sketches like Knoxville trying to disprove Roger Miller’s Thesis about Roller Skating in a Buffalo herd drawing winces. But there’s something else going on here, When one of the film’s running gags is that the veteran camera man keeps throwing up, you know things have taken a turn.

Part of it is that they are no longer kids. It’s one thing to do this to yourself wired on testosterone and a headful of drugs, but as one reaches middle age and (supposed) sobriety the prospect must become less appealing. Before one particularly brutal stunt Steve-O moans “Why do I have to be Steve-O” with what sounds suspiciously like existential despair.

My thirst for things that make me despair for the future of the human race not yet slated I also watched Jackass 2.5. The .5 series is if anything worse than the main one. As it consists entirely of stunts that the crew believes that they did not pull off. The main difference is that while the stunts in the main film usually end with the ensemble chortling like a pack of hyenas over a kill the .5 series are more apt to end with them staring at the spectacle they just caused with horrible numb introspection. What could cause such horror and remorse in a group as hardened as the Jackass crew I shall leave to your imagination.

It’s hard to believe; even setting aside the death of cast member Ryan Dunn that there could be a follow up at this point. There’s nowhere else to go. Unless they’re willing to have Jackass 4 end with the cast participating in a literal reenactment of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. With the chorus of hooting and chattering as they use rocks to smash one of their fellow’s skull to bits. It is perhaps the logical endpoint of the series. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Still Alive

As a result it’s time for a little pow wow. Things That Don’t Suck is going to be changing a bit in the coming weeks. Not too much. But the fact is I’m now writing on a regular basis as freelance for two publications and am quite frankly looking for more. Between that, my two blogs, not to mention my own writing, somethings got to give, and unfortunately what’s going to give is Things That Don’t Suck.

Now don’t send the flowers yet. I’m not going anywhere. There’s a great community of readers here and over the years I think the site has developed a real voice, something I’m really proud of. I’m not going to abandon that. Nor is this going to be just some sad appendix that provides links to my free lance work (I hate it when that happens). Things That Don’t Suck will keep it’s own identity.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the new schedule for Things That Don’t Suck will be. It might be every other day, it might be bi-weekly, I don’t know we’ll see.

I started the daily posting schedule for two reasons. The first to teach myself discipline as a writer, has been achieved. The second, to compete in the brutal battle for traffic was rapidly beginning to not make blogging fun for me anymore. Basically what I’m planning to do is cut the filler posts. Write about what makes me passionate again, instead of trying to drag 500 words out of the corpse of Season Of The Witch. Like the man said “All Killer, No Filler.” It might be that this shift in priorities is the best thing to happen to Things That Don’t Suck.

I can promise you this though, as long as you’re interested in reading Things That Don’t Suck it’ll be here for you.

See you tomorrow. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer Of Samurai: Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart In Peril

Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart In Peril is the fourth installment in The Lone Wolf And Cub Series, which remains for my money the greatest of the samurai series.

Noted badass Ogami Itto continues his trek across Japan leaving a venerable trail of corpses in his wake. You would think that people would eventually learn that the lifespan for someone sent to kill Ogami Itto is usually roughly the same as “Henchman for the Joker.” But Motherfuckers keep making the same mistake and Itto keeps cleaning them up.

This was the first of the Baby Cart films not be directed by Kenji Musumi and it shows. Unlike the previous three entries which went for epic storytelling Baby Cart In Peril is   lower key and more atmosphere heavy than other entries. Instead of a master plot it’s almost a series of vignettes. The action is also downscaled with the epic storytelling (until the last scene). But what the fight sequences lack in scale they make up for with innovation and superb choreography, and feature some of the best in the series, including a truly creepy fight sequence against some “living Buddha’s” that gets even the usually unflappable Ogami Itto a little freaked out.

The film follows Itto as he goes to kill a female assassin who is killing members of a samurai family in her own quest for revenge. The assassin has gruesome tattoos over her body and fights topless because hey this is exploitation cinema in the seventies that’s why.  But the film isn’t as plot driven as the others, Itto doesn’t so much relentlessly track her as remember two thirds of the way through the film “Oh yeah I have that thing I gotta do.” In the meantime he kills some of the monumentally foolish people sent to assassinate him, gets briefly separated from his child Daigoro and gets a rather unnecessary retcon to his back story.

This retcon introduces Gunbei the only man to ever defeat Ogami Itto in a duel, and one of the douchiest characters I’ve ever seen in a samurai film. How Douche? Upon meeting Daigoro in a temple he realizes that the child is not afraid of swords. His natural response? To take the child and leave him in a burning field, and then murder a Buddhist Priest who tries to protect. Once again this is done with absolutely no motivation. He’s just kind of pissed that the child isn’t scared of him.

This entry does have a couple of issues; there are a few sequences that have an unnecessary and cumbersome narrator. The retcon also is a bit strange, reducing Itto’s quest for vengeance from a battle against a mad system to the machinations of a single family for the humiliation of a single fighter and to top it all off the series continues its tradition of having the most rape happy villains this side of Dr. Light.

But setting all that aside, The Baby Cart series remains one of the toughest, coolest, and yes best Samuari series ever made. And thanks to its brisk pace, atmospheric style, and hardcore action Baby Cart In Peril remains one of its best entries. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

Transferring a beloved TV show to the big screen is a tricky business. Particularly when one is translating the actual show, as opposed to some vague reimaging that trades on name recognition. Transferring a show that had one of the most distinctive yet mercurial identities of any television show in ever made is significantly trickier. Transferring a show that had just ended in spectacular, not to mention rather definitive fashion, well that’s just plain asking for it.

Yet somehow Cowboy Bebop The Movie ends up being the rarity of rarities. A film that not only manages to keep the tone of the series undiluted, but delivers an experience that was on par with the best of the television episodes.

For those unfamiliar with the series Cowboy Bebop follows a group of bounty hunters vagabonding through the galaxy, not so much working together but with parallel contempt. The series was remarkable for its groundbreaking style, slick animation, nearly fetishtic level of affection for and understanding of genre filmmaking (all of them. The greatest part of the show was week in week out you had no idea if you were getting hong kong action, spaghetti western, blacksploitation, space opera, kung fu, or even out and out horror) and for the way it neatly eschewed all the usual beats of the team based storytelling. You really have to witness the form of dysfunctional functionality that the core team possessed. Against all odds they didn’t grow into a working family unit, but manifested any affection for one another as extreme passive aggression at best.

Cowboy Bebop The Movie ups the stakes, putting the fate of an entire planet at stake, but otherwise makes no concessions to the theoretically larger audience, both the crew and style against all odds remain resolutely themselves.

The film takes place in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. What first appears to be a biological attack is revealed to be something entirely more sinister. The crew pursues the person behind the attack, complications ensue. This might sound like a fairly standard action plot but the way its handled makes it superior.

Like many of its episodes Knocking On Heaven’s Door is about a buried secret of the old world (IE our world) coming to get revenge on the new. It’s a device that’s been done before, both with in the series and without. But rarely so well. Vincent is a hollow monster. Following the last impulse he has as his own.

It’s a textbook example of great Bebop plotting, done with just enough depth to give it real poignancy, and leaving enough questions unanswered to leave a real sense of mystery to the proceedings. Coupled with a great sense of atmosphere (the world of Bebop is a kind of multi cultural mélange, this time pulling on Moroccan architecture and culture) and some of the best choreographed fight scenes you’ll see in animation or Live Action, Cowboy Bebop The Movie lives up to the standard of quality set by the series.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Supernatural Season 1

I rarely watch TV shows. It’s not a snobbery or a stuck up thing, it’s just that like everyone else I have limited time and as a TV show represents potentially hundreds of hours of investment I had better be damn sure I’m going to like it, before investing that sort of mental real estate. But I was somewhat curious about Supernatural, the long running horror/cute but non threatening lead delivery system, series system that has been running for the past several years.

Turns out it wasn’t bad. True the show rarely delivers any actual scares and at times seems far more concerned with showcasing the abs of its leads than any of the ghosts or demons they’re happening to fight. But it’s a light well made series, that manages to be a fair amount of fun. It’s like watching two not unlikable guys fight their way through a forty five minute Roger Corman film every week.

The show follows two monster killing brothers who are on the trail of their missing father (Badass in retrospect Jeffery Dean Morgan). Along the way they stop in various small towns across the US and battle a varied assortment of ghosts, demons, pagan gods and other supernatural beings and get in the occasional bits of surprisingly chaste romance (One of the interesting subtle ways in which the show is female centric is just how seldom these one episode romances get beyond a peck on the cheek. The days when Tom Selleck or James Garner could leave behind a trail of illegitimate children in their wake are long gone.) Though the show does spend an awful lot of time on a subplot involving the younger sibling’s resentment at being pulled back into the world of monster hunting after an extended hiatus, it’s just the kind of thing that is more noticeable with episodes watched back to back rather then spaced out over the course of a television season.

As said the show is usually too art directed to be scary. But it is at least creative. Switching between old standards (Indian Burial Ground) and original monsters. The effects themselves are pretty decent (We’ve come a long way since the days of Buffy’s first season) and manage a couple of creepy moments.

It doesn’t break any new ground in the genre. But it’s obviously made by people with a real affection for the horror genre, if not understanding of it. Really the show is for the most part content to just be a fun run through monster of the week. The perfect thing to watch over some Chinese left overs coming home beat from work. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shame On A Blogger

Sorry for the soft weekend. I've been trying to wrap my head around the prospect of an Evil Dead remake.

It hasn't gone well...

Also part of the blame has to go to this, which is just hypnotic. I mean pairing something incongruously cute with something incongruously crude is the oldest trick in the internet books. But the lip sync here is incredible. You haven't heard the Old Dirty Bastard's flow until you've seen it come out of the mouth of a pink pony. 


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Riot On The Sunset Strip

Riot On The Sunset Strip is a particularly baffling youthsploitation film from the good folks at AIP. The film features the great Aldo Ray, his salad days drawing to a rapid close, as the new Lieutenant of the Hollywood division. The Establishment types on the strip don’t take kindly to the hippies who have ensconced themselves on The Strip and turn to Ray in the hopes that he will beat the ever living tar out of some long hairs. But low and behold Ray is the reasonable type who seeks to understand the kids these days, causing no end of ill will between he and the rest of the establishment. In a parallel story the film also follows Ray’s wayward daughter as she hangs out with hippies, takes acid, gets raped and faces the assorted other things that happened to wayward daughters in 60’s cautionary tales (And really this has to be one of the greatest LSD freakout scenes of all time. I mean the dance she does it’s just… just…like wow man…) 

The two story lines mesh into what can only be described as an extremely low rent precursor to Hardcore and things come to a head with the titular Riot On The Sunset Strip, though given that the title is in keeping with AIP’s hyperbolic marketing, perhaps A Mildly Rowdy Disturbance On The Sunset Strip would have been a more honest title.

The thing that keeps Riot On The Sunset Strip from being just the usual youthsploitation movie and launches it into the realm of the mystifying is the producer, writer and director responsible had all been making films since the 20’s, and their idea of Youth Culture was arrested sometime in nineteen thirty. It’s as if someone has vaguely described these “hippies” to them and didn’t do a very good job of it. As a result until the LSD rape the youth in Riot On The Sunset Strip have more in common with the opening scenes of Wild Boys Of The Road than say Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. They hop in jalopies, talk about chow, and despite dressing like rejects from Andy Warhol’s factory always seem on the verge of going to the sock hop. Watching one anachronistic group of idioms play ventriloquism with another anachronistic groups of idioms is strangely disconcerting. Like watching Mickey Rooney fire up a joint. 

Youth run wild movies tend to blend together. Particularly those made in the sixties. But if you do have a hankering for a good old fashioned battle between the freaks and the squares you could do a lot worse than Riot On The Sunset Strip. It features Mick Jagger’s non union Mexican equivalent (fronting a band called Chocolate Watchband) a few truly great slices of kitsch (including the best/worst portrait of alcoholism I’ve ever seen) and at 86 minutes manages to leave before it outstays its welcome. Bad movies are a dime a dozen, but films so completely off as Riot On The Sunset Strip are rare. It’s like the time your father got drunk and decided that he didn’t need the damn directions to assemble your new bicycle. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer Of Samurai: Samuari Champloo

Two men kneel in a courtyard, hands bound, executioner raising an axe behind them. A laughing official in front of them asks if they want this last chance to beg for mercy. One of the men makes it to his feet and tells him to go to hell in spectacular fashion. The official snarls the ax comes down…

A laborer kneels in the road, begging an official not to take him off of a job, or his family will starve. The official sneers down at him and motions for a bribe. The humbled man moves forward digs into his pocket and pulls out the few coins he has. The Official takes them and scornfully throws them into the dust, humiliating the man and ordering him beaten. Just as his guards crowd around a stranger steps from the crowd, stands before the helpless laborer and draws his sword.

A Waitress serves a gang of rowdy men in the inn where she works. The men are rich and drunk, and as they get drunker they get rowdier and wilder, threatening the patrons and the staff. A vagrant slips in and offers to kill the men for the price of a meal. The waitress blows him off only to slip and spill hot tea all over the ringleader. The men grab her and the ringleader raises his sword and prepares to take her hand for the offensive, in a last moment of desperation she cries out “One hundred dumplings.” The vagrant smiles, unsheathes his sword, and the blood begins to fly.

You may wonder why I’m going to such care to describe a few seemingly random scenes. Are they the climaxes of three separate samurai films? Maybe the big set pieces in one. Or given that it’s a TV perhaps they’re just the ending of three particularly good episodes.

My friends all three scenes I’ve just described take place in the first five minutes of the first episode of Samurai Champloo; a show which feels more like the freebasing of a dozen Samurai films at once than the watching of one.

The show is directed by Shinchiro Watanabe, most famous for being the mastermind between the seminal anime series Cowboy Bebop. This show shares that one’s fluid animation, innovative action and dysfunctional secret filled cast, but does suffer from comparison to Cowboy Bebop, mostly because just about everything does. I mean you can’t make a superlative show that takes the best of thirty years of genre filmmaking, blends it with style that was truly next level yet boostered by retro iconicism that simultaneously defines the medium while transcending it, every time you make a series. You just plain have to hit a solid base hit every once in awhile.

If you can keep its over achieving elder sibling out of your mind while watching it, Samurai Champloo can be a lot of fun. As established it’s crammed full of samurai goodness without being exhausting, it’s stylish without merely devolving into exercise, and it’s action packed without being dramatically weak. It’s undoubtedly pastiche but it’s damn good pastiche. And if it’s not quite as soulful, exciting or special as its predecessor? Well see the above paragraph.

* This show features a character named Manzo The Saw. Hopefully I don't need to tell you why that is completely fucking awesome. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Things From Other Places

So against all better judgement I got together with my buddies from the On The Stick empire for another round of the Action Cast. Where we talk about various terrible licensed video games from old blockbusters, and also muse about the various topics such as just what is the matter with Pierce Bronsan James Bond,  Lego Al Leong films and poor John Woo in America. You can check out the dulcet tones of my voice and witness my science here.

In other news Son Of Danse Macabre has a new entry, concluding my massive HP Lovecraft essay. So get called by Cthulhu and check it out here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Of Samurai: 13 Assassins

(Welcome to the inaugural entry in Summer Of Samurai. AKA the best idea that I seem bound and determined to mishandle. In its first year I tried to devote the month of August to Samurai, which was a very bad idea. This year determined to spread it out over the summer I announced the revival of the series at the beginning of June and now present the first entry midway through July… Well better late then never, and I can’t think of a better film to start out on.)

Takashi Miike is a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me. If there’s one cult filmmaker whose bandwagon I’ve never been on its Miike. Maybe its because I’ve always liked Japanese Cinema enough that Miike simply wasn’t the only game in town when it came to extreme Asian cinema. Maybe its because you can only see so many people boiled alive in feces before the bloom comes off that particular rose. But mostly it’s because that Miike’s films just feel sort of empty, take away the transgression and there’s nothing there. Even the films that succeed purely by pounding one into submission, like his gleefully grotesque musical Happiness Of The Katakuri’s, do so by bludgeoning you with novelty.

This is all to establish that I am just as surprised as you are when I say that 13 Assassins is one of the finest examples of its genre that I know of. And could very well be one of the greatest action films I’ve ever seen.

Ironically the first thing that lets us know that it is a different Takashi Miike that we’re dealing with is Hari-Kari. In the opening shots of the film a Samurai lord commits seppuku, as a protest against the Shogun’s evil half brother. It’s easy enough to imagine how Miike would usually film that scene, with gore and gristle splattering all over the staid period settings. Instead Miike keeps the shot on the lord’s face throughout the action, emphasizing the time it takes, the emotions and pain that play out on his face. The amount of will it takes to do as he does. There’s more depth in that shot then there is in the rest of Miike’s films put together (It’s worth noting that when the one moment of traditional Miike transgressive perversity does come into play its meant to evoke sorrow, an emotion heretofore foreign to Miike's Oeuvre).

Spurred on by the act of the lord the high justice of the land commissions a faithful Samurai to assassinate The Shogun’s brother and his private army. The Samurai gathers together twelve other men for the task. It’s thirteen men against seventy, but then… Well that would be telling.

What follows is the kind of film that makes you a genre fan for life, and keeps you one when the love begins to wane. It’s classic man on a mission filmmaking, a slow burn that takes careful time with its characters, atmosphere and story that builds to an apocalyptic ending that just keeps going and going. It’s genuinely epic filmmaking and I feel sorry for the action fans who are getting suckered on Bay-splosions who for five dollars more could own this masterpiece. It’s one of the best of it’s kind and I know I’m sounding like a broken record here but I cannot freaking believe that Takashi Miike made this thing.

I envy the kids who get this as their gateway film. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cars 2

Whelp as you all know the Pixar streak, one of the finest unbroken stretches of quality in American film history, just got broken. But I come here not bury Pixar (as if) but to praise it. I’m fully confident that Pixar will make great films again (if only because holy shit did you see the trailer for The Brave) and thus it’s worthwhile to take a look at just why and where Cars 2 goes off the rails.

Here’s the thing Cars 2 does look for all the world like a Pierce Bronsan era James Bond movie, enacted totally by anthropomorphic Cars. Though the question of why anyone would want to see that is still assumedly locked somewhere in the depths of John Lassetter’s psyche. After the low key original, this has got to be one of the strangest changes in direction that a sequel has ever taken. It’s as if they made a sequel to Beethtoven and called it Cujo.

The frustrating thing about Cars 2 is the fact that its easy to see the entertaining, if undoutbably strange, film that it easily could have been. No film featuring Michael Caine at his most effortlessly charming, Bruce Campbell, Eddie Izzard, and John Turturro basically giving his G-rated take on The Jesus, is going to be wholly without entertainment value. Cars has some fantastic moments. Take the Japanese montage set to a song choice as obvious as it is perfect, which manages to craft in more ideas, more images, more wit, and more breathtaking design then most animated features cram into their entire runtime.

Yet there is the inescapable fact that when you are watching Cars 2 you are watching a Larry The Cable Guy vehicle. Let me repeat when you are watching Cars 2 you are watching a movie that has been lovingly crafted to give as much exposure to Larry The Cable Guy as humanly possible. Every minute of it precisely calibrated to give you as much Larry The Cable Guy as you could handle. Any time your mind lulls you into believing otherwise and you begin to enjoy the other elements of the film, the bright, lively animation the game supporting cast, the film comes in and reminds you that this the cable guy’s show and recenters everything around him, so he better scream catchphrases at the captive audience. The horrifying fact of Cars 2 is though you could shelve it next to your Pixar films, you could also put it next to your copies of Delta Farce and Witless Protection and you wouldn’t be wrong (also if you somehow owned both Delta Farce and Witless Protection may God have mercy on your soul).

Fair or not this is simply a film you have to look at differently for Pixar having produced it. In another family animated film an annoying side character voiced by an annoying celebrity, being put through the paces of a borderline nonsensical plot could be taken as a given, and allow the audience to focus on the other elements of the film. But this is a Pixar film. By definition they are supposed to be better than that. There is no way around the fact that Cars 2 is a sub-par film. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Ward

Yesterday I got to do something that I have never done in all of my years as a filmgoer. I got to buy a ticket to a new John Carpenter film. I was too young when Vampires came out and Ghosts On Mars was gone from theaters before I could get a chance. Given the manhandled release that The Ward is getting it was one I wasn’t sure I would get to have this time around either. I felt positively giddy doing it. I’ve loved Carpenter for as long as I’ve loved movies and getting to sit in a seat watch the lights go down and not know what was coming next was a thrill I doubt will be equaled this movie going year.

As for the film itself, for all of its flaws, Carpenter’s last film is no longer Ghosts On Mars. And that in and of itself is worth the price of admission. Like I said, The Ward is a flawed film and unfortunately the nature of its flaws are pretty tough to get over. But it’s also, for the majority of its runtime a great little programmer. With its ineffective moments balanced by some awfully effective ones. Easily his best film since They Live, which true might be damning it with faint praise, but still has to count for something. If we take his two Master’s Of Horror episodes to represent the parameters of what to expect from this new phase of Carpenter’s career, with Cigarette Burns as the high point and Pro Life as the tone deaf low, The Ward falls almost exactly in the middle. What can be said of The Ward except that it works until it doesn’t. Hamstrung by an ending that can only be described as “unfortunate” and “Shyamalanesque.”

The Ward follows Amber Heard once again proving herself an effective lead in a film that few will see. She arrives at the sinister mental institution, under the command of  Jared Harris who keeps us guessing whether or not we can trust his all too reasonable Doctor for much longer then seems logically possible. There she finds that the girls on The Ward tend to disappear, with everyone seemingly afraid to talk about them after they go. Is it a sinister conspiracy? Or something else? This of course brings to mind Sucker Punch and Shutter Island, and surprisingly there are elements of both in The Ward. Though not in the way one might expect.

The Ward is decidedly low key for the most part, subsisting on an understated hum of paranoia and tension, though there are a few moments where Carpenter cuts loose and shows that he still has some wild images and great set pieces in him.

There are a few other problems the sadly anonymous score (strange that it couldn’t get the full Carpenter treatment given how influential Carpenter’s work has been in the last couple of years). But towering over them all is that ending. In all fairness it is decidedly not tacked on, pay careful attention to Jared Harris’s dialogue. And when one thinks about it, SPOILERS, it plays as a clever twist on Carpenter’s classic “siege” story, telling the story of a personality under siege instead of a community.

But the fact remains that it just doesn’t work on a gut level, no matter how much you rationalize it. Still, all in all The Ward is a fun film and a worthy effort.

Now how about another Carpenter?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hobo With A Shotgun

Every once in a while something lives up to the hype.  It’s easy to get jaded as a movie fan. After all we see so many good concepts come down the pike that we know, just know can’t live up to the potential of their trailers, posters, and concepts.  Then every once in a while something does. Filthier than Machete, bloodier than your average Rob Zombie film, and more fucked up than the collected works of Frank Henenlotter Hobo With A Shotgun is the real deal.

It’s as if every disreputable low rent eighties action movie went to an orgy hosted by Frank Miller and Hobo With A Shotgun is the product of their hate fucking. John Carpenter took the child home to raise it. And the little bastard child grew up mean.

Hobo With A Shotgun follows the titular Hobo played by Rutger Hauer. He comes to Scum Town, a pre apocalyptic (Think Mad Max not The Road Warrior) Canadian city run by Drake a powerful crime lord/sociopath and his sons who offer not one but two devastatingly ruthless Tom Cruise impersonations.. (One of the most unexpectedly upsetting elements of the film is its Canadianess. I mean it’s a foregone conclusion that America will one day slide into a apocalyptic hell on Earth. But we kind of figured that you guys had it together.) After spending a few days in Drake’s hell hole of a city and befriending a teenage prostitute The Hobo decides he has had enough. He gets himself a shotgun and starts blowing holes in the city’s lowlifes, of which there are plenty to choose from.

Rutger Hauer stars as the Hobo. Hauer even after his brief revival via Sin City and Batman Begins remains a sadly underutilized actor. He gets to show his skills here, playing the role in a way that gives it a surprising amount of depth. Though the Hobo is the hero there’s no getting around the fact that he’s genuinely unhinged. There’s a moment where the Hobo’s teenage protégé allows him to sleep in her bed, and as he nods off he starts on this long rambling monologue about bears and how they can tear off peoples faces. Even though we know The Hobo is a good guy that’s still a half crazed homeless person lying in your bed talking about ripping off people’s faces. That’s going to be an uncomfortable moment no matter how you try and shake it. The fact that the movie doesn’t shy away from that, and the fact that Hauer is able to add such a great deal of sadness to what is essentially a gore cartoon, is what keeps the movie from being a one trick pony.

Not that that one trick is any small thing. Director Jason Eisener orchestrates non stop mayhem from the open frame to the closing one. The film is obviously one of limited means, but there’s a genuine demented creativity here that makes up for the lack of budget. Watch The Plague rampage and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a tough time for independent filmmakers right now. Even if you do somehow will your film into existence that’s no guarantee you’ll get a second one off the ground. Just ask the guys who made Behind The Mask, or The Signal. I hope Eisener bucks that trend. His is a vision too demented to lose.

The film does have a few flaws. Some of the digital cinematography is sub par, with blown out backgrounds and over lit exteriors. Here’s hoping that next time out Eisener can afford a cinematographer with decent command of the F-Stop. The structure of the script is also set up so that The Hobo spends a bit too much of the end of the film sidelined. It’s cool in a sort of V For Vendetta way, but still you can’t help but wish that Hauer got to participate in a bit more of the anarchy that he unleashed.

Still these are really minor problems when compared to the whole. Hobo With A Shotgun exists and the world of exploitation cinema is all the better for it

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Avenging Disco Godfather

There are movies that have to be seen to be believed. Then there is Avenging Disco Godfather, which requires further independent varification. It could be that I sat down and watched this movie last night. It could also be that I just hallucinated the whole thing on a cloud of PCP smoke. Or as Rudy Ray Moore would have it, “P…C…P AKA ANGel Dust AKA Wack!”

Avenging Disco Godfather stars Rudy Ray Moore, the greatest enunciator who ever lived and the master of alliteration. If you don’t know who Rudy Ray Moore is well then you really should be making better use of your time. Avenging Disco Godfather comes late in The Rudy Ray Moore cycle, when the technical aspects of his filmmaking verged ever closer to competence, and the plotlines of his films verged closer and closer to out and out surrealism (This climaxed in Petey Wheatstraw The Devil’s Son In Law which plays like a ghetto Luis Bunuel film).

After his nephew (not God son…) a promising young basketball player falls victim to the dread P…C…P… (Call the AMB-YOO-LANCE, and tell them what he has HAY-AD!)

Rudy Ray Moore swears to "to personally come down on the suckers that's producing this shit!" and we all know that Rudy Ray Moore isn’t one for idle threats. He goes out on the streets and attacks the wack, with his own brand of Rudy Ray Moore Fu which can charitably be described as “slow” and “uncoordinated” and substantially less lethal then a group of eight year olds in a YMCA white belt class. Some how he manages to use said Moore-Fu to cut a wide swatch through the cities assorted drug dealers, pimps and fodder. Including one gentlemen who I must conclude is the worst hit man of all time. He dresses as a cowboy, uses an antiquated six shooter, and in one particularly logic defying moment (not that there’s not a lot of logic defying moments to choose from in any given Rudy Ray Moore film) puts down his gun when he has the drop on Moore so he can attempt to kill him with the much less efficient bull whip. I’ve seen hitmen who are bad at their jobs before, but never with this same kind of gleeful determination.

 In between his time attacking the wack, Moore runs his Disco where he repeatedly gives his patrons the baffling command “Keep your weight on it!!!”

It’s difficult to describe a Rudy Ray Moore film if you haven’t seen one, as they’re less like traditional movies (even traditional movies in a genre with the lax narrative standards of Blaxploitation) and more like deranged carnival rides, in which sex, violence, stand up, kung fu and anything else that’s cheap to film is put in front of the cameras with little to no provocation. It might not make a great deal of sense but it does make for a great time.

It goes without saying that Avenging Disco Godfather is a pretty awesome movie, and I love it regardless of whether or not it actually exists.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sucker Punch Directors Cut

Now I like Zack Snyder just as much as the next guy… Actually given all available evidence I like Zack Snyder a great deal more then the next guy.

But I was still somewhat nervous about The Sucker Punch Directors Cut. See Zack Snyder has this thing about directors cuts where he’s not very good at them. The Dawn Of The Dead one was pretty inoffensive, but the Watchmen Directors Cut is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s baffling, aside from the addition of the Hollis Mason death scene (which given the character’s scaled back presence in the film is no longer such a big deal) all of the additional material dilutes the movie. It’s all filler, awkwardly added in action sequences, and additions that in a few cases actually botch perfectly translated moments. It's such a strange cut that it almost feels like the directors cut was the studio cut and vica versa.

So despite the fact that I was one of the film’s few apologists I couldn’t help but wonder if going back to the cut was against Snyder’s better instincts. Sure enough The Sucker Punch Directors Cut takes a problematic film and makes it more problematic. It’s not as bad as the Watchmen cut, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it botched. But it's uncanny the way this cut of the film manages to take what annoyed people about the theatrical cut of the film and amplify it. Thought that Snyder’s sexual objectification bordered on serial killer level deranged? Well wait until you his “Love Is A Drug” sequence which plays like the ultimate nineties Madonna Video, conceived of and shot while on PCP. Thought that the film’s message and sexual politics were naive at best, incomprehensible at worst? Well then wait until you see Jon Hamm’s big scene which turns the heroine’s final actions from “Heroic Sacrifice made on her own terms.” To "Talked into it by a fine pair of bedroom eyes." 

Still the lunatic vision of Snyder’s dare of a film still manages to shine through. Despite all these new flaws, which have been added to a film that was admittedly already flawed just plenty the stubborn fact is that I still like Sucker Punch a whole lot. I like the total commitment that Snyder has to his go for baroque vision. I like the fact that the question “Will people want to see this?” Never once seemed to enter his head. I like the look of the film, and I like the feel of it. I like its strange assaultive imagery and most of all I like the fact that Snyder took the darkest film a mainstream studio has had to offer in sometime and wrapped it away in this candy colored shell, with all the warning of a razor blade tucked in a Snickers bar. What can I say, I love filmmaking that is genuinely off the rez.

"Well, there's something you don't see everyday, Chauncey." "What's that, Edgar?" "An art deco bullet train traveling towards the rings of Saturn populated by faceless robots." "Oh, I don't know, Edgar; mass transit has taken some amazing strides."

Which is a place that Snyder may never go again. He must be thanking his lucky stars that he had Superman lined up before this, or else it could have been a potential career ender. The Snyder we will see post Superman will most likely be a more cautious filmmaker, which will frankly probably result in some much better films. Still I can’t help but find it endearing that he had it in him to go by this crazy.

Like Southland Tales a similar case of auteurist mania, Sucker Punch may not qualify as a good film but it is a mesmerizing one. Sucker Punch may not be a good movie by any conventional objective standard but I maintain that it is sort of a magnificent one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrate The 4th Of July With Brad Neely

The way our Founders intended.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Stuff I've Been Reading June

I’d tried reading Robert Crais’s debut novel a while back and could get into it. However, internet buddy, Le0pard13 insisted that it the series was very much worth reading. As he is gentlemen of good sense and taste who knows what’s up I deferred to his judgment.

The best thing about The Monkey’s Raincoat is how unapologetic it is. It’s been so long since I’ve read a crime novel that wasn’t striving to be a social document first and a page turner second that I almost didn’t recognize it. Once I got into the right mindset The Monkey’s Raincoat was a blast. And if it was a bit more Sue Grafton than Dennis Lehane, well sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

There’s no long opening prologue about  how unglamorous Private Eye life really is, that seems requisite for every PI novel published between 1960 and today, no straining for credibility. Just a textured Los Angeles as glamorous as it is dangerous, filled with people in trouble, dames to kill for, rich decadent villains, colorful thuggish muscle, and one damaged romantic man willing to stick out his neck to help and his partner who will drop anyone at anytime.

It’s the sort of book where the hero beds every woman who enters the book and leaves about a dozen corpses in his wake and doesn’t have to so much as appear in court. It may be unrealistic but hey so was Chandler.

Another first in a long running series, James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain was a fascinating read. I usually hold fast to my rule of not reading books  in series that run past ten entries, but Burke might be an exception. Robicheaux is a character who seems well worth following for so long. Robicheaux manages to be noble without being preachy, stoic without being uninteresting. He’s Smart, cool and tortured, as handy with a cool cerebral quip as he is with a shotgun.

Burke is a damn good writer. A quick sure hand with character, and a skill with atmosphere that makes the New Orleans setting come off the page and even has a touch of southern gothic, as proved by the scene where Robicheaux goes drinking with a boxcar full of circus freaks.

If Neon Rain has a problem it’s that it’s not exactly what you would call a model of narrative efficiency. Like many first books it feels more like two novellas stapled together than one coherent narrative. And I’m not sure if the various gears of conspiracy ever line up just the way that Burke thinks they do. Still this is there is a learning curve for this sort of thing and I have a feeling that Burke will improve fairly quickly. All in all it’s a great first novel that left me hungry for more.

Leave it to Jack London to write a book that may as well have been entitled Benders I Have Known.  Jack London liked to drink and like all hobbyists he made a thorough record.

In John Barleycorn Jack London drinks.  He drinks with fearsome Italians, Gypsies and river pirates. He drinks in the snow he drinks in the sun. He drinks at home and he drinks in the country. He drinks all around the world, Every so often he stops and assures the reader about the woe and misery that drinking has brought into his life. Then he tells an awesome story about this other time he got completely shitfaced hammered.

To mention that the book is dated almost goes without saying. London was certainly a… forceful writer. And at times the experience of John Barleycorn is less that of reading a book as seeing one acted out in pantomime. But this just adds to its charm. I can’t help but think that anyone who has bent the elbow more than is strictly good for them, will have  a good time with this one.

Exactly what the title says. A bunch of lists from horror luminaries, everyone from Stephen King to Joey Ramone and a bunch of filler lists from lesser lights. The book does get into the rewardingly obscure, this is not one of those horror books that you finish having learned nothing new about the horror genre, or leave you with nothing new to seek out. Though the nature of the book does mean that the quality of the lists tends to fluctuate. There are rewarding ones, and then ones like Eli Roth’s that leave me deeply worried about them as a person. Basically if you see this one on a bargain table it won’t do you any physical harm.

I was very happy while reading 2030 as it was the first evidence I have received in a long time that Albert Brooks did not actually die shortly after the release of Defending Your Life and was hastily replaced by a sinister robot double bent on ruining his legacy. It may not be as perfect of a work as Modern Romance or Lost In America, but it is recognizably the work of the person who made those films. Which is more than I can say for the rest of Brook’s output for the past twenty years or so.

2030 is a Vonnegutian satire which quite effectively gives the trends of today a nightmare velocity. He skewers the health care crisis, the generation gap, and other varying topics with varying effectiveness. He seems for one thing to have a queerly sunny view on globalization (It seems much more likely that we would inheret Dickensian factories from China rather then a kick ass healthcare system). But on the whole it is a thoroughly effective satire.

Brook’s inexperience as a novelist is detrimental in a couple of places. He stops the narrative in its tracks a few times so he can explore the world he’s created rather then weaving his ideas and concepts into the story (some of these vignettes are quite effective in and of themselves). Some of his plotlines are left dangling, and a few characters remain resolutely two dimensional. Not to mention the fact that various characters, no matter their race color or creed are given to sounding an awful lot like Albert Brooks at any given time (see also Allen, Woody).

Still none of these are debilitating flaws. And on the whole there’s a lot more in 2030 that works then doesn’t. It’s a rewarding work from a man who at his best is one of the greatest comics alive. Even if it is recognizably second tier.

I have a weird relationship with Robert Jordan. Though I respect his work, and the passion his fans have for it, The Wheel Of Time Books have always seemed like a bit of a closed circuit it to me. It’s like watching dudes who are really dedicated to the unicycle and build really fancy tall tricked out ones. I’m impressed, but it seems like an awful lot of effort when there are so many functional bikes just lying around.

Jordan has some awfully strange bad habits as an author, both as a prose stylist and a story teller. Yet, every time I feel like I’m ready to just give up on the books something very cool will happen. And every time said cool events begin to happen in close enough proximity allowing the reader to become impressed by the immensity of Jordan’s vision and let some serious narrative momentum build, something amazingly dumb will happen, or you’ll reach a stretch of prose that’s really tone deaf and just like that you’re outside looking in again. It’s a conundrum.

I doubt I’ll ever give up on reading the series completely. The moments when it works are too good not to give you a bit of a taste for what happens next, But I also doubt I’ll ever be a true believer.

Still it is a damn fine unicycle.

I was wary approaching The Handle.  (AKA that Parker book that proved that if you were a pulp writer in the 60’s and your name wasn’t Ian Fleming you were in trouble.) It’s basically a novel in which Parker robs a James Bond Villian. An SS officer with his own private island/casino out in international waters. Richard Stark’s novels are the stuff of bleak midsized industrial cities. They’re the stuff of payroll robberies. Brutal smash and grabs and bodies left in narrow graves. Not the stuff of exotic island casinos.

Well turns out the jokes on me, because The Handle is just as good a read as any of the others. And Stark’s subversive streak is in full effect as he demonstrates just what happens when a James Bond Villain enters Parker’s world.

From what I understand it’s business as usual after this and I can’t say I’m sorry. But as a one off, it’s pretty damn good read.

In A Narrow Grave was Larry McMurtry’s first book of essays. I’ve grown to appreciate McMurtry’s nonfiction more and more, as he has kept more of his talent in that area than in others. But part of what makes In A Narrow Grave such a good read is that McMurtry’s talent is so fresh and McMurtry himself is so evidently pleased with it. Which sadly would not always be true.

He’s a spry essayist switching between topics and tones at will. His essay on the then new Houston Astrodome is perhaps the funniest thing that the usually laconic McMurtry has written, the fact that it sits directly next to some moving elegies makes it all the more impressive. If he occasionally drifts into TMI (He really wants you to know that he didn’t make up the animal fucking scenes in The Last Picture Show).

The title says it all, it’s a book about Larry McMurtry talking about Texas. Your enjoyment of it will relate directly to how much care you can muster about either subject. But for those who have any interest in either the book will prove time well spent. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

I really had no intention of ever seeing this movie, but well it was on cable one night (By the way, I lose my cable for two years and when I get it back IFC is running commercials and playing Michael Bay movies? What the fuck happened?) and it’s one of two TCM films I haven’t seen so I figured “Oh why the hell not?”

Had I pondered on it for more then five seconds I would have come up with several reasons why not. Woe that I did not.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Beginning is the achingly necessary prequel to the awful remake that began Platinum Dunes reign of terror. Admittedly it is better than the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. I’d rather watch this than that piece of shit again. But considering that I would rather come down with a nasty case of clap then watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 03 edition again, this is literally the faintest praise I can offer.

Tough times have fallen on Texas in 1969. The local slaughterhouse has closed down laying off the entire Not Sawyer clan. Leatherface sees a chainsaw that happens to be lying there and he picks it up, adding mythological weight to the iconography. The not Sawyers look around for a minute and instead of signing up for welfare immediately go immediately from being laid off to resorting to cannibalism. You’d think there’d be a middle step somewhere in there but you’d be wrong.  The turn around is frankly astounding. You can’t help but feel that these folks have just been looking for an excuse to do this for a long time.

Meanwhile four youtzzzzzzz…Vietnam War zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz social relevance zzzzzzzzzzzzz dramatic irony zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Eaten by cannibals.

Anytime the movie threatens to become accidentally effective by stringing together a few tense moments, the sheer irrelevance of it breaks through like a stream of anti-sunlight breaking through the clouds. I would hardly be the first to note that the inherent problem with prequels is their predictability. By definition you know how they’ll end because all the pieces have to be in place for the start of part one. Yet I have seldom seen any prequel held hostage to this in the same way that Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Beginning is. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor hangs over it like a gauzy layer. Try as you might you just can’t give a fuck.

The movie continues in this depressing vein for quite a while. And then throws in some torture porn cause it’s the aughts. R. Lee Ermey provides a few moments of life, but his is about as phoned in as an R. Lee Ermey performance can get.  There’s simply nothing to recommend here. Sure there’s nothing that sends me into the frothing hate spasms that the first one did. But at least that had the courtesy to be egregiously awful. This is just another pale attempt to cash in on what people don’t seem to understand was the ultimate one off.