Monday, November 9, 2009

Grand Guignol Week, Pt. the Third: "Saw".

Lovely poster, innit?
Oh, I do confess, as I now wimp out and withdraw from my own self-imposed horrorfest. I
twitched, picked at my nails, looked doubtfully up at the dark plasma screen HDTV and back to my waiting DVD collection.
Surely after "Captivity" and "The Devil's Rejects" I could dance lightly over the coming bloody entrails and screeching victims in my remaining three films?
A certain dulling of the senses and a well-pra
cticed regimen of being a once & future critic should keep me from being an official squeamish Old Fart and allow me to wax poetic about young women having their eyes plucked out and their heads smashed in and their hearts cut out and their livers removed and their bowels unplugged and their nostrils raped and their bottoms burned up...
Or not. Alright. I give. Except for my fondly-embraced monster movies pre-"Psycho" I hate horror films! Hate, hate, hate. They're mean. They don't like women overmuch. They're icky. People bleed a lot. A lot. They make sudden, loud noises. And for anyone who knows me, I hate sudden loud no
But, to finish out the week I did decide to trash "Hostel" a
nd "Wolf Creek" and went straight to:
Torture Porn #3: "Saw," 2004, directed by James Wan, with Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Michael Emerson. Released by Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures.

Ah, well! This is more like it! If Danny Glover is in the damn thing, it has to be something like a real movie, and Elwes was the Man in Black in "The Princess Bride", so I viddy that I'm on safe ground.
Owing more to psychological thrillers like "Sleuth" and "Se7en", "Saw" opens with two groggy kidnapp
ees manacled to pipes in a really dirty bathroom. This is immediately a sign of incipient unpleasantness, as I remember on more than one occasion having to make a Greyhound Bus layover in Minneapolis (or somesuch fine, upstanding American city) and using the bathroom at the station there at 3 a.m. (no, really, you haven't lived until).
Elwes and Whannell immediately don't trust each other, figuring something is truly dodgy about the other guy, not realizing a third person in hiding is taking a great interest in their predicament: A sadistic serial killer na
me of "Jigsaw".
Rather like Batman's The Riddler, Jigsaw has a love of logic problems, especially where the pay-off means a victim crawling through razor wire or having their skull snapped wide by a jaw-wired bear trap. Lovely, lovely man. Well, if
it is a man; no spoilers in this blog.
They quibble, threaten, plead, and from their opposing shackled positions toss items and insults at each other across the room -- over the bloodied corpse of a former inhabitant of the room who appears to have taken their own life.

Meanwhile we have flashbacks of how snobby & deserving Elwes' doctor character is of his fate, the manhunt for Jigsaw led by cop Glover, and the Goldberg contraptions that snap & bite and who got theirs and who got away.
The movie is very like director David Fincher's "Se7en": A faceless mastermind leads on the police while setting up themed murders, corpses lie about in tidy dismemberment. Except for the doc's fancy (yet still darkly-lit) apartment, the rest of the world is drab, littered, and badly needing a whole hell of a lot of Windex and Tidy Bowl.
But unlike the preceding horror films this week, "Saw" does have a plot, however labyrinthine, decent-to-almost-good acting, some real heebie-jeebie moments, and a lot of suspense and tense editing.
The film even switches artfully from a fixed camera to handheld or frantic balls-out frantic motion when the need calls for it, such as when the aforementioned Dental Retainer-O'-Doom causes one young woman to go understandably
As such things go, the success of "Saw", both critically and financially, has already rendered five sequels in as many years -- although I gather they all just depend on how much more elaborate and wildly sadistic the filmmakers can imagine their new torture devices. Lovely, lovely people.
Overall, the level of true gore is at a minimum, although little 6 year-old Suzie might want to pass on the more gruesome parts of the movie: That is, everything between the Lionsgate logo and the last line in the end credit scrawl.
My Two Cents: Will horror films ever go back to having sympathetic characters? C
an't one...single...good guy (and yes, Virginia, there is a Good Guy) prevail by wit, perseverance, compassion, humor, moral character, and Good Old American Know-How? Are we forevermore forbidden from cheering on a Hero as they get bounced off the walls by Evil Critters and have their hair prematurely frosted (you know, like in "Poltergeist")? Guess not. Fighting Evil Just Means You're the Last to Die. I'm ready for something blissfully stupid now. I'm unhappy.
Next week: From "Star Wars" to "Transformers": How Toys Took Over Tinseltown. Now I'm happy. "Gone With the Wind" would have done so much better with action figures.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Grand Guignol Week, Pt. the Second: "The Devil's Rejects".

Okey-dokey. After "Captivity" I feel positive about the whole "torture porn" thing. It was colorful, but no "Creepshow", so bring on the hatchet men, I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts. But check out this tag line to the next bloodletting:
"Hell doesn't want them. Hell doesn't need them. Hell doesn't love them. This world rejects them."
Should I be worried? I understand before going in that this is, indeed, a sequel, with recurring characters from Zombie's 2003 "House of 1000 Corpses". Can't be too hard to pick up the pieces. Well, depends what the pieces are made of.
Okay. It's Only a Movie. It's Only a Movi
Torture Porn #2: "The Devil's Rejects," 2005, written & directed by Rob Zombie, with Sid Haig, William Forsythe, Sheri Moon Zombie, released by Lionsgate and Maple Pictures.
00:00 Opening credits.
02:00 Recap of Rejects being busted
by Southern-fried cops. Dilapidated house. Hairy Hick Reject family using bad language. Maybe not 1000 corpses in the house, but more than a few. The monsters love each other. That's sweet.
07:00 Already better directing & editing. I could be mistaken. Quick, swooshing edits, but I can follow th
e action just fine. Zombies Make Movies.
09:00 Why, it's "Iron Man"! The Rejects have homemade armor! *kting!* "Sequel Armor", to insure that you make it into the next movie. One Reject bites it, however.
11:00 Okay use of Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider". How many
Rejects are there, anyway? Losing count.
13:00 Cops move in, check out house. Human Heads as decorations everywhere. More in the fridge. More bad language. Suddenly switch to Weird Hick Sex with Captain Spaulding. Bad teeth. The F-word gets a lotta workout here. Spaulding gets out of bed wearing soiled underwear. This is the true meaning of horror. *urp*
17:00 Wait. You mean to tell me...that the Rejects...are named for Groucho Marx characters? "Captain Spaulding"? Look: Cut off as many body parts as you want, let the blood fly, but leave my Marx Brothers alone.
19:00 Hey! Michael Berryman, creepy bald guy from "T
he Hills Have Eyes" is in this. Pedigree.
23:00 LOTS more F-word. If that's the only word you need in a script to sell a horror movie, I have a new career.
24:00 Tepid Southern types dragged off from the motel, more banal dialogue, more F-word. "Hee-Haw" was scarier than this. Oh, wait. You don't remember "Hee-Haw".
26:00 Pretty (comparatively) Devil Reject hits on hick. Don't you know
when a hot blond in Daisy Dukes talks you up it's to steal your truck or kidnap you for later dismemberment? This script is getting iffy & whiffy.
29:00 Southern rock band abducted in motel room. "Banjo & Sullivan". A head shot! The Rejects mean business. It actually took a half-hour in this movie to kill someone. Naked woman in shower taken, too. Sex & violence all in one min
30:00 C
aptain Spaulding becomes Evil Clown, scares kid. Kid really looks like he wants to laugh his ass off. Blond Reject doing a truly retarded shimmy dance in front of motel hostages. More F-word. Bad guys are kinda goofy to be particularly horrifying.
33:00 Hairy Reject puts pistol down woman's panties. Now I don't li
ke him.
35:00 Usually about now in a horror film we get some subtle form of sociological or political allegory, zombies in a mall representing rampant consumerism, all that. All I'm getting here so far is that Hollywood Southerners are inbred and don't brush their teeth. Haven't seen anyone like this in Savannah. Guess they all live in Pig Wallow.
37:00 Extended jail scene where "Mother Firefly" Reject snorts & hollers and gets partially-strangled by cop. Can't understand a damn thing she's s
aying. Movies are either effective or ineffective. Repeat as necessary to self.
40:00 Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Lov
e" thrown on soundtrack. My sister has a point: What self-respecting Southern Rock band wants to be associated with this piece-of-, er, this film?
44:00 Hick shot in throat, another one pistol-whipped by Hairy Reject. We're no longer at the motel. Where are we? F-word used in different tempos & volumes. Is this a foreign film? I need subtitles.
46:00 Almost halfway in film and I co
me to realization. There is no script! Oh dear God! What have I done?
47:00 Oh! I get it. The Devil rejected these poor killers because they're so lame and obviously smell bad. Victims don't look pa
rticularly traumatized, either. Why do I get the feeling the worst is yet to come after this movie?
50:00 Female kidnappee in underwear has chance to shoot Sex Reject in the buns. But gun is empty, and so she gets a knife in the heart for her troubles! Action switches to slo-mo for chase scene. Why? To pad out a 109-minute movie is why. Seriously, though, there is no such thing as good movies or bad movies, just...oh, hell. This movie is crap. Am I too old to cry?
54:00 Groucho and Marx Bro
thers character names brought up to cops. The Rejects are all named for Groucho characters, get it? Sheriff then bad-mouths Groucho, loves Elvis. You got a problem with classic cinema, Zombie? Dumb-ass cop: "Should we round up this Groucho Marx guy?" How many minutes left in this movie?
57:00 Captain Spaulding Meets the Rejects, F-word traded ab
out a lot more, a mask made of human skin is used to frighten kidnap victim and motel maid. Lots of running in the desert for no purpose except to eventually have kidnappee step out in front of an 18-wheeler. *splat* Gross-out, but I'm awake again.
1:00:00 Tommy Lee Jones wannabe enters the scene to question the maid, we're still at the motel, know. It was at much this same time in the last movie that my interest in finishing the movie got really slippery. I'm tryin' hard.
1:03:00 Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years" used to no good purpose. Rejects eat ice cream, use the F-word, listen to the radio, there is a plot to this unmitigated crapfest, I know there is.

1:07:00 Sheriff knifes Mother Firefly in jail, Rejects in their Mystery Machine van hole up at a whorehouse, two ugly bik
er types named the "Unholy Two" are hired to track them down, F-word was obviously purchased wholesale for the script. Looking for my Sam's Club Card.
1:10:00 David Essex's "Rock On" played to no good effect. Rejects dance a bad guy dance, and I realize I don't like or dislike the characters. They don't even feel evil. I just want to get away from them. They are the Cat's Rejects!

1:15:00 I give up. Non-essential characters are now joking among themselves about the sounds chickens make during sex. Ostensibly with human beings. I promise to tough it out with a movie to the last credit roll, but there is no movie here.
1:19:00 Switching to Bogie and Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" to get
taste out of my mouth of deep fat-fried Bad Ol' Boy F-word Haw Haw Haw humor. Holding a seance. Groucho Marx will have his revenge.
My Two Cents: I swear to you this isn't a movie. Rob Zombie can make a camera spool out film stock, can tell actors to move hither & yon, can spli
ce it all together and slap it in a can. But home movies of Happy Hairy's Hard-on Hick Humor & Horror Hop don't make it. I could have skipped to the blood bath at the end to see the Rejects get their comeuppance, but after chicken sex, you'd have to pay me. Thank the Cinema Gods this is only a blog and not a real movie review column.
Tomorrow's movie has to be better. It has to be. What is it, anyway?
Tomorrow: "Hostel". I've heard of that one! We're on safe ground now. Meanwhile, "To Have and Have Not": "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and...blow." Innuendo! Me happy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Grand Guignol Week, Pt. the First: "Captivity".

Good evening!
I welcome you back to 8th Row Center, although
you may not want to park here tonight -- or for the next five nights -- as I dig into contemporary Grand Guignol. Once again: I Watch It So You Don't Have To!
A quick history. Grand Guignol was a Theatre of Horror that came out of Paris in the late 1800s, which specialized in grossing and/or delighting patrons with short acts of simulated
blood and gore, leavened with comic acts. Dubbed "amoral theater", it pre-dated slasher flicks, hell, even the cinema itself, but left a trickle of blood and moral disdain that still flows past our eyes today.
And, oh, you lucky people! For the next five nights, in alphabetical order, I'll be investigating, with complete neutral appraisal the top grossers. And I don't mean box office gross, eitha'.
Using a stop watch, I'll tick off when the sharp blades start a-slicing, when any sign of actual plot appears, and when a character fin
ally stops twitching. Is there any art to this ugly artifice?
Let's begin! (Putting on a plastic raincoat and moving my popcorn away from the screen.)

Torture Porn #1: "Captivity," 2007, directed by Roland Joffe (you can put the accent over the "e" for me), with Elisha Cuthbert, released by Lionsgate and After Dark Films.
00:00 Beginning credits.
00:45 Bad guy with rubber gloves loves orange & green decor. Hypodermics. Dude wrapped in plaster bandages on table bleeding out through tubes. Why? Already kinda confusing. (Battery acid will do that to you? Really?)
02:35 Big heavy mallet to plaster man's
head. *Bonk*! Confirmed kill.
03:29 Bright red woman's lips fill the screen. I sense victim Big Time. Slo-mo, post-MTV style editing, throbbing soundtrack. Cuthbert's a popular model, loves her cute little puppy-wuppy, takes it clubbing! Gets slipped a mic
key finn. The dog did not do it.
09:54 Cuthbert kidnapped! Couldn't she tell by all the primary colors she was in danger? Oh well.
12:42 Locked in a slightly hi-tech dungeon room, Cuthbert's character, still kinda chilled out, is handed a cup of greenish slop. "Vitamins. Good for you." She tosses it. Sees one of her ads on the wall. Gas issues from ceiling! Sucks to be her. Passes out.
14:43 Cuthbert forced to watch videos of former victims. She don't feel so great h
erself. Now we're into blue & orange. Acid poured on girl in video Cuthbert is watching. Ooey-gooey. Acid poured on her, too?
17:00 Fake-out! She's fine. Almost. Even peels faked wound off her cheek.
19:00 Is hit with bright lights till she co-operates and dresses in leather gear. Crawls under bed. Outside of being a seemingly famous model, still have no ide
a what she's about. Kidnapper/torturer is faceless. Tries escaping through air vents, could tell you that wouldn't work. Still not as harrowing as all that.
22:24 Still faceless kidnapper puts body parts in blender. Frappe! Not yo
ur mother's V8. Gross-out factor at this point.
26:00 Cuthbert seems to be taking this all rather well. I'd be stone cold freaked, curled up in foetal position on floor, but she's going Nancy Drew. Supposedly another victim in an adjoining room. Cute guy. She buys into it. Loses Nancy Drew cred.
29:33 Surprise! Kidnapper watching in on conversation between captives. Mighty calm conversation for people being forced special protein diets. Meanwhile, mice in cage being gassed. Whuffo? We have animal rights issues, here.

34:00 Cuthbert knocked out again & slowly being buried in sand in a plexiglass cage. Male captive allowed to come to her rescue. Perils of Pauline. I smell a rat. Oh. That's the dead one from last scene. I can actually eat popcorn right now. This ain't so bad.
38:00 Heroes being chased by shotgun-toting kidnapper. Still don't trust the guy helping her. They find a working car? Giant net encases car, gas pumped in, heroes knocked out again.

39:40 Finally, the puppy makes a showing. Did you think we forgot? 30 seconds, she has to decide: She either shoots the dog or she gets shot herself! Don't you know you can't kill dogs or children in movies? This will all end in tears.
42:00 Dog not actually killed. Fake! I think. After a lot of disorienting camera work and long camera takes, it's hard to get a bearing on the surroundings or feel any real suspense. Zippity-do logic. Movie: Ineffective!
46:00 Cuthbert dresses up scantily for kidnapper so she can join her
hero, is shown more quick-cut torture videos of former victims. Hey, at least they get free HBO here!
49:00 Couple now trussed up, tied together at wrists, shown
more video, of kid killing mom (?) and taking Polaroids. Portrait of an artist as a young man.
51:20 Tooth pulling scene! OW. ow ow ow. I am not including art here. Dustin Hoffman getting drilled in "Marathon Man" still worse, though.

53:00 What?! Couple having sex while in captivity?? You've got to be shitting me. No plans for escape, just some casual coitus? They are kidnapped by a mad torturer with El Grosso blender & vids, right? Or did I miss something? He just got his teeth pulled out.
56:00 Male captive showing decidedly
un-kidnapped behavior. Lets himself out, watches kidvid of dead mom again. Nancy Drew FAIL.

58:00 Plot twist. New character. Fat dude in bathtub. Brother? Gay male couple in cahoots? Dialing GLAAD. Fat dude gets knifed. I. Am. So. Confused.
1:03:00 Two detectives investigating missing gal somehow come to question loverboy who shoots them and then pretends to rescue her but she finds his VHS collection of dead girlfriends which is
conveniently left out for her to find, and...
Oh, this is nutty stuff. Does anyone stay dead? If I'm kidnapped by Naomi Watts and fed my own entrails, I'm going to have rumpy-pump with her
later? There's as much horror in this sucker as getting behind on my cable bill.
My Two Cents: If the rest of these movies are of the same yawn-inducing caliber, this will be a walk in the park. A little comic book color, some sleepwalking performers, confusing set-ups, and Cuthbert walks away
without a drop of blood on her! And oh, gosh, spoiler!: She adopts the killer's M.O. and goes on a killer-killing rampage herself! Yippee! And I was so worried about all this...
Tomorrow: The Devil's Rejects. I'm ready for anything.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Little Ghost That Could: The runaway success of "Paranormal Activity"

Ever heard of Orin Peli? No you haven't, but day after tomorrow you will: According to Wikipedia, his tidy little night fright titled "Paranormal Activity" has already achieved a profit-to-cost ratio of 2,500:1, making it the most profitable independent movie in motion picture history, putting it among stellar company such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "Clerks".
Speaking of Blair Witch, stop me if you've heard this one: Young people with a video camera get lost, hear strange noises in the night, and get recorded scaring themselves out of their wits.
But instead of being lost in the Black Hills of Maryland, post-Yuppie couple Micah (Micah Sloat) & Katie (Katie Featherston) are lost in their own relationship, an "engagement to be engaged", and stuck with each other in a rather spacious and
way clean two-storey tract house in San Diego.
So clean I'd like to have them visit and tidy for me if they'd leave the ghost at home.
And about that ghost...
Katie believes she's been haunted all her life since a house fire in her childhood, the damned spirits following her wherever she moves. Micah thinks this is all cooler-than-cool, and purchases a video camera and sets up computer apps to keep track of the nightly habits of whatever might appear in their bedroom. Yes, already their sex life is shot.
The movie then cleverly goes from daytime activity while Katie & Micah wonder What It All Means, interspersed with the nightly video, which is accelerated for us to the good bits.
And those good bits have reportedly caused audience members to leave the show before it's half over. Not because the movie is that bad. But because it tells its story
too well. Deep rumblings at 3 a.m. like living above a ghost subway. Lights that turn on down the hall while the couple sleep. Swinging doors, ghostly sighs, dogs and cats living together!
Being dedicated to effective/not effective instead of the good/bad thing, this is a great way to begin, as "Paranormal Activity" is
very effective. I've always lamented that horror and action films are glutted with cartoonish CGI, plastic-y looking monsters and the world constantly being blown up with comic book splash page gusto (more on Roland Emmerich's "2012" another day).
But first-time director Peli will have none of that. It's not about all the explosive digital gibberish you can see on the screen, so much as the open, dark doorway to the bedroom -- maybe even
your bedroom -- where something might be there.
Yeah, you don't like that already, do you?
Little history lesson, though. If you've seen the 1963 "The Haunting," directed by Robert Wise, P.A. will seem a little familiar to you. Banging noises, invisible footsteps, whisperings down the hall, all are borrowed from the original haunted house flick.
And like "Haunting," P.A. also tells a story-within-the-story of relationships stressed to the breaking point, obsession, and having to live with a human being you thought you knew until they get up and stand by the bed staring at you for three hours on end.
Even the friendly psychic Mark Fredrichs (all actors using their real names) isn't a damn lick of good, bailing on the kids when things get hot. Too bad the Scooby Gang aren't available! They'd have Fredrichs in handcuffs by the final reel.
There's little more to it than that; just a creeping sense of dread and staring down the hall to all the empty rooms beyond. In an age of supercolliders, cloning, stem cells and science revealing the infinitely large and small, there's still a little life in the Things That Go Bump In The Night yet.
My Two Cents: Scary fun as long as you don't sleep in the only occupied room in a three-bedroom, two-storey house. Way too much room for bumpage & thumpage. Runs out of Scary Steam close to the end as the set-up is rather repetitious -- setup the video cam, wait till 3-4 a.m., see what bites (literally), repeat as necessary -- and the plot doesn't even give a fig about helping poor Micah or you in figuring things out. Dis spook iz wad id iz.
But slinging a video camera and a sense of verisimilitude to catch Blair Witches and Cloverfield aliens is here to stay.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Welcome to 8th Row Center: This seat is mine.

Welcome to "8th Row Center," my reserved seat -- although every seat around me is empty, and probably for good reason. That's...not to speak of my hygiene, so much as the fare I'll be watching. Honest.
My Mission Statement: I will view & review mostly contemporary movies, many of them genre films, in an effort to keep current with viewing trends, marketing gimmickry, selling points, advertising and all the crazy-ass world of what Hollywood believes we'll pay 10 bucks to see.
The reviews will be based on the following philosophy (as was laid down to me a long time ago in my college film appreciation days): There are no good films; there are no bad films. Films are either effective to a given audience or they are not, and what may appeal to me will be God's Own Poo to you, and vice-versa.
But I want to see it all & know. Can movies be too violent and to no purpose? Is there a seed of genius in the most innocuous comedy? Can you really make a trend of interpreting childhood toys as box office gold? Are there breakout actors, directors, sfx people just now making a showing? Is Megan Fox all that? Can even the likes of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic be wrong about a real stinkpot of cinema? (Probably not.)
When Ed Wood, Jr.'s "Plan 9 from Outer Space" first came out, it was, for its time, appropriately dragged through the muck and lambasted for crude acting, minimal production values, and outrageous directorial "skills". Wood was labeled The Worst Director of All Time.
But, now, 50 years later, we see the movie with new eyes. And it's still crap. But it's
good crap, fun crap, and compared to like-minded idiocy today, even worthy crap. Will the oeuvre of Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeff Tremaine be rediscovered classics some far future day? God, I hope not.
Each movie will receive a neutral viewing, based on the following criteria: How clear the story is told, how competent the production is mounted, the good old-fashioned
mise en scene, and if the whole magilla just holds together by the end credits. Afterwards I'll weigh in with a final paragraph about what I really think. Oh, and I will let you know.
What the hell are movies now? Where have the evocative film scores gone? Will something with the authoritative weight and scope of a "Gone With the Wind" or "Lawrence of Arabia" ever be made again? Or is the full-scale plummet to Straight-to-Video-and-Toys-R-Us the End of the Line for the 114 year-old medium? We'll see!
Or: I Will, So You Don't Have To.
Lights Out.