Friday, August 26, 2011

TESIS


Alejandro Amenábar, 1996
Starring: Ana Torrent, Fele Martinez, Eduardo Noriega

I don’t deal well with the heat. As a result, going to movie theaters has become a habitual summer activity and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m willing to tolerate a lot more fluff than in the colder temperatures. I’m disgusted to report that while I've seen a number of entertaining bad action films, the only effectively scary movie I've seen all summer has been a rental of Amenábar’s excellent Tesis (Thesis), also known as Snuff. Released in 1996 and starring Ana Torrent and Fele Martinez, this was Amenábar’s award-winning first feature film. It cleaned up at the Goya’s, which are essentially the Spanish version of the Oscars, and received rave reviews in the Spanish press.

A graduate student, Ángela, chooses to write her thesis on violence in film and media, so she seeks out the help of her adviser and a fellow student, Chema, who is obsessed with horror films. Her professor locates a snuff film in the school archives and has a heart attack while watching it. Ana steals the tape and convinces Chema to help her get to the bottom of where it came from when they recognize a missing student in the film. Their nosing around draws them close to the heart of the mystery and within dangerous grasp of the murderer.

Tesis has a lot to offer. There is some capable acting, helmed by the lovely, wide-eyed Ana Torrent as Ángela. Her character is pitted against the awkward, antisocial Chema and the charming, handsome, but potentially dangerous Bosco. Ángela’s sexual desire thickens the plot and brings her self-destructive tendencies to light, namely when she begins to have violently sexual dreams about Bosco. There are also some delightfully terrifying moments that take place in either semi or total darkness in the bowels of the school. Not genuinely a horror film, Tesis is part thriller and part commentary on the obsession with violence, violent sexuality in particular, in the media.

With that said, this is not a perfect film. Though it is a great first effort, it is overly blunt in parts, particularly if you’re expecting any sort of complex philosophical analysis of the attraction to violence that brings so many of us horror nerds to the genre in the first place. It is a successful riff on the great giallo films of the ‘70s and reminds me of the better efforts of Brian de Palma, particularly Dressed to Kill. Amenábar deftly displays his excellent visual style, which includes numerous scenes of people watching and listening to media in a subtle, suspenseful way.

Coincidentally, at the dawn of the string of appalling Hollywood remakes of European and Asian horror films, Tesis was loosely remade as the dreadful Nicholas Cage vehicle 8MM, which you should avoid at all costs. Fortunately, Tesis has been re-released in a special edition DVD; it was out of print entirely too long.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

CHILDREN OF THE CENTURY


Diane Kurys, 1999
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel, Stefano Dionisi, Robin Renucci, Karin Viard

Though it may seem out of place on this blog, I occasionally review period piece dramas/biographies, many of which I am quite fond of. I've already covered one film about the love life of writer George Sand, the delightful Impromptu, but Les enfants du siecle focuses on an earlier chapter of her life, during an intense affair with French poet Alfred de Musset. The film is based on Musset's memoir, La Confession du enfant de siecle, which is his account of their relationship. Elements were also taken from Sand's later response to this, Elle et lui.

The film begins with Sand's scandalous departure from her husband and home. She brings her two children to Paris and establishes herself as a writer, despite doubts from the local literati. During a disastrous salon reading of her work, she meets the younger, womanizing poet Musset. They begin a professional friendship and start collaborating on a play. Eventually this blossoms into a romantic relationship, despite the age difference, the displeasure of Musset's family, and Musset's declaration that he could not possibly love anyone.

They take a trip to Venice to inspire their writing, which quickly turns ugly. While Sand suffers from an illness, Musset spends his time drinking and whoring. An Italian doctor, Pagello, cares for her and becomes smitten. When she recovers, Musset is bitter and spiteful anytime her attention strays from him, particularly during her daily writing sessions. To rebel, he takes a lethal dose of opium and nearly dies. Pagello helps Sand bring Musset back from the brink of death and helps lessen her grief. When he recovers, he has insane bouts of jealousy and almost kills her, driving her to stay with Pagello.

Months later, they reunite in Paris and rekindle their relationship after Sand has already rebuffed Musset many times. They have a brief happy period, which collapses under Musset's insane jealousy and his anger at Sand's betrayal with Pagello. With his family's assistance, they have a bitter parting. On the day of Musset's early death, she discovers that he never received the last few, impassioned letters she wrote to him.

Though I enjoyed the film, it is deeply flawed. There's an incredibly rich amount of history between Sand, Musset, and the explosive time period, arguably not enough to capture in one film, but it seems like writer/director Kurys doesn't even try. If you are unfamiliar with any of the historical figures involved, this is not the place to acquaint yourself with them. There is barely any explanation of Sand's fiery personality -- her habits of wearing men's clothing, smoking in public, and taking a variety of lovers, not counting her divorce and established career as a writer. Children of the Century skims over the crucial parts of what makes both of them unique, yet impossible personalities. With Musset, it is only established through inference that he is a poet. He really seems like more of a whoring, foppish drunkard with a bad temper. And this is the real problem of the film -- it is very difficult to understand the mutual attraction between Sand and Musset.

Something else that disappointed me is the strangely weak portrayal of Sand. She spends most of her time wearing a dress, looking lovely and writing seriously at her desk. The rest of the film she just seems victimized and abused, which is certainly out of character with the historical Sand. With that said, I hate to admit that the film is somewhat marred by Binoche's feminine, beautiful presence. She's an amazing actress and is fully able to capture the depth of emotion necessary, but Sand should be fiery, masculine, and more striking than beautiful.

The real reason to see this film is Magimel (The Piano Teacher). He's perfect as Musset and is a living, breathing reminder of the instability of artistic genius. Children of the Century also succeeds at capturing the longing and unattainability of passionate love. With that said, it is not a particularly deep film and is heavy on the melodrama, light on depth. It is, however, beautiful and benefits from some excellent cinematography by Vilko Filac (a regular Kusturica collaborator). To great effect, it was shot on location in Paris, Nohant (Sand's ancestral home in the French countryside), and Venice, frequently using the rooms that Sand and Musset actually visited. Check it out if you're in the mood for an intense costume drama/period piece. There's a single disc DVD from Koch Lorber.

COWBOYS & ALIENS


Jon Favreau, 2011
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde

Make no mistake -- this is a movie called Cowboys & Aliens. If you expect it to be some sort of cinematic tour de force, you're going to be bitterly disappointed. But if you're only expecting to see cowboys getting eaten by/shooting at aliens for almost two hours, you'll probably be reasonably entertained.

Jake Lonergin (Daniel Craig, who is the entire reason I went to see this film) wakes up with his memory wiped blank, a strange wound on his side that doesn't seem to be a bullet hole, and a weird metal bracelet clapped to his wrist that won't come off. He finds his way to a small town that has fallen on hard times. The most prominent local business man, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), is something of a thug and his spoiled, drunk, violent son goes unchecked until Jake shows up and teaches him some manners. One thing leads to another and the sheriff comes to arrest Dolarhyde's son, who has "accidentally" shot a deputy. He's also planning to arrest Jake; it seems he's an infamous outlaw wanted for murder.

Just as the two men are being taken away, the town is attacked by alien ships. Buildings are destroyed and townspeople are kidnapped. The ships are only driven away when Jake's bracelet -- which turns out to be a powerful weapon. A small group bands together to track the aliens north: Dolarhyde (his son has been taken) and his men, a lonely young boy, the town doctor, the preacher, and Ella, a mysterious woman with an interest in Jake. Jake returns to his home, which he has finally remembered, and recalls that he and the woman he loved were taken by the aliens when he brought home a bag full of gold. Filled with remorse, he heads to meet the band of villagers and joins in their fight. They have to contend with personal difficulties, alien attacks, Jake's former gang of outlaws, and an Apache tribe. Eventually Jake regains his memory and they find the alien base and prepare for a final showdown in the hope of rescuing their loved ones.

There are plenty of good and bad things to say about Cowboys & Aliens, but it isn't really the kind of film that requires deep critical analysis. Though the action and visual effects are pleasing, the plot and script are unsurprisingly thin. A strong initial premise gets flushed gradually down the toilet by a cartoonish pillaging of Western tropes. The tribe of Apaches was taking a bit far.

Daniel Craig delivers exactly what you would expect. Though I said this when I first saw Casino Royale, I still think he's the heir to Steve McQueen. The man seems to enjoy getting the living shit beaten out of him at every turn. His American accent is stretched pretty thin, but he's compelling enough that I could ignore it. Harrison Ford phones in his performance as the asshole businessman Dolarhyde, but, when it comes down to it, you're still watching Harrison Ford.

Overall, I recommend seeing it if you want a fun summer blockbuster. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film has gone through a long development process, but I think it was in the right hands with director Jon Favreau. Not only has he helmed the popular Iron Man films, but he directed one of my favorite movies of all time: Elf. Yes, that Will Ferrel Christmas movie. Cowboys & Aliens is available on a basic DVD from Universal, as well as a fancy pants Blu-ray option.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

TROLLHUNTER


Andre Ovredal, 2010
Starring: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Tomas Alf Larsen

This comedy-fantasy-action-horror mashup is exactly what you would expect from the title -- a film about a Norwegian guy who hunts trolls. Three film students pursuing an independent project about bear poachers stumble across a strange, unfriendly man who turns out to be the head of a secret government team assigned to hunt down renegade trolls. Hans, the troll hunter, eventually agrees to cooperate with the students, because after many years on the job, he thinks the public deserves to know the truth about what has been sharing their country. The students accompany him on several dangerous mission to create a documentary about the trolls.

Trollhunter is fun and entertaining, but I can't say much other than that. There are some solid performances, the visual effects are done well and there are some genuinely funny and suspenseful moments. Like so many other films of this type, it has unfortunately suffered from an overabundance of hype and mis-marketing. If you're expecting to see a horror film, you're going to be disappointed. I hate to say it for the ten thousandth time, but any film that spends a significant amount of money on marketing, secrecy, and creating a viral campaign is destined to fail. I wish that much time and energy had gone into creating a solid script with three-dimensional characters, both of which are lacking in Trollhunter.

Mockumentaries usually annoy me, but it works well here. On the other hand, Trollhunter doesn't bring anything new to the table and doesn't really do anything creative. Honestly, the film left a bad taste of Hollywood in my mouth. What could have been a much richer and more imaginative story is instead replaced by a quick pillaging of Norwegian culture and legend, but Norway obviously didn't seem to mind, because it got very good reviews.

I did enjoy the film, but I think I expected too much. It's certainly worthy of a rental, if only for Otto Jespersen's convincing and funny performance. He essentially carries the entire film. If you don't expect anything more than a sometimes-scary, sometimes-funny monster movie, then you'll probably enjoy yourself. All my grumpiness aside, it's an entertaining film. Plus there are trolls. There is a single disc DVD available from Magnolia.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

PREDATOR 2


Stephen Hopkins, 1990
Starring: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Ruben Blades, Kevin Peter Hall, Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton

Predator has the distinction of being the first film in memory that scared the living shit out of me -- of course I was just four years old at the time, but it really cemented my love of horror, action, and, of course, Arnold. Somehow the existence of Predator 2 completely bypassed me until a few weeks ago, where I stumbled across it on Comcast on demand, of all places, and it turned out to be the highlight of my day/week/month.

Picking up vaguely where Predator left off, a predator is in the middle of a fire fight between Colombian and Jamaican gangs, who are also facing off against the Los Angeles police department. Lt Harrigan (Glover) witnesses the predator kill some Colombians, but understandably thinks he's hallucinating. He's taken to task for the absolute massacre by the Captain and is forced to meet the arrogant Agent Keyes (Busey), who is in charge of a shady task force supposedly sent to investigate the drug cartels. Harrigan's team also gets a new eccentric detective (Bill Paxton).

There's a truly awesome scene where the predator massacres a room full of Jamaicans who are preparing to torture and murder one of the Colombians. Harrigan and his team explore the bizarre scene until they are kicked out by Keyes and the task force. Unfortunately a member of Harrigan's team is killed (Blades) and he vows to find the killer and get vengeance for his friend. One of the Jamaicans, who is stereotypically a voodoo master, tells Harrigan that the killer is not human, which promptly gets him killed.

More of Harrington's team gets attacked and killed by the predator on a subway car, which drives Harrigan over the edge. Keyes stops him, finally cluing him in on the fact that he's looking for a highly advanced alien who hunts humans for fun. Taking a page out of the Alien franchise's book, Keyes' team is not there to investigate the cartels -- they want to capture and study the predator. Harrigan shows up and has a face off with the predator, using its own weapons against it. Can he defeat it? Or will it rip his skin off and hang him from the rafters?

What really blows my mind is that the film was initially given an NC-17 rating and had to be cut down. It's surprisingly gory and, honestly, surprisingly good. It's the penultimate '90s action film. It has a ridiculous plot, explosions, a sniper team, Danny Glover, Ruben Blades, Gary Busey, and Bill fucking Paxton. If you're having a bad day, watch this as a triple feature with Aliens and Terminator 2 and it will turn OK. I promise.

Critics hated Predator 2, but obviously none of them had the sense of humor or joie de vivre required to like appreciate action films. The newly designed predator looks a bit ridiculous, but he still kills with reckless abandon and that's why you wanted to watch the movie in the first place, right? You obviously need the 2-disc special edition.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY


Alfred Hitchcock, 1955
Starring: Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Mathers

Hitchcock's only true comedy, The Trouble with Harry is predictably a black comedy. A number of people in a small Vermont town each find a corpse and are convinced that they've killed him and must now hide the body. Harry, the corpse, is not particularly well-liked and is regarded by most of the townspeople as little more than an inconvenience.

Captain Wiles thinks he accidentally shot Harry while rabbit hunting in the woods and is the first to discover the body. A spinster, Miss Gravely, thinks she killed him, because Harry ran out from the bushes and attacked her, so she hit him in the head with a hiking boot. Harry's wife, Jennifer, thinks she killed him because they fought and she hit him with a bottle. They each discover the corpse in turn. Captain Wiles is determined to bury the corpse when Miss Gravely comes upon the scene. She thinks the Captain has intuited that she killed Harry and is burying the body for her. Jennifer and her young son discover him and are content to leave him in the woods. Sam, an artist, has a crush on Jennifer and is determined to help his friends however he can.

The foursome decide to bury the body, which later involves unburying it, moving it and otherwise trying to hide Harry from the police, who will simply not understand the situation. It turns out that Harry actually died of natural causes and everyone will live happily ever after. The respective couples, Sam and Jennifer, the Captain and Miss Gravely, have romantically paired off and Sam has sold his avant garde paintings to a millionaire.

I think my favorite thing about The Trouble with Harry is the incredibly whimsical attitude the townspeople have about death, romance and, above all, themselves. They are all weird, flawed characters who manage to come together despite their personality drawbacks and the corpse on their hands. The four actors have great chemistry, but particularly take note of a very young, feisty Shirley MacLaine. The film is based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story and is notable for being the first Bernard Herrmann score in a long and famous partnership between Hitchcock and the composer.

Though it comes highly recommended, it's an acquired taste. If you like quirky, black comedy this is for you, as the film is genuinely very funny. It would make an entertaining double feature with Arsenic and Old Lace, though the script and performances are a lot less flamboyant. The pastoral, homey nature of the setting is perfectly echoed in the script, so don't expect the fireworks and masterful suspense that mark most of Hitchcock's work. Here's the Universal DVD, which is pretty basic, but comes with an entertaining featurette.

THE HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS


Pete Walker, 1983
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine

It's truly a shame that this last gasp effort from a group of beloved horror legends has fallen into obscurity. Though it took me awhile to track down a copy, this is one of my favorite rainy-day movies and I recommend it to anyone who likes haunted house mysteries or anyone who wants to see Price, Lee, Cushing, and Carradine together one last time.

A snotty, young writer makes a bet with his publisher that he can write a creepy mystery novel in 24 hours. To achieve this, he rents an abandoned Welsh manor for the night, but he discovers, to his horror, that it is already occupied by the aged Grisbane family, ancestral heirs of the manor. The wizened Lord Grisbane (Carradine) has been living there with his daughter, but soon his sons Lionel (Price) and Sebastian (Cushing) make an appearance for a family visit. They are also interrupted by Mary, the publisher's secretary, who was hired to scare the writer in the middle of the night, along with a few other stragglers seeking shelter from the storm.

The somewhat decrepit family members finally admit that they have reunited to release their eldest brother, Roderick, who they have kept walled up in room because of a murder he committed as a youth. Roderick, as you may have imagined, has already escaped and bodies begin to pile up around the house. When everyone tries to leave, they discover that their cars have been sabotaged and they are forced to wait out the storm. Can they find Roderick before he kills them all?

You're going to have to brace yourself for a ridiculous ending, or rather three ridiculous endings in a row. The film is based on a book, The Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers of Charlie Chan fame, but someone should have stepped in and cut it off at the first, best ending. The script has its weak moments and definitely feels dated, but there are murky family secrets, hidden passageways, a dark, stormy night and some grisly murders. I was hoping the writer would get slowly tortured and then murdered, but no such luck. Price, Cushing and Lee outshine any of the other annoying characters and Price, in particular, is in top form as Lionel Grisbane.

Another amazing tidbit about this film is the fact that it's directed by Pete Walker, British master of nasty sex/exploitation/horror films from the '70s. This is a departure from the rest of his work, but it still has enough mean-spirited moments and brutal deaths to remind you who is at the helm. Strangely, it's Walker's last film to date.

Like I said earlier, it doesn't have the strongest script or acting, but it's clear that almost everyone involved had a really good time making this film. Track it down if you can. This is the VHS copy I have, though there are also bootlegs and torrents available.