Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One A Week Reviews #49: Giallo

Getting my hands on a new Dario Argento film is always a fraught thing. The candy-colored fever dreams that got me hooked on Euro-Horrors like Suspiria and Phenomena (Creepers), are a far cry from the more drab and cruel affairs of his later work. None of that lavish visual flair remains- a victim of budgets, I'd assume- though the twisted, nonsensical plots remain. The Card Player was a blunt hammer of a film and Mother of Tears was a surprisingly stomach-churning near-miss. Argento's Masters of Horror offerings, Pelts and Jenifer, were so mean and grisly as to be almost unwatchable. Giallo is a supposed return to Argento's thriller roots and was long-awaited by many a fan, though it wound up not being released to much... fanfare.

The trademark Argento shots of the killer's hands are heavily featured, as is the flashbacks that seem an integral part to many of his films. The film is creatively, crisply shot, but that visual glory is a thing of the past. It's a handsome movie, cold and cruel, though the sound is oddly flat. At least the voices, some background ones dubbed English, don't jump out so badly now that every line isn't looped. There's a visual stunt, a close-up of an injection into a tongue, that's the kind of touch reminiscent of his older work.

Adrien Brody stars (recently in the news because evidently he didn't get paid for the film), in his best late-career Al Pacino impression, as Enzo, an American detective in Italy. He chooses a vocal affectation here, a bit of a clipped New York accent, that is so muttered it's almost harder to understand than those who speak English here as a second language. The Spanish Elsa Pataky is a fashion model kidnapped by a mad killer and the French Emmanuelle Seigner is her flight attendant sister, teaming up with Brody to try and find her before it's too late. Sadly, Pataky mostly just gets to whimper and scream here. A shame as I enjoyed her in Beyond Re-Animator. Seigner is still stunning to look at, though she's traded in dewy freshness for formidable maturity.

Pretty standard plot all around. A thin one, really. It should always be so easy to catch a criminal. Brody and Seigner chase down clues and victims trying to find the "yellow" man. (Giallo is, for the uninitiated, the term for the genre films of the Seventies and so-named because the lurid thriller novels of the time all had yellow covers.) I'm not sure why we need a flashback to the Yellow man's childhood. It's unforgivably hokey. The flashbacks to Enzo's childhood shock in violence. This is the character who, in real life, is more likely to become the crazy killer.

The other problem with the Yellow man, and this isn't a spoiler, is he's obviously played by Brody under some not-very convincing makeup. I assume the appeal of working for Argento and getting to play a dual role is what recruited him to this film, and he's clearly laboring here, but Brody doesn't seem to be having much of a good time here. The Yellow man is a collection of noises and ticks, all exaggerated.

The mystery and suspense are decompressed here and, while the pace doesn't dawdle, the goings are pretty slow. In the end, Giallo is worth it for the Argento fan, but it's doubtful it'll create new converts.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

One A Week Reviews #48: The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

You know you've been waiting to see this one. The highest concept movie in ages, reviewed by me for and your nauseated pleasure... also, this is my first review of a Blu-Ray. Score!

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Official Synopsis: 

The plot is diabolically simple: two stranded American tourists are given shelter by a famed German doctor (a maniacally intense Dieter Laser) who made his fortune surgically separating conjoined twins. Now his mad genius is pushing the doctor to do the reverse. He tells the women that they will be surgically attached to a Japanese businessman - mouth to buttocks, one after the other – and thus will be born a net creature: the human centipede! Compellingly perverse, hilarious, and shockingly straightforward, director Tom Six's new film is hands-down one of the most memorable horror films ever.

Our Take:

Sigh, what do you do with a movie like this?

This reviewer scrupulously avoided spoilers and reviews before viewing The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Armed with only the description on the box cover and a general understanding of what would be encountered, I have to admit my second response was: is that all there is?
My first response was something along the lines of “Eww! Eww! Gross! What is he going to... no... NO... yuck!” This is a good thing, actually.

What you read on the box really is most of the film – no spoiler there – but thankfully, there's a little more to it than that. This is maybe the highest-concept movie ever made. It's all concept. You take your dread and squeamishness with you coming in, and it's paid off evenly. The highlight of the film might not be the surgeries or grisly conclusion, but rather Dr. Heiter (Laser) explaining exactly what is involved in the surgery. The film likes to mention “100% Medically Accurate” in the advertising. I don't know about that, but even the most hardened gorehound may not make it through his Med School 101 presentation without squirming. Three people, sewn together. 'Nuff said. It should also be noted this is not of the “Torture Porn” school, though it seems to have been sold as such. It's much more in the body-horror vein of David Cronenberg and the recent Splice.

The amazing Dieter Laser, a German actor who seems an odd union of Christopher Walken and Lance Henriksen, comes off like Udo Kier's dour brother. The glimpses of perverse black humor he lets slip through the coldest, most clinical bedside manner ever put to film, are the fuel driving the picture. If you have no other interest in seeing the film, put it on for his performance. Ashley C. Williams, the relative newcomer playing middle segment Lindsay, is the only actor with a lot to do, and half her performance is in her eyes. It's her wedge of face we turn to every time the ante of the impossible situation is upped. She is the figurative and literal center of the film.

The first watch is all marvel and disgust. The second brings black humor and you may be impressed that they sold this at all. The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a lean, baroque, concept, and should be given at least one spin, if just to test your stomach.

Audio and Video:

The picture on this Blu-Ray in near-perfection. A slight artifact or two, but mostly the cool, blue florescent lighting of the surgical areas and warm, golden sunlight come through vividly. The picture is so crisp that some scenes with trees create such a depth of field as to give the illusion of 3D. The clean, spare widescreen compositions are presented intact.

The Audio is flawless, with subtle sounds jumping to your attention when least expected. Presented in English 2.0 (German and Japanese are also spoken and subtitled) with a spare score and fleshy, crunchy sound effects, it's worth turning up to let the audio wrap itself around you. Check out the Foley Session featurette for a truly nauseating look at the Butcher's Counter products used to create the films...ambiance.

Special Features:
  • Trailers
  • Deleted Scene
  • Behind the Scenes featurette
  • Director Interview
  • Casting Tapes
  • Foley Session
  • Alternative Posters
  • Directors Commentary Track
While it doesn't live up to the hype, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is maybe the highest concept movie ever made. What you hear you're going to see is what you get, but the sense of dread and body-horror revulsion built along the way make it a discrete, baroque experience.

Overall Picture:
Movie: B
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: B

One A Week Reviews #47: Kung Fu Master

The oddest of ducks, this live-action videogame may be just the choice for the next time you tie one on. Reviewed for, but probably never forgotten...

Kung-Fu Master

Official Synopsis:
One man is faced with a life-altering choice when he is approached with the greatest honor but declines, forcing him to destroy the Kung-Fu Master Alliance in order to protect his people.

Our Take:
Does China have a SyFy-type channel for “Chopsocky” films? Kung Fu Master looks like it would belong there. This shot-on-video, low budget adventure has the feel of their “Saturday Night Specials.” The production values give the film the feel of a cable history show with actors playing dress-up for snippets of staged recreations.
In between over-choreographed fight scenes featuring silly dubbing and too much mugging for the camera, there's a story here of master fighter Tan Zong being called by an evil General to be the Army's drillmaster. With Kung Fu schools across the country destroyed, Tan Zong must confront various groups of fighters in scene after scene of dance-like anarchy, interrupted only by his prayers to “O, merciful Buddha. It seems like every transition leads to more action. The choppy, episodic structure makes the whole thing feel like watching a friend play a video game, broken up by those animated breaks for plot exposition.

The overall structure is also weirdly hallucinatory. This one might be good after a few drinks while you use your Playstation to watch the disc.
The joy of Kung Fu films are the acrobatic fights that seem to cheat nature. In this film, it's too much, though. Everything here defies physics. The spins and leaps go too high and far. Silk sleeves crack stone and tensed skin stops iron blades. It'd be less off-putting either dialed down a bit, or presented as a Saturday morning cartoon. It's inventive, but so over-the-top it seems like a spoof. It's all just too, too much.
Special Features:
Kung Fu Master is presented in widescreen with both English and Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital audio options. English and Spanish subtitles and a few trailers are the only extras on the DVD.

Weird cable TV production values and atrocious dubbing add a surreal flavor to Kung Fu Master. For enthusiasts of Kung Fu cinema, video game storytelling, and psychotropics only. The fighting is inventive and hypnotic to watch, but “O, merciful Buddha,” take it away. For a night in with buddies who can appreciate this odd concoction, this live-action cartoon would get a grade of “B-," otherwise...

Overall Picture:
Movie: D+
Extras: C

One A Week Reviews #46: Elvis & Anabelle

Like an Indie film teleported in from 1994 to see the future, this stylistic throwback I reviewed for has charm that wins one over in the end.

Elvis & Anabelle

Official Synopsis: 
Blake Lively ("Gossip Girl") and Max Minghella (Syriana) star in this sexy, romantic love story with an unusual twist. Groomed to be the perfect pageant candidate, Anabelle (Lively) is on the verge of winning it all when she tragically dies onstage. Her body is delivered to the funeral home of Elvis's family, but just as she is ready to be embalmed, her spirit returns. Trying to make sense of it all, she turns to Elvis (Minghella) for comfort and finds a new chance at love. But after death has brought them together, will life tear them apart?
Our Take:
First off, in most of America, the Funeral Home is the nicest house in town. In Elvis & Anabelle it looks like the house from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Much like "Six Feet Under," this is an oddball take on life in a funeral home, where Elvis Moreau (Max Minghella, looking about all of eighteen) takes pictures of every "guest," sometimes with props. When he finds Anabelle Leigh (ahem), the local bulemic beauty queen, on his slab, the last things one would expect are resurrection and love.

Admittedly, "during embalming" is perhaps not the best way to "meet cute." At least, not this side of Re-Animator. The type of movie one uses "quirky" and "idiosyncratic" to describe, it's set in some concept of Texas that could only exist within a film. Anabelle understandably winds up attracted to the Mortuary and, by extension, to Max. In this odd structure they go on to have a pretty standard "opposites attract" love story. If you've seen a lot of these Indies you'll be groaning when they start painting the house together, but the movie's heart is in the right place. Stifled at home, she runs away to live with the Moreaus, leading her mother to start a manhunt.
The kids go on the lam for the last third of the film and you know they'll grow closer as they learn to embrace life in a travel and trying-on-clothes montage. Even as the other shoe eventually drops, they're still worth joining along their trip, though the end of the film features events that may alienate viewers who's lives have been touched by certain types of loss.
Keith Carradine, Mary Steenburgen, and Joe Mantegna (getting to play both physical and mental handicaps) all shine and seem to be having a good ol' time. Minghella and Blake Lively both show promise for relative newcomers. It's also no stretch for Lively to be playing a beauty queen, though she doesn't sell the Texas accent quite as well. The movie looks good, with a soundtrack that, like everything here, screams "Indie Film." Familiarity and morbidity aside, Elvis & Anabelle is mostly a sweet and generous love story.

Special Features:
Elvis & Anabelle is presented in widescreen and English 5.1 Dolby digital audio. The disc features English and Spanish subtitles, trailers and a featurette interview with writer/director Will Geiger.

The patented "Quirky Indie Romance" with a hit of death and a scoop of Texas oddity, Elvis & Anabelle benefits from great actors, but suffers for coming after far too many of its type. The film is sweet and romantic enough to overcome some odd choices and lazy plot points to be an overall rewarding date night watch.

Overall Picture:
Movie: C+
Extras: C

One A Week Reviews #45: Manson My Name Is Evil

This is an odd duck of a film - like a college theater production committed to film - that I reviewed for Perhaps you'd best judge it for yourself...

Manson, My Name Is Evil (Leslie, My Name Is Evil):

Official Synopsis:
Manson's bloodlust left a trail of dead bodies across the Los Angeles landscape. His resulting trial connects Perry, a sheltered chemist, to Leslie Van Houten, one of Manson's murdering minions.

Our Take:
Originally called Leslie, My Name Is Evil, the Canadian production Manson, My Name is Evil is a surprisingly bleak, somewhat comic look at the life of Leslie Van Houten. Skipping across the events of her life like a stone on a lake, her broken home and teenage pregnancy are glossed over as she's delivered into the hands of the Manson cult. The former Homecoming queen and other Manson girls are depicted like characters in a CW show, and balanced by the comic, Fifties-square Perry and his religious girlfriend Dorothy. They play like a sketch comedy look at wholesomeness, making for an odd contrast with the Manson crowd. Perry winds up a juror in this stage-play-like interpretation of the Manson trial and falls in love with Leslie in the process.

Van Houten has spent more of her life in prison than out at this point. The historical events she was involved in are such a sensitive American touchstone, still fresh in living memory, that the presentation here strikes an off note. Theatrical and experimental, with news footage and photographs of the time edited in to establish the tone of the era, the film combines the drama of the Manson family with Perry's sitcom life. The tone clashes sharply. Kristen Hager, playing Van Houten, Is passive, girlish, and awkward. She conveys the confusion of a drug-addled, lost adolescence convincingly. An empathetic anchor to the otherwise theatrical style of some of the proceedings.

Manson's first appearance, sixteen minutes in, lashed to a crucifix in a barn for his stagey introduction to Leslie is the test moment. If you have an appreciation for history, perhaps it's best you tune out then. This clean-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked Family, petulantly following pleasure down the path of Manson's crazy, is hard to relate to. Manson himself is presented as rather silly here, a counterpoint to all the looming images of Richard Nixon that pop up throughout. The Tate murders are dispensed with in exchange for some spinning newspaper headlines. More attention here is paid to Perry and Dorothy necking on the beach. We're not spared the LaBianca murders, as Van Houten was personally involved in those. The talented Hager's passivity up to here makes the sequence the disturbing center of the film. Her performance keeps the film from flying off into the land of total satire. Gregory Smith as Perry (and it's just “Perry”) seems to belong in another story entirely, one that's a humorous spoof about sexual frustration in the repressed end of American Sixties culture. His bloody, Freudian dream sequence at the hour mark is one of the entertaining highlights of the film, mostly by virtue of being so over the top.

The mistake here, I suppose, is that the filmmakers are using the details of real life events here. If fictionalized, this would be truly effective. The moments of Psycho Beach Party tone and college theater staging clash with the Helter Skelter details.

Special Features:
Manson, My Name is Evil is presented in widescreen with English 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital audio. There are Spanish subtitles available. The only other extras are trailers.

After a glorious opening montage of images, the odd, stagey black comedy Manson, My Name Is Evil is a weirdly satirical look at the Manson Family murders. There's great talent here, as director Reginald Harkema and leading lady Kristen Hager are worth watching. However, the film is a theatrical meditation on the life of Leslie Van Houten. Performance art played out in front of giant crosses, American Flags, and Tricky Dicks. It lands sadly short of what the story deserves in it's telling.

Overall Picture:
Movie: C
Extras: C-

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One A Week Reviews #44: Suck

A gem of a horror-comedy reviewed for Highly Recommended!


Official Synopsis:

The Winners are a down and out band who find their road to stardom by riding rock-n-roll's highway to hell. It all begins when their bass player, Jennifer (Jessica Paré), disappears with a mysterious vampire and reemerges with a sexual charisma that drives the audiences wild. Now, The Winners are topping the charts and blazing a bloody trail across North America with legendary vampire hunter Eddie Van Helsig (Malcom McDowell) hunting them along the way. Who knew fame and immortality could "suck" like this?

Our Take:

Rob Stefaniuk is rather smartly shortcircuting reviewers from taking easy shots at this rock-n-roll vampire movie by bluntly naming it Suck. So... does it? To get it out of the way, no. If anything, he can stand boldly behind the name as this is a surprisingly near-perfect horror comedy.

The Winners are a mediocre bar band barely making ends meet while on tour, so when the bassist shows pale, ruby-lipped, and making everyone fall in love with her it's a god send... even if she's noshing on the occasional person while on tour. Next thing you know they're climbing the ladder of success thanks to some good old-fashioned blood-sucking. It's a humorous way to ask the old question: "What price success?"

The cast of Suck is uniformly good. Stefaniuk cast himself as band-leader Joey and Jessica Paré is first charming, then show-stopping once a vampire. Paul Anthony, Mike Lobel and especially Chris Ratz as the Renfield-like Hugo each shine as the rest of The Winners. Dave Foley pops up as the band's manager and Malcolm McDowell gleefully chews scenery as vampire hunter Eddie Van Helsing (nice touch, that). McDowell brings his usual intensity while also seeming unusually playful. Frankly, he looks like he's having an excellent time. (The incorporation of footage of him earlier in his career in a flashback spices up some rote back story, as well.) Musicians Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Moby, Iggy Pop, and Alex Lifeson show up to lend "stage cred" to the proceedings. For stunt casting, they're all charming performers and each shines in their cameos.

The construction here is "music video." The music is incorporated through montage and performance to the point where you could call this a musical. The editing, cinematography, and effects nicely straddle the horror-comedy divide. Everything looks lavish, while still feeling small-scale. Color changes in the lighting and stop-motion animation are effectively used to transition scenes. Keep an eye out for the running gag of shots that reproduce famous album covers. While the vampire aesthetic is all pasty skin, red eyes, and good lighting, things stay humorous even when the blood starts flowing.

Superficially, one could say the metaphor here is "vampirism as a metaphor for success," but mostly Suck is simply high-concept comedy done right and worth seeking out.

Special Features:

Suck is presented in widescreen with 2.0 and 5.1 Surround Sound Audio options in English with English SDH subtitles. Extras include trailers, a 45 minute making-of documentary "Down To The Crossroads," an audio commentary track with the writer and director, along with a music video by Burning Brides.

A tongue-in-cheek musical lark of a vampire story, Suck is campy and fast-paced fun. A nice surprise and highly recommended. Be sure to "try some groupie" and give it a watch.

Overall Picture:
Movie: A-
Extras: B

One A Week Reviews #43: Mercy

A Love Story rehashing reviewed for boredom beware...


Official Synopsis:
A best-selling novelist (Scott Cann of Ocean's Eleven) one-night stands his way through LA until he finally meets his match with Mercy (beautiful newcomer Wendy Glenn), a book critic who calls his bluff in this powerful romance that Caan wrote, produced and stars in. Featuring Dylan McDermott ("The Practice"), Erika Christensen (Oscar-winning Traffic, TV's "Parenthood") and directed by photographer superstar Patrick Hoelck in his film debut, Mercy is a riveting drama. It's also a memorable moment of cinematic history when rising Hollywood star Scott Caan shares the screen with is legendary father James Caan (The Godfather). Their combustible scene together is the beating heart of this bittersweet look at lost love.

Our Take:
Writers and filmmakers turn to what they know for inspiration. This is why you get so many novels and films about writers and filmmakers. For the layperson, this doesn't always equal access. Stories of tortured artists, frequently insulated by wealth and success, can alienate an audience. Mercy is another example of this. Here, Scott Caan has written himself a character, Johnny Ryan, where he plays a young, successful novelist who runs with a famous crowd, including Kelly Lynch and Balthazar Getty, playing themselves.

Johnny, a slick, successful, promiscuous fireplug of a man, gets taken down a peg or three by Mercy, the type of glib, sparring woman most people only encounter in film. She must, of course, write the only harsh review of his universally lauded new novel, leading him to want to badger her into approving of him, probably out of some selfish need for approval. She's less love object than she is a plot mechanism. As he and his friends are prone to unenlightened navelgazing rants about "love," it tends to make for a long 87 minutes. Their whirlwind courtship, tilted "before," turns to an actor's exercise in "after," as Johnny lashes out because of something clearly telegraphed at the 27 minute mark. He fights, he cries, he rocks a beard symbolizing the changes he's gone through. He also writes some decent scenes for James Caan to sink his teeth into. Always nice to see a seasoned pro at work.

For a film full of charming actors and well-written dialogue, it's kind of surprising just how distant the film feels. It's sumptuously photographed and scored, just distant as a magazine layout. I've always found Scott Caan an engaging, underrated actor, but I just can't cotton to Mercy.

Special Features:
Mercy is presented in Widescreen and in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio. The DVD includes subtitles in English and Spanish, Trailers, a deleted scene, and a behind the scenes photo montage.

Scott Caan is a talented writer and actor and Patrick Hoelck is a promising director with a great visual sense. Mercy is gorgeous, but distant. A story of lost love that just didn't engage.

Overall Picture:
Movie: C-
Extras: C+