Friday, February 18, 2011

One A Week Reviews #7: I Spit On Your Grave (1978, 2010)

This week, I'm tired. See, I had to go and write this exhaustive review of both versions of I Spit On Your Grave for DVDsnapshot. I put some work into this one, and do hope you enjoy it.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 1978 and 2010


I Spit On Your Grave has been condemned by many as "Vile," "Depraved," and "Degenerate Filmmaking." Others hailed it as "Misunderstood," "Superb Cinema," and "The Ultimate Feminist Movie." Now more than 30 years later, re-experience one of the most hated, debated and divisive movies of all time. Camille Keaton stars as Jennifer Hills, an attractive city woman who rents a backwoods cabin to begin writing her first novel. She is soon attacked by a group of local lowlifes and dragged screaming into a nightmare of violence. Left for dead, she devises a horrific plan for revenge. You may be shocked, outraged or even appalled. Yet you will never forget the raw impact of the original I Spit On Your Grave – the movie that changed the face of cinema.

A beautiful woman from the city, Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler), rents an isolated cabin in the country to write her latest novel. Soon, a group of local lowlifes subject Jennifer to a nightmare of degradation, rape and violence. Left for dead, she returns for vengeance. Trapping her male attackers one-by-one, she inflicts acts of physical torment upon them with a ferocity that surpasses her own ordeal. When the carnage clears, victim has become victor.

Jeff Branson (All My Children), Daniel Franzese (Bully), Rodney Eastman (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 & 4), Chad Lindberg (Supernatural), Tracey Walter (The Silence of the Lambs) and Andrew Howard (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) co-star in this shocker that Scott Collura of IGN calls "Appalling. In a Good Way!"
Our take:
I think it was always the image that got me. That nearly naked, mud-streaked woman in that grimy photograph, seemingly mid-stride through a jungle or forest holding a large knife. With the ad copy about no jury in the world ever convicting her for killing five (actually four) men and a title like I Spit On Your Grave, it looked like something determined, dangerous and very, very grisly. Usually sitting on the shelf next to Faces of Death and Make Them Die Slowly helped.

Being the original "Video Nasty," and one of the greatest success stories in the history of sensationalized cinema, it's hard to separate the actual film from it's aura of sleaze. There's also very little that hasn't been said about I Spit On Your Grave, and there is no reason to take this journey – there is NOTHING here - but underneath all that is a small, grim, interesting movie originally called Day of the Woman worth taking another look at.

Yes, it's exploitation, full of bright (near-pink, half-magenta) blood, mediocre acting, and copious nudity, but it really isn't a badly made film. The aesthetic is as undistinguished and bland as the TV offerings of the day. Scenes are frequently photographed in long shots, with actors fully visible in the frame, like something viewed in person. Some scenes (and the Matthew character with his jokey hat) feel like something on stage. The sleazy sensationalism of the well-known poster belies the banal, everyday horrors of the actual film.The lack of musical score and the staging of most of the storyline by daylight give everything a feeling of weirdly safe normalcy.

The content, however, is simplistic and frankly irredeemable. The storyline is simple; disturbing and offensive. Jennifer Hills rents her cabin to be alone in the woods to work. She's stalked and assaulted by four locals she's innocuously met once before. They rape her, let her go, then rape her again. They use her in an off-handed, aloof manner, like a toy, and when done, one of them is left to kill her, though he fails. After being left for dead she resolves to get revenge and does so, in an equally matter-of-fact manner. That's it.

It's the journey that's difficult. The men are beyond awful. Her revenge is calculated and cold, playing their assumptions against them. There are choices made in the filmmaking that have been discussed by many a scholar. (For such a seemingly flat film, there's a lot to chew on.) Why does she have to act seductively while meting out her justice? Is it that she kills the man she doesn't know spared her life? That her choice robs one family of it's husband and father? (I think this question inspired the moment in Kill Bill: Part One where The Bride tells Vivica Fox's daughter she can come looking for revenge in the future if she wishes.)
Camille Keaton, in retrospect, is a revelation. Exaggeratedly girlish but direct in the beginning, then determined and faux-seductive after the assaults, she is far more fearless than ever given credit for.
With her lean physique, long limbs and longer hair, she's an all-American beauty who recalls the better-known Sissy Spacek and Annette O'Toole. She has to act around being naked for half the film. The poster may be sensationalized nudity, but Keaton is vulnerable and matter of fact. I almost think it's not the sleazy title and nature of the story that got this film banned, but a shriek she gives during the second rape sequence.

As an audience, you can only react to her performance and plight at the moment with a sense of helplessness that makes you actively resent the film and her assailants. Do scholars ask the questions above because of that visceral reaction? Because we disregard "The Angels of our Better Natures' and enjoy it when avenges, and we feel guilt over it?

I'm thinking "yes."

That iconic image is repeated for the packaging of the remake. The 2010 version of the film has all the right washed-out colors, grunge, and torture-porn elements inspired by years of grisly horror movies. It repeats several images from the original but lacks the forgivable originality of being first and suffers from some clumsy plot exposition. After three decades of "women in jeopardy" and "strong female leads," paths perhaps blazed by the first version, this return to the house by the lake seems like one in the crowd instead of a stand-out original.

Perhaps the oddest choices made in the remake are that the guys are almost given something vaguely resembling a motive (which does not excuse their behavior) in their first interaction with Jennifer, and that the scenes of her recovery after she's attacked are excised in favor of watching the criminals clean-up. In this go-round we don't get to see her nurse her wounds, but we do get an establishing shot of her well-stocked utility shed of death. There's a greater emphasis on voyeurism here. The tropes that developed from years of stalk'n'slash films that don't apply to the first serve the second. Seeing her watched and discovering the derelict dangers of the woods with her build a strong level of dread.

The attack sequence and aftermath are far more theatrical. This time the men are more cartoon villains, more actively cruel and taunting to her. They're also armed with a video camera and friends this time around. There's no question here of why she takes the law into her own hands. There's no spoiler in nothing they correct the original films claim of "five men" here. A weird strain of horse-inspired humiliation is also added here as they just wallow in the degradation here. You're grateful for the one time they cut away from the assault. We don't diverge from the original story until after the assaults. At that point the five men become the central focus of the story and Jennifer Hills pops up like a sadistic, avenging Michael Myers as she metes out her revenge – which is more sensationalized than in the original, but also considerably more satisfying. She's as crafty as a DIY home-show, full of elaborately helpful household tips for getting back at those who've wronged you. (In this version she doesn't ask for forgiveness, either.)

Keaton was almost a total unknown, and worked with four actors who never made another film (Eron Tabor is probably the best of them, in the part that could be named "David Hess"). Their exclusivity to that storyline added a reality you don't get here with the more-experienced cast of actors. Sarah Butler is the performer with the shortest resume here. She underplays the initial dread and attacks the violence with gusto, the post-attack shock being perhaps the only moment of obvious "Acting." Her presence is physically small but radiates intelligence. Meanwhile, this Johnny (Jeff Branson) radiates menace, but seems to have practiced every single facial twitch in the mirror prior to filming.

The most fascinating aspect of both versions, in the end, may be that you don't wonder for a moment if she got away with it. You still side with that famed jury that wouldn't convict her... and then you take a scouring pad to your brain.

  • -There's still film grain present, and an odd flicker to the images, but they're so clear some scenes are almost 3D, especially close-ups and a late scene of Jennifer swinging in a hammock. Pause any frame and find more sharp detail than any thirty year old low-budget film has any right to have. The "Eastman Color," rich as crayon shades, and the almost constant sunlight pop crisp and clean. (There's a red carpet so eye-searing it alone horrifies.) Remember VHS where reds would flare and bleed? Now they're bright and sharp as slashes. Subtle shadows and patterns that never came through on tape pop here. This, and the lack of any score, give the film the bland, documentary feel that make it so effective.
  • -Audio in English Dobly True HD 5.1, audio commentary track with Meir Zarchi, and an audio commentary with Joe Bob Briggs.
  • -The cinematography is clean here, though the color scheme is all desaturated blues and browns. Instead of a rich, crayola-green summer, this film is set during a dead, cruel, cold fall. Cool light and rich, deep black shadows are the order of the day. The look of the film isn't distinguished but the image never artifacts and ever detail stands out. 
  • -Audio in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, audio commentary with Dreictor Steven R. Monroe and Producer Lisa Hansen

  • -English SDH subtites
  • -"The Values of Vengance" an interview with Meir Zarchi
  • -alternate opening title
  • -several Trailers (for this film under both titles and other upcoming releases)
  • -TV spots
  • -Radio spots
  • -a Poster & Stills gallery (seeing the image of a make-up woman leaning over Keaton in the easy chair may be the best reminder of "it's just a movie" this film will ever have)
  • -English SDH and Spanish Subtitles
  • -"The Revenge of Jennifer Hills: Remaking A Cult Icon," a making-of featurette that oddly would only play shrunk down in the upper-left ninth of the screen
  • -11 Minutes of Deleted Scenes
  • -Trailers (for this and other upcoming releases)
  • -A Radio Spot

What does one say about fascinating, somewhat technically accomplished films that appeal to the basest of urges? They don't take you to a good place, but they have a value beyond their letter grade.
  • The original seventies sleazefest, I Spit On Your Grave is a miserable movie with almost no redeeming qualities. It's also incredibly effective and features an arresting central performance from Camille Keaton as the woman who turns "she was asking for it" around on her assailants without remorse. There's no enjoyment to be had here, and film would be impossible to watch without her. It remains a fascinating curio of exploitation filmmaking and an almost primal fable of revenge.
  • The remake of I Spit On Your Grave is a torture-porn update of a grindhouse classic. Similar in look and feel to the recent Last House On The Left. The torture is more demeaning and her revenge is more satisfying- vicarious wish-fulfillment for all of us -but this is less primal in it's originality than another grisly, OVERLY sadistic torture-porn addition to Anchor Bay's release schedule.
Movie: C
Video: A
Audio: A
Extra Features: A-

Movie: C
Video: A
Audio: A
Extra Features: A-

Friday, February 11, 2011

One A Week Reviews #6 Mother and Child

This week's movie, reviewed for, wants to be a classic drama but falls just a tad short of the mark...

Official Synopsis:
From writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (TV's “Big Love,” Nine Lives) and executive producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel) comes the moving story of three women and the power of the unbreakable bond between mother and child. Three women's lives share a common core: they have all been profoundly affected by adoption. Karen (Annette Bening) placed a baby for adoption at age 14 and has been haunted ever since by the daughter she never knew. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) grew up as an adopted child; she's a bright and ambitious lawyer, but a flinty loner in her personal life. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband are just embarking on the adoption odyssey, hoping for the opportunity to become parents.
Our Take:
Mother and Child is composed of moments in the lives of three vaguely connected women and the relationships in those lives. All three are strong, though two hold people at arms length, bitter and angry, and one will go through anything to convince herself things are going to work out.
The center figure is Karen, who gave up a baby as a teenager. Caring for her aging mother and with no friendships, she's bitter and lonely. Her only outlet is the diary she keeps, written to the child she gave up. Elizabeth, the child she's never known, is a driven lawyer who keeps everyone at a distance. She's a manipulative, angry jerk, playing with the emotions of both her boss and neighbor. Watts and Bening almost play “nature versus nurture,” both are so aggressively brittle. (Between this and The Kids Are All Right, Bening is currently producing some amazing work.) Elizabeth is so shaped by her isolation she can't even be in a room with a laughing family.
Meanwhile, Lucy has a husband she's connected to and they are looking to adopt. She's even willing to be put through the hoops by Ray, the world's champion meanie birth mother. Her journey is to discover her strength in the face of adversity.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Jackson, for once, is playing something other than a belligerent badass, and one can forget he's capable of such subtle work. Amy Brenneman, David Morse, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Elizabeth Pena show up in small roles. Cherry Jones glows as a nun involved with adoptions and Jimmy Smits gives warmth to a small part as the man who comes into Karen's life.
Sadly, this gorgeous, measured movie, composed of moments as it skips back and forth between it's story lines, stays distant and cool for a good portion of it's run. Even as the two central glaciers crack and let love in, they've created such a chill it's hard to bridge the distance between them and the audience. The warm, strong heart of the film is really Washington, though her character gets as battered by experiences as the others. By the final act of the film, you'll find yourself engaged and moved despite the off-putting start to the film. Mother and Child is an excellent,moving drama, what they used to call a “womens' picture,” but it's honest about the pains and rewards of family and worth experiencing.
Audio and Video:
This DVD looks terrific, practically 3D at times the image is so vivid, crisp and clear. The color and depth of the cinematography are especially well served here. The audio was also clean and subtle. Menus however, are a little choppy, tedious but easily navigated.
Special Features:
Mother and Child is presented in 1080p High Definition, widescreen, and in English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. English and English SDH subtitles are available. Special features include 2 documentaries, the production diary “Creating the Family Tree,” and “Mother and Child,” about the universal experience of motherhood. There are also three deleted scenes and a set of previews.
In Mother and Child there are several women, all mothers and children creating family relationships through sheer willpower and patient journies. This is a beautiful, mannered drama about familial relationships with a very chilly start, but in the end, quite touching.
Overall Picture:
Movie: B +
Audio: A
Video: A
Extras: B

Monday, February 7, 2011

One A Week Reviews #5: The Client List

Here's a fun one I got to review for, and I swore up and down I was being a discerning viewer of this trashy TV movie instead of just embracing the fact that I love trashy TV movies. 
Official Synopsis: 
Jennifer Love Hewitt starts in her sexiest role ever as Samantha Horton, a former Texas homecoming queen who always relied on her beauty and charm to navigate life, something her beautician mother Cassie (Golden Globe award winner Cybill Shepherd) taught her. But when the Horton family finds itself facing financial ruin, Samantha must take a job at a local massage parlor, only to discover it's a front for a high-end call girl operation – one so lucrative, she can't afford to turn it don. And when the parlor is raided, Samantha must either cooperate with police and give up her clients' identities, or lose everything she tried so hard to save.
Our Take:
Jennifer Love Hewitt won a Golden Globe award for this Television movie who's catnip tagline is “Inspired by a True Story.” Was ever a phrase more open to wide and loose interpretation?
Here she's Sam Horton, a housewife and mother of three possessed with an eidetic memory and a great rack. Her new job, complete with a TV ready cast of coworkers, turns out to be at a brothel, and she doesn't exactly sell the moral conflict as she limply wrestles with the decision to wrestle with her work.

“Doing what she has to do” in order to keep her family in big hair and smoky eye-makeup, she goes from tequila-swigging neophyte to the “belle of the ball.”

The movie dives right into random wisecracks in the best big-haired spirit of “Texas,” as in the impression others have of its mindset more than the state itself. Weirdly choppy with odd editing choices and tight close-ups, it skips from amusing to concern to moralizing. The concern is “there aren't enough hours in the day to service your clients and cook for the kids' bake sale.”

The tone of this film is just downright weird. Refreshingly, The Client List is also rather positive about sex workers. There's far more judgment of Sam's eventual cocaine use than her hooking. The turning point involves bad parenting more than the eventual bust, and then blows through it's legal-themed TV movie second half. Being a TV movie, there's lots of scenery chewing and moments where Hewitt can weep beautifully through her fake lashes. You imagine each time she blinks it must sound like the blades of a wind farm fan. Can she throw all the Johns on the bonfire to keep herself from prison? More importantly, will she get her kids back? Have you ever seen a TV movie?

This film is all Hewitt. She gets to play comedy and has moments of “Real Acting.” When the husband takes the kids to his mom, between her and the hand-held camera you'd think he was taking them to Treblinka. With her elongated lips, giraffe neck, and exaggerated eyes she's the always-in-motion center of the film. Even when alone she talks to herself, but also can defend herself eloquently against a horde of seemingly angry wives. Sadly, what she doesn't get with this role is many opportunities to flash that mega-watt smile that got America to fall in love with her back in her Party of Five days. Second-billed Cybill Shepherd, as her mother, doesn't have much to do but seems to be enjoying herself as a Texan matriarch.

All in all, The Client List is a somewhat sensationalistic “hooker with a heart of gold” story that charms more than it could ever offend. With the appealing leading lady and breezy tone, if it's sounded interesting to you so far, then it's worth a spin.
Special Features:
The Client List is presented in widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. English and English SDH subtitle options are available. The only extras are a few trailers.
Jennifer Love Hewitt somehow remains America's wholesome sweetheart in this weirdly sitcom-friendly TV movie about a hooking housewife forced into court to defend herself and her choices from the judgments of others. The Client List is part The Happy Hooker, part legal drama and all campy, breezy TV movie. A surprisingly good time, if not memorable, anchored by the appealing leading lady at the center.
Overall Picture:
Movie: C+
Extras: D