Archive for January, 2013

I had so much fun keeping a film diary last year, that I decided to do it again in 2013.

This time around, I’ve divided my viewings into three categories:

a) Theatrical Viewings (any film, new or retro, seen in a movie theater / film festival / public screening / etc.)

b) Home Viewings (any film viewed at home on DVD / VHS / Web)

c) Television (I watch a lot of TV series on DVD and felt it was high time to start documenting it)

I also decided to abandon the whole “star rating” system since I plan on actually writing reviews of all the films I see this year, or at least the ones I’ve seen in theaters. Speaking of which, this film diary will also act as a review index where you can click on certain titles to read the review I’ve written of that particular picture.

So without any further dudes, here is a list of what I watched in January 2013.

Theatrical Viewings:

  1. ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) – directed by Kathryn Bigelow
  2. TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (2013) – directed by John Luessenhop
  3. MAMA (2013) – directed by Andrés Muschietti
  4. THE LAST STAND (2013) – directed by Kim Jee-Woon
  5. COOL AS ICE (1991) – directed by David Kellogg
  6. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) – directed by Billy Wilder (35mm)

Home Viewings:

  1. BLADE (1998) – directed by Stephen Norrington
  2. A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) – directed by Richard Lester
  3. HELP! (1965) – directed by Richard Lester
  4. MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) – directed by Bernard Knowles and The Beatles
  5. ZOMBI 3 (1988) – directed by Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei
  6. AFTER DEATH (1989) – directed by Claudio Fragasso
  7. ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980) – directed by Marino Girolami

Television:

  1. TRUE BLOOD, 2×01-2×12, 3×01-3×12, 4×01-4×12
  2. THE FLINTSTONES, 1×25-1×28, 2×01-2×32, 3×01-3×12
  3. THE YOUNG ONES, 1×01-1×06, 2×01-2×06
  4. FILTHY RICH & CATFLAP, 1×01

Quentin Tarantino

Like many filmmakers of my generation, Quentin Tarantino was a huge inspiration and the impetus for many of us to get off our butts and make films of our own. I recall my very first two films (made in college and thus not officially part of my filmography) being very much in the Tarantino mold of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, if not heavily derivative of them. He was, and remains one of my favorite filmmakers and a true visionary in the world of genre cinema.

So you can imagine my disappointment upon seeing his latest, DJANGO UNCHAINED.

I seem to be in the minority here but I found his take on the Spaghetti Western to be rather uninspiring. The titular character was horribly miscast, underwritten and overshadowed by Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz who seemed to be recycling leftover bits from his far superior performance as Col. Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. The overall tone of the film seemed far too cartoonish, even by the standards set by his post-KILL BILL filmography, to the point where even though this film wasn’t conceived as being a serious commentary on the horrors of slavery a la Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD, the subject matter felt as frivolous and pulpy as the cardboard caricatures this fine cast was forced to play.

Now in its defense, DJANGO UNCHAINED had the unfortunate role of being the film that followed what many consider to be Tarantino’s masterpiece, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Now there was a film that managed to combine the “new Tarantino,” which is to say his flamboyant, comic book approach to genre filmmaking (KILL BILL Vols. 1 and 2 and DEATH PROOF) with the “old Tarantino,” that being making genre films with soul (RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION and especially JACKIE BROWN). If there was ever a film to go out on (or take an extended hiatus from filmmaking), it would be that one.

But Tarantino seems to be on a roll, producing one film after another and as such, we’re forced to examine the issue of whether he’s still maintaining the standards of quality set forth by his earlier work, or has he peaked with BASTERDS and simply phoning it in now.

I would make the argument that Tarantino peaked a long time ago with what I feel to be his true masterpiece, JACKIE BROWN.

Now I’m not a black woman in her mid-40s by any stretch of the imagination, but even I was able to relate to the plight of Pam Grier’s character in that there have been moments in my life when I had hit rock bottom and was so desperate to get out of my situation that I was willing to consider measures that I’d hitherto cast moral judgment upon. In many respects, situations like these formed my core philosophy to this day that it’s easy to have morals and values when you don’t stand to have them challenged. But I digress.

JACKIE BROWN was the epitome of a brand of genre filmmaking that Tarantino became identified with where you could have the best of both worlds. On one hand you have all the conventions and beats that come with the sensationalist nature of exploitation films with the emotional depth and three-dimensional characterizations that come with the most deeply profound and moving of art films.

There are many people who criticize Tarantino for ripping off characters and plot points from classic and especially obscure genre films, but with all due respect to the makers of those films, their works, however inspiring they may be, are mere shadows of Tarantino’s material. With his initial crime trilogy of DOGS, FICTION and JACKIE BROWN, Tarantino was making the kinds of films that the aforementioned directors wish they could have made had they had access to the budgets, actors and Mark Twainian sensibility of Quentin Tarantino’s scripts. He gave a sense of credibility to genre that had been severely lacking in mainstream cinema and perhaps his acceptance into the hearts of critics who would have otherwise scorned such material has resulted in a sense of animosity and resentment by filmmakers and fans of exploitation cinema.

Tarantino then took an extended hiatus from filmmaking and returned in 2003 with KILL BILL Vol. 1.

While entertaining as hell, one couldn’t help but notice a radical departure from the tone of his earlier works and a more conspicuous embrace of the “genre” aspect of his filmmaking. Uma Thurman’s character was basically a one-dimensional comic book heroine, who despite efforts by the script to add “depth” and “weight” to what she was doing, essentially became Lady Snowblood Version 2.0, whose main novelty was that she was being played by a Hollywood star who decided to go “slumming.”

KILL BILL Vol. 2 was definitely the more “JACKIE BROWN” of the two parts in that an attempt to humanize Bill and the Bride with the introduction of their child was brought to the forefront of the narrative. But unfortunately, due to the over-the-top theatrics of the first part of the film, this change in pace and direction seemed to come out of left field and in many respects alienated a lot of the audience, myself included.

And then we have DEATH PROOF and the whole GRINDHOUSE experience which was clearly a chucking of the “old Tarantino” and a hailing in of the new one. It also served as the foundation of the creative vacuum that Tarantino finds himself in today where he seems to continually be repeating a lot of the same motifs and not really advancing as a filmmaker. What was the big shootout scene in DJANGO UNCHAINED if not a retread of the House of Blue Leaves sequence in KILL BILL Vol.1? What was the ironic use of 2Pac in a key sequence in DJANGO UNCHAINED if not an echoing of a similar use of music in RESERVOIR DOGS? And what’s the tired concept that unites the main characters of KILL BILL, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED? You got it, revenge!

Tarantino may be on to something when he suggests that the older a director gets, the more out of touch he/she becomes and the more likely they are to repeat themselves and essentially make increasingly watered down versions of the films that first brought them to prominence. While I believe that Tarantino is truly and utterly incapable of making a bad film (DJANGO UNCHAINED may be uninspiring and definitely his “worst” film, it was at the very least entertaining, particularly once the action arrives at Calvin Candie’s plantation), his ability to create fully fleshed out characters we can empathize with and to raise genre cinema to a level where it can sit side-by-side with the snootiest of art films has certainly diminished.

Tarantino seems content nowadays to make live-action cartoons that are episodic rather than cohesive narratives and borderline parodies of the genres he professes to love so much. Even worse is the fact that they rake in lots of dough which only convinces him to keep the machine going.

I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps another six-year hiatus from filmmaking would do the auteur good and force him to go out and life live and bring some of his real world experience to his next opus.

Unfortunately, if you believe the hype, his next project will either be KILL BILL Vol. 3 or surprise, surprise, another revenge story set during W.W. II called KILLER CROW. By that same token, he’s also expressed interest in doing something smaller in the vein of JACKIE BROWN.

Hmm, perhaps there may be some light at the end of this tunnel after all.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) - directed by Billy Wilder

I recently had the opportunity to watch Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY on a brand spanking new 35mm print at the Cinematheque Quebecoise here in Montreal and what a treat it was!

Wilder’s film noir masterpiece was one of the earlier examples of this revolutionary film genre and as a result, the iconic cinematography that these films would later become renowned for is still very much a work in progress here, though the high contrast lighting and dark shadows are definitely present.

But I was struck by a couple of things while watching this film.

More than anything else, DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s major triumph is in its writing. Dear God, what an incredibly snappy screenplay. While some of the antiquated gender politics illicit a couple of cringe-worthy groans through certain bits of dialogue, the overall back-and-forth witty banter between the characters is truly a symphony of words that made me fall in love with the English language all over again.

However, what really drew my attention was the performance of Barbara Stanwyck. Not only was she able to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Fred MacMurray but she also exhibited a sexuality that puts all the so-called “sex symbols” of today to shame.

Watching her in this film, I was reminded of an episode of THE SIMPSONS where Mr. Burns is lamenting about the trollops who parade on-screen with all their clothes off and how back in his day, all the likes of Lauren Bacall had to do to get a sexual thrill out of him was to raise an eyebrow.

I couldn’t agree more.

Barbara Stanwyck crossing one magnificently sculpted leg over the other and giving Walter Neff (and the audience) a tantalizing glimpse of her exquisite anklet and equally enticing ankle was more than enough to inspire my “Maltese Falcon” to give a “military salute.”

COOL AS ICE (1991) - directed by David Kellogg

It almost feels pointless to review a film like COOL AS ICE. Films designed to be glossy promo videos for music stars are virtually critic-proof in that nothing a reviewer can say could possibly dissuade audiences from going out to see it. Especially since the audience is most likely going to be fans of said star. All I can really do is offer a few thoughts on the flash-in-the-pan, ’90s sensation that was Vanilla Ice.

Or is he a flash-in-the-pan sensation?

Bring up the name Vanilla Ice and even people who didn’t grow up in the ’90s will most likely have heard of him and not  necessarily because of his TO THE EXTREME album or his infamous cameo in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (1991). Believe it or not, he’s still going strong today and continues to release music be it NuMetal covers of old classics or his equally bizarre collaborations with the Insane Clown Posse.

I have to admit that I own a copy TO THE EXTREME and even have aspirations of adapting it into a musical play. I even went to see him in concert here in Montreal back in the day. He’s a really fascinating case study in that had he come into his own in today’s music scene, he probably wouldn’t have been the butt of the severe derision he received back in his time.

Nowadays, white rappers are a dime a dozen and depending on whom you ask, often considered to be some of the better, if not, best rappers going today. Say what you will about the Insane Clown Posse, but I’d soon as rather listen to an entire album of them rapping about “cutting my back off for a small fee” than anything the “Jigga Man” has to spout.

Hip-Hop, or rather, mainstream hip-hop is basically pop music now and the criticism Vanilla Ice received back in the day for “watering down” rap and making it accessible to audiences who would never dream of listening to the stuff, would be unfounded and downright hypocritical due to the fact that that’s what all rappers seem to be doing nowadays. I’m sorry, but Snoop Dogg lost all credibility as a “gangsta” the minute he appeared in a Katy Perry video.

An argument could certainly be made that Vanilla Ice may very well have been ahead of his time in ushering in a new era of rap/pop consolidation and laid the foundation for the ICPs, Kid Rocks and Eminems to break into the business and forge their own legacies.

As far as where COOL AS ICE fits into things, it’s an amusing time capsule showcasing the leader of the V.I.P. posse in his prime, playing the James Dean role in this rap remake of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

It’s also an extremely surreal experience featuring a plethora of ridiculous montages, weird fast-forward and slow-motion sequences, scenes of white people attempting to dance (and failing) designed to make Vanilla Ice look cooler by comparison and cinematography by none other than Janusz Kaminski(!), the Director of Photography on SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

The film’s loud and obnoxious aesthetic can probably be attributed to the fact that its director, David Kellogg, is primarily known for shooting behind-the-scenes videos for Playboy photo shoots as well as his work in music videos (he directed the JAM video for Michael Jackson and the LOVE OH LOVE one for Lionel Richie). The only other film to his credit was the live-action adaptation of INSPECTOR GADGET (1999).

In addition to being cult movie material, COOL AS ICE also offers an interesting look at American pop culture in the midst of a radical transformation. Politically, the country was in that “no man’s land” between the Regan years of the ’80s and the Clinton era of the ’90s and throughout the film you see that conflict between holding on the egregious excesses of the former and the budding nihilistic teen angst of the latter very clearly.

It’s actually a very fascinating bit of subtext whose subtlety and nuances are unfortunately overshadowed by the loudness of Vanilla Ice’s orange tang leather jacket.

 

THE LAST STAND (2013) - directed by Kim Jee-Woon

It’s a common misconception that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bad actor. His charisma is unparalleled. His enthusiasm is contagious. And his screen presence is electrifying. He also has an uncanny ability to be perfectly cast in virtually every motion picture he’s ever starred in giving him one of the most consistent track records in Hollywood history. If there’s ever been a lull in his career, it’s certainly not for lack of gusto on his part but rather for the poor picture itself. 

Suffice it to say, I’m a big fan. And while I admit that my nostalgic fondness for the man may have influenced my reception to his return to the big screen in a leading role, I can guarantee you that even non-fans will have to concede that THE LAST STAND is one hell of a movie.

Once again, Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as a sheriff who’s showing his age and has seen a lifetime of carnage and pain. It’s a very apropos role for him to embody given the parallels between Sheriff Owens and his own real life vis a vis his career in action films and Governor of California.

It’s also the perfect vehicle to promote his return to film in as it pays homage to his legendary status as an action icon while painting a picture of the likely future of Schwarzenegger’s career – the aging father figure superhero who can still kick some ass, albeit on a smaller and more realistic scale.

The motley crew of cops under his command are a fun bunch of characters that we get to know and care about. And contrary to his billing and presence on the movie poster, Johnny Knoxville is thankfully used very sparingly in the film and as a result, his appearances are not nearly as unbearable as I thought they’d be.

I suppose my main critique of the film is that it lacks a truly over-the-top, ’80s-style villain. Gabriel Cortez is a promising enough character but we never get to spend a lot of time with him and as a result we have to learn through quick conversation among the FBI chasing him that he’s the notorious leader of some drug cartel or other. We do get some hands running through greasy, slicked back hair action courtesy of Burrell, one of Cortez’s main henchmen, which was a nice touch.

One of the main reasons why we don’t get fully developed villains is that perhaps we spend a little too much time with Schwarzenegger and company, which leads to my next point.

With all this talk about Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen, there’s another, equally important story that’s being neglected by the coverage the film’s been receiving and that’s the U.S. English-language filmmaking debut of South Korean sensation, Kim Jee-Woon.

The director behind I SAW THE DEVIL (2010), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD (2008) and my own personal favorite, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003) does an absolutely phenomenal job here imbuing THE LAST STAND with his quirky, Coen Bros.-esque (complete with Harry Dean Stanton cameo) humor as well as showing his flare for staging several tense, edge-of-your-seat action set-pieces, namely the tremendous cornfield car chase scene as well as the climactic showdown on the bridge between Owens and Cortez.

With THE LAST STAND, Kim Jee-Woon proved he can still make the kind of film he’s known and loved for while working within the Hollywood system. And given the track record of foreign filmmakers making the leap from being a worshiped auteur in their homeland to being a nameless face with something to prove in America, that’s perhaps his biggest accomplishment of all.

 

MAMA (2013) - directed by Andrés Muschietti

The last half hour of Andrés Muschietti’s MAMA (2013) contains some of the most frightening imagery I’ve ever seen in a horror film. The sound design is superb, the cinematography is stunning, the performances are riveting and the character design of the titular “Mama” hearkens back to the childhood scarring character of Zelda from PET SEMATARY (1989).

Too bad the first 70 minutes of the picture are some of the dumbest ever recorded on film.

Plot holes, lapses in logic and paper-thin characterizations are certainly no strangers to cinema, especially in our beloved genre of horror, but director Andrés Muschietti (or Andy as he’s credited in the film) manages to redefine stupidity in this film.

How about the jaw-dropping opening plot point where we learn that it took professional trackers 5(!) years to discover the car of a prominent businessman that fell over the side of a cliff? Or the sequence where Annabel tells the two girls to go bed because it’s “very late” yet we can plainly see daylight emanating through the windows? And what about the character of Annabel herself who has to be one of the most callous, self-absorbed women I’ve ever seen in a movie. She has a husband who’s in a coma and rather than spend any chance she gets by his side offering love and moral support, she spends her time regretting leaving her frivolous little life and equally inconsequential indie rock band behind. And this is the heroine we’re supposed to be rooting for.

Stupidity aside, MAMA is also ripe with the clichés that come with ghost stories produced in a post “J-Horror” world. Women with long black hair concealing their faces, spider-walking and the tormented spirit doomed to wander between the realm of the living and the dead until our protagonist can dig up the remains of the specter’s dead loved one and promptly return them to their rightful owner are all present in this film and are just as groan-inducing as they are in the hordes of RINGU clones that continue to be produced year after year.

At the end of the day, I only have myself to blame for subjecting my psyche to this trash. After all, I should have learned my lesson from MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) that a film “presented by” an established master of cinema is merely a marketing ploy used to deceive audiences into thinking they’re going to see a film that echoes the style and substance of said master.

On the plus side, from a physical standpoint, the character of Annabel looks a lot like my wife which got me thinking, “Damn, I’m banging Jessica Chastain!”

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (2013) - directed by John Luessenhop

The TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE has had such a checkered history that the prospect of yet another entry in the franchise is a frightening one indeed. Particularly another reboot, which if you’re counting, marks the third in the series, with LEATHERFACE: TCM 3 (1990) and the glorified Parasuco Jeans commercial produced by Michael Bay, being the other two.

However, John Luessenhop’s TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D is an anomaly in the current trend of horror movie remakes in that it actually gets things right.

Unlike any of the sequels and remakes that predate it, including, dare I say, Tobe Hooper’s own 1986 sequel, this film actually feels like a spiritual follow-up to the original that manages, in part, to capture the visual and visceral feel of the 1974 classic. The cinematography captures daytime Texas in a similarly bright and colorful fashion while managing to create a pretty suspenseful series of nighttime set-pieces featuring Leatherface terrifying a new generation of promiscuous young-ins.

The film also decides to pull a HALLOWEEN: H20 (1998) by completely (and wisely) disregarding the entire TCM mythology and having it take place directly after the events of the original film. By doing so, the film is given tremendous liberty in being able to experiment with the Leatherface character and giving him an added dimension of humanity that is both thrilling and oddly touching.

This will (and has) certainly angered some fans. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about genre fans it’s that they don’t know what they want. They often complain about seeing the same thing all the time but when a filmmaker comes around and tries to offer a new spin on a timeless concept, they chew him/her out and demand said concept to be presented the way it’s always been.

Director Luessenhop does a good job of balancing the two by taking the TCM series in a bold new direction with the character while still paying loving homage to the landmark classic by providing the horror beats that fans come to expect in these types of films.

Of course, the film is not without its flaws.

While TC3D is an awful lot of fun, it’s awfully dumb too. An argument could be made that horror films in general are pretty dumb and require a suspension of disbelief that’s downright astronomical. But in TC3D, this argument is taken to the next level with perhaps the cardinal sin being a sequence in which our heroine, Heather and her friends pick up a random hitchhiker and decide to leave him in charge of guarding the mansion she just inherited that contains an abundance in wealth while they go off to pick up some groceries. Needless to say, he robs them but in a bit of poetic justice, gets more than he bargained for.

Then there’s the issue of when exactly this film takes place. While the opening sequence takes place in 1974, the majority of the story takes place in an undisclosed time period that judging from the age of the main character, would seem to indicate the late ’90s. If that’s the case, then one of the major set-pieces involving Facetime is outright laughable as I don’t seem to recall owning an iPhone(!) during my later years in high school. However, if the film is meant to take place in 2012, then Heather ought to share her lack of aging secret as for a 40-year old woman, she looks 20.

And finally, while the idea of making Leatherface a more down-to-Earth character and almost justifying his murderous ways by claiming he’s mentally handicapped may have been noble, it does bear questioning how this gets the rest of the Sawyer clan off the hook as the acts they perpetrated in the original film were equally, if not more evil given they were fully aware of what they were doing and loving every minute of it.

On another note, as far as the use of 3D goes, after watching Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012) in HFR 3D (48fps), I’ve been spoiled rotten by what a real 3D film ought to look like so truth be told, any film not shot in that format is going to look like crap as far as I’m concerned. But then again, I didn’t go into TC3D with the idea I was going to watch a James Cameron-esque revolutionary take on the technology.

So all in all, John Luessenhop’s TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D may not necessarily go down in history as being one of the better horror films of all-time but it ought to go down as being one of the more worthy ones as it takes some admirable chances with the material and certainly paves the way for a new slew of sequels based on the latest Leatherface space/time continuum.