Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dawn Of The Mummy (1981)

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It would be foolish to suggest that a commentator of any sort isn't influenced by his or her recent experiences. I could never pretend to be completely unbiased, and with every review I do comes a lifetime of experience that is very specific to me. To that end, the films I watch have to be held to slightly different standards depending on their purpose for existing. I watched Frank Agrama's Dawn Of The Mummy with different eyes than I watched, say, I Dream Of Dracula or certainly a recent summer blockbuster like Terminator: Salvation or Star Trek, and this is out of necessity. The sort of person that would watch a film called Dawn Of The Mummy has likely already adjusted their expectations appropriately, and it's only fair that I do the same.

And Dawn Of The Mummy is an interesting animal. Obviously influenced by the Italian Dawn Of The Dead rips like Zombie and Night Of The Zombies, as well as Romero's originals, Agrama uses all of the traditional traits of mummy films; the Mummy's curse, Grave robbers, and the shambling, shuffling title creature; and combines them with the traits of late 70s/80s zombie films; cannibalism, a remote location, and buckets of gore; and transposes the whole mess to Egypt. The location filming is actually quite impressive, and there's a certain majesty to knowing that the pyramids in the background are legitimate, giving the whole production a bit of a unique look and feel.

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It's a shame then that the whole thing is a tired, slow-moving mess. The characters are almost wholly unsympathetic, and often totally unlikeable, and seem to exist solely to be fodder for the Mummy and his zombie buddies. The mummy itself, seemingly influenced by the look of the Mummy in the classic Hammer films, is tall and imposing but does almost nothing of note besides strangling an old woman and (uncharacteristically) slicing and dicing one of the characters with a cleaver. Oddly, the reanimated corpses which arise with the mummy are much more threatening, as they run after people and take bites out of them when not eating their guts outright.

But i'm getting ahead of myself. Dawn Of The Mummy begins with the mummification and burial of the title creature, taking place some 3000 years ago. The name of the mummified man is apparently Sephriman (or some variation thereof), and he's entombed with six of his pals, just in case he's ever disturbed. Not a bad deal. And guess what? 3000 years later that's exactly what happens when some treasure hunters blow up the entrance to his crypt in search of gold. The most notable of these three gentleman is Rick (Barry Sattels), who is blond, wears an ascot, and mugs for the camera every chance he gets. He's excitable, and at least seems to be aware that he's in a ridiculous mummy movie. They start to search for riches (GOLD!), when they are rudely interrupted by models.

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Yes, a group of models from New York City have arrived in Egypt for a photo-shoot, and after a brief misunderstanding involving gunfire they decide that the stinky, filthy tomb would be the best possible place to be photographed. Rick and his buddies raise a fuss, but eventually decide to let them prance around for a few days if it means it will eventually get them out of their hair. Now, there are three female models, one male model, a male photographer and a female assistant. I dare you to keep the names of each character straight. Luckily that's hardly necessary as the lights from the photo-shoot start making Sephriman mighty cranky, and he's soon up and around and looking to party with his zombie goons.

Then some things happen. Characters smoke pot, or have sex, or go swimming. Occasionally someone sticks their hand in some internal organs, or finds a severed head or a body. I promise you that it's all uninteresting, and you could probably skip to the last half hour without missing anything crucial. But that last half hour is a lot of fun, as the Mummy gang crash a wedding and start chowing down on innocent villagers in between killing and eating a bunch of vapid, useless models. Eventually the "good guys" blow him and his reanimated co-horts sky high with a bunch of gasoline, but a final shot shows that he'll be back. But he never was. The end.

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As mentioned, the decision to shoot in Egypt with an eyptian crew works in the film's favor, as they get a lot of production value out of a comparatively low ($500,000) budget. While one could easily mistake the film for an Italian production, Agrama actually is Egyptian and studied film at UCLA after leaving a career as a surgeon. He was an experienced director by the time this film was made, and unlike a lot of Italian productions, the cast actually appear to not be dubbed. The mix of location shooting and sets work quite well, and the props and hieroglyphics that litter the inside of the crypt are fairly impressive.

But it's so painfully slow. Things don't even get going until about forty minutes in, and by then most horror fans would have tuned out. The film is aided greatly by a terrific synth score from Shuki Levy (who did the music for a ton of notable 80s cartoons), but Agrama fails to turn the atmospheric tombs and creepy score into anything resembling suspense. Seeing irritating models get eviserated has its own charm, but the actual mummy is such a dull creature that even these meagre pleasures are greatly diminished. By the time things finally get going with the attack on the wedding at the end, exposed entrails and zombie attacks are not enough to save the proceedings.

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Some praise should be given to the special effects and zombie/mummy make-up in the film. While not looking as delightfully rotten as the zombies in Fulci's films, the corpses look appropriately decayed, while Sephriman looks terrific despite spending most of his time staring confusedly at nothing in particular. The gore is plentiful, and is usually realized quite effectively, aside from the brief cleaver to the head scene, which is really the fault of some rough editing. There are even some fun pyrotechnics, including an impressive explosion at the end. With this crew, the potential was obviously there for so much more than ended up in the film.

The DVD from Madacy Records features a rough looking full-screen print of the film, which was originally filmed in 1.85:1. Scenes taking place at night tend to be difficult to watch, particularly in some later scenes in the film featuring some day-for-night shooting, but it's never too murky.

Despite the low-budget DVD release, there are a couple of features. The best is a talky, interesting commentary, presented as a Q&A between actor Del Howison (The Erotic Rites Of Countess Dracula) and the director Frank Agrama. Agrama is a fascinating individual who has led quite an interesting life, so his anecdotes are certainly checking out. Filming in Egypt has some unique challenges, particularly in terms of sexual content, and Agrama explains why the film is heavier on gore than sexuality. Agrama later went on to bring Robotech to television, so i'm certainly willing to forgive him for making Dawn Of The Mummy.

We also (oddly) get a trailer for Road Ends, featuring Dennis Hopper and Chris Sarandon, but no trailer for Dawn Of The Mummy. I'm also disappointed that the DVD art is different from the terrific VHS box-art that I remember from when I was a kid. The hastily photo-shopped replacement is hardly an improvement.

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While actually showing a lot early promise, Dawn Of The Mummy fails to pay off the potential of a modern Mummy movie renaissance and instead shuffles along to a routine demise. It looks fine, and there are smatterings of goo for the gorehounds, but discriminating viewers won't be swayed by the brain-dead cast and mundane script. Perhaps as close to a zombie film as any mummy movie can get, and the commentary is fun if you can get it on the cheap, but otherwise i'd recommend avoiding.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The FALLOUT 3 Reviews: Logan's Run (1976)



In 1967, William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnston penned a novel that had the potential to be one of the most scathing critiques of humanity ever written. Sadly, it was a work that didn't really aspire to lofty heights and settled for something slightly above mediocrity.

It portrayed a world where human self-indulgence had literally made the earth uninhabitable and it drew a picture where 60's Counterculture and the Sexual Revolution had gone into overdrive and suddenly became the thing they despised the most: the establishment.

The 60's hippie mantra of "don't trust anyone over 30" became a law enforced with an iron hand and unyielding lethality.

Welcome to the world of Logan's Run.



The late 1960's to mid 1970's saw yet another boom in the lucrative Sci-Fi film market. 20 Century Fox scored big in 1968 with Planet of the Apes and rumors were that they were working on yet another large sci-fi project (which turned out to be Star Wars).

MGM decided that they needed a franchise of their own to compete at the box office so they tapped Michael Anderson to direct an abridged version of Logan's Run. The pressure was on since the summer of the previous year saw the box office titan, JAWS, hit the big screens and all of a sudden, the timeframe between the middle of May and the end of August became the focal point of a movie studio's major releases.

The Summer Blockbuster was born.

While very successful (earning an Oscar for visual effects, a Saturn for Best Film, and earned $50 million on a $9 million budget), Logan's Run was doomed to be eclipsed by the sci-fi films that followed, primarily Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Alien (1979).

As far as the plot goes, the film never really delves all that deeply into the more satirical parts of the Logan novels and wisely sticks to telling the basic story within a fairly resonable runtime.

In this dystopia, overpopulation and war have all but destroyed the human race. Mankind now lives in domed cities where their every need (from food to plastic surgery to human companionship via "The Circuit") is provided for by the computer that runs all housekeeping and life-support functions.

Population control is given a rather ritualistic twist. In the future all births are achieved through cloning. Sexual contact is purely recreational (and encouraged) but pregnancy is outlawed.

Each clone is fitted with a gem embedded in the palm of their left hand known as a lifeclock. At the age of 30, the lifeclock turns black and the citizen must go to Carousel where they are subsequently put to death.

There is a strong belief in this new society that despite the obvious genocide taking place, some souls will actually be reused for future clones and thus everyone has a shot at immortality.

Dystopia being what it is, we outside observers know that the promise of renewal is pure bunk and so does the computer that runs everything. Therefore, the computer correctly hypothesizes that it will require some sort of security detachment to help enforce its will. That's where the Sandmen come in, and where Logan 5 (Michael York) enters the picture.

Those who try to escape their fate on Carousel are dubbed "runners," and it is a Sandman's job to terminate all runners.



Through the course of events of the film, the computer realizes that there is a small percentage of the population that remains unaccoutned for and assumes that despite its best efforts, citizens who decide to run are somehow managing to escape the confines of the domed city.

In a ruthlessly efficient response, the computer tasks Logan 5 with a secret mission. It alters Logan 5's lifeclock to make it appear as if Logan 5 is approaching his 30th birthday and then sends him out to make contact with any runner he can, so that he may follow the runner to Sanctuary (the mythical place where escaped runners have formed their own society) and destroy it.



To this end, Logan 5 enlists the aid of Jessica (Jenny Agutter), a girl that Logan 5 meets through "The Circuit" and correctly suspects has some intention to "run."

To this day, I always include the wonderful folks at the MGM wardrobe department in my bedtime prayers for putting the stunning Miss Agutter in the killer, green piece of nothing you see her draped in below.



Ahem... Anyway...

The following events see Logan and Jessica come to grips with startling realizations (primarily in the terrifying form of the insane robot, Box (Roscoe Lee Brown), and an amusing cameo from Peter Ustinov), catharsis, love, and finally in Logan's case, redemption.

You'll note that no one refers to the termination of runners or the renewal of those on Carousel as "death," and it is this philosophy along with the disturbingly utopian City of Domes that adds to the neo Genesis feel of the film with Logan and Jessica serving as our sci-fi version of Adam and Eve.

When the cost of paradise is paid with lives and individuality, then the only logical conclusion is to flee. Escaping from an Eden where nothing is as it appears to be is a very common theme in sci-fi and Logan's Run manages to put everything in a fairly entertaining package.



Watching Logan's Run in the present day has been bittersweet. The performances from the cast are acceptable enough to push the story along, but it really is a film that prefers style over substance. The story tends to drag during the parts where sleepguns aren't flashing or when Jenny Agutter isn't naked and the plot has holes large enough to drive a truck through.

I honestly think that this could've been one of those movies that might've been better than the book if it it had tried to more clearly address the society issues that the novel (and the novels that followed) only paid lip service to.

The caveat being that despite the rather average storytelling heights the novels aspired to, the basic concepts contributing to the premise were rather brave. The death age in the novels is 21, not 30, and I think that a project featuring young people (even minors) doing the same things that York and company did in this film would've never seen the light of day.

I still don't think society is ready for that sort of film, which probably explains why the oft-promised remake of Logan's Run still languishes in developmental hell. It's sort of tragic really.

In the 60's and early 70's, special effects really weren't at the stage where you could depict the changes in scenery or scope of concept in the Logan novels without spending tens of millions of dollars. The technology just wasn't there at the time.

Nowadays, the easiest thing to handle would be the special effects and it is the details of the story itself (especially in Logan's Run, where society is composed nearly entirely by teens and twenty-somethings) that would generate the most brow creasing and angst from film execs and audiences.

To this day, Logan's Run remains the semi-forgotten stepchild of the afterbirth of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. An envelope pushing film rather than a groundbreaking one and certainly worth watching, however it certainly pales when compared to the true heavyweights of the genre that showed up when ILM changed all of the rules and Special FX became king.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #14: When Heaven Comes Down (2002)

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There's something to be said for filmmakers who have loftier goals than simply churning out an exploitation film. Sometimes an audience simply wants a little bit more substance, even when that substance comes housed in a no-budget slasher film. Gary M. Lumpp's When Heaven Comes Down deals with the issue of abuse against women, and there is obviously supposed to be an empowering element to these women revealing their abuse and fending off attackers, but whatever message was supposed to come out of this is drowned by shoddy production values, cardboard cut-out characters, and a script that limps to its final act. A slasher film about a killer targeting abusers of women, with perhaps a hint of the 70s genre of Women revenge films (like I Spit On Your Grave or Ms. 45), might have been interesting, but Lumpp does little to distinguish his film from the plethora of crappy slasher films in this collection.

Samantha 'Sam' Eckhart (Emily Albright) is a bartender with a secret. A few years back she was attacked by a serial killer calling himself The Savior (Joe Gordon) and barely escaped with her life. Today she runs a therapy group for battered women, but often has flashbacks to the traumatic incident and finds herself having trouble being intimate with her (ridiculously nice and supportive) new boyfriend, Josh (Cory Schiffern). Soon, the abused women from her therapy group start turning up dead, sometimes along with their abusers, and Sam begins seeing signs that The Savior may be killing once again. Or, could it be someone a bit closer to her? (It is. Try and guess who it could be. It's fun!)

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A feminist Slasher film sounds like a terrific idea to me. So often the genre has presented women as weak, slutty or expendable, and combining a modern edge with the awful reality of spousal abuse could have led to an interesting, original spin on the material. Instead, Lumpp's film still presents its female characters as constant victims, only letting the protagonist show some grit at the very end. Most of them are easily dispatched of by the killer, and the male characters are almost all abusive, hateful pricks that show almost no redeemable qualities. This two dimensional approach to characterization means that only Sam ends up being the least bit sympathetic or interesting.

Lumpp's direction doesn't add much to the proceedings, though at least there are a few camera swivels to remind us that we're not just watching a play. Unfortunately the biggest technical limitation, and it's one that pops up again and again in this collection, is the sound. While dialogue can usually be made out, there's an audible hum in almost every talky scene, and this makes camera angle changes jarring. It's a constant irritant, though hardly the only technical issue with the film.

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Giant chinned B-movie legend Robert Z'Dar (Maniac Cop) actually had a hand in producing the picture, and shows up in a totally disposable scene having a heart to heart with the boyfriend of an abuse victim (played by Jeff Dylan Graham from Hellbound: Book Of The Dead). I'm not sure why he felt like trading dialogue with a guy who beats up his girlfriend would make a fun appearance, but I don't question the lumpy faced lothario. To his credit, Z'Dar acts circles around everyone else in the film, though that speaks more to the film than to his own particular abilities.

Aside from Z'Dar giving it his all, the acting is really poor. They made the right decision sticking Emily Albright in the lead, as she delivers her lines strongly even while being a bit wooden, but practically every other actor wouldn't even pass muster in community theater. Joe Gordon as The Savior seems to be having some fun, but his overacting is hammy and annoying. Anthony Sabatino as the ridiculously abusive Ozzie (who literally "pops up" in a few scenes randomly) is pitiful, and gets a totally superfluous sex scene with sex-pot Syn DeVil just in case you thought the movie might be trying something a bit different. Ha ha, sucker.

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No, that's not Ortiz The Dog Boy from Freaked, that is our killer in one of the few scenes which has anything visually interesting going on. Special effects are generally non-existant, with kills being relegated to stabbings and strangulation, and gunshots taking place off-screen. There are a few instances of the red stuff, but if you're here for some gore you're barking up the wrong tree.

When Heaven Comes Down is shot on DV, and certainly looks the part. Everything is reasonably lit, and it generally seems free of the video glitches common in the Bloody Nightmares collection. Soundtrack music is generally inobtrusive though totally forgettable. Yes, it's all quite a bland experience.

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What could have been an interesting spin on a tired genre becomes a wasted opportunity in this predictable slasher film. When Heaven Comes Down could have used a little more ambition, and a lot more talent both in front of, and behind, the camera. The serious topic at hand is occasionally treated with a modicum of respect, particularly in the therapy scenes, but too little effort has been made to escape from the cliched trappings of the genre.

Dillinger is Dead (1969)

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A man in a mask is locked into a chamber. Yellowish, deadly-looking gas fills the confined area, but the man is unharmed. He waves at Glauco (Michel Piccoli), the mask’s designer, who safely observes from outside. Glauco’s associate begins to read to him (and us) an essay he’s written, a piece of social criticism which seems heavily influenced by the Frankfurt School. He explains that the man in the mask is a symbol for modern man, that we are all in a toxic environment. Glauco humours him, but clearly doesn’t take the man seriously. Obviously he should, since the rest of the movie only proves his intrepid co-worker’s point.

Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead is an odd beast, and one that is difficult to discuss without ruining, since the end of the film is so important to understanding the film’s meaning and its appeal. It is a film about what happens after you’ve accomplished everything you’re supposed to: Glauco has a beautiful wife, an incredible home, and a high-paying job. He (seemingly) wants for nothing. And yet this is profoundly unsatisfying. Glauco is Marcuse’s one-dimensional man.

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So what comes next? Once you’ve gotten everything that a capitalist society tells those in the middle class they want and need, you are faced with two options. You can stop moving, being happy with what you have. This can lead to stasis, and perhaps even rot. Or you can try to keep moving. But what do you move towards? Nothing prepares you for that next step.

Following the discussion with his co-worker in the opening scenes, Glauco returns home to his beautiful wife, who needs pills to sleep and goes to bed in full makeup. Glauco is less than enthused by the food that she’s left him, so he decides to cook his own meal. While searching for a cookbook with his favourite recipe, he comes across an old pistol. It’s rusted and practically useless. While Glauco cooks his meal he fiddles with the gun, taking it apart and bathing it in olive oil. He barely speaks.

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Watching Glauco cook is a real joy. Perhaps I just like food too much, but there’s got to be a reason that those cooking shows do so well that there are two or more channels dedicated to them alone, and that’s the fact that watching people cook is somehow rather enticing. Glauco knows his way around the kitchen, and it shows. And while he cooks he toys with the gun, playing with it like a child with a toy. Soon he discovers an old newspaper, proclaiming that the famous American gangster, John Dillinger, is dead.

The movie progresses like this from one scene to another. Glauco is bored, and decides to explore his home, watching old movies and doing things that bored people tend to do while they're alone, things which are often ridiculous or embarrassing but always authentic. Glauco’s house is a marvel, filled to the rafters with odds and ends. It looks thoroughly and completely lived in, nothing like a movie set at all. With almost no dialogue, the viewer watches as the Italian man interacts with his 8mm home movies, listlessly eats what he can, and flirts with his live-in maid. It’s a real testament to the writing and the actor that you can sit through 80 minutes of what is essentially a guy puttering around his house.

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And yet, no matter how light-hearted Glauco’s actions are, no matter how mundane the film seems, there’s always a sense of dread, established in the opening shots by the gas mask and carried through the rest of the film by the presence of the gun. Glauco is constantly fiddling with the gun while he goes through all the other motions. He cleans, reassembles it, and even paints it red, with white polka dots. He finds some old bullets and loads it. Having spent so much time on it, it’s only logical that the gun be used. Even if Glauco doesn’t know it, the viewer does.

Dillinger is Dead is a remarkable film. It’s rumoured for a Criterion Collection release, either this year or next, and I’d encourage people to give it a look. It certainly isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s something incredibly engaging about the art behind it--the set design, the cinematography, and most importantly the huge performance by Michel Piccoli, one whose shoulders the success of the entire film rests.

Monday, May 11, 2009

JCVD (2008)

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PLOT:


Who’d have thunk it? Jean-Claude Van Damme, who started his illustrious film career with the role of “Gay Karate Man” in something called Monaco Forever, has fallen on hard times. At least, that’s according to JCVD, in which a character named Jean-Claude Van Damme is played by the “Muscles from Brussels” himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Having lost custody of his daughter (when his movies come on TV, her friends laugh at her), an aging Van Damme discovers that the paycheck from straight-to-DVD releases just aren’t covering his legal bills. When he stops at a post office for a wire transfer he desperately needs, he inadvertently inserts himself into a robbery situation. Soon the outside world thinks JCVD has snapped, and is doing the robbery himself.

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REVIEW:


Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD reaches for the stars, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it doesn’t quite make it all the way there. At the root of it all is a pretty decent and offbeat heist film with an interesting protagonist. This should have been enough. Instead, El Mechri decides to get all metaphysical on his audience, playing some outdated, postmodern tricks and unnecessarily reorganizing the time line for some inexplicable reason. This is a shame, since Van Damme’s performance is really great stuff, and it could have carried the movie--if not to greatness, than at least to something quite admirable--but instead it gets bogged down by the director’s shenanigans.

Which is to say that JCDV is full of a lot of pretentious shit. It has title cards interspersed throughout, dividing the film into four sections; the cards have such titles as “The Answer Before the Question.” I thought that this was going to be a joke. I don’t think it was. I remember saying, “pretty soon they’ll start quoting Derrida.” They don’t, thank God, but they probably just didn’t get around to it. They do pull out some other ostentatious shit, though, like levitating Van Damme to the ceiling during a lengthy monologue, so that he hovers over the set and in front of the lights. SEE! IT’S REALLY A FILM! Amazing. And later we actually see the edges of the film stock during a fantastic “action-y” segment. This amounts to being clever in such a way that anyone can immediately recognize what you’re doing, and why. And then they can say, “wow, that was heavy-handed.”

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This is especially frustrating, since the film shows that it can do the same sort of thing in a less ham-fisted fashion. When the police chief wants to speak to the audience, he has to ask for one of those loudspeaker horns that they have in movies. When the criminals try to negotiate, they only know to ask for the sort of things they’ve seen asked for in other heist films. The self-referential, intertextual thing they’re aiming at can be handled in a much more subtle way, and is even in the film itself.

The chronology, as mentioned, is also all out of whack. We start with Van Damme showing up in Brussels and going into the post office. The camera remains outside, and when a gunshot goes off, a police officer closes in to investigate. He sees Van Damme, and immediately suspects that the down-on-his-luck actor is robbing the joint himself. The rest of the police show up and start negotiations with Van Damme, who they speak to on the phone. They even enter the post office to see a wounded man, where it appears that Van Damme is in control of things. And then the second section starts, and we start all the way back at the start of the scene, reliving some scenes that we really didn’t need to revisit in the first place, only to discover, by gosh, that there’s another side to this story, that Van Damme isn’t the criminal after all. But we figured that out already, so it’s really just an exercise in frustration. And while the sections of the film jump around in chronology, we also get flashbacks to his custody case, and discussions with his agent, and the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if the film would have been stronger if it had just been told in order. I have a lingering suspicion that the film was done in this way so that the audience wouldn’t pay attention to how clich├ęd and uninspired the actual robbery scenario is.

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But, enough ragging on the film. The real star of the show is Van Damme himself, and he’s as good as you’ve heard. The film is at its best when it focuses on him, without all the hoopla. We watch him try to deal with fans, some of whom think he’s amazing, and some of whom take him to task for thinking he’s a big shot. We watch him consult with his agent; he asks if his agent can negotiate a production credit for Van Damme, if the star agrees to take a pay cut. Then he asks if he can get a role in a real, Hollywood film, if he’s willing to work for scale. You get the impression that Van Damme has probably had these discussions with his agent before.

Then there’s the levitation scene, where Van Damme really pours it all out. It’s self-serving and self-aggrandizing as hell, but something about its rambling incoherence makes it seem sincere. When the man starts crying you really feel it, even if you resent the way the message is delivered. However, one has to wonder how the filmmaker reconciles the attempt to get at the "real" Van Damme with the deliberate artificiality of JCVD. It's not a reconciliation that the film attempts.

JCVD could have been a decent, harmless little heist film anchored around a powerful performance by Van Damme; instead, it’s a fucking pretentious mess.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Suicide Solution: The 10 Best Movie Suicides

SUICIDE SOLUTION
The 10 Best Movie Suicides


Nothing quite puts an exclamation point onto a dramatic scene than a character taking his or her own life. Too often used as a cheap, exploitative gimmick, a great filmmaker can use suicide to make the viewer contemplate their own mortality, while adding weight and heft to the situations which surround that character.

In the opinion of the Movie Feast crew, here are the ten best.

MAJOR spoilers ahead. You've been warned.



10.

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Little Bill starts off the new year with a bang in Boogie Nights (1997)

Little Bill's suicide in the final moments of 1979 is the most startling moment in the midst of a film that introduced me to the seedier elements of life; coke, sex, guns. Boogie Nights was a world changer for me, the kind of movie experience that re-arranges how you view the rest of filmic history. PT Anderson has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but reviewing the first movie of his that I saw reaffirmed my love for his work. There Will Be Blood is his masterpiece, a mean-spirited picture that breathed smoke and left the history of this country in ashes. Boogie Nights was the first, though, and it remains my favorite. This seems to be Anderson in his purest form. The whimsical characters never get too grating, as they do in Punch-Drunk Love. Nor does the director's cynical edge take over completely, as it does in Blood's final minutes. Boogie Nights is a film about broken people living sad little lives, who after enduring great hardship and turmoil are allowed to sort of put some of the pieces back in plece. And the soundtrack kicks fuckin' ass! So many great moments, but the absolute emotional pinnacle of everything is William H. Macy blowing his brains out. Was this my first exploding head seen in a movie? It very well may have been. I watched this movie with the first girl I saw in her underwear. Maybe this contributes to the nostalgic air of the proceedings. Whatever. Little Bill's scene is breathtaking, bracing, a note-perfect end to a jubilant first half of a picture.
- Travis Martin




9.

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Max Renn celebrates the new flesh in Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg's body horror classic Videodrome has its share of odd moments. The Rick Baker special effects (from snuff films distending from television sets to surprisingly useful stomach-vaginas), James Woods' typically nervy performance, and Cronenberg's well-observed sense of kink have made the film a science fiction classic. The film follows Wood's character Max Renn as he discovers a pirated video broadcast called Videodrome that makes the viewer begin to hallucinate (and eventually develop brain tumors). Through it's influence, he begins to be able to externalize his hallucinations, morphing his body to allow him to battle against the fascist force creating the program. After killing Barry Convex (the show's producer), he learns that to completly defeat Videodrome he must abandon his old fleshy self. After watching an image of him shooting himself on a television screen (which explodes and showers intestines all over the place), Max puts a gun against his head before giving his immortal line of "Long live the new flesh" and pulling the trigger.
- Doug Tilley





8.

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Neil Perry contemplates a change of career in
Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poet's Society isn't exactly one of the movies that I watch on a regular basis but I love discussing Neil Perry's (Robert Sean Leonard) suicide because it is such a polarizing moment. Neil ends up taking his own life because of his father's (Kurtwood Smith) refusal to allow him to indulge in what he loves (i.e. Acting) in retaliation for an affront to Mr. Perry's authority. Neil's suicide is so heavily laden with symbolism that it is astounding as his weapon of choice is his father's revolver, as if to absolve Neil by implying that it is Mr. Perry who is actually pulling the trigger and murdering his own son.

The odd thing about the fate of poor Neil is that I've never seen suicide used as a tool used to signal rebirth before. In most movies I've seen, usually the act of taking one's life is wrapped in the misery usually associated with the dark path you have to be on even to consider harming yourself. However, Neil's suicide represents the spark that inspires the new guard to challenge the outdated trappings of the old guard. It is not necessarily a happy event, but it does take on a rather upbeat theme when theevents that transpire after Neil's death are weighed against the price the young man paid for the sake of his art and his identity.
- J.T.




7.

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Brooks finishes the job in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Brooks (James Whitmore) knows that there is no way he will make it in the outside world. In prison for decades, now being faced with release into a society that he does not know, he goes as far as to put a knife to a friend's throat in the hopes that someone will decide to keep him locked up until death.

After being talked down, he is sent packing. They place him in a halfway house and set him up with a job bagging groceries. It appears his only hobby is to feed the birds in the park. Finally, he can't stand the loneliness anymore and, after taking the time to carve "BROOKS WAS HERE" into the beam where he has hung his noose, he kicks the chair out from under his feet and hangs himself.

James Whitmore's performance in The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps the finest of his career, in a film full of great performances. It was sadly overlooked at awards time. If ever there was a case for a "career achievement, pat-on-the-back" Oscar win, this was it.
- Isaac Weeks




6.

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Motome Chijiiwa commits Harakiri in Harakiri (1962)


One should be forgiven if, being familiar with samurai (especially as they’re represented in film), one has the impression that the road and courtyards of feudal Japan were littered with the disemboweled bodies of the disgraced and dishonored. Yes, we all know that ritual suicide existed, and that it really did happen, but certain films often give you the impression that samurai went around cutting open their stomachs willy-nilly, and I have a hard time believing that. I don’t believe in a universal human condition, but I do believe that humans share certain qualities, and the will to do yourself in for some minor infraction strikes me not as something that only belonged to a certain historic period, but is in fact something entirely alien.

Anyway, the point is, Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 absolute fucking masterpiece of a film, Harakiri, treats the ritual like an inhumane tradition practiced and enforced by an authoritarian and chauvinistic system. It also treats it as a physically gruelling and brutal ordeal. In the film’s suicide scene, the young ronin Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) is forced by a crowd of unfriendly samurai to not only commit sepukku, but to do it with his own wooden blade--a punishment for having sold the steel ones, something a true samurai should never do, supposedly. Chijiiwa begs for respite, but his pleas go unheeded. And so he takes his wooden blade, and tries to do himself in with it.

The first stabs don’t even break the skin; no, Chijiiwa has to brace the handle of the wooden sword against the ground and lean all of his weight against it. When the wood finally thrusts its way into his abdomen, he begs for the second to strike off his head, but the man won’t, not until Chijiiwa has slit his stomach “properly.” So Chijiiwa bites off his own tongue, hoping to bleed himself to death. Despite the fact that all of this is filmed in black and white--and the shots are sensitively chosen, so as not to accentuate the violence of the suicide--the scene is still gut-wrenching, driving home the terror of the situation and the cruelty of those who propped up such a system in the first place.
- Ash




5.

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Anton Phibes lays himself to rest in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a masterpiece and is the very epitome of campy cinema. Everything about it screams wonderful excess from the dialogue to the scenery to the costumes and naturally, to the escalating mayhem resulting from Dr. Phibes's (Vincent Price) pursuit of poetic justice through creative vengence.

Even more astounding than the "Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt" themed murders that Phibes commits throughout the movie is the rather bizarre way Dr. Phibes ends his life once he believes his mission is done. As if people being eaten alive by locusts or being crushed under gigantic frog masks wasn't over the top enough, Phibes keeps the bizarre deaths rolling and commits suicide by placing himself in a stone tomb with the corpse of his wife and then proceeds to drain the blood from his body and replace it with embalming fluid!

The final payoff is the ominous and ironic prologue from Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) that the stone tomb Phibes placed himself in alongside his dead wife represented Darkness, which was the last Biblical plague Egypt suffered. However, director Robert Fuest knew a cash cow when he saw one and naturally Dr. Phibes would escape the clutches of death itself and return to kill again
- J.T.





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Father Karras is a man possessed in The Exorcist (1973)

OK, so it’s 1973, and you’ve just filmed a movie where a little possessed girl speaks in tongues, projectile vomits, masturbates with a crucifix, and utters the immortal line: “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell.” How do you finish big? How do you live up to that build? Remember, CG is years and years away. No big computer effect is gonna do the heavy lifting for you.

William Friedkin’s solution is to have Father Karras (Jason Miller), in the ultimate selfless act, take the demon Pazuzu into himself, saving little Regan, and then fling his body down a flight of approximately 74 small, pointy stairs. The stunt man really takes one for the team on this, supposedly getting only ½ inch rubber mats on each step. I have no idea how they actually got the effect of the camera rolling down them. These “Exorcist Steps” are located at the end of M Street in Georgetown, and apparently are still quite the tourist attraction.

Had Father Karras done away with himself in a less spectacular fashion--hanging, gunshot, cyanide pill--the ending of the film could only be a let down. As it is, Father Karras’s suicide is one of those classic film moments, the sort of thing that justifies horror films as a legitimate genre.
- Ash




3.

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Joe Dick quits the band in Hard Core Logo (1996)

It may take a viewing or two, or perhaps just a little thought, to realize how just bad Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon), the singer and front man of the seminal punk band Hard Core Logo, has it. Sure, you might think that Pipefitter and John Oxenburger have it worse--I mean, they’re just the rhythm section, for Christ’s sake--but these dudes are married, or at least have stable relationships. For them, and for Billy Tallent, the band’s successful guitarist, reuniting and touring with Hard Core Logo is a break from the real world. For Joe Dick, this isn’t a vacation. Everything else has been fake for him, but this, his band, this is real. More importantly, for Joe, the tour reunites him with Billy, his missing other half, a man that he quite obviously loves.

And then it all falls apart.

Joe Dick’s suicide is abrupt and terrifying, and it drives home how desperate and alone Joe has been all along. Standing outside of the last place Hard Core Logo will ever play, smiling vacantly into the camera, Joe Dick takes a drink, and in one movement pulls out a pistol and blows his brains out. Hard Core Logo, a film that is a fun sprint, and at times very humorous, ends with this body blow to its audience, forcing them to rethink everything that came before.
- Ash




2.

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Richie Tenenbaum slits his wrists in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Despondent over being spurned by his step-sister, his personal failures and the collapse of his family, Richie cuts his hair and beard before whispering "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow". What follows is a disturbing, atypically violent suicide attempt set to Elliot Smith's "Needle In The Hay" (knowing that Smith himself committed suicide certainly adds to the dour tone) that becomes a significant turning point in The Royal Tenenbaums and marks a seriousness that director Wes Anderson usually avoids in his films. While the following hospital scenes are almost comical, this scene features the near-death of the film's most sympathetic character and is quite difficult to watch. It makes me wonder how a Wes Anderson drama (or, even more extreme, horror film) might look if he were to abandon his more whimsical tendencies.
- Doug Tilley




1.

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Pvt. Pyle goes apeshit in Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I remember, as a lad, watching Full Metal Jacket with the family. Since my father had seen it before, he knew what was coming, so when Gomer Pyle was preparing for his final exit, I was told to cover my eyes. And, like a dutiful son, I did--but I could still hear what happened, and my mind filled in the rest. It was disturbing. Of course, as soon as I could, I watched the film without parental supervision, and the suicide was just as horrifying as I'd previously imagined. It's one of the first times I remember being genuinely upset watching a movie.

I am not one of those who sees the second half of Full Metal Jacket as a huge letdown from the first half, though I know that's a popular opinion. That being said, Pyle's suicide is such a powerful climax that the final scenes of the film can only suffer by comparison.
- Ash


Pyle's was the most memorable to me because it is the most philosophical. Kubrick did a masterful job of showing just how dark of a place you have to be emotionally and mentally to do that to yourself.
- J.T.