Friday, April 29, 2011

Fast Five (2011)

As someone who has managed to avoid the first four titles in the Fast and the Furious catalogue, when I was invited to a screening of Fast Five I couldn’t help but wonder how I should go about reviewing it. Would there really be a need to watch the other four films in a marathon session, in the off chance that there would be a lot of situations that I wouldn’t understand without as much knowledge of the Vin Diesel-Paul Walker relationship as humanly possible? Or would I be safe in assuming that it would be like taking the kids to the latest Ice Age sequel, and any back story the audience needed to know would be spelled out within the first three minutes?

My questions were answered quickly by an opening sequence that involved what was apparently the ending scene of Fast & Furious, an escape attempt that would have killed 30 people in the real world but miraculously only resulted in Diesel’s escape, and then everyone popping up in Rio. All of this happens in roughly three minutes. This is truly a turn-your-brain-off film, because the only thing I was really questioning within the first quarter of the movie was how big of a tax credit is Rio giving to film productions now. Seriously, I’ve seen more flicks set up in Rio in the past calendar year than in the past five combined.

After Diesel and Walker take a job that goes bad, resulting in the deaths of three DEA agents, a special task force led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is sent in to apprehend the fugitives. Not since Predator has an American force been sent into a foreign country with so much firepower. Seriously, I believe one of the guys on this squad was carrying a pirate ship’s cannon at one point. Miraculously, in the half-dozen fire fights they get into during the film no unarmed civilians are injured, so there's no need to worry about any untoward international press asking, “Hey, why are American cops shooting up Brazilian homes over a handful of car thieves?”

Diesel decides, in a very Ocean’s Eleven moment, that in order to exact revenge upon the local crime boss that is causing him trouble and gain the monetary funds required to further evade the cops, he needs to call in six other members of his crew and rob eleven million dollars from said crime boss. Now the film has become FF All-Stars, with the producers unable to use anyone from Tokyo Drift, since the death of a major character at the beginning of that film has resulted in such a convoluted history that the film will have to now take place in 2030.

I hate to go out on a limb here, but I'm willing to bet that the score on Rotten Tomatoes for this movie will be pretty meh, which is a shame, because in my opinion director Justin Lin manages to pull off a pretty exciting action showcase that in the hands of, let's say Tony Scott, would have been dreadful. No one in this cast is going to collect an Academy Award anytime soon, but I believe they know that. At this point in his career, Diesel just wants to keep his name recognizable. Paul Walker isn't exactly picky with film roles. The Rock is going through a period right now where he is appearing in a few films that aren't PG Disney flicks, so I'll take what I can get. Everyone in the cast rises above an atrocious script. A female is sick? I wonder if she could be pregnant. A new semi-important female character just made eye contact with Diesel? Love connection! Seriously, all the subtlety of a brick to the head, but the cast makes it work.

Summer is officially here, so prepare for brainless film after brainless film to be released for the next few months. That being said, if the trailer for Fast Five intrigued you as much as it did me, there are worse ways to spend a Friday night.

The Sea and Poison (1986)

"All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann" - Leonard Cohen

NUMBER OF FINGERS:....................Ten
NUMBER OF TOES.............................Ten

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green Saliva?



The above quoted poem is Leonard Cohen's reply to Hannah Arendt's writings on the banality of evil.

Kei Kumai's THE SEA AND POISON takes us down a similar path. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, tries to imagine the circumstances around the real-life war atrocities that occurred at Kyushu University. There, in 1945, Japanese doctors performed vivisections on downed American fliers. Shot in startlingly vivid black and white, THE SEA AND POISON shows how these events were not motivated by some supreme evil, but by mere pettiness, fear, and our most callow human emotions.


The story of the vivisections is framed by scenes taking place in a post-war holding cell. There, a series of prisoners, beginning with Sugoro (Eiji Okuda), relate their story to the Americans holding them.

Sugoro is probably the most sympathetic character, so its understandable that the entire first half of the film focuses on him. We learn that the university is in need of a new dean of medicine, and the two likeliest candidates are the heads of First and Second Surgery. An intern at the university, Sugoro works in First Surgery under Professor Hashimoto; there, he has become attached to an old lady dying of TB.

The competition for the dean's seat pushes Professor Hashimoto, and his associates, to perform some ill-advised surgeries, in the name of impressing the decision-makers. Though Sugoro's favoured patient may be able to recover slowly, or at least die at her own pace, the doctors decide to try a risky new surgery on her, one which has a 95% of killing her. She gets a reprieve, though, when they decide that an even more attractive option is to move up the surgery of a young woman with important connections. The lung surgery they hope to perform is supposed to be relatively risk-free, but, in an astonishing and tense surgery scene that really has to be seen, the patient dies.


With this major black mark against him, Professor Hashimoto has to find some other way to impress the right people, and thus get the dean's seat. He decides, in collaboration with the military authorities, to perform the aforementioned vivisections on downed American servicemen. The servicemen in question supposedly come from the very planes that have been randomly bombing the area, which has often put the university in danger. Since those captured have already been sentenced to death, the doctors of the university reason that the moral thing to do is to make sure that their deaths contribute to science. The first procedure, for instance, involves seeing how much of a man's lungs can be removed before he dies. Gruesome stuff.

The motivations of those involved are pretty clearly spelled out. Professor Hashimoto hopes that it will strengthen his case for the dean's seat; his right hand man sees it as a way to perhaps pass over Hashimoto. Toda (Ken Watanabe), one of the more interesting characters, is doing it to see if he is capable of empathy; as long as he's been training as a doctor, he's never felt an actual sympathetic bond with a patient. Ueda, a nurse, is doing it out of some sort of twisted jealousy, and Ohba, the head nurse, out of love. Sugoro, on the other hand, is doing it simply because he's afraid not to.

And of course, it's this question--why would a human being do this sort of thing?--that is at the heart of the movie. The collective reasons are all petty, small, and mundane; this is no master plot, but a product of weakness and careerism. Perhaps the weak link in the chain is the military officers who show up for the vivisections; they gloat over and enjoy the horrors they witness, and seem to have no motivation to do so, beyond sheer stupidity and evilness.


The real genius of the film isn't its characters or their emotions, though, no matter how well those are often carried out. Instead, THE SEA AND POISON offers its viewers some of the most astonishing black and white images ever set to film--think Andrei Takovsky's STALKER. (I'd be afraid that someone will quibble with me over this comparison, but let's face it, how likely is it that someone's seen both films AND reads this blog?).

Kumai is also a master of claustrophobic suspense. The two surgery scenes that are the major action of the film--the earlier lung surgery, and the later vivisection--are incredibly realistic, and the tension is palpable--and this is from someone who doesn't care for medical dramas at all.

The surgeries are gruesome, sure, but in a very realistic way. If you read a synopsis of the film, you may be worried that you're going to get some sort of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST-type exploitation film: SEE! THE TERRORS OF HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION! Instead, you get something deeply human.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #33: Off the Beaten Path (2004)

Perhaps the only film more influential to low-budget horror filmmakers than 1999's The Blair Witch Project, which sadly convinced many aspiring directors that all it takes to make a 100 million dollar blockbuster is to run around in the woods with a camcorder, was Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead. What these two films have in common is that they took the tools of movie-making out of the hands of the studios with their limitless resources and extravagant budgets and showed  how - with enough raw talent and an original concept - a simple group of individals with modest resources can create something raw and terrifying. Unfortunately, too many directors misinterpted these successes, instead attempting to mine their own fame and fortune by imitating, spoofing or just plain ripping off these projects. Director Jason Stephenson has at least decided to pay tribute to his obvious influences in a fairly original way, mashing elements of the two together in his abbreviated shot-on-dv horror film Off the Beaten Path.

As with Blair Witch, Off the Beaten Path begins with a group of filmmakers attempting to make a documentary about a town's local legend - in this case a murderer/satanist named Jasper Hagan in the township of Gateway, Minnesota. The three friends meet up with a local journalist, Brenda (Jessie Welsch), who has suggested that the killer might be an interesting topic to explore, though seems a little hesitant once the crew actually start heading to the property where the murders took place. Chuck, the director, along with videographer Randy find some odd satanic markings on the trees around the area, as well as an upside down crucifix, but both Chuck's girlfriend Dina and Brenda suggest turning back. Finding a tree blocking the way of the narrow road, Chuck and Randy decide to explore the three cabins on the property while Dina and Brenda remain in the truck. Soon we get hints of a malevolent force in the woods (shown in a first person Evil Dead style), and Chuck and Randy find signs of satanic ceremonies and writings. Will the force possess several members of the cast forcing Chuck to run for his life? Good guess!

I must say that Jason Stephenson starts off this film quite impressively, using the (rather tired) camcorder perspective to get some necessary exposition out of the way during the group's long drive, and then having the group encounter a jogger (Chris Prew, who is by far the strongest and most natural actor in the film) who explains a bit more about the local legend. However, once the group arrives at the restaurant (where they are to meet Brenda), much of the documentary conceit starts to get rather confusing, as they seem to want to shoot an entire documentary in a couple of hours despite setting up no interviews and having no real plan of attack. Even Chuck's attempts at "hosting" the proceedings comes off as bumbling and awkward, and the camera perspective is soon dropped for a more traditional combination of handheld documentary and traditionally shot scenes.

The tension in these scenes is also undercut by the fact that the female characters seem to get hysterical almost immediately - well before anything aside from some weird carvings in the woods have been found. Combine this with some extremely sloppy editing - and an egregious overuse of fading to black - and the film never really develops a proper rhythm. There are still some creepy images - natural when you're talking about the natural eeriness of an abandoned cabin in the woods - but a slower build to the eventual possessions would have done the film a lot of good.

After watching and reviewing 32 of the films in this collection I've become rather numbed to the amateur acting that inevitably comes with these productions, though I'm happy to say that the leads here - who appear to be improvising at least certain parts of their dialogue - really do seem to be trying awfully hard. In fact, with some more coherent editing and a willingness to retry a few rough takes some of the performances might actually be impressive, though as is there's simply too much stumbling over lines and mishandled dialogue to rise much above mediocre. Todd Hansen as Chuck might make for a lousy documentarian, but until the final scenes - where he has to emote by himself to the camera - he does a good job playing a slightly pompous and curious filmmaker. Jessie Welsch as Brenda is the biggest victim of the general sloppiness, as her big scene explaining the legend of what occurred in the woods is undone by her tripping over her lines repeatedly. It's meant to come off as natural, but just comes off as clumsy.

It is nice to see a film in this collection that attempts to develop tension and mood rather than just throwing buckets of gore at the screen, and Stephenson does do a good job of keeping the many outdoor scenes well lit, and the sound is thankfully consistent throughout. The choice to use ambient sounds instead of a traditionally composed soundtrack is also a smart one, as cheaply produced music almost inevitably betrays a film's budget and would be inappropriate in this style.

Off the Beaten Path is presented in a fullscreen 4:3 image of mixed quality. While it was obviously shot on digital video, the transfer on the Bloody Nightmares disc - which we must remember is packed with three other films - allows for a lot of pixilation. Combine this was some noticeable glitching (some of which is intentional, but some obviously not) and you get a fine, though occasionally frustrating viewing experience. 

There's actually a feature packed DVD version of Off the Beaten Path out there, but this being a Bloody Nightmares feature it's strictly bare bones. Expecting chapter stops? Too bad, sucker.

Runing only 64 minutes, Off the Beaten Path is well paced and does a good job establishing a mythology, but ends up being hurt by its inability to stay true to its own concept. While the mixing of Blair Witch and Evil Dead elements does end up creating a spooky atmosphere with some moments of genuine interest, poor acting and showy editing frustratingly undermines what good work is on display. There's some definite talent being shown here, and with a little more time and effort this could have been something interesting, despite its derivativeness. Not boring, but not worth your time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #32: Zombie Rampage (1989/1991)

During a recent viewing of Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, I began to ponder just how oddly versatile the zombie film genre has become. Despite some serious over-saturation, talented filmmakers still manage to wring out new and interesting perspectives on the shuffling dead in a variety of different artistic mediums. Now that we're inundated with successful mainstream films, books and even television series', it's hard to believe that it wasn't too long ago that fans had to resort to somewhat less polished efforts to get their zombie fix. And, yes, sometimes that means dipping into works of auteur director Todd Sheets, the low budget maestro who also brought us Nightmare Asylum and Prehistoric Bimbos In Armageddon City. By 1989 the bloom was off the zombie rose, coming before Tom Savini's remake of Night Of The Living Dead or Peter Jackson's Braindead, so Sheets - obviously a massive fan of the genre - decided to get some friends, some camcorders and some animal entrails together and put on a show. The result was Zombie Rampage, which swings wildly between incoherent and amateurish, but does manage to provide plenty of gut-munching for particularly undemanding audiences. The version of the film in the Bloody Nightmares collection has an opening disclaimer stating that this is the "director's cut", so take that for what it's worth.

Note: That is not how discretion is spelled.

Two gangs from the mean street of Kansas City - one led by Sheets himself - have an old fashioned brawl (with a rock cover of "Spirit In the Sky" in the background) that leaves a few members dead. Upset, one of the gang leaders gets an occult paperback book that is said to bring the dead back to life, though the other gang manages to get the same book and - after a particularly windy reading of incantations - manage to create the titular zombie rampage. The gang members are quickly consumed, leaving the leader (and king asshole) Tommy (Dave Byerly) to hole up at a bar, alongside the young bemulleted Dave (Erin Kehr) and his girlfriend. There's also big dopey serial killer roaming around for some reason. Soon they are all overwhelmed by zombies of various quality - from halloween fun mask, to gooey burn victim - and the constantly bickering Tommy and Dave (along with their girlfriends) attempt to escape down an elevator shaft. And then there are a couple of shots of zombies, and the whole thing ends. Huh. How about that.

I feel like I'm repeating myself by mentioning that Zombie Rampage is a total amateur effort, featuring consistently terrible acting, special effects, writing and direction. I suspected - based on Sheets other efforts - that this would be the case going in, but this movie has some unique quirks that are particularly baffling. For one, the transition between the gang's efforts to raise the dead and the panic that leads to the characters attempting to seal themselves in a bar is totally nonexistent. There appears to be at least five minutes of exposition that is totally missing, and characters who seemed absolutely fine one minute, are suddenly (and incompetently) attempting to seal up doors and windows the next. Then things just get strange, as we're shown some random guy getting bitten outside a church(?) and a young man and woman attempting to nurse his wound, another couple attempting to hide in some sort of boiler room, and of course there's the serial killer subplot which is a real head scratcher.

And then there's the ending. I actually went back and watched it a second time to see if I may have missed some sort of event that would trigger the closing credits. Maybe the characters slipped into the elevator shaft? Maybe they were suddenly overrun by zombies? All we get is the voice-over from the ending of Lucio Fulci's Zombi implying that the city is overrun, but the characters get absolutely no visual resolution. The IMDB does imply that there is a Zombie Rampage 2 out there, but I can't find any concrete evidence supporting this. Needless to say, what is already a confusing film is saddled with a particularly unsatisfying ending.

Note: Quite a visible boom mic in the bottom left.

But let's look on the bright side. First, this isn't nearly as awful as Nightmare Asylum. The acting is a smidge better, and while characters still constantly shout unintelligible dialogue over each other, at least the first twenty minutes seems to make some sort of sense. The music is also much better than in the other Sheets films I've seen, no longer relying on public domain classical music and instead featuring a mix of rock songs and dated synthy stuff - as well as some more recognizable genre thefts. There's also plenty of guts to go around if you're into that sort of thing, though the special effects are inconsistent - the knife used by the serial killer has obviously been cut off, and most scenes of cannibalism are just a pile of entrails laying on someone's stomach.

I also can't help but note two particularly ridiculous moments. First, there's a scene where a woman is pushing a baby carriage through a street at a comically late hour before being attacked by zombies. I give Sheets some bad-taste credit for also having the ghouls tear her baby - which is obviously just a children's doll - to bits, An inspired bit of sickness. Second, one random character decides to blow his own brains out, which leads to a delightfully extended sequence that - despite the sorrowful music in the background - is absolutely impossible to take seriously. Needless to say, if you guessed that a slew of brains end up coating the wall, you would be correct.

Baseball fury? Or zombie mime?

Zombie Rampage has obviously been transferred directly from an old VHS tape and features the requisite tracking issues and washed out colors you expect from that format. It's a shot-on-VHS production, so image quality is iffy, and there's a notable hiss on the soundtrack throughout. Sound is a constant issue, particularly in the early scenes where wind consistently drowns out dialogue, and I again had to switch to headphones in order to attempt to make sense of what was being said. Despite many outdoor scenes at night, the lighting is thankfully serviceable. 

My understanding is that one of the selling points of the "Director's Cut" of Zombie Rampage is that there was a collection of extra features, but we get none of them here. And once again there are no chapter stops, so prepare yourself before you dive in.

Teenage mullet fury.

Perhaps I'm growing more fond of Todd Sheets' work, or perhaps my expectations have just shifted appropriately, but Zombie Rampage isn't nearly as offensively awful as I was expecting. It's still wholly nonsensical - and a frustrating experience for those not used to the limitations of no-budget films - but in all it's fairly painless, and would have delivered the goods for a zombie-crazed 14 year old version of myself. Strangely, it seems like Sheets' work actually regressed after this film, as this is the best of the three efforts of his that I've seen. Best to stick with one of the many, many, many superior zombie options that are available.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #31: Scarlet Fry's Junkfood Horrorfest (2007)

Anthology films are a popular and cost-effective avenue for a no-budget filmmaker as they allow for an inconsistent shooting schedule, they can be assembled slowly when actors and resources are available, and the short running time of each segment can help avoid the pacing and story problems which so often plague films shot on video. All of that said, aside from some notable exceptions, anthology films are almost always terrible, as it takes serious skill to be able to tell a satisfying story in such a brief amount of time. Scarlet Fry's Junkfood Horrorfest (incorrectly titled "Scarlett Fry" on the DVD) is a particularly poor and bloated example of the genre with six separate segments (as well as an intro and linking segments hosted by the titular Scarlet Fry) all fitting into the film's brief 66 minute run-time.

We begin with a completely superfluous introduction where a junkie (played by Alice Cooper's daughter Calico Cooper) beats a dealer to death with a tire iron for giving her a VHS tape instead of dope. She grabs some guy off the street (while she's still covered in blood) and the two sit down to watch the movie which - surprise - ends up being the film we're watching! It's both meta AND padding. We then see our horror host Scarlet Fry, who is basically an evil redneck demon who cracks off-color jokes while a woman is tied up behind him. I have a lot of forgiveness for the horror host tradition, and recognize that lame jokes are par for the course, but these segments are all pretty uninteresting. Fry (real name Walter Ruether) is enthusiastic, but totally forgettable. I'll summarize the film's segments, as they are all less than ten minutes each.

Bloodthirsty Butcher - A fat guy sits in his apartment complaining to himself about being hungry. He meets a young woman in the laundry room and invites her back to his apartment for lunch. Once there he strangles her, chops her up with a butcher knife and gnaws on a fake rubber arm.

Yes, this is the whole bit. There's no twist or joke, and there's no actual story being told. And that sets the pattern for the rest of the films, which are really more a series of vignettes than traditional anthology sequences. The most notable thing about Bloodthirsty Butcher is the awful dubbing which takes place in the laundry room (probably not a great place to record sound at the best of times), and the very fact that the filmmakers believed that "fat hungry guy eats someone" was enough of a story to waste our time with.

The Solution - Shot in B&W (for some reason) this segment shows a nurse pushing an (unconvincing) older gentleman in a wheelchair through a park. When they stop for a moment for lunch, he refuses to be fed and obviously irritates her. Meanwhile a guy parks his car nearby, takes a rifle out of the trunk and shoots the old man. The nurse jumps around happily and hugs the guy and they drive off together.

Possibly the worst segment in the whole collection, and that's saying something. Pointless and unfunny. Any hope I had for the rest of this movie was totally crushed by the end of this segment.

Back with Scarlet and he crushes the skull of a woman who asks for directions to a hospital. Ha ha?

Griptape Spank - While the first two segments are simply lame and boring, this one is more actively offensive. Three skater punks - who speak the most ridiculous skater "lingo" I've heard since Gleaming The Cube - need five dollars to buy some pot. Donnie, the leader of the pack, convinces his two pals to come with him to a parking garage where they proceed to spank a RIDICULOUS "gay" character with their skateboards for cash. After buying weed, the three go back to Donnie's place where his friends ridicule him for the whole spanking thing (even though they joined in) and he's emasculated by his girlfriend ("I thought I was with a man, not a little faggot."). After some bad dreams where he's further mocked, Donnie takes out his frustration by hammering nails into his skateboard and beating the gay guy to death. He comes home and goes back to bed, but after waking up his girlfriend continues to make fun so he smothers her to death. THE END.

You could read into this plot summary that Directors/Writers Brian Crow and Walter Ruether were actually poking fun at some of the homophobia prevalent in youth culture. Perhaps Donnie's own confused sexuality makes him act out violently when confronted. However, Ruether's later film Nightmare Alley (2010) features another vignette where a homosexual is killed for propositioning someone at a bus stop, so I'd suggest that something much more malevolent and unpleasant is being suggested here.

Wasted Life - Thankfully, we get some lighter material here. A guy (played by the director) - who apparently lives in the same apartment as the Bloodthirsty Butcher in the first segment - gets into a tub and slits his wrist while slash metal plays.

Well, that's certainly depressing. We know nothing about the person except that it's hinted he's broken up with his girlfriend, and he writes a brief suicide note. None of it is very convincing or disturbing, which makes you wonder why it's here in the first place. Though, I suppose the same could be said for the entire production.

Back with Scarlet Fry where one of his victims gets loose so he has to kill her. Inspired!

The Devil Made Me Do It - A woman witnesses her boyfriend performing a satanic ceremony and - after a brief argument where he threatens to kill her if she leaves - she shoots him. Leaving the body on the floor she decides to have a shower, and when she comes out he chokes her and then pulls out her guts.

Stupid and awful, of course. But it does feature one of the most unconvincing phone conversations I've ever seen in a film. The woman picks up the receiver and immediately starts talking, and then once she finishes she immediately puts it down without giving any sort of indication that there was someone on the other end. The acting is particularly bad here.

And with that we get a goodbye from Scarlet Fry and the credits begin to roll. But wait, the credits stop and a voice-over tells us that there's one more tale to be told. This one must be special if they left it until the end, right?

Love is Blind - A woman tells her asshole boyfriend that she thinks she might be pregnant. He acts like a jerk, so when she comes back the next day she pretends to seduce him before sticking pins in his chest, sewing his mouth shut and poking out his eye. She then laughs maniacally.

This one is the most creatively violent of all of the segments, but it also features the worst displays of acting - and that's saying something. As well, while the guy is clearly a dick, torturing and murdering him seems like a bit of an overreaction, and her transition to "homicidal" doesn't really make any sense. And that's it. This was so bad it had me begging for the work of Todd Sheets.

Scarlet Fry's Junkfood Horrorfest is presented in perfectly watchable (in terms of visual quality) full-screen without any noticeable glitches. Aside from the bad dubbing in Bloodthirsty Butcher the audio is generally clear and comprehensible. Some music was composed by Alice Cooper guitarist Ryan Roxie, which along with Cooper's daughter making a brief appearance at the beginning would constitute something resembling star-power, but it's all forgettable, generic rock.

An anthology film would be really suited to having chapter stops. But, this being a Bloody Nightmares disc, we get no chapter stops or bonus features (unless you count that final segment, and I don't).

While stronger technically than many of the films in the Bloody Nightmares collection, Scarlet Fry's Junkfood Horrorfest is wholly unpleasant and features not one segment that is even tolerable for an average viewer. The acting and writing are absolutely pitiful, and even my most modest expectations for entertainment were quickly snuffed out by the pointless vignettes. The filmmakers obviously had some willing actors and reasonable equipment, so that the result is so god-awful is truly inexcusable. Stay far away from this one.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Capsule Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Perhaps somewhat cheapened by the hundreds of inferior science fiction films that followed in reaction to the cold war threat of the 50s, The Day the Earth Stood Still still remains one of the high points of a genre that - at its best - can mix a serious message with whiz-bang elements to create a lasting piece of entertainment. Robert Wise capably handles the action, pacing things beautifully and incorporating special effects that still look wonderful today. Michael Rennie has the role of a lifetime in Klaatu - originally to be played by Claude Rains - and his stoic persona made for a very different sort of alien than was to populate the science fiction films to come. Equally memorable was the seven foot seven robot Gort, who could only be commanded to stop his attack by the immortal words: "Klaatu barada nikto", and these characters are supported strongly by the human cast, most notably the late Patricia Neal as the earthling that gains Klaatu's trust. Featuring a wonderful, theremin-tinged score by Bernard Herrmann that would be imitated endlessly. Followed by an inferior 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Capsule Review: Serpico (1973)

Al Pacino confirmed his position as one of the great young Hollywood actors by following up his star-making performance in The Godfather with a very different portrayal of organized crime. Based on the non-fic­tion book by Peter Maas, Sidney Lumet's Serpico details the deep corruption that plagued the police force in New York city throughout the late 60s. Pacino plays policeman Frank Serpico in a surprisingly subdued fashion, with occasional emotional outbursts being the result of his near constant frustration with the bribery and unscrupulousness that surrounded him, and is tolerated (if not promoted) by those further up in the force. Alienated from his fellow officers, Serpico finds himself an unwilling martyr for simply trying to do his job honestly.Even Serpico's Green­wich Village apartment separates him from the buttoned down officers who despise his long hair and playfulness, and Lumet makes good use of authentic New York locations and avoids flashiness to tell the story economically and intelligently. Hampered slightly by a distracting soundtrack, this is still an engrossing story told with obvious passion from all involved.

Bloody Nightmares #30: I Hate You (2004)

Nick Oddo has a vision. So often the collaborative nature of filmmaking can make it extremely difficult for this vision to survive the actual movie-making process, usually coming out the other end in a severely declawed form - or morphed into something totally different. It's the reality of bringing so many creative minds together into one spot. However, in the case of I Hate You, Oddo's vision - in conjunction with that of writer-star Marvin W. Schwartz - seems to have come through fairly intact. It's one of the things that make no-budget filmmaking so fascinating to watch as while financial and technical limitations will always play a factor, the final product generally hasn't been quite so twisted by outside influences or audience considerations. What's unfortunate is that this film's theme - that you can attain lasting fame and recognition through murder rather than hard work in your field of choice - is severely underdeveloped, and it's saddled with an ending that fizzles.

Early in the film, elderly (and awful) stand-up comedian Norman Bird (Schwartz) makes the dubious claim that Jack the Ripper has had more books written about him than all of the American presidents combined, and this statement (and Bird's repeated fascination with serial killers) informs the entirety of the film. We soon discover that Norman has begun murdering random people between stand-up sets, occasionally pausing to explain his thought process to his friends, a fellow comedian (Bill Santiago, whose bits of comedy provide the only moments of humor in the film), and his cat. He attends a writing class with the intention of eventually writing about his exploits but - perhaps tellingly - the instructor asks if his novel's protagonist will be caught in the end. Seemingly obsessed with his own mortality, Norman's world begins to fall apart once his increasingly dark material gets him banned from the comedy club, and even his murders get buried on the back pages of the newspaper. An attempt to reclaim some measure of youthful energy ends in a heart attack scare, and.. that's pretty much it. He performs in front of an empty room, walks around New York and then the credits roll.

Filmed in black and white, I Hate You is paced quite briskly with the credits hitting at 57 minutes, but even at this length it feels a bit bloated with 11(!) murders in that brief run-time. Not helping things is that these murders are presented entirely without tension and are choppily edited, and since the victims are entirely random they just end up leaving the viewer cold. Everything the film has to say could easily have fit into a 15 minute short film, and this becomes clear around the fifth time that Schwartz brings up Jack The Ripper, or the third time he bows to an imaginary audience after a murder.

The whole production has a very loose feeling, and Norman's interactions are very naturalistic which gives the impression that much of the film was assembled in the editing room. Occasionally these conversations are interesting - particularly the recitation of the titular poem - but generally feel like time-killers meant to hammer home the theme. Oddo chooses to avoid flashy camera moves, usually filming the scenes in close-up with few edits. He makes good use of the gritty New York locations - Oddo's previous film was about the changes to Time Square throughout the late 1990s, and he obviously knows the area well - but the photography is quite vanilla.

To the credit of Schwartz, his performance is quite strong throughout, though he makes for a less than convincing stand-up comedian. Of course, his character is supposed to be unfunny, so that his jokes seems more like cribs on George Carlin's later, bitter material (without Carlin's wit or timing) is somewhat appropriate. All other performances are either in the form of conversations, or the few minutes of a victim before they are inevitably bashed and/or stabbed. By design, this is a one-man show, and I'm glad that at least that man is a pretty decent actor.

The music (by Robert Bowers) isn't intrusive, but it's also synthy and generic. There are some attempts to build tension during the murder scenes, but you won't mistake this for a John Carpenter soundtrack. Worse are the film's sound effects which are obviously taken from a library of generic effects and call attention to themselves when used repetitively. Other technical specs are fine, with less glitching than many of the films in this collection and solid audio and video throughout.

I Hate You is presented in its original fullscreen aspect ratio, and appears to have been shot on DV with - I'm guessing - the color being removed after the film was completed. While the black and white photography allows for a nice noirish feel to the proceedings, there's no attempt in the cinematography (performed by director Oddo) to use the light or shadows in any sort of interesting way. As mentioned the music is fine if unremarkable, while audio is clear and consistent throughout - likely a result of few dialogue scenes being filmed outdoors.

We have a first for the Bloody Nightmares collection! No, not chapter stops (I don't think we'll ever be seeing those), but actual special features! Oddly, they are simply added on to the end of film's run-time. First is the film's trailer, which did nothing for me - but, then again, I've actually seen the whole thing. Then we get two alternate endings! Since the actual film really doesn't have an ending, either would have been preferable. The first has Norman hang himself - predictable, but effective - while the second has him walk through a cemetery. Next we get a title card which promises DELETED SCENES, but it cuts off before we actually get to see any. What a shame!

An occasionally interesting but usually trite artistic exercise, I Hate You could have used a bit more complexity and diversity in its plot, which once established seems to go absolutely nowhere. A good lead performance and a few interesting ideas make for a brisk beginning, but once it starts in on the seemingly endless number of murders the whole thing starts to feel monotonous. There's a clear vision here, but unfortunately it's not worthy of even the hour that it runs. A disappointment.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Capsule Review: Fantasia (1940)

It was perhaps the most ambitious project in animation up to that point in history: a series of visualizations and adaptations of well-regarded classical compositions by a collection of Disney's most renowned directors and animators. Unlike the previous successes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, these pieces would rely - aside from introductions between each piece by critic and com­poser Deems Tay­lor- totally on the music (con­ducted by Leopold Stokowski) and images, which were sometimes wildly experimental. Originally a financial disappointment, it was rediscovered and embraced by the counter-culture of the 60s, where the often intense and bizarre imagery - particularly in the closing Night on Bald Mountain sequence - delighted the hippy set. Through modern eyes it's still delightful to look at, but proves to be awfully uneven with the timeless Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence standing next to the dodgy (though sometimes beautiful) The Rite of Spring. Still, it's one of the most visually stunning films of its era and has been preserved beautifully. Followed by Fantasia 2000 nearly 60 years later!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Capsule Review: Scarface (1983)

The rise of a particularly tightly-wound Cuban immigrant to the top of a drug empire seems like odd material for Brian De Palma, who up to that point had specialized in genre films and Hitchcock tributes, but Scarface not only allows the director to revel in a bevy of horrific elements, but also allows him to create a very 80s tribute to the gangster films of the 1930s (including the original Howard Hawks Scarface from 1932). Perhaps even more surprising is that this cautionary tale - penned by Oliver Stone - would become iconic in the hip-hop music world, where Tony Montana's odd internal code and flashy lifestyle created a template for any number of musicians, despite Montana's own eventual downfall and violent demise. The character, as well as Al Pacino's electric performance, is simply impossible to ignore, fueled by a sense of entitlement (and loads of cocaine) as he embraces the Miami criminal underworld. He's poisonous to those around him, violent, profane and unpredictable, but has a charisma that draws people in even as he destroys them. This is a film that revels in excess, from the early 80s fashions to the synth soundtrack (by Giorgio Moroder) to the explosive climax, yet somehow works thanks to De Palma's sweeping (and swooping) camera moves, Stone's Shakespearean script, and Pacino's loony performance. Occasionally a little hard to take seriously, it's still tremendously entertaining.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #29: Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City (1991)

Todd Sheets has been making micro-budget genre films - mostly of the horror variety - for a quarter of a century, so you'll have to excuse me if I take a moment to show the man a little respect. Yes, his Nightmare Asylum nearly broke my brain. Yes, Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City has all of the same technical and structural limitations as that later film (and a few more). Yes, it took me three attempts to get through this film despite it being only 69 minutes long. But, the man is committed to the genres he loves, and despite a long history of creating some of the worst things ever committed to videotape, he's still ballsy enough to call himself the "Master of Splatter". It's almost admirable.

Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City begins in a particularly confusing manner, with plot points and characters being thrown at the screen with reckless abandon. Apparently there's a group of Prehistoric.. Bimbos who are searching a post-apocalyptic Chicago for an antidote to the disease that is plaguing one of their comrades. Along the way they battle - ridiculously - in a rec-room against the minions of the evil Salacious Thatch. Then the whole thing is over. Only eight minutes. That wasn't so bad.

However, these are actually clips from Todd Sheets' earlier Bimbos B.C. (1990), the film to which Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City is a sequel. Bimbos B.C. is - tragically - not included in this collection, so I'll just have to try and pick up on important plot points from the earlier film as we go along. We're immediately thrown into the film's opening credits, which are redeemed significantly by the Sheets' composed theme song titled (surprisingly) "Prehistoric Bimbos In Armageddon City" which manages to somehow be both low-fi and low-brow at the same time. Thank goodness this song exists, since its main guitar riff appears to be the only bit of original music throughout the film - the rest being composed of public domain works (notably Mars: Bringer of War by Gustav Holst and the music that begins Act II of Swan Lake that is notably used in Tod Browning's Dracula).

We begin with a post-Apocalyptic Chicago that looks suspiciously like regular Chicago - and I hope the original film explains why the women are at all "prehistoric", as aside from wearing a bit of fur over their tie-died mom jean-shorts and t-shirts they seem fairly representative of your average early 90s woman. They also spend a lot of time wandering the halls of what looks a lot like a fully functioning school, which sort of takes the edge off of the "warrior woman" vibe that Sheets is going for. Gabrielle (Holly Starr) has been left in charge by Bimbo leader (and star of the first film) Trianna, but is having trouble gaining the respect of her.. uh.. bimbettes. She decides a team building exercise might help bring the group together, so she assembles the titular gals to go out in search of precious gems.

Meanwhile, since the supposed death of Salacious Thatch, Armageddon City has been taken over by the supremely goofy Nemesis and his band of discount robots. One of these robots finds the not-actually-dead (though badly wounded) Thatch and - after giving him a shiny metal robot arm - he joins Nemesis in an uneasy alliance. Thatch vows revenge against the Bimbos, and he soon has Gabrielle and the rest of the gals (including Male Bimbo Larry) working as slaves in his underground mines. Eventually Nemesis gets a bit jealous of Thatch taking over things, and the two have an epic chase that encompasses motor-vehicles, pedal-bikes and skateboards before the two are blown up by a particularly crummy robot programmed by Jeriboah, the creator of the stolen robots (who also happens to stumble over half of his lines). Trianna returns to congratulate the bimbos (along with ineffectual characters like Pringle (played by the director), John Apollo, and Doc) before promising that they'll all get together in another sequel. We're still waiting, Todd.

Despite piss-poor sound (much of the dialogue is drowned out by the repetitive music, so I eventually switched to watching with headphones so I could make out what was being said), and what can only be described as a non-existent visual style, I enjoyed Prehistoric Bimbos significantly more than I expected to. The acting is uniformly terrible, but at least this time there appears to have been a script (by regular Sheets collaborator Roger Williams), and the whole thing wraps up before it gets too tiresome. It's saved by a few moments of humor - Pringle running into the alien from Ridley Scott's Alien and saying "I'm in the wrong movie! Go find the bald-headed chick", the comically extended chase scene at the end - and the high-school art class "robots" compiled from plumbing parts and cardboard boxes. Despite the title, there's hardly anything in here that would bring this over a PG rating aside from a few "shits" and - a Sheets trademark - a character calling someone a "piece of dook".

I should note that there is apparently a 80 minute version of this out there - which might explain why certain characters just show up at the end without explanation - but the 69 minute version (which has less than an hour of original footage) is probably just right for those looking to dip their feet into the work of Todd Sheets. The film is presented full-screen and was shot on video, and comes with the usual glitches and inconsistent color that you quickly become accustomed to on no-budget productions. Thankfully much of the film is shot outdoors during the day, so the lighting issues that plagued Nightmare Asylum are not an issue here. As mentioned, the sound is awful aside from that rocking theme song.

As per usual in the Bloody Nightmares collection there are no extras, not even chapter stops.

While it feels more than a little rushed together, Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City isn't quite as shoddily made as some of Todd Sheets other efforts, and has enough moments of pleasant silliness to keep things from going off the rails completely. It still looks and sounds just awful, and barely makes a lick of sense, but it's all over so quickly that it's, at the very least, easy to forgive. Certainly not recommended, but also not as bad as it could have been.

RIP, Sidney Lumet

“While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.” -- Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet passed away today at the age of 86 after a long bout with lymphoma. It would be no exaggeration to say that he was one of the greatest directors to ever set foot behind a camera. His list of classics is long and personal, spanning several decades in a variety of genres. He elevated cinema in America in the 70's with such incredible films as Network, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. My personal Lumet favorites, however, were all made in the 80's: The Verdict, Prince Of The City, Running On Empty... these films are all excellent and extremely underrated.

RIP, Sidney Lumet: "May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you're dead."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Capsule Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Following the huge critical and commercial success of Fargo (1996), few could have expected the Coen brothers to follow up with a profane, often bizarre tribute to Raymond Chandler, bowling and Los Angeles. Of course, fans of the brothers already knew they love to confound expectations, but while critics and audiences were initially were confused by the film it soon found a fervent cult following which has only grown in the years since. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, an unemployed slacker who finds himself at the center of a ransom plot after a mistake in identity leads to some hired thugs pissing on his rug. With a string of memorable, entertaining characters including the legendary Wal­ter Sobchak (John Good­man), the pederast bowler known as The Jesus (John Turturro), The Nihilist kidnappers and narration by the bemused Sam Elliott, this might not be the Coen's best film but it's certainly one of their most deliriously entertaining. Jeff Bridges was born to play The Dude and jumps enthusiastically into the odd dream sequences (featuring some wonderful cinematography from regular Coen collaborator Roger Deakins). Great, highly original fun for those in an appropriately altered mood.