Reviews


As a proper luddite and card-carrying hipster goofball, I don’t have access to HBO at my house, or any other television station for that matter. But as a proper robot — or, at the very least, someone who wants to be plugged in, even if I pretend that’s not the case — I ravenously gobble up whatever is on in situations where I happen to find a television that does have such access. Having spent the past week in a hotel room, I found myself watching a bunch of things. Here they are.

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Draft Day: Enjoyable enough as schlock, though the ticking timeline and heightened tension never really explains why anyone would be excited to join the Cleveland Browns. Costner is in his element, though I was distracted the entire time by how weird his ears are, something I’d never noticed.

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Enemy of the State: I haven’t seen this in years, and it held up pretty well. The 1998 NSA fears are kind of prescient, even in an over-the-top format, and it’s a reminder of when Will Smith was a superstar (and why). Casting grizzled Gene Hackman as a former spy gone rogue is a nice touch, evokingThe Conversation in reverse even if that was unintentional. Tony Scott’s action sequences are fun for the most part. And fun fact: one scene was filmed in an apartment adjacent to where I once lived; Smith jumps out my old window and lands miles away, which I will always enjoy.

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The Good Lie: Woo boy. Reese Witherspoon is a jaded case worker finding jobs for immigrants, in this case Sudanese refugees. She learns a thing or two about Sudan … and herself. At one point, the three Sudanese men tell a why did the chicken cross the road joke and laugh hysterically, because apparently there were no jokes in Sudan. This is not a good film.

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The Heat: I laughed twice. Apparently, Paul Feig thought it was funny when Melissa McCarthy yells obscenities and that people inscrutably think Sandra Bullock is a trans woman. This is also not a good film.

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Endless Love: The funniest comedy of last year. From my understanding, it completely inverts much of the storyline of the original text, but that’s a small price to pay for the nonstop laffs. On the other hand, the movie looks respectable at every turn visually, which is what you’d expect from Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer who brought you The Butler, Precious, and, um, Hot Rod, for some reason.

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Girl, Interrupted: There are moments when this movie seems authentic, but they are few and far between. Angelina Jolie is so contemptible for so much of it that there’s little to enjoy, and Winona Ryder’s final voiceover narration kills any good will it might’ve built up. I’d never actually seen this before. I did not like it.

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That Awkward Moment: What a confused movie this is. There’s actually a pretty fun cameraderie between Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, and the impressively vacant Zac Ephron, but the things they say are remarkably stupid. I won’t lie, though — it has its moments. Also, Imogen Poots — my nominee for best name in show business — is extremely pretty. This is neither here nor there and not actually relevant to the film, but there you go. Also, boner jokes are funny but they’re not really that funny; on the other hand, Miles Teller getting hit by a car is a lot funnier here than in Whiplash. The latter movie convinced me he’s actually a pretty good actor, but he still has one of the most punchable faces I’ve ever seen, so I enjoyed that thoroughly.

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Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift: I confess that this is the first FaF movie I’ve seen. I enjoyed it a lot actually, at least in part because I was extremely drunk.

 

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Katheryn Bigelow’s clever, mostly successful postmodern take on the vampire mythology opens with a nice bit of misdirection. Caleb, our pretty-boy protagonist, is goofing around with his crew of country fellas outside a Southern bar when they notice Mae, a lovely young lady awkwardly hanging out by herself. Caleb calls dibs and approaches her, standing in shadows and making small-talk come-ons. This being a vampire movie, there’s every reason to suspect she’s his next victim: he even mentions how he won’t bite. She’s aloof and shy, playing the soon-to-be-victim to the hilt.

This, it probably goes without saying, is not how things shake out.

Mae is in fact part of a crew of modern-day vampires, who travel the countryside feeding at night and sleeping during the day in various holdouts. Unlike many incarnations, these vampires are neither sexy nor anguished – they’re a lot more like a tight-knit outsider group committed to self-preservation, a gang. They have protocols to follow and internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. And they really, really like having a good time, in their fashion – tormenting bar patrons (in the film’s best and bloodiest scene), drinking heavily, committing strategic arson, and playing good-natured games of Russian roulette in hotel rooms (since this can’t kill them, it’s just for a laugh).

Mae turns Caleb, much to the chagrin of her comrades, who (rightly) don’t think he’s made out for this life. The rest of the film follows his change, the group’s adventures, and Caleb’s bewildered family’s desperate attempts to track him down. One particularly effective sequence, finding humor in the notion of modern-day vampires, finds Caleb in a bus station, unable to function as his humanity is drained away and replaced by something darker; he’s all sweat and callow flesh and bloodshot eyes. A cop interrogates him, naturally, about what drugs he’s on.

The film is shot in half-light (or is it near dark?) almost from start to finish, maybe suggesting the creatures’ dual natures or, alternately, Bigelow’s conviction that it would look cool (if the latter, she was right). Both Lance Hendrickson and Bill Paxton give nice, occasionally frightening turns as murderous borderline-psychotics who also happen to drink blood, and the kid from Teen Witch continues to be unsettling, though in a less hornball fashion this time. There are also some really well done set-pieces, like a house in which they’re hiding getting shot up and allowing light to come through, noir and/or Blood Simple-style, in criss-crossing rays, any one of which can painfully light the vampires on fire. They huddle together, deathless villains cornered by the day.

Refreshingly, there is no complicated back-story to explain these creatures; they just are, and apparently have been for many, many years. This allows Bigelow to treat the film as a crime movie with bloodsucking monsters, rather than an entry into increasingly convoluted mythologies. It’s way more fun than brooding versions like Herzog’s Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, for instance, even if it falls, let’s say, a bit short on their artistry. The film’s conclusion is a cop-out, I think, and way too sentimental for everything that preceded it. Unfortunate, since there are a number of other directions they could’ve chose for the climax. On the other hand, everything that preceded it was pretty enjoyable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will also have fun picking out the substantial number of things Whedon borrowed: the blacked-out car windows, for instance, or the gag of running through the sun with a blanket over your head. I’m not sure if these little touches have earlier instances; if not, Whedon owes Bigelow some major credit.

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Fassbinder’s second feature film is based on his stage play from a year prior, and it shows. Nearly every scene frames two to five characters against a plain backdrop – the front of an apartment building, the bare wall of one of the rooms inside, a table at the local tavern – where they alternately snipe at each other, spread rumors and ugly gossip, and talk haltingly, with blank expressions, about not very much.

There’s a biting, satiric edge, and a visceral anti-racist undertone (shared with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, the only other Fassbinder I’m familiar with), but it’s kind of a slog. A repeated visual theme – a couple (by the end of the film, nearly every permutation has been included) walking through the courtyard to the sounds of a stately piano, like they’re walking down the aisle or in some sort of ritual procession, helps break up the minimalist tedium – but it’s a suffocating vision of insularity, xenophobia, sexism, casual violence, and economic malaise. I admired the film but I didn’t enjoy it.

The plot, such as it is, can be summarized very quickly. A group of young Germans, with little to do, no jobs, and not much hope, hang out and talk shit about each other. They are frustrated economically and sexually – the film definitely implies these two things are related on a fundamental level.

Their aspirations are minor: a quick buck, the promise of an acting career based on a photo shoot, a marriage or, failing that, some affection. In their restless ennui, they pass the time by passing judgment on each other, and each one is a hypocrite: the girl who trades sex for “gifts” of money is scorned, for instance, while it’s implied one of the tough guys is doing the same for out-of-town men. Each of them looks for any opportunity to distinguish and elevate their own compromises under oppressive conditions from those of the others.

Satire or not, these are unpleasant folks to be around.

Eventually, one of the residents takes in a lodger, a Greek laborer (played by Fassbinder), and the gossip shifts into high gear. The logic of the film’s structure indicates that all the simmering resentment that had previously circulated through the group now has an external outlet in this simple, uncomprehending Other. He sleeps naked! He is “better built,” as his unwitting roommate puts it! (How so, someone asks? “His dick,” he answers, as though what he meant wasn’t clear already.) He’s a cunning communist! He assaults German women, maybe! These allegations also sit right alongside their opposites – that Greeks don’t bathe and are undesirable, that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, and so forth. Since all these characters do is talk, his lack of German fluency renders him a cipher, and they can make of him whatever their free-floating resentment requires.

It culminates, as you’d expect, in an act of violence. But nothing much changes. In fact, Fassbinder’s final fuck-you gesture in Katzelmacher (“Cat fucker,” incidentally, which Wikipedia informs me is pejorative Bavarian slang for foreign workers) is to close on a note rendering even that violence perfunctory and meaningless.

Aside from the one character making money from renting rooms, these people are not economic agents in their own lives – they just sort of inhabit a world where things happen which they can’t control, and even scapegoating and violence do nothing but underline their powerlessness. All that’s left is to stew about it, try to find someone, close at hand, to blame, and talk shit on an apartment stoop, and dream of an escape that no one really thinks is coming.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre – a “horror” movie steeped in ritual, wacked-out symbolism, and the surreal – achieved what no other movie could: it made me enjoy an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

I have tried and tried to like his earlier films. I am told, on good authority, I really should. They are midnight-movie staples which helped define the notion of the midnight movie and clearly important, singular, weird, maybe visionary … but they leave me cold.

I recognize their crazed passion, but what can I say? El Topo, with its ponderous long shots and elaborate set pieces and kind of half-baked shamanism and ludicrousness, and The Holy Mountain’s ostentatious framing and inscrutable cosmology … they come across to me as Hippie Cinema By Way Of Bunuel, at its most desperate. Watching them, I just feel each time like I showed up at a party where everyone dropped acid two hours ago, and they ran out. It’s amusing enough to look at, but I probably should just go to a bar.

Santa Sangre is different, and not just because decades have passed.

Where El Topo and The Holy Mountain operate in a genre netherworld – mostly constructed around naked people offering words of wisdom and dread, in between shots of the sun – Santa Sangre felt actually rooted somewhere (ironically, in a traveling circus, a fantastic image of rootlessness).

It has characters we care about – the woman defending her people’s church, the boy born into this life who longs for something and someone else, the girl who longs for him, the elephant who can’t stop bleeding and whose closed-casket funeral procession is the most striking image in the whole movie.

Yes, the elephant funeral, with its Fellini-esque march of musicians, clowns, knife-wielding womanizers, heretical priestesses, and child-magicians. Don’t worry: This is still an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

But it’s a Jodorowsky horror, and maybe the genre aspect is what I found appealing. It’s a ghost story, really.

The young boy, Fenix, is a sham magician in his parent’s operation, learning artifice as the family trade. A series of unfortunate events leave both his parents dead – his mom, with her arms cut off like the saint she worships; his dad, who slits his own throat after getting his genitals burned off with acid in retribution for infidelity. Life is hard in this circus.

Fenix grows up, and not very gracefully. When we meet him again, he’s escaping from some sort of mental health facility where he was being held (a progressive one: the proprietors were kind enough to install a tree inside so he can pretend to be a bird, as is his wont). Beckoned by his mother, now apparently corporeal, he ascends the tree and makes a break for it.

Fenix then finds himself back on the sideshow beat, with his main act being a pantomime with his ghost-mom, where he uses his arms in place of hers on stage. They have a good thing going, but the girl he loved so long ago (presumably not a ghost) has also been looking for him. It’s clear nothing good is going to come from any of this.

The things that have and continue to bug me about Jodorowsky are still here in Santa Sangre: the on-the-nose symbolism, the extravagant set pieces, the uncanny shenanigans that almost seem like they should come with a footnote in a corner of the screen, referencing other symbolic art you might enjoy.

But in a horror context, it works: I had no trouble believing that things would spiral this out of control, or that the surrealist touches would be there. It rarely felt forced – the basic notion, that the madness of the unconscious can be let loose at any minute and we’d be fools to even wonder at it, makes much more sense here. And in its closing moments at least, it’s legitimately scary.

He constructs striking images; that much is not in dispute. Even in the early films I’m sort of deriding, I recognize this is true. In some ways, I think he prefers images alone, rather than stringing them together to make a film. Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, might hint at his true position: he sure does love talking through the movie from illustrated stills. It almost seems like it doesn’t matter to him that it didn’t pan out.

But in Santa Sangre, it all works – image, mood, ritual. It’s a great film, worthy of his visual genius.

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Martyrs is not a good movie.

No, I will go further: Martyrs is a bad movie, born of false pretense, disingenuously presented, and executed poorly. It is the only movie on this list I outright disliked. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t think it was so smart. It is not smart. It’s a stupid exercise foisted on the gullible for shitty reasons.

Here is the basic plot: A shadowy cabal kidnaps women to torture them into a state of grace, what they refer to as “martyrdom.” One can tell the martyred by the hollow look in their eyes as they stare to the Heavens, having emptied themselves of all hope. This cult wants to create a martyr and keep her alive long enough to relate what she sees before she dies. (It’s always a “she,” we’re told: women are somehow more inclined to grace through suffering. Why? Who knows, let’s keep this shitshow moving along.)

 

We’re introduced to these nice folks by way of an actually scary plotline involving a tortured child who escapes, but we only find out what it was about later. In the early scenes, the movie is filled with promise: is there anything scarier than a wounded child running away from some unknown horror house? I vote no. And right up until the middle of the movie, Martyrs is scary.

When we discover the plot underlying everything, the movie caves in on itself, in the most despicable possible ways. Scene after scene simply repeats itself: A ladder descends to an industrial basement. Our protagonist, now grown, is tied up and beaten. Dissolve. Our protagonist pisses herself. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist is beaten for a while. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist’s head is sheared, painfully. Dissolve. I think this continues for several hours, though that seems impossible given the movie’s alleged running time.

Its intentionally punishing in its aesthetic, and we’re implicated as viewers. The film desperately wants to be called “extreme cinema,” and get both arthouse and Fangoria points for being “willing to go there.” What is it actually? It is 30 minutes of a woman being punched in the head, then skinned alive, with some half-assed pseudo-science and a cop-out ending.

There’s nothing there; the profound eschatological inquiry is just a cover, like we knew it was from the start. This is a movie about, above all else, a woman getting punched in the face, and us watching her get punched in the face.

I’m not squeamish about these things in movies. There is violence in the world, and movies are part of the world. It’s not even the nature of the violence, or its targets, that bothered me here: it’s the idea that we would learn something, or feel something, when the movie has absolutely no interest in teaching or imparting feeling. Its producers and directors know there is a built-in audience for literally anything violent and over-the-top, but they aren’t content with exploitation. They mean to make art.

They fail at that, and at many other things. In the end, the movie they made is a nasty, mean-spirited fraud.

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Atomic reactors! Radiation and mysterious crop failures! A secret joint U.S.-Canadian nuclear operation aimed at the Russians!

Fiend Without A Face is definitely a Cold War artifact, and laughably silly more often than not, but it’s also really well made and engaging. It touches on public fears which haven’t gone away, though the details have changed, and includes an admirable number of viewpoints without belittling them.

It also features sometimes-invisible monsters made of brains and spinal cords, who strangle you and suck out your essence to live. Which is awesome.

The film concludes with an old-fashioned shoot-out – basically, a brain massacre – and the props leak what appears to be grape jam.

I enjoyed this movie.

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A commenter on The Dissolve introduced me to the notion of the “perpendicular sequel” – a film that draws from but doesn’t interfere with the original, and launches off in a different direction. If ever there were a movie that fits the bill, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

For one thing, Freddy Kreuger, the child-killing villain from the first film who showed up in the dreams of the town’s youngsters to exact revenge for his own murder, is no longer interested in terrorizing all of them – he now haunts one boy alone. That boy, Jesse, is tormented by him, and it becomes clear that Freddy is some kind of manifestation of Jesse’s own turmoil. Sure, Jesse moved into the house across the street from where we watched another boy die in the first film, but there are other traumas at play.

This is a huge departure from the mythology that launched the series, not but one installment ago. It’s actually kind of amazing that this movie ever got made at all: Most direct sequels stick to at least the bare-bones structure of their predecessor. Not so here: Freddy’s revenge, such as it is, lands directly on poor Jesse, who is left to grapple with a whole host of identity issues, given that Freddy has now decided to literally live inside him. He’s a dark, threatening aspect of Jesse’s psyche (and, apparently, stomach), which must be repressed if Jesse’s going to fit in at school, get a girl, live a happy suburban life.

Some people say that this is the out-and-out gayest film of the franchise, possibly of all horror movie franchise entries in history. Those people are right. You would have to be willfully, steadfastly opposed to the obvious to ignore it.

This is a movie in which the gym coach frequents leather bars (or “S&M joints,” according to one character, who is made to do punishing laps and push-ups for the coach’s amusement – “That’s just how he gets his rocks off,” he points out; later, the same character mentions to Jesse that the coach “likes pretty boys like you”). Later, the coach is flayed to death with jump ropes in the school shower, naked and bound, after tennis ball canisters aggressively ejaculate in all directions. This is a movie where our protagonist runs away from the female love interest to hide out in his buddy’s bedroom, who incredulously, mockingly notes, “There’s a girl waiting for you and you want to spend the night with me.” This is a slasher movie in which only men die – is it the only one where this is true? – and, notably, only those men who embody either danger or desire for our Jesse. In case things weren’t clear enough for the audience, the filmmakers helpfully add this: As Freddy fights his way out of Jesse’s stomach (in one of the genuinely gross, fun scares in a movie that seems to have forgotten it’s supposed to include those at all), Jesse mournfully cries out, “He’s INSIDE ME, and he WANTS TO TAKE ME AGAIN.”

It’s all incredibly amusing and campy, actually, but the plot beats could be read in a deeply homophobic way. Does Jesse triumph over carnal desire by eliminating the boys he might kind of want to bang, and secure redemption from his terrible, terrible urges with the help of Lisa, who would in any other horror movie be the Final Girl? (Here, she’s simply a calm port in the storm, a promise of normalcy, and a possible salvation from Freddy’s torment.) Or, as Freddy cackles at him in the end, driving back into the desert where the movie began, has Jesse just postponed dealing with the embodiment of a power that can’t be willed away so easily?

Is this taking A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge a little too seriously? In a word, yes. But the film, like a lot of modern American horror, is a mythic treatment of adolescent confusion, played out for giggles and scares. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, and is sort of lovable for that reason alone. (Not to mention Jesse’s sweet dance moves.)

One thing is clear: there aren’t too many movies like it. And given the vehement, bordering on disgusted, rejection of it by the series’ fan base – who were decidedly less interested in a protagonist grappling with his sexuality than people being cut up with razor fingers or drowned in water beds – there probably won’t be another.

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