Friday, July 30, 2010

A Prophet (Un prophète)

Jacques Audiard’s 2009 prison crime drama “A Prophet” (“Un prophète”) was nominated for and won an absurd amount of awards, including the prizes at Cannes, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and the Cèsar Awards, among numerous others, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It was tapped for awards across the board, from acting and directing, to writing and cinematography.

Normally that amount of glowing praise raises some red flags for me since my tastes and opinions run somewhat askew to that of the critical mainstream. (I still think of Steven Seagal as a viable film star, that’s where I’m coming from.) However, in this case the admiration and worship are warranted. Not to sound like a jackass who thinks his opinion is important, but “A Prophet” is easily one of the best movies of 2009.

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is 19 years old and on his way to prison, ostensibly for assaulting a police officer, though the one time it comes up he denies the charge. The young Arab man is thoroughly alone. He has no one, no one on the outside to wire him money or come visit him, no one waiting for him on the inside, no friends, no enemies, no connections in the world at all. He has no skills, is illiterate and an orphan, and has been on his own inside the juvenile system in one capacity or another since he was 11.

Once inside Malik tries to stick to himself, but his cells proximity to Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab informant, leads Cèsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), head of the Corsican gang that rules the prison, to force Malik to carry out a hit on the snitch. As a result of this act, Malik becomes entrenched in the criminal life of the jail. Because he is Arab, most of the Corsicans treat as a servant, as little more than an errand boy to handle the tasks they do not want to touch, though Luciani recognizes his intelligence and potential, and takes him into his confidence.

Malik belongs to no specific world. He is Arab, but not Muslim. He works for the Corsicans, but is not one of them. Like the ghost of Reyeb that haunts him like an old friend, Malik is able to drift back and forth between clicks, to exist in multiple spheres at once. He knows how to use one group with or against another, and successfully navigates the complex cultural and political waters of prison crime. In this way, discreetly scratching and clawing, he climbs up the underworld ladder, his power increasing until he has his hands in many pies, and his influence reaches beyond the confines of the prison walls.

Comparisons to “The Godfather” have come fast and furious for “A Prophet”, and there are similarities, so the association does make sense. Both use crime and the quest for power as an allegory for daily life and family, and the intricate, twisted nature of the criminal world and plot structure are similar. But I think a more accurate counterpart is “Goodfellas”. The rise of Malik from peon cleaning the floor to a criminal with clout closely parallels that of Henry Hill. The power structure is nearly identical, and the inexperienced youngster is taken under the wing of an older, more experienced outlaw, and shown how to survive.

The pacing is deliberate and methodical. It never falters, is never sluggish, and keeps moving forward. While some movies slow down because they don’t have enough story to fill the space that is not the case with “A Prophet”. The pace is intentional, and when it slows down it builds intensity. Even in the more reflective, gradual moments, the plot moves forward, things are accomplished, and tension increases. Good reference points are films like “Oldboy” and “A Bittersweet Life”, films where, even though there action on screen may be minimal and low-key for extended periods, they are never weighed down by the pace. This is a 155 minute long movie that never feels long, and remains powerful throughout the entire run time.

“A Prophet” is by turns bleak and optimistic. Though Malik is initially compelled against his will into the criminal underbelly of prison, and he is capable of horrifically violent deeds, there are still small glimpses of hope, and he never fully loses his humanity. If you are a fan of crime movies, especially any of the ones mentioned above, definitely check out “A Prophet”, it will be well worth your time.

The DVD release comes with a decent collection of bonus material. There are some deleted scenes. Most are pretty good, but with a movie that is already two and half hours long, you can understant why they were cut. They are organized chronologically by character, which is an interesting approach that brings some small insights into the character arcs. The screen tests with star Rahim don’t add anything new to the experience, and why watch a trailer for a movie you already have? A commentary track that features Rahim, director Audiard, and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, is the highlight of the extras. Everything about the prison feels so gritty and authentic that I was surprised to find out that it was all a constructed set. And to give the scenes authenticity the filmmakers largely used extras that had served time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blood and Bone

Michael Jai White has been in some decent movies, like “Exit Wounds” and “Undisputed II”. He’s played Mike Tyson, was in the second “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, and even has a credit from “Saved By the Bell” on his resume, and I mean the real “Saved By the Bell”, none of this “New Class” or “College Years” nonsense. “Black Dynamite” is even pretty awesome, and he was in “The Dark Knight”. My point is that White’s career has been interesting to say the least. For a minute he looked poised to become the next big action star. That never quite panned out, but he’s managed to carve out a nice niche in the direct to video market.

While White has appeared in a wide range of films, his action movies are his bread and butter. And “Blood and Bone” might be the best of the bunch.

For starters, the first shot is an homage to “Kung Fu”, White walking with the sun behind him, cutting a stark silhouette on screen. So right out of the gate I’m on the hook. I’m easy, I’m not too proud to admit that. What follows is my favorite kind of action movie. Badass. The next scene is Isaiah Bone (White) tearing apart a gang of thugs led by street fighting legend Kimbo Slice, in a prison bathroom.

Director Ben Ramsey and writer Michael Andrews know exactly what their audience wants to see. They want to see fighting. And fighting you shall see.

Once out of prison, Bone inserts himself into the street-fighting underworld of Los Angeles, aided by fast-talking, but low level fight promoter, Pinball (Dante Basco, Rufio from “Hook”). Bone isn’t just trying to make a few bucks, he has a definite plan, and it somehow involves James (Eamon Walker, “Oz”). James is a high roller who rose from the streets, but he has greater aspirations. He views himself as a gentleman of sorts, as a sophisticate. He and Bone are similar in many regards. Though they participate in base, violent acts, they do so with a purpose, with a sense of honor, and with the spirit of warriors. Certainly they are a part of the streets, but they also stand apart from them.

Bone is the quintessential mysterious drifter. There is a method behind his actions, as well as something shadowy that drives him. His past, however, is appropriately ambiguous. You are given just enough information to keep you afloat, but no more. The filmmakers use chess as a metaphor throughout, and it is appropriate as Bone is continually plotting, moving, and planning his moves in advance, with an end always in his sight, but hidden from the other players.

“Blood and Bone” has a couple of things that many other movies DTV action movies don’t. First is a story. There is a real, intricate story. It moves and twists and changes, and is revealed over the course of the film. It is not simply a tale of revenge, though that certainly figures in, and the way the plot is structured, it is laid out gradually, over time. The story keeps you interested as much as the regular fight scenes, and is just as engaging.

And holy shit, the characters are interesting. Who saw that coming? They have personalities and demons and desires and drives. They aren’t just stock, cardboard cut outs, they feel like real people in a real story. Even relatively minor characters, like Bone’s landlord Tamra (Nona Gaye), have fully developed personas.

Another thing “Blood and Bone” has that is missing in a lot of action movies that skip the theaters, is quality action. White is a lifelong martial artist with a grasp of a variety of styles, and this movie is really a showcase for his talents and abilities. Beyond White, cast is a who’s who of professional fighters. I already mentioned Kimbo Slice, but it also features Gina Carano, Ernest “Cat” Miller, and the land behemoth known as Bob Sapp. And it isn’t just big name fighters either. Maurice Smith, one of the most decorated living kickboxers, shows up to fight, as well as a slew of lesser-known martial artists. Basically the people who are fighting know how to fight, and they rely on those skills as opposed to things like wires, quick jump cuts, and sped up film. Ramsey wanted to show the action, so much of the camera work harkens back to Bruce Lee films, and other classic martial arts films, where the fighters were simply kept in frame and filmed doing what they do best.

The fight scenes look like actual fights between people who know how to fight. I appreciate that, it is something that is missing across the board modern action cinema. One of my favorite fight scenes of all time is the fight between Steven Seagal and Dan Inosanto in “Out for Justice”, a fight between two highly trained, decorated fighters. “Blood and Bone” is a throwback to that type of late 80s action film, which relied on skill rather than tricks and gimmicks, and it fits nicely into that genre.

With the explosion in popularity of mixed martial arts, there have been a ton of movies seeking to cash in on that, like “Circle of Pain”, “Redbelt”, “Undisputed III”, and others. Some are good, some are unwatchable garbage. Even the fights in other movies, one example being “Universal Solider: Regeneration” (which prominently featured MMA heavyweight Andrei Arlovski), are now being tailored more to that style. While it is definitely of that ilk, “Blood and Bone” is one of the best, succeeding on multiple levels, as well as working independently. You don’t have to be an MMA fan to enjoy it.

Sure, there is some cheesiness to “Blood and Bone”, primarily around the staging of the fights. Some of them look like cut scenes from a “Fast and Furious” knock off, and at one point Bob Sapp does punch a guy so hard he pukes. There is even a clunky, forced romantic interest for a brief moment. Thankfully it goes away quickly, but it is there. But for the most part the problems are easily ignored and don’t distract from the rest of the movie.

I was actually surprised by how much I laughed out loud. There are some clever jokes that occur naturally within the story, and a twisted sense of humor that runs throughout. Seriously, how often to you laugh at a guy squeegeeing hooker blood off of the windshield of his Range Rover? And how can you make a Wang Chung sing-a-long frightening? Ask Eamon Walker, because he does.

“Blood and Bone” isn’t perfect, but if you are a fan of old style action, you should definitely give it a chance. In 1991 this would have stared Wesley Snipes or Jean-Claude Van Damme at the height of their careers, and people would have been psyched about it. “Blood and Bone” is a movie that I will likely watch again, and I suggest you do the same and get psyched about it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Operation: Endgame

Originally appeared at BeyondHollywood.com


The first thing you are likely to notice about Fouad Mikati’s “Operation: Endgame” is that the cast is a bit nuts. Rob Corddry, Ellen Barkin, Ving Rhames, and Zach Galifianakis are the big guns, but it also involves Jeffrey Tambor, Maggie Q, Odette Yustman, Brandon T. Jackson, Emilie De Ravin, Bob Odenkirk, and Adam Scott. That’s quite a list, especially for a first time director. But when the writer has the last name Levinson, and the producers list “Donnie Darko” and “Capote” on their resumes, I guess your project gains some additional clout in the casting department.

The only name listed above the title that I don’t at least recognize to some degree is Joe Anderson. Apparently he was in the remake of “The Crazies” and “The Ruins”, among other things. Here he plays the Fool, the closest thing “Endgame” has to a protagonist, and it is the first day at his new job. Starting a new job is stressful under the best of circumstances, but when your new job is at the Factory, a super-secret cadre of elite international spies headquartered in a bunker deep beneath Los Angeles and unacknowledged by the government, the normal anxiety gets ratcheted up a few notches.

Within the Factory there are two rival teams of assassins, Alpha and Omega, headed by Empress (Barkin) and Emperor (Odenkirk), respectively, and overseen by the Devil (Tambor). The agents get their code names from a deck of tarot cards. They are very good at what they do, and they hate each other with a white-hot fiery passion.


Eventually someone assassinates Devil, triggers Project: Endgame, the Factory’s lock-down and self-destruct feature, and the agents of Alpha start picking off their rivals in Omega one by one. In the midst of this chaos, everyone scuttles around, trying to stay alive long enough to find a way to escape. That’s a hell of a first day.

“Operation: Endgame” is a haphazard mish-mash of comedy and action. The action is so-so, and there are a couple of decent fight scene, including an excellent use for a paper shredder, but the movie works best when the rival agents banter back and forth, especially when it involves Corddry. You can tell Mikati let him off leash so he could do his thing. If you’re a fan of Corddry’s style of humor then you’ll enjoy his tirades, which aren’t really anything different from his usual shtick, but are by far the funniest parts of the movie.

Throughout “Endgame” there are cut scenes of Carl and Neal (Tim Bagley and Michael Hitchcock). They are watchers. They sit in front of monitors and watch the action in the Factory from the safety of the corporate headquarters. These moments can be pretty funny, their snide back and forth comments on the main action, but their presence doesn’t serve any purpose in the larger framework of the movie. They remind me of the old guys on the balcony from “The Muppet Show”, they watch and remark on the action, but stand apart from it, and in the end feel unnecessary.

While there are some hilarious moments, the overall structure and pacing of “Endgame” has some huge problems, and watching it, you start to understand why a movie with this much star power isn’t getting a wider release.

First of all, it bursts out of the gate like a drunken snail, lumbering forward. There are so many characters that the first thirty minutes is entirely burned with introductions. Corddry carries this part of the film. Without his bitter, foul-mouthed outbursts, the opening act would be torturous and unbearably dull.

All of the different strands and stories unravel and tangle together into mess that hobbles along without any coherent focus. Rhames and Odenkirk are squandered. They each get a decent line or two, but are criminally underused. For that matter, so is Jackson. His only worthwhile line is a Nietzsche quote. Galifianakis, who the kids seem to enjoy, is barely on screen, and when he is he is more annoying than anything else. His character, the Hermit, pops up and mumbles some stupid shit that causes the action to stall just when you want it to keep going. We get it, he’s weird, and borderline mentally handicapped, but that doesn’t make him funny.

The whole thing is a mess. There isn’t even a real direction until about 50 minutes in, and when the plot finally does buckle down and start to progress, it doesn’t become any more compelling.

Like I said earlier, Fool is about as much of a hero as you’re going to get out of “Operation: Endgame”, and he isn’t much of one. Because the story tries to belong to everyone it winds up not belonging to anyone. You never really get to know anyone, so there is barely anyone to root for and identify with.

I won’t give away the end, but I will say this, it’s dumb. The attempt at a twist is obvious, and when it is revealed, you’re going to shrug and say, “I waited for that?”

Initially I wondered how a movie with such an all-star cast could get such lackluster treatment. It got a miniscule theatrical release in LA on July 16th, and the DVD and Blu-Ray come out on July 27th, eleven days later. However, after watching it, I completely understand this approach. There are a handful of moments that verge on brilliant, but as a whole, “Operation: Endgame” leaves a lot to be desired.

The DVD comes with a cobbled together anthology of behind the scenes footage, none of which is interesting, and alternate openings and endings. The alternate opening makes sense, the content would clarify a few things, and maybe justify the ending to a degree, but I understand why it was cut. It isn’t entertaining at all, and if it was the first thing you saw, you might not watch any further. The alternate ending is really just a truncated version of what is in the movie, shorter by a few shots, but not different in any way that matters. All in all, there isn’t much worth watching.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Predators

I’ve been waiting for an appropriate sequel to “Predator” since I saw it in the theater in 1987 when I was ten years old. “Predator 2” was good, but not great (there are legitimate claims that this movie isn’t very good, but I enjoy it). A few years ago, I got excited for “Alien Vs. Predator” only to be horribly disappointed. A few years after that I got excited for “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem” (they said they wanted to make people forget that the first “AVP” ever happened, a sentiment that I can get behind), and again, I was my enthusiasm was tragically betrayed.

After “AVP:R” crushed my spirits, and on Christmas day no less, I gave up hope of living to witness a decent “Predator” sequel. My wounds still fresh, I’ve been reasonably skeptical as news of “Predators” has trickled in. Sure, I like Robert Rodriguez, and even in his less awesome movies the action is still high quality. This sounded favorable. But Rodriguez wasn’t directing, Nimrod Antal was at the helm, and in my world, this fellow is still an unknown quantity. This gave me pause. I like Adrian Brody, but I’m not sure of his ability as an action star. Laurence Fishburne can go either way. With Danny Trejo you know what you’re going to get, he’ll be badass, but he’s also been good in some horrible crap bombs.

What I’m trying to say is that, for months leading up to the release of “Predators”, I’ve been prone to wildly fluctuating moods, moments of great elation mixed with the deep, dark, depths of despair. But the trailers looked good, and when the little character films popped up, I started, against my better judgment, to get increasingly excited. But still, Topher Grace? Really? Does he deserve a place in the “Predator” cannon? Oh the trepidation. It’s so hard.

I was going to see “Predators” regardless, but I’m here, now, to say that SOMEONE FINALLY MADE A GOOD FUCKING “PREDATOR” SEQUEL!!!

The first thing you see is Adrien Brody waking up in the middle of a freefall that he wasn’t in when he fell asleep. That’s a hell of a way to wake up. He is understandably distraught by his situation, as any of us would be. Good thing he has a parachute. When he hits the ground he encounters seven other people, six dudes and a lady, who all plummeted to earth in a similar fashion. The last thing any of them remember is a bright light then they woke up falling.

With the exception of Topher Grace, who is a nerdy doctor, all of them come from a violent background. Alice Braga is a member of the Israeli Defense Force, Danny Trejo is an enforcer for a drug cartel, Louis Ozawa Changchien is from the Yakuza, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali is a death squad soldier from Sierra Leone, former MMA fighter Oleg Taktarov (who has a great screen presence) is Spetsnaz, and Brody himself is former military, with a background in black ops, who now plies his trade as a mercenary.

Walton Goggins, with his crazy ass face, and freaky caveman brow, rounds out the main body of the cast as a death row inmate, armed only with a prison shank. I didn’t watch “The Shield”, but after seeing this and watching the first season of “Justified”, I’m totally in love with this guy. He’s great and I want to watch everything he’s ever done. Somehow he manages to be hilarious and menacing and creepy all at the same time without short changing any one component.

Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch don’t waste any time. The first bullets erupt out of a mini-gun within the first few minutes. They also don’t expend much effort on characters and back-story. We know what we need to know about these people, and the characterization comes from their actions onscreen. Their names and histories are not important, what is important is they find themselves in this new and hostile situation, and they have to deal with it the only way any of them know how, violently. For the most part you don’t even know any of their names until the movie has progressed. In the case of two main characters, I won’t give away which, their names are not revealed until one of the final shots of the film.

Action is in no short supply, and when there isn’t any action, “Predators” passes the time by cranking up the tension until you want to punch something. That’s the entire movie, action interspersed with ever increasing tension. They squeeze out every drop they can. Imagine this, you wake up with a bunch of strangers on a world that turns out not to be the world you thought you were on, you’re being hunted by some unidentified thing or things, and when you finally do find out what is after you it is so much worse than you originally thought. There, my friends, you have the basic building blocks of “Predators”.

There are also some genuinely funny moments in “Predators”, mostly due to Goggins and Grace (the interactions between the two are priceless), but the filmmakers don’t make the mistake that so many action movies make, and make the humor too ridiculous. This isn’t Will Smith cracking wise as he empties a clip. It’s definitely gallows humor, the jokes of someone who is well aware that he will probably die very, very soon.

“Predators” feels almost exactly like “Predator”. Much of this is due to the fact that they use the same Alan Silvestri score from the original, but it is more than that. The action is essentially the same, a heavily armed cadre traipses around the jungle and gets picked off by an unseen enemy, but the camera movement closely mimics John McTiernan’s in the first film, as does the color palate. The numerous homages to the first film are obvious, but feel like just that, a tip of the hat as opposed to a rip off. More than any of the other installments in this franchise, “Predators” feels like a “Predator” movie.

Despite my initial reservations, I have to admit that I know whole-heartedly accept Adrien Brody as a legitimate action movie hero. In the 80s it was all about action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone that looked the part. Their intense physicality set them apart. Guys like Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal changed that paradigm near the end of the decade, and then you got normal looking guys who could still be badass and save the day. But still, even though they looked like everyday people, they were good people, doing the right thing.

In the modern era of action cinema there is a new mold. Characters like Jason Bourne, and Brody’s character, Royce, are less black and white. They are not necessarily decent human beings. They have the requisite backgrounds and skill sets to be heroes, but they are less about being the good guys and more about staying alive and self-preservation. Willis and Seagal generally played parts like cops and military specialists, roles that, from the outset, are firmly planted on the side of good and right. In the new action film, the lines are not as static, things are more complex, and the choice between right and wrong is not always so easy or automatic.

“Predators” may not be a perfect movie, there is an awkward little bit about different types of Predators hunting each other, and some of Brody’s analysis and readings of their behavior may come too easily, but overall, it is totally fucking awesome. I walked out of the theater completely satisfied, and thought to myself that this was the sequel that “Predator” fans have been waiting 23 years for.

I’m probably overhyping “Predators” a bit, and I’m sure that most people won’t have the same reaction to it, and that some will hate it. But even though the world conspired to make me late to my local megaplex, when I finally got there the projector was broken and we had to sit for fifteen minutes, and after that, they herded us into another theater, I still left this movie more satisfied than I have with any movie in years. It almost made me forget about all of the previous missteps in franchise history, not an easy task.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The A-Team (2010)

I really have to stop letting myself read other reviews and press releases and all of that nonsense ahead of time when it concerns a movie that I do actually want to see. I know better, I really do, but that doesn’t seem to stop me. A couple of times recently this practice has led me to hold off on seeing movies that I wound up enjoying. It happened with “Kick-Ass”, and it happened again with “The A-Team”.

I was as torn as everyone else when it was announced that everyone’s favorite, resourceful military fugitives from the 1980s were going to get their very own big-budget, live-action, summer-blockbuster release. Everything I sincerely loved as a child has been rehashed and remade, and generally fucked up, like “Transformers”. The only thing I have fond childhood memories of that is left for the Hollywood recycling machine to redo is “Magnum P.I.” (Though due to the present financial woes over at MGM, the “Red Dawn” remake may not happen, and the proposed Voltron” movie is presently dead, so I got a reprieve on those fronts. There is an impending live-action adaptation of “Battleship Yamamoto”—aka “Star Blazers” for us Yanks—but that’s a Japanese production, and the trailer looks awesome.)

I was skeptical about “The A-Team”, but I was always still going to see it, I had to. And I liked it, I really did. It’s not the best movie ever made, and it was completely absurd, but so was the show. I seem to remember an episode where the team jerry rigged a cannon that shot some sort of pink, salt water taffy type of substance, which completely overwhelmed a group of heavily armed bad guys, so, ridiculous is what I expected.

The cast is a higher level than for any of the horror movie reboots that keep popping up, and their performances are spot on. Liam Neeson as Hannibal even looks like George Peppard, and gets to utter his signature line, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Bradley Cooper is pitch perfect as Face, his smart-ass, cocky, d-bag charm is exactly what that part needed. I want to hate him, but I can’t. Former UFC light heavyweight champ, Quintin “Rampage” Jackson, is adequate as B.A. Baracas, but let’s be honest, though I have a deep seeded love for Mr. T, he was never widely acclaimed for his acting acumen. Sharlto Copley rounds out the team as “Howling Mad” Murdock, the batshit crazy pilot of all things airborne, and a few things not that shouldn’t be.

Beyond the central figures, the whole movie is well cast. Patrick Wilson has a blast playing the scummy, two-timing CIA Agent Lynch, and steals every scene he is in. Brian Bloom plays Hannibal’s chief rival, Pike, a private security specialist. And Gerald McRaney is in this movie. That’s right, Gerald McFucking Raney. That alone is enough to win my love. Jessica Biel is also in the cast, but I’m pretty indifferent to her existence.

While the TV show took place after Hannibal and company were already on the run, the movie tackles how they meet, become the best, and are ultimately betrayed by the very government they served.

After the four protagonists meet in the Mexican desert, we skip forward eight years and 80 missions, to the current Iraq war. There the Alpha Unit, or A-Team, pulls off a mission that no one else could have, but instead of being treated like heroes, they are blown up, shot at, arrested, court martialed, and imprisoned. Of course there is only one thing to do, escape from prison, banter back and forth, drug B.A. so he can fly, and clear their names, a feat which involves all manner of crazy plans, crackerjack timing, and lots of bullets and explosions. And unlike the show, some of these bullets do manage to hit people.

The action is over the top and absurd, bordering on ludicrous, and in other circumstances, it might turn me off, but in “The A-Team” the energy is so constant and engaging that it hooked me. Sure, they parachute a tank out of an airplane that just got shot down and take out some Predator drones while doing it. Director Joe Carnahan does that “Ocean’s Eleven” thing where as one character talks about the plan, the action plays out on screen with a voiceover. That’s been done to death and is kind of annoying. And it goes without saying that the love story between Face and Sosa (Biel) is forced, awkward, and not developed in any meaningful way.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a litany of flaws in “The A-Team”, and I totally get why some people hate it, but I thought it was a lot of fun. Everyone in this movie is having a blast. It must be liberating to be able just go over the top nuts and get paid for it, and it is at least smart enough that you don’t feel completely insulted. The introductions of the characters made me groan (they do the thing where they freeze frame and type the character’s name across the screen), but after that, once the action really kicks in, I was on board.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams

“2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams” is an interesting artifact. It is the sequel “2001 Maniacs”, a remake of “2000 Maniacs”, the spattery 1964 Herschell Gordon Lewis movie (which was inspired by “Brigadoon”, a musical), but is also based on a comic that appeared in the interim between the remake and the sequel. That was a mouthful.

Writer/Director Tim Sullivan and company return to Pleasant Valley, Georgia, home of the eponymous Maniacs. It isn’t entirely clear, but I think they are the ghosts (or perhaps zombies, that is hinted at as well) of the Southerners who were slaughtered there by renegade Union soldiers during the Civil War and have come back in order to exact revenge by killing one Northerner for each dead Confederate, of which there were 2001. They are also cannibals, so that is going on as well.

Bill Moseley (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”, “The Devil’s Rejects”) pops up as Mayor George W. Buckman, the role played previously by Robert Englund and Jeffery Allen, and he has a problem. No Yankee scum are showing up to this year’s Guts N’ Glory Jamboree, and the folks are disappointed because there is no one to kill. So Buckman does what any good revenge minded public servant does when his constituency becomes restless, he improvises. If no Northerners will come to the South then they will take the South to them.

The Maniacs (in reality there are only eleven, not 2001) pile into a school bus and hit the road. In Iowa they encounter the cast of a reality show called “Road Rascals” that is supposed to be a spoof of “The Simple Life”, that nonsense with Paris Hilton and Lionel Richie’s daughter. Somehow that reference is already dated. The cast is full of vapid LA socialites who are famous simply for being famous, not from actually doing anything, and their hangers on who want to be famous for their proximity to famous people.

As you can imagine, carnage and mayhem ensues.

The Maniacs are a mix of people from the first movie and new faces. Moseley is new, but in an old role, Lin Shaye reprises her role as Granny, and Christa Campbell is back as the buxom Milk Maiden. Among the new additions are Kevin ‘Ogre’ Ogilvie, vocalist for Skinny Puppy, who plays Maniac doctor Harper Alexander, and Jar Jar Binks himself, Ahmed Best, as Crow, the slave/minstrel/voodoo practitioner who is ultimately responsible for reviving the cannibalistic Confederates.


Sullivan is well aware of his audience and what they want to see. And they want to see two things, boobs and blood. “Field of Screams” provides plenty of both, though to be entirely honest, not nearly as much of either as I originally anticipated. Sullivan refers to the genre as “splat-stick”, and that seems to be a fair assessment, as the movie is an endless mix of jokes and blood spray. Everyone involved is well aware that they are making something ridiculous. Think Troma ridiculous.

There are some moments of inspired lunacy, which is what I hope you expect when you pick up a movie titled “Field of Screams”. Moments like a guy in a Lone Ranger mask and a cape dry humping a stuffed sheep, the most interesting use of a chastity belt I’ve ever seen, and what Sullivan calls a “buffalo titty stampede”. The “blood-bath-a-go-go” scene alone is almost worth the price of admission.

Notice I use the word “almost”.

“Field of Screams” is roughly half so-stupid-it-is-awesome, half just fucking stupid. Actually, let me amend that last statement. “Field of Screams” is roughly one-fourth to one-third so-stupid-it-is-awesome, while the remainder is fucking retarded. That’s a more appropriate way to describe it. It isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, it isn’t as gory as it thinks it is, and the intentional political incorrectness doesn’t really have a point and just winds up coming across as actually racist instead of poking fun at racism like the filmmakers intended.

There isn’t much story, but no one expects there to be, and though I’m not going to harp on that point, I do have a problem. Every time “Field of Screams” is about to turn into a kill-crazy-blood-bath-rampage, which is what everyone really wants to see, they step back from the precipice and pretend to give a shit about the plot. You’re repeatedly taken away from the best parts of the movie, boobs and blood, and plopped down in the middle of the weakest part, story and character, things no one cares about.

I will say this one thing for Sullivan and crew. They do proudly carry the mantel for the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis (who gets an Executive Producer credit), Grindhouse, drive-ins, and 70s splatter/gore culture. Their enthusiasm for the genre, and their earnestness, is readily apparent at every turn. They’re making the movies they want to make, the movies they wanted to see when they were horny little fourteen-year-olds masturbating in their bedrooms, hoping their mom wouldn’t walk in on them again. And they are completely stoked to be doing exactly what they’re doing. It may be cheap, and kind of bad, but the entire cast and crew is in love with this ugly, blood-covered baby of a movie.

There is a collaborative, almost family feel to the film. In the commentary and making-of documentary on the DVD, Sullivan often states that everyone involved in “Field of Screams” left their individual fingerprints on the finished product, and he’s right. The sheep-fucker, Lester (Adam Robital), also edited the movie. Bill Moseley came up with the title “Field of Screams” (the original title was “2001 Maniacs: Beverly Hellbillies”), and wrote a song on the soundtrack. The actors flew themselves to Iowa on their own dime, and put themselves up. The extras were citizens of Council Bluffs, the town where filming took place. Throughout the commentary with Campbell, Shaye, and others, Sullivan takes great care to point out little touches and lines and ideas that the actors brought to the table. You don’t find that sort of shared, communal effort in too many movies, and I’ll admit that I find it endearing.

“2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams” may not be a good movie, far from it, but it does have some great moments, and a certain undeniable charm.

Originally appeared at BeyondHollywood.com

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tales From the Dead

“Tales From the Dead” has the unusual distinction of being a J-horror movie shot entirely in Los Angeles with local talent. It is an anthology of four ghost stories along the lines of “The Twilight Zone” and “Tales From the Crypt”, though the stories themselves bear the most striking resemblance to those that appear in “Tales From the Darkside”.

I’m a fan of horror anthology shows, but there are some common pitfalls that entrap even the best of them. Chief among these is the length. Many of them only have 30-minute episodes, a feature that makes it difficult to set up everything necessary to make a story successful. Weekly shows have the benefit continuity, of being able to build things up over time and establish the story for the episode this week on the back of work that has already been done. The foundation is already in place. However, anthology shows have to start from scratch with each new episode, establishing setting, characters, conflict, tension, etc., which, in half an hour, can be problematic. Some pull it off, but others do not, a lot depends on the writing. (See the third season of “Tales From the Darkside” as an example where there are more misses than hits.)

While “Tales From the Dead” is a full-length motion picture, it suffers from this same problem. Each individual story is too short to work on its own, and as a result they are woefully underdeveloped. It’s too bad, because all of the segments, especially the first one, have a lot of promise.

The film begins with Shoko’s (Nikki Takei) car breaking down on the side of a country road. Before long a car happens by and picks her up. The driver is a young goth-looking girl, Tamika (Leni Ito), who listens to loud heavy metal and claims to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Shoko is understandably skeptical of Tamika’s abilities, so the younger girl recounts a collection of her interactions with the dead in order to sway Shoko.

The first story involves Tamika and her sister, Minami (Kiyoko Kamei), paranormal investigators for hire, helping a suburban couple understand the strange things that have been happening since their long lost son returned to them. The second story is a tale of desire and greed, a story told to Tamika by a spirit, in which a corrupt detective on the Yakuza’s dime receives repercussions from the spirit world for his misdeeds. In the third tale, a young man, a failure in all aspects of life, is talked into selling the one valuable commodity he possesses, his time, only to realize too late the horrific consequences of his choice.

Like each episode of “Tales From the Darkside”, each story in “Tales From the Dead” ends with a sadistic twist. As I implied earlier, the individual tales are too brief to stand alone, and lack any substance to make you care about them. Taken on their own, each chapter could have been fleshed out into a larger, more complete narrative. The basic themes and ideas are interesting, but aren’t developed in any meaningful way, and because of that, none of the stories are particularly compelling. The characters are flat and uni-dimensional; the twists are obvious, not earned, and seem to come only when the film needs to move on, tacked on instead of actually letting the stories resolve; they don’t last long enough to create any tension; and the spookiness isn’t all that spooky. The potential is there, but the filmmakers missed the mark.

The scenes that frame the tales, as Tamika and Shoko drive through the night, are forced and clunky, and you see it coming a mile away that the fourth story Tamika tells is going to be Shoko’s. She was apparently stuck in a loveless marriage, and part of a “black widow” club to boot. You can see where this is going, and the twist isn’t much of a twist.

All things considered, the acting is solid; there simply isn’t much meat in the characters for the actors to dig their teeth into.

Writer/director Jason Cuadrado has some interesting ideas for stories in “Tales From the Dead”, but squanders all of their potential trying to force them into a format that doesn’t really fit the material. In addition to that there are some attempts at being artsy that don’t work particularly well either. The framework with Shoko and Tamika is in black and white, while the stories are color, and there is constant, discordant piano tinkling that grates on your eardrums.

Instead of telling a compelling story, Cuadrado relies on tricks and cheap gimmicks, and “Tales From the Dead” never even comes close to fulfilling the promise that it has. Had he concentrated more on the narrative, and explored the fertile thematic grounds inherent in his stories, he could have made something special instead of something bland.