Tuesday, April 27, 2010

HBO Does It Again

This is rather off-topic for Weird Movie Village, but I have to express my admiration for the new telefilm You Don't Know Jack, which premiered on HBO last Saturday. The network has long been justifiably famous for its superb made-for-TV movies and documentaries (like last year's Grey Gardens), and Jack carries on that proud tradition.

What an appropriate title. Everyone knows about "Dr. Death," of course, but did you know he painted bizarre and confrontational works of art? That he went on hunger strikes when was incarcerated (except for the latest eight-year stretch)? That he walked into the courtroom dressed in 17th-century garb and locked in a pillory to dramatize how antiquated the laws were that prosecutors were attempting to use against him?

Kevorkian remains one of America's most controversial figures, and Barry Levinson's film doesn't attempt to make him warm and cuddly. As a matter of fact, Al Pacino's brilliant portrayal of him as a prickly, asocial retired pathologist makes it difficult to figure out how you want to accept this guy. But what it did do is convince me that a terminally ill patient's right to die is just that—his/her right.

Kevorkian watched helplessly as his own mother suffered through an unnecessarily drawn-out and agonizing death, and he was angry at seeing other terminally ill people forced to have their lives drag on by artificial means, so he came out of retirement to offer what he thought was a sensible solution: a painless way to end it all.

Supported by his sister, Margo (a wonderful Brenda Vaccaro) and best pal Neal (the always welcome John Goodman), he sets out to ply his trade. There's no fee for his services, of course. "How could you charge for this?" he reasons. And he's meticulous in making sure that he has solid documentation of his patients' desires beforehand. He videotapes them declaring their intentions, has them sign the necessary forms, and even makes them pull the string themselves to release the lethal dose. Always wanting to challenge the system, he allows 60 Minutes to air a videotape of himself performing a euthanization, resulting in his conviction and imprisonment.

The authentic videotape interviews used in the film are heartbreaking and agonizingly intimate. A young man who'd been paralyzed in an accident had doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and now he wants Kevorkian to finish the job. However, since he's not terminally ill, the doctor must refuse his request. Kevorkian also determines that an elderly woman with early symptoms of Parkinson's hasn't reached the terminal stage yet, and he tells her to wait. She responds with a sad, tiny "Okay." And it's clear when watching the tapes of the patients he did accept that they really didn't have anything left. In constant pain, incapacitated, and a physical and emotional drain on their families, they had only one option available.

That's the judgment every viewer must make when watching Jack. I found myself siding strongly with the doctor's efforts, but others may disagree, and to its credit the film doesn't attempt to manipulate you one way or the other.

As indicated by the punny title, Jack is not without humor. The way Kevorkian views life and the comments he makes are wryly amusing. His relationship with Margo is vivid and realistic. She's a pragmatist, and she unquestioningly supports him in his efforts, but they still brawl. And there's a memorable sequence at an art gallery where his work is being exhibited. At first the attendees are horrified by the images they see, but he noodles his way through the crowd, explaining his inspiration for the paintings, and they start making offers!

Levinson's direction is some of his best work: straightforward and dynamic, without any unnecessary flourish. Adam Mazer's screenplay is compelling and moves the plot along briskly. Danny Huston is all alligator grins as the attorney Geoffrey Feiger, who fights Kevorkian's numerous legal battles without accepting a penny, only to reveal his craven political ambitions and become one of his biggest foes. As Janet Good, the head of the local Hemlock Society, Susan Sarandon is fine as a believer who helps Kevorkian in his crusade, only to become one of his patients when she is stricken with pancreatic cancer. And as I said earlier, Vaccaro is just terrific. Goodman's comfortable bearlike presence gives Neal a nice, humorous dimension.

But it's Pacino who really makes it happen. Obviously dedicated to this piece, he doesn't merely do an impersonation of Kevorkian, he brings his own interpretation of the man to life. So convincing is he, in fact, that when Margo makes reference to their Armenian heritage, I thought, "Damn! He does look Armenian!" All I can say is that Mr. Pacino better make room on the shelf for his second Emmy (the first was for his portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America—also on HBO, of course).

Kevorkian himself appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday and said that he was treated very nicely while he was serving his sentence and that a lot of the prisoners agreed with what he was trying to do. The worst part of incarceration, he said, was the snoring. That really sums the guy up.

If you haven't seen You Don't Know Jack yet, be sure to check it out. Regardless of your stand on the issue, you'll be treating yourself to a fine piece of filmmaking and a truly incendiary performance.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Darn Good Clashing

I saw the remake of Clash of the Titans this weekend, in 2D as Roger Ebert recommended, and I must say I really don't understand where the critics were coming from. It got a measly 30% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the reviewers even seemed to take personal umbrage. Ebert was one of the few to give it a (qualified) positive review.

Usually I think films in this genre need a couple of robots and a human making wisecracks in the lower right-hand corner of the screen to make them bearable, but Clash had a comprehensible plot that was easy to follow and delivered the action and special effects goods.

The screenplay is based on the 1981 original and involves battles between gods and men, demigods, sacrifices, big monsters, nasty gorgons, pegasuses (pegasi?) and all the other mythical elements you're familiar with. And, like the original, it's got lots of stars.

As Perseus, the demigod who finds himself caught in the middle of the war between the gods and humankind, Sam Worthington is all stoicism and gnashing teeth. Some people complain that he doesn't give very much as an actor, but it didn't bother me. Liam Neeson projects just the right amount of godliness as Zeus, but it's Ralph Fiennes who really steals the show as Hades, god of the underworld.

His Hades could have been hammy or campy, but Fiennes brings a kind of Richard III aspect to the performance. He speaks in a malevolently hoarse growl and moves with a sort of sideways slink. And thanks to the quite good digital effects, he makes his dramatic entrances wreathed in black smoke and flame, which looks really cool.

Gemma Arterton as Io, who helps Perseus on his quest, and Alexa Davalos, as the doomed Andromeda, are both attractive and have a nice screen presence. Pete Postlethwaite, Danny Huston, Jason Flemyng and Jane March also appear, but some literally have blink-and-you'll-miss-them screentime.

I'm certainly not going to demean the legendary Ray Harryhausen or his work on the original, but the modern digital effects amp up the action significantly. Medusa has not just snakes for hair but also a snake's body, and she slithers around real good as she transforms selected soldiers into statues. The three witches who tell Perseus how he can defeat the Kraken (one pictured here) are eyeless, shriveled creatures who share a single detached eye that they hold in the palms of their hands to see, which reminded me of The Pale One in Guillermo Del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. And there are giant sand scorpions reminiscent of the alien bugs in Paul Verhoeven's rollicking Starship Troopers, which as far as I'm concerned is another plus.

There are also surprising touches of offbeat humor. In an almost throwaway scene, Perseus holds up that goofy mechanical owl from the first film and asks, "What's this?" The leader of the guard looks at it and gruffly says, "Leave it." Also, as one of the soldiers is being killed by a scorpion, I swear he screams, "Wait! Wait! Aaagghhh!" And when Medusa can't turn a Djinn into stone (because he's not made of flesh and blood), she gets a hurt expression on her face that's hilarious.

The score, by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man) is lush and appropriately bombastic, keeping the action rolling along and even providing some amusing cues of its own. During the scorpion attack, as one of them stabs a soldier two times with his deadly tail, Djawadi punctuates the puncturing with two sharp synchronized notes.

I can see how a bad 3D conversion might've made it an ordeal to watch. There's always a lot of activity onscreen, which probably results in some serious blurring, and the glasses darken images about 20 percent. A film that wasn't originally made for the format wouldn't compensate for such details. But in 2D it looked just fine.

To summarize, is it a timeless masterpiece? Well, no, but it's a fun, fast-paced, 100 minutes that fans of the Harryhausen classics of the '60s will especially enjoy. And it certainly didn't deserve all of the critical drubbing it got.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Giallo di Fulci

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He's the gift that keeps on giving. I've covered a couple of his films previously, House By the Cemetery and his epic Zombie, but today I'd like to focus on two of his 1980s giallos, the vehemently Italianate murder mystery genre that features a mysterious killer with gloved hands, cops on the case, lots of red herrings and extreme deaths.

Ripping One

The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore di New York) is hands down Fulci's filthiest, foulest film. You don't just want to take a shower after viewing it—you want to be steam-cleaned. Chock full of nasty sex, extreme violence and some of the splatteriest gore he'd ever committed to celluloid, Ripper is completely repellent, one of the most polarizing titles among his hardcore fans.

Never before had he attempted anything as extreme as this film, so I can only guess that he was attempting to cash in on William Lustig's X-rated Maniac (1980), a sublimely sleazy grease spot of a film that stunned even the most hard-bitten Times Square audiences. Doing the earlier film one better, Fulci amped up the gore and pushed the sexual content to near-pornographic levels. It's truly a piece only the most hardened sleazehounds can enjoy.

The plot is fairly rudimentary: the brutally butchered bodies of women are turning up all over town, and the lead cop on the case keeps receiving taunting calls from the killer, who speaks in a cartoonish voice and quacks like a duck. The typical giallo "who's the killer?" story follows.

Taking a page from Argento's playbook, Fulci lets the anticipation of the violent scenes build slowly, throwing in false leads and tightening the noose until the killer strikes. The first murder takes place on the Staten Island ferry, where a female bicyclist who's had an argument with a man whose Volkswagen she accidentally ran into and scratched, sneaks into the hold to scrawl an obscenity on the windshield of his unoccupied car. Caught in the act, she tries to make nice with her surprise visitor (whose face we never see, of course). He begins to quack, the switchblade comes out, and the slicing commences.

In another scene straight out of DePalma's Dressed To Kill (Angie Dickinson's surprise elevator murder), a woman who's been indulging in a little S&M in a sleazy hotel room begins to suspect her sexual partner is the killer the police have been looking for. She frantically releases herself from her bonds and runs into the hall, only to be confronted by the Quacker, who slices her stem-to-stern in savage fashion.

The murders are excruciatingly drawn out. You see every cut in graphic detail. The climactic killing—the most notorious in the film—features Fulci's trademark eye-gouging and slashing of particular body parts in loving close-up. Still, fans of pre-Disneyfied Times Square will love the exterior shots of the long-gone grindhouses, sleazy bars and sex clubs, and the subway back when the cars were still filthy and covered with graffiti. Interiors are equally sleazy, with a real feel for down-at-its-heels Manhattan.

The film is well-made, with some of the most realistic effects seen in a Fulci work, as well as truly sleazy and embarrassing-to-watch sex scenes. There's not a lot of unintentional humor to leaven the tension, which certainly enhances its repulsive atmosphere. I can only imagine what an experience it would have been to watch Ripper in a theater with strangers back in the day...and wonder if they were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, Ripper initiated the final phase in Fulci's career in which he would produce some of his weakest films, seemingly turning his back on his fans by refusing to deliver the extreme gore they demanded.

Slash Dance

The above title is a pun, but it's also one of the alternates for Fulci's Murder Rock (1984), a cross between the giallo, Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). Get ready for leotards and leggings, folks. It's a Lucio Fulci musical!

Well, not really, but it's the closest he ever came. Like Ripper, it's also ostensibly set in Manhattan (Lucio just loves those harbor shots), but it's pure Eurotrash all the way. A killer is stalking students at New York's Arts for Living Center, headed by Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos, Zombie's original eye-gouging victim), and cops arrive on the scene to investigate.

Candice is a former dancer whose own career was cut short by a motorcycle accident. Apparently she's getting her revenge by forcing her students to perform some of the most spastic, super-aerobic dance moves I've ever seen. Sadly, the mystery portion of the movie isn't really that mysterious and it's pretty slow going, but these numbers, along with some of the casting, give Murder Rock some watchability.

It's almost a who's-who of Italian horror actors of the '70s and '80s. Along with Karlatos, there's Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Christian Borromeo (Argento's Tenebre) and, in uncredited roles, Al Cliver (Zombie) and Silvia Collatina (House By the Cemetery). Fulci, of course, provides his usual cameo.

The killings are committed with a hatpin to the breast, so there's no gore. The story attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but it's mostly just blurry, since so much of it is set in darkness—with strobe lights. And it's too damn slick, missing the beloved Fulci trademarks. Gone are the smash zooms and extreme close-ups of characters' eyes and noses. The English dubbing isn't as hilariously dodgy as the director's earlier supernatural horrors, which is a shame, because the characters talk a lot. Sample exchange (on the telephone):

Candice: Bob—what happened?

Bob: Something terrible...Susan.

Candice: What?

Bob: At the school. The police are here.

Candice: What are you saying?

Bob: She was...

Candice: What do you mean she was...she's dead?

Much of the dialogue goes on in the same fashion, but unfortunately it never reaches the dizzying heights of—say—Karlatos in Zombie: "You won't be happy until I meet one of your zombies!"

Here's one of Candice's nightmare sequences, where she's stalked by a mystery man (Lovelock) with the aforementioned hatpin who will soon enter her real life. I guess she's supposed to be wearing a diaphanous Grecian-type outfit, but with her butt hanging out, it reminds me of an open hospital gown!

I suppose the dance numbers are well-shot and edited, but they're so goofy they defy measurement. With music by Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Keith Emerson, they provide whatever fun the film has to offer. What the hell kind of school is the Arts for Living Center anyhow? The Institute of the Pelvic Thrust?

I want a performance space or nightclub in New York to do a show featuring detailed re-stagings of all the dance numbers from Murder Rock—without a trace of irony. It'd be a huge hit.

After New York Ripper, Fulci's career seemed to go into decline. He made The New Gladiators (1983), a post-apocalyptic action film in the style that was popular at the time, but Murder Rock really signaled the beginning of the end. An attempted sequel to Zombi 2 was taken over by Bruno Mattei due to his illness. He made a couple of TV movies considered too violent to air even on Italian television. I've seen one of them on DVD, but it was pretty nondescript.

One of the last films Fulci made was Cat in the Brain, in which he plays himself, a director so tormented by nightmares of his own creations that he consults a psychiatrist. It's really no more than a clip show, with newly-shot wraparounds "introducing" scenes from earlier horrors.

Still, for a filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years and included almost every genre (westerns, a couple of White Fang movies, even a comedy with Barbara Steele!), to be remembered for a notable handful of thrillers isn't a bad record at all. Here's my list:

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
Zombie (1980)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
House By the Cemetery (1981)
The New York Ripper (1982)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Freddy's New Nightmare

Freddy Krueger's makeup has been redesigned. Nancy Thompson is now a Goth artist with a troubled past. The director has a background in music videos.

Welcome to Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, produced by Platinum Dunes, the Michael Bay-led company whose reboots of thrillers from the past have been a mixed bag: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (pretty good), Amityville Horror (wretched) and Friday the 13th (abominable).

How will this "reimagining" compare to the 1984 film? I saw it in its original theatrical release, and I was creeped out. Sure, it has some iffy acting, rubbery special effects and a story that falls apart like a house of cards if overscrutinized, yet it still maintains an agreeably chilly atmosphere until the "surprise" ending, where both the characters and the filmmakers seem to be saying, "How do we get out of this?"

But the original introduced Johnny Depp, who's had a terrific career accepting roles that strike his fancy. There are a lot of stinkers (
Secret Window, The Astronaut's Wife, The Ninth Gate), but when he hits, he hits big—and he's always a welcome visitor here at Weird Movie Village.

Now, the Nightmare franchise is no stranger to "laughable." None of the sequels achieved the clammy atmosphere of the original. The 1985 follow-up was a bizarre concoction in which Freddy incites—oh my God—homosexual panic!

1991's Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare had our flash-fried antagonist in full smartass mode and featured some of the ugliest, most eye-crossing 3D ever shot. floating in fire in anaglyph 3D? Sounds great! 1994's New Nightmare had the really strange conceit that the Freddy character was going after the actors and filmmakers from the original movie. Now that's what I call revenge! And 2003's Freddy vs. Jason is so absurd you can almost feel sorry for it.

The team behind the remake insist that it is "intended to bring Freddy to a new generation of moviegoers," but my problem with that concept, as I mentioned in a previous post, is that the original Elm Street was an early release on home video and has always been easy to find on tape, cable or DVD. Who's this so-called "new generation"? Kindergartners?

It's a good start that they've gone back to a darker, more sinister characterization of Freddy without all the wisecracking he did in the sequels. And evidently more time is spent on Freddy's backstory, leading up to his death at the hands of the townspeople. What would be most effective would be a convincing explanation of Freddy's transformation into a ghost that can kill. But with characters that include the aforementioned "Goth girl with a troubled past," "well-liked high school jock" and "member of the swim team," I worry that it's going to be the same dreary set-up we've seen in countless horror films. And, of course, everyone will be Tweeting and IM-ing their nightmares to each other.

Wes Craven, the creator of the original, was reportedly unhappy that he wasn't brought in to consult on the remake, but the filmmakers insist that it's a "reimagining" with a completely different tone, and they weren't going to cherry-pick the best elements of the franchise.

Clevver TV has the trailer and some stills here, along with some comments that are happily similar to mine:

The reason remakes like The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) worked so well is because there was room to maneuver. The originals Hills had an easy premise to update (stranded family tortured by mutants) and Dawn jettisoned the social satire of the 1978 original in favor of an end-of-the-world scenario with fast-moving zombies and a panicked group of survivors turning against each other.

But Nightmare is different. It's got an iconic character and a well-established story. Even the trailers for the new film indicate the inclusion of familiar scenes: Nancy in the bathtub with the claws rising up out of the water; the girlfriend rising into the air and slashed by unseen knives; and bedroom walls melting into rubber as Freddy emerges from his world into the real world to stalk his prey. There's just not that much to change—and I'm not sure enhanced special effects are going to cut it. We'll find out on April 30th.

Of more interest to me is the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, coming out on DVD May 4th. Narrated by the original Nancy herself, Heather Langenkamp, it features interviews with cast and crew members of Nightmare and its sequels, behind-the-scenes footage.

The film (I quote the PR): "promises to be the definitive look at the making of the iconic horror series and the enduring legacy of its wise-cracking, razor-gloved villain: the indefatigable 'bastard son of a hundred maniacs' known as Freddy Krueger."

It's made by the same team that did last year's His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th. I love these kinds of documentaries. The best ones have some real surprises, and they're often more entertaining than going back and watching the original films.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The 3D Upconversion Backlash?

NOTE: Weird Movie Village is now its own domain—the complete address to bookmark (and I hope you do) is now simply!

UPDATE: Clash trounced How to Train Your Dragon's opening weekend and was surprisingly well received, which bears the question: Do you want to see an animated film you really know nothing about unless you read the book (Dragon) or a remake of a movie you loved watching on VHS/DVD as a kid (Clash)? What about the 3D? Those moviegoers (and there were a lot of them) seemed to have no problem with the upconversion. Nevertheless, here are my two cents:

Are cash-hungry distributors going to sink the 3D juggernaut prematurely? That's what the wags have been saying. The Clash of the Titans remake has been slammed by critics not only for the quality of its filmmaking but for the quality of the 3D as well. It was shot in 2D and then upconverted to cash in on Avatar's success (both films star Sam Worthington). Evidently the quick, economical conversion to 3D is blatantly obvious—to the point that characters look like cardboard cut-outs set against the backgrounds, hairpieces appear to be hovering above some actors' heads, and you can't tell which wing is on which side of poor Pegasus. It's also dark and blurry. Roger Ebert, who gave the film a rather favorable review, recommends saving the extra bucks and seeing it in 2D.

I'm seeing it at a screening later this month (in 2D) and will provide my thoughts on it then. I hope it's more a campy disaster of the type we like to discuss here at WMV and not a snoozer.

When I saw Alice in Wonderland, I remember thinking that the 3D effects were surprisingly subtle. Lo and behold, it's also an upconversion, but there's an important difference. James Cameron and Michael Bay, two of the most prominent voices in the debate about 3D, say that a proper conversion can take six months to a year and cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per minute.

While Clash was quickly shoved through a computer, Alice was more painstakingly transformed. Since it was originally flat, it doesn't have the varied perspectives and planes that a film made for the process does, but it's not bad. Before I learned that it was upconverted, I kind of admired its restraint! My only complaint was that the glasses render it a bit dark. Again, since it's a Tim Burton film, maybe it's dark in 2D, too.

Cameron worried that the studios' rush to upconvert their existing product to 3D in order to bump ticket prices would result in a backlash by the moviegoing public. He drew a good parallel when he said that there were about 10 bad CG movies released after Toy Story hit it big in 1995, because cynical filmmakers thought the CG was the draw, not appealing characters and an engaging story.

Certainly 3D isn't enough to save a film. I know I'm in the minority here, but I saw How To Train Your Dragon at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood last week, and I thought it was awful. The story was cliched to the extreme and the titular dragon was a charmless black blob that acted like a cat. All the younger characters were caricatures of contemporary stars and styles while their equally stereotyped elders spoke in strange Irish/Scottish brogues. They're all supposed to be Vikings, but not only is the generation gap enormous, they don't even seem to be from the same culture.

Since it was made for 3D, it certainly was dimensional, but it was still a bore and didn't justify the $17.50 ticket price.
And compared to a contemporary classic like The Lion King, whose story and characters are still exciting and recognizable 16 years later, I predict Dragon is going to date pretty quickly. Remember Disney's Hercules? It was like an animated Seinfeld episode and I don't think anyone is clamoring for a sequel.

Cameron and Bay aside, a lot of studio people have pronounced that "3D is the future of entertainment." But who needs all movies to be in 3D? Animation, sure; spectacles, okay. But what would a film like The Hurt Locker have gained from an added dimension? It might even have worked to its detriment, lessening the intensity because of the distraction of tanks popping out of the frame.

I guess the powers in Hollywood are too young to remember the original 3D boom and burnout of the 1950s. I wasn't around at the time either, but I do know that it was one of the weapons the studios used against the booming popularity of television. Film of all types were quickly put in front of 3D cameras—John Wayne Westerns, jungle epics, dramas. Hitchcock even made Dial 'M' for Murder in 3D, but it has seldom been screened that way.

What the distributors back then didn't count on was how quickly the novelty would wear off, mostly due to the audience's hatred of the nausea-inducing red and blue anaglyph glasses—and t
he same thing could happen now. Although today's processes are much more comfortable to view, it's just not something that's needed for everything.

A good movie is a good movie regardless of how many dimensions it has. I saw the original Vincent Price House of Wax (pictured here) in 3D when it was re-released in 1983, and it was great funbut it's also fun on television in 2D, so there you have it.


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