Disconnected -1983-

Image

Directed by Gorman Bechard. 82 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Part of Secret Sixteen Film Series at Jumpcut Café, Studio City)

First of all, if you live in the Los Angeles area, you must check out Secret Sixteen, a monthly series of rare film screenings at Studio City’s Jumpcut Café. The titles of the films aren’t revealed until the film begins, and it’s completely free. Fuckin’ A.

I had no fucking idea that Disconnected even existed until this evening. I attended a screening of the last 16mm print in existence, and VHS copies are hard to come by. The film has never received a DVD release. Your best chance to see it is to just pirate it online. Go ahead – I sincerely doubt that anyone will care.

I guess that Disconnected would fall under the slasher genre, but it’s so bizarre that it will obliterate any expectations you could ever have. Director Bechard and his cast have no skill when it comes to executing whatever vision they had. But they definitely had some vision apart from wanting to make a quick buck (the selection of films on home-video in the mid-80s was small enough that rental stores would buy pretty much anything). Polanski and Cronenberg are obvious influences, and there are horribly acted conversations about classic film that still go into a surprising level of detail.

My write-ups tend to gloss over plot points as I assume that the reader either hasn’t seen the film (and wants to avoid spoilers) or has seen it (and doesn’t need a rehash of he/she already knows). I think Disconnected is an exception to my rule, because I really want you to seek it out. You’ll enjoy intertwining sublplots such as:

A woman’s identical twin sister (both played by Frances Raines) is sleeping with her sibling’s boyfriend.

A serial killer is on the loose!

The cop investigating the killings may actually be aware that he’s just a character in a low-budget slasher flick (woah…)

The good twin’s telephone keeps receiving evil, fucked up phone calls. And she picks up the phone every single goddamn time.

Accomplished singer-songwriter-producer Jon Brion appears in his film along with the Excerpts, one of his first bands.

Find this movie. See it. Love it. Pick it apart with your friends like you did when you first saw Mulholland Dr. It’s a helluva time.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-28)

Pain & Gain -2013-

2013-04-27 Pain & Gain

Directed by Michael Bay. 129 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but a buddy bought my ticket, so keep that in mind. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16)

Am I allowed to review Pain & Gain on a curve? I feel that I should. For better or for worse (overwhelmingly for worse), Michael Bay has become his own genre. By the standards of film in general, this movie is a decent weekend distraction. When judged only within the realm of Michael Baydom, it’s a minor miracle.

Bay has essentially directed a late-period Tony Scott film. If such a description comes off as faint praise, perhaps you need a reminder: aside from the original “Got Milk?” commercial, Bay’s entire body of work has been high-nitrate manure. Sure, it’s valued by a lot of people, but it’s still shit.

Taking a cue from the late Scott, Bay has toned down the pomp and self-indulgence in Pain & Gain. Sure, there’s still far more style than substance, but at least he remembers that he’s making a movie for an audience who expects to be entertained. That’s one small step for Man, one giant leap for Michael.

Wait, lemme back up for a moment. The fact that Pain & Gain – a Michael fuckin’ Bay film – contains even a smattering of substance is amazing. While he still can’t compose a shot worth a damn, Bay is genuinely interested in the many characters that cross paths in the (mostly true) story of the “Sun Gym Gang” in mid-90s Miami.

Bay is unsuccessful in getting the viewer as interested in the source material as he is – what did you expect? – but he comes close, due in no small part to the great cast. Mark Walhberg’s portrayal Daniel Lugo is remarkably close to Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, a dreamer with far more ambition than intelligence. Anthony Mackie is a solid comic foil, and it’s really a shame that he hasn’t been a leading man since She Hate Me. Dwayne Johnson gets most of the film’s best lines as a spastic cokehead / born-again Christian. And Rebel Wilson is Rebel Wilson, but I’m not yet tired of her shtick, so that’s fine and dandy.

The film had an estimated budget of $25 million, and I think that constraining Bay with a fraction of his usual cashflow forced him to be more creative – I never thought I’d see so much GoPro usage in one of his films. The CGI is minimal and I can only recall one explosion (the results of which indicate that Bay is self-aware of his over-usage of pyrotechnics). Between the bobbing-and-weaving narrative and the Spring Breakers-ish lighting and color schemes, Pain & Gain may be the closest some Bayesians get to seeing an arthouse film.

– Aside: I’m glad to see that supporting veterans Tony Shalhoub and Ed Harris didn’t just phone it in.

– The film’s relatively short runtime (remember that Transformers: Dark of the Moon ran 154 minutes) is a godsend.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-27)

Mud -2013-

Image

Directed by Jeff Nichols. 130 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Sherman Oaks)

 JOE. DON. BAKER. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 I bet you a Coca-Cola that Jeff Nichols wins at least one well-deserved Oscar for Best Director within the next 15 years. I’m ashamed to say I have yet to see Shotgun Stories, his directorial debut, but I loved Take Shelter, one of the best American horror movies of the last quarter century. If you don’t agree with me, I suspect neither you nor a close loved one has ever suffered severe mental illness.

I walked into the theater expecting Mud to be a Southern neo-noir in the same vein as Blood Simple, One False Move or Red Rock West. I would have been satisfied by that alone, but Nichols’ third film has a far more substantial center than your average thriller. I shouldn’t even call the film a thriller – the Southern Gothic setting is a backdrop for a great coming-of-age story, and an examination of how we idealize love and the crushing heartbreak that results. I once read that Nichols cites Mark Twain as an influence. If Twain had lived in the age of film, I can easily imagine him penning such a story.

The film may feature the best ensemble cast I’ve yet seen this year. Tye Sheridan is just about perfect as Ellis, the 14 year-old protagonist who’s trying to preserve his belief in the fundamental good of people while his world is shaken by a variety of causes. Matthew McConaughey is surprisingly impressive in the titular role. Filmmakers, please continue to cast McConaughey in smaller roles (preferably in the South, á la Killer Joe) and keep him far away from romantic comedies.

Sam Shepard is tough-as-nails as the creepy-yet-helpful old neighbor (he’s like Old Man Marley from Home Alone, except with a sniper rifle). And I almost dropped my popcorn when I saw Joe Don Baker show up as one of the villains.

I’m just kidding – I didn’t buy popcorn. But I lost my shit, all the same. The dude rocks.

Jeff Nichols is making consistently intimate, beautiful films in locales ignored by mainstream Hollywood. As long as he stays away from stoner comedies, he could be the director that David Gordon Green could have been.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-26)

Stay Hungry -1976-

Image

Directed by Bob Rafelson. 102 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 The coming release of Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain prompted me to give Rafelson’s body building-centric film a look. While many parts of it left me scratching my head, Stay Hungry is time well-spent, particularly because you won’t see many films like it, especially in this day and age.

 I don’t know whether filmgoers of my generation are fully aware how fucking weird the movies of the “New Hollywood” could be. Sure, there’s plenty of weirdness in The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Harold & Maude, Taxi Driver, and Dog Day Afternoon, but those movies have heavily influenced filmmakers to this day. They don’t seem as alien because they’ve left their mark on the American film culture that followed in their footsteps. Even if you haven’t seen the movies listed above, you’re probably more familiar with them than you suspect.

 I did not have the luxury of stylistic or narrative familiarity when I sat down to watch Stay Hungry, and my ignorance made the experience that much more interesting. I suppose I would describe the film as some sort of comedic drama, but that doesn’t even scratch its surface. To a 24 year-old guy in 21st-century Hollywood such as myself, Stay Hungry is fucking nuts. I can’t think of any contemporary filmmaker, domestic or foreign, who puts out movies even moderately comparable to this. Never in a million years would it occur to me to make a film with such a premise or to execute it as such.

 If I had a gun to my head, I would probably compare Stay Hungry to Punch-Drunk Love. The two movies have almost nothing in common, but in both cases, I enjoyed the bizarre characters and the sense of having no idea what the next scene would bring. Rafelson certainly took his liberties with the standard screenwriting structure, but it’s absorbing in a scatterbrained sort of way.

 If you come to Stay Hungry for the idiosyncrasy – if the characters’ insubstantial yet oddly fascinating banter accurately depicts the 1970s, I have no idea how anything got done – you’ll want to stay for the cast. I’m always happy to have a film remind me that young Jeff Bridges had gravitas beyond his years. Sally Field is charming, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is surprisingly nuanced as a humble-extravagent bodybuilder. The supporting roles from Joe Spinell, star of splatterhouse classic Maniac, and a twenty-something Robert Englund nearly a decade before becoming Freddy Krueger, were especially satisfying for me.

 If the bill of fare out in theaters isn’t getting you too excited, check out Stay Hungry. Even if it irritates you, it’ll do so in a unique way. There’s something to be said for that.

 

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-24)

Oblivion -2013-

Image

Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 124 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 I’ll concede that Oblivion is a really nice-looking film. The visuals are a big step up from Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, a drab, sterile film that wasn’t nearly as cool as it thought itself to be. Kosinski’s sophomore effort still features buckets of CGI, but it’s much brighter and aesthetically pleasing. Sure, the art direction lifts from tons of great sci-fi movies, but if you’re gonna copy a style, you may as well copy the best. I didn’t much mind the visual plagiarism.

 What I did mind is the shameless narrative plagiarism. Stealing the superficial, that I can forgive. Stealing the substantial is an altogether different offense. I spent most of my time in the theater counting the many superior films which Oblivion shamelessly plunders. The film’s premise is a direct knock-off of Duncan Jones’ brilliant and economical Moon (The main character is a maintenance technician who’s the only man on a hostile world, two weeks away from completing a years-long assignment to oversee machines harvesting fuel. But will an unexpected discovery make him question the truth? Yup).

 The list goes on and on. Whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138, The Omega Man, Alien, The Terminator, Independence Day, The Matrix Revolutions (yeah, the really terrible one), WALL-E (just swap Melissa Leo for Fred Willard), Never Let Me Go or something else (even video game franchises such as Halo and Gears of War are thrown into the mix), Oblivion never wasted a moment to remind me of films that I’d rather be watching.

 Well, maybe not Independence Day. Parts of it, perhaps. If you could isolate the Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum scenes and loop them for 124 minutes, then I’d be in business.

 Once again, Tom Cruise demonstrates how he delivers the best possible performance with every role he takes. He’s the last of a dying breed of larger-than-life actors. I mean it when I say that Cruise’s screen presence will be remembered with the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and pre-Pink Cadillac Clint Eastwood.

 My father recently said that he thought Cruise had entered his equivalent of Heston’s loud, bland filmography after age 50. If that speculation turns out to be true, I’ll be majorly bummed. I thought that last year’s Jack Reacher, while not a perfect film, was a good step in the right direction for Cruise. It was an action film, yes, but it was lean and gritty, and it wasn’t afraid to let Cruise show off his charm in long dialogue scenes. Hell, it wasn’t even afraid to show that Cruise is really damn short compared to the average full-grown man.

 Sadly, Oblivion is further evidence that my dear pappy is correct.

 – Aside: In all post-apocalyptic or distant-future sci-fi movies, the protagonist always has and cherishes some kitschy knickknack from our time. In the case of Oblivion, it’s an Elvis bobble-head figure that Tom Cruise’s character has named “Bob.”

 – Morgan Freeman is so fucking Morgan Freeman.

 – I still want Kosinski to continue directing films because eventually, he’ll make a movie with an epic-as-Hell score by Fuck Buttons. Tron: Legacy has Daft Punk, and Oblivion has M83, so it’s just a matter of time.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-23)

The Lords of Salem -2013-

Image

Directed by Rob Zombie. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Over the last decade, Rob Zombie has developed quite nicely into a historian of film and music, blending together his areas of interest and condensing them into movies of his own. He may not be a perfect director, but he’s excelled to the point that I think of him first as a director and secondly as a nü-metal rocker. Fred Durst (The Education of Charlie Banks, The Longshots) never managed to pull that off.

 Zombie may not be able to write at the caliber of fellow meta-director Quentin Tarantino, but he makes up for it by showing off the God-given ass of wife/leading lady Sheri Moon Zombie. More importantly, his films draw from the dark recesses of splatterhouse cinema and record store basements where not even QT dares to tread. Zombie’s first two films (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) borrowed liberally from the likes of Coffin Joe and early Tobe Hooper. For The Lords of Salem, Zombie has made a modern-day Italo horror film, specifically in the realm of Lucio Fulci.

 While I liked the film overall, I should remind readers that when it comes to Fulci, you gotta take the good with the bad. Zombie absolutely nails the mood: The ominous score, the Satanic conjurings, the crazy-go-nuts fantasy sequences (which bear more than a passing resemblance to Ken Russell’s Altered States), the kit ‘n kaboodle is here. All Zombie needed to do was to dub in the dialogue in post.

 The other edge to this sword is that there are a lot of slow scenes of people either sitting about or walking around for no reason. The ending also makes no sense, but that can be a plus depending on the attitude you have regarding Fulci and his ilk.

 – Aside: The character that I thought was played by Brad Dourif was actually played by Meg Foster. Either Zombie had some great makeup folks working for him, or she has aged horribly.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-19)

The Relic -1997-

Image

Directed by Peter Hyams. 110 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

The only reason I watched this film was because it stars our pal Tom Sizemore. You know what? I don’t need your judgment. I’m cultured. I’m seasoned. I’ve watched Shoah in 35mm in a single sitting, so I’ve earned the right to watch whatever lame movie I damn well please.

That last sentence may clue you into the fact that The Relic is a pretty lame monster movie. I have a soft spot in my heart for movies in which attractive scientists (Penelope Ann Miller, in this case) look at samples under microscopes and utter, “My God…” Sadly, The Relic brings absolutely nothing new to the table and doesn’t even to all that good a job of rehashing genre conventions.

The first act is full of Lovecraftian promise, but that fizzles out rather quickly. The film becomes most irritating in the second half when it becomes dark – not thematically but visually. I’m all for dark settings when well implemented (Alien, Halloween) but you literally can’t see jackshit. It comes off as less of a creative choice and more like a budgetary limit. Have any of you played the original Silent Hill for Playstation where the environments were super-dark to decrease loading times? The same principle applies here.

Stan Winston delivers some sorta cool creature effects, but the monster looks almost exactly like the Predator on four legs. Just watch Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic instead.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-16)

To The Wonder -2013-

Image

Directed by Terrence Malick. 112 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at The Landmark, West Los Angeles)

Oh, Terry.

Aw, geez.

Readers, do you remember that moment in your childhood when you first realized that your parents were fallible human beings? Do you remember the shock, the deep mental anguish?

That was my exact experience while watching To The Wonder. This movie blows, and it breaks my heart to say it.

Up until a few hours ago, I was more or less convinced that Malick could do no wrong. I consider four of his films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) to be some of the greatest movies of all time. Even The New World, while not as strong as Malick’s other efforts, is still one of the great overlooked films of the twenty-oughts.

After seeing To The Wonder, I don’t know what to think. I suppose I would be unfair to expect any artist’s body of work to be perfect, but this movie is so far off the mark that if it weren’t for the poetic voiceovers and “woman running through a field while occasionally looking back at the camera” scenes, it would be difficult to believe that this was a bona fide Malick film.

Nothing in this movie works. The plot is sparse even by Malick’s standards, and the scenes consistently fail in their attempts to convey the emotions of the characters and settings. The characters aren’t very talky, but instead of coming off as lost in thought (as Malick characters usually appear to be), they all just seem sedated. To The Wonder is a story about the pain and suffering tucked away in American suburbia, and Malick’s style just doesn’t fit. Todd Field would have been a better helmer of such material.

Him, or Todd Haynes.

Or Todd Solondz.

Any Todd, really.

Even the work of master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is squandered. The opening sequence in a French villa shows promise, but the bulk of the film takes place in a bland house and its bland surroundings. Even Lubezki can’t work miracles if he has nothing with which to work.

Oh, Terry.

I need to be alone for a while.

– It’s weird to see a Malick film that takes places entirely in the time period in which it was produced. The inclusion of characters who use camera phones and Skype seems really out of place.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-04-12)

Trance -2013-

Image

Directed by Danny Boyle. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 This is easily the most Boylean Boyle film since he released 28 Days Later over a decade ago. The sentence you just read should be sufficient for you to determine whether or not you would enjoy Trance. But in case you aren’t so familiar with the man’s previous filmography, I supposed I can elaborate a bit.

 In a sentence, Trance is an electron cloud of Eternal Sunshine and Inception orbiting a nucleus of Headhunters. James McAvoy cranks his Scottish accent into top gear as an art auctioneer (or is he?) working in a gang of thieves (or is he?) to recover a stolen painting, the location of which he’s forgotten (or has he?). Double, triple, and quadruple-crosses ensure. By the film’s end, I had lost much of my desire to find out who’s really doing what and why. I still had a good time – after all, Boyle’s films tend to prioritize the journey much higher than the destination.

 The two real stand-outs in this film are the visuals and Vincent Cassel. As I reflect upon Boyle’s filmography, his photography and editing teams have been miracle workers, and Trance is no different. Each frame is as bright and glossy as a Michael Bay film, and I would bet that the average ratio of shots-per-minute would be about the same for both directors. Amazingly, Boyle’s shots are always expertly framed and attentive to the subject at hand, even when the action becomes chaotic and lightning-quick (I actually have no clue how fast lightning travels).

 As usual, Vincent Cassel is great fun to watch as Franck, the brains (or is he?) behind the heist. If you aren’t familiar with Cassel, Trance is a good place to start. Whether he’s an aspiring cop killer in La Haine (1995), a vengeance-crazed boyfriend in Irreversible (2002), a break-dancing high-society jewel thief in the otherwise horrible Ocean’s Twelve (2004), a sadistic Russian mobster in Eastern Promises (2007), or a predatory dance instructor in Black Swan (2010)… you get the idea. Cassel and his so-ugly-it’s-handsome face always delivers the goods.

 – This aside is directed at Danny Boyle, and probably won’t make sense to people who haven’t seen the movie:

 Danny, the sound of the electric razor and the reaction shot of McAvoy’s face was enough. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly appreciated seeing what followed. But from a visual storytelling perspective, it was overly distracting, and I think the scene actually would have been more effective if you restrained your camera. More with less, and whatnot.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-09)

 

Evil Dead -2013-

Image

Fan poster by Karthik Abhiram.

Directed by Fede Alvarez. 91 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 It takes guts (or just a lack of artistic integrity) to produce a “cabin in the woods” film following the release of 2012’s near-brilliant The Cabin in the Woods. Luckily, the re-imagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic low-budget bloodbath stands toe-to-toe admirably alongside its source material. Keep in mind, however, that the first Evil Dead was much more straightforward than its sequels. As long as you aren’t expecting the Chaplin-esque brilliance of Evil Dead II or the larger scope of Army of Darkness, the new one will do you just fine.

 One of the challenges of making a “cabin in the woods” movie (and a challenge which most entries in the genre fail right off the bat) is to present a plausible answer to the question: “What the fuck are these young, attractive people doing in a derelict, remote cabin?” To my surprise, the new Evil Dead actually has a starting premise that I’d yet to see. As an added bonus, the premise also precludes the cast from consuming drugs and fucking like rabbits, thereby nipping to American horror clichés in the bud. Kudos!

 Of course, the main attraction to these movies is the gore-and-creepout factor, and the film is mostly successful on both accounts. The scenes of mutilation are creative and often eerily convincing. I read that the film contains no CGI, and while I’m skeptical of that claim, there’s definitely a mastery of conventional makeup and special effects on display. Luckily, first-time feature director Fede Alvarez also knows when the creeps can be cranked up by looking away from the action.

 Case in point: one of the most effective shots in the film is of a basement water heater. You’ll see what I mean.

 – The score by Roque Baños is one of the film’s highlights. Its orchestral grandeur is a nice contrast to the film’s cramped settings. And it uses a scary-as-fuck emergency siren.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-05)