Puppet Master -1989-

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Directed by David Schmoeller. 90 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

This movie sucks about as badly as I expected it to suck (in spite of its rad Thai poster). But much like the kid who sticks his fork into the electrical outlet, I just couldn’t resist.

So how did it come to this? Allow me to provide some background. While watching Castle Freak a few days ago, I noticed that the film was produced by Charles Band. I thought the name looked familiar, so I went on the old IMDb and found that he is ridiculously prolific in the low-budget horror genre and is the creator of the Puppet Master franchise.

Immediately, memories of a young Patrick strolling through the horror sections of VHS-era video stores flooded my mind. The Puppet Master videos always caught my attention, both because of the freaky puppets on the cover art and the fact that the film had an ungodly number of sequels. I was too young to rent them, and by the time I was old enough, I had already started on the Criterion Collection, and the rest is history.

But the youthful hunger had welled up in me again. Now was the perfect time to see Puppet Master.

It’s shit, and I can’t fucking believe how it became one of the most (if not the most) successful home-video series of my time. The film is little more than a haggard Paul Le Mat (who was so goddamn handsome just 15 years prior in American Graffiti) wandering around a bland hotel while his friends get smacked to death with skeezy puppets. And the ending makes not a spot of sense.

However, there’s a masochistic part of my brain that wants to delve further into Band’s body of work.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-23)

Castle Freak -1995-

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Directed by Stuart Gordon. 90 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

It isn’t Gordon’s finest work (there was probably a reason it went straight-to-video), but I found Castle Freak sufficiently fun and spooky for lazy Sunday viewing. The film is very loosely based on “The Outsider,” a short story by Gordon fave H.P. Lovecraft, and while it exhibits the author’s common themes of seemingly cursed bloodlines and uncanny parallels through generations, it felt more like something from Ed Poe or Nate Hawthorne.

Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs is in the lead as yet another jumpy hero with lotsa baggage (Jeff’s a national treasure). The make-up effects on the titular freak (Jonathan Fuller) are very good, but since he and Combs rarely appear onscreen together, I would have liked to have seen Jeff (no stranger to heavy prosthetics) play both roles.

The movie is short, but it could still stand to be cut down to horror-anthology length. Still, there’s plenty of gore and sexual frustration (and an excellent score by Richard Band) for horror fans to enjoy.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-20)

12 Years a Slave -2013-

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Directed by Steve McQueen. 134 mins.

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

I first encountered the story of Solomon Northup in the eighth grade when my history class watched Half Slave, Half Free, a film made for PBS in 1984. While the film had a strong crew (featuring the likes of Avery Brooks and Joe Seneca) and was directed by the usually hard-hitting Gordon Parks (of Shaft fame), I could tell even then that I was watching a highly sanitized account of the events.

Luckily, Steve McQueen doesn’t know the meaning of the word “sanitized.” Just has he did so wonderfully in Hunger (and in Shame, albeit with underwhelming results), McQueen presents a story of a man’s struggle to endure his own personal Hell and never once spares the audience the grim details of the ordeal. With its visual style of finding beauty in the grotesque and its excellent ensemble cast, 12 Years a Slave is among the best Oscar bait-type films I’ve seen since Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

McQueen was a perfect match for John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s memoirs. As a black man (who isn’t a total creep like Lee Daniels), McQueen has an window into the black experience that the Spielbergs, Demmes, and Zwicks of the world – through no fault of their own – can simply never possess. Secondly, as a London native, McQueen has the benefit of having a relative outsider’s point-of-view on America’s peculiar institution.

McQueen has no intention of turning Northup’s story into any sort of epic. Even when his stories take place within a larger historical event (such as Hunger and the Troubles of 1980s Ireland), McQueen never lets the protagonist out of his sights. No less important to the film’s intimate atmosphere is the photography which lingers on gorgeous slices of the machinery and landscape of the antebellum South, showing off McQueen’s talent as a visual artist (for which he received a formal education). The wheel of a steamboat, the algae atop a river, and even the patterns of dangling flesh on the back of a whipped slave are framed as if they were art installations.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has been a supporting actor for nearly 20 years (his performances span the likes of Love Actually, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, and, sadly, 2012), but his ascent to leading man was worth the wait. Ejiofor holds his own against the likes of current Hollywood obsession Benedict Cumberbatch, frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender (who is excellent as a Legree-ish slave driver) Paul Dano (a sadistic but cowardly carpenter), Sarah Paulson (she’s prolific, look her up).

Even in the scenes where he talks to Brad Pitt (who plays a conveniently virtuous gentleman, but his production company provided the film’s finishing funds, so I guess we can’t complain), Ejiofor never loses command of the screen. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (who plays the object / victim of Fassbender’s desire) turns in a particularly fine role.

I can easily see 12 Years a Slave winning lotsa gold at the 86th Academy Awards (including Best Picture) provided that the AMPAAS voters interpret the film as a white-man-saves the-black-man story that they hold so dear. Since there is little evidence that the majority white, old, male voters are sensitive to even the most obvious subtext, I suspect they’ll bite.

12 Years a Slave is definitely not a white saviour film. If that’s what you want, Amistad and Avatar are always a mouseclick away. The assistance that Northup receives from white folks in reclaiming his freedom (this isn’t a spoiler, the dude wrote a goddamn memoir) is not exceptional charity but rather a long-overdue correction of an atrocious act at the hands of whites. The strength that Northup displays to get to that point was entirely his own doing.

Moreover, Northup’s reunion with his family is not a joyous occasion – for him, it is a painful reminder of the precious time of which he was robbed and will never regain. His attempts to sue the conmen who sold him into slavery fail (blacks at the time could not testify against whites in a court of law). The reality is that Northup was a second class citizen even up North, and that was the best life he could have hoped for.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-18)

Discopathe

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Directed by Renaud Gauthier. 81 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but it’s strictly for genre fans. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater)

French-Canadian Renaud Gauthier’s debut feature is an attempt to give the Black Dynamite treatment to the splatterhouse flicks that Fulci, Lustig, and the gang churned out in the late 70s and early 80s. The result is a mixed bag: while Michael Jai White’s love letter to blaxploitation was both a display of perfect pastiche and a fun movie in its own right, Discopathe seems to hope that its audience will forgive its monotony and underwhelming craftsmanship out of nostalgia.

The film features a particularly clever kill under the dance floor of a crowded discotheque, and the score by Bruce Cameron is perfect, but those are about the only highlights. The rest of the film contains nothing you haven’t seen in a thousand other splatter films (most of which sucked to begin with, and I say that as a genre fan).

Also, the film is supposedly set in the 70s, but it looks about as close to that era as X-Men: First Class did to the 60s. That’s a bad thing.

(Seen on 2013-10-12, written on 2013-10-13)

Drive -2011-

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Directed Nicolas Winding Refn. 100 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Drive was my second-favorite film of 2011 (The Tree of Life took the top spot), and it will always have a special place in the chamber of my heart that stores movie memories. I first saw it at the North American premiere as part of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, and it blew me away. I’ve seen it twice more in theaters and at least three times on home video. Consider me a fan.

I provide this preface to give folks a heads-up of my potential bias. I won’t be reviewing Drive so much as I will be gushing over it. However, I’ll try my best to justify my imminent gush (eew).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Nic Refn’s breakthrough feature is its masterful use of contrast in all aspects of the film. Its setting is Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world (or at least until China catches up), but the action takes place in areas most LA films ignore. Instead of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, you see Reseda and Northridge. Instead of Griffith Park, you see MacArthur Park bordering Filipinotown. The downtown scenes are missing film favorites such as the Bradbury building of Blade Runner notoriety. Even when the Driver escapes to the Staples Center, he does so at the end of a Clippers game. These location choices help emphasize the point that while these characters are living in the same City of Angels we know from the pictures, their lives are far from the glossy ideal.

Speaking of gloss, the movie sports neon lighting that would impress a whole roomful of Michael Manns. The darkness in Drive reveals its brightest scenery (in a critical scene that takes place in a fully lit elevator, the lights mysteriously go dark. I won’t be surprised if that scene is referenced in many future films). The film uses violence sparingly, but the sequences are Peckinpah-brutal and, interestingly enough, usually happen in the daytime.

All of the actors do a great job with Standard (played by Oscar Isaac whom I’m glad to see ascending the showbiz ranks) being a particular stand-out. One could argue that Ryan Gosling is on autopilot, but I thought that his silence and facial reactions revealed plenty about the character. When the Driver does speak, however, he makes the words count. Albert Brooks delivers arguably the best performance of his career, and no, I don’t want to get into a debate about Defending Your Life or Broadcast News. His inexplicably absent eyebrows make the already frightening Bernie Rose a near-perfect villain.

The beauty of Drive’s story is that the Driver and Bernie are very similar characters whose placements on the moral spectrum are mainly a product of bad luck. Both of them have implicitly sordid pasts and return to their old ways to resolve their friends’ fuck-ups. The Driver and Bernie are logical people who would rather avoid conflict, but they both easily revert to being ruthless killers when they see no other choice. Like the scorpion crossing a river on the frog’s back, it’s in their nature.

Aside: The soundtrack (which includes Kavinsky, Desire, Chromatics, etc) and the score by Cliff Martinez are exactly right for the film.

Aside: Obviously Drive owes a debt to many films that influenced its style (particularly Walter Hill’s The Driver), but its direction is so confident that it never feels derivative.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-11)

Equinox -1970-

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Directed Jack Woods. 80 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Why the fuck is this movie titled Equinox? The word has not even a remote connection to anything that happens.

Even more astounding, this film is part of the Criterion Collection. My only guess is that the folks of Criterion wanted to honor the early work of visual effects wizard Dennis Murren (the film is a mix of one of Murren’s shorts combined with additional footage courtesy of sound engineer Jack Woods). Today, he definitely deserves his place alongside Douglas Trumbull, John Stears, and Stan Winston – Murren has won six Oscars for his work on films such as The Empire Strike Back, E.T., Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park.

The VFX take center-stage in Equinox, and the best I can say is I’m impressed by how much Murren’s craft improved in the years to follow. Some folks might enjoy the campy Harryhausen-lite stop-motion monsters, but I thought it felt less like Clash of the Titans and more like an episode of the original Star Trek. The horrid acting doesn’t help either.

Equinox was a particular letdown because the Lovecraftian premise (evil books and incantations, creatures from beyond reality) reads great on paper. Also, there are more than a few plot points that Sam Raimi shamelessly lifted and used in The Evil Dead. While the movie was worth watching as a curiosity, be warned that it could have easily wound up as fodder on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-10)

Gravity -2013-

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Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. 90 mins.

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

Fuck, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a movie. I’m somewhat in the midst of a psychological rough patch, and I haven’t felt up to filmgoing as strongly as I usually do. Returning to the Arclight was long overdue, and I hope it’s a sign that I’m on the mental mend.

Alright, onto the movie. I can’t remember the last time something was hyped up to Gravity’s level (Bully, perhaps?). While it can’t touch its lofty expectations, Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men – his other sci-fi epic chock-full o’ long takes – is still pretty damn good.

I’ll get the disappointments out of the way first. The ending was too rosy (although maybe that says more about me than it does the film), but the largest flaw was in the unsatisfying philosophical progression of Sandra Bullock’s character and the film as a whole.

This won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen the film, so heads-up.

I was unconvinced that the tone could shift from bleak and existentialist to sunny and life-affirming so smoothly. Like most films that travel this road, it pigeonholes itself in “I cannot go on” territory, and then it shifts abruptly into “I go on” gear. I applaud the film for having more to chew on than most (nearly all) contemporary sci-fi, but it doesn’t quite work.

There’s lotsa good stuff though. The film is visually arresting with plenty of “How the fuck is that possible?” moments. If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t finally get his long-deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography, I’ma be miffed. Also, it’s a space epic that’s only 90 minutes long – I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is.

Aside: *rolls eyes at Ed Harris meta-casting *

Aside: The movie really kisses China’s ass.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-05)