Pazar, Nisan 22, 2007

The Host

The Host (South Korea, 2006) * * * *
D: Joon-Ho Bong

Some critics, in struggling to describe the chameleonic (or maybe chimera-like) The Host, simply call it a comedy, or a horror-comedy. But like John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, The Host is a monster movie that just happens to be pretty funny. It's a satire, but it has teeth, so to speak, and real dramatic weight. The remake rights have been purchased by Universal, and you can bet that the American version will get it all wrong. It has a particular, sublime tone, as precise as the narrowly-won bull's-eyes you see archer Nam-Joo scoring in competition at the film's beginning. One twitch and your arrow would fly far from the mark.

She's the sister of Gang-Du, a middle-aged, somewhat dimwitted slacker not averse to giving his adolescent daughter, Hyun-seo, a cold beer while they watch Nam-Joo compete on television. Gang-Du is the shame of the Park family, which also includes his brother Nam-il, a former campus revolutionary, and his protective father, Hie-bong. One day--which is only prepared for in some sketchy but effective opening scenes involving chemical dumping and a mysterious fish caught (and then accidentally released again) in the Han River--a giant, mutant, two-legged amphibian erupts from the water and storms through a park, crushing or swallowing anyone in its path. Gang-Du attempts to flee with his daughter, but in the chaos and confusion grabs the hand of the wrong girl; when he looks behind him, he sees Hyun-seo lifted from the ground by a massive, tentacle-like tail, then taken into the river along with the beast. It's not precisely his fault, but his brother and sister are quick to blame Gang-Du, who has always been perceived as the underachieving runt of the Park clan. Korean military begin to quarantine anyone exposed to the creature, believing a related virus is on the loose, and this includes Gang-Du, who was splashed with the monster's blood (while bravely trying to kill it, but never mind--Gang-Du never mentions it, and no one would believe him anyway). It's while in this quarantine that he receives a call from his daughter, who can only let out that she's in "a big sewer" before her cell phone battery dies. Operating from so little information, the Parks stage an escape, then an infiltration into the supposedly contaminated zone in an attempt to rescue Hyun-seo. The problem is they're a bickering, dysfunctional family (I'm sure the guy who pitched it to Universal said, "It's like 'Alien' meets 'Little Miss Sunshine!'"). Although they heavily arm themselves while penetrating into the vast, grimy sewers in search of the missing girl, and tentatively set aside their differences in favor of a clannish loyalty, in The Host nothing goes off just as it should, and every expectation is subverted. There's a big pay-off in the finale, but along the way even the most heroic characters will be broken or tossed aside in the wake of two terrifying monsters: the river-dwelling "host," which seems to be collecting its half-digested victims like souvenirs, and the government itself, which insists there's a virus to justify taking extreme measures against the public--even though little evidence surfaces that the virus actually exists.

About that tone: some critics are calling it a comedy because, well, there are pratfalls, sight gags, and some truly black humor (note the context of a punctured beer can's reappearance late in the film). Although the suspense setpieces are up to the best of Steven Spielberg, the offbeat satire calls to mind Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or even his work with Monty Python. But don't overlook the emotional core of the film, which comes from a family unit shifting from the macrocosmic--the Parks--to the microcosmic: the one Hyun-seo forms with another young captive of the monster, and the one Gang-Du forms in the soft-spoken epilogue, more stable and secure in the wake of a major loss. The Host is most obviously about environmental pollution--hell, the climax is so engulfed in clouds of chemicals that you'll feel like choking--and of course it's also about the tyrannical overreaction of governments exploiting disaster. But most of all, and most unexpectedly, The Host is a monster movie about families, and the complicated way they can tear each other apart, and then repair themselves into something of a different shape: as formidable as any beast.

Pazartesi, Nisan 16, 2007

A Panic Prayer: Viva La Muerte

Viva La Muerte (France, 1971) * * *
D: Fernando Arrabal

Viva La Muerte belongs on the shelf between Bunuel's Viridiana and Pasolini's Salo, but it is by far the angriest film I have ever seen. Shot during Franco's regime, there is no way it could have been filmed in Spain (it was shot in Tunisia instead). Consider the scene in which a group of well-dressed students turn a corner to find themselves standing before a firing squad. The guns ignite. The boys fall...except one, who stands, a bullet in his stomach, shouting "I'm saved! I'm not dead!" "It's the poet," says the captain. "The faggot. Finish him off up the ass." He places his gun behind the poet and fires. The victim is identified as none other than Frederico Garcia Lorca (killed in 1936), a man who could not even be discussed in Spain at the time this film was made.

This moment, like all of the film, is witnessed through the subjective gaze of young Fando (Mahdi Chaouch), who has recently learned that his mother (Nuria Espert) reported his father to Franco's partisans on suspicion of his leftist ideas. He has died in prison--a suicide, his mother claims belatedly. Fando doesn't believe it for a moment. Viva La Muerte, the first film directed by playwright Fernando Arrabal, becomes a kaleidoscopic vision of the boy's inner rage at his mother (as well as confused lust), uncle, schoolteacher, and Franco himself. He is surrounded by murders, denials, and repression, and his torment is reflected in feverish, harshly tinted daydreams full of imagery that is funny, shocking, and horrifying, by turns (or at once). Standing before a lighthouse on a high hill, he pisses in the direction of the village and dreams that he's flooding the whole town. He imagines his priest getting his testicles cut off by soldiers and being forced to devour them (and thanking God for the opportunity). He sees his schoolteacher as a pig in a habit, or his mother wallowing with him in the mud. But most often he sees his mother murdering his father in various ways, and the thought consumes him so entirely that it seems to feed directly into an illness, which gets him sequestered upon a boat with other sick boys. And the fantasies and nightmares continue.

Fando was first glimpsed in celluloid as a young adult in Alejandro Jodorowsky's Arrabal adaptation, Fando y Lis (1968). Jodorowsky filmed the allegorical play without a script, working from memory; he was a good friend of Arrabal's, and with cartoonist Rolond Topor, whose illustrations are featured in Viva La Muerte, they had formed the Panic Movement in 1962. The group performed interactive street theater and valued shock and extreme imagery as a means of making their intellectual ideas viscerally experienced by the audience. Viva La Muerte is perhaps the best example of Panic, with its constant onslaught of unfettered anger and taboo-violating imagery (animals are killed on camera, and feces, blood, and incest figure prominently). It's a difficult film to watch--physically. But it's also upsetting on a political and an emotional level: Arrabal intends all of these reactions at once. This is a bomb lobbed directly at Franco's nose. There is a through-line with poor Fando which may carry you far, and it's worthwhile to take the trip to its very end. If you don't, I'll tell you what you missed: the final image is of Fando, wrapped in bandages from his surgery, carried out of Spain by the girl he loves (Lis?) on a cart--entering the wilderness of Fando y Lis. It seems to imply that it's a prequel, but in fact offers a looking-glass image of the earlier film, in which Lis is the cripple, and borne by Fando (who, despite his professed love, tortures and betrays her at every opportunity). It may help to understand that Fando is, of course, Fernando Arrabal, and if Fando y Lis takes place on a more psychological landscape, Viva La Muerte may be more strictly autobiographical. He was born in 1932, and witnessed the Spanish Civil War as a child. Don't look for illumination on the DVD's interview, however; he answers every question in the most abstract manner possible while positioning a chair in front of his face. Where was this shot? "In Tunisia, but I wanted to film in Atlantis. Or my mother's womb." And what is it all about? "It's a prayer." Well, that at least makes sense, but it's the most savage prayer you could imagine.

Pazar, Nisan 15, 2007

Day 4: The 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival

Madeinusa (Peru, 2006) * * *
D: Claudia Llosa

Almost (though not quite) a work of magical realism, Madeinusa is a film that's bound to win over more admiration than outright love, if only because it intentionally distances the viewers from its characters. Set in a fictional village in the mountains of Peru, and told equally through the eyes of the mayor's virginal daughter, Madeinusa, and the drifter Salvador who wanders into town, it divides its time--and its heart--between the insider and the outsider. Madeinusa is taking part in a village ritual called the "Holy Time," when, according to their beliefs, God is "dead" and they may sin freely (one local handily--and sleeplessly--keeps track of the Holy Time, minute by minute, by running a manually-operated clock in the village square). As part of this ritual, a virgin (in this case, Madeinusa) is to be handed over to the mayor for deflowering. No one questions that it's her own father--not even her sister, Chale, who only fights for her father's attention. Salvador is perplexed by the customs of the town, but is too curiously indifferent to act as a surrogate for the audience; he does want to help Madeinusa escape, but out of pity more than anything else. Meanwhile, after packing an effigy of Jesus away, the village indulges in wanton, sometimes reckless behavior, and the mayor focuses his resentment and jealousy upon Salvador. Director Claudia Llosa dwells on the casual cruelty of those who behave for purely selfish reasons. Everyone acts out of a desire to possess--even innocent Madeinusa, who prizes her earrings above all else. What you end up with is a fable laced with a bit of rat poison. It's potent, disturbing, and fascinating.

Red Road (U.K., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Andrea Arnold

By turns unsettling, tense, and moving, Andrea Arnold's thriller Red Road sets up a Rear Window scenario: a security guard (Kate Dickie) each day sits at a terminal surrounded by monitors, operating the security cameras, zooming in on pixilated faces and scanning for anything that could be reported to the police; by chance, one day, she sees a familiar face, and with a little bit of research discovers that he is indeed a convict who's been recently paroled. She begins to take an intense interest in the ex-con, going so far as to follow him around on foot, and even invite herself into one of his parties. The impetus behind her obsessive behavior isn't clear until late in the film. We do know she's looking for dirt that might get him thrown back into prison, but as she becomes drawn into her life, his sexual attraction to her is strangely reciprocated. When the connections become clear, and the behavior understood, everything you've seen up to this point takes on a completely different meaning. Arnold lights her film with glowing red hues, and maintains the color motif from the ex-con's red hair to the foxes that offer up howls in the night that sound like imperiled screams. (The motif reaches its critical mass during the film's graphic sex scene, when all the colors seem to merge and the screen seems to radiate in red.) Although the convict seems to be the fox on the prowl, it's actually the woman who stalks him, rarely breaking her penetrating stare, and following her hunt to extreme lengths. I can only see so many of the films at the festival, but I'd imagine this is one of the best, building Hitchcockian suspense without ever breaking its gritty realism or modest moments of humanity.

Day 3, Part 2: The 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival

All the Days Before Tomorrow (U.S., 2006) * * 1/2
D: François Dompierre

Scholarly, introverted Wes (Joey Kern) has a friendship with polar opposite Alison (Alexandra Holden) which borders on the intimate, but never crosses the line. On a trip to Utah, which is told in extended flashbacks in this film's jigsaw-puzzle structure, they approach that line just about as closely as they can, testing the boundary with their tacit mutual attraction. Interspersed with these scenes are those set in the present (as Alison seeks to resume their friendship with a reluctant Wes), what may or may not be their future (as a happy couple), and in dreams where Wes discusses metaphysics with a mysterious man played by Richard Roundtree (Shaft!). Despite Roundtree's presence, ninety percent of the film is just Wes talking to Alison--usually about nothing important--and there are moments of real wit, warmth, and honesty. But there's also dialogue that seems forced, overly "quirky," and phony, and it should be obvious to all (well, except my wife, who loved this movie) that the dream sequences serve no function and really have to go. It makes sense that first-time director Dompierre began this as a short film for his thesis, then expanded it to feature length: there's a lot of padding here. On the other hand, the cinematography is beautiful--particularly those scenes shot in the valleys around Moab, Utah--as are the leads, who are easy enough to watch for two hours. He's a director worth watching, but this story has been told many times before; I recommend Mutual Appreciation for a superior take on the premise.

Finishing the Game (U.S., 2007) * 1/2
D: Justin Lin

Here's a great premise for a mockumentary in the Christopher Guest vein: a group of wannabe actors and martial artists gather to audition as the body double for the recently-deceased Bruce Lee in his unfinished film, Game of Death. It's an opportunity to parody the bizarre Bruceploitation period of the 1970's, when actors such as Bruce Le and Bruce Li attempted to steal Lee's throne through the sheer power of confusion. And if you'd have asked me before seeing the film, I would've told you that Justin Lin was a pretty good choice. Lin is best known for the indie hit Better Luck Tomorrow, which he used to transition into a studio career (directing the Fast and the Furious sequel as well as Annapolis); Finishing the Game would seem like a natural way to recapture his indie roots with a premise that could cross over to a larger audience. But it becomes quickly apparent that Lin is not the man for the job: he just doesn't have a sensibility for comic material. In fact, it's very unfunny, in a sort of remarkable way. Despite a few clever ideas (like a casting director who dominates the weak-willed director), most of the humor is self-satisfied, sophomoric, and pretty stupid. Unless you really loved Burn, Hollywood, Burn! An Alan Smithee Film, stay far, far away.

Cumartesi, Nisan 14, 2007

Day 3, Part 1: The 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival

So far today (more to come later)...

Son of Man (South Africa, 2006) * * * *
D: Mark Dornford-May

Set in "Judea, Afrika," this exhilarating film squeezes the life of Jesus into one 90-minute film set in a contemporary African landscape. The screenplay pretty much sticks to the source material, to the point of often using King James poetry, but what transports the film into a higher sphere is the clever way it tells its overly-familiar story: Herod is a dictator with automatic-toting soldiers; brief snippets from a news broadcast offer updates on the political chaos the country is passing through; when Jesus (Andile Kosi) raises Lazarus, it's shot on camcorder like a hastily-captured moment to air later on a Dateline NBC special on miracles. But little of this film is ironic. The emphasis is on the story and power-to-the-people political transformation, and the most clever switch of all--involving the crucifixion--offers a modern twist that really means something. Dornford-May, a British opera director whose South African adaptation of Carmen, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, is also screening at WIFF this weekend, here de-emphasizes the music (although there is some) in favor of blistering, stylish cinematic storytelling. (His Carmen star, Pauline Malefane, appears in a smaller role here as Mary, but she co-wrote the screenplay and much of the music.) In short: it's great, and hopefully it will find a wider audience.

A WIFF Intermission: Duck Soup Cinema

The Navigator (U.S., 1924) * * * *
D: Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp

Hey, is it my fault they scheduled Duck Soup Cinema right smack in the middle of the Wisconsin Film Festival this year? It seems particularly odd given that the Capitol Theatre is now an official WIFF venue. At any rate, film festivals seem a bit more complete, to me, if a silent film is included, so it might be appropriate that I had the chance to add a little seasoning of Buster Keaton to my WIFF-scrambling this year. The opening hour of vaudeville was more eclectic than ever (an 11-year-old piano virtuoso and a UW swing dance troupe), and host Joe Thompson was joined onstage by Bucky the Badger for at least one high-concept gag (performing the fast-paced verbal jokes of "Who's on First" with a mute badger). The Keaton vehicle is one of his very best. Buster plays a bored playboy who finds himself lost at sea with a cute girl on a giant steamship called "The Navigator." At one point he swordfights a swordfish by using another swordfish. You can imagine this working in animation, but Keaton did it live in 1924, and it's wonderful. But back to the festival...

Day 2: The 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival

Young Frankenstein (U.S., 1974) * * * *
D: Mel Brooks

Friday night's 7pm screening of the Mel Brooks comedy classic Young Frankenstein was the first WIFF event held in the Capitol Theatre (formerly the more dignified-sounding Oscar Meyer Theatre), as WIFF director Meg Hammel noted in her introduction. She also noted that there were plenty of children in the audience, and was encouraged that there were parents willing to show their kids the wide scope of what cinema has to offer. Then began the movie with the sex jokes, the Marty Feldman mugging, and Gene Hackman as a blind hermit setting Peter Boyle's thumb on fire. What can you say? It's Young Frankenstein, and it works best with an audience (although the show was not sold out--there were many empty seats in the front). A couple of things I picked up on in this viewing: Teri Garr is one of the most underrated comic actresses of all time, and Gene Wilder screams throughout this entire film. There was only one technical glitch--after an early reel change, the projector played the film at the wrong speed, which bought us a little bit of time since we had a 9:15 screening to catch way down the street at the Cinematheque. As it was, we had to skip out on the last ten minutes of the film. As we ran down the street, we passed a few other WIFF-goers also talking excitedly about the films they'd seen so far.

Here is Always Somewhere Else (U.S./Netherlands, 2007) * * *
D: Rene Dalder

This fascinating documentary fleshes out the few sketchy details known about the Dutch artist Bas Jan Alder, a sublime painter, photographer, filmmaker, and performance artist who had a tendency to risk his own neck for his art; witness his final work, which he called "In Search of the Miraculous": he attempted an Atlantic crossing in a small sailboat--it would have been the smallest craft to have made the crossing--and never returned (the boat washed up off the coast of Ireland, but without Alder). Aaron Ohlmann, a former UW student who produced the film and shot much of its footage, brought to the screening a handful of Alder's short films, which mostly consist of Alder demonstrating the effects of gravity and plummeting from great heights. The documentary itself is deeply sympathetic to Alder's quest to pinpoint the most reckless creative moment in the creation of art, while maintaining enough distance to view his final feat with a touch of regret and sadness.

El Topo (Mexico, 1970) * * * 1/2
D: Alejandro Jodorowsky

A few years back I heard that notorious cult filmmaker, comic book scribe, and spiritual guru Alejandro Jodorowsky was travelling from France to Toronto for the rare screenings of his films The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. He was there, actually, to make a very big announcement: after thirty-odd years of bitterly feuding with El Topo distributor (and withholder) Allen Klein, the two had finally reconciled, and now El Topo and The Holy Mountain would finally be officially released to home video in the United States--something which had never happened. Given that over the decades these shocking, surrealist films were impossible to view legally in the U.S., and subsequently had become legendary among cult film fans, this was an extraordinary thing. It turns out that when Jodorowsky and Klein finally confronted each other face to face, and saw that their full beards had gone completely gray, all resentment was cast aside and they embraced each other as old friends. Even so, a mysterious curse still seemed to hang over Jodorowsky's films: the rare Holy Mountain print had been stolen in transit, and as a substitute we had to watch the crummy Japanese DVD, censorship fogging intact. It's a few years later, and we're only a month away from the release of a U.S. DVD box set, which will contain pretty much everything a Jodorowsky freak like myself could want. El Topo and The Holy Mountain have been taken on a short repertory circuit, including a welcome stop at WIFF, where they will screen as a (daunting) double feature on Sunday night. But, like everyone else at Friday night's sold-out screening, I had to see it as it was intended to be seen--as a midnight movie. The story concerns a mysterious, black-clad gunfighter (Jodorowsky) who travels on horseback through the desert with his young son (Brontis Jodorowsky, later to star in Santa Sangre); he seeks to kill four Zen-like "gun masters" who dwell in the desert, and he's aided by two duplicitous women. This is the first half of the film. The second half, which takes place after the gunfighter's death, finds him reincarnated in the caverns below a mountain, where he helps a tribe of the diseased and the deformed climb into the sunlight--literally becoming a mole, but also a Christ-like savior. Wilfully naive, overtly symbolic, and full of extreme, shocking imagery, you will either love or hate this film, but you'll never forget it.

Cuma, Nisan 13, 2007

Day 1: The 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival

The Spirit of the Beehive (Spain, 1973) * * * *
D: Victor Erice

I'm seeing more movies at the Wisconsin Film Festival this year than in any previous year, but it was only today that I realized I'm seeing a curious amount of films from the 1970's. Most people go to film festivals to see new films, but I always end up gravitating toward the revivals. Some of my fondest WIFF memories over the last couple of years involve revivals--A Hard Day's Night with a Roger Ebert-hosted discussion afterward, Au Hasard Balthazar, and even Giant Spider Invasion. The Spirit of the Beehive I've seen before, but only on a battered old VHS tape from Four Star Video; the film had been unavailable for many years until Criterion's recent DVD release. To see it on the big screen--or, at any rate, the Cinematheque's screen--elevated my already high opinion of the film. This film is also one of those that undoubtedly gets richer upon each viewing. Set in a poor Castillian village in 1940, immediately following the Spanish Civil War, the story largely concerns two very young girls--Ana (Ana Torrent) and her slightly older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria)--who live with their parents on the outskirts of town and on the edge of a deep, dark woods, and an expansive, empty field. It's a perfectly allegorical setting for a film that treats the subject of death with both painfully accurate realism, as the girls explore a youthful curiosity toward mortality, and striking beauty. As with the films of Bresson, Erice demonstrates how cinema can be more poetry than prose. At the start of the film, we see the village gather excitedly when a print of James Whale's Frankenstein arrives in town; young and old watch in rapt attention, including Ana, who asks Isabel why the monster killed a girl, and why the monster itself was subsequently killed. Isabel concocts an improvised tall tale, convincing her that neither of them died (movies are fake, she says, echoing the "don't treat it too seriously" reassurances of Frankenstein's opening narrator), and that Frankenstein's monster is really an immortal spirit who lives in an abandoned building by the railroad tracks. This sets Ana on a journey to find the creature, as she looks fearlessly into death and wanders to the very limits of her surroundings. There isn't a frame of this film which isn't preoccupied with its central subject, and despite the film's deliberate pace, not a moment is wasted as it lures you into its world and brings you gradually to its brilliant final scene. It would make a fascinating double feature with Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2006), which evokes similar themes and images and also concerns a young girl, although the two films couldn't be more different in tone.

Radio On (U.K., 1979) * *
D: Christopher Petit

I didn't know what to expect of this fairly obscure British film, written and directed by a film critic for Time Out and photographed by Martin Schaefer, the late cinematographer of Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road. You would expect a Wenders style given the subject matter--a DJ sets off on a trip to Brighton after his brother is found there, dead in a bathtub--but in fact he doesn't spend too much time on the road, and despite some tonal similarities to early Wenders (in particular The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick), it seemed to me that director Christopher Petit was after Antonioni instead. This is trying to be L'Eclisse or The Passenger for the bitter, disenfranchised British youths of the late 70's. For all that, it's not bad, but hardly a lost classic. Lead actor David Beames would seem to have more charisma than this film will allow, as Petit fiercely holds him back, and asks him to spend quite a bit of the running time pacing with his hands in his trenchcoat, kicking at rocks. The effect is not that he's aimless or tormented, but that he's waiting for something to happen. Nothing much ever does. He picks up a strangely violent hitchhiker along the way--then amusingly tries to ditch him; he talks rock and roll with a very young Sting; he tries unsuccessfully to get into a Brighton club; he meets two German girls. It's all understated to the point of being affected. More interesting is the way the landscape seems to be almost post-apocalyptic, like something out of Children of Men. I almost wonder if the film would have been more interesting as a punk science fiction film. As it is, it could use a few more ideas. It feels like a student film, as Petit imitates his idols but fails to find their insights. The soundtrack, which is given prominent billing in the film, features David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and many more.

Cumartesi, Nisan 07, 2007


Grindhouse (U.S., 2007) * * * *
D: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino

Increasingly home theater enthusiasts are becoming disenchanted with the multiplex, even the art house, and are waiting patiently for films to arrive on home video so they can create an idealized theatrical experience in their tricked-out private-cinema basements. But Grindhouse, a raucous, off-the-rails collaboration between Austin auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, is meant to be seen in theaters: particularly a packed, late-night Friday showing like the one I attended last night. The premise is that it's a double feature of crass exploitation films, the kind that would play in an L.A. "grindhouse" theater in the 1970's: the first, "Planet Terror," a post-apocalyptic zombie action film by Rodriguez, the second a serial killer/muscle car flick, "Death Proof," by Tarantino; and it commits to the idea, with a total running time of over three hours, providing a full evening's entertainment--perfect for bored teenagers who want to get away from their parents for the night, or practice extended make-out sessions in the back. At the midway point, when "Planet Terror" had ended and a compilation of movie trailer parodies began to unreel (by directors Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright), people in the theater actually began to get up and make runs to the snack bar, sprinting back to grab their seats before "Death Proof" began. This caught my attention because the fake trailers are themselves a major attraction of Grindhouse--hilarious distillations of entire genres with unexpected celebrity cameos and over-the-top moments of slaughter or sex. These trailers are, of course, part of the Grindhouse film and integral to the grindhouse experience; yet even more integral, it seemed to me, was to watch these trailers while people in the audience played their role and went to fetch popcorn and Twizzlers.

But the audience was game for the whole thing. The entire Ultrascreen theater was vibrating at the cheers, applause, or laughter that rose about every two minutes during "Planet Terror." (Contrast this to the last time I was in the Ultrascreen, watching Ghost Rider to a mostly bored or distracted audience, many of them pre-teens chatting loudly on their cell phones or walking up and down the aisles to greet friends.) It often felt like attending the Alamo Drafthouse (to which I've never been), the Austin theater that hosts film festivals and even screenings arranged by Tarantino, showing off personal prints of films like these. I had never seen so many movie geeks in one theater before, which you could judge not by appearance but by how they appreciated Rodriguez's tweaking of every action film cliche. "Planet Terror," which seems heavily influenced by the films of John Carpenter and George A. Romero, follows the outbreak of a virus which is turning most of the world into gooey, almost pre-splattered zombies. Cherry, a go-go dancer (Rose McGowan), teams up with ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), as well as a cop (Michael Biehn, of James Cameron's Terminator and Aliens), a doctor (Marley Shelton), and the "Crazy Babysitting Twins" (who are, well, crazy babysitting twins), among others, to battle the outbreak from a besieged hospital to a secret military base commanded by Bruce Willis. Along the way, go-go dancer McGowan loses a leg, which is belatedly replaced by a machine gun. I say belatedly, because the wonderfully icon poster art features the machine gun leg prominently, implying it's more than a late twist--but then, it's no more misleading than the film's title. McGowan notes with genuine distress that her ambition to be a stand-up comic has now been ruined, but with her new, impromptu prosthetic, as well as her dancer's flexibility (which she calls "useless talents"), she can now mow down whole armies of the undead. Superb. Rodriguez's film has a completely different tone than Tarantino's, which is why every critic will call this film "uneven." His is openly parodic, with plenty of laughs both cheap and sublime, but his penchant for stylish, exhilarating action scenes--developed most sharply in Sin City--allows for plenty of exciting moments, even if they intentionally ride the absurd. It should be noted, for example, that much of the CG work would look pretty cheesy if the film weren't grainy and occasionally broken: Rodriguez uses the premise of a battered grindhouse print more fully than Tarantino does, often cleverly allowing the condition of the print to reflect the action it contains, most obviously when Bruce Willis begins to transform into a boiling mutant mass, and the film becomes distorted and warped.

If "Planet Terror" is Grindhouse fun at its most lowbrow, Tarantino's "Death Proof" hopes to redeem the endeavor for the less indulgent critics. It is, without compromise, a Tarantino film, beginning with his long, long, long scenes of dialogue and character development, which caused a couple of walkouts this time around. But Tarantino is experimenting with the serial killer genre, and when you finally see what he's up to (when the film's over, really), your admiration will deepen. This is the serial killer genre completely reinvented, and delivered into another dimension. Apart from a few wink-wink nods to "Planet Terror" (the directors give the deliberate impression that both films come from the same studio, and thus draw from the same talent pool), this is a self-contained Tarantino classic, once again re-establishing a faded 70's idol--in this case, Kurt Russell, who has one scene for which he deserves an Oscar nomination--but also delivering slow-burn tension leading to moments of either visceral shock or cathartic release (think: the adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction, or just about every setpiece in the Kill Bills). Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a stuntman of the 70's who is apparently out of work in contemporary, CG-driven Hollywood, though he still drives a souped-up stunt car with a protective cage which he says keeps him "death proof." The ostensible psychotic maniac, he certainly doesn't come off that way when he introduces himself to four girls in that Austin saloon; rather, he almost seems capable of talking his way past their defenses. He's charming, but he's still frightening, because you can't quite get a fix on what lurks beneath his smile. There are lots of reversals in "Death Proof," and many cliches upturned, but to reveal them would be to sabotage their impact. Nevertheless, they'll be much discussed for many years to come.

I do wonder how "Death Proof" will play on a second viewing--much of its impact comes from subverted expectations, and if you know where the film is headed, I'd imagine some of that impact is diluted. But then again, Tarantino's films are built as tough as that death-proof muscle car, and I wouldn't underestimate this one's longevity. I would like to point out, to contrast Rodriguez's and Tarantino's approach to "grindhouse," the gratuitous ass-shot in "Planet Terror" and the one in "Death Proof." The former comes when hottie Tammy (Stacy Ferguson, whom IMDB tells me played the voice of "Sally" in "It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown") bends over to inspect her broken-down car in a deserted highway glutted with green smoke. It's blatant--and followed by a lingering cleavage shot. I can tell you everyone in the theater got the joke. In "Death Proof," it's when Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) heads over to the jukebox to spin another song which only Tarantino would think to put in a film. He holds the camera on her ass while it begins to sway to the rhythm of the music. And somehow, he's fulfilled both the obligations of exploitation cinema and Tarantino cinema. It's gratuitous, but it has soul.

Uneven? Both parts are great, and set different goals, so what does it matter? It's a double feature. For the standard ticket price, it's a bargain. Sadly, on DVD it just won't be the same. I would suggest the best substitute: many friends and many beers.

Cuma, Nisan 06, 2007

Capsule Reviews

How many reviews can I write in my 15 minute break? .......Go.

300 (U.S., 2007) * 1/2
D: Zack Snyder
To quote Roger Ebert, whose latest Overlooked Film Festival I will not, alas, be able to attend this month: "I hated, hated, hated, hated this movie." The second in what might be an extended series of ultra-faithful Frank Miller graphic novel adaptations, this follows Sin City, which I enjoyed very much. But Sin City told a quartet of stories in a running time that approximates 300's, with plenty of entertainment sandwiched within. 300 is basically two hours of a video game cut-scene that just never seems to end. The acting is pretty mediocre, the action scenes seem to consist of nothing but slow motion shots while rock music pounds on the soundtrack, all the Spartans are dressed in these ridiculous little leather panties, and the palette is given a digital overhaul so that everything looks like it's been soaked in urine. It's been compared to Robert E. Howard (the pulp writer who created Conan) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but please...go revisit John Milius' superb Conan the Barbarian--which is inspired by Kurosawa samurai epics instead of the God of War video game--and you won't feel half as insulted.

The Animation Show Volume 3 (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Various
Don Hertzfeldt (of the Oscar-nominated animated short "Rejected") and Mike Judge (of Office Space, King of the Hill, and Beavis and Butthead) joined forces a few years back to set up a cycling repertoire of animation shorts to tour the country each year, representing the best of international animation. (A recent DVD box set features the first two volumes, albeit with a slightly altered lineup.) I saw volume three almost a week ago in Milwaukee, but all that's stuck with me is Hertzfeldt's contribution, a breathtaking short film called "Everything Will Be OK." I'm still not all that sure whether Hertzfeldt can actually draw or not--the film features his characteristic stick figures--but he sure can animate. He also uses astonishing in-camera visual techniques which are almost impossible to describe, although the dominant one here is a peepshow camera which reveals randomly selected moments from the life of a man whose detachment from life begins to segue into a nervous breakdown. It begins with the hysterical absurdist humor for which Hertzfeldt is best known, but reaches an ending that is moving and haunting--and I mean those adjectives.
Okay, I could only fit two reviews into 15 minutes. Check back late next week for reportage from the Wisconsin Film Festival.