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Sunday
Dec272009

Pieces (1983)

The Gold Standard of Awful

The cosmos gave me an early Christmas present this year in the form of J.P. Simon’s slasher masterpiece, Pieces. Even non-horror fans can enjoy this perfect storm of awkward dubbing, bizarre dialogue, and a visible evolution of horrendous acting that builds from character to character, climaxing in the most entertaining delivery of the word “bastard” you’ll ever see. The genius of the film, though, is that there are some genuinely disturbing scenes dropped into the middle of absolute schlock; which is why Pieces is my new favorite Bad Movie.

We begin with a little boy chopping his mother to bits (pieces) in 1942. She’d caught him putting together a nudie puzzle and got halfway through confiscating his porn when he put an axe through her forehead. Flash forward to a Boston college campus in 1982. A mysterious madman has begun dismembering co-eds with a chainsaw and making off with parts (pieces) of their bodies. The baffled police enlist the help of a goofy student named Kendall (Ian Sera) and an undercover cop/tennis player named Mary (Lynda Day George) to hunt down the maniac. Half the fun of watching Pieces is guessing which of the older male characters is the killer; each attracts and deflects suspicion so many times that every line delivery could be followed by cheesy organ music (“dum-dum-duuuuum!”).

There are two reasons people watch this kind of movie: nudity and inventive kills (preferably gory ones). Pieces provides both in spades, but in ways that are both surprisingly bad and occasionally effective. Sure, you have plenty of college girls showering or sitting up in bed after making love, but you also see plenty of our hero, Kendall. I don’t know if J.P. Simon was going for realism or simply trying to level the exposed-flesh playing field, but Ian Sera’s nude scene is just plain weird: as he stands at his dorm window, yapping to his girlfriend about possibly seeing the killer, our attention is torn between his early-eighties dick fro and the incompetence of his performance.

The murders are evenly split, in terms of effectiveness. On the one hand, you have a bookworm brutally decapitated in broad daylight (apparently on an entirely empty quad); on the other, you have another girl who is torn in half in the shower, shown briefly as a bloody, disemboweled mess (the effects in Pieces are top-notch). Then there’s the haunting murder of a nosy female reporter, who is stabbed repeatedly on a waterbed; the killer misses his stabs as often as he lands them, and the ones that land are really hard to watch. This scene is offset by one in which a girl gets her arms sawed off in an elevator: she welcomes a tall guy in a black trench coat and fedora into the car with her, not realizing that he’s carrying a chainsaw behind his back as if it were a bouquet of flowers.

The film’s climax is a roller coaster of cool ideas mixed with shittiness. We go up with the killer’s reveal, in a scene right out of James Bond; we plummet with Lynda Day George’s horrendous portrayal of a woman who’s been slipped a paralyzing drug. We go up again with a spectacularly gruesome jump-scare of a body falling out of a book case, and run completely off the rails with the movie’s closing shot: Kendall gets his balls ripped out and we freeze on his expression. His face is contorted in a way that suggests the “before” picture of a Preparation H ad.

There is so much to recommend in Pieces. It’s a head-scratching, breath-catching disaster that takes all the stale conventions of bad slasher movies and makes them compelling through a ninety-minute chain of happy accidents. It may even be the template for modern horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead (I give Pieces a slight edge, though, because its badness is earnest, and not a kitschy wink at the audience). I love this movie to death (pieces).

Note: For a real treat, savor the performance of Paul L. Smith as Willard, the campus handyman. His lovechild-of-Bluto-and-Popeye look makes him the funniest and least effective red herring ever.

Monday
Dec212009

Avatar (2009)

Mollified by Shiny Objects

“He’s a demon set loose on the earth to lower the standards, end of fucking story.”

Bill Hicks

Everything you’ve heard about Avatar is true. Director James Cameron has revolutionized digital filmmaking in a way that can rightfully be called “game-changing” (assuming, that is, he allows others to play in his spiffy new sandbox). The 3-D characters and environments that he and his team of effects gurus have brought to life on the planet Pandora leave video game graphics behind and bridge the uncanny valley; both flesh-and-blood and CG performers are finally able to share the virtual stage without noticeable green screen issues, such as fake-looking backgrounds or mismatched eye-lines. I believed just about every second of what I saw on the screen.

So what?

I was bored to tears by this movie. I cannot recommend it as a theatrical experience to anyone. And I’ll go a step further, with a shout-out to the unlikeliest of sources, Rush Limbaugh:

I hope Avatar fails.

This is not likely to happen, but I would be thrilled if Cameron fell on his face and couldn't land another directing job for twelve years.

I should probably back up. Before the first trailer came out, I was pretty jazzed to see what Cameron had been working on (in earnest) for the past four years; I’d heard the stories about mind-blowing technology that would immerse the audience in a truly alien world. I love any innovation that leads to a new and engaging movie-going experience. But when the trailer hit, my stomach sank; the entire story was laid out in two minutes, it seemed, and that story was Dances with Wolves in Space.

By now, this is a trite criticism. It also happens to be true. I approached the film with cautious optimism (timid critic’s lingo meaning “skepticism”), and hoped that the film would contain many surprises not found in the previews; a reasonable assumption, considering its two-and-a-half-hour run-time. But, no, there is nothing in Avatar that will surprise anyone who’s ever paid attention during most any movie.

The plot involves a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully (fittingly bland cipher Sam Worthington) who agrees to help the military/industrial complex remove a race of blue-skinned aliens from their home so that said m/i complex can mine a rare ore. The planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans, so Sully links psychically to an “avatar”, a hybrid creature that looks like one of the natives, but which is remote-controlled by a person in a sleep chamber; the idea is to get in good with the locals and convince them to leave peaceably, instead of wasting tons of expensive ammunition on a messy genocide. On his mission, Sully falls in love with an alien princess and...Jesus, this synopsis is a waste of time.

The characters in Avatar—such as they are—fail to elicit any emotion other than frustration. Sully is an idiot, and a greedy one at that; he begins the film by agreeing to sell out an entire species for a new pair of legs and ends it by realizing that human beings are the real monsters. Give me a fucking break. This movie takes place in 2154, apparently in a reality where conscience and self-awareness are as scarce as that ore. In fairness, Sully is a Christopher Nolan sketch compared to his fellow marines, who are simply kill-happy thugs that do nothing but bark lines that end in “people” and shout that “Ooh-rah” bullshit. What’s worse is that they were created by the same guy who gave us the very interesting Corporal Hicks in Aliens almost twenty-four years ago.

Speaking of Aliens, remember how slimy Paul Reiser’s Burke was? Well, in Avatar, we get the same character, this time played by Giovanni Ribisi. He’s the company man, the agent of evil, the sharp-dressed, smarmy worm. The key difference is that Burke had an actual arc, beginning as a person trusted by the protagonist, who reveals himself to be the film’s villain. Ribisi may as well have worn a foam dollar sign costume while brandishing a ray gun (actually, half my problem with his character was that the wrong actor played him: anyone who’s watched HBO’s Entourage will immediately recognize Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold character in Ribisi’s poor imitation.).

The other characters are as stock as broth; none more so than the Na’vi aliens, whose culture apparently stems from an ancient fable called "Last of the Dancing Mohican Root Wolves". Consider the main Na'vi cast: Wise, stern tribe leader? Check. Rebellious, spunky princess with a thing for outsider bad boys? Check. Jealous alpha-male warrior who will eventually bond with said outsider bad boy? Check. Seriously, these aren’t even archetypes we’re talking about anymore, they’re Xeroxes.

Aside from the first paragraph, I haven’t spent any time on the visuals. Frankly, they don’t deserve to be mentioned. Cameron has done some truly amazing things with the technology, but they service dialogue, characters and situations that are worth no one’s time. I’ve heard the argument that one does not go to a movie like Avatar for the story, that it’s all about the visuals. Sorry, but I happen to respect my mind, and if someone asks me to turn it off--for any reason, much less to appreciate art--I can only call "bullshit". Besides, if that line of thinking had any validity whatsoever, then The Phantom Menace and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be the gold standard of science fiction filmmaking; also, there would be no such thing as a bad movie, as long as said movie had enough polish and CG.

It’s horrifying to think that this script has been around for fourteen years. In the nearly three hours it plays out, the narrative fails to address what happened to Earth, or the schools the Earthlings established to educate the Na’vi, or why their village was the only location from which the ore could be mined (especially if the humans only needed very small amounts for their purposes--whatever those were). We also never learn about Sully's life beforehand or what kind of a man he was supposed to be; his entire character boils down to bullet points: marine, twin brother who's dead, no legs. I’m not asking for a full-blown history lesson, but it would have been preferable to the countless journeys through forests and floaty mountain waterfalls teeming with creatures that could only be considered spectacular to people without imagination. It’s obvious that the story was just a skeleton onto which James Cameron would hang his blue gorilla suit dressed in a Technicolor Dreamcoat; which is why I feel fine reciprocating the lack of emotional investment: he doesn’t care, which means I can’t care.

In a perfect world, blockbusters would satisfy the mind and the eyes. This lowest-common-denominator pandering has to stop. There aren’t enough thirteen-year-old boys on the planet with enough disposable income and free time to recoup a $300 million budget, so why not pack the screenplay with challenging ideas, characters you can remember and root for, and maybe even a story that forces audiences to go back a couple of times to fully figure out? There’s no law that says a film can’t contain “bad-ass” imagery and brain-teasing plot twists.

As a side note to any future directors who might be reading: if you plan on leaving the story behind, at least make the visuals somewhat fresh. Cameron steals so liberally from Aliens that were Avatar released by any studio other than Fox, he would’ve been staring down a $300 million lawsuit. From the drop-ships to the motion sensor readouts to the marines’ armor, there’s nothing original here. I’d like to say he saved his innovation for the jungle life of the alien world, but, being the sci-fi/comic book junky that I am, I’ve seen it all before (perhaps not as lavishly rendered, but that’s not the point, is it?).

Avatar is not an epic. Avatar is not a classic. Landmark science fiction films tell us conventional stories in unconventional ways; 2001: A Space Odyssey presented alien encounters as they had never been considered before; Star Wars hid Joseph Campbell’s paradigms in a blend of Saturday-serial homage and a universe of previously unimagined (or at least unseen) scope; Aliens brought us a contemporary military operation on a desolate alien planet, with an enemy that had evolved since the last time we, the audience, encountered it. Twenty years from now, Avatar will simply be that movie James Cameron did with the primitive CG characters that everyone will be too embarrassed to admit they thought looked really cool at the time.

Wednesday
Dec162009

The Road (2009)

Ash Ye Shall Receive

Typically, when I can’t stand the film adaptation of a book, I recommend that the potential moviegoer skip it and head straight for the source material. With John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself in the weird position of having found the film to be an utterly faithful interpretation—yet still recommending the book instead.

The problem here is that Hillcoat has literally brought McCarthy’s vivid post apocalyptic landscapes and tales of hard living to life; the imagery and situations are almost exactly as I imagined them in the novel.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask.

Yes, and no.

The Road is a bleak spectacle of ash-covered landscapes, dead prairies and human remains strewn across America; like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Hillcoat’s movie fetishizes texture—particularly grimy texture. The meticulous details of dirt on jackets, under finger nails, and in the crevices of crow’s feet make every shot look like a painting; there are lovely bursts of contrasts whenever The Man (Viggo Mortenson) flashes back to his life before the end of the world: all green and golden loveliness, plus Charlize Theron’s warm smile. So, yes, one can certainly marvel at the sights.

However, the storytelling—wonderful as it is in terms of plot and meaning—becomes a chore after awhile. As in the book, there are long stretches of walking, foraging and sleeping. As The Man and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way South in search of warmth—or at least hope—they occasionally encounter bandits and cannibals, and the odd drifter. Their encounters range from violent to mundane, and the mundane ones are almost too much to bear; I’m thinking of their encounter with Old Man (Robert Duvall), which plays as filler in the movie, a chance to inject some exposition about the possible cause of the disaster that I don’t recall being in the book. Even Guy Pearce seemed overtaken with boredom when he popped up towards the end, reciting his lines as if he’d gone totally Method and forgotten to eat for six weeks.

What it all comes down to is that, for me, the surprises in The Road were much more powerful in the book; scenes like the bomb shelter and the house with clothes piled high in the living room were punctuations of action in a story that focused much more on ideas (such as hours and minutes being completely irrelevant in the end times). The movie kind of touches on these with The Man’s spotty narration, but watching the film wasn’t the kind of deeply personal experience that reading the book was. I guess it’s like the difference between reading a poem and having someone read it to you; the material is the same, but the difference in experience is profound.

This may be the most awkward positive review I’ve written. If you’ve read The Road, sure, check out the movie; Mortensen does a fantastic job embodying the fear and instinctual resolve of The Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee is serviceable, but is perhaps a bit too realistic in his constant whining and tantrum-throwing. If you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book, please read the novel first! Then, if you’re so compelled, see the movie on the big screen; don’t wait for video. This is the rare film that does the source material nearly absolute justice, and in doing so ends up as a curiosity rather than a new and engaging experience.

Note: Though I appreciate Charlize Theron's presence in the movie, I can't help but think that her star power is behind the inclusion of so many flashbacks involving her character. She was barely in the novel, and I think it would have been a much more powerful choice to relegate her to one, maybe two glimpses on screen. One interlude in particular--involving her dress and her husband's hand--didn't belong in the same movie as the rest of the story; not even in the same universe; the filmmakers went for a cute, hot moment and ended up with the cinematic equivalent of a record scratch.

Wednesday
Dec162009

Up in the Air (2009)

0 for 3

A couple years ago, Will Smith starred in a film adaptation of the Richard Matheson novella, I Am Legend. The movie was a slick bastardization of the ideas—and point—of the source material, and nothing in its bloated, uninteresting 101 minutes could compare to the first 10 pages of the book on which it was based. Up in the Air, the new Jason Reitman film based on Walter Kirn’s book is not quite as awful, but it did give me flashbacks.

In the movie, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels so much for his job that he’s on the cusp of earning 10 million frequent-flyer miles; it’s a singular goal in a life marked by an utter lack of dreams or human connections. Ryan zigzags all across America, acting as the soothing hatchet man for downsizing companies. One day, his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that his company is looking to cut travel costs by firing people via a new teleconferencing system developed by Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious, young college grad. Ryan takes to the air one last time to show Natalie the ropes, insisting that his line of work requires a more personal touch than an LCD screen can offer.

There’s a lot of “Best Picture” buzz surrounding this movie, and I honestly don’t get it.

Okay, I kinda do.

Unfortunately, all of the hype seems to have been built around the film’s ingredients rather than what they ultimately combine to make. You have Jason Reitman at the helm, who gave us the inexplicably adored Juno and Thank You For Smoking; you have George Clooney, who—love him or hate him—has used his mega-millionaire icon status to pursue only interesting projects (in other words, you won’t be seeing him in Another Fine Day); lastly, you have one of the most topical films in memory: jobs are disappearing quicker than Amelia from the multiplex. Building a film around the people doing the canning is a great idea—if properly executed; Up in the Air is not.

The cast is problem number one. I’m a big fan of George Clooney, but he brings too much of his Danny Ocean character to Ryan Bingham. Bingham is suave and great at his job, but instead of the darkness that we’re supposed to see under the wisecracking facade, we see only more smirking. I kept thinking of the weight in Clooney’s eyes and shoulders that was evident throughout Syriana, and wishing he’d brought a quarter of that power to this role.

Of greater concern is Anna Kendrick as Natalie. She plays an early-twenties version of Lilith from Cheers: all buttoned-up seriousness, but with the eager naïveté of a puppy dog. It’s a fine bit for a sitcom, but when we’re asked to take her seriously for the better part of two hours, it becomes an issue. Take, for example, the scene in which she asks Ryan if he would ever consider getting married. When he says “no”, she acts as like a Vulcan android that’s just blown a circuit; am I really supposed to believe that an educated woman who came of age in the last two decades has never encountered someone who doesn’t think marriage is right for them?

I understand that these critiques have more to do with the screenplay than the actors, but Up in the Air is the perfect storm of bad choices on both the writers’ and performers’ parts. The script is a mess; on the one hand it’s a funny road picture in the vain of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but at the same time it aspires to the gravitas of a socially relevant portrait of the economic disaster. It takes a very deft touch to have it both ways, and Jason Reitman is about as ham-handed as they come.

It’s cute that he decided to insert real laid-off employees into his movie to give heart-felt testimonials during the firing scenes, but Reitman failed to learn Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino lesson from last year: for the most part, regular people don’t know how to fucking act. And when you plop them into a movie of established actors, the contrast is embarrassing to watch. Look no further than J.K. Simmons, who shines in one of only three decent scenes in the film. He plays a family man who gets the axe, and his exchange with Clooney gives a glimpse of the humanity and fine filmmaking that Up in the Air should have possessed; when we cut back to the non-actors, the movie takes on the air of a corporate training video.

And what of the economic crisis theme? Up in the Air shows us plenty of desolate buildings and jittery nerves in conference rooms, but it doesn’t say anything about how current events affect its characters. The downturn is simply a backdrop against which to paint a clichéd lost-man portrait. Two key indicators of this are late-film developments that defy plausibility and undercut the supposed theme:

1. One of the women that Ryan and Natalie let go early in the film kills herself by jumping off a bridge; this is telegraphed (sloppily) in her exit interview. It pops up as a story point in the last fifteen minutes, and is brushed aside with a few lines of dialogue as if it would not be a big deal in real life. Natalie quits her job and Ryan lies to his boss about having seen signs of a problem with the victim; my understanding of the real world is that there would be lawsuits and inquiries, possibly suspensions. But, no, the dead woman is just a catalyst for...

2. Natalie getting a new job right off the bat. Her new employer receives a letter of recommendation from Ryan that testifies to all the lessons she’s learned on the road, and how great a catch she is for any business, etc. It’s unclear what kind of job she gets, or whether or not she was at all scared of not finding work in the current climate. We just see her sit down for a brief interview and walk away with a new paycheck and 401(k).

I really dislike Up in the Air; which is a shame because I was truly looking forward to it. I would still love to see a serious examination of people whose job it is to put other people out of work; by “serious”, I don’t mean dour—just something that doesn’t feel like its screenplay was revised by the head writer of Two and a Half Men.

The only thing this film did right was to compel me to pick up Walter Kirn’s novel; I’ve finished the first chapter and, sure enough, its first 11 pages are far more effective than the whole movie based on it.

Note: For those of you that have seen the movie, you’ll notice I left out the two bulky sub-plots involving Ryan’s affair with a fellow frequent traveler and his trip home to attend his sister’s wedding. The reason is simple: they add nothing to the movie except running time (unless you’ve never seen another movie about family and/or the road). The characters involved in these distractions are as cardboard as the gimmick-y cut-outs Ryan photographs in front of the places he travels; particularly offensive is Danny McBride, as the brother-in-law-to-be, who plays exactly the douchebag one might expect him to play in a conventional comedy; the fact that he is not elevated above archetype here is a good indication of how dumb the movie considers its audience (another credibility issue: he gets cold feet on his wedding day because he’s never—until the big day—thought about what getting married actually means; there may be people out there that this happens to, but they deserve neither sympathy nor significant screen time in a movie made for adults).

Additional Note: I should mention that Up in the Air has one of the best closing scenes I’ve seen; it involves Sam Elliott as an airline pilot who congratulates Ryan on earning ten million miles. The look on Ryan’s face when the pilot asks where he’s from—and Ryan’s answer—is just perfect. The problem is, that scene comes about ten minutes before the end; there is no finer example of Jason Reitman’s ineptitude as a storyteller than the misplacement of this gem of a capper. Instead, we’re treated to a lingering, silent shot of clouds that even a C- film student would decry as pretentious.

Sunday
Dec062009

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

 

Hicks and Hexes

The saying goes that the best way to criticize a bad movie is to make a good one. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfofsky have taken that idea a step further by applying it to a murder trial. Their documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a damning critique of two trials that saw the (apparent) wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. These filmmakers have taken their case to the court of public opinion, and have made a compelling argument for their subjects’ innocence.

The film opens with grisly footage of the crime scene: the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys are dragged from a river embankment. Watching the police video, it was startling to think that I was seeing real human beings and not dummies from some slasher film; the reality didn’t hit me until the cut to the family interviews and local news coverage. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, and the directors wisely went with the most shocking images right off the bat; they would be the tent pole on which the rest of the story—and the trial—would come to rest.

We learn that on May 5, 1993, the three second-graders were allegedly attacked in the woods of Robin Hood Hills by Jessie Misskelly, Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The teen outcasts—who wore all-black and listened to Metallica—brutally raped, killed, and disfigured the kids as part of a Satanic ritual, or so the story goes. Paradise Lost spends a lot of time on the front end with the victims’ families, all working-class upstanding citizens whose grief has quickly morphed into anger: they gleefully hypothesize about what will happen to the killers when inmates/God/Satan get hold of them; one mother even promises to mail one of the jailed teens a skirt. The outrage is understandable—though very unsettling—and it’s easy to side with the relatives; that is, until the facts of the case begin to unravel.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Paradise Lost became the most fascinating court drama I’ve ever seen. During two trials, we see the legal teams of all three defendants paint a picture of small-town prejudices that made them the only possible suspects in the murder—even though each teen had an alibi and none had motive. Despite the fact that one of the victims’ own fathers is eventually eyed as a viable suspect, the defense teams face an up-hill battle that has less to do with the facts of the case than with the fear and suspicion of people who want to upend their beliefs (a couple of the expert witnesses are derided by the prosecution for being “big-city” folk whose fancy college educations and high rates of pay negate anything they might have to contribute). Unfortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the fate of the “West Memphis Three” (this documentary did come out almost fourteen years ago), so I lost out on the drama of the verdict; but Berlinger and Sinofsky so effectively involved me in the story that I almost forgot.

In addition to the courtroom material, the interviews with both the victims’ families and the families of the accused are just fascinating. No one in West Memphis comes across as particularly educated, attractive, or even nice; it’s easy to see where the caricatures of Southern ignorance come from. But there are surprises everywhere, as in a scene where one of the dead boys’ family is sitting around cursing the murderers and plotting violent revenge in the event that the alleged killers are set free; the grandfather pipes up and says that he’s a Christian, and that as mad and hurt as he is, he won’t engage in the Devil’s work. When we meet Damien Echols’ girlfriend, we see a sweet teenage mother who never doubts the innocence of the boy she loves, and her testimony ultimately causes us to re-evaluate some of what we believe about Damien. You could edit out the trial altogether and still have a solid movie about human pettiness and compassion.

Ultimately, Paradise Lost makes a strong case for the teens’ innocence, though it also paints them as being not bright enough to be able to look innocent. Of the three, Damien Echols is the most educated, but also the cockiest, and it’s not difficult to see how a jury could go against him, even in the face of evidence that he was nowhere near the crime scene. I came away from the movie angry at the proud ignorance of the town and embarrassed for the justice system—I know that it works in many cases, but when it doesn’t, well, you get things like redneck justice and an unsolved murder.

Note: I haven’t seen the sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations, which follows up on the case with, I guess, new evidence. I plan to check it out soon, to see if it answers some questions that I have about the original trials (such as how the prosecution thought the teenagers lured three second-graders into the woods in the first place).