Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, March 29, 2010

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)

dir. James Nguyen

In recent years I have bemoaned the fact that so few transcendentally brilliant and awful movies get made any more. The tendency has been toward the middle. In this age of media saturation; proper film grammar, structure, plotting and what-have-you have become part of our DNA. Most any Joe Film-Maker with a credit card can buy a camera, research film-making online, and construct a somewhat serviceable story. Thus, it's always a treat to witness the work of a true naif. When someone so completely fails to grasp the basics of film-making, the resultant work is a thing of beauty.

A more experienced and/or knowledgeable film-maker will be able to avoid many of the obvious blunders that can beset a picture. The inexperienced director, however, will many times make choices so baffling, that the results achieve a sort of accidentally avant-garde quality. To quote Sunset Boulevard's Joe Gillis, "Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be." Although many folks have recently attempted to revive exploitation films to varying degrees of success, they haven't completely captured the charms of the works of such directors as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ray Dennis Steckler, or Leonard Kirtman. They aren't going to make the sorts of interesting, unintentional mistakes that a true trash director would. At best, they will only meticulously recreate the hilarious mistakes of these previous film-makers.

This is why, after discovering Tommy Wiseau's The Room, I became obsessed. This was a passion project gone horribly wrong. No ironic, intentionally bad film-making here—just the results of a man with money to spend, a vision, and access to film-making equipment. In addition to satiating my need for bad film-making, The Room also stoked my love of the midnight movie. This communal, participatory experience had been on the wane before The Room, and was now thankfully making a comeback. As much as I have loved The Room experience, though, I doubted that many more films would be released to further fill this need. With James Nguyen's Birdemic: Shock and Terror, however, The Room has met its match.

As Nguyen said in his introduction before the screening I attended, Birdemic: Shock and Terror is a Romantic Thriller. The first half is romantic and the second half is a thriller. In the Romantic first half, software salesman Rod meets fashion model Nathalie (Whitney Moore) and soon forms an endearingly empty, chemistry-free relationship. [Rod, incidentally, is played by a cyborg whose Japanese inventors decided to name Alan Bagh.] She likes that he isn't like all those other guys she's dated who think that relationships are all about deep romantic connections and passionate, passionate fucking. Instead of wasting time with dirty, dirty sex, this couple opts to do such things as engage in boring, lifeless conversations over dinner and then take walks in front of green screen beach images and engage in boring, lifeless conversations beyond the reach of the film's sound crew.

Everything moves beautifully for this awkward couple. But not for long. Unfortunately, Rod and Nathalie eventually give in to their wrong, wrong desires to fornicate. MISTAKE! What bad can come of this, you say? How about the unleashing of violent, slow-moving, motherfucking exploding adobe software creations bent on destroying humanity. In addition to being upset that this couple has engaged in the sex act, the murderous birds of the film's title are also really pissed off about Global Warming. Who is the true monster here? It turns out it's man. [At least, I think this is what happened. I can’t quite remember the specifics of the last thirty minutes or so of the film, as, by that point, most of a fifth of Jim Beam had worked its way through my veins and into my brain, which it massaged into a pleasant slumber.]

Much like many of the Nature Attacks movies of the seventies, Birdemic: Shock and Terror comes filled with beautifully blunt sermonizing. Nguyen slathers the messages across his movie with all the care and skill of a drunken speed-freak attempting to paint a photo-realistic portrait using a garden trowel and poop. Whereas a more experienced writer might subtly convey a message through actions or innuendo, Nguyen prefers instead to introduce (and then quickly remove) a random character whose sole purpose is to explain in detail the meaning of the movie.

Honestly, for all its amazing flaws, on the surface, the story at the center of Birdemic: Shock and Terror ain't half bad. Two young people begin dating, only to be interrupted by the dropping of a Monty Python Foot of God, in the form of killer birds. I am quite a fan of genre melding. In particular I am a fan of horror movies in which we witness regular people dealing with regular people things only to run smack dab in the middle of unexpected terror. In spirit, Birdemic: Shock and Terror's story actually reminds me of one of my favorite unsung movies from the eighties Miracle Mile—a movie that perfected this genre clash. Although this story had potential, where Birdemic: Shock and Terror went wrong, is with everything else—and by wrong, I mean unbelievably, pants-pissingly, cum-inducingly entertaining.

I should note that my friend Matt and I were able to meet and briefly talk with Nguyen at a pre-screening party. This delightfully pleasant man seemed genuinely excited about the amount of attention his movie was receiving. If people are coming in droves to see your work, who gives a shit why. People are seeing it. As with Nguyen's unapologetic joy over his film's success, I similarly have issue with the idea of ironic enjoyment. If you're enjoying something, what the fuck does it matter why. I fucking love this movie.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Prophet (2009)

dir. Jacques Audiard

Holy fucking shit. Can you say movie boner? I went into Jacques Audiard's gangsters-in-prison film with ridiculously high expectations. There was no way this film could live up to them. Somehow, it exceeded them.

With A Prophet, Audiard takes the basic structure of the gangster on the rise genre as typified by De Palma's Scarface (or any of the gangster movies from the thirties, really), and stripped it of most of the outlandish excesses that have bogged these films down in ludicrousiosity (not that I don't love the wonderful over-the-top-ness of these aforementioned movies). Although A Prophet's protagonist Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) makes the journey from petty hood, naif, nobody to prison top-dog and, upon his eventual release, gangland kingpin in the space of a few years, never does the transformation seem far-fetched. Indeed, A Prophet is so well plotted and paced that Malik's rise not only seems natural, but inevitable. Much of this is due to Rahim's remarkably reserved performance. [Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to say that his work brings to mind De Niro's performance in Godfather II, but fuck it, I'll make the comparison anyway.]

When the friendless Arab lands in the pokey for assaulting a cop (although it is never made entirely clear just what he did), he is forced by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), the Corsican mob leader who runs the prison, to kill an Arab informer. [Side note: The tall motherfucker sitting in front of me in the movie theater obscured about a third of the subtitles, so you'll excuse me if I make any occasional errors as regards the plot. {Second side note: Fuck you, tall motherfucker sitting in front of me.}] The reluctant Malik eventually relents after he is threatened with death. As Malik nervously paces his cell and awkwardly prepares for the assassination, we are drawn into his dilemma of having to kill the informer or be killed the Corsicans. It is as much, if not more, about the anticipation as it is about the messy, brutal murder that the inexperienced Malik commits (and this is indeed one of the sloppiest, tensest mob hits I've seen in a movie).

For most of the, if not the entire, duration of the film, Malik is a closed book. Much like Matt Damon's character in the equally brilliant (though polar opposite, tone-wise and subject matter-wise) white-collar crime film The Informant, Malik is an unknowable entity. For Malik, this is a survival mechanism. One of the reasons he is able to rise to the top of the heap is that expectations of him are so low.

Audiard's film truly excels in the little moments (not that it isn't full of tense bursts of violence). Malik's story is that much more believable because Audiard takes the time to indulge in seemingly mundane, shared human experiences. Indeed, how many other crime films would feature a scene of our main character, an inexperienced traveler, gazing in awe out his plane window as he takes his first flight. It is because of such scenes that Audiard is able to keep his film grounded in a reality lacking in most other films of the genre. [Of course, Audiard also indulges in a few notably surreal moments.]

A Prophet is perhaps the best film I've seen to deal with the subject of prison as a school for criminality. Although Malik enters the big house an anonymous, socially maladjusted malcontent, prison gives him the education to succeed as a world class criminal. Audiard does not necessarily judge nor praise this transformation (nor his main character). He merely shows it happening.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

dir. Steve Pink

Patton Oswalt has called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the best movie title ever. Because it is so descriptive, this title creates a movie in your head before you even see the thing. You know exactly what to expect. Like Oswalt, I have long been a fan of to-the-point movie names. Screw such coy, wishy-washy, enigmatic titles as Rumor Has It, It's Complicated, and Something's Gotta Give. If you want me to see your movie, tell me something that can allow me to create a mental picture.

Of course, there are also numerous instances of descriptive, mental-picture-inducing titles that have nothing to do with the actual movies. Imagine the disappointment of the hordes of D & D playing, Tolkien aficionados who went into William Friedkin's Sorcerer expecting, oh I don't know, actual sorcerers, but instead were treated to the most bad-ass, fist-clenching, edge of your seat thriller (not to mention one of the best remakes) that the seventies produced. [Seriously, if you haven't seen it already, watch Sorcerer.] If Friedkin had instead named his movie, Morally Ambiguous Exiles and Fugitives Transport Highly Unstable Nitroglycerin Through Jungle Mountains instead, I'm sure the movie would have been a box-office smash. I'm a big believer in truth in advertising. If, for instance, you call your goddamn movie, goddamn Werewolves on Wheels you better motherfucking put more than five goddamn minutes of motherfucking werewolves on motherfucking wheels in the motherfucking goddamn movie.

This is why, of course, when I first heard about the upcoming movie Hot Tub Time Machine, I anticipated it like a motherfucker. Did this have the potential to be a colossally dumb Friedberg/Seltzer-esque abomination unto all that is good? Maybe. Who gives a shit—it's called motherfuckin' Hot Tub Time Machine.

Thankfully, Hot Tub Time Machine delivers on its title. It contains a Hot Tub Time Machine.

Although it attempts to induce memories in nostalgic Gen-Xers of such eighties cultural touchstones as Better Off Dead and Back to the Future, Hot Tub Time Machine follows the current comedy model of placing talented comedians on screen together and letting them riff off each other. How much this formula works in any given film depends on the performers' ad-libbing skills and on the viewers' desire to spend time with said actors. Fortunately the performers here (John Cusack, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson) just happen to be a group of guys that I love seeing be funny. Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson are particular standouts. After a string of scene stealing parts in numerous recent comedy hits, it's nice to see Robinson have fun with such a substantial role.

Because of its purposefully hacky premise, sometimes juvenile (yet hilarious) vulgarity, and jokes relying on 80s nostalgia, it's unlikely that Hot Tub Time Machine (unlike the movies it references) will have much of a shelf life. Still, it sure made me laugh like hell. It passes the comedy test and it's certainly not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. It's exactly what I was expecting, and I love it for that.

Dave's Rating:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Lineup (1958)

dir. Don Siegel

The first twenty minutes or so of Don Siegel's early career crime thriller The Lineup bear many of the marks of a TV to Film adaptation: mainly in the form of over-reliance on familiar set-ups and plot conventions. The Lineup began as a police procedural TV show much in the vein of Jack Webb's right-wing masturbation fantasy Dragnet—with Webb's Los Angeles being replaced by a San Francisco setting. This TV show followed two cops every week as they worked to uncover a new crime. When deciding to adapt this show for the big screen, the producers naturally decided to employ the director of the series' first episode, budding film-maker Don Siegel. If they were hoping that Siegel would blindly replicate the TV show formula for the enitirety of the film, they were no doubt, sorely disappointed. [It should be noted that I never actually saw the TV incarnation of The Lineup. I go only by the info supplied by Eddie Muller and James Ellroy on the disc's entertaining commentary track.]

After a cop is killed by an out of control cab driver in the film's slam-bang opening, two cops soon discover that the man was transporting a suit-case stolen by a porter from a wealthy doll collector arriving from overseas. The flat-foots then discover that one of the dolls in the man's case was filled with the big H. It turns out that a group of Heroin smugglers has been using unsuspecting tourists as unwitting drug mules. Now that film has gotten all of the necessary TV-show-fan-pandering and plot stuff out of the way, it's time for the juicy shit.

The story only really cranks into high gear with the arrival of the drug gang's hit-men: Dancer (Eli "motherfucking" Wallach) and his erudite, urbane "partner" (wink, wink) Julian (Robert Keith). Once the film takes a turn on this dark path it has abandoned the TV show entirely and is now firmly set in the world of Don Siegel. The masterful Siegel would long have an interest in characters living on the edge. Be he on either side of the law, so long as a character was dysfunctional, Siegel relished the opportunity to showcase his neurotic, sometimes psychopathic behavior.

Being a Siegel picture, The Lineup is also full of brilliant, thrilling action pieces. The tense car chase finale is one of my favorite such scenes. If this film had focused entirely on Dancer and Julian, it would have been an unequivocal masterpiece, but much like the flawed Murder Inc., Siegel's picture is an almost great movie.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959)

dir. John Sturges

John Sturges is one of my favorite work-horse directors from the fifties and sixties. He was an expert craftsman, capable of churning out a series of competent, entertaining genre films, and who, when presented with stellar material, could produce a masterpiece (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape). Although he produced a smattering of work in various genres, Sturges excelled mostly in Westerns. His Western actioner Last Train from Gun Hill, although full of grand ambitions, falls mainly into the competent genre exercise category.

Sturges did certainly attempt to provoke viewers with this picture, however. The Production Code folks, in particular, most likely had some words with the director over the content of this film, specifically with the attack scene that opens it. An Indian woman, riding with her white son, is brutally raped and murdered by a pair of cowboys as she attempts to ride back to town to see her husband Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas). Not only is this scene especially violent for the time it was produced, it (and much of the film that follows) also touches on many taboo film subjects from the time: miscegenation, racism, sexual assault, police corruption. Not that this film is a sermonizing message picture. Sturges ably delivers the genre goods in an engrossing story.

After learning of his wife's murder, some intrepid detective work lands Morgan in the nearby Gun Hill, a lawless town run by the ruthless cattle baron (and former best friend of Morgan) Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). After discovering that Belden's son Rick (Earl Holliman), was one of the men responsible, Morgan seizes him and holes up in a hotel room while waiting for the last train from Gun Hill (hey, that's the name of the movie). Belden, torn between his friendship with Morgan and his love for his piece of shit son, soon hires an army of thugs to lay siege to Morgan in the hopes of rescuing Rick.

Last Train from Gun Hill is a hodgepodge of slightly superior Westerns from the same era (3:10 to Yuma immediately comes to mind). That's not to say that Sturges' picture doesn't have its moments. A scene in which an enraged Morgan explains in agonizingly vivid detail to Rick how he will kill the young murderer the slow white way (using the Justice system), is perhaps the most cold-blooded, bad-ass speech I've heard uttered in a revenge picture. Much of the film that surrounds this scene, however, is just good enough.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Brute Force (1947)

dir. Jules Dassin

It's not hard to see, after watching Brute Force, why Jules Dassin was eventually blacklisted. Much like the rest of the films in the unfortunately short-lived Hollywood career of this brilliant genre film-maker, Brute Force is filled with the sort of blunt progressive lecturing that would make John Wayne shit anger. What makes Dassin's films work, however, is the fact that his characters are not merely plot devices used to further a point (Having Hume Cronyn's fascist prison guard Munsey play a Wagner record while beating an inmate was perhaps a tad, obvious, though). Dassin cares first and foremost about the story and his characters' places within it.

Burt Lancaster plays the hardened leader of a group of inmates striving to escape this hellish environment. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the circumstances that lead to a life in prison for each member of this group. Some were petty criminals, some were tricked by women (this is the world of noir, after all), and some just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One thing is certain, of course, they were all relatively decent people before landing in the pokey. Dassin is interested in the ways that prison can harden people, making them worse than they were before getting their asses in stir. A theme that many directors would later revisit, Dassin shows that prison can act as a school for criminality.

More importantly, though, Dassin is interested in the inner-working of this mini-social environment. The current warden (Roman Bohnen) is an old softie who believes that to achieve stability and a modicum of sanity within these gray walls, the inmates must be treated as humans. The sadistic Munsey, however, sees these men as his own personal playthings. Although he touts brute force (hey, that's the name of this movie) as a means of controlling the inmates, it soon becomes clear that intimidation and terror are just a way for this nut-cake to get his rocks off.

Although many prison films (and prison-escape films) dealing with similar subject matters would be released in the coming years, few woould hit with the visceral punch that Dassin packs into this beautifully shot picture. Suck it, Shawshank Redemption.


Dave's Rating:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer

From Cracked, one of my favorite time-wasting websites, comes this pants-pissingly hilarious send-up of all Oscar-Craving productions.