Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Short Film: Roof Sex by PES

PES is the chosen moniker of Adam Pesapane, an English Lit graduate of the University of Virginia now living in NYC who moved on to become a successful stop-motion animator of films and commercials. Like so many producers of surreal stop-motion films, his work features an obvious influence of the great Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t original or different, for they truly are. His short film Western Spaghetti, which won an Audience Award at Annecy, one of the world's premiere animation festivals, was chosen by Time Magazine in 2008 as the second best viral short on the Net.
Roof Sex was his first short film, and it too won an award at Annecy, as the Best First Film. Though but a minute long, Roof Sex took 20 shooting days to complete. The short, like the best of his work, displays some finely caustic humor and a fine grasp of the technique.
The films of PES are easy to find on the net, either on YouTube or on his homepage.

Slipstream (USA, 2005)

(Spoilers) Slipstream is the first feature-length directorial effort of David van Eyssen, who hasn’t been heard from again since his 2005 debut. Odd, for going by this film, his comprehension of stylistic flash and glitter should open a way to a solid career—providing he eventually also learns how to direct actors. Slipstream, for all its knowingly facetious dialogue and plot development, over-the-top action (for such a low budget movie) and visual trickery, has some big plot holes and some of the worst acting—and some horrid miscasting—to be found in a direct-to-DVD product since, well, DVDs began. The plot holes can possibly be overlooked, but the casting...
Of the three main roles—Sean Astin as the scientist Stuart Conway, Ivana Milicevic as FBI agent Sarah Tanner and Vinnie Jones as the psychotic bank robber Winston Briggs—all are miscast (though none as badly as that of Sarah Tanner). But whereas Astin's charisma and naturalism manages to save him and his part, Ivana Milicevic never once manages to be convincing as anything other than a sorely miscast but hot-looking babe (who regrettably never gets nekkid), while Vinnie Jones (who thankfully never gets nekkid) delivers a textbook case on hammy overacting. OK, maybe Ivana Milicevic shouldn't have to be expected to do much more than look good, but considering the effective presence that Vinnie Jones has displayed in many an other film—such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998/trailer), Snatch (2000/trailer) and The Midnight Meat Train (2008/trailer)—the theatrical histrionics he displays in this film are unforgivable and incomprehensible. Where was the director?
Probably busy thinking out groovy shots and nifty visual tricks, for Slipstream contains some really awesome eye candy in this department. Fast motion, slow motion, different speeds within one shot, and rhythmic but contrasting editing are but a few of the tricks David van Eyssen pulls from his hat to decorate the at-times knowingly ironic and inanely excessive plot that none the less both sinks once too often into genre clichés and occasionally suffers from an obvious lack of funds. Indeed, as is often in the case when a willfully sardonic plot treads too close to cinematic or narrative platitudes, Slipstream occasionally seems to be exactly that that it is trying to take the piss out of (i.e., a cheap action film). In general the filmic direction of the film is also a bit too artsy for the audience this type of low budget film is intended for, and as such it very much misses its target audience—which in turn explains the general disdain and negativity Slipstream has unjustly been met by. For although the film is without a doubt flawed, it is also a quick, easy and entertaining 90 minutes and hardly deserves the derision it has received.
The plot is a semi-rehash of Retroactive, a violently fun and sun-burnt time travel flick from 1997. Not at all surprising, actually, seeing that the one of the two scriptwriters of Slipstream (Phillip Badger) wrote Retroactive and the other writer (Louis Morneau) directed it. But, whereas the hot FBI agent (Kylie Travis) in the Texas-lensed Retroactive had to enter a huge machine to go back 20 minutes, in the South-Africa-shot Slipstream the protagonists have to mess around with what looks to be a pink mobile phone to skip back ten minutes.
Stuart Conway, the inventor of the said device, decides to test it by repeatedly withdrawing the same amount at his local bank while trying to get to know the rather bitchy plain-Jane blonde teller (Verity Price). Unbeknownst to him he is being trailed by two bickering lovebird FBI agents, but even worse, a group of psychotic lowlife gangsters decide to rob the bank at the same time. Of course, the shit hits the fan and people die and time gets reversed and other people die and the bad guys escape with the time machine but get in a car accident and end up with a bus full of hostages and people die and time gets reversed and others die before the big showdown aboard an airplane where everyone dies before time gets reversed and...
Well, unlike the semi-downer ending of Retroactive, Slipstream ends with everyone skipping down the yellow brick road to happiness.

Qin yong / A Terracotta Warrior (Hong Kong/China, 1989)

It is a real shame that a film that starts out so promisingly as this one ends up being such a mess. Like so many an Asian film, A Terracotta Warrior is one strange mixture. But unlike the best of the Hong Kong mixtures, this Chinese mélange doesn't quite work and comes across a bit as if two completely different films incorporating the same main actors were edited together to make one feature-length release.
Director Siu-Tung Ching tries to have the best of both worlds and divides his tragic love-story-cum-socky-chopy film into two main time frames, the first half taking place 3,000 years ago and the second half around 1930. And, before getting to the real action in the second half, he makes the change of scenery twice as jarring by completely flipping the film's tone from that of high tragedy to base slapstick. The combination of the two is common enough in most Hong Kong products, especially the costume adventures, but seldom has a film been so savagely split down the middle in terms of tone, feeling and location. Either half of A Terracotta Warrior could have been developed into their own individual and interesting film, but combined into a single feature they cause the final product to become alienating and annoying. All the more so because Ching unexpectedly drops the excessive and broad comedy of the second half during the final 15 minutes of A Terracotta Warrior, thus making the film even more schizophrenic.
Lovers of Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon (2000/trailer) and its forefathers should make a point to turn off the movie as soon as Winter (Gong Li) runs into the fire. Others, well, the final battle scene is an impressive achievement, but oddly out of place after the preceding hour. The action and choreography are excellent, but the film in itself is simply not as completely entertaining as some of Ching's more consistent directorial or co-directorial efforts, including A Chinese Ghost Story I (1987/trailer) and II (1990/trailer) or The Heroic Trio I (1992/trailer) and II (1993/trailer).
But giving credit where credit is due, A Terracotta Warrior obviously does not skimp in the budget department, and features excellent sets, effects, costumes and production values. In general the acting isn't that bad either, but for Gong Li's excessive and annoying overacting in the movie's second half. She is fine for such serious fare as the art house favorites Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), The Story of Qui Ju (1992/trailer) or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006/trailer) but as a comic actress she leaves a lot to be desired. (Interestingly enough, the male lead of A Terracotta Warrior, Yimou Zhang, directed all four of those films just listed.... as well as the deservedly popular films Hero (2002/trailer) and House of Flying Daggers (2004/trailer).)
A Terracotta Warrior begins some three thousand years ago during the Qin Dynesty, with the architect Tian Fong (Yimou Zhang) heading some monumental building project for the country's choleric and brutal ruler, Emperor Qin (Suk Bung Luk). After saving the emperor's life, Tian becomes part of the emperor's military court. Qin is obsessed with immortality and is also building the famous terracotta army of China as part of his royal tomb, encasing the executed and loyal in clay shells as part of his immortal militia. Qin also has a number of (comic) alchemists working on the formula for eternal life, which they actually eventually discover but do not pass on to the emperor. An aspect of the plot involves some 500 virgins, one of which is Winter (Gong Li); she and Tian naturally fall in love and, after he pops her cherry, they get sentenced to death. She commits suicide and he gets encased in terracotta, but not before she manages to give Tian the magic pill which makes him immortal. And, just when the tear ducts begin to go to work, the movie hops savagely forward to the 1930s, when a film crew arrives in pre-revolutionary China to make some movie. The shoot is actually a front for a scavenging operation led by the movie's star Bai Yun Fei (Rongguang Yu) out to rob China of its ancient treasures. Before you can puke over all the misplaced comedy, the emperor's grave is found and Tian awakes, mistaking the movie extra Lili Chu (Gong Li) as his beloved Winter...
As said, Gong Li is a lousy comic. Yimou Zhang manages to handle his part with aplomb, no matter in which century he is running around in. The climactic fight scene is breathtaking and entertainingly excessive, but somehow over much too quickly. The semi-tragic ending (before the final scene) isn't necessarily unexpected, but at least it returns to the movie's original tone. All in all, A Terracotta Warrior isn't a complete loss; it is just that it should have—and could have—been much better... had it been two different films, for example.

29 Palms (USA, 2003)

No, this review is not about the relatively unknown 2003 "scandal" flick Twentynine Palms (trailer) written and directed by the French director Bruno Dumont, but is about the less well known 2002 "crime" flick 29 Palms directed by the Uruguay-born Leonardo Ricagni and written by the (to-date) one-shot non-wonder Tino Lucente. In truth, 29 Palms seems less written or directed than simply thrown together by a person or persons hoping to achieve some sort of cheap crossbreed between a Tarantino and David Lynch film.
Well, they failed miserably: 29 Palms is less a coherent movie than a celluloid accident. That the film is so fucked up isn’t all that surprising if you follow the email exchange of the producer Bryan Lord and some less-than-impressed critic at Contact Music; seeing that the thin-skinned producer himself doesn’t seem to know who is who in the film, it isn’t all that surprising if no one else does either. But then, maybe some aspects of the film got rewritten during filming or changed during the editing and he just didn’t notice it. (In truth, if "The Hitman" [Chris O'Donnell] really were an FBI agent, it would at least make sense that he recorded his contract meeting with "The Chief" [Russell Means], though it would do little to explain his actions throughout the rest of the movie.) But then, the whole film exhibits a general cinematic and narrative sloppiness that could easily attest to a general disinterest of all those involved—it does give one reason to wonder, in any event, when the director Leonardo Ricagni himself fails to list the flick as one of his projects on his own website.
29 Palms smells—and plays—like an intentional tax write-off that is substituting as rent-paying occupational therapy for a bunch of new and/or familiar faces of varying levels of thespian talent. And while it fun to watch Bill Pullman’s short but entertaining turn as "The Ticket Clerk" and Michael Rapaport does leave an impression as "The Cop", most of the actors really don't make much of an impression at all—but then, the script calls only for stereotypes and not characters, so it really doesn't give them all that much to work with in the first place. Worse, the film also doesn’t give one much to remain interested in, so the viewer has a hard time staying awake throughout the whole film.
Aside from the overuse of stereotypes, 29 Palms is also particularly aggravating in its story development and "big" scenes. The real city of 29 Palms is located in San Bernardino County, which more or less translates into the Californian Desert to the rest of the world. And the desert is not really a place where the paths of seven or ten characters traveling the back roads are necessarily going to regularly and easily cross paths. They do in 29 Palms, however, almost as if everyone were wearing homing beacons. The scene in which The Cop is trying to rape The Waitress (a cute-looking Rachael Leigh Cook) is typical in this sense: filmed with a 360 degree revolving shot, the first time the camera encircles the two nobody else can be seen for miles; the second time it circles, The Hitman's car is parked a couple of yards away. Equally groan-inducing is the scene in which The Drifter (an unmemorable Jeremy Davies) enters the Indian casino and a huge shoot-out ensues in which no one's gun ever runs out of bullets and nobody gets shot. Likewise, the jail—like The (pot smoking) Sheriff (Keith David)—is good for a momentary giggle the first time around, but not the second time. Lastly, for being so devastated by the murder of his girlfriend (wife?), The Drifter sure hooks up with the The Waitress mighty easily by the end of the movie.
Let’s see, the basic plot of 29 Palms goes something like this: The Judge (Michael Lerner) is waffling on a court decision, and when his clerk (Jeremy Davies) questions him about it, The Judge tells The Chief that he’s working for the FBI. The Chief sends The Warrior (Litefoot) to kill the clerk, but instead The Warrior does a war dance and kills the clerk's gal. The clerk is now The Drifter, and The Chief calls in The Hitman to do the job right, paying him with a bag full of money. The Security Guard (Jon Polito) steals the bag but gets shot by The Hitman, which leads to The Cop stealing the bag from The Security Guard. The bag eventually gets to The Drifter, but along the way The Waitress shows up to steal the bag, too. Only now there are three bags. And so, stereotypes go this way and that way and quirky scenes happen and some people die and others don't and the viewer is left with the feeling that yes, they just wasted an hour and a half of their life.
If aspects of the plot as presented in the above critique of the film are wrong, put it down to the critic having dozed off from boredom now and then. But, to give credit where credit is due, 29 Palms never really got bad enough to turn off—it just also never got good enough to recommend.

Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns (Germany, 1946)

A truly good film, no ands, ifs or buts about it. The first German film production in Germany after WW2, it was filmed by a bunch of half-starved actors—Hildegard Knef being the most famous now—and a crew that often received food packages of bacon and flower from the Russians as part of their payment (it was a DEFA Production and filmed in the Russian Sector of Berlin). Filmed in a beautiful and contrast rich black and white on salvaged film stock, scriptwriter and director Wolfgang Staudte obviously had a deep respect for and understanding of all the tricks and techniques of such great German silent film directors of Weimar Germany’s pre-war UFA Fabrik as Murnow, Leni and Lang. Staudte pulls out the visual stops in telling his story, a story that probably cut uncomfortably close to the bone for many people of Post-war Germany.
Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns narrates the story of a young commercial artist, Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), who upon returning from an unnamed concentration camp, discovers that what is left of her old apartment has been squatted by Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), an ex-soldier and doctor incapable of human contact who drowns his sorrow and pain in alcohol amongst the cheap whores and barroom dancers of bombed out Berlin. Mertens is so mentally scarred by the war that the mere sight of blood or an operation sends him straight into flashback hell. With the help of Susanne, the initially relatively dislikable Mertens begins the slow path to recovery, only to be unexpectedly faced with the discovery that his cold-hearted commander during the war, a slimy business man with no conscious who had ordered the massacre of a large group of innocent civilians, is alive and doing well. A plot twist here and a plot twist there, Christmas Night 1945 finds a mostly redeemed Mertens’ conscious gnawing at him so badly that he goes to shoot the man he knows to be a cold-blooded murderer and everyone else knows as a successful factory owner and family man.....
Perhaps the only flaw in Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns is that the dreadful experiences that Knef’s character must have experienced are brushed away at the film’s beginning with her saying little more than “It was terrible.“ Somehow, it seems hard to believe that Mertens’ should have so many mental scars and she so few. Likewise, her timely appearance near the end of the film, when she saves Mertens from becoming a murderer himself, is a bit too pat, though the bridge from Mertens’ memories as he watches his ex-commander give his factory employees a Christmas pep talk to Susanne’s reading of the same events in his diary is a wonderful example of concise narrative technique.
To mention the few little flaws in Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns, however, almost seems like pointless nit-picking when taking into account the film's overall visual and narrative power. Staudte’s understanding of the medium of film on a visual level results in a fluid narration that never seems excessive despite the originality of the cropping, composition, lighting and camera movement. Likewise, as a scriptwriter, he has an excellent ability to capture the nuances of even the most peripheral character completely and believably, as well as to present a highly realistic narration of day to day life in post-war Berlin. As for the actors, they do pretty damned well for a mass of (in real life) half-starved thespians, and even the smallest character comes across convincingly real. Add the unbelievable and disturbingly barren war-torn real life locations, and one has a truly memorable film.

Daughter of Darkness (USA, 1990)

A pleasant enough film to pass the time with on a rainy day, but best not mistaken for the infinitely better 1971 Belgium film Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges) from Harry Kumel. Kumel’s classic slice of eurotrash is a stylish, adult horror film about a honeymooning couple who cross paths with the lesbian vampire Elisabeth Bathory, whereas Stuart Gordon’s film is a mildly watchable TV flick that concerns a young American woman who comes to Communist Romania in search of her father only to get unexpectedly involved with a circle of nasty vampires.
Mia Sara plays the said American young lady, and she wanders attractively through the role she has patented since her movie debut in Ridley Scott’s disappointing 1985 fantasy Legend (trailer), that of sensitive but strong-willed woman facing danger. As nightmare-ridden Katherine Thatcher, she comes to Romania after the death of her mother in search of the father she has never met. Her search takes her from the US embassy to a nightclub located at the last known address of her father and to the basement workshop of Anton (Anthony Perkins—looking much older than he does in the photo left), haunted along the way by unknown attackers and frightening, moody nightmares. Finally, just as she’s about to let herself get bedded by Grigore, the nightclub owner and vampire heavy of the movie, it is revealed that she is the flesh and blood daughter of a human (her dead mother) and a vampire, Prince Constantine (AKA Anton). Grigore and the other vampires see her as the salvation of their dying race, but Daddy just wants her to be left alone and human. Into the dungeon she goes, but then she gets away, so Constantine gets tied down by the other vampires to die at dawn by the rays of the sun, but then Katherine comes to save him and destroy all vampires, only to be caught in a trap. Big showdown, all vampires burn, a singed-black Grigore breaks through a brick wall to get revenge but Daddy/Constantine/Anton regains enough strength to save his daughter and some dorky blond-haired diplomat guy. The last scene is a dolefully misfired attempt at misplaced humour when the two kiss and fall over in front of some statue.
Daughter of Darkness is one of the numerous relatively mediocre mid-career projects of Stuart Gordon, who as any true fan of horror films knows burst onto the scene in 1985 with a true masterpiece, Re-Animator (trailer), a film that consistently holds up to its reputation. But within five years of his masterful debut, and despite some better than average films such as From Beyond (1986) and the misunderstood Dolls (1986), it almost looked like Stuart Gordon was going the way of many a filmmaker ranging from Orson Welles to George Romero in that he was having a hard time managing to whip up the same magic that he did in his first film(s). Indeed, films such as Fortress (1993) and Robo Jox (1990/trailer) seemed to indicate a true loss of creativity and talent. Luckily, his films of the new century, whether genre projects or not, have seen him back in form, so he need not yet be written off (as one can George Romero).
On the other hand, Daughter of Darkness, a television film probably done to put food on the table, can be written off. As a TV film, it fairs well enough, but it ain't anything to jump up and down about. Gordon transfers Budapest, Hungary into a convincingly oppressive and depressive Romania, the dream sequences do display some of his old flare, and the vampires "biting" technique is unexpectedly grotesque, but the script could have been much better developed, for the dialogue spouted is sometimes atrocious, the attempts at humour all misplaced, the story development seriously lacking, and the characterisation—especially that of Katherine and the dorky diplomat—gawd awful.
That said, you should better rent a copy of Re-Animator....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Idle Hands (USA, 1999)

(Trailer.) Idle Hands, with its mildly playful title and cover photo of typical teenage splatter victims, is probably not the first "unknown" film you would reach for at the video store when searching for the weekly trashy film. True, fans of hot babes might rent it because of Vivica A Fox and a then-unknown Jessica Alba, but nothing is initially evident to infer that Idle Hands is worth your buck-fifty, let alone your Saturday night. But surprise! This relatively unknown flick is an entertaining, low-budget and blood-drenched black comedy waiting to be discovered, a true gem hidden amongst a multitude of crap. Great music (supplied by that master of genre film scores, Graham Neville), fun acting, good editing and excellent pacing make sure that the film never bores or stagnates, always popping off into some new, sick direction just at the point when it should. Teenage trash or not, this flick is fun!
The idea itself, that of a hand being possessed by an evil force, is hardly new. In fact, it was old when Sam Rami made one of the seminal "possessed hands" comedies of all time, The Evil Dead II (1987/trailer). Indeed, as an obvious fan of gore and horror, director Rodman Flender has probably even seen the film—in fact, Idle Hands has so many references to genre and trash classics known and unknown, it is a given that the guy has seen Rami's earlier effort. But who gives a shit? Is the world too small for two killer hand comedies? Not when they are this quality.
In truth, however, Flender's history as a director would hardly lead one to expect such a good comedy. The Unborn (1991/trailer), an artificial insemination baby from hell flick, and In the Heat of Passion (1992/trailer), his mandatory foray into film noir, both have their moments, but neither is something to write home to mom about. Leprechaun 2 (1994/trailer), a high body count comedy sequel to the (slightly) better original has so few real laughs that it is almost hard to believe that his newest blood drenched comedy is so successful. (Still, any guy that manages to flash a scene from Glen or Glenda (1953), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) all in one film has a lot of leeway in my book.)
Scriptwriters Teri Hughes and Ron Milbauer probably watched dozens of horror films (and smoked a ton of pot) while writing this script, for the whole movie plays with ideas borrowed from films as diverse as Psycho, Carrie, Angle Heart (or maybe Alien III), The Crazies/Codename: Trixie, Night of the Living Dead and Re-Animator, to name just a few of the more obvious references. Made by obvious genre lovers and packed with little asides to numerous films, Idle Hands doesn't spare either the blood or the laughs, leaving nothing sacred and never stopping to ask any questions. Well scripted and featuring some excellent cinematography, the movie stays within the narrow limits of a teenage splatter flick while taking a piss on it all along the way. In doing so, Idle Hands becomes much better, more satisfying and definitely more entertaining than such un-understandably popular but empty and uninteresting pap like Urban Legend (1998) or Scary Movie (2000). Like Scary Movie, Idle Hands leaves no stone unturned, spitting forth a steady barrage of non-stop gore, sexual situations, drug use and bad language. But whereas Scary Movie is an obvious (but not very good) comedy of the Airplane (1980) mould going for easy laughs, Idle Hands manages to be hilarious and simultaneously even build up enough tension to occasionally surprise and scare you.
In regards to the tradition of body count gore in the vein of Urban Legend or Friday The 13th (1980), the buckets of blood in Idle Hands are not thrown half full. The gore level here is high, much higher than in either of the two films just mentioned, and comes complete with a beheading, a knitting needle through the head, a girl in a ventilator and much more. Hell, matricide is hardly something most people can laugh at, but in Idle Hands, it and other tasteless ideas gets big laughs anyway, generally without a loss to the suspense and tension. And as an added pleasure, some of the most absolutely fabulous love pillows are seen in a gratuitous sex scene (and three-handed grope) for a much too short 30 seconds before the KISS-groupie gets choked to death.
Devon Sawa, who also has the honour of being the star of the better true teenage horror films of 2000, Final Destination (trailer), stars as Anton, a teenage pot-head and good for nothing whose life consists of being a couch potato and taking drugs. Unknown to him, his right hand has become possessed by a wandering evil spirit out to open the gates of hell (his left hand was spared, it is later insinuated, because it had seen too much masturbatory movement). In no time flat it has killed his parents and two best friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson), the latter two who come back as living dead. He amputates his hand after a few dead cops, but before he can destroy it, it escapes in pursuit of his object of desire Molly (Jessica Alba), who is at the school Halloween party. He and his clumsy, pot smoking un-dead friends – "As usual, marijuana saves an otherwise disastrous day" – set out to stop the hand, pursued by Debi (Vivica A. Fox), a priestess belonging to a sacred order whose sole aim is to destroy the evil spirit. She, in turn, is being helped by the neighbourhood's local heavy metal heartthrob Randy (Jack Noseworthy). The party quickly turns into mass murder as the hand wreaks havoc, always one step ahead of our heroes, and before long the beautiful Molly is strapped to the top of a car in the school car shop, about to be squashed to death against the roof as the hand, un-dead and Anton fight over the hydro-jack control....
The DVD also features the original ending, a bigger budgeted special effects extravaganza that eventually got dumped for the simpler, funnier and obviously much more low-budget car shop ending because it didn't seem to fit with the overall flow and mood of the movie. With either ending, Idle Hands would have still remained what it is: a bloody, tasteless and completely enjoyable black comedy that continually surprises and entertains from start to finish. Rent it now!

Heavy Metal 2000 (USA, 2000)

(Trailer.) Hey, ever hear anything about this movie? No? Well, it's not surprising. Some 19 years after the success of their first movie, Heavy Metal (1981/trailer), the magazine decides to bring out a new movie and manages to do everything wrong that they possibly could. Not that the film is terrible or anything, it just isn't very good. But any film produced by a magazine that specialises in adult-orientated graphic narration (i.e., comics) should be excellent, not just slightly better than passable.
Jettisoning the format of both their magazine and the first film, Heavy Metal 2000 is a feature-length animation based on Simon Bisley's graphic novel The Melting Pot. Narrative structure and plot aside, the strongest aspect of the original book is Bisley's drawing style, an energetic, violent style that almost breaths life. Oddly enough, in Heavy Metal 2000, despite a budget said to be around 15 million, the animation comes across as if Berni Wrightson were doing a bad imitation of cheap, lousy Saturday morning adventure cartoons. Hell, if the lead females didn't actually show their tits on occasion, one might think one was watching an old episode of He-Man. Not good.
As for the music, even fans of heavy metal will probably find most of the songs generic and unexciting – a far cry from the soundtrack of the first movie. (And people who found the first soundtrack lousy will find this one a pain worse than death.) In general, this movie shrieks "we don't know what we're doing" much louder than Titan A.E. (2000) does but lacks all the glossy, big budget animation to hide the fact. Okay, the babes in this film are much more exciting anatomically than anything found in the afore-mentioned kiddie film, and there are a few gratuitous scenes of tremendous, naked, gravity-defying animated tits that you wish were real, but animated tits hardly make a movie worth watching – especially since one ain't likely to wack the sausage for or to a few, short animated nude scenes. (Oddly enough, unlike in the magazine, frontal shots of naked men – animated or not – are obviously still a no-no in animated films.)
Indeed, more than anything else, it is the animation that makes the movie disappointing. As any fan of the real thing (i.e., comics) can tell you, the worst plot and story can be saved by excellent art. In the case of Heavy Metal 2000, the plot isn't even that bad – it is simply old and oft told, lacking in any and all surprises or originality. What damages the film is simply the lifeless, flat and uneven animation style. As for the plot, it is another sci-fi revenge story variation. An asteroid miner named Tyler discovers a secret key that can lead to immortality but drives the person who touches it insane. Now a psychotic madman, he and his band of space pirates zoom around the galaxy exterminating people and planets as he sees fit. On the planet F.A.K.K.2, those he does not exterminate he slowly drains, using their fluids to make a potion of temporary immortality. Julie – she's hot, she's stacked – survives the attack and sets out to revenge her planet. But, as she soon finds out Tyler is harder to kill than most. A hyper-jump later, everyone crash lands on the planet where the secret of immortality is locked and the opposing sides soon go to war. But wait! There is a traitor hidden amongst the midst of the good guys.... Wow. What a truly exciting and original plot.
The film's lead space amazon is obviously modelled after the woman who spoke the lines, Julie Strain. A self-made woman (well, okay she did have a lot help from plastic surgeons), she is statuesque and curvaceous and looks absolutely fabulous in photos. In life and in movement, the sight is much less attractive to behold, if nonetheless still impressive. A pin-up model and actress with over 60 B and Z films under her belt, the documentary on her included on the DVD is actually much more interesting than Heavy Metal 2000 itself.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Troublesome Night: The A-Files (Hong Kong, 1999)

Troublesome Night: The A-Files is the oddly excessive title of the German release of Aau yeung liu 5 yue gwai tung hang, otherwise known in most non-Asian countries simply as Troublesome Night 5. What "The A-Files" should be is a mystery, but so it is often enough when foreign titles get translated.
Under whatever title, this DVD is yet another of a popular series of DVDs that collects and intermingles the tales of a likewise popular Hong Kong television show highly similar to any number of US “supernatural” TV programs such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but unlike the just mentioned Yankee productions, the three tales told in Troublesome Night: The A-Files are intermingled and tied together by characters that make reappearances within any given tale, if only in passing. (Note: Troublesome Night: The A-Files features three distinct if slightly related tales despite the commonly reported assumption that the DVD features only two.) The German edition, by the way, has no host.
Populated by faces that might be well-known within Hong Kong but are at most "familiar" to western fans of Asian flicks, the general level of production is that of low budget television—which in no way means that the series (or at least this installment of the series) is not enjoyable. But to judge a whole series of (to date) 19 multi-episode DVDs released between 1997 and 2003 by only one is a bit presumptuous, so this review will reserve its judgment to only Troublesome Night: The A-Files. That said, Troublesome Night: The A-Files is a nice flick and an easy way to pass an evening—with your kids, no less. OK, there is one or two scenes that you might have trouble explaining—like the scene involving the rape of a woman by a ghost—but none of the installments are particularly bloody or excessively graphic. In this regard, Troublesome Night: The A-Files is much more The Night Gallery than Tales from the Crypt, but not really as scary as either. OK, you might have to explain to your kid why the people have funny eyes and act so differently, but it gives you a good chance to explain how in different lands with different cultures, people look and act (and react) differently. Then again: not.
As mentioned before, Troublesome Night: The A-Files is not particularly scary, but it does offer some good (intentional) laughs and some discomfort—again, the (non-graphic) rape by a ghost—and minor tension. It really is horror lite, which is not always a bad thing. The film revolves around the basic situation of taxi drivers, and opens with an almost unnecessary scene of a most-featured character named Fat (Louis Koo) picking up a re-occurring ghost character (Lan Law) that ends with the establishment of Fat's gambling addiction and the introduction of various reoccurring characters.
The next and first "true" episode of Troublesome Night: The A-Files is purely comic in nature, and tells the tale of a driver that picks up a gang boss who has lost his hand, a fake ghost and (possibly) three real ghosts in succession. The second story returns to Fat, who is forced by the debts incurred due to his gambling to move into a new home with his family and who, in no short time, manages to get himself trapped in a deal with an evil spirit that initially brings him luck but ends in tragedy. Lastly, occurring some 10-15 years later, the last tale is about Fat’s son, who gets a job as a night guard in a high-rise built upon the very location where his father met his tragic end. Closure is preordained.

In short: Troublesome Night: The A-Files is hardly essential but oddly enjoyable and extremely engaging, enough so that one not only has fun but also actually wants to see more of the series. And, as such, Troublesome Night: The A-Files is a lot better than most of the crap out there. Give it a chance.

The Rage: Carrie II (USA, 1999)

Well, nothing to get excited about here. It only took some 23 years, but some executive somewhere finally got the idea to do a sequel to Brian DePalma's classic, entertaining but overrated teen horror film Carrie (1976). Carrie, of course, isn't around anymore, though one does see her in a few indiscriminate flashbacks. Instead, this time around the movie deals with her half-sister Rachel, but The Rage: Rachel naturally lacks the supposed commercial drawing power of The Rage: Carrie II.
Needless to say, no matter how deep of a runt Brian DePalma's career was in (again) at the time, he had nothing to do with this film. Originally, Robert Mandel, who years ago made a half-way decent film called F/X (1986) was set to direct but he pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by Katt Shea, the director of such instant non-classics as Stripped To Kill (87), Stripped to Kill II (1989) and Poison Ivy (1992). No damage done to the final product, in all likelihood.
They did get Amy Irving to return to play Sue Snell, the only survivor of the original bloodbath. But then, Irving's movie career really hasn't ever been too hot anyway, the downs being definitely deeper than the highs are high (the biggest examples of both being her Oscar nomination for Yentl (1983)). In The Rage, she returns in a rather pointless role as the school's counselor, a part that could've been played by anybody and whose only real function is to work the only returning character from Carrie into the sequel. At least she won't be back for Carrie III, if and when it finally comes around. In The Rage, like the concerned gym teacher in DePalma's original, her character also bites the dust for interfering. (One must admit she does die in a surprising and gruesome manner, all the more unexpectedly due to the big build-up created by her illogical and unbelievable involvement in helping Rachel's nutty mom to escape from the loony bin.)
Is The Rage any good? Well, it depends how you look at it. Is it original? No. Is it well written? No. Is it well made? For its type, sure. Is it well acted? For its type, sure. And overall? Well, basically it is little more than one long build-up to a predetermined final, a final that is nicely bloody and violent but hardly anything new. Like most sequels, it simply rehashes the original story, changing a few specific details but nothing major and adding one or two new things – sort of like chicken chop suey vs. pork chop suey.
The young actors, most of whom must be mental retards to have flunked school so often as to still be in high school at their ages, do well enough in their roles: the bitches are bitches, the jocks are jocks, the nerd is a nerd and Rachel is, well, looking for love and understanding and dreams of being a shiny, happy person. A film like this offers and promises so little it is hard to say it is either good or bad, especially since it eventually delivers on all the small promises its title infers. Still, The Rage is definitely much more entertaining and enjoyable if you check all your expectations in at the door before turning on your DVD.
Oddly enough, though it features a bit more realistic gore than most, The Rage feels and looks more like a typical Stephan King film than the original Carrie does. But, unlike most King films, the plot holds a bit more water. (Which, in the end, isn't saying much at all considering the plot holes in most King films.)
For fans of early appearances of shooting stars doomed to be forgotten, The Rage also features an early appearance of Mena Suvari, whom everyone now knows from American Pie (1999) and American Beauty (1999), as a semi-goth suicide. (Her butt seems smaller here than in American Pie, but she still isn't quiet the nymphet she was in American Beauty.) As Lisa, her screen time as the best friend of Rachel (Emily Bergh) is brief, since she takes a swan dive off the top of the high school when she learns that she gave her prized virginity up to an asshole jock who saw her as nothing more than a point on his score card. It seems that the jocks of the school have a contest going between them about who can screw the most girls, but when Lisa kills herself the contest suddenly jeopardizes their chances for future college sport scholarships. Rachel, an outsider who lives an unhappy life with foster parents – we see her real momma getting taken away in an absolutely ridiculous opening scene in which momma decides to repaint the living room red to candle light on a dark and stormy night – earns the animosity of the popular in-crowd when she first hands incriminating photos of the jock and Lisa to the authorities (who end up doing nothing) and then also inadvertently angles Jesse (Jason London), the jock with a heart, away from the superficial but beautiful and popular Tracy (Charlotte Ayanna). Of course, the in-crowd ain't gonna let no skanky white trash upstart rock the boat, so they set up a situation to video the unsuspecting Jesse and Rachel the night she finally gives up her prized cherry. Monica (Rachel Blanchard, an Alicia Silverstone look alike best known for having taken over Silverstone's character Cher in the television series of Clueless) wins Rachel's trust and gets her to come to the big end-of-school party which, as anyone who has seen or read Carrie knows, is this film's version of Prom Night. Rachel's dream night of peer acceptance quickly turns into a bloodbath, and the film finally delivers the blood and guts the viewer has been waiting for since the movie began.
A long wait for a short finale, but there are worse films out there…like Salem's Lot (1979), Cujo (1983) Firestarter (1984), Children of the Corn (1984), Cat's Eye (1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986), Pet Sematary (1989), Graveyard Shift (1990), It (1990), Sleepwalkers (1992) The Dark Half (1993), The Tommyknockers (1993), The Stand (1994) The Mangler (1995), The Langoliers (1995) and the numerous sequels to all those just listed and others not….

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