Monday, March 26, 2007

The Hills Still Have Eyes, Apparently



See Wes Craven desecrate his own filmography with The Hills Have Eyes 2, here or below. Oh, the horror...

THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2


It begins with a tranquil, low-angle shot of a barren desert landscape. This desolate vista—it could be Arizona or the surface of Mars, for all we can tell—is quickly disrupted by the arrival of some faceless rouge, a beast of a man who lurches by, dragging a lifeless body behind him. Another menacing figure steps dramatically into frame, and suddenly the stationary shot has become a moving one, the jerky POV of a bound and gagged hostage. Playing against these unsettling images is Devendra Banhart’s twangy, otherworldly “Insect Eyes,” a moody folk ballad that perfectly sets the tone for this short-form nightmare. Were there an award given for Best Movie Trailer of the Year—and I’m sure there is, somewhere, by someone—the creepy teaser spot for Fox Atomic’s The Hills Have Eyes 2 would be an early contender for the top prize. In fact, as trailers go, this one’s actually too good: there’s more style, atmosphere, and tension in its sparse 90 seconds than there is in the entire 90 minutes of the feature it promotes. Talk about false advertising.

Slapped together to capitalize on the moderate success of its ultra-violent predecessor, The Hills Have Eyes 2 is a rote and shameless cash-in, a sequel-to-a-remake that never lets you forget, even for a second, that it’s a faded, third-generation Xerox of a 30-year-old model. It contains not a single original idea, a single moment of visual or sonic inventiveness, a single scare that it doesn’t telegraph minutes in advance. It’s a strictly by-the-numbers affair, the latest spawn of Hollywood’s freak show assembly line, designed to be quickly consumed (and just as quickly forgotten) by an indiscriminant movie-going public. And though the film is doused in grit and grime, gore and excrement, the only stench wafting off of it is that of flop sweat desperation.

Watching this utterly mundane genre offering, one actually longs for the trashy kicks of its year-old precursor, Alexandre Aja’s twisted remake of Wes Craven’s 1976 cult fave. Though rather incompetent as a political allegory, Aja’s Hills at least benefited from the nearly bottomless depth of its depravity: everything from rape-by-mutant to attempted infanticide contributed to the film’s aggressive assault on good taste. Yet with the exception of its unbelievably vile opening scene—the live birth of a monster baby, captured in wet, disgusting detail—this toothless follow-up fails to shock. It’s helmed by Martin Weisz, a music video veteran who faithfully mimics Aja’s dusty, twitchy aesthetic, but fails to appropriate the grandeur of his Sergio Leone-style showdowns. Weisz instead piles on the blood and guts, his reliance on garden-variety gore—a limb hacked off here, a head impaled there—proving a poor substitute for his film’s complete lack of suspense.

“It ain’t the people in caves over there that I’m worried about,” a character ominously intones halfway through HHE2. This is a blunt acknowledgement of the movie’s painfully obvious and go-nowhere political subtext. Its heroes are a troop of National Guard trainees stranded in the New Mexico desert, facing an enemy they can’t see from a culture they know nothing about. The soldiers-cum-victims of this misguided cavalry are a grab bag of war movie archetypes: the headstrong pacifist, the trigger-happy hothead, the hot chick in combat fatigues, etc. They’re a wholly uninteresting lot, and as the mutants dispatch them—picking them off one by one, in predictable fashion and order—you may find yourself calling shots, mapping out the causality list long before the film has whittled it down to its expected survivors. This morbid act of viewer participation would be more satisfying if Weisz provided interesting villains to identify with or root for. Alas, this time out, the deformed savages lack even the smidgen of personality Aja afforded them. They’re faceless monsters, disposable and interchangeable—where’s a memorable freak like Michael Berryman when you need him?

This new Hills plods and drags, dispensing cheap thrills like the lost slasher movie reject of the 80s. When the action finally shifts from narrow, sun-baked ledges to dark, cavernous mine shafts, the film transforms from a forgettable entry in a regrettable franchise to a second-rate knock-off of The Descent. These later scenes especially—rushed, sloppily written battles in the darkness, capped off by a deeply anti-climatic finale—suggest the work of an anonymous hatchet man, yet it might surprise horror buffs to learn that this sub-par redux is actually the work of Wes Craven himself, who co-wrote the script with son Jonathan. How, one might ask, could this renowned genre master actively contribute to the exploitation of his own esteemed canon? Simple answer: he’s done it before. For the best thing that can be said for 2007’s The Hills Have Eyes 2 is that it’s not 1985’s The Hills Have Eyes 2. Craven still bleeds his best ideas dry—see the Elm Street series and Scream 3 for proof of that—but he’s at least gotten wise enough to filter out his more absurd conceits. In other words, no canine flashbacks in this one—that’s certainly what I’d call artistic growth.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Geek Sense Tingling!


A rather predictable confession: summer movies aren't really my bag. I think anyone who knows me well can attest to my lack of interest in big, expensive, escapist entertainment. Thus the giddy excitement I once felt about the impending Event Movie season-- May through August, invariably-- has since soured into a sort of resigned dread. It's my annual cross to bear, a seemingly endless barrage of mindless action movies and overblown epics. Sometimes I wish I could be fourteen again-- that was an age in which I still enjoyed brain-dead eye candy-- but mostly I just pray for a couple of art house gems to get me through the dry, hot months.

Ah, but there's an exception to every rule, isn't there? My inner child lives on through my residual appreciation of superhero extravaganzas-- that shit's like catnip to me. So while I yawned through the underwhelming trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean 3: Beating A Dead Seahorse, one might describe my reaction to the Spider-Man 3 ads as pure, unbridled elation. An acceptable alternative would be 'slobbering fanboy anticipation.'

Incidentally, Comcast just released the last and best of the Spidey 3 trailers. Check it out here. How they're going to pack so much story into this thing is beyond me-- it's got three villains, a new love interest, and the whole black symbiote story to contend with-- but I'll be there May 2nd at Midnight to find out. Who's with me?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Good News, Bad News, Mixed News?



I just stumbled upon a news piece about one of my favorite contemporary American filmmakers, David Gordon Green. The writer-director of George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow recently completed his fourth feature, Snow Angels. The film screened at Sundance, where it recieved mostly glowing reviews. I've been waiting anxiously for news of its acquistion and subsequent theatrical release. That news came today.

On the plus side, Warner Independent Pictures has bought the movie and plans to give it a big push. On the down side, they allegedly won't release it until next year-- that's a long time to wait for a film that's already in its finished form. I want my DGG fix now!

Oh, but one last bit: WIP has also tapped Green to adapt a nonfiction John Grisham novel for his next project. Is that good news or bad news? Anyone?

The Namesake



My new Film Monthly review is up: it's of Mira Nair's The Namesake. Check it out below and here.

THE NAMESAKE

The struggle to preserve one’s national identity while adapting to the norms of Western society—this is the dramatic crux of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestselling novel, The Namesake. So who better to adapt for the screen this quintessential immigrant story than Mira Nair, the Indian-born filmmaker whose own fight for cultural autonomy so closely mirrors that of Lahiri’s Bengali protagonists? Since the 1988 release of her breakthrough masterpiece Salaam Bombay!, Nair has fought, with varying degrees of success, to operate within the Hollywood studio system without sacrificing her unique voice and vision. This tug-o-war between artistic integrity and commercial ambition has shaped much of the director’s recent work—i.e. the visually sumptuous but mundanely scripted Vanity Fair—yet rarely has that tension gelled so neatly with the precise thematic arc of one of her films. Put another way: Nair’s own experiences, as an artist and an outsider in America, lend this prestige project an authentic poignancy and significance.

Indeed, despite its celebrated source material, The Namesake may be Nair’s most personal film to date; it’s certainly her most confident and refined. Like the charming Monsoon Wedding, this one largely concerns itself with the customs of modern Indian culture, and it begins, as did the other movie, with an arranged marriage. In the early 70s, beautiful Ashima (Indian movie star Tabu) weds nebbish, soft-spoken Ashoke (Irfan Khan), mostly because he appears modestly superior to her other suitors. The two fly back to his drafty apartment in New York—a quaint little place with a killer view of the foggy Manhattan skyline—and, not a year later, Ashima gives birth to their first child, a baby boy they hastily (and temporarily) call Gogol. Flash forward eighteen years, the name’s stuck, and Gogol, a surly young man now embodied by Harold and Kumar’s Kal Penn, continues to wrestle with the social consequences of his unconventional moniker.

Just as its advertisements promise, The Namesake depicts “two worlds:” the one Gogol is born into, and the one from which his parents hail. He’s caught between these divergent cultures, his obligation to family often in direct conflict with his desire to fit in with his staunchly American peers. The screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala defines and underlines this dichotomy: the young man swaps Gogol for Nick, and he dates both a sultry Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson of Rome) and a perky Caucasian princess (Jacinda Barrett, whose shallow, unsympathetic performance is the movie’s weakest link). Yet it’s Nair who makes the film’s cultural discord downright palpable, dividing her “two worlds” down specific stylistic lines and establishing two distinctly different aesthetics. The filmmaker’s vision of India is lavish and formal: she employs a sweeping symphonic score in conjunction with elegant shot compositions and brilliant flairs of color—it’s a lush and romantic reflection of the director’s homeland. By contrast, many of the scenes in America have a messier, more immediate aesthetic, with the vitality of modern youth culture expressed via jump cuts and an appropriate mix of rock and rap songs for the soundtrack. From the moment Penn shows up as the adult Gogol, Nair begins juxtaposing styles, seesawing back and forth between them to suggest the character’s constant internal struggle. It’s a bold use of visual and sonic metaphor, a focused and deliberate manipulation of film language.

There’s a lot of story packed into The Namesake’s two hour running time: the film spans three decades, its endless forward plunge impeded only by the occasional de-saturated flashback depicting the origins of Gogol’s unusual name. One wishes, at times, that there was more space to breathe in this breathlessly paced epic, more room to live in the here and the now (or, rather, the then and the there) of the film’s overstuffed narrative. Yet if this densely woven family affair— in essence, Nair’s colorful variation on The Joy Luck Club—buckles a bit under the weight of its novelistic plotting, the performances are strong and nuanced enough to hold one’s interest throughout. Khan and Tabu have a warm, subdued chemistry, and they’re believable as both passionate young lovers and comfortable, middle-age spouses. The real revelation, though, is Kal Penn, a perpetual supporting player finding his voice as a confident leading man. The young actor invests even the daftest of comic personas with steady conviction, yet he’s remained stranded in the minority sidekick ghetto, reduced to a goofy ethnic stereotype in the Van Wilder films and a mute henchman in Superman Returns. But now, Penn—who, not unlike the conflicted Gogol, shortened his name from Kalpen Suresh Modi to secure more parts—has finally bagged a role worthy of his efforts. And with Nair, he’s found a director attuned to his specific talents, a kindred spirit for whom he can express his full potential. The Namesake bears the fruit of this winning collaboration—it’s a vigorous culture clash for the mixed-up state of our melting-pot nation.

Friday, March 16, 2007

300 reasons why the American film culture is in trouble



Actually, I have only one concrete reason in mind at this very moment. It has a little to do with the box office success stories thus far this year and a lot to do with one in particular: everyone's favorite hyper-stylized, ultra-violent, digital wankfest, 300. I won't get into what is specifically awful about this plodding, soulless work-- that's a topic for another day, and perhaps a full review-- except to state that it makes one long for the restraint, quiet dignity, and stark realism of, ahem, Sin City.

Are you not entertained? $70-million-and-counting says you are. Me, I'm hoping the next crop of comic book adaptations are more Sam Raimi than Zach Snyder. Is Spider-Man 3 out yet?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Host




Just caught Joon-ho Bong's The Host. It's a terrific monster movie that moonlights as a terrific dysfunctional family comedy/drama. Sure to make it on my Best Of list for 2007, assuming it isn't a flat-out spectacular year for film. My Film Monthly review, posted below and here.


THE HOST

In the jaw-dropping opening minutes of Joon-ho Bong’s The Host, an enormous green monster emerges from the murky depths of the Han River, lurching out of the primordial ooze to wreak havoc on the world that spawned it. This hideous evolutionary mistake—Darwin’s nightmare incarnate, all tentacles and tails, with a wide, insatiably hungry maw—begins zigzagging through a public park, mowing down and snatching up terrified pedestrians along the way. It’s a scary, exhilarating sequence and a grand entrance for the film’s amphibious villain, its marvelous CGI monstrosity—think a cross between a tadpole, Jurassic Park’s T. Rex, and that giant lizard thing from The Relic. You know, from the moment this spectacular set piece ends, exactly what you’re in for with The Host: a full-bore, unabashedly preposterous monster movie.

And yet there’s quite a bit more to this South Korean creature-feature than first meets the eye. An abnormal hybrid of disparate features, the film leaps from genre to genre with a fluid grace not unlike that of its titular beastie. One minute we’re watching a giddy sci-fi potboiler with an environmentalist spin—King Kong as written by Al Gore—the next we’re smack-dab in the middle of an absurd political satire. Inspired bits of slapstick brush up against moments of creeping dread, while a genuinely moving dysfunctional family drama forms the stable core of the picture. There hasn’t been a spirited hodge-podge like this since Brotherhood of the Wolf, though that uneven pastiche of Eastern and Western exploitation flicks has nothing on this cohesive masterwork. What we have here is a triumph of pop movie alchemy, an explosion in the genre warehouse that puts its summer blockbuster contemporaries—American or otherwise—completely to shame.

Watching The Host, one thinks of early Spielberg, and not just because the film, in its best moments, comes close to matching the white-knuckle intensity of that ultimate monster-on-the-loose epic, Jaws. Like Hollywood’s Event Movie maestro, Bong has a strong interest in the nuclear family, exemplified here by his squabbling kin protagonists. When young Hyun-seo (Ko A-Sung) is captured by the mighty beast, wolfed down and spit up in a subterranean lair, it’s up to her bickering relatives to band together and save the day. Leading the charge is her immature father (Song Kang-ho), who’s either chronically lazy or clinically narcoleptic. Joining him are the girl’s uncle (Park Hae-il), who’s got a college education but no job; her aunt (Bae Doo-na), a professional archer prone to inopportune hesitation; and her patient grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), the glue that holds the family together. Piling into a stolen sanitation truck, the four of them set out on a disorganized, ramshackle rescue mission—picture Little Miss Sunshine re-imagined as a postmodern action/horror extravaganza. Sound strange? It is, wonderfully so.

When the family hits the road, The Host shifts into high gear, its funky blend of belly laughs and primo scares building to tempest-like proportions. As a special-effects showcase, the film is peerlessly inventive: Bong seamlessly incorporates the digital critter into long, elegant tracking shots, lending the beast an organic presence—a weight—that CGI creatures rarely possess. Each appearance by the monster is thrillingly sudden and immaculately staged, yet it’s the director’s handling of the softer moments that’s truly worthy of praise. Bong displays a special aptitude for balancing the ordinary with the extraordinary—his is a large-scale spectacle sprinkled with small-scale pleasures. Humor and pathos alternate throughout, sometimes in the space of a single scene. In one weirdly hysterical moment, a wrenching eulogy literally collapses into slapstick farce; in another, a grandfather’s heartfelt plea for familial harmony falls on deaf (RE: slumbering) ears. There are so many tones and textures competing for attention that it’s no small wonder the filmmaker is able to keep his genre patchwork together, particularly to such wholly satisfying effect.

Really, if The Host fails on any level, it does so only as a slightly confused political allegory. Bong stirs a lot of contemporary anxieties into the pot—the SARS epidemic, biological warfare, and toxic chemical spills are all slyly referenced—yet he remains surprisingly glib about their thematic relevance. The involvement of the American military in the crises is similarly vague and underdeveloped, with no real motive ever offered for the decision to drum up public hysteria over an imaginary virus the beast allegedly carries. Ah, but no matter, for that’s all just subtext: The Host succeeds on so many other levels, as first-rate popcorn entertainment, as high and low comedy, as a powerhouse thrill-machine. Yet the most oddly rewarding thing about this class-A genre flick may be the way in which it reduces its scaly main attraction to an incidental catalyst, a living, breathing MacGuffin on webbed feet. The monster is just the icing on Bong’s zesty, B movie layer cake: it’s the rich and complicated family dynamic at the film’s center that will have you coming back for seconds.

One of us, gooble gobble! We accept you, we accept you!

Yep, I started a blog. It's what all the cool kids are doing these days-- I'm a slave to peer pressure and a shameless culture vulture.

But there is method to my madness: I created this page as a place to share my work with the world, to publicly pimp my wares. I'm a contributing writer for a webzine called Film Monthly (www.filmmonthly.com); I'll be posting all the reviews I do for the site here, as well as offering links to the originals. In addition, I intend to use this blog as an open forum for the exchange of ideas, opinions, rants, ravings, and random tangential conceits, most of them relating to film. To those who have intentionally or unintentionally dropped in: feel free to throw your two cents into the ring-- I look forward to being told I'm an asshole who doesn't know what he's talking about it.

Anyway, that's about all. I really struggled with a title for the blog. I was going to go with "Persistence of Vision" until I discovered that two defunct film blogs had already used it (the bastards). I flirted with calling it "I Am A Film Addict," in a pretentious nod to Caveh Zahedi's 2005 mockumentary I AM A SEX ADDICT, before settling on "Wild Lines." I'll give credit where credit's due: friend and inspired co-worker Gisella Faggi actually thought up the name. Kudos to her! Incidentally, I almost called it "Elephants and Termites," in tribute to famous film critic Manny Farber, but clearer heads prevailed.

Thanks for checking out my space. Lots more to come.