Thursday, September 30, 2010

All Eyes On October

For horror fans, the turning of the calendar to October is always cause for celebration but I'm especially enthused this year because I believe this October is going to set the pace for all future Octobers. At the very least, I'm certain that this October will be the October that next October will be judged by. I'm not necessarily excited for everything that's scheduled to be released over the next month, but I am excited that there's so much to choose from. At a glance, here's what's headed our way during the next 31 days, starting tomorrow:

Let Me In (1st)

Advance word says that this will be one of those remakes that gives remakes a good name. I hated Cloverfield (2008) but I hope director Matt Reeves made a terrific movie here. And I love that this signals the return of Hammer Films to the big screen.

Hatchet II (limited, 1st)

The first Hatchet did nothing for me but I'm glad for its fans that the second one is coming to theaters unrated.

Case 39 (1st)

It's pretty much a certainty that this will be awful because everywhere else in the world where it's already been released the word is brutal but I think it looks like an enjoyably trashy supernatural shocker. I really liked Pandorum (2009) so I'm hoping that director Christian Alvart pulled off a few good moment here, at least.

My Soul To Take (8th)

A new, original Wes Craven movie on the big screen? How can that not be a welcome thing? I'm pulling for My Soul To Take to be a solid return for Craven and a hit to boot.

I Spit On Your Grave (limited, 8th)

Not my cup of rape but for those who are interested, the reviews say that you'll get what you came for and then some.

Night of the Demons (19th, DVD/Blu-Ray)

A cheesy, tongue-in-cheek remake of a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek '80s horror movie? Sounds like acceptable Halloween entertainment to me.

The Psycho Legacy (19th, DVD/Blu-Ray)

As a fan of all four Psycho movies, I've been excited about this project since the moment it was announced. Can't wait to see how it came out! Hopefully some love with be shown to the underrated Psycho III!

Paranormal Activity 2 (22nd)

I really hope the makers of Paranormal Activity 2 took the lessons of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) to heart. I'd love to see this be a worthy sequel to last year's surprise hit but catching lightening in a bottle twice is next to impossible.

Monsters (29th, Limited Release)

I have a feeling I'll have to wait till DVD on this one but it looks interesting. Any time low budget filmmakers attempt a monster movie rather than a slasher or a zombie movie, I think that's great.

Saw 3D (29th)

The Saw series has produced maybe two good movies during its run - and that's being kind. That said, although I usually dread the arrival of the latest Saw installment, with the series wrapping up (only temporarily, I'm sure) I'm feeling in a magnanimous mood towards the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time. If nothing else, its gloriously goofy trailer gets my nod as favorite of the year so far:

The Walking Dead (AMC, 31st)

A case of "saving the best for last" as the Halloween premiere of this comic book adaptation looks like the most promising horror offering of the month. The comic itself has never felt like more than warmed-over Romero to me but I have faith in Frank Darabont to improve on the source material. If nothing else, the grisly Greg Nicotero-created zombies are going to be sweet to behold.

To all of the above, add Hammer Horror all month long on TCM! It's an October so packed, Halloween will be almost anti-climatic!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Dying Dream Of John Matrix

Eleven hours: that's the time that retired Special Forces operative John Matrix has to locate and rescue his young daughter Jenny from her kidnappers before they get wise to the fact that this legendary bad-ass and gigantic motherfucker has bailed on the assassination mission that they've sent him on. It's an impossible time table but if anyone can pull it off, it's Matrix - a man so tough he eats Green Berets for breakfast.

Anyone who knows '80s action cinema is familiar with the tale of John Matrix, played to a muscle-bound "T" by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classic Commando (1985). Matrix was a man retired from killing the people that his country told him to kill and was enjoying an idyllic existence with Jenny (Alyssa Milano), letting her shove ice cream in his face and feeding deer that strolled onto their rustic property. However, when his violent past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his ex-team members, Bennett (Vernon Wells), Matrix has to put his skills to work again for Jenny's sake.

With Jenny being held hostage to ensure that Matrix will assassinate a South American dictator in the name of placing the warlord that Matrix previously helped overthrow - Arius (Dan Hedaya) - back in power, the clock is ticking. Matrix boards a plane to Vel Verde with one of Arius' goons as an escort while another goon, Sully (David Patrick Kelly), watches from the ground to verify that the plane is in the air with Matrix on it.

As the plane leaves the runway without incident, Sully is satisfied that the bird has flown and moves on to more pressing matters - like making obnoxious come-ons to Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), the attractive flight attendant who's caught his eye. What Sully doesn't know is that Matrix has killed his escort and made his way to the plane's landing gear and before the wheels have retracted into the plane, Matrix makes a spectacular leap into some marshes below where he emerges wet but unharmed and ready to visit some payback on Arius and his crew.

The rest of Commando is a full-course of carnage as Matrix works his way through Arius and his minions in his signature style until he wipes Bennett, his ultimate adversary, off the face of the Earth. Matrix has completed his last mission with a double-digit body count to show for it and he leaves the South American shit hole of Vel Verde with Jenny in tow.

But what if Commando wasn't about a conquering hero?

Yes, it sure looks like Matrix makes it out of the water without injury. But then again, you could say the same about these two characters, as well:

Watching Matrix take his epic plunge from the plane again, it suddenly occurred to me that Commando was perfectly set up to be turned into an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge/Carnival of Souls-style tale. What kind of mind fuck it would've been for audiences to discover that Matrix didn't quite land the way he'd hoped? Maybe he knocked himself out and drowned in the marsh. Maybe he missed the safety of the marsh altogether. Or maybe no matter where or how you land, falling from hundreds of feet in the air is fatal.

Of course, it would be kind of a bummer ending if Commando went that way. I mean, what about poor Jenny? Things wouldn't end well for her. And if Matrix didn't survive his jump, that would mean that Sully, Bennett, and Arius got away free and clear instead of getting deservedly slaughtered at the hands of Matrix. But look at it this way - in the end, no one ever really gets away.

Like Confederate sympathizer Peyton Farquhar, like church organist Mary Henry, and like John Matrix, we're all only flesh and blood. It's what makes all our struggles, great and small, so poignant.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Put This Face On A Stamp, Already

With myriad personal going-ons keeping me busy and a general apathy towards celebrating my own milestones, I let the recent anniversary date of Dinner with Max Jenke pass by without notice. But with some time to spare tonight, I thought it would be good to acknowledge it - albeit belatedly. On September 12th, 2007, I made my first post here and while much has changed in the blogosphere since then, things here have pretty much stayed the same.

Re-reading my initial posts from '07, I find there's not a jarring disconnect from the way I'm expressing myself today. Then again, three years isn't that long ago and by the time I started this blog I was fully cooked as a person (and then some) with not a lot of big changes to my personality likely to come about. I will say, though, that there's been a lot of posts over the years that I've looked back on and cringed. Some of them just didn't come out the way I wanted them to. Sometimes the writing skills just fell short. But I keep those misbegotten posts up just the same. People should have to live with their mistakes, I say. It keeps you humble.

On the occasion of this bygone anniversary, my thanks to everyone who's ever come by to offer comments or encouragement. It's always appreciated and it always gives me the motivation to keep writing. A lot of bloggers don't stick it out and I find it sad that some who were around when I started have vanished.

To those lost bloggers - like Absinthe of Gloomy Sunday - who helped inspire Dinner with Max Jenke and slipped away since, I dedicate this post.

Friday, September 24, 2010

We Have Such Sales To Show You!

One of the oddest movie merchandise promotions ever appeared on the first VHS release of Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987). Those who discovered the film on its later VHS editions or on DVD never had the pleasure of seeing the end credits interrupted by the sight of an old woman in a puffy bathrobe, having just watched Hellraiser, sitting in her cluttered living room in the company of her cat Percy, introducing us to the "Watch & Wear" promotion.

As the old lady obliviously takes her scared-stiff kitty on a walk through an obstacle course of strewn body parts ("Have you ever seen such a mess?" she asks Percy) and dangling Cenobite chains while sporting the curious footwear choice of Converse All-Stars (what, no slippers?), items ranging from Hellraiser T-shirts to Hellraiser thermoses to Hellraiser sweatpants are proudly displayed. Besides its appeal to fans of random nonsense, this oddly conceived promo serves as a nostalgic reminder of a time before Hellraiser irrevocably changed both the horror world and popular culture in general.

Horror had always drawn members of the metal and punk crowd so torn T-shirts, mohawks, and leather jackets were nothing new at horror cons - but Hellraiser introduced the more severe, extreme fetishistic look that already existed in underground clubs at the time to a much larger audience that would eagerly adopt it as their own.

While this chintzy promo is trying to sell viewers on the idea of buying sweatpants and baseball hats to "be part of Hellraiser," what the movie really inspired hardcore fans to do be part of Hellraiser is to get their bodies pierced; to radically - in many cases, permanently - alter the way they looked. The fashions that Hellraiser inspired were about S&M imagery, about bodily mutilation - not about slipping into a cozy cotton hoodie.

Ironically, the hands-down best piece of Hellraiser merchandise spotted in this promo isn't even for sale. At the 40 second mark, the old lady reaches for a tissue - from a Lament Configuration-style Kleenex Box! Now that's something I'd love to have.

As any allergy sufferer can tell you, Hell is a runny nose.

Thanks to Will Errickson of Panic on the 4th of July for doing the extra legwork to get the full "Watch & Wear" promo uploaded! Now my memories are complete - gotta love that top-loading VCR!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Five Characters In Search Of An Exit

After The Sixth Sense (1999), writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was instantly hailed as a potential heir to Rod Serling, a humanistic weaver of weird tales capped with flabbergasting twists. Eleven years later, there's good news and bad news on the Shyamalan front. He remains a brand name - so much so that a new series of films has just been launched under the umbrella title of The Night Chronicles, starting with the new Twilight Zone-ish thriller Devil. The bad news is that as a brand, Shyamalan is perceived to be circling the drain. It would be mean to call him a joke but, whether it's deserved or not, that seems to be the overriding consensus these days. No mention of Devil's trailer was allowed to pass in the media without the writer noting how audiences reacted with laughter at the appearance of Shyamalan's name. Unsatisfied with his recent work (and by "recent," I mean almost since The Sixth Sense), the culture has collectively decided that Shyamalan is a one-trick pony whose day is done.

Personally, I find that to be harsh. Mind you, I haven't seen The Happening (2008) so I'm little behind on what he's been up to but based on his other films, I like that he's a thoughtful filmmaker in a genre where most like to play it dumb. The expression of Shyamalan's ideas may not always be 100% successful but I appreciate that he's trying. I'll take even a slightly failed bid to take the genre audience to an elevated place over the knee-jerk nihilism of someone like Rob Zombie any day. Based on interviews I've read, it seems like Shyamalan himself is mystified by the hit his reputation has taken and to his credit, he hasn't changed his style or approach at all to accommodate his critics. He's telling stories the same way he's been telling them from the start and if it's not to the taste of the public anymore, there's not much he can do to change it. In this regard, Shyamalan has joined the company of almost every genre filmmaker - from John Carpenter to George Romero - who find themselves laboring under the scrutiny of fans and critics who constantly compare their new work unfavorably to the initial work that made their name.

With The Night Chronicles, Shyamalan is originating the concepts but assigning the actual scripting and directing duties to others while he stays on as a producer. On Devil, the duo of brothers John Erick Dowdle (director) and Drew Dowdle (producer) - best known for 2008's shaky-cam shocker Quarantine - and screenwriter Brian Nelson were responsible for bringing this tale of an elevator ride of the damned to the screen. The results are not spectacular but Devil's modest charm bodes well for the future of The Night Chronicles as a series that could bring some of the shine back to Shyamalan's name.

Set in a mysteriously stalled elevator, Devil puts five random people together and - as building security, maintenance crews, police and firefighters work to extract them - it becomes clear that this is not just a routine crisis. The Prince of Darkness himself is aboard this elevator and no earthly force is going to interfere with his nefarious business. The mystery for the audience is in guessing which one of these apparently ordinary people is really the devil in disguise.

Is it Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), the hotheaded security guard? Is it Jane Cowski (Jenny O'Hara), an old woman with a penchant for lifting wallets? Is it Vince (Geoffrey Arend), a mattress salesman and first-class dick? Is it Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), a war vet who served time in Afganistan? Or is it Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), a scheming gold-digger? All is revealed by end of Devil's brief 80 minute running time.

The guessing game that Devil invites its audience to participate in is a fun one and its brisk storytelling ensures that Devil doesn't slog its way to its finale. It might be a simplistic morality tale but the Dowdle's ability to keep Devil tight and to the point makes it feel like they knew exactly how long to keep an audience waiting for the pay-off. If it were any longer, Devil would've been likely to instigate a "is that it?" reaction. As is, it's an example of efficient storytelling and that kind of clear-eyed application of craft is always welcome.

Besides the inevitable twist, Shyamalan's influence can be seen in the spiritual aspect of Devil. Its plot calls back to Signs (2002) in that every seemingly random incident in the character's lives is shown to be guided by greater forces. This argument for the need for religious belief comes across as heavy-handed (and sometimes unintentionally comic) and it's not helped any by voice-over narration that hammers the movie's themes home, just in case anyone might not be paying attention. Devil could've done without Shyamalan's need to sermonize and I have to imagine that the more strident aspects of Devil were a direct result of Shyamalan's input. It's a shame that Shyamalan doesn't trust his audience to intuit the underlying messages of his films on their own as Devil would've benefited from a lighter touch.

Still, Devil at least shows that others can effectively adapt Shyamalan's ideas - maybe more adeptly than Shyamalan himself. Maybe the example of Dowdle's fleet-footed finesse will bring out the best in Shyamalan again the next time he gets behind the camera.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Video games and I parted company many years ago. I'm blown away by the graphics of today's games and I'm sure they're great for people who have the time to devote to playing them but that's just an area of the pop culture landscape that I'll never bother catching up with. I've never even owned a home gaming system, that's how out of the loop I am. Movies based on video games, however, I'm all for. Sure, these movies are usually not so hot but I never expect much out of them anyway so if they suck there's no heartbreak involved.

When it comes to this cinematic sub-genre, Resident Evil is far and away the biggest success story. I know that fans of the RE game are, by and large, pissed off by these movies but someone must like them because here we are with the fourth film now in theaters. With Resident Evil: Aftelife, director Paul W.S. Anderson is back behind the camera for the first time since the 2002 original (having produced and written the other two installments). And while the trailers didn't do much for me and the use of 3-D wasn't a great selling point, I ended up enjoying Afterlife. If nothing else, it proves that the only way to do 3-D properly is to shoot in 3-D. James Cameron got a lot of flak recently for what was perceived as high-handed comments about movies like Piranha 3-D that are converted post-production into 3-D but Afterlife proves the guy's case. The guy might be arrogant but he's not wrong. Cameron might hate this movie too, for whatever reason, but he should at least give it up for the 3-D, because it looks damn good.

After a series of recent films - from Clash of the Titans, to Alice in Wonderland, to Piranha - that were all converted (unimpressively) from 2-D to 3-D, and animated films like Toy Story 3 that didn't seem to have much interest in embracing the format beyond its usefulness as a box office draw, Afterlife comes as a refreshing reminder of how great 3-D can be if done with the right technology and the right attitude. The headache inducing Piranha soured me somewhat on 3-D but Afterlife has me singing its praises again.

Regarding the story of Afterlife, it is what it is. If you haven't seen the previous films, don't bother jumping in now as Anderson's Afterlife screenplay presumes the audience is already knowledgeable about the series. There's a little bit of re-capping and exposition going on but not enough to have this make much sense to a RE neophyte. For those who do know the franchise, this picks up where 2007's Extinction left off and along the way, past characters - including Ali Larter as Claire - return. I won't even going to trouble you - or myself - with a synopsis. All that's important is that Alice (Milla Jovovich - arguably the hardest working female action star of her generation) is still out there gunning for the evil overlords of the Umbrella Corporation and trying to find survivors in a world overrun by zombies.

As a director, Anderson brings the cheese but - for what it's worth - it's elevated cheese. He's recycling Matrix-style action moves but by now that qualifies as kicking it old-school so way to go, Anderson! I haven't seen the other two sequels since the theaters but this struck me as being the best of the bunch since the original (all I remember about Extinction is a lot of sand and crows). I wouldn't recommend Afterlife to be anyone's first taste of the franchise but if you've been with the series from the start, this is a step up from what's been served up in the last two films.

made the series seem like it had gotten too long in the tooth to continue but I think this latest entry will prove to be enough of a shot in the arm to give this franchise the extended Afterlife that its title promises.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jumping The Gun

The HorrorDads are back - this time taking on the controversial monster-mash The Mist (2007). I understand the hostility that The Mist's bleak conclusion provoked but I think it's a defendable, if difficult to digest, conclusion. But whether you think that writer/director Frank Darabont dropped the ball in The Mist's final moments or not, there's still much to admire in this Stephen King adaptation. See if your opinions agree with the combined musings of Richard Harland Smith, Dennis Cozzalio, Greg Ferrara, Paul Gaita, Nicholas McCarthy and yours truly over at TCM's Movie Morlocks.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Danse Party

Last week's DVD release of the classic anthology Thriller (1960-62) got me thinking about where I first read about the show - in Danse Macabre, Stephen King's non-fiction overview of the horror genre. Originally published in 1981, Danse Macabre was a novel-length tour of (mostly modern age) horror in film, television and literature, as written in King's colloquial, conversational style. I first saw the trade paperback edition back in '82, in a local Stop & Shop, and while my mother was wary of the eerie cover, with a purple-shaded image of King with glowing-orange eyes, she eventually relented and bought it for me.

At the time, I was an avid horror fan who had read very little critical discussion about the genre. At least not much pertaining to its recent history. The books on the genre at my local and school libraries were mostly focused on "classic" horror - the films of the '30s through the '50s. Almost any overview of the genre barely gave a perfunctory nod to material of recent vintage. By and large, horror in the '60s and '70s hadn't yet achieved the same critical due as that of earlier eras. At least not in any books that had made their way into my hands.

I mention all this just to give you an idea of how important Danse Macabre was to me. This book was an education and a validation wrapped up in one. It opened my eyes to films, TV series, and books that I had never heard of. It discussed horror with depth, intelligence, and humor - an act that, in itself, was a huge affirmation that my interests had merit. King celebrated horror both as high art and as low art, finding gold at either end of the spectrum. Never taking an apologetic tone, Danse Macabre was written from the standpoint that an appreciation of horror didn't need to come with any excuses. All of this was revelatory to me.

Unfortunately, in an age before there was easy access to, well, everything, most of the films and shows that King discussed were not easy to see for myself - which truly sucked after having my interest piqued - but that's just how it was back then. Things were always just a little out of reach.

One tough-to-find item was Thriller. Prior to Danse Macabre, I had no idea that Thriller existed. I forget whether King's book was the first I'd heard about The Outer Limits but I know for a fact that it introduced Thriller to me. In noting its connections to Weird Tales and to the work of authors like Robert Bloch, and in describing some of the images from the show that resonated in his memory (such as "the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head" from "Pigeons from Hell"), King completely sold me on Thriller. Now that I finally own the series, I'm happy to say that King didn't exaggerate in regard to Thriller's quality. As a horror show, Thriller delivers the goods.

King's endorsement of Thriller is just one example of how Danse Macabre never led me wrong - although I will say that once I got a little older, King's list of what he considered to be the twentiest scariest movies of all time looked more suspect to me. Regardless, all these years later, Danse Macabre is still proving its mettle as an effective guidebook. I can't imagine anyone working in the genre today attempting anything like it. There's just too much ground to cover. Back in 1981, it was possible to write about the last thirty or so years of horror and do "modern horror" justice. Add on another thirty years since then, though, and forget it.

You could write about all those years, sure, but it wouldn't have the same intimate feel as Danse Macabre. King was in his early thirties when he wrote it and it was possible back then for a fan born at the right time to have really seen everything - certainly everything that mattered (and all without the benefit of VCRs and cable TV!).

The horror world was a much smaller place then and that helped Danse Macabre be the book that it is. Now the genre has gone through too many cycles, too many trends; it's become too splintered. I can't imagine anyone - even genre journalists who are paid to see everything - being able to truly keep up. At the time of Danse Macabre, though, it felt like a realistic goal to see it all. For the dedicated genre fan, not much fell through the cracks. Nowadays, it all rushes past you so fast.

Maybe that's the greatest lasting appeal of Danse Macabre for me. It's a reminder of a time when the genre was more approachable. Even if you were a little late to the party, the idea of catching up with everything you missed so far wasn't that daunting. You just needed to be taken by the hand and pointed in the right direction. Danse Macabre did that for me, and for that, I'll always remember it fondly.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Whole Enchilada

Of all the fake trailers featured in the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-shot Grindhouse (2007), by far the most enthusiastic reaction was reserved for, well, I'd say it was reserved for Eli Roth's dead-on slasher salute Thanksgiving. But the one that received the second most raves had to be, well, that'd probably be Edgar Wright's hilariously vague Don't. But goddamn it, Rodriguez's Machete trailer, featuring Danny Trejo as the wrong Mexican to fuck with, was way more acclaimed than Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS - but don't quote me on that because I'm still not sure.

Whatever the case, a lot of people dug the shit out of the Machete trailer. What wasn't to like about it, right? Everybody agrees that Trejo is a born bad-ass and the idea of seeing him as a full-fledged action hero, well that's the stuff that grindhouse dreams are made of. Hell, they should've just gone ahead and filmed Machete right then and there, kicked Tarantino's Death-Proof to the curb, and paired the two Rodriguez joints - Planet Terror and Machete - as one Grindhouse fiesta. But, instead, we've had to wait a few years for Machete to get his own film.

Right off the bat, you've got to like Machete at least a little bit just for its cast. To bring together Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Tom Savini, Lindsay Lohan, and Jessica Alba together under one cinematic roof is a commendable act on Rodriguez's part (although I suspect it would feel like a dirty trick if Rob Zombie did the same). Everybody is solid here (except for maybe De Niro who succumbs to his hammier impulses - but no more so than he's done for the last two decades or so). The only problem is that some of these actors - like Don Johnson - just don't have enough to do. That's a bummer but hey, maybe there's a three-hour director's cut of Machete waiting in the wings that will resolve that problem.

Machete's story follows what was already laid out in the Grindhouse trailer, seamlessly incorporating that trailer's footage (and when it isn't seamless, it's intentionally funny). Trejo plays an ex-Mexican Federale who works in Texas as an illegal day laborer since his law enforcement career ended three years earlier after the drug lord known as Torrez (Seagal) killed Machete's family. Unaware of Machete's history, Michael Booth (Fahey) - a crooked business man who's helped sponsor the political ambitions of racist senator John McLaughlin (DeNiro) - hires Machete to assassinate McLaughlin at a campaign rally. Machete reluctantly takes this offer he can't refuse but Machete is only supposed to be a fall guy. When the time comes for Machete to take his shot, another gunman under Booth's employ shoots Machete (going for a head-shot) and McLaughlin as well (but only in the leg). McLaughlin is running his re-election campaign on an anti-immigration platform and after the scary Mexican known as Machete is fingered for the failed assassinate attempt, McLaughlin will be more of a hero to his voter base than ever.

The catch is, this plan will only work if Machete isn't alive to talk to anyone so when he manages to survive his bullet wound and escape, it's time for Booth to direct all his resources towards tying up this loose end. Unfortunately for Booth, Machete has resources of his own. Among his allies are Luz (Rodriguez) a revolutionary posing as a taco truck girl; Padre (Marin), Machete's brother and a man of the cloth; and Sartana (Alba) an immigration officer who comes to learn the errors of following only the letter of the law.

All told, Machete goes down agreeably enough - although what should've been a straight-ahead mission of vengeance, as Machete works his way back to the man who destroyed his life, gets sidetracked by the machinations of Booth and McLaughlin and a lot of talk about the politics of immigration. Rodriguez and his co-writer Álvaro Rodriguez make the misstep of playing it as though Machete only half-asses his way into an opportunity to get back at Torrez rather than having that be the single goal that he was driving towards. The upside is that there's always a gory effect, a humorous gag, or an appealing performer in any scene. Sometimes all three.

Machete is one of those movies that, by rights, shouldn't exist - after all, it's a feature length version of a fake trailer starring Danny Trejo as a one-man Mexi-cutioner. About the only movie less likely to be real would be James Cameron doing a big budget 3-D adaptation of the famed breakfast cereal mascot Franken-berry, with George Clooney as Franken-berry, so the fact that Rodriguez was able to get this film made and in wide release is an endearing feat. And with outrageous scenes such as (SPOILER ALERT!) Savini as an assassin named Osiris literally crucifying Cheech Marin's Padre, everything about Machete is squarely aimed at cult movie junkies; it's a film that - almost to a fault - plays to its base.

Unfortunately, while Planet Terror was a movie that visibly sizzled with Rodriguez's passion - not just for its subject matter of rampaging zombies, but for the conceit of recreating the 'grindhouse' aesthetic - Machete feels far more cooled down. And personally, the retro-posturing just doesn't work for me here. There's a buffer of irony that it creates, like it's a tongue-in-cheek exercise. Intentionally or not, Machete feels like an action movie made for people who want to be allowed to smirk at action movies. At heart, it's to '70s exploitation films what the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson Starsky & Hutch (2004) was to '70s cop shows. That's why I prefer The Expendables. The Expendables is 100% sincere and, for me, that goes a long way towards excusing any faults it may have. Machete might give lip service to the immigration issue but in the whole film there's nothing as heartfelt as the scene in The Expendables where Mickey Rourke relates the story of how he missed a chance to get his soul back.

I'm glad Trejo finally got a much-deserved turn as a leading man but while Trejo himself is the authentic item, Machete comes across like a painstaking fascimile of an action film rather than the real deal.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Piranha And The Damage Done

I'll tell you this: it's a topsy-turvy world we live in. I mean, who would've thought that Piranha 3-D's critical acclaim would outpace its box office appeal? But yet that hard-to-believe scenario has played out as Piranha 3-D (just Piranha according to the film's onscreen title but I'll keep refering to it as Piranha 3-D) currently sits at whopping 74% approval on Rotten Tomatoes while it looks to exit the box office Top Ten after just two weeks in theaters. Still, whatever money it's made is damn good for what amounts to a SyFy Channel Movie pimped out with 3-D. Add in the critical love, and it's all gravy.

I've been hot for this movie for ages. I mean, my first post on Piranha 3-D went up way back in May of 2008. Over two freakin' years ago! Go on, click here if you don't believe me. In my fevered anticipation, I gushed that Piranha 3-D had the potential to be "The Greatest Movie Ever." Given that, this should be my time to crow, or eat my cake, or whatever it is people do when their beliefs are vindicated. After all, I was on the Piranha 3-D bandwagon way, way before it was fashionable. The only problem I've got now is that, unlike the critical community at large, I didn't completely love the movie.

I'm not trying to be contrary - I'm not that guy who always likes to take the opposite stance on everything (honest!). And to be clear, I didn't hate the movie. I did enjoy it. I just didn't love it. This confused me at first so I saw it twice just to confirm my feelings but as it turned out my first reaction was unchanged. I thought the movie was good for a sick chuckle or two but was otherwise unimpressive. It's just too...wait for it...dumb. That statement is supposed to be greeted by shouts of "What did you expect, ass-hat?" but, please, hear me out. Piranha 3-D is a movie that tries to make every scene about boobs and blood and while that sounds like it should work, it kind of doesn't.

My five-year-old son watches a show called Sid the Science Kid and in one episode, Sid wonder why he can't just eat cake all the time, for every meal. The answer, of course, is that a diet of nothing but cake will make him sick to his stomach on top of not getting him the nutrition he needs. And that's what Piranha 3-D is like. I didn't regret the time I spent watching it but I couldn't quite celebrate it as being the Bestest Time Ever, either. On my second viewing, as I debated halfway through whether or not to skip out early and get on with more pressing concerns, I flashed on Franklin's words from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974): "If I have any more fun today, I don't think I can take it!"

All bitching aside, my issues with the movie - characters that range from bland to grating, the lewd, leering treatment of women, the often murky underwater photography, the headache-inducing post-production 3-D conversion - might've been given a pass if the climactic spring break massacre had delivered as promised. This all-out feeding frenzy - as spring breakers are devoured by marauding piranha - has been reported to be the bloodiest scene in film history and while it may well be, in terms of gallons, it failed to impress this gorehound.

Call me someone who's too particular about their bloodbaths but people flailing around in red water doesn't impress me. I wanted to see some classic gore gags and on that count, I only saw two. One, where a girl's long hair gets caught in the blades of a boat motor and when the motor is started, her face is immediately torn off. And the other being when a girl is being carried out of the water by two rescuers and her body splits in two. Both of those moments boasted the kind of grisly effects-work I was hoping to see more of - gore gags where I couldn't immediately tell whether they were practical or CG. Obviously CG bits like the death of Eli Roth's wet T-shirt contest judge - as his head is crushed between two boats - or the death of two girls that are split Ghost Ship-style by a whiplashing steel cable were just too CG for my taste. CG gore can work sometimes but here, it wasn't effective.

When people say that Piranha 3-D is a perfect example of how B-movies used to be, I think that's my biggest gripe with the reception this movie's gotten. Sorry, but this isn't how B-movies used to be. The best exploitation movies were always about more than just exploitation. Certainly, the original Piranha (1978) was a smart movie that didn't treat its audience like twelve-year-old boys looking for jack-off material. Strange as it sounds, when I watched Piranha 3-D I had the vague feeling of being insulted. I give it a passing grade but I know the genre can produce much better films. I'm not going to pull a James Cameron here and throw Piranha 3-D under the bus but 3-D, 2-D, or otherwise, Piranha 3-D is mired in adolescent nonsense. It manages to make Roger Corman's sleaziest film, 1980's Humanoids from the Deep (a movie about fish-men coming out of the ocean to rape and impregnate women) look classy.

For me, George Romero's latest zombie opus, Survival of the Dead (2009), represents the kind of B-movie that I grew up on, the kind that continue to stoke my love of fantastic cinema. It's a little ragged, a little clumsy, but there's no mistaking that it has heart. This isn't cookie-cutter filmmaking. Romero is being free-wheeling, he's having fun and as he's always done, he also brings some genuine personality to the table. His socio-political concerns have been criticized as becoming too heavy-handed as he's gotten older and I don't disagree with that but when I watch Survival of the Dead, I like that I'm watching a movie made by someone who treats me as a viewer with some respect. It's not a polished production but there's a sense of soul to it. Those are the kind of genre films that keep you around for the long haul. On the other hand, movies with CG piranha fighting over severed CG penises can only sustain you for so long.

Only for about 88 minutes, in fact.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Summer Shocks 1999: The Blair Witch Project

Boy, summers go by too fast, don't they? Back in May, Ryan Turek and I celebrated the summer of '79 with The Amityville Horror and Phantasm but now September's here and that's it for Summer Shocks. There's been plenty of great summer movies in recent years but it's a little too soon to be getting nostalgic about them so 1999 seems like an ideal place to stop and The Blair Witch Project a proper high note to end on.

I had a lot of fun with these essays and thanks to Ryan for being so enthusiastic from the start about running with this series. Spending the summer writing about these movies brought back a lot of fond memories of seasons gone by and I'm a little sad to have to bring it to a close. But then, the end of summer is always a little bittersweet.

For my full Summer Shocks review of The Blair Witch Project, click here. And for the entire run of Summer Shocks, check out the links below the trailer. That leaves nothing left for me to say but thanks for reading and, of course, "See you in the fall!"

Summer Shocks 1998: Blade

Summer Shocks 1997: Mimic

Summer Shocks 1996: The Craft

Summer Shocks 1995: Tales from the Hood

Summer Shocks 1994: The Crow

Summer Shocks 1993: Jason Goes To Hell

Summer Shocks 1992: Single White Female

Summer Shocks 1991: Body Parts

Summer Shocks 1990: Class of 1999

Summer Shocks 1989: Jason Takes Manhattan

Summer Shocks 1988: The Blob

Summer Shocks 1987: Predator

Summer Shocks 1986: The Fly

Summer Shocks 1985: Day of the Dead

Summer Shocks 1984: Dreamscape

Summer Shocks 1983: Psycho II

Summer Shocks 1982: Poltergeist/Friday the 13th Part 3 (Ryan)

Summer Shocks 1981: Deadly Blessing/Wolfen (Ryan)

Summer Shocks 1980: Friday the 13th

Summer Shocks 1979: The Amityville Horror/Phantasm (Ryan)