Archive for the ‘Cats’ Category

 

Review originally filed to CHUD.com.

Been thinking about the 3-D format lately, due to Hugo.  Seems a good reason to review some thoughts from two years back. 

Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even though you’ve absolutely seen this story many times before.  Is that a coy contradiction?  Is it a negative statement?  I hope not.  I think you can love something while still seeing and understanding its flaws.  Bottom line up top:  I loved watching Avatar and I entirely recommend the experience.  I saw Avatar on the IMAX screen in 3-D, and I can’t imagine wanting to see it any other way.  This movie is meant to play big.  It’s supposed to fill your peripheral vision and take you to places no one’s ever been.  It does that.  It takes you to an imaginary planet called Pandora, drops you directly into the atmosphere, and alongside lead character Jake Sully, forces you to experience a new world for the first time.  The world is convincingly detailed and absorbing.  If only for the thorough immersion in a foreign landscape it affords – hell, if only for the strange and intimidating animals that populate it – Avatar is a good movie, even a special one.  But is it a great movie?  I’m not sure.  What we ask our greatest movies to do is to make us believe in things that aren’t real and to care about characters who never were.  For the most part, Avatar made me believe.  I only wish it could’ve made me care more.  That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, but it does keep me from loving it unconditionally.

James Cameron has entertained and influenced a generation of film nerds.  I’m very much one of them.  His two Terminator films, in particular, are a model of how to balance explosive action filmmaking with relatable and sympathetic characters.  Aliens, his entry in the Alien franchise, remains my personal favorite of the four.  The Abyss is an underrated film, full of suspense and wonder and blessed with arguably Cameron’s best lead actor, Ed Harris. True Lies remains a pleasant diversion, a mix of old-school Hollywood playfulness and new-school Hollywood spectacle.  Titanic is not my favorite of his movies, but a serious filmmaker wouldn’t overlook Cameron’s ability to mix effects with story and to orient both characters and audience in a believable landscape.  If you’re interested in action cinema, it’s foolish to overlook Cameron.  He’s just plain a canon filmmaker when it comes to action and believable sci-fi environments.  One could convincingly argue that he’s not much of a writer of dialogue, as Titanic in particular suggests, and Avatar unfortunately corroborates, but Cameron can make the places seem real in a way that few other filmmakers can, to the point where it’s easy to forgive the frequent clichés of speech.

What makes Avatar a problematic movie is that the clichés extend beyond the dialogue to the story itself.  A corrupt, greedily imperialistic society sends a pale-faced emissary into harm’s way – the hero gets to know and fall in love with a native culture of differently-colored people who worship more earthly and simple spiritual things.  Because this is a Hollywood film, that love is personified in female form.  While the hero proves himself and wins over the family of his love interest, she has another suitor who becomes his fierce rival.  Eventually, the hero is faced with the decision to stand with his adopted culture or to return to the civilization he once knew.  A friend of mine described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves on mescaline.”  He’s right, and it’s unavoidable:  Dances With Wolves is certainly a movie that Avatar thematically resembles to a tee, but this kind of stuff goes all the way back to John Ford and Anthony Mann (see Broken Arrow), and has only continued and proliferated, in the Western genre particularly, as feelings of racial apology have increased over the years.  It’s not limited to Westerns and Native Americans – movies as diverse in content as Witness, The Fast And The Furious, and The Karate Kid Part 2 all traffic in similar scenarios – but Avatar so specifically evokes the Native American situation that it just has to be discussed in any serious discussion of the movie.  The Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned alien race who are at the center of Avatar, ride horse-like creatures barebacked, wear their hair in ponytails and their loincloths in thongs, and pray gently to creatures they’ve killed for food.  Their leader is played by Wes Studi, Hollywood’s go-to Native American actor, who really deserves to work more often in more varied parts.  (His wife is played by CCH Pounder and his chosen successor played by Laz Alonzo, both great African-American actors whose casting adds another layer of racial confusion to the film.)

My issue is this:  The treatment of the Native American people by the United States is something that this country has never properly addressed.  It involves crimes of race and history that there may never be any atoning for, even if atonement were possible.   It’s not an escapist topic.  You can’t disappear into a movie if you’re thinking of the mistreatment of the Native American people throughout the entire movie.  If Cameron wanted to probe these questions with Avatar, he should have acknowledged the complexity of the issue.  Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of race and history, Avatar’s conclusions are disappointingly simplistic.  I don’t want to spoil any of the plot details here, so if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know in the comments or at the provided addresses where we can continue the discussion.  But when I started thinking about the politics of Avatar, I started to think that it makes District 9 look like all the more of an impressive achievement.  If you feel the need to slip real-world subtext into your escapist science-fiction film, you ought to make sure it’s subtext worth stating (or re-stating) in the first place.

The other, possibly greater, problem for me in unreservedly adoring Avatar is that its lead characters didn’t resonate within me as deeply as the protagonists of earlier Cameron films did.  Since there is a love story at the heart of Avatar, this is a problem.  Think of the tragic one-night-only true love of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the fierce maternal instinct that bonds Ripley to Newt in Aliens, Virgil Brigman pleading with Lindsey Brigman to return to life in The Abyss, young John Connor pleading with the T-800 not to leave in Terminator 2, even Jack risking everything for Rose in Titanic.  Some writers believe that an audience must fall in love with the two participants in a movie love story in order to truly buy into it.  I suppose that’s true, but for me, all I ask is that when I watch the movie, I believe that the two people love each other.  I’m no Kate Winslet fan, but DiCaprio makes me believe that he loves her in Titanic, so I cared.  I certainly believed in and related to all of the other examples I’ve just quoted.  I really can’t say the same for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

She’s nine feet tall, blue, and as much like a cat as a person.  He’s confined to a wheelchair and quintessentially human.  The one moment where they appear in frame together, a dramatic moment late in the game, is unavoidably humorous.  I was taking the movie pretty seriously by then and I still couldn’t suppress a chuckle.  A Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment at best.  Short guy/tall chick is just internally received as comedy by modern filmgoers; that’s just how it is.  Believe me, as a vertically challenged man myself, I wish it weren’t.

Here now, some words from James Cameron himself, in the pages of this month’s Maxim, when asked about how much effort was put into making Neytiri look hot:

“…We figured the story wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do her.”

 That’s a somewhat telling statement.  I will admit that I spent about an hour searching for a glimpse of blue nipple, but to me, the most exciting moment of the movie in that regard was when Michelle Rodriguez showed up in that tank top.  And I’m not much of a Michelle Rodriguez guy.  In other words, when it comes to the giant blue cat lady, I don’t want to “do her.” At all.  So I guess the story doesn’t really work.  As talented and convincing as the voice actors are and as brilliantly believable as the movements of the Na’vi are, there are still moments where you break free of the illusion and remember that you are watching a computer-aided performance.  For me personally, that moment was the sex scene.  Again, I chuckled ever so briefly – I felt for a moment like the entire packed theater was watching that weird Japanese anime porn.  The thought of that scene scored to the end-credits Leona Lewis love ballad just seemed comical to me.  As much as I liked everything else about the movie, I just wasn’t hot for the cat lady.  I didn’t take her seriously enough.  Ultimately, nothing beats the real un-animated Zoe Saldana.  And so on.

 

All of that constructive criticism out of the way, there is so much about Avatar that I loved.  The magnitude of imagination on display from Cameron and his technical crew is astoundingly thorough.  I loved the meticulous design of the various spaceships, equipment, and weapons.  Predictably, I loved the creatures the most.  At its most transcendent moments, Avatar feels like an Animal Planet documentary filmed in your wildest dreams.  I loved the dragon birds and the snake panthers and the rhino dinosaurs and the jellyfish spirits.  The human cast is uniformly good, despite my earlier stated reservations about how some of them were used.  In particular, I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver in a movie like this again – there are few actors who can be so firm and sympathetic and genuine amidst such unbelievable backgrounds.  And those backgrounds, particularly in the IMAX/3-D format, are breath-taking.  You truly feel the depth and scope of the world created.  As dangerous as the jungles and skies of Pandora prove to be, you still feel like diving right in.  That’s not just a case of me loving the format – the craft gone into the movie is what achieves that; the format only accentuates the effect.  Cameron has done something special here.

Avatar is a movie that demands to be seen by everyone who truly loves movies.  It’s one transitional moment in a probable string of many future transitional moments for this mode of mass entertainment.  The writer in me sees the flaws, small controversies, and problem areas, but the rest of me is damned if any of that stops me from enjoying what was otherwise such a great trip to the movies.

[December 20, 2009]

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Hausu (aka House, from 1977) is without a doubt, one of the weirdest fucking movies I’ve ever seen, and goddamn it but that really must be saying something.  It’s strange that standing in the face of this thing has reduced me to profanity, when it’s most certainly the most innocent ultra-violent horror movie that could possibly exist.  If profanity is the last refuge of the man with no wiser words to impart, then consider me speechless.  Here’s a clip:

KILLER LAMPSHADE

Am I exaggerating?

Janus Films and The Criterion Collection have excavated this cinematic treasure and unleashed it upon the world in the form of frequent local screenings (including one this weekend, at NYC’s IFC Center) and a wonderful DVD/Blu-Ray package for those who can’t make it out in person.  GREAT crowd movie, though. See it with as many people as you can.

What this is, is the debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who started out as an experimental filmmaker, transitioned into TV commercials, and then brought both contrasting disciplines brilliantly to bear in this one little-known landmark, which led to a career in features which continues to this day.

Hausu was written as a collaboration between Obayashi and his young daughter, Chigumi, which both makes perfect sense and none at all.  According to the supplemental materials on Criterion’s DVD, legendary Japanese studio Toho wanted Obayashi to make a popular mainstream movie for them, and this is what he did with that dictum.  (Dictum? Damn near killed ‘em!)

Hausu is the story of a group of teenage girls who go to visit the country home of the aunt of one of them.  The house is a mansion on a hill, and it’s haunted and angry, in the most bizarre of senses.  The girls are literally consumed, one by one, and spit out and toyed with in a dizzying escalation of joyous insanity.

Here’s the trailer:

HAUSU: TRAILER

In retrospect, it plays exactly like the collaboration between a grown man and a young girl.  It feels like the dad made a horror movie, and the little girl went in and recut the thing while he was sleeping it off.  Hausu is chock full of insane, bug-eyed, not-entirely-nonsexual megaviolence, but there’s not anything remotely hateful or misogynistic about it: This is surely history’s most cheerful movie ever to feature dismembered limbs dancing across across the keys of a carnivorous haunted piano.  I mean, what’s the closest comparison?  Evil Dead 2?  Even Evil Dead 2 didn’t have a watermelon wearing a hat, or a killer lampshade, or a disembodied head with an appetite for buttcheeks.

Hausu makes Evil Dead 2 seem as restrained and mannered as one of those BBC Dickens miniseries.  The tone of this movie is like a pre-teen sleepover between giggy girls bouncing off a major sugar high.  It just happens to be a haunted house movie, with many of the conventions which that implies.  It’s a little bit like the G rated version of Sucker Punch and the R rated version of Sucker Punch and a box of Junior Mints all at the same time.  It’s a lot like the Hello Kitty version of The Exorcist.  There is literally not a second movie to resemble this one.  I guess there’s an art in that.

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Eventually, the Lovecraft thing had to be addressed in this column.  I just spent a lot of space on a movie which references The Necronomicon, a Lovecraft invention.  Horror luminaries such as John Carpenter, Joe Lansdale, Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, and Mike Mignola (all of whom I happen to admire tremendously) all name Lovecraft as a significant influence.  Basically, H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most widely-read and profoundly influential writers of short stories and novels in the horror genre.

Dirty little secret:  I’m not a fan. Couldn’t care less, in fact.

Blast me if you want, Lovecraft defenders, but yes, it is all about the anti-Semitism charges.  It seems to be a point of debate, but Lovecraft was reportedly a major anti-Semite — actually, the only debate seems to be how much of one he was.  In my experience?  With that stuff, where there’s smoke there’s fire.  And once I smell that particular smoke, I’m not willing to put my hand on the doorknob.  For me, it has to do with the way my Bukowski phase ended the day I saw that documentary where he hits a woman on camera:  No matter how great an artist you may be, when you commit certain sins, the door of my mind is closed to you.

Plus, Lovecraft had a weird thing for tentacles.  What’s that little leitmotif all about?

That’s no slight intended on any of the wonderful artists, writers, and filmmakers who continue to name Lovecraft as an influence — it’s only to say that I’d much rather enjoy their own work than be willing to go back and explore that influence.  Which brings us to 1985’s Re-Animator.

I love Re-Animator!

Stuart Gordon’s movie is based on a Lovecraft story called “Herbert West—Re-Animator”.  I haven’t read the original story, but somehow I doubt it could be this much fun.  Re-Animator is bright, colorful, poppy, pulpy, and phenomenally gory.  Fans of Evil Dead 2 who haven’t seen this movie yet should definitely catch up — I did, and I’m very happy about having done.

Re-Animator opens in a lab in Switzerland, where Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has been serving as apprentice to a Dr. Hans Gruber — apparently, Alan Rickman’s character in Die Hard was using the name of a Swiss scientist all that time! Anyway, Dr. Hans Gruber isn’t feeling too well when we meet him.  He’s pitching about in a mindless fit, turning purple.  When other people run in to check on the commotion, they get treated to the appetizing sight of the doctor’s eyes exploding, right before he collapses in a heap.  That’s when we get our first indication of what Herbert West is up to:  He insists he didn’t kill him, but “I gave him life!”

The story then returns to America, where Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a promising young doctor who is involved with the pretty daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the university’s dean Halsey (Robert Samson).  Herbert West shows up for work, really half on a revenge mission against the faculty member, Dr. Hill (David Gale), a spooky dead-ringer for Senator John Kerry whom West accuses of having lifted ideas from Hans Gruber — the scientist, not the international terrorist.  I’m aware that I’m making this summary needlessly complicated.

Basically, West rents a room from Dan, and sets up his strange experiments in the basement.  This immediately causes friction with Dan’s girlfriend Megan, who doesn’t like or trust him, rightfully so, any more than West can stand her (much less rightfully.)  The script, by Stuart Gordon with William Norris and Dennis Paoli, moves impressively quickly, advancing the situation where most other movies would drag this segment out needlessly.  Dan and Megan find out what West is up to when they discover their cat, Rufus, in West’s refrigerator.  West half-heartedly insists that Rufus died in there, he meant to tell them, but Dan later finds out the truth, that West killed the cat so that he could bring it back to life, in a truly amazing scene:

Dan wakes in the night to the most hideous yowls.  He looks through the darkened house for West, and getting no response, finally busts down the basement door, only to find West struggling desperately with the re-animated corpse of Rufus the cat.  I’ve seen a lot of things in movies, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen two men fighting a zombie cat before.  What’s even more awesome is the way the fight is ultimately resolved.  I had to watch it three times, and I laughed loudly all three times.  It’s of a piece with the tremendous tonal achievement of Gordon’s movie — it’s creepy and weird, but just as much hilarious and unpredictable.

 

_______________________________

I’m going to quit the plot recapping there, since half the fun of the movie is in the surprises and shocks, but you get the general picture:  People start getting turned into zombies.  West is mono-maniacally determined to pursue this discovery, and Megan is horrified, and Dan, as West’s colleague and Megan’s lover, is pulled in both directions.  I may have tipped a bit of plot when I told you how much Dr. Hill resembles John Kerry, since you can see a disembodied John Kerry head up on that poster above, but even with that fore-knowledge you can have no conception of how far things go from there.  It’s crazy, a total EC Comics blast.

What I loved most about Re-Animator, along with the up-for-anything performances of all of the lead actors, is Stuart Gordon’s direction.  Working with cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, Gordon achieves an amazingly energetic and colorful look for a movie that can’t have had much money to work with.  It’s such a nerdy film-geek thing to say, but I loved the framing of this movie.  The shots are composed like comic book panels.  It suits the tone, which is simultaneously sincere and hysterical.  Re-Animator is literally mad about movies, in the Mad Magazine sense that is, right down to the score, which swipes directly, brazenly, and frequently from Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho.  But it’s not a parody, exactly, and it’s not just an homage either — it’s played totally straight in many aspects.  Megan’s pain is acted out realistically by the underrated Barbara Crampton, as is Dan’s total confusion and Herbert’s mania.  The performances are believable and frequently likable, even as the pitch of the movie’s events get whipped up into a frenzy.

The legacy of Re-Animator is surprisingly fertile.  There were two sequels, Bride Of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator, both made with Jeffrey Combs but without Stuart Gordon, and other sequels have been rumored, along with a musical adaptation (!). It’s regularly cited as one of the great cult horror movies of the past few decades, and actually enjoys a much better critical appreciation than most cult horror movies do.  Jeffrey Combs made such a great impression with this break-through role that he is regarded by many horror fans in the same stratosphere as the greats like Bruce Campbell.  I wasn’t as familiar with his work, since he’s spent a lot of time in the Star Trek franchise and I don’t follow that, and I wasn’t familiar with this movie due to the aforementioned Lovecraft association, but Jeffrey Combs and Re-Animator deserve every single member of their prodigious cult following, if not more.  It’s a tremendously fun movie, and now I’m tempted to check out the sequels and related objects from the Gordon and Combs filmographies.

I remind you: Zombie Cat.

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

Hausu (aka House, from 1977) is without a doubt, one of the weirdest fucking movies I’ve ever seen, and goddamn it but that really must be saying something.  It’s strange that standing in the face of this thing has reduced me to profanity, when it’s most certainly the most innocent ultra-violent horror movie that could possibly exist.  If profanity is the last refuge of the man with no wiser words to impart, then consider me speechless.  Here’s a clip:

_________________
_________________

Am I exaggerating?

Janus Films and The Criterion Collection have excavated this cinematic treasure and unleashed it upon the world in the form of frequent local screenings (including one recently, at NYC’s IFC Center) and a wonderful DVD/Blu-Ray package for those who can’t make it out in person.  (GREAT crowd movie, though.)

What this is, is the debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who started out as an experimental filmmaker, transitioned into TV commercials, and then brought both contrasting disciplines brilliantly to bear in this one little-known landmark, which led to a career in features which continues to this day.

Hausu was written as a collaboration between Obayashi and his young daughter, Chigumi, which both makes perfect sense and none at all.  According to the supplemental materials on Criterion’s DVD, legendary Japanese studio Toho wanted Obayashi to make a popular mainstream movie for them, and this is what he did with that dictum.  (Dictum? Damn near killed ’em!) 

Hausu is the story of a group of teenage girls who go to visit the country home of the aunt of one of them.  The house is a mansion on a hill, and it’s haunted and angry, in the most bizarre of senses.  The girls are literally consumed, one by one, and spit out and toyed with in a dizzying escalation of joyous insanity.

Here’s the trailer:

_________________
_________________

In retrospect, it plays exactly like the collaboration between a grown man and a young girl.  It feels like the dad made a horror movie, and the little girl went in and recut the thing while he was sleeping it off.  Hausu is chock full of insane, bug-eyed, not-entirely-nonsexual megaviolence, but there’s not anything remotely hateful or misogynistic about it: This is surely history’s most cheerful movie ever to feature dismembered limbs dancing across across the keys of a carnivorous haunted piano.  I mean, what’s the closest comparison?  Evil Dead 2?  Even Evil Dead 2 didn’t have a watermelon wearing a hat, or a killer lampshade, or a disembodied head with an appetite for buttcheeks. 

Hausu makes Evil Dead 2 seem as restrained and mannered as one of those BBC Dickens miniseries.  The tone of this movie is like a pre-teen sleepover between giggy girls bouncing off a major sugar high.  It just happens to be a haunted house movie, with many of the conventions which that implies.  It’s a little bit like the G rated version of Sucker Punch and the R rated version of Sucker Punch and a box of Junior Mints all at the same time.  It’s a lot like the Hello Kitty version of The Exorcist.  There is literally not a second movie to resemble this one.  I guess there’s an art in that.

      

   

You Can’t Fool Me…

Posted: June 22, 2011 in Cats, Clint, Posters

I can’t decide whether this is clever or obnoxious.   If there’s a question, it’s probably not the former.