Saturday, November 27, 2010

November Quick Picks and Pans

A Bucket of Blood (1959):  You can accuse Roger Corman of many things, but you can’t say he isn’t prolific.  This quickie was filmed in just five days, but it’s a surprisingly entertaining, wicked satire on modern art.  Corman regular Dick Miller (who coincidentally became a regular for Corman protégée Joe Dante) appears in a rare starring role as Walter Paisley, a ne’er-do-well working as a busboy in a beatnik coffee house frequented by the town’s culturati.  Paisley gains overnight success as an avant-garde artist with his moribund, life-sized sculptures -- or are they just sculptures?   His first work, aptly named “dead cat,” is the end result of the accidental demise of his landlady’s cat, which sets the stage for further artistic experimentation as he moves from animal to human subjects.  The Walter Paisley character almost seems to foreshadow Peter Seller’s role as Chauncey Gardener in Being There, in that both characters are simple-minded men who are perceived as geniuses by the cultural elite.  Of course, it’s a given that Chauncey Gardner never had Paisley’s homicidal tendencies.  Bucket of Blood asks us to question what really constitutes art, and if public perception is ultimately more important than authentic talent.  Great fun! Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Splice (2009): A good film that could have been much better, Splice starts out strong but gets undermined by unsympathetic main characters, and a formulaic third act.  Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) maintains an uneasy, disturbing atmosphere throughout that’s evocative of David Cronenberg’s more provocative work (especially The Fly).  Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are genetic researchers (and partners) who have created two synthetic life forms, Fred and Ginger, the product of splicing DNA from several different animals.  Encouraged by the apparent success of their new creations, they decide to take things a step further, creating a new life form that incorporates human DNA.  Needless to say, this raises some ethical and moral issues as things abruptly spiral out of control as they try to deal with the new life they’ve created.  The ethics became muddled by the end largely on account of the dubious choices of the leads, and I was left without a sympathetic character.  I eventually felt distanced from everything that was going on, as the plot simply degenerated into another monster-on-the-loose movie.  One of Splice’s strong points, however, is Delphine Chanéac’s performance as Dren (“nerd” spelled backwards, hmmmm), playing a human-like creature that is equal parts naïve, unpredictable and dangerous.  At times, Splice’s reach exceeds its grasp, but it still manages to raise some intriguing themes.  Primarily, as our knowledge advances to the point that we have the capability to develop life forms of increasing complexity what is our responsibility to that life? 
Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray  

Predators (2010): Director Nimród Antal’s first feature-length effort was the excellent Hungarian language film Kontroll, set in the dark underworld of the Budapest subway system.  Based on this earlier film, I was convinced that he had an eye for action and was more than up to the task of directing an ensemble piece such as Predators.  My expectations were lowered a notch after Predators received mixed reviews from critics and fans, but I ended up pleasantly surprised by the end result.  Predators borrows some ideas from an earlier, unfilmed script by producer Robert Rodriguez, and continues from the storyline of the first film as if the 1990 sequel and dreadful Alien vs. Predator detours in the franchise never existed.  With the exception of the alien planet setting, Predators doesn’t strive to break any new ground, but stands as a worthy successor to the original 1987 movie as a solid sci-fi action flick.  The cast includes Adrien Brody (Is this Adrien Brody month?), Alice Braga, Danny Trejo and Laurence Fisburne as trained killers who are now the prey on an alien planet.  Brody’s character is marginally analogous to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Dutch” in the first film, but Brody wisely avoids trying to duplicate that role.  With the exception of a frustrating ending that’s not much of an ending, I have few reservations recommending this to anyone looking for a good, mindless popcorn flick. 
Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009): Watching Tom Six’s The Human Centipede seemed more like a dare than a legitimate movie watching experience.  The cardboard characters serve mainly as set pieces for the ickiness that transpires.  Ashley Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are two obtuse American tourists who wind up lost while on the way to a party somewhere in Germany, and wouldn’t you know it?  When they decide to look for help after their rental car blows a tire, they end up at the doorstep of a secluded house whose sole resident is a mad doctor, played enthusiastically by Dieter Laser (doing his best Udo Kier impression).  This happens to be a terrific coincidence for the doctor, who has been longing to find suitable subjects for his experiment of combining three humans into a single organism.  Somehow, he manages to kidnap an unsuspecting Japanese tourist and bring him back to his home to complete his creation. The Human Centipede is a veritable laundry list of stupid people doing stupid things.  To catalogue their dumb choices would require a full-length review, and I’ve already devoted too much space to this cinematic dropping.  I’d like to think that there’s some bigger message here, but I can’t imagine what it would be.  Instead of sly social commentary Six just goes for the gross-out, carrying the one-note gimmick of three people surgically grafted together to predictable and disgusting ends, with little style, no substance and no sense of fun.  Apparently, Tom Six has already planned a completely unnecessary sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), involving not three, but twelve unwilling subjects.  Oh, joy...  I can’t say that The Human Centipede is the worst movie I’ve seen, but it’s fairly wretched. Why the extra ½ star, you might ask?  Well, it does deliver on its premise, so I suppose that’s something.  Rating: *½.  Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix Streaming.

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