Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February Quick Picks and Pans

Deathwatch (2002) This British-German co-production from director Michael J. Bassett is set during World War I, and combines the gritty realism of warfare with a more surrealistic tone.  A company of British soldiers becomes stuck behind enemy lines, in a muddy German trench.  They are separated from their regiment, and begin to witness strange phenomena that suggest bad omens for the wayward soldiers.  Bassett is never explicitly clear about whether or not the ghostly phenomena are purely psychological in nature or due in part to a supernatural cause.  Most of the action is obscured by fog, concealing many of the low-budget limitations of the film.  Although Deathwatch doesn’t skimp on the atmosphere, it could have been much better.  Many of the characters are poorly developed, with minimal traits to distinguish one from another.  Instead, there are numerous scenes where they are bickering, but little is said.  Andy Serkis stands out in an underwritten role as a sadistic soldier who appears to follow his own code, but almost seems to exist in his own movie, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.  There is an underlying theme that the true enemy is within us all, as foretold in a haunting prophesy by a captured German soldier.  Faults aside, it might still warrant a viewing for the ambiguous thematic elements.  Just don’t expect too much.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1979) Hey, do you like Hong Kong action movies?  How about Hammer horror?  This Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production combines two great things: kung fu and vampires.  It’s a mixture not entirely unknown in the East, but a first for Hammer.  Peter Cushing once again reprises his role as Dr. Van Helsing, who suddenly finds himself in Hong Kong, continuing his crusade against the scourge of vampirism.  Cushing brings the usual authority and class to his role, although at this point he could have played Van Helsing in his sleep.  He unites with Hsi Ching, his brothers, and knife-wielding sister on an expedition to find and destroy the titular vampires.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with its uneasy mix of Eastern and Western lore, but the original approach ensures that things stay interesting.  Not Hammer’s (or the Shaw Brothers’) best hour, but definitely worth a look.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

Cronos (1993) Writer/Director Guillermo Del Toro’s first feature film embodies the age-old Faustian theme of eternal life at a terrible price.  The Cronos Device, created by a 16th century alchemist, is a golden scarab beetle-shaped mechanism with life prolonging properties, but diabolical consequences.  The device eventually ends up in an elderly antique dealer’s shop, and the shopkeeper soon falls under its addictive influence, unable to control it or its effects.  Meanwhile, a wealthy dying man possesses the equivalent of the device’s ancient owner’s manual, and strives to obtain the device for his own purposes.  His sadistic nephew/caretaker (played by future Hellboy Ron Perlman) employs any means necessary to bring it back.  Cronos has many of the themes that Del Toro would continue to explore and refine in subsequent films, such as his fascination with mechanical devices, a merging of the mystical and mundane, and the eternal struggles between the profane and the sacrosanct.  It’s never really made clear how the device works, and Cronos lacks the depth of Del Toro’s best films, but the gothic tone and creepy visuals are suitably compelling.  Cronos established Del Toro as a force to be reckoned with, and stood as a preview of the great things to come from a remarkably talented filmmaker.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming.

Shock Waves (1977) What if the cast of Gilligan’s Island had to contend with a horde of unstoppable Nazi zombie soldiers?  In this shoestring-budgeted horror film, a misfit bunch of tourists become stranded on a deserted island after their charter boat, run by an obstinate captain played by John Carradine, runs aground.  They’re forced to find help as they discover the island’s sole inhabitant, played by Peter Cushing.  Cushing phones in his performance as an elderly SS commander, who is now living in self-imposed exile at a decaying resort.  We soon learn that he was involved with an experiment to create super soldiers during the waning days of World War II.  The half dead/half alive soldiers were created to fight in any climate and could kill with their bare hands, but could not be adequately controlled.  At the end of the war, a shipload of the soldiers was dispatched to the Caribbean to await orders that never came, and subsequently sank.  There is an unusual storm at the beginning of the film, which somehow causes the shipwreck to rise to the surface, unleashing the undead super soldiers from their watery imprisonment.  There’s a little too much screaming at one another and not as much character development as I’d like, but it’s certainly diverting enough, and the imagery of the soldiers rising out of the water to pursue their frightened quarry is adequately creepy.  For a zombie film the violence is fairly mild.  Outside of the mild profanity and bad 70s haircuts, there’s nothing here that would have been out of place in a 50s Roger Corman flick.  Recommended!

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Classics Revisited: Modern Times

(1936) Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin; Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Available Formats: DVD & Blu-Ray
Rating: *****

Today’s posting of Classics Revisited is first in a monthly examination of classic films, culled directly from the Cinematic Catharsis Archives (Sounds better than “my personal collection,” don’t you think?).  This feature will spotlight some unanimously heralded masterpieces (such as Modern Times), along with a few personal favorites that I regard as classics. 

What’s It About?

Modern Times was filmed during the Great Depression, and reflects the sentiments and anxieties of that era.  This was to be Charlie Chaplin’s swan song as his enduring character, the Little Tramp, who appeared in numerous feature films and two-reelers during the silent age.  Modern Times was something of an anomaly when it was released, due to the fact that it was effectively a silent film, with intertitles in place of dialogue during most scenes.  There were a few snippets of dialogue scattered throughout, along with sound effects and a rousing score (also written by Chaplin) to remind us that this was, begrudgingly, a product of the sound era. 

We witness the Little Tramp as he drifts from one job to another, into jail and out of jail, never seeming to fit in with the rest of society.  His discomfort adjusting to the industrial age appears to mirror Chaplin’s own anxieties about starring in the talkies.  The Little Tramp can’t seem to find his place in a world that has rapidly changed.  That is, until he befriends a young woman simply known as The Gamine (played by his real-life love interest of the time, Paulette Goddard).  They forge a strange but effective alliance as they face the uncertainties of survival in the city.  The Little Tramp’s bittersweet misadventures illustrate how Chaplin strikes a perfect balance between comedy and drama that is often pursued but rarely achieved.

 Why It’s Still Relevant:

Modern Times is not simply a document of a bygone era, or an oldie moldy artifact of film history.  It’s nearly impossible to view this film exclusively in the context of the Great Depression, but through the lens of our troubled present day.  Like the Little Tramp, we are still striving for individualism when our humanity and personal freedom is continually being stripped away.  In scenes that seem to envisage Orwell’s 1984, which was written 12 years later, nothing eludes the watchful eye of the factory president, whose face appears on large screens scattered throughout his plant.  In another scene, the Little Tramp is a guinea pig for a new automated feeding machine, designed to increase worker efficiency by reducing idle time.  At its darkest, Modern Times suggests that we are only cogs in a much larger machine -- a theme that would be echoed again and again, most recently in Brazil, Dark City and The Matrix. 

The comedic scenes have a decidedly contemporary feel.  What was funny then, is just as funny today.  Chaplin seemed to elude the Hays Code censors, or at least thumb his nose at them.  At one point, the Little Tramp suffers a nervous breakdown in the factory and begins to tighten every nut he can get his wrench around, including some strategically placed buttons on women’s outfits.  Even more surprising is a scene that takes place in prison, when the incarcerated Little Tramp unwittingly ingests cocaine (referred to as “nose powder” in the film) from another inmate, leading to unexpectedly hilarious results.  These scenes, among others, are timeless reminders that comedy does not necessarily exist in a contextual bubble, accessible only to viewers from a time gone by.  An effective comedy works in any era.

The final shot is a fitting and poignant ending for one of the most iconic characters in film.  Chaplin acknowledges that the Little Tramp is an anachronism, approaching obsolescence.  It’s as if Chaplin is stating, to quote a Beach Boys’ song title, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”  This might be so, but we’re fortunate to have been taken along for the ride. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


(2010) Written and Directed by Adam Green; Starring: Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore,  Kevin Zegers:
Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **

Every once in a while a low budget thriller comes along that transcends its limitations and challenges our assumptions about the genre (Duel, Memento, The Usual Suspects).  Frozen is not one of those movies.  It starts with a unique premise: three young college students are trapped 40 feet above the ground on a ski lift with no help available, and takes it to predictable lengths.  Although Frozen clearly has lofty (pardon the pun) aspirations, it never manages to rise above the conventions of the genre.

Many of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg’s (particularly his earlier work) films have involved ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  It’s evident that writer/director/would-be auteur Adam Green is gunning for a similar vibe, as Frozen introduces three exceedingly ordinary college students, Dan and his girlfriend Parker, along with his best friend Joe.  Short on funds, they finagle their way on to the ski lift for one last run by bribing the lift operator.  In a cruel twist of fate, they become stranded after a last-minute change of lift operators and missed communication between the operators.  They are suddenly trapped high in the air with no means of escape and no chance of a rescue.  This was the final Sunday run before the resort closed for the week, not due for reopening until the following Friday. 

At this point, one might reasonably ask, “Wouldn’t they let the ski lift run for an entire cycle before stopping it, just to be sure there were no stragglers?”  In these lawsuit-heavy times, it seems like a small price to pay for peace of mind.  Of course, I’ve never worked as a ski lift operator, nor do I know anyone who has done this line of work, so I can’t be certain how likely this scenario is.  This sort of thing isn’t entirely unprecedented, but the chain of events leading up to their stranding seems overly contrived.  This is just one of the many leaps that we are expected to accept.

One of the conceits of this unique predicament is that we’re going to be spending a lot of time with the three core characters as they’re left dangling above the ground, exposed to the elements.  It follows that Frozen should be a performance and dialogue-driven film, instead of a collection of wasted opportunities.  Even if we don’t necessarily like these characters, they should at least be interesting. One of the major story components is the contentious relationship between Parker and her boyfriend’s best buddy Joe.  Their bickering seems forced, however, and does not really add to the tension of the film.  There are no insightful discussions or attempts to flesh out the characters beyond superficial traits.  As a result, we’re never fully invested in their lives, and we’re left with little to really care about in the end.

The dialogue in Frozen seldom rises above the banal, with feeble attempts to sound edgy or contemporary.  One character uses the word “douchebag” no less than three times.  A few pop culture references are thrown in, such as Joe’s mentioning of the sarlacc pit from Return of the Jedi, perhaps to gain some geek cred.  Mostly, there is a prevailing blandness to the conversations, with no one saying anything particularly unexpected or provocative.  Green probably intended to capture the way many young college students speak, which is all well and good, but it’s not captivating cinema.  Although this wouldn’t necessarily be the place for rapid-fire Tarantino-esque dialogue, it would have been nice to see the conversations go in unpredictable directions once in a while.

Frozen works best when it focuses on the hopelessness of the external situation.  You can sense the gravity of the characters’ dilemma, as they sit alone in the dark, amid the frigid expanse of tree-lined white slopes.  Naturally, this would have been a perfect opportunity for the characters to turn inward and reflect on their state of being, but I’m probably asking too much. 

Note: Please be advised that there are some spoilers ahead, so if you still feel compelled to watch this, you might want to skip to the last paragraph.

Much of the suspense in Frozen is deflated by stupid choices on the part of the characters.  One notable example is when Dan jumps from the ski lift, subsequently resulting in nasty compound fractures to both legs when he hits the ground.  This is immediately followed by a scene in which various ski items rain down on him, and an attack by a roving pack of hungry wolves *.  The execution is more absurd than nail-biting, and I couldn’t help but be reminded me of a few Monty Python sketches.  

* As an aside, wolf attacks are extremely rare occurrences, with only two documented fatal incidents in North America.  Not that we can accuse most filmmakers of allowing these pesky little details to get in the way of a good story, of course.

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief about the first attack, since he was obviously a tempting morsel for the wolves, but the second attack seems much more implausible.  As Joe now plots his escape, we see the wolves loitering, licking their chops as they watch the remaining ski lift passengers stranded above.  Their behavior seems more akin to a shark feeding frenzy, rather than a coordinated hunt, and it seems especially doubtful that they would bother to stick around.

Another example of stupidity involves Parker, whose bare hand freezes to the lift chair restraint bar after she falls asleep.  Call me cynical, but such a mishap could easily have been avoided by simply keeping her hand in her pocket.  In fact, when she lost one of her gloves in an earlier scene, I wondered why she didn’t reflexively reach for her pocket in response to the intense cold.  As far as I know, most parkas are equipped for such contingencies.

*** Spoilers End ***

Frozen begins with the seed of a captivating thriller, but it continually squanders its chances to be anything but ordinary.  Adam Green makes the assumption that you can carry an entire film on a premise, and the momentum created in the beginning will do all the work for you.  What remains is a situation without a strong story, dialogue, or memorable performances.  Green clearly has aspirations for more, as evidenced by some of the artful, well-composed shots in his film.  It suggests that he might even have a bright future, if he can populate those shots with something interesting.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

(2010) Directed by Mat Whitecross; Written by Paul Viragh; Starring: Andy Serkis, Olivia Williams, Ray Winstone, Bill Milner

Available on DVD

Rating: ***

When I heard that a biopic about the late British singer/songwriter Ian Dury was being filmed, I was initially intrigued.  Now I won’t go so far to proclaim that I was the only American who was looking forward to an Ian Dury film, but I’m not exactly going out on a limb by saying that he was never a household name in the States.  It’s probably the work with his group The Blockheads that he’s largely remembered for on this side of the Atlantic, especially his most famous song, referenced in the film’s title. He was a minor fixture on alternative radio during the sweet spot of the late 70s and early 80s, and he’s usually associated with the punk/new wave movement, although he was performing before that period.  I never knew very much about his life, so I hoped Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll would provide some answers.  Unfortunately, the attempt to chronicle Dury’s enigmatic life was only partially successful.  It’s a little sad that the film itself turned out fairly tepid, albeit wrapped in a great performance.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll represents a rare starring role for Andy Serkis, who’s usually confined to supporting parts, most notably as Gollum (in CGI guise) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For once, we get a chance to see him play a flesh and blood character, and he does a convincing job as Ian Dury.  In fact, he’s probably the only compelling reason to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.  Serkis’ unflinching portrayal of Dury is certainly not Hallmark Hall of Fame material.  He doesn’t milk the role for sympathy, nor does he come across as particularly likable.  In fact, when we’re introduced to him, he’s rather unlikable -- selfish, immature, self-destructive and inflammatory at times.  Probably thanks to the strength of Serkis’ acting ability, however, the more we’re exposed to him, the more that he grows on us.  He’s not without his charms, especially his penchant for clever turns of the phrase.  Gradually, we begin to see (if not exactly understand) his ability to attract and repel others.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll does not have the usual story arc that most biopics have.  It almost arbitrarily starts in the late 60s with his original band, and ends when his career has taken a downward turn, sometime in the 80s.  Large segments of his life are left underexplored or unexamined.  There is a great deal of emphasis on Dury’s physical condition throughout the film.  Frequent flashbacks underscore his childhood struggle with polio, the effects of which left him unable to walk without a leg brace.  Dury and polio are inextricably linked together, and his misfortune almost paradoxically provides some of his impetus to perform.  This is director Mat Whitecross’ first feature effort, and it shows, with his everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach.  Narratively speaking, it’s a bit of a mess.  During transitional scenes, the tone shifts into a cartoonish style, then lapses back to stark realism.  A few scenes scattered throughout serve as narrative markers, with Dury addressing a concert audience directly about his biographical details (reminiscent of Tom Hardy in Bronson).

One of the biggest problems with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is that director Whitecross and screenwriter Paul Viragh prefer a narrower focus on Dury’s life, and as a result the rock & roll takes a backseat to the drama surrounding his family issues.  Very little time is spent covering the obstacles he encountered on his rise to fame, and not much is said about the impact of his music on the British music scene.  Other than a stray scene with a tantrum in a recording studio, and a few requisite cliché scenes of the struggling artist, we only catch a glimpse of the creative process.  It’s hard to discern what made him stand out, based on the scant details provided, almost as if the filmmakers consciously avoided addressing the aspects of Dury’s public persona and fame.  It’s also frustrating that there’s not nearly enough of Ian Dury’s music; just a few songs here and there to remind us that he was, in fact, a recording artist.  Serkis does a respectable job recreating Dury’s unique vocal presence, but the concert performances seem to lack the energy that the real concerts must have had.  There’s also no sense of time or place, with regard to the concerts.  Everything seems to take place at the same generic venue, probably due to the film’s meager budget.

We’re left with a flawed film about a flawed (but talented) individual, with few revelations about Ian Dury, or his unique musical talents.  Maybe the film was like the man: difficult to like, but difficult not to like.  It’s a reminder of how tricky it can be to capture the essence of anyone’s life in less than two hours.  If you want some insights about the real artist or you just want to know what made him a significant figure in the music world, then his memory is probably better served by listening to his music alone.