Thursday, November 29, 2012

November Quick Picks and Pans

The Hole (2009) My expectations for Joe Dante’s latest directorial effort were relatively low, regarding his film’s checkered history, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised.  Although The Hole was finished three years ago, it failed to find distribution in the States.  It was released theatrically in Europe, where it received mostly good reviews and performed reasonably well at the box office, but seemed to vanish without a trace.  That’s too bad, because American audiences missed out on a nifty little 80s throwback family horror flick.  It’s a nice little sleeper that compares favorably to other titles in Dante’s resume, with his trademark blend of light and dark elements.  It’s refreshing to watch a family flick that’s not afraid to go into dark territory that most similar movies tend to shy away from

Perhaps it was The Hole’s lack of bankable stars (Bruce Dern is the closest thing to a “big name” as Creepy Carl) that worked against it, although this didn’t seem to stop Super 8, which had a similar retro vibe, from becoming a hit.  Most of the story focuses on the younger performers.  There’s some nice work by the leads as Dane (Chris Massoglia), his pesky little brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble), and Julie (Haley Bennett), the girl next door.  The two brothers discover a padlocked trap door, covering a seemingly bottomless hole in the basement.  There are some good scares and suspense as we’re left to ponder what lies within the hole’s murky depths.  What secrets does it hide?  Now that The Hole is finally available on DVD and streaming, we can all watch and find out.  Don’t forget to look out for a (wordless) cameo by Dante regular Dick Miller about midway through the film. 

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

Yobi: The Five-Tailed Fox (aka: Cheon-nyeon-yeo-woo-yeo-woo-bi) (2007) If Hayao Miyazaki had directed Lilo and Stitch, it might look a little like this.  This charming animated film by director Sung-gang Lee combines Korean folklore with a sci-fi twist.  The story focuses on a 100-year-old fox girl who befriends a group of aliens that have crash-landed on Earth.  Her capricious nature is the perfect metaphor for adolescence.   She detests humans, yet seems fascinated by them, using her shape-shifting skills to blend in as a student at a school for kids that don’t fit in elsewhere.  It’s an amusing, beautifully animated, frothy confection that will disappear the moment that it’s imbibed, but it’s sure fun going down.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) This truly unique entry in the Hammer Frankenstein series stars Susan Denberg (in her final role), along with the ubiquitous Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein.  Frankenstein is still pursuing the elusive secrets of life, much to the chagrin of his fellow townspeople.  During the course of his latest experiments, he discovers a means of harnessing the soul, which he believes will be the key to conquering death.  Frankenstein Created Woman differs from the other Frankenstein films for a number of reasons.  Aside from the existential themes, the “monster” of the story isn’t monstrous at all, but alluring and genteel.  Instead of creating a disfigured creature, Dr. Frankenstein takes the body of a disfigured woman (and the soul of her wrongfully executed lover) and makes her beautiful.  What results is a conflict between souls, as she exacts revenge on the people that killed her father and framed her lover for the murder.  Even Dr. Frankenstein is more sympathetic this time around.  He’s still obsessed by his experiments, but seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of his latest creation.  There’s more emotional resonance as he watches the tragic consequences of her actions unfold.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

Iron Sky (2012) I was intrigued and frustrated by director Timo Vuorensola’s sci-fi comedy about Moon Nazis, which never quite lives up to its decidedly ridiculous premise.  At the end of World War II, Nazis left Earth for the Moon, establishing a base on the dark side, away from prying eyes.  Similar to the Martians in The War of the Worlds, they quietly observe, while plotting their ultimate invasion of Earth.  Considering the film’s modest budget, many of the computer-generated visual effects are stunning.  The designs of the moon base and Nazi machinery are rendered in fetishistic, loving detail, but much less effective are the awkward attempts at social commentary. Julia Dietze and Götz Otto are good as Nazi elite, and Udo Kier does his best, in a small, but wasted, role as the new Furor.  Stephanie Paul as a Sarah Palin-esque president and Peta Sergeant as her adviser are less effective.  It’s obvious from the DVD commentary that Vuorensola and his crew put a great deal of effort into making this movie with limited resources, but something seems to be missing from the finished product.  Many of the jokes fall flat, and the overlong third act plays like a dull Star Trek parody (not surprising, considering that Vuorensola’s first film was the appropriately titled Star Wreck).  Iron Sky isn’t nearly as funny or clever as the filmmakers seemed to think it is, which leads me to wonder if the movie could have worked under the guidance of someone more attuned to the subject matter.  Maybe making fun of Nazis should be left in the hands of Mel Brooks. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Howard the Duck

(1986) Directed by Willard Huyck; Written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz; Starring: Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins; Available on DVD.

Rating: * ½

“It always looked like a midget in a duck suit.  You couldn’t get around it.” –Willard Huyck (from George Lucas – The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin)

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I figured it was the perfect time to spend some time with a turkey… or, should I say, turducken (sorry, I should be ashamed).

I recall walking with my older brother in Westwood Village (a popular movie watching spot in West Los Angeles), and pausing to take in a huge billboard for Howard the Duck.  A huge duck bill and cigar thrust outward from the sign with pathetic Freudian urgency.  While we regarded the none-too-subtle advertisement, I commented to him that the movie would be a bomb.

“How do you know?” he asked. 

“I just know.” I replied. 

I don’t think it was any prescient ability on my part; I just tapped into the general consensus that most film-goers reached – the world was not ready for a movie about a sentient duck.  Taking into account Howard the Duck’s infamous reputation, I never felt particularly compelled to see the movie.  In light of Disney’s recent acquisition of Lucasfilm, however, I felt the time was ripe to give this one a look from a new perspective.  Was this an unfairly maligned cult classic or a disaster?

Howard might have been “trapped in a world he never made,” as the taglines suggested, but we’re trapped along with him.  Howard the Duck got its start as a relatively obscure series of Marvel comics by Steve Gerber.  Producer George Lucas introduced screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who worked with him on American Graffiti) to the comics as the possible basis for a movie project, and the rest is history.  What we got was nearly two hours of tedium as Howard stumbled through various misadventures on Earth.  Although I never read the original source material, it was by all accounts relatively subversive, with a high degree of pop culture savvy; presumably everything that the movie wasn’t.  The script relies on awful duck puns (i.e., “Book ‘em, ducko”), in the place of actual wit.*  Trust me, even if you enjoy puns, your tolerance will be stretched to the limit. 

*Yes, I’m aware of the inherent hypocrisy of this statement, considering my opening paragraph.

Probably the most damning aspect of Howard the Duck, besides the weak story and tepid dialogue, is the way Howard is brought to life.  The filmmakers originally conceived it as an animated film, but instead opted for practical effects, utilizing a duck suit and animatronics.  Huyck conceded that they were limited by the effects limitations of the time, never quite attaining the suspension of disbelief that comes from a successful melding of artistic talent.  Instead, we’re left scratching our heads as a guy runs around in a duck suit.  Howard was played by several actors, but notably Ed Gale, who does his best with what he’s given.   

The human leads in Howard the Duck don’t fare much better than their avian counterpart.  Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), lead singer of the group Cherry Bomb, is Howard’s nominal love interest (yep, you’ve read that right).  There’s a sublime moment of unintentional horror when Beverly discovers a condom in Howard’s wallet.  The story reaches a nadir in the subsequent scene, when Howard and Beverly almost consummate their shared affections, coming awfully close to bestiality (not the sort of thing that usually turns up in a family flick).

Tim Robbins is wasted as goofball lab assistant Phil Blumburtt who helps Howard.  There’s an implied love triangle going on, but we can’t be too sure, since his character doesn’t display much in the way of ambivalence toward Howard.  He’s obviously (at least by the logic of this flick) a rival for her affections, but by the film’s conclusion, you’re still not exactly sure what Phil and Beverly’s relationship is.

The John Barry score is better than the movie deserves, lending an almost James Bond-like flair to the action.  The synth pop songs by composer Thomas Dolby are mostly forgettable, with the exception of the title track (co-penned by George Clinton), which will embed itself in your brain like a Naegleria fowleri.  Consider yourself warned. 

To paraphrase another Lucas movie, if there’s a bright spot in the universe, Howard the Duck is probably the farthest from it, but there’s one highlight worth mentioning – the stop-motion animation by effects wizard Phil Tippett.  His creation, an evil galactic overlord, looks a bit like a cross between a scorpion and Cthulu, and would have made Ray Harryhausen proud.  Unfortunately, its appearance towards the end of the film does nothing to erase the pain of the previous 90 or so minutes.  If you’re still inclined to check it out, you’re probably better off watching the clip on You Tube.

There. I’ve saved you the anguish of watching the rest of the flick. 
  You can thank me later.

I can’t help but imagine that someone could actually make a Howard the Duck movie work, but it would require a completely different approach.  It’s doubtful, however, that Disney (which coincidentally owns the rights to the Marvel catalog) would likely greenlight a sequel or remake (animated or otherwise) anytime soon.  As a result, we’re left with this $35 million example of lowest common denominator filmmaking.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Perfect Crime (aka: El Crimen Perfecto/El Crimen Ferpecto)

(2004) Directed by Álex de la Iglesia; Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Álex de la Iglesia; Starring: Guillermo Toledo, Mónica Cervera, Enrique Villén and Luis Varela;
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Characters facing the abyss is something that is attractive to us.” – Álex de la Iglesia

The Perfect Crime, or its original Spanish title El Crimen Ferpecto (nope, that’s not a typo) illustrates how attaining your goals in life won’t necessarily translate to contentment.  Director/co-writer Álex de la Iglesia’s dark comedy is a study of one man’s pursuit of happiness, and how his uncompromising ideals lead him to ruin.

In the opening scene we’re introduced to Rafael (Guillermo Toledo), a self-described “elegant” man, who feels entitled to the finer things in life.  If he wants something, he just takes it, and never stops to worry about the consequences.  He loves the perfect little superficial kingdom he’s constructed as a department store salesman, gifted with the ability to sell anything to absolutely anyone.  The world is his oyster, or so he thinks, as he struts around the store like a peacock, indulging in meaningless sexual encounters with the female employees and equating himself to a predator (intercut with scenes of a lion from a wildlife documentary).  His entire life’s ambition is to become a floor manager, and it’s a foregone conclusion, at least in his mind, that he’ll be next in line.  That is, until his rival Don Antonio (Luis Varela) gets the job instead.

Push literally turns to shove with the new floor manager in the dressing room, resulting in Don Antonio’s death.  Rafael is horrified to discover that there was a witness to his scuffle, but he finds help from an unlikely source.  The witness is Lourdes (Mónica Cervera*), a meek saleswoman that he ignored over the past ten years, but now commands his undivided attention.  She assists Rafael with the disposal of the body, becoming his accomplice in the process, and demanding nothing more or less than his undying fealty.   From one perspective, things are looking up.  It appears that he’s given the police the shake, and he’s been appointed the new floor manager in Don Antonio’s extended absence, but there’s a price to be paid. 

* In the DVD commentary, de la Iglesia noted how he was attracted to Cervera, due to her expressive eyes, which reminded him of Peter Lorre. Aside from her unconventional looks, he found in Cervera someone who could play the opposite of Rafael. 

With Lourdes, looks are deceiving.  De la Iglesia compared Rafael and Lourdes’ relationship to that of Sylvester and Tweety, as the seemingly weak and defenseless prey becomes predator.  Seemingly overnight, the tables are turned on him.  Suddenly, he’s not the master of his own destiny, but her willing pawn.  She has him wrapped around her little finger, transforming the store in her own image, starting with the staff.  Much to Rafael’s chagrin, she replaces the supermodel-lookalike saleswomen with more ordinary appearing individuals.  As he continues his spiral descent, she sucks him into her dysfunctional family’s life, hooking him into marriage.  Before long he’s become a part of the very lifestyle that he abhors.

One of the feats that actor Guillermo Toledo, de la Iglesia and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría pull off so effectively is taking a thoroughly despicable character, such as the narcissistic, selfish Rafael, and making him sympathetic.  We feel for Rafael, not only because his world has been turned completely upside down by the film’s conclusion, but by our sense of how pathetic his life has become.  We understand how completely his world was built around a shallow lie.  From a Hitchock-ian (Is that a proper adjective?) perspective, the MacGuffin is the floor manager position.  All too late, he realizes that the thing he prizes above everything else, his freedom, is now beyond his grasp.

In addition to the aforementioned Hitchcock, de la Iglesia cited Buñuel and Kubrick as influences for The Perfect Crime, but that’s selling his unique vision a little short.  While you can spot the works of these directors in his film, they’re merely used as spice to flavor his wicked soup.  Rafael’s world is completely deconstructed by The Perfect Crime’s conclusion.  In the delightfully absurd payoff scene, which I won’t spoil by describing here, Rafael and the rest of us are left to ponder what’s beautiful, what’s fashionable, and what’s merely sane.  It’s a fitting punishment for Rafael and his limited vision of success.