Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Back to the Theater…

Seeing movies in a theater has become a real rarity for the Ivanlandia High Command—once we'd skip class and catch four movies in a day, but it’s a joy that we really just cannot afford these days (I got bills to pay!), not when DVDs are cheaper to get ahold of (via the library or pals or…), and then there are all the choices available on-line! Why deal with an icky theater full of so-called humans when the couch & TV & fridge are at your fingertips?

All that said, since the start of April, I’ve hit the hard-tops three times, taking in The Raid: Redemption, The Hunger Games and The Cabin in the Woods.
Honestly, I could’ve waited till home-viewing-versions were available,
but there was some $ burning a hole in my pocket, and for once I wanted to be part of the cinema discussion while it was still ongoing…

Onto the Reviews! Specifically, those screened theatrically!

The Raid: Redemption (2011; Gareth Evans) So disappointing it’s not even funny.
What could have been a martial arts wonder is ruined by excessive shaky-cam.
I get shaky-cam in H’wood blockbusters—
can't let the audience see that it isn't Brad Pitt punching out Danny Trejo—
but when you've got a cast of martial arts experts JUST LEAVE THE DAMN CAMERA STILL so I can enjoy their hard work.
The Raid's shaky-cam gave me a migraine (for real! my head was killing me!).
Shaky-cam makes me think that the filmmakers are trying to hide something, like maybe this isn’t a cast of Indonesian martial arts experts. Maybe they’re fakes, and this flick was actually shot in the San Fernando Valley.

And once that door of annoyance is opened, I can’t regard the story as anything but from hunger—a total rip-off of the generic plot to a hundred Hong Kong cop movies, down to the corrupt father-figure, brother vs. brother, and the complete jettisoning of logic just to squeeze in one more fight scene.
After about 45 minutes sitting in the theater, my head aching more and more, I was sneaking many, many glances at my wristwatch.
I should have waited till The Raid was available on DVD or something.

The Hunger Games (2012; Gary Ross) I liked the film, but it wasn’t as good as the book—and while it tried to be (too) faithful, it also struggled mightily to remain middle of the road—no filmmakers’ individualistic reinterpretation of Ms. Collins excellent pageturner, thankyouverymuch—just a densely-packed movie, which never seems to have any time to breathe, to stretch its arms out, to give the audience a chance to process the info-dump. Both the Missus and I were glad we’d read the book beforehand, otherwise I think much would’ve been missed or ignored in the plethora of stuff thrown at the viewer.

In being faithful to the letter of the law, as it were, the filmmakers (who include Ms. Collins) lose some of the spirit: Sure some of the satire of The Hunger Games-the book is still there, but not as biting, not as sharp. The film is not as nasty or savage as the book.
And Gary Ross can’t shoot action scenes for shit, since he seems to believe that establishing shots are for unnecessary.
However, Jennifer Lawrence really sold the character, and saved the flick.

This is a film I should’ve waited for on DVD because I think the “ultra-deluxe special edition” disc will be longer and hopefully paced better. But who knows? The flick’s already made about half-a-billion smackeroos globally, why do anything to satisfy one not-quite-disgruntled consumer?

(BTW: regarding Ms. Collins’ source novel, lemme tell ya: anything that tells kids that the adults are OUT TO GET THEM and are NOT TO BE TRUSTED is cool with me. The novel The Hunger Games needs to be on the shelf next to Francine Prose’s incredible After, which you should all read immediately.)

The Cabin in the Woods (2012; Drew Goddard) Loved it! Will see it when it comes out on DVD, absolutely—might even buy the bootleg from the Asian gent who comes through the subway hustling a bag of flicks that are still in release.

Although not as good as Haneke’s German Funny Games (which The Cabin in the Woods gives a shout-out to via the music cue as well as the font, color and layout of the opening title credit) in terms of the meta-"give-the-audience-a-taste-of-its-own-medicine" scenario, but the nightmare menagerie? Brillo.

The zombies hacking up the college kids, though, were a bit of a snooze—I get why, in the overall Brechtian twitch of reflexive cinema, the inhuman killers are such a snooze—and need to be, to maintain the parody of the spreading mundanity in the horror genre.
But it was still a snooze—at least comparatively—everybody’s going on about the “Angry Molesting Tree” gag—sure, it’s funny, but “Dismemberment Goblins”? Better: I’m so there!—and wouldn’t you have rather seen either of those going after the youngsters instead of generic ghouls?

I did appreciate the anger the flick inspired in me (towards the “controllers”), but I noticed that I was never made to question the relish I felt for the subsequent slaughter due to PURGE. But I did like the stoner being the most sensible one, though…the wolf dance was niiiiice, too—and tension-packed!
But references to Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft keep me happy, otherwise, so…

BTW, how about those weird creepy parallels with The Hunger Games—is there some sort of “surveillance/young people dying for the old folks’ entertainment/bloodsport as control” zeitgeist going on?
If so: Freeeeeee-KEE.

Honestly, though, I wish The Cabin in the Woods had been even smarter—taken even more of a stand about something—anything—other than just horror movies. Am I asking too much? Maybe I should see it again…

The Rest of the Reviews:

The Harder They Come (1972; Perry Henzell) This one’s going to the top of the “Best Older Films Discovered This Year” list: Wow! I’ve had the album for more than twenty-mumble-mumble years—just like so many of you—and only in mid-April did I finally catch this movie.

Roughhewn and wild (low-budget but technically top-notch: especially the often-staccato editing),
The Harder They Come is an exciting multi-leveled portrait of a country that we’re all familiar with, but known really nothing about.
The plot’s simple—country bumpkin comes to the big city, gets in trouble, cuts a record, slices a face, makes some money, becomes an outlaw, makes a run for it, gets betrayed, fulfills self-prophesized legend—but the very documentarian feel of pure reality, and the massive attention to detail, as well as a ripping pace, push The Harder They Come up a notch.
The picture routinely feels like it was shot on the fly, with no legal permissions—the crowds were just doing their thing when the film crew showed up.
And, Lordy! The grinding poverty displayed here is heartbreaking! It makes sense to join the ganja trade—only a fool would turn down work; what’s he gonna do? Starve his family?

And lead Jimmy Cliff’s a definite presence, and his body language reminds me so much of Bob Dylan’s performance (quirky, but stoic—violent, but mellow) in Sam Peckinpah’s underrated Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973; and I’m talking about the director’s cut). Maybe it’s the “Rock Star” vibe, or something akin to that. Maybe both Bob and Jimmy are stoned beyond belief; from what I’ve heard about the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I wouldn’t be surprised. Whatever it is, Jimmy fills the character’s shoes completely.

And the music? Ayyyy, mon! LOTS of great sounds, but unlike the album, which sticks to the reggae “hits”—the film shows the heavy influence of church music (the straight-up soul-stirring choir music, naturally, but later, when the gospel is going down, and people are stomping and jumping,
some of the guitar/bass beats are pure Funkadelic, I swear), as well as the more disco/dance/groove sounds permeating the audio landscape.
And I dug how I’d “hear” on a radio or in the background of a bar, an older, more “Pop Music” tune, with a kinda skiffle beat, I think.

A fabulous movie I’m so glad I “discovered.”

Kimjongilia (2009; N.C. Helkin) A very moving series of interviews with escapees from North Korea’s brutal prison camps. These fortunate souls have literally escaped from HELL.

However, Kimjongilia is also a very earnest film that would have been improved by being maybe only about 30 minutes in length.
Jeez, I feel like a total churl writing that: Ivanlandia has very good diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea (usually referred to as South Korea) and has visited Seoul, enjoying the town immensely; while my wife has visited semi-often, and one of her best friends lives there. Needless to say, we don’t want to see the horrors of NK extending below the 38th Parallel, and would prefer a peaceful and prosperous reunification. And as such, I feel a more genuine review is impossible.

Vynález zkázy (a.k.a. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne a.k.a. A Deadly Invention) (1958; Karel Zeman)
Beautiful Eastern European fantasy film—which means it has a very measured pace with exquisite technical effects, and simultaneously murky and simplistic politics.
Yeah, yeah, Zeman was a big influence on Terry Gilliam—that wasn’t a secret since Terry G.’s film was a remake of Zeman’s 1961 Baron Prasil.

A re-edited for US audiences version of this film, titled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, used to be shown all the time on WPIX in NYC back in the day—the US distributors really punched things up I seem to recall, and also completely rearranged the narrative to suit their purposes. Anyway, the film is ultimately for nostalgia buffs with an interest in effects-heavy Eastern European fantasy films.

Watch this Trailers From Hell about Vynález zkázy, then see if how you feel—the complete movie is HERE.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008; Chris Carter) A movie that really sticks with you; very intelligently written, with lots of food for thought.
Cheap thrills, it ain’t—although with ultra-creepy gore effects, certainly.

But Christopher Knowles of the incredible and recommended cultural symbology-examination blog The Secret Sun is a big fan of this movie, and has written extensively about it HERE and HERE.

After reading Knowles’ words (below), I knew I had to see this movie—
The X-Files film I Want to Believe allegorizes the series' own Mythology, symbolically retelling the drama of aliens, abductions and genetic experimentation in a real-world context.”

I read that, and was hooked! Nor was I disappointed—although honestly, I’m not sure if those not familiar with the TV show will appreciate it as much.

Straw Dogs (1971; Sam Peckinpah) Still the ultimate in “feel-bad” Savage Cinema; still great.
Bad Man Sam had to go all the way to the UK to make his most powerful film, go figure.
On the other hand, by being taken out of his comfort zone (revisionist Westerns), he’s being forced to put his thoughts into other modes of expression that haven’t yet been cocooned by cultural super-examination.

Honestly, Straw Dogs is perhaps Peckinpah’s most original film, as he’s not recontextualizing and accessorizing aspects from other people’s films—yeah, Peckinpah was a lot like Tarantino that way:
Before his career imploded, Sam’s other films—especially the Westerns, once you put them into historical context, are really mash-ups and tributes to previous movies (and other pulp media). Ride the High Country is a tribute to Boetticher and Ford; Major Dundee is a sprawling mess; and The Wild Bunch (which I’ve said before is really a mercenary movie) borrows from The Seven Samurai, Treasure of Sierra Madre, Vera Cruz, others but most notably from Sam's own Major Dundee (Danny Peary points this out in his first volume of Cult Movies).
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is an overrated bore, with a completely miscast Stella Stevens (on the other hand, casting Englishman David Warner—a move that predates Tarantino & Co.’s excessive stunt-casting—
as the traveling preacher was a stroke of genius, I’ll admit).
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is nothing if not a tribute to the “Old Hollywood West,” and
Junior Bonner stands out as being Peckinpah’s only examination of American’s Southwestern horse-riding pioneers and plainsmen that doesn’t smack of cinematic reinterpretation (because the characters are already doing that: living out their pathetic cowboy fantasies).

An unholy mess (that I love), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s postmodern recontextualization of his own life as sleazy grindhouse flick, with a near cosmic level of self-loathing squeezed in.

Straw Dogs isn’t about cowboys and the West, it’s about aggression and territoriality—and it’s also the most intellectually rigorous of Peckinpah’s films, his true potential “breakout” film. If he’d stayed on this track—a tougher row to hoe when it’s easier playing the drunk belligerent, I will confess—his later films might have had greater staying power—
heck, those flicks might have been simply better. (And I say that being a fan of both The Killer Elite and Cross of Iron.)

So, yeah, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman as a vicious intellectual) is the villain of Straw Dogs—I even wondered at one point if maybe he’d killed his wife’s cat, just to start trouble. You can’t say he’s a nice man. He’s certainly a passive-aggressive bully. He’s an adolescent, really.
The editing and camerawork all show how to create tension and action in a film. Jeez, imagine something like The Hunger Games in the hands of a Peckinpah? That would be…niiiiiiice.

“The Prophet” episode of Dragnet 1968 (1968; Jack Webb) Three guys in a room talking about drugs: I’ve written about this episode before, it’s a fave, and I had to turn the Missus onto the utter brilliance of Jack Webb’s finest hour.

And so, now I will try to write and post a review of movies as I see them—I’m getting sick of these massive posts I make for myself! (Of course, I’ve got half-a-dozen flicks already watched with handfuls of scribbled notes scattered about the house, so we’ll see how that works out for me….)


  1. Your input is much appreciated. I do get the sense that THE RAID may be too intense a ride for its own good. Still wanna see it though. His previous film, MERENTAU, was strange for a martial arts film. Recommended for the cool silat (Indonesian martial art) fights and overall bleakness, though a little long and slow for an action film of that stripe. Funny about the HUNGER GAMES. People seem crazy for those books. Hey, you should read BATTLE ROYALE. Nice bit o pulp fiction, though I think the movie is actually better, but still. And THE HARDER THEY COME! One of my all time favorites. And it gets extra points for hipping me to another one of my top ten, DJANGO, which, as you know, is coming soon to Film Forum. But yeah, again, you pretty much nailed it.

  2. My old roommate gave me the paperback for Battle Royale, and it's on my "to read" shelf now!