Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fool's Views 8/8 – 8/14

Onward, you dogs!

As those who follow this Fool with any regularity have probably realized, when it comes to viewing habits, I’m a sucker for themes. Be it a common actor, director, subject matter, or title, I like to pair things up to make it interesting for both the viewer (ahem, that’s me) and the reader. This week, in addition to 2011’s ongoing Cronenberg retrospective, I found myself in the midst of a Peter Jackson festival (unexpected if not terribly surprising) and a completely unanticipated John Guillerman (Who, you ask? Read on, true believer…) triple feature, brought on by the dual factors of my recently acquired Heston bug and Jackson’s King Kong viewing from the week prior.

Also got in a couple of recent international horrors, two wickedly enjoyable indies, plus a Technicolor epic and melodrama each, just to stay regular.

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.


Dead End (2003)
(1st viewing) d. Andrea, Jean-Baptiste/Canepa, Fabrice
A thoroughly engaging and woefully overlooked horror/comedy that deserves greater fanfare, if for no other reason than the delightful lead performances by veterans Ray Wise and Lin Shaye, in top form here as a married couple traveling to relatives for Christmas Eve. With their bickering offspring (Mick Cain, Alexandra Holden) in tow, the should-be routine journey turns into the road trip from hell, with menacing spectres picking off the travelers one by one. While the twist ending has been done before, as with any great road trip, it’s the journey itself that makes it worthwhile rather than the destination.

Hazing, The (aka Dead Scared) (2004) (2nd viewing) d. Kanefsky, Rolfe
Being that 2011 has turned into the Year of the Shepis, it seemed only right to pay a return visit to this winning horror/comedy starring Miss Tiffany as one of quintet of co-ed pledges looking to join the ranks of the most prestigious fraternity/sorority on campus. Given the assignment to stay in a “haunted mansion,” is challenging enough, but when a scavenger hunt item turns out to be a volume of occult spells held by an eccentric professor (a very game Brad Dourif), mayhem ensues in enjoyably old-school 80s fashion, with female flesh and latex monsters aplenty.

High Lane (2009) (1st viewing) d. Ferry, Abel
The idea of pitting a group of mountain-climbing enthusiasts against homicidal loonies isn’t the worst idea in the world, but one would have hoped that this French production would have sought to inject some originality into the mix. But the entire enterprise is cobbled together from innumerable preexisting tropes, from the paint-by-numbers characters to the mutant melonheads’ backstory. It’s not terrible, just terribly unoriginal.

Reef, The (2010) (1st viewing) d. Traucki, Andrew
Low budget, high concept, well-realized Aussie thriller about a shipwrecked group out in the ocean forced to swim for survival in shark-infested waters. While some might beef about the lack of chompage, I found Trauki’s methods for maintaining suspense quite effective, constantly plunging our faces below the surface to search for any nearby aquatic eating machines; sometimes it’s scarier not to see any finned menace in the vicinity…as that means they could be coming from the other direction. Solid acting from all involved, and while comparisons to Open Water are not unwarranted, they are favorable even as Reef maintains its own distinct flavor.

Greatest Story Ever Told, The (1965)
(1st viewing) d. Reed, Carol
Handsomely mounted but utterly rote unspooling of the New Testament, following the Christ from birth to miracles to crucifixion, hitting every landmark along the way. Water is walked on and/or turned into vino, lepers are healed and Lazarus raised, Baptists beheaded, and hands washed, but with no urgency to the proceedings, the only enjoyment factor is derived from seeing the countless Hollywood stars populate the screen in support of Max Von Sydow’s blue-eyed Jesus.

Magnificent Obsession (1954) (1st viewing) d. Sirk, Douglas
Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman are paired opposite one another in this unabashedly melodramatic tale of a ne’er do well playboy who inadvertently brings misery upon the life of a kindly widow and dedicates the rest of his life to making amends. The real surprise lies in the effectiveness Robert Blees’ serpentine script and that Sirk and his cast manage to keep our hearts engaged and the forehead slapping to a minimum.

Bad Taste (1987)
(3rd viewing) d. Jackson, Peter
Meet the Feebles (1989) (2nd viewing) d. Jackson, Peter
Heavenly Creatures (1994) (2nd viewing) d. Jackson, Peter
When fellow fiend Tery revealed that he had never seen Jackson’s debut Bad Taste, any debates regarding our choice of viewing for the afternoon were instantly resolved. Like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead before it, the nascent Kiwi’s ability to overcome financial woes with vibrant imagination, tireless dedication, ingenious visuals and over-the-top gross-out f/x heralded a visionary to watch. (The accompanying documentary, Good Taste Made Bad Taste, is as inspiring a tale as could be conjured, as the shaggy young Jackson reveals his cost-cutting techniques and behind the scenes magic.) The fact that, after garnering international attention with his rookie feature, Jackson elected to turn his energies toward a large-scale Muppets parody, exploring the seamier side of the felt-and-stuffing set, only further endeared him to underground cinema lovers. After all, how many films examine X-rated puppet characters’ relationships to drug addiction, extramarital (and interspecies) affairs, murder, extortion, S&M, and STDs? Exactly one: Meet the Feebles. But Jackson’s mainstream breakthrough (following 1992’s splatterpiece Dead-Alive/Braindead) would also be one that introduced the world to the talents of a certain future Oscar-winning actress. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey star as real-life teen murderers Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker and the director’s skillful blending of realistic drama with eye-popping fantasy sequences (the early days of CGI rarely look this good) caught the eye of cinemagoers and Hollywood suits alike. Like Raimi, these days one wonders if Jackson has too many resources as his disposal, as any ragged onscreen edges are now CG’d away rather than imaginatively concealed, but no one can say he hasn’t earned his success.

Naked Lunch (1991)
(3rd viewing) d. Cronenberg, David
M. Butterfly (1993) (2nd viewing) d. Cronenberg, David
Crash (1996) (2nd viewing) d. Cronenberg, David
I’ll be honest: While I’ll still see anything that the man does while we both still draw breath, it was right about here that the heat went out of our relationship. It’s an intellectual appreciation as opposed to the gut-punches that he doled out in the previous two decades. There’s no denying the skill and imagination that went into adapting William Burroughs’ unfilmable novel such that it holds up as a cinematic narrative at all, and the cast (Peter Weller, Ian Holm, Judy Davis) and Chris Walas’ effects are all pretty flawless, but it doesn’t resonate on an emotional level. Meanwhile, his screen version of Henry David Hwang’s Broadway smash is his first straightforward drama, and his second feature (Fast Company being the first) that falls completely outside the horror/sci-fi arena. Again, there’s little faulting the performances by Jeremy Irons and John Lone as the star-crossed lovers, but everything registers above the neck rather than about a foot or more lower. With Crash (his fourth consecutive literary adaptation, it’s worth noting), things got a bit more visceral in examining a group of auto crash fetishists; with no shortage of gore, scars, kinky sex and nude flesh strewn about, it’s easily my favorite of his features from the decade. (I’ve already revisited 1999’s eXistenZ earlier this year, finding it just as wanting as I had on my initial theatrical viewing.) For better or worse, his output of the 2000s continued his trajectory away from the fantastic and more into the realistic, and it’s no accident that I’ve not seen any of them since that initial encounter. I don’t know that Cronenberg could (or even should) go backwards to revisit the themes he examined in his youth – I just know that, like many of his 70s horror brethren, that’s when I liked him best.

Skyjacked (1972)
(1st viewing) d. Guillerman, John
Towering Inferno, The (1974) (3rd viewing) d. Guillerman, John
King Kong (1976) (4th viewing) d. Guillerman, John
‘Twas a combo of Heston and a big ape that brought us round to this week’s spotlight on a relatively unknown name, surprising considering the big hits holding up his resume. My recent encounter with Chuck’s autobiography steered me to Skyjacked, a fairly transparent riff on 1970’s Airport, with Heston as a take-no-guff pilot contending with a mad bomber at 30,000 feet. Fittingly enough, Guillerman was then tapped to helm the next big disaster movie of the 70s (a movement spawned by Airport), that of the Paul Newman/Steve McQueen headlined Inferno, which for my money is the best of the bunch. Running nearly three hours, the story clips along with numerous subplots given just enough weight to provide satisfying melodic stings amongst the action sequences en route to the spectacular finale. The director’s success here led to his assignment on the decade’s highest profile extravaganza to that point: Dino de Laurentiis’ then-staggering 24-million dollar remake of the classic Beauty and the Beast tale. Many took issue with its campy tone (courtesy of Lorenzo Semple’s quippy script), lack of beasties (Kong only tangles with a so-so giant snake as opposed to a myriad of monsters) and the highly touted Carlo Rambaldi mechanical effects which weren’t nearly so special, resulting in Rick Baker (both designing and performing in the monkey suit) and his “special contributions” doing most of the heavy lifting. Even so, to my mind it plays more like a cohesive movie than a collection of extravagant set pieces (hello, Peter Jackson), and Baker’s sympathetic in-the-furry-flesh portrayal elicits more tears from this monster kid than Serkis’ motion-captured one.

2011 totals to date: 329 films, 201 1st time views, 155 horror, 28 cinema
Charlton Heston Movies: 4
Tiffany Shepis Movies: 12

Arrested Development (2 episodes – 4 total for 2011)

Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley
The Eldritch Plays by Eric Woolfe

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