Sunday, December 5, 2010

Irréversible (2002)

(Warning: the following review was written after an hour of sitting, fully clothed, in the shower, trembling with revulsion and scrubbing my eyeballs with borax. You could be next!)

Hey there, readers. Have you been a little too happy lately? Has your sunny attitude been annoying your friends? Does your face hurt from smiling too much? Are you ready to cut the Little Miss Sunshine act, turn that frown right-side-up, and be miserable for a while? Well, look no further! Ladies and germs…Irréversible!

When a beautiful young woman (Monica Bellucci) is brutally raped, her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) go on a quest for vengeance. Their search for the rapist (a sadistic pervert called The Tapeworm) becomes a nightmarish Orphic descent into the scummiest sleazepits in Paris—infested with gangsters, whores, and junkies—and eventually into the bowels of hell itself (or the secular equivalent): a gay S&M club called The Rectum.

Yep, that’s the entire movie. If you think that’s not much of a story, you’re right. However, this is no common rape-revenge film. Rather than re-treading the I Spit On Your Grave / Last House On The Left formula, director Gaspar Noe gets all postmodern on us. Much like Memento did before it, Irréversible is told (you guessed it!) in reverse.

More on that later. First, I should address the elephant in the room:

Okay folks, there’s an elephant in the room—and he’s hanging from a sex swing, doing something unspeakable with his trunk. We have to address the infamous rape scene. Halfway through the film, Monica Bellucci’s character gets raped. Horribly. The scene stretches on for nearly ten minutes, in real time, with no soundtrack, no cutting to a scene elsewhere, no camera movement. Just ten excruciating minutes.

Here’s my personal opinion about rape in film: if your film isn’t about rape, do NOT put a rape in your film. Doing so is a craven example of audience manipulation and screenwriting laziness. But, if you absolutely positively MUST be a rape in your film, you owe it to your audience to make it the most horrible, disgusting, traumatizing rape they’ve ever seen. Don’t sugarcoat it. Rape is offensive; not in the oh-you-hurt-my-feelings, fun-to-be-an-asshole way, but in the deepest way possible. It offends me. So, if you film a rape scene, it must hurt the viewer. If your audience cringes, vomits, or leaves in disgust, then congratulations: mission accomplished! If your rape scene is “tasteful,” then you failed, you repugnant hack. Find another line of work.

So basically, what I’m trying to say is that Irréversible, in this respect at least, succeeds. The rape scene, which is essential to the plot, is pretty damn near unbearable. I’ve seen (and enjoyed) some really messed up movies: Cannibal Holocaust, New York Ripper, Pink Flamingos, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Devils, etc. But this scene had me cringing in my seat, begging for it to all to end. Score one for Gaspar Noe.

(Would it be immature to make a joke involving Marlon Brando and a stick of butter? It would? Okay, never mind.)

It’s easy enough to disturb an audience by content alone. If you hit enough cultural hot-buttons (Rape! Abortion! Incest! Necrophilia!), you’re bound to disturb somebody. At the very least, you’ll irritate someone. However, there is an art to shock value. Music, camera work, editing—in short, the entire vocabulary of cinematic language—can turn something that’s merely “bad taste” into a truly disturbing experience.

The camera work in Irréversible is, plainly, nauseating. The cameraman should be arrested for operating heavy machinery (booms, steadicams, etc.) while intoxicated. That, or Noe stole a wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man from a used-car lot and gave him a job. The camera swiftly skims over each necessary detail of the scene, before reeling around the room, as if trying to escape. Also, the first half of the film was apparently filmed through a layer of period blood and human filth.

If that weren’t enough, Gaspar Noe takes the audience-torture one step further. He gets all scientific on us! The film’s score—a deafening, brain-drilling cacophony composed by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter—is laced with subsonic rumblings, bass tone so low that that listener can’t quite hear them. Despite being inaudible, subsonic tones have some interesting physiological effects on humans, inspiring feelings of nausea, dread, and even reverence. This gut-curdling subwoofer growl permeates most of the film’s first half. So if you wanna give that shiny new home theater system a workout, just grab a puke bucket and crank up the volume!

Still, Irréversible’s chief gimmick, the backwards storytelling, is the most successful. Dread can work backwards: aftermath leads to climax, which leads to the build-up, then the trigger event, and so on. Each scene relinquishes fresh clues about plot, letting us slowly discover the cause of the horrendous on-screen carnage. It’s a puzzle, and there’s a grisly satisfaction in solving it.

However, once we witness the crime that starts the plot rolling (the afore-mentioned ten minute rape), Irréversible has nothing to do but establish the three main characters. While an interesting storytelling tactic in theory, there’s still a good 40 minutes left. Considering entire film is a brisk 90-some minutes long (nasty, brutish, and short, as it were), that’s an awful lot of character introduction. It drags. True, it’s nice to catch one’s breath after all the nastiness, but with no climax to anticipate/fear, there’s not much look forward to. Also, when we see something genuinely beautiful—for instance, the painfully photogenic Bellucci and Cassel lounging nude in a post-coital shambles (the great French national pastime)—our enjoyment is tainted by our ghastly fore-knowledge of their future suffering. Yeah, that’s probably the whole point, but it’s a little like petting an adorable fleecy lamb while knowing that when you next meet, he’ll be on a pita, smothered in yogurt sauce.

(Do I want to see Monica Bullucci on a pita, smothered in yogurt sauce? No comment.)

ATTENTION LADIES! If you’re into the gentleman-neanderthal-type guy, Vincent Cassel gets totally naked the above scene, as does the gorgeous miss Bellucci. Cute trivia fact: they’re actually married in real life. Aww.

Unfortunately, with so little to do in the closing ten minutes, Irréversible goes from artsy to fartsy. As if frantic to appease the pretentious film-snobs in the audience, Noe clumsily crams the film with symbolism, philosophy, and message. If you’re into that stuff, I won’t spoil it for you. The final title card reads LE TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT (Time Destroys All Things). That sentiment certainly applies to my patience.

This film got a very strange reaction from me. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to phone up my friends and warn them to never, under any circumstances, watch this film. I hated it. Irréversible is anti-audience terrorism, a calculated, joyless assault against cinematic convention and viewer sensibilities. I know that description makes it sound fun, but believe me, it isn’t. Irréversible isn’t a movie, it’s an ordeal. You don’t watch this film, you subject yourself to it.

However, thinking back, used to feel exactly the same about Requiem for a Dream. I like that movie now. So, in a decade or so, Irréversible may well be my all-time favorite movie. Until that day, I hope I never see it again.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am in love. The object of my affection: the 1979 cult comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I never saw it before last Friday night, and now I want to know where it’s been all my life. My tastes usually tend towards the morbid and violent, but this little gem won my heart with its unstoppable energy and charm. It’s a work of pure joy.

First of all, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School = The Ramones. If you loath and despise that band, your body will violently reject this movie. That said, I was no Ramones fan before seeing Rock ‘n’Roll High School (henceforth called R-n-R High, because I’m lazy). I knew a few hits (“Blitzkrieg Bob,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” etc.) but they were just a bit too upbeat, too pop for my tastes. I preferred the more bitter, venous Dead Boys, the Misfits, or 45 Grave. But R-n-R High converted me. The featured Ramones tunes (at least 10, and many played in person), are infectious toe-tapping anthems glorying youth, stupidity, and romance. In the context of this ditzy, mildly-unwholesome comedy, these two-minute blasts of hormonal energy suddenly make sense.

Like the Beatles did before them, the Ramones play themselves in R-n-R High. Can they act? No, they can’t. But they have a very…erm…unique screen presence. Joey looks like a shambling, rail-thin giant, screeching his lines in a raspy monotone. And Dee Dee…yeesh. They’re just a kick to watch. (Can you imagine the Sex Pistols leading the movie instead? They'd need a camera with a windshield wiper, for all those punk rock loogies.)

If R-n-R High was all Ramones, all the time, it could still merit a solid 3 out of 5. But R-n-R High offers more than this quartet of talented circus rats. The rest of the cast is pure dynamite. Let’s meet the staff and students of Vince Lombardi High, the titular educational institution. First, there’s Riff Randell, played by professional horror-victim PJ Soles (Halloween, Carrie). This is the first film I’ve seen where she isn’t killed, and perhaps the first where I didn’t want her to be. Riff is a teenage songwriter, troublemaker, and full-time Ramones fanatic. Her one ambition is to her idols her compositions, including the film’s titular theme song. (Titular. I just love that word for some reason.) As usual, PJ is perkier than 10 Audrey Hepburns in a sack of coffee beans, and while some may find her unrestrained bounciness annoying, I think she’s a hoot.

Riff’s best friend is Kate Rambeaux, a mousy yet gorgeous nuclear physics hobbyist. (There’s one in every high school, right?) Kate is a good girl who’d rather spend a quiet evening splitting protons than go out dancing. Her one vice is her hankering for Tom Roberts, the school’s prize jock. Tom barely notices Kate, which is frankly baffling. Even with her dowdy clothes and inch-thick glasses, Kate (played by Dey Young) is utterly adorable. At one point Riff makes her over to attend a Ramones gig: you could say that She-Nerd is a punk rocker now!

(The Pun Police breaks in and kicks my witty ass.)

Kate wants Tom, but Tom (our awkward, virginal football star—there’s one in every school, right?) has the hots for Riff. So he sees his fairy godfather, Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), the school’s resident matchmaker and vice king. And such vices! In Class of 1984, Peter Stegman controlled the school’s drug and prostitution rackets. In addition to dating help, Eaglebauer deals in fake IDs, test answers, and hall passes. Yes, hall passes. (If Eaglebauer packs heat, it’s a slingshot and a few pebbles.) Still, he has a pretty plush office: an expansive, well-appointed stall in a reefer-smogged bathroom. He even has a secretary. Stegman just had a couple of leg-breakers and a ready supply of angel dust. Eaglebauer is a cool character with a cool name (in fact, everyone here has a name, except for Tom), and knows good business when he sees it: right after setting up Tom with Riff, he drafts a similar deal with Kate, for Tom. Hi-jinks ensue.

R-n-R High is a lovable caricature of teenage rebellion. But what good is rebellion without an appropriately sinister authority figure? Enter Vince Lombardi High’s new principal: the iron-fisted Miss Togar, played by Mary Woronov (not to be confused with Aileen Wuornos). Prim, edgy, and sporting a bizarre series of ‘50s hairdos, Woronov nevertheless radiates a heatwave of eroticism. Her rigorous, authoritarian venom make her a perfect killjoy-in-chief. She could be the warden in women’s prison film, feeling up wayward inmates (preferably Laura Gemser) and caning the tushes of miscreants. She’s truly a worthy target for a student-led coup. Yet she’s also really funny and delivers some of the movie’s best lines. I can see why her bumbling Hall Monitor toadies have the hots for her.

The students have one ally among the school staff: music teacher Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel, who looks like a red-head Paul Giamatti). McGree is R-n-R High’s take on the Beach Party anthropologist, a clueless yet lovable square. A logic-driven intellectual, he questions Togar’s increasingly paranoid control. Although comically unhip, he eventually embraces the Ramones’ raucous self-expression, even declaring them “Beethovens of our time.” (I disagree, but I’d still listen to them over any of our commonly-accepted modern Beethovens: The Who, Pink Floyd, whatever…)

I didn’t enjoy high school. It was like Carrie’s high school if Carrie’s mom ran the place. So, naturally, I spent lots of time fantasizing about what high school could be. On one hand, you have scholastic hell as portrayed in Class of 1984. R-n-R High is the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Even in the iron grip of Togar’s regime, Vince Lombardi High seems like a nice place to be. The students are united by their love of rock-n-roll and hatred of Togar. There’s no cliques, no back-stabbing, and no bullying. (The only exception is the scrawny, put-upon freshman—apparently the only one in the school—who’s clearly one shower prank away from becoming the Slaughter High killer.)

Even so, the escalating student/staff tensions and ensuing riot is a perfect depiction of a common student fantasy: your favorite band shows up, you trash the place, and finally YOU IMMOLATE THE JOINT! What kid hasn’t dreamed about demolishing his school? This display of schoolyard anarchy (dirt-biking in the hallway, chain-sawing report cards, bombarding lunch-ladies with cafeteria slop) should ring true to any high school graduate/escapee.

(Fun fact—the film’s producer, the legendary Roger Corman, originally conceived of R-n-R High as “Disco High.” Seriously. How can you blow up a school to disco music? “Disco High” could only have ended with a school-wide coke orgy. I’ll stick with the arson, thank you!)

R-n-R High—with its mix of loud music, bad behavior, and Bullwinkle-worthy puns—is officially on my happy list. Like Fifth Element, Female Trouble, and Wallace and Grommet, I know this film can light up the gloomiest of my evenings. Do ya wanna dance? Don’t wanna be a pinhead no more? Enroll in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Repulsion (1965)

Today I’m classing up the joint with Roman Polanski’s classic English-language debut: Repulsion. It’s essentially The Shining if Jack was Wendy, the Overlook Hotel was a rather roomy apartment, and there weren’t any ghosts.

Meet Carol, a shy, daydreamy manicurist who shares a London flat with her sister. When said sister leaves on holiday with her otherwise-married boyfriend, Carol has the place to herself. So does she—
A)   Cuddle up with a trashy romance and a dish of Karamel Sutra.
B)   Host a drunken shindig and wreck up the place.
C)   Lock herself in and go completely stark-staring bonkers.

Well, yeah, C of course.

As Carol's isolation deepens, she starts having hot-n-bothered paranoid hallucinations: cracking walls, expanding rooms, even a corridor lined with wall-smashing Happy Horny Hands.

If George Romero re-imagined the groping pit from Labyrinth.

Plus, whenever she lies down for some shut-eye, a dream-rapist pops out of the bedclothes for some late-night ravishing. But, let’s face it, if you wear lipstick to bed, you’re basically asking for it.

For a movie that banks so much on the mental wear-and-tear of its anti-heroine, Repulsion is a pretty tame in the hallucination department. I know they should freak me out, but I’ve seen too many Ken Russel films (okay maybe just 5, but you get the point) for some faulty architecture and girlish rape fantasies to puncture my brain callouses. Maybe I’m spoiled. Yeah, it's creepy, but hardly freaky.

Catherine Deneuve really sells the character of Carol. The problem is that Carol is so annoying, my aggravation with her borders on outright hate. She’s nervous, childish, frigid, flaky, boring, needy, skittish, sexist (Honey, not every man wants to rape you. Stop flattering yourself.), untrustworthy, incapable of rational thought, and probably a little retarded, too. In fact, aside from her rather pedestrian beauty (others may dig the Aryan ice-princess look; I don’t) she’s without a single admirable trait. She has the personality of a cornered, knock-kneed sheep; she’d probably wet herself if a stranger said “good morning.” Yet she enjoys—or would enjoy, if she wasn’t so damn paranoid—an head-scratching amount of male attention. How could any man not immediately recognize this chick as a straight-razor murder waiting to happen? Yet, contrary to all reason, suitors are literally bashing down the door to be with this anemic woman-thing. I’m not talking about a rapist here. The film’s male love interest—who up to this point has shown nothing but polite interest, genuine concern, and justifiable irritation for Carol—has to smash through the door like a love-sick juggernaut, just to get a conversation with her. Why bother? Sparks wouldn’t fly between these two if he struck a match off her cold, flinty face.

I mean, look at her. She's obviously nuts.

(Now to be fair, no sensible woman would welcome some door-smashing jackass with open arms, no matter how charming. Just a little hint for the guys: if you want a girl to like you, don’t break into her apartment. It may seem romantic at the time, but unless she’s getting murdered or killing herself, it’s just bad manners. The way to a girl’s heart is not through destroying her house.)

Some see Repulsion as a cautionary tale about repressed libido gone mad. (Back in the ‘60s, virginity was apparently a terminal illness). Others interpret it as a grim portrayal of the lasting psychological scars of childhood sex abuse. The film neither agrees nor disagrees with these theories. Instead, like in many “important” films, the director simply leaves empty patches where the story should be, forcing audiences to pour into it their pre-brewed theories, shake well, and presto: a deep and meaningful movie. It’s a con—and, worse, it’s bad storytelling.

Repulsion may be underwhelming, but it’s far from repulsive (I had to make that joke some time, right?). Polanski can be a genius. He made the fine Rosemary’s Baby, the stupendously awesome Macbeth, the very cool Death and the Lady, and a host of critically acclaimed masterpieces that I have yet to see. As expected, the cinematography in Repulsion is brilliant, effectively transforming the cozy, well-appointed apartment into a claustrophobic spook-house. Even before the walls start trying to feel up our heroine, the place reeks of ominous possibilities. The inevitable murders (you expected a cheerful ending?), though lacking in squelchiness, are exquisitely framed. During the Carol’s solitary ordeal, certain household objects assume totem-like significance: a family photo, a postcard, an envelope of cash, and—most famously—a dead rabbit, skinned and ready for the pot. When Carol takes it out of the fridge and forgets it (she does stuff like that), and as the days tick by, the putrid rabbit starts looking less like dinner and more like the Eraserhead baby. The innocence with which Deneuve portrays this absentminded disgustingness almost salvages my opinion of the Carol’s character.

It's not rotten, it's just well-aged.

You know what? I kinda like this movie. Its primary drawback is a personality crisis. Polanski wished to distinguish Repulsion from the more traditional horror flicks, to instead make a suspenseful psychological thriller (the code-word used by film snobs to describe horror movies they actually like). However, Repulsion is neither suspenseful or thrilling. We all know that there will be murders, and who the killer is, so there’s no mystery. No delicious unease of wondering how the victims will escape their killer. Not even the cheap thrill of a brief pre-murder struggle. Maybe Hitchcock could pull this off. William Castle would have knocked it out of the park. But Polanski seems flummoxed as to how to wring anything but mild discomfort out of an admittedly promising set-up.

Still, it’s well-acted and it looks nice. So...

3/5  for entertainment value.
5/5  for quality.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010)

In my eager little gorehound heart, this summer belonged to one movie: Piranha 3D. I’d been squirming in my chair for nearly six months, just waiting for this gory mayhem to splatter across the screen. My Bloody Valentine 3D was one of the funnest movie experiences of my life, with a packed late-night audience yelping and shrieking as if on cue. Does Piranha 3D (henceforth P3D, because I’m a lazy shmuck) reach that pinnacle of blood-drenched eye-candy?

Yes. Yes it does.

Ah, spring break. The mid-semester oasis from the college rat race. A time to unwind, rest up before finals, and catch up on the hip new STDs you’ve been missing out on. It’s an essential part of the college experience, like Natty Ice, date rape, and Scarface posters; the perfect storm of raging hormones, cheap liquor, and bullshit ‘Carpe Diem” philosophy.

Where’s the ultimate spring break party spot? Tijuana? Ibiza? Anchorage? For several thousand vodka-fueled party animals, the answer is Lake Victoria, Arizona. Normally a sleepy little town, Lake Victoria is annually transformed into a writhing, booty-shaking primordial ooze of sex juice and vomit (from which I presume Ke$ha and Katy Perry first sprouted legs and crawled onto dry land).

But this year, things are going to be a little more interesting. As the drunken menace descends on Lake Victoria, a finned, razor-toothed one arises from her depths, hungry for tender, beer-marinaded human meat. Shaken from a watery tomb by an earthquake, schools of pre-historic super piranha make a beeline for the bikini buffet.

If you haven’t walked out yet, you’re gonna like what happens next!

Movies like P3D can succeed even with terrible actors (My Bloody Valentine 3D, for instance), so when the acting is good, it’s a special treat. P3D is loaded with special treats, including some we’ve seen before.

Elizabeth Shue plays the Lake Victoria’s sheriff, the sort of smart, confident, woman-in-a-man’s-world heroine. Despite the character familiarity, she’s very likeable in the role. Shue is one of those actresses that apparently everyone but me knows and loves. Of the films on her extensive filmography, I’ve only seen one (Karate Kid). But if she’s as cool and funny in all her films as she is here, I’ll definitely check out her other stuff.

Ving Rhames gets to flex his bad-ass-itude as Shue’s deputy. He’s…well…he’s Ving Rhames, hulking, growling, supremely intimidating. (If this guy had played the Michael Clarke Duncan role in The Green Mile, he’d probably cure Tom Hanks’ urinary problem by ripping his penis off.) Few actors look as cool brandishing a firearm. Not that that’s Rhames’ piranha repellent of choice—not when he can wield an out-board motor to get medieval on their fishy asses.

I have no idea who Jerry O’connell is, but he’s great as Derrick, the ultra-sleazy filmmaker shooting on-location for his porn site, Wild Wild Girls. His glass-bottomed yacht, originally a playground for his frolicking nudie cuties, becomes the OK Corral for the final showdown between man and fish. Charming, manipulative, self-centered, and endlessly misogynistic, O’connell plays this coke-snorting, Speedo-sporting horndog to perfection. He’s a lovable, despicable scumbag, and his demise is appropriately memorable.

If you salivate and twitch at the idea of a 3D killer piranha movie, you probably don’t care about the TV kids who play our young heroes (the sheriff’s son and his ex). You’re more interested in the cameos, specifically Christopher Plummer as a fish expert (and amateur paleo-ichthyologist!), and Richard Dreyfus reprising (for all of 2 minutes) his role of Hooper from Jaws. Of less note, Eli Roth hosts a wet-tshirt contest (I still prefer him cracking Nazi skulls with a baseball bat). And you smut-hounds will probably recognize a genuine porn actress or two among the mangled victims. (I thought that topless parasailor looked familiar!)

Speaking of which, it’s nudity time! P3D boasts more nudity than I’ve seen in an R-rated movie. (Let’s be honest, though. Ratings are a scam.) There’re boobs everywhere: big boobs, small boobs, perky naturals, and spherical fakes. There’s also a small selection of shaved lady-parts, if you’re into that. (If you don’t dig the pre-pubescent look, tough luck.) Every beach scene (before the feeding frenzy begins) is an undulating jungle of taut bellies, bouncing butts, and jiggling breasts—it’s like a longer, raunchier music video, awful music and all. For you classy cineastes, there’s even a nude underwater ballet interlude (I was whistling “Flower Duet” for days—and so will you!).

(With all this rump-shaking going one, I probably shouldn’t be kvetching about what said rumps are shaking to. But good lord, what is this GARBAGE! I’m sick of this electro-pop crap. It sounds like 1000 armor-clad bees having disco-themed orgy in an oil drum—with a little rapping thrown in. It’s 2010, people. Please stop copying “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi. And that goes for you too, Benny Benassi.)

Oh, lord, the gore! The delirious, wonderful gore! This is gore done right, with the icky stuff rendered almost entirely in makeup and prosthetics, old-school practical style. Legendary makeup artist Greg Nicotero (Day of the Dead, Predator, Dances With Wolves, Hostel, etc. etc. etc.) wrangles the red stuff in P3D and the resulting carnage is downright gorgeous. On top of the expected water-borne flesh mangling (which looks exactly like you’d expect a real piranha attack would look like), we get scores of increasingly creative deaths. Obviously, lots of imagination and love went into this parade of evisceration. I won’t spoil any kills, but if you like to watch young people die in gruesome fashions, this is your movie.

Of course these herds of disposable bimbos and douchebags are clichés, but they’re clichés that college kids like me see every day. Ever see some vapid, orange-skinned ­­tramp, or a muscle-head jerk spewing ebonics and calling everyone “bro,” and just wonder how they’d look with their intestines hanging out? I know I have. Sometimes I want to see the bright young minds of tomorrow floating on the lake surface in a thin pink-red scum. If watching (fictional) college students die violently is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

The piranha themselves, as you’d expect, are CGI. How else could you produce thousands of lightning quick, flesh-ripping baddies? These are big spiny bastards, savage leftovers from the dinosaur days. Do they look realistic? No. Are they cool? Hell yeah.

I would have liked more real underwater cinematography, but hey, this is a 3D gorefest, not a David Attenborough film. What do you expect?

I had a blast at P3D. My only regret is that I didn’t see it with a packed movie-house crowd, screaming, cringing, and cheering. Movies like this are meant to be a group activity.
Here’s a caveat, though. Piranha 3D is a 3d movie, which makes it a little difficult to recommend. On the one hand, the 3D effects are the best I’ve seen since My Bloody Valentine 3D, despite being done in post. The textures and details aren’t always at the correct depth, but who cares when there’s flying fish guts and human viscera spraying all over you? Good as the effect are, though, I can’t say they’re worth the 3D surcharge. At my local multiplex, 3D is $4 extra, on top of an already criminal $7.50 (and that’s for matinees!).

James Cameron has accused Piranha 3D cheapening the 3D medium. (The nerve of this guy! As if Avatar wasn’t one of the most brainless, derivative, preachy movies of 2009.) But it obviously didn’t cheapen 3D. If it had, I wouldn’t need to shell out 4 bucks for some goofy Roy Orbison glasses. Shmucks like Cameron need to realize this: As long as there’s a 3D surcharge, 3D will still be just a gimmick.

P3D, to its benefit, uses 3D exactly as it should be used: as a gimmick, a toy, a way to poke audiences with stiff nipples and severed limbs. If you’ve got the dough, you should treat yourself to this. If you don’t, it’ll still be plenty fun to watch in 2D, at home.

See it before that last trip to the beach!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Class of 1984 (1982)

I went to religious schools for most of my childhood. I always had a naïve and glamorous vision of that hotbed of sin and despair, the public school. I envisioned gang rumbles in the corridors, under-age coitus in any available closet, school-yard drug dealers, steroidal date-rapist jocks, sinister black boys with saggy pants and indecipherable accents, dead-eyed nymphomaniac cheerleaders, Satan-worshiping metal-heads, and science teachers who humiliate creationist students for fun. Public school—and particularly the inner city public school—was like Sodom and Gomorrah in my young mind.

So I grew up in terror and fascination of public school and so, unsurprisingly, developed a taste for school-yard sleaze flicks. School-sploitation includes films as diverse as Reform School Girls, School of the Holy Beast, and Switchblade Sisters, but the purest expression of my childhood public-school fantasy/nightmare is today’s specimen: Class of 1984.

It starts off like a standard high school movie. Mister Norris (Perry King) is the new music teacher at Lincoln High, a run-down, under-staffed inner city public school. Despite sub-par conditions, he finds many eager young minds. But if Mr. Norris is to inspire his students, he’ll have to stand up to Peter Stegman, the ringleader of the school’s toughest gang. Stegman controls the drug and prostitution rackets at school, and doesn’t like Norris pushing him around. However, underneath his dangerous exterior hides a troubled soul, and a musical genius.

From there, things get ugly.

Lincoln High isn’t just a school, it’s a war zone. The teachers carry handguns in their briefcases, students are herded through metal detectors at the school entrances, and they are monitored with security cameras (a nod to Orwellian dystopia hinted at in the title). The principal is a cringing coward and school security is pitifully inadequate.

Stegman keeps pushing Mr. Norris, trying to intimidate him into quitting his job. Mr. Norris refuses to budge. Before long, the tension explodes into bloody conflict. When his wife is endangered, Norris must do what the school officials can’t and the police won’t: teach Stegman’s gang a lesson.

Perry King plays Mr. Norris as a charming, slightly goofy intellectual, the kind of guy that listens to jazz and drink microbrews with funny names. He’s peaceful, idealistic, and naïve, but once he’s pushed too far, his rage and fear are thoroughly believable. His passionate delivery and occasional flashes of sarcasm make him a compelling hero.

Equally compelling, though hardly believable, Timothy Van Patten turns in a baffling performance as Stegman, the vicious leader of a punk gang. A misguided and confused sociopath, Stegman teeters between mopey introspection and gleeful sadism. The result is a confusing muddle of anti-hero and over-the-top villainy. We see hints at Stegman’s inner pain in the first act, but once the film nosedives into exploitation territory, he becomes a heartless sociopath, the type of un-complicated adversary we’d see in director Mark Lester’s later film Commando. I’m perfectly okay with that (Commando is awesome), but Van Patten keeps over-selling the tortured, misunderstood act. He’s fun to watch, but eventually you wish he’d cut the stilted philosophic whining (“Life…is pain. Pain…is everything. You…will learn.”) and get back to the arson and rape.

Still, there’s something charismatic about this strutting, preening, self-absorbed jackass. He’s silly, and sometimes down-right annoying, but he’s also intimidating (no mean feat for a skinny, poofy-haired pretty boy in a double-breasted tank-top). Even though Class of 1984 boasts one of the coolest villain gangs this side of The Crow and Robocop, Stegman is still the film’s most memorable villain.

Roddy McDowell classes up the joint as a gun-toting biology teacher, delivering a performance that’s at once poignant and (when channeled through his twitchy screen presence) extremely funny.

As it races towards it’s bloody climax, Class of 1984 (like its semi-inspiration, 1955‘s Blackboard Jungle) becomes increasingly preachy. Much is made about Stegman’s gang being protected as juveniles. While the themes of powerless police and soft-on-crime laws are identical to Right-wing gun porn like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, there’s an even more sinister message: that some teenagers are just rotten, and must be exterminated for the good of decent society. If the cops won’t do it, the citizens must. Heavy stuff, man.

Morally suspect though it is, Class of 1984 is still entertaining as hell. We get gang-rumbles, explosions, car-crashes, and a rock concert in a graffiti-scrawled rat-nest of a warehouse (featuring Canadian punk-rockers Teenage Head). The climax is nightmarish and exhilarating. The darkened corridors of Lincoln High take on a haunted-house atmosphere, offering infinite hiding places and echoing the taunts of the vile youngsters. All this atmosphere builds to a giddily violent payoff. The movie’s theme-song, performed by Alice Cooper, is a cherry on top of a glorious exploitation sundae.

What else can I say? Class of 1984 is just awesome. Highly recommended. See it with the wayward teenager in your life. (Keep a table-saw nearby, just in case.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Women In Love (1969)

A week ago, while visiting my aunt in NYC, I was torn between two (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The first was scheduled for Friday night: a revival screening of possibly the coolest movie ever, Ken Russel’s The Devils. (Part of Lincoln Center’s now-over “Russelmania” festival.) Not only was this a chance to view this delirious slice of retro-debauchery (a nightmare collision of high-art pretense and sleazy nunsploitation) on the big screen but the film would be followed by a Q-and-A with the director himself, infamous “bad boy of British cinema” Ken Russel. (By the way, why the hell was Altered States not on the festival roster?) Finally, this living legend would answer the important questions:

“In which scenes was Oliver Reed drunk off his noggin?”

“Did you get lucky with any of the nuns?”

“Just what was the gunk in the clysters?”

(Not sure what a clyster is? Dust off your dictionary and get hip.)

But I had prior engagements. I had tickets to the My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult/Lords of Acid show in Philly, which was the next day. (A really fun show, incidentally.) If I were a more awesome dude, I could have caught the movie that night, then bussed back to PA the next day to pick up my friends and hit the concert. But I’m only human, and a pretty lame one at that, and lame humans need sleep.

However, I did have time to catch that afternoon’s Russelmania matinee, the 1969 screen adaptation of Women In Love, starring a quartet of well-respected English actors (three of whom I’d never heard of). I didn’t know this at the time, but Women In Love was a novel by D. H. Lawrence, who was infamous in his day for his sexual subject matter. Not that being offensive was difficult in the 1920s, when female orgasm was still viewed as a symptom of demonic possession, and semen was called “the devil’s jelly.” (I’m joking, of course. The ‘20s were actually quite debauched, what with the flappers, the bathtub hooch, and cars with properly big back seats.) So, Women In Love was inspired by a Roaring ‘20s smut-rag and directed by film-land’s trippiest art-house pervert.  It has to be awesome, right?

Eh, kinda-sorta.

Ever eavesdrop on a couple yammering about their relationship? How long can you tolerate their inane cutesy-wutesy twaddle before you lose interest? Your answer will probably determine your tolerance for Women In Love. Admittedly, there are some variables that may cause you (that is, me) to listen in a little longer. If they’re arguing about their troubled sex lives, that’s an extra 30 seconds. If they are well-heeled, quasi-bisexual Edwardian toffs, 60 seconds. If they’re naked? Hell, you’ve got an extra five-minutes. Impress me.

Women In Love follows the amorous exploits of sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden), and their wealthy boy-toys, Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates). Well, “exploits” may be too strong a word, since the plot is comprised, mostly of social gatherings, picnics, weddings, and vacations. This meandering non-story makes “Pride And Prejudice” looks as focused and concise as Die Hard.

In most movies, plot (a heist, or murder, or space-voyage) drives the film while theme and message ride shotgun. In more pretentious, snob-friendly fare, the plot takes the back seat, leaving characters to slog through existential quagmires and petty crises without the burden of doing anything. Women In Love bashes the plot with a tire-iron, hogties it, and locks it in the trunk. Instead, we get an endless barrage of deep thoughts and philosophical riddles, dissecting the nature of love and desire. It’s cute at first, but at 131 minutes, it becomes an endurance test. Despite the book’s erotic reputation, the characters spend far more time picking each-other’s brains then bumping their Shakespearian-trained uglies.

So is Women In Love a joyless husk, empty of warmth and entertainment? Not quite. There are some oases in this dry, dry desert of a movie. For one, thing the cinematography is GORGEOUS. Also, Russel throws in just a dash of his trademark surreality, such as a scene where Gudrun (in some demented, trance-like search for “one pure experience”—a common pursuit in this movie) ballet dances through a herd of increasingly nervous cattle. Through the magic of score and camera-work, this silly act becomes painfully tense. I half-expected her to be gored by a ballet-hating, Philistine steer, and have the other characters explain it in Freudian terms of phallic symbolism.

Speaking of sexual symbols, Alan Bates delivers a scrumptiously inappropriate monologue on how to properly eat a fig. “The fissure, the Yoni, the wonderful, moist conductivity towards the center.” And, of course, there’s the infamous scene of Bates and Reed wrestling, naked, in a lavish sitting room, before a roaring fire. (For you penis-enthusiasts out there, Women In Love features a ground-breaking display of thespian willies.)

All the performances are good (Glenda Jackson got an Oscar for hers), but Women In Love (like all films) belongs to Oliver Reed. If you crossbred Marlon Brando, Claude Rains, and a trained bear, you’d get Oliver Reed. Built like a barrel, covered with a bristling pelt, sweating charisma from every pore. Of course his performance is hammy, but what else can you expect from this glowering, seething, pot-belly stove of desire and fury.

If you like erotic costume dramas, but find Dangerous Liaisons a bit too action-packed, then Women in Love might be your cup of tea (best served in fine china and drunk with your pinky-finger sticking out). Actually, scratch the tea analogy; films like this are best paired with some wine-flavored swill, drunk straight from the bottle, very late at night, alone, until your exasperation melts into sympathy and your twinging heart-strings resonate to the lilting legato symphony of images swimming before your eyes, until the film’s beauty overwhelms you and you start blubbering into your tub of ice-cream.

Actually, on second thought, isn’t that the best way to watch any movie?

Entertainment Value: 2 ½ vagina-figs.

Snob Appeal: 4 antique chairs.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

COONSKIN: Bustin' Out of Obscurity

There’s a long tradition in Blaxploitation of subverting racial symbols. From Black Caesar beating a cop to death with a shoe-shine box (after shoe-polishing his face black and forcing him to sing Al Jolson, no less) to the eponymous bale in Cotton Comes To Harlem.

All these examples pale in comparison to Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 masterpiece, Coonskin. The film is a cornucopia of racial symbolism. The dice, the watermelon, the banjo-gun, even Aunt Jemima chasing a frightened pancake with a gun. The film is so jam-packed with black rage that it’s astonishing that it was written and directed by a white man.

Which is, of course, the origin of the film’s controversy.
Coonskin may be THE most controversial cartoon ever. Seriously, it makes Song of the South look like The Princess and The Frog. In addition to the horrendous violence and over-the-top sexuality, Coonskin has enough stereotypes to offend many groups, be they black (crafty, violent, poverty-stricken), white (dirty cops and ignorant, whore-hungry crackers), Italians (fat, greedy gangsters). The Godfather is portrayed as a gross, corpulent slug (Marlon Brando meets Jabba the Hutt), on spindly legs, while two of his sons are flaming queens.

If Coonskin had come down squarely on Black peoples’ side, it could have been dismissed as simple exploitation. After all, several of the great Blaxploitation films were made by whites: such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Black Caesar. But Coonskin is not blindly pro-Black and anti-“The Man.” In some parts of them film, the apparent racism passes beyond simple parody, to hard-core satire.

Take for instance the character of Simple Savior. He is a fat and wealthy preacher who uses a militant black-power message to cheat folks out of their money. Rather then financing the promised “revolution,” Simple Savior just pockets his congregation’s offerings and donations. He puts on a magnificent show, performing stark naked, getting mock-crucified, and blasting photos of John Wayne, Elvis, and Richard Nixon. Had Al Sharpton actually seen Coonskin before mounting his belligerent, smoke-bomb-lobbing protest campaign, he’d have found Simple Savior a very unflattering caricature.

The title is no help at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic title. It’s snappy and attention-grabbing, yet still symbolically loaded. It has 3 meanings:
1) The obvious reference to “Coon,” a nasty name for blacks.
2) A veiled reference to Davy Crocket, here symbolic of gung-ho, red-blooded, gun-slinging, John Wayne-worshipping, flag-fetishizing, hippie-hating, everything-buying white American culture.
3) You know…coon. As in raccoon. You know, because the characters are animals.

Some people like being offended. For them, Coonskin is a smorgasbord of potential outrage. Bakshi described his film as being “anti-idiot” rather than “anti-black,” and I share that sentiment. Perhaps, “anti-square” would be a better term. The hipsters dig Coonskin. Tarantino digs it. Wu Tang Klan digs it. The film has been critically re-assessed and recognized for its cinematic value. The fact that it’s STILL offensive is a testament to its strength as a cultural statement. Besides, modern audiences are far more familiar with adult animation. From the douchebag satire of  “South Park” to the devastating racial jabs of “The Boondocks,” there’s plenty of animated controversy to go around.  We’re ready.

This movie DEMANDS a DVD/Blu-Ray release. Time to get the man’s boot out of Coonskin.