Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coming Soon: In Clamatore

Anyone in the Twin Cities this July 31st should swing by the Red Eye Theater for the premiere of Wes Tank's In Clamatore. I don't have much info to share, but judging from the trailer and what I know about Mr. Tank, it is a safe bet that it will be Tarkovskian.

It's a bit of a shame that it had to be shot on video, as the images practically cry out to be chemically burned into celluloid, but this is the world in which we are all now stuck. High Def makes for a decent simulacrum when the footage is sufficiently textured, so make sure to check out the trailer on YouTube HD if you've got the screen real estate.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Coming Soon: The Human Centipede

It's debatable whether Hollywood's resurgent obsession with the third dimension is a step forwards or backwards for the art of cinema, but it certainly gives us younger folk a glimpse of the gimmicky showmanship that often defined the medium in years past. The silent era spawned largely from the vaudeville stage, with films frequently screened along with more traditional live entertainment. The fledgling format's novelty and purely visual nature made spectacle the order of the day; a natural fit for the vaudevillian circuit. Story and drama eventually took over as the medium ascended to the upper echelons of cultural importance, but spectacle not only remained an important feature, it returned with a vengeance whenever television threatened to topple the silver screen.

Some of the resulting innovations have transcended the pejorative 'gimmick' to become important facets of cinema. Wide aspect ratios are taken for granted in this time of 16:9 HDTVs, but originated with non-standard formats like Cinemascope that were originally implemented by competitive theater operators looking to out do each other as well drag customer eyeballs away from the Radiation King in their living rooms.

Few other cinematic gimmicks were as classy or successful as Cinemascope, but they definitely added a cheesy, carnival like atmosphere of spectacle. The undisputed king of such contrivances was William Castle, director of House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and Mr. Sardonicus. To add some extra zazz to the scary bits of his films, he would set up elaborate contraptions in select theaters. Haunted Hill famously had a fake skeleton fly over audiences' heads at certain times, and The Tingler boasted electrified seats scattered randomly through the theater. Other films would have 'nurses' on hand to treat fear induced heart attacks, or micro-intermissions before the climax so that anyone too scared could leave and get a full refund (also a public shaming for their cowardice).
While modern moviegoers are a little too sophisticated (cynical?) to be taken in by plastic skeletons or hollow boasts of death by fright, such practices have fortunately not faded entirely away. The director of Indian horror film, Phoonk 2 (Electric Boogaloo?), recently offered $10,000 to anyone brave enough to watch the movie alone in an empty theater. Plus, as mentioned above, Hollywood is making pretty much anything that it can think of into a 3D movie these days. (I miss the '80s, where you could apparently only use the process on the third film in a franchise.)

Sadly, the director of The Human Centipede (First Sequence) has not announced any sort of free vomit bag promotion at theatrical screenings of his film, but after coming up with such an outlandish and disturbing premise, everything else (likely including the film itself) will have to play second fiddle. Watch the trailer below:

Is it a spoiler to show that the centipede is completed at some point in the movie? It will surely steal some of the suspense from the cat and mouse games between the crazy German surgeon and his nubile victims, but it would be a far greater crime for us to sit through a mediocre horror/suspense film called The Human Centipede about a mad scientist trying to create said human centipede without actually having any human centipede action. I'm not buying a $10 ticket to The Human Centipede to see people narrowly escape being turned into a human centipede. The rest of the film is just (for lack of a better term) foreplay. To use another example for context: does anyone go see Friday the 13th movies to see a bunch of people narrowly escape getting murdered by Jason Vorhees? No. So let's not pretend that we're going to The Human Centipede to see if the characters manage to escape when we really just want to know what happens when the middle one has to go [insert bodily function here].

Also, you all have to go see it so the director can make The Human Centipede (Full Sequence) which may have up to a dozen(!) poor bastards sewn together.

Update (2/9): To clear up some confusion that this rambling, barely coherent post has induced in some of you, I consider the centipede itself to be the movie's gimmick. It's a premise so unique and outlandish that I have absolutely no problem with the construction of an entire movie (maybe two) around it. Plus there is the carnival freakshow aspect to it. Anyways, I don't have to explain myself to the likes of you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Salvation! (1987)

Nearly two decades before they would go on to menace each other in the tense first act of Cronenberg's A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen McHattie could be found menacing each other in the somewhat less tense Salvation!, a long forgotten satire of televangelism from the deepest bowels of the MTV generation. Needless to say, it failed to rocket either of them to superstardom.

Stuck in an extra crappy section of Staten Island, Viggo plays a motorcycle riding thug and recently laid off factory worker. He trudges home to his vacuous, proselytizing wife (played by LA punk rocker and real life Mrs. Viggo*, Exene Cervenka) and her preening sister. In her few moments of lucidity while being mesmerized by televangelism, she insists that the 'family' will be perfectly fine.
And he sayeth "Five Dollar Footlong" Amen.

McHattie, whose recent performance in Pontypool has revealed him as one of cinema's most shamefully underutilized assets, plays the shady cathode-ray preacher with a penchant for booze and pornography. His fire and brimstone tirades are easily the film's strongest feature, which is a good thing considering how much of the runtime they fill. Most of the first 'act' is simply him on TV juxtaposed with Viggo's dysfunctional family bickering. It's as though the movie had a narrator that got religion right before shooting and decided to run with it.
[Insert 'Married with Children' and/or Ghostbusters 2 joke here]

It's almost always a bad omen for a movie's pacing when it feels the need to punctuate itself with title cards. (Things that are acceptable: "Tuesday", "Berlin, 1943", "28 Days Later", and anything from The Shining.) Salvation! is broken up into sections with names like 'dream' and 'nightmare', but the chapter names do little to alleviate the mental whiplash induced by such radical shifts in plot and tone. After the first section, wherein Viggo hollers at his wife, loses his job, and hollers at his wife some more, the film shifts to the seedy reverend, who practices his next sermon before being interrupted by Viggo's hot sister-in-law, who is stuck in the rain with a non-functioning car. She quickly seduces him, despite his suspicion that it is a blackmail scheme. Then the movie devolves into an erotic music video. Eventually, as the reverend fantasizes about a bizarre, semi-wholesome life with the little tart, she starts lip syncing to the soundtrack and it becomes explicitly a music video.
A really messed up music video, too.

Viggo finally shows up to shake the cobwebs off the daydreaming film's narrative; he's got some sort of extortion scheme underway, though he might just be jealous of McHattie getting action with his wife's very covetable sister. Things almost coalesce into a semi-coherent cat & mouse thriller, only it turns out that Viggo's plan is to force his wife into the reverend's show and take half the profits. (It's a lot like my elaborate ruse to kidnap and torture Ted Danson so that he and my dad could be squash partners.) Despite its painfully obvious brilliance, the scheme is ultimately thwarted by McHattie's second escape through a bathroom window onto his giant, neon lawn-cross. Too bad they weren't prepared for him to try the exact same thing again.
The reverend successfully escapes, only to get picked up as a hitchhiker by the very woman Viggo was attempting to foist on him.

*Title card: "Salvation"*

The 'plan' is successful and everybody is all friendly and in cahoots now! What the hell was the last forty-five minutes for? Why didn't they just send her to talk to him in the first place? Why is the movie essentially starting the plot over with less than 15 minutes left? What trick could it possibly have up its sleeve to wrap up all the loose ends that only just now appeared? (Spoiler alert: it has no trick.)
Rather than answer those questions, the third act is cool with being a confusing blur. Making sense is for square movies, Salvation! just wants to get itself over with so it can go back to smoking weed and spinning Joy Division albums. So it has Viggo and his cronies pick up groupies for the good reverend. Then they all play poker. Some fat-cat at a pool party suggests the reverend has a future in politics. The team argues over how to stay organized while raiding viewer donations from the mail bag. "Postcards on the floor; envelopes on the desk!" All while his new co-host picks up the religious monologue slack.
The reverend and Viggo's now ex-wife ultimately squeeze him and their other co-conspirators out of the scheme, but cannot agree on how to split up their profits. She suddenly reverses her characterization and cunningly suggests giving the disputed monies to a homeless shelter. (So her almost instantaneous corruption also made her smart?) He changes the subject by proclaiming "showtime". There is one more brief televised sermon, a Christian rock music video, and the movie ends.
That's it. McHattie gives one last speech, perfectly mimicking a fraying televangelist while saying absolutely nothing of real relevance to the gossamer wisps of storyline floating around. Also, in the context of a spiritual experience, he mentions having 'intercourse' with his new sidekick; an out of place line that rips itself away from the surrounding speech to make you momentarily wonder if perhaps the movie is smarter than you are giving it credit for. At least until you see the midget devil in the final scene.
With the glaring exception of an ending, Salvation! contains within itself all the individual components of a movie, but they never unite into anything even remotely resembling a plot. There are characters. Those characters speak dialog and have dramatic conflicts. Those conflicts even elicit faint implications of character growth. The problem is that the film has absolutely no idea how much time to spend on a particular scene, or how that scene should flow into and impact the scenes that follow. As Homer Simpson once said, "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened." Crucial moments are glossed over or skipped entirely, while endless minutes are spent on Viggo riding his motorcycle across Staten Island. (The least friendly place in America!) The third act might as well just be the cliff notes of an entirely different movie.
Lay the blame at the feet of writer/director Beth B, who apparently is far more at home in the world of music videos than feature films. It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but it certainly doesn't flow like a movie. On the bright side, Ms. B's MTV skill-set gives the film interesting (but thoroughly dated) production design and music. New Order practically scored the thing, with the gaps filled in by a variety of mid-'80s post-punk. (Most of it written by either Arthur Baker or the director herself.) Clearly the best track is "You Can't Blackmail Jesus", an alt-country gospel sung by McHattie himself. That alone makes the movie better than Valentines Day or The Rats.
During nighttime scenes at the reverend's mansion (probably %50 of the film) the lighting alternates between electric blues and violets, and would probably be impressive looking outside the confines of a two decade old VHS tape. Otherwise it just looks like electric Smurfs are being tossed violently at the camera in every shot. Like every other aspect of the film, the cinematography can only hint at the theoretical existence of an awesome film that came very close to being made.
Salvation! certainly did one thing right (besides McHattie's phantom country music career) and that was creating a perfect storm of cinematic irrelevance. Certainly the post-punks and proto-goths of the middle 1980s were itching to knock the self righteous would-be censors of the 'religious right' down a couple of pegs, and the film's portrayal of a hypocritical televangelist who pockets his flock's money while watching porn seems to have at least shocked and appalled most of the people who have bothered to post "user reviews" of it online. The problem was that reality came along and stole the film's thunder. In the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals, the idea of a corrupt preacher of the cathode ray tube became passé. By 1990 people practically expected them to drop like flies out of grace, and today the fallen televangelist character has long passed beyond cliché into archetype. It's awfully hard to knock someone down a peg when they've already gotten drunk, passed out, and fallen completely off the pegboard (or wherever else these metaphorical pegs may be inserted). So after going out of its way to make numerous and powerful enemies, the film's satire ends up getting undercut by current events. Combine that with the fact that it's an incoherent mess, and you've got a powerful recipe for being stuck on VHS well into the 21st century and beyond.
I'm sure it's scant consolation to Beth B's abortive career in feature length narrative cinema, but her combination of unwieldyconventional filmmaking, a quality '80s soundtrack, and a cast that was literally decades ahead of its time has rendered the film irresistible to weirdos like me who buy VHS tapes off of eBay purely because they are covered by a veil of obscurity as intriguing as it is absolute.
*They once made a baby and have long since split up.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Put this Guy in Charge of the Internet

Seriously, I nominate this "richfofo" person for president of cyberspace. Sure he mainly seems to blog about reality TV and various other Slut related clap-trap, but these exhaustive montages of annoying horror-movie clichés are pure gold.

No technology has turned horror/thriller screenwriting on its head more than the cellular phone. Now that nearly every warm body in the first world has a portable means of contacting the authorities, your average psycho slasher has to adapt by killing much faster (and ending the movie too soon) or risk a humiliating slaughter fail (also ending the movie too soon). Surly this means a dramatic rethinking of horror screenwriting tropes, correct?

Wrong. It just means that every movie needs a painfully forced bit of expository dialog to remove the devices' corrosive effect on the narrative. Without further ado, here is nearly all of them:

Free slasher movie idea: The Faraday Cage - A deranged technophile kidnaps people who use their cellphones for evil purposes (taking calls during movies, texting while driving, general techno-rudeness) and traps them in a Saw-esque dungeon where cellular signals can't penetrate. Murder ensues. Problem solved.

Next up, goddamn mirror scares (and their bastard children, mirror scare fake-outs):

Hopefully we'll get to see "Blurry things running in front of the camera while a violinist has a seizure" next.

If that's not enough for "president of the internet," this person also posts a ridiculous number of videos about his weird looking cat. As we all know, the internet is made of cats.

Special Bonus! A perfect montage explanation of why I think Reality TV is the devil:

Oh boy! Shallow people acting like they think shallow people should act when cameras are around! How is that 'reality' and how is that entertaining in the least? I would rather watch a feature film that I hate than five minutes of this inexplicably popular sham that won't fucking die.

Also, this blog isn't dead... it's just resting. I'm attempting to actually write the book I've had kicking around my skull for the last three years, and Video Updates, which was originally created as a way to keep exercising the prose muscles whenever the fiction muse abandoned me, sort of took over for a while. Unfortunately, I lack the talent and discipline to maintain two simultaneous writing projects and a day job, so something is always going to get the short end of the stick.

Still, there are so many Videos to be Updated: Syngenor, Hausu, Razorback, Dead End Drive-In, Save the Green Planet, The Stone Tape, Death Bed, etc. Hell, I could spill forth another couple thousand words on Pontypool alone. So fear not, densins of the giant cyber-chasm that I scream my nonsense into, updates will continue to trickle out while I pretend to be a big boy writer. And someday, when I'm rich and famous or at least completely unemployable, Video Updates will be restored to its former glory* and then some.

Also, there will probably be more video game related content in the near future, but that still has the word "video" in it, so if you don't like it you can cram it with walnuts.

*Former glory may only exist in the author's mind. Your results may vary.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Quixotic Blu-Rays

Movies that deserve the HD treatment they will most likely never get:

This spectacular Hungarian film about subway ticket inspectors is most notable for launching the lackluster Hollywood career of Nimród Antal, director of Vacancy, Armored, and the upcoming Predators. (I admit to not seeing any of those, but the reviews and trailers scream 'Meh' to me at the top of their metaphoric lungs.) Kontroll itself is a bit of a mixed bag of indie cinema tropes (quirky characters, fugue state twists, and a 'meet-cute' wearing a bear costume) but its kinetic, textured visuals and impressive subterranean setting, which remain impressive on the poorly mastered DVD we're currently stuck with, could blow some serious minds.

I'm still kicking myself for missing my chance to see this on the big screen. A blu-ray would go a long ways toward consoling me.

One of my all time favorite films of all time, Stalker is a languorous science fiction epic by the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It's a possibly allegorical tale of three men, Writer, Professor, and Stalker, who venture into a forbidden wasteland called the Zone to retrieve a possibly extraterrestrial wish granting artifact. A story of the fantastic, warped by the director into something more concerned with mankind's battered spirit than aliens or ray guns, it is nevertheless filled to the brim with striking visuals and authentically gritty locales.

Unfortunately, the film has yet to even see an adequate DVD release. For now we must settle for a murky picture inexplicably split over two out of print discs. (One dual layer, one single... why?) The only thing it really has going for it (aside from being the only game in town) is the shockingly adequate, if not entirely faithful, 5.1 surround sound mix.

I bug the Criterion Collection on a regular basis about the film, but it's likely that the distribution rights pose a problem. (They've managed to release a handful of his other films--Ivan's Childhood, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev--so there is hope for at least some HD action.)

My all time favorite J-horror, Kairo is yet another film rich in gritty detail and elaborately decaying industrial backdrops. It's even been described as 'Tarkovskian,' which is a non-pejorative way to say "glacially paced" or "slow as hell." Just don't fall asleep to the film, as I have done (same for Stalker--a great movie for naps, seriously) because the score will wake you back up for some hardcore existential dread. Hell is full, and the dead are invading our world through electrical and information networks to show us just how sad and alone we are in this universe. The only recourse is to run like hell and seal them off with red duct tape. (Then you can never, ever, ever go back there, BTW.)

If I may rant and swear for a minute, WHY THE FUCK is there a fucking HD DVD (I noticed this before the format died--yes I've got a player--shut up) and two sequels for the godawful US remake, but no known plans for an HD treatment of the original? If they release the remake on blu before the original, I'm going to ultra-plotz and take all of you with me.

Long before he sold out with the mediocre Suspect Zero, E Elias Merhige was a promising experimental filmmaker sweating over the meticulous photographic techniques in his silent, black & white epic of human suffering, Begotten. I've yet to see the whole thing, because the DVD is so out of print that it currently goes for $90(!) on Amazon. Furthermore, what little I have seen could only hint at the wonders of a theatrical or HD screening.

When mastering a home video copy of a true film, studios have an irritating 'baby with the bathwater' tendency to clean up the print with digital noise reduction. Limited use of DNR is a cost effective way to clean up the most distracting bits of dust and dirt, but many disc authorers use it as a crutch, reducing the image's total detail, eliminating all that delicious film grain, and basically destroying the entire point of high definition mastering.

The wild, organic nature to film grain (an artifact of its chemical nature) is far more pleasing to the eye than its digital equivalent (pixels, boo!) so while HD and its big brothers 2K and 4K are finally shrinking their pixels even smaller than the grains of 35mm film emulsion, the texture of those grains is still an integral element to the format and should be preserved in digital duplication whenever possible.

This most apparent in Begotten. So much time and effort went into the film's processing and optical printing that it is starting to creep into the world of animation. When poorly mastered or shown in an inadequate format, all that grain and contrast is lost in the murk. When the texture is almost more important than the image itself, and you eliminate the texture, all you have left is a shitty, blurry picture.

Sometimes high-def is the only way to properly see a film, but if no one can do so, then there ends up being little demand for a high-def release. It's a negative feedback loop of cinematic under appreciation.

5. The Best of Classic Experimental Cinema

See the last sentence above. Most experimental films are almost completely lost to SD video, and are definitely lost to YouTube. A collection of the greats on HD would be the closest most of us could get to seeing 'Mothlight' or 'Serene Velocity' in the proper celluloid setting.