Monday, December 24, 2007

some kind of negative marathon, sort of, almost, maybe, whatever...

So, after a few weeks of nominal movie watching (and even more nominal movie watching of interest), I've managed to bounce back a bit over the past weekend by peeping a few gems, all providing some negative pleasure. A couple were of the so-good-they're-bad variety, one was of the I-can't-believe-I'm-watching-this/I-have-no-idea-exactly-what-I'm-watching variety, and one was a genuinely good film, but depressing.

The first and worst was Neil LaBute's 2006 remake of "the Wicker Man." First off, the very idea of remaking "The Wicker Man" is really pretty stupid, the original, from 1973, is a truly unique cinematic experience, clearly the product of the creative vision of several highly artistic minds (writer Anthony Shaffer, director Robin Hardy, as well as composer Paul Giovanni, who plays a large role in creating the film's unsettling ambiance). The film works precisely because of it's uniqueness, because it looks, feels and plays like no other film you've seen before. Though largely considered a horror picture, it's really a genre-defier, falling into a category all it's own. Remaking a film like this makes about as much sense as remaking "Repo Man," "Mystery Train" or "Two-Lane Blacktop." There's nothing generic about any of these film, nor is there anything wrong with them that would necessitate a reinterpretation.

Nonetheless, Hollywood has remake fever, and especially horror remake fever, so here we have the remake of "The Wicker Man," starring- gak, shudder- Nicholas Cage, who should change his name to Ham N. Cheese to more properly reflect his acting style, as well as his choice in film projects (though I must admit to really liking Gore Verbinski's "the Weather Man"). Cage is genuinely awful in an otherwise relatively mediocre film. He chews scenery like it was Bubble Yum, and the film seems intent on placing him in the most ridiculous scenarios possible, mainly involving punching women in the face, sometimes for little-to-no reason, sometimes wearing a bear costume. The height of his mania comes when he karate kicks tiny Leelee Sobieski (one of several semi-interesting actresses wasted in small roles) into a wall.

In general, the whole production has an air of misogyny. I'm generally not quick to attach that label to some films, especially horror films, as I think it gets tossed around far too much (then again, maybe not often enough, given some of the shitty horror movies that have come out lately that are focused almost entirely on torturing women), but here I think it applies. The pagan island of the original has been made into a matriarchy, a sinister conspiratorial one to boot, and since Cage is presumably the film's hero, his opposition to this cabal is supposed to be the audience's as well, and thus presumably we're supposed to cheer him on when he's socking these dainty babes in the jaw. LaBute has flirted with the issue of misogyny throughout his career. His debut film, "In the Company of Men," was essentially an examination on the topic, with seemingly pretty unappealing male protagonists. But there is something hysterical about this film, a genital panic of sorts. The portrayal of Cage's policeman character is very different from Edward Woodward in the original. Woodward was too stiff and old-fashioned to be all that sympathetic. He represents a force of conservatism and repression. In a sense by visiting the island he is given a chance to open his mind to a larger world, but he is stuck is his uptight English, Christian ways. Cage, on the other hand, is set up to be viewed as sensitive and kind, a bit gentile for a cop, good with kids, lovelorn etc. etc. etc.

Aside from all this, the movie itself is just plain bad. Cage run around screaming and freaking out in a bear costume. The final sequence is draw out ad nauseum. Once we've gotten the point, the film drives it home over and over, with some ludicrous dubbing as Cage is attacked by his female aggressors ("My legs!"). And then the film continues on for like another five minutes to wallow a little more in the whole matriarchal conspiracy thing. In a nutshell, LaBute's "Wicker Man" just plain sucks, though it is good for some laughs.

Considerably better is Nick Cassavete's "Alpha Dog." I was prepared to hate this movie for any number of reasons. In my mind, it belong in the same category as "Domino," easily one of the worst movies ever made, in the sense of being this like coke-fueled, hyper-visual vacancy-fest focused primarily on pretty people posturing about with guns and agonizing over some shit or another. Instead, "Alpha Dog" is somewhat toned-down and generally least by the younger performers. The adults in the cast are another story, particularly Bruce Willis, who I generally kind of hate and feel no differently after seeing him in this, and Sharon Stone, who towards the end of the film gives one of the most genuinely, gut-wrenchingly BAD performances in any movie I've ever seen ever. Ever. Clad in a ridiculous fat suit, she cries and wails and howls, nashes her teeth and, well, that's about it. In general I don't have much to say about this film. I wouldn't call it good, per se, but it's not horrible. I'm a little pissed that it wasn't as bad as I wanted it to be, and kind of disappointed in myself and ashamed because I thought Justin Timberlake gave a decent performance. I just hate myself so much sometimes.

Far more interesting that either of these Hollywood stinkers is Teruo Ishii's 1969 film "Horrors of Malformed Men." Actually, that's only partially true. A good 60-75% percent of this film is a confusing and kind of mediocre mystery (based on Japanese mystery writer Rampo Edogawa, which translate roughly to Edgar Alan Poe, and was the pen name Taro Hirai, who wrote many popular mystery novels in Japan under the name), relying heavily, HEAVILY on exposition. It's confusing and dull. But every now and again, director Ishii busts out with of the most insane, disturbing and downright brilliant imagery this side of Alejandro Jordorowsky. The opening features a "Shock Corridor"-ish sequence where the film's protagonist is trapped in a room with a bunch of mentally unbalanced women (all inexplicably topless). One chases and taunts his with a knife. The man falls to the ground and the women fall down around him- it's like a dance. The sequence concludes with some humor, which plays uneasily throughout the film. The humor is fairly typical and goofy. There are some bumbling, horny monks that will feel very familiar to regular viewers of Asian genre films, and in general the humor falls around that level. Once the story kicks in, the main characters arrive on a Dr. Moreau-like island populated entirely by the disturbingly deformed (or maflormed, as the case may be), ruled by a mad scientist, malformed himself, who we first see moving jerkily, awkwardly around the rocks against the surf. This is followed by a barrage of all sorts of beautiful yet troubling visuals, which sadly come to get bogged down under the weight of the nearly indecipherable narrative. The film's finale provides another burst of mad, striking images.

The juxtaposition between the disturbing/brilliant and medicore/dull in "Horrors in Malformed Men" is odd and a bit unnerving. The story itself plays out in such an average and generally uninteresting (and confusing!) way, that they horror elements really seem to come out of left field, it takes a second to sink in what you're really seeing, and then it's like wow, that's some pretty strong stuff there. It's good, it's bad- I don't really know what it is. But it makes the film well worth your time and attention, although admittedly I watched it with a friend and we spaced out a bit during the lengthy exposition scenes. But, man, when they first get to that island, it's really something else.

The final film I watched over the weekend was Kevin McAlester's 2005 documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me," about Roky Erickson. I've long enjoyed Erickson's music, first with the 13th Floor Elevators in the 60s, then later with the Aliens and Explosions in the 1970s and 80s, but I knew very little about his life. I was aware Erickson had experience some legal troubles, and perhaps was a bit burnt out on drugs (the Elevators were responsible for coining the phrase "psychedelic music," if that's any indication of their level of drug consumption in the 1960s), but had no idea the extent to which he was damaged. In that respect, "You're Gonna Miss Me" is pretty disturbing and depressing.

The present day Erickson is something of a spectre in this film. He appears on screen frequently, but it's difficult to get a sense of him. He's not so far gone that he's indecipherable, but he's pretty out-of-touch (to the point where's he's basically unable to live on his own). Erickson is seen performing in archival footage, but even there, it's difficult to get a sense of what he was like as a person. We get a far clearer portrait of his family, which is dysfunction on par with what we see of R. Crumb's clan in Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb." Erickson's mother, with whom he lives, seems to be genuinely mentally ill, and all sorts of difficulties exist between the mom and Erickson's four brothers, with Roky somewhat blissfully unaware that he's kind of at the center of a lot of it.

In a way, this is only marginally a music film. Erickson's early days with the Elevators is covered, we hear some of their great songs and see some early TV footage of the band, looking pretty clean cut, from before the release of their classic "East Everywhere" LP. Later we see some footage from Erickson's late 70s comeback, when, with the Aliens, he really shifted gears and busted out with some crazed, disturbing tunes like "Stand for the Fire Demon." Largely, though, the film is about the Erickson family, with Roky's music a secondary concern, and Roky himself, so difficult to pin down, kind of floating in the ether around the whole thing. In addition to "Crumb," it also reminded me a bit of "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," though Erickson is infinitely more sympathetic and likable than Johnston is. That said, "You're Gonna Miss Me" is also more depressing than that film was, and less redeeming. At the end of his film, Johnston still has an art and music career. Erickson, on the other hand, can still play (we see him serenading his therapist), but he largely choses not to (though, on an up note, he's taken to performing occasionally since the release of the film). He seems happy, but it's a sad kind of happiness to watch. It's a decent flick, though. I think I would have found it interesting even if I'd not been a fan of Erickson's music.

So that's that for now. I guess technically it's Christmas and I'm writing this so happy holidays, and all of that. Check back soon for more film reviews- next up is the seriously fucked Indonesian witchcraft picture "Mystics in Bali" and the made-for-TV kiddie porn epic "Fallen Angel." And comics, I hope to have more comics to scan and ready to post any day now, any day now blah blah blah

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