Friday, April 17, 2009

In appreciation of Lucky McKee's May.....


It's not often that a horror film made within the last ten years blows me away solely with its originality, but that's exactly what Lucky McKee's May (2002) has done. May is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a film unfairly hurt by the prejudice-ready trappings of its central plot. Awkward outcast female yearns for social acceptance, falls for a guy, gets rejected, flies off the deep end, and breaks loose some gruesome hell. At first, the film feels like "The Post-College Adventures of Stephen King's Carrie." But McKee has several tricks up his sleeve here, the most important of which being the patience to develop his May character to the hilt before unleashing her psychotic side. By the time her inner darkness is exposed, the character totally charmed my socks off with her goth-chick cuteness and compelling weirdness. Even as she sliced and diced, I was right there with her, cheering her on and hoping she'd emerge alive and happy.

This being an independent horror film devoid of big studio involvement and a need to please the masses, that of course doesn't happen. May works so well because nothing that happens from the 45-minute mark forward is expected. McKee consistently surprised me with May's plot turns and sadistic derailment, made all the more enjoyable thanks to a stellar lead performance from otherwise-unknown actress Angela Bettis, who owns this film from Fade In to Fade Out. Bettis handles a rollercoaster of a role with constant command, making May's pleasant moments seem believably sweet and her darkest actions feel completely warranted.

The way McKee develops the character, May comes from a friendless childhood that resulted from a terribly-lazy eye. Her sluggish eyeball gave her douchebag kiddie peers ample fodder to ridicule May, and she ran the course of life with no friends or companions other than a creepy white-faced doll that her mom handmade for her, which she calls "Suzy." Only, Suzy talks to May (the chick is crazy, you dig?) and tells her what to do in certain situations, most consequential being the intimate moments May shares with her crush and first-ever suitor, Adam (played by Jeremy Sisto, who you'd know from Clueless and Wrong Turn).


I don't want to spoil the surprises that May's story has in store, so seek this one out to see where tragic outcast May's tale goes. Trust me---it's not where you'd suspect, and it'll make you squirm and sympathize in equal measure. For the first hour, May is in no way a horror film; it's a dark, dramatic character study of a girl lacking in any social skills whatsoever. So much so that every encounter she has, whether it be with Adam or a group of blind children she volunteers to look after, left me feeling uneasy, unsure of what she'd do at any given second. I couldn't trust the character, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like her.

May is Snicker-thick with moments that payoff beautifully by story's end. As the resolution was unfolding, I found myself clicking back to small details packed within past scenes, thinking "Oh shit!" as loose ends tied themselves. Earlier moments that felt random all began to make crystal-clear sense. McKee's script turns out to be one that required much fine-tuning. Like a giant puzzle that's constantly falling into place without the viewer ever realizing it until the final frames.

Bonus points go to McKee and May for utilizing a young Anna Faris tons of scenery to chew on. Playing a promiscuous lesbian co-worker of May's who has a big thing for our heroine, Faris is a spark plug here, off-setting the film's thick grimness with her slutty flirtations and naive airhead ways. Oh, and Faris is hotter than ever here. Case in point:


If you've ever felt closed off from the cool kids, or simply unable to establish quality friendships, May will definitely strike a chord. You'll have to clutch your stomach and endure the endgame carnage, all played with a nice touch of realism rather than any Grand Guignol, but it's well worth the gag reflex. Going into the film, I wasn't expecting to love May as much as I now do. A slew of positive horror-writer reviews and McKee's commendable adaptation of Jack Ketchum's novel The Lost were all I had as reasons to watch on a quiet Friday evening. In the end, though, May and her poetic descent into the macabre left me feeling a mess of emotions. The most prominent being "empathy."

For a horror flick, that's a job well done.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rashomon, or the beginning of my Kurosawa phase

Seriously, how bad was last year's Vantage Point? What a case of cinematic blue balls. Easily one of 2008's biggest letdowns on my end, a film that first surfaced with a live-wire, eye-opener of a trailer but then materialized with uneve acting, a muddled script, and an irritating creative decision to rewind the tape every time the perspective changed between characters. The first time the film went all fast-paced backward, I cringed but figured that Pete Travis, the director, wouldn't be misguided enough to do it again. But then it happened again, and again, and then once more, and then about three more times. Until the audience in my theater began laughing and/or sighing in disbelief at each "rewind." Didn't help that Matthew Fox turned in a painfully bad performance, Dennis Quaid just looked one-note pissed the entire time, and cutie Zoe Saldana was killed off in the first ten minutes.

Be gone, Vantage Point. Be gone.


Now having finally watched iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's awesome Rashomon (1950), I've seen what Travis and company were admirably trying to do but failed on all fronts. Really, Rashomon makes me hate Vantage Point even more. It's not exactly fair, though, to compare the two films; it's like trying to draw a parallel between Robert Wise's The Haunting and The Haunting in Connecticut. Just plain ridiculous. Rashomon is one of the finest, most influential films ever made, so Vantage Point never stood a chance, anyway.

The same narrative trick is attempted in both----trying to solve a crime by showing the event through the eyes of multiple characters, only to reveal that "truth" is merely in the eye of the beholder. One of the many reasons that Rashomon so greatly pulls this storytelling okie-doke off is that the actual truth is never given. All we're left with is four vastly different accounts of a rape/murder in the woods. The final version could be regarded as the most reliable, only because it's from an objective witness with no ties to the bandit, the rape victim, and her now-dead husband. Or, does he? The witness turns out to have some unexpected stake in the case, which blurs the lines of reality even further, and leaves Rashomon's central verdict open-ended as the Fade Out comes.

It's pretty astonishing to think that Kurosawa executed such a groundbreaking, twisty tale nearly 60 years ago. Truly light years ahead of his time with this. Early on, I thought I was in for a murder mystery, but then the killer's identity is confessed by the deviant himself, which threw my frame-of-mind off the rails. So he's the killer then? So what else is left to figure out? What a fool I was to think that. As soon as the hysterical rape victim begins offering her recollection to the courthouse, I started asking her questions, but in my head. "Why are you so upset when the bandit just told us that you were fierce and heroic?" A wonderful little device used by Kurosawa here came into the light at this moment---I realized that we're never going to see the interrogator, only the defendants. As if they're speaking directly to the viewer. Answering our questions, confusing our thoughts with each changing speaker. Truth is totally subjective, and it changes through small yet thematically large details with each new defendant.


Rashomon is a film that I can't recommend enough. For those partial to martial arts and fight scenes, you get some pretty badass sword fighting. If you're a movie-watcher such as myself who loves a good wildly-structured headscratcher, it's tops. But ultimately, it's worth seeing just off of GP alone. You'd be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker who won't admit to being heavily influenced by not only Rashomon, but Akira Kurosawa himself.

I may go watch it again now. Or tomorrow, definitely. Hell, the film even managed to creep me out quite a bit thanks to an eerie testimonial from a freaky-deeky female medium giving the murder victim's side of the story. And I wasn't expecting this one to give me any willies at all. Many so-called "horror legends" can't even do that.


The Girlfriend Experience with Sasha Grey.....who wouldn't want that?

Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is a film that's been talked about and quietly praised since its out-of-nowhere debut at January's Sundance Film Festival. Soderbergh must not have slept for more than about 12 hours total over the last year, between finishing up his four-hour epic Che and then somehow squeezing in the time to complete this, a much more lo-fi, intimate film. You have to hand it to a guy like Soderbergh----he's a truly dedicated filmmaker, one who clearly makes the films that he really wants to make in between the occasional Ocean's 11 franchise-mover.

When you've earned the clout that he has since 1989'S sex, lies, and videotape, that creative immunity isn't something to question. I knew only the bare essentials about The Girlfriend Experience prior to this trailer----that it was about a high-price call girl (played by porn star Sasha Grey, she of Sasha Grey's Anatomy fame; a title so obvious, yet so oddly clever) who specializes in engaging her clients in conversation and companionship more than just turning sexual tricks. But being a call girl, she never knows who exactly she's about to spend hours at a time with, which opens the plot up to either tragedy or some other less-morbid type of conflict. My plan is to catch this one at next week's Tribeca Film Festival, if possible, so I'll hopefully find out the answer then.

The response from Sundance has been largely positive, with some reviews singling out the intimacy of Soderbergh's story and direction, others acknowledging how he's managed to merge his independent sensibilities with his mainstream chops, and the rest of showing love to Grey's natural, revelatory performance. Looks like we have a winner on deck, so keep an eye out for The Girlfriend Experience when it opens in New York City limited release on May 22.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

***The BW List: Car Scenes, Glaring Omission

Honestly, I'm hugely ashamed of myself. A couple weeks back, I compiled a few of my all-time favorite film scenes involving automobiles in light of that week's Fast & Furious opening. The problem I've been having with these lists I've been putting together is that my head works so quickly, so many streams of thought flowing side by side, that I tend to overlook films and scenes that wholly deserve inclusion.

And just now, while watching some late night cable, I came across one of my favorite films of the last decade, Children of Men. So brilliant, so sadly passed over by the Academy that awards season. Amongst several others, one aspect of the film that I continue to find so astonishing is Alfonso Cuaron's hyper-realistic direction. Don't even get me started on that seemingly-single-take climax, because I'll just ramble on and on about its unparalleled excellence. In the same vein of love, though, is my fondness for this scene, which (SPOILER ALERT) kicks the film's plot into overdrive. Its another one of Cuaron's masterful "single shot takes" earlier in the film, an unexpected siege on the main characters' car that escalates into a crescendo of horror and tragedy. Cuaron took an approach that had been used before and perfected it----sewing together a bunch of separate shots and making them seem as if its one continuous take.

**I remember when I interviewed Chiwetel Ejiofor (the driver of the car in the scene) for a KING story, I snuck in a question asking how exactly Cuaron pulled this scene off, to which he laughed and gave me one of those "I can't spoil the secret, now" responses that I simultaneously understand, respect, and selfishly loathe. Landing the man Chiwetel Ejiofor for a six-page feature story/shoot in KING will forever go down as my proudest accomplishment while working for the mag. Took months to secure, defied perceptions of the mag, and realized my hopes of giving the mag some Hollywood credibility. They can't take that one away from me. Ever.**

If you've yet to see Children of Men, please do so with the quickness. And think twice about watching this scene, 1) because the picture quality isn't the best, and 2) the film deserves to be seen in its entirety and total context. But for the short-of-will-power and fans of the film, here's the "car attack" scene that should've been at least second-slotted on my previous BW List: Favorite Car Scenes. It's something else:

The Hurt Locker is ready to stuff your adrenaline inside it

The official full trailer for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker has finally materialized, and it's as great as I was hoping. There's a difference between this trailer anticipation and others, however----I had the privilege of seeing an early media screening of The Hurt Locker last month, and I feel confident in saying that the film immediately secured a spot in my inevitable "Best Films of 2009" list. Give the trailer a look:

Bigelow (she of Point Break and Strange Days notoriety and film world respect-receiving) has pulled off something that I'd thought impossible, that being an Iraq War-set film that manages to entertain, captivate, and even inspire some thought without coming off as if she's drunk on pints of preachy sentiment. Films such as Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah have their merits, sure, but audiences obviously wanted little to do with the "the war's effects on its soldiers is scarring, so pay attention" arch of those failed efforts. The Hurt Locker treats itself as a pure action suspense show, a superb one at that.

I'll delve into the film more closer to its limited June release, but just know that The Hurt Locker is definitely one to place high atop your looking-forward-to film list. Bigelow pulls off some seriously tense, seat-clenching setpieces, and the acting from all involved (especially the beast that is Jeremy Renner here, and the underappreciated Anthony Mackie) is A+ quality.

Get ready.

Simon Cowell joined by some other, cooler Basterds

Of all the places in the world to premiere new behind-the-scenes and actual film footage for the next Quentin Tarantino flick, American Idol is probably the last outlet I would've ever expected. But that's exactly what happened last night when Tarantino guested on Idol to direct the remaining contestants' performances. Whatever that means, exactly. I'm one of the ten or so people in this country who doesn't routinely watch the show, so I can't say what QT-directed performances of glossy pop wannabes looked like, or sounded like.

If I had known Tarantino was going to be on Idol, though, I would have tuned in, or at least set the DVR. I'm a big fan like that. Fortunately, we have this little tool called the Internet these days that spares people like me from having to sit through American Idol just to get the 40-second goods we clicked in to see: some new Inglourious Basterds footage. And boy does this one keep looking cooler and cooler. Sure, I'm, as I just said, a huge fan of the guy, so maybe I'm biased to some degree. But you can't watch the final seconds of this footage, with guns blazing and the set erupting into an inferno of anarchy, and not get gassed, even a tad.

If money weren't a thing and I had my passport primed and ready, I'd totally hop on a plane and crash the Cannes Film Festival, just to see Inglourious Basterds nice and early. And if they didn't let me in after going through all that globe-trotting trouble, I'd be forced to grab a gattling gun and make like Freaks and Geeks alum Sam Levine in the above footage. Those monstrous weapons look heavy---good thing I've been busting out those push-ups.

***I didn't notice at first, but after watching this footage again, I've realized that this clip gives us our first look at Mike Myers' character, General Ed Fenech, a product of heavy makeup. Talk about going incognito. I could be wrong, but I'm willing to bet dividends that this is indeed Myers:


The BW List: When Lame Movies Happen to Good Talent

Considering my current state of being, I'm the last person who should criticize somebody for "taking a paycheck." Accepting a gig that does little for his/her artistic sensibilities but goes a long way financially. We all need to pay the bills, keep the lights on, pad the bank accounts, rob our country blind. I get it. But for the objective onlooker, seeing people you respect do this never fails to sting. Disappointment is inevitable, not always branded with the unfair "sell-out" tag yet still looked down upon as a lapdog of sorts.

In the film world, this happens on a weekly basis. Actors and actresses you love pop up in shitty films, or obvious money-makers that you'd rather be subjected to a Lucio Fulci/Zombi drawn-out eye-gauging than ever voluntarily watch. Case in point: Leslie Mann co-starring in this weekend's 17 Again.


I haven't seen the film, nor do I ever plan on doing so. Yes, I'm aware that it currently stands at an unexpectedly respectable 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, but whatever. And I'm not blatantly hating on your boy Zac Efron here, either. Do I like the guy as a talent? Nope, but my total indifference to this pretty-boy-with-good-dance-moves-who-I-can't-sign-on-to-a-pop-culture-blog-and-not-see isn't the focal point of my 17 Again negativity. Rather, it's the tired, contrived Big/Vice Versa "age reversal" plotline. It's cheap, unoriginal, and, really, never that funny.


I'm sure that Leslie Mann will have some funny, or at least charming, moments in 17 Again, though. How can she not? The woman is naturally hilarious, one of Hollywood's funniest and most overlooked ladies. The rare case of nepotism that doesn't feel worthy of his/her success (she's married to comedy giant Judd Apatow). Just go watch Knocked Up again for proof, or even rewind back to Adam Sandler's Big Daddy, where her few scenes as the former Hooters girl all scored. She's someone who deserves a few leading roles in well-made films; granted, she seems to have one coming this summer with Apatow's Funny People, but that's simply another one with her husband. It's time that she stretches herself successfully into non-Apatow territory. 17 Again is a terrible place to start, despite the film's surefire prognosis. People will see her, laugh with her, root for her. But she deserves better.

Of course, I could be left with a pie in the face if 17 Again turns out to be universally loved. This is a kneejerk reaction, though, so if that does happen I'll totally admit defeat.

This all got me wondering, "What other talents that I love have appeared in films I had zero interest in ever seeing?" And from that inner thought comes this list of the examples that stand out most in my head. Worth noting: I've seen all of these films, which makes the bitterness all the more potent.


Chiwetel Ejiofor in Slow Burn (2005): Back in '05, the London-bred Ejiofor was on a nice track to stateside notoriety. His turns in the critically-hailed English films Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Love Actually (2003) put him on the radar, leading to his hardly-recognizable villain work in John Singleton's well-received Four Brothers. But then came Slow Burn, a poorly-executed attempt to modernize the old "sleazy, sexy crime thriller" genre with a slumming-it Ray Liotta and LL Cool J trying out In Too Deep material again. Nothing in the film worked, and Ejiofor's "Ty Trippin" character suffered from more than just a terribly stereotypical name. As evidenced by his great work in 2006's Children of Men and 2007's American Gangster (not to mention his strong lead work in last year's slept-on Redbelt), Ejiofor has bounced back nicely. But his one major fuck-up still burns slowly in my brain.


Paul Rudd in Over Her Dead Body (2008): This one has tons in common with Leslie Mann's 17 Again. Rudd, like Mann, is an Apatow regular who always brings the goods, clocking in scene-stealers in everything from Anchorman to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Even going back to the guy's rookie days with Clueless, Rudd has always been that co-star you can't get enough of and hope can one day become the leading man. Unfortunately, his agent agreed at the wrong time and sent him the script for Over Her Dead Body, an abysmal high-concept romantic comedy that actually co-stars American Pie's Jason Biggs, who has become a skidmark for every bad rom-com he's starred in over the last decade. In an effort to make Eva Longoria a movie-star, this piece-of-dung existed, and Rudd was its most painful-to-watch casualty. Like Ejiofor, thankfully, the man has recovered, proving he is in fact capable of picking strong lead role material with Role Models and I Love You, Man. If I were him, though, I'd find every existing print of Over Her Dead Body and stage a bonfire. Some things are best left forgotten.


Elisabeth Banks in Meet Dave (2008)/ Rosario Dawson in The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002): Signing on to a modern-day Eddie Murphy comedy has become the ultimate "taking a paycheck" job for some of Hollywood's most gifted comedic actresses. Later this year, the divine Kerry Washington will be the guy's latest victim, thanks to his next Brian Robbins-directed turd A Thousand Words. Until then, the worst example of Murphy's magnetic suck is a tie between Elisabeth Banks and Rosario Dawson, two ladies of equal awesomeness who couldn't avoid the pull. Dawson has the misfortune of being associated with Murphy's first genuine shitshow Pluto Nash, a science fiction debacle so atrocious that the mere mention of it inspires both guffaws and gagging. Six years later, Banks' Meet Dave bombed at the box office, a sacrificial lamb meant to remind us just how far Murphy's comedy has fallen. The sad part was that Meet Dave came at a high point in Banks' career, the same year as two of his biggest roles to date (Laura Bush in W. and the second title name of Zack and Miri Make a Porno). One can only hope that Murphy seeks out Katherine Heigl for his next project and leaves the likeable women alone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Antichrist trailer, using Willem Dafoe's natural creepiness to its advantage

Every now and then, courtesy of some cosmic alignment that pushes forth creativity and artistic focus, a trailer comes along for a new, under-the-zeitgeist genre film that backhands my senses and leaves me standing at attention. This here is one of those.

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, a film that I've heard rumblings about for months now but haven't been able to land on any exact plot or concept. Which is pretty much still the case after watching this first trailer, though the overall grim and hallucinogenic atmosphere cancels out any frustration or shoulder-shrugging. I've read that the story plays on a "What If" scenario of Satan creating our world, not God. So then, something to do with forces of Mother Nature wreaking supernatural havoc, possibly. Or a "crazy lady violently spiraling down her own wormhole" procedural, flipped on its head, even. Whatever the case is ultimately, you'll still have Willem Dafoe being Willem Dafoe, and that's never a disadvantage.

Check it:

Lars von Trier's Antichrist - Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

As IMDB puts it: A grieving couple retreats to their cabin 'Eden' in the woods, hoping to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse.

Well, that clears things up. Slightly.

This Lars Von Trier fella has earned heaps of goodwill with his past films, including Dogville and Dancer in the Dark, but unfortunately I've yet to see any of the Copenhagen, Denmark native's past works. Netflix will soon remedy that. Even though I can't personally attest to the man's skills, I can still conjur up massive excitement over a respected, visually-strong, critically-saluted filmmaker tackling the horror stuff, which doesn't happen very often. And when it does, you get films such as Frank Darabont's The Mist, or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Point made, and then some.

Antichrist will be making its way around the international film festival circuit throughout the year. Meaning, I won't get to see it until early 2010. Fucker.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reconsidering Observe and Report again....somebody stop me

A second viewing of Jody Hill's Observe and Report is on the horizon. I can feel it. Any comedy that leaves me questioning certain scenes and debating within myself over what was real and what wasn't deserves some more business, especially considering that I can't recall any other comedy that has had such a puzzling, fascinating effect on me.


Am I overthinking this film a bit much? You could say so, but then you'd be a bit off in your assumption. Hill has gone on record about his direct intention to leave the audience confused as to what was meant as "funny" or "disturbing," so he'd surely smile at this. Besides, when is ever a bad thing to overthink a film? Even shit ones? Okay, paying too much mind to Beverly Hills Chihuahua would be a waste. I'll give you that. But Observe and Report is so unique and line-snapping in its tone that the viewer almost has to enter the theater with a free mind and a punching-bag of a brain.

While I'm still unsure as to why I found so much comedic pleasure in a scene where a naked man is gunned down at point-blank distance, it's the entire section of the film that includes the shooting that has me wondering. [POSSIBLE SPOILERS WARNING] Once Ronnie Barnhardt gets out of jail and reads the postcard from his former partner Dennis, Observe and Report strangley goes from Debbie Downer to visceral triumph, which I found myself a bit angry about the other day. But now, after taking into serious account Hill's praise-filled name-dropping of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, I'm asking myself, "Were the final ten minutes of Observe and Report even real, or just some fantasy commencing in Ronnie's twisted mind?"


Like the final moments of Taxi Driver, there's no clear details seen that answer this question in Hill's film. I'm not exactly sure if that's something to compliment Hill for, or to criticize the guy for some lack of clarity. The tone of the film shifts so drastically during Ronnie's redemptive visit to his old workplace that it's impossible to not think that what we're seeing is a dream. Similar to how one could question Travis Bickle's survival after the shootout with Harvey Keitel's pimp and his goons. The crowd I saw Observe and Report with cheered during the final minutes, which must make Hill happy. The conclusion is totally designed to elicit some hooting and hollering, but it's still morally reprehensible enough to unsettle the more conscious filmgoer.

I doubt that this question will be answered after a second Observe and Report intake, though. The only way to ever get a closure-providing statement on the matter would be to ask Jody Hill himself, and I'm willing to be that he'd pull a David Lynch and leave his work open-ended and enigmatic. Even if you attack Hill for the film's tonal contradictions or blurry intentions, I'm subscribing to the belief that you got to respect the guy for applying such a non-comedy approach to the comedy genre. And (depending on your personal opinion, though mine is obvious) succeeding, at that.

The overthinking will never end.

Blame It (On the Undead)

I try to avoid TMZ at all costs. Simply typing the website address into my Explorer's toolbar and then clicking "Go" leaves me feeling dirty, cheap, voyeuristic. I'd rather get my celebrity gossip necessities from second or third parties, like this story.

Woody Harrelson seems to have attacked a paparazzi douchebag recently and smashed the photo-stalker's camera. Harrelson was with his daughter, so you could chalk this up to the man protecting the privacy of his kid, but then you'd be innocently wrong. Turns out, Harrelson thought he was in his very own George Romero flick:

The Actor's Defense: "I wrapped a movie called 'Zombieland,' in which I was constantly under assault by zombies, then flew to New York, still very much in character... With my daughter at the airport I was startled by a paparazzo, who I quite understandably mistook for a zombie."

Whether he was high or not when this quote was said, it's still pretty awesome. Clearly the lamest excuse ever, but great. I too live in a dreamworld where a zombie invasion could break out at any minute; because, if so, I'd be the world's biggest hero. I've seen all the films, read some of the Max Brooks books. Used to sleep with a tire-iron under my bed as a kid so that if any flesh-eaters came into my room at night I'd be able to split their melons open, like Night of the Living Dead's "Ben" on that farmhouse's front lawn. I even wrote two 75-page zombie horror novels before I entered high school.


I mean, come on? Obviously I'm well equipped. Even Woody Harrelson would have to salute the kid.


Quote and story first learned over at: JoBlo