Monday, December 15, 2008

#119: Horror Business


Horror Business
Written and Directed by Christopher P. Garetano
Released 2005

For some of my friends, this is all they'll need to know about the 2005 documentary Horror Business: as it opens, we join American Movie's Mark Borchardt as he begins filming a new movie, Scare Me. In case you're worried that Borchardt may not be the same well of hilarity that he was years ago, he immediately reminds you of his awesomeness by saying into the telephone, "Dan, dude, it's Mark. Thanks for being in my movie tomorrow. Are you down for that, or is your life in another direction?"

For those who need a little more description, the subject matter of Horror Business is quite literally about the business of making horror movies, and more specifically, independent horror movies. When I say "independent" here, I'm not even talking about lower budget stuff put out by studios like Miramax or those Rob Zombie movies... I'm talking about people making homemade flicks in the same way that George Romero or Herschell Gordon Lewis did when they began. I'm talking about the kind of movies that run the risk of emptying someone's bank account and destroying someone's life, yet they still get made.

I've mentioned before that I thought the most interesting layer of American Movie is the underlying element where, if you're paying attention, you go beyond laughing at Borchardt and his wacky cast of characters and realize that no matter how comical all of this shit seems, this guy really is pursuing a dream. Whether you think it's successful or garbage is beside the point.

If you go see some opening band at some club in your town and you think they suck, that's fine. But at least they tried, you know? Laugh as derisively as you want, but have you really put forth the effort into the things you wanted to do? Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut when you grew up... but did you at least try going to Space Camp, for fuck's sake? There are millions of people out there who might say, "Mark Borchardt? Dude is no Steven Spielberg." You know what? Fuck Steven Spielberg.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of crap among the good discussed in Horror Business. I may never want to sit through a movie like the ones Ron Atkins makes in Horror Business (they actually look quite terrible), but he's not hurting me one bit by continuing to do what he does. Plus, there's something awesome about scenes like the one from his Dark Night of the Soul where a man in a skull mask attacks his victim and calls him a "dick-lickin' punk."

For every bit of junk documented in Chris Garetano's movie, there are hints of real talent that Hollywood should look into, like David Stagnari, who seems to make the most of his tiny budgets in films like Catharsis. Maybe, however, Hollywood doesn't even deserve a fresh voice when they keep remaking classics like The Omen or Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One of the interview subjects in Horror Business puts things into perspective as he complains about the studio system and celebrity, saying he hates, "How they complain, how they gotta have a certain kind of water, they gotta have this in their trailer.... shut the fuck up and be in a movie!"

Ultimately, I think I was hoping that Horror Business would be a little more informative about the industry and about how the people in this film maintain a living. Instead, it's more of a "power of positive thinking" piece for the independent filmmaker looking for a reason to keep going.

For more on Horror Business:
- Movie information at IMDB.
- Buy the DVD from the doc's official site.

The Horror Business trailer:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

#118: Dead Man's Shoes


Dead Man's Shoes
Directed by Shane Meadows
Written by Paddy Considine, Shane Meadows and Paul Fraser
Released October 1, 2004

"God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that."

And so begins Dead Man's Shoes, a dark, dour and pretty bad ass revenge flick that combines Death Wish with just a hint each of Friday the 13th and The Sixth Sense. None of this comparison will make sense until you've seen the entire movie, but it's all pretty apt.

Paddy Considine (whose biggest role prior to this was probably as Joy Division's manager in 24 Hour Party People, though he has appeared in a handful of recognizable films) absolutely owns in a story he co-wrote with director Shane Meadows about a soldier named Richard who has returned home to avenge the abuse of his mentally disabled brother at the hands of a gang of drug dealers and thugs.

As Richard methodically doles out his revenge, we gradually learn details - via black & white flashbacks - of his brother's ordeal. As we learn more about the teasings and beatings, Richard's punishments gradually become more righteous.

Meadows makes great use of an offbeat soundtrack that features Smog, Calexico, Danger Mouse, Will Oldham, Aphex Twin, M. Ward and more. It's one of those rare movies that uses well-chosen popular music seamlessly, rather than being cut to look like a music video that has been crammed into the middle of a story.

The only thing a bit off for me was the melodramatic ending, where a major character makes a major decision that I'm just not sure I completely believe. Perhaps if I understood more about the sadness or pain going on inside this person, I could understand this choice, but from where I was sitting, it definitely seemed like a convenient way to end the film rather than a believable choice that a real human would make.

Regardless, I was immediately taken in by Dead Man's Shoes, a pretty basic film with a simple plot that was easily elevated above genre dreck like the Death Sentence by the acting and the craft put into it. I will be disappointed if Considine doesn't get more large roles like this in the future. Sure, he might have to keep writing them for himself, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

For more on Dead Man's Shoes:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Dead Man's Shoes trailer:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

#117: The Grand


The Grand
Directed by Zak Penn
Written by Matt Bierman and Zak Penn
Released April 4, 2008

To sum up The Grand is simple: think Best in Show or This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind but replace their subject matter (dog shows, heavy metal or folk music, respectively) with a championship poker tournament. If you know those other movies, then you know you're in for some improvisational comedy with an ensemble cast.

While actors like Hank Azaria, Dennis Farina, Jason Alexander, Chris Parnell, Michael McKean and Woody Harrelson (in full Roy Munson mode) are all likely to put a smile on your face, the inclusion of Gabe Kaplan (the one and only Mr. Kotter) as the father of "identical twins" David Cross and Cheryl Hines really sealed the deal for me. Plus, in a truly inspired and oddball casting choice, you've got directer Werner Herzog as The German.

A number of small stories intertwine throughout this mockumentary, but the story revolves around casino heir Jack Faro (Harrelson) trying to win the $10 million tournament to save his family's casino.

Some of the gags don't work (like the fake instructional Werbe home video), but other material, like the Hines/Cross relationship and Parnell's borderline autistic character Harold, are fun to watch.

The Grand isn't great by any stretch of the definition, but it's a good time, especially if you're into poker or have caught yourself watching one of those late night Texas Hold 'Em shows. Actually, if you're not a fan or player of the game, you'll probably be out of the movie by the second half, when the players make it to the last table in the tournament. I won't tell you who makes it to the table, but it falls on these actors to keep the movie amusing and entertaining... not an easy feat for a game of cards.

In an interesting twist, director Zak Penn decided to make the final table of this fictional tournament a real game, so the winner of the game -- and the end of the movie -- was truly up for grabs.

For more on The Grand:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official site.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Grand:

#116: Solaris


Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem)
Released March 20, 1972

In this blog's tradition of wildly swinging the door in the opposite direction, today we're going from the blatant stupidity of Jake Speed to a three hour Russian-directed and iceberg-slow meditation on loss, memory and psychosis.

I was drawn to this film after stumbling onto the 2002 remake, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney, on cable one night. While Soderbergh is definitely one of my favorite directors, he has had a few missteps. Therefore, I was unsurprised when I read reviews of his Solaris that found the movie boring and disappointing. Seeing it for myself, I was drawn in by the very things that reviewers were complaining about, most notably its lull-inducing, dreamlike pace.

In Tarkovsky's Solaris, a psychologist named Chris Kelvin is sent to a space station that has been observing a strange planet, the titular Solaris. Upon his arrival, the station (which has been observing the planet for decades but has been unable to make much scientific progress) is in disarray, with the few scientists who have remained in various states of paranoia or confusion. Kelvin also begins to catch glimpses of other inhabitants on the station, people who shouldn't be there -- and who would have had no way of getting there.

Is the station haunted? Is Solaris more than a planet?

There is a sequence about 35 minutes into the movie that is the kind of thing that will separate fans of traditional movie storytelling from those who have a little more patience with putting more thought into the images they are processing. It's essentially just a wordless segment of a character's car ride through streets and tunnels, but set to the sound effects of a space launch. Most viewers would watch this and think "Why is this in the movie?" Really, though, it's there to show how much this particular character's journey is still affecting him, so many years after he has returned to Earth. He's haunted, permanently scarred even, and this sequence is basically laying the groundwork for what we're about to see another character experience. In Hollywood, this sequence would have been hacked out, and probably wouldn't even end up on the DVD as bonus footage.

In the film, a psychologist named Kris Kelvin is sent to a space station that has been observing a strange planet, the titular Solaris. Upon his arrival, the station (which has been observing the planet for decades but has been unable to make much scientific progress) is in disarray, with the few scientists who have remained in various states of paranoia or confusion. Kelvin also begins to catch glimpses of other inhabitants on the station, people who shouldn't be there -- and who would have had no way of getting there. It's not long before Kelvin himself is experiencing visions.

Is he hallucinating? Is the station haunted? Is Solaris more than a planet?

Solaris is, in a strange way, a spiritual offspring of 2001. Rather than comment on man's progress, it's more about how mankind cannot cope with the things it cannot understand. There's also a sense that the further into the unknown mankind goes, the further into itself and its own mysteries it gazes. I'm tempted to go further, but I'm worried that my pontification will spoil the movie for anyone who might want to give it a shot.

It's unfortunate that Tarkovsky felt that Solaris was his least successful film, because it's a beautiful and unique thing to behold... one of those works of art that could really have made people feel different about the Soviets at its time of release and in the Cold War that followed.

For more on :
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Solaris trailer:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

#115: Jake Speed


Jake Speed
Directed by Andrew Lane
Written by Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford
Released May 30, 1986

This evening's choice was based on another recommendation, but not really a ringing endorsement so much as one of those, "This movie is so bad you're going to love it" movies.

If you know me at all, you know I love a good bad movie. Don't get me wrong: despite the fact that I write a blog about movies and truly appreciate cinema as a form of art, I am no snob. As I was growing up, my existence was basically Mystery Science Theater 3000. My older brother and I turned making fun of movies into a pastime, so much so that when we went to church with my family, my mother would have to separate us because we would crack up through the entire service. I couldn't even tell you how many times I've seen crap like Gotcha! or The North Shore. This tradition has continued on with some of my closest friends (I remember seeing The Firm with my friends Brian and Matt, and that night of yelling at the screen could possibly go down as one of the funniest nights since man learned to speak).

I could tell only 5 minutes into Jake Speed that I was missing out by not watching this movie with my brother or those friends. The movie starts with some young people being abducted during a trip to Europe, one of them being chased in one of those ridiculous movie chases where people run for miles from a criminal, never once going into a store, using a phone or even turning to any other person on the street and saying, "Hey, can you help me here?"

Then, we cut to a family dinner, where the family of the kidnapped girl are speaking with "government nitwits" about how to get her back. Enter crazy ol' grandpa, who suggests contacting fictional characters, including the titular pulp novel star, "Jake Speed." Turns out that crazy ol' grandpa isn't so crazy, because an associate of Mr. Speed, played by Dennis Christopher from one of my all time favorites, Breaking Away, has convinced the man to take on their case.

Mr. Speed's entrance is pretty much incredible. He rolls in looking like a drunken 1980s college professor and doesn't utter a meaningful line of dialogue for a few minutes. When he does, it's a howler: "Sometimes you gotta do things the hard way." "Why?" "It reads better."

My co-worker was right: this movie IS so bad it's good. It features all the great hallmarks of stupid movies that are worth watching, namely bad dialogue, good actors making bizarre choices (John Hurt is the main bad guy!), and absolutely retarded characters making idiotic choices (the female lead decides to hire Jake to rescue her sister based on the fact that she sees the word "speed" on a few signs as she stands on a street corner). Sometimes you can watch three or four actors on the screen an it looks like each one of them things they are in a different movie.

I lost count of how many times I said, "What the fuck?" watching this thing. The scene in the African bar when a dude danced to a bizarre 80s-meets-tribal African version of "Maniac" from Flashdance... the scene where Speed hits the brakes on his jeep and says, for no reason, "Damn. We're runnin' out of time" and then drives right into the front of a barbershop... lines like "Hey sweet meat, how are they hangin', hey baby!"

The best exchange comes as the female protagonist is calling Speed out as a fraud:

Margaret Winston: If you're such a big deal, why haven't they ever made a movie?
Jake Speed: Ever try to deal with those people?

Bad music, stupid characters, hilarious dialogue and absurdly random explosions. Jake Speed, you glorious turd.

For more on Jake Speed:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD? I'd say this one is more of a rental.

A dissection of the movie from The VHS Show:

Friday, December 5, 2008

#114: The Final Countdown


The Final Countdown
Directed by Don Taylor
Written by Gerry Davis, Thomas Hunter, Peter Powell, and David Ambrose
Released August 1, 1980

Here is a movie begging for a remake, and I'm not saying that because the movie is bad. On the contrary, The Final Countdown is a fun little sci-fi/action movie with a very interesting premise.

I guess I'll drop a SPOILER WARNING right here, even though any description of this movie pretty much gives this bit away from the beginning: The Final Countdown is about a modern day aircraft carrier that gets sucked into a time warp and deposited near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii hours before the infamous Japanese attack that sparked the United States' involvement in World War II.

Starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen, The Final Countdown presents the viewer with a great moral argument: with this insane firepower and modern technology at their hands, should the Navy intervene and easily defeat the Japanese, or should they hang back and avoid disrupting the course of history?

It's a great nail to hang a story from, but there's so much there to ponder that you almost feel shortchanged when the movie is over in less than two hours. I have no complaints about the movie, and Douglas and Sheen both do great work and seem like they're having a good time together. I'd say it's a pretty high compliment that I wanted so much more.

My proposition, I think, is a fairly clever one that could possibly work on a network like Showtime or HBO: make a 3 or 4 hour mini-series re-make of this flick, and use Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen (or hell, Emilio Estevez) in place of their fathers. It's a nice gimmick to work from, and the two guys are pretty much the exact ages their fathers were when making The Final Countdown.

With the extended running time, you could really flesh out the time travel aspect of the story (it is barely dealt with in the original movie, beyond a little "Hey man, I'm just sayin', we might have just travelled through time"). Have some fun with that, and while you're at it, go into a little more detail with the Navy crew's secretive observations of the events leading up to the bombings.

I have my friend Eric to thank for mentioning this movie to me years ago when I lived in Chicago. It kept popping in and out of my mind until I finally found it on Netflix, and I was glad I finally followed through with the suggestion. It's not one of the greatest films of all time, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying a fun, somewhat thought provoking little action movie. Plus, how can you go wrong with a Japanese bomber repeatedly attacking Charles Durning?

For more on The Final Countdown:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the 2 disc special edition DVD.

A portion of the "splash the zeros" scene: