Thursday, April 23, 2009

#131: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Released 2008

Last year saw the release of one of the most mesmerizing, haunting and unsettling films ever made about what it would be like to be loved by a vampire. And it had nothing to do with some veiled, Mormon, neutered vampire wish-fulfillment fantasy for undersexed middle-aged women.

Suck it, Twilight fans.

Much like Twilight, Let the Right One In is essentially the story of a member of the walking dead falling in love with a mortal human. What Twilight gets wrong is that this idea should be FUCKING TERRIFYING.

I will stop the Twilight comparisons right here, because Let the Right One In is working on such a higher level of atmosphere and storytelling (and let's not even get started comparing the acting) that the guilt by association factor could be crippling to any hesitant movie lovers reading this review.

Plus, the email and hate letters I'm going to get are going to be unbearable.

Anyway, Let the Right One In is a Swedish film, based on a 2004 Swedish novel, about a quiet and fairly odd 12 year old boy named Oskar. When Oskar isn't being picked on by the school bully or playing alone in the depressing courtyard of his apartment building, he's out back working his angst out by stabbing a tree with a knife, or secretly collecting a scrapbook of grisly local murders.

Those local murders start getting a lot more local with the appearance of a mysterious pair of new neighbors, a young girl and a doting old man. Oskar doesn't see much of them at first -- they keep the windows covered with cardboard, after all -- but he is soon joined on his nightly visits to the courtyard by a pale, somber young girl who may not be as young as she appears.

Director Tomas Alfredson has created a genre masterpiece here with a unique and subtly frightening film that somehow manages to evoke the undercurrents in The Omen and The Ice Storm. Its reach exceeds most horror movies, touching on themes of parental neglect, pedophilia and schoolyard retribution.

Everything about the movie is exquisite, from the cinematography to the icy soundtrack. I was only disappointed to learn after viewing the movie that the translated subtitles in the American release of the DVD were "dumbed down." Apparently, a recent re-release will fix this problem.

In addition to all of the perfect notes struck by Alfredson and his cast, there's a fantastic climax and a ending sequence that carries a massive sense of doom beneath its veneer of innocence. I can almost guarantee you that the upcoming American remake will change this and many other elements of Let the Right One In. Get over your fear of subtitles and check this version out before its too late.

For more on Let the Right One In:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site (U.S.)
- Buy the DVD.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

#130: Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone
Directed by Lexi Alexander
Written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Released December 5, 2008

Or, Why I love my brother, Reason #447:

My brother called and woke me up this afternoon (hey, I work 13 hour night shifts) for the explicit purpose of convincing me to rent and watch Punisher: War Zone immediately. The chat went something like this truncated version:

RYAN: Okay, I don't know if you're busy today, but you have to watch (the movie) as soon as possible. It may be one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

ME: Whoah, that's a bold statement. Worse than Ghost Ship?!

RYAN: WAY worse than Ghost Ship! (For some reason, Ghost Ship has become one of our gold standard bearers for the running title of Best Worst Movie Ever Made.) It may be the most violent movie I've ever seen, too.

ME: What? More violent than Rambo?

RYAN: It is at least AS violent as Rambo. Seriously, you've got to see this movie.

RYAN's WIFE, JAMIE: Why are you telling him to watch it if it's such a bad movie?

RYAN: Because bad movies are fucking awesome! Why doesn't anyone else get this concept?!

My brother was so enthused about the inherent badness of this new installment of The Punisher (aside from the terrible 2004 movie starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta, there was also an even worse flick from 1989 which starred Dolph Lundgren)that I immediately sought it out on the Xbox live video marketplace, plunked down my bucks and took in the awful glory.

How do they keep fucking up The Punisher so badly? It's not like it's a hard story to tell: war veteran Frank Castle and his family witness a mob hit and are executed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Papa Castle survives, goes underground and becomes an armed-to-the-teeth vigilante.

Fairly simple. Action Movie 101 kind of stuff. And yet here we are, 3 movies down and each one a ridiculous failure. The primary issue in all three films has been the miscasting of pivotal roles, namely the titular crime fighter. Thomas Jane probably got the character closest to realization, despite the fact that the dude is probably a hair shy of 5 feet tall.

This time around, Castle is played incredibly dead-eyed and charisma-free by Ray Stevenson, so good in HBO's Rome and so, so boring here. Even more disappointing is the work of Dominic West as head baddie/mob boss Billy Russoti (who adopts the nickname Jigsaw after a comically violent clash with the Punisher early in the movie). West played Jimmy McNulty on another HBO series, the acclaimed The Wire and rightfully became that show's shaky moral -- or amoral -- center. West's performance here is a massive disappointment, especially when you compare the believable accent he pulled off on The Wire to the Italian (more like SLIGHTalian) one he employs here.

For fans of laughably bad movies, this shitheap is a true gem of cinematic ineptitude. You might think, "What idiot wrote this piece of shit?" Here's how terrible Hollywood is: it took THREE idiots to write this piece of shit! It took three guys and a reference library of hundreds of Punisher comics to bounce around ideas before coming up with a final line of dialogue like, "Ugh, now I got brains all over me." I'd actually love to see a copy of the final draft, because I would really like to know if "cut to a montage of lots of guys loading lots of weapons" appears a dozen times on paper, or if all that garbage is just implied by the type of movie we're dealing with.

Did three guys all really collaborate and decide that having one of the bad guys menacingly say, "Yummy yummy yummy... in my tummy tummy tummy" was not actually hilarious? Or how about the part where Frank pulls an axe out of his buddy's chest, intoning, "Don't die on me!" Dude, your homey took 3 axe blows to the heart. He's going to die on you.

Oh, that reminds me about the violence! Wile E. Coyote would piss his ACME trousers if he saw some of the stuff that goes down here. At one point, Castle kicks a chair leg into someone's eye, and later on smashes a man's head like a melon with a single punch. He shoots a punk rock meth addict acrobat (I'm not making this up) out of the sky with a rocket launcher (I'm not making that up, either). After blowing off the kneecaps of one thug, he tosses him off a building, impales him on a fence, and then jumps off the roof to deliver a neck-breaking death blow with his foot.

It's actually pretty deplorable. That sound you just heard was Wile E. Coyote ingesting a stick of lit dynamite to try and forget it all.

Just totally fucking inept. At one point, Jigsaw and his gang tear apart a victim's home, searching for large sums of money in CD drawers and dish racks. These guys are terrorists aiding the annihilation of New York City, and yet here they are dicking around shooting the heads off stuffed animals like some astoundingly idiotic evil Daniel Stern from Home Alone.

The bad guys have so little instinct for self preservation that one literally shrugs when a grenade is rolled at his feet. He doesn't dive for safety or try to kick the grenade back. He just shrugs, as if he had been having some sort of existential crisis and just found his purpose in life with the delivery of said grenade.

Just awful. And yet, awesome.

I once dragged a buddy with me to see Deep Blue Sea, that shark movie with Samuel L. Jackson, simply to try and share the joy in schlock cinema that I had found with my brothers and friends back home. As we left the theater, he seemed shocked or dismayed.

"Wow," he said, embarrassed. "That was really bad."

"Fuck yeah it was," I replied. "Awesome."

For more on Punisher: War Zone:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Don't buy the DVD. I can think of tens of thousands of better things to do with that money. Maybe hunt down a few issues of the comics instead?

The trailer for Punisher: War Zone:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

#129: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by Gordon Dawson, Frank Kowalski and Sam Peckinpah
Released August 14, 1974

There's nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that's in it. Or you... or me.

From the disturbing Straw Dogs to the seedy The Getaway to his ultraviolent ode to the demise of the Old West, The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah's films have never been known to be packed with the sunny frivolity that puts dollar signs in the eyes of Hollywood executives.

And yet Peckinpah was, like almost all great directors, still beholden to the studio system. Never forget that movies cost money, and sometimes paying the paper can make a man do brutal, undignified things.

Coming not-so-hot on the trail of his 1973 box office bomb Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah unhinged and unencumbered by the need to please anyone but himself. You don't have to look hard to see the movie as a sort of twisted autobiography of Peckinpah and his dealings with producers, studio execs and film critics. Even Warren Oates, the film's lead actor, said that he fashioned his character and his appearance after the director.

Oates plays Bennie, a lowlife bartender in a tiny town in Mexico who is one day visited by a couple of henchmen employed by a powerful crime boss named El Jefe. The henchmen are looking for a man named Alfredo Garcia, who abandoned El Jefe's daughter while pregnant with his child. While the henchmen offer Bennie a substantial sum in return for the titular head of Mr. Garcia, he doesn't know that the real bounty is actually $1 million.

Bennie has his own secret: he knows that the Alfredo Garcia these henchmen are hunting for has actually been dead and buried for a month after a fatal car accident. Bennie and his wife (Garcia's former lover and the only person who knows where his body is buried) must get to -- and decapitate -- the body before knowledge of the accident gets out.

Bennie's macabre journey sets off a series of disasters and murders that sends the "protagonist" into a tragic downward trajectory. As Bennie slowly loses his sanity en route to the delivery of his package, one can't help but picture Peckinpah grinning behind the camera lens, perhaps thinking just how apt the metaphor of a man bringing his evil bosses their million dollar "baby" was to his situation.

The movie itself is something different. It moves at its own pace, meandering at times and shockingly abrupt in other moments, and is punctuated by a handful of bloody, jarring gunfights. Beware of any moments of idyllic beauty, because you know a guy like Peckinpah isn't just here to watch a pretty sunset. Look for a cameo from Kris Kristofferson as a creepy biker and potential rapist.

While surely not his finest hour (The Wild Bunch is heralded as a classic for a reason), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a unique and strange film with a layered, career-defining performance from Oates. The actor shares a couple of tender scenes with Isela Vega as his wife Elita. Without these few moments, the movie would have no heart to shatter in front of us.

Worth noting: the DVD doesn't have many bonus features, but it comes with an engrossing commentary track from a couple of Peckinpah scholars and friends which makes a second viewing worthwhile, especially in their debate about Peckinpah's controversial portrayal of women in his films.

For more on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD

The trailer for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: