Cinema Psycho

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Archive for January, 2005

House of Flying Daggers

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 21, 2005

Directed by Zhang Yimou/written by Yimou, Li Feng, Wang Bin/starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau/Sony Pictures Classics

If you read this site at all, or even look at the list of reviews on the main page, you may have noticed that I watch a fair amount of Asian films. I don’t see as many of them as I would actually like, but whenever I get the chance I make a point of checking them out. Some people may interpret this as some sort of cultural snobbery, or a dislike of American films, or even a misguided attempt to be “cool” and “edgy” in some way. None of that is the case. Truthfully, I don’t really care about any of that stuff. I don’t like Asian films because they’re “important” or “culturally significant”, even though some of them are. That really doesn’t necessarily motivate me to see a film.

No, I like Asian films because they KICK ASS. I like movies that kick ass. No, I take that back. I LOVE movies that kick ass. And House of Flying Daggers kicks ass all over the place. If you need a reason to go see it, that’s the absolute best one I can possibly think of. What, you’d rather see a movie that DOESN’T kick ass? Be my guest, but you’ll be missing out on a really cool film here.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie for you, so I’ll sum up the story quickly. It’s essentially a love story between Jin (Kaneshiro), a deputy for the royals in the ancient Tang Dynasty, and Mei (Ziyi), a blind dancer who may be an undercover agent for the House of Flying Daggers, an anti-government revolutionary faction. With the help of his friend and mentor Leo (Lau), Jin breaks Mei out of jail in hopes that she’ll lead him to their secret headquarters. Unfortunately, not everyone they encounter is in on this plan. Sparks fly between the two, and things become more complicated than they initially seemed.

Oh yeah, there are a lot of impressive fight scenes along the way. And yes, there are daggers, and they do fly (after being thrown). Just in case you were wondering.

That’s the basic story, boiled down to its essential elements – a cop and a criminal fall in love while on the run. Sounds simple enough, right? I’m certainly no expert on Chinese history, but thankfully you don’t have to be to follow what’s going on here. As long as you get the general idea, you’ll be fine.

But then about halfway through something happens that completely changes our perceptions of the whole movie. Of course I’m not going to tell you what that is. Then the movie becomes much more complex and interesting than it seemed at first, yet it all feels completely natural. It doesn’t come off like a contrived “plot twist” designed to throw us off or make us scratch our heads in puzzlement. As in the best films, everything seems like it’s happening exactly the way it was meant to happen.

Yimou is an acclaimed veteran director whose films have only recently begun to achieve major commercial notice in America. That’s partially because House is only his second martial-arts film, after the recently released (here, at least) Hero. You can certainly tell that Yimou’s been making movies for years, as the film looks incredible and practically sparkles with the kind of visual splendor and storytelling virtuosity that only a master filmmaker can pull off. But you wouldn’t know that it’s only his second martial-arts film. While Hero was certainly impressive in that department, House’s action scenes are absolutely stunning in a completely unselfconscious way. Where some directors feel the need to announce how cool their action scenes are, Yimou just goes for it here. The results may seem effortless, but Yimou and his team of action choreographers top themselves and just about everyone else who’s made this kind of film. We may have seen scenes like these before, but we’ve never seen them done better.

However, there’s a lot more to recommend here than just the action. Zhang Ziyi is just a monumental talent, and her performance here confirms that she’s one of the most beautiful and amazing actresses on the face of the Earth. She’s an absolute force of nature, a hurricane of physical grace and skill that simply cannot be denied. Her dancing scenes early in the film are just knockout incredible to behold, and you’ll completely understand Jin’s reaction to Mei after she performs for him. But it’s the “Echo Dance” that’s just knock-down, drag-out stunning. Ziyi puts all of Hollywood’s “girl power” wannabes to shame, and makes them look like the pampered little poseurs they really are. Even Uma’s Bride takes a back seat to what Ziyi pulls off here. If you’re not riveted by Zhang Ziyi, it’s time to get a seeing-eye dog.

Takeshi Kaneshiro is almost her equal as the carefree playboy Jin, and I say “almost” because no one on the planet could actually be her equal. Suffice it to say that he’s sufficiently charismatic enough that she doesn’t blow him off the screen, and that’s a pretty impressive achievement. Andy Lau is also quite good as the stalwart Leo, who progressively becomes more complex and interesting than he initially seems.

In fact, I’d say “deceptively simple” would be the perfect two-word description for this entire film. Yes, we’ve all seen love stories like this before, and we’ve all seen Chinese martial-arts films like this before. But Yimou knows that it’s not just WHAT you do, but the WAY you do it that matters. There will be inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here, and there are similarities on the surface. But House of Flying Daggers is its own beautiful, brilliant beast, a badass, action-packed film with a thundering heart.

It seems that this movie isn’t doing that well in its national release, and I think that’s a real shame. I know that there are lots of people who just won’t see subtitled foreign films under any circumstances. But I can’t imagine why the same people who lined up to see Crouching Tiger and Hero wouldn’t go to see this. I assure you, it’s worth your time and effort. But don’t go see it because it’s “important”. Go see it because it ROCKS. Hard.

**** 1/21/05

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January Blues; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Avoid the Bombs

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 18, 2005

I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions. I think it’s a silly tradition, as it presumes that a person can completely change their temperament and personality just because the date changes. No one ever sticks to them, certainly not me. But I have made one resolution that I plan to follow through on.

I resolve to see fewer bad movies this year.

Not that I see that many bad movies in theaters as it is. I try to avoid the ones that look like obvious stinkers. Since no one’s paying me to review movies, I can pick and choose like everyone else. Sometimes morbid curiosity will get me to see something with a troubled production history, like last year’s Exorcist: The Beginning, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life (and yes, that’s saying something). I wanted to see what they came up with after all that nonsense the studio pulled, reshooting the entire film with a different director, etc. I wish I had been able to restrain myself after viewing that abomination, but sometimes you just have to know what the deal is. (For the record, I’d still like to see Paul Schrader’s original cut, but I hope I’m never forced to sit through any of Harlin’s monstrosity ever again.)

Then there are times when a filmmaker I really respect and admire comes up with a flop. It happens to the best of them. Even when the advance buzz is so deadly that even the director’s mother wouldn’t pay to see these movies, I still have to see it for myself. “It can’t be that bad if so-and-so made it”, I always say to myself. “Maybe they’re all wrong, and I’ll be the only one who gets it.” This is how I find myself sitting through films like Alexander and Spanglish. Some of the worst films I’ve ever seen were made by really talented people. In this category of “interesting failures”, I just have to grin and bear it. Or more accurately, shift in my seat uncomfortably, check my watch every few minutes and wish I were somewhere else. But not go? Forget about it.

However, there are plenty of films out there that are nothing but a waste of time. I’ve only recently come to see it that way, strangely enough. I used to feel the need to catch up with EVERYTHING, even if only on video or cable. Naturally, I wound up sitting through a lot of crap over the years. Once in a while something surprises you – I skipped Along Came Polly in theaters based mainly on those awful trailers, but I saw it on HBO recently and thought it wasn’t half bad. But if I never see White Chicks, Bringing Down the House or Marci X, I think I can live with that.

As I’ve grown older and wiser, I now realize that there are some movies that are, in fact, completely skippable. Whereas I once felt a twinge of guilt over passing up the Charlie’s Angels and Tomb Raider sequels, I’m now completely guilt-free. If I didn’t like the original, I don’t need to see if the sequels improved anything. I guess that’s progress.

January is traditionally a month where studios unload their worst junk, the garbage that they couldn’t sell to the unsuspecting public any other time of year. If a major studio is releasing something in January, I’m immediately suspicious of it, even if it’s a movie that I’d go see in a heartbeat any other time of year. It’s like they’re trying to sell defective merchandise – it looks like it works, but SOMETHING must be wrong with it, right?

But, as we all know, bad movies are released all year round. And every year, there are plenty of bad movies that I have no intention of seeing in a theater. So, rather than give you the traditional Worst List of last year (since I rarely see 10 films in theaters that I hate enough to put on such a list, and if I do, it’s a REALLY bad year), or a list of all the movies I’m looking forward to in 2005 (as such a list would take forever to write and read – let’s just say I’m looking forward to a LOT of movies this year), I thought it might be beneficial to make a list of all the movies I intend to completely skip. These are the absolute dregs, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the waste. This is my tribute to the hackwork of the upcoming year, and hopefully I’ll never have to mention any of these lame-ass excuses for cinema ever again. So here we go:

Alone in the Dark – you’re kidding, right? I never saw House of the Dead, but if this is even half as bad as I’ve heard that one is, you’d have to put a gun to my head to make me pay to see this one. I like Slater and Dorff as actors, and Tara Reid doesn’t totally repulse me. But this is strictly B-movie, straight-to-video stuff. I happen to like that stuff, at 2:30 in the morning on cable. Not at my local cineplex.

The Wedding Date – a romantic comedy with Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney. Yeah, I’m already ready to pass. Another movie where an impossibly attractive woman just can’t get a date. When did romantic comedies become modern science fiction?

Hitch – dear God, if I see this trailer one more freaking time! I have literally seen this trailer before every film I’ve seen in the last three months. It’s more contrived romantic-comedy crap with Will Smith playing a “date doctor”. I’d be more impressed if he were a script doctor. (Rim shot!)

Son of the Mask – unnecessary sequel minus Jim Carrey, plus an animated baby equals potential disaster. We saw how well the Carrey-less sequel worked for New Line with Dumb and Dumber – like a lead balloon. I know some people who know nothing about movies, and even they were making fun of this one. New Line, you’re in serious trouble.

Man of the House – a Texas Ranger has to protect a house full of cheerleaders. Not a bad idea, for a softcore porn flick for Cinemax. For a PG-13 comedy, no. Did Tommy Lee Jones just want to hang out with young girls? Why else would anybody make a movie like this? Wasn’t this the title of a bad Chevy Chase movie already?

The Pacifier – a Navy SEAL has to protect a suburban middle-class family. Vin Diesel tries to do the Kindergarden Cop thing. From the acclaimed director of Bringing Down the House and The Wedding Planner. Not for me, thanks.

The Honeymooners – a classic sitcom reimagined as an urban comedy with Cedric the Entertainer (we’ll be the judge of that, thanks) as Ralph. I’ve got a better idea – how about Margaret Cho in a remake of I Love Lucy? Verne Troyer in The Jeffersons? How about not? Eric Stoltz is in this, which I find kind of sad.

Miss Congeniality 2 – time for a career makeover, Sandra. Make some indie films or something. Please. I’m begging you.

Guess Who – unnecessary remake plus Ashton Kutcher plus Bernie Mac plus horribly unfunny trailer equals me seeing something else that weekend. You know, I actually like Kutcher on That ‘70’s Show. That doesn’t mean I have to see lousy movies like this.

Beauty Shop – nope, not even the presence of my mega-crush Alicia Silverstone will get me to sit through this movie. And I actually saw Scooby-Doo 2 because she was in it. I know, it’s scary. But I’ve learned my lesson. Sorry babe, can’t do it.

Rebound – Martin Lawrence is…never mind, you lost me already.

King’s Ransom – Anthony Anderson, the unfunniest man on the planet, gets a starring vehicle. Tim Meadows must be pissed.

XXX: State of the Union – unnecessary sequel minus Vin Diesel plus Ice Cube equals me wishing Arnold would leave politics and go back to action films. The trailer actually doesn’t look that bad, but I’m sorry, rappers do not make good action stars. Except Will Smith, and he was closer to Debbie Gibson than Ice-T anyway.

Monster-in-Law – Jane Fonda came back to acting to play the heavy in a Jennifer Lopez vehicle? Sometimes you have to know when to stay away.

Mindhunters – I was curious about this long-delayed Renny Harlin thriller, until I suffered through Exorcist: The Beginning. Now I don’t care if this ever comes out, and I’m not convinced it ever will. Just send it to DVD already.

House of Wax – I really like the original Vincent Price flick, but Paris Hilton’s in this, so I’m boycotting it on principle. It’s bad enough we have to see her face everywhere, I’m certainly not going to pay for the privilege. Seriously, can we just stop enabling this untalented, unaccomplished, unexceptional media whore? She’s going to be remembered for only one performance, and it wasn’t even particularly good. Get off the phone, woman!

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – just based on the title alone. I mean, come on. Seriously.

Herbie: Fully Loaded – I actually have fond memories of watching the old Herbie movies as a kid. I’d like to keep them intact. Does the title refer to Lindsay Lohan?

The Dukes of Hazzard – come on, does anyone actually think this is going to be GOOD? You’ve got to be kidding. The presence of not one but TWO reality-TV “personalities” plus the source material suggests otherwise. Yeah, it’s going to be huge, but NASCAR is huge, too. That doesn’t mean I have to watch it.

Deuce Bigalow 2 – to satisfy all those unanswered questions from the first movie.

The Perfect Man – Hillary Duff sets up Mom Heather Locklear, who just can’t find the right guy. Heather Locklear! Apparently the perfect man is someone who will take her to lame movies like this. I guess I’m crossed off the list. Maybe she was having a hard time finding someone wouldn’t hit on her daughter.

Roll Bounce – Sniff Eat. Smell Blue. Taste Work. Avoid This.

That about covers it for now. I’m sure there will be plenty more to add to the list as the year goes on. The sad part is, I might end up actually seeing a few of these despite my better judgment. I really, really hope not. Talk to you soon!

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Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 14, 2005

Directed and written by James L. Brooks/starring Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman/Columbia Pictures

Wow…when exactly did James L. Brooks turn into Garry Marshall?

I know I normally start my reviews with a quick plot summary, but frankly thinking about the details of this movie for much longer might cause cranial bleeding. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty much the movie you imagine it would be from the ads: a dysfunctional, upper-class white family hires a new Mexican maid (Vega) whose very presence “turns their lives upside down”. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stick your finger in your eye.

Now imagine that movie if it were made by Martians who gained their knowledge about human behavior by watching bad sitcoms and Spanish soap operas without subtitles. Then imagine they made that movie with a script translated into English from Swahili. And cast actors who were deathly afraid of contacting a virus from each other. That’s as close to the experience of watching Spanglish as I can get with mere words.

Seriously, I’m truly amazed that I’ve actually seen some half-decent reviews for this utter debacle, and that people were even talking up its Oscar potential (before they saw it). There isn’t one iota of recognizable, believable human behavior in this entire waste of time and effort. In fact, to compare it to sitcoms is an insult to sitcoms. Even the most cringe-worthy episode of Full House is more worthwhile than the entire 128 minutes (ouch) of Spanglish. And I really, really hate Full House.

Where did Brooks go wrong? I don’t even know where to begin. We could start where the movie does, with a bizarrely misguided narrative conceit in which the maid’s young daughter tells the story through a college application. Besides the fact that most of the movie is told from her mother’s perspective, not hers, and includes many scenes in which she is not included and could not have witnessed? It also does nothing to illuminate the story in any way (other than to completely confuse whatever issues Brooks thought he was dealing with) and is obviously way too long to be included in any college application. We also never even find out if she got accepted (unless I missed something at the end, between furiously checking my watch and wishing I’d gone to see something else, ANYTHING else, instead). If this was supposed to tie everything together somehow, or to help the movie make a point, it completely fails. I have a sneaking suspicion that all this was added at the last minute to clear up whatever the hell this nonsense is meant to be about. But it only serves to muddy the waters.

Then there’s the movie’s treatment of its Hispanic characters, which is actually kind of offensive in its refusal to treat them as anything but virtuous, righteous saints who possess so much more down-to-earth wisdom than us Anglo-Saxon heathens. It’s a kind of reverse condescension, in that it goes so far out of its way to avoid potentially negative stereotypes that it becomes its own mirror-image stereotype that is equally laughable. Brooks obviously doesn’t want to be accused of political incorrectness, so he paints Flor (Vega) as an impossible superheroine instead of a real human being. God forbid she be seen as anything other than the nicest, smartest, most capable human being on Earth. Never mind that we rarely see her doing any actual work – that would be insensitive, after all. I’m not even Hispanic, and I felt condescended to on their behalf.

This is, of course, meant to contrast with the deeply dysfunctional upscale white family, the Claskys. They are portrayed as some subspecies of howler monkeys, screeching and clawing at each other for no apparent reason I was able to discern. The husband and father, John (Sandler) is a major-league chef with a strange fear of success (nice problem to have); whereas his wife Deborah (Leoni) has apparently crossed the border from troubled neurotic to full-blown raging bitch monster from Hell. They have an overweight daughter, a young son who’s barely in the movie, and Deborah’s former jazz-singer mother (Leachman) who lives with them for some unknown reason and is only there to dole out sage advice to the other characters whenever the plot deems it necessary.

So OK, point taken; white American families are screwed up. Got it. But this particular family is insanely unconvincing. I never believed for a second that any of these people were related to each other, or in fact had ever had any interaction with each other before the camera began to roll. From the very first scene in which they are introduced, none of them ever seem like real people as individuals, nor do they coalesce as a realistic family. Mostly they seem like actors desperately struggling to get through overwritten dialogue before someone on the set begs them to shut up already.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Leoni’s performance as the shrieking, hypercritical matriarch, and indeed Deborah seems like someone who should be institutionalized immediately for the good of society rather than a simple screwed-up neurotic. But I don’t think that’s Leoni’s fault – I think she was just playing the character as written. It’s no less awkward than the rest of this terribly misguided movie. Brooks seems to think that anyone with such deep character flaws must be portrayed as an unhinged, psychotic wreck, just as anyone who is essentially “good” must be portrayed as though they should have a halo and wings. It’s an awful miscalculation, but you can’t blame the actress alone for that. Leoni doesn’t make us like Deborah, but we’re not supposed to. It would have helped if we understood her. We don’t, not for a second.

By contrast, Sandler is relatively laid-back and sympathetic as her husband, a “normal” guy grappling with the fact that the person he loves has somehow transformed into a berserk she-beast. Yet he still seems miscast here, and I don’t have anything against the guy as a performer. He just seems stranded by the material, like the rest of the cast. At times he resembles an odd cross between Gabe Kaplan and Al Pacino here, and it’s exactly as weird as it sounds. Paz Vega is apparently a huge star in Spain, and she’s gorgeous and talented. I look forward to seeing her in a good movie someday.

The curious thing about this movie is that while I sat through it, I kept feeling like there must have been another, better movie happening offscreen, or maybe on the cutting-room floor. When the characters spend 3/4 of the running time pissed off at each other for no apparent reason, and by the time you find out why you no longer care…there’s a big problem. I’ve read rumors about re-edits at the last minute on this film, but I can only review the movie that’s on the screen, and it’s just an intolerable mess. What’s worse is that nothing that happens in it is the least bit amusing, and I’m completely at a loss as to why it was supposed to be. I can honestly say that I didn’t laugh once, and even the worst comedies can force at least one laugh out of me. Not this one. When Thomas Haden Church showed up out of nowhere (in a part that must have been mostly cut, I assume), I was hoping someone had slipped in a reel of Sideways for us poor unfortunate souls who were suffering through this, but sadly that was not the case.

What was Brooks trying to accomplish here? What made him think that anyone would care about a story that’s as phony as a three-dollar bill? And what possessed him to end the film the way he did? What was his “message” here – that people of different cultures and backgrounds CAN’T get along and live together? I seriously doubt that’s what he intended this movie to say, but that’s the way it plays. I suspect that Brooks originally intended to make a film about the Claskys through the eyes of their maid and her daughter, then halfway through decided that Flor was more interesting and tried to shape the movie around her. You can’t fault him for his instincts, but the result is a movie that makes Alexander look focused and coherent.

In all fairness, there were four middle-aged ladies in the audience who apparently loved the movie, as they laughed throughout the entire misbegotten thing. I can’t imagine why, but maybe they were Brooks’ target audience – upper-class white women who felt better about hiring illegal immigrants and neglecting their children through the experience of watching this. That’s as good a theory as any other I could possibly come up with. Or maybe they were Martians.

* 1/14/05

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UnConventional (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 11, 2005

Directed by Michael Furno, Daniel F. Doyle/starring Tiffany Shepis, Gunnar Hansen, Bob Gonzo, 42nd Street Pete/with appearances by Sid Haig, David Carradine, Tom Savini, Candy Clark, Linda Blair, Bill Moseley, Steve Railsback, Michael Jai White, Tanya Roberts and more /Revolution Earth Productions

A documentary about the 13th Annual Chiller Theatre Horror Convention in New Jersey.

I got a free copy of this through sinister, nefarious means, and watched it knowing very little about it beforehand. Apparently it’s not available in stores to rent or buy, but if you’re interested in buying a copy, go to I’m not getting paid to plug this movie or anything, I’m just telling you where to go if you want to see it. I contacted the people at Revolution Earth about reviewing the movie, and they were very nice about it, so check them out if you’re interested.

Basically this is a low-budget but interesting document of what’s considered one of the legendary Horror Conventions. Strangely enough, it’s executive-produced by Danny Aiello (!) of all people. Nothing wrong with that, just thought it was odd.

The movie opens with old footage from Chiller Theatre, which seems to be a local New Jersey program in the style of the old late-night horror-movie hosts. (Why don’t local TV stations do this anymore? Someone really should bring it back. It’s a lot more fun than those damn infomercials.) The convention was, of course, named after the program and its host, Zacherley, is the guest of honor every year.

I’ll be honest – based on this opening, I was expecting the movie to be rather cheesy and lame. I was pleasantly surprised to find that’s not at all the case. UnConventional can be considered the horror equivalent to Trekkies – an entertaining, eye-opening documentary about B-level icons and the rabid fanatics who love them. And the brief clips from Chiller Theatre and other sources are often used as punctuation marks to bizarrely humorous scenes. So hang in there and you’ll be rewarded.

The film covers the event from various perspectives, from the organizers and crew (our narrator, “42nd Street Pete”, is one of the main guys behind the event), to the guests of honor, to the often bizarre but fascinating people who attend to interact with their heroes. Having never been to a horror convention myself, but having attended horror-related events in the past, I thought this was generally an engaging and well-rounded look at the process of putting on one of these events, and what the experience is like for everyone involved. And of course it also serves as a pretty good advertisement for the Chiller Convention.

We spend most of the running time with one of the four main subjects: Shepis, a current B-horror “scream queen” and featured performer in such films as Bloody Murder 2, Delta Delta Die and Death Factory (I’ve never seen any of them, but apparently lots of people have); Hansen, who made his mark 30-plus years ago as Leatherface in the original classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Gonzo, a jovial but schlubby stand-up comic who makes extremely low-budget horror flicks on the side; and the aforementioned Pete, who observes the proceedings with a bemusement that only a veteran of the scene could provide.

Shepis is also a co-producer on the film, so she naturally gets an inordinate amount of screen time. She apparently attends the convention every year, and takes the opportunity to revel in the attention from her devoted fans and schmooze with the slightly more famous guests (even flirting with David Carradine!). As she herself says in the film, actors at her particular level of cult celebrity don’t often get this kind of appreciation, so you can definitely understand why she enjoys it so much. And it probably doesn’t hurt her reputation with her fans that she spends so much time interacting with them, and exudes a natural, playful bad-girl sexiness that commands attention even when surrounded by better-known stars. As much as she seems to exult in the “scream queen” label, one has to wonder if it won’t stifle any legitimate shot she may have as a mainstream actress. Shepis may not be the next Dame Judi Dench or anything, but she can definitely work a room. People have conquered Hollywood with far less.

Hansen, for his part, approaches the event with a more workmanlike attitude. Another convention, time to make the donuts. He seems genuinely appreciative of his fans, but he also seems a bit puzzled by the extreme lengths some of them go to express how much they worship him. You can’t really blame him when you see some of these people. I mean, I dig the movie too, but that kind of devotion is a little scary to witness. (Based on this movie, there could be a daytime talk show devoted to “Girls Who Love Leatherface” – why can’t I meet someone like that?) Yet Hansen also seems completely uninterested in furthering his career or even putting his name out there. He’s there specifically for the fans that want to meet him. He knows his place in history, and he’s satisfied with it. That’s very cool.

Bob Gonzo, on the other hand, is pretty much the exact opposite of that. He’s like an old-time carnival barker, hawking his wares shamelessly with the help of a trio of scantily clad young ladies with the collective moniker of “Gonzo’s Gorgeous Girls”. He boasts that his latest shot-on-video opus cost a total of $875, and proudly proclaims that one of his actresses will do anything for him, even put her head in a toilet. Gonzo (whose name suggests a completely different type of movie) comes off as a wanna-be working an angle, an average joe who figured out a way to use his video camera to hang out with hot chicks. The odd thing is that it seems to actually be working. More power to the guy, but after seeing a few clips from his movies here, I wouldn’t want to actually sit through one. When somebody actually steps up and buys a copy of one of his exploitation epics, you can’t help but laugh and wonder why. (An aside to “Gonzo’s Girls”, assuming they’re not tied up in the basement – you know you’re not REALLY in show business, right?)

Then of course there are the fans, and they’re a varied and fascinating lot. They seem to run the gamut of obsessed fanatics and genuinely freaky people, from a chatty “gender-switcher” to the aptly named Choker Charlie, who makes a habit of accosting the starlets and coaxing them to pretend to physically abuse him. But my favorite of these characters were the Wilburs, a seemingly “normal” middle-class couple who see the event as their opportunity to make close personal friends of Hollywood’s B-list. Or as they put it, “we’re not stalking, we’re socializing!” Even Linda Blair looks like she’s scared of being drugged by them and chained up in their personal dungeon.

If it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on these people, I really don’t mean to be. They’re just insanely funny to watch, and I think even they must be aware of that on some level. (Well, maybe not Choker Charlie.) But you have to give them credit, at least they care passionately about something. And where most mainstream people would think of hardcore horror fans as a grim, dour bunch, UnConventional proves that they can get drunk, sloppy and reckless with the best of them. There’s a long party scene here that rivals any gathering I’ve ever seen for the amount of sexy young women (where DO these horror-loving hotties come from?), alcohol consumption and general rude behavior. But there’s also a real sense of camaraderie among them, a feeling that once a year they can spend time with people who have the same interests and love the same things that they do. That’s not something I would ever dismiss easily.

Unfortunately, the one thing the movie lacks is any sense of perspective on the subject matter at hand. We’re never really given any insight as to WHY these people are so passionate about horror films, what exactly it is about them that affects their lives so deeply. If you’re already a horror fanatic, you probably already understand it, but I think a novice to the genre would be greatly served by the addition of such information. Some people will never get it, of course, no matter how much you explain it to them. But I think more interviews with the fans would have been beneficial to those with an open mind who are genuinely curious about them. I like a good horror flick as much as the next guy, but even I don’t spend every waking moment of my life thinking about them. The level of single-minded devotion on display here is pretty much foreign to me. I thought I personally knew some dedicated hardcore horror fans, but some of these folks are just…wow. (God knows I have my own bizarre obsessions, but they generally involve cute actresses whom I’ll never meet, and even if I did I wouldn’t ask any of them to choke me, that’s for damn sure. Even I’m not THAT far gone. I don’t think…)

Ultimately though, I still think UnConventional is a valuable document of a legitimate subculture that you don’t see on film too often. It’s not just funny and entertaining, but like the best documentaries, it’s informative and genuinely eye-opening. If you’re a horror fanatic, you’ll want to see it just to enjoy watching people like yourself on film. If you’re not, you should see it to get a fascinating glimpse of a world you may not have known existed. And either way, watching this will make you want to head to New Jersey for the next Chiller Convention so you can join in the fun.

The DVD contains several deleted scenes, as well as the opening of the old Chiller Theatre TV show and a couple of strangely retro computer-animated videos by the Dead Elvi, a kind of horror-surf rock band who perform in the movie. While the back of the case reads, “Tons of Extras”, I wouldn’t actually go that far. (It only took me 2 1/4 hours to watch the movie and everything on the disc.) But it’s still well worth checking out if you can get a copy. Hopefully they’ll make this more widely available at some point, because I think a lot of people would really enjoy seeing it.

*** 1/11/05

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 4, 2005

Directed by Wes Anderson/Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach/starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum/Touchstone Pictures

A famous oceanographer goes through a midlife crisis and searches for the shark that killed his friend.

Before you read this review, I think it’s important to know where I’m coming from in regards to Wes Anderson. I’m not a huge, ranting-lunatic fan of the guy’s films, but I’m not one of his detractors either. I have at least liked all of his films and loved at least one of them (The Royal Tenenbaums, which I’m convinced is a misunderstood masterpiece, though I’ll be damned if I could tell you why). So when I started seeing negative reviews and dismissive mentions of his latest film, I immediately thought, “oh, well obviously they didn’t get it. They don’t understand his unique vision and deadpan sense of humor.”

Then I saw the movie, and I realized that I didn’t get it either. Oops.

The Life Aquatic is not a really bad film. I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster like some people have. There’s enough to like in this movie that it’s almost worth recommending for an adventurous moviegoer. But ultimately, I walked out disappointed in it. It’s not because I had high expectations. It’s because I had any expectations.

The funny thing is, it’s actually interesting to watch for about half an hour or so. Many of the Anderson trademarks are there: eclectic ensemble cast, detailed production design, cool semi-obscure rock song choices. It feels completely like an Anderson film, but with a refreshing retro-futuristic look. So far so good.

Then you realize that it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, that you don’t care about any of the characters, and there doesn’t seem to be any point to anything that’s happening on screen. Uh-oh. It just slowly starts to sink, like a scuttled ship, and it never quite recovers.

The entire movie seems unfocused and scattered, like most of the scenes were written as an afterthought. It’s like they had an idea – “let’s make a movie about an oceanographer, like Jacques Cousteau!” – and never bothered to actually develop that idea into something worth watching. It all feels like a giant shrug, 105 minutes of “well, that happened.”

The supposed theme of the movie isn’t really developed at all. We see Steve Zissou (Murray) going through what is apparently meant to be a midlife crisis, but it’s never resolved in any kind of satisfying way. He seems like the exact same guy at the end of the movie that he was at the beginning. I’m not saying that every movie has to have its lead go through some standard bullshit three-act “character arc” that completely changes his personality (we all know how unrealistic that is), but c’mon, give us some reason for having sat through all this. What’s the point? If he didn’t learn anything about himself, what are we supposed to learn from him?

It doesn’t really help that Zissou, for much of the movie, is an unapologetic, careless bastard who occasionally says something funny. I mean, throughout the movie he makes stupid, reckless decisions that lead his crew into potential danger and catastrophe. This is the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for? No wonder he’s going through a midlife crisis – he’s a complete fuck-up! And his motive of revenge against an unthinking animal (OK, mammal, fish, whatever) hardly justifies almost getting his entire crew killed.

But this is all meant to be a big laugh somehow. What’s so amusing about an idiot leader who ignores the warning signs of impending disaster and risks the lives of his loyal followers? (Come to think of it, this may have been meant as a political allegory – but I doubt it was that well thought out.) Then when Murray suddenly turns into an indestructible Rambo-like hero in “action scenes” (and I use that term loosely) that play like a bad SNL spoof of ‘70’s Quinn Martin-style TV cop shows, and none of this is revealed to be a dream or fantasy sequence, you start to wonder what the hell Anderson and company were thinking with this stuff. It may have been an attempt at absurdist humor, but it’s really just head-scratchingly weird. I mean, come on…really? This is what they came up with? That’s the best they could do?

That’s exactly how random and arbitrary most of this movie feels. It’s the kind of movie that you could probably watch the scenes on DVD in random order, and you’d come out with something almost as coherent and satisfying as what takes place on screen. It’s not a case of defying standard plot expectations – it’s a case of Anderson and Baumbach making bizarre story decisions that just don’t quite work.

I’ll avoid revealing any major spoilers here, but to give you an idea of how oddly disjointed this movie feels: towards the end something bad happens to one of the major characters (I won’t say what or who). Instead of being shocking or even surprising, it just comes off as…misguided and pointless. It’s so completely out of nowhere that it’s not even moving (since we don’t care about any of the characters anyway). It’s just…puzzling.

Why did this have to happen to this character? It doesn’t seem to fit with the theme of the movie at all. It doesn’t provide any insight or illumination on anything that happens. It just feels like an arbitrary choice, like they pointed at the cast list and said, “that one”. Again, what’s the point? Yes, I get that the whole voyage was motivated by a similar event. But that just points out the folly of the entire enterprise, doesn’t it? (And THEN – they never achieve what they set out to do in the first place!) How was this character’s sacrifice meaningful in any way? It’s just pointless, and by the “triumphant” ending it’s played as irrelevant.

Honestly, a true “happy ending” to this movie would’ve been for Team Zissou to be shut down permanently and its leader brought up on criminal charges. But that wouldn’t be “funny”, now would it? If it sounds like I’m taking all this way too seriously, I’m really not. The movie really is this baffling. It’s like rooting for the Titanic to hit that iceberg.

It doesn’t help that much of the cast seems stranded by the material. Wilson seems to be concentrating on keeping up his odd Southern accent too much to actually be engaged by his character. As dead-on perfect as she was in The Aviator, Blanchett seems completely mannered and affected here. Huston, Dafoe, Goldblum, Bud Cort – these talented actors are all just wasted. They don’t get to actually DO anything that might be considered funny or interesting. They’re just there as quirky presences, like pieces of furniture that occasionally talk.

And then there’s Murray. He’s the whole show here, and it’s his exasperated drollness that keeps the movie from completely collapsing under its own weight. He gets the few scattered laughs there are to be had here. Listen, I grew up watching the guy, and I love him like you love your weird uncle. But these depressed, morose middle-aged characters he’s been doing are already becoming tiresome. We know he’s capable of playing this role – he did it to perfection in Lost in Translation. Does that mean he has to be stuck playing Mr. Sad Clown for the rest of his career? I’m starting to miss the classic Murray, the sarcastic but friendly slacker, the supreme wiseass with a twinkle in his eye. Can we get that guy back, please? Once in a while? Or at least give him something else to do.

Anderson doesn’t seem to grasp that there’s a difference between saying, “this is a movie about an oceanographer going through a midlife crisis”, and actually making a movie that DEALS with that subject. A movie that tells you what it’s about, and then does nothing about it, is not the same as making a movie ABOUT something. The whole storyline seems like a backdrop for Anderson to make jokes that five people will get. Which is fine, but why bother to tell a story at all then? His heart’s obviously not in it.

It’s not like you actually learn anything about oceanography from watching this film. Since it all takes place in Anderson’s absurd little fantasy world where the rules of logic apparently don’t matter, nothing has to be “real”. Which means he can just make shit up whenever he wants, and doesn’t have to do any research about the subject. If you’re looking to experience a fantastical dream world, I suppose the movie does the job. But I would’ve actually liked to see how this stuff is really done, what these ships and designs actually look like, how professionals in this field do their jobs. I know it’s a comedy, but come on, how many movies about oceanography are there? They could’ve just as easily made Zissou a fictional film director struggling to make a sci-fi epic on location. A guy shows up claiming to be his son, a reporter comes on the set to write an article, the crew gets sick of him and threatens to mutiny…you’d have pretty much the same movie.

Yeah, Henry Selick’s animation is really cool and creative. But there are probably some fascinating things down in the real ocean. Why make up stuff when you don’t need to?

I’m sure that Anderson’s die-hard fans will shake their heads at all this and say, “he just didn’t get it.” That’s fine. I wouldn’t blame them. But you should know that I didn’t wander into this movie by mistake. I’m exactly the target audience for a film like this. I’m one of the minority who’d go to this movie over a Meet the Fockers or a Fat Albert. And if I had to do it over again, I’d make that same choice. I’d much rather see something that at least tries to be different than the usual easy-laughs, cheap-sentiment claptrap. I don’t regret seeing it. I just wish it had been better.

I don’t think I’d want Anderson to abandon his signature style and start making movies about buddy cops or talking dogs. He obviously has a unique vision, and I admire that. But even the greats strike out every now and then. It’s not a crime. I sincerely hope the next one’s as good as we’ve come to expect.

Until then, we’ll have to settle for a guy singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. I don’t know what it means or why it’s in there, and I probably never will. Nice try though.

** 1/4/05

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