Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Recent viewings

Publisher's note: November was admittedly not my best effort. The combination of football and a new work schedule really got me off track. I appreciate your patience while I try and get back into my groove.

Shut Up and Sing
I was able to attend a sneak preview of this on Sunday, and it blew away my high expectations. I expected a lot from this not just because I'm a closet Dixie Chicks fan (their version of 'Landslide' is one of my favorite songs from the past few years) but also because the subject matter is something that inspires such a continental divide. On the surface it is a documentary about the Dixie Chicks, but the main theme is about the hard-headedness of America. The cameras of 'Shut Up and Sing' were there in London 2003 to capture the infamous concert when lead singer Natalie Maines uttered their undoing: 'We're ashamed the president is from Texas.' As their footage from the concert will attest -- the line was said in fun, going along with the anti-war sentiment in London at the time, but of course that's not how it was interpreted stateside.

'Shut Up and Sing' also serves as a poignant observation on how much the nation has changed since the beginning of the Iraq war. When Maines said that line, the U.S. was just getting ready to invade Iraq, Bush's approval ratings were still in a post-9/11 climb and many thought the military action in the Middle East would be brief. You have to wonder if the same thing happened today if anyone would really care. And you really have to question what the reaction would have been if it was a group of male performers who made the comment. It's much easier in this country to reap that kind of hate and vengeance on women.

Tangents like the above are not present in 'Shut Up and Sing,' the filmmakers wisely let their vast and interesting footage do the talking -- straying away from sit-down interviews and narration. The documentary is at its best showing the strategizing from the band and its inner circle about how it will fight the impending media firestorm -- eventually concluding that they'll stick with their guns. Many other issues are touched on -- such as the inner workings of the record industry and the marketing of a band through today's convoluted system of radio webs -- but it's the raw emotions captured that really allow 'Shut Up and Sing' to soar above most recent pop culture documentaries. Moments such as Emily Robison weeping at the thought of the cross Natalie must bear because of her comments (saying through her tears that she would walk away from the band if it was too much for her friend) are genuine and will stay with you.

Casino Royale
Yay! Another late review! I realize this has been praised as the best Bond in whatever, but I'll take it a step further: it's impossible to even compare it to other Bonds, because it is an entirely new franchise now, it's been reinvented and simply rocks in every way. It seems that Martin Campbell went out of his way to leave out every conceivable Bond cliche which has linked all the movies together -- there are virtually no gadgets, no over-the-top WTF intro (it's very quick and actually has to do with the rest of the movie), no lavish title sequence (it's stripped down and colorful), even the song is completely different (an annoyance for me actually -- not one of Chris Cornell's better songs). Since there was no reliance on these tired devices, 'Casino Royale' is able to have an intricate (but not intentionally confusing, i.e. 'The World is Not Enough') plot, amazing stunts not involving a BMW turning into a robot dinosaur and some scenes of absolutely brutal violence and tension.

And then there's Daniel Craig. My God. I said when he was cast that American audiences would love him because he's a British Steve McQueen and that was just me talking about his looks, it even involves his acting. McQueen has been called one of the best prop actors ever and I think Craig has a similar skill (the poker scene in particular). Who needs Pierce Brosnan's smirking, daffy English clown when you can have the one-inch-out-of-control badass actions and brutish chicanery of Craig?

I hated every Brosnan Bond after 'Goldeneye' (great fun directed by Campbell) -- the theme in those movies seemed to be to push the technology quotient with each film, and as a result progressivly got dumber and dumber (really, AN INVISIBLE CAR?? We're supposed to believe that?). The over-the-top nature had to be topped with each succeeding movie, resulting in the braindead embarrassment of a videogame Bond windsurfing in the Arctic in 'Die Another Day.' I was convinced the series was dead after that last one, now I can't wait to see what they can do with this model again (assuming they do stick with the Campbell-Craig model, they could easily screw it up again).

Here's a movie I had wanted to see for quite awhile, one of Paul Schrader's first films, it uses the fear of the exploding sex industry to great effect in what is essentially a re-telling of The Searchers. Schrader, who also wrote the movie, gives us Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), a midwestern businessman who keeps his house full of his church members. We catch glimpses of his daughter Niki, who seems somewhat withdrawn. After seeing off Niki on a missionary bus tour across the country, Jake finds out later that his daughter had gone missing after the group's trip to Knott's Berry Farm.

Jake hires a private detective (an surprisingly greasy and smarmy Peter Boyle), who eventually finds an 8mm snuff film with Niki as the main star. Jake is destroyed by what he sees, but takes it upon himself to dive into a world he barely even knew existed in order to pull his daughter out. In Schrader's version of 'The Searchers,' it isn't savages who kidnap the little girl, it's the unseen savagery of the new generation and the unthinkable horrors of the sex industry that take his daughter. Like Martin Pawley in 'The Searchers,' Jake gives no thought to his previous life as he slowly breaks through every moral barrier he had once lived behind in order to satisfy his hunger of finding Niki. Jake allies himself with strippers and snuff dealers, oftentimes trying to see into their world before pulling himself back, trying to keep some shred of his previous self intact.

It's all very similar to what Schrader would do with Auto Focus, with a man plunging further and further into the darkness because the way back is an even longer journey.

Hard Candy
Similar in some ways to 'Hardcore,' but substituting a more contemporary public fear (sexual predators) as its driving force. I thought I was prepared for how unnerving this movie would be, but I was still shocked. It's the classic tale of the hunter becoming the hunted as young Hayley turns the tables on her older adversary. Even though it's disturbing on many levels throughout, there is almost no violence, making it resemble the best told ghost stories and subtle horror movies -- it's all in the details and atmosphere.

I can't say it was a terribly memorable script, but it was incredibly well-acted and directed. The mood never flinches, and you are never sure just what direction it will all go next. Ellen Page is fantastic as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood's clothing, who has a sinister plan for one man to seemingly pay for the sins of many others. You think you know about her plan, but her motives and actions are always twisting. What works well is that the movie treats her like the adolescent she is -- her plan is good, but certainly not perfect. She makes mistakes, but so does her victim Jeff -- a hipster photographer who picked up the wrong girl in a chat room. If you're going to watch it, there are times when you're going to wonder if the upcoming images may leave you forever scarred, but keep with it -- and it is hard at times, I know.

The Sadist
I've really been enjoying Turner Classic Movies' 'Underground' episodes with Rob Zombie. Late night on Fridays, Zombie (looking much slimmer and more inviting than I remember) introduces a cult classic and offers his takes on it. I really didn't know what to expect from Underground, but TCM has really committed to the project (check out the cool Web site; and Zombie hangs out in an overly lavish set), dishing out real, hard to find, cult movies and apparently selling Zombie on his role as host (even if his lines often sound scripted). The first movie I caught was DePalma's Sisters, a delightfully twisted and well-made tale of once-conjoined twins, and recently I watched 1962's 'The Sadist.' (Trish -- didn't catch 'Wild Guitar,' which preceded it on TCM, any good?)

Starring the bizarre Arch Hall Jr., you could make the case that 'The Sadist' was grindhouse even before there was such a thing. The level of cruelty and violence is out of character for the year, and its appeal is purely shock value. In 'The Sadist' we find three unlucky teachers whose car breaks down and their trail leads them to an abandoned repair shop. The place seems desserted, except the house has a table with three uneaten dinners on it, and soon we meet the title characters. Hall plays Charlie Tibbs, and Marilyn Manning (who also played Hall's girlfriend in Eegah!) is his murderous accomplice. The two cut-ups are on a killing spree and set about toying and torturing the teachers for the duration of the movie.

The movie quickly loses its momentum in the middle scenes, but makes up for some of that with an out-of-nowhere raucus and violent ending. If you've seen Hall in 'Eegah!' where he plays an ah-shucks teen, he's completely different here as a snarling villain. Hall's at times grotesque would-be hunky looks work better in this movie, which usually finds him pointing his Neanderthal brow down a gun.

DVD Panache in your ear lobes!
You've read my post about Troll 2, now listen to my fan commentary podcast for the movie! The good people over at Best Worst Movie bit me with the festive 'Troll 2' bug, and since I've now seen it close to 10 times now, I felt I had plenty of feelings and observations on the movie to fill a 90-minute commentary. This was my first crack at a fan commentary and it turned out pretty well, won't be my last -- stay tuned.


Trish said...

Hmmmm... Wild Guitar... Well, you know what they say... One person's trash is another's treasure. I just *can't* take responsibility for you losing the minutes watching it that you may never get back should you not enjoy it. But if you are an Arch fan, it's fun to watch.

Sisters *does* rock. Also rockable is Rob Zombie's House of a Thousand Corpses and Devil's Rejects.

Zarban! said...

The commentary link is broken. Can you make it available again? I can host it on The House of Commentaries.