The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Neil LaBute
viewed: 12/30/06

Why remake certain movies?  The original The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy and starring Christopher Lee, is considered to be one of the best British horror films ever made.  And it is very much a piece of Britain, really, taking place on a remote Scottish isle, with an English investigator following up on some strange goings-on in what turns out to be a bizarre pagan village, true still to their ancient traditions and sacrifice.  It’s a classic.

I’d heard that this new version was awful, and I think that is why I wanted to see it.  Nicolas Cage was at one time my favorite actor, probably from about 1983-1993 or so.  And around the time he scored his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas (1995), he started really really really going downhill.  He is now a total schmuck.

Directed and written (I think) by Neil LaBute, the narrative moves away from traditional pagan ritual in a place where such culture was historically endemic, and over to the Northwest, outside Washington state, and neo-pagans, and this time…a culture utterly run by women who heavily take an apian metaphor to the hilt, raising bees for honey and creating a hive-like culture in which men are purely “drones”.  In fact, men don’t even speak, but are simply used for their “phalluses”.  All this would be fine and dandy, I guess, but they also are murderesses and utilize human sacrifice.

There is a strong bent of misogyny here, which calls to mind LaBute’s 1997 breakthrough film which analyzed a similar perspective on women.  Empowered women dis-empower men.  It’s a threat and it’s frightening, the film tells us.  They are evil. It’s a bad, bad thing.  And the poor dupe, Cage, is just a lamb for the slaughter.

Outside of being bad, and it’s got some hardcore camp moments, it is frighteningly misogynist.  Overdone, overwrought, and ruinous.

I Am a Sex Addict

I Am a Sex Addict (2006) movie poster

(2005) dir. Caveh Zahedi
viewed: 12/30/2006

Caveh Zahedi wrote, directed, stars and exposes himself as a singular narcissist in this autobiographical, semi-documentary, semi-reenactment film about his obsession with prostitutes and his ultimate recognition of his sexual addiction.  It’s mostly comedic, I think, or played for laughs.  Zahedi’s failures in relationships he tends to blame on his sexual addiction, but it’s clear as well, that under the guise of being open and honest, he lacks real empathy for anyone besides himself.

I actually think that the filming of this movie must have been interesting.  He brings some of that into the film, noting that he is using San Francisco to stand in for Paris since he can’t afford to shoot there.  He also plays his 20-year younger self in reenactments of his experiences, occasionally with a pretty funny afro.  He also talks about the actresses in asides, noting that one turned out to be a famous French porn star and another a drunk.  Still, he takes his clothes off a lot and simulates sex with several women.  Why anyone would want to see his scrawny naked body, I could not say.  There is a lot of opportunity.

I’d read about this film in the San Francisco Chronicle, along with an interview with Zahedi, who is a local artist.  It’s pretty funny, if some sort of strange ego-maniacal self-exposure as well.  The documentary about the documentarian.  Still, it is clever at times and low-budget and odd.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Ivan Reitman
viewed: 12/29/06

Amusing concept.  Awful film.

Ivan Reitman used to make good movies, like Meatballs (1979), Stripes (1981), and Ghost Busters (1984), but somewhere along the line, he started turning out stuff like Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Evolution (2001).  Ah well…

The idea of a neurotic and dangerous superheroine seems like it has some possibilities, but even with Uma Thurman as the superwoman, it’s just not good.  Personally, I don’t dislike Luke Wilson, but he’s pretty weak as a lead.  But no one has anything to work with here, not even Eddie Izzard, who is so funny as a stand-up, but is almost short-hand for a bad movie.

There is something verging on misogyny here, but it’s not really worth wasting the effort to go into it.

The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Alexandre Aja
viewed: 12/25/06

French horror director, Alexandre Aja, whose High Tension (2003) caught some attention and praise for its gritty violence and strange take on female power, has hopped the pond, as they say, and has delivered his first American film, a re-make of Wes Craven’s cult film of the exact same name that originally was released in 1977.

I’ve been on a bit of a horror bent lately, interested in this new wave of young horror filmmakers who seem to be leaning heavily toward the gore that was so popular in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and unsurprisingly are even re-making some of those films.  My guess is that the name of the film still seems marketable, but for some reason they must think that no one wants to watch the originals because socially they are out of date.  I mean why do these remakes?  They’re soulless and lack the spontaneity that made the originals so original.

I saw Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes a long time ago and the only thing I really remember is the strange face of Michael Berryman, who didn’t require prostheses to look like a mutant.  I don’t necessarily hold the original as any great work of art, but it is an interesting contrast, the nuclear family on vacation that gets stuck in the desert and the other type of “nuclear” family, the ones that mutated as a result of living in the bomb testing area, eating them alive.

There is really your major subtext.  Again, the haunted nuclear legacy and its impact on the average American wholesome family unit.  It’s a perverse yet simple and poignant commentary.  But really this is more so in the time the original was made, during the Cold War when these issues were fresher and the generations hadn’t passed so far from the testing time.  The re-make, for its small glimpses at the facades of Americana: the mannequins in the 1950’s style houses all in states of decay and disrepair, the frozen point in time in the gas station, also stuck in the 1950’s, all of this is even further from the time and has seemingly less meaning.

Why make this movie?  Why rent it?  Well, like I said, I am curious about these “splat pack” as they have been referred to and if any of them have anything valuable to bring to the horror film.  It’s a genre that has great potential as it is broad and plays on all kinds of societal fears.  But why this film?  We may never know.

Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 12/25/06

I’d read a lot of amusing critiques of this film over the summer when it was playing in theaters.  I was recalling 2002 when he released Signs and Time Magazine declared him to be the “new Spielberg”.  Something about being so anointed made sense.  This is clearly what he was aiming for, a very well-produced mainstream series of films with some fantasy aspect through them all (of course Spielberg plays the field a lot more, works with a lot more range than that).  Of course, Shyamalan writes all his own work which may well become his undoing.

This film has a bit of an interesting back-story, as Shyamalan had this film at Disney and apparently took it elsewhere when some “creative conflicts” arose.  This can easily be read, and perhaps I have more explicitly read, that Disney thought this film wasn’t quite right and Shyamalan took his creative control and finished his vision elsewhere, undaunted.  Now this is an issue for many a filmmaker over the years.  The studio disagrees with their vision, makes changes, often ruins the work.  And in most of these stories, it was the filmmaker who was right, the artist against the corporate machine.  In this case, one has to wonder whether or not Disney was right.

Shyamalan certainly sees himself as a creative genius.  Between the book that was written about this film’s creation, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and his American Express commercial that he starred in, showing him in a restaurant surrounded by his imaginitive fancies all literally appearing around him (the creative mind of the writer exposed), it seems clear that Shyamalan is developing a bit of an ego and perhaps a Jesus complex.

Actually, that is all part of what attracted me to see the film.  I like bad movies as well as good ones, and this film is basically a treatise on his genius and has explicit stabs at his critics.  Not to go into the convoluted narrative, which grew from a bedtime story that Shyamalan told to his daughters, but basically, a water nymph comes to find the man who is going to save the world with his writing (she is named “Story” by the way unless anyone misses the point of the fairy tale) and who should it turn out to be?  None other than the director/writer/actor Shyamalan himself.  He is going to write a book that will inspire great positive change in the world, but he will die before his time as a result of writing it.

If Mel Gibson was a little more fantastical in his interests, he might have been very jealous to see someone else cop the self-as-Jesus thing.

It’s a piece of megalomania.  And when the one unlikeable character in the film, a soulless film and book critic (are there any other kind?), begins to outwardly read the narrative, saying explicitly that “this is like a bad movie”  and that “this is what is happening”, it’s a moment of breaking the diegesis and self-referencing up the yin-yang, and of course, he gets his comeuppance by being the only one in the whole film to be killed.

Lady in the Water is almost awful.  The story is hilariously ridiculous and scenes when the neighbors all band together to talk the gobbledygook of the fairy tale, taking themselves serious as a heart attack, it’s pretty goddam funny.  It’s an amazing piece in that sense, such a ego-tripping, self-reflexive commentary on the magic of creativity of the artist while being completely goofy and ridiculous.  It’s insane.

But where can he go after this?  Much speculation is on that he will not get to work from one of his own scripts, and this could be a good thing for him at this point.  Who knows?  A man who has made a career off of one decent film, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, he might just keep going.

Night at the Museum

Night at the Museum (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Shawn Levy
viewed: 12/25/06 at Century 20 Daly City

Night at the Museum is the kind of movie that Hollywood tries to make so frequently yet fails pathetically.  It’s a fun kids’ movie that’s pretty enjoyable straight through, and while you can essentially get the main gags from the trailer, it somehow manages to be entertaining throughout, without hitting any significant snags.

This is partially because that though it has this underlying story about a divorced dad who is trying to just get a job and get his life together to help his son, it doesn’t overdo the saccharine moments too heavily most of the time.  I am thinking about Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003) at the moment and this sort of underscores the push toward nausea.

Ben Stiller is at his best here, doing his Ben Stiller thing, more lightweight, not trying to be too edgy.  And there are some fun smaller roles from Steve Coogan and Mickey Rooney and others that sort of round out the humor.

Actually, trying to analyze why this film works when so many others fail to, I really am coming up short.  I note frequently about myself that I seem humorless so often when it comes to comedies that I feel like perhaps I shouldn’t even be watching them.  But, you know, when the movie works and it’s fun and you come out of the theater smiling about something, what the heck.  ‘Tis the season, after all.  Right?

Miami Vice

Miami Vice (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Michael Mann
viewed: 12/24/06

Michael Mann is one of those film buffs’ filmmakers, but has largely sat on the outside of my interest.  I mean, I have appreciated a couple of his films, Maneater (1986) and Heat (1995), and other than acknowledging style and intelligence, just haven’t gotten into him the way that so many others do.  He’s always struck me as a fairly man’s man kind of director, choosing works that have macho heroes and primarily strong male roles.  I say that now, particularly, because Miami Vice fully fits into that mind-set.

With its sharp, stylish, action shots of high-speed racing boats and the Miami coastline that open the film, to the tough, brotherly, yet emotionally protected fraternity between Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, to the even fairly manly sex scenes that both actors appear in with their female partners, it’s all very much a guy world…not just guys, but “men”.  Fetishized considerably as well, are the accouterments of the man, the male version of “accessories”: guns, cars, boats, sunglasses, wrist-watches.  I am not enough of a specialist in any of these areas to detail specifically what types of accouterments they have here, but they are all top-of-the-line, faster-than-fast, slicker-than-slick types of things that I have to think that a certain spectrum of the male audience is simply drooling over.

The film itself is essentially a genre film, with a convoluted, but not all that original story about an undercover investigation into drug importers and killers.  While the base story is fairly standard-issue, the film stays relatively sharp most of the time.  But as has been speculated on before, the only reason that this is called Miami Vice is probably just the marketing angle that got the film made.

The film’s weakest point is the relationship between Farrell’s character and Gong Li’s tough, businesslike moll.  It’s long and it’s tedious.  But I will say that Gong Li’s character may have been the strongest thing about the movie, more from her performance than what she had to work with.

Still, in a manly world of take-downs and high-speed, slick as hell everything, women are just accouterments themselves.  And emotional distance is the definition of “cool”.

The Descent

The Descent (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Neil Marshall
viewed: 12/23/06

Though it flashed in and out of theaters locally without much fanfare, there was somewhat of good word-of-mouth about it as being above average for a horror film.  Written and directed by Neil Marshall, whose 2002 Dog Soldiers also developed a reasonable buzz as well, though I hadn’t heard anything about it til it hit DVD.  Well, luckily, in for this film, I hadn’t even heard that much about the storyline either.

One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it follows an entirely female group of adventurers as they head deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a cave-diving adventure that turns out to be more adventurous than they had anticipated.  That’s right, this is spelunking horror.  The all-female cast could be easily brushed off as a purification of the “female in danger” that has been the bread-and-butter of the horror genre for years.  Of course, none of these women are your typical shrinking or “shrieking” violets, but rather a bunch of tough, experienced modern women.  So, somewhere, there is a subtext perhaps, and possibly some feminist angle to take.

The creatures, the blind-troglodyte human-bat things that can crawl up walls and disembowel with their fangs, are almost all men.  Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The cave turns out to be home to yet another undiscovered species of creature.  This one totally humanoid in form, but vicious and bloodthirsty to the max.  While we do see one female creature, there may be some commentary in the male vs. female here.  And certainly, a very explicit “re-birth” scene is depicted toward the end, a very female image, which may be intended to signify something.

The film is largely well-made, despite a few cheap scares (surprise scares) and an occasionally overactive camera and editor.  It’s paced well and flows throughout, keeping the action moving, operating along conventional lines far more successfully than most of the genre.  Really, it’s a very decent effort.

See, there, I said it: The Descent is decent.

An Inconvient Truth

 

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Davis Guggenheim
viewed: 12/23/06

People frequently joke that this movie is essentially “the greatest PowerPoint presentation of all time”.  And that may be.  It is also a very political film, both in its outward message and in its more hidden agenda, the promotion of Al Gore as a saintly hero, great American, and the guy that should have been the president for the past 7 years.  And you know what?  It’s compelling as hell.

We also found ourselves joking, with notes of irony about how its hardly a joke, that this is the scariest movie to come out in years.  And this is simply because it foretells our doom, the disaster of humanity on the planet Earth with excellent research, scary data and powerfully narrated discourse.  Gore, who was considered such a stiff in his push toward the presidency, shows his calm, laid back, intelligent, and forceful ability to talk openly on the subject that he defines as the most important issue that faces the world today.  He’s excellent as a professor and eloquent and deeply knowledgeable.  He’s amazing.

This is the movie that everyone should see.  It should be mandatory cross the county, cross the world.  Al Gore should be back in government in a role to heighten awareness and make significant changes to policies and planning to bring the U. S. to the Kyoto Protocols.

This film is very much an element of the present.  I have no idea how it might be perceived as the world moves on and changes, whether it moves in the right direction or the wrong ones.  Whether this film is prophetic, or world-changing, or even just flat-out incorrect.   As a dialogue of the moment, based on the best scientific understanding and research that we have available to us, this film is excellent.  It’s powerful.  And I feel very much a fan of Al Gore.

See it.  Make everyone see it.

I Bury the Living

 

(1958) dir. Albert Band
viewed: 12/21/06

I Bury the Living is really an obscure masterpiece.  I saw it by chance several years ago with my nephew on a night of several horror videos.  Being a 12 year old, he was not impressed with it, but it totally blew me away.  I hadn’t really heard of it, and I had picked it up for title alone.  On a dubious Le Video VHS cassette, I had stumbled on an amazing, surreal low-budget piece of brilliance.

The film’s visuals are remarkable.  Shot in a noir-ish black and white, almost entirely in a cemetery and its hut-like office, the naturalism of the live settings offer a stark contrast to the devolving consistency of reality inside the office and inside the head of protagonist Robert Kraft (an excellent Richard Boone), whose psychic abilities set strange events in motion.

Kraft is a prominent citizen of a small town, president of a department store, and as becomes his civic duty, begrudgingly takes on the management of the local cemetery for a year.  However, on his first day at the office, with recurring moments of deja vu, he accidentally places two black pins in the map of the cemetery for a newly wed young couple who had just purchased a plot.  The map, a stylish abstract pattern representing the drive through the cemetery and a check-board of plots empty and full, looms and glows in the room.  The black pins represent people already in their graves, while the white pins signify those who have merely planned ahead and purchased plots and still live.

Kraft’s error seemingly triggers the death of the young couple in a car crash.  Kraft feels distraught and freaked out by the coincidence, while no one else pays it any mind.  After an experiment with a random change of a white pin to a black pin seemingly triggers the aneurysm of a stranger, Kraft begins to believe that he controls the lives and deaths of all people on the board.  He is haunted by this and other aspects of deja vu that keep triggering him.

As the story unfolds, Kraft becomes more and more crazy.  Clock faces and the map become strangely blurry and alive.  As Kraft pins death on more and more people, trying to prove that he is wrong, that the coincidences will stop, he starts to wonder if he has the power to bring people back and changes out the black pins to white.  Tombstones overturn and earth begins to move.

The office is always freezing cold and the heater fails to work.  As his madness spirals, he breaks down the freezing cold office into a fire and curls up in front of the map.  Choked by the smoke, he runs out through the cemetery, discovering the open graves, and he runs back to the map.

Why am I going into so much detail about this?  It’s the build up to the most amazing visual in the film.  As Kraft, wrought with fear over his God-like power, steps toward the glowing map with a gun in his hand.  As he raises the gun to his head, his image, superimposed on the map zooms in and becomes completely high contrast.  He is a caricature black image of a man with the gun to his head against this abstract shape.  It’s stunning.  Amazing.  Radical.

The film’s visual elements are powerful throughout, from zoomed in close ups on the pin heads to a swirling miasma of strange images in a nightmare dream.

I Bury the Living is an utter masterpiece.  A dark, noirish horror film that has a strange, yet compelling scenario, is a poetic and dramatic narrative, and an incredibly amazing film.  Tremendous.