Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

Stake Land the great American vampire tale

It’s not often that a genre film doesn’t realize that it’s a genre film.  A comedy plays within the conventions of its niche and most horror films do the same.  Daybreakers is one of the best vampire films since the 1980’s unleashed Fright Night and The Lost Boys because, like its forerunners, it knows how to play to the genre trappings as intelligent entertainment.  That’s usually the best horror fans can expect from the genre. But films like The Blair Witch Project, Let the Right One In or Stake Land treat a horror tale like a drama and not a creature feature – which makes it all the more frightening. Continue reading

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DVD Roundup: Westerns, Spike Lee, and French Hate

Before writing this entry, the idea was to post a blog every week listing all of the films I’ve watched (that I have not previously seen) over seven days.  However, given the length, I don’t know if that’s going to be a constant.  Maybe once a month highlighting the best films I watched.  Anyway, here’s what I saw:

Vinz, Said, and Hubert, the main characters who represent the diverse poverty fo the banlieues.

La Haine (1995)

This was the best film I watched all week.  It reminded me of both Fight Club and Children of Men for specific reasons:  Fight Club because it was speaking to a certain generation-in this case, poor youths  living in the banlieues of Paris;* Children of Men because the camera work is easy-going, not kinetic, but smooth; it lets the film do its thing.  When you watch as many films as I do, you begin to feel worn out by ho-hum films.  This was a good jolt of awesomeness, both for content (you really feel like you’re learning something about this world) and formalist elements.  Please: Watch this.

*The banlieues in France are the suburbs or outskirts.   In contrast to the U.S., these suburbs are the ghettos where the poor and minorities reside.

Cache (Hidden) (2005)

I thought Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007)* was brilliant, so I was disappointed by Cache.  Residing on many top film lists, I felt this was heralded by auteur theory slaves or for the formalistic as opposed to the content.  People discuss it in terms of an allegory for French colonialism, but there is nothing in the film that directs you to such a conclusion.  All you have is a French man thinking an immigrant boy he knew in childhood is stalking him.  The film’s purpose is opaque and thus comes off as artistic wankery.  Any time you’re looking at a piece of art and the only way it has meaning is via the titlecard explaining the artist’s purposes, the artist has failed.  I am by no means asking for an artist to shove the subtext down my throat.  However, you need to give clues to your meaning and there are none in Cache.  Don’t bother.

*this was a shot-for-shot American re-make that Haneke, surprisingly, directed himself


A Boy and His Dog (1975)

This is the film that inspired Mad Max, thereby The Road and probably any post-apocalyptic film you’ve ever seen.  The world has been scorched to deserts and a boy and his dog, who are telepathically linked, search for food and women for the boy to rape.  Yes, you read that right: man’s best friend helps a boy with sexual assault.  Things get weird when he meets a girl and goes underground, where the world is frozen as 1950’s America, the townspeople wear creepy clown makeup and the high school band is always in full swing.  This is definitely from the 1970’s (too weird to be from any other decade) and the humor is super black.  Totally worth a watch just for the ending, but watch with friends.  This is too out there to watch without company. Trailer

Malcolm X (1992)

A biopic on Malcolm X . . . where Spike Lee doesn’t know when to be quiet.  Really Spike Lee, did you need Nelson Mandela to hammer your point home after we see X shot a bajillion times?  Denzel Washington is good (of course), but watch Lee’s 25th Hour for something really great.

North by Northwest (1959)

"I'll inn- your -uendo anytime, Mr. Grant."North by Northwest (1959)

I had no idea that a mainstream Hollywood film could have so much sexual innuendo.  I was perpetually waiting for some super sexy music to cut in during the dialogue between Grant and Saint Marie.  Other notable comments: an abrupt ending which transitions directly from Mount Rushmore, straight into a Honeymoon train ride.  Also, you’ll notice any exterior scenes flip back and forth from being on location, to using a green screen (like those of The Daily Show correspondent reports). Something tells me this was the result of keeping dialogue in a studio where audio can be recorded easily, then cutting back to on location when no dialogue was occurring.  It’s interesting to consider how a film’s style is affected by technical issues.  Good little thriller though.

The Searchers (1956)

Since discovering Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) I’ve gone through recommended Westerns I missed during my youth [too busy watching films on TNT, like Night of the Living Dead (1990), The Lost Boys (1987), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994)].  So seeing The Searchers among all the other Westerns put it in perspective.  The film is noteworthy for John Wayne’s role as an anti-hero when he goes looking for girl kidnapped by “Indians” with a young buck who is part Native American himself.  Other than that, the acting and dialogue aren’t the finest.  If you’re new to Westerns, you need to see The Searchers, but I’d recommend High Noon (1952) for higher honors.

Unforgiven (1992)

Along with my comments on The Searchers, Unforgiven is praised for breaking from Western tradition and showing the true consequences of the killin’ life.  Interesting since Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven, the guy who made killing look cool in the Leone and Dirty Harry films. See my blog entry on Eastwood’s penance for a lengthier treatise.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

And finally, this links up with Unforgiven not only due to Eastwood’s directorial role, but for the same act of deconstructing the genre’s mythos of war heroes.  At first, the look of the film might remind you of a tv movie, but I think that’s because Eastwood didn’t want to tart it up with grittiness like Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Better to stay away from stylization and let the film play out in our world, where colors continue to exist despite a war’s occurence.  Again, see my Eastwood blog entry for more.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

If the earliest films you’ve seen are the Classical Hollywood Films during the Hays Code Era (such as North by Northwest), then this one will surprise you, as German director Josef von Sternberg spins the tale of Catherine the Great of Russia.  The film’s opening montage, in which young Catherine is receiving her education of Russian politics, we see nudity, torture, and beheadings (though on this we only see a man with an ax; the other items, we see it).  The set design of the Russian palace is just as grotesque (very German expressionist), but this little film is interesting for focusing on women, with Marlene Dietrich as the protagonist who has a vareity lover boys, and the tyrannical mother-in-law and ruler of Russia, Empress Petrovna.  Men are idiots or play things in this world and that is just as striking (in a good way) as the opening montage.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

I hand wrote this review in class: Really funny, but the music designer pushed some scenes into homoerotic territory.  Also, it keeps moving between hilarious and overly dramatic.  It gets so dramatic in fact, that you reasonably expect Del (John Candy) to go in the bathroom, peel open his wrists up with a razor, and be discovered by Neal (Steve Martin) the next morning in a pool of his own blood; this of course occurring as a result of Neal’s ill temper toward Del and adding just another hurdle to Neal quest to get home.

I don’t know why, but I quite literally, laughed through the whole film.  I don’t laugh easy during comedies.  I don’t chuckle at the slightest provocation.  So it might have been due to the pacing: long lingering takes as another annoyance/tragedy plays out, and we feel Neal’s explosive reaction building up.  If the same events happened to Del, the nice chatty guy, it would be sad to see such repeated ailments befall such a nice guy.  But since we know Neal as a tight ass, we can rely on him to freak out and we have to laugh at him.  And in regard to the acting: John Candy can do real, subtle hurt; but Steve Martin does sadness like a second grade actor in the school play.

I thought this might have been John Hughes’ first film he wrote and directed, but imdb tells me this was one of his last major hits.  Surprising.  Certain parts were REALLY serious (only made worse by the music) and this change in tone felt awkwardly abrupt, not like Shaun of the Dead, which snaked its way through scary, sad, and funny with amazing finesse.  I’ve seen Hughes’ other notables, so I know he likes to take us through the funny and the serious, but this wasn’t as well done.

Despite this issue, I’d watch it again.  It was funny and that’s what I was expecting.

The Book of Eli

Most New Year films are like the $5 DVD bins you find at Walmart: Old and crappy, but would cost more to store in a warehouse than it would to sell for the cost of a footlong sub. However, the release of films like The Book of Eli and Daybreakers, before the blockbuster juggernauts awake from their 8 month hibernation, is changing  regularly scheduled programming.  After reading my review of Daybreakers, you know it’s not the best vampire film ever, but it’s a lot of fun. The Book of Eli is playing at the same kid’s table.

Like so many post-apocalyptic flicks these days, The Book of Eli takes place on the road, as Eli (Denzel Washington) walks the blacktop of the southwestern U.S., foiling traps by Mad Max extras (sans vehicles) and revealing his zen and the art of kicking ass. Eli stops at a town to charge a battery, more goons hassle him, and they promptly receiving more kicking of the rear end.  When the Mayor, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), looks down at the bar and sees Eli in a pile of former thugs, Carnegie pulls out the charm to persuade Eli into staying as security detail.  Eli declines, saying he has business out West.  When Carnegie finds out Eli can not only read, but is carrying the book he’s been killing to locate, further kicking of the ass ensues.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes (whose last flick was From Hell 2001), this is an okay film that just misses average expectations.  Though Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman aren’t at their peak in this film, they’re good guys for the job:  Denzel has proven his ability to don “Strong Silent Type” roles since Man on Fire and Oldman has been rocking the bad guy roles since the 90’s with Dracula, The Fifth Element, and Leon: The Professional (highly recommend that one).  Hell, even Mila Kunis as Eli’s companion, Solara, doesn’t do a bad job.

The film’s weaknesses really rest in the directing and the writing.  Ever since Alfonso Cuaron blew us away with Children of Men in 2006, long takes have come into vogue, with McG copying the style in Terminator Salvation (2009) and The Hughes Bros. doing the same in The Book of Eli: A shootout occurs and the camera starts inside the house, goes out to Carnegie and his men firing, then moves back toward the house, through the bullet holes, and beside Solara and Eli.

There were a few scenes like this, which failed as they called attention to themselves.  In Children of Men you forgot that scenes played out in long takes because you were too involved with the story.  In The Book of Eli, however, these scenes (and other slow-motion moments) remind me of a George Carlin comment on playing jazz music: It’s not enough to know what notes need to be played, but why the notes need to be played.  They’re obviously pulling stylistic elements from Cuaron, but they don’t know why Cuaron did it that way, only that it looked cool.  Given the film’s push for dramatic realism, these hyper aesthetic moments undermine the directors’ goal.

And the writing.  What is it with endings these days?  Both The Road and Daybreakers had bad endings that could have been much cleaner given very simple changes.  The Book of Eli gets tossed in the same boat here, but the problems are a more complex: There isn’t merely a little trimming to be performed (The Road) or an extra quick scene or two to leave a realistic vibe (Daybreakers).  What The Book of Eli’s conclusion really needs is to amputate the didactic heavy-handedness that shows up like a drunk uncle at Christmas dinner and spoils the fun.

Finally, the makeup and special effects performed admirably.  My theory of CGI working better in the dark is demonstrated here, as backgrounds of devastated wasteland did not stand out nearly as much as a boat ride in the sunshine.

The little touches in the film were cool, like a hijacker wearing goggles with a bullet hole through one lens (implying the original owner is dead, possibly at the hands of the new owner, and that scavenging is a part of life) and a beat up poster for A Boy and His Dog in the background of Eli’s room while staying in town (Dog was a major influence for Mad Max, and hence, all post-apocalyptic films since).  Finally, the random appearance of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as the POSSIBLE, MINOR SPOILER second half of a friendly, elderly cannibal couple was worth a few laughs for sheer randomness.  A whole film should be dedicated to those folks. POSSIBLE SPOILER OVER Keep your eyes peeled for a few other cameos.

In the end, the film is okay, starting strong, but wimping out as the final bell rings.  Daybreakers did a better job maintaining that world’s credibility while having some fun, and The Road is the closest we’ll get to gritty-realism in post-apocalyptic films for a while.  The Book of Eli plays in both courts, the fun and the serious, but doesn’t completely deliver the goods as well as its better cousins.

2 1/2 out of 5

PS

The Book of Eli actually plays out like a Western than the gritty survival  structures of post-apocalypse films: random stranger with badassness floats into town, attracts trouble, kills trouble, leaves town for vague mission.

Recommendations:

Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, Carriers, The Road, Children of Men, High Noon, any Sergio Leone flick

The Road

One of the original The Road posters.

Ever since seeing the Coen Bros.’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, I’ve been dying to see his post-apocalyptic novel The Road receive the same treatment.  Because what’s more silver screen than a film about the end of the world and the ensuing hunger, cold, and cannibals? Continue reading