Monday, January 25, 2010

Short Film: Crank Balls (USA, 2007)

This cute little 5-minute-long stop motion short is from Devin Bell, an MFA graduate of animation at California Institute of the Arts. Shot on digital video, it seems to be his only film to date. It’s been rather an Internet hit and has been making the rounds the past year, and not unjustly so. The deceptively simple plot—in a drab, colorless netherworld, three Crank Balls are living their insignificant existence until one gets infected by happiness and promptly infects the rest (shades of unprotected sex!)—is well-presented in a humorous, almost frightening manner. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was never as quick as this! Is it a paean to conformity, and how it is always there in some form or other, or does it symbolize the steady progression of mass delusion? Who cares, really—it’s funny.

Witchfinder General / The Conqueror Worm (Great Britain, 1968)

Made in England as Witchfinder General and released in the USA as The Conqueror Worm, the film proved to be a financial success in the US and mainland Europe, while sinking like a stone in England. (Indeed, it did well enough in mainland Europe to kick off a whole slew of later imitations, including Germany's legendary Mark of the Devil / Hexen bis aufs Blüt gequält [1970 / trailer] and its later sequel Mark of the Devil II / Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält [1973 / trailer].) Often mistaken as simply another low budget AIP film based on an Edgar Allen Poe story and starring Vincent Price—in fact, despite its Poe-based US title, however, Michael Reeves' film has nothing to do with Poe’s ode to worms, and if the film was low budget, it doesn’t show—and initially accused of pointless, unremitting "sadism", time has treated this movie well. What originally was received as cinematic trash has long since become one of the more respected English horror films of the late 60s.
Set in 1645, during the war between Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads and the Royalists, Reeves’ movie is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett, which was in turn based on the true story of Mathew Hopkins, a Puritan minister and lawyer (a man that, in true life, died at half the age that he is played as by Price), and his assistant John Sterne, who together tried and executed around 200 "witches" between 1645 and 1646 before being forced to retire. Unlike in the film, however, in true life both men ended their lives in a peaceful and comfortable manner, and even published books narrating their exploits. (Rather unlike the film's director, actually. On February 11, 1969, at the age of 25, Michael Reeves died—depending on the source, either a suicide or an accidental death, either by auto or a long drop from a high window. [In truth, it was by pill and was attributed as accidental.] Nonetheless, despite his short career, Reeves did manage to work with some of the best genre stars of the time, including Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, in such films as The Castle of the Living Dead / Il castello dei morti vivi (1964), She Beast / La sorella di Satana (1965 / trailer) and The Sorcerers (1967 / trailer).
In Witchfinder General, Hopkins and Sterne come to a village where the local priest has been accused of being a witch. His niece Sarah, engaged to Richard, a soldier off fighting for Cromwell, exchanges sexual favors with Hopkins for the life of her uncle, but once she is raped by Sterne, Hopkins orders her uncle tortured and killed along with the other two accused of witchcraft. Collecting his reward, Hopkins leaves with Stearn for their next destination. Richard, upon hearing that a priest has been killed in his home village, comes back and, alone with the victimized girl in a trashed church, "marries" Sarah and swears revenge. Before leaving to rejoin his regiment, Richard sends Sarah to Lavenham, a town he believes to be "safer." Richard eventually catches up with Hopkins and Sterne, who, after a nasty fight, manage to escape him and continue their way on to Lavenham to try more witches. Seeing Sarah there, they take her and set up a trap, catching Richard when he finally shows up. Off to the dungeon it is, where Hopkins and Sterne attempt to force Richard to confess to being a witch by torturing Sarah....
Starting with its unsettling pre-credit sequence of a screaming "witch" being dragged to and then hung on a gallows, the film is permeated with an all-encompassing and pervading sense of moral corruption and despair, a feeling further acknowledged with an unhappy "happy" ending: the hero and heroine may survive, but he is mad with unsatiated revenge, while she is fully bonkers and screaming her head off. Likewise, much as in the original The Last House On the Left (1972 / trailer), the death of the villains at the film’s end conveys less any sense of satisfaction or justice than it does a complete moral and mental debasement of the heroes.
Despite its original critically unenthusiastic reception, today Witchfinder General is rightfully considered to be a top notch, much imitated English "horror" film that reflects the both the degradation resulting from uncontrolled violence, far less an easy-to-pigeonhole genre film than a brutal and depressing costume drama exploring the pervasively encompassing corrupting influence of power and revenge. Excellently cast and well acted, Vincent Price deserves special notice for his characterization of Hopkins, whom he plays without any of his usual hamming, projecting instead an intelligent man of subdued arrogance, corrupt and of power, willing to use his position for monetary gain and weenie-wetting. Similarly, the location photography—with the exception of the typically lousy day-for-night shot scenes—is of high quality, as is the beautiful score, direction and script.
All that and more big, naked tits than most other non-porno films of that generation or any since—what more do you want, for gawds sake?

Valentine (USA, 2001)

(Spoilers) Director Jamie Blank returns for his second go at a by-the-numbers bodycount film entitled My Bloody Valentine....Oops. Wrong title. That was a bad splatter film from the golden age of bodycount films that just got a decent 3-D makeover for its 2009 remake. This film, just entitled Valentine, is simply an oddly misogynistic bodycounter (for and) from 2001 featuring the traditional unknown nutzo stalking young twenty-somethings. As equally traditional and derivative as Blanks' first feature-length film Urban Legend (1998 / trailer), the biggest surprise in Valentine is Blank's sudden directorial ability. The story in itself is unoriginal, predictable and uninspired, but Blank manages to infuse the film with competent, if not at times interesting direction. He has discovered that cameras can move, points of view can change, rhythm can be constructed, tension can build and be built, framing is important—basically, unlike in Urban Legend, the man actually seems to direct this time around. This and a cast of mostly sympathetic, likable and emotionally understandable good-looking babes helps make the uninspired retread of 1980s teen slasher films bearable, if not entertaining at times. (As to be expected of this type of film, however, while tension is occasionally present, true scares seldom are.)
In general, the attractive cast do a good job in their limited roles, the jerks being proper jerks, the babes being hot babes. David Boreanaz, famous for his role as the vampire Angle from Buffy the Vampire Killer and its spin-off Angle (and now as some FBI agent in his current show Bones) is almost too realistic for his roll as the alcoholic ex-boyfriend on the wagon. He seems to developing an alcohol bloat similar to that of Ray Liotta, but is easily half the latter's age. Denise Richards is perfectly cast as the bone-hardener of the flick, but in a bikini she really is beginning to look, well, unhealthy. (Eat something, child.) The rest of the gals might be a bit less hot stuff, but they look as if they’d be more fun to actually hold, squeeze and…well, you know.
The script is less than exceptional, to say the least. Based on a novel by Tom Savage, it is hard to believe that four different authors were needed to cobble together a script as predictable as this one. Did each author have one idea and a five-word vocabulary? As it is, they did manage a script with a beginning and an end, some action in between and decent characterization, but to say that the movie is either halfway logical or believable would be a lie. But then, this is not a film in which the story should be closely scrutinized, it is a film to be watched only to see one person after the other die.

Valentine is also one of the most blatantly misogynist, women-hating bodycount films in years. Odd how such a subversively ironic film as Mother's Day (1980 / trailer) could be taken to the river for misogynistic sexism back when it was released (and still retain the reputation today) when it in every way was and is a much more faceted, sarcastic and intelligent film than Valentine, which basically serves no purpose other than to collect a variety of beautiful woman (and a few good looking men) and kill them one by one. The saving grace of Valentine's script is that the five lead woman, as briefly as some are on the screen, are all likable and understandable people, their desire and search for love (or sex) making them much more human than the average bimbo victim. It is the men in this movie that all come across as brainless, heartless dorks, all being much less likable and more conniving than any of the women. Despite the derogatory characterization of the men in general, the film retains a woman-hating tone in that it is the terror and deaths of the women that is focused on, while the men who die do so relatively quickly or off-screen and with little or no advance terrorization. Much like the identity of the killer in Urban Legend, it doesn't take long for the viewer to figure out who is killing who, so the supposed "double-surprise ending" surprises less than it does annoy.
In the true tradition of the 80s and most slashers since, Valentine opens with a short sequence similar to that found in films such as the original Prom Night (1980 / trailer) and Terror Train (1980 / trailer) in which the trauma that motivates the future killer is revealed, in this case the demeaning abuse faced by a child loser in the hands of classmates. It also introduces the big clue to the killer's identity: a bloody nose.
Some 15 years later, not only have all the spurning girls involved developed into vivacious and curvaceous babes, but since not one of them has moved away they are all still great friends. As Valentine rolls around, they all get sadistic valentine cards indicating that they are not loved by all. After a date from hell with one of the red herrings of the movie, Shelley Fisher (Katherine Heigl) is the first one to go. Ruthie (Hedy Burress) gets it bad at an art opening, and along the way a panty fetishist and some other guy bite the dust, the killer popping up at the most unexpected places. It is at Dorothy Wheeler's (Jessica Capshaw) big party that the bodies start to pile up, as the killer is seemingly less bent on revenge than simply killing everyone he can. Anorexic wild thing Paige Prescott (Denise Richards) gets drilled and electrocuted in a jacuzzi, some pissed-off bitch gets her throat impaled on glass shards and a police detective loses his head.
The party setting must be taken in stride, for the killer sure seems to chase people around a lot empty corridors and rooms for a house full of a hundred people, and it is hardly believable that all guests would leave en-mass just cause the electricity (and music and lights, of course) go out. (In my day it was the alcohol and drugs that mattered, but perhaps times have changed.) The good girl of the flick, Kate Davies (Marley Shelton) gets to run around and scream a lot before seemingly being saved by her alcoholic ex Adam Carr (David Boreanz). Of course, a film like this cannot end properly without a twist...

Anaconda (USA, 1997)

For some strange reason, a lot of people get awfully excited about this movie, and not because they like it. Despite its status as a hit when it was released—or maybe because of it—few people have anything good to say about it. Even Anaconda’s nominal star Jennifer Lopez has little praise for it, claiming that "This film was supposed to be my big break, but it turned out to be a big disaster." (Well, honey, big disaster or not, it sure brought you a lot of attention... a lot more than your much better acting job as a two-faced sexpot did in the far superior U-turn [1997 / trailer].) True, this killer snake flick is on the far side from being a masterpiece, but then one hardly expects something good from Luis Llasa, the man responsible for that laugh-a-minute comedy The Specialist (1994 / trailer), which starred Sylvester Stallone, James Wood and Sharon Stone and made no sense at all.
Of the cast of Anaconda, only Jon Voight alone seemingly had the insight to realize what the end product would be, the result being that he virtually walks away with the film with his over-the-top performance as the sleazy Paul Sarone, the baddest of bad guys. Most of the other actors actually fare relatively well considering how two dimensional their respective characters are, but none of them leave the lasting impression of Voight. Anaconda may be a far cry from Midnight Cowboy (1969 / trailer), Deliverance (1972 / trailer) or even Runaway Train (1985 / trailer) in terms of “content” and respectability, but good overacting is almost as seldom as good acting—and if the Voight’s earlier films are much more serious than this one, Anaconda is definitely a lot more fun. (Hard to believe that a man that ugly could be than dad of a woman as bonkable as Angelina Jolie.)
After a short opening scene revealing an unseen monster at work and a man who would rather blow his brains out than face the creature, Anaconda introduces it various characters, all of whom make up a film crew led by Dr Steven Cale (Eric Stolz) and director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) that is going down (up?) the Amazon is search of some lost tribe. (Amazing how few mosquitoes the Amazon has—was a bit different when I went to Iquitos back in '97.) Along the way they pick up Sarone (Voight), who is stranded on a half-sunken boat. Cale eventually swallows a wasp and spends most of the rest of the film unconscious in bed, much to the viewer’s relief, ‘cause the guy was a bore anyway. In short time, the screaming demon—er, snake—of the film eats a stuffed black panther, the ship’s captain and, after Sarone forcibly takes control of the boat, the crew’s soundman Gary (Owen Wilson) as well. Flores and the others manage to knock Sarone out, but their situation hardly improves. (Oddly enough, despite the fact that Flores looks not be wearing a bra for the entire movie up this scene, when she finally decides to use her “charms” to distract Sarone, she suddenly has visible support.) Narrator Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) gets swallowed just as he finally gets likable, and pointless character Denise Kalber (Kari Wuhrer) gets it for getting to close to Sarone’s crotch. Flores and her cameraman (Ice Cube) spend the rest of the film alternately fighting some anaconda or Sarone, with little time left to breathe in-between.....
Sure, the computer effects are obvious, but does one watch Tarantula (1955 / trailer) because of excellent effects? Anaconda is exciting, laughable, unrealistic, idiotic and fun, just like the best of B films—and this film is a B film, no matter how much money might have been sunk into it. Pop in that video, pop that popcorn, leave your brain at the door and enjoy. Anaconda is a monster movie, and big budget or not, intentional or not, it’s a cheesy big budget movie that is fun to watch, possibly in spite of itself. You want something classy, something serious, why the hell are you even reading this blog?
Anaconda, by the way, has spawned a successful franchise of straight-to-DVD that currently includes Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004 / trailer) Anaconda III (2008 / trailer) Anaconda 4: Trail of Blood (2009 / trailer). The franchise doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon, despite having descended to the lower depths of Z-level production.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Great Britain, 1971)

(Spoilers.) Before he completely disappeared into the netherworlds of directing second and third rate television programs, midway into his career director Roy Ward Baker occasionally moonlighted from his rent-paying TV gigs to regularly make feature horror films of varying quality which featured few qualms about the occasional spurt of blood. The most disappointing of these films is, most likely, Hammer’s uneven 1970 entry in their never-ending Dracula franchise, The Scars of Dracula (trailer), with its laughable ending of Dracula getting struck by lightning. The most sublimely inane but nonetheless enjoyable is probably 1974’s The Legend of Seven Golden Vampires (trailer), a Kung Fu vampire film complete with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing out hunting those evil bloodsuckers in 1904 Chunking. Undoubtedly, Baker’s most famous entries to the horror genre are 1973’s uneven but entertaining horror omnibus The Vault of Horror (trailer), a filmic version of selected old EC Comics horror stories taken from the EC comic books of the 1950s (oddly enough, not one story actually came from the comic book the film took its name from, but instead came mostly from EC's sister publication, Tales of the Crypt), the excellent lesbo-vampire flick The Vampire Lovers (1970 / trailer), and this film, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a lightly perverse 1972 Hammer production known primarily for featuring cult starlet Martine Beswick (AKA Beswicke).
Beswick, like another earlier famed beauty of B-movies, Barbara Steele, had a mysterious, sensuous look well suited for the horror films she starred in. Jamaican born, Beswick started her career as the generic female form dancing behind the credits of the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962 / trailer), before moving upwards to speaking rolls of varying screen time in such films as From Russia with Love (1963 / trailer); Thunderball (1965 / trailer); One Million Years B.C. (1966 / trailer), in which she didn’t speak as much as she did grunt; Prehistoric Women (1967 / trailer), the seldom seen excursion into the innately camp prehistoric women/slave girls genre; and, eventually, her first lead role in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Unlike her male costar Ralph Bates, Beswick makes an unforgettable impression in this well made if not slightly flawed close-to-classic Hammer production.
From the opening strains of a truly beautiful waltz written just for the film, the high-class production values found in the best of Hammer’s costume horror excursions are immediately evident, and continue to be so throughout most of the entire film, excluding some questionable blood and gore effects that come across like the results of a ketchup bottle knocked over. Well filmed and marred only by the unsatisfying end, the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde contains a little bit of everything from the century in which it takes place: bits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story (1886), a bit of Jack the Ripper (1888 London), body snatching for illicit experiments (18th & 19th century in general) and Burke and Hare (1820s Edinburgh).
Dr. Jekyll, realizing that he’ll die of old age before he can finish any of his wonder cures, decides to discover the secret of life, and uses the selected inner organs of young dead sweet things from the local morgue to do so. When that source runs out, he procures the services of Burke and Hare, before the former is killed and the latter blinded by mob justice. Dr. Jekyll succeeds at a formula that, while making him ageless, also transforms him into the hot-bodied thang he refers to as his sister, the widowed Mrs. Hyde. To continue and perfect his research, the good doctor has no option left but to procure the needed bits of babes by himself. At first he’s the one who goes out at night, knifing and dissecting the big-boobed hookers of his Whitechappel neighborhood. (It can’t help but be noticed how voluptuous the hookers always are in any similar films also featuring this time period and ladies of the trade). Eventually, it being too dangerous for a man to go hunting, Sister Hyde ventures out in folds of red velvet to slice and dice. Slowly but surely, the two parts of the whole enter a war over who is in control and, in turn, has the true right to exist; a fight in which neither is has any real moral advantage, as both are equally guilty of murder. In the course of events, a best friend and more hookers (to whom no man could say no to) are murdered and Sister Hyde continuously tries but seemingly never succeeds at getting laid (the real source of her anger, actually).
The duel between the two ids reaches a pinnacle of sorts when Hyde attempts to murder the sweet young lady from upstairs who has such an innocent crush on our doctor. Of course, the not so good doctor eventually gets revealed as the murderer of those fine specimens of womanhood and the chase is on. It is this very chase that prevents the film from becoming a classic in horror films: ineffectually filmed and unconvincingly staged, it lacks believability, reeking of a film author who didn’t have the time to think of something more creative and of a director too lazy to film it well. Likewise, while all the special effects featured in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde are of inferior quality, none are so jarringly so as the half-man, half-woman face revealed at the end.
In spite of any shortcomings it has, including its general less than frightening nature, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is still one of the better latter horror genre entries from Hammer Films and is more than fun enough to watch.

Les triplettes de Belleville / The Triplets of Belleville (France, 2003)

"I saw this movie for the first time when I was eleven.
Scared the shit out of me

(scizophrenicpanda on

The animated masterpiece of oddity Les triplettes de Belleville / The Triplets of Belleville, nominated for two Oscars in 2004 (but won neither), is the first feature-length film of its auteur director (and writer) Sylvain Chomet, a former graphic novelist—i.e., comic artist and writer—from France whose current seat of production seems to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he has formed animation studio called Django Films, which he named after the famed guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt. Django actually makes a brief appearance in Les triplettes de Belleville—along a number of other luminaries of the past including Spike Jones, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire—in the opening nightclub scene of the film. The scene, a kinetically surreal and over-the-top visual treat that calls to mind the nightclub scenes of any number of vintage animation shorts from the 1930s or 40s, also highlights the three singing sisters for whom the film is named, a trio of singing females probably inspired by The Boswell Sisters and/or the more famous trio they themselves inspired, The Andrew Sisters. But this B&W singing extravaganza, which initially starts out in the "real" world as the film opens, statics-out to reveal itself as a television broadcast being watched by the rural inhabitants Madame Souza and her chronically depressed grandson Champion. In search of something to make the young lad smile, Madame Souza first buys him a pet dog named Bruno and, after realizing that the plump child has a thing for bicycles, a tricycle. And never was there a child happier to ride in circles than this young, overweight boy....
Time passes and the city encroaches onto their rural isolation, and by the time Champion has grown to an adult, pencil-thin cyclist with legs of Schwarzenegger muscle they live amidst the grime of a Paris-like metropolis, possibly circa late-1950s. Madame Souza, her whistle glued to her mouth, helps Champion train as they prepare for what must be their shared dream: Le Tour de France! But when the big day arrives, two mysterious men in black incapacitate her vehicle and, soon after, kidnap both Champion and two other participants in the race.
With the help of the now-overweight Bruno, Madame Souza manages to trace and follow her grandson across the great big sea to the city of Belleville (a New York City like none before seen), but there they finally lose the scent. Alone in a strange land with no friends or money, she falls in with the now impoverished Belleville Triplets, who live on boiled frogs and frozen tadpoles and bring in the rent money by performing Einstürzende-Neubauten-inspired jam sessions at a French restaurant-bar frequented by the very French Mafioso that is responsible for the kidnapping of the three cyclists in France. He uses the cyclists at his illegal gambling den to conduct his own rather odd version of bicycle racing….
Can the Madame Souza, Bruno and the three sisters save Champion? Of course they can—whereupon the film resorts to the oldest plot device of animated films, the extended chase scene, as equally common to Betty Boop films (two of the best being I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932) and The Old Man on the Mountain (1933) and any given contemporary film from Pixel, Dreamworks, etc.
That Les triplettes de Belleville didn’t win an Oscar is hardly surprising, for it is much too an eccentric film, much to individualistic in its vision and much too idiosyncratic in its execution to appeal to the mainstream masses of the USA—and anywhere, possibly. Virtually dialog-free, the film is a beautiful, horrific, magical treat in which the actual narrative plays second fiddle to the possible visuals that the oft-dreamlike situations enable. Indeed, it is this oft-grotesque, oft-haunting, oft-hilarious visual originality that ensures that the overly simple story doesn’t doom the film. By the time the film ends oh-so-abruptly after 78 minutes, the viewer has been drawn in so wonderfully to Chomet's unique universe that the full-circle ending feels truly like coitus interuptus of the worst sort—why, damn-it, must we return to reality?
I want more...!
Be advised, as the quote originally found on youtube and presented at the top of this review indicates, Les triplettes de Belleville may be a wonderfully drawn and artistically satisfying animated masterpiece, but it is not necessarily a children's film. In this sense, the film is much more The Fantastic Planet (1973 / trailer) than it is, say, Bambi (1942 / trailer) or Finding Nemo (2003 / trailer), the family deaths of both those films notwithstanding.

As an added treat, here is the music video that goes to the film. The song was written by Benoît Charest with lyrics are by Sylvain Chome; the version here is performed by M (aka Mathieu Chedid) and the Triplets of Belleville (the voice of Béatrice Bonifassi).

Ten Best Films in 2009

For the first time, A Wasted Life is putting together a list of 10 Best Films, in this case the 10 Best Films seen for the first time in 2009. In other words: not necessarily made in 2009, but watched that year.
Excluding the 12 Short Films of the Month, I reviewed 116 films in 2009, many of which I have liked, many of which I haven't. But among those that I have liked, there are some that I am truly happy having seen, having had the chance to discover for myself. And discover is the key word here. Among the 116 films I’ve reviewed, some were not new discoveries: they were films—like Django (1966) or For A Few Dollars More (1965) or Night of the Creeps (1986)—that I had seen before once or twice or thrice and chose to see again to review for A Wasted Life. Films like that, or like Combat Shock (1986), which I saw and wrote the review of some years ago, are not on this list as much as I think they belong on a "Best of" list. They were not new discoveries, they are old favorites.
All the films presented below were new discoveries for me, and as such, are the Ten Best Films in 2009. Actually, one or two are arguably not even all that good, but they were such a pleasant surprise (or so different than what was expected) that they earned their place on this list.
The order in which they are listed is not necessarily a statement of preference. If I had to decide for one film alone between the films below for this evening, I would probably find it so difficult to choose one that I would watch none and choose something I haven't yet seen. (Decisions are easier when watching in a group, for there is always someone who hates B&W films, Asian films, etc, and the preference of guests always comes to play when I choose a DVD for an audience larger than me, myself and I.) Therefore, I present my selected Ten Best Films in 2009 simply in alphabetical order (according to the English-language name).
Those of which I could find a trailer are represented by such; those with none, well, as you can see, they are represented with an image trawled from the web. To see what I have to say about them, the titles have been linked to the respective review.Enjoy my selection—and feel free to have something to say about it!

(Canada, 1974)

Psycho Beach Party
(USA, 2000)

(Thailand, 2004)

The Big House
(USA, 1930)

The Hazing
(USA, 2004)
In all truth, I was initially indecisive between this flick and Sovia: Death Hospital (2009) which, although a student film, does display more cinematic talent and promise. But while Sovia is a very effective horror story, it is somewhat dry and totally lacks T&A. The Hazing might not be very scary, but it is rather funny and entertaining and does have portion of T&A on the side. T&A, like sausage, goes a long way here at A Wasted Life...

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