Monday, May 25, 2009

Vacations from Hell

My spring vacation turned out to be one of the most intense movie-watching periods I've had in a while. This was planned--the friend I was visiting is as much of a horror movie nut as I am AND she has an absolutely GI-normous television AND she has some interesting foreign editions of movies that I've been salivating over from afar for quite some time. A number of these are rewatchings, so I'll be cannibalizing old material here. My apologies.

The week didn't start on a good note. My friend's partner likes big stupid movies, so we wound up watching Michael Bay's 1998 insult to everyone's intelligence, Armageddon, a film I hated on its first release and one that I still hate now. This film is loud, stupid, maudlin, incoherent, and just plain painful to watch. It's so hopped up on testosterone that you can smell the reek of it coming off the screen. When it was first released, I wrote of it:


The only time the visual pace slows down is for character development that is so broadly drawn, so cliched, so maudlin, that one prays for the asteroid to strike and wipe everything out so the Earth can start over. In Armageddon's defense, it isn't boring--which is a step up from Deep Impact--but getting roughed up by a mugger isn't boring either. And after two and a half hours of this, the audience starts to show bruises.


My opinion hasn't changed in the intervening decade. The only thing that amuses me about this movie is that it provides Monsters, Inc. with one of its slyest jokes, when it it swipes the famous slow astronaut walk and places Steve Buscemi's villainous Randall in the same spot Buscemi occupied in the shot in Armageddon. But that's no reason to see the movie.

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The real fun began with a triple feature of tourists-in-peril movies, starting with Stuart Gordon's Dagon (2001), which I haven't seen in a while, either. The only other time I watched it, it was on a considerably smaller screen and I missed some of the details of the production. I also missed the content of the chant of the Dagon cultists, which should bring a smile to the face of most Lovecraftians. As a fish out of water story (if you'll pardon the pun), this is most satisfying. I still think parts of it resemble Visconti's La Terra Trema as re-imagined by a lunatic. Heh.

We followed that with another re-watch, this time the director's cut of Carter Smith's The Ruins (2008), which I also like quite a bit. Last year, I wrote:


It's not ambitious. It doesn't want to overreach its modest premise, nor does it pretend to deep philosophical underpinnings, and its lack of ambition will keep it out of the bright circle of horror's best movies. But for what it DOES want to do, it excels. This is a brutal little movie that distills horror down to a simple survival narrative. It doesn't pull its punches at all, either. The story finds a group of vacationing college kids trapped on an uncharted Mayan pyramid by hostile natives. Are they sacrifices? Is there some more sinister purpose? It all clocks in at about an hour and a half, which is exactly as long as B-Movies oughta run. While there is gore aplenty for those that want it, the most disturbing things in the movie to my mind are the flowers. This movie has the scariest inflorescent landscape this side of Oz.


We had an interesting discussion of the alternate ending on the director's cut, as well as the Little Shop of Horror-ish ending that was discarded from both versions. My friend doesn't like the darker ending, and I can't say I fault her reasons. There's no precedent for it in the mythology established within the movie. But, on the other hand, it does lend the film a certain apocalyptic aspect that I kinda like. Either way works. I suppose which works best is a matter of individual tastes.

Finally, there was Rogue (2007, directed by Greg McLean), a leaner, more effective killer crocodile movie than I ever expected. This is a classic b-movie, one that you might have expected to see from New World Pictures in the 1970s. The premise is brutally simple: a tourist boat is marooned by a killer croc on a tidal island in a river through Australia's Northwest Territory. As the tourists try to figure out a way out of their dilemma, the croc picks them off one by one. The real surprise here isn't how effective the movie is--director Greg McLean already demonstrated an instinct for the jugular with Wolf Creek--but rather, how beautiful it is. There are a couple of shots in this movie that remind me of something Howard Hawks once said: "John Ford could command the skies; the rest of us have to use soundstages." After we finished this, I was struck by how similar the narrative is to The Ruins, though I think Rogue is a slightly better movie. I was also struck by how both films re-enact the Beowulf narrative. This is especially true in Rogue, which has a climax in which, having escaped the croc, our hero (Michael Vartan) ends up in the beast's lair. This lends the film a certain atavistic mythological element that lifts it over, say, Lake Placid or Alligator. Good film.

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The Korean DVD box of The Host (2006, directed by Bong Joon-Ho) is mighty spiffy. I'm hard pressed to think of a North American package that I would envy more. The Koreans know how to do right by their movies. The movie remains a favorite, too, and once again, it's fun watching it demolish the monster movie playbook point by point, all the while providing all the monster movie mayhem anyone could ever want. I'm still amazed at how chameleonic lead actor Kang-ho Song is. When I realized that he was the same actor who played the rich man in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I was blown away. I can't wait to see him in Thirst.

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The rest of the week looked like this:

The Water Margin (1972, directed by Chang Cheh), in which the Shaws empty their casting department. This was introducing characters with on-screen text a full half hour into the movie. Confusing but fun, and lots of director Cheh's characteristic gore. I'm partial to the guy who gets a huge ax in the abdomen and still attempts to soldier on.

Have Sword, Will Travel (1969, directed by Chang Cheh), in which the weird buddy movie formula favored by Chang Cheh is enacted by Ti Lung (looking very young and very yummy) and David Chiang, complete with noble sacrifice and lots of arterial blood spray. The climax of this film finds the dual heroes fighting their way to the top of a tower in a sequence that bears a suspicious resemblance to the end of Bruce Lee's Game of Death, though this predates that film and doesn't have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in it. Alas.

When we got to the end of Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky (1986), my main response was, "is that it?" Slight, though filled with the same enthusiasm for steampunk gadgets and the giddy rush of flight as most Miyazaki movies. In its defense, there IS some spiffy robot mayhem.

Finally, there's Frank Borzage's silent melodrama, Seventh Heaven (1928), which I've only ever seen in really crappy editions (longtime movie fans may recognize the words "Video Yesteryear" and grimace a bit). The new transfer for Fox's Murnau and Borzage box isn't pristine, but it's a quantum leap forward compared to what was previously available. This is one of my very favorite films, one that not only demonstrates the technical virtuosity achieved by the late silents, but one that demonstrates the high state of accomplishment of the great silent actors, as well. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar for this film and for Sunrise (made the same year, and a film I forever associate with this one), and never was the award more deserved. She gives a tour de force performance. Borzage's direction is always imaginative, even if his choice of symbols is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, but the movie carries such an emotional punch that it's hard to argue with it.

Oh, and I did fall asleep half way through Re-Animator, but that's no reflection on the movie--which I love--so much as it's a reflection of the fact that I was wiped out when we started it. Travel does that. As does sleep deprivation. My apologies to my hostess.

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