Hallowe’en Special! Movies reviewed: My Soul to Take, Hereafter, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, LA Zombie, Cold Fish

Toronto is a scary place – and I don’t just mean the city elections this week. Our new mayor is… Biff Tannen! And I saw a couple hundred zombies marching through Kensington market last Saturday. But it’s about to get even scarier — this is Hallowe’en weekend, when everyone wants to see a scary, gory, spooky, otherwordly, gripping, chilling, or thrilling movie. So today I’m going to look at five Hallowe’eny movies: a slasher-horror pic, a spooky drama, a gripping thriller, and two more that played at TIFF this year.

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

Like the Agatha Christie classic Ten Little Indians, this slasher pic has seven seventeen-year-olds each wondering who’s going to get killed next. You see, 17 years ago a crazed, serial killer kicked the bucket just as his widow was giving birth prematurely. And at the same hospital, six others were born the same day… they became a nerd, a jock, a Jane Austen Christian, a blind guy, a snobby girl, a family kid, and one more, Bug, who is slightly whack: he periodically slips into a Tourettes-like state where he imitates the voices of the other six preemies. So which one’s the slasher? Or is he possessing someone? Or maybe the original killer’s still alive and hiding in the woods?

And you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the end; getting there is most of the fun. It’s a Wes Craven movie – (the guy who directed the Scream series and wrote A Nightmare on Elm St) so you can be there’ll be lots of bathroom mirror scenes, shadowy killers in costume, and an equal number of red herrings. It’s interesting to watch, the characters are funny, and even though it’s mainly formulaic, it’s enjoyable. It’s also bloody and violent. What it wasn’t, though, it wasn’t especially scary.

My Soul to Take is a fun one to watch with a group of friends on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

What happens after you die? And if life goes on, is there any contact between life and the afterlife? This movie (very, very slowly) follows three separate story lines trying to answer this question. Matt Damon plays a San Francisco psychic who thinks his gift is a curse: every time George touches someone else skin, he is hit by a vision of the dead who want to talk to her. So he decides to work instead in a sugar warehouse. Meanwhile, Marie (C»cile De France), an intelligent Parisian tele-journalist and her producer/lover encounter disaster in the tropics, and her near-death experience leads her to explore the boundary between life and death. Finally, a pair of somber, identical twin brothers, being raised by a junky mother in London, encounter death as well. Will they ever be able to communicate again?

OK, Herafter is not a bad drama, and I’ll watch practically anything with a hint of magic or the supernatural, but its glacial pace, and lugubrious tone combined with a non-religious angel motif, make it feel mostly like a big-budget episode of Ghost Whisperer (“He says he forgives you… now, walk into the light”). The three storylines eventually come together, but at least for the first half hour, I wondered is it going to go on like this for whole movie – unfinished story after unfinished story? It’s not really scary at all, it’s Clint Eastwood, at the age of 80, telling a relaxing tale of people pondering life and death. See it if you like sipping warm cocoa on Halowe’en.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Dir: Daniel Alfredson

Lisbeth Salander and journalist Blomkvist are back again for part three of their story. Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. And Blomkvist, the committed leftist investigative journalist at the Swedish magazine Millenium, will do anything he can to help her. The last movie ended with a bloody shoot out, and this one starts up immediately afterwards, with Lisbeth, near death in a hospital, charged with attempted murder, and Blomkvist on the verge of uncovering a cold-war era conspiracy involving government, police, and psychiatry.

So the two sides gear up for the long fight, culminating in a bug trial. On one side they’re all trying to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and get it to print before the trial. But the bad guys – mainly a bunch of old Swedish guys in suits – will stop at nothing – including murder, intimidation, and character assassination – to keep the secrets secret. The pale blue-eyed and goateed psychiatrist, Dr Teleborian, is especially sinister, with his plans to use the veneer of psychiatry to hide his true motives.

And then there’s the wildcards on both sides, including Niedermeier, the giant blond thug who can feel no pain, and Plague, the shy, secretive computer geek extraordinaire.

So, I liked it a lot, as a conclusion to the three-part movie series. I think it’s much better to see the first two before you watch this one. I also missed the beautiful cinematic camerawork of Dragon Tattoo – this one was much more indoors, with pedestrian TV-like scenes, and without all of the unexpected plot revelations of the first two.

But it’s still worth seeing. I love rooting for the heroes when they barely escape a killer, and mentally cheering when the villains mess up. (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels more like a BBC detective miniseries — not a bad thing to be) This movie is two and a half hours long, so be prepared for a slow start with a good payoff. You’ll need lots of Hallowe’en popcorn for this one.

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

A muscle bound monster emerges out of a Pacific beach like a creature from the black lagoon. All around him is violence – shootouts in the ravines, murder in drug deals gone wrong, cars spilling off the highways, and the slow violence graduaully crushing the homeless and undocumented of downtown Los Angeles. The zombie monster (porn actor Francois Sagat) is observing all and is saddened by it.

But unlike the voraciously eating- zombies we usually see, who inflict their condition on the living, this one is a sort of a messiah. Through the disgusting – but gentle – sex he has with all the newly dead corpses he encounters – and it’s always gay sex with male corpses, by the way – he brings the bodies back to life. The strangely-coloured semen that comes out of his grotesquely-shaped penis is a panacea: ejaculation equals rejuvenation.

L.A. Zombie is a violent and gory zombie movie, with very few lines, but with lots of colourful, pornographic gay sex between a gentle zombie and the spilt organs of fresh corpses. More than anything else, it’s also an experimental art film, at times quite beautiful, with extended tableaux, urban landscapes and sunsets, and some documentary-looking footage of the marginal and lost beings of Los Angeles. By the end you get the impression that the zombie scenes are just the imaginary fantasies of a destitute, muscle-bound, mentally-ill homeless guy.

L.A. Zombie turns the Hallowe’en monster-as-villain paradigm upside down, and shows that the real monster… is us.

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

This movie also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I see a couple hundred movies every year, and I don’t normally leave a movie shaking, googly-eyed, saying “what the fuck was that?!” to total strangers. But I did after this ultimate, extreme Japanese exploitation film about a mild-mannered Shizuoka tropical fish dealer who is pulled into the sway of an aggressive entrepreneur and serial killer.

Based on a true story, Shamato is a wimpy widower who owns a tropical fish store. His young, second wife shops with her eyes closed and cooks rice in a microwave. His teenaged daughter Mitsuko is dating a hood and shoplifts for fun. He seeks solace in the peace of the local planetarium. But soon his miserable existance is altered by a hyper-enthusiastic entrepreneur, Murata, who tells him “Business is entertainment!” Soon, Mitsuko is living in his big box store dorm working as a glamour fish salesgirl wearing hotpants and a tanktop, and his wife is also on Murata’s side (after an attack/rape scene that “pulls her out of her wretched life…”) All is not well.

Shamato is soon made an unwitting accomplice in a crooked fish scam, bilking investors in a “rare”, ugly amazon fish venture. Soon he discovers Murata and his wife don’t just defraud investors, they also kill them in a most awful way, inside a tiny church. They glory in the blood and guts, sexually playing with their organs and body parts, and joyfully disposing of the remaining flesh and bones, drenching them with soy sauce and roasting them in an outdoor barbecue!

It’s up to milquetoast Shamato either to become a willing part of their awful lives or to fight back and stop it forever.

What can I say? This has got to be the most depraved exploitation film I’ve ever seen. It’s joining of sex and death makes even Miike seem tame, and LA Zombie is like a gentle glimpse of flowers and rainbows in comparison. Definitely one of the most horrific movies ever, Cold Fish retains its credibility (without sinking to the “Saw” level of pornographic torture.) The most shocking and disturbing movie of the year.

Shame and Guilt. Movies reviewed: Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I was talking about that cheesie sword-and-sandals movie Clash of the Titans as a “guilty pleasure”, meaning something I enjoyed, even though I realized it was a bad movie. And a woman I know told me she has a weakness for what she calls “chick-lit”, and the equivalent type of movies, chick flicks and "rom coms" (romantic comedies) – they were her guilty pleasures. She devours those books by the dozen and automatically goes to any movie with even a hint of the old TV show Sex in the City. A guilty pleasure.

But then I thought about it. Where’s the guilt? Where’s the sin? What’s morally wrong with going to a bad movie and enjoying it anyway? Nothing. And I was at an after-party with a filmmaker a couple weeks ago, and made a comment about the crowds at the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. His response: “You saw Hot Tub Time Machine? For shame!”

Is it shameful to go to bad movies? I’d say no to that, too.

Once they dim the lights in a theatre, you’re a passive viewer, no shame there. You didn’t make the movie. But this sort of crystallizes for me the subtle difference between guilt and shame. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict declared after World War II, that the US was a guilt culture, whereas Japan, (which was under US military occupation at the time) was a shame culture. In other words, she said, in a guilt culture, like the US, you feel terrible deep down inside when you do something wrong, but in a shame culture, like Japan, you feel your reputation among others is what is damaged when you do something wrong or unacceptable. (I don’t buy the US / Japan distinction, but shame culture / guilt culture is an interesting concept.)

Anyway, to get back to movies, maybe we all set the bar fairly low in terms of what we can derive enjoyment from, but as long as you can both tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one, and then accept your own taste in movies, whether they’re good or bad, you’re fine. No shame, and no guilt, just pleasure. Not guilty pleasure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is what it says it is – a comedy with a paper-thin plot. A bunch of middle-aged losers pining for their glory days — days of getting drunk, getting stoned, and trying to get laid at a ski lodge — decide to revisit it. But once they get there they see the place has gone to seed, just like their lives. But somehow a hot tub sends them back – back to the future – to relive the worst of the eighties. Then they do jokey comedy things as they try to get back. That’s the movie. The visual punchlines were mainly based on the various liquids that are expelled from men’s bodies. (You get the picture.) I think they were all covered. Except maybe… pus. Was there a pus joke? I think they’re saving that for the sequel.

The thing is, it was sort of funny, in an intentionally campy way. I saw it with zero expectations, so I ended up laughing — or groaning — a lot. The comedians / actors – especially Rob Corddry, in all his horribleness — were good at what they were doing, and there were a few good cameos, notably Crispin Glover as the one-armed bellboy.

Don’t feel ashamed for seeing this movie, but don’t feel guilty if you miss it.

Greenberg

"Greenberg", a new movie by Noah Baumbach, who directed the really great "The Squid and the Whale" a few years ago, is a human drama about a guy going through an internal crisis, and the aimless woman he gets involved with. Boy meets girl.

This is a romantic comedy – sort of — that’s made the way romantic comedies should be made, if I had my druthers.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) crashes like a green iceberg onto his brother’s house in L.A. He’s a feckless, benighted, compulsive, neurotic carpenter who’s there to do nothing in particular, and doesn’t mind saying so. He wants to be alone and resents the world for invading his house-sitting solitude. He’s totally shameless — saying whatever pops into his mind – but also wracked with guilt for his past misdeeds. He has no possessions — no house, no car – to worry about, just his toolbelt. He is building a wooden doghouse for Mahler, his brother’s dog, as he learns to cope outside a mental institution.

Greenberg got along OK in Manhattan, hopping cabs or taking the subway, but he suddenly finds himself back in LA, dependent on his former best friend (Rhys Ifans) whose rock career he’d sabotaged, and his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to ferry him around. He’s horrified and baffled by the whole city.

Then he begins to have a sort of a relationship with younger Florence, who is driven and hardworking, but adrift, and coming to terms with the physical consequences of a previous relationship. Can they love each other? Can they even stand each other?

They’re both “hurt people” who are afraid they’ll hurt other people. All of the characters in Greenberg, even the bit parts, are interesting, and three-dimensional (as opposed to 3-D), though not necessarily likeable.

The whole movie looks like the late 70’s or early 80’s – the colours, the design, the costumes, the font of the titles, the way the camera moves or zooms in, most of the music on the soundtrack… everything. It’s stunning to watch. Don’t go to this expecting a whacky, overacted Ben Stiller comedy. Go for a moving, gentle – though mildly disturbing – comic drama. This is a really good movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another good movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is opening today. This is a great Swedish mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet. Tons of shame and guilt here.

But Blomkvist is gradually unveiling the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous helper on the internet.
This helper, Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

This is just the kind of mystery-thriller I like, where you’re solving it alongside the characters, but with enough hidden that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. It’s visually fantastic, with clues and images like old photos and newspaper clippings driving the story – so much so, you wonder how it worked on paper. It also has lots of amazing Swedish scenery and landscapes, makes you want to jump on a plane to Stockholm – if it weren’t for all the thugs, murderers, rapists, stalkers and Nazi’s hiding in the pine trees.

A few potential drawbacks: this movie has a few extremely violent, extended scenes. They’re not exploitative scenes – the movie doesn’t glorify the violence or make it titillating; you feel for the victims not the violence – but it’s still a bit hard to watch. It’s also tied to the famous mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, so it spends a long time tying up all the loose ends in the story. But I think it’s a great movie, and I can’t wait for the next one. I think I’m going to read book two in the meantime… but I won’t call it a guilty pleasure.

%d bloggers like this: