a zoo in hell


Carrie (2013)

Carrie (2013): An Awkward Phase

This movie is a problem.

News flash, right? This 2013 version of Carrie is a great example of what is most broken in the film industry at the moment. This was an unnecessary remake to begin with, as the original still holds up pretty well. The amount of re-interpretation isn't enough to make it definitively separate from the original, but is just different enough to make me wonder why they decided to make another "Carrie" movie. Hollywood hasn't ever really had a problem borrowing heavily from previous or competing films, so why the need to actually title this film "Carrie"? Kids who don't remember or care about the original film will have no investment in "Carrie" and the ones that do will probably be annoyed out of their gothy little socks.

Honestly, I fast forwarded through the "teen drama". The teens in the film felt too much like teens you might find in a tv urban fantasy show, too perfect and beautiful to be believed. The teens in "Carrie" '76 were typical, but they were believably typical. That's what made Carrie White's (Sissy Spacek) ordeal as painful as it was, you knew this was really happening somewhere. I don't believe these high school kids exist anywhere outside of Hollywood's dream of life.

So, I should totally trash this movie, right? That's the problem. There were many good things in this film. Julianne Moore really brought the creepy to Margaret White, displacing the borderline campiness of Piper Laurie's version with something more desperate and anxious. While no one is ever going to surpass Sissy Spacek's awkward and tormented Carrie White, Chloƫ Grace Moretz does bring something contemporary to this tortured "witch". Moretz's Carrie is shell-shocked to begin with, not just an awkward teen, but someone who is seriously out of place. Closer to a feral child than a shy girl. At times this performance is too cute and too clever, but for the most part it is an interesting take on the character.

I do not know if this rendering of the 2013 Carrie is the result of director Kimberly Peirce or Moretz, but this version is heavily influenced by relatively recent films like Sadako from "Ringu". Something in this film is closer to a classic monster movie than the tragedy of the 1976 version. There is a point in the film where it becomes clear that Carrie is beyond redemption, she has become the evil witch that her mother feared she always was. Her performance brings this creature to life, she leers through streaks of blood, lurches like a being possessed, is alight with evil glee at the mayhem she has created.

So, there was considerable creative work that went into making this modern "Carrie" a mutation of the original, one aspect suffers from oversight and is the biggest problem among many. The imagery of students being slaughtered in a gym, locked in with a blood-spattered classmate, and suffering at the hands of an "outcast" feels very different when not seen through the nostalgic filter of thirty or so years. I don't think I am particularly sensitive, yet I can't imagine anyway you couldn't make a mainstream movie about this and not be aware of the context of it is released into.

This lack of attention, this lack of commentary is a fatal flaw for Carrie. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to compare it to when "The Green Berets" was released, completely tone-deaf, in the midst of the Vietnam War. This is a spoiled creative opportunity, but also something that feels like disregard or even a kind of inhumanity that should be seen with suspicion. I expect that somewhere above-the-line there was a decision to not deal with these topics so as to avoid controversy or accusations of exploitation, but the lack of comment invites worse criticism.

Perhaps instead of creating a patchwork monstrosity of old and new, the filmmakers would have been better off creating a monster for our time and of our time. There certainly are plenty of them to be found.


Contracted (2013)

"Contracted" - Cronenberg Interruptus


For all the bouncing boobs and sex scenes in eighties slasher films, there is actually an inverse relationship between horror and sex. The two are inseparable on a deep level, but the more sex and real horror get intertwined in a movie, the more people will repulsed by the very idea of the film. Over the last decade, their have been a few filmmakers brave enough to jump right over this line. "Teeth" (2007) springs to mind immediately; "Inside" (2007), "Thanatomorphose" (2012), and "American Mary" (2012) are most relevant here. "Nekromantik" (1988) is worth mentioning.

"Contracted" aims to be among their company. Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is roofie-raped at a friend's party and discovers the morning after that her body is strangely afflicted. There's a whole lot of blood down there, and it keeps coming out. A dark rash is spreading upwards from her pubic area, and she starts having a hard time focusing on anything. Things get worse. Parts fall off. Maggots appear. Sponteneous bruises. Her doctor can't help and she is mostly in denial to begin with. As she had been living as a lesbian prior to her date rape, she has a hard time admitting that she even had sex with a man. The worse she gets the more she isolates herself. Her religious mother is convinced Samantha, a former drug user, has fallen off the wagon. Her life falls apart as quickly as her body deteriorates without any clear reason why or how.

Samantha is not really a likeable character. You feel sorry for her, of course, but it gets harder and harder to sympathize with her the more she ignores the obvious problem. When the film enters the third act, she is much more a monster run rampant than a long afflicted person struggling to survive. Think "The Fly" with sex instead of a teleporter. Partly this is because the story gives us few reasons to root for her, but as much of the blame lies with Townsend's performance of her. She comes of as whiny, shallow and incapable of taking action at all. This is not Ripley. She's pretty much a feminist film theory disaster. When her lesbian ex-lover shuts her out, we can't really disagree with her. We've all known this woman and seldom would we think we'd want to watch a movie about her. Unpleasant screen characters have to be interesting,there has to be a reason to keep watching them. The only emotional suspense in "Contracted" is waiting to find out how much of her body falls apart before she really tries to save herself.

Despite this, it's not all bad. Director Eric England is brave enough or naive enough to stick his camera in places most men wouldn't ever want to go to. (I subconsciously chose to watch this back-to-back with the "Carrie" remake and was struck with the similarity as well as the massive gulf between the two.) So, there is plenty to horrify men as well as women. Horror is the key to this, because the film relies solely on the "ick" factor to drive it's anxiety. There's nothing terribly deep or really unsettling about these scenes, but there are plenty of bodily gross-outs. The post-coital maggots were a nice touch. The details of her transformation are rendered well enough by director and cast, but again, there are no stakes and we don't know how far this is all going to go.

You can hope for an all-out onslaught of decay at the end of this, but sorry, it's not going to arrive. I won't deliver the spoiler, but I will say the ending of this film takes a really sharp turn into mediocrity just when it needed to go all the way the previous seventy minutes were headed toward. This doesn't really offer anything you won't get in any number of low-budgie zombie flicks, sadly. As an independent filmmaker myself, I really wanted this film to succeed despite itself, but it didn't quite make it. I love seeing a filmmaker with limited means make a mind-blowing, original horror movie, but "Contracted" isn't quite there.

The production is perfectly competent, if a little pedestrian. This film was shot in L.A. and it shows in every single frame of this. I realized that I really never ever want to see mainstream Los Angeles in another movie again. For such a cultural center, it sure is remarkably bland and uninspiring to look at. The film's style was equally reserved, not straying too far from conservative film form to tell its story. Maybe the director wanted the normal nature of the production to act as counter-point for the challenging material, but it left me thinking something crucial was missing. What would Cronenberg do, Mr. Anderson?

I really should mention that the sound design tried really hard to do something really fucking cool. Sometimes, the sound department (Duncan Mathieson and Phillip Bladh) got it really right, but too often the layers came out as blaring cacophony. I can imagine this sounded different in a full surround mix, but the filmmakers would be well-served to remember that many of us still live in a stereo world. Also, if your go-to for ratcheting up tension is to crank the volume, you should really rethink the structure of the film itself.

To be honest, I have a masochistic habit of watching the dregs of horror offerings on Netflix, wondering how long I can watch them or marveling at how something so wrong can still get distribution. My reaction to most of these film is "Why?" Why were they made? Why were they finished? Why were they distributed? Why does this look more like the future of filmmaking then an abundance of riches? I didn't find myself reaching for "Why?" during "Contracted".

I know exactly why it was made and what it was reaching for. Unfortunately, the film sheds just enough light on the goal to highlight the exact gulf between the illusions of desire and the nitty-gritty of the act itself.

T.A. Wardrope


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Absurd Symmetries: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"


I suppose it would be a bit controversial to say that Wes Anderson films are similar to cinema by other auteurs such as David Lynch or the Coen Brothers. On the surface, the worlds of Lynch and Anderson are universes apart, but their fundamental DNA is not that distinct. Both filmmakers create worlds to contain their stories, and those worlds only use the visual language of consensual reality to wrap their narratives in sense. Lynch's worlds are every bit as idiosyncratic and artificial as Wes Anderson's. They are equally artful, as well.

While most of Wes Anderson's films deal with separation and alienation of some sort, whether it by culture or family, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is drawn in much darker, wider, strokes than the earlier works. While all of his films are whimsy and fairy, this is one that is closer to the original works of Grimm than Disney.

In a story within a story, the owner of the Grand Budapest, Mr. "Zero" Moustafa relates how he came to be the owner.  By explaining the adventures of M. Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest during the twilight war years, he ties the fate of the hotel in with the whole trajectory of pre-Nazi Europe.

M. Gustave is a "flamboyant" character who also privately entertains the wealthy ladies he meets during the course of his duties. One of these ladies mentions him in her will, and this puts him afoul of the more evil branches of her well-to-do clan. One thing leads to another, and he hasto prove his innocence while surviving the fall into fascism all around him. This is a long and treacherous road, and there is much more violence, though still a bit cartoonish, then any of Anderson's other films. The nods to Kubrick's "The Shining" are not out of place in this world.

Performance in a Wes Anderson film is a mannered thing. As an actor you have two roles, that of the character you play and that of the character as it exists in Anderson's peculiar world of choice. You can't be angry, you have to be Wes Anderson angry. Most of the actors embody this attitude in the most entertaining ways, finding sympathy and pathos in even the most caricatured moments. Willem Dafoe (Jopling) recalls his Nosferatu performance from Shadow of the Vampire, but develops it with fascist undertones. Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustave) is larger-than-life but never ridiculous. Much of what he does is quite funny, but it is never played too much for laughs. His romantic idealism, his perfumed world, is the emotional heart of the entire film. Adrien Brody (Dmitri) is the Goldfinger to Dafoe's Oddjob. He's a spastic sort of evil mastermind, and there's a kind of raw savagery in everything he does which I've never seen in a Brody performance previously. All this despite the villain mustache.

There are the usual parade of cameos in this movie, but they are pleasantly paced and inspire a sense of "grandness" and scope for this story. This is an all-star cast, but a lo-fi presentation without the subtle fanfare of a film like "The Monuments Men". There are plenty of stars, but none of them outshine the light at the center of the narrative.

A Wes Anderson film is about Wes Anderson, of course. (I suppose a Michael Bay film is about Michael Bay, too, but we don't want to think what the means, do we?) He likes to be different, perhaps in a precious art school way, but there is a consistency to his vision. What separates his filmmaking from any number of earnest hipsters, is the fact that is balanced and symmetrical world is deeply off kilter and out of order. His harmonious compositions reflect a disharmony and brokeness. The Wes Anderson vanishing point, the focal point, is dead center, but that is really a distraction. This is slight-of-hand, we are watching one thing while being lead into another entirely. This technique is most effective here, drawing out the space between the cartoon malevolence and the truth only increases awareness of both.

Stylistically, Wes Anderson uses much of his old tricks; miniature work, animation, pushes and pulls, long horizontal tracking shots, and a very conscious framing throughout. Interestingly, he breaks form on a few occasions and I was relieved to see him pushing against his own style. There are some edits which navigate cinematic space in a way he doesn't usually do, and some of the camera work and placement is unsymmetrical. I don't know what this means in the larger design of his creation, but it is worth noting.

You could make the connection between the faded glory of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Hollywood itself, but that would be one of many possible subtextual readings. I suppose that the most useful way to see this film is to understand that even in the perfectly ordered world of Wes Anderson's Zubrowka, things are falling apart, falling into ruin and the center cannot hold any better than in our real world. This perfection he presents, this intelligent design, is merely an illusion which adorns the truth like a long abandoned wild west set sits in the desert. By attempting to disguise the truth, it merely draws that very thing into vibrant and brilliant relief. This is a perfectly framed picture that is really a window into chaos.


Dirty Wars (2013)

Dirty Wars

I was going to just ignore this movie, but then I noticed it was nominated for an Oscar. Excuse me? I stopped watching it when the protagonist "war reporter" explained that he had never heard of SOCCOM before like it was some sort of super-secret military group. No credibility. At all.

That is all.

Ender's Game (2013)

Ender's Game

Okay, so Orson Scott Card is a science fiction visionary if ever there was one. Unfortunately, he's gotten himself wrapped up with a point-of-view that is at the very least bigoted, at the most completely moronic, and is also, by virtue of being conservative, hostile to his chosen field of expression.

Plenty of visionaries are assholes in real life, that's for sure, but what makes his case rather tragic is how close he came to being truly prescient with the book this film is based on. Young men conducting war like it was a video game? Where have I heard of that happening? Mass violence abstracted with technology? What a strange and alien concept!

I don't know about this movie. There's some cool special effects, but that's about all there is to recommend. Harrison Ford (Col. Graff) is not at his best, he's like the President in "Air Force One" with a severe hangover or high amounts of THC in his system. He only is pretending to give a flying frack about this whole war for the future of humanity thing. Ender's (Asa Butterfield) transformation from idealistic kid to killer to rebel is an arc we've seen in many anti-war stories, but here it feels like kind of a whiney version of "Born on the Fourth of July" or grade-school "Starship Troopers".

Never mind that someone high on the food chain clearly thought this was the same sort of thing as "Hunger Games" or maybe wanted to make it more like "Hunger Games". Surprised they didn't change the title to "Ender's Games". (Asylum should get right on that!)

Overall, it's also tragic that there was so much outcry over Orson Scott Card's politics in regards to this film. Not because they were wrong, of course, but because if not for that, this film would have been forgotten that much sooner. Personally, I keep books and movies in different compartments of mental space, but I know that this film will color many people's view of the book. Which is probably the biggest disappointment of all. The correct response to this film isn't really outrage, certainly not awe, but quite exactly a soft and nearly unspoken "meh".


T.A. Wardrope

Sharknado (2013)



If you read enough about genre films, sooner or later you are going to come to something about the allegorical nature of modern genre fiction. Going back to the very beginnings of both horror and science-fiction, we see a tendency to make subtle and not so subtle commentary on the state of the world. "Godzilla" and nuclear weapons, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and nuclear weapons, science run amok in all sorts of movies like "The Fly", "Metropolis", or "The Terminator". "Frankenstein" had a bit of everything; a little cautionary tale, a little indictment of human vanity, and body horror which was a century and a half ahead of its time.

"Sharknado" fits into the tradition by posing the question "What if climate change and overfishing created super storms that flung man-eating sharks into the air?" Watching "Sharknado", you can appreciate the intensity the filmmakers must have felt for their material. There is an amazing attention to detail in every digital frame of this epic monster movie.

While it is clear that the director Anthony Ferrante did his very best to coax every nuanced moment of the screenplay from his performers, this acute sort of performance rivals the visual mastery evident from the opening shots of the ocean to the final conflict with the flying sharks. Airborne leviathans is what they are really. Flying grey destroyers of worlds. The endless teeth of Nemesis.

The sharks themselves are rendered with such care and attention to detail that they challenge the god of sharks himself, Jaws, with their personality and menace. If this were in 3D it would be too much for the more weak-hearted members of the audience, no doubt. Yet for all of the allegorical flights into magical realism, "Sharknado" is firmly grounded in the practical "What-Ifs" of the situation. Like "The Walking Dead" every decision that the characters make is drawn with strokes of realism and practical solutions. We may not be facing flying sharks anytime soon, but if we do, we can turn to the survival skills of this plucky band of heroes for guidance.

Actually, no. This is pretty much just your standard SyFy dreck.


Machete (2010)



What I'll tell you at the bar: Seems kind of violent for a kid's film.

The real deal: This is probably the best thing to come out of "Grindhouse", the anthology film that almost put the final nail in  Quentin Tarentino's man-sized pine box. "Death Proof" was a mess, "Planet Terror" was cool but seemed a little outside the genre it was supposed to mimic. The trailers for films not yet made were the best part of it, and this feature film, along with "Hobo With a Shotgun" were spawned from them.

"Machete" is the story of Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo), a former police officer who was betrayed by a conspiracy he was an unknowing pawn in (See "Welcome to the Punch"). His wife is killed, his bright-eyed partner is shot and Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal) leaves him for dead. This isn't a spoiler, but the sequence where the partner is killed is hilarious and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Machete, in typical take no prisoners manner, hurtles his car toward the front gate of Torrez's fortress estate. In the resulting storm of automatic weapons fire, aimed only at the passenger seat, this partner (Vic Trevino) is riddled into a bloody pulp while Machete is unscathed. This is how you make an action movie, kids!

This movie is just a few dollars above the Troma level of filmmaking, but it offers similar pleasures. Completely over-the-top gore and action sequences, obligatory gratuitous nudity and dialogue which is a loving homage to the hamfisted expressions of the cinema that inspired it. Though parts of the film have digital film damage added to it, but there are other parts which are authentic recreations of the kind of filmmaking choices grindhouse filmmakers would make, both inspired and insipid. Off-kilter framing, unmotivated jump cuts, and off rhythm edits are all on full parade through the running time of Machete. Unlike other "dumb" films that have been released in the past few years, it is obvious this is a joke and intentional. The all-star cast of cameos sells it completely. Tom Savini gives one of his best onscreen performances, and Seagal works rather well as the unscrupulous drug lord. Trejo's performance is actually above the calibre of the material, he actually shows range far superior to the usual binary acting in exploitation films.

Relentless senseless violence. Naked women. Satire, star cameos and would you look at that poster! What else does a movie need?

T.A. Wardrope