Monthly Archives: April 2005

Jan-Gel 3: Hillbilly Monster

I need to preface this statement by pointing out that I was watching the DVD on my laptop, from work. Which is to say, instead of actively working. Now that I’ve made this point, I shall continue.

That was the longest and least-well spent 82 minutes of my life.

Apparently, being in the Ed Wood acting pool is sufficient grounds for making movies of your very own these days. Thusly, Hillbilly Monster. The heartwarming tale of… I’m not going to lie. To explain the plot, it would have had to actually have a plot. What it had was a loosely related series of events surrounding the titular beast and his escape from a carnival freakshow and subsequent sojourn at a sanitarium.

It was the biggest waste of film I can ever remember seeing. I’m not saying that as a metaphor for ‘it was bad’ (although it was; it was terrible, with only rare flashes of so-bad-it’s-funny (although the zen state taken on as the movie progressed made these moments not merely funny, but actively hilarious, so there’s that)), but as literal fact. There’s just a ton of footage that went on too long, added nothing to the story, and often both at once. Also, of course, the acting was largely tragic even for the parts that needed to be there in the first place. I sincerely believe that a completely random sampling of people would have resulted in more talent on average. I would also here claim that I was writing better scripts at the age of seven and directing better films at fourteen, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so without finding and verifying the things in question; time may have inflated the minimal accomplishments in my mind.

Lastly, though, I want to take the opportunity to make reference to a cinematic oddity this reminded me of. Apparently, the half-human and half-ape creature is a descendant of the original Jan-Gel, whence the reference in the title. The oddity is the lack of a Jan-Gel 2, so far as I could determine. This reminded me of the House movies (The Greatest American Hero owns a haunted house and hangs out with Cheers and Night Court co-stars), which consisted of House, House II: The Second Story, and House IV. Even though imdb exists now and I’ve solved the mystery of the missing House movie to my satisfaction, still: stuff like this is of genuine interest to me. What other horror movie sequels have vanished into the mists, only to be seen in some parallel dimension? Rest assured, I’ll never stop seeking them out. Never! Well, okay, probably not Jan-Gel 2, because, my God. But in the general case, never!

As far as this movie, a better use of your time and money would be on the largely brilliant Freak Show, by the Residents. Or HBO’s Carnivàle, obviously. I mean, unless you like this kind of thing. Some people do, I hear. Even, apparently, me. (But other people, too. I swear I’m not making this up.)

Chakushin Ari

MV5BMjE4ODQ0Mzc4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODA3MzEzMQ@@._V1__SX852_SY468_I have a sense that I’m occasionally going to have to plan trips to Austin solely for the movie-watching opportunities. You know, after I move. Right now, all the planning it takes is remembering to walk out the door a touch over an hour before the movie starts. Which is sufficiently non-trivial that I skip out on lots of stuff I’d love to see, already. So, yeah, that whole going to Austin thing is gonna suck. Perhaps I’ll plan weekends around it, based on cool-movie density. Until then, though, I get to review randomly awesome movies that nobody else has ever heard of.

Such as the one I saw last night, One Missed Call. Yet another Japanese horror movie (as you could probably already tell by the confluence of the imdb-transliterated entry title and my well-documented movie tastes), and it’s getting to the point where there are definitely tropes for the genre. A couple of obvious ones are that the scary avenging spirit must have bad, face-concealing hair and that mirrors are more trustworthy windows on reality than unaided eyes. Plus, there’s the thing where technology has a terrifying dark side. I think that’s what keeps me coming back, and why American horror can’t compete. There’s nothing that terrifies us as a people united, the way that Japan was terrified by the atom bomb in 1945. Without that cultural consciousness to lend gravity to generations of authors and film-makers, we’ve just got people throwing darts and then duplicating the things that work, over and over again, without any solid idea of why they worked. Thus endeth my sojourn into the comparative anatomy of 25 years of US horror movies vs. 10 years of Japanese horror movies.

As far as the movie at hand: It was longer than I’m used to a horror movie being, because it was trying to be a lot of things. “They’ll kill us through our cellphones” is one of them, and it worked now as well as Ringu must have in 1998, because everyone has a cellphone / everyone had a VCR, so immediately your audience is going to identify with what makes it fundamentally scary. So, that was successful. It was also trying to be “The media does not care if it destroys your soul in the quest for ratings”, and that one also worked. That particular sequence makes me think that someone will want to remake this for American audiences, because of how well we can understand what the film-maker was going for. In point of fact, I wonder if it was a jab at the American media specifically, or if Japan has it as bad as we do.

Sadly, the rest of the things it was trying to be (“Look out for the psycho-killer”, “Stop abusing me, mommy”, “A glimpse of the afterlife”) were less effective. Not because any of them are uninteresting themes, but because they kept being crowded out by the primary two and by each other. The way it worked out in the end was that I found the imagery sufficiently disturbing for the cheap thrills part of my brain, and the themes scary enough for the analytical part, that I was completely satisfied by the horror movie experience. Despite that, I had a couple of niggling questions, things that I wish I had understood better and wonder if I would have, coming at it from the Japanese mindset instead of my tragically self-involved Western one.

If you have a way to rent it or see it somewhere and you liked the Ring, you should catch it. A bonus spot for me was that I could tell the people apart. This makes me feel less bad about myself over the Ju-on thing where I couldn’t. Instead of blaming it on my cultural insensitivity, I can now blame it on either the out-of-order narrative or the casting director for actually picking people who did all look alike. Another bonus spot: unexpected boobies. I didn’t think they did that in Japanese horror. Unless you are me, probably you should watch it only for the first reason, and not based on the bonus spots.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

MV5BMzc1Njc2NDc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODYyNzI3._V1__SX1217_SY911_There should be more horror movies showing, because it makes it a lot easier to hit the theater when there’s not really anything that you particularly want to see. Sure, it may not be great, but at least you can be sure of good, clean, passable fun. And sometimes, it is great.

In the case of the Amityville Horror remake, I was solidly in the former experience. Which was disappointing, but only because it started out with such promise. The cast was trimmed down and the plot tightened up over the original, keeping the focus on the house and the family, where it needed to be[1]. Both the camerawork and the script kept the three-story house and multi-acre lot feeling claustrophobic, all the better to let all manner of Indian ghosts, angry woodsmen, and imaginary friends leap into frame at any moment. Which, you see, results in terror.

The problem was a little too much reveal. So many visible scary images so early on left the director without any room to escalate gracefully, and as a result, the final act was overwrought at its best, laughably silly at its worst. I think what makes me the saddest is how easy that would have been to avoid, and make the story feel as believable at the end as it was at the beginning.

[1] Oh, right, the plot in 60 seconds, if you don’t know it: The Lutz family moves into this house a year after the previous family were all murdered in their sleep by the eldest son, who claimed that voices told him to. Lots of strange badnesses occur, and they are no longer living there a mere 28 days later. Based on a true story. (Y’know, maybe.)

The Da Vinci Code

200px-DaVinciCodeI’ve been pretty dismissive of The Da Vinci Code as a phenomenon, not so much because I’d previously been aware of most of the information it contained[1] as because I’m occasionally guilty of believing that nothing is any good if other people like it[2][3]. But I’m not above borrowing books I wouldn’t bother to buy, so when my dad snagged it and finished up, I took the plunge.

My initial impression, which was largely unchanged by the end: quintessential airport book. Very short, sometimes nibble-sized chapters ranging from one to (for deep topics) six pages in length. Occasional over-explaining, which smoothed out as the book progressed. Action that was, if not tightly plotted, at least rapidly plotted enough to disregard any deep flaws, for the most part. Plus, there were lots of puzzles to solve throughout the book, and that kind of thing is fun. I worked out two of them before the characters did, which leads me to believe that the author dumbed them down rather a lot. I should not be able to outpace a Harvard professor of anything, nor a cryptologist, at solving puzzles. But, okay, suspense is required at times.

However: The bad guy reveal pissed me off enough that, rather than finishing last night like I thought I would, I took a twelve-hour cooling off period. Then I went back, verified that, okay, it was mildly feasible. But still. Total crap! Whatever. It was more fun than not, despite that, and if the information was news to me, I’d probably have liked it quite a bit. Certainly, not bad enough to regret the day or two reading it, and if I’d had it actually on an airplane as God intended, it probably would have been bliss.

[1] although I had; you don’t follow medieval literature and fantasy fiction based in medieval European settings for this long without having a pretty good grounding in the Knights Templar, the Mithras religion, and especially Grail legends in their myriad forms.
[2] Despite all the links to purchaseable items that I make, I’m not getting kickbacks. So, if you feel an urge to purchase, do so with a clean conscience.
[3] But, seriously. I was able to keep the cover hidden most of the time, to avoid drawing anyone into a discussion about the book. Some people (mostly readers themselves, I think) will ask about what I’m reading just because I’m reading it, no matter what it is. I can usually stand to talk to these people, although I’d rather not if I can help it. But then there are the people who want to talk about something because they’ve read it too! This is exactly the kind of book where that would happen. I had it for about 48 hours, one stretch of which was at the pharmacy waiting for a prescription to be filled.[4] The desk girl felt compelled to tell me “[she]’d seen the special on TV, although [she] had not read the book yet, and the information was interesting, but some of it was, come on, that’s pretty hard to swallow”. I smiled and nodded, not just to escape the situation in as few words as possible but also because if she really does read it, it’s hardly my place to start spoiling it for her. But in my head, I wanted to shake her by the shoulder and scream, “Of course it’s hard to swallow, the central premise of the book is that the Catholic Church and likeminded institutions have been working for the past 1500 or more years to make you have a hard time swallowing it, yes, you personally. Sheesh!” This kind of thing is why I subscribe to the T-shirt philosophizing that spawned this footnote.
[4] Birth control, if it’s any of your business.[5]
[5] Which, obviously, it is not. Even if (as you probably are) you’re aware that my lack of ovaries or girlfriend makes that a blatant lie.

Magic Casement

This time, light and fluffy fantasy by Dave Duncan, at the recommendation of Mike Kozlowski. Without any recommendation but that the author was good, I started with the first series I happened to find at Half Price Books, A Man of his Word. The opening volume, Magic Casement, follows the parallel adventures of Princess Inosolan as she is shipped away from her small kingdom to spend a year in Society learning to be a noble lady, and of Rap, her childhood companion and resident stableboy, as he comes to grip with magical powers he has only just discovered he has.

There’s a lot of good and very little bad here, so far: An engrossing system of magic with lots yet to be revealed. An Eddings-esque number of nationalities and nationalistic quirks (I haven’t decided if the nationalities are as internally homogenous as Eddings’ are, due to not enough information). A system of religion that may or may not be tied directly to the magic in some unrevealed way. A fun quest rife with danger. (Okay, that makes no sense. Plenty of danger, but fun to read about rather than oppressive.) Interesting companions and foes. A rollicking good cliffhanger.

My only real complaint is that the main character is unforgiveably dumb at a couple of key moments. I blame the author for poor information distribution. He provides info to the reader via the character’s internal thoughts, at a time when the info is useful to solving a puzzle. And then has the character not solve it for a while thereafter. If it had been provided early on, before the character had the puzzle to solve, then either the reader would notice when the character did and nod sagely, or notice early on and have a sense of accomplishment. As it was, though, the info solved the puzzle to my satisfaction and made me want to shake the character for being so blind. (I’m making it sound worse than it was, really.)

I look forward to reading the rest of the series. It’s nice to have the occasional non-doorstop fantasy to look forward too, and nicer yet to have it not obviously be trash, as with all the Buffy or Resident Evil or Shatner books that I read.

Amityville II: The Possession

I have arcane rules for when to review a movie, rules that I only barely understand myself. I try not to break them, though. It has to be an event movie, like if I go to the theater, or otherwise sit down by myself or with a group of people specifically to watch the movie. If it just happened to be on the TV, no. I have to stay awake all the way through it. (This pitfall is usually not based on quality, but just on tiredness, and I’ve broken it once so far. No, I’m not saying when. I will say that this pitfall is what will prevent me from reviewing The Amityville Horror (original), which I watched on the same night as this one.) If it’s something I’ve seen before, the scrutiny gets worse, because how much can I reasonably take out of a movie on repeat viewings? Then I have to really feel it before writing anything down. This is in contrast to books, which I intend to review every time I read through one, first time or not. Because there’s more of a personal investment to it, I guess. Games would be on the book end rather than the movie end, except there are way too many games for me to replay any.

The sad part is, I broke my rule and wasn’t going to review Amityville II: The Possession despite it meeting all of my criteria. But it keeps tumbling about in my head, and so I must. Let me start off by making this perfectly clear. This is a bad movie, a terrible movie, really. The acting aspires to golden moments of competency, but rarely succeeds. The storyline is really no worse than most schlocky horror films, but it ends about an hour in, while the movie drags on for thirty grueling minutes beyond that point. There’s absolutely no reason you should watch it, other than if the review makes you curious. That said, if you do plan to watch it of your own accord, don’t read any further, as I am going to spoil the hell out of it. (I wish I could say ‘no pun intended’ here, with a fake little laugh that proves the opposite; unfortunately, I can’t, because there’s no actual pun here. You’d think so, in a movie about demonic possession and the grisly murder of an entire family. But, no.)

So this family moves into a three-story house in New York, in the 1970s. The father is kind of an asshole, the mother shows classic Edith Bunker signs of abuse, and then there are four kids, two of them young, plus an older son and his live-in girlfriend. There’s some kind of mysterious underground chamber which opens and closes at will, blows out cold air, and dripped blood and flies all over a repairman. Much to my personal frustration, though, nobody ever investigated it extensively. Also, the son starts to be possessed by a demon, the symptoms of which include setting up a pretend sexy photoshoot with his girlfriend, acting sullen and withdrawn around his parents, occasional bursts of anger, and lots of sly sarcasm. Well, and sometimes his skin starts pulsating and turns green, but only ever when he’s by himself and nobody else can see it happen. Then, later, the family’s priest goes off with his porn-moustached “friend” on a “camping trip”, instead of responding to their pleas for help about the weird things going on, and the son kills everyone in the house before the priest can get back in time to save them. Feeling guilty over the whole fiasco, he breaks the son out of protective custody and then exorcises the demon from the son into himself, thus removing the kid’s one good trial defense. Then the movie ends, with the priest sitting up there in the corner of the attic, twitching with demonic angst.

So, yeah, that was weird. But you should know that I lied at one point in the above narrative. It was for effect, but it was also because I got fooled in this exact way, until someone pointed it out to me. The live-in girlfriend? Actually, she’s the eldest daughter. But there they are, in the first scenes of the movie, way before any of the demon-y stuff starts up, flirting like mad. That probably should have been a clue, I guess. You don’t get that level of sexual tension out of people who are actually involved with each other. But right from the start, neither the direction nor the acting give any indication that they’re related to each other. It’s not that I’m outraged here over the lack of making incest feel icky factor. It’s that every expository indication from the film is telling me that it’s supposed to be icky, but at the same time there’s this dissonance in that it’s filmed as straight-up, regular, completely run-of-the-mill behavior between the two of them. Even by the time the nude photography role-playing scene comes along and it’s clear they’re brother and sister, well, by then he’s all demonic, but she looks like she’s uncomfortable only that she hasn’t yet come up with an excuse to say yes to everything he wants to happen. Then later when she’s confessing to the priest, her big sin in her own mind is pre-marital sex, not incest. It seems like she wants the priest to help out so that her boyfriend will stop acting weird, and that’s it. Allow me to reiterate that there’s never any hint she’s being controlled by evil, either.

So, what you’ve got is a tremendously bad bit of film that has only two characters with any free will, both of which I found deeply compelling yet impossible to really understand. One of them a priest who makes consistently bizarre, non-sensical choices about how to deal from moment to moment and is wracked by guilt over each one, and ultimately ends up filled with a demon and with no hint of what becomes of him after. The other a teenage schoolgirl who is to all appearances in love with her older brother, demon or not, and who the film treats as not in any way out of the ordinary.[1] Yet, somehow, the demon thought she was just as worthy of death as the rest of the family, so she takes a rifle shot to the gut, just like everyone else. I wish I knew if they’d be equally compelling outside the context of this particular movie, because I’m probably going to steal them someday, if it’s at all feasible.

[1] Untrue: at one point, her brother hugs her on his birthday, and despite the hug being almost completely normal except that it might have lingered for no more than a second too long, the mother immediately figures out what’s going on somehow, and then later when the sister goes inside to find him since he’s the only person not outside celebrating his own birthday party, in favor of another bout of turning green and pulsating under his skin in the privacy of his attic bedroom, she gets slapped by the mother for her trouble. There was really no reason for the mother to figure out anything there, nor did the scene have any consequences. Based on the rest of the movie, my only conclusion is that the slap was borne out of jealousy rather than anger at sin.

Farcry

I’m probably not done yet or anything, but my spate of first-person shooters is at least slowing down a bit. Which is good, because there’s lots else I want to play, but since there’s already both a Doom 3 expansion released and a Half-Life 2 expansion scheduled for this summer, I’m sure I’m still stuck in these same woods for a bit longer.

Which made Farcry a welcome entry. No demons from hell that required a clumsy flashlight-or-weapon paradigm to fully unlock the fright potential, no transdimensional head-sized ticks waiting to leap out at you from the shadows… well, no, it really isn’t as good as the Half-Life series, so I shouldn’t deride. But it’s definitely the next best thing.

You play as Jack Carver, a Caribbean tour guide (or South Pacific? Well, somewhere with palm trees, sparkling blue yet crystal clear waters, and the occasional Japanese army skeleton or half-sunken battleship to break up the monotony…. so, yeah, probably the Pacific after all, then. Seems obvious, now that I’ve thought about it.) hired to take a beautiful young reporter on a tour of a nearby island chain. Only, before you even get there, someone decides you’ve trespassed a little too close, and blows up your boat. After that, the only thing left to do is penetrate the net of mercenaries, stop the mad scientist’s evil scheme, and save the girl. I mean, that was your best boat!

But, seriously, for the railroad scenario that all FPSes must be, this one does a pretty good job of making each next “choice” seem like the only reasonable one and even of sometimes providing multiple solution paths to each objective. But, shooting different things with different weapons, and each thing takes a different number of hits to kill it? *yawn* We’ve been here before, of course. What makes it work is the interesting storyline coupled with the deadly paradise motif. You genuinely want to pause now and then and take it all in, but more often than not, this is a bad idea. Plus, there’s a pretty good vehicle system, with everything from an inflatable raft with an outboard hooked on to a hang-glider.

I felt like it got a little too hard right at the end. I know, it’s supposed to and all, but this was essentially post-climax, which made it feel unfair. Both because I wanted to see how it turned out and because, well, I was ready to move on to the next thing. Which I will, but I only wish I knew how soon. My gametime is at a premium these days. Probably June, if all else fails.

Sahara

The thing about buddy action-adventure flicks is: hard to talk about. Because, we’ve seen it all before. In Sahara‘s case, it’s James Bond (they nearly always are), but if he had retired from the secret service to become a deep-sea diver, and also if he had made friends with some guy at some point in his life.

The rest of it is exactly what you’d expect. Is there a pretty girl in danger because she’s stumbled across a secret that could threaten the fate of the world? Is there a power-mad industrialist willing to protect that secret at any cost? Is there a boss somewhere that wants the world safe, of course, but wishes his stuff would not get destroyed quite so often? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then there are more seminal works that you ought to see instead. If you do, though, this one is pretty good. They found the right balance of drama, comedy, and explosions. Plus, there’s a civil war treasure hunt, just to add a new flavor for the palate.

This Dirk Pitt guy seems alright. If I can figure out what the first book of the series is, I’ll probably pay Half Price Books a visit and attack the stories from multiple angles. The problem being, my to-read shelf is failing to get smaller. You’d think with the moving and packing things up, I’d have a little bit more discretion. Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I really thought I would. In fact, though: I would not.

Sin City

After the fact, and thinking over the body of work that each of them has produced, I’ve decided that Robert Rodriguez is being unfairly eclipsed by Quentin Tarantino. They both have the style thing down cold, but it seems like Quentin has few other true strengths, whereas I’ve seen Robert hit several other notes, and all of them well done.

Be that as it may, Sin City only hits the style notes. That’s okay, though, because sometimes a dark and stylish bloodfest is exactly what you want. There’s morality, but no moral lessons that would really apply to any other world than that one. There’s good and evil, but much more often there’s necessity and expedience. (Plus bullets, booze, and boobies.) You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s definitely fun to watch the people who do.

If I ever grab the graphic novels, I bet I’d say the same thing. I know everyone says that it matches a few of the storylines, but it could have been completely fresh material in the same world and I’d still make that bet. Never have I seen anything on the screen that looks so much like a comic book. Ultimately, I hope it’s too expensive to catch on, though, because kids need comics to encourage their reading muscle. That is my only complaint, and it’s as minor as it sounds.

Hotel Rwanda

It’s a lot to take in, is the thing. Sure, you’ve got the whole Germany and the Jews thing, but that’s so internalized into our culture that it doesn’t pack the same visceral punch. I didn’t know that yet, at this time yesterday. But, back a couple of months ago, the girl told me I should go see Hotel Rwanda. I doubt it would have crossed my mind to, on my own. This, also, is part of what there is that’s a lot to take in. So I looked for it, and kept looking for it, but it was a small distribution and was never local. Until last night, when the dear, dear Alamo Drafthouse started a three day run. I managed to escape work early enough for the run to downtown, so I got to go.

Really, there’s too much to tell about what went through my head while I was watching. It could be that there’s be too much to get it all out even if I waited a week, but I’m going to see another movie tonight, so now is the best time. Therefore, I try.

It’s a true story thing in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. The comparisons to Schindler’s List are inevitable, but I’ll try to avoid them. I haven’t seen that movie since before the events of this one actually happened, so it’s possible my memory of it is flawed. On top of which, like I said earlier: Unfamiliarity has bred a deeper reaction, maybe. As for the film elements, they’re all fine. Unobtrusive cinematography, just as I prefer. Excellent acting, never over the top despite subject matter that would all too easily create that kind of thing. A script that only crossed the preachy line once, so that’s forgiveable, and it made up for it by humanizing characters that could have been too noble or too tragic or too evil.

Anyway, though, it’s a film based on a true story, and the story is probably easy to learn about, so I need not go into it here. I say probably easy to learn about, and that’s the part of what’s in my head what I will go into. I feel bad about myself, that I’d have to poke around to see how well-documented things are. I remember it happening, and sure, I was in college, but hell, that’s exactly the time I ought to have been the most fired up about it. And it barely registered. Now, it has registered. I got a little choked up looking at a billboard on the way up to Dallas today, because the subject matter reminded me of a line from the movie despite an only tenuous connection. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a nightmare sometime in the next week where a man will tell me to “Take the river road; it’s clear.” I feel bad about myself all over again for the things I thought would be pretty good ideas, for a few hours on a Tuesday in 2001.

Despite all that, I doubt my life will really change. The way I think about some things has changed, and I hope I keep that. I’m going to pay more attention, and maybe I’ll find a way to do something that would make a difference, someday. Probably not, and I won’t feel bad about that, because the main thing that makes heroes is circumstance. And no matter how I may feel about myself for never making that kind of difference, having the circumstance to allow for it would be far, far worse. That’s where the paying attention and the seeing things differently comes in, is by helping to avoid that kind of circumstance in the first place, maybe. And I can definitely get on that bus.