Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I loved The Devil's Rejects. God help me.

After seeing director Rob Zombie's second feature film, The Devil's Rejects, I felt like I'd been smacked upside the face as I left the theater. Some of the acts depicted in the movie are so horrific that I'm astonished it got past the MPAA with an R rating, and it showcases characters engaging in behavior so vile that some part of me is embarassed to admit I even watched the thing.

So why can't I just dismiss it as exploitive filth? Because The Devil's Rejects also happens to be a stunningly well-engineered movie, an uncompromising, riveting, smart, well-acted, and darkly funny cinematic valentine to old-school grindhouse excess. Just don't tell anyone I said so; I'll plead the fifth if you do.

It picks up right where its predecessor (Zombie's feature directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses) left off, with members of the homicidal Firefly clan escaping a bloody police standoff and heading across the arrid South. Unlike House's Grand Guignol setup, though, The Devil's Rejects plays more like a mutant hybrid of Sam Peckinpah grit and post-Charles Manson era biker flick degeneration. It's harrowing as hell to watch, but also exhilarating as all get out, and a massive improvement over its predecessor.

House of 1000 Corpses was several steps shy of perfect, but it earned some major bonus points for at least trying to buck current horror trends. Zombie defiantly cast the movie with veteran character actors instead of chiselled J. Crew models, conjured up some impressively disturbing images, and avoided the self-referential jokiness of most current scare films. In concept, HO1000C was a deliberate throwback to visceral horror classicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. In execution, it was more interesting for what it tried to do than for what it actually achieved.

The Devil's Rejects sports no such disparity between theory and practice. It captures--with ramshackle visual fidelity--the dusty backroads of late '70's America. Few mainstream Hollywood efforts have gotten the mood, look, and sound (dig the spot-perfect southern-fried '70's soundtrack) of the Bell-Bottom Era so raggedly, unforcedly right, and as a pitch-dark action picture, it's positively absorbing. The framing and editing of the action scenes pays scruffy homage to Peckinpah and Monte Hellman (Phil Parmet's bleached-out cinematography explicitly references Hellman's '71 cult classic, Two-Lane Blacktop) as well as to the trashy biker and horror epics that Zombie absorbed as a kid.

Many of House's principal actors resurface in fighting form, even better than the first time around. Sid Haig's foul-mouthed, dentally-decimated Rejects patriarch Captain Spaulding remains a nastily hilarious highlight. Sheri Moon Zombie (yep, Rob's wife) gives Baby real nuance this time out; she's a Bad Seed variation on Daisy Duke. And Bill Moseley brilliantly modulates the loathsome Otis, making him a lot more intelligent, unpredictable, funny, and creepy the second time around.

The new additions to Zombie's stock company play against the returning players admirably. William Forsythe gives a great, intense performance as Wydell, the revenge-fixated lawman on the Rejects' trail; it's terrific to see one of the great character actors of the '90's back in the saddle again. Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree, meanwhile, plays Spaulding's seedy yet oddly dapper pimp brother with off-the-cuff charm. The director further strokes movie-geek pleasure nodes by unself-consciously continuing to pepper his films with a host of familiar character faces. The attention-deficient casting directors of most modern horror flicks should be so smart.

All of these very good actors labor in service of a surprisingly taut, solid script. No, it's not Tom Stoppard (this is, after all, an exploitation flick about necrophiliac cannibal serial killers on the lam), but the director's screenplay takes time out from the action-carnage rollercoaster for periodic detours into laid-back humor and off-the-cuff character shading. Zombie's got a knack for natural-sounding, profanely funny dialogue. In classic '70's style, he also serves up plenty of moral ambiguity and an appropriately bleak, damn near sequel-proof ending.

So, yes, The Devil's Rejects impressed me mightily. But--and I can't emphasize this enough--it is first and foremost an exploitation picture, and one helluva BRUTAL, RELENTLESS, VIOLENT, UGLY, AND UPSETTING one at that. It is not for the anally-PC, and it is absolutely not for the squeamish.
If you've got the stomach for it, though, Rob Zombie's blood-soaked and breathless hellion of a sophomore effort will blow the back of your head off as completely as it did mine. Then there'll be no hope for you, either.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Linkapalooza!!! Summer division

When in doubt, link it out.

Enclosed please find links to a few of the nifty sites and blogs amiably cluttering my computer.

The Frantic Flicker touts itself as "the movie magazine that isn't". Sitemeister Eric Henderson takes a one-joke premise (you'll understand when you go to the archives and start reading the stories) and drapes some extremely witty fiction over the framework. Even if you're not a big ol' movie geek, you'll chuckle. A lot. Email him and pester him to write some more.

If you ARE a big ol' movie geek, on the other claw, get thee to williamgirdler.com post-haste. Even in a world full of great websites devoted to cult filmmakers, Patty Breen's online homage to the director of such Drive-In classics as Grizzly and The Manitou stands out. WG.com's exhaustively detailed interviews, appealing and professional layout, and funny yet lovingly affectionate tone just might make this site the Citizen Kane of online cult director tributes.

Some movie-lovin' sites don't need much more than text and, most importantly, a fertile mind behind said scrawl. Freelance author and budding screenwriter Vince Keenan's website covers pop culture with directness and wit befitting a student and practitioner of no-bull noir fiction.

Ever sat up late at night, wondering, "Does Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock, eat enough salsa?" Well, you're not the only one, as evinced by this fine site sponsored by the Leonard Nimoy Should Eat More Salsa Foundation. Lest you think this site is all useless silliness, there are some damn fine salsa recipes...

Speaking of useless and silly... Loads of internet scamps and pranksters take pokes at the Paris Hiltons and Tom Cruises of the world, but The Gallery of the Absurd gives all of that gossip hilarious life with some mercilessly funny caricature and commentary (the Star Jones cartoon alone merits canonization). Why semi-anonymous artist 14 hasn't been tracked down to do her own animated series is beyond me.

More illustrated fun can be found at the website of artist Kipling West, a Seattle ex-pat now residing in the snowy wilds of Canada. Imagine Tim Burton, Max Fleischer, and Maurice Sendak, genetically fused into one artist and you're about there. She illustrates everything from kids' books to Ouija boards, and it's all really cool.

If you're a movie geek and dig some cool illustrations, Tom Bagley's work scratches both itches nicely, flying the Freak Flag of Allegiance to the holy trinity of Sex, Horror, and Rock and Roll with goggle-eyed humor. He's done CD packaging for punk, surf, and pop outfits of all stripes, and in true Renaissance Guy fashion also fronts garage-rock Neanderthals Forbidden Dimension.

And finally, when you've satisfied your jones for knuckle-dragging garage grind and are looking for something, um, gentler, there's Wing. How many singers can you think of who've gigged at rest homes and been immortalized on South Park (in Episode 903, to be exact)? I love this woman.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

What You Don't Need--Rock Star: INXS

Network TV broadcasts seldom cross my TV set, but I did catch the premiere episode of Rock Star: INXS, the latest reality presentation from Mark Burnett (brain trust behind the Reality TV megahit, Survivor) Monday. Bald-faced sentiment made me watch the premiere, but no force of God, nature, or fate could make me continue on.

Rock Star is essentially a redux of American Idol, with fifteen fresh-faced wannabe's competing in sing-offs to become frontperson for Australian pop group INXS (singer Michael Hutchence committed suicide in 1997). The five surviving members of INXS help determine who gets eliminated. The winner will go on to front the band, record a CD, and go on tour with them.

Big surprise, the show's horrible.

First, there's the inherent ghoulishness of the premise to consider. And even by the low standards of the reality TV genre, Rock Star's pilot episode was pure hackwork, with a rushed, half-arsed directorial style that made Fear Factor look like Ingmar Bergman. We're given the stalest, barest minimum of between-song human interest and conflict here.

Not that these fifteen candidates for stardom are worth following in the first place. Just look at 'em. They're all shiny, competent, and vacant archetypes--the sad byproduct of two decades of MTV's fascistically regimented idea of what rock stars should look, act, dress, sound, and think like.

INXS were never rock and roll revolutionaries, but Michael Hutchence's versatile and sultry vocals elevated the band head-and-shoulders above the eighties dance-rock pack. Hutchence possessed that indefinable combination of calculated theatrics, spontaneous charisma, and distinctive pipes that defines all memorable rock frontmen. Love him or hate him, he was one-of-a-kind.

It's only fair to mention that the late singer's former bandmates seem like genuinely nice blokes. The stench of opportunism seems to waft more from Rock Star's producers than from the band, but there's a distinct aroma of sadness suffusing this attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle. You've had the brass ring of pop star glory in hand once already, fellas; go gracefully into that good night.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Tom Cruise films that I've seen

All actors parlay artifice for a living, so on some level all film actors are full of crap. Good film actors make you forget that they're full of crap, at least for an hour or two.

At no point in his career has Tom Cruise convinced me that he's not full of crap.

This is not to say that Cruise is incompetent; far from it. He hits his marks, delivers his lines with a modicum of professionalism most of the time, and has impersonated a feeling entity efficiently enough that he's hoodwinked a staggering amount of people that I respect (filmmakers, critics, and fans alike). He's never given a performance as hilariously inept as Brad Pitt in, well, 85% of Brad Pitt movies. The void in Tom Cruise's work goes deeper; bluntly put, the guy's got no soul.

Picking on Tom Cruise at the moment is as fashionable as a trip to Sak's 5th Avenue and as easy as Lindsay Lohan after three beers. But I've been riding the Tom Cruise Un-fan Wagon for a lot of years, kids, so I've earned the right to jab at L. Ron Hubbard's most high-profile monkey.

Consider this documentation of my Tom Cruise Odyssey to be a sort of Cruise Enema, a purging of The Grinner from my system. I've wasted enough of my time and text on this joker.

Tom Cruise Movies I've Seen:

Taps (1981): He's the irritating attitudinal cadet in the beret. If I remember right he gets shot, which makes it one of the better Cruise appearances, come to think of it.

The Outsiders (1983): I like Coppola's homage to the Juvenile Delinquency genre, and Cruise's presence is sparse enough to do relatively minimal damage. If he hadn't-a prettied his smile up by capping that chipped front tooth, he'd probably be co-starring with Lorenzo Lamas in Snake Eater IV about now.

Risky Business (1983): Alien-Worshipping Dwarf Boy's breakout role. There are strains of cleverness in this teen comedy, but Cruise adds (to my mind) nothing to the role of an upper-crust kid who's up to his tighty-whiteys in hooker-and-vice-induced trouble. His signature scene--the underwear lip-sync--illustrates this. This should be a comically liberating moment of adolescent abandon. Instead, it's just a conceited, entitled pompous pud who thinks he's about a thousand times cooler than he is, wiggling his ass. Someone give this ponce a wedgie--STAT.

All the Right Moves (1983): This formula jock/coming-of-age drama features Cruise as a working-class kid. No. Does not compute. Too pretty. Too disingenous.

Legend (1985): Cruise foregoes shampoo to play a young lad in a far-off kingdom who rescues a beautiful maiden (Mia Sara) from the evil demon Darkness (Tim Curry). No, the script isn't much help, but El Smirko is pure butter-on-stale-white-bread here; bland and forgettable.

Top Gun (1986): Tom Cruise catapults from mild nuisance to outright screamingly aggravating pop culture migraine with his star turn as flyboy Maverick in this Reagan-era megahit. When guys like Errol Flynn and Kirk Douglas played this type of role in decades past, women wanted to be with 'em and men wanted to be 'em. Cruise, conversely, distills his already noxious overcompensating cockiness into a 120-proof cocktail of fratboy smugness. Yeah, the movie's undeniably a relic of its era, but even back then I wanted to pelt Tom Cruise with raw hamburger. To this day, I could kick myself for letting one of my friends cajole me into watching Top Gun with the old "If you're really open-minded, you'll watch this movie I rented" ploy.

The Color of Money (1986): Director Martin Scorsese hit upon a seemingly obvious (but perfect) strategy: If you've got an irredeemably smug, preening jerk of an actor, why not have him play an irredeemably smug and preening jerk? Cruise is still trying too frickin' hard here, but Scorsese tapped into the actor's limited bag of tricks as few directors have.

Cocktail (1988): Speaking of putrescent eighties relics, this soused soap opera makes Top Gun look like Memento. Any schlocky fun to be had here gets squeezed as dry as an overused cocktail lemon by Cruise's unctious presence.

Rain Man (1988): Barry Levinson takes a cue from the Scorsese Care and Feeding of Dilligent-but-Mediocre-Actors Guidebook by harnessing and utilizing Cruise's disingenuousness to appropriate aesthetic effect. In plain English, that means Cruise is still unlikeable and full of crap, but in Rain Man, he's supposed to be unlikeable and full of crap. Any one of a dozen actors of the era coulda filled Cruise's shoes better, though.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989): A scraggly beard, vigorous yelling, and playing wheelchair-bound equals Oscar nomination. But no soul equals no Oscar win.

Days of Thunder (1990): Top Gun in a stock car. Yep, we're supposed to like stock-car racer Cole Trickle just like we're supposed to like Maverick in TG. And, yep, I still wanted to pelt Cruise with raw hamburger after enduring this two-hour beer commercial.

Interview with the Vampire (1994): Anne Rice wisely questioned early talk of the crack-smoke-induced casting of Hollywood's golden boy as the malevolent and cunning vampire Lestat (why, Neil Jordan, WHYYY?). Cruise, overzealous pleaser that he is, did everything short of lick Rice's shoes to get the author's approval. She ultimately gave him a reserved thumbs-up, which meant that either the actor's Scientologist mafia got to her, or she and director Jordan shared the same crack pipe. Earth to Hollywood: TOM CRUISE IN A BLONDE BUTT-ROCKER WIG IS NOT SCARY.

Mission Impossible (1996): Second transmission, Earth to Hollywood: TOM CRUISE IS NOT A BADASS. DO NOT CAST HIM AS ONE.

Magnolia (1999): Once again, a good director (here, Paul Thomas Anderson) harnesses Cruise's phony creepiness spot-on. Watch The Smiling Good Employee's passive-aggressive hucksterism in this sprawling but rewarding drama, then watch his Today Show interview with Matt Lauer from a few weeks ago. You'll see a direct--and unsettling--correlation. As with the other films that have used Cruise effectively, though, repeat after me: Any one of a dozen actors could have played this role better.

Vanilla Sky (2001): Haven't seen it, but I heard that at some point in the movie's running time he gets hideously disfigured. Cool.

The Last Samurai (2003): Tom Cruise does not play a conflicted ex-Civil War soldier in this earnest but just-okay period drama; he plays Tom Cruise Playing a Conflicted Ex-Civil War Soldier, which means that we see nothing of his character's insides, nor do we get the sense of him having endured hardships more substantial than a few extra days separated from shampoo and razors. So what else is new in Cruise Control?

Collateral (2004): The strangest sensation came over me as I watched this movie to while away a looong flight last year. I found myself admiring Michael Mann's direction, Jamie Foxx's solid turn as a classic Hitchcock-style Wrong Man in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, and Stuart Beattie's lean script. But every time Cruise appeared onscreen, my attention drifted. Yeah, I get that the character is supposed to be a stealthy assassin who blends into his surroundings. But when you're using your own imagination to easily superimpose any one of a dozen better actors over Cruise's strenuous-but-still-blah performance as the movie unspools, something's seriously amiss.

This effectively leads us to 2005's War of the Worlds. No, I haven't seen it, but just based on what I know of Tom Cruise and his work, I feel a third transmission coming on: