Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Cynic Reviews: "Black Dynamite"

After the repressing bleakness of Black Death, I decided that I need to watch something a bit lighter. Enter Black Dynamite, a raucous, insane parody of '70s-era Blaxploitation films a la Shaft and Blacula. If you're wondering why this review is so short, well there isn't a whole lot to say. What can you say about a movie where the main character fights a nun-chuck wielding Richard Nixon? What can you say about a movie where Black Dynamite lights a guy on fire- with the guy's own severed arm?

This is what I can say: this movie is awesome. Watch it.

The Cynic Reviews: "Black Death"

This was my first experiment with the concept of being able to rent a movie online via Amazon while it's still in theaters. Ever year, there are dozens of independent films released that, despite being very good in many cases, are stuck with very limited releases that ensure that they don't get seen by many people. To combat this, some of these movies are simultaneously released on demand and on so that they can have a chance to make more money than they would usually get. This is lucky for me, because Black Death has not yet come to theaters in Oregon, and even if it did, it'd only be in Portland, not that I mind having an excuse to go to Portland. Do I recommend watching a movie like this? It depends on how picky you are about picture quality. Do I recommend seeing the movie in the first place? Well, keep reading and find out.

This movie has a few actors that I like, namely Sean Bean (who is basically playing Boromir again, not that I have a problem with that) and Tim McInnerny (who is decidedly un-Tim McInnerny here), is based in a period that I find fascinating, and has garnered generally positive reviews, with a current "certified fresh" rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, the concept of a tense thriller/horror film about the black plague intrigued me.

The plot mimics that of a thriller more than that of a modern horror movie, meaning that I can't go too deeply into the plot without giving away spoilers. But in a nutshell, the plot of Black Death goes like this: a young novice in an English monastery named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne; quite good) is starting to regret his life of solitude. The monastery is in the middle of a densely populated area, meaning that his life is not safe, and he worries for the woman he loves, something he has to keep secret, since he's sworn to celibacy. He tells her to leave the city and go to the forest to escape the plague. She wants him to come with her, but he can't. However, seemingly fortunately for him, a group of knights led by Ulric (Bean) who are heading that way to look for a village there that has been untouched by the plague and need a guide. Luckily for them, Osmund grew up near there, and can easily guide them. The Abbot has reservations but has to let Osmund go, as the knights are on orders from the Bishop. Osmund shortly learns that the knights' purpose is much darker than mere curiosity: there is word that the village has abandoned god and begun worshiping a Pagan necromancer.

The movie goes on for almost an hour before they reach the village, introducing the characters, as well as the brutal world they inhabit. Once they do reach the town, things slow down considerably; allowing the film to build up tension, which it does in droves.

The main problem I had for most of the part in the village was that it seemed to fall into a trap that I particularly hate in these kinds of movies: the whole self-righteous "all-Christians-are saints-and-non-Christians-are-the-Devil" thread, which obviously doesn't sit well with an agnostic such as myself. However, to my great surprise, the movie took a huge turn at the end, painting a picture where both the Christians and Pagans come out equally unpleasant, and basically stating that both groups were using god as an excuse to justify their brutal, desperate acts in the wake of the Plague, which is a pretty historically accurate statement to make.

This movie has several flaws, such as a script that often leaves something to be desired, and an irritating use of shaky-cam, especially during the two skirmish sequences, where it was so bad that I started to feel nauseous. That being said, those flaws are eclipsed (for the most part) by a good cast (with the possible exception of the "Witch", whose performance was a bit disappointing), nicely gritty cinematography (apart from the annoying shaky-cam bits), and a killer sense of tension, especially during the last half hour or so, which had me wide-eyed and gripping my computer table until my knuckles were white. So, in short, Black Death is very far from perfect, but it's still the best damn English-language horror film that's come out in years (or at least that I've seen).

A lot of reviews I've read made connections to this movie and the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man. I have not seen The Wicker Man, so I can't make that comparison. However, I did see a connection between Black Death and another recent indie film: Valhalla Rising. The two movies both are set in Medieval Britain, have implied supernatural explanations to tense situations, both are taut quasi-horror movies, share at least one flaw (heavy-handed dialogue) and they both have similar cinematography and similar color schemes:

Black Death (2010)
Valhalla Rising (2009)

However, there are differences. Black Death is far more mainstream than Valhalla Rising, while Rising was much more of an "art house"-type film. Black Death is also, surprisingly, less graphic than Valhalla Rising, though that's not a bad thing, and Black Death certainly has its fair share of disturbing sequences. The most surprising thing, though, is that while Black Death is more obvious about its supernatural element, Valhalla Rising was far scarier (at least in my opinion). It wasn't a conventional kind of scary, but instead a slow-burning sort of snowballing dread that never lets up, even after the credits were over (which is the main reason I'm waiting a while to see it again). Black Death also attempts to coax this kind of fear from its audience, and does it quite well (especially in the ending, which was better than Valhalla Rising's), but Rising does it better.
Also, tell me to my face that this isn't totally fucking terrifying.

But enough about other depressing/terrifying Medieval flicks. Do I recommend that you see Black Death? Really, that all depends on who you are. If you can stomach that violent bits (there aren't many, but that makes them all the more shocking when they do happen), and you've been longing for a "grown up" horror movie that has a brain, conscience, and actually builds tension (i.e. actually tries to be scary), then yes. For all its flaws, Black Death is a gripping little movie with heavy atmosphere and good acting, not to mention the fact that it has a great twist and a killer ending that will keep you glued until the credits. If you're the type looking for another Saw-esque, sadistic torture-porn movie, then- well- you can kindly fuck off.

Grade: B+

The Cynic Reviews: "Blacula", "Night Watch", and "The Machinist"

In order to indulge my ADHD, I'm going to combine these three reviews.

#1: Blacula (1972):
This is not a good movie. Everything about this movie is dumb. The script is bad, the plot arbitrary, and the acting (with the exception of William Marshall, who seems to be made of pure awesome) is nothing particularly special.

And yet, I love this movie. Every stupid minute of it.

You see, this movie is bad, but it's the right kind of bad. It's all pure camp, from it's ludicrous setup to it's deliciously funky soundtrack, this movie is pure, brainless fun.

So I should probably say something about the plot here. William Marshall plays Mamuwalde, a centuries-old African prince who was cursed by Count Dracula to spend his life as a vampire. Eventually, in the '70s, he meets Tina, who just so happens to be the spitting image of his long-dead wife. None of that really matters. What does matter? William Marshall's voice is SO TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME!!! Seriously, it's like Barry White fused with James Earl Jones, with a little of Morgan Freeman thrown in for good measure. I defy anyone to tell me it's not the classiest damn thing you've ever heard.

This is what classy looks like.

I highly recommend this movie to all of my fellow awkward, nerdy, bad-movie-watching dweebs. It's pure, dumb, funky awesomeness.

#2: Night Watch (2004):
Is there anything more quintessentially American than a dumb action movie? Apparently there is, considering the three best dumb action movies I've seen recently were Korean:

Shot in Mongolian by a director from Kazakhstan:

And, finally, Russian:

Night Watch is yet another stupid sort-of vampire flick. But this one has subtitles that bleed, move, and break, as well as a guy whose spine is also a sword, which is impossible in every sense of the word, but badass all the same.

So apparently, many years ago there was an epic battle between "others", supernatural beings who split into two factions: Dark others, who are the things that go bump in the night, and Light others, who aren't nearly as awesome. The two sides were equally matched, so the leaders of each side made a treaty and set up the light others as "Night Watch" to make sure the dark others would keep their side of the bargain. Likewise, the dark others would form a "Day Watch" to make sure the light others did the same. But there is a prophecy that foretells that an other will be born that will be born that will be more powerful than all the others. The battle between the two sides would once more resume, and the side that the Chosen One chooses is destined to win. SPOILER ALERT: he chooses evil. No, seriously. For some reason, this all falls nicely into the lap of Anton Gorodetsky, played by Russia's answer to Jason Segel.


Night Watch is surprisingly solid, with cool effects and good acting all around. It's no classic, but it's a fun little diversion.

#3: The Machinist (2004):
Something's not right with Trevor. He hasn't slept in a year, he's grown positively skeletal, and he seems to be losing his mind. He's starting to be stalked by a man named Ivan, who no one else seems to see. Trevor's life starts to slowly fall to pieces. He starts to think that everyone is against him.

That's about as much of the plot as I can write before I start giving things away. The Machinist couldn't be more different than the previous two movies. It's grim, tense, eerie, atmospheric, and, in parts, disturbing. It's not easy to watch, but it's very rewarding. This is a great psychological thriller, with a great script, direction, cinematography, fantastic performances, especially from Christian Bale as Trevor. He famously dropped dangerous amounts of weight to play Trevor, and it shows. He looks practically zombified, underling the great toll that has been hit to his sanity. This movie is not for everyone, though. If you're looking for a violent, body-a-minute, schlocky horror flick, stay away from this movie. The Machinist is very slow moving, taking it's time to build atmosphere and tension so thick it's almost suffocating, making the violent bits more terrifying and gripping. It's engrossing, suspenseful, and almost Hitchcockian. I highly recommend The Machinist to anyone looking for a solid psychological thriller.

I do have a couple of beefs with this movie, though. First, while the ending itself is powerful, the twist that leads on to it seems a little cheap to me. It seemed like it was building up to something more. The other beef is a little nitpicky. You see, since Trevor's memory has been fading due to his sleep deprivation, he has to write himself many, many notes to remind himself of daily chores. This becomes increasingly important to the plot as the film goes on. Sound familiar?

As I said, though, that's a minor thing. The Machinist is still very much worth checking out.

Reasons I am Losing Faith in Humanity #1: An Underdog Success Story (That Will Make You Nauseous)

Nothing wrong with that:
Everybody likes a good success story. It never fails to make us feel good that the little guy has one the battle against all odds and achieved his or her dreams. It's also human nature that we are always most intrigued by the success stories that involve hobbies that we share with the subject. So when I saw an article in this morning's Oregonian about a woman who self-published a novel she wrote on the internet and has gained the attention of big-name publishers and even movie producers, suffice to say it piqued my interest. I mean, that premise sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, the headline failed to warn us that the author of the book (called Tiger's Curse), Colleen Houck, is completely and totally batshit.

That sinking feeling:
Let's look over the things that started tipping me off that this book (now a trilogy) couldn't possibly be good. It only took me until the first paragraph to get the feeling that everything was gonna go south. The author's biggest inspiration was Stephanie Meyer- also known as quite possibly the most talentless, borderline-retarded writer to ever gain a large, vapid, slobbering fan base. So this series is most likely a low-rent, poorly written piece of unintentionally disturbing crap. But that's not all, ladies and gentlemen; you ain't seen nothing yet.

Everything goes to hell:
This is where things get weird. You see, folks, this series isn't just your average piece-of-crap franchise. In the second to last paragraph, the writer of the article finally gives us an idea of what the series is about. Keep in mind that I did not edit the wording of this sentence in any way.

           "... the story is that of a girl from Oregon who takes a job at a circus and falls in love with Ren, a man trapped in a tiger's body."

Let me put this in a clearer wording for you: This book is about  a woman who lusts after a tiger. I wish I was making this up, people.

To sum up everything that's wrong with this plot, let me use an example for you: To me, this is kind of like the literary equivalent of The Human Centipede. That movie could have been the best written, best acted, best looking movie ever made and I would still refuse to see it, considering it's based entirely around the concept of people being forced to eat each others' feces.

Likewise, Tiger's Curse could be the best written book in the world (though I'm gonna guess it's far from it) and I would still refuse to read it, considering it's about a main character whose deepest desire is to fuck a tiger. It doesn't matter if it's a "man trapped in a tiger's body", the main character still wants to screw a tiger. It doesn't matter if said tiger speaks her language. It's still a friggin' tiger. What kind of person wakes up one morning and thinks, "you know what my perfect match is? A different species who looks like a larger version of my cat, except way more bloodthirsty."

And yet, this stupid, stupid woman has purportedly been offered a movie deal.

Our world is so screwed.

The Cynic Reviews: "Delicatessen"

            It takes a certain type of person to like a movie like this. Fortunately, I am that kind of person. Before venturing any deeper into what this movie’s about, imagine if (1)Terry Gilliam was French, (2)Sweeney Todd was set in a post-apocalyptic future, and (3)it was a comedy. That gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect while watching Delicatessen. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre 1991 horror-sci fi-comedy is covered by Gilliam’s influence- so much so that there isn’t a frame that goes by where you aren’t reminded of his work. In other words, this movie is right up my alley: weird, macabre, and darkly funny with killer visuals to boot.
            The movie opens with a butcher named Clapet, the owner of the titular delicatessen, sharpening his knives menacingly. It then pans to a different room, where a jittery, wide-eyed young man nervously covers himself in old newspapers. This unfortunate man has found out that he is about to become food for the other dwellers in the apartment complex above the deli. He conceals himself in newspaper so he can escape in the trash, but he needs to hurry- the garbage man is here. As you can probably guess, the man never makes it to the garbage truck. This opening scene is one of my favorites in the movie, perfectly setting the mood and look of the film, as well as serving as a great introduction to the character of Clapet.

            After the opening kill, the real story begins. A new tenant named Louison arrives, looking for work and a roof over his head. He is responding to an ad requesting someone to do odd jobs around the building. Clapet immediately sizes Louison up, revealing to the audience that the ad was created to lure a new main course for the butcher to prepare. Louison is a short, waifish, funny looking man, a former circus performer back before it all went south. Eventually, he meets the butcher’s daughter Julie, a bookish, clumsy, and bespectacled young woman who plays the cello and wants to be a painter. Julie disapproves greatly of her father’s “profession”, and eventually she and Louison begin an awkward, tentative relationship, further complicating her relationship with Clapet, knowing full well what Louison’s intended fate is. She later learns that there is an underground group known as the “troglodytes”, who live in the sewers. She goes to them to ask their help in sneaking Loison out of the building. At first they refuse, but then they learn that their main source of food, corn, is used by Clapet as currency, therefore making the complex full of the stuff. This leads to a climax so strange it makes the rest of the movie seem downright normal (I won’t list out what happens, so as to avoid spoilers). There are also several subplots in the movie, including one concerning a particularly insane tenant’s increasingly odd, Rube Goldberg-esque attempts at suicide, the last attempt being Darwin Award worthy.
            I like this movie, though it is far from perfect. Though I enjoyed the homages to Gilliam’s early work, it often tries too hard to be either Brazil or Time Bandits, though it lacks the former’s biting social satire, and the latter’s whimsical charm. That being said, Caro and Jeunet’s hero-worship of the former Python pays off for the most part. It’s a truly wonderful film to look at, with fantastically demented set pieces and a yellow-sepia filter that gives it a look that is years ahead of its time. So for all its flaws, Delicatessen is a hell of a lot of fun to watch if you, like me, are an unabashed fan of demented black comedy. I highly recommend this movie to someone looking for a creative flick with an insane, messed up streak about it.