Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The horror... the horror

The New World

Twenty-five days into the new year, and I doubt I'll find a better film this year than The New World. Directed by Terrence Malick, The New World is yet another moving effort from an artist adept at charging each frame with spirituality and depth. Like the early images of The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and the final half hour of Badlands, The New World is a visionary experience as it observes the interaction between people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It could be dangerous (or the ultimate put-down, boring) to spend so much time with three characters who frolic and find pleasure in nature quite as randomly as the film's three main protagonists do in The New World, but Malick infuses every moment of his film with innocence and heartfelt emotion. Shot in natural light by cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki, actors Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher give restrained and genuine performances, relying on casual glances and body language rather than overt acting. And while a great deal of concern has been given towards Malick's disregard for formal narrative, The New World dispenses a ton of exposition within small jump cuts and intuition. He doesn't feel a need for dialogue. The New World is a tone poem of sorts, and the type of poetic cinema he's been gravitating towards since Days of Heaven. He reaches the apex of his career with The New World. Now let's just hope his timeline of producing films continues to decrease.

Electra Glide In Blue

Electra Glide In BlueElectra Glide In Blue is a curious thing- at once a bracing example of 70's era cinema as well as the lone feature by a director so full of promise and a jaundiced eye for underscoring police corruption in such a playful and biting manner. But, as it stands, this was the only film ever directed by record producer James Guercia (of the band Chicago) and stars a young Robert Blake. Blake plays John Wintergreen, an Arizona motorcycle cop who obeys the law and passionately wants to become detective. He gets his chance when a desert recluse's body turns up and his assumption of murder is quickly validated by veteran detective Harve (Mitchell Ryan). Wintergreen soon becomes witness to the brutal methods of investigation that Harve employs as they scour the desert for a killer. The counter-culture that seems so prevalent in various 'communes' throughout the desert soon become the target of Harve's authoritative search. But, as in so many great films, the resolution of the murder is less interesting than the truths learned by the protagonist along the way. No one comes out unscathed in this film. Blake gives a commanding performance as the moral compass amidst the sweltering desert heat. Even though the film bows out with a heavy handed message concerning the dichotomy between old and new cultures ala Easy Rider, Guercia's film is certainly an underrated classic that deserves its recognition now on DVD. On any given day, I'd be hard pressed not to include this film as one of the best films of the 1970's.


Eli Roth's Hostel has to be given its due for attempting to portray the grimy and twisted characteristics of grindhouse cinema on a mainstream American screen. So why is it still a lackluster effort from a director capable of so much more? I once met Eli Roth. On Halloween 2002, my brother and some friends and I trekked down to Austin, Texas, where Harry Knowles and the Aint-It-Cool-News gang were putting on a Horror-fest of films. Shown on the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, the night was screened against the backdrop of the now defunct Travis County State Hospital- a show of its own since we got to freely wander the grounds and the empty buildings. I remember venturing through the children's ward, pitch black, using only my cell phone as light and seeing some of the crayon drawings still lingering on the padded walls. It was chilling. And the films themselves, Alone in the Dark, some Greek horror movie, Argento's Twitch of the Death Nerve and finally the world premier of Roth's Cabin Fever, paled in comparison to this. But, before Cabin Fever, one of the hosts made the announcement that they were serving lemonade. I got in the long line and was just about to the front when the guy handing out lemonade said he was out. I stood back for a second and curiosity got the better of me. Why lemonade? Why not hot chocolate since it was 45 degrees out? I approached the man serving lemonade and we struck up a short conversation. He told me "you'll understand about the lemonade once you see the final movie tonight." We chatted about the night's event, shared a few favorite horror films and parted ways. After Cabin Fever was over, they introduced Eli on stage, which only added to the crowd's fervor over the cheesy, reverential aspects of the film's delights. I was in minimal shock. Wow… he never even introduced himself as a director or made any mention of his involvement with the event (which seems like a contradiction compared to the preening I've read about his demeanor at Cabin Fever's Toronto Film Festival debut) So, what does all this add up to? In that brief conversation, I could see Roth's passion for filmmaking. And more succinctly, his love of horror films now and then. So it's only natural that Roth would push audience limits with grotesqueries. The first half of Hostel plays way too juvenile, with actors Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson trading lines like "Edward salad-hands groped up Josh!" The guys party more, insult each other over a fanny pack one of them carries, and take pictures of themselves in the bathroom as they screw European women. They find out about a hostel in the Czech Republic where "the girls make all your dreams come true". Of course, this hostel is a front for mean and nasty people to do mean and nasty things (and you know just how grotesque the process must be to have Takashi Miike pop in and do a great cameo). By the time the meanness of the second half kicks in though, the tone is all wrong. We don't care about these people anymore. In Cabin Fever, the tone was cheeky and playful all along. Even when things turn sour, Roth sustained a genuine sense of humor and apathy with the film's dingy teenagers. In Hostel, he tries to combine the best of both tones and fails. Hostel doesn't win you over as either a cheeky, playful throwback or a serious endeavor into the increasingly hard-to-mimic grindhouse movement. It just feels like lazy filmmaking.

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