Archive for January, 2010

"Pigs" Movie Poster

Apparently, pigs eat anything. So says the tagline on the DVD cover for Troma’s release of 1972’s criminally underappreciated “Pigs.” I say “criminally underappreciated” because even grizzled exploitation fans seem pretty divided on this one — what few reviews there are online tend to be decidedly mixed at best, and the movie scores a whopping 2.6 out of 10 on IMDB’s review scale/popularity-meter. As usual, friends, I’m here to tell you that the rest of humanity os absolutely wrong. “Pigs” (also released under the far more apropos title of “Daddy’s Deadly Darling”, among about a dozen other titles) is actually something of a neglected little masterpiece. Sigh — if only the human swine would recognize it for what it is.

Shot in 1971/2 in rural California (standing in for what one assumes from watching is the south, in a generic sense), “Pigs” was directed, produced, and written (under the pseudonym of F.A. Foss) by longtime Hollywood veteran Marc Lawrence, who conceived of it as a starring vehicle for his daughter, Toni (Billy Bob Thornton’s first wife for you celebrity trivia buffs), who unfortunately can’t act all that well. So it’s a definite labor of love, albeit one with such a disturbing incestuous subtext to it that it makes for morbidly compelling viewing. Allow me to explain.

Toni L. stars as Lynn Hart, a seriously disturbed young woman who endured years of sexual abuse at the hands (okay, not really the hands—) of her father before finally snapping and killing the sick old bastard (though she still continues to call him on the phone). One night, she (way-too-conveniently) escapes from the asylum where she’s cooped up and hits the road, finally ending up at a dreary roadside cafe operated by an eccentric old-timer named Zambrini(played by Marc L.), a former circus performer who has a somewhat checkered, shall we say, past of his own (perhaps allegorical of Lawrence himself, who had a thoroughly respected career as an actor, mainly, until being blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s). Zambrini takes her in as his new waitress and allows her to live in the back of the place.

Lynn soon learns that Zambrini has a secret, though — the herd of pigs he keeps have developed a taste for human flesh! One night, evidently, and old drunk stumbled into their pen, passed out, and they ate him, and ever since nothing else seems to satisfy the hungry hogs. Rather than following a more sane course of action (like, say, selling off his herd for slaughter, or even doing it himself — he does run a cafe, after all, and he could a feature pork chop special every night), old Zambrini decides the best way to keep his hogs happy is to dig up corpses from the cemetary under cover of darkness every night and feed them to the swine. Zambrini cuts a little deal with Lynn, though — if she keeps her mouth shut about his nocturnal activities, he won’t ask any questions about her past and will do his best to make sure the local idiot sheriff , Dan Cole (played by Jesse Vint), doesn’t either. Given that an escaped insane-asylum patient isn’t likely to find a better deal than that, Lynn agrees and soon she and Zambrini develop a sort of surrogate father-daughter bond.

Let’s pause her for a minute and consider the implications here. We’ve got a movie written, produced, and directed by a father, specifically for his daughter, about a young woman who was molested by her father who then essentially ends up, by dint of circumstance, turning to another older man for help, who just so happens to be played by her real father. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to read much into the seriously twisted undertones here.

But back to our story. The aforementioned sheriff is the biggest numbskull you’ll ever meet. When a nosy little old busybody calls him to report her suspicions about Zambrini digging up the deceased, not only does he not look into it much, he tells her that even if Zambrini is doing what she thinks he is, there’s probably nothing illegal about it! Furthermore,  he takes a quick liking to Lynn even though she acts exactly like you’d expect an escaped mental patient on the run from the law would act! In short, the guy defines the term clueless.

The powers that be back at the state hospital haven’t forgotten about Lynn, though, and when they come sniffing around, and Zambrini tries to hide her as best he can, this little 80-minute epic reaches its denouement, about which I’ll remain silent.

“Pigs” is an atmospheric and involving little piece, but really gains power when you have a full understanding of its backstory as outlined above. Taken on its own merits, it’s certainly a notch or two above most exploitation fare, and twisted enough in and of itself to maintain one’s prurient interest from start to finish, but when one keeps the backstory of its production in mind, it really rises above the lvel of above-average B-movie fare and into the sphere of disturbed — and disturbing — private psychodrama writ large before the public. And it’s for that reason that this reviewer considers “Pigs” to be essential viewing for all fans of grindhouse and drive-in fare.

DVD Cover fot the Recent "Pigs" Reissue from Troma

Troma released “Pigs” on DVD back in 2005, and it subsequently sold out and went out of print. In the last few months, however, they have seen fit to reissue it as part of their “Troma Retro” line, and while it’s great to have this twisted little classic available again, I do wish they’d tried to find a decent print, because this one seriously sucks. It’s way too dark, to the point where it;s hard to even tell what the hell is going on in some scenes, and haphazardly (to put it kindly) edited, with frames occasionally repeating for no reason whatsoever a few seconds after they were just shown. Lloyd Kaufman claims, in his typically annoying introduction, that the film has been “digitally remastered” and “lovingly restored,” but please. We may be Troma customers, but we’re not that stupid.

On the extras front, the only thing of any use whatsoever are the production notes, which are interesting, albeit only presented as plain text. Apart from that, we’ve got the aforementioned Kaufman intro, some Troma previews, and a couple of PETA spots which I guess sort of tie in with the pigs theme, but really don’t have much value beyond that.

However, don’t let any of that deter you. Despite these admittedly huge flaws in terms of DVD presentation, “Pigs” is definitely worth seeing. If only to get you to swear off bacon forever.

“Pigs” is an oinker, sure — but hardly a turkey.

"Avatar" Movie Poster

So, yeah, “Avatar.”

I guess I would be remiss in my duties as an amateur wannabe-film critic if I didn’t at least address the topic, given that it’s probably going to be the all-time box office champion any day now. It’s still picking up another $30-$40 million per week without much sign of slowing down. It’s set to pass “The Dark Knight” for number two on the all-time list domestically within the next week or two, and after that, all it’s got to beat is director James Cameron’s last movie, “Titanic,” (which I still have never seen), and it’s the all-time champ. Most box office observers expect this to happen within the next moth or so.

One thing’s for certain, Cameron has established himself firmly as the uber-Spielberg, as Spielberg on steroids. Everything he touches turns into pure box office gold. He took a long time completing his follow-up to “Titanic,” but so what? He made the biggest-grossing film of all time, then followed it up with the new biggest-grossing film of all time. Cynical as I am, I gotta admit that’s pretty impressive. But is “Avatar” itself?

My answer is — not really. Or maybe it is and it isn’t would be a better way of putting things. Sure, it’s cool to look at and all, and the 3-D is solid (I didn’t catch it in Imax 3-D, just standard 3-D, but from what I hear there’s not a whole ton of difference), but given that the film’s costs were somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million for production, and another estimated $150 million for worldwide marketing, all I could think was “this is all $400 million gets you?” There aren’t a bunch of make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat-type moments.  The effects are all CG (hell, the whole movie is essentially CG). There aren’t any highly-paid actors in it. So where the hell did all the money go? I’m sorry, but if I’m 20th Century Fox, at this point I’m asking to see the receipts, even if the finished product has already made over a billion dollars worldwide.

None of which is to say that “Avatar” sucks. It’s okay. It’s got a decent little story (though there’s probably no point whatsoever to me giving a detailed — or even brief, for that matter — plot recap here, since all the details of the story are fairly well known at this point). I appreciate the fact that it’s pro-environment, anti-colonialist message is pissing off the right wing to no end (they’ve taken the film’s anti-colonialism to mean anti-Americanism, as if we invented that risible practice. Ever heard of Britain or France, to name just two former colonial powers? Oh, wait, this is the right wing we’re talking about — only the US and its history is of any relevance to them). And the CG effects are just fine — but not anything you can’t get from a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation 3-D flick, which probably don’t generally cost any more than $40 or $50 million, at most, to produce.

And that’s the rub. Evidently Cameron had his cast “act” out a lot of the movie (for instance, actress Zoe Saldana, who plays the main female alien lead in the movie, never appears “in the flesh,” per se, but is still credited as a member of the “cast”) then used sophisticated motion-capture technology to “transfer” their natural, human movements into CGI, if you will. My question is — why? For the most part, “Avatar” might as well be a purely CG animation film. It would’ve cost a lot less and looked just as good. Capturing the “natural” human movements of the actors and actresses makes no difference to the finished product whatsoever, in my view. No one would care if all the CG was just that — high-quality, standard, animated CG. That’s all the impressive sets and backgrounds and what have you are, after all. Why go to the trouble of “casting”actors to portray computerized aliens at all?

To be sure, the integration of the human stars with the computer-generated sets is seamless, but then, it is in almost every movie these days. The “Star Wars” prequels, and anything by Peter Jackson, feature tons of real-life actors doing their jobs in front of blue- and green-screen backgrounds, with the CG added later. It’s nothing new, nothing trailblazing. It’s all done in slightly greater abundance in “Avatar,” sure, but that’s about it. Again, I have to ask — $400 million for this?

I have no intention here, really, of bashing this movie. It’s fine. The story’s fine, the acting is fine, the 3-D is fine. But it doesn’t knock your socks off. And given that’s really the whole goal of “Avatar,” I have to say it falls short of meeting the standards it sets for itself.

"Daybreakers" Movie Poster

I know, I know — I need to try a little harder, don’t I? Not just to post more often (my apologies for the absence the last few weeks, busy times here at TFG “headquarters”), but to come up with some better titles when I do get around to it. Putting “bloody” in the title of a review about a vampire movie is just too damn obvious. Why, you might even say it’s too bloody obvious. In which case, you’re just as guilty of stark unoriginality as I am, and I suddenly feel a whole lot better. Even if the “you” in this case is wholly metaphorical and I am, in reality, having an imaginary conversation with myself here. In which case I shouldn’t be worrying about my lack of creativity, but rather my sanity, which some — like the imaginary “you” I’m talking to here — might argue is a much more serious concern. But I don’t think so. Being unoriginal requires no effort, while insanity — well, folks, that takes real work. And wouldn’t you — whether “you” are real or imagined — rather be crazy than dull?

But back to our actual order of business here. I went out and caught “Daybreakers” today, which I actually meant to get around to last weekend, but didn’t get the chance.  Incidentally,  did you know that there are movies other than “Avatar” playing right now? I swear to God there are, it’s just that no one is seeing them.  And less than nobody is seeing “Daybreakers,” apparently. It’s absolutely tanked at the box office. Which is a shame, because it’s really pretty damn good.

First off, I should confess to an editorial bias here — I’m tired of all these romanticized portrayals of vampires we’ve been getting ever since the heyday of Ann Rice. She really set the table for that genre, but crap like the “Twilight” series and HBO’s “True Blood” have piled it up on us like a Vegas buffet. I’m not sure what makes so many people think somebody who wants to kill you and drink all your blood is sexy, but it definitely fits in with my overall view that society as a whole has a serious goddamn death wish. Sorry, but vampires were better when they were scary. Just ask Bela Lugosi. And they were way better when they didn’t live in the South. Louisiana and Alabama really aren’t good for much of anything at all, much less as settings for vampire stories. Sorry, but that’s just a fact.

To be fair, there have been a handful of movies in recent years that have tried to combat this sorry trend and give us a new angle on genuinely scary vampires. John Carpenter’s “Vampires” and 2008’s “30 Days Of Night” spring immediately to mind. But to date this reviewer thinks “Daybreakers” does the best job of reintroducing the audience to the classic, frightening vampire in a new and unexpected context.

The year is 2019. A plague of vampirism has consumed almost the entire human race. Sure, people you always suspected were vampires anyway — cops, bosses, politicians — have succumbed, but most everyone else has, too.    What few humans do remain are hunted and stored to be drained of their blood, which has become the most precious commodity on Earth (okay, so basically what we’ve got here for a premise is “28 Days Later” with vampires instead of zombies, but hey, it works). Unfortunately, all us regular folks have been reduced to near-extinct levels, and that spells trouble for both the few of us who do remain as well as our vampire overlords, being that they, you know, need us to survive and all that.

Wait. Vampires are undead. So can we really call what they do “survival?” I guess so, we just can’t call it “living.” But I digress.

Anyway, the powers that be figure that inventing a synthetic blood substitute is the best way to keep on (un)living, so to that end research scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is busy trying to come up with just such a concoction for his boss, ultra-wealthy vampire industrialist Charles Bromley (Sam Neill).

Which brings us, rather directly, at least in a thematic if not linear fashion(can something be both direct and nonlinear at the same time?), to the film’s one glaring weak point : while things start off in a very promising fashion, with the opening scene portraying a young girl of about 10 or 12 years old who has decided to commit suicide by going out and facing the sunrise, thus ensuring that she burns to a crisp, after that the movie resorts to some pretty bulky and clumsy expository info-dump dialogue, not too terribly dissimilar to the kind of plot recap you just read above, in order to fill in as many of the “blank spots” in terms of its backstory as possible.But since we’re not quite done with the plot recapping yet —

Dalton isn’t all that thrilled about his vampirism and falls in with a human resistance group due to an accidental set of circumstances that results in him meeting one of the few remaining regular people out there, one Audrey Bennett (played by Claudia Karvan). Soon the two of them are on the run from the entire vampire military-industrial complex, and along the way pick up another human rebel,  Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe, essentially playing the exact same type of character he did in David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ”), who it turns out actually used to be a vampire but was able to regain his humanity through a set of circumstances I really shouldn’t (and therefore won’t) give away, and the three of them hook up with the rest of Audrey’s little “insurgent cell,” who have holed up at what used to be her parents’ winery.

Once (semi-) safely ensconced there, Dalton, now knowing that vampirism can be reversed,  sets about the task of not only curing his own condition, but mass-replicating said cure for the public at large. It won’t be an easy task, though, not with thousands of troops, lead by his own brother, heading for them like — well, like thousands of troops tend to.

So we’ve got pretty solid tension, an interesting enough plot premise, certainly solid if unspectacular performances from the leads (although Sam Neill stands out as the evil vampire version of Daddy Warbucks), and really some pretty cool visual effects throughout, as well. The movie was directed by Australia’s Spierig Brothers (and filmed Down Under, as well, even though the setting is obviously supposed to be the US), who last gave us 2003’s criminally underappreciated zombie flick “Undead,” and seem to be doing their level best to resurrect the Ozploitation genre, all wrapped up visually arresting muted hues.

"We're the guys with the crossbows."

If that’s all not enough, we’ve got crossbows penetrating vampires through the heart and making them explode. We’ve got humans being devoured raw. We’ve got lots of gore and viscera and, most importantly, lots and lots — and lots — of blood. And we’ve got vampires who are in no way sexy, dangerous rogues, and are, instead, bloodthirsty monsters. As they fucking well should be.

Sure, “Daybreakers” has its flaws in terms of some clumsy, wooden, overly-expository dialogue, and the pace lags in some spots where it shouldn’t, so while it doesn’t rise to the level of a  new genre masterpiece, it definitely helps balance the scales with all the lovey-dovey, misty-eyes portrayals of vampirism that are polluting the cinematic landscape, and it’s an effectively atmospheric, damn solid little piece of work.

Oh, and I almost forgot — it’s a hell of a lot better than “Avatar,” too.