Posts Tagged ‘alexandre aja’

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Okay, let me state for the record right out of the gate here that Alexandre Aja’s 2013 cinematic adaptation of Joe Hill’s well-regarded horror/fantasy novel Horns (which never made it to theaters in my area but is now available via Netflix instant streaming as well as on Blu-ray and DVD) is a flick that I was rooting for before I’d ever even seen it. I’m a fan of most of Aja’s previous efforts (yes, even Piranha 3D) and, while I haven’t read the book, I definitely  consider Hill’s Locke And Key to be one of the best comics of the past couple of decades, so — yeah, this one had all the makings of a “dream team” pairing for genre aficionados such as myself. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Now, if  I’m being perfectly frank, I have to admit that not much does — the film is well-cast, lavishly shot, has a reasonably involving story, and snappy, intelligent dialogue. Hill didn’t write the screenplay, that task having been passed to Keith Bunin, but it’s easy to see from this movie alone why his work has such a large and loyal legion of fans — he utilizes the trappings of “dark fantasy” in order to tell stories that are relevant to the human condition and creates interesting and relatable characters along the way resulting in a “finished product” that isn’t entirely dissimilar in flavor and tone to the work of, say, a Neil Gaiman, but has enough of a unique twist to brand it as something entirely its own. All in all, then, you’ve gotta say “so far, so good.”

But maybe that’s the “problem,” unfair as it is, right there. Horns is just kinda — well, good. Which is fine. It beats being bad (unless you’re in the mood for a bad flick). Still, I have to be honest — it comes within such close “sniffing distance” of being great that to see it fall short, as it ultimately does, is more than a tad bit disappointing.

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Here’s the thing, though — trying to pinpoint exactly where it goes “wrong” is almost an exercise in futility and ends up making me sound like I’m bitching about a movie that gets it right at almost every turn. My mom taught me never to sound ungrateful, and it’s generally pretty good advice, but a closer examination of Horns does, in fact, bring its flaws to the surface at least somewhat readily, and so, in that spirit, and despite the fact that I almost feel like I should be apologizing for doing so, let me now reluctantly lay out my case for why this movie just ain’t “all that.”

Ig Perrish (Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe) isn’t the most popular guy in his Pacific northwestern town (yes, this was shot in Vancouver) since they found his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) dead out in the woods. Ig’s always been something of an outsider, and everybody’s surer than sure that he’s responsible for her murder. Plus, as events play out, it turns out that most every other guy he knows —including his brother, Terry (played by Joe Anderson), and best friend/attorney, Lee (Max Minghella) — had the hots for his old lady, too. Shit, even his dad (James Remar) was’t entirely immune to her charms. Killing your girlfriend is bad enough, but when she’s the most popular lady in town, that can only add to your troubles.

Of course, Ig didn’t do it — no “spoiler” there. But that set of horns that suddenly starts growing out of his head? Well, shit like that tends to make a guy look guilty. And he seems to developing a strange sort of control over snakes. And everyone in town seems to be telling him their most intimate secrets for no reason at all. How do horns, snake control, and mind control all go together? That,  friends, is a darn good question.

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It’s also one that Aja, Hill, and Bunin never answer. Simply put, for the most par they’re plot contrivances explicitly designed to move the story forward and have no real purpose beyond that. Maybe the origins of each of these individual pieces of “high weirdness” is fleshed out a bit more on the printed page, but here they all just kinda happen, and while the horns are an obvious and pretty blunt metaphor for anything that makes a person different , the whole snakes thing and the “I’m gonna bare my soul to you outta the blue” thing don’t even fit into the story’s admittedly obvious “let’s not judge others based on appearances” theme.

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Which, again, isn’t to say that they don’t “work” in terms of what they’re supposed to do — only that what they’re supposed to do apart from give the writer an easy way to nudge the proceedings along is never made clear in the least. And that’s probably why Horns is, ultimately, something of a let-down as far as viewing experiences go. It’s a great-looking film, with fine performances all around (especially on Radcliffe’s part) that  immerses its audience in an intriguing, well-structured fantasy world that’s close enough to our own to be believable, but different enough to be interesting. The supporting players all acquit themselves well and it’s  nice to see talented, but under-utilized, performers like Heather Graham, Kathleen Quinlan, and David Morse get material worthy of their skills and abilities. There’s a semi-generous helping of nudity, sex, and gore for us sleaze-hounds. There’s a strong element of the supernatural for those who dig that sort of thing. The characters are well-developed, fleshed-out people that you actually care about. And yet — it’s all just a bit too obvious. The horns on Ig’s head twist and turn but they’re not that sharp. The film ticks every box on the “must-haves in every horror story” checklist right in front of your face, and either comes up with a “the moral to this story is —” reason for their inclusion, or just blows off providing a reason entirely, content in its own ability to win you over through sheer technical competence, which it has in spades. But it’s all brain with very little heart . It could be damn near perfect— if it wasn’t trying so hard to be precisely that.

 

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Bear with me, friends, as I take a circuitous and convoluted path toward any supposed “points” I’m trying to make here —

As far as catchy pop tunes go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Michael Sembello’s amazingly popular (and only) hit single, “Maniac.” I’m not here to tell you that it’s a quality piece of music by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a few things going for it, namely that it’s fast (next time you’re on YouTube, do a search for “Michael Sembello ‘Maniac’ Cover” — you’ll be amazed by all the third-rate European speed metal bands that have taken a crack at it), it has some damn intelligent and evocative lyrics scattered about here and there (“there’s a cold kinetic heat — struggling, stretching for the feet”), and it knows enough to cut itself short before it becomes too terribly repetitious. Plus, it sticks in your head like a motherfucker if you haven’t heard it in a few years and happen to catch part of it playing overhead in the grocery store, the waiting room of the dentist’s office, or wherever the hell else they pipe in the Sirius satellite radio ’80s channel all the time.

There’s an interesting urban legend that’s been floating around for some time now that the song was actually written for William Lustig’s legendary, dripping-with-misogyny 1980  horror flick Maniac — which as you all are well aware, I’m sure,  features the late, great Joe Spinell in a tour-de-force performance the likes of which only happen in the cinema once every decade or two (and that’s if we’re lucky) — and that Sembello and his songwriting partner (whose name I’m currently just too goddamn lazy to look up) simply changed a few words here and there to make it fit in with the movie that it eventually landed in, namely Adrian Lyne’s runaway blockbuster hit  Flashdance.

Anyone who’s watched the bonus feature where Lustig sits down and talks about all this with Sembello and his (still too lazy to look up his name, sorry) writing partner that’s included on Blue Underground’s “30th Anniversary Special Edition” Blu-Ray/DVD of Maniac knows this isn’t true, of course — the actual facts behind the song’s genesis, its inclusion in Flashdance, and its mistaken association with Maniac are actually far more banal, yet bizarrely also more fascinating, than that. Suffice to say they really did alter the original lyrics pretty considerably, but it was never written specifically for inclusion in Lustig’s, or for that matter any, film.

But enough about that — let’s get back to these cover versions of Maniac that are all over YouTube (I did warn you this was going to be — what did I say, “circuitous and convoluted”? ). Some of them are, as you’d expect, pretty terrible. Others, however, are actually kind of fascinating. You can that tell some care went into their production and arrangement. The bands really do seem to be giving it their best shot.

But ya know what? Not a one of them, despite their best efforts, manages to get it exactly right.

All of which brings us — finally! — to the 2013 remake of Maniac, the movie, brought to us by director Franck Khalfoun , producer/co-writer Alexandre Aja (swiftly establishing a name for himself as the new reigning king of retread horror properties now that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company seems to have slowed down its pace a bit) and co-writer Gregory Levasseur.

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All in all, you’ve gotta say this ain’t a half-bad effort. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the few areas where it’s getting some theatrical play (most of us are stuck with the cable or satellite “On-Demand” menu if we wanna see it), you probably won’t leave the multi-plex feeling disappointed, by any means. Our intrepid European “re-imagineers” have taken pains to make the proceedings more “realistic” than what  Lustig and Spinell gave us (no hot female photographer love interest , our titular psycho actually seems to have a job in this one, etc.), while keeping the general thrust (sorry) of things agreeably simple and straight-forward and doing their level best to hang onto (if you’re feeling generous), or at the very least mimic (if you’re not),  the sleazy, unforgiving “edginess” their predecessors served up so expertly and generously.

Most wisely of all, though, they’ve chosen not to have their lead, Elijah Wood, try to emulate, reference, or even give off the faintest accidental odor  of Spinell. There’s just no point trying to catch  lightning (even if it’s of the extremely greased variety) in a bottle twice.

But is any Maniac without Spinell even Maniac at all? That’s the question I’m still struggling to answer. To me, this feels like another one of those cover versions that tries its  level best, but still doesn’t quite manage to hit the nail on the head.

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Wood’s take on Frank is an interesting one, to be sure — he’s still got the unresolved mommy issues, still got the whole mannequin obsession (hell, in this one he even owns a mannequin shop), and still harbors a pretty bleak and remorseless view of the fairer sex, but his presentation of the character is far more brooding, sullen, and internalized than was Spinell’s. You can pass this guy on the street and not think to yourself “what a filthy fucking creepy sleazebag!” And while that’s, as I said, pretty interesting, it still doesn’t feel quite right.

The “will-he-snap-or-won’t-he?” psychodrama that that the Khalfoun/Aja/Levasseur trifecta (who previously pooled their efforts on the shamefully-underappreciated P2) set up between Frank and art student/object of obsession/mother stand-in/unwitting muse (if homicide can an in any way be viewed as “art”) Anna (played with understated style and charm, and just a dash of dangerous intrigue thrown in, by Nora Arnezeder) manages to shift the main focus of the narrative a bit into “two-people-playing-a-dangerous-game-even-if-only-one-of-them-knows-it” territory, but again, while that makes for some nifty and even engrossing cinematic storytelling, it just doesn’t have that same completely random, scattershot, balls-to-the-walls sense of fury that Lustig and Spinell brought to things. It all feels too controlled, too calculated, too pre-planned to bear the Maniac title.

And finally, while Khalfoun does his best to keep things visually interesting — and to his credit largely succeeds — the street-level, “guerrilla” filmmaking style of the original is sorely missed here. Maniac circa 1980 felt like exactly what it was — some guys with a camera, little to no money, and certainly no filming permits, hitting the streets of New York late at night, getting things done in a take or two, and getting the fuck outta Dodge before the cops showed up and hassled them, or worse. Maniac circa 2013 is all about carefully selecting just the right color palettes, angles, and perspective shots to give its audience something of the same visceral experience that its predecessor achieved more by dint of necessity than out of actual choice. These guys want to make a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic — and that’s great. I’m all for it. But it’s still not gonna pack the punch of something that can’t be anything but a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic.

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When all was said and done, I think it’s fair to say that Maniac‘s new iteration left me feeling much the same way that many of the hard-core fans of Max Brooks’ World War Z novel feel about the big-budget  Brad Pitt “starring vehicle” bearing the book’s name (and yes, I realize I covered this point yesterday in my review of that film and I am, therefore, guilty of repeating myself — and quite quickly, at that— but the sentiment really does apply, so I’m sticking with it) — it’s very good at what it does, and I even liked it quite a bit.  But it should have been called something else.

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Okay, so I meant to get around to reviewing this back when it came out but I was lazy and I didn’t. Still, now’s not a bad time to take a look at Piranha 3-D since it’s due out on DVD any day here, and while home DVD and Blu-Ray 3-D can’t come close to matching the theatrical experience yet, this is such a fun flick that it’s certainly worth a rental on your part, or even a purchase if you can grab it on sale cheap.

And cheap is the operative word when it comes to Piranha 3-D. Oh, sure it had a budget of around $25 million, but it’s loaded with cheap and plentiful gore, cheap and plentiful nudity, and life comes damn cheap in it, too. I ask you, friends, what could be better than that?

This is true B-filmmaking all the way courtesy of French “new horror” maestro Alexandre Aja, who made his mark with Haute Tension in his home country before taking Hollywood by storm with his remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and then taking something of a misstep with the Kiefer Sutherland horror vehicle Mirrors, which wasn’t as bad as many of its detractors would have you believe but really wasn’t actually very good, either.

Anyway, Aja’s back in fine form with this third installment in the Roger Corman-originated Piranha franchise (the two previous flicks were directed by Joe Dante and James Cameron, respectively), and while it’s probably not fair to classify it as strictly a sequel per se to the first two, it’s certainly not a remake of the original, either — I guess the most appropriate term to use here would be to say it’s a re-imagining, much as I despise that word, and indeed all trendy Hollywood and corporate buzzwords — for instance, is anyone still referring to anything as a paradigm shift anymore? Didn’t think so.

But I digress. The paper-thin plot here revolves around spring break in the fictitious town of Lake Victoria, Arizona, where thousands of hard-partying college kids descend each year to perform their annual bacchanalian rites of binge drinking and binge fucking. Things are gonna be a little bit hairier for the wild youths this year, though, since an earthquake in a self-contained underground aquatic ecosystem has ruptured the lake bed and sent hundreds of prehistoric piranha swarming into party central. The piranha have been surviving in their little watery subterranean paradise all these years by eating each other since there’s nothing else around to sink their teeth into, so they’ve big, they’re mean, they’re bloodthirsty, and,  like the nauseating drunken students, they’re out for a good time.

Aja really pulls out all the stops in once the mayhem ensues, treating us to a non-stop bloodbath punctuated only by totally gratuitous boob close-ups and even more gratuitous full-frontal nudity. There’s an extended underwater ballet scene with starlets Kelly Brook and Riley Steele (yes, that Riley Steele, and she’s only one of several porn stars brought in to liven up the proceedings here) that seriously verges on soft-core territory, and if 3_D T&A is your kind of thing, you won’t be disappointed. I’ll just leave it at that.

There’s a gratuitous sampling of has-been B-list actors crawling out of the woodwork here, too. Elizabeth Shue (who I swear to God doesn’t age) has the nominal starring role as local sheriff  Julie Forester, who;s got to try to solve the crisis while also rescuing her son, who’s gone off for the day on a photoshoot with ultra-sleazy “Girls Gone Wild”-type producer Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell). Ving Rhames is her bad-ass deputy, Christopher Lloyd is on hand as a mad scientist-type who’s fervently trying to figure out just what these deadly fish are, where they come from, and how they can be stopped, Richard Dreyfuss is on hand for just long enough for you to say “Hey, that’s Richard Dreyfuss!” before he becomes the bloodthirsty fish horde’s first victim, and if you look really closely you’ll even see Eli Roth as the emcee of a wet t-shirt contest.

But the main “star” here is the sheer, unbridled, completely tasteless mayhem that’s front and center almost from the word go. Ever possible way to be eaten by deadly fish is shown in graphic detail, some of which you can imagine, others of which, quite frankly, you can’t. A guy’s dick getting bitten off and later chomped down by one of the piranha is played for laughs (as it should be). There’s fish-bitten boobs, legs, arms, feet, shoulders, stomachs, faces, you name it — and there’s just no damn way to kill these things off en masse. In fact, at the very end, Aja just plain stops trying as the film finishes on a note that’s pure sequel set-up (not that this will probably happen now given the movie’s underwhelming box office performance).

Not all the 3-D works all that well, to be sure — underwater 3-D effects seem to be an iffy proposition at best, and some definitely deliver the goods better than others. Still, even when Aja and his effects crew fall short, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Piranha 3-D is a film that aspires to do one thing and one thing only — absolutely annihilate all the boundaries of good taste, and get away with all it can and then some. It’s a true stylistic, and thematic, heir to many of the grindhouse and exploitation flicks that we cover so regularly here at TFG and viewed through that lens, you have to say that it succeeds more than admirably. It’s gleeful, unmitigated, irredeemable trash — just the kind of thing we love around here.

In short, Piranha 3-D is the party movie of the year. It’s full of blood, boobs, blood, boobs, blood, boobs,more blood, more boobs, butts, female genitalia, and huge, shiny, flesh-devouring teeth. Can’t ask for any more out of a movie than that, can you? Catch it as soon as you can.