Friday, June 19, 2009

I don't want your cat, you dirty pork queen!

Star Trek opens in bold, attention-grabbing fashion, as we join the USS Kelvin in the middle of a deep-space attack by a Romulan ship. With the Kelvin's captain offed by a teral'n at the hands of revenge-seeking Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), first officer George Kirk (Chris Hernsworth) orders the evacuation of everyone on board, including his very pregnant wife Winona (Jennifer Morrison). As I realized I was about to witness the birth, mid-space battle, of one James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), I chuckled at what might be the most literal-minded moment in the recent trend of prequels that fill in our most iconic characters' backstories. I'd been suspicious of Star Trek since its first trailer for precisely this reason, but as the opening continued, a strange thing happened - cheesy as the idea of Kirk's interstellar delivery might seem, director J.J. Abrams isn't afraid to swing for the fences, mining more suspense and emotion out of such an unabashedly broad scene that I soon found myself on the edge of my seat. As the elder Kirk, on a collision course with the Romulans, hears his son's first cries trasmitted from another escape pod, I actually found myself getting misty-eyed (becoming a parent does that to you). For all the talk of Star Trek as a drastic reboot of the franchise, it (like almost all summer movies) is purely status quo. But it doesn't need to reinvent the wheel; in fact, it works as well as it does because it understands Star Trek's origins in Horatio Hornblower and a centuries-old tradition of ripping yarns, and it delivers on the promise of a rip-roaring adventure better than any incarnation of Star Trek since The Wrath of Kahn.

After too much time spent slogging through painfully dry Next Generation movies, it's a pleasure to be reunited with Kirk(Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), here a Starfleet cadet and a Commander, at the start of a lifelong conflict between the mind and the dick that is, at this point, still adversarial. Pine and Quinto are both surprisingly believable as younger incarnations of their iconic characters, and the entire cast fits just as well (except Anton Yelchin - there's just something insufferably self-conscious about that kid). The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (way better than average for these two) employs black holes and red matter to allow for changes in the Star Trek canon while still accomodating purists, as well as giving Nero a reason for his villainy and affording Leonard Nimoy, returning as Spock, a more active role in the story than a shoehorned-in cameo (if the rest of the movie sucked, the sight of Nimoy in another Star Trek would justify the entire thing). The hard science of the story is ridiculous, of course, if one knows anything about black holes and red matter, and since I like Star Trek most when it veers into pure speculative fiction, I sort of missed the nerdiness (I'm the guy that likes V'ger and parts of Star Trek V, so feel free to disregard my opinion). But this Star Trek succeeds where it counts - in the vision of a military operating as much on reason as force, the Hornblower-inspired focus on what is truly the measure of a man (possible answer: Bruce Greenwood), the childlike sense of wonder at the mysteries of space exploration, and the gratuitous scene of Kirk banging a sexy, green-skinned alien. Gene Roddenberry would be proud.

A similar set of traditional values (minus the busty Orions) are at the heart of Up, the newest feature from Pixar (at this point, the most reliable name in Hollywood). The already-famous dialogue-free montage at the beginning of the film, which takes us through the entire lives of aspiring explorers Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) and his wife Ellie - from youthful expectations through the disappointments reality brings, fond memories and, finally, Ellie's death - is one of Pixar's greatest achievements and, most likely, the most moving 10 minutes of any film this year. With only Michael Giacchino's lilting score as accompaniment, director Pete Docter and his team of animators create a definitive filmic portrait of what it is to find, go through life with and ultimately lose one's soulmate (two consecutive years that I've cried at a cartoon - thanks, Pixar!). The elderly Carl, adrift in a rapidly changing world, decides to honor his wife's unfulfilled wish - a retired balloon vendor, he uses his resources to fly their house to Paradise Falls, a (fictional) remote spot in South America. The sight of Carl's house taking off, sunlight suddenly refracting through thousands of balloons into a seemingly endless ocean of color, has a visual poetry worthy of Hayao Miyazaki - yet another example of Pixar's seemingly effortless ability to create definitive representations of our collective wonder.

I must admit that, once Carl and his stowaway - chubby and overeager 8-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai) - get to South America, Up registers as an ever-so-slight disappointment. This is entirely due to Pixar's extremely high standards, as Up is still by far the best option for moviegoing families right now. But after the visionary Wall-E, I expected Carl and Russell to find more wondrous sights at Paradise Falls than a talking dog and a funny-looking bird. Don't get me wrong, the talking dog is hilarious; it's just that the film's second half feels sort of squarely domestic, something I also felt about Docter's mostly great Monsters Inc. (my daughter's favorite movie, so I could be very wrong about this). And when Carl meets his childhood hero, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), only to find a villian, Up sort of drops the ball on the weightier implications of this kind of disillusionment. What does work beautifully is the relationship between Carl and the quietly lonely Russell, and what this slowly teaches Carl about his own life without Ellie. For a movie about an octegenarian, Up is a wonderful paean to the virtues of holding on to one's youth.

Released, in a delicious bit of fearful symmetry, the same weekend as Up, Drag Me to Hell is a gleefully sadistic compliment to Pixar's heavenly fantasy. The much-touted return to horror by director Sam Raimi was rejected by audiences who didn't realize that, like Raimi's Evil Dead movies, Drag Me to Hell is supposed to be funny. Alison Lohman occupies the role previously occupied by Bruce Campbell in Raimi's films, that of the perpetual ass of every supernatural joke. As Christine Brown, a sweet, mousy bank teller cursed by vengeful Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) after denying the old woman an extension on her mortgage, Lohman is subjected to a nonstop stream of shocks, nasty bodily fluids and the indignity of having many, many gross substances forced into her mouth as she finds a way to break the curse that will end with the Lamia, a vengeful satyr-like demon dragging her to you guessed it after three days. It's a pleasure to see Raimi, after only occassionally indulging his brattier directorial impulses in the Spider-Man movies, going truly old-school here: the insane camerawork, the Stooges-inspired humor (there's even an anvil gag!) and, most all, the willingness to rise below bad taste in the name of a scare or a laugh make Drag Me to Hell feel like the work of a young, eager-to-please filmmaker fresh off Evil Dead 2.

That's not to say that Drag Me to Hell is a time capsule from 1987, as it's a bit too CGI-heavy, alas, to feel completely analog. What is charmingly old-school is Raimi's morality - he gives us a seemingly decent protagonist who, at first, seems unfairly punished for a tough choice, then spends the rest of the movie subtly insinuating that Christine fully deserves to be dragged to Hell. I realize this is done in a tongue-in-cheek way (kitten!), but it's something of a revalation to find that Raimi (a conservative churchgoer who supported Bush in 2004) actually seems to believe in the black-and-white morality that other horror directors can only approach with ironic detachment. According to Raimi, we're all going to Hell if we don't shape up and learn to treat each other with some decency, and now it's clear that Raimi's best films work as well as they do because, no matter how wild they get, they're rooted in a very basic set of convictions. Strange to think of the guy who directed the tree rape scene in The Evil Dead as a right-wing auteur; stranger still that this actually makes me like him more. It helps, of course, that Drag Me to Hell is a blast from beginning to end, a gleefully sadistic spook show (aided by a kickass Christopher Young score) that arrives at an ending that left me in disbelief that Raimi actually got away with it. How exciting to think that, in the confines of the summer movie machine, there are filmmakers who manage to make the conventional feel radical.

Friday, June 05, 2009

One of these days you're gonna take a trip and never come back.

When B-movie director Al Adamson quit filmmaking in the 1980s to start a career in real estate, it may not have been as dramatic a career change as it would seem. While Adamson, like fellow low-budget directors Ed Wood and Roger Corman, was extremely prolific and worked in a wide variety of genres, his meat-and-potatoes exploitation movies show little of the passion for cinema that one can usually find in Wood's or Corman's films. But it's precisely this artlessness that gives Satan's Sadists an amoral charge; a drive-in hit in the same that Easy Rider was changing the way Hollywood regarded the youth market, it's not nearly as good as that film. But it's also a good deal less pretentious and, thanks to Adamson's eagerness to both cater to the counterculture and exploit anti-hippie attitudes, it's a good deal of crude, go-for-broke fun.

The title song informs us that the Sadists, led by the stoic Anchor (Russ Tamblyn), were "born mean," and the movie wastes no time convincing us of this. From the opening scene, as the Sadists intimidate a wholesome young couple necking in the woods and rape the girl, it's clear that we're in for 86 minutes of mayhem as the Sadists terrorize the good, decent normals they encounter. While Easy Rider was squarely on the side of the bikers and had nothing but contempt for blue-collar America, Adamson tries to have it both ways; audience members who would nod in approval at a line about how the world needs more decent young men could regard Satan's Sadists as a horror movie, while the heads in the audience could take it as an existential bummer.

Before killing a hostage, Anchor explains that, while he's got a lot of hate inside, there are a lot of kids out there who have nothing but love in their hearts getting thrown behind bars for smoking grass. The rest of Adamson's attempts at countercultural relevance are just as heavyhanded (the acidhead character is named Acid, for Pete's sake), and I don't think Adamson thought much about the generational divide beyond its profit potential - the trailer even tries to capitalize on interest in the Manson killings! Still, in some of the more brutal moments between the Sadists and their prey, Satan's Sadists captures the uneasy feelings Manson and Altamont inspired and foreshadows the equally crude but more intelligent Last House on the Left.

But whether or not Satan's Sadists works as social commentary, it's a great buds-n-suds movie - even if the references to Vietnam and the peace movement are window dressing for the mayhem, the blood is bright red, the sex is abundant (if frequently underlit) and the trippy imagery is a hoot. Plus, it probably served Russ Tamblyn as the perfect audition reel for Twin Peaks' Dr. Jacoby. I don't mean to sound dismissive of Satan's Sadists - it is what it is and doesn't make any apologies, which is sort of refreshing in a time when B-movies can be hard to distinguish from A-movies. In its willingness to shock its audience to provoke a response, Satan's Sadists aligns itself with the freaks; in his desire to entertain the whole audience, Adamson is a blue-collar filmmaker through and through.