Monday, June 8, 2009

"Drag Me to Hell"=Horror Movie Heaven

Over the weekend my friends and I caught a screening of "Drag Me to Hell," Sam Raimi's new horror film. Raimi's earned mainstream cred with "A Simple Plan" and the "Spider-man" trilogy, but fans remember him as the guy who created "Evil Dead" and its gruesome, gonzo sequels. His return to the horror fold here doesn't disappoint. "Drag Me to Hell" is one of the most entertaining and relentless scare films in years; its grand Guignol histrionics are accompanied by a wicked sense of humor. The movie centers on Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bright, earnest loan officer angling for a promotion while also trying to win the affections of her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long)'s parents. When Mrs. Ganush, an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver, perfectly cast) asks the bank for a third extension on her mortgage, Christine wants to help her but sees an opportunity to show her boss (the ever reliable David Paymer) that she can "make the tough decisions." Ganush begs on her knees, then angrily hisses that Christine has "shamed" her, and that night attacks Christine in the parking garage in a gleefully extended tussle. It's so gross and outrageous that it's a shoe-in for Best Fight Scene in next year's MTV Movie Awards; amazingly, the film sustains this scene's momentum for the rest of its 99 minute run time. Ganush finally puts a curse on Christine, who then seeks the aid of psychic Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). Jas tells her that she will be tormented and eventually dragged to hell (natch) by the fearsome lamia demon, and over the next few days his prediction comes true. Christine experiences everything from geyser-like nose bleeds to visions of a cloven footed monstrosity, while Clay does his best to understand and support her. (To his credit, this character escapes the trap of being a skeptical dolt, although part of the movie's point seems to be that even his unwavering support isn't enough to protect Christine.) The clever script juxtaposes Christine's mundane, realistic insecurities-- being a former fat girl, fearing that Clay's folks think she's a farm-bred hick-- with the larger than life horrors of the curse. Truly, Christine is trying to avoid a Fate Worse Than Death: burning in hell for all eternity. Raimi makes this film a full frontal assault on the senses, reveling in grotesquerie while continually keeping the audience on its toes with visual gags, creepy sound FX, and whiz bang set pieces. (There's a seance that does its best to blow all of its cinematic forebears out of the water.) The film had me shrieking, laughing, and shouting at the screen, in the tradition of the best horror movies-- and in keeping with the insane, no-holds-barred sensibility of Raimi's first two "Evil Dead" films. "Drag Me to Hell" smashes taboos and takes no prisoners in its quest to freak you out. In so doing, it takes the viewer on a rip-roaring ride and provides bloody good entertainment. If only more horror films gave us this much bang for our buck.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rest in peace, David Carradine

I was shocked to read this morning that legendary actor David Carradine had been found dead under mysterious circumstances (hung in a possible suicide) in a Thailand hotel room. He was 72. Carradine played the lead on the classic 1970s TV show "Kung Fu," as well as starring in hundreds of films and television episodes. My father was a big fan-- and in fact was watching DVDs of the show when he heard the news today. A whole new generation got to know the actor, myself included, when he starred as the title character in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" saga. While Carradine was nearly a cameo player in the first installment, Volume 2 found him fleshing out an incredibly complex, sympathetic, and layered character as he and former love the Bride (Uma Thurman) have a fateful final encounter. Carradine was an excellent actor and, by all accounts, a great man who will be missed.

Yet another reason to make fun of Twilight

Teenage girls everywhere screamed in unison last weekend when the MTV Movie Awards unveiled the trailer for "New Moon," the sequel to "Twilight." (Very apropos, considering that the first movie won so many golden popcorn buckets that you'd think they were being paid off by the studio-- or, more likely, sent multiple votes by the aforementioned teen girls.) The whole thing cracked me up-- it was the expected blend of overwrought melodrama and cheesy slow-mo action-- but perhaps the best bit of all was when hunky Jacob (Taylor Lautner) transformed into a werewolf. Now, we haven't seen a movie werewolf since Wes Craven's "Cursed"-- and by "we" I mean me and like, three other people who saw that. So what does "New Moon" give us? Um... see the first pic. Who's a cute little werewolf? You are, Jacob! Yes you are! (By the by, I totally stole that comment from Ashley.) I mean, really, despite the ferocious snarl, WereJacob looks extremely cuddly. Like he just jumped out of a Harry Potter sequel, or maybe is related to Bolt, or something. He reminded me a little of Dee Wallace-- spoooooiler!!!-- at the end of "The Howling," also seen above. ("The Howling" is an 80s horror movie which totally rocks, and is worth seeing even if I just spoiled you.) My dad loves that movie, but always had the same complaint: "the only thing I didn't like is that the end, she turns into a CUTE werewolf!" In fact, when I met Dee Wallace I was really tempted to tell her that- and should have! I bet she would have laughed. Anyway, the cutesy werewolf tradition continues with New Moon. Will there be a stuffed animal? Because I think I kinda want one. Mwah.

It's official

I love Rihanna. I really enjoy her music and am glad she ditched her abusive asshole boyfriend (and I don't blame her for what happened like some people). And now this-- she's rocking a Keith Haring jacket!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The better you look, the more you see

I just finished reading Glamorama, a Brett Easton Ellis novel I'd been meaning to get to for sometime. (I picked up a used copy at a store Jacob took us to for the express purpose of buying Moxie, an odd regional soda that tastes like medicine. But I digress.) This is the fifth Ellis book I've read, having become a fan through the movie versions of American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction and gone on to read his uniquely satirical and deceptively superficial writing. (It's hard to complain about flat, vapid characters, for instance, when that is clearly the author's intent.) This one shares many of the hallmarks of the author's work: cold, aimless characters, excessive pop culture references and name dropping, gruesomely explicit violence, and narrative ambiguity. It still stands out as a unique and singular achievement, though, as a book that serves as both cultural commentary and hallucinogenic fever dream. Glamorama centers on Victor Ward, an uber-cool male model first introduced in Rules of Attraction, who we here meet in mid 1990s New York City. Like many Ellis men, he's actually kind of a douche: status obsessed to a fault, he treats almost everyone in his life poorly, from girlfriend Chloe to mistress Allison to business partner Damien. But Victor remains strangely sympathetic, maybe because he's less knowing player than lost puppy dog. The first chunk of the novel firmly establishes Victor's high rolling life: endless parties, magazine stories, preparations for the opening of a new club. (A full two pages consist of Victor approving or dismissing potential guests of varying degrees of celebrity.) The irony quickly creeps in as we realize that Victor is, among other things, fairly broke-- while he motorcycles around Manhattan in designer clothes, he can't even afford CDs at the Virgin Megastore. When opening night finally arrives, Victor's personal life basically implodes, and he seeks escape just when a mysterious man named Palakon has engaged him for an unusual mission: to find ex girlfriend Jamie Fields and bring her back from London. (It's clear that Palakon has hidden motives, but naive Victor is oblivious and thinks she's simply needed for a movie shoot.) Once he boards a ship bound for England, things take an increasingly bizarre turn. Ellis introduces the idea that a film crew is following Victor's every move, that this is all a scripted movie, although we're never sure if this is "real" or a figment of Victor's imagination. An attractive girl catches his fancy, then abruptly disappears. When he finds Jamie, she welcomes him into her seemingly idyllic social circle: good looking, successful model types-- including Victor's idol Bobby Hughes-- who mirror the elite types he's become estranged from back in New York. But all is not what it seems, and Jamie and her pals emerge as terrorists capable of acts of horrifying torture and depravity, especially Bobby. Victor gets caught up in bombings, framings, and a complicated involvement with both Jamie and Bobby. Victor professes to be straight but winds up in a bisexual threesome with both characters, a sex scene so relentlessly pornographic that it seems like it was meant to come off as gratuitous sleaze. Palakon continues to confuse Victor with mixed messages, and the protagonist finds himself doubting the motives of everyone around him as well as his own sanity. As at least one critic has noted, Glamorama reads less like a "novel"-- certainly not in the traditional sense-- than as a meditation on themes and styles, with the narrative switching between first, second, and third person narration, and employing the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking (up to and including "soundtrack" songs). Ellis sprawling book encompasses everything from our obsession with youth, beauty, and fame (which seemed to reach a new zenith in the 90s) to fears about terrorism and random violence. "We'll slide down the surface of things," Victor repeats again and again, before he begins to see what lies beneath that "glittering" surface. "The better you look, the more you see" is Victor's catch phrase, and what seems at first like an empty platitude emerges as a thesis for the book. The deeper Victor gets into the world of models and parties, the more he realizes that its one of sinister secrets-- where beautiful bodies can be tortured, hacked, and blown apart, and where powerful forces can manipulate and control your every move. It's a relentlessly bleak view of modern culture that has the ring of bitter truth.