Liquid Sky

77/100
Liquid Sky

Say what you will about Liquid Sky, there’s no other movie like it. Shot largely in a nightclub that feels warmed to sweltering by big costumes and body heat and a crowded penthouse apartment with a killer view of the Empire State Building (and a UFO on the porch), it mashes up an annoyingly slack New Wave fashion show with a New York sci-fi story about aliens who crave heroin and/or human orgasms cooked up by frisky Russian immigrant writer, director and co-editor Slava Tsukerman.

Co-screenwriter Anne Carlisle, playing the dual roles of aspiring “Mayflower stock” starlet Margaret and drugged-up downtown asshole Jimmy, gets to act opposite herself in a few scenes (including one where she gives herself a blow job) and is generally considered the MVP on screen, but I’ve always preferred the big-eyed Paula E. Sheppard, who dominates the film’s midsection as Margaret’s erotically aggressive performance-artist girlfriend, Adrian. (Her salacious delivery of the film’s single best line — a response to the age-old question, “What’s in the box?” — never fails to leave me convulsing with laughter.)

The film seems to have been edited in a blender, which only adds to its cachet as outsider art, but it’s remarkably well photographed and, once the story takes hold, the nihilistic shenanigans on screen ascend to the status of bleak, hilarious auto-parody. Still, It’s hard not to feel for the verbally and sexually abused Margaret as Carlisle drops her punk posture and shifts into broken-hearted mode, donning a wedding dress and climbing onto the roof, completely junked up, in search of some kind of completion. It’s a wicked fairy tale set among sad, smacked-out freaks and outsiders, doling out cruelly unequal helpings of sweet and sour, bliss and despair. But there’s a beating heart at the center of it all and, sometimes, poetry.

mother!

58/100
mother!

Having narrowly survived his harrowing brush with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Darren Aronofsky is back in bonkers tortured-artist mode with this allegorical freak-out about poetry, celebrity, and the act of creation. More impressive than the density of metaphors running through this plainly Biblical yarn is the ferocity of Aronofsky’s execution. No matter what happens, he keeps the camera close to Jennifer Lawrence; for the bulk of the film, any shot she doesn’t actually appear in is a point-of-view shot. So we experience events as she does — her property trespassed upon, her authority disrespected, she remaining in good-wife mode longer than is healthy. And Aronofsky directs the hell out of the film’s third act, which unfolds with a disorienting kind of dream logic that belies the fundamental absurdity of events on screen. I don’t find the central metaphor(s) so compelling in itself, but I think the film works on an emotional level as long as it’s fundamentally Lawrence’s story. She is the dreamer, and this borderline surrealist frenzy is her nightmare, and it’s spooky and scary and richly suggestive and I’m completely on board. But then the film establishes its continuity with the Aronofsky Cinematic Universe, which is kind of a bummer. Once the creator presents his revelation — God’s love for humankind, eternal recurrence, etc. — it becomes clear it’s not really her story. It’s Aronofsky’s story. It’s always been Aronofsky’s story. And I just can’t relate.

Wonder Woman

58/100
Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

In which the most iconic female comic book superhero finally gets a feature film to call her own. Much of this is delightful — Gal Gadot’s performance is magnetic, and Patty Jenkins gives the film’s engrossing midsection an authentic screwball savor, presenting Gadot’s Diana as more frankly sexy than I had been led to expect and keeping sweet, blue-eyed Chris Pine in exactly the right place throughout. It’s a shame she’s saddled with a typical superhero screenplay that eventually brings the whole endeavor crashing down. The reversed gender roles give Jenkins a fighting chance at making some hoary tropes feel new again, and she slips into a confident groove for most of the film’s running time, culminating in the second act’s bracing, triumphant, Diana-led sortie into No Man’s Land. Like her hero, Jenkins is the man who can. But she can’t do much with the gloomy, CG-addled third act, which resembles a PlayStation cut scene staged inside a vat of Dr. Pepper and stomps all over what should be the film’s emotional payload. (It says a lot that the real problem with Wonder Woman is that it shares too much DNA with the rest of DC’s cinematic endeavors.) Still, Jenkins has her own enthusiasm and Gadot’s wild, wide-eyed idealism on her side throughout. Together, they go a long way.

Life

52/100

If you’re going to steal, they say, steal from the best. It almost works out for Life, which borrows the fundamentals of its premise from Alien–hostile, shape-changing lifeform let loose in the confines of a spacecraft grows larger and more powerful as it eats its way through the crew–and rides that pony for a good forty-five nerve-jangling minutes before running out of oxygen. Alien‘s setting was an interstellar mining vessel that doubled as a haunted mansion, with long hallways, high vaulted ceilings, and other shadowy spaces where the boogeyman could wait for his prey. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lose some of those gothic atmospherics by setting their story on board the International Space Station, since it imparts a more sterile, sci-fi feel. Moreover, in what’s arguably a more brazen case of cinematic larceny, director Daniel Espinosa, best-known for the 2012 thriller Safe House, swipes his anti-gravity stylistics from Alfonso Cuarón, opening the film with a single, very long, VFX-heavy take that sends the camera around in gentle swoops from character to floating character as the space station itself tumbles slowly around its axis. Continue reading

John Wick: Chapter 2

75/100
Still from John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, perhaps incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake — that’s not homage. It’s a declaration of principles. Hell, it’s a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space — the magical Méliès, perhaps, to Chaplin’s more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the influential athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back directly to Keaton’s knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the most musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee’s lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan’s more broadly comic (but no less precisely conceived and executed) on-screen fighting style. Jackie Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining rom-com mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves’ into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.

Continue reading

C.H.U.D.

35/100
Manhole cover from C.H.U.D.

Fondly remembered in cult circles as a surprisingly well-acted low-budget horror diversion, this Reagan-era creature feature boasts a roster of game performances, a plethora of vintage locations from the days when New York City was scary enough by itself, and, of course, that title–one of the most vivid and ludicrous acronyms in film history. A CHUD, as any red-blooded Fangoria subscriber could have told you many months before the movie itself made its way to their hometown, is a cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller. OK, it’s not the most elegant acronym. For one thing, if the underground dwellers are cannibalistic, does that mean they eat humans, or just other humanoids? And if they do eat humans, doesn’t the fact that they are merely humanoid mean they’re not technically cannibals after all? But forget all that. Cannibalistic. Humanoid. Underground. Dwellers. What else do you need to know? Continue reading

Brimstone

45/100
Guy Pearce in Brimstone

In a country where Paul Verhoeven represents cinéma du papa, it makes sense that a younger generation of filmmakers would produce something like Brimstone. Calling back to Verhoeven’s earthy, sex-drenched cinema of the 1970s, but updating it with the gory sensibilities of a contemporary horror movie, Brimstone is a spectacularly lurid melodrama that seeks to excuse indulgences both bloody and lewd by catching them up in a lecture about runaway misogyny, which is used as a stick with which to beat its heroine nearly to death over and over again. Brimstone is the kind of movie where a bullet wound is rarely just a bullet wound — generally it’s the goo-slick remnants of a head shot, with blood spatter plus a little puddle, and a few gobbets of brain matter sprinkled around the scene like so much sea salt on a plate of raw meat. It’s the kind of movie where a child is not only placed in peril, but is outright tortured on screen. And it’s the kind of movie where a woman absolutely, positively cannot catch a goddamned break. Continue reading

Blood Diner

52/100

So bad it’s good? I wouldn’t go that far. But Blood Diner is definitely something—a no-frills pastiche of 1950s disembodied-brain sci-fi potboiler, 1960s Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, 1970s cannibal-cuisine flick, and early-1980s buddy-cop movie. I’m tempted to say it stitches together a Frankenstein’s patchwork of genre movies because it has no vision of its own, but that’s too glib. If nothing else, 20-something Asian-American director Jackie Kong (Night Patrol) loves L.A.: she wrapped all of those genre influences around a love letter to the city’s underground music scene circa 1987, casting punk rockers and rockabilly singers as extras, bit players, and movie stars in a story about a pair of pretty-boy sibling serial killers who run a popular foodie destination on Hollywood Boulevard where the vegetarian dishes are, unbeknownst to patrons, boosted by the presence of human flesh in the recipe.

Conceived as a direct sequel to the late H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast (partly in hopes he would come out of retirement to direct the film himself), Blood Diner‘s characters’ names have been changed, though the new story picks up roughly where the old one left off. It opens with young brothers Michael (Rick Burks) and George (Carl Crew) being visited by their Uncle Anwar (Drew Godderis), who makes a quick detour in his flight from the cops to gift them with ancient Egyptian amulets before running back outside to be gunned down by police. Long story short, the boys grow up, disinter their uncle’s body from the grave, put his brain in a jar, and follow its spoken instructions. Uncle Anwar’s brain has them stitching together female body parts to create a vessel into which the goddess Sheetar (Tanya Papanicolas) may be summoned following a suitable “blood boo-fay.”

batter-up

The tone is comfy, taking every opportunity to wink at the audience. Burks and Crew play their characters as jackass Angelenos whose pleasant handsomeness masks the American psychos lurking underneath. (One minute, Burks is asking his date if she’s ever heard of “battered girlfriends;” the next, he’s slathering her in an egg-and-flour mixture and shoving her head in hot oil.) The police duo assigned to investigate the murders is a mixed bag: while the guy is played very broadly by Roger Dauer as a sexed-up schlemiel who gets slugged by his boss on the regular, his straight woman, detective Sheba Jackson (LaNette La France, never heard from again after this movie), has cute bangs and a devastating side-eye. She should have had her own franchise of dopey serial-killer movies.

It’s lucky that a woman was at the helm of Blood Diner (a “PMS Filmworks” production), as Kong’s interpretation probably went some way towards diffusing the misogyny inherent in a script about men who take orders to seduce and murder everyday “tramps” in order to pave the way for the return of a mythical goddess. It’s not that Kong backs off on the film’s gonzo nature; rather, she embraces it and shapes its energy. When Uncle Anwar starts reminiscing fondly about his life in crime, Kong cuts in footage of old black-and-white “roughies” featuring scenes of sexual violence set to good-timey polka music as flashbacks—acknowledging her own movie’s place in the continuum of exploitation cinema while simultaneously criticizing its problematic nature. There’s a fun scene where one of the Tutmans interrupts a couple having sex, dispatches the man, and then comes at the nude woman with an axe. Instead of running and screaming or simply falling under the blade, she assumes a martial arts stance and beats the hell out of him. And during the big rock-concert set-piece, Sheetar comes back to life unexpectedly, revealing a chomping vagina dentata running vertically from between her breasts down to her belly button–all the better to chew your dick off.

sheetar-pointsjpg

Yes, Blood Diner is unfocused, with too many amateurish performances, but it is committed to its premise, and it somehow manages to fill 88 solid minutes with a new idea lurking around every corner. Topless aerobics! Zombie attacks! A wrestler called Little Jimmy Hitler! Think of it as outsider art. It’s not well-made by any traditional yardstick of quality, but it is simultaneously possessed of genuine wit, feminist sensibilities, and a weird aesthetic integrity.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blood Diner debuts on Blu-ray as part of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series with a straightforward HD transfer that gives it an adequate but certainly not flashy revival. The box copy indicates that it was “restored from original vault materials,” and they have been handled pretty conservatively. The picture here is a little on the flat side, with low contrast and muted colors. If I generally wonder if Blu-ray images are cranked to pop too much, this is the rare transfer that could have used a tad more oomph. Dust-busting and grain-reduction don’t wreck the presentation but are definitely in evidence; the video bitrate runs at an average 27 Mbps, though I’d like to see what it looks like with less noise reduction at around 35 Mbps. The frame is opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to an HDTV-friendly 1.77:1. (As with the concurrent Chopping Mall, the packaging misidentifies the AR as 1.85:1.) Sound quality of the 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is quite good. There’s not a lot going on in the monaural mix, but what’s there is clear and well-balanced. Much of the dialogue seems post-sync’d and is rendered with especially good definition. The selections from Wagner are clearly detailed, and the rock music from the climactic club scene has a decent, bassy thump that suggests a live-concert environment.

Extra features are fairly extensive, starting with Michael Felsher’s five-part, 65-minute documentary “Killer Cuisine: The Making of Blood Diner“. In part 1, screenwriter Michael Sonye (a.k.a. Dukey Flyswatter from L.A.-based horror punk band Haunted Garage) and Jimmy Maslon recount the movie’s origins—basically, Sonye and Maslon had bonded over a shared love of Blood Feast, to which Maslon owned the rights. After trying and failing to interest Lewis in directing, they cut the budget substantially in hopes of getting a green light. In part 2, Kong talks about coming onto the production after the success of her previous film, Night Patrol, got Vestron interested in finding a script for her. She reveals that Blood Diner was made on a $330,000 budget, and says the bond company was betting against her being able to complete it at all. Part 3 features interviews with actors Carl Crew, Roger Dauer, and Drew Godderis that add color commentary on how the project came together. (Rick Burks would probably be here, too, but the poor guy passed away in 1989, at the age of 29.) Part 4 is an interview with composer Don Preston vis-à-vis his synth score, and part 5 lets cinematographer Jürg V. Walther have his say about what it takes to make a good-looking movie on a tight schedule and a low budget.

For whatever reason, none of these interviewees appear on screen together. That’s the source of some frustration because they sometimes contradict each other. Specifically, Kong claims (both here and in her audio commentary) that the script she was given was “as serious as a heart attack” and that she had to work to inject humor into the proceedings. Yet Sonye relates a story about calling Maslon up to discuss his ideas for the film. He claims that if Maslon didn’t laugh—if the ideas weren’t inherently funny—he didn’t use them. It’s possible that Kong was just on a completely different wavelength from Maslon and Sonye when it came to humor, but there is a fundamental disagreement here on who was responsible for the picture’s overtly comic tone. Sonye also mentions that he had hoped to play a role in the film but was barred from the set by Kong, so there’s that.

I’m not trying to throw shade in Kong’s direction. I’ve sat through too many audio commentaries from directors of low-budget 1980s horror movies who talk about their film like it’s an unloved child to have any quarrel with someone who’s as proud of her genre work as Kong is of Blood Diner. Although it’s true that her yak-track covers much of the same ground as her 20-minute documentary segment, it’s nice to be able to see what she’s referring to when she describes a dolly move or makes the point, repeatedly, that she transcends her budgetary limitations in part by making sure shots have a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background to suggest the depth and complexity that’s often missing from movies made on the cheap. She also discusses her penchant for planning every shot in detail, down to drawing lighting diagrams in order to ensure the truck is loaded with exactly the lights that are required for specific effects, rather than a generic indie-film roll-out. I especially like her idea to go out unrated, which Vestron apparently embraced, as opposed to trimming this and that in an attempt to appease the MPAA. I don’t know how many indie directors have the talent or the temperament to be as demanding in this regard as Kong is, but it sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Also on board is an 8-minute HD interview (dating to 2009) with Eric Caidin, the owner of Hollywood Book & Poster Co., who had a hand in Blood Diner‘s development and who died unexpectedly last year. The film’s lightly comic trailer, featuring food critic “Phil A. Mignon” directing adventurous diners to dangerous eats at Blood Diner, is included in two versions (both HD), along with a pair of derivative TV spots and three unrelated radio ads. Closing this joint down for the night, a slideshow of production stills clocks in at 5:34.