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.

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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.

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Chopping Mall

40/100
Killbot!

Chopping Mall is not the shopping-center slasher-movie its title suggests. Here’s what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from Doctor Who and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke. Continue reading

The Immortal Story

70/100
Orson Welles in The Immortal Story

It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it’s intermittently remarkable despite its modesty. Continue reading

Elle

71/100
Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it.  The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse. Continue reading