March 5th, 2014

ON THE ROAD (2012) * ½

I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a teenager, shortly after reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. While that book lived up to its reputation, I found Kerouac’s tome pretty insufferable. It made me wonder why the “Beat” movement ever gained any traction at all. The movie is somehow even worse. That’s probably because we see these losers drinking, smoking, stealing, and freeloading without much sympathy or empathy for any of them. None of them become characters we care about and the “message” at the end is more or less infuriating.

Sal (Sam Riley) is a shiftless lay-about in the late ‘40s. When he is introduced to a mutual acquaintance, Dean (Garrett Hedlund), who is like the world heavyweight champion of shiftless lay-abouts, he gets an instant man crush on him. He follows Dean obediently on various misadventures, most of which consists of going to jazz clubs, drinking, getting stoned, and boning chicks. Sometimes, Dean’s underage wife (Kristen Stewart) tags along, and eventually, he encourages Sal to sleep with her too, which complicates their relationship.

Walter Salles’ direction is about as beat as the characters. The film is a lifeless slog as it aimlessly follows its aimless characters. Who knew drinking and screwing could seem so dull? And even though the film is far more graphic with the drugs and sex (especially when it comes to the bisexuality of the characters) than the book could’ve ever been when it was published, that doesn’t exactly make it “better”.

The performances are pretty pathetic all around. Sal is such an awful character. He’s extremely passive and lets Dean walk all over him. At least in the book, he served his purpose. In the movie, there’s virtually nothing for him to do. His narration is lame too. Riley’s lazy faux-Noo Yawk accent renders Kerouac’s words almost unintelligible. Remember that coffee shop guy from the ‘90s Gap commercials? They should’ve got him to narrate.

Hedlund is marginally better, if only because his character is much more animated. He’s not very likeable though. The rest of the supporting cast seemed to be making side bets as to who could give the worst performance. Viggo Mortensen is terrible as a guy who shows off his balls, Amy Adams looks like she’s seen better days as a chick who rakes leaves (while they’re still on a tree), and Steve Buscemi looks embarrassed to be there. You know you’re in trouble when Kirsten Dunst gives the best performance in the flick.

On the Road isn’t a complete waste of time. It actually has two points of interest. And both of them belong to Kristen Stewart.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: JOSE MOJICA MARINS

For this month’s theme, Director Spotlight, I’ve chosen to showcase work from several of the world’s most famous and idiosyncratic directors. Most of these will be films I’ve yet to see from the particular director, but some of them will be long-overdue revisits. Many of this month’s directors will be favorites of mine, while others will be directors I’ve yet to check out. My goal in all of this is to discover some pretty cool and outré flicks by the world’s greatest directors. And I couldn’t have picked a better way to kick things off than with director Jose Mojica Marins’…

EMBODIMENT OF EVIL (2008) ****

Over forty years after This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, director and star Jose Mojica Marins returns as Coffin Joe in the third and most outrageous entry in the Coffin Joe trilogy. If you think a 70+ year old director doesn’t have to ability to shock you, think again. Embodiment of Evil is like his Wolf of Wall Street; it shows that a world renowned director in the twilight of his career has more piss, vinegar, and audacity than 99% of his younger peers.

What I’m trying to say is that this might be the best Brazilian horror film ever made.

The film opens up with Coffin Joe (Marins) getting out of a mental institution. (His trusty hunchback sidekick is dutifully waiting for him when he gets out.) He then sets out to find the perfect woman to continue his bloodline. Armed with a loyal army of freaks, he scours the streets for his ideal mate. Along the way, a grizzled police captain sets out to exterminate Coffin Joe.

There are many shocking moments in Embodiment of Evil. I think the scene where Coffin Joe cut off a chick’s butt and made her eat is the scene that will stay with me for a long time. But the scene where a chick emerges from a (real) dead pig is up there too, as is the scene (taken pretty much from the novel, American Psycho) where he smothers a gal’s nether regions with Velveeta and turns a hungry rat loose on her.

But the many, many, many other gore set pieces are just window dressing. What makes Coffin Joe such an effective character is his philosophy. This isn’t just a faceless boogeyman like Freddy or Jason. He has this warped dogma that he abides by that makes him so despicable. Marins also wrote himself some rather amazing dialogue that perfectly suits the character too that you’ll be quoting for days. (“I’m higher than God and below Satan!”)

Coffin Joe is much more than that though. He has his good qualities about him. He rescues some children from the clutches of a demented police captain. You won’t see Freddy doing that. And he’s actually haunted by his various misdeeds. The best scenes in the film come when his previous victims from the other movies come back to life to torment him. What makes these scenes so cool is that they are still in black and white while everything else is in color. It’s some pretty fucking amazing stuff we are talking about.

It all goes back to Marins’ singular demented vision. Even his lesser films have moments of crazed mania. But as much as I love At Midnight I Take Your Soul and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, I think this just may be his masterpiece. The thing is, he had to wait forty years to make it. I don’t think a younger Marins could’ve made it. It’s kinda like Rocky Balboa. Stallone needed to age and mature a bit, both as a man and as a filmmaker before tackling that particular story. Same goes for Marins.

If you see only one Brazilian horror film this year, see this one.

AKA: Devil’s Reincarnation.

FORCE: FIVE (1981) ***

Robert Clouse reteamed with Enter the Dragon’s Master Bong Soo Han for this fun and breezy Kung Fu flick. Joe Lewis (who is kinda like a Michael Dudikoff Lite) is assigned to rescue Amanda (A Nightmare on Elm Street) Wyss from the clutches of a charismatic Kung Fu cult leader, played by Han. (This was made at a time when Jim Jones was still on everyone’s minds.) Lewis then assembles a team of five badasses to infiltrate Han’s compound and take him out.

Force: Five is admittedly cheesy and fairly lightweight. However, it is always fun and full of moments that action fans will appreciate. Clouse clearly got tired of doing the usual sort of Kung Fu scenes time and time again and was willing to try to do something a little different with Force: Five.

Our first example is the pool hall fight with Richard Norton. You’ve seen this scene hundreds of times in a Kung Fu movie. You’ve seen guys fight with pool cues over and over again. But have we ever seen our hero use the ball rack as a defensive weapon? I think not.

Or what about the scene in the parking garage? We’ve seen villains throw people through windshields in parking garages countless times. But I think Force: Five offers us the first instance of a guy throwing another dude through a windshield FROM INSIDE the car.

Then there’s the scene where the Force: Five has to break INTO a prison. Usually the elite fighting squads in these sorts of films are breaking OUT of the prison. It’s just another example of the sort of tweaking Clouse gives the otherwise routine formula to make it cool and memorable.

But my favorite parts have to do with how Han dispatches his enemies. Some villains throw their enemies to the sharks. Others have an alligator pit set up for the occasion. This guy puts you in a slender hallway and then turns his homicidal bull loose on you. Sure, the pacing may bog down in spots, but when you’ve got this sort of goofiness and invention going on, it’s kinda OK.

THE CONJURING (2013) ***

During the prologue of The Conjuring, director James Wan prominently displays all of his cinematic fetishes; namely haunted houses and creepy dolls. And while the opening is derivative of Wan’s Dead Silence and Insidious movies, it is nevertheless a very effective piece of horror filmmaking. The flick eventually settles down and becomes a bit of a slog (at nearly two hours, it’s way too long), but Wan rights everything with a positively harrowing exorcism scene in the finale.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star as a married pair of paranormalists. The last exorcism they performed took a heavy toll on Vera, so Patrick wants to keep things as chill as possible. But when a demonic force threatens Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor’s family, they decide to do some ghostbusting.

The middle section of the movie is easily its weakest. The scenes of Wilson setting up cameras and shit in the house to capture evidence of the ghosts are dull and are really reminiscent of Poltergeist. Once the ghost starts pulling people around the room by the hair; shit gets real though.

Wan bookends the flick with two memorable and creepy set pieces. The exorcism scene at the end is really well done and is one of the best screen exorcisms since the original Exorcist. And the opening scene with the doll could’ve made for a great standalone Tales from the Crypt episode. (Apparently, there’s going to be a spin-off movie starring the doll; an idea I wholly endorse.)

Wilson and Farmiga are excellent in this flick. I dug their backstory and the scenes where they go around to colleges showing home movies of paranormal activity. And Taylor is pretty great too, especially once she gets possessed and starts puking blood everywhere. (If anything, The Conjuring is a nice apology from Taylor for that sorry-ass Haunting remake she starred in.)