Thursday, August 29, 2013

Culture Shock 08.29.13: Don't feel compelled to rent 'Compulsion'

With a title like "Compulsion," a film is bound to elicit unfair comparisons to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."

Apart from their near-homonym titles, each centers on a mentally unstable woman trapped in her apartment, and both hint at traumatic childhood abuse. But there the similarities end.

Where Polanski's film is a disturbing thriller, "Compulsion," directed by Egidio Coccimiglio from a screenplay by Floyd Byars, strives to be a dark comedy. Unfortunately, it is only intermittently dark and in no way comedic. Or maybe it isn't supposed to be comedic, in which case it doesn't know what it's supposed to be. Perhaps a cooking show.

The other comparison is to the movie on which "Compulsion" is based, director Cheol-su Park's 1995 film "301/302," which is dark, but intentionally not comedic. At least I don't think so, unless something was lost in the translation from Korean.

Instead of "301/302," the American remake's producers opted for a generic and overused title, which is our first warning sign.

Heather Graham ("The Hangover") is Amy, an aspiring TV chef for whom food is love. Amy looks like she walked out of a 1950s advertisement for the home of the future. She wears sunny floral dresses, her hair is always perfectly shaped, and she always smiles.

She also has a well-off boyfriend, who pays to outfit her kitchen with all the latest culinary toys. But it's clear she isn't getting what she needs from him emotionally. So, she retreats to her cooking and her fantasy life, where she is a famous TV chef, telling a million housewives how to whip up a meal that will spice up not only the their dinner tables but their love lives, too.

Perhaps she did walk out of an advertisement.

Amy lives in Apt. 301, and across the hall in 302 lives Saffron, played by Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix"). Saffron is a former child actress who has aged out of stardom and now finds it almost impossible to get work. Instead she writes a column about sex and relationships, secretly using Amy and her boyfriend for material. But that plot element goes nowhere, and it seems just a vestigial remainder from the South Korean original, where the woman in 302 is a writer, not an actress.

When Amy discovers who Saffron is, Saffron becomes another of her obsessions. Amy, coincidentally, has been a fan for a long time, and she tries to win Saffron's affection with food.

There is just one problem: While Amy seems merely delusional, Saffron has darker demons running around her head, and they manifest as an eating disorder. Saffron literally cannot eat anything without her body rejecting it.

The film misses the opportunity to say something meaningful, while keeping with its foodie theme, by not juxtaposing Saffron's anorexia to Hollywood's obsession with near-skeletal thinness. It's the one thing that could justify transforming the character from writer to actress.

The woman who substitutes food for love and the woman traumatized into starvation are locked in a battle of wills, in which Amy's lifelong obsession with the child star seems an unnecessary distraction. The two function better as equals, which Amy can't be when she reverts to a schoolgirl with a crush.

Graham delivers a performance that winks at the audience. In her kitchen fantasies, she talks to no one and to us at the same time, making us complicit in her delusion. But Moss plays her character straight, as written. She seems to be in a different movie, an actress out of place in a world populated by fakes. Too bad this film doesn't explore that either.

Perhaps the film Saffron is in is a better one.

"Compulsion" (R) is available on DVD (currently at Redbox) and video on demand.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Culture Shock 08.22.13: New Blu-ray, DVD give 'Lifeforce' new life

How to describe "Lifeforce"?

For years, when anyone asked, I summed up Tobe Hooper's 1985 science fiction/horror film as a "Doctor Who" story where the Doctor never shows up to set things right. That summation is especially true if you have in mind early-1970s "Doctor Who," with Jon Pertwee's Doctor stranded on 20th century Earth and a full-time supporting cast of UNIT soldiers and scientists.

"Lifeforce" has all the same trappings, only, as I said, minus the Doctor: an English setting, an extinction-level menace from outer space, and principals who include a guilt-ridden astronaut, an eccentric scientist who specializes in the study of death and a no-nonsense Special Air Service officer.

Then there is the other, more blunt way "Lifeforce" may be summarized: It's the movie with the naked space vampire.

I'm not entirely sure "Lifeforce" is a good movie, but it never fails to entertain, which is the only measure that really counts, and say what you will about it, "Lifeforce" isn't a movie that does anything halfway. That is why it has earned a small but devoted following, and why Shout! Factory has given it a stunning combo Blu-ray/DVD re-release.

The film opens in 1986 with a joint U.S./British mission to Halley's Comet that unexpectedly encounters an alien spacecraft hiding in the comet's tail. Before you can say, "I don't think this is such a great idea," the astronauts, led by Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback, aka Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie "Helter Skelter"), are exploring the alien ship, where they find and retrieve three apparently human bodies.

The alien humanoids make it to Earth, but most of the astronauts don't, and before long, one of the aliens — the aforementioned naked space girl, played by French actress and dancer Mathilda May — is on the loose and racking up a body count as she feeds on the life force of unwary humans, who easily fall under her vampiric sway.

Mathilda May as the Space Girl.
As one scientist who narrowly escapes her says, "She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I have ever encountered." She is the vampire as succubus, reducing her mostly male victims to ravenous husks that must themselves feed or die. And while the special effects that bring the victims back to life are dated, the results remain startling. It's a deadly battle of the sexes, where feminine erotic power reigns supreme.

They don't make movies quite like this anymore, and it's amazing "Lifeforce" was made in the first place, but no one ever accused producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of subtlety.

On the space girl's trail are Carlsen, the mission's lone survivor, and SAS Col. Caine, portrayed with scene-stealing intensity by Peter Firth ("MI-5," "Equus"), who track her across Britain while "thanatology" expert Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) tries to discover her weakness.

Fallada shares a name with the real-life author of "Every Man Dies Alone." Take that for what you will.

"Lifeforce" culminates in a deliriously chaotic final act, with hapless Londoners attacked by cadaverous vampires while the space girl, having finally put on some clothes, prepares to zap everyone's life energies up to her orbiting spaceship.

The new Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Shout! Factory is a marked improvement on the non-anamorphic DVD released by MGM in 1998 and worth the upgrade, and not just for experiencing Ms. May in high definition.

At times absurd, at times thrilling, propelled by an energetic Henry Mancini score and featuring an early supporting performance by Patrick Stewart, "Lifeforce" is the sort of film you must see once just to know such things exist.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Culture Shock 08.08.13: TV and movies experience reversal of fortunes

Two new books, taken together, perfectly illustrate the divergent fortunes of television and the movies.

The first is "Difficult Men" by GQ correspondent Brett Martin. In this case, the (overly long) subtitle — "Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' " — says it all. Television is no longer mostly just sitcoms and episodic police procedurals, although both are still around and doing fine. Now there are complex shows with ongoing stories that attract some of the best actors in the business, the sort of actors who used to do only movies and looked down on TV work.

Driven by writer-creators rather than by directors, television has become the go-to platform for long-form, narrative storytelling.

At the other, seedier end of the street is Lynda Obst's "Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business." Obst is a producer who has a hard time producing movies nowadays, even though her credits include hits like "Adventures in Babysitting" and "Sleepless in Seattle."

The reason is Hollywood doesn't make the kind of modestly budgeted films she makes anymore, unless they're horror films or star-driven comedies. Everything is either low-budget indie films, on the one hand, or grotesquely budgeted effects-driven extravaganzas based on brands with built-in audience appeal. That's why everything Hollywood produces seems to be a remake, a sequel or based on a book, comic book or old TV show.

They're not all bad, but for every "Iron Man" there are a dozen "Man of Steels," crowding out other types of movies. Once, these big-budget would-be blockbusters were tentpoles around which studios built their release schedules. Now, Obst complains, just about every studio movie is a tentpole.

Even a big-name director like Steven Spielberg has to scrape together funding when he wants to make a non-tentpole like his Oscar-bait biopic "Lincoln."

That prompted Spielberg and George Lucas, jointly credited/blamed with creating the "summer blockbuster," to warn that Hollywood's big tent is on the verge of collapsing.

The common denominator behind both TV's and films' fortunes is DVD sales.

The rise of DVDs (and video on demand) in the past 15 or so years made movies more available, a development that was one thing driving pay-TV channels like HBO into original programming as a way to differentiate themselves. The subsequent decline in DVD sales, however, broke all of the Hollywood studios' financial models, leading to the tentpole-dominated model that prevails now.

The decline of DVDs is in part the work of Netflix, which is also credited with helping change TV for the better by encouraging "binge viewing" and producing its own shows like the Emmy-nominated "House of Cards," a fourth season of "Arrested Development" and the latest critical darling, "Orange is the New Black." It's not too much of an exaggeration to say Netflix changed everything.

So, is everything roses for TV and curtains for the movies? Not necessarily.

Television still falls prey to formula. For all the talk of a "creative revolution," how many of these daring new shows can be summed up as "family man (or woman) with a secret criminal life"?

And Hollywood has been here before, when big-budget disasters like 1963's "Cleopatra" nearly sank studios and cleared the way for a new generation of filmmakers who made smaller, more personal films. After a decade of bloated epics, we got the generation of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and, yes, George Lucas.

Lest we forget, the original "Star Wars" was also a modestly budgeted film, by today's standards.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Culture Shock 08.01.13: Jackman makes 'The Wolverine' his own

Hugh Jackman wasn't the first choice to play Wolverine. Nor was James Mangold ("3:10 to Yuma") the first director attached to "The Wolverine." All films are as much the result of chance as design. But in the case of "The Wolverine" it shows.

Dougray Scott was the first pick to portray the scrappy mutant in 2000's "X-Men," but he dropped out when production on "Mission: Impossible II" fell behind. Now, it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than Jackman in the role. Like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Christopher Reeve's Kal-El, Jackman's Logan is definitive, even if he isn't a carbon copy of the comic-book character.

By contrast, Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank never put a distinctive mark on the film, which is loosely based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's four-issue "Wolverine" miniseries published in 1982. (Not that Claremont and Miller get screen credit for their contribution.)

That is a shame, because there are seeds sown here that, with a bit of tending, could have born fruit.

"The Wolverine" picks up immediately after the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand," in which Logan was forced to kill the love of his life, Jean Grey, after she lost control of her powers, went all Dark Phoenix on everyone, and threatened to destroy the world. Heartbroken, depressed and blaming himself for Jean's death, which is strictly true, Logan has retreated to the isolation of the wilderness.

But even playing hermit can't keep Wolverine completely off the radar. He is tracked down by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant who can foretell people's deaths. She persuades Logan to fly back with her to Japan, where her employer, an old acquaintance of Logan's, wants to settle a longstanding debt.

During World War II, the ageless Logan was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki the day the atomic bomb fell, and he saved the life of a soldier named Yashida. Now on his high-tech deathbed, a billionaire industrialist Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) wants to give Logan a gift no one else can: mortality.

With the help of some superscience, Yashida will get Logan's super-healing powers, while Logan will get to live a normal life, growing old and eventually dying, ending the "curse" of immortality.

Yet Wolverine's existential crisis doesn't last long before taking a backseat to the Yashida family's internal power struggles, which are far less compelling.

When the Yakuza attempt to assassinate Yashida's granddaughter and designated successor, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Wolverine is forced back into the "best there is at what he does" role he has tried to escape since Jean's death. Wolverine, the "ronin" or masterless samurai, is back in protector mode.

Only this time, Wolverine's healing powers aren't working, which makes fighting an army of criminals, and later ninjas, a lot more difficult.

What follows is the movie's best action set piece, with Logan and Mariko fighting their way across Tokyo. Afterward, it's all downhill en route to an overblown ending that looks like it wandered in from some other movie. When we finally learn the villain's master plan, the most striking revelation is that nothing we've just seen makes a lick of sense.

Still, Jackman makes it almost worthwhile. He is an engaging presence, and while he doesn't have much chemistry with either of his love interests, Mariko or Jean (Famke Janssen, appearing in several dream sequences), his role-reversed relationship with Yukio is fun while it lasts. If "The Wolverine" is about anything, it's about Logan as seen through the eyes of the women in his life.

How might "The Wolverine" have been different had director Darren Aronofsky not dropped out? Maybe its themes of life, death and immortality, which Aronofsky explored so well in "The Fountain" (also starring Jackman), would have been better examined? But we'll never know.

That's chance, and life, for you.