Reviews browsing by category


Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Let me cut straight to the point – Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is phenomenal. It is a ceaselessly gorgeous showcase for Miyazaki’s unmistakeable cinematic genius. It is potentially his finest film since 1997’s Mononoke Hime, and perhaps the most joyful motion picture to be made by any director since his own My Neighbor Totoro first hit screens in 1988. It has been labelled as a “light” and “simplistic” film, but it is also a powerfully deep (if brief) journey to the core of all of Miyazaki’s key motifs – environmental integrity, social equality and feminist determinism.

I don’t throw the word “genius” around lightly. With Ponyo, it becomes clear that not only does Miyazaki appear incapable of making a film that is anything less than revelatory, but that as he approaches the grand old age of 70, he is still making films with the exuberance and passion of a young man. It is an unrelentingly ebullient picture, every second packed with an almost rapturous glee for the boundless potential of humankind.

If that sounds a little excessive, just wait until Ponyo hits American theaters next month; from the the first frame to the last, I guarantee you’ll have a mile-wide smile plastered on your face. In fact, I smiled so much that, in retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that a film that is so fun could be so very profound.

Ostensibly about a young boy and a goldfish, the more left unsaid about the highly compartmentalized plot, the better. Thematically, it borrows liberally from all of Miyazaki’s own films (particularly his screenplay for Whisper of the Heart), but there is a certain undercurrent of Grand Scale science fiction that evokes the works of Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto; there is even an unmistakable tip of the hat to Walt Disney’s Pinnochio! It is the first time that Miyazaki has overtly paid tribute to the animators who influenced him, and it seems as if Miyazaki has accepted his place in the pantheon and allowed himself a moment to paint in the broad strokes of his predecessors.

With Ponyo, Miyazaki has tapped into the mainspring of his art and created a film of surpassing power and beauty. It appears difficult for me to express my respect for his work without degenerating into pure uncut enthusiasm; suffice it to say that Miyazaki is forever making exactly the kind of movie I want to see: rejuvenating, optimistic and permeated by a sense of wonder. Time and again, he flawlessly executes the loftiest aspirations of the cinema, and Ponyo is no exception.


Note: I have not seen the Disney dub, and don’t intend to, and can only encourage filmgoers to see this (and every) foreign feature in its original language with subtitles.

City Without Baseball (2008)

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Less about baseball and more about the difficulties inherent in being Chinese and bi/homosexual, City Without Baseball has received no small amount of press in Hong Kong. This is, without question, the most mainstream, high-profile film yet from HK addressing one of China’s great unspoken taboos. It’s also a fascinating exercise in creative casting: all of the actors are non-professionals who are actual members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team, and the story is woven loosely from anecdotes they provided.

On the surface, the plot is about the their battle to win in the Pan-Asian League despite being from Hong Kong, a city that is generally unaware that it even has a baseball team. But the real story is that of a number of players experiencing conflicts of sexual identity. This struggle is graphically illustrated by another of the film’s major talking points: it features a copious amount of male frontal nudity. It is hard to underscore how rare this is in any kind of Chinese film – one can only imagine that the pseudo-documentary nature of the picture allowed the censors to even consider it for release; and it’s not even Cat III!

The movie certainly represents a sea-change in HK’s traditional portrayal of young men. Though a smooth, idol-oriented veneer is applied, these are all young professional athletes at the peak of their physical shape being highly sexualized in the service of humanizing homosexuality in a culture notoriously adverse to the subject. For this alone, it is deserving of a certain amount of scrutiny.

Which is not to say, pun inevitable, that this is a home run of a picture. Lawrence Ah Mon directs, and coming from a lengthy spate of second-string action and triad pictures, he brings his typically glossy, vacuous aesthetic with him. The intersecting plots hang by flimsy threads, and the cinematography is wildly incongruous to the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible not to be pulled into this film, thanks to the phenomenal amateur performances from the members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team and the frankly wonderful script by first-time screenwriter Scud.

Even in an industry obsessed with nicknaming its talent, it’s hard not to pay attention to a pseudonym as symbolically potent as Scud. Not only is his maiden film a bit of a tactical blow aimed at a country already obsessed with pretty young men, its overt phallusy (let me invent a word, dammit) is certainly reflected in the film’s frank examination of sexual crisis. All this aside, the important thing is that this boy can write. Many a scene veering dangerously close to traditional, overpoweringly nostalgic Hong Kong melodrama is saved at the last moment by a line of dialogue so revelatory that more than once I was jolted back to attention.

Its calculated sexuality is surprising because it focuses on men, and in a brazenly straightforward and even lurid fashion that would never, ever fly even in an America offering. Its script is shockingly competent and oftentimes sincerely wonderful. By all rights, a film by a b-list director from a first-time gay writer with a cast made up entirely of non-actors focused around a sport no Chinese national cares about and featuring a lengthy procession of naked men has no right being this engaging. If not necessarily a triumph of filmmaking, its popularity is certainly a triumph for the visibility of gay rights in China, which is an honor very few other films in the history of queer cinema can share.

Pretty heady for a picture that is ostensibly about how everyone in China hates baseball.


Moon (2009)

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Moon is an auspicious debut from Duncan Jones (née Zowie Bowie), a talented new director who happens to be the son of David Bowie (let me officially be the first person to predict that every review of this film in the mainstream press will have the tagline “SPACE ODDITY!”). Sam Rockwell gives a truly remarkable performance as Sam Bell, a lunar miner who is nearing the end of his 3-year contract at a single-man mining outpost. His only companion is the station computer, Gertie, a straight-up HAL homage that tantalizingly suggests how a culture informed by decades of watching 2001 might choose to design a companion robot.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil its central conceit, and while I’m sure many reviewers will talk openly about it, and Tits & Gore is not a spoiler-free site, I want to preserve the surprise if at all possible at least until the film gets its theatrical release this coming June.

Suffice it to say that Jones admirably mixes together stock genre tropes, paying tribute to a number of classic science fiction features while retaining his own idiosyncratically dark vision. Familiar filmic concepts of the “clean future” and the “dirty future” are mixed together to create a unique atmosphere; the milieu is suitably claustrophobic, the cramped quarters of the mining station serving the film’s conceptual purposes while masking the shoestring budget. In fact, it may be hard to spare a glance at the meticulously designed sets with your eyes glued to Rockwell for the duration of the picture. His performance is utterly mesmerizing, inhabiting the role so completely that it is impossible to imagine any other actor having the chutzpah to pull it off.

Which is not to say that Moon is without its problems; the pacing is hardly consistent and Jones’ reliance on Rockwell tends to undersell his direction. Parts of the film veer dangerously close to identical thematic elements in Steven Soderbergh’s recent adaptation of Solaris, without being as emotionally potent. But what it lacks in originality is mostly compensated for by the sheer audacity of its central performance and the careful economy of its direction.

Moon may be dressed in familiar clothing, but it is a singular experience, a clever, darkly funny and genuinely moving journey into the nature of individuality. Jones is already at work on a second science fiction feature, and it is welcome indeed to see such a promising new talent continue to develop his voice by working in genre filmmaking!


La Ciénaga (2001)

Friday, April 24th, 2009

I was blown away by this debut feature from Lucrecia Martel, an Argentine director who had previously worked in television. Translated as “The Swamp” or “The Bog”, La Ciénaga explores the relationship between two cousins: Mecha, a bourgeois alcoholic drinking herself to death in the shadow of the mountains; and Tali, a harried city-dweller looking for a more temporary escape for a few days at Mecha’s house.

The title metaphor steers the film capably; the sweltering summer heat permeates every frame, as the two families wallow and suffer through both the temperature and the travails of their bankrupt existence. But the film’s crucifixion of the Argentine middle-class was, to my mind, secondary to a pervasive, pleasantly nostalgic focus on the burgeoning sexuality of Mecha and Tali’s children.

The roaring sexual tension between the children, not only the second cousins but the brothers and sisters, is beautifully conveyed by fine performances and a camera seemingly fueled by the jittery, horny fire of adolescence. There is nothing perverse or exploitative; sweaty and half clothed, the children can’t help but stare a little too long, to sneak into a shower together or lay sprawled atop a bed in a room filled with shade. It is a powerful and evocative sort of collective Bildungsroman, a confusing, memorable summer. Indeed, the summer’s climax is a rare, true shock; a sharp finale after a tense, meandering wade into the swamp.


No Maps For These Territories (2000)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Mark Neale’s unusual biopic of William Gibson is a strange and polarizing film. Neale placed Gibson in a limousine wired for sound, equipped with several video cameras and outfitted with a laptop and cell phone (no mean feat for 2000) and sent him on a cross-country trip from California to New York, supplying him with questions along the way. The premise is solid gold, and Gibson is as much a halting poetic genius in person as he is in his brilliant novels. He stares out the window at the blurred trees, smoking cigarettes and holding forth on his past and the future of humankind. In a particularly poignant sequence, he romantically describes his first novel, Neuromancer, as taking place in “a world where there are no families”, as cryptic and beautiful a description of the book as has ever been made. His slow and metered responses showcase a truly incisive mind.

And yet, the film is drowned in stylistic flourishes and shitty editing that unnecessarily draw attention away from Gibson. Terrifyingly stupid cliches pop up every ten seconds, a sad irony considering the film’s focus on Gibson’s futurist tendencies. This is the man who coined the term “cyberspace”, and the internet was subsequently designed by programmers enamored of his ideas. Here is a man who has consistently envisioned the future of humankind under the guise of literature for over 30 years, and yet, conversely, Neale buries Gibson’s observations in 30-year-old video art trickery, from painfully period-dating technological montages to reversing the flow of traffic in Gibson’s limo windows.

Indeed, the stylistic choices are so damaging as to completely derail the simple power of Gibson’s words. His speech is halting and quiet, which makes him, apparently, not exciting enough, and so layer after layer of bullshit has to be slathered on to hold the imaginary film-goer’s attention. Ultimately, the film’s infantile visuals can be a sincere struggle to tolerate. Maybe No Maps For These Territories would have made a better audio-book, considering how poorly Neale treats what should have been a sure-fire high concept.


Watchmen (2009)

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Why is writing “The Watchmen Review” proving to be so difficult? I’ve had no less than 7 lengthy conversations at this point with various respected human sounding-boards detailing my issues with the film, and started many a draft. Yet still the issue is complicated, in ways I could not have foreseen when I skeptically entered the theater. But a brief Twitter I sent out post-screening still says it all: Watchmen is a wreck. It is a completely fascinating and utterly bizarre head-on collision that cannot and does not add up to a good movie, but nevertheless I find myself wanting to see it again. Strange days indeed.

As a big fan of the comic from all the way back during the days of its release as a 12-issue miniseries, I knew it couldn’t accurately resemble the comic in any capacity, and it does not. Alan Moore created Watchmen as a structural exercise, a unique exploration of artistic conceits that could only be accomplished in comics. By its very nature, Watchmen as Moore envisioned it is unfilmable. Remove the artistic superstructure and you are left with nothing but the story; a great story, to be sure, involving lightly fictionalized versions of classic Charlton Comics characters solving an end-of-the-world mystery. This is a classic conundrum of the filmic adaptation: how to translate the feeling of something inherently literary to the big screen?

I found myself loathing the idea of a big, dumbed-down version of Watchmen, complete with fight scenes (there is very little of what could be called “action” in the comic) and tight leather costumes. I was certain this was the only direction such an adaptation could follow. I was only half right. Indeed, the film starts with a ponderous, 5-minute long fistfight between The Comedian and a catsuited Ozymandias, a sequence which takes something like 4 panels to transpire in the comic. Everyone wears leather. Lots of it. In one flashback sequence, The Comedian’s outfit squeaks so much while he’s pacing that it is actually difficult to hear what he is saying through his cigar-clenched mouth.

The flip side to my initial fear of difference is an overly-slavish devotion to the comic. The majority of the dialogue, for instance, is lifted straight from Moore’s comic script. But whereas specific word balloons in specific panels with specific lettering serve to create a powerful cadence and establish a convoluted temporal flow in the comic, these same lines spoken by live actors on the screen often sound wooden and over-dramatic. This odd mixture of Big Hollywood kowtowing and fanatical attention to Moore’s dialogue makes for an uncomfortable alliance.

Paradoxically enough, I found those moments that differed so wildly from the source material to make up the majority of the enjoyable sequences in the film, because they are inherently more cinematic. By and large they also a push a fairly radical agenda by Hollywood standards, ramping up the sex and violence to beautifully exploitative levels. The lengthy and graphic Nite Owl / Silk Spectre sex scene set to Leonard Cohen was a particular highlight: a lurid, uneccessarily long and absolutely fantastic onscreen fuck in which Nite Owl overcomes his impotence, complete with a hysterical flamethrower ejaculation denoument straight out of the old Batman TV show. It is such an utterly ridiculous and misplaced pastiche that I could not help but bask in its authenticity.

Some big (wait for it) changes from the comic made my brain itch a little; I’m only a human fanboy. I was legitimately overjoyed to see Doc Manhattan’s blue supergod cock on frequent display, but laughed at the size. When Dave Gibbons draws the Doc, the dick is rightly an afterthought, tiny and flaccid, no more worthy of scrutiny than any other part of the body. The character’s nudity is only interesting insofar as it is devoid of shock value. The concession to Hollywood’s conception of male frontal nudity (and Billy Crudup’s ego, no doubt) seems to have been to make the wang massive, pendulous, and on its way to being two feet long fully erect. Actually, as I’m typing this I’m spontaneously beginning to enjoy the Doc’s new super-sized junk; it’s like the ultimate personification of the Big Dumbification of completely arbitrary elements of the story.

This is the kind of weird shit that happens the more I think about this film; I uniformly despise its adherence to the original even as I come to relish its bastardizations. The big exception is the ending. Even before its release, Snyder was known to have removed Moore’s famous squid masterstroke. The replacement concept, the trickery of Doc Manhattan, feels weak in comparison, but I can roll with it. My biggest problem with the ending, indeed with the entire movie, is that Snyder pulls the punch.

In the end of Watchmen as Moore intended it, we are meant to realize that Ozymandias is the only real “hero” in a cast otherwise populated by sociopaths, fetishists and gods; that only by slaughtering millions of people could he reasonably become the savior of the world and overcome the pedestrian concerns of his fellow underwear perverts. He commits genocide in order to ensure humanity’s continuance. For some reason, this is all unfolding nicely in Snyder’s version, when suddenyl Nite Owl develops a case of the righteousness and slaps Ozy around a bit and tells him, “For shame!” and Ozy feels sad about what he’s done, standing alone in his broken castle looking depressed.

What. The. Fuck.

By inserting this one unbearably inane sequence, Snyder completely devalues the impact of Watchmen’s ending. It literally serves no purpose, it enhances no aspect of the story, adds no special layer to any of the characters; it does nothing but pussy out of a powerful, morally repugnant ending.

On and on the contradictions flow. Take the music for example, the awkward, out-of-place Big Hits soundtrack. It’s actually a reference to the chapter headings in each of the original 12 issues, but this inept fanservice only confuses the film’s timeframe and characterization; “The Sound of Silence” at The Comedian’s funeral? – I’m not even going to pretend that Snyder is clever enough to have utilized the song to an ironic purpose.

It’s a wreck. A Rorscharch meat cleaver to the head instead of a nice metaphorical house fire. An abattoir of retarded children. By representing something truly adult by Hollywood’s standards (an accomplishment I sincerely appreciate), it simultaneously devalues everything the comic stands for. It’s big. It’s dumb as fuck. It’s kind of important. I can only throw my hands in the air. “The Watchmen Review” is doomed to continue forever, and Watchmen itself is doomed by its very nature to never be appropriately adapted. It’s a film that by all rights should never have been made; but here it is.


Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Yes, Slumdog. I agree with the consensus complaint that it is completely contrived that Jamal knows the answers to every question because something happened in his past that informs every answer, but let me add to that by saying that the questions are all common knowledge in the first place, and it drives me insane that the questions just happen to follow the progression of his life chronologically. I mean come the fuck on.

What’s significantly worse than that, though, is that Latika has zero personality, is raped and forced into a decade of prostitution, and then everything is magically fixed when Gangster Brother says, “I hope you can forgive me”. Bathtub, guns, pew pew, etc. Everyone’s happy! Fuck that shit. Why does she even want to be with Jamal? What is going to happen? Are they going to hold hands? He doesn’t know her fucking last name!

I understand that I’m the guy who watches exploitation films with significantly more brutal abuse for significantly more abstract reasons, but that’s an entirely different paradigm predicated on shock responses. Latika seems to have been written to play the role of the sympathetic but retarded fuckdoll in a Nazisploitation film, but instead they’ve inserted her into what we are meant to believe is a serious film about true love. I think that respecting this movie is dependent upon enjoying the idea of an utterly gorgeous but completely vacuous abused woman who will fall madly in love with an ugly guy because he stalks her for long enough.

Fuck. That. Shit. …Fuck it!

Never mind that the basic premise of Good Brother/Gangster Brother/Shared Love Interest feels lifted from every other HK Triad film out there, or that the much-touted final dance sequence is like a really shitty version of the end of Kitano’s Zatoichi.

But hey, the music was good. And I liked the kid jumping into the giant vat of shit; it was like a metaphor for the rest of the movie.

[Rating: 3]

The Best Films of 2008 – Michael Polizzi

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

1. The Dark Knight: (Nolan)

2. Synecdoche, NY: (Kaufman) Shall I project a world? An uneven film from first time director Charlie Kaufman about creation, solipsism and empathy. Arbitrary bruises along with green poo and brown pee pee make this one of the few movies to really grab the strangeness of personal suffering. Arbitrary time signatures do the same with the loss of youth and its effect on love and obsession.

3. Mister Lonely: (Korine) I keep placing movies that premiered in 2007, but I promise I watched them in the theater in 2008. Where to start? Flying nuns doing BMX tricks or a man living as Abe LIncoln reciting the Gettysburg Address while spinning a basketball on his finger? Talking egg portraits or Buckwheat’s soliloquy about wanting a chicken with human breasts? Samantha Morton and Diego Luna both manage to deliver their lines without an ounce of agency. They talk around each other– the effect is really made my skin crawl.

4. I Served the King of England: (Jiri Menzel) Again this one came out in Czech Republic in 2007, NYC 2008. Ivan Barnev as Jan Díte made this movie. Terrific charisma and physical comedy. Worth it just to watch the Czech spa transform into a Nazi fertility clinic then into a hospital for amputees.

5. Be Kind, Rewind: (Gondry) The trailer for this had me cringing– yuck, yuck Jack Black is Robocop, yuck– but the trailer left out the strange heartfelt elegy to Paterson, NJ and Danny Glover’s franchise stalking. Mos Def and Jack Black have fantastic chemistry as life long buds. Again magnetic wee-wee= A+.

6. Water Lilies: (Seline Sciama) Technically this came out in Belgium in 2007 but I live in the US of A where girls magically move from pre-pubescent imps to ramped up sex vixens without all of the excruciating detail of having to watch themselves develop. I know, I’m a perv for even watching this movie, but cheers for having the courage and steady hand to tell the story of a girl who may or may not be a lesbian in love with synchronized swimming without leaving out all of the terrible hormones (and without Todd Solondz’s terrible dead-pan).

7. Tropic Thunder: (Stiller) “Fuck you, Hollywood,” signed Hollywood.

8. Burn After Reading: (Coens) Great assessment of the last eight years: empty, shallow, venal, cold incompetence.

9. In Bruges: (Dir. Martin McDonagh) This actually edged out the bald-headed, Daredevil era sex tape as my Colin Farrell favorite role (though he’s really good in the sex tape if you haven’t seen it– Breakfast, lunch and bloody dinner, love). Great dialogue and violence in a medieval Belgian town.

10. Iron Man: Fun.

Oh so close:
9/10ths of Milk (why do biopics piss me off so much? even ones that manage to subvert most of Hollywood’s standards and practices– everything always just seems far too convenient to the plot).
The first half of Slumdog Millionaire, even though I have the sneaking suspicion it was lifted from City of God.

Things I will rent/ see soon that will most likely make me want to redo this list:
Teeth, Chicago 10, The Visitor, My Winnipeg, Man on Wire, I Have Loved You For So Long, Cadillac Records, Frost/Nixon, Wendy and Lucy, Che, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky

Re-hashed reviewed for 2008:
1. Broadway Danny Rose: This movie caught me completely by surprise. Perhaps less universal than Manhattan and Annie Hall, but far more deft. Danny Rose’s Thanksgiving and Lou Canova’s singing face will be with me for a while.
2. The Purple Rose of Cairo: I know– where have I been? It took me this long to look at Woody Allen’s output from the 80’s. No better movie about the deranging power of the movies.
3. Lars and the Real Girl: Crushed me like a papercup. Oddly effecting story of a man/boy working through his lady issues.
4. Lifeboat: Rounding out my Hitchcock as well. The lighting for the funeral at sea and Tallulah Bankheads’ expression as she passes the camera before tearing a hole in the newspaper= A+
5. The Maltese Falcon: I shouldn’t be admitting this in public. Did anyone have any emotions left after WW II?
6. Naked: If anyone ever asks me for the filmic equivalent of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” — I will probably point them towards this. All the better for David Thewlis’s life at Hogwarts.
7. The Lives of Others: Surveillance in East Germany. Point for point a near perfect film.
8. The Marriage of Maria Braun: Fassbinder stands every last Romantic cliche from WWII on its head in this film.
9. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: Lang made perfect movies. I don’t think a single director has ever constructed a movie that could compete shot for shot with Lang’s extraordinary composition.
10. Mr. Freedom: William Klein’s over-the-top comic book style semi-futuristic amazingness.

Coming Home (1978)

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

If ’78 is often considered the Year of the Vietnam War Movie because of the box-office and awards-season battle between Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, it’s informative that there is comparatively little critical work involving Coming Home, whereas The Deer Hunter has graduated to the pantheon of the classics. And I am not the guy who is going to tell you that they are in the same league. But where The Deer Hunter excels by virtue of its epic storytelling, Coming Home takes a more intimate path, and it’s an ultimately rewarding journey.

Of course, Coming Home is a very different examination of Vietnam compared to The Deer Hunter. It’s less a war movie than a post-mortem of a war movie, examining the casualties of war without ever putting the viewer in country. Surprisingly, it’s a film about relationships, and the ability (or inability) of veterans and their loved ones to communicate in the wake of the war. There’s an interesting, magnetic polarity at work; as Sally finds herself jaded by successive degrees as she comes to terms with the reality of the war, Luke is lifted out of the morass of post-war apathy and depression by Sally. Indeed, the film is most effective when it follows their uneasy intimacy to unexpected places. When Luke and Sally consummate their love, we are talked through the involved minutiae of have sex with a paraplegic man, which for me was the unquestioned emotional apex of the film. If anything, the difficulties begin here, since this moment of catharsis is only at the movie’s halfway point.

Where the film falters is in its extreme inconsistency of tone. There are quite a few moments of comic relief, but where one may succeed in easing the audience’s tension, the next may be simply jarring. The speed with which Sally seems to abandon her fervent love for Bob is also a bit difficult to swallow, the obvious physical attraction of Jon Voight over Bruce Dern notwithstanding. Why does she so spontaneously take up with an abusive disabled man immediately in the absence of her naive but much-loved husband? That Sally shows charity to a stranger from high school and not her husband despite the fact that both have been seriously wounded in battle (even if one is a physical disability and the other mental) seriously undermines the film’s message about America’s social responsibility for our veterans.

Still, Coming Home is amazingly complex in its portrayal of the variety of veteran experiences, and the three capital-letter Powerhouse Performances from Voight, Dern and Jane Fonda are unforgettable. The soundtrack is stunning, not simply because of its scope (Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel) but because of the filmmakers’ ingenious use of these songs to heighten emotions and accent moments while shifting in and out of background and diagesis. There is a whole paper just waiting to be written about the use of music in this film! But I digress; my review grows long!

Though comparisons are inevitable, I left Coming Home with a hesitancy to hold it to the same standards as The Deer Hunter. Both are invaluable documents of wartime experience, and both feel uncomfortably urgent as the Iraq War extends off into infinity. Coming Home may have structural problems and a messy emotional arc, but it manages to stay on the rails and deliver an eloquent examination of the personal costs of war.


Grapes of Death (1978)

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Oh, Jean Rollin… What does it even mean when I say that this is probably my favorite Rollin film? As with his contemporaries Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco, you don’t go into a Rollin film expecting excellence – you expect abstract, face-melting sleaze! If you are like me, you will struggle through vast fields of mediocrity from these directors in search of those few glorious moments of utter, mind-blowing transgression. But does Grapes of Death deliver? Cheesy, creative gore? Check! An endless parade of impressively-endowed nekkid wimmin? But of course!

Make no mistake, the camerawork is often impressive, utilizing natural light to the fullest. There is a series of amazing tableau shots and beautiful, surreal tracking sequences through the ruined French countryside. There are even a couple sincere shivers, such as the reverberating scream of a blind girl, Lucy, being dragged off to her death. But let me be honest – the real thrills are to be found in the utterly bizarre shock centerpieces! Sure, it’s a little creepy when Lucy’s screams echo through the burning French village; but get ready to drop a fucking load in your pants when she is subsequently crucified nude to a chateau door and decapitated by her boyfriend while he moans, “Luuuucy! I looooove you!” Then he makes out with the severed head. With tongue. Oh! Jean Rollin!

In the abstract, Grapes of Death is interesting if only because it holds the distinction of being the first French zombie film. Granted, I only know of one other French zombie movie, 2004’s They Came Back, but to me it’s fascinating that a film as epically weird as Grapes of Death came out the same year as Romero’s sublime Dawn of the Dead, the standard-bearer for this tiny, beloved sub-genre. True, Rollin’s antagonists seem more like really depressed people with leprosy than zombies, and there is no great philosophical or sociological corollary on display, but there are some fantastic set pieces that will certainly please the zombie aficionado in your life.