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CAPSULE: NINJA SCROLL [JÛBÊ NINPÛCHÔ] (1993) November 15, 2010

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DIRECTED BY: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

FEATURING: Voice actors

PLOT: Masterless samurai Jubei joins with an ancient spy and a cursed female

Still from Ninja Scroll (1993)

ninja to thwart a plot by an old enemy to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate with the assistance of the eight Devils of Kimon.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not truly weird, though the Devils of Kimon are novel and bizarre to Western eyes.  Ninja Scroll is, rather, a well-made fantasy adventure set in a magical feudal Japan, with gratuitous sex and violence that make it inappropriate for the age group most likely to be entranced by it. 

COMMENTS: There’s no scroll, and the main character, Jubei, is a ronin (former samurai now for hire as a mercenary) rather than a ninja; but, accuracy of title aside, Ninja Scroll is an average fantasy adventure with some shocking scenes and startling artwork.  Jubei is an archetypal wandering folk hero, helping out the less fortunate out of a sense of duty to mankind rather than avarice.  His eventual companions are a more interesting lot: a withered, gnomelike spy from the court of Tokugawa who’s willing to go to any lengths to trap others into working for him, and a virginal ninja woman under a sexual curse who’s even more of a loner than the ronin.  The story, often the red-headed stepchild of anime, is a strong point here.  The intrigues between the various feudal factions and the character’s backstories are richly detailed, yet free of plot holes and surprisingly easy to follow (although Jubei’s code of honor can be difficult to penetrate at times).  Even if you don’t catch all the intricacies of the plot on a single viewing, the basic strands—a quest for vengeance on a wicked old enemy, a succession of monstrous antagonists to defeat, reluctant companions with crossed agendas, dilemmas of honor and loyalty—create a familiar heroic context for the tale that makes it easy to pick up the gist of things.  The animation style is naturalistic rather than stylized (that is to say, the characters don’t have huge round eyes and bizarre hair hues).  As is frequently the case in amime, which tends to be cheaply produced, the animation is not fluid— most of the time, it’s almost a series of stills, with characters standing stock-still, moving only their lips.  But the frame rate picks up dramatically for fight sequences, and excellent editing creates a sense of movement that makes the fight scenes thrilling.  There are points where the animation overcomes its budgetary limits and becomes magical, as when Kagero stands in the eye of a swirling cyclone of bees and rose petals.  The Devils, partly drawn from Japanese mythology, are as grotesque a gallery of rogues as you could hope to find outside of the Mos Eisley cantina, and a good deal nastier.  There’s a giant with stone skin and a taste for rape, a snake-woman who stashes a spare serpent in an unusual hiding place, a dwarf who births wasps from the hump hive on his back, and one Devil is even a homosexual with the hots for the archvillian.  The frequent sexual content is sometimes erotic—the nude tattooed snake woman—but mostly gratuitous, as when one clan master delivers his directives while delighting himself inside a village geisha.  The violence is also extreme; monster rape, daggers in eyeballs, showers of blood, limbs torn off, and a man whose head is repeatedly bashed into a bloody pulp.  The strong (falling just short of ‘extreme’) content adds some cachet to the fantasy film for a certain age group (evidence that this ninjas vs. monster tale isn’t just “kid’s stuff”), but it serves little other purpose.  The truth is that the younger, and more male, you are, the more likely you are to groove to Ninja Scroll’s beat. It starts out as a five-star spectacle of awesomeness in your teens and early twenties, but you can expect to subtract a full star for every decade of life that passes until it flattens out and reveals itself as nothing more special than a darn good adventure yarn.  And the world could certainly use a few more of those.

Animator/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri was also responsible for the anime standout Wicked City (1987) among others.  The British censors understandably cut some of the rape scene for the original UK DVD release, but unexpectedly also removed two scenes with shurikens (throwing stars), apparently believing they constituted “imitable weaponry.”  The cuts were restored for the 2004 release and the movie is now uncensored.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For those more accustomed to Anime or Japanese cinema in general you really won’t find anything new or ground breaking here… Yet it remains a solid entry essentially on all counts.”–Nakadai, Infin-tropolis

CAPSULE: EDMOND (2005) April 7, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Stuart Gordon

FEATURING: William H. Macy

PLOT:  A latently racist and mentally addled accountant leaves his wife, spends

edmond (2005)

an impossibly long night touring the NYC commercial sex trade and meeting lost souls, and finally ends up in prison.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEdmond isn’t so much weird as terminally confused.  It’s true Tarot cards keep popping up in impossible places as shorthand foreshadowing, that Macy’s wild night out seems unnaturally long solely to enable it to fit in all the necessary episodes, and that it’s extremely odd that the prison wardens would march new meat in the buff past inmates’ cells.  Still, even with these departures from reality, the movie still doesn’t seem in-your-bones weird so much as it feels like the author (playwright David Mamet) is trying to force events into a meaningful symbolic line, but failing to communicate his meaning to his audience. 

COMMENTSEdmond is only for William H. Macy fans and for those who think vagueness is the equivalent of profundity.  Macy manages to create some interest, though no sympathy, through his performance as a sad sack salaryman who thinks he’s found a temporary fix for existential bafflement by tapping into his tribal bloodlust.  After whoremongering, assaulting women and minorities, and threatening old churchgoing ladies, he finds himself under arrest.  In prison he’s forcibly stripped of his macho facade, and spends his time in stammering attempts to articulate some profound philosophy of life (“every fear hides a wish”).   Unfortunately, Macy wanders through a script that doesn’t know what to make of Edmond any more than Edmond himself does.  Those recurring Tarot cards and the closing monologue suggest that it was all just fate anyway, and Edmond’s search for meaning and the choices he made never made a difference.  In the end, all that happens is we passively witness some inexplicable tragedy happen to an unlikeable man.

Although Edmond‘s angry white male sociopath seems like a faded nth-generation variation of Joel Schumacker’s silly Falling Down (1993), the original play was actually written during the first term of the Reagan administration.  The concept of the angry white male (who Democrats theorized jumped the fence to get Reagan elected) would have had more resonance in that era.  That theory may also explain why Edmond is named after Edmund  Burke, the Irish philosopher/statesman who is looked upon as the father of modern conservatism.  Maybe that explains why both the character Edmond and the movie Edmond seem strange and unmotivated to us today, viewing the film in a different political context.  It also demonstrates why writers should not write to their times (or, at least, should not resurrect old pieces without revising them).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal spiritual fable that riffs on a notion voiced by Edmond that every fear hides a wish. Mr. Mamet shows no interest in offering a tidy psychological explanation for Edmond’s behavior. Hurled at you like a knife, the movie is as reasonable as a panic attack.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002) March 25, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Pellington

FEATURING: Richard Gere

PLOT:  A Washington Post reporter loses his wife in an automobile accident,

mothman_prophecies

then finds himself spirited away to a West Virgina town where the residents are spotting monsters and undergoing horrifying precognitive hallucinations.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Taking its cues from parapsychology and cryptozoology, and positioning itself as a “true story,” The Mothman Prophecies paranoidly posits a world where omniscient Mothmen are simply a part of the natural order.  I wouldn’t want to dishonor the producer’s sincere “the truth is out there” vision by suggesting there’s something a little weird about it.  On a more serious note, The Mothman Prophecies is an effective chiller with a mildly unique spin on a conventional horror yarn that generates enough unease to make it worth checking out for fans of the eerie side of the weird, but it’s ultimately too lightweight and conventional to be more than a passing diversion.

COMMENTS:

Director Mark Pellington, who previously explored themes of conspiracy and paranoia in the thriller Arlington Road, translates his talents to horror well and does a very fine job of pleasantly chilling the viewer’s blood through the early segments of the Mothman Prophecies.  Unexplained occurrences, from an impossible car detour that lands our protagonist on the Ohio border with West Virginia to a yokel who swears he’s been visited by Richard Gere before, pile on top of each other until the viewer is pleasantly on edge and disoriented.  When the antagonist is eventually revealed, his powers verge on the omnipotent and his motives lie firmly in the realm of the inscrutable.  The conclusion ties things up in a nice little bow–sort of, because all the pieces resolved belong to subplots.  The central mystery of  the Mothman is never even touched, which frustrated viewers who crave nothing more than narrative cohesion but shouldn’t bother weirdophiles a bit.  Despite its silly premise, Mothman is a highly effective unease-generating machine, which is (or at least, should have been) its only aspiration. 

The “based on a true story” angle is patently a scam.  Although it’s true that there were “Mothman” sightings in West Virginia in the 1960s and a bridge collapsed soon thereafter, anyone who doesn’t recognize the convenient presence of an attractive romantic foil for Richard Gere and the archetypal visit to the reclusive old wizard for a bit of exposition and dire warnings as the work of a screenwriter rather than a documentarian probably should be permanently ineligible for jury duty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…thriller that purports to be based on true events but operates in that bombastic plane of reality reserved for the apocalyptic horror movie.”–Jan Stuart, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: W THE MOVIE (2008) March 19, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Alfred Eaker & Ross St. Just

FEATURING: Alfred Eaker, PinkFreud

PLOT: “W” appears in a meteorite in the Arizona desert, steals the election for  

wthemovie

the party of No, and becomes a tyrant opposed by liberal reporter BlueMahler.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With half the characters distinguished by facepaint that makes them look like either World Wrestling Federation rejects or members of a failed 70s revival glam band, acting in front of shifting psychedelic computer-generated backdrops, this surrealist satire of George W. Bush’s presidency is definitely weird enough to make the list.  The problem is that, as a polemic against the 43rd President of the United States, it comes with an expiration date.  It’s too particular and too parochial, both in terms of subject matter and target audience, to earn a final place on a list of 366 representative weird movies. 

COMMENTS:  Because it is a vehemently partisan mockery of a former President, as opposed to a generic political satire, W the Movie is difficult to review.  Your reaction may depend on your politics; the far left might applaud it as a hilarious send-up of a dangerous political hack, those on the right may be outraged (and personally insulted), or simply dismiss it as liberal piffle.  Moderates and fence-sitters are unlikely to be swayed.  All sides will recognize it as deliberately unfair; Bush’s foibles are exaggerated past the point of absurdity.  W is cruel, crude and stupid, and at his most decisive when he demands his pancakes with “lots of syrup”; his foil, Blue Mahler, is brave and righteous, and his only character flaw is neglecting his wife and son as he devotes his life to exposing the truth about the alien demagogue and his infernal war.  W the Movie makes the work of Michael Moore (who himself makes as appearance as a ghostlike, babbling puppet) look fair and balanced.  There’s a place in the film world for narrowly political art and clever character assassination, and in this sense the producers are to be commended for not fearing to enter the fray, take sides, and name names.   

But, polarizing political content aside, there’s quite a bit to be admired in the low-budget production.  It’s an excellent example of how a unique, almost mesmerizing visual style can be forged through CGI on the cheap, when artistic effect and atmosphere is placed above the fetish for strict realism.  About 90% of the film was shot in front of a green-screen, and memorable virtual sets include W riding on a missile against a cloudscape (a la Dr. Strangelove), W worshipping at an altar of giant gold coins, and an amusing black and white parody sequence with W in Ford’s Theater.  The effect is a bit like the old studio-bound pictures of the 30s and 40s, where the backgrounds were matte paintings, but modern technology combined with a hallucinogenic vision makes these brightly colored living mattes slip, morph and shift before the viewer’s eye.  Therefore, the film is constantly interesting to the eye, even when the plot gets difficult to follow.   Furthermore, Eaker does quite well in multiple roles, including W and his nemesis BlueMahler.  Actors cast in smaller roles range from adequate to distracting.  The humor is also uneven, from the highly effective (the Ford’s Theater scene) to the painfully embarassing (the 9/11 tragedy is used as an excuse for cheap jokes about W’s pro-life stance lack of geographical acumen).  More genuine funny and fewer pointed potshots would have made it a happier movie experience.  All in all, W‘s well worth checking out, but if you’re to the right of Obama politically, you may want to check your party of No pin at the door.   

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one seriously messed up flick and… I mean that in the best possible way… wild and wonderful, weird and whacked out.”–Richard Propes, The Independent Critic

W the Movie premiers tomorrow, Friday March 20th, at at Village East Cinema, Manhattan as part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

CAPSULE: GIRL SLAVES OF MORGANA LE FAY [MORGANE ET SES NYMPHES] (1971) March 10, 2009

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DIRECTED BY:  Bruno Gantillon

FEATURING: Mireille Saunin, Dominique Delpierre, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Two pretty young women travelling through the French countryside

girl_slaves_of_morgana_le_fay

stumble upon the castle of an elegant witch attended by a bevy of beauties and a dwarf, who promises to keep them eternally young and pampered if they will give up their souls to her.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  With it’s hunchbacked dwarf in eyeliner, tokes off a hookah, and decadent, dreamlike atmosphere, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay tries modestly hard to be weird.  But the film isn’t really as interested in creating a weird atmosphere as it is in filling the frame with as many tastefully hot lesbian sex scenes as it’s running time will allow.

COMMENTS:  Despite the acres of nude female flesh and Sapphic trysts, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay is a serious attempt at art, albeit erotic art.  The cinematography and costumes are luscious, and the location shooting at a real French castle provides a sensuous, refined background for the ladies romps in the buff.  The setting is decadent, and so are the pleasure-obsessed slave girls and their mistress, who sip on wine and quote Baudelaire all day in between refined orgies and interpretive erotic dances.  It’s the kind of locale you might like to live in (especially if you’re a lesbian), but not one that’s especially interesting to watch.  The atmosphere is trance-like, but the actresses themselves emote as if they were in a trance: despite the high stakes battle for the girls’ souls, everything is so sublimated and understated that little real drama emerges.  The sex scenes are of the tasteful sort where one girl will caress or kiss the torso of her lover, but only briefly brush a nipple as if by accident.  The ending to the film is surprisingly effective, although abrupt. 

The DVD presentation by Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro is really amazing for a film this forgotten.  Tomb’s writes exhaustive essays on the film, cast, crew, and even the Chateau de Val location, as well as including Gantillon’s short film, Un couple d’artistes.  It’s nice to realize that enthusiasts exist to give a film as obscure as Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay a release that’s as every bit as loving as Criterion Collection would if it were a respectable mainstream classic.  

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The first naughty scene… is potently erotic, and it sets the tone for the dreamlike stupor of lesbianism that permeates the rest of the film… Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay is classic soft-core exploitation, but it is done with such fun and gusto that nary a hint of coercion or negativity intrudes.”–Rob Lineburger, DVD Verdict

CAPSULE: CORALINE (2009) March 2, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning (voice), Teri Hatcher (voice)

PLOT:  A petulant little girl finds a parallel universe behind a hidden door in an

coraline

old house, a world where her parents are more attentive, her neighbors more fascinating, and the entire universe seems set up to pamper and delight her; she can stay there forever, but of course there’s a catch.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  I attended a screening with a ten-year old and asked him if he thought the movie was “weird.”  His answer: “Nah, not unless you think every fantasy movie is weird.”  Smart lad.

COMMENTSCoraline is a welcome dark fantasy for children, although its themes of evil Doppelgänger moms, frightening buttons, and implied eye-gouging are too scary for very little ones.  Since it’s from Hanry Selick, the director of the borderline weird Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect going in that the art direction and stop-motion animation will be the real stars.   Selick does not disappoint, shuffling the viewer through three distinct visual styles: the dingy earth tones of real life, a brightly colored, eye-popping fantasy world, and a sinister, disintegrating universe with an insect trapped in a spiderweb theme.  The storyline, and the unexpected scares once the movie shifts from childhood fantasy to childhood horror in the third act, make Coraline more than just eye candy for the kiddies.

Presented in theaters in 3-D, but the novelty doesn’t add anything significant to experience: I would have been just as happy to watch the same moving pictures tell the same story on an unabashedly flat screen.  Though there’s nothing really weird to be found here, Coraline, in the best children’s’ movie tradition, is worth a trip even for adult fans of fantasy and pure escapism.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Coraline discovers a Wonderland filled with surreal characters and dark implications that make a kid grow up quick… those who tough it out with this twisted, trippy adventure in impure imagination will only be the better for it.  –Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

CAPSULE: TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS (1997) February 10, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEAUTURING: Shelly Duvall, Frank Gorshin

PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a

twilight_of_the_ice_nymphs

mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  Actually, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough, although it’s such slow going that many folks will probably tune out before discovering it’s weirder points.  Truth is, Twilight just isn’t good enough to make the list.  With some of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort to take space away from a more deserving contender, weird though it may well be.

COMMENTSTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting.  The protagonist, Peter, is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also it seems to episodes of sleep-acting.  For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed.  It probably doesn’t help that his dialogue was delivered by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor.  Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance.  Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent.  Veteran movie actors Shelly Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.

That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous.  Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene.  Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy.  This makes the movie somewhat effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.    

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection”, along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Maddin’s fictional world is… so infused with such a delightful weirdness, such a disorienting, overwrought absurdity, that its artificiality and peculiarity give it a marvelous flavor that is a real pleasure to savor.” -Keith Allen, movierapture.com

CAPSULE: CUBE ZERO (2004) January 22, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Ernie Barbarash

FEATURING: Zachary Bennet, Stephanie Moore, Michael Riley

PLOT:  Audiences return to the cube from Cube in this prequel, only this time

cube_zero

we see the diabolical prison from the vantage point of its bureaucratic overseers, as well as the poor souls trapped inside. 

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  While the first Cube sequel (Cube 2: Hypercube) tried unsuccessfully to ratchet up the weirdness factor by throwing in more effects and a hyperbolic, reality-twisting plot, Cube Zero instead chooses to focus on a standard rescue narrative.  It also purports to answer (although unrealistically) pretty much every question one might have as to the cube’s design or purpose, thus completely exorcising the existential atmosphere of the original and leaving nothing else to be said or done in the Cube universe. 

COMMENTS:  Unlike its predecessors, which showed b-movie influences but had higher aspirations, Cube Zero is an unapologetic action/sci-fi vehicle.  The paranoia of the previous entries only arises sporadically, once when drone Wynn asks a co-worker about his memories, and once in a highly effective scene that poses a surprisingly literal theological question.  Otherwise, the movie is more interested in the cube’s traps, imbuing them with gleefully gory results (in an early scene, a victim startlingly dissolves into a pile of gooey grue before our eyes).  Add to this formula a cartoonish villain in the person of Jax, who sports not only a cane and an ironically genteel cadence but also a glittering metal implant where his eye once was) and you have an effective (if standard issue) b-movie, but a highly ineffective weird movie.

Some Cube fans (who apparently missed the major point of the movie) yearned for answers to the cube’s mysteries.  They finally got them with this installment.  Unfortunately, since these revelations destroy the fragile mystery and deliberate ambiguity that made Cube special, Cube Zero probably deals a fatal blow to the franchise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you enjoyed the last two ‘Cube’ movies, then you’ll feel right at home. True, there’s nothing overly original in ‘Cube Zero’… [although the] movie does offer a lot of answers, there’s that unshakeable sense of [deja] vu. Introducing Wynn and the other operators marks the sequel’s best decision, but adding the wacky Jax and his two black suited underlings takes away some of the film’s gloomy disposition and makes ‘Cube Zero’ something of a comedy, with a lot of ‘Brazil’-esque kooky bits and set scenery that seems to exist for the singular purpose of being kooky.” —Beyond Hollywood

CAPSULE: CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE (2002) January 21, 2009

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DIRECTED BY: Andrzej Sekula

FEATURING: Kari Matchett

PLOT: Just as in the 1997 surprise hit, eight strangers wake up stripped of

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their memories in a mysterious, deadly cube composed of indistinguishable rooms–but this second generation “hypercube” has some new tricks to play on its captives.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGHCube 2: Hypercube can get pretty weird, especially when the film throws in gratuitous alternate realities in an attempt to up the original Cube‘s ante.  The sequel also does a fair-to-middling job of recreating the atmosphere of paranoia and existential anxiety from the original.  The first movie is a classic, but if there is to be room for more than one Cube movie on the list of 366, Hypercube needs to take the series in a startling, original new direction.  This, it fails to do; the sequel merely attempts to provide this audience more of what they loved about the first movie.  It can’t possibly achieve this feat, however, because what people loved about the original was it’s originality: the shock and surprise of finding a low-budget independent science fiction gem that was thoughtful, exciting, and weird.   

COMMENTSCube 2: Hypercube is of interest mainly to fans of the original who want to revisit the cube and hope only for a few new twists.  The CGI special effects are mildly upgraded, and the cube has a new gleaming white color scheme, which may make some happy.  One of the things that made the original so exhilarating, however, was the varying reactions of characters to the predicament of being trapped inside the bizarre structure: some fight to survive, some give up hope, some become paranoid and suspect their fellow travellers know something about the cube and are trying to deceive them, some simply go mad.  The way the trapped inmates bounced off one another made Cube at times seem more like a character-centered play rather than an effects-centered movie.  Although Cube 2 tires to recapture this interplay, wooden acting from several of the leads frustrates the attempt.   

Cube 2: Hypercube also stumbles when it takes baby steps towards trying to explain why the cube exists.  In the original, although the structure exhibited signs of order that suggested a diabolical intelligence behind it, there was no unambiguous hint to its origin or purpose; this made the cube a powerful metaphor for brute existence.  While trying to recapture the ambiance of the first movie, Cube 2 deliberately takes steps towards demolishing its essence.  

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Cube 2 is somewhat more gimmicky and certainly less conceptually neat than the first Cube was. There’s lot of fascinatingly weird happenings and these are all eventually given an explanation – alas not one that comes with the beautiful sense of a puzzle falling into place that we saw in the first film. The disparity can clearly be seen in comparing the story structure of the two – the first film has the logic of a detective story unfolding, whereas Cube 2 is merely a flight through a collapsing labyrinth.” –Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Movie Review Site

CAPSULE: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) January 6, 2009

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AKA You Better Watch Out

twoandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson

FEATURING: Brandon Maggart

PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while

christmas_evil

dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGHChristmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout.  Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice.  The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough.  There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.

COMMENTS:   Christmas Evil is a serious character study–or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study–of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making.  There are also many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) which help provide a black comedy feel.  On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production.  Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe.  If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.

When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly St. Nick  as a potential homicidal killer.  Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa.  Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot