Saturday, July 07, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Primeval (2007)

Okay, I realize I am going to take shit for this movie review. I can hear it now: "Muir hated John From Cincinnati but liked Primeval? What the f%&k!?"

Yeah, yeah. Blah blah blah. I guess I'll just have to take my lumps on this one. Because Primeval - a high-energy horror film about a killer crocodile - is a surprisingly good genre effort of the "revenge of nature" variety popularized in the 1970s. You know the kind of movies I'm talking about: Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Grizzly (1976) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) to name but a few.

Now, I am going to take the unprecedented step of cataloguing precisely the reasons why you might - with clean conscience intact - disregard this positive review and give Primeval a polite "no thank you":

1.) I went in to the screening with low expectations and the movie exceeded them; thus a low threshold was set.

2.) I get a kick out of "when animal attack" movies anyway so there's a personal bias at work (mea culpa - I even enjoyed Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea).

3.) I've often been accused of being both a "contrarian" (which means I don't run lemming-style with the critical herd if I can at all help it...) and a "champion of the underdog" (meaning simply that I do - on occasion - give a movie an "A" for effort if I feel it is working hard to be ambitious, scary, innovative or different). How does my contrary nature fit with this particular film? Well, I've scanned critical reactions to Primeval on the IMDB and Netflix and and the general audience consensus seems to be that this is a "two star' (out of "five star") movie. I would give the film four stars, frankly. So here's the debate. Either I'm wrong or everyone else in the universe is wrong. You choose.

There you have it. You can dismiss my positive review of Primeval based on any of the above-listed points without second thought. Or you can stick around and read the reasons why I think this is a good horror picture.

First, some set up, Primeval is "inspired by true events" according to the opening title card. It's the story of a giant, century-old, man-eating crocodile named "Gustave" who prowls the rivers and swamps of Burundi in Central Africa, near Rwanda. Gustave is 30 feet long and likes to dine on human blood. After the brutal death of a British animal lover at Gustave's "jaws," a surrogate for Fox News sends a scandal-plagued news producer Tim (Dominic Purcell), a sexy animal producer hilariously named Aviva (Brooke Langton), a camera man, Steven (Orlando Jones), a "great white hunter type" named Krieg (Jurgen Prochnow) and a Crocodile Hunter rip-off, Matt (Gideon Emery) to capture the animal alive "in time for sweeps." Once in Burundi, the team is joined by a little dog named Wiley that natives have been using as Gustave-bait, and a boy who wants to go to America, named JoJo. With the assistance of locals, our team deploys a steel cage to trap the giant croc...but things predictably go wrong and carnage ensue. Not just from an animal with a taste for human flesh, but from the murderous local thugs, led by a dictator named "Little Gustave."

Okay, what's good about Primeval?

Here's a list of virtues, be they as they may.

1.) The film is aggressively mean and lean and wastes absolutely no breath on anything not immediately intrinsic to the narrative and the gore. The movie moves at such a hectic, fast clip that it slides more exposition by the viewer in the first 18 minutes than most movies can in 45. This isn't a virtue in and of itself save that Primeval starts - gets the bloody job done - and then rolls end credits before you can tire of it. Which is more than I can say of some genre movies. In other words, Primeval knows precisely why it exists.

2.) The breakneck pace results in some extraordinary action set-pieces. There's one in particular that is worthy of mention...and nothing short of breathtaking. It occurs in the middle of the movie as the local thugs (armed with rocket launchers and machine guns...) chase down the survivors of a croc attack in a swamp. The baddies pursue the protagonists in a range rover, and our heroes are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place: we've been informed that Gustave is hiding somewhere nearby, in the high grass, but it's either face the monster's slavering, snapping jaws, or get blasted by bullets, and the scene escalates and escalates until the shock and awe really gets to you. There's an explosive moment involving an ejection from the range rover (and an impact with a tree.), explosions galore, a confrontation in the mud with a machete, a desperate race to get two bullets and a shotgun into one pair of hands, and all the while the looming threat of Gustave. This is a sustained, glorious bit of action and it is not just brilliantly edited and framed, but actually exhilarating and authentically suspenseful.

3.) Primeval is not just faced paced and action-packed, but damn scary. There are two crocodile "attack" jolts that will pop you off your ass; early in the film. Later - during the climax - Gustave chews his way through the Range Rover in a thrilling moment that rivals anything in the Jurassic Park pictures. Another great set piece involves the heroes trapped in a gazebo during a storm by blackest night, as Gustave attacks. Because we expect our monsters to be smart, Gustave doesn't just assault the group head on. No, he takes out the pillars the gazebo is supported by, one at a time, knocking each corner of the abode into the opaque water. Again, this is scary and suspenseful...and the scene doesn't end the way you think it will.

4.) The film features some absolutely beautiful natural photography. These (and other) shots are well-composed. There are some great aerial views, for instance, of the team and the supportive locals carrying the giant steel cage across the land to the water. And horror films will welcome the multiple crocodile P.O.V. shots from water's edge. Again, Primeval is more deftly shot and edited than it has any right or responsibility to be.

5.) The dialogue is sharp and funny. This is one of those movies where there is one character who provides consistent comic relief. In this case, that character (played by Orlando Jones) is actually funny. He gets in some great jokes.
I laughed out loud at least four times; and I'm usually the first person to ridicule these types of stock characters.

6.) The movie knows movie history, and realizes it is part of an established genre. To wit, there are self-reflexive (but not campy) references to Jaws, and When Animals Attack. But more importantly than such throwaways is the fact that Primeval carefully and assiduously adheres to the central axiom of the "Revenge of Nature" films: it is never the animal's fault that it kills people. No, it's man's fault. Think about it, pollution causes the frogs to go nuts in Frogs. The spraying of pesticides (from a cropduster) causes spiders to grow aggressive in Kingdom of the Spiders. A whole in the ozone (caused by hairspray!) makes animals attack in William Girdler's classic, Day of the Animals (1977). It's the same here. All the bloodshed caused by Little Gustave has literally gone "downstream." The corpses generated in the political bloodbath have been dumped in the water and become Gustave's primary food source. That's why he's developed a taste for human blood: because we - apparently - like to spill human blood. Some critics have called Primeval a variation of Anaconda and Hotel Rwanda and you know...that kind of makes sense. Which brings me to...

7.) There is a higher aesthetic or moral purpose to Primeval; a social commentary beyond the blood and guts. It's not just that violence in man has caused violence towards man in nature (always a good theme in these films...) but more than that. Primeval is, in some sense, a culture clash between glib, self-interested Americans and the people of Africa, who are clearly involved in a life-or-death struggle. Our "heroes" are there for ratings - for a stunt. The people who live there are just trying to survive...or escape. There's an interesting conversation in the film regarding the news people and whether or not they should even report on the political strife occurring in Burundi. Darfur, Rwanda - and obliquely, Katrina - are all raised here in a way that isn't preachy but bluntly truthful. So yeah, this "dumb" killer crocodile movie boasts a heart...and a brain.

8.) Forget the heart and the brain, this movie is carnage candy. There's a great moment in the film when the crocodile chews up a human being and Gutave pops his victim's head like an exploding zit. Granted, this argument will only find appeal with some genre-loving demographics, but I cackled here. I saw the over-the-top moment as precisely the right use of gore. Not merely to horrify and gross out...but to engender a laugh.

Now don't let me send you down the garden path here. I'll be the first to acknowledge that some of the Gustave CGI is dodgy; or that the main characters are about as dimensional as cardboard. Ultimately, I judged those considerations secondary to the film's sense of dangerous energy, it's over-the-top gore, it's sense of humor, and the thrilling jolts and rock 'em, sock 'em action scenes. Again, this is a good horror movie, not a great one, and if it had been made in the 1980s, we'd be lauding it today as a modest (but well-remembered) cult classic. Because it comes out in 2007 and has CGI in it, I think some viewers will be less forgiving, or find it harder to identify the good stuff amidst the dross.

What prevents Primeval from being a great horror movie? Well, that's simple. In my book, to qualify for greatness, a horror film must prove not just scary or even socially valuable, but rather it must transgress. It must go after taboo; and in the process, advance the horror film...nudge it forward in a new or unexpected direction. Primeval pays homage to the revenge of nature films of the 1970s, but it never transgresses. It never breaks society's barriers in the way that a brilliant horror film should.

It almost does. There's a scene wherein a burly African man bursts into a tent, rips open luscious Aviva's blouse and attempts to rape her. The scene ends with an ejaculation on her naked stomach...of torrents of blood. it's coitus interruptus by way of hungry crocodile. Right here - for a split second - you can almost sense the filmmaker's skirting to the edge of transgression; offering - even briefly - a commentary on race, about rape, about domination and sexual politics and power. But then it all gets backed away from and the taboo isn't really or meaningfully breached.

Still, give Primeval kudos for almost reaching the point of transgression. Again, this is a modest, cheap B-movie...but in my opinion, it's damn good one. And - once more - the unpretentious Primeval is better and scarier and more fun than it has any right or responsibility to be.

Or...maybe I just had low expectations.

Friday, July 06, 2007

TV REVIEW: Flight of the Conchords

Imagine the 1960s hit TV series The Monkees - only with a lower (much lower…) IQ and deadpan dialogue-delivery - and you can begin to conceive of the hilarious new Flight of The Conchords, a summer comedy series from HBO which in its ingenuity and numerous laughs almost makes up for the horror that was last year’s travesty, Lucky Louie. Almost...

In Flight of the Conchords, two very-low key band mates and dolts from New Zealand, Jemaine (Jemaine Clement) and Bret (Bret McKenzie) attempt to make it big in America, particularly the New York City music scene.

They are aided - or perhaps hindered - in their professional endeavors by a daft agent who insists on calling attendance at their three-person band meetings, fellow New Zealander and paranoiac, Murray (Rhys Darby).

The band – the so-called Flight of the Conchords – also boasts a rabid “fan base,” or more accurately, a rabid fan: the looney-tunes, crazy-eyed stalker named Mel (Kristen Schaal). Mel hangs around outside Jemaine and Bret’s apartment at odd hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of her favorite stars. She even attended one of their gigs that got canceled (at the Aquarium, of all places). But what makes Mel even funnier – outside her constant attempts to have sex with the boys – is the fact that she’s married and well into her thirties and that she drags her clueless (or perhaps merely uninterested) husband on the stalking field trips.

Remember how on that cult-classic The Monkees, audiences would follow the band around on its daily life travails, as well as gigs, and how each episode featured a clever, often avant-garde music video? That is essentially the structure for Flight of The Conchords as well. Only here the boys are not particularly talented or handsome or intelligent or quick-witted. Also, they live in near-squalor and hang literally on the edge of poverty. In one episode, their only meal comes from Bret’s dumpster diving.

In addition, the music videos found in this series are as stylish and ridiculous as anything featured on The Monkees forty years ago. But now - in a splendid subtextual comment on the times we live in - they are not forward-looking, but backwards gazing, essentially pastiches of different established “pop” forms. In one episode, “Mugged,” the boys go hip-hop with predictably silly results. Jemaine’s hip-hop name is “Hip-hop-o-potamus” while Bret goes by the handle “Rhymenoceros.” Bret ends up rapping about his Nana’s tea parties (?) and Jemaine gets tongue-tied and simply makes incoherent sounds till it is Bret's turn to sing again.

It is during these inventive music video segments – and there are two such sequences per thirty minute episode – that this comedy series truly comes to vivid and hysterical life. In the premiere episode, “Sally,” for instance, Jemaine attempts to woo a pretty girl at a friend’s party (the aforementioned Sally) with his bizarre dance moves and unintentionally stupid vocals. Because Jemaine is an idiot, his “love song” lyrics include such non-compliments as “you could be a part-time model” (just don’t give up your normal job…) and “you could be a high class prostitute.”

The second music video in the same episode, which frankly had me on the floor, is a futuristic techno-Devo piece concerning malevolent robots who have murdered the human race. Sung in mechanical “robot” style by the deadpan boys, the lyrics suggest the far future date of the “year 2000” and a robot revolution in the “mid nineties.” The song posits a “binary solo” using only zeroes and ones, and then suggests that in the future there will be only one kind of robot dance.

Well, two, if you don’t forget the “robo-boogie.” I must also mention that this very funny composition is sung in complete robot regalia (down to robot nipples) and recorded for the band's music video using...a cell phone camera.

In the second episode, “Bret Gives Up The Dream” there’s a spot-on accurate satire of 1980s pop music entitled “Inner City Pressure” that finds Jemaine and Bret lamenting their economic woes while soulfully pacing an urban setting. This segment features typical 1980s music video gags like breaking the fourth-wall, time-lapse photography, transparent singers and the like. Best of all, it makes heavy use of a synthesizer.

Yet it isn’t just the stylistics that make these moments very funny, it is surely those ridiculous and stupid lyrics. In this case, one might think a musical wordsmith would find difficulty getting the term “muesli” or “secondhand underpants” into a rhyme, but these simple-minded guys accomplish that feat and much more with ridiculous ease, and it never seems out of character or inauthentic.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the two stars of this oddly addictive comedy, come from a popular stand-up act and in the first three episodes of their sitcom, one can find some of their best stand-up material worked into the plots (including a ludicrous reggae sex anthem called “Boom.”) On one hand, it is nice to see this funny material re-purposed for television but on the other, it’s a little worrisome that only a few episodes in, the creators of the series have resorted to recycling old material. Hopefully that doesn’t indicate that the creative well-spring of the Flight of the Conchords is running dry.

A little bit of Extras, particularly in the very amusing bits about Murray, the pro-New Zealand idiot manager; a little bit The Monkees in its story-telling parameters, Flight of the Conchords is wholly entertaining and drop dead funny. It gives one hope that a post-Sopranos HBO is still a place worth visiting. I recommend the series wholeheartedly, particularly if you have a silly streak.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy July 4th!

Celebrate your independence today. And no, I don't mean you, Scooter Libby.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Messengers (2007)

I saw the trailer for The Messengers some months ago on Time Warner's Previews-on-Demand channel and got myself a good case of the creeps over it. The central location looked good (a rotting old farmhouse in North Dakota), the cast had some recognizable faces (Dylan McDermott, Penelope Anne Miller, John Corbett), and there were some ghoulish and well-done "ghost" compositions that really jolted me (particularly one involving a bed sheet and a corpse...). All in all, I felt that The Messengers looked...promising.

When I received the PG-13 film from Netflix and started to watch it, my opinion didn't change, at least not immediately. I noted from the credits that this was a Ghost House production; meaning that Sam Raimi was a producer...and his horror credits are certainly impeccable. And Joseph LoDuca, the composer from the original Evil Dead trilogy has crafted here a creepy, memorable score. The lead actress, comely and intense young Kristen Stewart, is also a believable performer. I have to compare her to leads I've seen lately in recent horror flicks (When a Stranger Calls leaps to mind...) and she compares favorably. She exudes intelligence and believability.

Which is more than I can say for the film's script.

But I get ahead of myself. To re-cap, The Messengers opens in stylish black-and-white as a young boy and his mother are attacked in their North Dakota farmhouse by what appears to be a malevolent - and powerful - supernatural force. It drags Mommy down the stairs and across the floor while the little boy hides in the kitchen. This scene is well-edited and overall pretty creepy. A good start...

Some years later, a down-on-their-luck family from Chicago, lead by Roy Solomon (Dylan McDermott) and his wife, Penelope Anne Miller, buys the land (and the house) in hopes of starting up the old sunflower farm again. They have with them their two children, teenage Jess (Stewart) and mute little Ben. Although we don't learn for half-the-movie what the deal is, Jess is paying penance with her family for a mistake she made in Chicago; a mistake that hurt Ben and made him go silent.

As the family settles in, Dad meets two locals. One is The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) from The X-Files. He claims he's a bank official representing another party who he wants to buy the property. The other local is a sensitive farm hand, John, played by John Corbett. He stays on and agrees to work for free until the sunflower harvest. Meanwhile, inside the house, Ben is seeing disturbing visions of weird, unquiet ghosts. Before long, Jessica is seeing them too. And then, on one evening when she is home in the house with just Ben, there's a poltergeist attack, and Jessica is nearly pulled down the stairs by the seemingly malevolent spirits. And did I mention that a murder of crows circle the property at all times, threatening to swoop down and attack the family?

Nothing much happens in the first half of the movie and yet I didn't hate it. The compositions boast a cockeyed look about them; an off-kilter sensibility that I enjoyed and kept me off balance. And, there's a tremendously atmospheric scene in which Jess and Ben walk around the house interior and Jess asks her little brother to point out the invisible ghosts to her. He does so, and I must tell you, it's creepy as hell. There's a moment in this sequence wherein Jessica and Ben are looking one way, and an out-of-focus something moves towards them --- coming forward (and into focus...) from the background. This image of approaching terror is not easily forgotten and it's quite potent. A lot of the movie's first half is just like this: stylishly-vetted "little" moments that you hope will build to real terror later.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through, The Messengers goes off the rails with a narrative twist so stupid and banal that it literally ruins the rest of the film. It's the worst third-act "surprise" you'll find in a horror film this year, and probably any year. This twist is preceded by a horrible CGI crow attack, comes up out of the blue and leads us into a series of horrible flashbacks revealing what "really" happened to the family from the prologue. And the performance that's related to this "twist" is atrocious. It's a bad bit of miscasting; the actor who vets the material is waaay out-of-his-depth and it's obvious. Even embarrassing.

Unfortunately, the twist is so important to the plot that it sort of retroactively pisses on all the parts of the movie you liked from the first half; because you now realize none of it made any sense whatsoever in light of the new revelation. Among the many questions you may ask yourself while watching: why does the cellar door spontaneously unlock when it does? Why is the cellar floor sometimes earthen and sometimes not? Is the "earthen" floor real or an illusion (because matter has to go somewhere...). Worse, given what we learn at the conclusion of the film, why do the ghosts make contact with the family in terms that are so clearly "an attack?" Also, who is the Cigarette Smoking Man, and how does his character really fit in with the narrative? Lastly, a film grammar question: why - even when things are resolved - don't the directors alter their cockeyed compositions?

By the end of the film, you realize that the writers haven't been playing fair with you; and that the story seems to be made up as it goes along. I'll tell you, that truly upsets me, because I wanted to write a good review today. I wanted to watch a good horror movie. For me it's always more enjoyable to write a positive review than a negative one, so I get no pleasure from the fact that The Messengers turns out, in the end, to be just another dopey PG-13 horror flick of shallow characters and nonsensical plotting. I had high hopes for this one, and they were dashed.