Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***1/2

Slow moving but rewarding, this film is a simple story of sin and redemption, crime and punishment.  A western set against the sprawling American landscape, The Three Burials is the story of a reckless young border patrolman and the consequences that arise when he accidentally kills a Meskin. The Meskin works in a ranch owned by Tommy Lee Jones, and, as has been proven numerous times, one does not fuck with Tommy Lee Jones and escape unscathed. The upright,tough Tommy is a man who lives by a strict moral code and when he finds out that this bloke did his Mexican friend in, he decides to give him a dose of frontier justice.

After making border patrolman dig up Mel, Tommy Lee gets himself three horses and embarks on an arduous journey to take the dead displaced Mexican back to the native village he fondly remembers and once described to him. The young patrolman, played to perfection by Barry Pepper is not too keen on the idea and has to be dragged kicking and screaming, at gun point. Tommy Lee directs himself with extraordinary grace, letting the slow, lethargic, mostly silent story tell itself at its own pace. It is hard to direct a slow movie that captivates you and The Three Burials does that to perfection. There are so many small things going on in the movie that captures the essence of the small Western town and the harsh Mexican landscape. The storytelling, non-linear in parts, manages to hold our attention throughout. A haunting score and a masterful script clinch the deal. The restrained and controlled direction is especially laudable, given that it is Tommy's directorial debut. Two gringos, one meskin with an unpronouncable name, sparse dialog, tight scripting, repetitive burials. 'nuff dead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Hitcher (1986) ***1/2

Though not a road movie in the strictest definition of the term, for me The Hitcher will forever be classified under that elite domain. Set against the vast open landscape of America, the wide empty roads and bleak but beautiful backgrounds remind one of such roadies as Vanishing Point and Easy Rider. However, the similarities end there. While most road films have rebellion and freedom as their central themes, this one has fear.

 The Hitcher is a nihilistic depiction of a psychopathic killer, yet is never too violent or gory. Robert Harmon has crafted a beautiful little genre flick that eschews the gratuitious gore, faces in mirrors and cats leaping from hidden corners while still remaining atmospheric and chilling. 

The plot is simple. Jim Halsey,a young buck driving to California, picks up a hitcher on a deserted highway on a rainy night and soon finds out the man has more on his mind than simple transportation. The taciturn hitcher soon becomes voluble on his predilection for cutting off appendages and does the nice young driver know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured. Jim manages to kick the hitcher out, but our friendly thumb-waving maniac rejoins the hunt after getting picked up by another passing vehicle. The harrowing chase becomes a tornado of violence as the hitcher builds a mound of bodies. When a planted knife casts suspicion on Jim Halsey, the entire local police is mobilized for a massive manhunt. Halsey, framed and falsely accused is helped by a cute chick from a cafeteria. The ensuing car chases replete with helicopter seems to have been lifted straight out of Vanishing Point, but it works extremely well. Rutger Hauer, steely eyed, implacable and ruthlessly efficient steals the show as the hitcher. His character, John Ryder, a Ramboesque inscrutable badass whose motives are unclear is definitely one of the greatest villains of film. 

The Hitcher has a Kafkaesque feel to it, an anti-existentialist touch that suggest that we are merely pawns in a game of random chess, where every character can move anywhichwhere it pleases. The Hitcher is the only one in control; anarchy rules. One feels that his destiny is intertwined with Jim's and can only lead to the inevitably fatal conclusion. Good does triumph in the end, but at what cost? For what is humanity advantaged, if the evil man dies but the good man loses his soul. A pyrrhic victory this, like in Se7en. But to hell with the philosophizing. This is a brilliant little gem and when I say that this movie made me shit-scared of road trips and hitchhikers, you'll understand how hauntingly effective it is. All the goodwill that Jack Kerouac built for hitchhikers, this film effortlessly annihilated. 21st century traveler, you have been warned.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ** ( two stars out of five)

They should never have resurrected this franchise. The third installment of the Mummy is a piece of lamentable, uninspired filmmaking that will leave Imhotep spinning in his pyramid.

Having exterminated every mummy worth his linen in Egypt, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser) now fights the undead in another well known mummy habitat: China. This time along, the titular mummy is Emperor Han ( Jet Li), a ruthless megalomaniac whose quest for immortality leads him to Zi Juan ( Michelle Yeoh) a sexy, powerful witch. Han fancies Zi Juan, so when he finds her in flagrante delicto with his trusted general Ming, he orders Ming executed, which prompts the witch to literally petrify Han and his army.

A couple of millennia later, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser ) and his wife Evelyn are coaxed to come out of an idyllic retirement to deliver a sensitive package to China, where their dashing, rebellious son Alex has just unearthed the tomb of the Dragon Emperor. A propitious confluence of events leads to a family reunion, at which point, things (and the movie) start going to pot. With formulaic predictability the O’Connells manage to reawaken the Emperor who starts wreaking havoc and generally being an ill-mannered, fire-breathing badass. Rick and his family, who hate the undead on principle and feel the only good mummies are dead mummies, take it upon themselves to exterminate Han before he can turn immortal and enslave the world. Wild adventure, romantic entanglements and several standoffs ensue, and there are rare moments when you feel again the outrageous chutzpah and roguish wit that made the original Mummy so memorable.

Brendan Fraser and Jet Li manage to hold their own, but the rest of the acting is so wooden it could have been phoned in. There are numerous attempts at humor, but since these attempts have the success rate of impotent sperm, the laughs are few and far between. The CGI sequences, featuring undead armies, the odd yeti or three and an Emperor Han who can transmogrify at will into three-headed dragon or giant lion thingy do little to salvage a script plagued with cringe-worthy lines and lackluster direction. At the end of the film Jonathan ( Evie’s brother ) relocates to Peru, so a possible next installment might have Rick and family battling the Peruvian crystal skulled Mummies that starred in the last Indiana Jones flick. Tutankhamen save us from that possibility.

The Midnight Meat Train ***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Stars Leon Bradley, Leslie Bibb and Vinnie Jones

Without a doubt, The Midnight Meat Train is one of the best horror movies in recent years. Adapted from a short story by horror maestro Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) and helmed by Japanese director Kitamura in his Hollywood debut, this film is bound to please horror aficionados who have gone too long without a worthy spine-tingler. Atmospheric and infused with a sly sense of foreboding throughout, TMMT eschews cheap scares in favor of a mildly stewing discomfiture that culminates in a violent potboiler of a train ride

When photographer Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper, TV’s Alias) is persuaded by a prominent art gallerist into exploring the naked underbelly of the city for grittier subject material, a foray into the subway offers him a glimpse of Mahogany, whom he begins to suspect of being a serial killer. Despite the vehement protestations of his sultry girlfriend (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man) and disregarding all sane options, Leon begins shadowing him to confirm his suspicions. Mahogany (the effortlessly menacing Vinnie Jones, Snatch) is a butcher by day, and as soon becomes apparent, does not entirely dispense with the tools of his trade at night. As Leon’s nocturnal peregrinations in pursuit of the butcher increase, his obsession consumes him and places his loved ones in jeopardy, leading to a nail-biter of a climax in the eponymous midnight train, which is the butcher’s base of operations.

As a horror film, it succeeds remarkably well. Vinnie Jones turns in a spectacularly chilling performance. Taciturn, ominous and brutal, he is the seminal slasher; eviscerator extraordinaire. There’s enough gore, blood and decapitations to satisfy your inner sadist, but not so much you’ll lose your lunch. The mood, oh the mood, that holy grail of the horror genre, is captured and distilled with consummate ease. The satisfying twist at the end hinted at great conspiracy, of vast hordes of things that go bump in the night. Highly satisfying horror! Stephen King, eat your heart out.