Monday, February 27, 2012

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

The Movie: Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) writes for Composure, currently the fastest growing women’s magazine. She works the “how to” column, but wants to write something more substantial and worthwhile than what her job will let her publish. One day, desperate for an idea for a new column, and facing the latest catastrophe of her friend Michelle’s (Kathryn Hahn) disastrous romantic life, Andie is suddenly hit by inspiration. For her next column she will write about things women commonly do to drive men off. To field-test it, she’ll chose a guy at random, start a relationship, do everything she can to ensure that he will be heading for the hills within ten days, and write up the whole sorry affair for her column.

Ben Barry (Matthew McConaughey) is an advertising executive. He’s definitely good at what he does, but up to this point he has mainly worked with alcohol and sports paraphernalia. Ben has the opportunity for something better however; he’s recently brought his boss’ (Robert Klein) attention to a major diamond interest that is bound to be lucrative. Unfortunately, Ben’s two business rivals, the Judies Spears and Green (Michael Michelle and Shalom Harlow, respectively [and while we’re at it, are they supposed to be a lesbian couple or just really good friends?]) have moved into position to take the account for themselves. Ben confronts them, and the four wind up making a bet for the diamond account. To demonstrate his ability to deal with the themes needed to sell diamonds, Ben must find a random woman, get her to truly fall in love with him, and bring her as his date to the account kickoff dinner in ten days.

Of course, Andie and Ben wind up choosing each other for their respective little destructive projects, and the games really begin. Andie goes out of her way to make Ben miserable, while Ben goes equally out of his way to hold on to Andie. And to further complicate matters, the two find themselves falling for each other…

The Review:


Well here it is; the movie I originally intended to review for Valentine’s Day 2012. It’s not a secret that I really detest Valentine’s Day. Now I know; the socially awkward, single guy who hates Valentine’s Day is an old cliché. However, clichés come about because there is some truth to them; and my reasons aren’t necessarily what you are probably thinking. My main reason for hating the holiday isn’t due to spite and jealousy, although they have played their parts in the past. Nor is it because of the transparently manufactured and corporate nature of the holiday; although again, that does play a role.

My dislike of Valentine’s Day is mainly due to its very nature, which sits in opposition to my own. Valentine’s Day is all about the Big Showy Gesture. In essence, it centers around the idea that all you need is a big, ostentatious display to show that you love someone. After all, what are the cards, the roses, the huge boxes of chocolates, the ridiculously expensive displays of conspicuous consumption, but a massive show for the rest of the world?

Now, I can see the occasional need for the BSG. Hell, I can even admit that it always looks impressive. Unfortunately, that’s all it really has going for it. At its core, the BSG is ultimately hollow. Unless you have something substantial to back it up, the BSG is always going to collapse after a short time; if it doesn’t immediately blow up in your face. I, personally, am about the Small Substantial Gesture; the little actions that on initial appearance aren’t all that impressive, but that slowly but surely build a stable and lasting platform for what it is you are trying to build. You will never see me propose at a football game, but you will see me doing all the little things I can to make sure that the relationship (and I don’t just mean romantic ones, either) will be a worthwhile and enduring one. And I’m not saying said gestures can’t be big, grand, or quirky either; I do those all the time. I just feel that if they are only meant for one person, then they actually need to mean something, and the rest of the world doesn’t need to be in on it.

My general distaste for most mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies is also due to this principle. They, too, are more often than not about the BSG. How many cinematic romances have been saved by the dramatic actions of one character, such as a dash to the airport just before the plane leaves or a public declaration before a huge crowd? And how many of the above mentioned dramatic actions are needed because said individual did something utterly unforgiveable?

The formula used for these movies is almost always the same. Two people, seemingly unfit for each other, fall in love; usually under some kind of contrived circumstances. They are utterly happy and devoted to each other, and then one of them does something truly despicable (or one of them finds out about the other doing something despicable) that breaks up the relationship. In the end it takes a major public act to save the romance. It’s completely unrealistic.

Now I am well aware that much of what I enjoy movie-wise is equally unrealistic. I guess that my main issue is that so many people see these movies as what love truly is. I mean, romantic comedies tend to come with adjectives such as “inspiring,” “uplifting,” and “feel-good.” Yet, they are almost always about relationships that, if brought into the world we live in, would be the epitome of unhealthy and dysfunctional.

Obviously there are exceptions; I can actually name a few romantic comedies I regularly watch and enjoy. But think about it; if I were to actually try some of the things the male lead does to get the female, at the very least I would probably wind up with a restraining order. Likewise, if a couple really was so mutually insecure and distrusting that one of the ridiculous little incidents common in these films could actually break them up; there’s no way the relationship in question could last very long, even if they were stupid enough to get back together. And finally, considering how poisonous and blatantly destructive these movie breakups tend to be; there is no way in Hell that couple could ever get back together on anything like healthy terms. There would always be resentment and some degree of mutual grudge. And yet, these “romances” are held up as positive; what we all should want and how we all should get it. I know horror isn’t for everyone, but you have to admit this for my favored genre; the destructive, anti-social behavior is nearly always the province of the villain/antagonist, and portrayed as a bad thing.

Which brings me to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a movie that I think epitomizes these objections. Like the majority of the movies on this blog, I have a history with it. A few years back, near Christmas, my mother had to have surgery. Because the hospital where she was staying over is only a few blocks from my apartment, I visited her quite a bit. My siblings came to Idaho for the holiday, and one night found me and my sister visiting together. She was feeling board, so she turned on the television and found this movie being played. We were a ways into the movie, but my sister explained the basic plot to me. I’m still not sure if she ever figured out why I was so appalled.

The thing that really got my blood boiling was that it was all about these destructive social games. I hate games; whether we’re talking social, political, professional or what have you. Part of it is because of personal prejudice; due to my aspergers, I’m always finding myself on the wrong end of them. But mostly it’s because they are extremely destructive for no real purpose. While there are rare occasions when they are truly needed, and sometimes they can even be fun; overall they are only about somebody jumping through unnecessary hoops for someone else’s ego trip. And the games being played by the two leads in this movie are, to my mind, of the worst sort.

What I find really sad about this film after having watched it a second time (yeah, I’m a masochist), is noting the disparity of the talent of the two leads versus the characters they play. Said characters are both repulsive slimebags. Yet, the actors and the script actually make them a little more attractive as people than they should rightfully be.

Hudson, for example, is wonderful. There are a few scenes of her interacting with her friends that aren’t necessarily part of the main plot, but that are a lot of fun. It’s just little things; her tone of voice and mannerisms when joking around with them, the casual little bits of give and take between them; but I found myself enjoying them. Likewise, there are a few scenes where, after Andie has just finished her latest round of “let’s make Ben miserable” and he’s just gone out of earshot; she wipes away her tears and gets this evil smile that any James Bond villain would envy. It’s almost enough to make you momentarily forget that this is a woman who is doing her damndest to arbitrarily make the life of a man; one who, for all she knows, may actually be in love with her; a living Hell.

Ben is every bit as bad, yet I find that I have a little bit more sympathy for him nonetheless. Mostly this is due to being familiar with the position he’s in. I’ve been romantically jerked around before. Admittedly, nowhere near the level of some other people I’ve known; but it only takes one time to drive home just how much it sucks to be on the receiving end. Also, through various little tells, McConaughey makes it clear very early on that Ben is smitten. He is dealing with a girlfriend who is insecure, jealous, petty, unreasonable and manipulative (sadly, again not outside my own life experiences); yet one gets the impression that bet or no bet, Ben genuinely sees enough that’s worthwhile in Andie that he’ll tolerate anything to keep her around.

But even with these small examples of good traits, as well as a scene where Andie meets Ben’s family that I find also resonates with me; ultimately it’s not enough to make up for the fact that we are watching two people playing really nasty games with each other's lives and emotions. This is the mother of all destructive relationships here; and the only part of it that really strikes me as true is the inevitable blowup at the kickoff banquet where Andie and Ben simultaneously discover the truth about the other and have a very nasty and public breakup over it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have left it there. This being a genre romance, there has to be a contrived reconciliation at the end. However, I really cannot see this relationship going anywhere positive after all that has passed between the two of them. So in conclusion, I wound up reviewing two movies for Valentine’s Day instead of the one I originally planned on; and I’m still not sure what to think of the fact that between the jokey horror movie and the officially labeled “romance,” it’s the movie about psychopathic slasher-killers that shows us the healthier and more palatable relationship.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Strangeland (1998)

The Movie: In the small town of Helverton, Colorado; teenager Genevieve Gage (Linda Cardellini) and her best friend, Tiana Moore (Amal Rhoe) meet an interesting guy in a chat room who goes by the handle “Captain Howdy” (the prolific Dee Snider, probably best known as the songwriter and lead singer for the heavy metal group Twisted Sister). They eagerly jump at his invitation for a party at his house; but unfortunately for them Captain Howdy is not at all what he appears to be. Instead, he is a psychopath obsessed with body modification and S&M. Howdy lures teenagers into his home for the purpose of performing all sorts of bizarre and gruesome depravities upon them.

By chance, Genevieve happens to be the daughter of police Detective Michael Gage (Kevin Gage of May and G.I. Jane; and right now I’m wondering whether him and his character sharing the same last name is coincidence or not). When the girls don’t come home after two nights, he and his wife (the lovely Elizabeth Pena of Jacob’s Ladder and *batteries not included) are, of course, extremely worried and determined to find them. The search becomes even more desperate when Tiana’s car is fished out of a lake and her mutilated body is found in the trunk.

Unfortunately, Michael is way out of his depth. A few clues lead him and his young partner, Steve (Brett Harelson) to the club Xibalba (and pardon me for geeking out here, but the movie constantly mispronounces it zee-bal-ba, it’s pronounced shee-bal-ba), the popular local hangout for the body modification subculture that Howdy comes out of; but it’s clear that there’s no way these two men can understand it enough to get the answers they need. Also, it takes some help from his teenaged niece, Angela (Amy Smart), to understand how the internet fits into it. Eventually though, Michael is able to locate Howdy’s house of horrors, save Genevieve and the other victims, and capture Howdy himself.

But that is far from the end of the matter. The courts declare Howdy, aka Carleton Hendricks, insane and he is sent to an institution. Four years later, Hendricks is declared rehabilitated and released to return home and start his life again. However, the memories of Howdy and his activities are still very fresh in the mind of the community; and the locals are determined to have their own revenge. Local asshole Jackson Roth (Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), leads a lynch mob after Hendricks; one which Michael is in a position to stop, but which he violates his ethics by allowing. The failed lynching results in the reemergence of Captain Howdy; and Michael is forced to realize that he will have to violate his morals a great deal more if he is to end this horror permanently…

The Review: I believe I have mentioned this in a past review; but the common link that the movies I review on this blog share is that they are movies I have found some emotional resonance with. My reaction may have been positive, negative, mixed, or even ambiguous; but with one exception as of this writing, all of the movies I have reviewed here have engaged me enough to cause me some sort of emotional reaction. Admittedly, most of them I am already very familiar with and plan to review ahead of time. However, every so often I will find myself watching a movie where, out of the blue, I find myself thinking that I need to write up something on it. Which brings us to Strangeland.

I came to Strangeland in a very roundabout way. I can remember being aware of it when it came out; but I was convinced that it was just yet another one of the torture-porn movies that were in vogue during the late 1990s-early aughts. Despite being a major horror and exploitation movie fan, I have never enjoyed watching people being tortured. As a result, I avoided it.

In high school I discovered, and really got into, ‘80s Hair Metal music. My love for the genre was further reinforced during my college years, where I discovered a local radio station that had a regular nightly hour or two where they played Hair Metal. Not long after I moved back to Idaho, one of the local rock stations I listened to picked up Dee Snider’s weekly House of Hair, which I listened to near religiously. Unfortunately, in the past year or two, the owners of the station made some grievous mistakes which cumulated with them torpedoing the station entirely and reformatting it. During the process they dropped the House of Hair, for which I will never forgive them.

Now, Dee Snider has a very engaging personality; and much to my surprise I found myself, unlike with other DJs, enjoying listening to him almost as much as I enjoyed listening to the music. I also became curious and started seeing what I could learn about the man; and rapidly developed a strong respect for him. From what I have read and heard about him; for a member of a music genre that’s pretty much based on the image of misbehavior, not to mention being a generational icon for nonconformity, Snider comes across as a very moral and ethical individual. He fights passionately for what he believes in (and many of them are also causes near and dear to my own heart), and his career is based almost entirely on a façade as a parental boogeyman; but overall just about everything I’ve read about his personal behavior is decent, noble and honorable.

Probably the thing that most landed my admiration, however, is discovering that the man can laugh at himself. I’m not meaning in that phony way we see so much where public figures try to convey the message “look how great I am because I can laugh at myself” either. Snider strikes me as one of those entirely too rare individuals who does not take himself too seriously; who is genuinely aware of his shortcomings as a human being, and who can truly acknowledge how absurd they are. Anyone who can do that has my utmost respect.

So obviously, once it came to my attention that Snider not only starred in Strangeland, but wrote it as well, my curiosity was aroused. So what’s my verdict on the movie? In a word, I’m sad to say, mixed. Here’s probably the best way I can sum up Strangeland: brilliant concept, powerful ideas, great story, decent to good acting, horrible execution.

As a horror movie, Strangeland works on multiple levels. Ironically, considering it’s the brainchild of a man who was a generation’s icon for youth rebellion; Strangeland works best as, and is at its core, a parental nightmare. Michael Gage is doubly an authority figure, both as a father and as a police officer; and yet none of this any help when it comes to protecting his teenage daughter. And this is due to the fact that Captain Howdy operates out of a realm that is entirely beyond Michael’s knowledge or understanding.

First there is the technology angle. Even over a decade after this movie came out, the technology issues it raises are still very relevant. The technology gap between the generations is a truly terrifying thing for a parent. For most children and teenagers, much of this stuff is second nature; but for the older generation it can be extremely confusing and intimidating. Hell, I’m only thirty as of this writing and I have a lot of trouble with it. The anonymity is also scary; you really don’t know who’s on the other end. In short, much of Genevieve’s life revolves around a world that Michael can’t navigate without a guide. Captain Howdy is at a major advantage here because this is his home turf.

The second part of Captain Howdy’s turf is that of the youth subculture; something that is always alien and terrifying to the older generation. I find the choice of body modification as a theme to be particularly interesting; it’s fairly commonplace, but it can still be extremely disturbing to those who aren’t in on it. I’m on the periphery of that subculture, as I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are into it; but it’s still something that bothers me. Admittedly, for me it’s a personal pressure point that comes from my medical experiences. Cancer and amputation are probably about as close as you can get to your own mortality without actually dying; and a decade’s worth of having your body constantly cut open, sewn back up and poked full of holes, not to mention having a major appendage cut off, can really spoil one’s enthusiasm for doing any of it for fun.

I find the scene where Michael and his partner go into nightclub Xibalba to be particularly effective, brief though it is. Part of it’s another personal pressure point; aside from all the body modification going on, I hate crowds and loud noise. But the movie does a good job of showing the place from the two men’s point of view; a world that they will never truly understand.

The use of the name Xibalba also raises some interesting themes. In Mayan legend Xibalba is the underworld and land of the dead; a place of destruction and transformation. Despite what the movie says it isn’t Hell as the West understands Hell; but many aspects of it can seem pretty hellish. For major nerds like me who study this stuff, ‘Xibalba’ adds a layer of spirituality to the proceedings. Like its namesake, the club is a place where its clientele seek transformation through the destruction of their old selves. However, it is a very non-Western form of spirituality; and one that most would find very brutal and disturbing.

This brings us to Captain Howdy himself. The main reason I find him so effective for the first half of the movie is that he isn’t like your typical movie psycho, the blatant, erratic form of insanity the genre seems to like. Instead, Captain Howdy seems to work by a logic of his own; but one very different from the commonly accepted kind. In fact, for me he comes across as a form of demented mystic; a fanatic who has received his own twisted revelation and now seeks to share it. Indeed, some of the end results of his victims have a kind of transitory, yet grotesque and disturbing beauty to them. This puts a different slant on even his more conventional movie psycho behavior.

For example, in the scene where he calls Michael when he’s staking out his neighborhood, it comes across a bit differently from the typical “the psycho calls the desperate rescuer to taunt him” bit we’re used to. I don’t get the sense that Howdy is reveling in Michael’s suffering at all when he demands his daughter back. Instead, Howdy seems rather disappointed and appalled at Michael’s reaction. In his view he is doing Michael a favor; giving him a test that will strengthen him if he survives it. But Michael doesn’t get it and refuses to play; he just wants to get the prize (Genevieve) without any real effort on his part.

The final theme of Strangeland that I think is great is one that most horror movies miss; the effect on the community. While few people seem to realize it; the true danger of evil individuals is that they can drag us down to their level. So many times, retaliation for evil deeds winds up doing far more damage than the deeds they are avenging. Personally, I find Englund’s role to be the scariest I’ve seen him do since I saw the first Nightmare movie; and that’s because I have known individuals exactly like him. Jackson Roth is a man who is so upset with his own life failings that his only outlet is to take it out on others; and the lynching of Hendricks is the chance to do something truly horrible under the guise of a moral act. The fear and anger of the community lets him get away with it. Even our hero, Michael, isn’t innocent either; even though we can sympathize with him his choice of inaction is the wrong one, and the return of Captain Howdy is definitely his fault.

So with all of these powerful themes and what should be an engaging story, what’s the problem? The problem is that they all get undercut. The movie seems to be trying to get through its plot as quickly as possible, which leaves us with little time to form any attachments. We don’t get to know any of the characters; which means that while we can empathize with the horrible situations they find themselves in, we don’t form any of the personal attachments to them that are needed for a truly effective horror story.

Captain Howdy is the most intriguing character, and even he gets undercut. You may note that when I was discussing him earlier I use the words “for the first half of the movie.” That’s because when Captain Howdy is reborn for the second half, he suddenly loses all the mystique he had and becomes just another movie psycho out for revenge. Snider has some amazing presence and is able to carry him through; but nevertheless he comes out as severely diminished in the end.

Michael, our hero, is more a cipher than anything else. We pretty much only know him in relation to his attempt to defeat Captain Howdy; we never learn much, if anything else about the man outside this whole horrible episode. As a result, none of the decisions he has to make have the impact they should.

And that, ultimately, is where the movie fails. Because we aren’t given the time we need to form attachments to any of the characters; we aren’t as affected as we need to be by what happens to them. The themes and material are powerful enough that their impact cannot be erased entirely; but we are left disappointed because something important is missing. Ultimately, what should be visceral horrors are instead mostly intellectual ones.

In closing, I would just like to say this: Mr. Snider, on the off-chance that you might be reading this; I feel that despite its shortcomings, Strangeland does show that you have a real knack for making horror movies. It is my hope that you attempt another movie project; and I don’t mean a Strangeland sequel or retread, I want something completely different. I’m sure your demented genius is more than up to the task…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Psychos in Love (1986)

The Movie: Joe (Carmine Capobianco, who also co-wrote this movie and wrote the soundtrack) is the owner and bartender of a strip club. He’s also a psychotic slasher who likes to kill random women. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing that will get you a second date (or even a first if you spill it too early), and he despairs of finding romance.

Then one night, Kate (Debi Thibeault, who was also the costume designer) walked into his bar. There is instant attraction, and it is further enforced when Joe finds that Kate shares his extreme aversion to grapes. However, what really bonds them is when he makes the discovery that she is also a psychotic slasher. Delighted to find somebody else who can understand their hobbies, the two fall deeply in love.

However, all relationships have their snags; which Joe and Kate are going to have to face. Then, as time goes on, the two start to find that killing people isn’t as fun anymore. Joe and Kate agree that it’s time to move on from their hobby and start a new life together. Unfortunately, when Herman the cannibalistic plumber (Frank Stewart, also the hair designer and makeup artist) discovers their former pastime, he may be able to blackmail them out of retirement…

The Review:

“I really don’t know how to say this, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea or anything; but… I’m not going to kill you.”

I had a particularly putrid little movie all picked out for my Valentine’s Day review. Unfortunately, Netflix still hasn’t sent it to me, so I needed a substitute. It was difficult to think of something else I have access to that can truly illustrate my loathing for this unholiest of days. I have Yum Yum from the site House of Self Indulgence to thank for providing me with the answer. He has just put up a review for this film on his site, and it reminded me that I had an old VHS copy buried in my movie collection. Oh, and Yum Yum; if you are reading this, I’m not trying to steal your thunder. I am well aware that there’s no way I’ll match up to you.

Psychos in Love is very obviously an amateur movie done on a really low budget. However, once you accept that consideration, it’s overall a fun little flick. Psychos in Love is a pitch-black comedy; and while the humor is very hit or miss, it falls more on the former side than the latter. It has some truly funny lines as well as sight and situation gags. The sheer absurdity of the entire set-up is emphasized and, for the most part, played upon well. Probably my two favorite scenes are the one where Kate gets out of bed to find that Joe has brought home one of his victims; and the scene where the two of them are checking out at the local video rental.

The two leads, who this movie centers around, do their characters justice. There is no way they’ll get Oscars for these roles, but I find the two protagonists to be believable and even somewhat sympathetic. What’s more, I actually find the romantic aspect of this film much more convincing than I do in most big budget, consciously romantic movies. For the most part Joe and Kate’s relationship moves in small steps; and they are mainly seen handling all the little details, good and bad, that make up a relationship.

Admittedly the scene where they meet is a little overwrought; but then, would you expect anything else from a movie titled Psychos in Love? However, once we get to the actual relationship itself, it feels real. There are few grand gestures or overly romantic moments. Instead, we are presented with two people who are trying to build a life together. They are uncertain and awkward at first, they make mistakes, and they even get on each other’s nerves. However, ultimately they decide that this is the person they want to be with, and this allows them to work through the rest.

For fans of exploitation movies, Psychos in Love has plenty to offer in the way of female nudity and some decent gore effects. Some campy fun can even be had from the low budget feel of the whole affair. One of my favorite examples of this is one of Joe’s victims very early on; where he creates the shower scene from Psycho and it’s clear that the actress is having a hard time trying not to laugh.

However, there are a few downsides. The plot doesn’t completely gel. Herman the cannibalistic plumber is really only an afterthought, one that probably could have been removed from the script entirely; and when he and our two leads finally meet the scene doesn’t really work. There are a few scenes of interactions between the leads and the film crew that break down the fourth wall, with mixed results. And finally, it’s clear that nobody knew how they were going to end this movie, and the final scenes drag on far longer than they should.

However, overall I found myself enjoying this movie. If you have a warped sense of humor and aren’t too squeamish, it can be a lot of fun. More so, Psychos in Love actually does a surprisingly good portrayal of two unusual people who find each other and form a healthy relationship. Even psychotic slashers need love, after all.