REVIEW: High Tension

WARNING: This review may contain information that may be regarded as “spoilers,” read at your own risk.

Let’s get this part out of the way: YES, this film is French. If you’re planning on skipping it solely because of that, out of some kind of obnoxious instinct you’ve mistaken for patriotism, I’m begging you: Take the 90 minutes you might otherwise have spent watching this film and grow up.

Now, if you’re planning on skipping it because you don’t enjoy subtitles, I can offer this: Though most theaters are advertising the film as “French with subtitles,” a curious technique has been employed to dub roughly 70-80% of the spoken dialogue into English: A single added line of dialogue turns a main character and her family from native French citizens into American expatriates, allowing for nearly the entirety of the film’s talk-heavy first act have all it’s actors speaking English. After that, the French-speaking characters take over for the most part… but by then the film is largely running and killing, without time for talk. This accomplishes it’s primary goal of rendering the film more “accessible” to English-speaking audiences, but it also may have the curious effect of turning what was intentioned as a French spin on the American “slasher” genre into, for some, a kind of parable about an innocent American family being (literally) torn to shreds by a perverse French psychopath.

Depending on your genre-preferences, you may or may not recall a French film released a few years back to major fanfare but lukewarm U.S. boxoffice called “Brotherhood of The Wolf.” Only a minor hit Stateside, internationally the film represented and indeed was intended to represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by the French film industry i.e. it’s lack of “street cred” in the blockbuster business. Director Christophe Gans was famously told by his producer to “beat the Americans at their own game,” and he didn’t just beat us… he kicked our ever-living ass.

A Hollywood-style “summer” action-adventure in the vein of “The Mummy” but bloodier, sexier and smarter than the Hollywood equivalent would ever be permitted to be (everything worth understanding about the difference between America and France can be understood in the truth that the French produce ultraviolent movies but feign a marked disdain for the actual violence of war, whereas America puts tremendous stock in it’s martial prowess while maintaining a puritanical censorship of films, TV and radio,) “Brotherhood” was a direct and bold statement from the French film industry to Hollywood: “From now on, anything you can do we can do also… and maybe better.“High Tension,” (“Haute Tension” in it’s native France and, for some reason, “Switchblade Romance” in England,) viewed as a presence on the world-cinema stage, is something of a followup to that original challenge: “Yes, we can even make these!”

“These,” for the record, being the venerable American genre-staple of the rural “slasher” horror flick. The film takes a “Friday the 13th”-style lumbering unkillable super-killer, gives him the keys to the big-rusty-truck-from-hell from “Jeepers Creepers” and sends him to a very “Texas Chainsaw”-reminiscient farm county in the south of France. A pair of female college students, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex, arrive at the home of Alex’s family to study (it becomes immediately apparent that Marie is mostly there to study Alex, the subject of her unrequitted sapphic crush) only to have their plans cut short when a hulking ogre of a serial killer invites himself into the house.

Posessed of the standard-issue “Jason”-level super strength and situational weapon skills, the killer spends a good deal of time turning Alex’s mother, father and younger brother into Fangoria photo-spreads while Marie darts through the shadows trying in vain to call for help. When the killer kidnaps Alex, Marie follows him and the film descends into a tense chase-and-stalk piece where the innability to find help slowly turns Marie into an impromptu action-heroine; eventually employing an improvised weapon that’ll likely go down with “Evil Dead 2’s” hand-mounted chainsaw and “Shaun of The Dead’s” cricket bat in the pantheon of horror movie weaponry.

Aside from it’s French origins and the overtness of it’s lesbian-longing angle, the film isn’t really trying to break much new ground. It’s extremely unnerving and unpleasant, builds it’s titular tension well, and features it’s share of novel kills and inventive bloodletting. That’s about the most one can honestly ask of any “slasher” movie at this point, whatever country it comes from. The point here is to make France a player on the horror scene, not THE player.

By now, you may or may not have heard that the film eventually arrives at a kind of twist, and you may or may not have heard that it’s decidedly a “love it or hate it” addition to the overall film. At the risk of spoiling it for you (your genre-acumen will determine how quickly you figure it out, if at all) I’m going to say nothing about it save that it both adds a lot of texture to the film but also subtracts a certain quotient of logic. I’ll leave it up to you to figure whether you think the loss is worth the gain.

Bottom line: Solid slasher entry, more remarkable for where it’s come from than the condition in which it’s arrived. Worth a look.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

DVD REVIEW: D.E.B.S.

Premise: “D.E.B.S.” is a secret government organization that uses a code hidden in the SAT to recruit beautiful college-age girls as master spies. Under the guise of an elite private academy, the “D.E.B.S.” agents carry out their missions in form-fitting “schoolgirl” uniforms (yes, plaid skirts and kneesocks just like your thinking) and battle supervillian Lucy Diamond, who is also a stunning college-aged young lady (didn’t ya just know it?) When a raid goes bad, top D.E.B.S. recruit Amy confronts Lucy solo and makes three amazing discoveries: A.) Lucy is a lesbian. B.) So is she. And C.) They’ve both fallen madly in love at first sight. Heroine and villianess thus begin a secret courtship of covert hanky-panky behind the backs of their innevitably-dissaproving respective “sides.”

Having read that premise, what kind of movie are you imagining “D.E.B.S.” to be? What sort of audience do you guess it was made for? Surely, based on the above description, and the obvious market appeal for gun-toting lipstick-lesbians in fetishized schoolgirl costumes, you’d be totally within reason to conclude that “D.E.B.S.” is softcore porn, another “skinemax” offering from the Seduction Cinema crew with Misty Mundae scissor-kicking her way through another glib spoof of genre film.

You’d be totally within reason to conclude this… but you’d be wrong.

What a delightful little surprise, indeed, that this film is almost a full-fledged opposite-number to the kind of straight-to-DVD masturbatory aide that it’s premise would suggest. “D.E.B.S.”, instead, unfolds as a sweet-natured PG13 teen comedy. It’s “sex” scenes are so innocent and chaste that, were the participants a heterosexual couple, it could easily achieve a PG rating and a rotating spot on the Family Channel with the deletion of a few minor curse words. It’s characters may indeed be costumed as objects of male fantasy, but the story they inhabit and the gags strung around it are aimed squarely at girls the approximate age of the heroines, and maybe younger. It’s visibly low-budget, and it’s “comedy” renders the “Austin Powers” cycle a paragon of subtlety by comparison, yes… but damn if it isn’t infectiously smile-inducing.

Equally remarkable alongside the film’s eschewing of explicit showiness in it’s lesbian romance angle is it’s wish-dream lack of concern with the “lesbian” part of the equation: Few of the characters are ever surprised at Amy’s outing, and those that are express such as a momentary “huh, how ’bout that?” manner and move on. At no point in the film are we given the indication that anyone is really bothered or even especially interested that Amy’s love-interest is another woman, (save for Amy’s bewildered former boyfriend, who pronounces the predicament “kinda hot,”) the sum-total of their objections are that Lucy Diamond is, y’know, their mortal enemy.

I’m not, you may be aware, usually prone to talking up a movie based on it’s possible use a tool of social-benefit, but y’know something… there are a lot of gay teenage girls and young women out there. Many of them are confused and even scared, despite all our much-touted strides toward tolerance, I can’t help thinking that they may not exactly be filled with reassurance or confidence at their own normalcy or ability to lead happy lives by, say, the dark nihilism of “Bound,” the “lesbo-show-for-the-guys” mentality of “Girls Gone Wild” or the gloomy soap-opera of “The L-Word.” (And how do you think young gay males see their futures as “related” by the films of Gregg Araki or David DeCocteau?)

But here is a movie, as frothy and silly as any “normal” romantic comedy, as lighthearted and youth-appropriate as “Legally Blonde” or “Mean Girls,” where the lesbian characters are presented as just a cute, more-than-a-little-ditzy couple. There’s no lumbering monsters of intolerance to slay, no horrible hateful society to overcome. In the world of “D.E.B.S.,” the idea that there could be anything “wrong” with Amy or Lucy’s sexual preference just doesn’t seem to exist. So yeah, it’s a fantasy. But it’s a fantasy worth working toward, and it’s a fantasy that I’m willing to bet a good number of young women would like to see made real… or at least as real as a jokey movie they can rent. Now, here it is.

Oh… speaking of fantasies made real (and in case you be misled that this film has nothing to offer a male audience) one of the sidekick D.E.B.S. is played by Devon Aoki, late of “Sin City.” Miho, “the one with the swords.” Yeah, now you remember. Anyway, she’s playing a sexaholic recruit who, while Asian, is apparently French and speaks with a “Fringlish” accent.

Yeah, you read right: Asian goddess, schoolgirl uniform, French accent. Guys, if you need to take a minute or two on that one, I understand 🙂

FINAL RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Lords of Dogtown

Ever since “Boogie Nights,” the default arc for recent-history biopics has been as follows: The hero(es) begin living lives of utopian happiness in the “carefree” 1970s, and come crashing down once their various lifestyles are tainted by the stain of 1980s capitalist “greed.” Previously, the “empty” hedonism of the Disco Age was shown as the “dark finale” of the “peaceful” 60s, as seen in the 80s fantasy musical “The Apple” where 60s-style folk singers lead a rebellion against a facist Disco-themed world government. That may have worked before, but to a generation for whom the “flower children” have grown up into “the system,” it just no longer washes.

And so we have the “Boogie Nights” model: The sex, drugs, glitter-fueld and responsibility-free 70s are the days of wine and roses, and if only they could’ve gone on forever instead of being cut down by recessions, Reaganomics and AIDS. The heroes are happily living out perpetual adolescence, only to be “cruelly” smacked down by sudden and horrible adulthood. How perfectly this resonates with a certain bulk of “Generation X,” so often raised themselves in utopian extended childhoods by hippie-turned-yuppie Boomer parents only to be shocked upon entry into the real world, has everything to do with why the model keeps getting used.

“Lords of Dogtown” tries, with varying success, to press into this model the story of the rise of modern skateboard culture through the eyes of the “Z-Boys” skate pioneers in Venice Beach, California. The characters and rough outline are sketched from an excellent documentary from a few years back, “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” which should be considered required viewing if you wish to understand a single thing that happens in this film and are not already intimately familiar with the Venice Beach skate culture.

Briefly: The “Z-Boys” are Venice Beach surfer teens who, upon the invention of eurythane wheels, learn to “surf” on concrete with skateboards. Their feats of acrobatic derring-do turn skateboarding from a niche non-sport into a cultural phenomenon, but it also turns them into marketable celebrities. Eventually endorsement deals, shifting loyalty and the pressures of grownup life destroy their innocence, break the group up, contribute to the dreaded “commercialization” of the skate culture and yadda yadda yadda…

Meanwhile, the “Boogie Nights”-mandated soundtrack of classic rock hits blares on over the soundtrack, and eventually the film becomes and endless swirl of skateboard terminology and name-dropping. Certainly, those with a pre-existing fascination for the sport and this formative era may indeed find all this fascinating, and I enjoy a good show of skateboard stunts as much as the next guy… but it’s finally just hard to care about much that happens here.

Which is not to say that the material can’t be made interesting. On the contrary, writer Stacy Peralta (one of the founding Z-Boys) directed the “Dogtown” documentary which was riveting because it featured the real participants in the action, and their nostalgia was infectious. Here, with actors in the roles and a narrative drama-structure imposed, it’s just hard to develop a lot of interest.

Yes, very sad and very happy things happen to the characters, but it just can’t escape the problem that a story of a niche sport going mainstream is not in itself really very interesting to watch. It must have been fascinating to live through, and the documentary allowed the audience to experience that. The film, while earnest and made with great sincerity, just cannot accomplish the same thing. It’s like watching people’s vacation videos: No matter how interesting a place they may have traveled, the footage almost never conveys what it must have been like to be there.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: Cinderella Man

Let me get this out of the way first: Now that the “superhero” movie is a full-on part of the mainstream Hollywood genre quilt, it’s time to reconsider the use of titles that end with the word “Man” for ‘normal’ movies. Yes, yes, I know that it’s what the actual guy was nicknamed, but still… even having seen the film, I can’t hear the uber-serious trailer naration solemnly intone “Russell Crowe IS… Cinderella Man” and not immediately picture some bizzaro-world cinematic image of Crowe, clad in some Neal Adams imagining of a pink ball gown and magical power-granting glass slippers leaping toward the screen amidst a pounding Hans Zimmer hero theme announcing the arrival of Cinderella Man to strike fear into the hearts of similarly-costumed evildoers. But that’s just me.

And hey, y’know… Cinderella Man might even be a pretty amusing superhero in his own right, no? Think about it: His powers could only last until midnight, his car/jet/motorcycle/whatever could transform into a pumpkin, the Fairy Godmother could hang around for sage advice like Shazam does for Captain Marvel… hell, the whole secret-identity thing is even already right there in the story!

…or not. Aaaaaaanyway, regarding the actual movie:

You’ve probably seen the trailers, and you’ve probably heard the buzz, so then you probably already know the pitch: True-life story of how over-the-hill, down-and-out prizefighter James J. Braddock’s amazing comeback was taken as an inspiration to fellow poor common-folk during the Great Depression. “Seabiscuit” for boxing. “Million Dollar Biscuit.” You also, thusly, are aware that it’s directed by Ron Howard, who’s natural knack for telling these kinds of stories is immediately in it’s favor even as his occasional tendency to overdose on sentimentality often makes such stories precariously-balanced as actual films.

Everyone’s “genre acumen” is different, but most American filmgoers by now generally “know” what to expect from inspirational Great Depression movies: Gray, high-contrast exteriors and hazy, muddy hued interiors that serve to make the film look “authentic” (read: reminiscient of grainy photographs of the era that form our only remaining link to it,) plucky proletariates pontificating pugnaciously in exaggerated ethnic dialects (so that we remember that this takes place in the time before Italians, Irishmen and WASPs were grouped singularly as “white guys.”)

Also making their mandatory appearance are cigars, breadlines, riots, unionizing, begrudging charity-accepting, kids playing in alleys, throwaway dialogue about shantytowns and Commies for the history teachers in the audience, and LOTS of tough-looking actors in wool caps modeling five o’clock shadows while stomping “determinedly” from place to place. And since it’s additionally a boxing movie, you can bet the film remembers to meet it’s quota of slow-motion, slow-claps, hushed crowds rising to their feet, bar patrons going wild during the radio broadcast and my personal favorite: Press conferences edited to the rythym of flashbulbs.

Just like no one is surprised anymore when a hand-held camera is employed in the midst of a war movie, no one should be surprised that the above genre-staples make up the bulk of “Cinderella Man’s” technical side. What’s surprising, and frequently delightful, is how expertly Howard has used nearly every trick in the Depression movie book to such full effect: Everything about the look and feel of the film is so cozy and comfortable that it immediately becomes “real” in a way that a more offbeat historical biopic couldn’t be. It makes you feel like you’ve “been here” before, via the watching of previous films about and from the era, and in no time nearly all lingering vestiges of movie-ness vanish; Notions of soundstages and Russell Crowe give way to Madison Square Garden and Jim Braddock, and we’re off to the races.

Those who take joy in pointing out that Howard is no kind of cinematic innovator consistently miss the point: What he is is a cinematic refiner. While the vanguards of the “film school generation” (sing it if you know it: Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, etc.) that shepherded his entry into the directing game are one-by-one settling into their “grownup” roles as auteurs, Howard remains Hollywood’s ultimate sorceror’s apprentice: The director-as-professional-student. His best films unspool as the sum-total of lessons learned about the genres, styles and techniques he works in; and “Cinderella Man” plays like his Master’s Thesis on Depression-era underdog tales.

In the leads, Howard has assembled a top-tier cast that are all so profoundly well-suited to their roles that the very phrase “on the nose” seems far too loose to apply: Renee Zellwegger inhabits period dress and spits out lines with poverty-class spunk with a naturalism lately found only in British starlets. Paul Giamatti, always the best of character-actor sidekicks (even in films where he stars,) who needs only the proper hat to instantly “belong” in any historical era. And of course Russell Crowe, who’s name immediately leaps to mind for the role of a hard-bitten Depression-era boxer who gains a punishing left hook from doing shipyard work one-handed for a damn good reason. If these folks weren’t already such well-known talents, one could easily be forgiven the assumption that the filmmakers had cast the roles strictly on who most perfectly looked the part and got great actors as a bonus.

As with much of the film’s technical mechanics, the actual arc of Braddock’s story will come as little surprise to anyone who’s seen an underdog boxing movie before; the fact that the tale has all the right beats of mythic familiarity is the reason a film was made out of it. This isn’t a film that wants to surprise or shock from scene to scene, it mainly wants to direct our attention to the manner in which largely “innevitable” sequences play out: Instead of trying to turn the various decisions Braddock makes and the direction in which they drive the film into a succession of twists and “think about it” gotchas, we’re invited to pause and consider the logic and personal morality that informs them.

(A lone, and I think necessary, exception to this occurs early in the 3rd act, in a scene where Braddock is shown fight footage of heavyweight champ Max Baer killing an opponent in the ring in order to discourage him from facing Baer for the title. As others avert their eyes, Braddock insists, stone-faced, on seeing the footage again and again. At first it appears the film is indulging in a moment of “Billy Jack”-style “this-guy-is-a-badass”-ery, but the eventual payoff is far more revealing and interesting. Trust me on that.)

The film does sport one curious thematic decision, bound to be it’s most controversial element and possibly it’s only serious semblance of a flaw, in it’s presentation of heavyweight champ Max Baer as a showboating sadist. It’s understandable that the film would require it’s only human “villain” (the real “heavy” is, of course, the Great Depression itself.. but as Braddock says in the film “you can’t fight stuff you can’t see”) to be a first-rate heel in order to properly offset the almost overwhelming goodness of it’s hero. (Jim Braddock is the sort of biopic hero who “must” really have been like this, because no screenwriter would ever invent a character of such Job-like moral resolve and expect to be taken seriously.) But some have questioned, not without cause, if the Howard etc. have gone too far in turning Baer, a colorful figure with his own movie-ready tales of sports heroism behind him before the events of this film, into a more-or-less one dimensional bad guy.

Let it be said of the character that the filmmakers at least demonstrate a working awareness of the historical Baer’s more nuanced qualities: The Jewish Star of David he had emblazzoned on his boxing trunks following a career-making takedown of a German champ touted by the emerging Nazi government as the embodiment of Aryan superiority remains intact (if not ever made an issue of) in the film, as does Baer’s noted preference for celebrity and public-spectacle over actual pugilism (he wanted to be an actor, and eventually starred in several well-regarded boxing movies.) And actor Craig Beirko does a fine job of imbuing the character with flickers of greater depth than afforded by the screenplay or his relatively limited screentime.

NOTE: A few years back, Baer’s match against the German champ was made into an HBO movie called “Joe & Max,” which is an overlooked sports film in it’s own right and makes a fine companion to “Cinderella Man.” It’s available on DVD.

What will remain the primary bone of contention over the character is the film’s imagining of Baer taking a certain sadistic pleasure in having “killed” two opponents, the “extreme” end of his well-documented class-clown antics. Baer’s real-life son, Max Baer Jr. (yes, Jethro from “Beverly Hillbillies”) contends that his father’s antics actually resulted from guilt at having taken a life in the ring. For me, it comes down to this: Giving more nuance to Baer as a character would probably have made “Cinderella Man” a better film, but choosing not to has not made it less of a good film.

Minor issues (issue, really) aside, this is a movie thats every bit as good as it so earnestly wants to be, and often times a lot better. Far and away the first solid awards-season contender of the Summer cycle, and very much worth your time. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 9/10