Horror Film Review: Nadja (dir by Michael Michael Almereyda)


When we first meet Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), the title character of this odd, 1994 film, she is walking around New York, wearing a cape and picking up men in bars.  She speaks with a thick, Eastern European accent and when she’s asked what she does, she explains that she comes from an old and very wealthy Romanian family.  As we quickly guess, Nadja has lived for centuries.  She’s a vampire, a daughter of Count Dracula.  Everything she says and everything she does is drenched in the ennui of someone who wishes to be set free but who knows she is destined to live forever in the prison of her existence.  Even when she has visions of her father getting a stake through the heart, it doesn’t provide her with the relief for which she was hoping.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that it was a member of the Helsing family that drove the stake through Dracula’s heart.  However, having killed the vampire, Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) finds himself in trouble with the police.  Apparently, the cops don’t believe Van Helsing when he insists that he was just killing a vampire.  As far as they can tell, Van Helsing just killed a man with a sharp piece of wood.  Fortunately, Van Helsing’s nephew, Jim (Martin Donavon), also lives in New York and can bail his uncle out of jail.

While Jim is dealing with his uncle, Nadja is meeting a woman in a bar, a woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze).  Both Lucy and Nadja feel empty and unfulfilled.  Lucy, who happens to be married to Jim, is soon inviting Nadja back to her home and becoming obsessed with her.  However, Nadja is more concerned with her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris).  Edgar lives in Brooklyn with his lover and nurse, Cassandra (Suzy Amis).  When Nadja visits Edgar, she decides to take Cassandra away from him.  Of course, Cassandra just happens to be Van Helsing’s daughter and Jim’s cousin!

Nadja is an odd film.  On the one hand, it’s pretentious in the way that only a mid-90s, New York art film can be.  Director Michael Almereyda shot the majority of film at night and a good deal of it with a PXL-2000, which was basically a toy video camera that was specifically marketed to children.  As a result, the black-and-white images are usually dark and grainy.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of struggle to tell just what exactly is happening on-screen.  And yet, at the same time, it kinda works.  Those hazy images, combined with the largely deadpan performances of the cast, give the film an undeniably dream-like feel.  When we see Nadja walking through the city, we feel her ennui and otherworldly presence.  At its best, the film achieves a hypnotic visual beauty.  If ever there was an American city that benefits from being filmed in grainy black-and-white, it’s New York City.

The film plays out like a satire of the typical decadent vampire film.  (Nadja even has a Renfield of very own.)  Nadja is so obviously a vampire that it’s impossible not to be amused by the fact that hardly anyone else seems to pick up on it.  However, the film’s most subversive element is Peter Fonda’s performance as Van Helsing.  With his long hair and a demented gleam in his eye, Fonda totally upends all our assumptions about who someone named Van Helsing should be.

In many ways, Nadja plays out like an elaborate inside joke but it’s just strange enough to always be watchable.  David Lynch, whose influence is obvious, has a cameo as a morgue attendant and he feels right at home.  This deadpan vampire film many not be for everyone but then again, few worthwhile films are.

Film Review: Fahrenheit 451 (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


(Before reading this review, make sure that you’ve read my review of Ray Bradbury’s novel!)

(And then make you sure that you’ve read my review of the 1966 Truffaut film!)

The latest HBO original film, Fahrenheit 451, is bad.

For all the talent involved, for all the hype, and for all the hope that many of us had for it, it is extremely bad.  It sets up its targets and then fires at them with all the aim and success of a myopic archer.  By almost any standard, it’s a misfire of almost Vinyl proportions.

The film, of course, is based on Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia where the population is kept in line through pharmaceuticals and mind-numbing television and where firemen burn books.  Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, the fireman who develops doubts.  Michael Shannon plays Beatty, Montag’s boss. Sofia Boutella is Clarisse, who inspires Montag to question why.  And no one plays Montag’s wife because that character was apparently cut from the film.

From the minute this version starts, it’s obvious that this film was inspired less by Bradbury and more by Black Mirror, Blade Runner, and the Purge franchise.  The entire world is defined by neon and dark shadows.  Gone is Bradbury’s suggestion that a world without books would be a bland one.  Instead, a world without books is now one that looks like every single recent sci-fi film.  People may have stopped reading but apparently, they’re still watching old Ridley Scott movies.

Gone too is the idea of Montag as a middle-aged man struggling with an existential crisis.  Now, he’s Michael B. Jordan, who comes across as if he’s never had a moment of doubt in his entire life.  He’s less Montag and more Creed in an authoritarian future.  Also gone is the weary relationship with Captain Beatty.  Now, Beatty is almost a father figure to Montag.  Of course, Montag’s real father died mysteriously years ago.  Nothing indicates a lazy screenwriter quicker than a character with daddy issues.

As I mentioned earlier, in this version, Montag is not married.  Instead, he lives a bachelor lifestyle in a glitzy apartment and he spends most of his time asking questions to the future’s version of Alexa, Yuxie.  (“Yuxie, was Benjamin Franklin the first fireman?”)  Of course, in the novel, Montag’s wife stood in for every citizen who never questioned why books were being burned.  It was Montag’s dissatisfaction with his bland home life that led to him getting to know Clarisse and eventually questioning his job as a fireman.  Now, Montag starts to doubt after a random rebel says that Benjamin Franklin didn’t support burning books.  But why, if Montag has spent a lifetime refusing to question anything, would some rando rebel suddenly make him reconsider?

The Book People are still around but now they’re kind of a pain.  I love books but I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them.  They’re a humorless group of people who live in a farm and apparently being a book person means you can’t wash your hair or something because seriously, everyone looked a bit grimy.  I mean, it’s important to rebel again authoritarianism but that doesn’t meant you can’t look good while doing it.  Each Book Person has memorized a book and you have to wonder how they decide who gets to memorize which book.  We’re told that one Book Person has memorized Chairman Mao but if you’re battling censorship, would you really want to hang out with a person who has devoted her life to the guy behind the Cultural Revolution?  Another Book Person claims to have memorized all of Proust but I think he’s a damn liar.  I mean, how is anyone going to check that?  I’m guessing he probably only memorized the first 20 pages or so of Swann’s Way.  What I want to know is who got to memorize the Twilight books?

This version of Fahrenheit 451 is a bit of a mess.  I’m not one to demand that literary adaptations stick exactly to their source material.  (For instance, the film version of The Godfather was greatly improved by ignoring 60% of what happened in Mario Puzo’s novel.  For that matter, we can all be thankful that It didn’t end with the Losers Club solidifying their bond by having group sex with Beverly.)  But, in this case, the changes don’t improve on the original.  Instead, they just turn Fahrenheit 451 into yet another shadowy dystopian film.

When it comes to Fahrenheit 451, my advice is just to read the book.

Film Review: Inherent Vice (dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)


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One of the best things about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, is that Doc Sportello, the private detective played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a real stoner.  He’s not one of those weekend smokers, who gets high on Saturday, brags about it on Sunday, and then spends the rest of the week interning at Vox.  For the entire 2 hour and 20 minute running time of Inherent Vice, Doc is stoned.  From the minute we first meet him to the end of the film, there is never one moment where Doc is not stoned.  Most stoner comedies feature a scene where the main character shocks everyone by turning down a hit because he’s dealing with something so important that he has to “keep his mind straight.”

Not so with Doc!

And, in Doc’s case, it definitely helps him out.  Inherent Vice tells a story that is so full of paranoia, conspiracy, and random connections that only a true stoner could follow it.  Much like Doc, the film often seems to be moving in a haze but occasionally, out of nowhere, it will come up with a scene or a line of dialogue or a detail that is so sharp and precise that it will force you to reconsider everything that you had previously assumed.

To be honest, if you are one of the people who watched Inherent Vice this weekend and could actually follow the film’s plot, then you’ve got a leg up on me.  (That said, I’ve still got pretty good legs so it all evens out.)  But, that’s not necessarily a complaint.  As befits a film based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon and directed by one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers around, the twists and turns of Inherent Vice are deliberately meant to be obscure and confusing.  Characters appear and then vanish.  Clues are discovered and then forgotten.  Connections are hinted at but then never confirmed.  Inherent Vice ultimately serves a tribute to stoner’s paranoia and, as a result, the plot’s incoherence leads to a certain contact high.

The film takes place in California in the 1970s.  Doc is both a hippie and a private detective. His current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) works for the district attorney’s office and doesn’t seem to like him much.  His ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), reenters his life and asks him to help protect her new boyfriend, real estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts).  Mickey has disappeared.  Shasta disappears.  As Doc investigates, he wanders through a psychedelic Los Angeles and deals with an ever growing collection of eccentrics.

For instance, there’s Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former heroin addict who now runs a group that aims to promote “responsible drug use” among children.  She believes that her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), is dead but actually Coy is a government informant who keeps popping up in the strangest places.

There’s Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a decadent dentist who may or may not be responsible for all of the heroin entering California.

There’s Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), Doc’s lawyer who specializes in maritime law.

There are Nazi bikers, new age doctors, a formerly blacklisted actor turned right-wing spokesman, a black revolutionary whose best friend was a member of the Aryan brotherhood, three FBI agents who keep picking their noses, the decadent rich, and, of course, the endlessly clean-cut and bullying officers of the LAPD.

And then there’s Detective “Big Foot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a celebrity cop and occasional television extra who seems to admire Doc, except for when he’s trying to frame Doc for everything from murder to drug smuggling.  Bjornsen is probably the most interesting character in the entire film and Brolin plays the character perfectly.  His scenes with Phoenix crackle with a comedic energy that bring the film to life.

As for the movie itself, it’s not for everyone.  A lot of very smart people are going to dislike it, much as many of them did with The Master.  In some ways, Inherent Vice truly is an endurance test.  Speaking as someone who enjoyed the film, even I occasionally found myself saying, “Okay, does everyone have to have a silly name?”  Inherent Vice is a long, rambling, and occasionally frustrating film but, for me, it still worked because of the strong cast and Anderson’s attention to detail.

Unbroken is a film that seems to take place in an entirely different world from Inherent Vice but these two films do have one big thing in common.  Both of them have been victims of the expectation game.  Many of the same people who thought Unbroken would be a surefire Oscar nominee also assumed, sight unseen, that Inherent Vice would be right there with it.  Much as how Unbroken has suffered for merely being good as opposed to great, Inherent Vice is also suffering for failing to live up to the expectations that were thrust upon it.  Inherent Vice is not an awards movie.  Instead, it’s a fascinatingly idiosyncratic film that was made by a director who has never shown much concern with playing up to the audience.  While Unbroken is enough of a crowd pleaser to still have a shot at some Oscar glory, Inherent Vice is the type of film that will probably never get nominated.  (I do have some hope that Brolin will get a supporting actor nomination but, even there, it appears likely that Brolin’s spot will be given to The Judge‘s Robert Duvall.)

Well, no matter!  Flaws and all, Inherent Vice will be a film that people will still be debating and watching years from now.

Horror Film Review: Nurse 3D (dir by Doug Aarniokoski)


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So, last night, my boyfriend and I watched Nurse 3D because, based on the trailer that was released way back in January, we thought that it would be a sexy, fun, and enjoyably lurid movie.  Do you remember that trailer?  In case you need a reminder, here it is:

So, we finally got around to watching the movie and oh my God, you guys — sometimes trailers lie!  I know, I know — it’s a shock.  I’m still struggling to deal with it myself!

Actually, technically, the trailer for Nurse 3D doesn’t really lie.  The trailer tells us that the film is about a nurse who is obsessed with another nurse and who spends the majority of the film wearing only a bra.  And that’s true!  But, somehow, the trailer also makes the film look like it’s a lot more fun than it actually is.  The trailer reveals that Nurse 3D is meant to be something of a satirical tribute to the exploitation films of the past.  What it doesn’t reveal is that the film largely does not work.

In Nurse 3D, Paz de la Huerta plays Abby Russell, a nurse who also happens to be a serial killer.  When we first meet her, she’s wandering through a club in a black lace, see-through dress.  In a narration that de la Huerta delivers in an emotionless drone, Abby explains that men are a disease that has been created in an “alcoholic petri dish” and that is now “infecting innocent vaginas.”

“There is only one cure for the married cock,” Abby tells us, “Only me.  I’m the nurse.”

Abby, we discover, specializes in murdering married men who are on the verge of committing adultery.  Sounds like a good idea for a movie, right?  Well, don’t get too attached to it because, once we get through the opening credits, that entire storyline pretty much disappears.

Instead, Abby becomes obsessed with a new nurse named Danni Rogers (Katrina Bowden).  One night, after Danni both has a fight with her boyfriend (Corbin Bleu) and gets yelled at by a jerk of a doctor (played by Judd Nelson), Abby invites Danni out to a club.  Abby gets Danni drunk and drugged and soon they’re making out on the dance floor.  The next morning, Danni wakes up in Abby’s bed.  When Danni refuses to spend the day with Abby and quickly leaves, Abby reacts by trying to destroy Danni’s life…

And that plot line goes on for a while until, eventually, the filmmakers remembered that this was supposed to be a 3D film and, with the exception of one man hurtling towards the camera after being tossed off a rooftop, nothing in the film has really lent itself to whole 3D thing.  So, suddenly, Abby goes from being coolly calculating to being batshit insane, essentially so that she’ll have an excuse to toss medical equipment straight at the camera.

(I’m going to guess that this all probably looked really impressive in 3D but since we were watching the film in 2D, who cares?)

And then, eventually, the movie ends.

I like what Nurse 3D was trying to do.  The film is obviously meant to pay homage to the classic exploitation films to the past.  That was obvious in everything from the overwritten narration to the hilariously fetishized nurses uniforms to the unapologetically sordid nature of the entire plot.

However, the film’s execution left a lot to be desired.  For all of it’s attempts to celebrate over-the-top exploitation, the film never quite seems to understand what makes those films so memorable in the first place.  Perhaps if Nurse 3D had stuck with being a film about a nurse who kills cheating husbands, the film would have worked.  But, instead, it just becomes yet another film about an obsessive friend who turns out to be a psycho and who, fortunately for her, is lucky enough to be surrounded by people too stupid to pick up on the most obvious of clues.

And it doesn’t help that, whatever the joke was that Nurse 3D was trying to tell, it’s obvious that Paz de la Huerta was not in on it.  In many ways, her character is meant to be a throwback to the great and deadly femme fatales of yesterday but  it takes more than having a good body to be a femme fatale.  You have to have style and that’s totally what her performance is missing.  Scarlett Johansson could have worked wonders with the role of Abby Russell but Paz de la Huerta just seems to be lost.

That’s actually a pretty good description of Nurse 3D.  It started out on the right track but, obviously, it lost its way.

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