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Category Archives: moviereview

The Wrestler (2008)


So the second time around with The Wrestler, I was struck even more by just how creaky and cliched the script was. But this time I appreciated it more.

I didn’t really care that every twist and turn is predictable and shameless. I know it, and Darren Aronofsky and Micky Rourke know it. And this time around, I think I kind of get why they don’t really care. It’s really not about dodging the campiness of a professional wrestler sports hero movie, or about embracing it. It’s about digging into the artifice for the nuggets of honest humanity, the kind that make a story like this compelling in the first place.

Grade: B+

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)


There’s a brilliant 90-minute film here: a Tolstoyesque tale of a group of men searching for the body of a murder victim, shot through with meditations on epistomology and haunting digital-video shots of rural Turkey at night.

Unfortunately, that film is packed into a butt-numbing 157 minutes that manages to feel both austere and self-indulgent. No moment passes that is not lingered on. No revelation is too minor to revist. Rainy windows are gazed out of. Cars creep through panoramic landscapes. Pumpkins are picked.

And in the end, like the men in the film, you just want to stifle what you’ve learned and go home.

Grade: C+

Underwater Nazi Zombie Movie Showdown!


The last few weeks have been a bit eventful, to be sure. Since my return from Australia, I’ve gotten engaged, finished writing and editing my PhD thesis, and started developing iPhone applications. But my real accomplishment is this: I’ve managed to catch up to what are, to my knowledge, the only two Underwater Nazi Zombie movies ever made.

From the USA, weighing in at a lean 85 minutes, is 1977s Shock Waves. Directed by Ken “Meatballs Part II” Wiederhorn, this is the story of a shipwrecked yachting party, beached on a isolated island after colliding with a mysterious freighter. (So mysterious, in fact, that I don’t think its appearance is ever actually explained.) On the island they find an aging SS commander hiding out in an old hotel with a squad of Underwater Nazi Zombies. PG-13 chaos and carnage ensue.

And over here, from France, weighing in at 71 minutes, or 83 minutes, or 88 minutes, or 90 minutes–depending on your country’s censorship board’s tolerance for nude French women and seeing mannequins get lit on fire–is Zombie Lake. Made by prolific schlockmeister Jean Rollin in 1981 for literally tens of francs, this makes Shock Waves‘ low-budget aesthetic look lush. Zombie Lake quickly jettisons mood, tension, excitement, production values, acting and cinematography to focus on what really matter: lots and lots of naked ladies. But don’t worry! There are Underwater Nazi Zombies, too. As the badly-dubbed mayor of a bucolic French village says: “we better face the facts that the Zombies have declared war.”

It’s a battle for the ages! A clash of titans! Who will win and who will lose!? Let’s break it down.

Titles and Alternate Titles

Like any good grindhouse shows, these flicks have both been released under alternate titles as distributors change and hopes rise of tricking the unsuspecting into multiple trips to the drive-in or video store. Shock Waves has also been released under the titles Death Corps (which will also be the name of my grindcore band) and Almost Human (wait, what? that sound like a comedy about a wacky teenaged robot). Zombie Lake has, besides the unimaginative Zombies Lake and Zombie‘s Lake, been released as pretty sweet The Lake of the Living Dead, as well, of course, as the original French title Le Lac des Morts Vivants, which sounds more Rohmer than Romero (ha!).

  • winner: Zombie Lake.
  • Guest Stars

    Shock Waves has appearances by not only John Carradine (who I’m starting to think was just cast in every low-budget horror movie from 1965 to 1982), but also Peter Cushing, the same year he also played Grand Moff Tarkin in a little movie called Star Wars. Zombie Lake has Europe’s answer to John Carradine, Howard Vernon, as the mayor, and a cameo by the director as “Stiltz”.

  • winner: Shock Waves. Though it would have been cooler if Cushing and Carradine were actually in a scene together.
  • The Zombies: Origin

    The zombies of Shock Waves are the remnants of the Toten Corps, a Nazi experiment to turn ordinary every-day thugs and murderers into unkillable zombie soldiers, and then apparently let them go to waste by making them pilot submarines. Stupids Nazis. No wonder they lost the war.

    The Zombie Lake lake zombies, on the other hand, are retreating German soldiers who were ambushed by the resistance. To avoid reprisals from other retreating troops (?), the resistance dumps the bodies in a lake that was used for satanic masses (!). Now you know the recipe for zombie.

    Oh, there’s also a subplot where one of the village girls was impregnated years ago by one of the now underwater and zombified nazis when he was merely a German soldier, and now papa zombie wants nothing more than to be reunited with his daughter (who is disturbingly undisturbed by the whole thing), but the less said of that the better.

  • winner: Shock Waves by default. While I admire the balls it takes to pretty much say “a wizard did it,” it’s also a pathetic cop-out.
  • The Zombies: Presentation

    The Shock Waves zombies are genuinely cool. Nice make-up, cool rotting-SS-uniform costumes, and seeing them slowly rise out of the black ocean is genuinely creepy, even if it loses some impact around the tenth time it happens.

    The Zombie Lake zombies are just dudes in green Halloween facepaint. Sometimes they remember to make the neck and hands green, too. Sometimes they don’t. But they do remember to feather and blow dry their hair.

  • winner: Shock Waves
  • The Victims

    In Shock Waves, the zombies kill the mostly-annoying crew and passengers of a Florida yacht. Yaaawwwn.

    Zombie Lake, on the other hand, is mostly memorable for the scene where the girl’s volleyball team pulls up next to a nazi-zombie-infested lake, half-heartedly bat around a volleyball in soft focus, and then start skinny-dipping only to promptly be eaten by underwater nazi zombies. Which never would have happened if an earlier buxom female skinny dipper hadn’t removed the “no swimming” sign before also becoming zombie chow. (Anyone who thinks Europeans are more sophisticated than Americans clearly has not seen enough Euro-trash horror flicks.) It’s actually kind of awesome, and immediately moved this from the worst underwater nazi zombie movie to the best. For about a minute.

    Another zombie victim is a girl who is soaking au naturel in a barrel in her back yard. Either Jean Rollin really likes hot skinny-dipping French chicks, or really hates them — they do, after all, all get killed horribly. And by “killed horribly” I mean “have fake-looking fakey fake blood smeared on their necks.”

  • winner: Zombie Lake, naturellment
  • The Dezombification

    Not be all spoilery or anything, but the finale of Zombie Lake involves using a little girl and a bucket of blood for bait, a villager’s old flamethrower (what?) and the following choice bit of dubbed dialogue:

    The Mayor: “We created these monstrous zombies. No weapon could kill them. Can’t be stopped. The Lake is their refuge and nothing ever can make them return to dust. Nothing but Apocalypse could reduce them to ashes, and give them eternal peace.”

    Reporter: “The sacred fiery hell of Apocalypse? The fire I’m thinking of has nothing sacred. You see, it’s not at all mystical, but just as effective as Apocalypse. It might just save you.”

    Oh, and paternal love plays a role. And flaming zombie-dummies being thrown out of windows.

    In Shock Waves, the tide begins to turn when the humans discover the zombies are vulnerable to having their sunglasses removed (double what??). But will it be enough to save them?

  • winner: Zombie Lake. Just googling for that exchange of dialogue made me chuckle.
  • Now, let’s tally up the scores, and… oh, hell, it’s a tie! Didn’t see that coming…

    Truth is, neither of these is very good. Shock Waves is definitely the better made film and has a couple of effective sequences, but that just brings it up to mediocre. Zombie Lake, on the other hand, has that wonderful combination of incompetence, contempt for the audience and general insanity that makes for a good badfilm. Not a great badfilm — it’s no Robot Monster or Manos: the Hands of Fate — but I’d probably watch it again before Shock Waves just for a few good laughs.

    Animal Kingdom (2010)


    I really wanted to like the Aussie crime flick Animal Kingdom, and I almost succeeded. In the end, though, I found the movie more admirable than actually likeable. Centred around a family of bank robbers and sociopaths in a Melbourne suburb, it paints a thoroughly bleak and unromantic picture of the criminal life, full of stupid decisions and murderous corrupt cops. It’s well-acted and filled with gut-wrenchingly suspenseful scenes, but it’s also deliberately alienating, which makes watching it into a bit of an exercise in endurance. Major plot points come out of nowhere and go nowhere, key scenes take place offscreen, and there’s no respite from the constant threat of violence. Our entry into the world is the family’s long-lost teenager J, who is reunited with the crew when his mother dies. Unfortunately, he is a maddeningly uncharismatic surrogate, watching scenes unfold in front of him with a slack-jawed expression. You just want to grab him and tell him, “dude, get it together!”

    Fortunately, J does start to get it together in the second half, and the story settles into a more satisfying plot. I still did — all the way to the end — find myself frustrated with the movie’s refusal to give me a payoff for the big plot points it set up. I’m sure it was deliberate, but that doesn’t mean I have to go along with it. However, I will say this: I saw the movie a few days ago and it’s really stuck with me since. I’m looking forward to watching it again at some point, with my expectations properly calibrated. I didn’t love it this time, but I reserve the right to love it in the future.

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


    I don’t really approve of criticizing movie adaptations for how they failed to live up to one’s personal connection to the source material. Having said that, Scott Pilgrim really failed to live up to my connection to the source material.

    I love the books, published as a series of six manga-sized graphic novels. The books kind of gave me a feeling like I felt like I knew these characters and was in on their jokes and would have wanted to hang out with them (in my younger days, or, hell, now). It’s not that these characters are paragons of awesome — it’s that they’re familiar. They have recognizable inner lives. Even when they’re clueless or narcissistic or petty, you know people like that, and look past it. (Incidentally, this is also how I felt about Pilgrim director Edgar Wright’s equally brilliant Spaced.) But at the end of the movie — SPOILER, but not really — when Scott & Ramona decide to stay together, I was just thinking “sooo… why are these two still together, again? Scott likes her hair, and Ramona likes… ???” It made sense in the books, but movie-Scott never really grew up. (He probably should have stayed with the teenaged Knives Chau.)

    I think a big part of the problem is the decision to keep all the fight scenes. In the books, they’re spread out over something like 1300 pages, and break up the story. In the film, they pile right on top of each other in the second half, with a few brief character moments in between. It’s exhausting where it should be exhilarating, and it leaves out the heart. I found myself wishing there had been, say, four evil exes. The would have pissed off the fans, but you know what? Screw the fans. Catering to comic book fanboy literalism did in The Watchmen and ignoring it made Ghost World all kinds of awesome. Cutting out the middle fights would have given the non-fighting bits of the movie some much-needed room to breathe. (Also, this doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but more and more I appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s decision to put all the action scenes in Kill Bill in the first half and all the character scenes in the second half.)

    I also really appreciated that in both the Scott Pilgrim books and Spaced (and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, too) the whole process felt really personal, and also totally DIY, like the people making it know exactly what they want to do, but are figuring how to do it as they go along. The movie doesn’t feel that way. It’s a little too slick for a story about a bunch of Canadian slacker indie kids. It’s awesome to see Edgar Wright exercise his incredible pop-culture imagination on a big Hollywood production, but I think he needs to find his own rules and limits without being tied down by adapting an existing work.


    young_neil