Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Grapes of Death (1978)

It's October, and I'm steeped in my tradition of All Horror Movies All the Time. Starting this year's horror glut with a little Jean Rollin.

French zombies! Well, sort of. The creatures in this film are not, strictly speaking, zombies. They’re infected (much like the people in The Crazies, I guess), but many of them seem to still have their minds, though they become homicidal after a while. The disease is from a poisoned wine supply, so it doesn’t spread person to person, as in typical zombie films. These “zombies” don’t eat people (or brains, or whatever); they just kill. And they can apparently be killed just like a normal person (bullet to the head effective, but not required).

Zombie films also tend to have some sort of political or social message, but while this movie tries very briefly to dip into political matters, it feels very out of place.

The story is pretty simple. A vineyard starts using a new pesticide that infects the workers and poisons the wine (which infects everyone who drinks it). A woman, Elizabeth, is traveling by train to visit her fiancĂ©, who runs the vineyard, and one of the infected gets on the train and kills her friend, forcing Elizabeth to flee into the countryside. Everywhere she tries to take refuge is ZombieTown. 

The movie is very slow and atmospheric (very French, in other words), but that shouldn’t suggest that it’s dull. It’s really quite beautifully shot, and the rustic locations make it seem like a story from another time (well, I guess the 1970s are “another time” at this point, but I mean from centuries ago). I love seeing how different filmmakers play with the tropes, and there are some really effective frights in this. One of the most genuinely scary sequences involves Elizabeth encountering a young blind woman. She returns the girl to her village, but everyone seems to be dead or infected and Elizabeth is trying not to alarm her, but the girl doesn’t understand what’s going on and is panicking. There’s also an extended bit with a severed head that’s particularly gruesome. (Special effects in this film are really well done for being made on the cheap.)

The director, Jean Rollin, is known for his erotic horror movies (notably his lesbian vampire movies, such as Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Shiver of the Vampires, etc.), and all of his films dwell lovingly on the (usually nude or partially nude) female form. This movie is the least leering (though it does still have *some* leering) and probably the most truly scary of his films.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chef (2014)

It’s been very exciting to watch Jon Favreau go from the up-and-coming indie director behind Swingers to a director that studios were willing to take a chance on and who would put out (mostly) quality mainstream stuff, like Elf and Iron Man. But with Chef, Favreau goes back to his indie roots, and this movie is a gosh-darn delight.

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a famous professional chef, who’s in a creative rut. This is largely because his boss, the owner of the restaurant where he works, only wants him to cook “safe” menus full of food that everyone knows and likes. But then again, Carl also chooses to stay there, so it’s at least partially his own fault. A well-known food blogger, played by Oliver Babish Platt, visits the restaurant and writes a scathing review, lamenting that this once visionary chef has lowered himself to cooking forgettable, uninspiring dishes that are not worth the exorbitant price the restaurant charges. Only he says it with a lot more meanness. And makes fun of Carl’s weight. Carl is outraged, and after his ten-year-old son teaches him how to use Twitter, gets into a flame war with the guy and basically becomes a meme. His ex-wife, who he is still close with, has been urging him to get a food truck, but he feels that’s beneath him. Until his internet infamy, that is. After getting a truck and fixing it up, he spends the summer driving across the country in it with his son and a guy who used to work for him, testing out the menu and trying new things in each new city — South Beach, New Orleans, Austin (I nearly screamed when Franklin BBQ got a huge cameo).

This is a lovely little movie about friendship, family, and creativity. I kept bracing myself for the obligatory end-of-act-2 Horrible Thing to happen, but it’s just ... nice. And positive. Which I guess makes some critics think it’s hollow, but I disagree. I love how it celebrates social media and what a huge impact that lets Carl’s son have on the business. I also just love the kid who plays his son, because he’s believable without being one of those creepy too-old-for-their-years child actors. The movie has tons of food porn, and you will probably immediately be looking for a place that sells Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches). It also has a lovely soundtrack, which is going on heavy rotation on my iPod for the summer.

It’s been out for a while, but if it’s still playing wherever you are, I highly recommend it.