Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Tears For Fears: The Santo Clause

Welcome back to my Tears for Fears marathon, where I will be covering every movie featuring the Mexican folk legend La Llorona in anticipation of her newest movie in April...

A caveat: This film is only available in Spanish with Spanish captions, so some slight nuance may have been lost. But it'll be much better than certain previous entries because I read the language much better than I can listen.

Year: 1974
Director: Miguel M. Delgado
Cast: Santo, José Mantequilla Nápoles, Kikis Herrera Calles
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

If you're not familiar with Santo, sit your ass down for a minute. A towering icon of Mexican culture, Santo was a luchador wrestler famous for never taking off his iconic silver mask. After achieving humongous success in the world of wrestling, he starred in over sixty movies using his wrestling prowess to defeat various evils, including zombies, vampires, "the Hotel of Death," and... La Llorona.   You can't just be a Mexican folk hero and not cross paths with La Llorona. 

It just isn't done.

Which brings us to Santo y Mantequilla Nápoles en la Venganza de la Llorona (known in English as Vengeance of the Crying Woman, because people still haven't learned that translating "Llorona" is a lost cause). In the film, Santo (Santo) is a hero pure of heart. He is hired to dig up the tomb of Doña Eugenia Esparza (Kikis Herrera Calles), a spurned woman who murdered her own children and hid her lover's fortune away before taking her own life. Supposedly the tomb also contains a map to the treasure, but the people employing him assure him that they will use the money to support children's hospitals.

Not everyone is so scrupulous however, and Santo - along with his boxer friend Mantequilla (José Nápoles) - finds himself being crossed by the Mexican mafia, who want the money to themselves. Cue a whole bunch of wrestling, and the disturbance of the tomb releasing the ghost of Eugenia (now la Llorona) to go on a killing spree in town. Can Santo save the day? And, more importantly, will he do it without wearing an increasingly ludicrous array of 70's dad sweaters?

Yes he can, and no he won't.

The dream of the 50's B-movie is alive and well with Santo, with all the pros and cons that might imply. And there are certainly cons, like the cave sequence where we get to watch multiple groups of people wander around in the dark for about five full minutes before anything actually happens. Or the fact that every twenty minutes or so the action screeches to a halt so either Santo or Mantequilla can sit in a family room and watch the other fight in a match on TV. And these matches, man... They're shot in a grey void, which no amount of piped-in crowd noise can convince me isn't just a soundstage in Mexico City.

But right there is where the crummy starts to blend with the sublime. Santo exists in that rarified B-movie air where every mistake or idiosyncrasy starts to add to its kooky power. Minus that hella boring cave sequence. The overdubbed dialogue of a six-year-old girl that is clearly a voice put on by either an adult woman or an elderly man? Charming. The ancient witch whose face is so beat with makeup she wouldn't be out of place in a season of RuPaul? Flat out genius. And don't even get me started on Santo's outfits, every single one of which is bestowed with his signature mask, whether he's in the ring or just at a business meeting.

I'm adding a Business Santo action figure to my Christmas list.

And while I wouldn't say the good stuff in Santo reaches a particularly astounding height (there's a definite quality ceiling for the budget level we're working with here), there is some marvelous material to play with. The score is an excellent bit of frothy adventure fun, the keening high notes mimicking the Llorona's cries over an irresistible 70's groove rhythm. And there's at least one moment of near-dadaist perfection: when one of the good guys is being slapped over and over again by a mafioso, the score erupts into a frenzied drum solo that's both hilarious and somehow perfectly in line with the intent of the scene. It's a heightened fantasy world where wrestlers save the world, good triumphs over evil, and gods and monsters wander the mortal plane, and the score knows exactly how to go about creating this world.

But now it's time to get down to brass tacks: I'm here for one reason only and it's La Llorona, but she is certainly not the reason the movie is here. We're much more focused on Santo wrestling mafiosos with the leaden repetition and obvious buildup of musical numbers in a not-so beloved Broadway play. While these fights can be fun (especially when Santo uses the people holding him back as launchpads to leap into the air and kick somebody else right in the head), they distract from the monster who's supposedly at the center of everything.

It's probably for the best that La Llorona doesn't get too much screen time because the mask they use to give her a wizened corpse face is so stiff and unmoving, it's almost like it was cast in concrete. Except for the one scene where her tongue keeps poking through the mouth slit, which is somehow even worse. But she is the coolest element of the film, her resounding cry of "Ay, mis hijos!" cutting through to the bone every time it screeches across the soundtrack, and any shot that focused her tattered dirty dress and mottled feet as they shuffle along is truly chilling.

This is a lucha libre movie first, a mafia movie second, a witch movie third (yeah, the Llorona is teamed up with an immortal witch who is a very random addition, though admittedly she gets the coolest, most threatening lines in the movie), and a Llorona movie dead last. So for the purposes of this particular marathon it's a bit of a dud, even if I did have a blast in the process.

TL;DR: Santo y Mantequilla Nápoles en la Venganza de la Llorona is a satisfying curio, but not really for any reason involving the Llorona herself.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1058
Reviews In This Series
Santo y Mantequilla Nápoles en la Venganza de la Llorona (Delgado, 1974)

Monday, January 28, 2019

Beer Run

Year: 2006
Director: Joe Nussbaum
Cast: John White, Eugene Levy, Maria Ricossa
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now I know I just started my most ambitious marathon of the year with Tears for Fears, but you didn't think I'd just up and forget about my American Pie spinoff marathon did you? No, we've still got three of those left unfortunately. This time we're hitting up The Naked Mile, from the director of Sydney White, a college frat movie that I actually liked quite a bit as a kid. Let's see if that goodwill carries over, shall we?

I'll give you one guess.

I suppose it's good that canonically the Stifler family is a bunch of f**k monsters, because the way these movies introduce relatives we've never heard of before is alarming and unsustainable. Erik Stifler (John White) is the cousin of Matt and Steve Stifler (the former of which appeared in Band Camp, the latter of which refused to appear in any of these), and has failed to live up to the family name because he's still a virgin. His girlfriend Tracy (Jessy Schram) wants to satisfy his desire to lose his virginity, but isn't quite ready to do it herself yet, so she gives him a free pass for the weekend, a choice she instantly regrets. 

Because nobody communicates in movies, Erik has no idea about this and heads off with visions of sugarplums in his head to visit his cousin Dwight Stifler (Steve Talley) - what branch of the Stifler family tree he has plummeted from is entirely unclear - at his fraternity. Along with his horny friends Cooze (Jake Siegel) and Ryan (Ross Thomas), he gets into all kinds of fraternity hijinks, facing lots of opportunities for sex and not being entirely sure he can handle them.

The parade of nameless women wait in the wings, their divine purpose to aid a man on his sexual journey sated for the time being.

For about ten minutes, The Naked Mile looks like it might just be an actual good movie, landing somewhere between the heights of the first two original films and the mediocrity of an American Wedding. There is a deep commitment to an extravagant gross-out gag that might not be to your taste, but shows a valuable fearlessness on the part of the screenwriters, and the conversations between Erik and Tracy set up a movie with an almost To Do List-esque progressive view on the double standards about men's and women's virginities, with the added bonus of a boy conflicted about being put into a box he doesn't really identify with simply because of the way his family is. And it does come back to it at least a little bit in the final five minutes. But oh, all that chaff in between the wheat...

The instant this film sets foot on a college campus, every ounce of narrative momentum, thoughtful character-building, or whiffs of progressive sensitivity are tossed out the window and left shattered on the side of the road, much like Erik Stifler's phone when his friend casually tosses it out the window so he won't see a message from his girlfriend revoking his free pass. There's so much wrong with this scene that I can't even begin to unpack it (let's hope phones were less expensive then, for one thing), but then again there's so much wrong with the movie proper too.

I reeeally don't want to get into the reprehensible representation of the rival frat as a house of little people, save to say that it's odious and that we need to make a little people remake of Citizen Kane or something to make up for what Hollywood has done to them since the beginning of the medium, or at least The Wizard of Oz on.

Not that I'd trust these guys with... well, any type of film honestly.

Not only is the college material nasty and dim-witted, it's obscenely boring. There is a football sequence that feels like it was shot by Béla Tarr, resolutely refusing to end under any circumstances. And the party scenes are much the same, forcing you through a never-ending gauntlet of mediocre actors adopting rictus grins of good cheer while performing irritating frat antics. It not only doesn't live up the promise of the opening ten minutes, it actively spits on that sequence and poops in its shoe.

And now for the requisite discussion of Eugene Levy. This is where his cameos really start to go downhill. The thin excuse for him being at the camp at least was a tenuously believable excuse, but The Naked Mile is where things actively start to break down his character as established by three movies that actually mattered. For one thing, he seems to know way too many teenagers who are at least six years younger than his own kid, but for another he is positioned as some kind of frat legend, which sacrifices a lot of character continuity just for the joke of a prudish parent being in charge of The Naked Mile. Spoiler alert, I guess, but who could possibly care.

TL;DR: American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile is even more disappointing because it almost seems like it's going to be a good movie until an abrupt heel turn.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 888
Reviews In This Series
American Pie (Weitz, 1999)
American Pie 2 (Rogers, 2001)
American Wedding (Dylan, 2003)
American Pie Presents: Band Camp (Rash, 2005)
American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (Nussbaum, 2006)
American Pie Presents: Beta House (Waller, 2007)
American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (Putch, 2009)
American Reunion (Hurwitz & Schlossberg, 2012)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tears For Fears: Llorona Begins

It's January, which means it's time for me to bite off much more than I can chew in terms of movie-watching for the coming year. To that end, here comes a brand spanking new marathon! I've always been interested in the Mexican legend of La Llorona, a ghost of a weeping woman who drowns children she finds out after dark, and I've always been hoping that a truly great Llorona movie will hit theaters. The upcoming The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini as a white lady who sticks her nose where it doesn't belong, doesn't look like it's going to be that movie.

So I've decided that it's time to seek out the perfect Llorona movie myself by watching every movie ever made about the legend, in a project titled "Tears for Fears". Well, every movie I don't have to dig up a landfill in Oaxaca to watch. That's about twenty or so films to cram through before the new one's release in April, so let's get cracking!

Year: 1933
Director: Ramón Peón
Cast: Ramón Pereda, Virginia Zurí, Carlos Orellana 
Run Time: 1 hour 13 minutes

The very first entry in our marathon takes us almost back to the beginning of cinema itself. It's certainly the beginning of horror cinema in Mexico, if apocryphal reports are correct. 1933's La Llorona, known to its small English audience as The Crying Woman, is at the very least an extremely bleeding-edge early entry in Mexico's horror history, at just around the same time that the genre was first becoming widely popularized in cinema thanks to the work Universal was doing North of the border.

Full disclosure: I had to watch this film in unsubtitled Spanish, which I'm not entirely fluent in despite what my AP testing certificate says. Thus there may be some nuance lost by me not understanding 85% of the dialogue, but honestly probably not as much as you'd think.

Drama is the international language.

So, here's the plot of La Llorona, with some generous help from a translated summary I referred to. A family with a young son is hosting his fourth birthday party in their Mexican palace. When the mother and father discuss how both of their older siblings were killed on their fourth birthday, the grandfather pulls the father into the library to tell him the tale of La Llorona. In this particular case, she was a Mexican woman impregnated by a Spanish conquistador who is sent into a fit of rage when he marries a Spanish woman of better standing, leading her to stab her son and then herself. Her ghost then departs her body, presumably to go kill herself some more kids. We're also treated to a second backstory about a totally different woman for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.

At any rate, the curse of the grieving mother is revisited upon the family when a mysterious hooded figure arrives at the palace to murder people left and right in a feverish attempt to kidnap the child, leading up to an eventual Scooby Doo reveal of the killer and the way they drew inspiration from the reality of the Llorona legend.

But really, who needs a motive to wear such a cool spooky outfit?

La Llorona is attempting a lot for a 73-minute motion picture, and for that I'm beyond pleased with it. It doesn't get all of these things right (more on that later), but the things it nails are completely on the money. 

For one thing, this film is rife with political subtext that feels urgent and universally relevant, to the point that it's entirely in line with the current analytical zeitgeist. Although the folklore aspect of of the Llorona legend is a bit muddled in this incarnation, the narrative has crystal clear and powerful subtext about the inherent racism and violence of the Spanish imperialists and how the indigenous people of Mexico deserve to exert their supernatural revenge (the Llorona is connected to the present day assassin with a ring bearing Aztec carvings, and the secret underground room where the child's slaying is to take place bears many of the same traditional symbols). 

The passion of this message is delivered with great vigor thanks to the film's willingness to go about  bring as dark and brutal as a film of this vintage could possibly get. There aren't buckets of blood being tossed about here (the budget certainly wouldn't allow it even if the culture did), but there are brutal slayings aplenty and an unrelenting sense of the pain and misery that the women and indigenous people in the film must suffer.

Being this glamorous is a blessing AND a burden.

Unfortunately, while the film has its heart in precisely the right place, it doesn't seem to be in the hands of an incredibly capable set of filmmakers. There are plenty of shots that cut off characters heads right at the hairline, and the sense of pacing is as slack as a workplace texting app that takes up memory on your phone because you're sure somebody will want to contact you on it one of these days. 

Director Ramón Peón seems to love the procedure of celebrations more than the grandeur, and he stages his wedding and birthday celebrations with an eye for depicting exactly what each assorted sundry extra is doing while watching other people have fun. His camera pans past faces watching ceremonies for infinite flowing rivers of time, bludgeoning you into a bored stupor and daring you to beg for something to happen. The non-celebratory scenes are better, but they're given much the same sense of lackadaisical unawareness of what might actually be interesting to look at.

And another thing. I'll let you decide for yourself whether this is the best thing in the movie or the worst (I'm leaning toward the former myself), but La Llorona features one of the stupidest looking staged swordfights I've ever seen. One man fights off five or six armed robbers, every one of them flailing their wooden prop swords back and forth like third graders playing gladiators. It is the absolute height of unintentional comedy, and it's breathtaking to behold.

So, there's some stuff to love about La Llorona and there's almost as much to depise from the very pit of your soul. I'll come out somewhere in the middle, saying I appreciate it very much for its contributions to cinema history and for its daring subtext, but at any rate it's not a particularly good entry as far as our friend the Llorona is involved. It gets a lot of details of her story wrong for the sake of modernization, and while the ululating wail that crops up from time to time on the soundtrack is effectively creepy, she's not really the villain here and that's definitely not what I'm looking for. 

Not that I didn't enjoy this little stopover into early sound cinema! But let's give ourselves a couple decades and see what we can come up with next time, shall we?

TL;DR: La Llorona is a game attempt at combining folklore with mystery and horror with Mexican culture, but it's not in the hands of a terribly talented filmmaker.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1205

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Levy Was Dry

Year: 2005
Director: Steve Rash
Cast: Eugene Levy, Tad Hilgenbrink, Arielle Kebbel
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After running my marathon of the American Pie quadrilogy, a franchise I have no small amount of slightly abashed love for, it was inevitable that I'd have to run through the franchise's other quadrilogy: the series of direct-to-video spinoffs under the banner American Pie Presents. Why did it take me two years to decide to do this?

Well, see for yourself...

For one thing, the first spinoff is American Pie Presents: Band Camp, released just two short years after American Wedding, and it covers the exact same setting/regurgitated joke that we already saw in American Pie 2. When Stifler's little brother Matt (Tad Hilgenbrinck) pulls a prank on the high school band during the graduation ceremony, his punishment is to attend band camp for... reasons. Look, we needed a premise, OK?

Anyway, at band camp he vows to make the most of his time by secretly taping the geeks mid-coitus (ah the beforetimes, when sex crimes were oh so funny according to Hollywood screenwriters). But a wrench is thrown in his plan by senior student Elyse (Arielle Kebbel), on whom he has a massive crush. He is split by a decision: should he be a nice guy and help out the band he is slowly bonding with in their competition against the requisite rich snob team of campers? Or should he live up to his Stifler instincts and continue to be an insufferable asshole?

And also Mr. Levenstein is there, because Eugene Levy could use the paycheck and we need a better connection to the franchise than a cameo by the Shermanator and the song "Laid" by James, which is ALL over these spinoffs.

There is a lot of odious material in Band Camp, probably the worst - other than the rampant misogyny present in pretty much every sex comedy - being a grotesque racial slur that is dropped in out of absolutely nowhere. But the first thing to get to me was the scene where Matt purchases his snooping cameras online, shelling out at least $3,000 in one fell swoop. That's a truly obnoxious amount of money for any high school student to have, and it reeks of suburban white privilege that immediately puts you on the bad side of a character who barely even has a good side.

The reason Stifler was a standout character is because Seann William Scott is an actually good actor, and Tad Hilgenbrinck's watered-down impression of him only serves to highlight how we're not going to spend a single moment with this character that could possibly be enjoyable. At least he nails the Stifler laugh, so it feels like they could actually be related in some way, but his practical joking tends toward the straight-up evil, and his need to outdo the antics of his brother makes spending time with him absolutely exhausting.

It's hard to fall for a protagonist wearing that hat.

And the comedy that actually has the capacity to be funny without being hideously offensive is just as outdated. Steve Irwin jokes were old even in 2005, but in 2019 there is absolutely no place for them. At least the fourteen year gap is one thing that isn't the movie's fault, though it probably should never have defaulted to such lazy zeitgeist humor anyway. It's not a Scary Movie spinoff or anything. And we should at least thank whatever deity you put your faith in for that.

One thing that's unequivocally positive about the movie (finally!) is that it has a bangin' soundtrack. I think the bands that agreed to be featured assumed incorrectly that it was an actual American Pie movie, but for whatever dubious reason we got it, we have Jimmy Eat World, Matt Nathanson, Snow Patrol, Good Charlotte, and Breaking Benjamin all over this movie. And whatever your mileage is with those various artists, they are bands that you've heard of and it creates a beautiful time warp back to the sonic landscape of the mid-2000's.

And I guess here's the part where we should talk about Eugene Levy, who is the only person you've heard of in any of these movies, and who will be our constant companion through the next three entries (that's right, they made four of these). He was pretty well cemented into his character's schtick at this point, so nobody could expect him to add anything to it, but it's at least consistent with the work he put in throughout the rest of the series. The script is not, so he blunders with the expected half-prudish, half-supportive awkwardness through situations that don't really make sense with people he has no real reason to interact with, but at least he's doing something. Right?


Look, I just need a reason to justify why I'm doing this, because the movies themselves don't seem to be giving me that quite yet. Band Camp is a wholly unremarkable, sometimes toxic movie that at least has a basic narrative thrust and structure. It's recognizable as a movie, even if it's not a good one, and that's something I'm going to hold onto as we dive even deeper into the pit.

TL;DR: American Pie Presents: Band Camp is offensive and stupid, which I guess is exactly on brand.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 894
Reviews In This Series
American Pie (Weitz, 1999)
American Pie 2 (Rogers, 2001)
American Wedding (Dylan, 2003)
American Pie Presents: Band Camp (Rash, 2005)
American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (Nussbaum, 2006)
American Pie Presents: Beta House (Waller, 2007)
American Pie Presents: The Book of Love (Putch, 2009)
American Reunion (Hurwitz & Schlossberg, 2012)