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Wayback Wednesday

May 13, 2009

I always think that pretty much everything I’ve written is still out there on the internet somewhere, but it ain’t necessarily so. Stuff disappears. Particularly in the case of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the online archives are spotty at best (although they syndicate a lot of my stuff and it ends up in the archives of other papers). So, as an act of both preservation and laziness, I figure I’ll reprint my lost stuff here every Wednesday on a more or less random basis. Here are three reviews I couldn’t turn up through Google.

High Tension

French cinema is not generally associated with primal, gut-churning terror (unless you count some of the ’80s Godard movies I sat through in film school), but that may change if director Alexandre Aja has anything to say about it. High Tension is an intense exercise in gory, meat-and-potatoes horror that could have been a classic if not for two very ill-advised decisions.

The first of these faux pas is evident very early in the movie, as schoolmates Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiween Le Besco) drive through the French countryside en route to an intensive weekend of studying at Alex’s isolated family farm. In the original version of the film, Haute Tension, both girls are French, but for the U.S. release, Alex has become an American. This has been accomplished by some awkward dubbing; while De France provides her own English dialogue, Alex’s voice seems to have been provided by Moon Unit Zappa.

This is distracting and unnecessary. For one thing, the box office success of The Passion of the Christ should prove once and for all that Americans can handle subtitles. More importantly, the story of High Tension is so simple and the dialogue so minimal, the decision to dub these scenes comes off as a slap in the face to us unsophisticated rubes. (Mercifully, the movie reverts to French with English subtitles after roughly 30 minutes.)

Despite this annoyance, the picture soon kicks into high gear as Marie and Alex arrive at their remote, woodsy destination. After meeting Alex’s family, Marie retreats to the guest bedroom where she entertains secret fantasies about her school chum. Her reverie is interrupted in the dead of night when a rusty old truck pulls up in front of the farmhouse. A grotesque, knife-wielding stranger emerges, makes his way into the house and begins dispatching family members in gruesome fashion.

It’s a no-frills set-up you’ve seen a hundred times, but rarely has it been executed as well. Where Hollywood horror movies too often play it safe, pull back or go for cheap laughs, Aja goes straight for the gut. As he tightens the screws (an innovative sound design helps ratchet up the intensity), the movie begins to invite comparisons to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

That’s when it all falls apart, as an overused and utterly gratuitous plot twist brings the whole contraption crashing down. It’s too bad there are huge flaws at each end of High Tension; for about an hour in the middle, it definitely lives up to its title.

Wolf Creek

This Australian thriller opens with a title card informing us that it is “inspired by actual events.” A more truthful statement might be “inspired by actual movies,” as Wolf Creek often plays like Deliverance in the Outback or a down under version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What it lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in execution.

The set-up is straight out of Slasher 101. Three adventure-seekers in their twenties set out for Wolf Creek National Park for a weekend of camping, including a hiking tour of an enormous meteor crater. Ben (Nathan Phillips) buys a clunker of a car that hardly looks suitable for a trip into the boonies, and picks up friends Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi).

After viewing the crater, the trio returns to the car which, naturally, fails to start. Resigned to spending the night in the wild, they are surprised by the timely arrival of Mick (John Jarrett), a larger than life bushman who makes Crocodile Dundee look like a shrimp on the barbie. Unable to fix their ride, Mick tows it to his remote, ramshackle base camp, where he treats the threesome to the kind of backwoods hospitality popularized by Leatherface and his family.

Writer/director Greg McLean ratchets up the intensity – not to mention the gore – to stomach-churning levels in the film’s nail-biting third act. All semblance of realism is chucked out the window as Mick becomes more of an unstoppable bogeyman than anyone “inspired by actual events.” It may be too gruesome for the faint of heart, but Wolf Creek is a creepy nail-biter that should satisfy any horror fan.

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

(NOTE: If I recall correctly, this movie never opened as scheduled in the DFW area, and thus this review never ran. A world premiere!)

If The Big Lebowski couldn’t make bowling cool again, it’s probably a lost cause. Just don’t tell that to the former Microsoft executives who bought the Professional Bowlers Association for five million dollars and hired sports marketing guru Steve Miller as their CEO.

Watching televised bowling on a Saturday afternoon would seem to be a sure sign that life has passed you by, yet in the 60s and 70s, millions of people did just that. Enthusiasm for the sport waned as viewing options multiplied via cable and satellite; somehow, watching guys sporting ugly shirts and hideous mullets rolling a ball down the same lane over and over just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Enter Miller, hoping to bring a new excitement to bowling for the ESPN generation.

In Christopher Browne’s documentary, Miller is like a character out of a cut-rate David Mamet production. He gathers the troops and gives profane motivational speeches that inspire some and embarrass others. He lets us know that he doesn’t care about the bowlers, most of whom make pitiful earnings at best. He’s all about creating a marketable image and generating acceptable ratings.

It’s no surprise, then, that Miller loves Pete Weber, who embraces a professional wrestling persona complete with trash-talking and crotch-chopping. Weber makes for better television than his soft-spoken chief rival Walter Ray Williams, Jr., or sad sacks trying desperately to make the cut, like former champ Wayne Webb.

This is compelling up to a point, but in the end we’re left with a bowling showdown that reminds us why people stopped watching in the first place. Bowling can be a fun activity, but rarely is it a riveting spectator sport.

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