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Part 2 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

A very obscure Chinese film—the English credits list only the director (T. F. Mous) and the producer (Fu Chi): no other actors or technical credits are given. The title is also questionable, as the subtitles indicate the literal translation from Chinese would be Manchu 731 Squadron. Whatever the title, this is an incredibly grim film, one which purports to tell the true story of the 731 Squadron, a group of Japanese scientists experimenting with biological warfare in occupied China at the very end of World War II.

Just as the Nazi scientists used concentration-camp victims for their hideous experimental efforts to see how much punishment a human body could take and still survive, the scientists of 731 Squadron are shown using the imprisoned natives of Manchu province as their guinea pigs. This is the core of the plot—the vivid demonstrations of these various experiments in human endurance. The handsomely produced film is presented very much like a documentary. Watching this movie is very much like being taken on a guided tour of a factory designed to create hell on earth.

In one unbearable scene, a young boy (the only character the filmmakers have allowed us to develop any sympathy for) in injected with a biological plague. While still alive—to see how fast the plague travels through his body—the young boy is next taken to the operating room. There, a group of jovial doctors literally cut him into pieces and put his organs into assorted glass jars. The camera never once moves away from the sight of the scalpels shredding the flash as the strangers’ hands dip inside and cold-bloodedly remove the boy’s living organs.

How much of the story is historically accurate, I honestly don’t know, but the idea that any studio (for this is a major production, not a low-budget exploitation flick) would want to remind us of these unspeakable horrors is something almost beyond imagining.

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At a conceptual level, Tusk sounds like it might fit snugly into the expansive subgenre of schlocky horror flicks that occasionally hit it big and garner a dedicated cult following, not unlike the relatively recent Sharknado, or the now infamous Troll 2. In practice, however, director Kevin Smith’s vision doesn’t quite make the memetic leap that might have otherwise catapulted it to “ironic pop-icon” status.

Smith, continuing to ride off the success his ultra low-budget comedy Clerks (1994), originally came up with the concept for Tusk during an episode of his personal podcast, and thought it might be a fun idea to see if he could stretch that spore of an idea into a feature length film. Also responsible for the writing and editing of the film, Tusk is nothing if not an auteur production. It’s strange, but under normal circumstances I might applaud auteurism like this, as it tends to ensure creativity and a rejection of the generic, committee-designed sludge that we see a lot of nowadays. In the case of Tusk though, I find my mind making unconscious connections to George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, which, as we well know, is never a good situation to be in. As was the case with Lucas, it’s sometimes dangerous when individuals with such a massive degree of creative control are never told “no.”

The film stars Jake Long essentially playing himself, which I suppose he’s pretty good at, and Michael Parks, who’s been around for a good long while now, but whom most might recall from mainly cameo roles in assorted Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith movies. As in Smith’s 2011 pseudo-thriller Red State, Parks, for what it’s worth, really does know how to invoke his creepy, deranged side when he needs to. Tusk also features a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp, hamming it up as usual, as the eccentric, off-kilter ex cop Guy Lapointe; and yeah, it’s kind of an act that we’ve seen from Depp before, but that’s what he does now, I guess, and in retrospect I don’t know what I was thinking going into it and expecting anything else.

The fundamental problem with Tusk is that it’s trying desperately hard to be in on the joke; that is, the longer we spend in the the film’s universe, the more things begin to feel unreal and preposterous, but in a calculate, deliberate way. It’s almost as if the film is elbow-nudging the viewer every few minutes going “ha ha, oh man, isn’t this quirky? Aren’t you having fun?” If you refer back to those comparisons I drew earlier, you’ll notice that those films play their concept demonstrably straight and with a brazen lack of ironic eye rolling.

Tusk markets itself as a horror-comedy, but in a more practical sense, all notions of horror are kicked in the head by the end of the first act. Instead, the film focuses on the exploits of the protagonist’s two friends as they try to track him down after he seemingly disappears around Manitoba, Canada. Ostensibly, the film tries to establish some kind of race-against-time scenario, but upon finally tracking down their friend, there’s absolutely nothing for them to do when they get there, thus demolishing any sense of agency that the film had established.

Realistically, the rough horror framework of Tusk is just an excuse for Smith to hang the trappings of his trademark referential humor, which might have been a bit funny if Family Guy or any of its derivatives had never existed. That being said, I’m inclined to be a little generous to Tusk because of its admittedly original concept which continued to kick around in my mind after i left the theater, as opposed to being immediately forgotten. It’s not much of a tag line, but I can decidedly say this much: Tusk—It’s better than Atlas Shrugged!

Rating: 3 out of 5

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As a self-proclaimed critic, I have seen many films is my life. Some have been good, most have been terrible, but let me be clear—Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? might well be one of the worst movies that I’ve seen in my life. Say what you will about Ayn Rand’s works, but at least things happened in them. Doomsday machines, bloodthirsty pirates, shootouts, pain, love, and desperation all appear in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and it many ways it’s a uniquely American epic that can still be read and enjoyed today. The same, however, cannot be said for the film series, which has failed so spectacularly in the past few years that I can’t help but feel a little sad when I think of what could have been.

Directed by the incredibly obscure J. James Manera (whose body of work consists of a 2010 documentary an a single episode of Nash Bridges) the film, despite it’s massively influential literary and philosophical heritage, is really the brain-child of a single, delusional CEO named John Aglialoro, who spent almost two decades trying to persuade various studios to finance his dream project. Ultimately, Aglialoro, with the help of producer Harmon Kaslow, launched a Kickstarter to help fund the production. Though it seems like the film was stuck in development hell for nigh on twenty years, at least this much is clear: not a single individual involved in the production of this picture had the ghost of a clue what they were doing.

Let’s begin with the screenplay, which was penned by John Aglialoro himself, whom I know for a certainty has never written anything before in his life, Kaslow, who’s a lawyer by trade, and Manera, who, I can only assume underwent a lobotomy prior to joining the production. The writing in this film is so abortively bad, so mind-numbingly awful, that my face turned crimson within the first two minutes of the film from second-hand embarrassment alone. After seeing the film, I was left wondering how lacking in self-awareness one would have to be in order to look at the word-vomit that was the script, and think “yeah, this is a good idea.” Naturally, the writing also belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the core aspects of Rand’s philosophy, known as Objectivism, and instead focuses on the minuscule portion of it which seems to be popular with right-wing media pundits like Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, all of whom have cameo appearances in the film. On a bit of a personal note, I always think it’s a bit ironic how some aspects of Rand’s philosophy are so popular with the “God and Guns” crowd, when Rand herself was a vehement atheist who abhorred the use of preemptive violence.

So, yes, the writing is shit, but that’s just one aspect of this many-faceted train wreck. I speak no hyperbole when I say that the film is tortuously boring to sit through, mainly because it tends to skimp out on the whole “visual” aspect of this visual medium. There’s a hell of a lot of telling without showing—which never bodes well, of course—but in this instance, almost every single scene in the film consisted of cringeworthy dialogue between two or more people while either standing in a room, sitting in a room, or driving in a car. It was ridiculous! This is supposed to be Film 101! Don’t just shovel exposition into our screaming, upturned faces, weave it into that narrative and show us how the characters interact and react with the world around them. Now, here’s the real punchline: the film is pathetically drawn out to achieve an artificially lengthened runtime, but the director chooses to do this via some truly awkward and out of place montages that end as abruptly and as awkwardly as they begin while very loudly and busily moving the plot absolutely nowhere. One in particular—which I found more laughable than the others, personally—consisted of perhaps one of the most awkward sex scenes ever put to film, with the possible exception of Tommy Wisseau obliviously pounding away in The Room.

And it gets worse. About two-thirds into the film, I noticed a significant decrease in production value—such as it was to begin with—which makes me think that the already paltry budget turned out to be surprisingly smaller that previously thought. It’s hard to put into words, but if you imagine one of the earliest Dr. Who episodes, when sets and monsters where just about made out of cardboard and glue, you might have a rough approximation of what the film began to look like. Strangely, the sudden qualitative drop off in this already bargain basement production made things begin to feel a bit surreal, almost as if they were playing the entire final act for laughs. Now, while I wouldn’t put it past someone like Charlie Kaufman (or equivalent) to pull something like that, such a supposition would be giving far to much credit to Aglialoro and Co.

As I mentioned before, if you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, you might consider giving it a shot, bloated and ham-fisted as some parts may be. But do your self a favor and stay far, far away from any of the cinematic adaptations.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5

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Part 1 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

The last film from controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salo is a well-mounted adaptation of the infamous work by the Marquis de Sade. Updated to World War II when the Fascists have overtaken Italy, this movie is almost unwatchable because it makes a heartfelt attempt to be as disgusting cinematically as de Sade (the man who gave sadism its very name) was in print.

The plot line has a group of adolescents being used as human fodder to satisfy the perverted desires of a band of Fascists who have occupied a castle in war-torn Italy. The Fascists are also using the spoken memoirs of several prostitutes to ignite their already sick imaginations—as then they endeavor to carry out the most perverse scenarios the human mind can devise.

What Pasolini supposedly was attempting to de here was concoct a parallel between the depravity of de Sade with the depravity of the Fascist state which was Italy in World War II. However, Pasolini seems to relish staging the obscene tableaus in all their loathsomeness far more than condemning them. Beyond the numerous rapes (both heterosexual and homosexual) and sexual perversions, we are shown extremely realistic scenes of young people being forced to dine on a meal of cooked shit, people urinating or shitting on one another, or choking on broken glass hidden in apparently edible food.

Whatever the moral intentions may have been, Pasolini wallows so deeply in the filth that it’s impossible to do anything but have an automatic gag reflex to the entire motion picture.

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Besides being nuttier than a fruit cake, Frank Miller has established a reputation for penning some of the most brutal yet silly comics around. He hit it big in 1986 with his four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, and has more-or-less been riding off its success since then. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a pretty unremarkable and loosely adapted take on Miller’s comic of the same name, published in 1993. As one might expect, the Sin City franchise has struggled to maintain relevancy in this post-Avengers world.

Rodriguez’s wildly over-the-top action sequences and Tarrantino-esque, blood-squirty fight scenes are here in abundance, but frankly, that’s kind of the problem. The film literally can’t go five minutes without someone being beaten, shot, or otherwise maimed, and it really strikes me as a production that is afraid to take a deep breath and pace itself, lest it lose the attention of the audience. When there isn’t any fighting going on, you can bet the Rodriguez is busy flashing Eva Green’s boobs up on screen, which of course isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I’m left wondering what the point of it all is. I’m tempted to posit that Rodriguez and Miller don’t think very highly of their audience; ‘distraction’ really seems to be the operative word here, as the semi-monochrome palate, breakneck pacing, and even Miss Green’s ample assets are strategically used to shift the audience’s attention away from the sub-par story.

As far as the acting is concerned, performances are serviceable but bland. Mickey Rourke seems like he’s having fun as tough-guy Marv, though, and Powers Booth returns as the wonderfully fun-to-hate Senator Roark. I particularly enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s depiction of Johnny, a charming drifter looking to try his luck in Sin City’s speakeasies. In some ways, he reminded me of his character Brendan Frye in the 2005 film Brick, which is still one of my personal favorites.

The thing about the Sin City franchise is that it is, and has always been, a thing for children, and I mean that in the same way that the 300 franchise is for children as well. At its core, its a mindless, juvenile celebration of fantasy ultra-violence that seeks to corner the “eighteen to twenty-five year old male” demographic with the promise of blood and tits. That being said, in the end it succeeds pretty well at what it sets out to do. No, the plot isn’t great, and while I can’t say the prospect of watching people get punched in the face for an hour and a half really thrills me, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For holds the interest well enough.

I’d like to bring up Sin City’s trademark visual style again briefly, because while it’s certainly a gimmick, at least it’s unique. Personally, I’m of the opinion that a film needs at least one special idea of its own—a unique selling point, if you will—even if it’s just a monochrome palate. The important thing is that when I see that black and white fight scene with vibrant spurts of crimson blood flying across the screen, I know that I’m watching a Sin City movie, which is more than I can say for a lot of films.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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A lot of people were surprised back in 2012 when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller decided to bring the goofy premise of the 1987 television series 21 Jump Street to the big screen. Somehow, the duo managed to make the relatively obscure series a household name, due in large part to the hitherto unknown and charming chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. A clever script and some fairly consistent humor buoyed the film’s popularity and set the stage for this year’s sequel that absolutely no one was asking for. Nevertheless, 22 Jump Street, thankfully seems to have more ambition than simply riding along on the success of the original.

Fresh from the Earth-shaking and unprecedented success of The Lego Movie, directing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take on this project with admirable enthusiasm, really endeavoring to make a sequel that deserves to exist alongside its predecessor. Tatum and Hill, of course, return as officers Jenko and Schmidt, giving the film its vitality. I know this is a bit of a bold claim, but after giving it some thought I’m just not sure that the Jump Street franchise could really work with anyone else. The way in which Tatum and Hill play off one another is utterly unique, and, try as I might, I just can’t come up with another action/comedy duo why might be able to bring something comparable to the table.

The main boast that 22 Jump Street has over other similar comedy sequels is its self-awareness. “Meta” really is the name of the game, with the running gag being the the “department” spending twice as much money on the investigation and expecting to get twice the results. Indeed, in a cameo appearance by Nick Offerman, Deputy Chief Hardy orders Jenko and Schmidt “just do exactly what you did last time. Everyone’s happy.”

While the self-awareness thing is refreshing up to a point, it’s easy to overdo it to the point where it starts to become eye-rollingly obnoxious. 22 Jump Street starts to straddle that line after a while, but, as i mentioned earlier, the fun and excitement of watching Tatum and Hill play off one another mostly works to keep things interesting. All things considered, the film isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, and the fourth-wall-breaking antics of the two leads are really the only things that elevate the film above your average, cash-in, committee-designed sequel. That’s not to say that it isn’t a funny a movie, or even a good comedy, because it is; but the fact of the matter is that while it certainly doesn’t stoop to the level of being written-off as a blatantly unnecessary sequel, it just isn’t as fun or creative as 21 Jump Street.

If you choose to catch a showing of 22 Jump Street, your degree of enjoyment will likely depend on your tolerance for the goofy yet heartwarming mishaps of Hollywood’s favorite man-children. At the end of the day, I’d say it’s probably worth the price of admission and it’s hands-down one of the best comedies to be released this year.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Sometimes it’s fruitful to take a step back from the flash and sparkle of modern, CG-laden movies in order to see an old concept from a fresh perspective. “Fresh,” in this context, refers to a French short film from 1962 entitled La Jetée. In stark contrast to the whiz-bang excitement of this summer’s recent time travel film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, this week’s Short Film Sunday candidate takes a more thoughtful, quietly intensive path.

Shot in black and white and mainly consisting of a compilation of still images, La Jetée is a micro-budget production that nonetheless captures the imagination with it’s melancholy imagery and genuinely unnerving presentation. The story follows an unnamed man who has been chosen to undergo experimental time travel tests wherein his consciousness is sent back through time in order to forestall the imminent apocalypse via nuclear holocaust.

Clocking in at a modest twenty-eight minutes, the film shifts from the grim, bombed-out ruins of Paris to the relative peace of the nonspecific pre-war era, in which our protagonist engages in a romantic relationship with a woman he remembers from his childhood, much to the displeasure of his captors. Still, director Chris Marker manages to craft a compelling love story between the woman and the time traveler in such a short time, much more so than many other feature-length movies. And the relationship between the two is still only a single facet of this thematically dense and beautifully realized work. The shocking bleakness of the ending, for instance, may help to explain why this film has survived so long in the collective psyche of critics and the movie-watching public alike.

While originally in French, La Jetée is available online with both English subtitles and a English language dub, both of excellent quality.

The English dub can be found here: http://alaskapirate.com/lajetee/

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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