(On TV, November 2015) Two or three things distinguish House of Wax from your usual run-of-the-mill teenagers-attacked-by-crazy-hillbillies thriller. Depending on your mood, they may be worth a look. The first is that one of the teenagers is played by none other than Paris Hilton, and her inevitably gruesome death sequence may be what you’re looking for. The second may be more important: Our psycho hillbillies here are big fans of wax sculptures, or more accurately spraying wax on living subjects until they live no more. The sequence in which they discover an eerily silent village, and then a house filled with waxy bodies, is a cut above the usual horror shlock. This was Jaume Collet-Serra’s first feature film as a director, and the visual sense he would demonstrate in latter film (as well as a penchant for crazy scripting) is already fully featured here. None of those positive points are enough to make House of Wax any better than an average horror film. The first act takes too long, the characters aren’t particularly likable; there’s an almost-complete lack of thematic depth to the proceedings and the end sequence doesn’t amount to much but a spectacular waxy melt-down. The visual atmosphere, I suppose, is enough to save the film from the memory oblivion that awaits most horror films. It could have been worse, of course.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) I started watching The Bling Ring with fairly low expectations, pulled in by director Sofia Coppola’s name and not much else. But as the film advanced, I felt pulled in opposite directions; fascinated by the true story told relatively faithfully by the film, and exasperated at the way it was being told. The premise itself is a mesmerizing mix of modern technology, celebrity obsession and dumb teenage antics as a few fashion-obsessed high schoolers get the insane notion that they can just walk into celebrities’ homes and take what they want from their overfilled closet. The amazing, never-would-have-believed-it-if-it-wasn’t-a-true-story part is… it works. They find out Paris Hilton is out partying in a foreign country, find her house using Google, poke around the doors and windows until they find an unlocked way in (or a key under the mattress), party in her rooms, pilfer a few high-end items… and repeat the heists a few times. They flash their new wares and piles of cash on Facebook, party on, wear designer clothes, brag a bit, get caught on video with fewer consequences than they’d expect. It feels like a collision between two or three things that wouldn’t have existed a decade before, and there’s a bit of quasi-parental affection in the way the films look at its teenage hoodlums, who are more greedy and careless than outright evil or stupid. There is a good kernel of interest here, and one that makes the film stick in mind even a few days later. Unfortunately, The Bling Ring doesn’t exactly manage to do justice to its own subject. The cinema-vérité approach get dull quickly, the over-bright bleached cinematography calls attention upon itself without having much of an effect, and worse of all the film feels very long even if it doesn’t exceed 90 minutes. There is, granted, an aesthetic at play here that escapes me, as nice as it is to actually see the interior of Paris Hilton’s house. While the film hints at interesting ideas and offers the potential for a deeper thematic critique (or, heck, just a deeper exploration of its characters), it feels unsubstantial, unfulfilled, even a bit too superficial in the way it approaches its subject. Despite being light on moralism (although that segment where the police raids the protagonists’ houses is heavy enough to make parents have fits of anxiety), The Bling Ring disappoints more than it enlightens, and seems to set itself up for bad reviews by misusing the material at its source. Perhaps a wider deviation from the real events may have helped the film feel more substantial.
(On DVD, July 2011) There’s an unsolvable contradiction at the heart of Pledge This! that condemns it to being a terrible film, and it’s more amusing to see the film try to ignore it than it is to witness the gross-out gags and weak jokes that pass themselves off as a comedy. The contradiction is that the film capitalizes on its star Paris Hilton, even as it tries to set up an underdog plot opposing “normal” girls to the plastic sorority ideal that Hilton incarnates. The first five minutes set the unpleasant tone, as Hilton’s character’s affect-less voice-over introduces herself as a heroine of mythical proportion, teaching girls how to be perfect pledges without a single hint at deprecating self-awareness. It takes a while, in fact, for the true heroines of the film to be introduced, and Pledge This! is such a prisoner of Hilton’s top billing that it wimps out whenever it tries to oppose its heroines to the kind of superficial ideal that Hilton represents. That would be enough to sink a film, but Pledge This! is also remarkable by how badly it’s made. Forget about direct-to-video; this straddles the line between professional and amateurish. Acting, staging, cinematography, sets, screenwriting: nearly every aspect of filmmaking is perceptibly worse than average in this film, and it’s not an intentional artistic choice or a consequence of the budget. In an effort to goose up the interest of the film, the “naughty edition” DVD includes more female nudity, but even that fails to be impressive when it’s shoehorned so obviously: on at least three occasions, the film stops dead for about ten seconds as the camera lingers on naked breasts, and the result feels more embarrassing than alluring. Compared to such rank incompetence, commenting on Hilton’s lack of acting skills, lack of intonations and forced “That’s hot” dialogue seems almost beside the point. But her very presence actually drags the film further down because she will not allow herself to be considered as the villain her “character” is supposed to be. She even torpedoes a number of one-liners that would have been funnier from just about any competent actor. There are, to be truthful, a few chuckles here and there: Kerri Kenney makes the most out of a small role, while Noureen DeWulf somehow earns smiles in a borderline-offensive role. Still, it’s hard to avoid that this isn’t a comedy as much as something for frat-boys to put on the big-screen TV while they drink themselves to a stupor. Wikipedia’s entry on the film details Pledge This!’s troubled production history (shot in 2004, delayed, re-shot with nude scenes in 2005-2006, delayed, publicly disowned by Hilton, and released direct-to-video in late 2006) but does not excuse the final result. It’s certainly an instructive demonstration of about half a dozen ways a film can self-destruct, but don’t take this as a recommendation. The DVD itself sports one of the cheapest-looking menus and making-of featurette I can recall, faithfully reflecting the impression left by the film.