Is Eli Roth worth defending?

Cabin Fever (Photo: IFC Midnight)
Cabin Fever (Photo: IFC Midnight)

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It has become increasingly difficult, over the years, to defend Eli Roth. My interest in doing so originates with 2002’s Cabin Fever, the pieces of which have always been alluringly disjointed—equal parts teenage mishap parable, splatter-y body horror, dark Angelo Badalamenti-scored eroticism, and goofball bro humor. The Hostel movies reduced this mix to something nastier and less artful, nothing but high-fives and disembowelments. Roth seemed an exploitative chronicler of awful, horny men, a reputation that transferred, ultimately, to the director himself, thanks in part to a preening turn in front of the camera as “The Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds. That part was originally supposed to go to Adam Sandler, tapping into his deep well of inner rage; instead, we got a SoCal party guy doing his best Andy Samberg.

Thus last year’s remake of Cabin Fever, which I watched recently in the midst of a daylong bender of barely sentient streaming, functioned as something of a manual memory wipe for me. Produced by Eli Roth, it reuses his original script in slightly pared-down form. Our review concluded that, at the very least, the remake made the original seem better by comparison, which is true—director Travis Z butchers the pacing of, for example, the tender moment during which a longtime crush is unwittingly consummated with an open wound. He also recasts the party guy cop as a sexy woman cop, which is just the sort of bold misdirection that can sink a remake. But the film has the added negative of making my gentle arguments in Roth’s favor even more difficult. Is the “pancakes” thing even funny? What was 2002 Clay thinking? Did he just want to see Rider Strong die? (Answers: No; weed; and yes.) Hopefully Roth never gets around to remaking Knock Knock in 2029, sullying my argument that it’s the best trashy erotic thriller of this decade.

While I’ve seen chunks of various films in ESPN’s celebrated 30 For 30 documentary series since it debuted in 2009, I hadn’t sat down to watch one from start to finish until recently, after I found a deal for a multiple-disc edition commemorating 30 For 30’s fifth anniversary. While I’ve barely made a dent in the 20 Blu-rays, I’ve made some headway on them and some more recent episodes.

If you’re unfamiliar, 30 For 30 is a series of roughly hour-long documentaries, each about a different sports-related topic handled by a different director. Crucially, the stories are contextualized enough so that viewers who aren’t, say, familiar with the ’80s reign of the New York Islanders will still appreciate the insane story of how a Texas businessman nearly conned his way into owning the team. These are films made to be appreciated by people with varying interest levels in sports, so they’re perfect for a casual fan like me.

It’s also notable that, much of the time, directors have a personal connection to their chosen topic: In the case of that Islanders episode, it’s superfan Kevin Connolly (Entourage’s E, now making a go of it as a director); or it’s Barry Levinson and his hometown Baltimore Colts (“The Band That Wouldn’t Die”); or Steve James and Allen Iverson, who both hail from Hampton, Virginia (“No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson”); or Billy Corben and his alma mater, the University Of Miami (“The U”).

The series now boasts more than 90 episodes, a subseries about soccer, a collection of short films, a podcast, and the critically lauded, multi-hour miniseries O.J.: Made In America. Frankly, it’s overwhelming. Vulture’s ranking of all the episodes (as of 2013) provides a nice starting point, but I’ve bounced around among topics I find interesting, which has led me to a few standouts.

Marina Zenovich made her name with her Roman Polanski docs, and she brings her deft touch to a very tricky subject in “Fantastic Lies,” which looks into the fraudulent rape case against the Duke men’s lacrosse team. As well-off jocks at an elite school, they made easy villains, even when evidence didn’t back it up. The twists in the case—and what happened to some of the people afterward—make for riveting viewing.

Having grown up in Houston in the early ’80s with a Phi Slama Jama poster on my wall, I couldn’t download Chip Rives’ look at the powerhouse University Of Houston basketball team quickly enough. (I can’t remember if I watched it wearing my old school Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets jersey, but it’s possible.) The episode has a little bit of everything: a school that goes from nothing to a contender and changes basketball in the process, a heartbreaking loss, a mystery about the current whereabouts of one of the players, and the colorful personalities that mark many of the best 30 For 30 episodes.

With all of that content, some of the episodes miss the mark, but even the lesser entries tend to have engrossing stories (like disgraced Olympian Marion Jones in John Singleton’s misfire “Marion Jones: Press Pause”). I doubt I’ll ever watch all of these episodes, but the stories are consistently compelling enough to make me want to try.

I’m always on the lookout for new horror films, and one that I’ve had my eye on since it screened at Cannes earlier this year, The Transfiguration, was added to Netflix earlier this week. It’s definitely an under-the-radar pick—it didn’t even show up under “new releases” on my horror-heavy algorithm—but worth seeking out if you’re a fan of slow-burn indie horror. The film combines elements of Martin and Let The Right One In, charting a few weeks in the life of Milo (Eric Ruffin), a teenage outcast living in a dangerous housing project way, way out on the outskirts of New York City. The facts are these: Milo is obsessed with vampire movies, keeps secret notebooks full of vampire lore, and attacks people on the street and drinks their blood. The rest is open to interpretation, as Milo makes a tentative bond with Sophie (Chloe Levine), a similarly troubled girl who just moved into his building.

The premise behind The Transfiguration isn’t wholly original, a potential shortcoming that writer-director Michael O’Shea acknowledges with meta references to vampire movies old and new throughout the film. For fans of horror/character study hybrids like last year’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, though, its combination of gritty social realism and creepy atmosphere makes for an intriguing watch. It’s also scarier and more violent than I was expecting, with good old Larry Fessenden showing up in one particularly shocking scene. Whether you believe that Milo is a vampire or just an extremely disturbed kid, The Transfiguration is food for morbid thought, especially in its haunting final sequence.