Sunday, December 30, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson | 2007 | 158 min | USA

When I took my seat last night at the advance screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, I didn’t know anything about it other than what the trailer gives away – which is next to nothing. I knew Daniel Day-Lewis starred in it, and I knew he was an oil man with a sinister and menacing demeanour. That’s it.

Pretty much, that’s all you need to know going into this two and a half hour epic, a deep and disturbing character study set against the backdrop of the western frontier as it transforms from a place of homesteaders and cowboys into a cold and industrialized expanse, waiting for the right man to come along and harness the wealth it has to offer.

Without giving anything away about the film, here are three reasons to see it, even if you aren’t a fan of Anderson’s films (and really, why wouldn’t you be?), because while there are parallels of theme and tone, it is actually quite a departure from his previous work.

First: Daniel Day-Lewis. He acts the living hell out of this role, transforming his voice, his posture, adding a calculating glint in his eye and creating a perfect image of a man whose sheer force of will and unrelenting drive will chill you to the bone. Day-Lewis is one of those great character actors who’s cursed with a pretty face. Maybe it makes him work twice as hard to prove himself. Either way, I thank him for this, perhaps the most show-stoppingly incredible performance of the year. Paul Dano (the sullen older brother from Little Miss Sunshine) as the creepy, cherub-faced preacher is no slouch either.

Second: The soundtrack. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has never done better work. His creepy, avant-garde orchestral score made the tiny hairs on my arms stand on end for 158 minutes. It’s haunting, beautiful, and fits the tone of the film perfectly. In a way, it reminded me of Damon Albarn's work on the score for 1999's highly enjoyable tale of cannibalism during the time of the Mexican-American war, Ravenous, except way better. Both those guys should quit their stupid bands and do this full time.

Third: The ending. Along with No Country for Old Men, this film is ushering in a new era – not since the 1970s has mainstream American film been able to deliver such satisfying finales. Thank god for these brave soldiers who are willing to step inches outside of the usual script writing formula to surprise, delight and confound the movie going public just a tiny bit.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Jon Turteltaub | 2007 | 124 min | USA

I knew when I rented the first National Treasure that it wasn’t going to really be a good film. I figured it’d be a decent, America-centric Indiana Jones knockoff, crossed with the less weird parts of that Tom Robbins book where he talks about the pyramid in the dollar bill a lot. Essentially, I like conspiracy theory adventure / mystery films. And I have to be honest, on that front, National Treasure delivered a satisfying rental experience. Considerably more satisfying than The DaVinci Code, if that gives you any sense of my personal rating system.

However, by no means did I consider it stellar enough to warrant a sequel, so when I saw a preview for National Treasure: Book of Secrets a few months ago, I was genuinely puzzled. I went to see it mostly because I wanted to find out how they could concoct yet another convoluted plot about secret signs that the Masons have embedded all around us without it seeming a bit hackneyed. The answer is, they didn't really.

In a way, I wasn’t disappointed. In another way, this movie was crap. The plot centres around the Gates’ boys (Nicholas Cage and John Voight) transcontinental crusade to clear their ancestor’s good name, after a handsomely aging Ed Harris comes forth with a document that implicates him in Lincoln’s assassination. There are a few pretty funny moments, at least one decent car chase and some solid fake history.

Unfortunately, large chunks of this film feel like they've been copied straight out of the first one, only none of the excitement of putting the puzzle together is really there, because “uncovering the secrets hidden in the elaborate web our founding fathers wove around us” is actually a bit of a one trick pony, as far as film premises go.

By far the strangest part of it all is that the film left itself wide open for a third installment by introducing a new mystery in the third act, then clumsily reminding us of it again in the film’s final scenes. I kind of hope they rush National Treasure: Curse of the Monkey’s Paw, or whatever, so that it comes out in time to compete with Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Excellent double bill of stupid ideas.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Brothers Strause | 2007 | 86 min | US

Don't listen to anybody who tells you to avoid this movie because it is quote unquote bad. Of course it is. From doctoral candidates to retards, everyone knows this is going to be a bad movie in every traditional sense of the word. No one is going to be let down to find that an Aliens vs. Predator movie is full of poor acting and cliched, predictable plot points. This isn't going to knock em dead on the festival circuit, but who wants to think all the time? This is a wildly fun, frenetic, and gory break from thinking.

Thankfully the 'Brothers Strause' (the visual effects nerds behind The Nutty Professor, Constantine, et al) have done away with the finer points explored in the prior Aliens vs. Predator in favour of a higher body count and a much higher melted-body-parts to non-melted-body-parts ratio. Your effort is appreciated, friends. The set-up is fast and nigh wordless; the action relentless. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem could stand as a silent movie, save for the importance of those alien skittering and predator rattling/ gurgling sounds. You might want to bring headphones and an ipod loaded with the Iron Maiden catalog.

AVP:R had more in the way of character development than I wanted (ie. more than none), but it did help to answer such burning questions as: can two old friends on opposite sides of the law work together? Can an estranged mother reconnect with her young daughter? Will the bad boy win the cute girl? Are babies afraid of aliens? AND MORE.

Destined to become a B action-horror classic.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Juno

Jason Reitman | 2007 | 92 min | USA

Juno has some fantastic moments, and a great cast, but writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have made the filmic equivalent of Joss Whedon, Kevin Williamson, and Cameron Crowe jerking off into the same cup and then inseminating a desperate to regain some sort of relevance, Amy Heckerling.

If this is the new Napoleon Dynamite, I'm going to cry.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Walk Hard

Jake Kasdan | 2007 | 96 min | US

Judd Apatow has become a powerhouse over this past year. His comedy brand, for lack of a better term, deftly combines gutter humour, identifiable underdog characters, and sweet sentimentality. His style could not find success on television, but he seems to have found a loving home in cinema. Walk Hard continues his roll.

The Walk Hard trailers create the impression that the film might be a one trick pony with barely enough material to fill those two minutes. In the hands of lesser talents that might very well have been the case, but Walk Hard is loaded with talent behind and in front of the camera. The result is a note perfect parody of the musical biopics that have flooded the last couple awards seasons. It includes all the prerequisite elements: childhood tragedy, shocking rise to fame, drugged debauchery, and clumsy namedrops. Filling the roles of historical music figures are hilarious cameos by Frankie Munix, Jack White, and Jack Black, Justin Long, Paul Rudd, and Jason Schwartzman as The Beatles. The leads John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer are hilarious to watch as star crossed lovers, and Apatow alum Jonah Hill has a scene stealing bit part, as well.

The laughs are steady, and the movie does not overstay its welcome with a breezy ninety minute runtime. What more do you want? Greedy.

Black Sheep

Jonathan King | 2006 | 87 min | New Zealand

Black Sheep takes the classic zombie outbreak set-up and transplants it to a pack of genetically modified sheep in sheep-heavy rural New Zealand. Though it was promoted as a comedy in the vein of Shawn of the Dead it is really anything but. Certainly the concept is comedic and the movie is not without some gags, but for the most part it is played as straight horror. In fact, it works far better when it is played straight than when it is played for laughs. It is much heavier on the gore than one would expect, too. The effects and make-up work are outstanding, especially considering how modest the budget was for the film. It is not the greatest movie, but I enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to. There are some genuinely tense moment, some good jolts, and some ridiculously over the top violence. Always appreciated. If there is gore to be seen let the people know, movie studios.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Death Race 2000

Paul Bartel | 1975 | 84 min | USA

I got a chance to see Death Race 2000 on the big screen this week, not knowing much about the film going in except that it is “awesome” and “totally mind blowing”. The basic plot of the film is that, in a totalitarian future United States, the most popular annual sporting event is a cross country race in which drivers get points not only for arriving faster than their opponents, but for pegging off as many people as they can along the way. Five top notch driving teams assemble, made up of a motley crew of ridiculous characters (Sly Stalone as Italian-stereotype Machine Gun Joe Viterbo is a favourite) and hot babes.

The film provides some pretty satisfying gore as the drivers run down an assortment of victims on the roads, as well as some excellent explosions as part of a sub plot involving an anti-race resistance movement. The good guys and bad guys seem pretty clearly identified at the outset, but as with most good action films, nothing is quite as it seems.

I expected to like the film. What I didn’t expect was that I’d fall in love.

Enter: Frankenstein.

Paying homage to the classic horror character, this indestructible driving champ is first wheeled on screen under a white sheet, where he rests in suspended animation, awaiting the big race. As he lumbers past the reporters, shot from behind in his all black outfit (consisting of a skin-tight leather jumpsuit, satin cape and mask to hide his hideously disfigured face) he is indeed a terrifying sight.

However, as his foxy navigator Annie soon discovers, the mask is just that – a clever ruse hiding the handsome face of a young David Carradine. On their first pit stop, when Frankenstein strips to nothing but a black pair of briefs and his mask, and asks Annie to dance with him in their ultra-modern red & white hotel room, I couldn’t help but lean over to my seat mate and whisper “he’s my ideal man”.

I’m pretty sure that she thought I was joking at the time, but as the film progresses, and the villainous Frankenstein starts to show his softer side, it became clear that I’d chosen wisely. Unsurprisingly, the soft hearted, flaxen haired Annie turns out to be a resistance sympathizer, assigned the dangerous task of capturing the hard-edged man she now finds herself falling in love with. And, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, Frankenstein turns out to be more complex than he appeared at first glance.

A clever commentary on an all too familiar dystopian future, a stylish action flick and goofy gore-fest, and oh, what a dreamboat.

Monday, December 10, 2007

American Genius: Charles Burnett (retrospective)

When Cinematheque Ontario recently presented four features (and a bunch of shorts) by Charles Burnett, I decided to watch them all. I felt woefully under-informed about this apparent ‘lost genius’ of American filmmaking, but what I knew of his cinema-vérité approach, naturalistic acting (often aided by the obvious mix of professional and non-professional actors, scripted scenes and improvised ones), and 'sombre but not hopeless' tone, really appealed to me.

Charles Burnett is singularly fixated on the theme of male impotence. His leading men are broken, defeated, paralyzed, ghettoized. Whether it’s real or imagined, their feeling of being unable to give to the world what the world asks of them is so ingrained, it leaps off the screen in every film. His depiction of a deeply disturbing and real African American disaffection is more effective than any I’ve seen on screen.

He's also incredible at endings. Not one of his films falls apart in the third act. The endings are all pretty much perfect. Basically, all these films are totally worth seeing, and I feel a bit ashamed that it took me till the age of 30 to see them for the first time.

Here’s a quick rundown of the four features:

Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett | 1977 | 83 min | USA
Arguably Burnett’s most famous accomplishment, follows slaughterhouse worker Stan as he goes through the motions of his life, unable to enjoy his time with his family, unable to make love to his desperately lonely wife, and unable to change the circumstances that keep him down.

My Brother’s Wedding
Director: Charles Burnett | 1983 | 115 min | USA
Young Pierce Mundy helps out in his mom’s dry cleaning shop while his yuppie brother plans to get married to a rich girl. When his troublemaking best friend gets killed and the funeral is scheduled for the same day as the wedding, Pierce has to decide between the two. He’s disaffected, resentful and totally incapable of making a real decision about which direction to take his life in.

Bless Their Little Hearts
Director: Billy Woodberry | 1984 | 80 min | USA
Written but not directed by Burnett, follows a similarly downtrodden man, Charlie, as he unsuccessfully tries to get a job and maintain peace in his home while having an affair across town. As Charlie’s wife (Kaycee Moore from Killer of Sheep) reaches the end of her rope, the two begin the film’s climax, a long, no-holds-barred improvised fight that lays it all out on the table in a gritty, real and powerful way.

To Sleep With Anger
Director: Charles Burnett | 1990 | 92 min | USA
This later film is a pretty great example of the Burnett style, made subtler and more refined by the passage of time. Danny Glover gives the performance of a lifetime (seriously) as Harry, a friend from the past who disrupts a middle class family’s comfortable existence. Harry is a charming trickster whose influence seems to corrupt anyone who comes into contact with him. His dark power is chilling and palpable from the first moment he comes onscreen. Strange, dark, full of subtle, nuanced characters – I think this one was my favourite of the bunch.

Wilderness

Michael J. Bassett | 2006 | 93 min | Scotland

Imagine Predator set on a deserted Scottish island, where Dutch and the gang are a bunch of juvenile delinquents left to rot, and where the Predator is a man who the young and tender hooligans would probably rather be the actual Predator. Oh... And it's directed by the director of Waking Ned Devine's Electronic Press Kit.

I really loved it, if that wasn't clear.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Exile

Max Ophuls | 1947 | 95 min | US

I can't believe I waited so long to track down a fun swashbuckler parable about escaping Nazi Germany! The Exile stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (who also wrote the script) as the dashing King Charles II of England. He is in hiding in 1660's Holland, trying to stay one step ahead of the Puritan "Roundheads" and awaiting the day when he might return to reclaim his crown. I think. Look, I don't know history, but I do know sword fights, and this film has some ace sword fights. Plus a whole lot of escape-skipping and what I like to think of as Post War Parkour.

Loaded with long takes, long shots, and painted backgrounds, The Exile is very reminiscent of the live threatre. It amazing how much conventions have changed in popular film. It is not just the visuals of the film that are strikingly odd, either. The delivery of every line by every bizarre faux-foreign accent creates a picture which is impossible to be totally absorbed by. For the better, I think, particularly when there are so many nods toward the heavy underpinnings of the story. Still, it is strange to think that the widely used aesthetics of only sixty years ago are now wildly alienating.

And yes, it is very clearly a parable about escaping Nazi Germany, despite what that woman whom I argued with outside the cinematheque thinks. No? Let's look at the evidence: It was Ophuls first American film after World War II; Ophuls was himself exiled from Germany to Holland; Holland was a stronghold for resistance forces where many fled to after being persecuted in Germany; The Roundheads of the film are portrayed as severe, black leather uniformed soldiers. What else? Should I include that it is an airy celebration of freedom and romance that is unparalleled in modern cinema? Cause it is.

Friday, November 30, 2007

La Chinoise

Jean-Luc Godard | 1967 | 96 minutes | France


Jean-Luc Godard’s visually lush film about a small group of Maoist students in France was incredibly prescient. Made in politically tense mid-60s France, just before the events of May 1968, the film in retrospect serves as a great commentary on that turbulent time.

One thing about Marxist-Leninists that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s is that they’re generally a bunch of self-righteous bores. Godard’s Marxist disposition, which was only starting to become explicitly public at this point in this career, thankfully didn’t stop him from creating a wonderfully critical film which elevates the ideas while poking fun at their fervent adherents.

A loose collection of Maoist monologues (didactic to the point of self-mockery) are tied together with the pop-art-y visuals and bold primary coloured sets that make great use of stacks of Mao’s little red books. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky are delightful as Guillaume and Veronique, both absolutely nailing the inexperienced idealism of the generation’s young, and of course, bourgeois, university students.

As the film progresses, the students’ discussions grow closer to the inevitable conclusion that violence will shake things up and start the revolution they yearn for. Unfortunately, their plans for revolutionary action are as ill conceived and naïve as one might expect, and at the film’s conclusion we see that the only changes that have been affected are in the students’ own disillusion. Clearly, Godard was commenting on the politics of the time more than expressing his personal political views, and more than being a film about Marxism, La Chinoise is an affectionate and incisive study of the naïveté of youth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Beowulf (3D)

Robert Zemeckis | 2007 | 113 min | USA

Robert Zemeckis hasn't made a good film since the Back to the Future trilogy, but in some strange way, this latest atrocity makes me want to tip my hat to him. It's so ill advised and mind-bogglingly ballsy that I'm impressed it actually got made.

At face value, this film is an insult to both cinema and literature. The very idea of adapting the epic poem to film, then CGI-ing the hell out of it and marketing it as "not your grandpa's Beowulf" is pretty ridiculous. But creating a 3D version of the adventure? Verging on genius. Seeing it on the IMAX screen kind of made me wish all films were released on 3D. How much more would I have enjoyed No Country for Old Men if Javier Bardem's creepy, watery eyes had been hovering inches from my face instead of being contained on the flat screen?

Seriously though, using live actors and then computer-animating them only works well for the action sequences, while leaving the quieter scenes unwatchably wooden. Least recognizable behind her computerized mask is Robin Wright Penn as the Queen, who is decades younger than the actress and has a totally different face. Even Crispin Glover is easier to spot under his many layers of gross goop, as the fantastically whiny Grendel.

The next worst thing about this film, after the bizarre video game aesthetic, are the accents. Only Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone (who maintains his native Hackney accent pretty much throughout, thank god) escape the harsh and ludicrous lilt that is apparently intended to represent 'the mythical past'.

The film's writers also inexplicably waver between a modern English translation and the original text, often giving Grendel gibberish-sounding Old English lines. Maybe Neil Gaiman thought it would make him seem more alien and monstrous, but it comes off as a silly gimmick in spite of Crispin Glover's quite decent delivery.

The tale of Beowulf is amazing. This film is not, and anyone who sees the non-3D version of it is a fool. If you're going to waste $15, at least get the roller coaster thrill of having Grendel's blood spill off the screen at your feet.

Oh, I nearly forgot. John Malkovich is in this, and he really acts the fuck out of his role.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Meatball Machine

Yudai Yamaguchi + Jun'ichi Yamamoto | 2005 | 90 min | Japan

A love story about two people who stumble into a war between bio-mechanical parasites that have invaded Earth. Meatball Machine is low budget, action-packed, and gore-tastic.

This movie is very similar in execution to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It is a viscous, violent mess of homemade costumes, old-timey physical effects, spraying blood, and origami paper thin plotting. Yes, it steals wholesale from Tetsuo, but how many movies can you say that about? Maybe two? So it's acceptable.

And just what is the "meatball machine"? Oh, that tantalizing secret is saved for the very last moment of the film. I wouldn't want to ruin it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Smashing Machine

John Hyams | 2002 | 93 min | US

Mixed martial arts is an extremely taxing sport, both mentally and physically. If you have any doubt, please take a look at this portrait of fighter Mark Kerr.

Kerr was once a successful, popular heavyweight in the premier UFC and Pride Fighting organizations, but is in the process of trying to climb back to the top when this documentary catches up with him. Kerr is very forthright about the highs and lows of his involvement in mixed martial arts. He openly discusses his addiction to the opiates which allow him to dull the hits and fears of each fight and ease the painful recoveries. His troubled personal relationship with girlfriend Dawn Staples also falls under scrutiny. As the relationship comes into focus it becomes clear that it has as ill an effect on his professional performance as his drug addiction, though the couple are the only ones not to realize it.

The Smashing Machine also spends a lot of time with Mark Coleman, a friend and colleague of Kerr's who's name will be familiar to long time fans of the UFC. 'The Hammer' Coleman was once a heavyweight champion, but is well past his glory days by the point of this shoot. He plainly admits that he continues fighting to feed his young family, and is doing worse and worse as the sport evolves further beyond its brawling origins.

The doc is stark and visceral in its portrayal of the physical toll of the sport, showing both the in-match hits and the scars following in a brutal macro one never sees in pay-per-view. I am no stranger to watching televised fights and I still found myself wincing a lot more than I would watching a typical UFC match. The soundtrack is also an unusual, though welcome, choice. The grating nu-metal and hard rock typical of these events is eschewed in favour of languid atmospheric guitar work.

The Smashing Machine is definitely recommended viewing for fans of mixed martial arts, but it is good enough a feature to appeal to any who enjoy documentary portraiture.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Ridley Scott | 2007 (via 1982) | 117 min | USA

BOOMMMMMMMMMMMM!

Not a single change in this re-edit seems out of place or inappropriate. They're very slight for the most part, and actually improve the film. It's funny that the last time I was this giddy to be seeing a movie in a theatre was for a Star Wars film.

I could go on and on about the changes made to this new edit, but other people have already done that, and besides... you don't really want to know what you're getting for Christmas until you're opening youre presents on Christmas morning, do you?

If you like Blade Runner at all, you have no excuse to not go see it on the big screen. After years of watching it on video, it's a revelation. A pure joy. Easily one of the best movie going experiences of the year.

Merry Christmas.

No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen | 2007 | 122 min | USA

I've seen No Country for Old Men twice already, and plan on seeing it at least a couple more times before it leaves theatres. After spending nearly a decade making bad movies, my once beloved Coen Brothers have finally decided to make a movie to win back my affections.

A trailer dwelling tough guy played by Josh Brolin stumbles upon a drug deal in the desert gone bad. Dead men everywhere, a pick-up truck full of heroin, and a case full of money (2 million moneys). He decides to take the money home with him so that he and his wife (Trainspotting's Kelly Macdonald, who's wonderful) can retire. Of course, the people who the 2 million belong to aren't pleased that it's gone missing, and send perhaps the most terrifying killer to grace the screen since... forever(?), played BRILLIANTLY by Javier Bardem, after him to retrieve it. The cherry on the top is the aged law enforcement officer played beautifully and never over the top by Tommy Lee Jones.

Those are the basics, but they don't do the film any justice. The tension is palpable in such a long-lasting and rare way. There aren't many chances to relax here. All of the performances are incredible, the dialogue is natural, pacing perfect, cinematography shockingly good, and even more shocking is the graphic violence that harkens back to Miller's Crossing and Fargo. This movie sticks to your ribs.

For a film that's based on a book, the Coens have definitely made it their own. Certain scenes seem like they're paying tribute to themselves, and their older films. Almost a knowing nod to the fact that it's a return to that territory, but thankfully not in a distracting way that takes you out of the story.

No Country for Old Men is about as good as movies get. My only complaint is that after years and years of considering Miller's Crossing as one of, if not my favourite film, the Coen Brothers have gone and made a film that just might be better than it. These are hard times with difficult decisions to be made.

Friday, November 16, 2007

American Gangster

Ridley Scott | 2007 | 157 min | US

So it's wonderfully paced, deftly acted, and great attention is paid to the details of the 1970s, even in expansive street scenes. Except for the one scene I cannot get out of my head. A scene wherein Moses Jones' Wu Tang Clan RZA tattoo is prominently on display.

THERE WASN'T ONE PERSON ON SET WHO BOTHERED TO LET RIDLEY SCOTT IN ON WHO THE WU TANG CLAN IS?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Michael Davis | 2007 | 86 mins | USA

Let me say right off the top that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I want to make that clear, because there are certainly valid complaints about it that could be brought up and have been in other reviews. I just happen to think that those reviews missed the point a bit.

There are several things about Shoot ‘Em Up that, had I been in a different frame of mind while watching it, would have infuriated me. If, for example, I’d been expecting a taut psychological thriller full of complex, bullet proof plot twists, I might have been annoyed by the film’s break-next pace and frequent corny gags.

Fortunately, I wasn’t watching an intricate suspense film, I was watching a shoot ‘em up. As one of those, this film delivers in spades.

The action begins at minute one, when a woebegone looking Clive Owen decides to follow a pregnant woman who’s being pursued by a gang of thugs into an empty warehouse. Owen springs into action, taking the woman’s gun and annihilating the bad guys in a variety of cartoonishly satisfying ways while she goes into labour. Somewhere between the moment at which he drives a raw carrot through a man’s eye and the moment at which he shoots the newborn’s umbilical cord to sever it, I realised this film would totally rule.

The story revolves around Owen, an anonymous good Samaritan who takes it upon himself to protect the innocent babe with the help of a lactating hooker named DQ (played woodenly by Monica Bellucci – I guess it’s harder to spot bad acting when it’s in another language, because I’ve seen her in several Italian films and didn’t realise until this one how terrible she is). In hot pursuit is Paul Giamatti, incredibly creepy as the mysterious Hertz, single-mindedly focused on killing the child.

There are a lot of weird lactation jokes in this movie, and a lot of Bugs Bunny gags (Owen’s Mr. Smith eats raw carrots throughout – they’re a shtick, but also an occasional lethal weapon). Somehow, this makes the film no less enjoyable.

As the convoluted plot unravels (something about a dying politician and some anti-gun control fanatics), it becomes clear that what we’re waiting for here isn’t an M. Night Shaymalan-esque twist ending to make us roll our eyes or fall out of our seats. It's Clive Owen jumping out of an airplane and shooting guys in freefall, or destroying a SWAT-team’s worth of assassins while fucking Monica Bellucci in a hotel room.

Like last year’s Crank, this films provides the roller coaster thrill of non-stop action with no filler. It's 86 minutes of good times.

Canada’s own Stephen McHattie co-stars as the gun factory owner, Hammerson. Personal confession: I have an inappropriate crush on him, even though Clive Owen is obviously the heartthrob here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Hot Rod

Akiva Schaffer | 2007 | 88 min | US

A string of cliched eighties references does not a comedy make. Napolean Dynamite has ruined cinema!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vampire's Kiss

Robert Bierman | 1989 | 103 min | US

The world seems to have forgotten what Nicolas Cage was like before his Con Air-ification. Well I'm going to remind you: he was awesome. Offbeat and sharp and hungry for unique roles and awesome. Cage also possessed a penchant for bizarre accents that did not exist in the actual world. For his role as New York publishing big wig Peter Loew of Vampire's Kiss he settled on "businessman," which is apparently shorthand for "fey, over-enunciating, preening, eighties power broker." Excellent call, Nick.

This successful publishing shark's life changes considerably after he takes home a remarkable woman from the bar one night. A woman, it turns out, who has a thing for neck biting. In the days following the bite, Peter Loew finds himself growing more sensitive to light, becoming increasingly hostile and obsessive toward his secretary, and eating cockroaches. As his mood darkens, everyone (Loew, Loew's therapist, and audience alike) are left to wonder whether Loew is turning into a vampire or whether he is a lunatic who has a thing for vampire movies.

This a wildly strange film. Back in the day it was positioned and marketed as a quirky romantic comedy. It is not. At all. Sure, everything about the film's delivery says "Comedy!", but Loew and the film's tone in general climbs a ladder of sadism as his obsession grows. Vampire's Kiss is incredibly dark, it just takes a while for one to catch on to that fact. After one scene I found myself thinking, "did he. . . was that a rape?". Turns out it was. But that is the great trick of the film. You are taken to so many extremes inside Loew's mind and in the real world that the "fact" and "fiction" within the film become confused in every regard. By the time the final reveal is made you know exactly what is coming, but it is still horrifying. And hilarious. This one was done square in the Awesome Cage Era, so treat yourself to visiting a time forgotten.

Terribly underrated movie! And it is Halloween today! Everyone loves a good Halloweeny movie! At least they should! Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson | 2007 | 91 min | USA

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman are... BROTHERS!

They have... SCARS!

They have... BAGGAGE!

They're in... INDIA!

Wes Anderson has lost... HIS SUBTLETY!

Murder Party

Jeremy Saulnier | 2007 | 74 mins | USA

When Chris Sharp, one of the lead actors in the quirky comedy-horror film Murder Party, came up to the stage at the closing night of the Toronto After Dark festival to introduce the film, his words made me a bit nervous. He referred to the low-budget labour of love as something akin to The Breakfast Club, but with more killing.

In theory, a murderous Breakfast Club sounds fantastic – the culmination of everything a pre-teen me wanted out of a film. Romance, dancing, precautious introspection, and of course, blood and guts. If Noah Baumbach made a slasher film about urban dilettantes being brutally massacred by the bloodthirsty ghosts of the Algonquin round table, I’d be first in line at the theatre. But under normal circumstances, being warned in advance that a horror film is going to be “pretty talky” feels a bit like a death knell.

Nonetheless, Murder Party was far from disappointing. The film is talky in a way that works, relying on witty banter and self-consciously mocking dialogue between the failed-artist characters, who have gathered on Halloween in order to kill a random stranger for the sake of art, and the respect of a mysterious figure named Alexander, who has access to a lot of grant money. As the night wears on, the characters' roles are reversed (the strong become meek, and the meek go on murderous rampages) and all the dialogue-driven setup makes the violent mayhem that much sweeter.

The premise is funny, the dialogue realistically hilarious (I almost wanted to complain about the overuse of the word “dildo”, until I realised that if I had a nickel for every time one of my friends had said “douchebag” in the past year, I’d have been able to finance this film in full) and the violence satisfyingly gory. The art world is an easy target for comedy, but Murder Party manages to attack it without resorting to pretension or inside jokes that would be lost on a non-artschooled audience. Plus, any film with a good chainsaw-to-the-face sequence is ok in my books.

Nightmare Detective

Shinya Tsukamoto | 2007 | 106 min | Japan

The lead-off of almost every review of the latest Shinya Tsukamoto film, Nightmare Detective, is a heads-up that it's not like his other films. That it's his take on j-horror blockbusters, but with a tinge of parody. There's maybe an argument to be made there, but Nightmare Detective isn't nearly as un-Tsukamoto as everyone would have you believe.

Japanese pop singer, hitomi stars as Keiko, an uptight police detective investigating a string of murders that appear to have taken place within the victims' dreams. While they sleep, a mysterious man known only as 0 is controlling their bodies to brutally kill themselves in REAL LIFE, resulting in apparent suicides. Keiko is told of a young man named Kyoishi (Ryuhei Matsuda)who can enter people's dreams, and she seeks out his help to solve the murders.

The film plays out in a fairly straight forward way until the last act which takes place in the dream realm. The intensity is turned up, and Keiko and Kyoishi take on 0 (played by Tsukamoto himself). It's always fun to watch Tsukamoto act, and even better when he plays an unsettling creep like he does here.

Nightmare Detective may be a little more naratively normal than most of Tsukamoto's films, but it's film about repressed or lost memories, rage, violence, and loneliness in a big city. If those aren't Tsukamoto enough for you, you're maybe just looking for another drill-dick, and that's not going to happen again anytime soon. He's a much more well rounded and mature filmmaker than he was when he made Tetsuo, and this, his first foray into mainstream filmmaking since Hiroku the Goblin is an excellent addition to his filmography and would be to your DVD shelf. Get the original where and while you can since the Brothers Weinstein are currently in the process of making an English remake. Meanwhile, Tsukamoto's making a sequel in Japan.

The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman | 1973 | 112 min | USA

I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow, even though I've always been a '70s-Altman fan, I had never seen The Long Goodbye until a couple of days ago, when I found it on the shelf of a place I'm house sitting and decided to give it a whirl.

The strange 1970s take on Phillip Marlowe has Elliott Gould (handsomer and more charming in the role than he had any right to be) waking up in the middle of the night to feed his cat, and getting embroiled in the murder of a friend's wife. The oft-mentioned Rip Van Winkle parallels are subtle but noticeable in Altman's take on the wisecracking gumshoe. Gould chain smokes his way through scene after scene in a rumpled suit and vintage car, seeming absolutely out of his element and yet perfectly natural just as he is.

The plot of The Long Goodbye holds up, the way most good '70s suspense films do, but the main reason to watch this is Gould's astonishing performance in a role that had previously been tackled by some of Hollywood's most charismatic leading men. Gould isn't just believable as Marlowe. He is Marlowe, the moral figure at the centre of a world gone askew.

Altman pulls no punches in his critique of modern alienation. There's no empty nostalgia here for a bygone era. Instead, the harshness of Altman's vision is thrown into stark relief by the out-of-time Marlowe, and by the time the film comes to its grizzly (but perfectly fitting) conclusion, it's impossible not to sympathize with his straight-talking, no-nonsense antidote to the bullshit around him.

Next to Gould's acting, the best thing about this film is the title song, which appears in a variety of more or less subtle ways throughout the film. As part of the score, it's haunting and pretty - but when it appears diagetically (on a thug's car radio, for example) the effect is almost disturbingly beautiful.

Basically, this film is a bizarre and daring work of genius. Altman manages to totally capture the vibe of the Raymond Chandler story and retell it without having to 'update it' in the usual sense - which would have rapidly dated the film instead of making it an instant classic. I feel like a dummy for living through 30 years without ever seeing this amazing piece of work.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chickenhawk

Adi Sideman | 1994 | 55 min | US

An hour of gay pedophiles rationalizing and intellectualizing "man-boy love." This documentary is as relentlessly disturbing as it is fascinating. It interviews a number of men who are remarkably candid about their desires, without a trace of guilt. One in particular is unabashed about having honed his seduction to an art. When you see him on camera speaking with a young boy it is discomforting, to say the least, and when he recounts his "connection" with the boy later on he sounds psychotic.

Many of of the men presented in the documentary are involved with NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association. They prefer to use terms like "child-lover" rather than, say, "molester" and point to their "struggle" and the historic precedent for adults taking child sexual partners. I don't buy their stance, personally, but the documentary avoids directing the audience to moral conclusions too overtly. It contains very little narration or titling, but the interviewees manage to dig their own graves just fine.

Visually, Chickenhawk leaves a lot to be desired. It is shot on what appears to be consumer video, and poorly at that. White balance, people. A little more attention could have been paid to the boom mic placement, too. The rare glimpse into this bizarre world is worth ignoring the stylistic shortcomings, though.

I would have liked to have seen it expanded into a feature with more information about the genesis and opposition to NAMBLA. The information would have opened it up to a wider audience, but I imagine the information and interviews the filmmaker did manage to get were difficult enough. Still, a little more time spent on the history of the organization and its public face would have made the documentary considerably fuller.

This is obviously not choice viewing for everyone. If you are interested in fringe documentary and subculture, this will suit the bill, but I would avoid making a blanket recommendation of Chickenhawk. You need a strong stomach.

Chickenhawk did have some good news, though: everyone featured in the film basically looks like just what you would expect a pedophile to look like. Tell your kids not to talk to strangers, please.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Picture Claire

Bruce McDonald | 2001 | 91 min | Canada

Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon, and a special appearance by Mickey Rourke. How's that for box office poison?

Lewis stars as a young Quebecois girl who heads to Toronto to be reunited with a former lover. Shockingly, shortly after her arrival coincidence and bad scriptwriting collide head-on to send her spiraling into a poorly realized crime caper. Also Mickey Rourke is there for some reason.

Picture Claire was the first step in developing the composite-heavy visual trickery that has gone on to form the basis of Macdonald's recent feature, The Tracey Fragments. The aesthetic is frequently too much (it never seems to take a break), but at least it gives you something to focus on whenever Juliette Lewis starts to speak. This movie features some mind boggling audio trickery in form of Lewis' Quebecois accent. Bruce, you live in a country full of unemployed Francophone actresses. What in god's name were you thinking? There were more than a few snickers in the theatre anytime she opened her mouth.

Bruce McDonald was responsible for Roadkill, Highway 61, and Hardcore Logo. Those were some of the most remarkable, funny, and genuine films ever to come out of Canada. I'm at a loss to explain how he became so completely out of touch in only ten years following.

This seems intended to be McDonald's love letter to downtown Toronto; a return to the people and places that inspired those great earlier works. So why the fuck did I have to cringe through ninety minutes of Juliette Lewis muttering, "Ken-zing-tone?" in comedy-French? What an atrocious movie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wolfhound

Nikolai Lebedev | 2006 | 136 min | Russia

A recent trend in foreign filmmaking is emulating Hollywood blockbusters on a less than Hollywood budget. Wolfhound is Russia's latest attempt at it. This time trying to make a cross between Conan the Barbarian and the Lord of the Rings films. While all of the film's budget is up on the screen, the refined professional look that's being attempted, just isn't realized. On top of that, money is spent on a slew of special effects and costumes, but the script and acting suffers because of it.

Wolfhound's titular character witnesses his parents and the rest of his village be killed as a child. Raised a slave, he escapes his shackles, and goes out looking for revenge. Along the way, he becomes involved in a mystical adventure that's pretty run of the mill. A princess, her nurse, a prince who she's meant to marry, a traitor in the camp, a big bad guy, and various other minor characters. The only original thing about Wolfhound is the Wolfhound's sidekick. An adorable bat named Ragged Wing because one of his wings has a tear in it which prevents him from flying. The little guy is a fun element, but is unfortunately the only consistently fun thing in the film's extended runtime. There's a decent 90 minute long time-passer under the fat if someone wanted to edit it down to the bare essentials, removing most of the cliched melodrama, and useless bit players.

A similar situation to the remake situation in Hollywood, a lot of original films could be made with the money spent on these overblown and hollow inferiority complexes. Think of all the small personal dramas starring Ragged Wing they could have made instead.

The World Sinks Except Japan

Minoru Kawasaki | 2006 | 98 min | Japan

Japan is the only of Earth's land masses with its head above water. The rich from all around the rest of the globe have flown their private jets to Japan to see refuge from their liquid assassin. Once there and without power (the US dollar plummets to less than 1 yen), they have no choice but to do whatever they need to do to survive. Famous actresses become high price prostitutes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis (played by hamfisted Japanese actors) become bar jesters, acting like fools for whatever change patrons throw their way, and the prim ministers of China and South Korea become the PM of Japan's lapdogs.

The film's premise is obviously full of potential comedy, and it's well tapped. Minoru Kawasaki fills the film to the brim with outrageous but deadpan laughs. If you've seen any of Kawasaki's other films (The Calamari Wrestler, Executive Koala, Rug Cop) you're pretty well prepared, but those who haven't are sure to be scratching their head for a while before settling into the wonderful world where the absurd is as common as the banal.

The World Sinks Except Japan isn't a perfect movie, and feels a lot longer than its 98 minute runtime, but it's a lot of fun and a fresh take on the end of the world. It's nice to know that someone else out there thinks that the world coming to an end is funny, and not cause to run around panicked with a Quaid brother.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Trouble Every Day

Claire Denis | 2001 | 101 min | France

Trouble Every Day stars Vincent Gallo as Shane, a newlywed and a total fucking creep. He has traveled to France with his wife with the ulterior motive of tracking down a biologist who's research has labeled him a bit of a crackpot. Shane is sick and we have suspicions that his illness is not what one would call traditional. In flashes throughout the film, we see Shane possesses a blood-lust that has often overpowered him. He maintains the veneer of a successful man, but it does not take too long for anyone to feel the terrible desire lingering just under his surface. Beatrice Dalle appears as an old friend of Shane's, Core, who is suffering from a similar affliction and being. . . helped? held prisoner by?. . .her husband, the aforementioned biologist. Core does not seem able to contain her desire in the same way Shane manages too. She has given herself entirely to cannibalism to the point where she seems incapable of (or unwilling to) communicate beyond her most base instincts.

Both Dalle and Gallo are exceptional when it comes to looking like weirdo nutjob freakshows. They really get a chance to shine here, showing off their knack for creating discomfort in an audience through a lingering look or uncomfortable proximity to a stranger. Simply due to the aura they carry in any given movie, the mysterious aspects of their characters work very well. Gallo in particular is a highlight of this film.

Trouble Every Day tries to tread the same path as Ferrara and early Cronenberg, but can never manage to unpack it's ideas. Though possessing moments of great tension and horror, I'm not sure this is a movie I can recommend. It's not the violence or story content that I take issue with, it is the deathly slow pacing. It seems Denis tries to tilt the audience off balance with a deliberate and steady unease rather than the shocks of typical horror, but that only works for so long. The chosen course leaves far too much out of the film. There needs to be a lot more in the way of characterization or development for it to feel like more than just passing time. There are only a couple of moments where we are attacked with the visceral violence we might expect and the story only hints at the nature of their cannibalism. Is their affliction a curable illness? A controllable desire? A chosen perversion? Each idea could could make for an interesting plot, but the film never wants to commit to and explore any one idea.

At many times I found myself thinking I was watching the outtakes of an AMAZING movie. There is a great mood and some terrific scenes in Trouble Every Day, but there isn't enough substance to sink one's teeth into. See what I did there? WHAM-O!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Punishment Park.

Peter Watkins | 1971 | 88 min | US

It's the middle of the Vietnam War in American and tensions are high on all sides of the debate. A bunch of filthy soap-dodging hippie dissidents are brought before a tribunal on vague charges of subversiveness. Without a hope of any other possible result, each young dissident is convicted of their crimes. For their sentences they are given a choice between a lengthy prison sentence or a stint through Punishment Park: a sadistic three-day obstacle coarse in the California desert. And what kind of a fool would choose a ten-year sentence over 72 hours of jogging? BAD CALL, HIPPIES.

Punishment Park is divided into two parts that we shuffle back and forth between, each part following a different group of young people. One group claws their way through a punishment park sentence, while a second group stands before the heavily weighted tribunal and awaits their inevitable sentencing.

The film we see is presented as footage shot by an international television crew who is present to ensure that the actions of the tribunal and the military police pursuing the prisoners are above board. Filmmaker Peter Watkins sticks to a verite documentary style, utilizing a very small crew and even appearing in the film himself as the director. The actors are clearly put through the ringer, forced to endure the oppressive desert heat and the berating of the tribunal. Punishment Park consists of a great deal of improvisational dialogue and there are many moments were it looks like the actors are about to fly off the rails. Their physical and emotional exhaustion are evident.

I expect Punishment Park was seen as terribly incendiary upon its first release. At the time the Vietnam War still raged and increasingly violent leftist activism was polarizing America. This film was withdrawn from North American theatres after only four days into its release in 1971. Its subject matter and delivery are a heavy viewing experience even today. Hell, especially today. Every single piece of dialogue about "national security" (and there is plenty) sounds disgustingly familiar. Highly recommended viewing.

.45

Gary Lennon | 2006 | 101 min | USA

I love Milla Jovovich as an action star. More than any other woman in Hollywood, she gets type cast as a fantastically hot, near-robotic killing machine that's either out to save the world or destroy it, and quite frankly, it's satisfying every time.

That's why I was so disappointed that .45 failed to deliver what the cover of the DVD (showing a crouched Jovovich in a mini skirt and stilettos, holding a gun) promised me. That is: a sexy gun toting vixen out on a dangerous mission.

Instead, .45 turned out to be a plodding revenge drama centred around Kat (Jovovic) and her boyfriend Big Al (a convincing Angus Macfadyen), a pair of low level gun runners who rule their neighbourhood (even though Jovovich predictably yearns to get out). When Big Al's thugish behaviour ceases to be charming and he beats the hell out of Kat in a jealous rage, she begins to plot an elaborate revenge, double crossing friends and foes alike along the way.

The film co-stars Stephen Dorff, a man whose work I usually avoid because he seems to poison films with his mere presence. His only convincing role (excluding the '87 classic The Gate) was probably Aerosmith's Cryin' video. And yet, somehow, in spite of the obvious plot, predictable twist ending and so-so supporting cast, the film manages to be kind of engaging because Macfadyen and Jovovich pull off their gross skid characters so well.

My main complaint: for a film that's named after a gun, there's nowhere near enough gun play in this one.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wrong Turn 2

Joe Lynch | 2007 | 93 min | USA

Henry Rollins and some other one dimensional idiots go into the woods to make a Survivor style reality show called Apocalypse, and are attacked by inbred cannibal hillbillies.

Obviously, Wrong Turn 2 doesn't boast the finest acting or writing, but Joe Lynch has made a fun movie filled with wicked kills and fun camera work, which deserved to be given a theatrical release, and possibly a new title that has nothing to do with Wrong Turn. Hillbilly Holocaust would have fit.

Hatchet director, Adam Green must be blowing the right people while Lynch (his friend) stays at home hard at work. Lynch has made the throwback to 80's horror that Green claims Hatchet is, but his movie is going straight to video while Green's snooze-fest has been released theatrically, and is being hailed as the second coming. Hopefully Lynch's next movie is treated with the proper amount of respect, and it can be enjoyed in a theatre. Green's too. Straight to VCD in Thailand maybe?

Oh! Also... Huge props to Lynch for the badass body-mount shot. It's been a while since that trick's been pulled off effectively. When did Mean Streets come out?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Puffball

Nicolas Roeg | 2007 | 120 min | UK/Ireland/Canada

Puffball is the latest film from Nicolas Roeg, the director of Walkabout, Performance, and Don't Look Now. It's about a young architect who becomes pregnant while working on a strange cottage project in a remote town full of strangers who show more interest in her baby than is wanted from strangers. Unfortunately, the movie's not as good as the talent and premise would have you believe.

Where to start? What's the biggest problem with Puffball?

Expectations? Nicolas Roeg's made BRILLIANT films in the past, and this isn't one.

That it's shot on video? Roeg and his DP have created some interesting visuals, but they've also used a fair bit of slow motion and zooming (two things which don't work on video in the same way they do on film).

Bad acting? Yes and no. Miranda Richardson and the films lead, Kelly Reilly (originally to have been Samantha Morton) give good performances, but the rest of the cast is pretty bland.

Music? OH HELL YES THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM!!!! It should be illegal to put this much terrible celtic music in a film.

Roeg's crush on Womb-cam? When things start to get a little dry, interior shots of female reproductive organs are meant to keep the audience intrested. Nope.

Its reliance on cheap scare tactics? An old lady constantly staring into the lens, and loud noises? That's it? Are you sure you don't want to try something more original?

Is it a bad script? I think that might be it. It's not a 51% shareholder of the film's problems considering how many there are, but this is a two hour long film, and you want it to wrap things up as early as half way through. Not a line of memorable dialogue to be found, paper-thin characters, and ridiculously laughable devices such as a character putting together a puzzle, which is meant to represent the film's plot.

Puffball is a really frustrating two hours which you sit through in hopes of a payoff that will make up for all of its flaws, but that payoff never comes. Would it be inappropriate to call it a cinematic miscarriage?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dead Daughters.

Pavel Ruminov | 2007 | 123 min | Russia

There is a Russian ghost story about three girls who were drowned by their mother in the bathtub. The mother is committed to an asylum following the murders + years later the dead daughters return to have their bloody revenge. . . but it isn't enough to sate their anger. For decades now the daughters have roamed the streets of Moscow, choosing others to follow for three days. Should the daughters witness that person commit any evil act in that time, they are murdered.

A woman recounts that legend to her circle of friends one night at a party. They all laugh it off, but when the storyteller is found butchered in her apartment the next day, the surviving friends quickly panic. The film follows this distraught group for the next three days as their imaginations run wild + they try to adhear to a strict righteous code. Some make amends with business associates, others lock themselves in their homes with printed pages from a Ten Commandments website, some crumble under the pressure of trying to live beyond reproach for even a few days.

Dead Daughters develops into not only a tense + bizarre thriller but an interesting comment on the arbitrary nature of morality, as well. Even though the group would certainly consider themselves good people, they begin to sweat when they are forced to examine every move they make through the eyes of others. Suddenly their casual teasing, gossip, + practical jokes take on far more dire implications than they ever would have imagined. At two hours it is considerably slower in pace than the Japanese ghost stories we have been used to seeing in recent years, but it's great to see a different take on the idea. And largely due to the great camera work + visuals, it is never so slow that one begins to lose interest. It is also interesting to see a picture of young urbanites in contemporary Russia. I'm sure that is something most people haven't had the chance to witness in feature film or otherwise.

Like with most thrillers, it is difficult to say much about Dead Daughters without betraying what makes it remarkable. You'll simply have to decide for yourself if "exceptional modern Russian ghost horror" is an appealing label. I hope that this film, along with the great success of the Nightwatch series, marks a growth in the export of Russian genre film. Now that Nightwatch seems to be more than a strange fluke, I'm very curious about seeing what else is out there. Apparently there is already an English remake of Dead Daughters in development. Ugh. So track it down now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

3:10 to Yuma.

James Mangold | 2007 | 117 min | US

3:10 is a remake of a 1957 picture of the same name. This one stays fairly true to the constraints of a traditional western, eschewing the bloody nihilism of last year's brilliant revival western The Proposition. It's a good move, allowing the leads to shine + their dynamic to unfold casually. Mangold also stays conservative visually. There isn't much need for camera flash in the beautiful countryside of the American southwest.

Christian Bale is a master of transforming himself from role to role. He is a joy to watch again here as a desperate family man who agrees to escort outlaw Ben Wade (solid work by Russell Crowe) to a prison-bound train in exchange for a sum that will save his farm. Ben Foster + Peter Fonda are along for the ride too, each turning in good performances. Though there are some terrific action pieces, including a lengthy climax shoot-out, the real joy in this film is watching the two leads, guarding themselves as they grow genuinely fond of each other despite their circumstances.

The play between the action + quieter dramatic scenes is perfectly paced. Despite a two-hour runtime, the film flies by. Great movie.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Payback: Straight Up.

Brian Helgeland | 2006 | 90 min | US

In this case 'Straight Up' is the lingo for 'Director's Cut.' Cool, hey? Director Brian Helgeland was fired from the original Payback project due to major disagreements with the studio during editing. Brought on to complete the theatrical cut was John Myhre: a man with no directing credits whose work as an art director made such films as Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael a smash hit. Naturally, when Payback was released in 1999 it fucking sucked.

This version is vastly different than the theatrical cut. When given the opportunity to usher his original vision into the light of day, Helgeland really did it up. Entire plot points are changed, characters survive who were done away with in the original, the colour correction has been altered, and an entirely new musical score was recorded for the release last year. Aside from the overall change in tone, most notable is the transformation of the ending. The original ending was so clumsy and laughable it was hard to believe it was ever written down let alone shot (for those of you who haven't seen it, the climax hinged upon a mob boss having a corded rotary phone in the back-seat of his limo). The Straight Up ending is considerably grittier and more low key, which isn't to say it's terribly remarkable, but it is far more in tune with the tone of a seventies revenge picture.

Payback is based on the same source material as Point Blank and shares the same plot. I'm not going to repeat it (you can look elsewhere on this very site). The new version clearly tries to be harder-edged and truer to the novel. It's opening is even a rip/ homage on the stunning hallway/ footsteps montage at the beginning of Point Blank. It's not a bad scene, but it immediately sets up just how far it falls from the quality of Point Blank.

Though this is a darker version, a good deal of residual humour is still in the mix. The light material seems to be kept in an effort to make the sporadic violence all the more shocking, but it really only makes obvious the conflicting directions the film was being tugged in. And aside from some gags in the opening scenes, the jokey stuff doesn't work at all.

Payback: Straight Up is decent. Vastly better than the original, but that really doesn't say much. It's still pretty soft considering it uses the same source material as Point Blank. There are far better crime films out there, but if you are hard up for options at the video store one night or if you have need to satisfy your curiosity after seeing the original Payback, I understand. Worth checking out for Level Six Film Nerds (and above).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sukiyaki Western Django

Takashi Miike | 2007 | 121 min | Japan

Workaholic, Takashi Miike's latest film is a Japanese Western with an English script that's acted out phonetically, mostly by actors who don't speak English, and which is subtitled in English. Considering Miike's recent output, it could have gone either way. Break out the sake because it's possibly his best film, and if not, it stands right beside "Audition," "Dead or Alive 2: Birds," and "Visitor Q".

The biggest problem in the past with Miike's work is that he hasn't taken enough time on films (or hasn't been able to). Finally with Sukiyaki Western Django, he's been given the time and MONEY to make a big ridiculous movie "properly". Many times his films feel cheap, like there wasn't enough work done on the script before going into production, or that too short a period of time is allotted for the editing of the film before Miike's off making his next film. The lack of refinement was fine (and even charming) at the start of his career, but at this point it's nice to see a little more care put into the process.

Even though a typical Western story of a stranger come to town and two rival gangs fighting over a treasure, with various subplots taken straight out of a hundred other westerns; Sukiyaki Western Django's script is the best Miike's had to date. It's great on so many levels. It wouldn't have been surprising if the film's comedy had relied solely on the Japanese actors speaking English. Miike and co-writer Masa Nakamura have written a script full of great comedy which is only accentuated by the poor pronunciation, not reliant on it. Nakamura is responsible for writing two of Miike's best films, "Dead or Alive 2: Birds," and "The Bird People of China," but also two of his worst, "Andromedia," and "Big Bang Love: Juvenile A". A lot of the humour in the script is a combination of old cliched Western dialogue, and anachronistic current day expressions. The action set pieces aren't as wild and bizarre as is expected of Miike, but they're a blast, and display a great deal of restraint and understanding that the film didn't need to shock its audience.

It's hard to say how the acting is since it's essentially a parody, but there isn't a single actor in the cast who is bad. Everyone gets their laughs, kills their enemies like badasses, and cries convincing enough tears of melodrama. Quentin Tarantino has a small role in the film, which is hilarious, and his most enjoyable acting outing yet. He's got the movie's best line to boot.

One can only hope that Miike enjoyed making Sukiyaki Western Django, and that he can continue making films with more significant budgets and schedules because it's brought out the best in him, and produced one of the most enjoyable popcorn movies of the year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stuck

Stuart Gordon | 2007 | 94 min | Canada/USA/UK

Stuart Gordon's made the best film of his career, twice in a row now. Last time with "Edmond" and again now with "Stuck". Give the man a good script and he'll make you a good movie. That's what these last two films have proven. No disrespect to "Reanimator" whatsoever.

Gordon and screenwrither John Strysik have taken an already horrific news story about an inebriated young nurse who ran over a homeless man... Well, "ran over" isn't the best way to explain it. She hit the man with her car, and his body went flying through the windshield, getting stuck half in, half out, then drove home and left the car and the man in the garage; waiting for him to die. So they've taken this news story, and then had their way with it to turn it into a really fun dark comedy and horror film. In reality, the man died after 3 days of bleeding all over the nurse's car seat. Boring! In the movie version, he tries to escape. HOORAY!

Mena Suvari plays the young nurse, and Stephen Rhea plays the man. Both are great in the film, as are the fresh-faced supporting cast. The film's premise is silly enough that if the cast wasn't this good, the film wouldn't have worked. It still would have had its car crash and its gore but the suspense and fun of it all would have fallen flat. When Stephen Rhea's in a film, you don't have to worry about the quality of his performance. Mena Suvari however was a big surprise, and a pleasant one.

With such a great young cast, a ton of crowd pleasing moments, and an incredibly memorable logline, someone should buy this film FAST! Get it in theatres. Stuart Gordon has earned it. Hit, hit, hit, hit, hit.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mother of Tears

Dario Argento | 2007 | 98 min | Italy/USA

Argento's output over the last decade or so has been fairly disappointing, but this was supposedly a return to form. Classic Argento style horror that horror fans around the world love him for. You can believe the hype. The Mother of Tears has all of the Argento staples; a ton of moving camera, a great score (more on that in a second), a damsel in distress, a detective, a peppering of wooden performances, way too much expository dialogue, and of course, gory gory death sequences.

An urn is dug up, containing three demon idols, a sacred dagger, and a shirt with some ancient writing embroidered onto it. Delivered to a museum in Rome where Asia Argento and her boss/boyfriend (or at least bed fellow) work, a co-worker reads the writing on the idols and in the process, awakens the demons, a screaming monkey, and the Mother of Tears (the third and final witch/mother in Argento's world, who was preceded by Mother Susperia and Mother Tenebre).

Back to life, the Mother of Tears spreads her evil over Rome, transforming women into witches who kill their children, men into brutal murderers, and in general, just fucking Rome's shit up.

What follows is Asia's journey, in which she discovers she has a mystical lineage which gives her the power needed to fight the witches, demons, and ultimately the Mother of Tears.

The horror in Mother of Tears is similar to his classics like Opera, but is amped up way past what he's done in the past. The gore knows no bounds. Whatever sick stuff Argento and his co-writers came up with, his effects team have executed perfectly. These are some of his best death scenes to date. Another thing which is different from the past is that the score, while still very present, isn't as bombastic as it usually is, taking a back seat to slow building tension which allows for more shocking scares and a frequent sense of dread. Repeated chants of "Mother" make the Mother of Tears very present in scenes, even though she's not.

With scenes involving a magic powder puff and Asia Argento crying for her "mommy", The Mother of Tears is far from perfect, but it's a great Dario Argento film, and one of the scariest and satisfying horror films of the last five or more years. Welcome back, Dario.

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

George A. Romero | 2007 | 95 min | Canada/USA

Tonight on the WB:

8pm
DAWSON'S CREEK
Dawson, Joey, Jenn, and Pacey try to escape Capeside when it's infected by zombies. Dawson decides to make a documentary, much to the rest of the gang's shagrin. (Part 1 of 2)

9pm
DAWSON'S CREEK
Dawson makes a documentary about a zombie epidemic in Capeside, while on the run with Joey, Jenn, and Pacey. Will Dawson convince them to each pick up a camera so that he has more choices in the editing room, or will they all die because of his refusal to put down the camera and help? Maybe both. Guest star George A. Romero. (Part 2 of 2)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Frontière(s)

Xavier Gens | 2007 | 108 min. | France

Frontière(s) is the debut feature of Xavier Gens, who's already wrapping up his next film; a Hollywood adaptation of the video game, Hitman. It's easy to see why Gens is already "made it" in Hollywood. Frontière(s) has scenes that are super-charged with breakneck kineticism, whacked out characters, and inventively hard violence.

A group of friends (sort of) commit a robbery, and flee from a riot ridden Paris in order to escape the law. Unfortunately they wind up in a motel run by a "family" of murderous nazis, who're friendly enough until someone calls one of the girls at the hotel a 'whore'. After that... Hospitality goes out the window, and vicious brutality says 'hello'.

As well made as the film is, it takes from other films a little too liberally. The main elements are from Haute Tension, The Texas Chainsaw Masacre, and Hostel (as much as I'm tired of hearing it as reference point for every horror film lately). Because of the influence Gens has taken from other films, Frontière(s) rarely feels like its own movie, outside of some of its stellar gore scenes, which are worth the price of admission, just not enough to make it a great film.

The editing in the early section of the film is distractingly quick-cutting, with as many as 4 cuts in a second, but it settles down eventually. Even still, it could have used a much more ruthless edit to shorten the film a bit. At 108 minutes, it feels well over two hours long. What would most likely be wrongly cut down in that process though, are the incredible performances from Samuel Le Bihan (Brotherhood of the Wolf), and its heroine, Karina Testa (who gets the hottest haircut). Le Bihan is so intimidating, and Testa so vulnerable and willing to look like a shaken idiot when the film requires her to.

Xavier Gens is a really talented director, and for his first feature to be this well put together, and make the big jump to Hollywood so quickly, hopefully he'll make many great films in the future. This just isn't one of them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Brother From Another Planet

John Sayles | 1984 | 109 min | USA

A space alien on the run (Joe Morton), crash lands down to Earth; right into Harlem. An alien from outerspace would stand out in a crowd, you'd think, but he's going to fit in just fine. You see, save for his feet which have 3 giant toes on them, he looks like a black man in his thirties.

Mute but understanding English, and with super sensitive... senses; he navigates his way around Harlem, trying to figure out how things work here on Earth. It's a clever take on the fish-out-of-water story. Really strong music and sound effects are used to show the disorientation that the alien experiences as he roams the streets. When he touches a wall, he feels (we hear) the troubles that have happened in that place before him. It's a device that's been used before, but it's done exceptionally here.

The fish-out-of-water story becomes a fish-on-the-run story when two black suited white men (Really aliens, and one of them played by writer/director of the film, John Sayles.) turn up, looking for Morton; wanting to take him back to their planet.

The Brother From Another Planet touches on things such as community, racism, drugs, and slavery, but never bashes you over the head about them. It's an entertaining film, with a small story that doesn't neccessarily have a driving moral or lesson behind it. It's the story of an alien on the run who lands in Harlem. A simple premise, which because of its setting, addresses certain issues relevant to its characters.

Also of note is that the film is beautifully shot by Ernest Dickerson, who was the cinematographer of Do the Right Thing, and who has since moved on to directing films himself, directing the most righteous, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, and recently, episodes of TV shows such as The Wire and The 4400.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

John Ford | 1962 | 123 min | US

Even in the year 1962, westerns were already archaic + out of fashion. Ford himself signaled the death knell of the form not six years earlier with The Searchers. That movie turned the genre on its head to create a story that was as enthralling as it was bizarre + blew the character of Heroic Everyman John Wayne out of the water.

In what seems to be a direct counter to that early genre turning, the opening shot of Liberty Valance is a familiar western trope: a close-up of a worn wooden sign bearing the film's credits. Ford immediately creates all appearances of a throwback picture; an old-timey black + white homage to the films that made Ford's career. But it's not long before the film reveals itself to be Ford's final joke. Perhaps even more than The Searchers, Valance betrays every assumption the audience has in Ford films, the western tradition, + its iconic stars John Wayne + Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart is the focus of the story as a senator who rose to fame as the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance. Decades after the shooting, Stewart returns to the frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend; the town which Valance once terrorized . He meets a local reporter who demands to know who the deceased man is + Stewart sits down to tell him the truth beind the legend of his rise to fame.

Not a lot can be said about the film without betraying what makes it great, but Ford does an expert job of slowly building our expectations of characters + circumstances only to turn on them over + over again. He seemed particularly aware of the public perception of the celebrity personas of Wayne + Stewart + uses them to great advantage. This would not be the same story without being able to pin so much nuance on nice guy Jimmy + towering John. And subtlety is the key here (eat it, Shyamalan). It is not an overly complex story, but it is full + satisfying. The same can be said of all of the performances, as well.

A final note: fans of Lee Marvin will enjoy every moment of his titular villain. I am a big fan of Lee Marvin + I marvel at how much more light-hearted + humorous his portrayals of the bad guys seem to be than his portrayals of the good guys. His heroes always seem burdened by a heavy conscience + a heavy heart. His ne'er-do-wells relish every moment of their freedom. Marvin's Valance seems to genuinely enjoys being a bastard. I love that man. . .

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Year of the Dog.

Mike White | 2007 | 97 min | US

"Cute" is the word I imagine most often being used to describe Year of the Dog. "Cute" or "cutesy" or "nice" or "banal softcore." Year of the Dog is about a middle-age woman who loses her shit after her dog dies. But don't worry: she learns a lot about herself + what really matters + other assorted Movie of the Week lessons. Molly Shannon proves she's capable of more than fall-down-ha-ha work with the lead role, but the script only gives her so much to do + she is not strong enough to save the film on her own charm.

As a screenwriter, Mike White has delivered some wonderfully twisted takes on unrequited love with The Good Girl + Chuck and Buck. Unfortunately, with his feature directorial debut White has proven his natural instinct is toward whitewashing the perversity that made those earlier pictures great. Every time the story appears as through it is about to take a interesting dark turn, White quickly switches the track in favour of fluff. This was tailor made for those who like their independent fare light, quirky, + harmless. Even the constant soundtrack has the cloying + sitcom-y feel one has come to expect from this type of film. The result is a slightly amusing + utterly anemic slice-of-weirdo-life picture. It's a fair time-passer, I guess. Perfect for a date with a boring vegan. Fans of Laura Dern or John C. Reilly should enjoy their brief, scene stealing supporting roles.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Gore Verbinski | 2007 | 168 min | US

You get a lot for your money with this one. Most directors would deliver a convoluted mess of a plot, overwrought acting, + a few tired action sequences in HALF the runtime. Because they're LAZY.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sunshine

Danny Boyle | 2007 | 108 min | UK

The astronauts aboard space shuttle Icarus 2 have been sent to launch a bomb into the sun, which needs to be re-ignited or else Earth is donezo. Icarus 2, as you probably gathered, are the second Icarus shuttle to be sent on this mission. Icarus 1 went missing without a trace, 7 years prior. As luck would have it, Icarus 2 stumbles across Icarus 1's distress signal as they move closer towards the sun. Half of Icarus 2's crew wants to go see if any of Icarus 1's crew is still alive, and the other half deems their mission far too important to risk diverting from their course. An argument is made that if Icarus 1's ship is salvageable, then they would have a second bomb to send into the sun, in case the first didn't hit its mark. Tensions are high, and they just keep getting higher and higher for the rest of the film.

Danny Boyle continues his streak of making mostly great films in a different genre each time out. With Sunshine, he tackles two genres at once. What starts off as a world-at-stake thriller, ends as really effective space horror. Cillian Murphy (Boyle's 28 Days Later, and Batman Begins) and Chris Evans (The Fantastic Four's Human Torch) each deliver great performances here, and are supported by a strong supporting cast that includes Hiroyuki Sanada (The Twilight Samurai), and a slightly underutilized Michelle Yeoh (The Magnificent Trio, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Why Fox Searchlight didn't give Sunshine a 2000 screen release is beyond me. It's smart, sure; but it's not a limited release picture. It's been well reviewed by most, and I think Fox really dropped the ball on this one. Could have been a money maker to be proud of.

Dog Bite Dog

Pou-Soi Cheang | 109 min | 2006 | HK

Summarizing the plot of Dog Bite Dog would diminish your enjoyment of the film, and also, take way too long. This is one weird and convoluted movie. It's also one of the best films I've seen this year.

A crazy killer vs. a crazy cop. That's essentially what the movie boils down to. The crazy killer is Pang (Edison Chen), a Cambodian mad dog hitman who was raised as a child, fighting in underground to-the-death fights between orphans. The crazy cop is Wai (Sam Lee), a troubled loose cannon HK cop whose cop-father is in a coma, and who's determined to catch Pang, after he kills his partner during their attempt to arrest him. Both men are completely unhinged, and it makes for some crazy "WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!" moments. There are other characters that are important to the story, and are probably worth mentioning, but really, Pang and Wai are the core of the movie, and their eventual showdown is one of the most audacious scenes ever put to film.

With its super-bleak violence, combined with its beautiful cinematography, Dog Bite Dog is more in touch with a Korean style of filmmaking, than recent HK styles. If you think HK films have been lacking in grit and brutality, then this is the film that will re-affirm your faith.

So check this out about as fast as you can, and if you're looking for more recent quality offerings from HK after, check out S.P.L., and Exiled (which I believe is getting a North American theatrical release sometime soon).

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Passenger

Michelangelo Antonioni | 1975 | 126 min | Italy + France + Spain

After the recent death of Michelangelo Antonioni, I decided that it was my duty to finally see The Passenger, one of my father’s favourite films of all time, and one of very few ‘classics’ in the director’s oeuvre that I had somehow skipped over for so many years. Luckily, The Royal was screening the recently re-released film, so I got my chance to see it on the big screen.

The Passenger opens with a long, almost totally silent scene in which Jack Nicholson is aimlessly wandering the utterly desolate Saharan landscape, following vague directions from skittish guides only to find himself more and more lost in the endless orange dunes. The gorgeously shot opening sets the tone for the next two hours, which will follow Nicholson’s character as he gets more and more lost, but in a more existential sense.

Nicholson plays David Locke, a reporter who decides (seemingly on a whim) to assume the identity of a recently deceased acquaintance named Robertson – a man who was renting the room next to his in a remote African outpost. Taking the stranger’s passport, luggage and appointment schedule, Nicholson leaves Africa and heads into a new and unknown life. The stranger turns out to be a gunrunner, but this fantastical fact is rendered almost mundane by Locke’s bizarre actions in the first place. We never find out why he decided to step seamlessly from his own life into another's, but ultimately the answer is irrelevant, because The Passenger, like all of Antonioni’s best efforts, is a film about unlimited possibility, and frustrated desire.

Though we discover snippets of information about David Locke (the man with the estranged wife successful reporting career) the banal facts are unimportant. During a simple but effective scene that gets to the heart of the matter, Locke is driving down a desolate highway with a girl he picked up in Barcelona (played beautifully by Maria Schneider). She asks him what he’s running away from, and he tells her to turn around in her seat. As she watches the empty road stretch endlessly to the horizon it becomes clear that Locke neither running away, nor toward. He is simply moving, negating the past itself.

Pulled across Europe by Robertson’s obligations and fleeing multiple pursuers (some after the gunrunner, and some after the real David Locke), Nicholson and Schneider eventually end up back in the desert – this time in rural Spain – to face the fate they’ve been trying to outrun.

Antonioni steadfastly refuses to answer any questions (either Locke’s or our own), threatening throughout the film with his ponderous direction and enthralling cinematography to strand us in the desert forever. But somehow, by the time you get to the film’s brilliant finale, a nearly-ten-minute-long single shot of the barren yard outside Lock’s hotel window, you start to feel like being stranded in the desert is the right thing after all – a return to the void that can’t be escaped, and freedom at last.

Find Me Guilty

Sidney Lumet | 2006 | 125 min | US


Find Me Guilty is a very weird comedy-drama, written and directed by the relentlessly prolific Sidney Lumet. The film is based on the true story of mobster Giacomo “Jackie” DiNorscio, a man who had spent so much time in prison that he decided lawyers were no longer worth his dime. In spite of strong discouragement from just about everyone around him, DiNorscio defended himself in what turned out to be the longest mafia trial in U.S. history. The 20-defendant conspiracy trial, which lasted two years, and was arguably the country’s boldest and the dumbest attempt to bring down an entire crime family.

Much of the dialogue in Find Me Guilty was taken from actual trial transcripts. This may up the I can’t believe it really happened factor, but ultimately does the film a disservice. Lumet is a gifted screenwriter, and undoubtedly, his dialogue would have provided a wittier and more incisive critique of the justice system than what the jovial wiseguy and his paisans actually said. After all, Find Me Guilty is not a documentary. Taking liberties with the material would have added depth and might have made the quixotic DiNorscio seem less annoying and more sympathetic.

Vin Diesel (sporting a toupee, 30 extra pounds of Italian belly and a thick New Jersey accent) plays DiNorscio competently, but he’s still kind of hard to root for. DiNorscio is a self-professed bad guy who’s spent his life doing drugs, cheating on his wife and committing a variety of petty crimes that have landed him repeatedly in prison. His one redeeming quality is that he doesn’t rat on his friends, a fact that seems to form the crux of his bizarre legal argument – not that he or the other defendants aren’t criminals, but that they aren’t guilty of the conspiracy they’ve been charged with. That is to say, they’re just a bunch of guys who grew up together, and happen to break the law a lot. But not, y’know, as a gang.

The film is impeccably shot, with lots of great signature-Lumet camera angles, long shots full of great visual jokes, and terrific lighting. However, for all the style and courtroom hi-jinx, it’s difficult to feel uplifted by a film that essentially depicts the total failure of the American justice system at the hands of a man with a grade six education who claims to be a 'gagster, not a gangster'.

I mean, I guess that’s the quintessential little-guy-against-the-big-system formula, but the defendants in this case are unrepentant bad guys, and with the possible exception of DiNorscio, lack any charm whatsoever. It's hard to want someone to stay out of jail when they're totally unlikable and clearly guilty. Ultimately, as far as Sidney Lumet courtroom dramas go, it’s no 12 Angry Men.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Superbad

Greg Motolla | 2007 | approx. 114 min | US

The highly anticipated Superbad is finally seeing release today + you already know if you're going to see it. In fact, you're only looking at this review for confirmation of what you think you already know. So here it is: yes, you are correct. Superbad is amazing. I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie that made me laugh so hard. Not only that, but this is the closest we will ever get to a realist teen movie. That's right. This movie is best picture of the life of a teenage boy you may ever see. Fuck Kids. I knew guys like Casper + Telly in high school, but I could never relate to those assholes. I can relate to every moment in Superbad.

Director Greg Mottolla has been behind several episodes of Undeclared + Arrested Development + this movie has their appealing musk all over it. Thus far, Superbad is the best of what I consider to be the Apatow Family of Films. And oh, what a handsome family! They only seem to be growing more refined! The script (by Seth Rogan + Evan Goldberg) tells a fairly standard story: it's the last night of high school + the nerds set out to get the girls. A tale as old as time, but the delivery is more complex than expected, running a couple different threads + sets of characters for the length of the film. It is also loaded with a calibre of low-down gutter-humour that would fall flat with any other mix of cast + crew. Luckily, it is note perfect in the hands of young leads Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, + Chris Mintz-Plasses. Those boys are so far beyond the skill of most actors it's hard to believe. Cera has already developed a ridiculous following/ love cult from his limited body of work + I expect his co-stars will join him in that respect soon enough.

There you are. That's enough. You already knew you wanted to see it. Go forth. Fingers crossed for Superbad Freshmen.