Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Host

Joon-ho Bong | 2006 | 119 min | South Korea

The Host sets up as a fairly traditional monster movie. A sea monster, to be specific, spawned of the old poison-in-the-river trick. The film follows the Park family in their hunt for the beast after it accosts the family's youngest member, thirteen-year-old Hyun-seo.

Within the story of the family versus the monster, however, is a great deal of commentary on US imperialism + the military occupation of South Korea. It was unexpected, but adds some substance to the film, as well as a few laughs aimed at the caricatures of US military scientists run amok. The amount of very dark comedy in The Host is surprising. One of the movie's funniest moments comes in the form of the Park family's prolonged wailing during a memorial service when they believe Hyun-seo to be dead. A few jabs about the international reaction to SARS are tossed in for good measure, too.

It suffers from being a little overlong, but once it gets past a few false endings, the eventual climax is very well played out: dramatic, funny, + action packed. There are better genre films out there, but The Host is a fun throwback.

VHS - Kahloucha

Néjib Belkadhi | 2006 | 79 min | Tunisia

Moncef Kahloucha is a house painter in Tunisia. When he's not painting houses, he makes movies. Ambitious, unpolished movies on VHS, with the help of anyone he can wrangle from around town. It's as if Mark Borchardt from American Movie moved to Tunisia and made El Mariachi.

The documentary follows the production of Kahloucha's latest film, Tarzan of the Arabs, through to its premiere in a local café. Kahloucha casts the movie with everyone from friends, to strangers he sees in the street who fit his image of a role, to local drunks who he explains will go anywhere he wants them to go, and will even allow themselves to be beat up so long as he buys them booze. It may seem distasteful for him to take advantage of someone's weaknesses like that, but it seems as though he doesn't see the problem in it. His movies are his life, and he's willing to do pretty much anything to get them made, without a second thought. Unlike Robert Rodriguez when he made El Mariachi, Kahloucha doesn't have access to squibs and blood packs. When he needs to add blood to an actor for a post shooting close-up, he takes a knife, cuts his own arm, and applies blood from his wound to the actor's shirt and forehead to give the appearance of gunshots.

Kahloucha idolizes Clint Eastwood, Alain Delon, Bruce Lee, Charles Bronson, and Lee Van Cleef. It's very endearing, and at no point did I feel like the filmmakers were exploiting his earnestness for comedy. His vision may not be an artful or skilled one, but it's inspriring to watch his dedication and love for filmmaking.

The film doesn't only focus on Kahloucha though. It also focuses on the motley crew that makes up his dream team, and also what life is like in Kazmet, a town rife with unemployment and families with sons in jail. Making the movies is a fun distraction for most, and a dream come true for others. Nobody's making any money. Nobody's going to be the next big thing. They know that, and they're perfectly happy with it. Sure they love the bit of attention they receive from their friends and family, but really they're making the movies because they love them. They're making movies for fun. It's a wonderful pure kind of creation that I wish there was more of.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Prozac Nation

Erik Skjoldbjærg | 2001 | 95 min | Germany + US

A very prozac-y soundtrack aids Christina Ricci doing her prozac-y best in this adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel's autobiography chronicling her struggles with depression while attending Harvard. Prozac Nation is a flurry of cliche teen scenes + dialogue. Everything in this film is crushed under the weight of actors behaving teen cool, teen detached, + teen distant, but who actually just come off as fucking boooooring. Even Lou Reed gets in on it by performing himself performing awful versions of VU songs. The director makes liberal use of fast motion, blurring, twirling, + other moves favoured by early music videos + drug-freak-out scenes from sitcoms + PSAs. The script suffers from frequent references to Springsteen, Reed, Hemmingway, + so forth in the narration, as though merely making mention of better works of art were enough to elevate the film beyond it's station. At one point, Skjoldbjærg even allows a shot in which a young couple has sex for the first time under a 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' poster. I swear.

Even though it was completed in 2001, Prozac Nation didn't debut until a cable television showing in 2005. It saw a US video release shortly thereafter. Elizabeth Wurtzel herself asked the film not be released because it was 'horrible.' Too late to save humankind, Wurtzel.

Ever wanted to read the diary of a nineteen-year-old who thinks she's an amazing writer? Yeah, me neither. NEXT!

American Hardcore

Paul Rachman | 2006 | 100 min | US

A documentary on the history of American punk rock from 1980 to 1986. It seems to be made for those largely unfamiliar with hardcore, so it does not probe too deeply into the subject, but the film still provides an interesting look at the scene. The evolution of hardcore is traced from region to region, showing it's spread around the country + providing the film with a decent framework for a music history that is very difficult to present in a cohesive format.

Included are interviews with most of the key figures from the period, including members of Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Adolescents, Bad Brains, + many, many more. American Hardcore also offers an astounding amount of archival footage of young bands playing everywhere from basements to large, insane club shows. The one glaring omission in the film is that of the Dead Kennedys. Though they were undeniably one of the leading bands in hardcore, the DK members' continued legal + personal squabbles apparently kept them from allowing their images or music to be used in the film. Lame.

Though not a perfect doc on the subject, American Hardcore delivers a good overview, some great stories, + the benefit of hindsight missing from the classic Decline of Western Civilization. So, if a feature length doc on hardcore sounds appealing, this should work out for you.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Drive-In Massacre

Stu Segall | 1976 | 72 min | US

Seventy-two minutes? I could have sworn it was at least triple that. Clearly made during the height of drive-in B-movie success, Drive-In Massacre represents everything about why that era of movies is so poorly regarded. Tailor made for the lowest common denominator, this film looks at a series of murders at a drive-in that seems to be entirely staffed by former circus sideshow performers. CIRCUS SIDESHOW PERFORMERS WHO ALL COLLECT SWORDS OH SHIT!

If you have an aversion to film violence, fear not. So as to avoid alienating any potential ticket purchasers, all key frames depicting the actual moments of murder have been excised from the film. Whew. This leaves the viewer free to best enjoy several lengthy, even tempered scenes of police interrogation-lite. All the talking really amps you up for a climax involving a silhouette fight, a scream, + (spoiler) no resolution. Enjoy.


Mountaintop Motel Massacre

Jim McCullough Sr. | 1986 | 95 min | US

Now here is a massacre film that delivers! Gore, a creepy old woman, isolated travelers, a drunk sheriff, + of course, sluts. This is an early slasher film, so it may not have the blood flow some have grown accustomed to, but it provides a healthy dose of cliche characters, some good jolts, + an opening that ups the Fucked Level to a point that sustains nicely over the next 85 minutes. McCullough really delivers on the script written by his son, Jim McCullough Jr. What else do you need to know? Crazy granny murders everyone. There.


Curse of the Golden Flower

Zhang Yimou | 2006 | 114 min | Hong Kong + China

Zhang Yimou has long made films in traditional Chinese settings with themes that echo issues in contemporary China. He relies on heavy use of metaphor to get his messages across. On the surface some of the metaphors may seem trite, but they served Yimou well in his years as a young director attempting to critique China when the country was extremely quick to censor dissent.

Although Yimou has become celebrated for his work in China + around the world, this movie leads one to believe little has changed for anyone critical of the government. Set in 10th century China, Curse follows the Imperial Family of the Emperor (a nearly unrecognizable Chow Yun Fat) in the days leading up to a massive festival + as plots for rebellion are taking shape. Rather than deliver a straight-up martial arts flick, Yimou concentrates on the tensions in family and relationship caused by a strict caste system. The performances are as restrained as their world forces them to be. Always there are glimmers of rage + desire under the surface of these characters. Again this film is a fairly clear stand-in for contemporary China + is bathed in methaphor. Hints: the medicine isn't really medicine + the flowers aren't really flowers!

All of the lavish moves of a epic movie are saved for the massive battle scenes + the gorgeous set design. The entire movie looks like it has been carved out of rainbows. The fight scenes are few, but are well paced + terrifically executed (NINJAS!). The bulk of the negative reviews this film received are due to the lack of constant chop socky action, I'm sure. It draws more on his former work like Raise the Red Lantern than his more recent success on pictures like House of Flying Daggers. This is not the best recommendation for a martial arts movie, but it is a great film in it's own right.

House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou | 2004 | 119 min | Hong Kong + China

This one IS a standard martial arts flick, but one that takes advantage of the grand new budgets afforded post Crouching Tiger. There is fighting, falling in love, embarrassing dialogue, + more fighting. The fighting is really really good. The end.

I'm still impressed to see Yimou using sync sound.


Michael Dugan | 1983 | 96 min | US

This film is just the worst. So tedious + poorly put together. I enjoy bad horror, but I can only endure so much. I can't stand movies that seem to go out of their way to avoid reasonable plot points. There are so many set-ups that are completely abandoned in favour of completely ridiculous dialogue + the world's clumsiest story development.

Quick plot for those still interested: The Nomed family (GET IT?) has been subject to a centuries old curse that affects only women. The latest of the line, Susan, is struck by this curse following her mothers death. Apparently she's cool with it for about twelve years, but when we meet with her again she is on a vicious fuck + kill spree involving random gardeners, delivery men, gallery owners, whoever. No one seems to notice or care. Later in the movie we learn that the curse is both very simple to avoid + even easier to combat. After a "climax" who's pacing would kick Terrence Malick's ass, we get the final shot twist that makes absolutely zero sense in any way.

Over the course of the last thirty years the director has made two other movies: Super Seal + Raging Hormones. Someone kill this asshole.

Bonus Feature: The predatory mexican gardener. . . OR IS HE?!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Race with the Devil

Jack Starrett | 1975 | 88 min | US

Peter Fonda essentially stars as Peter Fonda in this great drive-in exploitation flick that surpasses the realm of drive-in exploitation flicks. Fonda and his friend Frank (Warren Oates) set off for a road trip with their girlfriends in a tricked out motor home. At their first stop they enjoy some dirtbike racing, some laughs, + eighty pitchers of martinis. Late in the night after the womenfolk have gone to bed, Peter + Frank enjoy a quiet six nightcaps under the stars. When they spot a bonfire off in the distance they creep closer in the hopes that they might catch an orgy. The seventies were so fucked up that this was actually a suitable plot device.

Alas, there would be no orgy at all. Instead. . . SATANISTS! The two are spotted after witnessing a human sacrifice + race away from the scene with a cadre of the Devil worshipers trailing. The rest of the movie follows the pals on their road trip as they become increasingly victimized + suspicious of all those around them. The growing paranoia of the friends combined with the general default creepiness of the American South makes for a gripping movie. The climax also features an extended road race with some terrific stunt work. Big time recommends for Race with the Devil.

And although the first couple might worry you, fear not: the director only shoehorns the two Fonda motorcycle races into the picture early on.

The Lookout

Scott Frank | 2007 | 99 min | US

Neo-urban-dirtbag noir from the guy who wrote the underrated Out of Sight + the shameful mess The Interpreter. Frank knows a few things about how to make great character driven thrillers as well as how to ruin interesting ideas by piling on the drama. Fortunately he opted for the former style in his directorial debut. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a young man coping with severe memory impairment following a horrible car crash which left two of his closest friends dead. He fills his days with menial labour, therapy classes, + few relationships to speak of. When a charming + mysterious dude (with a foxy redhead in tow) befriends him, Chris finds himself manipulated into taking part in robbing the small town bank he works for.

It's a solid cast all around, with Gordon-Levitt continuing to surprise with his understated style. The highlight in this one is Jeff Daniels, who does a terrific turn as Chris' blind roommate and provides a few good laughs. The characters are not overdrawn. We know as much about the supporting characters as we need to. Sometimes this means nothing more than "that guy looks like he wants to shoot something." Economy works for this film. I wouldn't have had any interest in an extra forty minutes to illustrate the thieves' prior childhood trauma or blah blah blah. The result is a clean, simple narrative with an interesting lead character + a solid plot. The storyline does concentrate on Chris' mental impairment + uses his "sequencing exercises" as a way to frame the film + climax, but it avoids being gimmicky. If anything The Lookout feels like a throwback prior to the desperately clever noir reinventions of the last fifteen or twenty years.

I would have preferred to have gone into it never having read anything about The Lookout beforehand. The word "masterpiece" was being thrown around in some reviews. I think the recent drought of crime films coloured some perceptions + caused some critics to be a bit too generous with the praise they heaped on this one. Or maybe they accidentally watched + reviewed Brick again. This is not a masterpiece. It is not brilliant. Still, this is a movie worth watching + I look forward to seeing what Scott Frank will deliver next.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Spiderman 3

Sam Raimi | 2007 | 140 min | US

Four musical numbers? Really?