Tuesday, July 31, 2007

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Seth Gordon | 2007 | 79 min | USA

Billy Mitchell is a douchebag. He's also a hot sauce mogul, and he set the high score record for Donkey Kong in 1982. FFWD to a couple years ago, and still, nobody had beaten Mitchell's score. That is until down-on-his-luck family man and middle school teacher Steve Wiebe decides that beating Mitchell's score was how he wanted to spend his free time.

Holed away in his garage with a Donkey Kong arcade machine, Wiebe neglects his family night in and night out, in hopes of being the best at something. After months of practicing, and drawing lines on his monitor to remember patterns and jump points, one evening, Wiebe beats Mitchell's score. He submits a videotape of his game to Twin Galaxies, the website that's recognized by the world as the premiere video game high scores site, but there's one small problem. Twin Galaxies isn't a completely impartial jury. Billy Mitchell is one of their highest ranking members.

That's just the start of the ups and downs that face Wiebe in his mission to become the world's best Donkey Kong player. The documentary is pretty straight forward, so there isn't much cinematically to discuss, but the two main characters are great, and are supported by Walter Day, the sweet old man who started Twin Galaxies back in the 80s, and who serves as head referee.

King of Kong has all the right parts to become a minor hit, and hopefully it does. It's a highly entertaining and dramatic documentary, about one of the last things you would expect to make for such a great story.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Point Blank.

John Boorman | 1967 | 92 min | US

Ever wonder where Steven Soderbergh got so many of those great moves? They're here, in one of the best revenge stories ever filmed. One of the best American movies, period.

Lee Marvin is Walker, a man who is double-crossed by his wife + the old friend he helped in pulling off a dangerous heist. He is left for dead, but clings to life in the hope that he may one day exact revenge. After spending years in hiding, Walker resurfaces to scare the shit out of everyone in The Organization who thought him long gone. He then climbs his way up the ladder of traitors one body at a time, seeking his cut of the original take: $93'000. No more, no less.

John Boorman (Deliverance) directs with a very cool hand, as much an outsider as Walker + one who perhaps shares his psychotic detachment. He pays a great deal of attention to the then-new glass + concrete mega-structures that were springing up all over Los Angeles, solidifying the town's reputation as being a tribute to the inaccessible + impersonal. The remarkable editing matches the mood by being challenging to the point of antagonistic.

A subdued score provides an eerie counterpoint to the sudden bursts of violence in the visual style + story. The acting is similarly low-key + intense (with the exception of Angie Dickinson's atrocious cue card recitations). Lee Marvin has a tendency to deliver every word as though it were a dire statement. From Walker, it kinda is. Every character interacting with him acts as though they are juggling dynamite + you can feel it.

Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter, which was also adapted as Payback in 1999. Perhaps its needless to say, but Point Blank is the one to watch. It stays true to the brutal tone of the novel while being a distinct experience in its own right. This movie is easily on par with the best of Leone + Peckinpah, with the bonus of Marvin seeming genuinely unhinged in a way that McQueen or Eastwood could never match.

In his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen refers to Point Blank as 'the movie for people who hate Los Angeles.' Sometimes a city deserves it.

Rescue Dawn

Werner Herzog | 2007 | 126 min | USA

A movie that's based on a true story is usually a movie to avoid. When the movie is written and directed by Werner Herzog however, and even more, a retelling of one his best documentaries (Little Deiter Needs to Fly), you buy your ticket and pray for the best.

Rescue Dawn may not be the best film that it could be, but it's a pretty great one regardless. If you don't know, Rescue Dawn is the story of Deiter Dengler, a navy pilot whose plane crashed in enemy territory during a top secret bombing of Vietnam in 1966. It's a film that could very easily have been an over the top tale of hope and courage, with an Oscar bait lead performance by Christian Bale, but Herzog and Bale don't go that route.

What makes this such a good film is that it's not structured around a character arc. It's built around action. Very little emotion is let in. We simply follow Deiter, moment to moment, often with a documentary camera style which allows us to be more in awe of the story rather than the usual pathetic attempts at emotional manipulation that come with "true story" films. It's full of tasteful restraint that's lovely to watch. Bale's performance is a great reproduction of the real life Deiter's mannerism and speech, but isn't concerned with big moments. He's quiet when the scene calls for it. Bale doesn't attempt to chew scenery for even a moment. It's a real treat. Every moment of emotion from him feels real.

The scenery would be a lot for anyone to even attempt to chew up though, to be fair. Herzog is no stranger to stories of men who are dwarfed by their surroundings, but who are able to overcome. The jungles and mountains of Vietnam provide an absolutely stunning backdrop for the story, and it's filmed beautifully without being too showy.

After Deiter is captured in Vietnam, he's taken to a P.O.W. camp, where he becomes friends with the other half dozen prisoners there. There's where the film starts to stumble ever so slightly. Steve Zhan and Jeremy Davies play the prisoners who Bale works off of the most, and they deliver good performances, but they feel actor-y, and the film was free of that up until that point. Had their roles been played by unknowns, or non-actors, it would have improved the film considerably, and removed most of the artifice present. Any attempts they may have made to steal the film from Bale are pointless. The subtlety of Bale's performance is what makes the movie as good as it is. By time the film's hilarious uplifting ending rolled around, I forgave it completely. I'd watched Deiter endure enough to allow him his fairy tale ending. Well... a strange military take on a fairy tale ending.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Tim Story | 2007 | 92 min | US

Worse than Daredevil?

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Billy Ray | 2007 | 110 min | US

Breach is based on the true events leading up to the February 2001 arrest of Robert Hanssen, a 25 year veteran of the FBI who was convicted of spying for the Russian government. The story begins as young agent-hopeful Eric O'Neill is assigned as Hanssen's new assistant so that he may gather information on the minutiae of his every action. As the FBI puts the pressure on to make a case against Hanssen prior to his retirement, O'Neill begins to feel the strain on his career, his marriage, + his respect for Hanssen.

This is a terrific spy movie because it plays out exactly as most real world spy thrillers would: slowly + methodically. Even the film's car chase is slow to the point of standing still. A great deal of that chase takes place in a traffic jam + it is resolved by the convincing delivery of a few lies rather than gun play. The tension comes from that pacing + the knowledge that nothing in reality can be resolved by simply shooting the 'bad guys' in their matching crime syndicate jumpsuits.

Certainly many of the events are amped up for dramatic effect, but 'true' or not, that's what a film should do, right? Right. The drama is taut throughout + Ray is great at pulling off scenes like the get-the-computer -files-while-the-boss-is-in- the-other-room routine in a way that is tense despite being a familiar set-up.

The movie chooses a great cast of recognizable character actors for the leads: Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan, + more. Chris Cooper + Ryan Phillippe head the cast as the mentor + protege. While everyone does great turns (yes, even Phillippe), it is Cooper who really stands out. His portrayal of Hanssen is not that of a particularly kind or caring man, but he makes him incredibly sympathetic as a man trying to secure his legacy in a massive faceless bureaucracy as he approaches old age. It is not difficult to relate to Hanssen's struggle. When the time comes that he is arrested for his crimes, it is unexpectedly moving.

Breach also continues my recent luck of catching movies with fantastic scores. This one is done by Canadian Mychael Danna, who also composed great music for Capote, The Ice Storm, + several Egoyan films.

This is another film that deserved a lot more attention than it received. The studio did little to support Breach despite its quality. Cooper's performance is every bit as good as the work in Adaptation which won him an Oscar. Stupid jerk idiot studios.


Billy O'Brien | 2005 | 95 min | Ireland

Similar in style + plot to Carpenter's The Thing, but transplanted to a farm in rural Ireland. The owner of the farm allows a genetics company to perform a trial on one of his cows, but the experiment does not go quite as planned. While performing a routine examination of the calf, a veterinarian is bitten by. . . something. Soon after that incident the occupants of the farm find themselves quarantined, out of contact with the outside world, + hunting that. . . something.

This is a fantastic low-budget horror. It is well paced, well acted, + thoroughly eerie. The make up effects in particular are outstanding. Had anyone attempted to be make this film with CGI it would likely be a laughable failure. Sometimes red dye, corn syrup, + shadows work far better than the high tech alternatives. Consider that a warning to those with an aversion to gore in films. This movie is very gory. Lots of cattle innards. This is also not a movie to be watched by any woman who has ever even briefly thought about pregnancy or childbirth. Ever. For the rest of us: put Isolation high on your list.

I'm not sure why this did not cause more of a stir when it was first released. It certainly deserves the attention. Hopefully it will win a following on video the same (deserved) way Dog Soldiers has in the past couple years.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Isle

Kim Ki-duk | 2000 | 89 min | South Korea

The Isle is considered by many to be Kim Ki-duk's entry into the horror genre, but I'd classify it as a romance before a horror film, and more than that, a black comedy. SOOOOOOOOOO black! So black that I almost don't want to admit to finding it funny. If you've seen the movie and disagree with my assessment of it as a comedy, please don't look at me funny the next time that you see me. Please do not cross to the other side of the street.

The film's setting is a small marina/village of a dozen or so floating huts on a lake which are meant to be used by fishermen, but which are also used by johns and their prostitutes, and by criminals in hiding. One such criminal takes refuge from the law in a hut after having killed his wife and her lover. The mute woman who runs/owns the marina takes a liking to him, and quietly begins to spend time with him at his hut. Their budding romance doesn't involve flowers, dinner dates, or tender moments though. It gets off to a rocky start when he tries to rape her. Upon her escape, he decides to call a prostitute to come and have sex with him instead. This shouldn't upset the marina owner, but it does, and she becomes jealous enough to eliminate her "competition". From then on, the two leads slowly fall in love through a series of pretty greusome acts on themselves, and one another. I don't want to spoil the fun, but this stuff ranks pretty high amongst Kim Ki-duk's most ridiculous shock moments. They're scenes that Todd Solondz or Neil Labute wouldn't have the nuts to put in their movies in a million years. SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO dark! Like I said though, it is also a love story. A love story between two very isolated, lonely, and hurting people. Considering how gross things get, it's remarkable the level of strange beauty that the movie maintains.

The film's darkest moments walk the line of horror and comedy, and how you take them will depend on how sick your sense of humour is. I felt pretty gross laughing, but I laughed a lot. If I'd seen it in a theatre, it would have been a bad scene.

Oh, and a warning if you've got an aversion to fishing hooks. Don't even think about watching this movie, unless you've got a friend, lovah, or family member handy to pick you up off the ground, and possibly take you to a doctor.

Oh, the fish hooks. The very funny fish hooks. HEART!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Death of a Cyclist.

Juan Antonio Bardem | 1955 | 88 min | Spain

As a couple returns from an affair-tastic weekend in the county their car strikes a cyclist on the highway. They race away from the scene rather than help the stranger because they worry of their relationship being exposed + later learn that the cyclist has died. As the days pass, the two grow increasingly worried that their social circle is aware of their numerous misdeeds, with one friend in particular dropping several hints that they may want to consider sending a few pesetas his way. The couple's relationship begins to dissolve as they take every passing word as innuendo + become concerned with self preservation above all else.

The cast of characters in this picture travel in the world of post-war wealth + academia, + Bardem portays them as selfish boors without exception. Their conversations, pastimes, even their intrigues are banal + awful. Their world of privilege is neither deserved nor enjoyed. Death of a Cyclist wages the kind of cinematic class war that Luis Bunuel would take so much heat for fifteen years later. It is remarkable this film was allowed to see a release at all.

This is a modest but exceptional noir thriller. There are a couple predictable moments, but the expert delivery + catharsis of those climactic scenes make for a very satisfying film. A fantastic score aids the mood considerably, as well.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


D.J. Caruso | 2007 | 104 min | US

This movie received some great reviews when it came out for being a clever, albeit light, thriller. No.

Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) is a troubled young man who is placed under house arrest for punching his high school Spanish teacher. What is a rambunctious teen to do with an entire summer spent indoors? Spy on the neighbours, of course. The time is clipping along nicely with our hero learning the extramarital routines + swimming habits of those around him, until Kale begins to suspect that one of those neighbours is a murderer. He enlists his friends to help him in investigating the man as his actions grow more suspicious. Lest we begin to think Kale is suffering from an overactive imagination, the director makes it very clear as quickly as possible that the neighbour is definitely a killer. Gosh, thanks. Suspense makes me nervous!

While there are a couple (as in two) good, tense moments, the film seems to be crafted to be as safe + inoffensive as possible. A tepid teen romance is clumsily tossed in, as is a wacky best pal, + there is a long wade through their interactions before we get to anything involving plot advancement. As to up the generic anywhere-ness of it all, the only clues we have to the setting are the characters mentioning recent moves "from the city" or the dullness of living "in the burbs." It's like we are right there with them, listening to the same unbearable soundtrack + score.

All of this may be acceptable if the climax was not so recognizable to anyone with even a slight familiarity with slasher films. The ending is horror trope after trope + only exists because the previously methodical + exacting killer suddenly loses his shit in service to the screenwriters.

And how in the fucking fuck could the writers get away with not giving credit to Rear Window? This is Teen Rear Window. Just replace "wheelchair-bound photographer" with "idiot fuckface." Also replace "suspense" with "opposite of suspense."

Stranger still, I was puzzled by the odd directorial choice of frequently moving large silhouettes across the frame over the opening few scenes of the film (note: my copy may or may not have been a bootleg).

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Blob

Chuck Russell | 1988 | 95 min | USA

Dear Hollywood (We've got your IP address logged, and know you read the blog daily, so quit pretending you don't.),

The directors you're hiring for your current crop of horror film remakes can't hold a candle to the guys who did it in the 80's. Have you already forgotten how incredible The Thing, and The Fly are? Surely you haven't forgotten The Blob! Have you?! Please everyone... Watch Chuck Russell's version of The Blob. If your new remakes were even half as good as it is (It's REALLY good!), I would go see them all on opening weekend. Until you show me that you care though... I'll continue avoiding the majority of them, and making people who go see them feel stupid.