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


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


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.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Right At Your Door

Chis Gorak | 2006 | 95 min | USA

You can drop a shatterproof plate on the ground a hundred times and never have it break. But it DOES have that sweet spot; like a baby's fontanel, that if hit, will shatter the plate into tiny pieces. Use that plate as a metaphor for your life, and Right At Your Door is about that sweet spot.

The film opens with Brad (CSI Miami's Rory Cochrane), loving husband, up before his wife, Lexi (The West Wing and Howard Stern's Private Parts' Mary McCormack). He makes her her morning latte, and wakes her up for work, just as her alarm goes off. She's a bit cold to him, and you can tell they've had an argument of some sort the night before. So maybe that latte isn't completely motive-free. Still... There's love there, albeit strained that morning.

Brad sees Lexi off to work, and shuts the door as she drives off. Moments later, the radio announces that a series of explosions have been reported downtown. Brad is all ears already, but then it's announced that one of the explosions took place right around where Lexi would probably be. He panics, calls her cell phone, but gets no answer. He steps outside and sees a skyline full of smoke. He jumps in his car to try and find Lexi and bring her home. On his way however, the radio reports that the explosions are believed to have been caused by "dirty bombs" (chemical bombs). Police seal off the area, and send a worried Brad back home with instructions to seal himself into the house, and not to let any of the potentially contaminated air or people in.

Right At Your Door is great "tell-don't-show" filmmaking. Without seeing any of the destruction of the bombs, save for the brief skyline shot, the tension of the opening 10 minutes is built entirely through radio reports, manic camerawork and editing, and good acting. The same can be said of the rest of the movie, but I don't want to give away too much.

What follows is an extremely claustrophobic 80 minutes, wherein Brad's only safe space is in the confines of his home. The only thing keeping him unaffected by the falling ash outside his windows, is the duct tape and flimsy plastic (dry cleaning bags, bubble wrap, shower curtains, etc.) that they and the doors are sealed off with. Without Lexi, he's lost, but at the same time he's, physically trapped. As the film continues, the reality of the situation becomes more and more... real, and Brad's safe space starts to not feel as safe as it did initially.

Save for its Twilight Zone-ish ending (which I didn't really mind, but which reduced the emotional impact of what came before it), Right At Your Door is an extremely effective thriller, with a script rooted in a reality with believable characters, and which preys upon the universal fear of losing all that you love in the world.

Now please pretend I came back to the plate metaphor from the first paragraph. I can't bring myself to actually do it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mulberry St.

Jim Mickle | 2006 | 85 min. | USA

A commentary on how the poor are treated when in need of help, Mulberry St. takes place in a poor NY borough that is infested/infected by rats which turn their victims into rat people. Quarantined by the powers that be, but sent no help, its residents are forced to fend for themselves. A perfectly good horror film setup, however... The film's characters are laughable, and were clearly written as showcases for everyone in the cast.

If you're going to make a rat-zombie film, one should make it so that it sinks its teeth into the audience's throat, not so that its cast of unknowns can sink their teeth into indie film stereotypes. The script was written by lead actor, Nick Damici along with its director, Jim Mickle, by the way.

The cast of characters:
A retired boxer
His troubled young daughter
An attractive single mother/bartender at the local pub
Her teenage son
A gay black man
Two quirky old men
Rats (but not enough of them)

If that doesn't seem so bad to you, maybe you'll enjoy the movie. It's not poorly made, but its characters are a true mess.

Though I didn't like the movie, I have to say that it was shot on a 4 figure budget. Considering that, it's a wonderful achievement in low budget filmmaking. The bulk of the movie takes place in one apartment building, and each room is the same room redecorated. Not once did I think that was the case, so the biggest of kudos go to the fim's production designer, Beth Mickle.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

King of the Ants.

Stuart Gordon | 2003 | 102 min | US

If Stuart Gordon, director of horror-schlock greats like Re-Animator + Castle Freak, makes a film called King of the Ants, the last thing I want to discover is that the 'ants' are a metaphor. GODDAMMIT, GORDON.

Chris McKenna (Touched by an Angel) is Sean Crawley, an idiot who is hired by Fat Baldwin to do some light stalking + murder work. After the hit is carried out, it turns out that Baldwin isn't entirely scrupulous in his business practices. He decides that repeatedly attempting to beat McKenna into retardation will be the easiest way to sever his connection to the crime. That is the actual plot of this movie. Of course, Crawley escapes so that he may eventually return to exact revenge. Throw in some remarkably revolting sex + you've padded things up to a nice feature length.

The climax is a near-redeeming pay-off after a lot of other garbage. Unfortunately, the fatal flaw with the 'revenge' part of this revenge story is that we have no evidence at any other point in the story to suggest that Crawley is anywhere near intelligent enough to pull off the final act. If he were actually that clever the movie would have ended an hour earlier with one of the several presented escape opportunities. I'll admit that wouldn't have made for a very compelling movie, but neither does a filmmaker assuming we will forget everything we have seen prior to the climax.

It seems as though Stuart Gordon was consciously trying to distance himself from the campier work of his past with this one. He takes greats pains to make this film Seriously Serious, even employing the old shaky-camera routine. The attempts at realism are ridiculous at best + painful at worst. The film could have perhaps been saved by him going for a full-tilt, over the top horror finale, but nothing I craved to see panned out.

Bonus Feature: THE ANTS ARE PEOPLE?!

Dead Man's Shoes

Shane Meadows | 2004 | 90 min | UK

You will most likely know Dead Man's Shoes' co-writer + lead Paddy Considine as the loving father from In America. This isn't quite the same kind of film. No, this film's commitment to family is demonstrated through a series of brutal murders rather than, say, winning stuffed animals. The story is that of Richard, a soldier who returns to his small hometown after a tour in the military with the goal of punishing those who inflicted countless cruelties on his brother in his absence. Considine is practically unrecognizable as that blood-soaked avenging angel + he is the reason why this film is great.

Meadows makes Kitchen Sink-ish genre movies, using conventional set-ups to tackle the disenfranchised citizens of down-and-out communities. Similarly, the story of Dead Man's Shoes is that of a straight forward revenge film, but Meadows again turns his eye towards the downtrodden underclass of Britain + its one of the things that sets this film apart from the pack. Class + a feeling of powerlessness over one's destiny are what inform the tragedies of this story. The victims may be so awful that you root for Considine to overcome them, but they are all familiar figures who suffered violent struggles well before Considine appeared. Despite the suspense + bursts of violence in the film, we are given a lot of breathing room to see the sad state of everyone's lives, victims + victimizers both. The quietude that frames the script combined with Meadows low-key directing style makes for an unusual + unsettling revenge picture.