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


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:

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)

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


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. . .