Monday, January 28, 2008

Ex Drummer

Koen Mortier | 2007 | 104 min | Belgium

Three aging gutter punks (always a good lifestyle choice) ask one of Belgium's most famous writers, Dries, to be the drummer of their band for a one-off show. They are big fans of his confrontational writing style which they believe would translate nicely to punk rock. Dries doesn't play drums, but what the hell? A writer is always on the lookout for new material. Also, the three dudes are all drug addicts and complete degenerates. Also, they are all handicapped. Needless to say, a delicate comedy of manners ensues.

Okay, not quite. What follows is a film filled with a number of interesting visual ticks and gags, some intense story twists, and the kind of jet black humour the only Europeans can get away with (and only when they think no one is watching). This is a film for creeps who want heavy doses of Taxidermia with their Trainspotting. Creeps like me.

Though Dries enters the band to take a brief walk on the wild side and get out, he soon finds himself invested in the lives of his bandmates. As those lives spiral out of control, he is both drawn further in to the thrill of the drama and repulsed by the choices they make.

I don't want to say too much about the film because going in fairly blind will be a treat, but I have to warn: when I say 'black comedy' I don't mean War of the Roses black; I mean 'wow, that was a lot of rape jokes' black. Take heed. And enjoy.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Sylvester Stallone | 2008 | 93 minutes | USA

Two decades since Rambo III, Sylvester Stallone has gone back to the well of John J. Rambo for one more drink. The fact that a franchise was made out of the Rambo character was a sketchy decision to start, since First Blood was such a great movie, and worked so well on its own. But then along came Rambo: First Blood Part II, which is a completely different kind of action film, but in its own way, equally excellent. Then came Rambo III. Which is probably best left forgotten, but really can't be because of how badly it cheapened the franchise. Stallone surely understood this, which is why there wasn't a Rambo IV following it. A decade and a half or so later though, with a career that wasn't what it once was, he started making attempts to revive the franchise and character of Rambo. This new Rambo and his revival of Rocky Balboa last year, are his attempts (successful, I suppose) of putting himself back in the spotlight.

The new Rambo film, Rambo, starts with John living on the outskirts of Burma, making a living by renting his boat to tourists, and collecting snakes for a snake show promoter. No more hurt. No more fighting. His war is over. ... Or is it?

Of course it's not. There's a brutal warzone living right next door to him, and of course he's going to tighten his headband, bust out his bow and arrows, and kill more men than humanly possible. The how he gets to that point is what's wrong with the movie.

A group of Christian missionaries arrive one day and ask Rambo to take them up the river to Burma so that they can do the Lord's work, and make a difference. Rambo refuses them, telling them to go home. That they can't make a difference. Later that night when Rambo returns to his boat, Sarah, the hot missionary (played by Julie Benz from Dexter) is sitting on his boat waiting for him to plead that he take them to Burma. Again, he refuses, and tells her to go home about half a dozen times. After making puppy dog eyes in the rain at him for long enough, and giving a ridiculous but supposedly moving speech about how even if they're able to save one life, it'd be worth it, Rambo appears to have a crush, and agrees to take them.

FFWD a few weeks and of course they've been taken hostage in Burma. A minister from their church comes with a group of mercinaries, telling Rambo, and asking him to take the mercinaries up the the river to save the missionaries. Rambo gets mad, has a flashback, makes himself a big machete, and heads to Burma with the gang of hired tough guys to save his fantasy girlfriend.

So all of that is the not so great first half of the film. What follows is the rescue mission, and then a 20 minute or so CGI gore-gy of blood, guts, exploding heads, bodies and vehicles as Rambo and his gang of merry men (but mostly Rambo) take out all of the bad guys. It's a relentless sequence which is visceraly brutal, and makes the subpar film that's preceeded it all worthwhile.

The major problem with Rambo is that it takes itself too seriously. There's some fun in it, but the heavyhandedness that the Burma conflict is dealt with is offputting. Also, the main villain isn't a well drawn character like the villains in First Blood, First Blood II, and to a lesser degree Rambo III are. His death scene is really gruesome, but it doesn't mean as much as it would have if we'd known more about him than "he likes to fuck young boys". Which to be fair, isn't a very nice thing to do, but I need a couple more strikes against him to get me excited about his being killed.

Rambo's not a terrible film, and it's a big improvement over Rambo III, but it's mostly just because there's a tonne of splatter. Which by the way, I'm not quite sure how the MPAA let go with just an R rating. My guess: Dollah, dollah bills, y'all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In Hell

Ringo Lam | 2003 | 96 min | USA

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Tim Robbins, and ex-NFL star, Lawrence Taylor plays Morgan Freeman in this action remake of The Shawshank Redemption.

Kyle (JCVD) is an American in Russia on a job. One night on his drive home, while talking to his wife on the phone, she's attacked and killed before he can get there. When the law fails to convict the killer, he takes matters into his own hands, and avenges his wife's death by shooting the killer just outside the courtroom.

Kyle is then sentenced to life in a Russian prison without chance for parole. Inside he makes a couple new friends. A young American who's pimped out to the prison's main heavy every night by the head guard, and an old American who's in a wheelchair but who's the guy you go to if you want anything.

After acting up like a damn fool, Kyle is put in solitary confinement, where he sleeps in diarrhea, and fails miserably at hanging himself. As a punishment for his attempted suicide, the head guard puts him with a new cellmate named, 451 (Lawrence Taylor). He likes to burn people. Get it? Another thing he likes is SILENCE. At one point he declares, "There's too much noise in the world. I just want some peace and quiet. I've earned it." Morgan Freeman couldn't have said it better himself. You better not make a peep when 451 is around, either. Not only does he like to burn people, he likes to rip their tongues out with pliers, for talking too much.

Kyle acts a damn fool some more, and then some more, and then some more, with more and more time spent in solitary. When he emerges from a long stint with a beard, looking like Richard Chamberlain, he's become a savage, and takes part in inmate fights that are organized by the prison staff and then bet upon. After some fights, Kyle realizes that he's turning into a monster. He cuts his hair and shaves off his beard. ... Almost. He leaves a killer goatee.

To describe what happens after Jean-Claude Van Damme starts sporting a goatee would just be mean of me. Maybe it gives him the power to teleport out of the prison. Maybe it makes all of his fellow inmates want him. Maybe it just itches. You'll never know, unless you rent In Hell. That's not a thing I would recommend though. Oh wait. You could alternately rent The Shawshank Redemption, fast forward through about an hour's worth of the movie, and imagine a whole bunch of mediocre fight scenes peppered throughout.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Home for Old Trash

Stacey Case has been projecting ephemeral film on the wall of his screenprinting studio under the formal banner of Trash Palace since this past summer. Operating in downtown Toronto, his unique micro-cinema has offered strange pictures, good company, and cool beer to grateful cineaste nerds. Boasting rarely seen genre films like Schizo, Macon County Line, and Force On Thunder Mountain, Stacey and his compatriot 'Mouth' have provided a fun experience from the beginning, but I have had issues with the layout of the first Trash Palace venue. Size was definitely a constraint, and with Stacey as the ever congenial host, this sometimes meant everyone being jammed in beyond the number of seats available rather than him having to turn film lovers away.

Luckily the Trash Palace has just found a new home right next to the old that will allow the cinema to grow in both the quality of its screenings and the number of fans it can accommodate. This venue is roughly four times the size of its earlier home. There is now more than enough room for browsing souvenir ephemera, purchasing drinks and fresh roasted hotdogs, and best of all, plenty of seating. Each area is clearly defined and separated for comfort; a feature that was too frequently lacking in the previous venue. The new space also boasts a crude but effective projection booth to avoid sightline problems, jostling, and noise.

Though the idea of Trash Palace was always an exciting one to me, this new exhibition space should allow Stacey to realize the potential of his experiment. I hope to be seeing bizarre screenings there well into the future. Stacey and Mouth's happiness and enthusiasm for the material is contagious and a night at Trash Palace can be tremendous fun.

Currently the Palace holds screenings every second Friday night, the next being Frankenstein's Daughter on January 18th. Hit the link in the title to get more information. See you there soon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Mike Nichols | 2007 | 97 min | USA

Charlie Wilson's War reaffirms my long held belief that Tom Hanks should never have stopped doing comedies, because the only films of his that are worth a damn are the funny ones. This film has funny moments, but there are too few of them to rescue it from sweeping-melodrama-dreariness.

Don't get me wrong, there is some witty banter in this, a few laugh out loud moments, and Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman have some magical creepy-fat-guy scenes in which their chemistry actually verges on sexy, but ultimately it's a tepid based-on-real-events morality play about how the US saved but ultimately screwed Afghanistan in the '80s, setting the stage for their own political woes of the '00s. Is the idea that the US had something to do with fucking Afghanistan up the ass before the events of September 11 still a genuine surprise to people? Are these milquetoast revelations supposed to be provocative? Really Aaron Sorkin? Julia Roberts looks terrifying as the pinched, aging debutante who spurs Charlie to action, but that's neither here nor there.

In all honesty, I've only ever truly loved one Mike Nichols film - Working Girl, which managed to make the tedious ladder of (vague and nebulous) 'business' seem sort of exciting to climb. Pre-plastic-surgery Melanie Griffith is a dream (especially in that black + diamond off the shoulder frock), Harrison Ford is at his mid-career sexiest and Joan Cusack is such a goddamn firecracker as the sassy Cyn that I've still got bits of her dialogue memorized nearly 20 years after I first saw it.

What I'm trying to say is, with the notable exception of Hoffman, who shines in everything so brightly it's almost boring to mention it, this film is no Working Girl. The real Charlie Wilson would have been considerably more fun to spend 97 minutes with.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Rob Zombie | 2007 | 109 min | US

Rob Zombie is clearly a tremendous fan of the horror and exploitation films of the seventies. He has lovingly recreated the visceral style of them in each of his previous films, to varying success, but Halloween pushes it even further. This makes for some remarkable looking homage scenes, even including still-shots in the early part of the film. Unfortunately, Zombie also recycles the worst aspects of those exploitation films, imbuing Halloween with massive doses of misogyny. One can expect a boob or two watching this kind of film, but throwing in superfluous rape and stripping scenes? I would rather not.

Halloween also suffers from lengthy bouts of Extreme Dialogue. Large swatches of the script are nothing but people shouting variations on FUCK. And that is some fucking boring shit. Worse still, Sheri Moon Zombie continues to be a presence on screen. I know you love her, Rob, but she is a horrible actor. She needs to stop acting. Please let her naturally fade away.

The strongest part of the film by far is the first portion in which we see Michael Myers as a young boy enduring a terrible home life and constant harassment at school. The young actor, Daeg Faerch, does a great job at being creepy and distant. I imagine being in a room with that boy is unsettling. This attempt to ground the new Halloween with a realistic back story is an interesting approach, but it is done away with when we zoom ahead to the present day escape and kill spree. I will give credit to the portrayal of violence for actually coming off as panicked and wild as the subject demands. Very few attempts at horror manage to pull that off. However, the latter half transformation of Michael from damaged child psychopath to evil superhuman is inexplicable and ridiculous. When the horror of the first half of the film depends upon grounding Michael Myers as a realistic character, why switch gears to typical slasher fodder for the climax? I do not think it works and only causes the horror to lose steam.

There are some great looking scenes and a terrific set up to this ninth Halloween film. It is much better than I had expected in several respects, but it falls apart by the end and is still unnecessary by pretty well any account.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice

Kenji Misumi | 1972 | 94 min | Japan

Who's the Asian with a steel dick
That's a sex machine to all the chicks?
You're damn right

Who is the man
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?

Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's danger all about
Right on

You see this cat Hanzo is a bad mother--
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about Hanzo!
(Then we can dig it)

He's a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
(Razor Hanzo!)

Hanzo the Razor plays off the masculine lone wolf types that typify detective fiction, westerns, and other martial arts films, but this film owes its largest debt to American Blaxploitation movies. Hanzo is a hero, to be sure, but one who lives on the fringes of society. His quest for justice is frequently unorthodox and more often than not necessitates gettin his groove with sexy prisoners. Right on. From the amazing soundtrack to the odd institials, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is a bizarre and massively entertaining hybrid.