Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Speed Racer

The Wachowski Brothers | 2008 | 135 min | USA

If you're a fan of the original Speed Racer show, interested in watching a great example of cartoon-to-live action adaptation, a lover of stunningly colourful and complex CGI car races, or are a ten year old boy, Speed Racer should be at the top of your list of films to see in a theatre right now.

If you're none of those things, rent Bound and hope the Wachowskis make their second good movie (for you) soon.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Strange Wilderness

Fred Wolf | 2008 | 87 min | US

Remember when it seemed like Steve Zahn might be awesome? Well, those days are done. I laughed about four times during this movie, each laugh more pitying than the one before.

Jonah Hill is now dangerously close to making the "I Guess We Were Wrong About Him" list too.


Mitchell Lichtenstein | 2007 | 88 min | US

Dawn is the proud vocal leader of her high school's chastity group. It is a role which has earned her daily taunts from most of her high school classmates, but has been essential in Dawn keeping her budding and confusing sexuality at bay. Dawn possesses the vagina dentata of myth, a toothed vagina, but is unaware of her uniqueness or why her own body frightens her.

It takes a little while for Teeth to get rolling beyond the same chastity riffing as Saved and when it does move ahead it is because Dawn is the victim of an assault. The attack leads her to believe she may be slightly different than other girls, biologically speaking. Her vagina dentata reveals itself to be a defense against sexual violence, but unfortunately, Teeth's lazy script then demands every male be a rapist in order to propel the story forward at all. With such clumsy characterization the intended shocks give way to eye rolling very quickly.

Of the many problems with Teeth the biggest is that Lichtenstein can never decide what he wants the film to be. The early moments of horror work very well, but then it runs off the rails into self-conscious comedy. Then back to horror, but this time without the punch. Then back to comedy. I think.

Considering how scattered this film is, it's surprising that it is so utterly predictable at every turn. By the time the last scene lumbered forward I don't know if I was more irritated by the wink at the camera or that I knew it was coming. The one saving grace is the performance of Jess Weixler as Dawn. Stick to helping your dad paint dots, Mitchell.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pop Skull

Adam Wingard | 2007 | 86 mins | USA

The first thing I heard about Pop Skull, before hearing what the film is about or whether it's any good, is that it was made for something in the neighbourhood of $3,000. An impressive feat for a feature length film that's getting decent reviews and film fest play, to be sure. In fact, the crazily low price tag is kind of reason enough to go see the film - just to see what the ambitious young filmmakers managed to accomplish with so little.

As it turns out, they managed a lot. Low budget creepy horror films can be really, really bad when the filmmakers are unable to reconcile a grand vision with a shoestring budget. Pop Skull stands out for fully using these limitations to its advantage.

Most of all, the film succeeds because it's clever. The story is about a young over-the-counter pill addict who's pining over a lost love and may or may not be seeing ghosts (but who knows, when he's high on cough syrup all the time). The writing is good, the structure is creepy and suspenseful and best of all, at no point does Pop Skull look or feel cheap. In fact, the low-fi video look is used brilliantly to achieve a trippy, dark aesthetic. Everything about Pop Skull seems well thought out and intentional, and not like a compromise that could have been executed better with more cash.

I guess technically it is a 'horror' film (if we have to be so rigid about our genre definitions), but it's definitely not a startle-a-minute gore fest. The pace is slow, contemplative and meandering, and creates an atmosphere of unease and discomfort that settles over the viewer like a warm blanket made of bugs.

People like director Adam Wingard prove a really important, oft-forgotten point that it's easy to lose sight of: money can't buy smarts, and a million dollars (or 80) can't make up for a lack of good ideas or competent writing. Highly recommended, though now that it's done screening at Toronto's Over The Top Fest, it may be a while before the film is available again. Fingers crossed for a good DVD release.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I Think We're Alone Now

Sean Donnelly | 2008 | 70 mins | USA

Jeff Turner is a 50-something Santa Cruz man with Asperger’s Syndrome and a wealth of conspiracy theories about secret societies and satanic cults. Kelly McCormick is a 38-year-old hermaphrodite and sports fanatic from Denver who’s finally settling into her identity after a lifetime of gender confusion, family dysfunction and heartache.

Both are really, really huge Tiffany fans. Jeff has a machine that helps him communicate spiritually with the ‘80s pop star, while Kelly believes it is her life’s destiny to be with Tiffany.

It’s easy to see Jeff and Kelly as creepy stalkers, or pitiable crazies whose grip on reality is tenuous at best. But instead of poking fun at their delusions or their unrequited love for Tiffany, director Sean Donnelly offers a touching and distressing portrait of mental illness, obsession, hope and the deep need for love and understanding.

I Think We’re Alone Now starts out seeming like it’ll be pretty hilarious, if a bit cringe-worthy at times. The pleasant but difficult-to-sit-through surprise is that it’s actually profoundly disturbing and affecting. An unflinching look at two people whose inability to form meaningful bonds with people in their lives has been tragically superimposed on what might otherwise have been normal fandom.

The sad footnote is Tiffany herself, who appears in the film only briefly in various concert appearances at free beach shows and Vegas gay clubs. I guess after nearly two decades of toiling in obscurity, you start to appreciate the loyal, dedicated (if somewhat stalkerish) fans who’ve stuck by you through thick and thin. Back in the 80s, when she was teenage hot stuff, Tiff had a restraining order against Jeff. Now that times have changed, she gives the ubiquitous fan a hug at each public appearance.

The film premiered this week at Over The Top Fest, but you can catch it again at another of Toronto’s many film festivals later in the month – Inside Out .

Play It As It Lays

Frank Perry | 1972 | 99 mins | USA

Watching Play It As It Lays feels a bit like being on some heavy downers. It’s slow paced, depressing and oh-so-stylish. It’s sort of like slipping quietly out of consciousness after a long, hard day of schmoozing and being nice to insufferable people. With the help of a pint of gin and valium, of course.

The aforementioned insufferables, the desolate desert landscapes, the petty arguments and improbable film sets all create a terrifically unbearable backdrop for Tuesday Weld to gently fall away from sanity in a hazy post-abortion breakdown. Her only support comes in the acerbic form of Anthony Perkins, her gay best friend. Perkins is probably the best thing about the film, as a disillusioned, mean spirited and quick witted producer.

Not much happens in Play It As It Lays. Films get made, everyone drinks a lot, has one night stands, attends parties and drives along the city’s many intricate highways. Beyond that, it’s just life as usual in soul-numbingly depressing Hollywood, California. It's really a hell of a bummer, but the film wouldn't be nearly as good any other way.

My favourite thing about this bleak film is its’ even more gloriously bleak, unresolved ending. The action trickles to a stop like the blood from a limp, carelessly slit wrist, and provides a perfect end to a perfectly senseless world. Play It As It Lays is notoriously difficult to find on VHS or DVD, but if you get the chance, it’s worth seeing this downer of a movie, if only to see Perkins in his only openly gay role and fabulous shaggy haircut.

Camille 2000

Radley Metzger | 1969 | 115 mins | Italy

If only the 1960s were actually as outlandishly stylish as this insane, Italian sex melodrama. The sets (from the main character’s crazy white-plastic mansion, complete with a clear plastic inflatable bed, all the way to the bondage dungeon themed party near the film’s conclusion) are totally mental, and the costumes are indescribably elaborate and fantastical. From the film’s opening sequence, in which Danièle Gaubert as Marguerite (a.k.a. the film’s tragic heroine) is swathed in a dress that looks like it’s made of silk and Plexiglas, it is clear that design is at least as compelling a reason to watch as the faint hope of soft focus boobs.

Camille 2000 is really, really sentimental and sad - surprisingly so. I almost forgot it was supposed to be sexy and titillating because the melodrama was so thick. You could hear soft sighs and sniffs in the audience – people who’d been taken on an involuntary emotional journey by the film’s silly, maudlin, tragic love story.

My advice is, forget the sadness and the heartbreak, and focus on that insane dresses that look like they're made out of razors or alien matter brought down from a secret mission to Mars, y'know? Costume designer Enrico Sabbatini should have gotten an Oscar (or some Italian equivalent) for his creations. He also worked on Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet, so I can only assume that it’s a mindblowing work of visual genius.

Oh, the score by Piero Piccioni is also 100% top notch. Listen a bit here and fall in love.