Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Challenge

John Frankenheimer | 1982 | 110 min | USA/Japan

Rick (Scott Glenn) is a down and out American boxer who makes his living as a sparring partner/human punching bag. He’s approached one day by Toshio, a Japanese man in a wheelchair and his sister, Akiko, to help them smuggle a very important sword into Japan for two thousand dollars. Having just been fired from his punching bag position for losing his temper and punching back a little too hard, he foolishly agrees to smuggle the sword.

Of course as soon as Rick lands in Japan and leaves the airport with his golf bag (where the sword is concealed amongst golf clubs), he’s thrown into a van and asked to hand over the bag. He soon finds out he’s been used as a decoy, and becomes entangled in an old family feud between two brothers, over a pair of samurai swords that have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries, called ‘The Equals’ (which was the original title of the script).

Toshio and Akiko are the son and daughter of Toru (played by the legendary, Toshiro Mifune, in one of his last roles), the elder of the two brothers, who continues to live according to ancient Japanese tradition. His brother, Yoshida, years ago stole one of the swords during the traditional passing down ceremony, and has become westernized; building a huge multinational company that has its hands in just about every thing.

After going to Toru to get the money he’s owed and suffering an embarrassing beating at the hands of one of the house’s young fighters, Rick’s offered thirteen thousand dollars by Yoshida’s men to go back and beg to be taken in as a student. The plan being that when the day comes when they trust him enough to leave him alone with the sword, he’ll steal it. He agrees, but slowly comes to respect Toru and the tradition he represents.

The Challenge is a strange mix of effective drama, some light comedy, and brutal violence that would be at home in a less respectable picture. It’s all balanced well though in the script, which was co-written by John Sayles. To add another layer to the film’s “HUH?” factor; its martial arts supervisor was a young Steven Seagal (credited as Steve Seagal).

Things get a little silly at the end during the big final showdown but it’s an incredibly fun kind of silly that doesn’t feel too out of place, and delivers enough that it’s still seems strange that Frankenheimer considers The Challenge one of his worst films. I understand that Scott Glenn using a stapler on a guy’s face in the middle of a sword fight isn’t the smoothest scene ever put to film, but it’s still pretty awesome.

This one isn’t on DVD for some reason, but it’s more than worth the effort to find a copy.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

White Lightnin'

Dominic Murphy | 2008 | 84 mins | UK

White Lightnin' might be the very best film at Sundance this year. Based loosely on the story of Jesco "the Dancing Outlaw" White, the film uses the Appalachian step dancer's real life as a jumping off point to tell a surreal and lurid story of vengeance, heartbreak and murder.

The real Jesco White (played here by astonishing relative-newcomer Edward Hogg) has been the subject of two documentaries that followed his attempts to follow in his father's famous mountain dancin' footsteps, while battling his own depression, drug addiction and the brutal poverty that affects so much of rural Appalachia.

In White Lightnin', we meet Jesco when he's just a little boy, so wild that his daddy has to handcuff him to a cot in a shack on their rundown property to keep him from stealing lighter fluid from the general store in order to get high. In and out of reform schools and insane asylums for most of his youth, Jesco was headed down a dangerous and tragic path when his father D-Ray decided to teach him the art of mountain dancing, a frenzied tap style that's accompanied by wild banjo music.

When his father is murdered by a pair of drunken rednecks, young Jesco puts on his shoes and taps around the countryside, getting drunk, getting into bar fights and ultimately falling in love with a woman (Carrie Fisher) who he describes as being "twice his age and half his size". He finds the married stay at home mom so beautiful he nicknames her 'Cilla, after Pricilla Presley, the most beautiful woman in the world, naturally.

'Cilla leaves her family to be with Jesco, but of course his tortured heart can't reconcile itself with the fact that his daddy's killers are still out there somewhere roaming free, so after a brief attempt at settling down to family life, his demons begin to resurface, threatening to destroy his entire world. Jesco goes to blood curdling lengths to attain the revenge and redemption he needs to set himself free of the devils that run through his blood.

Be warned: mountain dancing and glue huffin' is all fun and games, but I cannot overstate how deeply disturbing and dark this film becomes in the final act. Shit gets seriously fucked up. An incredibly unsettling journey into the heart of darkness from a first time feature director. I look forward to much good work in the future from these young Brits.

Bonus: a soundtrack full of Hasil Adkins songs. Nothing could compliment this story better.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Killing Room

Jonathan Liebesman | 2009 | 90 mins | USA

Four random volunteers turn up at some kind of medical facility for what they believe is a paid research study. Within moments of their introduction to the coolly European sounding Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare), one of them has been shot dead and left to bleed out in the room with them. The remaining three terrified civilians are locked in while military psychologist Ms. Reilly (Chloƫ Sevigny) watches from an observation chamber, emotionally conflicted about the classified experiment she is witnessing.

As it turns out, Dr. Phillips is trying to recruit Ms. Reilly to join his top secret team, to work on a macabre program that was thought to have been terminated over two decades before. Sevigny is ok in the role but she takes the "ambitious and unemotional" side of her character so seriously that her face may as well be made of wood for most of the film. Even as her veneer cracks (inevitably, as the experiment becomes more and more horrific to witness) she remains just a smidge too stoic.

Timothy Hutton and Nick Cannon (a savvy livin'-on-the-fringes skeptic and a scared kid, respectively) both really shine in their roles as pawns in the gruesome experiment. They (alongside Shea Whigham and Clea DuVall) are the four volunteers who quickly discover that they're unwilling participants in a deadly nightmare in which they are presented with a series of questions they they must answer in a finite period of time, knowing that one of them will be "eliminated" at the end of each round.

The film's basic premise is based on a real top-secret government psychological experiment called MK-ULTRA, which conducted mind control experiments on unsuspecting members of the public from the 1950s through the '70s. The CIA officially claims that the project has been abandoned for decades, and The Killing Room starts out as an imaginative exploration of what MK-ULTRA might look like in the present day.

The sinister cat and mouse game being played by the demented Dr. Phillips starts out intriguing as the captives become increasingly demented in their attempts to figure out what the hell is going on. Unfortunately, toward the end of the film, the once-promising story deteriorates into a reveal that is so implausible as to make the whole film seem like a big, silly waste of time.

The ending was obviously intended to be bone-chilling, but comes off as ill-conceived instead. Good setup, disappointing finish.

Monday, January 19, 2009


David Mackenzie | 2009 | 97 mins | USA

This lame duck of a comedy/drama is currently premiering at Sundance, and will likely be coming to theatres in the very near future. Let me save you $12. It's unfunny, and you will grow to hate every single character in it well before the halfway mark. Ashton Kutcher plays Nicki, a cocky hustler who cons rich women of a certain age into buying him expensive gifts and letting him stay with them until he moves on to a better conquest. A creepily thin Anne Heche plays Samantha, his latest mark on the merry path to wealth and success as a homeless but handsome gigolo.

Spread has already drawn comparisons to films like Shampoo (which had twice the humour) and American Gigolo (which had twice the dramatic tension) but the sad fact is that while Kutcher has the good looks, he's got nowhere near the charisma of a young Warren Beatty or even a young Richard Gere. The latter two succeed because they're likable and their seduction act is convincing enough that you think (even if only for a split second) "yeah, I'd fall for him". Kutcher is comparatively ludicrous in the role of a scheming charmer - nothing about his smarmy goofball demeanour makes it plausible that anyone would fall for his act for more than a single night.

I guess idiots like Samantha exist in the world, but letting a one night stand move in with you is such a stupid thing to do that it's very difficult to feel any sympathy for her when it becomes apparent that Nicki is just using her for her swanky digs.

Predictably, while he's living off Samantha, Nicki ends up falling in love with a pretty and seemingly innocent waitress, Heather (Margarita Levieva), only to discover that she's the same kind of scam artist as he is. The two begin a painful dance around each other that culminates in a stupid reckoning where everyone's supposed to come to terms with who and what they really are, and choose between love and money, and blah, blah, blah.

It's basically impossible to care about anyone in this film. Both Nicki and Heather are unlikable jerks and Samantha is a desperate, simpering ninny. What might have been a good sexually charged tale about two grifters that pits ambition and vanity against human decency and love is instead a lukewarm drama in which the sex isn't even hot. The stylish, hip, sun-drenched backdrop of a hustler's L.A. is actually the only good thing about Spread. The producers should have kept the cinematographer and fired everyone else!

If you're an Ashton Kutcher completist, I guess you should go see this. But while you're at the theatre, seriously question whether you even actually like movies.

Apartment Zero

Martin Donovan | 1989 | 124 mins | UK / Argentina

Colin Firth plays Adrian LeDuc, a fusspot movie buff who manages a rep cinema in post-Junta Buenos Aires and has an almost Psycho-esque fixation on his ailing mother, who resides in a mental hospital. Reclusive to the point of absurdity (he’s a native of Argentina but pretends to be British in order to avoid chatting with his neighbours), Adrian is clearly rattled when debt forces him to take on a roommate.

Predictably, he finds a handsome handsome, confident and gregarious polar opposite, Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), to share his flat. Jack is an American expat who works at a local computer firm. He’s charming as hell, and immediately makes friends with the nosy neighbours Adrian warns him to avoid. More used to interacting with dead stars of the silver screen than real humans, Adrian becomes obsessively drawn to his new roommate – doing his laundry, fixing him breakfast and starting spats when he’s late for dinner.

All this takes place during a grizzly murder spree - a serial killer is on the loose, and the police have few leads. As the tone of the story drops, it becomes clear that something is amiss in the strange relationship between the two men in apartment zero. Adrian becomes suspicious of Jack, the neighbours become suspicious of Adrian, and everything takes on a tense and almost comical Tenant-like tone of mistrust while people continue to turn up dead around the city.

It’s hard to say who’s the creepier party in the drama of co-dependence that develops between the punctilious Adrian and the coolly affable Jack, whose relationship becomes more and more eerily touching as the film goes on. A solidly written and well acted thriller that escalates in suspense and black humour to a very enjoyable (if somewhat too sardonic) final act.

Friday, January 16, 2009

4 [Chetyre]

Ilya Khrjanovsky | 2005 | 126 min | Russia

One quiet night on the streets of a Russian metropolis two men and a woman find themselves together in a bar, sharing drinks and stories of their work. The woman is marketing a Japanese product that emits vibes of happiness, one man sells high-end water that has earned him a position as a government insider, and the last man is a genetic engineer who has been engaged in secret cloning experiments. Of course, these power brokers did not just happen to bump into each other. They are all liars; a prostitute, a shady meat salesman, and a piano tuner respectively. Each of them is ashamed enough of their positions in the booming capitalist nation (were everyone should be getting rich) that preposterous lies are the desirable option, even when dealing with strangers for a short while.

When the three leave the bar we follow each on their own course and find all of them embroiled in criminal endeavours. Prostitute Marina is given the most attention as she travels to the small village of her upbringing for the funeral of an old friend. Is it here we have the most obvious clash of generations (and metaphor) in which the old women of the village recycle chewed food into hideous dolls sold to wealthy collectors. Marina's world is interesting, but it is a shame we see less of the other characters by such a broad margin.

4 is not a great film and the quick stitch up at the end barely fits the definition of a "resolution." However, there are several visually inventive moments that make it a worthwhile experience. There are nods to the urban nightmares of Gaspar Noe and the grotesque surrealism of Jan Svankmejer, particularly in Marina's story. Khrjanovsky's take on the dilapidated environs of the New Russia is striking. Look to 4 for engrossing visuals, but not a captivating storyline.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear

Peter Winther | 2004 | 92 min | US

It is a rare movie that lives up to the promise its title suggests, but oh what joy when that movie comes along. Yes, the first of the Librarian movies (its a fucking SERIES) is the perfect storm. Noah Wyle plays an overacheiving long-time student who becomes the librarian of a secret respository of the worlds mystical treasures. A repository headed by Jane Curtin and Bob Newhart. When the mystical Spear of Destiny is stolen from the collection by a gang of toughs led by a tattooed, cargo-panted Kyle Maclachlin, only the librarian can unlock the clues to retreive it. Wyle embarks on a series of low rent Indiana Jones riffs that take him from a terrible digital backdrop of the Amazon jungle all the way to a terrible digital backdrop of the Nepal mountains. Come to think of it, "Noah Wyle plays librarian Indiana Jones on cable television" is probably more than enough.

The Librarian enjoys the distinction of having Bob Newhart's first action scenes, so you can only imagine the liveliness with which they are delivered. The clumsy, glacial pace of those action sequences is only matched by the amateurish and frequently inexplicable special effects. Why does Bob Newhart emerge from the wall in a shower of gold dust? Is he magic? An issue I trust is further explored in the sequel (which is on my shelf).

This is the kind of passion project that Noah Wyle left ER to pursue. Good call, friend. So, quick name check on the other cast members: Olympia Dukakis, Bob Newhart, Kyle MacLachlan, and Jane Curtin. Was there a stock market crash in 2003? This lunatic vision is one giant interrobang after another. Necessary viewing for librarians, Noah Wyle completists.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Vanishing Act

David Greene | 1986 | 95 mins | USA

This comedy-tinged whodunit stars Elliott Gould as Lieutenant Rudameyer, a New York cop transplanted into a small town nestled in the mountains, where the air is too damn fresh and you can't find a decent smoked meat sandwich to save your life.

When a man named Harry Kenyon (Mike Farrell) bursts into his police station claiming that his new bride has disappeared during their honeymoon, Rudameyer is skeptical at first, but becomes increasingly embroiled in the strange case. Kenyon claims that his wife Chris, a woman he met only a week before in Las Vegas and fell in love with at first sight, has mysteriously disappeared only days after they began their honeymoon in the snowy oasis.

When the wife (Margot Kidder) turns up in the care of a local priest, Father Macklin (Fred Gwynne), the case seems neatly tied up, except for one thing: Harry Kenyon is adamant that the pretty brunette standing before him is not his wife. There's no evidence to support Kenyon's wild claim that the newly rediscovered Chris is an impostor, but of course he's the only person in town who's ever seen her before, so it's all rather difficult to prove.

The film slowly escalates in tension as suspense, as the husband, the wife and the priest all dance around each other, each more suspicious than the next. Only dear old Rudameyer is reliably unconcerned and uninvolved, spending most of his time talking nostalgically about the good old days, when he lived in smoggy, dirty, beautiful New York. While everyone else is in some kind of thriller, he seems to be acting in a near-slapstick comedy. It's awesome.

Vanishing Act is decent for a TV movie, but not much more than that. At least there's enough payoff in the 'twist ending' to make the 95 minutes seem worthwhile. Sort of.

Jack Frost

Michael Cooney | 1996 | 89 mins | USA

The holiday season is behind us, and one might think that the time to watch Christmas-themed horror is over for another year. But in all honesty, I don't think it's ever the wrong time to watch a film about a demented psycho killer snowman.

To clarify for any of you who may have been confused by the photo above, this is not the heartwarming drama starring Michael Keaton as a dead dad who's come back as a snowman to spend the holiday season with his family. This is a ridiculous late '90s slasher film in which an evil-as-evil-can-be snowman rampages through a small town the night before Christmas.

The super bad-ass serial killer, Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald) is being transported from jail to the electric chair one wintry night when the truck crashes and he gets accidentally sprayed by some sort of experimental 'acid'. Instead of killing him, the liquid essentially makes his body disintegrate, only to allow his "soul" to bond with the snow under his feet, turning him into, you guessed it, a demented psycho killer snowman.

The snowman returns to the cute little town (it's called Snowmonton, by the way) where the sheriff who put him behind bars lives with his wife and son. The sheriff is still haunted by Jack Frost's rampage through his life, though none of the back-story is ever filled in. All we know is, he's a bad guy, and now he's a snowman, and it's nearly Christmas. Shit is fucked.

You'd think that a killer snowman would be fairly easy to kill - you just melt him, right? Not so with old Jack Frost. Since the acid incident, he's been able to control his molecules so that he can melt and re-freeze at will, allowing him not only to escape attempts on his life but also to enter places by melting and slipping in under the door, that sort of thing.

Pretty soon a pair of shady federal agents turn up to either help or muck things up. Who really cares at this point - all I want are more hilarious kills featuring christmas tree ornaments and snowman rape scenes where the evil dude reconstitutes himself out of a hot babe's bathwater. Seriously.

Possibly one of the stupidest Chirstmas-themed horror films I've seen to date. But in spite of this warning, you're totally wondering how they end up destroying him, right?

Highly recommended.