Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dude Movies: Death Wish 3

(A word of introduction: Death Wish 3 is not available for rent at Gen X. I know, right? And they call themselves a video store. Hopefully this will shame Mike into stocking what is clearly the greatest cinematic achievement of all time. - madkevin.)

What's it about?
The nearly geriatric Charles Bronson, fresh from having literally his entire extended family killed in the previous two Death Wish movies, drifts into Brooklyn only to find it overrun with roving gangs of criminals, hooligans, ne'er do wells, goons, gangsters, thugs, hoods, toughs, mobsters, punks, ruffians, troublemakers, villans, outlaws, ravagers, racketeers, barbarians, vandals, scofflaws, desperados, vandals, hustlers, wrongdoers, and Gavan O'Herlihy.*

Any chicks in the movie?
Not just any chick, but Marina Sirtis, aka Deanna Troy from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Thankfully, her character doesn't speak English in Death Wish 3, so you never have to hear her tell Bronson that she "senses danger".** Good news: You get to see her naked! Bad news: She gets raped to death.

Awesomeness factor?
Unquantifiable. Some movies are bad. Some movies are so bad that they start to become entertaining. Then there's Death Wish 3, a movie so indescribably, painfully dreadful it rips through the very fabric of space-time itself to become possibly the most brilliant movie ever made. There's no sense in treating Death Wish 3 like a normal movie made by sane human people, so I'm just going to break it down into bullet points:

1) The score is done by Jimmy Page. Yes, that Jimmy Page. Which you'd think would be cool, right? Unfortunately, this was Jimmy Page during some weird period in the mid-80s when he said to himself "I wonder what these synthesizer thingimabobs are all about?" So it's a score composed mainly of tone-deaf run-throughs of various Roland patch settings which I'm sure sounded really avant-garde to Jimmy but comes across like Tangerine Dream smashing keyboards with their foreheads while kicking a guitar with their feet.

2) Charles Bronson was sixty-four years old when he made Death Wish 3. Now, don't get me wrong: I love Charles Bronson. Once Upon A Time In The West is the best Western ever, period, end declarative statement. We're talking about a dude who was a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen and a Great Escaper. But Chuck wasn't exactly spry even in his prime, and by 1985 he was looking and moving like, well, a dude in his 60s. This does not phase Death Wish 3 which, after all, was made at the absolute height of of Reaganism. Most of the crop of revenge pictures made in the wake of the success of the original Death Wish were not-so-lightly veiled racist wish fufillment fantasies - wouldn't those inner cities be awesome if we could get rid of all those unsightly minorities? Death Wish 3, on the other hand, embraces minorites... just as long as they're as old as Chuck. Which brings me to point number three:

3) Death Wish 3 is action movie porn for senior citizens. OK, so Chuck shows up in Brooklyn, which in the weirdo universe of the movie is being over-run by a gang seemingly culled from Pat Benatar's gang in the "Love Is A Battlefield" video: lots of young people wearing bandanas, cut-off sleeve denim vests and that super-gay styling Hollywood gives actors when they want to signify "punk" but the actors don't want to get an actual haircut. For some reason, this gang acts like they're eight years old, openly hassling women and non-gang dudes by throwing rocks at them and other acts better suited to Dennis The Menace. The Warriors they ain't, is what I'm saying. Meanwhile, literally every other character in the movie is either a scared-but-proud minority, a senior citizen, or both***. There's an old Jewish couple in the movie that is so old and so Jewish that you keep expecting Zero Mostel to sell them shares in Springtime For Hitler. When Chuck starts cleaning up the town, it isn't revenge so much as open disgust at the young people of today (of 1985), with their hair and their music and their hipitty-hopping and their potty mouths. Chuck'll wash that mouth out, young man. With bullets.

4) And then there's this:

Note that the bald guy with him? The "I owed you one, dood!" guy? He's supposed to be a cop. Eat it, Miranda rights!

Anyway, this is already the longest review I've ever written and I didn't even talk about Martin Balsalm, Alex "Bill From Bill & Ted" Winter, or Bronson's excellent choice in weaponry. Some things you just owe it to yourself to watch.

Mitigating Factor?
Do not, under any circumstances, watch Death Wish 4. You have been warned.

* Of all the myraid of reasons to watch Death Wish 3, Gavan O'Herlihy should be right at the very top. The dude sports a reverse mohawk with Adam Ant facepaint and a big red stripe down the center of his shaved skull, so that he literally resembles a dickhead. As in, he looks like he has a dick for a head. People talk about fearless actors, but you don't see Philip Seymour Hoffman walking around as Penishead.

** I mean, seriously. The Enterprise is surrounded by fucking Romulan warships or whatever and you sense danger? Well no shit, Kreskin. Way to contribute to the team.

*** OK, not quite. There's also the lawyer played by Deborah Raffin (who, by the way, has the best imdb page ever: Jacqueline Susan's Once Is Not Enough! Larry Cohen's God Told Me To! The Goldie Hawn replacement for the TV series of Foul Play! Scanners II: The New Order! What, American Ninja to good for you?) who exists in the movie as the most perfunctory love interest imaginable for Chuckles. Even Death Wish 3 understands that nobody in the entire known universe wants to see Chuck get it on, no matter how comely the lass, so the love scene tastefully blacks out before you see any of Chuck's, um, folds. Not so tastefully, the very next scene shows Raffin in a car saying something like "Aren't you glad you let me in?" when Chuck turns away for a second, giving O'Herlihy an opening to run up to the car, punch her full in the face and put the car in neutral, causing it roll down a hill, smash into another car and EXPLODE.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #25: Santo vs. Frankenstein's Daughter (1971)

What gives El Santo, "the multitude's idol", his amazing power? How is he able to get up so quickly after being thrown down so violently? How can he recover so expertly after a receiving a flurry of strong blows? The answer is in his blood, and Dr. Frankenstein knows it.

The daughter of the famous Dr. Frankenstein, alive today because of an age-stopping serum she has developed, needs Santo's regenerative blood to perfect the now failing potion before she ages and dies. She'll get him by nabbing his hot girlfriend and using Truxon to defeat him when Santo comes to the rescue. Truxon is this big half man half gorilla monster created injecting gorilla blood into a man. That's really all it takes, people.

It's gorilla time.

So I was amazed to find that there's actual character development in this film, and interesting character development to boot. That utterly blew my mind. Frankenstein's Daughter possesses villains that are actually interesting to watch, who don't serve instead as mere fodder for El Santo's panther-crushing arms. They demand pathos, they suffer, and merely seek to stay alive. Even what's usually just a host of generic henchman are sympathetic and interesting - they live in fear of Dr. Frankenstein's power, and are presented as individual people with differing personalities. The lead henchman seems to have genuine concern for Dr. Frankenstein, and may in fact be in love with her. A more memorable example is the eye-patch wearing henchman that can't take part in Frankenstein's plot to send a freshly hypnotized girlfriend to claw out Santo's eyes. He can't guard Santo because he can remember what it was like to lose his own eye when he was young. It's indicative of the effort that was put into this Santo installment, and it really works to produce what I consider the best kind of B-movie - the sort that takes itself seriously enough to garner emotional investment from its audience.

Most interesting for me was Ursus, a frankensteinian monster that poses a terrible threat to Santo and his compatriots when the gorilla-man Truxon fails. The interesting part is that after Ursus takes a terrible wound and is left for dead, Santo finds him again later, suffering horribly and near death. Santo takes pity and uses his shirt to bandage the monster up. Santo tells the monster that he'll come back for him when Dr. Frankenstein is defeated, and when Santo can't seem to move the heavy gravestone that hides the entrance to Frankenstein's base, the monster, in terrible pain, does it for him. He secretly follows Santo and his companions and gives more aid at an integral moment, at the cost of his face. You'll see why. When Frankenstein's base starts to collapse, Santo doesn't want to leave the monster, but realises that his suffering must come to an end. Fantastic stuff.

Oh, and something I think I keep forgetting to mention is how awesome the soundtracks are in Santo movies. Swingin', ultra groovy tracks that usually kick the film's mood off accompanied by colourful opening credit sequences that really encapsulate the era they come from. Frankenstein's Daughter provides no less.

So: Another really cool Santo film, and the first directed by Miguel M. Delgado. Probably the best of the ones I've watched, though Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman (also Delgado) comes a very close second for sheer awesomeness.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #24: Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy (1970)

Now in colour! Except not this photo.

Influenced heavily by Death Curse of Tartu! (1967), the Hammer horror films, and El Santo being a demigod, Vengeance of the Mummy features Santo joining an expedition into the wild jungle to locate the tomb, and the treasure, of an Olpache prince. What they find of course is a mummy, and a serious bout of vengeance.

Oh, great. A mummy.

We get the mummy's story in flashback, and it's actually done really well. Good costuming and set work that actually surprised me. In it we learn that prince Nonoc, who refused to let his love be sacrificed at the altar, makes a fateful run for it. It's that classic story we all know and have seen ourselves at some point in life: boy meets girl, girl is scheduled to be sacrificed to the gods, boy is unsure he approves of that business, boy elopes with girl, girl is killed, boy is entombed alive in a cave by his pursuers. All awfully romantic.

This is definitely a jungle, friends.

And in general, Vengeance is all pretty thoroughly entertaining. When you note that Santo is actually wrestling - I kid you not - a real fucking panther, you have to acknowledge that you're watching something fairly special. The poor cat ends up getting choked in the air by Santo and thrown, by the neck, a good distance. The panther sensibly flees after that, realising that in the great natural food chain Santo is listed just below 'utah-sized asteroid.' Santo's actually pretty uncharacteristically harsh in this film, as he genuinely threatens to kick the asses of the hired village folk who, legitimately afraid for their lives, want to abandon the expedition after the first mummy-related death. Santo aside, there's a good deal of murder going on in this movie. Old men getting murdered, women, mercenaries, assorted village folk. Everyone's at the mercy of the angry mummy and his decrepit arrows. The Olpache prince's vengeance and the presence of Olpache descendants among the village people actually partially hints at a political significance that bobs up to the surface just barely, one poking a finger at the white man's Imperialism, which lends Vengeance a gravity that most Santo films lack.

So: Good fun, the first Santo film I wholly liked, annoying bumbling professor aside. Ends off with a lame twist for an added bonus.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie Smash (Readers Beware)

#60. The Stoning of Soraya M.

I was going to comment directly on this excellent film, until I made the mistake of reading a spate of popular reviews already written about it. On, male reviewer after male reviewer (yes, there are some females as well, but the bias is staggering) condemn the film for its purportedly blanket portrayal of men. AV Club and The Globe and Mail call the film's plot-line ham-fisted and melodramatic. The New York Times is one of numerous reviews to cattily call out a twenty-minute stoning scene as over-the-top and sensationalist, in the same vein as The Passion of the Christ.

So... now Maggie's a little pissed off, and a straight-forward review's gone down the crapper. (TL;DR: The Stoning of Soraya M is well worth viewing with an open mind and an eye for nuanced character portrayals amid horrific overarching realities.)

Let's get a few of the basics straight about this film before I go off the rails: The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on the true story of a woman named Soraya Manutchehri, who was stoned to death in 1986 in the rural mountain village of Kupayeh, under Iranian Sharia law.

"Based on," some may say: "Okay, sure, but how many liberties were taken with the story?" The answer is "almost none," and what liberties are there are almost laughable. Here are two of the biggest ones:

1) The real Soraya M was married at thirteen to a twenty-year-old man. She bore him nine children, seven alive, and in the process incurred his beatings, his wrath, and his campaign to turn the eldest two sons against her. In the movie, no doubt for simplicity, Soraya is featured as having four children: two girls the father ignores, and two sons he turns against her.

2) In real life, the French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam, accidentally chanced upon this story (thanks in no small part to the bravery of Soraya's aunt, Zahra Khanum) two weeks after the stoning occurred. In the movie, the event is said to have occurred the day before the journalist found himself in the city.

Meanwhile, what does not change are some very stark, horrific facts of the original narrative:

1) Soraya M. was stoned to death because she was an "inconvenient wife": Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, wanted to marry a fourteen-year-old girl, but neither wanted to support his first wife nor return her dowry, so he conspired with the local mullah to have her killed.

2) Ghorban-Ali's charges amounted to his word, and the word of a coerced cousin, over a smile and Soraya's purported brushing of hands with another man. Sharia law, as practised after the fall of the Shah, gives a woman the responsibility of proving her own innocence when so accused by her husband; conversely, she is responsible for proving a man's guilt. That same law also ups the punishment for adultery from the convention of fines or community service to death by stoning -- a punishment wherein women are the victims nine times out of ten.

3) Ghorban-Ali was aided by a mullah who'd been convicted as a child molester under the Shah's rule, and released during the revolution. Since Ghorban-Ali was a prison guard, it's not surprising that the complicity of the pair was aided by shared knowledge of the mullah's secret criminal record.

Now, it bears noting that I knew almost none of this going into the film (I knew about the horrors of stoning and its prevalence among certain cultures, but that was about it). Until the end of the film, I did not know Soraya was a real person: rather, I had assumed she was an amalgam of female victims, a fictional representation. To discover that Soraya was a real woman who endured the real brutality of post-revolution Iran's systemic violence against women was a staggering and heart-rending blow.

But here's the real key in all of this: that blow was staggering and heart-rending because the film had been so well constructed--because the crude reality of this scenario had already been driven home. Pablo Picasso once wisely wrote: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." The Stoning of Soraya M is a film that does precisely this.

So I began to wonder, what the hell were all these reviewers on, to condemn a movie in the ways I mentioned above? If you'll remember, the main points were "man-hating," "melodramatic," and "sensationalist." And in re-reading the aforementioned reviews, the answer dawned on me pretty quickly: Timing, and the name of the director, informed so much of people's reactions to the material. Specifically, director/writer Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Path to 9/11) is considered a "conservative-leaning" artist -- or so it emerged when reviewers began laying into The Stoning of Soraya M -- and so of course the film was quickly identified by most parties as a blatant ploy to stir up xenophobia against Iranians, condemn Iranian culture in such a way as would justify war/invasion, and otherwise use a singular case to argue for the barbarism of Iran as a whole.

Riiiiight. This would be all well and good, if we'd actually been watching the same film. But as someone who was clueless about the director's past and the implied ideological motivations for making this piece before watching the film itself, I'm going to assume we were watching two very different movies. Let's deconstruct some of those complaints with evidence from the actual film, shall we?

Man-Hating: The most common criticism I encountered was that the portrayals were all too black-and-white, with reviewers complaining that the men were depicted as evil for evil's sake. This was a stunning complaint to me, because a) the Iranian who relays this horrific miscarriage of justice to the world at large is -- gasp! a man! and b) the varied motivations of each guilty male in the piece seemed in fact painstakingly documented; to me, they were one of the most important parts of this film's success.

There is Soraya's husband, Ali, for one--a horrible man who was depicted as precisely that: narcissistic, violent, and sadistic. The man he's based after actually succeeded in having his wife publicly murdered so he could pursue a 14-year-old, so anyone who imagines he should have been given an excuse for his conduct is out of their freaking minds. There are sadists in the world. He is one of them.

The mullah, on the other hand, is portrayed as a coward. He knows his own life is in danger if his secret past is revealed, so he goes from passively preaching to propositioning Soraya as incentive to get her to give Ali a divorce. This "incentive," the "opportunity" to become a holy whore in order to support her children in Ali's absence, does not go over well--and now the mullah's community standing is threatened from two quarters. He thus sides more vigilantly with Ali and seeks Soraya's death as a means to acquit himself from personal danger.

Then there's Ebrahim, the mayor of the town and the film's icon of passive complicity. As Zahra shrewdly points out, when warned by him of the dangers of the new era's laws, Ebrahim does no better by god in standing silently by when he sees wrong-doing about him. Ebrahim's pride was long ago wounded by Zahra's refusal to marry him and we see that chink in his armor clearly directing his decisions to cling to whatever semblance of authority and objectivity he can, even at the cost of his soul. To this end, Ebrahim prays to god in the final minutes before the stoning, begging intervention if what they are doing is wrong, but this divine appeal is precisely the crux of the problem: Ebrahim is the mayor: He should have the inner wisdom and strength to stop this himself. He is not an evil man, but in passively allowing evil to transpire, he is not a good man either.

And then there's Hashem. He actually counts as a third giant "liberty" taken with the story, but since this is a liberty that absolutely promotes "grey" in a movie claimed to be "black-and-white," I'm less than horrified by its insertion. Hashem is widowed in the course of the film; a poor, sweet man and good father who cannot read, he's the perfect patsy for Ali and the mullah, who arrange for Soraya to work in his home after his wife's death in order that they may then accuse her of adultery. Hashem is a good man coerced into doing a bad thing to protect his son, and even then tries to protect his son from the actual stoning. He is a victim of illiteracy and powerlessness -- a trait possibly shared by Soraya's father, a feeble old man essentially living on the charity of his community, who lays some of the worst emotional blows on Soraya before the actual rocks are thrown.

Finally, Soraya's sons are an impressive representation of nuance in this film: She has two of them, both cajoled by their father into believing that their mother is holding them back from what they believe they are entitled to as men. But the presence of two sons allows for variance: Soraya's oldest son exhibits an extraordinarily common response to witnessing abuse (he gets angry at the victim because he is most certainly helpless against the abuser, and conveys that same anger at any and all shows of weakness elsewhere), whereas the youngest does not want his mother to die, and grieves openly (provoking his brother's anger in turn). When the two boys are given stones to throw at their mother, the oldest is looked to for strength by the younger, and he gives it the only way he knows how to: by emulating his father. If anything in this film expresses that men are not evil, it is the very clear way in which these boys are exposed to violence and trained in violence: to quote Morrissey, they are not naturally evil. Furthermore, after the stoning has passed, you can see that the trauma of this event has not forged them for life into heartless monsters: rather, the undoing of their father's lessons seems hinted at then and there. People can change.

I am also staggered by the reviewers who conveniently forget there was a woman in the town--a self-righteous gossip of the worst calibre--equally blood-thirsty where Soraya's fate was concerned. A black-and-white missive about men being bad and women being righteous, this film was not.

Melodramatic: That last point was exhaustively long, but this will be short. Everything about this film -- from the soundtrack to the landscape, to the dialogue, to Marnò's portrayal of Soraya is intensely restrained. So what do these reviewers really mean when they say "melodramatic"? Well, they're talking about the story, and the bizarre inevitability that if a film is portraying violence against women in another culture it's "political." I don't suppose Schindler's List was too dramatic for these reviewer fellows? No? Well, I guess that's because Schindler's List was about a true story of a gross miscarriage of justice, and one person's struggle to salvage whatever they could from it, whereas The Stoning of Soraya M was... Oh, wait.

Sensationalist: This coded term really just refers to the stoning scene, which seemed to be the only bloody thing reviewers could talk about. And boy, did they seem to hate talking about it! Snidely comparing it to The Passion of the Christ, Scott Tobias' AV Club perhaps best summarizes the sentiments I've now read in a handful of equally catty reviews:

When it finally gets to the stoning, the film recalls The Passion Of The Christ in its near-pornographic fetishism of violence and martyrdom, which may explain Caviezel’s casting. There’s no denying the dramatic force of the killing—just as no right-thinking person would endorse the odious practice, or the outrageous miscarriage of justice that leads to it. But Nowrasteh constantly overplays his hand, not realizing that some horrors speak for themselves.

"Pornographic fetishism"? "Martyrdom"? If there had been a monumental swelling of Gladiator-esque music, if special effects had been used to make Soraya glow with a radiant light of Joan-of-Arc-righteousness at the moment of her death, I might buy that. But... no, sorry. This scene is long and uncomfortable; it is not pleasant to watch, nor is it meant to be. Blood drips and her hands are still tied. She promises Zahra she won't cry but after the first stone, and an agonizing pause, she does. She cries pitifully, unpleasantly, and uselessly, and then she's semi-comatose as the barrage continues until death. Pornographic fetishism of violence my ass: this is just violence. I don't hear anyone complaining about the level of violence in City of God. Do you? Or do you suppose high profile reviews also made the ballsy, arrogant claim that "some horrors speak for themselves" when it came to children murdering children?

The gist of my irateness with these reviews is this: Some horrors do not speak for themselves. That's why the journalist who encountered this story wrote a book about it. That's why the book he wrote is banned in Iran. And, oh, hey! Big cognitive leap here: That's why women are still stoned, beaten, raped, and socially imprisoned the world over.

But for some strange reason it's considered too artistically "safe" (and therefore inferior) to tell a true story about a real woman murdered by dangerous men protected by a dangerous system. You know, just as reviewers get so cranky when Nazis aren't portrayed as touchy-feely do-gooders on the inside. Or when mob bosses aren't all croaking out the word "Rosebud" on their deathbeds.

What I love most about professional (read: paid) reviewers truly has to be the internal consistency of their respective, subjective outlooks -- don't you think? Meanwhile, what I love most about The Stoning of Soraya M is that the film is not really about its titular act of stoning: it's about all the little acts, all the little steps within reach of very average people, that can pull whole communities to such monstrous, irreparable ends.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 27 April, 2010

New Releases!

Avatar (also BluRay)
California Dreamin'
Descent 2, The
Georgia O'Keeffe
Grown Up Movie Star
It's Complicated (also BluRay)
Kingdom (Stephen Fry): Series 3
Life Blood
Man from Earth
Murphy's Law: Series 2
Possible Films v.2
Sex Galaxy
Survivors (2000s): Seasons 1 & 2
Survivors: Complete Original Series
White Stripes, the: Under Great White Northern Lights

New Arrivals

Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Internes Can't Take Money / The Great Man's Lady / The Bride Wore Boots / The Lady Gambles / All I Desire / There's Always Tomorrow)
Body Snatchers: The Invasion Continues
Cowboys, The
Crime of Passion (Italian sexploitation thriller)
Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List
Freud (BBC)
Fugitive Kind, The (Criterion)
Guilty by Suspicion
It's Garry Shandling's Show: Season 1
Negotiator, The
Spies Like Us
You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson

Maggie 2010: Four Films and Half A TV Show Season

#56. The Big Lebowski

What can I say about TBL that hasn't been said a million times before, by other people who've also watched the Coen Brothers classic a dozen times? There's something soothing about "checking in" with "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges), a ratty robe-wearing philosopher of chill (and decent bowler) who coasts contentedly through life until he's mistaken for someone else and gets his rug pissed on by thugs. Seeking recompense from the millionaire said thugs were actually after, The Dude finds himself in the midst of a tangled web of family schemes. John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore flesh this film out with characters and lines just as fiercely quotable. What makes The Big Lebowski so timeless and re-watchable? If I had a witty, pat answer to that I think I'd be doing The Dude's meandering sermons a disservice. Suffice it to say, if you haven't seen it, you're missing out; and if you haven't seen it again, you're still missing out.

#57. The Wicker Man (2006)

I have watched many films with vile and absurd arguments about the evils of womankind. Some I would consider exceptional works of art, but the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man most assuredly is not. If not for the ridiculous acting of Nicholas Cage, and an utterly notorious sequence of multiple flashbacks, I doubt this film would have any measure of a following; as it is, when the need arises for a party movie people can slip in and out of watching, a film the group can laugh at together no matter how varied their cinematic tastes, The Wicker Man easily tops the list. In this sad offering by Neil LaBute, Nicholas Cage plays a traumatized detective, Edward Malus, who heads out to a private island after receiving a letter from an ex-lover informing him her daughter's gone missing. Conveniently, Malus' trauma (if real) involves witnessing a little girl blow up in his face, so now he's more than primed to do anything it takes to unravel the mysteries of this neo-pagan community and its brutish, man-hating ways, so long as it means sparing another little girl from certain death. The outcome? Well, women are evil: what can I say! You'll just have to watch (with booze -- lots of booze) and find out for yourself.

#58. Ong Bak II

Good martial arts films are best shared; not so good ones, even more. Huge fans of Ong Bak, Wendy and I embarked on a night of Ong Bak II, which takes viewers back to the beginning of the legend. The year is 1431, and some serious feudal warfare has made an orphan of one Tien. He's eventually saved by Chernang, king of the Garuda Wing Cliff bandits, who was impressed by the poor kid's fighting spirit when made to wrestle a crocodile for slave trader sport. Rough life? Oh, it gets rougher: as Tien trains and grows (into older Tien, played by Tony Jaa), the burning need for vengeance pits him against the reigning tyrants and a ridiculous number of back-to-back enemies for some good ol' fashion muay thai mayhem. There are broken knees and flying knee kicks abounding, but the story's twists and turns are a little flimsy, with a slim, cursory love story tossed in and a couple disappointingly fleeting scenes tying into the elephant bonding that made Ong Bak so fantastically epic. With fight scenes changing location and time of day without much coherent direction, and an ending that feels half-hearted at best, I'm left wondering if Ong Bak 2 is just one big build-up to Ong Bak 3, which picks up where the former left off... and perhaps involves Zombie!Tien? The trailer is ambiguous, to say the least. Will I watch Ong Bak 3? Of course. Will it, like Ong Bak 2, be a let-down compared to the original? Most definitely.

#59. Saved!

Another jaunt down memory lane for me: When I first saw Saved! I couldn't help but laugh at the flimsy return of Macaulay Culkin to "acting," yet maintain a measure of deep respect for the approachability of a high school film tackling the pitfalls of close-minded religiosity. In this 2004 piece, Jena Malone plays Mary, a good Christian who has sex before marriage because she thinks God wants her to save the soul of her boyfriend, Dean, who's confessed to her that he's gay. Her senior year kind of goes downhill thereafter: Dean's sent away for special treatment anyway, Mary discovers she's pregnant, and the grief she feels at these events ultimately leads to her unintentional ostracization from "friends" like Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and self-isolation (out of fear of rejection) from new love interest Patrick (Patrick Fugit). On the plus side, Mary falls in with Jewish misfit Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother, Roland (Culkin), and learns there's still room for life after pregnancy and social disgrace. Truly, the best part of this film is the fact that everyone in this film, regardless of faith, has lessons to learn -- even the principal and Mary's mother. And though this film conforms to pretty much all the conventions of a high school drama, it does so with levity and even a little flair. What more can you ask of this genre?

#60. United States of Tara, Season 1 Disc 1

This series is one I've been dying for some time to watch, and the first half of the first season does not disappoint. In it, Toni Collette does an astounding job playing multiple personalities, all of which inhabit one Tara Gregson, who suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder. Besides being Tara, wife and mother of two teenagers, Collette also plays "T", a fifteen-year-old with attitude who unsurprisingly gets along well with Tara's teen-aged daughter, Kate (Brie Larson); "Buck", a biker dude who smokes, loves bowling, porn, and fights, and regularly (albeit oddly tolerantly) upbraids Tara's youngest, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) for being gay; and "Alice," a '50s housewife who bakes, wants to give Tara's husband, Max (John Corbett), another child, and is generally conspiring to take over Tara's head-space entirely. Tara's just gone off her meds at the series' start, in order to work through the issues that have made all these different identities necessary for her. Her family has mixed reactions: Max and Marshall are supportive, Kate is embarrassed, Tara's sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) simply doesn't believe the condition is real, and Tara's parents doubt her fitness as a parent herself. What truly sold me on this series early on wasn't so much the antics caused by Tara's "alters," but the impressive depth applied to all the other characters in this series: Marshall is enduring the highs and lows of life as a gay teen with nary a pause in sight to cope with the fact that he is gay; Kate deals with odd-ball relationships in the way only a teen-aged girl ever really does, Charmaine's got inadequacy issues up the wazoo, Max doesn't always plot the wisest course through his actions (although to some extent he's still playing the role of Sex and the City's Aidan with his uber-nice-guy routine), and even Tara's therapist owns up to being a little out of her league with Tara's condition, because shock! In real life therapists rarely encounter this condition, so of course they're not going to be DID wizards right off the bat. In short, from just the first eight episodes I have to say I'm exceptionally impressed with the measured approach The United States of Tara takes to this condition, contextualizing the difficulties of DID within the scope of complications already felt (to some extent by everyone!) in the mere process of being alive.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010: A Kurosawa/Mifune Double Bill

Besides being the first two films where Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa paired up as the epic actor/director duo they're known for, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog have a bunch of really interesting themes in common. One being the underlying parallels between the protagonists and the darker characters in the films. The whole reflective personality thing can sometimes get tiring, but Kurosawa's style makes it refreshing and intriguing to follow. He's not predictable, which I love.

#67. Drunken Angel (1948)

This was the first of many awesome collaborations between the aforementioned men, and though it wasn't astounding there was definitely a hint of what would come. Mifune plays a feisty young Yakuza who requires a doctor after refusing to deal with his health issues; the doctor, who's temper is just as spirited (in both senses of the word) is an excellent match for Mifune's childish hotshot. I love the juxtaposition of these two, it makes the film's title more ambiguous. Does the doctor save the gangster, or is the other way around? I also love the way Kurosawa reflects the filthy, crime-ridden streets of the city in the polluted pool of water across from the doctor's office. In one particularly poetic shot, a small doll is seen floating in the oily, black water; I like to think it's Kurosawa's way of showing a fragment of hope in a seemingly hopeless setting.

#68. Stray Dog (1949)

Of these two, Stray Dog is definitely my favourite. Mifune is young, vibrant and really stepping into his dark and captivating charm. He plays Det. Murakami, a rookie cop desperately searching for his stolen gun in an attempt to stop the killings being committed with it. Along side him is the calm, almost slothful Det. Sato, whose attitude is almost his complete opposite. Yet, the most interesting juxtaposition in this film is that between Murakami and the man who wields his gun. We feel connected to it and the murderer, as if it was still attached to Mifune's character. I'm pretty sure Marshall McLuhan would've had a field day. As the killings become more and more frequent, Murakami's desire to find the murderer turns frantic. The similarities between the two men are divided only by Sato's wise words, "A stray dog becomes a mad dog." Both Murakami and the killer were soldiers, but upon returning home Murakami attached himself to a stable life, whereas the other man had nothing to hold him down from the chaos that was war. The film's cinematography is brilliant, at times reflecting the themes better than the story itself. If I wasn't half asleep, I'd write another paragraph or two about its genius, but at the moment all I can say is that this is definitely among my favourite Kurosawa films.

#55. Fat Head

I'm a big fan of testing my assumptions, so a skeptic's response to Super Size Me burned at me the more I passed it in the store, until it was essentially watch the film or internally combust. Comic Tom Naughton put together Fat Head, an independent documentary (2009), after vehemently disagreeing with most of the basic assumptions made in the former, 2004 documentary. In Super Size Me Morgan Spurlock goes on an all-McDonald's diet for thirty days--interspersing his ill-fated descent into McHealth Problems with commentary arguing that the fast food industry is a menace to healthy, informed society. After thirty days, Spurlock gained 25 pounds on the McDiet and saw a tremendous overall deterioration in his health; in contrast, Naughton makes the argument that having a functional brain, and using it, can turn even fast food into an effective weight reduction option. His challenge? To eat nothing but fast food for twenty-eight days, but to do so with a critical eye (and again, a functioning brain) and in so doing actually improve his overall health. To his doctor's great surprise, Naughton achieves this feat, but the thrust of this documentary is less the feat itself than a deconstruction a) of fallacy and contradiction in Super Size Me, b) bias, exaggeration, and outright dishonesty in campaigning on the part of anti-fast food advocates, and c) dieting theories and obesity epidemic discourses that have little to no demonstrable evidence to support their claims -- claims which have nonetheless become entrenched in popular culture over the past fifty years, and may perhaps have made our collective health worse in the process.

When I outline the case Naughton makes, I by no means intend to suggest that his documentary is somehow free of hyperbolic rhetoric, fallacy, misdirection, and some commentary that borders on plain old offensive. One example that particularly tweaked me was Naughton deconstructing the "obesity epidemic" language bandied loosely about, then noting that the U.S. population over the measured period of obesity growth also saw a doubling of African American and Latino American populations, and finally making the completely unjustified assertion that African American and Latino Americans were just genetically predisposed to being heavier. This is part of a consistent flip-flopping throughout the film between wanting Caucasians to empathize with the absurdity of obesity definitions and news footage targeting larger Caucasians on the street, then calling out the "obesity epidemic" rhetoric for being inherently classist and racist. Another such contradiction (plied, of course, for rhetorical effect), is Naughton's dramatic show of finding "health food" unpalatable before entering his twenty-eight day fast food diet, then near the end of the film, to give himself more authority when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of various diets, conveniently fessing up to having eaten such health food consistently for a period of three years.

Such contradictions and consequent hypocrisies (i.e. calling out Spurlock for contradictions and misdirections while employing a few of his own) are sadly par for the course in persuasive documentaries, but they need not be absorbed and replicated by viewers: It would be equally fallacious to condemn the whole of Naughton's film on the basis of heavy-handed rhetoric and frequent misdirections. Despite their presence in Fat Head, Naughton also makes a few exceptionally salient arguments, for which he surprised the hell out of me by providing a slew of evidence in varying forms. Having recently watched Food, Inc, I was also tremendously surprised to realize that a lot of what he was arguing for aligned itself pretty well with some core truths espoused by that more industry-critical film. Naughton's argument -- for individual empowerment, ownership of responsibility, and having faith in other individuals to make similarly sensible decisions (both for themselves and their children) -- thus works best when viewed as another piece of the greater puzzle that is human interaction with food in the post-industrial age. Naughton's not completely right with what he argues in Fat Head, but he's also not even close to completely wrong.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 20 April, 2010


44 Inch Chest
Anger, Kenneth: Films v.2
Behind the Lines (a/k/a Regeneration)
Cheech & Chong's Hey Watch This
Code a change, Le (Change of Plans)
College Boys Live
Crazy Heart
Dangerous Man, A
F Word, The: Series 4
Greek Pete
Lovely Bones, The
Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-Rated Industry
Rock Haven
Space Ghost & Dino Boy: Complete Series
Summer Hours (Criterion)
Surviving Crooked Lake
Tales of the Riverbank
Vivre sa vie
Young Victoria, The


Battleship Potemkin
Crazy Heart
Lovely Bones, The
Summer Hours
Vivre sa vie
Young Victoria, The

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: The Beat That My Heart Skipped & Fingers

#53, 54 -- The Beat That My Heart Skipped & Fingers

In 1978 director James Toback came out with Fingers, an American film about a young man torn between his love of music and loyalties to his father, a loan shark in deep with the mob. In 2005 Jacques Audiard came out with The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a French film about the very same. And these two works are just as distinct as their nations of origin would have you believe.

The divergence is immediate. As Fingers opens, Jimmy Fingers (Harvey Keitel) is jubilantly playing music at his piano. When he finishes he sees a woman across the street, evidently listening to him play. He follows her with his radio, playing "Summertime, Summertime," a 1950s number by The Jamies, until she turns around. Pleased at her range of musical interest, a car ride and apartment courting ensue. Then he goes to lunch with his dad, with whom a whole crapload of exposition is unloaded in a conversation replete with hackneyed Italianisms. His dad laments his son's taste in 1950s music but shows respect for Jimmy's pursuit of a musical career. He asks for Jimmy's help with some loan shark business. He asks Jimmy for an opinion of the new woman he wants to marry. Jimmy gives his opinion frankly but without much invested interest. He's happy-go-lucky. He's got his music. What could go wrong?

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is no such bed of context-oblivious roses. Our first introduced theme is the weight placed on sons by their fathers, emerging in a quiet conversation absent any music at all. We then find Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) in the midst of shady work as a real estate broker, devaluing property, ousting squatters, and otherwise doing everything to turn a profit on the buildings he and his partners own. He's not happy about his life, and it shows. He goes to lunch with his father, with whom music is a taboo topic: His father doesn't respect it; his father wants him to focus on collecting bad debts; his father generally doesn't seem to appreciate how much his son cares about him. When his father's new lover is introduced this time, the lighting, the cinematography, the acting convey every bit of Tom's disdain. Far from open about his deeper passions, Tom comes back to music tentatively in this film, going through recordings of his late mother's skilled piano performances and struggling to overcome his own absence from the form for years.

At the crux of both films are a few core plot elements: the main character's flawed audition for a career-track pianist position, the father's problems getting money back from one particularly well-connected debtor, the senseless loss incurred soon after, and the main character's responses to it. But where Audiard's conflicts are developed gradually enough that we know why Tom chokes at his audition, it isn't until after the audition in Toback's film that Jimmy explains (yes! more exposition!) what made him screw up. So it goes with much of Fingers.

In fact, if I had to describe the difference between the two films in one word, the word would be "penis." While Audiard's piece focuses intimately on Tom's hands -- the crisis of personal identity they invoke, the ways they embody his failings and drives -- Toback takes an all-too-typical American gambit and places the seat of Jimmy's physical failings, well, in the seat of his pants. He can't get it up when he wants to. Lacking his mentally-ill mother's love, he sometimes needs women to want him before he can get it up or have an orgasm (I know -- a shocking state of affairs, isn't it?) Indeed, a sizable portion of Fingers has nothing to do with the conflict between being a thug and being a pianist, but instead follows alternating emasculation and violence around his relationship with Carol (Tisa Farrow), the woman from the movie's start. Carol's later relationship with Token Black (Bad) Guy, Dreers (Jim Brown) also serves, in truly American style, to further invoke stereotypical White Man Sexual Anxiety, and alpha male posturing ensues.

I know I shouldn't expect strong female portrayals from any movie before Alien (for superficial fare produced after 1979, I get progressively crankier), but it bears noting how staggeringly different each director's treatment of women is in these stories. Instead of this whole sexual emasculation subplot, Audiard's 2005 film introduces a female piano tutor who doesn't speak English, but takes Tom on anyway, as a client, after his failed audition. Their narrative arc completely eschews a common film archetype that says men and women can't occupy the same space without a sexual relationship being hinted at or rising to the fore. (The ending can be taken one of two ways in that regard -- a subtle note that again places the conflict between thug and musician at the fore of the film, where it belongs.) Nor is Audiard's treatment of women token in this regard: in both films a mobster's girl is stalked by the main character, in his effort to get the mobster to repay a debt to his father. However, in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the mobster's girl is every bit as strong, smart, and self-assured as she needs to be to survive in that kind of violent world. In Fingers, however, said girl gets herself sexually assaulted (and I use that language mindfully, because the actor is given to perform in such a way as lets the viewer know she was "pretty much asking for it"). Toback also pulls this shitty trick wherein, right after said assault, Jimmy is a) provided a convenient opportunity to redeem himself by helping a stricken, weeping woman on the street cheer up, and b) made to atone for his assault by getting a prostate exam. Yeah, definitely resetting the scales there -- thanks Toback! Also, when Jimmy bullies Carol into taking out her diaphragm before sex -- so jealous of the other men she's seeing he wants to knock her up so she'll have to stick with him -- we also conveniently get a portrayal of Carol's alternative, the skull-smashing Token Black Menace Dreers, in order to reassure ourselves that Jimmy is really "the good guy" in all of this. You can imagine my "delight."

Having watched and exulted in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I honestly don't see what's so great about Fingers: from the ham-handed exposition, to the clumsily constructed character conflicts, to the diffusing of audience attention between Jimmy the Pianist and Jimmy the Dick (get it? I made a funny), to the weak portrayals of all women in this film, it's hard -- really hard -- to care about the choice Jimmy makes in the end.

Meanwhile, Audiard has a gift -- a real gift -- for conveying his characters as fully-formed upon first viewing -- bearing their pasts, their trajectories, in all that they say and do thereafter, right down to the smallest detail. Thus, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about a man who has the capacity to make music or effect violence with his hands, and who struggles -- plainly, privately, fiercely -- towards being a better human being, even if he can't ever really be considered good. Despite coming first of the two, Fingers doesn't even come close to carrying that tune.

Maggie 2010: Two by the Coen Brothers

#51, 52 -- Barton Fink and A Serious Man

I am so glad I watched Barton Fink before commenting on A Serious Man. I've since discovered I'm not even close to the only one who sees the profound similarity between these two films, but it was an important independent discovery for me.

A Serious Man follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor whose life is spiralling ever out of control. Things happen to him with a sense of absurdity, of randomness, and the more he seeks out meaning in the parameters of his religion, his community, his basic human nature, the more things fall apart. Everything in this film is given a sense of great import -- Jewish folklore, a conversation with a student, dreams -- which is thereafter stripped away. The only constant, it seems, is senselessness itself. And even it takes on sensible, coherent forms.

Meanwhile, Barton Fink follows Barton Fink (John Turtorro), a New York playwright who moves to Hollywood on the invitation to write film. Once he gets there everything becomes complicated--he can't write his script, his literary heroes fall from their pedestal in his eyes, the unexpected becomes the mainstay of the film. And he's pretty helpless throughout all of it.

In fact, in both films the main character is a small, understated Jewish intellectual without much pluck and plenty to be nervous about. They're also both trying to stick to their convictions against difficult odds, and both ultimately fail (albeit in different ways).

In both films pathetic fallacy plays a tremendous role in the symbolism of character conflict. In Barton Fink an early scene blatantly juxtaposes water crashing up against a rock with Barton Fink walking into Hollywood. Then there's a fire scene that couldn't drive home the message of things falling apart any more clearly than it does. In A Serious Man there's a tornado. (I'll say no more.)

In both films a character is pursuing a generic, understated sub-plot (son Danny Gopnik trying to repay the school bully, Barton Fink attempting to escape his problems by fantasizing over a picture of a beautiful woman on a beach), and the final image for both films has those generic plot-lines gently refuse such commonplace narrative engagement.

In both films the main character meets someone early on who seems integral to the story's central conflict; in both films this secondary character dies, abruptly, halfway through.

In both films the universe is directed by its own fickleness (in A Serious Man, by having a cacophony of characters weave in and out, variously offering hope and despair to Larry Gopnik; in Barton Fink, the Capital Pictures President, Jack Lipnick, best exemplifies this when his responses to Fink's progress with the B-movie wrestling picture operate on seemingly no fixed logic whatsoever).

And the list does, in fact, go on.

But at the crux of this comparison lies a more important question: So what? So what if the two films follow the same tropes, use the same devices, have the same stylistic quality? Are they any good? Is one better than the other?

Narrative-wise, I didn't like A Serious Man. I found my irritation with it grounded in the superficiality of many plot devices: The dream sequences, and the absurdly extreme waking from them, trying too hard to add layers of false meaning. The multiplicity of characters, each with their own singular quirks, intent on conveying the depth and complexity of any individual's life-web -- but instead just giving me more people not to care about over the course of the film. The completely random opening sequence, evidently thrown in for kicks because its only relation to the rest of the film is that... the characters from pioneering times are also Jewish? (Seriously, I later learned the Coen Brothers threw this scene in just 'cause -- which some people will likely think is awesome: I don't.)

Stylistically, A Serious Man has some amazing images, and wonderful little scenes (I especially love "Old Man with Walkman"). The Coen Brothers are damned intelligent filmmakers, and that shows through in everything they do. They are just also, in this film, prone to excess -- and for this reason I don't particularly care about Larry's struggle for a sense of meaning in the face of meaninglessness. I care even less about every other person inside the film.

In short, Mamet did it better in Homicide. The Coen Brothers themselves do it better in Barton Fink. (It helps, immensely, that they had John Candy.) But ultimately, I encourage you to watch both and -- shock! gasp! -- decide for yourselves. How's that for defying the spectre of helplessness that looms over us all!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #23: Santo and the Treasure of Dracula (1968)

Santo! I will return again in El Santo y Blue Demon vs. Dracula and El Hombre Lobo!!

For those unfamiliar with the El Santo phenomenon, you can either read about it in depth here, or read my brief sum up here: The man who would become El Santo, the most famous masked luchadore of Mexican wrestling, began wrestling in the mid 1930s. In 1942 he answered the call of his famous Silver Mask, and his popularity grew until it became a genuine cult phenomenon. This was largely fuelled by a penchant for being presented as a peasant hero, fighting against other wrestlers embodying corrupt politicians, drug lords, and American imperialists. After a bout of successful comic books, he took to the Mexican B-movie screen in 1958 with Santo vs. The Evil Brain.

I've devoured all of the El Santo movies Gen X has in stock - which is a reasonable 6 or 7 out of an astonishing total of 52 film appearances - in chronological order. The first on my delirious journey into lucha libre was Santo and the Treasure of Dracula. As Campy as I could have hoped, but a little on the dull side.

It's the spiral what does it.

So basically, in addition to Santo being a star wrestler, he is also a brilliant scientist capable of building a time machine that lets people time travel into a past life of theirs. So he builds one. He tests it out on a woman who ends up being one of Dracula's victims in the distant past. This lasts for half the movie, and that would be fine if we got more of Santo than his worried looks at a monitor every 20 minutes, reminding us that he's watching through time, in the comfort of his lab. Once Dracula is dealt with by a helpful doctor Van Roth, Santo manages to pull the woman back to the present, and the rest of the movie can begin. A masked enemy who had been secretly watching Santo's progress in the lab decides to find a treasure revealed by Dracula before Santo does, but instead of finding a treasure, enemy thugs decide to awaken Dracula again.

You only fool yourself, young upstart.

While the first half is a bit boring, this film does introduce you to the Santo formula pretty well - Santo creeping around in tombs, beating up thugs, saving girls, and getting into wrestling matches to settle scores.

So: Not the best in Santo's saga, but seeing him as a prominent scientist is a hilarious wonder.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #22: Vampire Killers (2009)

Bring out the keg boys!

Or as it's known elsewhere, Lesbian Vampire Killers, is a film where two unlikable guys swap homophobic jokes and get even with the shallow women that have done them wrong by killing shallow vampire women who are also man-hating lesbians with a sword that has a cock for a handle.

"Our women are cursed, and we're all spineless cowards for letting it happen!" says the badass Vicar! Better reclaim your lost masculinity and stop them. Women are apparently all cheating floozies, and the only good ones are pure virgins saving their sexuality up for that special guy. I normally assume this kind of thing is ironic in movies, and is secretly being critical, but in this flick the homophobia is so frequent and so normalised that the humour gets lost, and a weird 'us vs. them' dynamic is created.

Vampire Killers is basically a 'teenagers assailed by supernatural forces in a cottage' movie, and follows the traditional pattern: teens go to a cottage and everything is fine. Crazy shit happens. They defend themselves. Crazy shit defeats defenses and either kills or kidnaps friends and/or love interests. Leave cottage and fight last-ditch effort. A pattern I'm fond of. But when it uses distracting visual effects, like speeding up the last few seconds of a shot because they think it looks cool, it really just makes it seem like your movie is so uninterested in its own shots that it's in a hurry to get through them. You might be too.

So: Presumably written by frat boys. Regressive and embarrassing. I never want to hear "clam-lappers" used again.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #66: Sanjuro (1962)

Being the super cool person I am, I often hang out at GenX when I'm not actually working. It takes a special kind of person to take that work relationship to the next level, one of happy obsession and geeknerdery.

I was joyously surprised during one of these hang out sessions a few weeks ago, when Chris asked if I had seen Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro. I said no, but that I intended to eventually, and he expressed his confusion: "Why would someone not watch the acclaimed sequel to one of their favourite films (Yojimbo)?"

"OH JOY OF JOYS!!" I must have thought as my brain exploded with excitement. How had I not known this before? Yojimbo has a sequel??

I immediately set out to fix this grievous wrong, and boy am I glad I did.

There is something about Toshirô Mifune that makes me really happy. I love his old rundown robes, the way he scratches his scruffy beard, and his swaggering confidence in sword fights. His character in Yojimbo and Sanjuro is a wandering ronin who lightheartedly and sometimes drunkenly aids those he comes across. In Sanjuro, it happens to be a group of samurai who, after doubting their Chamberlain, must rescue him from the corrupt men attempting to overthrow him. Though Mifune's character might seem rough around the edges, his honour is still in tact, and it's the combination of his coarseness and heroism that make him so interesting. As many of Kurosawa's films seem to be, this one is not only rife with beautiful cinematography, but also kick ass fights and some great comedic moments.

As a whole, I would recommend Sanjuro a thousand times. And I've decided to pursue every film that Mifune made with Kurosawa, so you'll hopefully see the fruits of that obsession as the year goes on.

To go: 262 days, 300 films.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #65: Chasing Amy (1997)

I wasn't taken with this film from the get go, but as the seconds passed I was slowly sucked into the story, the ideas and emotions of the characters. I don't want to ruin too much, because I went into this film not knowing what it was about and it was that much better because of it. Synopsis? Holden (Ben Affleck), a comic book writer, meets and becomes infatuated with Alyssa, a girl who dates girls. Their friendship becomes complicated when he tells her he's in love with her.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stop staring at Ben Affleck's goatee. Now don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of the facial hair when it works, but on Ben it looks like a fuzzy marmot has been taped to his baby face. Yet Kevin Smith manages to suck you in nevertheless, with moments of sheer hilarity and utter sadness. Jason Lee is arrogant, yet strangely charming, so I thought he deserved a mention. The role played Joey Lauren Adams (Alyssa) is one of a woman simply trying to be happy, regardless of labels determined by the world around her. Labels plague our lives - jock, skater, bisexual, straight, smart - so seeing someone attempting to shake the previously determined classifications of our culture is refreshing.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #21: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

Cheerleading at its best.

Believe it or not, as a highschooler I was never keen on the television shows that were very clearly geared to my age group. If it dealt with teenagers in hishschool situations at all it was very likely filled with characters I didn't like, doing things I never really did. They were just dull soap operas, and you'd think a show like the famed Joss Whedon's Buffy, whose first incarnation was in the '92 film I've just watched, would have fed me with a little extra something - vampires and demons all crazy-go-nuts on a quiet town. But I found that even there I couldn't shake the feeling that these characters were people I didn't like, know or understand very well. Or maybe my tolerance for teeny romance stuff is just on the low side. Or maybe I just really don't like ol' Sarah Gellar.

I wasn't too sure what to expect from the movie, but I had a hunch it would give me a much campier serving of vampire killing than the series did, and that's pretty much what happened. The plot's thin and has a mostly inexplicable, lightly addressed twist part-way through, but the film has some interesting characterisation, particularly in Kristy Swanson's transformation from shallow to genuine, teen to adult. The film also has a lot of retro flavour going for it, and that always entertains me. The early 90s wardrobe and Luke Perry probably had a lot to do with that, and Paul Reubens of Peewee Herman infamy is a favourite of mine. Seeing him as a cheeky vampire thug is a pretty big treat. Donald Sutherland, who's pretty much built to be mysterious and sage old men in films, does his thang. Oh, and Rutger fucking Hauer as a crazy vampire lord? I'd watch Rutger Hauer in anything. I'd watch him throw children out of helicopters. I think I might have before, even. In a beautiful dream?

Speaking of beautiful dreams, it seems there's a Buffy remake listed on imdb for a 2012 film. Curious.

So: Kristy Swanson kicking wooden stakes into vampire chests? Sure.

Mike the Boss - Films of 2010 - Film the Nineteenth: Monster X Attacks the G8 Summit

Monster X Attacks the G8 Summit (2008) (dir: Minoru Kawasaki)

Where do I start with Monster X Attacks the G8 Summit? I mean, I am a huge fan of the Kaiju Eiga (Big Monster) genre of films. When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable television but my friends did and once every couple of months they would get Godzilla Week on the Fox channel subsidiary equivalent back then. This meant that after school they would show a different Godzilla movie every day for a week. I would try to convince my parents to let me stay over for supper during that week so I could watch the movies. This rarely worked, so my childhood memories are shot through with the first 30 minutes of many Godzilla films.

Later in life I had the opportunity to see the Godzilla films in full and still loved them. I’m even a bigger fan of Gamera, the giant, flying space turtle. In fact, I once skipped an exam at university because City TV was showing all of the old Gamera films, in chronological order, back-to-back (yes, I was a bad student). I’ve enjoyed the Daimajin series, Rodan, King Kong in its many different iterations, Gorgo, Gappa and even the original Monster X. I have a strong tolerance for the silly side of the Kaiju Eiga genre even though I prefer the pseudo-serious side it sometimes takes.

So, let us get back to Monster X Attacks the G8 Summit. This is a film that takes a 60’s giant monster (Guilala) and places him in a spoof of the old monster movies. Guilala is still treated with respect (as much as a giant space chicken can be respected) but the film gives us a cast of utterly idiotic humans who occupy far too much of the screen time. These humans represent the different leaders of the G-8 and each one is lampooned with the national stereotype that is appropriate. They each choose different techniques to try and stop the rampage of Monster X but each one fails. The failures are usually a result of the leader of the moment being a buffoon.

I suppose you could look at the film as an interesting portrayal of Japanese nationalist xenophobia or as a self-mocking parody of the Japanese love for Kaiju Eiga films of the past but I’m not sure either decision would be completely justified. My final decision was that I really didn’t like the film and that I was pretty disappointed in it. Even Takeshi Kitano doing the voice of the world-saving Take Monster didn’t really save it for me. It is a shame they didn’t try a little harder to make the film work. They could have made some astute political commentary given the cast of characters but instead they just went through the paces. I can only hope that hints of a new and proper U.S. Godzilla production will satisfy my Kaiju Eiga hunger. Maybe I’ll just have to watch Cloverfield again.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #20: The Clash of the Clash of the Titans, Part 2

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Hello! I am Sam Worthington, a 'player' in this 'recorded play'

I mentioned before that the 1981 Clash of the Titans has more vitality than this remake. Here's why!

During the first ten minutes, I dared hope that I'd enjoy this remake. After an exposition-conquering, star-strewn opening sequence, we're given a few characters willing to call the gods out on their mistreatment of humanity. That'll always tickle my fancy. Defying the gods. Alright! Well and good. Until any weight that the defiance might have had evaporates once the movie actually starts to roll out. The plot is, unfortunately, loosely slung together with a poor man's mythology indicative of lazy writing - the mythological elements in the film seem throwaway where they should be an integral, organic part of the story.

Sam Worthington's performance is predictably weak. Whenever he tries to show any kind of inner turmoil, his face kind of stops half-way and then backs up, like he's not sure he's pulling it off because he isn't. That made me laugh at least. His interactions with the party of heroes assembled for the quest is unremarkable, and is filled with heaps of really lame male bonding sequences between token characters I don't care about. And there's a completely inexplicable race of Djinn people that join the party and bust out inexplicable powers now and again. These powers are called deus ex machina.

It all comes to feel like a failed attempt at Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, complete with bombastic CGI events and a dude that looks and sounds like Orlando Bloom - which is to say, a dude that makes me want to throw a fiery anvil covered in bees into his face.

Even Liam Neeson's role comes off the screen a little thin (and he's effing ZEUS), but Ralph Fiennes is, at least, fun to watch as Hades. I was kind of rooting for his cause, but he had this fatal flaw - instead of being a fucking god and tearing shit up with his immense power, whenever he wants someone taken down he decides to split himself up into five or six winged demon things that really aren't that powerful. Not sure why Hades would bother with that when he seems to do pretty well by not doing that.

So: When Medusa is referred to as 'the bitch' at the end of a not-so-stirring speech, you know your movie is cinema slurry.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #31: Bullitt

US, 1968. Directed by Peter Yates. Starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Simon Oakland, cars.

Didn't think I'd like this one, because:

1) while I find Steve McQueen an agreeable film presence, I have to say the cult of McQueen is one of those things I find a bit mystifying.

2) all anyone ever says about it is that it has a great car chase sequence. I don't like cars, either in real life or movies. I don't even know offhand what the make of the car I drive is. You tell me I should watch a movie because it has a great car chase in it and I will make the same face that most customers make when I tell them Let the Right One In is a vampire movie, like it's Twilight or some such thing.

But this movie is actually pretty good. I almost went for "really good" there, but it is overlong. This is mostly due to a subplot regarding McQueen's relationship with pretty young thing Jacqueline Bisset, which exists solely to introduce the theme that McQueen walks on the dark side of life because he is a committed cop who has to see dead bodies sometimes and even put his jacket over them so that women and small children don't see the blood. This is silly and unnecessary and stops the movie dead several times. It could just have been about Steve McQueen being a cop who tries to protect a senate subcomittee hearing's star witness from the mob.

Truthfully, nothing else in the movie is as awesome as the opening credit sequence, before Steve McQueen even shows his face once. They are stylish and sharp and intriguing, and prominently feature striking imagery and Lalo Schifrin's super-groovy score. The plot setup that follows is solid and exciting, and hits few wrong notes as McQueen tries to do his job in spite of the mob and pushy senator Robert Vaughn. An unexpected plot twist or two pop up, which is nice; several expected plot twists do not, which is even nicer. Peter Yates had a great eye for detail at this phase in his career, a way of always putting the camera in an unexpected place or somewhere that adds to the intrigue of the scene at hand. Nicely played all around.

As for the car chase sequence, it is very good indeed. There are several sequences I like better (the chase in the hospital was more exciting to me, but keep my above car caveat in mind), but it's exceedingly well put together. Still, this sequence was responsible for so much cinematic evil in the years that ensued that I can't really get on its side. Nonetheless, Bullitt is a solid cop picture with some outstanding elements. I give it 7.5 stick shifts out of 10.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #19: The Clash of the Clash of the Titans, Part 1

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Expecting the 2010 remake to be pretty mediocre, I re-watched the original Clash of the Titans earlier in the day so I could sit in the theatre and hoom and hah to myself and try my hand at something called 'just a position'.

Well, usually referred to as legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's best film, Clash is a simple but fairly satisfying Hollywood romp of the pedestrianly operatic, effectively campy variety. Director Desmond Davis, who's repertoire consists mostly of British television, hasn't made a great film here, but it has to be said that Clash is certainly endearing. That's likely due to the producing and special effects charm of Ray Harryhausen and his menacing (or plucky) creatures. Laurence Olivier as Zeus doesn't hurt either.

The jewel of the film, I think, is Harryhausen's Medusa sequence. Here we get a fantastically animated, darkly lit Medusa, stalking slowly through a cluttered hall of pillars, picking Perseus' comrades off one by one with haunting stone stares and well-placed arrows. When Perseus is the last alive, his fearful wait before his last-ditch effort plays out slowly, and is earnestly tense. This is indicative of Harryhausen's thoughtful and deliberate style, and that scene is replaced in the remake with a barefaced CGI chase sequence. Ugh.

So: This one has more vitality and character than the remake.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #64: Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

You might have heard this comparison before, but I found Hot Tub Time Machine to be akin to The Hangover. Kind of like its less impressive, but still amusing little brother. It's not nearly as funny, but it definitely has its moments. The story goes that three old friends and one nephew go to an old hangout for the weekend, wind up getting crunk in the hot tub, and wake up in 1986. The cast is appealing, and their antics (filled with hi-top fades, neon ski suits, and Mötley Crüe) are quite entertaining. There isn't too much to set this film apart, but if you like John Cusack and feel like a silly comedy, this one's a great option. It's not out quite yet, but keep an eye out for it in the coming months.

See "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" FREE at Galaxy Cinemas Tomorrow!

Gen X has free tickets to a screening of the hit Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, tomorrow (Wednesday) night 7 p.m. at Galaxy Cinemas Waterloo. How many times do you get an opportunity to see a foreign film at the Galaxy? The tickets are first come, first serve to anyone who comes into the store - no skill testing question or anything. No phone reservations either, sorry. Soon to be remade by David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been a smash hit worldwide, spawning two sequels to date. Here's the spiel from the official website:

A mystery thriller based on Stieg Larsson’s international best selling novel about a disgraced journalist and a troubled young female computer hacker who investigate the mysterious disappearance of an industrialist’s niece.

Guldbagge Awards Winner
(Sweden’s Oscar Equivalent)
Best Film
Best Actress – Noomi Rapace
The Audience Award for Best Film


Palm Springs International Film Festival
Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is the first of a trilogy of novels by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson that have become a worldwide publishing phenomenon. Director Niels Arden Oplev’s film version, with a box office of $100 million, has become the biggest grossing European film of 2009. Subsequent European release of film versions of the other books in the trilogy – THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS NEST – have extended the success of the franchise.


Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her beloved uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and the tattooed and troubled but resourceful computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to investigate.

When the pair link Harriet’s disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from almost forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vanger’s are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #63: Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)

You're probably wondering what a picture of ugly cute dogs has to do with a review related to one of the most prolific and recognized fashion designers of our time. But these furry little buggers are an essential part of this film about a man who's passion is for making women feel beautiful. The film is a small insight into the mind and life of Valentino Garavani; how he lives; how he designs; how he interacts with other people, and those smaller parts of life like the dogs that seem to follow him wherever he goes. His relationship with partner and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti is displayed with limited emotion, and yet comes across as one of great passion. This intense, restrained passion also comes out in the stunning creations he makes. His dresses are the focus of the film, each scene seems to revolve around them, and the detail and imagination with which he creates each gown is an insight into the mind of this fashion legend. Definitely one to check out if you're at all interested in fashion.

New to the Store: Week of 13 April, 2010

Slow week II...

Adam Resurrected
Awakening of Spring, The
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
How Much Do You Love Me?
Magic Flute, The
Party Down: Season 1
Pirate Radio (also BluRay)
Que viva Mexico!
Red Cliff (full-length) (also BluRay)
Wave, The
Yesterday Was a Lie

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Maggie 2010: Catch-Up Intermission -- TRON!!!

#50. Tron

So I was watching South Park's Facebook episode, "You Have 0 Friends," when a masterstroke of a Tron reference tore away at the little part inside that wants me spending all my time in the basement watching '80s sci-fi movies on repeat. That little part and I reached a compromise in re-visiting Tron tonight, and I've got to say: as much as I loved this film as a kid, I can't help loving it all the more fiercely upon repeat viewings.

The crush begins almost the moment the Walt Disney Productions caption passes away, plunking the viewer almost immediately into the film's dominant action space -- the fantastic, pioneering computer animation of dear sweet 1982. When WALL-E was set for release this past summer, some Negative Nancys and Donnie Downers protested that children wouldn't be able to handle thirty minutes without dialogue, but almost thirty years earlier films like Tron were confidently allowing the viewer to learn all the ins and outs of plot and theme experientially. No spoon-fed PC pap here, no sir! In fact, in viewing Tron you'll even see some "questionable ladies" at one point (soon after an adorable navigation sequence with a clunker of an escape vehicle), and early on hear cutting retorts like "Flynn had 'access' to you, too!" Nonetheless, trust me: kids (old and young alike!) will be too busy savouring the film's fantastic light-show to pay heed to scuttlebutt like that.

Tron follows savvy programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) as he seeks information in his old workplace's computer mainframe that will prove his ex-boss, Dillinger (David Warner), stole his arcade game designs. In this quest, Flynn is helped by "user" Dr. Lora Baines and "program" Yori (Cindy Morgan), as well as "user" Alan Bradley and "program" Tron (Bruce Boxleitner). Tron is a security program designed to combat Master Control Program (MCP), who is seeking world domination by assimilating useful external programs into his ever-expanding matrix. This unpleasant fellow, once but a wee chess program, now oppresses the cyber-realm and all its poor inhabitants. Poorest of these are the programs the MCP doesn't consider useful: after mediocre training they're pitted against one another in arcade game combat until inevitable de-resolution. Kind of a twisted guy, for a computer program! Oh, and did I say Baines helps Flynn in this film? That's debatable! After all, her super-awesome digitalizing laser is -- gasp! -- used for evil by the MCP, who digitizes Flynn and forces him to compete in his dastardly arena to the death. Nice work, Baines!

The conceits of this film are not only easier to stomach than our contemporary technological Tron, Avatar: they're also more relevant. Viewing Tron today, anyone who's ever written so much as a blog post, ever, will recognize the impossible depth of interaction between content and code in the MCP's matrix. You'll chuckle heartily at what passes for code, PERIOD, in this pointedly '80s piece. But while we're all rightly justified in listing the million and one ways in which Skynet screws up, big-time, with both its defensive and offensive strategy in last year's Terminator Salvation, with Tron the journey through this bad-ass mainframe -- the nostalgic back-lit animation, the wondrous colour-blocking that makes up for under-developed emotional crises -- is everything. It speaks profoundly to the age of possibility that marked our society's shift into the information age; the wide-eyed speculation surrounding Penrose and the mere, fanciful notion of all-powerful functional AIs. All that whimsy, all that wonder, all those dominant, hopeful, overly simplistic questions in the midst of the Cold War, are packaged beautifully in Tron.

So no, when you get right down to it, those of us who grew up loving Tron just don't care that the MCP's a pretty shitty program when it comes to search-and-destroy algorithms. And we just don't care that Flynn's target file could and should have been deleted without possibility of recovery by any self-respecting cyber-thief -- thus effectively killing the entire premise of the film.

What we care about? What we really care about? Light Cycles. Aw yeah.