Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #81: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

Now just to give you an idea as to how far behind I am in writing reviews, I actually remember the date I saw It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. On April 17th (that is... 43 days ago), I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon which included watching this film, and now... 43 days later... I am finally saying so.

Let me start off by saying this film has one of the best dance sequences of all time, I nearly broke myself laughing at how completely absurd and awesome it is. I can only hope that there are still people out there dancing like this at this very moment.

The cast of this film is also ridiculous; it includes: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis. As the tagline says, "Everybody who's ever been funny is in it!" That's quite an exaggeration, but it's still pretty insane, especially for 1963. Now keep in mind this is an epic; it's 3 hours long, so know what you're getting yourself into and don't complain about how long it was afterwards.

The story goes that a criminal reveals the location of a grand sum of money just before he dies. Those strangers standing around as witnesses embark on a rollicking journey to uncover it for themselves, losing some on the way and pick up others to further their means. I like that it's not a hollow tale as it's a reminder of how easily good people can succumb to greed and obsession. There are countless scenes I could talk about, but since I like to keep things short I'll mention only one. It takes place in a gas station after one man is mistaken for a murderer and tied up. Not knowing what's going on, all those involved commence fighting until the station is a hilarious mess of insanity. Also, who knew you could just remove a car door with your bare hands? Each group gets a good laugh in at least once (with gags to spare), and I'd definitely recommend this one to the classic comedy lover.

To go: 216 days, 284 films.

Wendy's Films of 2010 #80: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

I won't even attempt the eloquence that Chris had in his review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, since he almost always baffles me with his adeptness in expressing precisely what he means so beautifully. I will say, however, that based on what I've heard about the novel, the film does a wonderful job of conveying its dark tone and subject matter. I was almost immediately absorbed into its mysterious and moody atmosphere, and found myself forgetting I was even reading subtitles. That, to me, is one way of knowing that I'm watching a great foreign film. I never dislike subtitles, but if I forget that they're there entirely the film itself is clearly doing its job. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist have wonderful chemistry, and I love how even their relationship throughout the film acts as a sort of mystery to uncover. Seeing the film has also made me want to read the series of novels, which I hear are quite excellent.

Maggie watches two truly awful pieces, lives to tell the tale!

#71. The Prisoner (2009)

Someone really hates 1967's The Prisoner, and his name is Bill Gallagher. It has to be. How else could the writer of the 2009 remake be so entirely off point? The original Prisoner sets viewers in a strange, isolated island community where main character Patrick McGoohan plays "Number Six," a man deposited after resigning as a British agent in "The Village," a place where most every other citizen is equally trapped, and forced to perform their day-to-day lives as if they were in fact happy and free. The ring-leader of this imprisonment is clearly "Number Two," who serves as Number Six's primary opposition as Six tries to uncover the secrets of The Village and plot his own escape. You can just imagine the political resonance of such a piece in the 1960s, but there is nothing so removed about the notion of being trapped under the cover of normalcy that today's audiences couldn't also appreciate it in its rawest, simplest form. I mean, good heavens, we watch Mad Men with verve and fascination, don't we?

But no, the flexible premise of the original series wasn't enough for this remake: In Gallagher's six-episode bastardization we see his dissatisfaction with the starting material from the get-go, when he intersects activity in the village with more flashback scenes to pre-village life for main character Michael / Number Six (James Caviezel) than I've seen in all the other TV shows I've watched this year combined. It's clear Gallagher doesn't think he can bolster a story set solely in the village long enough without these interruptions, but the interruptions are themselves thoroughly boring, and certainly do precious little to progress the plot. In his appeal, I suspect, for a cerebral thriller, a mood-piece in six acts, Gallagher instead develops a world with no consistent rules or expectation sets. Why should we care about the plight of Number Six? The time dilation in this miniseries is such that one episode Six might be quietly resisting Number Two (Ian McKellen, whose awesomeness sadly cannot salvage this piece), and in the next Six might be committed to falling in love and getting married within The Village community. In six episodes this much motivational variance is wholly unbecoming.

Yes, it's clear Gallagher wants to embrace The Village as a place that may or may not be real. (And when you get to the big reveal, you'll likely be as disappointed by its stupidity as I was.) But in the process he completely side-steps all the fascinating elements that made the original such a prescient curio of 1960s TV. By taking away self-awareness from everyone else in The Village, Gallagher pointedly turns from the basic tension of imprisonment under the veil of normalcy, and the meta-analysis of how individuals are supposed to resist under such circumstances. And what he replaces it with is, quite simply, nonsense. So do yourself a favour: Watch the original instead.

#72. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I did not actively choose to watch this film: My housemate put it on. I say this much because I vividly recall the lambasting this piece received from friends last year who similarly appreciate the comic book genre, and whose opinions therefore receive great consideration in my own film selection process. Sure enough, X-Men Origins: Wolverine wholly lives up to those condemnations.

My purism in this regard is quite particular: Wolverine's origin story in the Marvel universe has its own history of fluctuations, and there are especially varied accounts of what, precisely, his body is and is not able to resist. Variation itself is not my problem with this prequel to the X-Men series: My problem is instead with screenwriters not being confident enough in some truly killer source material to recognize they don't need any more -- and then adding a critical mass of sheer crap to the mix. (Also, blurring the lines between American and Canadian identity so they can better appeal to American audiences. Lame.)

So the accepted Wolverine storyline involves him being born to plantation owners in Alberta in the 1800s, spending time in a mining colony and in the wilderness with wolves, then living with Blackfoot Indians until the death of his lover, then fighting in World War I, then making his way eventually to Japan, where he has a wife and son. Then it's off to WWII, and an epic struggle between Canadian and American military/defense divisions over his right to self-determination/not being tortured for military research ensues. (For anyone who hasn't guessed by now, Wolverine isn't exactly dying of old age here.)

But despite having, quite literally, lifetimes worth of material here, writers for the film didn't think that was enough. You know what Wolverine really needs in his origin story? Why, a brother with exactly the same mutation, so that they can not-grow-old-together until, inevitably, said brother turns evil and jaded, pretty much forcing a final showdown.

Beyond implying that Wolverine's actual origin story isn't exciting enough for a full-length film (a ridiculous claim, any way you look at it), the problem with this staid model of good-guy/bad-guy is that it's just plain boring, and furthermore does an immense disservice to the fluid construction of Wolverine's own brand of justice as it has existed in comic books for decades (hint: Wolverine isn't exactly a saint). In the film version of his story, there's also the requisite betrayal on another front -- a twist so flimsily constructed as to make me tear at my hair while enduring it -- and later, the convenient martyring justification for everyone's actions therein. This film tries exceptionally hard to tie its origin story into the beginning of the X-Men series, but its missteps are so plentiful that when Wolverine ultimately loses his memory of all this (not really a spoiler if you've seen the other X-Men films; and if you haven't, it's not like you're going to go out of your way to watch this one first), you'll find yourself wishing you had, too.

The essential point of the Wolverine origin story is this: Wolverine has had lifetimes worth of experience of humanity at its best and its worst. When that worst of humanity strips him, ultimately, of that very wealth of experience, what remains but the feelings of loss, anger, and displacement which so clearly drive his actions -- in comic book and film alike -- when meting out his very particular brand of justice? That's the feeling a good Wolverine origin story should have left. Instead we have Hugh Jackman's valiant but ultimately futile attempt to enhance a B-grade action film with such facile plot twists that you'll be lucky, by the end, if you're not howling yourself.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #79: Lone Wolf and Cub (1972)

Let me first apologize for the quality of this review, I'm still drugged up from the removal of my wisdom teeth and I'm not sure that my current trains of thought are conducive to being published for the world to read.

An intelligent man once suggested I watch this film, and I must say I'm quite glad he did so. It actually compares quite well with the much more recent Zatôichi, especially in the quantity of blood that spews from wounds - a quality which I can certainly appreciate. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is the story of a man whose life is turned upside down when his wife is killed, he swears vengeance and gives his infant son the opportunity to choose between a life of murder and a peaceful death. The son chooses life and their long journey toward revenge begins.

It's the first in a 6-part series, 7 if you include Shogun Assassin (which I'll hopefully write a review for soon). The balance between flighting, blood, humour and heart is quite close to Zatôichi, or should I say that Zatôichi's is similar Lone Wolf's. The Lone Wolf's stalwart sense of honour and virtue adds integrity to a story that might otherwise be about senseless killing. I love the 70s vibe, and how insane the object of Lone Wolf's vengeance (Yagyū Retsudo) looks; there is little to dislike about this film and I'd definitely recommend checking it out. If you're in the mood for something a little funnier, however, I'd suggest watching Shogun Assassin first.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010: A Takeshi Kitano Double Bill

Having just removed all wisdom from my head, I figured this was the best time to write reviews for the public to see and judge.

Now, some may consider this an overused joke for one having had their wisdom teeth removed, but the drugs I'm on at the moment have certainly altered my state of mind, so the joke still stands. If it can even be considered a joke. Everything sort of seems funny at the moment.

#77. Zatôichi (2003)

Let me just say I love random, excessive blood splatter and this film has enough of it to satiate just about anyone's fancy. In this, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano takes an old Japanese samurai film, television and book character and reintroduces him to a more modern generation with loads of charisma and style. Zatôichi is a blind masseur and extremely skilled swordsman who walks the roads of Japan, aiding those he comes across though they usually assume they'll be giving him a hand. The film itself is visually stunning; its vibrant colours add especially to the action sequences when red is the hue to be as blood sprays and splatters in exorbitant amounts. One of my favourite aspects were the musical undertones, which begin subtly with the rice farmers' beat as they work in the field. By the end this becomes a full blown musical sequence; colourful, transfixing and somewhat mind-boggling, it reminds me of an epic Bollywood style dance featuring Japanese townspeople. I also liked that there were moments of sincerity and real emotion in the film, and that these gave the violence reason and thus more impact. I'd definitely check this one out if you're in the mood for an action/samurai film that's funny, bloody, heartfelt and features a kick ass blind swordsman.

#78. Sonatine (1993)

So, I'll admit that the only reason I watched this was because it was on the flip side of the Zatôichi DVD, which shouldn't actually deter you from renting it as you'll probably want to see the above after my stunning review. Sonatine is quite different from Zatôichi. Besides Beat Takeshi once again performing the lead role, it is less stylized, less humorous, slower, and though it contains bloody violence, there is less of it. It's more about the inner transformation of a middle-aged Yakuza who is sent with a few men to a rural town to settle a gang war, upon arriving it's soon clear that he's been sent for quite different reasons. He spends most of his time on the beach, contemplating his occupation and falling for a young woman. It's a more poetic film, though one I doubt I'll return to.

Dude Movies: Avatar

What's it about?
It's about three hours.

Any chicks in the movie?
Some, but they are either big blue furry space elves, half Sigorney Weaver / half space elf, or Michelle Rodriguez. And let's be honest: Michelle Rodriguez is basically a dude.

Awesomeness factor?
Not nearly high enough, which is also probably what you'll be telling yourself at hour two of this turgid, flabby space epic. By now, you're almost certainly familiar with the basics of Avatar even if you haven't seen the movie (space marines go to Planet Fern Gully to strip mine it but are waylaid by plucky natives - with the help of a white dude first, natch) so let's get the good stuff out of the way first:

1) There's a totally bitchin' sequence involving dragons* at about the halfway point where the movie sort of wakes itself up from it's druggy, New Agey, touchy-feely snoozefest and (for about fifteen minutes, anyway) turns into something that's still stupid but at least fun to watch. It was true when I was twelve and it's true now: Dragons are cool.

2) The last half-hour or so where the marines FINALLY stop whining about Pandora and start tearing it a new asshole. I was supposed to be rooting for the space marines, right? I wasn't? Whoops.

So let's be generous and say that's about forty-five minutes of passably awesome stuff, strikingly similar in shape to James Cameron's previous nerd-boner icepack Titanic. That leaves about TWO HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES of some of the most boring goddamn shit I have ever made myself sit through, somehow made worse because all I could think about is the battalion of computer-animation Poindexters that it clearly took to make it. I salute those Poindexters, because on a technical level Avatar is a freakin' marvel and which, if nothing else, finally convinced me that motion capture isn't just the 21st century version of tracing. But at the conceptual level, it's such an incredible waste. Pandora doesn't come across as an alien landscape so much as an animated Yes album cover with some phosphorescent jellyfish thrown in for good measure, and the Na'vi (the dumb-sounding name for the space elf tribe) comes across as Generic Blue Indigenous Race designed using probably the same process the Itchy & Scratchy writers used to create Poochie.** Of course, if there was a story to go along with the space elves I probably wouldn't care, but what little story Avatar has is told by people who assume their audience is made up of total morons, so anything that might have had some inherent appeal is either ignored or simplified to the point of ridiculousness. So, the final effect is that of a really talented cook, taking really expensive ingredients and utilizing a kitchen full of incredibly talented staff, and then throwing that shit into a blender so he can spoon-feed you the purest, blandest pablum he can. Not my idea of a good time.

Mitigated by?
Dude, I heard you can sync up Avatar to Tales Of Topographic Oceans and it totally works!

* OK, they're not REALLY dragons because it's a different planet but, come on. It's got wings. And a tail. And a serpent head. It's a dragon.

** "Hmmmm, ok, we're at about 50% Native American and 50% space elf. Can we lower the space elf to 35% and maybe add 10% Maori with about 5% what I think Aztecs looked like without bothering to check to see if I'm right first?" "Sure thing, Mr. Cameron!"

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #33: Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire - Season 1 (2009)

For a fantasy junkie such as myself, the prospect of a heroic fantasy-inspired TV comedy is very, very enticing. So enticing that I've been working on my own web series for about two years. Here's a shameless plug. I thought I might have been the first to offer such a thing to people, but it turns out that at the exact same time, in some dank Comedy Central dungeon, a show entitled Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire was being produced, which, jealousy aside, only manages, sadly, to hit the 'OK' mark.

While there are some good and clever gags, the show's humour relies far too much on penis jokes and homophobia. Sometimes both hitting you at once for a dual-tech of stupid. There's also a lot of the show's sole female character showing skin and having frequent sex. The show is very clearly written by men, and, more importantly, men into the kind of male wish fulfillment you can find in the most boring fantasy writing. The characters on a whole aren't terribly likable, save for the bad guys. Indeed, the most entertaining stuff is found when you can watch the fickle and evil Chancellor Dongalor (chancellor's always seem to be evil) and his painfully more competent and wonderfully polite attendant Barnabus. They're a real treat, and in Dongalor the series eventually comes to present a character that calls for some genuine emotional investment. So kudos to the writing there.

So: I suspect that as the series goes on and the writers abandon their more basic strategies for the stuff that really works best it'll really become something worth watching.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #32: Muriel's Wedding (1994)

This one's an Australian film directed by Paul Hogan. Sorry, it's not the Paul Hogan, it's a different and perhaps lesser man. For the rest of this review, right up until the end, I will imagine that Crocodile Dundee directed Muriel's Wedding, not a guy who isn't Crocodile Dundee. There's nothing you can do to stop me.

Boy, was I in shock when Paul Hogan's name hit the screen! Mick Dundee himself, stepping up to the plate and producing a really enjoyable film like Muriel's Wedding. I didn't know he had it in him! But now that I know it seems only logical. Have you seen his movies, where he's Crocodile Dundee? What a hoot they are!

Anyway, Muriel's Wedding is one of those films like American Beauty, where someone stuck in a blase life, ruled by the status quo and by the expectations of bad friends and bad family, transforms through a series of hard-won epiphanies. The humour is good, the turns in fortune heartbreaking and/or triumphant, and the commentary is sobering. I will say, though, that it suffers a bit from a lengthy runtime. There are a handful of sequences where the effect is quickly communicated, but the movie is indulging too much to cut away. Or a scene following another scene is too emotionally similar to its fellow. This leads to some pacing trouble.

So: A cool Aussie film with a large amount of charm, though not directed by Dundee. If you're by any chance reading this, P. J Hogan, no hard feelings.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Creepy Pedro Reviews "Splinter"

What if you create a monster that is too scary to even film?

If you create this monster from the mind of your wickedness and also the wickedness of mimes and gymnasts, and on the set when it's time to record the movie you say to your cameraman, "Film the creature!" and the cameraman says "It's too scary! I can't even look!" and all you see are the edges of the creature and maybe some flickery light?

It's no use! No matter how much you yell "To the left! The creature isn't what you're filming! That's a shelf in a gas station!"

And not to be sexist, if also you have a female woman with a camera, and you say to her "Film the creature, already! Be brave!" and she screams in fear and in the editing room the footage is shaky like shot by a schoolgirl, one too afraid, who becomes all a'shivery-shakey in the sight of your creature?

What do you do? You must simply make the movie anyway, as the "Splinter" director did, and perhaps you throw up your hands and say "You really should've seen that creature!" and laugh ruefully...the rueful laugh of an imagination too wicked even for horror films, the laugh of a man without footage. He wishes, we think, that someday in the future -- maybe even in a sequel -- his crew will be braver and will look his wicked creature straight in the eyes...then we'll see it and we will believe him!

Until that day the Splinter creature is something seen only with Pause, and even then when it is a blur of spinning in front of the shelves or sometimes beside the shelves. On Pause, the creature is almost caught in a perfect moment. On Pause you cannot hear the dialog of the characters who suffer horrific transformations: the wimp into the hero, the tough girl into crying and all a'shivery-shakey, the heartless brutal villain who is actually not understood by us or even by the writers until we find his whole purpose is to HELP PEOPLE, but we never understood, we didn't stop to wonder until his whole arm was gone, so now we must care?

A man puts a thermometer in his mouth and stumbles coldly in a parking lot for ten minutes with bags of ice against his chest, as a climax, and they sure got enough footage of that part.

New to the Store: Week of 25 May, 2010

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
Connolly, Billy: Journey to the Edge of the World
Cross, David: Bigger and Blackerer
Dear John
Double Identity
George Gently: Series 2
Guild, The: Season 3
Hidden, The
Night Dragon
Night of the Demons
Road, The (also BluRay)
SS Girls
Stagecoach (also BluRay)
True Blood: Season 2
Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, The
World Unseen, The

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #16: Monsters, Inc.

If there’s one thing Roland Emerich taught us with his horrendous 1998 remake of Godzilla, any idiot can (and did) make a blockbuster monster movie.

Sure, some are better than others, but the conventional formula is simple: [(lizard / insect / alien) x (special effects)] + (general screaming and fleeing) + [(protagonist stupidity) x (multiple close calls)] ≥ $50,000,000.

But leave it to Disney/Pixar to make a monster movie that’s cleverly fun, funnily clever, endearingly delightful and most importantly, doesn’t involve Matthew Broderick. At all. (Not even a little bit.) Ladies and gentlemen of the moviegoing jury, I give you Exhibit M: 2001’s ninety-two most entertaining monster-movie minutes, Monsters, Inc.

What I like most about Monsters, Inc. is not necessarily its star-studded vocal cast or top-notch computer animation, but the clever social commentary carried out by its premise. When an energy shortage (sound familiar?) hits Monstropolis, energy company Monsters, Inc. takes action (sound familiar?) by scaring those who naturally possess the monsters’ coveted source of energy (sound familiar?).

The source, of course, is the screams of frightened children, which the monsters extract by wandering nightly through their closet doors and scaring the bejesus out of them. It’s not until one of the kids emerges from the other side of the closet that the scare-ers become the scare-ees, and as with any other Disney/Pixar feature, hilarity ensues.

Monsters, Inc. is full of humour that appeals to young and old, but it also has a valuable educational quality.

For example, the goofy and loveable monsters in the film can assist your child, teenager or spouse get over their fear of monstrous closet dwellers.

Plus, the monsters’ reaction to the feared little-ones reminds us that it’s OK to be afraid of children.

And I guess there’s something to be said for the monsters’ socially-minded observation that ‘kids just don’t scare like they used ‘ta.’ But whether this is a sign of the times or a warning of the potential effect that ‘TV, Wii and PS3’ are having on our youngin’s is safely left up to the viewer.

Truly, Monsters, Inc. is a frequently overlooked member of both the Disney/Pixar catalogue, and the monster-movie genre. And with great bonus features like outtakes and animated shorts, it’s the film that keeps on giving alllll night long.

Much the way Matthew Broderick doesn’t.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie watches a ham-fisted "political" sci-fi, recommends one sadly better

#70. District 9

I have read reviews of this film claiming it to be a masterpiece, the first great sci-fi film to come along in a while. I cannot even begin to fathom why.

District 9 is presented as a documentary in haphazard styles: The first third of the film is done with shaky camerawork in what seems too ludicrous a narrative rhythm to be anything but mockumentary. A long second act of the film then drops all pretense of documentary at all, following instead one man, Wikus, whose bizarre plight I'll address momentarily, as he's forced to experience life "on the other side" and makes friends along the way. The short final piece of the film, however, sweeps back to documentary of a more formal calibre, attempting neutrality but instead just coming off as blisteringly naive. It's a mishmash of styles, sure, but that's the least of this film's problems.

The story is ultimately about Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), put in charge by a munitions corporation twenty-eight years after an alien ship was trapped over Johannesburg, South Africa, to relocate "The Prawns" from their current ghetto (District 9) to a new camp. As the documentary first follows him and his military accompaniment, we see the viciousness with which humans exploit the aliens and the limited value placed on their lives. Then Wikus fools around with a piece of alien equipment in a house he's searching for weapons, and alien goo spatters him. By nightfall, everything's changed: Wikus starts turning into an alien, and the military corporation responds by treating him with the same base disrespect as one. Wikus, starting to see life from "the other side," is forced into hiding in District 9 where he befriends an alien who, after almost thirty years stranded on earth, is ready to return the control component to the great big mothership in the sky and fly off for help. Wikus agrees to help in exchange for this prawn's promise of returning him to his original, human state. Flimsy bonding emerges. Wikus still takes a long time to show even a smidgen of compassion. Action sequence. Action sequence. Close.

A lot of commentary surrounding this film involved comparisons to apartheid, and I have to say those are big fat jokes. There are so many gaping plot holes in this film as makes a fair comparison bloody unlikely, if nigh on impossible. Here are a few:

The aliens have serious firepower, and lots of it, but when humans start exploiting the heck out of them, they trade these weapons for tins of catfood and scurry home meekly, only to fight on the streets in hand-to-claw combat at later dates. What?

The aliens aren't surprised that their fuel turns Wikus into an alien: They even have a convenient means at the ready to fix him. What?

Alien life has come to Earth. Regardless of where they set down, are we truly to believe the rest of the world isn't scrambling to take part for thirty years of alien ghettoization, let alone the immediate resettlement process when it becomes clear Johannesburg can't handle them? And are we further to believe that military corporations are granted exclusive access to these camps? Where the bloody hell are the world's economic and political superpowers?

And are we really supposed to believe the aliens would become so quickly fragmented from each other, numbers living like primitives while only a precious few retain any sort of plan at all? Think about every time you've seen humans stranded on another planet in film. Think about how the crews maintained systems of hierarchy and how group dynamics won out. We're supposed to believe that from the very outset, these aliens with killer firepower meekly allowed themselves to be separated and fall apart in terms of personal and group discipline. Really. A spaceship crew. Come on, folks. Did Star Trek teach us nothing?

There is, truly, only one way in which apartheid is even close to broached in an effective, cogent manner by this film: Its inordinate, undeserved prioritization of the White Man's story. White Man gets to act like an asshole all throughout the movie, regardless of his predicament and the empathy it's supposed to induce, and the prawn is still supposed to utter his gratitude and make an extraordinarily compassionate promise at the movie's close. Seriously, if there's one thing Hollywood does well, it's making every bloody other culture a prop or tool for White Protagonists -- and clearly that arrogance now extends even to other worldly cultures! Huzzah!

I hate to say it, but Enemy Mine -- a B-grade film based on a Nebula-Award-winning short story of the same name -- does it better. And when Enemy Mine does it better, dude, you've utterly failed.

Maggie 2010: Maggie watches a sub-par horror flick, recommends others

#69. Pulse

Oh, this horror film was tedious. I say so at the outset because I really wanted it to be silly fun like Pontypool (Canadian content, represent!). But ladies and gentlemen, 'twasn't to be. There are essentially two ways to start a good horror film: Either you have the very gradual introduction of characters and context in a relaxed, naturalized setting -- think The Descent -- such that the true horror of the film sneaks up on all parties, and the audience, at the same time, or you have dramatic irony in reverse: At the film's start a character is running from something, to somewhere, because he or she knows something you don't, and fear of that unknown translates into a kind of urgency for the viewer.

Well, let's just say Pulse attempts this second opening. The issue, we'll later discover, is that people's use of telecommunications networks has created an easy means for a species of "others" to hop from frequency to broadcast frequency, infecting people, stealing their will to live, and thus either driving them to kill themselves or immaterialize into ash. And trust me, there really isn't much to explain why certain cases turn to ash and others just kill themselves. The only thing that can stop them? Red tape. Cover every available crack in your room with this stuff, and evidently they can't touch any of your network frequencies. Tongues in cheeks, everyone? Good. So, back to this beginning:

A young man is in a library. It looks to be a library in the most decrepit college you've ever seen, from the colorization alone and the severely flickering fluorescent lights. He is not walking with much urgency; there's nothing at all significant about his gestures. Still we're supposed to believe that he would wander over to a section of the library suddenly empty, extremely dark, with fixture damage everywhere. And then when an "other" jumps out from the bookcase (oh, right -- and there isn't even synchronicity about what these portals are: despite the movie's pointed look at broadband telecommunications, these "others" pop out behind books, under bathwater, inside dryers, etc.) he essentially falls down and becomes useless.

The problem is, from the outset the viewer needs to believe in characters acting like humans. There are so many other things this film might have done to further that discourse -- the main character, Mattie (Kristen Bell), is a psych student, for instance, but that potential angle for social commentary dries up quick -- but I would have settled even for basic motivations for all the characters' lines and actions. Absent this, I thoroughly recommend watching the poignant anime Serial Experiments: Lain, about a schoolgirl whose city is undergoing a rash of suicides by people who then mysteriously turn up alive on the internet, instead.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #15: Kicking and Screaming

In preparation for his new feature, Greenberg, I decided to delve into the Noah Baumbauch archives and check out his first feature from 1995, Kicking and Screaming.

Truthfully, I've been meaning to check it out for a while, but I'm really, really glad I waited till now. From the moment the film kicked off with "Cecilia Ann" by The Pixies, I knew it was for me. And since I went into this one without any knowledge of the plot, I was delighted to discover that the film centres around a group of recently-graduated college lads trying to navigate (and avoid) life after school.

As I myself am about to finish university, I completely identified with the angsty protagonists, whose overly-academic style of conversation demonstrates a total reluctance to leave the protective womb of higher education.

My favourite character, by far, was the more secondary scamp, Chet--a lame, nihilistic bartender working on year ten of an undergraduate degree, and who sees no compelling need to make an exit from the best days of his life. (A precursor to Van Wilder, perhaps?)

Kicking and Screaming is definitely a character-driven movie, in the vein of Diner and Swingers, and it's definitely conceptually related to Reality Bites. But potential viewers would do well to heed this warning: keep careful track of the main characters!

One of the endearing aspects of the members of the film's social circle, the self-proclaimed Cougars (or rather, Hawks--the official name of the group becomes a subject of much debate) is that the guys all talk the same. It comes up a lot. And some of them even LOOK the same. So if you're going to watch Kicking and Screaming (and I DEFINITELY suggest you do), be careful to have a clear idea of who's who, and for God's sake, pause it if you're going to go to the bathroom.

Overall, I think Kicking and Screaming is an ideal film for anyone who's going through a transition, be it romantic, occupational or otherwise.

As he demonstrated with The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbauch is a man who can really understand and articulate different forms of transition (or the various forms of reluctance to it), and his charming writing style lends itself to the topic.

So, if you're looking for a movie that values its characters and treasures classic one-liners, give this one a try!

...otherwise, I might kick you.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #31: The Descent 2 (2009)

The Descent has been my go-to horror recommendation for a long while now, and I was certain that I'd come away from the sequel, after learning that the director is different, with the sour taste of sequel in my mouth. I was pretty much right this time, but had one or two nice surprises.

So it's directed by the editor of the first movie and only produced by the original director, Neil Marshall. Descent 2 manages, then, to come off somewhat different in tone, but matches some small portion of the original feel alright. Descent 2 isn't as visually dark as the first, which is a shame. You're given clearer, bolder shots of the cave creatures that do look pretty good most of the time, but worked best, as always, when more was left to the imagination. The sets look a bit cheaper, and the actors care a bit less than before - most importantly, their relationships to each other aren't as interesting or well-plotted, which makes it much more difficult to invest yourself. The ending was an attempt at an OMIGOD moment like in the first, but it fails to make any impact. It probably would have been interesting if they had set up some kind of justification for it.

On the plus side, there's a twist I liked, though the dynamic that eventually sets up in light of it was on the dissatisfying side. It was fun, at least, to watch the new characters retrace the steps of the old characters, even going so far as to use a hanging body as a means to cross a deep chasm. Cool.

So: You're given a more barefaced version of the original, which is usual sequel territory. Worth watching for a couple of its elements.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #30: Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)

So I saw this for its Canadian debut with London Colin and Mission ImPoseable at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto last night, and it was beyond my wildest dreams.

In case you might not have come across this phenomenon of a film before in your journeys through the interwebs, Birdemic: Shock and Terror is this independent film written, directed, and produced by James Nguyen for about 10 grand. Styled by James as a "romantic thriller" of the same school as Hitchcock's cinema, Birdemic presents audiences with one of the most hilariously inept films ever made and asks them a very serious question. The question is as follows. When global warming drives eagles and vultures mad, who will survive? The answer can be found somewhere amidst the terrible cast and terrible dialogue, ridiculous special effects, piss-poor sound work, laughable camera handling, and hamfisted politics.

Birds divebomb the pumps, exploding on impact.

In our Mystery Science Theater 3000 and internet meme savvy world, this is of course exactly the kind of film that many would be pay to see, and Birdemic seems to be a hit - as The Room and Troll 2 was. It was a pretty amazing experience to laugh and clap along with a crowd of people indulging in the lowest dregs of cinema, and just as amazing to meet James Nguyen himself in the Q&A session that occurred afterwards. Heartbreakingly, he's an earnest man who seems completely unaware that his film is popular for none of the reasons he'd intended.

So: Catch the film while you can before Birdemic 2: The Resurrection hits our faces!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #32 & 33: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / Birdman of Alcatraz

NOTE: This review was written over the course of 1.5 months, almost a sentence at a time, days apart, usually with no attempt to re-read what came before it. I finished it so I could get it out of my life and move on. No reflection on the films themselves, which are good, just my own lack of interest in my dud premise. I encourage you to NOT read this.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Sweden, 2009) Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre.

Birdman of Alcatraz (US, 1962) Directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, Telly Savalas, Edmond O'Brien.

Back when I watched these movies, one of the things that intrigued me most about the main characters was their ultimate unknowability, even though in both cases we follow their story for two and a half hours. Both are antisocial loners: Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander is a young computer hacker with a mysterious past who can't be pinned down; Alcatraz's Robert Stroud is a convicted murderer, jailed in his early twenties, and spent the remainder of his life in prison.

Both are abnormally intelligent, Lisbeth having a photographic memory and mighty investigative skills, Stroud undertaking an ambitious study of disease in birds in spite of being confined to solitary. Salander's unknowability is enhanced by her being a fictional character, a creation of Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. Stroud is unknowable because the film presents him that way: a man of violence who is seemingly tamed by his exploration of the avian world, in spite of giving very little about himself away. In real life, Stroud remained a violent psychopath who killed two more people in prison than we're permitted to know about by the filmmakers.

Still, the film makes Stroud become an admirable character in some regards and my only real qualm with the film is that I've spoken to enough people over the years who seem to think that, by the end, Stroud's continued imprisonment is an injustice and the film is a social tract about the limitations of the penal system. In reality, the film does no such thing and that's what makes the film genuinely interesting: Stroud's behaviour changes, but is so directed towards his life with birds that it's impossible to know - is he rehabilitated or just redirecting his considerable energies? What kept me rapt for the last half of the film's running time was not knowing whether he would snap or was genuinely under control. Lancaster's performance plays into that beautifully: there's nothing extraneous about it, as if he couldn't give a damn what anyone else is thinking about him. Is the film's Stroud a benign figure at the finale or is the evil still lurking? In the end and to the film's infinite benefit, Frankenheimer and co don't even try to answer the question. They are merely interested in the unlikeliness and striking contrasts of the story.

The unknowability of Salander, on the other hand, becomes a bit of a plot device to Tattoo's filmmakers. As written by Larsson, Salander is a savant type, but in a bid to tame the 700-odd page novel, she is given even more prowess. One note rings particularly false: when she cracks a mysterious code in a missing persons case that has been cold for 40 years. There's not a single aspect of the character's persona that suggests she would have the slightest interest in the text that would give her this insight, and sure enough when one looks to the source material, the solution comes from a much more plausible (and ultimately more affecting) source.

Salander teams up with a disgraced journalist who has been hired by a wealthy industrialist to solve the mystery of what happened to the latter's niece, who disappeared many years ago. The novel balances the investigation with the backstory of both Lisbeth and the journalist, an aspect that has led many readers seeking a straight mystery to lose patience with it. The film streamlines the narrative considerably, and will delight those who found the book too digressive.

I saw the film first and delighted in the mystery, a sturdy one in the tradition of the recent Scandanavian thriller vogue, in spite of some nagging tonal flaws. The book reads well even with the details of the mystery resolved because the extra material definitely enhances the narrative. Two scenes of intense sexualized violence are a bit jarring and tasteless in the film's streamlined form, but sit better in the extended form (though, appropriately, still are not even remotely comfortable). It is worth noting that Tattoo and its forthcoming sequels were shot as one super-production, and exist overseas in a lengthy TV miniseries version that add hours of running time to the saga.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 18 May, 2010


Afghan Star
Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, The
And Then Came Lola
Confessions of a Porn Addict
Countess, The
Edge of Darkness (2010)
Extraordinary Measures
Hitler Meets Christ
Messenger, The (2009)
New Daughter, The
North Face
Touch of Spice, A
Valentine's Day
Waiting for Armegeddon


Amour braque, L'
Birdcage, The
Dead, The
Femme publique, La
Important c'est d'aimer, L'
Inspector Morse: Dead on Time Collection
Island at War
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide
Leslie, Alfred: Cool Man in a Golden Age (Selected films: Pull My Daisy / The Last Clean Shirt / Birth of a Nation 1965 / A Stranger Calls at Midnight / USA Poetry: Frank O'Hara)
Midsomer Murders: Country Matters
Midsomer Murders: Death in Chorus
Midsomer Murders: Four Funerals and a Wedding
Midsomer Murders: Last Year's Model
Minder: Season 1
Pleasures of the Flesh
Sing a Song of Sex
Three Resurrected Drunkards
Violence at Noon
Waiting for God: Series 1
Waiting for God: Series 2
Waiting for God: Series 3
Waiting for God: Series 4
Waiting for God: Series 5
Walkabout (remaster)


Edge of Darkness (2010)
Valentine's Day

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #14: The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

For self-proclaimed fans of the stylish and minimalist blues-rock duo The White Stripes, this one's a keeper.

Emmett Malloy's intimate look at the band's 2007 Canadian tour provides great footage of a lot of backstage dynamics and candid conversation from increasingly legendary guitarist Jack White and drummer Meg White, but it's also a really sweet look at our fair country, focusing specifically on some of the more remote parts of Canada.

The White Stripes' Canadian tour was a pretty big deal back in 2007, since it blanketed the entire country, with performances in every province and territory, including surprise daytime gigs in unusual venues like bowling alleys, YMCA summer camps, and on board boats and buses.

Jack White states explicitly at the beginning of the film that he and Meg specifically wanted to play shows in smaller communities, citing that the real heart of a nation as big as ours lies mostly in the outlying areas.

Mind you, that attitude didn't stop them from playing the Molson Ampitheatre in Toronto--a gig that I was enthusiastically present for, but which, to my dismay, didn't get covered in the documentary.

But the fact that the Toronto gig is marginalized to provide extensive focus on the Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit tour dates is what makes Under Great White Northern Lights so charming, especially for Canadians.

It gives some of us more urban, cosmopolitan Canadian viewers a chance to see what some of the more remote destinations in our country are truly like--not what tourism photos and gross misconceptions might have you believe.

Although the northern reaches of Canada are supposed to provide a backdrop for a documentary about the band, the film (perhaps inadvertently) acts as a cinematic essay about the land.

I loved the scenes depicting the landscapes of places like Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit just as much as I enjoyed the footage of band interviews.

And believe me, that enjoyment was an unexpected by-product--mainly, I just freakin' love The White Stripes.

Regardless of whether you want to focus on the film's depiction of Jack and Meg's relationship and their connection to their music, or the geographic locale of their tour, Under Great White Northern Lights is a really enjoyable documentary.

My only complaint (and it isn't really much of one) is that although there is some footage of the live performances, it's strictly in bits and pieces.

Granted, if you want to see a full-fledged White Stripes concert film, you'd be better off watching 2004's The White Stripes: Under Blackpool Lights, which is certainly one of the better concert DVDs I've ever seen, and definitely a great representation of what their live shows are like.

But I have seen music documentaries strike a much more impressive balance between onstage and backstage footage like Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin's LoudQUIETLoud: A Film About The Pixies which includes interviews with the band members interspersed with footage of songs played on tour from beginning to end.

Despite that small criticism, though, I thought Under Great White Northern Lights was a love letter to my country, written by one of my favourite bands and delivered by an extremely competent filmmaker.

All in all, I give it four and a half face-melting guitar solos out of five.

Maggie 2010: Breaking Bad

#67. Breaking Bad S1

You're fifty years old. You're a chemistry teacher with little to show for your life except a modest home, a wife who accepts you for the middle-of-the-track achiever you are, a sixteen-year-old son who loves but doesn't admire you, and a baby (and its mountain of debt) on the way. Then you find out you have lung cancer, and aren't likely to live to your impending child's first birthday. As a decent man trying to support his family by his own bootstraps, what do you do?

If you answered, use your latent crystallography skills to cook meth and make enough money to support your family in your absence, you might be the next Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad.

This series is exceptional -- not for its premise, but for its rigourous and meticulous follow-through: Walter doesn't just hop into the meth cooking industry overnight, but has to find help, in the form of past student and all-around meth-head layabout Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). And then they need a place to cook. And supplies. And distribution. And all of these elements come with huge prices, including the need to embark on far, far more serious crimes in order to protect their own lives and their secrets. It is not an easy road. Nor, in this first season, is it at all truly lucrative -- for all Walter's hard and illegal work, he still ends up having to inform his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he has cancer, which brings its own host of problems and looming new debts. Life for a man just trying to make his way by his own labour and system of integrity is hard. And the drug trade is one unforgiving S.O.B. Oh, and to make matters worse, Walter's brother-in-law is a DEA agent. Yeah. It's intense.

In short, superb writing, a measured, realistic narrative pace, exemplary performances, and an eye for detail makes Breaking Bad an unmissable TV event.

#68. Breaking Bad S2

Season two of this superb series, about Walter H. White and Jesse Pinkman's struggle to make good on a superior quality of meth production, made possible by Walter's rigourous chemistry background, is ripe with nuance. While Walter tries to keep his lies straight with Skyler, protecting his family, his high-handed engagement with criminal proceedings forces Jesse to make risks on their mutual behalf that land Jesse in hot water. Around this point one starts to realize that the titular act of this series, "Breaking Bad," might not just refer to Walter: before Walter came around, Jesse was a layabout, sure, but he was a decent guy who generally lived and let live. This season finds Jesse forced by Walter's actions to do things that tear him in two, to think himself to blame for some of the worst possible acts one can endure, and still get lectured for being an incompetent, unreliable good-for-nothing with no prospects whatsoever.

Watching this season, one gains an exceptionally clear understanding that criminals are made, and that pre-judging someone's character while relying on that presumed character to do your dirty work for you can be one of the surest ways to make anyone "break bad." A heartrendingly well-wrought series continues to expand in interesting and provocative ways through its second season. I thoroughly, emphatically recommend it.

Maggie 2010: Volver

#66. Volver

As a fan of Pedro Almodovar's films, I really wanted to love Volver. I ended up liking it. Volver stars Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, mother and daughter in this film about family secrets, love, forgiveness, and solidarity. A magical realist piece, Volver's central plot involves the town's spiritualism finding purchase in the return of sisters Raimunda and Sole's dead mother, Paula, who for years as a ghost counselled their aunt, Irene, and after Irene's death turned to Sole to help find peace for their family's dark history. This history resonates especially well with the present, as Raimunda's daughter, Paula, is early on forced to kill someone, and cover-up efforts between the two of them add considerable complications to their day-to-day lives.

I had difficulty suspending disbelief with this one, which was why some lovely moments and images ultimately glazed over in my mind. With so many years in which ghost-Paula was around, helping Irene, why did she wait so ever-freaking long to help Raimunda come to terms with their shared past? And as for young Paula's kill, which happens early on, why in blazes was the obvious course of action to hide the evidence? In Thelma & Louise I can completely understand the reasoning behind not waiting for the police, but in Volver Paula is so young, and the act so straightforward, that I was bewildered by the sudden impetus driving mother and daughter to hide all evidence of the crime.

I think I hold films "about women" to a higher standard sometimes, because there's a real push to think of women as "the dreamers" and men as "the doers" in these numbers, and as such put up an impassable barrier between men and women. That may well, perfectly embody the lived experience of many social niches the world over, so I should probably cut a film like this more slack. However, suspension of disbelief is big for me, so when at two telling junctures I felt the causality of events ("Why this response? Why this revealing of the past at this time?") somewhat lacking, it was hard for me to rank the film above decent -- for its acting, and its playful images, and subtle but effective cinematography.

Maggie 2010: Fighting

#65. Fighting

Man, it's so hard to be a white boy out of college. You just can't get no street cred! You gotta fight every ethnic flavour from the ground up to make something of yourself. Or at least that's what I learned watching Fighting -- and believe you me, the lesson isn't exactly subtle. The problem is, mild-mannered Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), counterfeiter turned street fighter under the wing of scam artist Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), is way too much of a good guy. He's boring. His friendship with Harvey, their heart-to-hearts in the face of poverty and failure, are way too convenient and uninteresting. And then there's the absence of training sequences: we're somehow to believe that Shawn MacArthur can face a rival from his past -- a guy with a trainer, access to a rigourous fitness protocol, and undoubtedly a decent diet as well -- from his position as a street bum we only once, very briefly, see train. Riiiiight. In order to keep Shawn playing the part of pretty-boy, director Dito Montiel also decided, in his infinite wisdom, to have Shawn take blow after blow to the head and body without displaying any real injury whenever love interest Zulay Velez (Zulay Henao) pops up. Anyway, this would all be forgivable if these tedious storyline developments led up to some really intense fights, but the merit of showcasing various mixed martial arts in Shawn's fights is utterly lost in the camerawork, which despite managing a few interesting shots leaves the viewer fairly wanting for play-by-plays. Ong Bak does it better. Even Redbelt does it better. Compared to so many entries in this genre (from action-centred to broody drama alike), Fighting just doesn't live up to its name.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #29: House of the Devil (2009)

When I first saw the case on the shelves, I imagined the entire movie in my brain - it was going to be cheesy, poorly made, filled with awful dialogue, and a waste of time. I tend not to give new horror films much of a chance, and usually judge a genre flick by its cover. If it hadn't been for the two or three customers that made a point to say "Hey, have you watched House of the Devil? It's actually pretty good," I'd have missed out and become a serious Nicky No-Watch. That's about the worst thing I could be, apart from a Neddy No-Review.

House of the Devil was fantastic. What's absolutely amazing from the get-go is just how believably 80s they make the film feel - and not in such a way as to diminish the film and make it seem kitschy. It just looks, sounds, and plays out like a lost film from the early 80s. From the hair to the camera work, fashion to body type, body posture to soundtrack, to the yellow coloured credit sequences and to the film's overall cadence, you're really served a good portion of the kind of old horror-film-watching feeling you might have been craving for some time. It feels at points like a Kubrick film, which is very high praise in my world, and wields a quiet, drifting, tension-filled camera extremely effectively. House of the Devil takes itself very seriously, and presents you with some serious fear. Not a cheap scare to be found.

So: The best horror film I've seen since The Descent.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #76: Rifftrax: Shorts-tacular Shorts-stravaganza (2009)

Wow, there can be no better way of watching old school educational videos than to do so while listening to the humorous quips and jabs added by the boys at Rifftrax. The Shorts-tacular Shorts-stravaganza provides minutes of hilarious entertainment for those smart enough and strong enough to laugh at the past. Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, and Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theater 3000) keep the laughs a chuckling for two hours of thrilling shorts like Primary Safety in the School Building and Cooking Terms and What They Mean, not to mention the awesome instructional video on how to clean yourself in the morning, Kitty Cleans Up.

Before my head exploded with awesome, I managed to catch one particularly humorous moment in the classic How Much Affection?, an informative and important look at why kissing means you'll end up pregnant like Eileen, who looks like a blond 1950s Bride of Frankenstein. At the end of this work of cinematic excellence, Mary, who has learned her lesson with sharing too much affection, says to her beau, Jeff: "Would you like to come in for a sandwich?" and the Rifftrax boys quip, "A nice, non-arousing sandwich." I admit it's much funnier in context, but I nearly lost my pants after hearing that line. But how about that sandwich? Mary's got "ham, tomato, cucumber, and bacon, and peanut butter - a whole restaurant," and based on the soft purring tones of Jeff's voice as he replies, I'm guessing that's one restaurant he's dying to eat out at. Good thing Mary knows how much is too much affection for one night.

Wendy's Films of 2010: The Chaplin Revue

In an attempt to broaden my experience with Charlie Chaplin and to catch up with my film watching (reaching 365 films seems less doable as each day passes), I decided to watch a bunch of shorts released as The Chaplin Revue.

#69. A Dog's Life (1918)

I wasn't sure what to expect from a Chaplin short; would it be as funny, as well thought through and wonderful? Here, the Little Tramp not only finds himself living like a dog, but also feels sorry for and adopts a pup he finds on the street. Humour ensues as he tries to smuggle the dog around in his pants while courting a beautiful young singer, and outsmarts two thieves in the process. A Dog's Life proves that even in a short film, Chaplin is still charming and his stories are still full of laughs, gags, and heart. It's a great start to the Revue, and I'd recommend it for sure.

#70. Shoulder Arms (1918)

This film seems to trod along the line of the Tramp's stories very well. It's not particularly special, though the tree trunk episode is quite good, but it definitely suits the rest of Chaplin's work. In it, Chaplin is a young army recruit during WWI who volunteers to don a tree suit and attack the enemies from behind their own lines; he meets a young French woman and later manages some pretty outstanding military feats. Though there wasn't a whole lot to make this one stand out among a crowd, it still feels like a little piece of Chaplin home.

#71. The Pilgrim (1923)

At an hour long, this one is almost a little lengthy to be called a short film, but like most (or all, depending on your view) of Chaplin's films it's certainly worth your while. One of my favourite aspects of a Chaplin film is the way he incorporates really good story lines with the gags and jokes. Really, it's what makes Chaplin, Chaplin. In The Pilgrim, he plays an escaped convict who disguises himself as a new pastor about to arrive at the town church. Of course, hilarity commences. I particularly liked the end and its political and cultural implications, though I don't want to ruin it so I'll let you discover it for yourself.

#72. A Day's Pleasure (1919)

Considering my last review, it's interesting that A Day's Pleasure is heavily dependent on gags and slap-stick to entertain, as opposed to an engaging story. In it, Chaplin plays a father taking his family out on a day trip, and most of the humour comes from incidents with the unknown. Seasickness and a collapsible chair provide momentary distraction, though these sequences aren't as funny as others might have been. At times it feels like the film was thought out and filmed in a couple days, though it's quality would suggest that even if this were the case, Chaplin has a better creative mind than most of today's comedians. I wouldn't say it's any better or worse than The Pilgrim, it's just lighter and more of a fun 20ish minute romp than anything else.

#73. Sunnyside (1919)

Most of this film is spent going back and forth between the real world and the romantic dreams of a farm boy (Chaplin). As he tries to win the heart of a young woman in town, a man from the city comes and captures it, leaving the young farm hand to pine and think of ways to win her back. It's not the most engrossing film, but it's enjoyable. There seemed to be hints of Chaplin's City Lights in this one, especially in the way he courts the young woman he loves. I also like the ambiguity of the ending, not knowing if the boy has succeeded in winning her heart, or if it was all a dream.

#74. The Idle Class (1921)

The concept of this story was definitely one of my favourites out of the Revue. The Tramp is unassumingly mistaken for the wealthy husband of an upper class woman at a costume party; the woman is far more pleased with the character of the Tramp and is happy at the change in her drunken husband's demeanour. Of course the whole thing is revealed to be a mistake in the end, but for a few confused hours the Tramp lives the life of the upper class.

One of my favourite gags in the whole thing, one that the beloved store manager Chris also mentioned to me, takes place after the rich husband reads a letter from his wife, saying: "I am taking up other quarters until you rid yourself of your drinking habit." He turns, sobbing, his body shaking with remorse; that is, at least, until he faces the camera again and you discover that he's not upset, but he's shaking himself a martini. It might even be my favourite of all Charlie Chaplin's gags. Clever, simple and brilliant.

#75. Pay Day (1922)

The last of the short films might be my favourite Chaplin film, or at least my favourite Chaplin short. There are enough funny moments in this to fill a feature length film without getting bored, and Chaplin in his genius puts them so close together that I couldn't stop chuckling for nearly half an hour. The best sequence has to be the one that takes place while Chaplin's poor labouring class man is on lunch break. As the small construction elevator next to him rises and falls, his non-existent lunch becomes more and more delicious, while his boss's is diminished to hammers and red-hot metal.

The charming nature of the poor man's luck and bad luck is what always gets me with Chaplin films. In this one, he never expects to eat lunch, but it suddenly pops into his life by chance. Upon his drunken return home, he discovers his angry wife asleep with a rolling pin. He crawls into the bathtub to sleep instead, only to discover that it's filled with water, and decides to stay in it anyway.

If you only want to check out a few shorts, at least take a look at this one, A Dog's Life, and The Idle Class. They're a great way to introduce yourself to one of comedy's greatest filmmakers, especially if you're not accustomed to silent film.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 11 May, 2010

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Collection (A Scandal in Bohemia / The Dancing Men / The Naval Treaty / The Solitary Cyclist / The Crooked Man / The Speckled Band / The Blue Carbuncle / The Copper Breaches / The Greek Interpreter / The Norwood Builder / The Resident Patient / The Red Headed League / The Final Problem)
Boston Legal: Season 2
Boston Legal: Season 3
Boston Legal: Season 4
Daybreakers (also BluRay)
Edge of Darkness (2010)
Legend of the Tsunami Warrior
Legion (also BluRay)
Malice in Wonderland
Mars Rising
Millenium (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) (Swedish w/ French subs or French dub - No English)
Millenium 2 (The Girl who Played with Fire) (Swedish w/ French subs or French dub - No English)
Naughty Nurses & Tawdry Teachers Collection (The Student Nurses / Private Duty Nurses / Night Call Nurses / The Young Nurses / The Student Teachers / Candy Stripe Nurses / Summer School Teachers)
Prom Night in Mississippi
Race to Mars

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #28: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, roguish playboy billionaire turned superguy (I'll say superguy since he never quite reaches hero status in the films - he just owns up to negligence and cleans up his own messes). He's Iron Man of course, and this was the big summer action sequel many people were waiting for.

And it's really fucking boring. Not since Transformers 2 have I sat in a theatre to watch a blockbuster and suddenly realised that I was completely, utterly bored. That I didn't care about anything that was happening on the screen, and that when there was a glitzy CGI sequence, couldn't anchor it to any kind of sense of emotional import. But I don't want to lead you too astray by bringing up one of the worst movies I've ever seen - Iron Man 2 isn't anywhere near as vapid as Transformers 2 because there's only one dick joke in it, if I remember rightly.

Sadly I can only think of one or two action sequences that are somewhat satisfying, and one is close to the beginning and the other not quite at the end, and short. Everything else is annoying quip. A glib talk back and forth that goes nowhere and isn't funny, instead of, say, illuminating the audience as to what's going with either plot or character. In regards to character, there isn't much present. We get a Tony Stark who's a dick and a fantasy of wealth without redeeming quality that I can find, and a Paltrow/Pepperpot that gets mad sometimes about how careless Stark is. Oh, and Don Cheadle getting mad about that too, to the point where he dons a suit of robo-armour for a really ridiculous fight scene at a party. Apart from that there's a lot of time spent trying to sell you on secondary characters. Scarlett Johansson and Sammy J were somewhat fun to watch, but Mickey Rourke's grizzled Russian antagonist was really the only thing I actually found entertaining. Or justifiable.

At least after the credits we see Thor's hammer in an impact crater unrelated to anything we saw in Iron Man 2.

So: A movie as careless and self-serving as Tony Stark. Save your money.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #27: Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein (1973)

Having taken care of Frankenstein's Daughter already in a previous film, Dr. Frankenstein must now be dealt with. Dr. Irving Frankenstein, that is.

After a snappy title sequence with a swingin' and funky soundtrack we're shown a city where beautiful women are vanishing and returning as zombies to murder their friends and family in their homes. It's clear to authorities that this is the work of Dr. Frankenstein, and true enough, it's the good doctor's attempt to garner fear and respect, which clashes quite a bit with his want and need to live in secret and conduct his dubious research. He is of course attempting to unlock the mysteries of immortality, and thus far, his greatest Frankensteinian work is in Golem, a tall and ripped black man immune to bullets and to the screams of his victims. He's powerful, but he's slow and not very bright (such a racially sensitive film!), and Frankenstein surmises that to create the ultimate reanimated warrior he will need the superior brain of El Santo. Both Santo and Blue Demon aren't quite going to give him what he wants. Interestingly, Blue Demon actually has to come to Santo's rescue at one point, finally proving to be more than just El Santo's sidekick. He seems much more like his own entity in this film, whereas before he was more like an extension of Santo's good will.

Of the Santo films I've seen, this one has the most action, as it seems to be chock full of car chases, gun play, and thugs in dark warehouses and on dark streets just asking for a pounding. In addition, as always, we're given awesome introductory wrestling matches between Santo and Blue Demon and their various lucha libre opponents. Which reminds me: something I really like about this Santo installment is that more than any of the others I've watched, you're reminded the most frequently that Santo and Blue Demon are professional wrestlers, and have wrestling careers to maintain when they're not tangling with the evil forces of Mexico. The plot actually ends off at a wrestling auditorium with a wrestling match between the disguised and remote-controlled Golem and Santo and Blue Demon in the fucking ring. Way cool.

That's right, just sign here and this strangely familiar and massive horror will kick your ass in the ring, Santo.

So: A really fascinating Santo flick. Lots of cool action and wrestling sequences, and a Blue Demon with a bit more attitude.

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #26: Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman (1972)

I told you I'd be back Santo. I brought a friend.

Here it is, my favourite of the Santo films that I've seen. If you're going to deny yourself the heady pleasures of El Santo and indulge only in one of his films, let this be the one.

While it doesn't have the degree of characterisation that Frankenstein's Daughter (also directed by Miguel M. Delgado) holds, for sheer cool factor you really can't beat Santo and Blue Demon teaming up against monster heavy-weights like Dracula and the Wolfman. The only thing that could propel this movie to the tip of the Olympus Mons of b-movie greatness would have been to put Dracula and the Wolfman into an actual tag team match against Santo and Blue Demon so that they could wrestle out their differences on the mat with the dignity befitting a luchadore. We don't get that. That bubble burst, on with my praise.

Aldo Monti reprises his role from Treasure of Dracula and takes up the vampire's cape once again, this time recruiting a master of seduction - the Wolfman - to finally achieve his big dream. His big dream is, of course, to cover the world in satanic darkness. A dream we all share.

Waiting for Satan's forces to attack.

But this is more like a problem for Santo. You see Santo has a hot new girlfriend named Lina, and this girlfriend is a descendant of the wizard that stopped Dracula's machinations in the distant past using some ancient weapon called the Dagger of Boidros. The same Dagger of Boidros sitting on Lina's dad's shelf. Her dad knows that shit's about to get real, so he tells her to get Santo involved. Santo, no doubt knowing that Dracula and the Wolfman are serious business, promptly recruits his old luchadore friend the Blue Demon to help keep Lina's family safe.

The game of luchadores.

A few words about Blue Demon. Where El Santo is a boyscout, and friend to all children, Blue Demon is more like Thor, and friend to all children. He's less inclined to show mercy to two-bit thugs, and would care little for the due process of law if it weren't for Santo's guiding moral sensibilities. Also, his mask is cooler, his body more sculpted, and, quite frankly, his wrestling prowess greater than Santo's. In fact, the two luchadores didn't like each other outside of movie-making, and when pitted against the other in some films would be notorious for laying the punches on a bit thick. They were rivals, and Blue Demon was no doubt unhappy about the strange and enormous gap between Santo's popularity and Santo's wrestling skill. Blue Demon starred in a number of his own films, but was known by the public by and large for being a sidekick of El Santo.

Let the Wolfman seduction begin.

So an evil hunchback has reawakened Dracula's forces, and more than any of the characters in the film, presents the most interesting bit of character drama. There's a touch of ambiguousness to him, and he's not altogether when you'd expect. Our two heroic luchadores defend the family from both him, the seductions of the Wolfman, and the hypnotic power of Dracula, but fair poorly. People are taken, and Santo and Blue Demon must take the fight to Dracula's lair. You'd think they'd use the Dagger of Boidros, but Chekhov's famous rule is ignored and a much more ridiculous strategy is used to defeat the monsters. You really must take great care when designing an evil lair.

So: B-movie awesomeness. Get some Mexican drinks and some pizza and some friends.

Maggie 2010: Resignedly, 2012

#64. 2012

I confess to being happy this movie exists, because the moment I heard about it I realized there was actually a chance in hell that the whole 2012 sensation would run its course before the fateful year in question. I mean, once you've seen John Cusack play out the whole scenario in a schlocky, B-grade movie, the thing becomes a little passe, don't you think? We have the T-shirts, we have the books, and now the motion picture. Next apocalyptic nightmare, please?

That said, it took just under five minutes into 2012 to start laughing at the science behind the disaster scenario -- neutrinos from the sun mutating into a new kind of particle that interacts concretely with the earth's core, causing gross tectonic shifts and building towards both volcanoes and tsunamis on an unprecedented scale -- and with tremendously low expectations come to appreciate the fact that the film starts years before the solar flares yield cataclysmic results, so that when apocalypse hits there's actually a measure of hope for survival. This is important, because if the world were really about to end for all humanity what the hell would be the point of watching John Cusack try to save his family from destruction? You might as well watch the final episode of The Dinosaurs again -- you know, for laffs.

Okay, so John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a struggling writer with a lone novel that sold just over 400 copies. This is important because the scientist who discovered the end of the world was coming, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is somehow a big fan, so when he finds Jackson and his two young kids in Yellowstone Park, now off-limits because the lake has mysteriously dried up, Jackson's underlying message as a writer -- that people will sacrifice themselves to save others -- kind of resonates with Adrian's personal crisis. See, Adrian had all these super-cool survival plans built on a vision of the world ending at least a year or two later; but since his calculations were wrong, the governments of the world are now scrambling to complete the four Arks they've contracted in China, and Adrian is slowly awakening to the fact that the greater public never actually factored into their governments' survival plans at all. Major bummer. Meanwhile, Jackson's encountered a nutter in the forest who tells him all about the end of the world and the Arks, so when the nutter's predictions start coming true Jackson hurries off to pick up his kids and ex-wife (and... the new husband, a cosmetic surgeon, can come along, too) and do whatever it takes for his family to survive.

There are the elements here of a quality action flick, but director/writer Roland Emmerich misses the boat (no pun intended). In the course of the film you see the set-up to what might easily have been a classy, Armageddon-style climax, in which Jackson, embodying the ethos of his own writing and coming to terms with the fact that his kids actually like their new dad, goes off on a suicide mission and dies so that a whole crap-load of people may live. Meanwhile you see the set-up to a kind of government accountability that finally risks everything in order to save as many people as possible (really, really, really late in the game, but, you know, better than nothing?). However, when push comes to shove either the writers wimp out, or else completely manhandle various crises to the point of tedium. Truly, some of what should be the film's tensest moments are in fact so long and overwrought that even last-minute twists become anti-climactic and dull. The actors themselves don't often seem very emotional about what's going on -- so why the hell should we?

The world is ENDING, people. Feel good conclusions in such films need to be meagre threads of "Shit, son, that was bad, but hey! It could still have been worse!" (Take, for instance, Sunshine, which delivers for the first two acts, falls miserably apart in the third, but still recognizes that centrality of sacrifice and loss to any culminating, bittersweet victory.)

In short, I'm not cranky with 2012 because it was a mediocre End of the World action flick. I'm just cranky because it's not as pleasurably bad as others of that ilk, when it had all the basic elements and came so close to being something more. When Adrian gives a speech aboard the Ark about chance and randomness, after a really gentle subplot about Buddhist philosophy yielding positive, real-world outcomes, you almost think "Sweet! They're not ham-fisting it, and they're still pulling off a measure of profundity!" But then, near the end of the film, one of the characters reads aloud the ending to Jackson's novel, its very title beating viewers over the head with the synchronicity between word and action, and that's it. The dream is over. The ship of awesome apocalyptic films has sailed, and 2012's not on it.