Saturday, July 30, 2005

Lazy Eyes and Overactive Thyroids

2004, USA
Steve Balderson

This rare North American offering at the 2005 Fantasia Film Festival was a much hyped but ultimately disappointing attempt to take cinematic weirdness back from the Japanese, who have been hoarding it ever since Akira hit it big. The film, about a murder in a small American town visited by a carnival, tries very hard to be Twin Peaks, but sadly only succeeds in being CBC’s Wolf Lake, though mercifully without the stink of Lou Diamond Phillips thickening up the air. That’s not to say that there aren’t some intriguing elements in the film. Shot in a mix of black and white and color, Firecracker presents two separate yet interconnected worlds: one staid, boring, and predictable, and the other with all the beauty and color cheap digital video can provide. This device is fairly effective, provided you haven’t seen Pleasantville, or at least liked it. The carnival, which, as you may have guessed, is the surreal and vibrant color/fantasy world, represents a sort of idealized dream world for the film’s main character, the functionally retarded Jimmy. Sorry, I’m sure there’s a more politically correct term to use when describing someone’s reduced mental capacity. Slow? Developmentally challenged? Catholic? Whatever it is, Jimmy is it, and he’s the liaison between the two worlds of the film. As exciting as being led by the hand by a retard may seem, keep in mind that this film comes from a country where Dr. Phil and his comforting Texas drawl are king. Aside from Jimmy, all the main characters in the film have dual roles, as each major player in Jimmy’s life is mirrored in his carnival fantasy. Part of the surrealism of the film, and one of the only touches that truly works, is that there is no doubt that this carnival fantasy actually physically exists, and isn’t merely some figment of Jimmy’s imagination, which is great, because if this movie ripped off Fight Club on top of every second David Lynch movie, I think my head would have exploded trying to cross-reference every homage. Another plus in the film is the heavy, dramatic score, which really pulls things together, at least until it quiets down and people start speaking their lines like they’re reading cue cards. The best performance of the picture comes from Karen Black, but this may be because pretty much everyone else in the film is awful, and she shines in comparison, kind of like watching amateur porn on the internet and fixating on the one girl who’s an amateur by choice, not by virtue of bad skin and a thyroid condition. Ms. Black has been making a living in low-budget horror films ever since her left eye gave out and made a break for her nose, which is a shame, because she’s done some very good work in the past, Burnt Offerings aside. The real surprise in Firecracker is the dual performance by alternative vocalist Mike Patton, who plays Jimmy’s brother very well, and the carnival’s boss very poorly. I suppose this may be a reflection of his musical talent, as he tends to alternate between great bands and god-awful noise with clockwork regularity. I’ve long been a fan of Fantomas, ever since their cover of the Spider Baby theme opened my eyes to the fact that I’m not the only person to have seen that movie, but I don’t have quite enough drug-related brain damage to like Mr. Bungle, and Faith No More gives me the same kind of headache I get from listening to people trying to explain how Radiohead’s ability to re-write crappy pop songs by adding computer bleeps and removing the choruses constitutes talent. That said, perhaps his presence in the film makes sense. After all, he did cover the Fire Walk With Me theme, and I guess one good homage deserves another.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Sweet Taste of Chocolate and Children.

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
2005, USA
Tim Burton

It gives me a warm feeling, deep within the pistons pumping black ichor deep within my chest in the area roughly approximating where a human heart should be, to know that in today’s age of ultra-conservativism, where nearly every form of media is under attack for promoting anti-social behavior, that there still exists a place where child abuse and animal torture are just as accepted as they were the first time a Satanic cult opened a daycare centre in California. And that place is, of course, the children’s story, where grotesque crime and punishment tales have been de rigueur since before the days of Shockheaded Peter and the Brothers Grimm. Now, if only I can pass off my kiddie porn collection as sex-education morality plays, I can get off that FBI watch list I’ve been on since I linked to the Micetrap Records website. There’s no real need to go over the plot of this film, as I tend to gloss over that stuff anyway, plus everyone’s already seen this, the original film, or read the back of the book while waiting for a Grande Gazebo Blend from one of those coffee shops inside Chapters. Written by Roald Dahl, the novel is one of a series of children’s stories that seem appropriate for kids at first but clearly exhibits the kind of violent creepiness most often seen inChristopher Walken films and John Wayne Gacy’s paintings of clowns . Willy Wonka is played by Johnny Depp, a talented actor who has let teen idolatry and early career buzz go so far to his head that he feels the need to play extravagant dandies rather than exhibiting any real range. And, of course, Tim Burton keeps encouraging him. Burton’s been on a little bit of slump recently, one that’s threatening to reveal that his talent lies more in visuals and the creation of hermetically sealed fantasy worlds rather than telling stories, but this film is certainly an improvement over Big Fish and the abysmal Planet of the Apes. Hearkening back to movies like Edward Scissorhands and Beetle Juice, the film obsesses over pastel colors, symmetrical set design, and a childlike awe of technology, coupled with a childlike idiocy when it comes to screenwriting. Every thing in this movie is creepy and weird, much like the original, from the violent and mutilating comeuppance the children receive for having bad parents, to the cow-whipping scene, to Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Wonka as a mildly retarded fop. The kid who plays Charlie, Freddie Highmore, has already clearly been molested by a Johnny Depp character in Finding Neverland, a movie which tried to be touching in the emotional way but ended up being touching in the “don’t tell your mother” kind of way, and he’s got the dark, soulless eyes to prove it. Much like Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning before him, Highmore exhibits a level of precociousness and talent entirely impossible for his age, leading to me to believe that he’s either a special effects composite or part of a Scientologist cloning project. Our portal into Burton’s elaborate fantasy world, Charlie and his family are the only characters in the film that are even remotely normal. All the other children are all shiny and waxy, kind of like Gollum but with regular skin tones, and Wonka himself looks a taller version of the Mad Hatter, only with wilder peyote eyes. Charlie’s family is composed of a bunch of withered old people who look like they smell of sausage and decay, Helena Bonham Carter in a dental appliance, and Noah Taylor, who looks kind of like a goofy Nick Cave more likely to do a pratfall than sing an elaborate piano ballad about crushing your skull with a rock. In an unnecessary and ultimately confusing bit of back story, Willy Wonka also has a family, in the form of a Victorian dentist played by the always terrifying Christopher Lee, who is my favorite actor in the entire world who is not Bruce Campbell. Lee does his best to show nuance and shading in his performance, but he’ll always be Dracula with liver spots, so it’s mainly a lost cause. While the film provides a great deal of visual delight and is admittedly entertaining, it sort of exists in a netherworld between a children’s film and an adult fairy tale, which is exactly the place that Burton’s less successful films tend to occupy. Like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure before it, the film is too strange to appeal to kids, I suspect, and is full of too many stupid sight gags, oddball performances, and, quite frankly, children to be embraced by adults. Unless, of course, you’re one of those adults who trolls the internet looking for children’s sexual education morality plays.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Live Hong on Kong Action!

Breaking News
2004, Hong Kong
Johnny To

Hong Kong is to action films like Montreal is to contact strip clubs; for better or worse, the two are forever entwined, and both make the kind of guys who memorize Formula One statistics soil their Calvin Kleins. I doubt things could change over there even if they wanted them to. If Hong Kong started shipping over romantic comedies or Shakespeare adaptations, you’d get audiences leaving the theatre twenty minutes into the film once they realized the chances of them seeing a mobster in wraparound 80s sunglasses surrounded by slow motion doves and backlit by muzzle flare are slim to none. Often times, as in the case of John Woo, all their exports do is clutter up video store shelves with fodder for the lobotomized masses to rent when the football season’s over, but every once in a while, a film like Breaking News comes along that shows us there actually is some talent over there not dedicated to cracking Macrovision copy protection and figuring out how much MSG it will take to fell the entire Occidental empire with brain lesions. Director Johnny To follows the Takeshi Miike school of filmmaking, which involves making a film roughly every ten minutes, and while he’s not quite as popular over here as Miike, he’s certainly the more talented of the two. This is not particularly difficult, as Miike is a gibbering idiot whose violent videotaped sex fantasies have somehow been interpreted by Western audiences as mad genius, when in fact they should be used as evidence in a pre-emptive sterilization procedure. Actually, he’s not even that popular, it’s just that he’s infiltrated into the ranks of cult directors worshipped by snotty video store clerks hoping their nerdy taste will somehow elevate them to Quentin Tarantino status in the eyes of the attractive waitresses from the all-night coffee shop next door. The thing is, most video store clerks are video store clerks because they dropped out of university with half a film degree, live in their parents’ basement, and need spending money for region-less DVD players and a new bong, so their opinion is roughly as valid as the one you’ll get asking a homeless guy with no teeth and an armful of bad prison tattoos to recommend this summer’s hottest read. Breaking News, to struggle back to the point, is a rather enjoyable, though simplistic, tale of cops, robbers and elaborately staged Steadycam shots. After a botched sting operation that ends in police fatalities and the escape of a crew of heavily armed criminals, the police try to improve their public image by filming their next operation and releasing it to the media. Of course, having not seen Wag the Dog, they don’t realize that this is doomed to failure on their part and boredom on ours, but To spices things up by adding a couple of additional crooks to the mix, about a hundred gun battles, and enough bullets to pepper the backing tracks of a half-dozen 50 Cent concerts. While the film loses focus and wanders into the realm of the improbable fairly quickly, it’s fast paced, and though it will never be accused of being intelligent, at least it’s short. At under 90 minutes, I’ll tolerate pretty much any idiocy above the Michael Bay level, because that still leaves plenty of time to hit the peelers afterwards.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

How To Make Friends and Irritate People.

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a couple of blogs that have linked to me in the last couple of days, or that I’ve stumbled upon during my first few days of loserdom. Apparently, some people have actually been reading this stuff, a fact which I find rather astonishing. This marks the first time anyone has read anything I’ve written since the time I spray painted “Go Back To Africa” over the bay windows of a Chinese restaurant. As with that particular occasion, the reaction to my writing seems to be one more of confusion than of anger, but I aim to rectify that by mixing in plenty of rabid, insulting generalizations into increasingly obscure and uninteresting film reviews. Back to the blogs, I’d like to mention Whimsy, Inc. by a Mr. Neale Van Fleet. Neale is approaching the internet blogging community as more of a visual medium, as opposed to a text based entity, with short, photo intensive posts that are brief but addictive, written in a straightforward, honest style that is somewhat soothing. Neale also has the stones to criticize my lack of paragraphing, to which I point out the fact that I have long felt that paragraphs are for immigrants, too wrapped up in trying to buy long-distance phone cards in grocery stores using broken English and a fistful of strangely shaped currency to understand the concept of stream of conscious narrative and its potential for amalgamation with non-narrative forms of prose. Next, we have Sean, from Said the Gramophone. Sean’s site is devoted to music, which he clearly loves with a passion. I, personally, hate music more than anything save my stomach ulcers, as evidenced by my refusal to listen to anything not recorded by a Norwegian with a murder conviction, but that doesn’t make Sean’s work any less interesting. He writes very intuitively, with lots of “this song tastes like summer rain” stuff, sort of like he’s taken a whole sheet of blotter acid before popping in the latest CD from whatever navel-gazing, Converse wearing, black-horn rimmed glasses sporting, philosophy degree dropout band is trying to record The White Album again. Good stuff. Then come a couple of sites I haven’t really had the chance to check out too closely, like The Erebus and The Terror, which is a literate and almost instantly absorbing exploration of, well, pretty much anything. The post about people who put records on at parties is immediatly arresting. To bad it’s by a Christian, though. As I sort of signed up for the other side when I was younger, by virtue of a few bad decisions and a few worse tattoos, I’m contractually obliged not to read it, but perhaps I’ll sneak a peak every now and again. Plus, it had a cool link to The Absorbascon, a blog written by a comic book fan who reads comic books more times in a day that I blink in a week, but that may be because I cut off my own eyelids so I wouldn’t fall asleep during late night reruns of The X-Files. Lastly, I was mentioned here, on a website that seems interesting, but I haven’t checked it out too closely. I think the guy makes movies, as evidenced by his excellent film production log section, which explains why he doesn’t agree with my reviews. In order to make films, you must love films. And in order to love films, you must be at least partially brain damaged, because there hasn’t been a good movie made since Edison shot footage of an elephant being electrocuted. I hate movies. Always have, always will, and that tends to come out in my posts. Alright, so that’s pretty much everybody who ever stumbled upon this page insulted, so it’s back to toiling in obscurity. Thanks for your interest.

Orpheus, Orpheus, Orpheus, And How To Drive Away A Potential Audience By Being Pointlessly Obscure.

Blood of a Poet
1930, France
Jean Cocteau

Generally, neither surrealism nor the French are exactly my cup of tea. This is primarily because I’m both sober and rather sensitive to body odor, ruling out first one, then the other. On the other hand, I’ve never been one for tea either, having deemed it a drink for unwashed twenty-somethings recuperating from a late-night mushroom binge before setting out on a day of tree-planting in some godforsaken British Columbian rainforest. So, torn by these two opposing revulsions, I settled down to watch famed French artist Jean Cocteau’s first film, The Blood of a Poet, the introductory installment of his Orphic trilogy. The trilogy is so named because an association with Classical mythology makes you critic proof, at least it did until Joel Schumacher turned admiration for Olympian physical ideals into molded plastic Pride parade float dancers. I’m an admirer of some of Cocteau’s other work, particularly Beauty and The Beast, though I find that some of his elaborate penile caricatures have since been outdone by the fellow who scrawls all sorts of delightful imagery and witty wordplay on the bathroom walls of that 24 hour diner full of scabrous hookers and dollar slots on the corner of Chomedy and St. Catherine. And while I was not disappointed, it should be noted that this is the sort of film everyone fears will greet them should they ever attempt a university film class. Though this fear is not completely unfounded, I can testify from experience that for every hour spent watching scratchy black and white prints of pampered bohemians miming their way though elaborate set-pieces and jagged, Kuleshov-style editing, there are three full hours of Titanic being passed off as a perfect blend of classical Hollywood romanticism mixed with modern day CGI fantasy. I will fully admit that I will squirm in my uncomfortable, coffee-stained seat during film class as much as the well-cologned simpleton on a football scholarship beside me who's trying to skate through a bird course by dropping in for the first twenty minutes of the screening before heading off the gym to work his triceps, but I would much rather watch ten, nay, twenty hours of early experimental Maya Deren films before I’ll subject myself to one more minute of what James Cameron seems to think is dialogue. Honestly, the man must write his screenplays by cutting and pasting Superfriends scripts, barely pausing long enough to delete references to Wonder Dog and Plastic Man. Not that Cocteau’s first film is an exemplar of subtle character development and masterful plot construction. After all, it’s essentially a silent re-enecatment of what reading a Freudian dream symbolism book must be like after a glass of absinthe, but it’s miles ahead of the droolingly obvious films that have been shown at the theatres ever since Jaws destroyed American cinema. So, while I don’t recommend film school for much more than learning how to use the word ‘oneric’ in a sentence or waste a solid decade of your life talking about the groundbreaking films you’re going to make right after you get a raise at the video store, at least it will give you a chance to see something other than the cinematic equivalent of a Backstreet Boys album.

France, 1949
Jean Cocteau

The second film in the Orphic trilogy, Orpheus is the best of the lot, though considering it’s up against a 50 minute silent short and the artistic equivalent of a bourgeois circle jerk, that’s not necessarily saying much. This is, however, a great picture, provided you’re not the kind of person who likes a lot of plot, action, sense, or logic in your films. Actually, if you like pretty much anything except for 40s French beefcakes smoking Galois cigarettes while hiking up their pants to chest level, you’re shit out of luck here. Starring French star Jean Marais, who looks sort of like an effete Hercules in suspenders, the film retells the myth of Orpheus in a modern setting, replacing, as the Surrealists are wont to do, anything that could possibly be considered interesting or exciting with a lot of symbolism and an underlying sense of pomposity so severe you feel like you’re watching the Queen of England teach curtsey lessons at a charm school for Jane Austin heroines. Instead of a horde of mad women tearing Orpheus apart in a Bacchanalian frenzy, we have some very angry villagers yelling at Marais through a gate, which I guess is as close as the French get to action without popping a stitch in their culottes. The grim personifications of death from the original myth is replaced with a painfully skinny woman in black and two guys on motorcycles. The woman lacks a bit of majesty, as she’s about four feet tall and reminds me of that girl in the corner of every coffee shop near a campus with the dark nail-polish, reading Nietzsche and drawing dying roses in black ink on a Starbucks napkin, waiting to be noticed by the dickhead with the hemp necklace at the counter who plays acoustic guitar at open mike night on Mondays. The motorcyclists might be scary if they didn’t remind me so much of extras in a Kenneth Anger movie. Much of the imagery is, however, quite haunting, as is a remarkably modern portrayal of the underworld as a bureaucratic hell as opposed to the generally accepted Hieronymus Bosch styled inferno. While this vision of a punitive afterlife might not seem terrifying at first, throw in the threat of that coffee shop girl reading some of the poetry she writes when the necklace guy seems particularly blasé, and you’ve got yourself a hell worth suffering in.

The Testament of Orpheus
France, 1960
Jean Cocteau

The final film in Cocteau’s trilogy is also the final film that Cocteau directed, bringing to a close his film career in the same fashion he opened it, with pretentious crap. Not to put to fine a point on it, but this is an awful film, one that nearly destroys the credibility of his earlier work; a overdone, indulgent, and endlessly self-referential picture that plays out like Cocteau’s masturbatory eulogy for himself. This is the kind of movie you have nightmares about the day before you let your girlfriend pick the date movie for the first time, when you half-expect to be dragged to a Jennifer Lopez picture but are terrified by the off-chance she saw the local repertory theatre schedule and was intrigued by a Michael Snow retrospective. Essentially, all this is is Cocteau wandering around, talking to characters from Orpheus, while the audience is expected to sit back and pick out all the annoying cameos from his rich and famous friends, sort of like a Tarantino movie but without the occasional amoral bloodbath to liven things up. Picasso, Charles Aznavour, Maria Casares, and many others clutter up the scenery in this picture, a relic of the time when French films were so self-consciously arty they forgot that they were being made for an audience, not for other artists. Then, of course, centuries of red wine based-alcoholism and aristocratic inbreeding dropped the mean IQ of the country about 40 points, and the whole industry concentrated on making sequels to Taxi. The times, they are a’ changin’, though it is odd that the barometer of this change is a shift in the specific ways in which French cinema sucks. Next week, we’ll study the progression of linguistic morphology through a list of movies in which people eat shit.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Don't Hate the Playa, Hate The Enormous Green Lizard Destroying Tokyo.

Godzilla: Final Wars
2004, Japan
Ryuhei Kitamura

The study of Godzilla films is a solitary pursuit, practiced only by the odd head shop owner and comic book store clerk with a Japanese ex-pat girlfriend, but it is not without its rewards. Those rewards come mainly in the form of an extensive knowledge of alternate spellings of Kamakiras and a completely irony-free love of camp, but they are rewards nonetheless. For example, you never know when a Trivial Pursuit question may require you to define the term kaiju, or when you’ll have to sit through an entire afternoon’s worth of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons episodes without making any sarcastic asides. However, this year held quite the reward for true Godzilla fans, with the release of Godzilla: Final Wars, which features the titular monster fighting pretty much every guy in a bad monster suit he’s ever faced, with the notable exception of King Kong. This is every fan boys wet dream: the chance to see all their favourite monsters at once while simultaneously complaining about why Angillas was computer-animated. And not only does it have some of the most popular creatures from the Godzilla mythos, like Mothra, and King Ghidora, it features some of the more incredibly unpopular, like Minilla from Son of Godzilla, who’s kind of like a more plastic version of Trumpy from Pod People¸ and some of the more bizarre, like King Shisa, whom you may remember as the scary teddy bear from one of the numerous Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla movies. This film allegedly brings to a close the fourth, I believe, series of Godzilla films, which have stopped and restarted more times than the Friday the 13th franchise. There’s the first series, which went from 1954’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters until the second Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla in 1974, then the second run, which ignored everything after the first film and went from Godzilla 1985 until I got bored of keeping track around the mid-nineties. After a brief respite for the staff writers at Toho to crank out a script good enough to get Godzilla to sign on for another film, there were a few ‘alternate reality’ pictures, then it restarted again with the excellent third Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla picture in 2002. I realize that the preceding list was practically joke free, and must have been quite a chore to read, but it’s really difficult to make fun of Godzilla movies. No one in the audience takes them seriously, and clearly no one making the film is either, so making fun of it sort of feels like critiquing the art in Captain Planet colouring books, only less satisfying because you’re not making any children cry. The plot of the film is an equal mix of the previous monster fest Destroy All Monsters, with added touches from The Matrix thrown in to nicely tie the film into the trend of Asian movies focusing on the hidden destiny of the protagonist. There’s some nonsense about alien invasions, and a lot of bad dialogue, mainly courtesy of ex-UFC champion Don Frye. His presence in the film is somewhat confusing. Normally, I would assume that his inclusion would be intended to draw the meathead crowd away from their Pay-Per-View wrestling matches long enough to rent the video, provided the new Lorenzo Lamas picture isn’t already out, but they tend not to gravitate towards Godzilla films, either because of their lack of scantily clad ex-swimsuit models or a lingering resentment towards the Japanese rooted in white America’s inability to figure out their DVD players. Nevertheless, despite its numerous flaws, I’m glad I saw it. At least, if nothing else, I’ll have something to talk about at Librarie Astro tomorrow.

Wolfgange Droege Gets Pimped

Hustle & Flow
2005, USA
Craig Brewer

You know, normally I’m not a big fan of urban films. Generally, they range from giving me a combination of dry-mouth and a migraine to making me draw up elaborate plans to overthrow a Caribbean island, but Hustle & Flow is different. The poster and promotional artwork I’ve seen makes it look exactly like the type of movie advertised in the back of The Source magazine issues, which essentially re-tells Scarface but with more racial epithets and comically exaggerated gaits worthy of a Monty Python sketch, but the reality of the film is much different. Instead of glorifying the violent, drug-dealing life style advocated but rarely practiced by nearly every Neanderthal visible on MTV, Hustle & Flow focuses on the life of a small time pimp and dimebag hustler, free of elaborate diamond teeth and spinning hubcaps. Played by Terrence Howard, the character of D-Jay has a sympathetic humanity to him that allows us to like him without excusing his actions, which are fairly amoral by the standards of anyone not too involved with Grand Theft Auto. Dripping with the atmosphere of the Deep South, or ‘Drrtty South’ if you’re Nelly and have trouble spelling un-phonetically, the film is a fascination glimpse in to a world that I, having been cryogenically frozen in an age before time and revived by computers in the Communist Empire Of Canadia to patrol suburbia with haughty intolerance and pithy remarks, am unfamiliar with. Life sure is different in the suburbs. Here, we buy our drugs from trust-fund white kids with dreadlocks and arts degrees in the local Irish pub, and people enunciate. Apparently, in the deep South, language has devolved into a sort of lazy, sludgy patois that sounds like the noise first year university students make when you phone them too early in the morning. D-Jay, spurred on by a midlife crisis, attempts to leave his hustling days behind him and enter the rap 'game', so called because no-one takes it seriously except for record company executives and Jewish kids. With the help of the rotund Anthony Anderson and the dependably trashy Taryn Manning, D-Jay attempts to launch his rap career from his bungalow in Memphis. And while the riches part of the standard rags-to-riches story the film tells never really materializes for him, the audience pulls for the characters nonetheless, and even a minor victory on their part is cathartic relief on ours. The soundtrack, on which Howard does all his own rapping, is also apparently quite good, though years of listening to what is best described as the sonic equivalent of firing artillery at a drum kit has left me incapable of appreciating anything with either rhythm or melody anymore. All in all, if you prefer character, style, and emotion over tricked out sports cars and competitions to see how many different slang words for ‘gun’ can be jammed into a 90 minute screenplay, check this film out. If not, go rent Scarface again.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Fine Art of Film Cannibalism

2005, Thailand
Nida Sudasna and Buranee Rachjaibun

There was once a time when Asian cinema was known for providing a intriguing and often radical counterpoint to mass produced Hollywood product. From the balletic violence of Hong Kong cinema to the lyrical beauty of the Japanese New Wave, Asian cinema could, if nothing else, serve as a refreshing change from the often derivative and incestuous American film scene of recycled scripts and familiar plot contrivances. Then, the whole culture apparently went retarded from playing Dance Dance Revolution. Now, all they do is rip off bad action movie conventions and show a violent disregard for women, with an added zeal for tasteless violence thrown in for good measure. Zee Oui¸ hyped as the biggest grossing film in its native Thailand, is nothing more than a mediocre TV movie shot on Kodak slide film. Punchy colors and slick camera moves aside, this is full of all the subtlety and wit of a William Shanter record, and frankly, I’d rather listen to an ipod full of Captain Kirk crooning soulfully along with the Beatles than retread another tired serial killer bio-pic. And that’s what Zee Oui is, telling the tale of one of Thailand’s more deplorable murder sprees in an attempt to exploit and profit off the crimes while simultaneously passing judgment. That’s right kids, it’s wrong to rape, murder, and devour innocent people, but this is what it looks like if photographed well. The story is told with all kinds of familiar Hollywood clichés, which is proof positive that the whole world now has access to all the visual shorthand cues you need to tell a familiar story without having to waste all that time writing a script. The titular killer is a Chinese immigrant to Thailand, who is beaten up, discriminated against, and ravaged by tuberculosis on his way to becoming a child killer. Why anyone would move from China, the land of fireworks, dragons, and the Jade Throne, to Thailand, the land of spoilt coconut milk and underage rent-boys, is beyond me, but maybe this is one of the plot conceits designed to mystify and attract western viewers with its unfathomable logic. Anyway, Zee Oui, actually a mispronunciation of the killers real name, is soon butchering children and eating their internal organs to try and cure himself of his various ills. In an ill-time flashback, this is revealed to be his mother’s folk remedy from when he was a kid. And I though my mom was weird because she tried to solve everything with boiled egg-whites. This development is ridiculous both in its awkward presentation and its logic. Everybody knows the only powers you get from cannibalizing children are those of flight, and you get that from drinking boiled fat, plus it only works if you’ve watched Warlock upwards of nine times. Also, eating a Chinaman’s organs is only going to get you into more health trouble than it’s going to solve. Trust me, their livers are not all fat and plump like those of gluttonous Westerners, all succulent and easy to spread on a cracker. They taste all gritty, and they’re clogged with tea-leaves, like the blood of the English. If you’re lucky enough to get one young enough where the endless diet of white rice hasn’t yet bleached all that delicious curry flavour out of the inner meats, you still get that stringy, dry taste all underfed game suffers from. So, in summary, the problem with Asian cinema these days is that their children don’t taste very good. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I can’t get work as a film critic.

The Curse of the Grudge.

Ju-On: The Grudge 2
2005, Japan
Takashi Shimizu

Before too much is said about this film, the production history of the Ju-On series should probably be explained. True to form, the Japanese are engaging in an attempt to take over the Occidental World through a combination of economic takeover and the generation of mass confusion in feeble Western minds, best exemplified by Pokemon, and muddled chronology of the Godzilla series. Basing my theory entirely on the writings of Sax Rohmer, I can only assume that the endless time North American fan boys spend on the internet trying to sort out the various video titles, theatrical releases, and remakes of the Ju-On films is an attempt to distract us with IMDB postings until we wake up one morning to find all our reading material in manga-sized format and the streets running clear with rice wine. Soon, we'll all be fanatically watching and mispronouncing baseball, and will find great honor in killing ourselves over the shame of library late charges and parking tickets. As far as I can sort out, the Ju-On phenomenon started out a TV show, then two direct-to-video films, entitled Ju-On: The Curse parts 1 and 2, or just Ju-On 1 and 2. In a strange reversal of traditional film distribution patterns, the success of the videos brought the film to the big screen, with Ju-on: The Grudge. This is kind of a weird progression, like if C. Thomas Howell suddenly starred in a Speilberg movie after decades of toiling in VHS sci-fi. The theatrical Ju-On spawned the American remake The Grudge, which showed us that the only thing scarier than a long-haired ghost killing Japanese people is a long-haired ghost killing white people. Throw a blond girl in the mix, and you’ve truly struck terror in the hearts of middle America, whose respect for human life tends to extend only so far as baptized Caucasians. Then, we have the latest in the series, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, which follows much the same pattern as the first film, in that a bunch of people go to a haunted house and get killed by black hair and the sound that comes out of videocassette rewinders when they get jammed. This installment has a bit more of a plot than the previous Japanese films, which essentially were catalogues of grisly deaths separated by inter-titles, like a collection of Biograph shorts but with more bleeding eyes, but the film still chops up the chronology like its predecessors, which can be confusing if you’re not paying attention or, like me, you can’t tell any of the characters apart. While I really can’t think of any way I can overcome that particular problem, I’ll admit that it’s probably due a little more to my lack of interest in multi-culturalism and general ignorance than any specific failing on the part of the Asian race, though it wouldn’t kill them to wear name tags. This installment follows a pregnant Japanese horror actress, affectionately referred to as a ‘scream queen’ by characters whose grasp of English leaves much to be desired, especially in regards to the letter R. After shooting scenes for a TV show set in the haunted house, everybody around her dies in grisly ways, after which she gives birth to the kid from The Ring and the movie ends. Sorry to spoil it for you, but aside from a few neat twists in the timeline, the film leaves much to be desired, especially when compared to its predecessors. Well, not the American version, because the only thing less frightening than seeing Buffy get threatened by evil spirits is watching Joxer from Xena get killed, but nevertheless, the movie never quite sustains enough tension to keep my interest through the often misspelled subtitles and seemingly endless screaming.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Anti-Semetic Devil is in the Details.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla
1962, Japan
Ishiro Honda

It’s not every day that you get a chance to see a genuine classic of Japanese cinema in glorious Cinemascope on the big screen. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to see the currently unavailable King Kong Vs. Godzilla in all its glory, and I was not disappointed. Carrying on the tradition of rich social commentary and subtle cultural criticism begun with the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters, this second sequel to the 1956 classic replaces the anti-nuclear message of the first film with a comment on capitalism, greed, and their effects on the upper echelons of government. Godzilla, in what is perhaps a comment on the cyclical patterns of history, returns to Japan once again, awoken from an icy slumber in the Arctic by an American nuclear submarine. The connection to both nuclear weaponry is not a new one, as this is a revisiting of the basic premise of the original film, where the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given visceral life through the terror of the enormous Godzilla. Fins glowing and radioactive breath blazing, the monster makes his way towards Tokyo, while the Japanese government struggles to mount a defense. It is here that master director Ishiro Honda begins to insert more complicated thematic elements into the film, maintaining the tried and true anti-nuclear element, but adding additional layers. A charmingly comedic character, Mr. Tako, the head of a powerful pharmaceutical company, decides that, in order to take advantage of the hysteria surrounding Godzilla, he needs his own monster to exploit and brand with his company’s logo. The frightening prospect of a world in which corporations and advertising are more important than human life is but the first of Honda’s many statements about the state of society. As Kong is captured by Mr. Tako, the destruction wrought by his inevitable battle with Godzilla is a chilling vision of the potential conclusion of the US/USSR arms race that was currently brewing. And the pharmaceutical company’s links to both the government and the military offers the careful viewer another level of critique, this one of the corporate, military-industrial links that threaten to smother the freedom of the individual in today’s global economy, and nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where Kong battles a giant octopus, which clearly symbolizes the struggle of primal and personal freedom with the many tentacled arms of the European Jewry. Oh dear. Sorry about that. It seems that my attempts at wringing meaning out of every detail of this rubber-suited atrocity has caused me to form half-witted and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories out of vague clues and ambiguous evidence. Next thing you know, I’ll be writing lengthy essays about how Masonic imagery on American money reveals the pro-marijuana agenda of the founding fathers, and how PBS is trying to turn your children gay through the color purple. I suppose its my fault, really. If embarrassment at paying to see this film, and actually enjoying it hadn’t made me try to justify the picture through first year film studies over-analysis, then perhaps I wouldn’t have invited all the hate-mail I’m due to receive from the Anti-Defamation League. Ah, well. I suppose now there’s no point in mentioning that King Kong looks like a melting claymation puppet, or that Ichiro Arishima’s buck-toothed, squinty, knock-kneed portrayal of Mr. Tako is probably the most shocking stereotype of Asians since The Mask of Fu-Manchu, or even that nothing in this movie makes much sense until the two rubber-suits start punching each other in slow motion while toy helicopters attached to sparklers jitter by on fishing line, and even that is questionable. Suffice it to say that the film is fun, if you’re into wasting time and really stupid things, and some of my best friends are Jewish.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Demonic Boxing, And Other Asian Delights.

2005, Japan
Yojira Takita
35 mm

The inaugural film for the 2005 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival always draws a huge crowd, though generally that’s due more to rabid devotion to the festival rather than the particular film that’s playing. Ashura was no exception to this rule, and I watched this film in a packed house of enthusiastic, vaguely ripe Asian cinema fans. For those of you who are neither from Montreal nor addicted to incomprehensible anime, Fantasia is North America’s premiere genre film festival, focusing on horror, science fiction, and absolutely anything from the fabled Orient no matter how stupid. I attend the festival every year, to the detriment of my bank account, personal relationships, and tolerance for Asians, and every year I’m treated to wild mix of action, gore, and bad subtitles. This year is shaping up to be a good one, with a surprisingly eclectic set of films from all over the world, with a thankful focus on South Korean cinema, which has been rising to the forefront of genre filmmaking while Japan languishes in increasingly tiresome child ghost stories and whatever crap Takeshi Miike filmed with his camcorder on the way to the film distributor’s office. However, Ashura didn’t seem to be a particularly inspired choice to kick off the year. It started off well, by which I mean the opening speeches by the festival organizers were fairly entertaining. Particularly amusing was the one by director of international programming Mitch Davis, who was energetic as usual, which is a nice way of saying he’s clearly replaced the cream in his coffee pot with liquid adrenaline. Mr. Davis whipped the crowd into a frenzy, which is hard to do when you’re speaking to a crowd of mildly overweight computer programmers lulled into a near stupor by interminable queues and high humidity. This may, however, have been a calculated move on Mr. Davis’ part, as the movie that followed his energizing speech was less than exhilarating. Best described as sort of the prototypical Fantasia film, the movie has everything one would come to expect from a film at the festival, with none of the surprises. It’s got demons, sword fighting, garbled cosmology, and an incongruous J-Pop soundtrack as grating to the ears as it is inappropriate to the mood of the film. There’s nothing quite like a battle scene set against off-key love song crooning by what sounds like a cross between Jennifer Tilly and Alvin from the Chipmunks. Set in 19th century Edo, the film follows a demon-hunter-turned Kabuki actor who discovers that a gymnast-turned cat-burglar he’s fallen for may be the reincarnation of a demon queen. The best part of all this, is the fact that the story is based on a play, which is illustrates the point I’ve been trying to make for years, that the Japanese are crazy. We have Broadway plays about Bohemian artists living in Manhattan and struggling with AIDS, they have elaborate period morality plays about hordes of Evil Dead demons with blood like the slime on You Can’t Do That On Television firebombing a city from an upside down castle. We have game shows testing memory retention and intimate knowledge of potent potables, they have transvestites race to put lipstick on while riding roller coasters. We kick up a fuss when what may or may not be a nipple gets shown on national television, they have a word for bathing in semen. I’m sure the Japanese are just as weirded out by our culture as I am by their’s, but it’s this sort of vast cultural disconnect that makes me fear going downtown in the global village fast coming upon us. Ashura is most likely not particularly strange in Japan, in fact it’s probably fairly rote, which is why it feels the same for somebody with at least a passing interest in their fantasy filmmaking, but compared to what’s considered run-of-the-mill over here, it’s certainly something to behold. Plus, it’s full of Kabuki theatre, which I’m beginning to suspect is Japan’s way of keeping westerners out of the country. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Kabuki, slit your wrists now and die knowing you’ve avoided suffering one of the worst artistic atrocities since Oliver Stone. Kabuki, the ancient art of Japanese theatre, is a performance/dance hybrid that mixes the less subtle elements of French-Canadian farce with the acoustic equivalent of a cat in a blender. If you enjoy funny faces, bug eyes, and screeching, then you’ve found your niche with Kabuki. And if you’re into convoluted mythology crudely overlain with a sappy love story, than Ashura’s the film for you.

Crying Fist
2005, South Korea
Seung-wan Ryoo

The second film on Fantasia’s opening night, Crying Fist is a vast improvement over Ashura, and an excellent example of the eclectic but somewhat muddled programming selections of the festival. Originally a showcase for Asian films, the festival branched out into horror and sci-fi oriented films from across the globe, while remaining fairly indiscriminate as to the genres of Asian films screened. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s just odd that on any given day, you can follow a showing of a screwball Korean sex-comedy with a Spanish movie about necrophilia in an autopsy room. And you should follow the one with the other, because as titillating as petite Korean girls giggling like pre-schooler and flashing their underwear is as foreplay, there’s nothing quite like non-consensual sex with the dismembered remnants of a cadaver to really bring home a big finish. Crying Fist contains no fantastic elements, and no graphic violence, but nevertheless was a big hit with the audience, and rightly so. A boxing movie, the film is based an simple premise, that’s remarkable mainly because no one has thought of it before. Essentially, the film is Rocky with two Rockies. I’ll quickly state that this Rocky comparison is based on general plot similarities, not on any qualitative judgements. As some of you may know, I have a special place in my heart reserved for the Rocky quintilogy, that’s filled up with levels of hatred normally found only at Jim Phelps rallies and white pride websites. This film, however, inspired only admiration spiced with the occasional moment of confusion, when the storytelling follows the standard Asian leaps of logic normally associated with psychotic breaks with reality. The first two acts of the picture intercut between the lives of our two protagonists, the young Yu Sang-hwan, an imprisoned thug who has found a purpose in life with boxing, and the older Kang Tae-sik, an aging silver medallist at the Asian games who’s given a second chance to save his family from poverty through boxing. Of course, the two must inevitably meet in the ring of an amateur boxing tournament. So, it’s kind of Cinderella Man without all the schmaltz duking it out with Undisputed without all the, um, everything else that was in that awful movie. Actually, the boxing itself is the worst part of the film, the actors having apparently taken the ‘amateur’ part of their characters to heart, choosing to play out the fights sort of like two 10 year old brothers fighting over the last slice of pizza at Chucky Cheese, complete with plenty of flailing and hair-pulling . The performances are strong, though it’s initially a little disconcerting to see the guy from Old Boy do anything but self-mutilate, and the film has all the hall-marks of the new renaissance in South Korean films, namely an engaging humanity in the characters and a deft mix of comedy and drama that never seems forced or laid on too thick This level of subtlety is surprising from a culture whose culinary arts have only advanced so far as dousing strips of unidentifiable dark meat in oil and garlic. Nevertheless, like Memories of Murder from last year, the film deftly inserts comedic moments in amongst the character development and high drama, without detracting from the serious moments of the film. To put this into context, this would be like having some slapstick in Schindler’s List, or having Life Is Beautiful actually be funny instead of numbingly stupid. While I won’t spoil the ending, the confrontation between the two and the subsequent conclusion can’t help but be anything but the very definition of the word ‘bittersweet’. Now, if I could just define the term for the cooks at the Ararang Korean eatery on St. Catherine, we might be on to something.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bondage, Insertions, and the Wild World of Jimmy Fallon

2004, USA
Tim Story
This remake of the 1998 Luc Besson film of the same name has suffered unfairly in comparison with the original. In actuality, the two movies hold up rather well side by side, though this is mainly because they are both incompetently made excuses to crash expensive cars into one another while trying to sell a soundtrack album. Nothing about the French film was worth remaking into anything but a music video, which is clearly where the original film got most of its style cues. The American film is, of course, bigger, with slightly more of the same, though it substitutes the ultra-slick direction of Luc Besson’s film with the more familiar passive, slightly distracted direction so common in modern Hollywood comedies. The big mistake made in translating the film for American audiences was focusing more on the comedy and less on the action. Not that I like action movies. I’d rather be in a thresher accident than to watch the latest coked-up USC graduate spend a cool million getting a Maybach to flip over an overpass more times than Tony Hawke on amphetamines. But I like comedy even less, especially when it involves Saturday Night Live in any way, shape, or form. Nothing even remotely related to SNL is funny at all, not even jokes about how bad SNL is. It’s not funny now, and contrary to the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, it was never funny. Chevy Chase fell down a lot, Eddie Murphy was just amusing because it always seemed like he was about to swear, and Dennis Miller just spouted interminably labyrinthine pop-culture sentences that resulted in laughs of relief from tired and dizzy audience members. Will Ferrell is just weird, Chris Farley was fat and loud, and Gilda Radner looked like a cross between Warwick Davis from Leprechaun and a scarecrow. And Jimmy Fallon is certainly far from funny. I think the secret to his undeniable popularity is the fact that he perpetually looks like he’s been given a noogie by your older brother, triggering some kind of sympathy reflex inherent in the collective unconscious. The film also stars Queen Latifa, the rapper-turned actress who managed to get nominated for an Oscar somewhere between tough hip-hop posturing and voicing Pizza Hut commercials. Opening with a ridiculously improbable bike ride through, over, and under the streets of Manhattan, the film almost immediately leaves the realm of credulity when the lithe, athletic bicycle courier removes her helmet to, through the magic of editing, reveal the elephantine Latifa. The film declines from there, spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on Latifa, before slowly moving on to Jimmy Fallon’s character, a bumblingly inept cop who can’t drive. Then, when you’re finally about sick enough of watching Fallon try not to laugh during a take, the plot finally gets started. Not that there’s much of a plot to get started, of course, as it essentially follows Fallon’s attempts to learn how to drive properly. Latifa plays a bike courier who moves up to taxi driver, a job she performs in a cab more decked out than most Formula One cars, a plot conceit that makes me wonder if her character wouldn’t be happier laying in the sun eating beluga caviar out of diamond goblets, since she clearly has more money than God to be tooling around New York in a cab with a jet engine. Anyway, for some ridiculous reason, she teams up with Fallon, and they get on the trail of Gisele Bundchen and her gang of the worst movie villains in film history. Honestly, whoever wrote this piece of crap didn’t even bother to try and create an interesting, believable, or even vaguely identifiable set of bad guys, or girls, as the case unfortunately is. I guess they figured if they made them all supermodels, no one would notice that they had no motivation, explanation, or justification for their actions. They don’t even speak, they just wink and sway their hips in slow motion ever time the camera’s on them. Well, they try to talk, but they’re all Portuguese or something, so they just sound like Russian people trying to speak Spanish. I just don’t understand the obsession Hollywood has with providing endless leggy starlets for us to ogle instead of worrying about a reasonable script. No, sorry, I misspoke. I understand their point of view, I just don’t understand while males aged 18-35 flock to the theatre to see a John Travolta movie about computer hacking just because it’s got Halle Berry’s boobs in it. I’m sorry, but in the age of internet pornography and bootlegged S&M DVDs, I just don’t get what the attraction of a bare breast is, no matter who it’s attached to. Once you’ve seen a woman insert a baseball bat into her nether regions while fellating what appears to be an entire college wrestling team, the novelty of nudity sort of wears off. But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never been particularly virile, and maybe I’m not man enough to spend ten dollars and ninety five cents just to see a Brazilian model in a bikini clumsily fire a semi-automatic pistol. I just I’ll just have to stick with Spanky, Giles DeRay, a red hot-fire poker, and the rest of the cast of The Inquisition 2 to satisfy my needs.

2003, USA
Michael D. Sellers
Every once in a while, while perusing the racks of your local video store, tired of the mind numbing Hollywood dreck so continually thrust down your throat that youbecome delirious and almost start believing that Tom Cruise is a capable actor instead of a robot build by European fashion houses to sell sunglasses, you stumble upon something you’ve never heard of. You pick up the box, notice a few promising blurbs by respected film critics (i.e. anyone but Kevin Thomas), note a few familiar but not famous names, and decided to take a chance. You take the DVD home, pop it into a machine, and are instantly swept away to a world of imagination and innovation, where a heretofore unknown filmmaker has made his first mark on the art house world, and has taken the first step in what by rights should be a long and illustrious career. Or, alternately, you rent Vlad, a repugnant straight-to-video tumour of a movie that features the guy who does the voice of Chucky and the star of The Phantom. Then, you sit through the whole damn thing, which involves a bunch of voodoo crap about resurrecting a Dracula that looks like a professional wrestler and speaks English, and swear you will never watch another movie again. At least until Mission Impossible 3 comes out.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Speak Spanglish or Die.

2005, USA
James L. Brooks

For a man whose claim to fame is a remarkable talent for sounding like a pre-schooler, Adam Sandler seems to be making a rather brazen grasp for mainstream stardom. Unfortunately, his quest to be taken seriously is not advancing well, as his first attempt was the aggressively anti-social Punch Drunk Love, a film so deliberately un-commercial it sent even film students scurrying for the safety of Jerry Bruckheimer-produced television. His second attempt is Spanglish, the latest film from writer-director James L. Brooks, which is still comedic, but aims for a more adult crowd. The thing about the adult crowd, however, is that their sense of humor is the reason why Everybody Loves Raymond is a hit. Yes, the modern adult is a herd animal, and nothing pleases the herd more than nice, simple comedy about white families featuring a bumbling yet kind-hearted father who just wants to watch the NCAA finals, and the long-suffering, exasperated yet loving mom who just wants dad to pick up his gym socks and put them in the laundry hamper. And don’t forget the eccentric yet endearing brother/father/neighbor! We wouldn’t want the audience to soil their Depends by messing with that part of the equation. Hell, take out the sassy and precocious kids and the whole CBS audience might die of heart failure before sweeps week, and then who would Andy Rooney have to grumble his homespun commonsense wisdom to before he dies a miserable curmudgeonly death alone and dusty? James L. Brooks specializes in this sort of safe, suburban comedy, and though he does manage to infuse his films with a spark of life, said spark is easy to mistake for mild schizophrenia. His pictures, which include Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, are slices of realistic modern life, but are filled with dialogue that’s too quirky and animated for reality, and characters entirely too lively and twitchy for the settings of his films, coming off sort of like Leave It To Beaver on a cocaine high. While the viewer does get used to this approach, it takes a while to acclimate, and the abrupt transition to a world where Tea Leoni yaps like a puppy version of Cujo can be jarring. Spanglish tells what’s meant to be the heartwarming tale of a family on the verge of implosion that’s sent spinning off to either salvation or destruction by the arrival of a charming Mexican maid and her young daughter. The tone is light, but many of the jokes have a tinge of hysteria to them, as do the performances, specifically the aforementioned Tea Leoni, who has apparently been going to a late 70s Dennis Hopper for acting advice. Sandler tries to hold the whole thing together, but he’s nowhere near the actor he needs to be to keep the film from disintegrating. Another annoying performance comes from Paz Vega, who plays the Spanish maid, and is not Penelope Cruz. This is important to note, because if you’ve either forgotten your glasses or had a couple of beers with your pre-movie dinner, you will not be able to tell the difference. The children of the two families are played by two very capable young actresses, the charming Shelbie Bruce and the vaguely porcine Sarah Steele. Unfortunately, as neither of them are blond, blue eyed, or have charmingly misarranged baby teeth, and therefore are not destined for sickening media over-saturation of a Dakota Fanning or a young Drew Barrymore, meaning they will have to put off their drug addiction and annulled marriages to Hollywood club owners until their mid-twenties, at least. Complaints aside, the film actually presents some interesting moral quandaries for the characters to navigate through, and the final resolutions are often not as predictable nor as simple as one might think. Unfortunately, it’s all presented with a light hearted-veneer and sense of forced humor that smacks of an Saved By The Bell episode about the child sex trade. Still, I’d rather see Adam Sandler try to grow up and fail than to see him gradually grow older and craggier while still trying to figure out how many times he can fit the word ‘poop’ into an MTV Movie Award acceptance speech.