Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Dangerous Man

Steven Seagal has made some of my favorite movies of all time, like “Out for Justice”, “Hard to Kill”, “Above the Law”, “Under Siege”. He’s also made some unwatchable garbage, but that’s beside the point. His fight with Dan Inosanto in “Out for Justice” is on my short list of best fights ever.

In honor of “Machete”, his first theatrically released movie in quite some time, I thought I would see what else he’s been up to and watch something recent. Even though his movies haven’t found their way to the local mega-plex, we all know that Seagal has been prolific in the direct-to-video market, knocking out three or four movies a year. And even though few people believe me, every third or fourth one of those is pretty good (“Urban Justice” and “Belly of the Beast” are prime examples). Unfortunately, “A Dangerous Man”, his most current DTV release, isn’t one of those.

Once again Seagal teams with director Keoni Waxman, who he worked with on “The Keeper”. He plays Shane Daniels, an ex-member of Special Forces who goes to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. But hold on, that’s not where this story is going. Shane gets out of prison six years later, his innocence affirmed, but his wife has left him, his life is generally crappy, and he’s mad about it. Some guys try to jack him outside a liquor store, and he whoops their asses. In his defense, he did tell one guy to back off or “I’ll fuck you up ugly.” That’s fair warning.

So Shane is drinking at a rest stop when Sergey (Jesse Hutch), son of a local Russian mob boss, pulls in for a pee break in a stolen SUV. Then a car with two Chinese gentlemen gets pulled over at the same rest stop. They kill the cop, and Shane steps in to save Sergey before they can kill him. He does so by blowing up his own car as a distraction. Shane and Sergey discover a gym bag full of money and an unconscious girl, Tia (Marlaini Mah), in the trunk. They grab the cash and girl and take off.

After that the plot turns into a needlessly convoluted mess. There is the Russian mob, the Chinese mob, corrupt cops, drug smuggling, human smuggling, double-crosses that come out of nowhere, and an awkward attempt to get philosophical right at the end. The acting is wooden across the board, and Mah sounds like she’s reading all of her lines off of cue cards. Shane’s back-story is pointless. Going to prison, losing his wife, etcetera, has no bearing on anything. The only reason it exists is so that he can have flashbacks where his wife is naked.

What “A Dangerous Man” does have going for it, is that the action and fight scenes stand up. At the end of the day, isn’t that what a Steven Seagal movie is all about? And he’s in pretty good form here. There are a couple big shootout scenes where all sorts of hell breaks loose, and he has to weave his way in and out of danger, whooping ass and saving his new friends as he goes.

The climax takes place in a sawmill, which provides excellent and interesting opportunities to dispatch nameless bad guys. Wood chippers and saw blades are wonderful killing tools. When Shane fights The Colonel (Bryon Mann, Ryu from “Street Fighter”) it might be over too quickly, but as far as culminating, hand-to-hand combat scenes go, it’s not bad.

“A Dangerous Man” isn’t one of Seagal’s best movies, but it’s far from his worst. The story may be muddy, but the action kicks ass, and there is plenty of it. So, if you’re like me, biding your time until September, when you can see Seagal as he was meant to be seen, thirty-feet tall on a giant movie screen, give “A Dangerous Man” a shot, it will tide you over.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Piranha 3D

Holy fucking shit. Let me say that again, slower this time. Holy. Fucking. Shit. “Piranha 3D” is my new favorite movie of 2010.

I’m not a big fan of everything being in 3D these days, I don’t think it is necessary. (I won’t go off on that tangent again. Read this if you really care about my feelings on the third dimension in film.) However, director Alexandre Aja makes the best possible use of the technology available to him. He didn’t make a serious movie with drama and emotions. He made a ridiculous movie, with nudity and entrails, something that should preferably be viewed at midnight while wearing funny little glasses on your face. Being drunk probably wouldn’t hurt things, either.

Here is what matters of the story. It is spring break on Lake Victoria. Elizabeth Shue is Julie, the local no-nonsense sheriff. She is busy so her 17 year old son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is supposed to babysit his little brother and sister, but instead he takes a job showing around Derrick (Jerry O’Connell), a sleazy producer who makes “Wile Wild Girls” videos (which apparently pissed off the real “Girls Gone Wild” guy), and trying to impress Kelly (Jessica Szohr), a cute girl he has a crush on.

Also, there was an earthquake that opened up an ancient lake within the lake. I’m not entirely sure how that works. A team of scientists that includes Novak (Adam Scott) and Paula (Dina Meyer) shows up to explore the rift, and as it turns out, the quake unleashed a swarm of ancient piranha. Local expert Christopher Lloyd, focusing all of his “Back to the Future” madness, informs them that this particular brand of piranha has been extinct for millions of years.

Predictably, all hell breaks loose, and after that the movie is pretty much piranha versus spring break, which already sounds awesome, but it is so much better than I ever dared imagined. It’s 3D booty shaking followed by 3D carnage. Bodies rip in half, limbs are severed, eyeballs pop out, and absurd looking fish snarl underwater and devour every bikini-clad co-ed and visor wearing frat boy they can find.

The filmmakers come up with an impressive array of ways for people to die. Not kidding, they are some really inventive modes of death. When you think about it, it’s actually impressive. A movie like “Piranha 3D”, a movie that is awash in blood and boobs, runs the risk of showing so much of either or both that the audience becomes desensitized. But Aja and screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg spend a lot of time figuring out new and interesting ways to expose breasts and gore, and they are largely successful. Up until tonight I never new that I wanted to see a topless girl being towed behind a boat on a parasail get eaten by piranha. But I did. And it was good. How can you go wrong with a wet t-shirt contest in 3D? I don’t think you can. In “Piranha 3D” neither the gratuitous nudity, nor the excessive blood ever gets old.

Watching this cast is like watching the minor league all-star game. Besides the people already mentioned, Ving Rhames plays a deputy, Richard Dreyfuss shows up in the first scene in a tip o’ the cap to “Jaws”, and Eli Roth has a cameo.

Don’t get me wrong, “Piranha 3D” is retarded. It is tactless, absurdly gory, ridiculous in every capacity, and trying to examine the story will just give you a headache reminiscent of when you eat ice cream too fast. Think an Andy Sidaris film like “Hard Ticket to Hawaii” or “Malibu Express” taken to another level and the next dimension. Everything is an excuse to show boobs or blood or mayhem.

Most likely you already know if you are going to see this movie or not. This isn’t the kind of film that breeds a lot of fence sitters. My advice for those of you planning to go see it is to go see it sooner rather than later, it’s worth it. “Piranha 3D” is exactly what it claims to be, campy, bloody, and over the top in every conceivable way. It is also exactly what I wanted it to be, and so much more. I cheered and laughed through the entire movie.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Horseman

You can tell “The Horseman” is going to be grim from the very first frame, when you see a teenage girl crying in an alley. Images like that don’t generally indicate that happy fun times lie ahead. What is coming is a rugged, badass tale of revenge.

Christian (Peter Marshall) just lived every father’s nightmare, being called to the morgue to identify his daughter’s corpse. He then does what any good father would do in his shoes, he goes on a methodical rampage of vengeance against the men who drugged her, made her star in a porno, and then left her to choke to death on her own vomit.

After that the movie starts to get depressing. Seriously, this shit is not for the faint of heart or those of you with a weak stomach.

Christian is so numb, so broken and empty, that he cuts himself just to feel anything between murders. He is the kind of character Charles Bronson would have played, strong, silent, tough, a normal man unhinged by tragedy that he can’t begin to comprehend. His quest gives him a purpose, a focus, but in reality it is a senseless response to a senseless situation. Killing doesn’t make him feel better, it doesn’t bring his daughter back, it doesn’t add reason or meaning to anything. He does it simply because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Along the way he picks up Alice (Caroline Marohasy), a hitchhiker, and the two form an unlikely bond. She echoes Christian in that she also cuts herself, but she even more closely resembles his daughter. Alice is troubled and alone, and Christian tries to protect her like he failed to do with his own child. It turns out he didn’t really know his daughter at all. He has an idealized vision of her leftover from her childhood, but the more he finds out about her, the more he realizes that he never really knew her. With Alice he sees a chance to correct his mistakes, to atone for his own sins.

Christian’s major discovery moment comes too early, which leaves a lot of time for the story to build into an escalating series of revenge movie tropes that you see coming a mile away. While the film is still awesome after this point, not to mention brutal, his epiphany should have come later, it would have smoothed out some issues with the ending.

The film has an overarching starkness to it. The color scheme is a dampened blue that is so washed out it almost feels black and white at times, and there is a sharp contrast between the light and the shadows that Christian practically jump ropes with. Even the music provides only minimal punctuation, and during the most brutal moments it drops away completely, leaving you alone with the violence.

“The Horseman” is the kind of movie that just when you think there is hope, not even actual hope, just the possibility of there ever being hope again, it is snatched away. The violent scenes are well planned, and well edited. In other hands they could have been gratuitous, but Australian first-time director/writer/producer/editor Steven Kastrissios steers away from that. Christian’s murders can be hard to watch, though the most graphic bits of torture, including an interesting use of a bicycle pump, are left to the imagination. As a result they are somehow more grounded, and all the more horrific.

In the end the reasons behind Christian’s actions are unclear, even to himself. He searches for someone to blame, only to find that everyone, including himself, is guilty and implicit in his daughter’s death. In many ways he is more of a father to a pregnant teen runaway he picks up at a diner than to his own daughter. It is a bleak end to a bleak movie, but one that roughs you up and sticks with you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

City Island

Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer with secrets. The first one is that his lifelong dream is to become an actor. This ambition embarrasses him so much so that he lies to Joyce (Juliana Margulies), his wife, about taking an acting class in the evenings. On these nights he says he has a poker game. In Vince’s world gambling is more appropriate than acting. He has a normal life. He still lives in the house he grew up in on City Island, a small island off of the Bronx, with Joyce and their son, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller), and has a daughter, Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia’s real-life daughter), in college in the city. Frivolous dreams, like acting, have no place in his life.

His second secret, his deepest, darkest secret, is that he has a clandestine son from a previous relationship. This fact is so hidden, forced down so deep, that even the son, Tony (Steven Strait), doesn’t know. Vince has never told anyone about this, and it only comes up when Tony shows up as a new prisoner in the prison where Vince works. Vince springs Tony from the joint and brings him home without telling anyone the truth. You can imagine how Joyce reacts to a random convict in her home.

“City Island” is all about secrets and lies and family. Some are relatively minor, like the fact that every member of the family smokes and hides it from the others. Vince has his secrets that lead Joyce to conclude that he is cheating on her. Vince Jr. has a secret fetish for big girls and frequents BBW porn sites. Vivian hides her expulsion from school, and that she works as a stripper.

While none of the lies are malicious, they coalesce into a messy complex of secrets that builds and builds until it is so big that it can’t be dismantled. The misunderstandings bred from this situation form the main narrative thrust of the film. The story is dark and twisted and farcical in the manner of the classic Greek comedies, developed by escalating confusion and faulty interpretations. Everything could be easily explained, so much drama could be avoided, but the characters are too far gone to take that route.

The ensemble cast is great, especially the dynamic between Garcia and Margulies. Their screaming, combative version of communication is hilarious, but at the same time adds a level of tension and emotion. Vince is a good twist on a typical Garcia character. He is a tough guy who works in a prison, but he has enough humanity and complexity to make him believable and engaging. I can’t help but think of a Wes Anderson movie populated by the real working class family of a prison guard and a secretary instead of caricatures of pretentious intellectuals.

The plot is complicated enough to set it apart from more run of the mill movies. One lie leads to another and another until everyone is hiding everything from everyone else. You keep watching because you want to see what happens when all of these secrets are finally exposed in the harsh light of day. In a general sense you know what will happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s predictable. For example, you know that Joyce will come to her breaking point and confront Vince about his perceived infidelities. But it is how the filmmakers handle that, what they do after with the confrontation, that differentiates “City Island”.

I didn’t expect to enjoy “City Island”. It looked like another cutesy, but ultimately mediocre, family comedy/drama. While it is a family comedy/drama, writer/director Raymond De Felitta has created something that is certainly not mediocre. He sets a scene where he lets the actors act together and films them, and the result is funny and warped and legitimately moving. There is a little Woody Allen, shades of Peter Sellers, and hints of Jacques Tati. You should watch it; it’s pretty damn good.

The DVD comes with an extra that features De Felitta and the cast sitting around a table, eating a meal, talking about the movie. It is simple and intimate, and from the chemistry between them, you understand why the movie works so well. There is a collection of deleted scenes that are mostly extended versions of scenes from the final version. Many of them are good, cut due to time constraints, not quality. One in particular that I like shows Vince on the street, getting ready for an audition. On the entertaining commentary track with De Felitta and Garcia, they talk about why it was cut, while it is a good moment on its own, editing it out increased the impact of Vince arriving at what turns out to be a cattle-call.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dante 01


After watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s newest film, “Micmacs”, I started to wonder what has become of Marc Caro. It was an easy question to answer; I simply hadn’t taken the time to ask it before. In 2008, he made his debut as a solo director with the science fiction film, “Dante 01”. To call it just a sci-fi movie does “Dante 01” a disservice. Not only does it inhabit the sci-fi realm, but it crosses neatly over into psychological horror, and rounds itself out as a prison movie, complete with a brutal shanking.

Orbiting high above the molten planet Dante, is the prison space station Dante 01. More than a simple prison, it is a psychiatric hospital for a handful the most violent offenders deep space has to offer. These prisoners are volunteers, they all would have been executed otherwise, and they participate in a range of psychiatric experiments, testing new procedures and protocols.

A shuttle arrives carrying Elisa (Linh Dan Pham), a young, ambitious new addition to the medical staff, and an unnamed man (Lambert Wilson), who was found floating alone in a blood-soaked ship. This is a departure from Wilson’s normal roles as a sophisticated playboy, and he barely speaks. He is taken into the prison, where the majority of the inmates are played by actors you’ll recognize from Caro’s films with Jeunet. Rasputin (Lotfi Yahya Jedidi) names the stranger, who doesn’t say a single for the first 42 minutes, Saint George, claiming he has come to “slay the dragon”. Cesar (Dominique Pinon) runs the show on the inside with his henchmen Lazarus (Francois Levantal) and Moloch (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), and doesn’t approve of the distraction caused by this new weirdo. I’m so used to seeing Pinon with his face squished into some wacky visage that I never realized how good an actor he is. He’s great as the convict leader, tough and full of pride, but at the same time flawed, human, and capable of change.

On the outside, where the doctors are equally as confined as their wards, Elisa begins to implement her new practices, backed by a corporate mandate from the parent company. She is interested in one thing above all else, seeing the practical applications of her theories and methods This lack of concern for the patients doesn’t sit well with Persephone (Simona Maicanescu).

The conflict inside escalates as it becomes clear that Saint George is a messianic figure with healing powers. At the same time the battle between the doctors also intensifies. Everyone has their own agendas and secrets, and as they began to spiral out of control, the space station and her inhabitants descend through the concentric circles of hell.

The “Inferno” thing gets heavy handed after a while. For Christ’s sake the two prison guards are named Cer and Berrus, so together they are the multi-headed hound of hell that guards Hades.

You always figured that Caro brought the dark side to his projects with Jeunet, like “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children”. But “Dante 01” dissolves any doubts once and for all. The film is dark and grim in every aspect, from lighting and set design to thematic concerns and performances. At times it is hallucinatory and disorienting, mirroring Saint George’s mental state. The film is full of pulsing camera work, and effects shots where you can see into characters, physically and metaphorically expressed in a visual.

The shoestring production manages to pull off over 300 effects shots, which all look wonderful. In the first shot the space station orbits around the lava planet Dante, and the shuttle docks. Such visuals give a grand scope to the story. Caro contrasts the vastness of space with the sardine can interior of the prison. The entire film is confined and expansive at the same time. The story is simple, strangers come into a new situation and create change, but it also tackles sprawling themes like religion, redemption, and sacrifice. And while the story takes place in the emptiness of space, it also compressed into the incredibly limited area of the prison.

The end gets too metaphysical and abstract too quickly. All of a sudden it tries to be “2001”, which is quite a leap. Out of nowhere the Christ metaphor gets cranked up a few notches (the space station is shaped like a cros). Not only does the movie jump in a thematic sense, but in a narrative sense as well. The visual elements here are some of the most compelling and eye catching of the movie, and they completely draw you in, it was hard to do anything but gawk, but even with that it still feels like there is a missing scene, like there is a reel lying on the ground somewhere.

“Dante 01” is a lot of things. It is a science fiction movie, a horror film, a Christ story, and a futuristic retelling of a classic myth, among others. Dark, gloomy, and atmospheric, it has a superb feel and aesthetic that is mostly equaled by the story.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fireball

For years now I’ve been staying that what basketball really needs is more spin kicks and flying knees (there are already plenty of elbows involved). Finally, in “Fireball”, I have found a kindred spirit, someone who agrees with me. “Fireball” the film prominently features Fireball the game, which is an underground, hybrid sport controlled by the heads of organized crime in Thailand. Fireball is all the fun of basketball, cage fighting, and Thunderdome, together at last. You can do whatever you can to stop the other team from scoring, things like kicking people in mid air, and tackling the guy with the ball, which is surprisingly similar to the way I played defense in my sportier days.

When Tai (Thai rock star Preeti Barameeanat) unexpectedly gets out of prison, he finds that his twin brother Tan (also Barameeanat) has been beaten into a coma. Like any good brother, Tai sets out on a quest for vengeance, a path that leads him to the seedy underworld of Fireball, where he is mistaken for Tan. It is a pretty standard get-out-of-prison-and-go-looking-for-revenge story, but director Thanakorn Pongsuwan handles it well. He gets to the point, tells you what you need to know, and moves on to the main body of the film without wasting a lot of time.

Through a series of circumstantial reveals you find out that in order to get revenge on the guy who put Tan in a coma, Tai and his team of scrappy underdogs must first get to the finals. This is when the plot wanders away from the vengeance theme and “Fireball” becomes a sports movie. It’s like “The Bad News Bears” or “Major League”, only with significantly more blood and violence, where an unlikely team of lovable misfits comes together to realize their full athletic potential. This is also well-worn territory, but this instance involves more Muay Thai brutality and fewer shenanigans.

Tai is not the only one with problems. Den (Phutharit Prombandal), the team owner, is an upstart in the criminal underworld, and no one respects him. A slumlord is about to evict IQ (Kannut Samerjai), his mother, and little brother from their shanty under a freeway overpass. Muk (Kumpanat Oungsoongnern) is about to have a baby, and moves sides of beef shirtless to pay the rent. Zing (Thai Boxer 9 Million Sam, which is an incredible name) works a soul-sucking job in a Best Buy like tech store. And K (Anuwat Saejao), haunted by the disgrace of throwing a fireball game in the previous season, is looking for redemption. It’s a hard knock life for everyone.

For a while in the middle of “Fireball” the narrative gets too fractured, with everyone’s story given equal time. Lucky for you the stories are interesting enough, and there is ample action to carry the film through this period.

Using a confined space, like a fenced in basketball court, as a stage for the primary action sequences is a good choice here. It compresses and focuses the action, and keeps everyone involved. You can’t wander off if you’re locked in. During the more frenetic moments the camera spins and pans and weaves between the characters, placing you front and center in the battle. My only complaint is that at times there are too many cuts, too many edits, too many thrown fists followed by reaction shots of people pretending they just go punched. This is largely unnecessary. There are enough action shots that aren’t chopped up like this to show that these characters and actors actually know how to fight and make a fight look good. The proliferation of quick jump cuts is a stylistic choice that hurts the film. If Pongsuwan had simply kept the actors in frame and let them go about their business, it would have benefited his film.

There isn’t a whole lot of story in “Fireball”, but that’s not really the point. It’s all about the action, and there is plenty of that to get you over any bumps in the plot. Sure, the premise is ridiculous, bordering on silly, but it is still a fun watch, and it gets extra points from me for including a random street kid in a “Max Headroom” t-shirt.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

House (Hausu)


The reissue of “House” (“Hausu”) hurt my brain a little bit. The best description I can come up with for Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 psychedelic mind-fuck, is this, imagine if Sid and Marty Krofft made and “Evil Dead” movie. Obayashi based his feature length debut on an idea from his seven-year-old daughter. Sometimes I love kids, not often, but sometimes.

Bubbly Japanese schoolgirl Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is psyched to spend summer vacation with her movie musician father (back from a recent stint working with Sergio Leone) in their villa. That is until he introduces her to her “new mother”, who walks in slow motion with a white scarf flapping behind her. Gorgeous throws a hissyfit as only a young girl can, and writes to her dead mother’s sister, who she hasn’t seen in a decade, asking if she can come visit her mansion. So Gorgeous and her six bestest friends in the whole wide world, Fantasy (Kumiko Obha), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Meiko Satoh), Kung-fu (Miki Jinbo), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako), all hop a train to the country.

The character’s names are shorthand codes for their personalities. Gorgeous is the pretty one. Prof is the smart one. Fantasy makes shit up. Kung-fu is the badass. Melody is the musician. Sweet is sweet. And Mac is the fat one that likes to eat. So just in case you weren’t sure about one of the girls, refer to her name and you’ll know all you need to know about them.

Strange things are afoot in the country, and I don’t just mean the fat guy who carves watermelons to look like jack-o-lanterns. Sometimes Auntie (Yoko Minamida) is in a wheelchair, sometimes not, and she may or may not be a cannibalistic ghost. There is a flying severed head that bites someone on the ass, flying logs, and a creepy witch-cat that makes a piano eat one of the girls. Then shit starts to get weird.

“House” is like a fucked up episode of “Scooby-Doo”. One minute it is bouncy and perky and full of massive gonzo airbrushed backdrops, and the next a naked Japanese girl is drowning in a river of blood while a man turns into a pile of bananas. You can’t take your eyes off the screen or you’ll miss something truly nuts and awe inspiring.

Much of the film is borderline seizure inducing, like “Crank 2”. Lights flash, mirrors break and pour blood, ghosts show up and dress in wedding outfits, and that goddamned witch-cat is there every step of the way, with it’s flashing green eyes. There are even quick snippets of animation that is reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s films.

“House” is by turns campy and twisted and hallucinatory and lit like a 70’s soap opera. I go back and forth on whether I think this is supposed to be a kids movie or not. Parts of the film are obviously intended as fantasy for younger audiences, while other parts have more adult themes. If it is a kids movie it is of the ilk that is warped and drug addled enough that adults will enjoy it even more. And it is my favorite kind of children’s entertainment, the kind that isn’t afraid to scar a child for life by being completely insane.

Words don’t do justice to the bizarre nature of this movie. You just need to see it. That is the only way you will understand what I’m trying to say. In honor of the impending Criterion DVD release of “House”, scheduled for October, a beautiful new 35mm print has been making the rounds, so if you’re lucky it will come to your town. And if it does, run to the theater. Knock down an old lady if you have to, but be the first in line, it will be well worth the investment of your time and money.

Personally, I can’t wait for the DVD. Since it’s a Criterion joint I’m sure there will be all manner of in depth bonus features, and I for one want to hear people talk about this movie. I don’t care who it is, I just want to hear someone, anyone, try to justify the decisions that went into making this film. That alone should prove entertaining.

I walked out of the theater shaking my head thinking, man, drugs are awesome. The last time I had this much fun in a theater was at a midnight screening of “Wild Zero” ten years ago when they had to delay the start of the movie because most of the audience was drunk and waiting in line for the bathroom.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pandorum


At first glance “Pandorum” looks like it is going to be a straight up sci-fi action movie, which it certainly is. But in addition to that the film also crosses into monster movie, horror, and psychological thriller territory.

Like in any good futuristic movie, the world has gone to shit. There are now 26 billion people on Earth, resources are scarce enough to cause wars (not that we don’t have wars over things like that now), and things are getting ugly. Humanity needs space to spread out and get away from the neighbors. Luckily for our future counterparts another habitable planet, Tanis, has been found, and the spaceship Elysium is dispatched in order to colonize this new world so we can fuck it up too.

Ben Foster, who is usually pretty good (despite the fact that he is really weird looking), is Bower, a corporal on the flight crew who violently wakes up out of hyper-sleep. Hyper-sleep causes temporary memory loss, but even so, there is something obviously not right, everything is dark and corroded looking. Lieutenant Payton (Dennis “The Lesser Quaid” Quaid) wakes up shortly after Bower. Neither of them have any clue what’s going on, though both quietly demonstrate the preliminary signs of Pandorum, this films version of space madness. It may be physical, it may be psychological, it isn’t 100% clear.

The main power in the ship is off, and Bower crawls out through the ducts to reset the core reactor and get to the bridge so they can figure out what the hell happened. Only when he gets out he finds that things are much, much worse than they originally thought. Swarms of pasty cannibalistic monsters have taken over. Whether they are aliens, mutants, or some other option is unclear, but what is clear is that they are fast and strong and mean as all get out. Fleeing for his life, Bower meets up with Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), who accompany him on his quest to the reactor.

Director Christian Alvar and co-writer Travis Milloy go on to play with the reality of the situation. They raise questions about what is really going on, who is or isn’t reliable, and whether this new hell is in fact real or a figment of deep space isolation induced imagination. These vague questions that only serve to distract from the main action of the movie.

The intricately claustrophobic interiors of the Elysium look really awesome, and the design is accentuated because the film seems to be lit exclusively by flashlights and glow sticks. It is a gloomy, gritty, desperate environment that makes me think of “Alien” crossed with the cave from “The Descent”, especially the later part of that movie after the monsters show up. (Apologies to anyone who hasn’t seen that movie yet, but really, you don’t have any excuse for ignorance at this point.)

The story also has echoes of “Fight Club”, to its detriment. It is forced, and at this point it feels almost obligatory for movies that want to be psychological suspense tales to toss around the idea of split personalities. Too much time is spent on it for too little payoff, and it is an unnecessary stumbling block.

“Pandorum” isn’t terribly original. As you watch it you can name which elements came from which earlier film. (A cursory list includes the movies already mentioned, as well as “Event Horizon”, the “Resident Evil” movies, and anything that takes place under the surface of the ocean.) It is not as smart as it wants to be. Still, it is worth a look, especially if you’re looking for more action heavy science fiction as opposed to intellectual stimulation. Approach it from that angle and it will be okay. Alvar has a definite talent for the visual aspects of storytelling, so even when the plot comes off of the rails the film looks pretty, and he’s fond of cranking up the tension, which drives the film speedily along.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ninja Assassin

Hollywood is cyclical. This is common knowledge, so you knew ninja movies were going to come around again, it was only a matter of waiting, biding your time. The highest profile film of this new wave is James McTeigue’s energetic “Ninja Assassin”, produced by the Wachowski brothers.

I’m not going to tell you that “Ninja Assassin” is a great movie, because frankly it is not, but it does have some things going for it that make it worth watching. The film has all of the elements I want out of a ninja movie, which is basically a crap load of ninjas and an excessive amount of ninja fights. In this incarnation, apparently every time a ninja does pretty much anything, blood explodes.

Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) works in European intelligence, and she has a crazy theory that governments have been using ninjas for political assassinations. No one takes her seriously, but of course she turns out to be right. Ninjas have in fact been stealing children and raising them as assassins for hire for centuries. Korean pop star Rain plays Raizo, one of these stolen children cum hired hitman, only he has decided that he no longer wants to be part of the family. That doesn’t go over well with the head of his former clan Ozunu (ninja movie legend Sho Kosugi).

So the clan wants to kill Raizo for abandoning the family, he wants to kill them for being child-thieving murderers, and somehow the sexy lady who does criminal research gets caught up in the mix. So there is another key component of a ninja movie, revenge. There always seems to be revenge involved, and I support that.

Story is not something I consider a necessary part of the ninja experience. If it happens to coincide with the sweet, sweet ninja action, great, but in a pinch I can do without. Luckily the producers of “Ninja Assassin” feel the same way that I do. While some of the fights are overly stylized, full of quick jump cuts and “Matrix” style posturing, and there are ridiculous tracers added to every throwing star (and there are a lot of throwing stars), there is still a lot of fighting. McTeigue doesn’t waste time developing anything, and the film is wall-to-wall action. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when you pick up a movie called “Ninja Assassin” you have certain expectations, and plot and character development are not chief among them. There is a scene where a swarm of ninjas run down a busy street fighting and vaulting over crashing cars, which serves as a good illustration of what you’re getting into here.

Also, not all of the fights come across like J-pop music videos, which is a bonus. And regardless of that there are enough severed limbs, bisected torsos, and frantic chase scenes to satisfy. Seeing Sho Kosugi on screen again is pretty awesome, and Rain makes a passable action star. So if you’re looking for some guys with swords dressed in black lurking in the shadows, give “Ninja Assassin” a chance. It is ridiculous and over the top, but it will sate your ninja thirst.

Micmacs

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films haven’t had the same feel since he went solo, breaking away from former collaborator Marc Caro. “Micmacs”, Jeunet’s latest project, hovers somewhere between the light fluffiness of “Amelie” and the surreal darkness of “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children”. Personally, I hope this is a sign of things to come. I miss the nightmarish dreamscapes of those earlier films, and would relish a return to the shadows.

French comedian Dany Boone plays Bazil. As a child his father was killed in a mishap with a discarded landmine, his mother sent to an institution, and Bazil wound up an orphanage where the overseeing nuns treated the children like tiny convicts. Grown up and clerking in a video store, a stray bullet from a drive-by catches Bazil in the dome. Removing the bullet could leave him a vegetable, so the doctor flips a coin and leaves the slug where it is. As a result Bazil could drop dead at any moment.

Released from the hospital, he finds himself evicted from his apartment and replaced at his job. With nowhere to go, and imminent death looming in front of him, he scrapes by performing on the streets with a number of wacky, Chaplin-like routines. He meets Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an ex-con who introduces him to his improvised family of fellow discarded misfits, including Fracasse (Dominique Pinon), Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), Remington (Omar Sy), La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), and contortionist Tambouille (Yolanda Moreau). They live in a giant garbage pile, scavenging and refurbishing things they find in the trash. The inviting, underground home is full of tools and art and machines made entirely from refuse. Think “Street Trash”, but exponentially more huggable.

After being taken in, Bazil is out scavenging and happens across two competing weapons manufacturers, one that made the mine that killed his father, the other that made the bullet lodged in his frontal lobe. He enlists his newly found compatriots in a plan to exact an intricate and poetic vengeance on the people responsible for the most traumatic events in his life.

The interior of the garbage house provides Jeunet ample opportunity for the visual games he is so fond of playing. Every inch of the set is covered spontaneous sculptures, modified Rube Goldberg contraptions, or some robotic marionettes that dance and cause everyone to clasp their hands to their chests and sigh at how beautiful the simple things in life are.

As a whole “Micmacs” is visually breathtaking, from the intricate sets of the trash heap, to the rooftops and cityscapes that hearken back to films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Metropolis”. But that’s to be expected. No one ever accused Jeunet of making ugly films.

Despite the visual gymnastics and quirky cast of characters, the majority of “Micmacs” feels hollow, like it is all style and no substance. The film focuses so much on the zany, Tex Avery elements that it shortchanges the meatier aspects that could have filled out the story. The heavier stuff—like Slammer spending 75% of his life in prison, and the callous indifference to human life displayed by arms manufacturers—is skipped over in favor of cute antics, like Bazil’s hybrid of pidgin gibberish and sign language that he uses to communicate. It is frustrating. You want there to be something more, but for most of the film there isn’t.

Near the end “Micmacs” finally take a more serious tone, fleshing out the weightier ingredients, and this is where the film works the best, where it achieves a balance. The idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of the story and characters are still there, and it is still fun, but there are also things that haven’t been present until then, like legitimate emotional connections and tension, that draw you into the story. You’re not fully engaged until late in the movie, you’ve been kept at arms length when it would benefit the film to bring you in.

I get that Jeunet is going for a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton kind of thing, that he is trying to tell a story visually, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t explore some of the deeper elements. While “Micmacs” is still a really good, fun movie, it could have been all of that and something so much more at the same time.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Come With the Rain

“I Come With the Rain”, director Tran Anh Hung’s latest film, is a violent, atmospheric neo-noir detective yarn that bounces from Los Angeles to the Philippines, but ultimately settles and finds itself amidst the neon and glass skyscrapers of Hong Kong. It boasts an all-star international cast, a twisted story, and slick production.

An unseen germaphobic Chinese billionaire hires Kline (Josh Hartnett), an LA based private investigator, to find his missing son Shitao (Takuya Kimura). Kline wears the requisite scars of a past that still haunts him, but his story is warped enough to make it interesting. When he was a cop he spent 27 months hunting Hasford (Elias Koteas), a serial killer who dissected his victims alive and made intricate installation sculptures out of their body parts. In order to catch Hasford, Kline had to get into his head, to become like him, a journey he never fully recovered from.

Shitao was last seen working at an orphanage in the Philippines, but when Kline arrives there his predecessor says that he has heard rumors that Shitao was murdered. As it turns out, Shitao is not dead, but in Hong Kong, living an ascetic life in an improvised tent on the outskirts of the city. Though afflicted by fits, he has developed mysterious healing powers. Desperate, hopeless people flock to him, and at great cost to himself he absorbs their pain, their ailments, their suffering. Over time word of his powers spread, and he becomes a hobo messiah.

Kline’s investigation cuts back and forth across Hong Kong, full of near misses with Shitao, and regular encounters with local gangster Su Dongpo (Lee Byung-hun). Su Dongpo is ruthless. At one point he makes a guy zip himself up in a body bag then proceeds to beat him to death with a hammer. Later he shoots a homeless man’s dog and beats him with it. The guy is rough.

These three archetypal film types—the detective, the gangster, and the Christ figure—cross paths with each other and their stories weave together and tangle, bringing them closer and closer to conflict.

I have a strange soft spot for Hartnett. It stems from how awesome “The Faculty” is, as well as “Pearl Harbor”, the greatest comedy of my generation (I’m not kidding, I’m not trying to be clever, it really is the funniest movie I’ve ever seen). He always seems like he should be better than he is, but for once he is actually pretty good in “I Come With the Rain”. His character is truly still haunted by Hasford, and in order to find Shitao, he has to once again delve deep into another man’s psyche, kicking up some of his old demons in the process.

For all of the horrific things Su Dongpo does, he truly loves his junkie girlfriend Lili (Tran Nu Yen Khe-director's wife) so he is not completely without humanity. As much anyone acting in movies today, Lee can tell an entire story with a single look. His character doesn’t have many lines because he doesn’t need them. He articulates rage, pain, love, and every other emotion with subtle tweaks of his expression.

Kimura as the stand in Jesus is interesting. His gift causes him terrible pain, and he is frightened, but he is also such a pure and good soul that he continues forward despite the high personal cost. The wounds of those he heals become his wounds, their pain becomes his pain, and he suffers for their adulation.

Visually, “I Come With the Rain” is beautiful. Tran makes full use of the unique cityscape of Hong Kong. Every frame is intricately staged, every person, board, building, and puff of smoke is where it should be, and the camera moves are smooth and fluid. The photography is as complex and elaborate as the story and characters. Within a single frame Tran creates multiple layers, using reflections, shadows, and depth of focus. From there he piles on other shots, and lets the action from these separate shots blend together. Figures in one frame seamlessly interact with those in others, until you’re not sure what is the present, what is the past, and what is imagination, and it becomes a delicate visual representation of Kline’s unraveling psychological state.

Throughout, the imagery is unique and fascinating. Hasford’s art, while vile and shocking, is really, really cool. He melds flesh and limbs into sprawling, twisting sculptures that all seem to scream, mimicking the interior pain of everyone in the film. Su Dongpo gives a gift of crabs elaborately bound together with twine and stacked in a wicker basket. In close-up a live maggot crawls along the rim of Shitao’s eye as he sits, unblinking.

“I Come With the Rain” is not an action movie. There are a couple of brief chase scenes, which oddly enough both prominently feature cars going full speed in reverse, but it is tense and moody psychological thriller. Instead of the characters threatening each other or giving long monologues, they rely on subtly to carry the conflict. The film manages to be eerie and suspenseful, to tell a complicated story with numerous layers, all with minimal dialogue.

The music accentuates the on screen action. By turns it is discordant, droning, and vaguely psychedelic. At times it is noisy and hallucinatory, throbbingly mechanical, and serves to up the tension and ambiance. Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Amores perros”, “Brokeback Mountain”) scored the film along with Radiohead, and the soundtrack features such post-rock luminaries as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mount Zion, and Explosions in the Sky, who all specialize in dark, atmospheric instrumentals that mesh nicely with the overall tone.

The only knock I have against “I Come With the Rain” is that at times the Christ metaphor can be heavy-handed. There is the unseen father, an obvious Mary Magdalene, and a few other parallels that are a little too on the nose. But even these aren’t that big a deal, and you can dismiss them with a shrug of your shoulders and a skeptical, “Really?” and be move on without being too distracted.

“I Come With the Rain” is by turns gritty and violent, and hopeful and redemptive. Sounds suspiciously like the story of Jesus, doesn’t it? Themes of contamination and cleansing run throughout. It has everything a good, tense crime thriller needs—cops, gangsters, guns, hookers, blood, tormented characters—and a whole lot more. All of the elements work well together to create a unique and beautiful film.

Blood on the Highway

“Blood on the Highway” is retarded, and I mean that in the most complimentary, endearing sense of the word. It is a blood-soaked vampire movie that soars way beyond campy and settles down firmly in the realm of total absurdity. Directors Barak Epstein and Blair Rowan (who co-wrote the script with Chris Gardener, who also plays a large part in the movie) aren’t afraid to say things like, “Poor people don’t have any friends,” and refer to a woman’s vagina as a “meat curtain.” There is an overabundance of stabbing, biting, gushing blood, and vulgar humor. It is relentless, like a 15-year-old horror nerd’s stoned subconscious wet dream come to life, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds.

Sam (Nate Rubin, “Mongolian Death Worm”) is a pussy. He’s such a pussy that he has a near fatal allergic reaction to black hair dye. Carrie (Robin Gierhart) is his too-hot-for-him girlfriend that is only interested in the size of his wallet. Bone (Deva George) is the tough guy who wears a wife beater and picks on Sam, though Sam continually asserts that they are friends. Bone is the type of guy that isn’t afraid to throw dog shit as his alcoholic father. Bored with terrorizing the local Indian Reservation, the three acquaintances pile in Carrie’s car for a 15-hour drive to a music festival that promises arson as a chief attraction.

Sam gets carsick in the middle of the night and projectile vomits all over the interior of the car, and when they pull off the highway they find themselves in Fate, where the town motto is “Fate: It’s not Denver”. There is one problem, the town of Fate has been overrun by a bunch of goddamned, blood sucking, night walking vampires. Sam gets bit, and in their mad dash flight from danger, the trio stumbles across polygamy practicing survivalist, and leader of the secessionist nation “Housachusetts”, Byron Von Jones (Tony Medlin); Lynette (Laura Stone), his slutty, white-trash wife (the only surviving wife out of 12); and Roy (screenwriter Chris Gardner), a date-raping, man-whore, frat boy.

From there “Blood on the Highway” descends into a crimson tinged haze of blatant sexual innuendo and all out vampire slaughter. The movie is stupid, juvenile, raunchy, cheap, poorly acted, and over the top every step of the way. It also happens to be a fucking blast.

One of the biggest problems with movies like this is that while they may start out strong, the humor usually drops off somewhere in the middle. As you’re watching you can almost see the point where the writers run out of jokes. Another place where this genre often runs into trouble is when out of the blue they try to get serious. They’ll be trucking along, all dick jokes and blood spray, and then they try to cram in some emotional bullshit that is not only forced, but out of place. That’s when these movies start to suck.

Lucky for you “Blood on the Highway” doesn’t fall into either of these traps. It does stumble a couple of times close to the end when it tries to explain things, and some of the jokes don’t work, but as a rule you never have to wait more than a few minutes for something ridiculous to happen, like a vampire getting caught in a bear trap, that will make you forget about the previous missteps. When it does fall flat, it picks itself up, dusts itself off, and douses something in blood.

There is enough weird shit to keep you entertained between blood geysers, like an empty swimming pool full of carousel horses, and an awesome preparing-for-battle montage set to a sweet ass cock-rock jam that recalls the theme song from “Orgazmo”. Tom Towles (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and Nicholas Brendan (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer) both have small parts for you horror fanboys.

“Blood on the Highway” isn’t one of them classy horror movies that tries to be all psychological and shit. This is as base and immature as you can get, but you didn’t expect to be intellectually stimulated, did you? Released in 2008, the DVD came out last month, and if anything I said sounds like a good time, check it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

After.Life

“After.Life” has pretentions towards being a psychological ghost story as well as a mysterious thriller. On some counts director/writer Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s film succeeds, and on other it fails.

Anna (Christina Ricci) is a schoolteacher who is dissatisfied with her life and disconnected from everyone around her. She lives with her mother and simply goes through the motions with her earnest boyfriend Paul (Justin Long). Still, she longs for something more, but abandons the small attempts she makes to break out into something new if met with the slightest resistance. When she dyes her hair red in sharp contrast to her mousy demeanor, Paul’s offhand comment that it “isn’t really you” pushes her right back to where she started. Anna moves through life like an automaton, sleep walking more than living, a fact duly noted by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson).

Anna’s anticipation of defeat and disappointment at every turn is so pervasive that she jumps to a hasty conclusion and misconstrues Paul’s marriage proposal as him leaving her. She runs away from a romantic dinner into the rain soaked night where she gets in a horrific car accident. Later she wakes up on the slab at Deacon’s funeral home where he informs her that she was killed in the collision. He even has the signed death certificate to prove it. Naturally she doesn’t believe him, but time after time Deacon provides proof.

Is she really dead? That’s the central question of “After.Life”, the question that both Anna and Paul seek to answer. If it is true then is she in hell? Is this purgatory? Does Deacon have a special gift, the ability to communicate with the dead, or is he a psychopathic serial killer? The film intentionally bounces back and forth around the answer as the characters struggle to figure it out for themselves.

“After.Life” is a well-constructed film. Visually it looks great, every frame is intricately set and constructed, and the color scheme is carefully orchestrated and implemented. The music fits with the ominous atmosphere, it meshes with the imagery, as well as augmenting the feel and tone.

The problem is that you’ve seen it before. Comparisons with “The Sixth Sense” are inevitable, but also completely warranted. The feel, tone, atmosphere, whatever you want to call it, is lifted straight from the earlier film. The color scheme I just mentioned is almost exactly the same, from the muted hues of most of the sets to the violent shock of red repeatedly used as a signifier. And like “The Sixth Sense”, and most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies, while everything is very deliberate and meticulous, it comes across as sterile.

To say that “After.Life” owes an enormous debt to “The Sixth Sense” isn’t to say that it’s bad. The plot is intricate and well executed enough to keep you on the hook, to keep you guessing, and when you get down to it, keeping you engaged throughout is the biggest job a movie has. In that capacity, it is a success.

Though “After.Life” tells a decent story, it is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Watching it you get a definite sense that Wojtowicz-Vosloo is quite pleased with herself. The movie pretends to ask big questions about what it means to be alive, about desire, and if you’re really alive just because you piss and shit and breath. Those are admirable issues to examine, but the problem is that the film doesn’t deal with them in any depth, or in any meaningful way. “The Sixth Sense” Light seems like a solid description. It is good, but isn’t as original or tricky as it pretends to be.

However, for a first film, it is impressive. All the mechanical stuff is there and built on a good foundation. The acting is first-class, as you would expect from this cast. Neeson is as creepy as Deacon needs to be, at times nurturing and understanding, and at times sinister and frightening. Ricci is suitably pasty to play a corpse, and spends half the movie splayed out naked. I have some problems with Long in any role where he is supposed to be a real life grown up, and you’re asked to take him seriously as such. I had the same problem with him in “Drag Me To Hell”, but that’s a minor personal hang up, and he turns in a steadfast performance as the grieving, skeptical boyfriend. (This is also an issue I have with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though in “Inception” he finally looks like an actual man, a young man, but a man nonetheless.)

From “After.Life” it is apparent that Wojtowicz-Vosloo is a talented filmmaker, and that she has a bright future. There are a couple of moments where she forces the tension where it doesn’t fit, like a scene where Anna frantically tries to escape the funeral home cross cut with Deacon casually pumping gas. It just doesn’t quite work. There is a blood-flecked bobblehead that is cheesy and doesn’t serve any real purpose. For a moment it seems like it will become a continuing visual theme, but it is abandoned and could have been cut without being noticed. And in a dream sequence there is a blatant lift straight from “The Devil’s Backbone”, but hey, if you’re going to steal from any movie it might as well be a really good one.

That said, for every time someone says cryptic things like, “You’re not ready”, or some unexplained gypsy stuff pops up, there is something unexpected and interesting. When Anna, buck naked, stands next to Deacon as he sews a corpse’s mouth shut, it is one of the most visually striking images of the entire film.

“After.Life” didn’t get much of a theatrical release, a limited run in April, but the DVD comes out August 3rd. It comes with a trailer, and a making of featurette that amounts to ten-minutes of Wojtowicz-Vosloo talking as if this is the most ground breaking movie ever made. She certainly has room to be proud of her film, but like I said earlier, it isn’t nearly as important as she makes it out to be. The commentary track transpires in a similar fashion. There is some interesting information, and she has a definite enthusiasm for her movie, but eventually I zoned out and stopped listening.

If you can get past the unnecessary period between the words “After” and “Life” then “After.Life” is an enjoyable film. If you’re looking for life altering insight into the nature of existence, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you want to watch a decent, eerie, well-acted movie with an engaging story, give it a shot.