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Tomerareru ka, oretachi o (2018)
Fascinating Film About an Era of Japanese Filmmaking
I watch a lot of Japanese films and feel like I have a fairly good understanding of the history of these films, but, full disclosure I wasn't familiar with Koji Wakamatsu. I hope I haven't lost complete credibility but I am just emphasizing coming into this film without any pre-conceptions or expectations.
Koji Wakamatsu was considered a radical filmmaker who early on directed mostly "pink films," soft core porn films that in today's cinema wouldn't be considered quite so provocative. This film recreates his early years through the eyes of a young woman, Megumi, who takes a job as his assistant.
Megumi goes from mistreated assistant to an integral part of Wakamatsu's film group. There is a collection of people who make the films with him, each taking on different roles. Some of the group stay as the years go by and others leave. From start to finish, it's an interesting illustration of filmmaking. One of the elements that I enjoyed about it.
Another element I enjoyed quite a lot, was the lead character Megumi. We get to see her transformation from somewhat frightened newcomer to seasoned pro and integral part of Wakamatsu's film group. A very endearing character as you watch her trials and tribulations with Wakamatsu and the rest of the group and also, why I found her suicide at the end upsetting. The viewer goes on this journey with her, only to see her die. She finds out that she is pregnant and elects to die rather then abort the baby or keep it. We don't learn much about her reasons other then she grew up without any real family to speak of. This is all based on real events and actually happened so, for me, ended the film on a sad note.
Even though Megumi ends her life, I enjoyed watching her story unfold, however, since Dare to Stop Us is about Koji Wakamatsu, oddly, I can't say I learned much about him. This is my main complaint about the film.
I enjoyed all the filmmaking aspects of Dare to Stop Us, but I really learned very little about Wakamatsu. At times, even, he seemed like a caricature. I don't fault the actor, I get the feeling that's what the script called for, but he never seemed very believable. He stomps around and fusses and smokes and drinks, exactly what you'd expect from a film about a renegade filmmaker. But it never feels very authenticate. Odd, since, at the same time, I was really enjoying and growing attached to Megumi, who always felt real and the film is supposedly and ultimately about Wakamatsu.
Honestly, I did enjoy the film as is, but I think I would much have preferred it focus even more on Megumi and on who she was. Dare to Stop Us really feels like her film, and Wakamatsu a side character. Megumi was a very fascinating person and it would have been even more interesting to learn about her, who she was, her family, what really lead her to suicide.
Yes, I would like to learn more about Wakamatsu, as well, but I think maybe in a different film or through a documentary. Dare to Stop Us is Megumi's film and I would have liked to have seen it be more about her.
All in all though, an interesting film and definitely worth seeing.
Tenshi no kôkotsu (1972)
I Thoroughly Enjoyed This Film
I watched this film, with very little knowledge of Koji Wakamatsu and his films. I had recently seen "Dare to Stop Us" a film about Wakamatsu through the eyes of his assistant. Actually, it was through that film that I became more interested in his work. Fortunately, a museum where I live was doing a small retrospective that included Ecstasy of Angels.
I really didn't know what to expect, and having seen "Dare to Stop Us" I was expecting a micro-budget affair and very amateur performances. My experience was the exact opposite. Wakamatsu definitely knew how to make films and I was pleasantly surprised by the performances. I really enjoyed Ecstasy of Angels.
A brief summary of the film; a group of radical activists soon turn on one another after stealing a large amount of explosives from a US Army base. The characters have unusual names such as Monday and October, and the sects themselves are named after the seasons. I wasn't able to actually follow who was who by their names, however, but each character was distinctive enough that I could follow what was going on.
That is essentially the plot of Ecstasy of Angels. We watch the different radical groups fall apart and turn on each other. It's a study of power dynamics. What made me so fascinated with this film, is how well paced Wakamatsu was able to deliver the plot. I was never bored. He does some interesting things shifting back and forth from black and white and color. The film also contains a fair amount of sex and nudity. However, the sex is simulated, and other then women's breasts you really don't see anything too graphic, especially by today's standards.
Ecstasy of Angels is very much an art film and it is low budget. I think fans of Wakamatsu and early 60s Japanese filmmaking would enjoy this film. I'm not sure the average movie-goer would however. In fact, in an auditorium of about 40 people, around 10 people left during the film. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But I'm endorsing it, I liked it from beginning to end and maybe you will too.
Give Ecstasy of Angels a chance and see it if you ever get the opportunity.
All the Money in the World (2017)
All the Money in the World, a film about the kidnapping of J.P. Getty's grandson, works well through its standout performances most notably Christopher Plummer's.
The director, Ridley Scott, knows how to make a film. So, I knew going in that, at the very least, it was going to be competently made. I haven't liked everything he's done, but I know that it is unlikely to be a waste of time.
Scott delivers. The atmosphere of seventies Italy is well captured. I never doubt that this is in fact the time and place of the kidnapping and the world they inhabit. Again, this is why, for better or worse, Ridley Scott is such a good director, I believe what I'm seeing on the big screen.
One criticism I have is that the film is slow in the beginning. Understandably, we have to get a background of J.P. Getty and how he came to be and understand the context of what transpires later. However, it does seem to skip around some, going back in time and then to the present day. This made it a little harder for me to engage with the subject matter.
What makes up for this is the compelling interactions between Plummer's Getty and Michelle William's as the former daughter in law, Gail Harris. There are some nice scenes between the two where Getty explains how unable he is to provide the ransom and William's reacts incredulously. Another nice scene, very early in the film, is a visit to his hotel room where Getty has laundry hanging all over his palatial room and he explains matter of factly that the hotel charges too much for laundry service.
This was my main interest in All the Money in the World. J.P. Getty. Plummer was so good and his interactions with other members of his family were so interesting and odd that I would have preferred the focus of the film on him and his life.
The kidnapping, for me, almost seems a side story. Strangely, I found myself not caring too much about what was going on. Not good considering that is, essentially, what the story is about. I would point out that Romain Duris who played one of the main kidnappers, Cinquanta, also delivers an excellent performance. Duris is able to develop a sympathetic character even though he is one of the main culprits in the kidnapping, although he does redeem himself in the end.
So, there is a lot to enjoy in this period film. The 70s atmosphere of Italy, the story of a kidnapping of a famous industrialist's grandson, but the reason to see it is the striking performances of Christopher Plummer and Michelle Williams.
Shin Gojira (2016)
I was fortunate enough to see Shin Godzilla in Bangkok. I say fortunate because it was not released to theaters in the US and I watched the film with an entirely Asian audience. A mix of Thai and Japanese. I realize how odd that might sound but, for me as a long time Godzilla fan, it made the experience more authentic. In the US, the only way to see a Japanese production of Godzilla is to wait for DVD or, possibly, catch a showing on cable.
I got to see Shin Godzilla in an Asian movie theater on its release. It was a fun experience.
As for the film itself, I liked it. The film had a very classic feel to it. The score was a throwback to the original series of Godzilla movies. Having watched some early releases recently, I'm pretty sure that they used much of the same film score from these films in Shin Godzilla. The music added a nice nostalgia feel to it.
I thought Godzilla, itself, was a throwback to earlier films as well. Godzilla looks much like a man in a rubber suit but it works perfectly for this film. Again, the film has such a nice classic homage to earlier films vibe that the creature, along with the music, create a nice overall experience. Since we see Godzilla evolve from a slug like creature slowly into what we know as Godzilla, the creature does take many forms throughout the beginning of the film. One quibble I do have is with the eyes on Godzilla. They look rather silly. Honestly, as much as I liked all the rest of the features, the eyes almost made me laugh. I got over it, but, considering how well everything else looked, I was surprised at the look of the eyes.
As for the plot, nothing especially unusual about it. A creature comes ashore and evolves into Godzilla and the Japanese have to deal with it. Complicating matters, the Japanese government appear completely unable to handle the event, consistently ignoring the better advice of subordinates. The US doesn't come off too well in Shin Godzilla. Mostly, as manipulative and self-interested.
The liaison from the American government is Japanese. I thought that this was a charming character choice. It's also clearly implied that she's in line to become president in the near future. Since she is the other lead in this film, and a possible love interest to the Japanese government subordinate who, with her, saves the day, I'm guessing a sequel might be in the works. I could only hope that somehow I'd get to see it in Tokyo.
If you like Godzilla films, you'll enjoy Shin Godzilla. I highly recommend it. I feel fortunate to have seen it. Thank you SF Cinema Terminal for showing it.
At the end of Shin Godzilla, some of the Japanese audience members clapped politely.
What higher recommendation do you need?
The Darkest Hour (2011)
Not Bad, But Certainly Could Have Been Better
Like so many things, having low expectations always makes something mediocre more enjoyable. And make no mistake about it, The Darkest Hour really isn't very good. I think poor acting is the killer in this film.
In a nutshell, The Darkest Hour is about 5 twenty somethings, trapped in the city of Moscow, during an invasion of what is best described as electro-magnetic space aliens. These plucky kids band together and, with some help along the way, manage to not only escape from the aliens but figure out a way to defeat them.
However, what really harms this film is the acting. I never really get a good sense of the stakes involved. The actors seem more agitated then scared. To be sure, they, "act" scared, but to me it's never really believable. The poor acting also doesn't translate well into their being a credible ensemble. In other words, they don't seem like they belong together, let alone, facing an alien invasion. The most egregious acting comes from the actor playing the Swedish ex-pat. He's the feel good villain in the group. After stealing the two male leads internet idea, he is shown closing the door on an attractive young woman trying to escape the aliens. She doesn't make it, much to the dismay of many male film goers I'm sure. Later, he gives a speech about finding out who you are in 2 seconds of time and blah, blah. The actor does a poor job. It was cringe inducing. Fortunately, he soon gets vaporized in a predictable attempt to redeem himself.
So, why do I say it's not so bad? Well, I liked the aliens and as clichéd as much of the film is, it had a refreshing feel to it. Again, keep in mind my expectations were low. The electro aliens were kinda cool. Different then many of the more recent alien invaders to hit the screen. I particularly like the way you get to see a glimpse of them as they are about to be destroyed. There are also a few nice scenes sprinkled about. I thought the eccentric inventor hiding out in his apartment developing weapons worked pretty well, and it was nice to see some reasonable acting pop in. The guy playing the inventor did a nice job.
The Darkest Hour would work much better on the small screen then on the big screen. Although, the way cinema screens are shrinking and TV screens are getting larger maybe they're more comparable then I think. Nevertheless, this isn't a terrible film, on a slow night, or a bout of insomnia, The Darkest Hour might be a perfectly acceptable viewing choice. Just keep your expectations in check.
Well Made And Great Fun !
Troll Hunter is a Norwegian film that, perhaps unsurprisingly, takes place in Norway and centers around 3 college students shooting a documentary about some mysterious bear killings. The students comprising of two men and a woman, stumble upon a hunter who they decide must have something to do with the killings. He doesn't. And they soon find out, by traveling with him, that it's actually trolls doing the killings and the adventure begins from there.
It's shot in The Blair Witch Project style, in the same way that Cloverfield, REC and many other films have been produced since Blair Witch. In fact, Troll Hunter does a fair job of poking fun at The Blair Witch Project. It's opening graphic declares the students missing and only their tapes recovered in much the same way as The Blair Witch Project.
I like the fact that Troll Hunter from the very first scene acknowledges that, yeah, we joined the shaky camera POV club. Let's put the Blair Witch comparison right in your face. For me, that set the right tone coming out of the gate.
Troll Hunter really has only three main characters. Hans the troll hunter, the trolls, and the three university students. I'm combining the students into one character since they seem to take a back seat to the other two characters and it's hard to get much of a feel for them as characters since they essentially function as the camera point of view.
Really, it's troll hunter Hans who makes the film. Hans, played by Otto Jespersen, is the focus of the film. His strong performance strengthens the film and gives the viewer a character to focus on amidst the herky jerky camera moves. Jespersen, like the film itself, is able to alternate between comedy and drama effectively. One moment he's complaining about his lack of overtime pay as a troll hunter and then next he's frantically running from the trolls with every bit the fear of God on his face. Perhaps my favorite scene is the students introduction to trolls. Hans comes running towards them yelling "troll!" Captured nicely the mood of the entire film. Funny and frantic. Trust me, it's funny when you actually see it.
The three students are mostly non-descript. And this might be one area where the film is lacking. There are two males, Thomas and Kalle and one woman, Johanna. A few days after seeing the film I'm not even sure I'm getting the names correct. Their main function is to ask Hans questions for us, the viewers, and, obviously film the goings on. Later, after the death of one of the males, Malica, another university student and a Muslim, is added. This prompts the question to Hans that if Trolls can smell Christians might they also be able to smell Muslims. "I honestly don't know," Hans, replies. Her addition, much like the other three, adds little. Rarely do we see or hear her and may really have been added only for the punch line about whether the trolls could smell Muslims.
The trolls on the other hand are quite memorable. They are wonderfully fairy tale like. An excellent job was done with the look of these creatures. I imagine they were copied from fairy tale books. Honestly, with the many, many creatures I've seen through the years on the big screen, these guys were refreshingly original. A nice blend of scary and comical. I actually felt more empathy towards them then I did towards the students. There were several different varieties of troll as well, so with each discovery, we get treated to a new troll. Of course, the most spectacular troll, is saved for the final scenes.
Although I've given away a fair amount, I'm intentionally not going into too much depth, since some of the best moments come as surprises. And I believe much of the entertainment value would be lost if too much is given away.
Troll Hunter is a lot of fun and has some nice comedic scenes. Unless you speak Norwegian though, reading the subtitles while watching the herky jerky cam may try your patience a bit, but nevertheless, Troll Hunter is worth seeing, if only for the trolls.
I'm a believer.
It would also make a nice double feature with the Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.
Rare Exports (2010)
Fun and Strikingly Entertaining
I had seen some of the short films that lead to the making of this feature, so I already had a pretty good idea of how it would unfold. However, this fact didn't spoil the film for me and only added to the anticipation.
Set in Finland on Christmas Eve, a father(Rauno) and son (Pietari) prepare for a reindeer hunt, that will sustain the small family financially for the new year. A parallel event, above the herding area for the hunt, is proceeding. A group of miners are preparing to unearth a mysterious creature under direction of an equally mysterious patron.
Things go downhill from there. And what make the subsequent events interesting and entertaining is the skill the director has in pacing the film and the actors in creating believable characters. Particularly charming is Onni Tommila the actor playing Pietari. I wish I could think of a better term then "warms my heart," but that's exactly how I feel when I see little Pietari running around dragging his little stuffed animal behind him. The point being that when you like a character, like Pietari, the tension is raised because you care what happens to them. The actor playing the father, Jorma Tommila (real life father to Onni), is also quite good at soliciting sympathy from the audience. It's clear from his expressions that, when the reindeer hunt goes awry, the family is in dire straits.
My main criticism might be that once the action starts, things fall so quickly into place, that it feels a little contrived. And, this is no small thing considering, we're talking about a movie that has a ghoulish Santa Claus that hunts children. But, that very same premise, in its novelty, saves the film from getting too bogged down. It's simply interesting to watch. You have Santa and his elves presented in a very, VERY different light.
I can't tell if I would have been satisfied with the ending since I already had a good idea of what was going to happen from the short films, but nevertheless, from start to finish, I found Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale quite entertaining and even a little scary in some places. And, I will forever be charmed by the films hero, Pietra.
Who knows, maybe this film will replace It's a Wonderful Life as the new Christmas standard. Probably not, but it's certainly a welcome addition to the genre and will be one I'll look forward watching again this time, next year.
Los abrazos rotos (2009)
Rather Shallow and Contrived
I've never been a huge fan of Almodovar, but, generally, I've always found something to enjoy in his films. Unfortunately, I had more trouble finding something to enjoy in Broken Embraces then I would normally think I would.
I find the biggest failure in Broken Embraces to be the characters and the lack of depth they display. The film is essentially a love story, one that is tragic, and one that wants to involve the viewer in their stories. I found this problematic from the beginning.
In the opening scene, our 'hero' the director/screenwriter, Mateo, is having sex with a very attractive young woman whom he just met. His agent comes in as the woman bashfully leaves.
In the opening scene, our 'hero' the director/screenwriter, Mateo, is having sex with a very attractive young woman whom he just met. His agent comes in, and rolls her eyes, as the woman bashfully leaves. Mateo babbles something about needing to enjoy life as the only thing he has left. Having been blinded in a tragic car accident that also killed his 'true' love Lena, played by Penelope Cruz, the viewer might buy into to this notion except the rest of the film really never illustrates why Lena was the love of his life or any depth to his character or any other.
Cruz plays Lena the mistress to an industrialist named Ernesto Martel. From the outset, their union is rather a pathetic one, as Martel clutches jealousy to Lena, and Lena avoids uncertainty of being on her own by staying with the much older Martel. To skip ahead, Martel finances a film for Mateo so he can keep tabs on the star of the film, Lena. Naturally, without any back story, Lena and Mateo fall in love. And, in Almodovar's world it really is that simple. Mateo, in the opening scene, has sex with a sexy young woman, now Mateo falls in love with Lena, later it's revealed he had a son with his agent after their love affair. Her son responds to this information with a laugh and an, "Oh, well." Again, no depth, no understanding for any of these characters, it all just happens. From the beginning of the film to the end, I got no depth of emotion from Mateo. He is flat, and doesn't act much different from one scene to the next.
The one scene I did enjoy was when film producer, Martel, is watching video footage his son recorded under the guise of doing a documentary of Mateo. There are nice a moment of Martel watching obsessively as a lip reading confirms his worst fears. Later, Lena confronts Martel as he's watching the footage and speaks her part out loud matching the video footage of her lips as she talks. Some quite brilliant moments. Rather contrived, but still really fascinating.
Unfortunately, for me, the rest of the film left me rather bored. I couldn't care about these characters or their situations, so no amount of cleverness on Almodovar's part can make up for this lack of depth. I think if you're a fan of his work you'll enjoy this movie, but if you're like me, in between, then you'll find it lacking.
In Bruges (2008)
Nice Blend Of Drama And Comedy
One of the problems with seeing a trailer for a film is it creates an expectation. If it raises expectations, and the film delivers, great. However, if the film is less then expected, then the viewer feels cheated. The best case scenario is the one I found myself in before I saw In Bruges. Low expectations.
After seeing the trailer, In Bruges looked like a plodding British comedy with little originality and repetitious humor, hence the low expectations. Yet, In Bruges exceeded my minimal expectations, and, unlike my impression from the trailer, was an original drama with good acting and a nice blend of comedy mixed in. It was funny in the right places and appropriately dramatic when the story shifted into high gear towards the end.
Set in, no surprise here, Bruges, Belgium, the plot focuses on two London hit men, Ray played by Colin Farrell, and Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson. The pair is sent to Belgium after Ray botches his first hi. And therein lies the humor, Ray has no interest in being in the medieval city, and Ken wants to sight see.
I've never really liked Colin Farrell but who knew he had such a good sense of comedic timing? There is a running gag involving fighting with a bottle, and karate, that he manages to keep fresh as it pops up throughout the film. Brendan Gleeson's character provides the moral center and plays the straight man to Farrell's Ray. This works well as the movie turns more serious towards the end. However, for my money, the best performance is delivered by Ralph Fiennes who plays Harry the pair's criminal overlord back in London. Whereas Gleeson character embodies the moral center, Fiennes's Harry fills the role of principled immorality, if there is such a thing. Fiennes creates a character with a dubious moral center and is a quite believable figure of menace when he travels to Bruges to square off with Ken. Also, of note, is Jordan Prentice, an irritable dwarf who's in town to act in a movie filming there. His ramblings in one scene, about a coming race war, is worth the price of admission right there.
The only aspect of the film that didn't work for me was Ray's love interest. Early in the film he manages to woo Chloe, a drug dealer with, drum roll please, a heart of gold. For my tastes, the budding romance seems a little forced and comes across more as a vehicle for jokes and drama. But it's a small thing and I doubt anyone but me would notice.
I intentionally left a lot of plot points out, because, as I've mentioned, this film surprised me in a good way and I don't won't to ruin it for anyone else.
In Bruges is a good film. Go see it.
At the very least, it'll make you want to visit Bruges.
Clerks II (2006)
The Emperor Is Not Wearing Any Clothes
A review of CLERKS II, or any of Kevin Smith's films, must begin with the obligatory reference to CLERKS.
I liked CLERKS when I first saw it years ago. But since then, the quality of Smith's films, including my interest, has dropped steadily since, culminating in the god awful JERSEY GIRL. My interest was piqued, however, when CLERKS II was announced. I thought it was a mistake for Smith to do a sequel, but since it was the one film of his I enjoyed, I figured I would give him the benefit of the doubt.
Nope. Mistake. Smith's trajectory downward continues unabated. I really wanted to like this film. However, just because I wanted to give CLERKS II a pass and like it, couldn't prevent the fact that it's a poorly written, acted, and directed film. And at it's very core, it was created by a lazy auteur. Little attempt is made to create realistic dialogue, believable characters or even a credible fast food restaurant.
Taking place some 10 odd years in the future, CLERKS II finds our heroes, Dante and Randal, played respectively by Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson from CLERKS, still slaving away at their dead end jobs at the Quick Stop and Video Store until a fire forces them to finally move on. Moving on, however, only means moving down the street to another dead end called Moobys, a fictional fast food restaurant Smith resurrected from his View Askewniverse. The other cast of characters includes Mooby's manager Becky (played by Rosario Dawson) with an inexplicable crush on Dante, Emma (poorly cast Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith's wife) with an inexplicable engagement to Dante, and goody two shoes employee Elias (played rather bizarrely by Trevor Fehrman). Also, the previously defunct Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) make appearances as well. Also, several of Smiths celebrity friends, Wanda Sykes, Ben Affleck, and Jason Lee make uninspired cameos.
So, Dante is moving to Florida with his fiancé, Emma, to live happily ever after. The movie takes place on his last day at Moobys. Dante's co-workers are unhappy with his decision to leave for the sunshine state for their own various reasons. Becky, Dante's occasional lover, secretly pines for him. Randal, his long time co-worker, wants his best friend and foil to stay put in New Jersey. And the plot line that follows, is, in spirit, if not in story, a rougher version of JERSEY GIRL, with the same sappy and forced sentimentality, but with profanity and lots of sex jokes.
I could accept the contrived plot, if the film was funny, but it really isn't. What worked in CLERKS, was that it seemed fresh and original. Hearing, essentially, the same dialogue, ten years on, doesn't prompt laughter as much as it does boredom. Smith's characters have always been mouthpieces for either his sophomoric philosophy or his humor. But, as I've mentioned, they might work once or twice, but seven films in? It's the same thing over and over. His characters sound exactly like the writer, himself.
This is most evident during a argument between Randal and Elias about Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars. Randal, in defense of Star Wars, points out that LTR, is merely a film about walking, and proceeds to demonstrate. This is the same bit, Smith used once on the Tonight Show a awhile back. Interestingly, no one in Leno's audience really laughed at the bit, a harbinger of things to come for CLERKS II,I guess.
The acting is pretty poor and the ensemble cast comes across more as a group of friends getting together to play with some camera equipment they found then actual actors. The exception to this is Rosario Dawson and Jeff Anderson. Both do pretty well with the material they're given. As for everyone else, well, there wasn't much there. Trevor Fehrman plays Elias as an exaggeration and as such, the character comes across as retarded and almost non-functioning. Either Fehrman isn't a very good actor or Smith didn't give him much direction, probably a combination of both. As for Jennifer Schwalbach, did anyone mention to Smith that since she's already sleeping with the director, he didn't have to give her a part. Schwalbach isn't a good actress and comes across fairly wooden much in the same way that O'Halloran does, and was clearly miscast. She looks much older then the others, 40ish to their 30ish, anorexic and, with her bleached hair, completely out of place. Not only did I have trouble believing that she'd be interested in Dante, but also that she'd even live in New Jersey. The make out scene between Dante and Emma is one of the most unnatural love scenes I think I've ever scene. Awkward and unnatural for both the performers and audience.
It's easy to pick on Smith for his weight, or, make other personal attacks, but he may find the following the most insulting. Kevin Smith needs to either read some books on film-making or take some film classes, probably both. I'm certain they have some good screen writing classes out in Los Angeles. Whatever indie rebel status he once had with the quirky gem CLERKS, is now completely lost as he churns out one tiresome dud after another.
Watching CLERKS II is like watching a very poor public speaker give a presentation. Just as you'd cringe at every stutter and nervous rambling with a poor speaker, hoping they'll get better, the more I cringed watching CLERKS II and hoped it would get better. It never did. Relief came only when it was over.
The best way to sum up my experience with CLERKS II is with Becky's line upon entering the donkey scene, "It's disgusting and revolting yet I can't look away." Kind of how I felt throughout CLERKS II. However, in the future, as far as Kevin Smith's films are concerned, I intend to look away.
My 50 Cents Worth
This is not a sequel to WITCHBOARD. It's written and directed by Kevin S. Tenney, the director of WITCHBOARD. In fact, on the VHS copy I purchased, there's a notice on the back declaring WITCHTRAP a non-sequel. It's also, included, no kidding, as a notice right before the title sequence for WITCHTRAP. I guess Tenney was threatened with a lawsuit? Was Witchboard that successful that he'd be hassled about his obvious sequel to it? Also, on the packaging is the tag-line, "This time, it's not a game." So, what was the "last" time? WITCHBOARD, maybe? Sequel, perhaps? Please see disclaimer.
Anyway, I picked WITCHTRAP up, amongst other gems, at a local library sale for a whopping 50 cents. It was a rental from a now defunct video store called Top Video. Pretty beat up copy, and I usually prefer to stay away from rentals, but couldn't resist, plus it had Linnea Quigley in it. How bad could it be? Pretty bad, actually. The acting is quite awful. It helped that they drove around in vintage 1980s cars, wore Members Only jackets and sported the latest hairstyles. However, the people driving the cars, and sporting the funky clothes, couldn't cut it as performers. It's about the level of porn acting, maybe a little bit better and I suppose, the guy playing the detective, James Quinn, was okay, sometimes, but that's about it. Quigley, doesn't have much of a part and does what she's hired to do. She has a shower scene and she appears to be laughing when she gets killed.
The premise of the film is fairly typical for this genre. A man named Devin Lauter inherits a mansion from his long deceased uncle, Avery Lauter. Avery, it seems was some kind of warlock or other, and died brutally in the home and, naturally, possesses the place and kills erstwhile inhabitants. That's why the nephew, Devin, hires a crack team of paranormal experts and some detectives, for security, to figure the place out. Of course, once they arrive things go horribly wrong. If only they had gone horribly wrong in any kind of an interesting way. The pacing is very slow and the gruesome deaths aren't very gruesome. Flying hatchets were never that scary to begin with, and WITCHTRAP proves that they still aren't.
There is, however, a certain production value to WITCHTRAP. The pacing sucks but the editing and camera work is clearly professional. In fact, there were a couple of things I thought were kind of neat, here and there, like a scene where some hands come through a door. But, believe me, those moments were few and far between. And, by professional, I mean they had some money behind it, so it's watchable, unlike, say, a lot of the stuff from Full Moon video. I have to also say, that compared to a lot of direct to video digital cheapies I've seen in recent years, some of these ultra low budget filmmakers could learn a thing or two from WITCHTRAP. Unfortunately, that has more to do with how bad some current filmmakers are then any particular quality WITCHTRAP has. Again, there is some technical competence in the film but, unfortunately, not enough to redeem it.
Almost twenty years on, it's a bit tricky to consider recommending WITCHTRAP. There's no arguing that it's a pretty bad film. It fails on some of the most fundamental levels consistently enough to irritate just about anyone interested in these types of films. The gratuitous nudity is pretty uninspired, as is the violence, and the poor acting exceeds camp into just plain awful.
Still, if you're a connoisseur of 80s horror, if there is such a thing, you might be able to tolerate the bad film-making. Linnea Quigley is in it, after all and that helps. It also helps that it is so dated. If you grew up in this era, nostalgia might get you through.
So, if you see it for 50 cents, or maybe a dollar, and need something to play in the background as you do other things, WITCHTRAP just might be up your alley. Otherwise, you're better off with almost anything else.
Jesus Camp (2006)
Interesting But Needed More Focus
I missed seeing Jesus Camp in the theaters, so I was looking forward to it when it came out on DVD. For people who have not yet seen it, there's a benefit to watching it on the small screen, since it allows for deleted scenes. Of even more benefit is being able to rewind and watch selected scenes over again, to make sure you're hearing things right. There's a lot of rewinding in Jesus Camp. It's that kind of movie.
The documentary follows a few kids as they go from their homes in Missouri to a bible camp in North Dakota called Kids On Fire. The camp is run by Becky Fischer, a likable, albeit a bit nutsy, middle-aged woman hell bent (pun intended) on molding future Christian leaders. The kids themselves are also awfully likable, if not down right adorable. We follow these kids, Levi, Rachael, and Tory, as they participate in, a hip hop gospel dance routine "Kickin' It For Christ," a prayer vigil involving a cardboard cut out of President Bush, a smashing of cups symbolizing the oppressive U.S. government, and a very unusual pro-life lecture, amongst other activities.
By following the kids through Kids On Fire, the viewer gets an awfully good education of the main tenets of the evangelical movement in the United States. For people unacquainted with it, Jesus Camp will be eye opening. I was already familiar with much of the ideas and concepts in the film, but still found it fascinating. However, although there are interviews with the three kids, their parents and Becky, I felt that Jesus Camp needed more background on the main players. As a counter point, the filmmakers chose to include Mike Papantino, a radio host decrying the evangelical movement. Later, in the film, we get to hear a phone call between Becky and the host. Interesting, but not very helpful. So, some people reject much of what Pastor Becky and others are trying to do. It didn't inform the film much, and wasn't given enough depth, in my mind, to really make any insightful statement. I think most people not associated with the evangelical movement will already draw their own conclusions, and evangelicals already involved aren't going to be persuaded much by the briefs cut-aways to Mr. Papantino. I would have preferred more time with the kids and the camp.
We also travel with the kids to Colorado Springs and the New Life Church, run by the currently disgraced, Ted Haggard. Because of the gay escort and drugs scandal, I can't say whether or not I was expecting Ted Haggard to come across as bizarre as he did. But, boy oh boy, does he seem flat out weird. In the brief clips we see of Haggard, he seems a little drugged out with his behavior. Haggard's attempts to joke by speaking directly into the camera, in both the final cut and deleted scene, are quite odd. His further discussion with Levi about being a child minister also comes out as cynical and uninspired. I've watched a fair amount of evangelists in my time Dr. Gene Scott, the Bakkers, and even Ernest Angley, but Haggard competes with the best of them in terms of out right creepiness. And, compared with Haggard, Pastor Becky and her group seem almost normal. I stress, almost.
The film closes out with a field trip to Washington, D.C. and a prayer vigil at the Supreme Court. It's not clear to me whether or not these side trips are actually part of the Kids On Fire bible camp, and, as interesting as they are, these side trips detract from the main story of the camp and the kids. Again, I think Jesus Camp would be better served focusing more on what motivates these children to pursue Christianity in the way they do or what prompts Pastor Becky to be as involved as she is with these kids. The information is there, at times, I just wanted more background. By viewing the deleted scenes, I get a better understanding, but can't help but wonder why so much of these scenes were left out of the final cut. Jesus Camp is a really fascinating documentary, but an even better one was left on the cutting room floor.
Jigoku no keibîn (1992)
Nice Illustration of Kurosawa's Emerging Style
Kiyoshi Kurosawa was blacklisted for four years by the Japanese film industry powers that be after turning in a film that was intended to be a nudie sex romp, but conveniently left out the nudie sex. The producers were not pleased.
THE GUARD FROM THE UNDERGROUND was his first venture on return from his exile. I've read that "GUARD" is Kurosawa's homage to early 80s American slasher films. I think this does the director, who also wrote the film, a disservice. I think saying "GUARD" is merely an homage neglects a great deal of Kurosawa's unique style and talent that is evident throughout the film. He manages to take a fairly straightforward story; a killer on the loose in a building filled with trapped employees, and makes it stylistically interesting. There is humor, some social commentary, and more then one intriguing death scene.
I know I'm reading more into the film then is probably there, but "GUARD" seems to touch on the styles of many films and genres. With the protagonist being trapped in an unfamiliar environment with a menacing hulking man stalking the halls, I was reminded of the old Universal horror films, most notably, FRANKENSTEIN. I think pushed a little further, and if shot in black and white, "GUARD" would have made a unique homage to that film period. Also, I thought of Dario Argento when the slow moving killer would make his appearances. Like Argento, Kurosawa is slow to reveal the face of the killer, even though his identity had been established early on. There are also many close ups of hands and shoes as the stalking menace makes his way to each victim. Unlike Argento, however, there is relatively little graphic violence and most of the killings involve the thuggish creature clubbing his victims to death. An exception to this is a unique scene involving a locker. I thought it was inventive so I won't reveal the exact nature of how the locker is used so as to not spoil it.
I think fans of Kurosawa will appreciate GUARD and enjoy seeing some of his earlier more mainstream work. The film shows indications of a style he would expand upon in his later projects. Non-Kurosawa fans might find GUARD a little slow paced and might enjoy some of his later work, like PULSE, as a good starting point, or the exceedingly brilliant CURE.
Kurosawa is one of those rare directors who always seems to present something interesting in his films no matter what the genre or subject. THE GUARD FROM THE UNDERGROUND, while not one of his best, is certainly another example of what a talented director can achieve with a fairly simple storyline.
I was at an advantage and disadvantage in watching BAADER. My advantage was that I know relatively little about the Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction (RAF). I believe this allowed me to view the film more objectively. As a fictionalized representation of the RAF, I figured I could see how well BAADER worked as a film. My disadvantage was that, well, I know relatively little about the RAF, so would be unable to figure out just how much liberty the filmmakers took with the real events. Ultimately, I'm not sure it mattered that much as BAADER falls rather flat as an accurate representation or inaccurate representation.
I found it hard to feel any real connection to the characters. And, by connection, I mean I didn't feel any great animosity towards the RAF or any sympathy. To feel so dispassionate about a group of revolutionaries/terrorists, is a failing in both the writing and directing.
Andreas Baader, as portrayed in BAADER, is supposed to bring an understanding to what brought these people together under his leadership to commit the acts they committed. However, I don't get any sense of why the other members of the RAF were drawn to him or even to the cause. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn't have a problem with Frank Giering being cast in the role. Giering seems capable and competent, it's the script that lacks dimension.
For most of the film, the characterization of Baader is nothing more then political rants and raves. It's possible that Baader was similar to this in real life, however, in the film it got old quickly. I wanted more insight into who this man was, and if not him, then more insight into the RAF as an organization. We don't get either in BAADER. The film doesn't give us enough insight into Andreas Baader and it never gives us much information about Ulrike Meinhof or the other members.
My impression is that the filmmakers wanted to romanticize the Baader Meinhof gang as a group of sincere idealists. It's brought out that the RAF didn't, at first, want to harm anyone. At least, that is what we hear through one of Andreas Baader's rants. Also, there is an attempt to draw almost a father and son type connection between Kurt Krone who is the federal policeman in charge of capturing Baader and destroying the gang, and Andreas Baader. There is a meeting between the two towards the end of the film and, inexplicably the film shows Krone's sympathy for Baader. Krone, at one point, says that the RAF almost managed to change society. My question is, change it to what, exactly? From watching BAADER, I have no idea, so therefore, one way or the other; I see no sense of urgency to the group and the film, in general. This is unfortunate, since the RAF was a big part of German consciousness during their reign of terror. And I certainly could have done without the fictionalized ending. Andreas Baader dies in a highly romantic way reminiscent of the American film BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I have since found out that, Andreas died in a much less dramatic and romantic fashion.
If the film had been centered on Kurt Krone, the more interesting character in my opinion, BAADER would have worked much better. Krone's orchestration of the federal police and his ability to second-guess Baader, was fascinating. Again, I'm unclear how much of his character was fictionalized, but I much preferred the film when it focused on his character.
In the end, BAADER is neither a real life account of the RAF in the 70s nor an engaging fictionalized vision of how Andreas Baader and the group might have operated. If you have any interest in radical groups of this time period, it might be worth a look, keeping in mind the historical inaccuracies, otherwise there's not much to recommend.
Unknown White Male (2005)
Uninteresting White Male
According to the narrator of UNKNOWN WHITE MALE, Englishman Douglas Bruce mysteriously lost his memory one chilly autumn day and found himself walking around Coney Island in New York City in shorts and sandals. The film begins there with a brief recap of the events of his time in Coney Island and a psychiatric ward. In addition to interviews with doctors, Bruce's friends, girlfriends and family members, the viewer also sees footage Bruce shot himself in the days following his break from memory. So we see him rediscover such things as his apartment, different foods, and even a reunion with his father and two sisters, as well as various friends.
This should be enlightening, exciting, fascinating or at the very least mildly interesting. But, very quickly after the first ten minutes or so of UNKNOWN WHITE MALE, it all becomes very uninteresting. This is a film about a 30-year-old man who has lost all of his memory. How possibly could this film not be engaging? Leave that to the particular talents of the director, or lack thereof, since director Rupert Murray manages to make the subject matter a fairly tedious exercise.
As any dime store dramatist knows, conflict is what makes a story interesting. However, incredulously, there seems to be very little in a documentary film about a man who's lost his memory.
There is no desperation to the situation. And as a work of non-fiction, this is, again, puzzling. Bruce has no financial worries, and has plenty of support at home. An ex-girlfriend flies from Poland to help him and Bruce is even "adopted" by another ex-girlfriends mother. What the film focuses on is his self-absorbed muddle through one encounter after another. There are only so many scenes of Bruce asking, in a child-like way, "what is this new food" when he samples chocolate again for the first time amongst other experiences. The most dramatic moment is Bruce meeting his father and sisters for the first time and learning that his mother has passed away some time before.
His father and sisters seemed genuine enough and the moment felt sincere in its awkwardness, but, ultimately, I couldn't take much meaning away from it. The same held true when Bruce learns his mother was dead. As a dramatic moment it rang false. It just seems odd to be upset about a person he doesn't know. Seems more played for dramatic effect then anything else and that effect wasn't there.
Because of this lack of drama, the occasional epiphanies about what is life and how our memories fit into the scheme of things, UNKNOWN WHITE MALE comes across as rather labored. There is only so much of Bruce's puppy dog eyes and meanderings a person can take.
There is some controversy surrounding the film regarding whether or not Douglas Bruce is faking his memory loss and thus making the entire film a sham. I honestly couldn't care less and I think that is the main problem with UNKNOWN WHITE MALE I just don't care. For the record, however, I doubt that Mr. Bruce lost his memory. In addition to his history of self-indulgent adventures with his friends, he simply acts too much like someone who's lost their memory. And really, that's just it. It's as if he's giving a performance rather then merely being.
In the end it doesn't really matter, since there is little to take from UNKNOWN WHITE MALE other then it's pretense and the mild interest of whether or not Bruce is faking it. I would have to go with what the French woman sitting next to me said during the film. "Zis Feelm et is so borhwring. Zis manh is ahnoying" Yes, unknown French female, he and et is.
Ju Rei: The Unscary
If you're unacquainted with Japanese horror films, and JU REI: THE UNCANNY is your first outing, you may actually enjoy it and find it worthwhile. If not, then, unfortunately, there is not much to recommend. JU REI: THE UNCANNY so faithfully covers all the bases of the genre that there is nothing that isn't predictable and stale.
The film has all the slow moving, crawling, from out of nowhere ghoulish figures that have been presented much better in films like JU ON, and, of course, RINGU. So, any viewer whose seen those film, and especially viewers who are fans of the genre will, most likely be bored with JU REI.
My impression is that JU REI is part of the Japanese V-Cinema industry. I don't know this for a fact; it's just my impression. This industry is the same one that gave Takashi Maaike such a following, amongst others. Of course, V-Cinema is a perfectly respectable industry in Japan. Put simply, films made for V-Cinema go direct to video and do not get released to theaters. Whereas, in the United States, direct to video might imply poor quality or a failure, in Japan it is a respected medium However, JU REI has more of the US style direct to video feel then the higher quality Japanese V-Cinema one. And, that, of course, is not a compliment. It feels like the filmmakers were trying to cash in on the popularity of RINGU and JU ON and came up with a rather formulaic, by the numbers horror flick. It also appears to me to be shot on digital video, also a hallmark of the low budget, quick buck American direct to video market. And while the film seems to have been competently shot and acted, it really has no sense of identity.
JU REI clocks in at a mere 77 minutes and is organized in 10 chapters. The film opens with chapter 10 and works it's way back to the 1st chapter and then a prelude. In chapter 10 we see some Japanese schoolgirls dancing to a boom box in an alleyway late at night. Suffice it to say that things don't go so well from there. Bad for them and bad for us since it's the first indication that JU REI is on the low rent side of things. By this I mean, their demise is pretty silly and consists of arms reaching up from out of frame and grabbing them. The film then cuts to the next chapter. We learn, as the film works it's way to the prelude sequence, that there is a mysterious hooded figure that curses people by contact. These cursed individuals will then, ultimately, forward the curse to the next victim. So, connecting the chapters are the victims in the earlier chapters killing/cursing the victims in the subsequent later chapters. Sort of a perverse "pay it forward" set up.
I don't have a problem with this scenario even given that is so typical of Japanese horror; it's the execution that brings it down. As I mentioned, the film is decently acted and competently shot, it's just not inventive in any way and lacks tension in most of the chapters. The ghoulish victims aren't very menacing and each chapter ends just as the victim is being cursed/killed.
I will say, however, there were two shorts moments in JU REI that were quite compelling. One in which, a young schoolboy is waiting at school to be picked up by his mother. In the sequence, the boy thinks his mother is waiting for him at the top of a staircase, and goes towards the figure. Well, it wasn't mom. This small moment worked very well and actually, disturbed me a little. The second moment was a scene in which an elderly woman is confined to a bed in a nursing home. The poor woman is trapped and terrified as one of the mysterious figures slowly comes to get her. The moment was drawn out and worked quite well. Both scenes were similar in the sense that two relatively helpless characters, a child and an elderly woman, were menaced and, ultimately, consumed by this evil. It was rather unnerving. Unfortunately, these two moments only took about four minutes of screen time and were definitely the exception as far as genuine scares go.
So, like a lot of American direct to video films, and unlike many of their Japanese counterparts, JU REI fails to deliver and only manages a few creepy moments. Asian horror fans might find some aspects of the film interesting, considering it is such a pastiche of more successful films, but viewers new to the genre would be better served starting off with RINGU or any number of other Japanese films in this genre.
There's not a whole lot to dislike in this charming first feature by Rian Johnson. BRICK is a film noir set in a contemporary southern California high school, centering on a student trying to solve the mystery of his ex-girlfriends murder. I initially thought the film was going to be along the lines of VERONICA MARS. You know, teenage detective, Southern California, high school setting. BRICK, however, is much more then an upscale rip-off of an above average TV Show.
It is amazing how much I ultimately enjoyed BRICK since the film started out rather slow. It was hard to get a feel for the characters and what, exactly, was going on. This changes after the first 10 minutes or so, once the plot is established and a familiarity with the unique dialogue is developed. Still, there was a moment or two when I thought I was in for a long evening.
Once you adjust to the dialogue and allow the plot to develop and get a feel for the different characters, it becomes much more accessible and fun. The story centers on three main characters, Brendan, our hero, of sorts, a man referred to as The Pin, and his erstwhile henchman, Tugger. It is through these three characters, that BRICK succeeds.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Brendan's girlfriend is dead and he becomes determined to find out how it happened. This is complicated by the two afore-mentioned men: The Pin, and Tugger. The Pin is the school heroin dealer, hence the reference to the title. BRICK being a missing "brick" of smack, that The Pin, is, well, missing. The Pin's enforcer, Tugger, is Brendan's entrance in to Pin's organization. Brendan is convinced that the two of them, amongst other secondary characters, hold the answer to his girlfriend's death. The dialogue is delivered dead serious and creates for some very funny situations. There are some dramatic exchanges between Tugger, The Pin and Brendan at The Pin's house. Strike that, The Pin's Mom's house. It's very charming to hear the peppy film noir exchanges between the characters and have the mother interrupt and ask if anyone wants something to eat or drink. Because it is delivered "straight," the juxtaposition between the noir-like dialogue and cheery mom-speak, results in a very funny and charming scene. And, BRICK has many such scenes. Another favorite scene of mine is Brendan's conference with the school vice-president. When the two get into a heated exchange, Brendan remarks that the VP can retaliate by kicking in his homeroom door. May be difficult to picture these scenes, but these, and others, I found quite enjoyable and really made the film unique.
Just to balance things out a bit, on the downside, I was never convinced that any of the actors were in high school. Almost, but not quite. There are some scenes shot in and around the school, but I never really felt that any of the students belonged there. Didn't necessarily hurt the viewing experience, but it could have just as easily centered around a college, or the town, in general.
There are many things to like in BRICK. It really stands out amongst the recent films I've seen. I enjoy the arcane '30s gumshoe dialogue mixed in with the high school groups. Reminds me of the theater productions I've seen in which Shakespeare's plays are placed in different settings. It can bring a dated, overly familiar plot back to life.
I highly recommend BRICK. As I've mentioned before, there is a lot in this film to enjoy and appreciate. Rian Johnson is a unique talent and I look forward to his next endeavors. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Disaster on The High Screen
If you're going to produce an expensive action film that involves the ocean, I can't imagine having anyone other then Wolfgang Petersen, of DAS BOOT and The PERFECT STORM fame, as your top choice for director. Also, a nice choice as lead is Kurt Russell. A little older now, but an actor, I've always felt lent a much-needed credibility to the action genre, or at the very least a sense of playfulness.
So with those two "on board" what the hell happened with POSEIDON? Well, it didn't help that in the opening sequence we catch our first glimpse of the ship. It appears as an enormous CGI effect sailing across the screen. A lame CGI effect. It is hard to get in the right frame of mind for a disaster at sea, when the very ship to be caught up in the disaster doesn't look like a ship. It just doesn't look credible.
The characters themselves aren't very believable either. Kurt Russell plays Robert Ramsey, an ex mayor of New York City and it's alluded that he saved some people during a fire. That's it. He's an ex mayor. A lot of development there. Oh, he does have a daughter played by Emmy Rossum, and she does have a boyfriend, played by Mike Vogel, and the Kurt Russell character doesn't really approve of them being together. That's about as much dramatic tension as you're going to get. Although, I should include, Richard Nelson, the character played by Richard Dreyfus. Dreyfus plays a melancholy gay man who has just broken up with his lover and intends to end his life on the voyage. I suppose that should be dramatic too. Mostly, it seemed more comical then anything else. Rounding out the main characters, are a mother and son, a stowaway, and Dylan Johns, played by Josh Lucas, who along with the Ramsey character, become the de facto leaders of the group. As for who Dylan Johns is, and why he is aboard the ship, is beyond me. I don't recall there being any background on him at all. There may have been an aside about him being in the navy or something. Pretty convenient. Clearly he was written in to lead the survivors out. Which is one of the reasons why I have so many problems with these characters. They all seem to be there to serve a function rather then to represent any human dimension. Yes, even in an action film that's sole goal only is to entertain some depth would be nice. Not such a lofty wish, just give the characters some soul. The actors themselves do a decent job. It's just that the script gives them nothing to work with.
As an example of this, right after the Poseidon is capsized, the captain announces to the frightened survivors, that he thinks he knows what's happened. Drum roll, please. He announces that a "rogue wave" probably hit the ship. Seriously. It sounded really dumb. More then a few people in the audience laughed. Those damn rogue waves. It might have helped if he'd said it within a conversation about what might have happened, but he gets up almost immediately, after the capsizing, and makes his rogue wave announcement. Another funny moment is when ex-mayor Ramsey says "there is nothing fair about who lives and dies." Kurt gave it a good shot, but it just sounds really silly.
What does work is many of the action sequences in the latter half of the film. Here is where director Petersen really shines. His DAS BOOT experience really comes to bear and the film picks up considerably when its focused less on the character interactions and more on their harrowing escapes as they struggle to find their way out of the ship. Once the group gets into the narrow passageways, and faces the threat of the rising water, the pace picks up and the action scenes fly. It seems the more the characters keep their mouths shut, and move, the better the film is.
I was seven years old when the POSEIDON ADVENTURE came out and was captivated by it. I still believe it holds its own as an entertaining action adventure film. Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, and Roddy McDowall, amongst others, all create some wonderful characters that draw in the audience. The viewer actually cares when disaster strikes and as some of the characters subsequently perish on the journey out of the ship. The script is strong and it gives the actors much to work with.
In POSEIDON, it just isn't there. Who are these people? And, why should we care? The film never answers these questions. Mercifully, there are enough well orchestrated action sequences, minus the silly dialogue, that redeem the film somewhat, but not nearly enough.
I know I will not be the only one to say this, or probably the first, but rent THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE again, and skip this remake, or at the very least wait till the DVD. You'll miss some of the pleasure of seeing the action on the big screen, but there just isn't enough in POSEIDON to justify a trip to the theater.
Sarah is Magic!....more or less......
Coming into this film, Jesus IS MAGIC, I lacked any knowledge of Sarah Silverman's background as a stand up comedienne. I only knew her as the cute chick from Greg the Bunny. I was unaware of her comedy routines. I had only heard, indirectly, that Silverman erred on the naughty, offensive side. So, I was able to go into Jesus with a pretty objective viewpoint, Greg the Bunny notwithstanding.
My initial impression from the very start of the film was that Sarah was going to push the envelope and create more of a performance art piece then a typical stand up concert film. After all, this is the "edgy" Sarah Silverman we are talking about. Jesus IS MAGIC isn't exactly the performance art piece I thought it was going to be, but it did have its moments as a stand up concert film.
The film opens with Sarah speaking to her sister and a friend about how successful they've become with all of their upcoming projects. Put on the spot, Sarah describes her own faux project. A very funny project, she assures them, about the Holocaust and AIDS. The film then cuts to Silverman singing about her project and the fears and tribulations about actually doing it. I was absolutely intrigued by this opening. Unfortunately, it very quickly becomes a fairly standard concert film of the comedienne's stand up comedy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. I've seen many funny comedian concert films, but was hoping, given the opening, for something more creative and interesting hence my reference to thinking it was a performance art piece using comedy as the centerpiece.
What followed the opening was essentially nothing more then a stand up comedy performance with some cuts to Sarah singing in various personas. Some of the singing numbers being funny, most of which were not. In fact, I found it distracted me from the more enjoyable aspects of the film, which was listening to her deliver her stand up routine. Silverman has excellent timing and knows how to deliver a joke. Much of her routine was very funny and often clever. She skewers the self-absorbed by remarking that 9/11 was the day she realized how many calories was in her favorite latte she'd been drinking and displays bitterness that some consider the Holocaust an "alleged" event. This is why I don't understand or see Silverman as controversial or offensive. It's pretty clear where she stands on these sensitive topics even when she makes humorous remarks about them. I never felt once that her "edgy" jokes were motivated by malice, the way, for example, Howard Stern, a frighteningly unfunny man, seems to be. So, her "biting" comedy worked for me.
Jesus IS MAGIC ends, unfortunately, in a rather pedestrian way. The film comes full circle as we see Sarah backstage with her sister and friend reveling in her successful on stage performance. She embodies a sort of diva persona and throws hissy fits when not given the right mineral water and requests that her sister and friend leave to give her some alone time. I think we've all seen this same bit played out a million times and done in a much funnier way. Even with the distracting musical numbers, the concert footage was compelling enough, and humorous enough, that it seemed a shame to end on such a clichéd note.
With Jesus IS MAGIC, Sarah Silverman proves, to me at least, that she is much more then the cute chick from Greg the Bunny. How much more from now on, however, is up to her. While funny and enjoyable, the film is lacking. If she can integrate better the musical numbers, or transcend the typical stand up routines, I think she can also be more then merely the funny chick in Jesus IS MAGIC.
Doom is the latest video game to make it to the big screen and also the latest effort by Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock. When a film-goer thinks of The Rock and a video game turned movie, they probably have certain expectations. In the case of the actor known as The Rock, a fan would expect a certain level of action where Mr. Rock could flex his action hero muscles. In the case of Doom the video game, a gamester would hope to find all his favorite game elements reach the screen.
I think that DOOM delivers on both these fronts. How satisfying the results, I suppose, is up to the individual viewer. For me, with fairly low expectations, I was quite entertained with what DOOM delivered. I mean, I wasn't expecting the GODFATHER. My expectations were as follows; well paced action, a reasonably compelling plot, decent acting, and top-notch special effects.
As far as pacing and action, DOOM held my attention. The film opens with a mysterious call for help from a space station that results in a plucky band of Marines being sent in. After the initial frame of reference is established; problem at space station, Marines need to help, the film moves at a fairly decent clip. A nice job is done with building up the suspense of "what's out there what happened..?" and a judicious use of "monster attacks" in the first part of DOOM allowed me, as a viewer, to engage the film with more interest. When the monsters really do attack in full force, I was much less jaded by the onslaught of special effects.
I'm not a huge fan of video games and am less familiar with how well the game was adapted to the big screen, so I can't really comment on how successful the film captured the experience. My understanding is that it didn't deliver for fans of the game and that the general premise, a demon break out from Hell was clearly not present. However, as a stand-alone plot, sans video game expectations, I thought DOOM was perfectly adequate plot-wise. Again, this isn't CITIZEN KANE, so I really only expect it to be fairly reasonable. While not the premise of the game, it's a perfectly serviceable storyline. It's your typical secret government plot to design and create a super being. By using violent convicts, the evil government types figure out a way to harvest these violent tendencies. Of course, something goes horribly wrong, hence the Marines being sent. I've seen this plot before in various incarnations and didn't find it a problem as a storyline for DOOM.
As for the acting, well, I think The Rock phoned it in a bit, not enough to destroy the film, but I expected a little more from Duane. I know he can do better. The rest of the cast performs decently to varying degrees, with some performing better then others. Standouts included, Karl Urban as John Grimm, and Al Weaver as The Kid. However, overall, the Marine unit didn't feel much like a Marine unit. I think some actors were miscast, and their characters poorly written, in particular, Richard Brake's character Portman. Portman is a drug addicted medic and seemed out of place throughout the film. The acting was fine, but the character just didn't make sense to me. This is supposed to be a super elite Marine squad and they keep a divisive, unstable wacko? Makes for some nice conflict, but I found it a little hard to swallow.
What succeeded the most were the special effects. I have seen so many different incarnations of various monsters in movies that I'm a bit jaded. I thought the transformed creatures in DOOM looked pretty cool. The filmmakers clearly put some money into them. One of my favorites's had to be the transformed wheelchair bound scientist. The transformation of having a wheelchair bound monster slogging about, was both humorous and inventive. The best, however, and what made the film for me, was the scene that had John Grimm killing monsters from the viewer's point of view. It was sort of a "game-cam" and fit perfectly within context of the film. It was a gimmick, but I hadn't seen it done before, and it was entertaining enough to provide some momentum to DOOM's closing scenes.
DOOM is an entertaining film. Filmgoers wanting a close adaptation of the video game, will be disappointed. Those wanting a striking horror/sci-fi film ala' ALIENS will be disappointed, too. But, for those of you less familiar with the game version and more forgiving with this genre, in general, DOOM is just the film for you. Buy some popcorn, sit back and enjoy.
Crimen ferpecto (2004)
Ferpect Black Humor
This Spanish film, Crimen Ferpecto, doesn't sound so appealing based on its fairly typical plot. Rafael, a women's department manager at a Spanish clothing store, is a womanizer concerned only with his own personal advancement and achieving what he believes to be a perfect life, is thwarted by Lourdes, a sales clerk in the same store, and a rather unattractive woman, blackmails Rafael into a relationship, after discovering a secret Rafael cannot have revealed.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at how often I laughed out loud. Crimen Ferpecto moves at a fairly quick pace with lots of entertaining situations.
First off, both Guillermo Toledo, as Rafael, and Monica Cervera, as Lourdes are convincing in their portrayals. What makes their performances enjoyable is their mutual ability to create interesting dynamics within their characters. Rafael, is, essentially a boorish lout, yet Toledo manages to make him sympathetic at times especially as his entanglement with Lourdes get more and more complicated. By the same token, Lourdes, the "ugly" sales clerk, proves, as a twist on the character type, to be just as ugly on the inside. They are constantly sparring, as Lourdes tries to rope Rafael into marriage, and he tries to remove her from his life. While amusing, the sparring, as the film reaches its climax, does get a little wearing. The first half of Crimen Ferpecto working better then the latter half.
Also, a standout is Luis Varela as Don Antonio, Rafael's rival in becoming store manager. Without giving too much away of the plot, his character gets a surreal treatment and haunts Rafael as he attempts to deal with Lourdes. I thought some of the interplay between Rafael and Don Antonio were among the best in the film.
Crimen Ferpecto is light entertainment at it's best. It offers some genuinely funny moments that are well conceived and executed. Guillermo Toledo and Monica Cervera also give stand out performances in their roles as Rafael and Lourdes with Luis Varela, as Don Antonio, backing them up admirably.
9 Songs (2004)
Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll Equals Boredom?
9 Songs, a film by Michael Winterbottom, the director of 24 Hour Party People, centers around a glaciologist who, while doing research in the Antarctica, reflects on a girlfriend he once had.
The film is structured between rock concert footage of such bands as the Von Bondies and the Dandy Warhols, amongst others, and sexually charged scenes of the couple with the occasional voice-over of the boyfriend as he works in the Antarctic.
So what could be wrong with combining some rock songs with some explicit sex scenes? I suppose nothing or everything depending on the result. Unfortunately, the result in 9 Songs is boredom. I think if the film was a rock video, it would have worked. However, the film has much higher aspirations and, to be sure, some of the scenes with the couple are interesting, and occasionally even titillating, but those moments are few and far between. The cut-aways to the boyfriend in the Antarctica are unintentionally comical. There was more then one person in the theater that chuckled out loud.
The film clocks in at a mere 69 minutes, so it's a pretty big failing on its part to wear down an audience in such a short time. While the scenes with the couple are wearing, the concert footage, on the other hand if fairly compelling with decent, albeit grainy, footage and contain some pretty good song selections. I'm not familiar enough with the songs to be able to discern how the various selections fit into the film and while the footage is okay, the audio is fuzzy enough that I couldn't always make out the words. This isn't meant as a concert film though, it's a film about human relationships, this young couple in particular. And it is here where the film really breaks down.
Unfortunately, nothing really happens with them. The relationship flashbacks seemingly follow a chronological order. The couple, Matt and Lisa, meet at the first song(concert) fall into bed and through the ensuing scenes, in between the back and forth with the songs, we see glimpses of arguments, mundane conversations, and lots and lots of naturalistic sex. Yep, it's true. The two actors are actually doing it. The sex gets increasingly graphic and there does appear to be a design to the encounters, however with such a vague narrative, the repetition of the encounters does little to advance any semblance of an aesthetic purpose.
Oddly, as I watched 9 Songs, I kept thinking of film school. I think if the film were a final project of some sincere, albeit pretentious, film student, it would make more sense. I could appreciate a students failed attempt at making a statement on the human condition. But this isn't some twenty-something's immature opus with years ahead to grow within the learning curve, it's established filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's film and I paid $9.50 to see it. So, shelling out money to see his vague art project I find myself much less forgiving.
A film must do something no matter how vague the narrative is. If its sole aim is to be entertaining, does it succeed? Is the horror movie scary? Is the action film thrilling? If it's goal is something grander, as in an art house film, does it express something about the human condition? Naturally, the same rules apply to soft-core porn and hardcore porn. Is it sensual and graphic respectively?
Herein lies the problem with 9 songs. My feeling is that it pretends towards art, but since it never really says anything, for me, it shifted over to soft-core porn, but is a touch too graphic and labored for that genre. And, it just isn't graphic enough and direct to be hardcore.
So, 9 songs doesn't really work. At least if it was porn, there would be something to get excited about.
Last Days (2005)
Impressionistic Meditation of One Man's Frailties
It is difficult to not think of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and the details of his life and death when watching Last Days. The film is dedicated to him. There is even a note at the end of the film stating that it is inspired by his life yet a work of fiction. So, with so much attachment of Cobain's legacy, how do you view the film?
The best way to watch Last Days, written and directed by Gus Van Sant is to let it come to you. A somewhat pretentious way of saying watch the film in context of itself and not as a reflection of Cobain's tragic life.
I found that difficult to do. Not necessarily the directors fault. At times, I found myself saying, "I thought he did this...or that...". However, when I was more able to disengage myself from the Kurt connection, I found a film effortlessly illustrating the sadness and isolation of mental illness and drug addiction.
The opening frames show a character named Blake stumbling around a small stream. Given his hospital bracelet and general demeanor, it's clear that he's escaped some sort of health facility. Blake makes his way back to his home only to somnambulate around trying to accomplish the smallest of things from making cereal to answering the phone. Also sharing the house with him, is an unclear mix of groupies/fellow musicians and general hangers on. The outside world shows up only occasionally in the form of an improbable scene with a mistaken phone book ad seller, two Mormon missionaries, a knowledgeable, albeit inept, private detective looking for Blake and various phone calls.
The most successful of these intrusions is a phone call Blake receives from what I would assume is a promoter. We hear the plans, pressures and responsibilities of a rock star as the promoter makes his demands. The only thing Blake does is listen. We gain insight into who Blake was and no longer is. It's a clear transition. Things have changed and his world is coming to an end.
However, not all of the scenes work this well. There is a disappointing scene between Blake and a character called record executive in the end credits played by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. In the scene, the executive discusses with Blake his responsibilities to everyone from his daughter to himself and even asks him if he enjoys being a Rock and Roll cliché. The scene didn't work for me because even though, as a viewer, I wanted more exposition about what was going on, I felt that the Cobain connection was apparent enough that it was unnecessary. Most viewers are already familiar with the self-destructive back story and it, for me, disrupted the naturalistic flow of the film. And yeah, hate to say this, god bless her, but Kim Gordon can't act. She even looked over at the camera a few times. I think the film would not have suffered had this scene been either reworked or simply cut out.
The death is handled quite poetically and I won't spoil the last moments of the film for anyone who hasn't seen it. I would hasten to even reveal that he dies at the end, but, well, as I've mentioned, it's too clearly associated with Cobain's life and most everyone knows the story.
I never met Kurt Cobain and like most everyone else, filled in the details of his life with my own desires of who I'd want him to be and the snippets of random information tossed about in the media. Van Sant's loosely based biography succeeds in presenting probably the most poetic and accurate depiction of the essence of the man and his "last days." Clearly, Cobain was a deeply troubled young man who had had enough and chose to take his own life. And in this manner, touches upon a humanity that is very much a part of the world we live in.
Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004)
Avoids Many Clichés
This German language film, directed by Hans Weingartner, centers around two young men, Jan and Peter, who declare themselves revolutionaries and break into homes of the very wealthy, rearrange their furniture and tag their walls with such slogans as You Have Too Much Money.
Of the two, Jan seems the more sincere in the undertakings and even throws out a Rolex watch that Peter steals with the declaration that they are not burglars but "Educators"(hence the American title) with the goal of teaching the well heeled that they are not safe in their fortresses of affluence. Jule, Peter's girlfriend, becomes involved in the raids, as well as with Jan, while Peter takes a short vacation away from the group.
Upon, Peter's return, this is where The Edukators takes off. While Peter was away, Jule and Jan break into the house of a wealthy businessman, Hardenberg, that Jule owed a great deal of money to, and through a series of complications, wind up kidnapping the man when Peter returns. The three, with their captive, hide out in a remote mountain cabin while figuring out what course to take.
Through a series of exchanges, it is revealed that not only is Hardenberg not exactly what they expected, but was once considered himself revolutionary himself back in the 60s. Also, the tension involved in the Jules and Jim like love triangle heats up and the three focus as much on their respective relationships as they do on their captive. There are even some nice moments as Hardenbergs "escapes" only to admire they mountain top view and contemplate his own life as he admits to them that he admires their ideals just not their actions.
In a realistic matter of fact way, the three resolve their respective differences and almost as an afterthought, return Herr Hardenberg to his old life, as they, presumably, begin their new ones.
The film does take a small turn at the end that some viewers might feel betrays the overall sensibility of the film, but, generally, worked for me.
The faults I would find with The Edukators are fairly minor. There are moments when the group seem to talk the talk but aren't necessarily as passionate and single-minded as one would expect from characters carrying out the acts they are. The acting, all around, is solid and Burghart Klaussner, as their captive, compliments the three main actors in a wonderfully subtle way.
The film is as much about relationships and exploring ones place in the world as it is about any grand ideology and, mercifully, the debate between the capitalist kidnappee and revolutionary kidnappers comes across in a realistic manner and about what you'd expect from the characters you've gotten to know at that point in the film.
The Edukators does a masterful job of presenting a snap shot view of the lives of a few people as they try to understand where they fit in the world and the actions they can take to create a better one.
Booby Trap (1970)
Not Quite What the Title Implies......
A little difficult to review a film that you watch on DVD that was intended to be viewed in the theater, and by theater, I mean the out door theater, of course, the Drive-In.
BOOBY TRAP is about Jack Brennan, a crazed ex-marine, who steals 40 Claymore mines, intending to kill hippies at an upcoming rock festival. On his trail, is an investigator from the U.S. Army determined to capture him before he completes his nefarious plan.
Okay. So how do you rate a film produced for the Drive-In circuit over 30 years ago? Is it a good movie? One intended to discuss the human condition or allow for an entertaining escape from the doldrums of the 1970s world. No. Was it intended to be a low priced filler for young adults to kill time and, maybe get some gratuitous nudity for their mid Viet Nam dollar. Yes.
So, with that context in mind, BOOBY TRAP really isn't a bad film by the standards it was created for. The acting is perfectly adequate and even the abundant nudity and "sexual situations" seem, forgive me, motivated by the scenes that precipitate them. In fact, the film opens with some pretty well shot images of Brennan driving through Las Vegas. Unfortunately, that quality doesn't last very long and I do wonder if there isn't a story there somewhere about who or why the opening feels like a different film.
The chief aggravation of BOOBY TRAP, even by Drive-In standards, is the plot, which jumps all over the place. The whole storyline of the crazed marine blowing people up as he makes his way to the festival, sort of disappears after awhile. We are only treated to a few "blowed up" people and they all get it from a distance. About a third into the movie, the plot takes a major turn into the parking lot of a nudie bar and never really pulls out again. The owner of the bar and his henchmen are the promoters of the rock festival and are hiding the money from the event in their secret office. An office, I might add, that has a hidden camera set up to view the women's bathroom. There's also a waitress, her musician fiancée, and a frighteningly over the top gay man with a plan to steal the loot. And these elements are what make up the bulk of the rest of BOOBY TRAP until the climax, which involves all parties meeting up with the Jack Brennan for a low-tech ending. The claymore explosions are few and far between and even the ones at the very end are unconvincing.
My impression, after watching, is that there are other cuts of this movie out there. Some of the love making/nudie scenes seem a little abbreviated and I also can't help but wonder if there isn't some more footage of Brennan blowing people up. Maybe not, but I'd venture there is.
If you're looking for an action film, you're going be disappointed. Now, if it's some early 70s nudity you want and you have a fair amount of patience, you're set. You'll enjoy it even more if you have something to do while you're watching it.
I especially recommend this film as a more tolerable example of the exploitation genre and pretty interesting by the standards it was created under. There are better examples out there, but BOOBY TRAP is perfectly acceptable.