Friday, November 27, 2009

Sukiyaki Western Django

I think the first film by Takashi Miike - director of today's entry, Sukiyaki Western Django I saw was one Dead or Alive, which ended with an absolutely insane final battle, where the two characters grabbed increasingly gigantic weapons, culminating in a bazooka. It was bizarre, and I got the sense that Miike ended the film that way because he could. That impression translates to the entire movie with Django. Miike is doing things because he can, though we do get some indication of why.

While I once said that Yojimbo was what would have been a western had Japan colonized the Americas, Django takes that idea and runs with it. Yojimbo, along with other westerns, and about a billion different pictures, are all referenced and played with here. We've got the story of two warring factions, one in red, one in white. Into town rides a lone gunman, Hideaki Ito. He enters the elaborate conflict between the two sides with both barrels, in sequences that feel quite heavily inspired by Yojimbo. On the way, we get references to the Tales of the Heike - a Japanese story I don't know much about - and Shakespeare's Henry VI.

Really though, this film references 100 years of film history, connecting it all together with one simple truth - in film, you can do anything you want. This seems to be the guiding principal behind Miike's entire cinematic oeuvre, and here we see him dabbling in pretty much everything he can think of. There's slapstick, silly jokes, romance, inventive, allusive, allegorical, and sometimes just plain beautiful imagery, tragedy and pure action. Anything that has been, and can be done with film is done here, and one can't help but get taken away with it.

Not that it's perfect, in fact there's one glaring fault. See, we have a movie that was made in Japan, with a Japanese cast (and Quentin Tarantino, being less annoying than usual, but still pretty annoying). So, what's the language used? English. It's the ESL happy hour, and the actors are clearly very uncomfortable actually acting in the language. It's a bit awkward, and isn't really fair to the cast.

It says a lot then that the rest of the film continues to be quite entertaining in spite of the obvious language hurdles. The best thing about the whole experience is that we're taken for a ride by a director that knows, deep within his heart, that cinema can mean anything you want it to. In each frame, you can see how decades of watching and learning about film has informed his style and taught him the power of a good movie. Cinema can make you laugh, make you cry, shock, stun and awe. As any fan of film knows, cinema can be anything. Here, it is absolutely everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Public Enemy

Just when you think I'm talking about a recent Michael Mann picture, nope, that's a plural. This is Public Enemy, singular. As one might also expect from my obsession with Korea, which started long before this adventure, it's a Korean movie. It's also utterly, completely, amazing.

Truth be told, I was a bit worried when I popped in the DVD. First trailer? An ad for an Anime channel, seemingly bragging about how derivative all Anime is (several thousand gigantic robots! Hundreds of spunky magical girls! A billion kids with bad hair!). Second ad? An anime magazine, drowning in pastels and an unhealthy obsession with Japan. This is what they think people watching Public Enemy want? Derivative crap for people obsessed with Japan? Besides, this movie is Korean! Korea is not Japan! In fact, if one would to go by the quality of local cinema - and being somewhat obsessed with Korean cinema, I would do that - Korea is better than Japan. Though if one were to do that, Brazil would be the best country in the world, and that's not... accurate.

Another concern arose when I pressed play, and the default was an anime-quality dub. First off, dubs in live action? A definite no-no. I'm not one of those snobs when it comes to dubs in animation, but with live action dubs, the seams always show. Since we, as humans, can correlate the sounds coming out of someone's mouth to the motions, you can instantly tell something's gone awry. Not helping matters is that they got typical anime voices, which for some reason tend to be bottom of the barrel voice talent. Combined, you have a movie watcher scrambling to find the menu button.

But I forgive you, ADV, since once I got the settings in order and the movie proper started, I could see I was in for something interesting. When an hour was over, I was already wondering just how high in my all time lists of favorites it would be. In the last twenty minutes, I was literally on the edge of my seat. That never, ever happens. I can't remember the last time I was so excited to see what happened next I was nearly falling off the couch in anticipation.

So what is the story behind this 2 hours and 18 minutes of pure excellence? Well, in one corner, we have highly corrupt and extremely violent police officer Inspector Gang, brilliantly realized by Kyung-gu Sol. We meet him when his partner has killed himself, and he's being investigated for corruption. This is because he is corrupt, and has just stolen a proper crapload of cocaine from a group of criminals. In the other corner, we are introduced to Jo Kyu-Hwan - actually it's spelled differently in the film but I'm going by the IMDB - who is introduced as a likable family man who also happens to enjoy pleasuring himself in the shower. He's also played even more brilliantly by Sung-jae Lee, demonstrating unflappable calm and barely restrained anger. The scenes where he's trying to convincingly cry are absolutely amazing. Who do you think we're supposed to root for here?

From those introductions we start moving into the film proper, which can only be considered a black comedy/action picture. But, unlike many black comedies, this one is genuinely funny. Sometimes, it's absolutely hilarious, especially in every single scene where Gang has to do math. Gang's investigation of Kyu-Hwan is frequently fraught with difficulties, many of his own creation. While he might have a redemptive arc, he's objectively an ass. However, he's a likable ass, and you begin to feel for him as he gets steadily more obsessed with hunting down a man who he believes cut his face and made him get poo on his hands.

Helping his case is the fact that the audience knows from the outset that his suspicions are right. Our family man is quickly revealed to be not exactly a nice person, and our corrupt cop actually cares about the community as much as he enjoys beating up thugs. They're also presented roughly as equals in fighting style, which helps bring genuine tension to the action scenes. Almost as much tension as is brought to the table by the absolutely fantastic direction, staging, and everything to do with the action scenes. Director Woo-Suk Kang knows deep within his bones how to film a fight sequence, and he does some absolutely fantastic ones. The final battle is one of the all time great fistfights, I'm sure of it.

Seriously, I'm having great difficulty figuring out anything I wasn't absolutely enthralled by. Alright, if you have a crippling fear of naked men, you might want to be advised that, at the beginning of the film, we see a lot of men's butts. Of course, this could be a selling point for some people - Sung-jae Lee is very physically fit, and even gets a workout montage for all the ladies in the audience. It also doesn't start especially quickly, and the opening about what it's like to be police could be considered superfluous. But I'm just nitpicking because I don't want to say this is seriously the best movie I've seen in ages.

In fact, I'm stunned that there haven't been waves to remake this for American audiences. Americans love anti-heroes, they love it when wealthy psychopaths are beat down, and they love good old fashioned blackly comic action thrillers. Maybe American directors have secretly admitted they won't be able to top this, and there is absolutely nothing they could improve on. Seriously, while this isn't the best movie I've seen since starting this project - Z probably takes that - this is absolutely fantastic and everyone who enjoys a good dark comedy action thriller needs to see it now. Just ignore all that anime crap on the DVD, and be sure to switch to Korean w/subtitles.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Top Secret!

One of the great mysteries of our time is "Why does David Zucker suck so much now?" I mean, the guy recently made a movie making fun of Michael Moore. That's like shooting a morbidly obese, unshaven fish with questionable taste in hats* in a particularly small barrel. He also produced the Onion Movie. And a bunch of other crap.

See, this is a mystery, because when he started making movies, David Zucker didn't suck. In fact, with Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, he made fantastic, clever parodies that probably broke rules and more importantly were quite funny. One of those movies is Top Secret!

The strength of Top Secret! is that it's a loving parody of old timey spy films - which explains some gratuitous Nazis, no matter how little they make sense in East Germany - with a real story to build gags around. Val Kilmer is a wacky rock and roll star in the vein of Elvis named Nick Rivers - and creator of the highly dangerous sport skeet surfing - who is going to be performing a concert in East Germany as part of some elaborate plot he's unaware of. He runs into one Hillary Flammond, as played by Lucy Gutteridge, who is a sexy member of the resistance, trying to save her father. Together, they have to save the world, one inexplicable dance routine at a time.

The humor of the film is often based on a quite simple formula, take a regular spy/Elvis/surfing/etc. convention and do something unexpected with it. It's an easy formula, but it often works. The gags aren't universally funny - there's a real stinker based around the Blue Lagoon that plays a bit larger role than is probably advisable - but they're often clever enough and well implemented. When they're not, they're easily ignored and the story can move on.

Since bad genre parodies have become a cottage industry for people who haven't got a clue, this is one of those lessons in why they're a good idea. It's a good spy film borrowing heavily from old spy movies, with a story that's often tense and characters you actually can give a crap about. Even better, the characters aren't in on the joke, and mostly just roll with whatever they're given. It makes the absurd humor stand out in contrast, because nobody realizes it.

Val Kilmer is, surprisingly, something of a stand out. The reason isn't because of his superior acting ability, or his ability to lip sync** - something which would serve him well as Jim Morrison - but his natural charisma. He's believable as a heart throb because he's just so likable and attractive, and he plays it up well. He works as a cocky sense of sanity in a world of ridiculousness.

More than anything though, it's 90 minutes of filmmakers just trying to entertain you. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't work, but that's fine, because you can tell that no matter what's on screen, they're going to brush that off and try to be funny again in the next few minutes. They try everything, from butt sex jokes to more cerebral humour to good old fashioned slapstick. That's why it's good, they put in a lot of effort to be funny.

So why is it that David Zucker isn't as funny now? Perhaps the three directors pushed each other to be funnier. Maybe he's not putting in that effort which is clearly necessary to be hilarious. Whatever it is, he should find his magic again, and kick the people making awful parodies right in the ass.

*I say this as a universal healthcare enthusiast.

**Reportedly he sang all his own songs. They're just really obviously studio recordings and not done on set.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Address Unknown

I know what you're thinking, Movies at Random has sold out. Films people have heard of? In English? From major studios? Where's all the obscure Korean movies? Well, here's Address Unknown, just in case you were going through Korea withdrawal.

I've made no secret of my special distaste for the pity movie. The films with a huge ensemble cast where all the characters are needlessly miserable, and then punished time and time again for being characters in the movie. Address Unknown is very much a pity movie, revolving around dog butchers - no dogs were ACTUALLY butchered, something the film makes special effort to remind people of - disgruntled widows, one eyed girls and horny teenagers. One even works in a hilariously named store called Homeboy Shop which sells, among other things, a painting of a white tiger in velvet. Oh, and it's implied that everything is the fault of America, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.

The problem with these things is that there's no happiness and no levity, it's just all depression all the time. There is no happiness because happiness is forbidden in this universe. If someone finds it, they are punished. If someone exists who isn't there to, on some level, make someone else miserable, they are punished doubly. Ink is spilled calling this stuff bracing, and "real", but it's not real, is it?

There's also the matter of human kindness and empathy always being immediately punished. The only reason ever seems to be that the overall downtrodden crap needs to be maintained from beginning to end. This is not helped by my other big issue with pity pictures is that they are always filmed in a very dull manner. Kim Ki-Duk is normally a pretty good director, with a great eye, but here it's just workmanlike and deliberately uninteresting. The events on screen are so serious and dour that they can't be filmed with a modicum of panache. It's telling when a world is so bereft of anything good that even the strippers just shuffle around uncomfortably, like 7th graders at a school dance.

In an interview with the director, he said he wanted to both raise awareness about the relationship between Korea and America - symbolized by beating a dog, of all things - yet show some sympathy for American soldiers who aren't in a particularly good situation. That has the effect of making the worst character of the lot, one American soldier whose name and actor are not on the internet - the actor's Mitch something. It's a thankless role, because he's got to alternate wildly between genuinely sympathetic, kind person and a monster rapist girlfriend abuser, sometimes within a line. The actor does an interesting job with it - he's better at the sympathetic than the villainous - but why not just have a sympathetic character and a villain? There's an entire army base, if you need both a monster and a kind person in a situation they don't want to be in to illustrate your point, make two characters. Of course, he winds up shot in the balls after attempting to tattoo his name on his girlfriend, because that's the kind of thing that happens in a pity picture. So long, sympathy.

I have enjoyed plenty of depressing movies, and my best movie of all time is about people who are screwed from birth due to the situation they find themselves in. But there, and anywhere else that gets being downtrodden right, they balance the good and the bad. Characters aren't pushed down every time they try to better themselves, they aren't punished simply for caring, and they aren't there solely to be kicked around. They're people, and like all people, their lives have joy mixed in with the sadness. Take Kids Return, recently featured here. It had characters whose lives collapsed around them, but it also gave them time to have success. We feel more for a character when we can see them in their best light, not simply having life abusing them at every turn. The fall of the characters in Kids Return hurt all the more because they had potential, and because we saw a glimpse of the success that was possible. When it's all sad, all the time, it stops being real, and just becomes an unfortunate, unwatchable dirge.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Onion Movie

I love the Onion

I love the cutting satire, I love the clever headlines, I love the deconstruction of newspaper cliches (and now, radio and TV cliches). The Onion has fooled foreign countries, and taught the world to laugh again.

So, naturally, I'm extra disappointed that The Onion Movie is no good.

The concept is 80-ish minutes of sketch comedy loosely structured around a fake TV network. This is also the rough concept of The Onion News Network, and it's clearly something that can work. The plot, such as it is, revolves around news anchor Len Cariou, upset that his newscast is being hijacked to advertise the upcoming Steven Seagal movie Cockpuncher - one of very few gags that actually works, culminating in a speech which echoes the end of On Deadly Ground. In the process, a whole bunch of gags happen, some ripped from real Onion headlines, others not.

There are several problems here, and I'm not sure what it is that kills it the most. First, it's very clear that every expense was spared. Production values are at a bare minimum, with clearly inexperienced actors, low rent sets (how many featureless rooms does one film need?) and special effects clearly designed by the filmmaker's cousin on his new Macbook. When one watches the real Onion's videos, one never gets the impression that it was made for no money. Here, one can't see a dime that has made it to the screen.

But, low budget wouldn't matter if the material was funny. Given that it's a sketch comedy film, one would expect it to be inconsistent. Even the mighty Monty Python let a few duds into the Meaning of Life, after all. It's more unfortunate that it's weighted so heavily on the miss side. Cockpuncher is funny, as is a bizarre gag about Peruvians having laser eyes - if only because it's unexpected - but for the most part it's all predictable. Even if there is good material, the film rushes through it like a nervous kid giving a presentation to the class. Gags flash by, never given a chance to develop, and if they are, the comedic timing and pure lack of acting skill kills it where it stands. When STEVEN SEAGAL is the best actor in your movie, you've got some serious problems.

That's it really, it's cheap and it isn't funny. In fact, it seems to share more with the ____ Movie series than it does with the Onion itself. Can there be a statement more damning than that?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I've never been a huge comic book person - the only comic I've ever read is the Watchmen - but I'm generally a fan of comic book movies. While there might be something inherently ridiculous as people in tight clothing with super powers battling it out, they can be quite well written - as Solid Snake has proven quite ably with X-Men today - and can be a subtle take on a real world issue or moral conundrum.

Watching X-Men, it's no wonder that the generally reliable Bryan Singer has made a good film of it. For one, the character of Magneto (Ian McKellen) is a holocaust survivor, and Singer seems to be strangely fascinated by the holocaust. Witness Valkyrie, and Apt Pupil, which are both intimately involved with the third reich. Also, Bryan Singer is openly gay, and the X-Men share a lot with being gay.

It's subtle, but also somewhat obvious in the content. There's a senator (Bruce Davison) who wants to force all mutants - people who have superpowers, basically - to register themselves. He argues that you wouldn't want a mutant in your schools, and replace the word "mutant" with "gay" or "black" or "Muslim" or whatever else someone has been persecuted for being in the past history, and you've got a subtle critique on general persecution. After all, they're simply born different. It's not explicit, but you can tell that Singer is drawing from his own experiences, and those of his friends. As a critique on racism and persecution, it's well done, never drilling the message into your head but always having it there.

Of course, there's a violent uprising lead by Magneto, and a more peaceful sect lead by Professor X (Patrick Stewart). They fight about the proper way to handle their persecution, with Magneto advocating violently converting people to being mutants and sharing his way of thinking. Also, a plethora of X-Men are introduced, though the main characters are clearly Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), the former being a super healing mystery, and the latter draining whatever she touches. Their relationship is a backbone on which a wide variety of different ideas are built.

Possibly the big problem with this is that a lot of ideas have to be built on that backbone. The X-Men is an expansive series, with a ton of unique characters and a wide variety of different concepts to deal with. Worse, many of these characters and concepts are vital to having a clue to what's going on. So, as a result, there's often a lot of exposition in Patrick Stewart's soothing voice. It doesn't kill the movie, not by a long stretch, but it does bog it down.

The only other problem is that the forces of evil will always triumph, because good is stupid. The X-Men are comically awful in the climactic fight, having to overcome their own overwhelmingly poor fighting style more than the villains. Another detriment is the overall superhero movie pattern: Good, Great, Worse, Ugh, but that doesn't kick in until Bret "The Rat" Ratner takes over in X-Men 3, and doesn't hurt this movie.

Of course, I'm nitpicking because that's what I do. Those are minor faults in a film that is otherwise downright excellent. It's quickly paced, superbly well shot, and the action scenes are excellent no matter how stupid the heroes are. The characters established quickly develop their personalities and relationships, and even the more minor characters clearly have potential for future installments. Er...installment. One day I might get there.

So did I like X-Men? Naturally, and I dare say it's one of the best comic movies I've seen. More importantly, it's a perfect fit for Bryan Singer, and a lot of him can be seen in every frame. It manages to be very personal for a big budget action film adaptation, and that's a difficult feat to manage. It sure is a shame Singer didn't keep doing films in the series past the second one, it's one he was born to direct.

I just realized I'll have nothing to say when I hit the next one. Oh, I've written myself into a corner (though maybe it'll be a long way off, and everyone will forget and I can just do the same thing all over again).

Friday, November 6, 2009


It's simplistic to say that budget doesn't matter, but a good director working with no money can make a film that's fantastic, while a bad director with hundreds of millions will never make a good movie. In an illustration of the former rule, here's Pi. For only $60,000, here's a film that launched two careers - writer/director Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell - and made millions of dollars.

Pi can be described as a mathematical thriller, which sounds much more bizarre than it winds up being. It's about mathematician, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is looking for patterns in everything in the world, but mostly the stock market. He also stared into the sun once, and suffers from headaches and trippy blackouts. He might also have some heavy OCD, though this is merely implied. In looking for a pattern he finds a mysterious number, of interest to both some Jewish numerologists thinking that the number is god, and some Wall Street types looking to use it for personal gain.

The film spits out reams of mathematical exposition in rapid fire, which might not completely make sense but work in the film world. The way it's filmed leads to the preposterous notion that math is out to get Max - it's really people, but you know - and it gets genuine tension out of abstract concepts. It makes math sort of scary and fascinating, and one becomes both genuinely curious about the conclusions Max is on a train track towards, and almost frightened of them.

This could not have worked without a talented director at the helm, because it relies a lot on the direction to get the overall point across. Clever camera work and editing does a lot to keep the rhythm going and build the tension. Even better, it's a rare film that knows how to use handheld shots. Lots of low budget (and, who am I kidding, even high budget) crap uses handheld to make itself look edgy and cool, but this actually uses it for dramatic effect. It also uses smooth camera moves when necessary, and the camera is always where it needs to be, doing what it has to.

Special attention has to be payed to the score, which gave us Clint Mansell, and tracks which have been in every film trailer since he burst onto the scene. He gets the intensity exactly right, making math exciting, interesting and dangerous. It's also the perfect music to type to, curiously enough. Sound and image keeps the film going at a breakneck speed, and even makes exposition exciting. Exposition is so rarely exciting that this is an achievement.

I'm sure lots can be written about whether or not the math and theories are correct, but that's less important than what they mean to the characters in the film. Aronofsky creates a world where math is danger, and he's so good at creating this world that for 80-some minutes, you completely accept it. It's exciting, intense, and $60,000. That takes talent and skill, and it's why Aronofsky is an acclaimed filmmaker today, and even why Clint Mansell is a sought after composer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Now and Forever

"There is no way I'm going to do some cheesy movie of the week, okay?" - Oh girl, you have no idea.

The opening credits for Now and Forever contain a familiar name, Bob Clark. It's not familiar because it's a common name, instead because I knew I had seen it before. Somewhere bad, where only the bravest souls dare tread. A quick glance at his IMDB page reveals the horrible truth, this is the man who directed both Baby Geniuses movies! As a result, he is a contender for history's greatest monster.

I'm not being fair, he's actually directed a strange and elaborate mix of different films, from Black Christmas, to A Christmas Story, to Porky's, to this one, which was filmed in sunny Saskatoon. As he died not long ago - car accident involving a drunk driver, no less - I even feel a tinge of regret calling him history's greatest monster. Plus, he filmed a movie in Saskatoon! I lived in Saskatoon for three years, and it remains one of my favorite cities. That tang of recognition in most of the exterior shots elicits a small streak of joy every time.

Shame the movie isn't very good then, huh?

It's actually kind of amazing simply in the way it's bad. Clark had been making movies for many years by the time he did this one, yet it's pure amateur hour. The story is about Angela Wilson (Alexandra Purvis, then Mia Kirshner), troubled actress. After her father kills himself, she stumbles across some magical aboriginal people - including John Myron (Simon Baker, the Turok himself, Adam Beach) and Ghost Fox, played by surprisingly good considering the rest of the film Gordon Tootoosis. She goes to their suspiciously idyllic reserve (which is...inaccurate) and learns all about how wonderful being native is. Best of all Ghost Fox is literally magic, as he prevents a rape with the power of his mind. This is something that actually happens. I did not make that up. It's not even the most insane "magical aboriginal" moment in the film.

Eventually, she wants to leave the small town she lives in (a motive reinforced by the character saying some variation on "I want to leave this town!" every five seconds), hooks up with a crappy boyfriend, and a bunch of increasingly cheesy and sad things happen, leading to a twist ending that is unexpected, yet both ridiculous and ripped off of another, quite famous movie.

The script is, at best, clumsy. The narration provided by Beach often makes him sound like a creepy stalker who wants to dance around in her skin. This is due to bad writing, and a not very good reading. The strange thing is, Beach is not a bad actor - he was pretty fantastic in Flags of our Fathers, in fact. So I don't get why he's somewhere between psycho stalker and plank of wood here. Or maybe it's just the script, which is not interested in subtlety, but is quite interested in clumsy dialog and poor characterization.

Even the filming is amateurish. It's supposed to take place in a small Saskatchewan town, but as Saskatoon is not a small town, its city-ness keeps seeping through, often due to poor blocking. A scene set in "one of three motels in the area" (on Idylwild drive, which has many motels, but enough of my love of the filming location) is rendered unbelievable by the various tall buildings immediately behind it. Yet they managed to film one location in such a way that it hides just how close it is to a major highway (Highway 5, specifically, and it's RIGHT OFF of the road so it's pretty difficult to pull off. I was convinced it had to be a different building since it seemed further away from the highway than it was, but being that I recognized every single building in the yard, and the layout, from driving by so often, there's no other house it can be. Oh, I'm rambling), so clearly someone around can do things properly.

It's full on amateur hour, with a mysteriously stupid script, some bad acting, workmanlike directing and merely passable cinematography. The locations might be fantastic, but it's still a cheesy, badly made movie. No matter how much I love Saskatoon, being set in Saskatoon is not enough to make a movie great, or even tolerable.